Monday, March 24, 2014

American Express Serve

UPDATE: Unfortunately, as of April 3, 2014, CVS is no longer accepting credit cards as payment for Serve Reloads.

The other day, I discussed how my father just opened up 5 new credit cards each with a rewarding sign up bonus totaling up to $2,500 of value if he just spends $14,250 in the next 90 days.

Now, that's a lot of coin to throw around in a short period of time! But I'm going to explain how we're able to do it without buying junk we don't need or getting into debt!

According to CNN, there are approximately 10 million American households that do not have a bank account. Contrary to popular myth, these individuals are not all illegal immigrants without social security numbers or unemployed homeless. In fact, because many banks charge so many fees to maintain a checking account, many working American citizens just can't afford to keep thousands of dollars tied up in a bank account just to avoid $10-50 per month in bank fees.

My family knows a lot about this because in a small business our friends run (Five Star Painting IL), we often encounter individuals who have these banking challenges, so we sometimes suggest prepaid products such as Amex Serve to help.

While my fellow 2 year old toddlers may not understand what the big deal is, just imagine if your parents didn't have a place to put their money. As you get older, you realize a piggy bank just can't cut it anymore. But aside from just physically holding your money, their bank is probably how they actually get their money. I mean, unless your parents get paid in hard cash by their employers, they'd still have to find a place to cash in their weekly paychecks. So for the 10 million unbanked American households, their options are pretty limited and quite horrible.

Problem #1 Getting Cash
There are "Pay Day Lending" shops that charge a very expensive fee for fronting the cash to you while the check clears. Because you don't need a credit check and can get money quickly, anyone without a bank account can easily borrow money from the Pay Day Lender. To get this short term loan, the worker pays a high upfront fee of between $15-$20 for every $100 they need. Then when their paycheck comes in, he hands it over to the Pay Day Lender who cashes it to pay back the original loan.

Now, I'm half-Jewish and half-Asian, so I can do math pretty quickly. That fee is equivalent of charging 15-20% interest...if it were borrowed for 1 year. But since people get paid weekly or every other week, the implied annual interest rate for the short period of time is actually closer to 350%!

Problem #2 Paying Bills
Now, even if you don't have a bank account, you can still open a monthly cell phone plan, rent an apartment, sign up for cable/internet and even open up a credit card. What you cannot do without a bank account, however, is send checks to pay these monthly bills. So these unbanked individuals have to drive around town, bringing cash to the payment centers to pay off their bills. And guess what, these payment center usually aren't open during after-work hours or weekends. So the unbanked have to miss 1-2 days of work each month just to pay off their bills using cash they probably needed to short-term borrow from expensive Pay Day Lenders.

But Baby Songer, what does all this have to do with Lap Child Diaries? Well, glad you asked.

WARNING UPDATE: This is pretty advanced and definitely not recommended for anyone. For financially undisciplined people (ie, anyone who carries debt balances on their credit cards), it can be deadly to your financial health. For example, if they catch you, they will shut you down and then freeze your money for many months while they resolve it. Meanwhile your credit card statement comes due. 

Also, this prepaid card activity is probably very similar in nature to how drug dealers launder their money, so keep in mind that while you're not doing anything illegal, it's still suspicious for the stores and the credit card companies. 

Prepaid Card Accounts
American Express, Vanilla, GreenDot, Paypal and Rush have all jumped into the Prepaid Card market specifically to address the need for these 10 million unbanked American families. While my father is not among the unbanked, he's one of many that are actively participating in the Prepaid Card movement.

Basically, all these companies are trying to function as a bank's checking account without actually having physical locations. Using their Prepaid Card products, you can deposit your paychecks right onto your Prepaid Card and then use it like a debit card to pay for things. Some advanced Prepaid cards products even have bill pay features either by offering (a) physical checks to send in the mail or (b) online bill pay websites where you can send money from your Prepaid Card account to anyone with a physical mailing address.

Manufactured Spending
The concept of Manufactured Spending is to create credit card spend without actually losing any money. From the perspective of the credit card companies, banks and stores involved, you're making purchases that will count towards your minimum spend requirements and general points earning transactions. From your perspective, however, you're just transferring money from one place to another and hopefully end up close to neutral (i.e., not actually spending anything). In this zero sum game, the winner is clearly the successful Manufactured Spender. The loser is probably the credit card issuing bank who had to give you all those frequent flyer miles or hotel points, but trust me, no one's going to cry for the banks because they didn't make as much money as they should have.

So How Does This Actually Work?
My father walks into any drugstore, gas station or grocery store that sells an American Express Serve Prepaid Card. The card costs $2.95 and can be loaded up to $500 initially. Some places that are trying to sell these products are even waiving the $2.95 activation fee, so you can buy the card for free and load it up with $500 of cash for just $500 on your credit card.

So assuming my father uses his new Chase Ink Bold Visa card, it would show a transaction for $500, but he would have a new temporary Serve Prepaid Card loaded with $500 that he can use anywhere American Express is accepted. Now he's $500 closer to hitting the $5,000 he needs to spend to earn his 50,000 Chase UR points, but hasn't actually lost any money. It was just transferred from one account to another.

Next, because he's 18 years or older, my father can take this temporary Amex Serve card and register it to a permanent Serve account with online features and reload ability. At this point, American Express will ask for his social security number, date of birth, home address and cell phone number. Upon identity verification approval (not a credit check), he'll be mailed a permanent Serve card with his name on it.

Until the real card comes, however, he can go up to the cash register at any CVS or 7-11 store and load up to $500 per day on his temporary card, up to $5,000 per calendar month. And while I suppose there may be some stores that will not allow you to load using a credit card, all the ones we've tried in Manhattan allow it without any questions, even if my father is loading my mother's Serve card (as long as the credit card is under his name). UPDATE: Unfortunately, as of April 3, 2014, CVS is no longer accepting credit cards as payment for Serve Reloads.

Since he's doing it directly via the cash register (and not using a 3rd party intermediary prepaid load card), there are no extra fees. A $500 load costs exactly $500. Then once he receives the permanent card, he can load up to $1,000 per day at any CVS or 7-11 store (but does it in two separate $500 transactions).

WARNING: while many banks/credit cards work perfectly fine, there are some that may treat this transaction as a Cash Advance and charge you fees/interest for that. Please do your own research and experiments with smaller amounts before going crazy. 

So now that my mother and father both have their own American Express Serve accounts, that's $10,000 of April credit card charges they will be able to make over 5 days. And technically, that wouldn't actually cost them anything, because all the money is just transferred from the credit card to Serve account. But to Chase, Citi, Barclays, US Bank and Discover, they look like he bought $10,000 worth of stuff at CVS or 7-11. Of course, my father would be wise to split up the purchases across a few different cards so as not to max out any single one of them, or worse, draw suspicion from some credit card fraud prevention analyst.

Unloading Prepaid Cards
Now that my parents will have two Serve cards loaded with $5,000 on each of them, how do they access the money? Theoretically, you can just go to an ATM and withdraw the balance. But in practice, that would be the same suspicious activity that drug dealers and money launderers would do, so my father avoids drawing such nefarious comparisons.

Instead, he does something a more upstanding citizen would do - pays his bills. Specifically, his credit card bills, especially since he will now have $10,000 of CVS charges across his credit cards. Using the Serve online bill pay system, he can just load in the account information for his credit cards and then submit a payment. American Express will then send the money from his Serve account and within 2-3 business days, the payment will post on his credit card account.

Again, it would be wise not to over-simplify things for the American Express fraud detection algorithm. So don't expect my parents to make a single $5,000 credit card payment to Barclays. Instead, you're more likely to see one $3,023 payment to Chase, a $230 payment to US Bank, another $425 payment to Citi and a $1,234 payment to Barclays. In between, he'll make a few debit card charges at the local bagel shop and or pay for a taxi here or there. Then he'll keep about $40-60 left on the Serve card into May before he loads up another $5,000 on each Prepaid Card.

So if everything goes smoothly, using this strategy, it should be somewhat easy for my mother and father to "spend" $10,000 a month without actually paying for anything. All of a sudden, $14,250 in three months doesn't seem that difficult.

Final Manufactured Spending Tip
Clearly you can pay for a lot of things using Serve's online bill pay feature, including pediatrician visit fees, cable, telephone, auto insurance, and possibly even your rent or mortgage. However, we only use it to pay credit cards, because (a) it keeps the outstanding balances lower and (b) my parents would rather pay for their cable bill using their Chase Ink Bold (earning 5x UR points) or the pediatrician visit with their SPG Amex (and earn SPG points). The only thing they truly cannot use a credit card to pay for is their credit card bill. So we might as well use the Serve online bill pay for something they cannot earn more points with.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Father's March Credit Card Churn

After a long(ish) hiatus from the credit card application game, my father jumped right back in this week. His very first credit card churn was about 2 years ago in early 2012 when he applied for just a two new credit cards including, a CapitalOne Venture card (100,000 points worth $1,000 of travel statement credits) and a Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa (50,000 points worth anywhere from $625 of travel credit or up to ~$1,500 of United MileagePlus frequent flyer miles).

Over those two years, he's just been applying to cards that seem to offer nice bonuses (which were basically almost all travel reward cards at the time), but very little rhyme or reason beyond that. Here are some highlights of my father's credit card application successes:
However, now that he's more sophisticated, he plans out his credit card application strategy with long term vision and purpose.

Big Warning
If you have any debt at all (student loans, credit card, personal loans or mob gambling debt), then you're better off not opening more credit cards, because you're probably spending more than you're making and ruining your future. The last thing you need is another credit card.
  • The credit card companies will only issue these premium reward credit cards to individuals with high credit scores (above 700 FICO). Applying and getting rejected hurts your score even more, so don't try until you're confident you'll get approved. 
  • The points and miles you earn (valued at up to 2-4% of your spend) will be negated if you carry a balance and have to pay 15-25% interest. All that money you're paying in interest and late charges could pay for the trips you're trying to get for free. 
  • And if you have trouble overspending, keep in mind that the average person spends 15% more when they use a convenient plastic credit card to make purchases instead of using hard earned cash. Something about seeing your empty wallet makes you thing twice about buying that extra Starbucks.

As stated above, his last round of credit card applications was back on August 11, 2013. He didn't have an immediate need for anything other than Starwood SPG points, so he applied for the American Express SPG Business credit card (30,000 points after spending $5,000 in 6 months) and the Barclays Arrival World MasterCard (40,000 Barclay Arrival miles worth about $440 in travel related statement credits).

The good news was that American Express approved him instantly, but the bad news was that Barclays denied him for "having too many recent inquiries on his 2 year credit history." Despite calling into the Reconsideration Line (888-232-0780) to speak with their credit analyst and reminding them that he had a stellar credit score, 100% on-time payment history, and a healthy income in excess of our monthly rent obligations, they denied his application.

Not a huge loss, but still a disappointment, given the flexibility of having Barclay Arrival miles. I'm not paid by the credit cards to get people to apply, so I won't go into the benefits of the Barclays Arrival card, but I'm sure you can all use this wonderful website called Google if you want more info.

Typically, after a round of applications, my father would wait 90 days and then apply for some more. Instead of keeping this schedule, he skipped a round in November 2013 and waited an additional 120 days before applying again in March 2014.


1. Chase Ink Bold 
Type: Business card
Bonus: 50,000 UR points
Min Spend: $5k in 3 months
Bonus Earning: 5x cell phone, cable, internet, office supply and 2x hotels and gas

My father's best friends are starting a new small business together called Five Star Painting IL. As a part of that, he set up a small business checking account with our dear friends at Chase. Why Chase? Well, they have the best business credit cards on the market right now!

We used up a lot of our United miles and Hyatt points during 2013 (business class flights from Thailand and Israel; 7 nights at Park Hyatts in Paris and Buenos Aires) and for upcoming 2014 travel (business class flights to Italy/Greece).

So with the new business relationship, they were MORE than happy to allow him to apply for one of their premier (read expensive) business credit cards, the Ink Bold Visa. Given the upfront costs of starting up a new business, the $5,000 minimum spend in 3 months should be taken care of pretty quickly. Now, even though there's a $95 annual fee, the first year is waived. Guess what's gonna happen 11.5 months from now?

But there's a strong chance we end up keeping this card, because it does offer 5x points on cell phone bills, internet, cable television and office supply store purchases. Additionally, it offers 2x on hotels and gas station purchases. So clearly the bonus earning potential could overshadow the $95 annual fee. But in all likelihood, we'll have another Chase Ink card to apply for with another free 1st year.

2. Citi Thank You Premier 
Type: Personal card
Bonus: 20,000 + 30,000 Thank You Points 
Min Spend:  $2k in 3 months and another $3k in Year 2
Bonus Earning: 3x on restaurants/entertainment and 2x on airfare/hotels

Citi is actually pretty clever. Realizing how many people like my parents are sly enough to take advantage of the huge upfront sign on bonus and free 1st year, they re-structured their Thank You Premier bonus to incentivize you to keep the card for a (paid) second year by staggering the full bonus over 2 years.

I kind of think that if my father could quickly spend $3,000 in the 1st month of his 2nd year, then he would get the 30,000 point bonus and still be able to cancel to reverse the $125 annual fee. Unclear if we'll want to pursue that option, because having this Premier card does allow my parents to redeem their Thank You points at a 1.25 cents/pt instead of he usual 1.00 cents/pt using my no fee Thank You card. Meaning, 50,000 Thank you points would be worth $625 in air fare instead of just $500.

So as we go into March 2015, if I have 0 Thank You points left, then clearly I have no reason to pay $125 to keep the Premier card. However, if I have 50,000+ Thank You points, then paying $125 to keep the Premier card would be offset by the incremental $125+ of TY point redemption:
  • Premier: 50,000 Thank You points x 1.25 cents/pt = $625 value 
  • Regular: 50,000 Thank You points x 1.00 cents/pt = $500 value (a difference of $125)
So we'll see where we're at a year from now.

3. Barclays World Arrival
Type: Personal card
Bonus: 40,000 Arrival Miles
Min Spend: $3k in 3 months
Bonus Earning: 2x on all purchases

Barclays has been one tough bank to crack. It took my father a few different attempts to get this card (see above), but fortunately, having waited 6-7 months between rounds of applications and only applying for 2 cards the prior round must have helped his chances. Plus, he's been putting $100-200 of charges each month on his Barclays US Airways credit card to show a little love to them. Regardless of the exact reason, he was approved for the Arrival card which earns 2 Arrival miles for all purchases.

After reaching his $3,000 minimum spend requirement, we'll receive 40,000 bonus Arrival miles (they're really "points," but I digress) plus 6,000 miles for spending that $3,000 (each $1 purchase is 2x). These Arrival miles can be redeemed for 1.0 cent/mile for statement credits towards travel related expenses or 0.5 cent/mile for non-travel related expenses. Unlike other bank currencies that can be used directly as currency for purchases, to redeem these "miles," you actually make the purchase using your Arrival card (as normal). Then after the travel related transaction posts to your account, you log in and apply your miles for a statement credit to lower your outstanding balance.

The negative is that it's an extra step or two. However, that's more than compensated by the fact that my travel related purchase also earns me additional Arrival miles. For example, if I have both (a) 40,000 Arrival miles and (b) 40,000 Chase UR points and want to purchase a $400 ticket to Los Angeles, then I could either:
  1. Transfer 25,000 Chase UR points to United MileagePlus miles and then hope that my desired flight is available for the Saver Level of 12,500 each way. Then pay about $5 cash in taxes. However, the ideal flight will likely not be available at the Saver Level (essentially a Blackout Date).
  2. Use 32,000 Chase UR points (worth 1.25 cents/pt) to buy the exact ticket he wants and have 8,000 Chase UR points left. No cash used in the transaction and nothing posts to my credit card statement.
  3. Purchase the ticket for $400 and have it charged to my Barclays Arrival card. My Arrival miles balance goes up 800 for the purchase, leaving me with 40,800 Arrival miles. Then after it posts to my credit card, I redeem 40,000 Arrival miles as a statement credit to remove the $400 charge. End of the day, I have $0 outstanding balance PLUS 800 Arrival miles left over.
The great benefit of using my miles/points in either scenario #2 or #3 is that my flight is now a "paid flight" which means I can continue to earn frequent flyer miles for these trips. If I actually used frequent flyer miles (United, American, US Airways, etc) in scenario #1, then I'd get no additional mileage credit.

In addition, the Arrival card has a great feature where they will credit you back 10% of all your Arrival mile redemptions. So in the above example #3, after redeeming 40,000 Arrival miles, they will add back 4,000 Arrival miles to my account. So while I needed to have the full 40,000 miles in my account to get the $400 statement credit, at the end of the day, I'm only using a net 36,000 miles. So my final ending balance should be 4,800.

But because the card gives you 2x on ALL purchases, this one would be great for us to use whenever we need to buy something that won't qualify for any categories bonuses on our other cards.

4. US Bank FlexPerks
Type: Personal card
Bonus: 20,000 Arrival Miles
Min Spend: $3.5k in 3 months
Bonus Earning: 2x on gas, groceries &airlines

Similar to Barclays, this was my father's second attempt to get a card with US Bank. Back in 2012, he tried to get their credit card that would earn 3x FlexPoints on all charity related spending (which we prioritize in our family's budget). But at that time, he was denied for having too many recent inquiries.

So now, with his new strategy of waiting longer between applications, he thought he stood a much better shot and he was right. While he was not approved instantly online, he did eventually get automatically approved after waiting for US Bank to complete their review. His calls into their Application Status line (800-947-1444) weren't helpful at all, because it wasn't a Reconsideration Line, but just a Status Update line. They kept telling my father that his application was being reviewed in their standard operating procedure and that there were no red flags. Just sit tight, Dad!

But now that we've been approved, we'll get 20,000 FlexPoints. While this may seem somewhat low, remember that not all points are created equally. It's easiest to think about them as different foreign currencies. In fact, 20,000 FlexPoints can be redeemed for up to a $400 flight. Similar to Chase UR or Citi Thank You, using FlexPoints on a flight is treated as a paid flight so there will be no blackout dates and you will earn frequent flyer miles for the trip.

The downside of FlexPoints is however that you're essentially redeeming 20,000 FlexPoints for a certificate that can use to buy 1 flight (up to $400 in value). Meaning, if you're not paying attention, you might end up redeeming 20,000 FlexPoints for a flight that you could have bought for just $200. In reality, we'll probably not be able to find a flight that's exactly $400. Perhaps $350 or maybe even $380, but likely we're leaving some money on the table.

5. Discover IT
Type: Personal card
Bonus: $150 Statement Credit
Min Spend: $750 in 3 months
Bonus Earning: 5x on rotating categories

My mother already has the Discover IT card and we've been using it for its rotating 5x categories (Q1 was restaurants and movies). But it's not unlimited earnings since they're capped at $1,500 of bonus category spending per quarter. So by having two different Discover IT cards, we're essentially raising our total cap to $3,000 per quarter. Obviously, my parents will never actively TRY to spend more money than usual just for bonus points, but there are times where it's nice to get 5x points for paying for a large group dinner and having your friends reimburse you.

Unfortunately, the first quarter is about to end, so my father's card probably won't be delivered until April when the Q2 bonus category will change to Home Improvement Stores (Home Depot, Lowes, etc). While my family's probably not in the market for an outdoor grill or light fixtures, I do know of a small business starting up that will have to buy a lot of paint...

But we figured that since we're already applying for 4 cards, we might as well throw in another one to pick up an easy $150 (essentially getting a 20% rebate on our first $750 of spending).

Other Card Considered
I suppose we could have applied for another American Express card product, but there really weren't any Amex Cards we wanted right now, especially since you cannot have had the product for at least 1 year before you're allowed to get the sign up bonus again (Amex Platinum, Starwood Amex, etc). There's even a rumor that American Express will start a new policy where only 1 sign up bonus can be awarded per lifetime.

And instead of the Citi Thank You Premier card, we could have also applied to Citi American Airlines Executive Card that's being offered right now with 100,000 American Airline miles. But to get the bonus, you need to spend $10,000 in 3 months and a pay a $450 annual fee (not waived). While you would get a $200 statement credit for American Airline purchases (partially offsetting the $450 fee), we didn't need more AA miles (already have almost 400,000 of them in our family accounts), didn't plan to fly AA anytime soon and didn't want to take on more required minimum spending than we could reasonably do in 90 days. Plus, not a fan of paying $250 in fees even if the miles are worth much more. So we went with the Citi Thank You Premier which only required $2,000 in spending and had the first year annual fee waived.

Total Minimum Spend Required
Most of the cards give you 3 months to hit your minimum spending requirements. But since we're opening 5 at once, we have the same 90 days to knock out $14,250:
  1. $5,000 on Chase Ink Bold for 50,000 UR points (~$1,000 value)
  2. $2,000 on Citi Thank You Premier for 20,000 Citi Thank You points (~$250 value)
  3. $3,000 on Barclays Arrival for 40,000 Arrival miles (~$440 value)
  4. $3,500 on US Bank FlexPerks for 20,000 FlexPerk points (~$400 value)
  5. $750 on Discover IT for $150 cash rebate ($150 value)
For our efforts, we'll receive 130,000 points + $150 in cash rewards through sign up bonuses. By our estimates, that's potentially worth $2,240 of value. In addition to the sign up bonuses, we'll also earn for the spending the required $14,250. From that spend, we'll receive at least another 17,250-28,500+ points which will be worth an additional $270-470 of value.

While almost $5,000 a  month may seem impossible for a small family of 3 without going into credit card debt, we do have a lot of tricks up our sleeve to help "spend" that much without actually spending anything.

To be continued...

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

InterContinental Hong Kong

Hotel Stay Details
Hotel: InterContinental Hong Kong
Dates: March 10-11, 2014
Rate Paid: 1 Free Night Certificate
Regular Room Rate: $493/night 
Total $ Benefit: $493 
Point Redemption Value: N/A

The final night of our Hong Kong trip was by far our best hotel stay yet. First, the InterContinental Hong Kong is located on the Kowloon side of the city, which is less "business downtown" oriented. Think of it like a more developed Brooklyn for you New Yorkers out there. Second, the view of the Hong Kong skyline from the Kowloon side is much more stunning.

However, of course, this kind of prime real estate comes at a steep price. When we booked our 1 night stay, rates for the basic room were going for $493/night including taxes. Clearly a lot to pay for a place to sleep at night before our flight back to New York at 10AM the next morning. Fortunately, my father had signed up for the Chase IHG Visa credit card. In addition to earning 80,000 IHG points (worth between $600-800 in hotel redemptions) and getting top tier IHG Platinum status every year you hold the card, they send you a Free Night Certificate good at ANY hotel in the IHG network, including the prestigious Intercontinental Hong Kong, one of the finest hotels in the city. Not too shabby for just a $49 annual fee credit card.

When we checked in, we were told that they had upgraded us to the extra large alcove studio. Unsure of what that was exactly, we were just happy that we were able to check in earlier than the regular 3PM time. The front desk agent then came out from behind the desk and escorted us all the way to our room while our bags followed. Again, amazing levels of Hong Kong customer service. While we didn't have a stunning harbor view, we did get a rather large living room and our very own outdoor patio.


The room itself was immaculately clean and well appointed. Nothing shouted "Hong Kong" but my family doesn't care as much about that as other travelers do. We felt like we got enough "Hong Kong" feel by actually walking around the city, not staying in a hotel. And while we had a nice outdoor patio to enjoy, we didn't want to spend too much time there on our last day, so we just looked at it for a few minutes and head out to explore Kowloon's Ladies Market.


When we arrived back to the hotel later that evening, we were pleasantly surprised with another chilled bottle of sparking white wine and chocolate covered strawberries. I suppose it was because we told them it was my parents' 5th wedding anniversary...

But the best part of the InterContinental Hong Kong is the stunning lobby (which you can enjoy without being a guest). Every evening at 8PM, the skyline has it's famous Laser Light show. While most tourists like to line up along the outside Avenue of the Stars promenade, we enjoyed the show from the comfort of the InterContinental lobby lounge.

Conrad Hong Kong

Hotel Stay Details 
Hotel: Conrad Hong Kong 
Dates: March 8-10, 2014 
Rate Paid: 2 Weekend Night Certificates 
Regular Room Rate: $433/night 
Total $ Benefit: $866 
Point Redemption Value: N/A

After our first two nights at the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, we packed up our belongings and took a short taxi ride over to the Conrad.

While a normal entry level room at the Conrad costs about $394 USD plus 10% taxes ($433 total), my mother had some Free Weekend Night certificates from her Citi Hilton Reserve credit card she applied for several months earlier. If we wanted to use Hilton HHonor points, it would have been a whopping 80,000 points/night. Pretty expensive either way, so we considered ourselves lucky we were able to get two nights to enjoy ourselves here.

The Conrad is located slightly closer to the downtown business district than the Grand Hyatt and is set further back away from Victoria Harbour. The other main structural difference is that the Conrad is connected to the large Pacific Place shopping center. We pulled up to the front entrance and were immediately greeted by the welcoming Conrad staff. Our luggage was taken from the trunk, tagged and placed along the side of the door as we were escorted inside.

Visually, the lobby is not quite as impressive as the massive open air space of the Grand Hyatt. The oval floorplan didn't lend itself well aesthetically, but they did an amazing job decorating the lobby with fine art and stunning flower arrangements.

The Front Desk is actually located along the long side of the wall, and not in the open space when you enter the building. A little counter-intuitive, but we eventually found where to check in. It was 12PM, so we were in line behind several guests who were checking out. Fortunately, my father had called ahead asking if we could check in a bit earlier than the normal 3PM, and they accommodated.

We were pleasantly surprised to hear that we had been upgraded to a Harbour View room on the 53rd floor! I'm sure part of it was because my mother had Hilton Gold status, but also because my father emailed the hotel in advance to tell them it was my parents' 5th anniversary trip. In addition to the wonderful room upgrade and the welcome tea and chocolate truffles, the Conrad further surprised us with a complimentary bottle of sparkling white wine on ice and some nice fruit waiting for us when we entered the room.

We were in love with the style and decor of the room. While perhaps you couldn't tell you were in Hong Kong, we found the room to be much more luxurious than the Grand Hyatt, especially since the Conrad Hong Kong was known to be more of a business hotel. And then when we opened the window shades to unveil the amazing view...

After gawking for a few minutes at the stunning height of our bird's eye view of Kowloon, we started to look around the room and found more pleasant surprises, especially for me! In addition to having a real wooden crib (not a folding pack-n-play) with quality Winnie the Pooh bedding, they had a nice package of infant bath amenities as well as a diaper bin.

Then my mother and I went into the bathroom to see what that set up was like. It was much simpler than the black marble and gold accents of our prior hotel, but still done very nicely. We had a separate room for the toilet, which my father used pretty frequently after getting mild food poisoning, and a separate bathtub and stand up shower. The adult bath amenities weren't familiar to us, but served their purpose.

The wireless internet in the room was free for Hilton Gold status members, as was breakfast each morning in the Executive Lounge on the 59th Floor. My father initially asked at check in if we could take our breakfast in the lobby restaurant, but they just reconfirmed it would be offered in the Executive Lounge.

However, my father had read that Conrad also allows members to have their complimentary breakfasts in the hotel restaurant, The Garden Cafe, if you asked nicely. The Garden Cafe is a proper sit down restaurant with a much larger spread of breakfast options than the Executive Lounge, where breakfast was more functional than an experience. So we called back down to the Front Desk to ask again, and they agreed. All we had to do was to provide our names and room number to the Garden Cafe hostess and we'd get the breakfast buffet with no charge whatsoever. And we definitely made the right choice! Here are some photos of our breakfast at The Garden Cafe.


 And here are some photos of the breakfast offering in the Executive Lounge.


In terms of service, we had a great experience with the staff at the Conrad, but didn't really interact with them too often besides check-in and check-out. We asked the Concierge how to walk from the Conrad to the closest MTA metro station (about a 10 minute walk through the Pacific Place shopping center) and to walk to Central (20 minute walk through Hong Kong Park and a maze of office building complexes).

Overall, we loved our time at the Conrad and would definitely come back if the price were right. In terms of relative value, the Conrad was a better experience for mid-level hotel status holders (room upgrade, free breakfast) and at a lower price point than the Grand Hyatt. But since I'm just 2.5 years old, I don't care about all that. IMHO, I thought the Conrad had a much better stuffed teddy bear and tastier scrambled eggs. So it was a no brainer for me!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Eating in Hong Kong

The good news is that my stomach issues on the flight the other day didn't last into our trip. I seem to have regained my healthy 2 year old toddler appetite.

The bad news is that my father seems to have developed his own stomach issues. I suppose that's part of the deal when you travel to remote places in the world.

But when eating local cuisine is so important to my father, it truly was a shame when he came down with a mild (but annoying) case of food poisoning our last day here. But before we go into that story, here's how we got there.

Friday - Serenade Dim Sum
Our first morning here in Hong Kong was a dim sum filled blur. After walking from the Grand Hyatt over to the Star Ferry terminal, we took the HK$2.50 ($0.32 USD) ride over Victoria Harbour to Kowloon to walk along the Avenue of the Stars. We heard about a nice dim sum place called Serenade that opened at 9AM (most places don't open so early), so we had our first meal in proper Hong Kong fashion.


Unlike the casual dim sum places we frequent in New York City's Chinatown, Serenade did not have those carts. Instead, there was a paper menu that you checked off with your desired dishes, and then a wait staff would bring them over as they were ready. My mother much preferred to see the items on a cart before choosing, but she went along with the menu format. The problem with that style of service, however, was that we had no control over the pace (or order) of the food coming out.

The first serving was primarily what I'd consider the dessert dishes, baked pastries shaped like a goose or an octopus. Then, the next wave of food came in rapid succession. The small wooden bowls piled up so high that we undoubtedly looked like greedy pig American tourists next to the more civilized pace employed by our local Hong Kong neighbors.

Friday - Sheung Kee
We had eaten so much at breakfast that we skipped lunch altogether and just saved our stomachs for dinner at a local seafood restaurant recommended to us by my favorite aunt. Perhaps restaurant is too generous a term, because it was actually a pair of food stalls located on the upper floor of a fish market in a more authentically local part of town called Happy Valley. When the taxi dropped us off at 9PM at the market, we were skeptical when they started to pull down the gates to close the facility. However, my father found another entrance that remained open and had escalators going upstairs. Eventually, we made it to the 2nd floor (or what I would call the 3rd floor) and saw the large glass windows into the dining area.


As soon as we entered, we were ambushed by several vendors who were all trying to get us to sit down at one of their tables. We weren't prepared for this and was taken aback, but eventually found a menu with Sheung Kee written on it.


Apparently, there are two different food stalls operating in this area and they compete for customers. I have to say that many people seemed happy with their food, so I'm not sure that one stall was any better than the other.

As many of my self-proclaimed foodie friends would appreciate, we were surrounded by local Hong Kong patrons. In fact, for most of the time we were there, my mother and I were the only non-Asians in the entire place. But as Stuff White People Like stated, we were knocked down a peg when we saw another Caucasian couple with their own baby wheel into the place.

But nevertheless, we found an English menu and ordered two entrees that people around us seemed to be enjoying - a spicy chili/garlic crab and razor clams with garlic and vermicelli.


While our meals were very tasty and the environment definitely lent our dining experience some street cred, we were surprised that the prices weren't cheap - definitely not street food levels.

Saturday - Maxim City Hall
The next morning, we went back to dim sum for breakfast, but this time, we went to the infamous Maxim City Hall, a massive, well-trafficked location in the upstairs of a government building. Unlike Serenade which opened at 9AM, Maxim didn't open its doors until 11AM, which we found out when we arrived at 10:15AM.

If you've never been before, it's quite easy to not find the place. There are no visible signs (at least not in English) from the street where a taxi would drop you off.

But after walking down the sidewalk beside the columns, you'll eventually enter a large hall with deep purple carpeting. Along the right, you'll see stairs heading up to Maxim Restaurant.


After wandering around for about 30 minutes, we decided to just head upstairs. To our surprise, we found out that we weren't the only ones anxious to get some dim sum at 11AM sharp. There were probably about 50 people waiting by the time we got in line at around 10:45AM. But luckily, the restaurant is pretty massive and had no problem getting about 200+ people in at the same time.


To my mother's pleasure, this dim sum format was the more traditional cart style where you could see what you were ordering and be served at your own pace. In addition to what was offered in the multiple carts roaming around the room, you also had a small menu of options you could order. We went for the roast goose and honey roasted pork dishes.

We have to say that the quality of the dim sum was definitely better than the NYC Chinatown places we were used to, but they were also priced accordingly for that premium.

Saturday - Street Food Noodle Soup
By now, we'd had our fill of dim sum and we skipped lunch again that day. Later on that afternoon, we happened to be walking around the Mong Hok district of upper Kowloon shopping for gifts when we stumbled upon a small dirty alley that had a food stand inside with a lot of customers slurping noodle soups. Of course, my parents were intrigued and just got in line.

There were no tourists and no signs in English. While many of my travelers friends actively seek out such obscure opportunities (prioritizing authenticity over quality/enjoyment), we saw these aspects as negatives. First, we find comfort in validation from palettes that are comparable to ours. Second, we like knowing what the prices are as well as what we're ordering. Fortunately, the men working the tables were proficient enough in English to spit out the words "fish ball beef wonton" which we understood to mean that we had three flavor options: fish ball, beef, or wonton dumplings.


After securing our seats in the corner when some customers finished their soups, we ordered one beef and one fish ball soup with white noodles in each. The dishes were pretty good and flavorful. Definitely worth trying if you enjoy noodle soups and affordable (HK$26 each, or about $3.35 USD). In fact, we ate here again on Monday afternoon when were back in the neighborhood.


Sunday - Conrad Hotel's Garden Cafe
After a few days of eating exclusively Asian food, we took a break and took advantage of some Western options. That morning, we had a complimentary breakfast buffet at the hotel restaurant for being Hilton Gold elite members. I don't remember exactly, but regular prices for breakfast buffet were ~HK$300 (or about $39 USD) per person.

Similar to the bountiful options that dim sum offered a few days before, we had a wide selection of breakfast options at the Conrad's Garden Cafe.





Sunday - Great Food Hall
For lunch, we were on our way back to the Conrad Hotel after a morning out walking around the Central area. Instead of opting for the pricey restaurants, though, we went to the western style grocery store located in the shopping center below the Conrad. We picked up a roast beef/brie sandwich and some other snacks and made our own in-room service.

Sunday - McDonald's
And to cap off our Western Sunday, we decided to have some McDonald's while we were up at Victoria Peak that evening. It was around 8PM when my father ordered his Quarter Pounder and my mother her Big & Tasty meal.

As much as McDonald's tries to maintain consistency across all their locations, we could definitely taste a difference in texture to their beef patties. They were fluffier in Hong Kong than the flat meat patties we were used to in America. Nevertheless, my parents ate their burgers and didn't think twice.

That was until around 2AM early Monday morning when my father awoke from his slumber. I know this, because I was already awake (remnants of jetlag) and greeted him with a sweet "Hi, Daddy!" as he got up. His stomach pains had grown to become quite bothersome and he spent the next few hours running back and forth to the bathroom, either sitting on or by the toilet.

While he was clearly in discomfort and pain at the wee hours of the night, I was ready to play. As many of you fellow toddlers know, sometimes you need to cry and whine to get what you want. What I wanted, was for my father to get out of bed and play with me as I played puzzles on the iPad. I didn't want to be in the bed with my parents, though. I wanted to be in the chair across the room with my father sitting beside me helping me. Despite his many attempts to relocate back to the bed, I made sure he didn't. As you might imagine, he was not pleased with me that night.

Fast forward to Monday 8AM when my mother awoke to find my father passed out mumbling something about him being sick. She asked if she could get him anything or if she should stay to take care of him, but my father wouldn't hear of it. He told her to take me to breakfast downstairs. No reason for everyone to miss a full meal.

My father spent the rest of our final day fighting off nausea and frequenting the men's room. His loss of appetite, however, was a better indicator of his discomfort. Since that fateful McDonald's meal the night before, he skipped eating altogether that Monday, with only an occasional sip of water to avoid dehydration.