Exotic Travel on a Budget, Fact vs. Fiction: Tahiti vs. Riviera Maya

Earlier today, I saw an article claiming that it was somehow possible to travel to Bora Bora on a “budget” with all kinds of tips and tricks for achieving this dream vacation without breaking the bank. While the article claimed that technically this was possible, the reality is that Bora Bora is a very expensive and quite exotic destination. As a savvy traveler who knows how to find lots of incredible deals to avoid paying “retail”, I know that there are just some destinations that require quite a splurge in spending. Bora Bora is one of those destinations. Retail price will easily set you back $10K for a couple simply flying economy!

Two round-trip tickets to Tahiti in Business Class on Air Tahiti Nui? One could use 250,000 AA miles to fly on Air Tahiti Nui. The average traveler doesn’t have 250,000 airline miles just sitting around to snag two Business Class tickets for a couple to jet over to Tahiti.  Many of us in the miles hobby know this is achievable with the right credit cards and earning tools but not everyone has the desire or patience. I certainly don’t write on this blog to sell fantasies of signing up for a credit card or two and all of a sudden you’re jetsetting around the globe in first class daily!

 

Tulum: Featuring Gorgeous Beaches, Flanked by Mayan Ruins

Actual Deal: Riviera Maya, Mexico- Playa Del Carmen & Tulum

While Mexico may not be as “exotic” as Tahiti, here’s a sample vacation that can make you feel like royalty while you lay in the white sands of the Caribbean.

Off-Peak Dates: September 7 – November 14

Easy to access from just about anywhere in the U.S., the Rivieria Maya has become and extremely popular yet still peaceful and enjoyable. Cancun is quite commercialized for me and the smaller towns of Playa Del Carmen and Tulum are much more peaceful, offering something for everyone. The Riviera Maya is great for solo travelers, couples, or families of any age. For the scenario below, I’ve used the sample dates of Oct 20-27, 2015. Sample AAdvantage fees are Denver to Cancun round-trip.

2 Round-trip Economy Tickets from U.S. to Cancun: 50,000 AAdvantage miles + $164 award taxes & fees

7 Nights for 2 Adults at Dreams Tulum Resort, All-Inclusive: $324/night = $2271 total inc. taxes 

Round-trip private transfer in Chevy Suburban from Cancun airport to resort: $250

Dreams Resorts is one of the most highly regarded all-inclusive hotel brands. Source: Orbitz.com
Dreams Resorts is one of the most highly regarded all-inclusive hotel brands.
Source: Orbitz.com

Since Dreams Tulum is an all-inclusive resort, you don’t need to budget for your daily food and drink expenses. Your entertainment on the resort is also included although excursions off the resort and spa services are typically an additional cost. Currently, there is a promotion for a $400 resort credit with your booking to use for items like spa services, upgraded meals, or excursions.

Grand total for two, we’re looking at 50,000 AAdvantage miles and $2,685 out of pocket for a very nice week-long getaway in Mexico at a prime resort. Not a bad deal!

Some of you are rolling your eyes at me as you think about all the Starwood points or HHonors points you would have redeemed for a resort stay. But the reality is, John  Doe who’s just getting into the points and miles game, doesn’t have hundreds of thousands of points in multiple airlines and hotel currencies. Most folks have a small balance in various accounts but tend to accrue miles with one airline or one transferable points currency like Amex Membership Rewards.

Why do I consider this a good deal?

  • You’re saving 20,000 AAdvantage miles on two tickets by flying off-peak vs peak.
  • Rooms during the peak season are easily $100 more per night, if not more.
  • It’s all-inclusive! Don’t knock it until you try it. The vast majority of folks who try high-end, all-inclusive resorts, love them.

Do you agree that this is a deal? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Trip Report: Cathay Pacific 777 Regional Business Class, Hong Kong to Taipei

Cathay Pacific is well renowned for it’s exceptional in-flight service and it’s short haul regional service is no exception!

On a recent trip to Hong Kong, we took a side trip to Taipei, redeeming 36,000 Avios and roughly $70 in taxes for round-trip Business Class on Cathay Pacific. This was one of my best redemptions using Avios on partner travel. This redemption is within Zone 1 of the BA award chart so it should remain intact with the negative changes to Avios redemptions that take effect on April 28,2015.

Outbound: HKG to TPE

While the flight is just under 2 hours from Hong Kong to Taipei, you can look forward to a robust Cathay Pacific experience. We arrived quite early to HKG to spend some time in the lounge. Since we were at Gate 31, we opted for The Bridge lounge near Gate 35. We’d intended to visit The Wing but got didn’t get around to it. The entrance to The Bridge is impressive and the staff was very kind. There are two side to the lounge and we opted for the left hand side first. The views from the lounge are perfect for avgeeks with great views of the tarmac. The lounge was fairly empty on this side of the lounge which I enjoyed. The decor is very stylish and the seating quite comfortable. And I can always appreciate a sparkling clean restroom!

Hands down, Cathay Pacific lounges at HKG have the best lounge food. There was a buffet of lunch items, both Cantonese and Western. The dumplings were quite good and the selection was great. You must try the signature XO sauce! The bar on this side of the lounge was self service.

The Bridge - HKG
The Bridge – HKG

The Bridge - HKG
The Bridge – HKG

We left the lounge briefly to do some quick shopping and returned to The Bridge. This time we turned to the right hand side of the lounge which was much more crowded than the other side but not terrible. The bar on this side is staffed and you have similar food options.

HKG Boarding
HKG Boarding

We headed to the gate about 30 minutes before departure time and our 777-200 began boarding about 5 minutes later. The flight was not very full in economy or business so we only used one jetway. We were seated in 15H & 15K and pre-departure service began right away. We were brought options of champagne, orange juice, and coconut juice. I went classic and stuck with champagne. Seats are somewhat of a hybrid between a recliner and angle lie-flat. The seats were quite comfortable for a short-haul flight. They are certainly more comfortable than most U.S. domestic first class seats.

Regional Business Class "Hybird" Angle Lie-Flats
Regional Business Class “Hybird” Angle Lie-Flats

There were only 6 people in business class so we received quite a bit of attention from the flight attendants. Menus were brought before takeoff and our selections made as soon we hit 10,000 feet. Due to the short flight, meals were served right away but without feeling rushed. Our lunch consisted of fresh fruit, roastfchicken served over root vegetables, polenta, and a chocolate mousse cake. The meal was excellent (for airline food) and the service was attentive.

Lunch Presentation
Lunch Presentation

As we completed our meals, our trays were prompty cleared although I had plenty of time to enjoy a second glass of champagne before final approach. We arrived at Taipei Taoyuan right on schedule and said goodbye to the friendly crew. Our flight was continuing on to Fukuoka but everyone had to deplane for transit or to pass through customs. Customs was initially slow until additional lanes were opened and were were on our way. We were head to the Taiwan HSR but I didn’t particularly enjoy the long bus ride to the rail station. Transit time to the center of Taipei including bus transfers was about an hour.

Return: TPE to HKG

With a 7:00 AM departure, we had to wake up quite early for our departure. Early morning departures are definitely not my favorite. We opted for a taxi to the airport and after using the hotel staff to translate for our taxi driver, we were on our way. This early in the morning, we were quick to the airport, taking only 20 minutes. We headed straight to the Cathay Pacific lounge which was hidden down a passageway but there was plenty of signage. There was a bit of construction going on nearby. This time were given paper lounge passes instead of just showing our boarding passes on our phones. Although I’m sure either would be acceptable.

There is no comparison to the lounge in Taipei to the lounges at HKG. Still, the lounge was tidy and uncrowded. The food selection was mediocre with a small selection of pastries and dumplings. The washrooms were a bit small but clean.

Cathay Pacific Lounge - TPE
Cathay Pacific Lounge – TPE

We headed to the boarding gate about 30 minutes before departure time but boarding had already started. Economy was pretty full but business class was only about half full. We boarded through 2 jetways this time and took our seats on the opposite side of the plane in 14A & 14C. This time we were on a 777-300 which featured a landing gear camera which was a cool entertainment feature.

Front View of Regional Business Class Seats
Front View of Regional Business Class Seats

Pre-departure beverages were offered immediately although no coconut juice this time. I skipped the champagne and stuck with orange juice. 7:00 AM is a bit early for me for champagne. Menus were handed out although there was only one option for breakfast. Once we were airborne, breakfast was served which consisted of fruit, miniature omelettes, sausage, potatoes, and a croissant. It was basic but good for airline food. I paired it with a Hong Kong milk tea which was quite good. Turns out it was powdered Lipton tea served with hot milk and the sweet flight attendant snuck me a few packets of tea to take with me!

Breakfast Presentation
Breakfast Presentation

Serving carts were used on this flight but they weren’t used on our outbound flight. Presentation is always nice when the cart isn’t used but it really doesn’t matter to me. Trays and cups were collected more promptly on this landing so I didn’t get to finish my second cup of tea. We landed right on time into Hong Kong and arrived directly at the jetway. We were connecting onto Delta back to the U.S. in a couple of hours so we had to clear customs and pick up our checked bags. This left us unable to return to The Bridge or any of the other post-security lounges. We did receive passes to The Arrival lounge which was near the ticketing counters, pre-security so after re-checking our bags onto Delta, we headed to The Arrival. When we walked in, I couldn’t quite believe how small the lounge was! There wasn’t even a washroom in the lounge, just a few desks, a self-serve bar, and some snacks. There are showers available but no toilets so you must leave the lounge.

While you can’t expect to receive multi-course meals on short haul flights with Cathay Pacific,you can expect to receive attentive service, quality meals, and a comfortable seat. It was hard to adjust to flying Delta back to the U.S. after such a pleasant trip with Cathay Pacific around the region. I was quite pleased with the value of my redemption with BA Avios!

Hotel Review: Dorsett Mongkok Hong Kong

IMG_7905

TripAdvisor is my gold standard for hotel reviews and I use it heavily when selecting hotels. It rarely lets me down but unfortunately, this was one of those occasions. I’m still scratching my head on how the Dorsett Mongkok won a Traveler’s Choice award!

We arrived in Hong Kong in the late evening, checking into the Dorsett around 9:30 PM. The location was claimed to be incredibly convenient to the Olympic MTR station which I must disagree with. The walk from the MTR station is indirect and a good 10 minutes plus. Check-in was fairly easy but they only offered one key. The staff here proved to be incredibly robotic and lacked customer service.

We certainly didn’t expect a huge room (this is Hong Kong, after all) but the room was quite tiny. Cleanliness is important and while I won’t call the place sparkling clean, it was suitable. The bathroom didn’t offer much in privacy so be prepared for that. The worst part about our stay was the fact that the hot water didn’t work properly the first 36 hours of our stay. The water would either get only lukewarm or only last for about 2 minutes. By day 3 of our stay, the hot water worked just fine. The WiFi is provided by a mobile phone hotspot in the room which also allows you to make free international phone calls. The WiFi seemed to be fussy the first night but after that it worked perfectly.

The location in Mongkok is a mixed bag. You certainly get a true Hong Kong experience as it’s not a popular tourist area. It’s filled with locals so if you prefer a more local experience, Mongkok is a good choice. I like Mongkok but I did not like the long walks to catch the MTR trains. There’s a hotel shuttle around Mongkok and Kowloon but it’s a pretty long wait.

Service certainly wasn’t their strong suit at the Dorsett. We didn’t have any issues with service but I don’t ever recall being greeted in the lobby and checkout took a while as the staff seemed short handed.

I don’t see myself returning to stay at the Dorsett Mongkok. There were too many minor frustrations and customer service is important to me. If you seek a no-frills hotel stay, don’t let my review turn you away. But the Dorsett just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Annual Priority Pass Lounge Membership for $69 on Groupon

I was browsing Groupon earlier and accidentally came across this special for a Priority Pass Membership.

There are two deals, an annual membership with one free lounge visit for $69 or an annual membership with two lounge visits for $99. Any additional lounge visits are $27 and are charged to your credit card on file.

Shop on Groupon through one of the airline shopping portals to earn a few miles on your purchase.Currently the Alaska MileagePlan portal and the AAdvantage eshopping portal are offering 3 miles per dollar spent on Groupon.

Priority Pass Groupon

Need a Passport in Dallas? The Secret Spot with No Lines!

I posted this a couple years ago on my Yelp page but I thought it would be a good idea to share my secret on the Avion Addiction blog. Many of you are good to go with your well-worn passports but if you are a newbie out there and need to get a passport for the first time, the Dallas County Clerk’s office is the best place in the D/FW area to get your passport. They won’t be of assistance if you need your passport ASAP for an emergency but if you can wait a few weeks, this place works great!

I was is my mid-twenties before I got my first passport so I was a little behind the curve. But hey, when I was a kid, you didn’t need a passport for much of North America!

When I went to go apply for my first passport, I’d heard horror stories about getting passports processed at the post office and already feared the worst. I actually called multiple post offices several times to make an appointment yet nobody ever answered the phone. I called the Dallas County Clerk passport office and they answered immediately. They don’t take appointments so the service is first come, first served. I stopped by the day before at lunch time to peek in at the crowds and there were only a couple people in line. I decided to come in the next morning right at opening. We got there early, before they opened, expecting a line to start forming. There ended up being only one other person there who arrived shortly after us. They opened the doors promptly at 8:30 am and were very courteous. I’ve read in the Dallas Observer that they only employ senior employees at this office so they know their stuff well. They explained all the regulations clearly and processed my application promptly. Everything went as smoothly as possible!

Just a few pointers before you go:

-The passport office is located inside the Earl Cabell Federal Building on the first floor. Parking is very expensive in the garage so try to park at a meter on the street.

-They only accept CASH for the $25.00 execution fee and only accept CHECKS for the passport fees that are paid to the U.S. Dept of State. Bring both to be sure.

-Arrive early to avoid the crowds. Crowds build up as the day progresses. They do not make appointments at this location.

-This is NOT the U.S. Passport Agency, they are located down the street at 1100 Commerce St. That is the location for passports needed immediately.

I had my passport issued in exactly 2 weeks. I couldn’t have imagined such a smooth process!

San Diego to Beijing – JAL – #FlightDeal – Oct 2015 – $3,666 R/T – #OneWorld – #787 Business Class

Is this an earth-shattering deal? No. But considering it’s for JAL Business Class on their 787, I feel it’s a great price. Found on the ITA Matrix but limited availability on dates at the lowest price.

Sample Departure Date: Tues, Oct 20, 2015

Sample Return Date: Mon, Oct 26, 2015

Airline: JAL (Japan Airlines)

Routing: SAN-NRT-PEK-NRT-SAN

Total Roundtrip Fare: $3,666

san diego -beijing JAL Oct 2015

La Nourriture: Food in Mont Tremblant vs Montreal

Montreal is well known as a foodie destination and as a foodie myself, I hadn’t yet had a chance to experience it firsthand. I just returned from Quebec and got to experience two popular cities in “La Belle Province”. Montreal was no let-down but I had also hoped that the nearby ski town of Mont Tremblant would share the culinary pride of Montreal. Unfortunately, the food in Tremblant was a bit disappointing.

Basilica Notre Dame - Montreal
Basilica Notre Dame – Montreal

Here’s a quick run down of each city and some of the places we visited and whether they were winners or losers.

Montreal Winners

 

  • Universel Déjeuner & Grillades: A great breakfast-brunch-lunch joint near the Rue Peel Metro stop. We ate both breakfast and lunch here during our stay and loved it all. The crepes are incredible but you can’t go wrong with the tortellini either!

Tortellini at Universel
Tortellini at Universel

 

  • The Mon Café: A salty joint for a quick breakfast or coffee near Notre Dame. The french toast is excellent if you like things on the sweet side.
  • Schwartz’s: I don’t care much for Anthony Bourdain and his style but I did hear about this old-school deli on his show. The smoked meat sandwiches are quite good along with pickles, fries, and a dark cherry cola. You must get the dark cherry cola!

Famous Schwartz's Smoke Meat Sandwich
Famous Schwartz’s Smoke Meat Sandwich

  • Deville Dinerbar: We ate here on my birthday for a little celebration. It’s a contemporary twist on the American diner without being cheesy. The decor is swanky, the food is delicious, and the music kept me bouncing in my seat all evening. On top of all that, the service was great! We befriended our server as it was her last couple of weeks before she headed off to New York for school.

Deville Dinerbar - I'm a fan!
Deville Dinerbar – I’m a fan!

 

  • La Distillerie No 1: While we got a bit turned around while looking for this place, we finally found it. The bartenders were really chatty and warm. They serve specialty cocktails in mason jars which were quite good. They also serve a beer if that’s the route you prefer.

 

Montreal Losers

  • Renoir: This is the hotel restaurant and bar inside the Sofitel hotel where we stayed. The staff was arrogant and pouty. We only had drinks here but I was so disappointed that we didn’t return for any meals.

 

Mont Tremblant Winners

  • Smoke’s Poutinerie: Smoke’s was unfortunately the only winner in Tremlant for me. The Pulled Pork and Bacon Cheeseburger poutine were both great. Portions are generous. Although the man behind the counter hated my French skills. My French isn’t THAT terrible.

 

Mont Tremblant Losers

  • Le Shack: This place spent all their money on over-the-top decor and forgot to make good food. Service was okay but the food was not good. The fries are so bland everywhere in Tremblant that the only way to make them good is to turn them into Poutine.
  • Pizza & Cie: This place came recommended and it’s located in the old town of Tremblant, away from most of the main touristy action. The place was quite sleepy as there was only one other person in the restaurant. The pizza was also bad. But I’m a pizza snob.
  • Tremblant Station (Tremblant Peak): Yes, this is the restaurant at the peak of Mont Tremblant. Restaurants at the peak of ski resorts are never good. This one was no exception.

 

So while Montreal are only 1.5 hours apart, they share nothing in common in their gastronomy DNA. At least based on our experience. The food was so much better in Montreal. Of course, we still have a great time in Mont Tremblant on the mountain and in the village. But if you visit, keep your food expectations low. As for Montreal, expect a great all-around foodie experience.

Hotel Review: Sofitel Montreal Golden Mile

We stayed at the Sofitel for my 30th birthday while staying in Montreal. We had just spent some time at Mont Tremblant and had a pleasant visit up there. I’m Platinum status with Sofitel’s loyalty program, Le Club Accor, so that certainly added some bonuses to our visit. I was very impressed with the level of customer service that was provided for elite guests. From the moment we stepped on property, we were greeted by everyone with a smile and a Bonjour.

Our room was on the Penthouse level which had excellent views of the city center. I’m sure my status helped us score a great room. Not sure if the rooms facing Mont Royal are better as the views are a tad obstructed. The property isn’t brand new but it’s very well maintained. The bathroom was my favorite feature with marble throughout, a large separate bath and shower, and Lanvin toiletries. The cozy robes and towels were nice as well. The room wasn’t huge but plenty spacious and extremely clean. Cleanliness is very important!

All of the staff was incredible and I appreciated the welcome champagne and dessert. The staff checked on use each evening to make sure we had plenty of coffee, bottled water, and towels. I also loved the Keurig coffee maker in the room.  Keurigs are popping up everywhere in mid-level and luxury hotels these days.

Location is very important to any hotel and this Sofitel property featured an excellent location. I’m all about public transit in any city to trim costs to splurge on other things. The 747 express bus to the airport has a stop about 3 blocks away. The nearest metro stop is only 1.5 blocks away.

My only dislike of the property was Renoir, the restaurant hotel and bar. The staff was not warm at all. Very cold and pouty. The bar experience was so poor that we didn’t return for a meal.

I definitely would return to the Sofitel for a stay in Montreal in the future. I appreciated the post-stay follow up from the management. I would definitely recommend this hotel property to anyone visiting Montreal.