Trip Report

2

In May, I visited the Sala VIP Pau Casals at Barcelona Airport. In August, I visited the very similar Sala VIP Miro. Here’s what you can expect from these Priority Pass lounges that you can enter for free with a Chase Sapphire Reserve, Citi Prestige, or American Express Platinum Card.

The Sala VIP Pau Casals is available to passengers flying within the Schengen Area, and the Sala VIP Miro is after passport control for passengers leaving the Schengen Area.

Both offer a comfortable place to sit, free wifi, enough food for a meal, and free alcohol. Additionally, the Sala VIP Pau Casals offers day beds for naps.

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The lounges have a similar motif with lots of wood, leather, and glass.

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I was in the Sala VIP Pau Casals before a 7 AM flight, and it offered breakfast options…
screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-39-46-pm screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-39-58-pm screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-40-05-pm …like toast…screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-40-13-pm …breads, jams, cheese, cold cuts…screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-40-19-pm …pastries…screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-40-33-pm …cereals…screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-40-39-pm ….yogurt…screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-40-51-pm …and juice.

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-40-56-pm I was in the Sala VIP Miro before a 9 PM flight, and I had a dinner of cold cut sandwiches and Spanish tortilla.screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-41-04-pmAt dinner time, there are pastries…
screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-41-31-pmtortilla (Spanish potato omelet)…screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-41-35-pm …chips and olives…screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-41-41-pm …salami, ham, prosciutto, and cheese sandwiches…screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-41-54-pm screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-41-59-pm…cut up fruit, and pasta salad.

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-42-18-pmThere is also a selection of juices…screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-42-08-pm

…wine…

screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-41-10-pmscreen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-41-17-pm…and liquor.screen-shot-2016-09-10-at-8-41-24-pmIn both lounges, I passed the time before my flight more comfortably than I would have at the gate while working on the free wifi. At both lounges, I ate and drank my fill, saving the cost of a meal.

These lounge experiences were average. They are far worse than the best International First Class lounges like the Etihad Lounge in Abu Dhabi, but they are better than standard domestic airline lounges like United Clubs and certainly better than waiting at the gate.

Get Into Priority Class Lounges for Free

The Chase Sapphire Reserve, Citi Prestige, and Amex Platinum all offer free Priority Pass membership.

Priority Pass is the world’s largest independent airport lounge access program with free access to 900+ lounges worldwide.

Getting Priority Pass Membership

  • If you have a Chase Sapphire Reserve, you have to request your free Priority Pass membership on chase.com with a few clicks.
  • If you have a Citi Prestige, you’re automatically enrolled in Priority Pass and your membership card arrives a few days after you get your Prestige.
  • If you have an Amex Platinum, you have to make a few clicks online to enroll in Priority Pass.

I’ve been in a few dozen Priority Pass lounges around the world. They vary in quality, but you can always count on free drinks, snacks, and wifi, and you can usually cobble together a meal with a glass of wine or a cocktail.

Guest Access

The Amex Platinum Card’s Priority Pass membership doesn’t include free guests. You pay $27 per guest. The Citi Prestige’s Priority Pass membership lets you bring two free guests or your spouse and children under 18 into Priority Pass lounges with you for free.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve is better than either. It allows unlimited free guests. It is also the best card of the three because of its 100,000 point sign up bonus and $600 in statement credits to offset travel purchases you make in the first 12 months you have the card.

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with 100,000 bonus Ultimate Rewards after spending $4,000 in the first three months that you can transfer to United miles, Singapore miles, Southwest points, British Airways miles, or use for 1.5 cents each toward any flight, hotel, or car rentals.

Plus the card offers $300 in credits toward any travel purchase each calendar year, which is $600 in your first 12 months of cardmembership, $100 toward Global Entry, and worldwide lounge access. Basically it's the best credit card ever, even with a $450 annual fee.

cc-reward-320x50

13

In July, I jumped around the Balkans, seeing:

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  • Kotor, Montenegro
  • Dubrovnik, Croatia
  • Mostar & Sarajevo, Bosnia

The Route

I’ve spent all summer in ex-Yugoslavia other than a quick trip to Spain. The plan has been to learn the Serbo-Croatian language. I wanted to switch bases from Belgrade to Zagreb via an efficient route that would let me see more of ex-Yugoslavia.

Eventually I settled on flying from Belgrade to Tivat, Montenegro and bussing the rest of the way to Zagreb with stops every few hours along the route. Tivat Airport has seasonal service all across Europe with a heavy emphasis on Russia. It serves all the beaches of Montenegro, including Budva and Kotor.

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In Montenegro, I went to Kotor, which has an inferior beach, because the city is prettier and less overrun by Russian tourists than Budva. From there, I took a three hour bus to Dubrovnik, possibly my favorite place in the world. From there, I was a four hour bus from Mostar, which is one of the most terribly divided cities in the world but surrounded by incredible beauty, and four more hours to Sarajevo, which is a capital city unlike any other I’ve seen in Europe.

I had planned to continue by bus to Banja Luka, de facto capital of the Republika Srpska country-within-a-country-that-is-Bosnia and from there to Zagreb, Croatia, but I had to get to Zagreb sooner than expected, so I just flew from Sarajevo.

I could have gone from Dubrovnik to Hvar Island and from there to Split in the middle of the trip. Split also has good bus service to Mostar. I would like to at least get to Split in the future, but after Kotor and Dubrovnik, I was sick of the beach/tourist party scene already, so I skipped Hvar and Split.

Kotor

From Tivat Airport, I paid 8 or 9 euros–the currency in Montenegro even though the country is not in the Euro Zone, kind of like Panama, Ecuador, and El Salvador use the US dollar–to Kotor. That is a rip off for this part of the world, but it took about 15 minutes of cajoling the taxi drivers by hanging around their stand and keeping a positive attitude to get them down from the 15 or 20 euros where they started.

I stayed at Montenegro Hostel 4U, which was under 20 euros for a dorm bed even in high season. It has a good location 5 minutes walking from Old Town and right on the beach.

The two main things I did in two days in Kotor were to hike the back way up to St. John’s Fortress and cruise Kotor Bay.

St. John’s Fortress: Fun Hike, Amazing Views

Following a tip from the Blonde Gypsy, an American travel blogger based in Kosovo who travels the Balkans widely, I took the back way up to Kotor’s number one attraction.

The main hike up to St. John’s Fortress leaves from the Old Town and is a giant staircase, 1,350 steps and 400 meters up.

By contrast, the Austro-Hungarian route the Blonde Gypsy recommends is a winding path past an old church and farms that meets up with the main path by climbing through a stone window.

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The back way has several benefits:

  1. It’s an easier, though longer, walk than the staircase.
  2. If you go up the back way and down the main staircase, you get two sets of views.
  3. In the morning, the back way is more shaded. Neither way is shaded in the afternoon.
  4. The back way is free. The front way requires a payment at the entrance (under 5 euros.)

The back way is mostly an obvious path.

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The trail is also marked by concentric white and red circle symbols.

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After passing a donkey, a homemade cheese-buying opportunity, and the ruins of a stone church, I had to climb through a window to rejoin the main path.

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From the main path, I had spectacular views of Old Town and Kotor Bay.

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I couldn’t recommend this hike more highly. It took me under an hour and a half roundtrip including frequent breaks for pictures. Go up the back way and down the steps. Go in either early morning or late afternoon to avoid the heat.

The back way starts just outside the city walls near the Northern Gate. As you exit the Northern Gate, cross two bridges, turn right at the main road, and follow it to the end where a dirt path continues. That’s your path.

Kotor Bay Cruise: A cheap way to see the Bay, Islands, and Perast

I paid 15 euros for a morning boat cruise of Kotor Bay that stopped briefly at Our Lady of the Rocks Island and the town of Perast.

screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-20-18-pm The island’s church and the town are cute and worth a look if you’re in the area. The cruise gets you there cheaply.screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-20-25-pm

Touts for the cruise hang out at right by the tourist information booth outside the Old Town’s main gate.

Thoughts on Kotor

It has rocky beaches, not sandy beaches. If you’re there when a behemoth cruise line empties out for the day, the Old Town is crazy crowded. It has made the conscious decision to strangle nightlife with 1 AM closings in the Old Town.

Overall, I think it is a good alternative to Dubrovnik. It isn’t quite as nice, but it’s half the price.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

I had been to Dubrovnik twice for 23 hour layovers on previous Europe-hopping itineraries. I knew that the cliffs beneath Buža Bar were one of my favorite places in the world, and I wanted to see more of the town and area.screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-20-46-pm But between a language lesson, two cliff jumping sessions, a nap, and going out every day, I didn’t see everything I wanted to. More for the next trip!

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Dubrovnik’s Old Town is stunningly beautiful, and I treated myself to a weeklong Airbnb stay there for my birthday. (I saved big on the stay with this booking method.)

I did walk the City Walls one day, which costs about $20 and takes an hour or two depending on how many stops you want to make. The views of Old Town, the harbor, the cliffs, the sea, and the islands are marvelous.
screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-21-04-pm screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-21-12-pm screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-21-29-pm screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-21-36-pm My birthday coincided with a fireworks show that was part of the summerlong Dubrovnik Summer Festival.
screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-22-07-pm The bottom line on Dubrovnik is that it looks like this,screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-22-17-pm so everything is insanely expensive, easily double the rest of the of Croatia. You pay first-world tourist prices.
screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-22-24-pmAnd I, one of the biggest cheapskates I know, still think that Dubrovnik is worth a trip. However I recommend going late in September, maybe even the beginning of October. The water temperature is the same as July but accommodation prices drop by half. There are also far fewer tourists. For additional savings, you can self-cater at the Konzum grocery store in old town and save on alcohol there.

I’m following my own advice for savings and going back to Dubrovnik this month for a few days. It’s just $100 roundtrip from Zagreb. Hopefully I can report on Korčula, Lokrum, and Mt. Srđ after this trip.

Mostar, Bosnia

You will not believe a city like this exists in present-day Europe. Mostar is a city ravaged by war from 1992-1994 that has only been partially rebuilt and is still completely segregated between “races” you can’t distinguish.

Mostar is most famous for its Stari Most, meaning “old bridge”, which is a misnomer. It was 427 years old until it was destroyed in the 1990s. It has been rebuilt, and you can jump off of it or watch locals do the same, but I was too chicken to jump 25 meters into the ice cold river below.

I stayed at Hostel Majdas, a small family run hostel with beds for 10 euros. The main draw here is the daylong tour of Mostar and Herzegovina. One of the owners ferries you through the city to see the war ruins, then takes you to Kravice Waterfalls, and the old towns of Pocitelj and Blagaj.

screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-22-38-pm screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-22-44-pm screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-22-53-pm screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-23-01-pm screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-23-37-pm screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-23-28-pm screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-23-20-pm screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-23-08-pm

You see quite a lot of natural beauty, eat like a king, try some homemade syrup juices from a local grandma, and learn some disturbing things about the Bosnian War and current Mostar. Example: Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims are in separate schools learning separate histories, which seems like a recipe for another war to me.

I highly recommend two days in Mostar and taking a tour like the one I took.

Tip: One euro is worth about 1.95 Bosnian Marks, but merchants in Mostar will treat euros as being worth 2 marks, so you actually save 2.5% on everything by using a foreign currency. This was not the case in Sarajevo.

Sarajevo, Bosnia

Sarajevo is an interesting capital city for history and culture.
screen-shot-2016-09-09-at-7-23-46-pmThis is the place Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which plunged the world into World War 1.

Twenty years ago, the city was just coming out of a four-year siege. For war history, I enjoyed the Tunnel Museum (the Bosnian Muslims endured the siege because of a tunnel under the airport runway) and the 11/07/1995 Gallery.

For older history, I enjoyed walking to the Yellow Bastion overlooking the old town.

Sarajevo has good food if you like ground beef. I recommend Ćevabdžinica Zeljo for Ćevapi, the ground beef fingers served with bread and cheese that is enjoyed throughout ex-Yugoslavia.

Bosnia will blow your mind. It’s not what you think of when you think of Europe. It’s much cheaper, poorer, and more battle-scarred. I really enjoyed my time here.

I’ll do you a favor and not explain my understanding of the history of the conflicts in Bosnia if you do yourself a favor and read up on the Bosnian War on Wikipedia and then book yourself a trip there.
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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with 100,000 bonus Ultimate Rewards after spending $4,000 in the first three months that you can transfer to United miles, Singapore miles, Southwest points, British Airways miles, or use for 1.5 cents each toward any flight, hotel, or car rentals.

Plus the card offers $300 in credits toward any travel purchase each calendar year, which is $600 in your first 12 months of cardmembership, $100 toward Global Entry, and worldwide lounge access. Basically it's the best credit card ever, even with a $450 annual fee.

cc-reward-320x50

17
SONY DSC

I originally wrote this series in 2012.  As it has turned out to be quite popular, I am in the process of updating it to reflect current information for 2016.

“Top 10 Things to Do, See, and Eat in Peru” Series Index

Narrowing Peru down to just ten things to do, see, and eat doesn’t do it justice. Sure people say that about every country, but Peru really is unique. The seat of the Inca Empire and its attendant marvelous ruins, the country also boasts the Amazon Rainforest, the world’s highest navigable lake, deserts, beaches, and a mega-city in a country twice the size of Texas.

Honorable Mentions

Hike the Inca Trails in Cajamarca

The northern city, way off the beaten path, where the Inca Empire ended, Cajamarca was the site of the battle where Pizarro and 168 men defeated 80,000 Incas and captured their king. In the city, you can see the ransom room where Atahualpa was held until his people filled it with gold and twice with silver. Atahualpa was then killed. The few museums and ransom room might hold your attention for a day.

But for me the star of the area is the miles and miles of Inca trails heading in every direction. Get a good guide to take you for a day or two of hiking. You’ll learn about the ancient culture that spread across western South America, and you’ll pass tiny towns of just a few houses surrounding a lake. My day strolling along the Inca trails around Cajamarca was one of the most fun days in Peru.

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Photo by Carlos Daniel Gomero Correa

Getting there: 4,500 Avios and a few dollars tax each way on LATAM from Lima to Cajamarca (CJA)

Hotels: There is the Wyndham Costa del Sol Cajamarca which is ranked first on TripAdvisor. Apart from the Wyndham, there are many independent, smaller hotels to choose from, like Posada del Puruay which has a 9.3 rating on booking.com and is second place for the Cajamarca area just behind the Wyndham on TripAdvisor.

Time needed to visit: 2 days

Try Pisco in the Desert

Just a few hours south of Lima by bus are a trio of interesting cities: Nazca, Ica, and Pisco.

Nazca is home to the Nazca Lines, geoglyphs dating to the 5th century. The lines are best viewed by a short flight in a tiny plane over the animals and other shapes etched into the desert.

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Photo by ilkerender

Ica is home to Peru’s vineyards. They churn out wine and Peru’s national drink, pisco, which is a grape brandy. Seriously– don’t make jokes that pisco is Chilean. Anything bearing the name pisco but not produced in Peru cannot be legally brought into Peru.

Tour the vineyards and taste pisco, which is up there with ouzo on my list of worst alcohols in the world. Pisco is not totally irredeemable; it is a part of the tasty national cocktail, the pisco sour.

Ica is also the gateway to Lago Huacachina, which is a backpacker’s haven and a place to sandboard down the huge dunes. A thrilling– because of how reckless the drivers are– sandbuggy tour costs under $20.

ica

Pisco, the city, was devastated by a 2007 earthquake. It is the gateway to Paracas National Park, marketed in Peru as the “poor man’s Galapagos.” An inexpensive half day boat tour is sure to see tons of sea lions and birds, and if it’s the right season, penguins.

Getting there: Buses connect Lima to all three cities and there are buses among the cities too.

Hotels: There aren’t many chain hotel brands you’ll recognize. The top ranked hotels on TripAdvisor are the Casa Andina Classic Nasca (Nazca), Hotel Vinas Queirolo (Ica), Hotel La Casona (Pisco).

Time needed to visit: 3 days

10. Get “Misti” Eyed in Arequipa

Arequipa is Peru’s most beautiful and second-largest city. Nicknamed la ciudad blanca for the many buildings constructed from white volcanic sillar, Arequipa has the most beautiful Plaza de Armas in all of Peru.

My top two picks for the day in Arequipa are the Santa Catalina Monastery, a 16th century labyrinth for the sisters, and Museo Santurios de la Altura. The museum features Juanita, a mummified twelve year old found on a summit near Arequipa. The icy temperatures preserved her for 500 years and gave archaeologists amazing insight into Inca religion.

At night, grab a meal and a pisco sour somewhere near the plaza. Peruvian and Arequipan specialties abound. I recommend rocoto relleno, a mild pepper stuffed with ground beef, and ocopa arequipeña, potatoes in a spicy cheese sauce.

For the adventurers, Arequipa is the gateway to El Misti, the snowcapped volcano that smiles down on the plaza. Tour operators’ competition makes the price $100 or so and they’ll take anyone up who wants. But it is a tough climb, and many people turn back before the summit.

Arequipa is also the gateway to Colca Canyon, which is #4 on this list.

Getting there: 4,500 Avios and a few dollars tax each way on LATAM from Lima to Arequipa (AQP)

Hotels:  There are plenty of tourists, hotels, and infrastructure in town. Los Tambos is a good option. it averages five stars on TripAdvisor (with over 900 reviews).

Airbnb shows plenty of options right around the Plaza de Armas. The screenshot below is a search for accommodation for two people on a night this October.

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Time needed to visit: 2 days, 3 if you want to climb El Misti

9. Eat Ceviche in Mancora

Mancora is the best beach in Peru. While Peru has a ton of Pacific coastline, most of its beaches are too cold for swimming because of a cold current from Antarctica. That current is replaced in the north by a warm current, so Mancora’s water temperature averages a pleasant 75 degrees.

Mancora is a tiny town of under 10,000, and its main street is the Pan-American Highway, so the star here is the beach and seafood. The beach has good surf for beginners and experts, with cheap surfing lessons in English and Spanish. When you’re not on the beach, try ceviche, fresh raw fish cured in lime juice.

For ceviche, I recommend asking your hotel where to eat. For breakfast, I recommend Green Eggs and Ham, and for snacks and desserts, Papa Mo’s Milk Bar.

Mancora is a world-class beach year round. The high from December to March can reach 100 degrees. During the rest of the year, it’s a more mild 80 degrees.

In the years I’ve been going to Peru, Mancora’s popularity has surged, especially among young people, with both Peruvian hostel chains building big hostels in town. That makes parts of town loud all night, but should not deter beach fans from heading to Mancora.

Getting there: 4,500 Avios and a few dollars tax each way on LAN from Lima to Tumbes (TBP), which is an hour north by car of Mancora.

Hotels: There are some beautiful and cheap hotels right on the beach, like DCO Suites Lounge & Spa, ranked #1 on TripAdvisor.

There’s also a decent selection of Airbnb properties. The screenshot below is a search for accommodation for two people on a night this October, and prices look very reasonable (take into account that during high season, late December through March, prices will be higher).

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 1.59.58 PM

Time needed to visit: 2 days

8. Play Golf in Iquitos

Iquitos is the largest city in the world only accessible by boat and plane. This city of 400,000 is in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest, so the main transportation options are public boats to other towns and modified motorcycles with a bench seat for three under a canopy behind the driver.

Iquitos is one of several Peruvian gateways to an Amazon Rainforest excursion (#2 on this list), but it has a number of interesting things to do in its own right. Check out the Belen market, where the homes float on the Amazon River.

Iquitos is also home to a large expat community. One of the projects they’ve undertaken is starting a golf course, the only one in the Amazon Rainforest. On the day I went, I was the only person at the course, so some journalists who were doing a story on the course followed me around, taking pictures for the story. One tip: if you hit the ball in a water hazard, let the caimans have it.

At night, an ice cream on the malecón, river boradwalk, is a nice way to beat the humidity. During the day, try the Yellow Rose of Texas, an authentic American steakhouse run by an expat, and an Iquiteña beer, my favorite in all of Peru.

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Getting there: 4,500 Avios and a few dollars tax each way on LATAM from Lima to Iquitos (IQT).

Hotels: No major hotels brands, so you’ll have to go indie. Nativa Apartments is the highest ranked accommodation in Iquitos on TripAdvisor. Epoca has great reviews on booking.com.

There are also cheap options on Airbnb. The screenshot below is a search for accommodation for two people on a night this October.

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Time needed to visit: 1-2 days for Iquitos, more for the jungle.

Bottom Line

Those are the honorable mentions and #’s 10-8. For most people who are going to Peru for a week or two, they won’t have time for these places. But if you’re going on an extended trip, I recommend at least a brief stint in each for to gain a well rounded sense of all the culture and landscape Peru has to offer.

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with 100,000 bonus Ultimate Rewards after spending $4,000 in the first three months that you can transfer to United miles, Singapore miles, Southwest points, British Airways miles, or use for 1.5 cents each toward any flight, hotel, or car rentals.

Plus the card offers $300 in credits toward any travel purchase each calendar year, which is $600 in your first 12 months of cardmembership, $100 toward Global Entry, and worldwide lounge access. Basically it's the best credit card ever, even with a $450 annual fee.

cc-reward-320x50

9

T-Mobile’s basic, contract-free, $50 plan offers free data and text messages in 140+ countries. I have had it for a few years, and I have been happy with it.

Unfortunately the free data abroad is at Edge speeds. Last month, though, T-Mobile announced free 4G data in Europe from July 1 – August 31, 2016.

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 6.23.47 PMI’ve had a chance to use the high speed data in Montenegro, Croatia, and Bosnia over the last few weeks.

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 6.27.47 PMIn general, I have been very happy with this improved data speed, and I haven’t found the need to buy a local SIM card yet. Unfortunately, as you can see in the above screen shot, my phone says “R” above its signal strength, which just means “roaming,” so I don’t know how much of my data has been Edge, how much 3G, and how much 4G.

It seems like I’ve mostly been on 3G. Most of the time, web pages have loaded at a reasonable speed, but not exactly instantly. Facebook uploads, attaching photos to WhatsApp messages, and viewing attached WhatsApp photos and videos has all been done at a reasonable speed, though certainly one that felt slower than 4G.

These are three of the poorer European countries. In all likelihood, T-Mobile customers in Western European countries are enjoying 4G speeds, but I have been happy enough with the speeds I’ve gotten.

In an effort to make this post more exact, I ran a speed test on my phone in my Sarajevo apartment, and got this reasonable upload speed but abysmal download speed. I can assure you that for most of my trip, my download speed has been much faster.
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Bottom Line

I don’t think I have seen 4G speeds in Europe this summer as a T-Mobile customer, but I have seen faster than the Edge speeds that I used to get. T-Mobile keeps improving its offer (my $50 plan now gets 2 GB of high speed data instead of 1 GB also), and I am very happy with T-Mobile as a traveler.

------------------------------------------------------------

Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with 100,000 bonus Ultimate Rewards after spending $4,000 in the first three months that you can transfer to United miles, Singapore miles, Southwest points, British Airways miles, or use for 1.5 cents each toward any flight, hotel, or car rentals.

Plus the card offers $300 in credits toward any travel purchase each calendar year, which is $600 in your first 12 months of cardmembership, $100 toward Global Entry, and worldwide lounge access. Basically it's the best credit card ever, even with a $450 annual fee.

cc-reward-320x50

5

Update 6/26/16: Singapore is ending its Sao Paulo <-> Barcelona route, which is reviewed here in First Class. The last flight is October 20, 2016. Singapore will continue to fly Singapore <-> Barcelona, but that isn’t much consolation, since Sao Paulo <-> Barcelona is specifically such a great deal. Award space is great Barcelona <-> Sao Paulo through October 20.

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Singapore Airlines Flight 67
Sao Paulo (GRU) – Barcelona (BCN)
Depart: 5:50 PM on Monday May 16, 2016
Arrive: 9:25 AM next day
Duration: 10 hours, 35 minutes
Aircraft: Boeing 777
Seat: 1A (First Class)

A few weeks ago, I booked myself 10+ hours of Singapore First Class for 58,225 Singapore miles + $37 to get from Brazil, where I spent a week and a half to close out the South American summer, to Spain where I was kicking off the European summer.

The Anatomy of an Award post explains why the award was so cheap, so check that out now if you’re blown away by the price. The flight flew a Singapore 777, which features on several major Singapore routes including those to San Francisco and Houston.

I had an amazing flight!

I woke up the morning of my flight in Sao Paulo to an earlier alarm than I had been using. My plan was to get onboard a little sleep deprived because otherwise I would never sleep from 5:50 PM to 4:25 AM, the Brazil times of departure and arrival. I had to vacate my Airbnb by 1:45 PM, so I took an Uber to the airport, arriving at 2:30 PM, more than three hours before the flight.

Luckily check in was already available, and the dedicated line for First Class was empty.

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Fifteen minutes later I was through security and immigration and on my way to the Star Alliance lounge (separate trip report forthcoming.)

Before Take Off

I got to the gate at 5:30 PM when boarding was in full swing. There was a separate line for premium passengers, and First and Business Class even boarded through a separate door, so I was quickly onto the plane. At the front door, several flight attendants waited to greet us. Business Class passengers were greeted and pointed to their seat. First Class passengers were greeted and escorted to their seat, which is a nice touch.

First Class on the Singapore 777 is two rows of four seats each, arranged 1-2-1. I had seat 1A.

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The only other passengers in First Class for my flight were in the middle two seats of row 2.

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A window seat is the obvious choice if flying solo. The middle seats are the obvious choice if traveling with a companion, although unfortunately there is a barrier between the two middle seats, so they cannot be combined into a double bed like on the Singapore A380.

I seemed pretty intent on putting my bags away–there are no overhead bins, storage is under the ottoman in your suite–and taking pictures, so the flight attendant said he would give me a minute and return for my drink order.

A minute later he returned and I ordered water and champagne. I was informed with what I can only describe as a mixture of horror and contrition that the “only” champagne available on the ground was Dom Perignon, which retails for about $180 per bottle. Imagine my disappointment. 😉

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The bubbly was quickly brought to my seat and poured.

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And just as quickly drunk.

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Next I was brought a hot towel, the first of about 10 on the flight. A newspaper selection quickly followed, and I went with the New York Times and Financial Times.

While a few flight attendants kept very busy with pre-flight service, the inflight supervisor came by and personally introduced himself to the three First Class passengers.

Next came the magazine selection, and I snagged the Economist and National Geographic. At this point in the flight–negative 30 minutes in, since take off would be slightly delayed–I’d already gotten more than the $37 I paid for the ticket between the glass of wine, newspapers, and magazines.

Next I was brought pajamas (called a “sleeper suit” by the flight attendant) and my amenity kit. The pajamas were comfortable, and I wore them for most of the flight. You’ll see photographs of them throughout the trip report. The amenity kit was a little perplexing.

It was fancy enough–Salvatore Ferragamo branded.

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And it had nice travel sized bottles of lotion, cologne, and lip balm.Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 11.03.24 PMBut it didn’t have ear plugs, an eye mask, toothbrush, or toothpaste, which I think are essentials in an amenity kit. (I travel with all of them any way.) A flight attendant gave me an eye mask after take off; I am not sure if the rest were available upon request or not.

Finally before take off, menus were distributed. The menu books were huge, since they also contained the menu from Barcelona to Singapore.
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At this point, we should have been pushing back, but the captain came on to inform us that weather was delaying our departure, and that he’d have an update in 15 minutes. I was very happy to hear I’d get an extra 15 minutes in First Class since the flights never seem long enough in the front. I ordered another glass of Dom and was quite disappointed that we pushed back at 6:06 PM, just 15 minutes late.

Dinner

We took off at 6:32 PM, but turbulence delayed the start of the service.

When flight attendants could finally get up half an hour later, they distributed slippers, socks, and eye masks. Then the dinner service began.

I had ordered caviar, chicken broth, and beef fillet, which were served as part of an eight course meal.

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Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 10.57.10 PMFirst came a canape of two chicken satay skewers and one lamb satay skewers, served with a peanut sauce. Chicken satay is one of my favorite foods, and I thought this was star of the meal. I even ate the lamb, which I normally avoid. Maybe my palate is maturing…

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This was served with a glass of $200-a-bottle Krug.

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Next came the fancy place setting, the bread basket, and the caviar.

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The warm bread basket was incredible. You cannot mess up garlic bread, and the hot pretzel roll was incredible with butter.

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The caviar was, well, caviar. It was served with a shot of vodka.

As I finished each course, it was cleared quite quickly for the next one. With the same number of flight attendants and passengers up front, the service was very personalized.

The third course was soup.

Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 11.00.42 PMI ordered the chicken broth.
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The fourth course was a very simple salad. Freshly ground pepper was added at my seat.

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Finally it was time for the main course. I had a hard time deciding, but eventually went with the beef filet because I was intrigued by one side in particular: yukon gold potato blue cheese croquettes. That was probably a silly reason to decide, since I bet I could have had that side with any main course.

The steak was plated elegantly and was cooked medium as I had hoped–that’s usually a gamble on planes since the steak is cooked on the ground. I was offered two mustards for the steak. The croquettes were potatoey, cheesey, and gooey and met my expectations.

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After the main course, I was stuffed, so I skipped dessert, fruit, and pralines, instead opting just for a cheese plate. I wish I had snapped a photo of the cheese platter that was brought to my seat from which I could select cheeses. I asked a for a slice of each one, and it was served moments later with crackers, dried apricots, walnuts, and grapes.

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Although it was only about 8:20 PM in Brazil when I finished eating, I was exhausted, so I decided to try to sleep.

Seat/Bed

The seat is a throne. It is wide enough for two or three people to sit comfortably.

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It can recline to comfortable positions for working, reading, or watching TV and is controlled by an intuitive system of three buttons next to the seat.

Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 10.58.33 PMThere is a large ottoman in front of the seat to rest your feet and a large television above the ottoman.

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There are storage cabinets beside the seat for things you want at hand, though the main storage is under the ottoman.

A very large table slides out from under the television for meal services.Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 11.04.33 PMThe seat can fold into a fully flat bed. After dinner, I asked the flight attendant to make the middle seat next to me into a bed, so I could have a separate seat and bed. She happily obliged.

To make the seat into a bed, a mattress pad, blankets, and pillows are added.
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Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 11.05.16 PMThe bed is perfect if you are 6’2″ or shorter. It is very comfortable, very wide, has nice pillows, and–if you’re that height–is plenty long. Unfortunately I am 6’4″, and my feet were up against the wall under the television. It wasn’t uncomfortable, but two extra inches would have been nice.

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I was able, with the help of melatonin, to sleep about five hours. I woke up with a sore throat that had been lingering for a few days, feeling very hot. I am not sure if that was just being sick or whether the cabin/blanket/pajamas were hot.

I stumbled over to my seat and started watching TV.

Breakfast

A few minutes later, a flight attendant brought me a snack basket, but I declined. Beyond the chips and cookies, I could have also ordered from the snack menu.

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About 15 minutes later, at 2:15 AM in Brazil, the sun rose. During this period, I really got to see the service during non-meal periods. Every few minutes a flight attendant would walk down the aisle. She wouldn’t say anything, but she was ready to take any order. You could, of course, use the flight attendant call button, but Singapore is pro-active with service and is constantly in the cabin to be ready for your order. Some other airlines basically have the flight attendants hide in the galley and wait for your call. I don’t have a preference one way or the other.

At 2:42 AM Brazil/7:42 AM Spain, the flight attendant asked if I would like breakfast. She had asked me before I went to bed for my order and had asked whether I wanted to be woken for it (I didn’t) at the time.

For breakfast, I had ordered both the braised beef brisket with noodles and warm Belgian waffles.

Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 10.57.58 PMFirst I was served a fruit plate and my choice of beverage, water.
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Then I had my pick of a bakery basket, though it wasn’t as good as the dinner options.

Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 11.03.52 PMFinally I got both main courses simultaneously. The beef and noodles really hit the spot. I like my breakfasts with some protein instead of just carbs, carbs, carbs.

Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 11.04.26 PMThe waffle looked amazing when it came out. I thought I had lucked into a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Then I took a bite and realized it was the far less delicious, mascarpone cream. Why anyone would want that much is beyond me. I ditched the cream and enjoyed the waffle, syrup, and strawberries.Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 11.04.06 PM

Entertainment

During the flight I watched The Big Short and several episodes of Modern Family. The large television had a standard selection of movies and television programs, which is more than enough for any flight. It was controlled by a remote next to the seat.

Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 10.58.41 PMBose noise-canceling headphones were provided.
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If you bring your own entertainment, there is a universal outlet built into every First Class seat to charge your devices.

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Service

Service in Singapore First Class is amazing, and it is really the main thing that separates the product from Singapore Business Class, which is a nearly identical seat/bed.

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I’ve already mentioned being escorted to my seat, being personally greeted by the inflight supervisor, and the constant walking of the aisles.

Whether this is worth a premium over Business Class depends on your preferences. For me, it was worth the premium from Sao Paulo to Barcelona because that premium is only about 8,000 Singapore miles. On other routes, it may not be worth the premium.

Bottom Line

Bed

Very tall people will be cramped, but overall it is very comfortable and wide flat bed, unlike the coffins you often find in Business Classes.

Entertainment

Large selection of movies and TV shows on demand. Noise-canceling headphones.

Service

Friendly, service-oriented flight attendants who are almost always visible and take pride in delivering a great experience.

Food

Delicious, plentiful, on demand, and, dare I say, gourmet.

 

Overall

This flight is an amazing value for 58,225 Singapore miles + $37 in First Class. (Economy is 25k miles.)

How to Book Yourself Singapore First Class

Award space is WIDE OPEN and Singapore miles are the world’s easiest to get since they partner with every program. Here’s how I booked my ticket.

Getting Singapore Miles

You need Singapore miles to book Singapore First Class, Suites Class, and Business Class on longhaul flights. Singapore protects the cabins by not releasing award space in them to partners. Luckily Singapore miles are easy to get.

Singapore is a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and Citi ThankYou Points. Plus 20,000 Starpoints transfer to 25,000 Singapore miles.

The best cards to get Singapore miles are the Citi Prestige® Card, Sapphire Preferred, and Ink Plus.

The Citi Prestige® Card comes with 50,000 bonus ThankYou Points after $3,000 in purchases made with your card in the first 3 months the account is open.

My review of the Citi Prestige Card explains its many benefits like $250 in airfare or airline fee credits per calendar year, access to the American Airlines Admirals Clubs and Priority Pass lounges, 3x points per dollar on air travel and hotels, and a $450 annual fee.

The Sapphire Preferred is one of the best personal credit cards on the market. It offers:

  • 50,000 bonus Ultimate Rewards after spending $4,000 in the first three months
  • 5,000 bonus Ultimate Rewards for adding an authorized user
  • 2 Ultimate Rewards per dollar on travel and dining purchases
  • 1 Ultimate Reward per dollar on all other purchases
  • no annual fee the first year and $95 thereafter

While I can not directly link to the current Sapphire Preferred offer, you may find it by clicking below if you decide to apply. (I receive a commission, and your support keeps this blog going.)

The Ink Plus is easily the best business card on the market. It offers:

  • 60,000 bonus Ultimate Rewards after spending $5,000 in the first three months
  • 5 Ultimate Rewards per dollar at office supply stores and on cellular phone, landline, internet and cable TV services
  • 2 Ultimate Rewards per dollar at gas stations and hotel accommodations
  • 1 Ultimate Reward per dollar on all other purchases
  • $95 annual fee

While I can not directly link to the current Ink Plus offer, you may find it by clicking below if you decide to apply. (I receive a commission, and your support keeps this blog going.)

Other Menus

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with 100,000 bonus Ultimate Rewards after spending $4,000 in the first three months that you can transfer to United miles, Singapore miles, Southwest points, British Airways miles, or use for 1.5 cents each toward any flight, hotel, or car rentals.

Plus the card offers $300 in credits toward any travel purchase each calendar year, which is $600 in your first 12 months of cardmembership, $100 toward Global Entry, and worldwide lounge access. Basically it's the best credit card ever, even with a $450 annual fee.

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2

In September 2015, I flew from Honolulu to Los Angeles to Bogota, Colombia in United First Class and Avianca Business Class. Here is a Trip Report of Avianca Business Class, and the post explaing how I booked the award for 27,500 miles.

The trip was very pleasant until I opened my golf bag in Bogota and saw that my driver’s shaft had snapped.

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This was my first experience with damaged baggage. It ended up working out quite well for me as Avianca gave me $400 for my ten-year-old driver.

The Process

The first thing I did was fill in Avianca’s online claim form as soon as a I noticed the broken driver. I filled in Avianca’s form instead of United’s because the last airline you fly is responsible for delivering your baggage in good condition.

After I filled out the form, I got an email from Avianca. I’ll print our two-month, 27-email correspondence below with their responses in bold.

I received your claim regarding the damage of your driver when flying from Honolulu to Bogota with a layover in Los Angeles on flights UA1229 and AV123 last September 21st and 22nd. As per our today’s conversation over phone, allow me to inform you that in order to continue with the evaluation of your claim, I would appreciate if you please fill out the form here attached with yourdriver description specifying how it was packed, additionally, you must send us some pictures where we can see the damage presented and you shall attach the purchase invoice if you hold it.

We appreciate your attention and we will be waiting for the documentation requested.

[I sent the attached form, which just asked all the same questions as the form I filled out online.]

Thank you for the information, may you send me some additional pictures?

I’m looking forward to your answer for giving you a response.

That is the only picture I have. I have since left Bogota, and I didn’t carry the useless broken driver head with me.

[Five days later, I had no response, so I followed up.]

I submitted the form more than three weeks ago. Please make arrangements to compensate me and update me on those arrangements.

The Denial

Thank you for the information, however, it is important to note that in the unlikely event your baggage is mishandled, gets lost, damaged or you lose any items, you have, you should provide us with all the evidence needed in order to evaluate your claim, if you don’t, the Airline couldn’t accept responsibility and shall not be liable for any compensation thereof as our liability is limited in accordance with the provisions of international conventions, we are not responsible for claims that exceed the applicable limits.

For this reason, according to the information already mentioned, we couldn’t grant to you any kind of compensation for the inconveniences presented; we want to thank you for taking the time to contact us and bring this matter to our attention, please do not hesitate to contact us for any further assistance or comments at www.avianca.com.

What are you talking about? I provided a picture of the driver. Why would you want more pictures?

We need further evidence of the inconvenience.

What evidence?

You took weeks to respond during which time I traveled more. I was not going to carry a broken golf club, so I have disposed of it. The picture I sent clearly shows it is broken and you have my flight records. If I am not reimbursed hastily, I will escalate this.

I understand that you couldn’t carry everywhere with a broken driver, but you could have hold some pictures as evidence.

The Threat

I sent a picture. What’s wrong with it?

If your next email doesn’t offer compensation, I am filling out a US DOT complaint here: https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/air-travel-consumer-reports

The Backpedal & First Offer

You didn’t send a picture, you sent me a screenshot as you can see in the file’s name. [Scott: Really? His argument has devolved this far. It’s almost like he’s paid by how little compensation he disburses.]

Why are you just mentioning that now? I sent it as a screen shot to reduce file size. Here is the full 1.8 MB image. [I attached the same image in the different format.]

What is the compensation offer?

I’ve reviewed your claim once again with the information reported by you, for this reason, in order to compensate you somehow for the inconveniences presented, we offer you as compensation the value of USD 180 credited to one bank account of your choosing, this process may take around 5 to 6 weeks; or if you would rather we could give you instead of transaction, the amount of USD 220 by an EMD (Electronic Miscellaneous Document) voucher that we would grant to you as a compensation that may be used in Avianca, Taca, Lacsa, Taca Perú or Aerogal as mean of payment of:

-Air fares, fuel surcharge, ticketing fee/administrative  service and service charge.

-Air segment of Avianca Tours plans.

-Fare difference or penalty fees for changes requested on  reservations.

-Excess baggage.

-Special services which some fees apply.

-Purchase of upgrade to travel in Business Class cabin.

-Purchase of Lifemiles miles to Life Miles Corporation for redemption of benefits.

The Counter Offer

I cannot buy a replacement for the broken driver for $180. I would like $450 or 45,000 Avianca LifeMiles.

The value offered is the top compensation offer we could give you.

Based on what?

Where can I buy the driver for $180?

I need $450 to get a replacement or 45,000 LifeMiles to be equally satisfied.

The compensation offer made was based on the documentation provided for its analyzing.

What specifically caused you to offer $180? Where can I get a replacement for that price?

The answer, of course, is that I can’t get a replacement anywhere for that price. Its retail price is $450. I will accept $450 or, if it’s cheaper for you to offer 45,000 LifeMiles, I will accept that.

After evaluating your claim, allow me to inform you that top amount we can give you as compensation would be USD 400 by transaction to your bank account, for this payment process it’s necessary that you please fill out the form here attached with your bank account information, also, you must send us a bank statement, screenshot or a bank account confirmation provided by your bank, please remember, this process may take around 5 to 6 weeks.

Resolution

The flight was September 21, the deal was struck November 16, and the $400 was in my bank account by December 9.

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Tips

Based on my one data point, here’s what I’d recommend to people whose baggage is damaged.

  • Take photos of the damage.
  • File a claim with the airline immediately.
  • Look up the value of the item. In my case, that was hard because this old driver isn’t sold new anymore, but it used to go for $450 according to what I found online.
  • Don’t take no for an answer.
  • Don’t take their first offer. They have some discretion to go higher. Make your counter-offer.
  • If the agent is being unreasonable, threaten a DOT complaint. Airlines seem not to enjoy dealing with them.

Bottom Line

My driver was broken when traveling United and Avianca from Honolulu to Bogota, and three months (and dozens of emails) later, Avianca gave me $400.

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with 100,000 bonus Ultimate Rewards after spending $4,000 in the first three months that you can transfer to United miles, Singapore miles, Southwest points, British Airways miles, or use for 1.5 cents each toward any flight, hotel, or car rentals.

Plus the card offers $300 in credits toward any travel purchase each calendar year, which is $600 in your first 12 months of cardmembership, $100 toward Global Entry, and worldwide lounge access. Basically it's the best credit card ever, even with a $450 annual fee.

cc-reward-320x50

This week I stayed one night in the Holiday Inn Express Belgrade – City in Serbia.

This hotel was on the current PointBreaks, though it has sold out for PointBreaks. (In fact, the only European hotel left for 5,000 points or $29 stays through July 31 is the Holiday Inn Garden Court Wolverhampton.) For the next two days, IHG points are being sold so cheaply that you could book 24 consecutive nights at a similar PointBreaks hotels for $690, which is $28.75 per night, or $862.50 per month, if you want to compare it to your rent.

I’ll do a quick rundown of PointBreaks and whether to use them for long term stays instead of Airbnb or apartments and then a trip report of the hotel itself.

Live in a PointBreaks Hotel

PointBreaks List

IHG Rewards Club is the loyalty program for InterContinental, Crowne Plaza, Hotel Indigo, Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Candlewood Suites, and Staybridge Suites.

IHG Rewards Club normally charges 10,000 to 50,000 points for a free night depending on the property. But every few months, IHG Rewards Club releases a list of a select few hotels where you can stay for 5,000 points per night. That’s a 90% discount on some hotels!

The current list of PointBreaks hotels is good for stays now through July 31, 2016. Unfortunately IHG caps how many 5,000 point nights can be redeemed at each property, so this list which came out April 25 is much diminished. Get ready to hop on the next list, which will probably come out around July 25 and will be covered here.

Buying Points

You can always buy IHG points for 0.63 cents each through this method, meaning you can always book PointBreaks hotels for $31.67 per night.

Through Friday (June 3, 2016), you can purchase IHG points for 0.575 cents each through this link, meaning you can book PointBreaks hotels for $28.75 per night. You are limited to 120,000 points through this method, enough for 24 nights at PointBreaks hotels for $690.

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I don’t believe there is a limit for the 0.63 cents-per-point method.

Looking at the list of available hotels in South America, there are still some interesting ones. I wouldn’t mind spending a month in Rosario, Cuiaba, Natal, or Puerto Montt one bit. (Guayaquil wasn’t my cup of tea.)
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You could book a month at the Holiday Inn Express Rosario starting tomorrow for 150,000 points, which would be $862.50 during the current sale. (Buy from more than one account, since each account is capped at 120,000.)Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 10.09.57 PM
For a month’s rent, 30 breakfasts, and daily maid service, that’s an interesting price indeed. I briefly considered booking the Holiday Inn Express Belgrade for my 35 days in Belgrade, but decided against it. My Belgrade apartment is $690 during that time period ($19.71 per night). I would have happily paid the extra $9 per night for the hotel for the breakfast and maid service if it had a kitchen and it were located where my apartment is, but it’s a few kilometers from where I want to be.

So I’m basically saying if you’re a nomad like me, live in a PointBreaks hotel if it is in an interesting place and you don’t want to cook for yourself.

Trip Report: Holiday Inn Express Belgrade City (PointBreaks Hotel)

Last year, I came to Belgrade for one month. I did what I read on the US State Department’s website and registered at the nearest police station on my first day:

U.S. citizens with tourist, official, or diplomatic passports do not need a visa to enter and stay in Serbia for up to 90 days.  However, you must register your presence within the first 24 hours of your arrival.  If you are staying at a hotel or similar accommodation, they will do this for you automatically.  If you are staying at a private residence, then you will need to register in person at the nearest police station.

My Airbnb host went with me happily, but she told me I didn’t really need to register. She’s probably right, but better safe than sorry.

This year, I knew I wanted to stay in an apartment again instead of a hotel, but I didn’t want to waste another hour on registering, so I decided to book a hotel for the first night, so they’d register me automatically.

The Holiday Inn Express was on the last PointBreaks list, so it was a no brainer to book.

The hotel is not ideally located for tourists. It is 1.4 miles from Republic Square and 2 miles from Kalemegdan Fortress, which in my opinion, are the centers of the tourist area. There are much better located hotels.

I took an 1,800 dinar flat rate ($16) taxi from the airport to the hotel–I loved the flat rate given my trouble with Serbian taxi scams–which was about a 25 minute ride.

Check in at 11 PM was smooth, and I was told that as a basic IHG member I could get free late checkout until 2 PM.

The lobby had a retro look, which I looked.

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The sleek, modern elevator…

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…took me to room 510, which was a standard room with one king bed.Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 10.04.25 PM Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 10.04.37 PM Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 10.04.46 PM The bathroom was nice looking. I didn’t have a chance to use the shower.Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 10.04.56 PM Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 10.05.04 PM

The room also had a safe.

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I was happy with the room except for the free internet. My computer joined the network fine. Then my phone got an error that the user name was wrong. I called down, and they reset something allowing my phone to sign on. Each subsequent attempt to get on with my phone or computer required the same call. There must be a limit of one device per user name, which is insane in 2016. The reset calls were only 30 seconds each, but that’s still annoying.

The bed was comfortable, but I didn’t get much sleep, which was probably a combination of recovering from a crazy sleep schedule in Prague, leaving the temperature at the pre-set 76 degrees (24.5 C) instead of turning it down, and mis-using melatonin.

I woke up at 9:15 AM and headed down for the free breakfast, which runs 6:30 – 10:30 AM.

I was impressed by the free buffet. They had (roughly) American bacon…
Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 10.05.32 PM …cereals…Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 10.05.41 PM …fresh and dried fruits…Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 10.05.49 PM Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 10.06.10 PM …pastries and breads…Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 10.06.18 PM Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 10.06.28 PM …veggies…Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 10.06.38 PM …cold cuts and cheese…Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 10.06.46 PM …and yogurts.Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 10.06.55 PMI fixed a plate of bacon, salami, cheese, and veggies and got a glass of juice. As soon as I sat down, an employee came by to ask whether I wanted scrambled eggs or an omelette to order. That’s a nice touch!

A few hours later when I went to check out, I was mildly annoyed by the bill. (I didn’t actually book this as a PointBreaks hotel, and I’ll explain why tomorrow. It had to do with bonuses.) Online, it said my bill would be 54.30 euros, but that was a lie. The hotel collects payment in Serbian dinar.

Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 11.16.43 PM

I understand that far more people know how much 54.30 euros is than know how much 6,695 Serbian dinar is, but I think the hotel should tell you what you’ll actually pay when you make a reservation, not approximately how much that amount is in some other currency.

I asked to have the hold on my credit card removed and to pay the bill in cash. The bill was 6,695 dinar, which means the euros were converted at 123.3 dinar to the euro, which is only overcharging customers by about 0.1% or less.

Interestingly the hotel had an automatic currency converting machine in the lobby, which could change dollars, euros, pounds, and Swiss francs into dinar. It offered only 119 dinar per euro, which is 3-4% worse than the 24 hour exchange places within a few blocks of the hotel. Belgrade is overrun with exchange offices and the rates are excellent.
Screen Shot 2016-06-01 at 10.07.13 PM

Bottom Line on Trip Report

The hotel was nice. The breakfast was delicious and varied. The internet and being charged in a currency other than the one on my reservation were annoying. I wouldn’t stay here again because of its location. There are better located hotels and Airbnbs in Belgrade.

Bottom Line on Living in PointBreaks

I would happily pay $862.50 per month to live in a hotel in an interesting place if there were a healthy, cheap restaurant nearby, but there are not many of those around, so I’ll stick to Airbnb for now.

------------------------------------------------------------

Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

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Plus the card offers $300 in credits toward any travel purchase each calendar year, which is $600 in your first 12 months of cardmembership, $100 toward Global Entry, and worldwide lounge access. Basically it's the best credit card ever, even with a $450 annual fee.

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1

I recently spent three days in Bonito, Brazil, a small city in Southwestern Brazil famous for its caves and rivers.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 1.19.54 PM

There are two ways to get to Bonito:

  1. Fly twice weekly from Viracopos-Campinas (Sao Paulo area)
  2. Fly to Campo Grande and take a four hour bus

I flew into Bonito on Azul Airlines on a Sunday from Rio de Janeiro (via Viracopos-Campinas) and flew out the next Wednesday to Sao Paulo (Azul/Viracopos-Campinas/Free Azul Bus Trip Report Here). I thought a three day trip was perfect to see the highlights of the area.

Overall Bonito has the coolest caves I’ve ever seen and the best river snorkeling I’ve ever done, however the tours are run in an overly slow and expensive way.

The Tours

I did the #1, #2, and #3 things to do in Bonito according to Trip Advisor (if you ignore that #1 and #2 are the same thing.)

Rio da Prata

On Monday, I snorkeled the Rio da Prata. The tour cost 156 reais, the transportation was 60 reais (transportation is charged separately on all Bonito tours), and an option buffet lunch was 48 reais for a total cost of $76.

I was picked up at 8:30 AM from my hotel and driven about an hour and a half out of town in a minibus on which I was one of two non-Brazilians.

The tour guide spoke basically no English. I don’t mean he didn’t have the ability to speak English. He definitely did have the ability to get his point across in English when needed, but he wouldn’t try. He would say something in Portuguese, and that was it. This was a theme throughout my trip to Bonito (partly because I had the same guide Wednesday), and I found it very annoying. Not knowing what’s going on is frustrating, and I only got the basic idea in Portuguese most of the time (due to the similarity with Spanish, which I speak.) If Bonito wants to draw more foreign tourists, and it already draws enough that guides should be bilingual at least for the script of their tours, guides need to speak Portuguese and English on the tours.

We arrived at 10 AM and were given knee-length wetsuits and a snorkel. We were driven to the woods and walked another 20 minutes to the river.

We snorkeled about 25 minutes, walked a few minutes to another part of the river, snorkeled another 25 minutes until our branch hit a bigger river, and then could snorkel another 10 minutes or be driven in a boat the final stretch. I chose the boat because while the first 50 minutes were very cold, the last 10 minutes were unbearable.

I didn’t get any pictures of the snorkeling, but here is a google images search for the activity. As you can see, the snorkeling is amazing. I’ve never seen such a quantity of fish while snorkeling anywhere in the world, and the very clear water means great visibility. Other than the “dourado,” which I heard people repeating over and over, I am not sure which species I saw out there. Some people in my group spotted an alligator–hopefully a small one!

About 2 PM, we finally made it back to the lodge on the property where a buffet lunch was being served. It had a small salad bar, chicken, beef, rice, beans, potatoes, and a large dessert selection. It is a bit expensive for Brazil at 48 reais ($14), but otherwise unimpeachable. The food was being refreshed quickly and was delicious. During lunch, a torrential downpour started. I hadn’t brought a sweatshirt–a mistake I wouldn’t repeat–so I huddled near the foods’ warming trays for the next half hour.

At around 3:30, we left and headed to the nearby Buraco das Araras, which is a sinkhole where you can spot macaws. I learned about this additional stop on the Rio do Prata tour after booking. If you want to pay 68 reais ($19) extra, you can go on the 1.5 hour walk. Otherwise, you sit in a covered pavilion with a TV showing a Brazilian soap opera and a wifi network that doesn’t work. The compulsory combination of these two tours is supremely frustrating as I was in the half of the group that didn’t join in the second tour.

At about 6:30 PM, we were dropped back off at our hotels.

I would definitely recommend the Rio da Prata snorkeling, though you would be much better off with your own car. You could be back in town by 4 PM by skipping the macaws.

Abismo Anhumas

This was the highlight of the trip.

An abismo is a cave with the opening on top. In the Abismo Anhumas, the tiny opening leads to a large cavern below with a lake in which you can snorkel, scuba dive, and boat.

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 5.15.44 PM

First you rappel 72 meters down, and later you have to pull yourself up the 72 meters.

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 5.15.57 PM

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 5.14.49 PM

This tour is very expensive and includes a lot of waiting around, but I still highly recommend it.

The tour costs 700 reais plus 60 more to rent a full body wetsuit and snorkel plus 35 more for transportation, $228 total. Any evening before the tour, you have to go to the tour company’s office in town to learn how to rappel and pull yourself up and then to the scuba company’s office to be fitted for a wetsuit.

On the day of the tour, I was picked up at 6 AM at my hostel for the 30 minute ride to the abismo. Of the six people in the van, three of us were non-Brazilians, but again we got almost no English. Luckily one of the Brazilians was a 17 year old who had learned English from watching TV and movies and happily translated for us.

We arrived at the abismo at 6:30 AM, and that’s when the waiting began. In the eight hours from pick up to drop off, there was an hour of travel, an hour of doing, and six hours of waiting.

First we waited to rappel down in pairs. The rappelling down was extremely fun, very scary (to look down over 220 feet!), and took about three minutes. The delays were caused by having to send down all the people and equipment on the same two pulleys.

Once we got down there, the eight tourists (two more had arrived via their own car) were split into two groups of four for a 20 minute boat ride around the small lake to examine the stalactites, stalagmites, and walls.

Then we got into our wetsuits and snorkels and had a 15 minute snorkel. The snorkeling is all about seeing the underwater rock formations, which are marvelous, because there are very few fish in the cave. You can also scuba dive in the cave if you are certified, and I am sure that is more fun and more expensive.

After the snorkel, we waited several hours–because I was in the last pair–for our turn to pull ourselves out of the cave, which took about 20 minutes.

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 5.15.14 PM

You will have quite a sense of accomplishment when you get to the top; it was exhausting, and something the 20 feet of practice a few nights before had not prepared me for!

While I got satisfaction out of pulling myself out of the cave, Abismo Anhumas needs a machine to pull people and things out to save time. According to an employee, they want one and are just waiting on the permit… for the last 15 years. Until they get that machine to pull you out, bring a good book on this tour. There is enough light at the bottom of the cave to read.

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 5.14.56 PM

As frustrating as one hour of doing in an eight hour day is, I would still recommend this tour. The rush of rappelling down into a cave, and the beauty of pulling yourself out as heavy rainstorm rages outside–but only a few drops get into the opening and make their way down to the bottom–are worth the wait.

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 5.15.29 PM

Here is a google image search for Abismo Anhumas.

Gruta do Lago Azul

On my last day, I did a half day tour to the Blue Lake Grotto that ended in plenty of time to catch my 4 PM flight.

This tour is only 45 reais plus 35 for transport or $23.

I was picked up at 8:30 AM at my hostel and returned by 12:30 PM. My guide from Monday was back to speak no English to a group that now included four foreigners. We drove 30 minutes to the gruta, which is literally next door to the Abismo Anhumas. We put on some helmets and walked a few minutes to the entrance. There are steps leading to the bottom of the cave. You check it out, take a few pics, and head back up.

Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 5.13.38 PM

The cave is stunningly beautiful–the blue effect is caused by magnesium or something–remember, no English explanation–but the tour is frustrating.
Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 5.13.58 PM

I was just in the cave region of Vietnam in January, and you mostly get yourself from cave to cave and walk in and out on your own schedule, which is quicker and more convenient than going in a tour bus. I assume Bonito has the tour bus system as a make-work plan for its citizens, but I’m sure the people of Bonito could do something more productive than turn a 1.5 hour activity (30 minutes at the cave and an hour roundtrip driving) into a 4 hour activity. (We sat around a lot before going in and after coming out of the cave. I have no idea why.)

All of my ranting about the pace of these tours leads to an obvious suggestion…

Renting a Car

There is a Localiza Rental Car agency in town that sends two people to the airport to meet planes. Renting a car is definitely the way to go if you drive stick and don’t mind dirt roads. (About 15 minutes each day were on paved roads, and the rest on dirt roads.)

With your own car, you’d save on the transport fee on the tours, and more importantly you’d save a ton of time. You could save 3+ hours on the Rio da Prata by leaving right after lunch instead of waiting around another 45 minutes then heading to the macaw tour for an hour and a half before coming home.

And you could combine Abismo Anhumas and Gruta do Lago Azul in one day. Get the earliest time at Abismo Anhumas and ask to be the first pair in your group to exit the cave. Then drive a few minutes to the gruta next door. (You do have to have a reserved time at the gruta, and the last one is 2 or 3 PM, but this is very doable, just set it up with a tour agency in advance.)

Before You Go/Getting In

If you land at Bonito Airport, you can make the 15 minute trip to town by bus for 25 reais ($7) or a taxi for 60 reais ($17). You must reserve your spot on the bus in advance. Any travel agency can reserve the spot on the bus.

I would recommend being in touch with a travel agency before you go to reserve your tours, especially the Abismo Anhumas during the high season (January, February, July, August) because it is limited to (I didn’t write this down) 15 or 35 people per day.

I stayed at the Papaya Hostel for 40 reais ($11) per night in a bunk in a dorm room. I recommend it. It had what you’d expect from a hostel (kitchen, lockers, high carb breakfast) plus a few extras like a small pool. The English owner was a very helpful island of English in an unrelenting sea of Portuguese. She corresponded with me at length before my stay to book my tours through their partner agency (as far as I can tell at the cheapest price possible.) And in person, she was happy to give restaurant recommendations, directions to the supermarket, and some bread and cheese for my breakfast the night before my 6 AM pick up. The hostel is fairly empty–seemed like 3-8 other guests per night–in the offseason, so don’t worry about a party hostel wrecking your sleep.

Food

I went to the #1 ranked restaurant on Tripadvisor, Zapi Zen, for dinner one night, mainly because our translator on the Abismo Anhumas tour was the son of the owner. It mostly has individual-sized pizzas for about $7. I ordered the Abismo Anhumas, which was eggplant and garlic.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 2.35.20 PM

The pizza was quite good, certainly far better than the string of all-you-can-eat buffets that line the main street. Brazilians love all-you-can-eat places that charge $10, leave the food out all day, and use only the cheapest cuts of meat. I don’t.

The best of that bunch is Casarao on weekends when it has enough people to actually refresh its dishes frequently. The buffet plus a water was 43 reais ($12).

At the Palacio do Sorvete, you can get sorvete assado (grilled ice cream.) Why not, I thought?
Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 2.35.28 PM

I’m really not sure what was happening. “Grilling” didn’t cause the ice cream to melt, and it wasn’t very special for 22 reais ($6.)

Bottom Line

Overall Bonito has the coolest caves I’ve ever seen and the best river snorkeling I’ve ever done, however the tours are run in an overly slow and expensive way.

You can do the area easily in three days, or two if you have your own car.

------------------------------------------------------------

Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with 100,000 bonus Ultimate Rewards after spending $4,000 in the first three months that you can transfer to United miles, Singapore miles, Southwest points, British Airways miles, or use for 1.5 cents each toward any flight, hotel, or car rentals.

Plus the card offers $300 in credits toward any travel purchase each calendar year, which is $600 in your first 12 months of cardmembership, $100 toward Global Entry, and worldwide lounge access. Basically it's the best credit card ever, even with a $450 annual fee.

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8

“It is possible that because of the weather, your aircraft will not be able to land. In that case, we will put everyone on a bus to Campo Grande [Scott: five hours away] to spend the night in a hotel, and you will travel tomorrow.”

That bad news was given to me yesterday as I checked in for my third flight of the week on Azul Brazilian Airlines, so I wanted to share my experience with the airline, Viracopos/Campinas Airport (Sao Paulo’s third airport), and the airline’s free bus service.

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 6.29.33 PM

On Sunday, I flew from Rio de Janeiro to Bonito, Brazil with a short layover in Campinas. Yesterday, I flew back from Bonito to Campinas and took a bus into Sao Paulo to spend the weekend here.

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 6.28.27 PM

Buying the Ticket

As I explained in my spring/summer/fall travel plans for 2016, I bought the entire Azul itinerary for $318 on Azul’s website.

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 4.08.33 PM

Azul is not a member of any alliance, but it does have a partnership with United, so I could have used 25,000 United miles and about $20 instead.

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 5.14.44 PM

But that’s like getting less than 1.2 cents per United mile, which is terrible for a mile I value at 1.5 cents each.

The award option is good to keep in mind, though, when cash tickets are more expensive or for Azul’s international flights. Azul flies from Orlando and Fort Lauderdale to Viracopos-Campinas (VCP) with connections throughout Brazil.

Instead of burning United miles, I put my United MileagePlus number in during purchase, and I earned 0.75 United miles per mile flown for the ticket, which is 1,100 miles that I value at about $17.

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 6.37.00 PM

Check In

I couldn’t check in online, on the Azul app, or at an airport self-service kiosk. Maybe it’s because I’m a foreigner.

At Rio’s GIG airport, which I flew out of to get 50 minutes extra sleep (one hour later flight minus ten minutes extra driving compared to SDU early on a Sunday morning), the check in line moved quickly, and I had my boarding passes in 10 minutes.

I was worried about a human check in because my carry on is a bit overstuffed and has a pair of tennis shoes tied onto it, but agents didn’t bat an eye in Rio or Bonito, where they knew I’d be boarding a tiny plane.

Flights

Rio to Campinas was flown by an Embraer 195 with a 2-2 configuration in coach, the type of plane you’ve probably flown regionally in the United States. The plane was comfortable and modern and featured free live TV at every seat, including CNN International in English.

Even on a flight that is well under an hour in the air, there was still a drink service and free premium snacks served from a basket. If live TV, a snack basket, and the name Azul (Portuguese for “blue”) remind you of JetBlue that isn’t a coincidence. The Brazilian founder of JetBlue also founded Azul.

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 5.07.50 PM
JetBlue’s snack basket. Azul’s has different brands, but the same idea.

From Campinas to Bonito and back, I flew an ATR72.

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 5.04.10 PM

This small plane features rear door boarding.

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 5.04.31 PM

The cabin is also configured 2-2 but without the live TV at every seat.
Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 5.04.38 PM The seats on this plane are quite cramped, but I could put up with in for the two hours in the air to Bonito.Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 5.04.44 PM In fact, more than put up with it, I slept from boarding to touch down on the way and most of the time in the air on the way back. No need for Singapore First Class when I’m sleep deprived.

I can’t say much about the flight attendants. The only interaction I had with them was to order drinks and pick out of the snack basket, all of which I did in Poruguese (or at least Portuñol). I’d have to guess that their English isn’t that great, but that they can manage service in English. (I’m basing this guess on the low level of English generally in Brazil, even among tourist-facing jobs, and the fact that Azul’s inflight magazine is not bilingual, which is the first time I’ve seen an airline magazine entirely in a language other than English.)

Campinas Airport and Free Bus Service

Sao Paulo has three airports.

  • GRU- The international airport with some domestic flights, 32 minutes without traffic from downtown and a little farther from the southern neighborhoods where you’re likely to stay
  • CGH- The domestic airport, 24 minutes without traffic from downtown and a little closer from the southern neighborhoods where you’re likely to stay
  • VCP- Viracopos/Campinas, 75 minutes without traffic from downtown

Viracopos/Campinas reminds me of the European airports that low-cost carriers fly in its distance from the city it serves. It ranks up there with such Ryanair classics as Stockholm–Skavsta and Paris-Beauvais.

All else equal, you’d like your flights to go to CGH, GRU, and VCP in that order, but all else was not equal. Azul has more flights into VCP than CGH or GRU, and it only serves Bonito, where I was, from VCP.

To make VCP less terrible, Azul offers free bus service from four places in the region to the airport and vice versa. You can find more information and the time table here.

The closest drop off point for me was Eldorado Shopping, which is about 10 minutes in car from Vila Madalena, where I booked an Airbnb. The buses run roughly hourly to each destination.

I landed at 7:16 PM last night at a remote stand. After taxiing, a bus to the terminal, and a long walk to baggage claim, I emerged from baggage claim and found signs like this.

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 5.04.51 PMAt 7:45 PM, I got to the bus ticket kiosk and told the employee I wanted a ticket to Eldorado. He asked for my boarding pass stub, and then he handed me one for the next available bus at 8:15 PM. He directed me out the door to the bus stop.Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 5.05.00 PM
At about 8:11 PM, the bus pulled up that said Eldorado on the front. I gave my ticket to the driver and boarded. It was a large, nice coach bus with space in the cabin for carry ons and space in the hold for checked bags. We left right on time at 8:15 PM with only six passengers. We arrived 15 minutes early at 9:30 PM.

The bus system is seamless as long as your layover isn’t too long for the bus and traffic isn’t bad.

I would happily fly into VCP Airport again on Azul because of the bus service.

Connections at VCP

I had what about a 15 minute walk from the B to C terminal on my way to Bonito. I was hungry, and food options weren’t great. A few outlets of Casa do Pao de Queijo, an overpriced Subway, and a pizza place that I walked past but wish I had chosen.

Cancellation Scare

I haven’t had a cancellation in a long time. I haven’t even had a delay that caused me to miss a flight in I can’t remember how long–years at least. My luck continued yesterday.

Bonito Airport has only a two flights a week to Campinas during the offseason. If our inbound aircraft couldn’t land for weather, they would have bussed us five hours to Campo Grande for flights the next day. If that had happened, I would have asked for a flight to CGH airport (the closest to where I was staying in Vila Madalena), a refund of my $318 ticket, and a refund of one night of my Airbnb stay, but who knows what I would have gotten.

Luckily the plane landed just a few minutes late, and we boarded and took off in time for an early landing in Campinas.

I am not even sure what the possible weather problem was. It was a windless day with no thunderstorms. It was cloudy and rainy, but it never crossed my mind the weather might be a problem until told at check in.

Bottom Line

Fly Azul without hesitation either on a cash ticket or one booked with United miles. If you like JetBlue, you’ll like Azul.

------------------------------------------------------------

Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with 100,000 bonus Ultimate Rewards after spending $4,000 in the first three months that you can transfer to United miles, Singapore miles, Southwest points, British Airways miles, or use for 1.5 cents each toward any flight, hotel, or car rentals.

Plus the card offers $300 in credits toward any travel purchase each calendar year, which is $600 in your first 12 months of cardmembership, $100 toward Global Entry, and worldwide lounge access. Basically it's the best credit card ever, even with a $450 annual fee.

cc-reward-320x50

8

Copa 362 & Copa 117
Los Angeles (LAX) – Panama City (PTY), Panama City (PTY– Santiago, Chile (SCL)
Depart LAX: 9:08 PM on January 29, 2016
Arrive PTY: 6:37 AM
Depart PTY: 12:29 PM
Arrive SCL: 8:52 PM on January 30
Duration: 12 hours, 52 minutes total flying
Aircraft: Boeing 737
Seat: 1A (Business Class)

I spent over a month in Hawaii, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, India, and Los Angeles over the holidays, but in late January I flew back to Southern South America, my winter (summer here) home.

I flew from Los Angeles to Santiago, Chile in Copa Business Class on an award I booked for 35,000 Asiana miles plus taxes.

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Copa Business Class is not a fancy flat bed, and the food and service are far below international standards. I’m writing this trip report because Copa offers so much award space that you can easily book to Central or South America with any Star Alliance miles, including most easily with United miles and most cheaply with Asiana miles.

Los Angeles Ground Experience

Copa Airlines flies out of Terminal 6 in Los Angeles, not the Tom Bradley International Terminal. I arrived at 5:30 PM for my 9:08 PM flight, and a sign at the check in counter announced that check in would begin at 6 PM. It actually began at 5:56 PM, so good work beating expectations.

I checked in, caught an Uber to a nearby mall to get some last second shopping in at cheap American prices, and made it back to the airport by 7:45 PM.

When I cleared security, I headed for the Alaska Airlines Board Room lounge. I don’t believe flying Copa Business Class out of Los Angeles offers any lounge access, which is an anomaly. Usually flying international Business Class–even on award tickets–gets you lounge access throughout the journey. But in this case, there is no Copa lounge at LAX and no partners that fly out of Terminal 6.

Luckily my Citi Prestige® Card comes with free Priority Pass membership among many other benefits, and Priority Pass members get free access to the Alaska Airlines Board Rooms among hundreds of other lounges.

The Alaska Airlines Board Room at LAX is fairly typical for an American airline. It has a bar with some free drinks…

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 2.25.24 PM…and a small spread of free food including cheese, salad…Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 2.25.28 PMfresh fruit, soup, crackers, pretzels…Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 2.25.37 PM…and a self-serve pancake machine.

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 2.25.54 PMThe food is suitable for a snack, but not a meal.
Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 2.25.45 PMThe lounge was fairly crowded in the evening.Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 2.25.50 PM

After half an hour, I headed to the gate, arriving thirty minutes before departure. Boarding was underway, and there was no separate line for Business Class, so I was stuck in line for a bit.

Copa Airlines Business Class Flight Experience

Copa Airlines Business Class is very similar to domestic First Class on American airlines. Large recliner seats are arranged 2-2 across a single aisle with four total rows. Pitch is 38″, just like in domestic First Class, which is about seven extra inches of leg room compared to economy.

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I had window seat 1A on both flights, which both featured full cabins. Each seat had a small pillow and blanket.

Both flights offered a pre-departure beverage and a menu.

On the first flight, I fell asleep immediately after take off with a small assist from melatonin and a big assist from jet lag. (I had flown in from India two days before in Etihad A380 First Class.)

I woke up during the breakfast service, but sat motionless with my eyes closed until late in the descent into Panama City.

While Copa Business Class is not nearly as good for sleeping as Business or First Classes that offer a bed, it is good enough when I am exhausted. I imagine I slept considerably better than I would have in economy where I might have been too squeezed in to get any rest.

Here is a picture of how much leg room someone 6’4″ has in a bulkhead seat in Copa Business Class.

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After a six hour layover (review of that in the next section), I boarded my flight to Santiago. This boarding area did have a Premier Access lane, so I was able to skip the line.

Immediately after take off, the meal service started with a drink and mixed nuts.

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This was followed by salad, a warm roll, and ceviche.
Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 2.23.30 PMFor the main course, I ordered steak, which was served with risotto and carrots.

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 2.23.12 PMFor dessert, I had a sundae, which came with individual containers of chocolate and strawberry.

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 2.23.18 PM

The meal was basically plane food that would be acceptable in economy, but not up to the standards of international Business Class or a restaurant. The steak was tough and chewy, although the carrots and risotto were much better. You cannot mess up a sundae, so all smart airlines should serve it in the premium cabins.

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 2.24.13 PMAfter the meal, I napped another three hours.

When I woke up, I finally checked out the entertainment options. A small screen comes out of the arm rest. There was a small and typical selection of TV shows and movies. Most Copa flights are 3-7 hours, so there isn’t need for much more.
Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 2.23.25 PM
I never had use for the power outlets, but all Business Class seats have them.

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 2.24.27 PM

We landed on time with beautiful views of Chile on the descent.

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 2.24.18 PMJust before landing, a flight attendant came around and thanked each passenger for flying.

Ground Experience in Panama City

If you fly Copa Business Class, you get access to the Copa Club in Panama City. It is crowded and dinky. The food selection is basically chips, fruit, cheese, and crackers.
Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 2.24.38 PMThe bar is a bit better.

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 2.25.05 PM

The seating areas were fairly full all morning.
Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 2.24.54 PM Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 2.25.00 PM Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 2.25.15 PM

The lounge has a small Business Center.

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 2.24.46 PM

It also features showers you can reserve at the check in desk.

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 2.24.50 PM

Bottom Line

Copa Business Class is like flying domestic First Class or international Premium Economy. It’s about halfway between economy and a true international Business Class. I managed to sleep about three-quarters of my two flights.

You get enough leg room and free food and drinks. You get lounge access most places. But you don’t get a bed, good food, or personalized service.

You should definitely book United, Air Canada, or Avianca Business Class to South America when that space is available instead of Copa space.

But Copa space is widely available as a back up plan, and for 35,000 Asiana miles one way, it’s a much better deal than booking economy to South America for 30,000 United miles one way.

------------------------------------------------------------

Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with 100,000 bonus Ultimate Rewards after spending $4,000 in the first three months that you can transfer to United miles, Singapore miles, Southwest points, British Airways miles, or use for 1.5 cents each toward any flight, hotel, or car rentals.

Plus the card offers $300 in credits toward any travel purchase each calendar year, which is $600 in your first 12 months of cardmembership, $100 toward Global Entry, and worldwide lounge access. Basically it's the best credit card ever, even with a $450 annual fee.

cc-reward-320x50

5

Here is a video I filmed in January inside the Etihad A380 shower that you can access if you fly in a First Class Apartment:

It is part of a series of trip reports on the flight:

Throughout the video, I compare it to showering in First Class on an Emirates A380. Here’s a video of that:

------------------------------------------------------------

Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with 100,000 bonus Ultimate Rewards after spending $4,000 in the first three months that you can transfer to United miles, Singapore miles, Southwest points, British Airways miles, or use for 1.5 cents each toward any flight, hotel, or car rentals.

Plus the card offers $300 in credits toward any travel purchase each calendar year, which is $600 in your first 12 months of cardmembership, $100 toward Global Entry, and worldwide lounge access. Basically it's the best credit card ever, even with a $450 annual fee.

cc-reward-320x50

1

Etihad 271
Chennai (MAA) – Abu Dhabi (AUH)
Depart: 9:25 PM on January 26, 2016
Arrive: 12:15 AM on January 27, 2016
Duration: 4 hours, 20 minutes
Aircraft: Airbus A321
Seat: 1F (Business Class)

I arrived at Chennai International Airport at 6:30 PM about three hours before my flight to Abu Dhabi, and promptly had trouble getting in the building. You have to show a soldier your boarding pass or itinerary to be let into the airport. After a minute, I was able to pull up my itinerary on the American Airlines app to be let in.

The check in lines were long. I was third up in the Business Class line, and it took me over 20 minutes to be checked in because of some problem with a passenger in front of me. I might have been better off in the much longer economy line.

Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.24.27 AMThis is a flaw in the Etihad check in procedures. Instead of one agent assigned to the Business Class line, all (or at least several) agents should pull customers from the Business Class line before the economy line.

Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.24.33 AM
My view for 20 minutes while another Business Class passenger’s check in was sorted

Once I got in front of the agent, I was checked in within two minutes and handed boarding passes to Abu Dhabi, New York, and Los Angeles plus a lounge invitation for Chennai.

Travel Club Lounge, Chennai

In Chennai, Etihad Business Class passengers have access to the Travel Club along with pretty much anyone else flying Business Class on a Middle Eastern airline or who has Priority Pass or many credit cards. That means I could have gotten in for free no matter which airline I was flying with my Priority Pass membership that is included with my Citi Prestige® Card. (More details on the Citi Prestige’s lounge benefits here.)

Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.27.30 AMAs a general rule, the more people that can access a lounge, the more meager its offerings will be, but this lounge’s offerings were middling-to-solid. You could definitely get a full meal and drinks, though the lounge was hardly elegant or luxurious.

The buffet consisted of sandwiches, chips…
Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.24.38 AM …toast, muffins…Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.24.43 AM …and a selection of hot Indian food.Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.24.49 AM I love Indian food, so I was ecstatic with the options, both vegetarian…Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.25.58 AMScreen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.26.11 AM Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.26.17 AM …and non-vegetarian.

Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.26.06 AM

For drinks, there was a standard selection of water, juices, and sodas.

Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.26.28 AMI can’t comment on the ordinary alcohol selection because I happened to be traveling on India’s Republic Day, which a sign at the lounge’s reception noted is a dry day.Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.27.37 AM

The Chicken Varutha Curry, Aloo Gobi, and Mix Veg Curry were delicious. I scarfed down a few plates in the dining section of the lounge.
Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.26.23 AM Then I moved to the section of the lounge without dining tables to catch up on emails and download some shows for my flights. The wifi was fine for the former, but download speeds were slow.

I lost track of time and ended up having to run to the plane. The lounge is in a very inconvenient location–near gate 11–on the opposite side of the airport from Etihad flights–gate 18.

The Flight

I was one of the last people to board, and the last Business Class passenger. I went to my assigned seat 4A in the last row.Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.27.06 AM

Already at the seat were a pillow, blanket, menu, socks, headphones, and eye shade.

Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.29.20 AMScreen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.29.24 AM

I was offered a pre-departure beverage from a tray of water, orange juice, and champagne and selected a water.Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.27.14 AMFlight attendants also offered a selection of newspapers and magazines before the flight.

Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.28.58 AM

Right before take off, I asked if I could move to the first row because 1D and 1F were both empty. When the flight attendant confirmed that they would remain empty, he told me I could move.
Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.27.20 AMIn general Etihad Business Class on the A321 has a lot of leg room. While the seat is similar to domestic First Class on an American airline, you have about 11 extra inches of legroom. If anything, the bulkhead probably has a little less legroom, but it has plenty for my 6’4″ frame.
Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.27.25 AMThe last order of business before take off was to take dinner orders. I went with the chicken.
Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.28.20 AM Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.28.31 AM Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.28.43 AM Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.28.48 AM Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.28.53 AM
We pushed back three minutes early and were quickly in the air. Dinner service commenced rapidly. Twenty-three minutes after take off, I had this tray in front of me.
Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.29.32 AM The chicken dish was exemplary. I also really enjoyed the olive oil and balsamic vinagrette combination with the personal bread basket.Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.29.39 AMAfter dinner, I reclined the seat to watch a movie.

Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.29.14 AMEtihad has a wide selection of movies available on a touch screen that pops out of your armrest.
Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.29.44 AM The four hours in the air passed quickly between movies and reading.Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.30.30 AM Shortly before landing, flight attendants passed out individual cards with our connecting information, a nice touch.Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 10.30.38 AM

We landed a few minutes early and taxied to a remote stand. There was a bus exclusively for the 14 Business Class passengers, so we got to the terminal quickly where we had to clear security before I could head to the lounge.

Overall

For a mid-haul flight, Etihad Business Class offers a very nice product. While not a flat bed, you get a seat with generous recline and a ton of leg room. The entertainment offering is varied, and the food is very good.

I did think that the pillow worked better in theory than in practice. It is a nice, medium-sized pillow. I probably would have loved it on a lie flat bed. However, when reclined on a seat, it was a bit too thick for my taste, so I mostly didn’t use it.

The flight attendants were quick and friendly.

Etihad Business Class was a nice way to get to Abu Dhabi for the main event–Etihad First Class on an A380–but I wouldn’t pay much a premium to fly it on short flights.

------------------------------------------------------------

Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with 100,000 bonus Ultimate Rewards after spending $4,000 in the first three months that you can transfer to United miles, Singapore miles, Southwest points, British Airways miles, or use for 1.5 cents each toward any flight, hotel, or car rentals.

Plus the card offers $300 in credits toward any travel purchase each calendar year, which is $600 in your first 12 months of cardmembership, $100 toward Global Entry, and worldwide lounge access. Basically it's the best credit card ever, even with a $450 annual fee.

cc-reward-320x50

I have broken my 15 hour flight from Abu Dhabi to New York into four parts because I had over 200 photos and several videos from the flight. This section covers roughly the first half of the flight and my review of the suite and related amenities.

On the Etihad A380 in First Class, there is a ton of food and a dedicated chef. You can eat as much of the food as you’d like, prepared to your specifications, whenever you want.

Similarly, there is enough booze to send an entire frat to the emergency room, and you can drink as much as you’d like whenever you want.

When I was escorted to my suite upon boarding (see that beauty here), I was asked if I’d like a drink. I ordered champagne, and Bollinger 2005 was poured at my seat.

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 4.39.29 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 4.39.39 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 4.39.54 PM

The champagne was served with dates and a hot towel.

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.26.57 PMBefore take off, I was given the food and beverage menus.

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.26.39 PM

The food menu had some appetizers and entrees listed; some proteins, sides, and sauces listed for you to mix-and-match for yourself; and snacks, desserts, and breakfast options.

Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 2.24.03 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 2.24.08 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 2.24.12 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 2.24.16 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 2.24.20 PM The drinks menu had 11 wines listed plus beers, spirits, cocktails, mocktails, and soft drinks.Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 2.24.34 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 2.24.38 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 2.24.45 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-22 at 2.24.49 PM

I was stuffed from the lounge (report here) and my previous flight and exhausted since we took off at 4:27 AM, so I didn’t order anything else before take off.

When I woke up, the flight was more than halfway done, so I was ready to start taking advantage of the elaborate offerings.
Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.31.46 PM I had a mimosa and water brought to me while I contemplated my order.Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.31.56 PMAfter careful consideration, I went with the Arabic mezze to start, followed by the tenderloin served with vegetables, mashed potatoes, and roasted new potatoes.

I asked about breakfast in bed, and the flight attendant told me that while it was possible he didn’t recommend it because the tray was so small that my order wouldn’t comfortably fit on it. Instead, I dined at the large table in front of my seat while I watched live BBC.
Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.32.08 PMA fennel terracotta was served as an amuse bouche.
Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.32.13 PM It amused my bouche. but I was ready for the main event, which I had paired with a Heineken, Chivas 18 on the rocks, and a water.Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.32.18 PM Next came the Arabic mezze, which had a variety of delicious bites. I really liked the hummus and ate all of it before the flight attendant realized he had forgotten to serve the mezze with pita.Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.32.22 PMEverything about the meal service is personalized, and the flight attendant was coming past my seat every few minutes to clear my plate and bring the next course. The third course was a very tasty three bites of orange sorbet to clear the palate.
Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.32.40 PMFinally I got to the main course.
Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.32.51 PMThe steak was cooked to my specification–medium–which is unusual for a flight. The highlight was the oven roasted potatoes, which tasted even better bathed in the jus with which I had ordered my steak.
Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.32.57 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.33.10 PM Finally for dessert, I selected the chef’s special–a take on tiramisu, which was creamy and decadent.Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.33.15 PM I don’t know where my head was, probably floating along somewhere with the Chivas 18, but I didn’t order any cheeses after the meal, which is often my favorite course. By the way, my take on Chivas 18 is that it tastes better and smoother than other whiskeys I’ve tried, but it doesn’t taste good. I couldn’t imagine just sitting around and sipping it for its taste. I imagine it is an acquired taste, and I don’t plan on acquiring.

As the flight continued, I read, watched movies and TV, and used the inflight internet, which was fast enough to watch ESPN highlight videos for the steep price of $22 for the flight.

As I did all those things, I ordered more drinks. I had a Bloody Mary…

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.33.20 PM…a glass of rosé…

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.34.09 PM…and a scredwriver with a splash of lemon-lime juice. All the drinks tasted great and were promptly served.

Other than my shower and a quick look at the onboard lounge, I stayed in my suite the whole time. The onboard lounge directly behind the first class cabin has two couches, a small table, and some alcohol displayed.

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.33.26 PMScreen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.33.31 PM

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.28.54 PM

It doesn’t have the atmosphere or appeal of the bar on the Emirates A380. While I spend the majority of Emirates flights at the bar, I only spent 15 minutes here, and I think it was deserted through most of the flight.

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.34.47 PM Two hours before take off, I decided to have a snack. I ordered the Etihad steak sandwich and french fries, to be served to me in bed while I watched TV. The flight attendant promptly brought me a small tray with the sandwich and potato chips. He explained that there had been a miscommunication about my french fries, and that they were already cooking.Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.33.57 PM The fries were served a few minutes later.Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.34.02 PMThe steak sandwich is really quite delicious, and I recommend it as a snack after you’ve had the full meal experience.

Bottom Line

The food and beverage selection and execution in Etihad First Class is superb, the equivalent of a nice, free restaurant on the ground. (Where are those?)

Shout out to Chef Dash for making it happen!
Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.34.56 PM

In May 2015, I booked my suite for 90,000 American Airlines miles + $39 (including Business Class from India to Abu Dhabi and American Airlines First Class from New York to Los Angeles.). The same award will cost 115,000 miles if booked March 22, 2016 or later. If you can book by March 21, you can lock in the current price for travel through February 2017.

Some credit card offers in this post have expired, but they might come back. If they do they will appear –> Click here for the top current credit card sign up bonuses.

Both the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard® and CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World MasterCard®, which are each offering 50,000 bonus American Airlines miles after $3,000 in purchases made with your card in the first 3 months the account is open.

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 6.44.51 PMScreen Shot 2015-11-09 at 3.59.13 PM

Get both cards and meet the $6,000 total spending requirement in the next three months to have over 106,000 American Airlines miles.

Key Links:

  • Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard®
  • CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World MasterCard®
------------------------------------------------------------

Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with 100,000 bonus Ultimate Rewards after spending $4,000 in the first three months that you can transfer to United miles, Singapore miles, Southwest points, British Airways miles, or use for 1.5 cents each toward any flight, hotel, or car rentals.

Plus the card offers $300 in credits toward any travel purchase each calendar year, which is $600 in your first 12 months of cardmembership, $100 toward Global Entry, and worldwide lounge access. Basically it's the best credit card ever, even with a $450 annual fee.

cc-reward-320x50

I landed in Abu Dhabi at 12:30 AM from Chennai, about three hours before my scheduled departure to New York of 3:20 AM. I was excited to spend time in the Etihad Premium Lounge, though I didn’t know how I’d fit everything in since my boarding pass listed a boarding time of 1:50 AM.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.19.39 PM For now, First Class and Business Class (even Residence) passengers all share the Etihad Premium Lounge. A new lounge for First Class and Residence passengers is scheduled to open in May. First Class passengers have a special section that is roped off, which is where I set my bags to have a look around.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.23.09 PMAt the back of the First Class area is another roped off private room for the Residence passengers, which was empty.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.23.03 PM

The lounge is fairly large with several buffet stations that mostly repeat each other. In the back of the lounge are a salon and a spa.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.20.22 PM

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.20.10 PMEach offer a free service to First Class passengers.

At the salon, the options are an “Express Clipper Cut,” “Express Wet Shave,” and “Express Beard Trim and Tidy.” I love a true wet shave and hadn’t had a proper shave in about two years, so I scheduled one for 1 AM.
Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.19.46 PM Then I went next door to the spa where there were five options for free 15 minute massages: back, foot, hand, “The Hedonist,” and “The Realignment.” Plus there two facial options. In retrospect, I should have gotten my first facial, but I scheduled “The Hedonist” instead for 1:40 AM. If I had been even a few minutes later, I wouldn’t have been able to squeeze a massage in before my flight because the spots book up quickly.Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.20.16 PM

Buffets

I had about 15 minutes to kill before my shave, so I took a look around. The buffets have a wide range of Western and Eastern foods. Here’s just a small sample of what was available.Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.21.35 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.21.44 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.21.50 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.21.56 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.22.01 PM a Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.22.27 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.22.33 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.22.37 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.22.46 PMThe buffets were spread out in the lounge among the many seating areas, which had a variety of possible seats and were all relatively full.

Seating Areas

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.22.06 PMScreen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.22.15 PMScreen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.22.22 PMScreen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.22.52 PM

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.23.50 PMScreen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.24.00 PMScreen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.24.05 PMScreen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.24.11 PM

First Class Menu & Secret Menu

A few of the food options intrigued, but I wanted to see if First Class passengers had other options, so I held off on food for the moment. and went back to the First Class section. A waiter appeared with a menu, which read as follows:Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.22.57 PM I immediately recognized all of the items from the various buffets, which was a bit of a letdown. When I asked, “Oh so it’s basically the stuff from the buffet, but you bring us the plate?,” he said, “Yes, but there is also a secret menu for First Class.”

The “secret” menu is unwritten, but he offered me steak, shrimp, and chicken curry.

When I selected the filet medium, he offered several possible sauces and sides, and I went with mushroom sauce and mashed potatoes. He also listed the fresh juices, and I selected orange. I asked him to bring the steak at 1:15 AM, since that’s when my shave was scheduled to end, and I headed back to the salon.

The Shave

I really enjoyed the shave! I was sporting several weeks of growth, so it was a tall order, but the barber was up to the task. The salon area had two chairs and two friendly and skilled barbers who were working nonstop on appointment after appointment.

Fifteen minutes after this…

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.23.14 PM …I looked five years younger. (Booo! Good thing it grew back in a few days.) 🙂Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.23.27 PM

Midnight Snack

When the shave wrapped up, I headed back the First Class section, and when the waiter saw me, he brought my meal right out. Overall the waiter was excellent and very solicitous. “Can I bring you some bread? Another drink? Dessert?” etc. He was really trying to give away the free food.Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.23.35 PM I supplemented my steak with a plate of mashed potatoes, chili, and jalapeños from the buffet.Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.23.40 PM Both plates were excellent, though skipping food entirely is also a reasonable choice since the onboard food is amazing as well. After my midnight snack, I headed to the spa for my massage.

Massage

“The Hedonist” is designed to “release headaches and stress, and induce relaxation with a gentle massage of pressure points.” All of that appealed to me, since I planned on sleeping as soon as I boarded. (And that is what happened.)
Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.23.46 PM For the massage, I laid on the table, and the masseuse stood near my head. She massaged head, face, neck, and shoulders. It was a fantastic massage that I wish had lasted a full hour like the free massage you get when flying Thai Airways First Class out of Bangkok, but beggars can’t be choosers.

The massage ended at 1:55 AM, 85 minutes before my flight, but five minutes after the boarding time listed on my boarding pass. By this point, the lounge had emptied out considerably, and I headed straight to the boarding gate.

U.S. Preclearance

Abu Dhabi has U.S. Preclearance, which means United States Customs and Border Patrol performs immigration, customs, and agriculture inspections in Abu Dhabi, and you arrive in the United States as if you were a domestic passenger.

In theory, I’m sure this is great for a lot of people. I have Global Entry, though, and I would have spent a lot less time in U.S. customs and immigrations had preclearance not existed. Here’s the process.

Step 1: Get in the Premium Boarding Line to have your passport and boarding pass checked. I’m sure having a separate line is useful a little bit earlier, but by the time I arrived both lines were deserted.

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.24.16 PM

Step 2: Wait, wait, wait. Apparently when I got there, immigration was so backed up that they had us wait in a holding area before going any further. I was able to access free wifi here, so the 35 minutes sitting down was no big deal. A huge crowd had assembled by 2:36 AM when Etihad representatives began allowing First and Business Class passengers to proceed.

Step 3: Security, which was my third security screening for only two flights. (Pre-Chennai flight, upon landing in Abu Dhabi, and pre-Abu Dhabi flight.)

Step 4: U.S. immigration, which did have Global Entry machines. Good thing I have that because there were still a lot of people in the regular lines.

Step 5: U.S. customs, which is a breeze if you have Global Entry.

Until going through preclearance, I wasn’t sure whether there were Global Entry machines in Abu Dhabi. Now that I know that there are, I would have asked Etihad personnel if I could go through instead of waiting 35 minutes before security, since I had Global Entry. Test out their response and share it in the comments if you get a chance.

Because you are requested to start this process 90 minutes before your flight, you might finish with a lot of time before boarding. For that reason, Etihad has a U.S. Premium Lounge by the gates for flights to the United States.

U.S. Premium Lounge, Abu Dhabi

By the time I arrived, my flight’s boarding was already underway, so I just popped in for some photos. It was a smaller version of the main Etihad Premium Lounge with a limited selection of the same food and drink options.Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.24.22 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.24.28 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.24.38 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.24.43 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.24.48 PM

Boarding

Finally at 2:51 AM, I boarded the plane while Group 2 was boarding, only 29 minutes before the scheduled departure. (We ended up not pushing back until 4:07 AM. No reason was given on board, which would have annoyed me if I were in economy, but I was thrilled to get extra time in First Class. I assume the delay was for people passing customs and immigration.)Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 3.25.00 PM

Continue reading about the flight itself here.

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.29.44 PM

Bottom Line & How to Access the Etihad Premium Lounge

Etihad’s ground services stand out the free 15 minute shave or hair cut and the free 15 minute massage for First Class passengers. The food options are very good, but a half step below some other world class lounges. Overall I preferred the Thai Airways First Class lounge in Bangkok and Emirates First Class Lounge in Dubai.

The rest of the ground experience in Abu Dhabi is annoying–having to clear customs and immigration and sit around for 35 minutes greatly took away from my lounge time. This was partially, but not completely, made up for by the smooth arrival as a domestic passenger in New York.

Business and First Class passengers can access the Etihad Premium Lounge.

In May 2015, I booked my First Class suite for 90,000 American Airlines miles + $39 (including Business Class from India to Abu Dhabi and American Airlines First Class from New York to Los Angeles.). The same award will cost 115,000 miles if booked March 22, 2016 or later. If you can book by March 21, you can lock in the current price for travel through February 2017.

Business Class costs 67,500 American Airlines miles right now and goes up to 70,000 miles on March 22.

Some credit card offers in this post have expired, but they might come back. If they do they will appear –> Click here for the top current credit card sign up bonuses.

The Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard® and CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World MasterCard® are each offering 50,000 bonus American Airlines miles after $3,000 in purchases made with your card in the first 3 months the account is open.

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 6.44.51 PMScreen Shot 2015-11-09 at 3.59.13 PM

Get both cards and meet the $6,000 total spending requirement in the next three months to have over 106,000 American Airlines miles.

Key Links:

  • Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard®
  • CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World MasterCard®
------------------------------------------------------------

Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with 100,000 bonus Ultimate Rewards after spending $4,000 in the first three months that you can transfer to United miles, Singapore miles, Southwest points, British Airways miles, or use for 1.5 cents each toward any flight, hotel, or car rentals.

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I have broken my 15 hour flight from Abu Dhabi to New York into four parts because I had over 200 photos and several videos from the flight. This section covers roughly the first half of the flight and my review of the suite and related amenities.

Etihad 103
Abu Dhabi (AUH) – New York (JFK)
Depart: 3:20 AM on January 27, 2016
Arrive: 9:10 AM
Duration: 14 hours, 50 minutes
Aircraft: Airbus A380
Seat: 2H (First Class)

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.25.33 PMThis is it. This was my palace for 15 hours from Abu Dhabi to New York.Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.25.51 PMI was the last First Class passenger to board about 30 minutes before the scheduled 3:20 AM departure. I was met at the door with a smile and escorted to my seat in the second row of First Class.

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Etihad has nine First Class Apartments on its A380s spread across four-and-a-half rows  in the front of the upper deck.

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 8.08.03 PM

The other half of the first row, across from a First Class Apartment, is the living room of the Residence, which has its own bathroom with shower, and bedroom. The Residence was empty for my flight, so the living room was used for storing carry ons.

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.34.27 PM
Residence Living Room, Filled with Carry Ons for My Flight

The nine First Class Apartments alternate between seats near the aisle or seats near the window and forward-facing seats or backward-facing seats. I had a forward-facing seat near the aisle. Next time I would choose a seat near the window for better views during take off and landing. Those seats are lettered A and K.

The Suite

The First Class Apartment is huge and easily the best flying suite in the world. Broadly, it consists of a large seat facing a television, a couch that becomes your bed, and a vanity. The couch/bed takes up the entire width from aisle to window. The seat takes up about half that width.
Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.26.03 PM

The Seat

When seated, you can use the couch as an ottoman to kick up your feet.Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.26.09 PMScreen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.26.15 PMNext to the seat is a touch screen remote control and an area large enough to set a drink and some dates.
Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.26.21 PMOn the other side of the seat is another touch screen to control your seat and the suite’s lights. Below that are physical buttons, yet another way to control the seat’s position and windows.

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.27.41 PMThe seat can be reclined, made softer or firmer, and even has a massage feature. I didn’t test any of this out because I spent most of my time in the bed.Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.27.46 PMScreen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.27.52 PMI was only in the seat for take off, landing, and my main meal. While it was very large and plenty comfortable, I prefer to relax and work lying down.Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.32.51 PM

The Bed

The bed in the Etihad A380 First Class Apartment is 6’8″ long and 2’6″ wide. It is very large and comfortable. You can ask for a turndown service any time, including before take off. I knew I would want to sleep as soon as we took off, so I asked for and received a turn down while we were still on the ground.

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Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.29.57 PMThe most unique feature of the bed is that you can remove part of the barrier between your apartment and the one next door if you are traveling with a companion.

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.29.25 PM

While you cannot exactly snuggle, you can enjoy some pillow talk or a good night kiss. (Compare this to Suites Class on the Singapore A380 where the divider can be completely removed creating a double bed for two.)

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.33.36 PMThe bed has a mattress pad, bedding, a blanket, a large pillow, and a medium pillow. The bed was ideal for sleep, and I immediately conked out for the first half of the flight.

Because my bed was made at take off, I actually hopped in it during our ascent and tried to close the doors to fully enclose the suite. They wouldn’t stay shut, though, until we leveled off.

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Even after I woke up, I spent most of my time in the bed, watching the television (which can swing out to be viewed in bed), using my laptop, and even getting breakfast in bed before landing.

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.29.44 PM

While in the bed, there was another touch screen remote control within reach that I could use to control the television and call for service.

Storage

The suite has several storage areas, though none is big enough for a carry on bag. This is the main weakness of the suite.

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.27.02 PM

For smaller, personal-item-sized bags like my laptop bag, there is ample storage under the couch/bed.

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.27.08 PM Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.27.28 PM

For other small things you want at hand like your computer or reading materials, there is storage within reach of your seat.Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.28.42 PM

But your carry on will not fit in the suite for take off or landing, and there are no overhead bins. Instead, mine was taken and stored in the Residence’s living room since it was empty. When it was taken, I was asked whether I would need the bag back during the flight, and I didn’t. I assume if I had, it would have been brought back after take off to sit on the floor until landing. Certainly there was plenty of room for it there.

Amenties and Vanity

The Emirates A380 First Class Suite has a small vanity with a make up mirror. The Etihad A380 First Class Apartment has a full sized vanity, which is much more impressive. (So impressive in fact, that I had to feign indifference in this photo.)

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.28.21 PM

On one end of your couch, there is a small cabinet that you can open to reveal a three-part mirror. Inside is your amenity kit and some amenities.Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.28.27 PMThe amenity kit actually contains only ear plugs and a sleeping aid that you are supposed to roll onto pulse points to relax yourself.

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.31.13 PMScreen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.31.17 PM

The rest of the amenities you’d normally find in an amenity kit line the vanity.

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.28.31 PMScreen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.28.37 PMOther amenities of the suite include noise-cancelling headphones…
Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.28.02 PMScreen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.28.15 PM

…which plug in via magnet not prongs…

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…pajamas, and slippers.

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The PJs and slippers were very comfortable. I put the pajamas on before take off and took them off about 30 hours later when I woke up from a nap in Los Angeles.

Bottom Line & How You Can Book Your Own Etihad Apartment

I hope you enjoyed the tour of Apartment 2H on the Etihad A380.
Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 1.35.32 PMThe Etihad First Class Apartments are without a doubt the nicest, largest flying suites. Everything is meticulously designed for extreme comfort.

I love that the seat and bed are separate, so that you can have both ready at all times. I was very impressed by how the television was easily visible from either spot, and how each spot had a touch screen remote control.

I would suggest selecting a window seat for better views on take off and landing and to select two adjacent suites if traveling with a companion, so you can remove part of the partition between the suites while you sleep.

In May 2015, I booked my suite for 90,000 American Airlines miles + $39 (including Business Class from India to Abu Dhabi and American Airlines First Class from New York to Los Angeles.). The same award will cost 115,000 miles if booked March 22, 2016 or later. If you can book by March 21, you can lock in the current price for travel through February 2017.

You can even book this award at current prices if you have zero miles right now.

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

If you liked this post, sign up to receive one free daily email every morning with all of the day’s posts! You can also follow MileValue on Twitter and Facebook.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve comes with 100,000 bonus Ultimate Rewards after spending $4,000 in the first three months that you can transfer to United miles, Singapore miles, Southwest points, British Airways miles, or use for 1.5 cents each toward any flight, hotel, or car rentals.

Plus the card offers $300 in credits toward any travel purchase each calendar year, which is $600 in your first 12 months of cardmembership, $100 toward Global Entry, and worldwide lounge access. Basically it's the best credit card ever, even with a $450 annual fee.

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