A Personal Challenge: Texas for (almost) no money

Hamachi tacos and tamales at Distrito aka "research"

This month the boyfriend and I are presenting a joint project at a professional food nerd conference in San Antonio and I thought it would be a fun challenge (okay so I have a questionable definition of “fun”) to see how close to free I could make our five-day trip. I added the stipulation that I should avoid using miles that are most valuable to me, but rather, use leftover miles and points. So I didn’t touch our United MileagePlus accounts and I checked award availability with British Airways’ Avios program obsessively for weeks (until I gave up finding flights that fit our schedules and just dealt with the fact that I will have more Avios points than I know what to do with for a while).

So here’s what the line-up looks like:

1. PHL-SAT on American. I had JUST over 25,000 AAdvantage miles in my account. Our one-way tickets cost a measly 12,500 miles and $5 in fees each and fit our schedules almost perfectly — we’d have to fly to Texas a day before the conference or else the tickets would cost 25,000 miles each on the following day.

2. Since we fly in late, one night at the Courtyard Marriott at the San Antonio Airport (category 2) for 10,000 Marriott Rewards points. I had just over 1,000 Marriott points in my account, so I transferred 9,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points (from my Sapphire Preferred sign-up bonus) to my Marriott account. The transfer took 2 days to be processed. Although I value UR points highly (which transfer 1:1 to United), I can afford to spare 9,000, especially since our tickets cost so few AA miles.

3. Two nights at the Doubletree San Antonio Downtown at the conference rate of $85 per night. As a HHonors Gold member, I’ll earn a 25% bonus on points and more points because of the More Points promotion. 1,000 bonus points per night plus 5,000 bonus points per weekend stay.

4. One night at the Sheraton Gunter Hotel San Antonio (category 3) using a cash and points award: 2,800 Starpoints and $45, which I think is a pretty damn good deal. I’ll earn 2 Starpoints on the dollar for the $45 spent and parting with just 2,800 Starpoints was not at all painful. Given that I have a Starwood Preferred Guest AmEx, I also have Preferred Plus status, the perk I am most interested in being room upgrades upon availability. Thankfully, the Gunter Hotel is near the Amtrak station in San Antonio.

5. San Antonio to Austin on Amtrak. Two ISIC-discounted tickets (normally $13 each for an adult) for a total of $22.10. The flights out of San Antonio back to Philly were too early / we would have missed part of the conference / none of the award options were that “cheap” but I found the perfect flight out of Austin. Also we’ve never been to Austin and have wanted to check it out, even if it is just for a day.

6. AUS-PHL on American. Chase Ultimate Rewards came to my rescue again. I booked directly through the Ultimate Rewards Travel site (accessible with my Chase Sapphire Preferred) in order to save 20% on points. Since UR points are not airline miles (although you can transfer them to mileage programs to turn them irreversibly into airline miles), I still earn frequent flier miles with points booked through UR as if I was booking with cash. Also there are no blackout dates. Two tickets “cost” $271.20 or rather, 21,696 UR points.

Cash total for two travelers: $247.10

For 4 flights, 2 train tickets and 4 nights in hotels and minimal damage to my mileage accounts, that does not suck.

more research: esquites at Distrito in Philly


Foursquare + AmEx statement credits = I get to eat even more sushi

my favorite so far of the Izumi chef's custom creations: ankimo (monkfish liver pate), fried shrimp heads and amaebi sashimi

To say I take sushi seriously is an understatement. I’ll resist hyperbolizing, but I like my sushi fresh and preferably moving (unless a particular fish is better served lightly and watchfully aged) and I like it weird. Moving to Pennsylvania, I initially scorned all sushi restaurants in the entire state. My rationale was as follows: it is too far inland and there are too many idiots around here who order things like monster dragon crunchy Philadelphia rolls. These beliefs were unshakeable until I started going to Izumi (1601 E. Passyunk Ave), discovered they have live uni (served in its badass shell). After a rather beachy summer in Greece, during which I salivated whenever I saw people step on sea urchins, my uni craving by the time I got back to Philly was pretty hard to quell.

Now I go to Izumi regularly and I have a routine. I order some sashimi, but for the rest of the meal, I end up eating whatever the sushi chef plops in front of me. But this is not a restaurant review. This is a post that combines three of my current fixations: checking in on Foursquare, my Starwood Preferred AmEx and sea urchins.

I now regularly post check-ins on Foursquare for my boyfriend and I at hotel and airport locations to obtain free miles and hotel points. See explanations about hotel points here and here and explanation about United/Continental miles here.

I’ve also been checking into restaurants on Foursquare to keep track of where we go out to eat. I keep a food calendar, too, but I guess I’m more than a little obsessive about documenting such things.

Almost all my spending is now split up between my Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa and my Starwood Preferred Guest American Express, which I still haven’t made the minimum spending limit on in order to get another 15,000 super valuable and flexible Starpoints. It’s a great card — see an excellent review of it by Lucky, even if I don’t receive double points on travel and dining with it as I do with the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

Last night, I synced my AmEx with my Foursquare account so that when I “check in” to a particular restaurant, in this case, Izumi, I activate a Foursquare special and get a $5 statement credit for supporting a small business. Details here. This special also applies to a good number of other small business establishments.

Therefore, sign up for an SPG AmEx, go to Izumi, post a check-in on Foursquare and order some urchin. If you ask nicely, the sushi chef might give you a raw quail egg to put on top.

live uni appetizer at Izumi

The Awesome Nerd learns an awesome lesson about booking hotel rooms

Okay so this is Shane Victorino, The Flyin' Hawaiian, made into a tasty Foodland poke, and last week, the Awesome Nerd's boyfriend was literally a Flying Hawaiian. He got on a plane. The Awesome Nerd planned his trip. And yes, this is the most relevant photo I could dig up.

Note to self: When you book an “accessible” hotel room, it does NOT mean that the room is near the floor’s vending/ice machine. The term “accessible” actually means that you mistakenly booked your boyfriend (AND his business partner) a handicapped-room for their out-of-state conference — complete with lowered light switches. After a 5-hour flight, do not be surprised if he does not reciprocate your enthusiasm that all that the extra space between furniture is (sort of) like being upgraded to a suite. Apparently, having no bathtub and sitting on a shower bench is not equivalent to having your own personal in-room sauna. Despite how adorable he always says you are, at 2,225 miles away from home, he will not be amused.

Travel essentials according to my sister

travel essentials according to my sister

A care package arrived for me this morning from my sister. As I unwrapped each item, I realized she had pretty much done all the packing for my next trip for me. That sister of mine — she’s a mindreader. She also included products that I didn’t even know existed!

The rundown: a scarf, a copy of Best Food Writing 2011, a bouffant shower cap (those who know me well know how much I adore shower caps), hand warmers, a travel-specific magnetic notepad with tabs marked with “favorite” and “explore”, a disposable camera that takes photos marked with fortune cookie fortunes (which I’m going to save to bring to Texas. Somehow that makes the most sense), an assortment of sample size beauty products (I have a HUGE collection of these that gets regularly supplemented by online Sephora orders. They’re free with every order. I throw a handful into my carryon for every trip to avoid squeezing stuff into tiny bottles. Especially helpful for short trips when I’m trying to pack like a ninja), an all-weather notebook with rain-proof paper (I don’t understand how this works yet), two canisters of Tide Swash products (“clothing odor outer” — I’m wondering if this also works on dogs? and “clothing dewrinkler,” which I am SO excited about because I hate ironing and hotel ironing boards frighten me), a shirt that gives away my secret identity and last but most certainly not least, a mustache keychain that talks (it says “well, hello there” with the touch of a button). I’m assuming the mustache is supposed to help me preserve my secret identity, even if the shirt I’m wearing gives me away.

Hotel report: The Kohala Spa at the Hilton Waikoloa Village

The sad-looking nene goose I visited with right before heading to the Kohala Spa. What the heck is the Hilton doing with a nene goose? Aren't they endangered!?

The Kohala Spa was teeming with Big Island residents on staycations when I first entered early in the day. It turned out Hilton Gold status granted me free access to the spa facilities and the fitness room. Hotel guests ordinarily have to pay $20 for access and non-hotel guests, $25. I decided to get a 50-minute lomi lomi massage although I generally associate the term with the tasty salmon dish. (I love lomi lomi salmon! Yum! Sadly, there no salmon came with my massage.) There was a 15% kama’aina discount on the $145 price tag, which still wasn’t cheap, but there wasn’t much else to do and it had been years since my last massage, thus the massive knot in my back I usually refer to as my “Greek shoulder” (it gets exceedingly painful when I’m translating Greek for some reason. Homeric Greek makes it especially bad. Don’t even get me started on Pindar.). Sort of like tennis elbow, but more insidious.

reception area of the Kohala Spa

The citrus and vanilla infused water readily available in the gender-segregated spa areas was quite delightful and I helped myself to a lot of it. Chris, my masseur, came to fetch me from the waiting area and led me into a private room. He had me oiled up with kukui nut oil like a New Years Day hog within moments (I’m not entirely sure what that means either but I like the sound of it). I instructed him to apply as much pressure as he could possibly muster. My Chinese logic tells me that the more pressure I receive, the more I am getting my money’s worth.

It was a pretty awesome massage and although Greek shoulder still continues to irk me, I wasn’t expecting to completely eliminate it anyway. It is really very insidious. I was asleep by the end of the massage.

Afterwards, I whiled away several hours in the women’s spa area, which had a sauna, steam room, rainfall showers and an outdoor jacuzzi that was artfully hidden from the rest of the world by high walls and palm trees. I took like four showers. I was also thrilled to find a basket of free plastic shower caps by the row of shower rooms (ARGH! My Chinese is showing).

Everything smelled appropriately spa-like and lovely: the steam in the steam room, the self-branded toiletries that spurted happily out of large dispensers in the shower rooms, the fluffy, white towels.

An hour before the 7pm closing, I had almost the entire spa to myself. Everything was peaceful and perfect. Except for the old naked lady who kept wandering around. She eventually settled herself in the outdoor hot tub, where I was longing to settle myself.

What is the etiquette in this situation?

Once, in a hotel in Munich, a naked guy eased himself into a tiny sauna that was populated only by myself and my friend. We left. It was too European for us.

But the old naked lady didn’t seem European enough for me to be able to join her nonchalantly in the not terribly large hot tub. I wandered between the sauna and the steam room like a hungry ghost for a bit.

At one point, I squeezed my eyes closed and slipped into the hot tub for a moment, pretending that I was just, uh, relaxing with my eyes closed.

It wasn’t all that relaxing, so I scampered off and took another shower.

Hotel report: Hilton Waikoloa Village, the Big Island

lagoon-like pool at the Hilton Waikoloa

I hate resorts. Hate them. But my dad got it into his head that we’d take a short trip to the Big Island and settled on staying at the Hilton Waikoloa Village. I figured I could shove my snobbish, intellectually-charged disdain aside for a couple days and endure some utterly manufactured and Disney-fied “paradise.” I also figured that maybe it was time to drag myself off my grandma’s couch.

I was further lured in by Hilton’s first quarter promotion entitled More Points and having registered for it, I would be receiving, well, more points — 1000 per night since we’d be staying during the week (you get 5000 points on weekend stays). In addition, I had just managed to get myself free and instant Hilton Gold Status (along with a number of family members and whoever would listen to me badger them about it on Facebook) through this scheme. I was eager to test out Gold benefits, which include a 25% bonus on HHonors base points earned, free breakfast and internet, etc.

We had a corporate rate which made a standard room about $191 per night. Taxes added on another $25 or so. Gold benefits at the property alloted us a total of four $10 food certificates in lieu of a free continental breakfast.

standard digs at the Hilton

standard digs at the Hilton in the Ocean Tower

spacious dressing area

Kohala Spa branded toiletries in said spacious dressing area

The Hilton Waikoloa Village turned out to be a pretty resorty resort. The lobby was graced (?) by a number of spunky parrots. There was a mini-train. It encircled the entire property, stopping at a tower inspired by a different Asian destination every few minutes. A recorded voice cheerfully announced each stop and interspersed those announcements with helpful facts: “One of the longest words in the Hawaiian language is the humuhumunukunukuapua’a and now we are arriving at the Ocean Tower!”

stupid mini train and spunky parrots

In this Truman Show-esque version of reality, there were several restaurants, including: Kirin, the Chinese restaurant, quite naturally packed with tour groups from Mainland China, and the Japanese-ish Imari, where we dined alongside quite a lot of Japanese tourists and some “aloha-attired” midwesterners who were surely stepping far outside of their comfort zones.

Not terribly thrilling pork katsu

We received a 15% kama’aina discount on all meals, which I really appreciated. If you don’t know what a kama’aina discount is, you’re likely not eligible for it. The meals were, unsurprisingly, horrendously overpriced. We ordered five little pieces of hamachi for $18 and two entrees, miso butterfish and pork katsu, both around $25 and not that thrilling. My mojito was thankfully just strong enough to dull my senses and keep me nice.

The property is quite a bit lovelier at night. The pseudo-museum displays develop a sort of kitschy charm. The concrete Roman-ish statues are no less puzzling, but after several beers at a poolside bar, I finally ceased my struggle to cull any sort of mythological analysis from the scene pictured below. I also stopped wondering why the cherubs were so, um, well-developed.

puzzling statue group

On our second day, my dad and I split a rather unfortunate but extremely large loco moco at the Big Island Breakfast at Water’s Edge. The rice was hard, the hamburger patty was poorly seasoned and by the time it arrived at our table, the gravy had developed a skin. But our server was overwhelmingly sweet and gracious. My dad pointed out the hard rice and she brought over a heaping plate of assorted breakfast breads to compensate when we refused a replacement loco moco.

The loco moco that broke my heart

Looking at this photo of the loco moco makes me too sad to go on. I will have to finish up the Kohala Spa portion of this report some other time.

New online shopping notes: bonus miles/points for Forever 21 and Gilt Groupe

The most recent mailing I received from AAdvantage eShopping lists Forever 21 as a new retailer, thus you can earn 2 bonus AA miles per dollar on Forever 21 purchases made through the AAdvantage portal. I cross-referenced this with United’s MileagePlus shopping and they are now offering 1 mile per dollar 2 miles on the dollar ( mistakenly has Forever 21 listed as earning only 1 United mile per dollar). (Updated 1/24/2012 but United is also offering 500 bonus miles for $75 spent on a single purchase through Jan 31.)  This is excellent news for me. I shop at Forever 21 far more often than is dignified and acceptable at my age but at least now I can use the earning of bonus miles as an excuse. (Did they really need to name the store Forever 21? How about Forever 27? Or Forever 40? That buys me a lot more time.)

On another note, when I made my two initial purchases on Gilt Groupe in order to garner 1500 bonus United/Continental miles for both me and my boyfriend, I had shopped through the Marriott shopping portal and also received 4 Marriott points per dollar spent. Double-dipping works in this case because you don’t have to shop through the United MileagePlus portal in order to receive 1500 bonus miles AND 5 miles per dollar spent. Register here. They’ve imposed a $50 minimum purchase requirement since I made my purchase of a single jar of powdered ginger.

So on one Gilt Groupe purchase, I received

1. 1500 United Miles for signing up

2. 5 bonus United miles per dollar spent

3. 4 Marriott points per dollar spent (these took forever… about 3 months… to post, but just in time to boost my account for my next Marriott points-stay).

This little jar of ginger powder earned me a boatload of miles and points.