Airport Lounges Are Worth More Than Just All You Can Eat Snack Mix

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Sipping champagne at the Amex Centurion Lounge, LaGuardia Airport, February 2016

I remember the first time I had access to an airport lounge and was able to go through those doors that had been forbidden to me for so long. It must have been with one of my first business class award tickets. Checking in at the desk, being welcomed to a quiet oasis in the airport. I was visiting a magical place inhabited by important people.

I’ll admit that I’ve become jaded and airport lounges don’t do much for me anymore. Unless I know that it’s a particularly good lounge, I’m not going to waste time, effort or money to go into one. Now, I fully realize this makes me make sound like a pretentious jerk but, well, it’s the truth ;-).

All that being said, a series of events on a trip to New York caused me to change my usual plans and showed me how lounges, and in particular the lounge staff, can be very helpful.
Continue reading “Airport Lounges Are Worth More Than Just All You Can Eat Snack Mix”

#TBT: Alaska ’09 Trip- Part 3 of 9

Part 3 of 9: Rehearsal & relaxing

In August of 2009, I (Sharon) deserted my husband Joe and our puppy Dobby (at the time we had had her for about a month and a half) to go on a cruise to Alaska with the choir of which I was a member at the time (we were booked to sing on the ship). Some of my writing style has changed since 2009, some of my snark is exactly the same and heaven knows that cameras and photos have improved in the past 8 years, but here is the trip report I wrote about those adventures…the good, the bad and the ugly! To get up-to-date on the trip:

Part 1 – Arriving in Vancouver
Part 2 – On board and getting my bearings

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith an 8am (8am? On vacation? whine, whimper) call time for rehearsal, I was up (before the alarm…ARGH!) at 6:35am and out of bed a few minutes later. In order to sleep as late as possible (ha!), I had requested room service for breakfast so before I left for the rehearsal, I enjoyed an Egg Beaters omelette with ham & cheese, half a grapefruit and coffee. Not bad, not terrific. But definitely convenient!

Our rehearsal was held in the theater where our show would be. At 7:45am, I was the first one there but the rest soon arrived also (Caroline and I agreed it didn’t count as “bumping into each other” since we were both scheduled to be there, LOL!). Our conductor told everyone to sit in their sections as they had been told in rehearsals at home, to which I looked at him and said, “Huh?” Orlando and Tampa hadn’t had any rehearsals (I could see why they wouldn’t…there were only originally 5 singers, now we were just 4, and we were divided into 2 + 2 between Orlando and Tampa, but it certainly put us as a disadvantage – “Carlene” and I hadn’t sung the songs in a concert since October ’08 and poor Celeste and Esther had NEVER done them in a show – so all we had was sheet music and rehearsal CD’s. No pressure…) so we had no IDEA of where to go or even who else sang what parts in order to figure out where to sit. But eventually we figured it out and I took my place with the other 5 Second Sopranos.

The rehearsal was short and sweet, thanks in part to the fact that our piano player, Gabriel (a Nicholas Cage lookalike) was just seeing the music for the first time and was playing via sight reading. He didn’t do too badly, all things considered, and even improvised on the songs he already know, like ‘Fly Me To the Moon” and “New York, New York.” So by 8:40am, we were done.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI wandered back to the Explorers Club and did the jigsaw puzzle they had – I used to LOVE jigsaw puzzles when I lived in Staten Island but we just don’t have a decent place to do them in our house yet. Anyway, theirs was HUGE! 4,000 pieces! of course, Caroline and Sue came by (this time they were definitely stalking me, not me stalking them) and Caroline did the puzzle while Sue wandered about the room (I’m talking with a lot of Brits so I’m starting to pick up on their verbiage). When I got tired of the puzzle, I finished Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone (again) and then tried to nap in my chair for a little while but it was too loud. Plus I was getting HUNGRY!

I went back to the Lido Buffet for lunch, where I got rotisserie chicken, Virginia ham, some stir fry veggies and a few French fries – it was all pretty good. I wound up eating with 4 Brits – 2 from the choir and a husband and wife team from the Leeds area who I thought were from the choir but in actuality were just British (apparently not all Brits on the ship are Choir Brits, LOL!).

After lunch, the 2 ladies left for plans that they had so I had my dessert (chocolate ice cream) with Antony, Colin, Pauline and Ann, where we discovered yet another difference between American English and English English…what we call Jello, they call jelly and what we call jelly, they call jam. It’s funny how 2 languages that are so much the same can be so different!

We all went to the Crow’s Nest Lounge next, for a trivia game. Our team was me, Colin, Antony, Carlene and “Stewart.” Some of the questions were easy (how many dots are on a pair of dice?) and some not so much. We got 11 out of 15 right but some team got 14 right so they won. The prize was “Dam bucks” for Bingo – something I could live without, anyway.

I had some spare time before my next planned event on my schedule so I went to the various decks, inside and out, and took some pictures – the scenery was beautiful!

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI had a 2:30pm reservation for a wine tasting in the Queens Lounge, as did Esther and Celeste from Tampa. It was a typical “here’s how you taste wine” seminar, with 2 reds, 2 whites and a champagne – none of the wines were awful (not even the oaky chard) but none were really good, either. Oh well…it took up an hour.

 

4:30 brought my facial, which was VERY relaxing. The girl who did it was named Leisl (or was it Lisette?) and she was from South Africa. 50 minutes later I was very relaxed, with VERY smooth skin.

I tried to grab a quick nap after that – laid down for a good 30 minutes but never fell asleep. And with needing to get ready for Formal Night for 7:45pm, I finally just gave up and got dressed.

I arrived at the lounge near the restaurant around 7:15ish and was waved over by Celeste and Esther who, as it turned out, were sitting next to Caroline & Sue, of course, LOL! We got a round of drinks, got the band to play ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (with two Sop 1’s, a Sop 2, an Alto and a Tenor between us, of course we sang along) and soon enough it was time for dinner.

Everyone looked SO nice in their formal duds…

I got a shrimp cocktail appetizer, the rack of lamb (with ratatouille and a potato cake) and a small butterscotch sundae for dessert. YUMMY!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the midst of the meal, a bunch of people suddenly started Oohing and Ahhing and going towards the windows…apparently there were some whales nearing, diving. I was able to see them blow out their blowholes but as I was so far from the windows, that as much as I could see. The poor servers had to wait for the melee to end though.

After dinner, I walked out with Nancy and Jessica (I’m SLOWLY starting to learn names) and we and a few other (not ALL the names though, Maybe a half-dozen) got our pictures taken by a photographer. Before they could drag me to get my picture taken with the Captain, I slipped back to my cabin and put on real clothes again. Finally, after updating my blog, I got ready for a well-deserved sleep!
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Why is everyone so excited about the Starwood American Express card right now?

NOTE: The offer mentioned in this post is no longer available. Click on the links in the article for the current available offers.

I follow my fair share of websites that focus on miles and points and ever since last week, I can’t get through a couple of articles without seeing something mentioning the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card. Why, all of a sudden, is there an increased interest in this card?

The most important reason for the flurry of attention is that the card has recently increased the sign up bonus from the usual 25,000 points to a bonus of 35,000 points. This bigger bonus does come with a higher spending requirement. To get the full bonus on the personal card, you need to spend $5000 in total over six months ($3,000 in three months for 25,000 points and then you get an additional 10,000 points after spending an additional $2,000 within 6 months.) The business card requires $8,000 in spending for the full bonus ($5,000 in 3 months for 25,000 points and $3,000 additional spending by 6 months for 10,000 more points) The increased bonuses will last until April 5, 2017. The usual annual fee for these cards are $95 but the annual fee is waived for the first year.If you want to apply for the either of these cards, here is a link to apply for the personal card and here is a link for the business card. This will be for the same public offer but they’ll also give me 5,000 Starpoints for the referral, which would be greatly appreciated.

Sharon and I both currently have the personal version of this card and I have previously had the business version of this card. So why is everyone going go crazy over a sign up bonus of 35,000 points? I mean, you can easily find cards offering 50,000, 75,000 or even 100,000 points or miles for a similar amount of spending without having to look very far. The reason is that Starpoints (the name of points in the Starwood Preferred Guest, or SPG program) are usually considered some of the most valuable currencies to have.

To redeem a room at a Starwood Property (Sheraton, Westin, W Hotels, Aloft, Four Points, St. Regis, Le Meriden, Tribute, Design Hotels, Luxury Collection, Element) takes from 2,000 points for the lowest category 1 room on a weekend stay to a maximum of 35,000 for a peak category 7 room. To put that in perspective, Hilton’s lowest category starts at 5,000 points but then goes up to 70,000 to possibly 95,000 points a night (depending on season) for a room in one of their category 10 hotels.

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Your 35,000 point sign up bonus can get you 1 night at the Sr. Regis Princeville Resort on Kauai. That room can retail for over $800 a night. Photo from SPG website.
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We recently booked this upgraded room at the Great Northern Hotel in London for 17,550 Starpoints a night. Yes, that’s Sharon photobombing the picture.

So while Starpoints can give wonderful value when used to book a hotel room, there are even more reasons they are loved so much in the miles and points world.

  • They are very flexible – there are over 30 airline frequent flyer programs to which which you can transfer your Starpoints. When transferring points to airlines, you also get a 5,000 bonus for every 20,000 points transferred (so 20,000 Starpoints becomes 25,000 Delta SkyMiles). This means it often makes more sense to earn Starpoints on your everyday spending and then transfer them to the airline program than it does to earn miles using the airlines own co-branded card.
  • If you book 4 nights using your Starpoints in a hotel, the 5th night is free. This essentially reduces the points needed per night by 20%. Unfortunately, Sharon and I have never used this perk as we rarely stay in the same place for five nights.
  • Unlike some other programs that will only let you use your points for the lowest level room type, Starpoints can be redeemed for upgraded rooms. I paid 1,750 extra points per night to upgrade to a larger Cubitt room at the Great Northern Hotel in London.
  • While there was much hand-wringing when Marriott merged with Starwood, the hotel points programs are still run separately. They did make it so you are now able to transfer your Starpoints to Marriott Rewards points at a 1:3 ratio. That opens up a whole bunch of hotels owned by Marriott (which also includes Ritz Carlton hotels) that are available to book. Since a top level category 9 Marriott hotel costs 45,000 Marriott Rewards points, you only have to transfer 15,000 Starpoints for enough to book a single night stay. Even the top of the top, a tier 5 Ritz-Carlton hotel, is 70,000 points (equivalent of 23,333 Starpoints).
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You can stay at the historic Algonquin Hotel Times Square after transferring 15,000 Starpoints to the Marriott Rewards program. Photo from Marriott Website.
  • It is possible to pool points with your family members as long as your accounts have the same registered address for 30 days or more. This means it could be possible for you to earn even more points with this increased bonus.
  • With the Starwood and Marriott merger complete, it is quite possible that the Starwood American Express cards will be going away in the future. Marriott currently has their own credit card and a Ritz Carlton card, which are both offered by Chase. This could be an instance of if you don’t sign up for this card during this offer, you may never see a bonus this high on this card again.

While I’ve written how valuable this 35,000 sign up bonus can be, I do need to mention some warnings about signing up for credit cards for the bonuses. You really need to have your financial matters in order before starting down this path and it does take discipline to keep things from getting out of control. Here are some quick guidelines.

  • Do NOT sign up for credit cards if you you are currently paying credit card debt that is charging interest. No sign up bonus will make up for the amount you are paying on that debt. Get your finances under control first, no matter how tempting all these points seem to be.
  • Do NOT spend more on a credit card for points than you would normally spend. There are many ways to reach spending thresholds without going out and getting that 70 inch 4K television (unless you were going to be getting it anyway).
  • Do NOT sign up for every offer you see. Some banks, like Chase, are limiting the number of cards you can be approved for. If you have signed up for more than 5 cards in the last 2 years from any bank, you can not get any more Chase cards. It’s really easy to get more than that many cards, overall, once you get started.
  • Keep in mind that even if you have signed up for the personal card before, you may still be eligible for the business version. Million Mile Secrets wrote a great article about what qualifies as a business. The SPG business card does have an additional perk of giving you hotel lounge access even if you’re not booked in a room which would normally allow it. Depending on the hotel, this could be a great perk. For our travels, I’d prefer not to spend a whole bunch of time in the hotel lounge but, as always, Your Mileage May Vary.
  • Do NOT sign up for a bunch of travel credit cards if you have a large purchase you will be financing in the near future, like a home mortgage or a car loan.
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We took a 8 month break from credit card sign up bonuses before buying Jeep Jeep (that’s her name) a few weeks ago! And yes, Jeep Jeep is purple. Xtreme Purple, to be exact. It’s Sharon’s car so she chose the color. She likes cars that are the colors of Skittles.

There also also some specific things to know about signing up for cards from American Express.

  • You can only get one sign up bonus per card, PER LIFETIME (this may actually only be once every seven years but the rule hasn’t been in place long enough for people to be able to test that).
  • There is a great article on the website One Mile at a Time  that explains some of the more complex rules of signing up for cards with American Express, which would be more important if you have been going at this game for a while.

So I’m on the fence about if I’m going to have Sharon sign up for the business card. A final crack at an additional 35,000 Starpoints is just too good of an offer to pass up. What do you think?

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Let me know…

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Using Your Airline Miles To Get To Europe

We love traveling and TransAtlantic trips are extra special. Living on the east coast of the U.S., flights to European cities are not much longer than trips to the west coast. While I’ve made the trip in economy class, making the overnight flight there in a lie flat business class seat is just so much better. You actually might even sleep on the flight and arrive for your big vacation well rested.

Unfortunately, I will never have the time to try all of the airlines that fly between the United States and Europe. Lucky for me, The Points Guy has just posted a list of all the airlines and comments on the business class service available on each one on this page of their blog.  They also pick what they feel are the Top 10, based on factors like availability, service and cost.

I’ve only flew a few of these but will give my quick opinion of each. I did my research before all of these flights and picked out what seemed to be the best airline available to fit our needs. I actively avoided airplanes which had bad reviews but did not go out of my way to book a particular airline/airplane/seat type. I can say that I was happy with all the flights. None were amazing beyond compare but we had much more comfortable flight than we would have had in economy while soaring over the Atlantic Ocean on all of them.

Aer Lingus

This was how we got to London on our most recent trip in the fall of 2016. I was able to get flights in business class from Orlando to Dublin, then onward to London in economy. We were even able to arrange for a 10 hour layover so we got to leave the airport and spend the afternoon in Dublin so we could eat at one of our most favorite restaurants, Gallagher’s Boxty House. The seats were very comfortable and I even managed to get several hours of sleep on the flight. Since Aer Lingus is a partner with United Airlines, I was able to book the one way ticket for 70,000 United  miles + $23.80 each.

 American Airlines

This was our airline to get us home from Europe in 2016. Since we hopped around a little bit, we needed to fly home from Austria. I was able to get a ticket from Salzburg, Austria to London to Miami and finally to Orlando, all in business class.

I managed to get us seats on an American 777-300ER, which is one of their newest planes, for our flight from London to Miami. It had lie flat seats, everyone had aisle access and a really big TV screen. We were flying home during the daytime so I didn’t sleep very much on the flight but did enjoy reclining to read. To book the tickets, I had a healthy stash of American miles. At the time, this award cost 50,000 American miles (now it costs 57,500) and $200.20 each.

 Virgin Atlantic

I love the vibe of Virgin Atlantic. We flew them back in 2013 in Upper Class from Orlando to London and then home from Manchester to Orlando. Flying there, we took a 747 and were the first two seats in the nose of the plane. It was so cool. Apparently it was so cool that we didn’t want to appear silly taking a bunch of pictures. This was the only one I could find.img_0040

Flying home from Manchester we were on an Airbus A330-300. The seats were jammed in much closer and it wasn’t as luxurious a trip back. I guess that’s why we have no pictures of the flight.

That trip was the first time I used some miles and points tricks without help from others. I booked this flight using miles from ANA (All Nippon Airways). They are partners with Virgin Atlantic and only charge 68,000 miles for the flight. I was able to get ANA miles by transferring points to them from my American Express Membership Rewards account. This was good for me because back then I didn’t have a big stash of miles to spend. The kicker was that they do charge taxes and fees which ended up costing $1100.00 per ticket. I viewed it as if I was paying cash for a premium economy ticket and the miles I used was the cost to upgrade to Upper Class.

Delta Airlines and Air France

We flew these airlines to Ireland back in 2011. The information about the flights and such are really out of date. Flying up in front of the plane was also still a new thrill for us. Apparently the only thing that excited us was the amount of legroom we had as these are the only pictures I can find of the flight.

To book this flight, I used an award booking service I read about in a magazine called Book Your Award. Using a service to take advantage of your miles was a new idea back then. They are still around and I will refer people to them if they need help to book a complicated award ticket with miles.

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary

Hotel Review: Fairfield Inn & Suites New York Manhattan/Central Park

I have my list of hotels where I usually stay in New York. This stay was different. I was going to see the screening of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the only idea I had of the location was “Lincoln Center,” which is not an area where we usually stay. So I needed to go back to my hotel searching roots. I went to TripAdvisor and it turned out there were actually very few places within walking distance of Lincoln Center. One hotel, the Fairfield Inn & Suites New York Manhattan/Central Park, did show up but had very few reviews – turns out that was because it had just opened this past October. I figured since it was a new place, it would still be in relatively good shape, so I took a chance and booked a room there. It was in the area we needed and the price was good – only $175 a night after taxes (which is a really decent price for a NYC hotel). Continue reading “Hotel Review: Fairfield Inn & Suites New York Manhattan/Central Park”