Category Tips and Tools

South Africa & Namibia Preview #2: Planning My Stay, Hotels, the Protea Prokard Explorer, and IHG PointBreaks

Category: AirlinesHotelsTips and ToolsTrip Reports Comments: No comments

This is post #2 in a series about my February-March 2017 Trip to South Africa and Namibia.

With flights booked into Cape Town and out of Johannesburg, I had to figure out how I would spend my 12ish days in Africa.  From talking to folks, it seemed I really could spend the whole time in Cape Town and its surrounds, and that Johannesburg didn’t require a long stay.  But I also figured I should do a safari or something outdoors; you don’t go to Africa just to see cities.

Several people had recommended Namibia, so I looked at safari options there, after deciding Krueger National Park wasn’t a great option for me as a solo traveler given its location and the options I saw.  (I had also thought about Victoria Falls and Botswana, but the travel time from Cape Town was a negative.) I was pretty limited because I didn’t want to do a very long safari, and there was actually only one tour leaving on days that worked for me, the Etosha Express tour, which will start in Windhoek on a Tuesday morning, spend two nights in Etosha National Park, swing down the Skeleton Coast, and end in Swakopmund, a coastal resort-ish city with a strong German heritage.

Etosha Watering Hole

One reason this tour worked is I was able to get easy nonstop flights that allowed for a half-day in both Windhoek and Swakopmund, for a nice 4 night exploration of Namibia.  I’ll be flying on Air Namibia from Cape Town to Windhoek, and then on South African Express from Walvis Bay (just south of Swakopmund) to Johannesburg.

Two new airlines a-comin’: Ai...

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Escape to the Land Down Under, Part 1: Intro, Using AA miles to Australia, and Positioning– DCA SkyClub and DCA to New York on Delta

Category: AirlinesTips and ToolsTrip Reports Comments: No comments

Last weekend, I got back from a fantastic two week trip to Australia, booked mainly on AA miles. Due to some reasons you’ll read, blogging got a bit delayed. But here’s the first in what I imagine will be a series of 6-8 posts, giving a brief overview of the trip and my positioning flight.

In October, I decided I wanted to go to Australia. I didn’t have any particular reason other than I’ve never been before, and I have (well, now, had) a lot of miles. I started looking at award tickets for the winter, and then remembered that it was Sydney Gay Mardi Gras in late February and early March – when there was availability. Gangbusters!

As a preview, the intended plan was as follows:
Delta DCA to JFK (Coach, revenue ticket)
Qantas JFK to LAX to SYD (Business, AA miles)
4 nights Sydney: Radisson Blu Plaza Sydney, Intercontinental Sydney
Virgin Australia SYD to CNS (Cairns) (Coach, revenue ticket)
2 nights Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef: Hilton Cairns
Qantas CNS to MEL (Melbourne) (Business, AA miles)
3 nights Melbourne: The Grand Hotel, Park Hyatt Melbourne, Grand Hyatt Melbourne
Qantas MEL to SYD, Hawaiian SYD to HNL (Business, AA miles)
Honolulu Layover – Pacific Marina Inn
Hawaiian HNL to LAS, US Airways LAS to DCA (Business, AA miles)

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Of US Airways Credit Cards and a Serious Ethical Deficiency in the Points Blogosphere

Category: Tips and Tools Comments: 12 comments

My day (and sometimes night) job is as an attorney.  Although we get a terrible rap and are accused of being unethical, the reality is that most good lawyers (and many bad ones) actually think about ethics A LOT.  We have to take a separate ethics exam before we get our license, and many jurisdictions have additional ethics content on the bar exam.  We have to take ethics continuing education courses regularly.  And believe it or not, I’ve had dozens of email chains, conference calls, and meetings discussing the ethical implications of a particular issue.

In my career, I’ve also primarily worked with low-income and middle-income people — many of whom were taken advantage of by an “expert” or a salesman.  So I am particularly attuned to consumer scams, deceptions, and half-truths.

When...

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Trip Report – Riding the French Rails: Of SNCF and RailEurope

Category: Tips and ToolsTrip Reports Comments: 2 comments

We spent a total of nine days in France, split between Lyon in the Rhone Valley (central France), Montpellier in the South, and Paris. It was a lot of ground to cover in that time, and we purposely picked cities that had relatively short and cheap transportation connections. (We couldn’t do an open jaw flight into, say, Lyon, and out of Paris on this trip, because Paris was technically a nine day stopover on the return of our award tickets from DC to the Seychelles and back.) In the end we did two intercity rides on SNCF, the French national rail company, and one domestic flight on Air Francet went through France included two train legs – a two hour ride on the TGV from Paris to Lyon, and a shorter one hour leg from Lyon to Montpellier...

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Reminder: Award Booking Service available

Category: About YWWTips and Tools Comments: No comments

Because it’s been a while since I mentioned it,  as a reminder, I do offer an award booking service, where for a very competitive fee, I will help you turn your miles into a dream trip (or any other trip you desire!).  I can help anywhere in the world, with flights and/or hotels.  I’ve used miles and points for myself and others to get to Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, and throughout the USA in all cabins and on dozens of airlines.  I won’t BS you, and if what you want is impossible, I’ll let you know and won’t take your money.

Contact me at youwentwhereblog at gmail.com for more information.

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Hotel Review: The Panama City Hotel Scene and the Intercontinental Miramar Panama

Category: HotelsTips and ToolsTrip Reports Comments: One comment

I had written a really thorough review of my stay at the Intercontinental Miramar. I lost it. So here is a less thorough one reconstructed by memory.

There is no shortage of hotel options in Panama City. All of the major international chains have at least one hotel downtown, and there are many others in the nearby beach areas. There are also two very large non-chain luxury properties, the Trump Ocean Club and the Hard Rock (a pseudo-chain?). As a result of all of these options, in the 6 weeks between when I booked my airplane tickets and when I traveled, I had no less than five different reservations. Whoops!

The first reservation I made was for my last two nights – a reservation I actually made and kept, for the Radisson Decapolis in Panama City. I booked using points, and as a Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa cardholder, I paid the super cheap rate of 28,000 points for two nights. I could have paid for a third night, but given the options, that would be no fun.

First, I made a reservation at the Waldorf Astoria – which is brand new and was going for about $110 a night – probably the cheapest I’d ever seen a Waldorf Astoria. It looked great, had good reviews, and seemed luxurious. . .

But $110 isn’t as good as free. I also had a certificate for a free night at a Marriott, category 1 through 5. Marriott has a bunch of properties in Panama City at that level, but the nicest appears to be the Marriott Panama. So I booked that.

But free isn’t free. My low status with Marriott means I’d be paying for internet or anything else, plus I could use the Marriott certificate somewhere else. And then the IHG Rewards Club PointBreaks list came out. For those not familiar, IHG regularly releases a list of hotels that are available to be redeemed for the bargain rate of only 5,000 points a night – which costs about $35. I had never found a hotel in an area I was interested in on the PointBreaks list before, but sure enough, the Crowne Plaza Panama was available. It seemed pretty comparable to the Marriott, and I’d get free wifi as a IHG Platinum Elite member. I have plenty of IHG points, and sure enough, the Crowne Plaza Panama was available on PointBreaks. Not a luxury property, but good enough for one night.

5000 points isn’t really free either. And a few weeks before I left, I found a low rate for the Intercontinental Miramar Panama – lower than on Intercontinental’s own website – which meant it qualified for IHG’s generous Best Rate Guarantee program: a free night if you find a lower rate for an identical room. I had wanted to stay at the Intercontinental, but the rates hadn’t been worth it. So this worked out great. It also ended up providing a great contrast to the Radisson, in that was a real 4-star property, albeit one showing some wear.

Intercontinental Miramar Panama

Intercontinental Miramar Panama

The Intercontinental is located right on the water, on an odd plot of land situated between the two directions of traffic on Avenida Balboa, between a parking lot and a huge condo complex. It’s a few blocks from the restaurants and nightlife of Calle Uruguay, and very close to the Le Meridien and Waldorf-Astoria. The lobby looked very similar to the Westin Zagreb and other older Intercontinentals I’ve stayed in, with a marble floor and very Old World feel. I checked in without issue, and was given an explanation of my Platinum Ambassador benefits, including an upgrade, free wi-fi, and lounge access.

My room was beautiful, and had been very recently renovated, with...

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Three Last Hurrahs = Going to the Seychelles and France!

Category: AirlinesHotelsTips and ToolsTrip Reports Comments: 3 comments

There is a confluence of three deadlines coming up:

(1) US Airways miles will be less useful for Star Alliance reward bookings as of March 30.  (The airline says it will retain relationships with some Star Alliance members after that date, but for how long and in what form is unclear).

(2) United miles will be massively devalued at the end of the month — particularly for travel on partner airlines.  First announced on Flyertalk, which, for some reason airlines think is an appropriate way of communicating changes with customers, United is creating a new two-tiered system for award travel, penalizing you for any award that includes a segment on a partner airline.  The change is most insane for Business and First class travel.  For a simple US to Europe business class award goes from 100,000 miles roundtrip to 115,000 roundtrip on United, and 140,000 using one of United’s many European partners — a 40% increase.  This is part of a trend of US airlines disincentivizing flying on their partners (see also Delta’s MQD requirement, which only rewards dollars spent on Delta).

(3) Ethiopian Airlines is ending its service to/from the Seychelles as of March 2014.  This is hardly earth-shattering news, but it means that no Star Alliance carriers will be serving the Seychelles as of March.

#1 and #2 were on my mind, as I have a ton of Chase Ultimate Rewards points, which are most useful for booking United awards.  I try to do two big trips a year- one in February and one in the summer, and though I’ve booked my Summer 2014 trip, I hadn’t booked anything for the Winter.  My boyfriend and I had been discussing going to France at some point, as he has spent a lot of time living there and hasn’t been back in awhile.  So I began noodling around with Star Alliance flights to see where might be a good place to combine with France for a late February vacation.  Right away, I found some great award availability to Africa — a strength of Star Alliance, given Ethiopian Airlines, South African Airways, EgyptAir, and Brussels Airlines (and Lufthansa to a lesser extent) presence.   Mauritius was complicated, so the options came down to South Africa and the Seychelles.  My boyfriend was pulling for Seychelles, and I found flight availability that was really good on dates that worked out.

On the outbound, we’re flying on the nonstop Et...

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2013 YWW Year in Review and Index

Category: About YWWAirlinesHotelsMileage RunningTips and ToolsTrip Reports Comments: One comment

I’m about to hop on my last flight of the year, so I figured this would be a good time for my 2013 travel year in review post.  It’s been a very big travel year for me, though I haven’t been able to keep up on the blog as much as I’d liked.  I still have two trip reports to finish, though, and hope to soon. 2014 isn’t looking to be as travel-filled for a number of reasons, but who knows.  You may have noticed that I’ve given up on trying to be an “up-to-the-minute for deals and promos” blogger.  I’d like to say that was intentional, but it’s mostly a function of time and energy.  And that space is very crowded already, and dominated by some mega-bloggers who have made a career out of selling credit cards and flying around the world. Putting aside the questionable ethics/conflicts/tax treatment that some of those bloggers engage in, that’s never going to be me. I’ve come to appreciate my time at home with friends and family and having a sense of place that some of those bloggers will never have; I work in a profession that does the world a lot more good than telling you the top 10 ways to use United miles. I will never stop loving travel, but business class and nice hotels isn’t the point of life.

So, what were my travel patterns and accomplishments of 2013? I’ve put indices of the places, planes, and hotels I’ve reviewed at the bottom of this post, and have some statistics as well. This is a pretty wonky post, and might not interest many people. But it was a pretty good year. In terms of new countries, I hit nine: Macau/Hong Kong (China?), Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Finland, Estonia, Austria, Croatia, and Panama. (I also did repeats in Germany and Spain.) I added Alaska, New Mexico, and Arkansas to my new state column. I had my baggage lost for the first time, missed two connections, and I lost my wallet for the first time in a foreign country. I moved from New York to DC, and in the course of doing so, switched from Delta to American, so next year I’ll be Silver Medallion on Delta, and Platinum on the New American/US Airways. On the hotel front, not much has changed for loyalty. I’ve qualified via stays for elite status with both SPG and Club Carlson, but have higher status with each due to credit cards. So next year, I’ll be SPG, Club Carlson and Hilton Gold, Hyatt Platinum, IHG Platinum Ambassador, and Marriott Silver.

I hope you all had a wonderful 2013 and that you are celebrating the holidays with those you lo...

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Trip Report: Our European Journey Begins: Agent Roulette, JFK T4, and JFK-AMS-VIE on Delta and KLM Business

Category: AirlinesTips and ToolsTrip Reports Comments: One comment

Our European Journey Begins: Agent Roulette, JFK T4, and JFK-AMS-VIE on Delta and KLM

Delta Flt. 70, New York-JFK to Amsterdam, B767, BusinessElite
Dep. 8:12pm, Arr. 10:15am
KLM Flt. 1845, Amsterdam to Vienna, B737, Europe Business
Dep. 11:40am, Arr. 1:30pm

As mentioned in my preview post, we were scheduled to fly from Newark to Paris on Delta in business class, and then connecting onto an Austrian Airlines flight to Vienna as part of a Skymiles redemption. But a few days before we departed, when I was booking another trip, I saw a “France Travel Advisory” on Delta.com. Upon further investigation, it appeared that the French Air Traffic Controllers were going on strike, for a three day period including our trip, and accordingly, approximately half of the flights in and out of Charles DeGaulle Airport would likely be canceled. Fun.

Delta was offering an opportunity to make changes to travel involving France, with the ability to re-route or reschedule, though. I didn’t want us to get stuck in France, so I pulled up other options on Skyteam carriers that would get us to Vienna. Many left too early for us to do due to work commitments, but there was a late Delta flight out of JFK to Amsterdam, connecting on to Vienna on KLM. Although there were plenty of business class seats available, I didn’t even bother to look at award availability, as I assumed there was none. But I figured I’d call Delta and see what happened.

The agent I got was by far the rudest Delta agent I’ve ever spoken to, out of a fairly large sample size. When I told her what the issue was – including wanting to look at flight alternatives, I was met with silence – the kind of silence that is so long and silent you think you must have been disconnected. So after about 30 seconds, I said, “Hello?” The response, a snippy: “I’m reading, there are a lot of flights here.”

She then told me that she wasn’t seeing anything about any strike activity and my flight was canceled. I told her that I was looking at Delta.com which had all the information, and showed fairly standard language for travel exception policies. She then read it aloud to me and told me it only applied where your flight was canceled (really? Delta would have a special policy to allow a flight change where your flight is canceled?), and otherwise all it was was waiving the change fee, and I’d have to pay any fare difference. (Had she noted in all her “reading” that it was an award ticket?). I said, “Well, I understand the flight hasn’t been canceled yet, but the entire point of the exception policy seems to be proactively re-booking.” Her response: “Well, that’s not an answer. I don’t understand what you want.” My response was a calm but blunt: “It seems you’re not really interested in helping me today. So I’m going to go now. Thanks” And I hung up.

I re-read the travel advisory, and concluded (after asking folks on Flyertalk to confirm my reading), that my initial reading was correct and Delta was allowing fee-free, fare-difference free changes (though it didn’t explicitly apply to award tickets). So a few hours later, I called and received a more typical, super-friendly and helpful agent. I told her the issue, said there was an alternative from JFK through Amsterdam, and she placed me on a brief hold, coming back to apologize that it was taking so long but confirming the flights and that she and another agent were processing it. All told, it took about 25 minutes, but she was courteous, friendly, and helpful, so I have no complaints. And we were re-booked without having to be worried about the Paris situation.

Our new flights were, on the whole, fairly comparable to our original flights. Our initial flights were out of Newark, but we ended up with more convenient JFK flights, leaving an hour and a half later, and arriving in Vienna an hour later. There’s no meaningful distinction between Delta’s EWR-CDG and JFK-AMS flights in terms of product on-board, and AMS is a bit easier to connect through in my experience. The one disappointment was it meant giving up a flight on Austrian Airlines, which I’ve heard has a good business soft product even on short hauls, in exchange for a KLM short-haul flight – one of three scheduled on the trip. But a small price to pay to avoid agita.

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The Anatomy of a Summer Vacation: Austria and Finland, Skymiles Burning, and a Lot of Radissons

Category: AirlinesHotelsTips and ToolsTrip Reports Comments: No comments

As I mentioned yesterday, I am getting ready for my big summer vacation to Europe in a week and a half.   I figured I’d give a bit of a preview, explaining how I came up with the routing/itinerary, and asking for any tips readers may have.

There are two main legs of the journey, Austria and Finland, which may seem like an odd couple.  The genesis is a bit romantic, though.  In January, I decided it was time to plan my summer Skymiles redemption – something I’ve done each of the previous two summers with a fair amount of luck, getting business class seats at the low redemption rates, on or around dates I wanted, maximizing stopovers and open jaw rules.  This time, though, my boyfriend was coming along with me.  In discussing where we might want to go in Europe, his major consideration was that it be a place neither of us had been, so we could truly explore it together.   Finding actual destinations that meet those criteria was pretty hard, though, as I’ve traveled a fair bit myself, and he lived in France for several years, so had done many a long weekend trips throughout Western Europe.  We realized two countries stood out as untouched:  Austria and Finland.

Booking about 5 months in advance, I was able to get us 2 business class seats on a pretty decent itinerary.  On the outbound, we’ll be flying on Delta in business class from Newark to Paris, connecting to an Austrian Airlines-operated, Air France codeshare flight to Vienna.  A tip on this – I find Newark to often be a forgotten Skyteam originating point for Skymiles redemptions, thus leading to better availability than JFK.  In fact, of my three summer redemptions, all have departed from Newark.   If you’re not NYC-based, of course, this is less useful due to fewer domestic connections into Newark, but its worth a shot. Currently, Delta has flights to Amsterdam and Paris,  Alas, Alitalia has stopped its EWR-FCO service.  But it will be interesting to see what happens with London given Virgin Atlantic’s LHR flights and the new relationship between Delta and Virgin.

Some folks have told me that I should not have b...

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