Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Phoenician Resort - Part 2

As mentioned in Part 1 yesterday, we were able to stay for 5 nights at The Phoenician Resort & Spa for just 6,240 SPG points per night, thanks to the 5th Night Free and a 35% Discount Award. The regular cash price for the same 5 night stay was just over $500/night, so this was an exceptional Starwood award redemption allowing us to experience a beautiful resort hotel that we would otherwise not stay at.

The resort is located at the base of Camelback Mountain, which clearly stands out against the otherwise flat terrain of Scottsdale. We had a great view of it from our room's private terrace, especially during sunrise which I was able to catch due to Arizona being 3 hours behind Eastern time. Given my mother liked to sleep in late, my father and I decided to take a Daddy-Daughter walk around the hotel our first morning there.

Down below, we had a lovely view of the Catcus Garden walkway where my strict Asian father would later take me to learn (the hard way) what happens when I touch random plants I don't know.

Despite having a great view from our room, we were located quite a long way from the main lobby and the resort pool area. But it did give us a chance to have a nice walk each morning on our way to breakfast through the small shopping area where you could buy tourist souvenirs, designer women's apparel, fine wines and spirits, ice cream or rent a car.

What caught my attention, however, was the Funician's Kids Club that seemed to have a lot of great things for kids, including a fish tank, tons of toys and even a computer station. Unfortunately, like many other resorts, the Kids Club was only for children ages 5-12. I still had a few years to go before my parents could pay to drop me off with the hotel's babysitter while they enjoyed some adult only time, but when we visited, they still gave me an awesome stuffed bunny toy.


Armed with my new stuffed toy, we continued our Daddy-Daughter tour. We saw from the map that there was a lower floor for conferences, weddings and banquets. So we took a small detour from our trip and went to take a look around. While I still have at least 16 years before my parents will marry me off, we thought it would be fun to look around the bedazzled hallways getting some ideas for my possible future wedding here at the Phoenician. But a lot of that will depend on if my father will get SPG Starpoints for having event there.



After the detour, we finally reached the lobby area (with their stunning fountain) which looked even better during the day than when we arrived in the evening.

The floor to ceiling glass wall in the lobby allowed you to see out into the expansive terrace that overlooked the pools and the beautiful dessert landscape. As you can see, there were plenty of seats for couples and families to lounge around and have a refreshing beverage in the sun.

To be continued...

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Phoenician Resort - Part 1

Hotel Stay Details
Hotel: The Phoenician 
Dates: October 25-30, 2013
Rate Paid: 6,240 SPG Points/night 
Regular Room Rate: $503/night 
Total $ Benefit: $2,515 
Point Redemption Value: 8.1 cents/pt

The Phoenician is a Starwood Hotel property under their Luxury Collection Resorts brand. Located just 9 miles away from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX), my parents and I were looking forward to spending a relaxing 5 sunny days by the pool in 85 degree desert heat before the cold Northeast weather took its chilly grip over Manhattan in November.

We landed in Phoenix at 7:30PM, but by the time we collected our checked bags, took the shuttle to the offsite car rental facility, stopped at the Safeway grocery on the way, we didn't arrive to the hotel until around 10PM Arizona time, which is 1AM Eastern.

Despite the late hour, we were pretty awake as we drove up the long property driveway. Along the way, we were stopped at the security desk and asked the name on our reservation. He then alerted the main building that we were on our way. Thirty seconds later, we pulled up to the front of the resort where eager valet parking attendants rushed to assist us. My father felt a little embarrassed as he declined the $29/night valet service and asked where the free self-parking lot was located, but it's hard to justify paying $145 for 5 nights of valet parking when it only cost $191 to rent the car itself (not that it would be any less painful to pay for valet even if his rental were more expensive).

So we asked to just keep the car on the side as we unloaded our bags and went inside to check in.

Check In
After entering the grandiose lobby, we quickly realized we underpacked (too many casual t-shirts and shorts). But we ignored that for the moment and turned left to the Front Desk where they were ready for our arrival. First, we were thanked for being Starwood Platinum members and while they were not able to upgrade us to a suite, they did mention that they put us in a top floor (6th floor) room facing Camelback Mountain (a much better view than the driveway or valet parking lot).

Without having to ask, the Fronk Desk informed my father of the various resort benefits (in room wifi, unlimited domestic calls, tennis court and equipment rental, etc.) that you receive for the $29/day in resorts fees. However, he immediately followed up that SPG Platinum members get the resort fee waived during their stay. Obviously, it would have been easier not to mention the resort fee at all to us, but we understood it helped with the Front Desk showmanship.

Finally, we were given the choice of our Platinum welcome amenity: (a) 500 SPG points, (b) a local gift or (c) free continental breakfast for each registered guest in the room. Normally for our short 1 night stays, we'll choose the 500 SPG points, especially when the continental breakfast option offered is mediocre.

But when my father confirmed the free breakfast was (1) for each morning of their 5 day stay and (2) could take the form of a $14/person credit on our daily breakfast bill, we of course went with that! We were given 5 small cards with our name and room number on them to provide to the breakfast server at Il Terrazzo restaurant each morning. Including tax and tip, that was a $33 credit each morning for breakfast, so $165 over 5 days. Much better than 500 SPG points (worth ~$15 to us).

All said and done, this was one of the best check in processes we've had. They genuinely seemed to want us to have a great stay as opposed to giving us the bare minimum of what they were required to.

The Room
While nothing in the room was amazed us, my parents both agreed right away that this resort was one of the better ones we have been to in terms of property atmosphere and customer service. We had a regular King bed room, though it was on the 6th floor and facing the mountain. Despite it being a "standard" room, it was very large for the three of us. While many hotel rooms barely fit a crib along the king bed, this room had plenty of extra space.


In addition to the spacious room, we also had a nice little balcony/terrace to enjoy the outdoor weather. There was both a small table with two chairs as well as a lounger on the other end. We'd look right onto the tees of one of the golf course holes, but we never felt that our privacy was violated.

The bathroom was also quite massive with a separate bathtub and shower as well as a closet area for the toilet and double sinks. I was pretty excited about using the bathtub as a swimming pool, but my parents assured me that I'd have plenty of opportunity to swim in the real outdoor pools this week. Similar to the St. Regis hotels in the Starwood family, we were given Remede brand bath amenities which are always a favorite of my mother.


The rest of the room was very well stocked. In addition to the large flat screen TV, we also had a DVD player. Unfortunately, we didn't know about that in advance or my father would have brought some of our Netflix DVD's from home. The room also came with two separate closets, a mini fridge (stocked with soft drinks as well as liquor bottles) and a fancy coffee maker.



We didn't take any of the $6.50 Fiji waters available for purchase, because we were given two bottles of Nestle water (and two small chocolates) every evening during the nightly turn-down service. Of the 5 nights, we only had housekeeping remake our bed one night, but it was nice to have the option.

It's been our general hotel experience that the higher end hotels do a much better job catering to families with children. The Phoenician was no exception. The housekeeping staff had already left a great baby amenity kit, including baby powder, lotion, shampoo, rash cream, etc. Obviously, my anal parents came prepared with their own supplies for me, but it was a nice surprise from the hotel, nonetheless.

Next Installment: The Resort Property & Amenities...

Monday, October 28, 2013

Not Our Favorite United Flight

Flight #68 – United 1635
Newark (EWR) – Phoenix (PHX) 
Friday, October 25, 2013 
Depart: 5:23PM / Arrive: 7:46PM 
Duration: 5hr 23min 
Aircraft: Boeing 737 
Seat: 5E and 5F (Business) 
Earned: 0 miles (2,133 miles flown) 
Cost: 0 miles + $3 taxes / person 
Redemption Value: $826.90 / person
Lifetime Miles: 133,944 miles

As I've mentioned a few times before, we were getting a free one way flight from Newark to Phoenix after redeeming United miles for our award trip to Tel Aviv last month since the cost of a flight from the Middle East to North America is the same price no matter where you end up in North America.

Fortunately, we were able to be seated in business class (since this segment was a continuation of our business class flight back from Tel Aviv), but unfortunately (yes, I know, "first class problems"), it was the regular domestic United business class (seen here) and not the newer 180-degree lie-flat seats on United's long haul internationally configured planes. Well, at least business class passengers get ice cream sundaes with our in-flight meals...

Despite boarding at 4:40PM, we waited on the plane for a good hour before we took off just before 6PM. At this point in my 2 years of life, I've been on enough United flights to get a good sense of how certain demographics of flight attendants tend to treat passengers. Despite us sitting up front, they weren't too happy to see a lap child in their area. Now, maybe I'm losing my cuteness as I age, but I didn't get any swoons or smiles from the flight crew that evening. They seemed to "endure" my presence more than enjoy. Tsk tsk tsk.

But I just tried to ignore their lack of enthusiasm and endured their interpretation of customer service as my parents promised me a nice ice cream sundae if I would behave on the flight. Meanwhile, my father watched Man Of Steel and The Heat on his in-flight entertainment system and my mother read the next installment of her Hunger Games trilogy (yeah, they're not exactly making the best impression on their aspiring intellectual daughter).

But when the meal service began with the flight attendant taking orders from the passengers, my father realized how he made a strategic mistake by picking the last seats (row 5) in business class.

Since we'd be the last passengers asked, we wouldn't have any choice in our dinner and just be offered whatever they had left. Not being told what the other choice was (even if we had the option), we were fine with our Chicken Cacciatori selection...because we'd be saving space for that sweet vanilla ice cream for dessert.

To be fair, the dinner was fine (it came with a side of potato gnocchi, a smoked salmon appetizer and a salad) though definitely not worth paying the premium of business class prices for. But that was just the prelude for my tasty frozen dessert to come...

So you can imagine my utter disappointment when the dinner trays were cleared and the flight attendants came back down the aisle with a tray of cookies instead of the rolling cart with delicious vanilla ice cream and toppings. Seriously, they think a cookie can replace an ice cream sundae???

Yeah, I realize I'm getting pretty spoiled. I mean, the flight did arrive in Phoenix 15 minutes earlier than scheduled, there wasn't any turbulence, and our seats did have excellent legroom, free DirecTV with 8 movies and a power outlet to charge our electronic devices. And most importantly, the cookie was served toasty and warm.

Well, considering we paid just $2.50/adult for this 2,133 mile, 5+ hour flight in business class, we got a lot more than we paid for, so who can complain?

Friday, October 25, 2013

Planning for Christmas - Part 2

Yesterday, we discussed my parents' thought process around figuring out which general region we should target for our winter vacation this December. Based on my mother's preferences and our large supply of British Airways Avois miles, we focused our search on Caribbean islands where American Airlines has several direct flights from JFK Airport.

Part 1 - Searching for a Destination
Part 2 - Finding A Hotel

While most people pick the final destination first and then search for the hotels (in that order), my father often works backwards, especially in the Caribbean where many of the island experiences are somewhat comparable.

He has a strong preference for either (a) a chain hotel where he knows his loyalty membership will get us a decent room with high levels of customer service or (b) an exceptional property that will still provide us with VIP-quality service, such as the Le Blanc Resort in Cancun, where my parents spent their July 4th "babymoon" before I was born.

One resource we use is the magazine Travel & Leisure which has their annual list of Top 500 Hotels and Resorts available online. We often look through that to get some ideas for the non-chain properties.

But as you know, we do frequent and quite often. In terms of the Caribbean, Hyatt has almost no presence (until they open up a few of their new Mexico properties in development). The Marriott family (including the Ritz-Carlton) also has some well known properties in St. Thomas, Turks & Caicos, and the Caymans. But of course, we focused on our beloved Starwood brand. In fact, here's a great write up of some of the Starwood options in the Caribbean by the blogger, the Miles Professor - Top Five Values for Starwood Hotels in the Caribbean With Points. According to her, here are the best point redemptions:

  1. Grand Cayman
  2. St. John
  3. St. Maarten
  4. Aruba
  5. Puerto Rico Vieques

So looking at those SPG options, we narrowed our search to either St. John (Westin) or Puerto Rico (St Regis or W Hotel) where we would get the benefit of Starwood Platinum status perks (possible room upgrade, free breakfast, and complimentary wifi).

Then we start looking up the reviews and posts on TripAdvisor (for photos) and Flyertalk (for substantive reviews from frequent travelers). Based on that research, it was obvious we should go for Puerto Rico where we'd have two excellent (albeit expensive) options.

While the St Regis Bahia (SPG Category 7) looked amazing (seen here), we quickly found that December prices were $600+ per night or 30,000 SPG points per night. Since we typically target up to $200-300/night for hotels (or 10,000-12,000 SPG points/night), the St Regis wasn't a viable option for us right now, especially since food on the property would also be quite expensive given how remote the hotel was.

The W Vieques (SPG Category 6), however, while also pretty pricey, was about half the price of the St Regis. Fortunately, we had a few big things going for us.
  1. November/December is the low season for Vieques (while peak season rates are $620/night).
  2. My father's AAA Membership card could secure us a more modest rate ($60/night lower than the regular rate). Plus it was refundable until November 22.
  3. I am not in school yet, so we could travel BEFORE the busy Christmas week when the hotel would be significantly fuller (and much more expensive).
So we're booked for 4 nights in mid December for only $287/night. Well, actually, it will end up as $378/night including taxes and a ridiculous $60/day resort fee). Still pretty pricey, but we'll be able to save money on food because there will be many outside options including some highly recommended food trucks.

UPDATE: After booking this refundable AAA fare in October, we later found an even better SPG Hot Deals limited time offer in November for $239/night + taxes and resort fees, saving us about $50/night. This was now a prepaid, non-refundable rate, but we were OK with that since it was a lot closer to the trip.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Planning for Christmas - Part 1

Well, I know it's not even Halloween yet, but if you're planning on going away for Thanksgiving or Christmas, you should be making plans now before flight and hotel prices start skyrocketing. Studies have shown that mid-October seems to be the last window of getting reasonable prices.

Part 1 - Searching for a Destination
So as I mentioned yesterday, my parents are thinking through the last few months of the year. My father and mother, having secured United Gold and Silver status, respectively, are more able to fly on whatever airline suits their travel needs. The prevailing flight options are as follows:

A. Use the two $99 Companion Passes on US Airways.  

How we got them: This perk came with the Barclays US Airways World Mastercard that my father applied for in February.

Postives: Flying on US Airways could earn mileage with either United Airlines (our preferred frequent flyer program) or Aegean Airlines (helping our family's pursuit of lifetime Star Alliance Gold status). Assuming a flight would cost $300/person, these passes would save us about $200 per companion ($400 total).

Negatives: The Companion passes are only for domestic US Airways flights within the continental 48 states. Also, US Airways doesn't offer that many direct flights from New York, so we would have to connect in Charlotte or fly out of Philadelphia to get to most destinations. And finally, the Companion passes are only eligible for US Airways flights that cost at least $250 (before taxes) meaning the first ticket would have to cost around $300 (including taxes), though sometimes we're able to find really great flights for below that price which wouldn't be eligible for the Companion passes.

B. Use some of our 139,000 British Airways Avios miles.

How we got them: This stash of BA Avios didn't come from flying on British Airways or any of their OneWorld Alliance partners. This was from (a) an amazing 100,000 American Express Membership Reward sign up bonus in January plus (b) the 35% Transfer Bonus that Amex offered several months ago.

Positives: British Airways Avios program is based on distances. So for flights under 650 miles one way, we'd only need 4,500 Avios (or 9,000 Avios for a round-trip). Some examples include: New York-Montreal (324 miles) or New York-Boston (184 miles). Because of the 35% transfer bonus, 9,000 Avios only cost us 6,667 Amex Membership Rewards. The same flight using American Airline AAdvantage miles would cost 25,000 AA miles per person.

More likely than Montreal or Boston, though, we'd prefer heading towards warmer tropical weather. We could do Bermuda (762 miles away) or Miami (1,089 miles away) for just 15,000 Avios roundtrip per person (or 11,111 Amex MR points). The same flight using American Airline AAdvantage miles would cost at least 25,000 AA miles per person.

Best of all, the Avios program is super easy and cheap to use. When redeeming them for domestic American Airline partner flights, they only charge $5/person round trip in taxes and have no close-in booking fees. Additionally, any Avios awards can be cancelled for 100% Avios mile refund, though you lose your $5 in taxes.

Negatives: The Avios program is based on one-way direct flights. If you have to connect at another airport, then it's as if you're booking two separate awards where the sum of the parts may be more expensive than the overall. Therefore, the optimal routes from New York are limited to the direct destinations that American Airlines flies from LGA or JFK.

Second, being distance based, at a certain point you're worse off using this variable pricing system versus the fixed pricing schemes that most other carriers use. Fortunately, this inflection point comes at 3,000 mile distances (25,000 Avios round trip) which is more than enough to cover cross-country JFK-LAX flights. However, if we wanted to travel further (especially in premium business/first cabins), then BA Avios may not be our best currency.

Our Decision
My nerd diligent father initially wanted to use his free time to study US Airway route maps and to track distances between American Airline city pairs to come up with our optimal alternatives. But sometimes, the qualitative filters (ie, my Mother's preferences) help narrow the choices a lot quicker.
  • My mother asked for short (less than 6 hour) flights. After so much long-haul traveling this year, she was looking forward to an easy "commute" within the North America region. 
  • We also do not ski (nor particularly enjoy cold weather), so the mountain destinations (Colorado, Utah, British Columbia) were taken off the table as well. 
  • Chicago was always an option, but we go so often, that we felt spending a full week there in December wouldn't be our first choice. 
  • Since my mother has no interest in seeing Las Vegas and already having plans to visit Phoenix later this week, there wasn't much for us left in the Southwest. 
  • Savannah, New Orleans, Charleston? Having just had our Southern experience in Memphis, we wanted a little more separation before going somewhere again where people talk with a drawl. 
  • Florida is always a popular choice, but I have the feeling my parents are saving Orlando for when I turn 3 years old next year (crossing tiny toddler fingers!). 
  • That just left...the Carribean

To be continued...

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

United Award Accelerator

Now that we're getting closer to the end of the year, it's my family's time to think about what to get me for Christmas see how we're progressing towards our 2014 Elite Status qualifications.

As far as hotels go, my parents are in pretty good position after our epic year where we will have stayed 136 nights at hotels and having various hotel co-branded credit cards. Most of the status is held by my father, but that's OK since the entire family can benefit from his complimentary suite upgrades, wifi and  breakfast perks when staying at a hotel.

However, our airline status is another story. Each individual must have their own status. But based on the flights we have booked for the rest of 2013, my mother was going to miss United Silver status by just 1,749 miles (coincidentally, about the same number of miles a round trip flight would be from New York to Orlando) Hint hint, Mom & Dad.

I know what you're thinking, "But didn't you guys fly all over the world this year? How could she not have hit 25,000 miles?"
  1. First, we flew a lot of our long distance flights as awards using our miles (Thailand, Germany/France and Israel) which don't earn any frequent flyer credit for the total 28,676 miles flown.
  2. Second, my mother credited many of the Q1 2013 flights to Aegean Airlines so that she could earn "lifetime" Star Alliance Gold status with them (by flying 20,000 A3 miles in a 12 month period).
The Problem
So after March 31, 2013, it was all about crediting her flights to United Airlines. Unfortunately, our long return flight on TAM Airlines from Argentina was mistakenly credited to Aegean (instead of United) even though we had her United frequent flyer number on the boarding pass. That was it - the reason my mother was going to miss her United Silver status for 2014.

So after we saw the wrong frequent flyer account credited, we tried calling TAM to remedy their mistake, but we were told that the transaction was irreversible.  So now, my mother had extra Aegean miles (24,656 A3 miles vs. the 20,000 she needed for Aegean/Star Alliance Gold), but would fall short on United miles (on track to 23,251 UA miles vs. the 25,000 she needs for United Silver).

The Solution
Over the past few weeks, my father has been thinking creatively for ways my mother could fly that extra 1,749 miles before December 31st.

  • Remaining Christmas Trip? We did have our Christmas trip still unbooked. However, we were planning on using our British Airways Avios miles to fly on American Airlines and avoid the high holiday ticket prices. So if we wanted my mother to earn miles, her ticket would have to be on United and paid for in cash. She wasn't too keen on flying on a different flight by herself while my father and I were on a separate flight.
  • Extra Trip? We didn't have any plans for November, so in theory we could have booked a new trip to go somewhere like Florida, New Orleans, etc. and made a long weekend out of it. However, we were already going to Phoenix in late October and somewhere in mid-December, so forcing another vacation in November would sort of been a waste of money and time. Additionally, I would be over 2 years old and would require a paid 3rd seat.
  • Mileage Run? Some frequent flying enthusiasts book exceptionally cheap tickets to far away airports just to immediately turn around and come back on the next flight. Most of the time, they don't even leave the secure area of the destination airport. For example, back in June there was a deal where a Philadelphia-Las Vegas round trip was being sold for $178. That would earn you about 4,000 Premier Qualifying Miles (PQM) towards elite status and 4,000 redeemable miles (RDM) to use for awards. While this approach may at first seem crazy to many of you, it's can actually be a pretty sound investment, especially since the people who do this maneuver are usually already elites earning up to 100% bonuses on the miles flown. So on this deal, they're paying $178 for 4,000 PQM and 8,000 total RDM that are worth $160-240 assuming you can redeem for 2-3 cents per mile. However, my mother was definitely not the type who would enjoy 10 hours on a plane by herself!
Award Accelerator
So we were running low on options if we wanted to maintain her United Silver status through next year. But thankfully, United will sell extra miles (both redeemable and elite qualifying) as an add-on to your existing itineraries. If you click on Award Accelerator on any of your booked reservations, you will see an option to buy extra miles (both redeemable base miles as well as the elite qualifying miles).

Now, in this case, my mother only wanted the Premier Qualifying Miles (PQM) that would help her earn United Silver status. However, to be able to buy the Premier miles, you also had to buy the redeemable base miles (RDM) at a price of around 3 cents/RDM. Then and only then was she given the option to buy the Premier Accelerator for an additional cost of 7 cents/PQM. Depending on how many miles you're offered, it can get quite expensive quickly.

The bad news is that United understands the value and consumer demand of these miles, so they're priced accordingly. In fact, United's computer algorithms actually calculate how close you are to the next elite tier, how many more miles you'll earn on booked reservations and how close it is to the end of the year. Then the computer offers you a price that reflects how likely you are to buy your way to the next elite tier. 

Meaning, if it's December and you're just 2,000 miles away from the next tier, the per mile price will be MORE expensive (10-14 cents/PQM) than if it were April and you were a long 15,000 miles away from the next tier (7-8 cents/PQM).  

They will also offer you larger blocks of miles that are often in excess of what you would need. So even when you're just 1,749 miles away, you're offered 14,000 miles (based somewhat on the actual distance of your upcoming flight) as an all-or-nothing option. United knows you only need 1,749, but obviously wants you to buy in bulk.

However, the good part is that the miles that you purchase do transfer immediately - even if you cancel the actual flight later. Some frequent flyer enthusiasts will even buy a long distance ticket online just to purchase via the Award Accelerator and then cancel the ticket within the first 24 hours for a 100% refund of the flight cost (not the Award Accelerator). The purchased miles stay intact. 

My Mother's Situation
As I mentioned, we were only 1,749 miles away. The only United flight we had for the rest of 2013 was our free one way to Phoenix later this week. 

Even though it was an award flight, after logging into my father's United account to view the reservation, they still offered the add-on option of Award Accelerator for both him and my mother. Oddly enough, they offered each passenger 2,133 miles for $62 but asked you to input your United MileagePlus account number. Usually, they offer a rounded up amount of miles based on the 2x actual distance of the flight (such as 4,000 miles), but this time, they seemed to be offering just the exact mileage of the flight. When we clicked on Premier Accelerator, it offered 2,133 PQM for $150 more. So we input my mother's United MileagePlus number and when the amounts stayed the same, we made the purchase of 2,133 RDM and 2,133 PQM for a total of $212.

Interestingly enough, if we input my father's United MileagePlus number under his name, United offered him either (a) 9,000 RDM for $261 or (b) 11,000 RDM for $319. Then if you clicked on Premier Accelerator, it offered him 9,000 PQM for an additional $1,080 or 11,000 PQM for an additional $1,340. There's that United computer algorithm up to its usual tricks again!

The Math
Since I'm half Asian/half Jewish, you know I love to break down the $ of the deal.

My mother paid $212 total for (a) 2,133 RDM that she can redeem for future award flights and (b) 2,133 PQM that can only be used to help her achieve elite status this year. While $212 is a lot of coin to pay, it's actually a pretty sound investment for someone in my mother's situation. Here's why.
  1. The 2,133 RDM alone are worth around $42-63 to her, assuming she can redeem them for 2-3 cents/mile in a future award booking. 
  2. Elites earn bonuses on their mileage flown. Silvers get an additional 25% RDM on their United flights. These purchased 2,133 PQM are the difference between having Silver status or no status for early 2014. Next year, we plan on flying around 50,000 miles on paid United flights and credit all the flights to United. After reaching 25,000 miles next year (estimated mid-May), she will earn Silver status and her 25% bonus for the remainder of 2014. But those first 25,000 miles in 2014 will be earned as a non-elite with 0% bonus. But by having Silver status as of January 1, she will earn the 25% bonus on her first 25,000 miles. Those bonus 6,250 RDM next year are worth between $125-187 to my mother.
  3. Having Silver status will allow her to be eligible for complimentary domestic first class upgrades as well as free checked bags. Selfishly, this point is my father's biggest concern since her inability to get upgraded essentially means HE will not get an upgrade, because he would never leave her behind in coach while he sat upfront.
  4. Using our Chase United Select credit card, we earned 3x for all spend on So the $212 earned us another 636 United miles ($12-18).
  5. Hours spent on a plane = Zero!
  6. Cost of getting to/from the airport = $0.
So between all those RDM, that's $179-268 of RDM value which just about covers the $212 cost. Then add in the possibility for upgrades (higher since my father will have United Gold status which gives him companion upgrades as well) and free checked bags, Award Accelerator and Premier Accelerator in this situation was definitely worth the cost.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Final Trip ... as a Lap Child

Well, as some of you may know, in only a few weeks, I will no longer qualify for "free lap child status" with the airlines. After I officially turn 2 years old, I my father will have to pay for my own seat. While that will increase our travel expenses, at least I will finally start earning some frequent flyer miles. After all, by the time I turn 2 years old, I will have already flown 136,097 total miles, but haven't earned a single frequent flyer mile yet!

But before that actually happens, we decided to go for one final trip to Scottsdale, Arizona where we'll spend a few days enjoying 85 degree weather as the Northeast autumn takes its chilly grip over Manhattan.

Why Scottsdale?  Well, we never really planned on going anywhere, especially to Phoenix/Scottsdale, but my father decided to take advantage of a few fortunate opportunities that sort of fell into his lap.
  1. United Free One Way. Booking a round trip award flight to Israel in September allowed us to add on a free-one way (in business class) to anywhere in the continental U.S. Normally, we would have built in a free stopover for a few days in Europe on our way there, but we didn't want to take away time from Israel. So we decided instead to take our "stopover" in New York for about a month and then continue our return trip to somewhere else.

  2. Starwood 35% Off Redemption Award Gift. For making SPG Platinum this year, my father received a gift for 35% off any single SPG redemption (up to 5 nights at a Category 1-6 property). While normally, my father books longer stays as a consecutive series of individual one night stays (to maximize flexibility and perks), Starwood has a 5th Night Free feature where you use SPG points for 4 nights and get the 5th night on the house (a nice 20% discount). Combined with this Platinum gift, we'd get an additional 35% off, for a total discount of 48%!
So when we were evaluating our extensive options for one last flight as a free lap child, we tried to identify U.S. locations with a high end Starwood resort nearby. But not just any Starwood property, but rather one where we'd like to actually spend time at the resort itself - not just a regular city hotel to use as a convenient place to sleep at night. Plus, finding a city that would offer cheap return one-way flights back to New York (on United or US Airways) would be a big plus as well!

Fortunately for us, Phoenix offered the perfect combination with its nearby Phoenician Resort (Starwood property) and airport hub of US Airways (Star Alliance member airline along with United).

If anyone has any tips on what we can do/eat/see in Phoenix and Scottsdale, send them over!

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Peabody Ducks

The Peabody Hotel is the Memphis version of New York City's Waldorf Astoria - a traditionally classic luxury hotel that stands out as an icon against an ever changing landscape of increasingly modern style properties.

Of course, while it's often nice to walk through the lobby of these grandiose properties for photos and glimpses of history, my parents do indeed favor the more contemporary hotels with more technologically advanced amenities.

But one thing that the Peabody has that the Westin will never is the world famous march of the ducks. According to the Peabody Hotel's website:
Back in the 1930s Frank Schutt, General Manager of The Peabody, and a friend, Chip Barwick, returned from a weekend hunting trip to Arkansas.  
The men had a little too much Jack Daniel's Tennessee sippin' whiskey, and thought it would be funny to place some of their live duck decoys (it was legal then for hunters to use live decoys) in the beautiful Peabody fountain. Three small English call ducks were selected as "guinea pigs," and the reaction was nothing short of enthusiastic. Soon, five North American Mallard ducks would replace the original ducks.  
In 1940, Bellman Edward Pembroke, a former circus animal trainer, offered to help with delivering the ducks to the fountain each day and taught them the now-famous Peabody Duck March. Mr. Pembroke became the Peabody Duckmaster, serving in that capacity for 50 years until his retirement in 1991. The original ducks have long since gone, but after nearly 80 years, the marble fountain in the hotel lobby is still graced with ducks. The Peabody ducks march at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily.
So no trip to Memphis would be complete without at least one visit to the Peabody Duck March. My first failed attempt was Saturday afternoon just before 5PM. We happened to be walking past the Peabody Hotel just as the ducks were going to return back to their penthouse suite, so we tried to get a peek last minute. Unfortunately, the lobby area was already very crowded, and I was in no mood to wait around, so I started crying hysterically. My mother and I just gave up and returned to my father who was patiently waiting by the doors with the stroller.

But the next morning, my father knew we needed to arrive early and stake out our positions. Even though we arrived around 10:20AM on a Sunday morning, all the lobby chairs and tables were occupied. Fortunately, there was still plenty of standing room along the red carpet where the ducks would walk across as they came out of the elevator towards the lobby fountain. By 10:40 AM, the area was full and kids were allowed to sit on the floor alongside the carpet.

Remember that we originally arrived at 10:20 AM. By the time it reached 10:59, I had been sitting there waiting for almost 40 minutes. For many adults, that would be long. For New Yorkers, that would be a lifetime. But for a soon to be 2 year old, it was an eternity. I was pretty much freaking out from boredom and crying loud enough to bother those around me. Unfortunately, there wasn't much my parents could do to console me. Each of their attempts was soundly rebuffed as I threw their bottles, toys, candy and smartphones on the ground in frustration and spite.

Fortunately, however, the elevator doors opened and I saw my feathered friends sprinting along the red carpet past me and into the fountain. Despite my father being 100% Asian, he wasn't able to get a good photo of the ducks racing past him. In fact, he pulled the trigger too early and by the time the camera reset itself, the ducks had already made it to the fountain.

But I forgave him since I was happy to see ducks so close. We then got to go near the fountain and take some photos of them swimming around and around.