Gold status, Titanium treatment: A surprise upgrade in Thailand reminded me travel’s still not back to normal

Jul 24, 2021

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I’m a Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite; however, I rarely stay at the properties in favor of my World of Hyatt Globalist status. Still, it’s good to have status with a few chains, and I received automatic Marriott Gold Elite status after opening The Platinum Card® from American Express. Enrollment required for select benefits.

Gold Elite status is the second tier in the Marriott Bonvoy program and comes with a few perks such as priority late checkout, a 25% point bonus and a welcome gift. Gold members are also eligible for space-available upgrades to enhanced rooms at check-in, including rooms on higher floors, rooms with special amenities or rooms on the Executive Floor.

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Upgrades as a Gold are possible but certainly not guaranteed — especially not suites, which are only available to upper-tier Bonvoy members.

Put it this way: In the three years I’ve been a Gold member, I’ve never been upgraded during any Marriott stay, whether it was the W or the Residence Inn. Upgrades aren’t a perk I’ve ever come to expect, and, as an infrequent Bonvoy member, I am not put out about it.

This is why I was surprised when I was upgraded from a deluxe king room with a balcony to a one-bedroom king villa with a plunge pool during a recent stay at Renaissance Phuket Resort & Spa. I’d paid just $88 a night for my five-night stay, and villas can easily top $150 per night, even during the rainy season.

Photo by Victoria M. Walker/The Points Guy

I wrote about my stay in Phuket — and how the villa left me momentarily speechless. There are a handful of villas at the property, some with oceanfront views. The entire villa, including the outdoor space, was probably the largest hotel room I’ve ever stayed in. A massive soaking tub, outdoor shower and private plunge room complimented the villa, and I briefly wondered if I’d been mistakenly upgraded. These perks seemed more suited for a Titanium or Ambassador member — not a lowly Gold member like me.

And then it hit me: the upgrade likely cleared because the resort was empty. I saw few tourists during check-in and just a handful during my stay. In fact, I felt like I had much of the resort to myself. I ate in mostly empty resort restaurants, strolled the beach alone and didn’t have to wait to use amenities like the pool or gym.

Travel in the U.S. has surged back, with domestic demand reaching pre-pandemic levels and the TSA now regularly screening over 2 million passengers a day. The U.S. hotel industry is also similarly recovering, with hotel occupancy at 66% in June, spurred by leisure travel.

But in other parts of the world, it’s a different story entirely.

I recently visited Thailand through the nation’s “Phuket Sandbox” initiative, a model that allows vaccinated international travelers to visit without having to quarantine. But Thailand is experiencing a worrying surge in positive cases, even as Phuket opens to vaccinated travelers. More than 12,000 new infections are reported a day, according to Reuters. The increase in positive cases, distance and complex application process may be keeping travelers away: just 5,000 travelers have visited the island since the program started on July 1, according to reports.

The dearth of foreign travelers was apparent when I arrived on the island on a rainy afternoon in early July. There were no cab drivers at the airport hustling for rides. Bars and many restaurants were shuttered. And, during some stretches of the drive to my resort, only essential services like drugstores and gasoline stations were open. Tourism makes up 20% of Thailand’s GDP, and 20% of Thais work in the industry. It’s clear that Phuket depends on tourism, and it’ll be a long road back to a pre-pandemic normal.

So, while I enjoyed my swanky pool villa (and feeling like a top-tier Bonvoy member), the stay did make me think about how travel isn’t back to pre-pandemic levels yet — and won’t be for some time.

Featured photo of the Renaissance Phuket Resort & Spa by Victoria M. Walker/The Points Guy

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