Taking advantage of free night certificates is one of the essential ways to maximize value from a hotel loyalty program. I wanted to write a series covering everything you needed to know about earning free night certificates with each of the major programs, starting with Marriott Bonvoy’s Free Night Awards.
While these certificates are “free” in the sense that you aren’t paying cash for your stay, they almost always come with an acquisition cost, whether it’s through credit cards, stay activity, or special promotions. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to how you redeem the certificates and ensure you’re coming out ahead.
1. Amex Bonvoy Credit Cards: Anniversary Free Night Award Worth 35,000 Points
The easiest way for Canadians to earn annual Free Night Awards is through the Canadian-issued Amex Bonvoy credit cards:
- American Express Marriott Bonvoy Card: Anniversary Free Night Award worth 35,000 Bonvoy points
- American Express Marriott Bonvoy Business Card: Anniversary Free Night Award worth 35,000 Bonvoy points
You won’t earn the free night during your first year of holding the card; instead, it’ll be deposited to your Marriott Bonvoy account within 6–8 weeks of renewing the card for a second year, and every year after that in which you continue to hold the card.
(Some cardholders might decide to cancel their cards and pursue a repeated signup bonus for 50,000+ points instead. However, since this strategy carries more risk these days, an anniversary free night worth 35,000 points might be a worthy consolation prize in exchange for keeping the Bonvoy cards open in the long run.)
Since the Free Night Award is worth a maximum of 35,000 points, the optimal redemption (i.e., corresponding exactly to the face value of 35,000 points) is one of the following:
- A Category 5 Marriott hotel at the standard rate
- A Category 6 Marriott hotel at the off-peak PointSavers rate, although these can be quite rare to find
In both instances, it should be relatively easy to recoup the value of the $120 or $150 annual fee you’re paying on the Bonvoy cards. Personally, I aim for a cash value of $300+ (CAD) when redeeming my 35,000-point Free Night Awards.
2. Amex US & Chase Bonvoy Credit Cards: Anniversary Free Night Award Worth 35,000–50,000 Points
Getting involved with Marriott Bonvoy co-branded credit cards in the US opens up many more opportunities to rack up the free nights.
In particular, you’ll earn anniversary Free Night Awards on the following US credit cards which are open to new applications:
- American Express US Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant Card: Anniversary Free Night Award worth 50,000 Bonvoy points
- American Express US Marriott Bonvoy Business Card: Anniversary Free Night Award worth 35,000 Bonvoy points
- Chase Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Card: Anniversary Free Night Award worth 35,000 Bonvoy points
Furthermore, the following two products are no longer open to new applications, but can still be added to your portfolio through product-switches:
- American Express US Marriott Bonvoy Card (available as a downgrade from the Bonvoy Brilliant): Anniversary Free Night Award worth 35,000 Bonvoy points
- Chase Ritz-Carlton Credit Card (available as an upgrade from the Bonvoy Boundless or Bonvoy Bold): Anniversary Free Night Award worth 50,000 Bonvoy points
As with the Canadian side, these Free Night Awards are deposited to your account within 6–8 weeks of renewing the card for a second year, and every year after that in which you continue to hold the card.
Finally, sometimes the US credit cards get creative with their signup offers and include Free Night Awards in lieu of Bonvoy points, as we saw with the Chase Bonvoy Boundless’s recent offer of five free nights worth 50,000 points each in October 2020.
As with the Canadian cards, the optimal redemptions at the 35,000-point level should easily outweigh the US$95–125 annual fees on their respective cards.
Meanwhile, the optimal redemption for Free Night Awards worth 50,000 points from the Bonvoy Brilliant and the Chase Ritz-Carlton are as follows:
- A Category 6 hotel at the standard rate
- A Category 7 hotel at the off-peak rate
In both instances, the “effective annual fee” of US$150 on both cards (after subtracting any annual credits from the annual fee) should be easily recouped. Personally, I aim for a cash value of $450+ (CAD) when redeeming my 50,000-point Free Night Awards.
3. Titanium Elite Annual Choice Benefit: Free Night Award Worth 40,000 Points
Outside of credit cards, another Free Night Award that you can reliably earn year after year is through the Annual Choice Benefit upon reaching 75 elite qualifying nights each year.
You’ll be entitled to select one of six benefits upon achieving this threshold, and the Free Night Award worth 40,000 points is generally considered the most valuable choice.
The optimal redemption here is one of the following:
- A Category 5 hotel at the peak rate
- A Category 6 hotel at the off-peak rate
Personally, I aim for a cash value of $350+ (CAD) when redeeming my 40,000-point Free Night Award upon qualifying for or retaining Titanium Elite status each year.
4. Special Promotions: Various Free Night Awards
Sometimes, Free Night Awards are also distributed as part of a seasonal promotion or a targeted promotion. These are always nice when they come around, but they aren’t necessarily Free Night Awards that you can reliably earn every year.
For example, the current round of Spring 2021 targeted promotions has given a few lucky Marriott Bonvoy members the chance to earn two Free Night Awards at the 35,000-point level. If you’ve been targeted for this promotion, you’d do well to maximize it with a few cheap mattress runs even if you aren’t planning any organic stay activity.
5. New Member Promotion: Free Night Award Worth 25,000 Points
Every now and then, Marriott Bonvoy also puts on a promotion to incentivize new members to sign up for the program. Typically, you’ll earn a Free Night Award worth up to 25,000 points upon completing two paid stays with Marriott.
This happens to be the lowest-value Free Night Award that I’m aware of, and its optimal redemption is quite straightforward: a Category 4 hotel at the standard rate. Still, if you’re a new Marriott Bonvoy member, it’s a nice incentive to start participating in the program.
How to Redeem a Free Night Award
You’ll see your active Free Night Award certificates under the “Activity” tab of your Marriott Bonvoy account on desktop, and on the “Certificates” page of the “Account” tab on the app.
Each certificate will display an expiration date, which is the date you must stay by, not just book by.
(Currently, all certificates have been extended to August 1, 2021 due to the pandemic. In normal times, it’s usually also possible to call in and ask for a certificate to be extended by one year as a one-time gesture.)
In order to redeem a Free Night Award, there must be award availability for your desired night (i.e., the underlying night must be bookable on Marriott Bonvoy points).
Applying Free Night Awards to an upcoming reservation is only possible on desktop, and not on the app. If you’re about to make a booking for which you have eligible Free Night Awards, you’ll be offered the choice of applying them to the booking (although you can always choose to book with points instead and save your certificates for later):
You can even apply multiple Free Night Awards to the same stay:
Note that you cannot “top-up” the face value of a Free Night Award with extra points (for example, booking a hotel worth 40,000 points using a 35,000-point certificate and then paying an extra 5,000 points).
You also cannot combine Free Night Awards with the “Stay 5, Pay for 4” benefit – the entire reservation needs to be paid using Bonvoy points for the fifth-night-free perk to kick in.
Strategies for Maximizing Marriott Free Night Awards
Let’s think about some of the best strategies for maximizing your Free Night Awards as a Marriott loyalist.
On the earning side, between all of the North American credit cards and the Annual Choice Benefit upon reaching 75 elite qualifying nights, it’s technically possible for a very dedicated Marriott Bonvoy member to earn a maximum of eight free night certificates per account every year.
If we restrict our focus to the most accessible products from a Canadian perspective (i.e., excluding the Chase Bonvoy cards and the downgrade-path to the regular Amex US Bonvoy), then a dedicated member might be earning five Free Night Awards every year: three at the 35,000-point level, one at the 40,000-point level, and one at the 50,000-point level.
Of course, this represents an ideal scenario for someone who travels and stays with Marriott frequently. If you don’t travel quite as much, then you might choose to stick with the two anniversary Free Night Awards from the Canadian-issued Amex Bonvoy credit cards at the 35,000-point level.
On the redemption side, the ideal scenario is to redeem your free nights at the optimal level in the following three ways:
- Booking a hotel whose underlying points price matches the face value of the certificate
- Booking a hotel whose underlying cash cost is as high as possible
- Booking as high a hotel category as possible (e.g., ensuring your 50,000-point certificate is used on a Category 7 hotel at the off-peak rate, rather than a Category 6 hotel at the standard rate)
If a potential Free Night Award redemption meets these three requirements, it’s a great candidate for “burning” your certificate. After all, certificates have expiration dates attached, whereas Bonvoy points can always be saved for future redemptions.
One example of a Free Night Award redemption that I’m particularly proud of is the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort in Maui, where I had redeemed a 40,000-point certificate at the off-peak rate at what was a Category 6 hotel at the time.
The cash price was also a pretty crazy US$600+ ($764), so I was very happy with the value I got from the Free Night Award.
However, it’s not always possible to tailor these optimal redemptions exactly to your upcoming travel plans, especially if you’re earning several of them year after year.
If your Free Night Award is coming close to its expiration date (and you aren’t able to get it extended further), I’d argue that it’s okay to redeem them for slightly less than optimal value too, as long as you’re recouping their original acquisition cost in the form of any credit card annual fees.
Marriott Bonvoy’s Free Night Awards are an excellent vehicle for unlocking outsized value in the program.
Even though you’ll be putting in a relatively small upfront amount in the form of credit card annual fees, you’re often able to earn double or triple that value at the time of redemption. You can also fine-tune exactly how many credit cards to hold (and how many Free Night Awards to earn) based on how frequently you stay with Marriott.
I’ve gotten consistent value from the Free Night Awards year after year at the 35,000-point, 40,000-point, and 50,000-point levels, and I’d love to see Marriott Bonvoy and their co-branded credit card issuers sprucing up these rewards even more in the future.