Tuesday, June 30, 2015

ADVENTURES CLOSE TO HOME: Battle of the Drug Store Loyalty Programs

Here in sunny, Southern California, we have three major drug store chains...CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreen's.  We used to have a couple of more, like SavOn (miss them) and Long's, but they were swallowed up by the CVS behemoth.

There was also Thrifty, but they were bought out and became Rite Aid.  Nothing special about the new store, or it's service, but they did keep the Thrifty ice cream counters and still serve Thrifty ice cream in most of our local stores. That is very special to the natives here.

CVS, really kind of a chore to shop here especially since SavOn was so easy and all the SavOn locations became the three letter wonder.  The only thing good I can say about them is that they have a branch located across the street from my office, making it easy to step across the street to get my occasional 12 pack of diet soda.

Walgreen's is usally a fairly pleasant place to shop. They also have little mini stores where you can pop in and out, or go through the drive through to get your prescriptions. There's one across the street from our doctor's office so we go there for our medicines.

Each of these also has their own loyalty program and, while I would normally skip them, you don't get the sale prices if you're not a member. The result is we're members of all three.  Here's how they rate:

RITE AID - Other than sale prices, haven't gotten anything from this one. Recently, they changed it to be part of Plenti.com. This allows you to earn points at a bunch of other places that I hardly shop at such as Exxon/Mobil, Macy's, and Hulu. Last time I was in Rite Aid and punched in my phone number, the cashier gave me a new Plenti card, told me my old account is no longer valid, and to go to plenti.com and just enter my e-mail address to activate. 

Went to Plenti.com to do this and it asks for a bunch of other information from the card, which I didn't have handy.  Since I don't go to Rite Aid all that much anymore, I don't know if or when I'll ever get around to this step.  Feel a bit like I've been sold down the river but since it never did that much for me in the first place, I'm a bit ambivalent about the whole thing.

CVS - Another one I signed up for just because you can't get the sale prices without it. Occasionally, coupons will print out on my receipt for discounts on items I rareley buy at CVS. Lately, they've upped the ante saying if I bring my card in (usually, I just enter the number in the keypad), scan it in a little machine, I'll get even more coupons .


Walgreen's - Since we go here the most, I signed up for this one, too. It's pretty straightforward.  Earn points on each purchase.  When your balance goes over 5,000 points, you can use it to pay for things.  Each 5,000 points equals $5 but you can't cash in more that $10 at a time.  You even earn points on the copays for your prescriptions.

You only need your phone number to earn and redeem points and they send you a balance sheet each month.  Super easy...I think you know which loyalty program keeps me loyal.

Copyright 2015 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Monday, June 29, 2015

Seattle, Washington - Part 1

The scene on TV is scary. About half a dozen firetrucks…lights flashing, ladders extended…were under the track of the monorail. Frightened passengers were climbing down waiting for the safety of solid ground under them.

That could’ve been us...

The flight to Seattle was nice. Southwest Airlines has vaulted its way to the top of domestic carriers with a simple strategy; keep it simple and keep it consistent. As “passengers with special needs”, we were able to board first and snag the bulkhead seats. One knock on Southwest is that there are no reserved seats for most passengers. It’d be nice to know ahead of time where you’ll sit but this is one time being disabled comes in handy.

The flight left from Ontario, California right on time at 9:50am. The baggage handlers deftly handled Tim’s 350-pound power chair, using a special lift right outside the jetway door. A quick stop in San Jose, and we’re arriving at SEA-TAC airport at 12:30pm.

I had called a taxi service ahead of time to reserve an accessible cab but they said just to call when we arrived. I did and we had a ride within 30 minutes. Don’t cheer too much, though, as you’ll see later.

It was half an hour and $42 dollars later that we arrived at our hotel, the Homewood Suites in the Queen Anne District, just three blocks from the space needle and across the street from the late Post-Intelligencer newspaper building with its beautiful globe on top.

I had called about two weeks earlier to make reservations and talked to an Ed at the reservations office. All the accessible rooms were taken but he assured me he’d have a bath chair put in the room if we stayed there. At $215 dollars a night, this was the cheapest decent hotel I could find so with a little trepidation, I made the reservation.

At check in, who else would be manning the counter but Ed who not only remembered our phone conversation but also told me to check out the room and let him know if the chair he put in was OK. It was and provided a nice level of access in the bathroom…all we needed, really.

The room itself was a spacious two-room suite with a separate bedroom and a queen sized sofa bed. It also had a small kitchen, walk-through closet, robes, ironing board, and just a slight view of Puget Sound out the window.

There is an evening manager’s reception…with beer, wine, and appetizers…along with a hot buffet breakfast served each morning. One notable thing is that a nice, local microbrew is poured along with the usual bud and bud light. The bar is manned by Ed who greets us and tells us what appetizers he’s serving. While Ed is pouring the beer I comment to him that he sure seems to be everywhere. He tells me that the managers take turns running the reception by picking what appetizers will be served and manning the bar. It’s a very hands-on approach and I don’t know when I’ve had better service at a major chain hotel.

That evening, at Ed’s suggestion, we walk a little over a block to Buckley’s. This is a local pub that serves great microbrews for $3 during happy hour and served one heck of a macaroni and cheese dish for $13. Bubbling with cheese and infused with bacon, it’s the best dish we’ll have this week.

We continue on to the Seattle Center…the former World’s Fair site…and try to ride the monorail into town. I say “try to,” because it is not working at the moment. The workers have no idea when it will be running.

After a delicious breakfast in the hotel’s very nice dining room…with its floor to ceiling windows giving a view out to the sound…we head downtown. There are two major bus stops near the hotel with frequent bus service. Unfortunately, we are just outside of the downtown free fare zone, so we have to pay but it’s not much and 20 minutes later, we’re downtown.

Our first stop is the Mariners Team Store to buy tickets for a game. The main reason we’re in Seattle at all is that we’re trying to add another stadium to our list. Tim’s goal is to see every major league stadium. We get tickets at first base at the top of the field level for $60 each. This is a bit steep when the same tickets at our stadium…Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California…are $24. This is also for a team that will go on to finish with the less-than-stellar record of 61 wins and 101 losses to finish in last place 39 games behind the division champion Angels.

It’s not a long walk from there to the Pike Place Market, home to the world’s first Starbucks and the flying fish guys. It’s a very touristy place and also has a lot of traffic on the street out front but there is some great produce here. We buy some fruit to take back to the hotel, watch the guys throw some fish around, visit a few shops, and head back to the hotel to rest up for the game.

A couple of blocks away, we’re able to catch a bus that will take us all the way to Safeco Field, home of the Mariners. We get there early and the Pyramid brewery and bar are right across the street having happy hour but Letty and Tim aren’t interested. We get in and, as we do with any new stadium, take a lap around to see what’s there.

We find our seats and are shocked to find they are completely blocked by a TV camera platform. I can’t believe they charged us $180 dollars to sit here! I find an usher and complain. He says I have to wait for a manager who, when he shows up, allows us to move.

Mind you, this game is far from a sell-out. Less than half of the seats will be filled tonight…this is just unforgivable that the team would sell us such lousy seats at these prices when many better locations were available.

At our new seats…about fifty feet away from our original location…we settle in for the game. I get us some of the local specialty snack…Ichi Rolls from the Sushi stand…and watch at Ichiro, Arian Beltre, and company go down in flames again.

One very nice feature to the stadium is that in rainy Seattle (yes, it rained nearly every day, even in August) there is a roof over the park to keep it out. It is still an outdoor stadium; it’s just that the retractable roof rolls over like a giant umbrella when it starts to rain. That’s what makes it funny when I see during the next season that they had a rainout in Seattle. Really?
They couldn’t put the roof on?

After the game, we go outside to catch a bus going back. We find out that one bus comes by around every twenty minutes. One…for the several thousand fans that are exiting.

Luckily, the bus driver sees us and holds everybody else back so that Tim and his chair can board first. We also find out that we have to transfer to another bus at Pioneer Square to continue on to the hotel.

Now I have to note that there is a commuter rail station right next to the stadium but it doesn’t occur to anyone here…supposedly the greenest city in America…that it would alleviate so much traffic to the game to run trains? Only on certain weekend games to they run Sounder trains…not during the week. Only that lonely, solitary bus coming by every twenty minutes.

(Note: The new Link light rail, which opened up a year later, now serves the stadium)

I have to say at this point, however, that the bus drivers in Seattle are the best and nicest transit drivers we’ve ever come across. They always strapped down the chair, were friendly, and never hesitated to give us information about the town while we were there. They would also turn out to save our bacon in a major way later.

The next day, we walk over to the Seattle Center. The monorail is still broken. Inside one of the halls, we have a very good hot dog and go outside to see the fountains. They have this cool fountain set in a large bowl that the kids can go play in. It even has a wheelchair ramp that spirals down the side. After much coaxing, Tim finally goes down and has the time of his life dodging the spray.

I notice a monorail moving along the beam. We hurry to the station, buy tickets, and we’re off on the cheesiest transit you’re likely to come across. The driver dresses like he’s on Star Trek and sings Elvis songs during the one-mile journey. The train is old and, of course, looks like what people in 1962 thought trains would look like in the future.

At the other end in downtown, we explore the area, have some coffee, visit the Nordstrom’s flagship store before hopping back on board to the Seattle Center.

Next, we get some sandwiches from a nearby deli and catch a bus to Ballard. Another bus takes us the last mile to the Ballard Locks, a Corps of Engineers project that allows vessels in from the salt-water sound to the fresh water Lake Union and on to Lake Washington by lifting them in the twin locks.

It’s an interesting process to watch…you can go right to the edge, talk to the people on the boats as they wait to be raised or lowered. Afterward, you can go across the locks to the salmon ladders on the other side.

A ramp lets wheelchairs into the underground chamber where you can watch the massive fish swim upstream. Going out to sea, large pipes act as waterslides giving the fish the ride of their lives as they shoot into the ocean.

Back on the Ballard side of things is a nice park and pretty garden where we have a picnic of our sandwiches on top of a green hill looking down on the locks.

Instead of the bus, we decided to walk back to Ballard going by way of a few shops along the way to buy some smoked salmon to take home. We also see a couple of genuine TV stars…the Wizard and the Northwestern. These two boats are featured on the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch and are based here in Ballard, as are a few other boats from the series. Didn’t see any of the Hansen brothers though.

Back on the bus, we get stuck in a massive traffic jam but finally make it back to the hotel. Some more light rail or even a few ferries would make this city much more bearable.

At the hotel that night, I’m watching the news where a scene of multiple fire trucks have their lights on and ladders extended. It seems that the monorail broke down again…just a few hours after our ride…and the passengers were being evacuated down those ladders. I don’t really want to know how they would have had to evacuate Tim.

Stay tuned for part 2...
Copyright 2009 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Hotel Hunters: Bakersfield

The Musick family frequently visits Bakersfield, California. Their usual hotel has been the Springhill Suites, where they'd get a roomy, wheelchair accessible studio suite but they're looking for something new.

"It's starting to show its age," Letty says, "and the air conditioner blows right on my side of the bed."

"Lately, they've been catering to kids sports teams and it is crowded with loud kids," Darryl adds, "and they eat all the food in the breakfast bar."

Now, the family is looking for someplace new for their weekend getaways.

Their wish list has hotel managers digging deep for that perfect room. The family gathers at Mexicali, a favorite bar, and discusses their options over a margarita.

"I'd like a suite so that we can be in one room and Tim can be in another," Darryl replies, "and it'd be nice to be close to the things we'd like to see like the Springhill Suites is."

Letty adds "the bed shouldn't be too hard and it should be relaxing."

With Tim in a wheelchair, the room needs to be accessible but doesn't necessarily need a roll in shower.

"I'd like my own TV with sports networks on it," Tim chimes in.

The budget is $100 per night.

Hotel number one is the Hilton Garden Inn. This property is right next door to the Springhill Suites so the location is perfect.  There are no accessible suites, however, only standard rooms with a king size bed and available rollaway. The room includes a roll in shower.

"Why no accessible suites?" Darryl asks.

The suites are not technically accessible but they are large and have step-free access.  

"The air conditioning system is nice," Letty notes, "it does not blow right on the bed."

The price is $135 per night.

"Whoa...that's over budget," Darryl notes, "it also doesn't include breakfast. At least at Springhill Suites, the price was lower and it included a hot, full breakfast. It's nice but we'll keep on looking."

Hotel number two is a more budget friendly property in the older part of town, east of downtown on Union. The Residence Hotel with Courtyard (formerly the Tropicana) is a recently renovated, older inn. It has accessible rooms but does not serve breakfast but with a budget friendly price of $60 per night and being next door to the family's all-time favorite restaurant, they could easily afford to buy breakfast.

"Look, hon, Los Tacos de Huicho is next door! And Mexicali [their favorite watering hole] is just two blocks away," Letty observes.

"Yeah is does fit the budget and is close to things we like but what is that guy selling out of his car?" Darryl asks, "and is that a hooker?"

Taking a chance on a property that is a bit out of their wish list, hotel number three is farther out away from downtown in the west end of Bakersfield by the California State University there.

Homewood Suites offers a full, two bedroom suite, with a bathtub, a pool with a lift, full breakfast, an in-room kitchen, and an outdoor lounge area with barbecues.  It's still a bit above budget at $120 per night but does hit a lot of of items on their list.

"I like the air conditioning and the bed is comfortable,"Letty says.

"The pool looks like fun and the in-room kitchen is nice," notes her husband, "it is kind of far from the heart of town, though."

"That's true and it's still a bit above budget," Letty replies, "but it's also a quiet area."

"They've got two TVs and sports networks," a quiet-until-now Tim adds.

With three hotels under consideration, the Musick's look at their options.

"The Hilton Garden is in the perfect location," Letty notes.

"Yes but the price is way over budget and we'd also have to add buying breakfast to that," Darryl says.

"The Residence with Courtyard is right by two of our favorite places and the price is very good," Letty says of property number two.

"Drug dealers and hookers," Darryl replies.

"Yes, why don't we cross that one off of our list."


"How about the Homewood Suites?" Letty asks.

"It is still over budget but we do get breakfast and it's a really nice room and hotel," Darryl adds, "we could make up for it by using the in-room kitchen to prepare some of our food and drink."

"It's a bit far from the action though," Letty sighs.

"Maybe but it's not a long drive to get where we'd want to go," Darryl says.

"Well, I know where I want to stay," Letty concludes.

"Me too!" Darryl adds

"The Homewood Suites!" they say in unison.

Later, the Musick's are checked in to their new hotel location in Bakersfield.

"I thought I'd be bummed at being so far from downtown but the quiet location makes up for it and the new Westside Parkway makes the drive just five minutes," Darryl says.

"Yes, and I sleep really well on the bed and the air conditioner doesn't bother me here," Letty wraps up, "the pool is also one of the best I've enjoyed, too."

"Will you two shut up?" Tim complains, "I'm trying to watch baseball!"

Copyright 2015 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved