My military job is in a field that deals primarily with development and humanitarian aid.  One of the key tools in development is something called “micro loans”.  These are loans for a very small sum, typically less than $500, that allow a person to be productive and self-sustaining rather than begging for aid to survive.  A classic example is use a micro loan to buy a woman a sewing machine so she can have her own seamstress job and provide for her family.  Other examples, might be buying tools for a carpenter or piglets for a farmer.  These are all loans, not gifts, which means they need to be repaid.  In general, these are preferable to simply giving someone money or items as it creates a sense of responsibility and honor.  In fact, micro loan repayment is over 99% in most cases that I am familiar with.

Kiva is probably the best known micro lending program.  They have pages of requestors who specify what they are trying to raise money for and you can then contribute to the total they are seeking.  Sort of like a Go Fund Me page.  Then you will be paid back by the entrepreneur over a period of 2-5 years.  This is not something you are going to make any real money on, but it is a great way to help out people in need.

I got an exciting email today that PayPal will essentially double the amount of your giving up to $25.  You give a loan through Kiva and then PayPal gives you a $25 credit for you to make another loan with.  The reason this ends up being a frequent flyer deal is that Kiva takes credit cards and thus you can meet your minimum spend, but eventually get paid back.

This only applies to the first 10,000 people who apply and only October 15-25th in any case.  Better act fast if you want to take advantage!

 

Posted by glenn | No Comments

Sorry for the long break gang, having a bust life gets in the way of blogging all the time.

Finishing up on our trip to Budapest today.  If you missed the previous posts, they are here, here, and here.

St. Stephen’s Basilica is the largest Catholic church in a Catholic nation and thus “spectacular” does not even begin to describe it.  Now, it is not to be compared to St. Peter’s in Rome, but unlike that great place, you can get up close and personal with St. Stephen’s.

It lies a mere two blocks from the Ritz-Carlton and Deak Square.  Although the back end is right on one of the main streets in Budapest, the right way to approach it is from the St. Stephen’s Square at its entrance.

From the entrance you can either go into the basilica itself or be more adventurous and climb the stairs to the observation deck that surrounds the dome.  There is also an elevator for those who can’t take the stairs. Both require a small admission price of 2-3 Euros.

Starting with the basilica part first, it is really stupendous.  Please keep in mind that this is a functioning church so be quiet and don’t expect to wander around wherever you want to go.  There was a wedding going on when we arrived.  My wife, who is Catholic, really was impressed by the venue.

Now to climb the stairs!  It is a pretty fair workout to climb about six floors of winding staircase up the top level of the basilica.  At this level they have some of the ancient artwork displayed.

Much to my wife’s chagrin, we were still not at the observation deck.  We climbed another 3-4 floors of stairs, but there is an elevator.  Note that even with the elevator, you still have to climb one last floor to reach the deck.  Climbing through here, you are actually between the inner dome which was in the picture from inside the church and the outer dome which is seen from outside.  Pretty cool to see this as an engineer.  My wife was not impressed and got pretty scared looking down.  Be warned!

Finally, we reach the observation deck surrounding the dome and the views up here cannot be beat!  The first photo shows the Ritz-Carlton hotel and the second the square in from of St. Stephen’s.  I should note the there are plenty of nice restaurants to eat in down there after this arduous climb.

St. Stephen’s Basilica is definitely one of the best things we experienced in Budapest and I recommend you put it on your must do list.

 

 

 

Posted by glenn | No Comments

Continuing on from yesterday’s post.  The Buda Castle grounds are very extensive and offer some spectacular vantage points for great photos.  The original castle was built around 1000 AD and barely withstood the Mongol invasion a couple of hundred years later.  Along came the Renaissance and the enlightened King of the time, Matthias Corvinus, built a Renaissance style palace along with substantial art on the site of the castle.  Unfortunately, during the Turkish occupation of Hungary (1541-1686), the palace was not occupied and used as an ammunition dump.  This blew up and destroyed the original castle.  The castle was rebuilt by Maria Teresa in the 18th Century and again after WW2.  You can see the various layers of the original structures if you look closely.

See the buttress in the center of the photo?  You can go out on that and take spectacular photos up and down the Danube.

There is also a tower at the far end and if you go down, the entrance to the museum.

After you finish with Buda Castle, you can explore the rest of the Castle Hill which contains some Government buildings being renovated to be the Prime Minister’s offices and a quaint little town where we had the best gelato of our trip, sorry didn’t get the name.

Here is a map that give you an idea of the layout of Castle Hill.

Then you reach the Matthias Cathedral (remember him?) which is really spectacular and was renovated in the early 20th Century.

We were lucky and arrived when they had a booksellers event along with live music playing.

In back of the cathedral is the Fishermen’s Bastion.  Constructed over 100 years ago, it is so named because that part of the wall was defended by fishermen during the Mongol invasion.  It is really beautiful both from the cathedral side and from the bottom of the hill.  This is a good place to walk down if you decide you want to go back to town.

There was even a little renaissance festival going on.  They certainly fit in with the surroundings!

That wraps up Castle Hill which should be considered a “must see” to anyone visiting Budapest.  I’ll leave you with an old picture of what Castle Hill looked like a few hundreds years ago.

 

Posted by glenn | No Comments

I received an email from Mileage Plan Shopping yesterday with a great, no-brainer offer.  Earn 700 Alaska miles which are usually valued at 2.0 cents each if you subscribe to 2 months of the Wall Street Journal for only $1.

I personally think very highly of the WSJ, so the 700 miles seem like icing on the cake.  Did you get this offer?  Only a few days to act on this offer.

Posted by glenn | 2 Comments

On our first full day in Budapest it was time to get out and see both Buda and Pest.  Yeah, just like Minneapolis-St.Paul, Budapest is actually two cities on either side of the Danube that they eventually combined with one name.

Whenever we travel to a big city for the first time, we like to take one of those double decker bus tours.  They give you a chance to see parts of the place that you would otherwise never even know about, plus they are filled with interesting facts about the history of the city.  Fortunate for us we got a prime spot on the top, but under the partial roof so I didn’t need to worry about sunburn – my wife doesn’t have that problem!  The tour was a reasonable $32/person for a 48 hour hop-on, hop-off pass.

After the tour, we had a good idea where to go afterward – to see the Buda Castle of course!  The best news is that it is a pleasant walk of about a mile from our hotel.  The Ritz is only about 4 blocks from the Danube.  Most other major chain hotels are located right along the Danube so this guide will work if you are staying at the Marriott, Sofitel, etc. on the Pest side of the Danube.  From the building shown, to the left is the Four Seasons and across the street to the right is the Sofitel.  From any of the hotels, you will reach this square by the river.  Take a right and you can walk across the Danube on the Chain Bridge.

The bridge was a nice walk, but fairly crowded for the narrow walkway.  Kind of hard to stop and take photos except at several vantage points built into the bridge.  The Chain Bridge was built in the 1800’s but destroyed during World War Two and then re-built in the 1950s.

Coming to the other side of the bridge, you can see Buda Castle on the ridge overlooking the Danube.  You can take the long road around to get to the top, but have more fun taking the Funicular!

The Funicular is only about $3 and cheaper if you buy the round trip.  Although it was also reconstructed after the war, but it really feels like it was built in the 1800’s and you can picture people riding this as a “modern wonder”.

Now we reached the plaza at the top of the hill with Buda Castle to our left and Government offices to the right.  We didn’t tour the castle, but just touring the grounds overlooking the Danube was really spectacular.

I know this post is getting a little long so I will cut it here and continue adventures on Castle Hill tomorrow…

Posted by glenn | One Comment

The wife and I finally got away for a real vacation and spent four great days in Budapest.  I already wrote about staying at the Ritz-Carlton which was really nice.  Quite by accident, we found the Ritz to be a prime location in the center of the old downtown which made for an ideal base to operate out of for seeing Buda and Pest.

The Ritz is right off of one of the main plazas called Deak Ferenc, named after a famous Hungarian hero.  The major shopping area is along Deak Ferenc Street.  You can also access the tour buses here and subway.

Look for the Double “M” around town to find the Metro (subway).  Didn’t try it, but it certainly was popular.

You can even rent a bike if you want some exercise.  My wife claims that she forgot how to ride a bike – so much for that old saying.

Here is Deak Ferenc Street.  Notice the outdoor extension of the restaurant.

You see that all over Budapest and it is really wonderful considering the weather was about 78 (~25C) every day.  I feel like this city would be totally different in the winter without all the outdoor activities.

Speaking of which, a short trip down the street and it opens up to a whole plaza surrounded by restaurants, stores, and tourist traps like Hard Rock Café.

Dinner at one of the restaurants around the square was pretty good.  I can’t say that prices were cheap, but they weren’t expensive either.  And more importantly, it tasted really good!

More adventures tomorrow…

 

Posted by glenn | 2 Comments

Review of China Eastern lounge 36, Pudong, Shanghai (PVG). By Chuck!

This is quite a nice lounge in Shanghai (PVG). My flight arrived about 4AM, and after some international transfer follies some other passengers and I arrived at the lounge about 5AM.  The MU lounge 36 sits next to another lounge, 39.  Even though lounge 39 is branded Air France, SkyTeam Elite members flying MU aren’t allowed in.

The lounge was easy to find, just a few steps from the security screening area at the departure gates and up the escalator. It was already open, and checking in was very quick and easy.

 

 

I was happy to see that this lounge has showers, the Delta App didn’t list this amenity and the Priority Pass (PP) app said their lounges in Terminal 1 didn’t have showers either.

Upon arrival I was working hard to figure out a way to get over to Terminal 2, where the PP app said several PP lounges do have showers. An immigration officer shut me down quickly on that idea – you have to exit security to get to Terminal 2 and you need a boarding card for a flight there to get in.  No way I was going to go through that again after the flailex in JFK the day before.  And to think that some people say that squids can’t be taught!

The lounge is situated on two floors. The first floor is where you check in, there’s a hot food bar with local food options and some other items (breads, broiled bacon/mushroom mixture, etc) for breakfast, and a couple of beverage stations.  There is also a bank of lockers that you can use for free.  Using the lockers is intuitive and easy, but I found the fingerprint reader feature to open the lockers to be very fussy.  I had to call an employee to open my locker several times.

Moving upstairs, there’s a room with 4 power recliners and 4 fancy massage chairs with a variety of massage options from which you can choose, and 2 showers! These shower rooms are huge, you could have a small meeting in there (see the pictures below).  The showers in Schiphol (AMS) and Paris (CDG) were, at best, a third this size.  The shower I used was quite clean, except for this one door.  I don’t know what’s behind it, but they need to open it up and give it a good cleaning.

 

There’s a station for food and beverages, and there’s also a computer room, but excluding the showers the highlight for me was those massage chairs after my 14+ hour flight from JFK.

 

 

Maybe I should explain my fixation on showers. For most of my flying life I’ve flown across the world with no chance to get clean, and that includes those 24+ hour Cat B flights from Norfolk, VA to Bahrain that I took more times than I care to count.  I’m not knocking the AMC pax terminals, I love those guys and am very grateful that we have that option.  But, I’ve never seen one that had an easily accessible shower (maybe that’s changed since I took my last AMC flight 8 years ago?), and I never had any sort of status with an airline until last year when I was able to hit Platinum status courtesy of a bunch of flights and a couple of strategic AMEX credit card sign ups.  When I took my first shower during my 6 hour or so layover in Schiphol enroute to Ghana last September I was blown away by the difference it made for me.  So, now I actively seek out opportunities to get clean while I’m traveling.

One downside to PVG, there are A LOT of mosquitoes flying around. I probably saw 30 or more inside the lounge itself, though I saw far fewer in the main terminal when I went exploring.

Overall my experience in PVG in general, and in the China Eastern lounge specifically, was quite good and I look forward to my next opportunity to visit.

Posted by glenn | No Comments

Hi, I’m Chuck Brackett and this is my first ever blog post. I spent over 21 years in the Navy and I’ve spent the last 8 as a Navy spouse so I’ve seen a good bit of the world.  Much of it from the deck of a warship, but I’ve also been flying for a lot of years and I stumbled across/started following travel blogs several years ago.

 

I have found a lot of value in reading what folks such as Glenn (thanks for the guest blogger opportunity!), Rene, Lucky, Ed, and many others on Boarding Area too numerous to mention (but check HERE for a complete list of BA bloggers) have shared.  I think Glenn’s post from August 2013 was when my wife and I learned about AMEX waiving annual fees for military folks and that really got me paying attention.  What a great introduction – now if only Chase was so generous.  But I digress.

 

Sooo, after reading these folks for a few years I finally decided to stick my toe in the water and give it a try. I mean, how hard can it be, right?  Right???  We’ll see.

 

My first trip that I want to write about has gotten off to a really rocky start. Back a couple of months ago I saw a cheap, ~$760, flight from New York to Bali via Shanghai (JFK-DPS via PVG) on China Eastern (MU).  As you’ll see in a bit, I unfortunately caused myself a problem by buying that ticket directly with MU, then I took a Delta positioning flight from IAD.  If there’s a next time I’ll probably buy from Delta even if it costs a bit more.

 

I’d already made Delta Platinum for 2018 by May courtesy of some heavy work travel between the US and Africa, and I figured I might as well shoot for Diamond since I needed “only” another 40K MQM and I want those Global Upgrades. This trip today plus another one to Singapore coming up in Nov will put me over the top.  I wouldn’t need this trip for MQM – though I’d still be making the trip for other business purposes – except that I allowed my Flying Blue account number to get tagged on one of my flights to Africa and didn’t notice it until it was too late, so here I am sitting in the food court at JFK Terminal 1 on a Sunday afternoon.

 

And that’s the first problem. I’ve been in the food court since about 9AM and it looks like I’ll be here till 9PM or so waiting to check in for my 145AM flight tomorrow morning.  Turns out that you can’t get to JFK Terminal 1 from the other terminals inside security.  You have to exit, walk down the road, and then clear TSA again.  Except, you can’t clear TSA without a boarding pass, and you can’t get a boarding pass from China Eastern until 3 hours before your flight is due to board, as I learned when they opened their check in counter to begin servicing a flight departing at 1645.  And Delta can’t give me one because it’s not their ticket.

 

All that information is probably available online if you search for it, but I didn’t and I stupidly left the Delta Sky Club in Terminal 2 staffed by the nice lady at the front desk without asking, after spending less than 30 mins in there to have a cup of coffee and get a paper. Grrrr, rookie mistakes, but in my defense I’ve never split tickets between airlines before.  You can bet this fiasco won’t happen again.

 

So far I’d say I’m batting about .200 on this trip, and only because I got to IAD in plenty of time (thanks for the early morning shuttle, honey!) and didn’t have to rush through the airport, and my Delta Connection flight was smooth and uneventful.

 

Update, I went back to the MU check in counter after the crush of the flight they serviced when they first opened the counter and a very nice and friendly MU supervisor at the check in desk over ruled the ‘no boarding passes more than 3 hours before your flight’ rule, partially due to my Elite Plus status, so I only spent 6 hours in the food court. Nice!  But I won’t rely on it happening again.

 

I’ve read reports of MU flight crew smoking in flight HERE, HERE, and a response to a previous blog HERE promising to look into the issue.  I’m hoping they’ve successfully snuffed out this problem more than a year later. We’ll see how the China Southern flight works out in the back of the plane, and I’ll send that trip report out as soon as I hit Shanghai.

 

You’ll remember I need both of these flights to make Diamond because of my carelessness with Flying Blue, I’ll be happy and eternally grateful to hear if anyone has a trick for getting FB to push miles to Delta several months after a flight has completed. I like AF and look forward to flying them again but Skymiles is my program, at least for now.

 

Thanks for reading!

Posted by glenn | One Comment

I received a surprise email from AMEX that my credit limit on my SPG Business Card had been increased.  Along with the email, they gave an interesting offer:

$3,000 in a month would be a lot for me, but maybe would apply to Christmas shopping.  However, I know there are those of you who do MS and this would be easy to achieve.  Plus, Starwood points are some of the most valuable points out there.  You can transfer them to Marriott at a 3:1 ratio or get a 25% bonus when transferring them to one of their many airline partners.  Of course, I like to use them to actually stay for free at Starwood hotels – that’s the best value in my book.

Now that I enrolled it will not let me get back to the offer page to post it for you, but be on the lookout to see if you get this or a similar offer.

 

 

 

Posted by glenn | No Comments

I had three free night certificates burning a hole in my pocket.  They came from getting the sign-up bonus from the Chase Ritz-Carlton credit card and would expire in mid Sept.  Ritz-Carlton nights are not to be spent unwisely, unlike the free nights from Marriott or Hyatt where the category level was limited.  I plotted for months and finally came upon a grand vacation – four nights in Budapest!  Now you may be asking, why four nights if I only had three free nights?  That’s because I could use the fourth night free benefit of the Citi Prestige card.  Now that benefit used to be better and would have given me the whole fourth night free, but Citi got wise to that too good to be true benefit and now only give you the base rate divided as a average of the four night stay.  That was still a pretty good discount, so I took it.  That fourth night was a charge of 304 Euro which demonstrates the huge value I was getting for the three free nights.

Arriving on Lufthansa, we went through the Budapest airport pretty quickly, but not before grabbing the Mini-Bud (great pun on a mini-bus) service to the hotel.  The counter is located right at baggage claim.  It cost 9800 Hungarian Forint (~$40), for a round trip ticket for my wife and I.  Maybe I could have gotten a better deal from a taxi, but I had heard horror stories of taxis ripping off tourists and trying to get $40 just for a one way ride.  The service worked out well and we got to the Ritz-Carlton 30 minutes later.

There was even a guy playing piano!

Pretty nice digs, but what did you expect for a Ritz-Carlton?  I made a rookie mistake though.  They said that even though I was a Marriott Gold, I was not entitled to the Club level, meaning no lounge access for me.  Unless, I wanted to pay $120!  I said no problem, I had three Club level upgrades with the credit card.  However, after a long call to Marriott/ Ritz-Carlton rewards, they said that I couldn’t use my certs to upgrade as there was no availability on the Club level.  I said I was fine with my room where it was and didn’t need to be on that level; I just wanted Club access.  They said no can do, since they wanted to restrict access to the Club.  OK, so I couldn’t use my free cert to get access, but if I paid them money then the overcrowding issue suddenly went away?  Pretty lame and I took a pass.  Figures we could eat on the economy for that much money and have more fun.

Our upgraded room was fantastic and a really good example of what can be done with renovating an old hotel.

The bathroom was equally nice.

I loved this antiquated touch.  There was a box in the closest where you could leave your shoes and have them back spit-shined by the morning.  Darn and I didn’t have my jump boots with me!

The hotel had a nice, but small gym, a restaurant that we didn’t try (looked expensive), a breakfast that was definitely expensive (~$39 for full breakfast) and a cute bar.

Despite some minor criticisms, we actually loved the hotel.  The location was perfect for a tourist – very central to everything.  We would love to come back and stay here again – we just have to figure out how to get a way to do it for free/ low cost!

Posted by glenn | 3 Comments

This was supposed to be a review about Swiss Air Business Class, but things turned out very different than planned.  The wife and I were going to Budapest on vacation for four days by using United miles to fly DCA-EWR-ZRH (with a six hour layover)-BUD.  Everything was all set until Tropical Storm Irma came rolling up the Eastern Seaboard.  Having it rain all day in D.C. is pretty unusual for August, but it didn’t rain that hard.

Arriving at DCA several hours early, things were already in a mess with United.  We were just supposed to take an RJ up to EWR and then get on our real flight, but that looked increasingly unlikely.  The United Club agents were watching things very carefully for when flights actually took off from other airports so they could be sure they would arrive at DCA and then presumably take off for other destinations.  The agent actually moved us up to an earlier flight since she knew it would arrive.  However, just before boarding time they announced it was cancelled “due to ATC”.  Well, the Government doesn’t cancel flights so that told me that United had decided that that plane needed to fly somewhere else and later flights to EWR could take the passengers there instead.  There were several other flights that  night, but that would cut it extremely close as we would theoretically be landing at 2115 for a connection departing at 2210.

The agent realized this and found an alternate flight leaving out of Dulles (IAD) on Lufthansa and going through MUC to BUD.  I hated to lose the six hour layover in ZRH, but did value making sure we got there and with our luggage, both of which would have been jeopardized on the original route.  She arranged for the flight and to have our bags retrieved.  I had asked her about seats and she said I would have to go on Lufthansa’s website to pick them out.  Lucky I did because I found out she had booked us in Economy!  I went back to her and she had to get on the line with Mileage Plus to get it straightened out.  Took her 30 minutes on the phone – you would think they have a more direct line than customers like me, but nope.  We have plenty of time to catch this new flight, but then she tells us that UA won’t pay for our cab to get to IAD because it was due to ATC!  I’m going to dispute that one, but this was not the time to do it with the clock ticking.

We got to IAD $80 later and had no problem except that I noticed they booked us in seats 1D and 1G.  Looking at SeatGuru.com for an A330-300 I saw that these were bulkhead seats which I am not a fan of.  After we arrived at the Lufthansa Lounge (after a side trip tot he outstanding Turkish Lounge),  I asked about changing the seats.  The agent there was great and explained that there had been an aircraft swap and our seats were actually First Class seats, but with Business Class service.  Cool!

We even had the First Class sign!  Compare this with Lufthansa Business Class seats.

If we had been back in regular business, it would have been fine, but only “fine”.  Really happy to have the chance at Lufthansa’s lie-flat First.

Champagne and nuts were led off with the menu.  While my wife went with the prosciutto-wrapped filet, I noticed they had crab cakes.  Can’t say that I have ever had crab cakes on a plane before, so I went with that.  Turned out to be a good choice.

My wife enjoyed her filet and I found my crab cakes were actually quite good.  Not the best I had ever had by a long shot, but pretty good for airplane food!

After getting not enough restful sleep on the lie-flat bed, I awoke to the breakfast.  It was good, but I am still not used to the German “cold cuts for breakfast” philosophy.

My wife is getting used to First Class a little too easily.  I can see the argument coming next time I book her in “only Business Class”.

Landing in MUC and then on to BUD was uneventful.  More to follow on Budapest in the next few days.

Posted by glenn | 2 Comments

« previous home top