(...And how you can too)
“Mrs. Wood, I’m so excited you’re here” she beamed. “We’ve upgraded you to one of our best suites—and one of my favorite rooms on property.” I had arrived late Sunday night at the Santa Marina Mykonos—easily Mykonos’ most luxurious resorts on the island—and was tired from a travel day filled with delays. Though exhausted, I realized my day was starting to turn around when the woman at the check-in counter explained that they’d upgraded me. I watched intently, as she smiled ear to ear, almost giddy. She began to tell me more and then hesitated and stopped herself, saying “No, no, no... I will just show you how great it is. It will be a surprise. You are going to love it.” And then sure enough, after simply handing over my passport and credit card to cover the check-in formalities, she whisked me away toward the room, her guiding the way and with me right behind her, halfway across the property to a suite that was perfectly situated between the resort’s private pool and their private beach, just steps below. Still grinning ear to ear, she waved the key card over the sensor and opened the door to my room, giving me a tour of my spacious suite that had its own private pool and expansive ocean views.
She was right about the room—it was one of the only four single room suites on property (they also have a number of multi-bedroom villas that range anywhere from 4,000 to 25,000 euros a night) that have their very own private pool. What would become my home for the next four nights, my suite featured a spacious pool with a jetted soaking tub, separate rain head shower and dual sinks, a long walk-in closet that’s larger than mine at home, a giant king-sized bed with a hidden tv at the foot of the bed that pops up with the click of a button, separate living room and seating area, and a quiet, private patio with two lounge chairs, a table, and private plunge pool that looks out onto the deep blue waters of the Aegean Sea.
And the best part? I didn’t pay a dime. Nope, not one penny on the room itself. So how did I manage to get to stay in a 2,000 euro a night suite, without paying anything you ask? Well, all on points of course.
Not just any points—Marriott Bonvoy points. Though some might argue this point with me, I think the value that you get for Marriott points is better than any other rewards programs out there. You often get 10 times the points when you spend at Marriott properties, can participate in tons of bonus programs here and there (which typically give me more points for trips I already had planned), and as you rack up more and more nights and a higher status, the points just get easier to accrue. This can’t be said of most other credit cards or rewards programs, as they generally offer dollar-for-dollar points, or 3 times the points when they’re being generous.
Gone are the days of turning on the charm and asking for an upgrade because it’s your honeymoon or because you are celebrating an anniversary. Hotels and airlines don’t care; they have been told to reward their most loyal customers—the people who regularly choose to fly their airline or stay only at in-brand hotels—and will give these seat and suite upgrades to their rewards members. So it pays to be a member of a hotel loyalty program, and if you stay with them often, they will pay back the favor.
So here’s how I did it:
1. Pick a Hotel Brand and Stick with It
My partner and I made a conscious decision ages ago to pick one hotel brand that we like and do our best to stay at in-brand hotels and resorts whenever we travel for work. Back when I joined the firm in 2011, the Marriott brand was good but not nearly as good as it is now, after the Starwood merger that added Luxury Collection, the W, and Westin properties—among others. Since then the brand has only gotten better obviously, and the umbrella of hotels only larger. So we make a point of booking almost all of our work-related travel through the Marriott app whenever possible.
Sure, there are times where we want to stay out of brand, like to stay at The Peninsula in Hong Kong, or a Rosewood or a Four Seasons here or there. And although it is rare, there are sometimes occasions where we travel to a destination that does not have a Marriott brand property. Those occasions are even more rare though since the Starwood merger, so we almost always have the option to stay in-brand.
Picking one hotel brand and sticking to it allows you to rack up points consistently under one rewards program, rather than having smaller amounts scattered across different accounts. I chose the Marriott brand initially because I like the variety of hotel options—they have budget options, like the Renaissance or the Courtyard, which are suitable for work travel and often in the less touristy locations that I travel to for work, great mid-level options like Marriotts or JW Marriotts, and higher end options like the Ritz Carlton. And as I mentioned, that now includes the Luxury Collection resorts, W Hotels, and Westin properties.
By just choosing to stay in-brand for all my work-related travel, I was generally able to rack enough points each year to cover the cost of my rooms for a week that I took once a year. And that was without even really trying.
2. Get the Credit Card
The second—and arguably best—way to rack up points is by getting the credit card. I waited until Marriott was offering a sign-up bonus, and then applied for the card. I signed up when they were offering 100,000 points if you spend $5,000 in the first three months. I knew that I had a big trip coming up and that I would be easily going over that amount once I booked the flights and the rooms, so getting to that number was easy and a cost I was already going to incur anyway.
Having the Marriott Bonvoy credit card is not only useful to get a lot of points quickly, but you earn ten times the points when you spend at Marriott properties. So your points rack up faster, and the more loyal you are, the more your points add up.
The Santa Marina Mykonos, a Luxury Collection hotel property, is in Marriott’s highest tier for points and therefore requires 85,000 points per night to stay. That’s a lot of nights and dollars spent if you don’t have the credit card and are only getting dollar-for-dollar on the points you’re getting. But if your hotel stays are paid for with the Marriott Bonvoy card, these points actually add up quickly. So for this particular hotel stay, I used 340,000 points—which is a lot, I’ll admit, but only accounted for about half of the points I had accrued within the last year. I’d say it’s a fair trade for not having to spend $9,000 for four nights at Mykonos’ most luxurious resorts.
3. Loyalty Status
Third, when I combine my work travel with personal travel, and then tack on the 15 nights that were added to my account when I signed up for the card, it helps elevate my loyalty status with the brand. This loyalty status not only helps you to build points faster, but is how you get room upgrades even after you use points for rooms.
To start, you’ll automatically become Silver Elite when you stay 10 or more nights. With Silver status comes with it the basic perks such as free WiFi, 10% bonus points on all stays, and priority late check out. Bonvoy members who stay 25 nights in a calendar year can “strike gold” with Gold Status. With Gold, you get all the perks of Silver but add enhanced room upgrades, welcome gifts, and 25% bonus points on stays. Those with 50 nights get Platinum Elite status, which tacks on 4 pm late checkout, and 50% bonus points—among other perks.
Travelers with 75 nights in a year get Titanium Elite, which comes with it all the perks of the three lower tiers, as well as guaranteed room availability up to 48 hours prior to the stay (a big one), 75% bonus points on stays and better room upgrades. Finally, if you’re a super avid traveler and stay more than 100 nights in a year, Bonvoy elevates you to Ambassador Status—their highest tier. Their Ambassador Elite members enjoy “Your24”, which gives you the flexibility to choose the 24 hours of your stay. So if your flight arrives early or extra late, you can check in at 8 a.m. and check out at 8 a.m., or even stay from midnight to midnight if you want.
4. Suite Upgrades
For this stay, I used Suite Night Awards to request a suite upgrade I advance. Even though I’m guaranteed a room upgrade if one is available, I didn’t want to take the chance that the property was fully committed and not get an upgrade. So I cashed in my Suite Night Awards as well.
With the Marriott Bonvoy card, I get to choose between 5 Suite Night Awards, 5 free nights (to be added to my night count to help elevate my status faster), one free night (meaning one paid hotel stay for free), or a donation to my favorite charity. Last year I chose the Suite Night Award, and cashed in four out of the five to get a suite upgrade at the Santa Marina.
It’s important to note that another benefit of being an Elite Member is that if there is availability, you are actually guaranteed some form of an upgrade. However, I’ve traveled to sought after destinations like Mykonos and been denied an upgrade in cases where the resort is fully committed. So in this case, I didn’t want to gamble and just hope for an upgrade; I used my suite nights to virtually guarantee one.
But those suite nights I cashed in were not what got me their nicest room. What did that was my Elite status.
At the time I checked into the Santa Marina Mykonos, I had Platinum Elite status. So it’s not even like I was in their highest tier. Since staying there less than a month ago, because I stayed there for four nights and spent another two at the Grand Bretagne in Athens, it pushed me past the 75 night mark and into Titanium Elite status, which I’ve already taken advantage of by snagging a room in Atlanta for a conference when all the rooms were showing as sold out—even to conference attendees with a room block code.
But what did happen is the combination of my suite night reward request, coupled with my Bonvoy elite status, catapulted me from the worst room they have to their best. They first upgraded me from their base room that I booked on points to a slightly nicer suite (but not with a pool) after using my suite night rewards, and then upgraded me again because of my elite status.
So it was the combination of earning points, using points, using my suite night awards, and being rewarded for my Bonvoy Elite status that got me this room.
If there’s another hotel chain that you like, it does not have to be Marriott that you join and can reap benefits like this. Other hotel chains like Hyatt and Hilton offer similar rewards programs, along with their own credit cards too, so you can gain and use similar benefits.
So my suggestion if you want to get incredible free stays like this is to join and try to stick to one rewards program, apply for their credit card, use that card for everyday purchases (but be sure to pay off your balance monthly!) and then rack up the points to use at these stays.
I should also note that I am not in any way getting paid for this post. I am not a Marriott brand ambassador and I did not get any form of kickbacks in exchange for writing this. I am simply sharing my honest, unbiased experience and sharing with all of you how you too can enjoy similar benefits. Sure, it may take some people longer time to rack up points than others, if you don’t travel as much as I do or spend as much on the credit card, but eventually, if you do stay in-brand for all your travels and choose to put everyday purchases on a rewards credit card, you’ll get there eventually.
So with that said, I hope this post was informative in a way to help you too travel for free, and reap the rewards of hotel program and loyalty card kickbacks.
Happy travels friends!
Feel free to email me any time at firstname.lastname@example.org
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