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    A Real Round-The-World Trip – Part Two: CX 807, Take Two

    by  • July 26, 2018 • Credit Cards, Luxury Airline Travel, Miles & Points, Travel • 0 Comments

    Previous Trip Notes:
    A Real Round-The-World Trip – Part One: The Setup

    It’s been roughly six years of collecting miles and points. What was originally a play to collect 125,000 miles applying for both a 50,000-mile signup bonus for United and 50,0000-mile signup bonus for Continental airlines credit cards prior to their merger, plus 25,000 miles for depositing money into Fidelity for 90 days, turned into a complete obsession. My original CX 807 flight from ORD to HKG is partially to blame. At the time, it was a mere 62,500 American Airlines miles to fly first class on Cathay Pacific from the U.S. to Asia. You could easily earn that many American Miles in just a few weeks with the credit card offers at that time.

    I still remember the flight attendant, who when we presented our tickets, rushed us in the opposite direction of the rest of the passengers. I still remember the great sleep on the plane, so much so that I didn’t experience jet leg. I still remember thinking, “this whole flight cost less than $50 and was the most comfortable and convenient travel experience I ever had.” Since that time, NSPwife and I have experienced some of the best airline products in the world: showering at 38,000 feet on Emirates; having an executive chef on Etihad Airways; ice cream sundaes on United and LATAM, and many more. Despite all of these other experiences, Cathay still holds a special nostalgic place in my heart. So when I again handed my boarding pass to the flight attendant while stepping on the plane and was rushed to the left, I was in my happy place.

    We started off the day in the British Airways first class lounge. The lounge was small, too small for the number of passengers in there, and did not have many options for food.

    British Airways First Class Lounge - ORD

    British Airways First Class Lounge – ORD

    British Airways First Class Lounge - ORD

    British Airways First Class Lounge – ORD

    British Airways First Class Lounge - ORD

    British Airways First Class Lounge – ORD

    British Airways First Class Lounge - ORD

    British Airways First Class Lounge – ORD

    British Airways First Class Lounge - ORD

    British Airways First Class Lounge – ORD

    British Airways First Class Lounge - ORD

    British Airways First Class Lounge – ORD

    British Airways First Class Lounge - ORD

    British Airways First Class Lounge – ORD

    British Airways First Class Lounge - ORD

    British Airways First Class Lounge – ORD

    British Airways First Class Lounge - ORD

    British Airways First Class Lounge – ORD

    British Airways First Class Lounge - ORD

    British Airways First Class Lounge – ORD

    British Airways First Class Lounge - ORD

    British Airways First Class Lounge – ORD

    This was somewhat surprising given they also have a business class lounge; I would have thought the product in the first class lounge would have been upgraded a bit more. I wasn’t overly concerned, I had a Newcastle and was holding out for the meals on Cathay. And the view of the tarmac was pretty good:

    British Airways First Class Lounge - ORD

    British Airways First Class Lounge – ORD

    A quick unsuccessful side trip to try and buy a micro SD card (I snapped mine in half 30 minutes previously) for my GoPro, and it was time to board.

    On our first trip, we sat in 1A and 2A. We loved that side of the plane, as in first class the other four seats face one another, so the “A” side is extremely private. This trip, we were on the other side. As it turned out, Cathay’s seats still provide a lot of privacy, and I don’t feel the experience was downgraded by not sitting on the “A” side.

    Our flight attendants were amazing. Michael and Josie were everything you could hope for. Attentive, professional, and went out of their way to provide the best possible experience. They knew it was my birthday, and made sure that many people came over to wish me a happy birthday and great flight.

    After takeoff, NSPwife and I decided to dine together. I, of course, donned my pajamas before takeoff. These were different, though similar, in style. Despite requesting the same size, these new pajamas were a bit larger, and the previous set I had fit me better – which might also be why I believe the first set was a bit more comfortable.

    CX 807, 2013

    CX 807, 2013 “A-Side”

    CX 807, 2018

    CX 807, 2018 “Non-A Side”

    We started with cavier, always delicious. NSPwife opted for the truffle potato leek soup to start, while I decided to pace myself and skip an appetizer.

    CX 807 - Potato Leek Soup

    CX 807 – Potato Leek Soup

    CX 807 - Cavier

    CX 807 – Cavier

    The warm bread was fantastic, accompanied by salted butter.

    CX 807 - Bread Starter

    CX 807 – Bread Starter

    For our main courses, NSPwife ordered the Maine lobster while I went with the beef filet.

    CX 807 - Maine Lobster

    CX 807 – Maine Lobster

    CX 807 - Filet

    CX 807 – Filet

    Later NSPwife tried the burger:

    CX 807 - Burger

    Cathay First – Burger

    While we started the trip with the renowned 2004 Krug Champagne, I went with the 2006 Chateau Branaire-Ducru Saint Julien and NSPwife the 2016 Framingham F-Series Sauvignon Blanc. My red was particularly delicious. Of course, the meal was finished with some chocolate:

    CX 807 - Chocolates

    CX 807 – Chocolates

    At that point, I went back to my seat to watch a movie – opting with The Last Jedi, which I had not seen before. After a few minutes, I had an awesome surprise. NSPpeanut was carrying a birthday cake to me!

    CX 807 - NSPpeanut bringing me a Birthday Cake!

    CX 807 – NSPpeanut bringing me a Birthday Cake!

    CX 807 - Birthday Cake

    CX 807 – Birthday Cake

    Cathay charges $38 for a cake, and has to be ordered in advance. The crew let NSPpeanut and NSPbabysitter hang out with us for a while, which was really nice.

    NSPpeanut hanging out in Cathay First Class

    NSPpeanut hanging out in Cathay First Class

    NSPbabysitter Hanging out in Cathay First Class

    NSPbabysitter Hanging out in Cathay First Class

    NSPpeanut was so well behaved, they let her hangout throughout the flight:

    NSPpeanut hanging out in Cathay F (with her own food)

    NSPpeanut hanging out in Cathay F (with her own food)

    I then decided to take a nap. My original plan was to sleep for about six hours, which would allow me to quickly acclimate to Hong Kong time when we arrived. Maybe it was the wine, or maybe I caught a bug, but I woke up nine hours later! I couldn’t believe I had wasted time experiencing the flight. When I sat up, I quickly felt nauseous and laid back down. After sucking down about 10 bottles of water, and lying down for another hour, I started to come back to life, although never to the point where I could experiment with more wine or food – terribly disappointing as I wanted to try the lobster or burger options. I did opt for one of their great cappuccinos:

    Cathay First - Cappuccino

    Cathay First – Cappuccino

    The rest of the trip was nice, the crew, as mentioned before, was always completely on top of their game, and even gave me a bottle of wine to enjoy for after the flight. Overall, another extremely memorable experience, and I can’t wait for take three.

    Menu & Wine List:

    CX 807 - Menu & Wine List

    CX 807 – Menu & Wine List

    CX 807 - Menu & Wine List

    CX 807 – Menu & Wine List

    CX 807 - Menu & Wine List

    CX 807 – Menu & Wine List

    CX 807 - Menu & Wine List

    CX 807 – Menu & Wine List

    CX 807 - Menu & Wine List

    CX 807 – Menu & Wine List

    CX 807 - Menu & Wine List

    CX 807 – Menu & Wine List

    Amenity Kit:

    Cathay First Class - Amenity Kit

    Cathay First Class – Amenity Kit

    Cathay First Class - Amenity Kit

    Cathay First Class – Amenity Kit

    Pajamas:

    Cathay First Class - Pajamas

    Cathay First Class – Pajamas

    A Real Round-The-World Trip – Part One: The Setup

    by  • July 21, 2018 • Cash Back, Credit Cards, Luxury Airline Travel, Luxury Hotel, Miles & Points, Travel • 0 Comments

    I’m up. I can’t sleep. A mix of anxious worry that I’ve forgotten something and gitty excitement. Oh, and happy birthday to me. My 36th birthday is about to begin, and there’s much to be excited about. The to-do list is racing through my head:

    • Pick up my malaria prescription
    • Buy micro SD cards for drone/go pros (I found out around 11pm the night before my card was corrupted and upon further research discovered a faster SD card would be better suited)
    • Transfer a few Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer, and Howie Day shows to my phone
    • Pick up rental car
    • Buy a suitcase
    • Oh ya, and pack

    I pull myself out of bed at about 6:00am to start the tasks, methodically checking things off the to-do list I made the night before. To be fair, I’ve been planning this day, and the following 11 days for the past nine months, so I’m pretty sure I have everything down – from the minute by minute plans, to the Canadian flag patches we might have to sew onto our backpacks in case our Uniter-in-Chief decides to bomb someone while we are a bit closer to the Korean Peninsula.

    I grab a quick workout and at 11:45am pull out of the driveway with NSPwife, NSPpeanut and NSPbabysitter. We rented a car for the hour drive, picking it up at a Hertz two miles from our house and dropping it off at O’Hare, just a few minute shuttle drive to International Terminal 5. We rented the car knowing that Uber is roughly the same cost, wanted to make sure the luggage would fit (needing an SUV), and to make sure we would be on our own schedule. The four of us are about to head around the world. While NSPwife and I have been to the other side of the world a couple of times, we’ve never truly traveled around the world. That’s about to change.

    The first leg is Chicago to Hong Kong on one of my favorite flights: Cathay 807, First Class. I didn’t necessarily book this flight due to it being my birthday, but one First Class and Three Business Class seats aren’t necessarily easy to come by – and it happened to be one of only three dates to choose from with that award availability and seemed to work from a work schedule perspective. Luckily, a second First Class seat opened up about 10 days before the flight, so NSPwife and I will both be sitting up front.

    After an 8:20pm arrival in Hong Kong and a quick planned jaunt into Kowloon, we will be staying at the Marriott Skycity hotel next to the Hong Kong airport, and take an 8:45am flight to Kuala Lumpur. NSPwife and I will be sitting in Business while NSPpeanut and NSPbabysitter have economy. This will be our first time there, a city that has long been on my bucket list, and I’m excited to try as much food as possible. It’s a quick 2.5 days in Kuala Lumpur, staying at the Grand Hyatt.

    Then it’s on to Phuket, Thailand, one of NSPwife and my happy places. We are staying at the Hilton Arcadia, and while a bit dated, we love the location. Karon beach is a little less party-central, which is nice for NSPpeanut. It’s also a few minute walk to a number of local restaurants, shops, tailors, and massage places. I can’t wait to stock up on custom suits, get multiple massages, authentic Thai food, and lay by the pool and beach. We are risking it a bit by traveling at the start of the rainy season – but hoping the occasional scattered thunderstorm is all we have to deal with.

    After Phuket, we make our way to Siem Reap by way of Bangkok on Bangkok Airways. I chose Bangkok Airways for two reasons: first, the times were excellent with an early morning flight and arrival into Siem Reap, and second, they don’t charge checked bag fees which would definitely add up after accumulating some extra baggage at the custom tailors and shops 😊. We will be staying at the Park Hyatt for our two days there and then make our way back to Bangkok. We arrive in Bangkok around 11:00am and booked the Grand Hyatt for the “day.” We’ll explore the city again for the day and hopefully grab a nap.

    At 2:00am we work our way back around the globe, Bangkok to Abu Dhabi, with a five hour layover, and onto Washington Dulles. It may be a painful trek, but I’m hoping we sleep the entire way to Abu Dhabi, in Etihad Business Class. I’m hoping there is enough time in Abu Dhabi for a quick trip to Emirates Palace for breakfast, and then we head back to the States, NSPwife and I in First Class and NSPpeanut and NSPbabysitter in Business Class.

    11 days, 21,391miles. It’s another whirlwind trip, but I learned from our last one that a relaxing beach destination in the middle is extremely rejuvenating, and added a fourth night (instead of only three) to the middle of the trip.

    Our Travel Map, courtesy of gcmap.com

    Our Travel Map, courtesy of gcmap.com

    As you might surmise, the vast majority of this trip utilized miles and points. A quick breakdown is below:

    Flights

    • ORD to HKG: 70K Alaska Airlines for First Class and 50K for Business Class, totaling 240K miles. Taxes & Fees totaled $22
    • HKG to KUL: 20K British Airways miles Business Class and paid economy tickets, totaling 40K miles. Taxes & Fees totaled $518
    • KUL to HKT: 23,676 Citi Thank You Points. Taxes & Fees totaled $11
    • HKT to BKK to REP to BKK: $943 for four seats inclusive of taxes and fees
    • BKK to AUH: 40K American Airlines Miles and 197,088 Etihad Guest Miles. Taxes & Fees totaled $554
    • AUH to IAD: 298,500 American Airlines Miles and 120,121 Etihad Guest Miles. Taxes & Fees totaled $326
    • IAD to MDW: 26,487 Southwest Miles transferred from Ultimate Rewards. Taxes & Fees totaled $22
    • Total miles used: 985,872
    • Total cash paid: $2,397

    In addition, we utilized $200 Travel Credits on both our Barclay Arrival and Bank of America Travel Reward cards, bringing the total to $1,997.

    Hotels

    • Marriott Skycity, Hong Kong: 1 night, 2 rooms, 31,815 Citi Thank You Points
    • Grand Hyatt, Kuala Lumpur: 2 nights, 2 rooms, 2 Annual Certificates from the Hyatt Credit Card ($75 annual fee) + 15K points per night, totaling $150 and 30K points
    • Hilton Arcadia, Phuket: 4 nights, 2 rooms, 19K points per night totaling 152K points
    • Park Hyatt, Siem Reap: 2 nights, 2 rooms, 15K points per night totaling 60K points
    • Total points used: 273,815
    • Total cash paid: $150

    There are a few things to mention about our itinerary. First, there are probably multiple ways we could have worked our way around the world with much fewer miles; however, after misconnecting with Matthew from Live & Let’s Fly a few times, I decided to just pull the trigger and book this itinerary. Business Class and First Class seats tend to go quickly, and since I booked the Cathay Flights, we were relatively locked in unless we wanted to delay our trip (which we didn’t). NSPwife’s reselling business also helps generate nearly 100,000 miles/points a month, so coupled with my past extreme credit card churning, we were, and are, flush with points, and setting up an itinerary to the desired schedule was more important than saving miles.

    NSPwife is also a Hyatt Globalist member, and status matched to Hilton Diamond. So hoping there’s an upgrade or two along the way. And of course free breakfast at every stop at each hotel due to status and the ability to crash airport lounges with NSPwife’s Priority Pass membership that came with her American Express Ameriprise Platinum Card (no annual fee for year one).

    Second, I really blew it with the HKT > REP > BKK flights. I kept waiting, and waiting, and waiting to make the reservation. I had assumed I was going to jump on an AirAsia or other ultra-low-cost carrier, and since tickets were just $45ish dollars, didn’t have a burning desire to book. Instead, about 45 days out when I tried to book, those flights doubled in cost, and with baggage fees were actually quite expensive. In hindsight, I should have transferred miles to Asia Miles and used Cathay Pacific to book on Bangkok Airways on a multi-city ticket. That would have been 15K miles per person, rather than the $250 per person (or 50% of our total cash outlay!!). Oh well. The one bummer was that when trying to book the flights with the Chase Portal to save 25%, they were pricing out the tickets at $757! Even the supervisors couldn’t manually ticket the flights, which was surprising, and frustrating. I mean, nearly a 300% price increase to book through Chase, that’s just insane, and frankly, disappointing that Chase would try to tack on that type of increase.

    To put the value of these miles and points in perspective using just a microcosm of the travels, here is the cost of a single First Class Cathay flight alone:

    Cathay First Class Ticket - Cash Value

    Cathay First Class Ticket – Cash Value

    So, yes, it’s 5:00am and there’s a bit to be excited about.

    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 8 – Cape Town & Radisson Blu Waterfront

    by  • May 28, 2017 • Credit Cards, Luxury Hotel, Miles & Points, Travel • 0 Comments

    Previous Trip Notes:
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 7 – JNB InterContinental & SAA Economy to CPT
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 6 – Mauritius & Hilton Resort & Spa
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 5 – Emirates First Class Lounge Dubai & EK703
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 4 – Dubai, Al Maha & Sheraton Mall of the Emirates
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 3 – IAD & EK232
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 2 – Trip Report Setup
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 1 – Planning

    We landed in Cape Town, took some cash out of the ATM while waiting for our bags, then made our way to the taxi stand, where there were many unsanctioned transportation providers. We managed to find the proper mini-van taxi and took off to the Radisson Blu hotel. The taxi ride was more expensive than I thought it would be, but according to Maps.Me they took us on the most direct route.

    We arrived at the Radisson Blu well before check-in time, but they managed to get us in one room. We dropped off our bags and walked over to the V&A Waterfront Mall. It was a huge shopping center – both indoor and outdoor. The weather was coolish/warm, with the sun shining, so the 10-15 minute walk pushing NSPpeanut in a stroller was nice. With the famous Table Mountain as one backdrop right beyond the large soccer stadium built for the 2010 World Cup, and the Cape Town harbor on the other, the sights did not disappoint. And little did we know it would only get better from there.

    After strolling around for a while, we grabbed lunch at an admittedly touristy lunch spot, and then went down a level to buy some groceries at the Pick n Pay (and by saying “buy groceries,” I mean beer and wine). This grocery store was great. Beer was cheap, and wine even cheaper. They had tons of baby food pouches, baby wipes and diapers that we were running low on. The pouches even had some South African focused flavors to help change up NSPpeanut’s routine of Beef Medley, Chicken Casserole and Vegetable Bake.

    We headed back to the hotel and relaxed for a little bit outside at the pool, which sits right along the cape. It was very tranquil and beautiful. Tired from two days of traveling, we decided to eat at the hotel restaurant. While the food was pretty good, service took forever. With a 15-month old in tow, you would think they would try to push the kitchen a little. Instead, it took ten minutes to come over and acknowledge us. Ten more minutes for water. Ten minutes to come back to take our order. 25 minutes for appetizers (and finally the chicken nuggets and fries for NSPpeanut), and then another 45 minutes for dinner. We felt bad that NSPpeanut decided she had enough and wouldn’t sit in her high chair any longer, but we had been waiting for over 90 minutes before our meals even came out! We had ordered dessert in advance, and by time we had finished eating, the meal clocked in at over two and a half hours! We were exhausted, and went to bed early, as we had planned a two-day private tour starting at 9am the following morning.

    We researched various tour guides for weeks before settling on Cape Town Private Tours. The only downside was that they did not take a credit card (and thus no discount by using the Barclay Arrival card). We opted to go with this tour operator despite not being able to use a credit card for a few reasons. First, their response time and insight when we emailed them were great. They said they could take us on the routes we asked for, but they proposed a different schedule as well their reasons for changing it up a bit. In the end, we took their recommendations and were very glad that we did so. Second, they were extremely knowledgeable – it was a husband and wife duo – Charl and Erna, and Charl had a PhD in history and could answer every question we had. Third, they were willing to be flexible, something that was much needed with a 15-month old.

    Charl greeted us at 9am in his Mercedes, was patient as we loaded in NSPpeanut, and we took off heading south. The first stop was at Boulders Beach. We were super excited for this stop, as NSPpeanut’s favorite animal was a penguin, and here she was about to see hundreds of penguins on the beach. While she couldn’t talk yet, she certainly showed her excitement at seeing her favorite friends.

    Boulders Beach - South Africa

    Boulders Beach – South Africa

    Boulders Beach - South Africa

    Boulders Beach – South Africa

    Boulders Beach - South Africa

    Boulders Beach – South Africa

    We grabbed a coffee and pastry at the gift shop and then continued down south. We pulled off the side of the road a couple times to take some pictures, and then went to an Ostrich Farm right outside the entrance to the Table Mountain National Park. It was a quick 30-minute tour, and while not exactly cheap, was very educational.

    Standing on an Ostrich Egg

    Standing on an Ostrich Egg

    NSPpeanut with Ostrich Babies

    NSPpeanut with Ostrich Babies

    Lavender at Ostrich Farm

    Lavender at Ostrich Farm

    At that point we headed in towards the Cape of Good Hope. Charl dropped us off at the restaurant as he searched for parking. He had reserved a table in advance, overlooking the cape. Oh. My. God. It was beautiful.

    View from Restaurant

    View from Restaurant

    We splurged on a large sushi lunch, paired with some South African wines, and took in the setting. Food in South Africa is cheap, and despite the fact that we were eating sushi, drinking wine, and were in a tourist restaurant, the bill was still amazingly inexpensive.

    After lunch, we headed up the mountain. We opted to walk in lieu of the cable car, a decision that halfway up we regretted. But the views just kept getting better and better. After seeing the Tetons in Jackson, Wyoming, the beaches in the Maldives, the dunes outside of Dubai, and the Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany, these views topped the list.

    Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

    Cape Point, South Africa

    Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

    Cape Point, South Africa

    Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

    Cape Point, South Africa

    Directions from Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

    Directions from Cape Point, South Africa

    Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

    Cape Point, South Africa

    Pictures just don’t do it justice. Sadly, drones were illegal in all National Parks in South Africa, so I couldn’t get any aerial coverage. We did opt to take the cable car back down, and then headed over to the Cape of Good Hope where we spotted some wildlife:

    Wild Ostrich

    Wild Ostrich

    Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

    Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

    Sadly a dead whale was washed up on the beach:

    Dead Whale

    Dead Whale[/caption

    We then took off and started our way back to Cape Town, stopping at some other beautiful landmarks, such as the 12 Apostles mountains:

    [caption id="attachment_2704" align="aligncenter" width="500"]12 Apostles, Cape Town, South Africa 12 Apostles, Cape Town, South Africa

    Overall the day was fantastic. And when we got back to the hotel, we had arranged for massages. Cheap to begin with, but coupled with the 50% Barclays and boy was it a steal!

    We relaxed for a little bit and then headed back to the V&A Waterfront for dinner. We selected a South African restaurant. Again, it is amazing how cheap the food was at restaurants. NSPpeanut was fantastic, as she fell asleep before the food even came out, so we had a very nice and relaxing dinner. Afterwards we packed it in, as we had another early start the next morning.

    Charl met us again in the morning, and we took off for Stellenbosch, a great South African wine region. We started by hitting up a vineyard on the way to Franschhoek, a cute little town with botiques and cafes. Both the vineyard and Franschhoek were great.

    NSPpeanut Admiring the Vineyard Grounds

    NSPpeanut Admiring the Vineyard Grounds

    First Vineyard Stop

    First Vineyard Stop

    Views in Franschhoek

    Views in Franschhoek

    On the way back we stopped at Simonsig. The wine tasting and scenery was amazing:

    Simonsig Wine Estate

    Simonsig Wine Estate

    Our next step wasto the one place I wanted to visit for months: The Thirsty Scarecrow. This is a restaurant within a strawberry field. I thought NSPpeanut would love the pick strawberries. And I couldn’t wait to try their strawberry beer lager…hoping it would be similar to my all-time favorite: Abita Strawberry. Alas, neither were meant to be. The strawberry patch, although plentiful, was not open for picking. And they had run out of strawberry beer. I opted to try another strawberry drink, but it wasn’t anything special.

    By that point, the wine and beer and food had been flowing for hours, and it was time to call it a day. NSPwife and NSPpeanut fell asleep in the back of Charl’s Mercedes E-Class, and I setup the GoPro.

    The Radisson Blu Waterfront was very nice, with a very inexpensive spa and restaurant.

    Infinity Pool, Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town

    Infinity Pool, Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town

    Infinity Pool, Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town

    Infinity Pool, Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town

    NSPpeanut Chillin on the Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town, Patio

    NSPpeanut Chillin on the Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town, Patio

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town - Restaurant

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town – Restaurant

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town - Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town – Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town - Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town – Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town - Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town – Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town - Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town – Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town - Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town – Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town - Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town – Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town - Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town – Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town - Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town – Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town - Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town – Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town - Patio

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town – Patio

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town - Lobby Entrance

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town – Lobby Entrance

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town

    We were so exhausted, and NSPpeanut was near-delusional, that we opted to try our hand at dinner again. This time the service was much better, and faster.

    We woke up the next morning, grabbed the breakfast buffet and headed to the airport. Soon would be the long slog, Cape Town > Doha > JFK > DCA. Over 11,500 miles in roughly 24 hours:

    Our Long Flight(s) Home

    Our Long Flight(s) Home

    There was a surprise, however, in the waiting…

    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 7 – JNB InterContinental & SAA Economy to CPT

    by  • March 29, 2017 • Credit Cards, Luxury Hotel, Miles & Points, Travel • 0 Comments

    Previous Trip Notes:
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 6 – Mauritius & Hilton Resort & Spa
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 5 – Emirates First Class Lounge Dubai & EK703
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 4 – Dubai, Al Maha & Sheraton Mall of the Emirates
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 3 – IAD & EK232
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 2 – Trip Report Setup
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 1 – Planning

    We landed in JNB right at sunset:

    We were in the front of the plane, and I was itching to get off, grab our bags, check into the hotel, and watch the final three quarters of the Michigan vs. Michigan State football game. We made it to the baggage claim in record time, and then waited. And waited. And waited. Luckily, the airport offered 10MB of free WiFi, and I was able to follow along with CBS Sports Twitter feed. But we just waited soooooo long. Finally, about 45 minutes after arriving at the baggage claim, our bags arrived. At least, most of them. Another 10 minutes and our final bag came. We lugged them through customs, which was rather quick, and followed signs to the InterContinental – attached to the airport.

    The directions were not the best, often forgetting to place wayfinding at critical decision points. Add that with the fact that their luggage carts are specifically designed to be used on ESCALATORS, and it was quite the adventure:

    Escalators Designed for Luggage Carts

    Escalators Designed for Luggage Carts

    After getting lost once, we were finally given good directions and made our way to the hotel.

    The hotel itself was extremely nice. Beautiful lobby. 24-hour gym and pool. And the rooms were nice as well.

    InterContinental JNB

    InterContinental JNB

    InterContinental JNB

    InterContinental JNB

    InterContinental JNB Check-In

    InterContinental JNB Check-In

    InterContinental JNB Lobby

    InterContinental JNB Lobby

    InterContinental JNB Room Welcome Foyer

    InterContinental JNB Room Welcome Foyer

    InterContinental JNB Bathroom

    InterContinental JNB Bathroom

    InterContinental JNB Room with Crib

    InterContinental JNB Room with Crib

    InterContinental JNB Room Seating Area

    InterContinental JNB Room Seating Area

    InterContinental JNB Room Desk

    InterContinental JNB Room Desk

    I logged into my VPN and was able to watch a victorious 4th quarter while eating room service. Life was good. We had an early morning flight, so we put the baby to sleep and followed shortly thereafter.

    We woke up rather early and walked back to the airport. We made it to South African Airways check-in, and made our way to the check-in counter. We received our 3 boarding passes but nothing for the lap-child pass. I asked if we needed a pass for the baby and was told we did not. That didn’t sound right, but I had never traveled in Africa before.

    So we headed to the security queue, which was rather lengthy and made it to the front. And BAM. No lap-child pass, no entry. So now I had to run back to check-in, which had a massive line, and we were starting to race against the clock. Luckily a manager was walking by and I explained what had happened. She quickly took me to a computer, only to find out that the baby had been book on her own flight later that afternoon! Needless to say, it was fixed – and rather quickly – and I made it back to security, but at that point we were moving with haste.

    I flew down to the Bidvest Premier Lounge to grab some snacks and coffee for the plane. It was a nice lounge, and grabbed enough to hold us over on a relatively short flight in (gasp) economy. There were plenty of pastries, cheeses and drinks. While I wasn’t in the market for alcoholic drinks in the morning, the alcohol was locked up, apparently not being offered in the morning.

    By the time we arrived at the gate, they had begun boarding. We jumped on the flight, which was similar to any domestic economy class flight, except they did provide a small breakfast.

    It was a quick 11 hours in Johannesburg, that consisted of the airport and an attached hotel; however, we were on our way to three nights in Cape Town, with plenty of exploration planned.

    The Status Match Goal

    by  • January 27, 2017 • Credit Cards, Luxury Hotel, Miles & Points, Travel • 0 Comments

    I’ve status matched and status challenged a number of times in the past decade. My first ever was a Delta status match from their Japan web site that was live for a couple of days. At the time I was a United Premier member (lowest on the totem pole), from the great days of double EQMs on every flight. During the one year I was a Delta Silver Medallion, I took exactly one Delta flight. Probably not the best use of a status match (particularly if matches are only “once in a lifetime”), but my experience on that single (short) flight from IND to MSP left me wanting Delta status if I ever moved to a Delta hub city. My complimentary upgrade cleared, and having complimentary adult beverages and snacks after a 3-day camping binge on the way to a wedding, the space and refreshments provided a sense of relief that I can still emotionally feel, close to a decade later.

    When I put that into comparison for a couple other recent status matches, I wonder what the executives were thinking, and hoping, by providing status matches. A few years ago I took the Hyatt Challenge – which incentivized me to actually move into a Hyatt for a few weeks in the middle of a work relocation. Win-win for everyone. I fell in love with the Diamond status benefits – again, the espresso machine and light snacks in Baltimore’s Hyatt Regency lounge weren’t life-altering, but when working 18+ hour days for a few weeks, to wake up and be able to grab 3 double-espresso lattes in to-go cups with 2 croissants in under a minute, the benefit felt life-altering. I’ve been a committed Hyatt fan since – staying at Hyatt’s across the globe, both on points and cash stays.

    Compare that to Hilton Diamond status, which I matched to late last year. I’ve been a Hilton Gold member for years through varying credit cards. And I LOVE the breakfast benefit. I decided to match to Diamond for a couple reasons: first, I knew we were heading to Aruba, and while we would spend a few nights at the Hyatt, I was interested in seeing what the Hilton Diamond status would provide. So we booked one night at the Hilton in Aruba. You can read my post about it here. Wow. What a letdown. First, let me start out by saying I always ask if an upgrade is available, but I don’t press it. At all. I didn’t earn the status through paid stays, and I don’t feel entitled to upgrades if they aren’t available. But in this case, we were staying for 1 night, arriving rather late in the afternoon, and the hotel was selling multiple suites. No upgrade? OK. Score +1 for Hyatt and the confirmed suite upgrade I was getting for the next few nights. If you read further into my trip report, for breakfast we received a pastry and orange juice. It was a joke. -1 for Hilton Diamond Status. Maybe it was just the Aruba property…we’ll see.

    A few stays at various Hilton properties throughout the year, nothing earth-shattering, no room upgrades, nothing that made me feel that Diamond status was better than Gold status.

    And then my most recent Hilton stay. I’m writing this post after a 3-night stay at the Hilton Resort & Spa in Mauritius. It’s a nice property – the grounds reminded me a lot of the Grand Hyatt in Bali. Very spread out, somewhat dated rooms, but overall quite nice. We arrived around 7:00pm. Check-in took nearly 30 minutes (you know, island time), only to be given a welcome letter when we get shown the room, with the employee inviting us to a GM reception cocktail hour…from 6:30pm-7:30pm. I asked: “So the reception is over?” And they responded that yes, unfortunately we have missed the reception by a couple of minutes. I’d understand if the welcome letter was left in the room; however, the letter was handed to us with an explanation of what it was. I asked if we could attend the one the following night, which they replied unfortunately it was only valid on the date you arrived.

    OK – not a big deal, but when you are the highest status of a loyalty reward program, you expect the highest level of convenience. Everyone should get great service, so you shouldn’t be given better service – but rather convenience. A Diamond member was set to arrive, and instead of pre-checking in the rooms, we had to wait for nearly 30 minutes (after a seven hour plane ride and hour taxi ride). Again, the mythical upgrade was not to be found despite the hotel selling three different suite types at the time of check-in. This again isn’t a knock on the property or made the stay any less enjoyable, but I would assume the goal of a status match is to make the guest want to remain at their matched status level. I would assume it is used as a tool to show potential high-value guests that their offering for elite members is better than their competitors. But apparently there is no difference between a Diamond and Gold member in the World of Hilton. I have zero reason, whether for business or personal travel, to try to attain Diamond status. I’m better off chasing Hyatt/Marriott/Starwood, as I already have Hilton Gold, and there’s nothing I get for increasing my loyalty. I couldn’t even receive a 30-minute late check-out for one of my two rooms (I even offered to check-out 2 hours early for one of my rooms). That’s not convenience – and if I had actually earned the status through paid stays, I’d never stay at a Hilton property again after that level (or lack there of) of service.

    One benefit that Hilton Diamond status allows is a “room guarantee.” I found that perk name to be quite misleading. On multiple occasions throughout the year, I needed a room at a hotel and was unable to book them. On the occasions that I was able to book them, one was for a DoubleTree in Charlottesville, Virginia, and one was for a Hampton Inn outside Iowa City, Iowa; however, I had to check the Hilton app about 3-4 times a day for weeks until finally they opened up a room, and in both cases just day(s) before the stay. Both of those worked out OK for me…worst case was that I would crash in a friend’s room somewhere else where they were staying. But again, top level elite status is about convenience. If I were not a fly-by-last-minute-is-ok type of guy, I would have booked a room somewhere else. And certainly checking constantly for weeks does not spell out convenience.

    I would assume that during the beginning of this year, Hilton will perform analysis on all guests with whom they offered a match at the end of 2015, also taking into account what program/level they matched from, to see if there was any lift in trips and/or revenue from these guests in 2016. My guess is that they will see anywhere from 1-2 stays – essentially trials, at which point then there isn’t a meaningful bump. I’d also be interested to see how their 2018 analysis of these guests are in 2017. The fact is, Hilton Diamond status offers nearly nothing beyond Gold – and any type of “Status Chasing” that I might have tried this year, be in through stays or credit card spend, went out the window. In Hilton’s case, they actually lost potential future revenue from me, given that I’ve seen there’s no wizard behind the curtain.

    Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe my experiences throughout the year are all anomalies. If not, Hilton just said: we’ll incent you to stay with us to prove that we have inferior top-level elite benefits compared to our peers. I’m not sure what the executives in their loyalty program were thinking. At the very minimum, if they are trying to compete with their competitors, a competitor assessment needs to be made for their top tier level.

    Have you had better experiences as a Diamond member? Will your status match result in increased spend within the Hilton brand in 2017 and beyond? I’m just baffled and am wondering if I just had some unfortunate experiences throughout this past year.

    That Bar is Going to Remain Quite Low - I'm Not Chasing to Get Back to DIA Status

    That Bar is Going to Remain Quite Low – I’m Not Chasing to Get Back to DIA Status

    2016 Flights in Review

    by  • January 1, 2017 • Credit Cards, Luxury Airline Travel, Luxury Hotel, Miles & Points, Travel • 0 Comments

    What a year. Even with two road trips, one from Baltimore to Kiawah Island and back, and one from Chicago to Iowa City and back, I flew nearly 45,000 miles. The only flights purchased on cash fares were:

    • Baltimore to Indianapolis (about $150) on Southwest
    • Johannesburg, South Africa to Cape Town, South Africa (about $100) on South African Airways

    All other flights were made with points. Taxes totaled a few hundred dollars. Most flights on Southwest included a free ticket thanks to NSPwife’s Companion Pass. My flight back from San Luis Obispo was cancelled due to mechanical issues, so everyone was given a voucher for $200.

    Overall another great year – primarily due to Alaskan Airlines miles courtesy of Bank of America.

    2016 Flights

    2016 Flights – courtesy of gcmap.com

    Top 10 List:

    1. First Class BWI>SFO with wine tasting in SFO Centurion Lounge
    2. Companion Pass for 2 International Destinations: Aruba & Costa Rica
    3. Dom and 1986 Bordeaux in Emirates First
    4. First Class MIA>SJO for four of us with MIA Centurion Lounge
    5. Al Maha in the UAE, take two
    6. Andaz Papagayo in Costa Rica
    7. Qatar Business Lounge in Doha
    8. South Africa; all of it
    9. El Silencio Lodge & Spa in Costa Rica
    10. Showering on Emirates – twice

    A Few Nights in Aruba

    by  • December 26, 2016 • Credit Cards, Luxury Hotel, Miles & Points, Travel • 0 Comments

    So…it turns out I never published this trip report from January of 2016, so I’m posting it nearly a year later. As not much changed with my opinion on Hilton Diamond status, I figured it was worth the post

    A few friends of ours head to Aruba every year and suggested we go this year. As Southwest flies non-stop from BWI, we have a companion pass (beginning of the fourth year with one), and lap-babies fly for a mere $17 in taxes, it was something that was difficult to pass up. Throw in a free night certificate at the Hilton from NSPwife’s Citi Hilton Reserve card that was expiring within a few weeks and Hyatt offering points and cash rooms, it was a no-brainer.

    Our flight departed at 8:30am. We got to the airport with plenty of time to spare, but when we tried to check in there was a problem with NSPpeanut’s ticket that took 30 minutes to clear up. Then we noticed that there was no Pre-Check on our boarding passes despite both of us having Global Entry courtesy of our AMEX Platinum cards. Come to find out Southwest doesn’t offer Pre-Check for international flights…good to know [Update: Southwest now offers Pre-Check on international fares]. And frustrating. There was no line for Pre-Check but a healthy one for the plebs, so plebs we be. While not a run-through-the-airport rush, we did not have time for either a bathroom break or to pickup breakfast. The plane was also 100% full, so the 4+ hour flight required NSPwife to hold NSPpeanut the entire time.

    The flight was bouncy but otherwise uneventful. We disembarked, went swiftly through customs (pro-tip: they pushed anyone with a baby and stroller to the front of the line…travel hack potential? Should I gate check a baby-less stroller on future flights?). We quickly grabbed our bags, a bottle of vodka from duty-free for our friends, and hopped in a cab.

    The cab ride was a bit longer than I had expected due to the traffic – it was about 30 minutes until we pulled up to the Hilton. As my Hyatt Diamond status was coming to a close, I had jumped on the Hilton Diamond Status Match. I had been a Hilton Gold member for years due to my various Hilton Credit Cards and was excited to see how Hilton treated its Diamond members. When we checked in, I was cautiously optimistic that we would be upgraded to a suite since we were only staying for one night; however, they only extended us an Ocean View room upgrade. As I didn’t technically earn Diamond status from past stays, I didn’t feel comfortable even pressing the front desk for perks, so gladly took the Ocean View room.

    The room was nice and spacious, with a small balcony overlooking the ocean.

    Hilton Aruba – View from Room

    Hilton Aruba – View from Room

    Hilton Aruba – View from Room

    Shortly after we got into the room, our bags and crib were delivered. I was curious if there would be any Diamond amenity, but it turned out that included only two small pieces of chocolate during turn-down service.

    Diamond Amenity Gift

    Diamond Amenity Gift

    We applied our sun-tan lotion and headed out to the pool. The outdoor area is very nice, with multiple large pools, exotic birds in cages, and many different food and bar options.

    Hilton Aruba – Pools

    Hilton Aruba – Pools

    Hilton Aruba – Pools

    We had a quick bite to eat, where I was introduced to the dominant domestic beer, Balashi (there would be more of that in my future). We met up with our friends who were staying at the Hyatt – only a short 3 minute walk, and joined them on the beach under their hut-like umbrellas. By that point it was getting to be evening time, so we relaxed for a bit, had a few drinks, and then headed to dinner at Bugaloe Beach Bar & Grill on a pier. It was about a five-minute walk, and talk about a difference between “resort” and “local” prices…this place was cheap. And good.

    After dinner, NSPwife and NSPpeanut headed to the room so that I could spend a bit of time in the casino. The casinos at the properties are pretty nice, albeit small, even offering sports betting through electronic kiosks. After a bit of bad luck, I made my way back to the room and called it a night. Little did I know that when I woke up, I would encounter terrible service from both the Hilton and the Hyatt!

    We woke up rather early, given NSPpeanut did not really want to sleep. We decided to head down for free breakfast, a Gold & Diamond benefit. We asked the front desk where to go, and they gave us the directions. We carried the stroller down a large set of stairs (why the front desk gave us these directions when we had a stroller I have no idea), and when we got to host stand, they told us our complimentary breakfast was in a different restaurant. OK, not a huge deal – although the buffet spread did look pretty good – just a bit of an inconvenience. When we got to the second restaurant, they handed us the menu and said that the complimentary breakfast was only the “continental breakfast.” This took me by surprise. I’ve had the complimentary breakfast at dozens of Hilton hotels across the globe, and this was, by far, the absolute worst offer: a few “breakfast pastries,” small fruit cup, and OJ/coffee. Yikes.

    Continental Breakfast - The Complimentary Breakfast Option for Diamond Members

    Continental Breakfast – The Complimentary Breakfast Option for Diamond Members

    Not So Filling Bowl of Fruit

    Not So Filling Bowl of Fruit

    NSPwife hung out with the baby while I headed back to the room to pack up (they could only give us an extended hour for check-out). And, while I may have the spirit of a 90-year-old-grandma, I really wanted to play bingo. So I asked the front desk where bingo was located. They told me it was on the pool deck right next to where NSPwife was eating. Perfect. The three of us went back up to the room, showered, and took all of our bags down. NSPwife and NSPpeanut hung out at the pool, and I walked over to the Hyatt to see if we could check in early. They said we could check in by 2pm, but they couldn’t guarantee anything earlier than that. OK – 2pm is fine. I made a 3pm massage appointment at the spa for NSPwife, and headed back to the Hilton. 5 minutes before bingo was supposed to begin, I asked the bartender if it usually started late (you know, the whole island-time thing). He said it should start any minute. 15 minutes later, I walked around all of the pools to see how I could be missing bingo. After a 15 minute walk, it was almost 30 minutes passed the start time, and there was no bingo. So the three of us assumed it had been cancelled and walked over to the Hyatt. I went back to the desk and asked if the room was ready. To my great surprise, they told me that an early check-in had not been requested, and that we could check-in at 4pm.

    I told them who I had spoken to, and that my wife had a massage appointment at 3pm and needed to shower and change beforehand, as she was in a swimsuit and lathered up with sunscreen. They said they would see what they could do, but made no promises. We hung out at the pool with our friends, and my buddy and I headed back to the Hilton to place some sports bets at the Hilton casino. When we walked in, there were nearly 100 people there. PLAYING BINGO! I couldn’t believe it. No signage. Front desk had no idea. Bartenders had no idea. All gave incorrect information. It was just a very frustrating way to end that stay.

    Move back now to the Hyatt. At 2:30pm I went back to the desk. They told me they had a room. OK, NSPwife wouldn’t be happy about such a quick turn-around time, but lo, if anything should resolve that stress, it should be a massage. So we schlepped up all of our baggage, including our 6-month-old’s-baggage, and use the key to go into our room. Hmmmm, lots of alcohol in the entryway. A new Diamond Amenity?? Awesome. Wait. There’s a ton of luggage in the room. Oh. And someone in the shower. We race out and head back to the front desk. They apologized and told us they had assigned that room to the people just in front of us in line. OK – massage was now not happening. We went to the spa and were told that unfortunately we would be charged the full amount. We tried to explain the situation, but there was no hearing of it. So we went back to the front desk. Luckily someone intervened and spoke to the spa – and despite a heated conversation between them and the spa – they allowed us to cancel the appointment.

    We finally got into our room around 4pm. If they had simply told us that they couldn’t get us in until then, that would have been fine. We would have crashed in our friends suite, hung out at the pool, or went for a stroll at the local shops and restaurants. The issue was purely the lack of credible information and service. The manager even reached out directly to us to give us a $100 resort credit – we didn’t make a scene, ask for a manager or anything like that. Someone working there must have told the manager what had happened. That was a nice touch, and we appreciated the service recovery, but almost an entire day (one of 4) had been lost to this.

    When we settled in, we took the milk & cookies and wine amenity. We explored the very spacious 2-room suite:

    Hyatt Aruba Suite - Entrance

    Hyatt Aruba Suite – Entrance

    Hyatt Aruba Suite - Bedroom

    Hyatt Aruba Suite – Bedroom

    Hyatt Aruba Suite - Bedroom

    Hyatt Aruba Suite – Bedroom

    Hyatt Aruba Suite - Lounging Room

    Hyatt Aruba Suite – Lounging Room

    Hyatt Aruba Suite - Beach View from Room

    Hyatt Aruba Suite – Beach View from Room

    Hyatt Aruba Suite - Bathroom

    Hyatt Aruba Suite – Bathroom

    Hyatt Aruba Suite - Bathroom

    Hyatt Aruba Suite – Bathroom

    The suite was very nice, with a completely separate lounging room. The bathroom was OK, but it amazed me they didn’t have a double-vanity. Not a huge deal, but just a little bit of a miss on the details, as there was plenty of space for it.

    We spent some time on the beach, as well as played the umbrella/hut lottery. Here’s the thing: there are way more people who want umbrellas on the beach than actual umbrellas. That presents a problem. The hotel has apparently made a number of changes over the years to try and create a fair system that guests are happy with. Unfortunately, they have failed spectacularly on the latter. I’ve never felt so bad for a hotel staff. Dozens and dozens of guests screaming at workers. Every single day. It was nuts. The system that was in place was that at 4pm, you could log into the hotel’s web site (also mobile-friendly) and reserve an open umbrella. Think of it as Ticketmaster releasing tickets for the hottest show of the summer. If you are good with technology, you have a decent chance to score an umbrella, somewhere. If you are technologically challenged, good luck. Once guests realized they couldn’t secure an umbrella, they go straight to the customer service hut and start screaming. This lasts at least 90 minutes. At that point, people who forgot about the 4pm time remember, and head over to the hut to scream for another 90 minutes. Then people who check-in late are told at check-in the umbrellas are unavailable and head over to the hut to scream for 90 minutes. It’s really quite terrible. Anyways, as the tech-savy individuals we are, we had no problems securing umbrellas each day 🙂

    The grounds are great:

    Hyatt Aruba - Lobby

    Hyatt Aruba – Lobby

    Hyatt Aruba - Beach

    Hyatt Aruba – Beach

    Hyatt Aruba - Grounds

    Hyatt Aruba – Grounds

    Hyatt Aruba - Grounds

    Hyatt Aruba – Grounds

    After a short time at the beach, we headed to the lounge. The food spread is minimal; however, what they don’t tell you or advertise is that you can ask the staff for beer or wine, and they’ll provide you with an unlimited supply, all gratis. This makes happy hour quite an inexpensive ordeal.

    Hyatt Aruba - Regency Club Entrance

    Hyatt Aruba – Regency Club Entrance

    Hyatt Aruba - Regency Club Beach View

    Hyatt Aruba – Regency Club Beach View

    Hyatt Aruba - Coffee

    Hyatt Aruba – Coffee

    Hyatt Aruba - Regency Club Drinks (Balashi Hidden)

    Hyatt Aruba – Regency Club Drinks (Balashi Hidden)

    Hyatt Aruba - Regency Club Food Spread

    Hyatt Aruba – Regency Club Food Spread

    Hyatt Aruba - Regency Club Food Spread

    Hyatt Aruba – Regency Club Food Spread

    Hyatt Aruba - Regency Club, Lounging Room

    Hyatt Aruba – Regency Club, Lounging Room

    Overall, Aruba was a nice Caribbean island. I was surprised by how windy it was…all the time, and the lack of overall customer service. While I think we will explore other Caribbean islands in the future, the weather was good, the price was right, and non-stop service from Baltimore to Aruba made it a fairly easy trip.

    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 1 – Planning

    by  • November 21, 2016 • Cash Back, Credit Cards, Luxury Airline Travel, Luxury Hotel, Miles & Points, Travel • 0 Comments

    NSPwife and I welcomed NSPpeanut into the world on July 14, 2015. As one can expect, she quickly earned her first set of “wings” on United, traveling from Washington Dulles to San Francisco when she was three months old. We decided to fly in economy, but purchase a seat for NSPpeanut. It turned out that she didn’t mind any part of the flight, napping for most of it, and being genuinely well behaved when she was awake. A guy sitting directly behind her gave me a high-five when we were getting off the plane and loudly declared: “best baby ever.” Although biased, we agree.

    A couple weeks later she learned what it was like to fly as a “lap-baby” on her way from Baltimore to St. Louis, and then a month later did the same from Baltimore to Detroit. We decided to “lap-baby-it” from Baltimore to Aruba a couple days after New Years (a 3-for-1 flight, given we have a companion pass). The plane was 100% full on the way down, and 4 hours was a little much for NSPwife. On the way back there were extra seats, and the nice flight attendants didn’t take issue that we kept the baby in a car-seat in her own seat next to us. I luv Southwest.

    During these fall travels, it became clear that if we were going to take our annual “big trip” in 2016, NSPpeanut would have to tag along. As we discussed places and options, we decided to take Asia out of the mix (we are still set on returning to Thailand, and visiting Malaysia and Japan in the near future). We wanted a mix of relaxation and adventure, all that would be baby-appropriate. As we had hundreds of thousands of Alaskan Airlines miles burning holes in our accounts, that left the best use of those miles for Australia or a trip on Emirates (taking out Cathay Pacific). Both NSPwife and I have been to Australia, so we started to look into maximizing our trips should we take Emirates. In first class.

    The flight from Dallas to Dubai is 8,040 miles (just shy of 15 hours in the air). While nice, when you are on an A380 decked out with a shower and bar, you want to maximize that time. We decided to head down to Cape Town, adding Dubai as just a stopover. Unfortunately, we could not find a single flight with award ticket availability from Dubai to Cape Town! After some additional research, we found that we could fly from Dubai to Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean just east of Madagascar – another 3,000 miles and seven hours with the ability to drink Dom and shower at 38,000 feet. The beauty of this ticket is that by using Alaskan Airlines miles, the ticket in first class cost 100,000 miles from the US to Mauritius – and the 2-day stopover in Dubai cost no extra miles.

    On our honeymoon, NSPwife and I stayed a night at Al Maha. It was by far the nicest place we’ve ever stayed, and at the time made a commitment to each other that we had to return within five years. 18-months later and we’d be back watching the sun set over an endless sea of sand in a remote desert near Oman. Pure euphoria. At 60,000 points per night, this is not a cheap award; however, for the past two years SPG held a “fall promo” that discounted the rooms to 39,000 points. We speculatively booked at 60,000 and hoped for the best. A month before our stay, I received the much anticipated email. 15 minutes later, we were booked for 39,000 points per night.

    There was, however, an extraneous factor at play on this trip. NSPpeanut, our 15-month old baby. And when researching “lap-babies” on the Google machine, we found out that on most international itineraries, an infant fare is charged at 10% of the adult fare. At $22,000, a lap-baby would still cost over $2,000 to sit with us in First Class!

    Emirates IAD > DXB > MRU Cost

    In addition, Al Maha does not allow in anyone under 21 years old. So, we had to make a decision (and remember, NSPwife was clear that NSPpeanut was NOT staying in the U.S.). Ultimately, we decided to bring along one of NSPpeanut’s babysitters. So were all four of us going to be in First Class on Emirates? 100,000 miles for a 15-month old? No thanks. The babysitter and NSPpeanut were riding in the back, but we did get each of them their own seat, and made sure to book a bassinet seat. In Dubai, we booked a room at the Sheraton Mall of the Emirates. We did this for a couple reasons. First, using the Starwood Business Card for the reservation, it gives access to the lounge, which is nice in the morning and during happy hour for the babysitter to get a much needed glass of wine. Second, the mall can certainly entertain a 15-month toddler for 2 days. There are plenty of stores, entertainment and, of course, penguins! Most importantly though is McDonald’s. NSPpeanut lives on chicken nuggets, and we knew she would be happy as a clam strolling around a mall watching penguins and people, while munching on her chicken nuggets.

    So queue up our next stop. The original goal was to travel to Cape Town, South Africa, on the same ticket. So on to Plan B. I didn’t know much about Mauritius at the time; however, after researching the island, it was immediately clear that it was a place we wanted to visit. 18 months ago we visited the Maldives, and adding a trip to a 2nd island in the Indian Ocean seemed like a pretty great idea. And boy did the research of the island back it up. Amazing beaches. Great tourist sites. Great infrastructure. It was a no-brainer. Throw in the fact that the Hilton Resort & Spa was only 40,000 points/night, and accommodations would be easy (particularly given one room could have a Gold guest and the 2nd room a Diamond guest…maybe there would be a chance for an upgrade?!?!).

    The interesting thing about Mauritius is the complete lack of daily airplane service to/from the island. So at that point our hands were essentially dealt. Arrive on a Wednesday and depart on a Saturday. We opted for a late flight on Saturday to arrive in Johannesburg, South Africa. Given the current safety concerns with J-burg, we decided to stay at the Intercontinental Airport Hotel. 2 annual certificates from the IHG credit card made this $75/night (due to annual fee) a fairly worthwhile redemption. And the following morning we would make our way to Cape Town via South African Airways. Given this last flight would be a “domestic flight” – NSPpeanut could lap-baby it up. A few days in Cape Town, followed by the craziest of all return flight plans, and we would finalize our trip.

    What is this crazy return flight? Cape Town > Doha > JFK > DCA. Ouch. Given the painfulness of 11,000 miles in just over 24 hours, we splurged and got NSPpeanut her own Business Class seat. Here’s to hoping we get a little bit of sleep…

    Wrapping up, planning was fairly straight-forward:

    1) Emirates A380 required
    2) Maximize #1 by adding a segment…Mauritius it was!
    3) British Airways Avios to get to Johannesburg
    4) South African Airways ($70/ticket) to get to Cape Town
    5) Qatar Airways, via American Airlines miles, to get home

    Overall costs:

    Flight Costs for Four Passengers

    Hotel Costs for Two Rooms

    Other Costs for Four People

    Overall, airline costs for 4 people wound up costing $646.24 in total, hotels $650.50, and other costs – mostly food & drink, and good food & drink at that, $1,210.00.

    An 11-day vacation, showering on planes, drinking 2006 Dom Perignon, 1986 Ducru Beaucaillou Bordeaux, 5-star private villas with private pools, spanning three continents and ALL IN costs for FOUR people: $2,500. Not bad.

    Only one minor hiccup. About 7 months after booking the trip, Emirates pulled the A380 out of Dallas. WHAT?! NO SHOWER ON A PLANE?? THE HORROR. Luckily, Alaska Airlines allows one free change to award tickets, and there just happened to be availability on the new Washington D.C. > Dubai route, ON AN A380. While this cut almost two hours of flight time, it also saved us from having to make our way to Dallas, saving both time and money. In the end, a great – and lucky – change.

    Let the games begin…

    Barclaycard Arrival Plus 50% Off!

    by  • November 13, 2016 • Cash Back, Credit Cards, Miles & Points • 0 Comments

    Why do I value all $100+ travel-related purchases at 50 cents on the dollar when using my Barclaycard Arrival Plus card? It’s a straight matter of economics:

    • Gift cards cost either $3.95 or $4.95 per $500
    • Liquidating gift cards cost either $0.46 or $0.59 per $500
    • That puts total costs per $500 spend at around $5.00
    • 2.05% travel cash back on $500 credit card spend equals $10.25
    • For every $10.25 in travel expense my cost is really ~$5.00, or 50% off

    I’m sure some naysayers will talk about opportunity cost with 2% cash back cards, or Discover It Miles at 3% for the first year. And don’t worry, I utilize those as well. But I currently sit with a very large credit line with Barclays for my Arrival card, utilize it for some everyday spending, and have good reach with the card.

    Barclaycard Arrival Plus Card

    A Delayed Honeymoon: Part 10 – Aegean Airlines & Santorini, Greece

    by  • September 4, 2016 • Credit Cards, Luxury Hotel, Miles & Points, Travel • 0 Comments

    Previous Trip Notes:
    A Delayed Honeymoon: Part 9 – Conrad Dubai & Royal Jordanian Business Class (DXB > AMM > ATH)
    A Delayed Honeymoon: Part 8 – Al-Maha, Starwood Luxury Collection
    A Delayed Honeymoon: Part 7 – Park Hyatt Dubai
    A Delayed Honeymoon: Part 6 – Maldives to Dubai
    A Delayed Honeymoon: Part 5 – Park Hyatt, Maldives
    A Delayed Honeymoon: Part 4 – Getting to the Park Hyatt Maldives
    A Delayed Honeymoon: Part 3 – Hyatt Capital Gate, Abu Dhabi
    A Delayed Honeymoon: Part 2 – EY130 First Class
    A Delayed Honeymoon: Part 1 – Baltimore > IAD, & Etihad Lounge

    We landed in Athens with about a 3-hour layover before taking our flight to Santorini. Booking the flights on Aegean Airlines was somewhat of a collision of worlds. Just a couple years ago it was possible to earn Star Alliance Gold membership by earning 20,000 Aegean Miles in a year, and at one point they gave new sign-ups 4,000 free points. For a period of a couple months, it seemed like a no-brainer, so I began crediting my United Airlines flights to Aegean. Then I took a hiatus from flying (or at least from paying for flights). That left a number of “orphaned” miles in my Aegean account, and just enough for one round-trip ticket between Athens and Santorini. The second ticket was fairly cheap at about $200. It’s a very quick 45 minute flight, and we spent out time waiting for the flight in the Aristotle Onassis Lounge (which we had access to using my American Express Platinum card).

    The flight was uneventful and we landed when it was pitch-black. We grabbed a taxi at the airport to head to Heliotopos, a quaint hotel in the Imerovigli region of the island. It was pretty chilly and the rain had luckily stopped just before we landed.

    We were starving and after getting settled into the room went to the restaurant in Heliotopos which was literally carved into the mountain:

    Heliotopos Restaurant

    Each room is unique, as the hotel descends down over the mountain slope. Our door opened to a living room on the top level:

    Living Room at Heliotopos

    There was also a balcony on the top level:

    Balcony View at Heliotopos

    Balcony View at Heliotopos

    The hallway down to the bedroom and bathroom was tight:

    Room at Heliotopos

    The room was quaint, but the radiator was buzzing and the view from the windows stunning:

    Bedroom at Heliotopos

    After dinner we fell fast asleep early and woke up with the sun. Although it was cool, the views were downright stunning:

    Santorini, Greece

    Santorini, Greece

    Santorini, Greece

    Heliotopos offered complimentary breakfast back in the cave, which was filling enough to last until lunch:

    Breakfast at Heliotopos

    We decided to set off and hike down part of the island:

    Hiking Santorini, Greece

    Santorini, Greece

    Santorini, Greece

    Santorini, Greece

    Santorini, Greece

    Santorini, Greece

    Santorini, Greece

    Santorini, Greece

    Santorini, Greece

    Santorini, Greece

    Santorini, Greece

    Santorini, Greece

    Santorini, Greece

    Santorini, Greece

    Santorini, Greece

    After hiking down the island from Imerovigli to Fira, we jumped in a cab to Akrotiri – a Minoan settlement that was destroyed in the Theran eruption around 1600 BC:

    Akrotiri – Santorini Greece

    Akrotiri – Santorini Greece

    Akrotiri – Santorini Greece

    As the island seemingly shuts down in the winter months, we asked the cab driver to meet us back after about an hour and a half. It didn’t quite take us that long to walk through, so we set off and walked around the island for a bit:

    Red Beach – Santorini, Greece

    Red Beach – Santorini, Greece

    We headed back to Fira to grab lunch, and found a quaint little restaurant. The owner was the only one there, and couldn’t have been friendlier. She brought out some Ouzo shots – of course NSPwife couldn’t partake given NSPpeanut, so I had to do double-duty in order not to offend. The meal was great, and NSPwife particularly enjoyed her octopus:

    Lunch – Santorini Greece

    Lunch – Santorini Greece

    Lunch – Santorini Greece

    Lunch – Santorini Greece

    Lunch – Santorini Greece

    We hiked back up to our hotel and relaxed for a bit. One thing that we were extremely excited about was watching the sunset, and while there are a number of locations around the island to watch it, Oia is supposed to be one of the best. We called a taxi (by the way, taxis are not cheap on the island), and headed a bit north. We exited the taxi and walked through a number of small side streets to get to the coast. Unfortunately it was quite cloudy, but we managed to capture a bit of the sunset:

    Sunset – Santorini (Oia), Greece

    Sunset – Santorini (Oia), Greece

    Sunset Watching – Santorini (Oia), Greece

    Sunset Watching – Santorini (Oia), Greece

    Sunset Watching – Santorini (Oia), Greece

    We took a cab back to Fira to have a final dinner in Santorini. We were exhausted by time we got back to Heliotopos and just crashed. The airport in Santorini is, as expected, quite small:

    Santorini Airport

    Sunset Watching – Santorini (Oia), Greece

    There was a duty free shop as well as a bar; however, the bar was closed for the season:

    Santorini Airport

    We had to take a bus to the airplane:

    Santorini Airport

    JTR > ATH

    We were on our way to our final destination, Athens. It had been a whirlwind week…Washington D.C. to Abu Dhabi to the Maldives to Dubai to the desert back to Dubai to Santorini and finally Athens. Santorini was great, and beautiful, and everything that every travel web site says; however, I would highly recommend going in the spring/summer, both to enjoy the outside with warm temperatures, but also given that much of the island closes up during the winter.

    Goodbye Santorini