The huge wins in yesterday’s Marriott announcement

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The sky didn’t fall yesterday; on the contrary, it’s the award prices at some of the most aspirational SPG properties that will fall during a brief window of opportunity later this year.

Marriott’s newly announced unified program was highly anticipated, with many longtime SPG enthusiasts fraught with trepidation over the unknown future of the combined program in part due to the rumors swirling about Marriott’s intentions. In the end, most of the changes turned out to be as good as we probably should have expected given the fact that Marriott has handled the entire process better than most other mergers in recent memory (See Greg’s post with highlights from the event here: My take on Marriott’s big announcement). But there was one change I didn’t see coming: Top tier SPG properties are about to get universally cheaper for a brief window of time, and not by a small margin. If you have your eye on top-tier SPG stays, 2018 is going to be your year to book.

SPG Category 7 St. Regis Princeville

Big Win #1: Top-tier properties to dramatically decrease in price for a few months

Marriott’s announcement yesterday included a brand new award chart. It includes seven categories from August 1st until the end of 2018, with an eighth category coming in 2019. This new chart, at least for the second half of 2018, is going to be really good news at the top end. In the coming days, we’ll have more analysis of pros and cons of the new program and what it means at various levels (it’s not all good news) — but there is no denying that those who prefer to use points for the most luxurious hotels are in for some big wins in the short term.

Greg and I had a chance to have a long conversation with Bob Behrens, the Vice President of Marriott Rewards, and we peppered him with questions about the new program. Bob seemed happy to indulge us and patiently waited as we scrolled through lists of questions on our phones. Out of that conversation, we gleaned many useful nuggets of wisdom about the new program, but the thing that I’m most excited about is this: between the single-program launch on August 1st and December 31st of this year, the top tier hotels of the combined program will cost 60,000 Marriott Rewards points per night. That means that you will be able to stay at the top tier SPG and Ritz-Carlton properties for fewer points than they cost today

Currently, the upper echelon Ritz-Carlton properties (Tier 5) cost 70,000 points per night.

Note that while Marriott and SPG have “Categories”, Ritz-Calrton has “Tiers”.

Most top-tier Category 7 SPG hotels cost 30,000 to 35,000 SPG Starpoints per night — equivalent to 90,000 to 105,000 Marriott rewards points.

From August to the end of the year, you’ll be able to book those properties for just 60,000 Marriott points per night. That’s the equivalent of just 20,000 SPG points per night — a 33%-43% decrease in award prices for SPG Category 7 properties.

The St. Regis Deer Valley, where I found paid rates around $1500/nt this December. As a Cat 7 SPG property that costs 35K SPG points per night, it would drop to just 60K Marriott points starting August 1st (the equivalent of 20K Starpoints), a ~43% decrease in cost of award stays.

That’s terrific news for those who like to redeem points for top-tier properties. With a 5th night free, those top-tier properties will average out to just 48,000 Marriott points per night — the equivalent of just 16,000 SPG points per night for 5-night bookings.

And it gets even better.

According to Bob Behrens, Marriott is making an effort to define standard rooms at all properties across the brands, meaning that in August the goal is for it to be possible to book any top-tier SPG/Marriott/Ritz property at the 60K/night level. We specifically brought up those resorts like the St. Regis Bora Bora that currently cost even more than typical SPG Category 7 properties because they have no “standard” rooms, and Bob indicated that they are working on mapping out a definition of a standard room at all properties, with the goal being that you will be able to book a room even at a place like the St. Regis Bora Bora for just 60K Marriott points per night if you book it during 2018 (of course subject to availability — and I wouldn’t be surprised if they only have a couple of “standard” rooms). That would be amazing.

I called to inquire about pricing for the St. Regis Bora Bora, and the cheapest dates the agent could find in terms of SPG points were 90,000 SPG points per night — the equivalent of 270,000 Marriott Rewards points per night. The cash rate for those nights was $1,347 per night for the same room. If we are really able to book rooms here for just 60K Marriott points per night starting in August, that would be incredible. While that sounds too good to be true, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little skeptical about it, Bob certainly seemed confident and genuine in his responses to our questions, leading me to believe that it’s possible.

The St. Regis Bora Bora

Pricing will be valid through the end of the booking calendar (about one year from the date of booking), meaning that even though awards at some of those properties are bound to increase in price in 2019, you’ll have several months this year to make bookings for next year at the 60K rate. As you see in the chart, in 2019 there will be an added Category 8 as well as off-peak and peak pricing introduced, with the top end properties sure to move up into Cat 8 (with peak pricing at that level of up to 100K per night).

Mystique, a Luxury Collection SPG Category 7 hotel in Santorini, Greece that currently starts at 60K Starpoints per night

In other words, from August 1st to the end of 2018 will be the time to book aspirational stays at the most luxurious properties in the portfolio. While 20K Starpoints or 60K Marriott points certainly isn’t cheap, it’s a huge value for some of the high-end St. Regis and Luxury Collection properties as well as some of the top-tier Ritz-Carlton properties and could even make for a decent transfer from Ultimate Rewards when room rates are well over $1,000 per night.

Big win #2: Ritz-Carlton free night certificates to become valid anywhere?

The Ritz-Carlton Abu Dhabi

In our discussion with Bob, we inquired about how free night certificates from credit cards will be handled in the new program — such as the annual free night certificate that comes with the Chase Marriott Rewards Premier cards, the free night certificates sometimes earned in targeted SPG promotions, etc. Bob indicated that current free night certificates will map to the same point value in the new program (or closest point value in cases where there isn’t an exact match).

In the case of the 2 free night certificates earned as the signup bonus at the time of writing on the Chase Ritz-Carlton Visa Infinite, that could be awesome. Those certificates are currently only valid at Ritz-Carlton Tier 1-4 properties — meaning that today you can not use those certificates to book top-end Tier 5 Ritz-Carlton properties.

However, under the current rewards scheme, Ritz-Carlton Tier 4 properties cost 60,000 points per night. If Bob is correct and those certificates do indeed map to the Category 7 / 60,000 point level in the new combined program, they will suddenly be valid for booking any of the top-tier properties from Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, and SPG. If that’s correct, it would be a huge increase in value on the Ritz-Carlton Rewards credit card signup bonus. Those certificates would suddenly be valid at a slew of hotels that routinely charge well over $500 per night — and as shown above, some cost well over a thousand dollars per night.

How about Tier 4-5 Marriott Travel Packages?

Top-tier Travel Packages don’t necessary provide as much value as you might assume (though it depends on how you will use the points / miles).

Traditionally, the Marriott Travel Packages sweet spot has been a 7-night Category 1-5 stay plus 120,000 airline miles shown in the top-right of this current chart:

Part of what makes that a sweet spot is the fact that you are in a sense getting a 1:1 transfer ratio on Marriott points to airline miles. That’s because under the current award chart, a 7-night stay at a Category 5 Marriott hotel would cost 150,000 Marriott Rewards points (25K per night with the 5th night being free). That means the remaining 120K Marriott points essentially convert to 120K airline miles.

Current Category 5 = 25K points per night
Cost for 7 nights at current Cat 5 after 5th night free = 150K points
Package price = 270K points
270K – 150K hotel stay = 120K Marriott Rewards points converted to 120K airline miles

Note that in the new award chart, the current Category 5 is likely to be equivalent to Category 4 (a topic for another post this week). Note also that the math isn’t necessarily as simple as shown above, since you can’t return your 7-night certificate to receive a refund of the entire hotel portion of the package – but this is a rough way to show why the package makes sense. Airline miles are usually more valuable than hotel points, so this package has historically been an easy value.

Initially, I thought that it might be worth booking a 7-night Tier 4-5 (top-end Ritz-Carlton) package for 540,000 Marriott Rewards points in order to give myself a shot at a 7-night stay at a place like the St. Regis Bora Bora. However, I realized that if rooms become bookable for 60K Marriott Rewards points per night, the current pricing on the Tier 4-5 package will be less compelling. Under the new award chart debuting in August, a 7-night stay at a top-tier property will cost 360,000 Marriott Rewards points (remembering that the 5th night is free, this total comes from 60K x 6 nights). If you were to redeem for a 7-night Tier 4-5 package right now, the math isn’t quite as good as the Category 1-5 package:

New Category 7 (top tier) = 60K points per night
Cost for 7 nights at new Cat 7 after 5th night free = 360K points
Package price = 540K points
540K – 360K hotel stay = 180K Marriott Rewards points converted to 120K airline miles

You would essentially be paying 180K Marriott points for 120K airline miles. That’s not necessarily a terrible trade — though under the new scheme, it potentially represents 3 nights at any SPG/Ritz/Marriott property. As shown above, that could have significant value when the programs combine…so much so that the trade for 120K airline miles might be less attractive depending on your intended use of your points. If you might consider using 180K Marriott points for 3 nights at the St. Regis Deer Valley during Christmastime, you might consider that $4,500 hotel stay to be more valuable than 120K airline miles. It’s at least not the no-brainer it has historically been at Category 1-5.

Will it make sense to transfer from Ultimate Rewards or Membership Rewards?

While Ultimate Rewards transfer to Marriott Rewards at a ratio of 1:1, it has rarely made sense to transfer to Marriott up until now. That’s because our Reasonable Redemption Value for Marriott Rewards is only 0.78 cents per point. Unless you really needed elite benefits, it would likely make more sense to book your hotel through the Ultimate Rewards portal for 1.5 cents per point via the Chase Sapphire Reserve or 1.25 cents per point with the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

However, with the ability to potentially book hotels that might otherwise cost as much as $1200 or $1500 per night for 60K Ultimate Rewards points, it may make sense to transfer to Marriott Rewards if you’re flush with URs. That’s not to say that you can’t get even more value towards international premium cabin air travel through strategic transfer to Ultimate Rewards airline partners, but you may also be comfortable transferring to Marriott if you’re able to take advantage of some of these high-end values, and the value proposition is even better if you’re able to take advantage of a 5th night free and pay an effective 48K per night.

The same can be said for Membership Rewards points, which currently convert to SPG at a rate of 3 Amex Membership Rewards points to 1 Starpoint. Those points could then be converted on to Marriott at a rate of 1 Starpoint to 3 Marriott Rewards points, creating an effective indirect 1:1 transfer ratio from Membership Rewards to Marriott. While we wouldn’t typically recommend that type of transfer, it might make sense if you are booking some of the higher-level Category 7 Starwood properties. The ability to combine forces with your Ultimate Rewards and Membership Rewards points could make for some very valuable redemptions later this year – if you’re able to find availability.

Bottom line

According to our conversation with Bob Behrens, the Vice President of Marriott Rewards, all current SPG, Marriott, and Ritz-Carlton properties are planned to fit somewhere in the new Category 1-7 chart debuting on August 1, 2018. That means that the current crème de la crème of SPG and Ritz-Carlton properties are going to get cheaper — many of the SPG properties dramatically so. This huge decrease is likely to be temporary, with many/most of those properties moving back up to Category 8 in 2019. However, this will create a window of opportunity between August 1st, 2018 and the end of this year to book all of the top-tier properties in the combined portfolio for just 60K Marriott points (the equivalent of 20K SPG points) per night for stays through the end of the booking calendar. While that won’t be exciting for Marriott properties (which currently top out at 45K points per night), that could make for some amazing values at the top end of the SPG chart and good values at the top end of the Ritz-Carlton chart, especially after a 5th night free on award stays. If you’re the type who prefers to use points for properties that would otherwise be unattainable, the new Marriott chart will present some huge wins later this year.

You can see the full details of the new combined program as unveiled by Marriott here: https://members.marriott.com/.

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