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Announcer: You're listening to the Miles to Go Podcast the go-to source for travel tips, news, and reviews you can't afford to miss. Now here's your host travel expert Ed Pizza.

Ed Pizza: Hey guys, welcome back to the Miles to Go Podcast. As folks are starting to travel in earnest, our goal is to make sure you have all the information necessary to travel safely and successfully. This week's guest, Nick Serati from Thrifty Traveler just came back from the Dominican Republic. He's got a bunch of firsthand experiences just from this one trip that I found helpful for future planning. He visited a popular resort in the Dominican and can tell you what it's like visiting during COVID. He was also one of the first folks I spoke with who tested out the new free Hyatt COVID testing in Latin America and reentering the US now that negative COVID tests are required. After I talk to Nick, I'm going to take a few minutes at the end of the show to address some interesting developments for you road warriors out there. Before we dive into all that, I just need 60 seconds of your time.
If you haven't left us a rating and a review, there's a link in the show notes that makes it super easy to do. And those ratings and reviews really help us out big time when it comes to attracting new listeners. And as you're settling in for this week show, I'd really appreciate it if you told a friend about Miles to Go. Word of mouth is just a super, super way for us to grow the audience. As always, if you have questions you can email me at ed@pizzainmotion.com or you can find me on social media, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, all @pizzainmotion. Okay. On the other side of the music I'm joined by Nick Serati to share his experience with required COVID testing to come back in the US and how well Hyatt is executing on their new free testing program for resort guests.
Okay. Welcome back, guys. Vaccines are getting into the arms of my listeners at a pretty rapid pace based on the feedback that I'm hearing from you guys. We had a decent handful of comments last week about, hey, let's focus more on what's out there for travel deals because we're ready to go. And no question, that's why we've started to focus a bit more on future travel over the past few weeks. You heard us talk about what trips you should be planning a few weeks ago with Summer and Richard. And we also touched base with Clint Henderson a few weeks ago on what it was like to be in a Hawaii resort bubble, but there's more stuff you're going to have to learn if you want to travel in the times of COVID. So this week we're bringing a firsthand experience of what it's like to get COVID tested abroad and come back into the US. I'm joined by Nick Serati from Thrifty Traveler. This is his first time on the show with us and he's only been back for a handful of days. Hey, Nick, welcome to the show.

Nick Serati: Thanks for having me on, Ed.

Ed Pizza: Yeah. And so you were down at Cap Cana. Let me take a step back there for a second. I'm a big Hyatt fan. And so you were at the Hyatt Zilara, Cap Cana in the Dominican Republic, which has been on my radar for a while. We like the Hyatt all-inclusive. Had some good experiences there. So you guys went down there to test what it was like to come back into the US. I guess first up is, did you have any issues getting into the Dominican Republic?

Nick Serati: We did not at all. Currently the Dominican Republic is not requiring a COVID-19 test to get into the country. Of course, we did test in Minneapolis where we departed out of before we left. But I would say that our flight was probably 15% to 20% full and all the inbound traffic into Punta Cana was very similar. So there was just not bringing people. Clearing customs, so it was quick. There wasn't really lines. One thing I did think that was interesting that they were doing, they were, I guess, selecting random groups of people to issue a rapid COVID test to. And actually somebody that was staying at the resort that I talked to a few days later, that happened to him. He got off the plane, he was selected for a random test. Of course, he was negative, but that would have been probably not the most fun way to start your trip if you produced a positive test.

Ed Pizza: Yeah. That's pretty interesting that they don't require the test, but they're randomly testing at the airport. I wonder what they do. I wonder if they turn you around or if they're quarantining.

Nick Serati: I'm not sure what would happen in that situation. If they would make you quarantine at the property you're staying at or if they had hotels set up for that specific purpose. I'm not sure.

Ed Pizza: Yeah. Every country is handling this a little bit differently right now. So one of the things that's interesting about the Hyatt properties is that they were part of, I won't say a promotion, but an effort that Hyatt released recently, where they're offering testing to get back into the US and there are some discounts if you test positive and stuff like that. So you were able to avail yourself of that at the Hyatt property. What was it like when you were at Cap Cana before we get into the testing part of it? Was the hotel fully open? Were you restricted to certain areas? What was it like?

Nick Serati: Yeah. That's a great question. Like you, I've been to a few other of the Ziva and Zilara properties and we love them. I think they're super kid-friendly. And also you have a great experience with just adults at the Zilara. I had not been to the Cap Cana Resort yet either. So I was very excited to check it out. We actually booked this trip a long time before the new testing restrictions got implemented. So we kind of used it as an opportunity of let's go experience this, let's check it out. But when we got to the resort, I was blown away by how, I guess, just normal everything did feel with the exception of, I would say that they were probably running at 15% to 20% capacity. The resort opened in I think it was November 2019.
So probably couldn't have been a worst time to open. They probably had a few in the normal months before things changed with the COVID situation, but the resort is massive. It's beautiful. And there was really nothing that wasn't open. And I would say I thought Hyatt was doing a really good job of just adhering to COVID safety procedures and pretty much everywhere you looked, you could find hand sanitizer. They had plexiglass up at the check-in desks. They had somebody always in the common areas if you left your mask at the pool. I might've done that a time or two, but it was very easy to get another mask. They would just make sure that you had one on. Everything was open. It was just if you were in the common areas, walking into the lobby or walking back to your room, they just asked you to wear a mask, which obviously we had no problem doing, but it did feel very normal with that one exception

Ed Pizza: Yeah. It's good to hear that the property is really rounding out into shape. My buddy Summer Hull from TPG was there as it was opening and said that she saw a lot of promise, but some of the restaurants hadn't opened yet and they had problems with the pools and stuff. Sort of those growing pains of a new hotel. So it certainly sounds like they're much more in full swing now. I wouldn't say I'm a nervous traveler by any stretch of the imagination, but in terms of traveling during COVID, I think one of the things that concerns me now with the requirement to come back into the US with a negative COVID test is, hey, how am I going to get that test? And I think the Caribbean has a bunch of islands, Dominican being one that I've been to where I'd say infrastructure wise, it's not like there's a local Walgreens and CVS on every corner to go find a COVID test. And so I think one of the really solid things about this program is you were able to get free testing at the resort.

Nick Serati: Yeah, that's right. I think as were leading up to this trip, I had reached out to the Hyatt a few times. This was before they actually made the announcement that they were going to be offering this at most of their Latin American properties. And they hadn't given an answer as far as how they were handling it. And so we were kind of getting a little uneasy, like this sounds like it could potentially be a nightmare to figure out where we need to get a test to get home. So we were really close to, I guess, just pulling the plug on the trip altogether. And then Hyatt came out with this announcement and the Ziva and Zilara properties were included, which yeah, I agree, I would not consider myself a nervous traveler, but there just seemed like a level of complication I wasn't really willing to deal with a week or call it a week and a half after the new requirement rolled out.

Ed Pizza: Yeah, for sure. So, given that you were traveling fairly soon after they rolled this out, how was the process?

Nick Serati: Yeah. Quite honestly I was very impressed with how Hyatt was handling it, how they had organized. The second we got to the property, we were ushered into an area in the lobby. The check-in house came over to greet us, informed us of the new restriction, which obviously we were all aware of. She made certain right away that we knew that Hyatt was offering this complimentary. And basically what they said is when you get to that 72-hour window before your flight back to the US, just head to the concierge, they will make you an appointment. They just said bring your passports and fill out the required documentation at that point. So we did that. And then we showed up the next morning at 10:00 AM. And actually they're handling all the COVID testing, there's a huge conference center on the resort, which for obvious reasons is not being used for anything else right now.
But it actually worked out well because it's in a part of the resort that you have to know what you're looking for to get there. So it's not like you see the COVID testing set up right in the lobby and you're reminded of it constantly. But yeah, so we just walked to the conference center and they had everything there. We showed up at the appointment, they ushered us each into the room one at a time to do the test. And it was really slick. It took about 15 minutes to get our results back. So they gave us the option of they had a waiting room where you could go sit while they were getting the results or they said we can just bring the results back to your room at a later time if you have something to do. But we were all just a little uneasy. Maybe we wanted to make sure that we produced the negative tests. So we opted to just hang out in the conference room until our test results were back.

Ed Pizza: So they gave you your test results back. I assume, at this point, you guys were negative.

Nick Serati: That is correct. Yeah.

Ed Pizza: Yeah. And before we talk about the airport, I did gloss over one thing that I had in my notes, which totally surprised me when I read about it in your story, which for those listening, we'll be linking to that in the show notes, but talk a little bit about the insurance that they offered you.

Nick Serati: Yeah. So this is something that we were not aware of until we got to the property. So when we were checking in they were informing us of the testing requirement like I mentioned. And they did say that in the event of a positive test, we would be given a rate of, they said up to 50% off. We didn't delve into more details of exactly what that meant. But up to 50% off for the 14 days that we'd be required to quarantine at the property. Or for $34 a person, we could buy an insurance policy that was being administered from the Dominican government, which would cover up to $10,000 of our lodging and food cost. So essentially taking care of an extra 14 days at the property, which we all looked at each other like that seems like a really good deal, let's just do it. So we all opted for the $34 coverage. And interestingly enough, this is only a week and a half in, but the staff at the Zilara said that nobody at the resort had tested positive yet. So they haven't had anybody that had been in quarantine.

Ed Pizza: Yeah. But it's such an easy decision to make. And I think when you and I talked about originally doing the story, I love the idea of having the firsthand experience. And then when I read your story and I read about the insurance, I was like, wow. So two things, one, why aren't more countries doing something like this. But two, man, if I was the Dominican government and I was offering something like that to encourage people to want to travel freely to my country, I would be broadcasting that on every TV, radio station, website I could find.

Nick Serati: I 100% agree. Yeah. Like I said, we didn't even know that was an option until we got to the resort, which $34, that was a pretty easy decision if you test positive. Knowing that you paid $34, there's a lot worse places to be stuck than at the Cap Cana Resort for 14 days.

Ed Pizza: I was going to say, I'd almost take a step further and say at the point of which as long as I don't have to be back to work for $34 bucks, I would love the two-way vacation.

Nick Serati: Definitely.

Ed Pizza: And of course, all of us points and miles nerds, back of our minds are thinking if I pay the $34 for the insurance and I'm stuck at the Hyatt, do I get 14 more night credits towards my Globalist status?

Nick Serati: That's a great question. And on a completely unrelated note, that stay was the one that got me over the inaudible Globalist with the new promotion, so yeah.

Ed Pizza: Perfect. Well, that's awesome. Well, I expect you to go back down to the Cap Cana and have another round so you can help us understand if those count as night credits if you get stuck within a positive test. Let's talk about the airport experience you. Assumably, the Hyatt gave you a paper test result that you could take with you.

Nick Serati: Yeah, that's correct. So essentially, as soon as we produced the negative test, they got all the documentation that we needed and just put it in a Hyatt envelope, which I didn't actually open until we got to the airport. And 24 hours before our flight, we got the notification. We were flying Delta, so we got the check-in notification from Delta on my phone. So I went to check-in and it actually just blocked it. It said due to the new restriction, they don't allow online check-in, which obviously makes sense because they need to verify that you have the proper testing documentation before they can issue a boarding pass and really let you into the airport. So when we got to the airport, there was airport staff right up front. You couldn't even get into the airport without... They handed you an attestation form. And essentially you had to check a few boxes and sign, basically certifying that you had produced a negative COVID-19 tests within the last 72 hours.
So we did that. And then essentially you move closer to the check-in counter and then Delta's got an intermediary counter before you get to the baggage drop and check-in. And it was at that point where they opened the envelope, made sure that we had a negative test. They verified the name with our passport, made sure that we filled out the attestation form. And then on those documents, they put a colored sticker that obviously just verify that we have the necessary documents and we produced the negative tests. And then at that point we were allowed to proceed to the check-in counter and get our boarding passes. So it was all pretty well run I would say from the Hyatt perspective and even at the airport. With this new restriction, I think the interesting part about it is the onus is really being put on the hotels and the airlines to figure this out and make sure it's running the way it's supposed to be.

Ed Pizza: Yeah. And it sounds like even though it was a fairly short time after these processes had been put in place that they did have their game on and the hotel handled things smoothly and Delta handled things the right way when you got to the airport. So Dominican is not a US pre-clearance country. So that means you had to clear customs when you got back to the US. Any overt signs of folks checking your test results or checking temperatures or anything like that when you cleared customs back in the US?

Nick Serati: There was not. So we were traveling with four people in our party. Three of us had global entry and one did not. So interestingly enough, about 30 minutes before we landed, the Delta flight attendant came on and just said, make sure you have your testing documentation handy. The customs officers could ask to see it, which I thought was interesting. Certainly makes sense. None of us were asked to present it. And the one person in our party that did not have global entry actually asked the customs officer if they needed to see it. And his response was essentially, I'm assuming that you've already taken care of all that from where you departed out of. I almost wonder if at some point they would do an audit to just on a random basis ask for people's testing documentation. But yeah, none of us were asked to present it when we got back to the US

Ed Pizza: I would certainly expect that as well. I mean, I guess I'm not terribly surprised that they didn't, but I did feel like that would be a standard by the customs officials. I think maybe they split it up and they do it at pre-clearance airports and they don't do it for folks that have already landed. I don't see the differentiation myself. Either way, I think you want to verify that the airlines are doing the right thing because if whoever is supposed to man that counter at the airport in the Dominican that morning just didn't bother to check your test results, there's no real double checking that process.

Nick Serati: Yeah, I totally agree. Even in the Dominican, when we were leaving the Delta gate agents said to make sure to hang onto your testing requirements, you might need it down the line obviously. They're not going to be familiar with how the customs officers are handling it in the US, but yeah, I was surprised that we didn't have to present it when we got home.

Ed Pizza: Yeah. Well, all that being said, I think it's a pretty obvious answer, but having gone through it, would you feel comfortable doing it again?

Nick Serati: I would. It sounds like it's more complication than it really was. The biggest thing for me was it was hard to fully relax at the resort until we had produced the negative test and knew that we were negative and we weren't going to get stuck. Probably me, more so than a couple of the other guys that were in our party. I have young kids at home. So if I'm stuck there for 14 extra days, my wife's probably not going to be very happy with me, but quite honestly, that was the most complicated part of it. Hyatt really took care of all of the complication. They made sure that you have the right tests that would qualify to get back. They put it all in an envelope for you to present at the airport. You got to the airport and then Delta handled everything there.
So it's a little bit more effort, but I would say travel in general right now is just a little bit more effort. But I thought the policy from the Dominican Republic, the government, was fantastic. And that's something that anybody considering going Cap Cana right now, number one, I would highly recommend that the Cap Cana Resort. I think Hyatt knocked it out of the park with the property. And number two, obviously with that insurance policy, I think it just really put a lot of people's minds at ease.

Ed Pizza: Yeah. That insurance policy is such a no brainer. Well, I appreciate you giving us the full rundown. I know that there are folks that are eager to travel and trying to figure out what it's going to be like to decode the regulations when they get abroad. Before I kick you out, though, why don't you give folks the quick elevator pitch on Thrifty Traveler Premium if they're looking to get out there and start traveling

Nick Serati: Yeah, so Thrifty Traveler Premium is a flight deal notification service. We allow you to select your home airport, as many as you want. So you can get email alert notifications directly from us that are departing out of those airports. We charge $45 a year if you use the promo code @THRIFTY. You'll get $5 off your first year or you can head to thriftytraveler.com and sign up for our free newsletter to just get an idea of what we're all about. So we cover all kinds of stuff, the latest and greatest points and miles news, airline news, travel news in general. So there's the story that Ed mentioned earlier about this whole testing process? That's the kind of stuff we cover. So head to thriftytraveler.com and you can learn more.

Ed Pizza: And we'll have links to Nick's article in the show notes as well, as well as some video that they took down there if you want to get a firsthand look of what that trip looks like. Nick, tell folks where they can find you on social media in case they want to track you down with your travels.

Nick Serati: Yeah. My Twitter account is at @nicholas_serati and then Instagram is @nickkserati. So those are the two platforms that I'm updating the most.

Ed Pizza: Awesome. Nick, thanks for being on. And folks, for you that are listening at home, just remember that things like newsletters, like Thrifty Traveler, all the stuff that we talk about that are free to sign up for, those are the ways to get started on finding the best deals. And I really do think there are going to be just an incredible amount of deals out there as we get a little bit further past the pandemic. Nick, thanks so much for being on the show. Hopefully we'll have you back on again soon.

Nick Serati: Thanks for having me on, Ed.

Ed Pizza: We'll be right back on the Miles to Go Podcast.
Back to wrap up this week's show with the final two pennies. And if you keep an eye on my blog, I wrote a post recently about some soft benefits that American Airlines rolled out. And I intended it to be a short post and as with many things with me turned into a little bit of a diarrhea of the mouth, but I sort of went back in time to look at how things used to be. And as I spent more time writing the story and then after I published it and thought about it some more, I really wasn't looking back in time. We're back to the same place we were back in call it 2007, 2008. Back then American was recovering from having to ground a significant portion of their fleet, the MD-80s. They obviously had 9/11, which was a devastation for all of the airlines from a business standpoint.
And they were rolling into the housing crisis market meltdown of 2007, 2008, and trying to find ways to engage elite members like all airlines were. But there were a number of soft benefits back then and I'm going to focus on two of them because they're the two that I talk about in the article today that Gary from View from the Wing noted that American has started doing again even if it's just in a limited fashion from the reports that we've gotten so far. And, it's simple things like an Admirals Club representative texting a member about a flight that they had that day and potentially helping them out with changes if there's some sort of a problem, whether connection issue or something of that nature. And they even went so far as to block the middle seat for at least a couple of road warriors who wrote in to tell Gary about this. And those were common things back in 2007, 2008, when I really started becoming a road warrior in earnest. Flights weren't full, which I think is another condition that we see today.
I mean, they're not empty anymore, but many flights today don't seem to be going out full. And the Admirals Club folks, generally speaking, should have time on their hands with a lot less volume and a lot less people in the clubs. So they've got some extra time to reach out to members and help adjust things. And I mean, there are probably folks at the airlines who say maybe a soft benefit like texting a member about a problem isn't really necessary because technology exists today that didn't exist 10 or 15 years ago to help them rebook their flights for them and notify them. But I'd argue twofold. One, I think me as a road warrior, there are plenty of times where I'm not keyed in on every single email or alert that I'm getting on my phone because I have lots of them.
And if I'm on a call, I might miss them. So a text from somebody at the Admirals Club that I know about a change can be helpful, especially because as a road warrior, the way I'm going to fix a problem is pretty different than someone else. If a flight is delayed a few hours or I have to take a crazy connection to get to where I'm going, it might make that whole leg of the trip useless because I might just be flying in for a meeting. At least that's the way I used to travel before COVID. So I think that personalization is a big deal for the most frequent of travelers. I won't necessarily say it's an easy benefit to offer, but I think it's an achievable soft benefit to offer. And I think airlines shy away from doing things like this because they feel like if they do it, they have to do it for every one and they have to do it consistently.
And if not, then they're going to get criticized for it. And I'll admit, there's a lot of truth to that in that we all jump on social media when something doesn't happen exactly the way we want it to. But I'd argue that an informal program where were front line employees of an airline are getting to know the best elites that go through an airport consistently week after week after week as their home airport is achievable. It's important. And it's the way to create that stickiness with these customers that spend a lot of money. And quite frankly, blocking a middle seat today is huge. It's why I've thought about switching from United to Delta until Delta stops blocking middle seats. I tend to think that Delta will stop blocking middle seats before I get a vaccine and start traveling again.
But in the grand scheme of things, if I had a choice, a blocked middle seat is a pretty big deal for somebody who's a road warrior. And it may not sound like a lot and a first-class upgrade might sound better, but I've got to be honest with you. I've never really relied on airline food, especially domestically. So I'm not expecting to get a great meal when I'm on board. And I think that's amplified even more now in a reduced catering environment. Really, what I want the first class seat for is I want space. I don't want to feel like I'm crammed into a metal tube. And so a blocked middle seat does that just fine. Setting aside any of the COVID risks, which sure, a blocked middle seat makes it marginally safer for me to be on a plane without somebody next to me, but it's also just a comfort factor.
And it was something that was pretty consistent in generations past. Airlines got really, really good at selling seats in the past five years. Well, before COVID started, before 2020. Yields were insanely high in 2017, 2018, 2019. So blocking middle seats wasn't necessarily achievable for lots of elites because flights were going out full. But I think that also meant that the airlines walked away from that stuff completely and just never even tried when there were seats empty on a plane to block the middle seat next to a top elite. And I'm not sitting here arguing saying that a blocked middle seat or a text from an Admirals Club agent are the things that are going to engage someone and keep them loyal, but I would say that as we enter the newest renaissance of the airline industry and the newest way in which travelers are going to interact with a completely reshaped bunch of airlines, I think it's incumbent on the big three airlines, American, Delta, and United to find ways to personalize that experience and to create that stickiness. Road warriors are coming back.
We're not going away. There might be less of us, but there's still going to be travelers who are flying every week in earnest and are looking for consistency. They're looking for support. They're looking for the airline to feel like they appreciate the business. And that has to come in ways that aren't dictated on a chart, benefits that are listed on paper. It has to come in soft skills. It has to come in how the customer is treated, whether that's on the phone, in the airport or on the airplane. For road warriors, the path to loyalty is in convincing us that you care about our business. I'm sure I could go on all day about this one, but can't stress it enough, personalization and that personal touch is just as important today as it was 25 years ago when my father was a road warrior. That's a full wrap on this week's show.
A big thanks to Nick for joining me this week. Other than the really long nose swabs and the occasional injection, travel is starting to look almost normal. And I hope we'll be able to bring you lots more segments about great travel deals and awesome travel stories from us getting out there. Hey, like I said earlier in the show, if you like the show, please tell a friend. It helps me out a ton. We love growing the show. And if you have a question, I love answering those. Shoot me an email at ed@pizzainmotion.com or hit me up on social media with your question. And you might even hear it answered on a future show. Plenty more to come, plenty of travel deals that we're researching. I'm chasing down some segments on the cruise industry and what that looks like going forward. Can't wait to bring you guys lots more stuff over the coming weeks involving everyone getting back to travel. But until we upload again, we've got miles to go.

Links

Hyatt Zilara review

First-hand experience of free Hyatt COVID-19 testing

Nick Serati on Twitter and Instagram

Hyatt resorts in Latin America offering free COVID-19 testing

US now requires a negative COVID-19 test to enter the country

Thrifty Traveler Premium

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