Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Month: September 2016 (page 1 of 2)

Hiking Monaco To La Turbie

High on the hill above the glitz and glamour of Monaco is the tiny town of La Turbie. Initially, it was just a name on a map, and somewhere from which I thought we could enjoy a great view of Monaco. Now I know it is a gem in it’s own right. The idea for the hike came from a blog tip.

On a beautiful July morning, we arrived at the Monaco train station at 10:00 a.m. to begin our hike. There weren’t any good signs that directed us immediately toward La Turbie, so my wife and I simply started toward the hills and away from Monaco. After winding our way up a couple streets, we came across a sign that told us we were on the right track.

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Found the first sign for the “Path of La Turbie”

This was exactly what I was looking for. The simple directions I had noted down included walking ‘Chemin de La Turbie’ and ‘Chemin Romain’. The middle part between the two was kinda fuzzy. But I was sure we would manage just fine.

After the sign the path began to steepen and alternate between street and pedestrian path. A couple hundred yards later we arrived at a busy road. The Chemin de La Turbie (Path of La Turbie) continued up some stairs, straight across from us. We caught our breath and waited for a break in the traffic.

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Sign pointing us up the stairs across the Route de la Moyenne Corniche

Then it was onward and upward. The view got better and better the higher we climbed. My wife and I were soon dripping sweat just a few hundred more yards up the hill, so we began to stop in every patch of shade we found that offered a view of Monaco (and some that didn’t).

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The path between Chemin Romain and Chemin de Sotto Baou

The only point at which we got confused was an intersection of four different roads. There were no signs, and we had two uphill options. We look the left fork, which seemed more direct, along Chemin de Sotto Baou. Looking at Google maps later, we could have easily taken either, although it would have been a bit longer if we had taken the other fork along Chemin des Révoires.

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Which way to La Turbie?

Overheated and winded, we finally reached the top. The climb took about an hour, but the view from the top was entirely worth it. We headed over to the lookout point. The view is exquisite.

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Monaco in the center right, and the coast toward Italy on the left

Just next to the lookout area is the entrance to the Trophée Auguste à La Turbie. For those who are completely hopeless in French like myself, that equates to the Augustus Trophy in La Turbie. Besides the clues that the signs had given us along the way, I really had no idea what the Trophy was, and I assumed Augustus referred to the famous Roman emperor. My latter assumption was correct. The new revelation was that a spectacular monument once existed on the site commemorating Augustus’ victories in the Maritime Alps. It has been partially restored.

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Medieval gate into old La Turbie

Instead of heading up to the monument, however, my wife and I spent some time exploring the streets of old La Turbie. The old section of town is very small, but it is incredibly interesting. The gates and a few of the buildings date from the Medieval period.

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We spent about 20 minutes wandering around before heading back to the monument. The Trophée Auguste costs €5.50 per person, but it is entirely worth it. The first stop was the overlook to get some more panoramic shots of Monaco.

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la_turbie-monaco-view

Our next stop was the tiny museum. Along the way we stumbled upon a random foosball table near the Trophy.

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Maybe Augustus was a big fan of table soccer?

The museum was a single room. In the middle is an artist’s model of what the Trophy probably looked like when Emperor Augustus had it built to commemorate his victories in the Maritime Alps. Around the rest of the building are details on the history of the monument and details on its partial restoration in the early to mid 1900s.

la_turbie-model

The best part was getting to climb up on the Trophy itself, accompanied by a guide. Most of the monument was torn down by locals through the centuries to use as building materials for homes and fortifications, but the restoration gives a glimpse of what it may have originally looked like.

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After exploring the trophy, we headed back to the main road through La Turbie.

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Lunch was in order, and we treated ourselves at the Hôtel Restaurant Napoleon, not far from the tourist info office and the old town.

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My wife had fish with veggies and potatoes, and I had pasta with smoked salmon. Everything was excellent.

la_turbie-pasta_lunch

After lunch it was time to return to Monaco. We considered returning by the way we came, but it was already later than I had anticipated, and we still wanted to see some of Monaco. The quickest way down was by bus, and we caught it at the stop just off the main road. Twenty minutes later we were back in the tiny principality and off on our next adventure.

Looking back, I am extremely glad that we stumbled upon the idea of hiking to La Turbie. It turned into one of the best days of our entire trip. If Monaco is on your list of places to visit, make sure you don’t overlook the lovely little town sitting on the hill above.

And It’s Official: Marriott’s Acquisition of Starwood Begins To Take Effect

The biggest travel news of 2015/2016 was likely Marriott’s purchase of Starwood hotels. The news brought dismay to many longtime SPG loyalists. Marriott’s loyalty program is decent, but Starwood’s is notably better. The consternation caused by the merger has prompted other chains, like Hyatt, to court top-tier Starwood elites by offering status matches. While some people have jumped ship, many have been holding out that Marriott won’t completely gut the Starwood program.

I was told on the phone last month not to expect a combined program until at least 2018. I took the info with a grain of salt since it was from a basic Amex customer service rep, but I later read that Marriott executives were saying the same thing. He was also trying to get me to keep my Starwood Preferred Guest credit card since I was calling to cancel it (for the record, he got me to keep it). I have gotten great mileage from the card, but with the merger looming and not too much on the travel forecast, I had been debating closing the account.

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Yesterday was the beginning of Phase I of merging the loyalty programs. The main highlights are:

  • Ability to link your SPG and Marriott Rewards accounts
  • Status match between programs (Platinum to Platinum, Gold to Gold, Preferred Plus to Silver, Preferred to Member)
  • Two-way points transfer rate of 3:1, Marriott to Starwood.
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Status matches across all three programs now under Marriott International.

Much of the important information regarding the program mergers can be found here. You can see the new 3:1 points transfer ratio, the status match across all the programs, and the insane number of brands now under the a single banner.

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With your SPG and Marriott accounts linked, you can transfer points between programs at a 3:1 ratio.

For the most part, the programs will continue to operate independently in every other way. You have to log into spg.com to book SPG hotels, for example, and stays in each program will continue to earn points and nights only within their respective programs.

I linked my SPG and Marriott accounts. It is incredibly easy. You simply follow the link, enter the login credentials one after the other, confirm that you account number is correct, and then voila, accounts linked. The status match from the link appeared to be nearly instantaneous. I don’t have a Ritz account, so I don’t know if that differs in any way.

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The message after linking my accounts. It takes all of 60 seconds.

Overall, I think both Starwood and Marriott have managed customer relations well through the merger. They have maintained timely announcements and emails as the process has progressed, and this early crossover of programs is 100% benefit to program members, at least in the short term. We shall see how the long term program unfolds.

Here are a few things I am still hoping for in a combined program down the road, assuming the Marriott program prevails and all (Ritz, Marriott, and SPG) are eventually merged into one Rewards account:

  1. More lucrative promotions. Compared to IHG and Starwood, Marriott’s promotions haven’t been that impressive. During most quarters with IHG, I have the potential to pull in 40-60k bonus points off of only a few $100 in spending (which I usually accomplish through work stays). Starwood ran a couple good promos this past winter that netted us 6,000 points (roughly equivalent to 25,000 IHG points). I have yet to see anything of similar magnitude with Marriott, without requiring a substantial number of nights. The MegaBonus promotion offers 10,000 points after even 10 nights, a meager 1,000 points per night. Even Hyatt’s current promotion is notably better.
  2. Combination of program nights toward Marriott lifetime status. While I do think that Marriott will honor the lifetime status of current Starwood Lifetime Platinum and Gold members, the big question is: what will they do about members who are still working toward this? My best assumption is that Marriott will combine the Starwood lifetime points at the current 3:1 ratio, and transfer the nights over 1 to 1. This may not be a great deal, considering Marriott’s status is harder to achieve (at least at Gold level), but it would be at least a decent deal.
  3. Retention of mostly Starwood program benefits. This applies in a few areas. First, Starwood Gold members get a 50% points bonus on points earned from stays, while Marriott Gold members only get a 25% bonus. Things even out once you get to Platinum, except for any Starwood Platinum members who stay at least 75 nights. Additionally, Starwood offers a “Welcome Gift” at check-in, and bonus points are an option. Starwood also offers the great Make a Green Choice program. I hope Marriott will adopt some of these benefits over their current ones.

But this is all hopeful speculation. Currently, it is business as usual for all three programs. We’ll see where things are headed 18 months from now.

We Live In Oregon, According To Alaska

My newfound award travel love is Alaska Airlines. Recently, I gave several reasons why Alaska MileagePlan miles are worth collecting. The award redemption rules and rates are good, and their co-branded credit card through Bank of America offers good churning value.

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The intra-state price offers fantastic value for some Alaska MileagePlan award fight options.

But the pluses of the program don’t end there. Alaska Airlines offers what it calls “intra-state awards”. These price out at a mere 7,500 miles for a one-way saver award, compared to the typical 12,500 miles within the continental U.S. and Canada. For someone who lives in rural Alaska, these could be put to great use. A flight from Juneau to Dutch Harbor prices out at 7,500 miles plus the typical $5.60 in fees, even though it normally costs over $600! Talk about incredible value.

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One-way intra-state award from Juneau to Dutch Harbor. Definitely beats paying cash!

For some strange reason, I found that the same pricing applies to flights between Arcata, California and Portland, Oregon. PenAir, a partner of Alaska Airlines, began offering two daily ACV-PDX flights this past spring, and when this route is searched at alaskaair.com, it receives the intra-state pricing. Last time I checked, we don’t (quite) live in Oregon. I am left wondering: was this intentional when someone entered the flights into the pricing system, or did someone with Alaska Airlines accidentally enter Arcata as an Oregon airport? I am very curious.

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A one-way Alaska award ticket from ACV-PDX receives the intra-state price!

Flights from Portland to both Bend and Medford (both in Oregon) receive the intra-state pricing, but I cannot find another California airport that does. We appear to be unique. Not that I am complaining. 🙂

Amazon France To The Rescue!

Even with the best of planning, sometimes things go sideways. Whether it is a planning oversight, a poor decision in the moment, or something completely beyond your control, a lot of things can bring a trip grinding to a halt. All of your faculties suddenly go from enjoying where you are to figuring out how to solve the problem.

When my wife and I were preparing for our trip to Europe this past summer, I spent some time researching the various electrical adapters needed in France, Italy, and Ireland. One thing that I knew (that may not be apparent to many people) is that it isn’t just the plug that may be different in other countries, but the actual voltage and frequency of the electricity itself. I checked all of our chargers and ensured that they were rated for both standard 110V of U.S. wall outlets as well as the standard 240V of most of Europe. They were, so I was satisfied with purchasing a couple typical plug adapters that would bridge the gap between our devices and the European outlets.

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Our hot plate has become a travel staple. Gives us good cooking options, ad saves us money!

Except I forgot one critical item: our hot plate. It has become a travel staple due to my wife’s limited diet, not to mention it saves us a ton of money by allowing us to cook in our hotel room most of the time! Rather than being an AC-DC converter like our other items, the hot plate is resistive and only rated for U.S. voltage. If I plugged it into a European socket, I would run twice the current through it. This would quadruple the power it draws, likely frying it! The question was, now what can we do?

A few minutes of research reminded me that they make not just plug adapters, but actual transformers that can step outlet voltage up or down. These things can be pricey, though, and we would need one that could output 1,000 to 1,500 Watts (most output less). Not an easy thing to find.

I headed downstairs to the concierge. He told me that my best bet was probably Fnac, a major French electronics chain. He gave me directions, and I headed out, very jet-lagged but very hopeful that this would solve our problem.

fnac_nice_france

Fnac in Nice, France is in a beautiful building and has a large selection. But no hot plates!

After over 20 minutes of browsing the aisles and some broken French conversation with the staff at Fnac, my search turned up dry. I had even decided that I would simply buy a European hot plate if I found one. Fnac carried a large number of small appliances, but sadly no hot plates. For a large store that occupies several stories of a beautiful building along Avenue Jean Medecin, I was quite surprised at this.

One of the sales associates kindly gave me a flyer that directed me to an electronics store across town. By the time I returned to the hotel, though, I had less than an hour to make it there before they closed, and I was not very hopeful that I would find the transformer we needed. Plus, a cab across Nice would cost half of what the transformer costs, and that was the only way I would make it there in time.

As the frustration was setting in, I decided to hit the internet. A couple minute search showed me that there weren’t any other appliance stores close to the hotel. Desperate, I started looking up information about hot plates, hoping (even though I knew better) that somehow they might be compatible with the electricity in France.

I should have known the ads would hit when I started searching for an appliance. But then I saw one from Amazon, and a light bulb turned on: maybe Amazon offers 2-day shipping in foreign countries? As the world’s largest online retailer, I bet they do!

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Amazon France offered me a 30-day free trial, even though Amazon U.S. already had!

Sure enough, a couple Google page translations later, and I had found that Amazon France does in fact offer 2-day shipping, and if I could order that evening, the package would be scheduled to be delivered before we left for our next destination! My relief at this point was palpable.

But it got even better. Not only did they offer 2-day shipping, but I could get it for free through a trial of Amazon Prime (or…in France, Premium). I have previously gotten a couple free trials of Amazon Prime, but it seemed that the French version was willing to offer me another one, even though I logged in with my same account!

So with the hot plate ordered and on its way quickly to us, we went back to enjoying the French Riviera. I was only left with a smidge of apprehension about what would happen if the package didn’t arrive when scheduled. We would just cross that bridge when it got here. Luckily, it never did. After enjoying a day in Monaco, we arrived to a package placed nicely on the desk of our room at the Hyatt Palais de la Méditerranée. Crisis averted.

Fnac image courtesy of Vlad at TouristBee. Amazon image courtesy of Silas Grok

Looking Beyond The Chase Sapphire Reserve

Chase’s new premium card, the Chase Sapphire Reserve, is probably the biggest credit card news of the year. Maybe of the last couple years. The hype has been insane! So many people were approved that Chase ran out of the metal cards and special boxes that they were shipped in!

Obviously Chase approved a ton of people for this awesome card product. But there are also many others silently weeping because of the firm stance taken by Chase on implementing their now infamous “5/24” rule. If you have five or more new accounts with any card issuer in the past 2 years, you are out of luck, unless you managed to be one of the fortunate people with a pre-approval offer in-branch.

I knew heading into the Sapphire Reserve debut that there wasn’t much of a chance that either my wife or I would be approved for the fantastic new card. Both of us are well above 5 new accounts in the past 24 months, so it would be a complete fluke if either of us was approved. My wife applied, and we got the rejection letter as about a week later. I didn’t even try.

The question for me now is: should we plan to eventually capitalize on the Chase Sapphire Reserve (CSR), by limiting the new accounts on either my or my wife’s credit, or should we simply look beyond it?

Who knows how long the killer 100,000 point sign up bonus is going to last. It may be for several months, or it may end this month (as is rumored). Without this, the card drops precipitously in value, at least for us. With the current 100k sign up bonus, we are looking at a value of at least $1,500 in travel redemption, plus two $300 annual travel credits, for a conservative $2,100 in rewards, for a fee of $450. Assuming we offset the fee using the Ultimate Rewards (UR) points, this would result in a net of ~$1,450, and no cash out of pocket. Insane either way.

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Had either my wife or I been approved for a CSR, we might be booking a United GlobalFirst award!

But I am assuming this won’t last. Sixteen months from now (the soonest one of us will be “below 5/24”), it will probably be more like 50,000 UR. Offsetting the fee still, our net gain will be about $650. Far more modest, but still a hefty bonus.

In those same 18 months, either my wife or I will have forgone quite a few credit card offers. Assuming that we apply every 4 months for a couple cards, we will potentially have foregone 3 Alaska card bonuses, a Citi Hilton bonus, and 2 BarclayCard bonuses, as a conservative estimate. Estimating the net sign up value each card at about $250, this would mean we have foregone $1,500 in card bonuses. Yes, the CSR may be a fantastic product, but the numbers are pointing us toward continued churning.

This analysis does overlook the other perks of the CSR. Since my wife and I don’t fly especially often (on the order of 4-6 times per year), I don’t value lounge access that highly, certainly not as something we would pay for, and therefore not having it isn’t any sort of loss. The Global Entry fee credit might be nice, and I have completely glossed over the 3x earning on travel. If I traveled continually for work, the CSR would provide a whole lot more value, and it would then simply make sense to upgrade one of our current Chase cards to the new product (if allowed). This would forego the sign-up bonus.

But currently it doesn’t. Churning still makes far more sense. Then again, if the banks keep tightening the rules and reining in the number of new accounts they are willing to open, the equation will shift toward the side of waiting. We will see how it plays out. For now, though, I plan to look past the CSR and toward other opportunities. Except for one secret trick I may have up my sleeve. I’ll let you know if it pans out.

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