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A popular perk of certain Marriott credit cards is the free night certificate that cardholders earn every year by renewing their card membership. But using those certificates can be a challenge — especially during the pandemic.
Holders of the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless® Credit Card and the Marriott Bonvoy Business™ American Express® Card get an annual certificate for an award night worth up to 35,000 Marriott Bonvoy points. Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card holders get a certificate for a free night worth up to 50,000 points. And holders of the Marriott Bonvoy Premier get an annual certificate worth up to 25,000 points. Terms apply.
Certificates usually expire in a year. Some cardholders — like me — could have trouble putting their certificates to use before they go to waste. Learn how to use a Marriott certificate before it's too late — even if you've run into roadblocks trying to redeem them before.
» Learn more: Which Marriott Bonvoy credit card should I choose?
Why redeeming free night certificates can be challenging
Pandemic or not, redeeming Marriott free night certificates already comes with its own set of headaches.
Here are a few of the biggest pain points when redeeming them:
Booking consecutive nights at the same hotel is tricky. You can only reserve one room at a time when using these certificates. If you have multiple certificates and want to make a multiple-night reservation, you will need to make multiple reservations.
The app is unreliable. While the new Marriott Bonvoy app is spiffy, you cannot use it to make reservations from a free night certificate.
You can’t usually book upscale hotels. When using your certificate, you’re limiting to booking a hotel at or below the point value of that certificate. If your certificate is worth 25,000 points and you want to book a 35,000 point room, you’re out of luck. Marriott won’t let you use cash to cover the remaining value.
Standard rates may not be available across your preferred dates. I toyed with the idea of redeeming my Marriott certificates for a fancy stay at The Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul, a Category 5 property. Unfortunately, only two of the three nights on my dates were available at a standard rate of 35,000 points, and the other was listed at a peak redemption rate of 40,000 points.
Participating hotels can vary without notice. I booked a trip to Los Cabos, Mexico, around my mom’s birthday. Luckily, four nights in a row at standard redemption rates were available at the Sheraton Grand Los Cabos Hacienda del Mar in December, so I pulled the trigger and booked. But as of Nov. 1, 2020, this property is no longer affiliated with Marriott. The hotel canceled my reservation and redeposited the certificates back into my Bonvoy account, where they remain unused.
Ways to use expiring free night awards
If you’re as frustrated as I was trying to redeem Marriott free night certificates, all is not lost. You can still find ways to use them before they expire. Here are some strategies.
1. Go on a road trip
Not everyone is ready to hop on a plane, but getting behind the wheel might be an alternative. Whether you have a national park or a ski resort on your must-see list, you could use a certificate or two for a road trip within the United States.
You can find plenty of outdoor activities across the U.S., which puts a safe adventure within reach. Navigate to Marriott’s hotel directory map, select the United States region, and zoom in on areas you might want to visit. You’ll see properties in different categories, including some where your certificate should work.
» Learn more: How to save on road trips
2. Plan a trip to countries that don’t require coronavirus testing or self-quarantine
If you feel ready to face an airport, you have options for international travel. Use NerdWallet’s guide to where U.S. citizens can travel to help give you an idea of the countries that don’t require coronavirus testing or self-quarantine.
Mexico and several other countries in the Caribbean are open to tourism with certain precautions, and it’s not a bad way to use your expiring certificates. Select the Caribbean region to browse Marriott Bonvoy properties on different islands, then check local restrictions before booking a stay. There are a fair number of Marriott hotels in the Caribbean that are under the threshold to book on free night certificates.
Just remember that all travelers — regardless of vaccination status — must have proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than three days before their flight departs in order to return to the U.S. Beginning Dec. 6, 2021, all passengers returning to the U.S. must show proof of a negative test taken within one day of their return flight. So have a plan for what happens if you test positive for COVID while traveling abroad — as it can happen to vaccinated travelers too.
Vegas is largely open to tourists with few restrictions, and Bonvoy members have options given the more than two dozen Marriott hotels in the Las Vegas area. While the hotels on the Strip can be spendy, look to the Grand Chateau, which is just a crosswalk away from the side entrance to the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood.
The Grand Chateau is a Category 5 hotel, meaning an award night will cost 30,000 to 40,000 points.
4. Book a staycation
If you don’t want to fly or take a road trip, you can trade your certificates for a staycation. Look for unique properties in your city or a short drive away — fun, unusual accommodations will enhance your experience.
You can take a global food tour at home, be a tourist in your own city or try a hotel restaurant in your city. You may even surprise someone with a trip.
» Learn more: How to find and book hotels for cheap
If your Marriott free night certificates expire soon ...
It’s not always easy, especially in the pandemic, to use free night certificates from Marriott. If you can, plan sooner rather than later — that will help you make use of the certificates before they expire and before the standard rooms are snapped up by other travelers.
As for me, I still have no plans for when I'll figure out how to use my Marriott free night perks.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2022, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card