• 25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 8 – Cape Town & Radisson Blu Waterfront

    by  • May 28, 2017 • 0 Comments

    Previous Trip Notes:
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 7 – JNB InterContinental & SAA Economy to CPT
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 6 – Mauritius & Hilton Resort & Spa
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 5 – Emirates First Class Lounge Dubai & EK703
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 4 – Dubai, Al Maha & Sheraton Mall of the Emirates
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 3 – IAD & EK232
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 2 – Trip Report Setup
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 1 – Planning

    We landed in Cape Town, took some cash out of the ATM while waiting for our bags, then made our way to the taxi stand, where there were many unsanctioned transportation providers. We managed to find the proper mini-van taxi and took off to the Radisson Blu hotel. The taxi ride was more expensive than I thought it would be, but according to Maps.Me they took us on the most direct route.

    We arrived at the Radisson Blu well before check-in time, but they managed to get us in one room. We dropped off our bags and walked over to the V&A Waterfront Mall. It was a huge shopping center – both indoor and outdoor. The weather was coolish/warm, with the sun shining, so the 10-15 minute walk pushing NSPpeanut in a stroller was nice. With the famous Table Mountain as one backdrop right beyond the large soccer stadium built for the 2010 World Cup, and the Cape Town harbor on the other, the sights did not disappoint. And little did we know it would only get better from there.

    After strolling around for a while, we grabbed lunch at an admittedly touristy lunch spot, and then went down a level to buy some groceries at the Pick n Pay (and by saying “buy groceries,” I mean beer and wine). This grocery store was great. Beer was cheap, and wine even cheaper. They had tons of baby food pouches, baby wipes and diapers that we were running low on. The pouches even had some South African focused flavors to help change up NSPpeanut’s routine of Beef Medley, Chicken Casserole and Vegetable Bake.

    We headed back to the hotel and relaxed for a little bit outside at the pool, which sits right along the cape. It was very tranquil and beautiful. Tired from two days of traveling, we decided to eat at the hotel restaurant. While the food was pretty good, service took forever. With a 15-month old in tow, you would think they would try to push the kitchen a little. Instead, it took ten minutes to come over and acknowledge us. Ten more minutes for water. Ten minutes to come back to take our order. 25 minutes for appetizers (and finally the chicken nuggets and fries for NSPpeanut), and then another 45 minutes for dinner. We felt bad that NSPpeanut decided she had enough and wouldn’t sit in her high chair any longer, but we had been waiting for over 90 minutes before our meals even came out! We had ordered dessert in advance, and by time we had finished eating, the meal clocked in at over two and a half hours! We were exhausted, and went to bed early, as we had planned a two-day private tour starting at 9am the following morning.

    We researched various tour guides for weeks before settling on Cape Town Private Tours. The only downside was that they did not take a credit card (and thus no discount by using the Barclay Arrival card). We opted to go with this tour operator despite not being able to use a credit card for a few reasons. First, their response time and insight when we emailed them were great. They said they could take us on the routes we asked for, but they proposed a different schedule as well their reasons for changing it up a bit. In the end, we took their recommendations and were very glad that we did so. Second, they were extremely knowledgeable – it was a husband and wife duo – Charl and Erna, and Charl had a PhD in history and could answer every question we had. Third, they were willing to be flexible, something that was much needed with a 15-month old.

    Charl greeted us at 9am in his Mercedes, was patient as we loaded in NSPpeanut, and we took off heading south. The first stop was at Boulders Beach. We were super excited for this stop, as NSPpeanut’s favorite animal was a penguin, and here she was about to see hundreds of penguins on the beach. While she couldn’t talk yet, she certainly showed her excitement at seeing her favorite friends.

    Boulders Beach - South Africa

    Boulders Beach – South Africa

    Boulders Beach - South Africa

    Boulders Beach – South Africa

    Boulders Beach - South Africa

    Boulders Beach – South Africa

    We grabbed a coffee and pastry at the gift shop and then continued down south. We pulled off the side of the road a couple times to take some pictures, and then went to an Ostrich Farm right outside the entrance to the Table Mountain National Park. It was a quick 30-minute tour, and while not exactly cheap, was very educational.

    Standing on an Ostrich Egg

    Standing on an Ostrich Egg

    NSPpeanut with Ostrich Babies

    NSPpeanut with Ostrich Babies

    Lavender at Ostrich Farm

    Lavender at Ostrich Farm

    At that point we headed in towards the Cape of Good Hope. Charl dropped us off at the restaurant as he searched for parking. He had reserved a table in advance, overlooking the cape. Oh. My. God. It was beautiful.

    View from Restaurant

    View from Restaurant

    We splurged on a large sushi lunch, paired with some South African wines, and took in the setting. Food in South Africa is cheap, and despite the fact that we were eating sushi, drinking wine, and were in a tourist restaurant, the bill was still amazingly inexpensive.

    After lunch, we headed up the mountain. We opted to walk in lieu of the cable car, a decision that halfway up we regretted. But the views just kept getting better and better. After seeing the Tetons in Jackson, Wyoming, the beaches in the Maldives, the dunes outside of Dubai, and the Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany, these views topped the list.

    Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

    Cape Point, South Africa

    Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

    Cape Point, South Africa

    Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

    Cape Point, South Africa

    Directions from Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

    Directions from Cape Point, South Africa

    Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

    Cape Point, South Africa

    Pictures just don’t do it justice. Sadly, drones were illegal in all National Parks in South Africa, so I couldn’t get any aerial coverage. We did opt to take the cable car back down, and then headed over to the Cape of Good Hope where we spotted some wildlife:

    Wild Ostrich

    Wild Ostrich

    Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

    Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

    Sadly a dead whale was washed up on the beach:

    Dead Whale

    Dead Whale[/caption

    We then took off and started our way back to Cape Town, stopping at some other beautiful landmarks, such as the 12 Apostles mountains:

    [caption id="attachment_2704" align="aligncenter" width="500"]12 Apostles, Cape Town, South Africa 12 Apostles, Cape Town, South Africa

    Overall the day was fantastic. And when we got back to the hotel, we had arranged for massages. Cheap to begin with, but coupled with the 50% Barclays and boy was it a steal!

    We relaxed for a little bit and then headed back to the V&A Waterfront for dinner. We selected a South African restaurant. Again, it is amazing how cheap the food was at restaurants. NSPpeanut was fantastic, as she fell asleep before the food even came out, so we had a very nice and relaxing dinner. Afterwards we packed it in, as we had another early start the next morning.

    Charl met us again in the morning, and we took off for Stellenbosch, a great South African wine region. We started by hitting up a vineyard on the way to Franschhoek, a cute little town with botiques and cafes. Both the vineyard and Franschhoek were great.

    NSPpeanut Admiring the Vineyard Grounds

    NSPpeanut Admiring the Vineyard Grounds

    First Vineyard Stop

    First Vineyard Stop

    Views in Franschhoek

    Views in Franschhoek

    On the way back we stopped at Simonsig. The wine tasting and scenery was amazing:

    Simonsig Wine Estate

    Simonsig Wine Estate

    Our next step wasto the one place I wanted to visit for months: The Thirsty Scarecrow. This is a restaurant within a strawberry field. I thought NSPpeanut would love the pick strawberries. And I couldn’t wait to try their strawberry beer lager…hoping it would be similar to my all-time favorite: Abita Strawberry. Alas, neither were meant to be. The strawberry patch, although plentiful, was not open for picking. And they had run out of strawberry beer. I opted to try another strawberry drink, but it wasn’t anything special.

    By that point, the wine and beer and food had been flowing for hours, and it was time to call it a day. NSPwife and NSPpeanut fell asleep in the back of Charl’s Mercedes E-Class, and I setup the GoPro.

    The Radisson Blu Waterfront was very nice, with a very inexpensive spa and restaurant.

    Infinity Pool, Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town

    Infinity Pool, Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town

    Infinity Pool, Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town

    Infinity Pool, Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town

    NSPpeanut Chillin on the Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town, Patio

    NSPpeanut Chillin on the Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town, Patio

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town - Restaurant

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town – Restaurant

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town - Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town – Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town - Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town – Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town - Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town – Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town - Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town – Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town - Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town – Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town - Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town – Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town - Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town – Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town - Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town – Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town - Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town – Breakfast Buffet

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town - Patio

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town – Patio

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town - Lobby Entrance

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town – Lobby Entrance

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town

    Radisson Blu Waterfront, Cape Town

    We were so exhausted, and NSPpeanut was near-delusional, that we opted to try our hand at dinner again. This time the service was much better, and faster.

    We woke up the next morning, grabbed the breakfast buffet and headed to the airport. Soon would be the long slog, Cape Town > Doha > JFK > DCA. Over 11,500 miles in roughly 24 hours:

    Our Long Flight(s) Home

    Our Long Flight(s) Home

    There was a surprise, however, in the waiting…

    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 7 – JNB InterContinental & SAA Economy to CPT

    by  • March 29, 2017 • 0 Comments

    Previous Trip Notes:
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 6 – Mauritius & Hilton Resort & Spa
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 5 – Emirates First Class Lounge Dubai & EK703
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 4 – Dubai, Al Maha & Sheraton Mall of the Emirates
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 3 – IAD & EK232
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 2 – Trip Report Setup
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 1 – Planning

    We landed in JNB right at sunset:

    We were in the front of the plane, and I was itching to get off, grab our bags, check into the hotel, and watch the final three quarters of the Michigan vs. Michigan State football game. We made it to the baggage claim in record time, and then waited. And waited. And waited. Luckily, the airport offered 10MB of free WiFi, and I was able to follow along with CBS Sports Twitter feed. But we just waited soooooo long. Finally, about 45 minutes after arriving at the baggage claim, our bags arrived. At least, most of them. Another 10 minutes and our final bag came. We lugged them through customs, which was rather quick, and followed signs to the InterContinental – attached to the airport.

    The directions were not the best, often forgetting to place wayfinding at critical decision points. Add that with the fact that their luggage carts are specifically designed to be used on ESCALATORS, and it was quite the adventure:

    Escalators Designed for Luggage Carts

    Escalators Designed for Luggage Carts

    After getting lost once, we were finally given good directions and made our way to the hotel.

    The hotel itself was extremely nice. Beautiful lobby. 24-hour gym and pool. And the rooms were nice as well.

    InterContinental JNB

    InterContinental JNB

    InterContinental JNB

    InterContinental JNB

    InterContinental JNB Check-In

    InterContinental JNB Check-In

    InterContinental JNB Lobby

    InterContinental JNB Lobby

    InterContinental JNB Room Welcome Foyer

    InterContinental JNB Room Welcome Foyer

    InterContinental JNB Bathroom

    InterContinental JNB Bathroom

    InterContinental JNB Room with Crib

    InterContinental JNB Room with Crib

    InterContinental JNB Room Seating Area

    InterContinental JNB Room Seating Area

    InterContinental JNB Room Desk

    InterContinental JNB Room Desk

    I logged into my VPN and was able to watch a victorious 4th quarter while eating room service. Life was good. We had an early morning flight, so we put the baby to sleep and followed shortly thereafter.

    We woke up rather early and walked back to the airport. We made it to South African Airways check-in, and made our way to the check-in counter. We received our 3 boarding passes but nothing for the lap-child pass. I asked if we needed a pass for the baby and was told we did not. That didn’t sound right, but I had never traveled in Africa before.

    So we headed to the security queue, which was rather lengthy and made it to the front. And BAM. No lap-child pass, no entry. So now I had to run back to check-in, which had a massive line, and we were starting to race against the clock. Luckily a manager was walking by and I explained what had happened. She quickly took me to a computer, only to find out that the baby had been book on her own flight later that afternoon! Needless to say, it was fixed – and rather quickly – and I made it back to security, but at that point we were moving with haste.

    I flew down to the Bidvest Premier Lounge to grab some snacks and coffee for the plane. It was a nice lounge, and grabbed enough to hold us over on a relatively short flight in (gasp) economy. There were plenty of pastries, cheeses and drinks. While I wasn’t in the market for alcoholic drinks in the morning, the alcohol was locked up, apparently not being offered in the morning.

    By the time we arrived at the gate, they had begun boarding. We jumped on the flight, which was similar to any domestic economy class flight, except they did provide a small breakfast.

    It was a quick 11 hours in Johannesburg, that consisted of the airport and an attached hotel; however, we were on our way to three nights in Cape Town, with plenty of exploration planned.

    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 6 – Mauritius & Hilton Resort & Spa

    by  • February 24, 2017 • 0 Comments

    Previous Trip Notes:
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 5 – Emirates First Class Lounge Dubai & EK703
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 4 – Dubai, Al Maha & Sheraton Mall of the Emirates
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 3 – IAD & EK232
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 2 – Trip Report Setup
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 1 – Planning

    We arrived at the Mauritius Airport around 5pm and had booked taxi-service in advance through taxismauritius.com. Prices were very reasonable, and we made sure to reserve a mini-van given the amount of stuff we had. The driver was waiting at the arrivals area with my name on a placard, and we took a quick walk to the taxi. It was bright as could be, and since the drive was only about 45 minutes away, I thought we might be able to chase the sunset and watch it from our room similar to our experience in Costa Rica.

    Boy was I wrong. Within twenty minutes, it was completely dark outside. It was amazing how quickly the sun had set, so by time we arrived at the hotel, we were all exhausted. When we arrived, we were greeted by a gong:

    Welcome Gong

    We went to check-in, which was where we first realized that despite being thousands of miles from the Caribbean, Mauritians also set their watches to island time. Thirty minutes later we were checked in and they were showing us to our two adjoining rooms. The hotel was pretty booked up, so despite the fact that they were selling multiple suite types when we checked in, I didn’t hold my breath for an upgrade – and luckily so. Again, my streak as a Diamond member without a single upgrade continued.

    The rooms were nice, very similar to the Grand Hyatt in Bali; somewhat dated, not a ton of space, but there was a spacious balcony which would allow me to watch the sun go down and smoke a cigar. What more could you ask for?

    The grounds were fantastic. Sprawling pools, great landscaping, and ample beach chairs which always had availability. There was also a decent sized hot tub, perfect for NSPpeanut, particularly when it got cool in the early morning and evening. Upon check-in, we received a “towel key” for every person, and you have to turn in the keys to the pool desk to receive your beach towels. Given the location of the pool desk, it wasn’t an inconvenience and was easy then to trade out the towels whenever you wanted.

    Hilton Mauritius – View from Room Balcony

    Hilton Mauritius – Beach View

    Hilton Mauritius – Plenty of Beach Chairs

    Hilton Mauritius

    Hilton Mauritius – Lobby Bar Area

    Hilton Mauritius – Main Pool

    Hilton Mauritius – Infinity Pool

    Hilton Mauritius – Infinity Pool Bar

    Hilton Mauritius – Towel Check

    Hilton Mauritius – Main Pool Waterfall

    Hilton Mauritius – Hot Tub

    Hilton Mauritius – Main Pool Bar

    Hilton Mauritius – Main Grounds

    Hilton Mauritius – Check-In Area

    One of the highlights of staying at the Hilton were the complimentary water activities. This included everything from paddleboarding and kayaking to water-skiing and kite-surfing (although the winds were never low enough to be allowed to kite-surf given I was a beginner). We took advantage of the water-skiing, which was a great feeling to be doing so in the Indian Ocean:

    Hilton Mauritius – Complimentary Water Activities

    Hilton Mauritius – Complimentary Boat Ride to Water Skiing

    They also had land-based activities such as beach volleyball and ping pong tournaments:

    Hilton Mauritius – Beach Ping Pong

    Hilton Mauritius – Ping Pong Champion!

    Breakfast was mediocre at best. Of course it is difficult to provide an amazingly fresh robust breakfast when on an island in the middle of ocean; however, one of the downsides was the complete lack of variety each day. The one item they changed on our last day was the inclusion of home fries. I ate a couple entire plates, just because I was struggling to eat another chocolate croissant or vegetable curry.

    Hilton Mauritius – Breakfast

    Hilton Mauritius – Breakfast

    Hilton Mauritius – Breakfast

    Hilton Mauritius – Breakfast

    Hilton Mauritius – Breakfast

    Hilton Mauritius – Breakfast

    Hilton Mauritius – Breakfast

    Hilton Mauritius – Breakfast

    Hilton Mauritius – Breakfast

    Hilton Mauritius – Breakfast

    Hilton Mauritius – Breakfast

    Hilton Mauritius – Breakfast

    Hilton Mauritius – Breakfast

    Hilton Mauritius – Breakfast

    Hilton Mauritius – Breakfast

    Hilton Mauritius – Breakfast

    One day we arranged for a taxi driver to give us a half-day tour. We decided to head south, where we visited a number of local landmarks. We first went to the Chamarel waterfall, located within a national park. The waterfall was stunning, over 100 meters tall, and the views around it just as amazing. We then drove a few minutes to Seven Coloured Earths. It was an extremely cool experience and well worth the trip.

    Chamarel Waterfall – Mauritius

    Chamarel Waterfall – Mauritius

    Seven Coloured Earths – Mauritius

    Seven Coloured Earths – Mauritius

    On the way back to the hotel, we made two side stops. The first was to the Black River Gorge. This was upon request, as I wanted to fly my drone to get some videos of Mauritius, since drones are illegal in their national parks. The views were just amazing, and this was the first place we saw tourist-trap tents selling various wares. I of course had to pick up a Phoenix Beer t-shirt and pure sugar cane drink.

    Black River Gorge – Mauritius

    Black River Gorge – Mauritius

    Black River Gorge – Mauritius

    Lastly, we visited Ganga Talao, a natural pond/crater lake that is formed at the top of a mountain and which is now a sacred Hindu site.

    Ganga Talao – Mauritius

    Ganga Talao – Mauritius

    Ganga Talao – Mauritius

    We arrived back at the hotel and hung out at the pool for awhile until we went out for dinner. We decided to go to Domaine Anna, and we were not disappointed. While more on the “Chinese” spectrum than “Mauritian” – as far as food style goes – the restaurant is laid out in the middle of a sprawling pool of water, offering a very majestic feel. The food was also very good, and not very expensive. During our stay, we also ate at Ginger (a couple of times), the Thai restaurant at the Hilton:

    Hilton Mauritius – Ginger Restaurant

    The last morning I woke up early, around 6:30am. I headed out to the lobby area and was pleasantly surprised to see a fully stocked coffee bar. I helped myself to a couple coffees, but when I went for a third cup at 7:30am, it was completely gone and an afternoon water & juice station was set up! I thought that was strange, but not a huge deal since the breakfast buffet had a full coffee bar. Just something that was a bit unusual.

    Juice Replaced Coffee at 7:30am

    On our last day, at around 9am I asked the front desk if we could extend our check-out from noon to 12:45pm (45 minutes). They told me that unfortunately the hotel was sold out and they couldn’t accommodate. One of the supervisors wasn’t around, so I decided to head back to the room to begin to pack up and check back later. We packed up the rooms and headed down to breakfast (and the full supply of home fries). At about 10:30am on our way back, I again stopped at the front desk to see if we could check out at 12:30pm. Again I was told it wasn’t possible. I asked if I checked out of one of my two rooms right then (at 10:30), if we could have 30 extra minutes in our second room – again without a positive outcome. That was disappointing, and made our stay rushed to get a 15-month old packed up and ready to go. While not Earth-shattering, I just can’t believe the lack of basic accommodations for a top-tier level guest, and I’ll be content being a Hilton Gold in the future with no desire to chase Diamond status.

    Pro-tip: While we received conflicting information from various concierges, you in fact can charge taxis to the room, and the hotel will pay the taxi driver. Why is this important? A solid 50% discount on all travel-related charges with the Barclays Arrival card, of course!

    We headed back to the airport with the same taxi service that picked us up, and made it to the terminal. We were set to fly, gasp, economy, from Mauritius to Johannesburg. It’s just under a 5 hour flight, and NSPpeanut had her own seat. I had booked the tickets for 10,000 British Airways Avois + $44 per person in taxes. When checking in, I was told that for an additional $80 per person, we could upgrade to club class. Why would I want to do this? Michigan was playing Michigan State in football, and if I could get priority tags for my checked luggage, it would have been worth a million dollars to me so I could watch as much of the game as possible (I knew I would miss the first quarter no matter what).

    We upgraded and then headed to the Priority Pass Lounge. It was actually a pretty nice lounge for being in a very small airport (I’m still shocked that an A380 can land there!!).

    MRU - Salon Nenuphar Priority Pass Lounge

    MRU – Salon Nenuphar Priority Pass Lounge

    MRU - Salon Nenuphar Priority Pass Lounge

    MRU – Salon Nenuphar Priority Pass Lounge

    MRU - Salon Nenuphar Priority Pass Lounge

    MRU – Salon Nenuphar Priority Pass Lounge

    MRU - Salon Nenuphar Priority Pass Lounge

    MRU – Salon Nenuphar Priority Pass Lounge

    MRU - Salon Nenuphar Priority Pass Lounge

    MRU – Salon Nenuphar Priority Pass Lounge

    MRU - Salon Nenuphar Priority Pass Lounge

    MRU – Salon Nenuphar Priority Pass Lounge

    MRU - Salon Nenuphar Priority Pass Lounge

    MRU – Salon Nenuphar Priority Pass Lounge

    MRU - Salon Nenuphar Priority Pass Lounge, Gate Overlook

    MRU – Salon Nenuphar Priority Pass Lounge, Gate Overlook

    Before we knew it we were on board ready to rock and roll. As it turned out, the club seats were a good idea (again, the $80 per person is really $40 per person when using my Barclays Arrival card), as NSPpeanut was quite the terror, and we really needed the blocked middle seat that was utilized to “create business class.” We arrived on time, had to wait forever for luggage, and then headed right next door to the Intercontinental airport hotel. Overall, Mauritius was beautiful and well worth the visit. That really leaves Seychelles as the last island in the Indian Ocean that NSPwife and I would like to visit!

    *I realize I wrote a couple times about how I receive 50% off through the Barclays Arrival card. You can read the economics of this in this article.

    The Status Match Goal

    by  • January 27, 2017 • 0 Comments

    I’ve status matched and status challenged a number of times in the past decade. My first ever was a Delta status match from their Japan web site that was live for a couple of days. At the time I was a United Premier member (lowest on the totem pole), from the great days of double EQMs on every flight. During the one year I was a Delta Silver Medallion, I took exactly one Delta flight. Probably not the best use of a status match (particularly if matches are only “once in a lifetime”), but my experience on that single (short) flight from IND to MSP left me wanting Delta status if I ever moved to a Delta hub city. My complimentary upgrade cleared, and having complimentary adult beverages and snacks after a 3-day camping binge on the way to a wedding, the space and refreshments provided a sense of relief that I can still emotionally feel, close to a decade later.

    When I put that into comparison for a couple other recent status matches, I wonder what the executives were thinking, and hoping, by providing status matches. A few years ago I took the Hyatt Challenge – which incentivized me to actually move into a Hyatt for a few weeks in the middle of a work relocation. Win-win for everyone. I fell in love with the Diamond status benefits – again, the espresso machine and light snacks in Baltimore’s Hyatt Regency lounge weren’t life-altering, but when working 18+ hour days for a few weeks, to wake up and be able to grab 3 double-espresso lattes in to-go cups with 2 croissants in under a minute, the benefit felt life-altering. I’ve been a committed Hyatt fan since – staying at Hyatt’s across the globe, both on points and cash stays.

    Compare that to Hilton Diamond status, which I matched to late last year. I’ve been a Hilton Gold member for years through varying credit cards. And I LOVE the breakfast benefit. I decided to match to Diamond for a couple reasons: first, I knew we were heading to Aruba, and while we would spend a few nights at the Hyatt, I was interested in seeing what the Hilton Diamond status would provide. So we booked one night at the Hilton in Aruba. You can read my post about it here. Wow. What a letdown. First, let me start out by saying I always ask if an upgrade is available, but I don’t press it. At all. I didn’t earn the status through paid stays, and I don’t feel entitled to upgrades if they aren’t available. But in this case, we were staying for 1 night, arriving rather late in the afternoon, and the hotel was selling multiple suites. No upgrade? OK. Score +1 for Hyatt and the confirmed suite upgrade I was getting for the next few nights. If you read further into my trip report, for breakfast we received a pastry and orange juice. It was a joke. -1 for Hilton Diamond Status. Maybe it was just the Aruba property…we’ll see.

    A few stays at various Hilton properties throughout the year, nothing earth-shattering, no room upgrades, nothing that made me feel that Diamond status was better than Gold status.

    And then my most recent Hilton stay. I’m writing this post after a 3-night stay at the Hilton Resort & Spa in Mauritius. It’s a nice property – the grounds reminded me a lot of the Grand Hyatt in Bali. Very spread out, somewhat dated rooms, but overall quite nice. We arrived around 7:00pm. Check-in took nearly 30 minutes (you know, island time), only to be given a welcome letter when we get shown the room, with the employee inviting us to a GM reception cocktail hour…from 6:30pm-7:30pm. I asked: “So the reception is over?” And they responded that yes, unfortunately we have missed the reception by a couple of minutes. I’d understand if the welcome letter was left in the room; however, the letter was handed to us with an explanation of what it was. I asked if we could attend the one the following night, which they replied unfortunately it was only valid on the date you arrived.

    OK – not a big deal, but when you are the highest status of a loyalty reward program, you expect the highest level of convenience. Everyone should get great service, so you shouldn’t be given better service – but rather convenience. A Diamond member was set to arrive, and instead of pre-checking in the rooms, we had to wait for nearly 30 minutes (after a seven hour plane ride and hour taxi ride). Again, the mythical upgrade was not to be found despite the hotel selling three different suite types at the time of check-in. This again isn’t a knock on the property or made the stay any less enjoyable, but I would assume the goal of a status match is to make the guest want to remain at their matched status level. I would assume it is used as a tool to show potential high-value guests that their offering for elite members is better than their competitors. But apparently there is no difference between a Diamond and Gold member in the World of Hilton. I have zero reason, whether for business or personal travel, to try to attain Diamond status. I’m better off chasing Hyatt/Marriott/Starwood, as I already have Hilton Gold, and there’s nothing I get for increasing my loyalty. I couldn’t even receive a 30-minute late check-out for one of my two rooms (I even offered to check-out 2 hours early for one of my rooms). That’s not convenience – and if I had actually earned the status through paid stays, I’d never stay at a Hilton property again after that level (or lack there of) of service.

    One benefit that Hilton Diamond status allows is a “room guarantee.” I found that perk name to be quite misleading. On multiple occasions throughout the year, I needed a room at a hotel and was unable to book them. On the occasions that I was able to book them, one was for a DoubleTree in Charlottesville, Virginia, and one was for a Hampton Inn outside Iowa City, Iowa; however, I had to check the Hilton app about 3-4 times a day for weeks until finally they opened up a room, and in both cases just day(s) before the stay. Both of those worked out OK for me…worst case was that I would crash in a friend’s room somewhere else where they were staying. But again, top level elite status is about convenience. If I were not a fly-by-last-minute-is-ok type of guy, I would have booked a room somewhere else. And certainly checking constantly for weeks does not spell out convenience.

    I would assume that during the beginning of this year, Hilton will perform analysis on all guests with whom they offered a match at the end of 2015, also taking into account what program/level they matched from, to see if there was any lift in trips and/or revenue from these guests in 2016. My guess is that they will see anywhere from 1-2 stays – essentially trials, at which point then there isn’t a meaningful bump. I’d also be interested to see how their 2018 analysis of these guests are in 2017. The fact is, Hilton Diamond status offers nearly nothing beyond Gold – and any type of “Status Chasing” that I might have tried this year, be in through stays or credit card spend, went out the window. In Hilton’s case, they actually lost potential future revenue from me, given that I’ve seen there’s no wizard behind the curtain.

    Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe my experiences throughout the year are all anomalies. If not, Hilton just said: we’ll incent you to stay with us to prove that we have inferior top-level elite benefits compared to our peers. I’m not sure what the executives in their loyalty program were thinking. At the very minimum, if they are trying to compete with their competitors, a competitor assessment needs to be made for their top tier level.

    Have you had better experiences as a Diamond member? Will your status match result in increased spend within the Hilton brand in 2017 and beyond? I’m just baffled and am wondering if I just had some unfortunate experiences throughout this past year.

    That Bar is Going to Remain Quite Low - I'm Not Chasing to Get Back to DIA Status

    That Bar is Going to Remain Quite Low – I’m Not Chasing to Get Back to DIA Status

    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 5 – Emirates First Class Lounge Dubai & EK703

    by  • January 9, 2017 • 0 Comments

    Previous Trip Notes:
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 4 – Dubai, Al Maha & Sheraton Mall of the Emirates
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 3 – IAD & EK232
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 2 – Trip Report Setup
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 1 – Planning

    The category 5 hurricane that we refer to as NSPpeanut necessitated we catch up on as much sleep as possible, so the original plan of waking up at 4am and departing Al Maha early in order to spend as much time as possible experiencing Emirates First Class Lounge was changed, and we opted for a couple more hours of sleep. We used the car service from Al Maha to the Sheraton Mall of the Emirates, which wasn’t a bad price at about $75 – particularly since we could charge the taxi + sparkling waters we drank to the hotel and essentially receive a 50% discount by using our Barclaycard Arrival miles.

    At the Sheraton, we picked up NSPbabysitter and NSPpeanut, switched taxis to a large minivan, packed up the hundreds of bags that we brought, and headed towards DXB. Traffic was worse than I had expected, and we arrived only about 2 hours before our flight. A couple airport porters took our bags and escorted us to the special First Class check-in area. Five minutes later we were on our way through a short security queue, and about 90 minutes before our flight we were checked into the Emirates First Class Lounge, which in size, resembles the size of Cleveland’s entire airport.

    The Emirates First Class lounge is actually an entire floor above the main terminal, and spans the entire length of the terminal. In addition to standard drink areas, there are shops, Duty Free areas, a Cigar Lounge, kids play area, snack areas and a full-serve complimentary restaurant offering a la carte ordering or a buffet.

    Emirates First Class Lounge Restaurant, Dubai – Wagyu Burger

    Despite being around 8am, I asked if I would be able to order something off the lunch and dinner menu. The server had to check with the chef, but came back and said it wouldn’t be a problem. After a Wagyu burger and grilled prawns, we set off to our personal first class boarding area, separated from everyone else boarding the plane.

    Unlike our previous Emirates flight which was more than half empty, both economy and business class were 100% full. I had luckily booked the very first bulkhead row for NSPbabysitter and NSPpeanut, allowing for a very quick walk from our seats right upstairs.

    The Second A380 in as Many Days

    The next thing that happened was just amazing. The purser said that the approved airplane seat we had brought for NSPpeanut wasn’t allowed to support NSPpeanut during take-off, so she would have to come up with us. He also stated that since we had bought her own ticket, she was more than welcome to stay with us upstairs – allowing NSPbabysitter her first sleep in 48 hours, and also calmed NSPpeanut down to the point where she took full advantage of her upgrade:

    NSPpeanut Resting in Emirates First Class

    The flight attendants were again phenomenal. Attentive, helpful and provided a great experience. Of course I took my 2nd shower on a plane in almost as many days, and rather than a 2006 Dom Perignon, opted for the 1986 Ducru Beaucaillou Bordeaux. Absolutely amazing.

    1986 Ducru Beaucaillou

    While nearly seven hours, the flight flew by, and before I knew it, we were descending toward Mauritius.

    Again, I can’t emphasize how awesome the flight attendants were. This truly is what set Emirates apart from other airlines. Next stop, our second Indian Ocean island visit in two years…

    2016 Flights in Review

    by  • January 1, 2017 • 0 Comments

    What a year. Even with two road trips, one from Baltimore to Kiawah Island and back, and one from Chicago to Iowa City and back, I flew nearly 45,000 miles. The only flights purchased on cash fares were:

    • Baltimore to Indianapolis (about $150) on Southwest
    • Johannesburg, South Africa to Cape Town, South Africa (about $100) on South African Airways

    All other flights were made with points. Taxes totaled a few hundred dollars. Most flights on Southwest included a free ticket thanks to NSPwife’s Companion Pass. My flight back from San Luis Obispo was cancelled due to mechanical issues, so everyone was given a voucher for $200.

    Overall another great year – primarily due to Alaskan Airlines miles courtesy of Bank of America.

    2016 Flights

    2016 Flights – courtesy of gcmap.com

    Top 10 List:

    1. First Class BWI>SFO with wine tasting in SFO Centurion Lounge
    2. Companion Pass for 2 International Destinations: Aruba & Costa Rica
    3. Dom and 1986 Bordeaux in Emirates First
    4. First Class MIA>SJO for four of us with MIA Centurion Lounge
    5. Al Maha in the UAE, take two
    6. Andaz Papagayo in Costa Rica
    7. Qatar Business Lounge in Doha
    8. South Africa; all of it
    9. El Silencio Lodge & Spa in Costa Rica
    10. Showering on Emirates – twice

    A Few Nights in Aruba

    by  • December 26, 2016 • 0 Comments

    So…it turns out I never published this trip report from January of 2016, so I’m posting it nearly a year later. As not much changed with my opinion on Hilton Diamond status, I figured it was worth the post

    A few friends of ours head to Aruba every year and suggested we go this year. As Southwest flies non-stop from BWI, we have a companion pass (beginning of the fourth year with one), and lap-babies fly for a mere $17 in taxes, it was something that was difficult to pass up. Throw in a free night certificate at the Hilton from NSPwife’s Citi Hilton Reserve card that was expiring within a few weeks and Hyatt offering points and cash rooms, it was a no-brainer.

    Our flight departed at 8:30am. We got to the airport with plenty of time to spare, but when we tried to check in there was a problem with NSPpeanut’s ticket that took 30 minutes to clear up. Then we noticed that there was no Pre-Check on our boarding passes despite both of us having Global Entry courtesy of our AMEX Platinum cards. Come to find out Southwest doesn’t offer Pre-Check for international flights…good to know [Update: Southwest now offers Pre-Check on international fares]. And frustrating. There was no line for Pre-Check but a healthy one for the plebs, so plebs we be. While not a run-through-the-airport rush, we did not have time for either a bathroom break or to pickup breakfast. The plane was also 100% full, so the 4+ hour flight required NSPwife to hold NSPpeanut the entire time.

    The flight was bouncy but otherwise uneventful. We disembarked, went swiftly through customs (pro-tip: they pushed anyone with a baby and stroller to the front of the line…travel hack potential? Should I gate check a baby-less stroller on future flights?). We quickly grabbed our bags, a bottle of vodka from duty-free for our friends, and hopped in a cab.

    The cab ride was a bit longer than I had expected due to the traffic – it was about 30 minutes until we pulled up to the Hilton. As my Hyatt Diamond status was coming to a close, I had jumped on the Hilton Diamond Status Match. I had been a Hilton Gold member for years due to my various Hilton Credit Cards and was excited to see how Hilton treated its Diamond members. When we checked in, I was cautiously optimistic that we would be upgraded to a suite since we were only staying for one night; however, they only extended us an Ocean View room upgrade. As I didn’t technically earn Diamond status from past stays, I didn’t feel comfortable even pressing the front desk for perks, so gladly took the Ocean View room.

    The room was nice and spacious, with a small balcony overlooking the ocean.

    Hilton Aruba – View from Room

    Hilton Aruba – View from Room

    Hilton Aruba – View from Room

    Shortly after we got into the room, our bags and crib were delivered. I was curious if there would be any Diamond amenity, but it turned out that included only two small pieces of chocolate during turn-down service.

    Diamond Amenity Gift

    Diamond Amenity Gift

    We applied our sun-tan lotion and headed out to the pool. The outdoor area is very nice, with multiple large pools, exotic birds in cages, and many different food and bar options.

    Hilton Aruba – Pools

    Hilton Aruba – Pools

    Hilton Aruba – Pools

    We had a quick bite to eat, where I was introduced to the dominant domestic beer, Balashi (there would be more of that in my future). We met up with our friends who were staying at the Hyatt – only a short 3 minute walk, and joined them on the beach under their hut-like umbrellas. By that point it was getting to be evening time, so we relaxed for a bit, had a few drinks, and then headed to dinner at Bugaloe Beach Bar & Grill on a pier. It was about a five-minute walk, and talk about a difference between “resort” and “local” prices…this place was cheap. And good.

    After dinner, NSPwife and NSPpeanut headed to the room so that I could spend a bit of time in the casino. The casinos at the properties are pretty nice, albeit small, even offering sports betting through electronic kiosks. After a bit of bad luck, I made my way back to the room and called it a night. Little did I know that when I woke up, I would encounter terrible service from both the Hilton and the Hyatt!

    We woke up rather early, given NSPpeanut did not really want to sleep. We decided to head down for free breakfast, a Gold & Diamond benefit. We asked the front desk where to go, and they gave us the directions. We carried the stroller down a large set of stairs (why the front desk gave us these directions when we had a stroller I have no idea), and when we got to host stand, they told us our complimentary breakfast was in a different restaurant. OK, not a huge deal – although the buffet spread did look pretty good – just a bit of an inconvenience. When we got to the second restaurant, they handed us the menu and said that the complimentary breakfast was only the “continental breakfast.” This took me by surprise. I’ve had the complimentary breakfast at dozens of Hilton hotels across the globe, and this was, by far, the absolute worst offer: a few “breakfast pastries,” small fruit cup, and OJ/coffee. Yikes.

    Continental Breakfast - The Complimentary Breakfast Option for Diamond Members

    Continental Breakfast – The Complimentary Breakfast Option for Diamond Members

    Not So Filling Bowl of Fruit

    Not So Filling Bowl of Fruit

    NSPwife hung out with the baby while I headed back to the room to pack up (they could only give us an extended hour for check-out). And, while I may have the spirit of a 90-year-old-grandma, I really wanted to play bingo. So I asked the front desk where bingo was located. They told me it was on the pool deck right next to where NSPwife was eating. Perfect. The three of us went back up to the room, showered, and took all of our bags down. NSPwife and NSPpeanut hung out at the pool, and I walked over to the Hyatt to see if we could check in early. They said we could check in by 2pm, but they couldn’t guarantee anything earlier than that. OK – 2pm is fine. I made a 3pm massage appointment at the spa for NSPwife, and headed back to the Hilton. 5 minutes before bingo was supposed to begin, I asked the bartender if it usually started late (you know, the whole island-time thing). He said it should start any minute. 15 minutes later, I walked around all of the pools to see how I could be missing bingo. After a 15 minute walk, it was almost 30 minutes passed the start time, and there was no bingo. So the three of us assumed it had been cancelled and walked over to the Hyatt. I went back to the desk and asked if the room was ready. To my great surprise, they told me that an early check-in had not been requested, and that we could check-in at 4pm.

    I told them who I had spoken to, and that my wife had a massage appointment at 3pm and needed to shower and change beforehand, as she was in a swimsuit and lathered up with sunscreen. They said they would see what they could do, but made no promises. We hung out at the pool with our friends, and my buddy and I headed back to the Hilton to place some sports bets at the Hilton casino. When we walked in, there were nearly 100 people there. PLAYING BINGO! I couldn’t believe it. No signage. Front desk had no idea. Bartenders had no idea. All gave incorrect information. It was just a very frustrating way to end that stay.

    Move back now to the Hyatt. At 2:30pm I went back to the desk. They told me they had a room. OK, NSPwife wouldn’t be happy about such a quick turn-around time, but lo, if anything should resolve that stress, it should be a massage. So we schlepped up all of our baggage, including our 6-month-old’s-baggage, and use the key to go into our room. Hmmmm, lots of alcohol in the entryway. A new Diamond Amenity?? Awesome. Wait. There’s a ton of luggage in the room. Oh. And someone in the shower. We race out and head back to the front desk. They apologized and told us they had assigned that room to the people just in front of us in line. OK – massage was now not happening. We went to the spa and were told that unfortunately we would be charged the full amount. We tried to explain the situation, but there was no hearing of it. So we went back to the front desk. Luckily someone intervened and spoke to the spa – and despite a heated conversation between them and the spa – they allowed us to cancel the appointment.

    We finally got into our room around 4pm. If they had simply told us that they couldn’t get us in until then, that would have been fine. We would have crashed in our friends suite, hung out at the pool, or went for a stroll at the local shops and restaurants. The issue was purely the lack of credible information and service. The manager even reached out directly to us to give us a $100 resort credit – we didn’t make a scene, ask for a manager or anything like that. Someone working there must have told the manager what had happened. That was a nice touch, and we appreciated the service recovery, but almost an entire day (one of 4) had been lost to this.

    When we settled in, we took the milk & cookies and wine amenity. We explored the very spacious 2-room suite:

    Hyatt Aruba Suite - Entrance

    Hyatt Aruba Suite – Entrance

    Hyatt Aruba Suite - Bedroom

    Hyatt Aruba Suite – Bedroom

    Hyatt Aruba Suite - Bedroom

    Hyatt Aruba Suite – Bedroom

    Hyatt Aruba Suite - Lounging Room

    Hyatt Aruba Suite – Lounging Room

    Hyatt Aruba Suite - Beach View from Room

    Hyatt Aruba Suite – Beach View from Room

    Hyatt Aruba Suite - Bathroom

    Hyatt Aruba Suite – Bathroom

    Hyatt Aruba Suite - Bathroom

    Hyatt Aruba Suite – Bathroom

    The suite was very nice, with a completely separate lounging room. The bathroom was OK, but it amazed me they didn’t have a double-vanity. Not a huge deal, but just a little bit of a miss on the details, as there was plenty of space for it.

    We spent some time on the beach, as well as played the umbrella/hut lottery. Here’s the thing: there are way more people who want umbrellas on the beach than actual umbrellas. That presents a problem. The hotel has apparently made a number of changes over the years to try and create a fair system that guests are happy with. Unfortunately, they have failed spectacularly on the latter. I’ve never felt so bad for a hotel staff. Dozens and dozens of guests screaming at workers. Every single day. It was nuts. The system that was in place was that at 4pm, you could log into the hotel’s web site (also mobile-friendly) and reserve an open umbrella. Think of it as Ticketmaster releasing tickets for the hottest show of the summer. If you are good with technology, you have a decent chance to score an umbrella, somewhere. If you are technologically challenged, good luck. Once guests realized they couldn’t secure an umbrella, they go straight to the customer service hut and start screaming. This lasts at least 90 minutes. At that point, people who forgot about the 4pm time remember, and head over to the hut to scream for another 90 minutes. Then people who check-in late are told at check-in the umbrellas are unavailable and head over to the hut to scream for 90 minutes. It’s really quite terrible. Anyways, as the tech-savy individuals we are, we had no problems securing umbrellas each day 🙂

    The grounds are great:

    Hyatt Aruba - Lobby

    Hyatt Aruba – Lobby

    Hyatt Aruba - Beach

    Hyatt Aruba – Beach

    Hyatt Aruba - Grounds

    Hyatt Aruba – Grounds

    Hyatt Aruba - Grounds

    Hyatt Aruba – Grounds

    After a short time at the beach, we headed to the lounge. The food spread is minimal; however, what they don’t tell you or advertise is that you can ask the staff for beer or wine, and they’ll provide you with an unlimited supply, all gratis. This makes happy hour quite an inexpensive ordeal.

    Hyatt Aruba - Regency Club Entrance

    Hyatt Aruba – Regency Club Entrance

    Hyatt Aruba - Regency Club Beach View

    Hyatt Aruba – Regency Club Beach View

    Hyatt Aruba - Coffee

    Hyatt Aruba – Coffee

    Hyatt Aruba - Regency Club Drinks (Balashi Hidden)

    Hyatt Aruba – Regency Club Drinks (Balashi Hidden)

    Hyatt Aruba - Regency Club Food Spread

    Hyatt Aruba – Regency Club Food Spread

    Hyatt Aruba - Regency Club Food Spread

    Hyatt Aruba – Regency Club Food Spread

    Hyatt Aruba - Regency Club, Lounging Room

    Hyatt Aruba – Regency Club, Lounging Room

    Overall, Aruba was a nice Caribbean island. I was surprised by how windy it was…all the time, and the lack of overall customer service. While I think we will explore other Caribbean islands in the future, the weather was good, the price was right, and non-stop service from Baltimore to Aruba made it a fairly easy trip.

    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 4 – Dubai, Al Maha & Sheraton Mall of the Emirates

    by  • December 25, 2016 • 0 Comments

    Previous Trip Notes:
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 3 – IAD & EK232
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 2 – Trip Report Setup
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 1 – Planning

    We stayed at Al Maha for one night during our honeymoon in the winter of 2015. It was an amazing experience, and we made it a personal goal to return within five years. Fast-forward 18 months, and we were on our way for a two-day return trip.

    We landed in Dubai around 8am and were in our taxi heading towards the Sheraton Mall of the Emirates by 9am. Luckily, the Sheraton allowed us to check-in to our room when we arrived, and we were given a room right next to the Sheraton Club.

    As we used our Starwood Business credit card from AMEX, we were entitled to use the Sheraton Club. Due to our category six hurricane on the 13-hour plane ride from Washington D.C. to Dubai, we were all exhausted. We crashed in the room for about an hour, and then I went to explore the mall. It was, incredible. The mall had just about every store you can think of. It even had penguins and a ski slope.

    Mall of the Emirates – Borders Book Store??

    Mall of the Emirates Ski Slope

    I briefly explored the multiple levels, and then headed back to the room. It was time for afternoon tea.

    While this was my second time in Dubai, my first trip was mostly spent at Al Maha – so other than exploring the gold and spice souks, I hadn’t really explored much of the city. I wanted an over-the-top experience. So I booked “afternoon tea” at the Burj Al Arab – the only [self-proclaimed] Seven Star hotel in the world. You are only allowed on the premises of the hotel if you have a reservation for a meal or if you are staying at the hotel. At $2,000+ per night, afternoon tea it was.

    The lobby entrance is stunning; the architectural vision was just amazing.

    Burj Al Arab Entrance

    Burj Al Arab Fish Tank

    Burj Al Arab Lobby View (Upwards)

    We took our afternoon tea at the Skybar, overlooking the Persian Gulf and the Palm Jumeirah. The experience was great; unfortunately, only having an hour of sleep in the previous 48 hours made it hard to truly enjoy. You start with a glass of champagne, and each course was small, but they kept bring out more and more food. It just wouldn’t stop.

    Dates for Starters

    White Chocolate Apple Compote

    I Opted for a Caffeinated Ginger Tea

    Finger Sandwiches

    Lychee & Rose Sorbet

    Homemade Scones & Pastries

    View of the Persian Gulf

    By the end, we couldn’t even touch most of the last course. Our server looked offended, asked if we didn’t enjoy the experience, and wanted to know if there was anything she could do. We told her quite the opposite. Everything was great, we were just too full to eat anything else!

    We jumped in a taxi back to the Sheraton, roughly a five minute ride, said goodbye to NSPpeanut, and jumped in another taxi to Al Maha. Pro-tip: Most taxi drivers don’t know where Al Maha is located. We had this issue the first time we went there. Let them know to head toward the outlet malls outside of the city, and keep going past exit 50. About a mile or so past exit 50, you will see a sign for Al Maha. The sign is small – so keep your eyes peeled!

    I also use Maps.Me on my Android phone. You can download maps of countries in advance that then allow you to use it offline. The app works amazingly well, and it was easy to track and make sure the taxi driver was heading in the right direction. The taxi ride is about $65 USD, but we always give a nice tip since it is so far away.

    Ahhhh. Al Maha, how I have missed thee.

    We arrived around 3:30pm and were shown to our Bedouin suite. You can read all about our experience, full of pictures, from our first visit, so I won’t just rehash those. On our first trip, we took a camel ride out to a great vantage point for a sunset, and I also went SUV Dune-Bashing. You are allowed two complimentary activities per day, so we had up to four activities for our stay.

    On our first night we opted for the champagne sunset, but took an SUV instead of taking the camels:

    For day two, I chose an early morning falconing experience while NSPwife tried her hand at horseback riding (experienced riders only).

    While the falconing was interesting and I learned a lot about falcons in the region, I was expecting more interaction with the birds.

    Falconing at Sunrise – Al Maha

    We also had an archery lesson, which was absolutely fantastic and something I highly recommend:

    Al Maha – Archery

    The resort is beautiful. I apologize in advance for the poor quality of my drone video – it appeared that customs wanted to search the bag and actually ripped the camera off the drone. As such, I had to rig my GoPro camera on my drone, both dangerous, and quite ineffective for taking great aerial video:

    We enjoyed our stay as much this time as our first time. The only thing that I thought was interesting was that the menu was 95% the same. While that was great in terms of having the sashimi, lunch filet with pepper sauce and lobster thermidor, I would have loved to see some additional variety from the very talented chefs. We did check out the breakfast buffet this trip, which we did not do the first time…and wow was it amazing:

    Al Maha Breakfast Buffet

    Al Maha Breakfast Buffet

    Al Maha Breakfast Buffet

    Al Maha Breakfast Buffet

    Al Maha Breakfast Buffet

    I’m not sure when we will be able to return. While I’d love to do so again soon, there are so many places in the world to explore. For now, NSPwife and I are going to keep Al Maha in our “favorite places” file, and maybe come back in the far future.

    Al Maha, Take Two

    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 3 – IAD & EK232

    by  • November 26, 2016 • 0 Comments

    Previous Trip Notes:
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 2 – Trip Report Setup
    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 1 – Planning

    Today was the day. About a 6:30am alarm, needed as much as a kid needs a wake-up on Christmas morning, went off, and NSPwife and I started getting everything ready to wake up NSPpeanut. We spent the night at NSPwife’s parents’ house in northern Virginia, making the easy 20-minute drive from their house to IAD:

    I packed majestically. You literally could have fit everything I packed into a backpack, with the exception of my DJI Phantom 3 drone. NSPpeanut, however, packed like she was orbiting Mars:

    Yes, we were truly a disaster, and I knew we would have to rely on mini-van taxis wherever we went. Sigh.

    Checked Luggage – Not Including the Stroller or Car Seat

    First Class check-in was a breeze. They advised us that the plane was extremely empty, and that rather than a bassinet seat, they could give NSPpeanut and NSPbabysitter an entire 5-seat row. Awesome. The check-in agent said we did not qualify for lounge access given our ticket type (not true), but I wasn’t overly concerned, as the lounge Emirates uses in Dulles is the Air France lounge which is a member of the Priority Pass network, and we adjusted one of NSPwife’s AMEX Platinum’s authorized users for the trip to NSPbabysitter. There was no line at security, and less than ten minutes later we were all sitting in the lounge, directly across from our gate, enjoying breakfast, coffee and champagne.

    Emirates Utilizes the Air France Lounge at IAD

    Air France Lounge – IAD

    Air France Lounge – IAD

    Air France Lounge Bar – IAD

    Air France Lounge Food – IAD

    Air France Lounge Desserts – IAD

    It was getting close to boarding time, so we packed up our things and were about to leave the lounge. The Emirates attendant mentioned that we weren’t boarding yet, so I asked her if she could confirm that the entire row was still available. I handed her all four boarding passes, at which point she looked incredulously at me and asked why we didn’t present our First Class tickets earlier. Apparently there is a first-class section of the lounge, albeit small, that provides better alcoholic beverages. She then showed us in there and said she would let us know when it was time to board.

    Private First Class Section of Air France Lounge – IAD

    Our Huge, Beautiful, Bird

    We hung out for about 20 more minutes – the plane seemed to be boarding fairly late, and then we were escorted to the front of the boarding line. They let NSPwife and I head directly back to economy class to settle in NSPpeanut. There was, however, one. Major. Problem. “Bunny” was missing. We looked everywhere, and NSPwife went charging back to see if she could go into the lounge to find “Bunny,” NSPpeanut’s best friend. Emirates, of course, couldn’t let NSPwife off the plane, and the flight attendants, babysitter, all passengers in economy, and NSPparents were going to have to face the soon to be presented wrath…but more on that soon.

    30 minutes later, NSPpeanut wasn’t happy when we left her, but the 2006 Dom wasn’t going to drink itself. I settled into the First Class suite, ordered my champagne, and explored the suite.

    Obligatory Suite & Champagne Shot – EK232

    Pure bliss. Delicious, bubbly, bliss. Emirates A380 planes have phones in all seats, and you can call each seat. PERFECT. NSPwife could check-in whenever she wanted, without even having to get up!

    Take-off was the smoothest I’ve ever experienced. As opposed to the Boeing 747, which feels like it is fighting every bit of God’s intended gravity to launch towards the heavens, the Airbus A380 seemed to lift its wheels off the ground at about 50 MPG and just glide up on angels’ wings. A very cool, and unique, experience.

    I decided on Caviar (of course) for my first dish with a filet for my main course, and they offered a very good amuse bouche:

    Amuse Bouche

    Caviar Appetizer

    Filet for Lunch

    While the food was good, it was not on par with my experience traveling on Etihad First. Given Etihad also had its own dedicated lounge, Etihad started at 2-0 for the Battle of the Big Gulf Carriers.

    NSPwife and I stopped at the bar for a drink:

    Emirates Business Class Bar

    We then headed down to say hello to the baby…a big mistake. It would set off a terror unknown to mankind. So bad that the attendants asked if NSPbabysitter could take her up to the Business Class bar to hang out with us, and maybe that would calm her down. Done.

    We hung out upstairs for quite some time.

    And then decided it was time to take a nap. I woke up about 1.5 hours later only to find NSPpeanut inside the suite with NSPwife.

    Baby in Emirates First Class

    Uh oh. This wasn’t good. The look NSPwife gave me could have killed. NSPpeanut was not welcome on the plane. And nothing could soothe her. She wanted Bunny, and if she couldn’t have him, there would be hell to pay. While she was fairly subdued in the suite, the Purser asked us to take her back down to economy. We did, but I had to head up for my shower. NSPwife wanted to cancel hers.

    The shower was unreal. A heated floor. Running water with great water pressure. The five minutes of water was plenty…in fact I finished washing up in about two minutes, and then just relaxed until the water ran out.

    Shower Amenities

    Emirates First Class Shower

    I convinced NSPwife to go take a shower. While I was sitting on the floor. Of economy. Trying everything in the world to have NSPpeanut stop screaming.

    Unhappy Baby on Emirates

    With about an hour to go, NSPwife and I moved back upstairs. The NSPpeanut had simmered down, slightly. I had a quick “breakfast” – which was fairly good, although not great, and relaxed until we landed. I will say, however, that the cappuccino was delicious:

    Emirates Cappuccino

    Upon landing, they gave us an extra fast track immigration voucher for NSPbabysitter, so we could get NSPpeanut out of public as soon as possible:

    Fast Track Immigration

    Overall, I can’t speak more highly of the flight attendants. From the ones in economy trying to help in every possible way, to the business class “bartenders,” service was phenomenal. While the First Class attendants weren’t quite as attentive as Cathay Pacific, and the food quality not quite up to the level of Etihad (with an executive chef on the plane), the service really made the flight stand out. We were looking forward to another A380 experience in 50 hours on our way to Mauritius.

    Emirates Flight: IAD > DXB

    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 2 – Trip Report Setup

    by  • November 23, 2016 • 0 Comments

    It was the night before Emirates first class. I had booked the tickets 330 days ago and was as giddy as a kid on Christmas Eve. I had thought a lot about how I wanted to document the trip. There are lots of trip reports on Emirates, naturally, and we had already stayed at Al Maha with a standard trip report. So I decided to do things a bit differently.

    I bought a GoPro 3 Hero+ Silver edition (HT: Dansdeals.Com for posting a great deal from eBay), and decided to bring my DJI Phantom 3 Drone. The GoPro was complimented with a 30-piece accessory set I bought on the cheap also from eBay. I couldn’t wait to take videos of various experiences, from both the ground and the air. I spent a lot of time researching the ability to pull this off:

    1. Were drones allowed in all of the countries?
    2. How could I travel with my drone?
    3. How easy is it to edit videos?
    4. How big of a memory card would I need, and could I find cloud storage for a month to put all of my raw footage while I edited?

    Here is what I found: drones were allegedly not allowed into the United Arab Emirates (or at least frowned upon), particularly ones with cameras, unless they were registered in advance with the country. I found that odd, as I also saw there was a massive drone competition just a month prior to when we were heading there, and the thought of 1,000s of “kids” registering the drones in advance, through a fairly complicated registration process, just didn’t seem right. So I decided to risk it, and give it a try. I would declare the drone as to not violate any rules/laws, and if I couldn’t bring it in the country when I got there, either I would keep it at customs (apparently this is an option) or I would just be out the few hundred dollars. Couple that with the fact that Emirates does not allow you to carry-on drones, and I was a bit nervous; however, I bought a hard-case for the drone, would pop out the lipo battery – which can only go in carry-on luggage – and check the Phantom 3.

    Video editing became easier than what I had originally thought. Final Cut Pro is extremely friendly to amateurs, and I had a couple of my team members from work show me some basics before I watched a number of YouTube tutorials. Apple allows a 30-day full-version trial, so I had NSPwife download a copy on her Macbook Pro two days before we left.

    I also researched storage devices and cloud storage. I settled on a 512 GB memory card, class 10 (required for processing speed). I also tested it when I received it with some SD Card testing software, as I had read online that the large SD Cards might not be completely legit. It passed all tests when I received it, and I used it to record a couple videos and timelapses in advance to ensure we were good to go. All worked well, so it appeared I was ready for the trip.

    Game time.

    GoPro 3 Hero+ Silver Edition & Accessory Kit

    25K Mile (with Baby) Trip Report: Part 1 – Planning

    by  • November 21, 2016 • 0 Comments

    NSPwife and I welcomed NSPpeanut into the world on July 14, 2015. As one can expect, she quickly earned her first set of “wings” on United, traveling from Washington Dulles to San Francisco when she was three months old. We decided to fly in economy, but purchase a seat for NSPpeanut. It turned out that she didn’t mind any part of the flight, napping for most of it, and being genuinely well behaved when she was awake. A guy sitting directly behind her gave me a high-five when we were getting off the plane and loudly declared: “best baby ever.” Although biased, we agree.

    A couple weeks later she learned what it was like to fly as a “lap-baby” on her way from Baltimore to St. Louis, and then a month later did the same from Baltimore to Detroit. We decided to “lap-baby-it” from Baltimore to Aruba a couple days after New Years (a 3-for-1 flight, given we have a companion pass). The plane was 100% full on the way down, and 4 hours was a little much for NSPwife. On the way back there were extra seats, and the nice flight attendants didn’t take issue that we kept the baby in a car-seat in her own seat next to us. I luv Southwest.

    During these fall travels, it became clear that if we were going to take our annual “big trip” in 2016, NSPpeanut would have to tag along. As we discussed places and options, we decided to take Asia out of the mix (we are still set on returning to Thailand, and visiting Malaysia and Japan in the near future). We wanted a mix of relaxation and adventure, all that would be baby-appropriate. As we had hundreds of thousands of Alaskan Airlines miles burning holes in our accounts, that left the best use of those miles for Australia or a trip on Emirates (taking out Cathay Pacific). Both NSPwife and I have been to Australia, so we started to look into maximizing our trips should we take Emirates. In first class.

    The flight from Dallas to Dubai is 8,040 miles (just shy of 15 hours in the air). While nice, when you are on an A380 decked out with a shower and bar, you want to maximize that time. We decided to head down to Cape Town, adding Dubai as just a stopover. Unfortunately, we could not find a single flight with award ticket availability from Dubai to Cape Town! After some additional research, we found that we could fly from Dubai to Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean just east of Madagascar – another 3,000 miles and seven hours with the ability to drink Dom and shower at 38,000 feet. The beauty of this ticket is that by using Alaskan Airlines miles, the ticket in first class cost 100,000 miles from the US to Mauritius – and the 2-day stopover in Dubai cost no extra miles.

    On our honeymoon, NSPwife and I stayed a night at Al Maha. It was by far the nicest place we’ve ever stayed, and at the time made a commitment to each other that we had to return within five years. 18-months later and we’d be back watching the sun set over an endless sea of sand in a remote desert near Oman. Pure euphoria. At 60,000 points per night, this is not a cheap award; however, for the past two years SPG held a “fall promo” that discounted the rooms to 39,000 points. We speculatively booked at 60,000 and hoped for the best. A month before our stay, I received the much anticipated email. 15 minutes later, we were booked for 39,000 points per night.

    There was, however, an extraneous factor at play on this trip. NSPpeanut, our 15-month old baby. And when researching “lap-babies” on the Google machine, we found out that on most international itineraries, an infant fare is charged at 10% of the adult fare. At $22,000, a lap-baby would still cost over $2,000 to sit with us in First Class!

    Emirates IAD > DXB > MRU Cost

    In addition, Al Maha does not allow in anyone under 21 years old. So, we had to make a decision (and remember, NSPwife was clear that NSPpeanut was NOT staying in the U.S.). Ultimately, we decided to bring along one of NSPpeanut’s babysitters. So were all four of us going to be in First Class on Emirates? 100,000 miles for a 15-month old? No thanks. The babysitter and NSPpeanut were riding in the back, but we did get each of them their own seat, and made sure to book a bassinet seat. In Dubai, we booked a room at the Sheraton Mall of the Emirates. We did this for a couple reasons. First, using the Starwood Business Card for the reservation, it gives access to the lounge, which is nice in the morning and during happy hour for the babysitter to get a much needed glass of wine. Second, the mall can certainly entertain a 15-month toddler for 2 days. There are plenty of stores, entertainment and, of course, penguins! Most importantly though is McDonald’s. NSPpeanut lives on chicken nuggets, and we knew she would be happy as a clam strolling around a mall watching penguins and people, while munching on her chicken nuggets.

    So queue up our next stop. The original goal was to travel to Cape Town, South Africa, on the same ticket. So on to Plan B. I didn’t know much about Mauritius at the time; however, after researching the island, it was immediately clear that it was a place we wanted to visit. 18 months ago we visited the Maldives, and adding a trip to a 2nd island in the Indian Ocean seemed like a pretty great idea. And boy did the research of the island back it up. Amazing beaches. Great tourist sites. Great infrastructure. It was a no-brainer. Throw in the fact that the Hilton Resort & Spa was only 40,000 points/night, and accommodations would be easy (particularly given one room could have a Gold guest and the 2nd room a Diamond guest…maybe there would be a chance for an upgrade?!?!).

    The interesting thing about Mauritius is the complete lack of daily airplane service to/from the island. So at that point our hands were essentially dealt. Arrive on a Wednesday and depart on a Saturday. We opted for a late flight on Saturday to arrive in Johannesburg, South Africa. Given the current safety concerns with J-burg, we decided to stay at the Intercontinental Airport Hotel. 2 annual certificates from the IHG credit card made this $75/night (due to annual fee) a fairly worthwhile redemption. And the following morning we would make our way to Cape Town via South African Airways. Given this last flight would be a “domestic flight” – NSPpeanut could lap-baby it up. A few days in Cape Town, followed by the craziest of all return flight plans, and we would finalize our trip.

    What is this crazy return flight? Cape Town > Doha > JFK > DCA. Ouch. Given the painfulness of 11,000 miles in just over 24 hours, we splurged and got NSPpeanut her own Business Class seat. Here’s to hoping we get a little bit of sleep…

    Wrapping up, planning was fairly straight-forward:

    1) Emirates A380 required
    2) Maximize #1 by adding a segment…Mauritius it was!
    3) British Airways Avios to get to Johannesburg
    4) South African Airways ($70/ticket) to get to Cape Town
    5) Qatar Airways, via American Airlines miles, to get home

    Overall costs:

    Flight Costs for Four Passengers

    Hotel Costs for Two Rooms

    Other Costs for Four People

    Overall, airline costs for 4 people wound up costing $646.24 in total, hotels $650.50, and other costs – mostly food & drink, and good food & drink at that, $1,210.00.

    An 11-day vacation, showering on planes, drinking 2006 Dom Perignon, 1986 Ducru Beaucaillou Bordeaux, 5-star private villas with private pools, spanning three continents and ALL IN costs for FOUR people: $2,500. Not bad.

    Only one minor hiccup. About 7 months after booking the trip, Emirates pulled the A380 out of Dallas. WHAT?! NO SHOWER ON A PLANE?? THE HORROR. Luckily, Alaska Airlines allows one free change to award tickets, and there just happened to be availability on the new Washington D.C. > Dubai route, ON AN A380. While this cut almost two hours of flight time, it also saved us from having to make our way to Dallas, saving both time and money. In the end, a great – and lucky – change.

    Let the games begin…

    Barclaycard Arrival Plus 50% Off!

    by  • November 13, 2016 • 0 Comments

    Why do I value all $100+ travel-related purchases at 50 cents on the dollar when using my Barclaycard Arrival Plus card? It’s a straight matter of economics:

    • Gift cards cost either $3.95 or $4.95 per $500
    • Liquidating gift cards cost either $0.46 or $0.59 per $500
    • That puts total costs per $500 spend at around $5.00
    • 2.05% travel cash back on $500 credit card spend equals $10.25
    • For every $10.25 in travel expense my cost is really ~$5.00, or 50% off

    I’m sure some naysayers will talk about opportunity cost with 2% cash back cards, or Discover It Miles at 3% for the first year. And don’t worry, I utilize those as well. But I currently sit with a very large credit line with Barclays for my Arrival card, utilize it for some everyday spending, and have good reach with the card.

    Barclaycard Arrival Plus Card