Saturday, May 30, 2015

Citi American Airlines Mastercard Retention

My father was reviewing our credit card spreadsheet when he saw that my mother's $95 annual fee was going to come due in June for her Citi American Airlines Mastercard.

They applied for the card mid-May 2014 and quickly spent $3,000 in the first month to receive the 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles. These miles were ultimately used to give my grandmother a first class flight to Korea on Japan Airlines.

For the first year of the card, the $95 annual fee was waived. But now we were going to have to pay the fee just to have the card another 12 months.

As any cheap good spouse would do, he called into Citi to let them know that they didn't "plan the use the card enough for the next year to pay the annual fee." The representative then asked, "So you'd like to cancel because of the annual fee?" which my father knew was the magic confirmation she needed to transfer them to a Retention Specialist.

We were immediately reminded about the American Airline card benefits (10% mileage rebates on AA award redemptions, priority boarding, etc.). But when we stuck to our guns, she said she would like to retain us and gave us an offer to do so.

We were told that if we spent $95 in eligible purchases, then we would receive a $95 statement credit. This meant that we'd get a free $95 to spend - which coincidentally is the same exact amount as the annual fee. I suppose there's some legal rationale why they do it this way (vs. just waiving the annual fee directly), but it ends up almost the same to my parents. More on that later.

Then my father pushed the envelope and said, "this offer is very generous and makes me want to keep the card another year, but are there any promotions that would actually encourage me to use it more often? Other cards are offering a lot of bonus spend categories (2x-5x)."

She said there was another mutually exclusive offer instead of the $95 statement credit. This other offer was 7,500 extra American Airline miles if we spent $1,000 in the next three months. If you value the AA miles at about 2 cents/pt, then that would be $150 for the bonus 7,500 miles (plus the $20 for the 1,000 miles on the actual spend).

While those values seemed to be worth more than the $95 annual fee, we decided to stick with the original offer as we prioritize cash in hand over padding our already large piles of AA miles.

So we took the first offer and will wait a few days for the promotion to be activated on our account. Then after the statement credit hits, I suppose we can still have time decide if we want to pay the annual fee or not...

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Starwood Hopping - Part 3 - Westin Crown Center

Hotel Details
Hotel: Westin Crown Center
Dates: May 25-26, 2015
Rate Paid: 3,500 points + $66 /night 
Regular Cost: $199 per night 
Redemption: 3.8 cents/SPG point
Upgrade: Garden Suite ($363)

Since my father needs either (a) 50 nights or (b) 25 stays to re-qualify for Starwood Platinum status for 2016, we kept booking different one-night stays around Kansas City. Either way, it would be 3 nights, but this way, we'd get 3 stays instead of just 1.

Luckily, my mother wasn't the type to get fussed about living out of our suitcase and packing up each day. Of course, getting club lounge access (free snacks and drinks) and late 4PM checkouts don't hurt. But the real benefit of earning (and using) Starwood Platinum status is the high chance of a room upgrade to a suite. And since we were often staying just a single night, there were more chances of an empty suite being available for our "entire stay."

This time around, we checked into the Westin Crown Center which received some quite harsh reviews on Flyertalk, including these:
"Stayed Saturday Night Feb 19. Property in need of renovations. Club Lounge really poor. Service low, food low, smelled bad. Hotel room got so hot thought I was in a Sauna. Controls did not work, called guest services, response was no air in winter. Maint was dispatched to room. Fixed, cool air came on, then stopped. Fixed again by making sure heat would not come on again. Room freezing two hours later, no heat to offset... " - MinnFlyBoy, February 2011
"Just stayed at both properties. The Sheraton Crown Center is far superior in every way. I got a suite upgrade at the westin as a plat and just a club room at the sheraton, but it is far superior. The westin is a dump. The club lounge is terrible. The Sheraton club lounge is exceptional in every way. Great service, amazing view and decent snacks in the evening." - Superdrew, September 2014
Of course, my family just spent a night at the Sheraton Crown Center two days prior and we thought it was pretty good (4.5 stars for its price range). However, we did want to see what the Westin had to offer since my parents prefer Westin over Sheraton in general.

Spoiler Alert - we loved the Westin and would pick this property over the others should we return to Kansas City.

1. First, the lounge was quite stunning - spacious and well appointed with enough seats for a full wedding party. Plus the check in process was very easy. They had a dedicated SPG Elite line but we were the only ones there, so no need to wait at all. It didn't hurt that the Front Desk agent, Darren, recognized we could use a bit of extra space and found us a great room upgrade.

2. We went from a standard room (450 sf) to a Garden Suite (1500 sf). My family was given Rooms #1617 and 1618. As described by another reviewer, this Garden Suite is a large entertaining room (1618) with enough space to hold 25-30 people (including a wet bar), connected to a large bedroom (1617) with its own small juliette balcony. If we needed a second bedroom, there was another connecting door on the other end of the living room that opened into Room 1619 (a double bed room).

3. The views were stunning. We had full length and floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked the World War I Museum.

4. They had a heated outdoor pool. Though to be fair, the pool area felt very Eastern European concrete and was clearly made for adults taller than 5' because it got pretty deep (7 feet) pretty quick after you walk down the stairs. Nevertheless, my father and I had some good quality Daddy-Daughter time swimming on Memorial Day afternoon before our dinner at Q39.

5. The Westin was connected by the Link (aerial walkways) to the Sheraton, the Crown Center shopping mall and Union Station. So you could walk through these glass walkways, above the traffic, and stay in dry, air conditioned comfort.

6. A well stocked Club Lounge. They had plenty of coffee and snack foods for my mother and me. My father had some beer/wine options (though there was a charge for alcoholic drinks). But most importantly, they had some pretty delicious coconut shrimp at 5:30PM for their evening hors d'oeuvres.

In the mornings, they had hot options including scrambled eggs and fried potatoes. And it was 100% empty!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Q39 Barbecue

So far in two days, we had two delicious but distinct types of BBQ meals.

1. First, we ate at a gas station called Joe's KC Barbecue.

2. The next stop was at a more formal, "white table cloth" dining establishment called Jack Stack.

3. The third and final restaurant on our impromptu tour would be an edgy, modern venue, where a hipster from Brooklyn could feel at home reading Yelp! reviews and drinking craft beers he's never heard of. It was called Q39.

Located on West 39th Street (about halfway between Country Club Plaza and Crown Center), we found Q39 at the end of a strip mall next to a nail salon. What it lacked in neighborhood, it definitely made up for in interior decor.

When you walked in, you felt like you were at a cool new bar/restaurant made for a younger crowd. My father, however, said it felt like he was in a Buffalo Wild Wings, but that wasn't a criticism. It was relaxed, clean, plenty of big screen TVs showing ESPN and had great food. What more could a guy ask for?

When we arrived at 6:45PM on Memorial Day Monday, there was a bit of a crowd gathered just inside the door. Fortunately, my father was able to make advance reservations online.

While Q39 didn't offer reservations on the well known OpenTable, they did offer them on Yelp!'s Seat Me (see bottom right corner in the screenshot photo).

Making reservations were simple, though you clearly had to have a Yelp! account to use it. We even received text messages earlier in the day to remind/confirm our seating - instead of having someone from the restaurant surprise call you from a random number you probably don't have in your phone. For those of you who prefer to never speak to an actual human being, this Yelp! Seat Me was a perfect solution.

We were seated right away in the very spacious dining room.

Off in the corner, you could see a Trophy Wall where they have all the awards their food must have won. At least we thought they were for their barbecue. For all we know, it could have been a bunch of bowling trophies from the local high school.

We were given some adult menus and a kid's menu for me. Similar to Jack Stack, the menu was more complete and had a lot of very interesting items besides barbecue.

But while some pretzel bread with cheddar dipping sauce could hold a 3.5 year over, we didn't come for anything besides their award winning barbecue. Given my father's penchant for over-ordering when traveling (he says he "wants to try everything in case he'll never come back"), can you guess what he ordered?

Yes, you guessed correctly. My indulgent epicurean father went with the "Judge's Plate" of 3 meats. he chose the spare ribs, brisket and pulled pork. It came with a side of cole slaw and a choice of baked beans or french fries.

Given this was such a hipster/millennial type of restaurant, my parents pulled out their smart phones and started photographing their food in super close range.

Remember, if you don't post about it immediately, then it never happened and you were never there.

Starwood Hopping - Part 2 - Sheraton Suites Country Club Plaza

Hotel Details
Hotel: Sheraton Suites Country Club Plaza
Dates: May 24-25, 2015
Rate Paid: $157/night 
Upgrade: Club Room ($190/night)
SPG Points Earned: 1,216 Points

This hotel was getting some pretty mixed reviews on Flyertalk. While they commented on the high level of customer service, they also mentioned how the property itself was in need of some renovations.

However, we did want to (a) get another Starwood stay credit by switching hotels and (b) check out the Country Club part of Kansas City, so we thought it was a good opportunity to stay a night here.

The hotel did offer points availability, but 7,000 SPG points were worth at least $175 in value, so we opted to pay with cash instead of redeeming sub-optimally at 2.2 cents/point.

We arrived around 4PM on Sunday afternoon and decided to park in the garage across 47th Street where they had free parking for Plaza shoppers. To park in the Sheraton garage would have been another $15/night. Of course, you're not supposed to keep your car in the shopping garage overnight, but we took our chances.

Unfortunately, our room wasn't yet ready, so we just said we'd come back after our BBQ dinner at Jack Stack in the Plaza. When we returned around 730PM, we were given our keys and head up to our room.

We were upgraded to a Club level room (which gave us access to the Club Lounge - free refreshments and breakfasts, plus 2 servings of beer or wine during their evening happy hour). We'd never pay the $20-30 Club room premium for a few drinks, but we did appreciate the free upgrade.

The reviewers on FlyerTalk were pretty spot on about the hotel having seen better days. Sheraton properties in general tend to underwhelm my family, especially the ones in the United States. Their glory days were likely in the 1970's and are not that competitive with the newer brands such W or Andaz or the higher end brands like Westin or Hyatt. Nevertheless, all the rooms at this property were suites, so we'd enjoy some extra space at the very least.

The layout was exactly the same as the Sheraton Suites in Elk Grove Village in the Chicago suburbs. There was a nicely sized living room area where we could watch television and re-live my father's studio apartment days eating dinner off of a coffee table. Then they had some double doors separating the bedroom with a Sheraton Sweet Sleeper bed.

In addition, we had a small station with a microwave, coffee maker and empty mini fridge where we could keep our own items. Very convenient, especially for families! The bathroom was clean, though not perfectly so. My mother found a stray hair, but since we're not fussy guests, we just washed it down the drain and didn't think twice. After all, we're not naive enough to think we're the first guests in this room.

But we didn't come all the way here to stay in our room. First, we had the Country Club Plaza just outside our doors. Second, the Sheraton had a Club Lounge and indoor swimming pool. Unfortunately, we didn't make to the pool, but we did frequent the lounge a few times during our short stay.

The hotel offered a nice happy hour in the Club Lounge until 8PM where each adult guest could have 2 complimentary glasses of wine or beer. So my parents and I went up to see how full the lounge would be. Turns out, we were the only ones there. I guess everyone was out that evening.

The next morning, we came back to the lounge because they offered free continental breakfast. The spread wasn't as nice as the one the prior morning at the other Sheraton in Crown Center, but my father says you cannot look a gift horse in the mouth. I'm not sure I understand the imagery, but I get the idea.

They offered fruit, pastries, cereals and bagels. I went for some Fruit Loops while my father had some toast and fruit.

The meager offering however didn't keep away the hungry guests. It seems like the Sheraton guests were more early risers than night owls.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Jack Stack BBQ

Our first taste of Kansas City BBQ was at Joe's (which also functions as a gas station). Our next stop on the BBQ trip was at the other end of the spectrum, Fiorella's Jack Stack Barbecue.

Known as Jack Stack, the restaurant was definitely higher-end, full-service as opposed to Joe's casual lunch tray format. There are multiple locations around Kansas City, but we visited the one in Country Club Plaza (4747 Wyandotte St).

My father tried to make reservations in advance, but Jack Stack doesn't take reservations for parties less than 8. They operated on a "first come, first serve" basis, so we arrived on Sunday afternoon around 5PM and took our chances. Fortunately we found parking in the garage next door. Unfortunately, the place was packed with a bunch of people waiting outside!

My father put our names on the list. They gave us a buzzer and told us it would be about an hour. No problem. We asked if we could leave our cell phone number with them and walk around the Country Club Plaza shops. They said they'd be happy to text us as we got closer, so we head out to explore some of the shops in the plaza.

Around 5:45PM, we received our text asking us to come back to the hostess table. So we did, then ended up having a drink at the bar, waiting another 15 minutes or so. Shortly after 6PM, we were seated in the main dining room which reminded us of a formal steakhouse. However, they did have a kid's menu, booster seats and crayons available for us toddlers.

The menu (click here) was more of a restaurant that had delicious barbecue rather than a BBQ joint. There were plenty of appetizers and sides to go along with the hefty portions of meat and sandwiches. For our starter, we ordered the Barbecue Shrimp.

But as we were evaluating our choices for entrees, we couldn't help but gravitate towards their Signature BBQ Items.

My father and mother decided to share an order of the "Jack's Best" which was a combo platter of a Crown Prime Beef Rib, Pork Baby Back Ribs and Beef Burnt Ends. What's a "Burnt End" you ask?

According to Wikipedia, burnt ends are flavorful pieces of meat cut from the point half of a smoked brisket. A traditional part of Kansas City barbecue, burnt ends are considered a delicacy in barbecue cooking. Either the entire brisket is cooked whole, then the point end removed and cooked further, or the point and flat are separated prior to cooking.
Due to the higher fat content of the brisket point, it takes longer to fully cook to tender and render out fat and collagen. This longer cooking gave rise to the name "burnt ends". Sometimes when the flat is done, the point is returned to the smoker for further cooking. Some cooks re-season the point at this time.
Kansas City style burnt ends are usually served cubed with sauce either on top or on the side. A "proper" burnt end should display a modest amount of "bark" or char on at least one side. Burnt ends can be served alone (sometimes smothered in barbecue sauce) or in sandwiches, as well as in a variety of other dishes, including baked beans and gumbo."
Compared to the prices our family was used to paying at Hill Country in New York City, Jack Stack was a great value. The volume and quality of food you received in KC was so much better! In addition to the heftier portions (more meat on the bones), the flavor of their BBQ sauce really made this barbecue pop. In fact, we now prefer KC style barbecue over Texas style.

When the food came out, we all realized that my parents chose very wisely, because the portions were both massive and delicious. More than enough for two adults...

...though my father did make an effort to finish it all himself.