Trip Recap – Miles, Points, Costs

After my visit to Venice, it was back on the train to Milan Central Station and then onto Milan’s Malpensa airport on the Malpensa Express. I was able to get a great overnight rate at the Hilton Garden Inn near the airport for only 30 euros plus 8,000 HHonors points. To return home, I was able to book a one-way business class fare on Delta for just 62,500 and, unlike my experience with American on my flight to Vienna, got the promised flight configuration with Delta’s excellent lie-flat product on a 767.

No doubt that I’ve had a great trip and really enjoyed seeing some new places.  After all is said and done, I logged the following mileage:

  • Plane – 9,693 miles
  • Train – 570 miles
  • Bus – 621 miles
  • Ride-share – 305 miles
  • Bike – 26 miles
  • Walk – ???

This is not a trip that I could ever imagine affording if I was paying the full, retail cost. Of course, frequent flyer miles and hotel points are not “free” in the sense that they represent previous expenditures of time and money, but they can be heavily leveraged if one has flexibility of dates and destinations.

Here were my final costs:

  • Flights – $343 / 65,000 Delta points / 50,000 AA points
  • Hotels – $733 USD / 176,412 HHonors points / 4,000 SPG points
  • Trains/Buses – $255
  • Local Transportation – $100 (approximately)

Business class flights round-trip to Europe can run from $3,000 USD on up to $8,000 and these mileage redemption levels were steals. I averaged less than $50 per night on hotels, out of pocket, by using points pretty much everywhere  but Milan and Venice. Many of the rates were “cash and points” which offer some of the best values. My travel on bus and train was ridiculously cheap and almost always a good experience. I was doing great on my local transportation costs until my hotel selection in Ljubljana, which incurred 24 euros for two round-trips to city center, and the water taxis in Venice that were 8.50 euros for each trip.

As far as food, I’m not sure there was much more expense than when I’m home. Breakfast was included almost everywhere either in the rate or due to hotel status. Dinners were taken in Executive Lounges when staying at the nicer Hilton properties. I got two lunches and a dinner provided during my business meetings in Prague. And, I don’t tend to eat very expensive dinners on the road by myself.

In total, I got to visit 9 cities in 8 countries, most of which I had not been to before. Of the 9 cities, six of them were country capitals. No doubt it was a great trip and I hoped you enjoyed following along. If you ever decide to do this type of trip, I hope that this blog helps.

Bratislava – Capital City of Slovakia

Using one of my new favorite modes of transport – Student Agency RegioBus – I was in Bratislava from Prague for just 10 Euros and 4.5 hours of travel time. Bratislava is a city of about 500,000 located on the Danube River between Vienna and Budapest, as the river flows. In fact, some use it as a base for travel in the region given its central location.

The bus terminal in Bratislava – Mlynské Nivy – has a tram stop right next to it with the line I needed to get to my hotel. The ticket only costs .70 euros and can be purchased by machine, in some locations, or at a Tabac booth. The hotel for this stop was a DoubleTree by Hilton and, like Vienna, not in city center. Rather, it was more in a business district and, on a Friday evening and early Saturday, was a pretty subdued area. However, it was one of the best values of my trip at only 10,000 HHonors points for a night. The hotel itself was nice and I was upgraded to a two room suite, so even better.

A tram ride into city center does not take that long once you figure out the line and stop. I did miss my stop on the way in and had to get off, walk a couple of hundred yards, and take another bus to city center. The city center itself is rather small but nice. Pedestrianized in many places, it was very active on a Friday night. Unfortunately, as is the case in many European capitals, it was rather heavy on large groups of young men – I’m talking 6-12 guys together – who are already completely pissed by 9:00 p.m. I walked around for a bit, had some dinner, and caught the bus back to the hotel around 10:30 as the bus/tram schedule becomes significantly reduced after 11:00 p.m.

No doubt, riding public transport in a foreign country can be confusing..

No doubt, riding public transport in a foreign country can be confusing..

 

On Saturday, I did something I rarely do – I hired a tour guide/driver for a couple of hours to show me around town before depositing me at the bus terminal. I’m really glad I did as my guide, “George,” was a pleasant young man who has started his own business after learning English while working for a limousine service for four years. I would highly recommend his services and his website is at http://www.slovakiatrips.com. He was proud of Slovakia and willing to answer any questions I had about the country, their history, their relationship with Europe and with Russia, etc.

In the course of just under two hours, we were able a lot of ground. We started with the Slavin war memorial which honors the 6,000 plus Soviet soldiers who died in the process of liberating Bratislava from the Germans in 1945. The view from the top was wonderful and it was interesting to see the steps of the memorial stacked with floral arrangements even though there was no special holiday at the time such as Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day or the such.

Slavin War Memorial, Bratislava, Slovakia

Slavin War Memorial, Bratislava, Slovakia

 

We then stopped at the castle (hrad) that has been a fortified position overlooking the Danube since around 3500 BC. Yes, that’s right – over 5,000 years ago. This, of course, is due to the importance of control of the major rivers from a military and commercial perspective. The castle itself is nothing special. Certainly not as grand as you will find in many other cities, but does offer fine views over St. Martin’s church, the Old Town, and the Danube.

Bratislava Hrad

Bratislava Hrad

 

We did a little driving around with George pointing out important buildings, embassies, Parliament, and such before a brief stop in the Presidential Palace gardens that are open to the public. Slovakia has been an independent country in its current formation since 1993 with the dissolution of the Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia.

We finished our tour with a quick visit to Old Town’s pedestrianized streets. One of the key stops was St. Martin’s Cathedral which was the coronation church of the Kingdom of Hungary from 1563 to 1830. The revered – I’m not sure why – Maria Theresa had her coronation in this church.

Bratislava Opera House

Bratislava Opera House

 

So, what did I think about my 24 hours in Bratislava? I think it was probably the right amount of time. If I were to go back, I think I would plan to hike to Devin Castle, maybe do a boat trip over to Vienna and back, and get out into the countryside as I had a few different Slovaks tell me that the outdoors are an important part of their culture.

Vienna – A Day in Austria

After my quick visit to Zurich, a short one hour flight on Niki Airlines brought me to Vienna, Austria. Niki is a low-cost airline based in Vienna and associated with Air Berlin. On arrival to Vienna, I caught the airline bus to Stadion Center for 8 euros and that left me with a short walk to my hotel, the Hilton Vienna Danube.

As the name strongly suggests, it sits directly on the Danube but is not directly in the city center. The U2 train line from Stadion Center was an easy connection but not so convenient that you are going to pop back and forth between the hotel and city center like you would if staying closer. One way fares on the underground are 2.20 euros and a 24 hour pass is only 7.70.

The hotel itself was very nice with good size rooms, a very helpful staff, and a nice executive lounge. Both breakfast and dinner can be accomplished in the lounge for no additional costs and with a wide variety of food to select from plus free adult  beverages from 6:00 until 8:30 p.m. I was able to utilize one of my favorite HHonors redemptions – cash plus points – so the room was only 16,000 points a night plus 60 euros.

After a good night’s rest, I ventured into the city center by taking the underground to Karlplatz which is where the Opera house is located and a good starting point for a walk through the historic areas. Vienna is quite beautiful from an architecture perspective and there are grand buildings everywhere you turn. But, Vienna is quite spread out and it took me most of the day to cover most of it.

I started with a visit to the Albertina Museum that is an impressive building in its own right and houses the Hapsburg apartments from when the building was Duke Albert’s residence. They have a world-renowned print collection but my interest was in two exhibits. Their permanent collection features a nice collection of paintings from the impressionist period up through Picasso. The collection is not so much deep as it is broad and the museum does a great job of walking the viewer through the progression of art movements in this time period.

The second collection was a temporary exhibit of Anselm Kiefer’s wood cut prints. I don’t always get Kiefer, but he is one of the most important artists of this time period. Very interested in German history and culture, these prints featured the Rhine, the Ring mythology, and famous figures from German history.

After satisfying my need to feel cultured, I spent the rest of the day walking around town – Kartner Strasse, St. Stephens church, the Mozart House, the Rauthaus, parliament, Hofburg palace, and various other buildings and statues. I also stopped for lunch at the “original” Leberkas spot in Vienna near the Opera. This is an authentic Austrian food that is basically a something like a bologna sausage or a pressed meat like Spam served on a hard roll. It was good.

That was enough walking for the day. In retrospect, I might have purchased a 24 hour pass for the underground to make quicker connections between the various sites, especially if I wanted to spend more time in museums or visit Schonbrunn Palace. Between all the walking and a bit of jet lag, I was in bed by 9:00 p.m. to get ready for an early morning departure to Prague.

Hampton Inn – Waterloo: New Option in London

Over the years I’ve been visiting London, I’ve had a chance to stay in many of their properties in and around central London.  In the past two years, they have expanded their DoubleTree brand and have now introduced the Hampton brand.

This property offered an outstanding “Points and Money” option for the dates of my travel and, given the high cost of hotels in London, I jumped at it.  This four night stay cost me 20,000 points and 55 GBP per night.  My total bill was right about 250 GBP – the equivalent of just over $400 USD in a town where nice hotels routinely run to $250 USD per night and higher.

The location, 157 Waterloo Rd., is just two blocks south of Waterloo Station, a major transportation hub and a fairly short walk of 15 minutes can take you past the Southbank area and over the river to the West End.  Several restaurants and pubs are in close proximity and the famous Old Vic theatre is on the same block.

I did have the opportunity to have dinner at the very popular pub The Fire Station, which is named for the building it inhabits with ample evidence of its previous function.  This place is absolutely packed after work but offers a separate dining area that has a high-end menu and excellent steak offerings.  A ribeye dinner with two pints of beer ran to 42 GBP, so it is not inexpensive but I was very happy with the meal.

The Hampton is very modern, the rooms were comfortable and clean, and the service was always outstanding.  They have been open for only two months but seem to have hit stride quickly.  Their lobby has a unique approach with a bar area that is an extension of the front desk and service by the front desk personnel during non-peak times.  It reminds me of a bigger version of Hyatt Place’s combined front desk/bar area.

This is definitely a good option and one that I will check on when making future bookings in the London area.

 

Vietnam/Cambodia – Hotel Arrangements

After getting my initial flights in place, the next question was developing my itinerary within these two countries.  The easiest part of deciding on hotels was for my first and last ones since I knew I would be starting the trip in Hanoi and finishing in Phnom Penh.

However, throughout the hotel planning process, I faced one dilemma.  On the one hand, good hotel rooms can be very inexpensive in both Vietnam and Cambodia.  Depending on location, $25 – $65 USD can get you a room in a nice hotel with air conditioning, free wireless internet, breakfast, and, maybe, a pool.  At the same time, my plan was to use hotel points to stay in great hotels for no cost.  At the end of the day, I used a blended method based on which city I will be in and what hotels are available.

In Hanoi, my plan was to stay with a tried and true program that I know will take care of me.  I will have been traveling for about 27 hours when I arrive and, while the Business Class experience will be good, I will be tired and ready to get situated quickly and with no hassle.  Therefore, I’m booked into the Hilton Hanoi Opera.  Of course, this gives rise to jokes about staying at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” where American POW’s were kept, but this will be a much nicer accommodation in the French Quarter.  As a Diamond HHonors guest, I will likely get a room upgrade, will have access to their Executive Lounge, have free wireless internet, and breakfast and snacks in the evening.  Based on my previous experiences in Asia, the amenities and Executive Lounges are outstanding.

In Hoi An, there are not really any options in the realm of the major hotel chains and this presents a great opportunity to try a smaller, local hotel.  Based on reviews on TripAdvisor, I settled on the Vaia Boutique Hotel at a price of $78 that includes all taxes and service charges.  The location, within walking distance of the major sites and Old Town, was a major factor in settling on this property.

In Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), I’m back to a major chain with my booking at the Park Hyatt hotel on Hyatt Gold Passport points.  Park Hyatt’s have a sterling reputation and the ability to book here at only 15,000 points was a great value and will provide me a outstanding location in a crazy, hectic city.  I will continue on in luxury as I stay at the Park Hyatt Siem Reap when I head to the temples in Angkor.  Again, only 15,000 points a night and it will provide me with top notch amenities.

For my two nights in Phnom Penh, there were chain options available, most notably with Accor’s Sofitel location.  But, I opted for the smaller, local option in a great location based, again, on TripAdisor reviews of the 240 Hotel.  I splurged for an upgraded room with a “Mini Plunge Pool” for a total of $63 USD per night.  It is named for the street it is located on, 240 Street, which offers all types of shops, restaurants, and boutiques.

So, I ended up with a blend of upscale hotels for free on points and the chance to experience smaller, local properties that should still provide a good stay at a very reasonable price.  I’ll give more info and reviews on the hotels I selected as I stay at them and form an opinion.

In my next post, I’ll share my packing and preparation considerations for the trip.

Hilton Munich City – Munich, Germany

Hotel Review

For my first trip to Munich, I was looking for a Hilton property that was well-located, relatively easy to get to, and that offered either a really low rate or a “Points & Money” rate option.  I actually had two separate stays separated by a trip to Austria, but will combine the experience into one review for simplicity.

The Hilton Munich City fit all of my criteria.  Unfortunately, the “easy to get to” portion of the criteria became a major rub and a rare disappointment with Hilton and their management.  Here is what their web site says about transportion:

DIRECTIONS FROM THE HOTEL STAFF

Take the suburban train S8 from “Franz-Josef Strauss” airport (MUC) towards Munich. The train station is between Terminals 1 and 2. Trains run at least every 20 minutes and the journey takes 35 minutes. Get off the train at the Rosenheimer Platz station and follow the signs to ‘Gasteig’. The Hilton Munich City hotel is situated directly above the station. You do not even need to step outside the station, just follow the signs to “Gasteig” and take the elevator to the lobby.

This seemed ideal and upon arrival at the very nice Munich airport, I found the train station and took the designtated train without a problem.  The problem was that the train didn’t stop a the Rosenheimer Platz as the directions said.  Luckily, Iwas paying attention to the stops and realized that we were well past the intended stop when we arrived at the Pasing stop.  I got out and asked about and was told I would have to take a train back in the opposite direction, get off at the Ostbanhof station (East Station) and take a shuttle bus to a stop across from the hotel.

Two hours after I caught the train at the Munich airport, I arrived in the Executive Lounge at the hotel a sweaty, upset mess.  When the pleasant clerk asked, “Did you have a good trip in?” I replied honestly but not angrily.  She was obviously aware that the station had been closed for repairs.  I told her that I thought the Management had done a terrible mis-service to their guests by having the wrong information on the website and that they needed to change the information on the site.

What was perhaps most disappointing to me was that management never made any attempt to contact me to apologize or make sure they understood my issue.  I would have expected more whether I was a non-HHonors member, much less as a Diamond.  And, they have never changed the information on their website. 

It does turn out that the construction work only affects weekends and during the week, the station could not be more convenient, as advertised.  But, I have to think I was not first person to have wasted a lot of time and effort and that I won’t be the last.  In fact, this could be vastly more disastarous for a traveler who is not familiar with train systems, doesn’t speak German, etc.

There were a couple of other small misses on my second stay – an incorrect room service order; a completely empty mini-bar on check-in; no bath mat in the restroom.  None of these a major issue but, taken together, enough to warrant some attention from management.

The hotel location, once there, was excellent with a 10 minute walk bringing you across the river and into a wonderful outdoor market/beer garden and another few steps to the Marienplatz.

Final Grade: C

Points and Dollars

At the time of my booking ,the AAA (American Automobile Assoc.) rate, that allows cancellation, was $287 USD per night.  The standard point redemption was 40,000 points per night which would have equaled a redmption value of .72 cents per HHonors point.

Alternatively, I could book at “Points & Money” award for 20,000 points plus $69.24 per night. This would total to $207.72 which includes tax, which you have to pay on the cash outlay portion of the stay, plus 60,000 HHonors points. While you don’t earn HHonors points on the “Money” portion of the rate, you do earn points on incidentals and also receive a couple of the bonuses normally attached to Hilton stays. Since I earned 8,300 HHonors points on this stay (making my net point cost 51,700), my redemption value comes out to a very respectable 1.26 cents per point.

For my three night stay (total), my total bill was $281 with tax. As a result, I earned 8,300 points based on the following breakdown:

  • Base points = 692
  • “Points and Points” bonus = 346
  • Diamond 50% bonus = 346
  • Q3 Triple Points Promo = 1,384
  • AMEX on-line booking bonus = 1,000
  • Diamond MyWay Bonus =2,000
  • HHonors Surpass card by AMEX (9 points per dollar) =2,532

Hilton Olympia – London, UK

Hotel Review

For a trip to London this summer, about three weeks before the Olympics, I wanted to find a Hilton property that was offering a Points and Money option as London can be exruciatingly expensive during the summer months.  On recent trips, I have tried some Hilton properties that I have not been to before and on this trip I ended up at the Hilton London Olympia hotel in Kensington.  I have stayed out in Kensington before and while it is not right where I usually need to be, it is a fairly good base to operate from and typically has lower priced options than the West End/Mayfair areas.

On my initial night, I had a room that faced to the front of the hotel which is on Kensington High Street. Unfortunately, my window did not seal particularly well and there is mammoth construction going on directly across the street on a new apartment complex.  The noise was enough to prompt me to ask for a different room.  While I was out for the day, the staff moved my belongings to a nice, quiet room on the back side of the hotel and all was well with the rest of the stay.

The hotel was fine.  There was nothing particularly striking about it but they did have a nice restaurant/bar on the mezzanie level, Society Restaurant , that was nicely appointed and had a upscale feel to it.  The biggest issue is one that not much can be done about – its location.

The hotel is right next to the Olympia Exhibition center.  It was definitely my sense from several walks around the area that the heyday of this center has passed it by.  As a result, there is a dearth of restaurants, pubs, and shops immediately around the hotel.  Granted, it is only a half-mile walk from the hotel to the Kensington High Street Station but this is just long enough that it makes it a pain in the neck when it is raining or one is in a hurry and it is not far enough to justify a cab ride, either.

Bottom line is that the hotel is fine, be aware of the location and the construction but also give it kudos for its pricing and its willingness to offer Points & Money awards.

Final Grade: B

Points and Dollars

At the time of my booking ,the AAA (American Automobile Assoc.) rate, that allows cancellation, was $228 USD per night. At this rate, my total for the three nights would be $820.76 which includes London’s hefty 20% tax rate. The standard point redemption was 50,000 points per night which would have equaled a redmption value of .547 cents per HHonors point.

Alternatively, I could book at “Points & Money” award for 25,000 points plus $86.82 per night. This would total to $312.58 which includes tax, which you have to pay on the cash outlay portion of the stay, plus 75,000 HHonors points. While you don’t earn HHonors points on the “Money” portion of the rate, you do earn points on incidentals and also receive a couple of the bonuses normally attached to Hilton stays.  Since I earned 5,554 HHonors points on this stay (making my net point cost 69.446), my redemption value comes out to a respectable .73 cents per point.

For my three night stay, my total bill was $354 with tax. As a result, I earned 5,554 points based on the following breakdown:

  • Base points = 432
  • “Points and Points” bonus = 216
  • Diamond 50% bonus = 216
  • AMEX on-line booking bonus = 500
  • Diamond MyWay Bonus =1,000
  • HHonors Surpass card by AMEX (9 points per dollar) =3,190