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November 16, 2010

A Hotel Loyalty Program for Travelers Who Hate Chain Hotels

Up in the Air
In Up In The Air, George Clooney played a miles-and-points-obsessed road warrior who would order three entrees at dinner at a Hilton just so he could rack up HHonors points. 

Earning points toward free hotel stays has gotten a dose of glam lately, and not just because of George Clooney. Ritz-Carlton and Leading Hotels of the World both started rewards programs within the past year. And the big hotel companies—the Hiltons, Marriotts, and Starwoods—have spent the recession trying to hang on to your business by beefing up their loyalty programs, making it easier for you to earn free stays, free upgrades, and the other perks that come with being a loyalty program member. 

So what do you do if you prefer non-chain hotels—historic inns, urban boutique hot spots, one-of-a-kind resorts? For you, there's now Stash Hotel Rewards, which lets you earn points toward free stays at any of 100 independent high-end hotels in the U.S., many of them Conde Nast Traveler Gold List and Hot List properties. 

Stash Hotel Rewards

Based on what I learned about Stash at the PhoCusWright Travel Innovation Summit today, there doesn't seem to be a down side to joining—and I would recommend doing so if you plan to stay in any of the participating hotels, as long as you keep a couple of things in mind:

Continue reading "A Hotel Loyalty Program for Travelers Who Hate Chain Hotels" »

March 01, 2010

Advice for Hawaii-Bound Families and Starwood Frequent Guests

ts_Royal_Hawaiian_Hotel.jpg
My seven-year-old had his first surfing lesson last week on Waikiki Beach at the Royal Hawaiian, the iconic pink palace where we stayed in Honolulu. The tower next door? The Sheraton Waikiki. 

Listen up, fellow parents and/or Starwood loyalists: I feel I should share a hotel discovery I made in Hawaii last week, as well as a few tips for making the most of your Starwood Preferred Guest points on your next vacation.

Starwood has four Honolulu properties located within about a seven-minute walk of one another. Prior to my trip I had deliberated over which would best suit the needs of me, my husband, and our six- and seven-year-old sons: the Sheraton Waikiki, a behemoth on the beach with the biggest, most kid-friendly pool; the Moana Surfrider, a Westin with old-world elegance and nightly hula dancing in the fun Banyan Courtyard; the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani, the cheapest option at only $119 per night but a couple of blocks from the beach; or the Royal Hawaiian, an historic property that is the plushest of the four? I was choosing among Starwood properties because, like many Conde Nast Traveler readers, I've got a Starwood Preferred Guest American Express Card that earns me a ton of Starpoints, which I cash in for family-vacation hotel stays when I'm not redeeming them for airline tickets.

At first glance it was the Sheraton Waikiki that would have seemed to suit my family's needs best, thanks to its water slides, kids' club, and numerous affordable meal and snack options. But it was sold out for our travel dates, so we booked the Royal Hawaiian next door instead. In the end, my husband and I were thrilled we ended up at the Royal Hawaiian, as it turned out to be the best property for our needs after all. Here's why:

Not only did we get a more spacious and user-friendly room than we would have gotten elsewhere--a room that included an enormous walk-in closet where we could store all our bags and gear, as well as old-fashioned windows that actually open so our bathing suits could dry overnight--but we also got access to the facilities at the other Starwood properties. We never used the Royal Hawaiian's tiny pool, for instance; instead, we went to the huge one two minutes away at the Sheraton, where the kids could slide to their heart's content. Instead of eating pricey breakfasts at the Royal Hawaiian, we strolled five minutes down the beach to the Moana Surfider, where the enormous breakfast buffet on The Veranda was free for kids and a great value because breakfast was so filling that we didn't need lunch. Furthermore, because the Royal Hawaiian is right next to a huge shopping plaza with a terrific food court, we had easy access to fast and cheap lunches and dinners, not to mention inexpensive convenience stores so that we didn't have to rely on expensive hotel gift shops for sundries. As for surfing lessons, after comparison shopping among several vendors along the beach, we determined that the best value for our dollar was in our own backyard. At the Royal Hawaiian's beach activities desk, surf lessons were $100 per hour (the right length when you're not sure whether your child is going to like it or not) and included a whole disk of photos of you on your surfboard, snapped by a photographer who follows your every move out at sea.

Not only do I recommend the Royal Hawaiian to parents hoping for that rare combination of sophisticated adult ambiance and child-friendliness, but I also want to share three important tips that every smart Starwood Preferred Guest member or wanna-be should know:

Continue reading "Advice for Hawaii-Bound Families and Starwood Frequent Guests" »

March 02, 2009

Why I Rejected 16,000 Hotel Points

by Wendy Perrin

Remember my ethical dilemma about whether or not to accept those 16,000 Starpoints offered by the Westin St. Maarten as compensation for the fact that I wasted a day of my vacation wrestling with Internet-access problems? Many of you shared your arguments both for and against, and I very much appreciate all your thoughtful input.

Just wanted to wrap up this issue and let you know that I notified the front office manager not to send the points. It was an old friend's advice that proved the deciding factor.  "Ignoring ethics for a moment," he wrote, "there may be a practical reason to reject the points. Especially given that your dilemma is public, you may not want to make a decision that even a minority of your readers finds inappropriate." Absolutely true.

February 20, 2009

The Westin Sint Maarten Kisses and Makes Up

Westin_st_maarten_2
I did finally manage to carve out an hour for the pool at the Westin Dawn Beach Resort, Feb. 18, 2009.

by Wendy Perrin

Remember Tuesday's post about my Wi-Fi problems at the Westin Sint Maarten? I don't know whether it's the power of blogging or Westin's customer service ethic but, whatever the reason, when I went to check out of the hotel yesterday morning, I learned it had removed all Internet-access charges from my bill. (The agent at the front desk also removed a $75 room-service charge that wasn't mine.)

The front office manager--who, if he's even aware that I write a blog, certainly never mentioned it--apologized for the trouble I'd had, acknowledged that the Wi-Fi situation at the hotel is a big problem, and assured me that a team of Westin people will be tackling it shortly. The hotel needs to have great Internet access if it wants to host corporate meetings, he said. True.

He also said he'd like to restore 16,000 points--the equivalent of one free night at the resort--to my Starwood account, as compensation for the day I'd lost. (I had paid for my stay with 64,000 points.)  "No, please don't do that" was my automatic response.  That's because I'm so accustomed to rejecting anything resembling free travel, in accordance with Conde Nast Traveler's policy of no freebies. On the other hand, if I were Joe Businessman with a Starwood account, I would consider a compensatory offer of 16,000 points to be a very fair resolution to this situation.

So what should I do, folks?  Reject the 16,000 points because I can't accept anything free from a travel company? Or accept the points because it's reasonable compensation and what a normal traveler would do?

I wrestle (alone) with ethical issues like this all the time, so would love to hear other people's opinions.

February 17, 2009

Tech Snafus on Sint Maarten/St. Martin

Tech_problems_3Where I spent today (yes, virtually the entire day): Room 2166 at the Westin St. Maarten. That's me with one of the hotel tech guys who tried to fix my room's wireless and cable connectivity problems, Feb. 17, 2009. 

by Wendy Perrin

If you're wondering what I've been doing since you last heard from me, the answer is: battling one tech breakdown after another. It all started with my Palm Treo 750 dying, the apparent victim of Dutch-French network confusion. First it worked on the French side of the island but not the Dutch side, then on the Dutch side but not the French side, and then last Friday it stopped working everywhere. Hours spent on the phone with the AT&T International Help Desk and Conde Nast Tech Support couldn't revive it. I've been without mobile Web or e-mail access for five days now. 

Then on Saturday I checked into the Westin and promptly lost that critical hotel accoutrement--in-room Wi-Fi--that had made life so easy at the property I'd stayed in the previous six nights. (I can't tell you more about that first property because it's part of an article I'm writing for Conde Nast Traveler's upcoming June issue. What I can tell you is that, in a crazed moment of optimism about a month ago, I redeemed Starwood points for five nights at the Westin because I thought it might be nice to tack some vacation days onto my work assignment down here. The plan backfired: Between writing my article, blogging, and losing 20-or-so precious hours to tech problems, there's been zero time for any vacation.)

So when I arrived at the Westin on Saturday and was told the only place you can get a Wi-Fi signal is the lobby, I freaked.  I can't leave my kids alone in a hotel room while I spend hours in the lobby, after all. Then this morning even the lobby Wi-Fi was on the blink. The front desk promised to call my room when the lobby Wi-Fi was restored, so I stayed put in room 2166 waiting for a call that never came.  When I marched back down to the front desk, I was told that the problem had been fixed and, actually, there should indeed be Wi-Fi in my room, as well as at the pool. Of course I checked both the room and the pool and couldn't connect at either place. Back at the front desk for the fifth or sixth time, the Westin finally started taking my complaint seriously, sending a parade of tech guys to my room. The third one finally offered some decent help:

Pool2
That's Kerry, who calls himself the hotel's "clean-up guy."

Kerry strengthened the room's Wi-Fi signal to the point where my husband's laptop can now access the Internet wirelessly. I still can't connect wirelessly in the room (even though I'm able to in the hotel's lobby), but Kerry was able to get me connected by cable and figured out why the cable hadn't worked earlier: the person who'd installed it had plugged it in wrong in some back room of the Westin.

So now my husband's connected via in-room wireless, I'm connected via in-room cable but using my husband's computer because it's providing a much quicker connection ... and we're each paying $14.95 per day (yes, $30 per day total) for the privilege.

And that is the story of how I spent pretty much the entire day in my hotel room.

Westin_st_maarten_pool Now, here's where I should have spent today: The Westin's pool. I haven't actually been in it yet, but I have walked the entire area holding an open laptop, searching in vain for a Wi-Fi signal.

By the way, if I were here at the Westin on assignment for Conde Nast Traveler, I wouldn't dare name the hotel while still staying in it (for fear that, if the hotel knew I was there, it might give me preferential treatment). The only reason I felt it was okay to name the hotel this once is that I'm here purely for "vacation," I'm not reviewing it for the magazine or this blog, and I'm clearly not getting any discount or freebie, as I paid for the room fair and square with 64,000 hard-won Starwood points.

Before I sign off, my husband wants me to add that this is the second time I've had a "blogging breakdown" (his words) on the island of Sint Maarten. The first time was two years ago, when we were on a cruise that stopped here for a day.  Because the ship's Internet access was kaput, I had to spend most of my one day on Sint Maarten in an Internet cafe!

January 15, 2009

Don't Miss Out on Today's Excellent Opportunities to Earn Extra Hotel Points

Westin_st_maarten

I just saved $2,500 by redeeming 64,000 Starwood Preferred Guest points for a five-night stay at the Westin on St. Maarten during Presidents' Week.

by Wendy Perrin

We're being carpet-bombed these days with hotel deals that yield bonus frequent-guest points, and all I can say is I hope you're taking advantage of them. The hotel industry has been improving these programs of late, eliminating blackout dates and showering its most loyal members with perks. As I note in my January Perrin Report on how to save money and travel smarter in 2009, it's wise to make hotel loyalty programs an integral part of your frequent-flier strategy. : 

"'Hotel programs have come as far in the last five years as airline programs have gone backward,' says frequent-flier expert Randy Petersen, founder of WebFlyer.com and FlyerTalk.com. 'Hotels offer a faster path to elite status than airlines, and they pay off faster," adds Joe Brancatelli of JoeSentMe.com and Portfolio.com. He recommends putting all your eggs in one frequent-guest basket and staying as loyal to one brand as possible."

Personally, my eggs are in the Starwood Preferred Guest basket because...

Continue reading "Don't Miss Out on Today's Excellent Opportunities to Earn Extra Hotel Points" »