Quick Deal: Toddy Cold Brew Coffeemaker for $18 at Amazon

This is more for ground travel, or staying at home reading rsts11travel (or maybe on long hotel stays), but Amazon has the Toddy cold brew coffeemaker on sale today for under $18 (usually $30-35 in our experience over the last few years).

The Toddy design and method have been around since 1964, and we’ve used it for about 20 years ourselves. It has nothing to do with the alcoholic beverage you probably thought of at first, although you can make coffee cocktails with it if you like.

If you don’t trust the coffee on the way, fill up a plastic water bottle with concentrate, and just add water on the road for smooth low-acid coffee. Or drink it concentrated, and drive straight through to Hong Kong. [Editor’s Note: Don’t do that.]

How does it work?

Take a pound of coarse ground coffee (or half a pound of tea leaves), about 9 cups of cold filtered water, and 18-36 hours on the counter and you get concentrated beverage that lasts two weeks in the fridge.

There are smaller recipes if you want to make less concentrate, and (perhaps due to spillage) Toddy recommends the smaller batch with 12oz coffee/7c water.

If you’re on the road, most retail coffee shops that sell beans will grind them for you. Or you can put a couple of bags of beans into the Toddy hopper in your suitcase, and bring your faves with you. You may find a 2 liter soda bottle acquired on site to be a safer option than the glass carafe for travel.

We’ve used these on and off for over a decade at home, and odds are, your favorite coffee shop uses the commercial version for your favorite iced and blended coffee and tea drinks. They used to be sold in the coffee shops inside Borders Books stores, but now the accessories may be a bit harder to find in local stores (check Bed Bath and Beyond, or order from toddycafe or Amazon: Stoppers and Felt Filters).

The felt mesh filters should be replaced after 12 uses or 3 months. Stoppers are more likely to get lost than worn out, but it doesn’t hurt to have a couple of spares either way. They now even have a paper filter to simplify cleanup and extend the life of the felt mesh filters.

Check it out!

[Note: Our new “Deals” category will unilaterally promote deals we find for things we use and recommend. These will usually (but not always) feature affiliate links, which means we’ll get a small commission if you purchase through those links, but your price should be unaffected. These are not paid placement, and are not requested or endorsed by the manufacturer or the marketplace involved.]

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Newsflash: American Express relaunches Premier Rewards Gold as the Gold Card

Last week at rsts11travel, we looked at some of the premier credit and charge cards and how to make them worth the high annual fees. You may have noticed we hinted at the Premier Rewards Gold card, a mid-range benefit-bearing charge card in the personal lineup. Eagle-eyed consumers also may have noticed that the American Express Gold Card disappeared from the Amex website earlier this year (leaving a gap between the classic green charge card and the Platinum card). 

Well, there were rumors and screenshots suggesting that the Premier Rewards Gold card would be changing, and last Thursday they became more than rumor. 

Promotional image from American Express customer email

Before October 4th, 2018, the Premier Rewards Gold card offered 3x Membership Rewards points on flights booked directly with airlines, 2x on gas stations and supermarkets, and 1x on all other purchases. It also provided a $100 airline fee rebate for a selected airline each year. It was a pretty good card for the $195 annual fee, if you could take advantage of the bonus categories. 

With the updates, the Premier Rewards Card is now the American Express Gold Card. The bonus on gas stations is gone, the flight bonus remains, but restaurants and supermarkets are now earning 4x Membership Rewards points (with a cap of $25,000 in supermarket purchases per year, after which the rate returns to 1x). 

The airline fee rebate is joined with an opt-in offer of up to $10/mo in statement credits on select dining partners. Those partners are Grubhub, Seamless, The Cheesecake Factory, Shake Shack, and Ruth’s Chris Steak House. If you choose to use this benefit, log into your Amex account and activate the benefit on the “benefits” tab of the site. 

Alas, as we saw with the American Express Platinum card last year, the annual fee is expanding along with the benefits, to a new rate of $250 effective your next renewal date on or after April 1, 2019. You’ll have anywhere from 6 to 18 months to decide if the new annual fee is worth the benefits. 

In the rewards blogosphere, a lot of people are seeing this as a viable competitor to the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, and depending on your travel and dining preferences, as well as your redemption options, it could supplement or replace the CSR in your wallet in 2019. 

One other benefit that may seal the deal for some cardmembers is the metal card offering, including a limited edition rose gold metal card only available for three months. While you can order the new yellow gold metal card through the Amex website, you’ll have to either call the number on the back of your card or use Amex website chat to request the Rose Gold card. 

It sounds like the new card request is effectively a product change, although the benefits have already changed so it’s not a big difference. 

How do you feel about the new American Express Gold Card? Will it change what you carry and use? What will take its place as a gas rewards card? Let us know in the comments below. 

Newsflash: National Car Rental promo with American Express

Most of you who have American Express Platinum cards know that you can get Executive Aisle status as a benefit of those cards. This means you get a wider selection of vehicles when renting, and earn free rentals faster (a free day every 6 rentals, rather than 7 with basic Emerald Aisle membership). 

A National Car Rental car selection at Orlando International Airport. Orlando International Airport – Photo: Rusty Clark ~ 100K Photos via Flickr, used under Creative Commons License (By 2.0)
Photo: Rusty Clark ~ 100K Photos via Flickr, used under Creative Commons License (By 2.0)

Well, apparently National really wants American Express cardmembers to rent with them. There’s a new promo today that gets you Executive Elite status just by having an American Express card. Executive Elite sets the free rental day bar at 5 rentals, and has guaranteed availability if you reserve 24 hours in advance. 

Follow this link, log in if you have a current account with National, and you should be upgraded. It took about 30 seconds for us, and an email confirmation of the profile change was in our inbox within a minute or two. 

If you rent after accepting the offer, and pay with an American Express card by the end of January 2019, you are eligible for a free rental day in addition to whatever your rental credits earn you. 

Not a National fan? With this status you may be able to match to Avis and Hertz higher tiers… your mileage may vary, so to speak. 

Justifying a premium credit or charge card for your traveling pleasure

Update: American Express relaunched the Premier Rewards Gold charge card as the Gold Card, making it a viable contender for your premium card needs. See our writeup here.

Something that comes up on many travel and credit forums is the topic of seemingly-obscene annual fees on certain premium credit cards. Cards like Citi AAdvantage Executive, Chase Sapphire Reserve, and Amex Business Platinum come with a $450 annual fee, and the gold standard (erm, platinum standard) American Express Platinum went to $550 a year last year.

Once upon a time, annual fees were a given in much of the credit card landscape, and rarely came with enough benefits to counter the fees. Today, many of these cards have features that compensate for, or even exceed the value of, the annual fee. In today’s post we’ll take a look at some of the most common benefits (especially with regard to the four cards listed above), and when you might find them worth the fee.

Travel Credits

Several cards provide a travel credit of some sort as part of their benefit portfolio. American Express offers a $200 “fee rebate” on their Platinum and Business Platinum cards, and a $100 rebate on Premier Rewards Gold, which can offset the $550, $450, and $195 fee respectively. These rebates only apply to certain charges, such as checked bag fees, flight change fees, and earlybird check-in for Southwest. The terms and conditions explicitly exclude tickets, upgrades, and gift cards, although some people have been reimbursed for these under certain conditions.

We’ve been reimbursed for Main Cabin Extra fees (and received 5x MR points on top of that) with American Airlines in the past, as well as earlybird check-in on Southwest, so charges like that seem common. There are threads on various travel forums with data on what has worked and hasn’t with regard to other charges (including airline gift cards).

Amex offers an additional travel credit of sorts on the personal Platinum charge card (not Business), in the form of a $200/year Uber credit. You receive $15 per month in credits, with an extra $25 in December, usable for Uber and even Uber Eats. Credits do not roll over, and they are not usable with other ride sharing services.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve card has a much more generous travel credit, in the form of a $300 annual credit that is applied automatically to travel expenses including air travel, taxis and ride shares, hotel charges, etc. We’ve had Las Vegas monorail tickets, hotel stays, as well as Uber and Lyft charges rebated on the date of charge posting, and were able to fully exhaust the credit in about a month.

If you exhaust the travel benefits above, Platinum comes down to effectively $150/year, Business Platinum to $250, Premier Rewards Gold to $95, and Chase Sapphire Reserve to $150. Considering that many midgrade cards have an annual fee of about $100 (including Chase Sapphire Preferred at $95, Barclaycard Arrival Plus at $89), you’re pretty close to even.

Lounge Access

Another benefit of use to frequent travelers is airport lounge access. American Express Platinum charge cards include the Global Lounge Collection, Centurion Lounges, Delta Sky Club (when flying Delta), and Priority Pass. Chase Sapphire Reserve includes the Priority Pass benefit. The Citi AA Executive card includes Admirals Club access, even when not flying on American.

We feel that Centurion Lounges are the best choice where available, but there are only seven in the United States (with the eighth, Dallas Fort Worth, expected to reopen in its new location in October 2018). There are seven other Amex lounges, plus a Centurion Lounge in Hong Kong, outside the US, and three more Centurions are opening next year (LAX, Denver, and New York’s JFK).

American is more generous with their lounges, with 55 Admirals Clubs around the world, often hosting more than one club per airport in places like LAX and DFW. You only need your Citi card and ID when using an Admirals Club lounge.

You can also access Alaska lounges (when flying American, Alaska, or Virgin), Quantas (when flying Qantas or certain American flights out of Auckland and Sydney), and other partner lounges (when flying American).

Priority Pass is included with the Amex and Chase options, but not Citi AA. There are about 1200 lounges worldwide in the Priority Pass Network, and the Chase and Amex memberships allow you and two guests to enter for free. If you’re not near an actual lounge, there are 25 “restaurant lounge” options in the US, where your allowed contingent gets a $28 credit per person ($30 at PF Chang’s in LAX) toward food and drink in a partner restaurant in lieu of a lounge stay. There are also lounge restaurants outside the US, and your Priority Pass app or the website will tell you what’s available per airport.

Conservatively, we estimate a $25 value for a lounge visit if you have a meal and a cocktail. Some may be more (a five hour wait at a Centurion club could result in $100 worth of cocktails alone, for example), and some lounges may not have that much value (cheese cubes and soda only go so far), but three round trips for two can bring you a $150 value or more, which brings Business Platinum to $100 and wipes out the other cards’ fees. Traveling with family or colleagues/friends can double or triple that value (or more).

Hotel and Auto Status

American Express Platinum offers Hilton Honors Gold, Starwood Preferred Guest Gold Elite (which may change as they update for the Marriott/Starwood loyalty merger), as well as Avis, Hertz, and National auto rental programs. Business Platinum offers similar benefits.

The value of these will depend on where you stay and what privileges you take advantage of, but in addition to welcome amenities, free upgrades, breakfasts, water bottles, and bonus points/points multipliers, they can really add up if one of these programs is your preferred program.This is especially true if you’re not staying enough to earn the status organically, but often enough to enjoy the occasional benefits.

Chase Sapphire Reserve offers National, Avis, and Silvercard benefits, but no hotel status benefits. AA Executive does not offer any status benefits with hotels or car rentals.

Additionally, American Express offers the Fine Hotels and Resorts program, which we’ve written about before (Delano, Aria), as well as the Hotel Collection, for premium hotel experiences. Chase has the Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection, which is analogous to the FHR program. FHR and LHR offer upgrades, breakfasts, early check-in, late check-out, occasional free days at certain properties and other benefits which can easily be worth $60 or more per day of your stay.

Additional noteworthy benefits

All four cards mentioned offer a fee credit for Global Entry and/or TSA PreCheck, which is worth $85-100 every five years. If you have more than one card, you can use the fee credit for a friend or family member; authorized users may get their own credit as well. We recommend getting Global Entry if you think you might leave the country and come back within 5 years, but even with PreCheck, that’s $17/year in value.

Amex Platinum offers Boingo wifi access, while Business Platinum provides ten Gogo inflight internet passes in addition to the Boingo wifi network. Both cards also provide ShopRunner access, which provides free 2-day shipping at many online retailers.

The personal card offers a $50 Saks Fifth Avenue statement credit every six months. The business card offers a 35% points rebate when you pay-with-points for air tickets through Amex Travel.

Chase provides additional redemption value when booking travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. When compared to Chase Sapphire Preferred, 10,000 points would be worth $150 with the Reserve card, versus $125 with the Preferred card (if you choose to redeem for cash/statement credits, the value is $100 either way).

Both Amex and Chase cards offer bonus points on certain travel expenses (Chase with 3x points on travel and dining; Amex with 5x points on certain air and prepaid hotel charges). These values may vary depending on whether you redeem through the card issuer’s portal or transfer points to a partner, so you would have to decide what the points bonuses are worth to you.

There are also extended warranty and purchase protection benefits as well as concierge services with the Amex and Chase offerings.

You may have noticed we haven’t talked much about the AA Executive card in this section. Its benefits are meager beyond lounge access, to be honest; you get a 25% rebate on inflight food and beverage purchases, double AA miles on American Airlines purchases, and 10,000 AA Elite Qualifying Miles if you spend $40k in a year.

Citi Price Rewind is available on this card, which gives you 60 days to match to a lower price on an item you purchase with the card, and get the difference credited back to your card. We’ve used this benefit before, but it’s also available on the Citi Double Cash card, with 2% cash back and no annual fee, so it’s not really a motivator toward the AA Executive card.

So what card do I want?

The easy one to call on is the Citi AA Executive Mastercard. If you are often in airports with Admirals Club lounges, the Admirals Club membership benefit is a pretty good value. Without Executive Platinum status, the membership would be $550 the first year and $500/year on renewal, so you’re getting that benefit for $50-100 off even without the other meager AA Executive benefits. We consider this card worthwhile for the lounges alone, but we travel several times a year and use the lounges at least once a month on average.

The other three cards (Amex Platinum personal and business charge cards, and Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card) can easily make up their annual fees if you only travel a couple of times a year. Having more than one may be a harder deal to compensate for, but a well timed luxury hotel stay could bring you $500 or more in value on any of the cards.

The cash value breakdowns are as such:

  • Amex Platinum (Personal): $550 fee. $200 fee rebate, $200 Uber credits, $100 Saks credit, $17-20 amortized TSA Pre/Global Entry value. Remaining effective fee: $30-33.
  • Amex Platinum (Business): $450 fee. $200 fee rebate, $17-20 amortized TSA Pre/Global Entry value. Remaining effective fee: $230-233.
  • Chase Sapphire Reserve: $450 fee. $300 travel credit, $17-20 amortized TSA Pre/Global Entry value. Remaining effective fee: $130-133.
  • Citi AA Executive: $450 fee. $400-550 lounge membership. Remaining effective fee: $0 (sorta).

If you take lounge access into account on the non-AA cards, or any of the other benefits mentioned above, you should be able to bring the effective fee to zero or better. And while the Business Platinum card has less cash-type benefits, you can probably deduct its annual fee on your taxes (consult your tax professional to be sure) if you are using it for an actual business.

Have you taken the plunge with one of these premium cards, and if so, was it worth it to you? Let us know in the comments.

Disclaimer: We don’t put referral links to credit cards in our posts, and we don’t get any consideration from credit card issuers for our coverage. They don’t review, promote, or (probably) even know about  this blog. For some of the cards discussed, we can provide individuals with a personal referral link if you’re interested.

Restaurant surcharges and hotel resort fees – disingenuity in action

[Your author Robert here… I was pondering whether this was more soft topics for my tech blog, or travel. I’ll crosspost, since I think it applies to both. And it sat around in my draft folder for about six months, but it’s still valid today.]

I recently dined with my honey at a local chain steakhouse. I’ve been going there as often as weekly for over a decade. We’ve gone less frequently in the last couple of years thanks to Nom Burger, but still once a month give or take.

Their prices have been sneaking up over the years. The dinner for two combo they have has gone from under $40 to $65 as I recall, although coupons still bring it down. Some of the choices have become added-cost items, so if you want a wedge salad, that’s an extra buck, and if you’re lucky it won’t be smaller than it was last month.

But the thing that annoyed me was the 3% “minimum wage surcharge” that was stickered onto the menu and was slapped on the bill.

Slapping customers with your cost of doing business?

The surcharge was annoying. The Chocolate-Orange Layer Cake was pretty good.

When I see a “minimum wage surcharge” or a “health insurance surcharge” on a restaurant bill, it rubs me the wrong way in a big way. It tells me the restaurant would really rather not pay a reasonable (legal) wage, or would rather not provide health insurance (maybe they’d rather have sick employees serving and cooking for customers?).

And a separate item could lead to lower tips as well. If you look at the subtotal to calculate the bill, 3% of that amount which is actually part of the cost of business is not included, so you may not think to tip for it. I didn’t think to look at whether the surcharge was taxed… is tax avoidance part of the consideration as well?

It wouldn’t be too hard to add 3% to the menu items themselves. If you were able to reprint the menus for the 5-10% price hike on certain items, you could easily add the 3% in rather than adding a sticker.

You’d also see a bit more money going to the employees you are hesitant to pay fairly or insure too. Sure, 20% of 3% isn’t a lot per cover, but over time it adds up.

It can’t just be surcharges bugging you…

As I pondered this particular sticker, I thought about parallels with fuel surcharges (for shipping and airline tickets) and resort fees (for hotels and, well, resorts).

The fuel surcharges seem similar; given the dynamic nature of pricing for airline tickets, it should be easy to adjust in a close-to-realtime fashion based on actual costs of fuel (or even to buy fuel more than a gallon at a time to absorb market shifts, which I think they do anyway). Shipping costs could be more complicated due to contracts with shippers and agencies.

Resort fees make them all look friendly and nice, of course; $30+/night for wifi and printing boarding passes is a bargain if you’re printing a thousand boarding passes, but more often it’s a great way to fleece customers and get away with false advertising. (Read some thoughts from The Points Guy and KillResortFees.com here.)

If you travel a lot, especially to Las Vegas, you’re accustomed to the resort fees, which as TPG above notes can be more than the room rate itself at cheaper hotels. But first-time travelers, especially those not on company expense accounts, may be disappointed and/or inconvenienced when their $30/night hotel room turns out to be $65+tax. Make it $100 if you have to park a car.

If you as a hotel operator believe that the resort fees reflect anything of actual value, why not either include them in the room rate, or make them optional? Surely all the people who find those services valuable will be happy to pay for them. Myself, I haven’t needed a notary or fax receiving at a Las Vegas hotel, well, ever… and based on Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts credits at several hotels, I know the wifi is worth $5 a day, and I’d pay that happily.

There’s a good read at the Federal Trade Commission’s website on their investigation into resort fees. The tl;dr summary (emphasis added):

 The analysis in the paper finds that separating mandatory resort fees from posted room rates without first disclosing the total price is likely to harm consumers by increasing the search costs and cognitive costs of finding and choosing hotel accommodations. The analysis finds that separating resort fees from the room rate without first disclosing the total price is unlikely to result in benefits that offset the likely harm to consumers.

However, to date not much has been done to address this, and resort fees continue to go up.

There are ways to get around some resort fees, of course. Caesars Entertainment does not automatically charge resort fees for Diamond and Seven Stars Total Rewards members, for example, and if you’re a high roller/have a host at other resorts and chains in Las Vegas, you might be able to get special treatment. But most visitors to Las Vegas will get slapped with a resort fee (and parking fees too!) that they get little or no benefit out of and no option to decline.

How do you feel about surcharges and fees? Do they affect your choice of destination? Or do you just consider them “part and parcel” of traveling and dining out? Share your feedback in the comments.

 

Mini-trip-report: Campanile, a new Priority Pass “lounge” at LAX

Welcome back to rsts11travel.

Those of you who have premium credit cards (like American Express Platinum, Chase Sapphire Reserve, and others) probably know about Priority Pass, a network of lounges around the world that you can get access to, either free or at a nominal fee of $27 per guest depending on your membership and number of guests.

See also: The Points Guy’s “All About Priority Pass

For the few years I’ve been traveling heavily, I have not used Priority Pass benefits, since most airports I visit have either a Centurion Lounge (access via Amex Platinum) or an Admirals Club lounge (access via Citi AA Executive). The Priority Pass lounges have often been reported as crowded, less impressive than Centurion/AA/Delta options, and more likely to restrict Priority Pass access.

Well, Priority Pass noticed, apparently, and started to partner with non-lounges in some busy destinations. In addition to a few Minute Suite options at smaller airports, there are almost 30 restaurant partners in the US as of this writing, and you can use your lounge visit privilege in the form of a $28 credit at any of these restaurants simply by showing your Priority Pass card (or mobile app).

A bit over a week ago, Priority Pass added Campanile, a self-described “fine dining” establishment in Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) Terminal 4. We had the opportunity to try it twice this past weekend, once for breakfast and once for dinner. LAX also has PF Chang and Barney’s Beanery under Priority Pass, and three Admirals Club lounges (including a small one in the Regional Terminal for people connecting within California), and a Centurion Lounge is coming in 2019.  Continue reading “Mini-trip-report: Campanile, a new Priority Pass “lounge” at LAX”

Breaking even on Founders Card in one week

We’ve written a bit here on rsts11travel about FoundersCard, a membership program for entrepreneurs and small/medium business operators that provides lots of travel, business, and lifestyle benefits for an annual fee of $295-595 (usually $395). We’ve also answered questions on various travel forums about it. But we haven’t really given a detailed review.

The short summary I’d give would be that, if you run a business or work for a small business where you manage your own travel, or if you find yourself in Las Vegas or Lake Tahoe or Atlantic City more than once a year, it’s pretty easy to make up the value of the membership fee without too much effort. If you travel more, use business and lifestyle services (more on that shortly), or buy technology for your business, it truly becomes a no-brainer. If you are limited to corporate travel or no travel and don’t use business services, it’s probably not for you.

We’ve been members for about three years now, with Robert (the site owner) having the annual membership and his partner having the spouse membership (which is a one-time fee for life). The first year we saw about $1,000 in value, and the second year at least half that (which exceeded the total cost of membership). The third year was looking a bit light due to less travel, but in one week in Las Vegas we recouped this year’s cost and then some.

A caveat for anyone considering membership: If you are choosing to apply because of one benefit, keep in mind that there’s no guarantee that any particular benefit will be renewed from year to year, or will remain the same from year to year. Think about a range of benefits that may be of use to you before putting the money down, to minimize the disappointment if your one sacred benefit goes away in a few months or a year.

The Roman Emperor In The Room

Many FoundersCard fans consider the Caesars Entertainment benefit, Total Rewards Diamond status, to be worth the price of membership on its own. Continue reading “Breaking even on Founders Card in one week”

Trip report: Impressive redemption value at a transitioning Hyatt in Santa Rosa, CA

Welcome back to rsts11travel. Today we have a story of a hotel redemption that came to 3.6x the TPG valuation for the points in question, and the story of a hotel about due for redemption.

We’re members of a car club for a particular American car platform (the GM Kappa platform, as seen in Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky convertible roadsters), and we had a run a couple of hours from home earlier this month. It wasn’t so far as to warrant an overnight before the run, but with it being in the fringes of wine country, we decided to stay overnight after the run.

Our favorite hotel in Santa Rosa, the Fountaingrove Inn, burned down in the Sonoma County fires in fall of 2017 and has not been rebuilt, so we went looking for points redemptions. As we recall, the Lodge at Sonoma Renaissance Resort and Spa didn’t have points availability, so we went with the Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country near downtown Santa Rosa.

We chose the $75 cash plus 6,000 World of Hyatt Points option, intending to use a travel eraser card to cover the room copay and taxes/fees and breakfast. Turns out this was an unexpectedly excellent value on its own, as the room was renting for $449 and up on Saturday nights. That means $374 of hypothetical room value covered by only 6,000 points, or about 6.2 cents per point. Compare that to TPG’s August valuation of 1.8 cents per point, and it’s pretty impressive.

To be fair, we’d never spend $449 for a quick overnight stay, but considering that we made up the points and more during a work trip to Las Vegas the week before, thanks to the MGM Resorts partnership with Hyatt Hotels, it was still a good deal.

Alas, the hotel, while good, was not up to Hyatt Regency expectations. 2018-08-25 16.11.31

The Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country is conveniently located on Railroad Ave in downtown Santa Rosa, blocks from downtown and a LOT of dining and shopping options. It’s a three story hotel with a central courtyard, a modest conference facility, paid self-parking ($10 when charged to the room, possibly a recent change according to some web reviews of the property).

It’s in the process of converting, apparently, from a Hyatt Regency to a regular Hyatt property (“Vineyard Creek” is seen on some of the materials in the hotel, but the corporate branding is still Regency). The restaurant has been closed for a while and has two months of construction left, so the dining options are room service, the small lobby bar, and a breakfast buffet set up daily in one of the convention rooms.

As mentioned, there are lots of great options for dining off property, but if you’re just looking to stay on site for the night, it’s somewhat suboptimal. We considered Guy Fieri’s Tex Wasabi’s, Russian River Brewing, and Toad in the Hole Pub, before deciding on Perch + Plow on the old courthouse square about half a mile from the hotel.

2018-08-25 16.10.21The room itself was spacious and comfortable, but felt more like an Aloft class hotel, or maybe a W, as opposed to a flagship property. It also fell short in the lighting category, with no switched lighting beyond the bathroom and entryway, and the corner between the bed and the bath (on the right above) being very dark in the evening even with the lights on. Our room was shower only, no tub, but unlike many of the hotels we stayed in recently, it did have a coffeemaker (with the disposable plastic filter trays and powdered “creamer”) and mini-fridge (no mini-bar, but that’s okay with us).

We didn’t get photos of this, but the power source arrangement was unique. The desk, the tv stand, and both sides of the bed headboard had an AC outlet and two USB charging ports, which made it easy to charge up all of our devices overnight. We’re used to one or two inconvenient outlets, or a lamp with one outlet in it, so this was a very modern offering that was unexpected.

For the property as a whole, aside from the restaurant being closed, things were acceptable. The staff were very friendly and helpful, even when we left our card keys in the room (and couldn’t get out of parking or back up to the third floor without them). The breakfast buffet, which is effectively a pop-up restaurant with omelet station, was pretty good as well (although it wasn’t free–$25.73 each with tax and tip). The $10/car parking charge was annoying, and unexpected for California wine country hotels, but we’ve paid far more for parking elsewhere before.

Mobile checkout worked quickly and seamlessly from the Hyatt mobile app, which also unexpectedly showed a current tally of room charges when we checked while checked-in. That saved us having to turn the TV on to look at the folio before checking out. We’re hoping the other major brands bring that functionality to their mobile apps as well, if it’s not already hidden away.

So wrap up the story for us

We were not blown away by the Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country hotel, but for the redemption value and location, we were not disappointed. If availability leaned that way, or if we wanted to walk to Guy Fieri’s place, we’d be happy to return, hopefully with the restaurant in operation.

Odds are, though, our preference would be a return to the Renaissance in Sonoma, although it will eat 40-60k points per night (or 22-27.5k plus $165-225 depending on season).

Where have you stayed in Sonoma County for a good redemption value or even just a good wine country experience? Share in the comments, or join us on Facebook.

 

Crosspost: Travel tips and links for your summer conference season – 2018 edition

We’ve posted an updated version of the annual summer conference tips and tricks post on rsts11.com today. Feel free to check it out.

After a relatively sedentary winter/spring, I’ve started traveling again, and will be headed to Cisco Live in Orlando next month as well as the Cisco global sales kickoff in August in Las Vegas if all goes well.

I posted some tips and tricks a year ago on rsts11travel, with a focus on Las Vegas. A lot of the advice there is still relevant. In this post I’ll focus on hotel promotions you should look into, as well as some new product recommendations (with affiliate links, so you can help with my gadget addiction and hosting fees).

Read more on rsts11.com…

Quick take: An unexpected benefit to a Starbucks account

First of all, if you have an online account for Starbucks, or Peets, or anything else that’s tied to money you don’t want to throw away, make sure you’re not using a compromised or easy to change password. Go change it now. Really. 

And while you’re at it, you might check out haveibeenpwned.com, a site run by Microsoft’s Troy Hunt in his spare time to track where your email address may have been found in a data breach. Some you might be able to guess (Target, Equifax, etc) but others might be a surprise. 

Okay? Let’s get the story started then.

Maker:0x4c,Date:2017-10-14,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-YStarbucks has had their prepaid cards for over a decade, and they have a pretty usable mobile app that lets you link your cards, your rewards account, and top-up methods together in one place. It’s very convenient for me, living within walking distance of two Starbucks stores and liking to get out of the home office now and then.

A benefit they added in the last couple of years that’s very convenient (and got me over one of my main concerns over the cards themselves) is the option to tip from the app after your purchase posts. If you don’t carry cash but still want to give a little thank-you to your barista squad, it’s convenient, and it’s not connected to you face to face (so they don’t know if you tipped 50 cents or 50 dollars). The option manifests in a pop-up that tells you that “tipping is available until <two hours from now>.”

2018-02-11 11.00.15 oops starbucks
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This feature had an unexpected benefit for me this past weekend. I woke up around 10am on Sunday and checked my phone, finding that “tipping is available until 11:42am” message on my notifications. Quite convenient indeed.

The problem is, I had been asleep for several hours before that. And on top of that, the purchase that I was being allowed to tip for was on East Colfax Avenue in Denver, Colorado. Quite the long sleepwalk from Silicon Valley in California, right?

Well, I found that there were actually two unauthorized charges from Denver… one I hadn’t noticed a couple of days earlier, and one that morning. I logged in to my Starbucks account on the web, reset my password via my password manager, and contacted Starbucks through their web contact form. They told me I’d have to call in to discuss the matter, and I did.

The agent I spoke to got my gold rewards card cancelled/reissued, the unauthorized charges refunded, and the credit transferred to the new card. I have to wait a few days to actually use it, as it will come to me in the mail, but I was able to get an e-card to get me by until then (and still earn my rewards).

Ideally you won’t have a compromised password on your account, but in the event that either your card or your account is compromised, the Starbucks mobile app may give you a not-too-late warning.

You might not be as worried about $25 on your Starbucks account, but if you have auto-reload turned on, it can add up pretty quickly if someone else is brewing with your card.