Six Initial Thoughts on My Trip Around the World

After two weeks and just under 22,000 miles of travel around the world, I’m finally getting acclimated to the real world after arriving back in Washington from Tokyo last week.

DCA-ORD-MUC // MUC-BKK-PVG // PVG-HKG-PVG // PVG-NRT-IAD

DCA-ORD-MUC // MUC-BKK-PVG // PVG-HKG-PVG // PVG-NRT-IAD

I’d initially planned to publish trip reports as I went on this trip, but after a pretty intense first few days of Oktoberfest in Munich, that whole idea went out the window.  On this trip, I used my time in airports and on flights to relax and sleep instead of writing.  As a result, my trip reports will be published, post by post in the coming weeks.  I’ve got all sorts of goodies in this set, in addition to my flights in United, THAI, Air China and ANA First Class, including:

  • Le Meridien, Munich
  • Park Hyatt Shanghai
  • Hyatt Regency Hong Kong, Tsim Sha Tsui
  • Grand Hyatt Shanghai
  • Hyatt Regency Tokyo
  • Sights of Munich and Oktoberfest
  • A Day in Bangkok
  • THAI Royal First Class Lounge and Spa, BKK
  • Sights of Shanghai
  • Air China Forbidden First Class Lounge, PVG
  • Sights of Hong Kong
  • A Nights in Tokyo

Continue Reading →

An Around the World Trip — Introduction

As I previously wrote, I will be embarking on a two-week journey around the World starting tonight.  While I’m meeting twelve other friends in Munich, two of them will be joining me for our exploits in Asia.

Though we all have somewhat different flights, we all did manage to get on the same THAI flight from Munich to Bangkok to Shanghai.  And we all managed to do it all with miles.

How exactly did we do it?

I’m so glad you asked…

Continue Reading →

Ten Tips for Planning an Oktoberfest Trip to Munich

My favorite trip  of the year is always my annual pilgrimage to Munich for the World’s largest festival — Oktoberfest!

This will be the fifth year in a row that I’ve attended the Wiesn in Germany, so I’ve learned on the fly, but at this point,  I think I know what I’m doing pretty well.

Oktoberfest is a 16-day festival that runs every year,  from the late September to the first full weekend in October.  Plan these dates accordingly.

Planning a trip to this foreign festival can be a daunting task, but here are ten tips along with several guides and recommendations: Continue Reading →

Vegas Baby! For BAcon!

I’m writing this post from about 35,000 feet on a US Airways flight somewhere in between Washington’s Reagan National Airport and Phoenix en route to Las Vegas!  I’m heading out to the desert with my girlfriend in tow for this weekend’s Boarding Area blogger Conference… better known as BAcon!    The primary reason for the trip is the conference, but it’s also the girlfriend’s first trip out to Vegas, so I can’t wait to show her around.Screen Shot 2014-09-18 at 10.00.27 AM

This will be my first time attending the annual gathering of all Prior2Boarding and BoardingArea bloggers — some of them you’ve undoubtedly read before if you follow news about traveling, points and miles.  The three day conference is being held at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Resort, and is hosted by M life and Hyatt.  Topics in the conference will range from writing improvement to Google Analytics to Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and blogging best practices!  We will also get an overview of the Mlife / Caesars brand,  as they are our hosts at the Mandalay Bay.

There are already several special events planned for us over the next few days, and I can’t wait to see what surprises are in store!  I hope to learn a whole bunch of useful information that will allow me to improve my blog, and I look forward to meeting and networking with my fellow Prior2Boarding and BoardingArea bloggers!

Other than the conference, the immediate task at hand for tonight will be to find a proper viewing location to watch my beloved Auburn Tigers play Kansas State tonight for a highly anticipated non-conference, Thursday night college football matchup!  I may go to the local Auburn Alumni Club Bar, but if there’s a great sports bar that anyone can recommend, I’m all ears!

Anyway, I will keep some updates coming from BAcon, and I’ll definitely make some future posts on the highlights of this weekend’s conference!

Two Days in Melbourne and the Park Hyatt Melbourne

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

IMG_6219

Park Hyatt Melbourne

We arrived quite late into Melbourne after a short flight from Sydney and quickly found the taxi queue.  From there, we hailed a cab to our hotel — the Park Hyatt Melbourne.  I booked the Park Hyatt with points for two nights, and with cash for the third night.  We chose the Park Hyatt over the Grand Hyatt solely based on reputation.  Up to that point, some of my best stays ever had been at Park Hyatt properties in Tokyo, Dubai, and Zurich — so I was pretty sold on trying the Park Hyatt Melbourne even though the Grand Hyatt probably had a more ideal location in downtown Melbourne.

By the time we got to the hotel, it was a ghost town.  The Park Hyatt features a beautiful lobby, but we didn’t spend too much time in the hotel facilities.

Park Hyatt Melbourne

Park Hyatt Melbourne

After waiting a few minutes for a check-in agent (like I said, it was a ghost time at 1am), we finally were given our keys to a room on the 11th floor.  We had a standard, Park Twin room.  The finishings in the room were extremely nice and high quality.  There was a generous walk-in closet and a very large bathroom.  The beds were very comfortable, and the room featured most of the creature comforts that I’d grown accustomed to staying at Park Hyatts.  The major drawback for me was the very small size of the television in the room — and this ended up being a big deal for me — I’ll explain later.  Though it was a perfectly nice room and property in general, I just didn’t possess the “wow” factor that I’ve felt at other Park Hyatt properties.  I was overall pretty happy with the property, but if I had to do it again, I’d probably choose the Grand Hyatt in Melbourne due to its more convenient location to downtown Melbourne.

We were pretty exhausted when we got to the hotel room, so we promptly went to bed.  The first full day in Melbourne featured absolutely perfect weather — it would have been a wonderful day to explore the city.  However, my attention was diverted elsewhere.

2014 BCS National Championship Game – Auburn vs Florida State

That day, I had zero interest in touring Melbourne because my alma-mater Auburn Tigers were set to play in the BCS National Championship Game against Florida State that afternoon around noon local time (around 6pm local time at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California).  Since I’m a huge college football fan (I’d already been to four Auburn games that season in person), and this was essentially College Football’s Super Bowl, it was the only thing I really cared about that day.  As such, my nerves were out of control.  Thankfully, my dad is extremely familiar with my Auburn football “problem,” so he was a good sport about it and never once complained that we’d be spending the majority of the day in Melbourne watching a football game on TV in our hotel room.  He was obviously aware of the game, and much preferred watching it with me in Australia over me bailing on him to go to the game (Yes, I briefly considered flying directly back to LAX after our dive drip to attend the game in person at the Rose Bowl).

We grabbed breakfast and took a stroll around downtown Melbourne before heading into a grocery store to load up on some tailgating supplies — snacks and drinks for the room.   As kickoff neared, we headed back to the Park Hyatt, and I setup shop on the corner of the bed ready to watch our very small television as my Auburn Tigers played for the National Championship.  Like I said, I was a nervous wreck during the game.  I didn’t move from my spot on the bed for four hours.  I didn’t eat or drink a thing because my stomach was in knots.

It's Gameday!  War Damn Eagle!  Notice the small TV

It’s Gameday! War Damn Eagle! Notice the small TV

Yes, I take my Auburn football very seriously.  Irrational?  Maybe.  Am I sorry about it?  Absolutely not.

Despite starting out in complete control of the game, Auburn eventually succumbed to a last-minute Florida State touchdown, and lost the game 34-31.  I was pretty silent for about thirty minutes after the game, as I was pretty heartbroken.

Chinatown and Dinner at Hutong Dumpling Bar

Eventually, my dad suggested we go get food, so I agreed.  We decided to take a recommendation from Trip Advisor and tried a Dim Sum place in Chinatown called Hutong Dumpling Bar. The meal was excellent – I mean, it was very, very good.  I certainly recommend this place.  After dinner, we walked around the Chinatown area and then headed back to the hotel for the evening.  By this point in the trip, we were pretty exhausted, so we had no problem with being in somewhat early.

I’M FREE Walking Tour

We really, really enjoyed our free walking tour in Sydney, and thought that it would similarly be a fantastic way to get an overview of Melbourne in the limited time that we had.  The same company, I’m Free Walking Tours offers walking tours in Melbourne, so naturally we decided on that.  We met the group at 10:30am in front of the State Library of Victoria.  Once again, there was a large group ready to take the tour on another perfect weather day in Melbourne (about 76 degrees and sunny).  Like Sydney, the tour was excellent.  We walked from the State Library of Victoria to the Old Melbourne Gaol to the Royal Exhibition Center.  We then proceeded back  through Chinatown and through the many laneways of Melbourne, replete with urban art (basically classy graffiti).  We then walked through Burke Street Mall, and through the galleries to Flinders Street Station and Federation Square.  We crossed the Yarra River and ended the tour in the shadows of Eurkea Tower after about three hours of some awesome sites and wonderfully informative commentary.  The tour ended by the Yarra River with a great, panoramic view of the Melbourne skyline, so we took that in for a bit before deciding that we needed some food.

We backtracked to some of the really cool galleries that we’d walked through.   These narrow passages are located all over the downtown Melbourne area, and are lined with restaurants, cafes, and shops.  We settled on a burger joint called Huxtaburger in the CBD, and it ended up being the best burger we had on the trip (yes — we had a lot of burgers).

Burger

Huxtaburger deliciousness

After this late lunch, we were pretty beat from walking around, so we hoofed it back to the hotel for some rest and to pack for our trip home.

That evening, we took a suggestion from our walking tour guide and tried another noodle / dim sum place called Camy Shanghai Dumpling House.  Though it was much, much cheaper than our dinner the previous night, it was pretty disappointing — especially compared to our excellent meal we had the night before.  We strolled around downtown one last time before retiring to the Park Hyatt for our last night’s sleep in Australia.

 

Five Days in Sydney: Days One and Two

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House

Arrival into Sydney

After clearing Australian immigration and customs, I headed to the local cell phone retailer in the baggage claim area to purchase SIM cards for my dad and I.  For about AUD $30, we each procured SIM cards that gave us unlimited data, unlimited local text, and a $450 credit for international calling and texting.  Considering we would be in Australia for two weeks, this was a steal compared to the international plans offered by Verizon Wireless prior to the trip.  After SIM card shopping, we hopped a cab to our hotel – the Sheraton on the Park.  We chose this hotel due to both its location in the Sydney central business district, and the relatively decent rate considering the otherwise astronomical average price of most properties in the area.

Though we arrived at the Sheraton on the Park before noon, they had a room ready for us, which was a relief because we wanted to relax a bit and freshen up after almost two full days of traveling.  Though we were tired from our travels, I always try to make it a point NOT to go to sleep.  I’ve found the best way to adjust to the new timezone and to defeat prolonged jet lag is to get oneself onto the new timezone’s sleep cycle as soon as possible.  In this case, I wanted to do everything possible to stay awake until 8 or 9pm local time — simply so we could get a full night of sleep and awake the next morning more or less adjusted to Australia time.

I’m Free – Free Sydney Walking Tour

One of my favorite things to do on the first day in a new city is to get oriented with my surroundings.  I’ve found that one of the best ways to do this is by taking a free walking tour, which is offered in many cities, all over the world.  I generally find these tours to be educational and really helpful in teaching one the “lay of the land” in an unfamiliar city.  These “free tours” operate on a tips-only basis.  If you participate in the tour, a tip is generally expected, and almost always is well-earned.  I encourage you NOT take one of these tours if you have no intention to tip — that’s just rude, as these guides are often local university students who do a really fantastic job.

After a quick Google search, I found a walking tour of Sydney departing a few blocks from our hotel at 2pm that day.  We went to meet the tour guides outside the Sydney Town Hall, just a couple blocks from our hotel.  There were quite a few people on the tour on this beautiful Friday afternoon, so the guides broke up into three groups.  Our guide walked us through the sites of Sydney taking us from the Sydney Town Hall, through the Queen Victoria Building and the Pitt Street Mall shopping district out to Hyde Park.  We continued towards Circular Quay with stops at Governor Macquarie’s Rum Hospital,  the Hyde Park Barracks Museum, and the bird cages on Angel Placebefore stopping for a break for water and ice cream.

After touring the Sydney Customs House, the group made its way around the edges of Circular Quay to the cruise terminal where we took in a wonderful view of the Sydney Opera House as a large cruise ship, the Voyager of the Seas departed.  The walking tour ended in the Rocks area after about three hours.  We found this tour to be extremely informative and well-done.  I’m not really sure what the “norm” for tipping is for a tour like this, but we tipped about AUD $20 per person, as we felt anything else would be pretty unfair considering the thoroughness of the tour.   I highly recommend spending a few hours one day in Sydney to take this economical and very nice “free” walking tour.

After the walking tour, we took he recommendation of our tour guide to try out a pub for dinner in the Rocks called, The Australian Hotel.  Here, we had a couple of beers and I tried a kangaroo burger.  The burger was tasty, but certainly a bit different.  My dad ordered some pizza, but decided not to try the somewhat famous “Coat of Arms” pizza that features both kangaroo and emu meat.  Australia is probably the only country whose citizens enjoy eating their national symbols — the kangaroo and emu.  Could you imagine walking into a bar in the USA ordering “Bald Eagle chicken wings”?   By the time we were done eating and having a few beers, we were pretty tired.  We took a leisurely walk in the late afternoon back to our hotel and called it a night at about 8pm.

Manly Beach

We awoke Sunday morning around 9am after a full thirteen hours sleep!  Of course, we were starving, so we walked down the street for a real Australian breakfast — McDonalds!  As we downed our egg McMuffins, we planned out the day and put together the things we wanted to do the next several days.   We knew we wanted to see more of the iconic Sydney Harbor, so we decided to walk that way to Circular Quay, and see what the options were.  What we found was a beautiful day in Sydney, where another Royal Caribbean cruse ship was docked at the harbor (the Rhapsody of the Seas).  Our two options for the day were to head to Manly Beach or the Taronga Zoo.  We opted to purchase roundtrip ferry tickets on the Manly Ferry out to Manly Beach since it was one of the longer ferry rides offered, and the weather was just perfect for a boat ride.  The cost was AUD $7.40, each way.

The ferry ride lasted about 35 minutes en route to Manly Beach, and the views were magnificent.  As we sailed out past the Sydney Harbor Bridge, we turned to the East and motored right past the famed Sydney Opera House.  I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

We arrived at Manly beach soon after.  A bustling beach community, Manly features a rather large, inviting beach with a number of shops, restaurants, and bars that line the beach and go back several blocks.  The two of us walked the beach for a while, zapping pictures before settling down for some lunch at the Manly Grill.  We had a nice, outdoor patio seat where we enjoyed a bucket of prawns, burgers, and beers as we watched the people of Manly Beach walk by.  After lunch, we explored the town a bit before heading into a cool looking bar in the Manly Wharf Hotel, right near the ferry pier.  Here, we enjoyed a few beers and tried to figure out the game of cricket, which had the locals captivated, as The Ashes Tournament between England and Australia was on the television.  After giving up on cricket, we hopped back on the ferry for another late afternoon, scenic ferry ride back into Sydney Harbor.  

 Upon returning to Sydney, we headed over to the Rocks to view the Rhapsody of the Seas as she departed the Port of Sydney for her cruise, and we got some wonderful pictures of the harbor and the cruise ship.  By this point, we were pretty spent, so we headed back to the hotel for a few hours of relaxation.  After a couple of hours in the room, it was clearly time to eat again.  We wanted to do something low-key, but fun, so we walked about fifteen minutes to Darling Harbour.

Darling Harbour

Darling Harbor is a highly developed harbor in Sydney that is lined with restaurants, bars, shops, movie theaters, and other touristy things.  By the time we got to Darling Harbor, the crowds were growing for the upcoming fireworks show, which takes place every Saturday night during the summer.  There were thousands of people — locals and tourists who decided to spend the evening dining al fresco to watch the fireworks.  We grabbed a quick bite to eat at a doner kebab stand in a food court just in time to watch the fireworks.  The show was pretty nice, but I figured it would pale in comparison to the fireworks show we would see a few nights later on New Years Eve.  After the relatively quick fireworks display, we explored the area a bit more and made our way back to the hotel for another full night of sleep.

Next up… More from Sydney:

  • Sydney:  Day Three and Four (Sydney Opera House, Taronga Zoo, The Rocks, Bondi Beach, Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens, Woolloomooloo, and the Sydney Fish Market)
  • New Year’s Eve in Sydney

Fifteen Days in Australia – Planning

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

Planning

Putting a two-week vacation to Australia is no small feat.  Doing so almost purely using frequent flyer miles for ones’ flights can be even more difficult, as finding award availability to Australia over New Years is a very, very tall order.  Nonetheless, I managed to throw together a memorable 15-day trip to Australia during in which almost all of the transportation and some of the hotels were paid for with miles.  Here’s how I planned everything…

International Flights

As previously mentioned, I speculatively reserved two Global First Class seats on United for a Christmas Day flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Sydney (SYD) since I’d always wanted to go to Australia.  Since I was fortunate enough to have a relatively large stash of United miles along with 1K status with United, I always kept my miles tied up in speculative awards since it ultimately costs nothing for a United passenger with at least Platinum status to refund or change these awards.

United Global First Class Suite - from United Airlines

United Global First Class Suite – from United Airlines

For months I tossed around the idea of spending New Years Eve in Sydney to friends, and it never seemed to really stick.  During a trip back home last September, I casually mentioned the idea of heading to Australia to my dad.  I never thought he’d accept the offer since he’s always maintained that he would never spend that amount of time on an airplane.  However, it seems the offer of first class seats to Australia dramatically changed the situation.  After conferring with my mom, my dad enthusiastically accepted my offer — and just like that, the serious planning for Australia began. At that time, I had two one-way trips to Sydney in United Global First Class booked.   I had them both originating in Tampa since I planned to be there for the Christmas holiday.  Since neither United nor one of its Star Alliance partners offered a nonstop flight from Tampa to Los Angeles, we were forced to take a layover somewhere.  Due to favorable flight times and the availability of first class award space, we decided to transit through Washington-Dulles (IAD) en route to LAX.

The Original 2 one-way awards on United.  80,000 miles each.

The Original 2 one-way awards on United:  TPA-IAD-LAX-SYD (80,000 miles each)

I had about 60,000 miles left in my United account, and I had a speculative round-trip award booked to Rio de Janeiro for the World Cup.  Since I’d already been to Brazil three times in 2013 alone (including here and here), I happily canceled my trip to the World Cup in favor of finding the two of us a way home from Australia!  It basically came down to the following decision:  Take my dad on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Australia OR Go to the World Cup in Brazil (and subsequently visit Brazil for the 4th time in 14 months). For me, the decision was easy:  we were going to Australia! Once I had the 100,000 miles from my World Cup trip refunded to my account, I started to look for a return routing back to the United States.  Ideally, I wanted a first class award. Sadly, there were no non-stop routings from Australia back to the United States available at any time during January 2014, so I was forced to come up with a backup plan and transit home via Asia.  On United’s website, the award search engine will not give you every combination of flights available when you search something like Sydney to Washington DC.  Instead, you need to break the flight up into smaller segments.  By doing this, I was able to find the following routing in first class on Thai, Air China, and United:

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Original Return:  SYD-BKK-PEK-NRT-SFO (Thai First / Thai Business / Air China First / United First)

I found the above individual segments available, but the United Award booking engine would not piece this itinerary together, as it frequently struggles with putting together multi-segment award itineraries.  In order to book this award, I dialed up the United Premier 1K phone line and had the friendly agent convert my one-way awards to Australia into round-trip awards that included the return home above. Before I hung up the phone with the United agent, I mentioned how I wished that there was award space available on one of the non-stop United flights from Sydney back to the States since I knew my dad would not be too excited about the prospect of spending 40-some hours on our flights home.  The agent then offered to put in a wait list request for first class award space on both the Sydney routes to the States (Los Angeles and San Francisco). Not thinking much of it, I agreed and then ticketed my award with the crazy routing. Not two hours later, I received an e-mail from Untied indicating that my wait list request had cleared for my preferred date for the Sydney to San Francisco (SFO) segment!

My Wait list confirmation email!

My Wait list confirmation email!

I immediately called United back, and sure enough — they opened non-stop first class space from Sydney to San Francisco!  I easily tacked on a non-stop flight from SFO to Washington-National (DCA) for myself, and a flight back from SFO to Tampa via Charlotte on US Airways for my dad.

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Return flights:  SYD-SFO-DCA (blue is my flight from SFO on United); SYD-SFO-CLT-TPA (red is my dad’s flights from SFO on US Airways)

Just like that, we had ourselves flights to and from Australia!

Finally had the long flights booked!

Total Cost:  160,000 miles each X 2 = 320,000 United miles (United Global First Class)

Total cost:  160,000 miles each X 2 = 320,000 United miles

What to do in Australia?

With the tough part taken care of, I then started to talk to my dad about what, exactly he wanted to do while we were in Australia.  One thing I was adamant about was spending New Years Even in Sydney, as I wanted to see the celebration on Sydney Harbor.  As such, I’d reserved a room at the Sheraton on the Park in Sydney for five nights, departing on New Years Day. The number one thing my dad wanted to do on this trip was to dive the Great Barrier Reef.  My dad and I were certified SCUBA diving together when I was twelve years old, and have always enjoyed going on dive trips together — and Australia would basically be the epitome of all our dive trips!  I knew that the Cairns / Port Douglas area was the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, so I started looking at options.  With the exception of a few day trips to the GBR, many of the diving options were multi-day live-aboard dive trips.  I broached this idea to my dad, and he was once again VERY enthusiastic about this.  I researched the various live-aboard dive boats that leave from Cairns, and based on reviews and descriptions, we decided to take a very highly recommended, four-day dive trip to the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea aboard the Spirit of Freedom.  Though it was one of the pricier options, we figured that it would be well worth the cost for such a “bucket-list” experience.  After a few e-mails back and forth to the folks at Spirit of Freedom, we were all set to depart Cairns on 02 January and return on 06 January.

Red = 4-day GBR and Coral Sea itinerary *Map from Spirit of Freedom

Red = 4-day GBR and Coral Sea itinerary
*Map from Spirit of Freedom

That left us three days until our return flight back to the States from Sydney.  I broached a couple of ideas to my dad including a trip to the Outback or spending a few days in Melbourne.  After asking around, he told me he wanted to do Melbourne — so that was the plan!

Domestic Flights

With the details planned out of what we wanted to do in Australia planned, I then turned to flights.  Domestically in Australia, there are three major players:  Qantas, Virgin Australia, and JetStar.  This left me with several options.  Since Qantas is partners with both American and British Airways, I could easily redeem those miles for travel should the flight be expensive.  For short-haul flights, British Airways Avios would work best, as it features a distance-based award chart that can be very advantageous — especially on flights under 651 miles.  At the same time, both Virgin Australia and JetStar are relatively low-cost airlines that sell somewhat cheap and reasonable flights domestically in Australia. I weighed my options for a couple of days and decided to buy our flight from Sydney to Cairns (via Brisbane) on New Years Day from on Virgin Australia.  Though it wasn’t cheap (around $240 per person), it was the only choice with a reasonable departure time (10am).  The mileage option would have required a 6am flight on New Years Day — no thank you. For the Cairns to Melbourne segment, I decided to use miles for a flight on Qantas.  At the time, I had very modest balances of both British Airways Avios and American Airlines miles.  I ultimately wanted to fly the both of us in business class, but unfortunately there was only one seat in business left on the Cairns to Sydney segment.   The cheapest way to do this flight in business was with American miles, as it only ran 17,500 miles for this one-way flight in business class.

17,500 miles for a one-way in business class "Wholly Within" Australia

17,500 miles for a one-way in business class “Wholly Within” Australia

Australia one of the "Wholly Within" listed countries

Australia one of the “Wholly Within” listed countries

I then used British Airways Avios for another ticket on the same flights, but in economy.  This came to 14,500 Avios due to the distance of Cairns – Sydney – Melbourne clocking in at two segments (10,000 + 4,500 avios).  See this post for a background in the distance-based British Airway Avios program.

Avios Redemption Chart Courtesy:  British Airways

Avios Redemption Chart
Courtesy: British Airways

Our last flight of the trip required a positioning flight from Melbourne back to Sydney.  I checked the option of award space on the Melbourne to Sydney tag-on flight that’s operated by United, but there was no award space available on that AT ALL.  The good thing about this flight is that Qantas runs hourly non-stops on the route, and as such, the prices are pretty reasonable.  We ended up just booking the flight in cash for less than $100 per person.

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 8.59.06 PM

Domestic Australia Flights — Purple: Virgin Australia; Red: Qantas; Cyan: Spirit of Freedom positioning flight via Hinterland Aviation

Total cost:  17,500 American Miles + 14,500 BA Avios + ~$680.

Hotels

As previously mentioned, I was able to get a very nice rate at the Sheraton on the Park in Sydney over New Years.   With its central Sydney location, it was perfect for getting around the city.  I use the phrase “very nice rate” lightly — as it was still pricey — just not nearly as obscene as the pricing at other properties in Sydney over New Years. We also found a pretty cheap rate at the Holiday Inn Cairns for our one and only night there before our dive trip. We agonized for a bit over our hotel selection in Melbourne.  We were torn between the Grand Hyatt and the Park Hyatt properties, but ultimately decided to stay at the Park Hyatt due mostly to the fact that some of my most amazing hotel stays up to that point had been at Park Hyatt properties (Tokyo, Dubai, and Zurich).  I used Hyatt points for two of the nights and we paid for the last night at this property.

Park Hyatt Melbourne

Park Hyatt Melbourne

The End Result

Booked with miles / points:

  • Domestic flights in United First Class from TPA-IAD-LAX
  • International flight in United Global First Class from LAX-SYD
  • Domestic flights in Qantas Business and Economy Class from CNS-SYD-MEL
  • 2 nights at the Park Hyatt Melbourne
  • International flight in United Global First Class from SYD-SFO
  • Domestic flight in United First Class from SFO-DCA and in US Airways First Class from SFO-CLT-TPA

Booked with cash

  • 5 nights at the Sheraton on the Park, Sydney
  • Domestic flights in Virgin Australia Economy Class from SYD-BNE-CNS
  • 1 night at the Holiday Inn, Cairns
  • 4 nights Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea dive trip on the Spirit of Freedom
  • 1 night at the Park Hyatt Melbourne
  • Domestic flight in Qantas Economy Class fromMEL-SYD

    sdf

    The End Result!

 

Fifteen Days in Australia – Introduction

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

Introduction

NYE Sydney Harbor

NYE Sydney Harbor

It started in March of 2013 when I friend and I were speculatively looking for availability to Australia in first class on United’s website.  Then, lo and behold, we found copious amounts of Global First Class award space on Christmas Day to Sydney.  Though there were no seats on the return flights, those were just unnecessary details…. I just wanted to get to Australia.  And I wanted to be in Sydney over New Years.

Mission accomplished.

After a series of changes, substitutions, and intense planning, this trip of a lifetime was finally fully booked by the end of October.  My trip for one had morphed into a trip for two, but I couldn’t have been any more happy to spend my miles on this travel companion — I mean, when would I have another chance to take my dad to Australia?

That’s right — I was taking my dad to Australia for a trip of a lifetime — a trip that I never thought he’d agree to take.  It’s funny how first class tickets change one’s opinion of taking a fifteen hour flight.

During the next few weeks, this series of posts will detail the fifteen memorable days that we spent together down under, including:

  • United Global First Class from Los Angeles to Sydney
  • Five days in Sydney
  • New Years’ Eve on Sydney Harbor
  • Virgin Australia Sydney to Brisbane to Cairns
  • A day in Cairns
  • Four days diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea on the Spirit of Freedom live-aboard dive boat
  • Qantas Business Class Cairns to Sydney to Melbourne
  • Three days in Melbourne
  • The Park Hyatt, Melbourne
  • United Global First Class from Sydney to San Francisco

Enjoy this sneak peak…

Review: JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro

In honor of the ongoing 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, I’ve decided to publish some previously un-published blog entries that I already had written about my trip there last September.  I’m not going to change anything since these were my thoughts immediately upon returning from Rio.  


 

Introduction
Ten Things I Did in Rio
Getting There, Getting Around, and General Impressions
JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro 


We arrived in the late morning after our overnight flight from Houston via a private transfer from the airport to the hotel. Though we arrived well before check-in time, they still had our room ready.  This was probably because my roommate this trip was Platinum Status with Marriott.  By comparison, I was only Gold status, which I received as a benefit of having United Premier 1K status.

JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro

JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro

The JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro is located smack, dab in the middle of Copacabana Beach, making it one of the best situated hotels on Copacabana.  The lobby was undergoing renovations while we were there, so that was a bit obnoxious, but we got over it.  Despite the ongoing renovations, the two-story lobby was quite large and an overall attractive space.

We had a standard deluxe ocean-view room on the 11th floor with a beautiful view of Copacabana beach.  It was a good-sized room with a functional bathroom and very comfortable beds.  The highlight of the room was the view.

Since we were both Marriott elite, we had access to the concierge lounge.  The concierge lounge features a two-story glass wall overlooking Copacabana.  There is ample seating space with a couple of TVs and computers.  Breakfast is served in the lounge, and it was delicious.  They also serve a variety of tasty appetizers every evening, along with unlimited beer and wine.  I ended up spending more time in this lounge than I planned, but oh well!

JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro Concierge Lounge

JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro Concierge Lounge

One of my favorite features of the JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro is the stellar rooftop patio and pool.  The rooftop has an amazing view of Copacabana.  I spent one evening here around sunset, and it was beautiful.  There is a nice bar where one can order a beer or a fantastic caipirinha.  The rooftop pool looks inviting, though I didn’t take a dip.  From the south side of the roof deck, one can see the sunset behind the Corcovado and Christ the Redeemer statue.  It’s just a fantastic outdoor space, and one of my favorite things about the hotel.

All in all, this is probably one of the best hotels in all of Rio de Janeiro due primarily to its location.  Marriott is mighty proud of this hotel too, as it’s quite pricey.

How I booked it…

We booked this hotel with Marriott points.  My friend had a ton of points since he regularly stays with Marriott, so he used those.  The JW Marriott is a category 8 hotel, which requires 40,000 Marriott points per night.  This is still a decent deal considering the standard rates at this hotel are often well north of USD $400.

Marriott Rewards Free Night Award Chart

Marriott Rewards Free Night Award Chart

 

Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland

Introduction
Planning
US Airways Business Class (Envoy) Philadelphia to Venice
Two Magical Days in Venice
Boscolo Venezia Hotel in Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Introduction, Itinerary, and the Pinnacle Suite
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Katakolon and Athens
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Istanbul, Mitilini, and Kusadasi
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Santorini and Argostoli
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Sailing into Venice
Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam:  Cruise Review
Ryanair Economy Class Venice-Treviso to Dublin
Two Days in Dublin
The Aran Islands and Galway, Ireland
Driving the West Coast of County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher, and Bunratty Meadows B&B
Aer Lingus 757 Business Class Shannon to Boston


May 17

We awoke after a great night sleep at the Radisson Blu Hotel & Spa in Galway, and headed down to breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant. Breakfast was included in the room rate, and the spread was downright impressive.  They really had a little of anything you could think of, and it proved to be a wonderful start to the day.  After we checked out, the only plan for the day was to make it down to see the Cliffs of Moher — about a 90 minute drive from Galway.  The drive followed along a scenic, windy road as we followed the west coast of Country Clare throughout he Burren National Park.  When we hit the fork in the road in the town of Ballyvaughan, we decided to take the scenic route to the Cliffs of Moher — via the Ocean Road.  This proved to be a wonderful idea, as the scenery was simply stunning on this wonderfully clear day.   We thoroughly enjoyed driving and then just pulling over to take in the sights of a scenic coastline vista and the occasional castle.

After a couple of hours, we found ourselves in the small, port town of Doolin around noon.  Located about 6km from the Cliffs of Moher, Doolin is host to a ferry fleet where one can take a ferry for a scenic cruise of the Cliffs, or to one of the Aran Islands.  We went down to the pier to inquire with the O’Brien Line about their ferry tour to the Cliffs of Moher, and we were met by a friendly, older Irish man named Bill O’Brien, who happened to be the owner of the tour company.  He informed us that the next ferry was to leave at 3:15pm, and then gave us the “lay of the land” and ensured us that we’d have time to visit the Cliffs of Moher from above before coming back to Doolin for our ferry ride.  The ferry cost €25 for the estimated hour-long trip to the Cliffs and back – a fee that we gladly paid.

We heeded Bill’s advice and made the short, 15-minute drive from Doolin to the Cliffs of Moher.  There is a €6 entrance fee per car at the Cliffs, and it is well worth the price of admission.  The Cliffs of Moher are one of the most famous geographical features of Ireland, as they feature a set of jagged cliffs that drop straight off, about 1,000 feet to the Atlantic Ocean below.   The views are simply stunning.  We were lucky to have perfect weather that day, so we were not impeded by fog, rain, or mist!

After about an hour of taking in the vistas and snapping dozens of pictures, we headed back to our ridiculous mini car and drove back to Doolin for lunch.  We settled on lunch at Gus O’Connors Pub.  Gus O’Connors was quite crowded, as a tour bus group had just been dropped off, but even still, we were able to receive our food and pints pretty quickly.  I enjoyed a beef and Guinness Stew, which was great.  However, my girlfriend struck out with her chicken and cheese sandwich order, as it wasn’t the most appetizing thing she’d ever seen… or tasted.  After lunch, we returned to the pier for our ferry ride.  As we were waiting for our ferry to return, the weather started to turn as a storm started to pick up.  As the wind increased and the sea appeared to get a little more rough, we decided to go ahead and take our last two Dramamine tablets, just in case.

Good decision.

By the time we got on-board the vessel, the supposed ten minute ride took closer to 30 minutes, as we took ten foot seas over the bow on our short trek to the base of the Cliffs of Moher.  The Cliffs themselves were overwhelming from the bottom.  We looked up to where we stood a few hours before, and the sheer height of the Cliffs sank in as we could barely see the outline of people looking over the towering cliffs, 1,000 feet above.  The ride back to the dock was equally as choppy, and we were two of the only non-seasick passengers on the ferry.  Folks were getting sick left and right, but we had a blast!

By the time we got back to the dock, we were running about an hour behind schedule, so we hit the road en route for Bunratty.  Bunratty is a small village about five kilometers from the Shannon Airport.  We had reservations at the Bunratty Meadows Bed and Breakfast, where we planned to stay the night before our flight home to the States.  We arrived at Bunratty Meadows at around 6:30pm, and were greeted by the hostess, Dariena.  We were shown our room in her beautiful house located on a large meadow overlooking the River Shannon.  The room was extremely comfortable, and had all the creature comforts that we could want. Dariena recommended that we go into Bunratty to check out the famous Bunratty Castle, and then eat at a nearby restaurant for dinner.  The Castle is one of the larger ones you’ll find in Ireland, and it is open to the public along with a folk park that showcases Medieval Irish life.  We got to the castle too late to take a tour, so we just zapped some pictures, took a stroll throughout the famous Durty Nelly’s Pub, and walked across the street to the Creamery Bar for dinner.

I had a delicious dinner of fish and chips with a couple pints of Guinness — a perfect last supper for a wonderful four days in Ireland.  By the end of dinner, we were pretty exhausted from the long day of touring, so we made our way back to the Bed and Breakfast for our last night’s sleep on the trip.

May 18

We’d arranged for breakfast to be had at 8:30am, which would leave us plenty of time to get to the Shannon Airport for our 11:40am flight back across the pond.  We woke up, cleaned up, packed, and headed downstairs to the cute breakfast room where Dariena had four tables set for the four sets of guests that she was hosting the previous night.  There was a selection of cereals and coffee to choose from as Dariena brought out freshly baked scones with an assortment of jams.  I ordered the pancakes, and my girlfriend had the traditional Irish Breakfast.  Both were absolutely delicious, and we completely loved everything about the breakfast that was prepared for us.  Sadly, we had to say our goodbyes and head to the airport.

We really, really enjoyed Bunratty Meadows.  Though it was the only bed and breakfast on our trip, it was one of my favorite accommodations.  Based off this experience, I’d certainly be open to staying at bed and breakfasts more often since they really provide a fantastic value and have much more personality than do most hotels.  I also highly recommend Bunratty Meadows to anyone in the area — it’s especially great if you need to fly out to Shannon the next morning, as it’s only about five kilometers away from the airport.