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Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available – Starwood Preferred Guest® Luxury Credit Card from American Express
There’s no way to sugarcoat this: the integration of Marriott Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest and Ritz-Carlton Rewards hasn’t gone smoothly. From IT issues to customer service failures, the now-renamed Marriott Bonvoy program has left many members questioning the loyalty they’ve shown and wondering if there’s a better option out there. TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Ethan Steinberg even broke down these options if you’re considering breaking up with Marriott and taking your business elsewhere.
Today, let me offer an alternate point of view. Here’s why, despite the litany of problems still being reported by TPG readers, I’m sticking with Marriott, the winner of the inaugural TPG Award for best hotel loyalty program.
Attainable yet Exclusive Status
I currently hold Platinum status in the Marriott program thanks to a last-minute application for the (now discontinued) Ritz-Carlton Rewards Card last year. I was granted legacy Marriott Gold Elite status that then translated to new Marriott Bonvoy Platinum status once the August 18 integration took place. Since that date, I’ve enjoyed perks like complimentary breakfast, bonus points and room upgrades across most of the 29 brands under the Marriott umbrella.
However, that status was given as a first-year perk on the card, so in 2019, it’s up to me to qualify for Marriott Platinum on my own. Fortunately, the program has made this very attainable. In addition to the Ritz-Carlton card, I hold the Starwood Preferred Guest® American Express Luxury Card in my wallet. As a result, I’ll be given 15 elite night credits on or before Mar. 1 of this year, putting me 30% of the way to Platinum Elite status. I’ve already completed four nights in 2019 and have six more booked through the end of February.
This means that I’ll be halfway to Platinum status by Mar. 1 with minimal effort on my part.
Now, a counter-argument might go something like this: “But Nick, why wouldn’t you just get a Hilton Honors American Express Ascend Card and get an equivalent status with Hilton for just a $95 annual fee? (See Rates & Fees) Or better yet, the Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express to get even better status for just a $450 annual fee?” (See Rates & Fees)
My answer? I’m sticking with Marriott over Hilton because those cards even exist in the first place.
It’s why I very deliberately used the phrase “attainable yet exclusive” above. 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 status. I don’t travel every week for work, but I should still have little problem reaching this tier and unlocking perks like suite upgrades and a Choice Benefit selection. Hilton, meanwhile, allows you to “buy” its mid- and top-tier statuses through credit cards. 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 alone is 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 succeeds here in three separate but equally important ways:
- Points Advance
- Cash + Points
- Airline Transfers
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.
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 29 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, 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, it’s 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 when Two Roads Hospitality is integrated, hopefully some time this year, that’ll add even more aspirational redemptions to the program.
There’s only one problem: at the time of writing, the World of Hyatt portfolio is fewer than 1,000 properties. That’s roughly one-seventh the size of Marriott Bonvoy’s reach. When my travels take me to smaller towns or cities, Hyatt may not be a realistic option.
The Best Part
But here’s the best part of this decision to stick with Marriott: I can still keep my options open. I do hold the Hilton Ascend card and enjoy the Gold 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. Being loyal to Marriott yet flexible to use others is a win in my book.
There’s been a lot of frustration related to the integration of Marriott, SPG and Ritz-Carlton, and many members are rightfully considering other options. Let me be clear: this article is not a whole-hearted endorsement of Marriott Bonvoy. The program’s blackout dates policy is still ridiculous, and it remains to be seen how it will use peak and off-peak pricing. But I’m sticking with Marriott for 2019.
Featured photo courtesy of St. Regis Aspen.
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