Tag Archives: Anniversary Trip 2015

The Mistake that Cost me a $690 Hotel Room

In this post I will describe the mistake that cost me a free stay at a posh hotel worth over $690.  More importantly, I’ll explain how you can avoid making this mistake!  It was a dumb mistake but I had never been warned about it, so I learned the hard way.

Oh well, sometimes the hard way is the best way to learn something.  But who says is has to be your hard way?  Read on to learn from mine. . .

My plan

The year was 2014.  I had just gotten my feet wet with my first ever points redemption and I was planning my next big trip.  Up to that point I didn’t have any experience with hotel programs; only frequent flier and miscellaneous points programs.  I only had one hotel credit card, the Citi Hilton Reserve.

I was in the middle of secretly planning the surprise European vacation for Nicoleen’s and my 10 year anniversary.  The flights were booked and all I had left to do was reserve a hotel room for the last night of the trip.  We would be flying out of Amsterdam but only spending one night in The Netherlands so I wanted to make it a memorable one.

Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam Goldfinch Brasserie

Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam Goldfinch Brasserie. CC Image courtesy of currystrumpet on Flickr.

What better way to make a one night hotel stay memorable than to book one of the fanciest hotels in the city, right?  (Ah, the fun things you can do when you use value tactics!)  I had my eyes on the new Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam.  The hotel is in the heart of the city and consists of six 17th century palaces, previously owned by the who’s who of the time, including two mayors.

Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam, by David van der Mark, Flickr

Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam.  CC Image courtesy of David van der Mark on Flickr.

I planned on using one of my free weekend night certificates from the sign-up bonus on my Citi Hilton Reserve card.  I had already finished the minimum spend for the bonus and was just waiting for the certificates to show up in the mail.


In those ancient days the certificates still came in the physical mail.  What I didn’t know, however, was that the free nights were credited to your account 1-2 weeks before the paper certificates showed up . . .

What actually happened

In my recent post about another trip where I used the same kind of Hilton free nights, I touched on how to find available rooms on the Hilton website. In a nutshell, to use the certificate the room has to be available at the “standard” reward rate.  The standard rate is always a nice round number of points.  In the Waldorf’s case, it’s 95,000 points.


I knew the room wouldn’t be available forever.  In-demand Hilton properties have a very limited number of rooms available at the standard rate.  I was booking 7 months in advance but it was for July, right in the middle of vacation season in Europe.

Every day I checked the website and every day I still saw the room available I got more and more nervous.  The free night certificates had to be coming soon!

The moment of truth

Finally the certificates arrived in the mail!  This was going to blow Nicoleen away!  Staying at this ridiculously elegant Waldorf Astoria for free would really lock in the first class status of our trip!

That day I didn’t check the Hilton website.  I had just checked the night before.  What were the chances someone booked that particular room on that particular night, and that it was the very last one left at that rate?  I picked up the phone and called the Hilton HHonors booking line.  I told the rep the hotel location, the dates, and the payment method.

“I’m sorry.  That property is not available for that date.”

What??  How??  Sure enough, someone had booked the last room left at the standard rate, 7 months in advance, less than 24 hours before I called to reserve it!

What I should have done

The worst part about the whole deal was that the free nights had been credited to my account for two weeks before I got the certificates.  I could have reserved the room any time during those two weeks and it would have worked.  But no one ever told me about the delay.

According to the Flyertalk wiki the certificates now come via e-mail, and they come as soon as the free nights are credited on your account.  So the particular scenario that I screwed up isn’t a worry anymore.  However, there’s a broader lesson here. . .

The broader lesson for you

The take-away from my mistake isn’t actually about the timing of free night certificates.  It’s about the scarcity of hotel and flight award bookings.

This wasn’t the first time during this trip’s planning phase that I had to settle for my second choice.  When booking our first class transatlantic flight, I had planned flying business class.  For virtually the same seat and service, the business class seats were 50k miles, versus the 62.5k required for first class.  Days before I booked the award flight, all the business class options disappeared.

If the hotel or flight award booking is easily refundable/changeable, lock in your reservation right away!  Desirable award flights and hotel rooms are hot commodities, and they disappear all the time.  Don’t trust them to still be there after you get all your other plans lined up. If you end up changing your mind, most programs allow a quick and convenient way to have your points refunded.

A missed opportunity, but not a disaster

It all worked out in the end for Nicoleen and me.  We ended up staying at my second choice hotel, the Hilton Amsterdam I recently wrote a review of this awesome hotel.  It was not quite as blown out as the Waldorf Astoria, but we still enjoyed it and it served our purpose nicely.

Nicoleen walking down a typical street in Amsterdam, packed with bikes.

We had a great (but short) time in Amsterdam, despite staying in our second choice hotel.  The Hilton Amsterdam is definitely a worthwhile use of a free night certificate!

Some images in this post made available through a Creative Commons license.  Click here for info.

Hotel Review: Hilton Amsterdam

Our free stay at the Hilton Amsterdam was a nice little bonus at the tail end of our anniversary vacation.  I wanted to get our return flight out of Frankfurt but there was nothing available in our date range.  I expanded the flight search to nearby airports and found a flight out of Amsterdam.  The flight left around noon so I figured a hotel stay nearby would make getting to the airport less problematic.  We didn’t want to risk missing the flight due to last minute ground transportation problems.

I had two free nights at any Hilton that I earned with my Citi Hilton Reserve card, so the extra night of lodging wouldn’t cost us anything.  As a bonus, we would get to experience a new city and add another country to our trip!

Hotel Overview
The Room
Executive Lounge
Cost and Value
Overall Thoughts

This post is part of a series reviewing our 2015 Anniversary trip to Europe.  For a full list of the posts in this series, and for an overview of the trip, check out the index page.

Hotel Overview

The Hilton Amsterdam was the first international hotel built in The Netherlands.  It’s an 11 story V-shaped building in a quiet part of the city, away from all the tourist traps.  The hotel has some interesting history; notably it was the site of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Bed-In” for peace in 1969.  For more general info on the Hilton Amsterdam check out the hotel’s heritage page or its Wikipedia page.

The Hilton Amsterdam is currently rated 4.5 out of 5.0 on Tripadvisor and is ranked #42 of 364 hotels in Amsterdam.

The Room

Due to my Gold status with Hilton HHonors from my Citi Hilton Reserve card, we got a free room upgrade at check-in.  Our room was an “Executive King Room” on the 8th floor, which was dedicated to executive rooms.  Our room key also granted us access to the 10th floor, which is entirely taken up by the rooftop executive lounge.  More on that later . . .

Our room was impeccably clean.  It looked like it was recently renovated as well.  A clean, newly renovated room will get a great review from me every time!  Our executive king room at the Hilton Amsterdam was large enough for our needs and had a convenient lay-out.  The view of the city was fantastic.  Overall we were very pleased with the room.

Hilton Amsterdam room

Hilton Amsterdam bathroom

The top shelf was the only usable space for personal items in the minibar fridge. The other items were automatically charged to the room upon removal. Be careful!

The top shelf was the only usable space for personal items in the minibar fridge. The other items were automatically charged to the room upon removal. Be careful!

The complimentary bottles of water we got as a Gold Status perk. The Hilton pen that was by the note pad was the nicest hotel pen I have ever pilfered (until the Grand Wailea, that is).

The complimentary bottles of water we got as a Gold Status perk. The Hilton pen that was by the note pad was the nicest hotel pen I have ever pilfered (until the Grand Wailea, that is).

Executive Lounge

One of the reasons I chose the Hilton Amsterdam among the other Hilton properties in the city was the executive lounge.  Gold status gets you access to these lounges at any Hilton that has one.

After getting settled in our room we headed up to the rooftop floor.  The executive lounge is the only thing on the top floor, and only executive floor room keys will get the elevator to stop there.  The lounge was open from 6:00-9:00 in the evening, daily.  We arrived right at 6:00 so we got the first pick at the assortment of complimentary food and beverages.


Poor Nicoleen was 7 months pregnant, so she couldn't take advantage of all the complimentary beer and wine that were available in parts of our trip. Pictured here, she finds solace in a carrot chip.

Poor Nicoleen was 7 months pregnant, so she couldn’t take advantage of all the complimentary beer and wine that were available in parts of our trip. Pictured here, she finds solace in a carrot chip.

Besides the food and drink, there were newspapers available.  The views of the city were beautiful, and overall the place had a very relaxing ambiance.  Most of the other guests appeared to be traveling on business.  I guess that fits the “executive” part.

The view of the business center of Amsterdam from the executive lounge at the city Hilton.

The view of the business center of Amsterdam from the executive lounge at the city Hilton.

I would have been happy to fill up on the free beer and hors d’oeuvres, but Nicoleen wanted to get a flavor of the city, so we headed out for supper.


The Amsterdam Hilton has three restaurants, a bar, and a fitness center.  The restaurants looked top notch, but we had other plans for dinner.  The one evening was the only chance we had to soak up some Dutch culture so we wanted to find out where the locals ate.

Nicoleen walking down a typical street in Amsterdam, packed with bikes.

Nicoleen walking down a typical street in Amsterdam, packed with bikes.

The great thing about the Hilton’s location is that it’s far from the tourist-trap center of the city.  A short walk from the hotel and we were surrounded by locals.  We found a small French café and ate a light dinner, which was enough after we had partially filled up on appetizers in the executive lounge.

Breakfast Buffet

Our gold Hilton status got us free breakfast at the buffet.  This was normally $30 per person so it was quite a good value!  The host seated us at a table and took our drink orders.  Thirty dollars for a hotel breakfast seemed a bit steep until we saw the wondrous cornucopia that awaited us!

The spread at the Hilton Amsterdam was probably the most extensive breakfast buffet I have ever seen.  It had anything you can think of from multiple cuisines.  There was the full European spread: multiple breads, meats, and cheeses; müsli, sweet bakery goods, and boiled eggs.  British specialties like veal sausage, tomatoes, and mushrooms were on hand as well.  There were French crepes and omelettes made to order.  The whole American breakfast experience was available too: bacon, sausage links, scrambled eggs, fruit, cereal, biscuits and gravy, etc.  There were even African and Asian dishes that I didn’t recognize at all.

It was like having several breakfast buffets from multiple continents, all combined into one!

On the way out, there was a table with to-go options.  That’s rare at a buffet!  There were little paper cartons you could fill with tiny muffins or fruit, and to-go coffee cups as well.  That’s awesome service right there!

The to-go goodies I grabbed on the way out of the buffet. "Have a nice day". . . don't mind if I do!

The to-go goodies I grabbed on the way out of the buffet. “Have a nice day”. . . don’t mind if I do!

Cost and Value

Our executive level room at the Hilton Amsterdam was a steal at $0.00!  I used one of my two free weekend night certificates on this hotel stay.  My gold Hilton status and the free night certificates are some of the perks of the Citi Hilton Reserve card, which I had opened a few months prior to planning the trip.

Had we paid cash for the same room at the time of booking, it would have cost $385.48.  I wrote above that the buffet breakfast was $30 per person.  But if we would have added the breakfast onto our booking as a package, it would have been an extra $20.47.  That brings the total value of our free stay to $405.95.  Not a bad deal for half of a credit card sign-up bonus!

Overall Thoughts

Our one night stay in Amsterdam could have been purely functional; it served the purpose of getting us close to our departure airport.  The Hilton turned our 16 hours in The Netherlands into much more than that.  It was a fun and refreshing finale to our anniversary trip!

All the staff at the Hilton were extremely courteous and professional.  I don’t know how much of it was due to our gold status, but we received white glove service throughout our short stay.  (No, really . . . the doorman was wearing a tail coat and white gloves!)  Like everyone else in Holland, the hotel staff all spoke perfect English.  The concierge helped arrange a taxi for us to get to the airport in the morning and everything went smoothly.

There were plenty of other hotel choices in the city.  Had we been paying cash for the room we would have probably chosen something cheaper and closer to the airport, but I don’t think the Hilton is overpriced for the service and room quality they offer.  It’s a clean, beautiful hotel in a beautiful, vibrant city.

🙂 Thanks for reading my review! 🙂

executive_loungerBW(This was actually my second choice for using my Hilton free night in Amsterdam, but that’s another story for another blog post. . .  )

British Airways A380 Club Europe LHR – BSL/MLH/EAP

This post is part of a series reviewing our 2015 Anniversary trip to Europe.  For a full list of the posts in this series, and for an overview of the trip, check out the index page.

After the delay at LHR we took a short bus ride to the tarmac to embark on the last leg of our flight itinerary.

British Airways Airbus A320

British Airways Airbus A320

This flight would take us to Euroairport (BSL/MLH/EAP), the strange airport with 3 different codes, on French soil, built by the Swiss.  Since British Airways short haul flights within Europe have 2 cabins, the ticketing code on our boarding pass for this leg was for business class; even though our entire booking was a first class award through American Airlines.  Intra-Europe business class with British Airways is called Club Europe.

Club Europe seats on this plane are standard size, but with the middle seat in the 3-3 configuration blocked off with a little table thing.  If you can’t get a bigger seat in the premium cabin, at least you get elbow room.  On our particular flight I think everyone in the front of the plane had their own 3 seat row to themselves.
British Airways Club Europe
After we boarded, the mechanical delay continued for 20-30 minutes, but at last we got an explanation: The captain came across the PA and explained that the problem was due to a minor failure of the landing gear.  A non-critical failure had occurred on the plane’s previous flight and it needed to be checked out thoroughly.  The captain’s explanation and apology were so eloquent that Nicoleen and I both noticed it.  We joked that his speech almost made the ~4 hour delay worthwhile!

The meal service

Our flight was just over an hour so we weren’t expecting a meal service.  We figured we might get some snacks at best.  Boy were we wrong!  The front cabin flight attendant came around and gave us a choice of a meat and cheese plate or a hot English breakfast.

I opted for the meat and cheese plate, which came with a roll, a yogurt parfait, and coffee.  I enjoyed it very much!

Nicoleen thought the eggs, croissant, and bacon described to her when she asked about the hot English breakfast sounded good.  What she didn’t expect were the mushrooms, fried tomato, and veal sausage.  I happily relieved her of her unwanted breakfast assortments.  Nicoleen enjoyed the eggs, fruit, and little jars of jam . . . but she was very offended at being served mushrooms for breakfast, and she somehow harbors negative memories of the delectable meal pictured here:

My after-breakfast Johnnie Walker Black Label and Diet Coke

My after-breakfast Johnnie Walker Black Label and Diet Coke

After the breakfast was concluded there was enough time to squeeze in a quick round of beverage requests.  As the culmination of over 24 hours of first class traveling, I couldn’t resist one last chance to avail myself of the rare and exciting, complimentary alcoholic beverage.


We really had no expectations for this short flight.  If anything, we figured the business class service would feel like a step down after 3 consecutive first class flights.  The fact that they managed to pack in a full meal service on our 1 hour 35 minute flight was enough to impress us.  The food quality, polite and attentive service, and thorough explanation of the delay sealed the deal.  An honest and believable apology by an airline employee goes a long way.  If not the highlight of our itinerary, this short Club Europe flight left us with a very positive impression of British Airways!

The approach to Basel. I was very excited to return to mainland Europe!

The approach to Basel. I was very excited to return to mainland Europe!

British Airways Galleries Lounge – London Heathrow (LHR)

This post is part of a series reviewing our 2015 Anniversary trip to Europe.  For a full list of the posts in this series, and for an overview of the trip, check out the index page.

After our amazing transatlantic flight we had a 3 hour layover in overcast London before the short flight to our final destination, Basel.  Well, the layover was supposed to be 3 hours.  We ended up getting a slightly longer taste of the Galleries Lounge than we would have liked.  More on that later . . .
British Airways Galleries lounge at London Heathrow
Galleries is the British Airways business class lounge.  I believe we would have had access to the Galleries First lounge as well, but we were a bit groggy this far into our 24+ hour itinerary and we saw the Galleries lounge first, so that’s where we settled in.  A quick check of our boarding passes gained us entry.  Neither Nicoleen nor I were interested in using the showers so we sought out a place to sit and set up shop.

London Heathrow airport houses two Galleries lounges in Terminal 5, and we were at the northern one.  Both were very busy when we arrived around 6:30 local time.  The lounge is located right next to the runway and it was fun to watch planes taking off and landing.  We found a little more free space “outside” on the mezzanine area, overlooking the concourse.  Our stomachs thought it was sometime after midnight, but I had declined breakfast on the long haul flight so I went in search of some food and drink.

There were some Danish type things over here:

But since I was finally in Europe I was looking for something savory for breakfast.  These little warm sandwiches fit the bill:

Some had ham and some had egg and melted cheese; both were delicious.

Some had ham and some had egg and melted cheese; both were delicious.

Because everybody loves drinking at 7:00 AM, they also had tons of booze available:

And in case your body was still on some vastly different time zone, you could dig into the wine and chips:

I always thought it was fish and chips . . .

I always thought it was fish and chips . . .

Besides food and drink, Galleries lounge also provided a wide selection of magazines and newspapers.  Nicoleen and I had some good laughs reading the British tabloids and catching up on the scandalous lives of celebrities we had never heard of.

In Europe, even the magazine racks are futuristic and chic.

In Europe, even the magazine racks are futuristic and chic.

One negative thing I should mention is the bathrooms.  They were hot, small, plain, and their condition was borderline deplorable. Unless I was missing some other, hidden bathroom entrance, the only ones available were all single rooms.  Even the men needed to stand in line to get in!  Sorry ladies, we’re just not used to it 🙂

As our flight’s boarding time drew nearer, we threw an extra mini Diet Coke can and bag of Sweet Chili and Sour Cream kettle chips (they were so good!) into our backpacks* and walked down to the gate.

* Travel Tip: Take full advantage of complimentary snacks and beverages by stashing a spare in your backpack or purse.  Rarely will you get any dirty looks for doing so, and you’ll be glad you have the supplies if you end up stranded on a delayed flight, on a train with no dining car, etc.  Always be prepared.

The gate was actually a bus stop where we were to load a bus that would drive us to the tarmac for outside boarding.  On the board we noticed an unspecified delay was marked on our departure flight.  The gate attendant was unable to give us a time estimate.  Despite Nicoleen’s apprehension about me missing the flight, I decided to walk back up to the Galleries lounge and see if the desk agent therein could get me any better information.

After showing my boarding pass to gain entry, I walked up to the information desk and spoke with the agent about our delay.  As she was making some calls I noticed on the departures board that our flight number had changed, which worried me a little.  The agent was very helpful and discovered the nature of the delay: a mechanical problem.  She didn’t have a time estimate but she told me there was no imminent risk of boarding.  That’s the piece of information I was looking for; I could call Nicoleen and have her come back up to wait in the lounge.

I was unable to reach her on the phone so I walked down to the gate to rescue her from the growing line of people waiting for the bus.  We went back up to the Galleries lounge and I once again showed credentials at the door.  The desk agent told me in her charming London accent to stay close to the desk so she could advise me when I would be needed at the gate.  Nicoleen needed a nap by this time so she went out to the mezzanine and found a quiet(er) spot to snooze.
After I  had enjoyed another bag of Sweet Chili and Sour Cream chips and a couple very weakly mixed cocktails, the announcement for our boarding came over the PA.  I retrieved Nicoleen from her slumber, and we left the Galleries lounge behind to board our short flight to MLH/BSL/EAP (Euroairport).

Galleries Lounge Access

For the official word on access rules, see the Oneworld Alliance lounge access page.  In a nutshell, any passenger connecting through or departing from LHR in a business or first class booking can use Galleries lounges.  The lounge access at this airport gets a bit more complicated because of the number of lounges (see this Lounge Buddy overview) and the special rules for the British Airways Concorde Room.  In fact, the latter has such a confusing set of conditions for access, there is a multipage thread on Flyertalk just for discussing the nuances.


Although Galleries is British Airways’ business class lounge, the food and beverage choices, amenities, and decor were on par with the first class Flagship Lounge we had visited in Chicago.  Reading other reviews, it seems like the packed house we experienced is pretty common at this lounge.  Despite the bathrooms and the crowd, we definitely relaxed more than we would have in the public areas of the terminal, so the lounge served its purpose.  The dedicated agent for lounge visitors also turned out to be quite helpful.

American Airlines 777-300ER First Class JFK – LHR

This post is part of a series reviewing our 2015 Anniversary trip to Europe.  For a full list of the posts in this series, and for an overview of the trip, check out the index page.

300erstripOur entire itinerary was planned around this flight, the showpiece of the whole “surprise Nicoleen” plan.  I had actually wanted to book us business class seats (50k miles one-way) on the same flight but none were available at the saver award level for the entire summer.  First class saver seats were only 12.5k miles more however, and I wanted access to the 777-300ER’s premium class stand-up snack bar, so I searched for first class saver seats.  There were only a few saver level first class seats available, and only one date had a pair of seats.  Luckily that date worked within our other constraints, so I booked them (62k miles one-way, each).

But before I get to the flight…

Having been delayed on our ORD-JFK flight, we only had an hour to spare at JFK before boarding began for our transatlantic flight to London-Heathrow (LHF).  While Nicoleen would have been happy to stop by the Admiral’s Club for a beverage, I was determined to see both lounges we had access to, American’s Flagship Lounge and Admiral’s Club.

At JFK both American Airlines lounges share a lobby area in Terminal 8.  An elevator takes you from the concourse up to the lobby where the staff at the desk check your privilege and point you toward whichever lounge you have access to.  (Click here to go to American Airlines’ page on lounge access requirements.)  We were waived through to the Flagship lounge and politely reminded that we didn’t have much time before boarding would begin.

The JFK Flagship Lounge struck me as long and narrow.  It has a nice big window along one entire side, looking out over the tarmacs and runway.  My visit was brief so I didn’t get to explore every nook and cranny, nor take advantage of all the amenities.  The JFK Flagship Lounge was much more crowded than our experience at the Chicago O’Hare Flagship Lounge, but this very well could have been due to the time of day more than anything.  The food seemed more picked over and old as well, but not deplorable by any means.  I made a small snack of chicken, cheese, and olives, grabbed a beer, and scarfed it down while Nicoleen watched.  She was worried about making the flight, so she went ahead of me to board.

After my quick snack I took a walk through the Admiral’s club and found it to be even more crowded than the Flagship Lounge.  During my quick walk-through I saw no noticeable differences from the Admiral’s Club we walked through at ORD.

On to the flight…

After my brief snack at the Flagship Lounge I had to scurry down to the gate for boarding.  By the time I got there nearly everyone had boarded.  I don’t personally put much value in early boarding; I have a back issue that makes sitting painful so for me the more time spent upright, the better.  I was warmly welcomed by the attendant and shown to my seat, 1A, where I found Nicoleen settling in across from me in 1D.

Seconds after sitting down I was handed a bottle of water and offered champagne, which I accepted.

The purser offered us a choice of several newspapers and quickly moved onto getting our meal orders.  As I have previously stated, I’m not much of a wine connoisseur but I do enjoy good wine (in much the same way as a dog “appreciates” a good steak – he doesn’t quite understand why it’s good, but he still likes it).  With some guidance I chose one of the whites and was not disappointed.

Another little bonus for flying in a premium cabin is the amenity kits often offered.  Although not in the cool iPad case bag I had expected from previous reports, the kit had all of the goodies I was expecting:

The meal service
After knowing about this trip for months and having the meal choices available online for over 30 days, you’d think I should have been able to order quickly.  As it happened, I think I was still debating the food options after Nicoleen had ordered.  I settled on the Thai chicken starter, creamy carrot soup, the salad of mixed greens with artichokes and feta, the seared halibut with gremolata, and the royale chocolate mousse cake for dessert.

I should have probably skipped the snack at the Flagship Lounge because I was fairly well full by the time the fish came, but oh well; I’m a sucker for free food!  Overall the food was pretty good.  The Thai chicken and salad were excellent, and the soup was interesting (unexpectedly spicy!), but the fish was a bit dry and rubbery and the seasoning was nothing to write home about.  The presentation was good but I found a piece of dried on food stuck to a piece of silverware…not something you’d expect to find in a first class service.

A cool feature of this first class cabin is that the footrest doubles as a jump seat, complete with seat belt, so that you can dine across from your traveling companion.  The tray table is deep enough for two place settings.  We weren’t planning on doing this however, due to Nicoleen’s baby belly.  She was plenty happy to enjoy all the room her own seat afforded her!  The purser never mentioned this as a possibility though, which was the start of a series of not being shown or offered many of the amenities this flight had available.

After dinner
According to other reviews I had read on this first class cabin, we were supposed to be offered pajamas and slippers (yes- to keep), an amenity kit in a cool bag that doubles as an iPad carrying case, and turn down service.  Nicoleen started watching a movie and I purchased the in-flight wi-fi so I could send a few e-mails saying “I’m sending this from an airplane!”

Side note: One of the biggest “problems” about flying in these cool lie-flat first and business cabins is properly splitting your time between sleeping, which is actually possible with these seats; and enjoying all the other entertainment, eating, and drinking options.  I would have loved to have milled around at the stand-up snack bar or ordered some beers and watched a movie (in comfort, for once!).  On the other hand, I had a rare opportunity to get some real, quality sleep on a flight due to the lie-flat seat.  It was tough to divide the time.  This conundrum brings to mind some valuetactics wisdom: The value of paying extra (miles or dollars) for premium cabins, especially with lie-flat seats, vastly increases as the length of the flight increases.

After a while I started wondering about the stand-up stack bar I was enamored with, and was part of the reason I wanted to fly on this aircraft.  It is located between the first and business class cabins, and when I went to check if it was operational I found the flight attendants assembling the snacks.  I was told that it was almost ready but that I didn’t have to use the lowly business class area; I could go to the first class galley for the first-class only version (which I had not read anything about).  So I went up in front of first class and found the purser and another attendant putting the finishing touches on the snacks there.
777-300ERsnack1This would have been great had I not been completely stuffed after eating about 5 meals’ worth of food in the past 12 hours!  I wanted to see the “real” stand-up snack bar though, so I deigned to walk among the plebeian masses and stepped between first and business class to that area, which had mostly the same snacks as the first class gallery but looks waaaay cooler:
777-300ERsnack2777-300ERsnack3After checking out the snack bars I decided I’d better get a few hours sleep on this overnight flight.  I was surprised we hadn’t been offered pajamas or slippers yet and I was worried that maybe American Airlines had dis-included them as part of the first class service.  I asked the purser about them and he reacted as if his memory had just been jogged.  He quickly produced a set of jammies for me and asked what size Nicoleen would prefer.  She was already dozing off so I told him I wasn’t sure, and he gave me two sets in different sizes and told me to just give her both to keep!

At this time the purser seemed to remember that turn down service was supposed to be included too, and offered to do so as I changed into the pajamas in the bathroom.  None of the other 6 passengers in first class received pajamas or slippers to my knowledge.

Yes, it's totally staged. I had just crawled into bed and was not sleeping.

Yes, it’s totally staged. I had just crawled into bed and was not sleeping.

Upon waking we were offered a small breakfast, which we both declined.  It was a rude awakening after only 3 hours of sleep or so, and the remainder of my flight was spent gathering up all my strewn-about belongings to prepare for landing at EuroAirport (MLH).

In the end we had an amazing time on this flight.  But I was a bit confused that I had to specifically request some of the amenities, and I was not as impressed as I should have been by the meal service.  Let’s look at all the things we weren’t told about or offered without asking:

  • Seat operation
  • Pajamas and slippers
  • Turn down service
  • Companion dining configuration
  • Stand-up snack bar

I don’t know if it was just this particular purser, crew, or just an off day for American’s service, but I finally understood why many other bloggers and reviewers talk about how American carriers are just not up to par on service in their premium cabins.

Overall first class experience
Among all the stages in our first class itinerary (the American Flagship Lounge at ORD, the Flagship Lounge at JFK, both domestic first class flights, the 1st class JFK-LHR flight, the Galleries Lounge at LHR, and the BA flight to MLH), we felt like the lowest experience to expectations ratio was on this transatlantic long-haul flight.   The service was by no means horrible, but neither was it exceptional…which it should be on an international first class flight.  I’ll never complain about flying first class for virtually no cost, but had I paid the full retail $9,821 for this booking, I would have justifiably felt a bit ripped off.  As they say the hard product delivered, but the soft product fell short.

American Airlines First Class ORD – JFK

Our flight from Chicago (ORD) to New York (JFK) was delayed on the tarmac, which made me nervous about making our connection to the “important” flight, the transatlantic on American’s semi-new 777-300ER.  The estimated delay went from 45 minutes to 5 hours back to 35 minutes, for an eventual departure between 1 and 2 hours late.

The first class cabin in the Boeing 737-800 was about what you’d expect on a long-ish regional domestic flight.  The seats up front were in a 2-2 configuration as opposed to the 3-3 in economy.  The seats were comfortable and the seats we selected, 6E and 6F, in the last row of the cabin afforded us a semi-private feeling.

Besides more legroom and more comfortable seats, the first class seating on our American Airlines 737-800 offered the unanticipated benefit of some extra in-flight shelf space.  In addition to the normal fold out tray table, our drinks and small electronic devices were welcomed by several mini trays.  These were surprisingly useful and convenient; your personal space bubble isn’t invaded by a big slab tray when all you want to do is set your drink down.  They were also, as Nicoleen pointed out, very cute.  (As cute as a piece of aircraft seat hardware can be I suppose.)

Yes, that's a super old Blackberry phone. I use it as an mp3 player)

Yes, that’s a super old Blackberry phone. I use it as an mp3 player)

Shortly after take-off we were offered hot nuts.  I had read about this American Airlines specialty and was always confused why people even bother mentioning this little snack.  Well, now I know why!  The heated mixed nuts are surprisingly more yummy than room temperature mixed nuts.  Besides the increased yumminess, being served something warmed up that’s normally just thrown into a ramekin makes you feel pampered 🙂  (It’s the little extras, ya know?  Like crushed ice in urinals…sorry you miss out on that little joy of life, ladies.)
hot nuts

The meal choices were hot pasta or a cold chicken salad.  I had pre-ordered the chicken online, and Nicoleen opted for the pasta.  If I were a more experienced traveler, I would have remembered the general rule of thumb for cheap food: Never order the meat when there’s another option available.  The salad was pretty good, but the cold lemon chicken was, well . . . nasty.  I suppose it didn’t help that I was still stuffed from the lunch I had in the Flagship Lounge at ORD.  Nicoleen enjoyed the pasta.

The "cold chicken salad" was actually cold chicken AND a salad.

The “cold chicken salad” was actually cold chicken AND a salad.

While I would never pay the extra miles or cash for a first class seat on this short a flight, as part of a longer itinerary it was sure nice to have the upgraded seats and service. The little perks like early boarding and disembarking, complimentary in-flight drinks, a more private in-flight bathroom, and of course the hot nuts made our otherwise grueling itinerary (24 hours of travel including 3 layovers) much more tolerable; even enjoyable.

American Airlines Flagship Lounge – Chicago (ORD)


After revealing to Nicoleen that we had first class tickets by skipping the huge check-in and security lines at MSP (major wife points scored!), we had an unremarkable flight on an American Eagle regional jet to Chicago O’Hare (ORD).  Our itinerary had been readjusted a month prior to traveling, and we were now arriving in Chicago at 6:00 AM for a 6 hour layover.

Fortunately for us, our first class award booking granted us access to American’s Flagship lounge in Terminal 3.  The lounge opens at 6:00 and we arrived at 6:10, the day’s first customers.  This was especially nice for me because I was able to get a few pictures of the empty lounge with all the day’s consumables untouched.

The main hallway, complimentary newspapers

The main hallway, complimentary newspapers

One of the seating areas

One of the seating areas

The beverage buffet, opposite the food buffet

The beverage buffet, opposite the food buffet

The Flagship Lounge is the first class version of AA’s Admiral’s Club, which we visited and briefly walked through before departing ORD.  While the Admiral’s Club would have been a nicer place to spend a layover than the general terminal seating, from what we saw the Flagship Lounge is a very definite step up from the Admiral’s Club.

flagship_ord_breakfastBreakfast in the Flagship lounge was an assortment of fruit cups and yogurt parfaits, hot pan quiche Florentine, and a scrambled egg/bacon/potato dish.  There was also the regular assortment of whole fruit, instant oatmeal, and cold cereal.  The coffee machine makes virtually anything you could want, and the full bar of juice, soft drinks, wine, beer, champagne, and hard alcohol is open the entire day, including breakfast time.

Eventually a few more travelers made their way into the lounge.  Nicoleen moved to a seat nearer an electrical outlet (somewhat hard to find) and I went to the business center to write a ValueTactics post.  The business center features private computer desks with granite counter tops and ethernet ports.  Several desks have computers available for use.  There is also a free printer available.
computer-station redo
Shortly before noon the breakfast became gradually replaced with lunch.  The lunch consisted of a variety of pre-made sandwiches, several appetizers, and sushi rolls.  The shrimp cocktail and the hummus and pita appetizer were especially tasty, but the sandwiches were so-so.  All the lunch food was made better when washed down with a refreshing Amstel Light!  (They even had non-alcoholic O’Doules, although Nicoleen wasn’t in the mood for NA beer that early in the day).
I can’t comment on the wine and champagne selection because my opinion would be pretty worthless.  I can tell the difference between an $8 bottle of wine and an $80 bottle; but I probably couldn’t tell the difference between a $40 and $80 bottle.  I’m just not that fancy.  I know beer a little bit better, and I was happy with the selection.  Besides the aforementioned Amstel Light, there was also Corona, Heineken, Samuel Adams, Sapporo, Guinness and several others.

The hard alcohol selection at American Airlines Flagship lounge in Chicago O'Hare

The hard alcohol selection at American Airlines Flagship lounge in Chicago O’Hare

The lounge eventually filled up, primarily with Asian travelers awaiting a flight to Beijing.  Even at the peak of the attendance while we were there the Flagship Lounge was never crowded.  The bathrooms were clean and tastefully decorated.  Besides the food, drink, and comfortable chairs, the lounge also provided major newspapers and had several TV viewing areas.

To access American’s Flagship Lounge you’ll need to be traveling on a first class international flight with American or a oneworld partner airline, be a oneworld Emerald member, or have American Airlines AAdvantage platinum status and flying internationally.  It’s complicated and confusing, but it’s worth it to know the access rules well.  We were almost denied access because our last leg was in business class, until I pointed out to the desk lady that out long-haul flight was first class.  Here’s the link to the official American Airlines page outlining access rules.

AA’s Flagship Lounge at ORD was a great way to spend our 6 hour layover.  If I had to complain about anything it would be the slight dearth of outlets.  The food was fairly good (especially the breakfast), the chairs were comfy, and the layout provided a quiet, intimate atmosphere.  The unlimited beverages, including some decent booze, was definitely a plus (although common to most lounges) and would have been even more valuable has 50% of my party not been pregnant 🙂  Overall this lounge made our long layover enjoyable, started off our long itinerary in comfort, and generally exceeded my expectations.

First Class to Europe – Anniversary Trip 2015

To celebrate our 10 year anniversary, Nicoleen and I took a trip to Europe in July.  The details were all kept as a surprise for Nicoleen.  In fact the trip’s existence was only revealed after our Jamaica trip back in February, which was itself an anniversary trip decoy.  This was the first major points/miles redemption that she got to directly enjoy, so I had put a lot of effort into making it awesome.  I wanted Nicoleen to see that all the card wrangling and miles managing was worth it!

Enjoying some complimentary beer and chocolate at the Amsterdam Hilton's executive lounge

Enjoying some complimentary beer and chocolate at the Amsterdam Hilton’s executive lounge

Our outgoing flight itinerary was booked with miles in first class.  Our return flight was also booked with miles (but in economy).  We enjoyed amenity-rich airport lounges, got to lie flat on our transatlantic flight, stayed on the executive floor of a Hilton hotel for free, and avoided all foreign transaction fees.  And of course the entire time we were earning more points and miles toward our next trip.

The basic outline is as follows:

  1. First class flights to Switzerland
  2. Stay with friends in Zürich
  3. Weekend road trip to Italian Riviera beach resort
  4. 2 more nights in Zürich and Konstanz
  5. Travel by train to Frankfurt, Germany
  6. Stay with friends in Frankfurt
  7. Train to Amsterdam for one night at Hilton
  8. Fly out of Amsterdam

Each section of our trip will be reviewed in a separate post.  Click the links below to view each part:
(Links won’t be enabled until a given post is published.)

American Airlines Flagship Lounge – Chicago (ORD)
American Airlines First Class Chicago (ORD) to New York (JFK)
American Airlines Flagship Lounge – New York (JFK)
American Airlines First Class New York (JFK) to London (LHR)
British Airways Galleries Lounge – London Heathrow (LHR)
British Airways Business Class London (LHR) to EuroAirport (MHL)
– Hotel Punta Est – Finale Ligure, Italy
Hilton Hotel – Amsterdam
– Plaza Premium Lounge – Toronto (YYZ)
– Cost Breakdown