Quick take: Priority Pass changes and confusion cleared up for you

Welcome to rsts11travel. Today we’re looking briefly at an underrated benefit on several premium charge and credit cards, and a recent change that has been causing confusion and misplaced expertise on travel forums this week.

tl;dr: American Express announced in May that they would no longer offer the restaurant benefit on Priority Pass memberships through their cards. Priority Pass reminded customers of this earlier this week. US Bank, Citi, and Chase benefits are unchanged. 

We’ve also looked at Priority Pass in the following posts:

Priority Pass is a company that provides a subscription service of sorts for airport lounges around the world. They began offering this “club” program in 1992.

You can subscribe through their website for an annual plan that gives you access to over 1000 lounges and airport facilities around the world; depending on your needs, you can choose to pay as little as $99 up front for a year’s membership (with a $32 per person visit fee) or select their Prestige membership at $429/year which provides you unlimited free visits and a $32/person guest visit fee. 

Most people using their service, however, do not pay them directly. Several premium credit and charge cards from American Express, US Bank, Chase, and Citi offer a version of Priority Pass (usually Priority Pass Select) which gives you either an “unlimited” number of visits with a specified number of guests included, or a fixed number of visits included.

In addition to over a thousand lounges in the program, Priority Pass also offers access to Minute Suites relaxation bays at certain airports, as well as a generous restaurant credit at about 30 airport restaurants in the US. These options have different values than a regular lounge access benefit, but many travelers (your hosts included) have found them to be good options when available.

So what’s changed?

In late May, American Express announced that they would discontinue the restaurant benefit on Priority Pass memberships granted through an American Express charge or credit card. This caused some ire, but very few cardmembers chose the premium cards from Amex because of the $28 restaurant credit.

Earlier this week, Priority Pass themselves sent out a notice (right), co-branded with the American Express Global Lounge Collection, specifying that the membership noted in the email would no longer offer the “non-lounge airport experiences” and offering a link to the frequently asked questions (FAQ) for this change.

Both the email and the FAQ state that this change only applies to the membership account specified in the email. And as confirmed by numerous travel bloggers, there has been no announcement by Chase, Citi, or US Bank that they are changing this benefit (in fact, at least The Points Guy has actively confirmed with each that they are not changing at this time).

But still, the link to the FAQ spread like wildfire, without the “qualification” of the email source, and mild panic ensued.

Should I panic and spread rumors on the Internet?

In a word, no.

The change to Amex benefits has been known for a while, and the email sent this week clearly applies to the American Express provided Priority Pass membership whose number is in your email.

No changes have been announced or even credibly intimated regarding changes to the other cards offering Priority Pass. All three banks issuing the cards have publicly confirmed that they are not changing the non-lounge benefit.

Does this mean they will never change anything until the inevitable heat death of the universe? Of course not. But it’s obvious to recognize that the Priority Pass benefit from Citi, Chase, and US Bank premium cards is still valid and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.

What should I do?

If you don’t use Priority Pass at all, or if you only use it for airport lounges, nothing changes for you.

If you have your Priority Pass through a card not issued by American Express, nothing changes for you.

If you have your Priority Pass through a card that is issued by American Express and you want to use the restaurant benefits after July 31, 2019, you will want to check to see if any of your non-Amex cards offer the benefit.

The US Bank Altitude Reserve and Chase Sapphire Reserve (not Preferred) are popular choices still available for application. If you have the Citi Prestige card (no longer offered to new cardmembers), your benefit remains available and unchanged as well.

You can usually activate your Priority Pass benefit through your card issuer’s website/account portal, or by calling their customer service phone number. When we activated the Chase Sapphire Reserve Priority Pass, it took about two weeks to get the card and member number, but others have reported getting it sooner.

Once you get your card, activate your online account at the Priority Pass website or in their mobile app. Most participating locations will accept the “digital card” in the app, so you don’t need to carry the plastic version, but if you have room in your wallet or purse, you may want to do so anyway.

Wrapping it up

We hope the details in this post will help you quash any confusion about the changes and notifications around Priority Pass benefits for American Express and other cards.

The Priority Pass app, available for IOS and Android, is going to be useful going forward if you do have an Amex-offered Priority Pass benefit. It was already good for tracking down details of available lounges, as well as offering the digital membership card, but as of August 1, 2019, it will also help you avoid Priority Pass properties that are not included in your benefit.

We also expect that the “Find an Airport Lounge” feature of the Amex mobile app will be updated as well; it’s a good resource for finding eligible lounges across several networks offered by Amex (including Centurion Lounge, Delta SkyClub, and others).

We recommend checking the respective apps or websites before traveling, so that you are not disappointed upon arrival to find certain properties have left the program (as we saw with Campanile at LAX last fall). Also check participating lounge hours and availability to Priority Pass members, and remember that they are subject to capacity limits even during available hours (laws of physics and all).

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rsts11travel quick take: Waldorf Astoria Las Vegas and Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts Program

This post is the companion to a quick video blog we recorded on the topic. The video will appear here:

Welcome back to rsts11travel.

We were out traveling (surprising, huh?) and missed the live June 23, 2019, Ace of Vegas #VEGAS podcast a week or so ago. Catching up on the recording, the crew mentioned Waldorf Astoria Las Vegas, a property we’re familiar with and had some thoughts on. 

Waldorf Astoria in Las Vegas started its life as the Mandarin Oriental, a part of City Center (along with Aria, Vdara, Crystals, and Veer). It was one of the least expensive MO properties, and remains quite affordable for its class, especially if you take advantage of American Express Fine Hotels & Resorts. 

You’ll get most of this content if you watch the video, but for folks using translators or just wanting to read rather than watch or listen, we got you covered. 

A Hilton Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip? 

Well, it wasn’t always that way. The Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas opened in City Center in 2009. It was LEED Gold Certified, sort of an oddball in that it was a premium worldwide brand known for expensive rooms, the perhaps-obvious Asian theming, and a luxury experience that could easily go unnoticed on the strip (we didn’t know it was there until we were booked there in 2014 by corporate travel). 

Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas was a non-casino, non-smoking resort with 392 hotel rooms (and about 225 condo-type residential units selling for about $2 million). This is a familiar model, as Vdara and Signature at MGM started with similar split models. It was not an MGM Resorts property, although guests of MGM resorts could charge restaurant and bar tabs at MO back to their MGM property room folio. You could not do the other direction (charge MGM venues back to MO). 

The dining options were luxurious as well, from MOzen on the third floor providing American and European breakfast and lunch, to the tea lounge and Sky Bar on the 23rd floor (next to the main lobby), to Twist by Pierre Gagnaire.

Yes, you read right, the lobby is on the 23rd floor. You’d drop your car with the included valet service on the ground level (behind Bobby Flay’s “Bobby’s Burger Palace” and the CVS drugstore), head up to the 23rd floor, check in, and then head up or down in separate elevator banks to your guest room. 

But something changed

That’s right. In 2018, the property changed owners and management. The co-founders of Panda Express bought the property, and it was converted to a Waldorf Astoria. The MO era ended at the end of August, 2018, and $50 million or so later, it reopened as Waldorf Astoria. 

MOzen was renamed to Zen Kitchen (the MO for Mandarin Oriental no longer making sense). Twist, the Tea Lounge, and Sky Bar all remained intact. 

We haven’t been back since the transition, but we’re hoping to do so soon. 

This isn’t going to be cheap, is it? 

We mentioned that Mandarin Oriental properties can be expensive. A room at the Mandarin Oriental Boston, for example, starts at $595/night or so. But by 2014 at least, rooms could readily be found at the MO Las Vegas for around $200-300/night. Sure, Excalibur is cheaper, but they’re not comparable. And for an upscale room and experience, $200 is quite reasonable (compare with Aria or Wynn for example). 

When we started working on this post and video, we looked at a couple of reservation choices, ranging from 1-2 weeks out to 6 months out. 

A room July 2-5 (about 8 days advance reservation) ran $287/night.

A month later for August 2-5, we found $225/night, and August 3-6 was $198/night. 

A December 6-9 stay showed up at $205/night. 

But what’s with the Hilton bit?

We’re glad you asked. Since you’re staying at a Hilton property, you can earn Hilton Honors points on your folio, or you can redeem them. Quick checks of the options above came to about 330-360 points per dollar, or 0.2-0.3 cents per point. Not a great redemption compared to TPG’s estimate of 0.6 cents per point, but if you have points to burn (or if you can get a points + cash redemption), it’s worth considering. 

You may do better to watch the promotions Hilton offers. Our last paid stay at a Hilton rewarded us with about 45 points per dollar spent, between a couple of promos, Hilton Honors Gold status, and the green housekeeping option. That’s between 9-27 cents on the dollar, and can be used toward future stays (maybe even a return to the Waldorf Astoria). Promos come and go, of course. 

There has to be an even better way

We mentioned the American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts program (FHR) in the intro. Platinum charge card members can take advantage of this program to add some extra benefits to a stay at some of the most impressive properties in the world. 

These benefits start with early check-in, late check-out, a room upgrade when available, daily breakfast or breakfast credit (usually $30/person/day for up to two people), free wifi access (usually about $5+tax/day), and a property amenity chosen by the hotel. Most of the time we’ve seen the property amenity be a $100 spa credit to be used during your stay, but a stay at Delano Las Vegas at Mandalay Bay had a dining credit to be used at almost any Mandalay Bay restaurant property. 

The rates for FHR reservations are not always the lowest available, but with up to $165/day plus the chance of an upgrade, they are often still a good deal. 

Beyond that, though, you may find a free third, fourth, or fifth day for your stay. Our visit to the Aria Sky Suites had the third night free, and looking at the Waldorf Astoria, we found that the dates we chose effectively gave the fourth night free. 

On top of that, you can use your qualifying Amex card to earn 5x Membership Rewards (MR) points for prepaid stays, or you can use your MR points at 1 cent per point for a prepaid stay. 

It is worth noting that properties are not guaranteed to stay in the FHR program; we’ve seen Aria Sky Suites come in and out a few times over the years. If you have a qualifying Amex Platinum charge card (not the credit cards like Amex Delta Platinum Credit Card), it’s worth looking for any upscale stay in Las Vegas including the Waldorf Astoria.

So bring it home for us

You probably wouldn’t think of the Waldorf Astoria as an economy hotel. It’s not, but the Las Vegas location may be one of the most affordable ways to try the brand out, whether you’re paying “cash,” redeeming Hilton Honors points, or taking advantage of several American Express options with the property. 

Have you stayed at the Waldorf Astoria since Hilton took over management? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and we’ll see you in Vegas soon!

 

 

How much do I have to spend to make a premium card break even?

A few months ago, we looked at up-front justification (or at least softening the blow) of the annual fees on some premium credit and charge cards. This was mainly intended to show that most of these cards have up-front benefits that compensate for the $450+ annual fees.

Several conversations on online travel and rewards forums have shown that the distinction between the annual fee and the potential value of the card are not as clear as they could be. And some people are looking solely at the sign-up bonus vs the annual fee.

So today we’ll take a deeper look at how to determine if one or more of these cards is for you.

Spoiler: If you don’t travel in a way that you can use your own cards, odds are none of these cards will be of much use to you beyond the first year, if that. 

Recap

We reviewed the American Express Platinum charge cards (both personal and business), the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card, and the Citi AAdvantage Executive credit card.

Continue reading “How much do I have to spend to make a premium card break even?”

Newsflash: Amex Business Platinum adds new features, $145 annual fee hike

The American Express Business Platinum Card, formerly a $450 annual fee offering with a 35% points back benefit on pay-with-points travel bookings, announced a few changes coming between now and February 2019.

Read about the personal Platinum increase here: Changes in Amex Platinum – and 3 reasons to keep the card (March 2017)

See our guide to Justifying a premium credit or charge card for your traveling pleasure here (September 2018)

Dell benefit description updated February 1, 2019. You can register for this benefit now.

During 2018, the main noticeable change was that they started issuing cards in metal rather than plastic, matching the personal card option. In return for the satisfying clink or clunk on a table, you give up the ability to have your card run on one of the old kerchunk machines (we’re sure there’s an official name for the impression-based devices, but we don’t know it offhand).

But 2019 brings a few new benefits, at a cost. As with the personal card, if you can use the new benefits, you’ll end up better off than before, even with the annual fee hike.

Continue reading “Newsflash: Amex Business Platinum adds new features, $145 annual fee hike”

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

Update: The logistics of Priority Pass remain the same, but as of November 2018, Priority Pass has removed Campanile and Barney’s Beanery from the program at LAX, and added the Rock & Brews sports bar in Terminal 1 (not the one in Terminal 5).  You can also still use PF Chang’s in the International Terminal, as well as Korean Air, Virgin Atlantic, and Alaska Airlines lounges. Always check the Priority Pass app or the website before traveling, and remember that properties can change without notice.

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”

Newsflash: American Airlines status buy-up for 2018

Welcome back to rsts11travel. We’re here today to let you know that if you’re running short on qualification for next year’s AAdvantage status, you may be able to buy up to retain status.

We did a status challenge last year at this time (through FoundersCard) to get Platinum status through January 2018. Alas, travel slowed down at work and in our personal lives this year, and we’re way short of the qualification to keep status through January 2019. And American has a policy of only allowing “quick qualification” once every five years, so while FoundersCard had another status challenge offer recently, we’re not eligible.

This morning, the buy-up offer came into our email. The price to upgrade will vary based on how close you are to qualifying; your travel plans for 2018 will definitely tie into whether it’s worth spending cash to regain status.

For us, it’s probably not going to be worth paying to upgrade. Since our American mileage and spend was lower this year than the previous year, we’re looking at about $750 for Gold and $1500 for Platinum. If we win the lottery, then we’ll probably re-up (or just fly for a week and enjoy organic status). Otherwise, we’ll probably slip down for a year and consider status challenges or matches elsewhere.

There are two possible side benefits (beyond the status) of buying-up to a status level.

The first side benefit is that if you use a travel card (especially American Airlines cards, but possibly other travel rewards cards), this spend should qualify for the bonus points and other benefits. For example, the AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard from Citibank has two benefits for spend:

So that $1500 for Platinum would give us 3000 miles and almost 4% of the spend to get 10k EQMs (although doing it now wouldn’t help much, as it’s per-calendar-year).

You might be able to use travel-eraser cards to credit back the cost of your upgrade, or use travel credits from a premium card like Chase Sapphire Reserve or certain American Express cards, depending on your card and how the charge is classified/posted.

The second side benefit is noted in the buy-up offer:

Plus, your purchase price will count toward your Rolling Elite Qualifying Dollars, helping improve your upgrade priority.

So that Platinum buy-up would give 1500 EQDs toward the next year’s status, and help with ranking for upgrades.

Have you considered buying your status upgrade for 2018? Have you found any other ways to take advantage of travel card benefits with this upgrade? Share in the comments!

Quick take: Admirals Club at SFO, and a minor reroute on the way to DCA

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. Trip report on that coming soon, so watch this space. But for now…

Sit a spell, for a bit about lounges

As our regular readers  know, I’m rather fond of the Centurion Lounge at the Las Vegas McCarran (LAS) airport, and I had hoped to try out the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) Centurion Lounge on this trip, as well as spending a couple of hours at the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) Centurion Lounge. American Express Platinum charge card holders get free access to these lounges. I’d also scored an upgrade with my often-useless 500-mile certificates, for the DFW-DCA segment.

[Side note: Amex has changed how access to the Centurion Lounges is handled for non-Platinum Card holders; see our post on this change for more details.]

I got to the airport early, PRE and CLEAR, and got through security at my gate’s concourse before realizing I’d have to go out and around to get to the Centurion Lounge. Even with TSA PRE and CLEAR, I didn’t relish two more security adventures, and may not have been awake enough to be sure I could find my way.

Luckily, there was an American Airlines Admirals Club lounge just inside security, and with the Citi AA Executive Master Card, I get “free” access. So I went in, and the agent inside checked me in, looked at my AA itinerary to DCA, and then made a face.

It seemed that the plane I was scheduled to fly out to DFW on was on maintenance still, with less than two hours till scheduled takeoff. The agent said he’d seen a similar situation recently where the flight finally left 10-12 hours behind schedule, so he poked around for a few minutes to rebook me through Chicago O’Hare (ORD). He also got my checked bag rerouted to the new plane. I was disappointed to have a shorter layover, no upgrade, and no Centurion Lounges at all, but I’d get into DCA three hours earlier and have time for dinner at my destination.

When I got to my departure gate, the flight I had originally booked was at the next gate over, reporting boarding in 8 minutes, with no plane in sight. By the time I was boarded, they’d moved departure on the other flight from 8:00am to 8:30, and when I checked in Chicago, they’d finally departed a bit before 10am. Not as bad as the lounge agent had feared, but still….

My flight to ORD gave me time to get a pair of sleep socks from the Project Fi Travel Trolley, spend about an hour in the Admirals Club above the H/K concourses, and get onto my flight (with business class upgrade after all) to DCA.

When I checked in, the agent at priority check-in didn’t tell me about the maintenance situation. If I had gone to the Centurion Lounge across the airport, they probably wouldn’t have had access to that information either. So while I do still want to try the SFO Centurion Lounge, and will still visit the LAS lounge whenever I’m in town, there was a definite upside to using my traveling airline’s lounge instead.

Have you had any interesting lounge experiences lately? Share them in the comments, or join the conversation on Facebook.

Quick Take: Amex Locks Down Centurion Lounge Access For Some Cardmembers

[Note: This is slightly older news; the announcement was a couple of weeks ago and the changes took effect a week before this posting.]

American Express offers a number of proprietary lounges in about a dozen airports around the world under the Centurion Lounge brand. With complimentary buffet-style dining, a premium bar, facilities for business travelers as well as families, and usually-better-than-general-airport-WiFi, the Centurion Lounges can be a welcome respite before hopping on a plane.

Platinum charge card cardmembers (but not platinum credit card holders, like those with the Delta American Express Platinum cards) have long had access and the ability to bring family and friends along with them. Other American Express cardholders could purchase a day pass for $50, much as some airline-specific lounges also allow.

Unfortunately, this has led to crowding in some of the lounges, and dissatisfied customers (many of whom now pay an additional premium in the form of a $550 annual fee, vs the former $450 fee), and Amex believes they have found a way to attempt to address this.

As of October 2, 2017, American Express has eliminated the option for other American Express cardmembers to purchase guest passes.

Platinum cardmember access remains unchanged, with members allowed up to two guests, and additional guest passes being $50 per day per guest. Centurion Card holders can bring two guests or their immediate family along, with the same guest pass option. This is actually unchanged from the previous policy.

Guest passes are valid all day, so if you’re bringing extra guests along through multiple airports with Centurion Lounges, you only need to buy one pass per day.

What does it all really mean?

If you are a Platinum charge cardmember, there’s no change. Personal Platinum cardmembers will see the $550 annual fee take effect in the next cycle, if your fee hasn’t come up since May 2017, along with the other benefits we covered when the fee hike was announced.

If you are an American Express cardmember who had used the $50 day pass option, you lose that option, but of course you could apply for (or upgrade to) a Platinum card if you use the lounges enough.

With free food and alcohol available in the lounge, as well as a relatively quiet place (until the super-important business person has a shouting match on speakerphone by the window, of course), I find it easy to consider the lounge worth $50 a visit if I have more than an hour to wait, or if I’m traveling with my family. Two premium drinks and a modest meal would easily come to that much outside the lounge, even for a solo traveler.

So you’d have to do the math, considering how often you travel through a Centurion Lounge airport. Today that includes DFW, LAS, LGA, SFO, MIA, SEA, HOU, and soon Hong Kong and PHL. You’d also take into account which other benefits of the card you use, such as Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts and the $200/year Uber credit, if travel is your primary benefit from Platinum.

Amex does have Priority Pass Select, Airspace, Delta Club (when flying on Delta), and Escape Lounges in addition to the Centurion and Amex International Lounges. However, some of those options are available through other means, including airline fee rebates or other cards offering Priority Pass variants.

My math has worked out the last couple of years, in that I can use Uber for personal transport during business trips, and I visited Las Vegas about 8 times in the past year. I can’t be sure if that will be the case in the next year, but we’ll see.

We wrote about changes to the American Express personal platinum card in March.

Photo credit: Featured photo from American Express

Magic Kingdom For Sale? Making the most of your Disney adventure from a rewards perspective

As we head into the weekend, rsts11travel’s Robert Novak is here with an apology to Terry Brooks and a tip sheet for finding great deals or saving money in general with your trips to the Disney theme parks and facilities.

I (Robert) worked for the Walt Disney Company for three years, and in that time I had the best deal you can get without being on the board or executive staff of TWDC: a magical device formerly (and generally) known as the Silver Pass.

Given to full-time salaried employees after two weeks, and hourly staff after a substantially longer time, the Silver Main Entrance Pass gave cast members (inside and outside the parks) free entrance for themselves and their registered/benefitted dependents, or for a fixed number of guests if one didn’t have spouse or dependents to report. The pass was valid for something in the neighborhood of 300+ days per year.

This made me pretty popular when I was at events near the parks, and I also got some free passes every six months to give to friends or family. But since I didn’t live near the parks, I didn’t use these benefits very often.

People would often ask me to get them discounts, but the discounts for outright purchase of tickets were pretty light (similar to the discounts Apple gives on current products to employee purchase programs–not very much at all). So I surprised friends by telling them to go outside the company. Now that I don’t have the pass anymore, I too go outside the company, and I’ll share some guidelines that will help you make the most of your efforts and funds. Continue reading “Magic Kingdom For Sale? Making the most of your Disney adventure from a rewards perspective”

A second look at Amex Fine Hotels and Resorts at Delano Las Vegas

It took a couple of weeks, but the rsts11travel review of Aria Las Vegas’s Aria Sky Suites property finally came out this week. One of the prods to stop editing and just post it was that we were booking another stay for this summer that was somewhat related. Not everyone will celebrate a birthday and aim for MLife Gold in one weekend, but about anyone with the right charge card can take advantage of these benefits.

Delano’s all-suite plan makes it a very comfortable place for longer-term stays on the Las Vegas strip

We’ve written briefly about Delano Las Vegas in our Hidden Gems piece earlier this year. It’s one of our favorite properties on the strip, especially when attending an event being held in Mandalay Bay Convention Center. With its small lounge and bar, coffee shop with pastries and snacks, and Della’s Kitchen breakfast/lunch venue, you can get a lot done without passing Michael Jackson, and with Delano itself being a non-smoking, non-casino hotel with a separate entrance, those with sensitivity to noise or smoke can escape those discomforts in their “home” hotel. But you’re a few hundred feet from Cirque du Soleil, the Mandalay Bay casino, their dining options from fast counter service to posh sit-down service, and of course the rest of the strip.

Continue reading “A second look at Amex Fine Hotels and Resorts at Delano Las Vegas”