Why I’ll never stay at Wynn or Encore in Las Vegas again…lies, theft, and corruption.

You might think that my accusations of theft and corruption at Wynn/Encore stem from gambling losses, but I actually netted $6 playing blackjack over the course of the weekend.

Other than my casino winnings, my stay at Wynn/Encore was the worst hotel experience I’ve ever had out of any hotel claiming to be a “luxury” hotel. Encore may look luxurious from the inside, but their service and code of ethics would easily be outdone by a lower class hotel like Motel 6. In fact, my overall Vegas experience would have been better had I stayed at a Motel 6 instead of Wynn.

My misery began upon check-in on the evening of September 8, 2016. I had booked a Resort King Suite at Encore. During check-in, I could tell from the attendant’s facial expression that something wasn’t quite right. He typed away for a couple minutes, and then exclaimed, “I’ve found a great room for you sir!”.

“Great,” I thought. “I’m on my way to enjoying Vegas.” 

He said it’s only a couple minutes walk from there, and on the Wynn side. I asked why I was being sent to Wynn when my reservation was for Encore. He told me they didn’t have availability at Encore, and the Wynn room was equivalent to the room I had booked. I asked if it was the same size, and he said that it was 700 sq feet. I asked if I’d get a credit since he’s putting me in a smaller room, and he told me that that’s not possible, since the room I was getting was actually at a higher rate than the room I booked. This was all very strange…why am I not getting the room I had reserved and paid a deposit on? How is a smaller, older room, have a higher rate than a newer, bigger room? He told me that if I wanted, I could contact the front desk in the morning to see if any Encore Resort King Suites had become available.

Although I was suspicious, I was also tired, so I relented, took the keys, and went to my room.

Much to my surprise, the room was not at all similar to the room I had booked and paid for. It was a single room rather than a 2-room suite with a divider, and it was substantially smaller.

So I went back down, now on the Wynn side, went to the front desk, and explained to an attendant how the attendant on the Encore side had completely misled me, lying about everything from the room rate to the room size.  She, very calmly explained that Encore was sending ALL of their check-ins to Wynn because they were full, and that she was aware of the situation and would have a manger contact me in the morning. Fair enough.

So let’s review so far:

1. The hotel booked more rooms than they had available, intentionally to maximize their revenue, knowing full-well guests would show up and they wouldn’t get the rooms they had reserved. ETHICALLY DEVOID and CORRUPT.

2. The attendant attempted to deceive me with this exclamation of “We’ve found a great room for you!”. HE LIED.

3. He told me it was 700 sq feet, when it was 600 sq feet. HE LIED AGAIN.

4. He told me that the rate on the Wynn room was higher than the room I had originally booked, so there would be no credit. I checked online when I got up to my room. The room I was sent to was about $100/night less than what I booked. HE LIED ONCE AGAIN.

5. He put the onus of correcting the issue on ME rather than the hotel, by telling me I could call the front desk the next morning. Any hotel with any semblance of “luxury” would be proactive and not only contact me the next morning, but offer amends. INADEQUATE SERVICE.

The exciting first night in Vegas turned into one of fraught with anxiety. Nothing irks me more than knowing I’ve been taken advantage of. And the con of Wynn/Encore was just beginning.

The next morning, after a mostly sleepless night fretting over whether I was going to get the right room, I ate some breakfast, and headed to the front desk.

First, I spoke to another front-desk receptionist. I explained the situation, now for the second time, and she told me she’d put my name on the list of people to get an Encore Resort King Suite after the rooms were cleaned. I asked for a credit for having been downgraded the prior night, and she offered me a credit of one night’s resort fee ($35) for my “inconvenience”. 

Really? A whopping $35 for my inconvenience?

How about compensation for your incompetency? For your lies? For all the time I had spent dealing with this nonsense instead of enjoying my trip?

I asked to speak to a manager. 

“Danny” the manager came over, and fortunately he was already aware of my complaint. “Danny” seemed like a reasonable person, until he started talking and uttered the following gems:

1. “From a customer standpoint, what you’re saying makes sense, but this just isn’t how our business works.”

2. (After I complained that I was put in a lesser room last night but still paid the rate of the bigger room…):

“You weren’t put in a lesser room…it was just a smaller room.”

3. “You checked in really late last night, which is why your room wasn’t available. We’re fully booked right now, and rooms are given on a first-come, first-available basis.”

WHAT DID YOU JUST SAY, YOU INCOMPETENT MORON?

I then had to channel Seinfeld, and explain that I made a FREAKING RESERVATION, and paid for it. And, just like Seinfeld, I had to explain that “ANYBODY CAN TAKE A RESERVATION. THE IMPORTANT PART IS HOLDING THE RESERVATION.”

The stunt Wynn/Encore was pulling isn’t unique to them…many hotels adhere to the same, corrupt practice. They sell more rooms than they have, fully intending to cheat those that don’t get the room they paid for, hoping the customer shuts up and doesn’t scream too loudly. Here’s a more detailed explanation of the problem.

After some back and forth with “Danny”, he relented and said he’d credit me the resort fee for all 3 days of my stay, which add up to slightly over $100, which makes up for the rate difference between the room I was given and the room I paid for. Fair enough. He also told me that they would call me later that day when my actual room (Resort King Suite at Encore) was ready, and I could then move my bags. I was still surprised they didn’t offer more. I caught them with their pants down, and they ought to have not only made up the rate difference but done something additional for lying and to make me whole, but I didn’t want to spend any more time fighting this.

So, as the day went on, I waited, and waited, and waited some more. No phone call ever came to tell me my Resort King Suite was ready.

Finally, in the early evening, I called the front desk. They searched, found a room for me, and down I went to claim the key and head up to the room that I actually paid for.

But here’s the kicker:

The day I checked out, I asked for a copy of my bill. The 3 days worth of resort fees were NOT credited at all. They were on the bill.

I returned home to Chicago, I called Wynn’s Billing Office, and I left a message, explaining that my bill was wrong and that Danny the Manager was supposed to take off the daily resort fees.

My call was never returned.

I hope somebody sets Wynn and Encore on fire.

Introducing my new project, GMass

After my Trump article notoriety, it was my goal to build upon the momentum of my writing by continuing to publish pieces of satire, insight, and entertainment, but my writing pursuits were derailed by my software interests. Back in March, I launched Wordzen, an executive assistant for Gmail, and just two weeks ago, I launched a new product for Gmail users called GMass.

GMass is a beautiful mass email system for Gmail. The idea was born back in June, while I was working in Hawaii. I was recruiting editors for Wordzen and found myself wanting to email some important information about my recruiting process to several prospects at once. After searching for and not finding an easy solution, I began exploring Gmail’s inner workings, attempting to decipher how difficult it would be to build such a system on my own. After researching Gmail’s API, and Streak’s client-side API, Inbox SDK, I ventured to build the ultimate mass email and mail merge solution for Gmail. I worked tirelessly for nearly 3 months, sometimes bleeding over a line of code to get it working just right. I present to you, GMass.

Like my former product Wordzen, GMass is also a Chrome extension and is also currently free.

The premise of GMass is that it allows you to email multiple people, while making it appear as if you’re emailing each person individually. You can also schedule emails to be sent at a later time, personalize each email with the recipient’s name, and even learn when each individual opens the email. The killer feature, however, is one that could alter best practices for the email marketing industry at large — the ability to send your mass email in a way that it the email message appears as a reply to the last conversation you had with each recipient. The benefit is that your email communication is more likely to appear as if it was written just for that person, if it’s a reply to the last email you received from that person.

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There are all sorts of cool little features lurking within, like the ability to build an email list by searching your Gmail account and extracting matching email addresses. So far, GMass has been received well. I posted the idea to the /r/startups sub on reddit a couple weeks ago, and it was the #1 thread for a day and a half.

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Anyway, if you’re a Gmail user, and so-inclined, please check it out: www.gmass.co

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The downsides of living at Chicago’s Trump Tower

Having lived at the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Chicago for six months, I’ve become accustomed to the high level of service the building provides. Multiple doormen and attendants on stand-by, 24 hour room service, and unparalleled views of the city are just a few of the perks I experience daily. As my life coach has explained to me, however, positives can’t exist without negatives, so here are ten downsides to consider before you rent or buy at Trump Tower Chicago:

1. The gym is NOT open 24 hours. Having moved to Trump from a building that allows 24×7 access to the gym, and having developed a habit of staying up till 5AM, the hours of Trump’s fitness center aren’t conducive to my lifestyle. The gym is rather fancy though when it is open, providing iced towels, apples, and lemon-water to all patrons.

2. Security is too tight. A key fob is required to access the elevators, and you are only able to access the one floor on which you live. That prevents you from sneaking up to the 84th floor to stalk Derek Rose. All guests and food delivery personnel are escorted to your unit when they arrive. My first night in my unit I ordered a pizza and was surprised when after the doorman called me to inform me of my food’s arrival, a Trump security team member then escorted the pizza delivery man up to my unit. A friend of mine who had never been to Trump recently visited me. Impressed by the grandeur of the lobby, he took out his phone to take some pictures while the doorman called up for me. He was promptly told that taking photos in the lobby is prohibited.

3. Ridiculous move-in fees. You won’t find this mentioned in ads for Trump rentals, but renting requires a $750 move-in fee, another $750 move-in security deposit, a $900 lease processing fee, and mandatory renter’s insurance. There is also of course a $750 move-out fee, should you ever decide to leave. A lease processing fee might make sense if I was leasing directly from Trump and they needed to run background and credit checks, but in fact, one doesn’t lease from Trump directly.  One leases from individual unit owners.  The lease I signed is a contract between myself and my landlord, a copy of which is then submitted to Trump’s management. Prior to signing, I called Trump’s management office to inquire about this curious $900 lease processing fee.

Me: Hi, I’m considering renting at Trump, and I was wondering about the $900 lease processing fee.
Trump: Okay…
Me: Well I was just wondering what that $900 is for.
Trump: It’s the lease processing fee.  So it’s to process the lease.

Gee, thanks.

4. Your moving company will hate you. When I first contacted my moving company to tell them I was moving to Trump, my excitement was greeted with sighs and grunts. Trump is an excellent building, I was told, but a pain-in-the-ass to move into. Movers are assigned a 4-hour time slot by which they can use the freight elevator to transport furniture, but apparently the loading dock is always so busy that there are endless delays. Additionally, loading dock security is so tight that it was a 45-minute process for my movers to be “cleared” before any work could be done. Lastly, Trump requires masonite boarding to be placed from the freight elevator entrance all the way to the unit entrance to prevent damage to the carpet. Should your moving company not have masonite boards or not have enough of them, Trump assesses a $400 fee and provides the boarding for you.

5. You will be shocked. The carpet in the hallways is thick and plush, and every time you walk from the elevator, down the hallway to your unit, you will likely get shocked by touching the metal door handle to enter your unit. This can be mitigated, however, by rubbing the wall before touching the door handle. Apparently, the wall destaticizes you.

6. Sensitive hardwood floors. So sensitive in fact, that my lease had an addendum that stated I wouldn’t allow anyone wearing high heels to walk around the unit because the heels would damage the hardwood. The listing agent informed me that this particular flooring is $30/square foot, and so replacing the floors in a 2,700 square foot unit would cost a cool $81,000.

7. Parking lot elevator separate from unit elevators. Having moved to Trump from a building where there’s ONE set of elevators, and said elevators take you to both the parking garage levels and the residence floors, this is an annoyance more than anything else. You have to walk through the lobby and past the door staff to enter the separate set of parking garage elevators, where you must then use your key fob to access the floor on which your car is parked. It’s an 8-minute process from the time I leave my unit to the time my car has exited the parking structure.

8. Comcast. When I first moved in, cable and Internet was provided by RCN. Just a month after, however, Trump’s Homeowner’s Association switched its bulk provider agreement to Comcast. Residents can continue to use RCN at retail rates if they chose, but Comcast was now the preferred vendor. Trump’s reputation is one of opulence, luxury, and service, while Comcast’s is that of the worst company in America.

9. This damn dishwasher. This Miele dishwasher is standard-issue in all of the units, and it has the unfortunate feature of beeping ad infinitum after it completes a cycle. As in, forever. Nothing can make the beeping stop, other than a sledge hammer, or getting up, walking over to the dishwasher, and opening it. There apparently is a solution to this, although it must take a rocket scientist to implement, because I tried it and failed.dishwasher3

10. No meeting/party rooms. Most condominium buildings in Chicago come equipped with a common area, party room, or meeting space that can be rented cheaply or even used for free by residents. At my old building, Parc Chestnut, I frequently used the meeting room to conduct interviews for my business, hold seminars, and play foosball. Trump, however, has no such facility in the residential tower, and anyone needing such a facility is directed to the hotel side, where you’ll engage the banquet services team. Rest assured, you won’t be renting a party room for $50 like you can in most Chicago high rises.

Adventures in choosing a Milwaukee real estate attorney

I knew the day would come when I would need to urgently find a real estate attorney in Milwaukee, but little did I know the frustrations I would realize in the process. I’m a picky person.  My girlfriend and I stumbled upon some land in Mequon which was ideal for us.  This particular parcel of land was unique because it was physically part of a subdivision but legally separate from the subdivision and therefore also separate from the subdivision’s HOA. Being a staunch anti-HOA advocate, this land was desirable because it allowed us the benefits of a well-maintained subdivision without being subject to their often ridiculous rules. If I want to hang my clothes out to dry on a clothesline in the front yard, then I will god-dammit!

I opted to forego a buyer’s side agent.  I find that going in unrepresented puts me in a better negotiating position. I knew the first step is to draft an offer, and I’m familiar with the Wisconsin Offer to Purchase Vacant Land form.  There were two particular facets of the offer that needed to be discussed with the attorney:

1. Part of this land is a floodplain, and I wanted to ensure that the buildable area is indeed buildable.

2. I wanted to ensure that I wouldn’t be subject to any rules and regulations of an HOA.

Thus, I endeavored to find an attorney that would help me close on this land and have an understanding of these two particulars. I used the following methods to compile a list of attorneys to contact:

1. I Googled “milwaukee real estate attorney” and “mequon real estate attorney”.

2. I used Avvo.com and searched for “milwaukee real estate attorney”.

3. I used the Wisconsin Bar Associaton’s attorney referral service. This service proved useless, as it always returned 0 results no matter what I searched.

Criteria

I desired the following in an attorney:

  • Billing on a flat fee basis or an hourly rate with a good faith estimate the total amount of work to cost between $1,000-$1,500
  • Experience in specifically writing residential land purchase offers
  • Experience with HOA law
  • Positive ratings and reviews
  • Enough youth and vigor that a slow typing speed wouldn’t drastically increase my bill
  • A public profile on either their own or their firm’s website

Every attorney I spoke with spent time with me on the phone to understand the unique aspects of this particular land and walked me through the process of getting to closing.

Attorney #1

He spent time with me on the phone understanding the HOA and floodplain issue and made insightful recommendations. Told me I should visit the Ozaukee County Register of Deeds and retrieve the documents related to the land, to ensure that the language in the documents filed with the county matched the language in the documents provided to me by the Listing Agent. He mentioned other environmental factors I should consider. I could tell from his voice that he was older, and he seemed to stumble over his words a lot (umm, errr, well…). He explained his fee structure: $240/hour, with a $750 retainer. I asked if he’d be willing to handle this for a $1,000 flat fee and his response was: “Well, no, I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t want to short myself if we hit a snag along the way that caused more effort to go into this.” Fair enough. A couple days later, I decided that he was the winner. I called him to get started, and he asked to set up a meeting and to collect the $750 retainer. I explained that I was out of town (as I live in Chicago), and that I wanted to get started the same day, because I wanted to have the offer in the listing agent’s hand within a couple of days. I offered to pay the $750 retainer immediately via credit card, PayPal, or an overnight check, and I requested to forego the in-person meeting in the interest of time. He refused. He said that he would only accept a check, since it has to be deposited into a special “trust account”, and that he likes to meet new clients face to face to get started, and that if I wanted to get started before I was able to do that, I should find someone else. Disappointed, I hung up and decided to find someone else.

The Sinker: Inflexibility with payment options.

Attorney #2

We exchanged phone calls throughout the day, and from his voice mails, he sounded young and energetic — just the kind of person I like to employ. I Googled him one more time before getting on the phone with him, and that’s when I discovered his checkered past. His license to practice law had been previously suspended by the State of Wisconsin for a period of time because he failed to appear in court as a witness for a trial where he had accepted a $50 payment to appear, in addition to some other issues. His Avvo.com page mentioned the disciplinary action, as did Google’s search results, and one independent website as well.

We continued to play phone tag, and I should’ve had the stones to call him back and tell him that I decided not to go with him for these reasons and allow him to defend himself, but I was weak and chose to just not return his call

The Sinker: Had a shady past

Attorney #3

He was with a firm in Grafton and was highly rated on Avvo. Like Attorney #1, he spent time on the phone with me and even examined the existing HOA documents to give me a free preliminary opinion. Everything about him was solid, except that he was too casual when discussing fees. When I inquired, his response was:

“It’s usually between $1,500 and $2,500. If it’s more it’s more, if it’s less it’s less.”

It was that second sentence that bothered me. It struck me as callous and insensitive to the individual client’s finances and desire for reasonable and predictable fees. Additionally, the wide range and the lack of a specification of an hourly rate bothered me.

The Sinker: Flippant attitude towards legal fees.

Attorney #4

She was actually referred by a different attorney who when contacted, told me she doesn’t practice residential real estate law. She was a young, energetic attorney who flooded me with information about HOAs, the 500 year flood and its legal impact, pricing strategies on the offer, and even warned me that I may have trouble re-selling this land because at 10 acres, it falls into a special class of land that mortgage companies restrict who can buy. She mentioned several times a “real estate seminar” she had recently attended where she learned a lot. When I inquired as to how many residential real estate offers she had handled, she said: “Well I just graduated law school in December, but I’ve bought and sold 4 houses of my own, and I just took that real estate seminar.” So essentially, zero. Despite her lack of experience, I admired her can-do spirit and her enthusiasm and for broaching topics that no other attorney had. I liked her, so I inquired about her fees. She said she approximated her fees to be around $5,000. Whoa, $5000 for a residential land deal? When everyone else had quoted between $1,000 and $2,500? Because I liked her I mentioned that this seemed rather high, and gave her the range of other attorneys. She combatted with: “Oh, well if you just want me to get you to close, then it would be less, but I thought you also wanted me to help dissolve the HOA and get your building plans approved.” Fair enough. But then what she said next sank her: “I estimate spending at least 3-5 hours on determining the right offer price, based on comparables (comps), talking to other real estate agents, and getting as much data as possible about the land.”  What?  Three to five hours?  My girlfriend and I had pulled the comps, and the records from the county in about 20 minutes, and determined our offer price in under 60 minutes. Spending three to five hours just on pricing strategy for a $300K-listed parcel of land seemed like overkill.

Sinker: Overkill

Attorney #5

Feeling defeated and ready to draft the offer on my own, I made one last attempt to find an attorney. I asked a few people I know in town for referrals. Normally I’m against the idea of referrals, because I logically figure: What are the chances that the attorney best suited for me will be someone in my network, rather than someone I would find by searching and casting a wide net? In any case, my future father-in-law, a well respected Mequon business owner, referred me to someone at a downtown Milwaukee firm. I looked her up on the firm’s website, found that she specialized in residential real estate law, and called. She spoke fast, which indicated she’ll also work fast. She seemed young and enthusiastic. She told me she does about 50 residential real estate deals/year, and has five on her desk she’s working on now. She quoted $260/hour, and estimated the fees to be around $750. She didn’t mention a retainer. Said to email her all the documents and info I have and that she’d have an offer by the next morning. Wow, that’s fast! Her reasonable fees, her obvious experience in residential land deals, and her enthusiasm, led me to choose HER.

The Winner!

Attorney #6

There shouldn’t be an attorney #6, but one attorney for whom I had left a voicemail called me back after I had chosen Attorney #5. I explained that I had already settled upon an advocate, and he inquired as to whom. I gladly shared with him her name and her firm’s name. His response: “Oh, well we’d definitely be cheaper than that firm.” I said that I found their fees to be reasonable at $260/hr and about $750 total. He countered saying they would do it for $150/hour. He was young and aggressively wanted my business, which I find admirable in any business person. I told him that I may call him in the future, since I’m always looking to build my network of attorneys, and he said “Well, I can’t win ’em all…”. His tone showed a lack respect for other attorneys, and I found one particular comment insulting. He was having trouble hearing me on the phone.  Just as I was about to explain that I live in a high rise where the signal is often weak, he said “I don’t know if you’re covering the microphone or what, but…”  Seriously dude? I was operating a cell phone while you were still in the womb. He is, however, highly rated on avvo.com for Milwaukee real estate attorneys.

Conclusion

Aziz Ansari has a hilarious bit about society taking reviews too seriously. I was guilty of that when choosing an attorney. In the end, I chose one referred to me by family who had ZERO reviews online. The ones that did have reviews, turned out to be duds for one reason or another, and who knows — the reviews may have been fabricated. I know in the software world, I’ve asked my favorite customers to write reviews. I would never go to the one customer that had an unpleasant experience with me and ask them to write a review, just so there’s a balanced perspective on my performance. I did, however, want an attorney that offered fair and reasonable pricing for a relatively simple land deal. Attorney 4 was inserting too much complexity, Attorney 3 was too casual, Attorney 2 was risky, and Attorney 1 was too inflexible.

Chicago Trump Tower’s $32 million penthouse (unit 89A) is a rip-off by $20 million

The highest home in the western hemisphere can be yours for a mere $32 million.  It’s 14,000 square feet of raw unfinished space, includes five parking spaces, and is a floor unto itself with 360 degree views of the city in Chicago’s Trump International Hotel and Tower .  The Homeowners’ Association (HOA) fees alone are $12,000/month, and property taxes on a $32 million home in River North would be approximately $480,000/year.  That means that once you plunk down the $32 million, it would still cost approximately $52,000/month just to live there.

However here’s the real reason it’s a rip-off.  The pricing of a comparable unit on any of the high floors demonstrates how the penthouse is priced at least $20 million too high.  Unit 63E is 2,700 square feet and was last listed for $2.2 million.  Unit 58E is also 2,700 square feet and last sold for $2.25 million.  Both equate to an approximate price of $833 per square foot. The $32 million price tag for Unit 89A, however, equates to $2,285 per unfinished square foot, which is almost triple the finished square footage price of units just slightly below.  If 89A was priced proportionally to units on the lower floors, it would be listed for $12 million.

It can be assumed that the prices for non-penthouse units already include a “Trump” premium.  Unit 89A includes a “Trump” premium plus an outlandish $20 million “highest home in the world” premium.

Another way to slice it is by examining Homeowners’ Association (HOA) fees.  The HOA fees for Unit 63E are approximately $2,000/month.  The HOA fees for 89A are approximately $12,000/month, higher by a factor of six. Six times the list price of 63E would place 89A at $13.2 million.  Any way you slice it, unit 89A isn’t worth its list price of $32 million.

UPDATE: Penthouse unit 89A sold in December of 2014 for $17M. Read about it here. (I still think the buyer overpaid by $5 million.)

How to get a BMW serviced without getting swindled

I was driving my 2005 BMW X3 when suddenly the dreaded and almost meaningless “Check Engine” light came on.  Knowing little about the inner workings of cars, I was overcome with the fear of getting milked by a service shop.  It’s the feeling I loathe most — being taken.

European Auto House: Mequon, Wisconsin

Being in Milwaukee, I Googled “Milwaukee BMW service”, and the two closest shops were European Auto House and Kummrow.  European Auto House was closest so it was my first stop.  The owner, Nathaniel, was friendly, but told me he would charge a $150 diagnostic charge just to tell me what’s wrong, and we’d proceed from there.  I was aghast.  That much just to tell me what’s wrong?  “Yes, it’s more of an equipment charge.  It’s a $30,000 piece of equipment that diagnoses this.” he explained.  A $30,000 piece of equipment is needed to tell me what’s wrong with my $20,000 car?  He did read the codes for me for free and told it was a “lean fault,” an air leak somewhere along the miles of hose in the car.  Not wanting to pay a significant amount of money just to locate the leak, I opted to think about it and ventured to my next shop, Kummrow.  Before I left, however, I was of course warned that leaving the issue unaddressed could exacerbate the problem, especially with winter right around the corner.

Kummrow: Glendale, Wisonsin

Kummrow is run by a father-son duo.  The father handles the desk work while the son works on the cars.  He offered to run a diagnostic which would “tell you what’s wrong with the car” for $55.  Having already been anchored at $150 by Nathaniel at the previous shop, I found it far more palatable.  A few minutes later, he came back after running the codes and reported that he could visually see that it’s the Crankcase Vent Valve that had a tear in it and needed replacing.  It’s such a popular issue, he told me, that they keep the parts in stock.  Wow, in stock?!  I’m in luck!  I asked how much, and he said that the last one they did was between $650 and $750.  My oh my, how expensive.

Then I got smart.

Since I now knew what’s wrong, I decided to call European Auto House, and see what they’d charge if I told them exactly what to replace.  Ring ring…

Me: I know what’s wrong Nathaniel.  I just need you to replace the crankcase vent…vent…hang on, let me look at my Notes.  Crankcase vent valve.

Nathaniel: Who told you that’s what was wrong with it?

Me: I took it over to Kummrow.

Nathaniel: And how did they tell that’s what’s wrong?

Me: He said he read the codes and could see it visually.

Nathaniel: Yea, they don’t know what they’re talking about. The right way to do it is to run a smoke test.  I can replace the crankcase vent valve, but then I can’t accept any liability if that doesn’t fix the problem.

Me: Fair enough.

Nathaniel: It’ll be $880 parts and labor.  The crankcase itself has these four hoses attached to it.

Wow, those must be some fancy gold-lined hoses.  A combination of nervous laughter and a weak attempt to ingratiate myself with him ensued, as I sensed his frustration over taking it to Kummrow for a second opinion but wanted to keep him at bay in case I chose him for the repair.  I stalled and again told him I needed to think.

Having now been to two shops where the price just seemed too high for a car with a “check engine” light that otherwise was running smoothly, I was on guard.  Given that Kummrow was less expensive though, I relented and made an appointment for the next morning despite still feel uneasy about it.

Wizard Werks: Chicago

While contemplating how I let a simple “check engine” light consume hours of my time whilst still feeling like I hadn’t found a trustworthy shop, I remembered that I’m only 1.5 hours from Chicago.  Is it possible I’d get a better deal in Chicago?  Google led me to Wizard Werks, but their Yelp reviews looked suspicious.  Consistent 5-star reviews, and lots of them.  Classic Yelp manipulation?  I called, spoke to “Karim”, told him “I believe I need the crankcase vent valve replaced.”  “Okay, that’ll be $150 for the part, and about $200 for the labor.” he stated.  What?!  A measly $350?!  Made an appointment for that weekend.  At the same time though, I decided to do some due diligence and Google the mysterious four-hosed part to see how much it actually cost. Turns out there are after-market parts for $50 but the BMW manufactured part is indeed $150.  Given that I had already been anchored at $700-$800 by the Milwaukee shops, $350 seemed like a bargain.  That, plus the $20 Yelp discount sealed the deal.  It ended up being slightly more, because they found one more issue – a bad boot intake that also needed replacing.  However, I still spent less than half of what I would’ve had I chosen European Auto House, the first shop,

Final Thoughts:

More than saving money, the most important factor was trust, and at Wizard Werks, I FELT like I was in trusted hands, and I FELT like I wasn’t going swindled.  At both European Auto House and Kummrow in Milwaukee I smelled a rat — probably a result of their limited Yelp reviews and lack of customers present during my visit.  Wizard Werks, on the other hand, had European cars piled on top of one another in its garage.  Perhaps they have enough volume of business that they don’t NEED to rip customers off.  Whatever the case, it was worth it to shop the issue around until I found a shop that felt trustworthy and charged a reasonable price.

Resources:

My Yelp Review of Wizard Werks: http://www.yelp.com/biz/wizard-werks-chicago?hrid=ba5OOE8yHqw27NG1InneLw

List of Shops that Service BMW: http://www.bimmershops.com

Wizard Werks: http://www.wizardwerkschi.com

Kummrow Automotive: http://www.kummrowautomotive.com

European Auto House: https://www.facebook.com/pages/European-Auto-House-LLC/239393156126447

The Royal Loft Suite aboard Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas

Staying in The Royal Loft Suite on Oasis of the Seas is an amazing experience. You can find general details such as room sizes, layout, and ship activities elsewhere on the web, so here I’ll offer tips to maximize the value and fun for your money.

  1. Booking – my party and I booked our trip not through Royal Caribbean Directly but through Nadia Jastrjembskaia (you can call her Nadia J) and her cruise travel agency.  We saved a few thousand dollars by doing so because we were able to redeem a promotional offer that expired the month prior.  The promotion gave us an approximate $2,000 discount on the suite and provided for $1,000 of on-board credit.
  2. Internet – The WIFI plan is abysmally slow and you’ll wonder why you forked over $229 for 1980s era 28.8 Kbps speeds.  If you love 90-second page loads and the inability to stream even grainy video, then go for it.  Otherwise, do this:*Buy a “cruise package” from your mobile phone company.  That will get you 3G and sometimes 4G speeds on your cell phone.
    *Use the hotspot feature on your cell phone to connect your laptops and other devices.
    *Our AT&T cruise package was $120, and it included:

    -50 minutes talk time, then $1/min thereafter
    -100 texts, then 50 cents/msg thereafter
    -100 MB of data, then 10$/10MB thereafter

    Important: You need to purchase an actual “cruise package” to cover your time at sea and your time at port.  I made the mistake of buying the add-ons online from AT&T’s web site, and adding the regular international packages — these will only cover you at port, and not at sea. You need to call to make sure you get the right cruise package.

    The additional benefit of a mobile cruise package is that instead of carrying around walkie talkies to communicate with your party when on-board, now you can use iMessage or WhatsApp, which is much more convenient and clearer than talking through a muddled, loud, usually ineffective walkie-talkie.

  3. Fitness – Take advantage of the fitness center and spa.  The spa is more luxurious than most spas in downtown Chicago, and the fitness center is one of the cleanest, most modern gyms I’ve ever seen.
  4. Photos – When staying in the Royal Loft Suite, you will eventually get a phone call from the head of the photography studio offering you a private no-obligation photo session.  My girlfriend and I did it, and we did it on formal night so we’d already be dressed up.  The photographer will take about 400 photographs of you in 5-6 different locations on the ship.  He’ll make an appointment with you for the next day to review your photographs and select a package.  You will love the photographs but hate the prices.  The packages start at $550 for 5 freaking images.  Pro tip: wait till the last day of the cruise, find out what time the photo studio closes, and walk in 10 minutes before. Beg and plead for a deal.  I can’t say anymore.
  5. Shows – Don’t worry about booking shows and specialty dining in advance.  You can decide where you want to dine each day, and the concierge will make a reservation for you, and because you’re staying in the Royal Loft Suite, they will find a way to accommodate you even if busy.  For shows, your SeaPass card will be gold, while everyone else’s is some other revolting color, like white!  Avoid those with blue SeaPass cards — they are considered steerage and interacting with any of them is grounds for losing all Royal Loft Suite privileges. 😉  Your gold card status allows you to flash your card 15 minutes prior to any show for entry, without reservations.  One evening, we had blue card friends with us, who also did not have a reservation.  Much to our chagrin, they allowed our non VIP friends to enter and sit with us.  It has been said that the lower class citizens of steerage carry diseases such as Norovirus so it would be in your best interest to avoid them at all cost.
  6. Dining – In the weeks leading up to the cruise, I was confused about whether to get the “My Time” dining plan or whether to opt for the Early or Late dining plan. My stress was alleviated when I realized that they both essentially suck — specialty dining is the way to go.  If you’re able to afford the Royal Loft Suite, you may also care more than the average person about the quality of food you’re ingesting.  I have it on good authority (my girlfriend’s on-board hair stylist) that the regular meal plans consist of frozen food which is then heated and served.  The specialty dining restaurants serve freshly prepared food that is delicious and comparable to some of our meals at 5-star restaurants in big cities like New York and Chicago.  The prices will seem too good to be true.
  7. Drinks – Don’t buy a drink package, unless from-concentrate juices and high fructose corn syrup are your thing, or unless you plan on drinking 10+ alcoholic beverages daily.  Neither my girlfriend nor I drink, and we sustained ourselves on bottled water and virgin pina coladas.  If you ask your suite attendant nicely, she’ll bring you bottled Evian and won’t charge you.  The virgin pina coladas are $4 each, and if you really want to spoil yourselves, order fresh squeezed orange juice for breakfast (around $4 each).  And if you love fresh squeezed juices, visit the juice bar in the spa — where they will squeeze practically anything you want: like strawberries, bananas, and oranges into a delicious fresh all-natural mocktail.
  8. Elevators – There are approximately 9,000 people on the ship, with over 6,000 passengers and 3,000 crew.  The only time you’ll feel in such close proximity to the other 8,999 souls is on an elevator.  They are slow, generally stop on every floor, and most people have poor elevator etiquette (small child holding the elevator door for old grandma who’s three minutes away, teenagers pushing every button for the fun of it).  If you need to go four or fewer floors, take the stairs.  The elevators were the only consistently frustrating experience on board.

Other tips:

  1. The kids center is wonderful and is a stimulating and engaging environment for children of all ages – if you have children, you can drop them off and pick them up as you please, all the way until 2AM.  From 10PM to 2AM though, it will cost $7/hour per child.
  2. Sorrento’s offers all you can eat pizza by the slice, until 3AM daily.
  3. You will be escorted through check-in by a VIP dignitary.
  4. There is no VIP status for disembarkation.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Q: On what cruise did you travel?

A: The 7-night Eastern Caribbean cruise to Nassau, St. Thomas, and St. Maarten from Aug 23 – 30, 2014.  Due to a tropical storm, however, the captain opted to skip Nassau.  We were at sea the first three days.

Q: What did you like best about the ship?

A: Relaxing in our suite.

Q: What did you like least about the ship?

A: The elevators.

Q: How was the food?

A: The main dining options provide food that is mediocre at best.  Specialty dining is the way to go.

Q: How much does the Royal Loft Suite cost?

A: See Nadia’s pricing video on the page http://oasisoftheseasallureoftheseas.com/royal-loft-suite/.  In addition to the cruise fee, we spent about $3,500 on flights and on-board activities, including photographs and spa visits.  If you want a detailed break-down of our expenditures, contact me and I’ll share with you a Google Docs spreadsheet outlining every trip-related expense.

Worth it:

  • The Vitality at Sea Spa
  • Specialty Dining
  • Professional Photographs

Not worth it:

  • On-board WIFI
  • Drink packages

References:

Royal Caribbean’s Official Royal Loft Suite Page: http://www.royalcaribbean.com/findacruise/cabinclass/cabinTypes/cabinType/home.do?cabincls=D&cabinType=RL

Oasis of the Seas Royal Loft Suite Page: http://www.royalcaribbean.com/findacruise/cabinclass/cabinTypes/cabinType/cabin/home.do?br=R&cabincls=D&cabinType=RL&shipCode=OA

Video of Suite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZCECI49dvno

Video of Suite: https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=1640998417390&set=vb.114779855204062&type=3&permPage=1

Video on Pricing and other Info: http://oasisoftheseasallureoftheseas.com/royal-loft-suite/

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