Why I’m Sticking With Marriott in 2019 — But May Not in 2020
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It’s been just under a year since the integration of Marriott Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest and Ritz-Carlton Rewards. It’s no secret that things didn’t exactly go smoothly, with issues that continue to cause headaches for members to this day. Some travelers continue to question the loyalty they’ve shown, and competing programs have even seen boosts in membership and engagement.
Earlier in the year, I wrote an opinion piece on Marriott Bonvoy and why I was sticking with it in 2019. Now that the program has finally revealed additional details on peak and off-peak pricing — as well as other changes set to kick in September 14, 2019 — I wanted to revisit my arguments. Yes, I am still sticking with Marriott in 2019, largely because we’re almost two-thirds of the way through the year. However, the most recent changes have officially pushed my 2020 plans into the “TBD” category.
Attainable yet Exclusive Status
One attractive aspect of the Marriott Bonvoy program is the way it handles elite status. I am currently well on my way to requalifying for Platinum Elite status; with 34 nights under my belt and another eight on the books, I’ll need to find just eight more before December 31, 2019. Given that the program now has over 7,000 properties around the world, this should be a simple task. Most importantly, it will give me a status that is exclusive yet attainable for many travelers. For me — a semi-regular traveler — elite status must find that sweet spot combination, and I feel strongly that Marriott has done just that with its Platinum tier.
With a young child at home, I hung up my road warrior shoes a few years ago. However, grabbing 35 nights (plus 15 night credits with a Marriott credit card) is definitely within my grasp — and likely is for many members. Once I requalify, I’ll continue to enjoy perks like complimentary breakfast, suite upgrades and a Choice Benefit selection for the rest of 2019 and all of 2020.
However, unlike other programs, there’s no easy way to reach this status. Hilton, Marriott’s closest competitor, allows you to “buy” its mid- and top-tier statuses through credit cards. Adding the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card to your wallet would get you automatic Hilton Gold status and unlock many similar perks, all for just a $95 annual fee (see Rates & Fees). I’d be willing to bet a sizeable chunk of money that there are fewer Marriott Bonvoy Platinum Elites than Hilton Honors Gold members, and that exclusivity alone may be reason enough to focus on Marriott.
I love it when my loyalty program currencies grant me flexibility. It’s one of the main reasons transferable point programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards regularly top TPG’s monthly valuations. By giving me additional options for my hard-earned points, these programs allow me to be more efficient when I go to redeem. I’m not stuck redeeming 70,000 United miles for a one-way Star Alliance business class award from Europe, because I have Amex points and can transfer them to Aeroplan to book the same ticket for 55,000 miles.
The Marriott Bonvoy program has traditionally succeeded here in three separate but equally important ways:
- Points Advance
- Cash + Points
- Airline Transfers
However, one of those will be losing some notable luster when peak and off-peak pricing take effect. Let’s take a closer look at each one of these.
Put simply, Marriott’s Points Advance feature is unique among loyalty programs. In virtually all others, you must have the required number of points or miles in your account to complete your desired redemption at the time of booking. That’s not true with Marriott. If you have a desired property in mind but are short on points, you can lock in an award stay without laying out the points; you simply have to earn them within 14 days of your arrival.
This is a great way to book awards at popular properties like the St. Regis Bora Bora without having to worry about standard room availability drying up. There’s nothing worse than saving up for an award stay only to have no inventory when you actually go to redeem your points. The Points Advance functionality can help you avoid that very scenario.
However, this feature is losing a lot of its value with the changes that will take effect September 14, 2019. For Points Advance reservations made on or after that date, you’re no longer locking in the rate for your stay, just the room itself. Since Marriott will be adjust peak and off-peak dates monthly based on demand, it’s possible that a Points Advance booking could require more points than you originally agreed to pay for the stay.
This is one major reason that I’m now questioning my loyalty to Marriott for 2020. However, I’m not willing to throw in the towel until I see just how these changes will be implemented.
Cash + Points
Another great feature that I love about Marriott is the Cash + Points feature. This is notably different from those offered by World of Hyatt (the value of which was annihilated last year) and Hilton Honors. Instead of offering a fixed award rate in comparison to the paid rate, Marriott allows you to customize which night(s) you want to book using points and which night(s) you want to reserve at a standard rate. This allows you to redeem points when revenue rates are high and pay cash when they’re low. Just look for the “Customize Cash + Points” link on the search results page.
Here’s an example of how this can create value for you at the Residence Inn in Portsmouth, NH, a property where I used this very feature last fall:
As you can see, the paid rate for the first night (Saturday Sep. 7) is quite high, whereas the rate for the second night (Sunday Sep. 8) is quite low. The entire two-night award stay would set me back 70,000 points for a one-bedroom suite, or I could book that same room for a member rate of $710.68. This gives me a redemption value of just over 1 cent per point. It’s a hair over TPG’s valuations but nothing to get excited about.
However, let’s now say that I elect to only redeem points for the first night and pay for the second night out of pocket:
Now I’m only using 35,000 points, but doing so saves me nearly $450. As a result, my redemption value jumps up to nearly 1.3 cents per point.
The final bit of flexibility in the Marriott Bonvoy program involves airline transfer partners. Generally speaking, you’re best bet is to redeem airline miles for flights and hotel points for hotels. However, Marriott throws a bit of a wrench in that traditional logic. The program has over 40 airline transfer partners, and unlike all other hotel chains, it offers a relatively generous transfer ratio of 3:1 for most carriers. In addition, you’ll get a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points you transfer. This essentially maintains the legacy SPG transfer program, and under certain circumstances, you can get incredible value out of it.
The one big drawback to this redemption option is the fact that most partners will take multiple days to receive the points you transfer, so keep that in mind before you initiate one.
For many travelers, a loyalty program is only as good as the participating hotels. This is a matter of personal preference, but over the last few years, even before the integration woes, I’ve found myself gravitating towards the various brands that fall under the Marriott, SPG and Ritz-Carlton umbrellas. I love experiencing the luxury of a St. Regis or a Ritz-Carlton, and I also enjoy the boutique nature of the Luxury Collection and the Autograph Collection. I’d much rather stay in a Fairfield or SpringHill than a Hampton Inn or Holiday Inn Express. And when I’m traveling with my family, I’ve come to love the Residence Inn and Marriott Vacation Club properties that allow me to book right into a suite or villa.
That’s not to say that the other major programs have nothing to offer. On the contrary:
- Hilton Honors: We love Embassy Suites for family travel thanks to the two-room suites and solid breakfast spread. We’ve also had solid experiences at Conrads and international Hilton properties (though I’ve found domestic ones to be highly unimpressive).
- IHG: The Kimpton brand is another favorite of mine, though the limited reach makes it challenging to find in many places we visit.
- World of Hyatt: Andaz and Park Hyatt tend to be fantastic, though again, the small global footprint makes these somewhat unfeasible.
At the end of the day, I find the brands in the Marriott Bonvoy program to be better suited to my tastes.
There’s No Perfect Program
For all the bluster of “That’s it! I’m DONE with Marriott!” that has emerged since the integration, I’d love to know which program presents an undisputed superior experience. Each one has its own set of drawbacks.
The global reach of the Hilton portfolio of brands is comparable to Marriott, and you can earn points like nobody’s business (a Diamond member swiping the Amex Aspire earns 34 points per dollar spent at most properties, and that doesn’t take into account any promotions). However, the program no longer publishes an award chart, and even when it did, properties at the higher categories were allowed to adjust their rates seasonally. When both a top-tier and mid-tier property is allowed to charge 70,000 points per night and can shift pricing without notice, that’s a problem to me.
I am intrigued by the program’s pilot program for confirmed suite upgrades at booking, but unless the ultimate rollout awards these to members who complete 35 to 45 nights a year, it likely won’t be available to me. And with so many “loyal” members earning status based solely on credit cards, I’d rather not deal with inflated elite ranks at my program of choice.
IHG Rewards Club
Like Hilton Honors, the reach of IHG is impressive. However, its proportion of luxury properties to budget ones is not. I enjoy using my hard-earned hotel points for expensive stays that I otherwise wouldn’t pay for myself. Kimpton properties are terrific, and I’ve enjoyed my handful of InterContinental stays, but the rest of the brands just don’t excite me. When you factor in a recent devaluation and last year’s changes to the program’s PointBreaks redemption option, IHG gets a pass from me.
World of Hyatt
I love Hyatt. I truly do. I’ve had incredible stays at many properties, including the Andaz Fifth Avenue, Park Hyatt Mallorca and Park Hyatt Zurich, to name a few. I also can’t wait to try out some of the fantastic-looking resorts that now participate in the program thanks to the Small Luxury Hotels of the World partnership and the integration of select Two Roads Hospitality Brands like Thompson, Alila and Joie de Vivre. These additions have created even more aspirational redemption opportunities in the program.
There’s only one problem: at the time of writing, the World of Hyatt portfolio has less than 1,200 properties. That’s roughly 15% the size of Marriott Bonvoy’s reach. When my travels take me to smaller towns or cities, Hyatt may not be a realistic option.
And of course, the Marriott program is not without strikes against it. The blackout dates policy is essentially worthless. The soon-to-be-implemented peak/off-peak pricing will be adjusted monthly, pushing the program closer to dynamic award pricing. Suite Night Awards aren’t applicable at many properties. And we continue to hear reports of lost certificates, missing points and various other IT issues that should’ve been ironed out by now.
Leverage Status With Other Programs
While I’ve made my bed with Marriott in 2019, next year is a different story. However, I can still keep my options open by leveraging statuses with other programs. I recently upgraded an existing Hilton card to the Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express, and I’ve already enjoyed the Diamond status it confers. I also have the (now discontinued) IHG Rewards Club Select Mastercard, one that grants me Platinum status. And I have World of Hyatt Discoverist status thanks to the old Hyatt Credit Card plus can transfer my Ultimate Rewards points directly to the program thanks to my perfect quartet of Chase cards.
As a result, if a property in one of these three programs is a better option for any reason (price, convenience, availability, etc.), I have no qualms about booking it. I’ll still be able to earn or redeem points and enjoy perks on-property. Put simply, my loyalty to Marriott isn’t all-encompassing. I can continue to stay at those properties when it suits but have the flexibility to chose others when it doesn’t.
And if I ultimately determine that it’s no longer worth pursuing status with Marriott in 2020 the hard way, I’ll still enjoy Platinum status through the rest of 2020 and can then utilize the complimentary Gold status offered on my Platinum Card® from American Express from that point forward.
One of the last layers to the Marriott, SPG and Ritz-Carlton integration is set to be revealed on September 14, 2019, as peak and off-peak pricing will take effect on that date. Since we’re already deep into the calendar, I’m committed to the Marriott Bonvoy program for this year, but as of now, I’m keeping my options open for 2020. It’s incredibly disappointing to learn that Marriott will be changing its valuable Points Advance award option, and if peak pricing disproportionately affects higher-end properties (as is feared), 2019 may be my last year pursuing Platinum status with Marriott.
Featured photo courtesy of St. Regis Deer Valley.
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