07 December 2010

Hong Kong and Macau

Hong Kong is one of the routes where you can fly non-stop and rack up a lot of flight miles in one trip.  Plus, it is a nice destination.  Usually, there are great places to stay, different things are going on all the time, it's easy enough to get by without knowing the native language, and it's easy to get around once you are there.  Plus, United flies the remodeled 747 aircraft, so if one is upgraded to business class, it's a pretty nice ride overall.

A 1pm departure from SFO puts you in Hong Kong just after 4pm on the next day.  There's enough time on the flight to eat and watch a movie, try to sleep and then eat again before landing.  Lately, I've been doing pretty well with the melatonin and sleeping on flights, but this trip wasn't the same for some reason.  So, I was off-cycle most of the trip.

The Hong Kong mass transit agency (MTR) has a handy travel pass that you can buy either online or upon arrival at the airport.  The Airport Express counter will sell you a card that has a round-trip ticket on the Airport Express train that takes you to and from Central Hong Kong in less than half an hour and allows you to ride the Hong Kong subway and MTR buses unlimited for three days.  For my four-night stay, this worked perfectly.  On my arrival day, I take the Airport Express train into town and then take the free shuttle bus to my hotel.  I use the MTR part of the pass for the next three days to get around Hong Kong.  On my departure day, I ride the free shuttle bus back to the train station from my hotel and ride the train back to the airport.

What did I do with my three days in Hong Kong?  First the weather was perfect -- mid-70's with no rain.  Since it was perfect for walking about, I did some sightseeing (even though I have been here a few times already).  Hong Kong is a land of shopping malls, so I spent my share of time wandering around, doing a little holiday reconnaissance.  They do decorate for the Christmas holiday.  Some of the buildings from the famous skyline are decorated with colorful and flashing holiday lights.  I also visited a couple of spas since such services are cheaper than in the U.S. and Europe.  I had thought about riding the Ngong Ping tram/cable car (glass-bottomed now)on this trip (one thing I haven't done).  It's  a 25-minute ride over the mountains and by the large Buddha statue on Lantau Island (The airport is out by Lantau Island, and Hong Kong Disney is located on the island).  But the weather was a little hazy and the line too long (I rode the subway out there on a Saturday), so I decided I would do it next time and try going on a weekday.

I allocated one of my days to go back to Macau.  I had been to Macau twice before, but spent my time checking out the new casinos and not the old part of the city.  Since the weather was so nice, I was determined to see at least part of the old section on my day trip.  Macau is a 1-hour ferry ride from Hong Kong.  Ferries leave around the clock and during most of the day, leave every 15 minutes.  You buy tickets for a specific departure time, but you can try and stand by for a different departure.  Ferries leave either for the Macau Ferry Terminal and for the new terminal at Taipa, which is closer to the new casino developments.  I've taken both.  If you are going to visit the new casinos, then the Cotai Strip ferries to Taipa are what you want.  If you want to visit traditional Macau, then the Hong Kong Ferry Terminal should be your destination, although there are free buses from either terminal to several casinos.  Traveling to Macau and returning back to Hong Kong is like leaving and entering two different coutnries.  You must go through passport control at each end with the proper arrival/departure cards filled out and your passport will get stamped at each end.  There are usually lines to wait in, which is one reason I always buy a first class ticket for the ferries.  Not only is it a significantly more comfortable ride 9you will not feel packed in), but they let the first class passengers off the boat first.

I landed at the Macau Ferry terminal and decided to walk from there to the old sections of the city.  It is a bit of hike and ther are city buses and cabs that can take you, but I thought I would see more by walking (It's a couple of miles). Plus, I did not bother to get any Macau currency. There's a lot of new development around the ferry terminal and they were also preparing for the Macau Grand Prix, so it was not very straightforward how to start my journey.  But there are free maps available, and I had my trusty iPhone GPS to help me track my progress.  I paralleled the water for a bit and then made a turn inward once I got to the Lisboa Hotel and Casino.  I finally started to see the trditional Macau.  Higher end shops started to turn into lower-end shops.  Macau seemed less dense to me than Hong Kong even with all the little shops like HK has (but no shopping malls).  Some of the sidewalks are tiled with black designs on a white tile background.  European-style building would pop up from time to time, more colorful than you would see in Hong Kong.  My destination was the ruins of St. Paul's Church.  I was trying to follow the map and GPS but some street signs kept pointing in a direction that puzzled me.  I eventually decided that these signs would know best, and they were right.

The Ruins of St. Paul is the classic Macau picture.  It is the remains of the front facade of the church.  You can walk through it and climb a structure on the back side to be able to look out the windows.  There is also an old forteleza next to and above the church site to get even more views of the surrounding sections of Macau.

I had a 2pm ferry ticket back to Hong Kong, so I decided to work my way back to the terminal.  Although I didn't see many of the other sights Macau has to offer, I felt I had seen enough for the trip.  I walked back a different way, down the hill through a narrow-laned shopping area.  I eventually ended up just behind the Lisboa Casino and decided the best way to get back to the ferry terminal was to take a shuttle bus from one of the casinos back to the dock.  I walked up the main street I had come down on and then went into the Sands Casino, found out where the buses load and then spent a little time exploring before getting on the bus to the ferry terminal.

I made it to the terminal faster than I thought, and got through passport control pretty quickly, so I requested a stand-by seat on the  1:30 ferry and easily made it on.

Normally, I stay at a Hilton property, and the Conrad Hong Kong at Pacific Place is very nice.  But I needed to rack up some Marriott nights, so I chose to stay at the J W Marriott, which is above the same mall as the Conrad.  Despite some of the reviews on Tripadvisor.com, I found the Marriott to be very nice.  I stayed in an Executive level room.  It was nicely appointed (if just a little smaller than the Conrad rooms) and very convenient to the Executive Lounge (which I also thought was very nice).  Since I have low status with Marriott, no free internet in the room, but free internet in the Executive Lounge (another big plus).  Finally, the hotel elevators take you down to the very bottom level of the mall, very close to the MTR subway station (a little more convenient  than where the Conrad elevators drop you).

Overall, one of the nicer trips I've had to Hong Kong and Macau.  I know I will be back.

25 November 2010


If it's Novemberm then it must be time for the annual trip to Orlando with friends.  In the span of about 4 days, we manage to visit each Disney Park at least once.  And this year, we also had to go to Universal Studios Orlando to visit the new Harry Potter-land at the Islands of Adventure park.

We've learned a lot from going over the years.  We now favor staying on Disney propoerty and generally doing without an auto.  Seems much more convenient, although it does limit your range, particularly when it comes to food.  However, to counter that, we set up reservations at various restaurants at Disney so that eating becomes part of the adventure as well.  Of course, to be assured of getting into your preferred restaurants at preferred dining times, you have to make reservations about 6 months in advance.  This year, we could do it online (hurray!) and it worked fine.  We even managed to score a lunch reservation at the newly opened pasta and pizza place (Via Napoli) at the Italian Paviion at EPCOT.  In additions, we ate at Boma (African buffet at the Animal Kingdom Lodge), Artist's Point (at the Wilderness Lodge), and Le Cellier (the highly popular place at the Canadian Pavilion at EPCOT).  On top of that, we enjoyed (as always) tasting and drinking ur way around the workd during EPCOT's International Food and Wine Festival.  It's a great way to sample small plates from different countries -- and this year, to speed things up, they offered you the option of purchasing a mini reloadable gift card that you could carry attached to your wrist to make paying for the food and drink at all the booths that much easier (easier to have too much food, which we did).  Despite all the eating, we did manage to go on all our favorite rides and do some new things too (one of us even tried out at the American Idol attraction).

We also did some different activities this year.  We took the all-day Backstage Magic tour, which let us view some of the non-public areas at each of the parks.  We also were able to enter some of the general facilities located throughout the property (e.g., workshops, nursuries, etc.).  We also went on the one-hour Seeds tour which takes you into the hydroponics and greenhouse areas of the Land Pavilion at Epcot.  both tours were very interesting and proided some greater insight as to how things work at Disney.

17 October 2010

New York, New York

I went to New York last week for an extra long holiday weekend.  I love visiting New York and I really like the premium service (p.s.) flights that United flies between JFK and the West Coast.  Coach is entirely Economy Plus with electrical outlets.  I have sat back there a few times.  But my favorite of all domestic flights is to sit in Business Class in the Exit Row 9.  There is about 9 feet of open space in front of you and the food service is the equivalent of Business Class on an international flight (including ice cream sundaes for dessert).  Also, they pass out the personal digital video players if you want to use one.  And every seat has a standard 110V outlet.

New York visits usually consist of shopping (mandatory trips to Century 21 and to Barney's, as well as Filene's Basement), eating (discussed below), visiting with friends and relatives, and theatre.  This trip was a little lighter on the shopping and the theatre, but heavy on the food.

New food places visited:  Eataly, next to Madison Square Park is a recently-opened center for Italian cuisine -- kind of maze-like and crazy inside, but lots of food outlets and food purveyors, 4 Food  is a higher-tech burger place (iPads for surfing on some of the tables) that serves a ring-like burger (different choices), with various options for dressing it up, located at 40th and Madison Ave.  Baked by Melissa is a mini-muffin (and by mini, I mean small storefront and tiny muffins) place that just sells muffins of various flavor combinations.  I went to the one on 14th St. near Union Square.

Places visited before that I returned to:  Chickalicious is a great dessert bar, located on East 10th St and 2nd Ave., that I always try to go to at least once a visit (I went twice).  The menu always changes and there is always something new to try.  Il Laboratorio Del Gelato, on Orchard Street in the Lower East Side, has my favorite pistachio gelato and they even had it this time (flavors vary daily).  The Meatball Shop, also in the Lower East Side, has a variety of meatballs to choose from and serves them in a variety of ways.  Tea and Sympathy is a great little place on Greenwich Ave. to have an authentic (and very filling) English afternoon tea.  Brgr is another cooked-to-order burger place where you can pick up a quick meal (I tried making my own combo this time of a turkey and veggie patties in the burger).  It can be found on 7th Ave across from the Fashion Institute of Technology.  I also visited a just-opened new location for Zen Palate, a nice Asian-style vegetarian restaurant.  They are now back in the Union Square area on 18th St. between Park and Irving.

29 September 2010

Miles and miles and miles. . . .

Since I am focused on earning flight miles, one may ask if I ever use any of the redeemable miles that I earn.  Surprisingly, the answer is yes.  You may not think that I would waste an opportunity to earn flight miles by taking a free trip.  For a long time, that was true.  But, once I had accumulated a million redeemable miles in my account, I decided that I should use them (for good reasons, of course) rather than let them sit and devalue over time.

Obviously, I have used miles for upgrades.  When I am out of Systemwide upgrade coupons, I switch to miles where I can for upgrading.  But have taken free trips as well over the years.  Generally, I have done it once a year.  Ususally it's for a trip where I can plan in advance, want to ensure that I am traveling in premium class for the trip, and my dates are pretty set (little flexibility).  Or it's because I've got plans to travel to a general area twice in a short period of time, and I don't feel like paying for two tickets. 

I think the first free ticket I ever used was to go to Auckland, New Zealand for a long weekend in First Class.  United was scheduled to end the route soon, so I wanted to take advantage while I could.  I also used a huge chunk of miles (400,000) a few years ago for a First Class trip flying around the world (that was quite a planning endeavor as I had planned the trip so as to be able to try and secure the flight segments just under a year in advance of the actual trip).

Having a lot of miles in the bank also allows one to try and use the system to one's advantage.  Often, when picking dates for a trip, the Saver Awards are not available yet.  But, the Standard Awards are available for booking -- they are the equivalent of buying a full fare ticket.    So, I'll go ahead and book the Standard Award.  I'll then just keep checking for the Saver Award availability.  If they become available, I'll then cancel and rebook.  As a 1k member, I don't get charged for returning miles back into the account.

I'll probably use up miles more now with the relatively new feature that you can upgrade just about anyfare with miles with a copay.  Nice when I am out of Systemwide coupons for upgrading and I can still earn flight miles.

25 September 2010

Where in the World to Go

Planning is at least half the fun of travel.  Typically reservations are made within three months of departure.  I wait for that window to see what the fares will be for various destinations.  But before that, I'm thinking about  where would be a good place to go.  I usually try to have a purpose, if even only a little one, so as to have some focus to the trip (something to look forward to exploring).  Last December, after Christmas, for example, I went to Germany (flight destination Frankfurt) to continue exploring the Christmas markets of Germany -- some were still open after Christmas Day.  That trip was memorable and not just for the sights.  There was a fair amount of snowfall during my stay in Berlin.  My plans had me flying from Berlin to Munich to catch a Lufthansa flight to JFK.  To help make sure I made that connection, I went to the Berlin Airport early and hoped to get on an earlier flight to Berlin.  Turns out, you can't just show up at the Lufthansa gate and try to get on an earlier flight.  Unlike United gate agents in the States, Lufthansa gate agents cannot just move you to the flight or even put you on standby.  I had to first talk to a Lufthansa ticket agent, who had to move me to that flight officially.  That's the only way I was going to show up on the earlier flight.  It eventually worked out and it was a good thing -- had I stayed on my original flight, it would have landed just as the flight for New York was departing.

January's trip was to London (inexpensive fare and easy upgrade).  February was Singapore, with the hope of checking out the new Marina Bay Sands Skydeck and shopping and casino complex.  Turned out that it was behind schedule and not open yet, so I went to check out the brand new casino that just opened on Sentosa Island.  That trip was also memorable because it was the first time I had ever gotten stuck overseas.  My trips to Singapore require a plane change in Hong Kong.  United has inbound flights from Chicago and SFO and the Chicago plane goes to Singapore and the SF plane goe to Vietnam.  The return follows the same pattern, so even though my plane got to Hong Kong on time, I was subject to the whims of the Chicago plane, which decided to have a mechanical problem that could not be fixed within the allotted time for crew validity.  So they eventually had to put all of us up overnight (at their expense). 

That's one thing I do not like about the Singapore destination -- I am dependent upon a flight from Chicago and it is subject to delays and problems often associated with O'Hare.  The other thing that makes the trip a little tough is the schedule.  You get into Singapore (if on time) close to midnight.  And the departure for the return is very early in the morning.  This year, however, I discovered melatonin, which seem to work for me and helps to ensure I can sleep on the plane (if in business class) and also overcomes some of the jet lag.

May was a trip back to London and a short stay outside of London at a hotel castle (Thornbury Castle).  June was a trip back to Frankfurt and a stay in Baden-Baden and a visit to Strasbourg in Alsace.  That trip was more of a short vacation than a mileage run, but the destination was selected because I had plans to go back to Germany in early July with some friends and I decided I wanted to leverage a Eurail pass over both trips.

The July trip was back to Germany with friends for a real vacation.  But the trip did not count because it was on a free ticket.  I'll discuss my approach to free tickets and using miles in the next post.

September was a trip back to Singapore and the Skydeck was open, as was the casino.  Trips are tentatively set for November and December to finish off the year with flight destinations I've been to, but with intent to see places that I had not yet explored.

We are now caught up with the big trips.

23 September 2010

The Overall Approach

Since the first time I earned 100,000 miles and made 1k status, the annual goal is to maintain that status.  I kind of fell into the 1 million mile mark that way with about an even combination of work travel and personal travel.  As work travel declined, my strategy had to change.  Instead of frequent travel, I had to plan for maximizing earned flight miles during leisure travel.  Long flights over long weekends became integral to earning enough miles at an adequate pace. Out of San Francisco on United, it means only a few destination -- non-stop flights to London, Frankfurt, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Sydney, and continuing flights to Singapore.

I usually want to spend at least a little bit of time at the destination, so avoiding a lot of connecting flights is important to save time when on a long weekend trip.  Hence the preference for long flight segments.   I focused on long flights with good miles earned per dollar spent on fare.  So destination costs were compared when planning trips.  Traveling to Europe in winter can be cheaper for the 10,000 miles flown versus the longer flight to a warmer destination like Sydney for the same time period.  I also avoided taking codeshare carriers crossing the oceans since they don't count for United flown miles.  The only exceptions I made were where I needed to get somewhere that United did not fly (e.g., Gernamy to New York a couple of times).

Also, maintaing 1k status was extremely important for getting those all important upgrades while paying cheaper coach fares.  I don't get upgraded all the time, but I do manage to make it to business class most of the time (there have been exceptions lately, which makes the trip a little tougher).  But there is no doubt that riding in business class makes all this travel cumulatively less tedious and tiring.  It also give me a chance to catch up on a lot of movies.  The new, upgraded business class seats on many of the planes has made the flying a bit more comfortable -- so much so that it also adds to the considerations when planning trips.

Next:  shooting for 2.150 million in 2010. . . .

21 September 2010

A VERY Brief History. . . .

I joined United Mileage Plus in 1988 when I moved back to the Bay Area from Washington DC.  I reached the 1 million mile mark in August 2002, about five years after making 1k status continuously.  That was mostly through travel via work and leisure split about 50/50.  For that, they gave me Premier Executive for live (2nd-tier elite level) and my guaranteed meal choice (not always recognized or offered).  I reached the 2 million mile mark in November 2009.  There was a gradual decline in work travel and more of an effort on my part to fly for miles traveling for leisure.  For that, they gave me Red Carpet Club membership for life and choice of a gift (I chose the 160GB iPod).

Since then, work travel contribution has been irregular and leisure travel has dominated my flown miles.

20 September 2010

2 Million Miles and Counting

I'm hoping this will be a different kind of travel blog.  The Internet is full of travel information.  It's great and I love using it.  It's helped me figure out so many things.  This will be from the perspective of someone who:

-  Likes flying and considers the journey as much as the destination as part of the adventure;

-  Is not striving to gain miles any way possible -- it's about actual flown miles earned;

-  Differentiates vacations from "mileage runs" -- vacation and work travel do contribute, but trips to pick up chunks of miles have a very different pace and different considerations.

With the merger of United and Continental, I'm anticipating travel will become more varied as new destinations open up.  While airline alliances are good, they don't help with this effort.  United is very specific about what this is about -- miles flown on United.  As I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, United has been the default carrier choice (and no, they aren't paying me -- at least not yet!).

Along the way, I'm hoping to share some interesting experiences (especially for those who don't have the chance to travel so much), offer some advice for those with similar aspirations,and just have some fun with this.

So, seatbelt fastened, electronics off, seat and tray table in the upright and locked positions, and we'll see where this goes. . . .