Travel Itinerary: 3 Days in Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor Maine

Acadia National Park had been on the bucket list for quite a while. Acadia National Park encompasses a large area of Mt. Desert Island off the coast of Maine. This beautiful setting is known for its stunning vistas, scenic hikes, views of the ocean from atop Cadillac Mountain. This is also the first place in the U.S. where you can see the sunrise between October and early March. If you’re there in the peak of summer, you can take a swim at Sand Beach when the water temperature is more tolerable. We drove from Albany, NY and it took us about 7 hours to get there. Acadia National Park is about a 4.5-hour drive from Boston and about an 8-hour drive from New York City.  If you’re not close enough to drive, you can also fly into Bangor International Airport which is about 50 miles from the town of Bar Harbor. We used Bar Harbor as our base camp and gateway into Acadia National Park.

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Day 1: Cadillac Mountain

We arrived at Bar Habor in the late afternoon about 2 hours before sunset. We stayed at the Hampton Inn which is located just 5 minutes away from the park entrance and used that as our base camp for this trip. Since it was a clear day, we decided to enter the park and drive up Cadillac Mountain to catch the sunset. The cost to enter Acadia National Park is $25 per vehicle and the pass is good for 7 days. Park Rangers routinely check for the passes (it must be hung over the rear-view mirror) so please purchase them prior to entering.  DSC_0066DSC_0118

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The spectacular sunset from Cadillac Mountain

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Overlooking the town of Bar Harbor from Cadillac Mountain

Incredible sunset views and plenty of photo opportunities. Cadillac Mountain has plenty of pull-outs so utilize them and take your time driving up the mountain. For dinner, we came across a tavern called Thirsty Whale. Their lobster rolls were delicious and highly recommended.

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No one does lobster quite like Maine. Here’s a lobster roll from Thirsty Whale in Bar Harbor.

 

Day 2: Jordan Pond and Bubble Rock Trail

Our second day in Maine was overcast with a slight drizzle at times, but nothing that would keep us from further exploring Acadia National Park. On this day, we decided to hike the trail around Jordan Pond and climb up South Bubble Rock. Jordan Pond is actually a small lake and there is no swimming allowed as it is the main source of drinking water for residents in the area. You are allowed to bring a kayak or small boat and utilize it on Jordan Pond. The circular trail around Jordan Pond is 3.4 miles and isn’t difficult at all. We saw people of all ages, from 5-year-olds to senior citizens. The hike up Bubble Rock is a different story. It’s only 0.4 miles but it’s all vertical and there are areas where you have to climb. I wouldn’t recommend this trail for kids or those who aren’t fit enough to climb vertically. Please wear proper hiking shoes if you decide to do this hike or any other at Acadia. They do get precipitation often and gym shoes on slippery rocks is a recipe for disaster. Once at the top, the views are magnificent.

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Jordan Pond

 

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Part of the trail around the perimeter of Jordan Pond.

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Atop Bubble Rock. The hike to get here isn’t long but it is steep. The views at the top are amazing.

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We all made it.

For dinner, we stopped in town at went to a restaurant called Geddy’s. Their haddock sandwich was delicious. Seafood from Maine really is on a whole different level.

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The town of Bar Harbor, Maine. 

Day 3: Bowel Trail, Beehive Trail, Sand Beach, Cadillac Mountain

Day 3 gave us perfect weather and we took full advantage of it. First on the agenda was the top of Beehive Trail. There are actually two ways to get to the top. The first is taking the most direct route which is Beehive Trail itself and vertically climbing straight to the top. There are handlebars as you get higher and if you’re afraid of heights or you’re a novice hiker, this route isn’t for you.   The other way to get to the top of Beehive Trail is by taking the longer Bowel Trail. The hike is longer (1.4 miles) and you gain elevation gradually. This trail also offers multiple picture opportunities and allows you to loop around a small lake. If you do hike the Beehive Trail to the top, you have to hike Bowel Trail on the way back down as Beehive Trail only has one-way traffic going up. From the top of the trail, you’ll get spectacular views of the ocean, the park, and many islands around Mt. Desert Island.

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A view on the Bowel Trail

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Egg Rock Light, a lighthouse built in 1875 and still active today as seen from the trail. I used a zoom lens to get this close up shot. Still looks beautiful.

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View from the top of Beehive Trail. Sand beach in the background

 

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View of  Sand Beach from Beehive Trail

After we were done hiking, we walked across the street to Sand Beach to get an up-close look. The water looked very enticing but given that it was still early May, the water was still too cold to go for a dip. Perhaps late June through early September would be a good time to go for a swim. The beach is very clean and the water as blue as it looks in the picture.

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Sand Beach at Acadia National Park

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Sand Beach

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The rocky shore of Acadia National Park

Since we were going to pass Cadillac Mountain on the way back, we figured we would stop by and soak in the views from vantage points we missed the first day.

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Cadillac Mountain

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We stopped at a pull-out and walked a few hundred yards over the granite to get this view on Cadillac Mountain

For dinner, we went back to Geddy’s because of the wonderful experience we had the day before. This time we all opted for the fish and chips. And man, it did not disappoint.

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fish and chips with coleslaw and tartar sauce

This was our trip in a nutshell. I want to point out that there is a very steep and difficult trail called the Precipice Trail which is closed between March and August due to falcons nesting between that time. If you happen to go outside of this timeframe and you’re physically fit to hike the trail, check it out because I’ve heard nothing but great things about it. Whale watching season was still a few weeks away during our visit but if you’re in the area and are interested, it’s a great opportunity to potentially see humpback whales, minke whales, and finback whales. If you plan on visiting Acadia National Park, budget at least 3 days. 4 or 5 days would be optimal in case a day or two isn’t productive due to the weather. This was a memorable trip and Acadia National Park is a setting with endless beauty and plenty of things to do. We had a blast and we hope to visit again soon.

 

Air New Zealand Announces Non-Stop Service from Auckland to Chicago

As expected, Air New Zealand confirmed new non-stop service from Auckland to Chicago beginning in November of this year. The flights will be three times weekly in both directions on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Air New Zealand is a Star Alliance member so if you have miles from United, Air Canada, Singapore Airlines, etc, you will be able to redeem those miles on this route. This will be the longest flight from O’Hare and if you can redeem those miles for a business class flight, your legs will thank you. If you’re heading to Australia, this would be another option as Auckland can be used as a connecting point. You can read about that on the Chicago Tribune website right here. There are rumors that Qantas is looking to initiate Sydney, Australia to Chicago service soon. If and when that comes to fruition, I’ll post the details here.

Travel Itinerary: 4 Days in Kauai

Kauai was the second island my wife and I visited during our last trip to Hawaii. We started off in Maui (you can read that itinerary here) and took a one-way flight from Maui to Kaui on Hawaiian Airlines via JetBlue miles. JetBlue miles are not difficult to accumulate if you routinely shop on Amazon and you can read my post on how to earn those miles right here. Kauai is known as the Garden Isle for its lush tropical landscape. Based on my experience, Kauai offers more seclusion than Maui and Oahu. All of the islands are special in their own way so I’d recommend experiencing all three.  Here’s a rundown of what we did during our four days in Kauai.

Day 1: Arrival

My wife and I stayed at Mariott’s Kauai Beach Club Hotel during our stay in Kauai. Great property that wasn’t expensive and located right on the beach just 10 minutes from the airport. We rented a car in both Maui and Kauai and if you want to make the most of your time there, I’d recommend doing the same.  We arrived in the late afternoon from Maui so we spent the evening at Kalapaki Beach, right in front of our hotel and took in the live entertainment that was offered by Marriott.

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View of the beach from our balcony

Day 2: Poipu Beach

On the second day, we spent almost the entire day at Poipu Beach. Of all the beaches I’ve been to in Oahu, Maui, and Kauai (I’ve been to many), this was my favorite in Hawaii. Plenty of space, clean, an abundance of marine wildlife, and a perfect place to snorkel. If you’re in Kauai, this beach is a must see . You also get spectacular sunsets if you decide to stick around until the late evening.

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I was very fortunate to be able to swim alongside a green sea turtle. If you’re going to snorkel in Hawaiian waters, get yourself a GoPro or any underwater camera. You’ll see some really cool wildlife and it’s worth getting on video.

Day 3: Waimea Canyon State Park

Waimea Canyon State Park is another must-see place in Kauai. From our hotel near the airport, it was about 32 miles away to the entrance and took about 45 minutes. You can also take a 3.4-mile hike to the bottom of the canyon and this will take about 3 hours round-trip. The cool thing about Waimea Canyon is that the surrounding area looks like Sedona, Arizona. You’ll find red clay, orangish water, and landscape that almost seems out of place for Hawaii.

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The landscape on the periphery of Waimea Canyon

 

 

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The main lookout at Waimea Canyon

 

Once you’re at the main lookout point at Waimea Canyon, you’ll find local farmers selling local produce such as mangos, star-fruits, and papayas. They are delicious and if you purchase the fruits, you’ll be supporting local.

Day 4: Napali Coast State Park aka Jurassic Park

No trip to Kauai is complete without seeing Napali Coast State Park. This was the setting for Jurassic Park and the minute you get to the entrance, it will all come back to you. My wife and I were dead set on doing the hike and we did about 3/4 of it until park rangers told us we couldn’t go any further due to flooding from heavy rainfall the previous night.  The hike is definitely challenging, particularly the first quarter mile where there is a lot of steep uphill climbing. If you do the hike, bring some solid hiking shoes, plenty of water, and a couple of granola bars. I saw a few people with flip-flops and they were getting killed from mud and wet rocks. Please don’t do this hike with flip-flops.  I’d also bring a very light raincoat since this part of Kauai gets a lot of rain and the weather can change from hour to hour. Other options to see the cliffs are from a boat or helicopter. I have heard the helicopter takes four people and that if you’re one of the two sitting in the rear, you’re kind of blocked off from the views when compared to those sitting in the front. Just something to be aware of.

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A view from the hiking trail

 

 

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Waiting for a raptor to come around the corner….jk

 

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The majestic cliffs and a rainbow from a distance

 

So this was Kauai in a nutshell. A special place and a beautiful island that’s home to my favorite beach amongst the ones I have visited in Hawaii. I really wish we had an extra day here and I know I’d be saying the same thing even we did. If you happen to visit Hawaii, try to include Kauai in your itinerary as well. But only if you are certain you can do the three must-see places above.

Travel Itinerary: 3 Days in Maui

Maui was the first of two islands my wife and I visited during our last trip to Hawaii. The second was Kauai and I’ll have a separate post on that later. Maui, also known as the Valley Isle, is the second largest island in Hawaii and with endless beauty. Our four days didn’t cover everything, but it covered most of the main attractions. We had a total of 7 days in Hawaii (the first day was more like a half day), four which we spent in Maui and three in Kauai. So let’s get started.

How We Got There

You’ll probably notice a trend with just about every itinerary I post.  We rarely use cash to get to our destination and this trip was no different. Now keep in mind, my wife and I have schedules that for the most part, allow us to take these trips during peak travel season.  This trip to Hawaii happened to be during the last 9 days of December which is high season in Hawaii. Likewise, the number of miles that airlines require to get to Hawaii is also doubled from most cities. United usually charges 22.5k miles a person one-way to get to Maui. That redemption rate from Chicago, Newark, and D.C were 45k miles per person one-way. Fortunately for us, Denver still had the saver award redemption at 22.5k miles so we decided to spend two days there (both of us had never visited Denver), and depart to Maui from Denver International Airport.

 Arrival

Even though this was technically our first day, we arrived too late to do anything significant. Our flight to Maui arrived at 4:35pm and by the time we deplaned, got our bags, and picked up our rental car, it was close to 5:45pm. At this point, we only had about 15 minutes of daylight left. We checked into our hotel, the Napili Shores by Outrigger, ate an early dinner and decided to go sleep at 8pm.  The next day was going to be very long.

Day 1: Haleakala National Park & Papawai Scenic Lookout

  • Haleakala National Park

If you’re visiting Maui, you simply can’t leave without witnessing the sunrise at Haleakala National Park. It’s something that can’t be replicated elsewhere and it’s magical. The ideal day is when there is a layer of clouds below you that allows the sun to rise above that layer. Sometimes it can get cloudy enough where there is little to no visibility and that’s the type of day you want to avoid. Your best bet is keeping an eye on the weather. You do have to pay $25 per car at the entrance and you have to make a reservation for $1.50 if you’re going there at sunrise. The ticket for the sunrise is good for 3 days and it can be purchased up to 60 days in advance. My wife and I got there 2 hours before sunrise to assure ourselves a good parking spot.  You should aim to get there no later than an hour before sunrise or the desirable parking spots and viewing areas will fill up quickly. It’s a relatively slow 45-minute that has steep curves and hairpin turns after hairpin turns. It does require your full attention and if you’re the type that gets distracted with a cell phone easily while driving, turn it off until you’re at the top. If you run into fog, it can get a little challenging but fortunately for us, it was clear all the way through during our drive to the top.

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View of the sunrise at Haleakala National Park

A few important things to keep in mind. When you’re at the viewpoint, you are at an elevation of about 10,000 feet. Not only is it cold, it is very windy! You will need a warm jacket and ear covers or I promise you it won’t be pleasant. The air is obviously much thinner so If you’re sensitive to elevation or have had trouble breathing in elevation before, please reconsider. Once you’re done with the sunrise, you can stop at other viewpoints on the way down. There are fantastic picture opportunities of the surrounding craters and landscape

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View of the craters from one of the scenic lookouts on the way down

  • Papawai Scenic Lookout

  • On our way back to Lahaina, we decided to stop at the Papawai Scenic Lookout. Locals recommended this spot as a great place to whale watch from land. During the winter months, mother humpback whales will birth their calves and teach them important behaviors in the waters right off of Maui. It took a little bit of patience but it paid off and we got a show of a lifetime. About 15 minutes after we got there, we noticed a mist of water that was sprayed about a quarter mile offshore.  And there it was, a baby humpback whale under the watchful eye of its mother practicing breaching behaviors. At first, the calf looked like it needed a bit of support just to breach halfway.
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This was as far as the calf could go the first few times.

After about 8 attempts of getting halfway up, it completely breached the water. I kept my camera in rapid-fire mode and I was fortunate enough to capture a memorable moment.

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Even if you don’t manage to see whales, the lookout provides excellent photo opportunities.

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At night we walked around Lahaina Town and stumbled upon one of the best Ice Shave’s you will ever have. It’s called Ululani’s Hawaiian Ice Shave and they have over 50 flavors. I had the ‘Haleakala’, a mix of coconut, leche, and condensed milk. I really wish I took a picture to post here but I guarantee you’ll find whatever you’re looking for.

Day 2: Road to Hana

Along with Haleakala National Park, the Road to Hana is another excursion you simply cannot leave Maui without experiencing. It has black sand beaches, waterfalls, bamboo forests, flower gardens, breathtaking ocean views, and it was one of the highlights during our stay in Hawaii. The Road to Hana from start to finish is about 52 miles it is a journey which will take the majority of the day if you factor in the time you will stop at various stopping points. There is over 600 hairpin turns, 54 bridges (46 which are one lane), and you will have to concentrate while driving as the roads can get very narrow at certain points. My wife and I had a rental car so if there were certain stop points we liked better, we were able to spend more time. You can opt to take a tour bus but then you’re on their time. If you are driving there,  fill up your tank before you start. The last town prior to starting this journey is Paia and the gas prices over there are expensive. You’re better off filling up in Kahului. There no gas stations between Paia and Hana. If you are driving yourself, I highly recommend downloading Gypsy Guide – Road to Hana on your iPhone or Android.

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It costs me $5 and it was the best $5 I spent on the island.  The app will recommend which points of interests are worth stopping for, which ones don’t require a lot of time, and which should be skipped altogether.  It honestly felt like we had an actual person with us and the app even told us of approaching food shacks and cafes. The great thing about this app is that it worked even when we lost data connectivity. On the way back, the app tells you more of the cultural significance of different points in Maui. These are the places we stopped in chronological order:

1. Garden of Eden Arboretum

This is one of the only points of interests on the Road to Hana where you have to pay to get in since it is privately owned. The cost is $15 for adults, $5 for children, and infants are free. They do offer student and AAA discounts. My wife and I found it to be worth it and you can budget about 30 minutes here. They have numerous native and indigenous plants, many you might have never seen before and it also offers some great photo opportunities. The garden also has a smaller waterfall and you’ll see peacocks on the premises as well.

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Garden of Eden Arboretum

2. Waikamoi Ridge Trail

This was a hike which really stimulated your senses. The best thing about this trail? There are mango trees all around and it smells like heaven. They also have one my favorite trees, the rainbow eucalyptus tree which looks like the bark has been colored by a pastel. The trail can get extremely muddy so if you’re wearing flip-flops or don’t want to get your shoes destroyed, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to skip this and spend more time at Twin Falls (which we skipped).

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Rainbow-eucalyptus tree

3. Halfway to Hana Stand

They’re known for their banana nut bread and it’s delicious. If it wasn’t worth the hype I wouldn’t tell you to stop here.  It won’t take long and you can park on the side of the road.
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4. Upper Waikani Falls

There is only room for a couple of cars on the side of the road to see this trio of waterfalls but it certainly is beautiful and worth stopping if parking allows.

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4. Nahiku Market Place

Two words: fish tacos.  Perfect place to have lunch. The fish tacos were super fresh and delicious. I wish I had a picture but I inhaled them before I realized I’d had forgotten.

5. Wai’anapanapa State Park

This is one of the places where you absolutely have to stop. A beautiful black sand beach which also has an abundance of volcanic rock, a cave that takes you to the waters, and you can also go for a swim. The waves are very strong so something to keep in mind. We spent a solid hour here and honestly we wished we could have spent more.

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Black sand beach and volcanic rocks

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There’s a story behind this cave but I won’t ruin it. Download the app above and it will tell you all about it

6. Wailua Falls

Another point of interest that you should definitely stop by. You can park on the side of the road and walk down to the base of the falls. I even saw a few people swimming near the base and they seemed quite comfortable doing so. I have no idea how deep it is so please be cautious if you decide to go in the water. It’s a beautiful waterfall and probably the largest one you’ll see on The Road to Hana.

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7. Oheo Gulch (7 Sacred Pools)

This was our last stop on The Road to Hana. Unfortunately, due to mudslides, access to these pools was closed during our visit to Maui. We were able to see some of the falls from the trail but no one was allowed to swim at the base. Oheo Gulch is located 15 minutes past the town of Hana. Here is a very important detail to keep in mind. If you go beyond this point in your rental car and if something were to occur, your insurance becomes void! Even your credit card coverage would be voided.  The road beyond this point is mostly gravel and dirt and the major rental companies have this written out explicitly in the contract agreement. Many tourists will risk it because there are some beautiful sites to see even beyond Oheo Gulch. But even something as minuscule as a flight tire means you’re on your own.

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Oheo Gulch

Day 3: Napili Bay

Maui has plenty of amazing beaches that you can choose to spend your day. Or you can even go beach hopping and get a taste for almost all of them. Since our hotel was situated at Napili Bay, we decided to spend the day on the beach over here. If you’re into snorkeling and seeing marine wildlife, this was an awesome spot for that. I saw plenty of colorful fish and was lucky enough to see a few sea turtles, one which was managing to get by with a flipper missing. You can see the video below.

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You can see me snorkeling in the distance with the island of Moloka’i in the background.

If you happen to be in the Lahaina area, I strongly recommend stopping by Gazebo Restaurant for breakfast. Their white chocolate macadamia nut pancakes with homemade whipped cream were amazing. They are also very generous with their portions.

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So this was Maui for us in a nutshell. We wish we could have stayed a day longer but that meant subtracting a day from Kauai. We felt pretty satisfied with our 3 days here (excluding travel) and felt like we accomplished just about everything we wanted to accomplish. In the not too distant future, I hope to have our ” 3 days in Kauai ” itinerary and recommendations up.

Travel Itinerary: Must-See Attractions in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is a beautiful and affordable destination and one which I get asked about quite often. It has such a diverse landscape that you can be on the beach taking in the sun one day while trekking the trails near Arenal Volcano the very next day. There is something for everyone in this beautiful country and you’re going to see wildlife, landscape, and other sites which you might have never seen before. My wife and I took a flight from Albany, NY to Liberia, Costa Rica and rented a small SUV to get around. We started on the northwest side of Costa Rica and made our way southeast. We returned the car to San Jose International Airport. It’s not really far in terms of distance but there are roads where you will have to drive slow either due to the speed limit or due to the poor conditions of the road themselves. If you are going to rent a car, I highly recommend an SUV. It doesn’t have to be huge and anything with decent ground clearance will suffice. You can see the distance between the two airports below.

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Arriving in Costa Rica

We arrived at Liberia International Airport from Newark at 1:40 pm. 17.5k United miles per person was what got us here. We headed straight for the car rental counters which were adjacent to the airport and this was probably the worst part of our trip. We pre-booked with Budget so I assumed I would just have to show my license and passport, give them my credit card, and we’d be on our way. That’s not how it went. First of all the line was long and it was slow moving. The issue at hand with just about everyone in front me? Not reading up on their car rental laws prior to arriving and then assuming that Budget was in the wrong. Here is how it works: In Costa Rica, you are BY LAW, required to purchase government issued liability insurance  (SLI). This is different than benefits from your credit card. The concern with most people was that purchasing this insurance would void the collision damage waiver (CDW) their own credit card might provide. It does not void the CDW because purchasing the SLI is law. Now it’s true that the rental agencies might try to upsell you their own insurance in addition to the SLI. That’s where they earn most of their profits. For your sake, it’s redundant and a waste of money. We spent nearly two hours in line before we finally got our SUV. And again, I strongly recommend an SUV because you will find gravel roads and roads that are poorly paved in Costa Rica.

Days 1 & 2: Puerto Potrero

For the first two days, we stayed right on the beach at Sugar Beach Hotel.  It was a relatively inexpensive and comfortable place with a very friendly staff. One of the biggest appeals of this hotel was having their own private beach. A clean pool and complimentary breakfast were huge pluses. They also have their own restaurant but my wife and I opted for the local food scene instead. The sunset views from the beach were incredible. If you’re into surfing, boogie boarding, or water paddling, this place was perfect for that. There are plenty of hotel options on the west coast of Costa Rica and you’ll get sunset views and clean beaches from just about all of them.

 

Day 3: Bijagua and Tenorio Volcano National Park

We left around 9:30 and arrived at our B&B called Sueno Celeste around 11 am. This is the area near the Rio Celeste waterfall and if you happen to find yourself in this area, I would definitely recommend this B&B. Rather than one large building with multiple rooms, they have several colorful cabin type rooms in a lush green garden setting that is frequented by several unique and colorful birds. I saw birds on this property that I’ll probably never see anywhere else. You can see some of them below.

 

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The lush grounds of the Sueno Celeste B&B. All the birds that were seen below frequent the property so always have your camera ready

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Toucan

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We arrived at Sueno Celeste, dropped off our luggage, and drove to the entrance of Tenorio Volcano National Park. There is only one road to get there and not only is it gravel, there are bumps, potholes, and craters everywhere. It was hard enough traversing this road with an SUV, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be with a sedan or smaller car. Once we were there, the entrance fee was $10 per person and off we were. The hike to get to the Rio Celeste Waterfall is about an hour and there is some steep uphill climbing involved. The return is about 45 minutes. Bring a couple of water bottles and some granola bars because the uphill portion can be exhausting. Since the trails get frequent rainfall, it will be very muddy and you will likely get mud over your clothes. Make sure you bring a decent pair of hiking shoes and hiking clothes that you wouldn’t lose sleep over if they got dirty. I saw a few people trying to do this hike with flip-flops and they struggled. The mud was eating their flip-flops alive. The views along the way are picture worthy and the reward at the end of the hike, the Rio Celeste Waterfall, is incredible.  Swimming in the national park is forbidden but since the Rio Celeste runs 9 miles, you’ll find locals swimming in the portions that are outside of the national park territory.

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The blue color of the Rio Celeste

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Rio Celeste Waterfall. Well worth the hike.

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Capuchin monkey high in the trees. These monkeys spend almost all of their time near the canopy. They won’t bother you but please don’t feed them. That’s how they lose their fear of humans.

Tenorio Volcano National Park closes at 4pm  and they don’t allow visitors after 2pm so the earlier you get there the better. After we were done with our hike, we drove the bumpy road back to Sueno Celeste. The family that owns this B&B has a rotating menu for dinner each night (for pay) that they cook themselves. That particular night, fish cakes with peanut sauce, steamed vegetables, and jasmine rice were on the menu. We never had anything like it and it was delicious. This property also had a large outdoor jacuzzi that can fit 8-10 people. Since no one was using it, we figured it would be a nice way to cap off a productive but tiresome day.  We stayed in Bijagua for just one night and the next day it was on to La Fortuna, about a 2-hour drive southeast with Arenal Volcano National Park being the main attraction.

Day 4 & 5: La Fortuna and Arenal Volcano National Park

La Fortuna is a small town near Arenal Volcano and one that is used as a base camp to get to the sights near the area.  We stayed at an inexpensive but comfortable hotel called Hotel Eco Arenal for two nights. On the day we arrived, we did a quick hike to La Fortuna waterfall. The entrance fee was $15 and the hike took about 20 minutes. This hike will take you through the lush tropical forest and will provide you with plenty of spectacular picture opportunities.

 

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La Fortuna Waterfall from a distance

 

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Once we were done with this excursion, we headed back to La Fortuna and just walked around the town. They have a beautiful park located in the town’s center and there is an abundance of restaurants, boutique shops, and souvenir shops throughout town. The following day, we did the hike at Arenal Volcano National Park. The Volcano is easily seen from La Fortuna but to hike the trails, we had to drive about 40 minutes to the entrance of the park. The park is open from 8am to 6pm and there is an entrance fee of $15 per adult. If you’re in Costa Rica, this is one of the must-see places you should add to your list. Arenal Volcano is still considered an active volcano and it last erupted in 2010. On a clear day, there will be multiple points on the trail where you will be able to take incredible pictures of the volcano and surrounding landscape.

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Arenal Volcano. The ashy gray areas are from the last eruption in 2010.

The hike was mostly flat grounds but if you wanted to get better photo opportunities, there are trails that diverged from the main path and required some steep uphill climbing. If you’re able to do it then I highly recommend taking advantage of this opportunity. As an FYI, you don’t need a guide to do these trails but if you feel more comfortable having one, you will find guides at the entrance of the park (for a fee). Now it was time make the 3 hour drive southwest to Monteverde.

Day 6: Monteverde and Cloud Forest Biological Reserve

Even though the straight line distance isn’t far, the drive from La Fortuna to Monteverde took us 3 hours since there are no roads that cut through the center of Arenal Volcano National Park. We also had to drive around Laguna de Arenal and this added considerable time and distance. But 3 hours later we were in Monteverde and we stayed at a very cheap hotel called Hotel El Bosque. In places like Costa Rica where we were going to be out and about almost the entire day, we opted for cheap but comfortable accommodations. Although this place was cheap, it certainly wasn’t comfortable so I wouldn’t recommend it.

The main attraction in this area is the Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, a sanctuary to over 500 species of birds, 130 species of mammals, and 120 species of reptiles and amphibians. For this excursion, we opted for the guided tour ($37 per person for foreigners and $27 if you have a student ID) on the recommendation of friends who had been here before. They had tours at 7:30am, 11:30am, and 1:30 pm. Since we had a 3-hour drive from La Fortuna, we opted for the 1:30pm tour.  You can choose between a few different types of tours including a night tour if you’re feeling more adventurous. The website for booking the tour is http://www.reservamonteverde.com/guided-tours.html.

Having a guide for this tour was worth it. Our guide was able to point out reptiles and birds that were well camouflaged in the trees which we would have certainly missed without his expertise. He was able to identify the species of birds based on their chirping noise and had some powerful Nikon binoculars that he passed around to everyone in our group when an animal or bird was spotted. This walking tour took about 4 hours and the trails were mostly flat and easy to navigate.

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Beautiful view from the hike at Cloud Forest Biological Reserve

 

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One of the rarer birds in the forest, the resplendent quetzal

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This concluded our hiking/nature/adventure portion of our trip to Costa Rica. It was off to the capital city of San Jose early the next morning.

Day 7: San Jose

Our return trip home was via San Jose International Airport so we made sure we gave ourselves an entire day to experience Costa Rica’s capital city. San Jose is a vibrant city and the largest city in Costa Rica. They have plenty of museums, theatres, parks, and interesting architecture. You can experience most of this by choosing a central hotel location and walking around. We decided to stay at Hotel Aranjuez which I highly recommend. Their complimentary breakfast had a huge selection and it was a clean and comfortable accommodation.  It only cost us $67 for the night so there was a ton of value there.

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The National Theater of Costa Rica, which opened in 1897

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Central Park in San Jose, Costa Rica

 

 

The following day we returned our one-way rental to San Jose International Airport and off we were back to the U.S. We used Southwest Airlines for our trip back and we got an incredible redemption of 6,200 points per person for our flight back to Albany via Baltimore. In a span of 7 days, we were able to enjoy the beach, spectacular sunsets, multiple waterfalls, volcanoes, exotic wildlife, and a beautiful city. That’s what makes Costa Rica very special. There is something for everyone and you can customize your itinerary based on your specific interests. The people are so friendly and helpful and it’s a place I’d highly recommend. Just remember to bring mosquito repellant, a good pair of hiking shoes/clothes, and read up on the car rental laws prior to arriving.

Travel Itinerary and Miles Breakdown: Argentina & Chile

I’ll go over our itinerary to Argentina and Chile and the miles/points that we used on different segments. I’ll go over what we did well with regards to planning while touching upon the aspects that we could have done differently. Everyone’s purpose for a trip is different, but my wife and I had one main goal in mind: To make the Patagonia region of Argentina and Chile our priority. We had 6 full days in Argentina so we had to make the most of it. So here it goes……

Getting There:

Non-stop flights to Buenos Aires, Argentina depart from NYC, Newark, Miami, Dallas, and Houston. We were traveling during the busy holiday season and we were definitely not going to use cash to book this ticket. Round trip airfare was at least $1,300 a person on American, United, and Latam Airlines. United Airlines was charging 70k miles one way from Newark or Houston for this trip. American Airlines was charging over 70k miles from JFK, Miami, and Dallas (DFW) We caught a huge break when we searched up the one way trip from Miami on British Airways. They were only charging 25k miles per person from Miami to Buenos Aires via American Airlines. Since they are One World partners with American, we were able to use British Airways Avios (BA’s mileage currency) to fly on American. Since neither my wife or I had ever visited Miami, we figured we’d use our JetBlue miles to fly from Albany to Ft. Lauderdale and escape the ensuing blizzard that was en route to Albany, NY. This allowed us to spend two days there and enjoy the city. The flight to Buenos Aires departed on the 24th from Miami during the evening.  A one-way ticket on the same flight would have cost us over $1,900 dollars per person!!! We got significant value on this redemption, possibly one of our best ever. British Airways is a transfer partner of Chase (If you hold the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Preferred) and American Express (Platinum and Gold) so it’s one of the easier mileage currencies to accrue.

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The damage had we booked using cash. Insane.

Day 1: Buenos Aires

Our flight landed at 6:45 am and this was really going to be our only full day in Buenos Aires. I tried to sleep as much as I could have, but anyone who travels economy class knows, you can’t really sleep well when you’re sitting for that long. My wife and I were both tired and our hotel, Dazzler Polo (part of the Wyndham portfolio of hotels) was all the way on the other side of town. We just hoped that even if the hotel didn’t let us check in early, they would at least hold our bags until the 2 pm check-in time. Once we got our luggage we hailed an Uber (more on this later) and took the nearly 1 hour ride to the other side of town. By the time we got to the hotel, it was 9 am. I walked to the front desk and told the lady we just arrived from Miami and kindly asked her if there was any possible way she would let us check in early. She quickly checked her computer and said there was a room available and that she would give it to us. This was a HUGE deal.  It allowed us to take a much-needed 2-3 hour nap and still have the entire day ahead of us to explore the city. Since it was summer in South America, sunset was not until 8:10 pm.  So a huge shout out to the lady at Dazzler Polo for really helping us salvage that day. The hotel itself was awesome and I booked it using a hotels.com gift card that I redeemed using Ibotta (you can read about that app here).

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Front Entrance to the Dazzler Polo Hotel

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Hotel Room

The free breakfast was far better than what you would get at American hotels.

This hotel was located in the northwest part of Buenos Aires in the neighborhood of Palermo. To visit some of the main sites near the city center, we got on their subway and got off at the last stop (Catedral). Their subway system is really easy to use and if you do need help, the employees will gladly assist you.

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Once we got off the subway at the Catedral station, everything we wanted to see was a short walk away. Plaza de Mayo is a beautiful central plaza that has a pink building called Casa Rosada, the statue of San Martin, and the Catedral Metropolitana. Many picture opportunities will present themselves here. If you walk a bit further into the hip and trendy Puerto Madera neighborhood, you’ll find the Puente De La Mujer or Women’s Bridge. This neighborhood also has many restaurants and brunch spots and is very lively at night. We happened to be there during Christmas so most of the places were closed.

The best way to explore any city is by walking. Could you get around between some of these sites with a taxi or Uber? Sure you can. And speaking of Uber, I preferred using it for longer distances in Buenos Aires. The regular taxi was also an option but with Uber, you’re locked into a fare and you know approximately how much you’re going to be paying before you step into the car. With a taxi, there’s always that chance that we might be taken advantage of as foreigners. The app worked seamlessly and a one hour ride from one side of the town to the other cost about $25 American dollars. The taxi company quoted me double that price. But most of the time we walked, and walked, and walked and saw much of the sites we wanted to see.  We loved Buenos Aires and now it was time to get back to the hotel and prepare for the flight to El Calafate the following day.

Day 2: Buenos Aires to El Calafate

I booked this flight using Chase Ultimate Rewards points on Aerolineas Argentinas. El Calafate is the gateway city to the Patagonia region of Argentina. Had I used cash, the flight would have cost $450 round trip per person. Again, I was set on not paying cash for any airfare. As a Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card holder, I was able to get 1.5 cents per point booking flights. This cost us 30k points per person for this roundtrip from Buenos Aires to El Calafate. This trip was taken from Buenos Aires’ other airport, Jorge Newbery International Airport which is located on the north end of Buenos Aires, about 1.5 miles from the Dazzler Polo. It’s much smaller than their main airport and I chose it because of the cheaper fares to El Calafate. The total flight time was about 2 hours 45 minutes. Once we got there, we booked a round trip transfer with a company called VES. It’s a smaller bus that took us to our hotel and also dropped us off at the airport when we’re flying out of El Calafate. The total for two people was 480 pesos or about $26 USD.  This was far more cost effective than taking a taxi and Uber did not offer service here. Here’s a tip: Request a window seat and sit on the right side of the plane (Any seat that is F). This side will give you some spectacular photo opportunities as you’re landing into El Calafate. You can see an example below.

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For the duration of our stay at El Calafate, I booked a hotel named Picos Del Sur. For $56 a night, this hotel offered free breakfast, free WiFi, and was located just a quarter mile away from the city center where all the shops, restaurants, and cafe’s are located. The staff was awesome and super friendly and the premises weren’t bad either. The breakfast was okay as most of their offerings were high carb items such as sweet croissants, muffins, toast, cereal, etc. Most of this hotel stay was paid via hotels.com gift card via Ibotta (man I love that app).

Day 3:  El Calafate

For any of you that might travel to Patagonia in the future, let me give you some advice: Throw the weather forecast out the window. This is one of those places where you can try to plan around the weather and it means absolutely nothing. We saw days where torrential downpours were forecasted only to see clear skies (much to our delight). The weather here changes hourly because the Atlantic and Pacific coasts are literally just a couple hours drive away.  On this day, we decided to stay in El Calafate and spend the day exploring the town and nearby places. One gem we encountered was the Laguna Nimez Reserve. This place is a sanctuary for flamingos, owls, birds of prey, and other unusual birds I had never seen anywhere else. The entrance fee was 150 Argentinean pesos or roughly $8 USD. The entire circle around the sanctuary takes about 90 minutes to walk and it offers some amazing views of Lago Argentino as well as the mountains in the background. If you’re in El Calafate, I highly recommend it. For the second half of the day, we spent walking around the city center and checking out the town vibes. El Calafate has many nice boutique shops that worth checking out.

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Day 4: Perito Moreno Glacier

On this day, we booked a tour to Perito Moreno Glacier with Hielo & Aventura. You can visit their website and see everything they have to offer right here. They picked us up from the hotel at 7:30am and off we went on the 90 minute journey to Parque Nacional Las Glaciares.  The first stop was a scenic overlook for about 10 minutes. This spot provided a glimpse of the awe-inspiring scenery yet to come. The second stop took us to the multiple viewing decks that are right in front of the glacier. We saw a few smaller chunks of glacier calve off into the lake and even that was incredible. The third thing on the agenda was the boat ride to the southern face of the glacier so we could actually hike on it. If you’re coming to Patagonia, I highly highly highly recommend doing this activity. For you Game of Thrones fans, it literally felt like we were north of the wall. The scenery is incredible and unlike anything I have ever witnessed. The ice has a nice shade of blue and even the water in certain crevasses seems like it has a deep blue color to it. This activity costs about $180 per person and that includes pickup and drop off from your hotel. As a Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card holder, I was able to apply my $300 annual travel credit for 2018 for this excursion, effectively bringing our cost down to about $60 combined for two people.  That’s a hell of a way to use the travel credit. Something to keep in mind: There is an entrance fee to Perito Moreno that is separate from the tour cost. It’s 500 Argentinean Pesos (equivalent to about $27 USD). The park ranger will collect that fee at the entrance of the park and from what I remember, they don’t accept any other currency.  Be sure to exchange your currency before you get there. My wife and I booked the 90 minute hike for this trip rather than the 6-8 hour hike. Looking back at it, this is one the things we wish we did differently. It wasn’t  as challenging as we initially thought and if you’re physically fit and have done longer hikes before, the longer hike might be of interest to you. Just be sure to dress in layers for either one you may choose. Even though they give you snow clamps, it’s still important you have a decent pair of hiking shoes for this trek. Merrell, Keen, Columbia, etc would all suffice. They also require you to have gloves so you don’t cut yourself on the jagged ice if you fall. Sunglasses are a great idea if you’re there on a sunny day since the glare off the glacier can be blinding at times.

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The boat ride to get to the glacier is also incredible and you can view it for yourself. It does get windy and there will probably be rain at some point so it’s best to wear waterproof clothing and a raincoat.

Day 5: El Chalten

On day 5, we did a day trip to El Chalten, a town that’s about 3 hours north of El Calafate. El Chalten is known for its hiking, scenery, and Mt. Fitz Roy. Unfortunately for us, Fitz Roy was hidden by clouds for the entire day we were there. But we still didn’t pass up the opportunity to hike a few trails. Some of the trails are moderately challenging and will require a lot of steep climbing. You will get wet, muddy, messy, and if you’re not physically fit, it might be painful. But on a clear day, the reward at the end is majestic views of Fitz Roy that is postcard-worthy. The best thing about El Chalten? It’s one of the few places where you get access to the trails without paying an entrance fee. If you’re into camping, it’s a very popular spot to set up camp.

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A viewpoint from one of the trails at El Chalten

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The viewpoint at the end of the Mirador trail

Day 6: Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile

A trip to Patagonia is not complete without a visit to Torres Del Paine National Park on the Chilean side. This was an entire day’s journey and the trip cost about $250 per person (including pickup and drop off from the hotel). Luckily for us, my wife is also a Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card holder and we were able to apply her $300 travel credit for 2018 into this excursion. This brought the excursion down to a very reasonable $200 or $100 per person. The tour bus picked us up at 7am and off we were. The drive from El Calafate to the Chilean border was about 2 hours. Once there, you have to get off the bus twice, once before you cross into Chile to be checked by Argentinean authorities and then again when you’re in Chile. Once there, you get your passport stamped by Chilean border patrol and declare anything that is required to be declared (don’t be that person). Our tour group had about 30 people and the entire process to cross into Chile took about 45 minutes. Once we were cleared, the journey to Torres Del Paine took about 90 minutes. We were super fortunate to have a mostly clear day when we got there. If you have a clear day, you’ll be able to see the famous towers. We stopped at the first four viewpoints for pictures before stopping at another point for lunch. They provide lunch but unfortunately, they don’t provide a vegetarian option. This was my one issue with this tour operator and I conveyed to them that it’s not acceptable given the exorbitant cost of the tour itself.  Luckily we bought plenty of granola bars and gatorade and that was sufficient. After lunch, we stopped at a few more viewpoints for some spectacular photo opportunities.  Anywhere you stop in the park, there will be an opportunity for an amazing picture. The last stop was a 90 minute hike (very easy) that gave us panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. We also saw guanacos, a species that is related to the camel and llama.  I took a video of the hike which you can view below.

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The towers of Torres Del Paine were visible on this day

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Day 7: Flight Back to Buenos Aires and Flight Back to New York City. 

This was the conclusion of our trip. Our flight back to Buenos Aires departed at 11:35 am and arrived at around 2:10 pm.  To get back to Buenos Aires, we flew Aerolinas Argentinas as we did when we arrived.  For the flight to New York City, we redeemed American Airlines miles for seats on American (not British Airways Avios as we did on the way here). The redemption was 57.5k miles per person and although it wasn’t a great redemption value, it was better than United, Delta, and other options we had.  We grabbed steak at a place called Al Rawshe which was not too far from their smaller airport where we had landed. Argentina’s number one export is beef and steak is something they do really well. And trust me, the steak at Al Rawshe was phenomenal. We then took an Uber to their larger airport and were headed back home. Another tip when you’re flying out of El Calafate: Sit on the right side of the plane just as you would when you fly into El Calafate. You get incredible views of the turquoise blue Lago Argentina on upon takeoff and ascent. You can view the video below.

Southwest Airlines Announces Service to Hawaii in 2018

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Southwest Airlines announced that they will start start flying to Hawaii from the U.S. West Coast starting in 2018. Southwest will operate this route using it’s brand new Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft with extended range. This is big news on a couple of different fronts. First of all, this gives Southwest Rapid Rewards members more options on award tickets. It also gives Chase Sapphire Preferred and Reserve holders who like to transfer their points into Southwest another option to fly to Hawaii. And most importantly,  this will likely bring down the cost of flying to Hawaii via the “Southwest Effect.” While Southwest is more of a legacy than a low cost carrier these days, they can still disrupt an industry for the better when they announce service to destinations they have never served.  As soon as their routes are finalized, we’ll publish them here.

American Airlines Launching Non-Stop Service From Chicago to Venice and Philadelphia to Budapest and Prague

source: www.made-in-italy.com

Residents of Chicago and Philadelphia will have more non-stop options to Europe next summer as American Airlines announced seasonal service from both cities. American will fly from Chicago to Venice non-stop on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Philadelphia to Prague and Budapest on the Boeing 767. All three of these routes will run from May 4th-October-27th. Philadelphia will also see the return of daily non-stop service to Zurich, Switzerland. You can read more about Chicago to Venice here and Philadelphia to Budapest and Prague here.

Maldives: Miles Redemption Breakdown

Boston to Dubai, via Toronto: 40k United Mileage Plus miles redeemed per person

First leg of our trip to Dubai was on an Embraer 190 flown by Air Canada. This redemption cost 40k miles per person. When I signed up for the Chase Sapphire Reserve back in September, they had a limited time offer of 100,000 bonus miles upon spending $4k in the first 3 months. Thanks to tuition, I hit that threshold pretty quickly. If you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Preferred, you can transfer your points on a 1:1 ratio to United and then use one of their Star Alliance partners to fly. This is exactly what we did.

 2nd leg: Toronto to Dubai

This leg of our trip was on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner flown by Air Canada in economy class.  This was part of the redemption above. Air Canada is a Star Alliance partner of United.

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When using United MileagePlus miles, you can redeem them on any of their Star Alliance partners above.

 

Abu Dhabi to Male, Maldives: 30k American Airlines miles redeemed per person

My wife and I both signed up for the American Airlines Platinum Select credit card by Citi a few years back and received the bonus 50k miles after hitting the minimum spend threshold (that tuition again). American Airlines is part of One World Alliance but they also have several partners outside the alliance where you can find great redemptions. Etihad happens to be one those partners outside of One World. Others include, Hawaiian Airlines, Jet Airways, Alaska Airlines, and WestJet. One World partners are all below.

 

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American Airlines AAdvantage miles can be redeemed on any of the airlines listed above. This is in addition to several that are not part of the One World Alliance

Male to Rangali Island: TransMaldivian Airways.  Partial cost offset by 55,000 American Express points.

When you book a trip to Maldives, there are two ways to get your island: by an expensive speedboat transfer or a ridiculously expensive seaplane transfer. Unfortunately, the sea plane transfer is offered by a single company, TransMaldivian Aiways,  which allows them to price the 30 minute flights for as much as they desire. They are not affiliated with any airline alliance so you can’t book them using miles. And it costs $546(!!) per round trip ticket to get to your island if it is only accessibly by seaplane. Since we booked the Conrad in Rangali Island, Maldives using Hilton points, our only option was taking the seaplane transfer. Since I couldn’t use miles and I wanted to reduce the cost burden of the seaplane transfer, I redeemed 55,000 American Express Premier Gold points for $550 in statement credit. AMEX Premier Gold has 20 airline transfer partners as well as the highly coveted Starwood hotels program as a transfer partner. Transferring to almost any of the programs would have given me significantly more value than the 1 cent per point I received by redeeming the points for statement credit. But I also hated the idea of spending $1,092 in cold hard cash for a 30 minute round trip flight. Redeeming the points made it a more palatable $273 round-trip per person. As for the experience itself, it was a very unique and scenic flight. The plane seats about 14 passengers in relatively narrow seats. The plane flies at around 4,500 feet so you get a great view of many islands with their over-water villas on the way to Rangali Island.

 

Conrad Maldives, Rangali Island: 620,000 Hilton Points

I’m not quite sure I’ll ever have another redemption in my life that will require as many points as I needed for the Conrad Maldives. This redemption took a lot of planning and required meeting multiple Hilton Card bonuses to have enough points for an award redemption. Back in 2015, My wife and I both applied for and got the Hilton Honors American Express credit card. It had no annual fee and the bonus was 75,000 Hilton points for spending $1,000 over the first 3 months. In 2016, we both got the Citi Hilton Honors Visa card. This offer was 75,000 points if you spend $2,000 over the first 3 months. I timed my car maintenance expenses and college expenses in a manner which I was able use the Citi Hilton card and get the bonus. My wife’s card was used in a similar manner. So if you’re keeping track, that is now 320,000 Hilton points we have accumulated between the two of us. Then earlier this year, American Express had a 100,000 point offer on their Hilton Surpass card. The annual fee was $75 but it came with automatic Hilton Gold Status. The benefit of having Gold status was significant. It ended up paying for the annual fee many times over. Both of us were able to achieve the 100k bonus due to miscellaneous spending + partial tuition.  Point count: 535,000 between the two of us. At this point, we had enough for 3 nights but due to the unpredictability of the weather (it was technically going to be rainy season in July), we really really wanted to get that in that 4th night. It was around this time that Hilton started a new feature in their Hilton Honors program in which you were now able to combine your points with 10 other people.  This was the break we needed. I asked my mom and dad if one of them was willing to apply for the no annual fee Hilton Honors AMEX card and get the 75k bonus after spending $2k in the first 3 months. Since they had a relatively large expense upcoming, they obliged and received the bonus. I was able to transfer those points into my account. Point count:  ~ 620,000.  Now we had enough points for 4 free nights at one of the best accommodations in the Maldives. Nightly rate if paid for in cash? $670. But the best part of this redemption is the Hilton Gold status that came with having the AMEX Hilton Surpass card. As Hilton Gold members, Conrad upgraded us from the superior over-water villa that we had booked to a retreat over-water villa. The cash value of the upgrade per night is about $130 a night. Multiply that by 4 and the upgrade is worth about $520. Hilton Gold members also had other benefits at the hotel such as free tea, biscuits, and lunch sandwiches between 4 and 5 pm and free mocktails between 5 and 6 pm. Buying lunch or mocktails at the Conrad with cash is not cheap. I’d peg this value at about $60 per day between two people. Multiply that by 4, that’s an additional $240 in value. For paying a total of $150 of annual fees between the two Hilton AMEX Surpass cards ($75 each), we derived about $760 in value. In addition, we both get a free night during our card member anniversary.

 

 

Male, Maldives to New York City, via Dubai

This was the part of our trip that really helped in reducing the overall miles/cash expenditure of our entire vacation. Sometimes you just get a little lucky. Back in early May, one of the travel blogs I follow sent out an alert on twitter about a mistake fare for a 1 way ticket from Maldives to NYC on Emirates. The mistake fare was $201 per person (!!!) for the 1 way ticket with dates extending as far out as December. Since Maldives was a trip I had been planning anyway, I thought I’d book the ticket and wait and see if Emirates would honor it. 24 hours after booking, I received an e-mail from Emirates that our tickets had been cancelled and that they would not be honoring the mistake fare. I was slightly disappointed but was prepared for this outcome. One week later, I received a call from Emirates asking me if I was still interested in that one way ticket. I told the rep I absolutely was. The booking/reservations agent informed me that there was a reversal in their decision and that they would be honoring the mistake fare. $201 per ticket from the Maldives to NYC is a steal. To put this into context, this flight would have cost $1,400 in cash per person or 70,000 Emirates miles (which I did not have)  and additional $100+ in taxes person.  Once this domino fell, everything else fell into place. Sometimes you just get a little lucky.