Things You Should Know

Things You Should Know

CREDIT CARDS & AIRLINE MILES — AM I A SUCKER?

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The hubby and I enjoy a very successful marriage.  But if there is one subject upon which a fight will certainly ensue, it is the very mention of credit cards and miles.  He thinks it’s a giant Ponzi scheme, sucking people in so they feel they are getting something for free.  I have written a lot about how I believe he and I have personally benefited from using miles for long international flights pretty much every year for our big post-tax-season vacation, and I am sticking with that premise.  Those flights would cost thousands of dollars, but using miles allows us to spend lots more on the ground.   In a recent effort to get a big hit of AA miles, I had a run-in with Citibank after receiving a new AA CitiBusiness Mastercard.

 

 

At one point in the not too distant past, I had a total of three Amex cards:  Platinum for business and travel, Starwood for personal charges as I could transfer the points to American Airlines, and a third card which I’m not even sure why I had it but then closed. Then I decided my Platinum card wasn’t worth the high annual fee as I could get the same resort benefits by booking through Virtuoso, so that one went away.  When I saw the Citibank offer for the business card with low annual fee, no foreign transaction fees and a 70,000 mile sign-up bonus after a very achievable four-month spend requirement, I signed up and got approved.  At this point in my life, all I care about are those AA miles when it comes to credit cards.

Two things then happened.  The credit limit was too low so I asked for and got an increase, but it was still a bit low so that was a problem and it was too soon to ask for another increase.  After four months, I called Citi to see when I was receiving my miles.  “We’re sorry; you don’t qualify for the bonus.”  What???  “You had another card that you canceled 20 months ago and we require 24 months before you can sign up again.”  Really??  Does anyone calendar when they cancel a card?  I’m guessing most don’t.  And why can’t they issue a little red flag:  “Ooops — too soon!  You need to wait four more months before applying!”

So how do those mileage gurus do it?  You know, the ones who brag about basically going around the world on miles achieved with endless sign-up bonuses?  Well, it turns out they are the culprits.  Because of their constant churning of cards to get miles, Citi — and I suppose others — have cracked down on the frequency allowed with which one can apply.

 

#dirtyrottenscoundrels

My pleads to the Citi supervisor were unsuccessful.  Even my veiled threat of going back to Amex fell on deaf ears.  No capitulation.  Finally, they decided to mollify me with 5,000 bonus miles — probably to make me go away.  Actually getting those miles took many more phone calls and many more months, but I finally got them.

And now I am closing that account.  Not just because of the unsatisfactory handling all around,  but because I just upgraded to Amex Bonvoy.  Yes, the fee is akin to Platinum, but I can get most of it back via a credit for one annual stay at a Marriott brand (including Sheraton, St. Regis, Westin, W and lots of others).  Oh, and I’ll get 100,000 points soon which I can transfer to American.  So all is well.  Just don’t tell the hubby.

Snippets from the RoadThings You Should Know

TIPS FOR GETTING THE BEST AIRFARE

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Once again, Scott McCartney (WSJ’s The Middle Seat) comes through with some salient tips about  buying airline tickets, while debunking some popular myths.  In a nutshell:

  1. Non-stop flights are generally less expensive than flights with stops — especially in markets with low-cost competition.  Non-stops will most likely cost more on international flights and cities serviced by fewer carriers.
  2. Sunday is still the best day to buy tickets, with Tuesday the second best.  Avoid Wednesdays and Thursdays if possible.  Ironically, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are the least expensive days to travel because “who wants to travel on a Tuesday or Wednesday?”
  3. Include a Saturday overnight stay to get the best discounts on international fares.  Domestic is a different story, although it still may help lessen the cost.
  4. Supply and demand is what drives pricing now.  The tie-in to oil prices is no longer relevant.  So fuel costs might go down and fares will still go up due to lack of available seats.
  5. According to a study by Expedia/ARC, the best window for buying tickets is three months before departure —  up to three weeks before.  Once inside 30 days, travelers are at the mercy of the airlines.
Illustration by Fabio Consoli

 

Things You Should KnowTo-Do ListU.S. TravelWining/Dining

BACKYARD FUN

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“Backyard” can have lots of different meanings.  Given the relatively “inclement” weather we’re experiencing in So Cal (we’ve already surpassed our average annual rainfall!), in this case “backyard” is a euphemism for Los Angeles in general — i.e., having fun locally by enjoying a couple of new adventures.

The first was attending the Travel & Adventure Show at the LA Convention Center.  This is a two-day affair with seminars and lots of exhibitors, both international and domestic.  I invited a friend to go with me and pre-registered online.  Easy.

Gorgeous clear skies!

The biggest debate was where should we have lunch? Before or after the show?  Downtown LA (DTLA) has endless options and there were lots of cultural pockets en route from our Beverly Hills meeting place.  We remarkably ruled out Langer’s (DTLA-adjacent with simply THE BEST pastrami sandwich) and kept on with “how about (insert type of food)???”  We also didn’t want to park multiple times. What to do …?

During the drive while my friend Sandra was on a business call, I was observing restaurant signs and got a craving for Korean BBQ.  I pulled over to search Google for nearby places and was elated to discover we were just 3 minutes from Park’s BBQ, arguably the best in all of LA.  I say “arguably” because it’s all in the palate of the beholder.  But this is a place I’ve long wanted to try.

Parks is just north of Olympic Boulevard on S. Vermont in the heart of Koreatown.  The area traffic is always heavy but the restaurant is well marked.  There is a free-of-charge valet (tips welcome) so that made it easy.  It was before noon and the place was already bustling.  And you know what is commonly said about judging an ethic-food place?  Well, let’s just say we were the only non-Asians dining there.

All the sides and condiments first

Ever since the hubby’s and my 2013 trip to Seoul, I have loved Korean culture and food.  The problem is there’s top choices of sushi and Thai food in our ‘hood, but almost no Korean.  My efforts haven’t been exactly stellar to seek out different places.  Regardless, back to the meal at hand …

We ordered two a la carte proteins to be grilled at the table: marinated chicken and paper-thin beef, prepared with onions and seasoning.  They were served with a small bowl of rice and lots of different condiments and small sides.   The hardest part was waiting for the server to give us the go to eat!  Diners are not supposed to do the cooking but rather wait until the meats are done.  We impatiently waited for our server (who supervised the grill) to return.

Hurry up and cook!
Delicious with side of rice.
Best part? Scraping the bits off the grill … ask for a fork!

The verdict?  Delicious.  Not inexpensive.  Good quality.  Lots of flavors to try.  And if you’re into spicy, you’re definitely in the right place.  I now will book a return visit with my Foodies group (executive women gathering to try different restaurants along with socializing) and I’m looking forward to that.

As for the show, if you’ve been to one convention … The best takeaway for me was collecting guides to study for the upcoming trip to SE Asia (Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Kuala Lumpur).   For the most part,the show’s exhibitors were largely promoting group tour travel and cruises.  For my friend Sandra, it was the exhibit from Billings, MT, with lots of suggestions on doing a road trip encompassing Yellowstone Park.  Particularly good info there.

One of the exhibitors .. who knew?

 

With my adventurous friend, Sandra Heller

This was a fun and somewhat spur-of-the-moment outing in our city — a place so vast that these types of experiences are virtually endless — and right in your own backyard.

Snippets from the RoadThings You Should Know

UNEXPECTED (EMERGENCY) TRAVEL

Judy car

Those of us in the wonderful state of California mostly have it pretty good.  Our weather is enviable (I would prefer more cold), we have virtually every activity — beaches, mountains, desert, culture, sports — at our fingertips.  But it’s well known we have had our share of disasters — most recently epic fires in both the northern and southern parts of the state.

Residents watch as the Woolsey Fire burns in the West Hills area of the San Fernando Valley Friday night. (photo by Andy Holzman)

That brings me to a thought:  What if you had to travel VERY QUICKLY as though your life depended on it?  Would you be ready to go at a moment’s notice?  A longtime friend/business colleague told me that she and her husband thought they were ready to go with the essentials packed:  medication, water, computers and back-up devices, snacks, pets and their necessities, clothing, etc., so they were feeling pretty confident.  When the evacuation order came, two issues occurred:

  1. Neither of their cars had more than 1/4 tank of gas; and 2) they didn’t know where they should go.

Fortunately everything worked out in the end for them even though it meant spending a night in their cars (along with three cats) at a safe destination.

So what’s the takeaway?  Have a go-list ready so you don’t have to think about it if this happens to you.  If you keep cash in the house (and everyone should, particularly smaller bills), grab that along with jewelry and portable valuables.  Have a list of prescriptions you need plus a one-week supply ready to go.  Make sure all your photos are backed up! Prints can be reproduced but don’t forget those priceless photo albums.  Extra cords you’ll need. Don’t let your cars get too low.  Finally, move faster than you think is necessary.  My friend was stunned at how quickly the winds shifted and their situation became urgent.

Finally, below is an excellent list provided by FEMA.  Find your own version and use it.  I would even suggest modifying a list of must-haves when you’re traveling.  Your carry-on becomes your go-bag with things you absolutely need.  Most importantly, be safe out there!

Snippets from the RoadThings You Should Know

FILL OUT THOSE SURVEYS!

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For the recent trip to the Pacific Northwest (see post), I rented a car with Avis.  Once we had our suitcase, we headed to the rental car shuttle.  Wow.  The line was just endless.  Not wanting to wait, I hailed an Uber and headed up to the pick-up point for ride-sharing vehicles.  Another wait in line, not to mention $16 — probably some sort of minimum charge as a detraction (obviously the drivers want longer fares).  We needn’t have bothered, for the line at Avis was stunning.  About 30 people waiting to get cars, with three Avis people doing the check-out.  Anyone who prepaid in full (with avis.com) went to an expedited line and got priority — and that line was mostly empty until someone showed up and was immediately served.

A manager (in charge of both Avis and Budget) told us this problem is symptomatic of summer travel, where it is simply not possible to gauge how many cars are needed.  Every car was booked. This location is ghost-like in the winter, so gearing up for summer is challenging.  Of course, that didn’t satisfy me so I started tweeting (including this photo):

“Wow, @Avis, your service sucks.  Never again.”  Which didn’t do any good, but made me a bit calmer.  Some 90 minutes later, we got our car and headed off.    A few days later, I received their survey to rate my experience.  “On a scale of 1 to 10 …” That got a 1.  “How likely are you to recommend Avis to a friend?”  Not.  Survey completed and submitted.

The upshot?  I got a very nice email from an Avis manager apologizing for the delays and asking that I let him know prior to any future rentals so we would get priority treatment, etc.  The bigger surprise was, even though the rental shuttles are managed by SeaTac Airport and the car rental companies have no control, he took $30 off my bill to cover the Uber.   1) Fill out those surveys.  They do get read.  2) Share positive reviews as well.  Always nice to provide feedback to those that are doing a great job.

International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

SANTORINI, GREECE — Last stop for a milestone birthday

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Thank you to the Greek weather Gods for allowing us to arrive in Santorini to glorious sunshine.  Beautiful blue skies against the white abodes literally built into steep hillsides provide gorgeous contrasts.

Every room has it’s own terrace.
Dining area at the resort.

Our last resort for this trip was in the town of Oia (pronounced “e-a”), about 40 minutes from the ferry in Fira.  Naturally the resort — Mystique — is steep as well, just like pretty much everything else on the island.  The view of the caldera is quite stunning.  “Caldera” refers to the vast opening from the long-ago volcano eruption which formed Santorini itself along with several much smaller islands.  One could sit facing the water and do nothing else.  Of course, navigating up and down the steps required to get anywhere provides added incentive to stay put.  And there’s no “ADA” provisions; it’s simply climb or else.

Our resort with another right above it.
50 steps so far; about a million to go. No handrails.

We did walk into the town to browse around and have lunch at Mezzo Cafe.  It was like the U.N. there with very close tables that lent to conversation.  French folks (from Lyon) to the left and a group of Aussies to the right provided a wonderful opportunity to chat and hear respective impressions of the landscape and life in general.  Our French neighbors immediately asked if I was ok sitting next to their dog.  My response:  “As long as he doesn’t smoke,” which is hardly guaranteed in these parts of the world — especially sitting at an outdoor cafe.  We lucked out on all counts and had a thoroughly terrific time.

Mezzo Cafe
Go-to lunch: Chicken sovlaki with tzatziki, pita and “chips”

Much like our arrival in Santorini (described in the previous post), we experienced a similar “your driver was delayed” challenge upon leaving for a particularly ideal spot to view the sunset.  In this part of Greece, sunsets are like a religious experience.  But they must be well-timed.  We were booked at Ovac, a beautiful spot we were told was best for viewing.  We had a pre-arranged pick-up at 6:15 for a 6:30 arrival at the restaurant, giving us a solid 30 minutes until the sun fully set.  And then it’s 6:20, 6:25.  Tick tock.  Two hotel courtesy cars were waiting, but both had other commitments.

Mind you, I am not walking back down to get to the main office, because I’ll have to walk back up!  Three phone calls later (from a borrowed cell), one of the cars finally took us (ours was still “delayed”), driving at breakneck speed around the curves and we arrived with enough time to get our photos, but not nearly as relaxing as we had hoped.  We did have a delicious dinner and were glad for the experience.

Amazing salad at Ovac.
That view. That sunset.

I’m now convinced not much runs on time in Greece.  In fairness to our two other stays, both had excellent staff and great service (King George Athens and Bill & Coo Mykonos).  But Santorini had some issues to say the least.  Is it Greece in general?  Hmmm.  The country is not exactly stellar in many aspects.  Maybe with this exquisite location, the expectations are lower.  Good question to ponder.

The final day of our stay in Greece was spent at the resort — reading, spa and a wine tasting in their cellar — really a cave of sorts.  Greek grapes are interesting; they are grown without any water other than rain, humidity and/or mist from the sea.  The volcanic earth retains the moisture.  We tasted four local varietals:  sparkling, white, red and a dessert wine, accompanied by various cheeses, fruit, nuts, etc.  It was a lovely experience followed by a small dinner.

Wine tasting a deux.

Fortunately we were back in the room before the anticipated rains came for we would have not been able to negotiate either the steps or steep slope to our room.  It positively gushed water — and it supposedly only rains 20 days per year on the island.  Timing is everything.

Moderate rain flowing past our room.
The deluge a bit later.

For the journey home, American/British Air booked us via our miles from Athens to an overnight at Heathrow then nonstop to LAX.  I’ve complained before about really disliking BA’s biz class (Club World) configuration of front/back seating and having to climb over the aisle seat from the window seat.  However, we were on a brand new plane and it was really “quite lovely” as the Brits would say.  Next year that seat configuration goes away, and everyone will be facing front.  Hopefully staggered.  Better yet, single seating next to the window.  That is the best!

My cubby for 11+ hours. Plenty of room.
That privacy screen was up after the photo!