Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Some of Napa's Best Wine Is Off The Beaten Path

Napa Valley is home to an almost uncountable number of vineyards and wineries. Many of them (and certainly most of the big names like Mondavi and Beringer) are along the main strip that runs the length of the valley, the St Helena Highway. While there is certainly some great wine to be found there, I tend to prefer wineries that are a bit more unique and off the beaten path. One of my favorites is Casa Nuestra in Saint Helena.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Diversification Pays Off in the Miles Game

If you're even a semi-serious frequent flyer mile collector, odds are you'll eventually end up with balances in a variety of different programs. Some might think of that as a headache to have to manage, but diversification is actually the best way to get the most of your miles because each program has its own strengths and weaknesses.

At the moment, I have healthy balances in United's MileagePlus, American's AAdvantage, British Airway's Avios, US Airways' Dividend Miles, and Delta's SkyMiles. While the "earning" side and the "burning" side of miles are related, they are separate considerations. There's a lot of complexity in each of these programs, but in general, here's how I decide which program to use at any given time:

United is my primary program, as it is the one I fly most often and the only one on which I have status. That status provides a lot of flexibility when it comes to using miles to book flights - no fees for redeposits or changes, and some extra availability for award tickets in premium cabins. That flexibility makes them more valuable than they otherwise would be, and so I actually try to AVOID using United miles whenever possible. It's both a blessing and a curse that United always seems to have the best availability for the trips I'm looking to take. On the other hand, when I'm not sure about specific dates or other details, United miles are a great option for speculatively booking - because I can easily change or cancel later. Lastly, United's membership in Star Alliance offers good coverage and availability just about everywhere in the world, and with no hefty fuel surcharges, there really aren't any limiting geographic factors. Star Alliance partners include Lufthansa, Thai, South African Airways, Air Canada, and Singapore (to name just a few of the 27 Star Alliance partners as of this writing)

In summary: I look to United for just about any kind of trip, especially if I'm not sure about the details. However I'll generally try to use miles from other programs when I can, allowing me to save my United miles for those times when I really need to take advantage of that flexibility.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Get to Tokyo Before It's Too Late!

(via Wandering Aramean)

A few years ago, I went to Tokyo on a work trip. It was one of the first "real" trips abroad I'd ever taken, and I was fortunate enough to have some downtime so that I could explore the city. Tokyo is an amazing city, and while there are countless amazing sights to see and things to do, one of my fondest memories was visiting the Tsukiji fish market at before the crack of dawn.

The largest of its kind in the world, the market is a spectacle to behold - especially early in the morning when all the action takes place. The main event is the tuna auction, where the enormous frozen tunas are auctioned off to the highest bidder (while awestruck tourists look on). The fun doesn't end there though - it is pretty amazing to watch the tuna get "processed" after purchase as well:

Sliced right down the middle with a band saw

Unfortunately, the market has become quite rundown and over-crowded, and so will be replaced by the end of 2014. While it certainly isn't a marvel of technology and innovation, it is absolutely a memorable and worthwhile experience to see Tsukiji first-hand. The clock is now ticking, so if you have plans to visit Tokyo make sure to check it out (and if you don't have plans to visit Tokyo, you should strongly consider making some!)

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Friday, December 14, 2012

United Blocks AwardWallet

Just in time for the holidays, United has decided to follow the lead of Delta and American and block AwardWallet's access to

I absolutely love AwardWallet, so this is pretty unfortunate (though not entirely unexpected) news. I use it to keep track of balances and expiration dates for almost 60 accounts - including airlines, hotels, credit card points, car rentals, cash back websites, and more. It is one of my most indispensable points tools.

If you've never used AwardWallet, I highly recommend that you give it a try. For their free version (which is great), you can click here. This is my referral link, so when I get enough referrals I get an upgrade code for 6mos of AwardWallet Plus. But that just means I'm able to do more giveaways!

Their paid version, AwardWalletPlus, is even better. The main benefit for me is that it lets you track an unlimited number of expiration dates (vs. just 3 for the free version), but here's a full side-by-side comparison of the differences.

To help support AwardWallet, I'm going to give away 2 AwardWalletPlus upgrade codes. There are two ways to enter:

  1. Leave a comment on this post saying what it is about AwardWallet that you like best
    • Limit one entry per day
    • 1 winner will be selected at random
  2. Send a tweet with the hashtag "#FWMAwardWallet"
    • Follow me on Twitter (@FoodWineMiles)
    • Send a tweet linking to this post, and make sure to include the hashtag "#FWMAwardWallet" so that I can find it after the fact
    • Tweets sticking it to @united or supporting @AwardWallet are encouraged, though not required :)
    • Limit one entry per day
    • 1 winner will be selected at random

I'm going to leave the contest open through the end of the weekend, so you have a total of 6 chances to win (3 via blog comments, 3 via Twitter). I'll contact the lucky winners on Monday. Good luck!

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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Why I'm Not Stretching to 75 Nights for SPG Platinum 75 Status

Earlier this year, Starwood introduced a number of enhancements to upper end of their loyalty program - most notably for platinum members who hit 50, 75, or even 100 nights in a single year. The additional perks provided to members who hit those thresholds include:

  • At 50 nights, 10 "Suite night" awards which can be confirmed up to 5 days prior to arrival (subject to availability)
  • At 75 nights, an additional point for every dollar spent at Starwood hotels (so 4 in total), as well as "Your24" check-in privileges (theoretically allowing for extremely early check-in or extremely late check-out, but again subject to availability)
  • At 100 nights, personalized service from a Starwood ambassador
I was quite confident that I would hit 50 this year, and indeed I did a few months ago. I was also quite confident that I would NOT hit 100. The real question was would I be able to hit 75?

Well we're a few weeks away from the end of the year, and here's where I stand:

Close, but not close enough
I have one more night yet this year, so it looks like I'm going to end up just shy, at 72 total nights. Why wouldn't I find a way to stretch to 75 you might ask? Well, after running the numbers, I just don't think it's worth it - and here's why....

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Five Memorable Maui Meals

I recently took a family vacation to Maui, and while it is most well-known for the beautiful beaches and tropical weather, I was pleasantly surprised by how much good food there is on such a small island!

One of the great things about dining out with a group is having more dishes around the table to taste. Here are five of my favorites:

Honu Seafood & Pizza
One of our first meals was at Honu (which is the Hawaiian word for "Sea Turtle" by the way) in Lahaina. The first thing you notice when you sit down at Honu is the incredible view - the restaurant might as well be ON the water, and there is no permanent wall on that side, which makes it hard to have a bad view no matter where you're sitting. The photos on their website are nice, but they really don't do it justice.

Fortunately they don't have to rely on a great view to draw in the crowds, because the food is fantastic. I started with a salty, but refreshing oyster shooter - which was came with ponzu, lemon, wasabi and tobiko. We did appetizers family-style, and the two clear winners were the Crab Mac and Cheese (it's actually an entree, but I can't imagine anyone having it all to themselves), which was exceptionally creamy and had a lot of big pieces of crab meat in it - and the Grilled Spanish Octopus. There's no way I can do justice to that octopus, but let me just say that it was absolutely sublime. Every bite was a mixture of little, charred pieces, with soft-but-firm octopus and Mediterranean-inspired flavors. It went VERY fast. For my entree, I had the Fresh Fish Dore Style, which was mahi-mahi that night. It was seasoned with lemon, butter, capers and was cooked to perfection. A wonderful mix of fresh flavors and served over a fluffy Turkish quinoa, which soaked up all the excess sauce and juices.