Authoritarian regimes don’t get any worse than Kim Jung Un’s North Korean dictatorship ironically named the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  Concentration camps, people executed at the drop of a hat, mass starvation while maintaining a million man army, they have it all in an otherwise beautiful country.

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The story I saw this morning in the Washington Post was quite a shock to me.  Apparently, there is a hostel in Berlin, named the City Hostel, that is owned by the North Korean Government.  It was given to the North Koreans by the former East German communist government many years ago.  While Koreans do not operate the hostel or accompanying conference center, they get the proceeds of everyone staying there.  Thus people were unwittingly funding one of the world’s worst regimes who developed nuclear weapons.

KimJongUnPhoto courtesy of Fox News.

The German government is now shutting this hotel down.  It is hard to believe that they are only taking this step now considering the many years that North Korea has threatened its  neighbors with war and now nuclear missiles.  Apparently, this is only happening since a November UN resolution to shutdown diplomatic real estate as a revenue source.

The amazing part is that you can still book this hostel!  There is no closing date for the hostel which makes me wonder what is taking the German government so long or what the effect of their announcement is.

Have you ever stayed there or known someone who did?

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I saw on DTS, that they are going to make changes to the Joint Travel Regulation (JTR) which is the bible by which all our travel and payments are based.  It was recently highlighted in this newsletter from the Defense Travel Office.  Nothing in the JTR changes significantly, according to them, but the volumes (one for military and the other for Govt civilians) are streamlined and better organized.  Both will be effective 1 April 17.  To keep up with the latest Travel Reg changes and see if they affect you, check out this site.

Here are some of the key changes in my view:

  • Encourage more use of restricted airfares.  These are the that normal people buy for vacation and involve a change fee if your plans get altered.  More importantly, if you get this type of ticket, it requires ticketing within 24 hours, unlike the typical GSA fares.  Saves the Govt a lot of money to use these, but beware of the restrictions if you go this route.  Here are their suggested tips for using restricted airfare:

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  • Update and simplify the myriad of allowances that are now part of travel.  Personally, I hope that means not having over a dozen different Per Diem for most states.  Foreign locations can be even worse in trying to determine which Per Diem applies to your location.
  • Gets rid of the term Commercial Travel Office (CTO) in favor of Travel Management Company (TMC).  Not understanding the benefit here, but get used to the change.

In addition to the above, the Integrated Lodging Program Pilot (ILPP) has expanded again and covers some new large areas such as San Antonio and Quantico.  I am not sure why this is still a “pilot” program as it is covering about half my travel these days.  I have found that most of the time it still directs me to use commercial lodging rather than the IHG-run military hotel on post/base.  But that can change with even a one day shift in orders as I found on my upcoming trip to Ft. Hood.  Just go with the flow here, but as with GSA fares, change the hotel they mandate if you have good reason to.  Earning points is NOT a good reason…

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Catching up after being TDY for 3 of the last 4 weeks.  This hotel review is part of the Sonoma Valley Wine Tasting I wrote about previously.  This Napa Valley Doubletree is on the main highway connecting both Napa and Sonoma Valleys to the North Bay area of San Francisco.  The location serves well for trips to either location for wine tasting being about 20 minutes to Napa and 40 minutes to the heart of Sonoma.  We chose the location because you can save quite a bit of money by not staying right in the middle of either valley.  Luxury or Resort Hotels tend to dominate if you are right next to the key towns for wine tasting.  Our stay’s base rate was just over $100/ night.  We saved about $100/night by choosing to drive a little bit.

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As you can see the Doubletree is very nice both inside and out.  Helps to be a Diamond that I got from matching my Marriott Platinum status.  We were upgrading to a “Patio Room” which puzzled me at first, but you’ll see later what that means.

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I find Doubletrees reliably nice all around and this was no exception.

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So a Patio Room turned out to be one with a patio right on this artificial pond in the middle of the complex.  Probably would be more alluring if it wasn’t winter, but it was a nice view nonetheless.

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Breakfast turned out to be the big hit of this hotel.  It was served in a full scale restaurant with a waitress taking your drink order and then turning you loose on the buffet and made-to-order eggs and omelets.  The ever-full jar of Doubletrees chocolate chip cookies was always calling my name.

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This hotel is a good choice for those looking to try wine tasting in Northern California and is also reasonably close to everything in the Bay Area if you decide to venture there as well.  Give it a try.

 

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My wife and I lived in Honolulu from 2010-13 and like to go back about once a year.  It has been fun to see the developments that have taken place over time.  On this recent trip, I noted a number of improvements around Waikiki that you might want to check out for yourself on an upcoming trip.

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The biggest news in my view is completion of the International Market which had been undergoing a complete renovation for the last three years.  I’ll write a whole post on this tomorrow, but you should definitely make a visit to shop or dine here on your next visit.

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The Ritz-Carlson’s Residences finally opened the first tower with more to come.  Looks pretty classy from the outside, but still  lot of work to do to finish the whole project.

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You can see in the last photo that they are working on the second tower.  Expect some construction noise if you stay here.  I thought of staying here to check it out since I have those three free nights from the Ritz-Carlton credit card.  Looking at the Marriot website, you can see it is a pretty expensive property and would be a great value for those free nights.

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But get this caveat:

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So no-go on certs, points or any way other than cash to get a room here.  Plus you won’t earn anything!

Another new hotel option may be this one that is under construction on the backside of the International Market.  The little sign at the corner lends me to believe that this will be an expansion of the Holiday Inn Resort that is currently on the main drag, Kalakaua.  Could be a good option when it is done in about three months or so.

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Another new item is the opening of an upscale market called Coco Café on Kalakaua near the Holiday Inn.  This is definitely a step above the ubiquitous ABC stores.  My tip to lower your cost of staying in Waikiki is to get some of your meals at this store since they have quality sushi, sandwiches, and other fresh food items.  There are other stores like this in Honolulu, but none as convenient a location of this store.

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Of course, we still endorse going to Food Pantry on Kuhio for a great steak meal for only $12.99.

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So here are a few new things for you to look for and hopefully make your stay a little better next time you are in Waikiki.

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In 2015 we stayed at the Hyatt Regency in Waikiki using the two free nights from the Hyatt Credit Card.  Keeping the credit card is a no brainer since the annual fee is offset by a free night, but only up to Tier 4.  That meant that the Hyatt Regency was just out of reach, but the Hyatt Place was only Tier 3 and eligible so we thought we would try it for our three nights there.

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For those of you familiar with Waikiki, Hyatt Place is located at the far end of the strip.  It is on the east side of the back half of the Marriott.  Access is easier along Kuhio than Kalakaua.  The desk clerk was nice and greeted me as a Hyatt Platinum and informed me of the free breakfast that was on the third floor every morning.

The room was pretty small even by Waikiki standards, but is had almost everything in it.  I say almost because it was missing one critical thing as far as I was concerned – a desk.  I had to balance my laptop on the bureau and sit on the bed to do any computer work.  Here are some photos.

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The view was alright.  A good shot between the Marriott towers at the Catholic church and a spot of the water that happened to be exactly where most of the surfers were.  It let me reminisce about surfing as a teenager in L.A. – those were the days!

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Breakfast was on the pool deck on the third floor.  It was continental, but did have Asian fare such as steamed rice and kimchi which my wife really liked.  The bagels, granola, yogurt, etc. was the typical hotel fare, but the pineapple was outstanding.  Well, what else would you expect in Hawaii?

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First stop on our winter mileage run was San Diego.  I worried about all the rain I had heard about in California, but it turned out cloudy and dry.  San Diego is a great town and we looked forward to spending a couple of days there.  I looked forward to checking out the new Hilton Bayfront which was under construction the last time we were there in 2014.  It is located at the end of the San Diego Convention Center opposite from the Marriott.  This is a great location from which you can walk to the Gaslamp District, stroll along the waterfront and visit the Midway, or catch the hop-on, hop-off tour bus to see the rest of San Diego.

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I was a little surprised how small the room was, but I probably was too used to getting an upgrade as a Hilton Diamond.  There was a large convention at the hotel that weekend so I wasn’t upset that we had no upgrade (unlike my wife).  The room was fine and did have a nice view of the convention center and waterfront.

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The hotel is at the far end of the hotel row along the waterfront, but it is still a reasonable walk to everything.  Had a view of Petco Park and this visit was just a couple days after the Chargers announced they were moving to L.A.  A lot of angst in San Diego about that!

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The hotel owner had paid for a neat little footbridge to cross from the hotel into east downtown which was a nice shortcut to the Gaslamp District.

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One disappointment was that there was no lounge in this new hotel.  At check-in, we were given free continental breakfast coupons at the Vela restaurant downstairs with an option to use them at Starbucks instead.  We tried using them at Vela and found the placed so packed that we had to wait ten minutes just to get seated.  The hostess was trying to upsell everyone to take the full breakfast for an extra $10 and it seemed to me that those people got preferential seating which I thought was inappropriate.  At least the food was worth the wait, better than what I typically get at a lounge.

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Last mention is for the workout center which is collocated with their spa.  Had a great workout and there were plenty of machines available.

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On the whole, I found the hotel to be average, but in a great location.  I still feel it is better than the old Hilton which is across the street from the Hyatt/ Marriott at the other end of the convention center.

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I am not a big fan of booking at a hotel brand that I have never heard of.  While sometimes a surprise can be pleasant, just as often it turns into a disappointment.  I would much rather count on the consistency of a name brand such as Hilton when booking.  At a recent conference in Europe I chose to stay at the Frankfurt Airport Hilton and was very pleased with what the hotel has to offer and didn’t mind the trade-off of not being right next to the conference location.

As you would expect, you can reach the hotel by walking from the terminal, although we chose to pick up our rental car and drive.  Driving to the hotel is not the easiest to figure out and involves a lot of looping around between the airport and the adjacent autobahn, but a good GPS can figure it out.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have one of those and it took us the better part of an hour to get to the hotel parking.  The building is massive and situated right along the autobahn, but the noise levels never bothered me and the building looks pretty cool.

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That turned out to be the most trouble we had (other than figuring out the right direction to go on the autobahn) and the rest of the stay was great.  There are actually two hotels on the property, a full Hilton and a Hilton Garden Inn (to the left in the picture).  While I was able to stay at the Hilton at the Per Diem rate, if you are on vacation, you might be able to stay cheaper at the Garden Inn.

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The hotel is very modern with nice architecture.  You come up from the parking garage right into the check-in lobby which has a very nice bar across from the front desk.  I took the front desk photo from the skybridge leading to my room.  This place has a massive atrium!

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The glass elevator take you up to your floor and the place is full of automatically opening glass doors, I kind of got the Star Trek vibe.  The room itself was not large, but they did a great job with the space available.  Wasn’t a fan of the bed, a little too hard for my tastes, but the bathroom and the working desk were excellent.

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As a Hilton Diamond, I had access to the lounge and the cocktail hour and free breakfast there.  Missed the cocktail hour as there were better things to do at night, but the breakfast was nice even if it was just continental.

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Outside the hotel is a small mall filled with the usual traveler’s shops, restaurants, etc.  In the middle of it was the walkway to get to the terminals.  Pretty nice way to get there in inclement weather.  This would definitely be a good alternative if you got weathered in at the airport.

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Altogether, I give this hotel very high marks.  Something else to note is that it is about 15 minutes to downtown Frankfurt or 15 minutes in the other direction to get to Wiesbaden.  Overall, a good experience in a god location.

 

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For a change this year, we went to see our daughter for Thanksgiving instead of her coming home.  Part of the motivation was for us to come see New Orleans where we had never spent time despite this being her third year at Tulane.  The other being that as a third-year med school student, she really didn’t have the time to spend traveling to us.  For 55,000 American miles each we got a direct flight there and First Class on the way home.

Lot’s of hotels to choose from in New Orleans since it is such a tourist town.  I am on a quest to get 30 stays at Hilton to reup my Diamond status which I had received from matching my Marriott Platinum status last Jan.  I have to say Diamond is pretty nice, usually resulting in an upgrade wherever I go.  Even with Hilton, there were half a dozen hotels just in the downtown area.  I choose the Doubletree that was near everything, but not on the water or in the French Quarter.  I saved about $100/night by choosing to stay a few blocks away – well worth it.  The hotel is right along S. Peters and adjacent to Canal Street, which is equivalent to the Vegas Strip for New Orleans.  However, we were not bothered by the noise or lights of Canal St.

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The room was nice, but pretty much what you would expect from a Doubletree.  The bed was pretty comfortable.

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One thing I did really like was the mini-fridge.  It was a real fridge, unlike the college dorm room version that you typically find and could keep stuff pretty cold.

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As usual, we received the Gold/ Diamond benefit of free breakfast during our stay.

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Although the breakfast was nothing to write home about.

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The views at night from the hotel were great and you can see on the left that we were right across from the Harrah’s Casino.  I got my wife out of there with a net loss of only $3.25 which counts as a win in my book.

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One little weird thing that was strange is that the property is on a triangular piece of land with the point on Canal St.  That is where the original hotel entrance was, but now they have turned it into a Pinkberry yogurt place.  They left the original Doubletree sign which I thought was a little weird.  The actual entrance is now into the main building off of S. Peters.  One other note, if you simply follow Peters St., which become N. Peters after crossing Canal St., you will be led right to the best of the tourist locations, including the French Quarter.

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You definitely will not lack for good food in Costa Rica!  Like many cultures, the one traditional joy you can bring is serving good food.  Of course, the setting for that food matters almost as much as the taste.  We dined at the veranda of the hotel with steak as good as you could find anywhere.

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And if you are staying at the San Jose Marriott, I recommend the café near the end of the resort.  $10 platinum breakfast covers most of the price.

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Really nice weather to have breakfast outdoors.  The only hitch is that we had to deal with a fine layer of volcanic ash which the staff were busy cleaning up every morning.  It coated everything, but didn’t really bother me – I can’t say the same for my “clean freak” wife.  Hey, we Army guys are just glad when there’s no dirt in our food!

For some reason, my wife, Eloisa really enjoyed posing in the adjacent garden.  Hey, if Daraius can put pictures of his wife, Emily,  in every shot, so can I.

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So, I have to relate a funny story at this point.  See that croissant?  It is a strawberry croissant, which we both thought was spectacular, especially warmed.   Apparently, strawberries are a key crop of Costa Rica and the waiter let us know he was from that area.  My wife, was so impressed with the pineapple we had as our platinum gift, that she raved to the waited about it and said they should make a pineapple croissant.    Between my wife’s Filipino accented English and the waiter’s English somehow this got mis-construed.  Later that afternoon, we had a knock on our door and were surprised by two gentlemen wearing chef’s hats.  The head chef had come to our room to apologize for the breakfast that morning and had personally baked two mini pineapple upside-down cakes for us!  I assured him there was nothing wrong with the breakfast, but also didn’t turn down the extra desert!  Lost in translation, as they say…

Out on the town, there is nothing but more good food.  If you want to eat authentic and cheap, go to the Central Market.  It is all enclosed, so no need to worry about the afternoon downpours, and they smartly spread the food establishments all over the market so no two are together.  This means the “fragrant” smells can’t cluster in one area and overwhelm the passerby.  If you have been to a third-world market, you know what I mean.

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The first picture above is of a cheese and flour tortilla that was simply fantastic.  They also had a similar one made with egg, sort of like an omelette.  The second picture is a little fuzzy, but it is a coffee roaster.   I have to confess, I am not a coffee drinker, but my wife is and she thought this was the best coffee she had ever smelled or tasted.  Needless to say, Costa Rica – great coffee and bringing back whole beans is one of the easiest gift choices to make.  IT was $5 per quarter kilo, so not cheap (I think), but a great gift nonetheless.

Lastly, our tour guide gave us a lunch recommendation for a place called Spoons.  It is a chain, but even so, I thought it was great.  I got the chicken with rice and black beans and my wife got the same except pork belly, both for less than $20.

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There was a little problem in speaking only high school Spanish, but it all worked out well in the end.  The main problem is that they look at my Filipino wife and automatically start talking high-speed Spanish, but she doesn’t know any more than “Hola”.  It all works out OK when you get them to stop and have a chance to say “Soy esta Pilipino”!

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I had a Marriott Free Night Certificate ready to expire so choosing that chain to get a hotel in for our first visit to San Jose, Costa Rica was a given.  Plus, as a Platinum, I wanted to get the benefits of status.  They have properties all over Costa Rica, and while the properties on the coast looked fantastic, this was a short stay of two days.  Plus, we really wanted to check out the capital.  In San Jose, they have properties right at the airport SJO and properties right in downtown San Jose.  We chose the compromise of the San Jose Marriott since it was hallway between the airport and downtown.  I find a full property, whether it be Marriott, Hilton, or whatever, gives a better experience as long as you could afford it.  Fortunately, the Marriott was about the same price as most of the other properties, except for the airport one, but who wants to stay at an airport hotel on vacation?

Getting to the hotel from the airport was easy with a $15 shuttle ride being arranged for.  I initially thought it was $15 each, for the wife and I, but apparently $15 goes a long way in a country like Costa Rica and that was the total charge, although I did tip the driver anyway.  One great thing about Costa Rica is that the dollar is the unofficial currency, just like Panama, and so there is no need to change money.

The hotel was very much like a resort without that ridiculous resort fee so many charge.

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AS many of you know, I am an engineer by trade.  And our natural enemies are architects.  However, in this case I am forced to give kudos to the guys who designed this place.  Really amazing architecture as you can see from the pictures below.

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The room was pretty great.  I didn’t get a shot of the bed, but the bathroom and coffee nook was good.  I also show the Platinum gift of a full, yes full, bottle of wine and a fresh fruit plate.  The view was awesome too with the pool and the golf course in full view.

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Although we went at the end of September, this would be a great winter destination with the golf course and pool.  More to follow on dining there.

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This is an optimal time of year to use a trick that will get you status for all of next year with very little effort on your part.  I am also going to go over some synergies that are out there to maximize your elite statuses (stati?).

In general, a rival airline or hotel will try to lure your business away by offering to give you an equivalent status with their airline or hotel.  The advantage of doing it this time of year is that if you request this earlier in the year, they match your status for that year only.  However, if you try it in October or November, they give you status for the rest of this year and all of next year so 14-15 months of benefits.

Now here’s the real beauty of doing it this time of year.  Let’s say that you have status with an airline/ hotel and know you aren’t going to re-qualify for that level this year.  Take that higher status and send it in to another program and ask for a status match.  They don’t know you aren’t going to re-qualify and assume you will so offer you a matching status.  I have done this, for instance, by sending my United 1K statement to Alaska and ended up with Alaska MVP Gold 75 k.  I dropped to United Gold for the next year, but at least had the consolation of top status on Alaska.

Similarly, I used my Marriott Platinum statement to get Hilton Diamond for this year.  Marriott didn’t drop me to Gold for some strange reason (could be my 767 lifetime nights) so I ended up with top status for two hotel programs.

How to get a match?  Typically, you send in a request to their FF customer service along with a statement showing your status in a rival program.  Rival meaning not an airline they typically give benefits to.  So you can’t take your status from another Star Alliance airline and ask United to match.  You can’t even ask for Alaska to match status from Delta or American since they give benefits for members of these airlines.  So give it a try, they worst they can do is say no.  Do keep in mind that they will tell you that this is a once in a lifetime match, so don’t do it if you have no intention of using that airline or hotel chain.

Synergies noun, plural synergies.  The interaction of elements that when combined produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual elements, contributions, etc.; synergism.

I love when I can get something for essentially no effort.  I just call this being smart, but you do have to know what to do to make it happen.  A great one I used this year is with the pseudo-alliances between airlines and hotels.  In case you hadn’t hear, United and Marriott will match status benefits and so will Delta and Starwood.  Of course, what makes that really interesting this year is that Marriott bought Starwood and now you can link Marriott Rewards and Starwood SPG to match elite status.

In my particular case, I matched my Marriott Platinum status to SPG, making me an SPG Platinum.  I then turned around and applied to match that new Platinum status to Delta (where I have no status) and Delta now gives me the following:

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You can work it in reverse and get SPG benefits if you already have status with Delta.

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Not bad for getting something for free.  And for those of you in a different situation, you can do this in reverse and end up with benefits on United that are very similar.  If you are Marriot Rewards Gold or Platinum, you get United Gold.  If you are United Gold, you’ll get the benefits shown below.  Don’t forget that is you are United Gold, then you are Star Alliance Gold, which means free lounge access to all Star Alliance lunges when traveling internationally.

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So lot’s of free ways to earn status if you know what you are doing.  Anyone have any other examples out there?

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