Wednesday, June 29, 2016

How a Points Ninja's mind works: Chipotle "Chiptopia" edition

Over at One Mile at a Time, Lucky posted on the unnecessarily complicated Chipotle "Chiptopia" rewards program. I'm not a huge Chipotle fan, but I am a fan of gameable loyalty programs in general. Where Lucky saw complication, I saw opportunity. As a thought experiment, I wanted to determine how good of a deal this program was. Here's how Chipotle explains the program:

The simple version is that making a minimum purchase of $6 before tax earns one "burritopia" point towards completing the promotion. If you make 11 purchases per month (which includes your "free" entrees), you would receive a total of 9 free entrees, and catering for 20. Let's say you wanted to treat (Ed: treat?) your office to a Chipotle lunch in the fall. You would have two options: 1) you could pay $240 like a sane person, or 2) you could figure out what it would cost to max out this promo. Guess which one I'm picking?

So, let's dig into this deal. If there's a catch, it's going to be in the terms and conditions. As Chipotle puts it in the Ts&Cs:
As usual, "some exclusions apply":

So, the purchase has to equal $6 at minimum, but does not have to be an entree. Off to my friendly local Chipotle online menu:

Look at that! Three drinks come to an exact total of $6 before tax, which should be a qualifying purchase. Adding tax would take my cost up to $6.60. Doing that 9 times in July would cost me exactly $59.40. Doing it again in August and September would bring my total up to $178.20. Which is (drumroll please) $61.80 cheaper than purchasing catering for 20 outright. That's setting aside the value of the free burritos and all the drinks you paid for.

So, would I actually go through with this in reality? Maybe if I had a Chipotle nearby... or if I could pay for online orders and never actually pick them up (something I briefly considered) but, alas:

But still, the payout for maximizing this promotion (and thereby your waistline) is impressively large.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Conrad London St. James - Executive Lounge Review/Blue Boar Breakfast

Thanks to my Diamond status we had access to the Conrad St. James' Executive Lounge during our recent stay, and it really improved our experience. Having a place to relax and have a drink before dinner or going out makes a stay much more pleasant and, particularly with London prices, more affordable.

First, we arrived at the Conrad early and our room wasn't yet ready.  After an overnight flight, I'm generally ready to take a shower and change clothes, so not having a room ready can be a real inconvenience. In this case that was mitigated by the fact that the Conrad's lounge has two shower rooms available. We left our checked luggage at the front desk and proceeded up to the lounge where we were able to shower.

Throughout the day, soft drinks and water were available:
We returned to the lounge in the evening for some pre-theatre drinks and nibbles.  Canapes, snacks, and alcohol were complimentary:

 Havana Club 7 Anos is a personal favorite!

Diamond guests can choose to have breakfast either in the lounge or in the Hotel's restaurant The Blue Boar. We tried both and, on the whole, I found the lounge more convenient. The selection didn't materially differ between them. 

In the lounge there were breads and pastries:

Meats and cheeses:

Hot options:

A coffee set-up, including an espresso machine:

And cold cereals, fruit, and yogurt:

And a toaster!

We also had breakfast at the Blue Boar one morning and I found that the selection was virtually identical to the lounge. The major difference was more hot items in the restaurant:

And a better selection of fruit:

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Conrad St. James, London - Review

I'm a Hilton Diamond, thanks to the Amex Hilton Surpass card, so I tend to seek out Hilton when I'm travelling.  Hilton's Diamond benefits aren't as good as those I use to enjoy as an Intercontinental Royal Ambassador, but they really do add value to any stay.  In this case we booked (using points of course) at the Conrad St. James, and my Diamond status was good for lounge access, an upgrade, and breakfast each day.

The Conrad St. James used to be an Intercontinental, but switched to the Conrad brand last year.  I was interested to see how they'd handled the transition, and it appears to have gone quite smoothly.  Booking the room was quite a hurdle, as I discussed in this post. Eventually, I was able to book into a King Superior Room for 80,000 points a night:

The best flexible rate for a King Superior is £319. At that rate, I was getting .6 CPP value for my Hilton points. Not an outsized value, by any means, but well within my comfort level.  The above shot, by the way is from the Conrad's "3D Floor Plan" page, which has floor plans for almost all of the room types. I like knowing pretty much what to expect when booking and the availability of floor plans helps.

Hilton also offers Premium Room Rewards that allow you to pay more points for a better room.  Sometimes the additional points are reasonable, and sometimes they're astronomical. In this case, I decided to check what was available. I discovered that for 26K HH points a night, I could upgrade from the King Superior to a King Grand Deluxe. The Grand Deluxe was priced about £54 above the Superior, so that meant I'd only get about .3cpp of value out of each additional point.  .3cpp is my par value for HH points, but I was interested in seeing how the "Premium Room" booking would affect my upgrade chances.

We ended up being upgraded to a Junior Suite, which runs around £479 per night.  I had hoped for a better upgrade, but the hotel was quite full. I'd been told that it was beforehand, and, when I checked online that proved to be the case. (Ed: Trust, but verify.) The room itself was quite nice and was spacious (for London).  From the corridor, the room opened into a small sitting area facing the back side of a (reversible) television.
Just inside the front door is a closet, the minibar (water from the minibar was complimentary for Diamonds), and a coffee machine:

Since this trip was partly in celebration of my wife's birthday, the hotel had left a nice little treat for us:

Beyond the mid-room television is the bed, which was quite comfortable and offered useful reading lights (a pet peeve of mine is reading lights that don't operate separately from the rooms main lighting, a problem we encountered at the Paddington).  Bottles of spring water were left by the bed each evening.
Beyond a sliding door from the bedroom is the bath, with a separate tub and shower, and a private room for the WC.

The rainfall shower was very good, though it had a tendency to leak onto the bathroom floor.

If I had it all to do over again, I probably would not have gone for the Premium Room reward. My Diamond status would likely have meant an upgrade out of the entry-level room, and for a short two-night stay, getting the slightly larger Junior Suite wasn't vital.  This is particularly true given that Hilton Diamond gives lounge access no matter which room you book into.  As you'll see in the next phase of this review, lounge access at this hotel is no small thing.

A final note about the hotel: the basement gym features a mini-fridge with very handy plastic bottles of spring water.  These are complimentary and are nice to have when walking about London.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Virgin Atlantic Upper Class on an A330 - ATL-LHR: Review

Mrs. Points Ninja and I just returned from a trip to Old Blighty for the Chelsea Flower Show.  What a great time! I highly recommend the show and will be doing a review of it as well.

One of the reasons I was particularly looking forward to this trip was that we were flying on Virgin Atlantic in Upper Class from Atlanta to London, a first for me.  I booked using the last of my Delta Skymiles stash (courtesy of the Suntrust Delta Debit card), at 125,000 Skymiles per ticket.  Taxes and fees were around $300 each.

Our Upper Class ticket allowed us to use Delta's Lounge in ATL's Terminal F.  The Lounge was quite crowded, but with decent snacks and Sweetwater 420 on tap, it was better than sitting at the gate.

Just before boarding was scheduled to start, we headed over to the gate.  After a short wait, we boarded and headed up to our seats, 5K and 6K.  Virgin runs an A330 on this flight, and our plane had the (soon to be replaced) Upper Class "Dream" Suite.  Our crew was friendly and efficient, but nothing really stood out on that score.

All in all, I'm not a fan of these seats.  The herringbone pattern means that "window" seats don't have a view out of the window (unless you twist around) and the seats are a bit too open to the aisle to have any sense of privacy.  Generally, I prefer window seats.  However, in this cabin I'd recommend seats G and K for a couple travelling together.  If both are in K seats, it's quite difficult to have a conversation.

Waiting at our seats was an amenity kit:
The kit came in a nice little Herschel Supply Co. bag, but I preferred the kit on our return flight, which came in a fold-out toiletry bag.  The contents of both kits were the same, though: socks, an eyeshade, earplugs, toothbrush, toothpaste, VA pen,and Rituals handcream/facecream/lipbalm.  No comb, or hairbrush, though, so bring your own!

During boarding, champagne was served:

And pajamas were handed out.  On some airlines, the pajamas run a bit small, but, at 5'10", 180lbs, VA's XL fit me nicely.

Menus were already at our seats, so I had a look at what was on offer:

Before dinner, drinks and crisps were served.  I tried the cranberry martini, which was nothing special:

I selected the smoked salmon for my starter.  It was quite tasty and fairly well presented:
I do like Virgin's airplane-themed salt and pepper shakers, along with the fact that the "pinched from Virgin Atlantic" label shows that they know how irresistible they are as souvenirs.  Since it was an overnight flight, I tried to be good and picked the nicoise salad for my main.  It was surprising good, and I'd definitely pick it again.

For pudding, I tried the raspberry cheesecake.  As you can see, it looked good enough that I forgot to take a picture before starting!
Of course, my distractedness may have been due to the fact that was watching Deadpool by this point.
I found VA's "Vera" entertainment system to be quite clunky, though the selection was good.  There were 60 movies and a large number of TV shows (with a heavy British influence, natch) available.  Vera's touchscreen is less than useless.  Fortunately, the inseat remote works pretty well for controlling the entertainment system.

After dinner, I had the FA convert my seat to a bed (which involves flipping the seat over and adding a pad and duvet) and tried to get some sleep.  This is where the Dream Suite really failed me.  It's true "lie flat," but because the seat is flipped over rather than reclined into bed mode, there's no way to adjust your recline or to sit up in bed.  In most business and first cabins, the beds remain adjustable and it's easy to sit up to read or watch TV before going to sleep.  No such luck with VA. #firstworldproblems.

After some fitful sleep, I woke to tea and a bacon sandwich. The tea was good (as it should be on a British airline!) but the sandwich was so so.

While it's difficult to look out of the windows, the left side of the plane does have some good views of London on approach:

A final slip up by VA was the failure to hand out "fast track" immigration vouchers to Upper Class, which hadn't been loaded. We were instructed to just use our boarding card, but this didn't make the lady guarding the fast track queue very happy at all.  It took some persuasion to get her to let us through, but it was worth it to avoid a moderately crowded immigration queue.

All in all, the VA experience wasn't bad, but I prefer Delta's Business Elite (now "DeltaOne") service for TATL travel.