After Action Report (AAR):  My First Around-The-World Trip (ATW) (Part 1)

 

Greetings, Fellow Travelers!

 

BLUF:  From 24 August to 3 September 2019, I undertook my first Around-The-World trip (eastward).  In total, I flew 21,830 miles on four different airlines in both economy and business class.  With three major stops and a mix of revenue and award tickets, it proved to be a great experience.

 

Today’s AAR takes us through my first ATW trip:  the logistics, mechanics, flights, and destinations (in a multi-part series).

 

In October 2018, Swiss Airlines published some amazing First and Business class fares.  The catch:  must purchase two tickets and no changes, no refunds.  I’ve wrestled with these sorts of restrictions before, and it’s never an easy decision no matter how much the cost.  However, this deal was too good to pass up. 

 

For $1750/per ticket, I purchased two tickets (with those restrictions).  To get the best deal, these tickets were from Milan Malpensa to Bangkok via Zurich.  For this price, I was able to secure Swiss Business class on the outbound and Swiss First class on the inbound (credited to United MileagePlus).  At the time, we planned to still be in Stuttgart, Germany, so a positioning flight would be no problem. 

 

[Take a look at my previous post, “TTP Position Flights,” to review this topic.]

 

My Stuttgart DEROS was officially October 2019, and if you know anything about the USAJobs system, the process is slow, frustrating, and full of red tape.  So, at the start of 2019, I started looking at announcements figuring any prospective job would bring me on-board NET fall 2019. 

 

In March 2019, I applied for three different jobs within a week:  the job I currently hold in DC, another DC job, and a job in Austin.  The two DoD jobs went radio silent after my USAJobs referral approx. 2 weeks after the job closed.  The DeptVA job contacted me for an interview about 3 weeks from the job closing.

 

I completed the first interview mid-April 2019 and the second interview early-May 2019.  While I was grateful for the quick interview process, I thought in no way could the DeptVA work HR fast enough to interfere with the Swiss flights in August 2019.

 

Much to my surprise, I was offered the DeptVA job (yay!) with a start date of 5 August 2019.  Luckily, my new boss was kind enough to honor my previously booked Annual Leave.  So, with the trip still on—and me now starting the trip from DC—I began thinking of flying ATW. 

 

I had bought the Swiss tickets with four weeks between arriving and departing BKK, so Joey could enjoy a month-long cooking touring throughout Asia.  Since I couldn’t take that much time off (from Stuttgart), I had planned to return to Germany about 1.5 weeks after arriving and then head back to BKK to catch the return trip.  Yes, it’s crazy, but I really wanted to fly Swiss First! 

 

Anyway, since I could no longer fly from the BKK-FRA route, I refunding that ticket (I only got my taxes back, but it’s still something).  We settled on visiting Penang, Malaysia and Shanghai during my portion of the trip.  I bought a United ticket ($900) from PVG to IAD via SFO returning to BKK to link up with the Swiss First flight.  Luckily, I was able to secure United’s new Premium Plus product on the return (EWR-HKG), and much to my surprise, for $600 + 30K United miles, I confirmed an upgrade to Polaris Business (on their Boeing 787-900) from PVG-SFO.  Money and miles well-spent!

 

[Are you following so far?  Because if you are, you’ll see there is a westward ATW flight in my future.]

 

Now, I needed to get from IAD to MXP in time for the Swiss flights.  Joey stayed in Stuttgart after I departed 31 July to wrap up loose ends there, so he’d just have a short STR-MXP flight.  For 30K United miles, I booked an United economy award ticket:  IAD-ZRH-MXP.  With my UA Gold status, I’d be able to access the great Swiss Senator Lounges at ZRH. 

 

[TTP:  even when you land at the ZRH E Gates—as most U.S. flights do—you can still access the better E Gates Swiss Senator Lounge.  Just give yourself enough time to make it through immigration before catching your Schengen flight.]

 

This is a lot of background to arrive at mapping my trip.  Thanks for staying with me!

 

My ATW-eastward route:  IAD-ZRH-MXP-ZRH-BKK-KUL-PEN-HKG-PVG-SFO-IAD.

 

 

A lot more to cover, but I’ll save that for follow-on parts.  I had attempted to produce on-the-go real-time entries, but I’m not that fast a writer.  Plus, it was a vacation!

 

In sum, with a combination of revenue and award tickets, I completed my first ATW trip (eastward) in August and September 2019.  It was a great experience, and why I’m not sure everyone needs to do this, it was an oddly satisfying accomplished for me.

 

Happy Travels!

 

Vr,

Albert

 

Albert Guerrero, USAF, Ret.

“Let’s Travel Farther, Together!”

 

Follow my travels on Instagram:  @albert_traveler

 

PS: In case you were wondering, the other two DoD jobs did end up contacting me about interviews:  when it rains, it pours!  However, they contacted me about 2 weeks out from my 31 July PCS date and neither job tempted me away from my already-secured job at DeptVA.

Posted by glenn | No Comments

Another great post from my friend Albert:

Techniques, Tactics, and Procedures (TTPs): Government Tickets and Travel.
Greetings, Fellow Travelers!

BLUF: Whether you use the Defense Travel System (DTS), CONCUR, or another
system for purchasing your USG airline tickets, you still have options to reap outsize
rewards for your work travels.

Today’s TTP is on finding benefits while traveling on government tickets.

Rule #1 for USG-purchased tickets for TDY, TAD, or PCS: if your USG organization
mandates purchases through an officially-sanctioned, USG-provided system, you must
use that system. Contract carriers and city-pair agreements take precedent over your
wants and desires, even when points and miles are concerned.

Rule #2: Do not break any ethical, regulatory, or legal processes when traveling on a
government ticket.

Rule #3: Always follow Rule #1 and Rule #2

Still, by knowing some key features of how tickets are purchase, fare classes, and seat
selection/upgrade rules, you can avoid the middle seat in Row 42!

On 31 July, I flew STR-IAD for my PCS. Delta is the contract carrier between these two
cities. While some—to include SATO—encouraged me to take the nonstop STR-ATL
Delta flight, in my experience, this flight is always full of families, contractors, and Delta
medallion members. Therefore, too much competition for flight benefits.

Prior to checking in with SATO to book my PCS ticket (for my ticket, I was required to
book through SATO), I checked DTS for availability of code share flights on KLM via
Amsterdam. Bought as a Delta ticket, I was able to route STR-AMS-IAD. From STR,
this route is my favorite as I prefer international connections via AMS. It’s one of the
easiest airports in which to transfer.

So already, I was ahead of the game, and with the flight information in hand, SATO
booked my preferred route…all within the rules.

Further, DTS and the other systems, provide you the fare class for the tickets. On this
date, with this route, my preferred flights were in fare class Y. Essentially, as far as
Delta’s computer was concerned, this was a “full-fare economy” ticket, even though the
USG paid only a fraction of what a civilian would pay. Fare class here is important
since Y class tickets earn a 50% bonus for Delta Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQM)
based on miles flown. [Note: MQM go towards Delta elite status.]

On my AMS-IAD route, Delta calculated 3,867 mi + 1,934 mi (Y class 50%) for 5,801
Delta MQM. This is a healthy haul of elite miles inching me closer to the next level of

Delta elite status. Am I specifically chasing Delta elite status? Not really, but since
work has taking me to and from STR and IAD at least four times a year, using this
method, I’ve been able to reach Delta Gold status the past few years. Since I’m using
the authorized and mandatory reservation and purchasing system, DTS, to search out Y
fares for work travel, the bonus MQM are perfectly valid. No additional cost to the USG
for these flights.

BONUS TTP #1: if you’re a USG military or civilian member stationed overseas, be
sure to update your home address (e.g., APO, FPO) on all your frequent flier accounts.
Flyers with overseas addresses are waived the spending dollar requirements. Check
your favorite frequent flier programs for further details.

For another example, my first TDY in my new job took me to Wyoming via DEN. The
IAD-DEN flight was purchased in W fare class. While not the highly beneficial Y fare
class, W does offer some benefits for seat selection and upgrades.

Since I’m already United Gold, I was able to move my seat from the back of the
economy cabin into Economy Plus. Sadly, the only seats left were middle seat, never
my favorite option. However, W fares often, with availability, offer discount upgrade
options either with cash or miles. This flight offered a confirmed upgrade to United
Domestic First for $190 one way or 17.5K miles to be waitlisted into First.
I quickly paid the $190 (via my Chase Sapphire Reserve for 3x on travel!) and
confirmed a seat into First Class. There was no availability on the return trip, but as I
personally didn’t pay for the ticket—the USG did—$190 for a 3+ hour flight is money
well-spent, IMHO.

While a First Class upgrade on the return never went below $631, I just set an Expert
Flyer seat alert for an Economy Plus (E+) aisle or window seat. Anything is better than
a middle seat IMHO. Luckily, a couple of days before my departure, a E+ window seat
became available. I enjoyed leaning on the outer wall to snooze for the 3+ hour flight.
I recommend each traveler set their own “pay threshold” for purchasing an upgrade with
cash or miles. If you have a reasonable max limit, you will always know when to snap
up a great deal or to let one pass.

BONUS TTP #2: sign up for as many airline (and hotel!!) loyalty programs you can
since even with a government ticket, you are free to earn miles and points on
government travel.

In sum, traveling on a government-procured ticket has many responsibilities to included
ethical, regulatory, and legal. However, even within these rules and with some savvy
travel knowledge, you can reap some of your hard-earned rewards.
Happy Travels!

Vr,
Albert
Albert Guerrero, USAF, Ret.
“Let’s Travel Farther, Together!”
Follow my travels on Instagram: @albert_traveler

Posted by glenn | 3 Comments

My buddy Albert has PCS’ed back to the States causing a complete re-think of how he earns miles and points. Since this happens to a lot of military personnel. let’s see what he has to say.

ALL HANDS:  New Travel Strategy (PCS Edition).

 

Greetings, Fellow Travelers!

 

BLUF:  Relocating back to the U.S. requires a change of my travel strategy.  Even without the amazing business class fares from Europe to Asia, I can still, with some strategic planning, buy tickets and redeem miles and points for some epically fancy airplane and locale experiences.

 

Today’s ALL HANDS focuses on how I’ve changed my travel planning strategy after my PCS back to the U.S. from Germany.

 

I’m back!

 

Apologies for being comms silent the past month or so, but I needed some time to coordinate our PCS back to the U.S.  We’ve landed in Washington, DC, within spitting distance of the OG Military Frequent Flyer himself, BG Goddard!  Plus, I’m moving agencies—DoD to the VA—so it’s been pretty hectic.  Still, we are pretty excited as DC is where I wanted to be for work, and with the restaurants, the airport access (Hello, DCA and CLEAR!), and all the culture, we’re very lucky a good job came calling. 

 

A few posts ago, I mentioned how amazing Europe to Asia business class deals were, but if you track U.S. to Asia prices, those types of deals are nearly non-existent.  While I could easily find a $2000 business class ticket in a fancy reverse herringbone seat out of Europe, from the US those prices usually run double if not more. 

 

So what’s a business class junky to do?  Well, my new strategy consists of a combo of purchased business class and mileage tickets.

 

For example, right now, I’m working on our Christmas-New Year’s and summer 2020 travel plans.  Already, using some of my precious Alaska miles, I’ve booked two one-way flight from TPE-NRT-ORD/JFK in JAL Business and First for 75K Alaska miles each.  JAL First is on the transpacific route, which should be awesome.  One ticket lands in ORD and the other in JFK, but since Joey and I don’t need to be on the same flight, you can’t beat that deal for First Class even if flying to different end points. 

 

We’re also taking advantage of Alaska’s generous stop-over policy and spending a few nights in Tokyo to sample some sushi and see some Navy friends stationed south of the city.  Should be an awesome trip back after New Year’s.

 

So, what about the trip TO Asia, as this is the return FROM Asia?  Well, the JAL trip above is actually part 2 of 4.  Parts 1 and 4 will be a purchased business class ticket.  Right now I’m looking a $3900 business class ticket on Qatar our of IAH or a $3500 out of LAX on Singapore. 

 

Now, before you say anything, remember this is parts 1 and 4 of the trip.  Part 2 and the soon-to-be-procured part 3 will be mileage tickets…so essentially free!  (Yes, I had to work and pay to earn those miles, but this is way the game is played.).  So, with the miles already in my account, my only expenditure for two round trip tickets will be the cost of the one bought ticket.  So in Qatar’s case, $3900 or $1950 per ticket (funny math, but it helps rationalize my spending! LOL!)

 

Parts 1 and 2 will take us to Asia for the winter holiday, likely to Chengdu, first, for pandas and hot pots.  Then, we plan to tour Taiwan’s amazing food via high-speed train.

 

For parts 3 and 4, more complexity will occur.  After enduring such a hot and miserable summer during the European heatwave of 2019, I’ve been itching to get to the Southern Hemisphere to escape what we know will be a swampy 2020 summer in DC.  So, we’ve decided to head Down Under and tour Australia.  We’ve been to Sydney and Melbourne (both amazing cities, and you should definitely go!), but I’ve been looking at Perth, Canberra, Adelaide, and Brisbane for this trip. 

 

So part 3, the mileage ticket, will be from the U.S. to Australia, hopefully on one of Qantas’ new 787 routes from ORD or SFO (it has better business class seats than their A380 routes out of LAX).  This would be 55K Alaska miles.  Although, I’m always looking for Qantas First on their A380 for 70K Alaska miles, but those are unicorns! 

 

For part 4, I’m looking at departing from Australia back to the U.S.  Right now, both Qatar and Singapore offer a relatively painless single connection through their respective hubs in Doha and Singapore.

 

In sum, while this is definitely the turducken of travel plans, the high cost of business class tickets from the U.S. are cost prohibitive for a one-off trip.  So, this is likely the way I’ll plan the next few years of travel:  one-bought ticket, one-mileage ticket…two amazing trips!

 

Happy Travels!

 

Vr,

Albert

 

Albert Guerrero, USAF, Ret.

“Let’s Travel Farther, Together!”

 

Follow my travels on Instagram:  @albert_traveler

Posted by glenn | One Comment

ALL HANDS: Inside or Outside of the City Center?

 

Greetings, Fellow Travelers!

 

BLUF: Balancing price, amenities, and location can be a daunting task. And while no single factor can truly take precedence over another during your travel planning, it’s best to stick to your guns and make the best decision for you and your travel party.

 

Today’s ALL HANDS offers a glimpse into my decision-making process on where to stay during city and urban travels.

 

As I write this, I’m finishing up a six-day driving tour in Portugal which started in Porto. Porto is a great town, and you should definitely spend as much time as you can in it and Portugal. Additionally, the trip’s start brought to bear the dilemma of where to stay as it relates to location, loyalty, and price.

 

In Porto, my preferred hotel chain, Marriott, has two main hotels, the Sheraton Porto and the AC Hotel Porto. Neither is near the historic city center where most of our events would take place, but the Sheraton had a Club Lounge and a free breakfast. The Sheraton is an approx. 15 mins car ride into the Porto city center which, as we suspected, has very bad traffic.

 

Within Porto’s historic city center, most of the “affordable luxury” hotels we prefer were low on affordable but high on luxury. For example, we could’ve booked a Sheraton room for $210/night. Still, we would not be close to anything we wanted to do, and while we are active travelers, we do like to scurry back to the hotel for a rest during the day not to mention a touch of room service if the mood hits. (Writer’s note: it does hit…and often!)

 

The only significant chain hotel in the city center is the InterContinental Porto, the city’s most famous five-star hotel. During our dates, rooms were $300/night without breakfast (which itself was $25 per person). While I do like boutique, non-chain hotels, I collect hotel points and nights in all chains, so if not Marriott, I usually opt for a known brand. Plus, our last InterContinental stay was in Wellington, New Zealand, and it was an amazing property with tons of luxury!

 

Strictly by the math, the room rate difference between the InterContinental and the Sheraton is $90 per night or $180 more for the two nights. If you add two breakfasts for the two mornings, that’s an additional $100 or a $280 difference.

 

In Porto, we had three specific events schedules: a visit to the amazing Harry Potter-inspiring Livraria Lello bookstore, a Porto dinner-time tapas walking tour, and a city sightseeing bus tour which started at the city center. (In fact, right outside the InterContinental as it turned out.)

 

For each of these events, from the Sheraton, we would’ve had to either book a taxi or an Uber to get downtown. Given the time and stress of trying to make a meeting or reservation time in city traffic, that additional $280 price tag wasn’t looking so bad. Plus, even with a two-person seasoned travel party, annoyances, bickering, exhaustion, and exasperation do occur.

 

While everyone likes to be a calm and collected traveler, with enough wrong turns or uphill climbs or changes in temperature, sometimes the best remedy is a strategic pause in the itinerary. For us, this is best handled with a trip back to the hotel for some R&R, and for this trip, a 15-25 minute taxi ride would not have worked.

 

So, I booked the InterContinental and paid for the convenience of being closer to where we wanted to be and the ability to recover from any travel fatigue. In the long run, the $280 price difference (yes, we ate breakfast, and it was good!) wasn’t too hard on the wallet. Being right in the city center played exactly the way we had hoped: we were mere steps from our activities and enjoyed some good lounging time back at the hotel, which was never too far away.

 

Now, I grant neither of these “per night” hotel rates are part of a budget-friendly travel itinerary, but as I’ve honestly offered up from the start, I’m not that kind of traveler. I’m far too fussy for 2-star hotels full of backpackers or an AirBnB where I have to stock the place with breakfast foods. 😉

 

I’m not numb to the pinch of a higher price tag, though. I do, however, try to employ a “no regrets” attitude and try not to fret about travel decisions once made. Or would this be more of a “head in the sand” strategy? Hmmm…

 

In sum, sometimes price is king, and you have to stay farther outside the city center. And sometimes, understanding the energy level of your travel party negates price. And sometimes, there is no adult in the room, and throwing money at the situation is what “affordable luxury” is all about. HA!

 

Happy Travels!

 

Vr,

Albert

 

Albert Guerrero, USAF, Ret.

“Let’s Travel Farther, Together!”

 

Follow my travels on Instagram: @albert_traveler

Posted by glenn | No Comments

Another interesting post from Albert.

 

Greetings, Fellow Travelers!

 

BLUF: The small but very functional LCY is the closest airport to central London. Its quick immigration lines and Docklands Light Rail (DLR) connector into the city make LCY my favorite metro airport when visiting London. It should also be yours!

 

Today’s TTP is why using LCY as your main London airport is the smart choice.

 

 

London is one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. London Heathrow (LHR) is its largest and most well-connect airport for global air traffic. Joining LHR is London Gatwick (LGW), London Luton (LTN), and London Stansted (STN). Each of these airports service international destination though most intercontinental traffic arrives at LHR and LGW.

 

So, if you want a direct flight from CONUS, LHR and LGW are your best choices. However, as readers have noticed by now, I rarely like a simple and direct line to a destination. This is where LCY stands far above its airport compatriots as the best and most convenient when visiting London.

 

 

First, for those of us stationed in Europe, LCY is connected to almost every major Western European hub city (e.g,. Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Zurich, etc.). Even though British Airways is the predominate carrier at LCY, Lufthansa, KLM, Swiss, and other Euro-carriers service LCY with direct, non-stop service. Even with a connection from CONUS to mainland Europe and connecting onward to LCY, landing at LCY vice LHR is much more convenient.

 

Given its smaller size, only regional jets service LCY, meaning each arriving aircraft has between 90 to 120 passengers. This is compared to LHR whose arriving wide-body aircrafts can have as many as 300+ passengers. When the rush to enter immigration happens post-arrival, LCY’s smaller loads guarantee you’ll be elbowing far fewer of your fellow passengers to cross the UK border. Shorter immigration lines at LCY has steadily been my experience.

 

 

Second, getting into London from LCY is incredibly simple thanks to the DLR. The DLR is an above-ground network of trains exclusive to the east end of London. At multiple locations, however, the DLR connects to the more popular London Underground, so likely you are one maybe two connections away from your hotel in Central London.

 

 

 

Yes, the London Underground connects directly to LHR, but it will take you 45 mins to get to Piccadilly Circus on the Underground vice 35 minutes from LCY with DLR and Underground connections. LHR is serviced by the Heathrow Express train, which is the quickest way to get from LHR to London but also the most expensive, $37. The DLR/Underground combo cost approx. $5. Even with on-peak and off-peak pricing and return ticket discounts, the DLR/Underground combo is almost certainly the more affordable ticket.

 

I would certainly recommend to anyone visiting London for the first time to stay in the city center. Almost all of the most famous tourist attractions are within the city center. However, as a secondary TTP, staying outside of Central London is truly the best way to save on hotel rates. My past four visits to London have all included not only arriving at LCY but staying in Canary Wharf. Canary Wharf is a large financial center in east London which has two malls and lots of restaurants, pubs, cafes, and a movie theater—in addition to DLR and London Underground stops.

 

Canary Wharf, for me, offers the best balance on price and transit distance to Central London sites when visiting London. While a nice hotel in London can run upwards of $300/night, the Marriott at Canary Wharf can have rooms available for as low as $150/night. Definitely do your research and be flexible if you can.

 

 

In sum, visiting London should be at the top of your travel bucket list, and LCY can make your arrival cheaper and easier. Also, by focusing your hotel search in Canary Wharf, you can both save some money and be only 10 mins away from your airport.

 

Happy Travels!

 

Vr,

Albert

 

Albert Guerrero, USAF, Ret.

“Let’s Travel Farther, Together!”

 

Follow my travels on Instagram: @albert_traveler

 

Posted by glenn | No Comments

Greetings, Fellow Travelers!

 

BLUF: This four-part AAR covers the journey, destination, and activities of our trip to Iceland. Iceland is full of amazing wonders: waterfalls, geysers, wildlife, and fresh air. Over the past five years, Iceland has become one of the most popular destinations for tourists. In turn, Iceland’s tourism infrastructure has risen to the challenge to accommodate that influx with new hotels, bars, restaurants, and a fantastic airport. I recommend a visit, but more than most places, seasonal differences in airfare, room rates, activities, and crowds prevail. Definitely do your research.

 

Today’s AAR takes us to Iceland.

 

Iceland is volcanically and geologically active, and the main reason tourism has boomed over the past years. Despite its name, Iceland sits entirely south of the Arctic Circle, and its climate is heavily-regulated by the warm North Atlantic Current. Even with its subarctic weather, Iceland has distinct seasons and an abundance of flora and fauna.

 

 

The most popular tourist activity is the Golden Circle route. This approximately 300 km route hits three of the main geological attractions easily accessible from Reykjavik during half-day tours.

 

The first stop along the route is the Thingvellir National Park. The park is home to glacier-formed lakes and the visible rift between the North American and European tectonic plates. Tourist can dive the lake, hike along the rift, and view glorious waterfalls and running streams.

 

 

The second stop along the route is the Geysir geothermal area. As the name suggests, this geothermal active area is home to both the Geysir and Strokkor geysers. The Strokker geyer is the more reliable of the two and erupts every 6-10 minutes to approximately 50-60 ft. This area is also the most developed with a hotel, restaurants, and gift shops.

 

 

The third (and usually last) stop during a half-day tour is the Gullfoss Waterfall. Feed by the southern flow of the Hívíta River, this massive waterfall has viewing platforms both along the canyon edge and from river-level. The water is always cold, so be prepared for icy mist and slippery footpaths.

 

 

Rather than make our way directly back to Reykjavik, we opted to drive the full circle and make our way back to KEF. With an early morning flight back to FRA, we chose to stay at the Aurora Airport Hotel, a quick five-minute walk from the terminal building. A very simple hotel with minimal amenities, saving ourselves the very early morning drive on our day of departure was the smart option.

 

By continuing on the route, we were able to visit the Kerid Crater. This intact caldera formed by a volcanic eruption over 3000 years ago is full of water and lined with red volcanic rock. The crater serves as a very dramatic back drop, and we even saw a young couple having what looked like engagement photos taken along the edge.

 

 

As mentioned, the Golden Circle route is immensely popular, so the two-lane road can often experience traffic jams due to tour busses and campers driving slower than the posted speed limit. Luckily, during our Sunday visit along the route, traffic was minimal. Again, most tours drive from Reykjavik to the Gullfoss Waterfall and back to the capital, so traffic is heaviest along that route. Mobile phone coverage (LTE and 3G) was pretty good along the entire route.

 

 

In sum, a visit to Iceland has been on our European bucket list since 2013, and we’re very glad to have finally completed the trip. Whether based in North America or in Europe, Iceland is along your flight path as you traverse the Atlantic. I encourage you to visit (preferably in the off-season to capture some flight and hotel deals) as Iceland offers a lot on both short and long visits.

 

Happy Travels!

 

Vr,

Albert

 

Albert Guerrero, USAF, Ret.

“Let’s Travel Farther, Together!”

 

Follow my travels on Instagram: @albert_traveler

 

Posted by glenn | 3 Comments

Greetings, Fellow Travelers!

 

BLUF: This four-part AAR covers the journey, destination, and activities of our trip to Iceland. Iceland is full of amazing wonders: waterfalls, geysers, wildlife, and fresh air. Over the past five years, Iceland has become one of the most popular destinations for tourists. In turn, Iceland’s tourism infrastructure has risen to the challenge to accommodate that influx with new hotels, bars, restaurants, and a fantastic airport. I recommend a visit, but more than most places, seasonal differences in airfare, room rates, activities, and crowds prevail. Definitely do your research.

 

Today’s AAR takes us to Iceland.

 

The Avis counter reminded us multiple times to observe the posted speed limit during our stay. Icelandic police are unforgiving to speeding tourists especially during the 45-minute journey from KEF into Reykjavik. Without incident, we made our way into downtown Reykjavik (thanks, WAZE!) and to 101 Hotel, a Member of the Design Hotels (a Marriott brand).

 

 

The quirky, boutique nature of the Design Hotel made our stay in downtown Reykjavik a very walkable one. Located near old town and the marina, 101 Hotel offered great amenities (a full-spa and whirlpool; wifi; and continental breakfast) but no dedicated parking. We found street parking for our stay. Of note, hotels are not cheap, but before the summer rush, they are reasonable. The 101 Hotel room rate was $250/night. By late May, the rate would increase to $420+/night.

 

The room was small but comfy, and the décor was slightly weird but in an arty way. We kept the windows open to breathe in some fresh air and enjoy the city sounds. Our room faced a park and the amazing Harpa Concert Hall.

 

 

From the 101 Hotel, we were able to walk everywhere to visit some key landmarks and take some nice pictures. We wandered the charming streets of downtown and old town, enjoyed a Thai dinner (it was NOT spicy at all!) and some good after-dinner baked goods. Reykjavik is full of coffee shops and bookstore. It reminded us of Portland, Oregon with everyone in big sweaters and wool hats.

On Saturday, we booked a whale watching tour. We opted for a luxury three-hour tour aboard a converted yacht with a full snack bar. Another option was to ride a speed boat and chase down whale sightings. Even though it was April, the weather was still quite cold and rainy on the water, so speed boating around the coast was not an option for us. The guide and the crew were very nice as was the boat. Sadly, we didn’t see any whales, but we did see puffins who were migrating back north for the summer. The puffins fly fast and low along the water alternating between landing on rocky outcrops and the water.

Reykjavik has a lot of bars and pubs read-made for live music and good times with friends. With the daylight still visible at 10:30pm, the city remains lively for both young and old. Another plus to the rise in tourism is the popularity of pop-up restaurants. Pop-up restaurants are food truck-like establishments with small and concentrated menus. We found Ramen Momo, the first ramen house in Iceland. Made up of one long counter and a small kitchen, the staff prepared some outrageously good ramen. Again, even when asked for, spiciness does not seem part of the Icelandic palate. Still, the ramen was fresh and full of flavor.

 

Opened in May 2011, the Harpa Concert and Convention Center is a massive structure designed by a Danish architectural firm. The 28000 square meter facility houses one large concert hall and three smaller venues and is the center of culture in Iceland. The windows are geometric-shaped octagon, hexagon, and pentagon glass panels in hues of greens, blues, and oranges. As the outer wall leans outward from its base, when inside, one gets the sensation of tipping over as you enjoy the views from the upper floors.

 

In sum, Reykjavik has a lot to offer. Staying in the city center is the best way to sample the city without having to drive. The city center is slightly hilly but relatively small. If you plan a shoulder season visit, you’ll likely find the best hotel and tour deals.

 

 

Next, Part 4: Waterfalls, geysers, and moonscapes…

 

Happy Travels!

 

Vr,

Albert

 

Albert Guerrero, USAF, Ret.

“Let’s Travel Farther, Together!”

 

Follow my travels on Instagram: @albert_traveler

 

Posted by glenn | No Comments

Greetings, Fellow Travelers!

 

BLUF: This four-part AAR covers the journey, destination, and activities of our trip to Iceland. Iceland is full of amazing wonders: waterfalls, geysers, wildlife, and fresh air. Over the past five years, Iceland has become one of the most popular destinations for tourists. In turn, Iceland’s tourism infrastructure has risen to the challenge to accommodate that influx with new hotels, bars, restaurants, and a fantastic airport. I recommend a visit, but more than most places, seasonal differences in airfare, room rates, activities, and crowds prevail. Definitely do your research.

 

Today’s AAR takes us to Iceland.

 

Iceland is approximately a three-hour flight from continental Europe. From FRA, the non-stop choices are Lufthansa (LH) or Icelandair (FI). If you recall my ALL HANDS post on the most useful airline status in Europe (Star Alliance Gold via United Airlines Gold), flying LH FRA to KEF is where I started my search, but it’s not where I landed.

 

 

In May 2018, Joey and I were in the Iberia Premium Lounge Velázquez at the Madrid–Barajas Airport (MAD) Terminal 4S finishing up an amazing Memorial Day weekend in the Spanish capital when I started thinking about spring 2019 travel. At end of 2017, I refocused our loyalty toward Alaska Airlines. With its diverse partners and incredibly generous accrual bonuses, the Alaska Mileage Plan frequent flyer program is my favorite program.

 

 

While I’m still a fan of United Airlines, the Icelandair and Alaska partnership offered an outsized accrual opportunity. With an Icelandair Saga Class “A” fare (discount business class), I could earn 125% elite and redeemable miles within the Mileage Plan program based on FRA-KEF-FRA number of miles flown. With my Alaska MVP Gold status, I’d earn an additional 100% redeemable mile bonus. So, I was looking at a hefty haul of Alaska miles for the trip.

 

In the Iberia Lounge, I used Google Flights to search dates in April and May 2019 for a long-weekend with a reasonable FI Saga Class fare. For $600 each ticket, I purchased two roundtrips from FRA-KEF, Friday to Monday. The total trip was 2758 miles, so with bonuses, I earned 6206 redeemable miles in Mileage Plan. I also earned 3448 elite miles toward maintaining Mileage Plan MVP status. If the numbers are losing you, for me and many in the points and miles world, the travel experience is the journey, the destination, and the math!

 

If you’ve flown a U.S. carrier in their domestic First Class, Saga Class offers essentially the same large recliner seat. Included with Saga Class is lounge access (in FRA, it’s the Air France Lounge in Terminal 2; in KEF, it’s the fantastic Saga Lounge). We were offered lunch on the flight to KEF and breakfast on the return, and we could pre-order our meals via Icelandair’s website before the flight. I highly recommend this as it offers more options than the plane’s menu. I had the beef loin; it was delicious.

 

 

Saga Class also came with Icelandair-branded noise-cancelling headphones to enjoy with the seatback entertainment. I’m not an audiophile by any means, so I’m not as particular about headphones as some. Still, the headphones were great for the ride, and noise-cancelling enough for watching BROOKLYN NINE-NINE, BOB’S BURGER and FRESH OFF THE BOAT episodes.

 

 

Like most European airports, KEF has both Schengen and non-Schengen zones. From Germany, we landed in the Schengen area, so no immigration was required. The Saga Lounge (the only one in the airport) is in the Schengen area between the A and C gates but very close to the non-Schengen border control gates. If you have access to the Saga Lounge, I highly encourage you to visit, and if flying to a non-Schengen destination, give yourself enough time to reach your gate after the border.

 

 

Duty Free is extremely popular at KEF. Lots of people were stocking up on wine, beer, and spirits after baggage claim. We rented a car for our stay. The Avis counter line was about 40 people. Luckily, our Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card confers Avis Preferred status, so we skipped to the front of the line and departed the airport with minimal delays. With no checked luggage, I’d estimate 20-25 minutes from landing to reaching and starting our rental car.

 

In sum, Icelandair was a great way to get from Germany to Iceland. Without WOW, Icelandair has an almost complete monopoly on airfare and facilities at KEF. Deals through other European and U.S. carriers can be found, but you have to be extra patient and flexible to find them. All and all, FI’s big recliners and Saga Class service was a great way to start our Iceland adventure.

 

 

Next, Part 3: Reykjavik and (almost) midnight sun…

 

Happy Travels!

 

Vr,

Albert

 

Albert Guerrero, USAF, Ret.

“Let’s Travel Farther, Together!”

 

Follow my travels on Instagram: @albert_traveler

 

Posted by glenn | No Comments

Greetings, Fellow Travelers!

 

BLUF: This four-part AAR covers the journey, the destination, and activities of our trip to Iceland. Iceland is full of amazing wonders: waterfalls, geysers, wildlife, and fresh air. Over the past five years, Iceland has become one of the most popular destinations for tourists. In turn, Iceland’s tourism infrastructure has risen to the challenge to accommodate that influx with new hotels, bars, restaurants, and a fantastic airport. I recommend a visit, but more than most places, seasonal differences in airfare, room rates, activities, and crowds prevail. Definitely do your research.

 

Today’s AAR takes us to Iceland.

 

 

While Iceland has, for many years, been a top destination for whale and Northern Lights watching, getting to the small North Atlantic island nation proved expensive. In 2012, WOW Airlines changed all that. This “ultra low cost carrier” provided incredibly cheap airfares from the U.S. and Europe to Keflavik International Airport (KEF), the main airport for Iceland. Suddenly, both WOW and Icelandair (the national flag carrier) began offering “stop over” service: the ability to connect between North American and Europe with a multi-day stop in Iceland at no additional cost. This strategy was the catalyst to jumpstart Iceland’s tourism boom.

 

 

Many argued the WOW and Icelandair rivalry and “price war” grew too fast and saturated the island (pop. 358,000 in 2019) with too many tourists too quickly. In 2010, KEF tracked just over 2 million passengers in and out of the airport. By 2018, that figure was almost 10 million. This in an unprecedented number of non-locals looking for hotel rooms, dinner spots, souvenirs, and tours. Plus, once outside of Reykjavik, the capital and largest city, roads become two-lane and prone to overcrowding due to tour busses and campers heading to geological hotspots.

 

As previously mentioned, I’ve been in stationed in Germany since July 2013. Iceland has been on and off my travel calendar many times. The first couple of false starts in planning were likely due to too much written about how, frankly, crowded and “hipster” the location was. Reportedly, the initial flood of tourists were eco-tourists bringing with them shaggy beards, craft cocktail recipes, veganism, and traffic. Not entirely fair, I know, but nonetheless, I delayed visiting until 2019.

 

WOW Airlines ceased operations in March 2019. As many in the tourism industry predicted, WOW was stretched too thin with its ever-expanding network and lack of new capital investment. The airline’s demise is definitely a speed bump to Iceland’s tourism. However, every cloud has a silver lining as WOW’s demise in March 2019 decreased the number of tourist during our April 2019—likely to be felt for at least a year.

 

 

In sum, I’m happy a trip to Iceland finally landed on our travel schedule, and I’m excited to share the experience.

 

Next, Part 2: The “Saga” begins…

 

Happy Travels!

 

Vr,

Albert

 

Albert Guerrero, USAF, Ret.

“Let’s Travel Farther, Together!”

 

Follow my travels on Instagram: @albert_traveler

 

Posted by glenn | No Comments

ALL HANDS: Mandatory Fun (Travel Inspiration Edition).

 

Greetings, Fellow Travelers!

 

BLUF: Anything can inspire you to travel. Whether it be price, a movie, schedule, or word-of-month, traveling is about having a great adventure and an enjoyable time on your terms and no one else’s.

 

Today’s ALL HANDS focuses on how to inspire yourself to travel.

 

I recently asked a millennial friend of mine what inspires him to travel. He was quick to say, “Price!” While he’s a no-fear, no-holds-bar traveler, he lets price dictate where he goes and for how long he stays. Over the past year, he’s been exploring Eastern Europe since it’s both incredibly affordable and diverse. With price as his guide, he looks for hiking, kayaking, cross-country skiing, and cultural opportunities within his means. He purposely budgets a set amount each month for travel and commits to it. After each trip, he’s inspired to keep traveling within his allocated funds and to never miss an adventure.

 

Another friend of mine (father, married, two young sons) coordinates his travel around his and his wife’s work schedule, and, most importantly, the sons’ school schedules. Here, “time” is what primarily drives his travel inspiration. While the school year is filled with hockey practice, science projects, and, of course, work, Spring and Summer Breaks are packed with family travel. Whether it’s a trip to an amusement or water park or a visit to Orlando, he and his family don’t let the crowds or price (within reason, of course) deter them. They have the drive and energy to travel during these times, so they buckle down and get moving.

 

For me, I take a more comprehensive approach to travel. As a kid, I was always fascinated by the amazing locations I saw in movies and tv shows. Whether it was James Bond visiting a underground baccarat game in Shanghai or a nature show tracking kangaroos in the Australian bush, the world always seemed so big and out-of-reach. Still, I knew I had to see it.

 

As a young adult, thanks to the US Air Force, I was stationed both in Guam and Italy, so those locations were ideal for jump-starting travel adventures. Back then, commensurate with budget and energy level, I got a taste of Asia-Pacific and European destinations. I visited Australia, Japan, and many European capitals.

 

Now, as a married and not-so-young (ha!) adult, my travel inspiration is sparked from a myriad of people and places. It was a work colleague who, while at his going away, talked about South African wine country and Table Mountain which got that trip moving. It was a prolific travel blogger writing about a mileage redemption sweet spot on Thai Airways Royal First between BKK and SYD which pushed me to book an Australian and a New Zealand trip. It was an interior designer posting on social media about his favorite refreshed hotel club lounge at the Le Meridien Kuala Lumpur which put the Malaysian capital on my calendar. It was an article in an inflight magazine highlighting Easter Island’s airport as the most remote in the world which started my planning on how to get there.

 

In sum, let anything and everything inspire you to travel. Get out there and have an adventure.

 

Happy Travels!

 

Vr,

Albert

 

Albert Guerrero, USAF, Ret.

“Let’s Travel Farther, Together!”

 

Follow my travels on Instagram: @albert_traveler

 

Posted by glenn | No Comments

Albert has found time on his vacation in Thailand to send in a couple more posts:

 

Greetings, Fellow Travelers!

 

BLUF: Many times, the most affordable business class airfare is not from your home airport to your desired travel destination. Often, an inexpensive positioning flight to another location can save you $100s.

 

Today’s TTP is on using positioning flights to save money while stationed in Europe.

 

Travelers, I began writing this TTP mid-way through two weeks in Thailand. After a very busy start to 2019, I’ve joined Joey who’s in the middle of a month-long tour of SE Asia. He’s already enjoyed some time in Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Singapore.

 

A few friends have inquired how we afford to fly to Asia in business class as often as we do. First, this is not an inexpensive hobby; we spend money on it. Though, I plan our spending and strategize our travel very early and a bit obsessively to ensure we don’t spend beyond our means. Second, travel and travel experiences are a priority for us. Not everyone can do that, so a bulk of our “fun funds” go to travel. Finally, I understand and exploit how different airlines price their flights out of different cities in Europe.

 

The final item is a great TPP to exploit. For example, I purchased this trip’s Cathay Pacific business class ticket from Brussels roundtrip to Bangkok rather than from Stuttgart or Frankfurt, my two “home” airports.

 

In the fall 2017 (when this trip’s planning began), I found a $2099 RT business class ticket from Brussels to Bangkok. While I usually fly out of Stuttgart or Frankfurt, all business class tickets were upwards of $3000, which despite what people think, is outside my spending comfort zone. Ha!

 

My love for Cathay stems from how great the food is (dim sum for breakfast!) and the ability to credit flights to Alaska Airlines (a subject for another post). I also enjoy transiting HKG, Cathay’s hub, for it’s amazing selection of lounges with showers, noodle bars, and creature comforts.

 

Was flying out of Brussels worth the $900 savings (from STR) when I had to get to Brussels? Absolutely! For way less than $900, I bought an inexpensive RT Swiss flight through Zurich and a single night at the Sheraton at Brussels airport on the front end. While not everyone values their time equally and may choose to fly a more convenient route, for our two tickets, I “saved” $1800. (Full disclosure: I’ve paid for convenient routes, too!)

 

Remember, we wanted to go on this trip, in business class, to SE Asia. Given those parameters and my price point comfort zone, I made it happen. Money well spent!

 

Here’s a little more insight into more of my travel thinking: I understand how each travel action can offer me value. To explain, the Swiss flights credit to my United Airlines account and help maintain my United Gold status and therefor my Star Alliance Gold status for great lounge access and other benefits. My Sheraton stay adds to my nights and points balance for Marriott inching me closer to maintaining Marriott Bonvoy Platinum status and with that, its great benefits. A lot of moving pieces, but worth it to me.

 

In sum, travel planning is simple; travel planning well is not. By opening up the aperture of where you start your airfare search, you can possibly save a good bit of money. So, perhaps, you can spend a night in Stockholm before catching your Emirates flight to the Maldives, or enjoy some goulash in Budapest before enjoying a luxe flight on Singapore for a holiday in Bali. Europe is small, and a short positioning flight may make all the difference in price.

 

(In sum PS: positioning flights also work well in Asia and North America, but as I focus more on Europe, I’m more familiar with those.)

 

Happy Travels!

 

Vr,

Albert

 

Albert Guerrero, USAF, Ret.

“Let’s Travel Farther, Together!”

 

Follow my travels on Instagram: @albert_traveler

 

Posted by glenn | 3 Comments

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