Trip Review: Grand Cayman Island

During the second week of July, my wife, 9-month-old son, and I took a trip to Grand Cayman Island. Rather than do a separate hotel review, I’m going to combine everything into one post since there are a few relevant details which many of you may benefit from. We chose Grand Cayman Island for a few reasons. First of all, it’s about a 3.5-hour flight from Chicago and that’s approximately the maximum time for my son to be confined to an airline cabin before he really starts getting restless. When he was 5 months old and we took him on an 8-hour flight to Hawaii and he was perfectly fine. Once he hit the 7-month mark, even a 2-hour flight wasn’t easy. So with those considerations in mind, Europe, Asia, and Hawaii were out of the question. The second reason we chose Grand Cayman is that their beaches have been spared from the seaweed problem (sargassum) that has plagued destinations such as Cancun, Dominican Republic, Barbados, and even Florida. Most of these destinations are doing their best to remove it every morning but despite their efforts, it’s still noticeable. The third reason we chose Grand Cayman is that it is infant/toddler/kid-friendly.

Booking

For this trip, I was able to find saver level award tickets (tickets which require the least number of miles for a given route) on American Airlines for 30k miles per person round trip. Since my son is a lap infant, his ticket was free. The cash price for a round-trip flight from Chicago to Grand Cayman was $455 per person. Redeeming 60k miles for $910 worth of airfare was a decent redemption.

Owen Roberts International Airport does not have jet bridges so you have to walk down the stairs and onto the tarmac before getting into the airport terminal. The minute you land, you’re greeted by a musical band playing local music. It’s a perfect way to get the vacation vibes going.

   Sunshine Suites Resort

We stayed in a boutique hotel called Sunshine Suites Resort. It’s a 3.5-star hotel that is clean, comfortable, and very reasonably priced (usually between $140-$180/night). I saw its 4.5-star rating on Trip Advisor with over 2,000 reviews and that was good enough for me. Now, if you need luxury accommodations with an ocean view, this hotel is not for you. The main reason why I booked this hotel is we got to use all the amenities of the 5 star Westin Hotel which is a 5-minute walk down the street. Their pool, beach, beach towels, lounge chairs, gym, and access to its restaurants and bars are all included as part of the mandatory $35/day resort fee. The nightly price of the Westin was 3x the price of the Sunshine Suites. Since we were going to be out at the beach for a majority of the day anyway, all we needed was a comfortable place to sleep, shower, and get dressed and Sunshine Suites provided all that and more including complimentary breakfast. You can click on the video below to get an idea of the rooms and the property. FYI, if you don’t want to make the walk to the Westin, you can go to the front desk at Sunshine Suites and request a driver to drop you off in their golf cart. It works the same way if you want to come back from the Westin. Just let the front desk at the Westin know in that case.

 

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Sunshine Suites at night

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The pool at Sunshine Suites at night

The breakfast offerings were decent. A nice variety of pastries, pancakes, cereal, parfait, boiled eggs, toast, oatmeal, bananas, muffins, coffee, tea, orange juice, and apple juice. Sunshine Suites also had a restaurant on premises called Sunshine Grill which served lunch and dinner. This is not complimentary and does not come as part of an “all-inclusive” package. The fish tacos they served were delicious. If I can go back and have one meal in Grand Cayman, the fish tacos would be it.

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The Westin Hotel

Since we had access to all the amenities of the Westin, we would have breakfast and make our way there for the majority of the day.

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If you don’t want to walk here from Sunshine Suites, go to the front desk of Sunshine Suites and request to be dropped off via golf cart. This was a very convenient way to move around with our son.

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The pool and swim-up bar at the Westin

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The Westin Lobby

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View of The Westin from the beach area

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The pool has a pedestrian bridge that crosses over to the beach. You can swim underneath to get to either side.

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First pool experience for Zayn 

Seven Mile Beach

Once you cross over the pool to the beach area, you will be greeted by Westin employees who will direct you to lounge chairs and open up the umbrellas if you choose to have them open. Towels are available to the right of the pool and they must be checked out with your last name and room number of the property you’re staying at. Seven Mile Beach is simply amazing. Among all the beaches I have visited in my life,  I would rank it right behind the Maldives for water clarity.  There is no seaweed, no litter, it’s perfectly maintained, and waves are calm for water activities.

 

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The lounge chairs get occupied pretty quickly. The earlier you claim one in the morning the better.

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The water clarity makes it perfect for snorkeling at Seven Mile Beach so be sure to bring an underwater camera and snorkeling gear. You can also rent the gear from the hotel. Seven Mile Beach faces west and if the horizon is clear, you will be treated to some spectacular sunsets.  Even if the horizon isn’t 100% clear, the sun reflecting off the clouds will make a for a beautiful and colorful sky. SunsetGrandCayman

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A point of interest which might be worth visiting if you’re reading this is Stingray City. It wasn’t age-appropriate for a 9-month-old but if you have kids a bit older or you yourself want to experience swimming with stingrays, it’s only a 10-minute drive away.  Keep in mind that when driving in the Cayman Islands, you drive on the left side of the road as it is a British territory.

Some of you have asked if the food, water, and snacks are expensive and for the most part, they certainly are expensive. If you purchase from the hotel or even convenience stores right next to the hotel, it will cost you 3 to 4 times would you are used to paying for bottled water. I asked a local where I can just buy a case of water and he directed me to a large wholesale club called ‘Cost U Less’ which was just a 7-minute walk away. If you’re familiar with BJ’s Wholesale Club on the East Coast, this was basically their sister store. It even had the Wellsley Farms brand which is the store label for BJ’s. You don’t need a membership and while the prices aren’t U.S. wholesale club cheap, it’s far cheaper than any other place you will find on the island. If you’re staying at an Airbnb and decide to cook rather than eat out, this is a perfect place to shop for your ingredients since they also carry fresh produce, seafood, and meat.

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Concluding Thoughts

We had a great time at Grand Cayman Island and the service and hospitality at both the Sunshine Suites and Westin were top notch. I’ve never seen two hotels so well coordinated when it came to transporting passengers between the two properties and accommodating each other’s guests at their respective restaurants. If there is one other important tip you take from this, BRING MOSQUITO REPELLANT and bathe yourself in it. They are relentless and if there any parts of your body that doesn’t have the repellant touching it, they will find it, guaranteed.  As always, thanks for reading.

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Rum Point, Grand Cayman Island as seen from the ascent on American Airlines.

 

 

 

 

Review: Conrad Washington DC

 

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One of the newest hotels in Washington DC at just a couple of months old, my wife and I got to experience this beautiful property courtesy of our AMEX free weekend night certificates.  Unfortunately, the American Express Hilton Honors Ascend Card no longer has this benefit on the cardmember anniversary. Now you have to spend $15,000 in a given year to get the free night and I don’t think it’s worth forgoing points with Chase or AMEX Platinum/Gold to pursue a free night with Hilton in most instances. Since my wife and I both have the AMEX Hilton Honors Ascend Card, we were able to combine our free nights into a weekend stay. The nightly rate for our room was $450 so we got $900 worth of value plus $50 credit towards dining for the cost of the annual fee that we paid for both cards ($95 per card).

Check-In

When you walk into the hotel, take the elevator to the third floor. There is no second floor and the third floor is where the check-in desk, lounge, restaurant, and lobby is located. Upon checking in, the receptionist verified our Hilton Gold status, courtesy of the AMEX card and upgraded us to a room on the 9th floor. We were given a choice between 1,000 Hilton points and a $50 dining credit. We took the dining credit (please don’t ever take the points in this scenario). The receptionist was kind enough to give us a mini-tour of the hotel, Estuary restaurant, and some of the amenities this hotel offers.

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The circular lamp changes color each hour

My first impression when walking in was that this hotel did not have many 90 degree angles. The architect made a concerted effort to make the interior as curvy as possible. The lobby was beautiful and since the hotel was only 45 days old when we stayed, it still had that brand new scent.

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Looking down from the 10th floor to the lobby below.

Hotel Room

Our room was on the 9th floor which gave us a nice view of New York Street down below. Keeping up with the theme, the room was curvy but spacious and very comfortable.

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Coffee and snacks

As an avid coffee drinker, I always appreciate when a hotel provides a Keurig type machine with pods. The coffee was complimentary per usual but the snacks were completely overpriced. If you need snacks, there is a CVS across the street where you can get the same offerings for 1/4 of the price.

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The bathroom provided two sinks and a separate blurred door to the toilet so two people can use the bathroom simultaneously while still having some semblance of privacy.

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The toiletries were Shanghai Tang and the scent was very nice. Not too overpowering but not too light either. The room also provided slippers, a safe, laundry bag, iron, and bathrobes.

Estuary and Estuary Bar

Estuary is the restaurant on the premises which is located on the 3rd floor. We went there for breakfast on Saturday morning and ordered a custom made omelet and buttermilk pancakes. Both were delicious, albeit smaller in portion than your typical brunch diner.

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The Estuary Bar area was spacious and seating was plentiful during the day time. If there is an event going on at the hotel, it’ll likely get packed during the evening going into the late night hours. ConradLounge

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3rd Floor Terrace and Rooftop Bar

Since the hotel was only 45 days old during our stay, the Rooftop Bar was not officially open to guests so I could only take pictures from behind the glass door. At this time, it’s likely open and running.  The 3rd-floor terrace was open for use.

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View from the Rooftop Bar

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The Terrace on the 3rd-floor

Fitness Center

The fitness center was one of the better ones I had seen at a hotel. Upon entering, guests are greeted with towels, earphones, and apples.

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There are multiple treadmills, elliptical machines, and stationary bikes

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If you’re into lifting, they have that covered as well.

Miscellaneous

Although I forgot to measure the internet speed, I had no issues with speed or Wi-Fi connectivity. If you are planning to park your car at the Conrad, the price of parking at their garage was $36 a day. I opted to use the Parkwhiz app and found a garage two blocks away which allowed me to park for $14. There is also metered parking on the street but it has a 3-hour time limit during business hours and it’s free overnight. One of the most appealing aspects of staying at Conrad DC is that the National Mall, White House, Capitol building, Smithsonian, and many other points of interest are only 10-15 minutes away by walking. I also want to acknowledge the receptionists on the 3rd floor who always gave us complimentary bottles of water whenever we walked by. The staff made an excellent stay that much better. We look forward to coming back in the future.

 

 

 

 

Travel Itinerary: 6 Days in Portugal

This is a long overdue post of our itinerary to Portugal from our trip over the summer. I had finished more than half of this post but never got around to completing it. Since I have a bit of time and with summer just a couple of months away, this is probably the ideal time to finish it since it people are likely in their planning stages at the moment.

Day 1: Arrival

We departed Chicago O’Hare at 10:48 pm on June 24th and were set to arrive at Frankfurt, Germany at 1:50 pm. Since we booked business class on Lufthansa using United MileagePlus miles, we got to enjoy the Polaris Lounge in Chicago as well as the Lufthansa Business Class Lounge in Frankfurt. You can read about the Polaris Lounge here and the Lufthansa Business Class Lounge here. Our layover in Frankfurt was over 7 hours so having access to the amenities of the Lufthansa Business Class Lounge was extremely helpful. We didn’t arrive in Lisbon until after 11:00 pm. Once we arrived, we walked over to the Hertz counter and my car was ready for pick up in the adjacent parking lot. There wasn’t a line (presumably due to the late arrival) and everything was straight forward. We drove to the Holiday Inn Express where we would spend the night before driving about 3 hours south to the Algarve region early the next morning.

Day 2: Lagos

We arrived in Lagos around 1:00 pm and decided to go straight to our hotel, Cascade Wellness and Lifestyle Resort. This was an amazing property which deserves a review in itself and I’ll get to that. Since they had a room available, they allowed us to check in early and greeted us with complimentary tropical beverages. The property has a gate that leads you to a walking path right along the cliffs. Just for its proximity to the cliffs, this resort was worth it.

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If you do walk the trail along the cliffs, please don’t get yourself too close to the edge. There have been people who fell to their deaths when they were taking selfies and lost track of the distance. The water below has jagged rocks and it will do some serious damage. Once we were done with the hike, we took a short drive to the colorful town of the Lagos that was about 10 minutes away.

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The town of Lagos was one of my favorite small towns in all of Europe. There’s a nice vibe during the summer and everywhere you look, you’ll see the summer colors and unique paintings and patterns on tiles and on the facades of many buildings. Painted tiles are a huge part of Portugal’s artistic history dating back several hundred years. There are other cities in Europe that incorporate it within their architecture but none do it as effortlessly as Lagos. Even their walking paths are tiled (this can get a bit tricky when it rains though).

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Several of the restaurants in Lagos offers outdoor seating and the summer months are perfect for it. And speaking of restaurants in Lagos, there is one thing you should know when eating out. When the waiter or waitress puts bread and butter on your table, this is not a complimentary appetizer. It’s common practice within the U.S. that if you are brought bread/butter, tortilla chips with dip, or anything else that you didn’t order to your table prior to having your meal served, it’s a complimentary item that you don’t pay for. In Lagos, if you consume the bread and butter, it will be added to your check. If you don’t eat it, it’s omitted. They probably make a killing with thousands of tourists not knowing any better until they get their check. And if you finish the serving of bread, they will bring more, you might eat more, and that’s another easy 5 euros for them. Don’t be gotten.

Day 3: Lagos

Our third day in Lagos was one which I was really looking forward to since I had booked a kayaking tour that would allow me to kayak around the rock formations and cliffs that the Algarve region of Portugal is known for. Since my wife was well into her pregnancy at this time, she wasn’t able to go so I booked the morning tour which would also allow her to sleep in. This tour only had kayaks for two people and both spots in the kayak had to be filled. Since I was solo, they partnered me with another person who was also solo (if you’re reading this, thanks for being a great partner Stephanie. And sorry for hitting your head with the paddle.)  If you find yourself in the Algarve region, I highly recommend doing the kayaking tour. If you’re worried about bringing your phone on the kayak, get a waterproof pouch or bring a GoPro and a GoPro mount. The picture opportunities you will get here are postcard-worthy.

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The entire tour takes about 2 hours with a stop on a remote beach in between. You kayak with the tour guide going one-way and there’s a boat that tugs everyone’s kayak back for the return. Wear plenty of sunscreen as you will likely have non-stop sun exposure during the tour.

Later on in the day, we decided to visit the beaches in the area. The one that really stood out was Camilo Beach. Crisp clean water, beautiful scenery, and plenty of space to lay your towel on the sand and just relax. The water was a lot cooler than I had expected but that was not going to deter me from getting in. There is a parking lot available if you want to get to Camilo Beach but the spots get taken pretty fast. Once you park, you have to walk down several flights of wooden stairs but the views from atop are spectacular.

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View of Camilo Beach near the parking lot

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View of Camilo Beach from the water about 30 yards out

Once we wrapped up our day at the beach, we stopped by the town of Lagos for dinner and it was back to the hotel to prepare for the following day.

Day 4: Lagos and Lisbon

Our rental car was due back at the Hertz at Lisbon Airport by 10 pm. This gave us the morning and early afternoon to check out the rock formations of Ponta da Piedade in Lagos. There is a parking lot that can fit many cars (though it likely will fill up fast during peak season) and you can take several flights of stairs down near the water.

 

I decided to take a hike up one of the “mini peaks”. There is only room for 3-4 people but it’s so worth it for the views.

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Nature carving out a heart

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Ponta da Piedade was our final stop in the Algarve region of Portugal. Now it was time to drive up north to Lisbon and see what that beautiful city had to offer.

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When we arrived in Lisbon later that afternoon, there were overcast skies and a few ominous looking clouds. We thought it would be pretty blah type of day. Fortunately, the clouds moved on and there was sunshine just a couple of hours after we checked into our hotel.

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View of the terracotta rooftops from our room at the Intercontinental, Lisbon

This gave us the opportunity to explore outside our hotel and walk around the city. There is no better way to get a flavor for a city than doing it on your feet. We walked on Av. da Liberdade and just kept going and going.  The further we went towards the shopping district, the more it felt like the Las Ramblas area of Barcelona, Spain. Since the World Cup was ongoing and Portugal was still alive (this would change in a few days), there was a vibrant and festive atmosphere no matter where you turned in Lisbon.

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Monument to the Restorers in Restauradores Square

 

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While we were walking through Av. da Liberdade, we ended up taking a few turns that led us to a trendy shopping area called Baixa. This neighborhood had excellent shopping, dining, and chic hotels and lounges.

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The trendy Baixa neighborhood of Lisbon

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Cobblestone streets of the Baixa neighborhood of Lisbon.

We found a hotel called Hotel do Chiado and on the 8th floor, they had a rooftop lounge called Entrentato. No reservations were needed and there was plenty of seating available. The views of the city and red terracotta roofs were awesome. LisbonRoofs

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If you find yourself in this area check out Entretanto. Baixa also has a historic elevator called Santa Justa Lift that you can experience for 5.30 euros. It takes you to the top and gives you panoramic views of the city from a slightly different perspective. We did not do this since the wait time was over an hour and the rooftop lounge took care of the views we were looking for.

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Santa Justa Lift

Day 5: Lisbon

The first thing on the agenda for today was going to a place called Pasteis de Belem and have their famous custard pastries. You will find imitators throughout Lisbon but this place is the original. They’ve been churning out their famous custard pastries since 1837. If you come to Lisbon, you cannot leave without visiting this place. You just can’t.

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Why I don’t see these things in American bakeries, I have no idea. We’re missing out.

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You will likely encounter a line outside the entrance to get in but it moves fast.

Once we were done eating, we took a walk around the area to see some interesting points of interest. First among them was Jeronimos Monastery. Construction on this building started in 1501 and was not finished until about 100 years later. If you’re into Gothic architecture, this building is a classic example of Portuguese Gothic architecture which can be found all over Lisbon. Jeronimos Monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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After walking around Belem, we took a 15 minute Uber ride to the neighborhood of Bairro Alto upon the recommendation of locals. Bairro Alto is known for its sloping and cobblestone streets, tiled buildings, and colorful facades. LisbonBridge

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This quarter of the city was one of my favorites and really what I envisioned what Lisbon would be. It had a unique charm and it felt like it wasn’t trafficked by as many tourists as Baixa and Belem. There were plenty of cafes, restaurants, and local shops.  Walking was easy going downhill but uphill was occasionally a struggle. Your best bet is to walk downhill and take the trolley going back up.

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Streets that slope downward and give you unobstructed views of the Tagus River are found in Bairro Alto

As we kept walking, we recognized some of the places we had been to the day before and didn’t realize initially Baixa was adjacent to Bairro Alto.

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Many Portuguese restaurants in Lisbon serve ceviche which is raw fish cured with citrus juices and spiced with peppers and other seasonings. Since this was my first ever trip to Portugal, I didn’t want to take a chance on ruining my stomach so I avoided ceviche but it is a local favorite.

Day 6: Sintra and Lisbon

Sintra is a small town about that’s about a 45 minute Uber ride from Lisbon and is home to the Palace of Pena. If you’re in Lisbon, I highly recommend taking the trip to this part of Portugal and experiencing the Palace of Pena for yourself. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was completed in 1854. It served as the home for Portuguese royalty until the late 19th century and was converted into a museum in 1910. The Palace of Pena has a facade that’s composed of vivid colors and architecture that incorporates Romanticism, Neo-Gothic, and Neo-Renaissance. If you are going to visit, I highly recommend not driving to Sintra!  The roads are very narrow to go up the hill and parking is almost non-existent. Uber or Taxi will drop you off near the ticketing office. If you haven’t purchased your tickets online, you can do so from the ticket windows. Tickets to get into the Palace of Pena cost 14 euros for adults, and 12.50 euros for children and seniors.  From there you can take the arduous 1 km hike up to the castle or you can pay 3 euros to take the shuttle. We took the shuttle and I don’t regret that decision one bit. Everyone we saw walking up the hill looked winded and tired. CastlePena

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They also have a cafe on the premises as well as a souvenir shop. You should budget at least 2 hours here and possibly more if you’re a really detail-oriented person.  When you’re outside on the Arches Yard, you get a beautiful panoramic view of Sintra and other points of interest such as the Moorish Castle.

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Moorish Castle as seen from Arches Yard at the Palace of Pena.

When you’re exiting the Palace of Pena, you take the same shuttle that bought you there and it will drop you off near the ticketing area. The shuttle runs once every 15-20 minutes. Cars are not allowed to pick up passengers in this area. To get down to the town of Sintra below, we paid 10 euros for a ride on a tuk-tuk. Sintra itself is a small quaint town with nice restaurants, cafes, shops, and really nice vibes.

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Once we were done walking around Sintra, we took an Uber back to Lisbon. Portugal’s soccer match vs Uruguay was going to start shortly and we did not want to miss the various viewing parties that were occurring throughout Lisbon.

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At this point, Portugal was down 2-1 to Uruguay and you can see the look of consternation on the faces of many Portugal fans as the clock keeps ticking away. I wanted Portugal to win badly so I could witness the euphoria of fans who genuinely live and die with soccer every year. It just wasn’t meant to be and the atmosphere around Lisbon went from festive to somber as the final seconds ticked off the clock. The build-up leading up to this game was incredible and witnessing fans slam tables, curse at the TV, and explain to their friends why Portugal sucked, I knew exactly what they were going through. In a sense, it was comforting to know that the same type of behavior I exhibit when the Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, or Cubs are playing terribly is universally practiced. Once the game ended, my wife and I got dinner and called it a night. Our flight back to the U.S. was early next morning so getting sleep was definitely on our minds. This concluded our memorable trip to Portugal.

Recap

We tried to fit as much as we could into a 6-day itinerary to Portugal.  Although we didn’t get to visit it this time, we hope to visit the city of Porto the next time we visit Portugal. For us, it came down to Lisbon plus either Algarve or Porto. Since there would have been some overlap with Porto and Lisbon, both being proper cities, we decided to skip Porto this time and visit a region that was completely different from either. Lisbon and Algarve have not been overrun by tourists the way London, Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Rome have. If you are planning to go, do it before Europe’s best-kept secret is no longer a secret. As always, thanks for reading.

Review: Renting a Car With Turo

During my recent trip to The Big Island of Hawaii, I decided to give Turo a shot since car rental prices for a 5-day trip were ridiculously expensive. When I entered my travel dates on Kayak, the cheapest rate I found was $568 for a Ford Fiesta. Having a car in The Big Island is almost a necessity if you don’t plan on spending your entire time on a resort because the island is bigger than all the other Hawaiian islands combined. If you’re staying near one of their two major towns, Kona or Hilo which are on the opposite sides of the island, the driving time to get from one to another is about 2 hours. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is closer to Hilo and a 2-hour drive from Kona without making any stops. The time will increase significantly if you stop at viewpoints and other points of interest along the way (you really should). You can also take the mass-transit bus but it’s more than 3 hours each way and you’ll regret not being able to stop at places along the way. But man, $568 for a Ford Fiesta. I was looking for a compact car that would get great gas mileage but also comfortably fit an infant car seat such as a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla. Those types of cars were going for $615 for 5 days and since my goal was not to offset the savings I had on my flight (I redeemed AA miles) by splurging on a car rental, I turned to Turo and see what they offered.

 Booking Process

Turo markets themselves as the Airbnb for cars. Regular people make their cars available to rent and you can often get luxury cars or convertibles for the price of a standard car at a rental company like Hertz. I found a compact car (Dodge Dart) going for $280 for 5 days on Turo and the car owner had a near perfect rating with over 30 reviews.  I booked the Dodge Dart which also included 500 miles (extra 45 cents/mile if I went over) and bought their standard insurance coverage for $10 a day. Even after adding that to the cost of the rental, it was still significantly cheaper than what the standard car rental agencies were offering.   It is important to note that credit card companies will not cover damage on car rentals from Turo. If you decide not to purchase any of the three tiers of collision coverage that Turo offers, you will be liable for any damages.

                                     Picking Up The Car

Prior to departing DFW for our flight to Kona, I gave the car owner our flight info and he responded back immediately with directions on how to get the car. Once we landed, he sent me a video which showed me where the car was parked in the airport parking lot and how to walk over to the parking lot. It was right across the street from the baggage claim with the keys in the glove compartment. No lines, no waiting, no hassle. Since he took a ticket to get the car into the parking lot, he told me to pay whatever the total amount was upon exiting and to keep the receipt. That fee would be reimbursed. He also gave me his cellphone number and told me to give him a call in case any issues would arise.

The Dodge Dart I rented was big enough to fit two suitcases in the trunk and had plenty of space to install the base of the car seat as well as the car seat itself. Gas was $3.62/gallon for regular so having a fuel-efficient car was optimal since I knew I’d be driving at least 450 miles in the 5 days we were there. I ended up driving 494 miles, most of that being the round-trip from Waikoloa to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Everything worked as it should and the AC was very cool and needed for the mid-80’s temperatures.

Returning The Car

We were set to return our car to the airport parking lot by 8 pm but our flight was closer to midnight. Our car owner (Anthony) said it wouldn’t be a problem at all if we returned the car at 10:15 pm so we would not have to spend close to 4 hours at the airport. I got to the airport parking lot, pulled out a ticket, and parked the car near the same area where I picked it up. I took a picture of the car and texted it to show him where it was parked. This was basically the “checkout” process. The picking up and dropping off process may differ with every car owner. I was very happy with my experience renting from Turo as it saved me both time and money. Anthony was an awesome dude and he asked me to spread the word about his cars. He has multiple cars available for rent in Kona on The Big Island, Kauai, and Honolulu. His rating is close to perfect so I highly recommend renting from him. In addition, if you use my link right here, you will save $25 off your first rental from Turo.

Travel Itinerary: 5 Days in Big Island Hawaii

Big Island was the fourth Hawaiian Island my wife and I visited. This trip was also our first long distance trip with our 5-month-old son so there was a bit of uncertainty on how he would handle being in a plane for 8+ hours. Fortunately, he was very well behaved and this gave us a ton of confidence in doing future trips with him. During this trip to Hawaii, we did encounter a day of heavy rain and another day where the eastern half of the island had rain so we could not see certain points of interest. This forced us to cancel a couple of sights we had planned to see. However, there was a positive trade-off of being “stuck” on the resort and you will see why as you keep reading.

Day 1: Arrival

We arrived at Kona International Airport on the Big Island at around 3pm. Since we rented a car from Turo (you can read my review on Turo and our experience here), it was a matter of collecting our luggage and walking to the airport parking lot where our car was already waiting for us with the keys inside. The distance to Hilton Waikoloa Village from the airport was about 20 miles and a 30-minute drive. On the way to the resort, we stopped at a lookout point to take in the scenery. If you see a lookout point anywhere, just stop your car and enjoy the views.

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Vegetation growth on volcanic rock at a lookout point.  The Big Island is home to multiple volcanoes, some which are still very active.

Since sunset was around 6:15 pm and by the time we got situated it was already close to 5 pm, we spent the rest of the time on the resort to enjoy the sunset views.

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I’ll have a separate review on the Hilton Waikoloa Village but this was a wonderful property that was very kid-friendly.

 Day 2: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Stops Along the Way

On the second day, I drove from Waikoloa to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park while making a few stops in between. I downloaded the Gypsy App specific for Big Island and it guided me on where to make stops in between Waikoloa and Volcanoes National Park. It costs $9.99 and you do not need to have data for it to work. The most appealing aspect of this app is that the narrator gives you historical context with regards to culture and geology at various stopping points and why it might be worth stopping or skipping. The app serves as a very knowledgeable tour guide and I highly recommend using it for Big Island.

 

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The Gypsy App is available for each Hawaiian Island. I highly recommend it.

Places of Interest En Route To Volcanoes National Park

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A lava field lookout point on the way to Volcanoes National Park.

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This viewpoint is right off the side of the road.

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This is one of the places you should definitely stop by on the way to Volcanoes National Park.

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Punalu’u Black Sand Beach

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Sea turtles basking in the sun at Punalu’u Black Sand Beach.

Punalu’u Black Sand Beach Park was the last place I stopped prior to entering Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. There are a few other points of interest after this one such as South Point (southernmost point out of all the 50 states) and Papakolea Beach which is a green sand beach. Getting to the beach does require over 2 hours of hiking and I did not want to run out of daylight where I’d be hurrying at Volcanoes National Park. I skipped these two but if you find yourself leaving prior to sunrise from Kona or if you’re staying in Hilo, you’d have plenty of time to see both of these places.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

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VNPSign I’ve been asked if I bought my 5-month-old to this park and the answer is no. Since the steam vents emit sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide gas, I did not want to expose my son to potential lung irritants. If you’re pregnant, have heart problems, asthma, or COPD, it’s probably best to avoid the steam vents at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

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One of the many steam vents that are found in the park.

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The Kilauea Caldera. You can either park at the visitors center and take a half mile hike to get here or you can just park on the road and walk a few hundred feet. I chose to do the hike so I would get to see most of the steam vents along the path.

There were some parts of the park that were still closed due to the eruptions from 2018. The lava tubes were also not accessible during this time. As you continue your drive through the park, I highly recommend taking Chain of Craters Road all the way down to to the coast. It’s about 20 miles from the caldera and drive is one of the best you will find in any of the 50 states. Pictures really don’t do it justice so I took a short video so you get a better idea.

You will also find plenty of amazing photo opportunities and other points of interest.

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One of the scenic viewpoints on Chain of Craters Road.

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Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs Field

Closer to the shore, you will find a sign for the Pu’u Loa Petroglyphs Field.  This area is considered sacred to the people of Hawaii and you will find many symbols and images that were carved into the hardened lava. It’s 1.4-mile round-trip hike and I highly recommend it. Further down the road, you will see cliffs that are made from lava. This is the newest land on the Big Island and it’s made when lava hits the water and solidifies into rock.

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Chain of Craters Road on the way back also has stunning views.

Day 3: Pololu Valley and Stops Along the Way

On this day, there was rain in the forecast after 2 pm so I made it a point to get this hike done as early as possible. The mornings also have cooler temperatures so it makes for a much more comfortable hike as it is. Pololu Valley is about a 45-minute drive from Waikoloa and about 1 hour and 15 minutes from Kona. You can just park your car on the road and enjoy the views from the look-out but if you really want to get the splendid views of the valley, you should do the hike. The hike down isn’t difficult but it can be slippery at times due to the frequent rainfall in the area. The hike going back up is moderately challenging and you will certainly need plenty of water and some granola bars.

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Pololu Lookout. If you decide not to do the hike, you still can’t go wrong with these views.

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Pololu Valley from the parking area

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The Black Sand Beach once you hike your way to the bottom.

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This is the view you hike down for.

 

Waimea Valley is nearby and also offers spectacular views. However, hiking there does require that you go on private property and that would be considered trespassing. You can also drive down there but you would definitely need an AWD or 4WD vehicle with some clearance.

Day 4: Whale Watching From Hilton Waikoloa Village (due to rain)

On this day, the plan was to go to Akaka Falls. If you are in Big Island, please make an attempt to visit Akaka Falls because it is beautiful from the many pictures and videos I have seen. Unfortunately, a lot of rain moved in and it basically spanned the entire island. But there was a silver lining.  As I’ve mentioned before, winter is humpback whale season in Hawaii. Mothers and calves are near the coasts of every Hawaiian island and this is the time when mothers teach their young on how to be whales. Since our resort was right on the shore, I took my camera and started filming the minute someone pointed out the whales in the distance. Then they started coming closer and closer.

Out of nowhere, the mother whale breached the water and I was lucky enough to have my camera recording. I do want to apologize for the grainy quality.

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Two humpback whales right off the shore of Hilton Waikoloa Village

Whales were seen 4 out of the 5 days we stayed at Hilton Waikoloa Village and it really made it fun and exciting for the kids who were also whale watching.

Day 5: Snorkeling in the Hilton Waikoloa Village Lagoon and visit to Kona

Day 5 was supposed to be a visit to either Akaka Falls or the green sand beach for the second day during our trip both those of places had rain in the forecast while our side of the island was bright and sunny. I used this time to go snorkeling.

 

 

This property does not have an ocean front beach due to the powerful waves and riptide currents that are common along the Big Island. It does have a lagoon with sand that functions as a beach and the lagoon is excellent for swimming and snorkeling. I saw plenty of colorful fish and several sea turtles, one which I was able to follow for almost two minutes.

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For dinner, we were recommended Umekes Fishmarket Bar and Grill in Kona by the owner of the vehicle we rented from Turo. We ordered the Tempura Battered Fish & Chips and Cajun Style Ahi Fish Tacos. Both of the items we ordered were perfect.

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This concluded our trip to the Big Island in Hawaii. A popular question I get asked is among the four islands I have visited, which one is my favorite? I really can’t say I have one. Each island has its own unique charm and offers something different for everyone. The Big Island has a volcanic landscape that’s so vast, it can’t be seen anywhere else in Hawaii. It also has stunning valleys, excellent beaches, and a green sand beach that can’t be found on any other Hawaiian island. Since it is not as heavily trafficked by tourists, you get a better flavor of Hawaiian culture throughout the island. Big Island is also known for its coffee and macadamia nuts. If you have the time, you should visit a coffee or a macadamia nut farm.  But just like the other Hawaiian islands my wife and I have been fortunate to visit, the locals are wonderful. They are some of the nicest and friendliest people in the world. The physical beauty of the islands is certainly attractive and makes for great pictures but it’s the Hawaiian people and their hospitality that keeps us coming back. We look forward to coming back sometime in the near future. As always, thanks for reading.

Chase Adds JetBlue as a Transfer Partner, Loses Korean Airlines

Chase added JetBlue as an Ultimate Rewards transfer partner today, a few days after losing Korean Airlines. JetBlue is one of my favorite U.S. airlines and one of the few that isn’t packing their planes with seats at the expense of leg-room. They provide free in-flight Wi-Fi, free cable TV, and serve gourmet snacks on the flight. I have not flown on their transcontinental premium cabin called Mint just yet.  It is a product which many travel enthusiasts have rated as the best business class service for domestic flights in the U.S. JetBlue routinely has flash sales and when the cash price of a ticket is cheap, so is the redemption using their frequent flier miles for that particular flight. If you’re based in the Boston, NYC, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, and Los Angeles areas where JetBlue has a vast network, you will benefit from this partnership the most. You can transfer UR points into JetBlue if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve or the Chase Sapphire Preferred. If you have the AMEX Platinum or Gold, you can also transfer AMEX Membership points. Most of the time, the transfer rate is 1000 AMEX points for 800 JetBlue TrueBlue miles (right now its 1:1 as a promotion) so I would advise against using the AMEX option at the non-promotional rate. Chase has it as 1:1 but also remember to use the Chase Portal and see if you can get a better redemption if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve. You get 1.5 points per mile by booking through their portal and it’s certainly possible that the UR travel portal may be the better redemption option versus transferring to JetBlue.

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Unfortunately, this comes a few days after the news that Chase has dropped Korean Airlines as one of their transfer partners. For international and long-haul travel, this was a very valuable SkyTeam transfer partner as you were able to get great travel redemption’s on SkyTeam alliance partners such as Delta, KLM, Air France, Alitalia, Aerolineas Argentinas, and non-alliance partners such as Emirates. From the continental U.S., it was possible to fly from the East Coast to Hawaii for 25k miles round-trip, a bargain when you consider the cash price frequently tops $1k. Here is to hoping that Chase adds another transfer partner that has a vast international network such as Korean Airlines.

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.

Frontier Airlines Announces Service to Albany International Airport. Seats Available for $39 Each Way.

Beginning in September, Albany will have their first ultra low-cost carrier in Frontier Airlines. Frontier will fly to Denver beginning September 17th and Orlando from October 2nd. They have introductory fares for as low as $39 each way. This is a nice addition to the Capital Region as flights to Orlando will likely get cheaper on Southwest and JetBlue to better compete with Frontier. Flights to Denver on Southwest should also see downward pressure. If these flights do well, Frontier could make these year-round routes rather than seasonal and could potentionally open up ALB to other leisure destinations.  It could also attract another airline such as Spirit to start service at ALB. For more info on the route, you can read about it here

Earn United MileagePlus Miles For Filling Gas at BP

United and BP have partnered up to allow you to earn United MileagePlus miles for simply filling up at any BP gas station. All you have to do is have a MileagePlus account, sign up for BP rewards, and link the two together. If you link a debit or credit card and use it to purchase gas, you will earn 2 to 3 miles per dollar (depending on the fuel grade). There is absolutely no added cost for you to earn the miles so if you’re located near a BP, this is a great opportunity to earn miles on something you might have to do anyway. If you have a United account, just follow the steps below to link your MileagePlus number with BP Driver Rewards. If you already have a BP Driver Rewards account, you can enter the number while signing up. If not, it will automatically generate an account number for you.

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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.