While there are likely still a number of technical concerns to be resolved, I believe it is fair to say that most of the excitement and worry around the August 18 Marriott/SPG merger has passed us by now. I was able to walk away from the table with everything I wanted thanks to a mix of good fortune and hard work: three award nights each at the St. Regis Maldives and Al Maha resort in Dubai, at costs that are still hard for me to believe.
When I went to the Maldives, I paid 80,000 points per night for an overwater bungalow, as opposed to 60,000 points per night for a garden villa. When I arrived at Al Maha, I was charged 66,000 points per night, with no explanation for the 10 per cent increase.
That’s not to claim that any of this was simple or straightforward. The inevitable result of combining hundreds of millions of users and billions of bits of data into a single system was an unexpected number of issues that threatened to ruin all of my meticulous preparation at various points. As a result of my experiences, I’ve gained six valuable lessons that I want to use in any future mergers that may arise, as well as my day-to-day points strategy.
1. The Importance of Maintaining Proper Records
Although the merging of the programs is still in the early stages, it has already been evident that there are issues with data not integrating properly across Marriott and SPG accounts, with the precise difficulties varying from person to person. The specific problems tend to differ from person to person.
For example, my combined year-to-date elite nights are 6 nights short of my individual Marriott and SPG totals, and my points for a canceled stay have still not been paid to me (more on that later). While I’m happy to wait a few more days to see whether the issue will resolve itself, I’ve saved images of my previous account balances in case I need to make a formal complaint to Marriott about the situation.
Record keeping is essential when you anticipate that systems may be modified or upgraded, but it can also be beneficial in other scenarios. Write down the date and time of your phone call, the name of the customer service representative you spoke with, and the specific promises that were made.
If a customer service representative promises you courtesy points or tells you over the phone that your current problems are covered by travel insurance, keep a record of everything.
I previously had to battle Chase for a travel insurance refund after a representative informed me that my girlfriend was protected under my Chase Sapphire Reserve travel benefits when this was not the case at all.
Because I provided the bank with the precise date and time of the conversation, they were able to listen in on the recordings, and although she technically shouldn’t have been insured, Chase was ready to make an exception based on the incorrect information I’d been told about her. Those six elite nights might make the difference between my qualifying for Platinum Premier or staying a normal Platinum elite for next year if the Marriott merger goes through.
2. Perseverance is essential.
The most coveted accolades are seldom found in the most obvious places. You’re attempting to redeem for Singapore Suites, right? Be prepared to spend hours, days or even weeks searching for different award opportunities, and even then you may not be successful in locating any elusive saver availability.
I had a clear idea of the awards I wanted to book under the new Marriott reward system, as well as the dates I was available to go. So I called and dialled and dialled again, even though I was aware that the award booking system was still down. Over the course of three days, I must have phoned the Malaysian call centres of Marriott and SPG at least 20 times.
Is it an excessive amount of effort? Almost certainly, but it was successful. I’d rather make 20 phone calls to book the awards I want than make one phone call and discover that the place I wanted has already been taken.
3. There is a reason why backup plans are in place.
There were still some unresolved issues about the program merger last Saturday, despite the fact that Marriott did a rather excellent job sharing terms of the merger ahead of time. Example: We were aware of “standard” award rates of 60,000 points per night for all-suite hotels, but we were unaware of which room types would be eligible for these rates or how much award space would be available at these places.
This turned out to be particularly significant for anybody who was planning a fantasy Maldives holiday… Despite the fact that there are only four garden villas on the whole site, standard awards were booked into them on a number of days, resulting in no award space available.
As much as I wanted to visit the Maldives, I was well aware that the odds were stacked against me. As a result, I booked a refundable award stay at the Le Meridien Seychelles a few weeks before the merger took place. While it’s not as luxurious as some of the other options, it’s a great hotel on an amazingly gorgeous beach that would have made for an incredible trip. First and foremost, since I didn’t have much wiggle room in my trip dates, it ensured that I’d have a beach to rest on during my February vacation.
The cancellation of this reservation occurred after my Maldives reservation had been confirmed. While my points have not yet been returned, there is no penalty for cancelling a ticket this far in advance. Given that I had enough extra points hanging around, it didn’t cost me anything to hedge my bets in this manner.
In fact, I went a step further and used the same strategy for my flights, reserving a Qsuites reward ticket from Shanghai (PVG) to Male (MLE) using the technique (MLE). My award space on the long-haul leg was locked in (again, on the day I needed to go), and in the worst-case situation, American AAdvantage would have cost me $175 to alter the two tickets to Seychelles (SEZ) for a different destination. I’m really pleased with the risk/reward ratio in this case since it relieved a lot of burden off my shoulders during the craziness of the previous week.
4. Check often and early in the day.
I’ve previously discussed the need for persistence, but timing is also critical. After midnight on Friday night, only hours before the program merger officially began, a considerable number of award spaces at the St. Regis Maldives (and likely other all-suite facilities) became bookable for just 90,000 Marriott points per night (instead of the usual 150,000 points).
Despite the fact that this was greater than the predicted 60,000 points per night, many savvy individuals took advantage of this chance to get the space they need on the dates they required. If everything works out, they’ll likely be able to phone in and have the stays re-priced at 60,000 points a night; in the meantime, they were able to dodge the mad rush and sleep well knowing they had a sure reservation.
While it definitely does not happen on a regular basis, it is not unusual for huge, complicated technology initiatives such as this to have small windows of unanticipated opportunity from time to time.
Before the program merging began — and at many times during the early hours of the morning — there were 5- or 10-minute periods during which highly sought-after rewards were unexpectedly accessible in the middle of all the mayhem.
If you truly want to take advantage of a bargain or offer like this, be sure to check in early and frequently. Being early is half the fight when there is a limited quantity of award space available and an unquantifiable amount of competition for that space.
5. Organize and prioritize your to-do list
Since the beginning of the merger, we’ve been providing frequent updates on the progress of the merger on The Points Guy, and the comments sections of all of these pieces are flooded with accounts of issues that have been encountered. Points not combining properly, bookings not being made, elite status being assigned incorrectly, and just about any other problem, you can think of. Many individuals are concerned and phoning Marriott or SPG in search of a solution, but the exact opposite of what you should be doing is calling them for help.
Unless you’re planning a trip within the next month or two, there’s really no need to hurry. It’s possible that your elite status is incorrect right now, but if you give it a few days, there’s a strong probability that the situation will resolve itself. If this is the case, you may phone in and chat with an agent about resolving the issue.
During the merger, customer support representatives are mostly barred from accessing the system and are severely restricted in their ability to provide assistance. While you’re not just clogging up the phone lines for individuals who truly need urgent reservation help, you’re also unlikely to get a productive response while the merger is still very much in the early stages of completion.
To prioritize your to-do list, first determine which chores are important and which can wait a few days or weeks until they are completed. According to the information above, I am now six nights shy of completing my year-to-date elite nights counter, and I have yet to get the 144,000-point reimbursement from my cancelled Seychelles trip.
I’m well aware of the problems, but I don’t intend to call in until the beginning of next week at the absolute earliest. I’m not planning any trip in the near future, and although I’d prefer to get my points returned as soon as possible, I’m not concerned about it impacting my future travel plans if I have to wait a few days.
6. International Call Centers Can Be Your Best Friend
The British Airways website was down for a considerable period of time earlier this year due to an IT fault that prevented it from showing any American Airlines reward availability. In the beginning, one of the (temporary) workarounds was to contact overseas call centres, such as those in Hong Kong and Singapore, which were still able to access and reserve space.
In the event of the Marriott and SPG merger, I relied on a friend’s advice not to waste time calling SPG’s customer support number in the United States because of the high wait periods. The Malaysian call centre of the chain, which I used nearly exclusively, has a lot of benefits over the other options.
First and foremost, I never had to spend more than 30 seconds on hold before dealing with a knowledgeable agent who spoke English well. Second, at a time when most phone agents were still unable to access the award booking system, the Malaysian office was able to assist me in reserving all-suite hotels for dates that did not seem to be available for award booking online.
Because of severe weather, large sales, or other factors, overseas contact centres might be a lifesaver when it comes to dealing with overburdened United States call centres. I make no claim to understanding the underlying technology involved with award reservations, but I have seen that foreign contact centres have had a significant advantage over their American counterparts on at least two occasions this year.
When you factor in the much-reduced wait times (as well as the really polite attitudes! ), there’s simply no excuse not to give it a go.