BREAKING: Amex TO GIVE PLATINUM CARDMEMBERS FREE IPHONES EVERY YEAR.

Jesus fucking christ, this thread. Go read it, or save yourself ten minutes and enjoy my summary:

  1. Let’s speculate about a possible new Amex card. (A fun pursuit and a decent way to whittle away the time.)
  2. “I hope Amex decides to give every cardmember a FREE IPHONE EVERY YEAR!”
  3. “BUT WHAT ABOUT ANDROID USERS???????”
  4. A CHART WITH AVERAGE INCOMES FOR ANDROID VS iOS USERS.
  5. Five hundred more fucking posts about phones as if this is something that would EVER FUCKING HAPPEN.

I’m really grateful that FlyerTalk exists, since there are a handful of posters who consistently provide useful information, but I don’t think the forum would suffer if moderators deleted 90% of the posts that pop up there. That probably includes mine, which is fine, since I’ll always have my beloved group of three or four blog readers.

hearts-in-heart

Lounge Life – Delta Sky Club Edition

Why hello there! I’m cheery today because I’m coming to you live from the Delta Sky Club in SFO. It’s kind of an interesting lounge, since Delta barely serves SFO, so it’s odd that they’d spend the money to make a lounge so nice. But they did, and I’m certainly not complaining. Outside of Amex’s lounges, this is the nicest US lounge I’ve been to, if you’re judging only by interior design. (Also, I just learned today that it’s Sky Club as two words, and not SkyClub, as I’ve been writing. I suppose this is to be expected from an airline whose full name is Delta Aerial Linears.)

Also, this blog has had a bunch of new readers lately, so it’s a good time to remind everyone of my scientific 80-point scale to assess lounge quality. I haven’t seen this scale spread across the point/miles blog industry yet, but I expect it to catch on any minute. I’ve determined that these eight categories are the most important markers of a lounge’s overall quality, and I feel that they can be used worldwide with no modifications.

Okay? Okay. Here we go…

Delta Sky Club (SFO)

image

(I just took this photo with my iPad. Go find Lucky’s review on One Mile at a Time if you want more photos.)

Furnishings: Oooh, they’re giving Amex Centurion lounges a run for their money. Very sleek and modern, but not to the point of having angular furniture that’s uncomfortable to sit on. While the dividers create the illusion of a larger space, I should note that they would be nightmarish for a trypophobic person. 9/10
Cookies: I was going to give it a higher score, but my wife provided a second opinion, which was lower than mine. The good: lots of choice. Lemon bars, brownies, and two types of cookie. The bad: the cookies are middling, and not nearly chewy enough. But the lemon bars are outstanding. 9/10
Snacks: Points for effort and creativity. While most US lounges just have shitty snack mix and banana-chip-heavy dried fruit mix, Delta at least tries to create a diverse spread. I’ve noticed their effort in the Salt Lake City lounge as well, although there are more total dishes on offer here. Unfortunately, they’re all terrible, so I’m managing to subsist on lemon bars and some hummus. OH YEAH AND DON’T WORRY, THERE’S SOUP. There’s also a good dine-for-pay menu, but I don’t count food that isn’t free in these scores. 4/10
Alcohol: A good amount of free alcohol, although I’m taking off points for Delta’s audacity to encourage people to spend SkyMiles on champagne. 7/10
Views: Great views! The only downside is that you face away from the international terminals, so you don’t get to see any of the heavies. In fact, most of your view is of Virgin America planes, but you also get a nice view of planes taking off and landing. Plus, the slightly skewed perspective makes planes on parallel runways look like they’re going to crash into each other, which is fun. 8/10
Bathrooms: I just got back from them, thanks for asking. Stalls have lots of privacy, which is something that’s oddly lacking in other lounges. They also have these fancy red sinks and brand name toiletries, so you come out smelling fresh as a rose (a rose who just used a fancy sink to wash its hands). 9/10
Outlets: Ubiquitous. 10/10
Other amenities: This lounge is great. The only issue is that it’s kind of small – bigger than the Centurion Studio in Seattle, but smaller than the Centurion Lounge here at SFO. It’s fairly crowded in the early afternoon on a Wednesday, so I could imagine it being packed during peak times. What else? They have a display of Taschen art books to peruse, they have a coffee machine that makes hot chocolate, and they even have a jar of mini marshmallows that you can use as a garnish. It’s the little touches, you know? This is a lounge worth getting to the airport early for. 10/10
Final score: 66/80

Now, as an extra added treat, I’m going to let my wife Justine add her two cents in a brand new feature called Justine’s Corner. So Justine, take it away!

This place is laaaaame.  That is all. 

 

 

Chase Sapphire Reserve Blase Blapphire Reblerve

Oh my god, I’ve had the Chase Sapphire Reserve for a single day and I’m already sick of it.I don’t even have the fucking card yet and I’m already sick of it. So sick of it that I’m rescuing this blog from its 9-month hibernation to write a new post about it.

What’s my problem anyway? Well, it’s less about the card itself, and more about the absolute shitstorm in the points and miles community that surrounds it. Obviously, I was interested in the card. I even kept my Chase Sapphire Preferred open this year only because Doctor of Credit reported a rumor back in the spring that Chase might introduce a super-premium card, and I wanted to have something to upgrade from (since I assumed that I would be ineligible for the new card due to Chase’s “5/24” rule). I ended up getting lucky by being pre-selected by Chase, meaning I was able to open the card despite “being 23482/24.” Great news for me, since I was able to get the big sign-up bonus that Chase is offering, although I probably would have upgraded to the card anyway, for reasons that I’ll go into.

Part of my irritation is just general fatigue at the acronyms and linguistic shorthand that people use to talk about this stuff after reading about it for the past few weeks. To wit: “I’m waiting for more DPs before I use an HP to apply for the CSR, and plus an AU adds $75 to the AF so I don’t think I’ll PC my FU.” I’m going to be honest with you – despite fully immersing myself in the points/miles forum and blog ecosystem, I still read that sentence as, “I’m waiting for more double penetration before I use a Hewlett Packard to apply for the customer service representative, and plus a gold adds $75 to Air France, so I don’t think I’ll politically correct my fuck you.”

Going a level deeper, though, I don’t think this card is *that* good. I do plan to keep it long-term for myself, but that’s because it fits into my personal credit card strategy. (To elaborate: I don’t find as much value as some do in Citi’s rewards program. Its lack of a domestic transfer partner hurts it compared to Chase and Amex, and the partners aren’t as good overall. As a result, I’ve decided to get out of ThankYou rewards altogether and focus on Chase and Amex. With the Amex Everyday Preferred, I can earn 1.5x on everything, 3x on gas, and 4.5x on groceries. That leaves dining and travel, so the Sapphire Reserve’s strong earning here (3x on both) makes it a perfect fit. Now I can dump all my Citi cards and focus on these two as my main earning cards, supplemented by the Chase Freedom and Ink+ where appropriate.)

The blogging community has this weird collective boner over the fact that the Sapphire Reserve is a Visa Infinite card, although as a proud owner of a City National Bank Crystal card, my response is: “Sir, I know Visa Infinite, and you’re no Visa Infinite.” Okay, so it says Visa Infinite on it, but Chase neuters whatever benefits that implies by lopping off the best ones. I’m referring of course to the 12 free GoGo wireless passes per year, the $100 discount air benefit, and the Luxury Hotels portfolio. Without those, Visa Infinite is indistinguishable from the much more widely available Visa Signature – the purchase and travel protections are a little better, but certainly not enough to warrant the immediate coronation of the Sapphire Reserve as THE ULTIMATE TRAVEL REWARDS CARD.

Speaking of the Luxury Hotels portfolio, let’s talk about hotels, since all premium cards have some juice around hotels. A lot of bloggers are saying that the Chase Sapphire Reserve has access to Visa Infinite’s luxury hotels portfolio, although this isn’t true. It has access to *Chase’s* portfolio, just like the Sapphire Preferred and United MileagePlus Explorer (both $95 per year). Not really a point of differentiation for this card. In contrast, the Visa Infinite portfolio offers better benefits at a smaller number of properties, similar to (but not as good as) Amex’s Fine Hotels & Resorts program. Now, maybe you get access to better benefits within Chase’s portfolio with the Sapphire Reserve than you would with a less expensive card, but Chase hasn’t made this clear and needs to do a better job of pointing this out if true.

What about status? Chase has three super-premium cards that offer hotel status. The Ritz card gets you Gold status with $10,000 of spend, the United Club card gets you Hyatt Platinum status, and the Sapphire Reserve gets you… an easier (but not automatic) path to status with Relais & Chateaux, which is great because it’s giving people an opportunity TO LEARN WHAT THE FUCK RELAIS & CHATEAUX IS. (That’s one of the unique Visa Infinite benefits that Chase chose not to axe, by the way.) I guess what I’m wondering is why Chase wouldn’t try to compete more directly with Amex’s Platinum card (which gives Gold status with both Hilton and Starwood) by offering status with one of their hotel partners -especially since they offer status to hotel co-brand cardholders. And especially when they offer it with their other super-premium cards! As for Citi, they don’t offer any hotel status, although they offer the 4th night free benefit, which, even after the recent devaluation, is still one of the most insanely generous credit card perks I’ve ever seen. If I ever stayed in a hotel for four nights at a time, I’d keep the Prestige card forever.

And lounge access? Chase is offering Priority Pass select with no free guests (supposedly), which puts it near the bottom in the category. Citi and City National both allow free guests, putting it in the same class as Citi and City National, all of which offer membership with free guests. Amex makes up for the fact that they don’t offer guest privileges by also offering Centurion Lounges and Delta SkyClub access when flying Delta. It may not be fair to compare Chase to City National, since the latter is very difficult to get (and their logo is a ladder, so I get credit for the pun). Still, it absolutely wipes the floor with the Sapphire Reserve, except of course for the rewards it earns. Originally, I thought the Sapphire Reserve didn’t offer guest privileges, which was a pretty big negative (you can see how pissy I was by reading the strikethrough section). It’s good news that they’ve clarified that they do allow lounge access, since they’re now on par with Citi and City National on this front.

The other mega-perk of the Sapphire Reserve is the $300 travel credit, which does sound awesome, assuming it’s as easy to recoup as Chase’s terms and conditions suggest it is. Effectively, it knocks the fee down to $150, or $55 more expensive than the Sapphire Preferred. Let’s not forget, though, that Citi offers $250 off airfare on the Prestige, and City National and Amex offer fee credits ($250 and $200, respectively) on their super-premium cards. Both are more restrictive (especially Amex), although I’ve managed to recoup all of these credits in ways I consider to be as good as cash the past two years, so I’m going to act like they’re the same except for the amount offered.

While the gross amount of Chase’s credit is a lot, and it explains a lot of why the Sapphire Reserve has bloggers in such a tizzy, the City National card’s $250 credit is *per card* (not per account), meaning that you can actually make money on the card every year by maxing the credit on each authorized user’s card (and City national doesn’t charge for authorized users, either). For me, this is even better than having guest access for Priority Pass (even though it has that too), since my wife can have her own Priority Pass membership through her authorized user card for $0 more per year.

A lot of the ink spilled on the Sapphire Reserve compares it to the Sapphire Preferred, asking WHICH CARD IS RIGHT FOR YOU? Instead of just comparing these two Chase cards, however, I think it’s more useful to compare the Sapphire Preferred with a wider range of super-premium cards. I mean, if you’re going to make the jump from a standard travel rewards card to a super-premium card, you should know what’s out there beyond the glowing blue walls of Chase. So, let’s compare. The City National card is an outlier, because it’s essentially fee-negative, meaning it nets out even cheaper than a no annual fee card. It’s also out-of-reach for most people, though, so it’s not exactly the no-brainer it would be if it were as easy to get as Citi/Chase/Amex cards. The Citi Prestige’s $250 airline credit is super easy to use, and it effectively knocks the fee down to $200 per year, or $105 more than the Sapphire Preferred. For that $105, you get lounge access with guest access and the 4th night free benefit, which, if you can use it, more than pays for the difference. The Amex $200 credit is even more restrictive, although it’s possible to redeem it for Amazon gift cards, which are as good as cash for me. That reduces the fee to $250 per year, or $155 more than the Sapphire Preferred. For that $155, you get access to Centurion Lounges and Delta SkyClubs in addition to Priority Pass, plus a whole slew of other benefits.

Of course, these comparisons are just of the benefits, and not the points earning and rewards, which are significant. The strength of the Ultimate Rewards program is one of the reasons that Chase doesn’t need to compete toe-to-toe on benefits. After all, that’s why I decided to get the card, and why I’m ditching my Citi Prestige despite all of its benefits. To give you a sense of how I value the Sapphire Reserve, I’m going to assume that I spend around $8000 a year on dining and around $7000 on travel (including both personal and work-related). That’s 15,000 extra points I’ll earn with the Sapphire Reserve vs the Sapphire Preferred for an extra $55, or $0.0037 per point. If Chase ever offered to sell Ultimate Rewards points for that cheap, can you imagine the headlines on Boarding Area? “BEST DEAL IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD! FUUUUUCK I CAN”T:DSLKfjDS:Da;afafDSfasdf02303” I kid, but I do think that’s a good deal. So yeah, I’ll keep the card open.

It’s also worth noting that Chase is the only one of the big three that offers the best earning rates on its most expensive card. The decision calculus to keep the Citi Prestige or Amex Platinum centers *only* on the benefits, since cheaper cards within their portfolios offer better earning rates. This presents you with the annoying decision of whether you value points more than benefits, or if you value both enough to carry two cards with significant annual fees. I definitely appreciate how Chase presents a clearer good/better/best hierarchy within its Ultimate Rewards card portfolio, since it enables the cut-and-dried calculus I just made.

Unfortunately, it will never be my only super-premium card, since the benefits I’d give up by getting rid of the City National and Amex Platinum cards are too much. (In fact, of the lounge visits I’ve done this year, probably 80% have been either to a Centurion Lounge or SkyClub, with only a few Priority Pass visits). The Sapphire Reserve doesn’t offer enough on its own to replace those cards, and that’s the root of my disappointment. I’m tired of reading about its amazing Visa Infinite benefits, or its luxury hotel program, or whatever other benefits people are talking about, because it really doesn’t stack up against Citi and Amex in this regard. Everyone’s talking about this card pushing Citi and Amex to innovate, and I don’t really see why they’d need to. If I were them, I’d breathe a huge sigh of relief that Chase didn’t upend the market by offering United Club access, or Hyatt Diamond status, or something that really would encourage people to dump their other cards. It has an amazing sign-up bonus and earns a lot of Ultimate Rewards points, which is where I see value. I’m excited about the fact that I’m not tempted by Citi’s card offerings because they have a lot of 3x categories that Chase doesn’t; I’m excited about the fact that I don’t have to figure out whether I should keep the Amex Premier Rewards Gold because it earns 3x on airfare and the Platinum doesn’t. The Sapphire Reserve is exactly what I need to trim my card collection and focus my earning in the two programs that work best for me. Everything else is just hyperbolic hyperventilation at the fact that Chase is offering a super-premium card at all, and, as I said at the beginning of this post, I’m already sick of it! Good thing I have a long vacation at a Relais & Chateaux planned so I can tune it all out.

Lounge Life, Part 3

Because you can’t and will never be able to get enough, I’m back with another round of my very popular lounge reviews. It’s really gratifying to see my 80-point scale become the standard across the point & miles blogging community, since I really do think it’s the best representation of lounge quality. So, without further ado, let’s dive in…

Amex Centurion Studio (SEA)

Furnishings: Centurion-chic. My one concern as Amex opens up more and more of these lounges is that they start to run together, thus making them more mundane through repetition. Still, though… nice. 9/10
Cookies: Macaroons. I LOVE macaroons. 9/10
Snacks: I was here in the morning and had some oatmeal for breakfast. This lounge has like 10 different types of seeds you can put in your oatmeal to make it more crunchy. You know how people use “crunchy” as a word to describe hippies in Seattle and Portland? They’re literally talking about how many seeds those hippies put in their oatmeal. Supposedly Amex brought some of those crunchy hippies in to consult on all the various seeds they wanted to put out in the lounge. 7/10
Alcohol: Craft beer on demand… 10/10
Views: Okay views, but they suffer for not being through floor-to-ceiling windows. You kind of have to crane your head over a half-height wall of frosted glass to see the airfield. Lotsa Delta on view too… talk about a boring livery. I suppose every livery is boring if you see it all the time, but Delta’s just screams “Live John Tesh Concert” to me. 5/10
Bathrooms: Clean single-stall bathrooms with lots of space, really thick paper towels (seriously, they’re like bath-towel thick), and L’Occitane products to wash up with. Only complaint is that there are only two, and there’s sometimes a wait. 7/10
Outlets: Ample. 10/10
Other amenities: This lounge really is tiny, so it’s sometimes hard to find a seat. I had a good time watching some football in the little TV area (where there are three chairs), drinking beer, and eating crunchy oatmeal and macaroons. Here’s my one issue with this lounge – more and more, every Centurion lounge becomes a referendum on how worthwhile the Amex Platinum card is vs. other cards that offer lounge access. And while the Centurion Studio is unquestionably nicer than Alaska’s Board Room, it isn’t *so much nicer* that I’d want to keep the Amex card just to access it. Especially since the Board Room will probably get remodeled any time soon. So while it’s a much nicer lounge, it isn’t a world apart or anything. 7/10
Final score: 64/80

United Club (SFO, domestic gates) – sorry I don’t have pics, but if you’ve ever been to a United Club, you can picture it.

Furnishings: If I were worried about lounges running together, I guess I shouldn’t bother going to United Clubs, right? Close your eyes and think of the furniture in the lobby of a Marriott Courtyard hotel in the mid-90s. You just pictured any United Club. 3/10
Cookies: Brownie crunch. 4/10
Snacks: I’ve discussed this before, but because I had just come to this lounge from the Centurion lounge at SFO, I’m giving it a low score. 3/10
Alcohol: I didn’t even ask… 1/10
Views: Here’s where this lounge shines. It’s a long room, with floor to ceiling windows all the way across, meaning you get panoramic, unobstructed views of the airfield. And not just United planes, either. 10/10
Bathrooms: I’m just going to go out on a limb and say “not great.” I didn’t use them. 7/10
Outlets: I had to hunt a little bit for one, which I hate doing. They’re around, though. 7/10
Other amenities: Okay, so I had a realization at this lounge. I had planned to spend my time at the Centurion lounge before my United flight to EWR, but it was crowded, and I was flying in first class and would have a meal on the plane. The only open seating was at a table in a not-so-comfortable chair, and I almost started to feel claustrophobic in the small space with no windows to the outside. I left and decided to try the United Club (which is included with a premium transcon ticket), which, for all its United Clubby shabby drabness, was exactly what I needed. It wasn’t crowded, it was quiet, the lights were pretty low, and I could sit in a comfortable chair and watch planes go back and forth until my flight. My realization was that, while Amex lounges are definitely “nicer,” in terms of food/decor/amenities/etc, if you just need a lounge to relax in before the flight, there may actually be better options out there. Given I had had a really stressful morning and was able to chill out a little bit before a long flight, I’m going to give this lounge a 10 here. Oh, also – there’s a long hallway that leads you to the check-in desk, and there are pictures of tall ships on the wall. I’m all like, “You’re an airline, United! Where are the planes?!?!?!?!” 10/10
Final score: 45/80

Treat Yo’self: Reviewing the Amex Platinum Card

As I’ve stated before, if you want to have a successful travel blog, you need to stuff it full of reviews. When people travel, they don’t want any aspect of the travel to be something they haven’t already read a review of on a travel blog. My wildly popular “Lounge Life” posts are a testament to that – this blog had almost no traffic at all before those posts went up, and now… Well let’s just say it still has almost no traffic, but that I expect a major uptick any moment now.

So here’s my review of the Amex Platinum card. By making it especially specific to me, my hope is that this review holds no relevance whatsoever to your own situation.

Bonus: Usually a 40,000 point sign up bonus after $3000 spent in the first three months. Recently, a 100,000 point bonus was available, and I took advantage of that, which finally righted the wrong I inflicted upon myself when I threw a targeted offer for 100,000 points in the garbage last summer. I don’t think 40,000 points is a terrible bonus in any case… it isn’t huge, but it’s still competitive. Citi offers 50,000 for the Prestige card, and I think Membership Rewards points are better.

Screen grab from travelcodex.com

Earning: 1 point per dollar. In other words, this card is a terrible earner, which is bizarre to me. I think Amex’s target customer is the person of considerable means who gets the Platinum because it has a bunch of fancy benefits, and who doesn’t really consider the overall earning potential of the card. I doubt most of the customers for this card have a big portfolio of other cards, especially since the fee is really high. So if you spend a lot of money and don’t really care about points except as an afterthought, then a card that earns 1 point per dollar is fine for you. Still, for their most premium publicly available card, I wish Amex provided some incentive to actually use the card once you get it. Since I get at least 1.5 points on everything from my Everyday Preferred card plus travel/restaurant bonuses from various other cards, the only time I’d ever use this card would be for international transactions (since the Everyday Preferred has foreign transaction fees). And even then, if it were foreign travel or restaurants, I’d use the Citi Prestige or the Chase Sapphire Preferred and get category bonuses there too. Bottom line, you get this card to buy your way into the benefits it offers, not to build up a rewards balance.

Mitigations: When I evaluate cards, I always look at mitigations first – these are any benefits that help pay back the annual fee. A true mitigation should be an amount I would have spent anyway – for instance, the Citi Prestige card offers a $250 airline reimbursement good on tickets, plus a fourth night free benefit for any hotel stay. If you would normally spend $250 on airfare and stay in a hotel for four nights in a row in any given year, the Citi Prestige mitigates its entire annual fee. The Amex Platinum reimburses $200 toward airline “incidental” fees, like baggage charges, in-flight purchases, or lounge access, but not ticket sales. Until recently, it also reimbursed gift cards, despite the fact that the terms of the benefit are written to exclude them. This may or may not be the case going forward, though, and I’m going to assume for review purposes that gift cards are no longer covered. Now, I almost never check bags, and I rarely make in-flight purchases, so the fee credit ceases to be much of a mitigation at all. I think I’m just going to buy a bunch of day passes for airline lounges and sell them on eBay – maybe I’ll get $50 or so, but the annual fee is still pretty hefty even with that mitigation.

Misc benefits: This card has tons of miscellaneous benefits that are nice to have but not worth it to me. I could take or leave concierge service, the free magazine, the Fine Hotels and Resorts collection of hotel perks (most of which are way too expensive for me anyway), the private jet discounts, and so on. Some of the benefits are definitely useful, like rental car elite status, but the Citi Prestige offers these as well. In fact, there are very few things that the Amex Platinum offers that the Citi Prestige doesn’t offer. Plus, the Citi Prestige has a better lounge access policy, since it includes free guests where the Amex doesn’t. Free Starwood Gold status via the Amex platinum is probably pretty sweet for some, but I’ve already signed my life over to Hyatt and IHG, so I won’t get much use out of this benefit either. (Plus, if you’re loyal to Starwood, you probably already have Gold status anyway.)

bread
This image is from an article about fancy bread in Departures magazine, a free magazine for Amex Platinum cardholders. Bread!

Okay, so at this point, it should be pretty clear that I’m not a huge fan of this card. If you’re comparing premium cards, the Citi Prestige is objectively better in just about every way. It earns points more quickly, has a higher sign-up bonus (most of the time), great mitigations, and an awesome suite of benefits that offers the same or better than Amex. There’s one problem.

The goddamn motherfucking Centurion lounges. I LOVE THEM. The Citi Prestige card can gussy itself up all it wants, but it isn’t going to get you into these lounges. It may not matter to most people not based near a Centurion lounge, but I fly out of SFO and thus have tons of occasion to use the lounge there. And every single other lounge in the US is a piece of shit compared to this lounge (probably)… except the other Centurion lounges, which I can’t wait to visit. (I should point out that Centurion lounges cost $50 with any other Amex, so theoretically I should count how many times I actually visit them over the next year. If I don’t go at least 8 times, then I should cancel the card and just pay to get in instead.)

The bottom line is that the Amex Platinum is a not-great product with one huge megaperk that no other card offers. By all rights, I should just get rid of it after the first year, but I think I’m gonna keep it, basically paying $450 a year for Centurion lounge access. Although I tend to focus fairly obsessively on value, the simple fact is that I like to travel, and I like things that make travel more fun for me. Even if it’s not a great deal, my plan is to close my eyes and plug my ears and pretend the fee doesn’t exist so that I can sit on lime green chairs eating fancy canapés and drinking expensive alcohol “for free.”

Well there you have it… I guess this has been less of a review and more of me justifying to myself why I should keep the card even though it’s a waste of money. Check back in a year to see if I was successful. Final rating on this card: 98 Centurion Lounges out of 100.

Requisite question designed to spur a flurry of responses in the comments section: What reason could there possibly be for YOU not to cancel your Amex Platinum card?

Lounge Life (Part 2)

Who wants more lounge reviews? For someone who hadn’t been to an airport lounge before this year, I feel like I’ve seen a lot of them this year. This crop of reviews will bring me up to date, although I’ll get to see the new Centurion Studio in Seattle next weekend, so if you were sad that this would be it for lounge reviews for a while, don’t worry. Here we go:

This is a different United Club at ORD. It looks nicer than the one I’m reviewing here.

United Club, ORD (Terminal 1, C Gates)
Furnishings:
worn down and could use a refresh, but overall comfortable for waiting out a layover. Just like the one in SFO and most lounges in the US. 6/10
Cookies: some weird brownie crunch stuff. Not bad, but still lower-tier. Fun fact: United Airlines is the largest consumer of brownie crunch stuff in the world. 4/10
Snacks: Hummus and Skittles, but not mixed together (unless you’re a dick and want to ruin it for everyone).7/10
Alcohol: Or should I say “Alcohol”… 1/10
Views: Great views of multiple runways, not just planes at their gates. Also a good place to view the thunderstorm that overtook ORD and gave us a 3-hour delay (a delay that was much more enjoyable to pass in the lounge than in the terminal). 8/10
Bathrooms: More stray urine than I like to see in a bathroom. 4/10
Outlets: I didn’t have a problem finding an outlet, and the lounge was pretty packed due to the delay. 8/10
Other amenities: This is a big lounge, which is good when everyone descends on it at once. There’s also a customer service counter with multiple agents, so if you need to rebook, you won’t have to wait very long. 7/10
Final score: 45/80

If I’m going to keep reviewing lounges, I better start photographing the fuckin things or this is going to get really repetitive.

Delta Sky Club (SLC)
Furnishings:
 Diversity! There must be 20 different types of chairs in here. None are particularly comfortable, though. 6/10
Cookies: I mean, would it kill them to have a basic chocolate chip cookie? The chocolate-chocolate chip one was pretty good, but if I wanted oatmeal raisin I’d call the… uhh… Quaker Oats guy? 6/10
Snacks: Man, since when did all airport lounges decide that hummus would be their go-to? Delta has it too, but it’s prepackaged and not as good as United’s. They also had multiple soups because SOUP IS TERRIBLE. 5/10
Alcohol: I can’t remember, since I only had a diet Dr. Pepper. I’m going back in January and will update this, because I know everyone is so concerned. I think it’s better than United/American, so I’ll give it a provisional 4. 4/10
Views: Unless you like Fox News, the views in this lounge are terrible. 1/10
Bathrooms: Clean and fancier than you get in the terminal. What else do you need? 7/10
Outlets: I’ve seen reviews praising the outlet situation in this lounge, but I had to hunt for one. 5/10
Other amenities: I like the multiple seating areas, which are good for the various moods in which you might find yourself. You’ll also remember that you’re in a red state by the multiple TV monitors playing Fox News. Bottom line is that I can’t fucking stand SLC airport, so anything that isn’t the main terminal is an improvement. The Southwest concourse is maybe my least favorite area of any airport I’ve ever been to. Plus there are low ceilings and a smoking lounge where you can look at smokers like they’re zoo animals or something. God I hate that airport. 8/10
Final score: 42/80

Amex Centurion Lounge (SFO)

Furnishings: Class all the way. Tons of different options, my favorite being the padded love seats each with a power outlet built into the arm. I sat in one and read “Departures” magazine like the yuppie piece of shit I’ve always wanted to be. 9/10
Cookies: Okay, there weren’t cookies per se, although there is a rotating dessert selection that included a peanut-butter brownie that was fucking amazing. I wanted to stuff the whole tray into my carry-on, but I felt that might be frowned upon. 10/10
Snacks: As a vegetarian/vegan, I never have very high hopes for food spreads in places like this, since I know I’m not the target customer. However, I chowed down on some excellent roasted potatoes and had a great salad as well. Oh and don’t worry, they serve soup. 7/10
Alcohol: I knew that everything in this lounge was free, but I still expected to be charged for a very generous glass of Port Charlotte whisky that would go for at least $15 in a normal bar. Drinking high-end single malt before a flight is an experience I hope to repeat over and over again in this lounge. I’m not a huge wine drinker, but the wine tasting wall is pretty cool too. 10/10
Views: This lounge doesn’t face the airfield, so you don’t get any plane views, but you do get views of people in the terminal not having as good a time as you’re having. 2/10
Bathrooms: I’m mad at myself that I didn’t look at the bathrooms, because I bet they’re swanky as hell. I’m just gonna leave it at a 7 for now, but that’s probably doing it a disservice. 7/10
Outlets: Oh they’ve got outlets, don’t worry. 10/10
Other amenities: I love this lounge. Honestly this was first lounge I went to that was actually fun to visit in its own right and not just a better option than the shitty terminal. It makes sense if you think about it: given the relative shittiness of many airports, lounges are pretty complacent, but Amex upended that thinking with the Centurion concept. 10/10
Final score: 65/80

Requisite question designed to spur a flurry of responses in the comments section: What’s YOUR favorite dessert you’ve had at a Centurion lounge?

Starwood Lust

Okay, let’s just get this out of the way. Every time someone talks about Starwood points, all I can think about is the episode of Broad City where Abbi accidentally gets super high and charges $1000+ of groceries at Whole Foods to her Starwood credit card that she got because she thought it would make her feel more like an adult. To be honest, it seems weird that all these serious points blogs write endlessly about the Starwood card, because I associate it with Abbi’s giant blue imaginary friend named Bingo Bronson.

Anyway, aside from strange pop culture associations, I guess I don’t really get the big deal about this card. I understand all the benefits – chief among them that you get a 5000 point transfer bonus when you transfer 20,000 Starpoints to airlines (for an average earning rate of 1.25 points per dollar), and I realize that they have really good transfer partners, including Alaska and American. Still, though, the card is kind of weak in a lot of ways, isn’t it? First of all (and the Devil’s Advocate guy on Travel Codex already mentioned this), you aren’t *really* earning 1.25 points per dollar, just like points aren’t *really* worth actual money. You have to get 20,000 points first in order to get the 5000 point bonus, and since the card only earns 1 point per dollar, that’s gonna take a long time. You’re “earning” that extra 1/4 point per dollar in the form of a futures contract on a transfer that you’ll make at an unspecified point. You don’t have it until you hit the 20,000 threshold, which means your entire earning and redemption strategy has to conform to 20,000 point increments. And the minute you top off an account with an odd number of Starpoints, you just blew up the entire value proposition people cite with this card.

Here’s the thing: last month, I earned well over two points per dollar on my Everyday Preferred card, meaning that I could earn 25,000 points on this card WAAAAAY faster than I could earn 20,000 Starpoints. It’s not as if Amex’s travel partners are super shitty either – you get reasonable business class awards to Europe via Aeroplan (though some – but not all – include fuel surcharges), other Star Alliance awards with ANA or Singapore, OneWorld redemptions via British Airways, and even competitive partner awards with Delta (which still has some value for Skyteam partner redemptions). Everyone’s all up in arms about Amex’s British Airways devaluation, but when they make it *so* easy to earn points, it doesn’t sting that bad. I could stick with Starpoints or Ultimate Rewards if a 1:1 transfer rate were important to me on principle, but given the earning potential of an Amex card portfolio (especially if you combine the Gold and Everday Preferred cards), you’ll earn circles around either of those other cards, more than offsetting the devaluation.

I suppose I sound like a Membership Rewards fanboy, and I should admit that I am… and also that I recognize that part of that might be due to being very heavily invested in MR right now, meaning I may have an instinct to defend it. I’m not denying that fact, especially since it’s really easy to find bitter message board comments about how MR has lost a lot of value as a program. But I don’t think that makes any of my arguments untrue (such is the advantage of having a blog with no readers).

But anyway, back to Starpoints. I think it’s significant that the sign-up bonus kinda sucks. You get 25,000 (or [GASP] 30,000 for the next month), which means that after your first amazing transfer bonus, you’ll have 5000 orphaned points for months while you build up another 15,000 points. Compared to a farily-easy-to-find sign-up bonus on the Amex Gold Card of 50,000 points, I can’t see how this card stacks up. Are Starpoints really worth 2x Membership Reward points? For big spenders who want to have skin in multiple programs, it certainly doesn’t make sense to ignore the Starwood program, but for most people making less than $100,000 year, it’s just too hard to put enough spend on the card to get meaningful rewards (unless you’re aggressively manufacturing spend, which most people don’t do – and the people who tout the Starwood card don’t just recommend it for MSers). The most common argument for this card is that it’s best for spending that doesn’t fit into other bonus categories, but (big surprise) I still don’t agree with that. Most point valuations peg the Starpoints as around 10% more valuable than MR points. So if you’re earning 1.25 Starpoints per dollar, that equates to 1.375 MR points, which is still less than the 1.5 minimum earning rate on the Everyday Preferred.

Purple is the new black?

Okay, okay – the transfer partners. They’re the best. I’m not going to argue that point… but if you can’t earn enough points to redeem, what’s the use? There’s more water in the ocean than there is in a lake, but if you can’t drink saltwater, what good is it? And one other thing: if it’s so damn important to be able to transfer to American and Alaska, why not just sign up for their co-brand cards and collect a bunch of miles that way? You can get 25,000 Alaska miles just for opening the card (plus a $100 credit), and Citi has an offer for 75,000 miles on their American Airlines premium card. What’s more, those bonuses are recurring, whereas you only get your precious 30,000 Starpoints once between now and when you die.

Okay, so obviously every program has its high and low points. I just don’t agree that Starpoints are the best currency for most people, given that anyone who isn’t a big spender is going to have a super hard time racking up points the way it’s possible to do in other programs. Lucky had a curious argument about the value of Starpoints recently, saying that the difficulty of earning them actually makes them more valuable due to laws of supply & demand. I’m not sure I agree with that (and I’m a bigger fanboy for Lucky than I am for Membership Rewards), since Starpoints aren’t tradeable like other commodities whose values are dictated by supply and demand. In the world of points, “value” doesn’t mean what something is worth in a resale transaction; instead, a point’s value lies in what it can get you, and unless you’re putting over $100,000/year spend on your SPG card, it ain’t gonna get you much. I’m not anti-SPG by any means, and I’ll probably pick up the card at some point in my life if I need 25,000 miles quickly for a program that doesn’t have other transfer partners. But the way people talk about this card, you’d think it could give you a reach-around from your back pocket, and I just don’t see it.

Requisite question designed to spur a flurry of responses in the comments section: Do YOU think Abbi made the right choice to use her SPG Amex at Whole Foods when she was high out of her mind?