Tuesday, February 26, 2013

RSS Update

Dear RSS Subscribers,

If you've received this message, 1) thanks for following! 2) it's time to update your settings. With the move to First2Board, I now have a new RSS feed link:

http://first2board.com/foodwineandmiles/feed/

The FeedBurner link is still the same: http://feeds.feedburner.com/FoodWineAndMiles

Leave me a note in the comments if you have any trouble switching over, and thanks again for following!

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Friday, February 22, 2013

Starwood Category Changes Leave (Most) High-End Properties Unscathed

It's that time of year again - the time of year when hotel programs adjust their category classifications. I've already shared my thoughts on the harsh changes to Marriott's program and Hilton's program. Next up is Starwood.

Admittedly, I was a little nervous because Starwood is my primary hotel program. A devaluation of the same magnitude as Marriott or Hilton would've really hurt. Fortunately, Starwood's changes look to be relatively tame - especially at the top end of the spectrum!

The Hotel Grande Bretagne in Athens is one of the high-end properties actually moving DOWN a category

Overall, 48 properties are moving down the award chart, and 218 are moving up. What's interesting is how those numbers look when you break it down by the current hotel categories:
  • Of the 41 category 1 hotels listed on Starwood's website, 10 are moving up to category 2
  • Of the 240 category 2 hotels listed on Starwood's website, 73 are moving up to category 3 and 8 are moving down to category 1
  • Of the 332 category 3 hotels listed on Starwood's website, 98 are moving up to category 4 (1 to category 5) and 14 are moving down to category 2 (1 to category 1)
  • Of the 213 category 4 hotels listed on Starwood's website, 19 are moving up to category 5 (1 to category 6) and 2 are moving down to category 3
  • Of the 221 category 5 hotels listed on Starwood's website, 9 are moving up to category 6 and 16 are moving down to category 4
  • Of the 70 category 6 hotels listed on Starwood's website, 6 are moving up to category 7 and 7 are moving down to category 5
  • All 26 category 7 hotels will remain in category 7

A few notable observations:

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Food Wine and Miles is Joining First2Board!

Yes boys and girls, it's true - Food, Wine, and Miles is going to be one of the launch blogs on First2Board as of March 1st!


I'm very excited to be joining the First2Board family - and hope you'll join me over there as I migrate away from the current URL.

Be sure to follow @first2board on twitter for more information on the big March 1st launch giveaway!


First2Board, the web's new go-to aggregator of travel blogs


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Hilton Changes Might Work For Those That Prefer Mid-Tier Hotels

Hilton is catching a lot of flack for their just-announced award program changes. For those of you too lazy to click a link, the changes are:
  • There will now be 10 hotel categories (there are currently 7 + Waldorf Astoria as a separate category)
  • Some hotels will have Seasonal Pricing - meaning the number of points required will vary from month to month
  • Elite members will get a 5th night free when they book stays of 5+ nights

Some of the major complaints are:
  • More categories almost always means more hotels moving up than moving down (and sure enough, that is indeed the case)
  • In theory, Seasonal Pricing should mean that properties are sometimes available at a discount - but many properties have no variation, and are priced at the top of the range throughout the year. This is particularly true for many high-end, aspirational properties in places like the Maldives or Bora Bora (some of which have gone from 50,000 points / night to 95,000 points / night)
  • Elite members were ALREADY GETTING 5th night free on awards, as well as a slightly smaller discount for 4 night stays, and a higher discount for stays of 6+ nights (it's expected that the discount at 4 nights will go away, as well as the extra discount for stays of 6+ vs. 5)

Goodbye overwater bungalows!

But how bad are the changes really, and where do they hit the hardest? Well, Wandering Aramean was able to pull data on roughly half of Hilton's 3900 hotels. He was gracious enough to post his raw data, and so I decided to take a look through it to see what else I could figure out. While the analysis doesn't cover every hotel in the Hilton portfolio, it does cover a wide range of brands, geographies, and award tiers. Here's what I found:

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

United Passenger Kicked Off Flight For Taking A Single Photo!

I'm going to cut right to the chase on this one.

Matthew (a near-million-miler 1K, sitting in business class) over at Live and Let's Fly recounts his story of being kicked off a United flight for taking a single photo of his seat area during boarding.


As you all know, I almost always take photos of my seat, the food, etc. whenever I'm on a flight (especially when I'm sitting up front). I've never run into trouble for this before - but unfortunately, that's not how it played out for him.

Definitely worth a read over at UPGRD.com.

Wow.


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Monday, February 18, 2013

Where Did All The Premium Cabin Passengers Go?

I have a trip to Vegas coming up in a couple of months, and I decided to take the red eye back. However, red eyes from Vegas are pretty short which makes for a less-than-stellar night's sleep. Given that + the fact that I'm going to need to stretch a bit to re-qualify for 1K on United this year + the fact that I was able to clear a regional upgrade in advance, I decided to book my return trip via SFO, with the red-eye to take place on a p.s. SFO-JFK flight.

Now I know premium cabins tend to fill up to closer to the date of departure, but I can't remember seeing a seat map quite as empty within 2 months of departure as my two flights are showing right now:

LAS-SFO
SFO-JFK

The first flight doesn't surprise me all that much, given that Vegas is very much a leisure destination - but it's the Sunday night p.s. red eye that's a bit of a surprise. I'm sure it'll fill up in the coming weeks, but if not - it looks like I've got a pretty lonely flight ahead of me! Guess I'll have to console myself with the "famous" seat 9A on United p.s. business (if it doesn't have the most leg room in the entire fleet, I'd really like to see what does):

View from seat 9D on the other side of the aisle

What do you think the over/under is on the number of empty seats these flights end up having up front?


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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Frolicking in Franschhoek, South Africa

Most of my trip to South Africa was spent in Cape Town, but I actually spent the first few days in the Stellenbosch Winelands just outside the city, in a small town called Franschhoek (which means "French Corner").

south africa winelands franschhoek stellenbosch
South Africa's breathtaking winelands region

We were there for a wedding and visited a few of the local wineries for a variety of wedding-related events. First was a wonderful lunch at La Petite Ferme. The meal was a delightful mix of local, South African fare and French-inspired dishes. Here's a quick photo summary of the highlights:

la petite ferme franschhoek south africa escargot appetizer
Appetizer: Escargot on a bacon wrapped brown mushroom, stuffed with creme fromage
la petite ferme franschhoek south africa malaysian fish cake appetizer
Appetizer: Malaysian Fish Cakes with a vegetable atchar, yoghurt raita, baby marrow and coriander salad
la petite ferme franschhoek south africa venison loin entree
Entree: Venison Loin served with a butternut harissa puree, roasted beetroot, thyme jus
la petite ferme franschhoek south africa mango passionfruit cheesecake dessert
Dessert: Mango and Passionfruit cheese cake

With our meal, we enjoyed their Sauvignon Blanc, a "Double Gold Michelangelo" award winner - yes, it's a bit of a ridiculous-sounding title, but the wine was really good!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

So Now What? (American Airlines and US Airways Merger)

In case you've been under a rock this week, American Airlines and US Airways agreed to tie the knot on Valentine's Day. So what now?

Judging from their tails, this merger might have been a foregone conclusion

First things first, here are a few fast facts:
  1. The merged entity will retain the American Airlines name and will surpass United to become the largest airline in the world by most measures.
  2. Doug Parker, the current CEO of US Airways, will become CEO (Tom Horton, CEO of American, will remain on as non-executive chairman - and will also get a $20 million severance package at the end of  his term)
  3. They will be maintaining all 9 of the existing hubs (at least for the time being): Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, DC, Phoenix, and Charlotte.
  4. Operations for the two legacy airlines will remain independent until the merger is finalized, which will take some time.
  5. Once it is finalized, the new entity will be part of the oneworld Alliance (American is already a member, but US Airways is currently part of Star Alliance). This will mean a new set of partners for US Air flyers: Goodbye United, Lufthansa, Air Canada, SWISS, Thai, ANA, Singapore, and a slew of others... Hello BA, Qantas, Cathay Pacific, Air Berlin, and a bunch more.

I see both advantages and disadvantages to this shake-up. As United flyer based in NYC, I see more good than bad for me personally - but let's start with the bad.


The Bad

  • I'm going to miss having US Airways as a partner for earning status on United when traveling up and down the East Coast. Given their hubs in Philadelphia, DC, and Charlotte (not to mention a significant presence at LaGuardia), US Airways has a pretty extensive route map in this part of the country. I took more flights on US Airways than any other Star Alliance partner last year - they were mostly short trips, but still represented about 6% of my Premier-Qualifying miles.
  • Fewer airlines generally means less competition which generally means higher fares for travelers. I'm certainly not looking forward to that, though there are mixed opinions on whether this will really end up being the case


The Good

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Marriott Devaluation Hits MegaBonus and Credit Card Users Hard

I got an email from Marriott Rewards earlier today:

marriott rewards category change email
The email I received from Marriott Rewards

All hotel programs make annual changes to their category classifications, but this one hits hard in a few important ways:
  • Marriott's dull... I mean boring... I mean predictable MegaBonus promotion is famous for offering free Category 1-4 night certificates as one of the options. As a result of this round of category changes, 370 hotels will no longer be eligible as they are moving up to Category 5.
  • Chase's Marriott Rewards Premier Visa Signature card (now there's a mouthful) offers a free Category 1-5 night certificate every year after paying the annual fee (currently $85). I've already found it somewhat difficult to find an opportunity to make use of these certificates (they expire in 6mos), and as a result of this round of category changes, 191 hotels will no longer be eligible as they are moving up to Category 6 (1 is actually jumping all the from 5 to 7). Unless they expand eligibility to Category 6 hotels, I see a cancellation in my future when the annual fee comes around again.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Two Minute Review of the Sheraton Miami Airport

I've stayed at many amazing hotels over the years, but since most of my regular travel is for work, I often end up staying at more "everyday" properties. While these aren't properties you're going to dream of visiting on vacation, I thought I would start to share my experiences, just in case they might be helpful for other trips. Nothing too crazy though - just a "two minute review".


Room

I was in a special allergy-free room on the Club Level, but didn't really notice the "allergy-free-ness" of it (though others might). It was a very standard room otherwise. The king bed was very comfortable, and the desk had an abundance of power outlets (my two key requirements when traveling for business). The bathroom was a little dated, but very serviceable. Despite being an airport location, I had a nice view of a golf course (which I believe was the only greenery in the immediate vicinity).

sheraton miami airport guest room king bed
Guest room with king bed

Saturday, February 9, 2013

There's Great Food and Wine in Greensboro!

Greensboro, North Carolina isn't really the first place that comes to mind when you're trying to think of great restaurants. However, there's at least one place that is a true gem: 1618 Seafood Grille

The last time I ate there, I thoroughly enjoyed the food, the wine, the ambiance, and the friendly service - really an all-around fantastic restaurant.

For my appetizer, I ordered the seared ahi tuna, which came topped with a micro green salad, and was served atop a black bean and corn cake. The tuna was fresh and nicely-seasoned, and the lightness of the salad balanced the richness of the black bean and corn cake (which was just sweet enough - but not too sweet). A really, really nice appetizer - and I especially liked the addition of black beans to the corn cake.

Ahi tuna appetizer

Friday, February 8, 2013

Nemo Brings Out the Best (and the Worst) in United

As luck would have it, I happened to be traveling today as thousands of flights across the country were cancelled due to the Nor'easter named Nemo. I'm currently on an Amtrak train, heading home to New York from San Diego via Baltimore. How'd I end up in Baltimore you ask? Well... it's a tale of how incredibly helpful and unhelpful United can be when it comes to dealing with weather problems.

Loving and loathing United right now

Here are the highlights...

Incredibly Helpful

In trying to figure alternate plans, the agents on the United 1K line were outstanding. I sincerely appreciate everything they were able to do for me over the past 24 hours. In addition, I had to call several times - and each time I got through almost instantaneously. Considering how many people scrambling to change their travel plans, that was huge!

Helpful United 1K Phone Agent 

My original itinerary was San Diego (SAN) - Los Angeles (LAX) - Newark (EWR). After LAX-EWR got cancelled, the first agent I spoke with was easily able to switch me to LAX-JFK, which at the time, was still on schedule. Unfortunately, it didn't take long for LAX-JFK to cancel - and with everything else north of Philadelphia dropping like flies, I needed to figure out a different plan. I decided that I'd try to get a ticket to DC, and then take Amtrak from there. I gave that idea to another phone agent, and he had the presence of mind to suggest Baltimore instead of DC (a much better option for sure). He was able to get both me and two of my colleagues (who were struggling to get through on their own) switched to an itinerary that would take us to Baltimore via Chicago. He also proactively put them both in EconomyPlus without me even having to ask! Another helpful phone agent was able to get my waitlisted Regional Premier Upgrade (which I'd applied a few weeks ago for the LAX-EWR flight) re-applied to SAN-ORD-BWI, and I cleared on both legs.

I haven't had to work through many issues like this in the past, so have probably under-appreciated this perk of having a high status level on an airline. It was customer service at its finest - which is good for United, because their technology fell short in a big way...

Incredibly Unhelpful

United started cancelling Friday flights on Thursday, and I actually like that approach because it gives people the opportunity to figure out alternate plans without having to go to the airport. Unfortunately, they also neglected to notify me that my flight had been cancelled. The only reason I figured it out was because I was checking on the upgrade waitlist to see where I stood, and noticed that the flight status was "Cancelled". In these situations, United also encourages you to make changes to your flights at united.com, to help alleviate the wait times on the phone. Works for me - I prefer to do things myself online vs. calling in whenever possible. Unfortunately, I couldn't actually DO anything on united.com. Every time I tried to make a change, I kept getting an error message. However thanks to those great agents on the phone, I was able to get things sorted out ahead of time.

My original flight from San Diego to LAX was scheduled to depart at 7:35 this morning. I finally ended up getting my cancellation notification from United for LAX-EWR at 6:18am - after already having changed that itinerary twice at that point. I was already on board my flight from San Diego to Chicago when the email finally came through! After landing in Chicago, I saw that I had received another cancellation email from United - for my short-lived LAX-JFK flight. My 2nd itinerary had me leaving San Diego for LAX at 9:02am, and I received the LAX-JFK cancellation notification at 9:22. Nice.

Poor United technology, as personified by "Alex" from united.com

Anyway, I suppose all's well that ends well - but I was really disappointed in how poorly United's technology  performed under these circumstances. Email / text notification are tremendously important when flights are being cancelled left and right, and should be a pretty basic task to execute as flight statuses update throughout the day. That said, I'm tremendously grateful to the 1K agents who were able to help me make it back tonight. Another colleague who was flying JetBlue won't be able to get back until Monday at the earliest!

Is anyone else traveling to / from the Northeast this weekend? What have your experiences been like?


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Air Canada Urging Canadians to Lose Weight

Ok, maybe that's taking a few liberties - but the new 777-300ERs (the biggest plane in their fleet) they're slated to receive are going to be considerably cozier than the current ones.

(HT to One Mile at a Time for sharing this news)

The headline in the announcement focuses on the introduction of Premium Economy - a new class of service that will provide more legroom than regular economy seats, as well as a slightly-wider seat.

It's a nice addition - certainly a more comfortable experience than they currently offer in economy, though it'll be interesting to see how much more it costs once the new planes are fully-integrated into the system.

I want to focus on the changes Air Canada is making to their existing Executive First and Economy cabins though - because they're not pretty.

Let's take them one at a time...

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Starwood and Delta Get Friendly

(I first saw this on View From the Wing, but credit for first sharing it goes to Loyalty Lobby)

This post was updated at 10:30 AM ET to reflect the official announcement.

Very interesting development in the points and miles space - Starwood and Delta are introducing "Crossover Rewards", which will provide benefits for elite members in both programs.

Yet another great innovation from SPG

While partnerships between hotel chains and airlines is nothing new - this one is different, because it allows Starwood members to earn Starpoints when flying Delta, in addition to the miles you earn for your flight (it's usually an either/or type arrangement, and much more common for the relationship to be reversed - earning miles for hotel stays).

Top Highlights:

  • Starwood Gold and Platinum members will soon be able to link their Starwood and Delta accounts, and will then earn 1 Starpoint for every eligible dollar spent on Delta flights. There are some exceptions and nuances - be sure to check out the links at the top for more details. This is a great deal for those that spend a lot on Delta flights every year.
  • Starwood Platinum members will get a number of additional perks that will essentially give you "mini-status" when flying Delta. These include: 1 free checked bag, priority boarding (zone 1), and priority check-in.
  • Delta Medallion members (Silver and up) will earn 1 mile for every dollar spent on eligible room rates at Starwood hotels, and will also receive extra benefits such as late checkout, free in-room internet, priority check-in, and eligibility for room upgrades. Great deal for those that spend a lot on Starwood hotel rooms every year.

Delta is leaving other airlines in its dust when it comes to innovative ideas

My Take:

  • Flight Habits - I haven't flown Delta in a long, long time, and don't have any plans to do so again any time soon. However, this certainly moves them up a notch in my consideration set, should I ever find myself in a scenario where United / Star Alliance just isn't going to work out (likely ahead of American).
  • Marketing / Branding - This partnership makes a lot of sense to me from a brand perspective. I've been saying for some time that Delta is the airline that reminds me most of Starwood from a marketing and branding perspective - fresh, youthful, and ahead of the curve in many ways. Both companies are also closely-aligned with Amex, and I'm sure that helps. I've also said that Marriott and United seem to be pretty similar from a marketing / branding perspective - but I can't say that I'd be that excited about them putting together a similar arrangement (both are Chase partners, so you never know). Not that I expect that to happen any time soon though - United and Marriott aren't exactly what I would call "cutting edge" in this department.
  • Who Benefits the Most? - It's a win for elite members on both programs - you simply get a few extra points / miles, and a few extra benefits, and you don't have to give anything up. As for which company is going to get more out of this arrangement, it's a close call - but I think Delta gets the bigger boost. They've just had some pretty negative press due to the upcoming changes to the SkyMiles program - this should help alleviate that (just a bit). I also think that they're slightly more likely to see an uptick in business as a result of the partnership than is Starwood, because Starwood elite members are getting more on Delta. 1 Starpoint per dollar spent is much more valuable than 1 SkyMile, a free checked bag vs. free internet is a bit of a toss-up (depending on how often you actually take advantage of the benefit, how long your stay is, whether you typically get free internet anyway due to corporate rates or staying at properties that offer it to everyone), and I think priority boarding / checkin on Delta is a much better enhancement than priority checkin at Starwood hotels + late checkout. I think Starwood elites are more likely to shift their flying patterns slightly as a result of these extra perks than Delta Medallions are to shift their hotel patterns. That said, I would bet that there are more Delta Medallion members than there are Starwood elite members, so maybe it all balances out in the end :)


What do you think? Are you a Starwood member or Delta flyer? Will this impact your choices of flights or hotel rooms in the near future?


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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

This is Where I Draw the Line in the Points / Miles Game

The miles and points game can be tremendously lucrative - providing the opportunity to travel to places you'd previously never even imagined you'd visit, and in the kind of style and comfort that you'd previously never imagined you'd be able to afford. Flying to and from Cape Town in business class is only the most recent ridiculous experience I've been able to have because of this game. I absolutely love it.

view from top of lion's head in cape town south africa
Chillin at the top of Lion's Head in Cape Town

That said, it's really easy to get sucked in TOO far. I think it's important to set boundaries, to know when and where to draw the line when it comes to this little hobby.

Frequent Miler had a great post a few months ago about drawing the line from an ethical standpoint. It's worth checking out if you haven't already read it.

I'd like to talk about drawing a different kind of line though - drawing the line from a return on time and effort invested perspective.