Travel Tuesday: From New York to Disneyland

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(Apologies for the random photos; my phone died midway through our day trip to New York, so all I got were some weird shots of Lance at Steak n’ Shake Express :-/)

There are not many Broadway shows that I have to drop everything to see.  While I appreciate the skill, discipline, and talent involved in staging these often elaborate, mostly intensive shows, it’s not in my blood like Lance (who owns the cast recording of Sunset Boulevard in six or seven different languages.)

Still, we hadn’t been to NYC together in almost a year, and with spring in the air, Lance was itchin’ to visit the Great White Way.  And this time, I was actually excited to see a show: the revival of Pippin, but  my enthusiasm had nothing to do with the show itself.

Y’see, I’ve mentioned loyalty programs before; most of the time, your “loyalty” is rewarded with a hill of beans, but every so often, if you play your cards right, you can hit the jackpot.  Today’s example: Audience Rewards.

Audience Rewards is the loyalty program for big-time theatre productions, mostly in New York.  Every time you see a show, you earn Audience Rewards points, the objective being to earn enough to redeem for free tickets to a stage show.

Well, like a lot of airline loyalty programs, Audience Rewards also couples with other loyalty programs, like Delta Airlines’ SkyMiles or Starwood hotel group’s Preferred Guest (SPG) program, where you can opt for your points from Broadway ticket purchases to go to one of these other programs instead.  Sometimes, they even offer a bonus.

This is why I was so excited to go up to New York for the day and see Pippin (and, with rush tickets, the fabulous off-Broadway production Peter and the Starcatcher).  See, for every Pippin ticket you purchased, you got 5000 SPG points, so between the two of us, that’s…well, you can do the math.

That may not seem like a lot, until you look at what 10,000 SPG points will get you: three nights at the Sheraton Garden Grove near Disneyland in California, a hotel that goes for over $130 a night.

Since we were already thinking about going to California this fall, these bonus points from Pippin will end up saving us almost $400!

As with any of this loyalty program stuff, the trick is not spend any more (or significantly more!) than you would normally spend in the pursuit of points.  It just worked out that we were looking to see a show, and this promotion happened to sync up with that.

Disneyland, December 2013, baby!!

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All Aboot Points, Eh

Next week, a few colleagues and I will be flying an aeroplane beyond Castle Black and the Wall to the Great White North, land of maple, moose and Molson.  You got that right: MINNESOTA!

Just kidding. I wouldn’t wish Minnesota on my worst enemy (I’ve actually never been there, but I wasn’t a huge fan of the mom on “Bobby’s World”, which is the only thing I’m basing my opinion on.)

No, silly, we’re going to Canada!  POUTINE! (That’s Canadian for “Yay!”)

As some of you know, I’ve turned into a bit of a hotel/airline points fiend in my old age, and a business trip is a great way to build up some points on somebody else’s dime.  No downside there, right?

Welllll…maybe.

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Travel Tip Thursday: How to Stay Like a Prince But Pay Like a Pauper

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I used to be of the opinion that traveling was all about experiencing the local culture, and the quality of the hotel was inconsequential.

However, after a series of seedy stays in hotels, ranging from the classic flickering-light drug-den in Miami to the Belvedere Hotel in Manhattan, where an Eastern European lady emerged from her room in a muumuu and curlers to ask me for help in opening her bottle of champagne (apparently she lived there), I decided to re-frame my approach to hotels.

Also, Lance is generally a snob and will sleep fully clothed on top of the covers if the room doesn’t suit him.  Oh, and he’ll involuntarily make this face the entire time:

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My new philosophy is this: traveling is about having a great overall experience, which includes where you stay.  It’s like going to out to eat; the food may be great, but if the restaurant looks like it’s the after-hours meeting place for our impending rat overlords, then that tarnishes your experience.

So when planning for your trip, how do you know if your hotel is up to your lofty standards? And how can you stay somewhere that’s within your budget?  Here are some tips for newbies:

TripAdvisor is your friend. TripAdvisor, for the uninitiated, is like Yelp, but for all things travel, particularly hotels.  Two things are great about TripAdvisor.

  • First, many of the listings include photos taken by travelers themselves, not just the gussied-up professional photos you get from the hotels; this way, you’re getting a taste of what it’s really like to stay in these places, as opposed to the image that the hotels uses to sell itself, which could be vastly different.
  • The second great thing about TripAdvisor is their review system (0-5…circles? Owl eyes?) is a more honest representation of their quality than the B.S. star-system you see on Expedia or Orbitz.  Guess what? That star rating you see on hotel sites is totally bogus and is established by the hotels themselves! I’ve recently come around to semi-pro traveller Paul Carr (highly recommend his book The Upgrade for this and other useful travel tips infused with dry British humour), who sticks to the rule of only staying at places that have earned 4 or more TripAdvisor owl eyes; anything else isn’t worth your time.

Subscribe to yet another e-mail alert! Sign up for the weekly e-mail alerts from Travelzoo and Sherman’s Travel.  These sites have staffs that pull together some great deals on vacations, flights, and hotels from all over the world, and every once and awhile they’ll announce that the hotel you want to stay in is having a great promotion.

A little legwork will pay big dividends on your room rate.  The worst part about wanting to go to a place like New York or San Francisco is that, daaaaayyymn, hotels are ‘spensive. But, there’s a way you can sometimes beat the system and stay somewhere nicer than the Tenderloin.

Almost all of the major chains (Hilton, Starwood (which includes Westin, Sheraton, Aloft, etc.), Hyatt, Best Western) have a price-match guarantee, so if you see the same room on the same night cheaper than what’s listed on their own company website, they claim they’ll match and also give you a bonus, like an American Express gift card (Hilton) or a credit for your next stay (Best Western).  Unfortunately, most of these chains have a trick in their process so that you’ll almost never be able to match: for example, Hilton, Starwood, and Best Western require that you fill out a form online and give their customer service reps (CSRs) 24 hours to get back to you; if the lower rate is still available at the time they check, then they will match.  Keep in mind, though, that most hotel sales through sites like Expedia or Hotels.com only last for 24 hours, so the likelihood of that lower rate you’ve found being available by the time the hotel CSR checks is slim.

I’ve had the most luck with Hyatt’s Best Rate Guarantee. Unlike the other chains, you can actually call and get a real live person on the phone to check if your price match is valid at that very second. Not only that, but if it is valid, they’ll match, and then give you an additional 20% off on the room rate!  This is how we were able to stay at the Andaz Wall Street last year for $120 a night, a steal in Manhattan and definitely the nicest hotel…shower I’ve ever experienced.

Now, things to consider here: these best rate guarantees are VERY particular about a few things, especially that the room type be listed as exactly the same, word-for-word, on their website and a competitor’s.  You also can’t use sites with “auction” features (i.e., paying for the room before knowing exactly which hotel you’re staying at), like Priceline and Hotwire.  Lastly, they won’t honor any vacation bundles (like, if your flight and hotel price are combined on a site like Travelocity)–it has to be the room all by itself.

When looking for a possible price-match, I with check the following sites to make sure I’m covering all possible options: aggregate sites like Room77 and Kayak, but also American Airlines Vacations, which isn’t usually included in sites like those above and can often surprise with lower rates than you can find elsewhere.

Lastly, dealsdealsdeals.  Besides Groupon and LivingSocial, which rarely offer nice hotels in desirable locations at a rate I would consider a steal, there are often deals going on through the hotel chains themselves, or through other vendors, that can be worthwhile.  For example, for the next few weeks, American Express and the U.S. Travel Association are running some solid travel deals through their annual Daily Getaways promotion.  Earlier this week, I bought 32,000 Wyndham Rewards points for $110, which I was able to redeem for a Friday and Saturday night stay at the Wingate Manhattan Midtown. That’s $55 a night for a room that’s currently going for $335 a night on Expedia and Orbitz!

You can usually find out about these deals from sites like The Points Guy or Mommy Points, so I suggest liking them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter so you can keep abreast of the latest deals.

All right, so now that I’ve shared some of my tips with you, share some with me! Particularly, where are some non-sucky places to have dinner in NYC?  No matter how many times we go, Lance and I always seem to get stuck at really terrible over-promise/under-deliver restaurants.  Recommendations in the $ to $$$ range?