Category Archives: Airplanes

Review: I Flew Wow Airlines and Survived

There is only one direct flight from Reykjavik to Dublin, and it’s on Wow Airlines.

I expected the worst. I scoured the internet for reviews and advice about packing. My bags were on the heavy side, since I was traveling with quite a bit of camera equipment. I had nightmares of having to unpack my suitcase in the airport and wear five sweaters onto the plane.

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None of that happened. It was actually a relatively painless experience – except for the fact that our flight was at 6:30 a.m. in the morning.

I purchased one checked luggage ($40) and and two carry-on luggage pieces ($20/each) in advance. This is essential if you are carrying anything more than a normal size backpack. I also purchased extra leg room for us since the flight was three hours and we were exhausted. At $20 a pop, that was totally worth it.

When we got to KEF in Iceland, we weighed our checked luggage ourself, printed out the tags, and brought it to an agent to check. The computer didn’t like the shape of our suitcase, so we brought it to the odd-sized luggage counter, and the agent there checked it without a problem.

Then, we headed to our gate. The doors to the gate area didn’t open for a while, so there is a lot of waiting around on the floor, or you can go downstairs and wait on couches. Once the doors opened, the line was long, but it moved quickly. There was no weighing or measuring of carry on luggage. In not more than 15 minutes, we were seated in our extra leg room seats.

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The flight itself was totally fine. We were so tired, we both dozed off and woke up to views of Dublin.

 

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Spain, Here We Come

Finally.

I finally have a big trip booked and placed on the calendar. With the crazy election cycle this year, I haven’t taken a big trip since Vietnam in November. There was a short jaunt to southern Utah over Memorial Day weekend, and a few weekend trips planned to various U.S. cities revolving around work. But you know that adrenalin pumping, saliva watering sensation when you book the flights for a big trip? I finally have that feeling.

I asked M where he’d like to go and he picked Spain. Being the art aficionado that he is, that makes perfect sense. He’s dying to spend hours (if not days) in the Prado in Madrid. We are both fascinated by religious history and can’t wait to hit up Toledo, Cordoba, Seville, and Granada. And I can’t wait to see the crazy modern Gaudi houses in Barcelona.

We will start in Barcelona, make an oddly shaped U down to Andalucia, and end in Madrid. The map below shows our basic itinerary with potential side trips included.

I booked an amazing business class flight from Washington, D.C. to Barcelona on American Airlines. It costs 115,000 miles (57,500 per person) and a mere 11 dollars. Even better, we fly out of DCA – only 10 minutes from my apartment. There are no direct flights to Spain from DC (who knew?), so we have a short stopover in JFK.

M has never flown in business class so I am over the moon about sharing this experience with him. That American has an amazing business class product will make this trip that much sweeter.

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Our flight home is less than ideal, but we were dealing with mileage constraints and limited award inventory since it’s Christmas week. I booked two economy seats on Lufthansa for 60,000 United miles and $142 via Frankfurt. Not the best flight, but pennies compared to what a ticket would cost.

And now comes the fun part – the planning. The hotels, the trains, the sights, the little off-the-beaten track stores and markets – I love the process of putting a trip together.

There are so many things we want to see and so many parts of Spain we had to leave off the list. We are not so young that we can hop from city to city every day, and we both like to travel at a more leisurely pace – getting to know the nooks and crannies of cities apart from the major tourist attractions. And so I crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and a ferry to Morocco off of our list, and M begrudgingly acknowledged that we probably won’t make it to Aragon. We will just have to come back a second time!

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Part #9: First Class Baby!

Part #1: How I Quietly Fell in Love with Japan
Part #2: Getting Around Kyoto
Part #3: Bamboos Galore!
Part #4: The One in Which I Did Not Get Attacked By a Monkey
Part #5: In Search of a Geisha
Part #6: The Not-So Silver Silver Pavilion
Part #7: Orange I Glad I Made it to Inari?
Part #8: The Very Gold Golden Pavilion 

After two and half weeks in Asia, it was time for me to return home. I had a great time, but I was looking forward to my apartment, my bed, my television, etc. I was also looking forward to flying first class – YES, FIRST CLASS.

First class on United was only an extra 10,000 miles over business class – 80,000 miles and $61.40 – which was a no-brainer to me. For years, I’ve drooled over reviews of over-the-top first class products on Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa, etc. United’s first class does not live up to that standard – not terribly surprising given United’s mediocre business class product. It was more like an extremely luxurious business class seat, but it was still lovely.

First up, I visited the lounge in Osaka’s airport.

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I had a short stopover in Beijing and sprinted to the first class lounge to take some pictures and stock up on diet cokes. The lounge was spacious and lovely. I wish I had a little more time to revel in the luxury.

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Finally, first class, or, FIRST CLASS!

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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 #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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How Much Does It Cost to See China and Japan in Style?

I have finally booked all the pieces of my trip to Asia this fall. I will start off in China with my sister where we will see Beijing and Shanghai. After my sister flies home, I will spend a couple of days in Kyoto, Japan by myself. Here is the route.

Flight Map

Weirdly, the most expensive part of this trip has been my visa application to enter China. I could have applied for the visa myself, but I have limited time and even more limited patience, so I mailed everything to Allied Visa & Passport which was recommended by The Points Guy.

Here is the breakdown of all the costs:

  • Flight: Washington D.C. – Beijing (business class): 75,000 Aeroplan miles + $65.70 in fees.
  • Hotel: Four nights at the Hilton Beijing Wangfujing: 184,560 Hilton points + $99.91. I booked three nights with points and one night with cash plus points.
  • Hotel: Five nights at the Raddison Blu Shanghai New World: 88,000 Club Carlson points + $163.87. (I booked four nights using points and paid in full for one night, which I will split with my sister.)
  • Flight: Shanghai – Osaka, Japan (economy): 7,500 British Airways miles + $91.82 in fees
  • Hotel: One night at Indigo on the Bund: Free. I used my annual IHG free hotel certificate.
  • Hotel: Five nights at the Westin Kyoto: 40,000 SPG points
  • Flight: Osaka – Washington D.C. (business/first class): 80,000 United miles + $61.40 in fees. I will be flying business class to Beijing and then first class to Washington D.C. First class was only an additional 5,000 miles, so I said, why the hell not?
  • Chinese visa application: $140
  • Visa Service: $40 (normally it costs $45 but I should get a $5 discount for referencing The Points Guy) + $41 in FedEx fees.

Total out of pocket costs: $571.82 after my sister and I split the two hotel rooms I had to pay for. Not too bad. Not too bad at all.

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Part 1: Getting To The Sacred Valley is Not Easy

[Note: We are still in Peru and we are having an amazing time. Although few people speak English, we are getting by and it is beautiful. But more about all that later.]

Getting to Lima, Peru is not a big deal. If you live in any major city you can probably find a non-stop flight to Lima, or a flight with a short stopover (as was the case for me).

Getting to the Sacred Valley requires a lot more effort.

First, the flight to Panama City was pleasant and comfortable. I flew Copa Airlines which uses the Lufthansa lounge in Dulles Airport – the same Lufthansa lounge I used on my trip to Paris in 2012. The seats were comfortable, the food and drinks were plentiful, and the wifi worked. No complaints here.

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The business class seats were more like domestic business class seats – wider seats, deeper recline – but no lie-flat seats. My flight took off at 4:30 p.m. so going to sleep wasn’t much of an option anyways. I downloaded a couple of books on my iPad and enjoyed the luxury of being able to sit comfortably and actually move my feet.

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Apologies for the crappy iPhone picture.

I was a little nervous about my 47 minute connection in Panama, but the flight landed on time, and as I disembarked, the gate for my connecting flight to Lima was literally next door. My entire visit to the Panama airport consisted of me getting off one plane, walking a couple of feet to buy an obscenely expensive bottle of water, and then getting on another.

When we landed in Lima at one in the morning, that’s when the real fun started. I went through immigration and got my luggage easy enough, but I had a 7:30 a.m. flight to Cusco, and all I wanted to do was recheck my luggage, find the lounge, and go to sleep.

The check-in area was a mess. I speak exactly four Spanish words/phrases (hello, thank you, what’s your name, and bathroom). I finally found someone who spoke enough English for me to understand that Avianca check-in was closed and would open in half-an-hour. So I got on line. As I waited, I noticed weary travelers sleeping pretty much everywhere and in every contorted position possible. I prayed the lounge would be more comfortable.

As soon as the line started moving I made a beeline for an Avianca employee and said “business class.” She took me to the front of the line, and I silently thanked my miles for allowing me this luxury.

Finally, after checking in and going through security, I found the domestic lounge. I did my research in advance and discovered that the Lima airport has a Priority Pass lounge in the domestic area, so I called up Chase and asked for my free Priority Pass card – just one of the perks of having the Chase Ink Bold credit card. I’m allowed two free Priority Pass visits (all subsequent visits are $29), so I planned to use one on the way to Cusco, and one on the way home from Lima.

But when I get to the domestic lounge, my heart sunk. It was tiny – the size of a crappy New York City studio, or maybe even smaller. To make matters worse, there were three televisions and they were all playing Spanish soap operas – at two in the morning!

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Spanish soaps!

I did the only thing I could. I moved two chairs together, set my alarm, plugged in my earphones and nodded off to sleep. Lo and behold, when I woke up at 6 a.m., the Spanish soaps were still on!

The Avianca flight to Cusco was similarly pleasant. Business class looked very much the same, and I had the row to myself. The short one-hour flight is filled with stunning mountainous views, and I managed to take a few pictures despite my sleep-deprived state.

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The Cusco airport is pretty much a big room with conveyer belts for baggage and a bunch of tourists companies, taxis, and hotels hawking their services in Spanish. [Not to Peruvians: I am pasty white. There is an excellent chance that you can tell I don’t speak Spanish just by looking at me. If you want to increase your chances of me listening to your pitches, make them in English.]

When my friend arrived an hour later, we went through our usual routine of complaining about how exhausted we were and then went outside to find our driver. I had arranged for a driver and made a $20 deposit via pay pal with KB Tours, a very respectable tour company according to trip advisor.

He wasn’t there, so we waited. And waited. And waited. We tried to call, but the phone number listed in our Lonely Planet book didn’t work, and there is no phone number on the website. Half-nervous and half-pissed, we went back inside and asked the representative for our Urubamba hotel for some advice choosing a taxi. We had read enough accounts of people getting kidnapped by rogue taxi drivers – which is why we had arranged for a driver in the first place. [Note: KB Tours refunded our deposited very quickly after we emailed them.]

He was incredibly helpful and informed us that the woman in the yellow vest will put us in an official taxi. She pointed out to us the taxi’s official ID number and I took pictures of his ID number and license plate just to be safe (paranoid much?).  The one-hour drive was pleasant and the views were beautiful.

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Not a bad photo for shooting out the window of a taxi as it winds its way down a mountain.

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Ditto.

Needless to say, we were not kidnapped, and one hour later, we arrived at our amazing hotel exhausted, but otherwise in one piece. Our adventure had begun.

 

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2013 Travel Reflections

With 2013 coming to a close, it’s that time of year again… to look back and reflect on my travels for the year. And without further ado…

  • 5: Number of free Amtrak trips I received
  • 5: New countries visited (South Korea, Cambodia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Macau – one more than last year). I count Hong Kong and Macau separate from China because they are fairly independent provinces from China.
  • 6: New states visited: Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado (four more than last year)
  • 6: Credit card applications (same as last year)
  • 19: Number of states visited (counting DC)
  • 10: Countries visited (counting the U.S.)
  • 12,000: Number of Amtrak points redeemed
  • 15,469: Number of Amtrak points earned (only 19 points more than I earned last year)
  • 41: Number of Amtrak trips I have taken (four less than I took last year)
  • 45: Number of flights
  • 57,566: Number of miles flown (37,718 miles more than last year)
  • 445,500: The number of miles/points I’ve redeemed this year: Two business class seats to Siem Reap, Cambodia; two economy seats from Bangkok to Thailand; two business class seats from Hong Kong to New York, three hotel nights in Siem Reap an five hotel nights in Hong Kong. This is actually less than last year.
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IS THERE SUCH A THING AS TOO MUCH TRAVEL?

I used to think no. But now I’m thinking yes. Yes, there is such a thing as too much travel and I have experienced it. Some of the trips were part of a long-planned vacation and some were for work, but put together, it was just a little too much. After a month of constant and cross-globe travel, I am so glad to be home.  

Travel Map - One Month

 My itinerary from November 21st – December 9th:

  • Washington, DC – Austin: A work trip with a stopover in Houston
  • Austin – Dallas: Road trip to check out the Bush presidential library which I did not see thanks to SNOW in Texas. Yes, snow.
  • Dallas – New York City: Flight to NYC for our Asia trip
  • New York City – San Francisco: First stopover of our Asia trip
  • San Francisco – Seoul: Second stopover of our Asia trip
  • Seoul – Siem Reap, Cambodia: We arrive at our first city of our Asia trip
  • Siem Reap – Bangkok: Our second city of our Asia trip
  • Bangkok – Hong Kong: Our third city of our Asia trip
  • Hong Kong – New York City: Our flight home from Asia with a stopover in Vancouver
  • New York City – DC: A train ride home for some meetings
  • DC – New York City: A train ride back to New York to see The Boyfriend and a work party
  • New York City – Pittsburgh: A work trip to Pittsburgh with a stopover in Philadelphia
  • Pittsburgh – DC: Home
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Part 2: Only 18 Hours to Go (AKA SFO – REP)

Part 1: When you wake up at 3 am for a 6 am flight…

We had a three hour layover in San Francisco and I was excited to see the Asiana lounge. I’m sorry to say I was a little disappointed. The lounge was very small with an outdated decor. There were few comfortable seats in the business class room so I slipped into the first class lounge and no one batted an eye.

On the plus side, the first class lounge had a couch (remember, I was going on four hours of sleep), had decent wireless and an endless supply of free diet cokes.

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Business class lounge

Asiana’s business class product more than made up for the lackluster lounge: Comfortable lie-flat seats laid out to maximize space and privacy. There was plenty of space, movie options, and of course diet coke on demand.

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Asiana even gives you comfy slippers!

Due to our short layover in Seoul, I only had five minutes to check out the Asiana lounge at ICN airport, grab a free drink and snap a photo. My cursory impression was very favorable. Too bad I didn’t get to enjoy more than five minutes.

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Finally, the last leg of our flight: From Seoul to Siem Reap. At this point, I was thoroughly exhausted and could barely keep track of what day it was. Asiana’s business class from ICN – REP is more comparable to domestic first class in the United States — not the lie-flat seats that we had on the SFO-ICN leg. Even without lie-flat seats, I was so tired, I managed to sleep for a majority of the flight.

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And finally, at 11:00 p.m. local Siem Reap time, we arrived in Cambodia. As we disembarked, the first thing we noticed was how steamy and tropical the weather felt. We were clearly a long way from New York’s freezing temperatures. The Le Meridian offered free air port pick-up and I was awfully glad I had made arrangements to take advantage of it before the trip. Our driver was waiting for us outside, and the long journey to Asia was finally over.

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