We splurged on Emirates Business Class on the way back from Budapest with a stopover in Dubai.  We lived in Dubai 15 years ago and hadn’t been back since.  We heard it might have changed just a little…

For our stay, I got a good deal at the Conrad Dubai located near the head of Sheikh Zayed Highway.  For a reasonable fee, the hotel sent us a driver to pick us up at the airport and take us to the Conrad at one in the morning.

As expected, opulence is the key to any hotel in Dubai.

We were given an upgrade to a deluxe room on the 41st floor due to my Hilton Diamond status.

On the right of the second photo, that is a window into the bathroom with shades that you can raise or lower by remote control.  A little weird, but hey, it’s Dubai…

The bathroom was very large with both a bath and a shower.  Of course, it wouldn’t be complete without terry-clothed robes.

The manager gave us little candies and dates along with a whole bowl of fruit which we couldn’t finish even over our two day stay.

We faced the ocean, but the haze only allowed us to see the neighborhoods around the hotel.  Pretty typical for Dubai.

The executive Lounge was both well-stocked and spacious.  Spent a lot of time up here.

The Dubai Metro station is directly in front of the hotel and connected by a walkway.  Made getting up and down Sheikh Zayed Highway very easy.  You can visit several malls by taking the Metro.

It was great to get back to Dubai after so many years.  The Conrad was a great hotel and I would stay there again if given a chance to go back.  Everyone in the hotel treated us wonderfully.

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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!

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Received a very enticing email today for American:

10,000 miles per night?  Yes, please!  However, when checking out the details it was not quite so lucrative.  I checked for a trip to Honolulu that we are planning for January.  The Booking.com site lists the number of miles earned depending on the hotel.  Here is an example of the disparity that you may find:

So pay $939/ night and you’ll earn the 10,000 miles/ night advertised.  However, the second listing shown is just as likely where you will only earn 1 mile/ $.   Not to say that you can’t find some bargain deals.  Here is one that looks good from Sheraton:

A very nice hotel for a good price and 3,000 AA miles/ night?  Yes, I would say this is a good deal.

You can experiment on your own by going to AA’s site here.  Let us know if you find some great bargains out there.

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I was unaware, but MGM Resorts has a Veterans Employee Network Group.  They have developed a special program associated with the M Life Program called the Military & Veterans Program or MVP.  It is open to active military, veterans and their spouses.  All you need is a military ID to sign up at any MGM property.

How is this different from anyone else who just wants to sign up for M Life?  Here are the additional benefits for M Life’s MVP Program.

– Start at the second level of M Life known as Pearl (10% bonus on points)

– Complimentary self-parking at MGM properties

– 10% Discount on dining and merchandise

– 10% Discount on rooms at all their properties including the newest one in D.C., along with Detroit and Biloxi

Here is their official release:

The MGM Resorts Military & Veterans Program is available to all U.S. active duty, guard, reserve, retired military, veterans and spouses of eligible military personnel. Current M life Rewards members can sign up for the MVP card at any M life Rewards Desk at M life Rewards destinations: Bellagio, ARIA, Vdara, MGM Grand, The Signature at MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay, Delano Las Vegas, The Mirage, Monte Carlo, New York-New York, Luxor, and Excalibur in Las Vegas; Beau Rivage and Gold Strike in Mississippi; MGM Grand Detroit, MGM National Harbor in Maryland and Borgata in Atlantic City.

It was also great to see that MGM is a big supporter to their military employees, including full pay if they are deployed, along with their veteran hiring goals.

If you want to check it out on line, go here.

Let us know your experiences if you try out the program.

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While it would be great to stay in the fictional Grand Budapest Hotel, I had to settle for a close second with a stay at the Boscolo Hotel in downtown Budapest.  This hotel is part of the Autograph Collection from Marriott.  The motto of the autograph Collection is that every property is unique (just like an autograph).  It has quite the imposing edifice.

Originally constructed in 1897 with a Baroque architecture, it was renovated in 2007.  Not sure why they renovated it since I always say “if it’s not Baroque, don’t fix it.”  Hey, that’s a Dad joke if I ever heard one and I’m a Dad so what do you want?

I had never stayed in any Autograph hotel, but I really enjoyed the old architecture.  Shown here is the original dedication plate for the hotel.

I rather liked the satyrs holding up the lamps, but it seemed a little strange given the typical meaning of a satyr.

The atrium of the building is wonderfully ornate.  My only issue is that it is not air conditioned.  That is fine on the first floor, but, since heat rises, by the time you get to the fifth floor, it was 90 degrees!  Another flaw was that the exercise room was in the alcove shown in the middle of the fifth floor photo.  You would have to work out in that 90 degree temp on their (admitted first class) machines.

The room itself was spectacular.  A foyer with a closet opened up into a large bedroom with a King bed and plenty of space.  I should note that I was upgraded since I am a Marriott Gold.  I kind of liked the classic mini-bar under the TV.  Haven’t seen one of those in a while.

The bathroom was very nice with both a shower and a tub.  Of course, it also had to have the obligatory thick fluffy bathrobe!

These photos are of where I had my complimentary breakfast (again for being a Gold).  I felt like I was in the Sistine Chapel!  Of course, there was a string quartet playing the whole time.  Now I know what it must have been like to visit the Austro-Hungarian Empire back in the day.

All-in-all, a great stay.  Believe it or not, this hotel was within Per Diem and booked on DTS.  So if you get a chance to go to Budapest, try it out for yourselves.

 

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Staying in Rotterdam might not be at the top of everyone’s list, but it worked for me when I had some business to do in The Hague.  Rotterdam is only 20 minutes from The Hague and about an hour from Amsterdam.  Of course, nothing in the Netherlands is very far away.  I don’t think you can drive two hours in any direction without exiting the country.

As with most full Marriott’s it is located in the center of the business district.  Plenty to see and do here during business hours, but fairly dead after that.

I parked at the underground next door since the hotel does not have parking of their own.  Charge parking to your room so you don’t have to visit the little booth at the exit.  I was surprised that you couldn’t pay at the card reader on the way out and it took me a while to realize that you need to visit the office to pay.

The hallway to the room on the Executive Floor gave me pause with the purple carpet and matching wall paper.  Sounded like this was going to be one of those famously outdated hotels.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.

As you can see, it was a really modern décor with a full king bed.

There was a nice little coffee setup and a special welcome from the manager for being a Gold.  The certificate there was for a free drink at the lobby bar.  Nice.

There is an executive lounge as usual in a Marriott.  This one was unusual in that it was open from 0600 to 0000.  Accessible 18 hours was great as I could go there are work in a nice atmosphere pretty much whenever I wanted.

Lastly, I wanted to add a show from the Executive Lounge.  This is a shot of the main train station which makes this hotel a great spot if you are traveling Europe by train.  You can catch the train right at the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam (AMS) so a good option if you don’t want to drive.

All in all, this was a pretty good spot to stay for a couple of nights and very reasonably priced for a full Marriott.

 

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Authoritarian regimes don’t get any worse than Kim Jung Un’s North Korean dictatorship ironically named the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  Concentration camps, people executed at the drop of a hat, mass starvation while maintaining a million man army, they have it all in an otherwise beautiful country.

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The story I saw this morning in the Washington Post was quite a shock to me.  Apparently, there is a hostel in Berlin, named the City Hostel, that is owned by the North Korean Government.  It was given to the North Koreans by the former East German communist government many years ago.  While Koreans do not operate the hostel or accompanying conference center, they get the proceeds of everyone staying there.  Thus people were unwittingly funding one of the world’s worst regimes who developed nuclear weapons.

KimJongUnPhoto courtesy of Fox News.

The German government is now shutting this hotel down.  It is hard to believe that they are only taking this step now considering the many years that North Korea has threatened its  neighbors with war and now nuclear missiles.  Apparently, this is only happening since a November UN resolution to shutdown diplomatic real estate as a revenue source.

The amazing part is that you can still book this hostel!  There is no closing date for the hostel which makes me wonder what is taking the German government so long or what the effect of their announcement is.

Have you ever stayed there or known someone who did?

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I saw on DTS, that they are going to make changes to the Joint Travel Regulation (JTR) which is the bible by which all our travel and payments are based.  It was recently highlighted in this newsletter from the Defense Travel Office.  Nothing in the JTR changes significantly, according to them, but the volumes (one for military and the other for Govt civilians) are streamlined and better organized.  Both will be effective 1 April 17.  To keep up with the latest Travel Reg changes and see if they affect you, check out this site.

Here are some of the key changes in my view:

  • Encourage more use of restricted airfares.  These are the that normal people buy for vacation and involve a change fee if your plans get altered.  More importantly, if you get this type of ticket, it requires ticketing within 24 hours, unlike the typical GSA fares.  Saves the Govt a lot of money to use these, but beware of the restrictions if you go this route.  Here are their suggested tips for using restricted airfare:

restricted-ticket

  • Update and simplify the myriad of allowances that are now part of travel.  Personally, I hope that means not having over a dozen different Per Diem for most states.  Foreign locations can be even worse in trying to determine which Per Diem applies to your location.
  • Gets rid of the term Commercial Travel Office (CTO) in favor of Travel Management Company (TMC).  Not understanding the benefit here, but get used to the change.

In addition to the above, the Integrated Lodging Program Pilot (ILPP) has expanded again and covers some new large areas such as San Antonio and Quantico.  I am not sure why this is still a “pilot” program as it is covering about half my travel these days.  I have found that most of the time it still directs me to use commercial lodging rather than the IHG-run military hotel on post/base.  But that can change with even a one day shift in orders as I found on my upcoming trip to Ft. Hood.  Just go with the flow here, but as with GSA fares, change the hotel they mandate if you have good reason to.  Earning points is NOT a good reason…

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Catching up after being TDY for 3 of the last 4 weeks.  This hotel review is part of the Sonoma Valley Wine Tasting I wrote about previously.  This Napa Valley Doubletree is on the main highway connecting both Napa and Sonoma Valleys to the North Bay area of San Francisco.  The location serves well for trips to either location for wine tasting being about 20 minutes to Napa and 40 minutes to the heart of Sonoma.  We chose the location because you can save quite a bit of money by not staying right in the middle of either valley.  Luxury or Resort Hotels tend to dominate if you are right next to the key towns for wine tasting.  Our stay’s base rate was just over $100/ night.  We saved about $100/night by choosing to drive a little bit.

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As you can see the Doubletree is very nice both inside and out.  Helps to be a Diamond that I got from matching my Marriott Platinum status.  We were upgrading to a “Patio Room” which puzzled me at first, but you’ll see later what that means.

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I find Doubletrees reliably nice all around and this was no exception.

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So a Patio Room turned out to be one with a patio right on this artificial pond in the middle of the complex.  Probably would be more alluring if it wasn’t winter, but it was a nice view nonetheless.

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Breakfast turned out to be the big hit of this hotel.  It was served in a full scale restaurant with a waitress taking your drink order and then turning you loose on the buffet and made-to-order eggs and omelets.  The ever-full jar of Doubletrees chocolate chip cookies was always calling my name.

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This hotel is a good choice for those looking to try wine tasting in Northern California and is also reasonably close to everything in the Bay Area if you decide to venture there as well.  Give it a try.

 

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My wife and I lived in Honolulu from 2010-13 and like to go back about once a year.  It has been fun to see the developments that have taken place over time.  On this recent trip, I noted a number of improvements around Waikiki that you might want to check out for yourself on an upcoming trip.

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The biggest news in my view is completion of the International Market which had been undergoing a complete renovation for the last three years.  I’ll write a whole post on this tomorrow, but you should definitely make a visit to shop or dine here on your next visit.

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The Ritz-Carlson’s Residences finally opened the first tower with more to come.  Looks pretty classy from the outside, but still  lot of work to do to finish the whole project.

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You can see in the last photo that they are working on the second tower.  Expect some construction noise if you stay here.  I thought of staying here to check it out since I have those three free nights from the Ritz-Carlton credit card.  Looking at the Marriot website, you can see it is a pretty expensive property and would be a great value for those free nights.

Ritz Reservation

But get this caveat:

Ritz Caveats

So no-go on certs, points or any way other than cash to get a room here.  Plus you won’t earn anything!

Another new hotel option may be this one that is under construction on the backside of the International Market.  The little sign at the corner lends me to believe that this will be an expansion of the Holiday Inn Resort that is currently on the main drag, Kalakaua.  Could be a good option when it is done in about three months or so.

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Another new item is the opening of an upscale market called Coco Café on Kalakaua near the Holiday Inn.  This is definitely a step above the ubiquitous ABC stores.  My tip to lower your cost of staying in Waikiki is to get some of your meals at this store since they have quality sushi, sandwiches, and other fresh food items.  There are other stores like this in Honolulu, but none as convenient a location of this store.

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Of course, we still endorse going to Food Pantry on Kuhio for a great steak meal for only $12.99.

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So here are a few new things for you to look for and hopefully make your stay a little better next time you are in Waikiki.

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In 2015 we stayed at the Hyatt Regency in Waikiki using the two free nights from the Hyatt Credit Card.  Keeping the credit card is a no brainer since the annual fee is offset by a free night, but only up to Tier 4.  That meant that the Hyatt Regency was just out of reach, but the Hyatt Place was only Tier 3 and eligible so we thought we would try it for our three nights there.

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For those of you familiar with Waikiki, Hyatt Place is located at the far end of the strip.  It is on the east side of the back half of the Marriott.  Access is easier along Kuhio than Kalakaua.  The desk clerk was nice and greeted me as a Hyatt Platinum and informed me of the free breakfast that was on the third floor every morning.

The room was pretty small even by Waikiki standards, but is had almost everything in it.  I say almost because it was missing one critical thing as far as I was concerned – a desk.  I had to balance my laptop on the bureau and sit on the bed to do any computer work.  Here are some photos.

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The view was alright.  A good shot between the Marriott towers at the Catholic church and a spot of the water that happened to be exactly where most of the surfers were.  It let me reminisce about surfing as a teenager in L.A. – those were the days!

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Breakfast was on the pool deck on the third floor.  It was continental, but did have Asian fare such as steamed rice and kimchi which my wife really liked.  The bagels, granola, yogurt, etc. was the typical hotel fare, but the pineapple was outstanding.  Well, what else would you expect in Hawaii?

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