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SPG Platinum: Your Benefit. Your Choice

Laet year, Starwood made a change (improvement?) to the Platinum Benefits SPG members enjoy.  If a member logs 25 stays throughout the year, they earn SPG Platinum status. With 50 nights under your belt in a given year, you earn Platinum status and SPG would give you an additional bonus: 10 Suite Night Upgrades.  These upgrades could be redeemed anytime after you booked your room up until a few days before you stayed.  These upgrades were NOT guaranteed and they only clear a couple days before arrival. If you wanted a confirmed suite, you’d need to pay for it (either wish cash or extra points if you were booked on an award stay).

My luck with these upgrade instruments was absolutely abysmal for domestic stays, but phenomenal for foreign travel.  I’ve never once had a Platinum Suite Night Upgrade clear in the US or Canada, but in Europe, we’ve been upgraded to great rooms at the Alfonso XIII in Seville, Prince de Galles in Paris and the Bristol in Vienna.  I’ve been Platinum (with 50+ nights) for a few years now and I usually end the year with 4-6 unused Suite Night Upgrades.  It kills me.

I think many Platinum members were in the same boat. Perhaps SPG was tired of us all complaining about it in person and over social media, so they decided to give us some additional options once we reach 50 nights in a calendar year:

SPG Platinum Choice

I love choices and I really hate when you get pigeonholed into just a single choice that hardly ever works out for you.  So instead of earning 10 Suite Night Upgrades, one could choose:

  • The ability to give SPG Gold Status to a Friend/Family Member
  • Have SPG give $100 to UNICEF
  • A $100 Amazon.com Gift Card
  • TSA Pre-Check (an $85 value)
  • 4 Uber Rides worth $25 each

I like choices.  These choices suck.  Basically SPG is valuing the 50 night bonus at about $100.  Even though I end up wasting most of my upgrades, I still value the two or three nights a year I get upgraded to a fabulous suite at more than $100.  I’m sure you are waiting with bated breath to hear my thoughts on each of these alternate choices, so here they are:

  • Gift SPG Gold to a Friend
    • This isn’t too bad – I’ve gifted Gold or Silver Status in other programs before and you get some great Karma points.  There are other ways to get the status (having the AmEx Platinum Card) or the benefits of the status (booking through certain Travel Agents get you free internet, or breakfast or if you use the SPG AmEx card you get extra points).  Unless I’m trying to gain something from someone, this gift really doesn’t deliver to me.
  • Have SPG make a gift to UNICEF
    • Nothing against UNICEF, but 1) I don’t trust that a donation would actually be made and 2) I want to maximize my value here and I value the other items much more than $100.
  • Receive a $100 Amazon.com Gift Card
    • See above, RE: Value Proposition. It’s a loser.
  • TSA Pre-Check
    • I really think that if you are staying 50 nights a year with SPG you are by definition a frequent traveler and unless you are driving everywhere, you are likely flying a lot.  If you fly a frequently, you already know the value of Pre-Check and already have it.  I got my Pre-Check as an Elite with United many years ago.  Pre-Check is already included with Global Entry (which costs just $100 for a 5 year membership) and several premium credit cards already reimburse you for Pre-Check (and Global Entry).  Back to the value proposition – if I think $100 is a rip off, then an $85 value is a big-rip-off.
  • Four Uber Ride Credits (@$25 each)
    • Most of my Uber Rides are less than $25, so I’d almost automatically be losing out on this game and again, back to the value proposition: maximum value of $100, but likely less.  This is a loser too.

As I crossed the 50 night mark in 2015, I opted to keep the 10 Suite Night Upgrades.  I just hope that my luck abroad continues to hold true.  If I end the year with 10 unused Suite Night Upgrades I’ll be pissed that I didn’t just cash in some free Amazon bucks to buy some digital content to keep me entertained while I’m stuck in my standard room.

If SPG calls me up tomorrow and asks what I think would be a better option, I would not hesitate.  I’d say make these instruments confirmable at time of booking.  Even if that means reducing the number of Nightly Upgrades they give you.  In an ideal world, they’d switch them to STAY Upgrades (valid for multiple night stays) versus the NIGHT Upgrades.  Even if they only gave us 3 or 4 of these (and cap them at 7 nights max for each upgrade), I’d consider this a HUGE win.

What did you (or what would you) choose as your 50-Night Platinum Reward?  If you could add one more item, what would it be?  I’d love to know how many people are choosing the UNICEF donation, wouldn’t you?

New Orleans – Places to Shop

I don’t really travel to shop. I travel to eat, drink, see and experience.  I do enjoy a lovely walk around a market, Les Puces or a iconic shopping street (Banhoffstraβe in Zürich, Avenue Montaigne in Paris or even Rush Street in Chicago).  That being said, I do love the antique shops in New Orleans situated just a block off of rowdy Bourbon Street.

There are two things on my shopping list that I am not sure I will ever find, but I will continue to look – and if I do find them, I will likely be saddened as I think I enjoy the hunt as much if not more than the actual items.  I am looking for a beautiful antique set of silver – you know, the fancy stuff your great-grandma had and when your mother asked if you wanted it, you said “No, that’s OK”, and she got rid of it.  To my credit, I was 19 – my mother should have known better than to ask me at that point.  The other item on my wish list is something that will get much less use than the fancy silver (when I say fancy, I emphasize the first syllable: FAN-see…with a bit of a nasally tone too – purely in jest, but it’s now common pronunciation among me and my friends) – I want an antique duck press.  This press will ideally be from the 19th Century, have been well used, so the ornate design will be slightly worn away, but will still be 100% functional.

I figured if there was any City in the US where I could find a beautiful silver set (or maybe even a duck press) it would be New Orleans.

I found myself with about 2 hours one day between afternoon meetings and evening events and I decided to hit a couple antique shops in the French Quarter.  I started at Canal and Royal – just one block southeast of Bourbon and walked northeast staying on Royal.  Shop after shop I came across the most gracious and inviting shopkeepers.  They (genuinely) asked where I was from, why I was in town, where I had eaten/drank and if there was something I was looking for specifically — yes, in that order.  So inviting, so civilized and so different from the debauchery on a Wednesday afternoon just a block away on Bourbon (especially when the insurance conference happens to coincide with Fleet Week).

At each shop I asked about a full silver service (full setting for at least 12 people) and a duck press.  At most shops, I found the silver service – mostly they were too ornate for my liking, missing a couple salad folks or just too expensive.  When I asked about the duck press their eyes opened wide and then sadly said they didn’t have one, but if someone in New Orleans did it would be the fine folks at Lucullus a couple blocks away on Chartres.

Luculus Antiques on Chartres in New Orleans.

I made my way over to this quaint little shop. I was blazing hot. Wearing a full suit / tie when it is 30C (~86F) with the thick sticky air of New Orleans and without a breeze, I was quite warm and a bit uncomfortable.  I entered Lucullus and was promptly greeted by Mr. Kerry Moody.  We exchanged the same pleasantries as I did at the other shops.  I was offered a glass of ice water (served in a beautiful crystal glass) – like I said, I was hot and I’m sure I looked like an uncomfortable mess.  I hadn’t made it more than 15 feet into the store at this point.  I saw a ton of silver – again, I was looking for an outrageous bargain. Unfortunately, the items at Lucullus were of such great quality, I wasn’t going to get a beautiful set for next to nothing.  I then asked about the duck press.  It was then that Mr. Moody said he needed to call the proprietor Mr. Patrick Dunne.  Mr. Dunne appeared – immediately offered to have my water glass refilled upon seeing me (I’m not sure if this was because I looked like an utter mess or Mr. Dunne is the epitome of a gracious host — or a little bit of both).

I asked about the press and Mr. Dunne scoffed a bit – not in a condescending way at all, but more in a “boy, do I have a story for you” way.  He asked what I would pay for a duck press in perfect condition.  As I danced around the subject – thinking we were in initial negotiations – he cut me off and said “I don’t have one.  I don’t carry them. I don’t even look at them on buying trips in France. They are such unique and lower demand pieces, they cost me too much to buy, refurbish then hold. The casual buyers don’t exist here.”

He asked me to sit and we found some beautiful chairs arranged as a quaint little seating area in his shop and chatted about our prior trips to France.  I told the tale of finding a single duck press at Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen, and the dreadful condition it was in.  He told tales of finding beautiful presses in the Loire and in Burgundy in the 1990s – for a steal – but there was no market for them.  The open marketplace has bought up all these presses and sold them to restaurants who do elaborate Canard à la Presse services which fetch $150 per.

Mr. Dunne then pointed to a beautiful armoire filled with exquisite china and glassware.  He said, I could sell you that entire setup there – china, glassware and the armoire for what it would cost me to make a tiny profit on buying and refinishing a duck press.  He continue by saying my best bet was to find a restaurant that has one and wait for it to go out of business and make them a reasonable offer before their creditors come knocking on the door – cash is king.

While I was disappointed a duck press wasn’t in my immediate future – I was thrilled to have been welcomed into Lucullus with open arms and been allowed to listen to travel tales and to share tales of my own.  I so wanted to invite these two gentlemen out for a drink and dinner to hear more of their experiences, but unfortunately I was double booked for dinner that night and I’m sure they had better things to do than to tell tales to a fanboy.

Mr. Dunne was a gracious host and the epitome of a gentlemen.  Upon my entering his shop, I felt like a member of the family and felt I could stay there listening to stories long into the night.  I will promise that on my next trip to the Crescent City, I will pay a visit to Lucullus and hopefully next time pickup some flatware or some decanters.  This place was a slice of heaven.

When you travel do you shop?  Is that a main reason for your travels?  Where do you shop – modern stores or antique shops?  Have you ever had the urge to just drop anchor and while away the time chatting with a shopkeep?

If you are in New Orleans and have even a passing interest in culinary antiques, Lucullus is the number one destination for you.  If you go, send my regard to Mr. Dunne and the rest of his team.

Air France – An Infatuation

I have never flown Air France, but I am obsessed with them lately. I stumbled across their most recent safety video – take a moment and watch:

Some of my favorite parts of this video: The safety belt will elegantly highlight your waistline; A non-smoking flight is simply chic; If you lose your mobile, don’t manipulate the seat, call a crew member (which is a great piece of advice, as in BusinessFirst on United I lost my Bose headphones and nearly lost my arm trying to retrieve them – I was too embarrassed to ask for help). Also, why are there only French women as flight crew in this video? I’m sure Air France has some hot young French male stews, right?

I love France. I’ve been to Paris (twice – read about it here and here); Nice (and Monte Carlo, but before I blogged) and Southwestern France. I have never flown on Air France – and I’ll admit I’m a bit nervous to do so. Not because of any flight safety issues, but because of the pitch (distance between the back of your seat – as far back as you can scootch your body) to the back of the seat in front of you – basically your usable space in the seat for your body and legs. Air France flies an A330-200 (A332) between Chicago (ORD) and Paris (CDG). In economy this plane has 32” of pitch, which is the same as some of the United Regional Jets (the ones I often take to Nashville). I can (barely) handle the 62 minute flight to Nashville in these tiny little seats. I can’t image flying 8 hours to Paris in a seat like this. Air France does offer a Premium Economy seat – it looks to cost about 40% more than regular economy (I just did a sample search over 4 different dates and it was pretty consistent). That’s a big premium – but Premium Economy has 6” more pitch (than regular economy).

Air France serves much better food in coach than United does (or so I’ve heard) – which isn’t very hard to do.

I’d love to fly their Business or La Première class as well. The A380 service from LAX to CDG would be a great way to cash-in (blow) miles. Take a look at this review from Lucky, here.

Since I’m not going to be paying for Business or La Première seats, I’ll have to either wait for a mistake airfare and hope they honor it, or cash in miles. Air France is a transfer partner with Starwood Preferred Guest and American Express Membership Rewards. You’ll have to do the math yourself to see if transferring points into their program makes sense.

Flying Blue (the Frequent Flyer Program for both Air France and KLM) offer regular discounts on mileage redemptions. They send an email that outlines the current month’s promotions. I haven’t seen anything for La Première before, but I have seen options from Chicago to Europe in Economy, Premium Economy and Business. Keep your eyes peeled.

Should I be infatuated with Air France? Does the promise of marginally better economy food and a fun safety video warrant my time? What are the chances that I get half way through my trip with Air France and find that I just hate the tiny/tight little seat? Should I let it go or should I give it a go?

Sixt Rental Car Update

I wrote about our Thanksgiving Rental with Sixt Rental Car in France and how I thought their service was subpar.  Most of the comments/emails I received were basically in agreement, but not necessarily about Sixt – just that every Rental Car Company is crap and you should just focus on the best price and move on.  I don’t disagree with that, but I still think that basics of customer service should be adhered to.

After I posted my issues with Sixt, I received a very quick tweet asking for me to DM (Direct Message) my reservation info to them and they’d do more research.  That’s one of the great things about social media – after you’ve tried traditional channels to get a problem resolved you can take to Twitter or Facebook, etc and try again.

I sent our reservation info back and explained what had happened.  Then I waited.  And waited.  I wasn’t sure what I was waiting for.  I guess I had hoped that they’d reimburse us for the road side assistance extra expense we incurred because their assistance wouldn’t help us.  At least, I thought I’d get an apology that no one had gotten back to me, but that’s all they could do. What did I get? Nothing. I sent my info, as requested by Sixt and that was it.  No further correspondence or response period.

Honestly, I would have rather just been ignored, than have someone give me the indication that they’d look into the situation and offer assistance.  Just a tease.  I shouldn’t be surprised.  Their real time customer assistance was non-existent.

We are off to Italy in a few weeks and will need to rent a car again (God I hate rental cars) – even if Sixt is the best priced, I’m going to veto that rental.  I’d rather take my chances with another company and have the hope that if we do need assistance they’ll be there to help.

I know – I just need to let it go.  This is the last you’ll hear of my issues with Sixt.

Quick Tip – Booking Awards on United.com

As you know, each year we take a trip for Thanksgiving – not a family trip, but just an “us” trip.  We’ve gone to Ireland, Mexico City and most recently France/Switzerland.  Usually we’ll wait until summer to book — or if we hear of a great fare sale.  This year we are trying something a little different  – we aren’t going abroad, we’ve decided to stay in the US – again, skipping the family events though.

Once of the reasons we love traveling abroad over the Thanksgiving holiday is that flights in the US are outrageously expensive, while trips to Europe (and even Mexico) are cheaper than usual and often just a few bucks more than domestic flights.  For example, we toyed with the idea of going to San Diego last Thanksgiving.  The airfare was going to be nearly $850 — while our flight to Paris for the same days were basically the exact same price.  I love San Diego, but I love Paris much more.

Since we are traveling in the US over a hugely busy travel weekend, we decided we’d start looking now.  We’ll be spending time in Colorado and needed to fly into a smaller airport away from Denver (we didn’t want to have several hours of driving after our flight to Denver).  We did a quick spot check on the fares — which were running about $700 for less than ideal times and $950 for our preferred times.  I can’t pay that much for a domestic flight – something in my DNA won’t allow for that.

We flipped the switch on United.com to search for award space. Our outbound flight was coming in at 12,500 miles while the return was coming in at 50,000 – a total of 62,500 in economy.  I’d rather not spend that many miles for domestic flight either.  We decided we’d just hold off and see if the cost comes down.  Then it clicked.  MS wasn’t actually logged into United.com – he was searching as a guest.

Screenshot from UAL.com -  "MileagePlus Premier members may receive better search results by signing in."

Screenshot from UAL.com – “MileagePlus Premier members may receive better search results by signing in.”

United.com even offers a warning that Premier members may receive better search results by signing in.  A little “benefit” for being an Elite Flyer that I almost forgot about.  We signed in and managed to find the exact flight we wanted for only 25,000 miles each – coupling that with our outbound for 12,500 our trip would cost 37,500 miles per person versus the 62,500.  That savings of 25,000 miles means that I can take another cheap domestic flight in the future.

My advice – always make sure you are logged into United.com when you start your search for award seats – you’ll need to log in to use your miles, so save yourself some heartache during your search.