The wife and I took advantage of some of those super low fares to Asia that were advertised last fall.  I had always wanted to bring her to experience Songkran, the Thai New Years celebration, and got round trip IAD-BKK tickets on United for less than $600 each.  The main reason for these super cheap tickets was almost free flights on ANA out of NRT.  The PQD for the flight BKK-NRT was only $69!

We endured the 13 hour flight on UA IAD-NRT.  Fortunately, the flight was half empty so the wife and I each got a row of three seats to rack out on.  We then had a couple of hours in the United Club and went to get on our ANA flight to BKK.  We were surprised when they called our names at the boarding area.  Upgraded to Business Class!

I assume it was because the wife and I are both UA Golds due to my Million Miler status.  Pretty good to get an upgrade on  $69 fare just for being a Gold.

The seats were nice.  Not quite lie-flat, but pretty close.  Enough to get some rest on this 6.5 hour flight.

The seat came with its own instruction manual which was a first for me.  I liked the power ports since they had 110v and USB in spots where the plug wouldn’t fall out – a problem I have on UA planes.

Slippers were provided at the seat, but no amenity kit?  The FA then came by with a basket of stuff for you to pick from.

The food started out nice with a glass of wine and the world’s tiniest shrimp cocktail.

Then the first course came with a small sandwich and a weird green and white “pudding”.  I ate it, but not much flavor.  Not sure why the bread was served with this course, but I never turn down bread since I always know I can eat that if everything else turns our inedible.

Then the main course, I had chosen the beef.  It was advertised as a hamburger steak, but came as this weird ground beef heavily mixed with onion with cubes of something else all wrapped in some type of wrapper.  It came with a boiled onion in case you didn’t get enough onion taste with the beef.  At least I had the bread…

For comparison, my wife chose the Japanese meal and was really happy with it.  She is Asian so this was food she was used to

Dessert?  Well, whoever had a bad dessert?  It was a nice truffle.  I could have used two.

A short nap and then we are there in Bangkok.  Pretty good deal.  Didn’t get the upgrade on the return, but they did give us their version of Premium Economy which was pretty nice too, but I will take business anytime.

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We’ve seen the airlines change the value proposition of their frequent flyer programs over the last few years and now Hilton is taking similar steps.  What these changes have in common is that the changes give less to those who are infrequent customers or spend less and more to the truly loyal customers who spend more.

Hilton’s Old Honors Program rewarded bonus points like this:

Blue (No Status)   10 pts./ dollar for most hotels, only 5 pts./ dollar at Tru and Home2Suites

Silver                     11.5 pts./ dollar (a 15% bonus on your points)

Gold                      12.5 pts./ dollar (25% bonus)

Diamond               15 pts./ dollar (50% bonus)

In addition to the above, Hilton had their long-standing “Double Dip” which awarded the points above and also airline FF miles.  However, they also allowed you to opt to receive 50% more points in lieu of the miles and that’s what most people did.  Here’s what I would get as a Diamond on a typical stay.

So essentially, I got double points as a Diamond and somewhat less when I was either a Gold or Silver in earlier years.

Now the new program which just went into effect follows the following chart:

With the new program, there is no option to earn airline miles and the option for additional points has been rolled into the higher earning rates.  My personal example where I earned a 50% + 50% bonus, is now combined to earn the same 100%.  For Silver you are earning much less and Gold slightly more.  The upside is given as the permanent bonuses shown with 10,000 points for 40 nights and another 10,000 every 10 nights after that and then another 30,000 at 60 nights.  Since it takes 30 stays or 60 nights to make Diamond, this means very little to people like me who qualified on stays, but a lot to those who actually stayed 60 nights at a Hilton (+60,000 points).  I said that there is no option to earn airline miles like you had with the Double Dip, but they do give you the option to exchange Hilton Honors points for airline miles on a number of partners, but the exchange rate are so horrible, I can’t imagine anyone getting good value out of taking this path.

One mitigation you might want to explore, if the Hilton Program is one of your main hotels, is to apply for the new AEMX Aspire Card.  It has a 100,000 point bound for $4,000 spend in 90 days, but the benefits are a great reason to spend $450 on this card.  While there are several, the key ones are that you are a Diamond as long as you hold this card.  Also a $250 resort credit for stays at Hilton resorts.  This will either cancel out that annoying Resort Fee charged at many resorts or can be used to pay for dinner or other items when staying there.  The third key benefit is a $250 credit on a specific airline for any fees, such as baggage.  One tip is that lounge membership is included in the “fee” category so you could use this to offset most of a lounge membership if you don’t need to use it for baggage or a pad upgrade.  I conducted my own study and value Hilton points at 0.38 cents each, which says that 100,,000 points is worth $380.  Looks like you can come out way ahead on this credit card.  This makes you a Diamond to give you that top earning level – the benefits and upgrades at most hotels are very nice.  This is ideal for anyone who has a lot of hotel stays coming up in the year and wants to jump immediately to Diamond instead of working your way up the status ladder.

 

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We had an adventurous day in both tasting wines and eating.  Our day started with wine tasting along Foxen Canyon.  We had gotten the tip about the Fess Parker Winery from the hotel and started tasting there at 11.  That might seem a little early for wine tasting to many people, but we were far from alone.  There were at least a dozen others at every tasting room we went to.  Foxen Canyon is not quite Napa Valley, but it is the best concentration of wineries in the region.  There are over a dozen located on this one country road.  Here is a link that lists all the wineries on the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail.

The Fess Parker is probably the biggest since the name is so well known.

The interior has two large wine tasting bars and a large gift shop where you can by the book on the legend himself..

The back area had a band going and was a great area to eat or hang out while tasting.

And of course, you can buy a Coon Skin Cap

Further down the road we stopped at the Zaca Mesa Winery.  Tastings were $15, but we got $10 off with a $50 total purchase so that’s not a bad deal.

 

Photo courtesy of Zacamesa.com

The tasting room was packed.  The Foxen Valley wineries seem to attract a lot of Bachelorette Parties and we ran into one at almost every stop.  This made it kind of crowded, but the staff saw us and cleared a spot at the bar.

Yours truly with a couple bottles of their wine and a jar of Apricot Habanero Jelly.  Might sound weird, but it’s pretty good.  It is always fun discovering the non-wine unique items you can find when wine tasting.

One last winery is Andrew Murray, which is actually the first winery you will run into on the Foxen Canyon road.  They have a new tasting room and we really liked a varietal that we were unfamiliar with, Grenache.  They explained that it is usually used as a blending wine, but we liked it on its own.

Photos courtesy of Andrewmurrayvineyards.com

I could write more, but the best thing is to make a trip yourself to check out this lesser known wine tasting region of California.

 

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Now to the main event.  For the last several year, the wife and I have visited California in the winter in order to have fun sightseeing and stocking up our wine reserve – and accumulating miles on Alaska Airlines to maintain our dual status (stati?).  Our Northern California adventures have been documented here and here.  Alaska is probably the best airline to take for wine tasting since they will give you free baggage on a case of wine when flying from 29 airports.

Wine (Mileage Plan™ members only) – one protectively packaged case of wine when traveling on flights from the following airports, within the United States: Burbank (BUR), Fresno (FAT), Los Angeles (LAX), Monterey (MRY), Oakland (OAK), Orange County (SNA), Ontario (ONT), Palm Springs (PSP), Sacramento (SMF), San Diego (SAN), San Francisco (SFO), San Jose (SJC), San Luis Obispo (SBP), Santa Barbara (SBA), Sonoma (STS), Boise (BOI), Lewiston (LWS), Eugene (EUG), Medford (MFR), Portland (PDX), Redmond (RDM), Bellingham (BLI), Pasco (PSC), Pullman (PUW), Seattle (SEA), Spokane (GEG), Walla Walla (ALW), Wenatchee (EAT), and Yakima (YKM).

Starting out from the Fess Parker Hotel, the adventure started right across the street with probably the long art festival I have ever seen.  Right along the beachfront street, artist line up to sell their wares every Sunday.  The truth is that we totally lucked out as we had no idea about this interesting festival.

The show ends at the pier.  Right across from the pier, you cross the street and can find wine tasting rooms in and around the back streets.  These are all tasting rooms for wineries that are too far off the beaten path to expect you to go visit their location so they bring their wine in town.  The first stop that caught my eye was Corks ‘n Crowns that offered cupcake tasting on Sundays as well as wine.  Sunday really seems to be the day to do things in Santa Barbara!

I am not sure who decided that wine and cupcakes go together.  Individually they were both good, but a sip of wine after a sugary cupcake did not do it for me.

There were so many tasting rooms, we just selected a few to try.

Our favorite wines came from the Santa Barbara Winery.  They included a glass with their wine tasting which the others did not.  They had the best selection of white wines and had a great Late Harvest Riesling for only $10 if you are into dessert wines.  All were good and the average cost for a tasting was $15.  Here is a pro tip: you can pay for only one tasting but share it.  This limits your outlay and keeps you from having a “little too much” if you are going to be driving later.

One other place I want to specifically call out is the Area 51 Winery.  Namely because we found a great lunch here in the form of a Charcuteire plate for only $16 which includes meat and cheese.  A really good place to have lunch while you are wine tasting and ensure you have something in your stomach while you are getting all that alcohol.

Lastly, if you do need a break and want a nice walk.  Go back to the main road and take a walk down the pier.  Very nice out there and several places to eat.  You also get some spectacular views of the Santa Barbara Coast from there.

 

 

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With Santa Barbara as the destination, the next decision was where to stay?  A good friend recommended the Fess Parker Hotel.  My first reaction to this was “Fess Parker, the star of Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone from my childhood?”  Yep and if you don’t know what I am talking about go here.  The photo below may jog your memory.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Parker was a WW II vet who started acting in the stage show Mister Roberts.  In the mid-50’s, he was cast in what we would today call a mini-series of one hour Disney shows and later a movie all as him portraying Davy Crockett.  Remember the theme song?  “Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier…”  No? Well look it up, it’s pretty catchy.  After that he was later cast as the lead in the Daniel Boone TV Series (talk about type-cast) which ran ’64 -’71.  Not getting much work after that, her retired at the age of 49.  He took his money and invested in land in the Santa Barbara area.  In 1988, he started a winery (more on that in the next post) and later bought a hotel right on the beach.

The property was the location of a railroad roundhouse until 1961, which is how beachfront property stayed out of development so long in Santa Barbara.  With the diesel locomotive taking over the railways, there was no need for the old roundhouse and it was sold off.  This large hotel was built on the property and incorporated the feel of the old roundhouse by being circular in form.

When I started researching this hotel, I came upon a big bonus – the hotel was a Doubletree Resort.  The hotel was pricer than I normally stay at – about $250/nt., but since it was a Hilton, I could use the one Free Weekend Night Certificate that I received from spending $10,000 in a year on the now-discontinued Citi Hilton Card.  No worries as you can still do the same thing by either getting the new AMEX Ascend card and spend $15,000/ yr. or better yet, get the new AMEX Aspire card which comes with a free weekend night and an additional one if you can manage to spend $60k/ yr on it.  The Aspire comes with another great benefit that you can apply at the Fess Parker.  The card gives you $250 credit at Hilton resorts for incidentals.  While this can be used to offset any resort fees, this property didn’t have any fees.  It did have a first class restaurant which mean the wife and I could get a first-class dinner for free.

Pulling into the property, we found that we had to pay for parking.  Paying for parking goes against the grain of anyone who grew up in L.A., like I did, but at least it was only $10.  The entrance was grand, as was the lobby.

Checking in, we were given a beachview room which we had to find by taking a really long circular hallway (remember the roundhouse?) and were very delighted with the room.

The beds were each queen sized and the overall room gave plenty of walking around space.

The bathroom was OK, but it was nice to have two sinks as any married couple will tell you.

They even had bottles of wine from the Fess Parker winery, but at $40 each, we took a hard pass on drinking those.

The views of the beach were great, and we lucked out with 70 degree weather.  The little patio would be the perfect place for breakfast or an evening drink.

 

Walking around the property, you can see the roundhouse theme.  Also shown it their casual dining area. Remember my plan to use our resort credit on the fine dining recommended by my friend?  Turns out the restaurant is undergoing renovation and closed.  Oh, well, the credit will still be available for another 11 months…

Our free breakfast was very good and the service was absolutely great.  They even had donuts and churros for breakfast – how many hotels have that?  I’ll have to tell Ed Pizzarello, my donut-fiend friend.

So for a free stay, it is hard to complain.  The property was great and so were the staff.  Very disappointed about the renovations closing the restaurant, but hey, it happens.  Note that you can walk to all the wine tasting areas from the hotel.  More on that in another post.

 

 

 

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Lots of people want to escape the winter blues and California is a great place to do it.  The wife and I tried going to Sonoma Valley for wine tasting the last two years.  The first year was fantastic with 72 degree weather and sun the whole weekend, but last year, as many of you know, it basically rained all winter in California.  We decide to try something slightly different this year.  Based upon the recommendation of a wine-hobbyist friend, we tried going to Santa Barbara and the surrounding area for a three-day weekend.

Grabbing a great fare was too easy with Alaska Airlines.  We got a round trip BWI-LAX for $240 RT.  This route is still not heavily traveled and that’s a pretty typical price for the first quarter of the year.  Note that BWI-SAN is similarly cheap.  It’s doubly cheap for an MVP Gold (or Gold 75K like my wife) as I got almost 10,000 AS miles since AS still awards miles on distance, not revenue and doubles them for Gold (my wife got a 125% bonus).  Blogging wisdom values AS miles at 2.0 cents each, which means that I got back about $200 in value and my wife did even better.

So off to L.A. we went.  First stopping at The Club in BWI that I recently reviewed here.  We were upgraded to Frist days ahead of the flight due to the low passenger count.  Traveling in AS style, we reached L.A. by noon and picked up our rental car at Hertz for the roughly two hour drive to Santa Barbara.  I should mention that the Hertz rental for the weekend was free due to point acquired from work travels.  Bloggers don’t often talk about getting points from rental cars, but they do pay off.  I still had to pay $26 in taxes, but saved about $250 by using Hertz points.  Never let a point go to waste!

The weather at LAX was only 59 degrees, but that felt great to someone coming from D.C. Changed into a polo shirt when we got the car and started the beautiful drive up the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH).  I should mention that I grew up in L.A. so I knew the terrain like the back of my hand and was thrilled to be back in L.A. even if only for a long weekend.  PCH is a beautiful drive.  Sure it is a little crowded, but once past Malibu, that really thins out and it is a beautiful four lane highway right along the Pacific Coast.  Can’t ask for better than that.

Lot’s of little beach towns characterize the landscape between the coastal mountains and the ocean as you drive up PCH.  Beautiful views and feel free to pull out and stop to take some pics or just admire the view.  Just be careful merging back on to PCH as everyone pretty much goes 70!

Past the iconic peak in the photo of the left and PCH turns inward towards Oxnard where it joins up with Hwy 101.  Less beautiful there, but still nice as you pass through the various mid-sized cities, such as Ventura.  We didn’t stop there, but my parents used to take us there on vacation and there is a lot of nice things to see and do there.  For us, it was on to Santa Barbara and the Fess Parker Hotel.  More on that tomorrow.

 

 

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I usually travel through SEA with my wife who has an Alaska Lounge membership so we spend our layovers in one of the three lounges there.  Here is a review of their newest lounge in the C Concourse.  On this rare occasion, I was on my own on a six hour layover so time to use my AMEX Centurion Card.

The Centurion Lounge is located in the B Terminal, home to mostly Delta and Southwest flights.  It was a reasonable walk over from where I landed in C, but make sure you allow enough time to catch your flight as terminals at SEA are spread out, particularly the S and N Terminals.  The map makes it look like it is right at the intersection of Terminal B and the main corridor, but you need to walk a couple hundred feet down to spot the signs.

The desk checks you in and explains where everything is if you haven’t been there before.

Despite this being a smaller lounge, I thought there was plenty of space.

The food was much better than in the Alaska Lounge.  Quite a good variety of food (although no pancake machine!), including German coldcuts for breakfast.

I stuck with tea and a cherry bearclaw.

The room in the back has the bar and a great view of Terminal B and S.

They display the flights and I liked the décor on the media wall which is made of old suitcases, books, cameras and other travel items.  I just need to figure how to make one at home!

Altogether a very nice lounge with good wifi and food.  Check it out if you get a chance.

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Courtesy of reader Pete, he is donating 4 GPUs and 2 RPUs.  However, they expire at the end of this month, so you need a ticketed reservation to fly by 31 Jan.  He would like them to go to veterans or currently serving members of the military.  I don’t have any way to verify that, so we are on the honor system here.  I’ll randomly select winners to whomever responds to this post today.

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These are passes to the AS Lounges in LAX, PDX, SEA, or ANC and will expire 12/31.  If you are interested, reply to this post and I will draw random winners.

Posted by glenn | 10 Comments

After living in Honolulu for three years, my wife and I pretty much go back there once a year to catch up with friends and see what has changed.  Here , here and here are some past posts.  We do try and stay at a different property every time in order to try new things.  This time we got a good deal at the DoubleTree at Alana-Waikiki.  This property is located away from most of the major hotels on the strip and is right across from Ft. DeRussey.  The advantage to military members is that it is close enough to walk over and use all the amenities at the Hale Koa whenever you want.  I used a free weekend night cert from the Citi Honors CC to save about $200 on our stay.

Its a nice ten minute walk to the beach if you go through Ft. DeRussey.

Like a lot of Hawaiian properties, check-in is on the second floor, not the first.

Our King beg was quite nice and comfortable.

The rest of the room was good sized by Honolulu standards, but some folks might think it is small if they didn’t realize how expensive floor space is in Hawaii.

I did like the bathroom and the closet with a safe in it.

We were on the 14th floor (upgraded due to Diamond status) with nice views.  Kind of junky if you look down, but keep your eyes on the mountains or ocean and you are fine.

The hotel has an outdoor lap pool and a decent gym.

A change from the past is that the complimentary breakfast is a full breakfast, not a continental one as in the past.  It was quite good and you could get eggs cooked to order.

On the whole a very nice, reasonably priced, property at a good location.  My only complaint was the slowness of the elevators, but at least they are working on that problem!

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I had reviewed this lounge in its previous version a few years ago when it was an Aspire lounge.  It was a pay for play lounge which obviously didn’t get enough customers and closed a couple of years ago.  Now it has been completely renovated and opened as The Club.  The Club is a rapidly spreading chain of private lounges that take Priority Pass for admittance.  I was really glad when they re-opened this lounge as it really sucks to wait around for your flight in the main terminal seating.  I guess you could call me spoiled.  I also like the fact that Alaska moved their flights to the D Terminal from the C Terminal to be closer to this lounge.  So let’s check this out.

The directions say they are at Gat D10, but it is really closer to D11 so keep walking until you see this sign.

Show your card and sign at the front desk and enter.  It is not the largest lounge in the world – but it is the only one in the domestic terminals at BWI.

Even though it is small, there was plenty of room for my wife and I.

There was a nice variety of food, but it was mostly cold food.  I did like the fact that they had granola bars to grab and have on the plane.

Not to mention the essential coffee machine

Even though they are not part of an airline, they have a nice board to make sure you don’t miss your flight.

So this lounge definitely gets my recommendation whenever you need to travel through BWI.

 

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