This week, American Airlines, the world’s largest airline by some measures, and Marriott Hotels, the world’s largest hotel chain, announced major changes to their loyalty programs. This post highlights the changes affecting the Marriott Bonvoy program. I’ll address American’s changes in the coming days. There are some things in the changes each program announced that will be positive for many travelers. Unfortunately, those changes seem to be outweighed by the ones most frequent travelers will view as negative.
To get in the mood of the title of the post, while reading you can listen to the theme from the 1966 movie starring Clint Eastwood… or not.
The Good – Extending The Expiration Of Status, Free Night Awards and Points Expiration
Here’s the list of the good stuff Marriott is adding or changing effective March 31, 2022.
- Status expiration extended. 2021 elite status will be extended for 2022 (meaning that it will expire at the end of February 2023). Members who earned a higher level of status in 2021 will keep that status.
- Points expiration extended. Expiration of Marriott points from lack of activity has been postponed through December 31, 2022. Anyone who otherwise would have lost all of their Marriott points through account inactivity gets to keep them at least through the end of next year.
- Suite Night Award expiration extended. Suite Night Awards (SNAs) that expire at the end of 2021 will be extended for six months through June 30, 2022. SNAs allow Marriott Platinum, Titanium and Ambassador members to receive a room upgrade before check in if the hotel has availability.
- Free night certificates extension. Free night certificates expiring are extended to June 30, 2022.
- Travel package certificates extension. Certificates for Marriott travel packages, which secure flights and accommodations, are extended until June 30, 2022.
- Free night certificates top off. Free night award certificates that members earn by holding certain Marriott credit cards can be used for a free night at any hotel that charges an amount of pints equal to or less than the point value of the certificate, 35,000 points typically. The certificates could not be used at a hotel that charged more for the night. Starting early next year, Marriott will allow members to “top off” free night certificates with up to 15,000 points. A free night certificate with a value of 35,000 points could then be used at a hotel that charges as mush as 50,000 points for the night.
Except for the free night certificates top off, these positive changes expire no later than the end of next year.
The Bad – No Rollover For Nights Stayed in 2021
While Marriott gets good marks for extending elite status again (it also did this in 2020 for 2021), it is not rolling over the elite nights earned in 2021 to 2022 to help qualifying for status in 2022 (for 2023), and it is not reducing elite qualification requirements in 2022. Hilton has taken those steps for its Hilton Honors loyalty program.
Rolling over the elite nights earned in 2021 gives the customers who stayed in hotels in 2021 a leg up on requalifying in 2022 versus those who did not have hotel stays and have status in 2022 only because it was extended. Marriott’s failure to rollover nights to 2022 puts those who didn’t have any stays in 2021 on an equal footing with customers who actually put butts in beds during the pandemic. That seems somewhat unfair to those who supported Marriott by staying at its hotels versus customers (like me) who had little or no stays in 2021.
While the pandemic seems to be abating and people are starting to travel again, it may be months or years before business and leisure travel returns to pre-pandemic levels. Marriott hasn’t accounted for that by lowering the requirements for elite status. Next year, of course, Marriott could still address this by offering promotions that make it easier to obtain status. We’ll see.
The Ugly – Award Charts Are Kaput
What Marriott is doing with its award charts is downright ugly. In March 2022 Marriott is eliminating award charts, which have fixed prices, and going to what it describes as “flexible point redemption rates.” Instead of assigning properties to categories with three set price points based on the date of the stay — off-peak, standard and peak — point redemptions will vary based on the prevailing cash rates the hotel is charging.
So, if the cash rate of a hotel stay is high, members can expect to pay more in points than they would if the cash rate of the hotel stay is low. Unfortunately, that means that the overall value of Marriott Bonvoy points is likely to decrease, as members can currently take advantage of fixed-point rates even when the cash price of the hotel is high. Those circumstances are how members get the most value from their points and program membership.
For 2022, Marriott says the flexible points redemption rates should fall within the range of the the current point requirements for off peak, standard and peak bookings under the fixed rates of the award charts. Even if the points for an award stay remain within the off peak, standard, and peak rates on award charts next year, members will be using more points overall because the flexible redemption rates can change from day to day whereas the award chart rates usually vary from month to month.
But Marriott is only promising to keep flexible rates somewhat tied to award chart rates for 2022. After that, there will be no award charts to compare to and expect the gloves to come off. Then we’ll probably see huge increases in points required for popular hotels when they have high occupancy or a city or region is hosting special events.
Marriott touts the flip side, claiming that when hotels have low occupancy and are charging lower cash rates, the points required for a stay might be even lower than the current off peak rates. Yeah, right. We know how that is going to work. For every night that is cheaper than current rates, there will probably be many more that exceed the top rates by a good margin.
For example, Delta Air Lines eliminated its award charts several years ago and in some instances is asking customers to pay upwards of 500,000 miles for business-class flights that only required 140,000 miles on the award charts. After 2022, its hold onto your butts time for the prices we’ll see for some Marriott award stays.
Furthermore, to the extent that the flexible pricing system produces some award stays that cost less than the current award charts, the vast majority of members won’t be able, or won’t want to take advantage. Cheap awards will only be available when the cost for paying with cash is very low. Hotel room cash prices drop only because there is little demand for the rooms. The low rates won’t be available during the times when most people would want a hotel room — holidays, summer and vacation times, or when special events are happening — and they won’t be available in preferred locations in cities or popular tourist destinations.
While extending status and the expiration dates for free night certificates, etc. is helpful, those changes expire in 2022. The only potentially long lasting positive change is the ability to add a limited number of points to a free night certificate so they can be used at more hotels than they can today. Of course a term like long lasting doesn’t really apply to terms of a loyalty program. Marriott can change or eliminate any provision of its loyalty program at any time with or without notice to members.
On the other hand, I view abandoning award charts and shifting to flexible redemption rates as being a nearly irreversible part of the program and just the start of a process where the cost of an award stay in Marriott loyalty points will be tied directly to the cost the hotel charges the public. That will destroy a lot of the value that members are able to get from the program currently.
I expect that other hotels will sooner rather than later follow Marriott’s lead on flexible pricing of award stays. If I have plans for Marriott stays next year, I’ll try to book them before flexible pricing kicks in to get the most value from my Marriott points.