Regular followers of this blog will know that I try to redeem points for my hotel stays whenever I can, in order to reduce my out-of-pocket cost along my travels.
However, lately I’ve found myself paying the cash rate for hotel stays more and more, which is something I might have found incomprehensible when I first started collecting SPG Starpoints and Marriott Rewards points back in the day.
Whereas just a few years ago I’d say that 75-90% of my hotel nights were paid for with points, these days it’s probably more of a 50/50 split in terms of when I redeem points and when I pay cash.
What’s going on here? What kind of person have I become, plonking down large sums of cash for hotel stays when it was only a few years ago that I was paying $50/night for a hostel bed? I think it’s time for some introspection to tease out the many factors at play here.
The Decline of Marriott Bonvoy
While all the major hotel loyalty programs are open to Canadian residents, Marriott Bonvoy is the only major program that offers an easy way for Canadian residents to earn points via a co-branded credit card. And let’s face it: the value that you get out of today’s Marriott Bonvoy program is lower than that of the legacy programs of Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) and Marriott Rewards by quite some distance.
Back when both programs used to exist separately, each would have its own sweet spots relative to the other, and each would allow you to earn points through their own co-branded credit cards and transfer partners.
SPG was an easy program for Canadians to participate in, with two Amex-issued credit cards offering a sweet 20,000 Starpoints (equivalent to 60,000 Marriott Bonvoy points today on the same cards) as a signup bonus. Another crucial means of earning points was the refer-a-friend bonus of 10,000 Starpoints at its peak (equivalent to 30,000 Bonvoy points, which has been drastically reduced now to only 10,000 Bonvoy points).
Meanwhile, there was also a separate Chase Marriott Visa on the market that came with 50,000 Marriott Rewards points, a first-year fee waiver, and no FX fees (the card was discontinued entirely in March 2018). Taken together, the two programs offered Canadian travellers a relatively wide range of choice for hotel stays.
Moreover, the period between 2017 and 2018 when SPG Starpoints and Marriott Rewards points could be freely converted between each other at a 1:3 ratio was perhaps the golden age of hotel loyalty programs for Canadians. All of a sudden, the relative ease of earning Starpoints became married with the redemption sweet spots within Marriott Rewards, effectively combining the power of both programs into one super-strong program.
Then the merger came in August 2018, and brought with it a series of devaluations on multiple fronts. The transfer ratio from Amex MR? Cut by 20%. The earning rate on the Amex Bonvoy cards? Slashed by 33%. The hotel category chart? Inflated. The value of the Travel Packages? Gutted.
Collectively, these changes have made it quite a bit tougher to extract value out of your Marriott Bonvoy points, and with the value proposition being squeezed on both the earning and redeeming sides of the game, I now encounter more and more situations in which I’m reluctant to part with my points and would rather pay the cash rate instead.
Take for example a mid-range hotel in a major North American city, like the Marriott Portland Downtown Waterfront. In the past, this hotel was in the old Category 6 (out of 9), and would cost 30,000 Marriott Rewards points. That’s not a bad deal for a hotel that might go for US$300 a night plus tax. But now that the hotel has been moved up to the new Category 6 (out of 8) and costs 50,000 Bonvoy points a night? The value is much less clear-cut.
After all, if hotels are now costing more points for a free night, and those points are harder to earn, I’m going to be much more tight-fisted with those points and I’ll only want to redeem them when I can get truly outstanding value.
Now, let me be clear: these devaluations aren’t surprising in the slightest, because the landscape in this game we play is ever-changing, and whenever too much outsized value can be obtained (and some of the deals and strategies during that 2017-18 golden age were extremely outsized), then the loyalty programs will seek to neutralize them and restore some equilibrium.
In the meantime, there haven’t been many alternatives that have opened up to us Canadians. Besides the limited-value MBNA Best Western Rewards MasterCard, our only remaining options are to look south of the border to programs like Hilton Honors (via Amex US), World of Hyatt, or IHG Rewards (via Chase). That, or start paying cash for accommodations, be they Marriott hotels or otherwise. Which brings me to my next point…
The Added Benefits of Paying Cash
There are a few added benefits when paying the cash rate for hotels that you might not otherwise get if you’re redeeming points, and these are useful to keep in mind because they can often tip the scales in one direction or the other if you’re having trouble deciding between the two.
First off, just because you’re paying the cash rate for a hotel doesn’t mean that the cash actually needs to come out of your pocket. Indeed, we have many fixed-value travel rewards programs here in Canada, like Scotia Rewards from the Scotia Passport Card, HSBC Rewards from the HSBC World Elite, or even Amex MR Select points from the Cobalt Card.
In fact, in a previous article, I’ve outlined how booking hotels for cash can often be a better use of your Cobalt points than transferring them to Marriott Bonvoy at the 1:1.2 ratio. It goes back to the value proposition of redeeming points that I mentioned above: if that value isn’t there when compared to the cash rate, booking the hotel with your Cobalt Card and then using your MR Select points to offset the charge at 1 cent per point can be a better deal.
How do you judge that value proposition? Here’s the comparison chart between the cash rate and the points requirements for each Marriott Bonvoy hotel category, taking into account the 1:1.2 transfer ratio from Amex MR.
If you're redeeming points for...
You'll need this many Marriott points...
Which equals this many MR Select points...
So the cash price better be at least...
(Remember, this comparison should only be applied if you’re transferring MR or MR Select points to Marriott Bonvoy for your hotel bookings. If you earned your Bonvoy points from other sources, like the Bonvoy credit cards, then the comparison wouldn’t necessarily make sense.)
Paying the cash rate also allows you to earn additional points towards the next occasion when you feel it’s worthwhile to redeem points for a stay – both on the credit card that you use for the purchase (for example, the Bonvoy credit cards earn 5x points at Marriott and SPG hotels), as well as the points you earn from the loyalty program itself. Marriott Bonvoy members earn 5-10 points per US dollar spent at most properties, with elite members benefiting from a bonus multiplier depending on their elite level.
On top of that, paid rates are often eligible for points promotions like Marriott’s seasonal MegaBonus event or the current Double Take promotion, whereas points redemptions are not. These bonus points, earned on hotel stays you would’ve made along your travels anyway, can really add up quickly.
And throw in the regular opportunity to get 10% cash back on your paid rates when going through Ebates, and it’s not uncommon to obtain a 10-15% discount on all your hotel stays when factoring in all these deals and promotions. If you were already on the fence about paying cash vs. redeeming points, then stacking as many money-saving techniques as you can get your hands on can really help to sweeten the deal.
I Travel More Now, and My Tastes Have Evolved
The last reason why I find myself paying cash for hotels is perhaps a more personal one.
When I first started focusing on hotel points, I was just graduating from university, so the prospect of staying in nice hotels for free was unbelievably appealing.
I remember the first-ever hotel redemption I made: one night at the Renaissance Seattle over Valentine’s Day using some of the points I had earned from my first Chase Marriott Visa. I received a small upgrade to a corner room as a Silver Elite member, as well as a complimentary Valentine’s Day amenity of chocolate-covered strawberries and wine. I was BLOWN AWAY.
Keep in mind, it was barely four years ago that I was backpacking through Europe as a cash-strapped university student scouring for hostel beds as low as €20 a night. Shared bathrooms, bunk beds, and ham and cheese sandwiches for breakfast – that kind of stuff. It was far from a glamorous existence, but it was worthwhile in order to see the world at an affordable price.
At that time, when I realized the possibilities that hotel loyalty programs afforded me, my thought process was something along the lines of: “I had better take advantage of these opportunities to stay at nice hotels for free while they’re available. I mean, I would never find it worthwhile to pay full price for hotels when I can pay $50 a night for a cheap hostel or Airbnb.”
Well, I was wrong. Indeed, lifestyle creep is a very real thing, and now that I have a bit of discretionary income, my tastes seem to have evolved to a point where I don’t mind paying ~$200 for a decent hotel night, or even more if it’s an especially nice property.
The frugal-minded Ricky from four years ago would have found this idea ridiculous. After all, hostels and Airbnbs are perfectly fine places for resting your head, and you won’t even spend too much time on the property since you’ll be out and about exploring your destination most of the time.
But the things I value from my accommodations have evolved over time. Now that I’ve stayed at nice hotels for a good few years, there are many aspects within the hotel experience to which I attach a greater importance.
For starters, the privacy of a hotel room is worlds away from the chaos of staying in hostels with shared bunks. Moreover, I value the elite benefits I get from Marriott Bonvoy, such as a hearty breakfast to kickstart my day or a nice lounge to unwind with some food and drinks.
And most importantly, the consistency of the hotel experience within the same brand is something that, say, Airbnb can’t deliver: for every perfectly pleasant Airbnb stay I have, there might be another one in which the bedsprings are loose and the bathroom smells funny, and when you’ve indulged in the comforts of the St. Regises and Ritz-Carltons of this world, it’s hard to feel satisfied with accommodations that can’t even get the basics right.
Would I shell out more than… say, $350 for an especially nice property? Nah, that’s what I have points for. But for $150 or $200 a night at a comfortable place where redeeming points doesn’t make sense, and where I might actually enjoy spending time rather than merely having a bed to crash in for the night? I think that’s reasonable. After all, travel is one of the main priorities in my life, so it’s not like I’d have much else to spend my money on if I saved that ~$100 a night and stayed in a hostel instead.
And in terms of which hotel to stay at, well, if I’m paying cash then theoretically I’d be able to choose from all the properties in a particular place, but ultimately I still find myself gravitating to the Marriott portfolio.
Yes, the elite benefits I get as a Platinum or Titanium Elite member play a part of course, but overall I simply like the Marriott hotels more than others having stayed with them so much.
I suppose that, as much as I’ve raided the SPG, Marriott Rewards, and Marriott Bonvoy loyalty programs for free hotel nights over the years, they’ve ultimately still done their job of making me loyal to the brand. Imagine that, eh? 😉
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I’ve noticed myself being more and more willing to pay cash for hotels recently, even though I didn’t feel this way when I first started collecting points. And since I primarily talk about redeeming points here on the blog (and sometimes give the impression that I exclusively redeem points for my hotel stays), I figured I owed it to you guys to have an honest discussion of why that might be the case.
In some ways, this story also serves as a warning about the lifestyle creep that can happen when you travel on points for too long. If your goal is in fact to achieve a better travel lifestyle, then more power to you, but if you’d prefer to be cautious about your spending and remain frugal-minded, then keep in mind that doing so might be more challenging than you’d expect.
I’m just thankful that the value in redeeming miles for premium class flights still remains outstanding, because I’d hate to be paying cash for those… 😉