Category Archives: award miles

Hyatt Regency Aruba – a Winter Getaway

I find that I NEED to get away for some sun and warmth during the winter months even if it has been a mild winter like this year.  It always gives a lift to me since I feel that I have a slight case of Seasonal Affective Disorder.  My last minute cruise to the Caribbean didn’t happen this year due to conflicting schedules but I did have my two free night certificates that I earned late last winter from signing up for the Hyatt credit card from Chase.  The two free nights could be redeemed anywhere in the world.  When Blogger Hubby had this card we used his two free night certificates at the Grand Hyatt Kauai.

I have Diamond status with Hyatt due to them status matching me last year to my Aspire status with Holiday Inn.  The status was effective for all of 2016 and expires on 2/28/2017. The Diamond status gave me 4 upgrades and I had used two of them already as I mentioned in the previous blog about me being a Hyatt Gal.  With a couple more suite upgrades and two free nights, we decided to go to Aruba for our beach vacation.

Getting There:  I already had some points that I had transferred from one of my Chase credit cards that gave me Ultimate Reward points to Singapore Airline’s Krisflyer loyalty program.  Knowing that there is an expiration on those points, we decided to book our flight down to Aruba using the points that I had transferred over to my KrisFlyer account.  As they are an alliance partner with United Airline, I went to the United website and saw which flights had award availability.  I wanted to get to Aruba as soon as I could and from looking at the flights available to me I saw that we would have a connection in Newark.  Never having flown through Newark before I wanted to allow myself enough time to get from one gate to another, particularly since I would have to change terminals.  I was nervous about that since I had been told to take the train but if I took the train, I would have to go through security again. Instead there is a bus that brought me to my terminal.  There was hanging signage so it was easy to find.

The flight down to Aruba was set.  For the return flight, there didn’t seem to be any good flights for us without having a long layover in Newark, which would mean we would have to spend the night.  I instead began looking at other airlines and found that Delta had a good one that would get us back to our home airport at 10:30 PM.  The only concern I had was that there was a one hour connection time in Atlanta.  We booked this flight because we also saw that there was ever a little later flight to our home airport in case we should miss ours.  I don’t have many Delta miles so we paid out of pocket for this flight.  I used my American Express credit card and received 5 x points for this purchase.

HYATT – To add to our two free nights at the Hyatt, we booked three other nights paying cash and points.  I was charged $150 per night and 12,500 points per night.  I knew that at this point (and it will change as of 3/1/17) that suite upgrades are not given on award stays so I tried to strategize and book the points and cash nights first followed by the free two nights hoping that they would keep me in the suite that I would get from using points and cash.  Of course, there was always the possibility that they would have me change rooms after the first three nights and then transfer me to a standard room.  I was willing to take my chance but didn’t tell Blogger Hubby about it till we were on the plane.

Flights were fine and before we knew it we were outside the terminal with our carry on only luggage getting into a taxi cab for the $25 fare to where the high rise motels were located on the northwest side of the island.

We pulled up and my breath was taken away at how beautiful the resort was.  We went to the reception desk and was helped by Junel.  At first we were told that our room was not ready even though I had asked for an early check in (a benefit of being a Diamond member).  We started to walk away and he called us back and said that he could give us another suite, a larger one, but only for three nights in the high rise and then go to the regular suite in the low rise for the remaining two nights OR we could wait for the regular suite and stay there for all 5 nights.  We chose to go to the larger one that had an ocean front balcony.

A little background on this hotel – there are essentially two parts to this hotel and they are connected where the reception area is located – somewhat like a U shape building.  There is the high rise which has 9 floors and the low rise which has 5 floors. The Regency Club is located on the 9th floor of the high rise.

ROOM #1 – We were taken to our suite and it took my breath away.  It was huge, at almost 1900 square feet it encompassed the entire back end of the hotel on our floor overlooking the Caribbean.  We had 4 sets of sliding glass doors, 4 thermostats, three separate sitting areas, an Apple desktop computer on the desk, a bathroom that would equal my kitchen, a dressing area, 4 sofas and numerous chairs, two refrigerators, 2 bathrooms and so much more.  This was luxurious living at its best.  I was giddy but to be honest, we really didn’t use much of the room as we didn’t spend much time there.  It did make it convenient to go up one floor for the Club offerings and the concierge that was there.

the left side of our large living roompart of our living room and the kitchen area

we were the next to the top balcony and the little balcony to the right.

ROOM #2 – if I hadn’t seen our first room, I would have been thrilled with this room.  It was a 2 room suite though the layout and furnishing were either awkward or outdated.  The little kitchen area had only a small dorm size refrigerator and a microwave sitting on top of it.  There are no glasses, plates, silverware in any of the cabinets in this area.  There wasn’t even a sink.  What was strange was one of the two closets was in the kitchen and the other in the bathroom.  The sofa would convert to a sofa bed but it seemed very outdated.  The bathroom counter could have accommodated two sinks but there was only.  There were two doors leading into the suite from the hallway – one into the bedroom and the other into the living area.  The balcony overlooked the ocean and we enjoyed sitting out at the end of the afternoon sipping our wine and watching the sunset.

GROUNDS – The grounds in the back were immaculate.  They had 3 or 4 cages of birds including macaws.  In the water feature, there were plenty of koi swimming around, many green iguana, turtles and black swans.  Enough there to keep the few children that were staying here entertained not too mention my husband as well!

POOLS – there are really two pools although they are connected.  The lower pool has a large very, shallow area for very little ones.  This is where I saw the children with their little floaties on their arms.  Steps led down to the adult pool where there was a net across for water volleyball. This is the pool that has a swum up bar.  Around the corner, but still in the water, is where the water slide ends so be careful of the adults and children who are speeding down the blue water slide.  Blogger Hubby went down numerous times and had a great time.  The upper pool is is just  a pool, although a very nice pool.  Behind it, hidden away by the tropical foliage is the hot tub which was very relaxing.

LOUNGERS, UMBRELLAS, and PALAPAS – I found the way that you sign up for a palapa (the palm frond covered wooden umbrellas that are on the beach)and loungers with umbrellas around the pool to be a little difficult but honestly, I don’t know if I could improve it.  First of all, you can reserve and rent a palapa, umbrella or one of the few cabanas.  The palapas rent for $55 per day or $80 for the cabanas and they can be rented for up to one year in advance of your stay.  They have the prime location, closest to the beach.  They do have some palapas that are not for rent but in order to reserve them you can either go online at 4 PM the day before or stand in line at the towel hut.  I stood in line but to be honest, you need to get in line around 3:30.  It goes fast so have an idea of the number of the palapa you want because you are competing with those online.  Many people found that the online process didn’t work so I wouldn’t risk it because they can, and do, run out of palapas by the beach or the umbrellas by the pools.  If they still have some available, you can go to the Towel Hut at 10:00 AM and sign up for one there.  There are usually empty loungers available by the pool though there may not be by an umbrella.

The towel hut and those in line at 3:30 waiting to sign up for a palapa at 4:00
If you want service, turn the 2 color block so green is up; no service, keep the red up

STAFF – we found the staff to be very accommodating and they always seemed to know our needs and our names.  The Club has a cooler for water, and soda.  I lamented to the concierge that there was no Coke products in the cooler.  When my husband went up later, she gave him two cans of Coke’s for us since she keeps some in a different area for those who ask.  They have a contract with Pepsi so they wouldn’t put out the Coke products but they still had them for their guests.  Every time I walked by the registration desk I was always greeted by name and was always asked if there was anything I needed.  At the towel hut, they knew my room number when I would go to borrow a floating pad to lay on in the water.  They even knew when we changed rooms.  I cannot say enough great things about the staff.

REGENCY CLUB – who needs to eat out when you have such amazing food at the Club.  Breakfast dishes always had bagels, croissants, toast, English muffins, cold cuts, smoked salmon, hot oatmeal and then another dish such as pancakes, scrambled eggs and more.  Fresh fruit was plentiful and we appreciated the pineapple chunks, in season watermelon, slices of grapefruit as well as apples, bananas and plums.  The afternoon was time for sweets such as cookies, nuts and dried fruit and cake.   Appetizers began at 5:00 PM and we found that several days that we didn’t need to go out for dinner – that’s how filling and ample the appetizers were.

When we did want to go elsewhere for dinner, we could walk out of the hotel and turn either left or right.  I would go to the left (near the Hilton) as there were many good restaurants there.  Many of them had outside seating around a small stage where there was live entertainment.  We particularly enjoyed the Argentina Grill but we could have easily gone to many of the other restaurants.

SUPERBOWL SUNDAY – We arrived on Superbowl Sunday and in case you don’t know me, although I live in Virginia and have for over 3 decades, I am a Bostonian through and through as that is where I was raised and lived till we moved to Virginia – my accent will testify to that.  Well you know who was playing on that Superbowl Sunday and I wanted to watch it.  Of course, we had that large television in our living room but Hyatt went one better.  They had out in the water a large inflatable screen that they televised the game on.  Of course, we could have sat in one of the uncomfortable wooden slat chairs in the sun but we had a better option.  Remember we had the entire balcony facing the water.  As we had been up way too early, we changed into our PJ’s and sat out on our balcony and watched the game with the audio on in our living room.  Great fun.

My goal on this trip was just to sit my bottom in a lounger and read, swim, nap and just relax.  We did take a sunset cruise booked from the tent in front of the palapas and we enjoyed it very much particularly since everyone on board was from Boston and they had no trouble understanding me!  Blogger Hubby went on a snorkel trip and he thought it was so so.  Next time, and there will be a next time, I would rent a car for a day or too which you can do directly at the Hyatt.

I thoroughly enjoyed this mini vacation and this is the only Caribbean island that I would consider coming back to.  Most people just know it from a cruise port of call but it is more than just the downtown area that the cruisers know.  There isn’t a lot to do (aloe factory tour, feeding ostriches, touring the island and seeing the Old Lighthouse) but I wasn’t looking for anything except pure relaxation and this fulfilled it.

FYI – when you leave Aruba, you go through their customs and security and then you go through US immigration and customs before you get to your gate.  If you are leaving on a weekend, particularly on a Saturday, this can take up to three hours so make sure you allow yourself enough time.  We had read that and decided to leave on a Friday.  It took us about 90 minutes to go through everything.

 

Getting to Paris via TGV and our Hotel, Le Metropolitan, a Tribute Hotel from SPG

Yes, can you believe that I had never been to Paris before this trip?  I was anxiously looking forward to our four days in the City of Lights.  I had my list of places I would like to go, and things that I wanted to see.  I also knew that I wouldn’t be able to do it all so I gave myself permission to deviate from the schedule I set up.  Of course I had to save some things to see and do for my second trip to Paris.

For our hotel stay I made our reservations at the Radisson Metropolitan in the 16th Arrondissement using my Club Carlson points more than a year before our trip. Previously with Club Carlson if you booked a reward stay, your last night was free.  In other words, they didn’t even charge you points.  Consequently I booked two nights under my name (remember one of those nights was free) and two nights under Blogger Hubby’s account.  We would spend four nights at the hotel in total but only paying points for two nights.

Before we went to Paris I found out that SPG purchased our hotel and it would be in their luxury collections.  I was concerned that they wouldn’t honor our reservation but they assured me they would.

A month before we left the United States I had made train reservations and purchased our TGV (fast train) tickets to go from Lyon to Paris.  I again turned to The Man in Seat 61 to explain the differences between the trains.  He had recommended purchasing our tickets through the Captain train website which I did.  The Captain Train website has since been taken over by Train Line but it is the same format and I had no problems purchasing and printing out my tickets.  If you plan to go to Europe, for many routes it is much less expensive if you purchase your tickets 60 or 90 days in advance.  For other smaller, local trains it didn’t seem to matter and we would purchase them at the train station either at the kiosk or at the ticket counter once we knew definitively what our plans were. Track information is not posted until 20 minutes prior to the train’s arrival so no sense in asking people which track you’ll be departing from.  Also, since we departed Lyon from Part-Dieu station there was assistance for those with mobility problem as as was the case with our traveling companions.  Her husband went into the office, told them where we were waiting and an attendant came out with a wheel chair and took her to the correct track and helped them on.  If you need help and it is available, take full advantage of it.

For those who are unfamiliar with train travel in Europe, once you have your ticket, you need to validate it prior to boarding at the machine on the platform.  Conductors will still come by and check your ticket to see if it has been validated and if it hasn’t, there is a huge fine to pay.  p1070049

On the Train Line website, which is in English,  you can choose which type of seating you wanted and which class.  We traveled first class (wouldn’t do it again), sat in the upper deck for better viewing and chose single seats facing each other.  Across the aisle were two seats together either facing forward or facing each other like we were.  We had a small table between us with a small lamp.

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I emailed the concierge at our hotel asking for ways to get to the hotel from the Gard Lyon, the train station that we would be arriving in. Obviously the options were to hire a driver, taxi, subway or bus.  He gave us the prices for these options.  We chose to take the bus as it would drop us off about 2 blocks from the hotel and would be inexpensive. We bought a book of ten bus/subway passes called a caret.  If you plan on using public transportation, I would recommend buying a caret as it will save you time.  For us taking a bus was easy as we only had carry-on luggage (me) and a slightly larger case for Blogger Hubby as we allowed room for souvenirs in his suitcase.  The ride took a lot longer than I thought, about an hour, but while we were traversing Paris we got a good orientation to the city and I got my first glimpses of the Eiffel Tower.  Blogger Hubby is always a little nervous about making sure we know that we are on the correct bus/train, that we are going in the right direction and that we know where to get off. Fortunately I have no qualms about asking people.  I found if you have a smile, and ask if they speak “English” people are willing to help you as much as they can.  I’ll tell you this now – we did not get lost once nor did we get on the wrong train or bus or miss our stop.

We got off the bus and headed for our hotel, now called Le Metropolitan, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel.  The hotel is shaped like a triangular between two streets.   I knew that European hotels were small but when they took us to our room, I couldn’t believe how small it was. Both of us could not be up and walking around at the same time.  There was a small chair in the corner but immediately behind it was a floor lamp and if you sat down the back of your head hit the floor lamp.  You couldn’t pull the chair out because there was only about a foot’s length between the chair and the corner of the bed.   When we asked if there was another room they told us no and that we should be happy as this was an upgrade.

I did not know how we would be able to spend 4 nights in this room. That night I sent a tweet out to @SPG assist, sent them the pictures and told them how uncomfortable it was.  Next morning there was a knock on our door and they moved us across the hallway.  This room even had a couch in it – certainly not luxurious but a much nicer room.  I would stay away from room 226 and instead ask for room 230.

There is a wall about 12 inches from the other side of the bed. If I sat in the chair, you couldn't get past my legs and feet.
There is a wall about 12 inches from the other side of the bed. If I sat in the chair, you couldn’t get past my legs and feet.
If we pulled the bench out to sit on it, so one could get by as we would be blocking the narrow passage
If we pulled the bench out to sit on it, so one could get by

There is a restaurant on the first floor and it looked nice though we didn’t try it.  I believe the breakfasts there are about $30 each. img_1655 Instead we would go to a pastierrie and purchase our freshly made French pastries.  Around the corner and down the street from the hotel was a Casino – which is a French supermarket.  That’s where we purchased our yogurts, sliced meats, cheeses and wine.

For being branded a “luxury hotel” it did not feel very luxurious to us with the awful royal purple rippled carpeting in the hallway, elevators that didn’t work half the time, the lounge area that had tables where we played cards sometimes and looks better in these pictures than it did in real life.  The lobby is very nice and the staff is friendly and helpful and they met all our needs particularly when we asked for numerous directions, which subway stop to use or how to get to train stations.img_1654

We would walk down two flights of stairs to go down and everyday we had to walk around the housekeeping cart right by the stairs and the elevator. A little awkward.
We would walk down two flights of stairs to go down and everyday we had to walk around the housekeeping cart right by the stairs and the elevator. A little awkward.

As you walk out the door and basically walk straight you will see the Eiffel Tower.  I gasped when I saw it all lit up in the evening.  This is the view as we were about 50 meters from the hotel.img_1649

Nevertheless we are very thankful that we had the points to stay here and that we booked it while we were still able to get one night free through the Club Carlson program.

Next post will be our sightseeing adventures and how we saved some money.

Our First Full Day in Marseille

Our long awaited vacation has begun!  We woke up in lovely Marseille. the start of an almost month long trip to France and Belgium done mainly on points and miles.  We did pay for our AMAWaterways cruise but since I got the group together, we did save money with the group rates and a discount for being a past cruiser.

We woke up and glanced out our motel room to see the sun shining over the Mediterranean Sea with parts of the medieval wall in full view.  This structure was probably about 600 or more years old.  As our eyes wandered, we looked to the harbor and how beautiful it was with the sailboats and their masts.  We felt so luckily that we had the Club Carlson points to be able to stay here (Club Carlson brand includes Radisson, Park Inn and Country Inn and Suites).

Breakfast was not included and I did not want to pay 20€ per person for breakfast at the hotel.  Blogger Hubby did what he usually does when we are traveling in cities.  He finds a local bakery for our pastries and small super-ette for our yogurt.  Yummy chocolate croissants were in the bag that he brought back to the hotel.

Blogger Hubby and the husband of the other couple with us chose to do a tour of Marseille on E-bikes.  Have you heard of electric bikes.  They are not like a motor scooter but instead give you a little  kick when you are starting. Here’s his account:

We met in front of the National Theater on the Old Harbor in Marseille; almost next door to our hotel. Our guide, Remy was a young man in his late 20’s who is from Marseille. He spoke very good English, and was very friendly. We walked a short distance to their office and storage area in a parking garage on a back street behind the theater. Each rider was individually outfitted with a bike, helmet and water bottle.

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This was my first experience with an electric bike (e-bike). My bike was a regular size bike and wheels. There were some smaller bikes with small wheels and a high seat. I am an experienced recreational biker, and I bicycled before the cruise to make sure I was in shape for bicycling in Europe. I even bought a bright-colored biking shirt with back pockets and padded liners to wear under my shorts. My travel companion and I were the only ones with ‘biking appeal.

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I have experience bicycling in Europe having done so on our Danube River Cruise. Bicycling in Marseille was more difficult than my prior experiences, and it is not good for beginners. Most roads we traveled did not have bike lanes, and we had to travel on some narrow roads with parked cars on one side and moving traffic next to us. There were also steep uphill and downhill sections. Nevertheless, we stayed together, went slowly, took back streets to the extent possible, and crossed at traffic lights on busy streets. Only one person in our group had difficulty, and that was because she was not familiar with shifting between low and higher gears.

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For me this was one of the best tours I had on our trip. Marseille has a beautiful coastline, many scenic points to overview the harbor and the city, and interesting historical sites and buildings. We got to see them up close and personal. Remy was very personable and low-keyed, knew the city, and shared a lot of stories. At a couple of locations, he stayed with the bikes while we walked around to tour a particular site. During the tour we stopped at a small take-out lunch place in an out of the way neighborhood for lunch that we took and eat on the steps of a museum overlooking the harbor. Bicycling around the harbor on the promenade was a great way to end the tour.

The company was “E-Bike Tours Marseille,” and the tour was the “Grand Tour of City and Seaside.” The tour lasted four hours (10am-2pm), covered 23 km, and cost 52 €. Their website is here.  They provide detailed information about the tour and instructions regarding the meeting place on the harbor.

While they were doing that, my friend and I did the HoHo bus tour of Marseille.  We found that to be a better deal than the petite train that also took tourists around Marseille.  To do all of Marseille like we did on the bus, you would have had to do 2 or 3 different trains.  We felt comfortable just sitting in the open air upper deck.  We were given earphones that we would insert along the inside of the side of the bus.  We were able to have the narrative in almost any language we wanted.

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That evening we walked around the city, feeling very safe.  We saw that the city had an Eye but to see it in the evening, it really lit up the sky.

p1060147 There are many restaurants, puns and bars around the harbor and even a few streets back.  Once we did go behind the main boulevard there were many, many streets with all different kinds of restaurants.  We gravitated toward the pre fixed 3 course dinner. As we were close to many vineyards, we were advised to buy wine that had the AOC designation (Appellation d’Origine Controlee) which means the controlled designation of origin under the auspices of the French government.  Those three letter designations helped guide us throughout our journey in France.

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We have fallen in love with Marseille.  Coming up next our tour in Aix-en-Provence and Cassis.

Flights and Preparing for our Trip to Marseille and Provence

Excitement was building in our home as we finalized all of our preparations for our AMA Waterways River cruise up the Rhone River.  As some of you know, I always invite friends to travel with us so we are in essence “a group” and are entitled to group rates.  It was no exception on our AMA Waterways cruise on the Rhone.

Some in my group were doing the pre cruise in Barcelona with AMA while others joined us in Marseille for our own pre cruise.  Ito be honest, I wasn’t overly confident about our stay in Marseille and we were only going there for two reasons.  Since we weren’t doing the pre cruise, this was the closet airport to Arles where we would board our ship and secondly, we were able to use our Club Carlson points to reserve a room at the Radisson Blu on  the Waterfront.  I had booked this hotel before their devaluation of points in May 2015.  I booked 2 nights under my name and in essence paid for only one night with points with the other night being “free”.  We thought that this would be a good opportunity to explore Provence a little with some tours from Marseille.

With that in mind, I began searching through Trip Advisor for tour guides.  Being frugal is always our traveling motto though we do not want to miss a unique opportunity for our frugality – it’ s a fine balancing act that we walk.  As we were going to be in Marseille with another couple we wanted to do things that all of us could enjoy and do.  The husband of the other couple enjoys bike riding as does Blogger Hubby.  I knew that they would enjoy going on an E-bike tour while the wife and I would do the HoHo bus around town.  My friend has some mobility issues so we didn’t want to be walking all around town.  The other two tours we booked were with Provence Xplorer to go to Aix en Provence on market day and spend part of the afternoon in Cassis.  The next day we were booked with One Day in Provence to go into the small villages, a winery, St. Remy and what ever our tour guide suggested.  For the Provence Xplorer, the 4 of us would be doing a shared excursion, joining others and for the One Day in Provence, the 4 of us would be doing a private tour.  More about those later.

We flew Upper Class on Virgin Atlantic into Heathrow and then British Airways to Marseille.  A concern we had was that we would have to pick up our luggage in Heathrow and then check them in to British Airways for the flight to Marseille.  Luckily when we asked the Virgin Atlantic ticket agent at departure if they could Interline them.  He said ” yes” and put a luggage tag on them requesting them to be transferred over to BA.  Nevertheless, I took a photo of our bags just in case they should get lost.  According to him, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic don’t like to play nice with each other but we had no problem.

I was not overly impressed with the Virgin flight although the flight attendants were very nice, friendly and helpful.  The cabin seemed crowded and very little room to move around and, to me, seemed like there wasn’t much storage in our pod.  The food, for airplanes, was fairly decent.  I had a steak and I actually ate most of it.

With the entertainment system along the wall to my left, I had to pull it out and swivel it to be in front of me.  With the food tray fully engaged, if made if very difficult getting in and out of my seat.  I also thought the cabin was warm and was glad I wore a tee shirt under my top.

Would I fly VA again?  Probably not.  It was okay but not the experience I was looking for.  I’m not sure what I am looking for and it may not exist on a transatlantic flight or if it does, perhaps I’m too frugal to spend too many extra points for it.  Nevertheless, it was fine.

The short flight to Marseille was no different than a domestic flight in the U.S.  Once again we were business class but what that means is that you are in a row with 3 seats and they put a tray over the middle seat so you do not have someone sitting next to you   To reserve your seats ahead of time, you need to pay $49 per ticket.  I did not do that.  If you go online 24 hours prior to your flight, you can reserve your seats for free.  When I went on, they had the two of us together and in good seats.  I made no changes.  It was interesting to me that a flight as short as this one we were still able to be served a hot lunch.  Why can foreign airlines do this but American Airlines can not?  As we were closer to Marseille we could see the Rhone River out the window and then closer to landing, we could view the cliffs and the calanque (a narrow, steep-walled inlet that is developed in limestone, dolomite, or other carbonate strata and found along the Mediterranean coast).

approaching Marseille
approaching Marseille

To get to our hotel we could either take a taxi which would cost about 52€ or we could take the city shuttle bus from the curb outside the airport to the central train station for about 8€ each and then either take a cab to the hotel or a bus.  The shuttle was perfect and saved us a lot of money.  We opted for the cab once we got to the train station since it was very hot and we were tired. The taxi which was about 22€ to go to our hotel, the Radisson Blu Waterfront in Marseille.

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As we rounded the bend and got our first view of the waterfront, we were taken back at how beautiful it was.  This was not the grimy port city that I was expecting; instead there were hundreds of sailboats of all sizes around this rectangular shaped harbor. Our hotel faced this harbor.  After we settled in, we went exploring.  Along all 3 sides of the harbor there were restaurants, pubs and shops.  Along the harbor, it was an expanded sidewalk that was well lit with dark sky approved lights.  I felt very safe.  There is even a ferry that crosses the harbor for 1 €.

Ferry across the harbor
Ferry across the harbor

One of Blogger Hubby’s concerns in traveling to France is that neither of us speaks French.  For that matter we don’t speak any other foreign language but his lack of French bothered him.  Our first restaurant we had to pull out the English-French-English dictionary but as time went on, we were able to read about half of the menu.  Most French people that we met spoke a little English but to me they spoke quite a bit.

The hotel, in addition to the beautiful view, was very nice with a restaurant attached that had good reviews on TripAdvisor.  Nevertheless, we didn’t eat any meals there.  For breakfast, we were on our own because when we booked the hotel on points it did not include a breakfast.  As usual, Blogger Hubby offered to go out  early and find a bakery to bring back some delicious just made pastries.  Our room overlooked the secluded pool area,and the harbor.

view from our room at the Radisson Blu Waterfront
view from our room at the Radisson Blu Waterfront

We went to bed a little early so we could catch up on our sleep and be ready to explore Marseille and Provence.

Sunset in Marseille
Sunset in Marseille

Hope you enjoyed our photos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Mexico – Land of Enchantment

“This land is your land, this land is my land.  From California to the New York island.”  That song always goes through my mind when I am traveling across our vast country and see the many differences.  This is our land and we need to spend time exploring and getting to know it. Foreign travel is exciting but traveling within our own country allows me to see the grandeur of our country and many spots that are very eyeopening and educational.  I think that sometimes I have preconceived ideas of what areas should look like or what I will find there. Most times I have been proven wrong. Sort of like judging a book by its’ cover and we all know that we shouldn’t do that.

As we sat by the window traveling through New Mexico it somewhat reinforced in both of our minds what we thought the landscape of New Mexico would be – somewhat flat with mesas, buttes, orange/red soil or clay and small little bushes popping up here and there.

When we arrived in Albuquerque, ending our epic Train Trek, we took a cab to pick up our rental car at at the airport, then we got some lunch (at Twisters – a delicious semi-fast food restaurant) and then began our drive toward Santa Fe for our first of five nights in New Mexico.

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We had been told that there are two ways to drive to Santa Fe and we chose the more scenic route which is known as the Turquoise Trail National Scenic Byway.  This is off the main highway and takes about an hour to travel between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.  This trail was well known as a site for the rich deposits of turquoise, gold and iron ore.  You can find in this area the rare blue green turquoise names after the town of Cerrillos.  There are a few towns on the Turquoise Trail and they tend to be more artist’s havens.  Stop in some of the cafes along the trail for a bite to eat, go in the gift shops and look at the silver and  turquoise jewelry.  One shop that we stopped in at Madrid had turquoise that the elderly owner mined herself.  How many shop owners can say that?

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P1050675IMG_1074IMG_1075Santa Fe has some wonderful restaurants restaurants and a preacher on our train from Albuquerque advised us to eat at Tomasita’s for authentic New Mexican food that is family run.  Of course we had to obey the preacher.  Fairly easy to find and like all good restaurants, there was a line.  Food was delicious though it was a bit hot for this northern girl – even the green salsa.  They waiters wanted to make sure that I enjoyed this experience and with their help, I did.

Santa Fe has the most charming plaza of all of the cities that we visited.  I had looked forward to the Georgia O’Keefe museum which is only a couple of blocks from the center of the plaza.  I was able to get the last ticket to go on a docent led tour of her work and learned about her background – fascinating.  I think we all know her for her famous red poppy painting (which is only about 7 inches) but did you know she was also an abstract painter?  She painted many landscape scenes though they were of two themes familiar to her – the area around Lake George area where she would spend her summers with her husband and those of Texas and New Mexico with the beautiful colors of the mesas and skies that she grew to love.  Her personal story is very compelling as  well and you learn about her personal life at the museum.  I would highly recommend this museum.

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Walking to the Georgia O’Keefe museum we passed by shops that had animal sculptures along the street.  Blogger Hubby and I loved whimsical and fun sculptures.  What do you think of these?

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P1050840P1050838P1050843P1050839The Palace of the Governors  is within the Santa Fe Historic District along the plaza downtown and it served as the seat of government for the state of New Mexico for many centuries. The Palace of the Governors is the oldest continuously occupied public building in the United States. Outside the building on the portico you’ll find native Americans selling their pottery, jewelry, metal work, drums, leather items, drawings, paintings and so much more. My word of advice, if you choose to purchase, which I did, pay in cash and do not bargain – it is an insult to the Native American vendors whose prices are very fair and less than what you would pay in one of the shops along the plaza.  They also have exquisite workmanship on all the wares that they sell.

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We also went to the State House, a few blocks from the plaza area.  This is the only state house that is round.  It also has four wing entrances, designed after their state flag.  The four wings represent the four cultures in New Mexico – Angelo, Spanish, Mexican and Native American.

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Across the street from the State House was a sign telling us about the Santa Fe Trail  and how it was a main thoroughfare .

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We stayed outside the downtown/plaza area at a Holiday Inn using our points.  It was fine – nothing special.  In hindsight, I would have preferred to have stayed along the downtown plaza area.  There is a lot of traffic in this area, parking is tight and it is just a vibrant place to walk around and be.  We would have gone there our first night except for all the traffic.  Learn from my mistake and stay by the plaza.

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AMTRAK’s South West Chief

We were finally on the last leg of our three part train trek around parts of America.  We enjoyed almost all aspects of the trip so far, perhaps with the exception of one of us having to climb into the upper, narrow bunk bed and the train whistles at night when going pass a crossing.  The South West Chief was originally  operated by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway until AMTRAK took over passenger rail service in 1971.

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Los Angeles, along with Chicago, has a lounge of first class passengers and we took full advantage of it.  When you enter the front of Union Station, walk straight back and near the rear, turn right and then go up the escalator.  There are chairs, a few tables and chips and soft drinks as well as coffee. There is an attendant sitting at the desk to help us with any questions you might have.

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As lounges go, or at least as compared to airline lounges, this wasn’t too much but it was a nice place to hang out and eat the few snacks that they had.  Because of the way that the station and tracks are laid out, when it was time to go to the track to board our train, we were driven there in multi-row golf carts.  If we had chosen to walk, we would have had a long way to go including going under a tunnel to get to the other side of the tracks.

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We weren’t sure if we would get dinner since we weren’t scheduled to leave Los Angeles till 6:15.  As we boarded we found out that we would get dinner and as the attendant came around, we signed up for one of the first sittings at 7:00.  Same menu that we had on both the Empire Builder and Coast Starlight.  Blogger Hubby was quick to let our table mates know how good he thought the seafood cakes were, which he had again!

We went to bed early because one of the stops in Arizona, early in the morning around 5:45 AM was Winslow, Arizona.  It seemed like I was humming the Eagles song” standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona” all night while I was trying to sleep.  Unfortunately, I woke up about 5 minutes after we passed it.  At breakfast we met a couple who had just gotten on the train.  The did the option of going to the Grand Canyon through the Grand Canyon Railroad.  Although they had a good time, they were exhausted because they had to leave their hotel at 3:  AM to be at the train station at 4:00 AM – unfortunately, the train was late and they had to wait about an hour for the South West Chief to come by.  Although they loved the canyon, they wouldn’t recommend going by train other than the convenience of being very close to the rim.

For us, we enjoyed seeing the change in scenery across America.  Here are a few scenes that we passed on our last day on our train trek.

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IMG_1042As I mentioned, our train, unbeknownst to us, was running late but what we found out on every line is that they build time into the schedule so they very rarely arrive late at the station at the end of the line.

Our final stop was Albuquerque.  Our train trek was over but now our New Mexico part was beginning.  It was 11:00 in the morning, the sun was shining and we were excited.  We gathered our bags, left the train and walked out front to get a taxi to the airport to get our rental car.  Problem was – there were no cabs.  I tried calling one cab company but no answer.  I tried Uber but it was surge pricing very high.  Finally got a cab company who would send a cab out to the train station in 10-15 minutes but no guarantee that we would get it.  After half an hour, one came but there was a little disagreement on how got to ride.  The other couple and us came to an agreement that we would share it since we were both going to a car rental at the airport.IMG_1047

We closely examined the car, loaded our bags and headed north to Santa Fe.

Would we do this again – yes!  We’d like to do the California Zephyr route which is San Francisco to Chicago traveling through scenic Colorado and the Rockies.

This entire train trip took 65,000 of my Ultimate Reward points that I had transferred over to AMTRAK (no longer available to do it) and remember, traveling first class included all of our meals.  I used points to stay at the Holiday Inn and Suites in Chicago the night before our train trip, also for the Weston Bayshore in Vancouver, points for our night at the Hilton Doubletree Checkers hotel in Los Angeles.  We paid for our night at the Seattle Grand Hyatt and used a Diamond upgrade for our Emerald Suite.

Up next, Land of Enchantment – exploring Santa Fe, Taos, Albuquerque and its environs.

REMINDER: I’m getting together a group for a cruise around the southern tip of South America.Come join us on March 5, 2018 (that’s right – 2018) on Holland America’s Zaandam, a vessel with about 1450 passengers as we board in Valparaiso, Chile as we cruise among the fjords, through the Strait of Magellan, Beagle Channel, visiting the southernmost town in the world, Montevideo, Paraguay and disembarking in Buenos Aires, he home of fine leather and the tango.  With a group, basically in name only, we received the lowest rates and amenities. .  Leave a comment and I’ll respond privately to you about this cruise or contact my travel agent, Michelle, at michelle@mccabeworld.com and tell her you are in Jane’s group!

Why I LOVE going to the grocery store – not what you think!

As most of you know by now, the majority of our travel is from earning and burning points and miles from our various credit cards. We don’t earn too many of them from travel but rather from strategically using our credit cards as well as credit card sign ups.

As I have mentioned in the past, one of my favorite combination of credit cards is the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card with the Chase Freedom card. The Freedom card by itself is a money back card but if you have the Chase Sapphire Preferred card or one of the Chase Inks (business cards) then the Freedom card will earn the Ultimate Reward points that can be transferred to airlines and hotels and formerly AMTRAK.Freedom

What is unique about the Freedom card is that they have different category spending per quarter. The second quarter of this year is 5 times points at grocery stores and big box stores like Sam’s Club, BJ’s Warehouse, Costco, etc.

I need to have a few windows replaced and had Lowe’s come over and give me an estimate for the window replacements – over $2,000.00. Hmm, my local grocery stores sells Lowe’s gift cards and if I purchase them this quarter, I’ll get 7,500 ultimate reward points rather than just the 2,000 points from paying Lowe’s directly.  Note:  you are limited to spending $1500 per quarter to get the bonus points.  Do I hear a Cha Ching!

That got me thinking.  What else do I ordinarily spend money on that I could purchase a gift card for during this quarter? I always need gas so a few BP gas cards went in my basket as well as a few restaurants gift cards and movie theatre gift cards and of course, those lovely and ever so versatile VISA $500 gift cards. Luckily, Blogger Hubby also has a Freedom that that we can use for all these extra points.

This should be a banner month for me with it all ending on June 30th. I hope you have the Freedom and and have taken advantage of this quarter’s bonus categories. If you don’t have it and are interested in one, please leave me a message in the comment section.

UPDATE:  Mommy Points has just written that Chase Freedom will continue to pay 5 x points when used at wholesale club stores through the end of the year.  You can read her post here.

Coast Starlight Train from Seattle to Los Angeles

Traveling by train is not quick.  You will not get to where you want to go fast.  Train travel can be expensive but for some of these routes, it is much less than airfare for these remote locations.  Train travel is a lazy, relaxing way to sit back, and watch the scenery go by while you are going to your destination and enjoying the ride.  That’s something that most people don’t say about airplane travel.  You have the opportunity to meet people, share travel stories, get recommendations  if you are stopping in their hometown.  Train travel is almost a luxurious way to travel because you are not rushing.  It’s a throwback to other times for most of us.  Rooms are small, even the large bedroom that we got very very small.

In our "large" bedroom" on the train.  It was the same setup on all the trains.
In our “large” bedroom” on the train. It was the same setup on all the trains.
hallway where our bedroom was located
hallway where our bedroom was located

We began the second leg of our Train Trek across America in Seattle when we went to Seattle’s King Street AMTRAK station to board the Coast Starlight. We had heard so much about this leg of our trip that I wondered if it lived up to the hype. After reading this, you be the judge.  If you missed our first leg, you can read about it here.

At the King Street Station, there is no lounge.  Like airports, there is a dedicated line waiting to board for first class passengers. You need to look at your ticket for it to tell you which car you are on and which room. Our ticket said 1130 D which translates into train #11, car 30, room D. You need to remember this information because you will use it in the dining room to charge your meal to your room (remember, your meals are included if you are a first class passenger).

We settled in and went exploring. We had heard that this train was different and we wanted to find out how it was different. One car behind us was the Parlor Car which I don’t believe any other long haul train has. This is exclusively for first class passengers and it has padded, swivel chairs so you can look our the windows. This is similar to an observation car with the windows at chair level and on top as well. There are 12 of these chairs as well as about 8 tables.

comfortable chairs in the parlor
comfortable chairs in the parlor
tables for eating during dining hours in the parlor as well as the wine tasting.  We would play cards here as well
tables for eating during dining hours in the parlor as well as the wine tasting. We would play cards here as well

You can make meal reservations in the parlor car and they have a different menu that what we had on the Empire Builder or what we would have on the SouthWest Chief. Excited that we would have something different, I quickly signed us up for lunch. BIG MISTAKE. Nothing is prepared fresh, or at least as fresh as it could be on the train. I ordered a salad which was mainly arugula and sliced red cabbage with a salad dressing that was not to my liking – and I like most salad dressings. Blogger Hubby had the chicken salad sandwich and he said it was a “nothing kind of sandwich”, pre-made who knows when. There was another choice and it too was a sandwich. Lesson learned – eat meals in the dining room.

The parlor car is also where they have wine tastings for $7.50 for three tastings and an offer to buy a cheese platter for $10. The first day it was 2 wines from Washington and one imported wine from Argentina. The second day it was 2 wines from California and the same imported wine from Argentina. Although it was nice to do this, it could have been presented and run better. After we were served our wine, the parlor stewart disappeared. Sometimes there were long waits before pours. You decide whether you want to do this or not.

tasting a Washington State wine
tasting a Washington State wine

 

We left Seattle about an hour and more late. They had to put sand on the train for us to spray in the tracks where we would potentially have problems climbing elevation and possibly slippery tracks.

Once we started moving we were glad that we were in the comfortable parlor car seats as we admired the beautiful scenery that was unfolding before our eyes. We crossed smaller rivers, traveled along the Columbia River, climbed mountains, saw Mt. Shasta and just took in the sights. We certainly understood why Oregon is called the Evergreen State as we traveled southbound. What surprised both of us was that there was still snow on the ground.

Through the Cascade Mountains
Through the Cascade Mountains

On all of the trains, there are some longer stops where you can get off the train, go in the station or just stretch your legs on firm ground.  Here we are in Eugene, Oregon where the waffle sole was invented and Nike was begun.  The longer stops are called “smoke stops” as there is no smoking on the train.

One of our stops, Eugene, Oregon.
One of our stops, Eugene, Oregon.

As we traveled through California we stopped at Salinas which is nicknames “America’s Salad Bowl” and marveled at all the rows and rows of crops that were growing and being harvested.  We could quickly spot the red strawberries that were growing on the plants and wished we could have reached out the train window to grab some.

Salinas, California - America's Salad Bowl
Salinas, California – America’s Salad Bowl

Further down the coast, south of San Luis Obispo, came the sheer beauty of this coast.  There was nothing between us and the shore.  With colors ranging from deep green to tans and browns, it was breathtaking and made us glad that we were seeing this from the train – we could have never done it by automobile as there were no visible roads to our eye.  Mountains in the background, sand and ocean in front of us as we were zipping along on this stretch of track that this train route is noted for.

Pacific Coast
Pacific Coast
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Pacific Coast south of San Luis Obispo

There is one point in this section that you go around a curve and can see both the front of the train as well as the back of the train at the same time.  Of course, I wasn’t able to photograph it but here is the front of the train.

The front of the Coast Starlight train
The front of the Coast Starlight train

Every train has a different personality with different crew. Also, each of the trains we rode had the same menu yet with different cooks, the same food was different on the trains.  Blogger Hubby loved the seafood cakes which were a combination of shrimp and crab meat.  He thought that was the best on the menu.  I had the signature steak on al three trains and the Coast Starlight had the best steak by far.  Salisbury Steak, the special on all the trains, was hit or miss.  We didn’t try the pasta with the overcooked veggies.  The herb chicken was also good.

We arrived in Los Angeles around 9:00 PM and took a cab to our hotel with an attitude from our cabdriver since our hotel, the Hilton DoubleTree was only a few blocks away.

As a reminder, everything on this trip with the exception one hotel night was booked using points.  Your meals on the train are included in your first class fare/miles.

Leg two of our epic train trek was now in the books.  Next up, what to do near the train station during the day.

All Aboard – AMTRAK’s Empire Builder

This trip was booked last December transferring points from my Ultimate Rewards account to AMTRAK.  This is no longer available.  You can read about it here.

We left the Holiday Inn and Suites and walked directly to Union Station going in the entrance that I described in my previous post. Inside the lounge is a checked bag room where we ditched our bags so we could still walk around the city and get some breakfast. You do need to show your ticket once you enter the lounge.

Entrance to the lounge
Entrance to the lounge
early morning at the lounge in Union Station, Chicago. It will get much more crowded the closer to departure.
Early morning at the lounge in Union Station, Chicago. It will get much more crowded  closer to departure.

The lounge that we used will be closed in a few weeks and a new lounge will be opened, probably around the second week of June. The new lounge will have showers, more seating, and will be located in the Great Hall. In the lounge were hot and cold drinks and snacks like potato chips, pre-packaged breakfast rolls and nachos.  Here is a link to the new lounge.

After checking our bags, we left the station and headed to the French Market which we had discovered the day before. I had one of the best breakfasts that I’ve ever had – a freshly made crepe filled with fresh strawberries, crème fraiche, and almonds. Delicious !  Blogger Hubby had the crepe with lox, cream cheese, tomatoes and red onions. There were tables at the back of the market and outside for you to sit and enjoy your food.

The best breakfast ever!
The best breakfast ever!

With no bags and still a few hours before we needed to be back at the station, we walked around the city more. We walked over the to canal where tourists boats took passengers on a city tour.

IMG_0574We found the Chicago Cultural Center and went in – free admittance is always an incentive. They have two beautiful rotundas and one was by Louis Tiffany. This building was the former Chicago Public Library.

IMG_0577Close by was Millenium Park and the Chicago Art Museum – both worth walking to and through.  Throughout the park we saw a number of fountains, sculptures that we found very unique.IMG_0585

 

IMG_0591Did you know that the famed Rt. 66 begins in Chicago?IMG_0593

Throughout the city were beautiful tulips in bloom as well as other sidewalk arrangements in concrete planters – some with pussy willows which I hadn’t seen in a long time.   Another building that we saw was the Board of Trade building – very unique with huge eagles at the top corners of the building almost looking like gargoyles.

When we returned to the lounge, it was crowded and difficult to find seating. There are two screens on the walls – one for arrivals and one for departures. You will see the same name of trains so be sure you know what you are looking at. For example our train, The Empire Builder was arriving at 3:00 yet our train, the Empire Builder was leaving at 2:15.

Traveling in a sleeper, we had priority boarding. They will call you and open the door to the track. Everyone stops at the first car to see if it is theirs. If you are going to Washington State, keep moving. Our train splits in Spokane during the – the cars at the end are going toward Portland and the cars in front of the dining car are going to Seattle. That clue will tell you where your car will be.

Our Room – To get to our room, we entered the train and had to walk up a narrow stairway. If you have a large suitcase that you won’t need in your room, you can leave it on the first floor in the luggage area. We had the larger bedroom and they were denoted with a letter – we were in “D”. The smaller rooms had numbers. That tip might get you in the correct corridor since you can go left or right at the top of the stairs.

The lower level had rooms as well though I think they were smaller rooms, community showers and extra toilets (we were warned that there is no ventilation in the community bathrooms). Yes, train bedrooms are small. We knew that and expected it. The bathroom is a combination toilet/shower. To take a shower, put down the lid on the toilet and turn the water on. Since there is a lip to get into the bathroom, the water stays in the bathroom. You do have the option of using one of the community showers if you want something larger. Tip – put down the lid to the toilet to prevent it from crashing down in the middle of the night when you hit a rough patch of tracks.   We propped open the bathroom with a backpack so we could see the blue nightlight in the bathroom. Again, we didn’t want the door slamming in the middle of the night.  To get more air or less air, look to the ceiling to open or close the vents.

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Tip: If you are charging electronics, you might want to bring an extension card as one outlet is on the wall by the sink mirror and the other is on the wall by your head. You don’t want your electronics dangling as you recharge them.

We didn’t sleep well the first night because the train was always blowing their horns due to all the train crossings that we were passing.  You’ll get to know the whistle – 2 long, 1 shorter and 1 long.  Sometimes it seemed as though when the first set of whistles ended, the next one began.

The top bunk, which I had, was doable.  In the fact that there isn’t much turn around in and the ceiling was about 2 feet (or a little less) from my bed.  Getting up wasn’t a problem but getting down was (for me) as trying to turn around to come down the ladder was difficult since there wasn’t much room to turn around in.  I ended up putting my foot on the corner of the vanity and then the other on Blogger Hubby’s bed.  Not pretty but I did it.

We both brought carry-on luggage and a backpack. I would not bring anymore than that as they only place to store the luggage is under the bench sofa and chair in the room and a very small shelf above he chair. The rooms are small and compact and for just two nights on the train (or longer for us since we are continuing on) you really don’t need much. My concern in packing is whether the train ran hot or cold – I found this particular car on this particular day ran right in the middle. I have on a sleeveless top with a lightweight sweater and long pants though in the evening it did get a little cooler but never, in my mind, cold.  We’ve been told the Super Chief runs very cold.

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OBSERVATION CAR – had both seats and booths with a table. Downstairs was a lounge car where you could buy snacks as well as sit at one of their few tables. On our train were two Park Service Trails and Rails volunteers that gave a small narrative when we were going by a few things. If you brought your National Park Service passport book, they will stamp it for you (I had mine). Tip: there are some seats with 110 volt plugs so you can charge your electronics there as well. TIP – I turned on my Google Maps app while in the observation deck to see where we were and what we were passing.   There is no train wifi so I was careful how much cellular data I was using.

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DINING CAR – When you first board, stay in your room because a dining steward will come by and you can make reservations for dinner. Dining is about on par with airline food. For dinner I had the signature steak which was okay, baked potato and very overcooked medley of veggies. The salad was very fresh and served with packets of Paul Newman salad dressing. Second night I had the herb chicken which was much better and Blogger Hubby had the seafood shrimp/crab cakes and he thought they were very good.  Dessert was a good portion, neither too large or too small. All of this is served on plastic plates rather than the china that AMTRAK used to serve food on. Your first class accommodations include your meals on board and a drink. Beer and wine are a separate charge and they are available in the dining car. One thing to remember, although your meals are included in your accommodation if you are a first class passenger, you need to remember to tip the wait staff in the dining room. It also appears that the menu is the same on all the trains with a dining room. TIP: your first night when you leave Chicago, sit on the right side of the dining car as you are going forward and sit so you are facing forward. We had the 7:15 dinner and you could see the sun setting over the Mississippi – a bright orange ball and it was beautiful. Unfortunately we were not sitting on the correct side or facing the correct direction to get a picture but it was beautiful

Two rules that are strictly enforced on AMTRAK – no smoking and you always must wear shoes when walking around the train.

NOTE:  If you do plan to experience the Empire Builder, I strongly encourage you to download this PDF of the train route.  It gives you information on the train as well as the stops that it makes.  It’s interesting to know a little information about the cities that you are stopping or passing through.

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We have met very interesting people on this journey so far either at meal time (4 to a table) or in the observation car.  We were the only ones doing a train trek.  Many were going to or from vacation, family celebrations or just as a means to travel.  I was very pleasantly surprised at how much room there was in the coach section with leg rests and room between the seat in front of you – so unlike air travel.

More to come tomorrow.  If you have any particular questions, drop me a line and I’ll try to answer as soon as  can.

All Aboard…..

 

EU Rule 261 – Important if you Fly into or out of Europe

I’m going to take a little break from my trip report in Europe to talk about a different subject that may, at one time or another, affect you. That subject is a flight delay or cancellation while flying from an EU country to another EU country OR from an EU country to elsewhere OR flying into Europe on a EU carrier.  In my case I was flying from Milan via Brussels to Washington Dulles this summer.  Since I had a delay, I’ll be addressing that and will not write about flight cancellation.

BACKGROUND – We were flying on an award ticket that we had booked through United Airlines.  We flew from Milan’s city airport – Linate – at 6:30 AM to Brussels on Brussels Airlines and then we were booked on the noon flight on United Airlines to Washington Dulles with an arrival time in IAD at 3:00 PM.  While in Milan I was received  email alerts  informing me that our flight from Brussels would be delayed one, then two hours.  We arrived in Brussels around 8:30AM and after we went through security we went immediately over to the Passenger Assistance desk.  Interestingly enough, there were two lines there – one for Chicago passengers and one for Washington Dulles passengers.  When it was my turn, I was then told that the delay would be seven hours long!  Once I had processed that information, I then began asking questions.  Was there another flight that would leave Brussels before 7 PM?  I was told “yes” but it was through Chicago and it would arrive 30 minutes before my rescheduled flight.  I asked about flying into another city such as Boston, Philly, etc then taking a flight to Washington Dulles.  “No, there was nothing else”, I was told by the agent.

They offered us a 14 euro voucher for lunch, but not dinner and that was it.  We sat down and tried to strategize.  I powered up my iPad and found that there was a flight to Munich that would get me into IAD much earlier.  I got back into the very long line and by the time I reached the agent at the desk, it was too late to try and make the flight to Munich. in order to change planes to get to IAD.  I could have made it if they had rerouted us when I first approached the Passenger Assistance desk.  I expressed my displeasure that they did try to find other flights to get us home other than the one via Chicago.

Remembering that there was some rule about delayed flights in Europe, I asked the agent about it and they gave me a pamphlet about filing a claim.  Apparently they have to have the information on the counter but they don’t have to tell you anything or really answer any questions. Beyond that they were not helpful.

EU 261  – sets out the compensation that passengers will receive in the event of a delay or cancelation, or when they are denied boarding because of overbooking, or when the airline is unable to accommodate them in the class that they had booked their seat in.  You must be departing from any airport in the EU or arriving in the EU on an EU carrier or one from Iceland, Norway or Switzerland.   You must have a confirmed reservation and have checked in; your ticket was purchased at a fare available to the public and that includes an award ticket from a frequent flyer program.  You are not entitled to compensation if you are denied boarding on the grounds of health, safety, security or invalid travel documentation.

DELAYS – if your flight is delayed 4 hours from your scheduled departure, you may be entitled to compensation between €250 -€600 depending on the distance of the flight.

If you are within the EU and are traveling  1,500 km or less –  you are entitled to receive €250.  If you are traveling over 1,500 km then your compensation would be €400.

If you are traveling between the EU and a non-EU country and are traveling 1,500 km or less  then your compensation is €250.  If you are traveling 1,500 – 3.500 km then you may receive €400 and if it is 3,500 km or more then you may receive €600.

ADDITIONAL COMPENSATION – the airlines have to provide meals (vouchers for meals), two telephone calls , fax or email messages for you.  We were given phone cards that could only be used in Belgium.  As I stood in line, I heard the agent calling an elderly couple’s son in the United States to let them know what was happening.  If the delay causes you to spend the night, they will provide a hotel and transportation between the airport and the hotel.

If your airline offers  you an alternative flight with a similar schedule, the compensation may be reduced by 50%.

You also have a choice with either the above compensation OR reimbursement within seven days of the full cost of the ticket at the proce at which it was purchased for the part of your trip not flown

You may not be entitled to the compensation if the delay or cancellation is caused by extraordinary circumstance such as bad weather.  This does not include mechanical.

WHAT I DID – I sent a message to United asking for compensation under EU Rule 261.  After two weeks I heard nothing.  I then sent another message and within a week I received an email from United Customer Care apologizing for the delay.  I was given two alternative options instead of the €600.  The first option was a $1000 voucher for travel on United or United Express for one year.  At first glance, the idea of each of us receiving a $1000 voucher sounded great.  We had another river cruise planned for next year however…..we could only use the voucher on United and we could get to Paris but we would either have to pay cash or use points to get to Marseille where we were staying before our cruise.  This is what we were told:

Travel Certificate(s), including but not limited to (1) the validity
period of one year from the issue date with no extension, (2) there
will be no refunds, (3) the Travel Certificate(s) will not be reissued
if lost or stolen, (4) the certificate may be redeemed for credit up to
its face amount only towards the purchase of an electronic airline
ticket(s), where eligible, from United, and (5) if the face amount of
the certificate exceeds the cost of the ticket for which it is
surrendered, any residual amount will be applied to the same Pin for use
toward another ticket until either the original issued amount is
depleted or the expiration date has been reached, whichever comes first

Our second option was 30,000 miles deposited into our Mileage Plus account.  Valuing each point at 1.5 cents, then this would be valued at $450.00, less than the €600 we were entitled to.

Upon further thinking, we had been saving up the miles in our account and as nice as the 30,000 points would have been, I think having €1200 in our pocket would certainly make our trip next year even nicer.  By choosing to not accept any of the alternatives, we have the flexibility to use the cash as we want, we aren’t locked into only using United Airlines – this is the best decision for us.

What I do now is to fax to them the signed form indicating what I am electing to so and it will be processed in six weeks. I will not receive a check but instead will receive a prepaid VISA debit card.

As difficult as it was sitting in an airport for about eleven hours, getting home at 9:00 PM, leaving the airport at 11:00 PM it is nice receiving some compensation for it.  It’s even better that we were on a reward ticket!  I’m sure that most requests for compensation do not go as smoothly as ours did, but we are very satisfied.

If you are delayed, save all your paperwork as they will ask you for your flight number and ticket number.  I also wrote notes to myself to put in my letter when I asked for compensation. I do not know if that helped or not but I am hoping that when they read that we were not offered other flights, that they could understand why we were upset.  Also, you have to apply for the compensation – the airlines are not going to voluntary come to you.  They do have to have information on the agents counter but they don’t really tell you what it is.  Be proactive, ask questions, save everything and research and file when you get home.

Remember, if you have a delay, cancellation, in a different class ticket than what you were booked in, involuntary bumping – there are compensations for you but you must seek them out.  The main exclusion to these is extraordinary circumstances (click on link for examples) such as bad weather and a list of other reasonable reasons why there would be a delay.

If you have received a denial letter from your airline because they consider mechanical delays to be extraordinary circumstance, know that they are wrong.  Send a copy of your letter seeking reimbursement and their letter denying your claim to the National Enforcement Body of the country you were flying out of or on whose airline you were on.  Here is a link to the list of the various enforcement bodies.

Have you been delayed?  Have you applied for compensation?  If so, what was your experience?

 

UPDATE – I was successful and received my prepaid debit card for $677 for both myself and Blogger Hubby.In this instance, it was not as difficult as I had been led to believe.  Thank you United Airlines.

Regensburg, Germany – the Beginning of our AMA Cruise Down the Danube

After our time in Amsterdam, Nuremberg and Prague, it was time to get on with the focus of our trip – our AMA Waterways cruise down the Danube.  We elected to do the “cruise only” portion  but the majority of the passengers chose to do a pre-cruise in Prague with the cruise line. The additional cost for the pre-cruise with AMA Waterways covered transfers from the airport, three nights at the cruise hotel, the Old Town Hilton, a tour of the city and transportation to Vilshofen with a stop and tour in Regensburg where we were to embark on the AMAPrima.

We found out from our travel agent that we could pay for the transportation only with the group to Vilshofen from Prague even though we did not do the pre cruise portion. Since we do have hotel points, and perhaps even if we didn’t, we decided to make our own pre cruise arrangements.  For us, it makes economic sense as well as somewhat of a travel adventure to plan our pre and post cruise.  We are not afraid to research what to see and do as well as public transportation and tours with guides.  However, some people are a little more timid about venturing out on their own or they don’t want to think and plan or make any decisions and have all the details arranged for them – then this is ideal.  There is no right or wrong but rather what works for you and for many this works well for them.

The bus trip included a walking tour of Regensburg on our way to Vilshofen, another small city and a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its medieval city center.  Off we went on our buses for a few hours bus ride which included a stop at a McDonald Cafe and before you knew it, we were in Regensburg.

We met our tour guide at the area where the buses parked, across the river from the city area.  She walked us across the Old Stone Bridge, built in the 12th century and the one that the Crusaders used to get to the Holy Land.  While we were there the bridge was under construction having some needed repairs made.  The city’s architecture includes ancient Roman, Romanesque, and Gothic buildings. Regensburg’s 11th to 13th century architecture still defines the character of the town marked by tall buildings, dark and narrow lanes, and strong fortifications. The buildings include medieval Patrician houses and towers, a large number of churches as well as the 12th century Stone Bridge that I previously mentioned.

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The cathedral in Regensburg, Dom St. Peter, is a massive cathedral with twin spires that can be seen all over the city.  It was built in the 12th century in the Gothic style, though like many other historic churches and buildings, it had a Baroque “facelift” in the 16th century and then later in the 19th century reverted back to Gothic.  This cathedral, like many that we saw in cities, have been undergoing a cleaning, getting rid of the black soot that is on the outside walls.  The church, in 2009, finally received its organ, a massive free hanging organ.  The 5,871 pipes in this organ is able to fill the space in the church with its beautiful sound.  If you are in Regensburg on a Sunday, you can go to church service and listen to this mighty organ.

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After we had our tour we were free to have lunch on our own and we knew exactly where we wanted to eat.  The oldest continually operated sausage restaurant in the world is in Regensburg.  Workers building the 12th century Old Stone Bridge needed a place to eat and thus, the Sausage Kitchen was born.  The speciality of the  kitchen is the thin, long fried sausages served with rolls made with caraway seeds, home-made sauerkraut and mustard.  I’m not normally one that enjoys sausages or sauerkraut but I’ll ell you that I ate it all up.  We sat outside on picnic benches but you also have the option of easting inside the restaurant.  The restaurant is next to the Old Stone Bridge and on the Danube River.  Can’t beat that scenery.

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After a little more “looking” around, we boarded our buses again for Vilshofen and the AMA Prima – our home for the next week.

Our Day in Nuremberg, Germany

When I booked our KLM flight using 25,000 American Express Membership Reward points per person for a one way flight I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get a flight directly to Prague from Amsterdam. When that happens the best advice I can give is to look for alternate cities that might be close to where you want to go.  For us, it was Nuremberg, Germany.

Nuremberg was a city that I have never been to.  All I knew of it was that it was the site of the famous Nuremberg War Trials that were held after World War II as well as the parade grounds where the Nazi soldiers would march around as a show of force.   I began looking at other things to see and do using Trip Advisor as my guide.  I knew there were a lot of Nazi related buildings to see but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see them or not. Since we were not going to be there very long, we actually decided not to do the Nazi tour and instead focus on the city as it is now and also to see it as the medieval major city that it was.

I’m so fortunate that we were able to spend a night here as I probably wouldn’t have vacationed in Nuremberg.  Nuremberg Airport is a small airport and we had no problem getting around or finding the ticket kiosks for the trains outside of the airport.  A German gentleman who was on our flight decided to “stay” with us as we purchased our tickets and directed us to the appropriate track.  We have found that people are friendly and helpful particularly if you ask for help.

We stayed at the Holiday Inn Hauptbahnhof which indeed was a few short blocks to the train station where our bus for Prague would depart from.  We did not use points as the rooms were not very expensive and it was a good opportunity to earn some points and there was also an IHG promotion going on.  The room was fine and it would be what Americans would call small but I believe it was an average size for European hotel rooms.

When I asked the person working the front desk for a recommendation for dinner she was quick to recommend Barfuber located in the pedestrian mall area inside the old walled city.  It was a lively spot and one that seemed to attract many local residents as well as a few tourists. I had the fried dumplings and Blogger Husband had roasted pork with gravy and a bread dumpling.  Portions were more than ample, the beer was delicious and we had a great time here people watching.  If in Nuremberg I would definitely recommend this restaurant.

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The next day we arose bright and early and after having a good breakfast at our hotel we took off to walk around the city.  We had a 4:40 PM reservation on the bus to Prague so we were anxious to see as much of Nuremberg as we could.

I was really amazed at the intact wall that went around the older part of the city.  I’ve been in other cities that were walled, but this one was spectacular since it appeared to me that the entire wall was intact and not just a portion.

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One of the entrances to get inside the walled portion was also the entrance to the Handwerkerhof where many of the items are handmade, especially those involving metal.  If you were to be here in December, this would be a very popular area for the Christmas markets.

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Since we were up and out early none of the stops were open but we did do some window shopping and planned to come back on our way back to our hotel.  We then walked toward the open air market…the  Hauptmarkt where fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, cheese, food trucks, soaps, etc all for sale.  Apparently we were there during the harvest of the white asparagus and I was told Germans love their white asparagus!

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We continued walking and headed toward the castle admiring all the buildings and scenery on the way.  Like almost all castles, it is an up hill walk but as you were walking up there were spots to stop and view Nuremberg from an elevated position.  I still am amazed at the number of terra cotta tiled roofs  – roofs that I had only previously seen on our south.  They certainly added color to the landscape.  After walking around the castle it was a much easier descent back down to the street.

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We headed back to the Hauptmarkt for some “looking” and “buying” and perhaps lunch as well.  We found the sandwiches we wanted and took them to the bridge over the Pegnitz River which ran through the pedestrian mall area.  It was a beautiful spot to eat our lunch.  The buildings along side of the river or even in the middle of the fork of the river  seemed like they came out of a fairytale.  What do you think?

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I’m so glad that we were able to spend some time in Nuremberg and it is a city that I would love to come back and spend more time seeing some of the sights that we didn’t get the chance to see during our 24 hours.

To get to our final destination of Prague we looked at traveling on a train or, as suggested on Trip Advisor, to take a bus. Hmm, buses just aren’t my thing but the train required a layover and a change where the bus would be a direct route from Nuremberg to Prague and would take about 2 hours less than the train.  I figured I could “suck it up” for a few hours and if it were really bad, then it would give me fodder for a great blog.  The bus left from the train station and it was a double decker bus.  It was wonderful.  There were probably about 15 of us on the bus and we all had plenty of room.  As I mentioned, it was a direct bus that took us through the countryside on our way to Prague.  I was amazed at the hundreds and hundreds of solar cells that were alongside the highway in Germany.  Again, this was a rural area dotted with farms except for all the solar cells.  I wonder why our country hasn’t adopted this idea of harnessing solar power?  We had arranged with our hotel in Prague to send a car to pick us up and as we got off of the bus, there was a gentleman holding a sign with our name on it.  We jumped in his car and off we went to our hotel in Prague.

Target RedCard Primer for Newbies – how to Manufacture Spending for Points

UPDATE:  This is, unfortunately, no longer available.

It seems that lately a lot of people have asked me about how Blogger Hubby and I are able to travel as we do.  Between credit card sign-ups, shopping through credit card shopping portals  and knowing bonus categories for each of our cards we do pretty well.

I do like to make sure we have enough points by doing what is known as manufactured spending (MS).  The Target Prepaid  Redcard (pictured below), affectionately called Redbird certainly helps us and it can help you to travel the world for almost free by racking up frequent flyer points/hotel points.  It is so easy and I often wonder why more people don’t do it.  Really, it’s that easy.  In addition, when you use it at a Target for purchases, you get an automatic 5% off your total.  That’s a WIN – WIN proposition for me.

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Get the right card – Target has several cards (credit card, debit card) but the one you want may not be in YOUR Target as it is still be tested in several markets throughout the country.  It has to look just like the one pictured below.

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Locating – To find the nearest Target to you that sells the Prepaid Redcard, please refer to this map.  If there isn’t one near you, you might be able to purchase one on Ebay or find a friend who does live near a store that sells them and have them get a card for you.  You can load them at any Target store even stores that do not sell them.  I have heard that you cannot load them  in North Carolina if the store does not sell them but I have no personal experience.  If you look at the map you’ll see that there are several Targets in  North Carolina that do sell them.

Purchasing – When you go to Target you are purchasing a temporary card.  In purchasing it, you need to activate it at the store.  The register will ask for your social security number and you can put yours in or a fake number – at this point it doesn’t matter but it will later on.  You should load it with some money – either cash, debit card or credit card.  Even though it says you can only load it with cash, you CAN load it with a credit card, debit card, VISA or MasterCard gift card or cash.  When you load it with your credit card, you are earning points on that card.   You will not be able to reload till you have registered it online though can can reload once registered but before your permanent card arrives in about a week.

Loading your Redcard – I use either a SunTrust debit card which gives me Delta points; any of the Chase cards that I have which give me hotel or airline points; and any of my American Express cards where I can earn Membership Reward points.  I find that I’m using my American Express SPG (Starwood) card more frequently because  I can get Starwood status based on my spending and their points are very valuable.  I have also used VISA or MC  gift cards that I have purchased at grocery stores (where I get 5 x points with certain cards).  With some gift cards I have to set a pin first though with others I just make one up the first time I use it.  You can always call the number on the back of the card to change a pin if you want to.   HINT:  you might want to let your credit card know that you will be making a large purchase at Target otherwise it might trigger a fraud alert.  If, when you try to load money on your credit card, it gets declined, wait a minute and see if you get a text message from your card asking you if this is your purchase.  There is no fee to load money onto your card.

 

Registering your card on your computer – You cannot register a Prepaid Redcard if you have an active Bluebird or Serve account.  They must be closed first.  You are allowed one Prepaid Redcard account per social security number.  At this point you will need to go to a computer and register your card on the website.  Here is the link for it.  You must use your social security number – no fat fingers allowed.  You and your spouse can each have one and your children can have one in their names as well.

Lately a lot of information has come out as to how to use and load your Redcard.  Previously I was loading about $1000 per visit but then it was suggested that I do odd amounts so that it wouldn’t look suspicious as to what I was doing.  Now I am loading $912.56 or $869.44.  It was also suggested to not just pay your credit card bill that you used to load your card with online but use it for other purchases.  Now when I go out, I’ll use this card as a debit card and pay for my small purchases.

ATM – Lastly, it was also suggested to use the card at an ATM.  That I hadn’t done but was successful in doing it today.  Yesterday I tried using it at my bank and it kept failing.  I wasn’t sure if I wanted the withdrawal from my credit card or checking account.  I tried both and it still failed.  Last night I did a little research and found that I could only do it at Allpoint ATM’s.  There is no fee to use the Allpoint ATM machine.  I found where they were located and one was in the 7/11 near my home.  When I walked in the ATM said it was Citibank – didn’t see anything that indicated that it was Allpoint.  Nevertheless, I inserted the Redcard, typed in my PIN, indicated that it was coming from a checking account and put in the amount that I wanted to withdraw.  Again, no fee.

Fees and Limits – For a list of all the load and withdrawal amounts, please follow this link.  You find out how much you can load per day/per month as well as withdrawing.

Remember the family that loads their Redcards together,  flies together!

If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them.  I’ll do my best to try and answer them

Airlines Make Changes and You Need to Be Aware of the Changes!

Last October I had booked a one way award ticket for Blogger Hubby and myself home from Milan after our river cruise.  We are going over on KLM using my Membership Rewards points and coming home on Brussels Airlines using my UR points that I transferred over to United.  I was ready excited about trying Brussels, particularly their  transAtlantic flight.

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In the course of updating my Excel spreadsheet on my credit cards and points, I went to the United website to see how many points I had through my Mileage Plus Account.  While I was there, I “reviewed” my reservation.  The reservation looked fine.  My first flight from Milan to Brussels on June 16th was there, the correct date and time.  The second flight was right underneath it from Brussels to IAD with the correct time but wait…..it was for the June 15th – the day before.  “How did this happen?”, I wondered.  I was the one that made the reservation.  Had I made a horrible mistake?  As I thought back to the night that I made the reservation, I had remembered that I did it on the telephone as this was a reservation that I was unable to book online.  Surely, the United agent would have caught that mistake.  What happened?  I hurried to tell my husband about the mistake.  As I am telling him, I’m also beginning to mentally wonder if there are any seats left on the day we need to fly.  Blogger Hubby, ever the calm person, goes to our travel folder (see this post) and pulls out our printed copy of the reservation confirmation that United sent me when I made the reservation.  It clearly showed both flights on the correct day.  Times I this make me appreciate us having a paper copy of our confirmation.  Now I’m realizing that a change has probably happened but can I get the flight back?

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I called United and spoke to an agent who pulled the reservation and saw that there would be no way for me to make the connection in Brussels (as my kids would say, duh!) the day before I was leaving Milan.  Apparently Brussels Airlines had made a change and they now do not fly to IAD on Tuesday.  Since both legs of the flight are with them, why did they leave me with a connection that I couldn’t make?  There was no communication between us and them, no indication that there had been a change – I heard nothing and was totally taken back by this new itinerary.  We kept saying that we’re so glad that I caught the change otherwise it could have been the day of departure in Milan when we caught it.

While I was on the telephone with the United agent, I was pulling up the United website and looking at what was available for our flight home on the correct day.  I did not see any award seats available from Brussels.  My thought would be that they would change my entire itinerary and have me fly to Munich or Frankfurt and then flying to IAD from there.  Luckily the agent working with us was able to force open two seats for us from Brussels to IAD.  Although we’ll have a longer layover over in Brussels (3 1/2 hours versus 90 minutes) we still get to fly to Brussels, Belgium.

My message to you is to check your reservation, line by line, date by date, flight by flight and times as well as the time between flight.  Have you found a mistake like this on one of your flights?

United worked diligently to solve this change and opened up seats that were not previously open even though this change was nothing that they had done.  I merely had booked the Brussels Airline flight through them.

Now it was time to “fix” the problem.  As I am talking on the telephone to the agent, I’m also pursuing the United website seeing what is available.  I didn’t see anything from Brussels.  The only possibilities was to change our first flight from Milan (LIN – the city airport) to a flight leaving out of the international airport and going to Munich or Frankfurt

Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

Continuing on with the credit card theme from yesterday, we are moving on to my Number One favorite credit card – the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card.  Every time I use this card I get lots of compliments because it is a heavy card with metal between the plastic front and back.  This is the card that both Blogger Hubby and I each applied for two years ago to get enough points to fly to Australia in business class with the lie flat seats.

Chase Sapphire Preferred
Chase Sapphire Preferred

With the Sapphire Preferred card, you get 2 times points on all travel and dining charges and on the first Friday of the month you will get 3 times points on dining.  Another perk is an additional 1 times points (for a total of 3 times points) on travel when you book your travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards.  One benefit that I think is important to any traveler is no foreign transaction fees.  That alone can save you lots of money.

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Now you ask, what are Ultimate Rewards.  This is the part that I REALLY like.  When you use a Delta credit card, you receive Delta miles; when you use an American Airlines card you receive American Airlines points.  When you use Chase Sapphire Preferred card and a few other cards from Chase, you receive Ultimate Reward points.

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Ultimate Reward points are flexible points.  Chase gives you options of where you can transfer your Ultimate Reward points to and I like options.  I can transfer these points to United Airlines and consequently to all of the Star Alliance; to Southwest Airlines which we have used twice in the past year and had never used before; British Airways which gets you into the OneWorld Alliance; Korean Airlines which gets you into the SkyTeam Alliance; Virgin Atlantic and just added (and one of my favorite airlines that is also in the Star Alliance – Singapore Airlines.  For those who take the train you can transfer you points to AMTRAK.  There are also hotels that you can transfer your points to though in my opinion you get more bang for your point by transferring them to an airline.  However if you need hotel points, you can transfer them to Hyatt, Marriott, Ritz Carlton and IHG which is Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Crowne Plaza and more.

Currently if you are approved for this card you need to spend $3000 in the first 3 months to earn 40,000 miles.  If you are interested in this card, leave a note in the comment section and I’ll forward to you my referral code where I would receive 5,000 points for the referral or if you would rather not, you can go directly to the Chase website and fill out an application there.  Either way, this card is definitely in my wallet and is my favorite.

Amazing Deal – Citi American Airlines Credit Card 100,000 points!

Occasionally a great deal will come our way.  Last year for 2 days only, I received 100,000 miles from American Express.  Those miles took Blogger Hubby and I to Hawaii in Business Class seats with 40,000 miles left over for a future trip.

Now Citi is offering a similiar deal – you can earn 100,000 American Airlines miles with a $10,000 spend in three months.  This offer comes with the following benefits:

  • $200 in statement credits — earn $1 in statement credits for each $1 spent on purchases within the first 12 months of membership.
  • Admirals Club membership (a membership value of up to $500)
  • Earn10,000 Elite Qualifying Milesafter spending $40,000 in purchases each calendar year
  • No foreign transaction fees  on purchases
  • Earn two AAdvantage miles per $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases, including US Airways codeshare flights booked on aa.com
  • Priority Boarding and 25% savings on eligible in-flight purchases
  • Your first eligible checked bag is free
  • SmartChip technology Expert Concierge Service
  • $450 Annual Fee – not waived but with the $200 statement credit it will help offset this expense

You will notice on this page, which will take you to the application page, that it asks for a referral code  – you can leave it blank.

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Remember that US Airways and American Airlines are merging so more routes would open.

I know that you might be put off with the $10,000 spend but my plan is (yes, we got this card yesterday) to buy Vanilla Reloads and pay my mortgages with them and then pay my credit card that I used to get the VR’s with the money that is in the bank that I was going to use to pay my mortgage.  Between paying bills, grocery shopping, and even paying for federal/state taxes with my credit card.

Is this something that you are planning on applying for – if yes, I’d recommend doing it sooner than later.  Great deals like this do not last long.

Travel Planning for the New Year

I had planned on writing this post for a few days now and coincidentally a letter from a reader prompted me to write it sooner than later.

At the beginning of a new year, Blogger Hubby and I like to look forward to what our travel plans might be in the new year as well as the year after that.  In doing so it allows us time to strategize as to which airline we most likely would be flying or at least the alliance.  That way we can see how many points we have, how many would be needed for our trip, whether we need to apply for new credit cards for the points/miles and the timing of the cards.  We’d want to allow enough time to get the card, do the spend and have it posted to our account.  For some long haul trips you would need to begin looking for award space 330 days out from when you wanted to fly and therefore we would need for it to post by then.

Next, hotels then come into play.  Where would we be staying?  Do I have any free nights that we can use?  Are there any promotions that I can take advantage of to get more points?  Most hotels do have promotions throughout the year.  Blogger Hubby came to realize that if we spend $60 for a hotel room here, then that would translate into points for a much more expensive hotel on our vacation.  For those new readers, let me explain.  Club Carlson (Radisson, Country Inn and Suites, Park Inn) had a promotion back in 2012 where if you registered and stayed in one of their hotels by a certain date you received 50,000 points plus the points for booking it online and for staying there.  We also had an online coupon for 30% off the price of a room.  We made a booking about 30 minutes from our home and we stayed there (sometimes we just check in and don’t spend the night).  For that one night that cost us $54, we received about 53,000 points which we used at a hotel in Sydney, AU that would have cost us $350.00.  Currently Club Carlson has a decent promotion where you stay three nights and receive 38,000.  Click here to register.   Sometimes you do have to spend a little to get a better reward.  I recently did the same thing for the Big Win with IHG – made a reservation at the Candlewood Suites for $69 but received 39,000 promotion points plus the points for the stay.  That will translate into 2 nights in Copenhagen.  I know roughly how many nights I need accommodations for and will working towards that total.

Planning your travels will help you be successful in your travels.

Expiring miles and how to extend them

As I mentioned before, one of my very good friends has about 500,000 UAL miles.  She was concerned this fall because she knew that her points were going to expire at the end of the year.  She had me over her house to try to book a trip for her so her miles wouldn’t expire.  She didn’t need to go to that extreme.

If you are close to having your miles expire, there are several easy ways to save your miles without having to take a trip.

To keep your airline miles from expiring you must have some type of activity within your account.  If you have a co-branded credit card and use it at least a few times a year, that is sufficient activity to keep your airline miles from expiring.

united airlines

You can also go through your airline shopping portal (AAdvantage, United Mileage Plus, Delta Skymiles Shopping)  purchase something like flowers for your mother, significant other and it is a win-win situation – you get points for sending flowers as well as extending your miles 🙂

aadvantageeshopping_logo

Another way is by dining.  You can also earn miles when you register your credit card on your airline’s dining  site (American, United, or Delta).  All you need to do is to pay with that credit card at a participating restaurant, and you’ll receive miles in your account.  You can register your card with all three and get miles with both United, American and Delta.  Again, a win-win-win situation.

dining

You can also transfer miles into your airline accounts from either Ultimate Reward points you have, AmEx Membership Rewards or even hotel points from  Hyatt, Marriott, Hilton, Priority Club, and Starwood Preferred Guest.  You do not need to transfer a lot into your account – remember you just need some activity in your account to keep it active.

You can fly on a partner airline and credit it to the airline of your choice that is in your alliance.  When we flew US Airways, I credited the miles to United – kept those miles current.  I did not have many miles on US Airways so I wasn’t losing anything on US Airways.

Hope this has helped you in keeping your miles current.

 

My Award Booking Trip to South Africa and…….?????

Let me begin by saying that  I could have never put this trip together without hiring Andrew from the Point Pros (Andrew@pointspros.com).  If you are looking to hire someone to help you book a complicated award ticket or any kind of an award ticket, I would HIGHLY recommend Andrew.  Andrew works under Ben (aka Lucky) who writes One Mile At A Time

What I had thought would be a simple trip to South Africa with a free stopover in Scotland on our way home turned into so much more.  Getting to Scotland was very difficult and costly with UK passenger and landing fees.  We had hoped that if we deleted that portion of our trip it would be easier to book, but it wasn’t.  We’ll save Scotland for some other trip.  Deleting Scotland has allowed us to think about adding in a different stopover city.  Remember, on long haul trips, you get a free stopover for as long as you want.

Apparently South African Airways hasn’t released any award booking seats from the United States to South Africa during the time period we wanted to go.  We needed to patch together an itinerary to get us there on the 16th as we were flying from Johannesburg to Nelspruit for our safari on the 17th.   Unfortunately, the closest we could get  to Johannesburg on an award booking was on the 14th. With award booking you have to remain flexible – you most likely will not get what you want with more exotic destinations.  Though Blogger Hubby hates to waste money on hotels I’m rather happy about it – it gives me time to adjust to the time changes before we go on safari on the 17th.

Put on your seat belt and get comfortable as you read about these flights.

seatbelt

We will be flying from Detroit to Washington Dulles where we will have about a six hour layover (any friends want to pick us up and take us out of the airport for the afternoon?).  From Dulles we’ll fly in business class overnight to London Heathrow and where we have a (gasp) 14 hour layover.  Rather than stay in the airport that long, we’ll probably take a train into London – a place I have never been.  We’ll actually have two overnight flights, like we did flying into Sydney.  We’ll  return to Heathrow and take an overnight flight down to Johannesburg on South African Airways.

After spending a few days in Johannesburg and meeting our son, our daughter-in-law and baby to be, we’ll go on two different safaris in Kruger.  Looking forward to this but a little concerned about the 4 AM guided safari tours – that’s very early!

safari car

For the return home, and this is the part that gets ugly, we will be returning from Cape Town (an Open Jaw flight).  Using award miles to get out of South Africa was not easy.   The choices were either EgyptAir (which had poor reviews) or Ethiopian Airlines in economy but on the new Dreamliner.  We’ll fly from Cape Town to Johannesburg and then onward to Addis Abba, Ethiopia.  We’ll have a layover and then fly on to Rome, on Ethiopia Airlines in Business.  From Rome we’ll fly to Copenhagen, Denmark on Scandinavian Airlines.  What a day of traveling.  We’ll spend 6 nights in Copenhagen.  We’re open to lots of suggestions including whether it is worthwhile to take the train or ferry over to Sweden.

copenhagen

For our flights home from Copenhagen we’ll fly into Toronto on Air Canada’s Executive First Class suites which have a 1-1-1 configuration.  Click on the link and you’ll see what I am referring to.  A short hop to Chicago and then a shorter hop to Detroit and we’ll be back from where we started from.  I guess you can see why we needed help.  Through Expert Flyer we have listed several other flights that we’d like to be on if seats become available.

All this for 240,000 miles total (Ultimate Rewards points transferred to United)  and $212 per person.  If we were to pay cash for this exact itinerary, it would be over $21,000.  Granted there were shorter ways to fly (direct from Dulles to Johannesburg) but that cost more money and since we are retired, we have time plus I get to fly into Ethiopia.  We will fly 22,439 miles on this epic journey.  We can pay and make changes to this itinerary but if we make any changes after February 1st, that will put us into the new award chart and would end us costing us many more points.

Finally, again many thanks to Ben and Andrew from the Point Pros and I would HIGHLY recommend them.

Here is what our trip will look like:

map

United Airlines devalues their Award Tickets

Yes, it is true…beginning February 1, 2014 United Airlines will begin to require more points when redeeming miles for an award ticket.  Previously it didn’t matter whether you were traveling on United or one of their partners in the Star Alliance.  Now it does matter!  Also, rates for Business Class and First Class prices have really gone up, particularly First Class has really skyrocketed.  They now have divided their award chart into two award charts – those flying on United metal and those flying on a partner’s metal.  What I had loved about the Star Alliance is the great airlines that I could fly using my UAL points – now I’ll be penalized when I do.

united

If you are planning on redeeming UAL points, book it sooner than later.  All trips booked by January 31, 2014 will use the older award chart and the next day, it will be the new award chart.  Also, you cannot make any changes to your trip on Feb. 1st because it will then put you into the new award chart.

Here is the link to the current award chart and here is the new one for you to compare.  As far as I can tell, the changes are affecting international travel as well as to Hawaii and Alaska.  If you fly within the 48 contiguous states you should be okay.

Final word – book before February 1st if you are planning a trip.

Hilton Waikoloa Resort north of Kona, Hawaii

After our trip to Kauai, we flew into Kona for our final three nights of our Hawaiian vacation.  Kona is a very small airport with limited roofing and sides to the building.  We know this because when we landed, it was a torrential wind driven rain storm.  The pilot had us wait inside the plane for a bit since there are no jetways.  After wading through 3 inches of water and getting our rain drenched luggage, we went to Alamo to pick up our rental car.

We were shortly we were on our way up Rt. 19 to the Hilton.  As we pulled into the Hilton property all we could see were lots of cars.  In fact, they were hosting an event.  We pulled up and we unloaded our luggage while my husband found out that we had to pay $17 per day for self parking or $22 for valet service.  We chose the valet service since the property was so large.

The lobby was extremely busy for after 9 PM.  We checked in, given a room in the Ocean Terrace and told we needed to take the monorail to our complex which would be the end of the line (3rd stop).  There was a boat we could take but they don’t allow luggage.  Since there is one track, we needed to wait about 30 minutes for the train.  Blogger Hubby wasn’t pleased about that!  Looking at the photo below, he Ocean Terraces are the three circles that are interlocking.  There is only one stop at this location and it is at the far right.  We felt like we ended up walking quite a bit to get to our room.

KPC Hilton Waikoloa

This hotel looked dated, no microwave, single sink and for me a big disappointment was no lei greeting like we had at the Hyatt. The balcony was very small with two chairs and a small, short round end table.  There was a coffee machine like the Hyatt had but unlike the Hyatt, they did not offer tea and I am a tea drinker.

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We were woken up very early in the morning and multiple times due to about a million birds screeching.  They did it many times and it lasted a long time.  We met several people who changed their rooms/complexes because of the loudness of these birds.  If I was staying longer or had children with me, we would have changed as well.  The other side of the complex had the dolphins which I’m sure a lot of children would like to be near to see the interaction or to swim with them.

Rather than waiting for the monorail, we walked to the lobby, about a 10 minute museum.  The boat only ran from 2 PM till 10 PM.  It was, in our opinion, very inconvenient to have to wait a long time to go to your room.

The pools here didn’t seem as inviting as the one at the Grand Hyatt Kauai – there was no lazy river and a small water slide.  The “lagoon” where you could rent kayaks, paddleboards did have a natural environment where we saw green turtles swimming with paddleboarders a few inches, or so it seemed, right above them.  There was water around the complex that you could not go into – such as the waterway for the boat.

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We did attend the Luau that they had and it was quite good.  There really is no need to pay for the higher end seats as there is no bad seat at this luau. When you enter you get your choice of two drinks and are escorted to your seat.  The higher end seats did receive appetizers (nachos and chips among them).  The food was very good for being mass produced: short ribs, pulled pork, salads, fruit and desserts.  The show began a little hokey but that was okay.  The entire affair probably took about 2 hours.

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Hilton5We enjoyed our time but would not consider returning to this location.  It really was just too large for us and we felt like we spent quite a bit of our time waiting for the monorail, waiting for our car from valet (everyone on the monorails went to the car valet for their cars).  The hotel, just to give you an idea of how large it is, covered 63 acres!  Too big for us.

We were able to do this because we have the Hilton Honors American Express card where you get 5 times points at grocery stores (buy VISA gift cards there and use for other spending) as well as opening a Bank of Hawaii and Hawaiian Air credit cards.  With a minimum spend of $1000 we earned 35,000 and they each transferred over to Hilton at a 1:2 ration – those two cards gave us 140,000. Rooms went for 50,000 points per night so the points from the Hilton AmEx topped off what we had already earned.

Planning the Trip to Hawaii with Points and Miles

As some of you know, we recently had an opportunity drop into our lap – a friend of Blogger Hubby offered us their timeshare in Oahu for a week at the end of September.  I have never been to Hawaii and Blogger Hubby had been there a L  O  N  G time ago.  This offer was made to us a few days before Labor Day so we needed to get our act together and fast.

First, since we were still in Michigan we needed to find flights on our points.  None of the small airports near us had flight the times that we needed for a connection in Detroit.  Our next option was to drive the 4 1/2 hours south to Detroit Metro Airport.  I was saving our UR and UAL points for our trip to South Africa for next summer and therefore needed to use our American Express Membership Reward points.  Looking at many of the airline schedules and using the ITA Matrix, United appeared to be our best bet.

American Express membership points do not transfer to United Airlines though they do transfer to Singapore Airlines which is in the Star Alliance with United.  UAL requires 80,000 points to fly in Business Class to Hawaii; Singapore Air, through their award chart only requires 60,000 points.  To me, a frugal point saver, that is a significant difference.  Miles were transferred to Singapore Air (I did it online, you can do it online or by phone).  A quick phone call, once the points were deposited into the KrisFlyer account that I had previously opened, and my seats were booked.  I had spent some time on the UAL award site choosing my flights that had award availability, and those flight numbers were given to KrisFlyer.  Seats were booked!  A tool to help you find the number of award miles needed from many airlines is Milez.Biz

krisflyer

Next up….planning what to do and where to go after our week in Oahu.  We knew we only wanted to go to two islands but the three that came to mind was Maui, Kauai and the Big Island.  Before we made that decision, we needed to see where our hotel points would take us to.  We seemed to have more options for Kauai and the big Island so that made our decision process a little easier.  In Kauai, it was a no brainer for us.  We had opened the Chase Hyatt credit card last fall and when you do, you get 2 nights free at ANY Hyatt worldwide.

I had heard so much about the Grand Hyatt Kauai that I wanted to spend two nights there.  We arranged an early morning flight on Hawaiian Air (7:40 AM) so we could maximize our time in Kauai.  We were able to stay here since we had opened a Chase Hyatt credit card last year and you get two free nights at any Hyatt in the world.  Since these would expire in November, we thought this was a good use of those two free nights.

Next up, where to stay on the Big Island.  As I had mentioned in a previous post, Blogger Son #2 had WWOOF’ed in Kona and he suggested that we stay around that area.   I had lots of Hilton points so we booked the Hilton Waikoloa Village for three nights.  We had arranged a late afternoon flight from Kauai to the Big Island so that we would have almost 3 full days in Kauai and since we were flying home from Kona at 9 PM, we would have almost 3 full days on the Big Island as well.  We used our points from the Hilton American Express card – about 50,000 per night.  I had lots of points as I had just purchased a number of Vanilla Reloads at a grocery store and as most of you know, you get 5 times points at a grocery store when you use this card.  Knowing your bonus categories really help.  I had also opened last year a Bank of Hawaii and a Hawaiian Airline credit card where I received 35,000 from each card.  Nothing spectacular but they transferred over to Hilton at a 1:2 ration – for every Hawaiian mile, I received two Hilton points.  Did all this for a total of 140,000 points.

Next up, it becomes a reality and you’ll read about the flight to Oahu.

Riding the Rails – AMTRAK

Did you know that you could accumulate points on AMTRAK like you do with airlines and hotels?  Well, you can!  I was happy to read when I received my Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card that AMTRAK is a 1:1 transfer partner of Ultimate Rewards. Currently,  AMTRAK is running a Double Points promotion with travel now through October 31, 2013.  That’s twice the point earnings!  You must first become a member of Amtrak Guest Rewards and then you need to register here for this promotion!

double promotion

When I was a kid, my mother and I always took the train to wherever we were going on vacation because she had a phobia about airplanes. I’ve taken the train to southern Florida numerous times as well as to the West Coast – all from Boston.  Now as an adult, I’ve continued to ride the rails though not as often as I would like – probably a combination of time and the cost.  I found it relaxing to board the train and then just…….relax.  It was the time period between leaving work or your home and the start of your vacation.  I was able to decompress, take a deep breath and arrive at my destination fully relaxed and ready to begin my vacation.  I fondly remember the time we left Boston and went to Chicago on an overnight train.  After arriving in the morning we spent the day in Chicago before we had to go back to the train station to get our train to the West Coast.  The train, the Super Chief,  had the Vista Dome

photo: wikipedia
photo: wikipedia

feature where we could go up the stairs and there would be a glass dome over us so we had an unimpeded view of the countryside.  The interesting part of this trip, and I “think” they still do it or at least a version of it, is that we were in the last Pullman car and in the middle of the night in Arizona, our car was unhitched from the train.  We waited for another engine to take our car up to  the Grand Canyon where we awoke.  We spent the day touring the area and it is a day that I have not forgotten in the decades since. Later that day we boarded our Pullman again and were taken to the same spot on the tracks where we were unhitched the night before.  This time we would be awaiting another westbound train to “pick us up” and continue our journey. Click here for some information on trains in the Grand Canyon.

When was the last time that you rode the rails?

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Hawaii Bound!!!

We just received an amazing offer – a timeshare for us to use for free in Oahu this month!  This month….Holy Cow!   I have to get moving… NOW.  So I have lots of questions and dilemmas.

The first dilemma we have is how to get there.  Should I use my points to go there in Business/First Class since it is a long flight?   Will I have enough for our South Africa trip that we have to book within the next couple of weeks? There are many variables of where we should fly out of as well as where we should  fly home from?

After Oahu, we will fly to Kauai and the Big Island – at least that is the plan currently.  That doesn’t mean tomorrow it won’t be Maui and Kauai.  I have enough hotel points that we can stay for a few nights at each island hopefully.  I’m thinking that this is more like an island sampler – visit a few and then see where we want to go back to in the future.  The Sheraton is only charging 10,000 – 12,000 SPG points per night and I have about 30,000 points.  AmEx co-brands the SPG card and the points are very difficult to come by other.  I also have about 300,000 Hilton points from their co-branded American Express card.  I like this card because of the bonus – 5 x points at grocery stores.  I  found a grocery store up here that sells Vanilla Reloads and there doesn’t appear to be any limits as to how many you can buy.  I bought 4 of them at $500 each yesterday.  That means I spent $2000 and since it is 5 times I just received 10,000 Hilton points!  Score one for the home team.

After spending all day on this, I decided to take the United flights and my head was spinning like the girl from Exorcist though no green pea soup.  I decided to call in the troops and hire a booking specialist after talking with him through email.  My initial thought was to transfer my AmEx Membership reward points over to UAL and book the flights.  He told me, to my surprise, that United is not a transfer partner of AmEx.  My idea came to a screeching halt.  What do I do now?  He came up with such a great idea (and worth his money).  He said that AmEx was a transfer partner of Singapore Airlines and they are a partner of United.

The interesting thing about Singapore Airline is that their award tickets (even on United) require fewer points than United charges for their award.  Instead of paying 80,000 miles per business class ticket, we are paying 60,000 points – a savings of 40,000 miles.  What you need to do is to become a loyalty member of Kris Flyer, the program for Singapore Air.  Then go to your AmEx , go to membership rewards, click on partners and then link your AmEx account with the loyalty program you are interested in transferring points to.  You can either call AmEx or you can do the transfer yourself  on AmEx’s site.  This is irreversible so be sure before you do it.  They told me the point transfer would take 3-5 business days but less than 12 hours later, they were transferred.  Next was the telephone call to Singapore Air booking the flight – make sure you have the flight numbers so you can give it to the agent.  Next thing we knew we had tickets to Hawaii.

All we have to worry about now is booking the hotel rooms and flying from island to island.

So if you have been to Oahu, Kauai and the Big Island, send me your list of things that we have to do.

More Reader Questions

More reader questions answered for you……..

1. Is there a way to link actual miles flown to the ultimate rewards account…or would you have to fly on a star alliance carrier as the way to be able to eventually pool those miles flown with the miles you would get by converting ultimate reward points?   There is no way to link miles flown with your Ultimate Rewards.  UR points can be transferred to the following airlines – British Airways, Korean Air, Southwest, United, Virgin Atlantic.  Of these airlines, only United is a Star Alliance member.  Korean Air is part of the One Sky Alliance.  British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have partners but are not in an alliance.  Southwest has no partners and are not in an alliance.  If you were interested in Star Alliance, you would have to fly United and then you could transfer you UR points to United in order to fly with one of the Star Alliance members.

2. On hotels, what is the best way to begin getting free hotel stays…would you recommend just joining the hotel loyalty programs, signing up for a hotel rewards credit card, or both?  The best way to begin getting free hotel stays is to sign up for their loyalty program.  That way you’ll learn about their promotions which will give you multiple points/free nights if you follow the terms of the promotion.  Hotel credit cards are another way of getting free nights.  Hyatt will give you two free nights, Marriott will give you 50,000 points and you will have to check the other credit cards to see what you will get.

3. Is there a way to combine the Chase ultimate reward points for free hotel stays, or is it a better use of those points to save them for flights?   You can transfer some of your UR points to Hyatt, Marriott, Priority Club, Ritz-Carlton.  Whether you think it is a better use to use your UR for airlines or hotel stays is up to you and what is important to you. Personally I prefer to use my points for long distance business class airline travel.

4. If my spouse also gets a Chase Sapphire Preferred card, will we be able to combine our points?  Yes and no.  You will not have a family account but you can transfer yours into his and vice versa.  When we flew last year, my husband transferred his to my account and we made one booking that way.

5. What specifically do you mean between the difference in free flights versus status? I think I am most interested in being able to book free travel, and if possible in business class.   You get free flights from using your points in your airline account.  For status, you generally get it from flying with your butt in the seat – that’s why people do mileage runs.  You do have the opportunity to get an upgraded seat when you have status.  You could have purchased a coach ticket as a gold member.  If there are business class or premium economy available, you’ll get on the upgrade list.  Whether you get it or not depends on how many seats available, and how many elites are ahead of you.

6. I think I know what you mean by mileage run, but in practical terms, would you just pick a weekend and book a bunch of travel and fly all weekend, or would you do it by strategically picking a far away destination and traveling there over a weekend but making a short vacation out of it…or maybe both depending on circumstances? You could do both.  If you were going on a greater distance, you would have the opportunity to add in a bunch of stops, many times for a nominal amount, for the sole purpose of getting miles.  If you wanted to go from IAD to SFO  you might want to try routing IAD through Boston to Chicago to Houston to SFO.  See how many more miles you would get?  Go to Great Circle Mapper and see the difference.  Now my husband’s cousin picks a destination and makes a short vacation.  She is going to Hong Kong for the miles.  My brother-in-law and his wife went to Aruba to preserve her diamond level.  So, it’s entirely up to you.

7. Question about currency exchange. We will be going to Europe in the fall. Would it be better to get a bunch of Euros before we go or to use a debit card (no ATM charge) at banks in Europe?   I like to have some currency when we go to a new country – in fact, enough to last a few days.  I buy it at my local bank over several different months so hopefully I catch it when the rate is the most favorable.  While I am traveling I use my Charles Schwab bank debit card.  They reimburse you for ALL you ATM fees and it is a favorite of many travelers.  If you are interested, call Chuck and set up your account.

Suggestions Needed For Our Stopover to/from South Africa

Next summer we will be traveling to South Africa with our son, his wife and their baby.  We are planning on using our miles for free flights.  The trip has two purposes behind it.  First and foremost is to visit our daughter’s-in-law family.  She was born and raised in South Africa and then emigrated to the States as a middle-schooler.  Her grandparents, numerous aunts, uncles and cousins still live in South Africa.  We are excited to meet her other family members.  We are also looking forward to seeing the country of her birth and to put a “face” to the different areas that she speaks so fondly of.

sa map and flag

Secondly, another item on our bucket list is to go on safari.  Most Americans tend to sign up with a safari guide and stay in a preserve to be sure to see The Big Five.  That’s not how our son and daughter-in-law have done it the past two times that he has gone.  They always stay in Kruger with reservations made about a year prior to their stay.  They rent a car and do a self guided tour of the Kruger, looking for animals themselves in a more natural and not fenced in manner.  Apparently that is the way most from  South Africa do safari.  We had though of also going to Victoria Falls but apparently there is a huge conference going on during the time we would be there and there are no rooms to be had except in Zambia.  Doing Victoria Falls could also be very expensive as well.

photo: safari.com
photo: safari.com

With such a long trip we thought we would plan a stopover in a location that we might not go to for a primary vacation.  We are having a difficult time coming up with where we want to go.  We thought of the Maldives but Blogger Hubby would not want a week long beach vacation.  We’ve been to Istanbul but admittedly for only 2 days so that is a possibility.  Morocco was another suggestion but I am a wee bit concerned about the heat as I had heat stroke twice in Singapore.  Another possibility is Scotland (where my maternal family is from) and where our exchange student from a decade ago lives.  I had thought of Scandinavia but Blogger Hubby thinks that would be a trip by itself.  Finally, a trip to the Canary Islands.

world with question mark

What are your thought on where we should try to find a stopover for about a week or so?  We desperately need help and suggestions so we can begin planning this trip.

Using our Miles to get to Australia

As I mentioned earlier, Blogger Hubby and I had decided to take a BIG trip and we wanted to go Business Class and we wanted to use our miles and fly for free (other than taxes).

We wanted to fly from Washington Dulles to Sydney Australia and then fly home from Auckland, New Zealand.  This is called an Open Jaw ticket.  I began searching about 9 1/2 months prior to our trip to find the perfect flights and found that there weren’t many flights to choose from.  I was in for a shock!  Apparently the “rule” is to begin looking about (and each airlines is a little different) 330 days out.  There were no direct flights to Sydney from either LAX or SFO.  I had no idea of how to route us to Sydney.  I had asked for help and was told to try creative routing and to try to route through Asia.  But how?

australia

I was booking using United Airline miles.  To do this, you simply go to the reservation page, type in where you are flying from and where you want to go, check the box at the bottom that says award travel, add your dates and then enter all this information.  There are two types of award ticket – the saver award (which is capacity controlled which means fewer seats) then there are standard award )which are about double the miles but if a seat is available then you can book it).  I was not about to give any miles away by booking standard – I would rather come in a few days earlier or stay a few days later.  I had the somewhat luxury of flexibility.

While doing all this research, I found that one of the routings on the United Airline award booking site that I could fly was to Sydney via Seoul, South Korea.  Really, I asked? It was a “little, no it was a lot out of the way”.   I was, I admit, a little apprehensive about flying through South Korea, not because I don’t like South Korea but because it is so very, very close to North Korea and the government of that country scares me.

The option was to fly on Asiana Airlines which is a South Korean airline and I later found out to be one of the top 5 airlines in the world.  Everyone kept telling me what a great airline and airport Incheon (South Korea) was so I bit the bullet and  went ahead and booked us.  This would be a very long flight from SFO to ICN – 10,700 miles.  On this long haul trip on Asiana we were booked into Business Class and to this inexperienced Business Traveler, it looked like First Class.  I thought I hit the lottery.  We were escorted to our seats by the Asiana flight attendant.  She introduced herself to us, and saw to our every needs.  This flight had a 1-2-1 configuration.  We had the two “pods” in the center with lie down flat seats, footrest, a light over our shoulder, a personal in flight entertainment center beyond anything I had seen before.  We were given our menus to select our lunch and our wines.  Our meal was served to us on linen covered trays, nice china dishes, glass stemware – it was like I was eating in a elegant restaurant.  Our wine glass was always filled and they remembered which wine we were drinking.  I would be lying if I said I didn’t love being pampered like this.

the seat in the lie down  position
the seat in the lie down position
1-2-1 configuration in Business Class.  We had so much room.  For the center seats, there is a panel that you can pull up to give you some separation from your seat mate.
1-2-1 configuration in Business Class. We had so much room. For the center seats, there is a panel that you can pull up to give you some separation from your seat mate.

As this was an Open Jaw trip and since I was a little “nervous” about spending this many points and making sure that I got everything right, I called the international award desk for United and had them help me book this trip.  The fee was $25 per ticket and she spent 90 minutes on the phone with me helping me  get better flight times that I was able to do on my own through the internet.  If you are as unsure as I was, do not hesitate to call your airline.  The fee was well worth it.  If by chance you should get a reservation agent that is not helpful, thank him or her, hand up and call again and you’ll get another agent who will be more helpful.

We were booked  in First Class from Dulles to San Francisco on United.  We had a two and a half hour layover in San Francisco and then we were going to be flying on Asiana in Busness Class and then San Francisco to Seoul on Asiana to be followed a few hours later by our flight, again on Asiana, to Sydney.  Both of these flights on Asiana were booked in Business Class and we would have two overnight flights. This was a flight of almost 11,000 miles!

We still had to find a flight home from Auckland and there were no Business Class seats to be had.  We went ahead and booked on Air New Zealand coach seats from Auckland to LAX and then coach from LAX to IAD.  This flight weighed heavily on my mind and I was not happy about it.  I had been trying to convince Blogger Hubby to stop somewhere on our way home but he had felt that we were gone long enough and we should just go home.  He had also been in Japan and Korea a long time ago and did not feel very comfortable in getting around.  I tried to convince him that the Asia of now was very different from the Asia of when he visited prior to our marriage.

Finally, about two months before our trip he agreed we could stop somewhere on our way home.  With a long haul flight you get a free stopover (stopover is 24 hours or more; layover is less than 24 hours – important to know the difference).  We debated between Bangkok and Singapore.  Since Singapore’s official language was English and they were a former British colony we thought they would be a good introduction to Asia for us.

I could not get a direct flight from Auckland to Singapore and had to look around to piece this flight together.  I spent time on the award web site of United finding cities I could fly into from Auckland and then look for flights from that city to Singapore.  Now I understood about being creative in looking for award seats.  I found a flight on Air New Zealand from Auckland to Brisbane, Australia and then from Brisbane to Singapore on Singapore Air.  Once again, both flights were in Business Class.  I was becoming a travel snob and until this trip had never flown anything but coach.  I was anxious to try both airlines but most anxious to fly Singapore Air as I had heard so many wonderful comments on this airline. This flight was over 5,000 miles.

auckland 5000 miles

From Singapore we needed to get home.  We ended up booking a coach flight on Singapore Air to Beijing, China.  In Beijing, we again flew Business Class direct to Dulles on United Airlines.  This flight was almost 10,000 miles.

iad

What I learned through all this is that you have to be flexible.  Know what flights you want, and know the flight numbers.  It can be very difficult to book this yourself online so call your airline reward redemption telephone number and have them do it for you if you are unsure or want to make sure everything you did is correct.  For the Auckland to Singapore segment, I had to piece it together and give the reservation agent all the flights for each segment.  I first found the Auckland toFor us, United charged $25 per ticket and it was the best use of my money.  They also charge when you make a change to your ticket UNLESS they make a change (and usually they do for flights booked quite a ways out) and then you get to change for free.  We were not charged when we changed our flight from Auckland.  Just be nice and appreciative to the person helping you on the phone.

When booking through one airline and flying on another, you need to get your record locator number so you can call up the airline (in this case Asiana, Singapore and Air New Zealand) to reserve your seats.  Do not skip this step – it is very important. I called as soon as we booked and then I also called a month before the trip to confirm with the other airlines.  I didn’t want anything to happen at the last minute.  I wanted to be prepared as best as I could.  Some people have reported problems with other airlines not having their reservations so I made sure as best as I could that it wouldn’t happen to me.

So that is our flights in a nutshell.  The lessons to take from this is to look for indirect flights if you can’t find a direct one; piece together the segments, always get your record locator for each of the other airlines you are flying and finally, confirm, confirm and confirm!