Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Costa Rica Surprise Trip

I've been working pretty hard at my Pre-K class these days. So when my father found a great $266 fare to Costa Rica in early December, I told him to jump on it!

Friday morning, my father checked his blogs and saw The Flight Deal had just announced a great United fare for a nonstop flight from Newark to Liberia, Costa Rica.

My father immediately ran to my mother (who gets final sign off for all big decisions in the family) and surprisingly, she agreed!

The downside is that I'll have to miss a week of school, because the special prices were only available before my School Winter Break (between Christmas and New Years).

But that would also mean that we'll be able to get into the hotel of our choice (Andaz Peninsula Papagayo Resort), and it likely wouldn't be overly crowded with pasty New Yorkers.

We also decided to invite my aunt and grandmother to make it an "early Christmas vacation" for the extended Songer family.

However, since we were getting fares for just $266/person round trip, it wasn't as big of a hit to our wallet as a Christmas vacation would have been. Direct flights on 12/26-1/1 were going for $1,300/person, whereas we purchased 5 round trip tickets for $1,330 total!

Combined with the fact that a few months ago we were able to pre-purchase $900 worth of United travel credit for $675 (Amex Offer for $75 off $300 purchases), that meant we were actually getting our nonstop flights for just $221 per person!

Thank you, Flight Deal! Now back to my Pre-K homework assignment.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Maternal Grandmother's Visit

We just booked my maternal grandmother a trip to visit us from Israel for most of November.

This week, Israel's national airline, El Al, announced a Winter sale for travel to/from the United States. Normally, non-stop flights cost anywhere from $1,200-1,400 per person.

However, El Al was offering them for as low as $815. And guess what? United decided to match them!

So we confirmed prices and dates on United.com and then went to Citi Thank You's travel portal to book using our valuable Citi Thank You points. We redeemed 65,148 TY Points from my mother's account at 1.25 cents/pt, saving us $815.

Additionally, it pretty much clears her Citi Thank You account of all her points, so we can close her $95/year Citi TY Premier card next time the annual fee comes up.

But I'm more focused on getting to see my grandmother again. We usually only see each other once a year, so I'm happy I get to see her again. And we can show her an American Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Citi Thank You Indeed

We've been big fans of Citi Thank You points. The combination of (a) being so easy to earn and (b) great redemption opportunities, we've earned and burned hundreds of thousands of Citi TY points over the years.

In particular, we've had special promotions like an additional 2x points on all spend for 6 months or $95 statement credits to offset the annual fee. Then there's the standard bonus categories such as 2x for Restaurants/Entertainment.

With a substantial stash of Citi TY points, we decided to use some for an upcoming long weekend in Florida this coming December.

First, we booked our United flights for 67,488 TY points, which saved us $844 for three round-trip tickets. Second, we booked an Enterprise Rental car for 4 days for just 9,200 TY points, which saved us $115. That's almost $1,000 of savings for a 4 day vacation!

To redeem Citi TY points, you need to book travel directly through their portal. The prices they show are generally the same as what you'd find by going directly to the airline or car rental websites. For example, our United tickets were the same price on Citi's site vs. United.com.

However, the car rental prices were actually cheaper on Citi's Travel site. Here were the prices on Orbitz.com. For the same Enterprise Compact car, they were charging $133 (vs. the $115 price we booked using Citi TY points).

Because we're having so much luck with Citi, we decided to open a new Citi Thank You Prestige card this past week which offers 60,000 TY points and has a reduced $350 annual fee, but with enough perks and benefits where my father will recoup that fee (and then some) easily in the first year.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Small In Flight Mini-Hack

Now that we travel as a family of 3, we usually get seat assignments where we take up the entire row on one side of the aisle.

Our favorite seats are 8A, 8B and 8C which is the second row in Economy. As we've mentioned in the past, we dislike sitting by the bulkhead due to (a) the lack of floor storage space and (b) the trays being in the unmovable arm rests.

So when we settle into row 8, my mother and I usually fight over who gets the window seat, with the loser having to sit by my father in the middle seat. He often takes the aisle seat so he can jump into the aisle and position himself as soon as the seatbelt lights turn off when we land.

With the tight spacing between rows, getting in and out of your seat is always tough, even when you're less than 5'6" like my parents. And it's especially difficult when the tray tables are out and someone has to use the bathroom. Oftentimes, we move the arm rests up to allow us more maneuverability.

However, ever notice that the arm rest by the aisle always seems to be locked in position? Wouldn't it be great if you were able to swivel this arm rest up as well?

Well, my father knows how! Voila! Now sliding out of your seat is that much easier, especially when your tray is down.

The trick is the small button seen here towards the base (bottom) of the arm rest. By pressing that button, the arm rest unlocks and you're able to lift it up. You're welcome.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Royal Peaks Lounge

The Royal Peaks Lounge is the executive club lounge at the Westin Kierland Resort. Located on the 9th floor, it offers some extra space, free wifi and complimentary breakfast and snacks throughout the day.

While many dated reports on Flyertalk talk about the Lounge having strict entrance policies (2 adults complimentary with kids being charged $10 each), the sign in the front states you can bring 2 adults and 3 children per paying guest.

When we first arrived on Saturday around 5PM in the afternoon, we found the lounge completely empty. It was quite spacious, with enough space to comfortably seat 30 people inside, plus another 10 or so on the outdoor patio area.

I immediately ran towards the refrigerator to find me some chilled milk.

Soon, a woman came out of the side room and laid out the food spread of antipasti, cold cuts and cheese.

The next morning, we came back at 7AM for breakfast. We had read about the Pancake Machine and were excited to see what all the fuss was about. Being a 4 year old, I loved pancakes. It was extremely simple to operate. You just pressed the button and within 90 seconds, you'd have 2 pancakes roll out onto your plate.

In the mornings, they also offered deviled eggs, different types of fruits, a basket of pastries (croissants, bagels, toasts, muffins) and cold cuts and cheese. If those items didn't suit us, we could have chosen from three different cereals and other salty snacks.

While not the most amazing breakfast spread we've ever seen (that title belongs to the Park Hyatt in Buenos Aires and the Conrad in Hong Kong), we had more than enough food for breakfast. Plus, knowing it was completely complimentary kept us happy.

So Many Perks!

Now, we've stayed at a lot of hotels during my short 4 years on this earth. However, I can honestly say that the Westin Kierland Resort is quite unique in many ways and truly stands out for being very guest-friendly.

The first thing you notice is that all the staff members really make an effort to remember your name. My father would constantly be addressed as Mr. Songer by anyone he came into contact with more than once and also thanked for being a Starwood Platinum member.

I don't know if it was because he had elite Starwood status, but I think it was actually how they treated all their guests.

Kids Scavenger Hunt
Many hotels are kid-friendly, but this property truly loves its smaller guests. They have so many amenities and activities catered to us children.

From the moment we arrived, kids were given a small "passport" with a page about each location at the resort. The goal was to get a stamp from each place and then trade in the passport full of stamps for pins that we could take home. A great way for kids (and their parents) to visit each part of the resort.

Kids Club
Like many other Westin hotels, the Kierland had a Kids Club. In addition to the activities (daycare) during the daytime ($10/hour per child), they also offered free activities (Storytime or Relay Races by the pool) along with some paid activities (decorating tote bags).

Pajama Party
And every evening from 5:30-9:30PM, they offered Pajama Parties. According to their website:

"The Westin Kids Club Pajama Party is offered 365 days a year for children ages 4 – 12, supervised by the Resort’s award-winning FUN Team. Offered from 5:30 pm – 9:30 pm, this program allows parents to enjoy a dinner date or evening meeting while the kids enjoy FUN activities, arts and crafts, dinner, and a movie! Kids are welcome to come to the Westin Kids Club in their favorite pajamas and slippers or bring them to change into. 

The cost is $50 per child, and reservations are required as space is limited. Simply stop by the Kierland Mining Co. or call 480-624-1202 to make reservations. Parents can enjoy a dinner date in the Resort’s signature restaurant, Deseo and kids receive a Pajama Party for FREE!" for up to 2 children.

Children have to be at least 4 years old, but since I was a just few weeks short of my 4th birthday, they made an exception for me. My parents came back from their romantic dinner date, and I had 3 hours of fun for free!

Texting the Front Desk
Another feature we really used frequently during our 2 day stay was the Texting. In our room, we saw a small card that invited guests to text their service requests via SMS (480-725-3997). Nifty idea for us young folk!

My father tested it out after getting access to our room. Normally, Westin hotels give 2 free bottles of water on a daily basis. We couldn't find any, so my father sent a message to the Front Desk. They responded almost immediately. By the time my father texted back, there was a knock on the door and a man handed him two bottles of Dasani as he caught his breath.

Royal Peaks Lounge
Access to the Club Lounge is a perk given to all SPG Platinums (and holders of the SPG American Express business credit card). At the Westin Kierland, the lounge is located on the 9th floor and allows access to 2 adults and 3 children per guest. We'd visit frequently to have breakfasts and grab some pre-dinner snacks as well as refresh our soft drink supply.

Unwind in Deseo
As a Platinum member, my father is entitled to receive either 500 SPG points, a local gift (waterbottle) or continental breakfast as a welcome amenity. However, since there was an executive lounge serving breakfast each morning, the Westin offered its guests a replacement amenity of vouchers for a free appetizer each night during Unwind (happy hour) at their restaurant, Deseo.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Westin Kierland Resort & Spa

Hotel Details
Hotel: Westin Kierland Resort & Spa
Dates: October 10-12, 2015
Rate Paid: 16,000 SPG points/night
Suite Upgrade: Suite Night Awards
Regular Room Rate: $328/night
Regular Suite Rate: $594/night
Redemption: 3.7 cents/SPG point

Normally, check in for the Westin Kierland is 4PM, but we didn't see why we'd have to waste the entire Saturday to enjoy the amazing amenities at the resort.

So we took an UberX (a nice Audi A4) from the Aloft Phoenix around 9:30AM and arrived at the Westin just before 10AM. The plan was to store our luggage and enjoy the pool until the room was ready.

The doormen staff was amazing as they immediately took our bags from the trunk and had them on the trolley before I even stepped my toddler feet out of the car. I felt like royalty the way the doormen swarmed around to help us. I'm not sure, but I think they even addressed my father by name. How'd they know?

We walked into the impressive lobby area and found the Front Desk area to our left.

At the Front Desk, we were thanked repeatedly for being a Starwood Platinum and informed us they had upgraded us to a Parlor Suite.

Unfortunately, since it was 10AM, they weren't able to give us the room, but said that we could change in the Agave Spa and enjoy the pool while the suite was being turned. Funny how that worked out. They would then text us when the room was available for check-in.

We were given lockers in the Spa and then made our way to the family pool, which just opened at 10AM (there was also an adult only pool). As you can see, people lined up early to get in just as they opened up.

But since it was so early, my mother was able to secure us good seats as there were about 200 seats to choose from. Meanwhile, my father and I jumped into the refreshing water immediately! It was still early, but over 80 degrees with a forecast to hit 90+ by midday.

However, my father had accidentally left the sunscreen we brought in one of the bags we checked with the front desk. So we had to be careful about getting too much sun on our first day in Arizona.

Eventually, as the sun got hotter throughout the morning, my father had to ask a nearby family if he could "borrow" some sunscreen for me. My Israeli mother sort of watched the scene unfold with surprise and amazement. Both that my father would even ask strangers like that and also that they seemed to be genuinely happy to help.

Around 2:30PM, we saw the text message from the Front Desk informing us that we could check into our suite. We were given Room 5030 in the main building (which is exactly where we wanted to be).

There are also full timeshare vacation ownership villas that we could have been upgraded to. These villas are larger (and have full kitchens), but are located further away in a separate section of the resort property (see the 5 story complex at the top of this property photo below).

Room 5030 was quite large, about 850 sq feet consisting of a living room and a bedroom separated by french doors. The living room was nicely appointed with a large couch facing the flat screen TV. They even had a wetbar (really a sink) in case we needed it.

The bedroom had a massive King bed along with its own flat screen TV. They also had a desk and a small loveseat in the bedroom as well. It didn't, however, have any windows. Not sure if that was intentional to keep the room dark in the morning, but we did find the room a bit too dim without the lamps during the day.

There was a full bathroom with a shower and a separate tub in the bedroom. The living room also had a smaller half bathroom in case more than 1 of us needed to use the restroom.

The living room had sliding doors that opened onto a small patio with two chairs. The outdoor space overlooked the front driveway of the resort. 

Overall, we were quite pleased with the suite and really took advantage of the extra space. With a separate room, I was able to sleep in complete darkness for my afternoon nap while my father was able to watch TV and read in the other room.

So far so good, Westin!

And here are more photos of the rest of the expansive hotel property. In no particular order...