Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 Travel Year In Review

Well, it's the last day of 2015, and we've had another amazing year. Click here for the 2014 recap.

Since my father's an Asian math nerd, according to his excel spreadsheet, I have:

1. Flown approximately 33,825 miles this year (vs. 51,422 last year)
2. Taken 23 flight segments (vs. 26 last year) with only 2 longer than 8 hours
3. Flown out of 14 airports (vs. 16 last year)
4. On 2 different airlines (vs. 6 last year)
5. Traveled to 4 foreign countries (vs. 6 last year)
6. Earned United Silver status

The biggest takeaways were that we really decided to stay "local" this year oftentimes driving instead of flying. Further, unlike 2013 and 2014, we only left the country a few times in 2015. Once was a spring break to Cancun. Then we had our annual trip to visit extended family Israel (stopping in Belgium on the way home). The other was our early Christmas trip to Costa Rica a few weeks ago.

On the hotel side, we have:

1. Stayed 52 nights in hotels this year
2. Across 20 different cities
3. In 14 unique hotel brands

Our most frequent brand was Westin (18 nights across Orlando, suburban Chicago, Cancun, Kansas City and Scottsdale). We re-qualified for Starwood Platinum status, and matched to Hyatt Diamond and Hilton Diamond statuses for 2016. And we didn't realize until just now that this year we went to see baseball games at the stadiums for each of the World Series teams, the Kansas City Royals and the New York Mets.

 So as we close out the year, here's a photo snapshot of our favorite lapchild adventures this year.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Hilton Diamond Status Match

As you LCD readers know, my father is a huge SPG loyalist, though he's been known to cheat with Hyatt from time to time.

But when Hyatt started matching to their top tier Diamond status last month, Hilton also jumped into the fray as well. For convenience, you can request the Hilton HHonors Diamond status match online here until January 11, 2016.

So my father signed up and submitted a jpg file of his SPG Platinum Account page. This morning, he received this email.

We've had some nice Hilton stays in the past few years where we definitely enjoyed the complimentary breakfasts, including:

1. December 2015 - Hilton Garden Inn Liberia Costa Rica
2. February 2015 - Doubletree Charleston, SC
3. June 2014 - Hilton Zurich, Switzerland
4. April 2014 - Conrad Hong Kong
5. February 2013 - Conrad Koh Samui, Thailand

That being said, Hilton's Diamond status isn't that much better than the mid-tier Gold status that my parents already had through their Citi Hilton Reserve Visa credit card. Even with Gold, they receive complimentary breakfast and in-room wifi, so the top tier Diamond just earns you more HHonors points and possibly increases your chances at a complimentary room upgrade.

Regardless, we thought that we might be frequenting non-Starwood hotels in 2016 (given the pending Marriott acquisition), so we might as well try out some Hilton properties while holding Diamond status.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Equinox Resort - New Family Tradition?

Hotel Details
Hotel: The Equinox Resort & Spa
Dates: December 24-26, 2015
Rate Paid: 6,000 SPG points + $160 per night
Room Upgrade: Bi-Level Suite
Regular Room Rate: $693/night 
Saved: $533/night
Redemption: 8.9 cents/point

Back in December 2011 (literally, just a few short weeks after I was born), my parents and my maternal grandmother decided to take me on my first trip. It was Christmas time 2011, and they had been learning how to handle me as a crying newborn infant for the past few weeks. My father thought we could use a change of scenery and booked a few nights at The Equinox in Manchester, Vermont for the holidays.

That year, it was quite cold and the snow had sprinkled over the mountains and we enjoyed a charming countryside White Christmas as a new family.

Four years later, my father decided it would be nice to return to the Equinox for the holidays. Aside from a small Christmas tree in our living room (see below), we don't really "go all out" with the holiday decorations, so we were excited about being somewhere else where they did.

So we invited my aunt and my paternal grandmother and drove up together 5 hours to Manchester, VT the morning of Christmas Eve. While we had hoped for another White Christmas, the weather was actually about 72 degrees in New York City and not much cooler in Vermont. But they had the most stunning New England sunset as we pulled up to the quaint little Main Street.

The hotel was historic to say the least. Their website discusses how it was visited by 4 U.S. Presidents over its 200 years in existence, including Presidents William Howard Taft, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt and Benjamin Harrison.

My father had used his Starwood points to book two rooms using Cash & Points, offering a pretty great value versus paying cash outright. Since it was a 2 night stay over Christmas Eve and Christmas, the cash rates were $693 / night for a regular room. Normally, you could get rates for $200-300/night. So using SPG points to offset the cost made a ton of sense.

Note: the Equinox has a $35 per night resort fee for each room that is not waived even for SPG Platinum members on award bookings. Per the website, "the Resort Fee of $35 per night includes the following amenities and services: unlimited valet parking, bottled water in room, wireless internet service, use of the business center, local telephone calls, in-town shuttle for shopping and dining, morning coffee and newspaper in the common area, access to 850 acres of hiking trails at the Equinox Preservation Trust, use of the Golf Club putting green, resort bicycles, tennis courts, sleds seasonally, use of the spa fitness center, pool, steam rooms, and the sauna."

Nevertheless, we were excited to spend a few nights in the Vermont mountains in a charming, historic hotel over Christmas.

Prior to our arrival, my father applied 4 of his SPG Suite Night Upgrades to get all of us into larger suites. Unfortunately, only one of the room upgrade requests cleared (Room 350), so my father offered the "Ulysses S Grant Suite" to my grandmother. She said it was silly to put me in the smaller room, so she declined and said they'd be fine in the regular room (Room 340).

The Ulysses S. Grant Suite was set up as a regular sized room on the first floor, but had a staircase that led you to a loft like living room upstairs. It was nice to have some extra space, but I'm not sure it was worthy of a U.S. President.

We settled into our rooms and got ready for dinner. They offered three restaurants in the hotel, the buffet style Colonnade (breakfast & dinner), Marsh Tavern (casual fare) and the Chop House (higher end steakhouse). Interestingly enough, the Marsh Tavern and Chop House shared the same entrance with just a open wall partition separating the two dining rooms. If you didn't notice the different furniture, you may not have realized they were in fact different restaurants.

Each morning, we enjoyed a complimentary SPG Platinum continental breakfast offered at the Colonnade (fresh fruits, pastries, cured meats and a large selection of gourmet cheeses). If we wanted to upgrade to the full hot buffet, including an omelette station, then you could pay the $5.50/person upcharge. Alternatively, you could also select items of the a la carte menu and spend up to $48/room, but that had to include tax and mandatory tip, so it was really closer to a $40 credit off the menu.

As you might imagine, most of the guests this Christmas weekend were families (many from NYC). When we checked in, they handed out different schedules of kid-friendly activities each day. Each day, they had several different movies playing in one of the banquet rooms, including Minions and Frozen. In the adjacent room, there were empty tables and board games for families to borrow and play as they wanted. They also had free coffee, hot chocolate and hot apple cider throughout the day for everyone.

Given the relaxing environment, we often found many guests simply sitting around one of the many fireplaces, reading newspapers or books when they weren't enjoying the large indoor pool and spa on the property (note, pool and spa are housed in a separate building so you will have to walk outside).

My favorite activity, however, was putting small notes on one of the many Christmas trees around the resort.

But the main Christmas Tree was the one at the base of the stairs by the Marsh Tavern and Chop House restaurants. This tree was the same one that I stood by when I was just 1 month old years ago.

Have I changed much since then?

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Costa Rican Souvenirs

Photo Credit: NY Times
Before we left for our Costa Rican winter vacation, my father did some research. This was actually his third trip to the Central American country, but it was the first time for my mother and me. So he did what any protective father would do, go online and research what vaccinations and precautions we should take.

First, we needed Hepatitis A and Typhoid vaccinations. Fortunately, my annual pediatrician appointment in November coincided well so I was able to get my shots there as a part of my routine vaccination program.

My mother had her Hep A, but needed a Typhoid shot. And since my father's last Typhoid shot was in 2008, he needed another as well. And for these vaccines to work, they should be given at least 2 weeks prior to travel.

With over a month to go, my parents looked up Travel Vaccination clinics online and came across Passport Health. They had great Google Search Engine Optimization, but were very troublesome to schedule a convenient appointment time (even a month out). In addition to the $120 cost for the shot, it would also cost an additional $50 per person for a required "consultation" which we didn't need.

Then, on the morning of our scheduled appointment, they called in sick (ironic, huh?) and couldn't reschedule us for a few days. That inconvenience ended up being a blessing in disguise, as we soon found out that a nearby Walgreens had the vaccine in stock and could give us the shot without the onerous consultation fee. We just paid the retail price for the vaccine ($99/shot).

Now that we were protected from Hepatitis A and Typhoid, we needed some protection from the hoards of mosquitoes that plague this part of the world. Malaria wasn't a concern, but itchy bug bites can really be annoying.

So my father purchased some Natrapel Wipes on Amazon. As anyone who has used citronella sprays can tell you, they don't really work. The heavy chemical DEET is exceptionally effective, but can be dangerous, especially to toddlers.

That's why we went with Natrapel which uses Picaridin, instead of DEET, but just as effective at repelling bugs. They last 8 hours and get great reviews. They should still be used carefully and adults should apply them for their children, but we felt it was much safer than playing with DEET.

The first few days, my parents (at least my father) used the Natrapel wipes extensively on their arms and legs. And the mosquito bites were very minimal, usually during hours we were swimming prior to applying the wipes or after our evening showers when we washed off the repellent.

Then the final morning of our trip, we decided not to use the Natrapel wipes (since we'd just be having breakfast and heading to the airport). Well, when we arrived home, my father's arms looked like they were ravaged by those Costa Rican mosquitoes!

So I guess those wipes worked very well, but only when they're actually used.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Thanks, United for the 5 Upgrades!

Flight #122 - United Airlines 1446
Liberia (LIR) – Newark (EWR)
Friday, December 18, 2015 
Depart: 2:50PM / Arrive: 8:30PM 
Duration: 4hr 40min
Aircraft: Boeing 737 
Seat: 1B, 1E, 1F, 4A and 4B (Business)
Flown: 2,186 miles
Lifetime Miles: 224,098 miles

This is one of the few times I've flown with extended family. We all started on one single reservation with 2 of us having United Gold status (my father and my grandmother) while my mother and I having United Silver status and my aunt with no status whatsoever.

We originally booked this flight a few months ago on a great $266 fare they were having. For a roundtrip from Newark to Liberia that was a steal! So as our Costa Rican adventure came to a close, we starting preparing for our return home.

When we checked in online yesterday, we saw that there were only 5 people booked for Business Class out of a total 16 available seats. So we took our chances and put ourselves on the upgrade list. The seats themselves weren't the great lay-flat ones, but this would get us a free lunch on board instead of paying $9 for a slice of Costa Rican airport pizza.

The downside case would be that we'd have 5 separate reservations now, instead of being all in a single booking. Should there be any flight changes, there's a chance we'd each be rebooked on different flights, but given the weather didn't seem to be bad, we took those odds.

Probably because they had United status on their booking, my parents and my grandmother each cleared the upgrade list shortly after checking in last night. They were going to be sitting up front, but my aunt (no status) and me (United Silver, but not using it on this booking) were still on the Upgrade Waitlist. However, we were #1 and #2, respectively, with still another 5 big seats available. As you can see, we didn't stress out about it.

So this afternoon, we headed over to the airport like usual. When we arrived at the gate, the agent gave us 2 new tickets with our upgrade. Score!

Andaz Papagayo - Diamond Breakfast Benefit

One of the best benefits of Hyatt Diamond status is free breakfast. Not to be accurate, Diamond status members are supposed to get Club Lounge access where they serve complimentary breakfast.

But for hotels that don't have lounges, the restaurant breakfast is offered instead (a much better alternative!) and sometimes even free room service breakfast.

The Andaz breakfast is set up at the Rio Bhongo restaurant as a self-serve buffet with a made-to-order omelette station, though they also offered an a la carte menu as well. The sticker price for the buffet breakfast was $32/person plus the additional 10% service charge and 13% taxes. So definitely not cheap!

But thankfully, my mother landed Hyatt Diamond Status just before our stay. Now the 5 of us on the trip could all enjoy a hearty breakfast each morning, without ever seeing the bill. Here's what the breakfast spread looked like.

The Continental Breakfast Part

Not pictured, but my father's favorite part was the Bread Pudding of the Day. My father loves Bread Pudding.

The Hot Buffet

The hot food options rotated, but they usually had gallo pinto (rice & beans), plus eggs, plus some protein (bacon or sausage) and some vegetable.

And for the healthy guests that didn't want carbs and fats, they also had a great selection of fresh fruits and juices.

Now, since we know not everyone has Hyatt Diamond status or wants to pay $32+ per person for breakfast, the best option seemed to be the $12 Gallo Pinto item off the menu. It looked like a better presented sampling of the exact same items from the hot buffet section, but it would be a much better alternative if you wanted to save money.