Thursday, January 31, 2013

Status Update on Status-Qualifying

At the end of every month, I like to take stock of where things stand with respect to re-qualifying for airline and hotel elite status. My top programs are United and Starwood - so where do I stand 1 month into the year?

Drum roll please...

1,212 Premier-Qualifying miles on United.

No - I'm not missing a 0 or anything like that. This year has been really, really slow in terms of travel so far. For comparison purposes, by this time last year I was already at 26,441 and had already re-qualified for Silver status.

Sad looking United status tracker

I do have ~65,000 PQMs planned from now through the end of the summer, so that will put me in better shape. The end of the year is shaping up to be really slow though - I plan on stretching (if necessary) to hit Platinum status, but sadly I don't think it's in the cards for me to re-qualify for 1K.

Things are looking better on Starwood, primarily due to the 5 nights I spent at the Westin Cape Town to start off the year.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Bye Bye Birdie

Well... it was only a matter of time.

Yes folks, it looks like it's time for another points / miles-earning scheme to come to a close. Lifehacker (and by extension US News) has just shared how to "Get Cash Back (or Rewards) for Free by Buying Vanilla Reload Cards". It's now only a matter of time before a major mainstream media outlet picks it up (think WSJ or NYTimes), and then it's only a matter of time until the "loophole" gets shutdown, just like the now-infamous US Mint deal did.

I actually haven't been playing the Vanilla Reload - Bluebird game (for reasons I'll outline in a future post), but if you do, you may want to get to your nearest source of "ice cream" and stock up!

Bluebird we hardly knew ye

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

South African Airways Business Class Take Two: Johannesburg to JFK

South African Airways (SAA) serves North America on 2 routes: Johannesburg to Washington Dulles (via Dakar, Senegal) and Johannesburg to New York JFK, non-stop.

My first trip was on the Dulles route, and I was excited to compare and contrast it to the JFK service - especially since the JFK route is truly a direct flight, and doesn't need to stop to wake everyone up refuel halfway through the trip.

Ground Experience in Johannesburg:

SAA has a large Baobab business class lounge in Johannesburg. While it was very busy, we didn't have any trouble finding a seat with a nice view of the runway. There was hot food available, but I wasn't especially hungry after having eaten on the flight over from Cape Town, and with a multiple multi-course meals ahead of me on the long trip to JFK. That said, I did try the peanut soup and thought it was very tasty.

South African Airways Baobab Business Class Lounge Johannesburg
Lounge entrance
View of the runway from the business class lounge at Johannesburg JNB airport in South Africa
View of SAA, Delta, and Qantas tails from the lounge

Access to the Baobab lounge is available to passengers traveling in business class, as well as those with Star Alliance Gold status. For more information, you can visit the SAA website.

They also have a Cycad first class lounge, which I thought was odd considering that SAA doesn't have a first class cabin on any of their planes. Access to this lounge is reserved for passengers traveling in first class on partners Lufthansa or Thai, as well as top-level elites on SAA and Lufthansa. Full details are available on the SAA website.

The Seat:

SAA's JFK route is served with an Airbus A346, a slightly larger plane than the A343 that serves Dulles. More notably, all of the 346s are original SAA aircraft, whereas there are 2 ex-Iberia planes that are rotated into the various 343 routes (including Dulles). We happened to have one of these ex-Iberia planes on the flight over - and while the difference in the 346's seat wasn't dramatic, it was certainly noticeable.

South African Airways 346 business class seat
My seat, 4G

I liked the seat better than the ex-Iberia seats, as it offered a true 180 degree recline, and the transitions were much smoother (the ex-Iberia seats are just the slightest bit shy of 180 degrees, but it is noticeable). That said, I still found it to be pretty hard - I got a lot of sleep, but did wake up a number of times during the flight, in spite of the thin mattress pad that was provided. I actually found the most comfortable position to be just slightly shy of a full 180 degree recline for sleeping purposes.

Food and Wine:

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Backdoor Free Checked Bags on Delta via Air France

(hat tip to View From the Wing for sharing information on status matches again)

While it isn't as sweet a deal as the Turkish Airlines path to lounge access on domestic United / US Air flights, Air France is offering a match to their Flying Blue's Gold level.

Sign-up page

Air France is partners with Delta, but unfortunately, having Gold status will not give you lounge access domestically, as SkyTeam doesn't offer that perk. However, it will get you a free checked bag when flying Delta domestically, as well as priority boarding, and lounge access if you're traveling internationally in coach. I haven't flown Delta in a LONG time, but I went ahead and submitted my 1K status on United for the match, because why not?

I instantly got the "Congratulations! You are now a Flying Blue Gold Member." notification, but technically they still need to verify my information (and the new status isn't yet showing in my account).

That was quick!

If you're someone who flies Delta once in a while, and you have gold status or higher on another airline, then this offer might be of interest to you. You can sign up here.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Hanging Out With the Not-So-Big Five in South Africa

My recent trip to Cape Town was amazing, but unfortunately, it didn't include a safari. While I'm determined to get back to Africa in the coming years, and to see The Big Five on a safari, getting to see what I'll call the "Not-So-Big Five" was still pretty amazing.

Here they are:

1. Zebras

Zebras outside Cape Town, South Africa
Zebras near the Cape Town Winelands Region

Zebras (pronounced "zee-bras" in North America, and apparently "zeb-ras" in South Africa) were the first wild animal I came across - a nice warm-up, as it was an amazing rush to get close to them, but they still felt very familiar in a way. They're truly beautiful creatures to look at!

2. Springboks

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Weekly Recap - January 20th, 2013

In the news this past week:
  • United (finally) introduces in-flight Wi-Fi internet service, becoming the first US airline to have it on overseas flights. It's only available on 3 aircraft right now, but is expected to be available on over 300 by the end of the year. Press release
  • Delta releases information about upcoming changes to the SkyMiles program, instituting a revenue-based component to elite qualification. Nothing about changes for redeemable mile earning, or mileage redemptions. Here's the official press release, but if you want to really immerse yourself on the details, check out the freak out lively discussion in this thread on FlyerTalk.
  • FAA grounds Boeing 787 Dreamliners due to concerns about the plane's batteries and fire safety. United is the only US carrier that flies the 787 at the moment, and their flight timetable has already been updated to reflect equipment swaps and cancellations. More details via the NYTimes.
  • American releases their highly-anticipated new look, reactions are mixed. Check out the microsite.
  • Starwood revises their Cash+Points award chart, most people freak out, I say it might not be so bad.

New on Food, Wine, and Miles:

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Saturday, January 19, 2013

Let Me Show You Why Starwood's Cash+Points Change Might Not Be So Bad

Starwood just announced an update to both the cash and points parts of their Cash+Points redemption option (a favorite among pretty much all fans of the program) - and the reaction from the points community was swift! See here, here, here, here, and here for some of the immediate reactions. Oh, and don't forget the meltdown on FlyerTalk here.

This is what everyone is reacting to - the new Cash+Points award chart:

New Starwood Cash and Points chart
(click to expand)

Compare and contrast to the old chart:

Current Starwood Cash and Points chart
(click to expand)

It's a 25% increase across the board in terms of the points required and a 17-25% increase in terms of the cash required for standard rooms (note: the recently-introduced Category 7 option didn't change at all). There's no question, that's a devaluation, and it sucks. However, the official announcement also mentions "the intention of expanded availability" for standard rooms. I'm giving Starwood the benefit of the doubt and am going to assume that it will increase to some degree. The question is, will that increased availability be enough to offset the fact that each redemption is now somewhat less attractive?

The answer, it turns out, depends on how you value your Starpoints. Here's why:

Friday, January 18, 2013

How Starwood Ruined My Cash and Points Analysis!

Come on Starwood, I JUST shared tips on how to use high school algebra to figure out your best redemption option - and now you go ahead and update the entire chart!

Yes, Starwood is revising their Cash+Points award chart, effective March 5th. All existing options will require more cash and more points, but they've also added category 1 and category 2 properties, as well as upgraded rooms and suites to the pool.

New Starwood Cash and Points chart
The new Cash+Points redemption chart

They also talk about the "intention of expanded availability" for standard rooms. That's the key for me - Cash+Points availability has always been pretty limited in my experience. A great score when I can find it, but not something I really expect to be available. If availability does indeed increase noticeably, I could certainly be on board with this.

What do you think about the changes?

Complete details available on the SPG website

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Hotel Review: Westin Cape Town

Leading up to my recent trip to Cape Town, I didn't really know what to expect. I ended up having an amazing time, including three amazing (and dramatically different) dining experiences, but the only things I'd really taken care of before the trip were the flights (see: Flying South African Airways Business Class From DC to Johannesburg) and the hotels.

We ended up spending 6 nights of the trip at the Westin Cape Town (still referred to as the "Westin Grande" to most locals), which is a short walk away from the city's waterfront area. Being a category 4 property, I was thrilled to be able to use cash and points for the entire trip - which as I talked about the other day, is the best option for these types of stays.

Having read up on the hotel on Flyertalk, I had a better idea of what to expect, and I'd say my experience was well within expectations.

Here's my summary of the highs and lows:

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Using High School Algebra to Figure Out the Best Starwood Redemption Option

Starwood is my primary hotel program, and mid-level properties are where I often find the best redemption values, as I laid out a few months ago. Stays of exactly 5 nights are also a great option, as the 5th award night is always free.

For award stays at category 3 and 4 properties of exactly 5 nights, Starwood's Nights & Flights is also an attractive option, offering 50,000 airline miles in addition to your room redemption. Unfortunately, United is not an option - but you can get AA, BA, Delta, USAir, and many other airlines. See here for full details.

The question then, is which option is best for stays of exactly 5 nights at category 3 and Category 4 properties? The answer depends on how you value your Starwood points and airline miles. Let's do some math:

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Are You a Travel Blogger?

Yesterday I came across a great post over at yomadic:

Definitely worth a read if you haven't checked it out already - TravelBloggerBuzz featured it as his MVP post of the day!

This was my favorite quote:
Think of someone you know who isn’t a travel blogger, but is a reasonably regular traveller. Then, ask that person which travel blogs they follow. I’ve done this, and the answer is almost always “well, none really”. Why is that? 

In other words, the only people who follow travel blogs are other travel bloggers. I know this isn't true for the big fish out there, but for us little fish it really got me to thinking... and that thinking led to me to want to find out just how true that might be... and that want led me to create a new reader poll!

So how many of you Food, Wine, and Miles readers are fellow travel / points bloggers? Cast your vote in the poll to the right, and let's see how just how true it is!

If you are a fellow travel / points blogger, feel free to post a link to your blog in the comments.

Failed travel bloggers, as seen at

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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Three Amazing (And Dramatically Different) Dining Experiences in Cape Town

Cape Town is an amazing city, and one of my favorite things about it is how good (and varied) the food is. Here are three of my favorites from my recent trip:

V&A Market on the Wharf
Cape Town's V&A Waterfront is nice to walk around, but most of the food tends to be pretty crappy and tourist-oriented (read: bland and over-priced). That said, the V&A Market on the Wharf is decidedly different - offering a wide variety of ethnic cuisines, fresh produce, coffee, snacks, etc, etc, etc.


It's not a very large space, so the vendors are packed in quite closely.

Close quarters

Whether you're in the mood for coffee, breakfast, lunch, or just some Biltong - you can almost certainly find something to satisfy your craving!

When in Cape Town, you can't not try the Biltong!

If you're more in the mood for fine dining, Cape Town also has a number of great high-end restaurants. One of my favorites is La Colombe.

La Colombe

Thursday, January 3, 2013

2012 On the Road: A Quick Summary

2012 was the busiest travel year I've ever had, by far:
  • I visited China, Hong Kong, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, South Africa, Jamaica and Canada (and Thailand if you include layovers)
  • I spent 1 out of every ~5 nights in a hotel (the overwhelming majority of which were Starwood hotels, allowing me to re-qualify for Platinum status)
  • I flew nearly 140,000 miles butt-in-seat (including award tickets, but not including bonuses for business class) - the equivalent of about 5.5x around the world. The vast majority of those miles were on United, allowing me to qualify for 1K status for the first time.
Visual summary of my 2012 flights

It was draining at times, but also allowed me to have the amazing experiences that served as the inspiration for this blog.

I don't expect 2013 to be as crazy, but I've got some big trips planned - and a never-ending pursuit of great food and wine experiences! What places are you planning to check off your bucket list in 2013?

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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Flying South African Airways Business Class From DC to Johannesburg

Any way you slice it, getting to South Africa from the US is a long hike. One of the best ways to make the trip (at least from the northeast) is to fly South African Airways, which has a direct flight out of JFK to Johannesburg (JNB) and a "direct" flight out of Washington Dulles (IAD) to Johannesburg (the latter has a refueling stop in Dakar, Senegal about half way through the trip).

I recently had the opportunity to try out South African Airways' international business class on the IAD to JNB route. Overall, it was a very enjoyable flight - good food, good wine, and a great value for using miles!

Our South African Airways A343 at the gate in Dulles

Food and Wine:
On a 17 hour trip, there's a lot of food to go around - especially in business class. Three multi-course meals make for a lot of dishes: