August 2018 witnessed the merger of Marriott Rewards, The Ritz-Carlton Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest into one singular rewards platform (which will become Marriott Bonvoy tomorrow). The new combined program left many members with mixed feelings, and to sweeten the deal a bit, Marriott decided to leave the implementation of their highest Category 8 hotel category for a later date.
This meant that the best luxury hotels and resorts within Marriott’s portfolio, including some of very best luxury properties in the world, are bookable at the Category 7 rates of 60,000 Marriott points per night. That’s an incredibly lucrative deal, considering that many of these properties retail for $500–1,000 a night and often even more than that.
Well, Marriott has now announced an end date to this opportunity: as of March 5, 2019, the new Category 8 pricing will kick in, and 68 hotels that were previously bookable under Category 7 will rise from 60,000 points a night to 85,000 points a night (a 42% increase).
The moves up to Category 8 are a part of the wider 2019 Marriott hotel category changes, which were announced last week. These changes are overall quite harsh, with far more category increases than decreases. Taken together with the reshuffling that was done in August 2018, it’s safe to say that while there’s still plenty of value to be had in the program, the spectacular value from the 2017-to-early-2018 days is no longer.
And with one of the most compelling sweet spots about to vanish on March 5, time is quickly running out if you want to take advantage of amazing hotels for only 60,000 Marriott points. I’ll walk you through my picks for the Future Category 8 hotels that I think are worth splurging on, but before that, a point of clarification on the booking process…
Using Points Advance to Secure Bookings
When Marriott announced the 2019 category changes this weekend, there was a bit of outcry over this tiny remark they had included about the popular Points Advance feature:
Basically, Points Advance allows you to make hotel bookings for the future without actually having the points in your account. You simply need to earn the points within 14 days of the stay, and then you could order the e-certificate (Marriott-speak for “redeem the points”) and fulfill the booking.
Points Advance was historically a great way to secure future bookings at hotels when you knew that the points rates were going up and locking in the price before the category changes kick in. Taking further advantage of Points Advance, many members were able to make unlimited “dummy bookings”, where they’d book many future stays while their plans were uncertain and eventually cancel all but one.
This was an enterprising strategy with very little downside, since the bookings could be cancelled without penalty until 14 days in advance, and you could wait until then to earn the points you needed for that one stay you eventually chose.
With the above wording, though many members were concerned that Points Advance would no longer work that way, and that if you booked a hotel that was rising in category using Points Advance, you’d have to redeem the points for it by March 5, or else the unfulfilled reservation would rise to the new points rates.
Fortunately, Marriott has confirmed this won’t be the case, and that Points Advance will still work as usual: the current points rates will be “locked in” on your reservation, provided that you book before March 5.
This excellent news means that we’ll likely be seeing a real frenzy in Points Advance reservations until that date, because it’s in all of our best interests to make dummy reservations for any possible travel plans for the next twelve months if those plans involve hotels that will be rising in category (whether it’s simply going from, say, Category 4 to 5, or rising up to the new Category 8).
Go For It: Distinctive, Memorable, Unique Hotels & Resorts
Of course, you are the final arbiter of what to do with your points, but in my opinion, if you’re going to drop 60,000 points a night somewhere, it’d better be somewhere special – more special, in fact, than simply having well-appointed rooms and polished service.
A distinctive location, a novel concept, a hotel with a truly memorable character – those are the kinds of things that will leave a deep impression on you after your stay.
I’ve pursued this philosophy with my own Future Category 8 bookings. On my recent luxury hotel round-the-world trip, I had the pleasure of staying at the St. Regis Bali, and I’ll tell you upfront: I’ll have no hesitations paying 70,000 points a night here in the future when the off-peak pricing kicks in, and might even be willing to part ways with 85,000 points a night at the standard rate. When the world-class service principles of the St. Regis brand are married with the warmth and friendliness of Balinese hospitality, there’s simply no comparison.
The former is a picturesque representation of Santorini’s cascading white cliffs and blue domes, and as a first-time visitor to the Greek island, I can’t think of a more special place to pass the time.
Meanwhile, Al Maha is a place that I’ve wanted to stay at for many years now. The one-of-a-kind desert resort is located an hour outside of Dubai, and offers full board (restaurant-quality breakfast, lunch, and dinner) as well as two activities a day to its guests.
Moreover, every guest gets their own suite with a private plunge pool, and there are gazelles and onyxes freely roaming the resort for you to interact with. All that for 60,000 points a night? It promises to be a fantastic occasion, and I’m really looking forward to it.
I think you get the idea here: for me, splurging 60,000 points a night means that the place had better have that “WOW!” quality to it. It has to be a place where I’d willingly remain on-premises to immerse myself in the experience, rather than simply a plush bed and a nice suite in which to spend the night.
Other Future Category 8 locations I’ve been eyeing, but haven’t yet made bookings for, include the Suiran in Kyoto (a luxury hotel in a traditional Japanese garden setting), the St. Regis New York (one of the classic St. Regises and an iconic Big Apple address), and the St. Regis Bora Bora (the overwater villas have an undeniable appeal, but I hear the resort itself is a bit dated). I’d also love to do a luxury ski trip at some point, so maybe I’ll put in a cheeky Points Advance booking for the St. Regis Aspen or the W Verbier in February 2020 or something.
On the Fence: Big Cities & Hotels with Expensive Co-Pays
I think the value of redeeming 60,000 Marriott points for luxury hotels gets a little iffy when you’re staying in a big city and you’re not all that likely to spend much time in the hotel at all.
For example, I recently stayed at the Hôtel de Berri in Paris for four nights. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lovely hotel with a really authentically Parisian art-deco charm, and I also got an amazing suite upgrade to boot. But how much did I really get to enjoy that suite? We were out and about in Paris virtually every hour of every day, and only spent a little time at the hotel in the mornings and evenings.
I’m still glad I stayed at the Hôtel de Berri, but I can’t help but feel it’s very much possible to do better value-wise when you’re in big cities like Paris. If you plan on being out in the city for most of the day, then the features you’d value from your hotel are simply a nice room, a hearty breakfast, and maybe a Club Lounge to wind down in the evenings, and there are plenty of Category 5 or Category 6 options in every big city offering up exactly that.
The next time I’m in Paris, I may well go with the Renaissance Vendôme or a similar hotel, because the magic of Paris is experienced in its streets, and not cooped-up in a five-storey building with limited square footage, however luxurious it may be.
The other set of New Category 8 hotels where I’m thinking it might not make sense to use points is the hotels with exorbitant co-pays. I’m looking at you, St. Regis Maldives – on top of 60,000 points for a night there, you’d also have to pay US$700 for the round-trip seaplane transfer from Malé Airport.
The St. Regis Maldives looks like a fantastic property indeed, but that US$700 co-pay is not something I can personally justify. If it’s within your budget, congrats, 60,000 points is a great deal on the room, and you’ll have an unforgettable trip. But I suspect for many of us, that US$700 seaplane transfer quickly erodes any semblance of value we might be getting from our points here.
I’d also include in here those resorts where you’re basically “captive” to the expensive food and drink on the premises. The St. Regis Maldives comes to mind again, as does the W Maldives and the similar overwater bungalow properties in Bora Bora.
Remember, these luxury resorts don’t ordinarily cater to deal-hunters like ourselves; instead, they cater to people for whom spending $1,000+ per night on a hotel is a pretty reasonable thing to do. And so the prices at the resort for lunch, dinner, and drinks can get rather pricey – think $100/person for a set dinner, $40 entrees at the “cheaper” restaurant, etc.
I don’t mind a fancy dinner every once in a while, but I’d be shaken to my very core if I had to do so every day with no other choice. Well, if you’re staying at a secluded private island resort, that might be the exact situation you face!
That’s why I decided from the very beginning, when these Future Category 8 hotels became bookable for cheap, that I’d prefer to go with places like Al Maha or the St. Regis Bali – the former gives you full board, while the latter at least has a cheap Chinese seafood restaurant directly opposite to escape to 😉
Avoid: “Cheap” Hotels for Poor Value
Lastly, this should be obvious, but there are a few Future Category 8 hotels that are actually kind of “cheap” to book on cash. I put that in quotation marks because, say, $300–400 is still plenty of money to spend on a hotel night, but compared to 60,000 Marriott points, the value you’d be getting is rather poor.
Indeed, the top-tier stature of these hotels seems to be based on some kind of perceived level of opulence rather than the rooms being all that expensive.
For example, if you’re looking to vacation in Crete, you have the choice between the Domes of Elounda and the Blue Palace. Both are going to be Category 8 hotels as of March 5, but the 60,000 points per night isn’t great value when the cash rates are only about €200–250 per night!
It’s a similar story at a place like the Vana Belle in Ko Samui. When the cash rates are hovering at 9,794 THB (~$415) a night, this redemption fails the Amex Cobalt “test” that I had outlined last week and doesn’t represent great value for your points.
With the impending Marriott category changes to kick in on March 5, the clock is ticking if you want to take advantage of the amazing opportunity to try out some of the world’s most luxurious hotels for only 60,000 points a night. Even if you don’t have the points right now, the Points Advance feature means that you can book now and earn the points at least 14 days before your stay.
Among the 36 hotels rising to Category 8, though, you’ll definitely want to be discerning about which ones you aim for, because certain properties are likely to leave a more lasting impression than others.