One of the good things about the Marriott-Starwood merger (yes, Ed, there was something good) was the dropping of the point requirement for Lifetime status and only going by nights like the Starwood program. Marriott’s program used to require 250, 500, or 750 nights and 800K, 1200K, or 1600K points respectively for the three status levels, Silver, Gold, and Platinum.

As someone who stayed at the Government per diem rate on most of my stays, I had over 800 nights at the time of the merger, but was still below the 1200K mark in lifetime points. Dropping the requirement for points at the end of last year, made me an instant lifetime member at the newly created Titanium level. Needless to say, I was very happy with this and Marriott has always made a point to recognize that status whenever I stayed there to date.

I was surprised to receive a large clear plastic envelope in the mail the other day from Marriott. I presumed it was some marketing deal.

My Lifetime Titanium Elite materials? Not sure what was inside, but they were easily 11 months late with this. Opening the envelope was a nice cardboard tri-fold.

Cool, what was inside?

Nice! a heavy metal card that calls me out as a top elite. However, how am I supposed to use this? They already know my status on the reservation. Why would I carry this around? Just to whip it out when I check in and say “DYKWIA, I’M A TITANIUM ELITE baby”! Yeah, probably not. A nice gesture, but I probably could have thought of a better way for them to recognize my status.,,and in a more timely manner.

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ALL HANDS: Inside or Outside of the City Center?

 

Greetings, Fellow Travelers!

 

BLUF: Balancing price, amenities, and location can be a daunting task. And while no single factor can truly take precedence over another during your travel planning, it’s best to stick to your guns and make the best decision for you and your travel party.

 

Today’s ALL HANDS offers a glimpse into my decision-making process on where to stay during city and urban travels.

 

As I write this, I’m finishing up a six-day driving tour in Portugal which started in Porto. Porto is a great town, and you should definitely spend as much time as you can in it and Portugal. Additionally, the trip’s start brought to bear the dilemma of where to stay as it relates to location, loyalty, and price.

 

In Porto, my preferred hotel chain, Marriott, has two main hotels, the Sheraton Porto and the AC Hotel Porto. Neither is near the historic city center where most of our events would take place, but the Sheraton had a Club Lounge and a free breakfast. The Sheraton is an approx. 15 mins car ride into the Porto city center which, as we suspected, has very bad traffic.

 

Within Porto’s historic city center, most of the “affordable luxury” hotels we prefer were low on affordable but high on luxury. For example, we could’ve booked a Sheraton room for $210/night. Still, we would not be close to anything we wanted to do, and while we are active travelers, we do like to scurry back to the hotel for a rest during the day not to mention a touch of room service if the mood hits. (Writer’s note: it does hit…and often!)

 

The only significant chain hotel in the city center is the InterContinental Porto, the city’s most famous five-star hotel. During our dates, rooms were $300/night without breakfast (which itself was $25 per person). While I do like boutique, non-chain hotels, I collect hotel points and nights in all chains, so if not Marriott, I usually opt for a known brand. Plus, our last InterContinental stay was in Wellington, New Zealand, and it was an amazing property with tons of luxury!

 

Strictly by the math, the room rate difference between the InterContinental and the Sheraton is $90 per night or $180 more for the two nights. If you add two breakfasts for the two mornings, that’s an additional $100 or a $280 difference.

 

In Porto, we had three specific events schedules: a visit to the amazing Harry Potter-inspiring Livraria Lello bookstore, a Porto dinner-time tapas walking tour, and a city sightseeing bus tour which started at the city center. (In fact, right outside the InterContinental as it turned out.)

 

For each of these events, from the Sheraton, we would’ve had to either book a taxi or an Uber to get downtown. Given the time and stress of trying to make a meeting or reservation time in city traffic, that additional $280 price tag wasn’t looking so bad. Plus, even with a two-person seasoned travel party, annoyances, bickering, exhaustion, and exasperation do occur.

 

While everyone likes to be a calm and collected traveler, with enough wrong turns or uphill climbs or changes in temperature, sometimes the best remedy is a strategic pause in the itinerary. For us, this is best handled with a trip back to the hotel for some R&R, and for this trip, a 15-25 minute taxi ride would not have worked.

 

So, I booked the InterContinental and paid for the convenience of being closer to where we wanted to be and the ability to recover from any travel fatigue. In the long run, the $280 price difference (yes, we ate breakfast, and it was good!) wasn’t too hard on the wallet. Being right in the city center played exactly the way we had hoped: we were mere steps from our activities and enjoyed some good lounging time back at the hotel, which was never too far away.

 

Now, I grant neither of these “per night” hotel rates are part of a budget-friendly travel itinerary, but as I’ve honestly offered up from the start, I’m not that kind of traveler. I’m far too fussy for 2-star hotels full of backpackers or an AirBnB where I have to stock the place with breakfast foods. 😉

 

I’m not numb to the pinch of a higher price tag, though. I do, however, try to employ a “no regrets” attitude and try not to fret about travel decisions once made. Or would this be more of a “head in the sand” strategy? Hmmm…

 

In sum, sometimes price is king, and you have to stay farther outside the city center. And sometimes, understanding the energy level of your travel party negates price. And sometimes, there is no adult in the room, and throwing money at the situation is what “affordable luxury” is all about. HA!

 

Happy Travels!

 

Vr,

Albert

 

Albert Guerrero, USAF, Ret.

“Let’s Travel Farther, Together!”

 

Follow my travels on Instagram: @albert_traveler

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ALL HANDS: Loyalty Status Levels (Part 2, Hotels).

 

Greetings, Fellow Travelers!

 

BLUF: Marriott Bonvoy Platinum (or higher) level is one of the most useful hotel status levels when traveling around Europe.

 

Today’s ALL HANDS will review which hotel status level brings the most value with it as you travel around Europe.

 

First, many folks really like AirBnBs or other shared-economy lodging options. Second, the appeal of a secluded guest house or non-chain boutique hotel cannot be denied, and many travelers only opt for these accommodations. If you’re among these groups, stop reading and start planning you next trip now!

 

I’m a hotel person. I like King-size beds, fresh towels, concierge desks, and, when in the mood, room service. Being stationed in Europe for over six year, one of my travel strategies is to sample not just great locations but also great hotels.

 

For me, I default to Marriott-branded hotels when I travel. Marriott has the largest global hotel footprint (over 6,500 properties), and their portfolio consist of 30 different brands, from luxury to value options. So, usually, there is a Marriott hotel where I travel.

 

Of course, maintaining 30 brands, some independently-owned and other owned by Marriott Inc., mean benefits are not standard across all brands. This is a source of frustration to many, but after military life, I’m pretty good at rolling with the punches and adapting when needed. Do your travel research!

 

Here, I’m specifically focused on the breakfast and executive lounge access benefits. For example, when I visited London in May 2018 as a Marriott Platinum, I booked a USG/military-priced room for $190/night for two nights at the Marriott West India Quay in Canary Wharf. While not in central London, this Marriott is very convenient to public transit. Plus, the Canary Wharf area itself is full of restaurants and other amenities, so I find it a great location.

 

With that entry-level priced room and with my status benefits, I received executive lounge access. The executive lounge offered tea, coffee, and soft drinks all day, and, at tea time, offered some sweet cakes and scones. At cocktail hour, wine and spirits were offered along with heavy appetizers. I enjoyed the view and the snacks at the lounge throughout my stay.

 

For breakfast, most Marriott-branded properties offer a continental (sometimes very continental) breakfast in the lounge. However, West India Quay closes their lounge for breakfast and invites Platinum members to enjoy the full buffet in the main restaurant. Here, you can have made-to-order omelettes, a healthy selection of breakfast meats, waffles, juice, and fruit. I definitely enjoyed my “Full English Breakfast” complete with tea, eggs, toast, sausage, and baked beans.

 

In sum, these two Platinum-level benefits are my favorite of the Marriott Bonvoy program. I greatly value a free breakfast (even if it’s only tea/coffee and a croissant) and access to a lounge to enjoy some free snacks and beverages. Remember, not all Marriott properties offer the benefits exactly the same nor do all properties have lounges, so do your homework.

 

Happy Travels!

 

Vr,

Albert

 

Albert Guerrero, USAF, Ret.

“Let’s Travel Farther, Together!”

 

Follow my travels on Instagram: @albert_traveler

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Moxy is one of the 30 brands of the new Marriott/ Starwood family.  It was invented a few years ago to appeal tot he Millennial generation, but you may find it to your liking even if you are over 30.  We used it to stay cheaply in New Orleans while helping our daughter move after graduating from Med School.  We could stay there, only a few blocks off of Canal St., for less than $100/night.

The building looks to be a renovated old hotel or office building.  The neighborhood felt fairly safe, but I would still watch yourself walking around at night.

The hotel tries super hard to be “hip”.  They fail in some thing, but succeed in others.  Such as offering free drinks at check-in.  In fact, the check-in desk is just an extension of the bar area.

We stayed in Room #7.  Eclectic art is a big theme here.

The room was very Spartan, but being a military guy, I was OK with that.

They tried to be whimsical with the décor and some was actually very smart, such as hanging the extra chair and ironing board on pegs on the wall.

You can get both happy hour finger food and breakfast downstairs at the bar for hot food or this pantry for make your own stuff like bagels or cereal.

Our take on Moxy was that it was a great value for the stay and an interesting experience.  We plan on repeating next time we are in New Orleans.

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Continuing on from the review of the Conrad Bangkok yesterday.

This hotel is proof of the importance of having enough status to access the lounge.  It was first class and saved us untold amounts of money by providing a good breakfast every morning and even a few meals at their nightly happy hour.  They even had afternoon tea!

The lounge covers half the 29th floor and has a wide variety of hot and cold foods.  The waiter or waitress will happily get you any drinks you wish.

There is a custom omelet station and serves breakfast to suit travelers from around the world including German coldcuts and Chinese Dim Sum.

The leftover pastries make a reappearance at afternoon tea.  And still taste just as good then.

Happy Hour from 1730 – 1930 is really a light meal and drinks, including mixed drinks made to order.  You can start with salad or cheeses.

They have gourmet spoons which I am not sophisticated enough to enjoy, but my foodie wife really liked.  I had a hard time getting the Peking Duck as it disappeared as soon as they brought out a plate of it.

The waiter or waitress will come by and top off your drink or you can help yourself to a variety of beer and wine.

The views cover three sides of the building and are interesting day and night.

When you are not stuffing yourself in the lounge, you can go relax by the poolside.  Although, it is a little too hot and sticky to enjoy it during the day.  Early evening was lovely though.

They have a full spa and a huge gym with its own dance studio.  Unfortunately, I seem to have lost the photos of those.

There is also a couple of restaurants and a café, although if you get lounge access, there is no need to visit those.  On the ground floor is a nice bar, although it seemed empty much of the time.

Lastly, they had a Buddha, in celebration of Songkran to pour water on and wish for good fortune.  Here is my wife wishing for good luck in shopping.

On the whole a great hotel and probably the best time of year to visit.  April is hot and dry in Thailand, but there are plenty of ways to cool off especially the traditional water fights!

 

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Staying in Bangkok for Songkran, Thai New Year. 13-15 Apr. was actually really easy.  Although I am sure lower end hotels were at a premium, staying at a five-star property turned out to be very easy.  I used Hilton points and got a great deal at 104,000 pts. for five nights.  That is actually the price for four night, but Hilton gives you the fifth night free whether you pay in money or points.  I value Hilton points at 0.38 cents each, so the 104,000 was worth roughly $400.  That’s a great price even in Asia where hotels tend to be cheaper.

We took a taxi from the airport to the Conrad for 500 Baht.  Probably overpaid a little, but it was 2300 at night and I didn’t feel like haggling over 3 or 4 bucks.  If you can have the driver use the meter, that’s the way to go and on the return it was 243 Baht.  Do expect to pay for the tolls if you use the meter, but they were include with our flat rate.

The entrance and lobby were grand as you would expect with a top tier hotel.  I went immediately to the Hilton Honors dedicated line which was empty, but the check in clerks still waited on the existing customers and only motioned me over when they finished with the regular patrons.  So much for being a Diamond!

Using the Hilton APP, I knew ahead of time that we had been upgrade to a Junior Suite.  It was everything I expected to find in a five-star suite.

I liked the desk set up as I typically still have to get work done no matter where I am in the world.

Dessert and fruit were left for us, which was a nice touch.  They were all a type of candy coating over either soft cheese or sweet rice.  A nice way to end the evening after a long flight.

The king sized bed was in the adjacent room with the bathroom beyond.

There was a cute fella on the bed and a similar one in the bathroom.  The Thai version of the rubber duck I guess.

The bathroom was great and had both a bath and a glassed-in shower.

I highly recommend this hotel even though it is in the embassy area and not the heart of the city.  It is a few blocks (and the hotel has a shuttle) to the Bangkok Transit System (BTS) – the primary mass transit system.

More on the hotel amenities, especially the lounge tomorrow.

 

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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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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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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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We splurged on Emirates Business Class on the way back from Budapest with a stopover in Dubai.  We lived in Dubai 15 years ago and hadn’t been back since.  We heard it might have changed just a little…

For our stay, I got a good deal at the Conrad Dubai located near the head of Sheikh Zayed Highway.  For a reasonable fee, the hotel sent us a driver to pick us up at the airport and take us to the Conrad at one in the morning.

As expected, opulence is the key to any hotel in Dubai.

We were given an upgrade to a deluxe room on the 41st floor due to my Hilton Diamond status.

On the right of the second photo, that is a window into the bathroom with shades that you can raise or lower by remote control.  A little weird, but hey, it’s Dubai…

The bathroom was very large with both a bath and a shower.  Of course, it wouldn’t be complete without terry-clothed robes.

The manager gave us little candies and dates along with a whole bowl of fruit which we couldn’t finish even over our two day stay.

We faced the ocean, but the haze only allowed us to see the neighborhoods around the hotel.  Pretty typical for Dubai.

The executive Lounge was both well-stocked and spacious.  Spent a lot of time up here.

The Dubai Metro station is directly in front of the hotel and connected by a walkway.  Made getting up and down Sheikh Zayed Highway very easy.  You can visit several malls by taking the Metro.

It was great to get back to Dubai after so many years.  The Conrad was a great hotel and I would stay there again if given a chance to go back.  Everyone in the hotel treated us wonderfully.

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I had three free night certificates burning a hole in my pocket.  They came from getting the sign-up bonus from the Chase Ritz-Carlton credit card and would expire in mid Sept.  Ritz-Carlton nights are not to be spent unwisely, unlike the free nights from Marriott or Hyatt where the category level was limited.  I plotted for months and finally came upon a grand vacation – four nights in Budapest!  Now you may be asking, why four nights if I only had three free nights?  That’s because I could use the fourth night free benefit of the Citi Prestige card.  Now that benefit used to be better and would have given me the whole fourth night free, but Citi got wise to that too good to be true benefit and now only give you the base rate divided as a average of the four night stay.  That was still a pretty good discount, so I took it.  That fourth night was a charge of 304 Euro which demonstrates the huge value I was getting for the three free nights.

Arriving on Lufthansa, we went through the Budapest airport pretty quickly, but not before grabbing the Mini-Bud (great pun on a mini-bus) service to the hotel.  The counter is located right at baggage claim.  It cost 9800 Hungarian Forint (~$40), for a round trip ticket for my wife and I.  Maybe I could have gotten a better deal from a taxi, but I had heard horror stories of taxis ripping off tourists and trying to get $40 just for a one way ride.  The service worked out well and we got to the Ritz-Carlton 30 minutes later.

There was even a guy playing piano!

Pretty nice digs, but what did you expect for a Ritz-Carlton?  I made a rookie mistake though.  They said that even though I was a Marriott Gold, I was not entitled to the Club level, meaning no lounge access for me.  Unless, I wanted to pay $120!  I said no problem, I had three Club level upgrades with the credit card.  However, after a long call to Marriott/ Ritz-Carlton rewards, they said that I couldn’t use my certs to upgrade as there was no availability on the Club level.  I said I was fine with my room where it was and didn’t need to be on that level; I just wanted Club access.  They said no can do, since they wanted to restrict access to the Club.  OK, so I couldn’t use my free cert to get access, but if I paid them money then the overcrowding issue suddenly went away?  Pretty lame and I took a pass.  Figures we could eat on the economy for that much money and have more fun.

Our upgraded room was fantastic and a really good example of what can be done with renovating an old hotel.

The bathroom was equally nice.

I loved this antiquated touch.  There was a box in the closest where you could leave your shoes and have them back spit-shined by the morning.  Darn and I didn’t have my jump boots with me!

The hotel had a nice, but small gym, a restaurant that we didn’t try (looked expensive), a breakfast that was definitely expensive (~$39 for full breakfast) and a cute bar.

Despite some minor criticisms, we actually loved the hotel.  The location was perfect for a tourist – very central to everything.  We would love to come back and stay here again – we just have to figure out how to get a way to do it for free/ low cost!

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