Vueling BCN to BIO and onward to San Sebastian

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After spending a week in Catalonia, I headed to Basque Country for the rest of my time in Spain.  You can take a train from Barcelona to San Sebastian in about 5.5 hours, but I decided to fly instead in order to maximize my time.  While Vueling, a low cost carrier owned by IAG, the owners of British Airways and Iberia, flies BCN to San Sebastian, there is greater frequency in flights to Bilbao, which is a larger airport and has easy connections to San Sebastian, and the flights are also cheaper.   My “Optima” fare, which included a checked bag, seats in the front of the plane, and the ability to earn Iberia Avios points, came to 57 Euros with all the fees.  Paying for the Optima fare is a no-brainer if you’re checking luggage; not only does it include baggage but also the ability to earn Iberia Plus Avios points (500 for me).20160727_085933

Despite several public transit options, I took a taxi from the Melia Sarria due to my 9:50am flight and wanting to maximize sleep. The cost estimate of the app and Google was a bit off, though, probably mostly due to surcharges, and it came to over 30 Euros for the 20 minute ride.  But it was still probably worth it rather than an hour trip with changes of buses and trains.

Vueling check-in at BCN T1

Vueling check-in at BCN T1

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Mini-Review: Melia Sarria Barcelona, Quite Different from the sad Hilton Barcelona

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Basic room, Melia Barcelona Sarria

This is part six in my trip report series from my July 2016 trip to Spain.  For an introduction, see this post.

My last night in Barcelona was at the Melia Barcelona Sarria.  I didn’t spend a lot of time there given an early morning departure, and didn’t even get a lot of pictures (the horror).  So this is a mini hotel review.  Let me start by saying I probably wouldn’t stay at the Melia Barcelona Sarria again. The rooms were pretty dated and it was a bit overpriced. BUT, the service was fantastic and the attitude of the staff was light years ahead of that of the nearby Hilton.

So, why did I pick this hotel? I had expiring Melia Rewards points and used them to knock about 20 Euros off of the rate, though it was still about 130 Euros.  The hotel was about a 10 minute walk from the Hilton Barcelona, closer to the center and in a more interesting neighborhood – actually walkable to things.  It isn’t as close to the metro as a Hilton, but it’s still on the bus and tramlines that run down Avenida Diagonal, and is actually walkable to things.  It was about a 20 minute walk to the heart of the L’Eixample.

Lobby, Melia Barcelona Sarria

Lobby, Melia Barcelona Sarria

The difference in service from the Hilton was apparent the moment I arrived at the hotel.  Right at the door was a bellman and also a security guard, both of whom welcomed me to the hotel.  The agents at the front desk all smiled and welcomed me as I approached the counter.  The agent who was checking me in asked how my trip was.

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Three Days in Barcelona: Back Where I Started

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This is part five in my trip report series from my July 2016 trip to Spain.  For an introduction, see this post.

Thirteen years ago, in the summer before my junior year of college, I got off a plane from JFK to BCN (on Delta, paid for with my parents’ Skymiles), and started my first solo adventure, and my first trip to Europe. (I made my way from Barcelona to Valencia, then Valencia to Madrid.  I then flew Spanair from Madrid to Copenhagen, where I was studying abroad.)  In Spain, I stayed in a dirty hostel on a sketchy street, carrying my massive laptop, huge suitcase, and a Let’s Go Europe guide. I went to (and got freaked out at) my first sleazy gay bar. It was hot, crowded, confusing– and I loved it. I’ve been to countless cities and 37 new countries since then, but Barcelona will always have a special place in my heart, something I was reminded of when I returned – my third visit — as I strolled through the crowds of la Rambla, meandered through the side streets of el Barri Gotic, and gaped at the only in Barcelona architecture and design that made a 19 year old fall in love.

One thing about visiting a city like Barcelona for the third time is there’s a lot less pressure to see things, because you’ve already done them.  So this post in no way reflects the “must sees” of Barcelona. I’ve been to la Sagrada Familia, the Picasso Museum, Casa Batilo, Park Guell, and Montserrat before, all of which I recommend.  When I was 19, I had planned out every activity down to the hour, and made sure I saw everything I wanted to.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate a more leisurely pace, and the simple joy of wandering a foreign city.

There were still plenty of sights I hadn’t seen.  Given that it was peak tourism season, it was great that I was able to buy timed tickets online for a few of them.  On the day I arrived from Sitges, I had a ticket in the afternoon for the Palau de la Música Catalana, a concert hall built in the early 20th century by Catalan modernist architect Montaner.  The ticket includes a guided tour and a brief movie about the history of the concert hall and was pretty enjoyable, getting up close to the auditorium and some of the funky design elements on the outside of the building.  It is definitely a unique space.  One of the coolest parts of the tour was getting to listen to the computer-controlled organ, a video of which I tried to post on here but failed.

Palau de la Musica Catalana

Palau de la Musica Catalana

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The Palau is a short wa...

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Don’t Stay at the Hilton Barcelona, or, Hilton Status is Meaningless

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Hilton Barcelona

This is part four in my trip report series from my July 2016 trip to Spain.  For an introduction, see this post.

I stayed at six different hotels on my Spain trip.  Three I would stay at again in a heartbeat.  Two I would consider again.  And one I regretted and put a damper on my stay in Barcelona.  That hotel was the Hilton Barcelona.

Hilton Barcelona

Hilton Barcelona

I’ve been a Gold Hilton Hhonors member for several years now.  Free wifi used to be the most valuable benefit that offered, but now that’s standard for all bookings made on Hilton.com.  Other than free breakfast, it didn’t provide much value in practice – particularly given the low value of Hilton HHonors points.   At the end of 2015, though, Hilton offered a status match program, which I took advantage of, and became a Hilton Diamond member – Hilton’s highest tier. (Note the fact that I was status matched doesn’t make me a low-value customer.  As of today, I’ve spent 35 nights this year in hotels. Last year was 54, and I’m on track to beat that.)

So far, my experiences have been unimpressive.  At 4 properties in the first half of the year, the only real upgrade was at the Doubletree in Little Rock, where I had a funky loft suite, and access to a lounge with $4 glasses of wine.  But at least at most of these properties they acknowledged my elite status with a note listing benefits and a smile at check in.

Hilton has three properties in Barcelona, and they all seemed to be rated fine.  The best and most expensive is the Doubletree Alexandra, which i...

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Exploring Sitges and the Avenida Sofia Hotel

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Sitges

This is part three in my trip report series from my July 2016 trip to Spain.  For an introduction, see this post.

Sitges is a beach town in Catalonia, about 20 miles to the southwest of Barcelona.  It has a bit of an artsy vibe, but its main industry is tourists.  It’s developed a particularly large gay crowd, with multiple gay beaches, bars, clubs, and other businesses.  I’d never been, and don’t know a ton of people who have.  There were not many Americans there, but loads of Brits, Scandinavians, and other Europeans.

One of the draws of Sitges is how easy it is to get there.  There is a bus that runs directly from Barcelona’s El Prat airport, and then a cheaper train option.  Since I was in no rush, I went with the train, which involved taking a short bus to the other terminal at BCN, which is where the Renfe commuter rail stops, then taking the train from there one stop to El Prat Llobregat, before changing to the direct train to Sitges.  It was a really pretty ride, though even more so on the way back.  All in, including ticket purchase, transfers, and walking the 10 minutes from the train station to my hotel, it took me an hour from the time I left the airport til my arrival at the Avenida Sofia Hotel.

En route to Sitges on Renfe

En route to Sitges on Renfe

There are a lot of hotels in Sitges.  Some of the big resorts are located on the ends of town, farther from the main beaches and nightlife, and some are deeper in town.  I was generally happy with my choice, which was one of the nicer and newer boutique hotels in town, the Avenida Sofia.  The hotel was a block from the beach and a few blocks from the gay beach.  There are no oceanfront rooms due to its location, if that matters to you.  I paid about $160 a night after a 20% off Cheaptickets coupon.

Avenida Sofia Hotel, Sitges

Avenida Sofia Hotel, Sitges

I arr...

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Barcelona Bound:  AA Business Class DCA-PHL-BCN

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This is part two in my trip report series from my July 2016 trip to Spain.  For an introduction, visit this post.

I was scheduled to fly from DCA to JFK on a Tuesday evening, then on Wednesday evening fly JFK to Madrid on American, followed by Madrid to Barcelona on Iberia.  Not an ideal route, but not terrible for an award.  I had set an alert on Expertflyer, though, for AA’s JFK-BCN, CLT-BCN and PHL-BCN flights, and sure enough, on Monday availability opened up on all three.  DCA-PHL-BCN all on Wednesday was a no-brainer to switch to; it wouldn’t be on AA’s newest business class product, but the pre-merger US Airways Envoy A332 seating is perfectly fine, as I had flown it last summer on PHL-ATH and MUC-PHL.

Arriving at DCA was frustrating.  I was checking a bag, so appropriately went on the First Class line.  Unfortunately, it was not moving at all after 7 minutes, as there was one agent and one customer who seemed to have a complicated problem.  The for-some-reason-separate Priority line was moving at a normal pace, though, with two agents, and only 3 customers in line, so I switched to that queue.  Although she hadn’t approached anyone else, an agent came over to me and said “Can I see your record locator?”  How friendly.  I had checked in on my phone so pulled up my boarding pass, and she said “Come with me,” and then just pointed me to the self-service kiosk.

If I had wanted to use the self-service kiosk, of course, I would have.  But I didn’t.  And there’s no reason an agent should have forced me to do so (it wasn’t like it was a long line on the Priority queue).  Moreover, I was the only one she pulled out, and she was rude in doing so.  Had she said “If you’d like to save some time, you’re welcome to use the self-serve kiosk,” that would have been totally fine.  I asked “Why do I have to use the kiosk?”  “That’s the first step in the process.”  Incorrect.  It is the first step in a process, but not the only first step and one I was entitled not to use.

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Summer in Spain:  Trip Preview and Anatomy

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My routing

Since my Brazil mini-vacation, I haven’t stopped traveling, with trips to Minneapolis, New York, and Lubbock for work and family.  I’m glad to be at home in DC for a few weeks, but it also means I need to start turning my attention to my only real vacation of the summer.

For each of the past six years, I’ve taken a transatlantic summer trip for 10 days or so.  Summer mileage redemption to Europe in business class can be very hard, so I actually started planning in October for a July trip.  I love Spain, and have been three times, but actually haven’t been in the summer since my first trip there – back in 2003.   And although I’ve been to both Madrid and Barcelona each twice, I haven’t seen a lot of the rest of the country.   So I decided it was time for a return trip. 478568

I’ll be starting out in Sitges, a beach town just outside of Barcelona, before heading into Barcelona for three nights, then making my way to Basque country and seeing San Sebastian and Bilbao.

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Reflections on Orlando, Pride, and Bars

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Some may say this isn’t a travel post.  Some may say it’s “personal.”  But for me, travel is personal.  And more importantly, there’s an important message I want to share, and this is one of the platforms I have to do so.  I’m exhausted and have been writing a lot, so this is a bit stream of consciousness-y.

I woke up early on Sunday morning.  I was already feeling like I was missing my gay “family” a bit, as I was missing DC’s Pride weekend in order to be with my family in New York.  And as soon as I checked my phone, I saw the news of what happened in Orlando.  50 dead, 50 injured. Out on a Saturday night at a gay party, like I’ve been on dozens of nights, like I was on Friday night.  As I read the stories, I felt the tears in my eyes.

I don’t know anyone in Orlando who was at Pu...

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Rio Mini-Trip Report Part 2, the Sheraton Grande Rio, Sunshine, and AA GIG-MIA-DCA

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Sheraton Rio Grande

For my third night in Rio, I switched hotels because my friend was staying at the Sheraton Grande Rio his second night. Prices were a little less than the Caesar Park, so I decided why not. The property is in Leblon, about 10 minutes from Ipanema – a bit west of the main beach and shopping/hotels/restaurants area of Leblon. The hotel is more resort-like than those on the main drag, with its own beaches, pools, tennis courts, etc. It’s also a huge hotel, with 26 stories.

The Sheraton from Leblon

The Sheraton from Leblon

As an SPG Gold member, I had gotten an email two days prior to my stay asking me my arrival time, and inviting me to check in at the “Club Reception” on the 26th Floor. I had hoped this would mean I’d have club access, as its pretty tacky to tell people to check in at the club, and then banish them.

The lobby of the hotel was a flurry of activity, much more hectic than the Caesar Park, reflecting a mix of conference guests, tourists, businesspeople, and airline crew. I took the elevator up to the 26thFloor, where there was a long reception desk between two glass rooms, a club lounge and a restaurant. The desk clerk was friendly, and told me I’d been “upgraded” to an Ipanema view room on the 23rd floor, and that they’d also given me club access, which included breakfast, “tea” from 3 to 5, and happy hour from 6 to 8.

Club Lounge , Sheraton Rio Grande

Club Lounge , Sheraton Rio Grande

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Rio Mini-Trip Report 1: AA Main Cabin Extra DCA-JFK-GIG, a Second Try at the Caesar Park Hotel, & Rain in Rio…Again

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I’d already been to Brazil twice since November, with Rio and Iguazu in one trip, and Bahia, Sao Paulo, and Brasilia in another.  But American had a really cheap, sub-$500 fare from DCA to Rio, and a friend was going down for a weekend.  I hadn’t done the Rio nightlife on my last trip, with only two nights in the city, and the weather had been grey and cloudy, so I thought this would provide a second opportunity to do that stuff.  Also, after eighteen months of solo travel, the idea of traveling with someone else was nice. My friend was only going for two nights though, which struck me as insufficient (I’m getting old), so I went down a night early.  The routing would be a lot more straightforward than my last trip to Rio, and I’d be flying DCA-JFK-GIG on the outbound, and GIG-MIA-DCA on the inbound.

My trip down to Rio was pretty uneventful. It started with a stay at a crowded Admirals Club at DCA, where I worked a bit, and a 737 from DCA to JFK. The one thing of note was an honor guard meeting an arriving plane at one of the gates at DCA.  I’d never seen an honor guard meeting a plane inside a terminal before, and assume it was to greet the family of a fallen servicemember.  The leader of the group welcomed about a half dozen passengers off the plane, and none looked super sad, but obviously I have no idea.

Honor Guard at DCA

Honor Guard at DCA

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