Thursday, July 31, 2014

Napa-versary: The Restaurant at Meadowood + Meeting Chef Christopher Kostow

***This is part 4 of my "Napa-versary" trip report detailing a recent visit to Napa Valley to celebrate our 1-year wedding anniversary***

1. Eating Napa
2. Calistoga Ranch, An Auberge Resort Part I - Check-In, Our Lodge
3. Calistoga Ranch, An Auberge Resort Part II - Resort Facilities, Activities, and Food
4. The Restaurant at Meadowood + Meeting Chef Christopher Kostow
5. Eating Sonoma

Ever since Chef Christopher Kostow took over as Executive Chef at The Restaurant at Meadowood, it's been shooting up in the culinary world and currently is only 1 of 2 restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area with three Michelin stars (the other being The French Laundry). It's also ranked at #80 on the (somewhat controversial) San Pellagrino "Best Restaurants in the World" list which we use as another source, but by no means the authority, on restaurant rankings.

Our dinner reservation at Meadowood wasn't until 9:15pm, which gave us just enough time to digest from lunch and all of the snacks we had earlier in the day. Compared to The French Laundry where a significant amount of luck is needed to just get a reservation, reserving a table at Meadowood was surprisingly easy and just required booking about a month in advance.

It's a short 10-15 minute drive from Calistoga Ranch to the Meadowood resort, which along with the restaurant, features a hotel, spa, and golf course. The resort is on a huge compound, and in the dark it was tough to follow some of the signs, but eventually we found our way to the main lobby. We peeked inside on our way to the restaurant just to take a look.

Exterior of the lobby at Meadowood

Lobby of Meadowood

The restaurant is located just a few steps from the hotel lobby, and we were warmly greeted at the door and shown inside. We had arrived early, so we spent a few minutes relaxing in the bar area and were seated next to the fireplace in the middle of the room which helped us warm up on this chilly night.

Fireplace near the bar

After a few minutes we were escorted into the main dining room, which almost feels like the interior of a barn with high vaulted ceilings, and an elegant but rustic feel that is similar to what we had seen at the hotel lobby. The dining room is relatively small, with only about 10-15 tables inside. At our table, we found a nice hand-written card which welcomed us and congratulated us on our anniversary.

The Restaurant at Meadowood dining room

Table setting and hand-written card

Our server came by and explained that there would be no menus to look at or choose from for now - we would receive a copy only after the entire meal was completed. Apparently this is a recent change that the restaurant has made now that they feel like they've built a strong enough reputation. Instead of a tasting or a la carte menu, prospective diners will just need to trust that they will be fed well. We were asked if there was anything that we didn't eat, but that was pretty much it. The rest of the meal was a surprise, with each course explained to us as it was served. 

Before the main courses started, we had a series of "snacks" from the garden.

Pickled veggies from the Meadowood garden

Puffed kale with chorizo seasoning

Afterwards, the main dinner started, with about 10 courses served over of the next 3 hours. The food was absolutely delicious, playful, and presented in interesting and unique ways that we had never tried before. For example, potatoes that had been cooked in beeswax, chicken that had been cooked inside sourdough bread, and salmon that had the skin removed and replaced with layer of turnips. 

The ingredients were extremely fresh, with most of the meats coming from local sources and the vegetables coming from the restaurant's own garden. Everything was cooked perfectly, tasted great, and best of all didn't feel too heavy. Service was extremely warm and friendly throughout, a far cry from the overly formal and almost robotic service that we had at Per Se.

Tomato, wild plum beets and creme fraiche

Cucmber seed risotto

Potatoes cooked in beeswax

Abalone with coal roasted eggplant

Wild salmon turnip

Poussin baked in sourdough bread

Koji chanterelle beef

After the main courses it was time to move on to the cheese course, and despite the number of course we had eaten to this point, neither of us were feeling overly stuffed.. That's certainly a good thing, since there have been times where we've just been too full to enjoy dessert. The cheese course was was a play on ham and cheese with lettuce playing the role of ham.

Cheese "ham" bread

Lastly, a few desserts, including the amazing "spun" coconut with olive oil. The coconut tasted almost like a sorbet and was so simple, yet so amazingly delicious.

Spun coconut with olive oil

Passion fruit baba shiso

Herbal tea

Almond prailines

Our menu

At the end of the meal, we were invited in for a quick kitchen tour, which is offered to each table individually throughout the night. The restaurant had recently completed a million-dollar kitchen renovation, and it shows. We were actually surprised how big the kitchen was, given the fact they probably don't service more than 75-100 people in a given night.

As luck would have it, Chef Christopher Kostow walked by during our tour and we had a chance to do a brief meet and greet with him. As luck would have it I had just blogged about his partnership with the new American Express Centurion Lounge opening at SFO later this year, so I looked like I had done my homework and was able to ask him about it.

Meadowood kitchen

Thanks for an amazing dinner!

Overall, an amazing dining experience at The Restaurant at Meadowood. I emphasize the word  "experience", since at most top restaurants it's a given that the food will be delicious (and if it isn't, that's a whole other problem). But at Meadowood, the food is really, really delicious, and is still memorable as I write this several weeks later. The rest of the experience was top-notch and they really make you feel appreciated with everything from the hand-written notes, to the personalized service, and lastly to the individual kitchen tours.We hope to go back one day - in fact, the restaurant keeps track of the exact menu each guest has had previously to ensure that they are given an entirely new experience each and every time.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Make TripAdvisor More Useful By Ignoring These 8 Types Of Biased Reviews

I don't think that I'm alone in feeling like TripAdvisor rankings have became relatively useless. Sure, TripAdvisor is the largest database of travel-related information and reviews on hotels, restaurants, and activities across the globe, but in my opinion there are a couple huge problems plaguing it. First, it's well-known that TripAdvisor is filled with completely fake reviews. These fabricated reviews work both ways - positive ones to boost ranks, and negative reviews to sabotage the ranks of competitors. A tell-tale sign of this are extreme reviews posted by new members with just 1 or 2 total reviews.

Second, even if we focus on the genuine user reviews, I would posit that 25%-50% of them are heavily biased. I use the word "heavily" because every single person, including myself, has biases that find their way into reviews that they write. But I'm talking about reviews so biased that they simply provide little to no indication of the potential experience that a typical customer can expect.

It's a shame that we can't take these ratings at face-value. After all, we all like ranking things and compiling lists. But nowadays, I've started to go about my online research in a different way. I typically form a list of the top 5-10 candidates by cross-referencing rankings on multiple sites, and ultimately perform my own qualitative analysis of reviews which involves filtering out 1-star reviews, taking 5-star reviews with a grain of salt, and weeding through the rest to really get a sense for the "real" customer experience.

That's a lot more work than simply going by the rankings shown on the screen in front of you. But I still remember an instance back in 2010 when my wife and I went on TripAdvisor to search for a restaurant in Athens, Greece for dinner. Out of over 1,500 restaurants in TripAdvisor's database, we decided to eat at the #2 ranked restaurant in ALL of Athens. When we turned up, we found a complete hole-in-the-wall, which is perfectly fine if the food is great. Except it wasn't, and instead we found ourselves in a foreign country eating at a tourist trap with overpriced, crappy food. To this day, it just boggles our mind how a place like that came to be so highly ranked.

I don't mean to pick on TripAdvisor, since the same can be said about Yelp and other review aggregator sites. Today's reality is that you simply cannot trust the ranks that these sites give. That's where the idea for for this post came from. I wanted to do a bit of digging into the human psyche to see how cognitive biases manifest themselves in reviews, with the goal of being able to better identify and ultimately ignore the heavily biased portions of user reviews, which sometimes may be the entire thing.

Here's a long list of cognitive biases from which I pulled out the ones that I've most commonly found in reviews. Note that I am not a psychologist, nor do I pretend to play one on TV, so let me know if I have completely mis-interpreted any of these. As you can see below, biases can influence reviews both positively and negatively.

#1. Anchoring effect: The tendency to rely too heavily, or "anchor," on one trait or piece of information when making decisions (usually the first piece of information that we acquire on that subject)

What's that age old saying? Oh yeah, "you only get once chance to make a first impression". How many reviews have you read where the person was completely and utterly fixated on something that happened, often related to a first impression. Even if a service recovery was adequate and successful, they simply can't let it go, no matter how insignificant the incident may be in the overall scheme of things.

Example of what to look for: "our entire stay was ruined right off the bat as it took over over 5 minutes for someone to greet us and help with our bags", "there was one instance where a staff member did not greet me properly by my full name, so in general the staff at this hotel were completely unprofessional"

#2. Bandwagon effect: The tendency to do (or believe) things because many other people do (or believe) the same

Society can be harsh on people with independent and unique perspectives - the path of least resistance is to just follow the herd. This can work both ways based on popular sentiment at the time - overwhelmingly positive feedback can lead to continued grade-inflation, and negative buzz can cause others to pile-on. More than anything I want trustworthy and independent reviews of that customer's particular experience, not simply a carbon copy of what everyone else has been saying.

Example of what to look for: "consistent with what others have mentioned", "similar experience to previous reviews", "agree with what others have posted"

#3. Halo effect: The tendency for a person's positive or negative traits to "spill over" from one personality area to another in others' perceptions of them

This is harder to spot in an isolated review, but really surfaces when some of the viral reviews lead to a conversation on forums such as FlyerTalk. How many times have you seen a review titled "STARWOOD HOTELS RUINED MY HONEYMOON NEVER STAY AT STARWOOD EVER AGAIN". When the onion gets peeled back, often times the reviewer will admit that the overwhelming sense of negativity was a chain reaction starting with some form of stress as a catalyst, often times related to a bumpy situation with their significant other. Once that chain reaction starts, it's all downhill from there.

Example of what to look for: "I was already stressed from dealing with", "my significant other wasn't happy with the situation and started crying", "we were already running late due to a delayed flight"

#4. Recency bias: focus on "what's happened lately" when evaluation or judging something

I'm really guilty of this one. How many times have you heard about an experience being the "best ever" or "top 3" in the reviewer's life? I mean, really, the best ever? If you gave someone completely identical experiences, one which occurred yesterday and one a year before that, the vast majority of people would think more favorably on the more recent one. That's why we tend to rank recent experiences higher than others, even if they weren't necessarily better.

Example of what to look for: "top 5 meals I've ever had", "best hotel I have ever stayed at"

#5. Money illusion: The tendency to concentrate on the nominal value (face value) of money rather than its value in terms of purchasing power

I've noticed this a lot on TripAdvisor - in almost any city in the world, you won't find the most expensive hotels ranked at the top even in cases where they are widely regarded as the "best" by industry experts and other experienced travelers. Why is that? My hunch is that for expensive properties beyond a certain $ threshold (both from a cash or points perspective), no matter how amazing the experience was and no matter how much fun that person had, the value will never live up to the price tag.

Example of what to look for: "this was the best hotel I've ever stayed at, but I still can't believe how much it cost", "for the price I paid I could have gotten twice as many nights at a cheaper hotel, so I just don't feel like it was a good value"

#6. Post-purchase rationalization: The tendency to persuade oneself through rational argument that a purchase was a good value

Related to #4 but in the opposite direction, almost forcing yourself to feel good about a purchase that you made and justifying that it was a good value.

Example of what to look for:  "I'm not sure about the value here, but I'll give it the benefit of the doubt"

#7. Status-quo bias: The tendency to like things to stay relatively the same (see also loss aversion, endowment effect, and system justification)

We see this a lot with hotel reviews, since we all have our go-to loyalty program, and within each program even our go-to hotels. When we take a chance on something different and break away from the status-quo, we always find ourselves comparing to what we're used to.

Example of what to look for: "compared to where I usually stay", "I was reluctant to try a non-Starwood hotel", "the amenities looked just as nice but were completely different from what I'm used to, not sure how I feel about that"

#8. Gambler's fallacy: The tendency to think that future probabilities are altered by past events, when in reality they are unchanged

The actuary in me would say that every situation has a series of possible outcomes, with each outcome having a certain probability of occurring. So if you think about it from that perspective, each time you stay at a hotel, you have a X% probability that it will be a "good" stay vs. a "bad" stay. Better hotels are able to get that percentage closer to 100%, but in reality any hotel stay or meal has a greater than 0% chance of going badly. I have seen reviews where people expect every stay to be identical to prior experiences, which can even lead to bad reviews when they aren't given as good of an upgrade as a prior time.

Example of what to look for: "I wasn't upgraded to as nice a room as my last trip", "my burger wasn't cooked as well this time", "the person staying next door was much louder than last time"

It would make our lives so much easier if rankings on sites like TripAdvisor were credible, but the reality is that they are not. That's why, at least for me, travel-related research has become much more qualitative. That means scouring through actual user reviews, which invariably contain biases that we all have in different shapes and forms, and trying to really figure out what the "typical" customer can expect. It's no easy task, but until there's a better option, I'm willing to put in the time and effort to avoid being duped by false rankings.

I'm interested in hearing how you view rankings and filter through the good, the bad, and the fake reviews posted on sites like TripAdvisor.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Flash Sale: Up To 50% Off At Select GHA Hotels Worldwide

There's currently a 3-day flash sale for up to 50% off at select GHA hotels worldwide. As shown below, you can see that the list of locations is quite impressive, with properties across 5 continents included in the sale. In most cases, dates are available through the end of 2014, and even include free breakfast.

If you follow the link to the website, you can click on the "+" and pull up the available hotels in that location along with details on the specific deal offered at each property. If you're looking for a beach getaway this could work really well, as locations in the Maldives, Seychelles, Bali, Thailand, and Vietnam are all on sale. Make sure to book by the end of July!

Chad: 20% OFF

[ + ] N'Djamena


[ + ] Nairobi

Mozambique: 20% OFF

[ + ] Ilha do Bazaruto


[ + ] Mahe



[ + ] Siam Reap


[ + ] Beijing
[ + ] Emeishan City
[ + ] Foshan
[ + ] Guiyang
[ + ] Hong Kong
[ + ] Jinjiang
[ + ] Sanya
[ + ] Shanghai
[ + ] Shenzhen
[ + ] Suzhou


[ + ] Delhi


[ + ] Bali
[ + ] Jakarta


[ + ] Sungai Pelek


[ + ] Cebu
[ + ] Davao


[ + ] Dhaalu Atoll
[ + ] Dhigufinolhu, South Male Atoll
[ + ] Kihavah Huravalhi Island, Baa Atoll
[ + ] North Male Atoll
[ + ] Veligandu, South Male Atoll


[ + ] Bentota
[ + ] Kalutara


[ + ] Bangkok
[ + ] Chiang Mai
[ + ] Chiang Rai
[ + ] Hua Hin
[ + ] Koh Phangan
[ + ] Koh Samui
[ + ] Phuket
[ + ] Trang


[ + ] Haiphong City
[ + ] Hoi An
[ + ] Phan Thiet
[ + ] Quy Nhon



[ + ] Jochberg- Kitzbuehel


[ + ] Bansko


[ + ] Berlin
[ + ] Dresden
[ + ] Frankfurt
[ + ] Koenigstein-Frankfurt

Hungary: 20% OFF

[ + ] Budapest


[ + ] Dublin


[ + ] Algarve
[ + ] Coimbra
[ + ] Lisbon
[ + ] Sintra


[ + ] Gelendzhik
[ + ] Krasnaya Polyana Sochi
[ + ] Moscow
[ + ] St. Petersburg

Slovakia: 30% OFF

[ + ] Strba-Strbske Pleso


[ + ] Estepona


[ + ] Davos


[ + ] Beldibi
[ + ] Belek
[ + ] Istanbul
[ + ] Eskişehir
[ + ] Tekirova


[ + ] Bristol
[ + ] London

Middle East & Africa

Egypt: 30% OFF

[ + ] Safaga
[ + ] Sharm El Sheikh

Jordan: 20% OFF

[ + ] Aqaba
[ + ] Dead Sea


[ + ] Abu Dhabi
[ + ] Ajman
[ + ] Dubai
[ + ] Ras al-Khaimah

North America


[ + ] Montreal
[ + ] Toronto


[ + ] Asheville, NC
[ + ] Atlanta, GA
[ + ] Austin, TX
[ + ] Bedford Springs, PA
[ + ] Boston, MA
[ + ] Bretton Woods, NH
[ + ] Broomfield, CO
[ + ] Carlsbad, CA
[ + ] Charlotte, NC
[ + ] Charlottesville, VA
[ + ] Chicago, IL
[ + ] Corpus Christi, TX
[ + ] Dallas, TX
[ + ] Fort Worth, TX
[ + ] Hilton Head Island, SC
[ + ] Hot Springs, VA
[ + ] Houston, TX
[ + ] Irving, TX
[ + ] Indianapolis, IN
[ + ] Jacksonville, FL
[ + ] Los Angeles, CA
[ + ] Napa, CA
[ + ] Nashville, TN
[ + ] New Haven, CT
[ + ] New Orleans, LA
[ + ] Newport Beach, CA
[ + ] New York City, NY
[ + ] Orlando, FL
[ + ] Palm Springs (Rancho Mirage), CA
[ + ] Philadelphia, PA
[ + ] Pittsburgh, PA
[ + ] Providence, RI
[ + ] Richmond, VA
[ + ] San Antonio, TX
[ + ] San Diego, CA
[ + ] San Francisco, CA
[ + ] St. Louis, MO
[ + ] Tuscon, AZ
[ + ] Washington, D.C.

South America


[ + ] Bahia

[ + ] São Paulo

Monday, July 28, 2014

Will Business Travelers Be Forced To Embrace Airbnb?

In an interesting development, Airbnb has announced a partnership with expense-account giant Concur which will integrate Airbnb rentals into Concur's TripLink system starting this fall. This means that business travelers will be able to book directly with Airbnb, and have receipts and details automatically flow into their expense account system.

Airbnb is aggressively trying to gain market share in the business travel market, and have already created a business-specific travel portal allowing employees to search for properties that are deemed to have the necessary amenities for business travelers, such as privacy and wifi. Concur has already seen Airbnb travel on expense accounts quadruple annually since 2010, and approximately 10% of Airbnb's customers are already traveling for business.

What does this mean for you?

This partnership obviously makes a lot of sense for both Airbnb and Concur, but among our contingent of points and miles lovers, you're probably scoffing as you read this and saying to yourself that there's no way in the world that you would stay at Airbnb on business in lieu of your friendly neighborhood hotel chain. That was my initial reaction as well - by staying at hotel chains while on business, that allows me to earn points that I can use on vacations, and that's an extremely valuable perk especially for those that travel week-in and week-out.

But this view could change in the not-so-distant future if a couple things were to happen. First, if Airbnb rolled out a serious loyalty program which earned points of equivalent value to those of hotel chains, that could start to really sway people. In effect, Airbnb would be its own hotel chain, with more properties to choose from than all of the other chains combined. And while many people, including myself, hoard hotel points for use on aspirational stays, that would work with Airbnb as well which has huge villas and mansions all over the world for rent.

Second, many corporate travel policies either place hard caps on the cost of lodging by location, or some form of a floating cap based on price differential from the lowest cost option of a minimum quality. If Airbnb rentals are some day pooled together with other hotels, it's likely that there will be an option on Airbnb that can be booked at a much lower price than traditional hotel options. At some point, the corporate bean counters will take note, and could change policies to drive travel toward Airbnb to realize some of those savings.

Either way, it will be interesting to see how this plays out. If Airbnb is successful in consistently providing a quality, low-cost option, this could have a big impact on business travel in the future.

What are your thoughts on this partnership, and do you think it will eventually impact business travel?

Hilton Announces Digital Hotel Experience: Check-In, Check-Out, And Choose Room From Your Smartphone

While hotel chains like Starwood and Marriott have launched pilot programs which allow you to check-in and check-out from your smartphone, Hilton announced today that by 2016, guests will be able to have control and choice over their entire hotel stay with the ability to check-in, check-out, obtain room keys, and even choose your exact room based on digital floor plans, all from the comfort of your smartphone, tablet, or computer. These enhancements are reported to cost over $550 million and will rolled out across all 11 of Hilton's brands in over 80 countries, and will have an impact on 650,000 rooms across 4,000 properties. The plan is to roll-out these enhancements in phases, as outlined below:

Rapid Roll Out Across Hilton Properties Globally
Hilton is rolling out these digital enhancements globally over the next several months: 

  • By the end of this summer, Hilton HHonors members can check-in and choose their room from digital floor plan maps online or via the Apple and Android HHonors apps across the following U.S. brands: Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts, Conrad Hotels & Resorts, Hilton Hotels & Resorts, Hilton Garden Inn, Homewood Suites and Home2 Suites.
  • The functionality will also be available at DoubleTree by Hilton and Embassy Suites Hotels properties within the U.S. this fall.
  • By the end of 2014, room selection, either from digital floor plans or lists, will be available globally for over 650,000 rooms at more than 4,000 hotels across Hilton's portfolio of 11 brands.
  • Digital check-out, currently available at all U.S. hotels, will be rolled out globally by the end of 2016.

There is also additional information from the press release outlining the process by which a guest can select their room, receive their room key, and check-in and check-out:

Simple and Streamlined Process
Once a room is booked, the process for guests to manage their stay is simple:

  • Room selection: At 6 a.m. the day before a booked stay, Hilton HHonors members can sign into their account via their mobile device, tablet or computer to check-in and choose their preferred room through floor plan maps or lists populated from the hotel's available inventory. Photos of rooms are also available to help with their selection. Hilton's digital lobby function is updated in real-time, so guests no longer have to wait until they are physically in the hotel lobby to be assigned a room.
  • Special requests: After choosing a room, guests can further customize their stay at full-service hotels by purchasing upgrades and requesting specific amenities to be delivered to their room before arrival.
  • Room key: Next year, the company will begin to equip its hotel rooms with the technology for doors to be unlocked with guests' smartphones, enabling them to go straight to their rooms upon arrival. For now, once they arrive on property, guests simply pick up their room key from the front desk, a streamlined process since the guest's payment information and other details are already verified through their Hilton HHonors account prior to arrival.
  • Check-out: Guests can bypass the front desk upon departure as their bill will be automatically sent to their email address.
What does this mean for you?

Hilton claims in the press release that they are "revolutionizing" the hotel experience with these enhancements. That seems bit extreme to me - while Hilton is the first of the chains to announce these enhancements across its entire portfolio, the fact of the matter is that Starwood and Marriott are already providing a limited digital experience, and it stands to reason that they will be following-up with similar announcements shortly.

Don't get me wrong - I'm excited about the prospect of skipping the check-in lines altogether and minimizing human interaction. But while this is certainly a welcome enhancement and in-line with technological enhancements in other industries, the fact of the matter is that you can already do similar things with airline reservations by checking-in and selecting your seat from a mobile app. So in that regard, hotels are still playing catch-up with other industries.

In my opinion, in order for your hotel experience to truly be "revolutionized", the technology needs to have an impact on more aspects of your hotel stay than simply the check-in, check-out, and room selection process. This is where hotels have the leg up over airline and car reservations, which when it comes down to it, are really just forms of transportation. Your hotel experience has so many more layers and interactions, and this is where the technology can be used to improve service by personalizing each stay. Here are a few examples that come to mind of how that could work:

  • One-touch ability to request your vehicle from the valet
  • Room service preference and order history to easily repeat prior orders
  • Concierge and front desk services: online requests for everything from dining reservations to toothpaste
  • Request housekeeping at specific times or indicate when you will be returning to your room
  • Online reservations for hotel services such as pool cabanas, bikes, house car service, fitness classes, spa, etc.

What are your thoughts on Hilton's announcement? What other services would you like to see in the mobile app in order to truly "revolutionize" your hotel experience?

Churn The Alaska Airlines BofA Credit Card And Save Big With Multiple Companion Passes

As I wrote about previously, this year I've switched my primary airline from United to Alaska Airlines. My experiences so far this year with Alaska have been overwhelmingly positive, and I haven't looked back. I have been trying to quickly build my Alaska mileage balance, and in addition to flying and purchasing miles, signing up for the Alaska Airlines credit card from Bank of America has been a huge help.

The offer on the Bank of America website is for 25,000 miles after 1st purchase with a $75 annual fee that is not waived. The card also comes with the following benefits:

  • Earn 25,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan™ Bonus Miles upon approval.
  • Coach Companion Fare every year from $118(USD) ($99, plus taxes and fees, from $19).
  • Earn 1 mile per $1 on all purchases
  • Earn 3 miles per $1 on Alaska Airlines tickets, Vacation packages, and Cargo purchases
  • Earn up to 5 miles per $1 at partner hotels and restaurants
  • Enjoy no mileage cap. There's no limit to the number of miles you can earn with the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card.
  • Go far and wide with miles redeemable on over a dozen airlines. Visit the Alaska Airlines website for the airline partner list.

This thread over on Flyertalk has a lot of good information, including more lucrative sign-up offers:

  • 25,000 miles after 1st purchase, $75 annual fee but $100 statement credit after $1,000 spend in 3 months 
  • 30,000 miles after 1st purchase, $75 annual fee
  • 40,000 mile offer after $10K spend in 6 months, $75 annual fee

While the bonus miles are great, the one benefit that has saved me a ton of money is the annual Coach Companion Fare, which allows you to add a companion on any Economy Class booking for just $118. Unlike most companion tickets, this one even allows you to earn EQM and RDM's on the companion ticket.

Best of all, the Bank of America cards are churnable, meaning that you can apply for multiple personal and business versions. While there isn't a specific or published time to wait between applications, reports on Flyertalk indicate that you can do so as often as every 3-4 months. Depending on your ability to manufacture spend, the various offers will appeal differently to each person, and personally I've found the 25,000 offer after 1st purchase and $100 statement credit to work best for my spending patterns.

According to the T&C's, you can even use multiple companion passes when planning travel for a large group, since it states that the owner of the Companion Fare code but be either one of the travelers on the reservation, or can be the one that purchases the reservation for two other people.

Who can use my Companion Fare Discount Code?
The Mileage Plan™ member who owns the Companion Fare Discount Code must either be one of the travelers or the purchaser of the reservation. If the member is allowing two travelers to use his or her Companion Fare Discount Code, then the member's name must match the name on the credit card used to purchase the reservation.

This is how I was able to use multiple companion passes on a booking for a family trip later this year, where instead of having to purchase 6 tickets, I purchased 3 tickets + 3 companion passes. Each of those companion passes saved over $500, which brought my total savings to over $1,500. Since the cost of the companion ticket is fixed, it makes sense to use them during times when fares will be highest such as holidays, peak seasons, and for last-minute travel.

Have you had success churning the BofA Alaska Airlines Card? What have you used your Companion Pass tickets for and how much money did you save as a result?

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Malaysian Airlines To Change Name And Restructure Routes

If you're searching for flights in the future and see an airline that you don't recognize, it could very well be the reincarnation of Malaysian Airlines. According to an article at the DailyMail, Malaysian Airlines is exploring a plan to restructure its business which may include use of a different name along with new routes and expanded out-sourcing. The Malaysian government, as the largest shareholder of the company, will be leading the restructuring of the business which has over 20,000 employees and flies 50,000 passengers per day.

While not explicitly mentioned as the reasons for the restructuring, this news follows the recent disasters involving MH17 and MH370. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out - to me it feels a bit hasty to push the self-destruct button and "start over". Do they really think that a new name and a few new routes will make people forget about these recent events?

What's your opinion on this announcement? Is Malaysian Airlines taking the easy way out by re-branding, or should they keep the name and try to rebuild their reputation?

Introductory Fares On Turkish Airlines New SFO-IST Route: $699 Round-Trip

Turkish Airlines is launching a new route which will fly direct from San Francisco to Istanbul starting in April 2015. The frequency will begin as 5x per week until May 11th, 2015, after which it will fly start flying daily. As Gary outlined last week, award availability looks great, with up to 4 Business Class seats open on most flights. I'm particularly excited about this new route, since it will add another 1-connection option from San Francisco to the Maldives with a connection in Istanbul.

Via The Flight Deal, Turkish Airlines is selling introductory fares on this new route for only $699 round-trip, which even includes the inaugural flight for those of you that are interested. The fares aren't loaded into ITA yet, so you'll need to search/book through Turkish's website or an OTA such as Expedia or Orbitz.

Unfortunately, this fare does NOT earn miles outside of Turkish's frequent flyer program, and even within that program will only earn 25% of the miles flown. So while it's not mileage-run worthy, it's still a great fare for TPAC travel if you don't need the EQMs, and $200-$300 less that what is currently available to other destinations in Europe during that time of year.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Weekly Summary: Visualizing The Value Of Airline Miles, Find More $ With, 2014 World's Best Hotel, And More!

In case you missed it, here's a round-up of the top posts from the past week. Keep up-to-date on all the latest updates by adding me on Twitter and Facebook, and feel free to drop me an email anytime!

One of the most hotly debated topics in our points and miles world is the value of airline miles. Here's my attempt at visualizing the value of airline miles, and in particular, testing what the target or desired redemption values are for Economy, Business, and First Class bookings.

This Dutch man may be one of the luckiest people on Earth - he re-scheduled reservations on both of the doomed Malaysian Airlines flights, MH17 and MH370

People enjoyed my post on using to track down unclaimed money. Here's an encore, which details how to use to find even more money. In most cases, you can even submit a claim without proof of purchase.

My wife and I recently celebrated out 1-year wedding anniversary with a weekend getaway to Napa Valley, CA. Here is Part I and Part II of my review on Calistoga Ranch, An Auberge Resort. In short, it's one of the best hotels we've stayed at in the world, and probably the best we have stayed at in the US. You can also join the thread of my review over on Flyertalk, where it seems that the sign at the pool is generating some buzz.

And lastly, Travel and Leisure Magazine released its annual list of "Best in the World", which includes categories such as best city, island, airport, cruise, line, spa, and hotel. This year's winner for "Best Hotel In The World" is the The Triple Creek Ranch in Darby, Montana. Of note, only one of the major chains made it on the top 50, which was Starwood at #16 with the St. Regis Punta Mita Resort in Mexico. Of the luxury chains, it looks like Four Seasons was the big winner with 10 entries, with Peninsula Hotels a distant second place with 3 entries, and Mandarin Oriental coming in with just 2 entries.

That's it for today, hope you're having a great weekend!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Napa-versary: Calistoga Ranch, An Auberge Resort Part II - Resort Facilities, Activities, and Food

***This is part 3 of my "Napa-versary" trip report detailing a recent visit to Napa Valley to celebrate our 1-year wedding anniversary***

1. Eating Napa
2. Calistoga Ranch, An Auberge Resort Part I - Check-In, Our Lodge
3. Calistoga Ranch, An Auberge Resort Part II - Resort Facilities, Activities, and Food
4. The Restaurant at Meadowood + Meeting Chef Christopher Kostow
5. Eating Sonoma

Resort Facilities

As I had mentioned in Part I of my trip report, Calistoga Ranch truly feels like a complete escape from the outside world. The resort has a total of 50 rooms spread across 157 acres, and since the resort is so large they offer buggy service that will take you wherever you need to go. Unlike the buggy service at the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island which was hit-and-miss to put it nicely, the buggy service here was truly on-demand and punctual. We only used the buggies during check-in and check-out when we had luggage, and enjoyed walking around the rest of the time.

We found the facilities to be modern and well kept, starting with the lobby area where the main pool, fitness center, and bocce ball courts are located. The weather was scorching hot, so as you can imagine the pool area was quite crowded, with nearly all of the pool chairs occupied. There was food and drink service at the pool as well, serviced by the Poolhouse, which is a full-service restaurant located next to the pool where lunch is served during the day.

On one side of the pool is the fitness center which had both indoor and outdoor areas featuring state-of-the-art equipment. As a nice touch, water, towels, and Cliff bars are provided. There is also a small vineyard on the other side of the pool, where the grapes for the Calistoga Ranch-branded wines are presumably grown.

Main pool and hot tub

Main pool

Hot tub

Read the sign before you get in the pool!

Calistoga Ranch Vineyard

Fitness center

At the other end of the resort there is another set of facilities which include the yoga pavilion, spa, and a small boutique. There is also a wine cave which acts as both a wine cellar as well as a special events location. It's a romantic and unique space and would make the perfect location for a wedding ceremony or reception. According to the staff, during the summer-time, the resort is basically booked every weekend with at least one wedding. After breakfast on Saturday morning we spent some time exploring the wine cave, which even made us feel like Indiana Jones when we were inside.

Wine cave

Wine cellar


While Napa Valley has a lot to see and do, we found that most guests preferred to stay at the resort during their stay. I guess that makes sense, since baked into the price is the fact that the resort offers a multitude of private activities such as fitness and yoga classes, bocce ball, spa, and hiking. We wanted to do a hike during the trip and had looked into several public trails, but it worked out perfectly that Calistoga Ranch offers three private hiking trails on-site. We hiked all three, including the Canyon trail for advanced hikers which was a tough 1.5 mile trek leading to gorgeous valley views. There are two other trails at 1.5 mile and 1 mile, respectively, were more moderate hiking trails but still featured great views and scenery. Hiking was definitely one of the more popular activities and we ran into a good number of other guests on the trails, many of whom had brought along their dogs.

View of Lake Lommel

Canyon trail hike

Gorgeous views from the hikes

Our favorite part of any hotel stay, but unfortunately this time we can only comment on the breakfast since we had dinner outside of the resort on both nights. But if the breakfast is any indication of the overall quality of the food, then it was absolutely top-notch. Breakfast was included in our rate since we had booked through Virtuoso, and while we got different answers about the credit (one person said up to $150, the other said that it was unlimited), they are essentially one in the same since we ordered a LOT of food and we didn't even come close to hitting the $150 threshold. 

The first day we had breakfast at the Lakehouse, which has lovely views overlooking Lake Lommel. The Lakehouse is open for breakfast and dinner, with lunch served at the Poolhouse next to the main pool/lobby. Service during breakfast was great, and we ordered up a feast which included three entrees, juice, coffee, and toast. The Kobe beef hash was a highlight and would high recommend it - in fact, it was so good I ordered it on both days.

Exterior of Lakehouse restaurant

Lakehouse restaurant dining room

Lakehouse restaurant views
Kobe beef hash

Blueberry pancakes

Egg white omelet

During our stay, out of the blue we also got an unexpected delivery to our room which included a wonderful cheese and fruit plate, a really nice gesture from the hotel.

The next day, we decided to try room service since we wanted to get an early start on the road. The night before we used the iPad in our room to order breakfast for the next day, which was much easier and convenient than calling in an order or filling out a form and putting it outside the door.

Even though breakfast delivery was promised within a 30-minute window from our requested time, the food was delivered at the exact time we had asked for and was set out nicely in the living room. The food was delivered from the kitchen via buggy, and rather impressively arrived piping hot and without a single drop of food or liquid out of place. This was once instance where it was an advantage to have the bedroom in a completely separate building, so we could still have privacy while the food was being setup.

Breakfast room service

 Eggs Benedict

Final Thoughts  

I really don't see how our stay at Calistoga Ranch could have been any better, and we are already itching to go back for another weekend getaway. The location, room and the facilities were wonderful, and while I can't comment on dinner, the breakfast was fantastic. But best of all was the service which was on-par with the standards you receive in Asia, which in my opinion, is the ultimate compliment. We were looked after with great care, and I'm still impressed by how well the staff were able to communicate with each other to make every transition feel completely seamless.

All the little touches really do make a big difference - for example, during check-out we rode the buggy from our room to the main lobby to find our car already being warmed-up with the trunk open and ready to be loaded with our bags. Then, as we drove away we found bottles of water had been placed in the cup holders, along with a cup of frozen grapes. And a couple days later, we received a letter in the mail thanking us for our stay. 

Overall, we were really impressed with Calistoga Ranch and would rank it among the top hotels we've stayed at in the world, and probably the best hotel that we've stayed at in the US.