What do no-blackout-date policies really mean?

During last weekend's trip to New York, I ran into a problem that I think is fairly common: a property won't show award availability, even though standard rooms are still available at cash rates.

In case readers run into similar situations, I thought this would make a useful resource: hotel chain policies on award blackout dates.

Club Carlson

According to Club Carlson's website:

"As a Club CarlsonSM member, you can redeem your Gold Points® for free Award Nights at more than 1,000 Carlson Rezidor hotels worldwide – with no blackout dates on standard rooms."

While attempting to make a reservation at the Radisson Martinique, I discovered that even though standard rooms were still available for sale, I was not able to redeem Gold Points for one. Indeed, you can see this is still true today:

Since I was getting down to the wire planning the trip, I decided to reach out to Club Carlson and see if they could make me an award reservation anyway. The phone agent I spoke to was singularly unhelpful, so I tried Twitter. The agent asked me to e-mail her, and over e-mail she told me:

"Rooms using points for reservations are based on availability and hotels only set aside a certain amount of rooms for redemption reservations, promotions, discounts, etc."

In other words, their "no blackout date" policy means nothing: while there aren't any systemwide blackout dates, hotels can make rooms unavailable for redemption any time.

I've since discovered that the Radisson Martinique makes rooms available for weekend redemptions sometime Wednesday afternoon. So if you are interested in making a reservation there, try the Club Carlson website then to see if they've opened up any award availability.

Hilton HHonors

Here's the Hilton policy on blackout dates:

"Use your HHonors Points to book a free standard room at any of our hotels and resorts worldwide, with no blackout dates."

And indeed, while I was looking at award availability at the Hilton Molino Stucky Venice, I discovered that while there were no award nights available for some nights:

there were also no paid rooms available for the same dates:

Marriott Rewards

In this FAQ, Marriott explains:

"Blackout dates traditionally refer to a limited number of dates on which a hotel could choose not to accept redemptions. With our “No Blackout Dates” policy, hotels will no longer have blackout dates for redemptions. Hotels may limit the number of standard rooms available for redemption on a limited number of days."

In case that sounds an awful lot like a blackout date, Marriott goes on to clarify that redemptions might not be allowed if:

"The date is an approved Inventory Control Date. On a limited number of nights, hotels may limit the number of rooms available for redemption. You may be trying to redeem on one of these nights and the hotel has already reached its maximum number of redemptions."

In other words, hotels can limit points redemptions if the date is one when people particularly want to stay at the hotel.

Hyatt Gold Passport

According to the Hyatt Gold Passport terms and conditions:

"Hyatt Gold Passport Free Night Awards apply when standard rooms are available at the Hyatt Daily Rate. Standard rooms are defined by each hotel and are not subject to blackout dates."

That seems pretty airtight, but there were enough reports of difficulty booking standard rooms that just this May a Hyatt representative explicitly stated on FlyerTalk:

"As long as the Hyatt Daily Rate and a standard room is available, you are able to redeem your Gold Passport free nights."

While seeing whether I could make an award reservation for December 31, 2014, in New York City, the two properties that still had (astronomically expensive) paid rates available seemed to show award availability:

Once I clicked through, however, I was told that:

"The special offer/rate you have selected is unavailable during the dates you have selected, or it is not offered at this property."

It appears that these properties have tricked out their inventory such that they're offering only "Advance Purchase" and "Bed and Breakfast" rates, presumably knowing that if they offered any "Hyatt Daily Rate" rooms they'd have to offer those rooms on points, as well. This may be within the letter of the no-blackout-date policy, but in my view still violates the spirit of the policy, not that anyone cares about my views on hotel management.

IHG Rewards

Like Marriott and Club Carlson, IHG Rewards "no blackout date" policy is so full of loopholes you could drive a truck through it. Here's the relevant passage from the terms and conditions:

"Rooms are limited, subject to prior sale and availability of allocated resources and may be unavailable during high demand periods."

In other words, there are no blackout dates, just dates when the allocated resources don't allow you to make an award reservation.

Starwood Preferred Guest

The SPG terms and conditions state in no uncertain terms:

"An SPG Member may redeem Starpoints for single or double occupancy rooms at SPG Participating Hotels including, without limitation, for Free Night Awards."

The New Year's Eve test

It's hard to get a sense of how these programs and policies work in a vacuum, so I figured it'd be fun to run a little experiment. Which programs would allow me to redeem points for free nights at their Manhattan properties on December 31, 2014 (and what kind of value could I get from such an award)?

  • Club Carlson: Radisson Martinique, no rooms available;
  • Hilton: Hilton Manhattan East, $690.91 or 70,000 HHonors points, 0.99 cents per point;
  • Marriott: Lexington New York City, $591.13 or 40,000 Marriott Rewards points, 1.48 cents per point;
  • Hyatt: No Hyatt Daily Rate rooms available, so no award availability (see above);
  • IHG: Manhattan Midtown West, standard rooms available but "Reward Nights rooms are sold out for one or more of the dates you selected at this hotel."
  • Starwood: Four Points by Sheraton Manhattan Chelsea, $1,150 or 12,000 Starpoints, 9.5 cents per point.

In other words, Starwood and Hilton seem to vigorously apply the letter and spirit of their no-blackout-date policies.

Whatever policy IHG has barely qualifies as "no blackout dates."

Hyatt seems to allow their properties to play games with inventory, which is unfortunate, but all things considered, they do seem to have a relatively strict policy, and one supported by management.

The only real surprise here is Marriott, and it's a pleasant one: although their terms and conditions allow them to designate New Year's Eve as an Inventory Control Date, they haven't done so, and kudos to them for it.