United Global Services

In the world of frequent flier programs, the most coveted may surely be United’s mysterious and elite “Global Services” status. For those of you unacquainted with this magical creature, it really is the only way to travel. Far beyond mere 1K status (100,000 miles annually on United flights), it is something that frequent fliers speak of reverently when they talk about even the most grueling business travel.

How do you obtain entry to this prestigious program? The truth is that no one really knows. United Airlines does not disclose how it selects members, and there are no published criteria for how you get or retain this status. A while ago, the Wall Street Journal published an article that came about as close as any I’ve ever seen to describing some of the keys to the castle: “Inside United’s Secret Club for Top Fliers.” The WSJ suggested that flying at least 100,000 miles a year is a minimum, but that heavy spend with United – perhaps more than $50,000 – and on premium flights and in premium classes of service (Business First and Global First) are what count the most.

Whatever the allure, I can tell you unabashedly that I’m part of the cult. I track my miles and spend with United, I treasure them, I obsess about them, and I work to do whatever it is that meets the magic formula of Global Services. As 2015 draws to a close, I have a spate of international travel coming up and much of it happens to be on United (sorry UAL, but you’re not always the most convenient or price conscious choice for me or my business). And there may be a few personal trips in there as well to round out the year. It’s worth it – every bit. Delayed flight? United puts you on a new connection without your even calling them. Cancelled plane? You’ll be immediately re-booked on any airline they can find to get you where you need to go. Making a tight connection? No worries, you’ll be picked up and escorted to your gate where planes are even held from departure for you.

My own experience with Global Services demonstrates why the program resonates so much with so many loyalists. In January 2013, returning from a wonderful trip to New Zealand, we arrived in Australia for our connecting flight to the US, only to learn that it was cancelled due to mechanical issues. If you’ve ever looked at the size of a 747, you’ll appreciate that re-booking that many people isn’t easy. Many of the passengers on the flight who were in first class were being told the best that could be done was a re-booking in two days. If you were in economy, well, you might as well have just renounced citizenship and decided to move to Oz (no complaints there – Australia and New Zealand are great places for relocation). But with my Global Services status, I went to the counter and asked the United personnel what they could do. The result?  A re-booking on a flight leaving for the US within 2 hours of our originally scheduled United departure from Sydney. Who else on the flight got this treatment? No one except me and one other Global Services member. For that, I am eternally grateful.  Sydney’s a great place but not when you have to get home from a 16 day vacation.

No matter what I do, however, I suspect I’ll never top one of my colleagues, who recently spoke at a dinner honoring him for his years of commitment to human rights, justice and religious liberty on a world stage. He centered his remarks on 10 things he is grateful for – unsurprisingly; they included his family, his friends and colleagues, his good health, and his excellent golf game. But high on the list – not first but nowhere near last – he said it: “United Global Services” – and the crowd gasped, not with shock but with admiration. Some true believers out there, that’s for sure.

So the other day, when I said to Chris that I needed to make sure I got Global Services status for 2016, he looked at me with horror and concern about how I had let there be the slightest doubt of this. I promised I would do my best to stay in the club-without-membership-applications. To which Chris replied that failure was not an option. So United, if you’re out there, I’m traveling and I’m with you.  Just keep me in the club – I can’t go back now that I’ve seen the Promised Land . . .

The Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C.

The Marine Corps Marathon (MCM), held annually in October in Washington DC, is a great way to see people from all over the world traveling to the US capital. Of course, all marathons attract runners from every corner of the globe – but the MCM somehow seems special. First, there are no qualifying thresholds, so anyone can enter and plenty of people do – as proven by the signs along the race course that challenge runners to beat the famous alumni in particular (“You can do better than Oprah!” – yes, she ran it and in pretty good time, too).

Second, because the race takes place in the nation’s capital, many runners want to be part of the excitement that comes in running past monuments, the White House, the Capitol building and along the Potomac River – it’s a well known city and one people want to see even if they are just spectators and not runners.

Third, there is an incredibly patriotic element to the race. It is hosted by the US Marines (guaranteeing it is done on time and without a glitch), and attracts many servicemen and women, both active and retired, both runners and wheelchair. At the end of the marathon – should you finish – a Marine puts the finisher’s medal around your neck while people of all different nationalities look on. Everywhere there are American flags, but also plenty of signs that there are plenty of travelers there – a runner in full Scottish kilt and bagpipe; Australian flags; oompah music from Germany; and lots of chatter in dozens of languages. I saw all of that this year – it was Chris’s third time running the MCM, which means it was my third time as pit and support crew (I’m getting better every year). And on Monday, when it’s over, at the airport, you can see runners flying home — or to their next marathon perhaps – to far flung places, proudly wearing their medal and being congratulated by everyone from gate attendants to TSA agents.

To the Marines, thank you for hosting and providing such a great event – that attracts people from all over the world for a unique kind of tourism. And to Chris – congratulations on sub-four, 3:57 to be exact!

Laura Flippin Washington DC

 

– Laura Flippin

 

Unexpected Pleasures

I know many of the hotels in my hometown of Washington, D.C. – not because I stay there; frankly I can’t tell you or any tourists that inquire of me which ones are the nicest to stay at.  As a local, I see mostly the public areas, generally restaurants, maybe the spa or cocktail lounge. To the degree there are “hidden gems” beyond that, you would be better off consulting Frommer’s or Fodor’s, or even TripAdvisor or Yelp.

Today, however, I’m at a place in Washington that I’ve seldom visited – the Jefferson Hotel on 16th Street – and early in the morning, after breakfast and before lunch.  Chris is running the Marine Corps Marathon on Sunday, and usually books a massage the day before that to relax and get in prep mode.  This year, we waited a bit late to book the massage at the usual place we both like, and so I had to do some research on alternative options.  The Jefferson came up for several reasons – it’s a beautiful hotel, it’s very quiet and rather small so you aren’t subject to hordes of runners crowding locker rooms and waiting areas, and the staff have a reputation for superb client service.

While I can’t speak to how the spa actually turned out – Chris is the one who gets the benefit of the Jefferson’s “couture massage” – I do know that the food at the hotel is excellent.  Plume – the signature restaurant – is wonderful, inspired by Jefferson and particularly his time in Paris as US Ambassador to France. Quill – the cocktail lounge – is charming as well.  And for more casual fare, today we are off to the Greenhouse – which is like a European solarium in a 19th century marble palace.  Food, what food?  Not even sure we will notice it amidst the beauty of the surroundings.

But today, the genuine find for me is the library – a room designed based on Jefferson’s own book room at Monticello.  It’s a cozy, wood-paneled room, with recessed shelves of books written by those who have been guests at the hotel.  Even more alluring is a nook with a table and deeply cushioned benches – modeled after Jefferson’s own bed nook in Monticello.  Except better – Jefferson’s Monticello nook has always struck me as intriguing but uncomfortable (even for the exceptionally tall, over 6 feet, Jefferson).  No air conditioning, basic bed, tight quarters and candlelight might make it quaint but it also won’t win you many stars in today’s Michelin guide.  On the other hand, the Jefferson Hotel’s version is next to a discrete coffee bar, plenty of space, and genteel staff who solicitously offer cocktails, sparkling water, or just a bit of history about Jefferson and the origins of the hotel. All without waiting in line without other tourists.

For more information, check out: http://www.jeffersondc.com/

The Good Life

Lots of things about business/first-class travel are overrated, including that no matter what cabin you are seated in, you are still sitting in a tin can for hours on hours, with recycled air and cramped surroundings. But business/first class travel can provide a bit more space – and for me, far more interesting is exploring the upper class lounges that the different airlines offer.

During a recent busy travel month, I had a chance to check out the business/first class lounge for (1) British Airways at Terminal 5 at Heathrow, (2) the Al Italia business class lounge in Rome, (3) the United first class lounge in Chicago O’Hare, (4) the United first class lounge in London Heathrow, and (5) the Cathay Pacific business “Bridge” lounge in Hong Kong. Before exploring any of these, I would have guessed that the Cathay Pacific lounge would have come up trumps over the rest, but that United’s first class lounge in Chicago (the airline’s home base) would have been a close second. In truth, however, my experience was completely different than expectations. A few thoughts below, in order of worst to best lounges:

Al Italia business class lounge in Rome – Chris and I enjoyed a long weekend in Rome, and while the city is notorious for being busy and chaotic (a distinction that was well founded, as we noted from our trip), we had hoped that the AI lounge would be a welcome respite before we headed home. Instead, it was a disappointment – cramped, dirty, and in need of some serious renovations, the place was pretty awful. One upside was that the wine flowed freely – nice prosecco, white and red – plus excellent coffee and beer. But a basic diet Coke or even a regular Coke? – nowhere to be found. AI apparently eschews soda – and vacuuming. And decent food – there were a few middling bowls of over-mayonnaised pasta and some pathetic sandwiches, but nothing to write home about. Plus the décor was something out of Austin Powers but with not much pizzazz and a fair amount of wear and tear. Not to mention the garish orange and green color scheme, punctuated by a dreary grey tinge.

British Airways business class lounge at London Heathrow – Terminal 5. I may be biased as someone who has felt that Terminal 5 has been overrated since it opened (see, e.g. Gordon Ramsay’s “Plane Food”), but BA’s upper class lounge is just, well, okay, to me.  It’s vast and huge, and filled with people. But nothing feels personalized and overall the food is British cafeteria-like. If that makes you shudder, you have the right impression. The lounge décor is nice, and there is plenty of space despite the enormous capacity of the venue. But the food is pretty atrocious, and leaves you wishing for a Pret-a-Manger.

United first class lounge in Chicago – I know, you’d expect it to be reflective of United’s flagship status at O’Hare, and it was nice and fine but nothing special.  The upsides are it is small – you don’t feel like you are fighting for a seat and an electrical plug as you do at many lounges – and very clean and new. It’s also hidden away in the C concourse area of Terminal 1; so hidden in fact that you have to hunt it down, but you also get the feeling that some people just give up looking for it, and so chances are you may have the place pretty much to yourself.  Indeed, there is NO sign or any indication of where it is. It’s tucked behind a customer service counter, and you need a map and breadcrumbs to find it. The food is decent; the alcohol and sodas are plentiful, and it’s very quiet too (a rarity in the airline lounge world). But all that just makes for a great business lounge, not a great first class lounge. There is no staff to take your order or offer you an a la carte menu. You’re on your own here, and while that’s fine, it just seems that United could do better (and indeed it does – read on).

Cathay Pacific business class lounge – a/k/a “The Bridge” – in Hong Kong – I confess, I may be a loyal United customer but I do love Cathay Pacific. There isn’t any comparison with US airlines when it comes to the service of those ex-US ones that do it well (Emirates, Etihad, Cathay Pacific, Qantas, etc.). And Cathay Pacific’s upper class lounge in Hong Kong didn’t disappoint in general. It’s a lot like the BA upper class lounge in Terminal 5 at Heathrow – beautiful décor, and well appointed. Plenty of food and drink. But again it’s huge and there is no personalized service or attendance on you. More positively, though, the food – particularly the Asian cuisine – is pretty good – and a nice perk are miniature Haagen-Dazs ice creams at the bar (just ask – you’ll see other people getting them, and yeah, you’ll want one, too).

United first class lounge at London Heathrow-Terminal 2 – And the winner is . . . surprisingly United at LHR.  Maybe it’s because United is going all out since relocating to the newly-opened Queen’s Terminal (a/k/a Terminal 2) last year, and if that’s the case, fine with me!  The arrival lounge where you can get a shower and breakfast after taking the overnight flight from the US is great.  But the first class lounge for departures is pretty much the bomb.  Small, nicely decorated, and with staff that can’t wait to wait on you, plus food that rivals a lot of what you’ll eat even in nice London restaurants (take that Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay), this is a little gem I almost hope not too many people find out about. The real highlight is a small dining area, complete with fully laid tables, white tablecloths, wine glasses, a tower of wine, and a serving staff eager to please you with a wonderful a la carte, made to order menu. The regular food buffet is great, but go for the a la carte dining room.  I had the artichoke pasta ravioli, and it was so good I thought about hanging out for dinner and taking a later flight.  The wine selection is good, and you can enjoy it all with a nice selection of magazines and newspapers – Country Life, anyone? I don’t know what got into United or why this lounge is so great, but I can’t wait to go back . . . Now if United would just start flying the 787 to London too . . . Pictures below to whet your appetite.

Laura Flippin Picture 1Laura Flippin Picture 2

Laura Flippin Picture 3Laura Flippin Picture 4

Laura Flippin Picture 5Laura Flippin Picture 6

Laura Flippin Picture 7

– Laura Flippin

 

Blackberry Farm

Ever since I heard about it several years ago, I’ve been longing to go to Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tennessee. If you’re a foodie, a travel junkie, a spa lover, or just like beautiful places, then the Farm will satisfy you on all these fronts. It’s been the recipient of tons of awards, lauded by everyone from Bon Appetit to Conde Nast Traveler to the James Beard Foundation. Set on over 4,000 acres of beautiful mountains and fields in the foothills of Eastern Tennessee, the Farm is a pilgrimage for anyone who loves a luxury weekend.

So much has been written about the Farm and you can find out all about its offerings on its website – http://www.blackberryfarm.com   The question I want to address in this post is a simple one, however: Does it really live up to the hype and is it worth it?

The short answer is yes, the Farm does not disappoint. I’ve been to other Relaix & Chateau properties, including the Inn at Little Washington, but the Farm truly is one of the best. For one thing, the scenery is gorgeous. You could spend hours just sitting on a stone veranda watching the trees and the sky (or from the inside great room of our estate house, as we did on a rare day in July when the humidity was pretty daunting even in the mountains). And the food is fantastic. And unlike other places where you might think about what is close by that you can enjoy, the Farm really is a place unto itself – a contained oasis of paradise where you can just relax. It’s like a luxury camp in the Adirondacks for adults, but with Southern hospitality and charm. And while it costs a fair bit, by the time you have settled in with your meals and outdoor hikes, and cozy afternoons reading a book (or maybe napping) in one of the great rooms in your cottage or the main house, you realize you are actually getting not just a meal and board but really the whole weekend. It’s true especially in the sense that you don’t need cash once you are on property – everything is either covered or bills to your room (yeah, sort of like a cruise ship but way more elegant). If you stay long enough, you’ll probably start to wonder what cold, hard currency looks like. The bill for your room (and incidentals like wine, spa, etc.) will remind you at the end of the trip, but at least while you are there you can pretend to be blissfully unaware.

Are there any downsides? A few, even if you are a discerning guest. The first is that despite offering great products in the spa and farm shop, the toiletries in the rooms are somewhat disappointing. The signature scented shampoo and conditioner in our room was a wish-it-was-forgettable scent of lavender, bourbon and vanilla. At one point, I had to tell Chris that his hair smelled like a cupcake – and trust me, that is not a compliment. With all the great products out there, and much nicer soaps and offerings not only in the bathrooms in the public spaces, we were less than impressed on this point.

The other downside is that the service by wait staff can be spotty a lot of the time. The staff is abundant, earnest and friendly, and knowledgeable about the food and wine – in a completely unpretentious way, which I very much appreciate. But over a 3-day weekend, there was more than once that a cocktail order was forgotten or a course was delayed, or a staff member just seemed not to notice that we were there. In one instance, Chris simply walked up to the bar/kitchen himself when we were the only ones in the main house late in the afternoon, and asked for a menu and drinks. For this kind of place and this kind of experience that just shouldn’t be the case.

All that said, I truly loved the Farm and would go back in a heartbeat. In fact, leaving was truly sad. When I got home, I realized somehow we’d forgotten to return our room keys – the old heavy brass fob type that remind you that you are somewhere special. When I emailed the Farm to apologize and ask for an address to mail then back, the front desk staff kindly replied that this sort of thing happens on occasion and the Farm likes to think that is guests’ way of not wanting to leave and somehow taking a piece of the experience with them. If that’s the case, then I guess you can say I took the keys but left longing for a return to the Farm. Now just to decide on whether Fall or Spring in the mountains is better . . .

 

– Laura Flippin

Coming Home

I’ve been on the road traveling pretty much constantly since mid-2014 and I am just now able to breathe. Hence, the hiatus in posting on this blog. One weekend recently, I was with my family at our weekend place; my brother-in-law traveled separately from the rest of us, taking the train. In the little town where we are, the train stops not too far from the house, and there is always a busy if small gathering of people waiting to meet the travelers who are arriving. The station is one of those where you can park right next to the tracks and the platform, so you can even sit in the car and see the train coming in and the passengers alight. Sometimes the train is late, as it was that evening, but there is always a tableau. Some families with balloons for college kids returning home. A few kids waiting for their dad or mom. And just people in transit, moving through the old-fashioned station with its covered portico and flickering lights.

A little Norman Rockwell, I’ll admit but there is indeed something moving about it. Many singers and musicians have written about trains and what they mean to us as a sense of place and travel in time – think of Merle Haggard and Train Whistle Blues (“Every time I see that lonesome railroad train, It makes we wish I was going home again”) or Peter, Paul and Mary and 500 Miles (“If you miss the train I’m on you will know that I am gone”). Or one of my favorites, from Marc Cohn, Ghost Train:

Some trains they leave in the morning

Some leave in the afternoon

Some trains they leave here

Right on time

And some they just leave too soon

A few years back, the UK Telegraph even had an article about great train-related songs – you can find it at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/journeysbyrail/6406122/Music-on-the-train-Great-rail-related-songs.html

In a world where plane travel is the fastest way to go, and where the automobile is still viewed as the easiest freedom on the road, there is something special about the train, even when it’s just passing through the station in your town, on the way to another place.

– Laura Flippin

Playing Tourist in My Hometown

I’m a native of the Washington DC area, and over the years have seen most of the famous landmarks and locations multiple times. But more often during the daily commute, I mostly see monuments and museums as they pass by in the rush-hour traffic. It’s been a long time since I spent a weekend or more touring in my own hometown.

During the Independence Day holiday, with some friends and family in town, however, I did the marathon of tourism. With two thirteen-year old boys in tow, neither of whom had been to DC before except briefly when they were too small to remember the trip, we had a lot of ground to cover. We began on Friday (7/3) with lunch at Matchbox in Chinatown – great food but service was slow , followed by the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue and then a late dinner at Minh’s Vietnamese restaurant in Arlington, Virginia. The Newseum is perfect for pre-teen and early teenage kids. First, there are a lot of visual displays like sections of the Berlin Wall and a damaged antenna from the World Trade Center 9/11 wreckage. Second, there isn’t a lot of reading of long descriptions and narratives – many of the exhibits are largely done around objects themselves or speak for themselves, like Pulitzer Prize winning photographs. And finally, the place is huge and has a plethora of gift shops with cool kid-oriented stuff – our purchase was a massive Uncle Sam-style plush hat that one of the boys wore all weekend; very patriotic!

On the Fourth of July itself, we wisely avoided the downtown area and instead spent the day at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum annex near Dulles Airport, the Udvar-Hazy facility. With IMAX films, an observation tower where you can see the big planes taking off from the airport, and plenty of real planes and space vehicles to view, it was the perfect place to spend the day. Highlights of this “museum” – which is really the size of multiple airplane hangars – included seeing the Concorde (ah, how I wish I had been able to fly on it when it was in service!), the F-22 Blackbird, the space shuttle Discovery, and the Enola Gay. The only real downside of Udvar-Hazy is that the only option for lunch there is a McDonald’s restaurant on site. And given that Udvar-Hazy is located pretty far from anywhere else, you can’t walk to another site. We settled for a late lunch at a local Mexican restaurant in nearby Chantilly as the thought of a Happy Meal was not well received by the foodie members of our touring group.

More to follow in Part 2 . . .

– Laura Flippin

#arlingtonva #DLAPiper #WashingtonDC

In Praise of Great Service in the Travel Industry

With a lot of gripes that go around regarding things that drive us all nuts about travel (lines, waiting, high prices, fuel surcharges, hotel check in process), it’s time to recognize that the travel industry does also get it right, and when it does it’s spectacular.  A few kudos from my recent experiences below:

  1. A very kind member of the cabin crew on Qatar Airways who noticed that I was cold due to being seated in a part of the cabin that was not heating/cooling well – and who graciously offered to move me to another seat and did so by moving me quickly and with a nice blanket as well!
  1. An email from American Airlines asking me to participate in a drawing for a free trip to Paris.  I may not win but it was nice to see the offer and fun to think about a possible trip to France (maybe on the new A380s that American Airlines is running from the US to Europe?)
  1. A pleasant taxi driver in London who couldn’t make change for my fare and just took a few pounds less rather than overcharge me.
  1.  A free night from Marriott just for signing up for their credit card.  My sister and brother-in-law enjoyed a fun overnight in Charlottesville, Virginia with that complimentary stay.
  1. A local restaurant in Arlington, Ray’s the Steaks, which asked when I called for a reservation if we were celebrating anything fun with our group that evening.  As it happened, the dinner was to congratulate one of our party, who had just completed the Marine Corps Marathon in DC that day.  The server went out of his way to say congratulations on his own initiative and to chat with us about the experience (both as runner and as spectator).

These aren’t earth-shattering moments but they do show that hospitality and service do still exist in the industry.  And not just if you have status on an airline or with a hotel chain.  Reassuring and a reminder that travel can be easier with a little kindness.

 

TSA, Part 3

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal highlighted that TSA is trying to increase enrollments in the PreCheck program but that not all consumers are eager to sign up.  For one thing, as the article points out:

Lots of travelers complain they enrolled in PreCheck but rarely get through airport checkpoints more quickly. At the same time, huge numbers of travelers who never signed up get routed into PreCheck lanes. At peak business-travel hours, the PreCheck lines can back up longer than the regular screening lines.

This is certainly my experience.  I’m often screened out of TSA PreCheck even though I now have my PreCheck/Global Entry pass.   And when I am granted PreCheck, only in Washington DC and at very small airports – like Birmingham, Alabama – does the PreCheck line seem to move quickly and more efficiently than regular screening.

As for Global Entry . . . well, the truth is I’ve had trouble with almost all the terminals and despite several efforts with the TSA to figure out why my passport or other information (including the Global Entry card issued by the TSA!) won’t work when I try to use them at customs/immigration on re-entry into the USA, no one seems to be able to figure it out.  According to TSA, there is nothing wrong with my card or my status.  As one very nice TSA officer put it when clearing me through regular process after my Global Entry still didn’t work on the last return to the USA, “it’s a weird system; and we don’t really understand it.”

Hardly comforting as a diagnosis from the federal agency charged with security and protection at the border.  But perhaps at least honest.  I still think Global Entry/PreCheck is a great program, and can work very efficiently for travelers.  But there is a lot of work required.  Even with my defective fingers.

A Tale of Two Hotels, In Two Cities, Part 2:

In contrast, a few nights after my Marriott adventure in London, I traveled to Chicago and stayed for the first time at the Westin Michigan Avenue North.   The room there was simpler than that at the Marriott but check-in was a breeze and the reception desk amply staffed.  A last minute request for some dry cleaning to be quickly handled was promptly attended to and well done.  As for the wifi, it was fast, simple to use and free – both in the rooms and in the reception area.  Wifi is free for me at Starwood properties because of my status with that points program, but even if I had paid for it, it was still less than half of the daily charge at the London Marriott.  A call to the front desk to inquire about FedEx/UPS shipping options was also promptly answered and met with the welcome news that there is a FedEx facility on site at the Westin – problem solved, materials boxed and quickly shipped.  Finally, on a rainy night when I was headed out to an event at another hotel, the concierge not only gave precise and helpful directions, but also offered an umbrella for the trip.  

The point of this post is not so much to quibble with the vagaries of hotel service, but to point out that hotels can either get it right or get it wrong.  And in a time where customers are just as aware as companies are of how to maximize their points/status/dollars (the US airlines better be listening, given their new rules providing preference to customers who pay more per flight), we on the other side of the reception desk know just as well how to choose our hotel and make sure our loyalties stay there.  There are way too many options in hotels and airlines to feel bound by just one.  Which is why I’ll be saying “no thanks” to another stay at the London Grosvenor House Marriott and looking forward to checking in again at the Westin Michigan Avenue North.

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