Pic: Bart at Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, Canada
After my First Class flights to Los Angeles the journey continued to Calgary, Canada. I had booked Hertz’ cheapest rate but was lucky enough to receive a brand new car for my 3-day roadtrip (map) in the Canadian Rockies. When I arrived at Radisson Calgary airport on tuesday night, the weather was gloomy and the forecast wasn’t really encouraging. Fortunately, this turned out to be an advantage when the weather cleared up on Thursday. It was exceptionally quiet in the parks which offered me the opportunity to enjoy the sights without the summer crowds!
Pic: Lake Louise, Banff National Park, Canada
A short stop to buy a rain jacket at the town of Banff and off I went to beautiful Moraine Lake and Lake Louise in Banff National Park. I stayed at Paradise Lodge & Bungalows, a 5 minute drive from Lake Louise. Not the cheapest place to stay, I paid $228 Canadian dollars (~€165) for my last-minute booking of a Preferred Fairview Suite, but what a relaxing experience! Nothing feels better than a hot shower after hiking all day in the rainy woods!
Pic: Bart at Icefields Parkway, Canadian Rockies
On Wednesday, the weather cleared up right in time for The World’s Most Spectacular Journey: Icefields Parkway from Banff to Jasper. What a FANTASTIC route! Probably the nicest I’ve done in my entire life.
Pic: Lake along Icefields Parkway (click for larger version)
Pic: Boat to Spirit Island on Maligne Lake
Once in Jasper National Park, I headed to Maligne Lake to visit the world famous Spirit Island. Peter Gales’ image of Spirit Island hung in Kodak’s Colorama showcase in NYC’s Grand Central Station for many years which made the island a popular vacation hunt for commuters.
Pic: Spirit Island, Maligne Lake, Jasper National Park
Pic: Black Bear near Maligne Lake Jasper, National Park Canada
On my way to Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, I was fortunate enough to spot several black bears along the road, even a mother bear with cubs! Amazing how easy it was to encounter wildlife in the park!
Pic: Dramatic mountain backdrop at Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
HotelTonight had the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge available, a property with rather dated lodges, but spectacular settings. For breakfast, I drove to Jasper town where Bear’s Paw Bakery served delicious danish.
Pic: Glacier Skywalk Jasper National Park
On the way back to Calgary, I made a stop at Glacier Skywalk, Columbia Icefield. Tip: visit the Skywalk before 11am to avoid the crowds.
Pic: Bart at Glacier Skywalk, Jasper National Park
It was only a brief 3-day visit to the Canadian Rockies, but the memories will last a lifetime…highly recommended! Have you been in Canada before? Any tips to share? Are you aware of road trips which are as beautiful as Icefields Parkway? Please do share your experiences in the comments of this post. Thanks!
Pic: Etihad Chauffeur service to London Heathrow Terminal 4
One weekend, three A380 First Class flights, a personal record! On my way to Canada, I flew Etihad Airways A380 First Class from London to Abu Dhabi, Qatar Airways A380 First Class from Doha to London and British Airways A380 First Class from London to Los Angeles. For the Etihad flight, I burned 40,000 American AAdvantage miles, the two other flights were part of the British Airways First Class error fare from Dubai (~€1350 out-of-pocket, a fraction of the normal fare ~€7000). The revenue OneWorld flights earned me a total of 23,429 American AAdvantage miles.
Pic: Etihad Airways A380 First Class Apartment 4K (May 2015)
I had very high expectations for my Etihad A380 First Class Apartment flight from London to Abu Dhabi, but unfortunately those were not met. Was it because Martina was not part of the flight crew? Maybe. The ground experience at Heathrow was nice with a tasty breakfast (menu) and relaxing massage (Six Senses Spa) at the Etihad First & Business Class lounge. But onboard there were a number of disappointments: a less than enthusiastic welcome by cabin manager Bashar, a pre-departure drink served in a broken glass, mediocre inflight dining & service, a cramped shower, a lobby bar lacking the grandeur of its competitors, and more… All first world problems, but if you pride yourself on “setting a new standard for best in class”, expectations of your premium passengers are very high.
Pic: Etihad A380 connecting First Class Apartments 3K and 4K
Obviously, there were a number of positive features as well. The spacious ‘Apartment’ offering great privacy, the ottoman converting in a 2 meter bed, the huge IFE high definition screen, etc… check the Design Air Etihad A380 First Apartment trip report for more details and pictures. I’ll fly Etihad A380 First Class later this year again which hopefully will be an improved experience.
Pic: Etihad First Class – Bollinger La Grande Année 2005 Champagne
Pic: Etihad First Class pre-depature drink & snacks.
Pic: Etihad Airways A380 First Class Apartment (May 2015)
Pic: The Etihad Airways First Class Dessert Taster
Pic: The Lobby at the Etihad Airways A380 Upper Deck
Pic: Etihad Airways A380 First Class Apartment 5H
Pic: Shave by Etihad Airways in Abu Dhabi
Upon arrival in Abu Dhabi, I had some refreshments and fantastic shave by barber Noor at the Etihad Arrivals lounge before Etihad’s Chauffeur service drove me to the Park Hyatt Dubai.
Pic: Excellent service by Etihad barber Noor!
Pic: The pool at Park Hyatt Dubai
Pic: Forget golf carts, this is how we role at Park Hyatt Dubai!
Pic: Quad Bike Safari near Dubai
Pic: Sunset at Burj Al Arab in Dubai (May 2015)
Pic: Qatar Airways A320 First Class Dubai to Doha
After a relaxing weekend with friends in Dubai, the journey continued with my best short-haul flight ever! Qatar Airways A320 First Class from Dubai to Doha. The service and inflight catering offered by purser Mi & colleagues during this 45 minute flight was simply amazing! Same counts for the views during take-off!
Pic: Sunrise at The World, Dubai
Pic: Qatar Airways A380 First Class Seat 2K
A short layover at Doha airport allowed me to enjoy some breakfast and Krug at the Al Mourjan Lounge before boarding the Qatar Airways A380 to London. No private suites in this First Class cabin, but beautiful designed seats with a lovely color scheme and fantastic high quality materials. Service and inflight catering were great, only minor comment was the very slow complimentary inflight Wi-Fi.
Pic: Qatar Airways A380 First Class Krug Champagne
Pic: Qatar Airways A380 First Class cabin seat 2E
Pic: Qatar Airways A380 First Class bathroom
Pic: Qatar Airways A380 First Class full flat bed
Pic: Bart at the Qatar A380 First & Business Class bar (May 2015)
Pic: British Airways A380 First Class Seat 3K
And then followed the worst First Class airline experience I ever had, British Airways A380 First from London to Los Angeles. At Heathrow Terminal 5, there was the horrible BA Concorde Room where you need to wait half an hour to use a shower which looks like a hospital bathroom, an Elemis Travel Spa which requires you to call 5 WEEKS in advance to book a 15-minute treatment and food you don’t want to even look at. Unfortunately there wasn’t much improvement after boarding the A380. The seat was ran down, cramped and had a tiny low resolution IFE screen. What made it even worse was the trash and stains from previous guests. I felt embarrassed for the purser announcing through the PA “Welcome to our brand new British Airways A380″ .
Pic: British Airways A380 First Class Seat 3K
Pic: British Airways A380 First Class Seat 3K
Pic: British Airways First Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle Champagne
Service and catering wasn’t spectacular either, so I decided to sleep until our arrival in Los Angeles.
Pic: British Airways A380 LHR LAX First Class full-flat bed
Surprisingly, Qatar Airways First Class was the most enjoyable experience out of my three A380 First Class flights. Etihad wasn’t bad, but didn’t manage to blow me away. British Airways is now on my ‘avoid’ list. Both Qatar and Etihad First Class can be booked extremely cheap using miles, so if you still have some American AAdvantage or Etihad Guest miles in your account, make sure to book now before the big devaluations kick in!
Pic: Sunrise Beach at Koh Lipe in Thailand (Jan 2015)
Pic: Thai Airways Royal Silk Business Class B777-300ER
Back in January, I booked a last minute side trip from Australia to Thailand. I used 80K LifeMiles to book Brisbane – Bangkok roundtrip in Thai Airways Royal Silk Business Class for a total cost of €1092. Revenue tickets started at €2800.
Pic: Rooftop Pool at Hotel Indigo Bangkok Wireless Road
For my stays in Bangkok, I booked two brand new IHG hotels. Before heading to Koh Lipe, I spent 3 nights at Holiday Inn Express Bangkok Sukhumvit 11 (room) at €43 per night. Upon my return from the island, I stayed two nights at Hotel Indigo Bangkok Wireless Road at €101 per night. Stays which earned me valuable credits for the IHG Set Your Sights promo.
Pic: King Deluxe Room at Hotel Indigo Bangkok Wireless Road
Pic: Rooftop pool at night, Hotel Indigo Bangkok Wireless Road
Pic: Idyllic Concept Resort at Sunrise Beach, Koh Lipe
Koh Lipe is located 70km off the west coast of Thailand’s most southwestern province Satun with Malaysian island Langkawi only 40km away. Getting to Koh Lipe is fairly easy these days, both AirAsia and NokAir offer tickets which combine flights, harbor transfers and ferries. I used NokAir (€84) to get to the island and AirAsia (€76) to return to Bangkok. Note: AirAsia and Nokair use different airports and harbors to get to Koh Lipe.
Pic: Longtail boat to Ko Adang Koh Lipe Thailand
Located just outside Tarutao National Marine Park, Koh Lipe is surrounded by uninhabited islands which you can visit by long-tail boat.
Pic: Beach at Ko Adang near Koh Lipe
Pic: Enjoying Ko Adang near Koh Lipe
Koh Lipe is easily circumnavigated by foot in less than an hour. There are no cars, only motorbike taxis which can take you to most places on the island for 50THB (€1,4). The island has 3 main beaches: Pattaya Beach in the south, Sunrise Beach in the east and Sunset Beach in the west. (Koh Lipe Map)
Pic: Pattaya Beach at Ko Lipe
I booked my accommodation on the island via Airbnb and stayed at Time To Chill. My recommendation would be, except for extreme high season, to only book your first night and shop around once you’re on the island. You can see the accommodation yourself and negotiate better rates by cutting the middleman.
Pic: Happy Vibe Beach Bar at Sunrise Beach, Koh Lipe
Pic: Lunch spot at Happy Vibe Beach Bar, Sunrise Beach, Koh Lipe
Ko Lipe is a destination to chill. Main activities are enjoying the beach, snorkeling / diving and visiting nearby islands.
Pic: Tiny people at Sunrise Beach, Koh Lipe
Pic: Serendipity Beach Resort Koh Lipe
Koh Lipe is another example of why I love Thailand so much. It’s an affordable, easy to travel to and incredibly beautiful vacation destination!
Pic: Sunset at Sunset Beach, Koh Lipe
Pictures: Sony DSC-RX100 MI & GoPro HERO4
UPDATE JUNE 2015: The €60 reduction offer has been replaced by €80 discount on Brussels Airlines tickets. You still get 12,000 bonus miles if you request the Brussels Airlines Premium American Express card via the form below.
Don’t have a Brussels Airlines American Express card yet? Lucky you! Until May 30th 2015, you get a €60 reduction on your first American Express annual fee! Combine this with the double sign-up bonus for friend referrals and you get an awesome deal.
Pic: Use your Miles & More miles to fly Lufthansa First Class like me!
Pic: Partially frozen Horseshoe Falls, Niagara Falls (Feb 2015)
Weekend trips can be so awesome! Friday morning, I flew Jet Airways from Brussels to Toronto for the weekend. Very reasonable travel times of 8h 45min for the outbound flight and only 6h 16m for the inbound flight thanks to the strong jet stream over the Atlantic.
Pic: Bart at Table Rock, Niagara Falls, Canada (Feb 2015)
My day trip to the Niagara Falls on Saturday was originally booked with BG tours, but as they didn’t have enough participants they rebooked me with King tours. At $67 Canadian dollars, the 9am till 6pm tour was excellent value. Glad I avoided renting a car and battling the 240km (roundtrip) of icy roads!
Pic: Breakfast at Early Bird, Toronto
Avoided the expensive hotel breakfast buffets and enjoyed a fantastic start of the day at Early Bird in the hip Queen Street West neighborhood.
Pic: King room at Trump Hotel Toronto
Friday night, I had booked Trump Toronto using HotelTonight, where even Donald Trump himself was expecting me! ;-)
Pic: Social media welcome amenity at Trump Toronto
Pic: The Moon & Toronto CN Tower
Another magic moment of my weekend in Toronto: blue hour at the famous CN Tower! It was the World’s tallest tower (553m) until the Burj Khalifa (Dubai) was finished in 2007.
Pic: View from the CN Tower in Toronto, Canada
Pic: Deluxe room at InterContinental Toronto Centre
On saturday night, I had a fantastic view from my deluxe room 2327 at the InterContinental Toronto Centre.
Pic: View from InterContinental Toronto Centre (Feb 2015)
Pic: CN Tower seen from InterContinental Toronto Centre
Pic: British Airways Galleries First at Heathrow Terminal 3
For my year end trip to Australia, I used 150K US Airways Dividend Miles which I bought for $1702 (€1288). I managed to buy these miles at 1.1 dollar cents during their fabulous 100% bonus on shared miles promos back in Oct 2013, Dec 2013 and Apr 2014. I paid an additional $370 (€285) in taxes and fees to book Amsterdam (AMS) – London Heathrow (LHR) – Dubai (DXB) – Melbourne (MEL) – Sydney (SYD) roundtrip with the long haul flights in First Class and short haul segments in Business Class. My total airfare was €1573 for a trip which could have been easily €8280 booked as revenue ticket!
Pic: Taittinger Prelude Champagne at BA Galleries First
After an uneventful British Airways Business Class flight from Amsterdam to London on Saturday afternoon, my Qantas Chauffeur drove me from Holiday Inn Express Heathrow T5 to Terminal 3 on Sunday morning. As Qantas First Class passenger, I had access to both the British Airways Galleries First Class lounge and the Emirates Business and First Class lounge.
Pic: Breakfast at the BA Galleries First Class Lounge
As expected, the service at the BA Galleries First Lounge was lacking. Nobody to welcome me at the First Class dining area, tables with stains and greasy spots, ages before someone took my order, etc… still a lot to improve British Airways!
Pic: No. 1 Traveller Lounge & Spa at LHR Terminal 3
As a Qantas First Class passenger, I was entitled to a 15 minute Spa treatment (menu) at the No. 1 Traveller Lounge & Spa . Fortunately, my ‘Fix It Massage’ session was a bit longer than the advertised 15 minutes. The therapist was friendly and professional, the treatment room rather small, as is the case with most airport spas.
Pic: Breakfast at the Emirates lounge, LHR Terminal 3
For my second breakfast, I visited the Emirates Business and First Class lounge at London Heathrow Terminal 3. The lounge didn’t have a separate area for First Class passengers, which gave it a less exclusive feel. However, the food and beverages buffets were quite extensive.
Pic: Qantas Airbus A380 Kangaroo
Around noon, it was time to board my flight QF10 from London to Melbourne (via Dubai). After reading a number of Qantas A380 First Class seating guides, I had selected seat 4A. The best seat in the house (3A) was already taken. The Qantas A380 First Class cabin is rather crowded with 14 suites, e.g. Lufthansa has 8 seats in First Class, but you can make it a bit more exclusive by selecting a seat in row A. Why? As a passenger in row A, you share the aisle with only 4 other passengers as there’s a divider between row A and F.
Pic: Qantas A380 First Class Seat 4A
Pic: Qantas A380 First Class Seat 4A
Pic: Qantas First Class Amuse Bouche and Taittinger Champagne
First Class flight attendant Alex welcomed me on board with a glass of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs 2000. The drinks menu read as follows: Champagne, wine, cold beverages and hot beverages.
Pic: 2000 Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs
Pic: Bart at A380 Qantas First Class London to Dubai
I didn’t have high expectations of the inflight catering, as Qantas doesn’t have a caviar service, something most other airlines offer in First Class. There were two menu’s for this 7 hour flight: a Tasting Menu and Lunch Menu. I went for the tasting menu of which the main course stood out: the Rockpool Bar and Grill style herb crumbed lamb cutlets with roasted carrots, cauliflower gratin, harissa and seeded mustard. It was one of the best lamb dishes I ever had… so delicious!
Pic: Sydney New Year’s Eve = seven tonnes of Fireworks! (Dec 2014)
After celebrating New Year’s Eve on Times Square in New York and at the Big Ben in London, Sydney was next. I flew Qantas First Class from London to Melbourne via Dubai and connected to Sydney in Qantas Business Class. (more on that later) As you might imagine, hotels were really expensive for NYE. Instead of paying 2813AUD (~€1986), I used 150K IHG Rewards Club points to book a Superior Cityside room for 3 nights at InterContinental Sydney. Another great points redemption! ;-)
Pic: View from InterContinental Sydney (Dec 2014)
Nope, that wasn’t the view from my room. I took this picture from the swimming pool at InterContinental Sydney. My room was facing city side and an upgrade to harbour view would have been 500AUD per night extra! Add another 1000AUD per night if you wanted Club Lounge access. Yup, New Year’s Eve prices are insane.
Pic: New Year’s Eve Welcome Amenity at InterContinental Sydney
Pic: The Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney (Dec 2014)
I started the last day of 2014 with a morning run at the fantastic Royal Botanic Gardens. The complete park was fenced off to ensure a safe New Year’s Eve celebration, but to my surprise, a security guard invited me in to enjoy my run in the park. Only a few other joggers were present in the park, which made enjoying its beauty a unique experience!
Pic: Sydney Opera House seen from The Royal Botanic Gardens
Pic: Jogging at The Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney (Dec 2014)
Pic: A.S.N. Warehouses, The Rocks, Sydney (Dec 2014)
When celebrating New Year’s Eve in Sydney, you want to watch the fireworks up-close. But you’re not alone, hundreds of thousands of spectators gather around the harbour with the same purpose. So what would be the best strategy to secure a good spot? After some research, I learned people started lining-up at the public viewing spots as early as 7am! After my 9 hour wait in the blistering cold on Times Square in 2010, I didn’t feel like a 16 hour tanning session at Sydney harbour. With a group of friends, it could be fun, but as I was traveling solo, I wanted a different solution. First alternative, buy a ticket for one of the vantage point parties. NYE Under the Stars was selling tickets at 395AUD (€277) to sit on the lawn. Park Hyatt Sydney charged 595AUD (€418) for their Rooftop Cocktail Party with limited Sydney Harbour Bridge views. After a few hours of reading blogs and forums, I learned the best opportunity was hiding in plain sight: Sydney Opera House! Turned out they were still selling tickets for their New Year’s Opera Gala Concert mid December. I ordered the cheapest ticket in the house (Choir row 2!) at 264AUD (€181). The ticket would give me access to the Opera Gala performance with a 9pm break to see the “family fireworks” and allow me to see the midnight fireworks from the Southern Foyers. The Opera’s Midnight Party, which required an additional ticket, was already sold out when I checked mid December. The extra benefit of the party was access to the Opera House Northern Foyers which have terraces providing 180 degree uninterrupted views of the Harbour Bridge and surroundings, free flow of drinks….and birds eye view on the Lord Mayor’s New Year’s Eve party!
Pic: Early morning spectators at Sydney Harbour bridge (Dec 2014)
I called the Sydney Opera House ticket desk on the morning of December 30th and boy was I excited to learn they had exactly 1 ticket left for the Midnight Party! Apparently a number of tickets get booked but not collected in due time and are released again. Add an additional 279AUD (€192) for the Midnight Party and my total for the night was 543AUD (€373)… an expensive night out in Sydney!
Pic: Ready for the Opera Gala Concert at the Sydney Opera House
Pic: New Year’s Eve Gala Opera at Sydney Opera House
Pic: New Year’s Eve Fireworks at Sydney Harbour Bridge
The Sydney Opera House Northern Foyers vantage point offered amazing views, but to be honest, my experience of the New Year’s Eve fireworks in London in 2012 was more intense. In fact, those were the most spectacular fireworks I ever witnessed.
Pic: New Year’s Eve Fireworks seen from Sydney Opera House
Pic: New Year’s Eve Fireworks Sydney Harbour Bridge (Jan 2015)
Pic: New Year’s Day started at this beautiful villa at Point Piper
Aron, an Australian friend of mine whom I got to know at the Athens 2004 Olympics, invited me to join him and his friends for some boating at the Sydney harbour on New Year’s Day.
Pic: Boating in Sydney – Paul Allen’s Super Yacht ‘Octopus’ (Jan 2015)
Also present was Microsoft’s co-founder Paul Allen with his super yacht Octopus.
Pic: A packed Milk Beach on New Year’s Day in Sydney (Jan 2015)
Pic: Enjoying the views on Sydney accompanied by Christine (Jan 2015)
Thanks for the awesome day on the water Aron, Adrian, Josh, Christine & friends!
Pic: The World famous Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House
Thanks to my Etihad Guest Gold status and a Double Miles offer, my Air Berlin & Etihad Business Class trip to Jakarta earned me an amazing 46,050 Etihad Guest miles! This included 34.402 Guest Tier Miles which is only 5598 miles short of requalification for the Eithad Guest Gold tier!
Excited by the high number of miles earned, I started browsing Etihad’s award availability for their newest product, the A380, which will start serving the Abu Dhabi – London route as of December 27, 2014. As expected, astronomical amounts of miles were required to book The Residence. For the first half of 2015, First Class Apartments were only available at First Suite Saver level requiring more than four hundred thousand miles. Yes, 400000! And then this happened…
For whatever reason, it was possible to book the new Etihad A380 First Class Apartments at Guest First award level for flights on Saturday October 10, 2015. Other days in 2015 required more than 400,000 miles to book the same seat! With 13,453 miles from my Etihad Business Class flight back in 2012, my total Etihad Guest balance was 59,503 miles. Enough for this amazing award redemption. I didn’t hesitate and booked immediately. There was Guest First availability in both directions, but I selected the AUH-LHR flight as its air time is 50 minutes longer. Taxes were also lower for departures from Abu Dhabi, 80 AED (€17) compared to 190 GBP (€240) from London. The revenue fare for my flight was €4813 ($5955).
As Etihad Guest miles seemed to be quite valuable, I opted for the Miles + Cash option which allowed me to buy an extra 13,935 miles for 460,69 AED (€102) during the booking process. Afterwards, I also noticed there was a promotion for Etihad Guest redemptions until Dec 10, 2014 which would refund 25% of the redeemed miles after the actual flight! What a deal! Let’s hope Etihad doesn’t delay its A380 services any longer, fingers crossed!
Pic: The Lobby, Upper Deck, Etihad Airways A380
Key success factors for amazing redemptions:
Pictures & Video: Etihad Airways