Trip Review: DC & Philadelphia (Part Two)

Trip Review: DC & Philadelphia (Part Two)
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Image courtesy: Michael Righi
 

In my last post, I shared some details on our recent trip to Washington, DC. Today, I’m picking up where I left off, with our train ride to Philadelphia and our time there!

Off To Philadelphia

The next morning, our train to Philadelphia was scheduled to leave at 11AM. After a lazy breakfast, we made our way to the station about an hour in advance. We made the hike by foot, with Union Station located just a few blocks from the Hyatt. Neither of us had taken a train before, so we weren’t entirely certain of the protocol. As it turned out, it couldn’t have been much easier.

None of the hassles of air travel apply, with no security line before boarding. Simply showing our confirmation page was enough to enter the door for our track. A short escalator ride took us down to track level, where we were allowed to choose any Coach car and pair of seats we pleased. We went up a few cars and hopped on, choosing a pair of seats near the door.

The car was only maybe a quarter full and quiet.

The seats were quite large, and the legroom phenomenal compared to a standard Economy airline seat.

The ride was a bit jostling, but I was able to grow accustomed enough to the bounces and rolls of riding the rails in a few minutes’ time to work on my laptop for the two hour duration of the ride. There were several stops on the way to Philadelphia at smaller, rural stations. These stops lasted maybe a minute each before the train started rolling once more. As a bigger station, the train stopped for a substantially longer period of time in Philadelphia before continuing on its way to New York City.

We debarked and headed upstairs to the Avis located inside the train station to rent a car for the day for our trip to Glenside, home of Arcadia University, and set off into a city neither of us had visited before.

Philadelphia: Doubletree Center City

For our first night in Philadelphia, we stayed at the Doubletree Philadelphia Center City. I’d racked up 10 nights in Hotels.com‘s WelcomeRewards program. Once you hit 10 eligible nights with the program, you earn one free night worth the average price of the 10 paid nights. On average, those stays cost about $125 each. That credit can only be applied toward one night and only toward the base rate – not toward taxes and fees – so I could book any room with an advertised rate of up to $125 for a night and only pay a few dollars in taxes and fees for that night.

The Doubletree fit the bill, especially given my HHonors Gold status. In the end, I paid a few cents more than $15 for the night. In theory, Hilton doesn’t have to honor elite status on reservations booked through a discount site or search engine like Hotels.com, but I’ve always received full privileges on such stays. Note that your HHonors number – and status – will not be attached to most reservations made through third party sites.

When checking in, I simply ask the attendant if my HHonors number is on the reservation. They will report it is not and offer to add it, at which point they’ll tack it on in their computer and see my status. I always ask this right after giving them my name to look up the reservation, so I can be sure they’ll take my status into consideration when selecting a room for our stay.

I’ve had particularly good luck with my HHonors Gold status at Doubletree properties in the past, and this was no exception: we received a newly renovated, corner room on the top floor of the hotel, as well as access to the Executive Lounge two floors down and a certificate for a free breakfast for two the next morning. Not too shabby for $15!

The room was simple but well-appointed, definitely an early beneficiary of the hotel’s ongoing renovations:

A little coffee maker and a few bottles of water awaited on a small nook by the bathroom:

Near the chair and lamp opposite the bed, large windows displayed a (slightly foggy) panoramic of Philadelphia from the inside:

After dropping off our bags, we hopped back in the rental car we picked up at the train station and made our way to the graduate program open house at Arcadia University that served as the crux of the trip.

The school feels like it’s in the wilderness, but is really just a 30 minute drive from the 30th Street Amtrak Station in downtown Philadelphia. My pictures didn’t come out well due to testy weather, but this shot from Arcadia shows the small campus’s showpiece: a castle, which serves as the University President’s office and home to various other administrative functions:

Productive open house behind us, we headed back to the city. Upon our return to the Doubletree, we sauntered down to the Executive Lounge’s evening reception. Only one other guest was being “received” when we visited, but the lounge was nice enough, and had a few goodies on hand. Some small quiches, a selection of cupcakes, some cheeses and bags of chips were available, along with a refrigerator filled with cold sodas. An attendant was on hand to take any alcohol orders, but beer and wine weren’t complimentary.

The lounge was actually two stories, with an upstairs loft serving as a business center, with a few chairs and nooks for business travelers to work from. This was in addition to a capacious business lounge located downstairs, a floor above the hotel’s main restaurant.

Our free breakfast the next morning was quite good, consisting of a standard array of continental options as well as the option of a large waffle, three giant slices of french toast or a made-to-order omelette.

I appreciate greatly the fact that Hilton offers free breakfast to its Gold elites and doesn’t withhold that as a perk for only its top-tier Diamond members. That sets Hilton apart from Hyatt, Marriott or SPG’s programs, all of which require top-tier status for a free breakfast. While I typically don’t find Hilton award nights to be good points redemptions, this simple perk means Hilton properties are almost always at the top of my list when booking a cash stay or using a third-party rewards mechanism like Welcome Rewards to make a booking.

Hop Sing Laundromat

That night, I had a surprise in store: we walked a mile to Chinatown. It was getting dark and my girlfriend wasn’t too happy that I wasn’t sharing much information about where we were going, but it was worth it. A gated door with a buzzer, behind which a door with a bumper sticker reading REPEAL THE 18TH AMENDMENT were the only things that greeted us at our destination. This is home to the completely nondescript – but completely awesome – Hop Sing Laundromat.

Designed like a prohibition-era speakeasy, Hop Sing is home to the best drinks in Philadelphia. I have no pictures of the inside to share, as photography is strictly prohibited, along with taking any phone calls outside of Hop Sing’s small foyer. Trust me when I tell you the bar is a thing of beauty, with four shelves stacked deeply with spirits that could all pass as top-shelf at a more common bar.

Hop Sing was quiet that night, with recordings of big band music playing softly in the background as patrons lounged in turn-of-the-century furniture. Hop Sing’s design sensibility is that of a study or library one might find in the home of the particularly well-to-do during prohibition, adding immensely to its already off-the-charts cool level. When you’re in Philadelphia, go here. It’s worth finding.

Philadelphia: Hyatt Regency At Penn’s Landing

Our final two nights were booked at the Hyatt Regency Philadelphia At Penn’s Landing The Doubletree offered us late checkout, but we preferred to pack up and head out after breakfast in order to spend more of the day playing tourist. I was pleased that the Hyatt had a room ready for us despite arriving at around 10:30AM, likely as a result of my Hyatt Gold Passport Platinum status. I’d fully intended to simply leave our bags with the bell desk, but it was nice to be able to settle in before heading out for the day.

Once again, we were lucky enough to receive a room high up – on floor 20 of 22 – and with a great view, this time of the Delaware River that separates Philadelphia and Pennsylvania at large from New Jersey:

The room was quite nice, probably a step up from the Doubletree generally:

Unfortunately, the TV was fed only a standard definition feed – and a fuzzy one at that. I’m enough of a geek for that to be a pet peeve, especially compared to the HD feeds offered by the Hyatt in Washington and the Doubletree the night prior. Still, the room left little else to complain about:

Of course, the room was an award booking using Hyatt points transferred from Ultimate Rewards. That meant the grand total cost for this waterfront room for three days come to $0.00.

Philadelphia: Playing Tourist

We spent the next couple days playing tourist, working our way through Philadelphia’s various historical points of interest and finding other fun things to do in the city. Along with the Ben Franklin Museum, US Mint, Federal Reserve, Christ Church and much more, we saw Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed:

We saw the Liberty Bell, housed next door to Independence Hall in its own small museum:

We caught a Phillies/Dodgers game at the last minute:

We walked along the harbor and saw a few of the old military ships along the riverfront:

On Sunday morning before heading out, we stopped by Reading Terminal Market and had some outstanding crepes:

I wish we’d had an extra day in Washington, but I’m glad we got to spend as much time in Philadelphia as we did. I’ve rarely felt like I saw as much of a city in one trip as in this case, and know we made the most of our time there.

Heading Home In An Unexpected Way

On Saturday night, a thought struck me: we were scheduled to head home the next day on AirTran, by way of award tickets booked through Southwest, using points transferred from Ultimate Rewards.

Each ticket cost about 7,750 Rapid Rewards Points, which wasn’t a redemption I was particularly fond of making. Making matters worse, we weren’t scheduled to arrive back in Jacksonville until after 11PM on Sunday night. We felt like we’d seen much of what we wanted to see in Philadelphia, and were fine with leaving a little earlier if possible.

On a whim, I decided to check to see if US Air was offering award seats on any direct flights the next day. Based on its distance from Jacksonville, these seats could be booked for 7,500 Avios each if so. When making my bookings a few weeks prior, space was unavailable, but I knew that US Air and American often opened up more award seats in the day or two preceding a flight.

Sure enough, a direct option was available, leaving at 6PM and getting in about three hours earlier than the AirTran flight connecting in Atlanta. I love making tentative bookings with Southwest because the airline doesn’t levy any change or cancellation fees on its tickets, even for award flights. That meant I could cancel the flights with Southwest and the Rapid Rewards Points used would simply post back to my account at no charge. I’m sure I can use those points later on, so I didn’t mind doing this at all.

British Airways offered several Cash + Avios options for this award flight, as well as the standard rate of 7,500 Avios + $5 per person. For $80 more, I could lower the number of Avios needed from 15,000 to 9,000. Because I’d parted with so many Ultimate Rewards points for this trip already, I decided I’d prefer to transfer 9,000 Membership Rewards points instead and pony up the $80 to lower the number of points needed. I reasoned that this was like buying back 6,000 Membership Rewards points at a rate of about 1.3¢ each, which is a good value compared to the normal 2¢+ each at which I redeem them.

US Airways Lounge & Heading Home

We got to the airport early enough to spend some time working from one of the US Airways lounges at Philadelphia’s airport. I have free access now that those with American Airlines Admiral’s Club memberships can visit US Airways lounges, as part of the two airlines’ impending merger. I have Admiral’s Club access from the Citi AAdvantage Executive card

As a major US Air hub, the airport actually features three different lounges, but we visited the largest, between Concourses B and C.

I was surprised by how big the lounge was:

There was a nook with desks and power outlets for use by those traveling on business, but I preferred to make camp in one of the more comfortable seats instead. I was pleasantly surprised by the snacks on hand, which included whole-grain tortilla chips, Tostitos salsa packs and various fruit along with the more standard cheese and crackers and mixed nuts.

Soon enough, it was time to head home. We barely beat a bad storm back to Jacksonville, making our decision to leave earlier on a direct flight even better, knowing our connection from Atlanta could have been delayed or cancelled due to weather had we stuck to the original plan:

Just like that, we were home. A great weeklong trip was behind us, and had been accomplished without spending a tremendous amount of money. We saved nearly $3,000 thanks to the efficient use of Ultimate Rewards and Membership Rewards points!

Our grand total added up to more than the $15 I’d originally forecasted, but that was due to our decision to rent a car for a few hours rather than rely on Uber of public transportation and then the decision to use some cash to defray the number of Avios needed for our flight home. That meant preserving more points for our next adventure, which is the type of trade-off I’ll make every day!

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Casey Ayers is a consultant and entrepreneur with a passion for travel. After amassing enough miles and points to travel anywhere in the world for almost free in less than six months, he developed PointsAway as a way to help others make travel dreams big and small come true.
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