Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Starwood Splurge: How to Maximize Starwood Points Without Blowing Your Budget

After all those days reading about our trek, you're probably in the mood for a little luxury.  We know how you're feeling.  So we're interrupting our posts about Nepal to bring you this Starwood Splurge.

The living room in our suite at Le Meridian Chiang Mai.  It was twice the size of our New York apartment.
I could have lived there forever.
Traveling can be exhausting.  And when you travel on the cheap, spending time instead of money, it can be doubly so.  After a while one needs a vacation from the vacation.

For us, this generally means swapping out budget hostels, low-end hotels, and overnights on trains, planes, and buses for a few nights at a Starwood property.  Since 2003 we've had the Amex SPG card and have  accrued, but rarely spent, thousands of Starwood points.  In fact, we had nearly 250,000 SPG points, and the plan was to spend them all.

The AC2 train from Goa to Kerala (India)
The semi-cama bus from
El Chalten to El Bolson (Argentina)
The warm and welcoming Thorong View High Camp
(High Camp, Nepal)
The au natural Jaisalmer Desert Camp.
Sleeping without any hotel whatsoever.
(Jaisalmer, India)

And as bad as any of those “rooms” might have looked, their bathrooms were even worse.

Think that hole looks small and hard to hit?
So did everyone else.
I'm glad I wore my shoes to this bathroom.
We never figured out the intention and plan
behind this unconnected outdoor bathroom.
Not the condition of the bathroom one
hopes to find with an urgent need to vomit.
Just the type of bathroom J and I hoped to freshen up
in after returning (by camel) from the Jaisalmer desert.

So when I say we were ready for a break, we really were.

Starwood and its properties have met and exceeded our (high) expectations.*  Below are some of the highlights of our Starwood stays, and some of the lessons we’ve learned when trying to maximize value with our points.

The Good
We generally prefer smaller hotels to larger ones. With fewer guests, smaller staffs, and often a personal stake in the success and failure of the property we seek out family-owned or boutique hotels. But in almost all the Starwood hotels we have stayed the staff’s friendliness, helpfulness, and customer service has been nothing short of outstanding. And these are not only the premiere properties. From Sheraton Four Points to St. Regis properties Starwood employees made us feel like welcomed and valuable guests; from the bell-boys and pool-boys (when we splurge at a Starwood we can often be found at the pool; and slightly less often, at the gym), to the receptionists (who generally know me well because I need at least two replacement keys each day, it’s so easy to lose those little keycards), and managers (somehow we always end chatting with the food and restaurant managers, perhaps because if we’re eating on the property, we’re having long, drawn-out meals of their most modestly priced entrees (more on this below)). And for our entire trip any Starwood related concern or problem that we may have had was quickly and satisfactorily resolved.
Dream bed in our (carpeted) Diplomatic Suite in Chiang Mai.

I know this reads like Starwood copy, but sitting at the Sheraton in Krabi, Thailand we reflected on the best hotels of our trip and Starwooders (as we call them) took top billing, bar none.

My beach spot at the Sheraton Krabi Beach Resort.
With hardly any other guests we had a private beach almost every day.
And some "private" green space for our morning yoga sessions, volleyball, or just walking around barefoot
So, we may have been a little biased sitting in our 'private'
infinity pool looking over the manicured grounds to the beach and sea.
Of course, its not fair to compare our free stays in hotels that retail for hundreds of dollars per night with those that charge between $2.10 (our cheapest hotel) and $50 dollars per night. But this in unavoidable as these are the actual hotels we stay in. Below are some comparisons shots of some of our finer and less-fine accommodations.

Our "private" room with five twin beds was a

bit of an oddity (though better than our three
bunkbed room in Neuquen.)
The familiar layout of the Sheraton Four
Points in Jaipur: just one bed, an attached
(even if totally see-through) bathroom,
and starched clean sheets were much welcomed.

We choose to ignore that we had 
access to this bathroom in Jordan.

By contrast, we delighted in our jacuzzi
tub, separate (and dreamy) firehose-rainfall
shower, his and hers sinks, and of course, 
a separate, and fully enclosed (take the hint 
Sheraton Four Points) toilet room.
The unspectacular view from our apartment in
Vientiane.  A wall, an alley, and a construction site.
The spectacular sunset view from
our porch at Le Meridien Dahab.

The (shared) living room in our hotel in Cafayate, 
Argentina was, shall we say, a bit tired.  
We think that 13 incher was black and white.  
It definitely had no remote control.
The (private) living room in Le Meridien Chiang
Mai had not one, but two, large flat screen TVs.
Which is a shame, because the hotel in
Cafayate really could have used one.

Our Cabinista el Calafate was perhaps the
smallest, non-moving sleeping space we've enjoyed.
Neither me nor Jesse could stand up in the bedroom.

Our "Chamber of Emperors" at the
ITC Agra just outside the Taj Mahal was
delightful, with fresh rose petals on the bed.
The pathetic breakfast spread at the Krishna
Prakadesh Heritage Hotel in Jodphur, India.
Stale cornflakes, moldy bananas, cut papayas
and (more) bananas with flies, hard-boiled eggs.
The incredible breakfast buffet at the Sheraton
Krabi.  Endless rows of pastries, omelet stations,
pancakes, amazing waffles, crepes, fresh fruit 
shakes, carving station, and assorted thai foods 
that we discussed each morning with Pimporn, 
the food & beverage manager.  It was only
surpassed by the decadence of the Meriden
Chiang Mai Sunday buffet.

The Downside of a Starwood Stay
A free night, however, is not always as free as one might like. Before we book into a Starwooder we always consider three things to figure out how much the free night will actually cost.  Location, location, location.

As they say, it is everything. The cost of a free night all turns on the property’s location. As you would expect, the more remote the property, the more the food, drinks, internet and transportation costs. And, if there is nothing near the hotel, you can only eat (and drink) on-site, at often very good, but very expensive restaurants. Same goes for the internet. Starwooders all have fast internet, but it costs a lot. At Le Meriden in Dahab, Egypt a day’s worth of internet cost nearly $25. Whoa! That is more than we pay for a hotel room in most countries (and they always have free internet!)

So the trick is to look for Starwooders that are near other, non-Starwood stuff. Local restaurants, local bars, and local internet cafes let you stretch your dollars (or Pesos, Pounds, Euros, Rupees, Bhat, or wherever you may have) and limit the actual cost of the free stay. City Starwooders therefore, are often a good choice. In Chiang Mai, for example, we stayed at the wonderful Le Meridien, but don’t think we ate or drank a single thing from the hotel (well, maybe a beer or two at the pool, but they were worth it). Instead, we ate at the food market across the street, where delicious noodle soup, stir-fried noodles, or curry dishes cost about a buck each.
Beers by the pool were well worth it, especially during the 2-for-1 happy hour.
By contrast, at Le Meriden in Dahab we were twenty minutes outside of town, so we had no choice but to enjoy breakfast, lunch, and sometimes dinner at the hotel. And while the food, service, and views were excellent, we paid two to four times more than we would have if we were eating in town.

Ultimately, one has to decide what one wants to get out of the splurge. Sometimes we just want a place that we know will be clean, comfortable, and have a good English speaking staff. Starwood’s category 2 and 3 properties easily deliver this and more. Other times, we want a beach resort with all the trimmings, and often the category 3 and 4 properties meet the bill. For us, Starwood stays have been a fantastic way to get away from our “everyday” travels and we can’t wait to spend the rest of our points (and especially at an upcoming category 6 property).
The wonderful little domes at Le Meridien Dahab.  Giving shade or sun,
loads of pillows and plenty of privacy, these were the perfect little beach cabanas.
And that mango juice ($5) in J's hand remains the best (and most expensive) we've ever had.
Of Special Note
The Le Meriden Beds. Le Merids should be singled out for having the most comfortable beds we have ever slept in. In addition to the exceptional bed, guests can choose from selection of seven, yes seven, types of pillows from the bedside Pillow Menu. We have never strayed from the default “medium-mushy” and “super-soft cloud-like” (Jesse’s terms, not Le Meridan’s) that come standard with the room. More than a few mornings, and maybe even some full days have been lost lazing in that dreamboat. We plan to purchase one for our home at the conclusion of our travels.
I dream on these pillows.
And I dream of these pillows.
[Note: Our especially astute readers will know that these are
not Starwood pillows, but it was the only pillow photo we had]
The showers. We’ve had our fair share of bathrooms of dubious cleanliness, shared bathrooms, bucket showers and squat toilets, so when we check-in to a private, modern, western bathroom it is always a treat. When, however, we check into a Starwooder, we are always excited for the shower. I don’t know what types of engineering feats Starwood performs (maybe they just use good showerheads), but across all Starwood brands their water pressure is like a fire hose. We love their showers. In fact, sometimes the showers are so powerful that the shower doors or curtain can’t contain the spray and we flood the bathroom. Sorry, but its worth it.
I also dream of this shower.
* Back in our working days we became well-acquainted with the luxury vacation. Indeed, we enjoy and excel in many of luxury sports; skiing, scuba-diving, safari, and sailing. Well, sailing of sorts. We’ve yet to successfully take and return a sailboat without assistance from the staff or a dangerous crash landing. See e.g. Breezes Beach Resort, Zanzibar (received 3 minute sailing lesson, instructor gave us a big thumbs up and dove off boat. Forty-five minutes later he rescued us in a motorboat), Cap Juluca , Antigua (rented a large hobie-cat that we sailed out to sea, and then sailed at full speed with the wind straight at our backs directly over the buoyed rope marking the safe swimming area and crashed full-speed into the beach. Thankfully, the boys from resort dragged the giant boat nearly a half-mile back to the watersports area. We sheepishly followed behind, drinking the beers we salvaged during the crash.).  

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