Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Mid-Year Check In

We've reached the halfway point in 2015. So far it's been a pretty busy year for the Songer family. In addition to our usual long weekend trips, my father's been balancing a few different clients as well as my mother taking classes to improve her English.

I've been continuing my domination of daycare and preparing for the transition to Pre-School (which seems to be the same thing as far as I can tell).

But June 30th is always a good check in point to see how we're tracking for our annual goals of elite status qualifications for our favorite hotel and airline programs.

Starwood SPG Platinum
Platinum status with Starwood is probably our most useful status. We have had it the past 2 years, and we really get value from our hotel room upgrades, complimentary breakfasts, lounge access and a variety of other perks.

As of today, we're well on our way to hitting the minimum of 25 stays (our Sheraton Brussels Airport stay was our 20th after including the 4 stay credits we get from having Starwood Amex credit cards).

Plus, this July 4th weekend, we'll have another 2 stays bringing our YTD total to 22 stays. So chance are, we'll hit 25 stays before December 31st. However, we're only at 34 nights (soon to be 36 after this weekend). Nevertheless, we only need either 25 stays OR 50 nights to re-qualify for SPG Platinum.

Some Starwood properties we've enjoyed so far in 2015 include:

Westin Disney Swan
Westin Lagunamar Cancun
Sheraton Kansas City
Sheraton Brussels
Of course, hitting 50 nights this year will earn us another 10 Suite Night Awards (SNA) to use for 2016. We actually still have 9 of our SNA's that we earned last year, but having more is always nice just in case we wanted to use them for multiple long stays over the next 12 months.

United MileagePlus Gold
My father has had United Gold status for the past several years, ever since he started flying back and forth to Israel (which gets him almost 11,000 Elite Qualifying Miles round trip).

However, to qualify for Gold, he needs to hit 50,000 EQM. For being a United Gold member, we receive access to Economy+ seating at booking, international airport lounge access, free same-day changes and the occasional flight upgrade, in addition to Priority Check-In at Business Class counters, Priority Baggage treatment, etc.

He can earn up to 5,000 EQM from his Chase United Select credit card each year if he spends $5,000 on United.com, but that's still 45,000 EQM he needs from actual flights each year. So far, after our flight back from Tel Aviv last week, he's at just 24,658 EQM - just short of achieving United Silver status (25,000 EQM). So at the halfway point, it looks like we're at the halfway point to Gold.

Unfortunately, however, it looks like we'll fall short this year as we don't have any long flights coming up in the second half of 2015 as my mother's been adamant about shorter domestic trips within the United States. It also didn't help that we overslept one morning and missed our United flight to Kansas City and had to rebook using United miles (which didn't earn us any elite qualification credit for that trip).

Monday, June 29, 2015

Sheraton Brussels Airport

Hotel Details 
Hotel: Sheraton Brussels Airport  
Dates: June 27-28, 2015 
Rate Paid: $103/night 
Upgrade: Club Room ($155/night)
SPG Points Earned: 791 Points
Chase UR Points Earned: 206 Points

About a week before our intended stay in Brussels, SPG Hot Escapes had a flash sale where they were offering a prepaid rate at this hotel for just $103 USD. By booking in advance, we saved about $15 on a hotel we were going to stay at anyway. We earned 291 SPG points for our stay, another 500 SPG points for the welcome amenity and 206 Chase UR points for paying with our Chase Ink Bold (because our SPG Amex still charged FX fees).

Aside from all the amenities and features of this hotel, we picked the Sheraton because it was literally across the street from the Brussels Airport.

The Sheraton's front entrance was actually outside the exit from Airport Level 3. However, when you come out of the customs/immigration after arrival, you exit on Level 1. Finding the Sheraton from Level 1 (when you're under the overpass) isn't that obvious, as you have to find a small elevator with a Sheraton sign on it, so we'd suggest going up to Level 3 within the airport and then exiting the airport from there.

Since we were in a rush to get to dinner downtown, we were thankful the check-in area had a dedicated line for SPG Platinums and Gold elite members. Without having to mention it, my father was given all his Platinum benefits (including 500 SPG welcome points, free club lounge room upgrade and access, and high-speed wifi). We received our keycards and were up in our room #5028 within minutes.

As you can see, the room was basic, but very clean. The Sheraton Sweet Sleeper bed was as comfortable as expected and we definitely needed a good night's sleep in an air conditioned room after spending 2 weeks at my grandparent's spare pull out sofa bed.

They had a fully stocked mini-bar, which would be great if you were a single traveler, but not ideal if you were a young family who would prefer the empty space for our own things. Nevertheless, we took advantage of the 2 free bottles of water as we took them with us on our way downtown.

And since we were upgraded to the Club room on the 5th floor, we had access to the Club Lounge where they had complimentary drinks, including a beer machine serving chilled Stella Artois.

The Lounge was pretty empty at 8:15PM on a Saturday night, but that made sense since the hot food service was from 6PM-8PM.

It's important to note for airport hotels, that despite being so close to the actual runway (see below for the view from our 5th floor room), we didn't hear any planes at all. They put double glass on the windows so soundproofing was amazing. Combined with the air conditioning and the blackout shades, we had a great night of sleep.

The next morning, we woke up early at 6:30AM to make sure we had plenty of time before our 10AM flight. They always recommend people arrive at Brussels Airport 3 hours before international departures, but we took our chances that arriving 1.5 hours would be enough. After all, we already had our BRU-EWR boarding passes from when we checked in at Tel Aviv the day before.

Of course, if we did want to play it safe and happened to arrive at the gate with extra time, we could have visited the Brussels Airlines lounge in Terminal B. But we preferred to get some extra rest in our private hotel room.

Plus, since we were given complimentary hotel breakfast for being SPG Platinums, we'd rather have real restaurant food at the Sheraton over airport lounge snacks.

So around 8:00AM, we made our way down to Gulliver's Restaurant in the hotel lobby where they were serving a hot breakfast buffet.

And unlike most European hotel breakfasts we've had, this offering was very extensive beyond the typical yogurt, cold cuts and cheese.

If we didn't have the SPG Platinum status to get us comped breakfast, my father would definitely not agreed to pay in cash. Look at these prices! A whopping €26 per person for the American Hot Buffet that we just enjoyed!

Overall, the Sheraton Brussels Airport is an amazingly convenient hotel and we'd definitely recommend staying there for an overnight layover. Between the 791 SPG points (worth about $20), the 206 Chase UR points (worth another $4), plus free breakfast (worth only ~$30 to us, despite what the menu said), our $103 hotel could be considered just $51 of net spend. Pretty great deal!

However, if we had a daytime layover, we would probably have stored our bags at an airport locker and taken the 20 minute train downtown.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Grande Place

After dinner at Chez Leon, we decided to spend the last hour walking around and looking for some Belgian waffles. So we walked down the Petite Rue de Bouchers towards the lighted tower in the distance where we would find the Grande Place.

The Grand Place is actually a plaza (and not a palace). It is the most important tourist destination and most memorable landmark in Brussels

Widely regarded as the "most beautiful plaza in Europe", it is surrounded by amazing guildhalls and two larger edifices - the Town Hall and the Breadhouse building containing the Museum of the City of Brussels.

But don't take my word for it, see for yourself in the following photos.


Since we I was too young to go to the Brussels clubs and bars, I asked my parents if we could have some tasty Belgian Waffles instead. They were more than happy to comply, and we just so happened to pass a place called Gaufre de Bruxelles (which translates into Waffles of Brussels).

So of course, my father goes inside to the waiter and asks the waiter, "Excuse me, do you know somewhere around here we could find a place that sells waffles?"

Mussels at Chez Leon

As we mentioned, we were planning to spend a few hours in Old Brussels to have a late dinner. We decided on Chez Leon, a well known restaurant along the touristy famous Rue de Bouchers.

LCD readers familiar with Little Italy in New York City will understand the scene along Rue de Bouchers - a street full of restaurants all next to one another, with the exact same menus. Employees shouting and flagging down hapless tourists to eat at their establishments. Plastic laminated menus with pictures and multiple languages.

Nevertheless, this tourist area does have 2 well regarded restaurants that supposedly locals frequent - Aux Armes de Bruxelles and Chez Leon. Aux Armes de Bruxelles is one of the oldest restaurants in the city and the go-to place for Belgian classics like moules frites and carbonade flamande (a sweet and sour beer and beef stew), but was also a fancier restaurant that might not be great for 3 year olds.

However, Chez Leon was also highly recommended by many websites. Plus, it was much more of a casual setting and even had a FREE Children's menu. No, you read that correctly. Free!

Any child under 12 years old can get a meal with any paying adult. My choices were baked chicken, spaghetti bolognese or mussels.

So that made it a pretty compelling choice for our family. We walked from the Central Station. Bypassing the tourists walking around and the restaurant waiters saying hello to my father in Chinese, we found our way to Rue de Bouchers. Thank you Google Maps!

We arrived around 9:30PM on Saturday night, so while all the outdoor tables along the street were busy, there were plenty of seats available inside and upstairs. We were seated immediately and handed a big menu with pictures. They had so many different types of mussel dishes, it was really hard to pick just one. We could have been adventurous and tried something unusual, but since we'd only have 1 meal in Belgium, we didn't know if we should risk it.

My father also heard about the Leon Special (€15 for the fries, the mussels and a "house" beer). While that sounded like a great deal, we were skeptical about the quality of the "Moules Leon" and went with the standard White Wine sauce to better taste the mussels.

Apparently, mussels were not in season when we were visiting. However, it didn't mean that our mussels were frozen. It just meant that the mussels served were from another (less popular) region.

According to the NY Times:

"The mussels that the Belgians consume by the ton every day during their September to April mussel season aren't Belgian at all. They are the small, greenish-black mollusks from the waters off the Netherlands, mussels the Belgians insist be ''moules Zelandaises controlees et garanties,'' and they come in by truck and boxcar every day to be cooked and eaten with frites. 

From May through August Belgians generally eat mussels that are shipped from Denmark and Spain, inferior mussels they say, but when there is a national obsession, it must be served."

So while we weren't getting "the best" mussels, we were still happy to be sitting in Belgium on a wonderful summer night.

My mother ordered a Spaghetti Leon (€16) that is basically a seafood spaghetti with a cream sauce.

My father basically recreated the Leon Special a la carte, but with white wine mussels (€26), fries (€4) and a large Leon Beer (€8). To be honest, the fries and beer weren't much to write home about, but the mussels were very tasty, even if they weren't the popular ones from the Netherlands.

I was pretty hungry myself, so my parents ordered me the free spaghetti bolognese. I was able to try my parents' shellfish, but I stuck with the noodles for now. As you can see, I wasn't too happy about having photos of me on the internet eating carbs.

Just not something a girl wants out there.