What’s In Your Wallet: Credit Cards for Travelers

 

By Robert McGarvey

 

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I used to believe in a kind of Tolkien style “one card to rule them all” philosophy for business travel – that is, that one perfect card was all I needed on the road.  

For me that has been the American Express Platinum card ($450 per year).

But I no longer believe that one card is sufficient.

Changing realities – particularly my lack of interest in elite status on airlines – has prompted me to carry more cards to insure better, smoother travel. One card just won’t do the job anymore.

Mind you, I remain a fan of Amex Platinum. First off, the card wins free entry to the Centurion Lounges – now a new one in Houston – and they are the best domestic airport lounges by far.

There’s also a gratis enrollment in Priority Pass, with some 900 airport lounges.  If one is convenient to my gate, I generally will use it.

There’s reimbursement for the fees associated with TSA Pre-Check or Global Entry.

No foreign transaction fees.

There’s also $200 available for refunds on fees charged by an airline you designate (you may change it annually).  

Use that $200 fund – which will cover things like bag fees, club entry charges, booze and food inflight – plus maybe a half dozen Centurion Lounge visits and you have gotten your fee back and more.

Plus you have traveled in comfort.  

What Amex Plat does not help me with – boarding planes sooner, when there still is overhead compartment space – is what my other two cards handle.

My second card is MileagePlus Explorer via Chase ($95 annual fee).  The big get: priority boarding on United.

That usually means no need to check baggage, but the other card perk is free checked baggage (for you and a companion).

Two United Club passes are thrown in.

No foreign transaction fees.

Double miles on United tickets purchased with the card (that’s miles earned on the purchase price).

With this card I no longer need bemoan my loss of platinum status – and my slide into no status. I don’t recall ever having to gate check a bag when I have traveled on this card.

My third card: AA Advantage Aviator Red Mastercard ($89 annual fee)

Priority boarding is the main benefit.

There’s also free checked bags.

25% off inflight purchases.

No foreign transaction fees.

Note: there are no free passes to the AA club but, really, do I care?

The real perk of course is priority boarding.

No, these airline cards do not deliver upgrades from coach to business class but, guess what, those upgrades are available less and less frequently anyway.  That was the one real, tangible plus of elite status. But it’s gone.

And so is my interest in regaining elite status.

I no longer need it.  My three travel focused credit cards give me plenty of weapons to succeed – in comfort – as a road warrior.

So far I have ducked adding a Southwest Airlines card to my portfolio but if I eventually decide I need it, I will buy it without hesitation.  We need to take actions to maintain comfort on the road. That is fact.

Every traveler will have his/her own list of must carry credit cards. That’s reality.  My list may not suit your needs.

When I lived in Jersey City, really, I did not need or have the American card. But when I moved to Phoenix, I did.  And I keep the United card because the airport I still fly into most is Newark which means I am still flying United.

Your travels will be different and so should be your cards.

In that vein, here is frequent traveler Joe Brancatelli’s round up of his must carry cards. Joe, by the way, recommends Amex Plat, Chase Sapphire Prefered, and he also has some (qualified) affection for airline and hotel branded cards.

Which brings us to the question: what’s in your wallet?

The Insanity of Hotel Rates: Hospitality’s Tower of Babel

The Insanity of Hotel Rates: Hospitality’s Tower of Babel

 

By Robert McGarvey

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Used to be, at a hotel the rate was the rate and it pretty much stayed the same for a season. Sure, weekends often were priced differently than weekdays, and maybe there were dips or rises around holidays.  But as a rule rates were static.

Then hoteliers, maybe 10 years ago, heard about the successes their airline brethren were having with yield aka revenue management where the price of a seat could and did sometimes change minute by minute.

Hoteliers, smelling profits, wanted some of that so they dove into revenue management too.  But what they have created – in many cases – is a Frankenstein’s monster, a confusing, offputting mishmash of rates.

This paragraph from a recent piece in the Irish Independent smacked me: “A double room at the Premier Inn County Hall in central London on June 28 was €75 cheaper on the hotel’s website than on Booking.com. The hotel’s website was actually €20 cheaper than the price quoted when we rang up the hotel directly.”

What’s that? Three rates for the same room?

The Indo writer continued: “When we tried to book a room for a family of four for two nights in Randles Hotel in Killarney in mid-July, on Booking.com we were only given the option of taking two rooms for a total of €887. But when we looked up the hotel’s own website, and also when we rang up, we were offered a family room for €516.”

I am now looking at a hotel in Sedona, AZ. On Booking.com the rate for two nights in late June is $880 ($440 per night).  On the hotel’s website the rate was a jaw dropping $534 per night ($1068 for two nights).  Hotwire showed the same room at $414 ($828 for two nights).

I am sure if I called the hotel I could get another rate – actually probably two once I said to the first number, “Is that the best you can do?”

Five rates for one room?

A prospective guest has every right to be frustrated and annoyed by this rate Babel.

It also is fundamentally different than what we experience with airlines. With airlines the rate changes with high velocity, but the rates – in my experience – generally don’t differ significantly from channel to channel.

With hotels, rates very much do differ from channel to channel and that puts the prospective guest in a bind: in order not to feel ripped off, he/she now has to look up rates on multiple sites including the hotel’s own and maybe even include an oldfashioned analog call into a call center too.

That’s a lot of work but when you see how much variation there can be in pricing, you feel obliged to do the work.

Why is there so much price variation? My guess is that it’s mainly a function of bad software and bad communications from platform to platform.  Rate parity clauses in many online travel agency contracts make it unlikely that there are intentional differences.  Booking.com would be miffed that Hotwired had the same room at that Sedona hotel at a better rate. So, for the record, did Expedia.

I also think that there may be a talent vacuum in revenue management, especially at independents and very small groups. Large management companies and big chains have invested in the people and software to do systematic revenue management.  That is not necessarily so at small places.

But here’s the reality: what I want is to know where is the best place to book a hotel room and, frankly, I do not want to spend 15 minutes doing what I ought to be able to do in two.  

Make me a promise: this rate is the best available rate and some chains are doing exactly that. Marriott, for instance, says that if you find a better rate it will match it and take another 25% off. In limited tests, too, Marriott in fact offered the best rate – much better than what I saw on the OTAs. For instance: A room at the Algonquin in Manhattan showed at $398 on the Autograph Collection website, but $479 at Hotels.com and $489 at Booking.com.

I know where I am looking when next I want a Marriott room.

That means hotels can do this.
They just have to want to.

If we complain loud enough about rate Babel, hoteliers will get the message.

Do Airport Lounges Really Suck?

Do Airport Lounges Really Suck?

 

By Robert McGarvey

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Do airport lounges suck? That’s the assertion of Erika Ho, a writer at Map Happy and a onetime TIME reporter  Her exact words: “The lounge actually kinda sucks.”

She elaborated: “In fact, they’re so bad that once my upgrades started clearing on a regular basis (and the novelty wore off), I stopped going to the lounge entirely before my flight. It was a better use of my time to get extra shut-eye, pick up food at the grocery store for the flight or do ANYTHING except spend more time at the airport.”

She continued: “Most of the time, while snacks and basic drinks are free in a lounge, most travelers will be hard-pressed to even find some Milanos lying around these days.”

You know what? She’s right.  I am an immense fan of Amex’s Centurion Lounge and, especially when flying to/from Las Vegas, I have been known to stop in on both legs of the trip, usually for a quick lunch of Scott Conant’s still tasty food.

But often I just don’t bother with an airline lounge anymore.

If I have free passes to the United Club I’ll use them if a club is convenient to the gate.  I’ll grab a Wall Street Journal – assuming any are available and often they aren’t – and maybe a mediocre cup of coffee.  If the club is too far from the gate, nowadays I’ll pass, even with a free pass in my wallet.

I have Priority Pass via Amex and, if a lounge is convenient, I’ll sometimes use it. But it has to be convenient. And of course it is free with Priority Pass.  

Ho also made the point that – considering the better stuff is on sale inside airline lounges – why not just pop into a comfy airport wine bar or saloon and most airports now have multiple choices, some pretty good. Yes, you will pay but you would probably pay inside the airline club for decent hooch. And the bar run by bar people pretty much always is a better experience than an airline lounge.

That point is all the more valid when you are faced with paying $50 for entry to a lounge – when you can saunter into the comfy wine bar for free, especially if you buy a glass of red. Probably you would never pay $50 to get into a lounge. But I have seen people, on just about every trip nowadays, shelling out cash to get in.

I have no idea what they think they are getting for their money.

Ho, by the way, is not alone in saying lounges suck. The blogger at Flights and Frustration said exactly this: “The lounges which give me frustration more than any other are those in the mainland United States. Yes, the airport lounge clubs in the US suck.”

Not to pile on, but Vane Airport threw more gasoline on this fire.  “Airport lounges are not oases of calm, peace and reflection,” said this writer. Point taken.  Particularly at prime times – say 8:30 am or 4:30 pm – just about every seat will be taken, the lounge will be noisy, probably the WiFi will be slow, and, said Vane Airport about a personal experience, “the [lounge] was crowded, noisy and the chairs were crammed together and very uncomfortable. And the food was worse.”

The Flights and Frustration blogger, after itemizing the many failures of US lounges, sighed, “I’m not sure that I want lounge club access anymore.”

Ouch.

But I cannot disagree.

Understand, too, what’s said here applies to domestic lounges. I have been to marvelous lounges in Europe and I understand (tho I have never been inside) the ones in Asia are better still.

In the US, though, the only rational way to get in an airline lounge is free and even then it may not be worth the bother. If there’s a convenient Centurion Lounge, count me in. Otherwise,  increasingly I find myself buying a decent coffee at Starbucks, grabbing a seat at the gate, creating a WiFi hotspot on my phone, and getting to work, right at the gate.

Noisy? Sure. But so’s the club.

But my hotspot is a lot more secure than any public WiFi network including a lounge’s.

And the coffee is a lot better.

 

Embracing TSA Pre-Check

Embracing TSA Pre-Check

 

By Robert McGarvey
rjmcgarvey01

My hold out is over.  

On June 1 I visited the TSA Pre Check enrollment office at Phoenix Sky Harbor and was told I could check my status online in a week or two.  

Literally the next day, June 2, I got an email telling me I’d been approved.

The process was painless. Maybe 10 minutes.  A few forms filled out. Electronic fingerprint collection.  Done.

Why had it taken me so long to enroll – and the question is more puzzling because my Amex Platinum card reimburses the $85 fee (and Amex already has done so!).

My indifference is easy to explain.  Since Pre-Check started, I got it, free of charge and hassles, close to 100% of the time.  Why do anything when I already had it on a de facto basis. 

In the past year, though, my success rate had dropped to maybe 50%.  I could see the future and it was grim.

TSA is enrolling huge numbers into Pre-Check, as the media and even some carriers whip up fears about long security lines. There were will be fewer and fewer free passes.

In Phoenix there were maybe two dozen people – without appointments – waiting for an opening to apply. Many enrollment centers now are discouraging walk-ins and, really, it is easy to make an online appointment, so why not?

Ever more will keep enrolling.

Does this augur longer lines for Pre-Check and slower processing? Of course. Bet on that.  

About 2.8 million of us are presently enrolled, but applications have doubled from 8000 per day in April to 16,000 in May.

The TSA goal is to enroll 25 million.

Research via the US Travel Association indicated that the primary stumbling block is the $85 price.  

For me, obviously, the $85 was never a hurdle.  I simply did not want to spend a few hours traveling to/from Sky Harbor and dealing with the TSA.  Honestly, though, it was all as painless as possible.  Having done it, I wonder why I did not do it a year ago.

As for those who have to shell out their own $85, I still say, go for it. Even two flights a year – 10 over the five years provided by TSA Pre-Check – make the cost per flight similar to an airport beer.  And Pre-Check lines will grow but they will remain shorter and faster.

The real reason not to enroll in Pre-Check? If most of your flights are out of airports that are not presently serviced by Pre-Check. Right now 160 airports are but there are thousands of airports in the US.

Even at airports that show as enrolled in Pre-Check, often Pre-Check lines are not open, a fact admitted by TSA.  

It’s not perfect. That’s plain.

But still I say: enroll and stop your grumbling about the long security lines. When Pre-Check is available – and typically it is at Sky Harbor, even Las Vegas, at Newark, the airports I frequent – it is very pleasant indeed.

I really dislike taking my shoes and belt off, I find it worrisome to set my computer out for inspection, and – always – in the ordinary security lines there are infrequent travelers who cause friction with water bottles, hand lotions, and more.  Everything just is faster in the Pre-Check line.

Go for it.

 

We Are Where We Eat: Road Food Edition

We Are Where We Eat: Road Food Edition
By Robert McGarvey

 

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For me a thrill of travel is eating what the locals eat and, in just about every town I visit, I seek out a place that is said to define the city and its people.  A plus: usually this food is modestly priced and, additionally, it means not eating at hotel restaurants.

 

But it also means savoring special moments.

 

The idea crystalized in my brain some years ago in Berlin. It was a freezing, rainy, windy day and yet there I was at a currywurst stand around Alexanderplatz and I was nibbling on the hot dog chunks, sipping beer, and marveling that – despite the appearances – this was actually a lot of fun. I was also gaining insight into a foundational part of the Berlin psyche.

 

All in a few bits of a hot dog.

 

I have had currywurst elsewhere. Manhattan, for instance.  It’s even occasionally available in Phoenix, where I live. Can’t recommend it.  In Berlin currywurst is about life. Elsewhere it is just an odd presentation of a hot dog.

 

I have set out to find such foods in other towns.  I admit some cities have baffled me – I have no idea what food defines Las Vegas for instance and in that town I am more likely to grab an egg salad and a black coffee at Starbucks than to take a seat in a real restaurant.

 

In Houston I am apt to step into Which Wich, not necessarily because I am that big a fan but because I have no idea what else there is to eat.

 

I have had much better luck in other towns tho and these are eateries that require no reservations (don’t accept them) and only cost a few bucks.

 

Here are other foods that I savor and that define their city.

 

Pastrami at Katz’s.  Katz’s sells other sandwiches and many places in New York sell pastrami but the only sandwich that works for me is Katz’s minimalist interpretation: meat, mustard, good rye. No tomato slices, no lettuce, definitely no ketchup, and of course no horseradish.

 

Eat at Katz’s and it is 100 years of Lower East Side tradition.  

 

Bad deli is on every street corner in New York. Katz’s is the real deal.

 

Bianco’s Pizza. If you are in downtown Phoenix and you don’t stop in for a pie (no slices, whole pies only), I don’t know what can be said about you.

 

Chris Bianco only makes a few kinds of pie, and there isn’t much more on the very limited menu, but to me the extraordinary excellence of Bianco’s pie is a metaphor for what’s quirky and unexpected about Phoenix itself.

 

Phoenix, like most other new cities in America, has a lot of really mediocre food.  Bianco’s pizza is anything but.

 

Philly cheesesteak. Tony Luke’s is a better sandwich, not much doubt about that, but for sheer convenience you can’t top a stop in South Philly with Geno’s on one side, Pat’s on the other and, no, I won’t take sides in that fight.  I will say, tho, you have to order it with and of course also with whiz.  

 

Is it hyped? Yeah. But, you know, it also is a pleasant lunch and with each bite you know you are in Philadelphia.

 

Lou Malnati’s Chicago.  Honestly there is Chicago food I much prefer. Between us, I am fan of Chi style hot dogs – I prefer the “dragged through the garden” style as opposed to the minimalist New York style – and I am also a big fan of Chi style Italian beef sandwiches.  But if you want to eat the quintessential Chicago food, go with the deep dish pizza which, incidentally, actually has a thin crust (there just are lots and lots of toppings).  For my money the best in town is Malnatti’s.  Put in your order, drink a beer and wait.  Your pie will be up.

 

In and Out, Los Angeles. Basically within a toss of LAX, this In and Out is the go-to for LA travelers who have been away from their burger fix too long.  The menu is simple, even the secret menu is short, the prices are modest. But to me, this is the best fast food burger out there and make mine protein style, animal style.
Theoretically this is a fast walk from LAX, accessible during a layover and know this: yes there have been improvements in airport food but the stuff remains overpriced and not very good.  Get out of the airport and enjoy real food.