Category Archives: Miles/Points

Berlin Part 1: Getting There

We flew United business class from Washington D.C. to Dublin, and then economy Aer Lingus from Dublin to Berlin. There are no direct flights from D.C. to Berlin, and while there are better business class options – flying United cost 57,500 miles versus the pricier 70,000 mils required for United partners.

First, the United lounge in Dulles airport. Dulles is not slated to get a new Polaris lounge until 2018 or 2019. The current version is not the best lounge, but also not the worst. Comfortable, free wifi, plentiful snacks… it’s hard to complain.

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United’s Boeing 757-200 doesn’t have the fancy new Polaris hard product that some planes do, but at least we didn’t get stuck with United’s terrible 2-4-2 business class configuration. With a 2-2  configuration, the seats were perfect for traveling couples like us, with lie-flat seats and plenty of space to get comfy.

The service was friendly and accommodating. The new Saks Fifth Avenue blankets and pillows worked great (though I’m not exactly picky), and we managed to sleep for a couple of hours.

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Once in Dublin, we settled into the Dublin Airport Executive Lounge thanks to our Priority Pass card. I was exhausted so I curled up into a ball and fell asleep. But first, I took some pictures.

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Holland Part 7: Hotel Reviews in Amsterdam

Holland Part 1: Falling for Amsterdam
Holland Part 2: Jewish History in Amsterdam
Holland Part 3: Snapshots from The Hague
Holland Part 4: Meet Mondrian
Holland Part 5: Welcome to Leiden
Holland Part 6: Thanksgiving in Leiden

Since this was a last minute trip, I had to cobble together points for the Amsterdam portion of our stay. It turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself. The first couple of nights, we stayed at the Renaissance Amsterdam Hotel (Marriott) for 40,000 points a night. A stone’s throw from the central train station, I loved the location. The rooms were not huge, but not closets either. As a Marriott gold, I often find the “upgrades” are not really upgrades. But gold gave us free breakfast, which more than makes up for the standard room.

2017-05-30 18.05.362017-05-30 18.05.372017-05-30 18.05.392017-05-30 17.48.002017-05-30 17.48.042017-05-30 17.36.522017-05-30 17.36.58Our last night in Amsterdam, we tried out the new Hyatt Regency on the other side of town. Only a couple of weeks old, I thought the hotel was lovely, but I definitely preferred the location of the Marriott. The hotel is situated right on the Singelgracht canal, and our room had a view of the water. Two other positives about the Hyatt: 1) It’s a block away from the Weesperplain subway stop; 2) As a category 4 hotel, it qualifies for the anniversary free night for holders of the Hyatt credit card – a rare thing for western Europe!

2017-06-03 12.50.212017-06-03 12.50.442017-06-03 12.51.162017-06-03 12.51.522017-06-03 12.59.412017-06-03 13.38.452017-06-03 12.58.562017-06-03 12.58.582017-06-03 12.59.03The view from our room:

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Both are great hotels, but my Marriott status and my location preference made the Renaissance the clear winner. See the below map with the Marriott in Red and the Hyatt in purple. The blue pins represent classic Amsterdam sights.

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What’s Next: Central Europe

The traveling circus is off to Europe again in two weeks, making this our third trip to Europe this year. Not that I’m complaining.

This trip began like a lot of our trips: me playing around on the computer, randomly looking up flights, and saying “Hey babe, you want to go to Berlin?”

Basically, there was a ton of United award availability to central Europe and we had replenished our points accounts since Amsterdam. So Berlin, Prague, and Vienna – here we come.

How did we do it?

Flights: I splurged on business class tickets to Berlin in the hopes that we will arrive well-rested and can hit the ground running (fingers crossed). We will fly United Polaris (sadly not the fancy new United hard product) to Berlin with a stopover in Dublin. There are no direct flights from D.C. to Berlin, and flying United requires less miles than United partners like, say, Austrian Air. Total IAD – TXL for two people: 115,000 United miles and $16.80.

On the way back, we’ll be flying economy from Vienna to D.C. for 30,000 United miles each. Business class would have been nice, but at 70,000 miles per person it was too much. At least, the flight is non-stop. Total VIE – IAD for two people: 60,000 United miles and $178.32.

Hotel – Berlin: Picking hotel rooms is my favorite part of traveling. I know, some people like the sightseeing, the food…whatever. I love the hotel analysis. It takes all kinds, right? Since I have diamond status at Hilton, my heart always gravitates there, and I had racked up a ton of points thanks to work travel. Berlin was easy. The Hilton Berlin is smack in the middle of the city, with easy access to major sites. I booked five nights, taking advantage of Hilton’s five for the price of four deal. Total Hilton Berlin for five nights: 161,000 Hilton points.

UPDATE: I occasionally check on my already-booked hotels to see if prices have gone down. Lucky me, the Hilton Berlin was going for 139,000 points for the same five nights. I chatted Hilton and they immediately redeposited 22,000 points into my account!

Hilton Map

The Hilton Berlin is the red icon, just a few blocks south of Berlin’s main drag, Unter den Linden.

Hotel – Prague: I had a free IHG night I needed to use before it expired in November so it made the Intercontinental Prague an easy pick. It’s not the best value for my free night, but it’s better than not using it all. In the end, because prices were relatively cheap, I paid for two nights with cash, one night with points, and one night with a free night award. Total Intercontinental Prague for four nights: 40,000 IHG points and $302.56.

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The Intercontinental Prague in the city’s old town. Super excited about the location and the proximity to the Jewish sites.

Hotel Vienna: This was a tough one. Vienna hotel pries are more western Europe than eastern Europe, and we were fresh out of Hilton points. It came down to Starwood vs. Marriott. Starwood offered a slightly better location, but my gold status with Marriott gives us more bang for our buck. So I transferred a bunch of SPG points to Marriott at a 1:3 ratio and booked the Vienna Marriott, where we got five nights for the price of four. Total Vienna Marriott for five nights: 160,000 Marriott points.

Marriott Map

Most of the key attractions in Vienna are located inside or around the ring. The Marriott is directly on the ring road. Looking forward to the lounge here.

Trains: We booked two trains from Berlin to Prague and from Prague to Vienna. Thanks to Seat 61 (the best website for anyone attempting train travel), I was able to find cheap prices on the Czech Republic train site. Total Berlin – Prague for two people: $65.63. Total Prague – Vienna for two people: $53.72.

So that’s how you do two weeks in central Europe on the cheap without slumming it.

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Ireland Part 7: Where We Stayed

Points will get you only so far in Ireland if you leave the major cities, so I tried to maximize our points staying options where I could.

With Mark and I being Hilton Diamond members, we chose The Morrison (DoubleTree) on the banks of the River Liffey for our single night in Dublin. When we checked in, I asked for my upgrade, and we were given a satisfactory room. Usually, I try to push for a luxurious suite, but with one short night in Dublin, I decided to save my pushiness for another time.

2017-05-17 20.44.442017-05-17 20.44.512017-05-17 20.45.292017-05-17 20.46.072017-05-17 20.48.53But then, Mark checked in to his room at 11 p.m., and they gave him the biggest ass suite I have ever seen in my life. I was more than a little jealous.

2017-05-18 10.53.38You walk into the suite, and there is a nice-size dining room and window seat.

2017-05-18 10.53.56Then, because that’s not enough, there’s a separate living room area with plenty of seating room.

2017-05-18 10.54.002017-05-18 10.57.16Oh, and there’s a wrap-around porch that offers views of the river.

2017-05-18 10.54.19The bedroom is a separate room with another window seat.

2017-05-18 10.55.39The headboard is some kind of funky, multi-colored… something. There is actually a remote control to change the colors.

2017-05-18 10.56.19And the bathroom was bigger than our entire room.

2017-05-18 10.55.48At least, breakfast offered a nice spread, somewhat lessening the sting of Mark’s hotel room jackpot.

2017-05-18 10.09.17All in all, the DoubleTree was nice hotel in a good location with an impressive breakfast. For 50,000 points, we saved ourselves a couple hundred of dollars.

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Ireland Part 6: Some Mountains Are Too Big

When Mark told me he wanted to hike Croagh Patrick, the holiest mountain in Ireland said to be climbed by Saint Patrick himself, I said “You know it’s that’s a 2,500-foot hike, right?”

And then I said: “When was the last time you went on a hike?”

Mark brushed off my concerns, that is, until we drove up to the base of the famous pilgrimage site and his eyes traveled northwards.

Needless to say, we did not end up hiking Croagh Patrick, much to M’s dismay. Instead, we spent our last day in Ireland driving leisurely back to the Dublin airport, stopping to to sightsee along the way.

One of the amazing things about Ireland is that there is no shortage of historic sites. From abandoned castles, to ancient churches, every off-the-beaten road took us to another surprise.

So the moral of the story is, sometimes, laziness has its perks.

*IMG_8622Here we are arriving at the famous pilgrimage site.

*IMG_8623And then looking up at the mountain…

**IMG_8633…and then crossing the street to check out some ruins that didn’t require any exertion whatsoever.

**IMG_8674I don’t even know what these ruins are, but it was on the water and it was beautiful. And there were cows!

**IMG_8683**IMG_8689**IMG_8690**IMG_8706**IMG_8718**IMG_8727From there, we headed east, making our way slowly back to Dublin. Mark found the ruins of an old monastic site called Clonmacnoise that was stunning. I got to take pictures; Mark and M got their church and ancient history fix; everyone was happy.

**IMG_8763**IMG_8828**IMG_8845The monastery was founded in 545 A.D. with different buildings dates to different time periods. According to Wikipedia, it was one of the most famous monastic sits in Ireland during the 9th to 11th centuries. More information here.

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**IMG_8855**IMG_8807**IMG_8786**IMG_8769Temple Finghín & McCarthy’s Tower is dated to the 12th century.

**IMG_8840*IMG_8842And sheep! I love me some pictures of sheep.

IMG_7301After a couple of hours of driving and spontaneous rain showers, we caught sight of a double rainbow just as we were nearing the outskirts of Dublin. What a fitting end to a lovely trip.

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Review: Hilton Reykjavik Nordica

There are not many points hotels in Reykjavik. You have two Club Carlson options and two Hilton options. Hilton offers the older, cheaper Nordica and the newer, more expensive, and more centrally located Canopy. Since we were low on points after our December Spain trip, I was able to make the Nordica work for $71 and 16,000 points a night.

Pros: Nice hotel; affordable price; large, upgraded room; club lounge access; pretty views.

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The Nordica lounge

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View from the lounge

Cons: A 30-minute walk from the center of town; lounge is on the small size.

Hotel map

All in all, we were happy with our choice. The walk into town forced us to do quite a bit of walking and see more of the city. Our first day in Reykjavik, we walked more than seven miles! While the lounge was on the small side, it was still lovely to have access to free food and drinks (mmmm, diet coke), and the views were nothing to sneeze at. Finally, the free parking was useful once we rented our car. If you’re planning a trip to Reykjavik on points, the Hilton Nordica is a great way to keep costs down.

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Review: Priority Pass in Dulles Airport

The Priority Pass lounge card gives you membership in a network of 900-plus lounges all across the country. It now comes free with several credit cards, including the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the Citi Prestige card.

In the past, I have primarily used Priority Pass in Europe, where the lounges are more plentiful, but I was excited to try out Priority Pass in Dulles since we flew economy to Iceland.

Here’s the catch: Due to the influx of new members, many priority club lounges have placed limits on when you can enter. For example, the KLM lounge in Dulles’s Terminal 1 (closest to Iceland Air) is only open to Priority Pass members from 7:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m to 8:30 p.m. The British Airways lounge is only open to Priority Pass members from 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. We arrived at the airport  at 5:00 p.m. during peak travel time. So we headed off to the Turkish Airlines lounge – the newest Priority Pass lounge.

It was great! While on the small side, there is a fantastic spread of food and drinks, comfortable seating, outlets, showers, and even a nap area. While Priority Pass is not a perk I use everyday, it is the perfect perk to alleviate the pain of flying economy on an international trip.

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IMG_9627As Priority Pass becomes increasingly popular, it may become increasingly useless for members, but for now, we were able to make it work.

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How We Ended Up Honeymooning in Iceland and Ireland… with My Boss

Our honeymoon began unconventionally.

My boss, Mark, said: “I have to give a speech in Dublin. Do you guys want to come to Ireland with me?”

I said: “Will you drive on the other side of the road for us?”

Mark: Sure!

Roundabouts

Roundabouts are hard enough on the right side of the road.

After a little research and I lot of frustration trying to figure out the new avios site, I found return tickets from Dublin to D.C. on Aer Lingus f for 26,000 avios and $251 for two people.

When I couldn’t find direct flights from D.C. to Dublin, I proposed expanding our trip into a real honeymoon – without Mark (sorry Mark). We settled on Iceland because of the short flight and because – it’s Iceland, duh, home to glaciers, volcanoes, geysers, and all sorts of other cool stuff.

M’s Chase Sapphire Reserve came in handy as we sought to minimize the costs of the notoriously expensive country. We booked two seats on Iceland Air through Chase’s travel portal, with each point worth 1.5 cents. The two flights costs us 45,212 Chase points, worth $678.20.

While there are limited points hotels in Reykjavik, I managed to stretch my meager reserve of Hilton points (after I spent the bulk of them in Barcelona) by booking four nights at the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica for 16,000 points and $40 a night. While the hotel is a 20 – 30 minute walk to the center of town, the affordable price and my Hilton diamond status made it an easy choice. The more centrally located and newer Hilton Canopy was going for 70,000 points a night. Eesh.

Finally, we had to find a way to get from Reykjavik to Dublin to meet up with Mark. Believe it or not, the only nonstop flight is on Wow Airlines… at 6 a.m. in the morning. Since the airport is a good hour from the Reykjavik, I booked our last night at the Park Inn near the airport for 10,000 Club Carlson points and $110 dollars. Since we are renting a car for our last two days, we’ll return the car at the airport on our last night.

And that’s how we ended up honeymooning with my boss… sort of. Stay tuned for a full report!

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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westin-room

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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doubletree-exterior

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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