Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Wacky Things I've Done For Points & Miles (Part I)

I'm very reticent to share these details, but here goes.  Many people wonder how I have amassed over 2.5 million frequent flyer miles in the span of about four years.  I've certainly earned through conventional methods such as staying in hotels or taking flights (or even apply for a credit card or two), but to really ramp up the earning, I have also done some pretty oddball things.

If this post is successful, it will probably turn into an ongoing series detailing all the zany ways I've upped my balances. But for now, I will hit on the greatest one of all, the Presidential $1 coin shuffle!

Back in 2009, the U.S. Mint started a program intended to circulate $1 coins throughout communities across the country.  Individuals were encouraged to purchase the $1 coins at face value and then spend them at places like dry cleaners, farmer's markets, local restaurants, and any other places where using a credit card was not available or frowned upon.

Free Miles From The Government?
The spirit of the program certainly had noble intentions, but there was one large issue: coins could be purchased with ANY credit card at face value.

Very quickly, folks in the frequent flyer community figured out how to "game" the system.  People used their travel credit cards to purchase sets of $1 coins (sold in heavy boxes of $500).  When the shipped coins arrived on their doorstep, they immediately deposited them in their bank and used the money to pay off their credit card statement (now showing a $500 charge for the coins).  The effect?  Unlimited frequent flyer miles!

There were of course drawbacks to this "scheme."  Holding onto that many coins was risky, especially if UPS misplaced a shipment or two.  They were also INCREDIBLY heavy.  I remember nearly passing out trying to lug $2,000 to a bank in the middle of summer.  Some more, ahem, zealous frequent flyers were depositing upwards of $20,000 every week!  Don't believe me?  Check out the screen shot below from a frequent flyer named "Mr. Pickles."

That's Heavy
As you can imagine, this frenzy caught on quickly and soon banks were inundated with these coins.  The Mint began to impose purchase limits ($1,000 every 10 days) and then eventually restricted orders to money order payments before the program finally died a noble death last year.  In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of miles were earned by frequent flyers across the country, all while getting some exercise via heavy lifting!

I certainly got strange looks explaining this method to friends and family, but it was a great way to supplement my mileage accounts.  What do you guys think?  Should I have been locked up for such as a crazy scheme?  Would you like this to become an ongoing series?  Drop me an email or leave a comment.

Until tomorrow, everyone!

-Charm City Traveler

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Introducing The Frugal Lawyer!

Some of my most popular posts over the past two months have centered around great airfare deals, such as the flash JetBlue one-day sale and incredible fares to Hawaii found here and here.

With the popularity of "deal-finding" on a meteoric rise, I wanted to reach out to a close friend to hopefully share some insight with you.  Nicknamed "The Frugal Lawyer," he constantly scours the internet for great bargains on just about everything.  When I need to make a major (or minor) purchase, I usually consult with him first.

The Frugal Lawyer Himself
Hopefully he will share some of his tricks and methodology in future posts on how to nab that perfect deal.  In the meantime, let me introduce you to the Frugal Laywer via a comprehensive Q&A session!

How and/or why did you get into deal-finding?  What's special about your methodology?

When I feel like I get ripped-off, it really bothers me.  I can't really explain it, but it gives me a knot in my stomach.  So, I just try not to rush into any decision and just do as much research as possible.  For major purchases, I just take my time and get a sense for that good prices are.  Then, when a great deal comes along, I feel comfortable to grab it quickly.  

What websites do you use to find your deals and how often do you check them?

I use a couple of different sites, namely DealNews and SlickDeals.  I found dealnews first, and check it periodically throughout the day.  What really impressed me was that it doesn't just list a sale.  It tells you if it's the lowest price, by how much, and compares it to times the item previously went on sale.  Moreover, it has an "Editor's Choice" section for the truly crazy deals.  If you don't want to check the website throughout the day, you can sign up for the dealnews newsletter where they simply email you the Editor's Choice deals for that day.  It's a great snapshot for bargains over the last 24 hours.

ALSO, I rely on Amazon for a majority of my purchases.  If you don't have time to wait for a deal, their prices are often the best.  Though, there are ways to double-check with Amazon as well.  Did you know that prices for Amazon products can shift daily?  I often consult the ridiculously-named site:  This website tracks prices for every product sold on Amazon and can give you a line graph for recent price fluctuations.  So, let's say you are interested in a particular toaster.  You plug the Amazon product link into this website, and you see that it was $10 less last month.  If you are not in a rush, you can set an email alert where they will notify you when the price drops again.  It's awesome. 

What's the one thing my readers can do to save money that they don't do already?

There are tons of way to save money every single day.  The biggest thing is to avoid monthly fees whenever possible.  People are also ripped off every day by cable companies, cell phone carriers, and drug stores.  There are really interesting (and totally viable) ways to cut down on those monthly costs, and I'd love to elaborate on them another time!

What's the single most successful deal you've ever encountered and why?

A couple of incredible deals come to mind, and with them came some valuable lessons.  My first crazy deal involves Joseph A Bank, the notoriously deal-happy mens clothing store.  They advertise deals CONSTANTLY, and it's easy to lump them all together.  The trick is not to get suckered in, and wait for the "big one" - when their clearance merchandise is marked off an additional 50% off.  These deals come around a couple of times a year, and you have to watch for them closely.  One day a couple of years ago I literally stumbled into the deal when I was walking past one of their stores.  When I did some poking around, I saw a  $1000 suit marked down to $200.  To this day, it's my favorite suit.  And I still watch carefully for that sale - it's also a great way to get $100 dress shirts for $20 (they make great gifts for family - and people think you spent way more than you did).

Plenty of Deals to be Had at Jos. A. Bank
How does your spouse feel about your deal-finding.  Does she support it?

I am exceedingly fortunate in this regard.  My wife and I are both incredibly frugal, so we are 100% on the same page about the importance of savings.  I am clearly more obsessive about it, but I am slowly converting her to the dark side of deal finding.  

What is your "most memorable" deal?  

My most memorable deal is also my most shameful, but I honestly love the story.   One day I was looking for a new sportcoat on ebay.  I found a really nice one in my size, and on a hunch I clicked to view the other offering by this seller. Lo and behold, an entire wardrobe was on sale!  With no minimum bids!  After an evening of bidding against one or two pesky people, I walked away with two suits, a sportcoat, three sweaters, and eight pair of fancy wool slacks.  I paid shockingly little money - I think I won one of the suits for like $30.  

After the bidding process, I contacted the seller about consolidating shipping costs.  She was happy to oblige and was very polite.  Unfortunately, she elaborated a bit about the ownership of these garments, and it quickly became clear that this was an estate sale (i.e. the previous owner had passed away).  Some people find this story to be very troubling, but I proudly wear these garments as a badge of honor for the best best deal I have ever encountered.  

Any other parting suggestions/advice for my readers?

Do your research in advance and be ready to pounce when you find that deal.  I really enjoy helping people find deals, but many people are so hesitant to pull the trigger and miss out on the great ones.  It can be frustrating to point people towards one deal after another, only to watch each deal sell out before that person summons the courage to make the purchase.  Figure out the specs you need, decide if refurbs are OK with you (hint: they should be), and grab that deal before it goes away!

We look forward to having the Frugal Lawyer's contributions on this site.  If you want to give him any suggestions on future posts, don't hesitate to email me.

Until tomorrow, everyone!

-Charm City Traveler

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Interesting Travel Articles For the Day

Time to shine those reading glasses and get ready for some more quality travel articles.

The first article, featured in the New York Times, discusses the increasing Americanization of the famous  Champs-Élysées in Paris.  A mecca of fashion and upscale shopping, the article points to the increasing number of fast food restaurants and traditionally American stores that are populating each side of the street.  Many Parisians are distancing themselves from the area altogether, as its touristy nature of the street feels far removed from authentic French culture and fashion.

Champs-Élysées at night
The second article, from CNN Travel, is a list of tips on staying healthy while traveling abroad.  Many tourists have a large fear of getting sick while abroad, and this article spells out ways to minimize the frustration and confusion that comes with an illness while traveling.  My top tip to take from this is know your own health insurance and its benefits (along with limitations).  The last thing you want is to be stuck with a massive bill that comes from an evacuation back to the United States.

A close friend of mine was actually hurt in Poland while studying abroad, and his experience getting medical attention and transport back to the U.S. was harrowing, to say the least.  Make sure to pay attention to this article if you are going somewhere with less than a first-rate reputation for urgent medical care.

New York Times: The Champs-Élysées, a Mall of America

CNN Travel: Five Ways to Stay Healthy While Traveling Abroad

Until tomorrow, everyone!

-Charm City Traveler

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Key to the Travel Game? Flexible Points (Part I)

I recently wrote a rookie introduction to the points/miles collecting game, but I wanted to double back and add another important tip.

Many people I have talked to lately get incredibly frustrated when collecting and redeeming points.  They fly their preferred airline a ton, save up a boat load of points, and when they are ready to book?  Zero viable options for their travel dates.

I don't know a lot of people with work schedules that can be changed on a whim.  When folks make vacation plans, the dates are usually set in stone.  If that sounds like you (and for the vast majority of America, it is), then I highly suggest you focus on accumulating FLEXIBLE points.  These types of points can be transferred into multiple airline and hotel programs, allowing you to create a great vacation out of thin air.  No longer will you look on Delta's website in disgust and give up when there are no awards that fit your schedule.  You will have options, and that goes a long way when booking travel.

Which are the best "flexible points" programs?  There are three that come to mind.  I will preview the Starwood points today, and the other two great flexible point programs (American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards) in the coming days.  Make sure to catch all three posts.

A Great Way to Accumulate Starpoints: The Starwood Preferred Guest American Express
I already wrote up the Starwood Preferred Guest program here, but I wanted to expand a bit on its usefulness.  For me, there is no more valuable currency than Starpoints.  I have the ability to redeem for some truly incredible hotels (think "W", St. Regis, and Westin properties) or I can turn them into airline miles in many programs at a 1:1 ratio.

The best part about transferring into airline miles?  Starwood will kick in 5,000 miles for every 20,000 Starpoints you transfer.  You can convert 20,000 Starpoints into 25,000 American Airlines miles.  That's a nifty 25% bonus!

The list of transfer partners is truly expansive.  The two I use most often are American Airlines and U.S. Airways, but there is value in swapping to others as well.  I can't say enough good things about the potential transfer options.

Small Sample of the Many SPG Transfer Partners
The only drawback is that transfers usually take 1-2 weeks, so planning ahead is very important when transferring.  After all, an award ticket you see today might not be there when your transfer is finally completed.  Also, Starwood is not the program to use if you value United miles.  Starpoints transfer to United at a paltry 2:1 ratio, so you will really lose out by doing so.  

Starwood Preferred Guest "Starpoints"

Ways to Earn: American Express Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card, hotel stays in the Starwood brand (e.g. Westin, Sheraton).

Airline Transfer Partners: American, Delta, U.S. Airways, Alaska, Hawaiian, British Airways (and that's just to name a few!)

Hotel Transfer Partners: None (but very useful at all Starwood branded hotels!)

Pros: Variety of useful partners.  5,000 point bonus for every 20,000 Starpoints you transfer to an airline.

Cons: Transfers are NOT instantaneous, so the award tickets you are eyeing could be gone by the time your transfer is complete.  Transfers to United Airlines come at a very unfavorable ratio (2 Starpoints: 1 United mile) 

If you have any questions about this post, don't hesitate to write me an email.  I also respond to questions on Twitter.  Keep the queries coming!

Until tomorrow, everyone!

-Charm City Traveler

Friday, September 21, 2012

Photo of the Day #2

Another great morning, and another Photo of the Day.  If you think you have an eye for travel photography, make sure to submit your best pictures to me via email.  You could be featured in an upcoming Photo of the Day!

The following picture is taken from near the military training facilities in Paris (École Militaire) of the world famous Eiffel Tower.  Most shots of the Eiffel Tower are from up close or from the other side Seine River.  I was trying to capture something slightly unique in this staged shot.  Hopefully you enjoy!

Eiffel Tower
Until tomorrow, everyone!

-Charm City Traveler

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Hotel Review-Westin New York Times Square

Though I rarely travel for work, I had business to attend to in New York two weekends ago.  I'm by no means an expert when it comes to the Big Apple, though I can at least attest I'm not overwhelmed when traveling there.  It just so happens that my company was able to provide a room at the Westin Times Square, a property I've stayed at before during Christmas time.  I redeemed points for a room on that stay that included free breakfast at the now-closed Atrium Club.  It was a memorable trip, but this visit would be solid as well.

View from Hotel Towards Hectic Times Square
I really enjoy the location of the Westin.  Located at the corner of 43rd and 8th, the property is extremely close to the Times Square hornet's nest, but also far enough removed that the noise and crowds aren't overwhelming.  Close to the subway and most Broadway theaters, I really can't say enough good things about it.

Entrance to Hotel
The Westin's lobby is actually separated on two separate floors.  The bottom level is for bag checks and a good meeting point for large parties.  Late at night, security checks hotel keys to ensure only guests are permitted in the main lobby, a nice feature.  The first floor also had a mock tennis court painted on the ground, a nice tip of the cap to the U.S. Open which was happening at the time of my stay.

First Floor Lobby
Tennis Anyone?
The second floor lobby contains the check in area and the hotel's second restaurant, Bar 10.  Though sometimes crowded, the space never felt noisy and featured plenty of comfortable chairs.

Large Check-In Area
Comfortable Second Floor Lobby Seating
Due to my Starwood Preferred Guest Gold status, I was assigned a room on the Starwood Preferred Guest floor.  Before anyone gets too excited, most Sheraton and Westin properties have a Starwood floor, but I've never noticed a difference in room size or quality.  The floor is usually one of the highest ones that provides (slightly) better views and quieter surroundings.

Room Entrance
My room was large by New York standards, and featured a Westin Heavenly King bed along with a desk for catching up on work.  I have to hand it to Westin, I sleep more soundly on their mattresses than I do on mine at home!  If they ever run another big sale on beds, you can be sure I'm buying.

Comfy Westin Heavenly Bed
Decent Desk and TV
I should probably note here that my Gold status also got me free Wi-Fi.  I found the internet speed to be blazing fast, an unusual rarity in hotels today.  I was able to get plenty of work done at my desk during the trip, something I didn't even anticipate.

The bathroom was small but functional, and featured the standard white tea amenities from Westin.  The shower had dual heads, meaning water pressure was absolutely not an issue.  One drawback, though, was the black tile on the floor and walls.  It really showed some dirt and water splashes, so it had a rather grimy look, even when I first entered the room.  I suppose you could chalk that up to being a well-traveled New York hotel.

Small but Usable Bathroom, Can You Spot What's Odd?
Westin White Team Amenities
As I mentioned before, the Starwood Preferred Guest floor is one of the highest in the hotel.  My room had a really great view to the north of both Times Square and the larger buildings in Manhattan.

Overall, my stay at the Westin Times Square was extremely pleasant.  All the staff I interacted with showed a friendly demeanor, and my room was perfectly suitable, especially by New York standards.  I enjoy being slightly removed from the Times Square tourist mayhem as well.

Though I have another trip planned to New York in December, hopefully I will be able to review another property for you guys.  Otherwise, it might be back to the comfortable Westin!

Until tomorrow, everyone!

-Charm City Traveler

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Another JetBlue One-Day Mega Sale!

One of my more popular posts of all time centered around a JetBlue one-day flash sale back in August.  The deals were truly incredible, and it looks like they are back at it once again.

JetBlue is holding another sale through most of its cities through MIDNIGHT TONIGHT (September 19).  Though folks residing in the New York and Boston area will probably get the most value out of this, there are still great deals to be had.  I noticed a Fort Lauderdale to San Francisco round trip for only $238!  Wow!

One Day Only!
You can click on this link to see the deals between all city pairs.  Fine print details of the promotion are below, but again, you have until midnight tonight to book, so get moving!
  • Book by September 19, 2012 at 11:59 p.m. ET
  • Fares not available on Orbitz, Travelocity, Expedia, or Priceline.
  • Travel October 10-December 12, 2012.  Blackout dates are November 16-26, 2012.
Until tomorrow, everyone!

-Charm City Traveler

Interesting Travel Articles For The Day

Here are some more great travel articles to start your day along with your morning cup of coffee.

The first article discusses American Airlines and their new technology integration.  With newly granted FAA approval, the hope is for pilots to replace their thick flight manuals with brand-new iPads.  Though pilots were first granted approval to use iPads in the cockpit in 2011, this news tidbit shows that American is serious about rolling them out for both pilots and flight attendants alike by the end of 2013.  The hope is to reduce paper (and believe me, pilot's logs and manuals have plenty to spare) and provide pilots/passengers with the most updated weather and airport information.   

Breathtaking View in St. Lucia
The second article, from U.S. News Travel, is a great slide show peeking at the ten best hotel rooms with spectacular views from around the world.  The article does a great job of mixing in hotels from each continent (save Antarctica and South America).  I also enjoy the fact that the vast majority of the hotels don't belong to any loyalty program.  That makes the list seem a bit more unattainable.  Trust me, I would love to redeem points and stay at the Shangri-La Paris, but the fact that I can't makes the property that much more desirable.  Does that even make sense?  I suppose the old adage of you want what you can't have applies here.

The Next Web: American Pilots Get Full FAA Approval for iPads in Cockpits

U.S. News Travel: Hotel Rooms With The Best Views

Photo courtesy of Jade Mountain, St. Lucia

Just thought I would throw a few travel morsels your way to get the day started.  Happy reading, everyone!  Until tomorrow!

-Charm City Traveler

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Reader Mailbag-Is the AA Card Right For Me?

It's time for another reader mailbag.  I have truly appreciated all of your emails and questions, so please keep them coming!

Reader Karen writes,

"I live in Dallas, so American Airlines is the airline I use most frequently.  I've been considering taking the plunge and getting an American Airlines Visa or Mastercard from Citibank, but am hesitant on getting another credit card, especially one with a $95 annual fee after the first year.  Does this card make sense for me?"

Karen asks a very good question.  With the host of benefits that travel credit cards are offering lately, it oftentimes makes sense to sign up for the credit card on your preferred airline.

Lots of Benefits With the Citi AA Visa
Although she didn't specify, it sounds like Karen flys American Airlines a fair amount, but not enough to enjoy elite status.  If that's the case, then she should absolutely apply for the card.  The AA Visa offered by Citi really takes the sting out of not having elite status with American.  The card has benefits such as a free checked bag for up to four travelers on the same reservation, priority boarding (to avoid wrestling for overhead space), and double miles on all American flights purchased with the card.  Those three benefits alone are probably worth the $95 annual fee after the first year, especially if Karen is a regular on American.  If she is still worried about the fee after the first year, she can reevaluate her travel after the year expires and cancel the card without penalty..

For a limited time, the card also comes with a 40,000 mile sign-up bonus.  That's more than enough miles for a domestic roundtrip or even a more interesting  off-peak saver award.  Glancing at American's award chart, those miles would be more than enough for an "off-peak" coach award to Central or South America.  Wow!  All for a simple credit card application.

Get to Argentina By Signing Up For A Single Credit Card!
The fact that Karen resides in Dallas makes the decision an almost no brainer.  She is probably very limited in her flight choices due to American focusing on Dallasas a hub.  By grabbing the Citi AA Visa or Mastercard, she will be closer to an award ticket AND have her flight experiences be much more tolerable.  Sounds like a winning proposition to me.

Questions?  Comments?  Remember to keep those emails coming, guys.  You could be featured in a future Reader Mailbag post!

Until tomorrow, everyone!

-Charm City Traveler

Monday, September 17, 2012

Restaurant Review-"Woodberry Kitchen"

My favorite restaurant in Baltimore is hands down Woodberry Kitchen.  The food is consistently fresh and delicious, and I really enjoy the atmosphere.  Though I've dined at Woodberry several times, their famous brunch had long eluded me.  Luckily, with a free afternoon, Ms. CCT and I decided to see what all the fuss was about.

Located in the renovated Clipper Mill complex, Woodberry has a very spacious room with loft-style seating at the top.  We have always been seated in the loft and specially requested it again this visit.  The second level offers unique people watching opportunities, and the tables near the railing offer quite a bit more elbow room than the downstairs dining room.

Great View From the Second Level
The brunch menu had quite a few good options, but we both quickly settled on our entrees and appetizers.  We had sampled the beignets at Spoons Cafe, our favorite breakfast spot in Federal Hill, so we were eager to try Woodberry's version.  These mini bites were exceptional and coated in large sugar granuals.  The accompanying fresh strawberry jam also made great dipping.

Beignets w/ Fresh Strawberry Jam
After dismantling the appetizer, we moved onto main courses.  Both of us agonized over what to choose, but in the end, my Southern roots took over.  I went with a basil mint coffee and a plate of their signature chicken and waffles.  Ms. CCT opted for the breakfast burger.

Basil Mint Coffee
Southern Chicken & Waffles
Gourmet Breakfast Burger
The basil mint iced coffee was delicious and consumed quickly.  I rarely drink the stuff, so this should prove how great a cup it was!  

My chicken was surprisingly not fried, and the skin texture was a bit odd for my tastes.  The dish was accompanied by a lot of fresh vegetables (leeks, carrots, corn) which made it much more conducive to a late lunch or dinner dish.  I enjoyed it, but this version of chicken and waffles is probably suited for another time of day.

Ms. CCT's breakfast burger was a bit unwieldy, but the fresh English muffin and ground beef were incredible.  In retrospect, I should have probably ordered it.

Though the coffee came right out, we waited....and waited...and waited for our entrees without notification from the staff.  When we pulled our waitress aside, she said that the dishes were "being plated as we speak."  After fifteen minutes or so, we grabbed her again, and she said they would be out promptly.  We still had to wait a few minutes before they were ultimately delivered to our table.

This is not the first customer service "hiccup" we have had at Woodberry Kitchen.  A while back for my birthday, we booked a 7:30 p.m. dinner reservation but were seated almost a half hour later.  The staff was very apologetic and even offered us complimentary flutes of champagne, a nice touch indeed.

Today, the staff was equally as accommodating and gave us two glasses of fresh orange juice along with mint chocolate chip ice cream for dessert.  We even had a manager personally apologize to us at the table.  We weren't that bothered by the whole situation, just incredibly famished!  Luckily Woodberry knows how to put out these small little fires quickly and engender good feelings moving forward.

Fresh Orange Juice
Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream
After our meal, we decided to take a peek at the outdoor patio area.  The weather was perfect, so it was understandably crowded.  Next time we visit for brunch, we will most likely migrate from our preferred spot on the second floor to the outdoor garden.

Nice Outdoor Seating Area
Overall, Woodberry's consistency is what sets it apart from other spots in Baltimore.  They are constantly tweaking and tinkering with their menu, and the changes are always inventive and delicious.  When service issues arise, they are dealt with quite effectively.  There really isn't more you can ask for in a restaurant.  I hope to review the other two restaurants on my Top 3 list in the coming months, but hopefully this post gets your taste buds in high gear.

Until tomorrow, everyone!

-Charm City Traveler

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Delta Removes Itself from Award Wallet, We Suffer

I just got done slamming Delta here and here for there customer-unfriendly policies.  I thought the coast was clear and I wouldn't have to write more about them for the foreseeable future.  Unfortunately, I just received the following email in my inbox:

Sigh...another day, another decision by Delta to drive their customers away.  Unfortunately, Delta has decided to remove all of its Skymiles accounts from Award Wallet, a truly awesome site that automatically tracks your frequent flyer accounts (as well as their expiration dates).  I wrote in this post that signing up for Award Wallet was one of the best ways for rookies to get into the travel and miles game.  Delta, though, has decided that Award Wallet is holding too much member information and is "invading" Delta's site.

I wholeheartedly disagree with this decision by Delta.  Even though Award Wallet tracks our frequent flyer balances daily, the ability to carefully monitor my accounts prevents the very fraud and potential for abuse that Delta claims Award Wallet perpetrates.

With this change, I am less likely to check my Skymiles balance and less likely to visit Delta's own site.  These are the unintended consequences of Delta's strong arm move!

The real losers, though, are people who manage multiple Skymiles accounts.  Families are now forced to check each individual account to make sure miles properly post rather than auto-updating using Award Wallet.

With Delta now joining American Airlines and Southwest in removing their data from Award Wallet, I become a less of a fan of Delta and less engaged in the Skymiles program.  Hopefully Award Wallet can find a workaround for this problem or the two companies can come to an agreement on member data.

For now though, Delta remains in the frequent flyer doghouse.

Until tomorrow, everyone!

-Charm City Traveler

Friday, September 14, 2012

Top 3 Restaurants in Baltimore

People love lists!  They are the foundation of American Democracy....or something like that.  As part of this blog is dedicated to food, I thought I would write my Top 3 Restaurants in Baltimore.  Keep in mind, there are some venues such as "Charleston" that I have yet to visit, but I feel pretty confident in my selections.  These are my go to spots when I have out of town guests or am celebrating a special occasion.

1. Woodberry Kitchen

Woodberry Kitchen tops the list because I've never had a bad menu item in all the times I've visited. They pride themselves on their consistent, farm fresh, and oftentimes inventive menu, and I can't say I've ever been disappointed.  The setting is rustic and unique, especially the row of seats on the second level overlooking the main dining room.  The food is just plain good.  I can't think of any better way to describe it.  Go to Woodberry with the expectation of trying a lot of things (they have a great appetizer/sampler menu), and come home full.  That's the way I like it.

Great Setting
Woodberry also rotates their menu based on the season.  We went during the winter when less popular vegetables like squash and zuchini were featured....and it was still great.  I can't wait to go back in the spring or summer time.  In fact, make sure to check out my upcoming brunch review of Woodberry debuting in the next week or two.

2. Petit Louis Bistro

As intimate an experience as it comes, Petit Louis delivers authentic French food in a cozy Roland Park setting.  When I say intimate experience, though, I mean it.  Our meal there had us mere inches away from the party next to us.  If you can get past the, ahem, close quarters, you will be knocked away by the selections.  Though I still haven't tried it, the Steak Frites is the signature dish of Petit Louis.  A close second is the delicious Croque-Monsieur.

3. The Black Olive

Baltimore prides itself on its fresh seafood, and I consider the Black Olive the flagbearer as the freshest fish in the Charm City.  The restaurant, located on a quiet cobblestoned street in Fells Point, is surprisingly spacious with multiple dining rooms.  The highlight of the meal is the "fish tour."  Your server will take you to an ice chest that features the freshest catches of the day.  They will explain the texture, flavor, oil content, and region of each fish.  Though not always in season, I've never had better Rockfish than at Black Olive.  It's a must try if you happen to see it during your personalized fish tour.

Freshest Seafood in Baltimore
What do you guys think?  Any disagreements or discrepancies?  Let me know.  Until tomorrow, everyone.  I'm starving!

-Charm City Traveler

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Sneaky Delta Raises Award Pricing Without Notice

You really have to hand it to Delta Airlines.  A week after I wrote a post detailing my many frustrations with booking an award ticket with them, they decide to anger me even more.  

Without any notice or warning, Delta increased the pricing on several awards without any notice to the public.  Delta prices their awards in "low", "medium", and "high" pricing categories, with the "high" awards costing the most miles.  Luckily "low" award pricing is unaffected, but the decision to do this without notice is really rankling the frequent flyer community.

Changes Highlighted in Yellow
To summarize, round trip "Medium" and "High" coach awards are increasing by 5,000 Skymiles from the U.S. to the Caribbean, Mexico, South America, and Europe.  That certainly isn't a lot, but it's the spirit of the (lack of) announcement that makes this change so poor.

Delta attempted to engender some goodwill by also secretly dropping the price of "High" level business class seats from the U.S. to Southeast Asia from 370,000 Skymiles to 350,000 Skymiles. Unfortunately, that's like offering a 2% discount on a Ferrari.  No one I know is crazy enough to cough up that many miles for an award ticket anyways.

UPDATE: I couldn't make this story up.  When queried about why the award chart changes were made without an announcement, a Delta spokesperson posted this response on Flyertalk, the frequent flyer community message board:

"It works like a pricing change, so legally, we're not allowed to notify folks in advance."

If that statement didn't make you roll your eyes, what's it going to take?  I can't think of another frequent flyer program that doesn't properly communicate changes, for better or worse, in advance to its members.  Even a week's heads up would be better than this!

Bottom line, the value of Delta Skymiles is devalued even more than it already was.  Awards are expensive, hard to come by, and the precedent of sudden award pricing increases makes them a dangerous currency to hoard.

Until tomorrow, everyone!

-Charm City Traveler

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

New York to Hawaii for $482!

I'm trying to spread the love on great flight deals, but Hawaii just keeps rearing its ugly awesomely tropical head.  Via The Flight Deal, Hawaiian Airlines is offering round trip tickets between New York-JFK and Honolulu for under $500.  Travel must be booked by September 18th and travel is valid until December 14th.  The ultra discounted flights appear to be only for Monday-Friday flights, but when you are taking a week long vacation, who cares which day you leave and come back?

$512 Is Incredible But We Can Do Better!

I love using the ITA Software matrix to find the lowest fares online between city pairs, but even this tool isn't properly displaying the great price.  Initially, ITA is pricing out the roundtrips at $512.  However, by going directly to the Hawaiin Airlines website, you can play around with the calendar and find fares as low as $482 including taxes and fees!  One of the most appealing parts of this fare (apart from the eye-popping price) is that these flights are non-stop.  Instead of connecting twice, which is often the case for flights to Hawaii from the East Coast, you will arrive straight to Oahu.  This really helps minimize your travel time and hassles.

Wow!  I Have Never Seen Fares to Hawaii That Low Before

Those of us in Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. shouldn't dismiss this fare at all.  There are lots of connections to both LaGuardia and JFK offered by United, Jet Blue, American, U.S. Airways, and Delta in these cities.  Just be careful to leave yourself PLENTY of time between the two flights, as airlines will not rebook you due to weather or other unforeseen circumstance if you are traveling on separate tickets.  Heck, even a Mega Bus trip isn't out of the question.

Good Availability in October, Solid in November/December
The bottom line is that you should act fast on this.  Tickets will be snatched up quickly, I'm sure.  Keep in mind that Hawaiian allows a 24-hour fee-free cancellation for any reasons, so speculative bookings (before you check with your significant other or friends) are highly encouraged.  Happy bookings, everyone!  Until tomorrow.

-Charm City Traveler

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

More Great Travel Articles

A few more travel articles for you to peruse today.  The first is from Chris Elliot, noted travel blogger and consumer advocate.  I don't always agree with Chris (for instance, he has gone on record saying that airline/hotel loyalty programs are bad propositions for consumers), but he does put some pretty good content out there.  The article, titled the 5 Things You Should Never Say to a TSA Screener, is more tongue-in-cheek than anything else.  Basically, Chris's point is that TSA Agents shouldn't be berated when things go south (such as when you are selected for additional screening measures) otherwise your situation will probably get much worse in a hurry.

The second article, from Conde Nast, offers some very helpful advice.  The article explains how to deal with airlines when you absolutely have to be somewhere due to a death in the family, critical connecting flight, or poor weather on the horizon.  I can't agree with the article's author, Brett Snyder, enough.  Take his tip "Don't Waste Time" to the bank.  During a particularly bad blizzard in Baltimore three years ago, I observed people huffing and puffing at airline customer service agents who were powerless to help them.  They should instead have been on the phone with the carrier or furiously researching alternate flights.  Screaming at the nearest person wearing a uniform is just wasted breath.

The final article I chose more for the pictures and the inspiration.  From CNN Travel, they highlight ten of the best airport lounges in the world.  Many lounges around the U.S. are basic in nature, featuring slightly more comfortable seating than the terminal along with some light snacks.  However, there are truly some that stand-out, including the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse in JFK.  I'm looking forward to trying some of these out on future international trips, including the Concorde Room in London-Heathrow and the Qatar Airways spa room in Doha.  To access most of these lounges, you usually have to be traveling on an international first or business class ticket.  Luckily, they don't distinguish if you are using miles!  If I do get to try any of these lounges out, you can be certain I will review it for the site.

That's a Fancy Way to Relax Before Taking Off

Happy reading, everyone!  Until tomorrow!

-Charm City Traveler