Review: US Airways Business Class (Envoy Suites) Philadelphia to Venice

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


After a quick and uneventful, yet pleasant flight from Washington-National Airport, we arrived in Philadelphia with about two hours to spare until our scheduled departure time.  We were welcomed into the Terminal A US Airways Envoy Lounge where our passports were checked and we were issued two premium drink certificates apiece.  The lounge offered a great view of the evening European departures from Terminal A.

I felt it was a very solid lounge for a US domestic carrier – probably one of the better I’ve seen domestically.  Boarding for our flight to Venice was announced around 6pm, so we proceeded to the gate and arrived as some of the last passengers to board.

US Airways (US) 714
Philadelphia (PHL) – Venice (VCE)
Aircraft:  Airbus A330-200
Seat:  4F (Envoy Suites)
Tuesday, April 28, 2014
6:45PM – 09:15AM (+1 day)
Duration:  8:30

My initial impression of the business cabin was that it looked awfully spacious and nice with the wood paneling on the bulkheads and tables.  The US Airways A330-200 features only twenty business class seats (or “Envoy Suites”) as five rows in a a 1-2-1 configuration.  The reverse herringbone configuration of these seats is a scaled down version of the same seats used by Cathay Pacific in their international business cabins.  Though they lack some of the storage of the Cathay seats, these Envoy Suites are some of the most spacious and nicest business class seats one can fly across the Atlantic.  Certainly, they’re currently the best hard product on an US carrier (with the exception of the new American 777-300ER cabin, which are the same type seats as these Envoy Suites).   The 1-2-1 business cabin is quickly becoming the standard among airlines, and US Airways deserves some credit for being the first airline to introduce this seat a few years ago.  I had more than enough room to stretch out.  While fully flat, I was able to stretch out without hitting the wall of the foot well .  This is pretty spectacular since I’m 6’4”.

We were offered champagne as soon as we took our seats, as well as a newspaper, an amenity kit, and brand new Bose QC15 noise-canceling headphones.  I was quite impressed by the Bose headphones, as I’m used to a much inferior offering on United.   They featured American Airlines branding, so they’re on of the first signs of the integration of the two airlines.  Menus were distributed and orders were taken prior to departure.

About ten minutes after takeoff, the flight attendant delivered a vodka tonic with warm mixed nuts.

The starter featured a pesto shrimp dish, which was excellent.  The salad was quite small, and came on the same plate as the shrimp.

For the entree, I selected the panko-crusted tilapia with mashed potatoes and green beans.  The fish was  a much larger portion than I was expecting.  It was tasty enough, and the mashed potatoes were delicious.

I had the tiramisu AND the Ben & Jerry’s chocolate brownie  ice cream for desert – both of which were excellent.  My girlfriend ordered the cheese plate and enjoyed that.

 

Dinner was quite good overall.  It was not overly memorable, but was certainly adequate for a business class dinner.

After dinner, I attempted to finish a movie, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” but didn’t last more than ten minutes, as I fell asleep in the lay-flat bed.  For whatever reason, I didn’t sleep particularly well that night though the seat itself was quite comfortable.  I finally gave up trying after about four hours or so of on-and-off sleep.  Not too long after that, the flight attendants started preparing the cabin for breakfast – about 75 minutes prior to scheduled arrival into Venice, as we flew over Paris.  There was a choice of fruit and yogurt, or a mushroom and sausage quiche.  I opted for the fruit and yogurt while my girlfriend chose the quiche.  The fruit was fresh and tasty.  The quiche was excellent – easily one of the best egg dishes I’ve sampled on any flight.

After breakfast, I changed and prepared my things for landing.  We arrived into Venice about ten minutes ahead of schedule with a beautiful view of the city, the lagoon, and Murano our the starboard side of the airplane.

Overall, I was very impressed with US Airways.  I was expecting a very solid hard product, and that’s exactly what I got.  The Envoy Suite is an excellent choice for crossing the Atlantic, and it blows away most other US carriers’ offerings as far as comfort is concerned – namely United’s BusinessFirst products and American’s old business class.  Admittedly, I had somewhat low expectations for catering and service, but I was pleasantly surprised.  The flight attendants working the business class cabin were friendly enough and very efficient – not necessarily memorable, but they certainly provided good enough service.  The catering was overall quite good, and I enjoyed a change from the somewhat standard United BusinessFirst menu that I’m used to.

I certainly recommend the US Airways Envoy product, which is found onboard their Airbus A330 fleet.  I would choose it again if the choice was between US Airways and /or United.  At the end of the day, the 1-2-1 configuration is clearly the most comfortable business class configuration out there, and is one of the best business class options across the Atlantic.

How I booked it…

I was able to book this cabin using 50,000 American Airlines miles and $5 per person for the one-way North America to Europe award ticket.  Award availabilty for US Airways flights is easily available via the American Airlines website.  An added benefit of using American miles for flights on US Airways is that it presents a Transatlantic option that avoids London-Heathrow and the significant taxes associated with such a flight.  There are also no fuel surcharges on US Airways flights, as opposed to the hefty surcharges that exist when flying American’s other transatlantic partners British Airways and Iberia.

Back from Europe

After almost three weeks, I’m back from Europe!  Unfortunately, I was unable to provide regular updates on the blog due to the prohibitive expense and slowness of the Internet on our cruise ship.  As much as I wanted to get some blog posts out there, the $0.75 per minute cost just wasn’t going to happen.  Additionally, the slow speeds would have made posting pictures pretty much impossible.

Luckily, I did spend quite a bit of time during the trip chronicling my journey.  I have several posts already written — all I need to do is edit and add some pictures.  Hopefully I’ll get a few of those out this week.  I’ll leave this short note with a few teaser pics of US Airways Business Class, our Pinnacle Suite on Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam, and the return trip in business class of Aer Lingus’ newly acquired 757.

US Airways Envoy, Aer Lingus Business Class, and the Pinnacle Suite on Holland America Line's Nieuw Amsterdam

US Airways Envoy, Aer Lingus Business Class, and the Pinnacle Suite on Holland America Line’s Nieuw Amsterdam

Stay tuned…

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland – Planning the Flights

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


When the Aunt and Uncle invited us on the cruise, it didn’t take too long to accept their invitation.  The good thing about this vacation is that the cruise itinerary is set… so right there, I didn’t need to worry about planning the bulk of the vacation.  The variables that I had to contend with were now arriving and departing Venice (VCE) around the cruise dates, vacation time, and finding air deals and/or redeeming miles.

Planning the flight USA to Italy

As soon as we accepted the invitation to take the cruise, I assessed my mileage balances on  various airlines.  At that time, my United balance was pretty much zero-ed out since I’d just burned a whopping 320,000 miles for a trip to Australia over Christmas and New Years.  However, I had just enough American miles for two, one-way flights from the USA to Europe in economy class for the girlfriend and me.  As luck would have it, there was availability flying economy on American for the dates that we wanted DCA-LGA/JFK-MXP.  This would put us into Milan(MXP) the day before our cruise.  We then planned to take a train Venice in time for our cruise.

US Airways Envoy Suite

US Airways Envoy Suite

Fast forward to two weeks ago.  As the months dragged on, I began to dread the long flight in economy on American.  My last two experiences on American in the back were not too pleasant, so I had reason to be concerned.  At 6’4″, I’m uncomfortable in pretty much any economy seat, but the B767-300s on American seem to be extra brutal and cramped.  Around that same time, my mileage bonus from the Citi AAdvantage Executive card posted, increasing my balance to a cool 120,000 miles.

Out of sheer curiosity, I checked the American website for business class availability — just in case.  Sure enough, there was availability on a flight directly into Venice, AND it arrived a day earlier, allowing us an extra day in Venice.  Upon further review, this entire flight was on US Airways from DCA-PHL-VCE in their Envoy Suites business class cabin.  This is the same basic hard business product that I enjoyed on Cathay Pacific last summer (here and here).   For an extra 30,000 miles per person, this seemed like a no-brainer.  The ability to stretch out and get some sleep on our flight, an extra day in Venice, and the fact that I prefer to burn my miles instead of hoarding them made it an easy move — we were going business class to Venice!

DCA-PHL-VCE on US Airways:  50K AA miles per person in Business Class

DCA-PHL-VCE on US Airways: 50K AA miles per person in Business Class

Getting Home After the Cruise

At the time I initially planned the cruise, I didn’t have a big point balance to work with, since I tend to burn my miles pretty soon after earning them, simply because airlines tend to devalue their programs as time goes by.   Knowing my point limitations, I knew that a sweet spot in the British Airways Avios award chart was Ireland to Boston on BA’s partner, Aer Lingus for only12,500 Avios per person in economy, or 25,000 per persons in business, each way.  This is an incredible value, and may be the single most valuable use of points in any program.  The existence of this award made it apparent that we needed to transit Ireland on the way home, so we decided to spend a few days in the Emerald Isle en route. My girlfriend and I are both Irish, after all!

SNN-BOS-DCA on Aer Lingus and US Airways:  12,500 BA Avios per person in Economy (25k in Business)  + $90 for the US Airways segment

SNN-BOS-DCA on Aer Lingus and US Airways: 12,500 BA Avios per person in Economy (25k in Business) + $90 for the US Airways segment

We decided that we wanted to spend a couple days in Dublin before driving across the country to Galway and the Aran Islands.  After a trip to the Inis Mor on Aer Aran Islands, we plan to visit Doolin and the Cliffs of Moher before ending our trip in Shannon.  After checking for availability and spending an hour on the phone with British Airways, we were able to book our return tickets at the aforementioned price point of only 12,500 per person in economy from Shannon to Boston.  At the end of the day, 25,000 total for TWO people to fly Transatlantic is a STEAL.  So return trip home, booked.

First, I needed to get to Ireland from Venice.

After a brief Internet search, it was immediately clear that European discount carrier, Ryanair was the way to go.  They offered a perfectly timed flight from Venice-Treviso Airport (TSF) to Dublin for under 50euros per person.  Even after we selected seats and paid for checked bags, this option was still about 100euro per person cheaper than the next cheapest option.  No brainer.

TSF-DUB on Ryanair for under 50euros per person

TSF-DUB on Ryanair for under 50euros per person

The last piece of the puzzle was getting from Boston to Washington at the end of the trip.   After monitoring for cheap rates via various methods, I noticed a cheap ($90 one-way) fare between Boston and Washington-National airport with perfect timings, so I pulled the trigger on that, and viola!  We had ourselves an itinerary!

Red:  US AIrways Yellow:  Ryanair Green:  Aer Lingus

The Whole Enchilada:  Red: US AIrways; Yellow: Ryanair; Green: Aer Lingus

 

 

A Mediterranean Cruise and Four Days in Ireland – Introduction

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


A few months ago, I had a tentative trip to Europe planned over St. Patrick’s Day when my Aunt and Uncle invited my girlfriend and I to take a cruise with them in May.  Since vacation has become a somewhat limited commodity for me lately (I’ve burnt almost all my vacation time), I decided to nix the trip in March in favor of this cruise.

In my previous life, I worked for a major cruise line, and was borderline obsessed with cruises.  When I was young, my family typically took cruise vacations since it was just easy, everyone enjoyed it, and the family could have dinner together every night.  All these cruises added up, and now looking back, it’s pretty clear that I’ve taken an obscene amount of cruises — this will be my thirty-fourth cruise.  With that said, it’s been about two and a half years since my last one, so I guess I’m due for another one.

12-Day Mediterranean Empires cruise from Holland America Line

This particular cruise is on Holland America Line’s newest ship, the Nieuw Amsterdam.    Having sailed with Holland America on three previous occasions, I know to expect impeccable service, good food, a beautiful ship, and generally an older crowd.  The thing that popped out to me about this cruise was the great 12-night itinerary — out of the eight ports of call, I’ve only previously been to one — Istanbul.

I’ve always wanted to sample some of the Greek Islands, so this cruise will really allow me to do so!  Another cool thing about this particular itinerary is that it spends the night in both Istanbul and Venice at the tail end of the trip.  This is somewhat unusual for a cruise, and it’s an aspect that I really do like since it  allows us to sample some of the great nightlife in Istanbul,and to spend a relaxed final evening in Venice.  An added bonus is that I have a very generous Aunt and Uncle who invited us to stay in the Pinnacle Suite — the largest room on the ship.  I’ve never stayed in a suite on a cruise before, so this will be extra-special.

 

Pinnacle Suite Photo Credit:  Holland America Line

Pinnacle Suite
Photo Credit: Holland America Line

Tomorrow, we will depart Washington-National Airport for Venice via Philadelphia on US Airways in their Envoy Suites business class.  We will spend two days before the cruise in Venice, and will stay at the Boscolo Venezia, thanks to a low rate, and the use of some Marriott points.  Following the cruise, we decided to spend some time in Ireland before flying back to the States.  During our four days in Ireland, we plan to hit up Dublin, Galway, the Arann Islands, Cliffs of Mohr, and Shannon.  Since I am using British Airways Avios for our Trans-Atlantic segment on, I am exploiting one of the sweet-spots on their award chart by flying home from Ireland on Aer Lingus — in this case, Shannon to Boston.

Over the next couple weeks, I will be making a number of posts covering various aspects of this trip.  Of course, I’ll hit on US Airways Envoy Suites, the Boscolo Venezia, the cruise itself along with the ports of call, our experience on Ryanair from Treviso to Dublin, our Ireland Adventure, and the flight back to the States on Aer Lingus.   As Internet is limited on board (I’m not going to pay the absurd Internet charges on the ship), my blog posts will be somewhat intermittent over the next couple of weeks.  Here’s a pretty picture of our flights:

DCA-PHL-VCE, TSF-DUB, SNN-BOS-DCA    Red: US Airways; Yellow: Ryanair; Green: Aer Lingus

Stay tuned for a post on what it took to plan this trip, as well as several posts that will log our journey!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oktoberfest 2013 Trip – Frankfurt, Munich, London, and Edinburgh

Well, it’s that time of the year again — it’s time to head over to the happiest place on Earth — Oktoberfest!  This will be my fourth year in a row that I’ve attended the world’s largest festival, and every year it’s the highlight of my year!This year, I will be meeting eight friends in Munich for Oktoberfest, and then will be proceeding on to hit some other parts of Europe.  Tonight, I will be flying from Washington-Dulles to Frankfurt in United BusinessFirst.  I’ll be staying the day and night in Frankfurt, and will train down to Munich on Friday morning commence the Oktoberfest activities!   Once again, we will be staying at the Four Points Sheraton Munich Central — easily the best location in Munich for Oktoberfest, as it is only two blocks away from the front gate!

OktoberfestAfter three days of beer, brats, and dirndls, I will separate from the group and fly to London with a friend from grad school where we will stay for four days at the Waldorf Hilton.  Finally, we will train up to Edinburgh, Scotland for the last three days of the trip at the Glasshouse Autograph Collection.

Will anyone else be in Munich for Oktoberfest this coming weekend (Closing Weekend – October 4-7)?

I’d also love recommendations for things to do, places to see, and for restaurants, and bars in both London and Edinburgh!

I can’t wait to throw on the lederhosen and boots and get this thing started!

Labor Day Weekend in Rio: Ten Things I Did in Rio

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


As detailed in an earlier post, I decided to head on down to Rio for Labor Day for a weekend of sun, fun, and caipirinhas!  Over four days and three nights, I managed to see and do a good bit.  There are several things that I’d like to do if I had more time, but all-in-all, four days is plenty of time to see most cities around the world.  Without further adieu, here’s ten crazy awesome things that I did in Rio…

Being a tourist

Being a tourist

Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer)

One of the eight wonders of the modern world, Cristo Redentor is a sight to behold.  Perched almost 3,000 feet over the city on the Corcavado, Cristo Redentor is a must while you’re in Rio.  Our group hired a private guide who took us in a bus up to the top of Corcovado.  The statue was impressive, and the views of Rio are purely spectacular.  This is one of the few places I’ve ever been where I got the chills taking in the views and just realizing where I was standing at that moment in time.  It’s truly the iconic symbol of Brazil, and it was surely an amazing experience.

The sights and sounds of Ipanema Beach

Ipanema is without a doubt the most active beach in Rio.  Centered around lifeguard post 9, Ipanema is the epicenter of scantily clad Brazilians of all shapes and sizes.  Spending a few hours here soaking in the sun and some cheap Brazilian beer is a must.  I ended up spending the better part of six hours on Ipanema with my group of about 12 friends.  Many beers were had.  Brazilian gifts were procured.  Dental floss bikinis were seen.  The weather was a perfect 80 degrees and sunny.  It was pretty much paradise.

 

Have a caipirinha along Copacabana

Copacabana Beach from the JW Marriott

Copacabana Beach from the JW Marriott

The caipirinha is the iconic adult beverage in Brazil, and there’s nowhere better to have it than on one of the country’s most famous beaches.  Our group had multiple caipirinhas during this trip, but none perhaps as memorable as late night along the sidewalk at Copacabana.  It was an awesome time just people watching and enjoying this Brazilian treat.

Visit the Feira de São Cristóvão marketplace for an authentic lunch

After the trip to Sugarloaf, the group was led by our guide, Carlos to a large market in downtown Rio called Feira de São Cristóvão.  Here, we at lunch at a fantastic spot called Estação Baião De Dois.  We got what amounted to a mound of meat – and that was fine by everyone.  Absolutely delicious.  We appeared to be the only Westerners in the place, and that was a good thing – the food was amazing.

Attend a futbol game at Maracanã StadiumIMG_4574

This was at the very top of my list!  I love going to sporting events when in other countries.  I always try to attend a futbol game when I’m in Europe or South America.  Maracanã is the epitome of international soccer.  In addition to being the de facto home of the Braziilian National Team, it was also home to the first FIFA World Cup Final.  It will be the home of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Final.  And of course, it will also be the site for the Opening Ceremonies of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.  Needless to say, I was pretty pumped about getting to see a soccer game in this venue – arguably the most famous soccer venue in the world (no disrespect to Wembley and Camp Nou).  We had amazing seats – about fifteen rows up from midfield for the game between Sao Paulo and hometown Botafogo (one of four teams that call Rio home).  This marked my second soccer game in South America in six months (River Plate in Buenos Aires last March), so naturally, I was thrilled.

Gorge yourself at a Brazilian Churrascarria

One of the first things people think of when they think of Brazillian food is the Brazilian steakhouse, or churrascaria.   Popularized by chains in the states such as Fogo de Chão and Texas de Brazil, these places are literally all you can eat steak… just delicious.  We ate at one of the more popular places in Rio called Porçao in Ipanema.  It was indeed delicious, albeit relatively expensive.  In the future, I’d probably head to a more low key place where I would likely get the same quantity and quality of food for maybe half the price.

Rio and Sugar Loaf

Rio and Sugar Loaf

Sugarloaf Mountain

We took the tram up to Sugarloaf mountain – another popular landmark in Rio.  From here, you can see another angle of the beaches, and downtown, as well as a very unique view of planes approaching the Santos-Dumont Airport – from above!  The tram ride up to the mountain is fantastic featuring awesome views of the beaches and harbor.

Sample some cachaça at Academia de Cachaça

As the main liquor ingredient in the caipirinha, cachaça is a liquor that is foreign to most Americans.  So naturally, like good tourists, we set out to sample all sorts of cachaça at Academia de Cachaça in Leblon.  This place had dozens upon dozens of different flavors, types, and kinds of cachaça – it was pretty impressive.  I admittedly did not partake in too much of it since I was glued to my phone awaiting updates on the season opener for my beloved Auburn Tigers.  Needless to say, the rest of the group sampled multiple types of cachaça.

Sample the nightlife on a pub crawl

When I show up in a foreign city with no clue what to do as far as nightlife is concerned, I’ve found that a pub crawl is a great way to get introduced to some of the livelier neighborhoods in the city.  Three of use decided to partake in the Pub Crawl Carioca.  This was a good time with a  mix of locals and tourists.  We went to four places in Leblon, Ipanema, and Lagoa.  While some pub crawls are a bust, this one was most certainly not!

Take in sunset on Copacabana on the JW Marriott rooftop with a drink in hand

My hotel for the weekend was the JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro.  Its location in the middle of Copacabana is hard to beat.  The hotel itself is great — I really had no complaints, as the location really just makes the place probably the premier place to stay in Rio.  The room was more than adequate, and the club lounge was great.  One of the coolest features of the hotel is its 18th floor rooftop pool, bar, and terrace.  The views of Copacabana in the front, and Corcavado in the back are ridiculous.  With a few beers and caipirinha’s in hand, our group enjoyed the first evening on Friday night as the sun went below the mountains in the West.

Though three nights and four days is plenty of time to see Rio, there are still several things that I would have loved to do if I had even more time in Rio.  And that may happen in the near future, as I’m currently booked to return to Rio de Janeiro next June for the 2014 FIFA World Cup!

 

Labor Day Weekend in Rio: Introduction

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


As I landed in Istanbul last Valentine’s Day, I received an e-mail alerting me to an inordinately low fare to Rio de Janeiro on United for pretty much all year.  I just happened to be on this trip to Istanbul with a bunch of travel friends, so the only logical thing for us to do was to immediately book a trip together to Rio!

So there we were, drinking free alcohol from the Club Level of the Grand Hyatt Istanbul – just blocks from Taksim Square.  And what were we doing?  Planning out what to do in Istanbul that weekend?  Nope.

We were trying to book the most insane routings you could think of to get to Rio de Janeiro over Labor Day weekend and rack up as many miles as possible.  At the time, this was a great idea since I was gunning for United Premier 1K status.  Now, having achieved that status a few weeks ago, this routing looks pretty silly — even to me.Screen shot 2013-08-28 at 4.09.22 PM

Thursday morning, I will be flying to Orlando — and then Houston to catch my Thursday night redeye flight to Rio de Janeiro.  On Monday evening, I’ll be on the overnight flight back to Houston and then will be connecting to Denver, back to Orlando, and finally home to DC.  It’s a total of 14,812 miles in an airplane — a perfect way to spend the weekend, right?

This may not suck Courtesy:  JW Marriott Hotel Rio de Janeiro

This may not suck
Courtesy: JW Marriott Hotel Rio de Janeiro

There are at least a dozen travel / miles enthusiasts who are making this trip, and we have a bunch of events planned.   I’m slated to stay at the JW Marriott Rio de Janeiro — smack-dab in the middle of the famed Copacabana Beach.  I will be staying a total of four days and three nights in Rio – a perfect getaway for Labor Day weekend.  During my time here, I will be spending some time on the beach, touring various sights including Sugarloaf Mountain, Christ the Redeemer, and the beach neighborhoods of Leblon, Ipanema, and Copacabana.  I also plan on sampling a ton of Brazilian food including dinner at Porcao – one of the more famous churrascarias (Brazilian-style steakhouses).

Sunday, I’ll be attending a futbol (soccer) game at the famous Marancana Stadium — the future site of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Final and the Opening Ceremonies of the 2016 Olympic Summer Games.  I especially can’t wait for that, as I love going to sporting events in other countries.

I’ve been to Rio before, but was only there for a few hours on Ipanema Beach during a layover to start out my crazy 15-day adventure this past June.  I’m definitely looking forward to spending some more time in Rio.  Who knows?  If I love it, I may just go back for the 2014 FIFA World Cup — I’ve already got award tickets booked just in case!

Does anyone have any suggestions for some other things to do or places to eat while in Rio?  If so, I’d love to hear them!

A Weekend Trip to Alaska

Two weekends ago, I booked an impulsive, last-minute weekend trip to Anchorage, Alaska on a Wednesday night — my flight was scheduled for first thing on Friday morning.  After a late Thursday night out in DC, I found myself at Washington’s Ronald Reagan National Airport for an early-ish 7:45am flight to Chicago.  Before I booked this trip, I was sure that all my segments would upgrade to first class by using some Regional Premier Upgrades that I had on United.

The path of my journey

The path of my journey

My flight to Chicago and then on to Anchorage were both uneventful, but about as good as it gets for domestic first class on United.  The Chicago to Anchorage leg was a cool 6.5 hours, but DirecTV and movies, along with a proper meal and ice cream sundae helped pass the time pretty well.

I arrived at Anchorage’s Ted Stevens International Airport at around 1:30pm and immediately took a cab downtown for about $20.  I planned to do this trip without a rental car, since the prices on rental cars were astronomical, and I was trying to do this trip on a low budget.  Another cheaper option to get from the airport to downtown is Anchorage’s People Mover Bus system.  The 7 Bus runs hourly between the airport and downtown (and vice-versa) for only $1.75.  This takes about 30-35 minutes instead of the roughly 15 minute cab ride.  Keeping with the low budget theme, I planned to stay in a hostel in Anchorage given the notoriously high Anchorage hotel prices.

Humpy's Halibut n Chips with a flight of Alaskan Brewery Beers

Humpy’s Halibut n Chips with a flight of Alaskan Brewery Beers

I arrived at my original hostel — The Alaska Backpacker’s Inn — and had an immediate, terrible first impression.  It was several blocks away from central downtown, it was filthy, and the girl at the front desk advised me that check-in was not allowed for another couple hours.  So I stored my bag, and briefly considered just booking a hotel for the weekend, but cooler heads prevailed and I just walked to a bar instead. Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse in downtown was highly recommended by some friends, so I went there.  I had some great halibut fish n chips, as well as several beers from their solid beer selection.  I also go to talking to some folks at the bar who advised that I check out the Bent Prop Inn, Downtown — a hostel just a block or so away, which they said was much nicer.

So I did just that — the guys who run the Bent Prop Inn could not have been any more kind.  The place was much cleaner, and they were able to accommodate me for the weekend.  It has a fantastic location right by the Marriott, and the price was right — $30 for the first night, and $25 for the second night for a bed in a 8-bunk bed dorm.  By the time I’d gotten my things and settled down back at the Bent Prop, it was past 10pm Alaskan time (2am Eastern), and I needed some sleep.

I was up early the next morning for breakfast at Snow City Cafe.  This place is a must for breakfast in Anchorage.  The line was out the door at 7:15am, but I was able to get a spot at the bar after about ten minutes.  I ordered the Kodiak Eggs Benedict, which featured King Crab, and was freakin’ amazing.

For the day, I’d arranged a trip out to the Alyeska Resort in nearby Girdwood, Alaska.  As previously mentioned, I did not have a rental car, so instead I booked a round-trip on the Alaskan Railroad for about $46 each way.  This provided a relaxing 90-minute train ride along Turnagain Sound to Girdwood.  Once in Girdwood, the Alyeska Resort has a shuttle that picks passengers up and takes them to the resort.

Above Girdwood and the Turnagain Sound in the distance

Above Girdwood and the Turnagain Sound in the distance

The Alyeska Resort is the premier ski resort in Alaska.  With it being Summer time, it was prime for hiking, mountain biking, and other outdoors activities.  I decided to give the mountain a climb.  There are very defined hiking trails up Mount Alyeska, and since there was a race going on that day, there were  a good bit of people making the climb.  Because of this, my concerns about bear encounters were significantly diminished, and I managed to hike up to the mid-mountain tram station where the uber-popular Seven Glaciers Restaurant is located.  I had lunch at another location, since Seven Glaciers is only open for dinner.  Everyone I’ve talked to highly recommended Seven Glaciers, and it did indeed look amazing.

After lunch, I proceeded to hike up as far up the mountain as I could.  I made it quite a ways up when the hiking trail basically ended just short of the glacier atop Mount Alyeska.  I was ready to stop hiking at that point due to exhaustion and the fact that at this point I was the only one up there — it was a tad creepy, and I couldn’t help but worry a bit about bears.

So down I went back down to the mid-mountain tram spot.  I went ahead and trammed back down the mountain and hopped the shuttle to the nearby town of Girdwood, where I had lunch and some drinks at one of the resort bars called the Sitzmark Bar & Grill.  This was a ski-lodge type bar at the base of a couple ski runs that were being used as mountain bike tracks that day.  After several beers, I again hopped the shuttle back to the Girdwood station for my return train ride to Anchorage.

Not a bad way to spend a Saturday evening

Not a bad way to spend a Saturday evening

I really enjoyed the Alaska Railroad, and found it an very relaxing and scenic way to travel around.  Though a car would have been twice as fast to Alyeska, one was also much more expensive.  I arrived back in Anchorage at 9:45pm, and of course the sun was still up.  That didn’t matter much to me, as I was exhausted and headed to bed.

Sunday morning I once again headed to Snow City Cafe, but this time ordered the Crabby Omelet.  Again, it was amazing.  As I said before, this place is a must visit breakfast place in Anchorage.  It was rainy that morning, and I had several hours to kill before I had to return to the airport for my flight back home.  I spent that time walking though town and observing the Anchorage Marathon, which was happening that morning.  As lunchtime was upon me, I headed to F Street Station for a helping of beer battered halibut and some beers.  Wow, this halibut was fantastic — highly recommended.  Apparently F Street Station is also quite the hangout late night for locals.   After a quick nap at the hostel, I hopped on the 7 bus to the airport and then boarded my United Airlines redeye flight back to Chicago and then to DC on Monday morning.  Being the good employee that I am, I proceeded directly from Dulles Airport to work.

Overall, this was a helluva way to spend a weekend.  I enjoyed every minute of it.  As my third trip to Alaska, it was the first time that I got to spend some time in Anchorage.  While there honestly isnt’ much to the city itself, the surrounding area is absolutely beautiful.

DC to Dubai and Tokyo via… Santiago? Review: United BusinessFirst: Tokyo – Denver

Introduction
Planning
TAM Economy Class New York JFK – Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro
Santiago
LAN Economy Class Santiago – Sao Paulo
TAM Economy Class Sao Paulo – New York JFK
United BusinessFirst Denver to Tokyo Seattle (Emergency Landing)
United BusinessFirst on the 787 Seattle to Tokyo
Cathay Pacific Regional Business Class Tokyo Narita – Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific “The Wing” Business Class Lounge Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific Business Class Hong Kong – Dubai
Dubai, Day 1 (Traiteur Brunch, Park Hyatt Dubai, Burj Khalifa, Atlantis Palm Islands)
Dubai, Day 2 (Shark Dive at Dubai Aquarium, Burj Al Arab, 360)
Cathay Pacific Business Class Dubai – Hong Kong – Tokyo Haneda
Tokyo, Day 1 (Park Hyatt arrival, Roppongi)
Tokyo, Day 2 (Imperial Palace, Shibuya Crossing, Ebisu, Kendo, Dinner and drinks in Shinjuku)
Tokyo, Day 3 (Ramen lunch, Harajuku, Meiji Shrine, Baseball at the Tokyo Dome, Dinner at New York Grill)
Tokyo, Day 4 (Tsukiji Market, Tokyo Subway, Airport Transfers)
Park Hyatt Tokyo
United BusinessFirst Tokyo – Denver


Boarding the Dreamliner for a long flight over the Pacific

Boarding the Dreamliner for a long flight over the Pacific

It took almost an hour and 45 minutes to get from the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku to Narita Airport.  This airport is really nowhere close to Tokyo, as we ventured far from the city center, all the way out to Narita.  Narita is Tokyo’s primary international gateway, but Haneda is definitely the closer of the two airports.  In the future, if I’m staying in Tokyo, I will try to get on a flight into Haneda if at all possible.  The drive out of Tokyo was nice since I got to see some areas of Tokyo that I had not seen before.

Eventually, we pulled first into the city of Narita, and then into the departures area of the airport.  I grabbed my bag and headed to check-in, where there was no line at all.  I quickly went through security and immigration and headed to the United Club since it was only about 90 minutes prior to departure at that point.  The United Club was absolutely slam packed, so I did not take any pictures.  I did; however, have a few beers from the automatic beer machine — I definitely need one of those in my kitchen!  After about 45 minutes in the lounge, boarding for the Denver flight was announced, and I headed down to the gate to embark on a sparkling new United 787 Dreamliner (ship# 3901).

United Airlines (UA) 138
Tokyo-Narita (NRT) – Denver (DEN)
Aircraft: Boeing 787-8
Seat: 1E (BusinessFirst)
Thursday, June 27
5:00 PM – 12:50 PM
Duration: 10:50

Seat 1E

Seat 1E

It’s a pretty awesome thing whenever one is seated in row 1 on an international flight, as this almost certainly means that your flight will probably not suck.  We boarded the aircraft through door 1L and the flight attendant showed me to my seat — seat 1E in the front BusinessFirst cabin.

On this flight, the BusinessFirst cabin was completely full, but I still had plenty of room in my seat.  Since I was traveling by myself, I prefer the middle pair of seats so I wouldn’t have to climb over anybody to get to by belongings during the flight, and so I wouldn’t have anyone climbing over me when I was asleep.  This turned out to be a good idea, because my seat-mate was pretty intoxicated — I mean, flat-out drunk.  Luckily, he passed before we even took off, but he did receive a warning from the flight attendant when he woke up a few hours out of Denver.  We departed Tokyo on time, and rolled out past what seemed like dozens of JAL 787 Dreamliners before we rolled down the runway en route for Denver.

After about an hour in flight, the dinner service started.  It was very similar to the menu on the flight over with one Japanese entrée and three Western entrees to choose from.  Since I’d eaten the beef tenderloin on the flights over, I chose the Hawaiian Sea Bass for my main on this flight.  It was excellent, though the sushi, ironically was not quite as good as it was on the flights over (go figure!).  Overall, dinner was very, very good.  Though it was not quite as good as the dinners on the outbound flights, it was definitely tasty and cooked correctly.

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After I finished my sundae for dessert, I had a few drinks and watched several episodes of House of Cards on the in-flight entertainment (IFE) system.  The IFE on the new and newly renovated United (ex-Continental) planes is fantastic with a multitude of movies, tv shows, and other entertainment to choose from.  It is certainly enough to entertain someone for a ten-hour transpacific flight.

IFE and legroom in seat 1E

IFE and leg room in seat 1E

After a few episodes of House of Cards, I reclined my seat to the lie-flat position and dozed off for about 5-6 hours of shut-eye.  The bed was extremely comfortable, and I slept right up until the flight attendants started the breakfast service.  As I’ve mentioned before, the bulkhead rows on United’s BusinessFirst cabins provide much more leg-room in the foot well, providing for a much more comfortable ride.

Anyway, breakfast was served — I ordered the omelet.  It was pretty good — certainly an improvement over United’s domestic first class breakfasts.  Overall, this was a fantastic flight with a great, attentive crew, awesome IFE, good food, and a comfy seat — definitely not a bad way to cross the Pacific!

We arrived in Denver almost 90 minutes early.  Since I was seated in the first row, I was off the plane in a hurry.  After a long walk to Denver International Airport’s immigration area, I broke to the right to proceed through Global Entry.  After about 30 seconds, I was cleared and headed out into the main terminal.  Global Entry is absolutely fantastic, and in my mind is definitely worth the $100 fee for five years.

Because of my early arrival in Denver, I went ahead and changed to an earlier flight back to Washington-Dulles.  By doing this, I gave up my first class upgrade back to IAD, but I did nab and exit row.  The major win here was that it got me back home almost 3.5 hours earlier.  After a relatively short, non-eventful flight back to Dulles, I hopped the Washington Flyer bus back to West Falls Church Metro Station and took the train back home.  WIth that, my 15 day adventure all over the world was over!

DC to Dubai and Tokyo via… Santiago? Review: Park Hyatt Tokyo

Introduction
Planning
TAM Economy Class New York JFK – Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro
Santiago
LAN Economy Class Santiago – Sao Paulo
TAM Economy Class Sao Paulo – New York JFK
United BusinessFirst Denver to Tokyo Seattle (Emergency Landing)
United BusinessFirst on the 787 Seattle to Tokyo
Cathay Pacific Regional Business Class Tokyo Narita – Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific “The Wing” Business Class Lounge Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific Business Class Hong Kong – Dubai
Dubai, Day 1 (Traiteur Brunch, Park Hyatt Dubai, Burj Khalifa, Atlantis Palm Islands)
Dubai, Day 2 (Shark Dive at Dubai Aquarium, Burj Al Arab, 360)
Cathay Pacific Business Class Dubai – Hong Kong – Tokyo Haneda
Tokyo, Day 1 (Park Hyatt arrival, Roppongi)
Tokyo, Day 2 (Imperial Palace, Shibuya Crossing, Ebisu, Kendo, Dinner and drinks in Shinjuku)
Tokyo, Day 3 (Ramen lunch, Harajuku, Meiji Shrine, Baseball at the Tokyo Dome, Dinner at New York Grill)
Tokyo, Day 4 (Tsukiji Market, Tokyo Subway, Airport Transfers)
Park Hyatt Tokyo


I’m not going to make it a habit to regularly review hotels unless the stay is extraordinary — and this stay at the Park Hyatt Tokyo was exactly that.

As previously mentioned, I arrived from Tokyo’s Haneda airport and was whisked away to the 41st floor lobby, where I was escorted to my room by two people where they performed the check-in procedure in my room.  This alone was impressive to me.  As stated before, I had an Park Deluxe Twin room on the 44th floor.  It was very good-sized with all the amenities one could want.

Executive Twin Room

Executive Twin Room

My room

My room

Bathroom

Bathroom

There were so many details that were not missed in the room, and little surprises awaited me in every drawer, nook, and cranny of the room.  The room included a pretty spectacular walk-in closet, along with a large bathroom with twin sinks, a full-sized tub, walk-in shower, and toilet.  I had a wonderful view South from my room towards the Shibuya area.

View from my room

View from my room

The service at the Park Hyatt Tokyo was phenomenal wherever I went.  From the check-in procedure, to the breakfast service at Girandole, to the bar and dinner service at the New York Grill — everything was top-notch.

The 41st floor features The Peak Bar and Lounge, which features high, glass ceilings and spectacular views of Tokyo.

The Peak Bar and Lounge

The Peak Bar and Lounge

IMG_3957 IMG_3955 IMG_3953 IMG_3952As you walk towards the lobby, you pass Girandole, the restaurant where breakfast is served.  I enjoyed two spectacular breakfasts here, both times ordering the eggs Benedict.

Girandole

Girandole

Eggs Benedict at Girandole

Eggs Benedict at Girandole

There is also a Japanese restaurant, Kozue that I did not try, which gets high marks.   Up top is the iconic New York Grill, from Lost in Translation fame.  The 2003 film featuring Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray used the Park Hyatt and specifically the New York Bar and Grill as the setting. It did not fail to disappoint, as both the food and service were excellent both times I went there.

Happy Hour at the New York Bar at Park Hyatt Tokyo

Happy Hour at the New York Bar at Park Hyatt Tokyo

The Park Hyatt Tokyo's famous New York Grill and Bar

The Park Hyatt Tokyo’s famous New York Grill and Bar

I’ve stayed at some very nice hotels in my life, but this one took the cake — this was without a doubt the most over-the-top and nice hotel in which I’ve ever stayed.

How I managed to stay here…

I was able to stay at the Park Hyatt Tokyo for three nights.  For two of the nights, I used two free nights which I received after applying for the Chase Hyatt Visa Card.  The third night, I used 22,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points that I have accumulated over time.  For reference, a normal night at the Park Hyatt Tokyo is typically over $550 per night, so this would qualify as a pretty good use of points if you ask me!Screen Shot 2013-07-23 at 7.20.48 PM