Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Le Méridien Kuala Lumpur

After our brief stay in Langkawi, Malaysia, my friend and I continued on to Kuala Lumpur, where we had booked a two-night stay at the Le Méridien. Starwood has no shortage of hotels in KL, where other options include the Sheraton Imperial, Westin, Aloft Sentral, and the upcoming St. Regis and W, both opening towards the end of this year.

The location of the Le Méridien is perfectly ideal for those who are looking for convenience to and from the airport. Literally just across the street from Sentral Station, and exactly 28 minutes on the KLIA Ekspres train to the Main Terminal, Le Méridien shares a twin tower complex with the Hilton Kuala Lumpur. Since we were arriving on Air Asia via the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT), we first needed to board a shuttle bus, which took us to a connecting station to catch the KLIA Transit train. The total journey from the LCCT is considerably longer, taking approximately one hour to arrive at Sentral Station.

Le Méridien Kuala Lumpur

Upon arrival, we walked out the north exit, crossed the street, and entered the Le Méridien/Hilton entrance from the ground-level doors. After taking the elevator up to the lobby level, we came upon a funny "choose your own adventure" moment, where one set of doors takes you to the Hilton lobby, while the other leads to the Le Méridien lobby:

Choose wisely

The Le Méridien lobby was beautifully modern, with a backdrop of colorful LED lights behind the check-in counter and plenty of couches and seats for lounging in the circular atrium. A coffee shop and wine bar nearby offered a place to recharge or relax, and free WiFi throughout the lobby allowed guests to catch up on email and work. Unfortunately, complimentary WiFi has not been extended to the rooms, although Platinum and Gold members do get this perk automatically.

Check-in counters


Wine bar

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

US Airways Still Not Levying Fuel Surcharges On British Airways Award Redemptions

Since transitioning over from Star Alliance to OneWorld at the end of March, US Airways has been experiencing a number of hiccups when it comes to searching for and booking partner award tickets. One upside that I briefly touched upon in the previous post, however, is that the dreaded fuel surcharges on British Airways appear to be nonexistent when using Dividend Miles, despite claims by US Airways that they will indeed be levied on award tickets.

I assumed this was merely a software glitch, and would be fixed in a matter of days, if not hours. But I was pleasantly surprised to find out that fuel surcharges are still not being collected on British Airways award tickets as of this morning. I confirmed the total taxes and fees on both the American Airlines and British Airways website search tools, then compared them by calling into US Airways to price out the identical itineraries.

Here are the results for three different round-trip cases on random dates, all on British Airways metal in first class (note that US Airways charges an additional $50 award processing fee):

  • SFO-LHR-SFO  (BA286/285)
    12/27/2014 - 1/6/2015
    BA: 150,000 + $1268.64
    AA: 125,000 + $1268.60
    US: 125,000 + $325.14 + $50.00
  • JFK-LHR-JFK  (BA180/113)
    12/19/2014 - 1/7/2015
    BA: 120,000 + $1192.64
    AA: 125,000 + $1192.60
    US: 125,000 + $325.14 + $50.00
  • LHR-JNB-LHR  (BA57/54)
    5/17/2014 - 5/25/2014
    BA: 150,000 + $1006.00
    AA: 100,000 + $1006.10
    US: 100,000 + $405.46 + $50.00

Clearly, US Airways is missing something here. Just to double check, I went onto ITA Matrix and broke out all the taxes, fees, and surcharges, and it appears that US Airways is not only missing the fuel surcharge, but a few other items as well:

ITA Matrix breakdown of taxes, fees, and surcharges

No one knows how long this will last, but I'm torn between saying "this is clearly a bug and US Airways will probably fix it very soon since they are leaving hundreds of dollars on the table", and "US Airways is notorious for flouting their own award booking rules and incorrect award ticket pricing, so this may go on indefinitely". I'm still leaning towards the former though.

Whatever the case is, if you've ever dreamed of trying out British Airways in first class (or any class for that matter) but balked at dropping thousands on taxes and fees, now is the best time to do so using your Dividend Miles!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Some Lessons From Today's US Airways & American Airlines Devaluation

If you haven't heard already, both American Airlines and US Airways made some unannounced changes to their frequent flyer programs overnight, the result of which was the elimination of some of the best "sweet spots" for both award charts. Gary over at View From The Wing wrote extensively about it here and here, while Ben from One Mile At A Time was far more scathing in his critique of the changes that were made without any advanced notice.

While I am just as upset over the lack of communication from American Airlines and US Airways, I am not as upset over the changes themselves. Yes, OneWorld Explorer awards are officially gone, as are the free stopovers at North American gateway cities, but I would venture to say that probably a minority of American Airlines customers actually took advantage of these benefits.

I'm far more heartbroken to see the long-expected demise of the 90k round-trip business class award to North Asia using US Airways Dividend Miles. This was by far the best value of any award program out there, and everyone knew it wouldn't last much longer. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to book this award, but coincidentally, I had just placed a round-trip first class award to North Asia on hold using only 120k Dividend Miles. Which leads me to a few lessons I learned within the past 24 hours:

  • If you have an award in mind using AAdvantage or Dividend Miles, especially those in the remaining "sweet spots", book it now. As we've seen from the previous mergers, no good can ever come out of combining frequent flyer programs. Award charts will be gutted, and the American Airlines and US Airways award charts are absolutely next on the chopping block.

    Even worse, we now know they are willing to do it without any advance notice whatsoever, which makes redeeming your miles for the most valuable awards priority number one. Since I had just placed a first class award to North Asia on hold using Dividend Miles yesterday, imagine my shock when I awoke to news of the devaluation this morning. I was lucky that the first class mileage requirement didn't change. If it did, there is a good chance I would have had to pay the new rate... all because I waited. Don't wait.

  • Related to the previous lesson: never, ever, ever place an award on hold using Dividend Miles. The infamous phone agents over at US Airways may not know much about geography (or their own award booking rules for that matter), but any advantages you glean from them will eventually be offset by that one agent who decides to conjure up non-existent issues just to make your life difficult.

    After learning of the devaluation, I immediately called in to ticket my itinerary. Unfortunately, the first agent who picked up decided that my routing was illegal (it wasn't), wouldn't let me hang up (she cut me off multiple times and put me on hold), and then proceeded to give me all sorts of reasons why my award wasn't "pricing out correctly".

    I was terrified she would dismantle my award or end up charging me double the miles. After one hour and twenty minutes on the phone, I finally had my award ticketed for the original price. Something as simple as ticketing an award on hold, which should have taken maybe ten minutes at most, ended up almost exploding in my face because of an incompetent agent.

  • The next award set to disappear will be the 120k round-trip first class award to North Asia using Dividend Miles. This may be obvious, but it bears repeating. Anytime bloggers or the frequent flyer community point out an "amazing value" on any award chart, be ready for it to disappear. The 90k business class award has now increased to 110k (which is still a good deal, so be ready), and the first class award will soon follow. The fact that there is only a 10k-mile difference between the two award levels should be clear enough. It won't last.

All of that being said, I am super excited about the "round-the-world" first class award ticket I booked to North Asia this morning. One of the loopholes left in the US Airways transition from Star Alliance to OneWorld is that fuel surcharges still appear to be missing from British Airways redemptions. These charges can be massive (~$1,000 round-trip), so now is the time to try out business or first class on British Airways. I have no doubt the problem will be fixed within days, if not hours. My itinerary is as follows:

  • SFO  LHR:  British Airways First Class
  • LHR  FRA:  British Airways Business Class
  • FRA  NRT:  Japan Airlines First Class
  • HND  HKG:  Cathay Pacific Business Class
  • HKG  LAX:  Cathay Pacific First Class
  • LAX  SFO:  American Airlines First Class

Total cost was $131.21 plus $50.00 in award booking fees and 120,000 Dividend Miles. Since this will be part of a two-week journey to Myanmar over the holidays, I used British Airways Avios to tack on an additional leg from Hong Kong to Yangon on Dragonair. Total cost for this economy round-trip award was $79.67 and 20,000 Avios. I may also try to book a few AAdvantage awards over the next few weeks in anticipation of a more comprehensive award chart devaluation.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The Andaman, A Luxury Collection Resort, Langkawi

I had the opportunity to stay at The Andaman, A Luxury Collection Resort in Langkawi, Malaysia last week. This was my first time staying at an SPG Luxury Collection property, and I was lucky enough to be traveling with a friend of mine who not only has Platinum status, but also a number of remaining Suite Night Awards that he graciously decided to use for our three-night stay.

Initially, the hotel responded to the upgrade request with three different rooms for each of the three nights. We would start off in a Jacuzzi Studio Suite, then move to an Executive Suite, then to a standard Deluxe Room. Unhappy with this arrangement, we pressed the issue further, and fortunately, they relented with an email letting us know that they were able to accommodate us in an Executive Suite for the entire stay. Even better, they put us in a ground-floor Executive Pool Suite, which included a private plunge pool, cabana daybed, and garden.

Approximately the size of Phuket but somewhat less developed, Langkawi is still home to a handful of high-end resorts, including Four Seasons and Westin. For The Andaman, one of its biggest draws also represents a major disadvantage for many guests. The secluded property is surrounded by a beautiful 10-million year old rain forest, but that means it is completely isolated from the rest of the island, and the drive there from the airport takes approximately half an hour along a small winding road. Airport transfers to and from the resort cost approximately $35 USD each way.

The Andaman lobby

Once there, however, I was completely taken by the pristine environment and surprisingly, the grandeur of the lobby. The centerpiece is a replica of the Balai Nobat, a traditional orchestral platform built for the royalty of the Malaysian state of Kedah. At the check-in counter, we were greeted by a friendly and extremely knowledgeable agent, who gave us an extensive rundown of the resort and all of the amenities and activities available. With her suggestion, we signed up for one of the morning nature walks around the property.

A great tip we received during check-in was to have our SPG Platinum card ready while dining at the resort restaurants for a 15% discount. This came in quite handy as guests are essentially held captive at the property unless you have a rental car or are willing to pay a hefty sum for a long taxi ride into town. If you forgot your card, reception can issue a temporary one during your stay.

Balai Nobat replica

This was one of the most pleasant check-in experiences I've ever had, with our awesome agent anticipating virtually every question and concern we had and addressing them in a remarkably knowledgeable and thorough manner. To our delight, she even gave my friend a hand-written card from the staff thanking him for his continued loyalty and Platinum status.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Despite Program Changes, Club Carlson Still A Great Value

Program changes to Club Carlson took effect on March 15, but despite mostly negative adjustments, the overall value proposition remains relatively consistent. The biggest devaluation, of course, is the newly added top-tier Category 7, at a rate of 70,000 Gold Points per night. Previously, there had only been a total of six categories, with the most expensive rate being 50,000 Gold Points per night. While this represents a whopping 40% increase in the top-tier category, the good news is that only nine properties have moved up to Category 7, and almost all of them are in Europe, where there are plenty of other hotel options available:
  • The May Fair London
  • Plaza on the River London
  • Radisson Blu Hotel Champs Elysees Paris
  • Radisson Blu Le Dokhan’s Paris
  • Radisson Blu Le Metropolitan Paris
  • Radisson Blu 1835 Hotel & Thalasso Cannes
  • art’otel Amsterdam
  • Radisson Royal Hotel Moscow
  • Radisson Blu Royal Hotel Dubai

New hotel category and Premium Room option as of March 15, 2014

Creating a brand new top-tier category, however, does leave the door wide open for a more massive devaluation in the future. While visiting London last summer, I stayed at three different Carlson Rezidor properties, including The May Fair, which is one of the priciest hotels in the city. All three were wonderful, but I can understand how The May Fair definitely stood out and probably deserved to be in a higher category. In total, 114 hotels moved up in category, and 67 moved down. You can find the full list of changes here.

Sadly, the generous online booking bonus that provided up to 3,000 additional Gold Points depending on elite status will now be offered only on a promotional basis. Another devaluation bundled into these changes are the decreases in elite status bonus points earned through stays. Thankfully, the Concierge Status bonus still remains the same:
  • Silver: 25% → 15%
  • Gold: 50% → 35%
  • Concierge: 75% → 75%

With the bad news out of the way, there are still some positives points that can be gleaned from all of this. First off, Gold Points can now be redeemed for premium rooms (room types and amenities may vary by hotel) at an additional 50% above the base redemption rate. This probably isn't a huge deal to most people who just want a basic room, but for those who would prefer something a little bit more fancy during a special trip, this can be a worthwhile option.

Mommy Points over at BoardingArea also found a new option of booking Family Rooms at some European locations for only a 25% points premium. These rooms have a capacity for two adults and two children under the age of 12, and usually feature an additional sofa bed.

Arguably the most beneficial feature to come out of all these changes are that award stays now count toward elite status qualification. Most of the industry have been moving to this structure, including Starwood Preferred Guest and Hyatt Gold Passport, and I'm glad to see Club Carlson also following in their footsteps. Not only that, elite members will now earn Gold Points for all food and beverage purchases charged to their room during award stays.

The main reason why I say Club Carlson is still an amazing value, however, is because of its co-branded credit card with US Bank. Since its launch, card users and bloggers alike have raved about its spectacular benefits, including 85,000 bonus Gold Points after spending $2,500 in 90 days, automatic Gold Status, an annual 40,000 Gold Points renewal bonus, and best of all, the last night free perk when you redeem for an award stay two nights or longer.

Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa and Business Rewards Visa

This last benefit is especially lucrative, since it essentially reduces the amount of Gold Points needed for award stays by 50% when you only book two-night stays. In cities where there are multiple Carlson Rezidor properties such as London, you can basically hotel-hop from one property to the next for two nights each, and pay only 50% of the typical award redemption rate. Or, if you are traveling with a friend or significant other who also carries the Club Carlson credit card, you can remain at the same hotel and just alternate two-night bookings under each name.

Thus, despite the highest category charging 70,000 Gold Points per night now, the actual rate can be cut in half to 35,000 Gold Points. Of course, paying only 25,000 Gold Points before the devaluation is still a far better deal, but I honestly can't complain about a 10,000 point per night increase for only nine of their best properties worldwide. By all accounts, this is still a fantastic deal.

Add to the fact that the earn rate for both paid hotel stays (20 Gold Points per dollar) and for credit card spend (10 Gold Points per dollar at Carlson Rezidor hotels, 5 Gold Points everywhere is else) is unmatched by any other hotel loyalty program, and I would venture to say that Club Carlson is still the most rewarding program out there right now. The only downside is that they lack the regional coverage larger hotel chains have, and perhaps the quality and aspirational nature of their properties are still not up to par. In the meantime, I will still be collecting as many Gold Points as possible for all my future stays.