Saturday, September 26, 2015

Free Night at Club Carlson

So it looks like we need a NYC hotel for a night in late October. As it turns out, NYC has tons of different hotel options, all of which are overpriced both in terms of cash and reward points.

We really don't need a hotel to be that fancy for this one night stay, but also don't want to stay somewhere with drunk degenerate tourists roaming around the hallways either.

Since NYC is apparently quite popular, there are plenty of different chain hotel options where my father can use his award points. Here are the options with our current point balances:

1. Starwood - 139,066 SPG points 
We normally would try to stay at Starwood hotels to maintain SPG Platinum status, but (a) we already reached Platinum for 2016 and (b) the cheapest hotels were 12,000-30,000 SPG points per night.

We probably would have selected the the Westin Grand Central, which ran $426 per night (including taxes/fees). Using points, it was only" 12,000 SPG points and also located very close to the event my parents are attending. However, those SPG points were worth 2.5 cents/pt to my father (so $300) in future hotel redemption value.

2. Hyatt - 100 Hyatt Gold Passport points, but 377,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards
For my parents' anniversary this summer, they stayed at the Andaz 5th Avenue for 20,000 points on a special promotion (normally 25,000 points). Both the Andaz and the Grand Hyatt would be ideally located for their event, but 25k Chase UR point price tags weren't cheap (those points were worth about $500 to my father). And my father sure as heck won't spend $716 in cash for another night at the Andaz (without complimentary breakfast).

3. InterContinental - 165,514 IHG points + Free Award Night
My parents had racked up quite a bit of IHG points over the years, taking advantage of their generous 2013 promotions. Plus, since each of my parents had their own IHG Visa credit card, each one received a Free Night Award for any IHG hotel in the world. After using one of them for my grandmother's stay at the Intercontinental Hong Kong for her 65th birthday trip, we still had one left that wouldn't expire until September 2016, and also over 165k in IHG Points.

If we did want to use these points, we'd opt for the InterContinetal Times Square. It ran about $555 in cash (including taxes), but would have been 50,000 IHG points (which my father would value at $400 or 0.8 cents/pt). Of course, we'd have to deal with getting through Times Square, so not a perfectly ideal location for us.

4. Club Carlson - 23,045 points + Free Night Award
Similar to IHG, we actually received a surprise Free Night Award from US Bank for having their Club Carlson Visa credit card. While not a guaranteed perk, the bank generously offered us the certificate for no real reason, though we suspect it had something to do with downgrading the other award benefits of the card earlier this year. 

23k points, however, isn't enough to stay at the single Club Carlson hotel in Manhattan - the Radisson Martinque in Herald Square/Koreatown - which runs a whopping 70,000 points (which my father values at $560 or 0.8 cents/pt). 

Our Decision
When it came down to our choices, it really was between (1) Starwood in an effort to reach 50 nights this year, which would earn us 10 additional SPG Suite Night Awards or (4) Club Carlson given we were unlikely to find another use for their Free Night coupon.

And since you read the post title "Free Night at Club Carlson," I'm sure you figured out which option we chose.

Whenever we have the choice of using an expiring coupon or points, we always redeem the coupon first. Why? Because the points shouldn't ever expire, though they are susceptible to program devaluations in the long run.

And while the coupon could have been redeemed for any Club Carlson hotel in the world (including the very expensive Mayfair in London), we were actually very limited in redemption options. After all, we only had 1 free night coupon and lacked enough Club Carlson points for a free second night. And my cheap Asian father would never pay those ridiculous cash rates for an expensive luxury city hotel. So how many near-term future 1 night stays did we think we'd have?

Comparing that to the very valuable and versatile SPG points, we'd much rather save 12k points for possibly 2-4 free award nights at lower category hotels, such as the multiple Four Points over Labor Day weekend.

The Booking

So we went online and booked the Radisson Martinique on Broadway. Per the e-coupon's instructions, we just had to enter a code while searching for hotels. As you can see, the rate came out to $0.00 for the night using the code.

Curious to see what we would have had to pay in cash, we looked at the revenue rates. That same night in the same hotel room would have cost $389 under the Advance Purchase (non-refundable) rate after taxes and fees.

Considering that certificate had a high chance of never been used at all, we were pretty happy that it came in handy after all. When we look at the hotel award redemption objectively, it didn't save my family $389, but rather it kept my family from burning 12,000 SPG points.

Which hotel would you have chosen?

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Uber - Capital One Promotion

Earlier this year in April, Uber and Capital One Bank teamed up for a pretty amazing promotion where you would get 20% rebates on your Uber rides if you paid with your Capital One Quicksilver credit card until April 2016.

As you may know, we weren't huge fans of Uber in Manhattan (given the wait time required when so many yellow cabs were immediately available). But we did find UberX very valuable outside the City, especially when going to the airport or in other cities.

However, it wasn't until recently that my father did a "product change" from his Capital One Venture card to a Quicksilver Card. Both cards had no annual fee, but only earned 1.25% and 1.50% rewards, respectively. Given the low rewards rate, these cards spent more time in the proverbial sock drawer than in my father's wallet.

But as NYC taxi ride quality (both car and driver) became more of an issue, we started using UberX - especially when the 20% discount made it most cost effective when compared to taxi fares after tipping. From what my cheap Asian father tells me, Uber drivers work for themselves, so no tipping is required.

Our September Quicksilver statement just closed, so we thought we'd update our readers with the actual results.

20% Promotional Rebate
On September 13, we took a ride to our friends' apartment for dinner. As you can see, those charges posted the following day, and we just received the 20% rebates for those rides this afternoon in the amounts of $1.92 and $2.25.

We also just took a $14.38 Uber ride yesterday and that also posted, but not soon enough to have the 20% rebate post on this statement. I fully anticipate it will show up on next month.

1.5% Quicksilver Reward
In addition to the 20% promotional discount, all spend on the Quicksilver card earns 1.5% in cash rebates that post immediately (the $0.17 reward is shown above, but the $0.14 is cut off from the image).

1 SPG Point per $ (worth 2.5+%)
Plus, my father had linked his Starwood SPG account, so all Uber rides also earned him 1-3 SPG points per dollar spent on Uber. Those rewards posted the day after the ride was taken. If we take an Uber ride on a regular day, we earn 1 SPG point per dollar. If we take Uber on a day where we're staying at a Starwood hotel, then we earn 3 SPG points per dollar. My father values each SPG point at 2.5 cents/pt minimum, even though we often get 3-7 cents of value from our hotel redemptions.

Unclear how much we'll use UberX as we still prefer using MTA subways and buses for most of our transportation, but it's nice to know we can get up to 24+% back!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

That 70's Vacation - Garbage Plates

Years ago, my father's college roommate told him about these "magical" meals called Garbage Plates from his hometown of Rochester, NY.

To put it bluntly, the Rochester garbage plates were the kind of late night diner food that caters to cheap college students, truck drivers and degenerates.

According to Wikipedia, a Garbage Plate is "a combination of two selections of cheeseburger, hamburger, red hots, white hots, Italian sausage, chicken tender, fish (haddock), fried ham, grilled cheese, or eggs; and two sides of either home fries, French fries, baked beans, or macaroni salad. On top of that are the options of mustard and onions, and Nick's proprietary hot sauce, a sauce with spices and slowly simmered ground beef. The dish is served with Italian bread and butter on the side. named the Garbage Plate the fattiest food in the state of New York."

So to order a proper Garbage Plate, you first pick the main protein (i.e., cheeseburger) and two sides (i.e., fries and macaroni salad). Then the plate is covered in "hot sauce" which is similar to ground beef chili meat that you find on a Skyline Chili Dog. You add ketchup and/or buffalo wing sauce and go to town.

My father had been thinking about this "local delicacy" for years, but just never found himself in that part of Upstate Western NY. So it was his plan to drive into Rochester on our way to Niagara Falls on the Friday before Labor Day.

However, as we passed the Rochester area along I-90 West, my father looked in the rear view mirror and saw my mother and me passed out in the back. Not wanting to wake us up just to take us to a random dive restaurant, he kept driving towards Niagara Falls where we'd spend Friday night. Instead, he planned to stop by on the drive back home to NYC on Monday.

Unfortunately, he forgot that Monday was Labor Day and many businesses would be closed for the holiday. Plus, given the type of restaurants that serve Garbage Plates, they didn't exactly have real time updates on their company websites.

He would have called, but (a) we were in Canada so phone calls would be expensive and (b) the hotel had horrible in-room wifi, so Skype was out out well. So then he took to Twitter.

After finding the Twitter handles, he first tweeted to the original Garbage Plate restaurant, Nick Tahou's. Unfortunately, they were closed for Labor Day.

Then he tried Dogtown. Also closed.

But on the third try, he found Steve T's Hots. Apparently, Steve T was the 2nd location of Nick Tahou's but after a family dispute, they separated. Of course, there's nothing proprietary about fast food meat with fries and sauce, so they had as authentic a garbage plate as anywhere else.

Not only was Steve T active online and social media, but they were open 24/7 including Labor Day!

So my father's dream was preserved and we had an ambitious (if not dangerous) plan to have a 10AM breakfast at Steve T Hots (2260 Lyell Ave, Rochester, NY 14606) and hope that it didn't have ramifications on his stomach for the 6 hour drive back to Manhattan.

We left Niagara Falls around 9AM and made it to Rochester in just under an hour. Located on a relatively commercial street, Steve T was a standalone building on the corner with a small parking lot upfront. It was pretty much as we'd expected.

We were one of three other cars, and we walked in knowing exactly what we wanted to order. My father would have a garbage plate, while my mother wanted a regular egg sandwich and a hot dog for little old me.

It was staffed by just one man who took your order, grilled up your food and operated the register. My father correctly suspected they weren't going to take credit cards, so he came prepared with cash. The menu seemed large, but it was all just different versions of a Garbage Plate.

My father (almost drooling) placed his order, trying his hardest to sound like a local and not a fanboy who dreamt about this meal for 15 years: "Give me a cheeseburger plate with mac salad and fries, extra everything."

Made to order, the food came out in about 10 minutes and my father did his best to maintain composure while he took a photo before devouring his long-awaited feast.

As my mother says, my father has never looked so happy.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

That 70's Vacation - Niagara-On-The-Lake

A lesser known "secret" destination near Niagara Falls is called Niagara-On-The-Lake (NOTL), a charming little town 30 minutes north of the Falls surrounded by vineyards.

Of course, with my father driving, getting anywhere can be quite an adventure.

Since we had a car, we decided to drive up to NOTL. It seemed simple enough - just drive north on Stanley Avenue until we reached Route 405 where we'd head towards the US bridge, then turn north along the river.

Well, we were fine on Stanley Avenue, but then as we approached Route 405, my father mis-read the GPS map and actually go ONTO the highway, instead of the small access road alongside it. Look closely as the map below.

As a result, we ended up on a one way (no exit) highway towards the Queenston Lewiston Bridge - the one BACK TO AMERICA. Normally, it wouldn't have been a big deal, but we left our passports at our hotel!

Even though we made a U-Turn before actually getting onto the bridge (staying on Canadian soil), we still had to go back through Canadian Immigration.

Apologizing profusely, my father explained to the Immigration officer that we had gotten onto the 405 on our way to NOTL. "Didn't you see the signs?" he asked my pathetic father.

"No, I was just following our GPS."

After rolling his eyes, he took our driver's licenses and punched a few things into his computer. It must have checked out as we were permitted back into Canada.

Eventually, we found the small access road and then made it to NOTL with just 20 minutes before our 12:30PM lunch reservation at Treadwell Farm to Table Restaurant. As we drove along the main road entering the downtown area, we noticed how colorfully decorated the street was with beautiful floral arrangements.

As we struggled to find street parking, my father told my mother and me to head to the restaurant as he would continue to search for parking. My mother was given the street address (114 Queen Street), and we separated from my father. Normally, this divide and conquer plan wouldn't have been an issue, except that we were without our cell phone data plans to access the internet or our GPS maps.

My father eventually found parking down by the Lake. He then walked back past the NOTL park, towards Queen Street where all the shops and cafes were located. He hustled past tourists and eventually found a sign for Treadwell.

Fortunately, he arrived in time to keep our lunch reservation. Unfortunately, he had beaten my mother and me there. We were nowhere to be found! While my father took his seat, he started to worry if my mother would find the restaurant without the help of her iPhone data plan.

Of course, my mother and I eventually showed up, and were able to enjoy the best meal we had on our trip and definitely the best service we've possibly ever had.

The brunch menu was so amazing. For an appetizer, my parents and I enjoyed a charcuterie plate with local cured meats, fresh greens and crispy pork skins.

My parents ordered me the Smoked Bacon Pancake, which my mother agreed was one of the most delicious things we've ever had.

My father had an East Coast Lobster “Club” on Duck Fat Fried Bread.

My mother enjoyed her Crispy Skin North Atlantic Mackerel Filet with Fingerling Potato Salad.

But the best part (for me anyway), was our amazing server who was so professionally trained. First, she brought me some crayons and coloring books as she took our opening drink order. A nice touch, but nothing out of the ordinary in my limited experience. But after our entrees were cleared, she then offered me a trip to the kitchen where I could meet the dessert chefs and receive a complimentary scoop of sorbet! I told my father to tip her very well.

That 70's Vacation - Queen Charlotte Tea Room

As far as restaurants go, much of the area around Niagara Falls is catered to American tourists - Outback Steakhouse, Hooters, Applebee's, Denny's...

We did find a rather unique place to have mid-afternoon tea at Queen Charlotte Team Room located a few miles away from the tourist section.

Fortunately, my father did research in advance on TripAdvisor and knew to make a reservation for a 2PM High Tea on Saturday afternoon.

Unfortunately, we forgot where the restaurant was located as we turned off our cell phone data plans since we were roaming in Canada. Additionally, we didn't have a strong enough wifi signal in our hotel room at the Radisson to look it up before we left for the day.

We knew the street address was 5689 Main St and we knew where Main Street was, but we didn't know exactly where 5689 was.

However, as you can see, Main Street is pretty long, stretching all the way from our hotel out into the further reaches of the town. It could have been a 10 minute walk or a 45 minute walk for all we knew.

We had just come from seeing the great Niagara Falls at Table Rock Center and were taking the WeGo Red bus line back towards the commercial area up the hill.

Unfortunately, he got confused and told us to get off at a much earlier stop than we wanted. As a result, we had to walk a long way on a hot 90 degree afternoon, plus we didn't know exactly where on Main Street we were going. Nevertheless, my stubborn father pushed forward, offering an insincere apology to my mother and me as we drudged along the sidewalk.

But once he had to carry a tired (yet adorable) toddler in his arms, he conceded that we couldn't walk without clear directions. So he turned on our cell phone data, realized how far we were and hailed a taxi. We just barely made it for our 2PM reservation.

By the time we entered the small restaurant, we were drenched in our own body sweat and walked right into one of the two dining rooms where other couples and families were enjoying their lunch. They all paused their meal to look at us walk in. Unfortunately, there was no air conditioning in the establishment, only some rotating fans. My father did his best to freshen up in the restroom, but he was literally dripping through his shirt.

Eventually, we were seated since we had existing reservations though several other patrons were turned away as they were fully booked that afternoon. The small table by the window was reserved for us and we took our seats, admiring the quaint little table setting.

For High Tea, we were given two orders of scones with clotted cream and some finger sandwiches.

I enjoyed the ceremony of applying the clotted cream with preserves.

Then we had some Scottish Caramel tea. I was a big fan.

But what made my day was the platter of desserts that came out at the end. We had an assortment of cupcakes and regular cakes for us to sample.

It was way too much sugar for a young child to have, but since we were on vacation, my parents let me go to town.