Tim Foolery

Starwood Preferred Guest Platinum Benefit Selection

As 2018 begins, I take stock of my various point and loyalty programs and realized, I just barely squeaked by, keeping Platinum Status with Starwood Preferred Guest – earning exactly 50 nights this year (with 24 stays).  With the recent merger of Starwood and Marriott hotel chains and the upcoming merger of their loyalty programs, I’m concerned that the new SPG Program will not be as lucrative – it will be more akin to the Marriott Rewards Program.  Friends who stay a ton with Marriott talk about never getting proper room upgrades or any other material benefits for their Platinum Status – which is why, I will likely stop chasing Platinum Status once the two programs fully merge – although the exact timing of that change hasn’t been announced yet.

That being said, I do find value in Platinum status with SPG.  No only do you get an additional point per dollar spent on SPG stays (compared to Gold Status), I find that when traveling outside the US, I will often get a nice room upgrade.  I almost never get a room/suite upgrade in the US though.  When you earn Platinum status by staying 50 nights (vs 25 stays) you get to select a special Platinum Benefit.  Historically, you’d just be gifted 10 Suite Night Upgrades (basically, an upgrade instrument that when used on an existing reservation, would increase your likelihood of getting a swanky Suite), but a couple years ago, SPG started to give you a choice between several options, including some Uber Credits (not worth it), gifting Gold Status to a friend (depending on the friend, it could be worth it) or donating to Charity.

This year the choices have changed a bit and include: One Free Hotel Night (Category 1-5); Five Elite Qualifying Nights (for current year!?); 10 Suite Night Awards; 40% Off Hotel Bed; Gift of Gold Status; Donation to UNICEF.

While I will never say I have enough hotel points, I’ve got plenty, and I figured choosing the Free Hotel Night wouldn’t work out properly for me – I’d either forget about it, or if I did remember it, I’d end up frustrated because the hotel I wanted to stay at wouldn’t accept the free night (nothing firm to base this on, other than my cynicism).

The Five Elite Qualifying Nights sounded intriguing at first, then I realized they were only for the 2017 qualification year and not for 2018.  This would ONLY be helpful if you were within five nights of the next status level – earned at 75 Nights.  I’m far from that threshold so this makes no sense for me know.

40% Off Hotel Bed – well, we already have a Westin Heavenly Bed – and I’m not really digging it.  This could be a good benefit for you, if you were looking to get a new bed.  This really isn’t helpful for me now.

Gifting Gold Status to a friend.  Years ago, United use to allow you to gift Silver status to friends and I got a lot of benefit out of this.  The friends I’d gift this to just loved it.  Gold Status with SPG could be good for a friend, but you only need to have 10 stays or 25 nights – which isn’t all that hard to get.  Plus, if you have Status with United, you can get some Status with Marriott (RewardsPlus crossover program), which will transfer directly to SPG.  If you have the American Express Platinum Card you also are granted Gold Status.  This benefit doesn’t really do anything for me now.

Finally, the UNICEF Donation…don’t get me wrong, I’m all about UNICEF, but I’m also selfish and want something for ME after staying so many nights at Starwood Properties.

That leaves me with just one choice – the 10 Suite Night Awards.  I’ve stayed in some amazing suite in Europe and Asia with these Awards and I want to continue that trend.  I don’t ever NEED a suite, especially when I’m traveling around Europe or Asia because we aren’t often in the room, but it is nice to spread out a little bit and not be as crowded.  As has been the case for several years now, I’m choosing these Suite Awards and hoping that my luck continues during my upcoming travels.

What would you choose?  Do you get many upgrades in the US or are you usually racking up the suite stays in Europe too?  What’s the favorite SPG Suite you’ve stayed in?

Travel: 2017 Year in Review

Last night we closed out 2017 and as is a tradition for me, I like to provide a Travel Year In Review.  I spent my New Years Eve in Denver celebrating the marriage of two dear friends.  That means I’m starting my mileage earning for 2018 on day one of the year.

I mentioned this last year that the difference between coach and first class is getting more and more narrow and I continued to see that in 2017.  Sometimes, First is even less than economy, depending on the route and how close to departure you are booking. Since booking in First Class gets you double qualifying miles, I was able to keep my Premier Platinum status with United.  Here’s how my year ended up – with the previous four years included as a comparison.

By the Numbers: (2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013)

Total Miles Flown: 81,978 | 68,278 | 72,293 | 53,322 | 73,825
Total Segments Flown: 55 | 45 | 41 | 37 | 44
Cabin Segment Breakdown (F/B/C): 21/3/31 | 8/5/32 | 2/5/34 | 0/5/32 | 7/4/33
Total Airlines Flown (new airlines bolded):  8 (United, EVA, Thai, KBZ, Myanmar Air, Azul, Air Canada, American) | 5 | 4 | 7
Total Hotel Nights: 84 | 69 | 67 | 56 | 71
Total Hotel Stays: 35 | 35 | 47 | 32 | 31
Total Airlines Miles Redeemed: 85,000 | 0 | 155,000 | 37,500 | 105,000
Total Hotel Points Redeemed: 12,000 | 106,000 | 283,500 | 134,000 | 13,400
Countries Visited (new Countries bolded): 3+3 (Myanmar, Thailand, France, Brazil, Canada, Bahamas) 3+2 | 6+1 | 8+1
Longest Single Segment:  ORD-TPE @ 7,457 | ORD-CDG @ 4,153 | ORD-HKG @ 7,787 | MUC-ORD @ 4,535 | ORD-PVG @ 7,056
Shortest Single Segment: GIG-GRU @ 210 | CUZ-AQP @ 195 | CVG-ORD @ 264| YUL-YQB @ 145
Northernmost Airport: CDG (Paris) | CDG (Paris) | LHR (Heathrow) | ARN (Stockholm) | LHR (Heathrow)
Southernmost Airport: BKK (Bangkok) | LPB (La Paz) | HKG (Hong Kong) | MCO (Orlando) | SGN (Ho Chi Minh City)
The most frequent non-home airport: DEN (Denver)| Tie between EWR & LAX (Newark and Los Angeles) | BNA (Nashville) | YYZ (Toronto) | BNA (Nashville)

I flew enough miles to:
Circumnavigate the world: 3.2 | 2.3 times | 2.9 times | 2.0 times
Make it a third | a quarter | a third | a fifth of the way to the moon

My 2017 Destinations. Where did you go?

How did your 2017 Year in Travel turn out?  Did you keep your status – upgrade your status?  Were you able to check off one – or more – of your travel bucket list items this year?  What is in store for 2018?  Do you plan on taking that one big trip you’ve been talking about, or are going to take many smaller trips to visit friends and family?  If you want my advice, it doesn’t matter where you go, just go. Enjoy the journey. Experience the destination. Share a drink, a meal and a laugh.

Beast – Finer Dining in Portland

After a long Thanksgiving week with the extended family I needed a bit of a break.  My final night in Portland for the Thanksgiving holiday, I was fortunate enough to have dinner with a friend – which allowed us lots of time to tell Thanksgiving tales of crazy.  It was quite cathartic.

My friend offered three suggestions for our Sunday dinner, of which I selected Beast.  Beast is often billed as a “Meat-centric” or a “Meat-Heavy” restaurant in Portland’s trendy Alberta Arts District.  I was excited to try this restaurant, but sure didn’t want five courses of meat, luckily the menu was much more balanced.

When I told locals (bar tender, Uber driver, hotel concierge) I was going to Beast, every single person asked when I made the reservation, then they were totally shocked when I said I booked it on Friday morning (for a Sunday meal).  Evidently, reservations are very hard to come by.  I’m assuming that the Sunday after Thanksgiving wouldn’t be a busy day considering all the gluttony that had taken place over the past four days.  On Sundays there is one seating – 19h00, while Wednesday through Saturday offers two seatings 18h00 and 20h45.  Beast is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

The restaurant was quite dark, which is why my photos are less than stellar – I couldn’t bring myself to use the flash.

The Dining Room at Beast

Two communal dining tables offer seating for guests.  There was seating for about 20 people, but during our meal, we only had about 10 other people dining with us.  The fixed price six-course menu was $125 per person, plus $50 per person optional wine pairings – which of course we did add on the wine pairings.

We had a nice view of the kitchen and staging area, but honestly, we didn’t pay much attention to what was going on in the kitchen, we spent most of our time catching up.

View from my seat into the Kitchen.

The food was coursed out evenly and with little fanfare.  Each course was delivered, along with the appropriate wine pairing, and the server provided a high level description of both the food and the wine.  The descriptions were pretty bare bones, but again, our focus on this dinner was a good meal and to catch up with an old friend – we weren’t looking for the full details and all the nitty gritty of the meal.

Amuse Bouche – Serrano Ham

Oregon Manila Clam Chawanmushi White Sturgeon Caviar, Shiso Creme Fraiche, Grilled Matsutake, Scallion Salad.
Paired with 2015 Weingut Knoll Grüner Veltliner Federspiel (Wachau, Austria)

Whole Wheat Tajarin, Duck & Fennel Ragu, Braised Radicchio, Parmesan Fonduta, Parsley.
Paired with 2016 Teutonic Wine Company Pinot Meunier “Borgo Pass” Vineyard (Willamette Valley, Oregon).

25 Day Dry-Aged Oregon Beef Tenderloin, Mustard-Creamed Cabbage, Chanterelles, Horseradish Sauce Verge, Huckleberry Sauce Cumberland. Paired with 2006 Chateau Clos l’Eglise Cotes de Castillon (Bordeaux, France)

Shaved Autumn Carrot & Radish Salad, Marinated Beets, Tonnato Sauce, Ruby Steak Mustard Greens, Bottarga.
Paired with 2016 Chateau Henri Bonnaud “Terre Promise” Rose (Cotes de Provence, France).

Fior Di Langa Robiola Cheese, Kambocha Squash Puree, Oregon Hazelnuts, Cippolini Onion Aigre-Doux, Mache, Black Garlic Crisps.
Paired with 2015 Goodfellow Family Cellars Pinot Gris “Clover” (Willamette Valley, Oregon).

Chocolate-Chestnut Pave, Espresso Ice Cream, Port Poached Pear, Brown Butter-Cocoa Nib Crumble. Paired with Cesar Florido Moscatel Especial NV (Chipiona, Spain).

The meal progressed at a leisurely pace, but never once did we feel rushed nor did we stop to ask ourselves what was taking so long.  It was really perfectly paced.  The single items that I liked the least, was the espresso ice cream and that is only because I really don’t like the flavor of espresso or coffee.  Everything else was really wonderful.  The duck ragu was my favorite course followed closely by the beef tenderloin.

Full Menu for Post Thanksgiving Sunday Dinner.

Another interesting part about Beast – gratuity is already included in the price.  I’m not sure how I feel about that.  In Europe, it is common not to tip.  We were taken aback when there wasn’t a tip option on the receipt either, and after a quick Google Search we found that tip was included (when my friend saw the receipt she had a vague recollection that gratuity was included).  Once the checks were delivered, the staff was redirected into cleaning up and closing shop – so we couldn’t really snag anyone to confirm the gratuity situation.

Portland is a tough city for me.  I don’t spend much time there and when I do, I have many obligations, including friends, co-workers and family.  There are so many great restaurants in Portland there are too few meals in the day to eat at every I want to try.  That being said, I would definitely return to Beast.

Have you eaten here?  Did you think it was a meat-centric menu? What other recommendations do you have for Portland dining?

River Street Inn: Where Service Goes to Die

We recently took a trip to Savannah. We were visiting this city with my brother-in-law and his wife.  We knew we wouldn’t be spending a ton of time in the hotel, so we didn’t want to spend a ton of cash on the room, but we all do have exacting standards.  After several days of discussions we decided to stay at the River Street Inn. This property was rated pretty well on TripAdvisor, although many of the recent reviews mentioned some service issues, plus a feeling of dampness (bad A/C?) during summer stays.

We didn’t argue about the hotel at all, but my sister-in-law was more interested in staying at the Mansion on Forsyth, which cost more than $100 more per night than the River Street Inn.  We decided to save the  money…the River Street Inn was still $300/night. We booked through Booking.com.

I wouldn’t be arriving with Mike, he’d be coming directly from Chicago, while I’d be driving from Central Florida (yes…me driving and spending time near Orlando isn’t really like me). I called three days before arrival and added Mike’s name to the reservation so he could check in before I arrived (assuming the room was available).

The woman I spoke with on the phone was pretty put off with my request. I explained twice why I was doing this and she finally confirmed that he was on the reso and would be able to check in upon arrival… yeah, you think you know where this is going…but you don’t.

Mike arrives at the hotel around 11am, not expecting to have a room ready yet, that’s still pretty early.  The woman working reception, Ashley, couldn’t find the reservation. Mike mentions we booked the room four months prior through Booking.com, but she still had nothing. She didn’t want the confirmation number. She said there was no reservation.  After continued requests, she went into another system and found that for some reason Booking.com and the hotel’s system didn’t properly communicate.  She then blamed Mike for that, which of course makes sense, right? The guest who works for neither Booking.com nor the hotel should be responsible for IT issues.

Ashley did find us a room. Not the room we booked. A small room with a queen bed (vs. the king room we booked). We booked this room for a reason. She didn’ care.

Evidently this exchange went on for a while and eventually the Manager came out to help. At this point, we were not interested in staying at this property, if an IT snafu creates such anger and drama, who knows what the rest of the stay would be like.  The Manager finally decided to release us (both me and Mike and the fam) from our reservations. He also gave us coupons for a free continental breakfast at a local brunch place. The coupon was a nice gesture and the restaurant came highly recommended by everyone we talked to….but the continental breakfast isn’t that exciting.

We ended up moving to the Mansion on Forsyth, a Marriott Autograph Collection Hotel, which was stunning by the way.  I wasn’t involved in these discussions with Ashley or the Manager, but Mike is the calm one in the relationship. He will put up with a lot of shit (look, he’s married to me, so he has to), but the service at this hotel pushed him way over the edge.  There was no way he wanted anything to do with this hotel. I’m glad we moved.

So what could we have done differently?  I never call to confirm, a reservation, even when using booking.com. I get the confirmation email and then the reminder a couple days before the stay, but never call the hotel. This time I did call, but I never had any indication they couldn’t find our reservation.

The whole experience left a bad taste in our mouths. I will continue to use booking.com as we’ve never had an issue like this before, but I may find myself calling the hotel to confirm booking before arrival.  I also haven’t contacted booking.com about this issue either.

Have you had this type of issue before? How did you handle it? What would you have done differently? How could we have handled this better?

Everest – Fine Dining Chicago

Everest is a mainstay in Chicago’s fine dining scene. This Alsatian restaurant, located in the southern part of the Loop neighborhood.  Everest earned its first Michelin Star in 2011 (the first year Michelin visited Chicago) and has kept their single Star ever since.  Chef Jean Joho opened Everest in 1986, but it took us until last week to try it.

Everest has been on our list for quite a while. We love French food and we don’t get a chance to sample Alsatian food very often.  I booked our reservations about three weeks out, through Opentable, without problem.  We snagged a prime reservation at 20h00.

The day of the meal, we arrived right at 20h00 and were immediately escorted to a waiting area that reminded me a lot of a small break out room at a conference hotel. The room had those moveable walls so you can adjust its size.  There were three tables in this area, 2 two-tops and a four-top. Techichally we didn’t have anywhere to sit, because the two people at the four-top were sitting in seats one and three. We asked them if we could sit with them, but they didn’t move, so we sat between them. It was awkward.

The waiting room, where we waited…and waited..and waited…

 

The View…from the expandable space waiting area.

We ordered a drink in this holding area and watched as all the others near us were moved into the dining room.  Another couple, from Toronto, joined us for a drink.  At 21h00 we were brought to our seats – yes, one hour after our reservation. I was frustrated and starving.

Everest offers both a tasting menu and an al a carte menu. The tasting menu didn’t really appeal to me as there were two of the seven courses that I would have eaten, but wouldn’t order on their own (Foie Gras and Pheasant). We opted for the a la carte option.

When exploring the tasting menu, you can add optional wine pairings. With the a la carte menu, we just asked the server to select three wines for our four course dinner.  We decided to have two starters and a main, followed by a shared cheese course and then ultimately the dessert.

I started out with the Atlantic Oysters then moved into the Everest Roasted Lobster – a dish on which the menu claims Everest has built its reputation.  Mike also chose a Everest Signature entree – the Sole Meunière.

Atlantic Oysters with Cucumber Riesling Fleurette

Everest Roasted Maine Lobster in Alsace Gewurztraminer Butter and Ginger

Magret of Mulard Duck, Marinated Turnips à la Colmarienne and Jus de Canard

 Filet of Sole New Meunière, Pomme Mousseline, Espelette, Petite Capers

New Wave Heritage Apple Soufflé, Peanuts, Caramel and Vanilla, Maple Glacé

Petits Fours including a gel, a white chocolate and a pistachio madeleines.

We enjoyed our food at Everest, but were really put off by the extremely long wait we had until our table was ready.  Then the waiting just continued.  It took us a while to get menus, then finally to place our orders.  Once that was all done, the kitchen kept everyone on track.  The food came out properly prepared and at the right temperature.  It was clear the issues were at the front of the house.  Two tables next to us had the wrong food delivered – our food was spot on from delivery to taste.

The decor was extremely outdated.  It felt like we were in a scene from American Psycho – it felt very late 1980s or early 1990s.  I was fully expecting Susan Sugarbaker to be dining at a table next to us — no such luck.

The patrons weren’t like those you see at other Michelin restaurants either.  They all seemed very stiff and stodgy…except the table next to us.  They were holding hands all through dinner, except when she’d step away to the washroom for 15-20 minutes at a time.  We totally got the high-end pro and her John vibe from them.  The other table right next to us had a woman and her recent college grad son.  The son was explaining why pairing wine with food was stupid.  We’ve all been there, a recent grad who knows EVERYTHING and anyone who offers guidance is dumb and stuck in the old ways.  This was that guy.

I’m glad we visited Everest.  We checked one of the most famous and long standing fine dining restaurants in Chicago.  We have no plans on returning.  The food was good, but everything else (decor, service and other patrons) all fell short on this dining experience.  For $500 per couple, I’d rather enjoy fine dining at Next, Goosefoot or Grace (in Chicago, that is).

Have you been to Everest?  Were you looking for Patrick Batemen too?  What did you have? What did you love about your experience?