How We Booked Our Anniversary Trip to Dubai and the Maldives Using Points & Miles

My wife and I just celebrated our second wedding anniversary (11 years together in total if you can believe that!) and per our tradition, we decided to spend it in some exotic locations halfway around the world. For our honeymoon two years ago, we spent 8 nights in Moorea/Bora Bora and last year for our first anniversary, we went to Bali and Phuket. While it is getting decidedly tougher to keep topping our previous honeymoon/anniversary trips, this trip was probably our favorite yet. Here is how I booked this amazing trip to Dubai and the Maldives using points & miles.

Booking our Flights:

To Dubai/Maldives:

For this special trip, I knew I wanted to fly either business or first class and in particular there was one product I really wanted to try – Emirates First Class. The most feasible way to book this is with Alaskan Airlines miles and one huge perk of the Alaska program is a free stopover, even on one-way awards. As such, since I wanted to stop in Dubai on my way to the Maldives, it made the most sense to book an award from JFK to Dubai (stopover for 2 nights) then onward to the Maldives.

Emirates First Class

Shower for First Class Passengers

Shower for First Class Passengers

The cost for this award is 90,000 Alaska miles per person one-way and as stated, whether I flew NY to Maldives or NY-Dubai (stopover)-Maldives the cost is the same. The flight from JFK to Dubai was on the flagship A380 which has showers for first class passengers. The flight from Dubai to Male was supposed to be operated a Boeing 777 with older first class seats (no suite) but 3 days before the flight, the equipment was changed to a 777-300ER which meant a first class suite for the short 4 hour flight!

Can't beat this for a 4 hour flight!

Can’t beat this for a 4 hour flight!

To get these miles, I’ve been churning Bank of America Alaska Airline cards for a while now and to supplement the remaining amount needed, I transferred some SPG points to Alaska. I couldn’t book this award online with the stopover but calling Alaska Airlines was a piece of cake and this award was booked in no time over the phone.

Home from the Maldives:

I didn’t have anymore Alaska miles (otherwise I would have tried to route home on Emirates First Class again) so I turned to another Middle Eastern carrier and booked a first class award on Etihad. The final routing was simply Male-Abu Dhabi-JFK. While not as flashy as Emirates, Etihad offers a very solid first class product with a enclosed suite but alas no showers #firstworldproblems.

Etihad First Class Suite

Etihad First Class Suite

The two center seats in the photo above were our seats for the 14 hour flight from Abu Dhabi to JFK but for the Male to Abu Dhabi leg, Etihad only flies an narrow body Airbus A320 which was kind of a disappointment compared to all the other flights on this trip (Maldivian flights notwithstanding) but it was perfectly fine for the 4 hour flight.

The best way to book Etihad flights is with American Airlines miles and to book this first class flight home the cost was 90,000 miles one way per person. Unfortunately with AA’s announced devaluation, this award will increase to a staggering 115,000 miles one way which will be the second most expensive award on the AA award chart (the highest will be first class to Africa for 120,000 miles one way).

Booking our Hotels:

Dubai:

We stayed a total of 2 nights in Dubai but it was really just one full day as we landed around 8pm on a Friday night and our flight to the Maldives left early Sunday morning. My goal for Dubai was to use some expiring free night certificates from the Hyatt credit card, which allows you to book a category 1 -4 hotel for free. In Dubai, there are several Hyatt hotels in categories 1-4 so we chose the nicest which in my opinion which was the Grand Hyatt Dubai.

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Welcome Gift

Grand Hyatt Dubai

Grand Hyatt Dubai, courtesy of Hyatt

As you probably know, you only get 1 free night certificate per year for renewing the Hyatt credit card but I shared a trick/tip on how to extend the expiration date of a Hyatt free night certificate here. By extending it, I was able to use last year’s certificate which was due to expire in September 2015 PLUS this year’s free night certificate to cover my two nights. Rooms generally go for $200-$300 a night but we actually got upgraded to a deluxe room so the $75 annual fee for renewing the Hyatt card was well worth it!

Maldives:

I would argue there are only two realistic hotels to use points at in the Maldives – The Conrad and the Park Hyatt. Yes there are others but they are either insanely expensive with points (W, St Regis) or get awful reviews (Holiday Inn, Sheraton). The Conrad Maldives cost points 95,000 points a night while the Park Hyatt Maldives is 25,000 points per night. Based on our point balances, the easy call was to go for the Park Hyatt Maldives.

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Our OW Villa – Number 48

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Another shot of Villa 48

About 10 months before the trip, I had my wife apply for the Hyatt credit card which gives you 2 free nights at any Hyatt in the world. Arguably, this is one of the best redemption for these free nights as nights generally go for over $1,000/night here. Those free night certificates covered the first 2 nights while the remaining 4 nights (we stayed 6 nights total) I used my Hyatt points which I transferred in from Chase Ultimate Rewards.

It is important to note that these free nights only book into the land villas which are still fantastic, huge villas that offer a direct path to the beach. However, we traveled all this way and  I could not resist upgrading to an overwater villa for a few nights. This paid upgrade cost $400/night but was totally worth it. We also tried out a land villa with a private pool which I will discuss more in the trip report to follow over the next few weeks.

In short, this was probably our favorite trip we’ve ever taken as we got expierence a true first class experience on Emirates and Etihad and the natural beatuy of the Maldives. The stopover in Dubai was great for 2 nights to break up the trip and I think it is worth seeing Dubai but not for more than 2 nights. We used a total of 180,000 Alaska miles, 180,000 AA miles, 2 Hyatt Free Night Certificates, 2 Hyatt Anniversary Free Night Certificates and 100,000 Hyatt points. To think this trip would easily cost over $30,000 and we did it for almost nothing with points and miles is simply amazing to me, even after all these years. 

Full trip report to follow with tons of pictures!

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Long Weekend in San Juan, Puerto Rico Trip Report – Activities & Dining – Old San Juan

1) Introduction
2) Flights: American Airlines Business Class JFK – SJU & American Airlines Economy Class SJU – JFK
3) Hotel: Courtyard Marriott Isla Verde
4) Activities & Dining – Old San Juan

As I mentioned in the hotel review, the Courtyard Marriott Isla Verde is close to the airport but not too far from Old San Juan, which was about a 15 minute cab ride. On Saturday evening, we decided to head down to Old San Juan for drinks and dinner. The hotel was able to call a cab for us and the 15-20 minute ride cost $21 dollars for the two us.

We didn’t go in with any set plans other than dinner at 7:30 – we planned to just walk around, maybe a find a bar at first and kill time people watching. Little did we know, there was a weekend festival that was going on and the cab driver mentioned to us he couldn’t take us to the heart of Old San Juan and would have to drop us off a few blocks away.  No matter as it was actually a nice night to walk around and we quickly saw several streets closed with people everywhere. It turns out the festival was the SOFO Culinary Fest which was from August 14 – 17 and involved many street vendors selling all types of food, drinks and other goodies.

We quickly found someone making mixed drinks in freshly cut pineapples so I had to get Andrea one. I think it was a pina colada but I don’t quite remember. The best part about the festival was that open container laws were waived so we take our drink to walk around and check out the rest of the festival. There was live music on several street corners and with the weather being perfect, there was a great atmosphere in the streets.

Andrea with her drink

Andrea with her drink

After walking around for a while, it was time for our dinner reservation at Marmalade which is ranked as the #1 restaurant in San Juan on Trip Advisor. It didn’t disappoint. The interior has a very unique vibe that I can’t quite put my finger on – maybe a modern setup influenced with Middle Eastern themes. The photo doesn’t do the place justice but it was on the most unique dining atmosphere for me in a while.

marmalade

They have a very eclectic drink menu and of course, we had to try something off it. I had the Global Warming, complete with chilies in my drink, while Andrea tried the Jimi Hendrick’s. The waiter recommended drinking my drink quickly as it “heats up” the longer you let it sit.

menu - Copy drink2 - Copy Drink

The food was excellent and they had several creative takes on food. For example, we ordered Popcorn Shrimp as an app but their take on it included laying grilled shrimp on a bed of spice-crusted popcorn (yes actual popcorn). Unfortunately I forgot to take a picture but it was delicious. That was followed by their signature white bean soup, which had truffle oil and pancetta dust in it. For our main courses, I had the pork belly with a black bean puree while Andrea had the spaghetti squash which looked nothing you’d like expect (again we were so hungry we forgot to take photos). Both dishes were quite unique and very different from what we normally have.

After dinner, we walked around and enjoyed the live music playing in the streets. When we eventually got tired of it, we took a cab back to the Courtyard Marriott which came to $20. For the rest of the trip, we didn’t do too much other than relax by the pool and beach. We wanted to relax and that was the perfect remedy for us. One night, we did walk from the hotel to the convenience store to pickup a few things and passed by a cockfighting arena. We obviously didn’t partake but found it interesting.

cockfight - Copy

In all, this was a successful, short 3 night getaway to Puerto Rico that allowed us to explore Old San Juan for the first time. We had some amazing food and drinks and I wouldn’t hesitate to go back for another long weekend.

The Second Surprise Destination is Phuket, Thailand!

We just got off our Bali to Bangkok flight on Thai Airways and are currently waiting in the Royal Silk lounge for our flight to the final surprise destination – Phuket, Thailand! I can say with certainly my first surprise destination on this trip of Bali, Indonesia was a GREAT success!

We will be spending 3 nights at the Le Meridien Phuket (should have been 4 nights but thanks to a Thai Airways schedule change it is now only 3) which is one of the few resorts that has a “private beach”. In Phuket, all beaches are public but due to the location of the Le Meridien, the beach is walled off by nature on each side so its acts as a private beach for hotel guests.

Even though we only have 3 days in Phuket, we plan to make the most of them with a day trip to Phang Nga and an opportunity to see the famous James Bond Island from the movie The Man with the Golden Gun. We will also see some cute baby elephants, which Andrea is beyond excited for.

As I suggested in my last post, make sure you are tuned in to my Twitter and Instagram accounts for pictures of our adventures. There are some great shots of Bali but you can expect a full trip report covering flights, hotels and activities on the blog when we return.

Le-meridien-Phuket

Le Meridien Phuket

JamesBondIsland

James Bond Island

phuketbeach

Phuket Beaches

 

Long Weekend in San Juan, Puerto Trip Report – Courtyard Marriott Isla Verde

1) Introduction
2) Flights: American Airlines Business Class JFK – SJU & American Airlines Economy Class SJU – JFK
3) Hotel: Courtyard Marriott Isla Verde
4) Activities & Dining

As mentioned in the introduction, this was actually my second stay at the Courtyard Marriott Isla Verde. The first time we stayed there was way back in 2008 on my first ever trip out of the continental United States (I’ve come a long ways now) and we had quite an enjoyable stay. Looking for hotels on this trip to San Juan, we wanted a hotel right on the beach and was close to the airport to minimize our driving time.

Many hotels of the hotels we were considering were ranging from $135/night to $225/night, including the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris CasinoInterContinental Hotel San Juan and the Courtyard Marriott Isla Verde.  Points for these hotels ranged from 35,000 to 50,000 a night but with cash rates so low for the hotels, it didn’t make sense to redeem points for our stay. Instead, I had a $500 Marriott Gift Card I purchased for 19% off (for a total of $405) during the American Express Daily Getaways, so my preference was for a Marriott hotel. In the end, we went with the cheaper option at $135/night for the Courtyard Marriott Isla Verde.

View From Our Balcony

View From Our Balcony

In doing some research on the hotel, I noticed it was undergoing a renovation in which rooms on the top few floors were completely renovated while the middle to bottom floors remained untouched. About a week prior to our stay, I emailed the hotel requesting a newly renovated room and they responded they would do their best but could not guarantee it. Our flight landed around 9:30pm, and since the hotel is only a 5-7 minute drive from the airport, we were at the hotel around 9:50pm after making our way out of the airport and finding a taxi.

Upon walking in to the lobby, the check-in area was deserted (not surprising considering it was almost 10pm) but an agent quickly checked us in without any issues. We were assigned a partial ocean view room on the 8th floor, but as you can see in the picture above, the partial ocean view was actually quite nice and not just some small sliver of the ocean. Our room also happened to be a newly renovated room and you could tell what a difference that made as everything was brand new with no marks, scuffs or scratches anywhere on the furniture.

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The room was modestly sized but had some character to it with the painted wall behind the bed and new wood cabinetry and furniture throughout the room. It was well designed, as the TV could swivel out depending whether you were on the couch or the bed and the mini-fridge could actually hold several large bottles of water and snacks. I forgot to take a picture of it but the room opened up to a nice balcony outside which had a small table and two chairs. Each morning, we would run downstairs to the little coffee shop in the lobby and come back to our room to have breakfast on our balcony.

Our favorite part of the hotel was the wide stretch of white, sandy beach right behind the hotel. As I stated in the introduction to this trip report, I think the beach here is nicer than the beach in front of the Ritz-Carlton. My reasoning behind it is even though it is the same stretch of beach (you can just make out the blue cluster of Ritz Carlton chairs in the top photo), the beach gets much narrower by the Ritz and the cluster of chairs makes the beach feel much smaller. Additionally, there are large apartment complexes or hotels on each side of the Ritz, crowding the beach even further, while the Courtyard Marriott Isla Verde is the last hotel on the strip and has a lot more privacy. Each morning, you could walk down to the beach and helpful hotel employees would set up an umbrella and chairs wherever you liked on the beach.

In addition to the umbrella and chair setup, their was food and drink service on the beach which is something that was non-existent the last time we went 6 years ago. Service was generally good though it sometimes took a while to get a drink since they came from the pool bar which was usually crowded. Speaking of the pool, it felt like a standard hotel swimming pool with a nice swim-up bar but the pool was always too crowded for our liking. The food and drinks from the pool bar were good with frozen cocktails averaging $8-$10 a drink and sandwiches/burgers/salads ranging from $10-$12 at lunch. I’m not sure what the prices are at the Ritz down the beach but I guarantee they are much higher than those prices.

Puerto Rico 039 Puerto Rico 044

 

There were also several other features of the hotel we didn’t get to experience including the fitness center which was large and overlooked the pool area. We didn’t have an opportunity to eat dinner at the hotel but we noticed on Sundays, they had a Puerto Rican dinner buffet complete with a whole roasted pig. There was also a small casino inside the hotel (right off the lobby) that had several blackjack, roulette, and craps tables in addition to tons of slots machines.

For a long weekend of 3 nights, I think at this price point (<$150 night), this hotel can’t be beat. It’s close to the airport yet only 15 minutes from Old San Juan (stay tuned for the next post in this series) and has a great beach which is definitely the highlight of this hotel. The renovated rooms are nice though I’m sure I would have been disappointed with a non-renovated room as they are probably still the same room we had 6 years ago. The staff is generally friendly and the drinks/food at the pool bar were good especially when they could be delivered to your beach chairs for no additional fee.

Feel free to ask me any questions about this hotel, I’d be happy to answer them. I’ve included a few additional photos of our room and the grounds.

 

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Long Weekend in San Juan, Puerto Rico Trip Report – Flights

1) Introduction
2) Flights: American Airlines Business Class JFK – SJU & American Airlines Economy Class SJU – JFK
3) Hotel: Courtyard Marriott Isla Verde
4) Activities & Dining

I’ll start by covering our outbound flights to San Juan, for which we redeemed 20,000 British Airways Avios per person for Business class seats. I actually already wrote an Award Trip Breakdown post on the flights here but to summarize, I had the option to use Avios at a rate of 10,000 Avios per person for economy or 20,000 Avios for business. I wanted to start off our long weekend in style so I opted to burn the extra Avios for business class. And that is where I think I made a mistake.

I chose business class primarily due to the fact I literally have millions of points/miles and with them constantly devaluing, it made sense to me to start burning through some of them. I could “afford” the extra cost in miles and I would be able to have a little more comfort in a bigger seat, be able to enjoy a meal during dinnertime (since the flight was 5:30pm to 9:30pm) and some free drinks.

I knew American flew older 757’s on these routes and our seats definitely showed the age of the aircraft. As you can see in the photos below, our business class seats were straight out of the 1970s (which might have been when this plane was put into service). It was literally just a slightly bigger seat with limited recline and no in-seat entertainment. Seriously when was the last time you saw a business class seat on a mainstream jet without a personal TV? Better yet the overhead TV in business class wasn’t functioning properly with lines running throughout the picture and the color just non-existent (Andrea actually though the movie was in black & white).

AA2 AA3

 

The hard feature of the flight (seat, entertainment) were a letdown but the soft product (food, service) was pretty good. With American Airlines, you can pre-order your dinner up to 30 days in advance of your flight if you are confirmed in business or first class. I chose the chicken dish which came with a cocktail shrimp appetizer, salad, and bread. Andrea had the pasta dish (sorry I forgot to take a photo of it) but both dishes were perfectly edible and filing for us as our dinner. For dessert, we had ice cream sundaes and another round of drinks. The purser in business class was excellent, constantly offering to bring new drinks and generally was very proactive in his service.

AA1 AA

 

For the return flight back to NY, I’ve already mentioned the lack of award availability for the flights we desired since we wanted to spend all day Sunday at the beach. Since we were “paying” for this flight with American Airlines gift cards, we were limited to economy seats that cost $208.50 each, quite steep for a one-way since I have seen roundtrip flights from NY to Puerto Rico under $240. However, we are American Express Platinum card holders and each calendar year we are entitled to a $200 airline credit, so our flights only cost us $8.50 each out of pocket.

I’ll keep this part short since the return flight in economy was uneventful and everyone knows what an economy flight is like. Thankfully we had priority boarding (due to the Citi Executive card) as the overhead bins filled up quite rapidly. We were in row 29 and AA’s 757 have about 31 inches of seat pitch, making it kind of tight for a 6’3” guy like myself. Again, no seatback entertainment but I caught up on some work for the blog and the 3.5 hour flight passed smoothly enough. One mild surprise? The flight attendant gave us the whole can of soda (yes I know I’m stretching for something exciting on this flight).

So to summarize the flights, was business class a better experience than economy? No doubt. But was it worth the extra 10,000 Avios per person which conservatively is valued at $150-$200 dollars per person? That’s where its a bit tougher and I’m leaning towards no. Yes, the meal and drinks were a nice touch but I had ample time to eat before my flight and I wouldn’t have paid for any drinks in the airport. The seat was marginally better but definitely not worth it as it was the worst business class seat I’ve ever seen.

For this short flight I was probably better off saving 10,000 miles to sit in economy. This is especially true for those out there who are just beginning in this game of ours or have smaller mileage balances. Those 10,000 miles could get you a roundtrip NY to Boston flight as I described here. Or it could have covered my return flight home if there was award availability. For shorter flights (under 4 hours), I won’t be redeeming miles for business class unless I have an overly compelling reason to, such as to try a premium product or a shorter red eye where a better seat does go a long way.