Almost #Bonvoyed: a cautionary tale on free night certs

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This year, I’ll probably hit 75 nights with Marriott for Titanium status. It’s the most loyal I’ve ever been to a hotel chain, and yet the least excited I’ve been about hotel loyalty.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll enjoy free breakfast (at most hotels) and a 4pm checkout. And it’s easy to be “loyal” since Marriott is everywhere. Yet Marriott simultaneously makes it hard to be loyal since they nearly turn “dropping the ball” into a competitive sport. While it seems that most of the big issues from the merger have slowly but surely been resolved, there also seems to be a never-ending stream of individual stories of frustration with shoddy IT and poor customer service. One of those stories came a month or two ago when I saw Richard Kerr report on Twitter that he had tried to modify a reservation that had a couple of Ritz-Carlton free night certificates attached — and the certificates never reappeared in his account. I had the same sort of problem this week and while I ultimately came away with a relatively easy solution, there were a number of things that didn’t sit right with me and some tips/cautions for those with free night certs in their accounts (especially those with multiple certs).

Kameha Grand Zurich, Autograph Collection

Background

Richard’s story was pretty simple: he had two free night certificates that he earned from the welcome offer on the Ritz-Carlton credit card last year (that card is no longer available for new applicants). He applied those two certificates to a 2-night stay. He later wanted to change the check-in date, so he called Marriott. He explained to the rep that he wanted to change the date and asked if they could do that without messing up his certificates.

As you can probably guess, they changed the dates and were not able to re-attach the certificates. It sounds like they asked him if he’d therefore rather pay 170,000 points (since the points rate had since increased) or the cash rate — and even after spending hours on the phone and escalation with supervisors, it didn’t get fixed quickly. Four days later, he canceled and booked elsewhere. You can read the saga and responses to it here.

Richard reports that the day after he canceled, the Marriott Bonvoy Assist Twitter team reached out to say they restored the certificates (at that point he had already made other plans). Clearly, certificates can be restored — and I’ve even had it happen automatically — but when they don’t get restored automatically, then what?

My situation: nearly #Bonvoyed

As a Ritz-Carlton credit card holder, I get an annual free night certificate that can be used at a property that costs up to 50K points. I received one of those certificates back in January.

Marriott category changes were announced shortly thereafter, and we were told that bookings would be honored based on the old rates even if you booked via Marriott’s “points advance” feature (though I don’t think it has worked out that way in practice). That sent me on a bit of a booking spree, booking up hotels through the end of the schedule for dates that might work with travel plans. In my haste to book these points-advance reservations, I accidentally attached my Ritz 50K certificate to a Category 1 hotel (yeah, the kind that costs just 7,500 points per night). Luckily, I caught the mistake a couple of bookings later when I realized that it no longer gave me the option to attach my free night cert.

I canceled that Category 1 stay right away and was relieved when my 50K cert automatically showed back up in my account. Whew. I made a bunch of other speculative bookings that night up through February 2020.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I was looking at my Marriott account and I realized that I no longer had a 50K certificate in my account. Yikes! I didn’t know why I didn’t see it.

For a moment, I asked myself if I had stupidly used the certificate on a lower-category hotel at some point. However, I was able to verify that I hadn’t used it in the situations I thought could have been possible.

Then I thought that I must have accidentally attached it to one of my other (many) speculative reservations. A number of properties I booked moved up from 35K to 50K and some from 50K to higher categories. I was immediately overwhelmed. Which had happened?:

  1. Had I inadvertently attached the reservation to a future lower-category hotel like I had with the Cat 1 booking? Or worse yet, had I attached it to a lower-category hotel where I already completed the stay?
  2. Had I attached it to an old 50K property?
  3. Maybe I didn’t attach it at all, but Marriott automatically attached it to one of my future reservations that went up to 50K?
  4. Was it attached to a reservation that I already canceled? If yes, was it gone forever?

Question #4 then got me panicking: had I canceled all of my previous reservations before the deadline? Had I forgotten to cancel something? Most importantly: which reservation is or was this certificate attached to?

How to figure out which reservation has a free night certificate attached

Stephen Pepper helped me out with what sounded like a good solution: he said that the text on an email confirmation where he’d used a free night certificate said “Marriott Bonvoy Certificate Number”, so he suggested I try searching my email for that.

No dice. All of my free night reservations (on existing points, on points advance, on free night certificates) have those words. Even when you redeem points for a stay, Marriott refers to that as redeeming a “certificate”. That didn’t help.

But the screen shot Stephen sent me seemed helpful. It said the following:

Since his certificate was good for up to 25,000 points, but mine was good for a hotel night up to 50,000 points, I figured I could search for “up to 50,000 points” in my email and I’d find the email confirmation associated with that free night certificate.

No dice. I got a number of other email results that mentioned 50,000 points — like any speculative reservation I had made at a property that charges 50,000 points per night — but no free night certificate.

I then tried other search terms to no avail. I went through my account activity on Marriott.com to see if there was a hint there, but there wasn’t. At least, not exactly. After having looked at this on and off for a couple of weeks, I finally realized that the date when the free night certificate was awarded to my account, it said this:

This time, I noted the fact that while Stephen’s certificate (which was good for a hotel night up to 25,000 points per night) wrote out the number with a comma and three zeros (25,000 vs 25K), the Ritz certificate actually says “50k” — not 50,000. I searched my email for: Ritz 50K.

Boom. That did it. I found the email confirmation where I’d used the certificate.

Finding it…and then panicking a bit

The email confirmation reminded me that I actually had attached my certificate to a reservation in Tokyo since I traveled there in April. I had booked a night at the Prince Sakura Tower. I had forgotten using my certificate for that, but I remembered noting the cancellation policy on the hotel: cancel up to 6pm day of arrival for no fee. That brought back memories of the days of yore.

Plans ended up changing about a week before arrival and we booked that night at the Hyatt Regency Hakone with Hyatt points instead of staying in Tokyo with my Ritz 50K certificate. I canceled the Prince Sakura Tower.

I mean, I did cancel it…….right? I must have. I’d have gotten a check-in notification on my phone reminding me it was time to check in if I hadn’t. I must have canceled it.

I have made and canceled plenty of Marriott reservations. They typically send a cancellation email, so I must have that.

Except I don’t. The only emails I have including the words “Prince Sakura Tower” are the booking confirmation and an email 5 days before check-in reminding me to set my stay preferences.

Did I not cancel this reservation? Or not cancel it in time? Surely it can’t be that I didn’t cancel in time with a 6pm day-of deadline. Did I just no-show it accidentally?

Doubt and panic flooded my mind. I went to the Marriott app to view my canceled reservations. The farthest back I can see in the app is a reservation I canceled for a check-in on May 30th. I went to the “Past” tab and that only shows completed stays. The Prince Sakura Tower isn’t in there…but would it be if I no-showed?

My heart sunk a little — if I couldn’t prove I canceled this, how was I going to get my cert back? Worse yet, I needed it pronto. I’ve got dates next week when I was going to need to hotel hop because I couldn’t find any hotel with availability for the 2-night stay I need in any of the major chains (except Radisson, and the hotel had awful reviews). A 50K Marriott property (with a cash rate north of $1,000 per night on my high-demand dates) opened up last night. I had to get to the bottom of this 50K cert business (and thank goodness I did — I ended up getting the last 50K room).

One habit I try to force on myself that is also a good piece of advice for readers: screen shot everything. It’s really easy to do: on a PC, simply hold down the Windows button the keyboard and the “Prt sc” key (it should save to a screenshots folder somewhere on your computer). On an Android phone, the technique is typically to hit the power/home button and the down volume button simultaneously. If you have Apple products, you can probably afford to lose a 50K certificate you’ll have to ask an Apple user. Whenever I make a reservation, I screen shot the confirmation screen and the cancellation policy (lest they try to chance the cancellation policy on me later on). I also try to take a screen shot of both the cancellation policy and cancellation confirmation whenever I cancel something.

It took me a few minutes to think about it, but I finally thought to check my phone’s screen shots folder for any evidence of cancellation. Sure enough, after receiving the email on April 6th reminding me to set stay preferences, I must have realized the urgency and canceled not only that reservation but a couple of others I knew I wouldn’t make. I had taken a screen shot of all three in my “canceled” tab in the Marriott app that day. Each had the confirmation number and cancellation number. Thank goodness! Now I knew I had some ammunition at least if Marriott initially told me to pound sand.

An easy phone call

Much to my surprise, it was really easy to get my certificate back. I actually called the number on the back of my Ritz-Carlton credit card (number for “elite services”) and they transferred me to the Bonvoy team.

I explained my situation to a Marriott Bonvoy rep: I should have a 50K cert in my account from the Ritz-Carlton credit card. I had attached the cert to a reservation for check-in back in April, but I canceled that reservation well in advance of the policy deadline and the cert never came back in my account.

She heard me out and said to hold on a second. I heard her mumble something when she saw that it should be there and something about restoring it and then four minutes later, she said it was back in my account. Of course I didn’t believe her (Because, Marriott.). I told her to hold on while I logged in to verify that I could see it, which is when she told me that it might take 30 minutes for it to show up in my account, but it’s there. Ah, sure it is. Fool me once, Marriott. Not confident that she wasn’t making it up I could take her word for it, I asked her if she could help me use it to make a reservation. To my surprise and delight, I logged in while she was doing that and did in fact see the certificate in my account! I let her go ahead and make the reservation and all appears good in the world again.

I asked her if certificates need to be manually reinstated like this after canceling. She told me that sometimes the certificates automatically detach from the reservation when you cancel, but sometimes they stick and need to be manually detached from the reservation. She didn’t seem to see any rhyme or reason as to why, but she was clearly familiar enough that she knew exactly how to find my still-attached certificate without me even telling her the name of the hotel to which I had it attached (I never even mentioned the Prince Sakura Tower by name).

Moral of the story: Marriott should be able to find and detach your certificate.

Of course, the need to do this really stinks. With so many Marriott Bonvoy cards out there offering free night certificates, I could see it being really easy for someone with multiple 35K certificates (who uses them at different properties/times) to end up losing one. Imagine using three or four of those certs for separate 1-night reservations — maybe canceling one or two when plans change and then later in the year not remembering/realizing that you haven’t used one and/or having one expire while still attached to a canceled reservation. You shouldn’t need a spreadsheet to track the history of your Marriott free night certs — but the reality is that you do need to stay organized with them.

Bottom line

Marriott free night certificates can be really valuable in some circumstances. I’ve used my various certificates this year for well beyond the cost of my annual fees. Unfortunately, I might have lost one if I hadn’t realized that Marriott failed to restore it after I canceled a reservation in April. If you have Marriott free night certificates, there are two key pieces of advice from this post: take screenshots – both when reserving and canceling reservations, and make a note of when you use your free night certs so that you can call and get them restored if need be. Marriott might not give them back to you automatically, but they do have a vehicle to give them back. That’s not at all customer-friendly — but with the way things have gone post-merger, I find myself feeling unsurprised yet grateful that this problem is fixable with a phone call. At least, it might be, unless you have Richard’s luck. May the odds be ever in your favor.

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