SPG Keyless, my First Go ‘Round

I had missed an opportunity a few months ago to try out SPG’s new keyless feature, and was super excited when I realized I could try it out at the Aloft in Portland, OR.

So what is SPG Keyless? Glad you asked!

In certain SPG properties, the Aloft, Element, and W hotels, you can check-in via your smartphone using the SPG app as long as you have a valid credit card on file. When your room is ready, the app will send you a push notification (around the same time I received a bank push notification that my card had been charged). Once received, using the app again, you walk with all of your luggage straight to your room, hold your phone up to the keypad and voila, like magic the door opens.

I loved this feature. Not having to wait in-line to check-in, especially after a long day of travel was fantastic. It was also great knowing that my phone was the key. How many times have you misplaced a room key, or worse, had it next to your cellphone or credit card to get up to your room to find your key no longer works? This removes those inconveniences, especially in today’s world where my phone is literally an extension of my body.

There are however some cons.  When setting up keyless entry for a particular stay, you need to enter your presumed arrival time (fairly standard), but as a result, the app and hotel stick to that time.  There is no wiggle room.  Often times plan change, and I do love the flexibility and that little bit of luck that is involved in showing up to a hotel early to find that they do have a room available well before check-in time. In this instance, I lost the flexibility to do so. And while that wasn’t a deal breaker, I can imagine taking a red eye to an overseas destination, desperate for a hot shower and having to wait.

One of the things I did not try out with this keyless entry is the use of the gym. After checking with SPG, the keyless entry seems to only work for your hotel room at the moment, not the fitness facilities, so you will need to swing by the front desk for a key if you want to use those amenities.

With that being said, the pros outweigh the cons (and are those really cons?) and I would gladly use this feature going forward.

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Why I’m a Starwood Member

I started my first job almost one month to the day after graduating college.  I took a position with a large consulting firm and did not fully understand the quantity of travel involved.  One of the women I started with mentioned off-hand “Starwood properties are the best”, and after spending a lifetime of not traveling, I hadn’t even heard of Starwood.  But based on her advice, I signed up.

If you are not familiar, Starwood properties are comprised of the St. Regis, Le Meridien, Westin, Sheraton, W, Aloft, Four Points, Element, and a luxury collection, think the Chatwal in NYC.  I had heard of the Sheraton when I first signed up, but I guess at the time the big name to me was Marriott, talk about the power of word of mouth, no?

So become a Starwood member involved also signing up for the American Express SPG card, and taking what they call the platinum challenge.  If you spend 18 paid nights in a period of 90 days, you get platinum status.  Now you can only do this once, and for the past few years, I have enjoyed the perks of being platinum.

Now that you know why I signed up, here are the true benefits and main reason why I stick with Starwood.  As a new traveler, I was unaware of the benefits of points and their respective value, and Starwood properties have the greatest redemption values of any hotel chain.  One star point = 2.5 cents.  And while that doesn’t sound like a lot, in point value terms, it’s fabulous.  But you need to be sure to the do math.  Before we book on points, we do the math, if a hotel in say London is going for $600-$700 a night with a redemption value of 16,000 – 20,000/night, you are getting a great value.

While the points redemption is a fabulous perk, the hotels, and the staff are what keep me coming back.  I personally love the Westins, Sheratons, and Le Meridiens (I’ve never stayed in a St. Regis), and even the W hotels aren’t that bad.  But they don’t have any storage (think no dresser or drawers), so you can’t really unpack!  But it’s such a fun trendy line of hotels that sometimes it is totally worth the splurge.

Now I’ve written about the staff before, they hustle.  They work hard, and they are incredibly kind.  During my time as a consultant, the staff begin to know you and become a bit of an extended family.  But even traveling on vacation, I have always found the staff to work incredibly hard to ensure you have an incredibly stay.  I don’t think I have ever had an experience where I felt that the staff in a Starwood property wasn’t friendly, kind, and helpful.  While I’m sure you could say similar things about the other hotel chains out there, Starwood has had my loyalty for years, and between the value of their points, staff, and properties, I don’t see that loyalty changing anytime soon.

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Platinum welcome gift, warm doughnuts, chocolate covered strawberries and pretzels. Life is good.

Hotel review: The Phoenician, Scottsdale, AZ

Have you ever stayed somewhere and still think about not just the location, but the hotel itself?  I have never had that experience until staying at The Phoenician in Scottsdale, Arizona.  It’s hard to put into words what makes this hotel so great, but I will do my best.

1. The hotel itself.  The Phoenician is part of Starwood’s luxury collection, and it’s easy to see why.  Nestled next to Camelback Mountain, the hotel boasts a number of pools (5 maybe?), a golf course, tennis courts, a fitness studio, sweeping grounds, a spa, multiple restaurants, and children’s club with activities.  While my husband and I do not have children yet, the resort clearly caters to the needs of families, couples, and guests of all ages.

2. Activities.  As mentioned above – The Phoenician caters to all types of people in all walks of life.  As a result, you will never be bored at The Phoenician.  My husband and I had a packed itinerary during our stay, with trips to Sedona, and Diamondbacks game, so when combing through the schedule, we selected to go on a guided hike of Camelback, as well as a free cactus tour.  Additionally, we participated in the kids event of feeding the Koi fish that are in one of the ground’s ponds.  There were also massive lawns as part of the property where corn hole and bocci were set-up, so we tried our hand at those as well.  Above, I also mentioned that there were maybe 5 pools, if not more.  And after our road trip, trust me when I say, we laid by every single one.  There was also a water slide, and channeling our inner big kid, went for it over and over again.  We were primed and ready to take on more, but  were unable to fully take advantage and participate in all of the daily activities.  A quick peek at their website today let me know of poolside movies and frozen t-shirt tosses.  Why aren’t we there right now?

3. The staff.  I have never, ever seen a staff hustle as much as I have here.  We stayed in April and Scottsdale was breaking the 100 degree mark.  When laying by the pool we were never short of water.  Free pitchers of water were delivered constantly in order to ensure that all guests were and remained hydrated.  The concierge was incredibly friendly and ensured that our tours and activities were booked, despite being completely overwhelmed with guests.  Additionally, the first aid staff were incredible.  I had an awkward moment by the pool where I stepped on a tiny piece of glass that needed to be removed from my foot.  If you ever want to see a grown woman act like a child, see me during a time of a foot crisis, I hate feet!  Anyway, my husband asked a staff member for some tweezers as he’s used to handling my foot hysterics, instead, my husband returned with 3 men (one of which was an EMT) and a hotel manager to ensure I was okay.   There is nothing more wonderful and embarrassing than having 3 people + your husband attending to a minor foot incident (in my head though, it was major) while you’re lounging by a pool.

4. The service.  I have been a Starwood Platinum member for over 3 years now, and I have always been treated well when visiting Starwood establishments, however, I have never felt more appreciated and loved than I did at the Phoenician.  Upon checking in, our room was upgraded and we were met with a bottle of champagne and chocolate covered strawberries.  The following day, based on my portfolio with Starwood, we returned to our room to find my favorite, Peanut M&Ms and Diet Coke on ice (and yes, I did stay fit on this vacay!), what a great afternoon delight.  It was truly nice to know that my loyalty was rewarded, and in such a small but great way too!

5. The food.  So clearly I love to eat, and I don’t always make the best food choices, but their poolside dining was delicious, as well as their restaurant, Relish Burger Bistro.  I sometimes think about trying to recreate those tater tots, maybe I should?  Look at that garnish!  I can’t tell whether or not it’s a little bit sad or funny that my only picture from the hotel is of the burger but anyway, the point I’m trying to make here is that it’s an actual hotel restaurant worth its salt.burgerSo Starwood Hotels, if somehow you happen upon this blog, just know that you completely nailed it with The Phoenician.  I have never loved a hotel stay more than I have in Scottsdale, and my husband and I constantly talk about how it’s not a question of if, but a matter of when we return because that’s how much we loved it.  The staff deserve the highest accolades and have my utmost respect.  Well done!

Do you come from a land down under? Our Honeymoon, Sydney, AUS

Our honeymoon was a three week long Australian adventure that I will never, ever forget.  My husband and I came to an agreement, I plan and pay for the wedding, he plans and pays for the honeymoon.  He definitely got the better end of that deal, but I’d rather have myself in charge of venue decor and planning than him (sorry hun!).  So with a lot of planning came a lot of excitement, and stepping onto that Qantas flight (aka the greatest airline of all time) in L.A. started the most incredible adventure.

Precious cargo present and accounted for!

We touched down in Sydney at around 530am local time after a 15 hour flight.  I slept like a baby and was hopped up on adrenaline by the time we landed.  After assuring customs we had no animals and flora of any kind (suck it Johnny Depp & Amber Heard), we shoved our bag’s into a taxi and headed for the Sheraton on the Park Hotel (for those that watch Keeping up with Kardashian, Khloe stayed here, and for those that watch Real Housewives of Melbourne, Season 2 Gamble takes the crew here.  I watch both, no regrets and no shame).  By some miracle, our room was ready for us at the crack of dawn, and we were able to go upstairs, shower and freshen up a bit before our walking tour.  We ended up watching the Red Sox Saturday night game in the US on Sunday morning which certainly tickled us.  This trip happened in October 2013 so for all you Red Sox fans out there, you know it was a big year. 🙂

Upon freshening up we ventured out to our free walking tour to help acclimate ourselves with the city.  Walking tours are the best! I know, I know, you hear that a lot from me.  This walking tour was 3-4 hours in length, and gave us a history of the city, took us to an area called The Rocks (where we returned to later), and obviously, the Sydney Harbor Waterfront.  Seeing the Sydney Opera House was surreal.  Australia was always one of those places that I loved the thought of, but never actually thought I’d see, in person.  But there we were, staring at it, and the view never got old.  Pinch me!

Sydney Harbor
The Sydney Opera House!!

I can’t remember how we spent the rest of our day, but the next few days were jam picked full of fun little adventures.  We took a ferry ride over to Manly and hiked along the waterfront paths to get a gorgeous view of Sydney.  We also checked out the beach, enjoyed some of the beach front shops, and headed back to Sydney for a night at the Opera House.  I was so excited to get dolled up and head to a show a world away.  I should have put that as one of my bucket list items!

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Off to see South Pacific!

One of the great things we both loved about Sydney, is the access to beaches.  It’s rare to find a city that also incorporates beach culture, and we loved it!  We took public transportation (a bus) over to Bondi Beach the following day to complete the Bondi to Cogee beach walk.  And what a breathtaking walk that was!  It’s a beautiful hilly hike along beachside cliffs and into small little coves of beaches.  My husband stopped to swim while I sunned myself, and literally watched a men’s bathing suit print-ad being shot.  I asked the make-up artist what it was for and he was shooting the cover for GQ.  Naturally I used our DSLR camera to try and sneak in a few shots of my own.  After our Zoolander style interaction, we continued along the walk finally reaching Cogee, eating a delightful little meal at Moo Burger.  My husband was thrilled as he’s a barbecue sauce not a ketchup guy, and Moo Burger gave a Costco sized bottle of BBQ for his use and pleasure.  So rare!

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One of the natural salt water pools at Bondi Beach. So cool watching the waves crash into the pools while people swim.

After heading back to Sydney we truly enjoyed walking around and exploring new neighborhoods.  Yelp! really came in handy here to find places to eat.  As a result, we wandered into the Surry Hills neighborhood of Sydney and had dinner at Il Baretto and rolled our full and fabulous bellies back to the hotel.

When I go on vacation I like to pick up a Christmas tree ornament from everywhere I go.  I call it my travel tree, and I love to unwrap the ornament and ever so briefly be taken back to that spot or that moment where the ornament was bought.  My husband on the other hand, likes to visit aquariums.  So to the Sydney Aquarium we went!  The Sydney Aquarium was fabulous, though my husband would be the better person to provide a review.  We had a great time there and that’s all that matters.  We even bought a small bottle of vegemite.  I was too scared to try it after my husband almost spit it out, but when in Rome.  Peanut butter is not for the Europeans and Vegemite is not for us.

Sydney Aquarium
Checking out the fish

Now many people on Trip Advisor mentioned to do the Sydney Harbor Bridge Climb.  I am very much afraid of heights, and while I probably could have done it, it was very expensive.  Many reviewers mentioned that while a wonderful and unique experience, you can see many of the same views by simply walking over the Sydney Harbor bridge.  So we saved a pretty penny and spent the rest of our time walking through Sydney’s botanical gardens, taking in the sights, and even going on a whale watch.  We did in fact spot a few!

whale watch

Sydney was such a wonderful and welcoming city that I hope to someday go back.  With the first leg of our honeymoon complete, we headed to up to Cairns for a week in Port Douglas.  Great Barrier Reef here we come!

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Sydney Harbor Bridge
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Forgotten songs art installation. Alleyway with hanging bird cages with bird calls from extinct or endangered birds.
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Overlooking Sydney from one of our hikes in Manly. Manly is 15-20 minutes ferry ride from Sydney with beautiful beaches, hikes, and cliff walks.
Heading out on whale watch and admiring the view of Sydney
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Surfers at Bondi
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Manly Beach! It was a beautiful day for a dip!