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.

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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.

 

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…

Newsflash: Caesars Total Rewards Diamond changes and devaluations for 2018

Update 2018-02-01: The FoundersCard/Total Rewards partnership has been renewed. See below for details.

It looks like the news has been filtering out for two months, but somehow we just learned of this today. Caesars Entertainment has made some notable adjustments to the Total Rewards tier benefits for 2018.

For many Diamond members, and most Seven Stars members, this won’t be a severe downgrade. If you stay at Caesars properties regularly and leave a lot of money in the casino, you’ll probably be okay. But for people barely squeaking in to Diamond (or getting in through tier matching or FoundersCard), you’re going to notice some differences.

Links: Current (2017) benefits, New (2018) benefits

See also: Happy holidays from rsts11travel, and a quick offer from FoundersCard

What’s changing?

Continue reading “Newsflash: Caesars Total Rewards Diamond changes and devaluations for 2018”

Trip report: Marriott Marquis Washington DC

[Note: This post was written in early October and got forgotten for a little while. It’s still valid and we’re finally posting this report for your enjoyment.]

We’re back from nearly a week in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., for a little bit of sightseeing and a lot of the Splunk annual user conference, .conf2017.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Capitol, so to speak, and we’ll look at the unexpected benefit of using the Admirals Club instead of Centurion Lounge at SFO in a recent post. We also cover the change to Centurion Lounge access for non-Platinum cardmembers in another recent post.

Hotel: The Marriott Marquis, Washington, D.C.

The event was held at the Walter E Washington Convention Center, which is connected by underground tunnels to the Marriott Marquis. Having learned years ago that the event hotel is usually the best hotel for an eventgoing person, I chose to switch from my original reservation at the Grand Hyatt Washington (about 15 minutes walk, with a club room and Explorist status), to the Marriott Marquis (Not quite 15 minutes, but indoors, with a standard room, M Club access, and Gold Marriott Rewards status).

At check-in, the agent acknowledged my request for a feather-free room, and offered a $50 property credit which I promptly used on dinner that night. The lobby was mostly empty and there were only two people checking in at the time, so the process was quick and courteous as expected.

I got a two-doubles room facing the street, and an in-app request for body wash had been fulfilled with a bag of extra toiletries including body wash and hand wash. Marriott uses Thann products, which I’ve been happy with.

2017-09-23 19.49.00

I was disappointed to find that the coffeemaker is one of the disposable-tray models, not the Keurig Mini I’d seen in review photos. It seems the upper floors offer Keurigs, whereas the lower floors offer the standard Marriott coffeemaker (which is almost the same as the standard Hyatt coffeemaker). So my box of Tayst single cup pods stayed in the suitcase, and I actually didn’t use the coffeemaker nearly as much as I’d expected.

Join the Club

Silver, Gold, and Platinum guests receive access to the M Club lounge on the 12th floor, even if they don’t get club rooms. A long, thin room with a nearly-as-long  outdoor patio, the lounge offers coffee, tea, milk, sodas and waters, an espresso/coffee machine, and a still/sparkling water tap 24/7.

2017-09-24 19.04.52.jpg
View of Washington from the M Club lounge patio at dusk

In the mornings a modest breakfast was offered, with scrambled eggs, sausage and bacon, potatoes, baked goods, and a few other items along with the regular beverage offerings and orange juice.

In the evenings, a bartender serves drinks (which you can charge to your room), and various hors d’oeuvres are available as well. Later in the evening, dry snacks and take-out style packages were offered, so you could grab some pretzels or other munchies and take them back to your room.

A hotel employee was checking people in for breakfast and hors d’oeuvres, but other times you just needed a qualifying key card to get in.

The coffee was exceptionally adequate, so I only ended up using my room coffeemaker once. It was just as easy to head up to the lounge and get a coffee and a snack.

Hotel Dining and Amenities

The hotel features a couple of dining options that were not disapointing.

  • The lobby bar with a light bar menu and, of course copious drink options
    High Velocity, the sports bar offering lots of televisions and lots of meat (including a good chicken sandwich and some excellent burgers)
  • Anthem, a diner-style restaurant with breakfast and lunch service. The breakfast buffet was a good deal when taken with coffee and juice (as most hotel buffets are).
  • The Dignitary, a bourbon bar next door (which I didn’t make it to)
  • Arroz by Mike Isabella, a southern Spanish restaurant next door (which I also didn’t make it to, but wanted to)
  • There was also a Starbucks in the lobby, which closed at 4pm. I never made in there, but the coffee in the M Lounge was quite adequate.

A small but reasonably-stocked gift shop is located around the corner from the main desk. There is a very convenient CVS pharmacy half a block from the back side of the hotel, which combined with the mini-fridge in the room (under the coffeemaker) could be very convenient for families staying here.

Exploring the Area

This was my first time in Washington in over 30 years, so I was happy to have a day to explore the Capital before my convention began.

washington-dc-hike-201709

I was quite surprised with the convenience of the hotel’s location; my tourist walk started with a bit less than a mile’s walk to the White House, continuing around it to the National Mall, the Washington Monument, the National World War II Memorial, and on to the Lincoln Memorial. The final walking tally was a bit over two miles, and I decided to take a ride-share back to the hotel from there.

If you’re visiting Washington, be aware that not everything is open, and not everything is as open as it used to be. For example, since repairing a crack in the Washington Monument from the 2011 earthquake, they found that the elevator needed to be replaced as well, so the Monument itself is closed through at least 2019. And for those of you wanting to get close to the fence at the White House, you probably won’t be able to. Security is very visible and there are additional layers of fencing all around, and line corrals near the Pennsylvania Ave gates.

Some coworkers and I went back out a couple of nights later for a night-time bus tour of the landmarks. For $39, it was two hours well spent, with an entertaining guide and only minimal interaction with tree branches in the open-top double-decker bus.

Most meals were taken at the hotel, or provided by the conference at the convention center. However, I did have a chance to visit a couple of restaurants, specifically the Rocket Bar, and Matchbox in Chinatown twice. I was quite pleased with Matchbox’s mini burgers (their apparent claim to fame) during a party, and returning with a colleague the next day we had a chance to enjoy the tomato mozzarella arancini and a pizza.

Those are our highlights from the trip, both at the hotel and around the City. I’d intended to visit Martin’s Tavern in Georgetown, where Senator John F Kennedy proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier in 1953, but didn’t make it quite that far out of the center of the capitol this time.

What do you think we missed? What are your go-to locations in Washington for dining, sightseeing, or just relaxing?

 

Photo credits: Map courtesy of Google Maps and its contractors. All photos (C) 2017 by Robert Novak, taken during this trip.

 

Quick take: Starwood Preferred Guest quarterly promo

This just in:

The latest quarterly promotion for Starwood Preferred Guest members is available for registration now.

spg-q4-2017

Go ahead and register now, even if you don’t have Starwood stays planned. Check the links on the linked page to see if the ones you do plan are offering the bonus points. And remember that the SPG/Uber promotion applies after your first qualifying stay per year.

Quick Take: Rideshare partnerships to double/triple dip

Most of our readers are rideshare users, whether Lyft or Uber or both. And most of you also use other travel providers, right? What if you could take advantage of multiple promotions to make the most of your rideshare usage?

Well, you can, and in this quick take we’ll point you toward the ones we know about. If we miss any, let us know in the comments and we’ll update accordingly.

Lyft

We’ve found two Lyft partnerships that you can sign up for as a rider, and one driver promotion as well. Check your Connected Services page while logged into Lyft to see if you’re already registered.

JetBlue (Lyft, JetBlue) offers 30 TrueBlue points for every airport ride you take with Lyft. Incidentally, rides near an airport may count; we’ve seen a number of Las Vegas Strip rides report the 30 point credit in the app, even going from hotel to hotel, although this may only apply if one of your ride endpoints is adjacent to the airport (i.e. Mandalay Bay complex).

Delta (Lyft, Delta) offers 1 Delta SkyMile per dollar spent on rides, and through November 1, 2017, 3 SkyMiles per dollar on airport rides.

Shell Fuel Rewards (Lyft, Fuel Rewards) has a special offering for Lyft Drivers only (not riders). If you’re in the driver’s seat for Lyft, this one will be worth looking into, but for riders/travelers, it’s not so useful.

Uber

We’ve found two Uber partnerships that you can sign up for, and two you may already be getting. Check your Rider Profile page to see if you’re already connected.

Starwood Preferred Guest (Uber, Starwood) lets you earn 1 Starpoint per $2 spent with Uber anytime, and 2 Starpoints per $1 spent with Uber during a Starwood stay. There is a catch, in that you have to have one qualifying Starwood stay before the points promo will be effective. Also, it appears that only paid nights on “eligible rates” qualify to activate the promotion.

American Express Platinum (Uber, Amex) also offers a valuable Uber benefit, as long as you have a Platinum charge card linked to your account (you don’t even have to pay for rides with it). As of Summer 2017, Amex Platinum cardmembers receive $15/mo in Uber credits, with a $20 December bonus (or $35 total for December), as an automatic benefit of the expanded annual fee. Uber VIP status is also granted where available. See our earlier coverage of the Platinum changes, and remember that Platinum *credit* cards like the Delta cards do *not* count for this benefit.

American Express Membership Rewards offers 2x MR points on Uber rides charged to an eligible American Express card that earns MR points, or you can use points to pay for an Uber ride. The earning is a better deal, in that your Uber redemption is only 1 cent per MR point. But you can choose on each ride when you apply an eligible Amex card.

VISA Local Offers (Uber, VISA) is also worth a look. This is a program that is tied to specific credit cards, and if you use a card registered with Local Offers at a venue offering the promotion, you are eligible for a credit to your Uber account based on spend at the venue. We’re not seeing this option in our app though, so your mileage may vary (or we may have already registered for it).

Credit card travel benefits may apply

Remember that some credit cards offer promotional bonuses for travel expenses including rideshare spend.

Cards like Discover, Chase Freedom, and the like offer quarterly categories that may include ground transportation, but you’ll need to register each quarter and keep track of the categories. It doesn’t look like Discover or Chase have any ground transportation promos for the rest of 2017 though, but check again in December.

Capital One has been known to offer promos with their Quicksilver cards.

Chase Sapphire Reserve and Preferred have a year-round bonus earn for travel spend (see right) which generally includes taxis and rideshares.

And of course, cashback cards are a reasonable option if you don’t have a better option, especially those like Citi Double Cash that offer a flat 2% back.

Did we miss any tips and tricks that you’ve used to optimize your rideshare benefits? Share in the comments and we’ll investigate and update appropriately.

Disclosure: All offers are valid as of September 5, 2017, as noted; no links in this post (above this disclosure) as of September 5 are affiliate or referral links. If you do still need to sign up for Lyft (RSTS11TRAVEL) or Uber (DHOVJ), you can use the codes/links  just mentioned, or the links at our Support Rsts11Travel page.

Trip report: Standard King at the Beverly Hilton, Beverly Hills, California

A couple of weeks ago, my niece sent me a note letting me know she was on my coast for a change, staying in LA for a couple of weeks with her grandmother. Since I hadn’t seen her since last fall’s Disney World trip, and won’t be down there for another year probably, I decided to try to make a road trip work.

After looking at major chain locations within half an hour of the suburb she was staying in, we decided to try the historic Beverly Hilton, perhaps obviously a Hilton property, a few blocks from Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Known for the Daytime Emmys and Golden Globes as well as numerous other entertainment industry events, it’s an older hotel (opened 1955) that’s seen some interesting ownership changes and refurbishments over the last 60+ years.

There is a brand new Waldorf Astoria adjoining the Beverly Hilton, but the rates would’ve been exorbitant for what was meant to be a crash pad stay, not a spa getaway. Maybe next time we’ll try something on that scale.

Thanks to expensive work stays at New York City Hilton properties over the last couple of years, we easily had enough Hilton Honors points for a two night stay. We booked with about thirty hours notice, dug into local exploration options, and packed up for the drive from San Jose to Los Angeles.

Staying at the Beverly Hilton

Unbeknownst to us, the weekend we visited had the Television Critics Association conference and the PBS conference back to back, so it was a bit crowded and there were no upgrades available. We did share air with a number of celebrities, and passed Nicole Kidman outside the Lobby Bar at one point.

The only reward rooms available were single king bed rooms, and there were no upgrades available, which complicated things for a two-teens-and-two-adults stay. We got a complimentary rollaway bed, and picked up an air bed for additional sleep space.

Our check-in agent was kind enough to upgrade our complimentary continental breakfasts to buffet passes, in consideration of the lack of a Hilton Honors Gold upgrade. We also got a pod-style coffeemaker, with plenty of pods and a bonus bottle of water, at no extra cost.

The King Bed Standard room went for 60,000 Hilton Honors points a night, including two bottles of Evian a night and breakfast passes for four. For super-short notice we would’ve been looking at $328/night, or $365/night for the breakfast plan, plus 15.5% + $0.80/day taxes.

That comes to $844.75 or 0.7 cents per point. The Points Guy has a valuation of 0.6 cents, and we got a total of four upgraded breakfasts (about $15 value each) and three bonus buffet breakfasts over the course of the weekend (about $50 value each), so we came out well ahead of the average.

The hotel and the room

The room we stayed in was a single king room, at about 356 square feet with an odd shower/tub (left) and a view of the driveway and one of the hotel signs (shown at the top of the page). It felt larger than, say, the basic rooms at the LAX Marriott or the Sheraton in Midtown Manhattan, but wasn’t all that cramped.

The bathroom had a sliding door, more of what you’d expect for a closet than a bathroom. For family it wasn’t too bad, as we’ve been in closer quarters, but there wasn’t much soundproofing from the sliding door.

Coffeemakers are available on request, at no charge, featuring a dual pod brewer and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf coffee pods. A reasonable minibar is also provided, with an unchilled courtesy shelf in case you need to stash some leftovers.

The parking was either valet and self-parking, at $42/night including tax either way. The hotel also advertised a courtesy vehicle for trips of a mile or less from the hotel, but they were backed up due to crowds (even with the critics show having their own limo service), so after 20 minutes we called an Uber (which arrived at the same time as the courtesy vehicle).

Dining and sightseeing

We chose to have breakfasts at Circa 55 on the lower level of the hotel, with the standard buffet on Saturday morning and the “champagne brunch,” described as “a Beverly Hills tradition,” on Sunday morning. Our other meals were outside the hotel, to get some different local flavor. We didn’t make it to Trader Vic’s for a Mai Tai, unfortunately.

The included breakfast coupons covered the standard buffet (approx. $30 plus 18% service charge), or an equivalent credit toward other purchases (i.e. the Sunday brunch at $45). I believe the credit also included a proportional credit for the service charge when we upgraded our meal.

Saturday we had a great experience, with an attentive waitress and great service at the omelet station. Sunday, the omelet station was still good, but we waited nearly half an hour from seating to get drinks ordered. It was at opening time for the full buffet, but the property was not crowded so this experience was disappointing. The food was good though. Comparing the $45 “bubbly brunch” to the $95 Sterling Brunch Buffet, which is our regular “tradition” buffet in Las Vegas, I’d say it might have been a bit overpriced on its own, but the typical hotel premium makes it about right.

For the first night’s dinner, we went to Roni’s, a little hybrid Italian/Cajun/Mexican/little-bit-of-everything joint just across Melrose (but on the far side, so a bit of a hike). The food was great, although the TVs on the walls of the small venue were a bit distracting.

Black Pastrami Reuben at Brent’s Deli in Northridge

Two friends from different parts of our lives recommended Brent’s Deli in Northridge, so we took the whole family there after a visit to the Los Angeles Zoo, and we were not even slightly disappointed. Plenty of food was provided for a great value (under $20 each with beverages), and the range of choices was amazing. It’s hard to pass up a good Reuben (the Black Pastrami Reuben is pictured below0, although my niece appreciated her “SF Burger” and a couple of other choices rounded out the table.

While we didn’t make it to these two other options, they’re worth noting. On the corner of Santa Monica and Wilshire Blvd was a Starbucks Reserve location that would’ve been tempting if they hadn’t closed before we finished dinner. These locations tend to have upscale decor and extra beverage choices, including custom sodas, Clover coffee brewers, and sometimes even alcohol.

And on Rodeo Drive amidst the upscale shopping experiences, a tasting room for St Supery winery just opened in August and should be open through August 2018.

Closing thoughts

This trip was unusual, both in the sense of driving my own car in a “distant” location (rather than a rental), and in being able to spend time with my extended family on my coast for the first time ever. The drive was cheaper than flying three of us down on a day’s notice, and we had the chance to stop off at Pyramid Lake on the way home.

I would say the hotel had glamour but not luxury, although it was comfortable and convenient for our needs. The Sheraton Universal might have been more spacious, but I’ve stayed there several times so it wouldn’t have been adventurous (and we might have been tempted by Universal Studios rather than the LA Zoo, which would’ve been costly, especially for a Disney family). We’ve had some spacious rooms at the Coast Annabelle in Burbank (walking distance from the Walt Disney Studios), but the dining there wasn’t all that great.

We’re not all that likely to head back very soon, since the family is on the other coast most of the year and my job doesn’t take me to the LA area very much anymore. But it was a fun experience and a reasonable value for the hotel experience we had.