What I’m Giving My Readers for Christmas: 44,000 Hyatt Gold Passport Points!

Posted on: December 19th, 2010 by: Gary Leff

First, before I open the separate official entry thread (not this post), let me describe what’s going on.

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m a big fan of the Hyatt Gold Passport program, and really have been since spring of 2009 when they matched Starwood’s unique value proposition on award redmeption (if a standard room is available for purchase, you can redeem for it with points) and also introduced new elite benefits

  • They were first out of the gate with free internet, which chains generally have matched, though they offer it all elites

  • Guaranteed club level or free breakfast, no catch as catch can. Hilton is known for breakfast to be sure, but I’ve certainly enjoyed the Hyatt breakfast benefit more, such as last weekend’s room service breakfast at the Andaz 5th Avenue.

  • Most importantly, four confirmed suite upgrades per year — at booking, from any paid rate — for Diamond members. This is what won Hyatt Gold Passport a Loyalty Leadership Award at last month’s Frequent Traveler Awards (disclosure: I chair the Nominations Committee, and Loyalty Leadership Awards were selected by that committee).

Gold Passport, with last year’s changes and with their aggressive bonus offers like ‘stay 2, get a free night’ and the recent 10,000 bonus points for every five nights, has been the most rewarding program of late. By far.

Especially for elite members, but with their improved redemption ability they’ve even been one of the really good programs for general members. And with the introduction of their co-branded credit card which offers two free nights at any Hyatt (plus confirmed upgrades on paid stays for existing Platinums, and the free nights are free suite nights for Diamonds). Plus since the card comes with Platinum status for general members, cardholders get free internet at Hyatt properties. And the card also has no foreign currency transaction fees and is my favorite as a result for international travel (I’d rather earn the Hyatt points than British Airways miles, though the BA Visa also offers no foreign currency fees, a benefit that others are beginning to match). Though not my every day, all-spend credit card it’s certainly one of the best Visa products along with the Alaska Airlines Visa.

Anyway, since I’ve been a big advocate of the program for the past year and a half, I was thrilled when Hyatt’s PR rep reached out to me. See, though Hyatt has done a great deal to improve their value proposition for members my sense is that there’s not really enough general understanding of the changes they’ve made and how valuable their program has become. In some sense, that’s a marketer’s dream– an actually good product that’s underappreciated, much better than trying to market something which isn’t actually all that good…

So here’s the deal. What you’ll do is check out Hyatt’s Facebook page. They’ve been posting itineraries from their hotel property General Managers. Take a look at the page, see which one interests you most or which property you’d like to see an itinerary for. Maybe the Hyatt Regency Austin doesn’t appeal, but you’d like to see some discussion of activities near the Park Hyatt Aviara… you’ll hit the comments in the official entry post with the Hyatt you’re most interested in. And that will be your entry. One entry per person. I will select one winner at random and I will verify that the person randomnly selected only entered once.

I was surprised to find the Facebook page actually interesting, they’ve had Scott Carmichael answering questions. That’s Flyertalk’s ScottC, who is exceptionally knowledgeable, certainly about travel technology issues. When I needed to replace my camera earlier in the year Scott is the guy I asked for advice. (And the guy I asked for a camera recommendation a couple of years before that, too). So Hyatt seems to have made a real effort to make their page useful.

The contest will remain open until noon Eastern time on December 25. See? It really is a Christmas present to you!

And 44,000 points is enough for two free nights at any Hyatt in the World. Or you could stretch the points further and redeem for four nights in a club level room at the Hyatt Regency Auckland, Osaka, or Johannesburg.

Full disclosure.. when I gave away free nights at Hyatt Place properties they offered me Hyatt Place nights for myself as a thank you. I got them to agree to let me give those away to my readers as well, I didn’t keep anything for myself. Well, when Hyatt approached me about giving away points for the holidays they told me that they’d shoot me 22,000 points for my trouble (though I’d certainly have doen it for free, I love giving things of valuable to my readers). And I didn’t say no..

So coming up shortly will be the Official Entry Thread for this contest. Do not enter in this thread, it won’t count. But please ask any questions here, and I’ll do my best to answer. There aren’t really any official rules other than that this is being offered in the most generous spirit possible, I’ll do my best to manage it as fairly as possible as described above, and I’d ask folks to take this in the spirit in which it’s offered. Of course all ambiguities will be at my discretion to clarify, all of my interpretations are final, you agree to this by entering (gotta love adhesion contracts), etc.

Good luck and enjoy!

Thanksgiving in Mumbai: Touring Mumbai

Posted on: December 18th, 2010 by: Gary Leff

Before heading to Mumbai I had done a bit of searching online for well-regarded guides. I first found Mumbai Moments, which seemed to receive raves at TripAdvisor. I emailed them and they were available during our stay, but as we discussed what I wanted to do and see it became clear that this wasn’t going to be a good match. I always like to try to understand a place in part through its food, had researched some of the restaurants and things from vendors that I wanted to try, and shared the particulars. Amish, the guide, let me know that he’s a follower of Jainism and won’t take clients to any non-vegetarian restaurant. I respectfully chose to find someone else, since that wasn’t going to match what I wanted to do and explore as part of my time in Mumbai.

So I went about finding alternatives. I contacted Mumbai Magic which I also saw on TripAdvisor, and it was clear from their initial response that they weren’t what I was looking for — I didn’t inherently mind the 10,000 Rps for a full day, though by local standards over $200 is exorbitant even for a separate guide and driver. It’s just that their offerings seemed a bit ‘over-produced’ since they include both illustrated handouts and a ‘take away gift’. Frankly I think I’d felt uncomfortable rolling into the slums of Mumbai on such a tour.

In the end I used Amin Sheikh (his business is Sneha Travels). He charges 3000 Rps per day, including his vehicle and gas, though I paid for meals of course (including inviting him to join us) and to tip folks who helped with parking around crowded sites that we visied.

Amin is a friendly guy who speaks excellent English. He grew up in Mumbai slums and was brought up in a Jesuit orphanage where he now volunteers. His mentor there helped him buy his Toyota van that he uses for tours. He’s certainly someone who can help show the ‘real Mumbai’ as it’s experienced by the majority of people. I’m glad we used his services, though I admit that I was a little bit uncomfortable at times because our life experiences as so different. I wanted to try and taste all sorts of foods, and he took us everywhere we wanted. But I’m not there seeing food as sustenance, but experience. I don’t think that’s an idea he’s really comfortable with. We’d always have leftovers, which he would have packaged and take with him, finding someone on the street to give it to. I was very happy to see our leftovers eaten by people who would value it! Still, I felt like he must be judging us for ordering more than we were going to eat in one sitting and then still wanting to eat something else later in the day. I admit, though, that the fault and discomfort was entirely mine, and not anything done on the part of our guide — who I appreciated enough to recommend to a work colleague who will be in Mumbai later in the month.

During the tour we visited the largest manual laundry in the world, an impressive site where individuals manage to track items of clothing even though they’re specializing rather than washing a single person’s clothes together. I had never seen so many jeans in one place!

Afterwards we visited Gandhi’s home in Mumbai.

We were fortunate, as it was about to be closed for pest control.

One of the really interesting things about visiting parts of the world as opposed to just reading about them is that you get a feel and first-hand experience that you can compare to and understand in a different way what writers say about an area. And it can give you a somewhat different perspective on history. So Gandhi for instance is said to have lived in poverty, or at least that’s how I had understood the common narrative. But visiting his home, I understand that while he may have adorned himself in the clothing of the people he represented, that he was certainly privileged. And he had modern accoutrements at his disposal. The library in his home is, I believe, larger than my home. And pictures on the wall show someone who was prominent in international affairs even in his youth. None of that diminishes his importance or his accomplishments at all! It just provides a richer texture of understanding, better context to understand the experiences and perspectives of a man who was incredibly important in the earlier half of the last century.

We ate at the kitchy, touristy Brittania & Company:

The old British gent who owns the place is a tremendous character, he walks around talking to guests, mostly about himself and how famous he is. He brings out a laminated newspaper article about how he spoke on the phone with the Queen of England. And he told us about writing to the White House to invite President Obama to dine at his restaurant during Obama’s recent visit, and how offended he was that the invitation was declined. He had quite a few things to say about former President Bush, mostly about warmongering, and also had some rather uncomfortable things to say about Obama and race. Still, one forgives a lot of a man of very advanced age.

On the subject of food, Mumbai is about the only place I’ve been especially cautious eating street food. I’ve written many a trip report including food on the street in places like Beijing (I’ve eaten snake, but I avoid beetles).

I did try a few things from street vendors that our guide assured us tended towards cleaner practices, though.

And while I wouldn’t actually eat there I found it fascinating how ubiquitous McDonald’s was, including McDelivery.

Still, having access to a McDonalds during a day walking around and touring is quite convenient, if only to use their restrooms.

Finally, we went into a Falooda shop recommended by our guide, which was a little too sweet for my tastes but the bulk of which was likely much enjoyed by the kid out guide gave my leftovers to.

I did wonder about this billboard I saw all over the city, since I didn’t think you could catch anything from a cell phone…

(I had to look up later that ‘STD’ actually stands for subscriber trunk dialing, but I prefer my first impression over the more sensible explanation I found on Wikipedia!)

We visited Marine Drive and also the Gateway to India where we had a fairly interesting experience, that I first assumed was a scam but turned out wasn’t at all.

An Indian family approached us and asked if they could have their picture taken with us. We agreed. No one tried to pick my pocket or anything else, they just seemed incredibly excited to see us. And after we had agreed and taken our photos, another family came up and asked if we’d do the same with them.

The best I could figure, and as explained by our guide, these people were from more rural parts of India and this was their big trip to Mumbai. They had probably never seen a real live white person before. They’d take pictures with us, bring them back to their village, and probably say they had met someone famous.

Nonetheless, it was charming even if I was initially a bit uncomfortable trying to figure out what was going on.

The nearby Taj Hotel is a magnificent structure.

I actually had dinner at the Taj, with a Vice President managing marketing for their InnerCircle program (which won “Program of the Year” honors in the Middle East and Asia Pacific region in the 2010 Frequent Traveler Awards). He and his wife invited us over, and it turned out that we arranged to meet on what was the eve of the two-year anniversary of the bombing. Security was incredibly tight, with several police checkpoints along the way up to the hotel. It turns out that most cars weren’t being let through at all, but that my name had been given to the police by the General Manager of the Taj Palace, and the police were instructed to let us through.

We met our friends from Taj InnerCircle, stopped by an Australian Embassy reception for Australian wine, and toured the property a bit and then had dinner at their Lebanese restaurant Souk which was really outstanding. They simply began bringing out their most recommended dishes, which were all excellent (and I’m not generally a fan of Lebanese).

Normally I would have insisted on picking up the check, but we were in their restaurant in their hotel and so it would probably have offended if I tried. And there wasn’t actually a check for dinner in any case, such is the advantage of dining with a chain executive at their flagship property.

Tyler Cowen had suggested that Mumbai was a place that violates many of the rules of eating, that the best restaurants are often in better hotels. Just as I really enjoyed the Chinese restaurant in our hotel, I also thought the food at the Taj Palace phenomenal.

In the end I’m still mulling over the Mumbai experience. It was unlike any other place that I’ve been, and I tend to think myself fairly well-traveled. There’s tremendous bustling activity and growth, as well as tremendous poverty. And the two seem to co-exist more closely than in other parts of the world, not just in the same countries but within mere feet. (There were slums directly in front of the entrance to our hotel, though they seemed to be a bit better than ones we saw elsewhere.) I’ve thought a great deal about the conditions, and what I know of the institutions surrounding those conditions, but was deeply affected and working to sort through everything I saw even nearly a month later.

Thanksgiving in Mumbai: Grand Suite at the Grand Hyatt Mumbai

Posted on: December 18th, 2010 by: Gary Leff

After clearing customs and immigration in Mumbai we walked outside the terminal to teeming masses of people waiting for passengers. The airport was sure bustling at almost 2 am!

The Grand Hyatt Mumbai comes with complimentary airport transfers for club guests, and I had used a confirmed suite upgrade for the property so we were certainly upgraded in advance. (I believe that the benefit is consistently offered to Diamonds regardless, but with the upgrade offered in advance I was certain of the transfers, and had emailed the hotel my arrival information ahead of time.)

I didn’t see a Grand Hyatt rep right away, but did see someone holding a Hyatt Regency sign. I asked them, “Grand Hyatt?” and they pointed to the right and a gentleman immediately appeared with his passenger manifest, asked my name, and began to escort us to our driver who was waiting nearby. They both helped with our bags and walked us to the garage where our car to the hotel was waiting.

The driver brought us quickly to the property, it’s ‘near’ the airport but not anything like the proximity of the Hyatt Regency that’s essentially on airport grounds or the Intercontinental The Lalit which is just beyond. This wasn’t intended as an airport stay, so I’m glad I wasn’t at either of those properties. Still, while the Grand Hyatt is convenient to a good deal of business taking place in Mumbai it’s not located near many tourist attractions. Personally I liked being somewhat removed from the more touristy areas, it became a nice respite from the city. And drivers for hire are inexpensive, so while Mumbai traffic can be brutal, traveling at off-peak times it wasn’t a bad trip at all into Southern Mumbai. (For being ‘closer to the action’ I’d either choose the Taj Palace or the Intercontinental Marine Drive.)

We pulled up to the hotel driveway, through a security checkpoint (where the hotel car wasn’t stopped and searched, unusual I thought since usually I find even hotel cars are inspected). We got out at the front entrance, our luggage was sniffed by a dog and we were given claim checks for it, and we walked through a metal detector before entering the hotel. Walked up to the main desk, the agent saw we were club level guests and escorted us upstairs to the club to check in.

Immediately I was struck by the hotel’s style, reminiscent of Grand Hyatts throughout Asia generally.

I was glad to be able to check-in so early in the morning. Admittedly I’ve been pretty unhappy with my ‘Private Line Concierge’ at Hyatt, and switched after this trip. I had emailed her and asked to make the reservation, and hadn’t gotten a reply for three days. I emailed a followup, and again didn’t hear back. But I did notice the reservation online — though for the wrong dates. So I followed up with the property by email to amend the reservation. And I heard nothing. And I emailed the property again, and heard nothing. Finally on the third try I did manage to find a manager willing to get back with me, and they let me know that only much higher rates were now available to amend my stay. I was livid — I shared with them

  • The original request to Hyatt for when I wanted to stay, at which point the better rate was available
  • The subsequent followup emails to the property which went unanswered
  • And that their delay was precisely why the original rate was no longer available, so that I expected them to honor it.

They did fix up the reservation, and the check-in process was smooth.

We were asked for passports, given a rate card to sign, and then taken to our room. I was pretty exhausted at this point, didn’t sleep much on the two flights and it was creeping towards 3 am local time. But I was already struck by the beautiful hotel lobby, and then by the beautiful – though surprising small — room for what was ostensibly a suite. I did realize that using a confirmed upgrade certificate I received a Grand Suite King which was just a single room, it was certainly large enough but I still prefer separate rooms when traveling to Asia because I find my sleep schedule will be off for a couple of days and I’ll get up and not want to disturb my wife while she continues to sleep.

Here’s the room itself, there was a living area, bed, and desk/work area. The bathroom could be entered either from the doorway area or the living area, and had a separate toilet room and a tub as well as separate shower cabin although the shower cabin didn’t have a door so water did tend to spread out into the rest of the bathroom.

Checking out the lounge and hotel property the next day I was struck by its overall beauty.

Here’s the hotel from the back, by the pool:

And the corridor near our room:

The club itself was a large space, and we scoped out the spot that would be our home for each subsequent visit, downstairs and near the giant picture window.

Service in the lounge was excellent, staff came by almost immediately to take drink orders whether during designated service hours or not. The club is open 24 hours and staffed, had excellent coffee and of course plenty of water available (and there was plenty consistently restocked in the room as well, since it’s important not to drink from the tap! We were in Mumbai but still worried about Delhi Belly..).

The breakfast spread was good, but no hot options in the morning and never variety during our stay.

Evening hot options, on the other hand, changed nightly.

To find the gym area you had to go down to and walk through the spa. And that was also the way to the pool, with the doorway at the end of the gym.

Hotel room service was prompt and high-quality, and it was nice to have an option for Indian food that I worried less about than much of what I found in town.

Meanwhile, though we were out and about during the day, and did head into the city for dinner, we ate at the hotel’s Chinese restaurant which was really excellent. It’s not inexpensive, dinner for two with appetizers and entrée ran us about US$80, but everything was of remarkably high quality probably better than any Chinese restaurant I’ve eaten at in the past year.

The hotel’s restaurants are clustered together, but you enter the Chinese restaurant from inside the hotel, walk outside through a seating garden, and then back inside through the Chinese restaurant’s entrance:

We ordered some Dim sum as starters:

We shared some noodles and my wife had the Beggars chicken:

And I – perhaps lamely – ordered the chicken and cashew nuts:

Overall I was very happy and would have gone back even if it wasn’t as convenient as walking downstairs from the room.

The hotel’s service was really proactive. One day the hotel was servicing our room and noticed that the safe was open. They found us in the lounge to let us know, so that we could lock it before heading out. And when we didn’t answer the phone when they gave us our requested wakeup call (we had gotten up earlier, and were in the lounge having breakfast), they sent someone to our room to make sure we had woken up and that everything was alright.

Service wasn’t perfect, though. On the night after our arrival we declined turndown service, as we were back on property and in the room. Turndown service was never attempted again. Perhaps our initial refusal was coded incorrectly in their system as preferring not to receive turndown, but it was still disappointing that coming back late in the evenings our room didn’t receive a second service at all during the stay. I could have called to request it, but never got around to doing so. After the first night when it wasn’t provided (that I’d have wanted it), I assumed it was an oversight. And by the time I realized it wasn’t simply a one-off, I was also not especially inclined to bother.

I’d absolutely return to this hotel if I had business in the area, or wasn’t on a particularly busy schedule where I’d be fighting morning or evening traffic during my stay to head South. If I did need to be in the South regularly, however, I’d look to either the Taj or Intercontinental.

Next up in the trip report will be spending time in Mumbai, from the slums to eating to Gandhi’s home and the Taj Palace hotel.

We’re Getting (Sort Of, Almost) Famous

Posted on: December 18th, 2010 by: Gary Leff

Well, alright, we’re not TMZ Famous. But living in the DC area there’s very much a concept known as “Famous for DC” — political types that wouldn’t be recognized anywhere else in the country but are a big deal here. The DC area is also known as “Hollywood for Ugly People.”

And in some ways we’re beginning to be part of Hollywood for People Who Will Only Ever Be Featured Online. Without Photos. At least that means I don’t have to worry about being followed by Blog-errazi.

But this blog is now being syndicated by Reuters.

Boarding Area blogs Road Warriorette, The Gate, and Loyalty Traveler are as well. Congratulations to my fellow bloggers!

2000 Starwood Points for Test Driving an Acura

Posted on: December 18th, 2010 by: Gary Leff

W Hotels have Acura Rewards certificates, pick one up and take it to an Acura dealer and you can choose between 2000 Starwood Starpoints or a $50 Bliss gift certificate for taking a test drive.

The dealer will give you a validation code to enter on the Acura Rewards website to choose your redemption preference.

Certificates must be picked up by December 26, and validation codes obtained and entered on the website by January 2.

Now, dealers like to make their potential customers happy. You may be able to get the validation code without picking up a certificate. But personally I’d pick up the certificate, that’ll help explain what you’re looking for.

Back when Jaguar was giving away 10,000 British Airways miles for a test drive I went down to the Jaguar dealer and was upfront about not actually planning to buy the car, and not wanting to waste the salesman’s time. He happily validated my certificate for the miles (and the certificates of the other 3 members of my BA household account…) without spending the time to drive the car. Some folks would like to drive the car to be sure, I was happy to save the time. I earned 40,000 miles for not test driving a Jaguar…

The offer also includes a sweepstakes for a trip to the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and you can enter that by mail even without visiting a W and test driving an Acura.

TO ENTER THE SWEEPSTAKES WITHOUT REDEEMING A REWARD: During the Offer Period write your name, address, birth date, email address and telephone number on a 3×5 card and mail to: Acura Rewards, 2525 Colorado Ave, Santa Monica, CA. 90404 and postmarked no later than 12/27/10. Limit one sweepstakes entry per person/email address.

(Via Frugal Travel Guy)

American Express Eliminating Foreign Currency Conversion Fees for Platinum and Centurion Cards

Posted on: December 17th, 2010 by: Gary Leff

Ron Lieber has the scoop and surveys other rewards cards which have eliminated these fees recently, or are about to:

Chase has gotten rid of the fees on its co-branded cards with British Airways, Hyatt and Intercontinental Hotels.

In its wake, Citigroup’s card unit announced a similar move in my Your Money column this weekend, which is about the overhaul of much of its credit card lineup. Two new Citi cards will not have the fee.

And when I asked American Express why it was taking so long, company officials sped up an announcement they had planned for 2011 and made it in my column as well. AmEx will soon get rid of the fees for Platinum and Centurion (aka Black) card cardholders, both on consumer cards and the ones for small business owners.

Not surprising that this hasn’t remained a Chase competitive advantage, since it’s an easy dimension on which other banks can match. Capital One has long eschewed these fees, but who wants to earn Capital One points….?

US Airways Begins to Crack Down on Extreme Award Redemption

Posted on: December 17th, 2010 by: Gary Leff

The US Airways gravy train has been incredible for the past few years.

First, they’ve printed miles like mad, whether through last December’s holiday shopping promo that allowed the purchase of miles at about 7/10ths of a penny apiece through the purchase of stickers (donating those stickers to charity could get your effective cost down half a penny) or perpetually selling miles with a 100% bonus (125% for elite members!). With cheap miles abundant, US Airways was said to be the ‘official consolidator of Star Alliance premium cabin seats’ — you could buy your business and first class travel dirt cheap on flights where awards were available.

Second, because they were incredibly flexible and easy on the redemption side. With no ‘Starnet blocking’ (United’s practice of programming their computers to say that award seats aren’t available on partners even when they are being offered, because the airline didn’t want to pay their partners for the seats) and basically no routing rules folks redeemed with ease. There was no difficulty transiting Europe and Asia on the way to Australia. And folks used to be able to do a stopover in each direction on an award more often than not, getting in three destinations on a single ticket.

Well, first US Airways clarified their stopover rules which had seemed to permit only a single stopover when using partner airlines (and one in each direction on US Airways awards only) to be clear that only one stopover was permitted on any award itinerary.

Then they began to have difficulty booking Lufthansa first class awards between the US and Europe. I never got clarification (on purpose) as to whether it was a technical problem or purposeful blocking a la United. But this challenge was relatively easy to overcome, at least until recently when Lufthansa dramatically reduced their first class award space on many routes going forward — come April they’ll begin the retrofit of first class cabins on their 747 aircraft, and those routes getting the new cabin will see only 8 seats instead of 16. Cutting available seats in a cabin in half also dramatically reduces award space. And since they’re uncertain where the new aircraft will fly on any given day, they’re being extremely cautious in the release of award seats so they don’t have to involuntarily downgrade folks or not have seats to sell. Routes served by an Airbus still seem to have the same award space on offer, but Lufthansa is a huge 747 operator.

Meanwhile, US Airways has also updated their membership guide to crack down on some of the crazy routings, though their routing rules remain perfectly generous.

14.Award travel is permitted when the distance in one direction does not exceed the maximum mileage allowed between the origin and destination. Certain itineraries are subject to mileage restrictions. Travel from North America to Europe is not allowed via Asia. Travel between Europe and Japan/North Asia/South Asia/Australia/New Zealand is not permitted via North America.

No more US to Europe via Asia, perfectly reasonable. If you want to travel to Europe, cross the Atlantic not the Pacific. Imagine that! No more Europe to Asia via the Atlantic. You can’t actually stop in the US between say London and Bangkok. Logical and no great loss. In either case, no “going the wrong way” to get to your destination.

Note that this doesn’t limit travel between the US and Asia, you can still fly via the Atlantic or the Pacific.

US Airways now says that you’re limited to flying no more than the ‘maximum permitted mileage’ between any city pair. Each pair of origin and destinations have a maximum number of miles you can fly, and many airlines limit travel to not exceed that number. United enforces this for instance. Aeroplan will allow you to exceed it by 5%. But here US Airways is saying no crazy out of the way routings.

Fortunately travel between the US and Asia via the Atlantic has explicitly higher maximum mileage allowances than via the Pacific, it’s not a huge constraint.

My guess is that US Airways will not be auto-validating maximum mileages, but it gives them an excuse to deny routings that their earlier rules about requiring most direct travel were unclear on. Probably the rate desk can validate routings, so some will be denied and others will not.

It does mean that folks will most of the time no longer be able to fly between North America and Australia via Europe and Asia.

Bottom-line is that US Airways has woken up to their loosey-gooseyness and is acting to limit. Not surprising at all, especially as they’ve printed miles so cheaply and the redemption of those miles can be expensive. But for now the changes they’re imposing do see rather reasonable. I only worry about the implications of not being able to easily redeem for first class seats that Lufthansa is offering. I do hope that’s a temporary condition.

20,000 Amex Point Rebate or $250 Macy’s Gift Card for Transferring 50,000 Membership Rewards Points to Delta

Posted on: December 17th, 2010 by: Gary Leff

Via TM Travel World comes the next bonus for transfers of 50,000 points (or more) from American Express Membership Rewards points to Delta: a certificate to return 20,000 Amex Membership Rewards points back to your account or a $250 Macy’s gift card.

The offer runs through December 31, registration is required, and you have to select which bonus you want when you register. Hint: take the points.

If you’re transferring 100,000 points or more then you should break the transfer up into multiple transactions. You only earn one bonus per transaction, but each separate transfer of 50,000 points will earn the bonus.

Either bonus will be shipped by mail 4 to 6 weeks after the New Year, so you don’t get instant gratification here. And of course I never advise transferring Amex points to Delta to park points. You only want to do this if you need to top off your account for a specific award that’s actually available. But if you’re going to transfer points anyway these offers are great.

Continental’s Mile-a-Thon Promo Coming Back

Posted on: December 16th, 2010 by: Gary Leff

Via TM Travel World, Continental will be bringing back their Mile-a-thon promo where various activities earn credits towards bonus miles.

Registation will begin January 1 and activity between February 1 and April 30 will count towards the promo. You can’t register yet, and full details aren’t up yet, so just one for the calendar.

At a minimum the offer usually includes a kicker for signing up for a Continental Airlines credit card, so a good opportunity for extra bonus if you’re considering grabbing one of those before the Continental Onepass program goes away (since the signup bonus for each card is usually once in a lifetime, there’ll be no reason to wait for a better offer as in the past — the program itself will go away in a year!).

50% Off Luggage and Bags (including Tumi) at Amazon

Posted on: December 16th, 2010 by: Gary Leff

The Travel Fund reports a deal found on Slickdeals, 50% off on ‘Sunglasses & Purses & Bags’ which works on luggage. There’s a Flyertalk thread on the offer as well.

It seems that the offer requires a minimum $75 item, and applies only to things shipped by Amazon, so filter by ‘eligible for Amazon Prime’.

One example is Tumi items, search Tumi and then filter by Mens or Woments Clothing to get only items eligible for the discount, and also filter by eligible for Amazon Prime. Items that come up should be eligible for the discount.

The Travel Fund says you should be able to get an additional discount as well using code AZTWENTY.

Nothing I want to buy at the moment, but for example one Flyertalk member reports buying this Tumi laptop bag for $112 with free shipping.

Science Proves Frequent Travellers are Stupid

Posted on: December 15th, 2010 by: Gary Leff

Or at least, that jet lag may have lasting effects on memory and learning.

[T]he impacts of jet lag—memory loss and learning problems—may alter your brain’s structure long after you unpack…

The researchers now believe that frequent travelers suffer physical changes to their brains due to chronic jet lag. The jet-lagged hamsters showed a drastic drop in neuron production in the hippocampus area of the brain, which closely contributes to memory processing and learning.

“This is the first time anyone has done a controlled trial of the effects of jet lag on brain and memory function,” said lead researcher Lance Kriegsfeld, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley. “Not only do we find that cognitive function is impaired during jet lag, but we see an impact up to a month afterward.”

At least now I have an excuse when I forget to take out the trash!

(Via @wendyriker)

US Airways Introduces Star Alliance Upgrade Awards

Posted on: December 15th, 2010 by: Gary Leff

US Airways has been saying it’s coming, I’ve been skeptical, but they finally joined the vast majority of Star Alliance airlines by participating in the Star Alliance upgrade program.

Now, the benefit won’t be useful to most. You have to buy a full (Y or B) fare coach ticket in order to upgrade to business class, and a C or D business class fare in order to upgrade to first class, no advance purchase discounted Z business class fares are eligible.

If you don’t buy at least full fare coach tickets, you cannot use your US Airways miles to upgrade on their Star Alliance miles. This is the same way it works with other Star Alliance mileage programs as well.

Further, each flight segment requires a separate award redemption. And the upgrade can only be processed on the US Airways website. That means it’s generally much cheaper to buy a US Airways ticket and use US Airways miles to upgrade it than it is to upgrade on partner airlines, and it’s also an easier process too — not relying on the US Airways website to actually work.

Still, it’s a real benefit for folks on full fare tickets. It’s something offered by the majority of Star Alliance programs. And it’s always good to see US Airways further integrating into Star Alliance. More options are better for members, so no complaints about this one other than it took quite awhile to get around to implementing!

Thanks, Dividend Miles!

Free Ticket and 10% Cash Back (in Gift Cards) on First $5000 in Spend from Southwest Airlines Visa

Posted on: December 15th, 2010 by: Gary Leff

Chase is offering a Southwest Airlines Visa that comes with 16 Rapid Rewards credits on first purchase (enough for a free flight) and Southwest Airlines gift cards based on your spend in the first 3 months with the card:

  • $100 gift card after your first $1000 in purchases
  • $150 gift card after your first $2500 in purchases
  • $250 gift card after your first $5000 in purchases

At each spending threshold it amounts to 5%10% cash back to spend on Southwest in addition to the regular credits for spending and in addition to the Rapid Rewards credits at first purchase.

That’s a pretty attractive first purchase offer and cash back offer in the first three months. First year annual fee is waived, but if you keep the card then the regular $59 annual fee comes with 2 Rapid Rewards credits each year.

Separately don’t forget that you can get 75,000 American Airlines miles after $4000 in spend within 6 months and first year fee waived from Citibank. (And in many cases, get the bonus twice.. once for a personal card and once for a small business card.)

(HT: Frugal Travel Guy)

Update: I really shouldn’t post at 5am, I’ve fixed my math to say the deal is 10% cash back ($500 Southwest gift cards on $5000 spend) not 5%…

Southwest Preparing to Make a Run at Hawaii

Posted on: December 14th, 2010 by: Gary Leff

Holly Hegeman reports that Southwest is advertising for an ETOPS manager.

One only needs to consult Wikipedia on ETOPS if you aren’t familiar to know that it means they’re looking to fly significant distances over water that are far from the nearest diversion airport.

And their current aircraft won’t make it to Europe. The folks down in HoustonDallas are getting themselves positioned to fly to Hawaii!

New York to South Africa $699 Roundtrip

Posted on: December 14th, 2010 by: Gary Leff

Via Dan’s Deals, and this only prices out on the New Zealand Expedia site.

Total is $930 New Zealand dollars which comes out to just $699 US Dollars!

This seems to work for tons of dates in January and February. If you can find it in other months please post a comment!
Sample dates for JFK-JNB
01/12/11-01/19/11.
02/07/11-02/14/11.
02/15/11-02/22/11.

Update: According to the Flyertalk thread on the deal:

Works for IAD as well. When AndrewT84 mentioned CPT works as well, I checked and there is the same (or noted +$) base fare to LAD, LVI, DKR, LLW, PLZ, ELS, VFA, HRE, BLZ (+$50), LUN (+$50), DAR (+$120), NBO (+$120), EBB (+$120).

Five Delta Lounge Passes for $99

Posted on: December 14th, 2010 by: Gary Leff

Via Fly Gracefully, Delta is offering 5 lounge passes for $99.

The one-day passes are valid for a year and can only be purchased at a Delta Sky Club through December 31 by mentioning the offer.

I’ve got Delta lounge access via the American Express Platinum card (access when flying Delta only) but I always feel like these make nice gifts to the occasional traveler flying Delta. I’d never buy them at the standard $50 per pass but $20 feels about right.

Andaz 5th Avenue: Really Great First Stay, Could Become My New Go-to in New York

Posted on: December 13th, 2010 by: Gary Leff

The Andaz 5th Avenue is a bit of an enigma, I think the property is widely misunderstood and expectations were certainly high so when it opened a few months ago many of the reviews were lukewarm or negative.

It’s not an inexpensive property, but it’s not an expensive property by New York standards either. It not ultra-hip trying to be cool W, but it’s still sleek and fun.

And it’s a new brand trying to get out all of the kinks, there aren’t a whole lot of Andaz properties such that they’ve figured out exactly who their customers are (as opposed to what market research tells them to expect) and how those customers’ needs actually match pre-planning.

So lots of misses being reported at the outset: people who feel like it’s not their style, trying to be hip when they’re not.. people who expect a true luxury property at prices perhaps half of what you’d pay at the Peninsula (or even less). Families on several-night stays who like the value proposition of free soft drinks (in the library downstairs and from the minibar), free snacks (albeit just a bag of chips, granola bar, and a chocolate bar), and free internet… who find that it’s more of an adult-oriented hotel, lighting tends towards dim, and rooms without chests of drawers aren’t really geared towards long stays.

So when folks pull up, don’t see clear signage from a hotel that’s trying to be extremely understated and walk inside to find that staff aren’t wearing uniforms.. their expectations clash with realiy, even when it’s a nice reality. And I rather assume that the ‘new concept’ meant that even the staff and management were trying to figure it out so execution wasn’t always at 100%.

As for me I’m rather glad I waited a few months before trying out the hotel, because what I found pleased me a great deal. It isn’t Trump or the Ritz-Carlton Central Park, but it is much more modern, a much better price-value combination, and a generally all-around good hotel experience at least in my one stay so far.

As a Hyatt Diamond I was upgraded to an “Extra Large King” with view of the New York Public Liberary front entrance. The view I could take or leave, not a real selling point, but the room was extremely large by New York standards and the bathroom exceptionally spacious. It wasn’t a suite, as I might get with status at the Intercontinental Barclay, but it more than met my needs. And it’s much bigger than anything I’ve seen at the W New York or the Grand Hyatt. It was certainly comparable to my mainstay Junior Suite at the Parker Meridien.

The staff was certainly friendlier, and the service across-the-board more responsive and helpful, than at any of those properties.

The hotel provides free internet to everyone, so that Diamond benefit wasn’t useful here. They also provide free non-alcoholic minibar. And drinks are abundant throughout the property, there’s 24 hour soft drinks including quite decent coffee in the library as well as unlimited waters, there’s even a complimentary shelf full of water in the gym. I certainly appreciate that.

Diamond benefits are still nice, they offer a $15 food and beverage credit or entertainment credit or the standard points as welcome amenity (no big deal). But the nicest perk is breakfast — not a dollar credit to spend (as often the case at a property sans lounge), but unlimited ordering for breakfast in the restaurant or from room service.

We checked in at 11L30am without difficulty. The place is a bit non-obvious. It has a 5th Avenue address without obvious hotel signage, and the actual entrance is around the corner with no sign above the doors. The hotel staff do not wear uniforms obvious to a first time guest, but they do a good job of realizing who is walking in for the first time (that bewildered ‘did I finally find it?’ look is a dead giveaway). They also do a pretty good job of remembering names and greeting guests they see throughout their stay.

Here’s the 5th Avenue side entrance, just showing the street number.

And here’s the main entrance, again not much signage…

.. except that you’re walking past glass with ‘Andaz’ etched into it

We were guided to the library for checkin where we were offered something to drink, well worth accepting because our concierge disappeared for several minutes with my credit card while handling our checkin.

Our concierge brought us upstairs to our room, we made it to the hallway and the directional signs from the elevators are subway themed (with ‘uptown’ and ‘downtown’ directions) and have murals on the walls as though in a subway.

Or concierge showed us the elevator key cards and the doors where you don’t insert your key but hold it up to the lock (similar to what we had at the Grand Hyatt Mumbai). Upon leaving us, he gave us his card with his name and the concierge phone number printed on it and instructions to either call or text any requests.

The view from the room was of the New York Public Library:

The room itself has high ceilings. Quite thoughtfully there are plenty of electric outlets. The lights do take time to figure out, many folks have complained that the lights aren’t bright enough but I only found that to be the case in the bathroom (my wife says it would be impossible to apply makeup). There’s no dresser drawer, but there is a drawer with each nightstand. And there’s a glass closet with hangers. The set up is perfect for a night or two, and especially travling solo. It’s not really designed for nesting, unpacking a suitcase for a longer stay.

Here’s the minibar:

The bathroom is both stylish and large and the shower is ginormous, but the water temperature – while offering good pressure — didn’t get especially hot except at the max temperature setting (and then a bit too hot, very difficult to adjust and keep just right). The are exceedingly comfortable. I did notice the lack of storage space and feature taking priority over design, there was no ‘backup’ roll of toilet paper (was it at a W I stayed in recently where the extra roll was labeled “backup plan” ..?).

The gym is downstairs, small (but in separate ‘sections’ and with mirrors appears much larger at first glance). Well equipped, no press machines but weights and treadmills and headphones to borrow.

Turndown service was provided, which meant that the bed was adorned with an extra pillow and the blackout shades drawn. No chocolates or bedside water (though unnecessary perhaps with both provided complimentary with the mini-bar)

Breakfast in the morning was a real highlight. First I ordered up a pot of coffee when first getting up (5:30am or so), and then called back later for an actual breakfast order. All of the food was really quite good, certainly well above average in quality, and both orders were taken off the bill automatically without my prompting.

The room service menu as well was interesting, with most offerings customizable — they have meats, sauces, toppings, and whether you’re
ordering a salad, a sandwich, or an entrée you can mix and match ingredients and cooking styles to your liking. I didn’t test out the concept, and of course execution is what’s key, although the idea certainly appeals. The items are available anyway, why shouldn’t the hotel be able to manage to arrange them in the most appealing manner?

On the morning of checkout I tested out the concierge texting feature, I asked for late checkout and 10 minutes later I had a reply saying that it was handled. It’s a brilliant idea, work with them whether you’re in the hotel or not and in a way that people have become increasingly used to communicating. But the execution isn’t all there yet, I asked about cable news channels as the TV guidance didn’t seem to match channel numbers. I got a reply, but this time it took 47 minutes to hear back.

The hotel offers online checkout, but I didn’t use it because I didn’t want to chance missing out on the departure gift, at least to see what it was. I was presented with a choice of lollie pop, lip balm, or breath mints. At their strong suggestion I chose the lip balm.

US Airways Awards Lifetime Silver Status After 1 Million Flown Miles

Posted on: December 13th, 2010 by: Gary Leff

Wandering Aramean and One Mile at a Time both take notice of US Airways introducing a million miler program to Dividend Miles. They’re the only major US carrier that didn’t have one (hey, even Philippine Airlines Mabuhay Miles does!).

Only flown miles on US Airways, and not on partner carriers, count towards status and one million miles nets you Silver. That makes US Airways the least rewarding million-miler program overall. United only counts flight miles on their own aircraft (including United Express, of course) but gives you mid-tier status. Delta only gives you lowest-tier status, but includes partners. American currently even includes non-flight activity, though that’s long been rumored to be on the chopping block. Fortunately I’ve crossed my 2 million mile threshold with American already!

Pretty much across the board the reaction is that this isn’t especially generous, but it is more than US Airways was offering before. And considering they’ve long been incredibly tight awarding lifetime status, this is actually pretty good. Remember that the folks onboard US Airways 1549 that crashed in the Hudson only got status for a year. So I suppose lifetime Silver for 1 million seat miles is a step in the right direction!

Hyatt Confirmed Suite Upgrades Can Now Be Used for Stays Past Their Expiration Date

Posted on: December 13th, 2010 by: Gary Leff

Hyatt’s confirmable suite upgrades for Diamond members were new in 2010 and they did take a little while to figure out some of the wrinkles. At first the suite upgrades, which ‘expire’ February 28, had to be used by the expiration date.

But that left requalifying Diamonds in an interesting pickle. They wouldn’t be receiving ‘new’ suite upgrade certificates (with expiration in February, 2012) until the new member year. Hyatt doesn’t award these when a member requalifies, they do a sweep each year to award them. So Diamonds who wanted to book early for stays past February 28 could not use these certificates. That turned into a strange incentive to wait and not make bookings. That’s clearly not what was intended, and there’s not any reason why there ought to be a gap in the usefulness of confirmed suite upgrades. So Hyatt revised the rules.

Now you just have to apply suite upgrades before they expire. So you can book a reservation now for stays long after February 2011 and use current year confirmable suite upgrade instruments.

And in fact, you don’t even have to be a Diamond at the time of the stay — current Diamond members with expiring suite upgrades who will not requalify for Diamond status can make bookings now and confirm their suites for next year. They won’t be Diamonds anymore at the time of the stay, but the suite upgrade will still apply.

Good move by Hyatt. It took a little ‘getting there’ to figure it all out, but they’ve made an excellent decision from the member perspective.

Now that Starwood is out with their first quarter promo (and Marriott has brought back free nights earning via MegaBonus, albeit with capped free nights earning), and even Hilton has a bonus promo for early next year… it’s time for Hyatt to jump on the bandwagon. Free nights would be nice… (Forever greedy, I feel bad for managers of these programs sometimes, they give us great benefits and that just leads us to ask for more!).

Starwood’s First Quarter Promo: Double Points PLUS 500 Points for Each Weekend Night (Including Thursday Nights!)

Posted on: December 13th, 2010 by: Gary Leff

Starwood is offering Great Weekends from January 3 through April 15, 2011: double Starpoints on all stays and 500 bonus Starpoints per night for every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday night stayed. There’s no limit to the points earned under the promo.

It looks like about 10% of Starwood’s properties aren’t participating in the promo.

Registration will be required, but won’t be available until the start of the promo on January 3.

A really nice points bonanza for folks making weekend stays, though not as potentially lucrative as free nights offers.

Update: It turns out this promo was all that was ‘next’ — all the recent speculation about something big for SPG notwithstanding. C’mon, folks, don’t tease us that way!

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