The Travel Game Is A Journey. The Destinations Along The Way Are Just Part Of The Fun, Part 2

Part 1 of this story found me working through various flight options for a summer trip to Italy before United raised prices on all of their awards.  It didn’t take a ton of time and was actually a bit fun.  I know most normal folks won’t think it’s fun but I do enjoy the challenge of putting together a great vacation, especially when it’s free!

I always preach keeping a healthy mileage balance since you never know when you’ll need (or want) to take a trip.  I wrote down some of the reasons I thought holding on to miles was a good idea a few months ago.  My timing was impeccable as United announced they were gutting their program less than 2 weeks later!

But I still have a healthy balance of miles and I still advocate holding on to some, and it worked to my favor on this trip.  I wasn’t 100% happy with our return dates.  I was hoping to make the trip a couple days shorter but was having trouble finding availability on United or other Star Alliance carriers.  American and British Airways didn’t have anything coming back to DC either.  Sometimes the shortest leg of an award ticket can be the issue, so I searched to see if I could find 4 seats “over the pond” from Venice to somewhere on the East coast like JFK.  I figured I could either ask American to open up the onward inventory to DCA and hope they said yes or just keep checking to see if things opened up.

I didn’t see anything to JFK that worked and BA didn’t have anything direct from LHR to IAD.  But I was able to find 4 seats on Boeing 787 Dreamliner from London to Philadelphia.  There were seats from Venice to London, so we were in business.  I’m still holding onto my Lufthansa return flights while I figure out whether the British Airways flights two days earlier work better, but because I had the mileage balance to do so I can hold both for a while without penalty because of my status with both airlines.  I did have to pay fuel surcharges on the British Airways flights but I’ll get that refunded if I decide to cancel.  This is a great example of why I preach diversity as well as keeping some miles around.

I turned to finding hotels next and I was specifically focused on Starwood Preferred Guest.  They have a very strong portfolio of properties in Italy.  While I would consider Hyatt to be a strong competitor for luxury properties worldwide they only have one property in Italy (Milan).

Because of the fact that I had 100 room nights with Starwood last year I have an Ambassador to help me book rooms and other details.  In this case, I would rely heavily on him to find availability.  As a family of 4 traveling in Italy, we had some extenuating circumstances.  For starters, most properties don’t allow 4 folks in one room.  I generally prefer to have 2 hotel rooms anyways but the properties we wanted to focus on in Italy were very pricey for award nights.  We began focusing on the St. Regis, Rome and the Hotel Danieli in Venice.

The St. Regis had rooms available on points and they even said they would make an exception and let 4 of us stay in one room.  That wasn’t my first choice but it was a great placeholder especially considering that the rates for our dates were roughly 400 Euro  (call it $550).  20,000 points per night would give me a redemption value of roughly 3 cents per point when you figure in taxes.  One of the lesser known features about the Starwood Preferred Guest program is that a great number of properties have “upgraded” room types available for award stays as well, though they’re almost never listed on the website.  This is where a phone call is worth the time.  While I don’t consider suites a great value on points since they require double points, an upgraded room can sometimes fit the bill for not many more points.

In this case the hotel had Imperial Rooms available for 22,500 points instead of 20,000 points for a regular award room.  These rooms are listed at 377-431sf versus 323-377sf for a normal room.  I’ve stayed in these rooms before and the extra space is nice.  They also come with butler service which I still haven’t figured out how to use properly.

Most importantly for families, Imperial Rooms are the category for connecting rooms at St. Regis Rome.

Through some fiddling around I had decided to try and find a way to stretch our points to cover two rooms in Rome.  I know plenty of families of 4 that make do with one room on vacation.  I’d do it to, if necessary.  But, the European rooms are smaller than what we’re used to in the US.  And, when my Starwood Ambassador found me Cash & Points availability for $230 and 11,250 a night, that was the right solution for us.

It’s worth noting that the St. Regis Rome is going up to a category 7  in a few days per Starwood’s recent category change announcement.

Rome settled, it was time to turn to Venice.  I have a fair number of friends who didn’t like Venice but Michelle and I thoroughly enjoyed our time there.  Most folks don’t like our favorite hotel, The Danieli, either.  The Danieli dates back over 500 years according to its website and has an aura all its own.  It’s not the newest nor the glitziest in Venice.  But, for us, it’s home.

The Travel Game

 The last time we were there the rooms were still locked with a skeleton key that you left at the front desk.  Not sure if they’ve revolutionized yet but we’ll find out later this year.

The Danieli has a strict policy of not allowing 4 guests in a room.  I remember being upgraded to a suite when we were there that would have been plenty big for 4 of us but there’s no guarantee of a suite.

Venice is an expensive place and Starwood doesn’t have any properties that are lower than a category 6.  There are two category 7 properties and one category 6.  The Danieli is one of the category 7 properties which means an entry level room is 30,000 points.

In this case, the rates were well over 600 Euro during our stay (The Gritti Palace was showing almost 1000 Euro a night).  Finding award nights or Cash & Points would be key to getting something affordable.  We ended up getting a combination of both award and Cash & Points.

Again, if you’re a family looking for connecting rooms you’ll need to bump up to 36,570 points per night to get room types that connect.

While these hotels don’t normally guarantee connecting rooms it’s worth asking nicely.  Additionally, I learned about something called the “Welcome Package” for the Italian SPG properties.  Virtually all of these properties are part of the Luxury Collection and Starwood has special rates for 7-night stays.  What’s not published is that you can split these 7 nights up amongst multiple properties.  In our case, it took some of the rates from 700 EURO a night to 500 USD a night (almost a 50% savings).

Those are pretty steep numbers even at the discounted numbers.  There was no availability during our dates but I did learn that these special rates do move up and down based on the season.  June is considered “high” season while July is the start of “medium” season.

Lastly, there’s also an option to use 1,000 points for a good old fashioned SPG50 certificate which gives you a discount of 50% off rack rate.  In this case, that would have meant dropping from 700 EURO to roughly 530 EURO on some of our nights.  Certainly worth the 1,000 points if we hadn’t found Cash & Points or award night availability.

The moral of the story here is that there are a lot of different ways to book SPG properties in Italy.  Don’t just go by what’s on the website.  Take the time to call and speak with someone to help you further.

Having an SPG Ambassador certainly made planning this a lot easier.  I was able to interact with him over e-mail and phone and chip away at the project as opposed to tackling it all at once.  I’m not sure I’ll get to 100 nights again this year, but the efforts here certainly have me scratching my head trying to figure out how.

I still have to figure out where to stay in Bologna.  We’ve planned that as an intermediate stay as part of our trip.  We’ve done Florence and while we enjoyed it we’d like to add a new city to the itinerary.  Depending on which return flights we choose I’ll have either 1 or 3 days to fill in between Rome, Bologna and Venice.

And, we could always decide to find a cheap flight somewhere else in Europe for a couple days.  Last time we went to Italy we hopped a flight on Blu Express, a discount carrier, to Catania, Sicily.  It was a short easy flight that allowed us to explore a different region.  Between discount airlines and an extensive, efficient train system, there are lots of ways for you to “bolt on” a mini-vacation to the rest of your vacation.

That’s about it for now.  Some may find this sort of stuff boring but I hope it spurs some thinking on your part to plan a better vacation the next time you sit down to figure out where you want to go.  There’s still lots of gaps to fill in as we get closer to departure, but I’ve put in enough work to ensure we have flight and hotels that reasonably work for what we’re planning.  Feel free to shoot any questions you have to make your next trip perfect.

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