6 Lessons I Learned From the Marriott/SPG Merger
Update: The 60,000-point pricing detailed below is no longer available as of March 5, 2019. For details on Marriott redemption options, please visit How to Redeem Points With the Marriott Bonvoy Program.
While there are undoubtedly still a number of technical issues to work out, I think it's safe to say that much of the excitement and anxiety of the August 18 Marriott/SPG merger is behind us. Through a combination of luck and hard work, I was able to walk away from the table with everything I wanted: three award nights each at the St. Regis Maldives and Al Maha resort in Dubai, at prices that I still have trouble believing. I paid 80,000 points per night for an overwater bungalow in the Maldives — as opposed to 60,000 points a night for a garden villa — and I was charged 66,000 points a night for Al Maha, with no explanation for the 10% surcharge.
That's not to say any of this was easy. Merging hundreds of millions of users and billions of pieces of data into one system came with an expected amount of bugs that, at times, threatened to derail all my careful planning. Along the way I learned six important lessons which I plan to apply to any future mergers that might come along, as well as my day-to-day points strategy.
1. The Importance of Record Keeping
The merger of the programs is still underway, but it's already clear that there are problems with data not combining correctly between Marriott and SPG accounts, and the specific problems seem to vary from person to person. For example, my combined year-to-date elite nights are 6 short of my individual Marriott and SPG totals, and my points still haven't been refunded for a cancelled reservation (more on that later). While I'm content with giving it another few days to see if the problem will fix itself, I have screenshots of my old account balances if I need to make my case to Marriott.
Record keeping is important when you know systems are going to be changed or updated, but it can also help you out in other situations. If you have a customer service agent promise you courtesy points or tell you over the phone that your current problems are covered by travel insurance, write down the date and time of the call, the name of the agent you spoke to and the exact promises that were made.
I once had to fight Chase for a travel insurance reimbursement when an agent incorrectly told me that my girlfriend was covered under my Chase Sapphire Reserve travel benefits. The bank was able to listen to recordings of the call since I gave them the exact date and time, and while she technically shouldn't have been covered, Chase was willing to make an exception based on the bad information I'd been given. In that case, it saved me almost $500, while with the Marriott merger those six elite nights might be the difference between me qualifying for Platinum Premier or remaining a regular Platinum elite for next year.
2. Perseverance Is Key
The most aspirational awards are rarely easy to find. Trying to redeem for Singapore Suites? Expect to spend days or even weeks conducting multiple award searches, and even then you might not find any elusive saver availability. I knew which awards I wanted to book under the new Marriott award chart, and knew the limited dates I could travel. So I called... and called... and called again, even when I knew that the award booking system was still down. I probably called Marriott and SPG's Malaysian call center 20+ times over a 3 day period.
Is that overkill? Almost definitely, but it worked. I'd rather waste 20 phone calls to book the awards I want than only call once to find that the space was already gone.
3. Backup Plans Exist For a Reason
Marriott did a fairly good job communicating details of the program merger ahead of time, but there were still some unanswered questions heading into last Saturday. For example, we knew that awards at all-suite properties would be available at "standard" rates of 60,000 points per night, but we didn't know which room types this would apply to or how abundant the award space would be.
For anyone planning a dream Maldives vacation, this ended up being especially important. Standard awards booked into garden villas, but there are only four at the entire property, meaning many days had no award space at all.
As badly as I wanted to go to the Maldives, I knew the odds were stacked against me. So a few weeks before the merger, I booked a refundable award stay at the Le Meridien Seychelles. While not nearly as aspirational, it's a beautiful hotel on an incredibly pristine beach and would have made for an amazing vacation. Most importantly, since I didn't have much flexibility with my travel dates, it guaranteed that I would have a beach to relax on in February. I was able to cancel this reservation after my Maldives reservation was confirmed, and while my points still haven't been refunded, there's no penalty for cancelling the reservation this far in advance. So since I had enough extra points lying around, it cost me nothing to hedge my bets.
In fact, I actually took things one step further and used the same technique on my flights, booking a Qsuites award ticket from Shanghai (PVG) to Male (MLE). I locked in the award space on the long-haul segment (again, on the date I needed to travel) and in the worst case scenario, American AAdvantage would have charged me $175 to change the two tickets to the Seychelles (SEZ) instead. I'm very happy with the risk/reward here, as it took a lot of pressure off me during the frenzy of the last week.
4. Check Early and Check Often
I've already mentioned perseverance, but timing is just as important. On Friday night, hours before the program merger "officially" started, a large amount of award space at the St. Regis Maldives (and presumably other all-suite properties) become bookable for only 90,000 Marriott points per night. While that was higher than the anticipated 60,000 points per night, many smart people took advantage of this opportunity to lock in the space on the dates they needed. Once the dust settles, they'll likely be able to call in and have the stays re-priced at 60,000 points per night — in the meantime, they were able to avoid the frenzied rush and sleep easy knowing they had a guaranteed reservation.
While it certainly doesn't happen every time, it's not uncommon with large complex technological projects like this for there to be brief windows of unexpected opportunity. Before the program merger started — and at several points throughout the early hours — there were 5 or 10 minute windows where in the midst of all the chaos, highly sought-after awards suddenly became available. If you really want to get in on a sale or deal like this, check early and check often. With a limited amount of award space and an unquantifiable amount of competition for it, being early is half the battle.
5. Prioritize Your To-Do List
Here at The Points Guy, we've been publishing regular updates on the status of the merger since it began, and the comments sections of all these stories are filled with reports of problems. Points not combining properly, missing reservations, wrong elite status and just about every other issue you can imagine. Many people are worried and calling Marriott or SPG looking for a fix, when that's the exact opposite of what you should be doing.
Unless you're traveling in the next month or so, there's really no urgency. Your elite status might not be correct today, but give it a few days and there's a good chance the problem will fix itself. If not, you can call in then and speak to an agent about fixing it. During the merger, customer service agents are mostly locked out of the system and severely limited in what they can do to help you. Not only are you crowding the phone lines for people who actually need urgent reservation assistance, but you're unlikely to get a constructive answer while the merger is still very much progressing.
Prioritize your to-do list by figuring out which tasks are urgent and which can wait a few days or weeks. As I mentioned above, my year-to-date elite nights counter is six nights short at the moment, and I'm missing the 144,000-point refund from my cancelled Seychelles reservation. I'm very much aware of these issues, but I don't plan on calling in until next week at the earliest. I'm not traveling in the near future, and while I'd like to get those points back ASAP, I can wait a few days without jeopardizing my future travel plans.
6. Foreign Call Centers Are Your Friend
Earlier this year, British Airways suffered a prolonged IT glitch that prevented its website from displaying any American Airlines award availability. One of the early (temporary) workarounds was to call foreign call centers, including Hong Kong and Singapore, which could still access and book the space.
In the case of the Marriott and SPG merger, I trusted a friend's suggestion not to bother with the long hold times on SPG's US customer service number. Instead, I relied almost entirely on the chain's Malaysian call center, which had a number of advantages. First, I never waited more than 30 seconds on hold before speaking to a competent, English speaking representative. And second, when most phone agents were still locked out of the award booking system, the Malaysian office was able to help me reserve all-suite properties for dates that showed no award availability online.
If there's bad weather, mega sales or other reasons that you expect US call centers to be busy, foreign call centers can really save the day. I don't pretend to understand the backend technology involved in award reservations, but twice already this year, foreign call centers have had a huge leg up on their American counterparts. When you add in the much shorter hold times (and incredibly pleasant attitudes!), there's really no reason not to try.
Competition is better for us as consumers, and hopefully we won't have to deal with the headaches of another mega-merger for a long time. But even in your day-to-day points strategy, these lessons can up your game and save you time and money. Keep an unnecessary amount of records, put in work if you're trying to book a competitive award, always have a Plan B and don't be afraid to look outside the US for help.