Marriott Makes Free Night Certificates More Useful, But It’s Not For Your Benefit

As part of Marriott’s move to dynamic pricing of free reward nights which raises award pricing, but will be worse next year, Bonvoy now allows you to add up to 15,000 points when redeeming a free night certificate.

These certificates come in several flavors. U.S. members generally see:

  • 35,000 point free night certificates from the Chase consumer co-brand and the American Express small business co-brand
  • 50,000 point free night certificates from the American Express premium co-brand as well as the legacy Chase Ritz-Carlton card
  • 40,000 point free night certificates as a 75 night elite benefit choice

Marriott only lets you add up to 15,000 points. These certificates aren’t ‘worth’ their face value towards and award. In contrast, the IHG One Rewards free night certificates that come with the Premier and Business credit cards offer uncapped top-off.

Allowing for top off reduces breakage and increases Marriott’s costs, but they’re raising the price of free nights so taking more points in many cases and taking more points when these certificates are used. And by maintaining a cap on how many points you can add, they still limit usage and cost.

You also still can’t use the certificates towards an award other than a standard free night. If you want to reserve a better room, the certificates cannot be sued.

These certificates are more usable than without the flexibility of top off, but top off in many cases just offsets recent price increases. Put another way, without this flexibility the free nights would have become worth a lot less and would have frustrated members. I have frequently seen hotels pricing at 36,000 or 37,000 points – just out of reach of a 35,000 point free night certificate. And making these certificates worth less undermines the value proposition of their co-brand credit card.

These free night certificates are the reason many people keep their Marriott credit cards. They consider the free nights worth more than the card annual fee. Turn them into a frustrating experience and people cancel their cards. That’s a big hit to Marriott’s biggest partners Chase and American Express, and a big hit to Bonvoy program economics. Make no mistake, Marriott had to do this.

This new feature is welcome, as a way to preserve he value of Marriott’s free night certificates in the face of devaluation, and thus try to preserve the value of their co-brands. I expect redemption of these certificates to go up a lot, and certainly go up compared to the last month when prices were raised – pricing many certificates out of use.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @ Gary: Freudian slip? “If you want to reserve a better room, the certificates cannot be sued.”

  2. Would it not be nice if ‘free night’ certs could simply be used to just book, well, free nights, irrespective of hotel category or any other restrictions ? Oh, wait, there is a program that issues precisely such free night certs — i.e., with almost no restrictions and usable straightforwardly to book free nights ! 😉

  3. Is there really any value to hotel points — other than earning it “the hard way” through actual stays? I just don’t see the return on investment in lost opportunity costs for using hotel credit cards.

  4. I have a total of 5 Marriott cards (business and personal). The only reason I kept them was exactly the point that was made above: a free night was worth more than the fee.

    I am thinking of paring my wallet down to the top of the line amex personal and perhaps the old chase business card.

  5. For me this increases the value of my free night certificate. Typically when I want to travel Marriott hotels are priced at Peak or not available on poinrs sobefore I could only use at a category 4 hotel. Now with the top up I can use at a Category 5 hotel.

  6. I’m beginning to wonder if Marriott is actively trying to torch its loyalty program. If you wanted to jettison your most loyal customers and encourage them to try other programs, you’d be hard pressed to come up with better ways to do it. The “free” night certificates were anything but free, unless you wanted to use them at Fairfields or Spring Hills. For higher end redemptions, there were the obnoxious resort fees.

    As a business traveler who must use the company Amex and can’t use co-branded cards, I used to wish I could rack up points with a Chase or Amex Marriott card. No more.

  7. Another restriction on the certs – they cannot be used to book a room for anyone other than the cardholder .

  8. CJH – Hilton. Hilton free night certificates can be used at any hotel with no cap. There is a very small list of exceptions which are mostly all inclusive hotels.

    Just used mine last December in a hotel that goes for $1500/night.

  9. @CJH — I am referring to Hilton Honors, of course. Currently, I have 4 free night certs: (1) one as a result of a targeted AMEX offer; and 3 as annual benefit of the incredible AMEX Aspire card, of which 2, which I will be redeeming in London next month, had their expiration dates automatically extended because of the pandemic.

    The only restriction on these free night certs is that they cannot be redeemed at the following properties, out of more than 6K:

    FREE NIGHT REWARD PROPERTY EXCLUSIONS

    Your free night reward can be redeemed for one standard accommodation, double occupancy, subject to availability at properties in the Hilton portfolio, excluding the ones below that do not offer this room type:

    All-Inclusive Properties:

    DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Hotel Central Pacific -Costa Rica
    Hilton Bodrum Turkbuku Resort & Spa
    Hilton Dalaman Sarigerme Resort & Spa
    Hilton Marsa Alam Nubian Resort
    Hilton Puerto Vallarta Resort
    Hilton Rose Hall Resort & Spa
    Hilton Sharks Bay Resort

    Distinctive Properties:

    Conrad Koh Samui Residences
    Embassy Suites by Hilton Waikiki Beach Walk
    Kingston Plantation Condos
    Hilton Surfers Paradise Residences
    Hilton La Romana
    Ocean 22 by Hilton Grand Vacations
    Royale Palms Condominiums
    Elara by Hilton Grand Vacations
    Grand Waikikian by Hilton Grand Vacations
    The Hilton Club – New York
    Hilton Grand Vacation at Craigendarroch Suites
    Hilton Grand Vacations at McAlpin-Ocean Plaza
    Hilton Grand Vacations on Paradise (Convention Center)
    Hilton Grand Vacations Suites at Hilton Hawaiian Village
    Hilton Grand Vacations Suites at SeaWorld
    Hilton Grand Vacations at Tuscany Village
    Hilton Grand Vacations Suites at the Flamingo
    Hilton Grand Vacations Suites on the Boulevard
    Las Palmeras by Hilton Grand Vacations
    Hokulani Waikiki by Hilton Grand Vacations
    Kings Land by Hilton Grand Vacations
    Kohala Suites by Hilton Grand Vacations
    Parc Soleil by Hilton Grand Vacations
    Park City Hilton Grand Vacations
    Sunrise Lodge by Hilton Grand Vacations
    The District by Hilton Club
    Valdoro Mountain Lodge
    West 57th Street by Hilton Club
    Ho’olei at Grand Wailea
    Las Casitas, A Waldorf Astoria Resort
    Waldorf Astoria Jeddah – Qasr Al Sharq

  10. You can notice that HH FN certs are good at all uber-aspirational properties like WA Maldives, WA Los Cabos, Conrad Bora Bora, etc, etc, etc…(pretty much all the WAs and Conrads around the world).

  11. DCS – I used to disagree with your love for Hilton, but Hilton has clearly overtaken Marriott. The Waldorf Properties way better than crusty old Ritz Carlton.

    Diamond breakfast benefit is tremendous at international locations.

    8 night stay at WA Pedregal in Cabo coming up – using 3 free night awards. Proactively upgraded to Oceanview Deluxe.

  12. Gary wait! Weren’t you at the Freddie Awards this year where Marriott won
    Best Loyalty Program for the
    14TH YEAR IN A ROW!!??
    And yet no ironic article from you about THIS?
    SMH…..

  13. DCS – I used to disagree with your love for Hilton, but Hilton has clearly overtaken Marriott. The Waldorf Properties way better than crusty old Ritz Carlton….

    Just a slight correction: Hilton “overtaking” Marriott presupposes that Hilton was behind, which was never the case except in your mind, which has now done the correct adjustment… 😉

  14. “But It’s Not For Your Benefit”

    Can you name me two instances in the past couple of years where Marriott has done anything purely for the benefit of the customer? It’s not like Marriott actually likes or respects their customers.

  15. I am lifetime Platinum, with close to 3 million Bonvoy points.

    I used to have three Marriott cards (two Chase w/35k certs, one Amex with 50k).

    When Marriott changed Starwood’s ratio of transferring miles to airlines, I moved a lot of my spending from their cards to others. When they changed the rules, so you couldn’t get the the 15 annual elite-night credit from more than one card, I cancelled one of the Chase cards, reasoning that I didn’t need to spend the annual fee twice, but that one 35K certificate still had value to me.

    Last week, with Marriott’s change to dynamic pricing, I cancelled the remaining Chase card. 35K, even with the top-off, has little value to me in this new environment.

    Yesterday, I wanted to use my three 50K certificates (two w/extended expiration dates, because of the pandemic) for my wife’s and my anniversary. With dynamic pricing in place, the hotel we wanted to stay at — which would have been covered by 50K certificates a few weeks ago — was now somewhere between 51 and 64K for the nights we wanted to go. Frustrating. Still, if the promised topping-off had been possible when dynamic pricing started, at least the certificates we earned and paid for wouldn’t have been useless to us. Feeling helpless, I hoped that top-off would be in effect before the certificates expired.

    Then, this morning, less than ten hours hours later — miracle of miracles — I see that top-off is live! I went back to book the same hotel, and two of the three nights were suddenly more than 65K, rendering the certificates useless again. That stuck me as cynical…mockingly so.

    As a person who creates, books, and leads tours, I suggest clients stay at hotels and resorts that suit their needs, and for many of them, that includes the value of a frequent-stay program. I used to regularly recommend Marriott properties, when the calculus included loyalty points. I can’t, in good conscience, do that very often these days.

    Personally, because I stayed at Marriotts a lot in the early part of this year, I will make it to 50 elite nights, and get my five-suite-night benefit for 2023. But when I consider the way Marriott keeps treating me, a long-time loyal customer; how — based on reports in this blog and elsewhere — it appears to value hotel owners and investors more than guests; and the contemptuous, dismissive, cold-hearted remarks their CEO reportedly made about his own front-line team-members, complaining about paying them slightly-higher-but-still-not-enough-to feed-shelter-and-clothe-their families wages, at the same he takes home millions (let them eat cake, indeed), I plan to use up my remaining points, cancel my Amex Brilliant card, and give my loyalty to Hyatt (where it’s long been) and Hilton (which will be new).

    One person leaving may not mean that much to a company so large they think they don’t have to treat people with care, or even simple respect, but maybe I won’t be the only one, and maybe they’ll change their ways. I can only hope.

  16. this is increasing the “regular” price then having a sale – forgot what it is called.

  17. Traveler: Marriott won Best Loyalty Program for the 14TH YEAR IN A ROW at the Freddie Awards last month.
    How do you feel about that!!??

  18. It would be nice if Hyatt offered a top-off feature for its free night certificates. Now that a family-favorite Hyatt property moved from Cat. 4 to Cat. 5, I don’t know what my plan is for the certificates I’ll be getting this year.

    And the love-fest for Hilton in the comments here haven’t acknowledged that after this year, newly issued free night certificates are going back to weekends only, from my understanding. If I’m wrong, I’d love to be corrected. I admit being able to use them any day of the week has been a great move by Hilton since 2020.

  19. @Jeff — Hilton’s FN certs being good only for weekend stays is still infinitely better than anything offered by the comptitors. However, as I previously reported, despite being ostensibly good only for free weekend nights, I was able to reserve a weeknight stay at WA BKK before the pandemic using a “weekend” cert because the agent said that she could see no weekend restriction in the system requiring the cert to be used for a weekend stay — i.e., so-called weekend certs MAY actually be good for any day of the week.

    Wanna play the game with a “full deck” ? Explore all your options, especially those that are not published.

    G’day.

  20. I just used used a 35K FNA cert and 8K points for a 550 dollar a night room in Boston
    I just used another for Ballantyne Resort and Spa in Charlotte adding 5K. Room was 480 bucks

    Decent value. Beats the Hilton Garden Inn for 35K

  21. I’m a Hilton & InterContinental person, so I have little hands-on experience with Marriott. Used the J Marriott in Beijing as part of a tour and it was fabulous. But all 5* hotels in China are fabulous. Reading endlessly negative news about Marriott and Bonvoy over the months has made me think they recruit corporate management from county employees. Marriott seems to do whatever it wants without regard to the customers. Hilton’s redemption rates make your eyes water, but the hotels and the HH program run very smoothly. I always feel that I am taken care of well during my stays.

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