One of the defining characteristics of the Miles & Points landscape is a constant state of flux. In the past few months, one of the tectonic shifts we have seen in the game has been the emergence of Marriott Rewards as an extremely lucrative program, following the announcement of Marriott's takeover of Starwood Hotels & Resorts.
Soon after the news became official, it was revealed that Starpoints and Marriott Rewards points would become transferable at a 1:3 ratio. This "unlocked" many more opportunities for Canadians interested in maximizing their travel rewards, as you'll see below.
Besides staying at Marriott or Ritz-Carlton hotels, there's quite a few ways to add to your stash of Marriott Rewards points.
The Chase Marriott Rewards Premier Visa offers 50,000 points upon your first purchase. The annual fee of $120 is waived for the first year.
The American Express SPG Card and the Business SPG Card are both offering a promotional signup bonus of 25,000 Starpoints until October 18, 2017, upon spending $1,500 in the first three months. The annual fees of $120 and $150, respectively, are not waived. The signup bonuses can be transferred to Marriott Rewards at a 1:3 ratio into 75,000 points per card.
Note that speculation is rife that the Chase Marriott Visa will be discontinued relatively soon, given that Chase Canada seems to be winding down their credit card portfolio (their Amazon.ca Visa has been closed to new applicants, and all of their back-end operations seemingly have been sold to Scotiabank).
Therefore, if you're interested in grabbing 50,000 Marriott Rewards points from this card for free, it's best to apply sooner rather than later.
Beyond these cards, you can also transfer your Membership Rewards points to SPG at a 2:1 ratio, then from SPG to Marriott Rewards at a 1:3 ratio (effectively implying a 2:3 ratio between Amex MR and Marriott Rewards). While the 2:1 transfer ratio from MR to SPG isn't the best, it can still be an incredible proposition in the case of a Travel Package, as you'll see below.
I've already touched on this point in my in-depth guide to the SPG program, but it's worth repeating here. If you want to use your points towards high-end hotels, Marriott Rewards offers much more value than SPG.
That's because the fanciest Category 9 hotels under the Marriott umbrella cost 45,000 points per night, which is equivalent to 15,000 Starpoints (such as the JW Marriott Hong Kong pictured below, where I recently stayed). Conversely, the fanciest Category 7 hotels in SPG can cost up to 35,000 Starpoints a night!
On the other end of the spectrum, SPG is better value than Marriott for cheaper properties, such as airport hotels, with free nights going for as little as 2,000 Starpoints. Until the two programs are merged into one in 2018, this little arbitrage opportunity is useful to keep in mind.
Marriott Travel Packages
The best value that you can get out of Marriott Rewards lies in their Travel Package deals.
Basically, you can redeem a large sum of Marriott Rewards points towards a certain quantity of frequent flyer miles (in an airline program of your choosing), PLUS a seven-night free hotel stay certificate in one of Marriott's hotels.
There are quite a few redemption charts, depending on the frequent flyer program whose miles you'd like to redeem for. Let's consider the below chart, which applies to some of the most common programs like Aeroplan, British Airways Avios, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan, and American Airlines AAdvantage.
As you can see, the cost of the Marriott Travel Package depends on the amount of airline miles you want, as well as the specific category of your desired hotel.
Maximizing Your Travel Package
There are a few tricks to keep in mind that can drastically boost the power of the Marriott Travel Package. The first is that Marriott lets you "upgrade" your free night certificates at a later date. Imagine that at the time of redeeming your Travel Package, you aren't sure if you'll be staying in a Category 5 hotel or a Category 7 hotel.
You can go ahead and redeem for a seven-night certificate for a Category 1–5 hotel for 270,000 points, then pay the difference of 60,000 points if you later decide on the Category 7 hotel.
Next, watch out for transfer bonus promotions run by your intended frequent flyer program. For example, until August 21, Aeroplan is running a 35% bonus promotion on all points transferred in from hotel partners. This means that if you were to redeem a Marriott Travel Package that comes with 120,000 Aeroplan miles, you'd actually get 162,000 Aeroplan miles in total, taking into account the 35% bonus.
Now picture this. Say you have 180,000 Membership Rewards points with American Express, which can be transferred to Aeroplan at a 1:1 ratio. Imagine if you transferred these points to SPG instead, getting 90,000 Starpoints.
Then you transferred these Starpoints to Marriott Rewards, netting 270,000 points, which you redeemed for a Travel Package for Aeroplan.
If you did that before August 21, 2017, you'd get 162,000 Aeroplan miles, plus an additional SEVEN nights at a Category 1–5 hotel, compared to just 180,000 miles if you transferred your MR points 1:1 to Aeroplan the regular way. You are effectively buying a seven-night hotel stay for 18,000 MR, which is an incredible deal.
I hope that example has shown you just how powerful the Marriott Travel Package can be when combined with frequent flyer program promotions.
Supercharging Your Travel Package
But it can still get better! There's a "secret" redemption chart for the Travel Package that comes with FIVE-night hotel stays rather than seven-night ones. A frustration many travellers express is that they rarely stay in one city for seven nights in a row, so a five-night certificate would be all the more useful, especially if it were cheaper as well (which it is!)
The problem is that only Marriott Vacations Club members (i.e., timeshare owners) are allowed to redeem the five-night packages. Historically, several people have reported success redeeming these packages even though they weren't technically eligible, though Marriott has recently been cracking down in this regard. You can still possibly redeem for a five-night package, though it'll take lots of patience and persistence!
If you do manage to snag the five-night package, the possibilities are even more staggering. You could transfer 156,667 MR points into 78,333 Starpoints, which would become 235,000 Marriott Rewards points.
Taking into account Aeroplan's 35% transfer promotion, this would get you 162,000 Aeroplan miles, plus five nights at a Category 1–5 hotel. Compared to doing a 1:1 MR → Aeroplan transfer the regular way, you're getting an extra 5,000 Aeroplan miles plus a free five-night hotel stay. Well worth the trouble!
My friend PointsNerd is living proof that snagging the five-night Travel Package is still alive and well, even if you're not a timeshare owner. Read about his experience here.
It's not just Aeroplan either. By leveraging Marriott Travel Packages, you can easily earn lots of miles in programs that are usually difficult for Canadians to access.
For example, you could rack up American AAdvantage miles (their own 25% bonus promotion just ended recently) in order to fly the Etihad Apartment or Qatar Airways First Class.
Or you could target Alaska Mileage Plan and earn enough miles for first class on Cathay Pacific or Japan Airlines.
Lastly, since Marriott and United Airlines have a partnership, you always get a 10% bonus on any miles transferred from the former to the latter. This means that a top-end Marriott Travel Package would get you 132,000 United miles instead of 120,000 miles with other airlines. Another sweet spot to keep in mind!
A quick word on elite status with Marriott Rewards. When the merger was announced, not only did Starpoints become instantly transferable, but so did elite status between the two programs.
That means that if you have SPG Gold Elite status, you'd automatically get Marriott Gold Elite as well. And since SPG Gold is super easy to get (it's an automatic perk that comes with the American Express Platinum Card), Marriott Gold can be acquired pretty effortlessly as well.
What's important to note, however, is that Marriott Gold conveys a lot more benefits than SPG Gold – in fact, it pretty much comes with the most benefits of any mid-tier hotel elite status.
As a Gold Elite member, not only do you get a welcome amenity and guaranteed late checkout, but you also get free breakfast and club lounge access. Meanwhile, over on the SPG side, these perks are only available to Platinum members!
Unfortunately, these benefits don't apply at Ritz-Carlton hotels or Marriott resort properties (for example, there was no free breakfast for me at the Marriott Resort St. Kitts).
Understanding these nuances is important when choosing which hotel under the combined Marriott/Starwood/Ritz-Carlton umbrella gets your business on your next trip.
In the intervening period after the announcement of the Marriott–Starwood merger and prior to the two loyalty programs actually merging into one, the introduction of a 1:3 transfer ratio from SPG to Marriott Rewards has opened up many doors for Canadian travellers.
Chief among these is the Marriott Travel Package, which can be all-powerful when combined with points transfer promotions. I certainly hope the value proposition of the Travel Packages is retained when the new combined program comes into play.