Hong Kong and Macau 4/5-2017

Trip duration: 4/27/2017 to 5/3/2017
Route: Dallas => Hong Kong; Hong Kong => Dallas
Flying Method: American Airlines AAdvantage reward redemption @ 58,500 round trip (eco) [65,000 – 6,500]


Planning and Itinerary

This trip actually came about as a result of the 2 free weekend-night sign-on bonus from the Citi Hilton Honors Reserve card. After earning the sign-on bonus in 5/2016, I started researching on higher tier Hilton properties in order to maximize the reward value. A majority of the category 9 properties are beach resorts or at a location that’s a bit hard to get to. I ended up choosing Hong Kong Conrad to redeem the 2 free nights stay due to the ease of getting to Hong Kong. After scanning AA’s reward chart and playing around with different dates, I was able to find milesavers redemption in economy from DFW to HKG. Taxes and fees ended up being around $80ish. As using AA’s co-branded credit card (either Citi Aadvantage platinum card or Barclay Aviator mastercard) gets you 10% of the rewards redemption back, I made sure to pay the taxes and fees using the strategically kept Barclay Aviator mastercard. The reservation was made in 7/2016 for a total of 58,500 miles. Before confirming the flight arrangement, I actually called Hilton to reserve the 2 free weekend nights first. The sister came along on the trip using her AA miles as well. 🙂 We decided that 6 days would be enough for Hong Kong. As one may have heard, due to space limitation, lodging in Hong Dong does not come cheap. For the remaining days, we booked 1 night at the Skycity Marriott by the airport (30,000 Marriott points) and 2 nights at the Hyatt Regency in Kowloon (15,000/night, transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards). (Note: separate post on these hotels to come later). Most of the hotel research was done using awardmapper.com which helped me see what properties were available in certain areas. Forgot to mention, for US passport holders, there’s no visa requirement for Hong Kong travel unless you plan to stay past 30 days. If you’re going China through Hong Kong (e.g. Shenzen), then a China visa is required. Continue reading “Hong Kong and Macau 4/5-2017”

Bend, TX 10-2016

This trip report is a bit different from the previous trips. It didn’t involve any airplanes or hotels nor miles or points; instead, a 4 cylinder engine and a tent were all that’s required. <shocking> 🙂

A couple of weeks ago, we took a 3 1/2 hour drive down to the Colorado Bend State Park for some fun in the wilderness. My sister and I left early Saturday morning to meet the group who’d been there since friday. Not surprisingly, after several hours of driving we were still in Texas. The views along the 3 plus hour drive were a pleasant change from the busy and congested Dallas city life. The last hour or so we drove through FM roads, small towns and ranches before finally arriving at the park entrance.

There are many different activities one can do at the Colorado Bend State Park. From hiking, mountain biking, fishing, waterfall gazing, to swimming and kayaking in the Colorado River. There are plenty of hiking trails to choose from with various levels of difficulty. Due to time constraint, I was only able to do 2 hikes during this trip: Gorman Falls and Spicewood Springs trail. Both were good, I liked the spicewood trail over the gorman falls though as it’s more scenic.

Our friends who organized the trip had yummy burgers, kababs, and sandwiches prepared. The only thing missing was s’mores by the campfire. :(((( Guess this calls for a re-do. My favorite part of being out in the wild was seeing the specks and twinkles in the sky. It felt so soothing and calming gazing at the stars with the sound of crackling fire in the background. It was also neat seeing wild deer roaming around at night. Least favorite part was having to use the waterless composing toilet, and not being able to shower. So, one night of camping is plenty enough for this amateur. 😛

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I could count how many times I’ve been camping with one hand – the magic number is 3. This time around I was somewhat prepared. I even got a new half-dome tent months before the trip and camped out in the living room to practice. This tent (northface storm break 2) was pretty easy to pitch and light enough to carry in a backpack if needed (and it’s carebear approved). Unfortunately I forgot to snap a pic at the campsite.

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Apart from being able to spend time with friends and getting back to nature, this trip actually helped my sister and I get our minds off of losing our 9 year-old parakeet who passed away 2 days prior. It’d been a really stressful and heart breaking time leading to his passing, we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves had we stayed home.

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In loving memory of Bebe (7/2007 – 10/2016)

Anywayz! Want to end the post on a lighter note – there are so many wonderful places to see around us. All you have to do is go out and explore. It doesn’t have to be a long plane ride to a foreign country, or a fancy get away with expensive meals to go along. All you may need is a 4-cylinder engine, a tent/camping equipment, basic food items, good company, and you could be the richest person in the world in terms of memories and experiences.

Greece 9-2016

Trip duration: 9/15/16 to 9/24/2016
Route: Dallas => Philly => Athens; Athens => Philly => Dallas
Flying Method: Citi ThankYouPoints redemption (PHL->ATH); Cash Payment (DAL->PHL->DAL)


Planning and Itinerary

Greek mythology, the founding place of democracy, island hopping, baklava, souvlaki, anyone? Yes please! A few girlfriends and I embarked on our Greek adventure six months after the idea was formed during one of our random chitchats.

As with most trips, the 1st step of planning consists of where to go, how to get there, and where to stay. We knew we wanted to fly into and out of Athens. After comparing routes, prices, and schedules (I used ita matrix search), the Dallas -> Philly -> Athens route seemed to be more practical. There was also the option of Dallas -> Heathrow -> Athens, however it seemed to be more of a hassle connecting in a foreign country where you’d need to clear immigration / customs before getting onto your next flight. We chose the 1st option for obvious reason. Since getting the Citi Prestige card, I had over 50,000 citi thank you points waiting to be used (sign-on bonus). I used these points through the citi travel portal to purchase the roundtrip fare between Philly and Athens. These points had a 0.16 point to dollar conversion when you book an American Airlines flight. I was able to shaved off a little over $800 in airfare by doing so. The flights also earn miles as they are still considered revenue flights by the airline. The Dallas to/from Philly flights were bought separately using AA gift cards (saved from when I had the Amex Platinum card where you could get $200 in airline gift cards per calendar year.) 🙂

As far as where to go, we had a total of 9 days in Greece. Each of us pitched in our preferences and we ended up with Athens, Santorini (Thira), and Mykonos. We decided to fly from Athens to Santorini (booked directly via Aegean air), ferry to Mykonos from Santorini (bought online while we were in Greece, picked up ticket at the ticket office when we departed Santorini), then fly back to Athens from Mykonos (booked directly via Aegean air). The domestic flight was a lot more reliable and faster than ferry, although ferry was more budget friendly, however not 100% reliable. It would have taken at least 6 hours on the slow ferry (less choppy) from Athens to Santorini, whereas it only takes under 1 1/2 hour to fly. Our overall schedule looked like this: Athens (1 night) -> Santorini (3 nights) -> Mykonos (2 nights) -> Athens (2 nights).

Lodging wise, since there were 4 of us, we used airbnb mostly. We stayed in a hotel our 1st night in Athens by the Monastiraki Square (Attalos Hotel, review here). In Santorini we stayed in Oia in one of those picturesque cave houses on the cliff. In Mykonos we stayed near the town center so most places were accessible by foot. On our last 2 nights in Athens, we stayed near the Victoria Station (2 stations away from the city center).

Oh by the way, most of us never traveled together before. All of the plannings/bookings were done via email communication.  We rock! 🙂

Athens

Where do I even begin! This city is so eclectic. As we were leaving the airport on the train into the city center (12 euros per person each way; or 20 euros for 2 ppl), the scenery almost made me think I’m in California (it would’ve been funny if there was a Hollywood sign on the hill). There were hills, trees, highways, and somewhat of an open field. 15 mins or so in, the train then went underground; gradually we began to see the hustle and bustle of the city.

We had a private food walking tour scheduled the same afternoon upon arriving in Athens. Unfortunately only 2 of us made the tour as the other 2 girls’ flight was delayed and rerouted. 🙁 After a shower and a power nap, we met our guide by the Monastiraki Square. This tour was one of the best ones i’ve been on. Not only did we experience some authentic Helenic treats, we also got to see the city from a local’s perspective and away from the touristy spots. Who knew there were excavations preserved under the glass floor across the city (not just in the Acropolis Museum)?! There were noticeable graffitis all over the city. At first sight it may look like places were vandalized, but it’s actually a common sight. The graffiti more or less gives the city its quirkiness. Before coming to Athens, a friend mentioned the food tour. Initially I brushed it off as the one I did in Tokyo was a bit of a let down and expensive. Boy was I glad to come across this tour company (Athens Walks), we got to learn/see/eat so much and the price was reasonable too.

Pics from the tour, don’t remember what they all are. The coffee was from Mokka; the loukoumades/fried donut (bottom right) with goat ice cream was superb; we also got to sample freshly made Greek salad by the guide, savored awesome quality olive oil and vinegar’s nectar; and different pastries made from filo dough (different flavors stuffed w/ chicken, spinach and custard)

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Pic below: Inside the fish/meat market; some of the many outdoor markets selling fruit, nuts and olives; Miran spice and salami shop (we had the best hummus ever there. Interestingly it’s hard to find hummus while we were in Greece as tzatziki is more common).

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We saved the main Athens activities towards the end of the trip. Through viator, we booked an all day Athens’ tour where we saw the changing of the guards in front of the Syntama Square, the Acropolis, the Arch of Hadrian; had lunch in Plaka, went to Cape Sounion and saw the Temple of Poseidon. It was quite a busy day. At night we walked around the Syntama Square and had a fab dinner and desserts next door to wrap up the trip.

20161104_202252-collage  Santorini

As touristy and commercialized as Santorini sounds, I personally think it’s one of the places you’ve got to visit at least once while in Greece. The views are just simply amazing, especially the sunset. The cave house we stayed at in Oia faced the caldera/flooded crater on the cliff (pic below in the center). We actually had to hike down some steep and slippery steps to get there. But once there, you just wanna sit in the lawn chair and soak in everything around you (Well, for maybe 5 mins. It was still pretty hot and humid during the day). We didn’t have anything planned in Santorini. During our stay, we’d get up early in the morning, wander around the alleyways and see the sunrise. After breakfast/lunch, we’d take refuge inside the air conditioned villa and chitchat about anything and everything. At night we’d go out and explore some more. One night we took the bus to Fira and had dinner there (Fira is a bigger town on the island with lots of restaurants and shops).

On our 2nd day we went on a quest to find ferry tickets to Mykonos. After being turned around and sent off to different shops, we learned that in Oia there are no places that sell ferry tickets; we’d have to take the bus to Fira. During the said quest, we stumbled across a store selling sunset cruises. Let me tell you, if you don’t do anything else in Santorini, do the sunset cruise. We were able to get on a small group catamaran with a slight discount (hey if you don’t ask, you won’t receive). This was a great lesson that you don’t always have to pre-plan and pre-book everything. Sometimes you get better deal booking things on a whim, plus, you have more flexibility. The sunset cruise was amazeballs. We stopped and swam in the Hot Springs (uhhh lukewarm?), snorkeled near the White and the Red Beach. A delicious Greek dinner was also included with wine and beer. Toward the end, the catamaran, along with every other boat in sight, stopped near Old Fira as the sun was setting. It was the most amazing sunset I’ve ever seen. The rays sparkled and the sun looked like diamond in the sky. On our catamaran, one guy proposed to his girlfriend during the sunset (apparently this proposal scene happens a lot on the boat).

(Side note: We found out we could buy the ferry ticket online via Helenic Seaway and pick up at the port. We did exactly that and purchased VIP seats in case of sea sickness).

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Mykonos

Our next island adventure brought us memories that will certainly be something we’ll laugh about for years to come. Our ferry from Santorini to Mykonos was a bit delayed. As we waited at the crowded gate with other passengers, we were excited when it finally pull up to port. The debark and embark process happened all so very quickly. We dropped off our bags and were ready to head upstairs to enjoy our VIP seats. The only problem – the guy who was checking tickets saw ours and yelled “NO MYKONOS”. Our mouths literally hung wide open, we were stunt and confused. While we stood speechless, he then proceeded to ask: Do you understand english? #@#$*&#@! We then tried to grab our bags and run for the gate, only to see the gate already being pulled up, and the ferry already left the port. Ughh, so much for VIP seats. The same guy came by and told us we should get off in an hour at the next island so we could catch the ferry to Mykonos. He was like “be very careful, if you don’t get off, you’ll be heading to Athens”. The rest of the journey went on fine, we got off at Ios and caught the ferry that we were supposed to be on, which was 15 mins behind. We were finally able to enjoy some much needed break in our VIP seats. lol.

Our perky airbnb host came to pick us up at the port. She showed us to the rental and gave us detailed directions, with drawings on the map and all, where all the main places are at. She recommended that we go to this beach club which plays some awesome EDM music. After seeing how excited she was about this place and the video snippets, we were sold. After a bit of rest and dinner, we set out to this beach club called “Scorpio”, which is located 20 mins south of the city center near the area called Paraga. So we finally got on the bus (delayed as always), all excited about this beach club, only to get off at a deserted bus station in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. There was a beach alright, but it was pitch black. We found the sign to Scorpio and it led to some dimly lit path (wooden planks) on the beach. We followed it for a few minutes and arrived at a resort/hotel like place. There was music playing, the area looked nicely decorated, all looked promising except we were the only people there. After talking with the people at the reception desk, we were told the party season had just ended the week before. OMG! Mykonos, what a day! Why you be playing us like that?!

The rest of our visit went along fine. Again we took things slow and just roamed around the city center for the next 2 days. This island has a completely different vibe from Santorini. The white buildings with blue/red shutters and the cute walkways are what strike me the most about Mykonos. And of course, the windmills. 🙂

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Here are some travel hacks, tips and info learned from this trip:

  • Bring a water bottle and refill with boiled water. Most lodgings have an electric kettle. It saves $$$ and is more environmentally friendly.
  • Take transportation into consideration when making lodging arrangements. The fares do add up. We tried to look for areas that are easily accessible by public transit. Also, taxis aren’t always the expensive option. In Athens, a taxi ride from the airport into the city (and vice versa) is around 35 euros per car (for a 4 door sedan that fits 4 passengers). Metro fare at 12 euros/pp (even at 20 euros/2 ppl) would’ve been more expensive for 4 ppl. There’s a 24hr bus from Syntama Square to the airport (X95) at 6 euros/pp each way. In Santorini, taxi/private transport costs 35 euros each way from the airport to Oia and vice versa. Had we stayed in Fira, bus would’ve been a cheaper option. But we chose Oia for the scenery and the quaintness. In Mykonos we chose a place where the airbnb host provided free transportation. 🙂
  • Take it slow! There is only so much you can do/see. For this trip, all we’d prebooked were the food walking tour as well as the Athens city tour. We left the rest of the itinerary open. It was a breath of fresh air not having to rush from one location to another. When we returned to Athens the 1st night, we decided to stay in. With bags of snacks in tow, we turned on the chrome cast and enjoyed a lighthearted chick flick.
  • If you checked in a bag, make sure to leave a set of clean clothes and essentials in the carryon. Our friends’ flight from Dallas to Philly was delayed, and they missed the flight to Athens. Even though AA was able to rebook them on a separate flight, their bags didn’t make it into Athens that same day. The bags had to be flown to Santorini the next afternoon (since we were going to Santorini the following day). Let’s just say it’s not fun to have to wear the same outfit for 2 days.
  • On a similar note, fortunately our friends’ flight to Athens, including the connecting flight, were on the same ticket. When one segment was delayed, AA was able to put them on a different route automatically. Had the delay happen to me, since my flights were all on separate tickets, I would’ve had to coordinate with AA on my own. It’s a risk I have to take, therefore I also make sure there’s plenty of time in between the 2 connecting flights in case of unexpected delays.
  • Found out the hard way that the Citi Prestige card does not treat the citi thank you points booking as part of the annual $250 travel reimbursement benefits (for example if you use point & cash to pay for a booking). Reason being that booking is done by 3rd party travel agency, therefore not eligible for travel reimbursement. 🙁

Efcharisto (thank you) Greece for a wonderful time with old and new friends alike. Can’t wait for a return visit in the future.

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(After a failed quest to find the beach club in Mykonos)

Shanghai 5-2016

Trip duration: 5/11/16 to 5/27/2016
Route: Dallas => SHA => Dallas
Flying Method: Cash payment


I had the rare opportunity to spend 2 weeks in Shanghai on a work trip recently. From the U.S. going to China, it requires a visa which you have to apply through a nearby Chinese consulate (in my case it’s Houston). The visa application is pretty intense and it asks for a lot of information. You also have to send in your passport, a passport photo, as well as a business invitation letter from the local office. Thankfully everything worked out as hoped. I got my passport back in the nick of time and flew out 2 days after.

There were 4 of us working in Shanghai. We stayed in the Pudong area in Lujiazui near the office. The Huangpu river conveniently flows through the city center between Pudong and Puxi. Pudong literally means “east bank”, and Puxi is “west bank”. The Pudong area is famous for its skyscrapers and skyline; it’s also the financial district and trade zone (similar to the NY midtown area). When visitors go to Shanghai, one of the top places to visit is “the bund” where you can see Pudong from across the Huangpu River. We actually got a reversed view, it’s still a pretty view nonetheless. Continue reading “Shanghai 5-2016”

Japan 4-2016

Trip duration: 4/14/16 to 4/25/2016
Route: Dallas => Narita (eco); Haneda => Honolulu => Dallas (bus)
Flying Method: Award redemption (70.3K AA miles, incl 10% reward rebate), booked in 7/2015 for 4/2016 travel.


Japan, one of the gateways to Asia, is a country full of history and modern innovations. Visitors flock to Japan for the amazing scenery, unique culture, gazillion shrines, food, manga, shopping, onsen (hot spring), and the hustle and bustle of the Tokyo city life. I booked this trip last year in order to secure the highly in demand rewards seat to Asia using American Airlines’ Advantage miles. Majority of the miles came from the Barclay US Airways Premier card 50K sign on bonus (this version is no longer available). It cost $50 in taxes and fees and over 70K miles for the airfare redemption (economy on the way there, and business on the way back). Continue reading “Japan 4-2016”

Iceland & Germany 1-2016

Trip duration: 1/15/16 to 1/24/2016
Route: Dallas => Frankfurt => Reykjavik => Berlin => Frankfurt => Dallas
Flying Method: Award redemption (36K AA miles) for DFW=>FRA roundtrip, plus cash payments for one way flights in between.


Alrighty I’m finally taking out the dusty notepad and getting this much ignored blog some loving. First trip of 2016 has been checked off the list. Oh how I missed ya, airports. kidding. This trip was planned back in April or May of 2015. My friend and I both wanted to go to Iceland and we both had some AA miles to burn. After researching the AA hubs in Europe (Paris, Heathrow, Madrid, Frankfurt) as well as taxes, fees, and connections to Reykjavik, Frankfurt became the obvious choice.

One of the Iceland attractions that draws my interest is the aurora borelis / nothern lights, which is most visible in the winter season. Okay so winter in Iceland it is (brrrrrr). Lucky for us, winter time is the off-peak season to fly to Europe from the U.S., and there are plenty of AA milesavers reward seats. We were able to snag a roundtrip economy flight between DFW and FRA for 40,000 miles per person. Using the Citi AAdvantage credit card to make this redemption, we also received 10% of the miles back (4,000). At the end we each spent 36,000 miles and paid around $100 for taxes and fees. Since we’re flying in and out of Germany, we decided to squeeze in Berlin in the itinerary. This initial trip planning is my favorite part. It’s like putting puzzles into place except there are no right or wrong ways to do it. Our final trip looked like this: 5 nights in Reykjavik, 2 nights in Berlin, and 1 night in Frankfurt/Mainz. We were able to find reasonably priced one way flights later in the year.  Continue reading “Iceland & Germany 1-2016”

Vancouver, BC 9-2015

Trip duration: 9/4/15 to 9/7/2015
Route: Dallas => Vancouver; Vancouver => Portland => Dallas
Flying Method: Award redemption (12,500 AA miles) plus cash payment


Yay to weekend getaway with the family. 🙂 The last time we did a family trip together was back in 2009, so this was definitely long overdue. My parents chose Vancouver since they’d never been to Canada before. Coincidentally, my brother happened to be back in the U.S. for work that week, and he was able to meet us in Vancouver over the weekend. Yay!

Being a hotel snob, the brother booked 2 nights for us at the Shangri-La hotel. The hotel is located in the middle of Vancouver downtown and we were able to get to major attractions nearby on foot.  We started out the weekend by venturing out near the West End after all of us arrived in Vancouver, and had lunch at a dim sum restaurant on Robson street. Vancouver has a pretty high population of Chinese people, getting authentic Chinese food was definitely on our radar. In the afternoon, we walked along the harbour then headed north to the Stanley Park (here comes all the hate stares from the family since I insisted that we walk there). We only walked around 1/3 of the park since everyone was complaining. =P Continue reading “Vancouver, BC 9-2015”

Sydney 8-2015

Trip duration: 8/26/15 to 9/1/2015
Route: Dallas => Sydney; Sydney => Dallas Sydney => Honolulu => Phoenix => Dallas
Flying Method: 90K AA miles DFW->SYD (Bus); SYD->HNL->PHX->DFW (Eco). The majority of the miles were from the 75,000 sign-on bonus from the AA Executive master card.


It was almost a year ago today when I had this crazy idea to book a getaway hundreds and thousands of miles away.  After waiting anxiously for this trip to happen, my passport now happily scores an Australian stamp. Few days before leaving, I decided to stay an extra day in Sydney, hence all the extra connections on the return flight. It was well worth it as I got to see everything I had on the list plus a couple more.

What a beautiful city Sydney is! For a first time visitor, I was in awe by how friendly the people are, how diverse the city is, and how convenient it is to get around. Thanks to social media and the Internet which brings the world closer than ever, my visit to Sydney wasn’t so solo after all. The company made the trip more interesting and entertaining, and made me like Sydney that tiny bit more. Continue reading “Sydney 8-2015”

Packing for the Inca Trail Hike

Now that I’ve survived to tell the tale, been meaning to write a post on what to pack for the Inca Trail. This is tailored for the raining season as we went on the hike at the end of January.

Apart from the basic items (a pair of decent water resistance hiking boots, water bottle/pouch, raincoat, head lamp, wool socks, flip flops, sunscreen, bug repellent (didn’t use), hat (didn’t use), etc), here are some of my “I wish I knew” for the 4 day / 3 night Inca Trail hike:  Continue reading “Packing for the Inca Trail Hike”

Buena Vista, CO 6-2015

Trip duration: 6/12/15 to 6/15/2015
Route: Dallas Love Field => Denver (roundtrip)
Flying Method: Points via Southwest Airlines

  • Wanna Get Away points of 11,350. Points transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards. Points earned via the Chase Sapphire Preferred sign-on bonus of 40,000.

Being in the outdoors has always been one of my favorite things (weather permit). I was so excited when a friend organized a group trip to Colorado for some whitewater rafting and hiking fun. Continue reading “Buena Vista, CO 6-2015”