Category Archives: Trip Report

Trip Report: Hong Kong and Macau

  • Introduction
  • Part 1: Star Alliance Lounge at LAX Tom Bradley Terminal
  • Part 2: Asiana Business Class Quadra Smartium LAX-ICN
  • Part 3: Asiana Business Class Lounge at ICN
  • Part 4: Asiana Business Class ICN-HKG
  • Part 5: Sheraton Hong Kong Hotel and Towers
  • Part 6: Sightseeing in Hong Kong
  • Part 7: Getting from Hong Kong to Macau
  • Part 8: Sheraton Macau Hotel, Macau Central
  • Part 9: Sightseeing in Macau
  • Part 10: Getting from Macau to the Hong Kong Airport
  • Part 11: Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer Lounge at HKG
  • Part 12: Singapore Airlines First Class HKG-SFO
  • Part 13: Four Points by Sheraton Hotel & Suites SFO
  • Part 14: Alaska Airlines Boardroom Lounge at SFO Terminal 1
  • Part 15: Southwest Airlines SFO-SNA

INTRODUCTION

This is clearly going to be a very large trip report, even though it was just five days worth of travel. I had some great experiences and a couple of less than stellar experiences, and I hope to share all of them with you over the coming weeks.

This was the view from my room in Hong Kong. Not bad, right?

I hope at least some of these posts will be useful to you if you have any plans to travel to Hong Kong and/or Macau anytime soon. They’re not comprehensive and you might be able to find similar information elsewhere, but I hope my view on things will help you in some way or at least be an interesting read.

A slight hint of what I did in Macau. It’s not what you think, but still kind of crazy…especially for me. And look at the weather!

I plan on explaining how exactly I booked my flights and my hotel stays. I’ve noticed that many points/travel bloggers rarely add this detail into their reports, and that bothers me. If they’re staying at all these lavish hotels and taking amazing flights, I want to know where their points came from and how much they spent. I want to know how/if I can replicate it. I’ll add this to my posts because I know it will be helpful, especially to the beginners.

As always, let me know if you have any questions on any of these!

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Las Vegas – Mandalay Bay Review

A few weeks back I took a quick weekend road trip down to Las Vegas with a couple of friends. The decision to go was simple because I got free nights! How? Well, that’s an interesting story…

About a year back, I was in Vegas with my family. While waiting for my Dad to finish up playing blackjack at Circus Circus, I decided to put $20 in a nickel slot machine. I’m not much of a gambler at all, but within a couple of minutes I turned that $20 into $100 and was ecstatic. I cashed out and went back to where I was staying at the MGM Grand.

There, I put that $100 back in to another nickel slot (same type of game for good luck) and again that $100 turned into about $500. I was shocked, and started having fun, so I decided to go all out. I did the max bet ($4-$5) on each spin from that point on because I figured that I was playing with free money anyway. A casino employee saw me spinning like a high-roller and said “Hey, you’re playing a lot of money! You should sign up for a players card!” I politely declined, saying “I don’t really care…I’m just messing around” or something to that effect. She REALLY insisted, and actually signed me up for an MGM players club card on the spot.

I did finally stop winning more money and ended up at $300 or so, but that was after a lot of fluctuation up and down (I played for many hours over two days). But over the next 12 months, I started getting all kinds of email offers for free nights, including buffets and all kinds of other discounts.

I took advantage of one offer for two free nights at Aria with two buffet passes, and it was fantastic. I played a little bit of poker and a little bit of slots, but ended up losing a few hundred on that trip.

A few months later I get an offer for free nights at Mandalay Bay…this trip. Okay…now on to the review.

We left after work on Friday, so we didn’t get to the Mandalay Bay until after midnight. Valet parking was full but if you’re staying at the hotel they were happy to valet.

The lobby area was pretty empty and there was no line for check in. I decided to do something I’ve never done before… the so-called “$20 trick.” If you’ve never heard of it, you’re probably not alone. Here’s what it is: when checking in, you hand your credit card and driver’s license/ID with a folded $20 bill in between the cards (the “sandwich”), ask for a “complimentary” upgrade, and then get upgraded to a much better room while the person checking you in pockets your $20. Shady, absolutely, but this website shows that it’s clearly done all the time.

I’m not gonna lie…I was really nervous trying this. It feels slightly unethical, but I figured worst-case scenario is that I lose $20, best case is that I get an awesome room for the weekend. The reviews on the website noted that the later you checked in the lower the chances you had for an upgrade, so I wasn’t expecting much. I handed her the sandwich, asked if any complimentary upgrades were available, and was told that the hotel was booked for the weekend. The entire sandwich was handed back to me, with no mention made of the cash (though we both clearly knew what was going on). It didn’t work, but I’d try it again.

After a long walk to the end of the hallway we finally got to the room.

View of the Entry

The room looked great on entry. You can tell it was a little bit worn as we were in the older part of the hotel, but it was definitely good for what we needed.

The room – everything you’d expect and need.

The room had two queen-size beds as I requested, along with a coffee table and two chairs. Internet is free as part of the resort fee (I HATE these fees), but thankfully was covered as part of my complimentary accommodations. The lighting in the room was pretty good and the temperature control was easy with the thermostat. As I mentioned, this hotel is a little older, so the curtains were showing some age and had to be drawn manually (oh how lazy I’ve become).

Bathroom entry view (looking from the room towards bathroom)

The bathroom was great. Very clean, decked out in marble, had a flat panel TV on the wall in the sink area, a huge Roman tub, separate shower, and a the door ahead is for the toilet.

The shower was my favorite. The water pressure was AMAZING, and temperature control was perfectly precise. When it’s 100+ degrees outside, it’s nice to be able to take a shower the exact way you want it (yes, I love showers).

The bathtub, which I didn’t make use of but looked great.

The sink was everything you’d need, and plenty of towels.

Again, the bathroom was great. The only thing I take issue with, and I’m absolutely nitpicking here, is that the toilet was REALLY loud when flushing. You know the sound a flushing toilet makes on an airplane? A really loud, sucking sound? It was sort of like that. It scared the hell out of me the first time I flushed, and when I woke up to go in the middle of the night it happened again. Be wary of the Mandalay Bay toilet!

My terrible picture of our view.

Sadly I didn’t realize I took such an awful picture of our view. Still, it’s somewhat useful to give you an idea of where things are. The big, green-ish building towards the left is the MGM Grand. The Mandalay Bay is the first major casino on the Strip, and if you rarely come to Las Vegas, I would NOT recommend this casino (unless it were free, of course). Location-wise, I’d pick a hotel near the middle of the Strip. Aria, Bellagio, The Venetian, The Cosmopolitan, etc. are all great choices.  You can walk to nearly anywhere you want from these hotels, but from Mandalay you’ll need to drive to get to where you’re going.

On the plus side, the hotel is right next to the Las Vegas airport (LAS). Honestly though, it doesn’t make a difference. Spend the extra five minutes or $20 to get a room in a hotel with a prime location.

As for activities, unfortunately I wasn’t able to do much because I was sick all of Saturday, the only day I really had there. You can see B.Positive’s post here regarding some awesome food we ate.

KA logo, from the MGM Grand website.

Aside from that, we watched the show “KA” at the MGM Grand. I got discounted tickets from my membership with MGM loyalty program (recently renamed M Life) for the three of us that went. The show was great, and everything you’d expect from Cirque du Soleil. I’ve seen several of their shows in Vegas, and this is one of my favorites. This is one of the few (possibly the only) that actually has some semblance of a story line, which is a huge plus for me since I’m not big on art or the abstract.

Sunday afternoon we left a bit early to avoid traffic. Because I didn’t feel well all of Saturday, I ended up not spending a single penny gambling. That was good and bad.

Good because I didn’t lose any money. Bad because the free hotel offers stopped! I actually got an email with another free offer, but when I called to redeem I was told I essentially didn’t spend enough and was not eligible. When I asked how much I needed to spend, I was told “$150 a hand for 4 hours a day.” I seriously doubt that number because I definitely didn’t spend that much EVER, so I’m thinking it’s more like $150/hour.

BUT, I checked my M Life account recently and found some new offers for free and/or discounted nights! I’ll have to call in to see if it’ll work, but my fingers are crossed!

If you take away only one thing from this post, let it be this: SIGN UP FOR A PLAYERS CARD AT EVERY CASINO! It’s free to sign up and could potentially be very valuable (I value my free nights at about $230).

 

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Las Vegas – Max Brenner and Wicked Spoon

This is a guest post written by frequent contributor B.Positive.

August 2012 Las Vegas Trip Report:

In the late summer of 2012, marZ took advantage of a free Mandalay Bay room offer and we had a chance to visit Vegas on the cheap (the key to free rooms? Get a player’s card and play like you don’t need money). MarZ will have more details and pictures on the room and the hotel stay.

Friday: We drove down on Friday night, got in and waited for Saturday (we like to live life on the edge in case you’re wondering..).

Saturday: We went to Max Brenner for lunch. If you’ve been here a while ago, there’s a good chance it’s changed significantly since you’ve been here. No longer is it primarily focused on desserts and sweets, but it now carries an excellent food menu as well. If you do happen to visit again, the following were excellent:

Hazelnut Cream Chocolate Milkshake: The best milkshake I’ve ever had (not kidding).

If you go to Max Brenner, you MUST try this milkshake. MUST! Don’t try the smoothies, sodas, or anything else. Just this! Maybe the tea as well.

Went back the next day for Sunday Brunch and had blueberry tea.

The most flavorful entree I tasted was the tomato mozarella panini. It’s seasoned with bits of basil (my favorite). The dish from bottom to top was made well and is something I’d get again.

Tomato Mozarella Panini from Max Brenner.

Aside from Max Brenner, the remainder of this post is picture-less.

Max Brenner overall gets my endorsement. Located right in the Forum Shops, the ambience, decor, service, and food made it a great experience. The restaurant has a candy shop inside and is decorated like the inside of a Willy Wonka Factory.

Saturday was also filled with the dinner buffet at Wicked Spoon (located in The Cosmopolitan) which had long lines, small servings, and slightly bland dishes and desserts (perhaps it taste better… not-sober). The Cosmopolitan itself seems to be contained within a relatively small footprint (everything is centered around a huge chandelier and lots of escalators) but I didn’t spend a lot of time there before we rushed off to see KA by Circque de Soleil at the MGM.

Personally, I enjoyed KA much more the second time around after having a friend explain to me what was going on (critical thinking isn’t my strongest character trait). KA and O, both by Cirque de Soleil, were very enjoyable. For those of you with an appreciation for raunchy theater, check out Zumanity ;).

Overall, Vegas was fun. I aimed to have a less touristy experience, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. I still very much enjoy the hotels, the restaurants, and the glamour, so  the authentic local Vegas experience will have to wait for another time.

Until next time.

– B.Positive.

Music video of the week.

P.S. I played at my first open mic in my life! I played this song (but probably didn’t sound as good):

Sky Tea at the Burj Al Arab in Dubai

Not long ago I had the opportunity to have afternoon tea at the Skyview Bar on the top floor of the Burj Al Arab in Dubai. It was quite an experience, even for a non-tea-drinker like myself.

But unfortunately, it wasn’t a cheap experience. The hotel regularly sees room rates from $1,000 USD per night up to $27,000 USD per night (!), so I wasn’t exactly expecting a cheap few hours. There are actually several afternoon tea options at the hotel. The one I chose was the most expensive option, at the top of the hotel with what promised to be some of the best panoramic views of the city. The total was AED 425, or just about $115 USD. Yeah, it’s a ton of cash, but how often am I in Dubai, right?

Note: I tried getting a reservation for lunch at one of the restaurants but it was booked solid my entire stay in Dubai. Plan WELL in advance, and note the food is ridiculously expensive.

The front of the Burj Al Arab

Walking up to the Burj Al Arab is pretty cool. It’s the 4th tallest hotel in the world, and it definitely looks like it’s that big. Note the round helicopter pad/tennis court sticking out at the top of the building. There’s some awesome pictures of Roger Federer and Andrei Agassi at the top. Gives me the willies just seeing how high up they are. Google it!

Upon entry, you immediately see why this hotel is so expensive.

I was in Dubai in the Summer. The hot part of the Summer. It was 105 degrees Fahrenheit and extremely humid, so I couldn’t wait to get inside. As soon as I did, I was greeted by some dancing fountains, golden pillars, royal blue ceilings, and white walls (couldn’t come up with an expensive-sounding description for white). Honestly, this hotel looked gorgeous. It was one of those buildings where you kind of just stand and look around for 10 minutes in order to appreciate everything before you move on.

Looking at the ceiling was impressive as well.

Looking directly upwards, you see the ceiling of the building about 600 feet up. I’m not sure, but this has got to be the largest atrium of any hotel in the world. And again, the colors are just amazing to look at.

A look from the top of the fountains down to the entry doors.

Going up the escalator to the second main floor wasn’t much different. There were more fountains and artwork and all kinds of things that catch your eye and make you wonder how much it all costs (about $650 million when it was built, btw).  The view downward gives you a better idea of the other colors used in the carpet and even the fountains themselves.

But now, on to the tea. After some sight-seeing around the hotel and a not-so-quick elevator ride to the top of the hotel, I arrived at the check-in area of the Skyview Bar. The place was mostly empty, though it definitely started to fill up as we finished up.

TIP: Be sure to book your tea reservation well in advance of your trip. Space has been known to fill up well ahead of time.

The Skyview Bar, which was pretty empty when I got there.

Again, I love the colors. The entire room was colored and accented with blue/green/aqua colors, which fit really well considering how great the view of the water was. It’s worth noting that the Skyview Bar is not a full 360 degree room. The room takes up half, or less, of the entire floor, but it’s still plenty to provide views of the city and the water.

The floor-to-ceiling glass windows provided some great views.

As I mentioned, the views were pretty great. They would have been even better if it weren’t for a bit of haze, but we still had some good visibility. In the picture above you can see the Palm Jumeirah island, which is a man-made island in the shape of a palm tree, in the distance.

A close up of the Palm Jumeirah island.

I know the picture above doesn’t really add much value here, but I wanted to show it for two reasons. First to show that the haze does affect the view if you’re looking into the distance. Second, in the center of this picture, on the far end of the island, you can see a shadowy figure of what looks to be a castle. No, it’s not Sleeping Beauty’s castle at Walt Disney World in Orlando (too hazy to see that far). It’s actually the “Atlantis, The Palm” hotel, which is modeled after the “Atlantis, Paradise Island” hotel in the Bahamas.

We were also able to barely see The World islands in the distance. Too far and too much haze to get a decent picture, but it was cool knowing it was there. For those that don’t know, they’ve built a series of man-made islands in the shape of the countries and continents of the Earth, and each island was sold individually. It’s really quite impressive what this country has managed to build.

The view of the city.

Looking the other direction you see the city itself. Besides the hotel in the foreground, there’s really not much to see. Even within several miles of visibility there are no trademark, monster-sized Dubai buildings in sight. This wasn’t a big deal at all to me, but be wary of this if you were hoping/expecting to see a spectacular city view.

Oh yeah…I came here for tea! On to that…

Our tower of tea snacks.

We were given a very small drink menu that included a few different teas, cappuccinos, and a few other random options. I mentioned I’m not much of a tea drinker, so I opted for the “sparkling juice” which really wasn’t that great. Along with the drink came a very cool looking tower of snacks for the tea. As you’ll notice, the tower is shaped like the hotel, which was a pretty nice touch.

There were various pastries, biscuits, cookies, and cakes on the several layers. None of them were that great, at least not to my taste. Perhaps my palate isn’t as refined as a tea-drinker’s would be, but I know a good pastry when I have one, and these weren’t it. There were a lot of them, though…way more than even two guys who just dropped $115 each to eat pastries could finish. I’m not sure if groups of 3+ get a single tower or not, so definitely inquire if you plan to bring a large group.

The service was not what I expected it to be, especially for a room that was only at about 20% capacity. It seemed like there were only a couple of servers, and besides taking our drink order and bringing the food tower to our table, they didn’t really even ask us how things were. We didn’t have any issues with our food, but I could see how it might become difficult to get a hold of your server if the room were full (which I hear is usually the case).

After spending a couple of hours having tea and enjoying the view (and really, just milking the time to get my money’s worth), I decided it was time to finish up. We paid and headed back down the elevator to the main lobby for a few last looks around before leaving the hotel.

Your guess is as good as mine as to whether or not the floor is real gold.

And, of course, what kind of report would this be without a couple of quick pics of the parking lot out front.

When I walk out and look left I see…

Whoever drove that BMW sure must have been embarrassed!

And when I turn to the right I see…

Speechless…

So I asked the valet to pull up my black Audi R8 and then headed back to my hotel…kidding! Who am I trying to fool…I actually WALKED up to the hotel and had to walk back since they restrict entry to drive up to the hotel. A taxi dropped us off at the gate, which seemed like a quarter mile walk to the hotel, and we made the same walk back to catch a taxi on the main road. And yes, it was hot.

One other note regarding the tea. It was “suggested” that we wear semi-formal attire to attend the afternoon tea in the Skyview Bar. I did, but noticed several others that were much more casual. Dress casually at your own risk, however. I know I’d hate to get turned away for my appointment after coming from so far away to see this place.

All in all, it was a good experience and I got some great pics and cool views out of it. If you don’t care for the views at the top or the tea and crumpets, then by all means skip the afternoon tea up top. There’s still plenty to explore at the hotel and it’s worth a visit just to look around the lobby and pool area. The people watching isn’t too bad either (it’s fun to figure out how a person is so insanely wealthy (or just insane?) that they can afford this hotel).

Important Note: They don’t just let anyone walk up to the hotel. You have to have “business” to be there, meaning either you have to be staying there or you have to have an appointment at a restaurant or for tea. They verify your appointment at the front gate (a quarter mile away from the hotel itself), so bring a confirmation of some sort just in case.

And no, there are no hotel loyalty points that could get you any free nights at this hotel. Cash is king in this oil rich country, and staying at this hotel will require you to drop a few G’s in order to say you’re one of the few who stayed there overnight.

What was your experience like at the Burj Al Arab? Are you one of the few that stayed here overnight?

San Diego Trip Report – Part 1 (marZ edition)

B.Postive and I recently took a quick trip down to San Diego to take a break from work and hit up a few places I’ve been wanting to go. We drove down early on July 1st, spent two nights at the Westin San Diego, and drove back the evening of July 3rd. Yes, it was a quick trip, but I feel like I accomplished everything I was looking to (though there are certainly a lot more things we could have done).

I’ll report on getting and staying there, and B.Positive will post on the food and what we did!

Getting There

We didn’t have to get in a plane for this one since we live in Orange County, so no points or miles had to be used. In fact, B.Positive’a car didn’t even need to have the tank filled for the entire trip! Granted it was only a few days out there, but it was still nice to know that we were able to save on gas.

By the way, B.Positive filled up his gas tank using his Chase Freedom card, getting him 5 points per dollar, plus 10 more points for being part of the Chase Exclusives program, plus a 10% bonus for the same Exclusives program. That means a $50 fill-up would garner 265 points (50×5 + 10 + 50x.1 = 265)…not bad!

First on the itinerary was the San Deigo Zoo’s Wild Animal Park. The last time we went down there, we mistakenly went to the actual zoo, not realizing they are quite a distance apart. Don’t make the same mistake we did! After paying $10 for parking and another $42 to get in, we spent a good 5 hours inside and saw pretty much everything. The weather was pretty good but being in the sun for that long while walking uphill/downhill is never fun – make sure to bring sunscreen and plenty of water.

After we finished up at the Safari Park, we headed to Julian, CA to get some apple pie. B.Positive will have the details on the pie in his trip report, but I feel obligated to mention it’s about a 45 minute drive inland through some windy roads. It’s definitely not a place to go if you’re driving an old, beat-up car that might crap out on you at any moment, so just be wary of that if you decide to head to Julian.

After Julian, another 45 minute drive gets us to downtown San Diego, which is where the Westin San Diego is located. Now, there are two Westin’s relatively nearby in this area: the Westin SD and the Westin Gaslamp Quarter. I chose the Westin SD because it was about $50 cheaper than the latter. Also, all the reviews I read said the Westin SD was close enough that you could walk to the Gaslamp area, and that was indeed the case, but be prepared to walk about 6 blocks to get there.

Parking

Parking was not the most fun part. Space is at a premium since the hotel is located in a downtown area, and you’re hit with that realization in the form of parking charges. If money is no object, then by all means valet for $25 a day. For the rest of us, including B.Positive and myself, we need to save every dollar possible.

Just across the street, on the other side of Columbia St, is a public parking garage. The charge is $15 for a day of parking and the stipulation is that you have to leave by noon everyday. The timing wasn’t an issue for us since we were going to be out and about anyway, but still paying $15 was a bit of a kick to the wallet. Still, it was a $10 savings from letting the hotel park the car and the extra walk was literally 2 minutes to cross the street, so it was the best solution to an otherwise unpleasant situation.

For those of you that will by flying in, the hotel does offer a free shuttle service to and from the airport. From what I could gather, it was not a constantly running service, so expect to wait a little bit at the airport after you call for the shuttle. The good news is the airport wasn’t too far away as we saw planes flying over on a regular basis (though there was no noticeable noise from said planes).

Staying There

The most interesting part of my trip is how I actually booked the room. I knew I’d be booking an SPG hotel since I succeeded with my Platinum challenge earlier this year. I first went through Chase Ultimate Rewards to ensure I get 3 points per dollar, then to the SPG website. It displayed all the available options and prices for my dates, but of course I was not quite satisfied. Knowing that SPG, like all major hotel chains, has a best rate guarantee (BRG), I decided to check a few of the big travel agency sites to see if I could find a lower rate. Lo and behold, the first site I checked, Hotels.com, had a rate $3 less than was displayed on SPGs website.

I won’t go through the whole explanation of how to get the BRG since Ric Garrido has already done an extensive post on the topic, but I submitted the BRG form about a minute after booking the hotel, and less than 12 hours later my claim was approved! I selected the 2000 point option instead of 10% off because: 1) I value 2000 SPG points at a minimum of $40; and 2) 10% off is the weakest BRG benefit of all the major hotel chains.

An important note is that even though I selected the 2K SPG points, they still matched the lower rate. Hey…$3/night will start to add up if I keep doing it! Alas, I realized that I could have done even better job of saving money if I simply clicked through from Top CashBack. I suggest you sign up for this website as there are MANY more deals to be had (that’s my referral link btw). Note that this would have negated the Chase Ultimate Rewards points, but that 3% off is a pretty good deal. There’s always next time!

Other ways I could have come out on top is with regards to booking one stay for two nights versus two stays of one night each. I effectively could have booked one night at the Westin SD and got the 2K SPG point BRG claim, then booked another night at a different SPG hotel to attempt to earn another 2K points. It’s obviously not guaranteed to work out perfectly, but it’s definitely a possibility. Also, I personally wouldn’t mind switching hotels since it was only a two night trip, but longer trips or family trips might be an issue for some of you out there. But just keep that information in mind in case it comes in handy!

I regret that I did not take any pictures of the room, but I was upgraded to a Deluxe Bay View room. I was told that the hotel only had 4 suites, and all were occupied (which was confirmed by SPGs Twitter account), but an upgrade is an upgrade.

For my Platinum amenity I selected the extra 500 points (that’s at least $10!) and was also given a free drink voucher for the bar in the lobby. Not bad!

The room itself was pretty standard, though the bathroom was a bit small. It was still nice, and the Heavenly Shower head is indeed a nice feature. You could tell the hotel was a little older since it had an old school door that slid into the wall (or it was a space-saving technique).

The final note on the hotel is regarding the housekeeping. There was a note next to the bed that said you can earn an extra 500 points for each day you decline housekeeping. I thought that was great, and decided to put up the privacy note on the door handle (which I would have done anyway, btw), and waited for said points to post after my trip. When they didn’t, I tweeted at SPG to ask what gives, and was told the “Green Choice” promotion requires that I fill out the note and hand it in to the front desk when checking out. Oops! I got so excited about another 500 SPG points that I apparently stopped reading too soon. Don’t forget to fill out the form for some more easy points!

This is my first stay during the SPG Nice Choice promotion (I selected July 1 start date) so I have to complete at least another stay to earn double points. I haven’t decided where to go next, but I’m definitely hoping to go somewhere soon!

Deluxe Bay View Room

The parking spots you see at the bottom-middle of the picture is the structure we parked in. It was mostly empty and we got a spot on the second floor.