Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Saving $600+ on a New Year’s Getaway

After literally a couple years of watching and building my rewards balance, I finally put my Wyndham points to good use for a 2019 New Year’s getaway with the older kids. Last year we had a similar trip, albeit for a single night at the Best Western Stevenson Manor in Calistoga (SEECelebrating New Years 2018). But that exhausted my (already small) Best Western Rewards balance.

So I turned to Wyndham this year, and they really delivered. Compared to many rewards programs, Wyndham kinda gets a bad rap. They don’t offer the same sort of loyalty benefits, nor do they have a great portfolio of hotels; most are budget brands like Super 8 and Howard Johnson. But that does not mean that the loyalty program is without any merit.

Putting Wyndham’s flat rate award nights to good use

The most unique thing about the Wyndham Rewards program is that all rewards nights cost the same, no matter the hotel. You can you 15,000 points for a night at the Super 8 across town that is going for $49.99, or you could use it for a night at The Mills House, where I stayed in Charleston during a recent trip (SEE: The Mills House Charleston Review). You could also use 15,000 points per night for a stay at the Vino Bello Resort in Napa, which is where we headed for New Year’s 2019.

Extracting value out of the Wyndham program boils down to two things: earn points during their promotions, which are fairly uncommon, but tend to reward you quite well. Then burn the points at one of their good properties. This may require some searching, and you will not find nice hotels at a long list of destinations, but if you can make one work with your travel plans, the potential value is excellent.

You can also use Wyndham points for stays at their condo and resort properties, which includes the Vino Bello Resort. Wyndham IT has gotten better, and a good number of the condo properties show on their website, including the properties in San Francisco, Napa and many other places in the country.

The real issue is finding an award that works. The condo and resort properties typically require a minimum stay of 2 nights, which is not really a bad thing. But you will also find that a very large number of dates are blacked out. I often have to search weekend after weekend to finally find one that *is* available.

Pulling the trigger on a New Year’s stay

When I found that the Vino Bello Resort had availability over New Year’s, I immediately booked it. It’s rare to find, and I didn’t want it to slip away. My wife and I then discussed the idea of us going, and she was all for it. Instead of a single night like the year before, I booked three.

The value of using my pints here is much greater than using them at other properties. I try to always get at least 1 cent per Wyndham point, and I definitely succeeded on this stay. The base rate for a one bedroom condo for three nights was $514.35. Add in the $25 resort fee per night and taxes, and the total for the stay would have been over $600. This was 100% covered by 45,000 Wyndham points! Although I did have to squabble with the front desk to waive the resort fee. But policy is on my side (SEE: Waive that resort fee! Holding a hotel to its program policies).

I’d been waiting to use these points for a while. Admittedly, 15,000 of them were earned by renewing my Wyndham Visa card issued by Barclays bank, which meant paying an annual fee of $69. But for $69, we got a room worth $200+. I think that is an excellent deal.

Conclusion

Rumors have been flying around that Wyndham is going to devalue its program, moving to the 3-tier structure where some properties cost 7,500 points, others 15,000, and the highest tier 30,000 per night. This will severely devalue the program for me, and will probably make me ditch it entirely, as all properties at which I’d want to redeem points will not require twice as many. I can imagine that all Wyndham Grand properties, Viva All-Inclusive Resort Properties, and condo properties will fall in this new, highest tier. Even a stay at The Mining Exchange, where we stayed in 2016, would probably require 30,000 points (SEE: The Mining Exchange, Wyndham Grand Hotel: A Review).

All this to say, I am quite happy that I burnt 45,000 Wyndham points to get $600 in value now rather than holding onto them and watching their value potentially halve in the future.

My 2018 Stats: 60 Flights and 75,000 Miles

Every year I like to not only reflect on our past adventures, but also tally up my travel stats. I know. Totally nerdy. I am most interested in seeing the world for the experiences themselves and the innate value I see in that. But I am also a numbers guy who enjoys totaling things and calculating statistics and such. I also have a few checklists that I’m working through as well, such as visiting every state in the Union.

New countries and states visited

The two main things I track are countries and states (as well as Canadian provinces) that I’ve visited. I did not honestly expect to pick up any new states this year. My one new state was rather unexpected: West Virginia. Never did I think I’d be headed there anytime soon, nor did I ever think the company I work for would pick up a project in that state. But that’s exactly what happened. I’ve now spent more time in Pocahontas County, WV than many other places in the U.S.

I could probably count my visit to Charleston, South Carolina as my first visit to that state as well. When my wife and I took an overnight train from New York City to New Orleans (SEE: Our Honeymoon: An Introduction to Travel Rewards), we technically passed through South Carolina. However, we were fast asleep in our Roomette at the time, so we didn’t actually see any of the state. We woke up in western Georgia.

As far as new countries go, I only added two this year: Luxembourg and China. China is one that I will surely visit again. There is so much to see. Our time in Beijing and Hong Kong barely scratched the surface. This was also my first time visiting any country in Asia, so I added a continent. My brief layover in Incheon in early 2017 doesn’t count (SEE: Asiana business class review: Seoul to Sydney).

More miles flown than in any previous year

A little over a year ago I started tracking all my flights using openflights.org. The website is simple and effective, although it isn’t the most visually appealing. But that doesn’t really matter. All I want it to do is track when and where I’ve flown, and with which airlines and on what equipment.

My 2018 travels consisted of exactly 60 flight segments totaling over 75,000 miles on six different airlines. This year also included my first trip to Asia and my first time flying both Air France and Cathay Pacific. The Air France economy experience was stellar (SEE: Air France A380 Economy Review: Paris to San Francisco). But the Cathay Pacific flights in premium economy and business class were far, far better.  Here is a map of the flights.

My 2018 air travel amounted to the most of any year to date. It also amount to over a third of my total lifetime flight miles. This was mostly due to eight trips back and forth across the country for work, although the two international trips certainly racked up the miles as well. Here are some other statistics from the year:

  • Number of airports visited: 26
  • Number of different aircraft types flown: 20
  • Longest segment flown: Hong Kong to San Francisco – 6,914 miles
  • Shortest segment flown: Charlotte to Roanoke – 155 miles
  • Average flight distance: 1,259 miles

Hotel statistics compared to 2017

We spent a ridiculous number of nights in hotels back in 2017. Most of this was due our trip to Costa Rica when we adopted our kids, as we stayed in an apart-hotel for nearly two months. Other trips earlier in the year added to the total, and all said and done, just over a quarter of my year was spent away from home.

This year was very similar, primarily due to eight week-long work trips. Here is the breakdown by chain:

  • Best Western: 1 (1 work)
  • Choice: 7 (2 cash, 5 work)
  • Club Carlson: 6 (1 award, 5 work)
  • Hilton: 13 (1 cash, 11 award, 1 work)
  • Hyatt: 10 (3 award, 7 work)
  • IHG: 17 (3 cash, 6 award, 8 work)
  • Marriott/Starwood: 26 (1 cash, 5 award, 20 work)
  • Wyndham: 8 (1 cash, 4 award, 3 work)
  • Other: 7 (2 award, 1 work, 4 other)
  • Total: 95 nights (8 cash, 32 awards, 51 work, 4 other)

Favorite stay: our five nights at the Renaissance Beijing Wangfujing (Review). The benefits of holding elite status with Marriott were well worth acquiring for this stay alone. It was both enjoyable and a great value.

Looking ahead to 2019

I already have a number of trips penciled in for the first half of next year (SEE: Travel Planning: Penciling in the First Half of 2019). The work travel will slow down a bit, at least for the next six months or so, but we’ll still be heading out on an adventure roughly once per month, even if it is a quick weekend away. I also have some exciting flying planned, and my sights set on top-tier Hyatt status.

5 Days in Beijing: Day 5 – Beihai Park and Almost Losing a Child

Morning came early as usual during this trip. Maybe we’ll be adjusted to China time just when it’s time to head back to California. I was a bit less tired when 8:00 p.m. rolled around the evening before, so maybe we’re almost there. The kids did sleep solidly until 7:00 a.m.

Breakfast was the usual affair in the club lounge on the 17th floor of the Renaissance (SEE: Renaissance Beijing Wangfujing Review). The spread and service have been excellent every day. This is shaping up to be one of the best hotel stays to date, mainly because of the perks we’ve enjoyed due to earning Marriott Platinum Premier status earlier this year (SEE: Fast track status: how to sign up for a Marriott Platinum challenge).

After breakfast we video chatted with mom and our youngest who have been enjoying themselves back at home.

Wangfujing snack street

Even though we’d been staying in a central Beijing hotel, we hadn’t really wandered the surrounding streets. One of the places I’d been pointed toward is the Wangfujing pedestrian street, about a third of a mile south of our hotel. This was our first stop for the day.

Wangfujing is a very walkable area, although very little in Beijing is a quick stroll away. The city is vast and sprawling. Even just walking from the south end of Tiananmen Square to the entrance of the Forbidden City takes longer than you’d expect.

We passed many of the typical high-end retail stores you can find in the central district of good number of cities. But that was not why we were here. If I wanted a BVLGARI purse, I would have bought it in Milan a couple years ago.

About halfway to the snack street we passed by an old church, which was extremely unexpected. The current structure is the third (I think) iteration of the Catholic church that has stood on this spot since 1655. Catholic mass happens daily, with additional services on Sunday. Given the current climate of Christian persecution in China, it surprises me that the church is even operating. I highly doubt that it is true to the gospel.

We took a peek inside and then continued on our way to the snack street. It did not disappoint. The kids couldn’t decide if the wriggling scorpions on a stick were utterly cool or totally gross. We decided to pass up the opportunity to ingest any of this “delicacy”.

Wandering into some souvenir shops, we perused the cheap knockoff goods. Some items had a trademark or copyright logo clearly displayed, should you question its authenticity. I somehow don’t think Disney would license these cheap plastic figures to be sold in Beijing for $2 apiece.

Curiosity satisfied after browsing the shops for half an hour, we headed back to Wangfujing Street and our next destination.

Beihai Park

This 1,000-year-old Imperial park was next on the list for our final day in Beijing. We took the bus, the first time we’ve braved one in the Chinese capital. Thank goodness for Google maps and bus signs that have Arabic numerals on them. I’d plotted the bus route in Google Maps to Beihai Park before we left the hotel and took some screenshots. Our 15-minute ride went without a hitch.

The bus made the most sense in this case as it was much faster. The fastest subway route would have been a mere four stops *but* required two transfers. The Beijing subway system is efficient for many routes, especially if you are going a longer distance, but it is often extremely inefficient for short distance travel. Constructed in a loop and grid fashion, it makes great sense for a city as large as Beijing. But it means that almost every trip you take will require 1-2 transfers, which are never quick.

We arrived in Beihai Park around 10:30, a bit later than I’d anticipated. We got “through tickets” for just 30 yuan (~$4.40) for all three of us.

Beihai Park is quite lovely, even during the fall when many of the trees have already lost their leaves. The willows lining the lake were quite beautiful. I’ve been impressed with Beijing’s parks in general. All have been very nice green spaces. It would be nice to visit again in late spring and see them in the height of their greenery. There were some flower displays to make up for the lack of color in the rest of the park.

I was a bit bummed that the Circular City was closed. I’d hoped to see this section of the park near where we entered. We instead began the climb up the hill to the white Dagoba (Tibetan Buddhist stupa) at the top of Qionghua islet.

I would be lying if reading “Dagoba” didn’t immediately make me think of Star Wars and Dagobah, the swamp planet Luke crash lands on when he is searching for Yoda. I know that George Lucas drew on eastern religions for his movies. I just didn’t know it was this blatant. The top of the hill provided us with a nice view of the rest of the lake.

The kids asked if we could rent a boat like we had at Chaoyang Park a few days prior (SEE: 5 Days in Beijing: Day 1 – Our First 24 Hours in the Chinese Capital), seeing so many out on the lake. I thought it was a fine idea. We made our way down and over the bridge out to the boat rental.

An hour on the water in a pedal boat only costs 60 yuan (~$8.75). I’ve been thrilled overall with how inexpensive China is. I’ll remind myself of that when planning other international vacations. When we visited Paris and Luxembourg in the spring, I had to be careful not to break the bank on just food each day.

The kids and I had fun powering ourselves around the lake. Pedal-power was an entirely different experience than our excursion on a boat with a small motor a few days before. Remind me to start biking. It is exhausting. But it was still fun. We spent most of an hour enjoying the lake.

By the time we were done, it was time for lunch. We found a small hole-in-the-wall place back toward Shichahai, where we’d had lunch during our day wandering the hutongs (SEE: 5 Days in Beijing: Day 2 – History and Hutongs). At $18 for the three of us, it was by far our most expensive lunch.

The kids tried duck for the fist time. They weren’t fans. My daughter, who primarily wanted to try it, was grossed out. the duck was served head and all, cut in half and sliced on a platter. I’m going to pack on the pounds eating all the food they don’t finish.

Nanluoguxiang a second time

Since we were once again near this foremost of the Beijing hutongs, a second walk through Nanluoguxiang was a must. The kids had enjoyed it immensely the first time. We picked up some more cheese bread (honestly not sure what it is, but it tastes amazing) at the same shop and sat on some steps to people watch.

Or be watched as the case may be. Apparently while I was taking the photo above, a Chinese lady stepped behind me and snapped a photo of my kids. They told me after what had happened. I’m left wondering if they were the novelty, or whether it was the fact we were sitting on some stone steps when literally everyone else was standing (maybe install some benches?).

The kids remarked a number of times that the Chinese gave them funny looks. We are definitely not the only tourists in Beijing, but it may be the combination of a white guy with two darker kids that makes us stand out a bit. Or maybe it is just the fact that they are foreign kids. I’ve seen very few others.

The kids have been a bit sensitive to this issue, my daughter especially. She must have a keen eye for it since I only noticed people staring at us a couple times.

Our delicious snack finished, we wandered back south through the Nanluoguxiang hutong until we arrived back at the metro station. Tip: visit on a weekday in the late morning like we did originally. The Saturday throng was a whole lot less pleasant.

Our scary moment: almost losing a child

We headed down to the metro at Nanluoguxiang, something that was routine for us in Beijing. We’d ridden it nearly every day in Beijing, and the kids knew the  drill. We bought tickets, headed through security, and then trotted down the steps to the platform.

The train we needed was waiting on the platform, and the bell hadn’t sounded yet for the doors to close. My son asked if this was our train, and I told him yes. Just as he ran into the car ahead of me, the bell sounded and the doors started to close. I knew I wasn’t going to make it, especially with my daughter a couple feet behind me. The doors slid shut. My son’s face was complete panic. Mine must have looked the same to him.

Now if I had more than a few fractions of a second to think, I would have realized that leaving a child alone on the subway platform would be preferable to leaving a child alone on the subway train. Diving through the rapidly closing doors would have been the best choice. As long as my daughter knew to stay put, we would come back to fetch her as fast ass we could.

A child alone on the subway is a more difficult problem. And I knew in that moment that we should have discussed a contingency plan for this situation. I tried to yell through the double doors for him to get off at the next stop. We would be on the train behind him and would meet him there. I couldn’t tell if he understood, but the subway would be underway momentarily. He had to understand.

To my surprise, the doors suddenly opened again. We quickly entered the car and were all reunited! I was so incredibly thankful that someone must have been watching the whole situation and realized we’d been split up.

I previously remember seeing an attendant at some Beijing subway stations standing on a small, raised platform. It seemed odd to me that this was a job (I’d heard of subway pushers for when crowds are thick), but a platform observer seemed strange to me. Now I am extremely thankful someone was there to watch passengers entering and exiting the subway.

The kids and I had an immediate talk of what to do in the situation we just experienced, had my son actually been whisked away. The plan consists of two simple rules: if you end up on the subway without dad, get off at the next stop and wait for me to find you. If you end up loeft on the platform while dad leaves on the train, simply wait there for me to find you. This will go into the safety discussion I have with the kids each time we travel.

Crisis averted, we stepped off the metro just a few stops down the line.

Lama Temple and a Cat Cafe

I’d identified the Wudaoying hutong as an interesting place for another stroll. The hutong offers an eclectic mix of shops and cafés, including a cat cafe. If you’re wondering what a cat café, don’t worry. They don’t cook and serve cats. Cat cafés are typically a coffee or tea shop where patrons share the space with cats who are free to roam and interact with guests. I thought the kids would love it.

But we ran into an issue in Wudaoying: I couldn’t identify the cat café. I’d failed to get an exact name or address, thinking that it would be easy enough to identify along the alley as we walked. After poking our faces into the windows of a few promising shops, I started to wonder if our search might be in vain. We eventually exited the hutong after a quarter mile, thwarted in our search for a cup of coffee with cats. The kids will have to wait for that experience.

However, we were now just a couple hundred meters from the Lama Temple, which was our final destination for the day.

The Lama Temple, or, more properly, the Yonghe Temple, is a temple and monastery of Tibetan Buddhism. Originally constructed around 1700 as an imperial residence, the Lama Temple was converted into a monastery about 40 years later. It is unique in that it is not only a functioning monastery, but also open to the public as a tourist attraction.

Although visiting Beijing in the fall has had its downsides, an upside was certainly walking the tree-lined path from the temple entrance to the first gate. The trees were a beautiful gold color, and unlike other places in Beijing that are efficiently cleaned, a layer of fallen foliage was left to line the path. It is beautiful!

The temple itself is impressive, although possibly less so to us than it could have been, given that we’d visited the Forbidden City the previous day (SEE: 5 Days in Beijing: Day 4 – Tiananmen and the Forbidden City). Many visitors were burning incense in the first courtyard. The kids asked some questions about what people were doing and I tried my best to field answers. I’m quite unfamiliar with Buddhism. Our discussion mainly centered around respecting their culture and religion and how ours differ from theirs.

We visited a few couple other sections of the temple, but didn’t stay especially long. Since it is an active Buddhist monastery, I felt like we were intruding more than anything. Our visit lasted maybe a half hour before we hopped back on the subway toward our hotel.

Ending the day with school

On previous days I would not have attempted school with the kids in the evening, given everyone’s exhaustion level. But the night before was the first one during which they were at least a bit more perky. They still went to bed at 7:45 p.m. without a fuss, but it wasn’t the voluntary crawl under the covers like the other nights.

School away from home has been working well enough. Luckily, the internet speed at the Renaissance is good and we are able to stream my daughter’s lessons. This probably would not have been possible at the Hilton, our first hotel (SEE: Hilton Beijing Review). Dinner in the lounge followed by an hour of lessons it was.

This brought our Beijing sightseeing to a close. It’d been a fun several days, and a great introduction to China. But Hong Kong awaits!

5 Geography Facts That May Blow Your Mind

My love of geography started at about 5 years old. My dad and I would pore over maps and atlases together, and he’d point out places he’d visited when he was in the navy. At times, I just enjoyed looking at his old atlas by myself, even though some country names were all off. East Germany and West Germany, anyone? What about Czechoslovakia?

The old USSR-induced turmoil and geographic fallout aside, this was the beginning of my love for the subject. Here are a few geographic facts I’ve run across in the last year that I thought I might share:

Europe’s population is 30% more than North America

When I realized that Europe has a population of 741 million people, compared to North America’s 579 million, it blew my mind. North America is 2.4 times larger than Europe, and contains two of the top 3 largest countries in the world by area. But there is so much open space that the population density is far, far lower than our neighbors across the pond.

A significant percentage of North America is desert and tundra, so the land area that is effectively inhabitable is much smaller.

The 5 largest Australian cities contain 63% of the population

Australia is incredibly urbanized. Those of us from abroad may envision it as the land of dingos and ‘roos, with vast swaths of untamed forests and outback, and this is entirely true. It’s just that the vast majority of Australians don’t actually live in those areas, choosing to live in or near the major cities, which are concentrated on the south and east coasts. One out of every five Australians lives in Sydney or its suburbs.

The urban statistical areas of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, and Adelaide contain almost two thirds of the Australian population. There are a number of other cities as well, resulting in a total urbanization rate of nearly 90%. The outback is essentially deserted.

Africa is the second largest continent

You know how large North America looks on the map of the world? Well, it’s really not that big. The size of North America on the typical Mercator projection is grossly exaggerated. Africa, on the other hand, is centered around the equator and isn’t subject to anywhere near the same distortion. Greenland and Africa look roughly the same size, but the latter is over 13 times larger than the former.

So even though North America may look bigger, Africa is actually the second largest continent in the world, after Asia. Surprised? There’s a reason I’ve heard Africa called “the forgotten continent”. It doesn’t get anywhere near the same level of focus or tourism as Europe or Asia. But that will change. I firmly believe that this is Africa’s century and that it will find its place on the global stage over the next several decades.

There are more people in California than all of Canada

I’ve known about this one for a while, but it still amazes me. Given the ridiculous cost of living in the Golden State, it also surprises me that the population hasn’t dropped off sharply in recent years.

Even with our relatively large population, California is a large state with a ton of open space. Most of the population is concentrated around the San Francisco Bay Area, the LA basin, and San Diego County. The cities in the central valley have seen population increases as well in recent years, adding several million to the 39 million total.

Bangladesh has more people than the top 8 U.S. states. Combined.

Bangladesh has an estimated 164 million people (at least according to Google). The last census was in 2011, at which point the country had 152 million people. But going with the current estimate, this Asian nation has more people than the combined populations of California, Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, and Georgia.

What is truly incredible is that this enormous population all live in a country roughly the size of Iowa. It is by far the most densely populated non-island, non-micro country. It is also incredibly poor, with a GDP of barely $1,500 USD per capita, and prone to natural disasters.

Conclusion

I will forever be interested in the geography and demographics of different areas of the world. I hope you find these statistics and comparisons as intriguing as I do!

One week left for this great hotel card offer!

Since its launch in late summer 2018, the new World of Hyatt Visa card has been offering a sign up bonus of 60,000 points. Valuing Hyatt points conservatively at 1.3 cents each, the bonus is worth nearly $800, and potentially much more, depending on how you use the points.

Yesterday I learned that the current bonus will be pulled starting January 9. So there is only one week left to jump on this offer! The new bonus will still be valuable, as it is only being cut by 10,000 points, but those 10,000 points are potentially 2 free nights at Category 1 properties!

Details on the World of Hyatt card offer

The 60,000-point bonus currently offered by the World of Hyatt Visa is awarded in a tiered structure. You will earn 40,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 within the first 3 months of card membership, and then an additional 20,000 bonus points after spending another $3,000 within the first 6 months. Other benefits and terms of the card include:

  • 4 points per dollar spent at Hyatt hotels
  • 2 points per dollar spent on local transit (including ridesharing), restaurants and coffee shops, and airfare
  • 1 free night at a Category 1-4 hotel every year on your account anniversary
  • 1 additional free night at a  Category 1-4 hotel if you spend $15,000 or more on your card each anniversary year
  • Discoverist elite status
  • 5 elite qualifying night credit each year for holding the card
  • Ability to earn an additional 2 elite night credits for every $5,000 in net spending on your card
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • $95 annual fee, not waived the first year

Personal referral application link.

If you’re looking for hotel points for your future travels, this is one of the best offers currently on the market. I don’t know of any offer than can get you more than 12 nights, aside from the 150,000-point bonus on the Hilton Aspire card. And to get that many, you’d have to find Category 1 Hilton properties, which are way less common that Category 1 Hyatts.

« Older posts