Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"3 Extravagant Flights You'll Never Be Able To Afford" and How We Flew Them All

The should stick to investing advice - over the weekend they published an article about 3 Extravagant Flights You'll Never Be Able to Afford. This article makes me laugh for a couple of reasons. First, I'm not sure what the point of the article is, perhaps other than anti-1% propaganda? Secondly, it talks about extravagant First Class flights that cost $13,000-$22,000 without mentioning the fact that you can fly them all for far less than that. It would be like writing an article about how the average person could never dream of owning a $200,000 Ferrari, while there existed sort of well-known and some lesser-known ways to own one for as little as $50.

So I guess while the premise of the article is indeed true, that your average person would never be able to afford to pay those prices for First Class tickets, it certainly does not translate to mean that the average person cannot experience these flights - in fact, we've flown all 3. 2 of them were redeemed using miles, and 1 was a paid ticket but at a 90% discount off of the $22,000 he quoted. Let me explain how we did it.

Extravagant Airline #1 - Cathay Pacific

How we did it (price for each ticket) and how we got the miles 
We have actually flown Cathay Pacific twice:

SFO-HKG: 67,500 American Airlines miles + $5 in taxes/fees
HKG-SFO: 105,000 British Airways Avios + $142 in taxes/fees

- 150,000 American Airlines miles from 2 Citi American Airlines credit cards which offered 75,000 miles as a sign-up bonus each
- 50,000 American Airlines miles from opening a Fidelity brokerage account
- 150,000 British Airways Avios from a 100,000 Chase British Airways sign-up bonus + 50,000 from spend
- 60,000 British Airways Avios transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards which came from a Chase Ink 50,000 sign-up bonus and subsequent spend

Alternative ways to do it and how to get the miles

SFO-HKG: 105,000 Cathay Pacific Asia Miles (transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards)

- 100,000 sign-up bonus for American Express Platinum card
- 50,000 sign-up bonus for American Express Premier Rewards Gold card

This is actually the easiest of the 3 airlines he mentioned to fly with in First Class, as Cathay opens up much of it's First Class cabin for award tickets starting approximately 11 months in advance, and then usually opens up all remaining seats starting about 2 weeks prior to departure. Each airline handles this differently in terms of protecting it's First Class cabin from award bookings, but Cathay is among the most generous in that regard and make this an easy mileage redemption.

Extravagant Airline #2 - Singapore Airlines
How we did it (price for each ticket) and how we got the miles 

SFO-HKG: 70,000 United Airlines miles + $5 in taxes/fees

- 300,000 miles from flying United as my primary airline from 2011-2012
- 50,000 United Airlines miles from Chase United Explorer card sign-up bonus
- 80,000 transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards from 2 Chase Sapphire Preferred card bonuses of 40,000 each

Alternative ways to do it and how to get the miles

SFO-HKG: 70,125 Singapore Airlines Krisflyer miles (transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards)

- 100,000 sign-up bonus for American Express Platinum card
- 50,000 sign-up bonus for American Express Premier Rewards Gold card

Many people consider Singapore Airlines the gold standard for all airlines and the best in the world. They are also among the stingiest in terms of allowing access to their First Class cabins, which can only be redeemed through their own frequent flyer program and is blocked from all partners.

I'm still in the process of accumulating Singapore Krisflyer miles for a future redemption, so how did we get access to the highly-protected Singapore First Class cabin? In the summer of 2012, they were converting their reservation systems and for a short period of time (about a couple days), accidentally made all First Class award space available to their Star Alliance partners. This caused an absolute frenzy among those who were in the know, and I was fortunate enough to be able to use my United miles for the Singapore First Class redemption.

Even after flying some of the other heavy hitters (Emirates, Cathay, ANA, Thai), Singapore remains our favorite and I can't wait until I've saved up enough miles to fly them again.

Extravagant Airline #3 - Emirates

How we did it (price for each ticket) and how we got the miles 

CMB-DXB-LHR-SFO: $2,140.20 for First Class; MLE-DXB-LHR on Emirates and LHR-SFO on British Airways

This is the fun one - a lot of things going on here. First of all, while it's certainly more than I would like to have paid for a 1-way ticket the value I'm getting is undeniable as it's a great fare that is a 90% discount off the price of the standard First Class ticket on Emirates that he quoted (~$22,000).

So how did I get it? I don't know how to describe it other than the "random airport in a previously dangerous location" phenomenon. For some reason, airlines screw up the logic in their pricing systems for these types of places, most notably Sri Lanka (CMB) and Yangon, Myanmar (RGN) in recent years.

In fact, if you say the letters RGN to a hardcore travel hacker, odds are that their face will light up.
This was a truly amazing deal that I got the year before, where we flew home on Korean Air First Class from Yangon, Myanmar for $250 each! In fact, the miles we accrued from those flights exceeded the cost of the tickets themselves, meaning that we essentially got paid to fly. Lisa particularly loves these crazy fares, since I would never be adventurous enough to go to Myanmar or Sri Lanka if it weren't for these amazing fares.

The second interesting thing going on here is tangentially related to the concept of hidden-city ticketing. For example, the price of the ticket with the routing CMB-DXB-LHR-SFO was $2,140, but the price for that same ticket with the routing DXB-LHR-SFO was over $8,000. You might ask yourself, why the heck would I pay quadruple the price for a shorter route that has one less flight?

This is related to the concept of hidden-city ticketing, where it can be advantageous to add on additional legs to flights in order to save money. It's a big no-no from the airline Terms and Condition's standpoint, but it's rarely (if ever) enforced. A perfect example of this, was during the couple years I was flying to Chicago regularly to visit Lisa - often times the direct route to Chicago (SFO-ORD) would actually be more expensive than the route to Milwaukee that stopped in Chicago (SFO-ORD-MKE).

The reason this is hard to enforce, is after landing at ORD and during my layover, any of the following could happen a) getting sick at at the airport and not being able to make my connection b) having a work emergency at needing to go into the Chicago office c) deciding to change plans and meet up with friends for dinner in Chicago.  Any of these are feasible, and as long as you don't make a habit out of doing it it's very easy to get away with.

So again, why am I paying less for an additional flight!? Airline pricing systems are complex and I won't pretend to be an expert, but my understanding is that it has a lot to do with supply/demand and competition among certain routes. But it works for me, as I was happy to pay significantly less to fly a routing which actually included an additional flight.

Alternative ways to do it and how to get the miles

CMB-DXB-SFO: 168,750 Emirates Skywards miles (transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards)

- 100,000 sign-up bonus for American Express Platinum card
- 50,000 sign-up bonus for American Express Premier Rewards Gold card

CMB-DXB-SFO: 100,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles

- 50,000 sign-up bonus for Bank of America Alaska Airlines card
- Purchase up to 10,000 Alaska Airlines miles for $0.02 each every time you purchase an Alaska Airlines ticket

As you can see above, Alaska Airlines' program provides a much better value than booking directly through Emirates' program, and would even offer a stopover in Dubai along the way.

Friday, January 17, 2014

How to Become a (Points/Miles) Millionaire

Earlier this week, I wrote a post about the New York Times' 2014 Places to Go which also included a high-level and brief overview of utilizing credit card sign-up bonuses to amass hundreds of thousands of points quickly.

Since I'm relatively new to all this as well having only seriously gotten into the points/miles game in 2011, I thought that it'd be helpful to create a how-to guide of things that helped me when first getting started along with other pointers that I've picked up along the way.

1. Take a step back and figure out what kind of traveler you are

Before just diving head-first into everything, it's worth taking a step back and thinking about what sort of traveler you are. And not just in terms of how you've been traveling, but also in the context of how you want to be traveling.

For some people, they would prefer taking 2 trips in economy vs. 1 in business or first class, and similarly would prefer staying 2-3 nights at an average hotel vs. 1 night in a luxury hotel. Or some people may only care about amassing frequent flier miles for free flights, since they prefer to stay at hostels or take cruises which generally do not belong to any loyalty programs.

So do you want points/miles primarily to get free flights and hotels to travel more frequently?
Or do you want them to get aspirational travel in first class cabins and luxury hotels that you otherwise would never pay for?
Do you care more about the quantity of trips you can take, or increasing the comfort for each trip?
What's on your bucket list, mostly domestic or international destinations?
Would you prefer taking 3 short 1-week trips or one mega 3-week trip?
How would you spend a week of vacation- 7 cities in 7 days or hunker down and stay in 1 city for 7 days?

These are all important questions to ask yourself, because it will help to pick the optimal programs into which you should collect points/miles. For me, the biggest constraint on my ability to travel was time - so the most important aspect of points/miles for me was to enhance the comfort of each trip, as opposed to taking more trips. So I would consider myself an aspirational traveler, where I use my points to get access to $15,000 first class airfare tickets and stay in $1,000 per night hotel rooms that I would never otherwise pay for.

The reason some of the other questions are important is that each frequent flier and hotel program has a sweet spot for redeeming points/miles, and it's not always the same. For example, if Europe or Australia is next on your bucket list then I'd recommend the Star Alliance (*A) whereas for Africa I'd recommend Alaska Airlines.  For mid-range vs. luxury hotels, the best program also varies, and different programs are even better for solo vs. traveling with multiple people together as for example both Korean Air and British Airways allow you to create household accounts that can pool points across multiple accounts.

So do take some time and treat this decision as you would with a large purchase - do some research beforehand and figure out which program is best for your specific travel goals and destinations. 

2. Where do you want to go next?

The points/miles game can be intimidating, and the hardest part is just getting started. But everyone who's thinking about getting into this game more than likely enjoys travel, and probably even has a bucket list of top places they've been dying to visit.  And by narrowing down your focus to a singular goal, which for me was "how can I plan a trip to the Maldives using points/miles?", it allows you to start accumulating toward that specific goal instead of just collecting points/miles randomly and hoping that you'll someday achieve that goal. For others, it may be getting a free trip to Mexico or Hawaii, or something even more practical such as for those away at school, getting free flights back home several times a year which can save a lot of money, especially since those flights generally come during holidays.

If you use a shotgun or spray-and-pray method to accumulating points, you'll end up with a lot of points spread over a lot of different programs, which essentially become useless. Having 10,000 points in 10 programs is absolutely not the same as having 100,000 points in 1 program. Figure out what program and how many points you need, and accumulate points only in those programs. You'll have plenty of time to diversify later on, but you need critical mass in your top programs first in order to be able to do anything.

3. Get Organized

If you invest in the stock market, you wouldn't have records of each stock you own in different places with nothing in place to track performance. Points and miles should be treated the same way.

I recommend signing up for AwardWallet which is a free tool that allows you to track all of your programs in one place.  For programs where you already have membership and points, input those in. You can even input programs for multiple people, which is helpful for really tracking everything in one place.  And for programs that you think you'll be needing, signup for membership accounts directly through that program's website, then link back to your AwardWallet account.

4. Using credit card sign-up bonuses to get points quickly

Before I touch on this in more detail, if you have any upcoming plans that require financing (mortgage, re-financing, new car purchase) in the next 12 months, stop right now. More important than free travel is being able to get the best interest rate on those purchases, and you need your credit score in tip-top shape to do so. As I mentioned before, credit card applications will hit your score in the short-term (6-12 months) by an average of 3-5 points each, so just hold off until you've finished before proceeding with the credit card game.

Here are some other quick hit tips on credit cards:
  • Before getting into this game, make sure you're ready to handle the financial responsibility of paying your balances on time across several cards and bank. When you have credit cards across all the major banks (Chase, Citi, Amex, Barclays, BofA) it can be a lot of work just making sure you are keeping track of when bills are due from each and getting them paid on time
  • There's a sweet spot in the number of credit cards you want to have - not too many, but also not too few. So what that means, is STOP applying for credit cards that don't earn you points/miles. That's cool that Banana Republic wants to give you 10% off the purchase of a sweater, but don't do it. It's not worth wasting a precious line of credit to save $10 when you could be getting $1,000 in free travel from that same line of credit
  • Almost every airline and hotel has its own branded card, and you can apply for these based on your programs of choice.  Here are a few examples from a blogger that I like to read, and in general I'd recommend Boarding Area as a great source of travel-related information
  • Additionally, a few programs offer that offer the ability to transfer points/miles are Chase Ultimate Rewards (recommend the Chase Sapphire card), American Express Membership Rewards (recommend the Premier Rewards Gold card), and Starwood Hotels loyalty program
  • Most of the good cards require an annual fee, but most also waive that annual fee for the first year. Even if they don't, generally the sign-up bonuses (depending on how you value them) can be worth $500 - $1,000 in free travel, so still provide great value even if paying a $65-$95 annual fee
  • Most cards require a "minimum spend" to get the sign-up bonus, which is an amount of spend in a specified period (e.g. $5,000 spend in 3 months). Especially if you're getting multiple cards at once, track all this carefully so you know exactly how much you need to spend on each to get the bonus. 

    But don't be afraid to sign-up for multiple cards at once because minimum spend requirements are easy to meet through creative ways which are often referred to as "manufactured spend".  For example, if I sign up for 5 cards at once, each with a $5,000 spend required in 3 months, that essentially means I need to spend $25,000 across these cards in the next 3 months.  Of course there's no way that I spend that much typically, but let's say that I'd normally spend about $5,000 during those 3 months.  I can easily manufacture $20,000 in spend across the cards, which boils down to spending money on a credit card, but essentially getting that money back in cash in order to pay off the credit card bill. More on this topic some other time
  • Do not, I repeat do not, cancel the card within 6 months of opening it.  Typically, I will keep the card for 10-11 months before cancelling.  If you cancel right away, more than likely your sign-up bonus will be retracted. Whether you got hit with an annual fee or not, there is no downside to keeping the card for 11 months before cancelling
  • After cancelling the card, don't apply for the same one in hopes of getting the bonus again. You likely won't, as most cards require at least 12-24 months before you can get another bonus. Move on to other cards in the mean time, as there as plenty out there to choose from
5. Accrue points in all other aspects of your daily life

There are so, so many ways that you're probably foregoing earning points in your daily life right now, here are just a few examples:
  • Unless you absolutely have to, avoid using cash and pay with your credit card, and under no circumstance should you be using a debit card for purchases
  • Make sure that you're earning points on all travel (flights, hotels, rental cars, etc.) by having your membership number entered, and again as a rule of thumb don't accue flight points in multiple programs within the same alliance
  • Use the appropriate credit card in each situation - for example the Chase Sapphire card earns 2x points on all dining and travel such as airfare/hotels, and travel is even loosely defined to  include taxis/Uber, parking garage fees, etc. The Amex PRG offers 2x points on gas and groceries, and Chase Ink card earns 5x points on utilities such as cell phone and cable/internet as well as office supply stores like Office Depot and Staples
  • Sign-up all your credit cards for a dining program such as United's Mileage Plus Dining or American Airlines' AAdvantage Dining. You can link these to your frequent flier program/credit cards and automatically get points for eating at restaurants. I typically don't seek out these restaurants, but since all my credit cards are linked then it's more that I'll get an unexpected surprise of some bonus points each time I visit a participating restaurant or bar
  • The majority of my shopping is now done online, and everytime you shop online it should be done through a shopping portal.  Here's a nice summary of how that works, but essentially you are getting bonus points (often 5+ bonus points per $ spend) on items that you were planning to buy anyways and for the same price, just by first entering the site through a shopping portal
  • Keep an eye out for other miscellaneous ways to earn points, such as:
    • Up to 50,000 bonus points annually by using Fidelity
    • Using BankDirect for your checking account or CD 
    • Getting miles for Netflix subscriptions
    • Retention bonuses for credit cards where you call in each year and threaten to cancel, even if you don't really want to cancel
    • And even getting points/miles for delays, cancellations, and even complaints. In fact, we just got 100,000 British Airways miles because our recent BA flight had an older version of the first class seats than what is available on other BA planes, and I wrote in to complain after hearing that others had done the same
6. Earning points is the easy part, now how to spend them

Finally, I tell people this all the time, but earning points is really the easy part. The hard part which requires even more skill and knowledge is how to best use them.  As an example, I've been able to take the same number of miles someone was planning to spend on trip, and at no additional cost get 2 additional free flights added to the itinerary, one of which was even on a future trip that they were already planning to take.  Each program has different ticketing rules, and it takes a lot of time and research to learn how to maximize your miles within the confines of those rules.  That's another topic for another day, but I'm more than happy to give people pointers in the mean time.

Monday, January 13, 2014

New York Times 52 Places to Go in 2014: Where I Want to Go and How I'd Get There

The New York Times just released it's annual list of places to go in 2014 - this year's list features 52 exciting and amazing destinations. If traveling was my full time job I would love to go to all 52, but one can only dream. So each year we typically narrow down the list to a couple destinations that we would really like to visit, and start to figure out strategies for getting there. From the 2013 list, we were able to hit #31 Sri Lanka, #33 Bangkok, #42 Myanmar (technically went in December 2012), and #44 Washington DC.

As I was perusing this year's list I got the idea for this post - since I've been getting questions from a lot of people (friends, family, coworkers, and even strangers) asking how the heck we get to fly for free, often times in first class. So as we are doing some preliminary planning for 2014 travel, I figured that I'd share my strategy and thought-process for booking flights to a couple of the destinations among our top 5 from the list. Who knows if we'll even get to go to any of these, but it's fun to think about since we have the points/miles to fly there anytime this year, even this weekend, and all for free  :)  Here's our top 5 travel wish list for 2014:

#7 Ecuador
#23 Dubai
#27 Seychelles
#38 Arctic Circle
#39. Dar Es Salaam

#7. Ecuador

This is definitely #1 on our bucket list, and specifically we've been dying to go to the Galapagos to spend a week diving with turtles and hanging out with the amazing wildlife down there. Hotels are actually a tough one here since there aren't many chains to start with, but the best way to see the Galapagos is actually via cruise.

So assuming that we would book a cruise, the main questions is "how am I going to fly there?" This is where it's important to have a basic understanding of the airlines and their route networks within each of the major alliances:

- Star Alliance (*A)
- One World (OW)
- SkyTeam (ST)

The links to each of them show the member airlines within each alliance, and a bit of research beyond that will show where each individual airline's hubs are located and more importantly where their route network can take you.

So which airlines look good for getting to Quito, Ecuador (UIO)? From here I hopped over to which will show almost all of the flight options available, and I found the following options (many more were displayed but I filtered down to options with only 1 connection):

1. United Airlines (*A): SFO-IAH-UIO
2. American Airlines (OW): SFO-MIA-UIO
3. Aeromexico (ST): SFO-MEX-UIO
4. Delta (ST): SFO-ATL-UIO

I'm actually surprised by the number of options here, and most importantly that they span across all three alliances. Often times, specific destinations are only serviced by a single alliance, and if you have all your eggs in another alliance's basket, they're essentially useless.

In this specific case, I have enough United miles already for a round-trip (40,000 economy / 70,000 business class) or American Airlines miles (35,000 economy / 60,000 business class) to book the ticket, and could utilize either based on my preferred dates and routing being available.

But let's say that I didn't have any miles, as is the situation that many are in as they are just getting into this game. How would I get enough miles for 2 economy tickets on United (80,000 total) or American (70,000 economy) to get there? There's a few ways, but they all require some time (several months) which is why it's important that all of this goes into the planning process well in advance, and not the month before you want to go.

The easiest way to get miles is through flying - if you travel regularly always make sure your frequent flier # is entered, and don't use multiple numbers within the same alliance. For example, if you're taking a flight on Lufthansa or Singapore Airlines (both members of the *A), in general it's best to credit to United if that's your primary account. After each flight you'll receive the miles a few days later, and if you're a heavy flyer (100,000+ miles per year) you'll likely earn more than 200,000+ miles with all of the bonuses that come with elite status.

If you don't fly regularly, like me, the next best way to get miles quickly is through credit card sign-up bonuses. Based on the card you get, it's really easy to get 50,000 to even 100,000 miles/points for each card you sign-up for.  Most credit cards are specific to the airlines (e.g. United, American, Delta, etc.) but a few programs that allow transfers into multiple frequent flier programs are:

- Chase Ultimate Rewards (recommend the Chase Sapphire card),
- American Express Membership Rewards (recommend the Premier Rewards Gold card),
- Starwood Hotels loyalty program

So there you have it, with the right credit card strategy and 2-3 good sign-up bonuses, you'd have enough points to get to Ecuador, with even some leftover. And one of the biggest misconceptions about credit cards are that they kill your credit score, which is just not true. While each credit card application does hit your score by 3-5 points in the short-term (3-6 months), in the long-term it's actually more important to show your credit worthiness by having multiple lines of credit which will also help your utilization %, of course assuming that you manage everything responsibly and pay your bills on-time.

#23 Dubai / #27 Seychelles

The next destination I'll cover is actually the combination of Dubai and Seychelles and I'll explain why I can kill two birds with one stone later.  Every since our honeymoon when we got to spend an extended layover in Dubai, I've been wanting to go back to enjoy more of the opulence and extravagance of the city. And now that we checked the Maldives off of our bucket list (although I'm dying to go back), we've heard that the Seychelles in Africa is equally amazing, and was even good enough for Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge's honeymoon.

Starting with the same method as the prior section, jumping over to doesn't yield many options. And man, the Seychelles is a long, long way from SFO with almost all routes logging in at well over 24 hours. This woudln't even include the seaplane or speedboat transfer that we'd have to take after arriving at the main airport.  Here are some of the limited options that I found:

1. Emirates: SFO-DXB-SEZ
2. Etihad (OW): SFO-DUB-AUH-SEZ

While Etihad bookings are available through OW points, for me there would be no need to look past #1 on the list.  We recently flew Emirates on the way home from our honeymoon and it was as blinged-out as advertised, even featuring a freaking shower on-board the plane.  Unfortunately, Emirates isn't part of any alliance, so there are a couple ways to book this. The first would be directly through Emirates' frequent flyer program, which is a transfer partner of Amex Membership Rewards and is definitely an option for booking flights. Most of my friends' companies use Amex for their Corporate Cards, so if you're flush with Amex points from all your expenses, this would be a great option.

But my new airline of choice, Alaska Airlines, also has a partnership with Emirates which allows bookings using their program's miles.  Emirates has a few other individual partnerships with airlines such as Korean Air (ST), so it's important to spread your knowledge beyond just the three major alliances as well.

And, the reason I'd use Alaska miles for this trip is that they permit a stopover on the booking, meaning that if SFO and SEZ are my origin and destination, I can stop at an intermediary destination along the way for the same price.  Without the ability to utilize a stopover, I would either have to fly to SEZ and skip Dubai, or book two separate tickets which would cost more.

So how many miles would it take to get there? If I'm flying that far I'd like to go in business class at least (155,000 miles per person), and would probably even splurge for first class (200,000 miles per person).  Unless I'm ditching Lisa at home, that means we are talking about 310,000 miles round-trip for business class or 400,000 miles for first class for the two of us. OUCH. That's a lot of miles, and my current balance is zero.  So how would I get the miles needed? A few ways:

- Start crediting all flights to Alaska (Alaska, Delta, and American) - I don't travel much for work but we'd accrue each about 50,000 per year from leisure travel = 100,000 miles
- Sign-up myself and Lisa for Alaska Airlines credit cards through Bank of America - current sign-up bonus of 50,000 x 2 = 100,000
- Sign-up myself and Lisa for Starwood Amex cards with the intent to transfer to Alaska - 30,000 x 2 = 60,000 Starwood points = 75,000 Alaska miles when transferred

The credit card game takes at least a few months to actually get the points, but right here we'd already have 275,000 Alaska miles between the two of us. Given that we were starting from zero, this would be a longer term redemption and would probably take another year of flying before getting the needed balance.

If we really wanted to go this year, another option would be book a one-way trip at 1/2 the round-trip cost (200,000 in first class for example) with the Alaska miles we earned here, and then use American miles to book Etihad back. Flying completely different alliances outbound/return is a strategy that I often utilize.

So there we have it - a brief summary of the strategy I'll be using to get us to a couple of the places on the 2014 NYT list, and a very, very high overview of using points/miles to get there for free. Seriously, don't be afraid to sign-up for credit cards as they are the quickest and best way to earn points/miles in chunks. And for those skeptics that usually follow that statement with "yeah, but it will kill your credit score", mine is doing just fine at a few points below 800.  Using this strategy I was able to earn and burn over 1.5 million points/miles in 2013 alone which basically allowed us to travel the world on our honeymoon for free.  Happy earning, and for those that do pursue this hobby, I'm sorry in advance for getting you addicted :)

Friday, January 10, 2014

New Year's Trip to "Xin" City: Cathay Pacific First Class: Hong Kong to San Francisco + The Wing F Lounge


As I was planning this trip, award availability on New Years day was terrible as I suspect that airlines were holding on to these seats in the hope of last-minute sales. So the best I could do a week out was to book United F as a placeholder, with the hope that something better would open up. As expected, on NYE day I woke up and was happy to find that 2 seats had opened up on the CX 747 in first class for the next day.

Unfortunately, I was a little short on Oneworld points, and made the decision to cancel my SFO-LHR redemption on BA next summer, and use those 150,000 Avios toward the painful 210,000 total Avios needed. Taxes and YQ came out to around ~$300 for 2 tickets, versus the ~$2,400 I would be getting back for my original redemption. So in that regard, I was more than happy to be getting over $2k back by switching to a partner airlines instead of BA. Also, part of the rationale behind cancelling was that we were underwhelmed with our first BA F flight last month, and weren't particularly looking forward to flying BA again. I've thought about it more, and I don't have any regrets for pulling the trigger on this. The 140,000 United miles from the cancelled booking have already been rebooked on a future trip LAX-ICN on OZ F prior to the upcoming devaluation.

Since we were jet lagged, even though we had stayed up past midnight we were up at 7am and grabbed a light breakfast in the Club lounge since we knew we'd be eating in the lounge as well as on the plane. Even though the flight wasn't until 2pm, we arrived at the airport around 10am which gave us plenty of time to enjoy The Wing First Class Lounge.

Overall impressions about the lounge were that it was very sleek and modern, and wasn't too crowded. There are a few different seating areas with a mix of couches and individual chairs, and everywhere you turn there is electricity outlets which is something that is often overlooked at airport lounges. The food is served in the 'The Haven' which offers a buffet as well as a la carte options. I was particularly excited about the food in the lounge since it's catered by the Peninsula, but to be honest there was nothing special here.

We also checked out the cabanas which have private bathroom, shower, and bathtub along with a day bed. These actually felt a bit claustrophobic for two people and we only spent about 30 minutes here before deciding to sit outside in the main area. If we wanted to take a nap then we probably would have stayed longer.

All things considered, this is a very nice lounge, but considering that it is Cathay's flagship first class lounge wasn't special in any way and certainly didn't make us say "wow" as the Emirates lounge in DXB did.

The Wing First Class lounge

Eggs benedict, wife said it tasted much better than it looked

Lunch menu

Sea bass


One funny thing about the lounge were the urinals in the bathroom, which were by far the smallest ones I have ever come across. Had to really concentrate here as even the slightest deviation in aim would lead to disaster

Bathroom urinals

Around T-30 we headed down to Gate 3 where our flight was just getting ready for boarding. I had selected seats 1A and 1K again, so it was a bit of deja vu as we'd have the same exact seats on the same plane type.

Not as many pictures this time as the plane/seat/IFE/amenity kit/pajamas/etc. were all the same. While our flight to Hong Kong was scheduled for 15 hours, this one was only 12 hours and went by very quickly. Luckily we were flying on January 1st, which meant a fresh batch of IFE movies newly added. I ended up watching Runner, Runner (not as bad as expected) along with Rush which was absolutely phenomenal.

We felt that service on this flight was definitely better than the last, as it was not only attentive but also very warm. A nice touch was a hand written card that we received during the 1st meal service which we had never received before on any other flight.

I learned my lesson from the last flight, and opted to not change into PJs and instead just wore a t-shirt and shorts which was perfect for the warm cabin temperatures. I also requested a small size pajamas and kept them unopened and will be re-gifting them to my mom since she loved the Shanghai Tang ones she got when flying CX F last year.

The food on this flight was fantastic again, with the highlights being the Chinese style lobster and hot pot rice. I was even able to get a good 4-5 hour nap in this time, despite still feeling like the mattress padding was too thin and could use some improvement. Overall, another fantastic flight on Cathay Pacific and I can't wait to fly them again.

Pye pajamas

Lunch menu

Snack/brunch menu

Hand written card


Delicious lobster

Apple pie

Morning views en route to SFO

New Year's Trip to "Xin" City: New Years Eve in Hong Kong + Grand Hyatt HK


Since we were still jet lagged we woke up bright and early around 6am and headed down for breakfast. The buffet spread is really fantastic, and once again we gorged ourselves silly and ate way more than we should have. We headed back to the room and just hung out until around 10:30am, after which we packed up and headed down to check-out and onto the shuttle bus that took us back to Taipa ferry terminal.

We had booked our tickets ahead of time for a 12:30pm departure (definitely recommend booking return tickets in advance) but since we were running early asked to be put on stand by which was no problem at all. We ended up getting on the 12noon departure and arrived back in Hong Kong by 1:15pm, after which we hopped in a taxi for a short ride over to the Grand Hyatt in Wan Chai.

We had stayed at the Hyatt Regency in Tsim Tsa Tsui last time and really liked it as the location is extremely central to restaurants, shopping, and transportation around the area. This time, we decided to stay on the Hong Kong Island side, and since the Conrad was sold out for NYE, the next best option was to book the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong. The standard room resumptions were unavailable at the time, but I was about to book a club room for a few thousand more points. I was more than happy to part with 27,000 points vs. the $1,100 retail price of the room for the night.

We checked in and were given the choice of a a room on the club floor that had not been renovated, or a newly renovated room on a slightly lower floor (26th floor), which we ended up choosing. The room really feels fresh and brand new and was more spacious than expected. It felt very open and similar to some of the Park Hyatt rooms that we have stayed in. Unfortunately only the garden view was available, so we made plans to watch the fireworks from the Club Lounge on the 30th floor later that night.

View from the foyer


Open view into the bathroom


Garden view

Laziness took a hold of us at this point since neither of us had any must-dos remaining for our time in Hong Kong. So we did a lap around the area ending up in Causeway Bay/Times Square where we grabbed a bite in the food court, walked over to the HK Convention Center, then headed back to the hotel around 6:30 to grab some canapes in the lounge. There was a long queue for tables when we arrived, so we just grabbed a couple plates and used the overflow space in one of the adjacent meeting rooms.

Walking around Causeway Bay

Times Square

Last meal in Hong Kong, ramen

Walking by the convention center

The Club Lounge entrance is on the 30th floor, and there is a grand staircase that leads up to the main lounge on the 31st floor. This is probably one of the best hotel lounges we have been to, and the views of the harbor are fantastic. The evening canape selection was great, and we easily made dinner out of it.

Daytime view from the Club lounge

Club lounge

Evening canapes

We went back to the room for a couple hours, then headed back to the lounge around 9pm just in time to snag the last remaining table by the window. Not sure when others had arrived, but I suspect they had been camping out since the canapes ended around 7:30pm.

We struggled to stay awake past midnight given the jet lag, but it was worth it for the spectacular display of fireworks over the harbor, and the Club lounge was a perfect place to see everything as the fireworks ended up being right at eye level. It was also a perfect mix of festiveness with a private party feel as there was a crowd of about 30-40 people and champagne was passed around, while not having to deal with huge crowds outside. We saw pictures from some our friends that watched from other locations (such as the Ritz rooftop bar) and the fireworks looked so small from such a high vantage point.

Hong Kong skyline at night

Happy new years!

New Year's Trip to "Xin" City: Visiting "Xin" City, the Gambling Capital of the World + Conrad Macao


The boat ride to Macau took just an hour aboard the Cotai Water Jet ferry. For those staying at the Conrad/Sheraton/Four Seasons/Venetian/Holiday Inn, you'll want to take the ferry to the Taipa terminal which is serviced by both Cotai (every 30 minutes) and TurboJet which only has a few sailings per day to this location. Most of their boats go to the Outer Harbor terminal and they have sailings there every 15 minutes. There is a free shuttle bus right outside the Taipa ferry that leaves every few minutes and dropped us off right outside the Conrad where I had booked our rooms for 2 nights at 40,000 Hilton points which felt like a steal since the retail price around this time was over $300 per night.

Aboard the Cotai Water Jet to Macau

Complimentary drinks and cookies

The Conrad Macau is an amazing hotel and has all the makings of that brand spanking new Vegas feel, but with more blinged-out decor. Inside the Conrad there is a casino and shopping mall inside, and many of the hotels in the Cotai Central strip are connected via bridges so that it feels like one inter-connected area. The gambling age here is still 21 just like Vegas, except they don't let anyone underage even enter the casino as there are guard posts all around the casino area entrances.

We checked in and were informed that we were upgraded to a suite. Since there is no executive lounge at the moment, the lobby bar is available for breakfast, afternoon tea, and evening drinks. Alternatively, breakfast can be had a t the Grand Orbit restaurant which we did for both days of our stay and had the biggest buffet selection we've ever come across.

Conrad Macao

Main lobby

Heading to the room

Upgraded to a suite

View from the room

Even as a grown man, I still get a kick out of collecting these animals

After check-in we headed up to the room to settle in, and then later on went to go walk around and do some shopping. Since it happened to be 3pm, we decided to check out the lobby cafe to see what the afternoon tea offerings were. We’re used to just some basic cakes and cookies, but were surprised to find out that it was a full traditional afternoon tea offering. We couldn’t pass it up, and sat down for afternoon tea which was really great. There is a Spanish option (more savory sandwiches) as well as a Crystal option (more cakes and sweets), and we got one of each which worked out nicely for sharing.

Afternoon tea at the lobby cafe

Spanish tea set

Crystal tea set

White chocolate snowman

Next we walked around the Conrad mall, then headed over to the Four Seasons mall and then lastly the Venefitan mall which is HUGE. It’s definitely bigger than the one in Vegas, but still very much looks the same with the man-made canal running down the middle with gondola rides.

Just like the Venetian in Vegas

The entire Cotai Strip side of Macau very much felt like the man-made paradise that is Vegas. The shopping here was fantastic and my wife was having the time of her life and I definitely got dragged around every which way. At least she did sense that I was being dragged along begrudgingly, and not wanting me to be like the fellow in China that just couldn’t take anymore and jumped to his death, appeased me with snacks along the way at Tai Lei Loi Kei for a delicious pork bun sandwich, as well as Lord Stow’s for Portuguese egg tarts. Both were recommendations from Anthony Bourdain’s visit to Macau, and once again he has yet to steer us wrong.

Tai Lei Loi Kei pork chop sandwiches

Lord Stow's Portugese egg tarts

Afterwards we headed back to the hotel, also decided to pop in to the Bodhi spa at the Conrad for massages. We were able to get a last minute reservation and the Ayurvedic massages we got were fantastic.

The next day we decided that we had enough casino-hopping for now, and headed across the bridge to the city where we visited St. Paul's ruins and walked around Sedona square. We also stumbled upon the milk pudding that Anthony Bourdain had when he visiteid and hopped in for a bowl, which was so simple yet so delicious.

Biggest breakfast buffet we've come across, just half of it shown here

Sampling from breakfast buffet

St. Paul's ruins

Walking around Sedona Square

Christmas decorations

Always come back to you

Like Anthony Bourdain once said, like unwrapping the panties off a supermodel

Amazing milk pudding

So simple yet so delicious

We continued to just wander around, and not before long we ended up around the Grand Lisboa and Wynn hotels. We walked through the Wynn and did some window shopping, and checked out the rotunda which has a cool ceiling scultpire of the entire Chinese zodiac. Afterwards, we walked back to the Grand Lisboa where we had lunch reservations at the 8 restaurant. It's a 3 Michelin star Chinese restaurant known for dim sum, and we couldn't pass up the opportunity to try it out. The dim sum here was truly amazing and I would definitely recommend this. All things considered, lunch was pretty decently priced at around $80 USD for all the dim sum we could fit into our bellies, which isn't much more than we'd spend back in San Francisco.

Rotunda at the Wynn with Chinese zodiac

Walking over to the Grand Lisboa

Macau Tower, will NOT be bungee jumping today

Many cool artifacts/displays at the Grand Lisboa lobby

Lobby at the Lisboa hotel next door

The 8 restaurant, 3 Michelin star dim sum

Foie gras on Chinese BBQ pork

Signature goldfish har gow

Fried egg whites filled with shark fin

Porcupine-shaped pork buns

Steamed egg with crab claw

Lastly, we headed over to the City of Dreams back on the Cotai Strip side to watch the House of the Dancing Water show which is by the same creator as La Reve in Vegas. It had a lot of similarities, but this show was a bit more artistic-focused than the other one, with time spent dancing around which was at the expense of some of the acrobatics that we prefer. If you've seen La Reve in Vegas, you could probably skip this one.

Venetian at night

Heading over to City of Dreams

House of Dancing Water show

After another trip to the Venetian mall, we headed back to the room and called it a night. Macau is definitely all about gambling, whereas Vegas has a lot more activities and nightlife. Even though I really enjoy gambling, I didn't play too much here as the game of choice is baccarat and I'm more of a craps guy. Even though I did find craps tables at some of the hotels, it just didn't have the same Vegas-like vibe that I'm used to, mostly due to the cultural part since most of the players are from mainland China. Not saying anything good or bad about this, just that it didn't have the same inviting atmosphere that I'm accustomed to and didn't make me feel like I wanted to sit down and play.