Category Archives: Miles/Points

Spain, Here We Come!

In less than a month, M and I embark for Spain. This is our first international trip together and M’s first business class experience. We’re both very excited to see all the traditional sights, but I’m also over-the-top excited about the hotels I booked.

Madrid

I booked our Madrid hotel first. I knew I wanted lodging close to the Prado art museum in the center of the city. With its five nights for the price of four policy and central location, SPG was an obvious choice. It came down to choosing between the Westin Palace (category 5) and the The Principle Madrid (category 5). The Westin was 12,000 points a night while the The Principle was 16,000 (despite both being category 5 hotels) and M preferred the Westin’s traditional decor. I booked six nights at the Westin for 60,000 SPG points.

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Granada

Next, I booked our single night in Granada. There is a dearth of points hotels in Granada so it came down to a choice between the Marriott’s AC Palacio De Santa Paula, Autograph Collection and non-points options. For 35,000 points, I splurged on the AC Palacio even though it’s a bit removed from the center of town. I’m even more excited about this decision now that I’ve achieved gold status with Marriott after completing a status challenge this fall. Turns out, there are some benefits to living out of three star hotels in suburban Pennsylvania. With gold status, we’ll get free breakfast and hopefully, a sweet upgrade.

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I’d love to get upgraded to this gorgeous suite.

Barcelona

Barcelona was my biggest dilemma. I was sitting on a nice pile of Hilton points, but the Hilton of my choice – the Alexandra Barcelona DoubleTree cost 50,000 points a night vs. 113 euros. That is not a great points per dollar value. In contrast, there are several good value Hiltons for 30,000 points a night, but they are farther from the center of town. Thus began the great debate of 2016:  Stay father away and save some of my points, fork over $600 for four nights at the DoubleTree, or bite the bullet and hand over 200,000 Hilton points. After much agonizing, I decided on the latter option. I love the idea of staying in the center of Barcelona and decided to save our money for other trip expenses. Plus, as a diamond Hilton member, hopefully we will score a nice upgrade. The DoubleTree boasts a couple of spacious suites that will make my day.

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Seville

Seville has no points hotels in the old quarter where we want to stay. Since we’re not traveling in peak season, there are many afforadable options. My major priority after location was space. While we’re not planning to spend a lot of time in our hotel, I hate walking into European hotel rooms that are essentially a box. Is it too much to ask for some space on either side of my bed? In the end, I settled on an apartment-style lodging that is affiliated with a nearby hotel. Apartamentos Murillo gives us 300+ square feet for two nights, and it’s a short stroll to the Royal Alcazar.
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Cordoba

Cordoba was the least stressful decision. We will only be there for one night, and there are only a handful of decent options in our price range within the city walls. For $70, I booked Eurostars Conquistador, a four star hotel next door to Mezquita.

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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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Arches, Here We Come!

It’s been a very busy month, and I am a negligent and very out-of-shape blogger as a result. But that’s going to change soon (I hope). This Tuesday, I head to Utah to hike Arches and Canyonlands National Parks with my sister.

We planned this trip months ago – back in 2015 – and it turned out to be a very good thing. Nearly every hotel in Moab, Utah is sold out. Apparently, we are not the only ones who thought hiking Southern Utah over Memorial Day Weekend was a good idea.

Here’s how we planned our trip.

We are flying into Grand Junction Colorado Tuesday night, the closest airport to Moab, Utah, the hub of activity and lodging just outside Arches National Park. We found a cheap Courtyard Marriott near the airport for $125. We are renting a car from the airport and will drive the stunning one-and-a-half hour drive to Moab Wednesday morning. We are staying in Moab for four nights, our base to explore Arches and Canyonlands through Sunday evening. In Moab, we chose the Fairfield Inn and Suites because it is the closest hotel to the park and one of the nicer options. Even back in December 2015, the rooms at the Fairfield were going for $250 a night so I signed up for the Marriott Chase credit card and used 50,000 points to pay for my half of the nights (25,000 points a night). Sunday night, we will drive back to Grand Junction, where we will sleep in the same Courtyard Marriott before our crack-of-dawn flights Monday morning.

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Next Trip: Arches Here I Come

It’s been a couple of crazy weeks in the day job. For a while there, my next trip hung in the balance, a casualty of the political calendar and court decisions. I kid you not. On the bright side, everything has ironed itself out, and my Memorial weekend plans are still a go.

My sister wanted to go to Iceland, but the stress of an international trip was overwhelming. So we settled on Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in southeast Utah. I have already been to Zion National Park in southwest Utah, but have always wanted to see the magnificent arches in the east. I also liked the idea of planning a trip around exercise, instead of coming back from vacation feeling like the Pillsbury Doughboy.

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Arches National Park

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Canyonlands National Park

Can you say AMAZING???

Grand Junction, Colorado is the closest airport to Arches National Park, but it can be quite pricey to fly in and out of. And those prices jump up around a holiday weekend. No surprise there. I managed to find a flight from Reagan National Airport to Grand Junction on United for only 12,500 points. This was a steal considering flights were three-hundred dollars-plus for one way.

On the way back, I decided to cash in my Citi Thank You Points which can be redeemed on American Airlines at 1.6 cents a piece. I found a $415 flight that cost me only 25,975 Citi points. Not only will I earn miles on this flight, I’ll collect four segments on my path to Gold status on American.

We plan on doing a bunch of hiking in Arches and Canyonlands, including the ranger-led Fiery Furnace hike. Fiery Furnace is a three-hour rock scramble through beautiful terrain in Arches National Park.  The ranger-led hikes through the unguided labyrinth is limited a small group of people per day. We booked our tickets months in advance, and our tour date is already sold out with three months to go!

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Some of the stunning rock formations we’ll get to see on the Fiery Furnace hike

There are no lodging options within Arches National Park. All lodging is located in the anchoring city of Moab. The choices are not overly exciting – a range of low-end, overpriced hotels. My sister and I both applied for the Marriott Chase credit card, now offering 80,000 points per card. We’ll use these points to book four nights at the Residence Inn in Moab.

It’s still three months away, but I’m so excited to go hiking out west again. As much as I love traveling to far-flung locations, a low-key, outdoor trip is exactly what I need after an intense political season.

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My excited dance, special for all the Pretty Little Liar fans out there

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The Crazy Things We Do For Points

As you know, points make it possible for me to travel the world. I’m also one of those weird people who love the points game (aka “the obsession”) – the organizing, the tracking, the credit cards, the absurd opportunities that allow people like me to rake in thousands of points.

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There aren’t as many opportunities to do that as there used to be, but IHG (the umbrella company for Intercontinental, Crowne Plaza, and Holiday Inn) offered the points obsessed an opportunity this winter. Many other blogs have reported on the details (here, here, and here), so I’ll spare you the technical requirements.

Here’s the short story: IHG’s Priceless Surprises promotion allows participants to earn points without hotel stays. All you have to do is fill out a 3×5 piece of paper with your name, address, phone number, and other required information – all handwritten. You are allowed 94 entries, and each entry must be in a separate envelope. Prizes range from 500 IHG points to free nights to much bigger (and less likely) prizes.

Bloggers figured out that participants are statistically very likely to win something with every entry. The costs of stamps alone will cost $46.06, but even if you only win 500 points per entry, that will be enough for one night at a  five star hotel in Europe.

I started small earlier this month with 16 entries. Warning: My arm hurt like hell. And I grew despondent when I heard nothing in return. Then, this week I received 16 emails inviting me to play the Priceless Surprises game online – an easy process of picking one out of six floors on a make-believe elevator. My 16 entries earned a total of 13,500 IHG points. This pretty much made my night – not exaggerating.

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I quickly filled out another 62 entries, and have another 16 to go. My right arm for a free night? Sign me up!

 

 

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Vietnam #14: Sheraton Hanoi Hotel

Vietnam #1: It’s a Long Ass Flight to Vietnam
Vietnam #2: The Best Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam #3: A Lesson in History and Propaganda
Vietnam #4: The Streets of HCMC
Vietnam #5: Is the Mekong Delta Worth It?
Vietnam #6: My First Overseas Doctor Visit
Vietnam #7: Welcome to Central Vietnam
Vietnam #8: Two-Wheeling in Vietnam
Vietnam #9: Don’t Skip Hoi An
Vietnam #10: A Hot Day in Hue
Vietnam #11: Exploring Hanoi
Vietnam #12: Hanoi Hilton
Vietnam #13: The Best View in Hanoi

We opted to stay at the Sheraton Hanoi Hotel, located on the edge of West Lake, Hanoi’s largest lake. The Sheraton cost a mere 3,000 – 3,500 points a night. The northern location is a 45 minute walk or 15 minute drive from the Old Quarter, but the Sheraton offers a complimentary shuttle into town (but not back to the hotel), and taxis are so cheap that it wasn’t an issue.

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The decor in rather dated, and I was surprised to find out the hotel was only 10 years old.

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The best part of the hotel though is the Sheraton club room. Although I have no SPG status, the SPG business credit card gives me access to all Sheraton club rooms. It may seem like a silly thing to get excited about, but after nearly two weeks of traveling, it was a pleasure to have constant access to water, diet coke, and fresh fruit, not to mention other snacks. Of course, the views didn’t hurt either.

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12 Nights of Vietnam Hotels for $92.50

I hope you’re not tired of listening to me gush about the  power of miles and points. WARNING: There is more gushing to come. We leave for Vietnam in one week (!!!!!), and we’ve been busy planning.

The short story is we booked 12 nights at pretty nice hotels for $92.50 a person. Here’s the breakdown:

Ho Chi Minh City: Five nights at Intercontinental Asiana Residences for 95,000 IHG points, one free night, and $40.

Da Nang: Three nights at the Hyatt Regency for 18,000 Hyatt points, one free night, and $75.

Hue: One night at the Eldora Hotel for $70.

Hanoi: Three nights at the Sheraton Hanoi for 10,000 SPG points.

The long story is, well, much longer.

As soon as Lisa and I booked our flights to Vietnam, I made a map and chart of all the possible hotel options. I did an audit of my hotel points and asked Lisa to do the same. I had spent many of my points in Scotland, so I need to figure out which points I needed to restock.

We started with Lisa. I had convinced her to get the IHG credit card for a bonus of 70,000 points. A couple of months later, Lisa was sitting on 75,000 IHG points. That was enough for three nights at the Intercontinental Asiana Saigon Residences in Ho Chi Minh City at 25,000 points a night. Ho Chi Minh has a number of nice hotels – from Hyatt, to SPG, to IHG, to Marriott – but the Asiana Residences offered apartment sized rooms with an actual living room and kitchen. That was a no-brainer. I just had to cobble together points for two additional nights. Luckily, the anniversary on my own IHG credit card reset on October 1, granting me another free annual night. Four nights down, one to go. Thanks to IHG’s 10 percent rebate on redemptions and my Chase points, I managed to accrue 20,000 points. That plus $40 gave us our fifth night.

Next up is the coastal city of Da Nang. This was a simple process of elimination. Da Nang has two points hotels: The swanky Intercontinental and the Hyatt Regency. We were fresh out of IHG points so I needed to cobble together three nights’ worth of Hyatt points. My Hyatt credit card give me a free annual night at a category 1 – 4 hotel. That’s one night. I transferred 12,000 Chase ultimate reward points and booked our second night. For our third night, I used 6,000 Hyatt points and $75. Three nights – done.

Our next stay is in the ancient city of Hue. There are no points hotels, but plenty of great, affordable options. You can book a motel for as low as $15, but we splurged on the four-star Eldora Hotel for $70.

Our last hotel stay is in Hanoi. We decided to stay in the ultra-bargain Sheraton (where my SPG credit card will get us access to the lounge!) for 3,000 – 3,500 points a night.

And that’s how we booked 12 nights of hotels for $185. Split between two people, that’s only $92.50 a person!

 

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Scotland #18: Where to Stay in Scotland

Scotland #1: Welcome to Edinburgh!
Scotland #2: The View from Arthur’s Seat
Scotland #3: The View from Scott Monument
Scotland #4: Going Forth to Forth
Scotland #5: The Beauty of Fife
Scotland #6: Whisky Fail
Scotland #7: Defeat at Culloden
Scotland #8: Cawdor’s Not-So-Secret Garden
Scotland #9: The Loch Ness Loop
Scotland #10: The Road to Skye
Scotland #11: Old Man of Storr
Scotland #12: Pieces of Skye
Scotland #13: Rubha Hunish AKA The Hike from Hell
Scotland #14: Losing my Phone in Scotland and Other Adventures
Scotland #15: The Road to Glasgow
Scotland #16: Welcome to Glasgow!
Scotland #17: Street Art Scavenger Hunt in Glasgow

The goal of picking hotels for our Scotland trip was to spend as little money as possible while maintaining a basic standard of quality. I wasn’t expecting anything grand – I just wanted to stretch my points as far as they would go.

This is not the most interesting post, but in case anyone is planning a trip to Scotland and wants to see some options, I’m happy to be of service.

Edinburgh: Radisson Blu Hotel Edinburgh

I booked this hotel back when Club Carlson offered an insane deal to anyone who held the Club Carlson credit card: Last night free when you book a hotel with points. Our three nights in Edinburgh, in the heart of Old Town, was only 80,000 points (40,000 points per night).

Dundee: Double Tree by Hilton Dundee

For a mere, 20,000 points, we got a free stay at the Double Tree en route to the Highlands. The room was nice, but on the small side.

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Inverness: Holiday Inn Express Inverness

There was only one points option here: The Holiday Inn, and probably not the best points value, but better than paying $200 a night. We stayed three nights here. Nothing to write home about, but it got the job done.

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Isle of Skye: The Bosville Hotel

This was the nicest hotel we stayed in, and the only one we paid for. There are no points options on the Isle of Skye, and the hotels can get pricey here. We chose a mid-level boutique hotel at about $250 a night, and it was quite lovely with a very large space and complimentary breakfast.

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Glasgow: Radisson Blu Hotel Glasgow

We barely spent any time in the hotel. We just wanted a place centrally located, so I unloaded another 40,000 Club Carlson points and booked a room at the Radisson Blu Glasgow.

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Holy Egg Shells Batman, I’m Going to Vietnam

I have two very exciting pieces of news.

1) I booked a winter trip to Vietnam with my amazing friend Lisa!

2) I finally liquadated my Delta miles – my least favorite miles that were bound to lose value the longer I held onto them.

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Okay, let me back up. Lisa has been dying to take a trip to Asia, and I have finally shaken the miserable memories of my incapacitating jet lag from my last Asia trip. So we debated between a handful of Asian countries I haven’t yet been to – India, Vietnam, Indonesia – and settled on Vietnam. The fact that Delta had business class tickets available for only 70,000 miles each way – well, that was just the pickle on the awesome sandwich that is my life.

Many travel bloggers have written extensively about Delta’s disappointing awards program. Only last week, Delta further devalued their program. I’ve been sitting on over 140,000 Delta miles for a couple of years, a result of actual butt-in-seat miles and stupid credit card signs-up when I first started playing this crazy game. (Remember when I thought a 30,000 sign-up bonus from Delta was a steal? Hahahaha.) But even the worst programs have a sweet spot, and I found Delta’s. Both Korean Air and Vietnam Airlines are Skymiles partners, and I managed to find business class seats in both directions for 70,000 miles a piece and a total of $105.30.

Check out the map of our flight itinerary below (though I haven’t booked the intra-Vietnam flights yet):

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Part #10: Highlights and Lowlights

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
Part #9: First Class Baby!

My second trip to Asia was many things: Amazing, exhausting, eye-opening, cold, beautiful, empowering, and scary. Here are some of my favorite and not-so favorite experiences.

Highlights:

1) Traveling with my sister: This was my sister’s first trip to Asia, and it was exciting to see the excitement of travel through her eyes. She is now off to the Canadian Rockies this summer with my youngest sister, and I’m so excited for them.

2) Kyoto: Japan was a complete surprise. I didn’t have many expectations for Kyoto, and it turned out to be a beautiful, charming, and friendly city. I easily filled four days there.

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3) The Great Wall of China: The Great Wall of China stands out as a top tourist attraction for a reason. It is truly stunning. I highly encourage you to to take a guided tour to a less touristy part of the wall so you can enjoy the splendor without thousands of other tourists.

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4) First-class: Traveling in first class – what is there not to like?

5) The Shanghai skyline: Despite the cold and the numbing sensation in my fingers, the Shanghai skyline was enchanting. The Shanghai Tower – now the second tallest building in the world – was the icing on the cake.

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6) The Shanghai Ghetto: We visited the old Jewish ghetto where my maternal grandparents lived for several years during World War Two. For years, I had listened to my mom tell the story of how her parents escaped the Holocaust. It was extremely meaningful and fascinating to visit the place they called home for five years.

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7) Traveling solo: Yes, traveling by myself for the last couple of days of my trip was slightly terrifying, but it was also empowering. I came home knowing not only that I am capable of traveling solo, but that I am capable of enjoying it.

Lowlights:

1) Jet lag: The jet lag on the way to Asia was no picnic, but the jet lag I endured after I came home was brutal and incapacitating. It was enough to make me swear off of Asia for a year.

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2) Traveling solo: Like I said, the anticipation of traveling by myself in a foreign country was terrifying. All my bravado and wanderlust aside, I’m not very good at being alone. Being alone in a foreign country kicked my normal anxiety into overtime.

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3) Navigating in China: The lack of English and general expanse of China’s mega cities made the simple act of navigating challenging – although not impossible.

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4) The Beijing smog: We were lucky to have a day of clear blue skies in Beijing, but found out just how bad Beijing’s famous smog truly is. There is nothing like a grey curtain hanging overhead to ruin a good picture.

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5) The cold: We knew it would be cold in China so this wasn’t exactly a surprise, but it was still a nuisance.

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