Australia Award Availability

A Tough One

I have been dreaming of going to (moving to) Australia since I was 15 years old.  When Matthew and I were dating, he said he would take me there someday.  25 years later, we still haven’t gone.

Australia is far away.  It’s expensive.  It’s huge.  And did I mention it’s far away?

When I first started collecting Delta SkyMiles way back in 2002, my goal was to use them for Australia.  But Australia kept getting put on the back burner and I redeemed miles for Morocco, and Europe and California and many other places.  But I still kept collecting them.   Right now I am sitting at 374,363 SkyMiles.  At 80,000 each way in Business class, I am 105,637 miles short for 3 roundtrip tickets.  There is no easy way to earn more SkyMiles with the restrictions from American Express of “one sign up bonus per lifetime”.  I have already had all the cards.

Over the past couple years, I have really started building up my stash of American AAdvantage miles.  Citi cards are easy to churn and I also took advantage of getting a (few) Citi AAdvantage Executive cards when the sign up bonus was 100,000 miles.  So I have 533,998 AAdvantage miles.  And that’s AFTER just redeeming some for 3 tickets to Paris next spring and 3 tickets to Turks and Caicos last fall.  Oh and 2 tickets to California this summer.

That is way more than enough to get 3 roundtrip business class tickets at 62,500 each way. (375,000 total miles needed)

Will Somebody Please Let Me Spend My Miles?

This is where it gets ugly.

Cathay Pacific (A oneworld partner) has terrific business class availability between Los Angeles and Australia via Hong Kong.  Trouble is, American Airlines will not let you route through Asia using their miles.  The 62,500 would take me to Hong Kong and then I would have to redeem another 35,000 mile award to get to Australia.  That’s worse than Delta’s 80,000 mile awards!

Qantas is also a oneworld partner, but they are VERY stingy with their business class availability.

Delta has lots of business class availability with their partner Virgin Australia, but like I said before, I do not have enough Delta miles for 3 roundtrip tickets with Delta.

Possible Good News On The Horizon

A few days ago, American announced it would begin its own nonstop service between Los Angeles and Sydney beginning in December 2015.  This was exciting news at first.  Surely American Airlines would allow a handful of business class award seats to be redeemed by its own members on an aircraft that has 52 business class seats. Right? Not bloody likely.

Check out these pictures.

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Who would pay 175K Miles?

This first one shows award availability for business class on American’s nonstop service between Dallas-Ft. Worth and Hong Kong.  There are no business class Saver Awards available at the far reaches of the current schedule.  None!

The next picture shows you the available seats you could choose from if you redeemed the 175,000 point award.

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D’oh!

All of them!  Sure, it’s possible that a couple tickets have been sold and not been assigned seats.  Unlikely though.  American is hoarding seats the way I hoard my miles!

What’s the point?  They would rather let that cabin go out empty, than let people redeem miles for it.

The scenario doesn’t change much when you look at the next couple of weeks.  Still no saver award seats, but 38 available business seats.

nextweek3Is there a Happy Medium?  Maybe.  I have to wait and see once they load the new flights into the schedule.

So What Are My Options?

I have to prepare for the worst case scenario.  Assuming AA does not release 3 business class seats on their new flights, I have accepted that my family will have to travel separately.  Right now, I can send 2 people on Delta/Virgin Australia roundtrip in Business.  The third person can (hopefully) travel on either American or Qantas roundtrip in Business.

I could also transfer 20,000 SPG points to Delta.  With the 5,000 point bonus, I would have 25,000 more SkyMiles and enough for all 3 of us to return on the same flight.  But I’m not sure I want to spend my SPG points for that.  Again, it is almost impossible to earn more of them now.  I only have 43,502 points and I wanted to use them for a ski trip.  Although, they are probably more valuable being used toward Australia.

I was somewhat encouraged when I saw this.  Business class availability on Qantas for 1 person.  For a while, I was having trouble finding availability for even one person!

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I want to start my trip in Cairns, so I don’t see any way around a connecting flight.  But that’s ok!

Here is Delta/Virgin Australia availability for 2 people for the same dates and almost the same time.

 

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This isn’t ideal, but sometimes you have to do things like this to travel for free.  I’m still going to keep my fingers crossed that I can get 3 business class seats on American when they release the schedule. It is possible that they might release a bunch of award seats in the beginning.

What About Coach?

Some people might think I am being a travel snob by refusing to fly to coach.  Not at all.  I know I could easily get 3 economy class seats on Qantas at 37,500 miles each for one way.

But I have done that.  See here.

Los Angeles to Australia is a flight of approximately 15 hours.  By comparison, the longest flight of our Thailand trip, from Seoul to Chicago, was 12.5 hours.

It was not fun.

I do not want to do it again.

Call me a snob if you will, but I have no desire to repeat that.  I have done the work to earn these miles, I want to redeem them and be comfortable on a flight halfway around the world.

And Now, I Wait

I want our trip to begin on May 31, 2016.  Or as close as I can get to that date.  I am really very flexible with dates, which should help me out with securing award seats.

I do have 4 nights booked at the Radisson Blu in Sydney, June 13-17, but I’m quite sure I can fit that in to whatever flight dates I am able to book.

The schedule for May 31,2016 should load on July 6.  Hopefully American and Qantas can get the approval for the new routes by then.  I really don’t want to book anything until I see how many seats American is going to release on the new flights.

If anybody has had any experience doing this or has any advice to offer, I am all ears!

 

 

April 2015 (Mini) App-O-Rama

It’s been awhile since I have posted (or done) one of these.  Gone are the days of 6 apps in one day.  With the demise of amazon payments, Vanilla Reloads and Serve CC loads, I’m not sure I could do $20,000 worth of spending in 3 months.  Maybe.  But let’s see if I can get through this $10,000 in 3 months.

Matthew Apr 15 AORThis AOR was all for Matthew.  He only had 5 cards open in his name, which is not good for the credit score.  Before this AOR, his FICO score was 791.  I will be curious to see if it goes up in the next few months with $57,000 of available credit added.

I chose the Citi AA card because the 50,000 mile sign up bonus is pretty good and the 10% back on redeemed miles will be great when we redeem  his miles for Australia next year. Although, there is a 10,000 mile limit on that benefit, so I will probably get this card as well and redeem some of the miles for the trip from my account.

Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great card to have.  Ultimate Rewards points are infinitely valuable as they can be transferred to Hyatt and United.  My goal is to get a few United cards from Chase in the next year, combined with these Ultimate Rewards points and possibly go back to Thailand or maybe Fiji.  In business class this time!

The Capital One Venture card is often overlooked in the Miles and Points community.  I’m not sure why.  I had the card for several years and got in on an awesome sign-up bonus they had.  They were offering to match the miles you currently had in another program, up to 100,000 miles.  I had 100,000 miles in my Delta account so I earned 100,000 Capital One points.  At 2 points per dollar spent, I quickly had 150,000 points in my account which I used to buy United miles for one of our Thailand tickets last year.  My plan with the card this time is to use it for car rentals or other travel expenses that are not covered with airline or hotel miles.  Using their “Purchase Eraser” makes it easy to “erase” all sorts of travel expenses.

Spring Break 2016

Spring Break 2015 is in the books.  Disney was exhausting, but fun.  I am now working on Spring Break 2016.  With the recent devaluation of the Club Carlson program (discontinuing the bonus night) I feel the need to burn the 300,000 points we have.  So I am considering the Radisson Resort in Aruba.  Southwest flies to Aruba, so that is an added bonus with the Companion Pass.  Or the Radisson Blu Resort in Sharm el Sheikh Egypt.  Parker is fascinated with Egypt and my plan would be to spend a day or two in Cairo at Le Meridien Pyramids to see the pyramids and then head down to the Red Sea for some diving and R&R.

I have some planning to do!

Happy Travels!

Trip Report: Khao Lak, Thailand

Thailand Trip Reports

 Sunday March 30

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We had an 8am flight on Air Asia from Bangkok to Phuket, followed by a 90 minute drive north to the town of Khao Lak.

I was getting tired of crowded cities and was so happy to see the ocean when we landed.  We were ready for some beach time and …… scuba diving.

I had arranged taxi service in advance from Boss Cheaper Than Hotel Taxi.  Weird name, I know.  But his prices were quite a bit cheaper than regular taxis and he had excellent reviews on TripAdvisor.  We paid 1300 Baht (about $41) for the trip from Phuket Airport to our hotel in Khao Lak.

There was a bit of drama when we arrived at the airport because Boss was not there.  I was really surprised, considering his reviews and the fact that he has a huge fleet of taxis throughout Phuket.  I walked up and down the sidewalk in front of the airport for about 30 minutes looking for a “Boss” taxi.  I was followed the entire time by at least 4 taxi drivers asking me if I wanted a ride.  I kept telling them I was waiting for Boss, but none of them seemed to know who he was.  They were offering me rides for 1800 Baht, which is only about $15 more.  I had not paid Boss in advance and was just about to take one of them, when he appeared.

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No explanation was really offered and we were just glad to get out of the blistering 10am heat.  And after our previous week of scary tuk-tuk rides, it was nice to be in a nice, clean, air conditioned vehicle!

 

 

We had booked 5 nights at the JW Marriott Khao Lak Resort using 100,000 Marriott points.  I used 25,000 points per night and got the 5th night free.  The room rate was about $250 per night and it is now a Category 6 hotel requiring 30,000 points per night.

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Happy to finally get some pool and beach time!

We spent the rest of the day at the pool and ordered a very expensive lunch from the pool bar.

Later that afternoon we checked out the Kid’s Club at the hotel.  I was a bit disappointed with how small it was, but the minute we got there, Parker wanted to stay.

They had a small ball pit with a slide, a room to do crafts and a TV room.  Not much, in my opinion, but kids are easy to please.  Use of the club itself is free for guests, but you have to pay for their meals and any crafts they want to do.  You also have to pay to have them open early.  They seemed kind of taken aback when I asked about this.  As if, nobody has ever done it before.  They open at 9am and the dive boats leave at 7am  – so nobody with kids has ever dived there before?  At any rate, we worked it out and the babysitter was scheduled to pick Parker up at our room at 6:50 am on Tuesday and take him to the hotel restaurant for breakfast and then to the club.

Monday March 31

We spent the morning in the ocean with Parker.  He loved it.  The pool is actually rather deep and it’s hard for him to relax and have fun when he can’t touch the bottom.  The hotel gift shop was selling swim rings for $15.  You know I would never pay that.  We’ll just swim in the ocean instead.

In the afternoon we took the hotel shuttle into the town of Khao Lak to check out the Tsunami Memorial and the market.

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Khao Lak was the coastal area of Thailand hardest hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Most of the coast was completely destroyed.  They have rebuilt a lot in the past 10 years, but evidence of the tsunami is still all around.

Police Boat 813 was washed inland and beached 2km from the ocean, across from the Bang Niang market and has become a memorial site for the tsunami victims.

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We decided to eat a late lunch at a restaurant across the street from the market.  They had some good chicken satay with peanut sauce!

khaolak5And, of course, Parker got chicken nuggets and fries.  He was starting to really get back to his “old self” so I was happy to see him eating.

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The Bang Niang market is pretty big with lots of stalls.  We found all sorts of things for sale.  Including an Iron Man swim ring for about $2!

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Although their display of “knock off” handbags left much to be desired.

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Sad

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Bang Niang market

It was a really hot afternoon and we were anxious to get back to the hotel pool.  Instead of waiting around for the hotel shuttle to come back, we decided to catch tuk-tuk back to the hotel.

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A great way to spend the afternoon

Tuesday April 1

Today is the anniversary of our first date – 25 years ago!  Wow.  And what a day this will be.

All week I have been nervous about diving and my sinus congestion.  I loaded up on Sudafed and thought my head felt clear so I was ready to go.

The babysitter showed up promptly at 6:50am and we were off to the dive shop to catch the 7am shuttle to the dive boat.   It was a 25 minute drive to the pier and then a 2.5 HOUR boat ride to the dive sites of Koh Tachai and Koh Bon.  My fear slowly slipped away and I was excited about our first dive at Koh Tachai.

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The beginning of the dive to end all dives

The first thing I realized I should have done before the trip was learn how many kilograms 12 pounds is.  I had no clue and nobody else could figure it out either.  I ended up being underweighted for the dive, which could have been a big part of my problem.  I went in with only 4.5kg which is just under 10 pounds.  Believe me, that 2 pounds makes a HUGE difference.

I was surprised that I had no ear issues on my descent.  Like, none.  I also saw more fish on this dive than I have ever seen on any Caribbean dive, probably combined!  I saw my first clown fish! (Nemo!)  But the best/worst part was the end.

As we were ascending and approaching our 3 minute safety stop at 15ft, I started feeling pressure over my right eye.  Terrible pressure I had never felt before.  At the same time, due to my tank now being quite empty and only wearing 10 pounds of weight, I was not able to control my ascent.  I did not shoot up out of control, but I did ascend faster than I should have.  If I could have gotten my dive buddy’s attention I could have held on to him! But he (and everyone else) was distracted by the most beautiful site I have ever seen.  Not one, not two , but THREE  manta rays and a whale shark swimming right past us!  Absolutely incredible.

Wow.  I completely forgot about my ascent, my ears, my squeeze – everything.  I was completely in awe of these beautiful creatures.  Below is our video, shot with our Go Pro camera.

Worth an ear blowout?

When we got back on the boat,  the squeeze was gone and I was feeling a little fullness in my right ear, but I didn’t think it was that bad.  We had almost an hour on the surface so I thought I would be ok after that to do the 2nd dive.

The 2nd dive was Koh Bon.  We were told that sometimes the Green Monster makes an appearance at Koh Bon.  Yikes.  That doesn’t sound good.

Again, I had no problems equalizing on the way down.  This dive was rather anti-climatic after seeing the whale shark and manta at Koh Tachai.  But there were still loads of fish and clear blue water…until….The Green Monster.  The Green Monster is a dense, cold cloud of plankton that that surges in from the deep.  It’s COLD, it’s murky, it reduces visibility.  Just all around horrible.  The upside is that the plankton sometimes attracts mantas and whale sharks, but not today.  I tried as hard as I could to swim away from it, but that’s impossible.  I was freezing and so ready to get back to the boat, but at the same time I was afraid of another squeeze.  I had added some weight to my belt, so I knew I could go up as slow as possible.  And I did.  I felt some squeeze but not nearly as bad as the first dive.

When we were back on the boat, my nose started bleeding.  This has happened to me before, so I wasn’t overly concerned, but it was still scary.  I also started getting that full feeling in my right ear and made the wise decision to sit out the 3rd dive.

We got back to the hotel around 5pm.  I was happy to see Parker, but really just wanted to go to bed.  I was exhausted and my ear was starting to throb.

Wednesday April 2

Woke up to terrible pressure in my ear. We took Parker to the kid’s club and went to the town to try to find a doctor.  We passed a couple closed clinics (most doctors spend their days at the hospital and have office hours at night) and after about 10 more minutes of walking in the 100 degree heat, we found an open one.   You have to take your shoes off before entering the building and all the patients and the doctor are barefoot.  There is also no air conditioning in the building.

The receptionist and the doctor spoke minimal English, but we managed to communicate.  Dive, ear, owie.  He looked in my ear and said I had a middle ear infection.  I actually had a middle ear barotrauma…but who’s splitting hairs?  He gave me some amoxycillan and pseudo and sent me on my way.

To jump ahead a bit, when I got home I went to an ENT who discovered I had a cyst on my adenoid on the right side.  This was partially blocking the eustachian tube and not allowing air to pass through during the dives.

I spent the day in the room watching Netflix (thanks to Spotflux) and sleeping, while Matthew took Parker to the pool.

Thursday April 3

We had originally planned to dive the Boonsung Wreck today and I told Matthew he could go on and do it, but he decided to stay with me.  I was in considerable pain and I could not hear at all out of my right ear.

We went to the pool for a while, until it started to rain.  We took Parker to the kid’s club and we walked down the beach to a massage hut.  Matthew got a $12 massage that I thought looked incredibly painful, but he said was awesome.  I got a $5 blue manicure.

The ibuprofen was helping a bit, but I had to keep on top of it or the pain became unbearable.  I was looking forward 8 days…would I be able to fly home?

We ate most of our dinners at the restaurants just outside the Marriott on the beach.  They are mostly small shacks, but they served good and inexpensive food.

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Phen restaurant. My favorite.

This was our last night in Khao Lak.  I wish I could have enjoyed it more.  It was really a beautiful place.  I hope someday to go back.  I still want to dive the Similan Islands – once was not enough!

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Here is a list of expenses for this part of the trip:

  • Air Asia flight from Bangkok to Phuket for 3 people – $0  ($169 erased with Capital One Rewards Purchase Eraser)
  • 5 nights at JW Marriott Resort Khao Lak $0/ 100,000 Marriott points
  • Boss taxi from Phuket Airport to Khao Lak $41
  • Marriott Pool Bar lunch – $36 (ouch!)
  • Babysitting on dive day – $15
  • Parker’s meals on dive day – $25
  • 1 roundtrip and 1 one way trip on hotel shuttle bus – $11
  • 3 tank dive for 2 people, Koh Tachai, Koh Bon, Premchai Wreck – $420

There were many other charges for meals and massages that I paid cash for and did not write down.  But as you can see, the diving was the most expensive part of this trip!

 

 

Trip Report: Bangkok, Thailand

Thailand Trip Reports

Horrible start

We were still dealing with a sick child.  Parker was absolutely miserable and by the time we were ready to head to the airport to catch our 7:50pm flight, Parker was absolutely exhausted and ready to go to bed.  He was a complete zombie at the airport, literally sleep walking through security and to our gate.

Before leaving home, I read many Trip Advisor posts and other travel blogs about taking taxis in Bangkok and to always insist they use the meter.   We went to the taxi stand at the airport to get a taxi and the driver told us it was something like 500 Thai baht (I no longer remember the exact amount) to get to the Marriott Sukhumvit.  We argued with him for a while about using the meter and he finally agreed.  I knew from looking at Google maps that the airport was about 40 minutes away.  It took us well over an hour to get there and the final meter price was about 125 baht Higher than what he quoted us at the airport.  He purposely took the long way around to get the higher fare because we insisted on the meter.  OK.  You got me.  At that point I really didn’t care because I had a sick baby sleeping on my lap and all I wanted to do was get to our room and go to bed. (it was now almost 10pm)

The Bangkok Marriott Sukhumvit was such a welcome sight! A Beautiful hotel (in a rather odd location) and very friendly staff.  They immediately brought Parker a cool towel and took our bags to our room.  They knew we needed to get him to bed as soon as possible and the check-in process only took about 3 minutes.

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I think I will write a separate blog entry about the Bangkok Marriott Sukhumvit because it was my favorite hotel of the entire trip.

Parker got a good night’s sleep and on our first morning we went outside to find a taxi to take us to the Grand Palace.  The taxi driver said he could not drive near the Grand Palace because of the protests and it would take too long to go around.  He suggested we take the boat instead.  He said he would take us to the pier for 100 baht (about $3) and I knew the public boat was only 20baht (80 cents) so it sounded like a good deal.  As cab drivers usually do, he tried to get us to stop into a tailor shop for 10 minutes and he would cut the fare in half.  He kept on about that for the whole ride and we just kept saying “No no no”

When we got near the river, he drove down a side road toward a dock, but it did not look like a public ferry dock.   I kept asking him if this was the public ferry and he kept saying yes.  It wasn’t.  It was a private boat operator (more kickbacks for the driver for bringing people there I guess) who wanted 1500 baht for a 1 hour ride.  They refused to tell us where the public ferry dock was but after some chatting with a shop owner down the road, we found out it was only about a block farther down.

I felt like a total travel newbie, getting taken by 2 cab drivers in less than 24 hours.  But the 2nd one was totally not a big deal and actually saved me money from taking a cab the entire distance.  The first one was worse because of Parker being sick, but again, not a “trip ruining” experience by any means.  Travel is an adventure and you always have to be willing to learn as you go along.

Once we got to the Grand Palace, we walked around for about an hour in 100 degree heat. Parker was a good sport about it and was starting to feel much better.  Although the heat there will take anybody down.  I wouldn’t say the Grand Palace is a great place for kids unless they are really into Thai temple architecture.  Once I started to get bored, I knew Parker would be more than ready to leave.

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Family selfie at The Grand Palace

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I love those trees!

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Tourist! But at least he’s feeling better!

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Mommy it’s so hot. Can we please go back to the pool?

Since it was so beastly hot, we committed another Thailand Travel Faux Pas and caught a taxi right outside the Grand Palace.  “Oh don’t ever do that! They will rip you off.  You can get one cheaper if you walk a couple blocks down the street!”  Forget it! It was 100 degrees and the taxi had his A/C blasting.  Best 350 baht I spent on the whole trip!  “WHAT?? I would never pay more than 100 baht for a ride to ANYWHERE in Thailand.” Whatever.  After a while I get sick of hearing that.  In general, the cab fares over there were much cheaper than you would pay in the States. And everything is relative.  If I think it’s worth it to spend $10 on a taxi right in front of me, rather than walk another 10 minutes in ungodly heat to save $3, then it’s money well spent.  As you know, the same is true for how you use your miles and points.  They are worth what they are worth TO YOU.  Not how much some blogger values them by doing complicated math equations.

We spent that afternoon in the pool at the Marriott and even ordered lunch poolside!

After swimming and a short nap, Parker was ready to go explore so we took the BTS (train) to the ferry dock and headed to Asiatique.  Asiatique is Thai for “tourist trap”, but kids love it.  They have lots of shops and restaurants and of course, a giant ferris wheel.  Does every major city have a giant ferris wheel now?

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Parker found a guy making balloon animals and he made him this most awesome Minion balloon!

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When we left Asiatique, we took the public ferry back to the dock to catch the BTS train. When we got to the top of the escalator, the security guard said that we could not bring the Minion balloon on the train!  What the? I told Matthew I was going to noballoonsgo back down and stuff the Minion in my bag and then come through again.  The security guard probably heard me say this and was conveniently not there when we came back up. It’s a crazy rule, but I guess there is a reason for it.  I’m glad I didn’t argue with the guard too much because apparently in 2012 an Irish passenger was badly beaten by BTS security guards for trying to bring (a big bouquet of ) balloons on a BTS train.

We decided to spend Friday indoors to beat the heat.  We went to some of the big shopping malls that honestly were not much different than the malls at home.  Mostly high-end stores.  We did make our way over to MBK which was a bit different.  Knock-off haven.  The most popular knock-offs in Bangkok were Polo and Ray Ban.  We bought some “Polo” shirts and shorts for Matthew and Parker and I got a pair of “Ray Bans” for about $3 that broke after about a week.

Terminal 21 was probably my favorite mall.  Each floor is themed like a different country, Japan, England, France, USA etc.  Very neat concept and they had some great restaurants and interesting bathrooms.

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Saturday morning we went to the weekend market known as Chatuchuk Market.  I am not a fan of flea markets in general, and this was no exception.  There was nothing new or unique there that I couldn’t have bought at MBK.  I read a lot of travel reviews about Chatuchuk and how much kids would enjoy it.  Parker didnt.  He was hot and still sick and there really wasn’t much there of interest to him.  Plus it gets so crowded! We only stayed for about an hour and then took the BTS back to Taksin pier to catch the ferry to Wat Arun.  If you get off the ferry at Ta Tien, you can catch another ferry to take you across the river for 20baht.

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Parker enjoyed climbing the steep stairs at Wat Arun

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Very steep.

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I made it to the top!

Before heading over to Wat Po, we found a vendor on the street with a nice assortment of food.  I should mention, we had been having a very hard time getting Parker to eat.  A very hard time.  It’s not that he just wouldn’t eat Thai food, he wouldn’t even eat Western food (McDonald’s) because he said it tasted different.  He got better as the trip went on, but in the beginning he ate very little.  It could have been because he was sick, so I can’t write him off as a picky travel eater….yet.

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It all looked delicious to me!

I got a few things that looked like chicken nuggets and hoped that Parker would eat them.  He did eat a few bites, but then started spitting it out.

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My picky eater

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Wat Po

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Reclining Buddha

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Shoes off….shoes on

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On our last night, I had to go to Khao San Road.  Backpacker paradise that I first read about 15 years ago and was always a “Bucket List” destination for me.  I’m not 25 anymore, but I still had to check it out.  It’s not easy to get to because it’s not serviced by the BTS.  We took the ferry there, which was easy, and took a cab back to the hotel.  It wasn’t as “cool” as it was in my daydreams, but I’m still glad I went.

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Khao San Rd

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Parker loved the “sawasdee” Ronald McDonald. Even though he didn’t care for his food.

I think Parker enjoyed Bangkok.  He loved saying “hello” and “thank you” in Thai.  He played with Thai children in the parks and loved all the attention he got from the adults.  They love little blonde-haired faring babies!

He loves public transportation and liked buying his own tickets on the BTS and trying to figure out which train we needed to take by looking at the maps.

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Is our train coming? That tall building in the background is the Bangkok Marriott Sukhumvit

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People on the Bangkok trains are very polite. They always gave up their seat to Parker and kept their bags in their laps. And there’s always that one guy on the train….

Next up: Khao Lak

Trip Report: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Thailand Trip Reports

We Made It!

Monday March 24, 2014

We arrived in Chiang Mai around 8am and easily made our way to Le Meridien Chiang Mai in a taxi.  Parker had slept most of the flight and was still fighting whatever stomach bug he brought with him from home.

I was immediately impressed with the friendliness of the hotel employees and Thai people in general.  They noticed my husband carrying Parker and asked if he was tired from the trip.  I told them no, he was actually quite sick.  IMG_0196They told me they would have a room ready for me as soon as possible and to wait in the lobby.  I think we waited about 30 minutes before someone came and told me our room was ready.

We don’t have any status with SPG, so we were just given a basic room.  But it only cost me about $80 for 2 nights, so that was just fine with me.   The hotel was beautiful and in a great location, so we really couldn’t ask for more.  In the “Pre Child Days”, my husband and I stayed in many guesthouses and hostels with shared baths, so staying in such a “fancy” hotel was a great treat for us.  One of the benefits of having a child and traveling:  not wanting to subject them to the uncleanliness and potential dangers of true “Budget Travel”.

Since Parker was sick and we were absolutely exhausted from flying in coach all the way across the world, I abandoned my Chiang Mai itinerary and original plan of hiking up to Doi Suthep Temple immediately after our arrival.  Instead, we went to the room for much needed showers and more sleeping for Parker.

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I thought this was all we would ever see of Chiang Mai.

We had a big day planned for Tuesday – elephants! So I wanted Parker to get as much rest as possible.  In between naps, Matthew and I took turns exploring the hotel and surrounding areas.  The infinity pool was very nice, but it was a very hot and hazy day, so the view was not that great.

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The view from the pool

While on my walkabout, I noticed a McDonald’s across the street from the hotel.  Parker had not eaten anything in well over 24 hours and he will usually always eat McDonald’s.  So when dinner time approached, I told him about the McD’s and he actually got excited about it and said he wanted to go.  However, once the food was placed on the table in front of him, he said he didn’t want any.  I feel terrible about this now, but I thought he needed to eat so I pretty much forced him to take a few bites.  My mistake.  He threw up all over the table and floor.  Of course I was mortified, but the Thai employees and even other patrons rushed to his rescue (from mean Mommy).  Everything was cleaned up and he was given much love and pats on the head from just about everyone in the restaurant. Poor little yellow-haired Farang baby.

After that drama, we decided the best thing was a nice bath and more rest.  So back to the hotel we went.

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Enjoying a warm bath. What’s with the windows? No privacy in most Thai hotels.

Tuesday March 25, 2014

Today was our whole reason for coming to Chiang Mai.  Patara Elephant Farm.  Parker had been looking forward to this for months.  It was all he talked about.  But on this morning? The first thing he said was “I don’t wanna go”.  Yikes.  We were being picked up at the hotel at 7:30am, which left very little time to talk him into it.  We were leaving Chiang Mai the next evening.  I could not reschedule this.  So once again, I forced a sick child to do something against his will.  Before the nasty comments come in, I honestly did not realize how sick he was.  I thought it could possibly just be jet lag.  He was not running a fever, he was just very very lethargic and had an upset stomach.

He slept on the van ride to the Elephant Farm and sat around for most of the introduction.  There was another little boy, the same age as Parker, in our group.  If Parker had felt better, I think they would have had a great time together.  But Parker just really didn’t want to be there.  At one point he laid down in the dirt and tried to sleep.  It was at that point that Matthew and I seriously considered finding a ride back to the hotel.  But then the elephants came around.  Despite being sick and not eating for 2 days, Parker perked up a bit.

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Let me tell you a little about Patara Elephant Farm.  I researched several elephant farms in the Chiang Mai area.  I wanted to visit one that gave you lots of one on one time with the elephants and also one that was truly interested in their well being.  I absolutely did not want touristy elephant rides through the jungle or elephants in chains!

Patara Elephant Farm gives you a full hands-on experience of being an “elephant owner for a day”.  It is work! You are responsible for one elephant for the whole day.  You have to check them out to make sure they are in good health.  Which means making sure they are producing tears (they’re not crying), that their feet are in good shape and you also have to check the consistency of their poop and make sure it smells right.

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Parker wanted no part of the poop smelling

After inspecting your elephant, you have to feed him or her.  We fed them sugar cane and bananas.  Parker had his own baby elephant to take care of, but since he wasn’t feeling well, he wanted to stay with me.  But don’t worry, someone else took care of the baby!

IMG_1359After their meal, we had to brush them off and take them down to the river for a bath.  I will tell you, it’s not very easy to wash an elephant! They don’t stand still and the younger ones want to play and go under the water. But Parker seemed to have a great time bathing his baby elephant.  I was happy that something took his mind off of being sick.  Even if only for a short time.

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After bathing and playing with the elephants in the river for awhile, it was time to ride them back to the main camp area for lunch.

You ride completely bareback, no seat or bench, just a rope to hold on to.  A few years ago we did a camel trek in the Sahara Desert and I can tell you that elephants are a bit more comfortable to ride, but harder to get on.

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Parker getting a leg up on to his elephant

Once you get yourself on, it’s not completely uncomfortable.  You sit way up on his neck and put your knees behind his ears.  I never felt like I was falling off.  By the way, there is a video of me getting up on the elephant, but I don’t think I will be posting that.

Lunch was delicious, with many different Thai foods – and fried chicken! Parker did not eat anything, just as I expected.

I think Parker’s baby elephant knew he was sick.  During and after lunch, Parker sat and laid on one of the benches in the field.  His elephant kept coming over to him and standing very close.  He was a young elephant, but I think he knew Parker was sick and wanted to comfort him.

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Excuse the finger! I grabbed my camera fast because I had no idea this would happen more than once.

After lunch, we got back on our elephants and rode them back to the area where they spend their nights.  Riding the elephants through the jungle was a wonderful experience that I will never forget!

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That’s Parker in the front!

IMG_2258Wednesday March 26, 2014

This was our last full day in Chiang Mai.  Our Air Asia flight to Bangkok was leaving at 7:50pm.  Parker was feeling a little better today.  Not great, but better.

Another activity Parker was really looking forward to was Tiger Kingdom.  Now, I am not a fan of zoos or any place that keeps animals in captivity for human enjoyment.  So I am aware that I sound like a total hypocrite for visiting this place or even THINKING about visiting it.  Even if the tigers aren’t chained up or drugged, they are still spending their lives in small cages.  Never experiencing their natural instinct to hunt or run.  I have struggled with my decision before we went, while we were there and even now.  But we did it and this is what it was like.

We took a tuk-tuk to Tiger Kingdom which was a huge mistake.  We could have paid about the same price for a cab and been comfortable in the A/C and not breathing exhaust for 40 minutes.  I guess I didn’t realize how far Tiger Kingdom was from Le Meridien.

Children are only allowed to visit the very young tigers so that’s where we started.  Parker was very excited to pet a tiger and he enjoyed the experience from beginning to end.  As an animal lover, of course I loved being so close to these beautiful cats, stroking their soft fur and hearing them purr.  (“soft kitty, warm kitty…”) But, as an animal lover, I was also very disappointed in myself.  What was I teaching my child?

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It’s funny how afraid Matthew was.  He did not trust the tigers.  Even such small ones.  Every picture that he is in you can just see how uncomfortable he is!

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I really wanted to go in with the big adult tigers but when the time came, I didn’t do it.  I felt I had done enough and given them enough of my money.  And for what really? So I could post photos on Facebook and Instagram? “Look at me with the big scary tiger!” No…that’s just not me.  I couldn’t do it.  So we took the long, hot, noisy, stinky ride back to the hotel.

All of the hipster backpackers say if you don’t visit Chiang Mai and all the wonderful temples, then you can’t really say you’ve been to Thailand.  Well, I want to say I’ve been to Thailand, so we went to a temple.  Just one.  Wat Chedi Luang.

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It really is a beautiful temple.  Especially at sunset.

On our way to the airport, we stopped at The Mexican Grill.  I had heard about this place on TripAdvisor and Facebook.  People seem to love it.  I don’t know.  We didn’t.  We were the only customers in the restaurant for the majority of our visit and it still took over an hour to have our order taken and our food served.  Our taxi driver was waiting for us in the parking lot to take us to the airport and a couple times he came around to the door to see what was taking us so long.  The food was ok, for Mexican food in Thailand.  It’s in a very out of the way location, so I wouldn’t bother going there again if I was in Chiang Mai.

Overall Impression

I don’t think I liked Chiang Mai as much as I could have because of dealing with a sick child.  We didn’t really get to “experience” many of the things people love about it.  We did things to make Parker happy because he was sick.  We probably should have stayed in the room for 2 days and let him sleep off his sickness.

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I thought Le Meridien was fabulous.  The staff was incredibly friendly.  On our last day they sent the hotel nurse to our room to check on Parker.  He was completely passed out on the bed the entire time she was there.  He looked like he was on death’s door.  She said we should take him to the hospital.  That really scared me.  At the time, I didn’t know that that is how you see a doctor in Thailand. (I would learn much more about doctors and hospitals in Thailand later in the trip)  She did not speak English and had the Concierge with her to translate, but his English wasn’t much better.  She didn’t really do anything to help us, but I really appreciated the fact that she came to check on him.

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A tiger and a smile

Here is a brief rundown of our costs for 3 days in Chiang Mai.  I did not write down every expenditure because we had to pay cash for many things (tuk tuks, laundry etc) but I will tell you that things are very cheap in Chiang Mai.  And even Bangkok for that matter.  If you are planning to tour Thailand I would suggest doing your shopping in Chiang Mai and Bangkok and not wait until you get to Phuket.  That’s what I did, and prices are Considerably higher in Phuket!

  • 2 nights at Le Meridien Chiang Mai: $80 + 4,000 SPG points on Cash+Points
  • 1 day at Patara Elephant Farm for 2 adults and 1 child: $444
  • 1 visit with small tigers at Tiger Kingdom for 2 adults and 1 child: $123
  • 3 visits to McDonalds! $12.37
  • Dinner at the Mexican Grill: $28.78

Next post: Bangkok

 

What Is It Like To Fly Coach Class To Asia?

Coach Class to Asia

I started planning our trip to Thailand in February 2013.  At that time I had enough miles for 3 coach tickets.  I knew coach would be rough, but I wanted to know just how rough.  I searched and I Googled, looking for a blog post that documented just how bad it was to fly coach, long distances,  on different carriers.  I found none.  But I found TONS of  posts reviewing the different business class offerings on different airlines.  Yes, we love to drink champagne and eat ice cream sundaes before we Lie Flat in our comfy “bed” with fluffy pillows and duvets.  Yes, we get it.  It’s nice.

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Yes yes, very nice

In order to get 3 business seats (assuming I could even find 3 on the same flight) I would have to earn another 120,000 miles.  I didn’t have time for that! The time to go to Thailand was now! My son was the perfect age and it was pretty easy to pull him out of Kindergarten for 2 weeks.  When he’s older, that may not be as easy.

When I started my blog, I said it was going to be different.  This was going to be “real life”.  A “real” family traveling in coach for 20 hours because we want to take 2 trips rather than one.  Well….by the end of this article, I may just change my mind!

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Who wants to sit like this for 10+ hours? Not me! But I did.

We literally traveled around the world, in coach, and lived to tell about it.  We had a total of 9 flights on our trip to Thailand.  All of them in coach.  Some were ok, some were bad and some were down right ugly!

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Our routing sent us, literally, around the world!

The Flights

United

We started on a United Regional Jet (RJ) from Cincinnati to Chicago.  You know those kind of flights are going to be bad, and there is no first class anyway, so you just have to deal with it.

Scandinavian Airlines

Our flight from Chicago to Stockholm was on Scandinavian Airlines (SAS), a founding member of the Star Alliance Network. We were on an Airbus 330 with the horrible 2-4-2 configuration.  No hope for a family of 3!  I booked 3 seats in a 4 seat row, leaving one of the middle ones empty in hopes of nobody wanting to book a middle seat in a 4 seat section.  No luck.  The flight was full.

The meal service was not bad.  P’s kid’s meal was chicken fingers, tater tots and cheesecake.  Hubby and I had pot roast, carrots and mashed potatoes.  It really was a decent coach meal.  The service was not so good though.  It took them almost an hour to come around and collect the dirty meal trays.  This just made everyone more uncomfortable having a tray in your lap covered with dirty dishes.

P was starting to come down with some sort of virus that he brought along with him from school.  When we landed in Stockholm, he promptly vomited on the seat.  Of course I freaked out and tried to clean it up with tissues. (that doesn’t work)  I wanted to push past people and run off of that plane as fast as I could.  But having worked for the airlines, I knew we had to tell somebody so it could be safely cleaned up.  Hubby told the nearest flight attendant, who rolled and closed her eyes and shook her head.  Nice.  No “Ohhh I’m so sorry your baby is sick”, just irritation that it was something she would have to deal with.  And by “deal with” I mean “tell someone else to clean up”.

One other thing to be aware of – except for water and coffee, SAS charges for drinks outside of meal service.

Thai Airways

I was so happy to be greeted by the beautiful Thai flight attendants in the traditional silk Thai uniforms! The interior of the Thai 777 was larger, brighter and more modern than the SAS Airbus.  It actually inspired me to take pictures!

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Settling in for the 10.5 hour flight!

This flight was probably the most pleasant of all the flights we took on this trip.  The flight attendants were friendly and attentive, the meals were good, the in-flight entertainment was good and there was even a footrest!

P’s kid’s meal was Swedish Meatballs (we departed from Stockholm) with mashed potatoes and carrots.  He was too sick to eat, so I can attest to the tastiness of the meal!

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Sorry it’s blurry!

Hubby had Hoki fish (aka McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish) with potatoes and broccoli and I had Chicken panang with rice and green beans.

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Thai Airways meals are delicious!

And no Thai meal is complete without Thai Coke!

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Ahhhhhhhh!

I had planned to sleep on this flight, but unfortunately I couldn’t.  I just can’t sleep sitting up.  I  bought one of those SkyRest pillows, thinking that I could sleep leaning forward.  But I am either too tall or too short for the SkyRest pillow, I can’t figure out which.  Either way, it was not comfortable.

I passed the time watching 12 Years a Slave, Philomena and our approach to Bangkok.

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Notice the handy USB plug!

Shortly before we landed we were served breakfast.  P’s breakfast was crepes with little hot dog looking sausages.

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These types of sausages were common in Thailand. We never quite got used to them.

Air Asia

We used Air Asia twice: from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and a few days later from Bangkok to Phuket.

The flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok was beyond unpleasant. No fault of Air Asia, just us.  It was a late evening flight, around 8pm, and we were still horribly jet-lagged and P was still sick.  P was seriously a zombie.  I felt terrible that I literally had to drag him through the airport.

The flight from Bangkok to Phuket was much better.  It was a morning flight. we were over our jet lag and illnesses, and we were greeted with the most beautiful view when we landed.

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The Air Asia plane that took us from Bangkok to Phuket

The Phuket airport was rather small and easy to navigate.  We easily exchanged money after getting through customs and went outside to find our taxi.  Now…where is our taxi?

I booked a transfer from Phuket airport to the JW Marriott in Khao Lak with “Boss Cheaper Than Hotel Taxi” (yes that is the name) several weeks in advance.  Our flight landed at 9:30 am and I told him to be there at 10.  We were outside a couple minutes before 10 and he was not there.  We walked up and down for about 15 minutes looking for him, but he never showed.  I had not prepaid him, so if he didn’t show, I would not have lost any money BUT the rate he quoted me was 600 Baht (around $19) cheaper than the vans at the airport.

After a few minutes of pacing, the airport van drivers decided they needed to pounce on the stranded tourist.  I had about 4 of them following me up and down the sidewalk saying “Taxi Miss? You need a taxi?”  I kept telling them I was waiting for Boss, as I thought he was quite well known.  They acted like they had never heard of him.  I had no cell phone service and there was no wifi at the airport so I was unable to look online for his phone number.  I finally asked one of the van drivers to let me borrow his phone, but I couldn’t seem to connect to him.

I was just about to give up and pay the extra $19 when my Hubby shouted “He’s here!”  Only about 45 minutes late, but Thai time is almost like Island time in the Caribbean. He was late and I was stressed, but I would still recommend him if you need transport from Phuket to Khao Lak.

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Boss operates new and clean SUVs! And his price really is cheaper than the hotels!

Asiana Airlines

Our flight from Phuket to Seoul departed at 1:30am.  I can tell you at least one person who wasn’t very happy about that departure time!

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I wish I could do that!

The flight to Seoul was about 6 hours long.  I have virtually no memory of it, and I took no notes so I’m guessing I was able to sleep for most of the flight.

P was wide awake when we arrived in Seoul and fortunately they had a play area for him to run off some energy before getting on our longest flight of the trip.

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P is a blur at the Incheon airport play area.

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Our 12.5 hour flight from Seoul to Chicago was on an Asiana 747.  I think this was the flight where I decided I might have to change the theme of my blog.  It wasn’t horrible, but … yeah it was horrible.  No fault of Asiana, but 12.5 hours in those tiny seats is almost cruel.

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Asiana kids meal

 

One positive thing I can say about Asiana is they sure feed you a lot.  Our meals were quite tasty and they were very generous with snacks and drinks between meal service.  At one point about mid-flight they came through with chicken burritos.  Those were SO good….even P ate one.  We asked if they had any extras and they brought us 2 more!

We survived the 12.5 hour flight to Chicago and retreated to the comfort of the Admiral’s Club (which has showers!) for our 4 hour layover.

Bottom Line

I am really going to have to reconsider my stance on “real family” travel.  If I have the means to book 3 business class seats, I should do it.  Although it can be hard to find 3 business class award seats on the same flight, it’s not impossible.  I also have to consider the value of the business class ticket.  Is it worth blowing the miles?  Maybe book business class only on flights longer than 8 hours?  Maybe.  There is something to be said about being on an 8 hour flight to Europe and arriving refreshed after getting about 6 hours of sleep rather than arriving like a zombie after a 45 minute, neck crushing nap.

In my opinion, it’s best to save your miles for the long international trips in business class.  Personally, I will spend money to buy domestic tickets because they are usually pretty cheap if you know how to find the deals and use your credit card companion passes wisely. Plus you are earning miles for taking the flights!

I recently earned 220,000 miles with the Citi AAdvantage Executive Card, in addition to about 75,000 miles we already had.  PLUS about 70,000 US Airways miles that will soon merge with those AAdvantage miles.  We are thinking about Australia in 2 years and I think that might be the perfect opportunity to use those miles for Business class.  Let’s not forget I still have 300,000 Delta SkyPesos, but their redemption rates are so high I don’t think I could swing an Australia trip using them.  I would LOVE to fly on Virgin Australia though! So I think I will use my SkyPesos for a couple coach trips to Europe…assuming I can find availability.

I’ve flown business and first class many times, both domestic and international.  Is it worth it? Yes.  It is.

 

I hope this post has helped somebody who was searching for the truth on what it’s like to fly coach class to Asia.  The Asian carriers are definitely far superior to any US carrier, but coach is still coach.  In the end, you have to decide what your miles are worth to YOU and what works best for your family.

Happy Travels!

How I spent $20,000 in 3 months…Without Going Broke!

I did it all for 200,000 American Airlines Miles!

Earlier this year, Citibank began offering their Citi Executive / AAdvantage World Elite Mastercard with a sign up bonus of 100,000 American Airlines AAdvantage miles! That was too good to pass up.  There were a couple obstacles that made me pause though.  The spend requirement: $10,000 in 3 months.  And the annual fee: $450 not waived for the first year.  Although they do give you a $200 statement credit, so you can actually say the annual fee is only $250.  Still very high, but if you were to purchase miles from the American Airlines website, it would cost you $2,200 for 80,000 miles (the highest amount they sell) and $250 would only get you about 9,000 miles. Continue reading

Marriott Hotel Category Changes

Marriott Hotel Category Changes? Say it isn’t so!

This is a tough one for me.  Hubby stays at Marriott hotels when he travels and, in fact, has achieved Gold Status with them.  We don’t put much spend on our Marriott cards anymore, so most of our earning is from his stays.  I personally love Marriott.  I like their Rewards program (in spite of massive Category changes the past 2 years) and their properties are always clean and well maintained. But,  it may be time to think about switching hotel loyalty.

This is not a complete surprise though.  As I mentioned in a previous post, most hotels and airlines shuffle their programs around this time of year.  And Marriott did this last year, affecting one of the hotels I was considering for Thailand.

The Details

The award chart, itself, is not changing.  And you will still get the 5th night free if you redeem 4 nights.  Here is the list of categories and points required for each.

  • Category 1:  7,500
  • Category 2:  10,000
  • Category 3:  15,000
  • Category 4:  20,000
  • Category 5:  25,000
  • Category 6:  30,000
  • Category 7:  35,000
  • Category 8:  40,000
  • Category 9:  45,000

There is also a separate category for Ritz-Carlton Hotels.

All redemption reservations booked on or before April 7, 2014 will be honored at the current points, even if the stay is after April 8, 2014.  If you have not ordered your certificate prior to April 8, 2014, you can call Guest Services prior to your stay to request the lower priced certificate.

One thing I really love about Marriott is that they allow you to book 50 weeks in advance, even if you don’t have enough points in your account for the stay!

73% of the properties remain unchanged and 27% are changing categories.  Of that 27%, 22% are decreasing by one category and 78% are increasing by one category.

Marriott released a complete list of hotels that are changing categories.  You can find that list in this article.  I did not like that they did not separate the list of hotels by country.  That made the list very hard to read.

So, once again, if you are considering a stay at a Marriott property, check the list and book it before April 7! Even if you don’t have enough points.  You can always cancel if your plans change, just remember to read the cancellation policy for each reservation to make sure.

Each of the Marriott hotels we are staying at in Thailand is moving up a category.  This time last year, the Renaissance Bangkok Ratchprasong Hotel was a Category 4 and was about to move to a Category 5.  I had some Category 4 certificates that Hubby had earned so I booked 3 nights at the hotel, even though I only had 2 certificates at the time.  Once I got the 3rd certificate, I was able to apply it to the reservation, although I’m honestly not sure if that was an exception or the rule.  Effective April 8, 2014, that Renaissance will now be a Category 6! Incidentally, we are no longer going to stay at the Renaissance because it was right in the middle of the political protests going on in Bangkok last month.   I moved our reservation to the brand new and beautiful Marriott Hotel Sukhumvit., which is a Category 4 and, surprisingly, does not appear to be moving up a category.  (unless I overlooked it in the difficult to read list of hotels)  The Marriott Sukhumvit, in my opinion, looks much nicer than the Renaissance.

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JW Marriott Resort Khao Lak

Also moving up a category (from a 5 to a 6)  is the JW Marriott Resort Khao Lak.  I am not surprised by this at all as the property looks absolutely gorgeous and I can’t wait to get there!

The Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card gives you 50,000 points and a certificate for a Category 1-4 hotel after spending $1,000 in 3 months with $0 annual fee for the first year.  That’s easy enough to spend, but I wish they would change that certificate to Categories 1-5, since 123 (!) properties moved from a Category 4 to a Category 5.  However, you do get a free Category 1-5 certificate every year if you renew the card at $85 a year.

I’m not sure Hubby will give up on Marriott yet, but we may start looking into Hyatt a bit more.  That is the one hotel I have not yet experienced.

Happy Travels!

*I do not receive a commission if you apply and are approved for the Chase Marriott Rewards Credit Card.

 

Protect Yourself While You Travel

There are the obvious safety tips that everyone should be aware of when traveling to a foreign country.  Things like making photocopies of your passport and leaving one copy with someone at home, along with a copy of your itinerary.  I also take a picture of our passport ID page on my cell phone, so that it is always with me.  It’s also a good idea to write down the customer service phone number for each credit card you bring on the trip, in case your cards are lost or stolen.  Also other things like making sure you have any required vaccinations and making sure that your insurance will cover your costs if you have a medical emergency.

In this post, I want to talk about a couple safety precautions that you may not think of.

I try to pay for all my travel expenses with a credit card that does NOT charge a Foreign Transaction Fee.  (those run anywhere from 1%-3%)  But in some countries, credit cards are not as widely accepted and you need to have cash.  There are several options for getting cash, the best way (in my opinion) is with your ATM card.  I don’t like bringing loads of American cash with me and I don’t like to use Traveler’s Checks.

There is a practice called ATM “skimming”,  which is basically like identity theft for debit and ATM cards. Thieves use hidden devices on ATMs to steal the information stored on your ATM card, like your account number.  They will place a “skimming” card reader over the actual ATM card slot.  When you insert your card into the ATM you are actually sliding it through the skimming reader, which scans and stores all the information on the magnetic strip.  To get your PIN, the thieves will hide tiny cameras on or around the ATM with a clear view of the keypad.  They could place a fake plastic frame around the actual ATM frame, with a camera hidden inside.  They could also use a fake keypad that sits on top of the actual keypad and records your PIN when you type it in.

Skimming happens as often (maybe more often) in the US as it does abroad, but it’s not really an every day concern of mine because I never pay cash for things and very rarely use an ATM when I’m at home.

To protect our account, I opened a completely separate savings account at our credit union in Hubby’s name and got an ATM card for it.  It is in no way connected to our main account, but I can transfer money into it electronically.  That way, if we were to fall victim to “Skimmers” they would only have access to a couple hundred dollars at a time and not our every last dime.  Am I overly paranoid?  Maybe.  But I would rather be safe than sorry.

The other issue is transferring that money electronically.  When you are using public wifi or hotel wifi, how do you know your connection is secure?  You don’t.  There was a piece on the evening news during the Olympics in Sochi, Russia showing how easy it was for thieves to hack into people’s computers the minute they connect to public wifi.

VPN stands for Virtual Private Network.  It is a group of networks connected together over a public network (the Internet).  It secures your computer’s internet connection to guarantee that all of the data you are sending and receiving is encrypted.  Another (awesome) thing a VPN does is hide your IP address.  I’m not sure if you have ever tried this, but you cannot access your Hulu or Netflix account outside the US, or watch certain videos on youtube.  A VPN basically tricks your internet connection into thinking it is in the US.

There is a free service called Spotflux, that also has a mobile only plan for $5.99 a year and Premium plan for $29.99 per year.  Many people have had great success with the free version.

But I think I am going to use HideMyAss, and not just because I love the name! It gets great reviews in the Tech magazines and they have a monthly plan of $6.55 per month, and I only need this for one month.

We were in Rome about 12 years ago and a little boy tried to pickpocket me on a city bus.  I caught his hand trying to get into one of the 6 zippers on my purse (a very secure travel purse!).  I was trying to drag him on the bus with me, but he got out of my grip as the bus pulled away.  He just smiled at me and said, “Sorry.”  Pickpocketing is the one crime most people think of when traveling, and it still happens. (keep your money in your front pocket) But thieves are much more sophisticated these days, so we have to be just as sophisticated to protect ourselves!  That little boy in Rome is probably an expert Skimmer by now!

Thanks for reading my picture-less post and I hope you didn’t find it too boring.  Hopefully I taught you something!

Happy Travels!

Thailand – Inspiration and Planning

Thailand

14 years ago I saw a film called “The Beach” starring Leonardo DiCaprio.  Mediocre film, incredible scenery.  It was filmed in and around Phuket, Thailand.  At the end of the movie I said to myself “I have to go to Thailand”.  Long before people started (over) using the term “Bucket List”,  Thailand was on mine.

Thailand

Maya Bay “The Beach”

At the time, I was working for Delta Air Lines and I honestly have no idea why I didn’t just hop on a plane and go (for free)(most likely in Business Class).  Most things in Thailand are relatively cheap, but I think in the back of my mind I thought it was too expensive.  Or too far.  I don’t know the reason, but we didn’t go.

Fast forward to 2011 when I am just getting into collecting miles and points and I start thinking about Thailand again.  By now I have a 3 year old son and getting there seems more difficult than ever.  Or is it?  In late 2011, Hubby and I each applied for a Chase United Mileage Plus credit card that was offering a 60,000 mile sign up bonus.  A round-trip ticket to Southeast Asia was 65,000 miles.  Easily do-able.  For two.   I had no idea how I would get that third ticket.  In March 2012 Capital One was offering a “mileage match” on their Venture card.  If you applied for and were approved for the Venture card, they would match the miles you had in another airline Frequent Flyer program up to 80,000 miles.  Remember, I’m the girl sitting on over 300,000 Delta SkyMiles.

Capital One Venture card offers a “Purchase Eraser”.  Basically, you buy airline tickets, hotels, train tickets, car rentals etc,  and they will “erase” the purchase using your points.  80,000 Capital One points would “erase” $800 in travel expenses.  Doesn’t sound like a great deal except A) those points cost me nothing and B) you earn 2 points for every dollar spent on the card.  Earning an additional 50,000 points on that card would not be that difficult with some Manufactured Spending and using that card exclusively for the next year.

I started looking at United availability during different times of the year.  United has a very good and flexible mileage program.  They allow a stopover AND 2 open jaws on international award tickets.  You can also get a “free one way” when you use your United stopover creatively.  (as I did!)

Stopover – when you stop at a city for more than 24 hours on the way to your destination.  Your stopover can last up to 1 year.

Open Jaw – flying into one city and out of another

Routing

Since it takes so long to get there, I wanted to spend 2-3 weeks in Thailand to feel like I “got my miles worth”.  I wanted to see Chiang Mai, Bangkok and of course Phuket.  Hubby and I are also Scuba Divers, so we wanted to get in some diving in the Similan Islands.

My initial plan was to fly into Phuket and use my stopover for a week or so in Bangkok.  I thought we would take the train between Bangkok and Chiang Mai.  But after thinking about it, I decided that was not a good use of my stopover and I wasn’t taking advantage of the Open Jaw flexibility.  So I changed my plan to fly into Chiang Mai and out of Phuket,  taking a train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and flying a domestic carrier from Bangkok to Phuket.  It worked on my award routing, but the paid ticket (that I planned to erase with Capital One) was pricing at over $4,000.  There was no way to get the routing I wanted at a price I could afford.  The cheapest option was to buy a ticket directly in and out of Bangkok or Phuket (with no open jaws or stopovers) for around $1,600.  But that would require a lot of back and forth domestic travel in Thailand and I thought there had to be a better way.

A month or so later I got an e-mail from United about a promotion for buying miles.  They would give you a 50% bonus on purchased miles.  I had around 10,000 United miles left over and I needed 65,000 miles.  I was 55,000 miles short. I could purchase 37,000 miles (for around $1300) and they would give me a bonus of 18,500 and then I would have the 65,000 miles needed to redeem the 3rd ticket.  I verified with Capital One that they would erase the mileage purchase before I went through with it.

If you think about it, even if I did not have the option to erase the purchase, $1,300 to get the routing I wanted was still cheaper than paying $1,600 for the not-so-great routing.

Booking

We now had enough miles for the trip, but I wanted to go at “just the right time”.  I wanted my son to be old enough to appreciate it and I also wanted to travel at the right time of year for the destination.  Unfortunately, the best time to travel to that part of Thailand is December through mid-April.  My son was about to start kindergarten and we would become slaves to the school schedule.  I have long been a believer that not all learning is done in a classroom and an experience like this one would well be worth a couple weeks out of school.  I spoke with the principal of his school before even enrolling him, and she agreed to excuse a 2 week absence prior to Spring Break, so we would have 3 weeks to explore Thailand.

Most airlines release seats 331 days in advance.  In late April 2013, I started checking the United schedules every day.  The very minute the schedule opened up for my dates, I booked it.  After I booked the award tickets, I priced them out as paid tickets and they came to $4,195 each.  Absolutely incredible that they cost me nothing other than $79.50 each in taxes.

We are flying from Cincinnati to Chicago to Stockholm.  We have a 6 hour layover in Stockholm and my plan is to go into the city for a couple of hours.  Just to say we’ve been there.  We then fly from Stockholm to Chiang Mai with a 1 hour layover in Bangkok.

On the way home, we fly from Phuket to Chicago with a 2 hour layover in Seoul.  We have a 4 hour layover in Chicago before our flight to Cincinnati, but our United cards gave us 4 passes to the United Club where we can shower and stretch out after the 12 hour flight from Seoul.  In coach.

Yes we are flying coach.  It would have cost 55,000 more miles per ticket to fly Business class.  That’s 165,000 more miles.  It would have taken much longer for me to earn that many more miles and as I have said, we believe the destination is more important than the journey.  Yes it will most likely be uncomfortable, unpleasant and long.  But we are going, and that’s what matters.

Oh yeah, about that Free one way ticket

Last year for Spring Break we went to Disneyland in California and loved it.  We love California in general, and will go there any chance we get.  Why not go back to Disneyland?  I’m sure my son would be all for that.  So…our stopover on the Thailand ticket is Cincinnati.  I added a flight from Cincinnati to Los Angeles departing on June 7 (2 months after we get back from Thailand).  Of course we have to get back home from Los Angeles, but there are many airlines that offer one way awards.  So, if we had booked roundtrip award tickets to go to California in the summer (which I was thinking about doing anyway), it would have cost 25,000 miles per ticket.  I booked 3 one way award tickets at 12,500 each.  So adding that “free one way” onto our Thailand tickets, I saved 37,500 miles!  Sometimes it can be hard to book the free one way ticket online and you may have to call in to do it.  But don’t let it slip away! It is an awesome advantage to booking United award tickets and there are plenty of creative ways to take advantage of stopovers and open jaws on United awards.  I will try to write a post on doing that in the near future.

Two weeks from now we will be leaving on our “Trip of a Lifetime” to Thailand.  My son is at the perfect age for this.  He is starting to understand geography and different languages and cultures.  I think it will be an incredible trip for all 3 of us and I do not have any regrets about pulling him out of school to do it.

Below is a chart of how I got our $15,808 trip to Thailand for $580.  I will do another post soon on the hotels and of course I will post a full trip report when we return!

Thailand

Thailand 2

 

Happy Travels!