The Benefits of Amtrak Select Plus

I had a short trip to San Diego for work (more on that later), and the only return flight that worked with my schedule was a redeye from San Diego to Newark with a three-hour stopover en route to Baltimore (and then an hour trip to my apartment). I don’t have status with United (or any other airlines for that matter) so upgrades were not an option. I simply prepared myself for a hellish journey home, counting down the hours until I could collapse in my own bed.

There was one silver lining: Amtrak Select Plus. Thanks to all the Amtrak traveling I did in 2013, I still have Amtrak Select Plus status through February 2015. Amtrak Select Plus isn’t all that great, except for one little known perk: It gives you access to United airport lounges.

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Now a lounge doesn’t make up for sleeping in 40 minute increments in economy, but it is a nice pick-me-up in between layovers. The Newark lounge even had showers.

San Diego:

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2014: A Year in Review

It has been another year of amazing trips, new places I didn’t expect to see, and new places I didn’t expect to love.

There was an overall decrease in my travels. This is partly due to the ebb and flow of my work schedule. I took two big vacations in 2014 (Peru and Northern Asia), but far fewer smaller trips, especially to New York City.

My year in numbers:

  • 1: New states visited: Alabama.  I have now visited 38 states in the U.S.
  • 1: New continent visited (South America)
  • 4: Credit card applications (pretty dismal for me)
  • 5: New countries visited (Peru, China, Japan, Panama)
  • 6: Number of free Amtrak trips I received
  • 7: Countries visited (counting the U.S.)
  • 16: Number of states visited (counting DC)
  • 20,000: Number of Amtrak points redeemed
  • 11,418: Number of Amtrak points earned (4,051 fewer than 2014)
  • 15,000: Number of Amtrak points purchased
  • 27: Number of Amtrak trips I have taken (14 fewer than 2014)
  • 40: Number of flights (five fewer than 2014)
  • 39,676: Number of miles flown (17,890 miles fewer than 2014)
  • 657,560: The number of miles/points I’ve redeemed this year. This includes: One business class seat to Peru; one economy seat locally in Peru; one economy ticket from Peru to DC; six hotel nights in Peru; one business class seat from DC to Beijing; one economy seat from Shanghai to Osaka: one first class seat from Osaka to DC; four hotel nights in Beijing; four hotel nights in Shanghai; five hotel nights in Osaka; two hotel nights in Philadelphia; and four hotel nights in Mississippi.
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Part #7: The Great Wall is Truly Great

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park
Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City

The Great Wall is truly great. I mean it’s fucking great. Like mind-blowing, ass-kicking, I-can’t-believe-I’m-seeing-this-in-person great. It is one of the main reasons my sister and I decided to go China. It’s been on my bucket list for years. And it lived up to my expectations.

Scratch that. It exceeded my expectations.

Great Wall Map

The Great Wall of China is huge. It stretches for hundreds of miles and there are many different places you can see the Great Wall. The most popular tourist area is Badaling – it’s closest to Beijing and most accessible by public transportation. But it’s also crawling with tourists.

From the get go, I know I wanted to do an actual hike (not a walk) and visit a less touristy part of the wall.

As we began our research, it seemed like there were hundreds of guides to choose from, and we had no idea how to choose one from the other, or even which location to choose. Somehow, we stumbled on Dandelion Hiking, which does group hikes for a fraction of the cost of other companies and received good reviews on Trip Advisor. The owner was very responsive and spoke excellent English. And so even though no one else signed up for the hike (it was late November after all), we decided to stick with them and do a private hike. It cost us $150 per person which is comparable to all the other companies out there.

Our guide was a Belgian fellow named Jan who was just perfect. He and his driver picked us up from our hotel at 9:30 a.m. on the dot. His English was great; he answered all of our questions (even the stupid ones); and he took a ton of pictures of us, even when we insisted on doing silly poses that would try any normal person’s patience. Sadly, Jan informed us that he was going back to Europe in a couple of days, but I’d still recommend Dandelion Hiking. They were phenomenal.


Our trusty guide, Jan, taking pictures of us.

Jan recommended a hike called Chen Castle, slightly northeast of Badaling. It was perfect. It started with a steep hike up to reach the wall which tested our lungs and legs. But when we got to the top after much huffing and puffing, it was all awe and amazement and me shrieking, “We’re at the Great Wall of China!”

Starting out. You can see the Great Wall all the way at the tippy top.

Starting out. You can see the Great Wall all the way at the tippy top.


Reaching the Great Wall after 1,300 feet of climbing.


Showing off my yoga skills. Or skill. That is the only cool yoga pose I can do.

It helped that we literally had the Great Wall of China to ourselves. There was not another person or vehicle in sight for miles and miles.

The steep climb up was the hardest part. After that, there were a few hills, but we mostly walked along the Great Wall admiring the view and snapping hundreds of pictures. And I do mean hundreds.





















And of course, here is my requisite cartwheel pose. It’s not the most graceful cartwheel, but I’m about twenty years out of practice.



Let me conclude by saying, the Great Wall of China is amazing, and worth a trip to Asia. I’d recommend going in the spring or fall, though we managed just fine with the temperature hovering around 50 degrees. Dandelion Hiking does a variety of trips you can choose from, some which include camping out overnight on the Great Wall.



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Part #6: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City

In case you’ve missed it…

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs
Part #5: A Walk in the Park

My one piece of advice for seeing Beijing’s most famous landmarks: Put your walking shoes on. Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City are huge.

For starters, there is a lot of security and a lot of waiting on lines for security. We went to Tiananman Square first and simply walked around. There isn’t much else to do, other than marvel at the massiveness of the world’s fourth largest public square and contemplate all the history that transpired on that very spot. At one point I turned to my sister and remarked: “It’s kind of crazy to be standing in the same place where history was made, walking around like it’s just a regular public square.” It really is crazy. I have no other word for it.



Next, we crossed the street and entered the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which leads to the entrance of the Forbidden City. Once inside the gate, you can continue on to the Forbidden City or buy a ticket to climb to the top of the gate and look down on Tiananmen Square from above. That meant more lines – both for security and for bag check. But the view over the Square make you appreciate the bigness even more.




Next up was the Forbidden City, China’s imperial palace for over 500 years. Many of the rooms are closed to visitors, but you can enter some, and purchase additional tickets to side exhibits. Otherwise, there is simply a lot of walking and saying over and over again, “Oh my god. This is f*cking huge!”

Also, I would not mind living in a house this big.





The end of the Forbidden City leads to a beautiful garden filled with Chinese landscapes.



Here I am taking a quick nap.


When we finally emerged on the other end of the Forbidden City, our feet were killing. All I wanted to do was sit down someplace. But we looked up and spied a Chinese-style building in the distance high in the clouds. A local official informed us that this was the Children’s Palace, and we could climb to the top for a mere two Yuan.

Despite our legs’ protestations, we wanted to get a view of the Forbidden City from above. And it was worth it. The views are very pretty, although marred somewhat by Beijing’s famous pollution. I can only imagine how great this picture would look on a clear day. Nevertheless, you can still get a sense of the Forbidden’s City’s daunting size.




Forbidden City

  •  Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City are located on the number one subway line between the Tiananmen West and Tiananmen East stops. The very wide Chang’an Ave. divides the Forbidden City from Tiananmen Square, and you need to go underground to get from one to the other.
  • You will need to go through separate security lines to enter both Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.
  • Tiananmen Square is free, but the entrance ticket for the Forbidden City is 40 yuan in the off-season. It costs 15 yuan to climb the Gate of Heavenly Peace and you will need to check your bags (8 yuan). There is an additional cost of 10 yuan per ticket to enter the Treasure Gallery and the Clock and Watch Gallery.
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Park #5: A Walk in the Park

In case you’ve missed it…

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa
Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs

I don’t need to write extensively about beautiful Beihai Park because the pictures speak for themselves. Beihai Park is an oasis in the heart of bustling Beijing. The park was originally built in the 11th century as an imperial garden, and is now open to the public (for five yuan).

Beihai Park










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Part #4: Exploring the Hutongs

In case you missed it…

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold
Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa

On our first day in Beijing, we valiantly resisted jet lag and set out to explore Beijing’s hutong neighborhood. Hutongs are narrow alleyways or streets, a throwback to what old Beijing used to look like. Located just north of the Forbidden City, the massive shopping malls and modern structures disappear into a glimpse of ancient Beijing.

Hutong map2

The main artery, a pedestrian only road named Nanluoguxiang, is populated with small shops, peddlers, throngs of locals, and very persistent rickshaw drivers who insist on giving you the grand hutong tour. It is a charming scene filled with leafy trees and hidden crevices, a stark contrast form Beijing’s massive roadways. Tiny alleyways branch off in either direction begging to be explored.

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The entrance to Nanluoguxiang Road.

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The aforementioned rickshaw tour guides.

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After the hutongs, we made our way to the Drum and Bell Towers, hoping to get a pretty view of the hutong rooftops beneath us, but both towers were under construction and closed to visitors. We did not realize yet that the bright blue sky was a happy miracle. Our subsequent days in Beijing would be plagued by the city’s all too famous pollution.

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Totally random couch on the streets on the way to the Drum Tower.

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The Bell Tower

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The Drum Tower

So we sat on the steps of the Bell Tower and bemoaned our exhaustion and took pictures of the adorable kids.

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And then, for the hell of it, I decided to do a cartwheel. I blame the jet lag.



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Part #3: Getting a Chinese Visa

In case you missed it…

Part #1: Off to China
Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold

This post should have been written two months ago when I went through the process of getting a visa, but being slightly paranoid, I wanted to wait until my Asia trip was said and done.

Americans traveling to China have to apply for a visa with the Chinese consulate, which can be a grueling process and costs $140. At best, it’s at least half a day of standing on line at the Chinese consulate and hoping for the best. At worst…well, you’ll see.

Instead of spending a day at the consulate, I decided to use a well-reviewed visa service, Allied Passport and Visa. I dropped off my application and passport at Allied’s DC office, and a nice guy named Steve assured me that I’d get my visa in a couple of days. The next day, Steve emailed me, informing me that the Chinese consulate would like more information.

Ruh roh.


Once the Chinese realized I work in politics (the application asked for my employer), they wanted to make sure my trip was purely for pleasure and not for business. Apparently, they thought I might foment a political coup on my vacation.

At the consulate’s instruction, I wrote a short letter avowing my intention to visit China as a tourist and sent the letter to Steve.

The next day, I received another email from Steve. The consulate requested more information — three new items to be specific. I sent a letter written and signed by my boss on company stationary affirming that I will not be doing any business in China; a detailed 591-word letter detailing every step of my itinerary; and copies of my hotel reservations. And I shipped them all off to Steve and hoped for the best.

Two days later, Steve called with the good news: The Chinese consulate accepted my application. I thanked Steve profusely. Going through this process by myself would have been a nightmare. Allied Passport and Visa were an immense help, and I highly recommend their service.

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Part #2: The Joys of Hilton Gold

In case you missed it…

Part #1: Off to China

After arriving in Beijing, we took a cab to our hotel, the Hilton Beijing Wangfujing. At 40,000 points a night, it was not exactly a steal but I had the points and it turned out to be the best hotel of the trip. While Hilton has dramatically devalued it’s award system, it is one of the best hotel programs for gold status, which I have thanks to my Hilton Reserve credit card. Specifically, we were updated to a gorgeous, large suite-like room, had access to the lounge, and enjoyed free wifi.

First the room. It was amazing. It was very spacious with a massive walk-in closet which was itself the size of some hotel rooms. We had the largest bathtub I have ever seen in my life, and plenty of space for our stuff.

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The lounge on the sixteenth floor was a treat, stocked round the clock with food and drinks, which for me, meant endless diet coke.

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Concierge spoke a passable English and were extremely helpful, especially with booking our train tickets to Shanghai.

Finally, the location was perfect. Beijing is massive, so we had to travel to most sights, but we were located near two subway lines in the center of town, within walking distance of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. There was also a mall just down the block with a supermarket in the basement when we need to restock on snacks and other paraphernalia.

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The super convenient APM mall.

I have been down on the Hilton program since it was massively devalued, but this stay made me appreciate the good parts of Hilton HHonors. Yes, some hotel rooms will cost an exorbitant 80,000 points a night, but you can find cheaper options and Hilton points are relatively easy to earn. There are several Hilton branded credit cards, and there is a Hampton Inn in nearly every podunk town in America. And since I travel to a lot of podunk towns, I end up staying in a lot of Hampton Inns.

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Part #1: Off to China!

Two weeks ago, I set off for my second trip to Asia. My itinerary included four days in Beijing, six days in Shanghai, and five days in Kyoto, Japan.

Itinerary map

Step one: Getting to Beijing. My sister and I booked Saturday night flights (me from DC, she from NYC) that had us meeting in Frankfurt. My first leg was United business, and while comfortable enough, it was one of the worst international business products I’ve tried.

Now, I almost feel bad writing this. Flying in business class is a luxury most people can’t afford, and the only reason I can afford it is with miles. And the truth is, as long as I can lie down and sleep, I’m pretty happy. And by that extremely low bar, United passed with flying colors.

But I’ve flown several different business class products now, and my newfound knowledge demands an honest comparison.

The seats were lie-flat with a two-four-two configuration. Some of the better products – like Cathay Pacific – have a one-two-one configuration. At the very least, most planes have a two-two-two setup. While the seats lay flat when fully extended, they were only 20 inches wide. I was fairly close to my neighbor and did not have a lot of personal space for my stuff. Many of the newer products have pod-like seats that afford greater privacy and space.

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That said, the movies were good, I slept about three hours, and it sure as hell beat economy.

Air China was surprisingly better. For starters, they offered a two-two-two configuration, with wider seats (22 inches of pitch) and a lot more space and privacy. Unfortunately, the English movie selection left something to be desired, but the hard product was a significant improvement over United.

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And, they provided slippers! I love when airlines give me slippers so I don’t have to put my shoes back on every time I go to the bathroom.

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Travel Apps That Saved Me

Before I get into detailed posts about my trip to China and Japan, I must rave about the travel apps that revolutionized my traveling.

I turned off cellular data on my iPad and iPhone so as not to incur a bagillion dollar bill, but downloaded offline maps for Beijing, Shanghai and Kyoto. At the time, I had no idea how useful these maps would be. Unlike paper maps, these apps use GPS to mark my location and direction even when I’m offline. So, for example, if I get out of the subway and have no idea which direction to go in, I simply check the app. As I wandered around the western parks of Kyoto with no English signs, I pulled out my iPad and made my way to my next destination. Gone are the days of walking 15 minutes north only to realize that I meant to walk south!

Some people say getting lost is part of the fun of traveling, but not me. I hate getting lost. I like the puzzle of figuring out a new city and knowing exactly where I’m going. But wandering around with absolutely no sense of where I am frustrates me, and to be honest, scares the shit out of me.

Since Beijing and Shanghai are large cities, I had plenty of free apps to choose from, and ended up using Ulmon maps. There may be better versions out there, but these worked for me.

Shanghai Map2

The app allows me to save personal locations with colored stars. Also, the free version clearly comes with ads.

Kyoto was a bit harder. Many of the options were in Japanese which was, for obvious reasons, completely useless. After an extensive google search, I stumbled upon MapsWithMe, and downloaded their Japan app. So far (I am still in Kyoto), this map is working amazingly and could not recommend it enough.

Kyoto map

Notice the little blue arrow that tells you my location.


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