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Ever since the takeover of Starwood Hotels & Resorts by Marriott International was announced back in 2016, the two programs have been central to the hotel rewards scene for Canadian travellers. That’s because the ease of earning SPG Starpoints became intertwined with the versatility and value of the Marriott Rewards program via a 1:3 transfer ratio between the two points currencies.
This week, things are finally coming to a head, with some of the final and most important details about the new, combined loyalty program being revealed.
In case you need a refresher, here’s the coverage we’ve done so far here at Prince of Travel:
Marriott & SPG to Launch Combined Loyalty Program – the initial news on updates to Marriott Rewards & SPG member accounts, elite status, redeeming points, and Canadian credit cards
The New Marriott Rewards: What We Know So Far – a recap of the changes, including a summary of outstanding questions at the time
Upcoming Changes to the Amex SPG Cards – the updates to the Amex SPG Card and the Amex Business SPG Card in light of the program changes
In addition, yesterday Marriott released the entire list of new hotel categories for all 6,500+ properties, which is scheduled to take effect on August 1, 2018. In this article, we’ll have a detailed look at all the ups and downs in terms of how many points are needed to redeem for a free night, as well as some of the most appealing sweet spots in the new program.
At the same time, Marriott has also revealed the details on how the new Flight & Hotel Packages will work as of August. For the past year or so, these packages have been one of the most incredibly high-value ways to use your hotel points, so naturally many points collectors are concerned about their future.
I will cover the Travel Packages in detail in a future post, but for now, it’s safe to say that the value of these packages will drastically diminish, so it’d be best to redeem as many packages as you can before the transition on August 1… but with the added caveat that we don’t yet know what will happen to the outstanding hotel certificates you get from redeeming packages now. But like I said, I’ll talk more about that in a separate post.
The New Hotel Categories
Marriott has set up a mini-site that shows the full list of hotels together with their categories, old and new. The list contains all of the 6,500+ properties that used to fall under the separate umbrellas of Marriott Rewards, The Ritz-Carlton Rewards, and SPG.
You can search the list by hotel name, city, country, or brand, although the search function isn’t perfect – if you search “Miami”, for example, you won’t see the W South Beach and The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach.
You can also sort the list by country, brand, current points required, future points required, points difference (to see the biggest movers and shakers), and new hotel category. However, you can only sort by one criterion at a time, so the page is rather useless for figuring out, say, which Westin properties in the United States will fall under the new Category 7. To that end, fellow blogger PointsNerd has exported the chart into a Google Sheets document that allows you to sort by multiple criteria at once, so you can use that as a reference as well.
As a reminder, the new program’s redemption chart looks as follows, with Category 8 as well as “Peak” and “Off-Peak” pricing to be introduced in early 2019. Until then – that is to say, between August 2018 and early 2019 – everything will be available at the “Standard” pricing, and all hotels that are designated as Category 8 will be available at the Category 7 price level.
Any bookings made before August 1, 2018 will be honoured at the existing points rate, and if your hotel gets cheaper after the changeover, you’d have to call Marriott to get it re-priced at the lower rate, as it won’t get done automatically. Therefore, if you have any upcoming travel plans, it’s worth taking a look at your desired hotels; if it’s going to get more expensive after August 1, make sure to secure your booking before then. Keep in mind that Marriott allows you to make bookings without having the points in your account, so you have nothing to lose.
Breaking Down the Changes
When you compare the old reward chart to the new (taking into account the fact that the SPG properties’ old points costs are multiplied by three), you see that there are significantly more hotels requiring fewer points (about 3,500) than those requiring more points (about 2,200) under the new program. A small share of hotels (about 1,100) will have the same points cost on either side of the August transition.
In light of this, I’d say that the new categories look very fair to me. When the merger was first announced, there were many fears that Marriott would take this opportunity to gut the value of the SPG program, and that definitely hasn’t happened.
Instead, what we’re seeing is largely a “great equalization” of sorts – as I’ve mentioned before, the separate SPG and Marriott hotel redemption rates were grossly uneven in favour of SPG on the low end and in favour of Marriott at the high end. Indeed, with these changes, many hotels’ nightly points costs are moving in ways that correct this imbalance.
For example, looking at the combined program’s most aspirational properties, we see that former top-end SPG properties tend to be going down across the board. Right now, SPG’s highest Category 7 hotels – the best St. Regises, Ws, and Luxury Collection hotels around the world – cost as much as 35,000 Starpoints a night (which is equivalent to 105,000 Marriott Rewards points); under the new program, the highest Category 8 requires only 85,000 points a night (and remember, these hotels are bookable at Category 7 pricing of 60,000 points a night until early 2019).
On the other hand, former top-tier Marriott properties tend to be going up – indeed, the single biggest increase we’re seeing is with the Domes of Elounda in Greece, an Autograph Collection property that’s going from 45,000 points a night to 85,000 points a night! Therefore, places in which there is a large concentration of high-end Marriott hotels, such as London, New York, or Hawaii, will be hit particularly hard by these changes.
The same is true for The Ritz-Carlton Rewards, which previously used a system of Tiers 1-5 to categorize their hotels. Tier 5 was priced at 70,000 Marriott Rewards points a night; with the new program’s Category 8 reaching 85,000 points a night, most of the high-end Ritz-Carlton and EDITION hotels have inevitably gone up in price by a few notches.
Lower- and Mid-Tier Hotels: It’s Business As Usual
If you’re someone who uses your hotel rewards points mainly for stays at limited-service or mid-range properties, I don’t think these changes will affect you a whole lot. Looking at the new hotel categories, once your Starpoints convert into Marriott Rewards points at a 1:3 ratio, on average you’ll be paying about the same or slightly fewer points for your hotel stays.
Looking at the popular hotel brands in this segment of the market (Courtyard, Marriott, Renaissance, Four Points, Aloft, Sheraton, Westin, etc.), it’s definitely the case that more hotels are going down in price than going up. Of course, this totally depends on which hotels you’ll actually be staying at, so it’s definitely worthwhile to check your travel plans and either securing bookings before any negative changes take effect or considering alternative hotels.
On the whole, no matter how I look at this, it seems to me that these category changes will result in a mostly flat – and potentially slightly favourable – impact to travellers who tend to use their hotel points towards more stays at lower-tier properties, rather than splashing them on shorter stays at luxurious hotels.
As a side note, I also had a look at all the Canadian hotels, and discovered pretty much the same thing. In fact, in Canada’s case, a majority of hotels are going down in price, most of these being the various mid-range properties or airport hotels.
On the other hand, the high-end destination hotels tend to be rising in price, the Sheraton on the Falls being the biggest Canadian mover with an increase of 20,000 points per night. That brings me to my next point…
High-End Luxury Hotels: One of the Best Deals Ever
Dare I say, this is a once-in-a-lifetime sweet spot.
The fact that Category 8 won’t be used until early 2019 means that from August 1 until then, you can to book some of the best hotels in the world for only 60,000 points a night. To understand what an unbelievable deal that is, remember that SPG Category 7 would previously cost up to the equivalent of 105,000 points a night, so you’re potentially receiving a discount of over 40%.
Even better, Marriott lets you book hotels up to 350 days out, and will always honour the rate at which you booked, meaning that you can take advantage of these reduced rates on luxury hotels well into late 2019. You can also take advantage of the Fifth Night Free benefit, reducing your nightly cost to a frankly mind-blowing 48,000 points a night.
Better yet, remember that Marriott lets you secure bookings without having the points in your account. Speculative bookings are therefore well and truly on the table, and you’re free to fill up your calendar with overlapping bookings at the same hotel, finalize your travel plans, and cancel all but one as you see fit.
As though that weren’t good enough, there are some truly extravagant Starwood properties around the world – such as the St. Regis Bora Bora or the W Maldives with their overwater bungalows – that were previously not bookable through SPG at a reasonable points cost because they counted as all-suite hotels (you can only use points for standard rooms, not suites). Now, these hotels do appear as Category 8s in the new chart, meaning that they too can be booked for only 60,000 points a night!
This is truly a gift from Marriott, and I have no doubt in my mind that competition for bookings at these “future Category 8s” will be extremely fierce come August. As I mentioned before, I wouldn’t be surprised if Marriott were to put some controls in place on securing bookings without points, because otherwise the top-tier hotels in the program could easily see all their inventory dry up completely through the end of schedule, only for the vast majority of bookings to be cancelled.
One thing’s for sure – if you’re the type of traveller who likes to use points to unlock aspirational and expensive experiences, then you’re in paradise. Focus on staying at Category 8 hotels throughout the remainder of 2018 and all of 2019, and make sure you complete your bookings by the turn of the year. Don’t worry about the Category 7s, since you can still stay at those hotels for the same price later on.
And if you have to pick between different hotels, go for the St. Regises, the Ws, and the Luxury Collections, since they were previously the most inaccessible (at a whopping 105,000 points) if they fell within the old SPG Category 7. The top-end Ritz-Carltons aren’t a bad shout either, since you’ll be enjoying them at a discount compared to both their previous Tier 5 pricing (70,000 points) and their future Category 8 pricing (85,000 points).
Certainly, for myself and many others, there’s lots of work to be done in the coming months to plan some epic trips around these incredible redemption opportunities. Here are a few ideas I was sketching out earlier, just to get the ball rolling:
A tour of the Greek Islands, where Mystique in Santorini, Santa Marina in Mykonos, and both Blue Palace and the Domes of Elounda in Crete are Category 8s (although you should book the Domes before August 1, when they're still available for 45,000 points a night!)
A luxurious escapade to Italy, where there are no less than 10 (!) Category 8 hotels, six of which are some of the Starwood Luxury Collection’s finest
Have fun poring over the Category 8 listing, and let me know if you come up with any incredible plans of your own! One thing is certain for those of you who have the itch for luxury – as long as you play your cards right between August and December, 2019 promises to be an unforgettable year of travel.
As eager members of Marriott Rewards and SPG, we’ve been waiting for the new hotel categories to be revealed for a long time. Now that they’re finally here, I’m glad to report that nothing unexpected has happened and that the changes are overall very fair. Significantly more hotels are going down in cost than going up, and at the higher end of the spectrum, the top-tier hotels of the former SPG and Marriott programs are generally moving in offsetting directions.
What’s more, Marriott and SPG’s final flourish in this transition period – one that’s been long and drawn-out, yet entirely fair and respectful to its loyal members in the end – is to provide us with a five-month window in which to book some of the finest properties in their portfolio at a downright too-good-to-be-true discount. I, for one, can’t wait for August to arrive to start putting my points to spectacular use.