January 27 2015

Birmingham, England: My Day in Pictures

You don’t visit England for the weather, especially in January.

Yesterday it was 45°F in Birmingham. A California girl, I would normally consider that freezing cold. But on this occasion, being fresh off the boat plane from New Brunswick, anything above 20 felt lovely (if not downright warm).

Rain and snow are anticipated later this week, so I took this window of opportunity to have a stroll through town.

Enjoy some pictures from the 10-minute walk between Brindleyplace (next to Birmingham’s canals) and Cathedral Square (near the business district).

P.S. I hope everyone in the path of the nor’easter is safe and warm.

Brindleyplace
Brindleyplace
A waterbus on the canal
A waterbus on the canal

Bridge

Library & Rep
Birmingham Repertory Theatre (left), The Library of Birmingham (right)
Hall of Memory Exterior
Hall of Memory, a war memorial
Hall of Memory Interior
Hall of Memory (interior)
Victoria Sq
Victoria Square
Street
Street
Food Truck
Food truck
Urban Outfitters
Urban Outfitters
Trocadero
Pub
Shopping
Shopping!
Birmingham Cathedral Interior
Birmingham Cathedral

 

January 26 2015

Roundtrip Flights to Panama City from Many US Cities for ~$350, and Other Deals

The Panama Canal has been on my (long) to-see list for a while but every time a good fare comes up the timing never seems to work for me.

Currently there is a nice fare with fairly wide availability – and it works for many US cities! I did not search Canada but there are reports of similar prices from Canadian cities as well.

Here are a few examples. While these are all March examples, I saw availability through as late as November.

Roundtrip from Los Angeles for $366:

LAX-PTY

Roundtrip from New York for $366:

NYC-PTY

Roundtrip from Dallas for $340:

DFW-PTY

To search I suggest using ITA Matrix. For dates, select “see calendar of lowest fares” for best results.

You cannot book on ITA, but with your findings can book on Priceline or Orbitz.

[Thanks to Secret Flying.]

 

A few other randoms…

Don’t forget about the Chipotle free burrito offer today.

Through the Dunkin Donuts mobile app, get a $5 gift card and a free medium beverage when you purchase a $2 gift card. Details here.

Finally, if you need to restock on travel-size toiletries, snag some free toothpaste. 🙂

January 24 2015

Hilton $50 Statement Credit, Amazon Prime for $72, Virgin America Double Points, Travelocity $30 off $100

Greetings from Birmingham (England, not Alabama) where it is nice and sunny (albeit not warm).

Here are a few deals for your weekend enjoyment…

 

Hilton $50 Amex statement credit

By now you probably know about American Express Sync offers. Just wanted to point out a new one specific to travel: receive a $50 statement credit when you spend $250 or more with Hilton Hotels & Resorts.

Do note the terms specify this offer is valid only at Hilton Hotels & Resorts properties (not other Hilton brands such as Waldorf Astoria, Embassy Suites, Hilton Garden Inn, etc.).

However, there are older (but still valid) Amex offers for other brands – both Hilton and non-Hilton – such as Conrad Hotels & Resorts, DoubleTree, Hyatt Place, and Waldorf Astoria. I try to maintain a current list of all Amex offers on the Other Deals page.

Since this is not a targeted offer, you can add it via Twitter with hashtag #AmexHilton if it is not available in your Amex account.

If you are unfamiliar with Amex Sync offers, my primer is here.

 

Amazon Prime for $72

Today (January 24) only, Amazon is offering Prime membership for $72. This is a rare offer for 27% off the normal $99 price.

Amazon Prime $72

Among other benefits, Prime members receive unlimited 2-day shipping with no minimum and instant streaming of movies and TV shows with Prime Instant Video.

Do note the offer is good for new members only.

And don’t forget to check out the ongoing ShopRunner offer for free 2-day shipping to many other stores.

 

Travelocity mobile offers

Travelocity’s mobile offers for savings on hotels booked via the app are back.

Travelocity coupons

For $30 off $100+ use code MOBILEJAN30H. For $40 off $150+ use code MOBILEJAN40H.

Alternatively, you can save 15% off a hotel booking of $300+ with code JAN15NOW.

These expire at 11:59 PM Pacific tomorrow (January 25). They exclude “most national brand chain hotels,” but are nice discounts if you find a boutique property meeting your needs.

 

Double points on Virgin America flights

Through March 31, 2015, you can earn double points on Virgin America long-haul, medium-haul, or seasonal routes.

Virgin Am double points

Don’t forget to register first.

Enjoy the weekend!

January 22 2015

Hotel Review: Quality Hotel Dorval (Montreal)

I had an overnight layover in Montreal. In the dead of winter, with a nighttime temperature of around -5°F, little discretionary time, and an early flight out in the morning, there was no point going into the city.

In such circumstances, my ideal accommodation is not only an airport-area hotel but an airport-connected hotel. In Montreal, that would be the Montreal Airport Marriott In-Terminal Hotel. Alas, I was light on Marriott points and paid rates for that night were more than I wanted to pay.

None of my award redemption options elsewhere provided great value either, and I ultimately decided to just get the cheapest airport-area hotel I could that was at least 3 stars.

That’s how I ended up at the Quality Hotel Dorval.

Main room
My room

If you don’t want to read the rest of this post, let me summarize by saying it was – to be polite – a dump. I had read the TripAdvisor reviews – which cautioned as much – but booked it anyway, reasoning that it’s just one night and I’ll not even be awake for 85% of it.

The room was gross, the service bordered on unethical, and the complimentary shuttle was a disaster.

(Note: there are several other airport-area hotels with the word “Quality” in their name. Don’t confuse them with this one, located at 7700 Cote de Liesse.)

Bath

Location

Arriving after dark and departing the next morning in a very tired state, I couldn’t discern much about the surrounding area. All I can say is the location indeed seemed airport-close (about 3.8 miles away, per Google Maps).

The shuttle service to the location, however, was a fiasco.

At Montreal airport, all hotel shuttles seem to pick up from just one location. So there were hordes of arriving travelers and lots of shuttles jostling around. This is nothing new, but it’s chaotic.

You never know where along the curb your hotel’s shuttle will stop – if you’re lucky it stops right where you’re standing and you get on right away. If you’re unlucky it stops like 30 yards away and you hope that by the time you make your way to it there’ll still be seats.

It’s problematic when a hotel doesn’t provide a shuttle with enough seats. Not everyone can get on, and the unlucky are left to wait another 15+ minutes for the next shuttle.

At the next round, it’s luck of the draw again. And if you’re unlucky again, you wait again. Your odds don’t improve with each round because in the interim new passengers arrive with whom to compete for spots.

Several guests complained they waited several cycles for a seat. Remember, it’s nighttime and -5°F outside.

A well-managed hotel would provide bigger and/or more frequent shuttles to accommodate the volume. They should know how many reservations they have for a given night, so I don’t see why they couldn’t plan properly.

The shuttle back to the airport in the morning was less chaotic, but every last seat was occupied (at 5:30 AM). If just one more person had turned up he/she would’ve been refused – not ideal when one is negotiating a tight schedule to catch a flight.

Room

Good: The HVAC. Well-functioning heat is much appreciated in winter.

Bad: Almost everything else. I’ll just mention a few.

Water stains (and mold?) all over the bathroom:

Water stains

Chunks of paint – they’d apparently flaked off the walls/ceiling – were sprinkled throughout the room:

Paint
Paint that had flaked off the ceiling

Defective, potentially past-their-expiration-date toiletries. The soap broke into pieces right out of the bag:

Soap
The soap self-destructed on contact with oxygen

Service & amenities 

To be fair, most employees I encountered were either friendly or at least polite. But one should expect that of any service establishment.

So let me tell you the unexpected.

I had just arrived in Canada and had no Canadian currency on hand. Since the in-room guest binder implied currency exchange was available at the front desk (technically, it said “inquire at front desk”), I went down hoping to change money.

The desk agent (who seemed new) simply said “no” when I asked to change money. I mentioned what the in-room binder said. So he called out a manager-like person and asked if they change money for guests.

The manager said “yes we do,” but only after belittling this colleague – in front of me – for ineptitude.

Hall
Hallway

He said their exchange rate is 1 USD for 1 CAD. That’s significantly worse than the market rate (84 US cents for one Canadian dollar) at the time. Since I had zero local currency on me, I changed $40 just to have cash in case of an emergency.

When a business provides a service, I think it’s fine to mark it up so the business can make a profit. I mean, if we don’t allow businesses to be profitable then no business could afford to stay in business.

But gouging hotel guests with a 16% markup for simply reaching into your wallet to make change is absurd.

Which brings up my next point: this manager made the exchange with money from a wallet he pulled out of his own pocket. I don’t know if he had a “side business” changing currency for his employer’s guests, but I thought the whole thing distasteful and possibly borderline unethical. (I do understand I could have simply declined the currency exchange.)

As for amenities, there is a business center and an on-site restaurant. The restaurant was closed when I arrived, but there is also a small concession shop with frozen meals (and a microwave nearby) if you are desperate.

Summary

Pros: Beats sleeping at the airport (possibly).

Cons: Poorly-maintained room and poorly-delivered service.

Cost: I booked through TravelPony. The $77 room rate was reduced by 15% with a promo code and $25 from a referral credit. Net cost was $40 pre-tax, $56 post-tax.

Link to hotel website.

January 20 2015

Visiting Buenos Aires: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Posts from this trip:

It took me forever to start writing this wrap-up post about my trip to Buenos Aires because I didn’t know where to start (or end).

After a two-month stay, there’s a lot to say. But I’m certain nobody wants to read that much material. So I will try to stick to the highlights, knowing much will necessarily be omitted.

Recoleta
Recoleta, the neighborhood I stayed in

 

The good

THE STEAK

I am not a foodie at all. I’ll pretty much eat anything non-poisonous (and have probably consumed a few potentially-poisonous things too). So I rarely even remember the food of a place, let alone write about it after leaving.

Since I’m not a big beef eater, I made the mistake of not even trying the steak until several weeks into my trip. Once I did, I was hooked and ate steak almost every day the rest of the trip. Probably exceeded my remaining lifetime beef quota, but oh well.

South America in general seems to have good steak – to this day I still think the absolute best steak I’ve ever eaten is from a decade ago at a parilla in a small town in Chile almost 500 miles south of Santiago. But something about Argentina’s beef justifies its reputation of having the thickest, juiciest steaks anywhere.

An honorable mention in the food category is the pastries. There were confiterias (pastry shops) seemingly on every street and it was impossible to resist popping in for a pastry when walking by. They’re so inexpensive too – about 5 pesos (50 cents, more or less). I probably gave myself diabetes eating so much sugar every day.

THE PEOPLE

There are good people everywhere and there are bad people everywhere. While I did meet a few snobs, on the whole porteños (Buenos Aires residents) were some of the most polite people ever encountered in my travels.

This is how they wait at a bus stop:

Bus stop

Neatly lined up in order of arrival. No barging into another’s personal space. No frantic every-man-for-himself dash to grab a seat first.

Even street protesters are polite. One day, while walking home minding my own business, I encountered a small demonstration.

Now, I am very risk-averse when it comes to safety. If I’m walking around in a foreign country (or any country, at that) and there is a street protest, I get the bloody hell out of the way ASAP.

But this one didn’t look threatening so…I stood around and watched.

And saw well-mannered protestors who looked like they might as well have been marching in a holiday parade…

Protest

…and calm-looking riot-geared police who, as far as I could tell, never had to lift a finger to control the crowd:

Riot police

Even vendors, who I normally assume (rightly or wrongly) are constantly out to rip off tourists, were lovely to deal with. I never had to haggle – their prices were more than fair to begin with – and never felt taken advantage of. In fact a few times I think I (unintentionally) ripped them off and they were too polite to say anything.

THE HISTORY

Among my favorite sites were Recoleta Cemetery and La Casa Rosada. I wrote separate posts on each so I won’t bore you writing about them again here, but another favorite was El Ateneo, a gorgeous bookstore.

Ateneo 1
El Ateneo Bookstore

Physical books are a dying medium, but I was still tempted to sit down and just read something there.

The store is housed in a former 1,000-seat theater. Much of the ornate theater architecture remains intact – the balcony boxes are still there, and the stage is now the bookstore café.

I took probably a hundred pictures in the bookstore alone.

Ateneo 2

THE TANGO

It is far more enthralling in person than anything you will ever see on TV. Trust me on this, and if you visit Buenos Aires make it a point to watch the tango performed live. Options range from expensive dinner shows to milongas to street performances at the San Telmo Fair.

Tango
Tango dancers at San Telmo’s street fair

THE AFFORDABILITY

Finance-minded readers know the US dollar is currently very strong. For those with dollar-denominated assets, that’s a great travel benefit with regard to lots of destinations.

For those traveling to Argentina, an additional “quirk” makes things even more favorable.

Argentina’s economy is not stellar. Indeed, a few months ago the government committed a much-publicized debt default.

Additionally, the government heavily restricts citizens’ ability to exchange currency (to discourage capital from leaving the country).

The government also sets “official” exchange rates for the Argentine peso (to artificially prop up its value).

Nevertheless, high inflation caused the peso to devalue rapidly. As a result, Argentines covet US dollars and euro (perceiving both to be more stable for storing wealth) and are willing to pay well above the official exchange rate for them.

This appetite for dollars and euro gave rise to a black-market exchange rate. Argentines call it the “blue rate.”

At this writing, the official exchange rate is about 8.6 pesos to one USD. The blue rate is about 13.5 to 1. (At times the gap has been even wider.)

In an already-affordable country, things get even more affordable when you can basically buy the local currency at a significant discount. But that requires knowing how to get the blue rate (more on that next).

 

The bad

THE MONEY ISSUE

To take advantage of the blue rate, you must carry a lot of USD or euro into Argentina. Bringing cash is key because credit, debit, and ATM transactions only process at the official rate.

Traveling with a lot of cash is not only inconvenient but potentially unsafe.

Then there’s the matter of converting that money to Argentine pesos once you arrive.

Many people use underground exchange businesses that give the blue rate. Although very widely used, they’re technically illegal. Hence, there is (1) some inherent sketchiness, (2) the moderate risk of getting counterfeit bills, (3) the exceedingly-small risk the business gets raided (in, say, a government crackdown) while you’re there, and (4) the opaque process of finding a reliable exchange business in the first place because, since they are illegal, they don’t advertise (hint: troll the TripAdvisor forums).

Alternatively, other travelers use a service like Xoom to obtain pesos at a favorable rate. With Xoom you can electronically send US dollars (from your bank account or credit card) to a recipient (who can be yourself). The recipient receives the funds in Argentine pesos.

Although Xoom’s exchange rate (11.8 pesos to a dollar at the time I write this) is inferior to the blue rate, it is significantly superior to the official rate.

I opted to use Xoom because (1) it’s not illegal, and (2) I didn’t want to carry two full months’ worth of cash on me while traveling; I preferred the option to electronically transfer smaller amounts to myself over time as needed. But Xoom turned out to have its own complications, and in the end I did not feel entirely safe with this method either.

To retrieve your pesos, you have to visit a Xoom pickup location in Argentina. Unlike the clandestine exchange businesses, Xoom’s locations are public information – their addresses easily found on the company’s website. So when you visit one, people assume you’ll walk out with a lot of cash (even if you’re actually carrying only a little cash – or no cash at all, for that matter).

Which makes you a sitting duck for any pickpockets and muggers who might stake out the place.

To be fair, I never got mugged or pickpocketed leaving a Xoom location. But I always felt uneasy about it. (Tip: location-wise, the office on Libertad is one of the least sketchy in Buenos Aires proper.)

Ultimately, it’s probably unfair to characterize the currency issue as a negative per se. It is just the downside to obtaining a very favorable exchange rate. One can simply choose to forgo the better rate and use credit cards and ATM withdrawals instead.

Like most things in life, it comes down to a subjective risk-reward analysis.

 

The ugly

And finally, the ugly. That would be me.

My trip home entailed a 28-hour travel day with three flight segments – all in coach, with the longest segment lasting 10 hours. In between, both layovers were not only long but also in airports where I did not have lounge access.

Since I cannot sleep in coach, I felt quite wretched by the end.

Don’t cry for me. I know I’m not entitled to sympathy for being able to travel the world, let alone do it for almost free. (I used miles for the flights and only paid $87 out of pocket for taxes).

But, to be sure, it was ugly.

So after this trip I resolved to step up my miles-earning game because I hope to never, ever have to do another travel day like that in coach again.

Life is too short, I am too old, and miles are too easy to earn!

January 19 2015

NYC to Milan for $400/Person Round Trip, Up to 50% off Las Vegas Hotels, and More

Fly round trip New York to Milan for $400/person

Emirates is offering round-trip tickets from New York to Milan for about $400 per person. You must book for two passengers to get this rate.

Emirates Milan banner

These fares can be booked on Priceline. Here’s a sample itinerary for a Valentine’s Day getaway:

Emirates Itin

Purchase by January 22, 2015 for travel to be completed by May 31, 2015.

 

Up to 50% off at Las Vegas hotels

Vegas.com has a bunch of hotel offers for up to 50% off. Some even include a food & beverage credit, like this one:

Circus Circus

I’m not actually suggesting staying at Circus Circus; just pointing out that there are some potential deals here. $2/night (after the f&b credit but before the resort fee) is not bad!

But I would like to stay at the new, upscale SLS Hotel. (I previously wrote about how one could have stayed there for negative $14/night, exclusive of resort fees.)

Some good rates for that property can be found with this offer, such as this $55 rate:

SLS $50

Do note a few “quirks” of traveling to Las Vegas:

  • Vegas is very much a weekend destination, so hotel prices skyrocket on weekends and holidays. The lowest rates are usually for midweek stays.
  • Almost all hotels assess a “resort fee” that is payable at the property (not at the time of your online booking) and therefore not included in the quoted rate (although clearly disclosed, ideally). These fees are pesky but unfortunately common to the Las Vegas hotel market.

 

Free drink on Alaska Airlines today

Finally, for my Trojan friends…

Congratulations to Pete Carroll’s USC-hawks.

If you are flying Alaska Airlines out of Seattle today, enjoy a complimentary cocktail for the occasion.

Alaska free drinkCheers!

January 18 2015

US Airways 2,000-Mile Dining Bonus, Expedia $25 off $100, and More

Good evening! I hope everyone is enjoying the holiday weekend.

Don’t forget tomorrow, in honor of Martin Luther King Day, the National Park Service is offering free entrance to all US national parks.

For your travel-deal fix, here are a bunch of other offers.

 

2,000 US Airways miles for dining

You can earn 2,000 US Airways miles as a signup bonus with the US Airways dining program.

US Air dining signup bonus

To earn the bonus:

  • Join by February 1, 2015,
  • Spend $30 or more at a participating restaurant within 30 days of joining, and
  • Write a review (which is quick and painless to do).

The $30 must be spent in one transaction, but if you wouldn’t normally spend that much at one meal then just buy a gift card to use over time.

If you’re unfamiliar with travel-provider-affiliated dining programs, I explain here.

Even if you do not collect US Airways miles, this promotion is still valuable if you collect American Airlines miles.

As you may know, the two airlines merged in 2013. At this time their respective frequent flyer programs still operate separately. However, when they merge later this year, mileage balances will be combined.

So this promotion is also an indirect way to earn 2,000 American miles.

 

$25 off $100+ at Expedia

Expedia is offering coupons for $25 off a hotel booking of $100 or more made through the mobile app.

To obtain a coupon, enter your mobile number here. They will text you back a unique discount code.

The nice thing about this deal is that you can request up to three coupons per account (but must wait 24 hours between requests).

Coupons must be redeemed by March 31, 2015 for travel through the same date.

 

Travelocity savings

Travelocity also has a couple of mobile offers, but note they expire at 11:59 PM tonight (January 18):

Travelocity app coupons

For $30 off $100+ use code MOBILE30JAN. For $40 off $150+ use code MOBILE40JAN.

The terms limit these to one’s first hotel booking via app, so if you’ve previously used another Travelocity app coupon on the same account this one may not “take.”

Many national brands are excluded, but these are still nice discounts if you find a boutique hotel that works with your travel plans.

 

Other deals

Finally, a few random non-travel deals while I’m at it:

Enjoy the remaining weekend.

January 17 2015

Quick Travel Tip: How to Get Free Bottled Water at Hotels

“Don’t drink the tap water” is common advice for travelers visiting foreign countries.

It’s not necessarily a value judgment about the water quality of other countries. Their water may be perfectly potable for locals but unsafe for foreigners whose bodies simply aren’t accustomed to it.

As a practical matter of health and safety, I stick to drinking bottled – or at least filtered – water when traveling.

But it’s a pain having to hunt down bottled water all the time. Water is heavy so you can’t “stock up” while traveling. There may not be a store convenient to where you’re staying. Your hotel may not provide complimentary bottled water in the room. The vending machine only takes coins you don’t have on hand. Et cetera.

So here’s my hack for obtaining free bottled or filtered water at hotels.

If the hotel has a workout room, there’s most likely a water cooler in it. Sometimes it’s the kind that dispenses bottled water from, say, a 5-gallon Arrowhead jug. Other times it’s a machine with a built-in filter.

Either way, it will dispense water the hotel deems safe for its traveling guests.

Here’s the workout room of a hotel I recently stayed at:

Gym

See the water cooler on the far wall? Here’s a close-up:

Water filter

I just took an empty bottle down to the gym and filled it up there.

Bonus tip: pack a foldable water bottle that flattens when empty, consuming less of your precious luggage space.

Wishing you, as always, safe travels.

January 14 2015

Flights to Iceland for $99 One Way

Greetings from New Brunswick. This place is charming and super cool – literally (yesterday the HIGH was 1° F).

Speaking of cool – in more than one sense of the word – Iceland is on my mind again. I previously wrote about WOW air’s $99 flights from the East Coast. I missed the last sale, but it is back.

Also note the equally-attractive fares to London.

WOW Air fares

Dates vary, but the $99 price seems to be available for April, May, and October 2015 per their Reykjavik destination page.

WOW air sale dates

While those months currently do not work for me, let me know if you go so I can live vicariously. 🙂

Also, I’ll repeat what I said last time about WOW air. When you fly a low-cost airline you can expect an unbundled experience, meaning just about everything but the seat costs extra. Indeed, the fee for a carry-on bag is upwards of $29.

But remember: when other airlines say you get free bags, they’re not really free. They’re just included in the price of the ticket.

Since flights from the US to Iceland usually run around $600 round trip on most carriers, the math still works out in favor of this deal.

(Thanks to Secret Flying.)

January 3 2015

Free Entrance to All US National Parks, Free Admission to 150+ Museums

Free entrance to national parks

On several dates each year, the National Park Service offers free entrance to all national parks in the United States.

If you’re planning ahead, the 2015 days are:

Natl Parks Free Entrance Dates

For inspiration, Smarter Travel wrote about 10 national parks you never knew existed. However, the US has over 400 national parks so there are many more options to consider!

There is a park-finder tool where you can search by name, location, and other parameters.

 

Free admission to museums

Bank of America’s Museums on Us program offers cardholders free general admission to over 150 museums, science centers, and botanical gardens on the first full weekend of each month.

The 2015 dates are:

Bofa Museum Dates

For free admission on valid dates, simply show your photo ID plus a Bank of America or Merrill Lynch debit or credit card.

You can find a museum locator on the program’s website.

Do note admission is complimentary only for the cardholder (although many participating institutions already offer free admission to children year round).

[Thanks to Million Mile Secrets for the tip.]