Apr 162014
 

Thanks to the United devaluation of miles, I had to start planning my year in advance. Especially since I would be using so many miles up this year, and United added “premier qualifying dollars” this year – I would be forced to plan.  Got all my mileage burning trips in place, and then deals fell into place.  First, the amazing $1500 Europe fare.  Now, I’ve found a < $3000 business class fare to Israel over Thanksgiving – another new country for me!

So far, the year has already been busy:

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But now, with nearly everything planned, it’s looking downright insane:

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Plans are:

January:  return from trip to West Africa, Congos, Angola – up to 154 countries!
February: week in Hawaii
March: weekend in Ottawa
March: long weekend in Jamaica – 155 countries!
May: Boliva and Ecuador, with a day stop in Medellin – 157 countries!
May: long weekend in Chicago
July: long weekend in St. Kitts – 158 countries!
August: DC – Hawaii – Paris – Andorra – Hawaii – Las Vegas – DC – all in 10 days. Whew! – 159 countries!
October: over a month in the South Pacific – 168 countries!
November: Israel – 170 countries! (yes, I count Palestine)
December: Christmas in Minnesota
December: New Years in East Africa – Malawi, Tanzania, Comoros, etc! – probably 172/173 countries by end year!

That should bring me into 2015 with only 23 more countries to go, and maybe only 15-17 to go after I return from New Years! So close, but they get hard! I still have Turkmenistan, Syria, Guinea (Ebola anyone?), Mali, Central African Republic, Cuba…yeah, some real thinking is going to be needed!

I’m sure more long weekends will get filled in soon…I’m tired just typing this! What do you have planned for 2014 so far?


Apr 052014
 

It was spread a bit too widely to be a mistake fare, and Air Canada, Lufthansa, and Brussels Airlines matched the fares too, so it seems this one was intentional.  However, it was odd.  Fares from a majority of US cities, excluding United hub cities of course, to a variety of cities in Europe for $500 roundtrip plus taxes and fuel surcharges.  Depending on the cities it came to roughtly $1400 to $1600 total.

Of course, when I saw Honolulu was in the mix, I had to jump on it!

Problem was, since United massively devalued miles earlier this year, I cashed in around 500,000 so my travel year is packed.  And this deal would only be valid in July and August, when I already had some other commitments.  Early July was out, since I was already going to St. Kitts for a long weekend.  Late July/Early August also wouldn’t be good time-wise…and I was to go to Vegas the last weekend of August for a bachelor party.  Wait.  Vegas is on the way from Honolulu to DC…kind of.  This got me thinking….

Getting to Honolulu is easy…and can be done in one day.   I found a routing that would instantly confirm with a United regional upgrade as well.  So far this is working well.

Now, Hawaii to Europe on the business class deal… settled on HNL-IAD-CDG since it has a 10 hour layover in DC, enough time for me to repack bag, run any errands I might need to…or just be silly since it’s a Sunday.

I’d have just over 48 hours in Paris.  From what I remember Paris is rather dead in August, so I won’t likely stay there…but I might.  I’m also looking at buying roundtrip flights down to Toulouse, renting a car, and driving to Andorra for the night…the last country I need to visit in Europe.  Any thoughts on this?   I arrive into CDG around 6am and depart two days later around 10am.

On the way back, I’m doing the ultra-long CDG-SFO-HNL…going to be a very long day…and a very short night in HNL, because at 6am the next day I fly HNL-LAX which confirmed instantly with a regional upgrade, and LAX-LAS which wouldn’t confirm, so ended up paying like $40 more for a P fare.  Bargain of an upcharge!

Then, the only decision was how to get back from Vegas.  Since I’m looking to be a bit shorter on qualifying dollars than qualifying miles, I decided to go with the United P fare routing LAS-IAH-ORD-DCA.  Probably should have skipped the ORD, but it was the same price…and what’s one more flight at this point?

In the end, here’s what it looks like:

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Total stats are:

27,128 butt-in-seat miles flown
11 days, 16 hours traveled
65,125 redeemable miles earned
37,542 elite qualifying miles earned
3,275 premier qualifying dollars earned

It should be an absolute crazy adventure…and I can’t wait!


Mar 252014
 

First off, let me say I get nothing from posting this.

That said, there’s a fantastic offer out there for the Citi American Airlines Elite Mastercard.

In short, charge $10,000 in 3 months and get 100,000 miles.

The details:

$450 annual fee
($200) statement credit on first $200 in charges a year
($1500) 100,000 miles at 1.5 cents per mile
($150) value of 10,000 miles you’ll earn charging that $10,000 to meet minimum spend at 1.5 cents/mile

So, this is a win of $1400 in miles minus whatever it costs you to earn that $10,000 in spend. Even if you charge your taxes at a 1.92% fee with one of the payment providers that’s only $192….meaning you still come out over $1200 ahead.

Highly recommend jumping on this one!  Good luck to all, and be sure to let me know your success stories.  I know where I’m posting my Q2 taxes!

EDIT:  Forgot to mention the real values of this card beyond this deal….2 miles per dollar spend on AA purchases, AND includes AA lounge access regardless of which airline you’re flying.  Nice if you’re losing access when they cease to partner with AmEx.


Mar 172014
 

Yes, I’m fully aware that it’s mid-March and this is a bit late, but better late than never!  It’s already been a very busy travel year in 2014, both actual travel as well has planning out the whole year ahead of time due to:

1)  United devaluing miles
2)  Planning my remaining 42 countries to visit to ensure I meet my target of Labour Day 2016
3)  The hardship of using up all those $10 tickets to Hawaii I scored  ;)

Anyways, on to the year in review!

In 2013, I logged a total of 171,863 miles in the air, which was actually my highest total ever!  In comparison:

2013: 171,863
2012: 139,197
2011: 134,823
2010: 106,046
2009: 136,612
2008: 147,092
2007: 153,691
2006: 161,596
2005: 128,713
2004: 105,301

My last year below 100,000 miles flown was in 2002, when I logged “only” 69,592.  So far I have around 110,000 booked already for 2014, so with a few more random trips added in I’m sure I’ll be in the 130-140,000 range by the end of the year.  The year’s travel map:

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For those 171,863 miles I took a total of 109 flights for an average length of 1,577 miles. My shortest flight was only 72 miles from Malabo, Equatorial Guinea to Douala, Cameroon and the longest was 6,512 each way from Houston to Lagos, Nigeria.

As far as aircraft go:

Airbus: 47 total
A319: 15
A320: 13
A321: 5
A330: 8
A340: 2
A380: 4
Boeing: 43 total
737: 21
747: 6
757: 1
767: 6
777: 3
787: 5
MD90: 1
Canadair: 3 total
CRJ: 3
DeHavilland: 3 total
Dash: 3
Embraer: 14 total
E145: 4
E170: 5
E175: 1
E190: 3
E195: 1

For these 109 flights, 20 were in economy (of which 6 were economy plus), 56 were in domestic first/business, 10 were in international first, and 24 were in international business class.

For the true first class flights, 9 were on Lufthansa and the other 1 was on the Thai A380.

On the country front, I managed to visit 34 countries, of which 19 were new to me, bringing my total to 149 countries visited:

Benin, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Ghana, Kazkhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Montenegro, Niger, Nigeria, Peru, Serbia, Tajikistan, Togo, Tunisia, Uzbekistan.

I also flew a total of 25 airlines in 2013, of which 7 were new: Air Astana, Air Burkina, Air Côte d’Ivoire, Air Serbia, ASKY, TunisAir, and Uzbekistan Airways. This brings me to 125 total airlines flown.

2013 also saw visits to 53 unique airports (23 of which were new: Abidjan, Abuja, Accra, Almaty, Astana, Belgrade, Bishkek, Cotonou, Cuzco, Douala, Dushanbe, Lagos, Libreville, Lima, Lomé, Malabo, Moscow Domodedovo, Moscow Vnukovo, Niamey, Ouagadougu, Podgorica, San Jose CA, Sarajevo, Tunis), which is my second highest ever after 69 airports in 2012.

So, dear readers, how did your 2013 look? How did it compare to past years?


Mar 102014
 

Drive to the airport was completely uneventful, and it was sad to say goodbye to the convertible and the Hawaiian sun…and head back to the frozen wastelands of Washington. But, at least we had business class to look forward to, and a direct flight to DC thanks to the cancelation. One of a few times I can remember really leveraging a cancelation to my advantage. (Remember my delayed Dubai-Frankfurt in Lufthansa first that I managed to change to Dubai-London in Emirates A380 First?!)

Anyways, went straight to TSA pre-check after dropping the car off, and we were through security with plenty of time to spare, and even enough time to grab the lunch we never had.  That of course meant it was time to stop by Kona Brewing Company for one last round of liquid aloha!

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Quick lunch, and it was time to walk to the gate, with an impressive view of several United birds parked in a line:

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But, oops, too much liquid aloha…time for a stop by the Kane room…idk why but the Honolulu washroom signs always amuse me!

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Mar 072014
 

After picking up the car at Alamo (which is actually off-site at the Honolulu Airport) we endured the typical slow evening traffic into Waikiki. Gave the car to the valet, and headed to the desk to check-in. This was my first stay since the renovations, and was looking forward to seeing what sort of room we’d receive.  The app looked promising, with something called a “Penthouse Ocean” room.

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Upon check-in he confirmed that was indeed a suite, and was on the newly renovated top floor of the tower wing.  It was a very large room, with a huge bathroom, and an even bigger rooftop lanai:

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We still had about 30 minutes of happy hour left, and went to check out the new lounge that had been added as part of the renovations.  Free beer and wine and a decent selection of evening munchies – definitely a great addition to this hotel!  It was getting late by this point, so we headed next door to Duke’s restaurant for some beers, burgers, and of course the delicious and famous Hula Pie:

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We were exhausted by this point from the long day trekking around Molokai, and ended up crashing quite early.  The view from the lanai in the morning east over Waikiki was fantastic:

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Mar 032014
 

After our stop at the Post Office, we got back to the airport around 4:30 for our 6:45pm flight on Island Air to Honolulu. As the taxi was taking us back she asked us who we would be flying to Honolulu. “Oh, Island Air? I would never fly them. They are always late.” Grrrreat. Given the light rain and heavy clouds, this wasn’t boding well.

Then, my phone pinged. It was the FlightTrack app alerting me we were now delayed until 8pm. UGH. I went straight to the Island Air counter to try and figure out what was going on. Seemed the plan was in Honolulu still. It was like pulling teeth, but eventually the agents admitted it was weather in Molokai preventing them from arriving. When we’d been through Honolulu the week before waiting on our flight to Kona, we heard the Island Air flight to Molokai getting delayed over and over…seemed this was a semi-regular occurrence.

I wasn’t overly convinced the flight would ever leave, so asked if they would sign us over to Mokulele Airlines instead. No, they wouldn’t, and regardless, all the flights on Mokulele were full. By chance, I asked the folks at Makani Kai if they had a flight. Yes, they did at 5:45. It was one-stop via Kalaupapa, and there were plenty of seats. Ugh, I wish there had been better info about this when I was exploring prior to the trip, because instead of coming back up to Moloka’i topside we could have flown straight from Kalaupapa to Honolulu! The agent was also enough to hold two seats for us, while we tried to get our baggage back from Island Air.

Island Air was completely unhelpful, telling us we just had to wait, and if the flight canceled maybe they could put us on a flight the next day. “You have non-refundable tickets, so you don’t have a choice. It might be tomorrow, if not, hopefully the next day.” At this point, I wasn’t trusting I was even getting honest information from them, and at $65 per ticket I resigned myself to just eating the cost. Tickets on Makani Kai were $50 plus $10 tax per person, which seemed to be a small price to pay to ensure I got to Honolulu that day.

Makani Kai confirmed us, and told us that we could “just pay when you get to Honolulu.” Wait, what?! Just then, the Makani Kai plane showed up, and turns out our friend Britney would be taking us to Honolulu! On top of it, they had realized down in Kalaupapa there was just one passenger on the Kalaupapa to Honolulu flight, so they brought him up to topside. It would be the same two pilots, the two of us, one guy from Kalaupapa, and one lady who already had a reservation. This was starting to feel like the twilight zone!

Makani Kai Airlines
Moloka’i (Topside) Hawaii (MKK) to Honolulu, Hawaii (HNL)
Depart 17:45, Arrive 18:15, Flight Time 30 minutes
Piper PA-31 Chieftan, Registration N135PB, Manufactured ???, Seat: Row 1 Portside

Britney told us to go ahead and take row one, so I took the same familiar seat one more time. The clouds were looking seriously ominous by now, and I wasn’t feeling super confident flying this little plane through some serious clouds. Had it not been for two previous flights in this plane with this crew, I might have been a little nervous.

When I asked how they could fly (and Mokulele in their Cessna) when Island Air was delaying, it was because the ATR they fly into Moloka’i doesn’t have GPS, and thus has to land with a visual approach.  With low clouds, they were prohibited from operating.  Seems that nearly half the time they end up canceling due to weather.  Um, perhaps they should revisit the aircraft they fly?

Takeoff was smooth, but at about 2,200 feet (seeing the altimeter also comforted me) we started running into some serious cloud cover.  Even as we kept going up to 6,000 feet, the clouds were throwing us around  pretty good.  That combined with the fact that I couldn’t see anything out the windows was a little unnerving.  Several times it felt like we were dropping quite a bit, but the altimeter was telling the truth.

Eventually, we poked out of the clouds a slight bit:

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After about 30 minutes in the air we were on approach to Honolulu:

We landed, and taxied not to the main terminal, not to the commuter terminal even, but to Makani Kai’s own private hanger:

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Mar 032014
 

From everything I’d read, the Kalaupapa Leper Colony was the main thing to be certain to see on Moloka’i.  For the better part of several decades, lepers from all the Hawaiian islands were sent here to live out their lives.  There are actually still a few “cured” survivors living there.  You can only enter the colony with a permit from the Hawaii department of health, which you can only get by booking a sanctioned tour.

The tours operate in conjunction with the two forms of transport to get to the colony:  either you can ride a mule a couple of hours down the sides of the sheer cliffs through several switchbacks, or take a short 10 minute flight.  We opted for the flight, partially because I wanted to take the shortest flight I’d ever taken, and partially because I was in no mood to ride a mule down the side of a cliff!

While we were waiting to board the Makani Kai agent told us there were some gifts being transported down to the colony for Valentines Day, and would we mind carrying them?  I was given two large vases of flowers, while Matt got…a puppy!  NO FAIR!

When boarding was called, our pilot Britney came to grab the passengers herself.  She roughly allocated us to the seats on the plane (four rows of 1 by 1 seating) and we would be full on the “ride down” to Kalaupapa….and thus someone got the copilot seat!  I might have done a little begging, but in the end I got it  :)  To top it off, Britney relieved me of the flowers, so I would have a flower-free ride.

Makani Kai Airlines
Moloka’i (Topside) Hawaii (MKK) to Kalaupapa, Hawaii (LUP)
Depart 9:20, Arrive 9:35, Flight Time 15 minutes
Piper PA-31 Chieftan, Registration N135PB, Manufactured ???, Seat:  CoPilot

To said I was a little bit excited…well, that’s an understatement.  I finally managed to climb all 6’3 of myself into the seat, along with the small laptop bag I was carrying.  There was absolutely not an inch of spare room!  While we waited for the pilot, I sat anxiously!

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Matt was a BIT excited to be carrying the puppy!  Oh, so THAT is what happened to the flowers I had to carry to the plane – the pilot stuck another passenger with them, lolz:

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I was even more excited, I think, to be in the copilot seat:

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Short taxi, and we were off!

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After maybe a minute in the air we were over the edge of the island, and headed down:

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Mar 022014
 

Got up early. Way early. Early enough that if it had been a city hotel instead of Maui, people would have just started to stagger in from the night before. But this is Maui, and nobody is awake at 4am. Not even the front desk of the hotel, apparently, because I had to wait 10 minutes for someone to come check me out. Then, there was a problem with the bill, and when I called it to his attention in return I got “there’s nothing I can do about it.” I asked for a manager. “There’s no manager.” What are my options? “Pay it now, or we will autocheck you out and you can call and dispute it later.” Wow, that’s pretty poor customer service. So, I left the bill open because I wasn’t anticipating 20 minutes to check out and was running late for my flight.

Actually, it was my Starbucks. More important. Starbucks by the airport opened at 4am…it was Heaven! Now, on to the airport. Dropped off the car, Alamo was quick and friendly even at oh’dark’thirty, and they were more than willing to drive us over to the commuter terminal

Check-in was no different than our previous flight with Makani Kai. $15 per bag to be checked, and stand on the scale and get weighed with your carry on. The waiting area was just a few chairs covered by a roof, and soon we were still being escorted out to our plane in the early morning light.

Mokulele Airlines flight 1193
Kahului, Maui, Hawaii (OGG) to Moloka’i Hawaii (MKK)
Depart 6:25, Arrive 6:49, Flight Time 24 minutes
Cessna 208B Grand Caravan, Registration N840MA, Manufactured ???, Seat: 2rd row, Starbord side

Pre-flight beverages were served at check-in, since there was no service on this short flight:

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We were informed that we’d been, um, weighed-in to the second row on this flight, and the most notable fact was…we were on the exact same plane we’d come into Maui on! The flight itself, well, nothing really different than the previous one. After about 15 minutes we were approaching Moloka’i which was interesting. See, the south coast of the island is pretty much a 1,500+ foot sheer cliff. I was watching the altimeter, and we were coming in right around 1,800 feet. I thought I’d read the cliffs were 3,000 feet, so I was freaking out mildly.

Yes, the altimeter. From the second row I could clearly see most of the instruments, so it was as good as being right up front. I was in aviation geek Heaven. We flew just past the airport, made a 180, and made a smooth landing, although the approach was a bit bumpy.

Walked into the small terminal, and stood around a bit….and first thing we did was try and get a rental car.  We had about 2.5 hrs before our next flight, and would have 4 hours later in the day.  Unfortunately, Alamo had absolutely no cars, even for a couple of hours, and they’re the only rental car company on property.  We were flying Makani Kai later to Kalaupapa, and that’s when we got the big shock.  The woman working the Makani Kai counter, right next to the Alamo counter, was like “here’s my keys…just take my car!  Just put 5 gallons of gas in it on the way back.”  Yes, she was just going to give us her car in exchange for putting a little gas in it.  There’s the aloha spirit!

We opted to hang around in the morning since we didn’t have too  long until the next flight.  Island Air (our flight to Honolulu that evening) let us check our bags early, so we were set with just our carry ons.  Makani Kai had their flight schedule posted:

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The Makani Kai check-in counter:

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Took one last look at N840MA, the Mokulele plane that had served us well on our last two segments:

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Feb 282014
 

Had no trouble finding the rental car shuttle from the commuter car terminal, and thanks to the fact we arrived at a different time from the mainland flights, there was no line to get the car. Thanks to the same website we were renting from Alamo again, and they tried to up-sell us from a “standard convertible” to a Camero for over $100 a day. Um, no thanks. When we got to the lot, we were extra thankful – the standard convertibles were Mustangs, which were just fine…although the choice was only black or white. We picked the white, and off we went.

The drive to our hotel, the Sheraton Maui in Lahaina, was about 30 minutes give or take, and soon we were there and valeted the car. The wait to check in was only a couple people, and soon it was time to play let’s make a deal…I mean check in. No, there were no rooms ready, but we’d been upgraded to a “standard ocean view” near the back of the property with two beds. I asked about a suite, and yes, we could have an Ohana suite near the back of the property with a “partial ocean view” but only with two beds again. I pressed, and she said there were also “deluxe ocean view suites, and let’s see if I can give you one.” She came back from the back room, and said unfortunately it would be an upcharge of $250 a night…but I can do it for $200. She could sense I was less than thrilled, and I asked if that was all she could do…then she offered it for $100 a night…given it was nearly 1,000 sq ft, a corner room with a view of the beach and ocean, I decided to go for it.

It would take about an hour to get the room ready, so she gave us a 35% off coupon for the poolside bar as well as welcome drink coupons, so we could grab lunch while we waited. Some tasty nachos were definitely on order, but we asked the waitress what she’d recommend. “Oh, you can get doubles FYI with those drink coupons…and I highly recommend the Old Fashioned Mai Tai.” I decided to give it a go….and drank nothing else for the next three days. Make with top shelf rum and shaved ice, it was absolutely delicious.

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After about an hour I got a call that the room was ready, so we finished off our drinks and headed up to check in. Except, the line was now 30+ people deep, and when we tried to go to the platinum check-in line it nearly started a riot. The agent tried to explain to the people in line, but when they’ve been waiting on line for a long time, it’s understandable they were upset at the fact there were no more agents. They told us we could go around the corner to the valet to check-in, so we did.

It turned out not to work so well…he only could see the original upgrade, and not the suite we’d been waiting for. We had to come back two times, because he gave us keys to the wrong room. Nearly 45+ minutes later, however, we were finally to the room…with an amazing view:

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The rest of the afternoon, we relaxed on the beach and just took it easy, enjoying the hotel and taking it easy.  That evening, we met my friend Rita for dinner.  I hadn’t seen Rita in over 20 years since she’d moved to Maui, and it was a real treat getting to catch up over some delicious beers at the Maui Brewing Company:

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The next morning we got up fairly early, and after grabbing some Starbucks we headed out to drive the Road to Hana. It’s a nice drive on some pretty winding roads, and the frustration is you spend a good deal of time stuck behind people who might not live up to your driving skills.

Our first stop was at Twin Falls, maybe 30-40 minutes into the drive, where we were told the hike in to the falls was maybe 15-20 minutes. We stopped first at a small overlook:

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Then, about ten minutes later, we were approaching the falls. The final part was maybe 50 meters or so through knee deep quite cold water, but it was gorgeous and refreshing:

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