While annual category changes are to be expected from every hotel loyalty program, Marriott Bonvoy’s changes this year are particularly unfavourable, with a whopping 22% of hotels increasing in category, offset by 7% of hotels decreasing in category.
It’s safe to say that the world’s largest hotel chain has gradually gutted the value of their loyalty program over the past few years – especially with the introduction of peak & off-peak rates and the neutralization of the generous Points Advance policy, among many other changes – and that the 2020 category changes are only the latest step in that sequence.
These category changes take effect on March 4, 2020, so you have about a month to make bookings at the current points levels. In this article, we’ll take a look at the biggest movers and shakers in this round of changes and what it means for you as you look to redeem your Marriott Bonvoy points and credit card free night certificates.
Many Popular Hotels Are Increasing in Category
It should come as no surprise that hotels that are popular for points redemptions (i.e., higher-end properties or hotels situated in tourist hotspots) are generally more likely to increase in category, although the sheer scale of this year’s category increases is still somewhat surprising.
In New York, for example, there are no less than 34 hotels rising in category (the below is only a sample):
Things aren’t looking too pretty in Hawaii either. I stayed at the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort in Maui a while back, and while it was a nice enough experience, I don’t think it comes anywhere close to justifying a Category 7 designation, and I view this as an effort on Marriott’s part to lower the costs associated with people redeeming their points here more than the quality of the hotel itself.
Planning a trip to New Orleans? You’re lucky that Mardi Gras is coming up before March 4, because points redemptions are looking more expensive for next year’s celebrations. At least you’ll pay a little less if you want to chill out at the TownePlace Suites in the middle of suburbia, though.
There are a few significant changes to popular Canadian hotels as well – most notably the JW Marriott Parq Vancouver, which will be rising from Category 6 to Category 7.
Overall, I already find extremely limited value in redeeming Bonvoy points for hotels in major North American cities these days, and this latest round of changes only suppresses that value even further.
Looking overseas, many other popular tourist markets have been hit hard by these changes as well. For example, Paris sees 13 hotels increasing in category, with none decreasing.
Three luxury hotels in the Greek islands are all rising to Category 8, making it futile to think about redeeming your Bonvoy points here – you’d be much better off paying cash.
And Japan, where Bonvoy redemptions can already be a tricky value proposition, sees 10 properties rising in category.
A Few Good Hotels Are Decreasing in Category
The few silver linings of these category changes are the 7% of hotels that are decreasing in category, which I’m happy to see includes a few of my favourite Bonvoy properties around the world.
Specifically, the JW Marriott Singapore South Beach is dropping from Category 7 to Category 6, although that won’t necessarily make it a good option for points redemptions, since you can often find cash rates of about $250–300 at this hotel.
Meanwhile, the excellent Westin Perth is dropping from Category 5 to Category 4, which should make this one of the best Category 4s in the rearranged Bonvoy portfolio and a fairly attractive hotel for redeeming points compared to the cash rate, especially if you’re headed to Perth on an Aeroplan Mini-RTW.
Impact on Amex Bonvoy Free Night Certificates
Among the category changes that we’ve discussed above, you’ll notice that a large number increases involve a hotel that’s moving from Category 5 to Category 6. These are particularly hard-hitting, as they all-but remove the hotel from the pool of eligible properties for your anniversary free night certificates from the Amex Bonvoy and Amex Business Bonvoy credit cards (as well as their US-issued counterparts), which are valid for a free night worth up to 35,000 Bonvoy points.
For example, taking a look at the list of New York changes, your free night certificate will no longer be valid at a significant number of Manhattan properties where it was previously valid. If you’ve been thinking about redeeming your free night certificate for a long weekend in New York, you’d better firm up those plans before March 4.
Around the world, it’s a shame to see such a large number of hotels (at least 200 by my count) moving from Category 5 to 6, including some previously very attractive hotels for your anniversary free night certificate, such as Tambo del Inka in Cusco, the W Mexico City, or the Marriott Budapest.
In contrast to the hundreds of hotels rising beyond Category 5, there’s only an insultingly low 15 hotels decreasing from Category 6 to 5, and therefore becoming eligible for your free night certificates.
The Park Tower Buenos Aires, Sheraton Miyako Tokyo, and St. Regis Kuala Lumpur might be the most attractive hotels among this limited pool, so if you’ve been planning a trip to any of those places, your free night certificate may come into greater utility after March 4.
We should also take a look at hotels changing between Categories 6 and 7, because that’ll impact those of you who hold the Amex US Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant Card, whose anniversary free night certificate is worth up to 50,000 Bonvoy points (equivalent to the standard rate for Category 6 and the off-peak rate for Category 7).
Again, in this case, the increases outnumber the decreases by a staggering amount: there are about 100 hotels moving up to Category 7, and only nine coming down to Category 6, among which the St. Regis Singapore, W Washington DC, and Le Méridien Ile des Pins in New Caledonia might be the most attractive.
If you have any anniversary free night certificate sitting in your account at the moment, no matter what kind, you should definitely be looking up potential redemptions before March 4, lest your preferred hotel rises in category and can no longer be booked using your free night.
Impact on the Luxury Brands
Many collectors of Bonvoy points prefer to redeem them at top-tier luxury hotels, where the cash rates might otherwise be unaffordable.
In this respect, the St. Regis brand will hold up surprisingly well with 2020 category changes, with a roughly equal number of increases and decreases. In addition to the Singapore and Kuala Lumpur locations mentioned above, the very impressive St. Regis Astana will also be decreasing to a Category 4, so that’s good news if a trip to Kazakhstan has been on your radar.
In contrast, the Ritz-Carlton brand is getting ravaged by category increases, with nine properties rising to the highest Category 8 alone. I can’t imagine it’ll be worth redeeming Bonvoy points at any of these hotels compared to the cash rates.
In total, there are about 25 Ritz-Carlton hotels increasing in category, with only one – the newly-opened one in Perth – decreasing from Category 7 to 6.
If you’re a purveyor of W Hotels, a large number of the more reasonably-priced Ws in Category 4 and 5 will be increasing, while the new W Aspen is at least going down from Category 8 to 7, which might make it a more attractive option for your next ski trip. And finally, my personal favourite brand, the JW Marriott, is also experiencing a deeply disappointing set of 19 increases and four decreases.
Impact on Category 1 Hotels
Finally, let’s take a look at what’s moving in and out of Category 1, especially in Canada, since these hotels can be popular for “mattress running” towards Platinum Elite status by booking cheap award stays on off-peak dates.
The Courtyard Calgary South, which has been a popular candidate for mattress running in the past, is rising to Category 2, making it a less effective choice. However, this is offset by the Fairfield Inn & Suites Winnipeg dropping down to Category 1, giving Manitobans an easy new option for booking mattress runs locally.
(Meanwhile, in Edmonton, the Fairfield Inn & Suites Edmonton North is rising from Category 1 to 2, while the Four Points Edmonton South is dropping from Category 2 to 1, so you’ll just need to head to a different part of town to check-in for your five-night stay.)
Of course, this latest round of changes continues to call into question whether it’s even worth pursuing Platinum Elite status in the first place if you aren’t staying frequently enough with Marriott to earn it organically.
Anyone else missing Starwood Preferred Guest pretty badly right about now?
The 2020 category changes to Marriott Bonvoy’s hotel categories are frankly shocking, with 22% of the 7,000+ hotels seeing an increase in category.
Hotel occupancy is relatively high these days, meaning that Marriott would much prefer for people to pay cash for hotel stays than redeem points for a free night, and that’s reflected in all of their adjustments to the Bonvoy program since its launch – which can only be described as a relentless race to the bottom.
Now more than ever, you’ll need to put a lot of thought into your strategy for redeeming Bonvoy points. If you don’t have specific high-value hotel redemptions in mind (for example, staying at hotels during special events or festivals when the cash price would otherwise be expensive, or pursuing luxury experiences like the Al Maha Desert Resort Dubai that might otherwise be unattainable), then you’d arguably be better off thinking about transferring your Bonvoy points to a frequent flyer partner or redeeming them for a memorable Marriott Bonvoy Moments experience instead.