2018-03-03 - Update on Trips to San Antonio and Wisconsin

It has been a while since my last blog post. It is not for lack of experiences. Since my last post, I have traveled to San Antonio, Texas, where I stayed at the Sheraton Gunter Hotel. During that stay, I got some bad news that required me to travel to Appleton, Wisconsin. This required my first Priceline travel purchase and first Delta flight. During the layovers, we got a chance to visit The Club at ATL and the Delta Sky Lounge at MSP. Finally, we got to try out Home2 Suites in Milwaukee. On top of that, I had to catch up at work for all the extra time away. We also had a big event at work that consumed my attention. Now, here I am.

First, let's talk about the trip to San Antonio. This was a work-related trip to the SAME-IFMA conference, which was being held at the Westin Riverwalk in San Antonio, Texas. However, because I took to long to book my stay, I got sent over to the Sheraton Gunter Hotel, which turns out to be a haunted attraction in San Antonio. My first impression was not that great. The parking valets ignored me for some time, attending to several people who had arrived after I did. I had to get in their face to get service. Past that, check-in was a breeze thanks to Gold status from the AMEX Platinum card.

The Sheraton Gunter is quite obviously a historic hotel. Everything about it evokes a sense of a bygone era in terms of decor and design. For example, my room had a 12-foot ceiling, which modern hotels would not have. In this regard, the hotel niceties that were common back in the day are a nice touch. On the other hand, it is clearly an old hotel. This was most pronounced when the power went out to my room. All of the sudden, everything went dark.

The hotel's response was to announce over the PA that they were investigating reports. That was it. When you are sitting in a dark room and all you hear is that they are investigating reports, all kinds of things come to mind. I tweeted about the outage. Fortunately, @spgassist reached out to me and had the hotel reach out to me. It was odd to have to rely on a PR account to get a courtesy call from the hotel. At some point, I did call the front desk to let them know I was still in the dark. Power was restored sometime around 3 am, I think. Normally, I would be more patient. Except that it was a cold day in San Antonio. The cold had started to creep into my room during the dark period.

In the end, the Sheraton Gunter offered me a few thousand SPG points for my troubles, which I suppose is fine. This was my first stay at a Sheraton and SPG property. One thing I did notice was that a large portion of the hotel staff that I saw were in their 20s. I understand that younger people need to make a living and may be able to handle the responsibility of hospitality. However, there are soft skills that older employees have in terms of empathy and compassion that younger people have not yet figured out. It is not that young people are incapable. Rather, they do not yet know how to express these. If the hotel were staffed with older people, I think my blackout experience would have been much different.

Originally, I had intended to travel to San Antonio and then back home, which is also in Texas. The emergency trip to Wisconsin caught me unprepared for winter weather. Winter in south Texas is not quite what winter is in the rest of the country. My brother and I would be flying to Milwaukee and driving on to Appleton.

Finding flights was new for me this time around. Typically, I would book a flight using AMEX Travel or directly through the airline website. Even Southwest was a bad deal. We were simply not getting great prices. This is when I tried Priceline and Hotwire. Both sites got us two tickets from SAT to MKE for less than $800. It would have cost almost double had we booked the other way. The downside was that we had little control over which flights we would get, other than picking an early morning, afternoon, or evening flight.

In the end, we got Delta flights booking through Priceline. This got me to thinking that playing the travel points game on the credit card's terms is probably not the best option. If you are getting back 1 cent per point or mile in value, but are spending an extra 30 to 50 percent, it doesn't make sense. This has opened my eyes to comparing travel options for flights and hotels, not simply relying on where I have points.

Speaking of points, I was able to cash in Hilton points for a stay at a Home2 suite in Milwaukee on our first night. The second night, we stayed at the Cambria in Appleton on Choice Privileges points. This was not our first time at that Cambria. We like the Cambria brand and try to stay there when we have a chance. We paid outright for our car rental with Avis, which also had status thanks to the AMEX Platinum card.

I forgot to mention that we trip to Milwaukee routed us through Atlanta. We had a chance to hang out at The Club at ATL, an airport lounge in the Priority Pass network, again thanks to AMEX Platinum. The lounge was a pleasant experience. My brother and I hit the bar first before exploring the food selection. The food consisted mostly of wraps and sandwiches, with sides. We could have hoped for better fare; but, free bar.

On the way back, I splurged on a guest pass for my brother for Delta Sky Lounge at MSP. My entry was covered by the AMEX Platinum card. The lounge was a bit crowded. However, they had hot food. We really liked the chicken soup that they offered. Of course, we like the free bar too.

Overall, we primarily financed the unplanned trip to Wisconsin with a combination of points and cash. The experience was eye-opening in the sense that it showed me that I can realize better value by going outside of Membership Rewards and airline miles on occasion. The trade-off, of course, is that doing this eliminates any contributions to status with an airline. However, Delta is not the best airline for travel from MFE, making the status thing a moot point.