Monthly Archives: September 2012

Cut Steakhouse – Beverly Hills, CA.

This is a guest post written by frequent contributor B.Positive.

Cut Steakhouse, Beverly Hills, CA.

MarZ, a second friend, and I went to celebrate two of our belated birthdays in August and September. I, having had to cancel my skydiving + paintball birthday plans after crashing my bike on my 25th birthday a couple weeks ago, have been looking forward to this dinner. If you haven’t heard about Cut, read about it here: http://www.yelp.com/biz/cut-beverly-hills
A Wolfgang Puck business, Cut is located on 9500 Wilshire blvd inside of a 4 Seasons hotel (a stone’s throw away from Rodeo Drive). Needless to say, ultra luxury cars were everywhere and I’m glad we didn’t take my car there. Overall it was a great experience from the service, decor, and food quality. Knowing that this was a “$$$$” kind of place as rated on Yelp, I was expecting a lot from the place and felt that Cut still lived up to its expectations. If you’re going, remember to dress well, check your bank statements, and brush up on your steak vernacular. Allow me to take you through a brief recap of our incredible 3 hour culinary experience.

Appetizers:

Bread and Butter

There is a server that comes around with a tray full of various breads (sourdough, wheat, pretzels, onion bread?) which comes shortly after you take your seat and order drinks. All of the waiters and waitress are well dressed, well mannered, polite, and are attuned to what you need and make sure you’re taken care of before you need to speak up.

Cuts on display

Before ordering, our server (Danny) brought us a display of all of the cuts available that evening and gave us a description into the texture and the flavors that would be experienced with each.

Kobe Steak Sashimi with Radish

This is the first time I’ve tried this dish, so I’ll describe it from the perspective of a newbie. Texture – soft. Flavor – interesting, and did not taste of blood or uncooked meat in any sense. Although I had my reluctance to tried uncooked red meat, it was delicious and so far I haven’t come down with foodborne illness or worse (that I know of). I’ve been told that I need to put a little more faith in high end restaurants that serve edgy food as this place is known to do (it makes sense that they have more to lose than I do by serving unsafe food).

Entrees & Sides:

Wagyu beef from Japan.

MarZ’s entree. 100% Wagyu beef from Japan. Apparently Cut was on of the first restaurants to get beef imported from Japan after the import ban (is there a better term for this?) was lifted.

American Wagyu beef

My entree was the American Wagyu beef ordered medium well. It was flavorful, juicy, and delicious. One thing I’d change: I’d get the steak done medium next time.

Sides: Creamed Spinach with Organic Fried Egg (left), Wild Mushrooms (right), and buttered corn (center)

We ordered these side with our entrees. The sides I suppose are not the place to be adventurous. I liked the buttered corn the best and wouldn’t order the other  two sides again. I was interested in ordering the fries to see how good they could be, but was persuaded otherwise that night.

All in all, dinner at Cut was a pleasurable, delicious, and memorable experience. If you’re celebrating a special event and don’t mind spending a bit (much) more, Cut is a fine choice.

Until next time,

B. Positive

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Las Vegas – Max Brenner and Wicked Spoon

This is a guest post written by frequent contributor B.Positive.

August 2012 Las Vegas Trip Report:

In the late summer of 2012, marZ took advantage of a free Mandalay Bay room offer and we had a chance to visit Vegas on the cheap (the key to free rooms? Get a player’s card and play like you don’t need money). MarZ will have more details and pictures on the room and the hotel stay.

Friday: We drove down on Friday night, got in and waited for Saturday (we like to live life on the edge in case you’re wondering..).

Saturday: We went to Max Brenner for lunch. If you’ve been here a while ago, there’s a good chance it’s changed significantly since you’ve been here. No longer is it primarily focused on desserts and sweets, but it now carries an excellent food menu as well. If you do happen to visit again, the following were excellent:

Hazelnut Cream Chocolate Milkshake: The best milkshake I’ve ever had (not kidding).

If you go to Max Brenner, you MUST try this milkshake. MUST! Don’t try the smoothies, sodas, or anything else. Just this! Maybe the tea as well.

Went back the next day for Sunday Brunch and had blueberry tea.

The most flavorful entree I tasted was the tomato mozarella panini. It’s seasoned with bits of basil (my favorite). The dish from bottom to top was made well and is something I’d get again.

Tomato Mozarella Panini from Max Brenner.

Aside from Max Brenner, the remainder of this post is picture-less.

Max Brenner overall gets my endorsement. Located right in the Forum Shops, the ambience, decor, service, and food made it a great experience. The restaurant has a candy shop inside and is decorated like the inside of a Willy Wonka Factory.

Saturday was also filled with the dinner buffet at Wicked Spoon (located in The Cosmopolitan) which had long lines, small servings, and slightly bland dishes and desserts (perhaps it taste better… not-sober). The Cosmopolitan itself seems to be contained within a relatively small footprint (everything is centered around a huge chandelier and lots of escalators) but I didn’t spend a lot of time there before we rushed off to see KA by Circque de Soleil at the MGM.

Personally, I enjoyed KA much more the second time around after having a friend explain to me what was going on (critical thinking isn’t my strongest character trait). KA and O, both by Cirque de Soleil, were very enjoyable. For those of you with an appreciation for raunchy theater, check out Zumanity ;).

Overall, Vegas was fun. I aimed to have a less touristy experience, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. I still very much enjoy the hotels, the restaurants, and the glamour, so  the authentic local Vegas experience will have to wait for another time.

Until next time.

– B.Positive.

Music video of the week.

P.S. I played at my first open mic in my life! I played this song (but probably didn’t sound as good):

Beginners Guide Part 3: It’s Good to Diversify…Usually

Once you’ve figured out what you want and you’ve learned how important is to take advantage of limited time offers, it’s time to strategize about your points. There are many different options on where to keep your points, depending on what your goals are.

In many cases, the easiest and best place to start are with non-loyalty Amex or Chase credit cards (i.e. not a Hilton Amex card or a United Chase card, but rather a Amex Gold or Chase Sapphire Preferred). The reason for this is because you will have more flexibility with these points than if all your points went to just one hotel or one airline.

For example, American Express has an extensive transfer partner network (Chase has good partners as well). This is the reason Amex points are so valuable – you can use them for airfare or hotels with many different partners. Does Hilton have a property in the perfect location for your next trip? You can transfer your points there. Maybe there’s an InterContinental that better suits your needs…so transfer your points to Priority Club instead. Or maybe the hotels are so cheap you don’t want to waste your points on them – cool, transfer your points to one of the many airline partners to get a free ticket instead.

Flexibility is the name of the game with Amex and Chase.

Airfare

In some cases it’s easier or better to transfer points from one of these banks than the other. For example, if you’re planning on flying to Korea, Chase may be your better option. Chase is partners with Korean Airlines, which can obviously get you there, but they are also partners with United Airlines. Since United is part of the Star Alliance, you can use their points to book on almost every carrier in the Star Alliance (and the list of airlines is extensive), including Asiana and several other airlines that fly to Korea.

It’s important to note that Amex has three Star Alliance transfer partners, but for various reasons it can benefit you to book via Chase and United to save on fees (this is a detailed topic for another time, so just trust me here for now).

But (you knew one was coming), there are several important airlines that you cannot transfer to via Amex and Chase. Most notably, American Airlines and US Airways, two of the major airlines in the US. So how do you know whether to sign up for credit cards of these airlines versus bank ones, or from what airline to book your trip?

Instead of me answering this question, I can direct you to an article that’s already answered this exact question better than I probably ever could. TravelByPoints did a guest post at UsingMiles in which he summarized the cheapest way to get to wherever you want to go if you’re using miles from an American carrier (American Air, Delta, United, US Air). I use this chart for reference all the time, and it should be useful to everyone out there that doesn’t have these award charts memorized.

Hotels

Hotel points can be a little simpler. If you know where you’re going, you can easily find out what hotels are there. Determine the best way to get points to the account of whatever hotel you choose, and you’re pretty much done. But there are some tricks!

The most notable of these tricks is for Hilton Points. You’d be hard pressed to find a Hilton credit card that gives you more than, say, 50K HHonors points. BUT you’ll find 50K+ Amex point offers around all the time. The transfer ratio from Amex to Hilton is 1:1. So what’s the point of getting the Amex? The trick: Transfer those 50K Amex points to Virgin Atlantic at a 1:1 ratio. Then, transfer those 50K Virgin Atlantic points to Hilton at a 1:2 ratio. Those 50K Amex points just became 100K Hilton points. So in almost all cases, if you want to accrue Hilton points, get Amex/Virgin Atlantic points!

It’s very hard to get Starwood points, which are extremely valuable, at a good transfer rate. In fact you can’t even transfer from Chase. Amex’s transfer rate is pretty bad, and even the transfer bonuses are not worth it on the rare occasion they have them. Instead, I suggest signing up for the Amex SPG card. It’s a great card for everyday spend, and SPG has an amazing benefit where you can transfer your SPG points to a huge list of airlines at a 1:1 ratio. Even better, for every 20K SPG points you transfer to an airline, they’ll throw in another 5K! So say you needed 100K points for an airfare redemption on Japan Airlines. Transfer 80K SPG points and you’re there!

Transfer Bonuses

One thing Amex is known for is having transfer bonuses. That means that for a limited amount of time they give a better transfer ratio to a particular transfer partner. For example, there’s currently a 40% transfer bonus to British Airways Avios (the British Airways points program). So, say you needed 75K BA Avios for your award trip. Instead of transferring 75K Chase points, you can transfer just 54K Amex points using the transfer bonus and get 75.5K Avios. Good deal!

Thus far, there have been no transfer bonuses from Chase. If they ever do start doing it they would in my opinion become a stronger point program than Amex.

Other Tricks

If you want American Airlines flights or miles, you have two options. One is to sign up for American Airlines branded credit cards and accrue points from sign-up bonuses. If, however, your goal is to fly on American Airlines (or even a partner), you can do this using British Airways Avios. These two airlines are part of the OneWorld Alliance, which has several notable airline members. The Points Guy did a wonderful series on the best uses for Avios, and it’s worth checking out.

Earning US Airways miles is a little more difficult. Signing up for their credit card, as I did in my recent churn, is a quick way to earn some points. There is a more complicated way that will get the job done, but you’ll lose a few points along the way. You can transfer your Amex points to Air Canada Aeroplan (Air Canada’s point program), and then from there to US Airways at a 1: .85 ratio. You’ll lose some points, but if you’re in desperate need for some US Airways points, it can be done!

You can also buy US Airways miles during certain times of the year when they offer a 100% bonus on purchased miles. This can be beneficial if you use it for certain award redemptions as explained by The Points Guy, but in general is not a great deal.

The “Usually”

The reason the title ends with “…usually” is because this all depends on your travel pattern. If all you care about doing is going from Los Angeles to San Francisco and back for as cheap as possible in economy, then by all means hoard Amex points and transfer to BA Avios to get in on those 4,500 point one way short-haul redemptions on American Airlines. During a transfer bonus of 40%-50%, you can do this round trip for just 6-7K miles!

Or if all you care about is flying to Korea, maybe Chase/United points are what you want.

But in general, it’s good to diversify…usually.

Next up in the Beginner’s Guide series will be Part 4: Know Your Spending Habits Really Well. Look for this post in the coming days!

Beginner’s Guide to Points – A 6-Part Series

Part 1: Starting Out – REALLY Know What You Want

Part 2: Do Not Underestimate the Importance of Timing

Part 3: It’s Good to Diversify…Usually

Part 4: Know Your Spending Habits Really Well

Part 5: If an Amazing Offer Comes Around, Don’t Wait!

Part 6: There are LOTS of Ways to Earn Points

The Little Things Matter

I just want to take a moment to say that sometimes a small gesture may end up having a big impact. I received this letter in the mail this week from Chase:

Letter from Chase

I obviously know the benefits of having the Sapphire Preferred card, and yes there is some marketing in here as well, but two things are important to me:

  1. A “thank you” goes a long way.
  2. The note at the bottom that reminds me that when I call Chase, I always speak to someone that speaks perfect English and can get things done quickly, as I experienced recently.

Yes it’s simple, but it’s also very much appreciated. It’s a nice breather from the junk offers we normally get from credit card companies!

The Anatomy of a Hilton Disaster

My brother recently embarked on a two and half week dream vacation through Europe for his honeymoon. My brother has traveled quite a bit in his life, and I’ve recently got him hooked on points to an even greater degree than he already was. As such, nearly his entire trip was booked using points.

He’s a Hilton Diamond member, and has been for several years. He’s one of those people that earned it by actually staying those nights as opposed to meeting a $40K credit card spend requirement on a Hilton credit card. Needless to say, he’s been loyal to Hilton for several years, and we’ve even had several arguments about elite status: me supporting SPG and him supporting Hilton.

As such, he’s been staying at some great Hilton hotels in Europe. He visited a couple of cities in Turkey and then on to a couple of stops in Italy. The next stop on his itinerary was the centerpiece of his trip: four nights in Paris, booked at the Hilton Arc de Triomphe Paris hotel.

About a month ago it was reported that due to a lawsuit, this hotel would no longer be part of the Hilton family. Loyalty Traveler did a great post on this topic, and points out that this hotel was Trip Advisor’s Travelers’ Choice 2012 Winner. In fact, this rating played a huge part in my brother booking this hotel, in addition to it’s location near tourist sites and public transportation. He planned his trip with great detail like any engaged traveler would to make his/her honeymoon absolutely perfect. He confirmed booking on July 12th, more than two months in advance of his stay.

Flash forward to September 17th, two days before his stay in Paris. He’s already in Europe and touring Venice when he receives this email:

Initial email from Hilton, 2 days before the stay.

So just two days before his stay, my brother is told his confirmed reservation is no longer available to him, and he’s instead been booked at the Hilton Paris La Defense. This hotel is not at the same level as the Hilton Arc de Triomphe for many reasons, and even Hilton recognizes this because they offered a category 6 hotel, while my brother booked a category 7 hotel. The La Defense hotel is in the business areas of Paris, and isn’t generally considered a great tourist hotel.

My brother was obviously extremely upset about this. He was out in Venice when he received this email and forwarded it to me to ask for some help as soon as he could. He didn’t take a computer with him (just an iPhone) so I of course agreed to help.

I took to Twitter, contacting the Hilton account and asking for help. By this time, my brother had replied to the email saying that it is unacceptable and couldn’t believe that a Diamond member was dealt with this way. He would never receive a response from that individual again.

Instead, the Hilton Twitter team responded to me, asking me to have my brother contact them at a different email address. My brother emailed them asking them to honor his stay at the original hotel with all his Diamond benefits.

At this point, I started asking various travel bloggers and other experienced travelers for help/advice regarding this situation. One of my favorites, Lucky from One Mile at a Time, took notice and asked if he could do a post on it. I checked with my brother and he agreed, hoping it would get the attention of Hilton to rectify this situation. Lucky was kind enough to make the post early the next morning.

The Hilton Social Media Team responded promptly to my brother’s email with

“We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience this has caused you. We are working hard to get this resolved to your satisfaction. Please allow us some time to reply back to you regarding this.  You will be hearing from us soon.”

My brother replied back letting them know that he would be out on a tour until mid afternoon, and gave his room number for them to contact him when he returns. At this point, Lucky’s post on this situation goes live.

When my brother gets back to his hotel in the afternoon, he finds an email from someone at Hilton along with a voice mail at his room. He was asked to respond back to the Hilton representative ASAP, and the rep again apologized for this situation.

After a phone call, my brother was offered the following hotel options that would be comped, but without Diamond benefits (which required additional approval). He was given 5 hours to make his decision since there was only a day left.

  • Renaissance Arc de Triomphe
  • Sofitel Arc de Triomphe
  • Marriott Hotel Champs-Elysees
  • Westin Paris – Vendome
  • Hyatt Regency Paris-Madeleine

Again, my brother did not have access to a computer at the time so he spent quite a bit of time doing all the research he can via his iPhone. I did some quick research as well and told him the Marriott would be his best bet, and he agreed based on what he was able to find out. My brother then writes a long and “strongly worded” email back, letting  the Hilton representative know that his decision is being made out of duress with the time frame given and the fact that my brother had other plans in Venice that evening and had to leave. In his email, my brother said he expected all the Diamond benefits he would normally be due, including daily breakfast for two, daily internet, and access to the Executive Lounge, in addition to additional compensation.

The Hilton Rep responded quickly saying he’s working on it and already got the approval for breakfast and internet charges. So at least things are looking up at this point.

When my brother returns from his evening in Venice, he finds this response in his email inbox:

“I am very sorry to inform you that the Marriott is completely sold out for your dates. I am truly sorry for this. Please also know that the other hotels that I offered you are also sold out. I am doing the following for you due to this terrible inconvenience. I have authorized to book you a hotel at the Hotel Splendid Etoile. This hotel got rated 41/2 stars out of 5 on Trip Advisor. We are booking you an upgraded King bedded room with Arc De Triomphe View. We will be providing you breakfast for 2 daily and also will take care of the internet charges. I am also going to place back into you account 50000 points. I will be sending you a confirmation email shortly. I will be in the office all this week if you need any further assistance with this matter. I am also copying this email to my co-workers who are highly aware of this matter. I can only again say how sorry that we are for this unfortunate situation. Please reply back to me if there is something else that I can do.”

So let’s do a summary here. Two days before my brother’s honeymoon stay in Paris, he’s told that his previously confirmed reservation would not be honored. My brother asks for Hilton to honor it, but instead they offer a not-as-nice hotel in the business district. My brother complains that it’s not adequate, and is offered a choice of 5 hotels in a similar area to his original booking. He reluctantly picks one as he’s rushed to planned activities in Venice. My brother returns that night to learn that none of the five hotels that Hilton offered even have availability for his stay, and instead he’s been booked at a hotel that few have likely heard of (though has plenty of good reviews on Trip Advisor). He was also told he’d receive back 50K of the 170K points he originally spent.

At this point my brother gets pissed, to put it mildly. He replies back (angrily) saying that this is extremely unprofessional and unacceptable. He mentioned the most recent review was a rather scathing review of that particular hotel, and my brother said he refused to stay there. He did some more research and found that the first two nights were available at the Renaissance and the next two at the Marriott, both hotels that were on the list Hilton provided earlier. He asked the Hilton representative to book these two hotels as well as for more than a 50K point compensation for the additional stress and hassle during his honeymoon. My brother again asks to be taken care of as a Diamond member.

At the time my brother sends this email it is midnight on the day of check-in – his flight from Venice to Paris leaves in the morning. The final response from Hilton was this:

Hilton’s Final Offer

Hilton’s final offer: The Hilton La Defense, all his points back, travel vouchers, and all his Diamond benefits since it’s a Hilton.

My brother forwarded this message to me and went straight to bed since it was late and he needed to be up early for the flight. I have no idea how he feels about this package yet.

Looking at it from the outside, Hilton seemed like they really tried to fix the situation. They recognized they made the mistake, apologized several times, comped his entire hotel stay in Paris and threw in some travel vouchers, which are likely going to be able to get him into the heart of the city (we don’t know the exact details of these vouchers yet). They tried to book any hotel possible in the original area, even if it wasn’t a Hilton branded one. It sounds like they truly did their best to fix it.

UPDATE: The travel voucher (only one) was for a one-way taxi ride to Paris.

On the other hand, this was handled EXTREMELY poorly from a customer service perspective. Hilton MUST give more than two days warning. And they shouldn’t have offered a list of hotels that had no vacancy – it just inflamed an already bad situation. And imagine if my brother hadn’t checked his email during these two days – what would have happened then? Hilton was certainly well aware of this matter far in advance, and should have contacted him earlier.

I suspect my brother will be plenty angry over this given how it ruined his trip in Venice and in Paris, even despite the compensation offered. If it were me, I probably would be pissed also.

I’m sure my brother will be reconsidering his Hilton Diamond membership at this point, if he hasn’t already. It’s also worth noting that our dad is a Diamond member and I am a Gold member. These are the types of experiences that can make or break a brand. If they can fix it, they’ll have earned a loyal customer for life. But if it’s handled poorly or the outcome is not good enough, that will be a very difficult thing to forget about.

I want to point out that in the points world it’s never wise to completely write-off an entire program/chain, especially one as large as Hilton, due to a single bad experience. And it’s important to recognize that this was absolutely an exceptional case. But it will be memorable due to the circumstances.

What do you think? Was the compensation fair? Should/could Hilton have done more? Or do you think it was more than generous?

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Understanding the True Value of Your Points

The goal of this blog is to help beginners with getting started in the points game. That’s not to say that I’m an expert, because I’m definitely not. In fact I still consider myself to be in the beginning stages of learning about points, but I feel I have an excellent foundation. I also feel this puts me in a unique position to write to a beginner audience and chronicle my journey as I learn and travel more and more.

I got some feedback that I should try to make my posts a little more tangible, meaning to include more information that translates these points into actual trips. From a beginner’s perspective, this makes perfect sense, and I wonder why I didn’t realize it myself. A beginner just doesn’t always realize the value of their points, and that’s the foundation every points traveler should have.

So with that in mind, I’m going to attempt to write several articles about what a simple credit card churn can earn you in terms of a real trip. Now, I know everyone has their own travel goals (see this post), so I’ll try to provide two options for each post: one “aspirational” award (i.e. business class and nicer hotels) and one economy award (i.e. economy flight and good hotels).

I hope these will help beginners see the value of their points a little better. It makes me absolutely cringe to hear someone used their points for gift cards or a revenue ticket instead of using them for an award redemption, because the value is that much greater with the award redemption. I’ll prove it in my upcoming posts!

The Chase Reconsideration Phone Call

I recently wrote a post about my experience with my very first credit card churn, and subsequently wrote about how I decided to pick the particular cards I picked. The feedback I got from those posts was basically that I write too much. Hmmm…

So I will make an effort to shorten my articles going forward to include a little background, my experience, and then reference some “additional reading” in case you want more details.

On to the good stuff. The reconsideration hotline is basically your avenue to appeal a bank’s decision to either deny you credit, or if you got the dreaded “pending” decision like I got on my Chase Ink Bold application, to get an expedited decision.

What it entails is pretty simple: 1)You get denied or a pending decision; 2) You call the reconsideration line and answer some questions; 3) You get an updated/expedited (and hopefully positive) decision.

In my case, I knew I’d get a pending decision from my Ink Bold application since that’s what 99% of other people’s experiences have been in the reading I’ve done. I waited a day and called the reconsideration number and immediately began talking to a real human being from America (I love Chase for this).

He pulled up my application, put me on hold to check a few items, then came back and asked me the following questions:

  1. Tell me about your business (I told him I do buying/selling on eBay/craigslist type places).
  2. Tell me about the types of items you buy.
  3. How long have you been doing this?
  4. How much do you spend on a monthly basis?

At this point I was put on hold again. I must admit I was getting a little nervous that I wouldn’t get approved since the questions seemed rather detailed. The Chase representative came back with a few more questions:

  1. How much do you expect to spend going forward?
  2. I see you have several other accounts – how do you pay those accounts?
  3. What is your gross annual income?

I was put on hold once more. These last few questions were relatively easy. I was honest and said I didn’t expect to put very much on the card…maybe a few hundred dollars or up to $1K possibly.

The rep came back and said I was approved, and asked if a $5K limit would be sufficient. I happily said yes, and was told the card would arrive in 7-10 business days (I’m still waiting for it btw).

You can do this with Chase and with American Express, and several other banks as well. Reference the numbers below for your particular situation:

  • Chase Personal Cards reconsideration number: 1-888-245-0625
  • Chase Business Cards reconsideration number: 1-800-453-9719
  • American Express reconsideration number: 1-866-314-0237

For additional reading and to read others’ experiences, including how to deal with other banks, feel free to check out the links below:

If you need additional resources, Google is your friend!

 

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