Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Europe (page 1 of 3)

Luxembourg in 10 Photos

As I wrap up writing about our day and a half in this tiny country, I figured I’d let the highlights speak for themselves. Without words, that is. Enjoy.

3 Days in Paris: Day 3 – Savoring the City

After dragging ourselves through the exhaustion of our first day in the City of Light (SEE: 3 Days in Paris: Day 1 – Surviving the Jetlag), followed by a very full day of seeing the main sights (SEE: 3 Days in Paris: Day 2 – Hitting the Highlights), some extra sleep was called for to start off our third day.

Once the kids were up and ready, we had breakfast at Aux Péchés Normands for the third time. It was already becoming tradition. The little bakery is a two minute walk from our hotel and offers great pastries, plus fresh coffee and juice. Fueled for the morning, we headed back toward where we’d began our adventures two days ago.

Notre Dame de nouveau

Notre Dame cathedral was both the first and last stop on our first day in the city. We’d enjoyed the view of the famous church from the square in front, returning later to enjoy the view from the towers.

But we’d missed one important piece: seeing the inside of the cathedral. This was what we intended to rectify today.

We arrived at Place Jean-Paul II to what seemed like an enormous line in front of Notre Dame. It extended the length of the square, and then wrapped around back towards the front of the Gothic cathedral. There really wasn’t any alternative to get inside, so we just joined the lengthy queue.

The line moved surprisingly quickly, and we were actually inside in under 10 minutes. The inside of Our Lady of Paris is just as lovely as her exterior. I love wandering around old cathedrals. When my wife and I visited Europe in 2016, we went to cathedrals in Milan, Florence and Dublin.

We didn’t stay especially long, just enough to take in the stained glass and immense feel of the cathedral. From Notre Dame we moved on to the other sights located on the Île de la Cité.

Conciergerie and Saint-Chappelle

A short walk later and we were standing at the entrance to Saint-Chappelle, a beautiful chapel with some of the most impressive stained glass I have ever seen. The chapel isn’t very large, but the ceilings are high and the color is mesmerizing.

Sainte-Chappelle is part of the Palais de la Cité, the residence of the kings of France for centuries. In many ways it is equally as impressive as Notre Dame.

The kids and I enjoyed the stained glass and wandering both the upper and lower levels of Sainte-Chappelle before moving on to the Conciergerie, located just another short walk away.

The Conciergerie is another part of the royal palace on the island in the middle of the Seine, albeit an infamous part of it. It served a number of functions after the French kings moved to the palace across the river, before becoming an infamous part of the French Revolution. Many prisoners were held here before being executed by guillotine, including Marie Antoinette.

I was surprised by how bare the interior is kept. There were a few areas where you could read about the history of the building, but other than that, you just got to wander the bare stone rooms. Bare, that is, except for a flume that is oddly constructed through the space and results in the waterfall you see outside between the towers.

I did my best to relay my limited knowledge of the French Revolution to the kids. They were fascinated by the story of Marie Antoinette, asking again and again why she was killed. The fact that the revolutionaries killed her unjustly, hating her for her wealth and power as one of the French royals, was hard for them to get their minds around.

Even as we left the Conciergerie, the kids continued to ask about Marie Antoinette and what happened during the revolution. I was glad for the moment I could teach them a small nugget of history, right in the place where it happened.

Lazily cruising the Seine

From the Conciergerie we continued our stroll along the Île de la Cité, heading to the dock where one of the river cruise companies operates. Given how much we’d all been on our feet the previous day, I wanted to make sure we broke up our day a bit more with active versus passive activities. I made sure to plan a time where we could just sit and talk and take in Paris. A cruise on the Seine fit the bill perfectly.

The tour company we used was fine, but there is serious room for improvement. Given the price of Paris in general, I was going for cheap. I’m sure there are better companies out there. The main drawback was that the tour guide did little more than point out 8-10 places in very thickly accented English. I caught most of what she said, but the kids hardly understood anything.

But it was still enjoyable to watch the city drift by from the water. The cruise took us from the Île de la Cité to the Eiffel Tower and back again.

We also headed upriver briefly and passed by Notre Dame, which was a highlight from the water.

We also saw (purportedly) the smallest house in Paris.

It was a great way to kill and hour and still enjoy the city. I’d highly recommended adding a Seine cruise as part of your Paris itinerary.

A much needed rest

Even after sitting for an hour, the kids were still tired. Three days of walking and sightseeing was a lot for both of them. It was mid-afternoon, and I still wanted to take them to Champ de Mars that evening to see the Eiffel Tower again and basically saw our goodbyes to Paris.

The best course of action was to regroup at the hotel for a while. The kids spent some time watching cartoons while I closed my eyes and tried not to drift off to sleep. Which was hard. I don’t like taking down time and would rather stay out until I’m completely done for the day. But with the kids, I needed to break it up.

But we had to get moving soon before I just decided to stay put. Dinner. We needed dinner.

Au revoir, Tour Eiffel

We headed out after maybe an hour at the Crowne Plaza Paris Republique, and grabbed some more bread, cheese and lunchmeat at a local store. Dinner was on the cheap yet again. However, we splurged afterwards, buying eclairs at one of the top-rated bakeries in the city. It was the most utterly delectable cream-filled pastry I’d eaten in my entire life.

On our way to the Champ de Mars, I became concerned that we might get rained out. The weather didn’t look promising. Sure enough, as we exited the train station, a light rain was falling. Plenty of other people had umbrellas. We weren’t so prepared. Even living in Humboldt, I cannot remember the last time I used an umbrella out and about.

We decided to just make a go of it. Looking at the clouds, I didn’t expect the rain to get worse, and it certainly wasn’t cold. We would be fine. This turned out to be the right call, as the rain let up within 15 minutes.

We walked along the Champ de Mars, bidding the icon of Paris adieu. Just had to get the perfect photo of these two in front of it. We strolled along slowly, me taking it all in. The kids brought up the fact that I’d made them walk up hundreds of stairs to the top. I have no regrets of my decision.

On the other side of the tower we encountered “the bubble man”. He was in the business of providing enjoyment to at least a dozen kids at a time for a small sum from their parents’ pocket (voluntary, of course). The kids enjoyed jumping and chasing the bubbles immensely. The Eiffel Tower made for the perfect backdrop.

A carousel ride, the perfect Parisian ending

After that we crossed the Seine toward Trocadero once more. This time we weren’t in a hurry, having already accomplished the mission of the evening. The kids asked to ride the carousel, and I figured this was the last chance we’d have. Of course this one picked a plane instead of a horse.

From there we wandered over to a small park maybe 100 yards from the Trocadero fountains. To my surprise, there were a couple families with kids. Young kids. I’m always taken aback by how late Europeans are out each evening. It was definitely late for us. The kids should have already been in bed. But here we were, enjoying the park, as the hour hand crept past 9 o’clock.

We finally got back to the hotel around 10:00, and quickly to bed. We said goodbye to Paris the following day, which was bittersweet. A final visit to Luxembourg Gardens was all we were able to fit in. We’d had a ton of fun. But the adventure would continue in Luxembourg!

Sheraton Roma Review

Overall rating: 8/10

Pros: Cheap points rate, good breakfast, nice lounge, easy access to metro

Cons: Not in city center, tired rooms and exterior

This hotel review is very dated, but its been sitting here mostly drafted and I figured I’d finish up and post it. 

During our extended European holiday in 2016 (SEE: Thirty Days in Europe), my wife and I spent 6 nights at the Sheraton Roma. I had booked us directly into a Club Room, which included breakfast and lounge access.

The total? 31,000 SPG points. Not a bad redemption, especially given that it would have easily cost us $900 out of pocket. Now that the merger is happening between the Starwood and Marriott loyalty programs, stays at the Sheraton Roma are becoming a worse deal. Category 1 and 2 Starwood properties were particularly hard hit by the new award chart.

Previously, award nights cost 3,000/4,000 Starpoints for a standard room (we booked a Club Room for a bit more). The new award chart shows that they will cost 17,500 Marriott points. Even given the 3:1 effective ratio of SPG to Marriott points, we’re looking at an increase of 5,500 Marriott points per night.

Cash rates during our dates were ~$140 per night for a club room, so we were getting about 2.7 cents per point. Not a bad redemption, especially since it was saving us the cost of breakfast (and often dinner).

Arrival at the Sheraton Roma

We didn’t have to travel very far the day we arrived. Our first night in Rome was actually spent at the St. Regis Rome, which mainly left me wishing I would have not burned the points I did on the luxury stay (SEE: St. Regis Rome Deluxe Room Review: Just too many points).

The easiest way to get to the Sheraton Rome is by metro or bus. If you take the metro, you have to walk a good distance to the hotel. We made this mistake, and the area to the immediate south of the hotel is not especially friendly to pedestrians. The bus is a better option, since the stop is literally out in front of the hotel, but you need to do a bit more research. I had it down by the end of our stay.

The exterior of the hotel is dated and not especially appealing.

We arrived in the evening after spending the day exploring Rome, and were immediately told that we needed to check in at the desk in the lounge. This was new to me. I figured the front desk handled everything. But it was easy enough to head up to the sixth floor.

First impressions

As I mentioned, the exterior needs a major face lift. However, the lobby was nice enough. It was often busy, but not during the afternoon that we arrived.

There was a flight crew present when we arrived, and we would continue to see them throughout our stay. It seems that the Sheraton Roma has contracts with multiple airlines for crew stays. Heading to the elevators, we arrived at the 6th floor, where the Club lounge is located.

Check in was…interesting. The staff in the lounge were incredibly professional, but we were accosted by an overly friendly lady who’d had a few too many glasses of Italian wine. She chatted our ears off for a few minutes before we were thankfully given our keys and could extricate ourselves. Our room was one floor down, on the 5th floor.

Sheraton Roma Club Room

I thought I’d taken photos of our room like I typically do at most hotels, but I guess I missed that detail. I took photos of other areas of the property, but not of the room itself. You can take a look here. I recall our Club Room at the Sheraton Roma as being adequate, but a bit on the small side. We didn’t spend a lot of time in the room, as we were out enjoying Rome most of our visit. In the evening hours, I was often in the lounge working until 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. to keep up with things back home.

One note with Starwood (and probably the same once they are fully rolled into Marriott), is that being upgraded to a Club Room doesn’t necessarily grant Club access. Since we’d paid the necessary points premium for a Club Room outright (as if paying cash for the room), we did get Club access and free breakfast. Besides Club access, there aren’t really any differences between standard Club and non-Club rooms at the Sheraton Roma. You’re just on a different floor.

We did opt for the Make a Green Choice program each day. As the Sheraton Roma is a full service hotel, we could get either a voucher for €5 toward food or beverage, or 500 Starpoints.

I value 500 Starpoints at ~$12, so that was definitely what we picked. Including our second Sheraton stay on this trip, we came away with 4,000 Starpoints from award stays. Pretty sweet.

Sheraton Roma Lounge

Access to the Sheraton Club Lounge was the best perk of booking a club room. It was a great place for me to work from in the evenings while my wife relaxed in our room. Or joined me.

Every evening there was a selection of small bites that doubled as dinner for us. Lunch out in Rome is fairly expensive, so we tried to cut costs by eating dinner in the lounge. Most of the food was pretty good. You just had to go back a few times to have enough.

There was a selection of wine as well, always at least one red and one white. It was all self serve. You might say it was the perfect opportunity to enjoy, when in Rome. But we didn’t. I hardly ever have a glass of anything.

The seating in the lounge was adequate, and there were almost always a number of other people present. The Sheraton Roma appears to be a popular hotel for both business travelers and flight crews.

Breakfast

Since we’d spent the extra points on an upgrade to a Club Room, breakfast was also included, either in the Sheraton Club itself or in AQVI, the hotel restaurant.

We opted for the restaurant every day. The food selection included a wide assortment of pastries, and hot breakfast options such as eggs, bacon, potatoes, cheese, fruit and much more.

I unfortunately didn’t take any photos besides the one of my plate, but I do remember feeling more than satisfied with both the quality and selection of food at breakfast. We ate with a view of the pool every day.

Italian coffee is also generally very good. The coffee here was about par.

Lounge access and breakfast every day were worth the 1,500 point premium per night. This is about the same as paying $38 per day for breakfast and dinner for two, which was totally worth saving.

Other facilities

The Sheraton Roma has a large pool deck area and a decent size pool. The only issue was that, at least from the breakfast area, it didn’t look all that inviting. The water was murky and not at all appealing. Neither my wife nor I had more than a mild interest in swimming, so it was easy to pass it up.

We did actually use the business center while at the Sheraton Roma. It was necessary to print the boarding passes for our flight from Ciampino to Dublin on Ryan Air. Failure to print a boarding pass will incur a steep fee from the airline.

Access to Rome

One of the drawbacks to the Sheraton Roma is its distance from the city center. It’s not that access isn’t all that difficult. It just means a 20-60 minute transit time each way, depending on where you want to go.

The most convenient option is the Patinaggio bus stop literally right in front of the hotel. The bus takes a bit longer in terms of drive time, but there is less walking involved. You’ll take the 780 line to Trastevere/Pascarella station and then catch the streetcar to Piazza Venezia. From there you can reach many sights in Rome by foot.

The other option is the metro, which we took most of the time. The EUR Magliana station is a 10-minute walk, but the walking route is less than ideal. Bushes had overgrown some of the sidewalk, and traffic is moving at a pretty good pace. But it is the better option for some of the sights. Colosseo station is only a 15 minute ride on the metro, and trains run frequently. Getting to the other side of Rome, such as over to the Vatican, will take at least another 15-20 minutes.

Conclusion

Overall, we had a great stay at the Sheraton Roma. It definitely wasn’t the nicest hotel, but it met our needs perfectly. Even though it isn’t near the center of the city, accessing the typical tourist areas was easy enough by bus or metro. Lounge access and breakfast were nice touches, and if we stay here again, I’d seek to repeat that.

My one potential gripe is that the pool did not look inviting. But we were here to enjoy the history and culture, not the water. If the kids were along, I’m sure they would have still been up for a swim. 😉

Why you need to master Google Flights and multi-stop itineraries

If you have more than a mild interest in points and miles, especially if you plan to travel internationally, I will suggest that you should spend some time with Google Flights (SEE: 6 reasons why Google Flights is the BEST flight search engine). It will teach you a lot. Get familiar with airports, routings, and carriers. It can help you find the cheapest deals on airfare if you know how to work things right (I’d also suggest subscribing to a fare deal website).

Using Google Flights to put together inexpensive, multiple-stop trips is what this post is all about. What if I told you that you could visit 2, maybe even 3, European destinations on a multi-stop trip for a mere $500 in airfare. Sound impossible? It’s definitely not. You just need to know a few tricks.

Let’s pick an example destination, and make it a bit harder than London or Paris. I’d like to visit Toulouse, France. Why Toulouse? It’s the headquarters of Airbus and it would be super cool to tour their factory. Now let’s find a ticket over some random dates not too far out from now.

Terrible: U.S. regional to small European regional

An initial option is to search for a ticket between our tiny regional airport and Toulouse (airport code TLS). The ticket search from ACV-TLS gives me the following over September 20-28:

The routing honestly isn’t terrible. But it is costly. The cheapest ticket I could find was $1,415. Maybe it could be worth it for one person for the convenience of flying out of our local airport, but I’d rather save the money. Situations like this are where you should search tickets from a larger airport. Flying small regional to small regional is almost always ridiculously expensive.

Okay: Major U.S. gateway to European regional

To save a substantial amount of money on airfare, many people travel to the Bay Area from here. San Francisco International Airport, by far the largest international gateway of the Bay Area airports, often has great fares to many destinations. I’ve routinely seen tickets to China in the $500s and tickets to many European destinations are often comparable.

Given the cost for the itinerary out of ACV, I expected the ticket from SFO to be better, but still high. And it totally was. And least it only had one stop:

KLM wants $976 for this itinerary. It still isn’t a great deal, but certainly better than the previous option. You’re saving $450. At least it is within the realm of reason for a ticket to Europe.

Better: Multi-stop on competitive routes, separate tickets

Now, here is where things get interesting. You might think to only check tickets between origin and destination, but there are a few other tricks you need to have up your sleeve. One is checking other area airports near your origin or destination if you’re willing to drive. We could search flights to Bordeaux or flights out of Oakland (in this case, it doesn’t help much).

But I have another trick I want to explore: making your own multi-stop itinerary. By knowing which routes are highly competitive, you can create some great, cheap tickets on your own. You just need to be okay spending a night in a city you didn’t plan on visiting and/or a bit more time in airports.

But it can be worth it. The San Francisco to London route is one of the most competitive European non-stops out of the Bay, and it routinely offers reasonable fares. I easily found this for $544:

Then I moved on to the flight to Toulouse. London has several airports (Heathrow, City, Gatwick, Stansted, and Luton), so I made sure I just search LON in the origin box to pick up them all. Turns out there is a nonstop between a few London airports and Toulouse. I decided to stick with Heathrow and found this:

The price is high, but not terrible at $98. It’s an airport change, but hey, you get a few days in London. Added to the United flight to London, you are looking at a total cost of $642. This is way better than the regional-to-regional roundtrip and quite a bit better than the simple round-trip to Toulouse from SFO.

Best: Multi-stop utilizing low-cost carriers

You may not know that Oakland International Airport offers non-stop flights on a few different airlines to more than a half dozen major European cities. This is where having good knowledge of routes and carriers comes in super handy. If you are flexible and can move your outbound and return dates a bit, you can save even more on this trip:

multi-stop-itineraries

Flying Norwegian from Oakland to London in October can be done for $411 (or less) round-trip. Now let’s add on an EasyJet flight for a mere $70 to get us to Toulouse:

A two-stop trip for under $500? Yup. We did it. I’ve been able to work out 3-stop and even 4-stop itineraries under $500 during the best Norwegian fare sales.

Conclusion

So there you have some of the tricks I use to find great multi-stop airfare deals. Over the course of a few years I’ve honed my Google Fights skills to be able to find fantastic fares to many places, especially these multi-stop trips. Being able to put an itinerary like the 2-stop Norwegian one above in less than 3 minutes is the culmination of many, many hours of research.

I’ve even challenged myself a couple times to find around-the-world tickets for under $1,000 (SEEFly Around the World for $1,000? Yes, it’s Possible!).

If you are struggling to find a good fare, you are more than welcome to send me a note via message on my Facebook page or via the Contact Me page here on the blog. I’ll be more than happy to quickly research the best options for you. Sometimes there is nothing I can do. But I may be able to offer some suggestions. 🙂

St. Regis Rome Deluxe Room Review: Just too many points

Location: Rome, Italy

Overall rating: 7/10

Pros: Great location, amazingly ornate room, fun splurge for a night

Cons: Under construction at the time, cost way too many points

This review is dated now, but I wanted to wrap up this draft from our Europe adventures in 2016.

During our thirty days in Europe during 2016, my wife and I visited Rome as our last stop before moving on from Italy. For the five nights prior we had been visiting Florence, a lovely city of art and history (SEE: Hilton Florence Metropole: A Review). Even that wasn’t enough time to scratch the surface of what Florence has to offer. But we had to move on.

For our first night I’d booked the St. Regis Rome. It was very close to the train station and one of the splurges I’d settled on for the trip. Whether it would really live up to my expectations remained to be seen.

I booked a deluxe room since there weren’t any standard rooms available for our one night. The equivalent room was going for over $500 per night, so it was a fairly reasonable use of 21,500 SPG points. Reasonable meaning we got what I consider a par “value” for them, when comparing cash rates versus points rates.

Arrival in Rome

We arrived in Rome from Florence on the Frecciarossa train. Frecciarossa literally means “red arrow”. It was definitely the fastest train I’ve ridden and brought us to Rome in no time at all. First on the agenda was picking up our 72-hour Roma passes (SEE: Roma Pass vs Omnia Pass: which is better?). Afterwards, it was off to the hotel.

Although we probably could have walked to the St. Regis directly from the Termini train station, I decided it would be easier to take the metro one stop to the Repubblica station. The St. Regis Rome was only a short walk from there.

First impressions

I had remembered reading that the St. Regis Rome was under renovation. I don’t know exactly where the normal main entrance is, but is certainly wasn’t where we were checked in. I’m sure things are back to normal by now.

The hotel was very regal, and pretty much what I expected a St. Regis to be. The first thing that pops into my head is royalty. The place was over-the-top ornate. We made our way up a grand staircase to our room. The bellhop brought our luggage, something I don’t allow often.

We were in room 222. It was even named.

Deluxe Room

As I mentioned before, standard rooms were all booked during our dates, so I had to call in and book a deluxe room. The ability to book upgraded room categories for a relatively small points increase was an awesome feature of the SPG program. I’m not sure the combined SPG/Marriott program will offer the same value.

Our deluxe room was quite the sight when we opened the door.

From the wall art, to the draperies, to the furnishings, it amazes me that people design hotel rooms like this. We were really out of our element here.

st. regis rome

Our deluxe room at the St. Regis Rome wasn’t especially large, but it was more than comfortable. I made sure I got photos of it from every angle.

Maybe the Cupola di S. Rocco is in reference to the painting above the bed? That was my only guess. That’s the only dome I can spy.

At the end of the bed was a comfortable love seat and coffee table. It was a nice design of living area combined with bedroom in minimal space.

The desk was as regal as everything else. So much for chair comfort, though. There was no way I could have worked in that for more than 30 minutes without wanting to find something else.

There was a smaller table that appeared to be for the sole purpose of doing your makeup, given the lighting and mirrors.

The interior and closet doors were even decorative.

It was a lovely room, and like a couple other properties on this trip, leagues beyond any hotel I’d ever stayed at prior to this trip.

Bathroom

The bathroom was super nice, but it wasn’t the all-time best. We’d just been in the Park Hyatt Milan several nights before and that is still the winner for best hotel bathroom (and best bath amenities…the shampoo smells amazing).

Like the Park Hyatt Milan, the bathroom featured both a bathtub and a shower. If this is a typical feature of high end hotels, I’m definitely a fan.

The glassed-in shower was plenty large and had both a large overhead shower-head and a small detachable one.

The sink area was fairly large and the mirror gilded, like so many other things in the room.

Then there was the phone next to the toilet again, something I’d first noticed at the Hyatt Regency Palais du la Mediteranee.

If a toilet phone is what it takes to be a “fancy” hotel, I just don’t get it.

St. Regis Rome Butler service?

On of the hallmarks of the St. Regis brand is their renowned butler service. Turns out we needed at least an “Imperial Room” for this to be a part of our stay. It would have cost some more points, and we were already spending plenty as it was. It wasn’t like we needed that sort of service anyway, although it would have been a cool experience. I wonder if he would have brought us groceries?

I suppose he might also expect us to tip him handsomely. At $500+ per night, I’m sure whatever we could have given him would not have been satisfactory. We are peasants who can make do without being waited on.

Signature St. Regis Rome experiences

There are a couple experiences I read about that you can enjoy at the St. Regis Rome. First, there is a daily high tea that you can enjoy. You just better be made of money. Tea costs €28 per person.

In the evening there is a champagne sabering. Before our stay, I had no idea what that this is. Thanks to Google, one can look up these sorts of things if they are lacking in “culture”. At 7:00 p.m. every evening guests can gather in the Caelum Lounge and Bar to watch the opening of a bottle of Moët & Chandon champagne. By saber. Yeah. It’s a thing.

I guess there is an art to it. Rather than slash the glass of the beck of the bottle, the blade slides along the seam in the bottle until it impacts the joint with the glass seam at the cork, causing a clean break, a flying cork, and a small jet of foamy champagne as an exciting start to enjoying a glass of bubbly.

If you want breakfast at the hotel, be prepared to pay a pretty penny. It would have been nice to be a Starwood Platinum member when we stayed there, but I didn’t have a way of hacking that status at the time. Breakfast for the non-elite runs €43 per person. Don’t choke on your coffee.

We pretty much enjoyed the hotel for the bulk of our stay. I had requested late  checkout, so we were able to enjoy Rome a bit the next day, but our evening at the St. Regis Rome was pretty much just spent hanging out in our lovely room. After days of walking all around Florence, we needed a break.

Conclusion

Hindsight is always 20/20. This stay in particular taught me how content we are with burning points at midscale hotels. The St. Regis Rome was way out of our league.

It was a fun night at a fancy place, but it didn’t provide us any more value staying here rather than at the Sheraton, except for maybe an hour’s worth of time savings. Honestly, we got way less value. We could have spent four nights at the Sheraton Roma for what we paid for the St. Regis. And breakfast would have been included. That would have been the winner, hands down. Our stay at the St. Regis Rome is a very clear example of Vendoming.

The St. Regis Rome wasn’t a bad hotel, it was just way beyond what we needed. In the future I am going to be far more selective with where we stay. After all, when a Hyatt House is basically your wife’s favorite hotel, there’s no need to go all out. 😉

Older posts