Friday, June 30, 2017

Where to find TOTO Washlets outside of Japan

I love Washlets. I've had one in my house since my first visit to Japan more than a decade ago and I love it when my hotel room or my plane has one. And it's not just me, the NYTimes wrote about them, and several competing brands have appeared in the US in recent years.

If you want a Washlet in the sky, you don't have much of a choice – only ANA and JAL have them, and only in the premium cabins.

ウォシュレット!

But what about hotels? As the spokesmodel in this commercial says, "I can't go on vacation anymore". A few of us were discussing this the other day and I said that yes, in fact, the presence of a Washlet would be a slam dunk for me when choosing a hotel. So I went poking around to find places outside of Japan that have them. Please message me if you know one that should be added to the list!

Hotels with Washlets


The Americas
  • The Kitano Hotel in New York has them in all of the rooms.
  • The Chatwal Hotel in New York
  • The Ritz Carlton Battery Park City, New York (suites only)
  • the $18,000 a night Presidential Suite at the NYC Four Seasons has one too :P
  • J House in Greenwich, Connecticut
  • Aria Casino, Bellagio, Mirage, and Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas have them in their suites
  • Also in Las Vegas: Nobu Hotel, Red Rock, Palazzo, the Venetian, and the Mansion at MGM (again, all likely only in the suites)
  • Holiday Inn Express in Auburn Hills, Michigan
  • some of the rooms in the Hotel Madonna in San Luis Obispo, CA
  • the Tower rooms at the Royal Hawaiian in Hawaii
  • the Suites at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Hawaii
  • Some of the rooms at Andaz Maui 
  • Grand Hyatt in Kauai 
Asia
Europe
TIP: If you go to Trip Advisor to look at a hotel, you can click 'Room and Suite' and then click 'Bathroom' to check out visitor photos before you book
TOTO also keeps an online list of restaurants. I think they do this largely so people can "try before they buy" if they've never used one before.


Hello Kitty Washlet!





Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Double-dipping on Dining

Most of the big American airlines have a mileage dining program. It's pretty simple: enroll your credit card in their program and any time you eat at a participating restaurant you earn bonus miles. Here in New York there are a few good places on their program.

Even if you never use their search engine to explicitly dine at one of them, it's good to sign up anyway because I've definitely dined at a few completely by accident (especially when traveling) and the miles were a nice surprise.

A few notes:
  • The mileage dining plans all seem to be run by the same company 
  • The participating restaurants are the same for all the airlines' programs
  • If you've never signed up for one, many have a 1000+ point signup bonus
  • If possible, book a reservation at the restaurant so you also earn OpenTable points 
  • Mileage Dining programs occasionally run seasonal bonuses, so staying on their email list might be valuable (I actually earned another bonus 500 miles on my example dine at Fonda below because of a Flash Sale United Mileage Dining was having)
  • You can only have one card registered for each airline
That last one is a gotcha – it'd be awesome to earn points on like 5 airlines every time you ate at one of the restaurants but I totally get why they don't let you "double dip".

Well, I recently signed up for Yelp's new-ish Yelp Cash Back program and I just learned that indeed you can double-dip with it and a mileage dining program. (Yelp's program gives you a cash rebate back to your credit card whenever you dine at one of their participating restaurants.)

I ate at Fonda in the East Village. The bill was $100 and I earned:
  • 500 United Miles (worth $7.50)
  • $5.78 over on yelp 
  • 300 Chase Ultimate rewards (worth $6.60)
  • TOTAL: $19.88 worth of rewards on a $100 bill. If you count the flash sale bonus, that's $27.38 in rewards on $100 bill.

500 United Mileage Dining Miles
$5.78 in Yelp Cash Back




Plus 300 Chase points


TIP: on Yelp click All Filters, then More Features, the check the Cash Back box to find participating businesses

 

Final Thoughts

I hate point schemes that involve a ton of work. Setting up your cards for this and Yelp takes a couple of minutes and you never really have to mess with it again. Points/dollars just show up right where you want them whenever you happen to eat at one of the participating restaurants. No referral links, no apps, no coupons, no BS. Now if they could just get some better restaurants in there!






Friday, June 23, 2017

Kayak now lets you search for travel by Emojis! Vote for the next 15!

Kayak has a history of doing fun things with their travel search portal's interface. A while back they implemented a special Excel spreadsheet-style view so you could plan your vacation while still looking productive at work.

Now they're letting you search for travel by emoji! For example:

🗽 searches New York
🍣 searches for Tokyo
📱 searches for San Francisco
🎰 searches for Las Vegas

 🍁 ☘️ 🚨 🐇 are Toronto, Dublin, Amsterdam, and Chicago (O'Hare, get it?!) respectively.

You can vote right now for the next 15 emoji-city pairs. I know it's a bit frivolous, but who doesn't want to have a say in which city gets to own the beer-moji!


And Boston is currently winning for Baseball (?!??!) and Green Bay for football


And most importantly to my NYC friends, the Pizza-moji is up for grabs too! 
It might come from Italy, but it's a religion here in NYC

San Francisco has a HUGE lead for the Pride flag

Seattle is in the running for both 🦄 and ☕️
Paris is behind in the battle for the 👠
New world vs Old world battle for the 💃
Thank god Austin isn't winning for 🎸
Cancún is sweeping 🍹
Honolulu is winning 🏄‍♀️
No clear leader for 🎿
And it's the Leaf's vs. the Habs for 🏒
And MOST IMPORTANTLY, who gets the mutha&%$#in' TACO?! 🌮

And, yes, as the final question, you get to write in your candidate for 💩

Go vote!





Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Shopping for Hotels...

I don't post a lot about hotels. When I'm traveling I'm usually out and about and I don't really want to spend much time in my room.

AirBnB

Now, I have friends who absolutely LOVE AirBnB, but unless I need a unique attribute of one of their properties (e.g., size, hot tub, location, or "local charm"), I HATE being an AirBnB tenant. Here's why:
  • Key pickup: I want to get off my plane – whenever it chooses to land – saunter into the city at my own pace, and be checked into my room in 5 minutes or less when I arrive. There's nothing worse than sitting on the sidewalk in pouring rain or blazing sun waiting 40 minutes for the host to show up. Or schlepping your bags in said weather an extra 9 blocks to get to a key concierge. Or (this has happened to me TWICE), the host cancels while I'm on the plane there. Or worse, cancels on you after a 6 hour drive because they don't like your race. And AirBnB expects you accept an alternate accommodation that's 20 miles away and nowhere near a subway stop. NO. 
  • Host Expectations: "no noise after 8pm", "no visitors", "please feed my cat", "oh and water my plants", and dontcha love the places where they leave you laundry instructions and cleaning supplies even when they've charged you a $50 cleaning fee? I was a host for nearly a year (my tips are here) so I have zero tolerance for selfish hosts who haven't a single hospitality bone in their bodies. 
  • Apartment mysteries: The directions to the apartment are wrong, the neighbors all think you're trying to break in, once you're inside you have no idea how anything works: "How the hell do I turn the lights on?... what's the Wi-Fi?... During what century was this mattress purchased?  I have to do WHAT to make the hot water come on? What's that horrible sound? How many remotes do I need to turn the TV on? Where is the host's apartment guide!?"
Though Bloomberg is reporting that AirBnB is rolling out a higher-end service where their staff actually visits and verifies that the accommodations are up to snuff. That might help alleviate some of these concerns, but we'll see…

For me, a Japanese business hotel like APA is kinda perfect: it has a Toto Washlet toilet in the room, a liquor vending machine and shirt presses in the hallway, a nice hot spring-style spa on the roof, and espresso and laundry machines on-site. I don't really want to pay the premium (or waste the miles) for a fancy hotel, I'd rather spend them on more air travel to new places, but alas there are no Japanese business hotels in the US... Though I do have to give a nod to the Kitano Hotel in New York for at least having a Washlet in every room!

 

The challenge:

So I'm heading to San Francisco in August and my husband's work is picking up the hotel tab for the weekdays but we have to pick up the cost of the weekend. Since we don't want the hassle of switching hotels, I'm pricing out our dates at the Intercontinental. (Due to the limited hotel options at each of the various places his work sends him, he can't really chase status with one brand)

This is my general workflow:


I start by looking at Kayak.com... all their vendors are showing $260.

Kayak

Then I check Amex Travel - also $260 but it comes with some perks (see pic). If I book through Amex, I'd earn 1040 Amex points (a $20 value) and zero Intercontinental points. There's almost no chance I'd use the $75 credit since most of my time in my old hometown will be spent out with friends and family. But this might be a good option if I could actually find a way to put that credit to use

Amex
Perks (click to enlarge)

Next up - check directly with the hotel website. This option saves me $34 and I'd get 4860 IHG points (also worth about $34).

Cheaper booking direct with hotel
I didn't see any option for an AARP rate, so I googled and found IHG's AARP portal. No, I'm not really "old enough" to be in the AARP, but there's no longer an age limit, and they have great benefits if you can get over your own aversion to feeling old. Unfortunately, the rates were actually higher for AARP. So much for that. (FYI it also appears you can just add the IATA 99634975 to Intercontinental's regular website to get the AARP rate)

AARP
IATA group code


Lastly, just for fun I looked at Rocketmiles. Rocketmiles lets you earn miles directly with airlines for your stay (your bookings through them aren't eligible for Hotel points). It's a great option if you're not chasing elite status with a particular hotel brand (and ergo will never have enough points for a decent redemption). But do beware – Rocketmiles prices in dollars are often not competitive and you'll pay more in dollars than the points were worth in the first place. In this case the price was competitive, but I'd only earn $30 worth of United miles (TPG values them at 1.5¢). If the math works out, it can be a good option. (My Rocketmiles referral link)

Rocketmiles

Conclusion

Seems like a tossup between Amex and the Intercontinental's own website... But in all honesty the smartest move financially would be for us to suck it up and be willing to move hotels, and book something much cheaper altogether. There's a cute little place down the street from our old house called The Willows that's only $160 a night. To put it another way we'd be "saving" 13,000 United miles worth of dollars by choosing this option.





Thursday, June 15, 2017

Japan says goodbye to United's 747s

I saw over on The Points Guy today that United's 747's will no longer fly to Japan. I love the 747 even though it's smaller than the A380 and it uses too much gas. The upstairs Business Class has all the comfort of a small private plane with all of the advantages of a jumbo jet.

Sigh... I wish they'd have build this model with the sleeping attic! (click to enlarge)

United is putting their new 777-300ER planes with the Polaris seats onto this route to replace the 747. While those seats will be nice in "Polaris" Class, keep in mind that in Economy, United shoved an extra seat into each row so it's now 10-abreast.

Feeling a little nostalgic for this beautiful plane slowly going away, I dug out a video from our very first trip to Tokyo on United... 30 pounds and about 5,000 grey hairs ago (i.e., 2005). Bonus: at the end Dr. K actually caught me seeing my first-ever Japanese train in real life!


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Mileage dining train-wreck

Two of my favorite things in life are travel and food. Since I post a lot about earning points to do the former so you can do lots of the latter in new and exciting places, it's no surprise I've got my credit cards enrolled in mileage dining programs.

Since I'm fairly savvy on the restaurant scene in my current (NYC) and former hometowns (San Francisco and Seattle), I can tell you that when I see a place show up on the mileage dining roster, it's a good sign the place is circling the drain. I feel bad saying that but with few exceptions, every time I visit one of these places it's a train wreck... like somehow "let's join a mileage dining program" is the restaurant equivalent of "lower the lifeboats!"

(FYI the same restaurants seem to be in all airlines' programs)

Last week I saw an email from Delta mileage dining that a very hip, upscale pizza restaurant we love was "new to the program". I was wary, but the 1000-point Delta bonus swayed me. We got there and there was no wait on a Wednesday night ("uh oh...") and the place had a single waitperson for 25 seated patrons ("oh sh*t! guess it's good I'm not starving..."). The meal turned out ok, but everything about the place had gone downhill several notches since my last visit there maybe a year ago. Sigh.

In the spirit of that, I just wanted to give a little shout-out to the lower Manhattan shining stars on the mileage dining list that I think are actually worth a visit:
  1. Fonda
  2. Oda House
  3. Paris Sandwich
  4. Yuba
  5. Cheese Grille
Obviously I've not been to all of the mileage dining restaurants, but I've tried enough stinkers on that list that I'm certainly not going to make a point of trying to. If you've got a favorite, I'd love to hear about it. One thing I found helpful was visiting places on the list for lunch – way cheaper and quicker if the place turns out to be crappy.


Monday, June 12, 2017

Trip Report: SAS Copenhagen to New York (CPH - EWR) in Business Class

There are 4 engines!

Intro

This is the return leg of my Newark to Berlin flight on SAS. My review of the inbound leg is here. I was expecting an A330 with the new Business Class configuration like the one I'd flown out on... But then I walked down the jetway and noticed the plane had 4 engines, not 2. Since it was still a single-decker plane, I knew we'd had an equipment swap to an A340. This also explained why they'd been making announcements at the gate about there being no Wi-Fi on today's flight. I didn't mind, since I'm a plane nerd and I hadn't been on an A340 in years.

 

Pros

  • Friendly service
  • Good food
  • SAS still earns United partner miles based on distance, not dollars (net gain: 7000 miles!)

Cons

  • Chaotic boarding procedure
  • Secured gate means you're trapped inside a small area until the plane boards 
  • Our A340 didn't have upgraded interiors so we had an older plane with the previous-gen seats

 

How I did it

In early May, I was pricing out flights to Germany for this particular week in June and spotted this flight for $2100 USD. SAS flights still earn United miles based on the distance of the flight, not the cost of the ticket, so I earned 13,000 United miles for this flight (versus 6,000 if this ticket had been for a United-operated flight). In addition, I'll earn another 6,000 Chase points for using my Reserve card with the 3x airfare bonus. All told, I earned about $380 worth of points for this flight.

 

Boarding

Just like the flight here, boarding started with a single call for Business Class and all Elites. This is a fairly large group but since we'd already pre-screened to enter the secured gate area, we didn't have the bottleneck of each person needing to scan their boarding passes.

The Business cabin was full and quite a few people seemed amused at the "museum piece" we were flying on. SAS's interiors were updated only very recently so I'm a bit surprised by people's reactions.


Boarding gate was a secure holding area

Old A340 seats


my seat
Seat controls

Legroom

Food

The trip started out with a lot of turbulence but that's fairly normal. Once we were airborne menus, warm nuts, and drinks came out.

The service was being provided by on FA in a normal uniform and another in a chef's coat. There was a similar pair in each aisle. A basket full of warm bread was passed and then the appetizer came out. I chose the tapas. The chef made a salad for me to go with it.

For my main, I had the veal shank and it was ok. The truffle pasta was probably the best part. I'd just read this article about airline food and it definitely made me think about how my food had been prepared. Like the texture of the meat was great but the pasta wasn't sauced so it had dried out quite a bit.

For dessert i had rhubarb cake and a side of Mackmyra Swedish whisky - very tasty. After that I had no trouble falling asleep in my seat and woke up in time for the pre-arrival lunch. Landing cards were handed out and the rest of the trip was on-time and uneventful.

warm nuts and some Pinot Noir to go with my veal

Tapas appetizer
Table-side salad prep
Veal shank and truffle pasta
Rhubarb cake and Swedish whisky before taking a little nap
Veal with black-eye peas prior to landing
Menu (beverage menu pics on the inbound flight review)
Menu (beverage menu pics on the inbound flight review)








SAS Lounge in Oslo and SAS Intra-european Business Class

My trip to Berlin on SAS connected through Oslo on the outbound leg, and through Copenhagen on the return leg. The lounge in Oslo is one of the nicer ones I've ever encountered. It had all the bells and whistles – even a kids room! About the only thing it didn't have was showers.

Both of my short connecting flights were typical of intra-European Business Class: normal Economy seats with the middle seat blocked out, and a light meal and beverage service. Both of these meals were innovative and delicious, and the flights themselves were on-time, and blissfully uneventful.

Lounge pictures



Lounge is on the upper level

lots of seating

Hot and cold buffet

Beverages

Look at that cheese slicer!

Oslo lounge has a kids room

Lounge overlooks the airport

The Oslo Airport has all kinds of tasty food options.



Connecting flight meals

Oslo to Berlin Tegel (OSL to TXL, SK 4723)
Oslo - Berlin bento box-style meal with warm, perfect bread

Berlin Tegel to Copenhagen (TXL to CPH SK 1674)
Berlin - Copenhagen meal with rhubarb yogurt and beet+currant juice

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Trip Report: SAS New York to Oslo (EWR - OSL) in Business Class

Pros

  • Newly-remodeled interiors with great lie-flat seats
  • Friendly service
  • Great lounge in Oslo, decent one at Newark
  • Espresso machine onboard (and staff who were willing to use it)
  • Nicely timed for a good night's sleep
  • SAS still earns United partner miles based on distance, not dollars (net gain: 7000 miles!)
  • Free Wi-Fi in Business Class
  • IFE has live plane tail- and belly-camera channels
  • Layover airport within Schengen zone, so no customs when flying onward to continental Europe.

Cons

  • Newark instead of JFK
  • Chaotic boarding procedures

 

How I did it

In early May, I was pricing out flights to Germany for this particular week in June and spotted this flight for $2100 USD. SAS flights still earn United miles based on the distance of the flight, not the cost of the ticket, so I earned 13,000 United miles for this flight (versus 6,000 if this ticket had been for a United-operated flight). In addition, I'll earn another 6,000 Chase points for using my Reserve card with the 3x airfare bonus. All told, I earned about $380 worth of points for this flight.

 

Lounge

The SAS lounge at Newark was decent. There were signs talking about it being expanded in the near future. I'm not a huge lounge person, but here's my lounge wish list (in order of importance):
  1. Not crowded ✅
  2. Free alcohol, spirits, and coffee ✅
  3. Clean, private bathroom ❌
    (You had to exit the lounge and use the one in the terminal)
  4. Free, fast Wi-Fi ✅
  5. Food I'd actually eat ✅
  6. Power outlets ✅  
  7. Windows ✅
  8. Hot food ❌
  9. Plane-spotting views ❌ 

EWR Lounge

EWR Lounge




Boarding

Both in Newark and on my flight home from Copenhagen, the gate agents boarded all of the Business Class and Elite status holders in one big stampede. It was a bit chaotic but it was generally fine. Sometimes having 15 boarding groups can be as unmanageable as having 2, I think.

Their new Business Class uses Vantage XL seats and are laid out in a 1-2-1 configuration. An amenity kit, headphones, bedding and water were waiting for me when I arrived. Pre-departure champagne and juice was served.

Our A330
Pre-departure champagne


Fancy new seat

Headphones and controls




Amenity Kit

Service

As this was an overnight flight to Europe, my first priority was to get to sleep as soon as possible. Since I'm a big fan of strategic fasting to prevent jetlag, I ate my "dinner" back in the lounge, at the approximate dinner time in the Central European timezone and then nothing until breakfast time in Europe.

As soon as we hit cruising altitude I switched into my pajamas and went straight to sleep and skipped the dinner service. The quilted seat cover/mattress pad was nice, as were the blanket and pillow. I put on my eye shades and fell right asleep until they started the pre-landing breakfast service.

I went to the lav to change back into my street clothes and noticed the galley had an espresso machine. While still in the galley, I asked the FA if I could get an espresso with my breakfast and hooray! the most important thing about morning arrived a few minutes later.

I bring this up mostly because I've been on several flights where the airline advertises an espresso machine but it's "out of service" once we're onboard. To be fair, I can't imagine being an FA and needing to do a full breakfast service while also making 40 people "double half-caf 180 and rising soy mocha valencias with 3 Splendas*" so I generally do two things: ask for the espresso drink out of earshot of other customers, and ask for a straight-up espresso with no milk products. Whenever I do that, the machine never seems to be broken 😉

While finishing my breakfast I looked through their seat-back entertainment system and found a cool documentary about local craftspeople who made all of the fabrics used onboard the newly-remodeled plane. 

My bed

Sweet nectar of the gods!

breakfast
Onboard espresso machine

Landing

Customs at Oslo was quick and easy. Norway is inside the Schengen zone, so my onward flight to Berlin didn't require another trip through customs. Oslo airport doesn't have showers, you have to go off-airport and do a 4-hour hotel room rental if you're feeling stinky.

My Oslo lounge review is here.

 

Pics

Large lav in Business is nice for changing clothes

Wi-Fi is free for Business Class and Premium Economy customers
Almost there!

 

Good morning Oslo

nice touchscreen IFE system

No personal air vents on this A330
tail and belly cams on the IFE!
tail and belly cams on the IFE!

 

Menus


Dinner menu (click to enlarge)

Breakfast menu
Wine
Tea and coffee
Spirits
Beer




* I'm from the Pacific Northwest and that was the actual drink one of my coworkers ordered every morning...