We arrived yesterday afternoon and after a 2-hour shuttle ride from the airport in Osaka to our hotel in Kyoto, we fell into our beds at 9pm Thursday (Japan time), after being awake since 4:30am Wednesday (Orlando time). All told, we were awake for probably 26 of the past 28 hours. I’m getting WAY too old for this (grin).
During our shuttle bus ride to the hotel, we already stared seeing lots of Engrish. A factory that made ice products had a logo that said, “Always to make your life the best!” I saw an establishment called “The Glory Hole” and laughed. Don’t know what it was, though I doubt it was what I thought it would be if it was in the US (grin).
The hotel, Holiday Inn Kyoto, is nice. Apparently it’s a “hot spot” for Americans (mainly older ones on tours…but I love old people [grin]) so the 3 of us are not the only ones who speak Japanese. We’ll appreciate that more as the days go on and we understand NOTHING [grin].
MODERN-DAY NOTE: If you look at their website and compare my photos from 2005 and theirs that are copyright 2017, you’ll see that the building has not been change AT ALL. Same carpet in the lobby, same furniture in the room).
The rooms are small…about 11’x20′, bathroom included, but it’s just Joe and I in this room (Steve [MODERN-DAY NOTE: Steve is a friend of ours] has his own room for this leg of the trip) so we’re using the 2nd double bed as an extension of floor space (wink).
You can’t see it, but you have to step over a 4″ rise in the doorway to get into the bathroom. They also give you slippers to wear in the bathroom (since it’s customary to take your shoes off when you enter the hotel room and you don’t want to run the risk of getting your feet wet in the bathroom). That dark, rectangular thing on the floor between the toilet and the shower is a drain. They don’t use caulk as often (or as much?) as we do, so water from the shower is allowed to drain/drip/pour onto the bathroom floor, which is oh-so-slightly graded towards the floor drain. It’s probably a cleaner system, since caulk gets dirty and moldy, but it really messed with the minds of us stupid Americans who were trying to put down floor mats and couldn’t figure out why they were getting SO wet during our showers! (grin)
The toilets in most of our hotels were made by Toto, which is a Japanese company but they sell them in the United States, as well. They were awesome…all the ones we experienced had heated seats (with adjustable temperatures), automatic closers (so you don’t slam the seat down) and a bidet. Some of the fancier ones also had “odor neutralizers” (automatic scent expellers), “courtesy flushes” (automatic half-flush when you sit), noise cancellers (computerized sound of a toilet with the press of a button, so no one hears you “going”), etc. Steve hated the heated seat and both of the guys thought the bidet was scary (grin) but I thought the whole setup was GREAT! I want one. No, really. I do. I don’t think we can do the bidet thing because our water is too hard and the sprayer would be chock full of calcium deposits within 6 months (and Joe is wonderful about letting me buy stuff but he’s already drawn the line at a water softener for the benefit of a more efficient bidet [grin])…but all we need for the warm seat is a plug…which I think we can do…woohoo! (MODERN-DAY NOTE: I did get my own Toto Washlet in 2008, when we gutted & re-did our master bathroom. Calcium deposits are not an issue and it still ROCKS!) That thing under the toilet paper, with the round hole, is the smallest garbage can known to man. Two tissues and it was all filled up.
They also gave us disposable toothbrushes, toothpaste, things to pull our hair back and razors, but none were as funny as the bath sponges.
The view outside our window. I like the contrast of the parking lot on one roof, tennis court on the other roof, residential area across the river, and then mountains.
We don’t have many solid plans today, since we don’t know if jet lag will hit us later in the day. We’re seeing Beauty & The Beast tonight though…all in Japanese (we know the story, so it’s OK)…I can hardly wait!
Anyway, it’s past 6am and I’m gonna go start getting ready to take a shower. This hotel has free DSL in the rooms (WOO HOO!) and we’ll be here for the first 5 days, so y’all will get reports here and there.
I’ve talked about the American Express Everyday Preferred before, as it is one of our wallet go-to cards. The Citi Prestige is not a card I use for every day purchases but instead is more of a special teams player. I will pull it out of the drawer when I make specific purchases for the benefits, that I will list later, it provides.
The Citi Prestige is one of the premium credit cards on the market. You need to have good credit to be approved for one. It also carries a hefty $450 annual fee. I’m willing to pay the fee for this card because of the benefits I get from it:
Sign Up Bonus
The Citi Prestige card is currently offering 40,000 Thank You points if you spend $4,000 in the first 3 months after opening your account. This amount was decreased in July 2016 from the 50,000 points originally offered when the card was introduced in 2014. Like most premium cards, the annual fee of $450 is not waived for the first year.
This is a pretty decent mix of bonus categories for someone who travels frequently. 3X points for air travel was previously the highest multiplier for this category (the American Express Platinum recently increased their bonus on this category to 5X). 2X for dining is also a good return (the Chase Sapphire Reserve just upped the game by offering 3X on this category). I try and make our points and miles collecting as easy as I can for Sharon and the Citi Prestige is the card I give to her to use when we travel. Most of our spending is for dining or entertainment and we get 2X points in that category. I’m OK with her using it for the other random purchases that we will only get 1X on in exchange for the simplicity of being able to use the same card for all purchases.
I feel that a disadvantage is that with this card is that you earn Thank You points, that I think are the most difficult of the transferrable points to use. While Citi has tried to make these points more valuable by increasing the number of travel partners, as for now you can only transfer points to the following programs.
JetBlue (fixed value program)
Cathay Pacific Asia Miles
Flying Blue (Air France/KLM)
Hilton Honors (1000 points = 1500 Honors points)
Qantas Frequent Flyer
Qatar Privilege Club
Sears Shop Your Way (1 point = 12 SYW points)
Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer
Thai Airways Royal Orchid Plus
Virgin Atlantic Flying Club
You probably noticed that you don’t see many airlines that you know, like American, Delta or United on that list. You’re right. Now, that’s not to say there isn’t value to be had with some of these partners; you just really need to know what you are doing to book the flights you want and get a good return. Here are some examples of how you can book flights in the U.S. with the available transfer partners:
United Airlines flights can be booked with Singapore miles
Delta Airlines flights can be booked with Flying Blue miles
What about flights on American Airlines? While it is true that you can not transfer points to American’s frequent flyer program, you can use your Thank You points to pay for flights when you use the Citi Travel Center. Up until July 23rd, 2017, for people who have the Prestige card, your points are worth 1.6 cents each for travel on American Airlines and 1.33 cents for travel on all other airlines. After this date, the value of points will change and you will get at constant 1.25 cents value for tickets on all airlines. This lowers the value of Thank You points a bit.
If you are looking for an extensive list of how to use your Thank You points, here is a list of the 35 best ways to use your points. To be totally honest, I’ve only used my points twice since when we applied for the card in October 2015. I used miles to pay for a flight on JetBlue and I also used points to top off my Hilton account to pay for our hotel in Fort Lauderdale. So if I haven’t been able to find much usage for the points, why do I still have the card? The benefits!!!!
Citi Prestige Benefits
Here is list of the benefits of the Citi Prestige card that make me keep it despite the $450 annual fee. This list may not be all inclusive but these are the benefits I’ve actually used:
$250 airline credit – Every calendar year you get $250 of airline charges reimbursed with the card. This is for any airline charges, including airline tickets and if you travel at all, you should be able to get this money back. Since this is money you would have spent anyway, the effective cost of the card is lowered to $200, that is still steep but I think is made up for with the next benefit.
Fourth Night Free hotel benefit – This is really the killer benefit of the Prestige, that is not matched by any other credit card. If you are staying at a hotel for 4 nights (or more) and book through the Citi Concierge, the cost of the 4th night is reimbursed as a credit. This benefit will be changing slightly from reimbursing the cost of the 4th night to the average cost of the hotel night during your stay. (I know people were booking a hotel where the 4th night is more expensive, like Las Vegas on the weekend or Super Bowl weekend and making the most costly night be the 4th night). I wish I could use this benefit more as there is no limit to how many times you can use it. I was able to get $173.50 back from a stay in New York in 2015 and will be using it for our stay in Disneyland, where it will save me $209.43. So between this benefit and the airline credit, I’ve gotten my money back for the annual fee.
Travel Protection – The Citi Prestige offers some of the best travel protections of any credit card. The catch for this is that you have to pay for the whole ticket with the card, so it’s not useful if you are using miles or points.
Missed Event Ticket Protection – I use this card to purchase all of our concert and theater ticket because of the great coverage it provides. In fact, I just used it to pay for our tickets to the Classic East concert. “If the unexpected keeps you from using tickets (such as tickets for a sporting event, concert, or lecture) for an event, we may reimburse you the price of the ticket up to $500 per ticket, including service fees that are listed on the ticket or receipt. You’re covered for up to $5,000 in a calendar year per account”
Priority Pass Membership (with guesting privileges) – We are past the stage of planning to get to the airport early just so that we can go to a airport lounge. However, there are times when you happen to get to the airport really early or have a long layover, and sitting in a lounge is a nice perk. Priority Pass has relationships with lounges around the world and we’ve used this benefit to get us into lounges from Heathrow Airport in London to Miami Airport while waiting for our flight to Cuba. The best part of the Citi Prestige membership to Priority Pass is that you get to bring 2 guests into the lounge with you.
$100 Global Entry credit – If you travel internationally (or even plan on doing so in the next 5 years), you should have Global Entry. This is a program from U.S. Customs and Border Protection that allows you to skip the line when re-entering the U.S. There is a very extensive application to be filled out and a mandatory interview to be approved, but it is totally worth it. If approved, you also have a great chance of being cleared for the TSA Pre✓® lanes when going through x-ray before your flights. I’ve not used this credit with this card as we applied for the Global Entry program before I had the card but I can use it to pay for my renewal fee (or you can be nice and pay for someone else’s application if you aren’t going to apply yourself).
Citi Price Rewind – This is a service where Citi will monitor the price on items you purchased with the card to see if the price goes down. After making your purchase, you go to the Citi Price Rewind website to register your purchase. I’ve gotten money back on everything from a lawn edger to our dog’s flea medicine.
Citi Private Pass Events – While you can usually access these with any Citi Card, you get early access and/or preferred seating to concerts and sporting events. The Prestige card will also have access to some private events not for any other cardmembers. I’ve used this perk to score tickets to Darius Rucker and Train. Right now the website is showing tickets to Paul McCartney, Sting and Kings of Leon concerts.I’m sure I’ve missed some of the benefits of this card that didn’t apply to me. They still might offer free rounds of golf (I haven’t golfed [where it didn’t involve a windmill] in years). While it may seem that paying $450 a year for a card is expensive, I find myself making money just by having this card and using some of its benefits. That’s even before I’ve been able to find something to do with the points we are earning with it.
Spoiler alert – I had a really hard time deciding how I felt about this hotel. I mean, my reviews are normally my thoughts about a hotel based on my stay. But after visiting the Hyatt Centric Key West for a few days, I discovered my thoughts about a hotel can be changed by what I expect going in (and how much the hotel costs).
Right after getting home from our stay, I wrote about how I spent 75,000 Hyatt points to stay at this hotel. I would normally think that many points for a 3 night stay would be expensive. That was until I looked up a cash price of a room and saw it would have cost us $1876.84. That means this hotel, after taxes and fees, would have cost $650 a night. Turned out this was “season” for Key West and as our favorite bartender told us, “Those rich people from New York need to spend their money somewhere.”
Collecting miles and points has allowed us to stay at some really neat places, including many that we would/could never stay otherwise. That being said, I still have trouble thinking of any place that would have cost us this much if we paid out of pocket except for the time when I traded my DVC points to stay at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica. Given, we didn’t pay out of pocket to stay there but I definitely got the vibe we were way out of our pay grade.
So then, what did I think of the Hyatt Centric?
Arrival and Check In
Since we drove from Orlando, it was 7 hours in car from when we left home to when we arrived at the hotel. It was also about 3 hours since our last stretch/restroom break. We wanted to park, check in and get to our room. We were also about 1 hour from sunset so we wanted to get the formalities done as quickly as possible.
When I drove up to the hotel, there was no one outside of what appeared to be the lobby. After I drove around looking for a parking spot for check-in (there wasn’t one), I just pulled to the side of the lot and put my flashers on. I walked in and asked “Where do we park for check in?” I guess this was a strange question as I had to rephrase it. “How do I get through the gate to park?” At this point, I was given a key card and told to self park and then check in. Fortunately, the parking lot was small and a short walk to the check in desks. We did not need help with our luggage (since we were only there for a long weekend), which was a good thing because there were no bellhops in sight. Once we were inside, the front desk staff was pleasant and we only had to wait about 5 minutes to check in. The formalities were dealt with quickly and the clerk thanked me for my “Gold Pa…..World of Hyatt membership.” I commended her on a quick recovery (World of Hyatt was only a week old at this time. Before that, it had been the Gold passport program.). Check in was quick and efficient. We were offered a glass of champagne or flavored water (included as part of our resort fee), that we declined, as we just wanted to get to our room. We were directed to our room, which was outside the lobby and up one floor. We walked to the elevator, passing the spa, and went up one level to our room.
I found the lack of someone to guide us when arriving to the resort seemed strange for a place of this price point. If you are not going to have a greeter, then you at least need to have a few parking spots designated for guests who are checking in near the entrance. I don’t mind having to cart my luggage (I actually prefer it). but having to take my bags from self parking to the lobby is not acceptable for a hotel charging this much.
When I booked this room with points, the only one available was an ADA accessible room. I hate when hotels play with the inventory like that for award space – after all, how many ADA rooms do they have and was I denying someone who actually needed an ADA room because that’s the only room they were offering with points? There were plenty of other rooms for sale at the time, but none that I could book with points. Fortunately, I received a welcome email from the hotel a couple of days before our stay. I replied and asked if they had a regular room available, I’d like to leave the accessible room for someone who needed it. To the hotel’s credit, I received a reply within 30 minutes telling me that my room assignment would be taken care of. We apparently were given a one of a kind room (or two of a kind , to be factually accurate).
As seen on the overhead view of the resort, we had one of the two rooms located on top of the spa, overlooking the parking lot. They did attempt to hide the parking with trees and we had a outside porch with chairs, although I couldn’t see spending much time outside. I could say that since were paying with points and that I asked for a different room than I booked, that this would be OK. But I couldn’t help but feel like this was one of the WORST located rooms in the hotel. That being said, it was large, it had a HUGE walk in closet area, nice bathroom and for the most part was quiet, so we kept what we were given.
In all, it was a tastefully decorated room that fit the Key West area. There were power plugs everywhere and USB outlets on each side of the bed. The room also had a refrigerator and a Keurig coffee maker (Green Mountain K-cups were provided but we bought Starbucks K-cups and milk for it at the drugstore down the street). Unfortunately, the coffee lids left in the room did not match the coffee cups. I left a note for housekeeping and this was resolved the next day.
We didn’t discover some of the more interesting things about the room until after we woke up the next morning. Like the grout in the bathroom was originally white but was now gray because it hadn’t been cleaned in a while, and the floors left my socks a nice shade of black (I like to walk around with my socks on and they were filthy when I took them off). Not to mention the damage to the room (the light shades were crushed). The toilet seat was also very thin plastic and literally buckled when you sat on it. This is all totally unacceptable from a hotel in this price range.
Socks from dirty floor
Damage to lamp shade
None of these matched one the most WTF moment we’ve ever had in a hotel. I had noticed, and mostly ignored, a remote control that was in the closet. Sharon got curious and wanted to see what it did. I’m so happy she did.
I mean, like, I can’t even. What is that?? Disco closet lights? My mind tried to wrap around this oddity. Did we get the Bachelor/Bachelorette Party room? What else had gone on in that closet? Why did they leave the remote in there if it didn’t get used? I stopped thinking before I’d want to change rooms.
OK, so I’ve essentially torn this hotel down. Was there anything good?
The Hyatt is the best location I’ve ever stayed in Key West. This was the view of the sunset on our first night there. We sat on the dock on the back of the resort with the drinks we got from the pool bar.
The next evening we walked to Mallory Square for the sunset (and entertainment). It was only a 10 minute walk and we were treated to this.
So it wasn’t all bad.
The Hyatt Centric grounds were a saving grace because this definitely was nice place to stay. They had turtles and birds (you could feed the turtles but the birds bite :-)) The pool area, albeit small, was very nice. They had a games area with a 1000 piece puzzle (someone completed it in a day – WTG!), foozball and boardgames, and a beach area with some sand and chairs. Key West is not known for beaches and this appeared to be for those surprised by this fact. They also had rentals of jet-skis from the property and the fishing docks were only 5 minutes away.
I’m really torn when I think about this hotel. There were so many things to like. It has a fantastic location on Key West. The rooms are large and tastefully decorated. The hotel grounds are inviting with many extras. I’d love to say that I’d stay here again.
I just can’t get over the price. For the amount that this hotel charges, it should be so much more. The service should be flawless, where you don’t have to look for someone when you drive up to the front door. The rooms should be spotless, not with dirty floors, damaged fixtures and flimsy toilet seats. I’m not even going to go into whatever that lighting in the closet was for.
The only reason we stayed here was because every other hotel we usually stay at on Key West was really expensive that particular weekend. In fact, if I could not have redeemed points, we probably wouldn’t have made the trip. Even though I had to part with 75,000 points, I’m OK with that if I don’t think about it too much. I had the points and weren’t holding them for any other trips. For that, it was worth it. If I had paid $1800+ for the room, I probably would think differently. I don’t have to worry about that, because I’d never spend that much for a room. Your Mileage May Vary.
I’ve already documented the difficulties I came across when trying to book a room at Disneyland with my DVC points in a previous article and now it was time to start looking at Plan B, Plan C and Plan D. Now, I don’t have much experience with booking hotels in and around Disneyland. We’ve stayed in the Grand Californian and Disneyland Hotel several times. Going back many years ago, we stayed at the Sheraton Anaheim Hotel (now renamed the Anaheim Majestic Garden Hotel) with a group discount from a theme park message board we helped moderate. On our most recent trip, we stayed at the Sheraton Park Hotel at the Anaheim Resort (that’s a mouthful). It wasn’t my original choice, but I was lucky enough to win a free night during a online contest that had to be used by the end of 2016. It was a nice enough hotel, but nothing about it really screamed Disney; it was more a Sheraton that happened to be planted near Disneyland. It was also a 15 min walk to the Esplanade, which was fine in the morning but not fun after a full day in the parks. It’s also just far enough that you don’t want to go trekking back and forth during the day.
I needed to see what options I had for our stay..
I started with the Disney Hotels.
Disneyland Hotel – $2600 for 5 nights
Paradise Pier – $1900 for 5 nights
Well, maybe not. Besides paying cash, I am also able to book these rooms with my Disney Vacation Club points. What would they cost in points (I’m valuing each point at $13; that is what I can sell them for)?
Disneyland Hotel – 225 points for 5 nights ($2925)
Paradise Pier – 171 points for 5 nights ($2223)
Um, no. I didn’t expect to see it would be a better value for me to sell the points and then book the stay for cash. While using DVC points to book Disney hotel rooms has never beed a great value, it’s now become a money losing proposition. Either way, I don”t think a 5 night stay there is worth $2000+.
Time to see if I can book a stay with my other hotel points. Unlike Walt Disney World, the entrance to Disneyland is right across the street from a number of chain and independent hotels. I narrowed my search to places where I had points – here are some of the cash/points prices for our stay:
Fairfield Inn Anaheim Resort – $1089/140,000 points. This is part of the Marriott hotel family. This hotel was charging 35,000 points a night. However, if you make a reservation with points for 4 nights, the 5th night is free. This property charges a $18 daily fee for parking and has free wifi. Unlike most Fairfield Inn hotels, they do not offer a free breakfast to guests
Sheraton is part of Starwood Preferred Guest program. Rooms were available for 8,000 points a night. Like Marriott, Starwood hotels offer a 5th night free on points bookings. Self Parking charge at this hotel is $18 and the hotel offers free wifi. As I said above, this hotel didn’t overwhelm us the last time we stayed there. We had to walk to the Hilton nearby for Starbucks in the morning. However, if the price was right I wouldn’t hesitate to stay here again.
Hotel Indigo Anaheim – $1311/150,000 points – Hotel Indigo is part of the IHG hotel group (same as Holiday Inn. I’ve already said how much I love this program in a prior post.) Since I just purchased 120,000 Holiday Inn (IHG) points for $690, I have plenty of points in this program. I would also get 10% of my points back because I have the IHG Credit Card, so the actual cost would only be 135,000 points. This hotel does not charge for parking (a big plus) and like all IHG hotels, has free wifi.
Those are some pretty decent options. The Sheraton and the Indigo are both tempting and if I had no other choice, I’d be happy to settle for either one. However, both of the hotels are a 15 minute walk and we (moreso Sharon) would like to stay somewhere a little closer this time. Since I do have other options, we are onto…
We’ve always been interested in the smaller hotels near Disneyland and many have been there almost as long as Disneyland itself. I did some searching and came across a page on Disneytouristblog.com that ranked all of the Disneyland off-property hotels (while it is admittedly not complete, they are all reviews by the same person). I commend anyone with this sense of commitment to a project.
I had narrowed our search to several hotels close to the Disneyland entrance and used the rankings with the ratings on Tripadvisor and Oyster to make my final decision. I found it interesting that none of these hotels were bookable from any third party website (Expedia, Hotels.com); you can only book them directly from the hotel website.
Park Vue Inn – $1222 for 5 nights. This is THE CLOSEST hotel to Disneyland (it shows as a 0.3 mile walk on Google Maps). They offer free breakfast, have a deck where you can watch the fireworks from, and have free self parking and wifi.
Anaheim Desert Inn and Suites – $1205 for 5 nights. This hotel is right next door to the Park Vue and, at first glance, appeared to be $20 cheaper a night. That changed when I went on with the booking as this hotel adds an $11 parking charge and $6 resort fee per day to the price. While they claim to have FREE continental breakfast and FREE wifi, I questioned how free that is with a $6 a night charge. Deceptive billing is always a negative for me.
Candy Cane Inn – $988.65 for 5 nights (AAA Rate). I’ve heard about the Candy Cane for as long as I’ve been reading about Disneyland. It’s been right on the corner of Disneyland for over 50 years. They have free parking, free wifi and a complimentary park shuttle (if you don’t want to walk the 0.6 mile to the park entrance). Also important to us this trip is an on-site coin laundry.
These prices were all a little better than the chain hotels, so if I had to pay cash for this trip, I knew I had one more ace up my sleeve: I would be able to use the Fourth Night Free benefit of the Citi Prestige Card. I’ve not talked about this card before because it’s a niche player in my wallet. However, the 4th night free benefit is the killer app of the Citi Prestige. For any stay of 4 nights or more, they reimburse you the full cost of the 4th night (starting soon this will change to the average nightly cost for the stay, not including taxes or fees).
So with any of the room prices above, I’d be able to take 20% off the price of the stay. That would potentially be all the way from $520 off of the Disneyland Hotel to $197 off the Candy Cane Inn. My one concern was if the independent hotels would be eligible for the offer or not. I emailed the Citi Concierge to see if they could book the hotels we were interested in. The step by step directions are described in this article from Lucky at One Mile at a time. I loved the reply I got back:
So we had to make a decision. It was really down to using points at the Hotel Indigo or using the 4th night free at the Candy Cane Inn.
We are suckers for places that stick around even when it seems like they shouldn’t. It didn’t take us much time to decide. CANDY CANE INN, here we come!!!!!!!!
I sent back to the Citi Concierge our dates and room preference. Besides having to call in to verify our credit card number and then one more call to confirm booking details, we just got a confirmation from the hotel. I did spend an extra $10 a night to upgrade to a Deluxe room for the extra 40 sf. The out of pocket cost for 5 nights, after the rebate, will be $837. Not bad. I’ve never been so excited to be staying in a room that looks like this.
Have any of you stayed at the Candy Cane Inn or any other of the hotels mentioned in this article? I’m interested to hear what you think. Comment here or write us on Facebook or Twitter.
Until August 31, 2016, when commercial airline service resumed, the way most people went to Cuba from the U.S. was on a chartered flight. You booked through an agency who arranged the flights and certified that you were flying for a designated reason. Their customers were mostly people with family living in Cuba, or those going on mission or school trips. You see, these were the people who could travel to Cuba freely under the embargo. In order to do so, you had to fit into one of the 12 categories allowed to travel there:
Educational activities in Cuba for schools, including people-to-people exchanges open to everyone
Professional research and professional meetings in Cuba
Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions in Cuba
Religious activities in Cuba
Humanitarian projects in Cuba
Journalistic activities in Cuba
Family visits to close relatives in Cuba
Activities in Cuba by private foundations, or research or educational institutes
Support for the Cuban people
Exportation, importation, or transmission of information technologies or materials
Certain authorized export transactions including agricultural and medical products, and tools, equipment and construction supplies for private use
Official business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
In 2015, the restriction of certifying that your travel was for an allowed reason was significantly reduced. You no longer needed to submit your plans in advance; instead you simply needed to state on a form that you were, in fact, traveling for one of the approved reasons.
We looked into a vacation to Cuba and booked an arranged trip through a travel concierge. Our flights, lodging, tour guides, drivers and even meals were all planned out and booked well in advance. You see, even then, demand from the United States and Europe was getting stronger and there was just not the infrastructure to support it in Cuba. They were not ready for a huge influx of new tourists, particularly in the towns outside of Havana. Most of the towns don’t have a huge number of hotel rooms and use “casa particulars” (“private houses” in English) to house many guests. Imagine it as a Cuban AirBNB.
When U.S. airlines were allowed to fly commercial flights again in 2016, the airlines applied for 60 flights a week between Havana and various U.S. cities. The Department of Transportation eventually awarded 20 slots to various airlines for flights to Havana.
They also approved flights to the other airports in Cuba to basically anyone who applied. I count 155 flights a week that were approved to fly to Cuba. The only one of these applications that was denied was from Eastern Airlines, who was a charter and did not have a commercial airline registration.
Having just flown to Cuba, I was wondering if the airline executives who applied for all of these flights had even flown to Cuba themselves, because they certainly didn’t seem to understand the market they were serving. All of these flights were going to have to be filled by U.S. citizens. If they all left full, there would be nowhere for the people to stay when they landed because there were not enough hotel rooms to take all of that capacity.
Starting as early as November 2016, the airlines realized they had severely overestimated the supply of flights needed. The announcements have been frequent and here’s what I see as the reductions and cancellations so far:
American Airlines – Flights from Miami to Cienfuegos and Camagüey changed to smaller planes, reducing the number of seats by 40%.
American Airlines – Cut flights from Miami to Holguin, Santa Clara and Varadero from twice daily to once daily.
Jet Blue – Downgraded all flights to smaller planes. Routes with 200 seat planes were reduced to 150 seats and routes with 150 seat planes were reduced to 100 seat aircraft.
Silver Airways – Suspended all services to Cuba as of April 22, 2017.
Frontier Airways – Cancelled their Miami-Havana flight.
Spirit Airways – Cancelled their Fort Lauderdale-Havana flight.
So, what happened? Obviously, the airlines added way too many flights to Cuba into the marketplace. However, I don’t think that was the real problem. I believe it was moreso they didn’t understand the customer who took these flights. I mean, you’d think when commercial flights started to Cuba, the charter businesses, who used to be the only ones flying in and out of Cuba from the U.S. would go away, yes? There would be no need for them since people could just go and buy a ticket to Cuba like to anywhere else, right? So why can I still go online and look up charter flights, which are still not only thriving, but still charging $400 round trip?
Flights to Cuba were never about leisure or business travelers. They were supply planes that happened to be carrying passengers. Here’s an example of the luggage charges for our charter flight to Cuba in 2016.
Total Amount of FREE OF CHARGE Weight: 44 lbs Every pound after the first 44 lbs will be charged at $2 per lb. Purse = FREE Carry-on = FREE (In order for a carry-on suitcase to be accepted as a carry- on suitcase in these charter flights, it can only weigh up to 20 lbs) Check-in suitcases: $20/each Example: You are traveling with a purse (6 lbs), a carry-on (19 lbs), and 1 check-in suitcase (30 lbs) Your total weight is 55 lbs. The first 44 lbs are free. The difference is 11 lbs. So you will be paying: 11 lbs x $2 = $22 1 Check-in Suitcase: $20 Also, at check-in, you pay $3 for Charter TSA Airport Fee. So you pay: $22+20+3=$45 These $45 you can choose to pay cash or with a credit card. If you pay with a credit card, they will charge you a 5% ($2.25) fee
They weighed everything at the airport. Our small carry on. Our carry on luggage. Our suitcase. EVERYTHING. We ended up paying $174 extra for our bags. While this may seem like a lot, we weren’t the ones this policy was made for. It was for everyone else on the flight who was bringing anything and everything with them to Cuba. Plastic garbage bags filled with clothing and toys. Boxed up car parts, flat screen TV’s, tires (YES, TIRES), an air conditioner, and everything else that the people in Cuba need.
In Cuba, you would need to go to the government store to buy many of these things. If you even have the money to buy them, the store might not have it in stock anyway. You can’t trust having it shipped there because it’s not dependable. So you get someone in your family or a friend or someone you know who is going to Cuba and you have them bring it with them. Even if the item is 100 pounds, that’s only 200 dollars. Well worth it so that your relatives have an air conditioner in the house.
I also need to add that those charges were only on the flight TO CUBA. For the flight home, they couldn’t be bothered to weigh your bags. Bring home whatever you want.
That’s why the commercial flights are not doing well. Could you imagine what United Airlines check in agents would do if someone came to the desk with 4 tires? I don’t think if you were even a top tier Premiere 1K flyer that you’d be able to check them in. Does each tire count as a bag? You’re only allowed 2 checked bags, or is that tires? They just don’t have the flexibility in their system to handle this. That’s why the charters still are around – because people who have been traveling to Cuba have been using them for years; they know the system, the airlines know the system, and the staff know the system.
Until the commercial airlines realize this, they can discount, downsize and cancel as many flights as they want, but they’ll never be able to get a grasp on the market. That is, until if/when Americans are able to travel and invest freely in Cuba. Then you’ll be able to stay at the newly built Hyatt Regency and have your Starbucks while sitting on the beach. But then it will just be another Caribbean island and we have plenty of those already.
Have you traveled to Cuba before or were you planning a trip? We’re interested to hear what you think. Comment here or write to us on Facebook or Twitter.
Way back when, Joe and I were huge Disney fans and were at a time in our lives when we went to just about any Disney-sponsored event that came down the pike (unless it was pirates or princesses. We were never into pirates or princesses). During that time frame, when Disney restaurants hadn’t been “dumbed down” to (A) save them money by offering more limited menus and (B) satisfy the mediocre and predictable palates of Mr. and Mrs. Middle America, we also ate “around the world” (Walt Disney World, that is) on a fairly regular basis. Disney offered a dining program for Florida residents called “Disney’s Dining Experience” where, for a reasonable annual fee, you got 20% off your bill at most WDW table-service restaurants (hey, it paid for the tip – and with the cost at some of Disney’s restaurants that could wind up being a pretty penny) and had the opportunity to dine at some special-made Members Only hard ticket events.
However, times have changed. The joy of Disney has tarnished significantly for us. Disney’s Dining Experience turned into “Tables in Wonderland,” which is now open to Florida residents, AND Disney Vacation Club Members AND Annual Passholders – which means less exclusivity. The price for Tables in Wonderland has also gone up quite a bit. The quality and quantity of the Tables in Wonderland events have also decreased (I know this because whereas I had to constantly request and re-request to be on TIW’s email list when I was a member, the MOMENT I didn’t renew, I started getting emails from them every freakin’ month, with the descriptions of their upcoming events). So nowadays we go to Universal if we want to go to “a park” (hello, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter ROCKS!) and we’ve discovered the joys of local Orlando-area restaurants that totally blow 99% of Disney’s restaurants out of the water.
But “way back when” (when Disney still offered quality experiences because maximal profit – not just profit; profit I could see – I mean when it didn’t always have to be MAXIMAL profit), was a wonderful, magical time – this is the sort of stuff they used to do:
Disney’s Dining Experience Presents Dinner at The Haunted Mansion Wednesday, September 25, 2002, 7:15pm – 11:00pm
The weather was warm and humid (welcome to Central Florida in September), with a threat of more rain (which never came while we were outside). We all met at Guest Relations to check in and to get our seating assignments. The seating assignments were written on 5”x8” parchment-like paper, with hand-made burn marks (they smelled like burnt toasted marshmallow and yes, I did smell a burn mark [to see if it was real] to come to that decision). Our paper said:
You have been doomed to join us for a swinging wake as a special guest of honor at the Haunted Mansion
You will be dining at Ambassador Xavier’s Table Number 1 ‘Sharon & Joe’ Party of 4
When all seventy of us attendees had arrived, we followed the half-dozen Suits and the two or three people who carried “crowd control” blinky red flashlights and walked as one big group towards the Haunted Mansion…from under the right side of the train station, up Main Street (it’s so cool when it’s empty), around the left side of the Hub, over the wooden bridge to Liberty Square, and onto the Liberty Belle Riverboat.
Empty Main Street at dusk
Our hors d’oeuvres & adult beverages await
Upon stepping onto the dock, we were offered small plastic cups of Guenoc Chardonnay. We were then encouraged to go to the top deck of the boat. From the boat you could see the Mansion in the distance, but it was slightly difficult to make out because it was already dark outside. However because of the bright lighting behind it, the scaffolding that’s still around the atrium was simple to see ;-). Once the boat took off around the Rivers of America (without the usual prerecorded spiel), we were treated to more bottle-poured wine, several Coca Cola products, as well as a variety of hors d’oeuvres (salmon sushi, baby peeled potatoes filled with sour cream and topped with chives, prosciutto and cream cheese (?) on crackers, salami rolls and stuffed cherry tomatoes).
Following the end of the riverboat ride, we were led to the restrooms in Fantasyland that are next to Peter Pan’s Flight (a good choice of facilities since those particular restrooms have LOTS of stalls) (MODERN-DAY NOTE: those restrooms no longer exist. They were closed when the restrooms to the left of It’s A Small World opened). Once everyone was done and a male and a female Suit confirmed that the restrooms were empty, we were led to the Mansion.
We were gathered into the queue area of the HM, where an old, creepy woman was waiting to greet us. She told us to gather ‘round her and once we had, she introduced herself as Madame Carlotta, the mistress of the Mansion. Carlotta was dressed in black, white and maroon with lace trim and she looked like she hadn’t seen sunlight in several decades. She asked if any of us had been in the Mansion before…it looked like all of us raised our hands. She then asked if any of us were Trivia buffs…several of us raised our hands. She went on to explain that we couldn’t see it now because it was too dark but the next time we visit the Mansion, to look at the roof of the building. Across the top of the HM there are all the pieces of a chess set except for one. Which one is it? A guest said she knew the answer…it’s a knight. Carlotta said she was correct…the knight IS missing, because it’s always night at the Haunted Mansion :-). She went on to explain that there would be samplings of 5 different types of wines with our 5-course meal and that each one was just a sampling…so don’t expect more and don’t ask for more, because it was just too bad (she said this so it sounded very lighthearted…as it turned out, you could have as much wine as you wanted…and several attendees DID get pretty hammered).
Carlotta led us to the main entrance of the Mansion and said she had a special surprise for us, because the doors had a new, mystical, special way of opening. She told us to say “Oooooh! Ahhhh!” and that would open the doors. We did it once and nothing happened, so we said it again and the doors slowly opened…by way of the person behind them ;-). This person introduced himself as Broome, the head butler. Broome was a very tall man in a gray and black butler’s uniform, with dust and cobwebs all over him (Modern Day Note: for those “in the know,” I could easily see him telling puns at the Adventurers Club, once upon a time. May he R.I.P.). He explained that his job was to tell everyone about the meal they would be eating, but that first he would tell everyone where to go. After laughter, he explained that he would inform people where their assigned tables were, if they needed such assistance.
We all filed into the Mansion, where our tables were ready. Each table held up to 8 people…there were 2 tables in the pre-show room (where Master Gracey’s changing portrait hangs over the fireplace. This is the room we sat in). The doors of the stretching rooms were all open and there were 2 tables in each of those spaces. The pre-boarding area had another 3 tables, with a movable privacy wall between it and the actual loading area. Each tablecloth was black and red in a snake skin pattern, with a matching covering on each chair. The centerpieces were made of intertwined “live” plants and “dead” twigs, with 3 candles each, to help light up the relatively dark room. Each place setting included a black serving plate, 1 glass for water and 5 glasses for wine. On each place setting was a copy of our menu on the same burnt parchment paper as our seating assignment. It said:
Welcome Foolish Mortals to a Spooky Evening at the Haunted Mansion
For your dining pleasure
Roasted Squab on a Confit of Leeks and Asparagus
Creamy Seafood Soup with Squid Ink and Seared Halibut
Chicory, Radicchio, Frisée Salad, and Micro Greens on a Foie Gras Tombstone with Truffle Vinaigrette
Raspberry Sorbet on Ice Skull
Grilled Beef Tenderloin topped with a Freshwater Prawn, and served with Root Vegetables and Fingerling Potatoes
Blood Orange Mousse and a Spooky Crème Brûlée
A selection of ghoulish wines will be served during the wake
Rest In Peace
On the back of the menu were printed descriptions of the “haunted” wineries that supplied our spirits for the evening (spirits, get it? spirits!). It said:
Guenoc Winery The original owner of the land where the Guenoc Winery stands today was a famous Stage Actress named Lilly Langtry. The original house that Lilly built is still in full use today by the current owners of the estate, the Magoon Family. Countless guests of the home have seen Lilly’s ghost over the years and strange occurrences happen there on almost a weekly basis.
Valley of the Moon The Valley of the Moon is the name given to the Valley by the Native Americans that once roamed the valley. The chants of their past songs still haunt the Valley to this day.
Kenwood Jack London Vineyards The famous author Jack London, started building a very large home in Sonoma overlooking the Valley of the Moon in 1935. A catastrophic fire burned down the house before it could be finished. There was no apparent explanation for the fire and attempts to re-build were thwarted by constant accidents and thus the home was never finished. The frame and basic structure of the house still stand today and reports of weird and unexplained occurrences are common in and around the original Jack London home site.
Back to our evening…
The HM theme song (slow organ version) quietly played in the background throughout the evening. The stretch rooms “stretched” and “unstretched” during the event, complete with lights going off and quiet thunder/lightning at regular intervals.
Our servers for the evening were originally scattered around the rooms in various zombie-like poses. Once we were all seated, Carlotta explained that the servers were under a spell that made them unable to speak. True to her word, they could not speak but could grunt, gesture and point well. The servers were dressed in drab green and looked ghoulishly pale and unkempt.
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Someone suddenly LOUDLY banged at the front door of the Mansion, so Broome went to answer it. Outside was Abner, a scary but funny magician. Abner was tall, in a gray, black and white outfit that included a maroon turban.
Carlotta, Broome and Abner made several rounds of all the tables…Carlotta had a funny/scary persona and Broome had several puns readily available. Abner intermixed jokes with slight-of-hand card tricks. For Joe and I, he also mentioned that he was friends with someone we knew named Annelle. (Modern-Day Note: Another Adventurers Club reference. Again, for those “in the know”: at the time, we had NO IDEA of who Abner was in real life was until he said that. As opposed to later years where we could almost play a version of “Name That Tune” when it came to select Disney performers – “I can name that CM after he speaks 4 words in a funny voice!”…”Oh yeah? Well, *I* can name that CM with 3 layers of makeup AND a fake nose!”)
Broome announced each of our courses, with some editorial comments thrown in for good measure. In order (with my own editorial comments), they were:
–Roasted Squab on a Confit of Leeks and Asparagus (the squab leg still had its claw attached)
–Creamy Seafood Soup with Squid Ink and Seared Halibut (it was described as “eyeball soup” by Broome and it DID look like eyeballs with red irises, floating in a black liquid)
–Chicory, Radicchio, Frisée Salad, and Micro Greens on a Foie Gras Tombstone with Truffle Vinaigrette (the foie gras DID look like a tombstone, which was a nice touch, but it’s hard to otherwise make salad look scary)
–Raspberry Sorbet on an Ice Skull (Now THIS was cool. As the description said, the “bowl” for the sorbet was made of ice, in the shape of a skull, with the sorbet sitting in a small indentation on the top. On the bottom of the skull was a red disc, about 3” in diameter, that glowed red. When I took my disk out to examine it further, one of the servers threw a handful of disks at our table so we all had one)
–Grilled Beef Tenderloin topped with a Freshwater Prawn, and served with Root Vegetables and Fingerling Potatoes (again, not a particularly scary course, but it tasted DELICIOUS)
–Blood Orange Mousse and a Spooky Crème Brûlée (this had a dark chocolate bat and spiderweb decoration, with a white chocolate background)
Roasted Squab on a Confit of Leeks and Asparagus
Creamy Seafood Soup with Squid Ink and Seared Halibut
Chicory, Radicchio, Frisée Salad, and Micro Greens on a Foie Gras Tombstone with Truffle Vinaigrette
Raspberry Sorbet on an Ice Skull
Grilled Beef Tenderloin topped with a Freshwater Prawn, and served with Root Vegetables and Fingerling Potatoes
Blood Orange Mousse and a Spooky Crème Brûlée
Each course had a beautiful presentation and everything tasted delicious. I’m not a huge wine person (MODERN DAY NOTE: I am now. But in 2002, not so much) and purposely didn’t drink much because I wanted to really enjoy and remember this event, but the pairings (2 whites, 2 reds and a dessert port) seemed appropriate.
After the end of the last course, we were bid farewell by Carlotta, Broome and Abner and were gestured by the servers to leave our seats, go into the pre-load area and board our Doombuggies. There were no pre-planned surprises on the attraction, but as the attraction has just been down for rehab for 3 weeks (the motors than moved the stretch rooms were changed, and several lighting and sound aspects had been fixed – back then, I knew someone who knew such things) I was able to notice many effects much more so than in the past.
Although there were no PLANNED activities, it WAS the first time that I ever saw the Mansion filled with an inordinate amount of drunk people, LOL! There were many more adult human shrieks and screams than usual, as well as a significant amount of flash photography. I also noticed that a lot of folks had significant problems with the moving sidewalks when getting on and off the ride, LOL! Some people were noted to try to hit Madame Leota’s crystal ball with their “souvenir” red glow things in the Séance Room, using them as frisbees (Modern-Day Note: I didn’t throw mine and although it’s now going on 15 years later, I still have my red glow thing).
After we had all finished our ride, we were led to the area just in front of the Columbia Harbor House, where we were offered another restroom break in the restaurant’s facilities. This time it was noted that the Men’s Room had a line just as long as the Women’s Room, and the men just had no clue of how to handle that, LOL!
Once everyone was out of the restrooms, they brought us to the southern part of Liberty Square. They lined us up into in the 2 nearby walkways, facing the Hall of Presidents. Once they were sure we were far enough back “for our own safety,” the headless horseman on his steed came whizzing by. He made 2 passes in front of us and then vanished into the night (my pictures of him were the only disappointing ones I took the whole evening…he was just too fast).
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From Liberty Square we were ushered to Main Street where they offered us the “Goodnight Spiel” that they usually play when the MK is closing. Finally, we were loaded onto a waiting monorail (I saw one lady who needed the assistance of not 1, but 2 CM’s to go up the ramp because she was so plastered) and whisked back to the TTC.
It was a perfect evening. I really, REALLY hope they do it again someday.
Forgive the clickbait headline. But truth be told, we really are flying for an out-of-pocket expense of less than $25. How? Thanks for asking!
Not all trips on points and miles are glamourous. Some are rather plain, yet important. Like when you and your wife want to fly to Charlotte for a friend’s wedding in little over than a month from now.
When I first started looking at flights, I was like “That’s like less than 500 miles. It can’t be that expensive of a flight.”
It really shouldn’t be. I mean we could drive there in 7 1/2 hours. So what’s a reasonable amount of airfare. $200 Round Trip? Maybe $250, right?
Nope. Let’s actually start the bidding at $293. That’s if we were willing to be at the airport for a 6:30 AM flight. Oh, heck no! So we are on to Plan B, using our airline miles.
I started my search with American, as they have many daily departures on this route. My hopes weren’t too high as I just read a post by Gary on View From the Wing about how poor award availability on American Airlines has been as of late. To my amazement, I was able to find space for 2 tickets at Saver pricing for a decent time flight to Charlotte. American was charging 7,500 miles for the flight, so that would be 15,000 for the one way trip plus $11.20 in taxes.
I have a good amount of American points stashed away so I could have made this booking. However, this is where my mind goes into miles overdrive mode. I also have points in British Airways program from getting their credit card last year with a 75,000 Avios bonus (Avios is the name that British Airways gives to their mileage currency.) Since the amount of British Airways Avios required for a ticket is based on the miles flown, this short flight would only cost me 7,500 Avios (or 15,000 for the two tickets). This is the same amount as the miles required by American Airlines. Since British Airways and American are partners, any Saver space with American should be available to book with Avios through the British Airways website. An advantage to booking with British Airways over American is the difference in cancellation policies. With American, if I want to cancel the flight I would have to pay $150 to redeposit the miles into my account. If I cancel the same flight booked with Avios, I will only be responsible for the taxes paid on the ticket. I found out about this trick from this Million Miles Secrets article. I can vouch that this works as I’ve rebooked a ticket with Avios before and only had to pay $5.60. The British Airways phone agent even suggested this was the best way for me to rebook my flights.
I booked my flight to Charlotte for $11.20 (and 15,000 Avios). So now, how to get home?
Forget flights on American for Sunday night, as the one way was pricing for over $350 each person. I don’t think so; not for that price. Even flights on Southwest were expensive.
I find this next sentence difficult to write:
Delta Airlines Skymiles to the rescue.
Delta Skymiles have long been the whipping boy of the miles and points blogosphere (they are often referred to as SkyPesos). Most writers love to complain about how Delta no longer posts mileage charts and changes what they make you pay for flights on a whim. While this is true, most other airlines have gotten as bad (or worse) for using your points for economy flights in the U.S.
I found a flight home on Delta which would have cost us $185 each. It meant connecting in Atlanta but that’s not too bad since it’s not out of the way. Delta was also offering it for 14,500 Skymiles. The gold standard price for a one way flight in the US is 12,500 miles (25,000 for a round trip), Now considering that American was asking 20,000 miles for a flight, I bit the bullet and booked the flight home with Delta for 29,000 Skymiles and $11.20
All of these plans might have changed if we were flying on a different day. Frontier flies from Orlando to Charlotte for $105 Round Trip but, alas, they did not have flights on our required days.
I’ve read on how to not get hosed on Frontier tickets, so I was confident I could book without any unknown fees biting me in the behind. Sharon, on the other hand, was still very skeptical about it and is happier with the booking we’ve made. I still think Frontier has cool designs on their planes, even if we don’t fly with them.
So that’s how we are going to fly to Charlotte for $25 (actually $22.40, 29,000 Delta Skymiles and 15,000 British Airways Avios) Since those miles were earned mainly through credit card bonuses, this was really a no brainer. We have no plans for any of those miles in the near future and I can earn 45,000 miles back with another sign up bonus.
What’s your most boring, yet valuable, booking with your points or miles? Share with us here, Facebook or Twitter.