Monday, May 9, 2011

Travel Plans: Points to Consider

One of my goals for this year in Paris has been to take advantage of the excellent public transportation infrastructure plus close proximity to other countries and explore France and Europe as much as possible. The girls' 2-week school vacations that occur every 6-8 weeks throughout the year provide ample opportunity to broaden our horizons beyond Paris. It has been difficult to create a list of priority destinations with so many wonderful and exciting locales to choose from. Germany, Spain, Italy, and the Czech Republic? Check. Greece, Egypt, and  Morroco? No longer at the top of our list at the moment for obvious reasons.

Soren's business travel expenses means we have beaucoup points accrued with Starwood Hotels through our American Express card. I felt confident that we could spend the year lodging in style all over Europe with automatic upgrades due to his platinum status with Starwood's Preferred Guest program without paying a dime in hotels such as Le Meridiens and Westins. Our avoidance of forking over almost $1.50 for every Euro spent on lodging made this plan ultra appealing to me.

I have lost count of the number of times Soren has called home from a business trip to report that he was well ensconced in a suite at the W Hotel in Manhattan or some other similar hip or luxurious locale. "I checked in and they gave me this room with a view, a living room, and two flat screens," became an eventual superfluous description from Soren since these upgrades became the norm rather than the exception. The only problem was that I was not there to enjoy these suites with him. That was all going to change according to my master travel plan for our year abroad.

Boy, was I wrong.

Soren's platinum status expired at the end of December because he did not accrue the minimum number of stays required to maintain it in 2010. Buh-bye automatic upgrades. Luckily, we had one last hurrah in the form of a free night with upgrade that had to be redeemed by the end of the year. We made a date night out of it in October by staying at Paris's Hotel Prince de Galles in a sophisticated and expansive suite with a lovely sitting room and beautiful garden terrace overlooking picturesque Parisian rooftops.

And this is where the luxury ends and reality sets in.

The Starwood chain does not have hotels located in many of the places that have been on our itinerary. The Loire Valley, region of many of France's famous castles- no Starwoods. Normandy, infamous D-Day locale- no Starwoods. Brugges, Belgium and Den Haag, Holland- again, no Starwoods. Soren's thousands of Starwood points are useless to us in these places.

Furthermore, in some of the larger European cities, if they have a Starwood hotel with rooms available using points, it's usually a Sheraton- at the airport- which means we'd be lodging several miles outside the city's center and listening to planes flying overhead all night long. Not appealing, even if we are paying with points instead of cash.

The final culprit of my master travel plan has been space. As in, not enough of it. Granted, space is a relative term, and, as an American, I am used to more of it, including in my hotel rooms. My visions of master suites dancing in my head faded away for good when we learned that the majority of standard European hotel rooms can only accommodate up to a maximum of 3 persons. That includes a roll-away bed which, naturally, adds an extra 50 euros per night. Therefore, a family of four is required to reserve two rooms. Two rooms = double points = defeat of master travel plan simply because the rate at which we would have used our points would leave us with a bankrupt Starwood account before our year abroad is barely at the half-way mark. 

So, what does an American budget-conscious family do? This family opts for Novotel, Europe's answer to affordable, modern, clean, and family-friendly hotel accommodations. Luxurious suites? No. But, large rooms, free all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets, game rooms, and central locations are a plus. Given the weak U.S. dollar, a free family meal once a day while traveling is a relief. Raelyn and Nola like the Novotel breakfasts so much that they beg us to return to our Novotels for dinner. Not happening. They would also loose all track of time in the game room if we allowed that to happen. Let's see, what shall we do today? Castles, museums, and historical points of interest? Or play Toy Story on the Xbox?

It just occurred to me to keep that option in mind as a stand-in babysitter for our next get-away. Raelyn and Nola will never even know Soren and I have left the hotel. If our girls' delight with the Novotel is any indication of their interest in the finer things in life, then frankly, I am glad to not have the opportunity to waste our Starwood points on them.

So even though my master plan went awry, we have still managed to see and do amazing things all over Europe while lodging comfortably and economically. Soren and I will simply need to find a way to continue this sense of adventure back home by tapping into our remaining Starwood points next year. Hmm, I think I'm liking this plan better anyway...

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