In March Powder Keg Brewing in Niwot, Colorado closed down.
Friends, travelers, countrymen, lend me your ears.
There has been an awful lot written about the announced changes to the Marriott--Starwood-Ritz-Carlton loyalty program; how the program undermines its own loyalty goals while also probably being the best of all possible outcomes; how the new AMEX super-premium card is already not competitive with other cards, but it also might be; and frequently how Hilton's new program is a total winner compared to this and (reaching back) Hyatt's new programs. Breathless, sometimes profanity-laced, usually misspelled proclamations that this is the last straw, and it's on to a new loyalty program!
I have not come to praise this new program, which took two of the more popular business traveler hotel loyalty programs and combine them into something people would still want, a process that can go either as a gourmet meal from some pretty solid ingredients, or that tray of brown mashed together mess everyone dared you to eat in middle school1. The hydra that's been formed from the merging has done their damndest to make their new program gourmet.
You all did love them once, and not without cause
SPG was the darling of the frequent traveler's eye for a few reasons: (1) their top tier was incredibly generous, offering a personal Ambassador to keep an eye on your travels; (2) their top-end aspirational properties are properly aspirational; (3) you could transfer their points to a ton of airlines so you could get your travel on in style with some really solid award redemptions.
But SPG had its down sides. The aspirational properties were eye-wateringly expensive and kinda hard to get to2.
Marriott was the reliable chain frequent travelers would go back to, and for good reason: the per-dollar earnings for Marriott are solid if not spectacular3, there's a Marriott in just about any place you'd need one, they have some pretty solid redemption options like the seven night Hotel + Air packages, and their high end properties go to the fucking moon, but in a different way from SPG4. Those redemptions were also a lot cheaper than SPG. Fr'instance: that UAE tent paradise I described above would cost 105,000 Marriott points under the current transfer, whereas the most expensive Marriott/R-C properties top out at, say, 70,000.
Marriott also has its problems. Most of their hotels are sorta frumpy and staid. The earnings rate is fine but not spectacular. You can transfer from Chase to Marriott at 1:1, but if you look at the topped out properties on a per-night basis and compare Marriott--Ritz-Carlton to, say, Hyatt, you're getting about half the value there, which is therefore usually unwise, so unlike Hyatt you pretty much gotta earn your hotel redemptions the old fashioned way.
You all did see that on the Lupercal, I thrice presented him a kingly crown, Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition? Yet Brutus says he was ambitious; And, sure, he is an honourable man.
Much of the wailing has been that the new program doesn't compare to Hilton's earnings or that the new AMEX super premium card doesn't compare with Hilton's super premium card, and indeed on paper this seems true. With the automatic top-tier status you're getting crazy returns from Hilton on regular spend, automatic suite upgrades when available, etc. But there's two problems with this argument, one is mathematical and the other is aesthetic.
Hilton's done away with an award chart, and basically charge you points based on the room rate. This means that there are no sweet spots in the award chart anymore, there's no great value to be had. Marriott doesn't have this problem (yet, we think, until they deploy the standard/off-peak/peak chart next year, which could hose this argument, but let's not jump to conclusions.), as a room will cost what a room costs. This also remedies the SPG problem where some of their most aspirational properties would cost your firstborn, if your firstborn were SPG points, instead of what the chart said it should cost.
Hilton also lacks what Marriott lacked until it bought Starwood -- aspirational properties that were actually aspirational. A few Ritz-Carlton hotels aside, they didn't have the sort of unique, high-end properties that make going out of our way to rack up these points worthwhile in the first place. You could stay at a Conrad or Curio hotel, and pay like 100,000 Hilton points (or about $3,000 in spend with top tier status on their big credit card) or more, or you can stay at some classic hotel in Vienna for 50,000 Marriott points (or, assuming you have the new Gold status and put your spend on the card, about $2,700, less if you qualify for the new Platinum).
I speak not to disprove what The Internet spoke, But here I am to speak what I do know.
Before we go wailing and tearing our hair out and screaming about the death of a thing we love because it's changing, we should step back and see what people are doing. For the first time in the history of mergers that reduce competition, the MSPGRC folks are actually trying to make their loyal customers happy while doing the plate juggling act merging two big, complicated, non-commensurate loyalty programs involves. A few people are getting screwed. A few people will benefit. The new credit cards aren't the most inspiring thing to ever hit the world of travel points5. Platinum status for 35 nights after 15 from one of the co-branded cards, meaning suite upgrades and extra points and late check-out, is not an onerous burden for frequent travelers to reach. If you're already loyal to MarrRitzCarlWoodPreferredGuest, it probably isn't the end of the world. If you're already loyal to Hyatt, you're probably not going to switch (although maybe, because 35 nights w/ possibility of suite upgrades is better than the 30 nights for four lounge upgrades). If you're loyal to Hilton, you're delusional and probably fevered, but you're also okay as a human and probably have your reasons. Chill guys. Everything is fine.
You ate it, because you weren't cool enough to not. You still weren't cool afterward, but at least you didn't look like a wimp. Just a total dorkwad.
Consider: the most expensive Hyatt property for an award night costs 30,000 points, you earned base 5 going up to 6.5 points/$ for Hyatt spend , and you can 1:1 transfer into Hyatt from Chase; the most expensive SPG properties involve, like, desert luxury tents in the UAE and cost more than the 35,000 points on the top tier, and you're earning base 2 going up to 3 points/$ for SPG spend, and you could up to recently transfer at a 3:1 to ratio from AMEX.
i.e. 10 points/$ base which are 3:1 SPG means SPG is earning max 9 points/$ spent which is a whole 10% better
Where with SPG you'll ride a camel to a blinged out tent in the desert, with Marriott--Ritz-Carlton you'll get some serious old world buttoned down James Bond style redemptions, like the Ritz-Carlton Tokyo.
Nothing, but nothing, will ever compare with the blood-in-the-water feeding frenzy of churners after the Chase Sapphire Reserve came out.
My next few months are travel-lite, and I'm catching up on my reading. I don't have much to say aside from "people should read more" and here are some recommendations.
Good to Great, by Jim Collins
Ah hey, a book about how perfectly average organizations manage to go to the next level, based on data, and written so that a casual person can just sorta read it and roll. Think about why certain good-sized businesses suddenly outperform their own market by three, four, or five times. It's a common recommendation, but there's a reason for that.
The Last Lion, by William Manchester
Winston Churchill was born as a younger child of a younger child of a noble family, his mother an American heiress, his father a rising star in Parliament ruined by what was probably syphilis for all we know. Took the pound onto the gold standard, thereby bringing the Great Depression to Great Britain. Planned Gallipoli, costing 200,000 lives for no reason. Outcast and irrelevant and chosen to be Prime Minister purely because he was the one Tory the Labour party would accept when it was time to change leadership in 1939, and then for those six years became the popularly chosen greatest Briton of all times. Manchester's biography is comprehensive, covering every bit of Churchill's life from childhood until his death.
My next few months are travel-lite, and I'm catching up on my reading. I don't have much to say aside from "people should read more" and here are some recommendations.
Growing Up Absurd, by Paul Goodman
Probably the first book about the systemic problems society faces that I read that actually made sense. The central thesis is that, when presented with a picture of adulthood that doesn't make sense, people either grow up pretending and then resenting that adulthood (a bad state) or they drop out of the system entirely (Beatniks being the main example in this book from 1959, but it applies to every generation). The crux of the argument is that work, adult work, should be productive and useful and that children should grow up into that, and that most existing work is "boondoggling". It has a sort of dry, hectoring tone that grows on you as you read it.
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
Most everyone seems to like this book, but my Russian novelist reading has skewed Bulgakov and Dostoevsky in the past. Set in the end of aristocratic Russia, this is a story of how a vast cast of characters deal with the competing demands of social expectation and personal desires. Tolstoy has a knack for breaking complex personality traits down into a simple sentence, and a real talent for knowing which characters to do that with and which to keep mysterious.
The Brain Audit, by Sean D'Souza
I hate the idea of "selling"; a part of my brain recoils at the thought of it. But the thing is, we're selling all the time, and it's great to be able to do it well. The Brain Audit is a great little book that walks you step by step for how to put together a sales pitch, and as I was reading it I was adapting the steps in my head to stuff in my career (which has next to nothing to do with "Sales"). It's also a really quick read.
A six year old girl's badger disappeared at DCA, and all I can think about is the little things.
We are now in the Wal-Mart Age of Travel, where commoditization of air travel combined with a lack of competition mean that you either get crappy service at a medium price, or really crappy service at unbelievably low prices.
Google's Project Fi is the best cell provider in America, especially for international travel, and the competition is not close.
In this series, I'll dig into some books to read while on an airplane going somewhere that are actually worth reading.
The typical airport thriller sees (usually) an American thrown into some international plot or dangerous situation overseas, where (invariably) his wits are all that can save him from some dangerous situation or another. It's a sort of fantasy for the types of people who spend a lot of time on airplanes, a fictionalized version of travel that glosses over the airplane lavatory and the jet lag and adds made-up well-armed terrorists or stolen government secrets to spice things up.
In 1937, after penning a review of Wee Willie Winkie that commented on the rather perverse obsession Shirley Temple's fans and managers had with the nine-year-old actress (viz: "Now in Wee Willie Winkie, wearing short kilts, she is a complete totsy" and "Her admirers — middle aged men and clergymen — respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire."), Henry Graham Greene OM CH (b. 2 Oct. 1904 Hertfordshire England d. 3 April 1991 Vevey Switzerland) was forced to live in Mexico while a lawsuit from Twentieth Century Fox worked itself out, ultimately bankrupting the publication that ran the review. While in Mexico, Greene was inspired to write The Power and the Glory, about a nameless whiskey priest (a term Greene created ibid.) hiding from anti-Catholic Mexican government forces while performing religious rites he no longer believed in. The Power an the Glory raised hackles with the Catholic Church, which demanded Greene make changes -- Greene's reply was that the copyright was owned by the publisher -- and which led to a private meeting with Pope Paul VI. It is also rightfully considered one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century.
Graham Greene is one of the preeminent English language writers of the twentieth century. One piece of advice often given to aspiring writers is "write what you know". Greene wrote about what he knew: lapsed Catholicism (at times Greene referred to himself as a "Catholic atheist), espionage, depression, the dubious behavior and naïvete of major powers in developing countries, private meetings with the Pope. Greene converted to Catholicism after meeting his future wife, whom he was later estranged from but, being Catholic, she refused to grant him a divorce and he took up with at least two other women after he left his wife in 1947. During World War II, Greene's sister recruited him to MI6, and his globetrotting through the undeveloped bits of the world in the 1930s led to his being stationed in Sierra Leone under the supervision of his friend and, it turned out, Soviet agent Kim Philby (a member of the Cambridge Five and one of the most successful Soviet spies in Great Britain after the War.). Greene traveled the world -- prior to the War, Greene had visited Liberia and Mexico, and after the war he would spend time in Haiti and Africa and have a small hand in Castro's revolution, receiving one of Castro's paintings as a gift -- and did all the things he wrote about and probably more that wasn't fit to publish.
His time in Africa led to his book A Burnt-Out Case, about an architect famous for his religious buildings moving to a leper colony in Africa to avoid the spotlight, helping to design buildings for the colony, beginning to find real meaning helping the lepers, and finally being dragged into a tragic ending by the shallow egotism of people who couldn't let the artist be. After he broke off his affair with Lady Catherine Walston, he wrote The End of the Affair. Greene could be accused of lacking in creativity, but he definitely made up for it by writing his own ludicrous biography.
Greene's experiences watching Westerners (and many times Western Powers, by metaphorical extension) misunderstand and then bungle interactions in what we would now call the developing world permeates his more serious novels (Greene divided his books into 'entertainments' and 'novels'). The Quiet American, one of his best works and famous for its prescience about the US policy blunders in Vietnam (The Quiet American was published in 1955, and depicts a naïve American Harvard graduate working to overthrow the Vietnamese government based on some ideas about foreign policy which Greene clearly finds absurd, and yet predicted exactly how this would play out over the next twenty years.), focuses on Fowler, a journalist from Britain who is reporting on the French war efforts in Indochina, while watching his Vietnamese mistress slip away into the arms of Pyle, an American CIA agent working undercover. The title is itself a morbid joke: the only quiet American is a dead American.
Not all of Greene's works were so serious. Our Man in Havana is a Cold War spy farce the equal to Top Secret that focuses on mediocre vacuum salesman James Wormold, who is recruited into MI6 to report on what's going on in Cuba. The whole thing is a parody of the whole 'national intelligence' thing, believing without question reports from local informants. Our Man in Havana is the last of Greene's 'entertainments', and arguably his best.
Greene didn't limit himself to novels, either. He wrote the screenplay for The Third Man, one of the greats of British cinema, where actor Orson Welles added the now-famous lines of dialog:
You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
to Greene's screenplay. This is only one of Greene's screenplays, and many of his novels, including Our Man in Havana and The Quiet American, were adapted to film (in the later case, twice, once in 1958 starring Audie Murphy and Michael Redgrave, then later in 2002 with Brendan Fraser and Michael Caine, neither of them particularly well-regarded, although the later has the virtue of casting a Vietnamese woman in the role of the Phuong.).
The thing is, despite the heavy topics - the French occupation of Indochina, an affair with the spouse of an English Baron, lepresy... - Greene's books are breezy and easy to power through, written in clear and concise language and none exceeding, say, 250 pages in print. A typical reader should be able to read an entire Greene novel in, say, ten hours, which is ideal for a three day business trip.
Most airport thrillers are written in mills and churned out based on how some ghost writer might imagine a spy might behave. They're hastily rendered facsimiles of the writer's imagination, under a deadline to pump out another one this month. Graham Greene lived the life most of these poor writers aspire to describe -- having exciting adventures in exotic locations -- only he manages to capture the weariness and cynicism that comes from seeing the same damn problems everywhere you go, always with the same non-solutions. Greene's literary fiction is his own autobiography, with thinly masked stand-ins for himself and situations pulled from his life with just enough changed to avoid libeling real people with his characters. He did all this before the age of jet travel, when going to Africa involved boats on sea and river, when living in Havana meant Batista and then Revolution, when even the most modern medicine struggled to contend with the tropical diseases that are now either wiped out or well under control. Airport fiction writers love to imagine death-defying protagonists. Graham Greene was one.
Wherein I spend three days in a fifteen hundred year old imperial city giggling about my hotel room
Prologue: I plan to write these trip reports more often, but by no means are these "travel guides" since I will make no pretense of going to these cities for any reason other than my personal enjoyment. Think of them more as "trip reports" or whatever, but as with everything else in here, expect this to be opinionated, for those opinions to be wrong, and to be mostly for my own amusement.
I've been to Vienna once before, last September, but that was after a work-related trip to Munich and this was pure vacation. The emotional state of a post-work "vacation" is a very different beast from an actual, proper, no work expected capital 'V' Vacation. There's probably a whole article I could write reminding Americans how to take a proper capital 'V' Vacation, but in truth this was my first capital 'V' Vacation in nearly two years and I suffer from the same leisure-aversion malady that afflicts most of my fellow countrymen.
Visiting Vienna, particularly staying in the First District (where all the history is), it is impossible to forget that you are staying in a proper Imperial City. At the center of the Museum Quarter is a three story tall statue of the Empress Maria Theresa. Every European capital has a museum for the national crown jewels. Most of them are not then, also, a thousand-year history of Catholicism and politics across Western Europe, while doubling as a history of just one family. Just sitting in the middle of a room is the Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire, and off in the corner the Imperial Cross, a reliquary for the True Cross, and the head of the Holy Lance. At one point, Vienna was the center of an empire that stretched continuously from the Rhineland to the frontiers of the Ottoman Empire, with annexes in Spain, Mexico, North Africa. Vienna was the center of this empire, and even today is one of the largest cities in the European Union and the headquarters of, among other organizations, the IAEA, OPEC, and an alphabet soup of United Nations and EU organizations. They also have one hell of a café scene.
So these are my notes from spending three days in Vienna.
On the last trip, I stayed at the Hotel Bristol Wien1, located right next to the Wiener Staatsoper2. I enjoyed that hotel, and respected that it tried very hard to maintain the careful balance between being an 'historic old hotel' while trying to avoid being a museum.
This time around I opted to take advantage of a Cash+Points deal and stay at the Park Hyatt Vienna. This is the kind of hotel that takes pride telling you on the front page of the in-room hotel literature where the hotel restaurant gets its asparagus.
The gentleman at the front desk showed me around the lobby and up into my room, which was a little irritating because I was trying very hard to keep my cool when what I really wanted to do was giggle at the absurd luxury of it all. My room (and I assume most rooms) had a marble hallway with an all-marble bathroom, which is the sort of design that leaves very little space between ostentatious and tasteful and, in this case, manages to fall on tasteful side.
The hotel is well-appointed, with a restaurant -- more on that later -- and a scotch and cigar lounge in a wood-paneled room3. The hotel is located about two blocks from the Michaelerplatz and the Hofburg, and right next to the high end outdoor shopping mall that culminates not too far from Stephansplatz and St. Stephen's Cathedral. This puts it right on the northern edge of the big outdoor shopping street, and when I arrived there was a carnival going on in square that hosts the Advent Market every Christmas.
If I had one complaint, it's that this hotel has a scale in the bathroom, which exactly quantified the extent of my growing girth since turning thirty a few years ago. But life is about setting worthwhile goals and taking steps to achieve them, and that scale set a very clear goal, and for that I thank you, Park Hyatt Vienna, for your very rude but very necessary room amenity.
This is the second time a five-star hotel's concierge sent me to Labstelle, a restaurant located next to a statue of Johannes Gutenberg which in the US would be some protected city landmark but in a city as full of statues as Vienna is a nice place to chill out and eat your ice cream cone.
When I arrived at Labstelle, the restaurant was empty, but almost every table had a little "RESERVIERT" sign on it, so my guess is that it's possible to get a reservation within 24 hours, but you should probably be sure to have a reservation. I note for reference this is a Monday night. I assume Friday and Saturday requires more forethought.
I dined al fresco, which is Italian for 'in a narrow courtyard between two buildings that random people and the occassional homeless person walk through'. It was a pleasant evening, but the people freely walking through the courtyard meant that I had such encounters as a (I assume homeless) man in a suit and sandals ask me for money with a folded up lamenated sign and families on vacation speaking about ten decibels louder than necessary about where they will go next and employees of the architecture firm in the second floor of the neighboring building coming back in from a smoke break. It was actually mostly pleasant, but "everything was fine" makes for mediocre storytelling.
Being that this was my second time to Labstelle, I decided to actually take some notes on the place to remember where it was, what I ate, &c. The last time I was here was for birthday #32, where I may have already had most of a bottle of champagne and my memory of the evening was fuzzy aside from the general impression of 'I ate too much, and it was very good'. I think my note-taking and my eating alone may have given the impression that I was a food critic or something4 because I got a lot more attention than I'm used to from a restaurant like this. I decided to respond to this with grace and magnanimity, while playing it cool since I didn't exactly lie to them and I wasn't certain what was going on and I'm pretty sure telling my waitress "I'm not actually a food critic" would be weird.
The I think manager/bartender came out to deliver my second cocktail, a gin rum and lemon lime w/ salt and pepper mixture that did a great job of evoking a good margarita while also transcending the margarita genre into something more refreshing and less syrupy-gross-American-happy-hour. The same gentleman came out later to ask how my meal had gone, and to deliver an additional plate with some fruit, a piece of meringue, and an interesting pastry with some sort of cheese creme filling and mint, all on what looked like sytrofoam bits but which had a nice light crunch to them. He also brought out, with the second drink, some Iranian honey-vinegar concoction I'd never heard of before (and which I missed the name of) with a dried Viennese lemon. I asked how I should consume this little mix, and was told to go wild, and landed on putting the h.-v.c. on the dried lemon and sorta sucking it off, since the lemon was too chewy for my tastes. This was a flavor mix I'd never had before, and it was a delight, and I wish I had the actual name of the h.-v.c. so that I could look it up and try to duplicate it.
I scribbled some notes about what I ate, a four course chef's choice with two cocktails and a surprise opening appetizer, and I could recount the whole meal, which would frankly be quite boring for the both of us, so I will focus on the most interesting bits. The first two official courses of the meal -- a venison terrine and "wild pig" -- stick out. The venison terrine was light and refreshing, not the usual description of a terrine, and was helped along by some small mushrooms which had a citrus aspect, adding a nice acid to the mix, and by a small bit of greens to add the necessary bitterness. Light and refreshing terrine. The wild pig was smoked and served in thin slices, and the flavor was rich and complex and a little gamey in the best possible way. The other two courses, an asparagus soup (apparently Vienna has a deep love for asparagus once it comes into season) and a veal and asparagus dish5 were well-done but not as surprising as "light and refreshing venison".
The Labstelle dinner was my first night, and my day of travel was catching up with me6, and I crashed shortly after dinner, full from an unexpectedly six-course four-course dinner, and slept for nine hours.
During my trip, I stopped by the Vienna Clock Museum. It's a small museum with about a thousand clocks on exhibit starting with the earliest timekeeping devices and concluding with exhibits of modern wrist watches, with everything in between. Japanese clocks, set to start every "day" at sundown and measure off twelve "hours" a day, calibrated to the season. Analog musical clocks that play like the world's most elaborate player pianos, on the hour. Large decorative clocks where, on the hour, an mechanical miners spring to life and a whole excavation project is played out in automata. The museum itself was pretty empty when I visited, but the docents were friendly and, for €7, an interesting visit if you're into these types of things.
Vienna is a great city for museums, with several clustered around the Museum Quarter. The Leopold museum is one of the largest collections of modern Viennese art, mostly Gustav Klimt and his short-lived heir Egon Schiele. A separate, special exhibit at the Albertina featured Schiele works from non-Leopold sources and, having visited the Leopold during my last trip to Vienna, decided to try out the Albertina exhibit.
Simultaneous to the chronologically arranged Egon Schiele exhibit -- which touched on some pretty dark periods of his life, like the time he ended up in jail for corrupting minors for nude paintings of the children of a small town he was living in with his mistress, charges that were eventually dropped -- was an exhibit of Monet and Picasso which was much better attended. If museums are hard up for attendance, it seems a reliable way to sell tickets is to throw out a big banner out front that says "Impressionists". I believe this is mostly because people recognize Impressionist paintings from their computer wallpapers. I am briefly amused at the thought of someone using one of Egon Schiele's nude self-portraits as computer wallpaper.
I also opted to visit the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna's art museum for everything from deep pre-history to roughly Renaissance and a bit after. The museum had a special exhibit on the oldest gold mines in Europe, found in Bulgaria and dated to roughly the 3rd century BC. The rooms in the permanent exhibit are two stories tall plus, and many of them are covered floor to ceiling with art. You see Peter Paul Reubens paintings in textbooks, and you wonder why you should care. You should care because his paintings are all life size or bigger; two story tall depictions of classical themes in meticulous Northern Renaissance detail. There is an enormous collection of tapestries depicting the Habsburg wars for northern Africa, to protect their Spanish holdings from the Ottomans. And at the end of all this, you can sit down under a beautiful naturally-lit dome and enjoy a glass of reasonably priced wine and write down your notes from the trip.
I rounded out my museum visits by going to the two branches of the Vienna Jewish Museum. I started at the annex at the Judenplatz, which sits where the old Medieval Synagogue was until Duke Albrecht V decided to expel all the Jews from Austria in 1421, and the entrance faces a monument to Austrian Holocaust victims. This museum was mostly focused on Medieval Jewish life in Vienna before the expulsion, and leads down to the site of what remains of the synagogue. The main museum, located in the Palais Eskeles, focuses more on twentieth century Jewish history, and had a special exhibit on how anti-modernists at the turn of the last century targeted department stores and the Jewish owners of some of those department stores over how global capitalism was destroying traditional values, concluding with the Aryanization of the Jewish-owned department stores after the Anschluss. There is an ongoing effort either sponsored by the museum or organized through it (I'm not quite sure) to reunite families with the belongings and heirlooms taken from them during the 1930s. Perhaps to hammer home the point that we are not as civilized and modern as some of us would like to believe, the main campus of the Jewish Museum was the only place in Vienna that had armed private security manning the doors and keeping a close eye on people walking through.
Not visited in this trip, but worth your time, are the Leopold (mostly modern art, mostly Klimt and Schiele), the Staatsoper Vienna (where the concessions only take cards you can do the actual slide over carbon paper thing, which meant I was paying a lot of foreign transaction fees for all that champagne.), the Kaisergruft (where Habsburgs from across the globe have been buried for four hundred years), the various exhibits in the Hofburg (crown jewels, Sisi Museum, Spanish riding, &c.), Schonbrunn (the Habsburg summer home, a sort of mini-Versaille, and a jam packed musuem building).
All hotel restaurants are mediocre. This has been my experience from everything from 3-star chain locations in Albuquerque to 5-star boutiques in Tokyo. My expert opinion is that this is because hotels are not, contrary to popular belief, restaurants. This was reaffirmed with two meals at the Park Hyatt, and though the food was serviceable it did not justify the cost.
This mistake was mostly mine, suckered in by the otherwise stellar trappings of the hotel. Perhaps this one would be different; the cafe was solid, after all, and the prices at the restaurant were on the high side of normal, not the usual thirty per cent markup I've come to expect.
And in truth, everything was fine, it's just that it wasn't great, and for the price I could have had great. My lunch risotto was creamy and properly cooked, as was the braised lamb shoulder with dinner the next night, and the wine pairing suggested there showed that the waiter knew what was up. The problem was the vegetables, and there were two problems here: (1) they were underseasoned and not integrated with the rest of the plate, giving the impression that they were added as a colorful afterthought and (2) they were the exact same between a vegetarian risotto and a hunk of meat7. Fortunately, this was all saved by the room I had the lamb in.
However, the evening was saved when I received rapid fire texts and phone calls from an unknown +43 number that turned out to be an old friend I had tried to contact before the trip, who now lives in the eastern bits of Austria, and who, through another mutual friend that I had dinner with the night before, learned that I was in town and that he hadn't given me his phone number so my text messages must have deeply confused the unknown German heir to his previous number.
With a little google work and the help of one of the hotel concierges7 we ended up going to American Bar by Stephansplatz.
I don't usually check reviews before visiting a place, because I end up in over-analysis land, trying to understand why there is an extra half-star between two restaurants based on five hundred aggregated patron reviews. Bars are an exception, because there are many bars whose potables do not live up to their pretentions and prices.
American Bar lived up to expectations, with an emphasis on their mixed drinks. This is not a place for a Scotch neat (although that didn't stop me) -- the brown liquid selection is pretty standard mid-grade stuff, which is great for mixing and perfectly fine for drinking neat, but nothing revelatory -- and the beer selection is the standard Germanic bier8. The cocktails, though, were spot on, and refreshing and enjoyable. American Bar is on a side street, and the indoor bit is all wood paneling with six foot tall ceilings in the downstairs bathroom area which, as a person taller than six feet, made for an uncomfortable two minutes, and the sidewalk bit is pretty standard patio fare. The bartenders were young and clearly enjoyed being bartenders, and the few moments where their not being experienced bartenders was offset by a general happy attitude. And why not be happy, when you're slinging quality booze juice at reasonable prices in a prime location?
The following morning, for breakfast, I visited the simply raw bakery a block north of the Park Hyatt. The muesli was as good as I've had, and the coffee was very, very good as well.
This is what I think I love the most about Vienna. There are myriad museums, sure, and the city has that old grand European feel in a way that feels less forced upon you than in, say, Paris. As a coffee junky, I can safely say the Viennese coffee scene is the best in Europe. The Café Maria Theresia may be the single best fancy-pants coffee drink in the world. By virtue of being located right where Germany and Italy meet Eastern Europe, Vienna is a city of fusion food -- Wiener Schnitzel is a Habsburg Viennese take on northern Italian veal cutlet, and Hungarian goulash mixes with the fine German tradition of pulling every bit of flavor possible out of a head of cabbage and some vinegar. Don't even get me started about the pastries that get served with the coffee...
Which was built in the late 1800s and, I was sad to find out, was forced to Aryanize in 1938 under German occupation and its Jewish owner was forced to sell and then was deported to, and died at, Theresienstadt. This tidbit was not highlighted on the wall describing the hotel's history.
Where I decided, having never seen an opera, I should start off with Tannhauser. I had forgotten that Wagner was not shy about forcing the audience to live through his German nationalistic fantasy lands, and with two intermissions this opera ended up running over five hours.
I am not a cigar smoker, so I cannot comment intelligently on the cigars, although they had a sizable collection of Cuban cigars, and as I noted in a previous post I have been to Cuba and I can tell you that I did enjoy the handful of cigars I was more or less culturally obligated to try there.
On the other hand, I AM qualified to comment on the scotch selection, and I felt it needed some work. Every time I go abroad, I go into bars with amazing lists of single malt Speysides and sherry cask finished Islays and the magical stuff the Japanese are producing (seriously, if you've been living under a rock for a decade, the Japanese are the current kings of distilled malted barley), but then when they go to North America they order Crown Royal, Jim Beam, and maybe, if they're very knowledgeable, you'll see something from Hudson or something like that. There is one exception to this, which is a bar in Copenhagen that has all manner of fantastic American whiskey and bourbon, but which I will not name because I don't want to run the risk of the place being overrun by tourists.
This poor selection gives the impression that Americans produce crap, which was a popular refrain but which is starting to change, particularly with beer now that US craft beers are more readily available in Europe and the Germans are realizing their smug Teutonic sense of superiority in the suds department is unfounded. The truth is, if you get past the mass-est of mass-market alcohol, the United States is among the best in the world at making interesting, flavorful booze that range from avant-garde takes to the most traditional processes. Of course, none of that was reflected in the scotch and cigar bar at the Park Hyatt Vienna.
Which, I guess, since I'm writing this here now, that makes me a food critic, although not a particularly influential or good one.)
I have my moral qualms about veal, but I didn't know it was coming and if I sent it back it would've been thrown away, and Europeans are generally less averse to veal than Americans, so I was sorta stuck and just ate the thing.
I booked this as an award flight, but there were no award flights from Denver to Vienna, so I had to fly to Chicago and then book the award flight Chicago to Vienna. Because these were separate itineraries, I was worried (overly so) about missing a connecting flight and being left in the lurch by my airline, so I had a six hour layover in Chicago. This wouldn't have been so bad -- the Swiss business class lounge that they share with Austrian is comfortable if a little small -- but I arrived nearly two hours before Austrian was even checking anybody in, so I had to sit and wait in the international check-in area of O'Hare, which has nowhere near enough seats and is a cramped space beside, passing time until I could sneak through. Also, while going through the security line, the drug sniffing dog stuck his nose right up my butt, which frankly I would've preferred a TSA pat-down where both parties get to be embarrassed to be going through this charade.
Serious shit, it was identically sliced carrot, radish, some white thing that had the texture of a softer carrot but not enough flavor to figure out what it was, and a roasted tomato. I'm a big fan of all of these, even the mystery vegetable was fine, but it desperately needed some sort of seasoning and something to actually tie it in with the rest of the plate. I mean, if you're braising lamb, just throw the vegetables in with the lamb, and that alone will tie the whole thing together. Risotto with spring vegetables is a little harder. But the fact that they were identically cut was peculiar.
Who lacked the Clefs d'Or of his more senior coworker, and who was uncomfortably warm and dripping sweat and commenting on it, and yes it was a bit warm but not THAT warm, which made me a little concerned for his welfare.
I contrast this with some of the microbreweries in Vienna, such as 1516 Brewing House, which take a stab at the more exotic forms of beer, even if they don't necessarily hit them out of the park. But then, I've tried the oldest microbrewery in my hometown, which has about thirty or something, and it is probably the most disappointing of the lot. So first tries are seldom the best, but someone has to take the first step, and kudos to them for trying.
Wherein I talk about the incredibly boring, tedious, and distracting world of travel reward credit cards for, I hope, the only time.
Hey Stephen, why don't you...
I don't want to write about travel reward credit cards.
No no, hear me out. These guys...
Make all their money from affiliate links?
Write five or six blog posts a day? Of variable quality?
And there's, like, a million of these people out there already writing about the same thing and then linking to each other in a compleat and æternal metal-premium-credit-card ouroboros?
God damn it, fine.
When I started writing about travel, I sorta figured I would inevitably get to writing about travel rewards credit cards. There are, approximately, fifty thousand sites on the internet dedicated just to these things, and quite frankly I had some new and original things to say about them, because (1) these sites perpetuate themselves and make revenue by affiliate links, wherein you the reader click the link and apply for the card and the proprietor of the blog earns a commission usually in the $100-$200 range per person who applies which (2) creates a perverse set of incentives to put links to credit cards in articles that have nothing to do with credit cards to get more people to click those links while (3) dispensing advice on which credit cards to buy and use right next to the convenient link which (4) creates some perverse incentives to describe every travel credit card as the most important travel credit card of the day. Which is not to say that the proprietors are venal, self-serving twats 1 , or that there's no useful information to be had. The bit of literate legerdemaine these guys pull is that all the information is in a vacuum, and it takes a year or two of trial and error to figure out what works best for you, and every person will be different anyway so there's no one-size-fits-all solution to the pressing question I seem to get periodically of "what travel credit card is best for me?" One system is to apply for every travel card under the sun and get all the sign up bonuses and then spend them and then you have chunks of orphan points you can't use spread across so many loyalty programs that you can't ever earn anything worthwhile and you end up with enough currency to buy a soda from vending machines across three continents but no way to actually spend it effectively.
And after years of thrashing around, following this advice and that, and ending up going through probably a dozen or more travel credit cards 2 , and finally finishing off a few orphaned points in a few loyalty programs I don't give a damn about, I developed my own, relatively simple system, built around a handful of generally useful credit cards. And I thought I should share this with the world. Not just the system, but the process. And so I started writing. Then I'd get a page in and throw it away and start over. And then I started again, this time thinking I'd sell it as an e-book or something. And it's sitting dead on some cloud service hard drive. Because the truth is, this stuff is unbelievably dry and boring, and every time I would start writing I'd get bored and wander off before committing anything useful to paper.
For example, there's the issue of where to even start, which it turns out probably isn't based on a credit issuer but on your primary domestic airline that you travel on the most 3 . This is actually to figure out who you could potentially be earning miles with by crediting those flights to an airline alliance partner. What's an airline alliance partner, you ask? Well, back in the 90s, to improve reach, the big US legacy carriers (American, United, Delta, to list the current survivors) banded together with other airlines around the world to form alliances, who have code shares so you can, say, book a flight from the US to Thailand by way of Japan using United, ANA, and Thai airlines, for instance, and good Lord aren't you bored to death of this already? These airlines ALSO allow you to earn each other's miles when you book with each other 4 . So, for example, you could earn ANA miles by booking through United flights, if indeed you wanted to do your fun vacation travel on ANA. This narrows down the list of airlines you would want to earn miles with, but does not make for the final decision, because each airline has their own award chart 5 which fixes the value of each airline's miles -- more or less -- and you probably want to figure out which airline you want to partner up with based on various factors like earning rates (meaning distance versus revenue based earn), how much it costs to fly certain routes 6 , if they have usurious additional fees like fuel surcharges, and whether or not at this point your eyes have glazed over and you are considering walking off and grabbing a beer instead of finishing this.
This then tells you which credit issuer you want to partner with -- in the US you are probably choosing between Chase AMEX and Citi -- because each of these issuers have cards that earn fairly generic transferable points that you can turn into airline miles with a partner airline. These points are gold, and what you earn on your daily spend, and unless you're traveling 75% time and think this whole article is a sort of Points 101 that you actually TA'd last semester, your daily spend will be where you earn the majority of your travelin' points. So, what you probably want to do is pick the credit issuer that transfers to your preferred airline. The one caveat at this point is probably that AMEX is not popular throughout big chunks of Europe because they charge the most for transactions.
So now that you've picked your issuer and not gotten bored with this whole thing, you need to pick your credit cards proper. Cards? Plural? Yep. Plural, most likely. You'll definitely need a premium card, which will be made of metal to make you feel important and which will have an annual fee that will range from $450-$550 which sounds like a lot but they have so many damned airline fee credits and travel credits and credits for paying for Global Entry with the card that it sorta brings the number down to around $150 or so in terms of real out-of-pocket expense in a year and if you don't want to dig through all that and make sure you'll get your money's worth you should probably start with the $95 annual fee travel card with training wheels that each of the issuers have. AMEX's costs like $150 or something, because AMEX likes to act exclusive. Now you get to the really fun stuff, because these cards are great for spending on travel but can be a bit more mixed on other spending, like groceries or restaurants or whatever, so you'll actually want to get a few more cards from your chosen issuer -- spacing out the sign-up enough to make sure you can meet the minimum spend for each of their sign-up bonuses, of course! -- and each issuer has their own peculiar ecosystem where you can earn such and such transferable points in a variety of ways from the straightforward to the painfully gimmicky. You could NOT do this, but remember that your daily spend is how you earn your points, and you probably don't spend all your money on airfare every day, and really you need the premium card to make the points transferable at all instead of just being worth 100 points/dollar on an Amazon gift card which while after all this may seem just fine is actually a big waste that leaves a lot of value on the table and we're all about maximizing value here aren't we?
I haven't even talked about hotel points, because if you're loyal to one chain you'll want to get that chain's brand affiliated card 7 because, barring one exception (Hyatt), transfering cc points to a hotel chain makes the beancounters at said cc issuer giggle with delight at how badly you done fucked up because hotel points are usually "worth" (we'll get to what that means later, but for now I'll leave it nebulous because it is) anywhere between a half to a third of airline miles, and the way this whole thing works is the cc issuer buys a boatload of points from their partners and the partners know what they think the points are worth and, in fact, outstanding airline miles can be a sort of liability on the company's books that have to be valued so there's a whole team at American that works their asses off to make sure your average airline mile is worth some specific target number of cents, probably somewhere around 1.5. So if you transfer your points to the hotels, the cc issuer bought those hotel points for a lot less than airline miles and are selling them to you then at the same price. Doesn't take a genius to figure that hotel points probably have a nice profit margin to the cc issuers. After that depressing digression into bean counting, you should just earn hotel points through hotel spend with a hotel credit card if you are loyal to one brand, or earn as many transferable points as possible and foresake hotel loyalty if you aren't. There are other options where you can earn more of those sweet, sweet transferable points.
You're probably bored out of your mind at this point - I know I am - but we're finally to the fun part: cashing in those points for travel! Now, the dewy-eyed naïfs out there might just use those points as cash, since most of these points can just be exchanged at a fixed amount somewhere between ¢1-1.5/point for travel. This will be met with much tongue-clucking by the points-mad community, particularly w.r.t. the potential use as airline miles. You see, paradoxically, airline miles become more valuable on a cents/point scale as you up your travel. Nobody with any worldliness would use miles for domestic economy since this is usually the least valuable use. The gold standard is international travel. Your mileage may vary (see, that's a pun I used to break up the monotony of this), but some typical numbers are going to be around ¢1/mile for international economy class, ¢1.5/mile for int'l. business class, and a whopping ¢3.5/mile for int'l. first. That said, the scaled cost increase in miles is incommensurate with the cost, so you can take, typically, two economy class trips for the mileage cost of a single business class trip, and maybe three business trips for the cost of two first class trips, and I didn't even have to look that up. Seriously, these numbers are just in my head. I know them, like I know my Social Security number, or my mother's birthday. And I'm nowhere near as meticulous or tongue-cluck-happy as the real professional "travel hackers". There are pretty serious debates about the best way to evaluate how much points are worth, with some people giving breathlessly overvalued numbers (the venal, self-serving twats mentioned supra) and others arguing that a cc point is only worth what you can cash it in for (who are also wrong). So the point is that when it's time to book a flight you need to ask if you want to travel, abroad is a given, in the pinnacle of luxury twice or in a very comfortable space three times or wedged in with the typhoidal masses in economy six times or seven times. Then, once you've decided whether or not you want to eat five hundred dollars worth of caviar paid for with miles or contract an eighteenth century disease while your seat neighbor elbows you for ten hours, you need to compare fares and figure out if you're getting a better deal with miles or using points as cash, and book accordingly. And seriously, if you screw this up you could be leaving, like, a thousand dollars on the table like I did one time. Hotel bookings w/ points are much more restrictive because, as I said before, you need to be earning direct hotel points or trying to optimize earn with your transferable points for these flights. In this sense it's simpler, and also because hotels are still a competitive market (unlike airlines) your points earn in terms of return per dollar spent will be much higher with hotels than airlines, esp. if you are using a hotel co-branded cc.
Oh, and you should always, always book Saver Awards, because the regular award tickets are twice the price and you might as well just put all your life savings into your mattress and then set your mattress on fire.
I have not even begun to talk about the myriad other tricks out there: booking through partners and various weird sweet spots in award booking where you'd want to book a US to China trip using a European carrier's miles that you transferred into and haven't actually earned a single mile w/ said Euro. carrier; positioning flights wherein you take a short jump to a sort of gateway where there are a lot more award options i.e. if you live in Lawrence, KA you're much better off looking for award flights out of Chicago which is a short flight away and a key int'l. gateway into the US; hotel-airline partnerships and specials wherein you can earn points with one for spend with another &c.; strategies involving buying transferable points or hotel points or airline miles to then cash in on some fancy flight so you can fly first class for the dollar cost of business because that's how hopelessly marked up First Class is as a revenue fare; the various implementations of paying for hotel rooms with cash and points and how to evaluate whether you're getting a good deal or not8; the various routing rules that can allow you to take effectively two trips for the cost of a single booking if you're clever and flexible; and the list goes on essentially forever.
So that's it. I wrote up what I hope is a pretty good summary of this dull-as-dirt topic that occupies space in my brain that could be used for something far more useful. And I did it without a single affiliate link.
Although some are.
Serious shit. That's not even pro level stuff, either. There are a group out there called "churners" who will burn through 24 credit cards in a single year, picking up sign-up bonuses and canceling when the annual fee comes due.
Assuming you are based in the US and fly mostly domestic flights on a regular basis. If you fly mostly internationally or fly irregularly, you are in two entirely different ecosystems and much of this stuff won't apply to you, or will but in weird ways, sorta like when you look at some sliced avocado and figure out that programming problem you've been stuck on for days.
Although they don't really advertise this so it's just a little open secret you gotta know. Shhhhh or they'll break my kneecaps. Which these days is probably a more literal threat than any of us should be comfortable with.
You'll find there are a lot of industry buzzwords in this space, but fortunately they are much more self-explanatory than a lot of other buzzwords in other industries. In this case, an "award chart" is a chart that tells you how much various airline awards cost.
Sometimes there is as much as a factor of two difference between two airlines for an award seat on the same exact seat on the same exact flight. Airlines ostensibly seem to aim for the same rough mileage value of ¢1.5/mile with some variation, so your guess is as good as mine.
You don't want to do that with your airline, though, because the earning is worse and the perks are weaker and you're totally tied to one airline whereas with the transferable points you can pick different airlines if something useful comes up. You also may not want to do this because it will, usually, limit you to US legacy carriers, and nobody, including their own executives, can with a straight face claim they are better than any of their Asian or European counterparts.
There are two main schools of thought on this. One of them looks at the usual point cost of the room, subtracts off the point cost for the cash and points, then evaluates how much cash you're paying for those points. This p.o.v. assumes you would never pay the straight cash posted rate for the room. The other is to look at the cash rate for the room, subtract the cash part of the cash and points, then evaluate the remainder. These can lead to wildly different evaluations as to whether you're getting a great deal or meh or terrible.
When you think of a business traveler, what do you think of? Are they all older than 45? Are their ties paisley, but not in an ironic postmodern way? Do they feel okay using their expense accounts to pay stadium prices for subpar beer at the hotel bar? Have you asked them if they like their pillows to be totally flat, and received an affirmative response?
Have you heard your air conditioners? Are you sure they are in good working order? Do you like to test them by setting the room temperature to 60 degrees for each guest?
Why are you asking me to tip housekeeping? Can you just charge me an extra dollar per night and pay them better?
Why are your European counterparts so much cheaper for nicer rooms in comparable cities? Could you maybe poach some of their management team to understand their cost structures and emulate that better? Or do you think your customers just won't appreciate it?
Speaking of Europe, how'd you assemble the menu for your continental breakfast? Do you know that the term comes from the sort of lighter European breakfast English travelers would encounter on the Continent? Did you enjoy using your under-ripe "fresh fruit" for games of jai-alai? Have you ever had a proper croissant, and did you think it lacked a certain je n'ais se quoi that only comes from a few days of staleness? Do you know that your breakfast resembles European breakfast the way I resemble George Clooney?
Who do you hire to design your bathrooms? Why does my room have two sinks, one in the bathroom proper and one four feet adjacent in the outer room? Is this meant to be "luxurious"? When the contractors put the shower in, did anybody notice that most of the water ends up on the floor? Why does your luxury soap leave a residue on my body that even the towel can't quite get off? Does the toilet have to sound like the wrath of God when I flush it, or did you pay extra for that feature?
Do you throw out unused toiletries at the end of a stay? How much cost is associated with that? Would it be cheaper to just go ahead and throw away all the shower caps and not even put them in the room?
When was the last time you shampooed the couch?
Is there a single factory in the middle of the country that manufactures all hotel curtains? Have they seen any fabric samples made after 1987? Why don't your blackout curtains close all the way? Do you know that this defeats the purpose?
Where do you get your room art? Is there a central market, like the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, where you can purchase calming photographs of architectural features? Do you get to match the frames to the wallpaper, or do you have to change the wallpaper when you buy new art?
Could I please get the late check-out? No?
This blog has a Twitter feed, but that's about it.
I was sitting in my hotel room in Vienna, with a view of the corner where the Kärntner Ring changes name to the Opernring, having finished up some wandering and with about thirty minutes to kill before my next scheduled Thing. I had four days in Vienna, and was midway into my trip. It was election season, and there had been a demonstration that had gobbled up the whole street for the last fifteen minutes.
To pass some time, I was browsing through Facebook, shaking my head at all the poorly expressed opinions, pointless memes, and videos of people's dogs being dogs. I thought to myself "don't these people have better things to do with their time".