Sunday, October 30, 2016

24 Hours in a city - Amsterdam (an Accorhotels Competition)

Accorhotels recently launahced a competition in which they invited people to write how they would spend 24 hours in either Paris, Amsterdam, or Berlin.  Specifically, "you pick your favourite city, share your perfect 24 hours in this city in a write-up, blog or video – and win a fantastic NINE-day trip for two people in Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris – including transport, accommodation, a GoPro and a city-pass for the city itself."  You can find all the details by clicking here.  

Recently, KLM had some reduced fares to go from America (Houston) to South Africa with a day lay-over in Amsterdam.  I was about to take this route and so I did some research and created a one-day itinerary for Amsterdam.  Everyone has heard about Amsterdam, and the amazing canals, food, history, and culture.  When I was younger, I used to transit through Schipol a lot but never made it out of the airport; I hope to make it out of the airport and get to explore all of what Amsterdam has to offer.  

8am: arrive into Schipol and easily connect to the city center via train
10am: explore Dutch art at Rijksmuseum and of course, take the obligatory picture in front of the "I am Amsterdam" sign
11a: Continue with the exploration of Dutch art at the Van Gogh Museum
12:30p: Enjoy lunch at Reijnders, a traditional Dutch brown café. The café was founded in 1880 and gives you a good sense of Amsterdam's past.  
1:15p: Continue to enjoy Amsterdam by taking part in a walking tour.  With walking tours, you can see the sights, smell the smells, feel the local flavor while walking aroudn the city.  Through this tour, you will be able to see the Red Light District, the Royal Palace, the Anne Frank House and more.
4:30p: walk by and enjoy the frenzy and beauty of the floating flowermarket (Bloemenmarkt).
5p: The perfect way to relax at the end of the day and enjoy the sunset with a canal cruise.  These cruises are a great way to get an overview of Amsterdam's canals and houses.  
7p: Enjoy a nice dinner at D’Vijff Vlieghen where they offer good food in a unique interior.  This restaurant, situated in the centre of Amsterdam, near the floating flowermarket and adjoining the Amsterdam canals, contains 4 original Rembrandt etchings, has antique Delft blue tiles and 17th century glassware; all of which can be admired while enjoying your delicious meal.
10p: enjoy an evening stroll around Amsterdam and take in the Dutch nightlife.  

Thursday, October 27, 2016

A Stay Report: Le Parker Meridien, New York City (October 2016)

A Stay Report: Le Parker Meridien, New York City 
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

There are many hotels in New York City, depending on what you are looking for and what you are willing to pay.  If you look, you can find some deals on hotels that are within Manhattan and close to a lot of the traditional sights and sounds.  I was looking for a hotel that was close to Manhattan and I found a deal with the Le Parker Meridien so I booked it (the hotel later did not honor the deal – more on that later).  The hotel has entrances on both 56th and 57th street near 7th avenue and is a very big and modern hotel.  The main lobby entrance is on 56th, while the entrance on 57th is through the hotel’s bar.  If you enter from 56th, the front desk and bellman on your left hand side while the elevators and gift shop are on the right.  Straight ahead is the concierge desk as well as entrance to the hotel bar, and next to the concierge desk is the line for the burger bar (which is very good, and as a hotel guest you avoid the line and have the burger delivered directly to your room).

I was staying with a friend, and they were arriving to the hotel before I was so I emailed and called the hotel to confirm my friend would have access to the room, and what was needed to grant access. On the phone, I was informed that I only needed to add his name to the reservation to ensure he received a key to the room; and via email I was told that they would charge his credit card instead of mine when he checked in. The hotel’s customer services was lacking, as they were not very friendly and were not consistent in their implementation of policy (this was throughout the stay). When I arrived to the hotel, I went up to the front desk to ensure my card was on the reservation and to confirm the room rate (both of which were messed up). I received my key and took the elevator up to my room.

The room was on the smaller side, but I guess that is consistent for NYC hotels.  As you entered into the room, on the left was the closet with a curtain as a closet door.  On the right was a built-in desk, and next to that was the entrance to the bathroom.  Further ahead in the room were the two beds on the right hand side and across from the beds was the TV on the wall and a couch below the TV.  There room was somewhat compact and there was not a lot of room between the bathroom door and the bed, between the two beds, and between the bed and the couch.  In between the beds was a nightstand.  The beds were somewhat comfortable, but felt more like an expensive Ikea bed versus a standard hotel bed.  There was also a lack of plugs available in the room, especially near the bed. 

The bathroom was equally as compact as the room.  The door opened to the outside to allow more room in the bathroom.  The bathroom had a sink on one side, a tub on the other, and the toilet in the middle with little room between each item. What was good about the bathroom were the amenities, which were very nice and very large in size. 

The hotel amenities included free in-room wifi, a fitness center on the basement level, an indoor pool, a spa, meeting rooms, a hotel bar, a famous burger place, and both a barbershop and beauty salon.  I tried the in-room wifi which was decent and was pretty fast for basic searches and emails.

Overall, the location of the hotel was very convenient but the lack of customer service and the small room size were a negative.  I was supposed to stay here for many nights, but after the first night decided there are other options available so decided to check out after the first night.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A Stay Report: Element New York, Times Square West (October 2016)

A Stay Report: Element New York, Times Square West
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

I was in New York for the weekend and I needed to switch hotels so I looked on the Starwood app and the Element New York had a very good rate for one night.  Element is part of the Westin Hotel and is an eco-friendly hotel that offers studio rooms with a kitchen with a sink and a stove, a full fridge, free breakfast, and free wifi.  I have stayed I Element’s before and enjoyed the experience so decided to book the stay. 

The hotel is located on 38th street, about 4 blocks from Times Square.  While is close enough to many attractions, it’s off the main street so the noise pollution is reduced.  When you walk up to the hotel, you first notice the outdoor seating that is available as part of the indoor lobby (part of the eco-aspect of the hotel).  As you enter inside the hotel, on the right hand side is the check in area while on the left is the concierge desk and the lobby seating area.  Check-in was quick and I was given the key to my room. 

The elevators are located in the middle of the lobby – with the check-in area and small sitting area in the front of the elevators, and then behind the elevators is the main dining and restaurant area where breakfast is served in the morning (and water and coffee are available throughout the day).  The sitting areas and the restaurant area offered enough seating during the daytime, but during breakfast time the place was overcrowded and the seating minimal.

The hotel has over 40 floors as well as the lobby floor and a ground/basement level.  The basement level consisted of the fitness center, which was a good size and offered a decent amount of equipment, plus laundry facilities.  These were nice amenities that are welcomed to any guests.  There were three elevators available, but the elevators were extremely slow.  There was always a long wait for the elevators, especially in rush times such as the morning, and because of the delayed they are generally very crowded.  I took the elevator up to my room on the 22nd floor. 

My room was located right in front of the elevator, and throughout the night I could not hear the sounds. The hallway was somewhat narrow so it was only two steps from the elevator to my room.  Overall, my room looked more like a compact studio, with everything in one room.  As you walked into the room, along the right wall was the kitchen while along the left was the entrance to the bathroom.   The bathroom was relatively big as compared to the room, and it had a sink, a toilet, plus a standing shower with a rain head.  The kitchen had a full-size fridge, an oven, a microwave, a sink, plus stocked cupboards with plates, pots, and utensils.  There was also a coffee pot on the counter.  Right next to the kitchen, along with right-side wall, was a desk below and a TV on the wall.  The desk had many open drawers below it and on top had a DVD player plus other entertainment systems connected to the TV.  In between the desk and the window was a mini-sofa.  On the other side of the desk, was the bed.  It was supposed to be a king size bed but felt more like a queen, and it provided a pretty comfortable rest.  There was a small night stand between the bed and window, and on the other side of the bed was the mini-closet.  The closet was small in size and contained a mini safe plus a mini ironing board and a standard iron.  Overall, the room was decent for one or two people but it was narrow and tiny – a standard compact New York studio.

Hotel amenities included free in-room wifi, for as many devices as you need and the speed was pretty fast; free breakfast throughout the week and free happy hour Monday thru Thursday – I went on a Monday morning and the breakfast was very crowded and all the items needed to be refilled multiple times; a well-stocked gym; a business center; a laundry room; and an outdoor patio.

Overall, the hotel provided a lot of amenities and was conveniently located.  The additional amenities, both inside the hotel and inside the room, were appreciated and were a positive aspect.  Negative aspects included the narrow rooms and hallways, and the long wait times for the elevators.  

Friday, October 14, 2016

A Stay Report: Le Meridien Mexico City

A Stay Report: Le Meridien Mexico City
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

When looking for hotels, I usually look for ones that are situated in connected areas – this means that the hotel is within walking distance to some activities, restaurant, services, and transportation.  Based on price, I had originally selected a hotel which was a bit further from the connected areas but was lower in price.  I then found a hotel that was more centrally located, but the price was a bit higher so I booked that hotel.  Le Meridien then had a sale on their hotels, and the Le Meridien Mexico City (LMMC) was centrally located, had great reviews, and the price was comparable to the other hotel so I booked it.

After I had booked the hotel, I wanted to contact the hotel regarding airport transportation (it is not included with the hotel).  Le Meridien is part of Starwood and they do not provide hotel email addresses easily, but luckily LMMC is active on social media so I sent them a facebook message and they responded very quickly.  The rates they offered were very competitive, so I booked the car service for all my transportation to/from the airport.  The hotel provided directions on where the car would meet us, and when we landed we followed the directions and the service was waiting for us.  The car service to and from the airport were not Le Meridien cars, but rather locally hired private taxis.  The payment could be made directly with the taxi or with the hotel, and each car was comfortable and clean. 

The hotel is located on one of the main thoroughfares  - Paseo de Reforma – is about a 10 minute walk to Bellas Artes and the historic district.  There are many restaurants and services either next to or near the hotel, and it is very accessible and safe to walk around the hotel.   You pull up to the hotel on the ground floor which has the concierge, a Starbucks, a waiting area for the transport, and elevators.  There are also circular stairs which take you up to the lobby level.  This level contains the check-in desks, the concierge desks, a bar/lounge, and elevators.  The hotel is laid out like a triangle, with the lobby and entrance at the tip of the triangle, thus it’s a bit smaller and compact.  Check in was efficient, and we were given our keys to our room.

Our room was located on the 14th floor, which is indicated as an SPG Guest level.  As you
get out of the elevator, there is a small area with a chair and amenities on shelves inside the wall.  The amenities include extra bottles of water, apples, newspaper, and miniature treats.  It was a nice gesture and another way of recognizing loyalty.  

The room itself is very large and spacious.  As you open the door, you enter into the sitting area.  On the left hand side is a large console with a TV on it, and a couch and chair facing the TV; the couch can be turned into a sofa bed.   There was a table in front of the couch, plus a lamp and a coffee table on either side of the couch.  On the other side of the room was a chaise lounge to sit, and next to that was a mini kitchenette – which had a sink, a microwave, a mini-fridge, and storage on the bottom plus a coffee maker, water bottles (complimentary and paid), and other amenities on top of the counter.  Across from the kitchenette was the bathroom.  The bathroom was very large and spacious as well.  It contained a large counter with a sink, bottles of water (complimentary),a toilet, and a shower.  The shower head was very powerful and provided a nice shower.   

In between the kitchenette and the bathroom was a door that led to the bedroom.  The bedroom was also spacious and has a lot of room to move around.  As you entered into the bedroom, there was a closet on the right-hand side and a desk with a TV stand next to it.  On the other side were two double beds with a nightstand in the middle.  The beds were comfortable and provided a nice and restful sleep for the night.  There were plenty of outlets around the room, and the nightstand had a plus + USB charging ports on it (very accessible and convenient).

Other hotel amenities that I used included wifi in the room, the business center, and the
concierge.  The free in-room wifi was a decent service and speed and you could connect as many devices as needed.  The business center was on the second floor next to the meeting rooms, and it was small and had older computers but it had all the basic services needed.  I also utilized the concierge at the hotel – and I had mixed interactions.  My conversations with the concierge prior to my arrival, to confirm the airport pick-up, were very convenient and efficient.  My conversations with the concierge at the hotel were also nice, but it was only when the concierge was available and that was not all the time.  There were times when I only wanted to reconfirm the airport pickup, and only the concierge could do that but they were not available (or it was too long to wait for them).  They were friendly, but I have had better concierge experiences (in fact, we went to another hotel for breakfast and their concierge provided better service in terms of information).  The hotel also has an indoor gym and meeting rooms that I was not able to try out.

Overall, it was a nice stay at the Le Meridien Mexico City.  The spacious and comfortable rooms plus the convenient location made it a nice.  This combined with the extra amenities as SPG member were well appreciated.  The only negatives were the car pickup (which had to be reconfirmed but was prompt and on-time each time) and the concierge interaction; but other than that a very pleasant stay. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

A Trip Report: Southwest Airlines, International (MSY to MEX)

A Trip Report: Southwest Airlines, International
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

When Southwest bought out AirTran, they inherited the international destinations that AirTran had already been flying – mostly to the Caribbean.  Southwest used those destinations as a starting off point to expand internationally and add more destinations in Central America and the Caribbean.  They also upgraded their home base in Houston – Hobby Airport – to add international flights from that airport.  I have flown Southwest many times domestically, but this was my first time trying their international service so I was curious what was different and was stayed the same.

My flight was from New Orleans to Mexico City via Houston, with the same route on the return.  As they are just starting out with their international service, they do not have as many flight options to choose from – with some cities have longer transit times than others.  As with their domestic service, each ticket on Southwest includes 2 free bags, 2 free carryons, no change fees, and credits if the flight price goes lower.  Some differences between the domestic and international service is that international service can only be booked on a desktop, and not on a mobile or other device, and changes can only be made by calling a representative.  Another difference is that you cannot check-in to your flight via a mobile device, only from a desktop or the airport kiosk.  A final difference is that Southwest does not allow standby service on international flights – if you clear customs and there is an earlier domestic flight available, you have to pay a large sum to get on an earlier flight.

On board, there is no difference between a domestic and international service.  At check-in, you are assigned a group letter and a number and you board accordingly. Once on board you can choose any open seat.  While this concept allows you to choose your seat, it is a pain to stand in line and wait and then get on board and wait again as passengers play musical chairs and assess the best seat.  The flight from New Orleans to Houston was 1hr while Houston to Mexico was 1hr 40 minutes.  The plane on each sector was an older Boeing 737-700. Southwest usually operates these planes on their short-haul sector, as the seat comfort is low and the seat pitch is average.  The seats are fine for the short-haul but after a while they can become very uncomfortable.  Once we reached cruising altitude, the cabin crew came by to take your drink order and hand out pretzels/peanuts.  Southwest provides complimentary drinks and you can access TV through your personal device using Southwest wifi.  Each flight was relatively uneventful and there was no indication or difference between a domestic and international flight.

As I said, I have flown Southwest many times domestically so it was interesting to see how they operated their international service.  Overall, it was a nice flight with decent service and consistent experience; however, the restrictions regarding managing a booking (not everyone has access to a desktop these days) and the limited flight options were a negative.  Another negative is Houston Hobby - which has limited food options and when you are connecting from an international to domestic flight, you have to exist out and go through regular security - there is no transit area.  
Southwest is in its infancy in terms of international travel, and you can feel it in terms of on the ground and in the air.  There is room for improvement, but the free bags and consistent service are something you can count on Southwest for.  

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A Trip Report: Spirit Airlines (ATL to MSY)

A Trip Report: Spirit Airlines, ATL to MSY (October 2016)
comment below and let me know your thoughts :)

Spirit Airlines has intrigued me for a while.  For a long period, they were un-apologetically an ultra-low-cost carrier and put low base fares over everything.  This method upsets many customers/passengers who were not used to this model and fare.  With a new CEO, Spirit Airlines has a new direction and that includes focusing more on customer service; they are trying to improve all the negative comments they face.  I have flown ultra-low-cost carriers in other countries (mainly Europe) but I wanted to experience ultra LCC flying here in the U.S. so decided to try out Spirit Airlines.

I have been trying to fly Spirit for a while, but costs prevented me from booking a flight.  Spirit is an ultra LCC which means that they charge you for everything.  The fare that you pay includes a seat plus a small personal carryon that can fit underneath your seat.  A bigger carryon to store above, that’s a charge; a checked baggage, that’s a charge; preselecting your seat, that’s a charge; checking in at the airport, that’s a charge; anything on board, that’s a charge – basically they charge for anything and everything they can and the charges are not cheap.  It costs $35 to add a carryon baggage while it costs $30 to include a checked baggage.  In searching for a flight with Spirit, I found that though the base fare was inexpensive once I added some of the extras – including carryon and taxes – the total fare was almost always more expensive than the ‘legacy carriers’.  Essentially, I was going to pay more to get less and this did not seem like a good option so I never flew with Spirit.

Recently, Spirit began increasing their services out of New Orleans International Airport and has added services to both Los Angeles and Atlanta.  On the New Orleans to Los Angeles sector, they are competing with American, United, Delta, and Southwest; while on the New Orleans to Atlanta they are competing with Delta and Southwest (another LCC, Frontier, used to serve this market but recently left). 

I was flying with Spirit on the Atlanta to New Orleans sector.  At the time of my search, both Southwest and Delta’s fare were in the $170’s while Spirit was $34 base fare one-way.  Since I was only going for the weekend, I only needed a small carryon so I would not have to pay for the additional fees Spirit adds on.  The small carryon was included in the base price so my total fare would be $34 on Spirit compared to $170 on Southwest/Delta.   It seemed like a good deal at the time, until later in the week when Southwest had a sale and their fare on this sector dropped to $59 one-way.  I continued with m Spirit flight just to check them out.

Overall, my Spirit flight was better than I had expected.  Given all the conversation regarding the low-cost model, I was a bit hesitant regarding my flight and the experience I was going to have.   Booking a flight on Spirit is a bit of a task, because you go through a lot of steps.  After you select your flight, you go through to determine if you want to add a bag, a carryon, select your seat, rent a car, book a hotel, or purchase insurance.  It’s a process but through this Spirit lets you know what is, and mostly not offered in the fare.  At the end, the fare is broken down into base fare, taxes, and added services.

24-hrs prior to my flight, I received two emails from Spirit.  The first email was regarding checked baggage and carryon, and was a reminder of the price increase at the airport/gate for these services.  The second email reminded me to check-in.  Spirit does not have a mobile app and does not provide mobile boarding passes.  Spirit’s main website is mobile friendly so I was able to check-in online and a seat was assigned to me upon check-in.  I did not have access to a printer so I had to use the kiosk at the airport to print my boarding pass (if you print it at a kiosk, its free; if an agent prints it for you then there is a charge).  My fare included a carry-on, one that could fit underneath your seat. 

At the time of booking and flight, Spirit did not participate in TSA precheck (update: there was an announcement that Spirit will be participating in the program, but a start date was not announced).  Because I needed to print my boarding pass and wait in the long security line, I got to the airport about 1.5hr prior to my flight.  There was no one at the Spirit desk but when I got to the gate, the passengers were already there waiting to board.   Prior to the boarding announcement, Spirit again made announcements regarding additional fees for oversize carry-ons.  Boarding commenced and we boarded by group.  It was very quick and efficient boarding and all the passengers were on-board about 10 minutes prior to departure.  The plane closed the door 3 minutes early and we taxied and took off.

Spirit operates an all-Airbus fleet and my sector was operated by an Airbus A319 in a 3-3 layout. At the front are the ‘big seats’ which are Spirit’s version of business class, followed by extra legroom seats, and then the regular seats.  I was seated in the regular seat and overall the seats were decently comfortable and the seat pitch was a bit tight but not too bad.  I have flown on other LCC which have had less padding and a tighter seat pitch so compared to that these were decent.  I am a tall person – about 6’1 – and the seat pitch was a bit tight if you sat upright; however the seats were in a pre-recline so if you put your feet underneath your seat then the seat pitch was decent.  The seats themselves had no PTV and only had a safety card and the buy on-board menu in front of it.  Given the short flight duration of 1hr 10 minutes, both the seat pitch and comfortability were fine with me. 

Once we reached cruising altitude, the service sector commenced.  Spirit does not provide anything for free and has a buy on-board model.  In fact, a service cart was not pushed out – the attendants came down the aisle with the buy on-board menu and if anybody wanted anything, they would order directly from the attendant who would then bring it to them directly.  This is the first time I have seen where a service cart was not rolled out on a flight.   Spirit also provides no entertainment on board, and given the short duration it was fine.  As we were starting our decent into New Orleans, the attendants came by offering the airline credit card and bonus miles for those who signed up.  It was an uneventful flight and we landed in New Orleans 20 minutes ahead of schedule.

In conclusion, it was a decent flight with Spirit and similar to what I have experienced with Frontier; a low-cost carrier which charges you for everything and provides a basic, decent seat.  They are average for short-haul, but not good for medium-haul.  Though the base price is low, once you add all the extras – which some of the competitors on this sector include – then the fare increases to a non-competitive rate.  This combined with the limited flight options does not entice me to fly Spirit again.  I flew Spirit to experience ultra-LCC in America, but next time I will just wait for the Southwest sale.

In comparing Spirit versus Southwest:

Spirit Airlines (all fees based upon check-in; fees increase at airport)
Southwest Airlines
Base Fare
Either pay to pre-select your seat - $14 or $9 depending on leg room; or receive a seat assignment at check-in for free
Received a boarding group at check-in and choose your own seats upon boarding      

small, personal item complimentary – needs to fit underneath your seat
Additional carryon at a cost ($35)  
Small personal item plus a hand carry are complimentary
Checked baggage
$30 for the 1st bag
2 free bags included
Flight Options
Only one flight option for this sector
Multiple flight options available throughout the day
Flight Changes
Charges apply ($90) to any changes
No change fee, you pay the difference in fare.  If the fare is lower, then a credit is issued
Boarding Pass
$0 if printed at home or at the airport kiosk; $10 if printed by an agent
No mobile passes are available
$0 if printed at home, via mobile, or by an agent
No on-board entertainment – no TV and no magazines,
Free live-tv on wifi enabled planes, accessible through a free Southwest App.  Airline magazines are also available.
Snacks & Drinks
Available for purchase
Free drinks and small snacks are complimentary.  No food is available on any flight
Seat Comfort
Spirit operates an all-Airbus fleet.  Some of their seat pitches are very narrow – 28in – while others are standard at 30-30
Southwest operates an all-Boeing fleet.  Their older 737s have a tighter seat pitch while the newer planes are more comfortable    
Customer Service
Spirit is not known for their customer service, and originally was proud of that.  Lately, they have been trying to improve their image and service
Southwest has excellent customer service and this is something they are known for and take pride in.