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The Doubletree Alana Waikiki

This post is totally overdue — I stayed at the Doubletree Alana back in January during a staycation with my Most Awesome cousin and my favorite nephew. We spent one night there and took advantage of both a corporate rate and the More Points promotion (on top of the 25% point bonus for having Hilton Honors Gold status).

Although the Alana is a teeny bit of a walk away from Waikiki Beach (on the other side of Fort DeRussy park), we had a great time. Hilton Honors Gold gave us free parking and free continental breakfasts. We were welcomed with the Doubletree’s signature chocolate chip walnut cookies (and since my super amazingly adorable godson-nephew was present, it was really more like handfuls of chocolate chip cookies each, and we were “welcomed” every time we stepped in and out of the hotel). He was also very pleased with the fancy rainfall shower in our room.

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entertaining shower

The hotel is close to all the kitschy wonderfulness that Waikiki has to offer. Yes, I grew up in Hawaii, but I am far from bothered by Waikiki’s so-called touristy-ness. I find so much of it so charming. Waikiki Beach was more crowded than either I or my Awesome cousin had ever seen in our lives that weekend, but that left more time for eating Puka Dogs and shopping at the Japanese beauty shops.

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crowded Waikiki Beach in January

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Puka Dog! Polish sausage with awkwardly delicious and disturbingly toasted bun (they're toasted with a heated metal stake stabbed into the middle of the roll), lilikoi relish and lots of other good stuff.

Our comfortable beds wished us sweet dreams.Image

We checked out a couple hours late the next day (which we cleared with the front desk) after a day at a beach and meandering down Kalakaua and Kuhio Aves and then headed to our next destination on our Waikiki staycation — the Embassy Suites!

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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


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.


Observations about getting hotel points from TopGuest

I now use both Foursquare and Facebook to get hotel points (primarily for the programs Hilton Honors, Best Western Rewards and Priority Club). I’ve been posting check-ins both on my Facebook wall and the Foursquare account I’ve set up for my boyfriend and have successfully confused many friends thoroughly. I think some believe that I just go and hang out in hotels now (at least, I hope that’s the worst that they’ve assumed). The more concerned of my friends were nice enough to text and ask where the heck I’ve gone off to.

I am merely aiming to earn 50 hotel points per check-in through TopGuest. I can check into any given program once a day, so long as I’ve linked my membership number in the rewards program to my TopGuest account.

The points usually post within a day to my Hilton and Best Western accounts (although none of my Priority Club points have thus far posted and my first check-in was January 13, 5 days ago). I receive an email each time the check-in goes through. Sometimes it comes instantaneously and sometimes it doesn’t.

As I’ve mentioned previously, the system can be a bit wonky, especially when it comes to airport check-ins (TopGuest offers 50 United/Continental miles per posted check-in). On way more than one occasion, I’ve been unable to post a Facebook check-in to an airport while I was standing in that airport, but I’ve had better luck picking the airport up on Facebook’s location services when I was several miles away. Not that I would ever, ever think to violate TopGuest’s terms of service by checking into a location without ever stepping foot in that location.

My iPhone and iPad both seem to hate Foursquare and half the time will spaz out when I try to open the app. The solution I’ve found to this is to post a check-in through the browser on either device (and this can be done on an actual computer, too — I know a bunch of people who work at the airport and don’t have smartphones but bring their laptops into work. You guys can check in to the airport from your laptop and get miles) using the mobile sites:

1. http://m.foursquare.com

2. http://m.facebook.com

Search for the venue with either and you usually get a lot more (and much more reliable) options than through a phone’s GPS. Foursquare won’t give you mayoral badges or honors or whatever those titles are for computer check-ins but come on, who are you kidding? Those points won’t get you anywhere. Hilton points, however, are practically an actual currency.


Earning hotel points with TopGuest and converting hotel points to miles

I’ve been playing around with TopGuest on my iPhone and iPad lately (which means I’ve been yelling at family members with me to make detours to TopGuest locations when we are out and about). I’ll explain. TopGuest generally offers about 50 points each time you post a check-in with your Facebook or Foursquare account (or post a Tweet with a location but that seems unnecessarily complicated). It’s the same program that gets you 50 United/Continental miles for checking in certain airports.

That’s 50 miles per 24 hours, per hotel program. Theoretically.

Hypothetically, you could earn over 18,000 points a year from each of these programs: Hilton HHonors, Best Western Rewards, Wyndham Rewards, Voila Rewards and Priority Club Rewards. (Other programs include Virgin America Elevate, Choice Privileges, Kimpton InTouch, Clubhotel and M life. Why I am less concerned with these programs I will explain in due course.)

I say hypothetically and theoretically because unless you permanently reside at the associated hotels, you’re probably not going to visit one every single day, and if you do, you may very well be violating TopGuest’s terms of use and they may shut down your account. You can read about account shutdowns on this MilePoint thread.

Sure you can act like a normal person and use those hotel points towards free stays and such, but since I tend not to stay in THAT many hotels and am only really committed to the Starwood program (which is not represented on TopGuest), I plan to eventually convert hotel points to miles on the airlines I fly. Thus, I am primarily concerned with the hotel programs that have United and American as transfer partners. The transfer rates are never great, but hey, checking in on Facebook takes practically no effort, it’s free and it only causes mild confusion amongst my Facebook friends and stalkers. Therefore, I’ll get free miles (eventually).

Some examples of possible transfers:

Hilton HHonors has a ton of airline partners and a list of them along with conversions may be found here. I could potentially transfer 10,000 HHonors points for 1,500 American or Hawaiian miles or less thrillingly, 1,000 United miles.

Best Western Rewards has a somewhat better conversion rate. For 5,000 Best Western Rewards, you can receive 1,000 miles on Aeroplan, Alaska, American, Continental, Delta, Southwest, US Airways and Asiana Club. The link is here.

I keep track of all my hotel points on AwardWallet and so far, the Hilton and Best Western check-ins I’ve made have been posting within a few hours. I’ve been updating my AwardWallet account in obsessive awe. You can also receive bonus points just for signing up for TopGuest and linking either a Facebook or Foursquare account. I received 500 bonus Best Western Rewards for signing up. I receive an email within a day of the check-in reporting that I’ve received points through TopGuest.

I’ve been in Hawaii for a couple weeks now and well, there are a lot of hotels here, so I’ve had a number of opportunities to check-in, concentrating on Hiltons and Best Westerns. I’ve been testing out the GPS on my phone and iPad and it can pick up on hotels from my grandma’s couch, but checking in on Facebook to a hotel from my grandma’s couch would be um, just plain wrong (and in violation of the TopGuest terms of use). Use some discretion. You’re supposed to actually be at the location, but as the MilePoint thread reports, the system is really wonky and sometimes doesn’t even pick up on check-ins from within a hotel property.

Steps:

1. Sign up for hotel points program.

2. Sign up for a TopGuest account and link it to a Facebook or Foursquare account.

3. Connect your hotel points program number to TopGuest.

4. Search Nearby Places on Facebook and post a check-in or check in on Foursquare. Make sure the place you choose is the most obviously named place. Check to see if it has many other check-ins by others — that will give you some hint to whether or not you’re checking into the correct place. For example, when trying to obtain United/Continental miles through TopGuest, don’t check-in on Facebook to “Honoruru Intl Airport” or “Honolua Intl Airport” but rather “Honolulu International Airport (HNL)” which has thousands of previous check-ins.

To further maximize my check-in opportunities, I’ve signed up my boyfriend for a Foursquare account and linked his hotel program reward numbers (which I also set up) to TopGuest. I now have his Foursquare account on my iPhone and check him in whenever I check myself in on Facebook. I’m not relying on him to do his own check-ins because he is part-caveman, doesn’t know how to use Facebook and I’ll bet you fifty bucks he hasn’t heard of Foursquare. I guess I should probably tell him about this at some point if I remember.

I did not attempt to check in on Facebook to a hotel while I hiked up the Makapu'u Lighthouse trail because that would be wrong.