Month: May 2018

Primeclass lounge seating area

A Lounge Review Salvo: Miami, Zurich, and Tokyo

In a departure from my customary practice of “each item gets its own review,” I am combining my visits to each lounge into one review. During the course of my journey, I stopped in the Avianca Lounge in Miami Airport, the Primeclass Lounge in Zurich, and the IASS Lounge in Tokyo Narita.

 

Why do I have access? My Hilton Honors Ascend Amex comes with Priority Pass Select membership at no additional cost, though I did have to opt-in. A select membership grants me ten free lounge visits per calendar year. Additional visits are US$27. The value (both monetary and comfort) of the free lounge visits on this trip has already come quite close to the annual fee.

 

Lounges have (essentially) four benefits:

  • Complimentary refreshments – Do not overlook this, as a bottle of water, coffee, a small sandwich, and a salad/fruit can easily be US$20 or more. Throw in a couple of alcoholic drinks, and your wallet is taking a $40-50 hit.
  • Seating, wifi, and power – this is the holy trinity of 21st century civilization, and one or more of these are frequently lacking in the main terminal.
  • Peace and quiet – After getting rid of the rental car, dealing with a taxi/uber, getting up ungodly early, being abused by security, and other such joys of travel, having a chill-spot where you can feel the cortisol levels plummet really helps.
  • Markedly better bathrooms – The vastly lower traffic versus the main terminal means that I am usually not worrying about what sort of hybridized super-hepatitis I am going to get from touching the faucet.

Avianca Lounge, Miami

 

After an early check-in, a client call, and mind-numbingly tedious security, I had a choice. At the J gates in MIA, Priority Pass allows members to use either the LATAM (Oneworld) or Avianca (Star Alliance) lounges, which are right next to each other. I opted for Avianca – largely based on the “logic” (loosely used) of “I am flying with Swiss, a Star carrier, so why not try the star lounge?” 

 

This upcoming multi-continental flight wasn’t my first such marathon. By now, I know what to do and what not to do to minimize discomfort. I say “minimize discomfort,” as even up at the pointy end, I’ve been worn down excessively by overindulging in the bacchanalian quantities of champagne and food, which aggravates the effects of air travel (dehydration, air pressure effects on the intestines).  So, my plan was to eat something light in the lounge and decline food in the air.

 

My arrival circa 5:15 pm found the lounge quite busy with Avianca passengers awaiting their flights. I opted against taking pictures, as the crowding made it seem almost like an invasion of the next table’s privacy. Despite being almost at its effective capacity (in terms of occupied seating), the staff deserve commendation for effectively maintaining a supply of food and beverages as well as clearing customers’ plates, glasses, etc.

 

Food options included a giant bowl of hummus (yaaaaas), fruit salad, mixed veggies, salad, chips, bread, chicken teriyaki, steamed rice, and sandwiches (cut up into bite-sized pieces on toothpicks). I opted for a piece of a turkey sandwich, a small bread roll, hummus, and fruit. Perfect.

 

Beverages included tea, an espresso/cappuccino/latte machine, various hard liquors (mid-shelf), wine (awful, the pinot noir sported a pronounced acetone flavor), domestic beer, and various soft drinks. I declined to finish the single small glass of wine I had poured in favor of herbal tea and water.  

 

After about 6:15, the lounge cleared out with an Avianca flight. I was able to work on a proposal for the client I had called earlier, enjoy my dinner, and watch Return of the Jedi on a nearby TV. Well done, Avianca. 

Avianca seating area

Summary: Despite the crowding if a flight is going out, it’s not a bad place to kill time. I was happy that there were some reasonably healthy and tasty food offerings. Bonus points for vintage Star Wars.

Primeclass Lounge, Zurich

 

After arriving at the E gates in ZRH (ie the non-Schengen area), I went straight to the Primeclass lounge. This one is a very new addition to ZRH and the Priority Pass portfolio. Other choices include two Aspire lounges and a Swiss Airlines lounge. After some research, this seemed like the best option.

 

You see, I really wanted a shower. I find a shower between flights to be very refreshing, and I imagine that my future seatmate on the next sector probably appreciates someone that is freshly washed as opposed to – stale.  

 

When I checked into the lounge, the shower was being cleaned up. No problem. In the meantime, I decamped to the bar area, poured a glass of Evian water, and fixed a healthy breakfast plate of gummy bears. The lounge was immaculate, felt brand new, and was so lightly utilized that the servers/staff outnumbered the patrons.Primeclass lounge seating area

 

 

Plane spotters will appreciate the outdoor seating, a luxury in airports. View of outdoor area at Zurich airport primeclass lounge

I took a cup of Earl Grey out there, watching the planes do their thing, and enjoyed a beautiful Swiss spring day. Suddenly, I could see myself settling in Switzerland after bringing in some ill-gotten gains. (This is a joke)

 

By now, the cleaners had worked their magic and stocked the shower room with fresh towels. The room was a bit tight, but the cleanliness was irreproachable. As you would expect, I felt SO MUCH BETTER.Primeclass lounge shower area

Afterwards, my stomach demanded something with a bit more nutrition than a dozen gummy bears, so I helped myself to a fruit cocktail and a piece of rye bread.  The buffet also featured eggs, rosti potatoes, yogurt, and croissants.  Everything appeared to be of decent quality. 

 

Summary: Possibly the best offering in the E-gates (that isn’t a Swiss First Class lounge). The Swiss business lounge as well as the Aspire lounges have garnered mediocre reviews. If I recall correctly, the Aspire lounges don’t have bathrooms inside. The Primeclass lounge, with showers, restroom, and a nap room (if you have the time), blow the Aspire offerings out of the water on those grounds alone.  

IASS Lounge, Narita

 

Having arrived in Narita and cleared immigration by 9 AM, I decided that there wasn’t much point going to my accommodation so early. Narita does have some lounges “landside” (ie before security) that welcome arriving passengers. Great. A coffee, some water, and somewhere to charge my phone merited burning one of my allotted ten visits.

 

Or did it? The IASS lounge only had tea, coffee, water, and a soda machine. Food was limited to a jar of (admittedly tasty) Japanese snack mix. 

 

The lounge itself was more of a large living room with seats. With the minimal atmosphere, I was happy to be on my way after an hour of charging the phone, checking up on the news, and rehydrating.  

 

Summary: Profoundly “meh,” but I accomplished what I came to do. 

Review: Hilton Miami Airport Blue Lagoon

Rate: $111.12 (incl taxes) + $19 parking

Room: 2 Queen Standard (booked); King Junior Suite (received)

 

Arrival

After a protracted and horrific drive from Gainesville through heavy storms, heavy traffic, and numerous accidents, I at last won through the hazards and arrived at the Miami Airport Hilton a bit over 2 hours behind schedule. [Such an auspicious start to my digital nomad adventure!] To my pleasant surprise, the check-in and lobby were deserted. My prior visit here in September 2017 saw crowds more in line with what you’d expect for a large hotel adjacent to a major US airport.

I found the hotel easy to navigate to. It’s immediately located off of the NW 57th Ave exit of the  Dolphin Expressway – the toll road that connects the airport with I-95/Miami Beach. 

Check-in was a breeze as usual, and I found myself upgraded to a king junior suite, room 1060. This was quite unexpected. My research on this property via Flyertalk & the interwebs has led me to the conclusion that the property does not upgrade frequently, even for Hilton Gold and Diamond guests.

My best guest for this luck? A happy confluence of my diamond status, a desk agent that wasn’t overwhelmed, and a dead-day arrival. I arrived on the evening of Memorial Day, when business travel would be low and leisure guests would have checked out en masse that morning. The result? Lots of abnormally open inventory.  This property tends to charge a relatively modest premium for its suite rooms, so my guess is that they frequently are selling the really good rooms for cash.

The Room

 

For a third time, I was pleasantly surprised. The room exceeded my expectations for a junior suite in the US. Customarily (with Hilton-family hotels), a junior suite is usually an oversized King bedroom with a great deal of empty space. This room is on a corner and features a distinct living room/study area and a separate bedroom.

The furnishings seem to be in relatively good condition, and finding scuffs/wear required considerable scrutiny. The bed and various seating options all passed muster in the comfort department.

Plane-spotters will love the panoramic views of the active runways. Non-enthusiasts will appreciate that you don’t hear any aircraft noise. Everyone is happy!

Breakfast

 

Gold and Diamond elites receive vouchers for a complimentary continental breakfast. Hot food, including an egg station, is surcharged at $5 + tax. I typically opt to pay in for a bit of protein. Fruit and pastries are of decent albeit not mind-blowing quality. For that, you are looking at the Conrad Miami. The hot stuff is basically protein-by-Sysco. Skip them, and get an omelet.

 

Facilities

 

Tl;dr: surprisingly good. Hiltons can be wildly inconsistent in the quality of their fitness/pool offerings. I’ve seen everything from broom closets with a treadmill from HW Bush’s presidency to expansive rooms with the latest and greatest. Pool quality is similarly variable.

 

This property delivers. The fitness room is quite large, well lit, and amply supplied with water and towels. The machines tend heavily towards cardio, though they have some resistance machines and free weights. Those looking to go for a run will enjoy the .5 mile walking/jogging track.  The distances are signed, so repeat as needed to reach your distance goal. Also, keep an eye out for the local lizards.

The pool is one of the largest I have seen at a non-resort property. Towels are amply provisioned. Guests shouldn’t have difficulty finding seats at the numerous tables, lounge chairs, bar area, and patio seating. A ping-pong table is suspiciously close to the bar (cough beer pong cough).

 

Best part? A couple of small cats like to hang out by the pool. They are adorable.

 

Summary

 

Would recommend and return again. Breakfast could stand a bit more effort, though the staff are great. If rates in downtown Miami/Miami Beach are extortionate, this isn’t a bad option if you have a car or are willing to grab an Uber.

Keep these documents on you for travelling

Wallet, passport, phone, backpack, laptop, chargers (plural), clothing, camera, and so on. Such is the typical 2018 travel list – be it for a tourist, digital nomad, or backpacker. If you’re like me, it’s 8 p.m. at the hotel, and you’re cursing yourself for leaving the charger at home or at your prior accommodation. Woe unto thee.

 

However, there are a couple of things I never  forget when travelling, particularly to Asia. As I get ready to go off again, these items are in mind. I’ve been stocking the envelopes and passport wallet with them just this weekend!

 

Old Credit & Debit Cards

 

American express credit cardBy luck & planning, I had my major credit and debit cards replaced/updated within the last 4 weeks. Here’s the thing though, my bookings were primarily made with those cards. I didn’t cut up and dispose of the cards. It’s not uncommon on check-in for flights or hotels to have the original booking card requested as a form of security. This is extremely rare in North America, but it’s not uncommon throughout Asia. When I received my replacement cards, the old ones attached to bookings went straight into my passport holder.

 

This can be exasperating for Westerners traveling out of airports/countries where this additional security check is common. The time between purchase and the flight date can be up to one year, after all. In my observations, low cost carriers tend to be far stricter on this check than full-service carriers.

 

What happens if you can’t produce the card? It varies. Jane Doe holding a passport for Jane Doe travelling on a ticket for Jane Doe is probably at a relatively low risk of being denied use of that ticket if she isn’t holding the card ending in 1234 Jane originally used to book 7 months ago. If the carrier is truly a ball-buster, you might have to buy a new ticket at the airport, which can get very expensive.

 

Crisp Cash

 

There are few problems that  Ulysses Grant or Ben Franklin can’t solve, particularly if you deploy him/them en masse. There are numerous reasons why you might want to carry the cash. Budgeting can be psychologically easier than swiping plastic. ATM fees can be extortionate when added up, especially if you have a fee from your home bank on top of something like Thailand’s foreign ATM fees (₿200 – about US$6). Of course, there are always those pesky emergencies like being locked out of your card for “security!”

 

Moneychangers abound in global cities of any size. I have found that Southeast Asia  Hong Kong (Chungking Mansions!) have some of the most incredible rates of exchange for cash I have seen. I calculated a .25% (one quarter of one percent!) difference between the exchange booth and the spot rate when I changed Hong Kong Dollars to Singapore Dollars in central Singapore. Try getting that in a Western country. Surprise: you can’t. 

 

Typically, I advise that one exchange $50 or $100 (if US$) in the best condition possible. For the sake of convenience, it is typically best to carry larger denominations. Moneychangers like them more, and carrying smaller denominations discreetly becomes problematic (over $200 in $20 notes isannoying). Like any rule, there are exceptions. or dollarized economies such as Cambodia, having a stash of $1, $5, and $10 notes is extremely useful for smaller, day-to-day transactions.Picture of a US 100 dollar bill on top of other dollar bills

Do non-Americans need USD? Not necessarily. Recognizable global currencies like Canadian, Australian, or New Zealand Dollars as well as Yen, Euro, British Pounds, South Korean Won, and Chinese Yuan are fine.

 

 

Flight & Hotel Printouts

 

This one may seem quaintly archaic in the era of apps and digital confirmations, but never underestimate the authority and utility of ink on paper. A billing dispute (e.g. prepaid reservation or not) or apparently non-existent reservation magically ends in your favor the moment you can produce a piece of paper with key information.

 

When crossing borders, I find it very useful to have proof of accommodation and proof of an onward ticket. The latter applies more to backpackers, long term vagabonds, digital nomads, et al. When traveling on one-way tickets, the airline checking you in or (on rare occasion) the immigration officer will want to see proof of departure by the end of your allowed stay.

 

Another great part: I don’t need to worry about some god-damned app cooperating, my phone’s charge at a given time, or my ability to connect to WiFi or 4G!

 

On a final note, the sweetness really comes when you’re arranging transport to the hotel. Certain websites, such as Agoda.com, use both Latin characters and local script in the booking confirmation. Life becomes much easier when the Hong Kong or Bangkok taxi driver can read the hotel address in Chinese characters or Thai script rather than figuring it our from the romanization.

Picture of an vintage hotel sign in a lobby

Hilton Honors: From Reward to Rebate Program

When I cash my points in for a flight or hotel booking, I derive an almost criminal pleasure from maximizing the cents per point/mile (cpp) redeemed.  If I can book a nearly $700 per night Waldorf-Astoria resort for 80,000 points (.875 cpp) , why would I spend 40,000 points to book a $120 Doubletree (.3 cpp) when I am on a road trip?

 

“Back in the day,” Hilton used discrete categories to price awards. A category X property would cost Y points. Bear in mind, this was in the past couple of years that this was the case.  This led to awesome opportunities where certain properties ended up being very cheap for one reason or another.  Price spikes due to seasonal or event demand made for insanely good redemptions.  This could be further compounded by Hilton giving away the fifth night free on reward bookings over 5 nights (silver, gold, and diamond elites – silver being available if you have a pulse and a credit score).

 

These days are no more. Properties now price dynamically.

 

 My most recent search for Actual Booking (versus data gathering) has been focused on the Millennium Hilton in Bangkok. I adore the property for its location, food & beverage, and awesome service.  The executive lounge attendant noticed that I was reading a book, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and we geeked out on Chinese history (her major). The view from said exec lounge is the main picture of this website! Rather than a fixed-point price, the price in points adjusts to the price in cash.  When I first searched, it was 36,000 points per night. By last weekend, it dropped to 31,000. Now, it’s 30,000.  I am not complaining, as I will benefit in the coming days.

 

Of course, I would be cursing like an Australian sailor if the points price went the other way.

 

The other Flyertalkers and myself have noticed a rather interesting phenomenon with our math results – the redemptions have a habit of ending up at around .4-.5 cpp, give or take a .1 cpp or so. This has ramifications for how we view the program.  Many Flyertalkers, including myself, are “guilty” of saving up for “aspirational” redemptions, like the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island (Hey Ryan!) rather than a free night at a Hampton Inn on I-95.

 

Are there outliers to this formula? Yes.  The Hilton near Vancouver Airport bucks the trend at a whole Canadian penny per point during the summer (really great property, BTW). Such redemptions are increasingly rare. Flyertalk has speculated at the effective rate of a rebate. I’ve seen numbers ranging from 10% to 24% depending how many points are earned.  A diamond elite paying with a top-tier credit card earns more points than a non-status member paying with a non-Hilton card.

 

This begs a key question. If Hilton moves towards a rebate-system with an easily calculated cash value per stay, why bother with not-fun-anymore Hilton handcuffs when you can just sign up with hotels.com and get a guaranteed 10% back with whatever property you choose?  [We’re leaving aside the frequent devaluations that had me comparing Honors points usage logic with mismanaged developing world currencies – use them today because they’ll be worth less tomorrow.]

 

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Featured Image credit: Bill Anastas