Bye-bye to blackout dates for Marriott's hotel rewards program

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Here's yet one more reason why you should join a hotel's loyalty club whenever you reserve a hotel room, even if you're not a frequent traveler.

On January 15, Marriott will improve its Marriott Rewards program, making it easier to redeem points for hotel rooms. It is cutting in half the number of points you need to earn before you can reserve a room without blackout dates.

You can stay at any hotel that's owned by Marriott to earn the points, including Renaissance, Courtyard, Residence Inn, Fairfield Inn, TownePlace Suites, and SpringHill Suites—as well as Marriott and JW Marriott. For example, you only have to spend about $750 at the chains to earn enough points (7,500 points) for a free night's stay at a Fairfield Inn or TownePlace Suites. It would have taken $1,500 before.

But what does that really mean for leisure travelers?

You’ll still want to book early for the best dates. Each property can still limit the number of rooms available for reward redemption on certain days, such as New Year’s Eve at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square.

However, some of the most popular properties will continue to have blackout dates, such as Hawaii’s Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa. (Here's the fine print for Marriott loyalty program geeks: After January 15, Stay Anytime Rewards will be eliminated and replaced by the No Blackout Dates category. Here are the FAQs on the program changes

So how does Marriott's competition measure up?

Hyatt Gold Passport members haven’t had to deal with blackout dates at its 370 hotels since 2002. But like Marriott, Hyatt also sets aside a small number of rooms for members, so you’ll want to book up to a year in advance to make sure you nab the room at the time and hotel you want. In Hyatt’s Faster Free Nights promotion, members can earn a free night after every two eligible stays between now and Dec. 30—as long you redeem the free night by February 28, 2009. One free night at a Hyatt Place or Summerfield Suites property usually requires at least 5,000 points ($1,000).

Since February 2008, Hilton has claimed that its rewards program has no blackout dates and no “capacity controls”—unlike Marriott, anytime a standard room is available for purchase at any of Hilton’s 3,000-plus hotels, a Hilton HHonors member can redeem points for that room. One free night at a Hampton Inn requires 7,500 points, or from $500.

The Starwood Preferred Guest program also has no blackout dates for free night redemptions at more than 860 hotels. The Starwood Preferred Guest program launched in 1999 with no blackout dates and no capacity controls. (So Hilton followed Starwood's model.)

We often tout the merits of joining loyalty programs, but it’s a good idea to check if your points expire. Hyatt points don’t expire, but Starwood’s Starpoints expire after 18 months of inactivity. Hilton points expire after 15 months of inactivity; Marriott can close your account after 24 months of inactivity.

Remember: you can earn points and keep your account active by renting a car, shopping at online retail partners (Gap, Barnes & Noble, Target), or using a credit card linked to a rewards program.

One more bit of hotel-points news: In September, Starwood became the first hotel loyalty program to allow point redemption for airline tickets with no blackout dates. In one example, a ticket that costs $345 equals 25,000 Starpoints. Search for flights at But, as Upgrade: Travel Better has pointed out, you'll usually get a better bang for your SPG Starpoints if you redeem them for a hotel stay.

Are you a point hoarder? What are some ways that you earn points? And have you been able to redeem your points when and where you want?

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