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3 Surprise Upgrades on a Trip to Asia

Leveraging status-match promotions and pursuing elite membership with loyalty programs can sometimes result in pleasant surprises.

Written by Amy Tung

On 2024-06-20

Read time 18 mins

Despite loyalty programs’ intended purpose of providing enhanced services and rewards to their most loyal members, the reality is that they often fall short.

Additionally, the programs usually experience devaluations over time, leading us as points collectors to question the value of maintaining status and loyalty to a particular brand.

On my recent trip to Asia, however, I was pleasantly surprised when a few loyalty programs went above and beyond my expectations; ultimately, renewing my faith in their value.

Read on to find out what happened and how you can potentially maximize your loyalty experience in the future.

How We Booked a Family Trip to Asia on Points

Earlier this year, my grandmother was turning 90, and so my whole family made plans to go back to Hong Kong to celebrate with her.

Having been to Hong Kong several times before, there wasn’t much we wanted to do there outside of visiting family, so we decided to only stay in the city for five nights and then visit another destination in Asia.

Since the kids love Japan, and we had only had limited time to explore Osaka on our last trip to Japan, we opted to venture back there for four nights.

Osaka, Japan

Notably, we were able to book this trip almost entirely on reward points and free night certificates with Asia Miles, Aeroplan, Marriott Bonvoy, and Hilton Honors – a feat that isn’t always possible.

I had initially booked our flights from Toronto to Taipei with EVA Air, which at the time of my booking last year still released two business class seats (they currently only release one seat) at 75,000 Aeroplan points each in business class, which we booked in addition to three economy seats at 50,000 Aeroplan points.

However, we didn’t end up flying this itinerary.

When my sister’s family decided that they wanted to travel together, my family ended up changing our flights to a direct flight from Toronto to Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific.

The two families together booked several seats in premium economy for 75,000 Asia Miles each and several in economy for 38,000 Asia Miles each.

We stayed five nights in Hong Kong at the JW Marriott Hong Kong on a combination of three Marriott Bonvoy Free Night Awards worth 50,000 points apiece, acquired as part of the welcome bonus on the US-issued Chase Bonvoy Boundless, and two nights booked for 53,000–56,000 Bonvoy points per night.

From Hong Kong, we flew to Osaka on Peach Airlines for $177 (CAD) per person, which I booked through Capital One Travel so I could maximize my earning rate of 5 Capital One Miles per US dollar spent.

In Osaka, we redeemed a Marriott Bonvoy Free Night Award worth 85,000 points at the St. Regis Osaka before moving to the Conrad Osaka for three nights. These three nights were booked using Hilton Free Night Rewards earned through the US-issued Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card and the Hilton Honors American Express Business Card (the Free Night Reward benefit has since been removed from the latter card).

For our flight home, we booked seats on ANA in economy from Osaka to Tokyo for $103 (CAD) per person, and connected onwards to Toronto flying Air Canada business class.

Pleasantly, ANA was able to directly transfer our checked baggage onto Air Canada, saving us the hassle of needing to recheck them in Tokyo.

For our Air Canada flight from Tokyo to Toronto, we redeemed 74,800 Aeroplan points and 13 eUpgrades per passenger.

Free Upgrade to Cathay Pacific Business Class at Check-In

On the day of departure, we arrived at Toronto Pearson (YYZ) two and half hours before our flight. At Cathay Pacific’s check-in counter, they welcomed my husband and me as Silver members of their Asia Miles loyalty program.

As they were checking us in, we experienced the first loyalty program perk of the trip – a manager came around and casually asked if one of us would like a complimentary upgrade to business class. Well, of course the answer was yes!

The airline actually had space to upgrade both myself and my husband; however, because we were seated in premium economy with one of our kids, one of us had to stay with her.

My husband volunteered to stay with our daughter, so I happily took my upgraded seat in business class.

I can’t describe the excitement I had after landing this free business class upgrade. While the service and food on Cathay Pacific aren’t as good as some other Asian carriers, having a lie-flat bed was heavenly for the long flight.

Cathay Pacific business class

Now, you may be wondering how I have Silver status with Cathay Pacific.

Back in February 2024, Marriott Bonvoy and Cathay Pacific announced a new partnership, and as part of that partnership, they released a status match promotion.

With the partnership, a limited number of registrants with Marriott Bonvoy Ambassador, Titanium, or Platinum status would be matched to Cathay Pacific Silver status for 12 months. At the time, I didn’t place much value on the status, and I saw the main perk as having access to Cathay Pacific business class lounges even when we weren’t flying in business class.

I took advantage of the status match anyway, which was fortunate as the promotion was extremely short lived.

As it turns out, jumping on the status match was incredibly beneficial as it landed me a free upgrade to business class on a 15-hour flight, essentially saving me 35,000 Asia Miles, since a business class redemption on this route normally costs 110,000 Asia Miles.

Take home message: There’s rarely, if ever, a downside to having an extra status. Take advantage of status matches when available, as you never know what surprises may come as a result of them.

(As a matter of fact, I just took advantage of a current status match opportunity with Flying Blue. I was able to status match my Aeroplan 75K Elite status with Air France KLM Flying Blue Platinum status, which has enabled me to book the elusive Air France La Première using Flying Blue miles).

Suite Upgrade in Lieu of a Missed Welcome Amenity

After a very pleasant flight experience, we arrived in Hong Kong early in the morning and headed straight to the JW Marriott Hong Kong. Although I had applied a couple of Marriott Bonvoy Nightly Upgrade Awards to part of my stay, they unfortunately didn’t clear.

At the check-in desk, a staff member kindly welcomed me as a Marriott Bonvoy Platinum member, and I decided to try my luck and ask if there was an upgrade available.

The staff checked availability on his computer and then apologized, advising me that at this time none of their one-bedroom suites were available.

I then asked whether he thought there was a chance my Nightly Upgrade Awards for the coming nights would clear. He wasn’t sure if they would, but he asked me to keep checking, and then proceeded to complete the check-in process.

When I finished checking in, I walked over to my husband who was beside me checking in for my sister’s family with a different staff member. The staff member was just in the midst of asking him which welcome amenity he would like, and he was given a form where he could select his choice of beverage and choice of snack.

Elite welcome gifts at the JW Marriott Hong Kong

In this moment, I realized that the staff member who had helped me had forgotten to offer me my choice of welcome amenity. I could have gone back to the desk and corrected this right then and there but with kids in tow after a long flight, I decided to address the issue after we were settled in our room.

Marriott Bonvoy Elite Benefit Guarantees Explained

So, you may be wondering what the big deal is with a missed welcome amenity.

The reason this is important is that elite members of hotel loyalty programs are entitled to a list of benefits, but these benefits are not always delivered by the hotels as they should be.

Marriott Bonvoy is one hotel program that not only has guaranteed these benefits (with some rare exclusions), but has also openly published what those guarantees are and the corresponding compensation that results when elite benefits are not delivered.

Benefits being missed happens more often than you would think, but most guests probably don’t make a fuss about having compensation for it either because they don’t know the guarantees exist, or because they simply feel awkward asking for them.

In my case, by missing the welcome amenity benefit, I was now entitled to $100 (USD) in compensation as per Marriott’s Elite Benefits Guarantee.

Now Back to the Suite Upgrade…

Feeling a little awkward asking the staff who checked me in for $100 (USD) compensation on the spot, I decided to send a message through the online chat function on Marriott’s app later that day.

I received a response pretty quickly stating that they would look into the issue and get back to me. The next morning, I hadn’t heard back so I checked in again and was advised that I would shortly be receiving an email from the staff member who checked me in.

Sure enough, later that day, I received a very apologetic email and rather than offer me the $100 (USD) compensation I had inquired about, he proactively offered me an upgrade to one of the hotel’s top suites (the Hong Kong Suite with two double beds) for the remainder of my stay.

This was a suite that wasn’t even listed as an option for the Nightly Upgrade Awards I had attempted to use.

I obviously wasn’t expecting this outcome, but I gladly accepted it. With a family of five, I always appreciate more space.

From a value perspective, this also had us coming out quite ahead, with our original room with double beds costing 3,200 HKD ($410 USD, $561 CAD) at the time and the upgraded Hong Kong Suite costing more than double that at 8,653 HKD ($1,109 USD, $1,518 CAD)

The upgraded suite was phenomenal. Our original corner room with two double beds and a city view was manageable for four guests, but this new suite was really comfortable even for five guests.

It was open and spacious, with a table that could seat six guests in addition to a seating area with a large sectional sofa. It was the perfect setup for allowing my extended family to gather and spend time together.

JW Marriott Hong Kong – Hong Kong Suite bedroom
JW Marriott Hong Kong – Hong Kong Suite living room

Take home message: If you qualify for an Elite Benefit Guarantee, don’t be afraid to speak up. At minimum, you should get some extra cash or points for your troubles, but you could end up scoring something even better. Negotiate for something that works for you.

Suite Upgrade in Lieu of a Nightly Upgrade Award Not Clearing

After five nights in Hong Kong, we flew to Osaka, Japan, staying our first night at the St. Regis Osaka.

Although this hotel is a bit dated, they are known for their customer service, and now I know why.

Prior to checking in, I had received an email saying that once again, my husband’s Nightly Upgrade Award did not clear. I was a little disappointed, but also knew this was not uncommon.

When I arrived, I thought I’d try my luck and ask if an upgrade was available. To my surprise, the staff member mentioned that I had already been upgraded 10 room categories higher to the Matsu Vice Presidential Suite!

At the time, I had no idea what this suite would be like, but it sounded like my family was in for a treat.

When I asked why the kind gesture, the staff member advised me that they were deeply sorry that as a Titanium member, my husband’s Nightly Upgrade Award didn’t clear as their hotel was experiencing a high occupancy rate at the time.

As an apology for this, they had upgraded us – definitely a first for me.

The minute I set foot in the suite, I was in shock. The suite door opened up into a small foyer which then opened up into a grand seating area, which led to a separate dining area and kitchen, and then to the master bedroom.

St. Regis Osaka – Matsu Suite bedroom
St. Regis Osaka – Matsu Suite living room
St. Regis Osaka – Matsu Suite dining area

The suite only had one king bed, but the sofas were large enough to accommodate two of my children, and we could have ordered a cot for the third. The kids, however, preferred to camp out on our spacious bedroom floor, so we asked for several blankets, pillows, and bedsheets instead.

We ordered room service from the hotel and enjoyed it at our dining table, and then we watched a family movie in the living room before calling it a night.

Take home message: Service standards vary greatly among hotel chains and properties, especially in North America. In Asia, there is generally a higher commitment to provide superior service; however, to avoid disappointment, always go in with low expectations. This way, you can be pleasantly surprised by the unexpected.

Conclusion

On our short trip to Asia, I was pleasantly surprised by the service provided by Cathay Pacific and Marriott Bonvoy to their elite members.

In an era when there is an oversaturation of elite membership and when constant devaluation seems to be the trend, it’s experiences like these that highlight the benefit of earning and maintaining status in loyalty programs.

To maximize the benefit you can reap from your status, be sure to take advantage of status matches whenever possible and speak up if an elite benefit has been missed. Otherwise keep expectations low and hope for the best.

If you have experienced an amazing loyalty story yourself, share it in the comments below!

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