Lodging Review: The Huntley Lodge, Big Sky, Montana

I was back in Big Sky, Montana recently. It’s one of my favorite resorts because I love the slopes and (shh!) there are never any liftlines. They’re in the midst of a multi-year, multi-million dollar project performing upgrades all over the mountain. This year saw the addition of North America’s first 8-seat chairlift (complete with a bubble and heated seats!) and in coming years the ancient beginner lift will be replaced with a gondola that will service both beginner slopes as well as bowl skiing for advanced skiers.

In the recent past our ski club has stayed at The Summit, which is a high-rise condo right at the base of the slopes. But two years ago the property began the process of upgrading from a 4-star property to a 5-star. Though it’s only a 4.5-star at the moment, that was enough to push the pricing out of our club’s budget. I really hate that because it’s so convenient and has the best hot tub on the mountain.

So this year our club stayed at the original base lodging facility, The Huntley Lodge. Named after resort co-founder Chet Huntley (he of NBC News fame from the 1960s & 1970s; look it up, kids) it’s a 3-story hotel with half the rooms facing the slopes. Rooms in one wing are mere steps from the beginner Explorer lift while rooms in the other have the mountain village right outside the door at the end of the hall. For convenience, it’s really hard to beat.

While I have stayed here before, it had been at least 20 years so I was curious to see what had changed. The answer: not a whole lot, which is actually a good thing for the most part.

The lobby is not huge but has a fair amount of seating and, like all the common areas, has a mountain theme to the decor. I especially liked the old skiing items mounted up high.

Skiing artifacts decorating the vaulted ceiling

The dominating feature is The Bear. If you ever need a meeting point, it’s a great landmark.

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Review: Hilton Garden Inn, Bozeman, Montana

As I’ve done for the last couple of years, I flew out on a Friday for my ski trip even though the group wouldn’t arrive until Saturday. I do this because I’m in a different origin city and I want to be sure I’m not late catching the bus from the airport to the ski resort. If all my flights are on time it works out fine but at some airports I just can’t arrive before the group due to flight schedules. And with so many credit cards offering free nights I can usually spend one of those certificates although that’s not what I did in this case. I looked into using my IHG free night but by the time I got around to booking a room, the Holiday Inn Express had no more availability.

This year my first ski trip was to Big Sky, Montana, one of my favorite resorts. I believe my first visit was in 1994 and I’ve returned every 3 or so years since. On my club’s last trip here I flew up on a Friday and spent the night at the Residence Inn in Bozeman and that was when I learned they no longer had a hotel shuttle. So instead of burning my Marriott certificate here I thought I’d try out my newly minted Diamond status with a Hilton property.

I was fortunate that the cabin crew from my flight was also staying at the Hilton Garden Inn because by the time I’d collected my luggage (and kudos to the BZN baggage crew for making priority bags first on the belt!) and called the hotel, the cabin crew had called the hotel, the shuttle had arrived and they were already on board so I didn’t have to wait for the shuttle at all.

Lobby and Check-in

Since I had so much luggage to wrangle I let the flight crew check in first while I got all my bags inside. The lobby has a large seating area for breakfast on the right side and more casual seating on the left side though there’s a long table there that could be used for breakfast too.

Hilton Garden Inn Bozeman Lobby Seating

Hilton Garden Inn Bozeman Lobby Seating

Hilton Garden Inn Bozeman Breakfast Seating

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Wow! 100K Hilton Bonus Points on No-Fee Card

For a limited time American Express is offering an increased sign-up bonus for the no-fee Hilton Honors credit card. The standard offer is 60K points but the increased offer is 100K points after spending just $1000 in the first three months after approval. The card earn 7x points at Hilton properties, 5x points at US restaurants, US supermarkets and US gas stations and 3x points everywhere else. Unlike many no-fee cards, this card has no foreign transaction fees – though Amex is not as accepted worldwide as Visa and Mastercard.

No referral required on this one! To take advantage of this offer, get started HERE.

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Regent Hotels Joining IHG Rewards Club on February 1

Yesterday IHG announced that the six hotels of the Regent Hotel chain will become part of the IHG Rewards Club starting on February 1st. There are four Regent Hotels in Asia and two in Europe:

Regent Taipei
Regent Berlin
Regent Porto Montenegro
Regent Beijing
Regent Chongqing
Regent Singapore

These are considered luxury properties, on par with – or even higher than – Intercontinental Hotels, which are already under the IHG umbrella.

We stayed at the Regent Beijing in October 2017 for the kickoff to our Roof of the World tour with Viking River Cruises and were generally quite pleased with the room size and amenities. You can read our review of the property here.

The IHG portfolio is far-reaching and covers the full array of property types.  Adding Regent Hotels helps to beef up the top end.  Here are the current brands available within the IHG Rewards Club portfolio:

Which of the properties would you like to try next?

 

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New Year, New Quarter, New Bonus Categories

Happy 2019!  Here’s a quick reminder that there are new bonus categories on some of your favorite cards for the first quarter of 2019:

The Chase Freedom card offers bonuses on purchases at Gas Stations, Drug Stores and on Tolls.  If you haven’t already activated your card you can do that HERE.

 

The Discover Card is offering 5% cash back on purchases at Grocery Stores.  You must register before you will receive the bonus cash back.  You can do that HERE.

And finally the US Bank Cash+ card offers choices of a number of different categories for you to decide what works best for you.  You can pick 3 categories that will earn 5% back and one category for 2%. All other categories will earn 1% cash back.  You can make those choices HERE by logging into your account on the US Bank website.

 

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2018 Travel Year in Review

Once again it’s time to look back and see where I traveled in the past year.

Red: Ski trip to Snowmass, flying into the Vail/Eagle County airport, Yellow: the path my luggage took on that ski trip, Pink: a visit to New Orleans, Green: European vacation, Blue: Vacation to Iceland, Purple: work trip to Italy and Germany

My lone ski trip of the season was to Snowmass, Colorado in February. I flew United Airlines from Memphis to Houston and into the Vail/Eagle County airport (EGE), where I chose to rent a car and driving the last 1.5 hours rather than getting stuck all day in the Aspen airport like I’d done in 2017! I spent one night at the Westin Snowmass and the rest of the week at The Crestwood condominiums. Meanwhile, my luggage decided to take the scenic route (shown in yellow on the map) and visit San Juan, Puerto Rico. When it arrived there the good folks on the ramp determined that the quickest way to get it to me was to send it to Newark, NJ and from there Newark to EGE. Unfortunately that meant over 48 hours without my luggage and two missed ski days. I did get a free sweater, t-shirt and shorts out of it (had to buy something clean to wear and to sleep in) and eventually United reimbursed most of my expenses and sent me a flight voucher. Continue reading

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Activate 2019 Q1 Quarterly Bonus Categories!

We’re just a couple of weeks away from the end of the year, so it’s time to register for the category bonuses for the first quarter of the new year.

Discover Card

Once again Discover has released their bonus categories for the whole year. The first quarter’s category is Grocery Stores, which should be pretty easy to max out. To register, just log into your Discover account online or visit this link to log in. Note that to receive the 5% cash back you must register first before making your purchase. You can earn 5% back on up to $1500 in purchases.

US Bank Cash+

US Bank is offering the same categories as for Q4 2018 though you can choose the ones that work best for you. Select 1 of the 2% categories and 2 of the 5% categories, based on your needs. For the 5% category you can earn the 5% on up to $2000 in purchases. To select your categories, visit the US Bank Cash+ website.

 

Chase Freedom

For the fourth quarter the Chase Freedom card will earn 5x points at Gas Stations, Drug Stores and on Tolls. As in previous quarters this offer is good on up to $1500 in combined purchases for the quarter. I’m hopeful I can max out this card at Drug Stores but we’ll have to see. But be sure to register ASAP so you’ll earn your bonus points!  To get your card activated, follow the link to this page that shows the categoriesWhen you click on the green button you’ll be taken to a screen where you enter some minimal card information

And then you’re ready to go!

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Amex Gold Card Gets an Upgrade

American Express has long had two premier cards: the Premier Rewards Gold (PRG) card, which has a $195 fee, and the Platinum card, which carries a $450 fee. Both cards feature travel credits that essentially lower their annual fees. But as time has gone on other card issuers have stepped up their games and the PRG has largely been passed by.

But this week Amex introduced a redesigned version, now called the American Express Gold Card, and though the annual fee has increased, so have the benefits.

If you already have the PRG or have ever had it, you’re not eligible for the sign-up bonus for the new Gold Card but that’s not all bad.

If you’re new to this card, it has a relatively modest 25K point sign-up bonus but you only have to spend $2000 in the first three months. Benefits for this new card include:

You can still enjoy these benefits:

The $250 annual fee isn’t waived the first year but there are credits to help offset that cost:

  • A $100 airline fee credit each year with your selected airline. This cannot be used on airline tickets but is great for checked bag fees, etc.
  • A $10 dining credit each month good for Grubhub, Shake Shack, The Cheesecake Factory, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse and Seamless.
  • If you book a hotel that’s part of the Hotel Collection you can receive a $75 hotel credit

If you’re new to this card, Amex will also give you 20% back on purchases at US restaurants during the first three months, up to $100. So if you’re like me and dine out a lot that’s an easy $100 back for spending $500 in US restaurants in 3 months.

But since I currently have the PRG I’m not eligible for the sign-up bonus. I will still get the 4x points at US restaurants and supermarkets and I can enroll for the dining credit. My annual fee will be prorated based on my anniversary date.

The card does lose its 2x points at Gas Stations benefit but I can get 2x MR points using my Blue Cash for Business card or 3x Thank You points by using my Citi Premier card.

If you want a more in-depth analysis, including a worksheet to see if this card is right for you, check out Frequent Miler’s post Is 4X worth $250 per year?

As for me, I’ve been using my Chase Sapphire Reserve for dining as it earns me 3x points and I’ll continue to use that for overseas restaurants as the new Gold card is only earns the bonus points for US restaurants. But I will definitely be shifting more of my purchases to the Gold card in the future.

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Review: Airboat Adventures, Lafitte, LA

As this was my friend’s first trip to New Orleans I let her select most of our activities. One thing on her list was a swamp tour. I admit I was not overly excited about the prospect but it was something I’d never done so I was game.

Based on reviews on Trip Advisor, we selected Airboat Adventures, in part because they would pick us up from our downtown hotel. It’s a $20 charge per person for the ride so while it made sense for us, if you have a larger group it may not. There was a family of four on our boat who’d used Uber to get to Airboat Adventures but cell service is not strong AT ALL at their office and they were having trouble reaching Uber to get a ride back. I don’t know how it turned out but it could be quite costly if you haven’t made prior arrangements for the return trip.

As our visit was in late August, we opted for the 9:45 AM tour, hoping to finish before the heat of the day. We were fortunate in that it was a partly cloudy day which helped to keep us from baking. The airboats have no covering so you are completely exposed during the tour. We slathered up with sunscreen and I was concerned about biting insects (they really like me) but I did not have any issues with that.

Airboat Adventures offers three types of boats: smaller airboats that seat 5-8 people, larger ones that can hold up to 36 and covered pontoon boats which appeared to be able to hold about 50 people. Obviously the smaller the boat the more it can maneuver into side channels of the bayou (as it’s know locally). The fewer people the boat holds, the more expensive it is per person.

Smaller Airboat

Large Airboat

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Lodging Review: Fairfield Inns & Suites New Orleans Airport, Kenner, LA

One perq of holding the Marriott credit card from Chase is that each year you pay the monthly fee you get a certificate good for one night at a Category 1-5 hotel. I had a certificate that was due to expire in October, when the annual fee is due, and the stay must be completed by that date, not just booked. That’s one thing I’d like to see changed with the Marriott-SPG merger – let me book the certificate within the date range, even if the stay is not completed by then.

Since the annual fee of the “regular” Marriott card is $85 (moving to $95 with the next renewal), you can sometimes get great value from using a certificate. The Fairfield Inn and Suites in Kenner is not an especially great use of this certificate as rooms are just over $100 pre-tax but since the certificate would otherwise be going to waste it just made sense to spend it here. This is also the only Marriott property in the immediate airport area and thus the only one with an airport shuttle.

After touring all day in the sticky heat and being caught in a rainstorm just 2.5 blocks from the Hyatt House, we were fairly drenched by the time we caught our Uber to the Fairfield Inn, arriving in the late afternoon.

While we didn’t spend a lot of time inspecting the exterior it looked to be in good shape and we made our way to the front desk. We were assisted by a very friendly associate who noted our status and that we were staying on an award. She filled us in about breakfast though we’d be leaving too early for the buffet. She did arrange for us to have sack breakfasts available for the next morning and got us booked on the appropriate shuttle.

The lobby looked as if it had been recently refreshed and I liked the furniture and the geometric designs on the carpet. Though the breakfast area was not in use I liked the layout and the bright colors of the seats.

A quick note that this hotel is in the flight path for the airport but flights are typically operating in the 0530-2130 timeframe so there shouldn’t be an issue with plane noise overnight.

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