Navigating Marriott's New Points Advance Policy

A few weeks ago, Marriott Bonvoy announced the introduction of peak & off-peak pricing, along with a change to their generous Points Advance policy, both of which take effect on September 14, 2019. To recap:

  • Currently, free hotel nights were priced at a standard rate across the calendar, depending on the hotel’s category. Starting September 14, hotels within each category will be priced at three different price points: peak, standard, and off-peak.

  • Currently, Points Advance reservations allowed you to secure a hotel room on points and the amount of points required, even if you didn’t have the points in your account yet and had to earn them later. Starting September 14, Points Advance can only be used to secure the room, not the rate: if you make a Points Advance reservation, and then the rate changes from a standard rate to a peak rate before you’re able to attach the points to the reservation, you’ll have to pay the peak rate.

  • Currently, members can make as many Points Advance reservations as they’d like. Starting September 14, members will be limited to holding three Points Advance reservations at any given time.

And here’s the video that Marriott Bonvoy created to explain the changes to the Points Advance feature:


Points Advance Was Too Generous

There’s no denying that the existing Points Advance policy was one of the most generous among any hotel loyalty program. Ostensibly, the intention was to allow a member who had a modest points balance to secure their hotel reservations ahead of time while they worked towards earning the amount of points they’d eventually need.

However, the unrestricted ability to hold as many reservations as possible without deducting the points until 14 days before the stay also came with many unintended consequences.

For example, when hotels were about to change categories, members would be able to make dozens of speculative bookings at hotels that were about to rise in price, in order to lock in the more favourable rates despite not having any firm travel plans yet. 

They’d book the room and then finalize their trips later – and if they didn’t end up needing the room, they could always discard the reservation for no penalty as long as they were outside the cancellation window. 

Lock in a free night at the Kameha Grand Zurich, Autograph Collection, for 25,000 Bonvoy points

Lock in a free night at the Kameha Grand Zurich, Autograph Collection, for 25,000 Bonvoy points

Similarly, consider the situation at Marriott’s most popular hotels, such as Mystique Santorini, the St. Regis Maldives, and basically any hotel in a major city over New Year’s Eve. Room capacity is tightly controlled at these hotels, and they don’t want too many guests staying on points, because that would take away from the rooms available to guests who were willing to pay big sums of money to stay instead.

Knowing this, savvy Bonvoy members were quick to snap up all the inventory using Points Advance reservations, picking apart the hotel’s available rooms like vultures circling their prey, only for the majority of these speculative reservations to be eventually cancelled and thereby throwing the hotel’s inventory management into disarray.

(Take it from someone who engaged in more than my fair share of these vulturelike behaviours.)

Lock in a free night at the Sheraton Fiji Resort for 35,000 Bonvoy points

Lock in a free night at the Sheraton Fiji Resort for 35,000 Bonvoy points

When you’re paying a cash rate, it’s fair to be able to secure the rate in advance and pay at the time of the hotel stay – but when you’re redeeming points, and those points are freely flowing via the Bonvoy, Bonvoy Business, and Cobalt credit cards, it’s ultimately highly disadvantageous for hotel management and the Bonvoy loyalty program to allow this kind of behaviour. 

So it’s no surprise to see the Points Advance policy being tightened up. Limiting members to three Points Advance reservations makes a lot of sense to me – after all, that would instantly rule out the kind of behaviour that allowed people to book a dozen separate one-night reservations at the same hotel, allowing them to pick and choose which ones to keep later.

Lock in a free night at the St. Regis Langkawi for 50,000 Bonvoy points

Lock in a free night at the St. Regis Langkawi for 50,000 Bonvoy points

The other change, though, is more heavy-handed. Starting September 14, only the room, not the rate, that you book under Points Advance will be honoured. So you’ll still be able to use Points Advance to secure rooms at tough-to-book properties, but if the rate goes up later, that’s the rate you must pay. (And if the rate goes down, you’ll need to cancel and rebook, assuming you’re outside the cancellation window, to benefit from it.)

Part of me assumes that this policy change is related to the difficulty of honouring the old rates from a technical standpoint. Up until now, getting the old Points Advance rate honoured after a change in the rate has always required manual agent intervention, which Marriott likely viewed as far too resource-intensive.

Nevertheless, this change cuts away from what was the most tangible benefit of Points Advance, and, if I’m being honest, one of the few bright spots that set the Bonvoy program apart from its peers. 


Keep Up to Five Points Advance Reservations Before September 14

The limit of three Points Advance reservations only kicks in after September 14; prior to that date, Marriott is allowing members to continue to hold up to five Points Advance reservations. Moreover, for these five reservations, the old rate that you booked under Points Advance will be honoured if it turns out that they’ve risen to peak rates on September 14. 

Indeed, this will be the final time that old rates will be honoured under Points Advance, with the more restrictive rules – in which Points Advance secures only the room, not the rate – kicking in immediately on that date.

When this was first announced, the question lingered as to how this policy would be enforced. After all, many of us had more than five existing Points Advance reservations in our accounts, and we were still permitted to make even more on the Marriott website.

Well, if you’re among the members who has more than five Points Advance reservations booked at the moment, you’ve probably received the following email from Marriott alerting you to the change in rules:

 
 

Marriott is basically asking members to self-regulate, and “Keep, Cancel, Convert” all of their Points Advance reservations before the September 14 deadline.

And if you’re unable to bring your Points Advance reservations down to five, Marriott will be calling you to sort things out. (I’m almost tempted to leave six Points Advance reservations open on one of my lightly-used accounts just to see how that call would go.)

Lock in a free night at the Aloft Seoul Gangnam for 17,500 Bonvoy points

Lock in a free night at the Aloft Seoul Gangnam for 17,500 Bonvoy points

How will the limit of three Points Advance reservations after September 14 be enforced? Can you expect a phone call from Marriott telling you off every time you make a fourth simultaneous Points Advance reservation, or will there actually be a technical solution properly implemented into the IT nightmare that is Marriott Bonvoy’s backend systems? Who knows.

Nevertheless, Marriott’s instructions for us to “Keep, Cancel, Convert” isn’t very helpful because we have no idea which hotels will be priced at which rates on which dates. This information will only be revealed when September 14 rolls around, leaving many of us essentially playing a guessing game when it comes to which Points Advance reservations to keep and which to cancel…


So What Should YOU Do?

Below are a few situations you might find yourself in with regards to making hotel reservations for travel after September 14 using Points Advance, and how you might optimize your outcomes in each situation.

  • You have between one and five Points Advance reservations booked for after September 14, and you don’t currently have enough points to attach to them.

    By all means, you can leave these reservations under Points Advance. If any of the rates change to off-peak, you’ll benefit from a lower rate when you eventually do earn enough points to attach to the reservation. If any of them rise to peak rates, you can call in and have the old rate that you booked under Points Advance honoured. And if they remain at the standard rate, you’re no better or worse off.

    If you’re in this situation, you don’t really have anything to worry about, as long as you’re able to earn the points you need up to 14 days before each stay.

Lock in a free night at the W Muscat for 35,000 Bonvoy points

Lock in a free night at the W Muscat for 35,000 Bonvoy points

  • You have more than five Points Advance reservations booked for after September 14, and you currently have enough points to attach to some of them.

    Do your best to attach points to some of your outstanding reservations, so that you only have five Points Advance reservations remaining. As long as you can do this, this scenario basically collapses into the one above, and you’ll be in a position where you can’t be made worse-off by the September 14 move to peak & off-peak rates.

    As an example, let’s say you had five Category 6 hotels and three Category 4 hotels booked under Points Advance, and your current Bonvoy balance is only at 75,000 points. Well, attach those 75,000 points to the three Category 4 bookings, and boom, now you’ve only got five Points Advance reservations outstanding, so you’re good to go.

Lock in a free night at the JW Marriott Phu Quoc for 35,000 Bonvoy points

Lock in a free night at the JW Marriott Phu Quoc for 35,000 Bonvoy points

  • You have more than five Points Advance reservations booked for after September 14, and you don't currently have enough points to attach to enough reservations to bring that number down to five. 

    This puts you in a tougher position. You must now decide which five reservations you want to keep, and the rest will have to be forfeited (either voluntarily, or presumably by force when Marriott gives you a call). 

    There are a few ways to go about this decision. One way is to try to guess which five of your reservations are likeliest to go up to peak rates, and leave those open as Points Advance. After all, if those bookings do indeed rise to the peak rate, you’ll be able to get the old standard rate honoured. 

    You’d then cancel the remaining reservations and hope that they don’t go up to a peak rate, because if they do, you’re stuck paying that peak rate when you do earn enough points to book.

    Broadly speaking, hotel reservations during peak travel periods (like Christmas, New Year’s, Spring Break, summertime, or major sporting and cultural events) are likeliest to be designated as peak dates, whereas shoulder-season bookings have a better chance of going down to off-peak instead.

    Another way to approach this would be to think about which five reservations are most highly-prized from your perspective. A one-of-a-kind resort property like Al Maha Desert Resort Dubai would be a much more worth “locking in” than a four-star hotel in a major city, where you could easily just book an Airbnb instead. Determine which hotels matter most to you, and keep those under Points Advance. 

Lock in a free night at the Renaissance Paris Vendôme for 60,000 Bonvoy points

Lock in a free night at the Renaissance Paris Vendôme for 60,000 Bonvoy points

  • You have enough points to cover all the reservations you have planned for after September 14.

    Feel free to attach points to all your outstanding Points Advance bookings, or leave up to five of them open, it doesn’t really matter – either way, you won’t be negatively impacted by the change to peak & off-peak rates on September 14.

    Unless, of course, you want to take advantage of this one final opportunity for some speculative shenanigans under the current Points Advance rule.

    If that’s what you feel like doing, keep in mind that nowadays Marriott only lets you make new Points Advance bookings if you actually don’t have enough points in your account… so make a dummy booking to drain all your points, snag those five speculative Points Advance bookings you wanted, and then cancel and refund the dummy booking so that you’re ready to play one last round of Points Advance roulette come September 15.


Conclusion

The recently announced changes to Marriott’s Points Advance policy represent a justifiable devaluation of a perk that has been far too generous in recent years. Nevertheless, the way that this policy change is being implemented, coinciding with the introduction of peak & off-peak dates but the lack of disclosure on what exactly those dates will be, is only another example of the “games” that Marriott has been playing with its members ever since the merger with Starwood Preferred Guest. You can almost smell the #Bonvoyed complaints coming from a mile away.

You’ll definitely want to choose up to five Points Advance reservations to keep by September 14, and depending on how healthy your points balance is, you may or may not have to sacrifice a few bookings and leave them open to the possibility of an unwanted rise to peak rates.