Monthly Archives: August 2013

You Can Have Your First Class, I’ll Take the Cessna, Thanks…

I’ve written before about how I don’t understand the First Class fetish that is shared by many other bloggers (God bless them, etc) because most of the “amenities” found in First Class are simply (excuse me) shittier versions of other things. The bed that everyone raves about is not a great “bed” – it is a great airplane bed. Which is not the same as a bed. Every single other bed in the universe located in a bedroom is more comfortable than an onboard bed where you are seatbelted in to a bed the width of a cot in a homeless shelter. That is not a great bed. It’s better than a coach seat, absolutely. Thousands of times better. But it’s a crappy version of an actual bed. Airplane food is, nearly without exception, simply a crappier version of actual real-world food, in part because you can’t taste food as well while you’re 7 miles in the air. And so on…I’m sure 3 minutes in a Porsche being driven up to a plane is also amazing inasmuch as 3 minute in any car is amazing. Et Cetera. Driving a Yugo is better than sitting on the back of a pack mule. But “better than awful” does not equate to “good.”

Anyway, I mention all of that because on our way home from Maui I decided to book a flight on Mokuele Airlines from tiny West Maui airport near Kapalua to Honolulu rather than fly from the main airport in Kahalui. I thought that the girls would get a kick out of flying in an 8-seat Cessna (assuming they didn’t vomit while on the tiny plane).

It was one of the best parts of the vacation, and one of (if not the) coolest flights I’ve ever taken.

There is no security at West Maui Airport (it is an “unsecure airport” – that’s different than an “insecure airport” which is an airport that thinks it’s not as good as another aiport), so you simply drop off your bags at check-in and walk on the plane. No security, no nothing.

The airport has what I would argue is the most beautiful view from any airport I’ve been to, as seen here:

View from the entrance to West Maui Airport.

View from the entrance to West Maui Airport.

The flight takes off over the coast near Kaanapali and continues between Molokai and Lana’i and 30 minutes after takeoff you’ve got a world-class approach over Diamond Head into Honolulu. Flights start at $49, and while you can’t use miles to pay for it, we used part of the $400 credit from the Barclays Arrival card – can’t argue with that.

My kids (well, one of them – Scarlett left a toy in the airport and spent 25 of the 30 minutes crying, so she didn’t really notice the flight) – so Sage was blown away by the experience. She loved walking onto the plane from the tarmac, seeing how the pilots flew the plane, flying so low over the islands, and the general excitement of it. Don’t get me wrong – she loved being up front on United with the lie-flat seats and the 2 billion channels of entertainment. That said, she has a comfy couch and cable TV at home – that was just a slightly different version of that. But she was truly blown away by the flight on the Cessna – she had never experienced anything like it. And for those who like in-flight service, they did hand us a 4-ounce bottle of Costco (Kirkland) water before the flight. So don’t worry – they took care of us.

May I recommend if you’re flying back from Maui – fly out of West Maui. It’s not even 10 minutes from Kaanapali and Kapalua, and it’s just an extra 20-25 minutes from Wailea (vs. flying out of Kahalui) — but it’s not really, because you don’t need to get there 2 hours early. For our 11:25 flight I showed up at 11 o’clock.

If you love flying and airplanes (and not just airport lounges and glasses of champagne), you will not be disappointed, and I promise you’ll be telling your friends about it.

A few photos from the trip…

Another view from the airport entrance

Another view from the airport entrance

Luxurious first-class lounge with assortment of beverages and snacks available for just one dollar!

Luxurious first-class lounge with assortment of beverages and snacks available for just one dollar!

Gratuitous family shot in front of Cessna Grand Caravan 208B.

Gratuitous family shot in front of Cessna Grand Caravan 208B.

Takeoff over Kaanapali

Takeoff over Kaanapali

Over Diamond Head

Over Diamond Head

A Bunch of Really Random Stuff: DAE Closes, United and Chengdu, Vegan Meals and More

– Singapore Airlines’ low-fare subsidiary Scoot has added a no-kids section they’re calling “ScootSilence” (as if adults don’t ever make any noise). It’s basically a Premium Economy section right behind business class that offers 4 inches more legroom for an extra $15.

– United Airlines has applied to serve Chengdu, China, from San Francisco with a 787 beginning next June.

– German leisure carrier Condor is now offering vegan meal options. I don’t know why this is interesting, other than as US carriers have reduced special meal options, leave it to a German airline focusing on sun-seekers to provide a choice of “an antipasti platter with couscous salad, a stuffed tomato with diced cucumber, Italian vegetable terrine with olives, fruit salad, sunflower bread, vegetable spread or margarine, mineral water and cashew nuts.” Special meals cost between 7 and 15 Euro, depending on flight length.

Dutch Antilles Express has suspended operations. The carrier served a number of Caribbean destinations, as well as flights from Curacao to Orlando and Miami.

American Airlines Credit Cards Can No Longer Be Churned (Mostly)

I interrupt my 182-part series on drinks you can buy at Starbucks with your SPG Amex (#78: Venti Latte, half-decaf, extra hot, shot of sugar free vanilla — only 1,312 of those and it’s a free night at the Four Points Los Angeles Airport!)…

Until last weekend you could churn American Airlines Citi credit cards, getting 2 personal cards in 8 days, along with business cards sprinkled in. Unfortunately according to this FT thread, those days are over.

You can now get 1 personal card, likely every 18 months. You can get a business card 65 days after your personal card (or vice versa). People are saying they can still churn the business card (95 days apart), but YMMV on that.

This is the situation we had been in for a year or so until the 8-day thing happened earlier this year. Sure, it’s a bummer….but you can get that 50k AA personal card and the 50k business card and rack up some points – and do that again in 18 months for the personal card. If you are planning to churn the business card more often, people are suggesting you close the prior business card. I don’t like doing that unless it’s been open 11 months. I’m going to stay conservative here and do 1 business card a year.

The best personal offer is the Platinum MC and the Platinum Visa – both are 50,000 miles after $3k spend in 3 months, first year fee waived, $95 after.

The Business MC is same terms – 50k points after $3k spend in 3 months, $95 fee waived first year.

And Now a Few Notes about the Grand Wailea

We’ve moved 45 minutes down the road to the Grand Wailea, which I could tell you we did so I could sample more of the island’s resorts but I really did because I didn’t have enough points to get 2 rooms for all 7 nights in one location (damn you, Hilton devaluation!).

We reserved 2 Ocean View rooms for 3 nights using points (an absurd 109,000 points per night per room, but at this point why am I going to keep hoarding Hilton points? I figured I’d just use them, and I’m glad I did). I booked the Ocean View rather than the base level rooms (95,000 points per night) because (well, obviously) I wanted the view and I hoped that with the Gold status I have with Hilton I would be upgraded to the Deluxe Ocean View. They were kind enough to upgrade us. Here’s the view (note: I am a terrible photographer):

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So, here are the knocks you typically hear about the Grand Wailea:

1) The hotel isn’t what it used to be; it’s become rundown in its 20+ years, and what was once a top luxury property is now one notch (if not 2) below that;

2) The pools are a Disney-like circus featuring a ridiculous water elevator and a whole bunch of other kid-friendly nonsense that makes this more like an amusement park than a luxury resort;

3) It’s expensive for what you get, and the nickel-and-diming is ridiculous.

Let’s go through these…

Here’s my high-level take: The Grand Wailea is really 2 resorts, and which you experience is dictated by whether or not you are with children and where you go while you’re here.

This is a large resort (780 rooms) and it is frequently compared with the Four Seasons next door, a comparison that is simply unfair – that resort has 300 rooms. Let’s take the Four Seasons out of the equation for a moment.

If you are here with children, this is an incredible place for them. The rooms are spacious, with sizable bathrooms, separate baths and showers and toilet areas, which anyone with kids knows is very, very helpful. The pool situation is truly unbelievable for them, with something like 7 different waterslides, an in-water water-powered elevator (I don’t really know how to describe it), a rope swing, lazy river, and a whole bunch of pools, most of which are interconnected. If your child is between, let’s say, 6 and 15, I don’t know how they don’t think this is the greatest place on earth, pool-wise. They can order lunch that comes in a sand pail ($14) with a sandwich, chips, some fruit, desserts and it’ll keep them happy snack-wise all afternoon. Plus, free* pail. (*$14).

If you are here without children, this is an incredible place, provided you stay the hell away from the children. I cannot express how beautiful the location is, situated on a beautiful beach with ocean views that go on forever. The lobby is exquisite and, I’m not kidding, I actually said, “holy shit” out loud (sorry, kids!) when I walked in. As my wife said, “this is exactly what I was hoping for.”

Here’s a terrible photo of the lobby:

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There is an adult pool area that is located far enough away from the ridiculous main pools so that it is entirely possible for you to enjoy yourself and never even notice the complete mayhem happening below.

In the evening, the lobby bar is a wonderful place to have a drink, enjoy some music and, because the resort is large, you’ll be surrounded by adults.

This is the second resort- the resort for adults.

The first knock on the place – that it ain’t what it used to be – is tough to address as I wasn’t here when it used to be what it supposedly no longer is (whew!). What I can tell you is this: the rooms will probably need some sort of re-working in the next few years, but if I never mentioned the age of the rooms you would not be struck by their age. They are nicely appointed and, as noted above, nicely laid out, especially for families. This resort was built 20 years ago and guests will probably see pieces of that age (I’m looking at a spot of rust on my balcony right now). Is it so bad that it will be what you remember about the place? Not at all. But it is probably one reason why base rooms here start at $229 and not $399.

Speaking of which – the base rooms are on the ground floor and have no view. You can decide whether it’s worth coming to Hawaii and spending $229 for a room with a view of nothing on the ground floor. Those guests have a very different experience than someone who is staying up where we are on the 8th floor with the ocean views. Again, how you choose to experience this place will completely dictate your experience.

The second knock above – the one about the circus-like atmosphere – again depends on the type of vacation you’re looking for. Want your kids to run around and have an amazing time for 12 hours a day? They’ll love it. Does the very idea of having children around bother you? This is not your resort. But they really have made an effort to lay out the 40 acres so that you can create the type of vacation you want – assuming you put in the effort. And there are still nice touches they provide – when I went to get my car from the valet they put 2 cold bottles of water in the cup holders. Nice, right?

This is not a Sandals where there are no children. This is not the Four Seasons where it is a more exclusive type crowd without over-the-top amenities for children. This is not an Aman Resort where service will be the thing you remember about the experience. It is a 4 1/2-star mass market property, that offers a nearly top-notch experience FOR THE MASS MARKET.

Which leads us to knock number 3: the cost/added fees. As I said, rooms started here this week at $229, which prices this property roughly the same as the Quality Inn located in my neighborhood at 94th and Broadway in Manhattan. Which is to say: assuming you don’t care about the view, that’s one helluva value. Yes, there is a $25 resort fee (many resorts have it here). Yes, it’s $30 to valet park and there is no self-parking. Yes, everything here is priced in what my friend calls “Hawaiian Dollars”, which is to say 30% more than anything should cost ($10.50 for a pint of Miller Lite, eg).

I would say this resort (at least during non-peak weeks) is perhaps priced more like a cruise ship: not crazy expensive to get in the door, but they kinda gotcha once you’re here. Is that annoying? Sure. If I know about that going in, can I accept it? Sure.

Let’s go back to the Four Seasons for a moment: There are 3 resorts down here that many people seem to lump together – this place, the Four Seasons, and the Fairmont. I don’t know much about the Fairmont, though I stayed at one on the Big Island years back and it was beautiful. People like the Fairmont here on Maui because it’s all suites. It’s not nearly as absurd as this place (pool-wise), and has a lower-key vibe. Rooms are not cheap, though, making it (I think) more akin to the Four Seasons than to here. The Four Seasons is the Four Seasons, and base rooms start at $500, and once you’re there it’s expensive (cabana for the day: $450). Whether the service and quiet and general Four Seasons-ness is worth it to you is really up to you to decide. I would say you’ll get a similar experience at the Fairmont (probably one notch less service-wise) for a similar price, though you’ll get more space. I tend to find Four Seasons to be wonderful, nearly perfect in terms of service, and oddly soul-less. It’s not really my speed – but it may be your speed. Again – whether a hotel is right for you is a personal decision.

The Grand Wailea is simply different than the Four Seasons and here’s what I think: if this hotel were located in the more mass-market area up at Kaanapali people would complain about it less, and it would probably be considered the nicest resort in that area. Instead, it’s located in the schmancier confines of Wailea and, given the kid situation, it feels if not exactly out of place, it’s certainly at a disadvantage compared to the other 2 resorts.

So I’ll sum it up this way: If you have children and feel that Kaanapali is a bit too middle-market for you, the Grand Wailea is a great option. The area is prettier than Kaanapali, there are nicer restaurants in this area, and if you were never planning to leave the compound it’s really beautiful.

If you chose Wailea over Kaanapali because you wanted a more grown-up experience and because you want a self-contained luxury experience, then you have 2 other wonderful options right down the street.

A Few Notes on the First Few Days in Maui: And Can Everyone on Yelp Just STFU?

We’re starting our 4th day here at the Westin Maui, and I thought I’d share some initial thoughts about the place.

But first, the biggest thing I’ve learned during this trip is that people’s complaints on Yelp are absolutely hysterical. My kids and I read through the Yelp pages on this hotel as well as the Hyatt Luau last night and you would think that the horrors of spending time at both the hotel and that event would be akin to sleeping in a Cambodian child brothel. My favorite review was someone who complained both that the in-room coffee was terrible, and that housekeeping never replaced the coffee cups (waiter, this soup is terrible…and the portions are so small!)

Here’s what the Westin is really like: It’s a very, very nice Westin. This is a large resort with 700+ rooms. If you thought this was an intimate, luxury boutique:

a) I have no idea why you would have thought that; and
b) You are way, way wrong.

There are several large resorts along this stretch of beach in Kaanapali: the Westin, the Marriott and the Hyatt (among others). From what I’ve seen they’re all pretty similar, with a beautiful location on the beach opposite the green hills. If you have children, the pools at the Westin seem to be the most fun – there are 4 kid-friendly pools with 1 large waterslide and 1 small. But the pools at the other resorts looked great as well.

We have friends who stayed at the Honua Kai Resort in Kaanapali and from what we saw of the place, I would call it half a star better than these 3 resorts and perhaps 1 step less infested with kids.

About the kids: The Westin, Hyatt and Marriott are kid-friendly resorts. There will be lots of children here. I was surprised to read about all of the people complaining about the children. There are children here now, there will be children here next week, and there will be children here when you are here. If you don’t want to be around kids, do not stay here. They do offer an adult-only pool (which, unlike Vegas, does not mean people are topless, which is not necessarily a bad thing when I consider the crowd here), and it is quiet and wonderful and you’ll feel like you’re at a different resort, so I’m not sure why people don’t just hang out over there and stop whining about it.

People are also unhappy with the parking situation, which is tighter than one would expect for such a large resort. But if you drive through self-parking and find no spaces, they will valet you for free.

The check-in situation also frequently gets mention, and we did have a bit of a line when we arrived. I can understand this complaint a bit, as after 15 hours of traveling I didn’t really feel like standing around for 15 minutes as other parties checked in. But here’s what seems to be happening: a handful of flights land around 1pm-ish, which gets everyone to the hotel around 3-4pm and there’s a crush then. But I’ve noticed it’s very quiet before then, and it’s very quiet after then. But if you’re part of that crush, may I suggest stopping at the Costco right outside the airport in Kahalui and treating your children to the 2-leis-for-$12 they sell there, partaking in the free samples, and taking your time making your way to the hotel.

The other issue at check-in is that every SPG Gold member checking in here apparently believes that they are entitled to the Presidential Suite (there isn’t one here, but you get my point). There is a ton of DYKWIA (Do You Know Who I Am) during checkin that I could hear, as everyone was haggling over the rooms they reserved. Here’s my advice: book the room you want, and if you get upgraded consider yourself lucky. Every middle-manager from Orange County is coming here with their family and their hard-earned 100,000 SPG points. Not everyone can be a VIP, sorry.

On to the rooms: We used points here, and base rooms start at 12,000 Starwood Points per night (5th night free). They don’t really advertise it, but you can use points to get yourself into a better room. We, instead, used 14,000 points to get 2 Ocean View rooms. I think the 2,000 points (or in our case, 4,000 points) was well, well worth having the view.

There are 2 towers (Beach Tower and Ocean Tower). The Beach Tower has larger rooms, but some people don’t love that you have an angled view of the ocean and are overlooking a shopping area. I don’t have an issue with it (see photos below), but if you want a straight-on view of the ocean, you’re not getting that in the Beach Tower.

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The Ocean Tower rooms, however, are about 1/4-1/3 smaller than the Beach Tower rooms, and if you’re heading here over the next couple of months they’re doing construction over there that is apparently rather annoying.

If you’ve been researching this hotel, you’ve likely noticed that Westin also operates the Westin Kaanapali Ocean Resort Villas. This is basically a condo-hotel that is quiet nice and much quieter (kid-wise) than the Westin Resort and Spa (though there are certainly children there). The issue there is that 30,000 points gets you a Studio room (bed with a pull-out couch) but larger rooms double in price for miles, so a 1-bedroom is 60,000 points per night. Given that I can get 2 ocean-facing connecting rooms here for 28,000 points that seemed like a bargain (“bargain”).

About those connecting rooms: This Resort (and the Grand Wailea where we’re moving tomorrow) have a policy of charging you to guarantee connecting rooms – here at the Westin it’s $200/night to guarantee the connecting rooms in advance. I find that egregious. I wrote to the General Managers of each hotel a week in advance asking if they could waive this fee (nicely – very nicely) and each wrote a lovely note back waiving the fee. Those 5 minute notes saved me $1,000.

And the food: Food here is servicable and pretty much what I would expect, price-wise from a resort. Maybe I’m just jaded from Manhattan that it doesn’t seem wildly unreasonable. If you don’t want the crazy breakfast prices there is a Starbucks on-site with cereal, bagels, and other breadstuffs that’s pretty reasonable. At lunch the poolside menu has stuff available under $10. We’ve gone into Lahaina (about 5-10 minutes) twice and had wonderful very, very casual breakfasts at Sunrise Cafe and Aloha Mixed Plate. I recommend both.

Finally – the Luau. If you go on Yelp (and oh do I recommend it) there is a ton of complaining about the Drums of the Pacific Luau at the Hyatt. A ton. I went to it 15 years ago, and they’re still doing it nightly today, which means that in those 15 years they’ve put on 4,000+ performances and somehow people keep buying tickets. Which is to say, shut the hell up already. We bought our tickets at Hawaiidiscount.com – they’re about 15% off list price, plus one of the kids was free.

Is the Luau “authentic”? I have no idea, but let me put it this way: I know that lions cannot sing, and yet I enjoyed The Lion King even though it is not “authentic” and featured singing lions. It is a show, and if you view it on those merits – and on the merits of spending 3 hours on the beach with a beautiful view listening to Hawaiian music, then I thought it was great. My kids were blown away by the fire dancer and the look on their faces while he was DANCING WITH KNIVES ON FIRE was priceless. Or $240.92 depending on how you view priceless.

I’ll wrap up with the only real issue we’ve had: the pool chairs. There are plenty of pool chairs to go around. There are not plenty of pool chairs in the shade to go around. And when my wife went to the gym this morning at 630am, she saw that most of the under-umbrella chairs had already had towels placed on them by assholes – er – “guests”. I am very, very willing to not play by the rules in certain situations, but I cannot stomach the “reserving” of pool chairs. We’ve been getting to the pool around 11 and have to settle for a place in the sun, and we then move our seats after lunch when people seem to get up. It hasn’t ruined the trip or anything, but it’s pretty annoying.

Overall? It’s wonderful here for a large resort. If you want something quiet and “old Hawaii” and rustic, may I suggest the Hanalei Colony Resort on Kauai where I stayed a few years back. It’s not luxury, but it’s perfectly nice and located at the end of the earth in Hanalei. There are no TVs, but a 2-bedroom villa-ish thing is under $500/night. No, you can’t use points, but it was exactly the opposite of where we’re staying now. (Of course we didn’t have kids, and my own children would have been bored to tears, but every trip has its own purpose, no?)

I’ll finish with on this note: this is my 4th trip to Hawaii, and each has truly been incredible in its own way. I understand the knocks against it (“too touristy” “the real Hawaii is gone” etc), but I don’t care. It’s so easy to avoid the touristy stuff, or to partake and just enjoy the touristy stuff while getting yourself off the beaten path once in a while. Hawaii is still a magical location for lots of people, as evidenced by how many people were celebrating anniversaries (25th, 40th, etc) at the Luau last night…and I really do think you see it on the faces of the guests at the hotel. This is different than hanging out at a Westin in the Caribbean. People still think of Hawaii as a truly special location – that it holds something in the minds of many of the people who come here who view this as different than just a random beach vacation. Those of us on the East Coast have lots of opportunities to just go and sit on a beach somewhere — I’ve never heard anyone talk about The Bahamas, Turks & Caicos, Aruba or the other islands with the way that people who love Hawaii talk about Hawaii. If the shitty in-room coffee is going to ruin your vacation, this is not the place for you. But I just got back from sitting and watching the sunset at Merriman’s in Kapalua, and I’ll gulp down a whole pot of that sludgy crap if it means I get to see that even once in my lifetime.

Aloha.

Some Notes about a Quick Trip to Philadelphia

There are plenty of blogs you can read if you want to see pictures of people sitting in seats in business class on their way to 15 minutes in Bangkok. I’m not stopping you from reading those (please, read away!) But most of us spend most of our business travel time doing trips like New York to Philadelphia – a trip I took earlier this week.

And, though I risk having my blogging license taken away, I took the train, and I am going to write about the train, because if it’s not ridiculous to spend 1,400 words writing about a seat on an airplane, it’s no more ridiculous writing about a seat on a train.

Oh, Amtrak. Tens of thousands of words are written by bloggers about flying through the air in what amounts to a comparatively uncomfortable seat, while going through the nonsense at security, and treating that experience as if it’s as sublime as your first date with your wife. Amtrak, the bar for you to hit is so low, and yet…and yet…

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At New York Penn Station, which is Amtrak’s busiest with more than 8 million annual riders – double the number at their second busiest station (Washington DC) – passengers are greeted with the state-of-the-art 19″ Trinitron screen seen above which, as ancient as sad as it is, fits in perfectly with the decor of the Station, which can best be described as Homeless Shelter Meets Public Toilet.

I took the Keystone train, which is a non-Acela service, because it was $53 rather than the $99 they wanted for the Acela. The extra $46 would get you in to Philly roughly 15 minutes quicker than the slow service for the 1 hour and 22 minute ride, and it buys you a slightly nicer seat. I felt that was not worth $46 of someone else’s money. You may not feel the same way.

Passengers kind of mill about, waiting for their train to be called or posted to the giant board in the middle of the station, and when the train track is posted, a scrum ensues at that gate, cutting off access through the terminal for people (like me on a normal day) who cut through the terminal to get from 7th to 8th avenue. I knew better than to wait on that level, instead going with Slate’s solid advice of waiting in the little-discussed mid-level terminal. The track was posted and I boarded the train unimpeded by dozens of others pushing to the same set of stairs.

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This is what a seat on a train looks like. I find that to be equally as interesting as looking at seats on an airplane, which is to say, not. But who am I to say? You can walk around the train as much as you want, and there are no seatbelts, which seems a little crazy now that I’m typing it. They also have free wi-fi, which used to be so slow that you wished there was no wi-fi, but they seem to have fixed that issue so that it now mostly works. And it’s free!

tray

This is a photo of the seatback tray, which is where you would place something to eat or drink, except they don’t offer anything to eat or drink. You can argue amongst yourselves whether no train food is better than some airplane food. The Acela does offer food, but you have to pay for it. And if you cannot go 75 minutes without eating you have bigger problems.

The situation at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station is much better, though you still end up with a pile of people waiting to take stairs down to the train. The station itself, though, does not resemble a homeless shelter (or at least it would be a really lovely homeless shelter).

bench

This is a bench one might sit on before boarding. Oh, does that seem silly for me to include a picture of a bench? Is that any sillier than a picture of an airplane business class lounge?

tsa

And here we have what amounts to security. TSA doesn’t care so much what you do on a train.

I stayed at the Hotel Palomar, which is part of the Kimpton chain and is like all the other hotels in the Kimpton chain, which is to say quite nice with a slightly funky vibe without being obnoxious about it (I’m talking to you, several W Hotels I’ve stayed in). My room was smallish with a view of absolutely nothing, though the gentleman who checked me in told me it was a “deluxe” room, which makes me wonder what a non-deluxe room could possibly have as a view. Even so, I spent roughly 52 minutes awake in the room, so I’m not sure it really mattered. They do have a nice happy hour in the lobby where they give free wine (or wine that is built into your room rate, because nothing is free) and some truly delicious truffle something something popcorn.

And here’s a crazy Philadelphia story: the prior day I was down in Chinatown in Manhattan eating hand-pulled noodles with my children at Lam Zhou (per Gary Leff’s brilliant suggestion). As good as it is cheap, which is to say very (or suspiciously). We ate lunch next to a father and his 10 year old son. Fast forward to Philadelphia, where I walk out of the hotel and I bump into the same 2 people. It’s a small world.

I was in town for a conference for my regular job, and as has become de rigeur at ecommerce conferences (per the movie Up in the Air), they had an old(ish) school rapper perform, in this case Busta Rhymes. Before Busta came out, though, the company sponsoring the event – for reasons that are still not clear to me – brought Evander “Real Deal” Holyfield out on stage and gave him some sort of award for affiliate marketing. It was not obvious that Evander had ever used a computer before, and Busta kept referring to the crowd as “you technology people.” I’ll share this terrible photo with you as a record of the moment.

Evander

And there we have it – Hotel Palomar is perfectly nice; a kinda have a crush on Philadelphia – it’s underrated; and the train is just a delightful way to travel.

Get a Coupon for 10% Off Priceline Express Deals Through September 16

Looking for a Priceline Express Deals Coupon? Priceline is offering 10% off Express Deals (their Hotwire-like product where they show you the price and star rating on hotels, but not the name) when you book by September 16th. The offer is good for Express Deals in the following areas:

– New York City
– Washington, DC
– Orange County
– Las Vegas
– San Antonio
– Orlando

Just visit the Priceline Express Deals page, then enter coupon code BIGCITY6 for 10% off their price (3-star hotels or better).

Speaking of Priceline, Skift has an interesting article about a somewhat secret app that Priceline offers called Priceline Hotels Pro. It’s 99 cents (whatever), but the difference is that it’s like Express Deals, only they show you 6 possible hotels that the hotel could be. Sure, you could probably get similar info from BiddingforTravel or BetterBidding, but it’s nice to have the possibilities laid out for you.

Seriously, Keep Checking for Award Ticket Availability

I know I mentioned this yesterday in my long treatise about booking award tickets on United, but I cannot stress enough that you need to keep checking – even up until the day of travel – to see if award seats open up.

I’d been trying to move our departure flight to connect through LAX (instead of SFO) and availability would occasionally open up on either the JFK-LAX leg or the LAX-Maui leg, but never on both. Then yesterday I became even more obsessed than usual about checking and saw that availability was changing several times over the course of the day. First no availability; then JFK-LAX opened up; then it disappeared; then LAX-Maui opened up but not the first leg. Then both disappeared. Then this morning – 24 hours before departure – both legs were available (4 seats in business class) and I changed flights. Other flights that had not been available for ages were suddenly available as well.

I’ve heard so many people say that they checked for an award ticket and saw that it wasn’t available — and then gave up. If you want a seat, you need to keep checking (or use a service like Expertflyer to send you alerts). It pays off.

Except when it doesn’t, of course, as I’ve been trying to change our return flight for 4 months and nothing has opened up. Win some, lose some.

5 Hours Only Tonight: Get $10 Off $20 Purchase at Living Social

It’s not travel, but it’s a good deal:

Living Social is offering $10 off a $20 purchase tonight (August 20th) only from 7pm to Midnight (Eastern Time).

Click this link, then enter code SOAKUP in the promo code box.

I’ll be purchasing this Source Vista iPhone Recharge Case (I also have no idea what Source Vista is), but it’s $21 minus the $10 from the coupon, so for $11 I can’t go wrong. Or I’ll go wrong but it’ll only cost me $11.

A Few Things I’ve Learned Booking Award Tickets on United to Hawaii

The OTR Family Summer Hawaiian Vacation Bonanza 2013 (#OTRFSHVB2013) begins Thursday, and I thought I would share some of the things I’ve learned booking 4 business class award tickets on United for this trip.

– The cheapest way to get to Hawaii on miles with United is by transferring Amex or Starwood points (implied gratuitous link to credit card) to Singapore Airlines. While United charges 40k/80k for roundtrip coach/business class tickets, Singapore Airlines only charges 35k/60k – and you get the 5k bonus when transferring the Starwood points. You can book one-way awards as well.

– That said, you cannot include a stopover if you use Singapore miles on United (which was our problem), so you’ll have to use United miles, which allow both a stopover AND an openjaw.

– United, by far, has the best award availability to Hawaii from the East Coast. Hands down. It’s not even close. There are tons of flights with 4 business class tickets available from New York.

– Except on the nonstop from Newark. Good luck with that.

– That said, it’s not the end of the world. If you’re going to Maui, Kauai or the Big Island it’s actually the same amount of time (if not, perhaps, a bit quicker) to change planes in SF or LA and fly nonstop to one of those islands to avoid the transfer in Honolulu. They no longer fly to Maui from Houston (it’s been a while…)

– If you fly out of JFK on PS service, you’ll get a flat bed to SF or LAX. Unless you don’t. A rule of thumb is that 757-200 flight numbers with 3 digits DO NOT have flat beds; while flight numbers with 4 digits DO have flat beds. A handful of flights to the west coast from Newark DO have flat beds on the 757-200, but most do not.

– There are NO flat bed flights from LA to any of the Hawaiian islands and there is only 1 flat-bed flight (767-400ER) per day from SFO to Honolulu.

– United’s IAD-HNL nonstop used to have lots of availability in business class because it had the outdated barcolounger seats on the 777. Those days are gone. They’re switching to Saturday-only service on a 767-400 and business class award seats are hard to come by. Coach is almost always available, though.

– Check leg-by-leg. United is actually pretty good about showing you possible connections, but there were times when it would show no availability JFK-OGG. If I went leg by leg (JFK-LAX; LAX-OGG) there would be availability. Check the connections through IAD, ORD, IAH, DEN, SFO and LAX.

– Speaking of which, don’t forget about options on US Airways. United.com doesn’t always show the connections through Phoenix, so you should search that leg-by-leg.

– United’s site also doesn’t seem to include 2-stop domestic flights (I’m not saying you’ll want 2-stops, but if you’re desperate). You’ll have to build that leg-by-leg.

– United DOES NOT include intra-Hawaiian legs on Hawaiian Airlines. They charge 5,000 miles for the privilege.

– Don’t forget: You can tack on a one-way trip to Hawaii to a roundtrip international award ticket for just 5,000 miles in coach or 7,500 in business. In other words, if you book a round trip business class ticket from New York to London. You can “stopover” in New York as long as you’d like (up to a year) and continue on to Hawaii for just 5,000 additional miles in coach (or 7500 in Biz). Or put it this way: you can book a one-way ticket to Hawaii. For the return, you can tack the Hawaii – New York piece on to a Europe roundtrip for just 5k/7,500 miles (coach/biz). So it would look like (for me): JFK-Hawaii (40k in business). Hawaii-New York (STOPOVER) – London – New York. The roundtrip New York – London PLUS the Hawaii flight would be 107,500 miles in business. Not bad. You’re basically getting a roundtrip business class ticket to Hawaii for 47,500 miles.

– United is a bit quirky about including JFK in searches from New York. In other words, if you search “NYC” it doesn’t always seem to include JFK flights. Search for JFK separately.

– You have to keep checking the find the flights you want. I’ve been working on this trip for 4 months and availability changes constantly. I know it’s annoying, but check twice a day. Flights open up, then they disappear.

– United does charge non-Elites $75 PER TICKET to make any change to an award ticket more than 21 days out — that includes changing your class of service — if you are not changing the origin or destination. All Elite members can do that for free 21 days out. Within 21 days it starts getting expensive for non-elites. The full fee chart is here.

Just follow those 37 pieces of advice, and you’ll be on your way to Hawaii!