Saturday, March 21, 2015

Reaching Hyatt Diamond Status on the Cheap

Last year, I qualified for Hyatt Diamond Status by staying at their hotels a total of 29 times.  Their requirements for Diamond Membership are 25 separate stays or 50 total nights.  During my stays, I accumulated approximately 40-50K Hyatt points.  This year, Hyatt has introduced two promotions: a "Stay More Play More" promotion, wherin by staying 20 nights you can earn 50,000 bonus points, as well as a "20% Off Point Redemptions" promotion.  The latter of which requires being a Hyatt Credit Cardholder.

Between these two promotions, I have considered trying to requalify for Diamond Status for 2016.  To recap, Diamond Membership includes: 30% Point Bonus on qualifying stays, 4 Free Suite Upgrades Annually, 2 United Club Passes Annually, access to the Regency Club or Grand Club (or free breakfast vouchers at properties where no club exists) as well as a welcome amenity for each stay: either 500 bonus points at Hyatt Place and Hyatt House properties, 1000 bonus points for all other Hyatt properties, or your choice of a food and beverage amenity that varies at every property.
It also includes premium internet access and a best available room guarantee (excluding suites).

It's up to you to decide what Diamond status is worth, but last year I stayed for 7 nights at the Grand Hyatt in Kauai and made up a good portion of what I spent while on the path to becoming a Diamond member through a free upgrade to a Garden Suite, along with free club access that normally runs as high as $125 per night.  I even spent a night in the Presidential Suite for a significant discount via an exclusive Diamond Member offer through the E-Standby Upgrades.

This year, I estimate it will cost me $1250 to retain my Diamond status through 2016, and it will also net me nearly 25,000 points: enough for a free night at the Grand Hyatt Kauai, among other resort properties.

Here is my strategy:
Book Category 1 rooms using points+cash 25 times. The points+cash rate for a Category 1 Hyatt Property is $50+2500 points, and I have two Category 1 properties within close driving distance from me.  The total cost becomes $1250 and 62500 Points.  However, with my 20% off redemption rates promotion, the total points required reduces to 50,000.  Now, add on the stay more play more bonus of 50,000 points, and you've now reduced the cost to just the cash amount.  Because I am already a diamond member, and will be using my Hyatt Credit Card, each dollar I spend will net me 9.5 points... for $1250, that comes to 11,875 points.  Add on 500 bonus points per stay for my welcome amenity, and that's an additional 12500 points.  That comes to a grand total of 24,375 points.

$1250 may be steep to pay if all you're after is retaining status, but if you know how to use your benefits wisely, it can easily pay for itself.

Even if you're not a Credit Card holder or a current Diamond member, you would still come out with an even amount of points, the only other caveat is that if you don't already have 62,500 points in your account, you would need to purchase those points in order to use them with the Points+Cash rate.  Bear in mind, Points + Cash is a specialty rate that must be booked over the phone, and availability is not guaranteed.  I do not recommend this plan if you do not have any category 1 hotels nearby, or if you are unable to complete at least 20 of your nights by the end of the "Stay more, play more" promotion on April 30th, 2015.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Hyatt Regency Monterey Review

After checking out of the Hyatt Carmel Highlands in the morning and spending the day at the Monterey Bay aquarium, we drove 3 miles down the road to the Hyatt Regency Monterey Hotel and Spa.  Kim and I had stayed here a year ago when I was platinum status and at that time booked a king bed room rate that included tickets to the aquarium and breakfast for two.  Because I had eaten breakfast in the hotel's restaurant before, I was under a misguided impression this time around that there was no Regency club and that I'd receive a breakfast voucher.
Tyler greeted us at the front desk, welcoming us and thanking me for being a Diamond member, he offered us our amenity or bonus points, and because we didn't know there was a club, we ordered two bottles of Pepsi and a cheese platter.
He then asked us if we wanted a 4 P.M late check out the following day, which I agreed to since we figured our day might run into the afternoon.  After a quick check of his computer, he offered us a golf-course view room with a 4 P.M check out or a Monterey Suite with a King Bed with a 2 P.M check out.  I eagerly took the suite upgrade, happy I didn't use one of my four annual suite upgrades for my one night stay.  He handed me a Diamond Member welcome letter and showed me on the map where our room was along with where the Regency Club was.  Upon being told there was a Regency Club, we changed our amenity to the 1,000 bonus points.
Tyler offered to get someone to assist with bags, which we declined since we only had two, then we headed out for a drive over to the building our room was in.

Large Gazebo at the Hyatt Regency Monterey
The Hyatt Regency Monterey is divided into several buildings throughout the property.  A few are by the conference center and a small pool, a few others are on the east side of the driveway alongside the golf course and a pool with a small waterfall near it.  The hotel also features a giant Connect Four set, a giant Checkers Board, ping pong tables, board games that guests can check out, and a gazebo with a giant fire pit.  Some people don't like the separation of buildings because it means going outside to get to any other building.  I didn't feel it was an inconvenience, most buildings were just across from one another and had covered walkways.

Living Room of the Monterey Suite

Our room was at the far back corner of building 3, room #304.  When we opened the door we were both instantly impressed with the size of the room.  Not the largest suite we had stayed in by far, but certainly roomy and comfortable.  To our immediate right was a half-bathroom, and to our left a large closet.  Ahead was the living room, which held a single-armed sofa, flat screen TV, ottomans and a work table.  Behind the curtains was a view of the pool, and to the right of that double sliding doors opened to the bedroom.

Bedroom of the Monterey Suite

The bedroom was fairly typical with a Hyatt Grand Bed, Ihome radio, and flat screen TV.  The one added feature that was really useful was an Insignia brand outlet adapter with two outlets and two USB ports for charging.  To the right was the master bath with an oversized shower and rain-head faucet.

The current Regency Club is scheduled to close April 2015

After settling in, we made our way to the Regency club for some evening Hors D'oeuvres.
Amidst many other snacks, we found delectable bacon wrapped scallops.  The offerings were relatively decent, but not one of their best clubs. 

Despite that, Bryan at the club was incredibly helpful, ensuring guests had everything they needed and keeping the place clean.  He told us that the club would be shutting down at the beginning of April and that they had plans to move the club to a larger area.

We finished our food and headed outside for some evening fun.  While other guests played ping pong, Kim and I exercised our minds with a few games of Connect Four (as much as one can exercise their mind with such a game).  I was incredibly disappointed that the game didn't come with the trademark red and blue pieces, instead we were supplied with donut shaped green and yellow pieces.  It will be quite some time before I recover from that disappointment.
She won.

As the sun was going down, we went back to the Regency club to pick up some desserts and soda, then made our way back to the room.  We brought back apple pie and some cake-batter brownies.  We watched TV for awhile, then went to bed.  We had no noise problems and the A/C was quite efficient, the evening was quite comfortable.

The following morning we stopped for breakfast at the club.  We had a breakfast quiche and toasted bagels with peanut butter, then went out on a walk to Fisherman's wharf, which is just a couple miles away.  Upon return we packed up and checked out.

Overall Impressions:
The last time I stayed at the hotel, the only standout was the continental breakfast that was included in our package rate.  If that breakfast was included as part of Diamond membership it would be an incredible benefit, as the club offerings were pretty meager. 
This time around I accomplished a little more exploring than last year, and discovered that this hotel is a pretty decent place for a weekend getaway in Monterey.  There are activities abound, and the extra space I received with the complimentary suite upgrade made this one night stay quite enjoyable.  Even their standard rooms are pretty spacious, albeit not that impressive.
The most notable negative at this hotel is the external air-conditioning units found in all of the rooms.  While they featured a remote control that made for easy changes right from bed, they all took up space that could be better used, and they stick out like a sore-thumb in an otherwise well laid out environment.  Service was great in general, and definitely superior to my experience at the Carmel Highlands Inn down the road. The location is perfect for experiencing what Monterey has to offer, and the grounds are well landscaped and well-kempt.

Hyatt Carmel Highlands Review

Hyatt Carmel Highlands Inn
I had been eyeing the Hyatt Carmel Highlands Resort for a couple years, but for the life of me couldn't justify the price when the Regency Monterey was right up the street.

I've visited Monterey every year for the last three years, and during the planning of this year's trip I came across a specialty rate that worked for me, so I decided to take the plunge.

After several hours of driving from our home in Sacramento, we turned off Highway 1 and rounded a couple of tight corners to find ourselves at the front of the resort.

The Hyatt Carmel offers free Valet or Self Parking, but the valet didn't seem to make sense since the parking lot was as close to the rooms as the valet was.  After being directed to leave our car where it was, we climbed the steps to the main lobby.
The resort is as picturesque as it gets, cascading waterfalls alongside the staircase to the lobby, fantastic colors of flora all around, and a contemporary architecture that helped blend the hotel with its surroundings.

It took us a moment to figure out where check-in was once we entered the lobby.  Ahead of us was the restaurant and the concierge, and slightly to the right were steps to their other restaurant.  Check-in was on our far right, in a seemingly confined area.  I noticed there was no priority check-in, probably because this was one of their Vacation resort hotels.  The desk was manned by a single clerk, and based on the space it seemed there could only be a maximum of two clerks for check-in.
The couple in front of us was told they were booked in a top floor ocean view, and they seemed surprised by it, hinting that they received a complementary upgrade.  One of them mentioned he had booked the romance package, so it made sense that the front desk clerk offered them complementary Champagne glasses.
The clerk was friendly to us as well.  Because we had been offered Champagne at check-in at our previous hotel (Hyatt Grand Cypress Orlando) I was surprised he didn't offer us Champagne too, especially considering our status.  But I hadn't expected it to begin with and would have declined it had it been offered, so it was no real concern to me.  I'm guessing it is offered solely to those who purchased a package rate.
The Diamond amenity offerings were typical: Juices and Fruit platters or Strawberries, and we opted for the 1,000 bonus points.  The clerk handed us our Breakfast voucher and room keys and showed us on a map where our room was.
We left and walked down the steps to fetch our car.

Room 524 at the Hyatt Carmel Highlands

After a half-minute drive around a bend, we found the parking lot and dropped off the car.   We walked back on the road and wandered around some paths until we found our Ocean View King room: 524. 

The first thing we noticed upon entering was the heat.  It was 78 degrees outside and at least 5 degrees warmer inside.  We fiddled with the thermostat (which was set to 40), then called the front desk for help.  The front desk informed us that there was only heat, but that they'd be happy to send a fan if we wanted.  I declined, instead opening the balcony door and a window.

Small Tub and Shower Combo
Exploring the room I discovered some basic amenities: small tub/shower combo, a flat screen TV, mini-fridge, and safe.  There were a couple of bonus amenities including a Keurig machine and a pair of binoculars.  The TV had two HDMI inputs, but there was no input button on the remote, and the input button on the TV did nothing, thus I was not able to connect my tablet to it.

The two things unique to the room were a wood burning fireplace and a large balcony.  It was when I stepped outside that I saw what my money was paying for: an incredible unobstructed view of the Pacific.  After taking it in for 10 minutes or so and spotting a couple of sea otters near the shoreline with the binoculars, we headed over to the lobby to see what kind of food was available. 

Sit back and....ahhhhh.
Along with two restaurants, the hotel also had a small bar and seating area.  We took a spot near the bar and ordered a non-alcoholic daiquiri and two orders of crab cakes.  We also decided to split some calamari.

Fantastic views from the Pacific's Edge Restaurant
The daiquiri was not what I was used to, with real strawberries blended in.  It was tart, but decent.  I guess I was naïve to believe that quality could match price when it came to the bar food, so that's on me.  Several weeks back I paid $19 for two quality sizzling crab cakes at a steakhouse, so I somehow believed the $18 crab cakes on the menu at the Hyatt in Carmel would compare.  Unfortunately, as opposed to the juicy, rounded, tasty morsels I indulged in at the steakhouse, these were flat, not that moist, and somewhat bland.  The calamari was decent for the $11 price tag, but nothing to write home about. 

We headed back to the room after a disappointing dinner.
Pool at the Hyatt Carmel Highlands
On the way back to the room, we passed the inviting pool, a Jacuzzi with a view, and one of the many wood piles that fueled the fires coming from several of the rooms.  Because of how hot it was, we were surprised at the amount of smoke in the air: not overbearing, but definitely noticeable.  The room was still warm, so we propped open the front door while we watched TV.
When it was finally time to sleep, we kicked off the comforter and settled under the sheets.  The cool pacific air made things comfortable, but I could imagine that things could get very uncomfortable if the weather didn't cooperate.
We woke up around 8:45 and packed up our things.  After snapping a couple more photos, we got a table at the California Market for breakfast.  Our Diamond Breakfast amenity provided for one entrée and one drink per person.  I had a Point Lobos Benedict and orange juice, and she had hot chocolate and cinnamon French toast.
Breakfast turned out to be phenomenal, with a delicious French Vanilla whipped cream on her hot chocolate, great texture and taste to the benedict, and timely, friendly service.  Aside from the view, breakfast was the highlight of the stay.
We checked out with no problem, and headed out for the Monterey Bay Aquarium before continuing to the Hyatt Regency Monterey.

Overall impression: I would have been extremely disappointed had I paid the Saturday night daily rate of $500.  The room lacks in comfort and style, and the service is friendly but unremarkable.  The single element that makes it worth any more than the Regency up the street is the unbeatable view and the beauty of the grounds.  This resort is designed for a romantic getaway and its location caters to that element, but the hotel doesn't offer enough to make it wow.  I don't regret spending the night, but think there are better options in the Monterey region for couples looking for a romantic retreat.

Monday, March 16, 2015

How I earned 5x Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on my recent Hyatt stay.

Earning 5% or more on purchases can boost your point balance significantly, but most credit cards put limits on the bonus categories that offer 5% back.  I use the Chase Freedom Card, which offers 5X Ultimate Rewards Points back on quarterly categories up to $1500 each quarter, and the American Express Blue Cash preferred, which offers 6% back on up to $6000 in grocery purchases annually. 

Since the beginning of January, I've been putting all of my grocery purchases on the Chase Freedom to earn 5 points per dollar since groceries are included in the first quarter bonus categories, and once I reach my quarterly cap, I'll begin using the Blue Cash preferred to earn 6% cash back.  I easily spend $7500 on food and gas throughout the year, and I purchase gas gift cards at the grocery store to maximize my 5X Point bonus.  But that's not enough for me.  I want my restaurants and travel purchases to earn me 5% back as well.

Enter the Chase Ink Plus card.  This card earns you 5X Ultimate Rewards Points on office supply store purchases with an incredible $50,000 cap.  While you may not have any need to purchase office supplies, this is the perfect opportunity for a simple form of manufactured spending: gift card purchases.

I had booked a weekend vacation for just over $425 dollars which included one night at the Hyatt Carmel Highlands and one night at the Hyatt Regency Monterey.  I remembered just before I drove down to Carmel that we had recently seen Hyatt gift cards at Safeway.  I could have purchased it directly at the grocery store, but that just meant I'd reach my bonus cap that much sooner. In fact, had I put the purchase on my Freedom card, I would have surpassed my bonus limit by over $200, and thus would have only earned 5X Points on half the transaction.  Fortunately, I also remembered I had seen Safeway gift cards for sale at Office Max, so I made a quick stop there and purchased $425 worth of Safeway gift cards on my Chase Ink Plus.  I then drove to Safeway and used my gift cards to purchase the Hyatt gift card.
Purchasing a Hyatt gift card using Safeway gift cards from OfficeMax
earned me 5X Ultimate Rewards points per dollar.
This earned me 2,125 Ultimate rewards points, which can be converted at a 1:1 ratio to Hyatt points if I choose.  Had I opted to use my Chase Hyatt card, I would have only earned 1275 Hyatt points.  I also could have chosen to put this purchase on my Blue Cash Preferred, in which case I could have earned $25.50 cash back.  But since I will spend $6000 at the grocery store between now and the end of the year anyway, it was best to put this on the Ink Plus.   I will never hit the $50,000 cap that the Ink Plus offers.

I also earned $1.00 off per Gallon via Safeway Fuel Rewards

As an added bonus, Safeway offers 2x Gas points per dollar spent on gift cards, which can be redeemed for fuel discounts.  The $425 dollar Hyatt spend along with some other gift card purchases earned me $1.00 off per gallon (the maximum you can earn)

While I used this method to earn me extra points for my Hyatt stay, it applies to most of their other gift cards as well.  Safeway and some other grocery stores now sell gift cards from Target, Southwest Airlines, Disney, specialty restaurants such as the Counter Burger, and specialty stores such as Pottery Barn.

A few things to consider if you'd like to go this route: not all office supply stores sell grocery store gift cards, and not all grocery stores have this expanded gift card selection.  Even if your local Office Supply store sells grocery store gift cards, you should check your grocery store before you purchase those gift cards to see if they have what you're looking for.  Additionally, the OfficeMax where I purchased the Safeway gift cards only sold them in $25 denominations, which meant purchasing and using 17 gift cards to make this work.  Also, some stores may have policies against using a credit card to purchase gift cards or using one type of gift card to purchase another kind of gift card.  Always do your research on your store's policy first, or you may end up stuck with unwanted gift cards.

Summary: The idea of buying gift cards at a local office supply store to get extra points isn't new, but your office supply store might not have the gift card you want.  Some points bloggers recommend purchasing Visa gift cards, but these come with a $5-$6 fee per $100 gift card, and this fee devalues the points you earn.  However, if your Office supply store sells grocery store gift cards, you now have one more tool in the bag to earn 5% back on many more of your purchases throughout the year with no extra fees.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

My Hyatt Portfolio: Experience from the field.

In the last few years, I've become addicted to staying at Hyatt hotels and resorts.  I've achieved Diamond Membership, I've received a Hyatt Visa Card, I was even briefly on a first name basis at one of my local hotels.  Last year I had 31 separate stays, this year I've stayed at 8 different properties.

I'll be bringing you reviews from some of my up and coming experiences, but first, here is a portfolio of the 25 Hyatts that I've already stayed in, along with the room types I've experienced:

1. Hyatt Orlando Aiport: King Bed (Atrium Facing)
2. Hyatt House Rancho Cordova (Closed): One Bedroom Residential Loft W/Jacuzzi, One Bedroom Residential Loft, One Bedroom King (All Parking Lot Facing)
3. Hyatt Place Rancho Cordova: King Bed (Parking Lot Facing)
4. Hyatt Place Roseville: King Bed (Mall Facing, Parking Lot Facing), ADA King Tub
5. Hyatt Regency Sacramento: Executive Corner King (Park Facing), ADA Double Tub (K Street Facing), Park Capitol Suite
6. Hyatt Regency San Francisco Embarcadero: Regency Club Balcony (Bay Facing), Balcony Suite (Bay and City Views), Grande Suite (Bay and City Views)
7. Hyatt Regency Fisherman's Wharf: City View King (Coit Tower Facing)
8. Grand Hyatt San Francisco: Executive Suite (West Facing)
9. Hyatt Regency Monterey: One King Bed (Pool Facing), One King Bed (Golf Course Facing), Monterey Suite King (Pool Facing)
10. Hyatt Place Fremont: King Bed (Parking Lot Facing)
11. Hyatt Grand Cypress Orlando: Pool View King (Pool, Epcot, Magic Kingdom Facing)
12. Hyatt Regency Orange County: 1 Bedroom King Suite (Atrium Facing), VIP Family Suite (Parking Lot Facing), 1 Bedroom Queen Suite (Corner Facing)
13. Hyatt Regency Downtown Miami: Miami Suite (Downtown Facing)
14. Hyatt Miami at the Blue (Closed): Three Bedroom Villa (Golf Course Facing)
15. Grand Hyatt Seattle: Emerald Suite (Corner room, Bay and Downtown Views)
16. Grand Hyatt Kauai: Pool View, Partial Ocean View, Garden Suite, Small Version Ocean Suite (Pool and Ocean Facing), Standard Version Ocean Suite, Large Version Ocean Suite (Corner Room, Ocean and Main Lobby Views), Deluxe Ocean Suite, Presidential Suite.
17. Hyatt Carmel Highlands: Ocean View King
18. Park Hyatt Aviara Resort: Park Suite
19. Hyatt Regency Mission Bay: Deluxe View King
20. Andaz San Diego: Andaz Suite
21. Hyatt House Belmont Shores: Two bedroom King Suite
22: Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport: Business Suite
23: Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi: Park Suite
24: Park Hyatt Dubai: Park Executive Suite
25: Park Hyatt Maldives: Park Pool Villa, Park Water Villa.
The Presidential Suite Bedroom, Grand Hyatt Kauai