Bad Airline Experiences

As a frequent traveler, I get used to flight delays, weather problems and mechanical problems. You compensate by avoiding ever checking luggage to prevent it from being lost; and trying to always have a back-up plan when something goes wrong. That said, there are some things that I’ve experienced with air travel that are either weird, inexcusable, or horrible customer service in the extreme. A few examples:

  1. I’ve had some good flights on the 787 Dreamliner, and then I’ve had some odd experiences. The most recent was a flight from Denver to Tokyo where the famous windows that supposedly adjust to light and can be darkened within the glass by pushing a button rather than raising/lowering a shade just plain did not work. Why? As the flight attendant explained, that side of the plane was facing the sun that we kept following as we headed west. And the windows apparently are too sensitive to heat and so the darkening mechanism fails. How to solve this? Flight attendants came through the business class cabin and plastered rubber and cardboard cutouts on the windows to block the light – and apologized to those in economy class as United didn’t bother to have blocking devices in that class of service.
  1. The most appalling flight attendant I’ve encountered has to be the one on a short American Airlines flight who screamed over the PA system, shrieking and cussing about people using their cell phones while we were sitting on the tarmac for an hour waiting for clearance to take off. The verbal haranguing was exceeded only by the crew member coming down the aisle and demanding to inspect phones to confirm that they were in airplane mode. Probably not a great way to approach customer service, especially as there was a member of the US Senate on the plane – wonder if that will come up before the Transportation Committee?
  1. I never thought I’d say this but once upon a time a Lufthansa seat ate my iPad. If you’ve flown Lufthansa, you may know that German engineering is well at work – the seats, especially those in upper class, have more buttons and functions than the TRON computer. They are complex to operate even though they aim to provide a comfortable ride. At any rate, yes, I dropped my iPad between the seat and the window, and could not get it out. Moving the seat just seemed to work to try to crush the iPad. When we landed, the flight attendants worked mightily to free the device, with flashlights and even lying on the floor upside down to see what they could do. No luck. Finally, one of the Lufthansa engineers came out to the plane and dismantled the seat entirely to get the iPad out. Frighteningly enough, he told me this was not the first time this had happened.
  1. Delta prides itself on providing menus that have items that evoke Atlanta, Georgia or the larger southern region of the United States. It’s a great idea but poorly executed. There is a long list of weird stuff that I have been served – not “eat the fish!” bad – but just weird. Think soggy pecans with sugar and cayenne pepper for a snack. Imagine pink “Magnolia Moonlight” cocktails that taste like a bad jello shot. And grits that rival wallpaper paste. That’s not American Southern cuisine – it’s not even cuisine.
  1. The US Airways (R.I.P.) flight that couldn’t take off for an hour and a half because there was no infant life vest on board. Of course, there was also no infant on board; in fact, there were no children on board at all on the CRJ-200. Just a bunch of passengers wondering why US Airways couldn’t get an exemption for that – but plenty of times you can be on a plane with one bathroom that’s not working. Priorities, priorities.

Let’s hope 2017 bodes better and that nothing will top these experiences.  Onward!

Unique Hotels – Prince de Galles, Paris

One of my new year’s resolutions for 2017 is, given my frequent travels, to do more hotel reviews. I’ve decided to kick off with the Prince de Galles in Paris, for several reasons. First, you can’t beat the location – in the 8th arrondissement on the Avenue George V (more on that below). Second, it’s one of Starwood’s most elegant properties but beyond that it’s also quite historically significant. Third, it is where Chris and I stayed for our honeymoon and, of course, because of that it’s very special to us.

The Prince de Galles is located just off the Champs-Élysées, and shares its portion of the Avenue George V with the Four Seasons next door. In the neighborhood with the Arc de Triomphe, the Place de la Concorde, and the Élysée Palace, the Prince de Galles is at the heart of Parisian elegance and romance. We’ve stayed at the Four Seasons as well, and while it’s certainly very glamorous, it can be somewhat formal and stiff. Or, as a slightly inebriated (and slightly too overly-Chanel clad) American guest who was sitting next to us one night at dinner famously declaimed: “It’s such a scene.” And with that pronouncement – which could have been uttered by one of Woody Allen’s more pretentious characters in “Midnight in Paris” – we had to be captivated by the “anti-scene” next door. 

The Prince de Galles and the Four Seasons share many characteristics – plush and decadent lobbies filled with ever-freshened floral arrangements, polished marble floors and acres of shiny brass and silver accents, eternal mirrors and silent but ever-present staff. But where the Four Seasons evokes the establishment and the upper crust of la Belle Epoque, the Prince de Galles exudes insouciant, Art Deco charm. Built in the heyday of the Jazz Age in 1928, the Prince de Galles has also welcomed many famous guests with a certain flair of their own: Winston Churchill, Marlene Dietrich, Rita Hayworth, Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley among them. The Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII and still later the Duke of Windsor, also lodged at his namesake on several occasions. A massive renovation in 2013 restored the hotel to something close to the original glorious elegance that he and others would have enjoyed nearly a century ago. The guest rooms are like jewel boxes – less spacious than intimate, more divine than staid. The spa is tiled in hues of blue and green, hidden in a deep, hushed core of the building, where you can forget you are in a busy hotel, much less one of the busiest cities in the world – sensory deprivation, anyone?

We were fortunate to be given a suite of rooms facing several stories up onto the courtyard below where “Le Patio,” a fabulous outdoor bar surrounded by terracing with endless mosaic tiles has held court since the hotel was built. While I didn’t fall for the claim by a staff member – who showed us over the property when we arrived – that Le Patio is UNESCO-protected due to those tiles having been hand-fired and glazed in Morocco, I agree it’s a beautiful and enchanting place. Having a drink under one of the potted palms and stretched on a rattan chaise lounge, you can imagine yourself somewhere between the Right Bank and French Algeria, c. 1934. At night, we opened the window of our bedroom, which faced over the patio and heard the laughter and music from guests below. Even on a cool November night, there was plenty of late-night revelry at Le Patio.

We also loved La Scene – the one Michelin star restaurant at the hotel. Described as a gastronomic experience it does live up to the hype. The food was delicious and rendered even more special as during our meal (late in the even due to full booking that night and others) ended with Chris and me as the only diners left. Our curated dessert of chocolate and figs made it a perfect evening. With a kitchen open on three sides to the dining room, you can also see the chef and team at work, which for foodies like us was another lovely treat.

Full disclosure: the staff did know we were on our honeymoon, and even if they did not they might have guessed from the surfeit of flowers, chocolate and champagne that kind friends and colleagues had delivered to us daily (either that or they might have mistaken us for someone’s entourage!). That said, the service was impeccable and we had no complaints or negative experiences at the Prince de Galles. And if you’re a Starwood points hound – as I am – there are some great deals to be had at this property. Start looking for those, and put the Prince de Galles on your list for a trip to Paris.

Leaving America(n)

The summer of 2016 is only halfway through and it’s already been a long, hot, miserable one with the airlines. From July 5 to July 19, between us Chris and I were on four American Airlines flights, with miserable results and all of them resulting in cancellations. One of the flights for Chris was cancelled due to “excessive air traffic” – and he was thereafter rescheduled on a non-direct flight to his destination. The first leg of the flight sat on the runway for hours and then got to the first stop late; the last connecting flight the night to the original destination, had left 5 minutes earlier. After not paying for overnight accommodations, American then re-booked Chris on a flight the following day not from Charlotte, NC to Washington DC, but from Charlotte, NC to Charleston, SC and then on to Washington DC. A fair amount of negotiating ensued with American and eventually Chris made it to DC, albeit the day after he should have been there.

I had worse luck with a flight out of Philadelphia, PA and a flight out of Birmingham, AL – both of which were cancelled due to “maintenance problems.” At least the one from Birmingham cancelled after two hours of delay so that more time wasn’t wasted waiting at the airport. The one from Philadelphia was a different story – over 5 hours of delay over claimed maintenance issues before the flight was cancelled at midnight. Not a high water moment for American.

The irony of this is that the pilots, flight attendants and gate personnel are pleasant and try to keep their cool, but it’s clear that they also wonder what is going on with American’s fleet. As one of them said, shrugging his shoulders when asked by the passengers what is happening, “This happens all the time and we don’t get any information either.” The other dichotomy is that the airlines are losing business – Q2 results released in July 2016 show that nearly every airline is short of earnings expectations and worried about losing passengers due to delays, equipment issues, and travel concerns overall about terrorism. Yet if the airlines wanted to make flying more friendly, they couldn’t seem to find a better way to do just the opposite.

So this may be the end of the line for us with American – bad weather is one thing to cause delays. Bad product and lack of care about what you provide in service within your control is another. We’re already loyal United fliers and have far fewer issues there (fingers crossed!); American is our back-up airline for travel to places where there are no other direct-route options and time is valuable. But rather than being re-routed to Charlotte (one of the true nadirs in airports in the US) and suffering there, we may start considering less expensive, albeit non-direct flights on Delta through Atlanta.

Don’t get me wrong – maintenance for safety reasons is important. But don’t be too sure that the announcement that an aircraft is “in maintenance” always means that the issue is a safety-related one. Did you ever notice you don’t often get an explanation beyond “maintenance”?  According to www.thepointsguy.com it could just be a coffeemaker issue, and American is the leading culprit on that front. The Points Guy: The Ridiculous Thing That’s Delaying Flights – If it’s come to that, we may as well give up and start staying home.

-Laura Flippin, Travel Blogger

Union Station – Washington DC

Traveling up and down the Northeast Corridor on Amtrak, those of who live in Washington DC get to know Union Station quite well.  Although the station dates back to nearly the turn of the 20th century, it lost a lot of its luster after World War II, and was a pretty grimy locale by the late 1970s. In the 1980s, recognizing the significant structural problems that were beginning to plague the station, and the opportunity to refurbish what remained a busy transit point, the US Department of Transportation provided funding for a full redevelopment. Union Station reopened in 1988, with its beautiful designs, opulent ceilings, and spacious great areas revitalized again.  The renovation also included the addition of a movie theater, indoor shopping mall and food court.

Unfortunately, the offerings of the shopping mall were always pretty bad, the food court catered to transient passengers (largely groups of excitable teenagers during spring break school trips), and the few sit-down restaurants that were available never lasted long, turning over to the next hopeful chef or food group – none of whom ever manager to find a niche that enticed a devoted foodie clientele.  The movie station ceased operations only after a few years – as one local DC newspaper headline put it: “Union Station Movie Theater Closes: No One Notices?”

Over the last few years, another renovation has begun – this time to gradually bring the station even closer to the glory it once enjoyed over one hundred years ago. The first glimpses of this transformation are already visible – most notably, the central interior hall once again shows off the classical elements of that beautiful room. Mercifully, a long-suffering, sadly ugly double-tiered restaurant that blotched that grand open public space has been removed. Now the marble, gold-leaf and granite ceilings – newly polished and refreshed – are fully visible and do justice to the room. The centurions proudly stand guard again over a worthy prize.

So the next time you rush through Union Station, on your way to a warm Pepsi and a herky jerky train ride with Amtrak, be comforted at least by your entry or exit path through this grand structure – pretend you’re in Europe; soak it in and enjoy.

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DNA Testing for World Travelers?!?!

This news from Kuwait on the potential collection of DNA of anyone traveling into the country is really amazing. The following is from The Points Guy‘s website:

“If traveling to Kuwait has been on your radar, now’s the time to go — before the country implements its mandatory DNA testing for everyone in the country, including tourists. Starting sometime this year, Kuwait will be the first (and hopefully only) country to implement a law that will require everyone to submit a DNA sample in an effort to increase security.

The country has stated that the DNA testing won’t be used for genealogical analysis and it won’t impact personal freedoms or privacy. If you’re traveling to Kuwait, you can expect the following at the Kuwait International Airport (KWI) upon your arrival, according to the Kuwait Times:

‘From Visitors: Collections will be done at a special center at Kuwait International Airport, where in collaboration with the Civil Aviation Department, airlines and embassies, visitors will be advised on their rights and duties towards the DNA law.’ 

Wondering how authorities are going to collect your DNA at the airport? The Kuwait Times reports that the government will collect a saliva sample or a few drops of blood placed on special cards. From there, your blood or saliva will travel to a lab where it will be tested ‘according to international scientific and technical methods using special DNA examination equipment.’ As for how citizens’ DNA will be collected, mobile centers will travel to individuals’ offices to collect samples, or people can stop by citizen services centers to submit their DNA while ‘doing various transactions.’

Last year before the route ended, TPG flew on Kuwait Airways from New York to London. And while he didn’t fly to the country itself, he still had a less-than-pleasant experience while on board the severely outdated aircraft. It appears with the new law that those simply flying on Kuwait Airways (and on to another destination) won’t be required to provide a DNA sample — only those actually entering the country.

Will this new law impact your willingness to travel to Kuwait?”

The devil will be in the details of course, and I sympathize with the desire of countries to ensure robust security in the current global security environment.  However, this does seem a bit ominous – and I say this as someone who has submitted fingerprints and other personal information and data to the US government as part of joining the TSA PreCheck and Global Entry Programs. But DNA seems to take security and clearances to a whole new level.  It will be interesting to see if the US government –  which will no doubt be lobbied by US-based construction, contracting and consulting companies which have a heavy presence in Kuwait – pressures Kuwait to reconsider or amend its policy.  Kuwait and the US have a close relationship and the Kuwaiti people are still very grateful for US assistance in the liberation of the country in the 1990s. When I’ve visited Kuwait, the people could not be more gracious or kind towards Americans. It would be a shame for something like this new policy to impede travel and exchange between the two countries.

Source:

Kuwait Will Soon Require Everyone in the Country to Undergo a DNA Test — Even Tourists. (2016). The Points Guy. Source: http://thepointsguy.com/2016/04/kuwait-to-require-everyone-in-the-country-to-undergo-a-dna-test/

Starwood v. Marriott

It’s been a wild ride since Marriott and Starwood first announced their proposed merger. After a few dalliances and weird engagement/disengagement with Anbang, it looks like the merger is now back on, according to the communication Starwood sent out today to its points program members:

“Nearly five months ago we shared the news that Starwood Hotels & Resorts is joining with Marriott International to create the world’s biggest and best hotel company — with 5,500 hotels and resorts in more than 100 countries. Today we’re pleased to announce that the shareholders of each company have approved the merger.

Since the original announcement, our members have asked many questions about the future of Starwood Preferred Guest® (SPG®). Soon we will begin the long journey to integrate the very best of SPG and Marriott Rewards®. Through this process, your perspective will help guide these discussions as we consider the following:

  • How do we continue to deliver the unique experiences, benefits and rewards you’ve come to expect both in and out of our hotels and resorts?
  • How do we take full advantage of the extraordinary new range of hotels, resorts and destinations that will be the hallmark of a combined Starwood and Marriott to add new recognition and benefits for you?
  • How do we protect the value of your currency and status, whether your Starpoints® balance, lifetime status or membership level?

Getting answers to these complicated, important questions will take time. In fact, we don’t anticipate launching a newly combined program until 2018. This means SPG will continue to run separately until then. In the meantime, we’re actively exploring ways to build bridges between the two programs to further enhance your experience.

In addition, we are not standing still: Among other things, we’re bringing you new access to one-of-a-kind hotels from Tribute Portfolio™ and Design Hotels™, plus exciting new SPG MomentsSM experiences through our unique partnerships with Major League Baseball®, Mercedes AMG Petronas and more.

Know that we’re listening to your feedback, and we value your input. Our merger is on track to close midyear, and as we have more news to share, we will reach out to you. You can also find the latest updates at spg.com/updates and via Twitter (@spg). Our members are at the core of everything we do, and that will not change. We remain at your service wherever you need us — in our hotels, at spg.com, on the SPG apps or via our Customer Contact Centers.

Thank you for sharing your travels with SPG.”

I’m a member of both programs, although I use Starwood more frequently in part due to its greater presence outside the US. Within the last two weeks I’ve stayed at both companies’ properties; while each have their virtues, overall there are a number of Starwood rewards program aspects that are heads above Marriott. For example:

1. Starwood has a vastly better, more navigable and user-friendly website, as well as phone/iPad app. Marriott’s website is cumbersome and hard to operate, especially if you are trying to use award nights or certificates for discounts. Marriott does not seem to want to make it easy for you, whether you are cashing in points for a free room or paying full freight.

2. And speaking of award nights . . . Marriot makes you pay taxes and fees and booking charges when you redeem points for a room. Starwood doesn’t charge you at all. In addition, Starwood lets you cancel easily if you need to do so online – Marriott . . . well, let’s just say I’ve never been able to effectively get that done with the website or app.

3. High point values for even modest properties – Courtyard by Marriott, for example, — in pretty moderately priced cities – make Marriott very discouraging.  Whereas you can get the St. Regis in New York City for 30,000 points per night quite often with Starwood, a Marriott (not a Ritz Carlton!) property in Richmond, Virginia, or St. Louis, Missouri can regularly cost that much.

4. Deals and special offers are hard to come by with Marriott – Starwood’s “pay full rate for one night and your birth year for the next night” and “buy three nights get one free” run frequently. Marriott is stingier with its deals and discounts, that is, when you can find them. And restrictions apply – as in, the restrictions are so difficult that you can hardly ever take advantage of the deals.

5. Customer service for SPG members is so much better than customer service for Marriott Elite members. The SPG reps I’ve spoken with on the phone truly go out of their way to help, and are so pleasant and nice. Marriott, on the other hand, makes me feel as though they are doing me a favor by even taking my calls.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not a Marriott hater by any means. I love many of their properties and have had wonderful experiences  with staff on site as well. But the points program could use some work, and for those of us who work hard to be SPG Platinum every year because of how that program treats us, we have to wonder if the merger will help or hurt.

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