The Helmsley Park Lane, NYC

After you read this post, you could find my conclusion surprising , so I’m putting it right up front:  I recommend you book the Helmsley Park Lane hotel for a stay in New York City.

My November plan to visit NYC for a long weekend combining business, museum visits, and food, was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.  The south end of Manhattan was dark.  Subway tunnels were flooded.  I had reservations at restaurants that were recovering from water or extended electrical failure.  I wanted to go anyhow.  I wanted to support them as they struggled to recover.  But I cancelled.

Typical of Helmsley when they chose to excel, a supervisor at their reservations number, while herself dealing with living in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy,  kindly rescheduled my prepaid (and non-refundable) reservation into January. First (+)

Second (+)  The Helmsley Park Lane is located on Central Park South (59th street) between the Plaza Hotel and the Ritz Carlton Hotel.  Location, location, location.

First (-)  We arrived by cab in a drizzle.  My wife thought she saw the Helmsley doorman come up to the cab and make a “just 1 minute” signal at the window.  I was chatting with the cabbie and paying and didn’t see it.  Our taxi driver lifted the luggage out.  Hoping the doorman hadn’t been a hallucination, we waited a minute, but no one from the hotel came out or even acknowledged us; so we rolled ourselves inside.  My darling, young wife and her suitcase were tangled in the revolving door long enough for someone to notice her and assist her, but no such luck.

A powerful NYC Hotel Doorman controls all he surveys.  His kingdom includes both generous and demanding guests.  His success is the measure of his skill at turning the latter into the former.  Through his strong presence, he manages unruly cabbies and cops, hookers and pimps, thieves and vandals.  He rules by intimidation, using force only as required, but able to escalate from the whistle he wields when summoning taxis to “whatever it takes.”  He is a show of bravado, the ringmaster of the New York City tourist circus.  By contrast, our Helmsley doorman was barely visible.

I booked through Preferred Hotels to take advantage of a special rate called “50% OFF BAR [Best Available Rate] Continental Breakfast for 2.”  It worked out to $280 per night plus $44.80 in NYC taxes.

At reception, we were told we could have our breakfast either “on the second floor or in the room.”  We decided to try room service the first morning, because “breakfast in the room” being included in a New York hotel is unbelievable!  Third (+)  Breakfast was excellent — including a choice of juice; plenty of good coffee and hot chocolate; top brand yogurt; choice of toasted bagel with cream cheese or artfully wrapped, euro-bakery-style muffins or pastries; and fresh fruit.  We opted for room service daily and were not disappointed.

Second (-)  The original reception clerk had failed to properly code our Continental breakfast as free, so we got to see the $71.85 [$27 each plus $4 room service each, plus 18% gratuity] charge on our folio before it was removed later that day by Marissa Fourth (+), who was not only helpful and informative but also charming.

We were asked if we needed help to our room.  Sure, that’s nice.  Reception clerk called  “Front,” rang his bell, and promptly vanished from his window.  Third (-)  Nothing happened.  A brief wait and then, no patience by now, we rolled our own suitcases into the elevator.  On the elevator, a fellow rider commiserated, “Yes, I understand.  We checked in.  They said they would send our luggage up right away.  We waited a half-hour and then called.  They had put our luggage in the storage room.”

I guess it’s no big thing for him, but our reception clerk also didn’t even mention we had been upgraded from “deluxe city view queen 7-24” to “city view Executive King 43.”    A “when available at check-in” room upgrade is part of my free “I Prefer” membership, but what sort of non-service-oriented dope would miss the chance to charm us with the magic phrase all travelers long to hear, “I’ve upgraded you”?   

Fourth (-) Where registration really lost it was in failing to tell me  that the “Executive” in my “city view Executive King 43[rd floor]” upgrade entitled me to a blue plastic room key, which not only opened the door to room 4315, but was also good for a free drink (anything!) during happy hour each evening in Harry’s Bar.  Retail value of that free treat:  Dewars @ $13; Bellini @ $19; very good, nightly bar snacks, including mighty-tasty-cheese-puff-ruffle-things @ $priceless.  What reception clerk wouldn’t mention every possible benefit of staying at his fine hotel?!?

NYCDay

“I Prefer” membership gives me enough status for a high-floor, less obstructed NYC view with a peek at the southeast corner of the park, but not quite enough status to get moved around the corner for a full “Central Park view.”  It was January and often so foggy we couldn’t see even nearby buildings, so we could forgo the park view.  Room 4315 was a good-sized, old but very clean, typical NYC hotel room, but with giant, east-facing windows.

“I Prefer” membership also entitles me to free internet access, but when I try to sign on from the room, I am asked to approve $12.95 for 24 hours access.  Later I’m going through the lobby and ask n-s-o guy how to get free access.  (You would think I’d have learned my lesson by now.)  “Only a manager can approve that.  And the manager isn’t here right now.  I’ll have him call you.”  Fifth (-)  I don’t need to tell you that I’m still waiting for that call.  Fifth (+)  Peggy T, another charming and helpful front desk employee later explained that I should go ahead and sign on.  The charge would be removed later.  The connection is fast and stable.

Sixth (-)  The “Do Not Disturb” sign was repeatedly ignored.   The room had a doorbell.  It rang pretty late one night to announce the delivery of a room service menu — slid under the door.  It rang another time; I can’t explain why.

Sixth (+)  Housekeepers tried to be invisible, but when you met them in the hallways, they were some of the friendliest of the hotel’s employees.   These older hotels must be tough.  Our room was spotless.  I respect their work.

Seventh (-)  Would you expect that after taking time to write comments on a hotel’s feedback form, placing it in their pre-addressed (to the General Manager) envelope, paying the postage, and waiting two weeks, I would have received an acknowledgement?  Not from the Helmsley Park Lane.  I found the form in the desk drawer.  It wasn’t shoved in my face at check-out with “Thanks!!” and a smiley face added.  It looked like hotel stationery, as classy as a feedback survey can be; and I suspect it will never be acknowledged.

The Helmsley Park Lane Hotel can excel.  It’s not a new, boutique hotel.  It’s an old, NYC hotel.  Stay there.  Just like the city itself, if you can ignore the things that don’t work and can connect with the talented people you find working there, it can be wonderful.

Just four nights spent in New York City in January and I once again feel connected to the crazy city.  I had expected to rekindle a fondness for the place where I’d spent four years in the 70s.  But I’m really loving it more than ever.  I’m crazy about the remodeled American Wing at the Met.  I’m walking the lower East side ignoring the undulating sidewalks that make walking nearly impossible, just like in the 70s when NYC was falling apart.  It’s not exactly like the old days for me.  It’s cloudy.  I get north and south confused in Soho and walk a couple blocks east when I meant to go west.  The city is under construction more than I remember.  I don’t recall ever ducking under so much scaffolding.  Some things are cleaned up.  There’s almost none of the plywood I remember on buildings in Soho.  Glass storefronts are back, neatly painted other than black, with new doors and polished handles.

When I return home, I’m reading about taxis and fashion week.  I’m interested.  I’m looking at photos, trying to identify street corners.  I’m reading restaurant reviews, comparing reactions to mine or, if I don’t know them, planning a visit, just like I really lived there.

We ought to be amazed that the city manages to work at all.  We read headlines when things go wrong — blackouts, hurricanes, blizzards.  Things are constantly going wrong.  I have some sympathy for New York’s almost daily traumas.  Certainly, Montana or Colorado have blizzards all the time.  California has worse floods and mudslides.  New Orleans and Florida suffer hurricanes.   New York City, however, seems to get disasters, plagues and pestilences randomly thrown at it.  New York City gets all these, plus suicidal terrorist airplanes, blackouts, and more.  On any given day, anything can happen, and it does.  Like the Helmsley, NYC is for the strong.

$399 Non-stop Roundtrip Istanbul from Washington, D.C. — Once in a lifetime??

Update (March 14, 2013):  $399 is gone, but there’s a pretty good fare on Air France “Super Spring Sale.”  Purchase before March 26 — as low as $667 New York >< Istanbul round-trip.  Departures through April 30.  I found March 30 >< April 10 @ $691.  Most fares are just under $710.

Update (February 20, 2013):  We’ve been posting about cheap fares to Istanbul since last November, but this one is unbelievable and not well promoted.  Buy tickets and start travel by March 7, 2013.

IAD - IST

Turkish Airways has a $399 fare from Washington, D.C. (IAD) to Istanbul (IST) on its non-stop Flight 8, returning on its non-stop Flight 7.

As of today, the possibilities include

  • Depart February 24 for 6, 7, 8, 9, or 10 nights
  • Depart February 25 for 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 nights
  • Depart February 26 for 5, 6, 7, or 8 nights
  • Depart February 28 for 5 or 6 nights
  • Depart March 6 for 5, 6, 7, or 12 nights.

To explore flight options, use Matrix selecting “See calendar of lowest fares.”  For “Length of  stay,” I used a date range of “5-12,” but plug in whatever works with your schedule.  Select “Nonstop only” for “Stops.”

To explore other cheap options to Istanbul ($567 KLM from Chicago, $441 Delta from D.C., $494 from Newark, etc.) use our favorite airfare sleuths at The Flight Deal.

Melia Hotels MAS Rewards points — why I exchanged mine for Skymiles

Update:  February 21, 2013.   mas Rewards is now MeliáRewards.  Additions include a new level, free Internet in many brands, and contests and prizes during the re-branding.   More emphasis on (recently added) discounts for members booking directly.  First reaction  —  only a few downgrades:  lower breakfast discounts and expiration dates on points.

Even the basic Blue MAS Rewards card is cool for a number of reasons:

  • 50% off breakfast
  • free newspaper
  • Late check-out
  • More benefits if you stay often
  • Signing up is free
  • Melia has great hotels in Spain

I first stayed with them over a week-end in Barcelona, then a week around Thanksgiving in Madrid, and this year in Bilbao when we went to see the Guggenheim museum.  I usually avoid chains, but Melia employees have won me over.

Three stays over three years does not Platinum make.  I did accumulate 17,286 MAS points in my rewards account — never enough for  the Melia room I wanted.   I was pleased to find I could transfer miles to a number of airline partners.  The transfer ratios defied any logic I could come up with:

  • AA 6 MAS points : 1 AAdvantage Mile
  • Air France 6:1
  • Iberia 100:15 Avios (about 6:1)
  • Delta 3:1
  • Lufthansa 2:1

I’m liable to see patterns where they don’t exist, but I was seeing a lot of 6:1 ratios.  Rather than wake up some day to find that the Delta Skymiles ratio had gone to 6:1, I exchanged 15,000 MAS Rewards points for 5,000 Skymiles.  (I might have picked Lufthansa if I lived anywhere except Cincinnati.)  The transfer happened overnight.  Once again, I was very pleased with Melia’s service.

Carpentras Flea Market — a nice Sunday Marché aux Puces. Here’s how to find it!

Place des CarmesSunday midday there’s a nice flea market on the outskirts of Carpentras in a lovely tree-lined parking lot. Since it starts at 10 am, you can visit the market in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue early in the morning and then take the short drive up to Carpentras for its combination of art, antiques, and bric-a-brac.

Websites that mention the Carpentras flea market correctly locate it at “Place des Carmes” or “parking des Platanes,” but neither worked on our GPS or Google maps. We found the market at the junction of Av. Jean-Jaurès (D942) and Av. du Comtat Venaissin (D4), just east of the center of the old town.

Sandy Price, author of The Flea Markets of France, chose this market as number 8 of 10 she listed in an article for The Guardian.

Visited August 2011 and September 2012

Originally posted on TripAdvisor January 19, 2012

Buying what could be free — US Airways off-peak award to Europe

Update (November 21, 2012):  Off-peak availability for 60k mile roundtrips in Business Class is gone.  If you didn’t get on the plane with me this year, I look forward to seeing you in 2013!

Background:  

  • I recently read (on http://milevalue.com) that the US Airways Airbus 330 is the flagship of their Business Class.
  • US Airways has something called “Off-Peak” awards — Business Class awards requiring 60,000 miles roundtrip to Europe versus the normal 100,000-350,000 — available on limited dates between January 15 and February 28, 2013.
  • US Airways just announced a 100% bonus on miles purchased (buy 1 get 1 free), cutting the normal cost ($.035/mile) in half.
  • US Airways flies the Airbus 330 from Philadelphia to Paris. I can puddlejump CVG to PHL.
  • I’m always ready to go to Paris, even in the dead of winter.

I decide to book an off-peak fare to Paris! All I need to do is figure out how to make it work.

US Airways Off-Peak Awards

Booking a Mileage Award with no Mileage:  I have history with US Airways. My “US Air” Frequent Traveler Program card shows a “member since” date of 09/85. But I now live in Cincinnati, Ohio. It’s been awhile since I’ve had the opportunity to fly US Airways. I have zero miles in my account.

With these offers, however, zero miles doesn’t seem to be a problem.  I can buy the 60,000 I need for an “Off-Peak” roundtrip (as long as I’ve been a member for 12 days ?!?!?) for $1128.75 including the taxes.

Buy US Airways Bonus Miles

“Off Peak” means US Airways chooses the dates for my vacation:  Here’s the chart for January off-peak flights to Paris from Cincinnati.  Notice anything funny?  Yep.  Only one day is “Off-Peak” outbound and only two days back.  There are none  in February.  Oh, well, Paris museums are heated.  A week in Paris in January sure beats an week in Cincinnati in January.  Let’s go!

Selecting my "Off-Peak" flights

So far, the tab for the flight is $190 in fees and $ 1128.75 to buy 60,000 miles = $1318.75.  I have to know — How’s this compare to buying the ticket?

Roundtrip January tickets to Paris.

On the same “Off-Peak” days, the lowest (non-refundable) business class fare for the same flights is $5475.  I can save $4156.25!  I check some other dates during the month, but can’t get the fare below $5300 on US Airways.

Since I’m booking this flight as an award ticket, I earn no frequent flier credit for the 12,600 miles I’ll fly.  No wonder I can’t keep any miles in my account.

Redemption — in the secular sense — Chase ultimate rewards points

Don’t waste your hard-earned rewards points learning how to use them.  Follow me as I crawl through a ticketing experience.

The background:  I wanted two round-trip Business Class tickets from Cincinnati to Barcelona in September.  Beginning in January, I hounded Delta.com looking for rewards tickets at the low end of their redemption scale (which runs from 100,000 to 325,000 Skymiles for a Business Class ticket.)  Their award calendar had mostly blue days — blue for days with high-end, 325,000 mile tickets — 650,000 for two roundtrips wasn’t going to happen.  Chasing green (low mileage) days led to flights with obscene layovers, bad connections, or revealed the disconnect between Delta’s Rewards Calendar and actual available bookings — I’d book one way and by the time I’d gotten to the return booking, it didn’t exist.  I may have screamed — several times.

The purchase:  In early July, the price for two round-trip business class fares, which had been floating around $9600, finally broke below my $5000 target, to $4869.20.  Faced with Skymiles point redemptions still stuck at the high end of Delta’s 100,000 to 325,000 range, I gave up on Skymiles and charged two tickets, redeeming 56,301 Chase Ultimate Rewards points  to reduce my out of pocket to $4193.59 [for no reason other than 56,301 points were in my account that day.]

$ 4869.20   2 Business Class tickets
– 563.01    Redeem 56,301 Ultimate Rewards points at 1 cent each for credit
– 112.60    20% redemption bonus credit for travel purchases
________
$ 4193.59    Use Chase Sapphire Rewards Visa to purchase

Did I do OK?   Under $2100 each for roundtrip business class to Europe — I was feeling pretty good about the ticket price until — no surprise — buyer’s remorse reared its ugly head.

What about the 56,301 points I had blown — redeemed for only 1.2 cents per point?  If Ultimate Rewards had let me transfer points to Delta, 56,000 wouldn’t have made a big splash in the ocean of Skymiles needed for two tickets — even had the minimum 200,000 point redemption been available.  (Keep an eye on Delta partner Air France, which sometimes holds redemption sales, opening up business tickets at 50,000 each way.)

The $4193 I spent would have bought about 120,000 Skymiles from Delta at 3.5 cents each — if Delta didn’t limit me to buying 60,000 each year.  120,000 plus the 56,000 I redeemed was still way short.

I’m real close to rationalizing my decision.  One more step:

Since I paid for the tickets, I was earning a lot of points back:

+ 12,582 to Ultimate Rewards from my Chase Sapphire (4193.59 x3 for travel)
+   880 year-end 7% Chase checking account customer bonus on earned points
+ 13,859 ticket #1 Delta Skymiles @1.5 per mile flown in Business Class
+ 13,859 ticket #2 Delta Skymiles @1.5 per mile flown in Business Class
+  1,875 Air France points (BCN to CDG leg @2.5 per mile European Business Class)
+  1,875 Air France points (BCN to CDG leg @2.5 per mile European Business Class)
_________
44,930 total miles earned back of the 56,301 redeemed

So I got back all but 11,371 of the points I redeemed to get the $675.61 credit, making the redemption worth almost 6 cents a point.

I had a great time in Europe.  Did I do the math right?

Thanksgiving in Turkey. Deal Alert! Chicago >< Istanbul $532 r/t.

*March 14, 2013 UPDATE*  Even though the deal is over, this post still contains useful information on KLM “Economy Comfort” seating and prices.

*FEBRUARY 12, 2013 UPDATE*   Istanbul is still an  under $500 bargain.  Delta from Newark fare must be purchased by February 17 and started by February 24.  Other origins possible under $760.

*NOVEMBER 15, 2012 UPDATE*   The KLM/AIR FRANCE/DELTA offer from CHICAGO (ORD), Originally scheduled to end November 6, is still available for $532.

$532 roundtrip from Chicago (ORD) to Istanbul (IST) is a fabulous bargain you can also use for travel in January, February, and March.  It’s a one-stop (to Amsterdam) flight on KLM.   (A similar deal is offered on United connecting to its non-stop from Newark.)  Book by November 8, 2012.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • the fare rules
  • how to make the flight even better
  • what we discovered on KLM’s website

The fare rule highlights:  “These fares are valid for departures January 5, 2013 through March 20, 2013. Tickets must be purchased before December 6, 2012 11:59PM EDT.”  We noted that Flying Blue members (the frequent flyer program of Air France and KLM) get miles credit, but at a reduced rate — 3400-ish for the trip.  (Booked through their partner Delta, I would get 11,041 status qualifying miles.)  The fare cannot be cancelled.  There is a $250 change fee.

How to make the flight even better:  As you go through booking on the KLM website, you have the option to select your seats.  The long leg (Chicago to Amsterdam) is on a 747-400 “Combi” that includes KLM’s “economy comfort” seating option.

I was amazed to see that these highly discounted seats can be upgraded for $123 on each of the long legs (ORD to AMS and the return).  Adding $123 and $123 to the $531.28 fare brings the ticket price to $777.28 — still quite a bargain — with 4 extra inches of legroom comfort and double the recline included!

Economy Comfort seats in Orange. Economy seats in Blue.

By upgrading to “economy comfort” you can select the only two-across seating (11 through 17 D & E) in economy class.  I’ve never flown this 747 configuration, so I checked SeatGuru.com.  Some people mentioned that the D/E row seats can be cold.  I prefer cold to hot, but be sure to get a blanket.

The shorter Amsterdam to Istanbul flight can also be upgraded — for $37 each way.  After looking at the seat map, I probably wouldn’t bother.

What I discovered on the KLM website:  I love to use it!  The site shows a very user-friendly fare chart by date for those of us who can shift schedules a day or two to save money.  The seat map was the real highlight for me.  When the seat selection window opened, it was love at first sight.  It looked like the seating might actually look on the plane. And when I selected my seat, a little person appeared.  It was magic — much more personal than airline sites that think I’m just an “x” in a box, like some tic-tac-toe thing.

Thanks to Delta airlines for providing the tic-tac-toe example — same KLM 747-Combi, same flight.  (Since the seat is marked “preferred,” could I select it if I had Medallion status?  I don’t know.  Without status, I can’t even buy the upgrade when making my reservation at Delta.com.)

Delta Seat Map of KLM 747 Combi
Delta Seat Map of the KLM 747 Combi

Summary:  If you’ve wanted to go to Turkey, maybe adding a quick flight to Athens, Greece, during your stay;  it won’t get any better.  And you can schedule a long (15 hour) layover in Amsterdam, if you’d like to spend the day there before continuing on to Istanbul.

O Deux La [O2 LA] Bar Restaurant, Nimes, France

A Treat for Lunch.  Worth Finding.

My wife and I discovered O2 LA while heading back to our car after a morning walk around Nimes. We were first attracted to the tables outside under a canopy and trees on the Place Des Esclafidous. As we looked at the posted menu and the plaza, we were graciously welcomed. Yes, it was possible to get lunch and, yes, eating at a table on the plaza was encouraged. I’ve posted photos of our lunch plates, as it’s hard to describe how pretty they were, served on slate “plates.” I enjoyed a salad with slices of local ham. My wife had the salad of the day, which was topped with warm goat cheese wrapped in a small crepe.

Some hints on finding it: on Google Maps the street-level picture of Place Des Esclafidous shows the same place with the name “Gargantua” on the awning. I think Gargantua has moved. Next time I’m there, I’ll find out the details. Just look for Place Des Esclafidous and you’ll find it.

When I searched for O2 LA on the internet, I found it listed as an “oxygen bar” and also as gay friendly. Maybe later at night the place starts to swing. I probably won’t stay up late enough to find out the details of that. All I know is that we really enjoyed our luncheon salads.

Originally posted on TripAdvisor April 6, 2012

le 5eme Peche, Collioure, France

Le 5eme Peche Collioure FranceWhile more casual than the area’s Michelin-starred restaurants, the chef’s dedication to his art shows star potential. At dinners, we have experienced top-notch ingredients prepared with care and challenging taste combinations, all beautifully plated. At lunch we were treated as a guest in the home of a great cook, even given recommendations of other delightful places. Not a place for tourists to fill up. There are larger portions for less money elsewhere in Collioure. This is a great experience for foodies.

Originally posted on TripAdvisor August 29, 2010