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.

 

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).

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Exterior of Fairfield Inn & Suites

We arrived for our first evening after a late flight into Newark and didn’t get to the hotel until around 11PM. The front desk staff were very nice, thanked me for being a Gold Member of Marriott, gave us our room keys and even provided special gifts for Valentines Day to my father and I.

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Valentines Day Gift from Fairfield Inn. How sweet.

When checking in, we were given a room facing the front of the hotel on the 12th floor, which only had 6 rooms on it. It appears the higher floors are up on the tower to the right of the hotel while the lower floors have more rooms on them.

Now, while searching for hotels, I had to find a room with 2 double or queen size beds since I was would be sharing the room with my dad. This was harder to find in Manhattan than you would think it would be. When we opened the door to the room, it seemed that it was quite a tight fit to put two beds into this room. The door just cleared the bed when going into the room.

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Yes, that is the door just clearing the end of the bed when going into the room.

It was a nicely appointed room, with just not that much room. However we hardly spent much time there over our 2 days and agreed that it was fine for our stay. If we were staying any longer, had any significant luggage, or just wanted to walk past one another, it was a bit lacking in space. Here are some more pictures of the room for your perusal.

The one thing I did find interesting for a new hotel was the design choice of putting on a plastic lampshade by just cracking a hole in the top of it.

One thing I did mention to the hotel staff was that our hotel thermostat was set to 90 degrees when we returned to our room in the afternoon. I figured it was payback for my article about how to hack your thermostat. The front desk suggested that the housekeeper must have been cool while making up the room so she turned the heat up and then forgot to turn it back down when she left. We opened the windows of the room to cool it off (it was only 35 degrees outside) but it took a while for the room to get comfortable again.

Another issue we had with this hotel was that they kept changing which door you used to enter and exit the building. This sign moved 3 times during our 2 night stay. We were told they were having problems with the automatic doors.

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We played a game of musical doors during our stay.

Another thing which was slightly odd was the stairs leading down to the lobby level. As the hotel is located on a bit of a hill, you have to walk down a flight of stairs to get to the check in doors from street level. The stairs have a very odd angle, where you walked towards what I suppose would be a small garden when winter was over, instead of towards the doors. It always made me feel like I was walking into an Escher painting.

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Angled stairway down to the lobby

Now, I don’t want it to seem like I’m totally negative about the place. We had a fine stay here but it was by no means a luxury hotel. They did have free wi-fi in the room which worked reasonably well. This was also the first hotel I’ve stayed in that gave you the ability to log into Netflix and watch your own movies. The hotel also did have a breakfast buffet room with a full spread that included with waffles, eggs, bacon, pastries, etc. The only problem with it was that they stopped serving at 9AM on weekdays. After attending a MST3K afterparty until 1AM, we did not make breakfast the next morning and ended up hitting a nearby diner for omelets.

So what did I think of the Fairfield Inn & Suites New York Manhattan/Central Park? Well, I would totally stay here again for the price we paid if I needed to primarily be in the Lincoln Center area again. But I think I would generally still go to my regular hotels in midtown Manhattan, if that was the area in which I was generally going to be, as it wouldn’t be worth going out of my way to stay here.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 Lives Again – The New York MST3K Screening & Afterparty

In honor of the Tom Servo and Crow Funko Pops that have been released this month, this is a re-post of the entry Joe wrote in February 2017.

We have movie sign!!!!!!!

That’s right! There’s a new episode of MST3K for the first time since August 1999! Thanks to the largest campaign to fund a media project on Kickstarter, Mystery Science Theater is coming back to television on Netflix for 14 new episodes.

When I saw the Kickstarter campaign in late 2015, I knew I had to give something to bring this show back. When looking through the incentives, I saw one I really wanted:

EXPERIMENT 752: JUST LIKE IN NEW YORK!

Tired of watching *us* sit in a theater watching movies while *you* sit at home? We can fix that. Grab a guest, put on your tuxedo jumper and join us at the theatre with TWO TICKETS to MST3K’s NYC PREMIERE EVENT*. Watch the pilot of the new season with the cast and creative team. Throw us your toughest curveballs during the Q&A. We’ll even cover your overpriced popcorn and soda.

*Travel/accommodations not included. See FAQ for more details.

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Poster for the first MST3k episode since 1999

I know this is a miles, points and travel blog, so stay with me here. Sharon and I have been living with the motto, “Experiences, not things” for a while now. If there’s something we want to do, we’ll try to make that happen however we can. For me, collecting miles and points allowed me to not worry about how I was going to get to New York or pay for my hotel. I knew that would take care of itself. I just had to swallow the price of the admission. With permission from Sharon (yes, it cost that much that I needed to make sure she was OK with me spending that amount), I went ahead and made my pledge.

That was back in December 2015. Since then the whole MST3K team has done a wonderful job of sending out info to the backers to let us know how the project was going. Finally after what seemed like an eternity, I got the email on Dec 29th, 2016:

You and a guest
are formally invited
to join
Joel Hodgson
& Special Guests
for
THE
#BRINGBACKMST3K
“WE’VE GOT MOVIE SIGN”
SCREENING EVENT
when:
TUESDAY,
FEBRUARY 14, 2017
early evening.
where:
NEW YORK CITY
(near Lincoln Square)

Next to actually getting a letter telling me they accidentally forgot to give me my letter to attend Hogwarts but could I still attend, this was most excited I could ever be over an email. I had a date to see the new episode. Since Sharon doesn’t really care for Mystery Science Theater, I asked my father to join me on the trip to New York. We were both fans of the original series on TV and I wanted to share this trip with him.

Shortly after that, I received another email to print my tickets to the event with an offer to upgrade to the VIP package including tickets to the afterparty. I wasn’t sure I wanted to pay more to go to the afterparty. I mean, I’m generally an introvert. I don’t like large crowds of people I don’t know. However, I read one line and I was sold.

Get your photo taken with Joel, the cast and the bots, get a reserved VIP seat for the screening, and enjoy free food, beer and wine while getting to know your new cast.

I’ve never been one to fawn over celebrities. They’re just people, just like me, who happen to do something which I find really cool. However, this one was somehow different. I really wanted to meet Joel. Tell him how much MST3K meant to me. How it helped form my sense of humor for the rest of my life. How I still have a stack of videotapes in the closet even though I still have the DVD’s. Just a second would be worth the money, and a picture would be nice, too.

My dad and I headed to New York and prepared for the event. Not knowing what to wear to a fancy event, I packed 3 versions of my outfit. I tried all of them on and decided to go with the most dressed up variant I brought with me.

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My first ever mirror selfie. The Chuck Taylor All-Stars were the one thing I wore to show I wasn’t taking the evening all too seriously.

 

EPISODE 1101

That’s all you’ll get from me about what was in the new episode. That’s because they asked us to keep it secret, as well as because I had to sign a confidentiality agreement before they would even let me into the movie theater. I can tell you it was a wonderful evening with plenty of laughter. (Note: This post was written in January 2017 – I hope you’ve seen the new episodes by now)

We arrived around 5:30 P.M., as was suggested in the email I received that morning. There was already a line forming but it wasn’t too long yet. We were only about 20-25 people from the front.photo-feb-14-5-53-04-pm

A little past the scheduled time, we were able to hand in our forms and hit the red carpet.

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From there we went into the theater, where we were able to grab some pretty awesome seats. Before we knew it, the show was starting and Joel was introducing the new residents of the Satellite of Love,  Jonah Ray (Jonah Heston), Baron Vaughn (Tom Servo) and Hampton Yount (Crow T. Robot).

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They worked the crowd for a bit but insisted on answering only “non-important” questions until later because they did not want to upset anyone who arrived later. So we found out what they had for lunch, how they liked New York and things of that sort. It did show that the new cast had learned how to bounce off one another, as the banter was very funny even though they were essentially talking about nothing.

Eventually it came down to the time where Joel was ready to introduce the new movie. After telling us a little about the episode, he wanted to make sure the booth was ready because this was “a big deal” and if the movie didn’t start, it would look really stupid. Of course, there was a uncomfortable pause between the introduction and when it actually started to which Joel threw in the line, “They told me it was ready, oh here it is.”

I can’t say anything about the movie but if you are reading this so far, I’m sure you are going to watch it when it premieres on Netflix. It’s worth it. A really solid first episode (Note: remember, this post was originally written in January, 2017).

After it was finished, the cast returned for a Q&A session which ended with Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo showing up to field some questions (and Tom even did some singing).

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Crow T. Robot, Jonah, Joel and Tom Servo take questions

From there, we left and headed to the afterparty, which was held about 10 minutes away at a club that was way fancier than I would ever go to. Flashing our special wristbands, we were granted admittance. While headed to the coat check, I passed Joel taking to several people. Wait…..what…..um….is that real? Looking around, the entire new cast was mulling around the club, talking to the guests. After taking a few deep breaths and checking my jacket, I found a corner of a table to calm myself. Remember, I don’t do well with crowds or social situations.

Right around this time I lost my dad, who went in search of selfies. So I started to talk with the people around my table. Several of them were fans and one person with a lanyard indicating he worked with the show. We talked and I found out he was involved with new opening sequence, which was very cool. Turns our that the MST3K people went out and hired the company that does Robot Chicken to film the opening, which was who this guy worked for. So I was taking to someone involved with Robot Chicken at a MST3K party. I asked him if they could have possibly hired any more people from things I liked involved with this series. He laughed.

Dad returned with his selfies with Joel and Hampton and pushed me to go get some pictures. Some things never change; for my whole life he’s always been pushing me to be more social, against my better judgement. Sometimes it pays off, like on this night.

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Me and Jonah Ray (after I totally embarrassed myself by thanking him for liking my picture on Instagram)
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Dad and me with Baron Vaughn

It was around then I decided the one thing I really wanted was a picture with Joel. Just a second to tell him how much the series was a part of my life. Unfortunately he was nowhere to be found. Dad and I took few more pictures (he was jealous because I got one with Jonah and he didn’t) and settled in to the party. At this time they announced that Jonah and the bots were now in the photo booth (a green screen made to look like the set) and taking pictures. The line was halfway around the room but what the heck, so we got in line.

Then I saw that Joel had reappeared in the crowd. I told Dad to stay in line and I was going on my quest. I followed the first group he was with until it disbanded and he headed to a different area. This was a much smaller group and Joel introduced one of the other people he was talking with. It was Paul (of Paul and Storm fame) who worked with Joel and others in writing some songs for the new series.

Wait.

It just came over me. I told Paul that I saw him when he and Storm played in Orlando several years ago. He said, “No one was at that show.” I replied, ” Well, I was,” to which he gave a wry smile.

As I was talking to Paul, the people talking with Joel left. It was my time; I knew it.

I stepped in and introduced myself. I knew I had a bunch to say. But he’s been hearing stories from fans all night.

“I just wanted to tell you thanks. For everything.”

He was polite and thanked me for supporting the project.

Then I asked for my picture with him. He graciously agreed.

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JH and JH (no really, his handwritten initials look JUST like mine. For reals!)

I had done it. I felt my Experience Points going up after completing my quest.

But wait, there was the bonus quest. I turned back to Paul and said “You know there will be some of my friends who will be totally freaked out I met you. Can I get a picture?”

“Well, lets freak them out!”

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Me with Paul (of Paul and Storm).

Bonus quest completed.

Wait, I remembered my dad was still in line for a picture with the bots and Jonah. As I got back to him and he was three people from the front, I then decide to ask what seemed to be an insignificant question. “Dad, which robot do you want to stand behind?” He didn’t care, but I did; I just didn’t know it until the choice was necessary to make. Almost instantly I said, “Crow. I want to be by Crow.” As it happened, when we got to the front of the line, the techs said it would be a few minutes because they needed to change memory in the camera. So we ended up talking to the puppeteer for Crow. We had a really interesting conversation about how many mutual acquaintances we had (with me living in Orlando and knowing people who do puppetry, who would have thunk). It was finally time for our picture and I don’t think I could have stopped smiling even if I wanted to.

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Crow T. Robot, me, Dad, Jonah and Tom Servo.

The party was wrapping up and we stayed around for a little while longer before heading back to our hotel trying to get over everything that had happened during the evening.

We went back in our hotel room, totally exhausted.  We had to get up the next morning and fly back home. It was one of the most amazing days I’ve ever had.

MST3K#2So yeah – “experience, not things.” It works for Sharon and me. And this was definitely an experience! We’re supposed to get a souvenir of the event in the mail one of these days, which will be a nice memento. And each of us afterparty attendees did get one really cool thing while we were there – an event poster signed by Joel Hodgson, Jonah Ray, Hampton Yount, Baron Vaughn, Grant Baciocco and Russ Walko (the latter two are the puppeteers for Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo).

What an awesome night!

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#TBT: Alaska ’09 Trip Report: Part 2 of 9

Part 2 of 9: On board the ship & getting my bearings.

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, click here for Part 1.

Saturday, August 15, 2009 (Going On Board)

I  woke up at 8am and went to the Starbucks in the hotel (did you hear that? A Starbucks IN THE HOTEL! Joy of joys! [Modern day note: friendly reminder that in 2009, there were not NEARLY as many Starbucks around as there are nowadays]) and got coffee. I finally got the rest of my stuff packed up, put my cruise information on my suitcases and went downstairs to meet everyone.

This was my first trip with this choir and the first time I was meeting the vast majority of the 50-something people with whom I was traveling. We were told to wear specifically-designed shirts for identification though, so it was easy to pick other choir members in a crowd – all of whom were British, save for 3 of us from Orlando and 2 from Tampa. So every time I bumped into one and said hi, I was greeted with, “Oh, you’re one of the alaskabusAmericans!” It was kinda fun (grin). There was one woman who said it before I even said anything – I was like, “Does it show?” But it was only because she knew everyone else on the trip and I was “new”.

So we all loaded onto the bus and away we went. It was a quick trip (15 minutes, tops) and when we arrived we had to wait on line for Immigration since we would be traveling from Canada to the US. The wait for that was pretty long – lots of people going on cruises! But eventually we got through and were allowed to board the ship.

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The Lido Buffet

We were told that our cabins were not quite ready so we were invited to have lunch at the Lido Restaurant. It was a buffet, with salads, sandwiches, roast beef and rotisserie chicken. I got a salad and some chicken, along with an herbal green tea that was much better than I anticipated. I ate with a handful of British choir people – as always, I’m horrible with names but they were all very nice.

Once they announced that our cabins were ready, I found mine (6027) and since my luggage wasn’t delivered yet, I started wandering the ship to sign up for stuff and get a general lay of the land. I signed up for a few Spa treatments, checked out some of the bars, etc.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur emergency drill was scheduled for 4:15pm. After I put on my lovely orange flotation device (it was stored on the top shelf of my closet…what a trip it was to try to reach…how I wished I had a roomie who could have gotten it for me! I miss you, Joe! LOL!), the alarms went off and I went to Deck 3, as instructed.

Once we were done with the emergency drill, I went back to my cabin, to see that my luggage had been delivered so I spent some time unpacking, organizing, etc. I had no idea I had brought SIX pairs of shoes (not including slippers or the shoes I was wearing. Just call me Imelda Marcos, I guess!).

We left port not long after that, so I went up to Deck 9 to hang out with everyone while we began our trip in earnest. I bumped into Caroline and Sue again (we’ve bumped into each other no less than 5 times so far – I’m not sure who is stalking who, LOL!), plus several other Sing Live Brits (Colin, Ian, Ann, Jean, Pauline, Sue, Jane, etc.) and Celeste and Esther from Tampa (BTW, we discovered that us 5 Americans have our own table…we figure it’s so we can understand each other, what with the language barrier and all, LOL!).

We were scheduled to queue up for dinner at 7:45pm so I left around 7ish to (A) find the Internet Cafe for further reference (they had a special where you got an extra 20 minutes if you signed up before 10pm) and (B) change my clothes and get ready for dinner.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADinner was on the 3rd floor, in the Vista Dining Room and, as I said, us 5 Americans had our own table (#63). There were several choices of salads, soups, appetizers and main courses, with wine by the bottle or the glass. The food was really, really good. I got the mussels in a wine sauce for an appetizer, almond encrusted salmon (with shaved zucchini and mashed potatoes) and coffee and a baked Alaska for dessert (covered in raspberry sauce. I never saw a baked Alaska that wasn’t flambe, but this one wasn’t. A “ship thing,” I’m sure. It was still good, though).

After dinner was done I went up to the Internet Cafe to sign up for my plan and get some blogging done so I could go to bed. And so it is.

The Problem With Hotel Thermostats (And What To Do About Them)

I know I’m not the only one to ask if it feels warm in a hotel room after checking in.

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Here is a picture of me thinking I could change the temperature in the room.

You arrive after a day of traveling and get to your room. After you put your bags down, you notice there’s a lack of air circulating in the room. First thought, find the thermostat. Turns out that pressing that temperature down arrow might not help your situation any.  Hotels are coming up with smarter and smarter ways to save on energy bills by putting you in less, or sometimes without any, control of the temperature of your room.

I remember our first encounter with an energy efficient room was on a trip to London. There was a slot near the door into which you had to insert your room key card so that the lights, television and air conditioner would turn on. This was fine if you were staying in the room but as soon as you left, everything went off. Our first solution, since we were a couple and had 2 room keys, was to leave one of our keys in the slot. Not the best solution but at least our room was cool when we returned. Then we sought other solutions. Were there other cards in our wallet that would work? Credit Card?  Those worked but we were not leaving one of those  in there while not in the room. An AAA card worked but we might need that for the places that gave discounts. How about our library card? Bingo!  It worked to keep on the lights and we didn’t need it during the day.We left a nice tip each day, kindly asking housekeeping not to remove the key from the slot after cleaning the room. Eventually we just kept a random hotel card key in our wallet at all times for rooms with such a system.

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Insert room key in order to get electricity and A/C

This experience was almost a decade ago and technology has improved a great deal since then. Hotels are now using motion detectors, infrared sensors, sound detectors and door monitors to tell if you are in the room and then change the temperature settings accordingly. The issues with the lack of control given to guests because of the new “smart” room technology seem to be increasing because I’ve read 4 articles on the subject recently.

I first remember reading an article on the subject back in 2010 showing you  how to “hack” your thermostat. I tried using tips from this post but was never in a room with the same type of thermostat.  More recently I’ve seen that mainstream publications like The Wall Street Journal  and the Los Angeles Times have written articles on the subject. The latter even gave some ways to trick the most complicated of sensor arrays.

Alas, those systems that rely only on motion sensors are not always guest-friendly. Unless they’re sleepwalking, guests who are abed aren’t moving in a way that a motion sensor can detect.

The solution for immediate relief is to buy a Mylar balloon (sturdier than a regular balloon) that trails strings or ribbons and let it move around your room, triggering the motion sensor.

Now I do admit, the idea of walking into every stay at a hotel carrying a Mylar balloon and then having it fly around my room all night are two of the most absurd images I can think of.  However, I do know one or two friends (and they know who they are) who, I have no doubt, might try this idea after reading this post.

The final thought on this issue is if hotels think we don’t care that the temperature in the room is out of our control, they will keep setting it to whatever they want. The solution is to complain to the hotel. Do so while you are there and the hotel may adjust the room temperature, thereby making  your stay more comfortable. If no relief is given, then a mention of this fact in an online review or survey will show them this is an issue that guests care about and can no longer be ignored.

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Going Out of Town? What to Bring, What Not to Bring & Tricks of the Trade

suitcaseJoe is definitely the points and miles person in our family. Me, I enjoy the benefits of his hobby but really don’t care about which plane is newer, bigger and better, how many cents a point is worth at any given moment, or what hotel gives you feather pillows and a personal concierge. As long as we get from Point A to Point B in a reasonable amount of time, and as long as our room is clean and relatively quiet, I’m good.

However if there’s one thing I’ve gotten really good at for all these trips to all these different places, it’s how and what to pack. For those of you who travel a lot, you probably already know all the ins and outs of this stuff. But for those of you who only go out of town here and there, here are some things to consider:
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