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I finally try a hotel ‘Mobile Key’, and this is what I found

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It has been a number of years now since the major hotel chains started allowing you to enter your room by using your mobile phone, rather than a key card.

Despite this, I had never done it. Last week I was back at Courtyard Gatwick Airport, which I reviewed here, and decided to give it a try.

This is what I found.

Using Marriott mobile key

Why had I never tried mobile key before?

Good question.

There are a number of reasons:

  • if I am reviewing a hotel for the site, I want to see how the front desk operates
  • ‘mobile key’ tends to work better for repeat visits where you already understand how a hotel works, and I rarely do repeat stays at the same place – staying somewhere fresh lets us review a different property
  • because you lose control over room selection, there is a view that elite members either won’t be upgraded or will not receive the best possible upgrade (Hilton has recently dealt with this by removing upgrades from hotel control and automatically allocating them five days in advance)
  • and, to be honest, I’m a bit of a luddite at heart – I’ve no doubt my 14-year old would be all over this given the chance

It’s also worth noting that, when travelling outside the UK, you often won’t be allowed to use mobile key because of a legal requirement for the hotel to take a copy of your passport.

How does Marriott mobile key work?

Why did I try it on this trip?

There were three key (sic) reasons.

The first is that I had used a ‘soon to expire’ Marriott Bonvoy suite upgrade certificate, received for hitting 50 nights back in 2020 and extended to June 2022. I was pre-upgraded into a Junior Suite and that is as good as it gets at Courtyard Gatwick Airport. I wasn’t going to get a better upgrade at the desk. I also knew how the hotel operates from my previous visit, including where the lifts are.

Secondly, I wasn’t going to review the hotel because I did so back in April. I didn’t need to see how good the front desk team was.

Thirdly, I was arriving late – 9.30pm – and getting up early, and I didn’t want to waste any time.

How does Marriott mobile key work?

How does it work with Marriott Bonvoy?

It is a slick process, you can’t argue with that.

You go into the Marriott Bonvoy app and, assuming that mobile check-in is offered, you simply press the button. Around an hour later I received a message to say that it had been activated and what my room number was.

Whilst it may be slick, however, there were two obvious problems:

  • Your payment card is, unsurprisingly, set to be the default card you have stored in your Marriott Bonvoy account. There seemed to be no way of changing this during the mobile check-in process. If you were planning to check-out at a desk in the morning then it wouldn’t be an issue, but it would be if you were simply planning to walk out in the morning (you can use the app to check out although you can’t see your bill).
  • Your elite benefit is pre-selected for you – bonus points. This is the cheapest option for Marriott and the hotel (my choices were 500 points worth £2.50 or £7.50 to spend on food and drink in the hotel). You cannot change this during check-in – you need to go to the front desk on arrival, which defeats the point.
How does Marriott mobile key work?

How did it work in the hotel?

I must admit I felt a hint of smugness as I entered the lobby, walked past the queue of people waiting to check-in and headed up to my room.

Opening the door was very easy. I had already activated Bluetooth on my phone (it is normally turned off because it is a battery drain) and it took only a few seconds to press the key button in the app.

Even though my phone was about 10cm away from the door lock, it still triggered.

I then hit a snag ….

Courtyard Gatwick Airport is one of those hotels where you can’t turn on the lights unless you put your door key into a slot inside the room.

Except, of course, I didn’t have a key.

Credit cards are the same size as a door key so I had no problem finding an alternative. There is clearly a risk that you forget your credit card when you leave the hotel, either during the day or at the end of your stay.

I am guessing that experienced users of ‘mobile keys’ steal a spare key from another hotel stay and keep it in their wallet or purse for situations like this …..

I also had no water in my room. I had some on my last stay. It’s not clear if this is an elite benefit or not, but there were two water glasses in the room on the desk …. just no water.

Was this due to using ‘mobile key’? It could be, if Marriott allocated my room and not the hotel, so the hotel didn’t know until I checked in – just one hour before arrival – which room I would be in. If ‘mobile key’ gives me the room that the hotel had already pre-allocated for me in the system, of course, there is no reason why some water wouldn’t have been provided as it was already known where I would be.

Conclusion

The actual process of using my mobile phone to open my room door was, I must say, slick. It also saved me some time on arrival.

On the downside, at least as far as Marriott’s mobile key is concerned, the inability to swap your payment card or your elite benefit in the app removes some of the value.

It’s also worth saying that using ‘mobile key’ meant that the human element was entirely removed from my stay. I did not speak to a single hotel employee during my, admittedly short, stay. Is this really progress?


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How to earn Marriott Bonvoy points and status from UK credit cards (July 2024)

There are various ways of earning Marriott Bonvoy points from UK credit cards.  Many cards also have generous sign-up bonuses.

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and for small business owners:

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Click here to read our detailed summary of all UK credit cards which can be used to earn Marriott Bonvoy points

(Want to earn more hotel points?  Click here to see our complete list of promotions from the major hotel chains or use the ‘Hotel Offers’ link in the menu bar at the top of the page.)

Comments (105)

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  • John says:

    All the problems seem to be Marriott problems.

    Only had 1 auto upgrade at Hilton so far this year. But at all other stays this year, was manually upgraded a day before arrival. OnQ will allocate a room initially but the hotel or you can change it, so don’t do check in too early in case they upgrade you when the daytime manager gets into work. Auto upgrades can be rescinded manually anyway.

    If you want to beg a minwage employee for a suite then yes you can’t get a digital key (well you can but it will take longer, and may be why sometimes you arrive after check in time and they aren’t ready)

    Hilton lets you change payment card before online check in.

    And of course where Hilton gives you a choice of benefit you just select it in your profile by midnight before check in day and majority of hotels will let you change it by calling reception from the room, or using the app messaging feature where offered. (A minority of hotels are incompetent and won’t/don’t know how to do this.)

    About half the time when I use digital key, Hilton is on the ball and leaves a physical key card in the room as well as a (occasionally personalised) welcome letter / gift, otherwise use any other credit card sized card. Only once did a hotel require their own card to be used, which needed to be active for that room – the front desk apologised and gave me another drink voucher as they said someone should have gone up to put a card into the slot after issuing my digital key.

    Only problem I’ve had is that sometimes the digital key reader in the lift doesn’t work which means you have to find the stairs, or join the queue.

    • Rich says:

      Some of the kindest, least arrogant, most approachable, best performing, highest integrity employees are on minimum wage in my experience.

      • Mike says:

        Agreed – whereas some of the most arrogant, least approachable, worst performing, lowest integrity employees are Middle Managers in my experience

  • Kev says:

    Hilton mobile is becoming more reliable and once happy with the upgrade and room choice the room is usually ready well in advance of check-in time. We tried sharing the key last week (you can now share up to 4 copies) but this was less reliable but I’m sure will improve soon.

  • Manya says:

    Used mobile key card without issue at Le Merdien Mina Seyahi in Dubai. Was also able to use it alongside the physical key cards which is handy as I tend to always lose the room key cards.

    If offered the opportunity again I’d probably favour the mobile key card over the physical ones.

  • lumma says:

    I recently stayed in an independent hotel in Seville which didn’t have physical keys. Checking in at reception still involved downloading an app and using that to open the front door of the hotel after 9pm and the room.

    There was a code to open the front door if you’re out of battery and a universal phone charger in the entrance to get enough of a charge to get in your room, but it all seems like it causes more problems that it solves

    • RussellH says:

      Would they lend me a handset that does ‘apps’ at check in then?

      • Mike says:

        My Nokia certainly doesn’t do Apps !

        • lumma says:

          I did actually wonder about this. To be fair the receptionist was lovely and gave me a full description of what to see in Seville so I didn’t want to be the person who’s deliberately awkward just to see if they can issue an actual key if I claim I don’t have a smartphone…

  • Malcolm says:

    I used Mobile Key at the Hilton in Newcastle a few weeks ago. I was able to chose a room before our visit and could see from the choices that we’d already been upgraded thanks to my ‘status’. Thought it was excellent – worked so well. While it’s good to always chat to staff at hotels I always find check in painful so a real plus for me.

  • Tim says:

    Does bluetooth really have much impact on battery life? I don’t think so.

    • AJA says:

      I agree actually bluetooth does not drain battery if it is left on in the background. It does of course use the battery if you are actually using it i.e. linking to your car so you can use handsfree or android auto or streaming audio.

      • lumma says:

        Doesn’t Android Auto/Car Play connect via cable anyway?

        • AJA says:

          My Samsung phone connects quite happily to my car without wires and lets me access everything on the phone from the car’s controls so I assume it must be doing it via bluetooth.

        • Tariq says:

          I think wireless CarPlay is via WiFi.

    • Soloflyer1977 says:

      Must be an Apple thing. Maybe Rob needs to move to Android… 🙂

  • Richard says:

    I’ve had very good experiences with digital keys generally – mainly used in the US, where I haven’t had any issue with having to present a passport on arrival.
    The digital key often tends to function as the key to enter the ‘parking garage’ at hotels so no messing around with parking tickets/valet either.
    As Rob found however, I always missed the in-room amenity (water), but it doesn’t really bother me. Hilton in the US have also scrapped room cleaning unless specifically requested (and then said request is generally ignored), but that’s just general cost cutting/staff shortages dressed up as Covid nonsense.

    • Save East Coast Rewards says:

      I had normal cleaning in most Hiltons I stayed in recently in the US. Some it needed requesting, but it was arranged at check-in. As the hotels are franchises you will find some that will use covid as an excuse for maximum cost cutiing (to be fair, some may need to in order to survive, others just greedy) but overall the hotels I stayed in were fine.

  • AJA says:

    I guess I am a luddite. I prefer just using a physical key card. I rarely stay in hotels alone so we require two cards anyway and I see from other comments that you can’t mix and match. I also have a couple of cards that I “forgot” to hand back which are useful for keeping the aircon on while I am not in the room. I avoid the possibility of it being taken by housekeeping by only leaving it in once they’ve cleaned the room.

    • Save East Coast Rewards says:

      Hilton lets you mix and match (I usually get a key from the front desk even if using digital key). It also lets you share keys with up to 4 people.

      So what’s bad about the Hilton digital key:
      – You have to open the app to use it, the key doesn’t appear in your phone wallet (seems Marriott is the same)
      – It uses Bluetooth, not NFC (mainly because when this was first implemented NFC wasn’t widespread in smartphones, but if it integrated with the wallet app then you’d just need to tap your phone)
      – In hotels where the lift requires a key it can sometimes take a while for it to activate

      What’s good:
      – You can still request a physical key
      – You can share keys – for me it’s useful if we’re not arriving at the same time, or indeed if booking for someone else so they don’t need to visit the desk
      – Unlike Marriott you can change payment details and select a room with OLCI before issuing key

      My tactic is as follows: if I’m happy with my allocated room I will request a digital key before arrival (if you’re arriving early it’s a good way to see if your room is ready as they only issue the key when it’s ready) then if there’s a queue I’ll go to my room. I’ve never had issues with water not being in the room. If the hotel turns out to have a lift which is a pain to use with digital key or I’m staying multiple nights I’ll pick up a key at some point when the desk is quiet. Even if there’s no issues with the lift it’s useful to have a backup should your phone run out of charge.

      If I need to check in at reception I still request a digital key in the app after checking in. Why? Because sometimes the physical keys stop working so this is an extra back up.

      • meta says:

        Yes, I never check in online. You just ask for a digital key in the app after check-in. Never scuppered my chances of an upgrade. When it matters, I always try to negotiate the upgrade before arrival anyway.

      • BlueThroughCrimp says:

        An interesting tactic. I’m just back from a 1 night stay in Hilton Nottingham.

        Received the free upgrade email days before to a Double Deluxe. All good.
        Did Mobile check-in and selected a room, not the default one.
        At the hotel I went to reception to get a key card, in case it had the slot for lights. The room I had selected (at the front of the hotel) wasn’t ready (at half past 3), and was given another – and assured it was the same.
        Hmm. No Robes and slippers, which seemed to be the only difference between a Double and a Deluxe Double, but the two bottles of water were there.
        So I’m wondering while Hilton are upgrading over the hotel’s head, the hotel are over-riding this by moving on the day.

        I didn’t make a fuss, it was only a 1 night stay, and not in the room for long, plus I received 2 drinks on the house

        • meta says:

          I would have made a fuss. The hotel is likely to do it again to someone else or to you. An email to Gold or Diamond desk should sort it out and you’ll get compensation in points which they’ll recharge to the hotel at the full price.

          • BlueThroughCrimp says:

            Problem is, how do you know exactly what class of room is what?
            I’m not going to get upset by missing robes!

        • Lady London says:

          Yeah the hotel sneakily overrode your upgrade from Hlton

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