Monday, February 24, 2014

I Love Schedule Changes!

Most people hate having their flights change, because it throws off their plans. I suppose if you're only flying once a year for your big annual vacation, you want everything perfect and may have even paid up for the exact flight time you wanted. But our family's different.

Since my family of 3 flies pretty frequently, paying even small premiums for each trip can get quite expensive. So instead of paying up for the exact flight we want each time, we usually book the cheapest flight that we're still OK with, even if it's not the absolute best time.

Then we just wait and hope to take advantage of any schedule/equipment changes that will allow us to change to the better flight for free. Normally, change fees are usually $150/person domestically and $300/person internationally if you want to make a change, but they're waived if the airline makes a change that doesn't work for you.

In fact, we were already able to take advantage of this "change without a change fee" situation when we re-booked our April New Orleans flight a few weeks ago, getting onto the 4PM direct flight back to Newark instead of the earlier departure which connected in beautiful Cleveland. But how often do these situations happen?

Well, our latest case and point - My family and our friend John Mark were scheduled to fly down to Atlanta for Mother's Day weekend in May for both (a) my father's annual MLB stadium trip and (b) a Mother's Day visit to John Mark's family.

We of course wanted to maximize our time on Sunday afternoon (apparently his grandmother cooks a mean Mother's Day lunch). The 8PM United flight that night would have allowed us to leave his family's house at 6PM, while the earlier 5:30PM flight meant we'd have to leave for the airport by 3:30PM.

However, the price difference was an extra $100/person for the later flight. Spread that across 4 passengers, we were looking at a meaningful $400 premium for just 2.5 extra hours. So we booked the 5:30PM return flight for lower $297/each roundtrip.

Then this past Friday morning, my father received this email from his dear friends at United informing him that there would be some changes in his original itinerary.
  • Outbound: 9:10AM-11:37AM was rescheduled for 9:54AM-12:29PM. Not a huge deal.
  • Return: 5:30PM-7:56PM was rescheduled for 5:59PM-8:29PM. Not a huge deal either.

But since it was a change on United's end, my father saw an opportunity to switch the return to his ideal 8PM flight.

So he called up United and then told him that the rescheduled 5:59PM flight didn't work for him. Hypothetically, if we had a 8:30PM Sunday dinner in New York that we were trying to make it back for, this 29 minute change would break our hypothetical dinner plans.

So instead, we would have a hypothetical 5PM conference call instead of the hypothetical dinner meeting, which would require us to take a hypothetical later flight. Perhaps there was a hypothetical 8PM flight back home? Funny how this hypothetical scenario worked out.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Westin O'Hare

Hotel Stay Details 
Hotel: The Westin O'Hare
Dates: February 16-17, 2014 
Rate Paid: $130/night (incl. taxes)
Points Earned: 1,075 SPG Points

My parents had booked our return flight back home on Monday afternoon since it was President's Day. However, our friends didn't have Monday off so we all decided to come back to Chicago on Sunday afternoon. Instead of asking them to drive us to the airport on Monday, my father booked a hotel near O'Hare for Sunday night to take advantage of the free airport shuttle. Our (Starwood) choices the Sheraton, Aloft or Westin.

We had already stayed a few times at the Aloft O'Hare in the past (and we enjoyed our stays), but we decided to try something new this time. After some quick research on Flyertalk's O'Hare Area Which Starwood? forum, my parents ended up choosing the Westin O'Hare (a full service hotel) which was pricing out the same as the limited service Aloft (about $115 base rate + $15 in taxes).

The good news was that a day before our arrival date, we were given a complimentary upgrade to an Executive Suite (700 sq ft with a "separate" living room and bedroom), but the bad news was the Westin O'Hare was undergoing some lobby renovations that compromised the stay experience a bit. But then again, perhaps that's the reason it was pricing out the same as the Aloft.

Because of the construction, the main lobby was closed and you had to enter the building through the side entrance and check in at a makeshift front desk way down along one of the large hallways.


While this doesn't sound so bad, being a 2 year old traveling with your parents made it a bigger deal. First, there was no one in the lobby to help us with luggage. Having missed my nap, I was less than perfectly behaved, instead opting to run around from being overtired as opposed to sitting patiently in my car seat. As one parent chased me around, the other had to carry the rest of our luggage including an under utilized car seat.

Eventually, we made it to the "front desk" and waited behind 4 other groups checking in. Normally, there would be a separate line for Starwood Gold & Platinum members, but not with this makeshift configuration. OK, the wait wasn't that long (about 10 minutes) but my father sure didn't appreciate having to chase me around for a single minute longer than he had to.

We were given keycards to our room and sent on our way. My father had to ask about all the usual things that a good front desk person should volunteer, such as directions to the elevator, wifi options, check out times, airport shuttle times, restaurants on the property, etc. She seemed more focused on getting us processed and onto the next person, which I can respect, but to a degree.

Next we made our way further down the hallway, past all the construction, to the escalators heading down to the Lower Lobby since the Lobby elevators were closed. As you can see, there were plenty of signs everywhere to compensate for the fact the Front Desk agents were too busy to guide us.


Eventually, we made it to our Room 540. It was a suite in the sense that we had an extra living room area for Jack and Connor to come over for dinner later, but a door to close off the bedroom would have been nice.



The bathroom was quite large, but kind of a waste of space. The sink area was as long as the bedroom itself, with the toilet and the bathtub placed in a separate smaller room. Not sure who needs all that empty space by the single sink, but who am I to judge?

Some people on Flyertalk had mentioned that the Westin O'Hare doesn't offer you any complimentary bottles of water. And they were right.

While we did have a small wetbar area, it was devoid of any bottled water. In fact, the mini-fridge under the TV was also completely empty. Now, most of the time, we like to have an empty fridge to keep my juices and food during our hotel stays, but I suppose many other people want easy access to overpriced soft drinks and liquor.

The room itself was pretty comfortable and the thermostat worked perfectly. While being close to the airport, we didn't notice any noise at all from the planes taking off. In fact, I had a great night of sleep in the Westin Heavenly king bed. Baby Songer loves her plush pillowtop mattresses.

The next morning, we woke up and leisurely took our time getting ready. Instead of breakfast at the hotel restaurant (which was relocated to a conference room due to the construction), we opted for a quick bite at the Starbucks in the lobby to take back to our room.


Since our flight was scheduled to depart at 2:00PM, we went down to check out at 11:45AM to catch the 12:00PM shuttle (complimentary). Fortunately, we didn't park a car, because they were charging $20 for parking over 30 minutes. But back to the shuttle.

It arrived a few minutes before noon and let out the passengers who were coming to check in. We were the only ones taking the shuttle back to the airport, so we departed at 12:01PM and were at Terminal 1 getting dropped off by 12:10PM.

Overall, we had an OK stay at the Westin O'Hare. Given our $115 (+ tax) rate was comparable to a limited-service hotel, we thought we were getting a great deal, but it looked like it was priced appropriately given the inconvenience of the ongoing lobby construction and the lackluster service levels of the front desk staff. Yes, the possible upgrade to a suite was one of the reasons why we picked Westin over Aloft, but it definitely wasn't a full service experience. 

Honestly, if we weren't loyal to Starwood, I'd probably suggest my father book us at the higher end Intercontinental down the road for the same price as the Westin O'Hare.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

State Street Brats

We only had a few hours in the state capital / college town of Madison, Wisconsin. After cleaning off our snow covered Toyota Yaris rental from Hertz, we drove 10 minutes into town and went straight to State Street Brats on the University of Wisconsin campus.

A few years ago, my friend Liam's father (having spent 4 years in Madison for college) told my father about this little taste of Wisconsin while my father was nearby. Never turning down an opportunity to eat, my father ventured into State Street Brats and enjoyed some of their famous Red Brats (smoked beef pork bratwurst). Since then, my father has actually gone back to State Street a few times before forcing my mother and me to sample the red brats this past weekend.

Walking down the street, you don't actually see a sign for State Street Brats. Instead, you see massive letters that spell out Tavern on a German looking building at the end of the row. They have some outdoor seating, but given it was February, we opted to sit inside where it was warm.

Since the place is really a college bar that happens to serve amazing brats, the venue is very casual. When we arrived on Friday afternoon at about 5PM, it was almost completely empty. Of course, my parents didn't mind at all since it would be super awkward to have a 2 year old toddler and her parents mingling among a massive crowd of drunken 18-22 year olds.

We took some seats along the windows where they had enclosed booths to trap me while my parents ate their lunch. My father took a few minutes to look at the laminated menu and went up to the bar to place his order. Fortunately, they took credit cards because we were strapped for cash.

In about 10 minutes, the bartender came out of the back with small plastic red trays filled with deliciousness. My father had ordered the Red Brat Reuben (red brat sandwich with sauerkraut and Russian dressing served on a pretzel roll) while I had a grilled cheese sandwich with some Wisconsin cheddar. My mother went in another direction and ordered some boneless buffalo wings. My father and I loved our choices. My mother, not so much. Along with a Miller Lite, the total bill came out to $20 for the three of us. Not bad.

After spending the weekend in the Wisconsin Dells, we had to drive back through Madison to return our rental car at the MSN Airport, so my father tricked us all into another lunch at State Street Brats, but this time with my friends Jack and Connor. We got another booth in the corner and all went to town on our final taste of Wisconsin.

Most of us ordered the signature Red Brat platter with waffle fries. I chose another grilled cheese sandwich, and my mother went with a Triple Cheese Burger this time. But we couldn't leave Wisconsin without getting some Wisconsin Cheese Curds!

State Street Brats
603 State Street
Madison, WI 53703
(608) 255-5544

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Wilderness Waterpark

Wilderness Waterpark is on the same resort property at Wyndham Glacier Canyon (WGC). We were staying at the timeshare condo portion of the resort (seen here as brown buildings at the top of the map here) while the other connected, buildings were more traditional hotel rooms.

But everything was part of the same complex so we had access to everything, including the indoor Wilderness Waterparks (seen here along the bottom half of the map). But if you know anything about drawing maps to scale, you'll see that things are pretty far from one another, separated by massive parking lots.

As it turned out, getting from WGC to WW was an adventure by itself. The resort is pretty massive and you have to do a fair share of walking through the hallways and a few elevator rides to get to your destination. From our room 8310 to the closest waterpark, I'd say it was a good 12-15 minute walk, but less if you ran the entire way like I did.


But eventually, you will start seeing other families and kids walking in the same direction, so you'll know you're heading the right way. And eventually, you'll feel the warm muggy air welcoming you to your indoor paradise! Here's some snapshots of the 1st waterpark and the giant wave pool. There is also another separate waterpark with a giant bucket that splashes everyone and more slides.

The good news is that the Wilderness Waterparks are open year round. The bad news is that when it's winter, everyone uses the indoor waterpark instead of the summer when people prefer the outdoor ones. So the place was pretty packed and crowded while we were there. In fact, we didn't even find a seat to keep our stuff while we were in the water. We had to find a dry corner on the floor to put our shoes and towels. But we didn't let that spoil our fun.

And if you're not in the mood for more waterparks after your first day, you'll have a lot of other dry activities to choose from including a massive arcade with more video games than you knew existed, a few different 3D/Glow in the dark mini golf courses, a massive treehouse/jungle gym, a sky ropes course, as well as laser tag!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Wyndham Glacier Canyon Lodge

Hotel Stay Details 
Hotel: Wyndham Glacier Canyon Lodge
Dates: February 14-16, 2014
Rate Paid: $119/night (incl. taxes)
Points Earned: 0 Points

We've been doing quite a lot of domestic traveling the past few months (Memphis, Scottsdale, and Austin), enjoying family time spent in the wonderful parts of the United States that remind us how much of a bubble New York City is. This time around, we wandered into the famous Wisconsin Dells (C on the map below), a local weekend vacation destination about an hour drive northwest of Madison (B) and 3 hours northwest of Chicago (A).

While we normally try to stay at Starwood hotels (since my father has his Platinum status perks like complimentary suite upgrades, free breakfasts, and VIP service), we actually went to Wisconsin specifically to enjoy the massive indoor water parks connected to the Glacier Canyon Lodge with our friends. Water parks are very popular in the Midwest, and especially in Wisconsin. I suppose being so far from a real beach, Wisconsin found a way to bring the water fun to them.

Because the resort was managed by Wyndham, we could have booked the reservation through their website and earned some Wyndham reward points, but my friend Jack's mother knew that using EBay offered a much cheaper way to book.

We secured a great 2 bedroom suite for the weekend all for the low price of just $475 total (split between 2 families). In addition to the room for 2 nights, the price included 8 passes to all the waterparks and all cleaning fees, taxes, etc. No timeshare tour/presentation required. Since the lodge is actually a timeshare property, many owners put their shares up for sale to the highest bidder when they're not in use, oftentimes priced significantly less than "retail." By way of example, the same type 2 bedroom suite was being offered online at $409/night (including taxes). We paid just $238/night. No reasonable amount of Wyndham points would be worth foregoing that $169/night savings.

Booking a hotel room via EBay was pretty easy, though there's always a risk when dealing with another individual as opposed to a professionally run hotel. Our seller was a couple from Minnesota who seemed to have a solid transaction history on EBay (226 Positive Reviews, 1 Neutral, 0 Negative). We prepaid online and received confirmation from EBay including the seller's contact information.

As a part of the transaction, we were supposed to send our name (exactly as written on our driver's license) to the seller so she could officially reserve her timeshare under that name. However, more than 24 hours had passed and no word from the seller. So my father then called the Seller and left a voicemail.

Within the hour, the woman called him back apologizing for being away from the computer. She confirmed the name we wanted on the reservation (apparently, only that person could check in and it's a huge deal to have to change the name later) and then we received the official confirmation email from the resort shortly thereafter.

We originally thought to put my father's name on the reservation (since we'd likely arrive before our friends). But given the chance of Midwest winter snowstorms in mid-February, we put our Chicago friends' name on the reservation instead since they were driving up. In the scenario where our flights from New York would get delayed or worse, cancelled, at least they would get to enjoy the resort.

The 2 Bedroom Suite
The 900 sq foot two-bedroom suite was perfect for a pair of families, especially having a full kitchen and dining room area. My mother appreciated having separate bathrooms.

Our friends took the bedroom with the double beds and gave us the larger master bedroom with the king bed. But most of the time, we were all hanging out in the livingroom/kitchen. All of us kids got to use the Jacuzzi bathtub too.

We didn't arrive to Glacier Canyon Lodge until about 8:30PM Friday evening. We had landed at 4PM that afternoon in Madison (about an hour drive away), but decided to enjoy some of the University of Wisconsin's finest to time our arrival with my friends who didn't hit the road from Chicago until mid-afternoon.

Check in was hectic with a lot of other families all arriving for the long President's Day weekend. But we finally got our keys to Room 8310. Here are some photos of the actual suite from this weekend.




Plenty of space for two families with young kids. And plenty of room for me to get to play with Jack and Connor.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Hertz - Dane County Regional Airport

As I mentioned the other day, on our long weekend to the frozen Midwest, we flew into Madison, WI at the Dane County Regional Airport (MSN).

The airport was pretty simple and functional with a the usual souvenir shops and pseudo-"local" restaurants serving regional Wisconsin fare like brats and cheese dishes. We landed just before 4PM local time and made our way through towards baggage claim.

We had rented a car from Hertz for 48 hours to drive up to the Wisconsin Dells on Friday afternoon and back to Madison on Sunday. Using Autoslash, we were able to get our rental down to just $40 total. Pretty sweet.

Of course, we selected the small Compact car that seated 4 with enough trunk space for 1 large roller board, but it was enough for our short 1 hour drive and back. Here's a photo of what a Toyota Yaris normally looks like. I suppose my cheap father could have splurged a bit more and gotten us a full size vehicle, but we hardly used the rental car this weekend, so I suppose it was fine (albeit embarrassing). Most of the time, the rental agency will not have such a small car in stock, so they'll give up a free upgrade to the next largest tier. So we took our chances.

The Hertz counter (along with all the other car rental counters) are next to the Baggage Claim area on the bottom floor of the Dane County Regional Airport. While normal Hertz facilities allow #1 Club Gold members (free to join) to just head to their vehicle with the keys in the car, this location required you to stop by the counter and wait in line to get your keys. Not the end of the world. Considering it was about 11 degrees F outside, we were happy to handle our reservation indoors.

But unfortunately, my father's plan didn't work. No upgrade this time. We were given a 2014 Toyota Yaris with 6970 miles on it. Our compact car would be waiting for us in parking slot #38. So we made our way outside to the covered (but open air) parking garage where the rental cars were parked. Given NYC was a balmy 39 degrees when we left, having our faces crack upon feeling the frozen air reminded us that we were in Wisconsin in February.

Unfortunately, the Hertz cars in the parking garage were all numbers 1-19. Baffled, we walked around in the outdoor parking garage looking for our #38. Finally, my father realized that our car wasn't parked in the covered garage. Nope. It was parked OUTSIDE next to the garage. As seen on this computer generated model of the Dane County Regional Airport that my father commissioned stole off of Google images, you can see the massive covered parking garage, but then you will see the red circle where our $40 compact rental car was located. Did I mention that it was Wisconsin in February?

So of course, instead of having a clean car to start loading our luggage into, we had to make our way through some crushed snow that had accumulated all around the uncovered parking lot and then find that our beautiful red Toyota Yaris...

covered in about 2 inches of snow. Not the end of the world, but not something my parents were used to from Hertz. Of course, as my father looked around at all the other Hertz vehicles parked next to ours (still in the uncovered parking lot), they were all 100% free of snow as if someone went by and cleaned them all. Our rental car was literally the only one with snow over it.

But thankfully, Hertz was kind enough to include a brush to clean the snow off and scrape off the ice from the windshield. After remembering what it was like growing up in suburban NJ, my father cleaned off the vehicle and got it heated up. Off we were!

Fast forward to Sunday when we returned our car. Unlike most other airports where you would drive the car back to a checkout line where an agent would scan the car and mark it returned, at the Dane County Regional Airport, you had to park the car yourself and then bring the keys inside back to the Hertz counter. Fortunately for us, my father was able to find an open parking spot, though I imagine it would have been very stressful if we were running late and there weren't any open spots.

All in all, we still like Hertz over some of the other discount rental agencies. I mean, we can't really fault them too much given it was really more of the Dane County Regional Airport's infrastructure than anything else. But if we ever fly into Madison in the dead of winter again, we'll know what to expect for next time.