I had dinner last night at Thai Taste by Kob in Wheaton, Maryland with Tyler Cowen, MarginalRevolution.com commenter teatotaler, and “econ prodigy” Nathaniel Bechhofer.

The restaurant opened earlier this year, about six months ago. They have a large menu. Tyler offered that I play dictator and order for the group, or at least make an initial proposal. But not knowing what they’re especially good at we decided to challenge the restaurant to simply bring us their best. Read More…

Scott Mayerowitz interviews Hilton’s CEO Chris Nassetta and offers fascinating insight into how they think about what they want to offer their guests.

And I’m reminded throughout of the idea earlier in Nassetta’s tenure when they were talking about building new Embassy Suites hotels where the rooms weren’t all suites.

Let’s get rid of bellmen, robes, slippers, and turndown service.

Rolling suitcases have eliminated the need for bellmen and Nassetta questions if guests truly desire robes, slippers or nightly turndown service. Or at least are willing to pay the higher room rates they require.

“Do you get turndown service at home? If you do, let me know because I’d like to ask my family,” Nassetta jokes.

Lots of guests get annoyed by tip-seeking bellman wanting to carry your small rollaboard, though help with big suitcases on large trips is a different matter and this is also something that varies a great deal by market. The amount of luggage between North and South America is different than you’ll see at a business hotel in most major cities in the U.S..

Robes may not matter at hotels where there’s just a single guest for a single night, but resorts could be different. And if you’re getting dressed and ordering room service? But, oops, Hilton wants to get rid of room service too.

He made headlines last year with a decision to eliminate traditional room service in big city hotels.

The labor costs involved with delivering food to rooms makes it a money-loser for the hotel. But guests aren’t happy either with often overpriced, mediocre food. So Hilton and other hotels are testing a “grab-and-go” food outlets, particularly for breakfast.

“The customer gets a better price, better service and ultimately, in their minds, a better product,” Nassetta says.

It’s no secret why Hilton would start with a New York property to trial this: labor costs and union contracts. You can’t just renegotiate your employee costs, unless you eliminate the service. Then if you need to bring it back that’s ok you can do it from scratch with new costs.

Major Northeastern cities have high labor costs (and so do some California cities) and those are the places where I’d expect to see room service disappear first.

Then there is Wi-Fi. Most hotels — especially at the higher end — charge for it. Nassetta believes in three to five years a basic level of Internet access will be free across the industry, with hotels only charging for faster service.

The big problem hotels face is rationing limited bandwidth, when a small percentage of guests use most of it to stream porn multimedia.

But don’t expect free bottled water soon, unless you’re an elite member of the loyalty program.

“Bottled water has a cost, has an environmental impact,” Nassetta says. “I don’t really want to encourage it. People pay for bottled water at their house, so I’m not sure why they can’t pay for it at our hotels.”

Good to know that Hilton Gold will be useful for something in the future.

What I found most striking about the interview was that there wasn’t much lip service, even, paid to customers as guests or a mindset of being in the hospitality industry.

Fair as far as it goes, but says much that can help us understand the value proposition being offered.

News and notes from around the interweb:

I receive compensation for many links on this blog. You don’t have to use these links, but I am grateful to you if you do. I do not write about all credit cards that are available — instead focusing on miles, points, and cash back (and currencies that can be converted into the same).

A week and a half ago I wrote about Chase Sapphire Preferred‘s changing benefits, double of trip cancellation/interruption coverage, the addition of primary collision damage coverage for rental cars, and the elimination of the 7% annual points bonus for new cardmembers (and existing cardmembers after 2015).

Chase now has communications out on the full details of changes.

Redeeming Points for Cash – Which You Generally Shouldn’t Do Anyway – Changes

Points transfers to miles and even redemptions for travel (offered to Sapphire Preferred, Ink Bold, and Ink Plus cardholders) are more valuable.

Nonetheless, here are the changes:

You can continue to redeem your points for cash through a statement credit or direct deposit into an eligible checking or savings account. However, Pay Yourself Back will no longer be available after 9/20/2014 and paper checks will no longer be available after 11/15/2014

Earning an Extra Point for Booking Through Their Travel Portal Goes Away

Sapphire Preferred continues to earn double points on travel and dining.

The extra point per dollar you can earn booking travel through their portal, though, will go away at the end of next year.

You will continue to earn an extra 1 point for each $1 of airfare and hotel accommodations booked through Chase.com/UltimateRewards until 12/31/2015. After that, you will no longer earn an extra point. We may periodically offer ways for you to earn bonus points through the program.

Other Minor Housekeeping

The name of the Ultimate Rewards Mall changes to “will be referred to as Shop through Chase” and two “underutilized” features go away.

  • Auctions
  • Purchasing Ultimate Rewards points

Of course I am pretty confident purchasing points went away in August of last year.

No Changes to the Fundamental Value Proposition

The key things that make Chase Sapphire Preferred one of the best all-around rewards cards remain:

  • A signup bonus of 40,000 points after $3000 in purchases within 3 months. Plus another 5000 points for adding a no fee authorized user to the account and making a purchase within 3 months.
  • Double points on travel and dining spend.
  • Points transfer to several loyalty currencies.

    • Airlines: United, British Airways, Korean Air, Singapore Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, Southwest
    • Hotels: Hyatt, Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, IHG Rewards
    • Ground: Amtrak

  • No foreign transaction fees.
  • $0 annual fee the first year, $95 thereafter.

It’s great to see the actual communication on this, which I find overall reassuring (that there weren’t other major changes lurking).

(HT: Ron S.)

Editorial note: any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer. Comments made in response to this post are not provided or commissioned nor have they been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any bank. It is not the responsibility of any advertiser to ensure that questions are answered, either.

Air France KLM’s Flying Blue program should be interesting to U.S. frequent flyers for several reasons.

  1. They offer one-way awards, which Delta won’t have until next year.
  2. They are an American Express Membership Rewards transfer partner (points transfer instantly).
  3. They have access to award space that Delta won’t let you have.
  4. They have most of their partners available for online booking

Unfortunately their call centers are frustrating, their website can be too (and has been known to show ‘phantom’ award availability, seats that look available but aren’t really here to book).

And they add fuel surcharges onto award tickets.

One of the great values, historically, has been their ‘promo awards’.

Award tickets at half the cost of their regular award chart can be a great value, for a relatively short booking window and for travel between specific cities and Europe. (For instance, travel from a featured U.S. city through Paris on Air France or Amsterdam on KLM to anywhere in Europe half the usual miles.)

A few things have made these awards less valuable than they used to be, though.

  1. The award chart got more expensive. So half off is still more miles than before.
  2. Promo awards aren’t even always half off anymore, they’re frequently now 25% off. Raise prices, then discount them a little bit, and you’re really looking at ‘regular price’ (at least what regular price was 15 months ago).
  3. Promo awards tend to be available for fewer destinations, at least for business class.

Indeed, the new promo awards list is out for August bookings and travel in October and November, and these become bookable tomorrow. Here are the North America-Europe options.

These are all economy and premium economy only, nothing in business class. A disappointing list, but one that will be strategically useful to some flyers.

Via Reddit (and my Facebook feed), here’s an apology letter received by a customer this month.

Companies clearly have customer service template letters. Frequently it seems as though the wrong one is selected to use when replying to comments, when the response doesn’t seem to answer the concerns that were raised.

But usually the employee at least fills in the blanks, instead of leaving it to us to do for them:

(Click to enlarge)

Isn’t it comforting to know that your comments regarding (specific item) are taken so seriously that they’ll be incorporated into United’s training going forward?

News and notes from around the interweb:

The Crystal Bar at the Wellesley hotel in Knightsbridge, London isn’t a cheap place to sit down and drink.

So there’s lots of mileage out there about a man who was charged $127 for 3 bottles of water.

Edward Heaton had a business meeting at the five star Wellesley Hotel in Knightsbridge, London. It was hot so they opted to sit outside on the cigar terrace of the Crystal Bar, and order three small bottles of San Pellegrino sparkling water. After the meeting concluded, and Mr. Heaton requested the bill, imagine his surprise, when the total came out to $127.

The story isn’t exactly true. The charge per bottle of sparkling Pellegrino was five and a half pounds each.

The hotel has a minimum charge on their cigar terrace, so the bill was topped off to reach 75 pounds.

The minimum is listed on menus, but it seems the customer didn’t take a menu. He feels cheated because he would’ve used up the full 75 pounds, instead of leaving it as a top off.

On the other hand, though, in a way this does remind of the Chinese tea ceremony scam.

In China the right approach is to throw down an appropriate amount of money and leave, or pay by credit card and sign ‘under duress’.

Both probably would have worked in this case, too! As in China, you don’t necessarily want to call the police (although with the tea ceremony scam it’s generally because the cops are in on it).

Although it would be embarrassing to do in the context of this man’s business meeting. Which means it was also probably reimbursable anyway, so who cares, just enjoy that you’re earning extra miles and points on someone’s dime and hopefully you were using a credit card that doesn’t add foreign transaction fees if you’re from the Stats.

(HT: Tocqueville)

During my recent stay in Maui, where I discovered that I really much enjoy staying at the Andaz in Wailea, I had three dinners interesting in their own right.

I thought I’d share them here, in case they help folks deciding to eat – or not eat – at one of these places, since Maui is such a frequent tourist destination.

Scott at Hack My Trip says the Andaz Maui is “one of the few hotels where I felt I could stay there all week and never leave the property.”

I could stay on property, to be sure, but I prefer leaving the property when on Maui – there are close and far off foods, lots of variety (though not all of it good) and certainly at a lower price point. Only one of the three dinners I’ll mention was at the hotel.

Scott is giving away 3 nights there so considering entering. Read More…

Business programs can be a valuable supplement to personal frequent flyer and frequent guest accounts.

An early offering was Southwest’s “Secretaries Program” which awarded free travel to administrative staff booking their bosses onto Southwest.

Of course that benefit derived to the individual and company programs in theory at least benefit and belong to the company itself, though in practice they often belong to the individual managing the account (since large companies may have their own corporate deals, and these programs are often designed for smaller companies).

I get good value out of American’s Business ExtrAA program where I accumulate points that can be used for free tickets and upgrades but I usually use them to gift AAdvantage Gold status and lounge memberships.

Starwood has had an interesting program for a long time, Starwood Preferred Business. Unfortunately the richness of this program is ending. Read More…

News and notes from around the interweb:

Frequent flyer programs do roll back changes — but don’t like to admit they’re wrong when they do it.

American did just that when they introduced a $5 online award booking fee that never went into effect. The idea was dropped, no announcement. Because it was stupid.

Here are five more heroic times when consumers won against frequent flyer program changes.

So as tough as it is to imagine in a time of United’s partner award chart devaluation, United’s impending shift to revenue-based mileage earning, following Delta doing the exact same thing… not to mention the evisceration of the Hilton HHonors award chart or American’s April 8 massAAcre

We’ve just seen another program walk away from a big devaluation they had announced! Read More…

Adam Carolla flies American in first class, Los Angeles to Washington DC.

He’s turned away from the Admirals Club. He makes a reasonable case that — like Alaska Airlines does — paid first class travel ought to access the lounge.

Certainly lounge access policies are confusing. I see passengers all the time who don’t even look like they’re trying to scam access get turned away because they don’t understand the rules. And got a question today from an international first class passenger asking if she gets lounge access. It has to be that the airlines are doing something wrong, not the customers, at that point. (Many foreign carriers print useless ‘lounge invitation’ cards to let customers know they get access.)

I once stood in front of Billy Crystal in line to access the club at LAX. The line was several people deep, and he asks his handler “isn’t there a way to avoid this?” It seems like American is failing if Billy Crystal’s man doesn’t know about Five Star service.

Carolla suggests first class meals should consist of only food that actually exists on the ground. If no one would want it on the ground, they don’t want it on the air. Don’t offer a leek omelette.

One of his guests explains that airline food is often “the dream of something fancy by someone who’s never had food before and never been in first class.”

Lower expectations and do a better job. That’s something US airlines should probably do. Although many international airlines actually do seem to do a pretty good job with food

Definitely an audio track ‘not safe for work’.

(HT: Fly and Dine)

Hilton is about to launch a revolutionary product that several chains have been talking about for years: an iPhone and Android app that will let guests check-in by phone, assign their own choice of room, and use their phone as a room key.

This gives the power of choice to customers, and cuts down on hotel staffing needs if it takes off. But there are several challenges, and one in particular that will make me wary of using it.. Read More…

United has a new, cute safety video they’re rolling out across the fleet.

I have a few thoughts. Matthew likes it. My feelings are more mixed.

  • At four and a half minutes it’s just too long. I want to be in the air already by the time the video is 80% done.

  • United CEO Jeff Smisek isn’t in the video. That makes the video better, and means they’ll be able to use it into the future.

  • Towards the end of the video, telling passengers to carry on just one bag and one personal item seems absurd given that they’re all already seated with baggage stowed when this is playing.

  • The kangaroo is great. The United captain scolding the French restaurant patron is bizarre, a sentiment perfectly captured by the Frenchman’s expression as he tries to walk into the bathroom only to find the door locked and a lavatory door ‘occupied’ sign appearing.

These are the greatest safety demonstrations ever. United’s new video is clever, maybe too clever, but doesn’t really approach any of the better examples of the genre.

If you’re going to do more than give safety instructions, do it well. Otherwise you’ve spent a lot of money, and your flyers start wondering why they had to give up garlic bread and ketchup to pay for it?

Not to mention how Clevelanders will feel about spending on this video, and not an Ohio hub. Perhaps United could have avoided soaking MileagePlus members and kept prices low if they’d have cut corners on the production values of the safety video?

Shooting on location is expensive, and now much more so if they’re redeeming awards to these exotic locales. And think of all the checked bag fees for the equipment..

What do you think of United’s new safety video?

Here’s a fascinating look, mostly in pictures, at The Tattered, Haunting Remains of Abandoned Airports.

    (Not JFK’s Terminal 2)

There’s a pictorial of Nicosia International Airport in Cyprus, which ceased operations with the Turkish invasion of 1974 and Yasser Arafat International Airport in the Gaza Strip, operational from 1998 to 2001.

I found this especially interesting, not sure how I hadn’t ever heard of it:

Objekat 505, or the Željava Airbase, one of the largest underground airports in Europe, on the border between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, constructed between 1948 and 1968. It was designed to sustain a hit from a 20 kt nuclear bomb.

When airports are decommissioned, of course, their airport codes get reassigned. But they continue to live on at least for a brief time as Avianca LifeMiles glitches.

(HT: Kevin B.)

As if things couldn’t get worse for United, their headquarters building has bed bugs.

Chicago’s most recognizable building has a tiny problem it is trying to shake. Bed bugs were found on the 16th floor of the Willis Tower which is home to United Airlines.

…The Willis Tower brought in K-9’s to detect the infestation and exterminators have visited the site several times. United says it will continue those efforts until the bed bugs are eradicated.

The Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower, will hold the name of London-based Willis Group through 2024 based on their 2009 lease although United is now the largest tenant in the building.

I’m not sure whether bed bugs at United headquarters are better or worse than when a United Club at Dulles had rats, or when it had mice.

(HT: Julie C.)

Christopher Elliott does a service with his Travel Troubleshooter column. I may not always be a fan, but there’s no question that he’s helped out many consumers.. even many that were very much undeserving of help.

Today though he didn’t just help someone get compensation they likely didn’t deserve, he also appears to have cast unwarranted aspersions at a car rental website that helps with discounts — Autoslash. Read More…

I receive compensation for many links on this blog. You don’t have to use these links, but I am grateful to you if you do. I do not write about all credit cards that are available — instead focusing on miles, points, and cash back (and currencies that can be converted into the same).

I’ve written about the Ritz-Carlton Rewards co-brand credit card occasionally over the past couple of years.

There have been a couple of really outstanding offers for it, like 70,000 points and no fee the first year, and 140,000 points while paying the steep $395 annual fee even the first year. But I haven’t seen either of those around in awhile.

We Fly Free says it’s still possible to get the 140,000 point signup offer, which surprises me since he gives the same promotion code that Chase told Frequent Miler that he was ineligible for a year ago.

The offer is for 140,000 points after $2000 spend within 3 months.

  • The card comes with Marriott Gold status the first year, and then you keep it by spending $10,000 on the card each year.
  • There’s a $300 airline fee credit as well that helps take the sting out of the annual fee.
  • There are also some fairly restrictive club lounge upgrade and $100 folio credits with Ritz-Carlton stays as well.
  • Concierge service that I’ve heard is now handled by the same company which takes care of Palladium card customers (which may even include President Obama).

You’re supposed to choose whether you want to be a member of Ritz-Carlton Rewards or Marriott Rewards. They don’t want you to be a member of both. The programs are almost identical except for the promotions.

Since you can get a 70,000 point signup bonus for the Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card, and that offers a $0 annual fee the first year ($85 thereafter), and you can generally only get one Chase card at a time I think there’s a very clarifying question to help understand this card’s value:

  • Assume that you can get full value out of the $300 statement credit, the net cost of this card is $95.
  • Leave aside all other benefits like Marriott Gold status and concierge, plus club upgrades that are reportedly tough to use.
  • Would you pay $95 for 70,000 Marriott points?

Of course if you don’t already have a Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, I think that’s the better card and also the better signup bonus (and Sapphire Preferred – like Ritz-Carlton Rewards – now offers primary collision damage on rental cars too). So I wouldn’t even entertain the question.

But on the whole I do see 70,000 points as worth $95… even if I don’t plan to take advantage of this offer myself.

There have been other intriguing offers for the card, like last year’s $200 gift card in addition to the statement credit.

No matter the offer, I haven’t been all that tempted, but I thought this would be useful to some.

Editorial note: any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer. Comments made in response to this post are not provided or commissioned nor have they been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any bank. It is not the responsibility of any advertiser to ensure that questions are answered, either.

American, the largest US airline to Venezuela, is flying daily from Miami… with a 737. They shift up their schedule in the fall and return to flying New York JFK – Caracas just 5 days a week. Also with a 737. They bring back San Juan service too.

Delta is flying a 737 to Caracas four times weekly with a 737. United flies daily from Houston only, also with… a 737.

LAN is flying 2-3 times a week with a widebody from Miami, and of course there’s connecting service through Central America.

But much of the lift between the US and Caracas is just gone. And the story here is simple. Read More…

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