Simon’s effect on my Marriott 50-night choice benefit

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I’m a big fan of hotel elite status. Part of the reason I’ve enjoyed it for years has been that it has been relatively effortless to come by meaningful status thanks to credit card benefits. I’ve enjoyed statuses like Hilton Gold, Hilton Diamond, IHG Platinum, IHG Spire Elite, SPG Gold, Marriott Gold, and Marriott Platinum either thanks to direct credit card benefits or as a result of spending on a credit card. I did once hit Hyatt Diamond / Globalist with 25 (mostly one-night) stays, the lone time I earned hotel status based on stay activity. I had never accumulated 50 nights in a single hotel chain in one calendar year before 2019. This year, I hit that mark in the first six months with Marriott. After completing 50 nights, Marriott grants a “choice benefit”. Greg has covered which you should choose before. I thought for sure I was going to choose 5 elite night credits, but Simon Mall has made me reconsider.

Surprise! Making it to 50 nights

As I said, I’ve not been one to previously spend so many nights in a single chain. I was surprised when I realized it was within reach, but between annual free night certificates and award stays booked, it seemed a little easier than I’d have imagined.

Anyone with any of the Marriott credit cards starts off with 15 nights of elite credit — so I actually haven’t (yet) spent 50 nights in Marriott hotels. That meant I needed 35 nights to re-qualify for Platinum status (which I had this year thanks to earning “old Gold” on my Ritz card last year, but that path now requires $75K in spend).

Last year, Greg did a lot of speculation about Marriott Travel Packages and I ended up upgrading one I’d purchased in order to book a 7-night stay at the Domes of Elounda on the island of Crete in Greece. I was actually on the fence about whether or not to take that trip, but after the out-of-control upgrade I scored for the last two nights with a 2-story villa that had this private outdoor pool in addition to a private indoor pool, I’d say I made the right choice (read more about that stay here).

Between my 15 credit card nights and that 7-night stay, I knew I’d be almost half way to the 50 nights required for Platinum status, so I began looking for opportunities to stay at Marriotts. I found a couple of good ones, including the Courtyard Hakuba, Japan that I said might be the nicest Category 4 Marriott in the world (which cost me just over $50 per night before tax thanks to the Citi Prestige 4th night free) and another stay in Zurich, Switzerland (at the Kameha Grand Zurich) where the AAA rate was almost 40% off the member rate (another 4th night free win). I kid you not, the Kameha Grand even upgraded me to a suite for part of my stay, though I wasn’t sure what they were trying to say with this.

After using free night certificates and happening upon a number of 1-night stays where Marriott properties worked well, I found myself at 50 nights in June, knowing that I still had a 5-night stay booked this year at the St. Regis Bora Bora (booked back when the property was 60K points per night — with the 5th night free, that was an average of 48K per night).

The quest for Titanium

Greg has previously written about the wisdom in going for 75-night Marriott status if you have the opportunity. In short, Marriott has in the past been known to offer a “soft landing” to those who don’t requalify for their status level. In other words, they tend to only drop you down one status level if you do not requalify rather than taking away your status altogether.

Once I realized I would make it to 55 nights this year (50 by June + 5 at the St Regis Bora Bora), I decided that I wanted to earn 75 elite nights this year in order to set myself up for a future soft landing. By earning 75 elite nights this year, I would have Titanium status next year (2020), with that status scheduled to end in February 2021 if I do not stay 75 nights next year.

I know I probably won’t stay 75 nights next year. In fact, I imagine I probably won’t stay 50 nights next year. During 2020, I expect I’ll only have enough stays for Silver or Gold status in 2021. However, if Marriott offers a soft landing (as I expect and hope they will), I think it’s at least somewhat likely that they will give me Platinum status in 2021 when I don’t re-qualify for Titanium. If they do, that means I will retain useful status (since having at least Platinum is useful to me) until February 2022 if I can reach 75-night status this year. That’s valuable to me as I enjoy free breakfast / lounge access and 4pm late checkout.

Secretly, I’m holding out (weak) hope that Marriott will bring back its status buy-back program. Before the merger with SPG, Marriott used to allow members to buy back their status with Marriott points. They unexpectedly took that feature away last year. My totally baseless guess is that it had to do with the IT of merging systems and my (probably overly optimistic) hope is that it will come back in the future. Setting myself up to hopefully have at least Platinum status into early 2022 sets me up to be able to buy back status with points should they ever re-introduce that capability. It’s not what I’d consider likely, but I’m hopeful — so with 20 nights to get to Titanium status, I figured it was worth chasing.

Taking shortcuts

In Greg’s post 11 Shortcuts to Marriott Platinum status (2019 edition), he notes that one shortcut to status can be to host a meeting at a Marriott hotel. As part of the deal, it is possible to get 10 elite night credits. I haven’t done this myself, but I have intended to look into it further and book the cheapest meeting room I can arrange for 10 nights of elite credit. Together with the 50 I’ve already stayed and the 5 from the St. Regis, that will bring me to 65 nights.

The other shortcut I’d presumed I’d take was the the Marriott choice benefit. Once you have stayed 50 nights with Marriott in a calendar year, you get a choice benefit. Options for your choice benefit include:

  • 5 Suite Night Awards
  • 5 additional nights of elite credit
  • 40% off a Marriott mattress
  • A charitable donation

Greg digs into those options in this post: Marriott Choice Benefit Valuations. Which to pick?.

Most people will likely choose 5 Suite Night Awards. While these are very different from Hyatt suite night upgrades, they can be highly valuable. The difference in price between a standard room and a suite can be huge in some circumstances and being able to score a suite without having to sweet-talk the front desk could be awesome. Greg has done very well with his. It’s tempting to choose these and try to apply them to my stay at the St. Regis Bora Bora to see if I can get the Royal Overwater Villa as a free upgrade (doubtful).

But then reality set in: I don’t have another 10 nights planned yet this year. However, choosing 5 nights of elite credit as my choice benefit would get me to 70 nights. Then I’d only need to stay 5 more nights this year to get Titanium status and hopefully ensure at least Platinum until early 2022. I’ll definitely have another 5 random nights before the end of 2019, so it seemed reasonable for me to take the 5 nights of elite credit now to set myself up for Titanium

But then came…

The Simon $1K Visa Gift Cards with a $3.95 fee

Since July 17th, Simon Malls have been selling $1,000 Visa Gift Cards with an activation fee of just $3.95 (and they will continue to do so until August 31st). While that’s not actually the lowest-cost MS ever, it’s a reasonably low cost — and, more importantly, it makes huge volume possible very quickly. While any customer can buy up to $10K in cards per day at a Simon Mall, those who have built up a history can purchase up to $25K per day. These $1K cards are exponentially easier for me to liquidate, so I’ve made a few trips to a Simon mall.

In my advice about Mistakes to Avoid on $1K Simon Visa Gift Cards, I noted to be careful about suddenly ramping up too much spend on any one credit card. For those who have not been regularly spending thousands at a time, it makes more sense to go easy and spread the spend around across different cards / issuers.

In that same post, I explained why it didn’t make much sense to put any Simon spend on a Marriott credit card. I suggested instead using a cash back credit card. We did in fact use a number of those.  However, Simon provides such bandwidth that I needed another card for diversification purposes. I also needed to replenish some Marriott points and I’d rather not transfer from Ultimate Rewards, which I generally find too valuable to transfer to Marriott. Thus, $5K went on my Ritz card on one visit to the mall. Then, $5K in another visit. Suddenly, I was looking to be 20K Marriott points richer.

As noted, that’s not necessarily a great deal as compared to earning cash back when comparing against paid rates for a single stay.

However, all things considered, I think I’m going to get back to Simon one more time for another $5K on the Ritz card — because that spend is going to enable me to pick Suite Night Upgrade awards as my choice benefit.

Manufacturing elite credit from spend

I’ve chosen to use my Ritz card over my old Marriott Rewards Premier credit card, and in hindsight (that is to say after writing this post) I realize that it was a mistake. Unfortunately, I’m two-thirds into my mistake, so I’ll finish it out — but I’ll explain here my logic and why it was poor.

As noted, I’ve spent $10K on my Ritz card so far, earning 20K points. Another $5K in spend will yield another 10K points (since the Ritz card earns 2 Marriott points per dollar on unbonused spend). That will be 30K points courtesy of Simon Mall at a reasonable cost:

15 x $1K gift cards at a cost of $3.95 per card = $59.25
Liquidation cost = $15 to $30 (depending on method)
Total cost = $74.25-$94.25

My plan here was to use those points at a Category 1 Marriott property. Marriott Category 1 properties cost 7,500 points per night. Since the 5th night is free on award stays, that means that a 5-night stay costs exactly 30,000 Marriott points

4 x 7.5K points (5th night free on award stays) = 30,000 Marriott points

In other words, by doing $15K spend, I’ll be able to pick up 5 elite night credits (same as what I expected to pick for my choice benefit) — but in this case, I’ll also get to stay in a hotel for those nights. That’ll cost me under a hundred bucks in fees, so it seems like a relative bargain. Of course, there’s opportunity cost — but in this case, I wasn’t putting spend on the Ritz card instead of some other card. I was fairly well tapped out on other cards to use. I’ll further have to find a Category 1 Marriott, but I have one in mind that will work for me.

So in the end, this is what my path to Titanium status should look like:

15 nights from a Marriott credit card (standard benefit)
35 nights from stays by June 2019
5 nights from St. Regis Bora Bora
10 nights from hosting a meeting
  5 nights at a Cat 1 by manufacturing 30K Marriott points
70 nights

I’ll surely spend another 5 nights at a Marriott before the end of the year with our coming FM to Go event in the Bay Area and random road trips.

However, that was a mistake in hindsight.

I could have alternatively put that same $15K spend on my old non-upgraded Marriott Rewards Premier card. That’s the old $85 per year card (no longer available) that comes with an annual 25K free night certificate. One of the benefits on that card is earning 1 elite night credit for every $3K spent.

Had I spent $15K on that card instead, I’d have earned 5 elite night credits (one for each $3K spend) plus 15,000 Marriott points (since the card earns 1x on unbonused spend): enough for 2 more free nights.

In other words, spending $15K on that card would have yielded me a total of seven elite nights — five from spend and 2 more from the points. I’d have probably been smarter to use that card.

This point is somewhat debatable as there is one big difference in the 5 elite nights earned: on the Ritz card, I’m earning enough points to spend 5 nights in a hotel, so I’m actually getting a place to sleep where someone else makes the bed and cleans the bathroom for five nights. Spending on the old Marriott card would just yield me credit for the nights and only enough points to spend (at most) 2 actual nights in a hotel.

I’ll probably get slightly more enjoyment out of staying 5 nights at a Category 1 hotel than just getting 5 elite night credits with no stay, but it’s debatable. If I had it to do over again, maybe I’d consider the old Marriott card after all.

Bottom line

Whether I should have used the old Marriott card or the Ritz card, the bottom line is that earning 5 (or more) nights of elite credit will cost me under a hundred bucks thanks to Simon Malls. While I had previously intended to choose 5 elite night credits as my 50-night choice benefit to help me get to 75-night Titanium status, the MS costs (and relative ease) at Simon Mall right now make it so cheap and easy to earn 5 elite nights that I can pick the suite night awards instead. I’ll note that with fee-free Visa Gift Cards at Staples this week, it would be even cheaper to manufacture 30K points (whether at 5x on an Ink Cash card or by using a Marriott card), but the comparative ease of liquidating $1K cards and the ability to easily do the volume I needed make Simon more attractive for a “big spend bonus” like this.

I’m not positive that I’ll use my suite night awards in Bora Bora (nor am I even sure that they can be used at that property), but it will surely be more fun to put those to use somewhere than it would have been to get 5 nights of elite credit, so I’m glad for the opportunity to find an alternate path to 5 elite nights thanks to my good friend Simon.

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