Tuesday 24 September 2013

Hotel Loyalty Programs: Confusing the Cards

Without bragging, I consider myself a reasonably bright guy. I did really well in high school, I've got a business degree, and I actually enjoy helping my kids with the word problems and brain teasers that their teachers seem to think makes for great homework assignments. Most of the time if there's something that I decide to set my mind to, I can figure it out. With one exception. Hotel loyalty programs confuse the heck out of me. 

Club Carlson Hilton Hyatt Fairmont Best Western loyalty cards

Now let me be clear...I understand the basics of the programs. You stay...you earn points...you redeem points for free nights. That's pretty simple. I also have a working knowledge of some of the more obscure parts of the programs. Point Breaks, Points & Cash Supplements, Axon Rewards...I've worked with each of these in the past and while they can be complicated, I understand how they work. When I say I don't understand the hotel loyalty programs, I'm referring to the names.

You see, Lori and I are members of more than a dozen different hotel programs. Each of these programs have their own unique names for the levels of their loyalty program. During any given stay we may be welcomed to the front desk as a valued Diamond member, a Platinum member, a Gold member, a Red or Blue member (those are not the same program by the way), a Silver member, or a Classic, Preferred or Club member. I believe one program card even refers to me as Tutankhamun the Boy King of Egypt, yet surprisingly that isn't good enough to qualify for a free breakfast.

The importance of keeping these levels straight is huge. Being a gold member at Hilton or Starwood will possibly get you a nicer room and a free breakfast. Pulling up to a Hyatt with a Gold card puts you on the same level as the dog sleeping behind the counter. A Platinum card can get you the world at a Fairmont property, but it will only earn you blank stares from a Best Western agent. Even properties where it sounds like I should be important by being a Gold Ambassador will quickly turn their attention from me if a Platinum Ambassador should arrive at check-in. If a Platinum Royal Ambassador shows up, I believe we're all required to bow. 

Entrance to Fairmont Suite in San Francisco

Some programs even manage to take shots at you with their loyalty program. Kimpton names the two levels of their program as Inner Circle and In Touch. Since I don't stay with Kimpton enough to qualify for either of those titles, does that make me an Out of Touch member who can't hang with the cool kids? Club Carlson concerns me even more as their top level is called Concierge. Every time I wander through a Radisson I glance over at the concierge desk and wonder if that's an employee or just somebody who's stayed here one too many times.

Even though it confuses me, for now I guess me and my fistful of loyalty cards will just keep on traveling. One day I hope to get a better grip on these programs as there's something slightly embarrassing about standing at the counter of a Marriott and fumbling through a half dozen cards from other chains while looking for the right one. At least most of the time my correct status, whatever it may be, is included on any reservation that I make. I wish I could say the same thing about the airline programs. I guarantee you that I'm not in the Inner Circle of any of those programs.

Written by Steve Pratt

Monday 16 September 2013

Six Flags Magic Mountain: Is the Flash Pass Worth It?

I'm sure this might come as a bit of a shock to some of you (it did to me) but apparently I don't make all the decisions in this family anymore. It used to be that I would unilaterally select and book all of our family travel arrangements, and never would I be questioned about any of the plans that I made. If there were any shortcomings or flaws in my chosen itineraries they weren't noticed, or at least they didn't get pointed out to me until well after the trip. It was a silent, traveling dictatorship, and it was wonderful.

Dining Room in the Rio players suite Las Vegas
"Sit down Dad. We need to talk to you about these travel plans...."

Nowadays things are a little different. My kids are beginning to identify and champion the cause of their favorite destinations, pushing for the things that they want in a family vacation. Take our recent trip to Southern California for example. I had decided that we would spend one day at Six Flags Magic Mountain followed by two days at Universal Studios. My older two children, thrill ride addicts that they are, insisted that our time would be better spent in reverse with two days at Six Flags and only one at Universal. Years ago this wouldn't have been an issue as I could have swayed the voting members to my way of thinking with promises of candy. Unfortunately these days my kids have far more disposable income than I do and are perfectly capable of buying their own candy. If I wanted my itinerary to stand I was going to have to negotiate something far more creative than "1 day at Six Flags and five Aero bars for each of you!"

Character pictures at Six Flags Magic Mountain
One day of posing with characters should be plenty for anyone...

Enter the Flash Pass. Six Flags' version of Disney's Fastpass is an electronic ride reservation system that allows you to book a time to ride an attraction from anywhere in the park. You simply scroll up or down to the ride you want to go on and the Flash Pass will tell you what time you can make a reservation for. Press "Reserve", then show up at your appointed time to be allowed to cut in at the front of the line for your chosen attraction. The time you'll have to wait for your reservation depends on which of the three versions of the Flash Pass you buy. The basic Flash Pass figures out the current wait time for an attraction and makes you a reservation for the normal time you would have spent standing in line, so if it was 10 am and you wanted to reserve a ride on Tatsu which had a wait time of 1 hour at that point, you'd be reserving a spot for 11 am. The gold Flash Pass cuts the wait time in half, so your reservation would be for 10:30 am, and the platinum Flash Pass cuts the wait by 90% so you'd be able to ride Tatsu at 10:06 am, which most likely doesn't leave you enough time to walk to the ride as it is.

Flash Pass sign Six Flags Magic Mountain

My kids' objection to only having one day in Six Flags was that the lines can get quite long and it's hard to get on all the great roller coasters in one day if you're there during a busy season. My offer to help them make the most of their one day by buying them the Flash Passes was briefly debated and then accepted, probably with the realization that getting anything out of Dad before he uses his veto power (Otherwise known as the "We can't afford it" card.) is a victory to be proud of. 

It's also possible that they were counting on Dad's inability to resist upgrades. The deal I made with my kids was that I would buy the two who wanted to spend all day on the rides the Gold Flash Pass and they would accomplish as much as they could with only half the wait times. Somewhere along the line I got caught up in the excitement of it all, and when I got to the counter to purchase the Flash Passes I heard the word "Platinum" leave my mouth. Needless to say my kids were very happy and I was somewhat confused as to what just happened. Fortunately, it's a normal state of being for me.

Platinum Flash Pass Six Flags Magic Mountain

So with their Platinum Flash Passes in hand, my kids set out to plan their conquest of the Magic Mountain roller coaster kingdom. Now it's important to note that not all rides are included in the Flash Pass program. X2, the most insane ride in the park, is only available as an add on to either the Gold or Platinum passes for $15 per ride. The newest roller coaster, Full Throttle, is only available with the Platinum passes, again at a $15 per ride surcharge. Neither of these were happening, so my kids decided to start their day at Batman the Ride, which to their delight was available instantly.

Wait times on Platinum Flash Pass at Six Flags Magic Mountain

Well kind of instantly. I mean, it took 15 minutes to get across the park to where the ride was located. Then, when they got there, my kids found that there was no line for Batman and they just walked on. It was kind of anti-climatic and I had a moment of wondering if I'd just wasted a bunch of money in an attempt to skip non-existent lines. Fortunately for us (and unfortunately for everybody without Flash Passes) the lines got a fair bit longer as the day went on. 

Wait time for Superman at Six Flags Magic Mountain

There were definitely some rides where the Flash Pass worked beautifully. Goliath, one of the biggest, fastest roller coasters in the park was a perfect example. Although the posted wait time was almost an hour, my kids went from making a reservation while standing in front of the ride to actually riding in under five minutes. There were some rides where the Flash Pass didn't work all that well though. Superman, one of my children's favorite rides, was a horrible experience. Even with a reservation, the point where they allow the Flash Passes to cut is still about 20 minutes from the front of the line. Combine that with the fact that Superman has perhaps the worst line organization of any ride in the history of theme parks and it quickly became apparent that the Flash Pass wasn't going to be of any use to us on this ride.

Flash Pass entrance sign at Six Flags Magic Mountain

In the end though, our experience with the Flash Passes was a fairly good one. Despite deciding to visit Magic Mountain on a Saturday in the summer and arriving a little late (just after noon), we managed to ride everything in the park as often as we wanted and still finished about an hour before park closing. In the past our visits to Six Flags have ended in three of us wanting to go back to the hotel room while the older two kids wanted to stay right until the last minute to try out "just a few more rides". Being able to leave the park with everybody happy and still beat the closing traffic out of the parking lot was a really nice treat.

You can ride now Platinum Flash Pass Six Flags Magic MountainSi

So it was convenient, but was it worth it? Flash Passes are a lot of fun, but they're also a bit pricey. A basic Flash Pass costs about $40 per person. Gold will run you $60 per person, and if you're one of those people who get caught up in the excitement like me, a Platinum Pass will set you back $90 per person. There are some small discounts as you add people to the Flash Pass, but you'll still be at least doubling the price of admission. Is that kind of investment a good idea for your group? It was for ours because it kept us from having to buy admission for our family for a second day, but you may be in a different situation. Maybe everybody in your family likes to ride thrill rides. Maybe you've got far more time than you do money. Or in the best case scenario, maybe you can still bribe your kids with candy. As much as I felt the Flash Pass was a good buy for our family, five Aero bars would have been a much cheaper investment.

Written by Steve Pratt


Friday 6 September 2013

The Full Throttle Roller Coaster - A Story in Pictures

Six Flags Magic Mountain California

Full Throttle Six Flags

Full Throttle Magic Mountain

Full Throttle Roller Coaster

Full Throttle crossing Superman entrance

Crazy roller coasters

Providence Medical Center Los Angeles

This post is a part of Friday Daydreamin at R We There Yet Mom. If you didn't get here from there, you should really go check them out. There's people there who might actually be capable of attending Six Flags without hurting themselves. They must exercise or something.

Written by Steve Pratt

Wednesday 4 September 2013

A Fireworks Failing

One of my favorite parts of any major holiday is the fireworks show. It doesn't matter to me if it's New Years Eve, Canada Day, or any other day deemed important enough to warrant aerial explosions, I love watching the show. I have this great vision of lying back on a hillside watching the fireworks rocket into the air, the only sounds being the distant booms of the fireworks and the "Oohs!" and "Aahs!" of the crowd.

I wonder what that's like?

Victoria BC Canada Day fireworks

Truth is, firework shows are usually crowded masses of people. You have to get there hours early to get even a remotely decent viewing spot and then hope that nothing more than a light breeze wanders into the area and cancels the entire show. The good news is that if the show actually happens, you'll probably hear a good deal of those longed for "oohs and aahs". 

Unless of course you're sitting near our family. It seems that over the years my children have become a little jaded towards fireworks shows. What used to leave them awestruck when they were little, now barely constitutes a reason to look up form their cell phones. As for the gasps of excitement...well if you find yourself in our vicinity you're more likely to hear comments like these, taken from our Canada Day firework experience in Victoria:

Victoria fireworks Canada Day

"You know how they should start every fireworks show? They should have a guy dressed like Wile E. Coyote chase a guy dressed like the roadrunner onto the barge that they shoot the fireworks from. That would be awesome!"

Victoria harbor fireworks

"Gee Dad, you look much younger in the flickering firework light."

Victoria BC harbor fireworks

"These larger fireworks are really interfering with my 4G reception!"

Canada Day fireworks in Victoria harbor

"Do you think they're shooting the fireworks at that boat over there? That would be so cool, kind of like a real life game of Battleship!" (Followed by a couple minutes of "B4....Miss!" every time a firework went up.)

Canada Day celebrations in Victoria

"They're playing O Canada so this must be the last song right? I kind of wish our national anthem was shorter."

Written by Steve Pratt

Monday 2 September 2013

The Jam Cafe in Victoria - A Poetic Review

We woke in Victoria,
And food was our plan.
We needed great breakfast,
So we went to Jam!

Sign outside the Jam Cafe in Victoria

The place is quite small,
A bit hard to find.
For the easiest way,
Just look for the line.

On the sidewalk you'll stand,
To wait for your spot.
There's no reservations,
And it will get quite hot! 

The line outside the Jam Cafe in Victoria

They bring you some coffee,
While you stand in line,
The rest will use cell phones,
To help pass the time.

The line moves quite quickly,
In fact it's quite snappy.
In no time at all,
You'll be in and be happy!

Table inside Jam Cafe in Victoria, BC

You'll scour the menu,
To help make your plan.
Oh wait, what is this?
They've got Green Eggs and Ham!

Green eggs and ham from Jam Cafe in Victoria

You have to order it, 
You know you must.
You don't know the chef,
But Dr. Seuss you do trust!

The others they choose,
Their options are many.
Your husband selects,
The Pulled Pork Eggs Benny!

Pulled pork eggs bennedict from Jam Cafe in Victoria

The food comes quite quick,
And it all looks fantastic.
Good thing that your pants,
Have a waistband elastic.

Before you dive in,
You look at your daughter.
She ordered whipped cream,
Just like you taught her.

Nutella and Banana Sandwich from Jam Cafe in Victoria

Her sandwich is large,
And filled with Nutella.
She's making a mess,
But you decide not to tell her.

Your breakfast is great,
In fact it's a winner,
But it's just so big,
You won't be hungry for dinner.

Jam Cafe in Victoria Green Eggs and Ham

At the end of the meal,
When it's all cleared away,
Your husband goes up,
To the Counter to pay.

You look at your youngest,
Who ordered no food.
Said she wasn't hungry,
Was not in the mood.

But now she looks happy,
Much to your surprise,
The waitress brought suckers,
A bunch was her prize.

End of meal suckers from Jam Cafe in Victoria

So when in Victoria,
Make it part of your plan.
542 on Herald Street,
Is the address for Jam!

Written by Steve Pratt