Review: Lufthansa Business Class Lounge Frankfurt International Airport

Review: Lufthansa Business Class Lounge Frankfurt International Airport

As part of our award redemption using United miles for a business class ticket to Lisbon, my wife and I had access to the Lufthansa Business Class Lounge during our 6-hour layover in Frankfurt, Germany.  Lufthansa has seven business class lounges and four Senator Lounges (first-class lounges) at Frankfurt Airport. The business class lounge I chose was after passport control near A26 since this was closest to our departure gate.

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Upon entering the lounge, the receptionist scanned our boarding pass and off we were. Since Lufthansa has seven business class lounges, I didn’t expect there to much of a crowd at this one. It was about 75% filled when we arrived and became less crowded as the hours went by. TVarea

Most of the crowd was fixated on the TV’s and the World Cup match that was being played. The lounge itself isn’t huge by any stretch but has enough seating and excellent amenities.

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Seating area right in front of the bar

There were a few different seating areas and much like Polaris Lounge in Chicago, this one had seating areas with different ambiances. As much as I wanted to take pictures of every single area of the lounge, I try not to take pictures of an area if there are people that might be looking right at the camera.  I wish it was a bit easier being discrete and thorough at the same time.

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The business center was being utilized by only a few people and had relatively new PC’s.

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The other half of the business center was completely empty but having chairs without back support probably convinced everyone to stay away. The wifi connectivity at this lounge was excellent, among the fastest I had experienced at any lounge. Kudos to Lufthansa for really looking out for the business traveler.

InternetSpeedJust like the Polaris Lounge, this lounge also had bedrooms available upon request. My wife wanted to take a nap so they gladly unlocked a room for her and provided her with a blanket.

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I wasn’t tired enough to reserve a room for myself but she said the beds were very comfortable and she slept for two solid hours. This lounge also had access to showers upon request. Next up was to check out the food offerings. Usually, this is among the first things I do at a lounge. Since I had breakfast on the plane only an hour prior, I wasn’t all that hungry and I did not want to eat for the sake of eating. So I waited a few hours until hunger struck.

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Bread basket

The bread was bread. Not terrible but not great.

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The potato salad was decent. Their regular salad was subpar and very dry.

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Salad
CheeseNoodles
Noodles with cheese

The noodles with cheese was surprisingly good. It might not look good from the picture above but trust me, it was good. Taking pictures of the food near the buffet area is also where I ran into a little bit of trouble. There was a far greater selection than what I was able to take a picture of. However, one of the employees who was responsible for replenishing the buffet told me in half English and half German that I was not allowed to take pictures of the food or buffet area. I had no idea why this was the case (made no sense) but rather than challenge that assertion, I just took her word for it and stopped taking pictures of that area.

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The caramel pudding was heavenly. This was so good I had to have it twice.

GingerAle

Nothing like have ginger ale where you can actually taste the ginger. The lounge had plenty of drinks, a solid espresso machine, and bar that was well stocked. Again, I did not want to challenge the lady and take a picture but take my word for it. As for the bathrooms, Lufthansa did a geat job maintaining the mens room.

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Mens Room

The L’Occitane soap and lotion that they provided was a very nice touch. Small details like that do not go unnoticed.

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I really wish I didn’t have to truncate this review with regards to the pictures but as a guest, I couldn’t risk angering the lounge employee or annoying the people that were there.  This was a fantastic lounge that checked just about every box when I’m critiquing a lounge. Solid food options, high speed wifi connectivity, enough seating, and added amenities such as bedrooms and showers. Rather than contruct two or three very large lounges and risk capacity issues, I appreciate how Lufthansa built 7 smaller business class lounges to spread out the crowd. This exact issue will come into play for my next review, the KLM Business Class Lounge at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam. As for the Lufthansa Business Class Lounge, I would rate it a 4.6/5.

Review: Lufthansa Business Class Chicago to Frankfurt. A $14,400 Value

Review: Lufthansa Business Class Chicago to Frankfurt. A $14,400 Value

For a recent trip to Portugal, I decided to transfer 140k Chase Ultimate Rewards into United and book two business class tickets to Lisbon via Frankfurt, Germany on their Star Alliance partner, Lufthansa Airlines. Usually, I don’t redeem points for business class even though it’s a better value than redeeming for economy class. I would rather use fewer points and have enough left over for another trip than burn twice the amount on luxury and comfort. However, there were a couple of factors at play this time around. First of all the wife is pregnant and this was our babymoon so her being comfortable was a high priority. Secondly,  United had saver level awards for business class but no saver level awards for economy (30k miles per ticket) on the day we wanted to depart. So my choices were 70k miles per person in business class or 70k points per person in economy (lol). This was the most no-brainer of no-brainers. Neither of us had ever experienced an international long-haul business class flight and both of us gained a better understanding of why business class redemptions provide much better value than economy class redemptions. Here is a screen-shot of the price we would have to pay for each ticket in business class if we were using cash:

 

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A combined $14,400! Instead, we used a combined 140,000 United miles plus $40 tax per ticket. We got a ridiculously amazing value of 10 cents per mile on this award ticket. This was by far the most value we have ever extracted from a miles/point redemption. Normally if you’re getting 2.5-3 cents per point on a redemption, that’s considered pretty good. In addition to the in-flight service, we both got access to the Polaris lounge in Chicago and Lufthansa Business Class Lounge in Frankfurt. Our flight from Frankfurt to Lisbon was also business class and I’ll have a separate review for that. You can read about my Polaris Lounge experience here.

Check-in

Checking in was very straight forward. We got to use the designated business class check-in counter and this allowed us to skip the line that is usually seen in economy.

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There was no one in front of us and after taking our check-in luggage and handing us our boarding pass, the Lufthansa representative informed us we had access to Polaris Lounge if we wished. That was the reason we got to the airport 5 hours prior to departure in the first place =)

Boarding and Seating

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The airplane we flew on for this flight

During the boarding process, we got to board in the priority lane that was reserved for first class and business class travelers. For this trip, we were going to fly on the Boeing-747, the airplane that’s known as the “Queen of the Skies.” I had not flown on a 747 since 2005 and to be able to fly on one in a premium cabin gave this award redemption added value. Upon entering the plane, we took a right turn into the business class cabin and were seated in 5A and 5C (these seats are adjacent). Lufthansa Business Class has fully lie-flat seats. This is a huge deal when traveling overnight as you can beat jet-lag and not waste a day recovering. After finding our seats, our air hostess offered us welcome drinks prior to takeoff.

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Business class seats in their upright position

Seating

These seats have space under the footrest area and a pullout compartment where you can store smaller items during the flight. This is also where the amenity kit can be found. If you would like to utilize the in-flight entertainment, Lufthansa provides Bose noise cancelling headphones in the arm-rest compartment.

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LufthansaAmenityKit
Business Class Amenity Kit

The amenity kit provided socks, eye-covers, razor/shaving cream, lip balm, moisturizing cream, mint, toothbrush/toothpaste, ear plugs, and headphone covers for the Bose headphones they provide.

After Takeoff

Shortly after takeoff we were given salted cashews as a snack and a dinner menu.

CashewsHowever, the menu didn’t really apply to us as Lufthansa was able to accomodate us with a halal meal that I requested during the booking process. Just for completeness, I’ll post the menu right here.LufthansaMenuFor our dinner, we were served scallops for the appetizer and it was delicious. LufthansaScallops

For the main course, we received a meal both us were very familiar with:

LufthansaDinner

Butter chicken with jasmine rice and mixed vegetables cooked Indian-Pakistani style. This was also delicious and tasted like it was restaurant quality. It wouldn’t shock me if one of the restaurants on Devon Ave in Chicago is the supplier for halal requests. For dessert, we received a cup Haagen Dazs vanilla ice cream. I do wish they had something different for dessert. There is nothing wrong with Haagen-Dazs and I am a big fan of their ice cream but this is something I can get from the freezer section of my local grocery store. I suppose something more unique would have been more desirable.

LufthansaDessert

Post-Dinner

After dinner, it was time to take advantage of the lie-flat seating and get some shut-eye until breakfast time.

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Photo credit: Ayesha 

The air-hostess asked my wife and I if we wanted to be woken up for breakfast and we both said yes. This gave us about 5.5 hours to get a good sleep in.

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If you’re wondering, we were both able to sleep very comfortably. Lufthansa gave us nice lush pillows and thick blankets which were hotel caliber. The 5.5 hours of shuteye was very refreshing and before we knew it, it was time for breakfast.

Breakfast

For breakfast, we received a croissant, warm turkey slices with cucumber and lettuce, fresh fruit, and orange juice. No complaints here as everything tasted great. The hostess came around a second time if we wanted another beverage or coffee. She also passed around a box of chocolates which was a very nice touch.

LufthansaBreakfast

About an hour after breakfast concluded, the descent had begun into Frankfurt International Airport. Lufthansa did have in-flight internet but I did not purchase it so I have no idea how the connectivity was. My time was going to be spent either eating or sleeping and that’s exactly how it went. If I had redeemed an award ticket in economy, I would have likely purchased in-flight wifi since I sleep very poorly when sitting upright. This was a fantastic business class experience for my wife and I and the fact that she was able to sleep well on the plane being 2/3 into her pregnancy made this part of our trip extremely comfortable for her. I also want to acknowledge the flight attendant who was assigned to our part of the cabin. She did a wonderful job and routinely asked us if we wanted anything to drink or if we wanted any snacks. The attentiveness we got in business class was not lost on us so thanks to Lufthansa.  I’m not quite sure if I’ll ever extract the value I did for this award redemption and the great thing about it is we weren’t even done. We still had access to Lufthana Business Class Lounge during our 6 hour layover in Frankfut as well as another business class flight to connect to Lisbon, Portugal. I will be posting about my experience for both so keep an eye out.

Review: Polaris Lounge Chicago O’Hare International Airport

Review: Polaris Lounge Chicago O’Hare International Airport

As a traveler who doesn’t frequently travel business class or first class, I usually visit Priority Pass or Centurion Lounges by AMEX if I have the opportunity since neither require a premium cabin ticket. Don’t get me wrong, AMEX has some fantastic Centurion Lounges within their network, particularly from what I experienced in Dallas and Miami. Priority Pass also has excellent lounges within its network but most of the higher rated lounges are situated in Europe and Asia. Up until the opening of the Polaris Lounge in Chicago, the U.S. simply did not have a product that could compete with the business class lounges of Qatar Airlines, Etihad, Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, etc. United has expanded this product to San Francisco, Newark, and Houston. Polaris Lounges are considered the best airport lounges in the U.S. by many travel experts and bloggers. To get into the lounge, you need to have a business class or first class ticket on United Airlines or any of its Star Alliance partners (Turkish, ANA, Lufthansa, Singapore, etc.) In addition, you must be on an international long-haul flight that departs from Chicago O’Hare (or SFO, EWR, and HOU to access Polaris Lounge in those cities). This means a premium cabin flight to Canada, Mexico, Caribbean, or Central America will not get you into the lounge. If you have a first class or business class ticket to London and you are connecting in Newark, you won’t have access in Chicago but you would in Newark.  Chicago would need to be your point of international departure to have access to the Polaris lounge at O’Hare. I booked a business class ticket on Lufthansa to Lisbon, Portugal using United miles and thus had access to Polaris Lounge along with my wife. It’s not often that a place that’s been hyped up so much manages to live up to the lofty expectations. In this case, it not only lived up to it but exceeded it. My wife and I arrived at the lounge 5 hours prior to departure so we could experience just about every facet of what it had to offer.

     Location and Entrance

Polaris Lounge is located in the C concourse of Terminal 1 at O’Hare. This is NOT the international terminal. However, United has their hub at Terminal 1 so all United International flights and Star Alliance partners ANA and Lufthansa (except LH437 to Munich which departs from Terminal 5) depart from Terminal 1. If you are flying on another Star Alliance partner in a premium cabin (Swiss, Turkish, EVA, etc), you need to walk over to Terminal 3 and take the Terminal Transfer Bus (TTB) to Terminal 5. This allows you to bypass another security check. Getting back to the Polaris Lounge, once you clear security at Terminal 1, take the escalators down to a tunnel which has quirky rainbow lighting and automated people movers. When you reach the end of the tunnel, go up the escalator and the Polaris Lounge is located on the left near gate C17. If your flight departs from the B concourse, you’ll have to make the 5-minute walk under the tunnel to get the C concourse. Since the lounge is located air-side after security, you don’t have to worry about budgeting time to get through security and to your gate. Once you enter, the receptionist will scan your boarding pass and you’re on your way.

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The Polaris themed light fixture in the lobby was a great touch
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View of the front disk from the corridor

                        Polaris Lounge – Seating

One of the best attributes is the amount of seating this lounge offers. Since United only grants access to international travelers flying on a long-haul flight, this lounge will never have to worry about crowding issues. When my wife and I were there, I’d say the lounge was only about 1/3 full and never got any higher than that.

Polaris General Seating Area
Not a single person in this area of the lounge.

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As you can see in the pictures, absolutely no shortage of seats. United did a nice job with the variety of seats and lighting that is offered. If you prefer a darker environment, they have that. And if you want a lot of natural light or like to watch planes take-off and land, they have optimal seating for that as well

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This was my favorite seat.  Near the window and watching various jets take off and land.
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I was a big fan of these personal work areas that provided privacy but didn’t make you feel confined to a closed space. Excellent touch, United.

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                          Polaris Lounge- Buffet

This was one of my favorite aspects of visiting the lounge. If you’re going to visit any Polaris Lounge, please come hungry.  And pace yourselves. Their selection was the best I had ever seen at a U.S. lounge. And this was only the self-serve buffet!

PolarisMedSalad

PolarisMozarella
Stacked caprese salad with fresh mozzarella. This was delicious

PolarisPotPiePolarisSalmonTart

PolarisSalmonTeriyaki
The salmon teriyaki was excellent. Never had it before.
PolarisShrimpPasta
The shrimp baked pasta was also delicious. At this point, I had to keep it to a few bites if I wanted to experience the sit-down dining

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PolarisPastries
Eating any of the desserts meant there would be no hope for further food consumption. It was a tough mental battle but I willed myself into avoiding any of the pastries and desserts.
PolarisMiniBar
The minibar was stocked and had just about anything you’d want.
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Fruit infused water

                    Polaris Lounge – Full-Service Dining

This is another aspect of the lounge that differentiates it from other lounges. It has a full-service dining option that allows you to pick from a menu and have your meal made to order. PolarisMenuPolarisMenu2

Since my wife and I were there during the dinner hours, we chose to share a cheese tortellini and have our own ice cream. PolarisDiningPastaPolarisicecreamThe tortellini was amazing and the ice cream was great as well. I really wish I didn’t sample as much from the buffet prior to dining but lesson learned for next time. Please don’t make this same mistake. Just a reminder that even though the dining is complimentary, remember to tip the waitress/waiter. They really go above and beyond at Polaris Lounge and help make the experience what it is.

        Polaris Lounge – Bedroom and Shower

This lounge has 4 dedicated bedrooms if you want to catch a snooze prior to your flight. Linen from Saks 5th Avenue is provided for your comfort. None of the rooms were occupied during my time at the lounge and the rooms have a 3-hour limit if there is a queue.

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The corridor that leads to the bathrooms. This is separate from the shower rooms which are found behind the buffet area. The Polaris themed lighting on the ceiling going down the corridor was a great touch by United.

The shower area and bathroom were all well maintained and the receptionist was kind enough to give me a tour.

                     Polaris Lounge – Bar and Buffet Area

PolarisBarArea
The bar area was relatively empty and United did a great job with the blue ambiance.

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The buffet area was very elegant. Synced perfectly with the type of dishes that were being offered.

                         Polaris Lounge – Conclusion

As I mentioned above, this lounge exceeded my expectations and I had some very high expectations going in. Even though I forgot to measure the wifi speed, I can assure you it was very fast when I was connected through my cell phone. This lounge has it all-excellent dining, comfortable sleeping rooms, spacious shower rooms, a variety of seating areas, fast internet connectivity, a vibrant bar area, and more. The Polaris brand of lounges is the standard for U.S. lounges and I hope I have the opportunity to visit one again in the near future. This lounge gets a 5/5 rating.

Review: The Lounge Boston Logan International Airport

Review: The Lounge Boston Logan International Airport

During a recent trip from NYC to Chicago, we had a layover in Boston so we decided to stop by The Lounge at Logan International Airport. It was rather convenient since we were going to depart from Terminal C and that is also the same terminal where The Lounge is situated. This lounge is part of the Priority Pass network but also serves as a business class lounge for Aer Lingus and TAP Portugal as they both depart from Terminal C. I didn’t have any issues getting in since it wasn’t full but I have heard of incidents where Priority Pass cardholders were denied access when The Lounge expected a large influx of business class travelers flying on Aer Lingus or TAP Portugal. Since it is the only lounge in Terminal C, hours between 4pm-8pm are no sure thing for Priority Pass card holders.

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Receptionist Desk at The Lounge

Upon entering, I showed my Priority Pass card and the receptionist scanned it and told my wife and I that we were good to go. The lounge was 3/4 full and filling up when we entered. Not surprising considering that we got there on a Friday at 6pm.

If you’re a business traveler that needs a plug outlet, I highly recommend going all the way to the back of the lounge. They have outlets there and a semi-partition that will give you some privacy.

Once we got situated, I went to see the food offerings. I wasn’t really hungry but for the sake of the review, I helped myself to small portions of a few things. They had pasta salad, hummus with pita, veggie sandwich which consisted of cream cheese and cucumbers, vegetables, salad, soup (clam chowder), and snacks. The pasta salad was ok but nothing special. The hummus was decent and might have been the best item they had out there. The veggie sandwich was simple but surprisingly not terrible. I didn’t have the turkey sandwich so the jury is out on that. Seems like their benchmark was to be just good enough to not be bad (does that make sense?).  The refrigerator had no shortage of cold drinks though. That was a big plus.

I don’t partake in drinking alcohol but for those of you who do, the bar looked like it was stocked pretty well.

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Bar area

My biggest gripe during my time here was the lack of dedicated WiFi for this lounge. You are forced to use Logan’s public WiFi and the speed was painfully slow. It’s certainly not business traveler friendly. The bathrooms were clean so that was a nice plus.  I would rate this place a 3.2/5. If you happen to be in Terminal C, being at this lounge would still beat sitting in the gate area. However, if you’re departing from a different terminal, I would not recommend making a trip to Terminal C just for the sake of visiting this lounge.

Why The United MileagePlus Explorer Card is a Keeper

Why The United MileagePlus Explorer Card is a Keeper

 

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I just recently got an email from Chase and the new benefits that will be rolled out for the MileagePlus Explorer card. Starting from June 1st, cardholders will get 2x the miles on hotel and dining purchases (previously 1 mile/$1), $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA Precheck, and 25% off in-flight purchases. This is in addition to the two United Lounge passes that Chase gives every year upon renewing the card. All these perks are appealing and in the realm of basic economy, having an airline card assures you of being allowed to carry a bag that can be checked in or carried-on (if you book a basic economy fare). What happens if you don’t have an airline-branded credit card and you book the basic economy fare? You can only bring a bag that can fit under your sit. Anything that goes into the overhead bins would have to be paid for and airlines are starting to enforce this policy at the gate.

Many airline credit cards are popular for churning. This means you sign up and get approved for the card, rack up the bonus miles after hitting the minimum spend threshold and cancel the card within a year.  Then you’re free to apply those miles to that destination you’ve been saving up for. Since I find myself traveling between Chicago and the East Coast several times a year, I’ve held on to the United MileagePlus Explorer card as well as the Citi American AAdvantage Platinum to save on baggage fees and for the convenience of priority boarding (on super busy routes such as LGA to ORD, it assures overhead bin space). If there was only one credit card you wanted to pay an annual fee for, I wouldn’t recommend an airline-branded card since you’re married to that one airline if you want to reap the benefits. A credit card such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Reserve would be the better option since you have multiple airlines whose frequent flier programs you can utilize via transfer. But if you’re willing to pay for two cards and you live near a United hub (Chicago, D.C., Houston, Denver, San Francisco, Newark/NYC, and Los Angeles), the United MileagePlus Explorer credit card might be one of the most appealing airline-branded credit cards available. In addition to the benefits I outlined above, United offers exclusive mileage redemptions to cardmembers only.

The example itinerary I used is Chicago (ORD) to Cancun from July 29th-August 4. In both instances, we’re going to use award redemptions.  The first example is the redemption available if you are a Chase United MileagePlus credit card holder.

UAExORD2CUN
This is the segment from Chicago to Cancun. Two non-stop options available exclusively with the MileagePlus credit card for 17.5k miles.
UAExCUN2ORD
These are the options for the return. Three non-stop options if you hold the credit card. 35k miles for the roundtrip for one passenger.

Now let’s look at redemption availability if you want to book this same trip using United miles but you don’t hold the United MileagePlus Explorer credit card:

UAOrd2Cun
If you want the non-stop option, it will cost 25k miles rather than the 17.5k miles seen above.

 

UAOrd2Cun1stop
They do have one 17.5k redemption to get to Cancun but look at that disgusting itinerary. Not only are you departing at 6am but you have to switch airports in D.C. By the time you’re in Cancun, you’re spent.
UACun2ORd
The return trip to Chicago would cost 25k miles. There is no 17.5k option available for the return.

As you can see in the example above, having the Chase MileagePlus Explorer card means you’re using only 35k miles (plus the applicable taxes) with the benefit of having a non-stop flight on both legs of the journey. Without it, you’re using at a minimum, 42.5k miles and likely 50k miles if you want to have a non-stop each way and a productive first day in Cancun. How much is that 15k miles savings worth? The Points Guy values each United mile at 1.5 cents. 1.5 x 15k = $225. This is just an estimate but even if you valued it a bit lower, it becomes obvious the miles you saved by having the card is worth far more than the annual fee of $95 you’d be paying to keep the card. Again, this card isn’t for everyone and those who would benefit the most are travelers who live near a United hub. If you are an SPG or a Chase Sapphire Preferred/Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholder and you find yourself transferring Ultimate Rewards points or SPG points into United often, pairing the MileagePlus Explorer card with either of the three only enhances their value.

 

 

Photo source: http://www.chase.com

 

Chase Releases 5x Category for Chase Freedom

Chase Releases 5x Category for Chase Freedom

Chase has released their 5% quarterly categories for the 2nd Quarter (April-June) for the Chase Freedom credit card and there are some great opportunities to rack up the points. The categories are grocery stores, Chase Pay, and PayPal. Grocery stores are one of the most lucrative opportunities as most of them also sell gift cards for other retailers such as Amazon, department stores, and gas stations. If you happen to shop online, PayPal is now accepted at multiple websites and you can link the Chase Freedom to your PayPal account. The value of these points are further enhanced if you own the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred since you can transfer the points from Chase Freedom into either one of these cards. Make sure you activate the card prior to April and if you don’t have the card, it’s one I’d strongly recommend adding to your wallet. This card does not have an annual fee.

Travel Itinerary: 4 Days in Kauai

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. Kauai is known as the Garden Isle for its lush tropical landscape. Based on my experience, Kauai offers more seclusion than Maui and Oahu and more lush greenery than Big Island. All of the islands are special in their own way so I’d recommend experiencing all four.  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.

Kauai

 

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 or sneakers. You don’t need expensive hiking shoes and a $60 pair would do the job.  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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Overcast skies on our way to Napali Coast.

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The weather on this part of the island changes from hour to hour. If you open up any weather app on your smartphone and you see rain for the entire day, take that with a grain of salt. On our drive there, we had mostly overcast skies with drizzle here and there. By the time we started the hike, the clouds started clearing up and gave way to sunshine. Don’t get disappointed if you see overcast skies while you’re driving there. Just wait it out and hopefully the sun will appear.

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A view from the hiking trail. The skies cleared up about 40 minutes after we started hiking. 
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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. If you want to read about our most recent trip to Hawaii (Big Island), you can do that here. As always, thanks for reading.

Travel Itinerary: 7 Days in Costa Rica

Travel Itinerary: 7 Days 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.

Review: Conrad Maldives Rangali Island

Review: Conrad Maldives Rangali Island

Since there are several readers who have asked me about the Maldives and my accommodations during my stay there, I figured I would just do a proper review of the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island.  I have already made a post on the number of miles and points it took to book this trip and you can read about that here. The Maldives is one of the world’s premier beach destinations and there really isn’t any place like it. Crystal clear waters, an abundance of marine wildlife, and hospitality that is unparalleled regardless of the hotel you may choose. This particular Conrad is located on Rangali Island, an island that is part of the Alif Dhaal Atoll. The Maldives has 26 different atolls with some of them subdivided into two or three.

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The atolls of The Maldives.

Getting There

The only way to get to Rangali Island is via 45-minute seaplane flight on Transmaldivian Airways from the capital city of Male. The distance between the two islands is about 59 miles or 95 km.

Since my wife and I booked with Conrad,  our experience actually started upon landing at Velana International Airport in Male. The Conrad staff guided us to an exclusive Conrad Lounge as we waited for our seaplane to arrive. It’s very rare for a hotel to have a branded airport lounge and this was our first time experiencing one. The lounge was very spacious, had a decent selection of food and drinks, and was clean and well maintained. It also offered free Wi-Fi and couches that could be used as beds. It was much better than most airport lounges we’ve visited.

About 45 minutes later, our seaplane arrived and it was time to take the much-anticipated flight to Rangali Island.

Seaplane

 

I apologize for taking this video vertically.  The plane seats around 15 people and flies at an altitude of about 5,000 feet. You get some amazing views of the other atolls and islands on your way. It’s a loud flight due to the propellers but it was much smoother than I anticipated. Once we arrived, we boarded a golf cart that took us to our villa. The staff gave us a tour of the villa, the amenities, and explained to us in detail the services that they offer. We also found a complimentary bottle of sparkling grape juice and a fruit basket that had been left for us. You can see the video of our villa below.

 Retreat Water Villa (Overwater Villa)

Sorry again for the vertical video. Snapchat and Instagram have basically programmed me to do it this way.

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The stairs lead you straight into the water. I’d say the depth is around 7 feet.

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The path to the beach area
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Jacuzzi with a view
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Shower area
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Private spa room

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The various colors of the jacuzzi at night. 
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Majestic sunsets are the norm in the Maldives

As a Hilton Gold member, Conrad upgraded us from a water villa to a retreat water villa. The retreat water villa came with our own jacuzzi and also had a more private feel since the neighboring villas were several hundred feet away.  The villa itself was incredible. This property has won numerous awards including the best luxury resort in the world.  Each villa also included a private spa room with two massage tables. We didn’t use this service since all we wanted to do was be outside and soak in the sun. Each villa also has stairs which take you right into the water. I would estimate the depth to be around 7 feet right at the villas so if you don’t know how to swim, you might want to keep that in mind. It gets much shallower once you’re near the beach.

Dining

As Hilton Gold members, we were entitled to free breakfast, free afternoon tea at Mandhoo Spa Restaurant, and free cocktails/mocktails between 5-6pm. The breakfast had a large variety of options and I had something different every day. The afternoon tea at Mandhoo was more like a lunch since they also had sandwiches.  Purchasing meals at this property was quite pricey. I mean it is a Conrad Hotel after all.  To minimize meal costs, we would have breakfast at the latest possible time, around 10:30 am and then have the complimentary tea and lunch at Mandhoo Spa Restaurant at 4:30. Since this was pretty darn close to dinner time, we only utilized the Atoll Market for dinner once. Dinner can easily run past $120 a person so if that matters, it is something to beware of.   Conrad Maldives is also home to the Ithaa Undersea Restaurant. Unfortunately, all the daytime slots were reserved during our visit there and there was no point in making a reservation during the evening hours since you couldn’t see the marine wildlife.

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Mandhoo Restaurant
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Pastries, cookies, and tarts
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The roast beef sandwich and the fruit tart were delicious.
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A wide variety of teas
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You can help yourself to as many sandwiches you want

Other Areas of Conrad Maldives

This property actually has a total of three islands. Two of them (Rangali and Rangalifinolhu) are used to for guests and a third is used only for employees. To get from one island to another, we just called the front desk and they sent a golf cart which got us from place to place. You can certainly walk the distance if you wanted to but it would take a solid 25-30 minutes. You will save a ton of time by using the gold cart below.

I didn’t measure the Wi-Fi speed in the villa but it was pretty fast and I had no issues with connectivity. They also have a fantastic business center within a lounge on the second floor in case you needed one. I only used it for a few minutes to print out some documents but it had everything you needed. If you’re a Mac person, they had those as well. Great job Conrad!

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Lounge on the second floor
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Business center within the lounge

People have often asked what we did after sunset. We made it a point to go sleep by 8pm every day. Sunset was at 6:20pm so we woke up right at sunrise, around 6am, and made the most of our day. If you’re in a place like the Maldives, I’d strongly recommend waking up early and not sleeping in.  As far as activities, you can do excursions such as swimming with whale sharks or go scuba diving and jet skiing. If you’re used to paying a certain price for those activities, you will be paying double and triple that over here. Seeing the exorbitant costs, I just preferred to snorkel at the reef right off the island and swim in the waters right near my villa. If only they allowed to book excursions with miles. This Conrad also has two infinity pools, one on each island and all guests are allowed to use either. I took full advantage of that as well.

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The beach area at Rangali island. Both islands have beaches
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Infinity Pool 2. The Dhoni ferry in the background is another way to get from one island to another.
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The seaplane platform which is also used to connect Rangali Island to Rangalifinolhu Island. It’s beautifully lit in the evening

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When I made this reservation, I informed them that my wife’s birthday would be on the second day of our stay there. They remembered and when we entered our room after breakfast during the second day, housekeeping left a nice little gesture.

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They also surprised her with a delicious cake during dinner
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Night time was perfect for the jacuzzi

Final Thoughts

To sum it all up, fantastic resort, pristine beaches, excellent food, excellent service, super friendly and helpful staff, and an experience that I hope I’m able to be a part of again in the future. If you do decide to book at Conrad Rangali Island, having the AMEX Hilton Surpass card or the AMEX Platinum card and the Gold status that comes along with it will take you a long way. I estimated that I got over $700 in value just by having the card.

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View of the Conrad Rangali Island from the seaplane

Some of you have asked if you could take a speedboat rather than the seaplane to Rangali Island. From my understanding, the only way to get there is by seaplane. It’s way overpriced for what amounts to a 30-minute plane ride and unfortunately, if you don’t have miles that can be redeemed for cash (Chase Ultimate Rewards or AMEX Membership points), there really is no way around it. Transmaldivian Airways has a monopoly on this route so it probably won’t change anytime soon.  If the seaplane cost is a turnoff, keep in mind there are plenty of excellent hotels that only require a seaboat transfer from Male. The cost for that isn’t cheap either but it’ll save you about $500 for two people.

 

Getting the Dreaded SSSS On Your Boarding Pass

Getting the Dreaded SSSS On Your Boarding Pass

Traveling using frequent flier miles and points certainly has many advantages, such as making business class travel attainable for the casual traveler, and regardless of the ticket class you purchased, you’re saving money compared to booking with cash. However, there are instances where you might book using points from one airline in getting to your destination and use points for a different airline during your return. As far as I can remember, I haven’t ever used miles for the same airline going and coming back. For example, I’ve flown on United miles going to Europe while flying on American miles coming back multiple times. I was able to minimize the number of miles I needed to use by planning my itinerary this way. The only issue? Booking international tickets one way will often result in getting the dreaded SSSS on your boarding pass. SSSS stands for secondary selective screening selection. For me, the biggest giveaway that I’ll end up with SSSS on my boarding pass on the return trip is when I’m unable to check-in for my flight 24 hours before takeoff. The mobile app will tell me “please check in at the airport” or I’ll get an error message.  For a traveler that’s designated SSSS, the only way to get check-in is at the ticketing booth at the airport. When you receive your boarding pass at the airport, the capitalized SSSS will be highlighted by the ticketing agent. Once you are in line and the security and the customs officer scans your boarding pass, either a red light will flash or there will be beeping sound, alerting the agent of your SSSS designation.  It’s also important to note that there are other factors that may also be in play. Your name (there may be someone with the same name or similar that may be on the watch-list), the region you are traveling to and from, and your citizenship status could all play a role.

 

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My SSSS designation from Dubai to NYC last summer

Every country differs on their protocol for conducting the secondary screening. In Reykjavik, Iceland, I was taken a to a separate room and all the contents of my carry-on bag were removed. All electronics were swabbed and scanned and the procedure was completed in 10 minutes. The personnel were very friendly and explained what they were going to do in advance. In San Jose, Costa Rica, the security personnel gave me a pat down and searched my bag right at the gate. I actually hated this experience since almost everyone on my Southwest flight headed to Baltimore was already at the waiting area. I had 170 pair of eyeballs watching me as one agent thoroughly searched and swabbed my backpack and all its contents while the other gave me a thorough pat down.

There are also instances where you might get SSSS on your boarding pass when traveling domestic. This occurred in 2015 when my wife and I returned from Istanbul, Turkey. Istanbul was deemed as a high risk travel area (it still might be), and anyone returning home from that area was getting SSSS on their boarding pass for the ensuing months. Upon returning, my wife and I had domestic flight from Chicago (ORD) to NYC (LGA), a flight we had taken countless times. This time, we both received the SSSS on our boarding pass, much to our surprise. The TSA officer asked if we had been anywhere recently. I told him we were in Istanbul the prior week and he explained everyone coming back from that region was being selected for secondary screening. He wasn’t wrong as even people with TSA Pre-check and Global Entry were being flagged from secondary screening. In this instance, we were both given thorough pat downs (more like a massage) and had every electronic device swabbed and scanned. Our laptops had to be taken out and powered on. Even The Points Guy had a similar experience upon returning from Turkey around that same time and you can read about that here.

If you do get an SSSS on your ticket, be cooperative and understand that the security personnel are just following protocol and doing their jobs. It will make the process easier, quicker, and you’ll be on your way a lot sooner. During my recent trip to Argentina, my wife and I did not get the SSSS (finally!). But if you can’t check-in 24 hours in advance, budget more time than you normally would when heading to the airport.