Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Secret To Cheap Domestic Australia Travel Is British Airways Avios

Having been traveling through Australia for the past few weeks, I've really begun to appreciate just how useful British Airways' Avios are when it comes to domestic travel on obscure routes. Qantas has a virtual stranglehold on many of these non-stop flights, and as such, prices are sky high even for short hops.

Luckily, OneWorld partner British Airways has a distance-based award chart, with the best redemption values typically found on the shortest flights. Just for comparison, I did a quick search for the current cheapest prices on some of these Qantas-monopolized routes, and here are the results:

Hamilton Island (HTI) - Cairns (CNS):
Cheapest price online: $459
BA award redemption: 4,500 Avios

Cairns (CNS) - Uluru (AYQ):
Cheapest price online: $642
BA award redemption: 7,500 Avios

Uluru (AYQ) - Alice Springs (ASP):
Cheapest price online: $284
BA award redemption: 4,500 Avios

Alice Springs (ASP) - Perth (PER):
Cheapest price online: $549
BA award redemption: 10,000 Avios

When I booked this award last year, total taxes and fees for the four segments combined came out to $201.22. Compare that to the $1934 I would have paid out of pocket for booking the exact same flights with Qantas. That converts to a redemption value of more than 6.5 cents per mile, which is ridiculously good when it comes to economy tickets! 

Be aware that most of these flights are operated by individual carriers such as Eastern Australian Airlines and Sunstate Airlines under the QantasLink brand. QantasLink routes still do not show up on the British Airways website award search, so bookings need to be made over the phone, which will incur an additional fee of $25.

If you are in need of some extra Avios, British Airways and Chase are currently running a decent promotion for their co-branded Visa. You will receive 50,000 Avios after spending $2000 within the first 90 days of account opening, with the annual fee waived for the first year ($95). Here is the landing page. As always, this is not an affiliate link.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Best Hotel Upgrade I've Ever Received

I haven't had much time to update the blog while traveling through Australia, but I simply had to write about this. Today, I arrived in Gold Coast and took the public bus up to Surfers Paradise, where I had booked a one-night stay at the Surfers Paradise Marriott Resort and Spa. An award night costs a hefty 30,000 points (Category 6), but since typical rates run about $200-$300 USD per night, I thought it was a passable redemption in terms of value.

I walked through the beautiful grand lobby and approached the reception with my large backpack as usual, and made some chit-chat with the friendly agent. I find that checking in at a nicer hotel while looking like a dirty backpacker typically generates one of two extreme reactions: disdain and annoyance, or genuine interest in where I've been and where I'm going. This lady definitely fell into the latter category. She asked about my month-long trek through the country, and what I thought about Australia so far.

Finally, she smiled and quietly said that she had given me a complimentary upgrade to an Ocean View Executive Suite. At first, I didn't really register what that meant, so I just said thank you and went on my way. When I arrived at my room, I was absolutely stunned. I have never received an upgrade beyond the usual "higher floor" or "better view" room. This was simply unbelievable. She upgraded me to a one bedroom suite, with one and a half baths, living room, dining area, two double beds, a walk-in closet, etc. After getting settled in, I made sure to go back downstairs and thank her profusely.

Even more amazing is the fact that I am not a Platinum or Gold Elite Member, but a lowly Silver Elite. Even without the crazy upgrade, I was already impressed with the list of benefits, including complimentary in-room WiFi, late checkout, and 15% off all dining at the resort. I almost never eat at the hotel when traveling, but I made an exception this time because I was kind of in awe of this place. Of course, I will be writing a full review in the forthcoming Australia trip report, but in the meantime, here are some pictures.

 Living room and dining area


 Master bathroom

 A walk-in closet... in my hotel room. WTF.

 From the balcony

 From the other balcony

Saltwater lagoon on the lush resort grounds

Surfers Paradise beach

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Next Big Adventure...

Apologies for taking an eternity to complete the South American Altiplano trip report. I was really hoping to finish prior to leaving for Australia, but with so much to prepare for this trip, I simply ran out of time. And since I'm currently stuck in the stone age traveling without a laptop, my only hope of updating this blog will be during short periods of downtime at hotel business centers.

On the upside, I'm very excited (and nervous) about this three-and-a-half week solo trek through Australia. It has been a culmination of nearly one year of planning. With so many stops along the way, my head is spinning right now from all the information and research. I suppose this is the disadvantage of being an obsessive compulsive planner.

The trip starts off with one of the more extravagant flights I've taken in a very long time. I will definitely be writing extensively about my experiences on the Qantas A380 in first class from Los Angeles to Melbourne. Unfortunately, all seven domestic legs within Australia will be in economy, as will my return home from Perth via Singapore and Seoul on Singapore Airlines.

Thanks for reading, and I will be back soon!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Salar De Uyuni And The Bolivian Altiplano

***This post is part 10 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Choosing a Salar de Uyuni tour company online is an unpleasantly arduous task at best. Information is outdated, reviews are questionable, and outfitters seem to pop out of nowhere and disappear overnight. There are only a handful of reputable operators that have become somewhat well-known among tourists, but even they have their detractors.

One of the most dangerous aspects of any Salar de Uyuni tour is the fact that there are no paved roads along the three-day journey. You must travel in a 4x4 on paths carved out by other vehicles in the barren landscape of the Altiplano. Getting lost is a real possibility if your guides are not experienced enough. During our tour, we actually had other companies' drivers stop to ask for directions. And on numerous occasions, they would simply follow our lead. 

The quality and maintenance of the 4x4s are just as important, as the rugged trails and salt can wreak havoc on them. Breakdowns are the last thing you want on a tour like this. Older Toyota Land Cruisers and their Lexus equivalents seem to be the vehicles of choice here, and at least in our case, they mostly stood up to the punishing terrain without any issues. On the last day, one of our tires developed a slow leak, but our guide was able to fix it with a temporary patch.

Most disturbingly, the safety and livelihood of passengers are completely in the hands of drivers who may have a high probability of being drunk. Do a quick search on tour reviews and you will find hundreds of horror stories about guides and drivers who were too inebriated to even walk. Deadly accidents were a common occurrence not too long ago, but those numbers seem to be declining slightly as higher safety standards are adopted.

Beyond the obvious concerns associated with driving a 4x4 into the middle of nowhere for three days, the question of cost can also be incredibly confusing. From my own research, I found that different companies can charge anywhere from 700 to 1300 Bolivianos ($100-$190 USD). Of course, you often do get what you pay for, and there may be significant differences in terms of quality of the tour guides, vehicles, food, and accommodations.

Ultimately, we decided to book with Red Planet Expeditions, probably the most established of all the Salar de Uyuni tour operators. At 1200 Bolivianos per person, they were on the high end of the cost spectrum, but owing to the slightly more favorable reviews and strong emphasis on safety, we agreed that it was worth the extra money.

After being dropped off at the tour office in Uyuni, we went about settling the payment first with the none too friendly secretary. Despite confirming prior to arrival that they accepted credit cards, we were told that they had hit their "monthly limit", and would only be accepting cash now (Bolivianos or dollars). Frustrating to say the least, and we were forced to retrieve additional money from the local ATM. After returning to the office, she then refused to accept a $100 dollar bill because of a tiny tear that could barely be seen by the naked eye. After my friend became angry and threatened to walk out, she suddenly decided the bill was fine.

Not a great way to start off the trip, but thankfully, the other people we met in the office all seemed very cool. With tours departing around 10:00-11:00 am, we had some time to grab supplies along the main street in town. Despite the fact that meals are provided, it is still important to bring extra water and snacks. Back at the office, we were introduced to our tour guide for the next three days... who turned out to be simply amazing. 

Avenida Arce in Uyuni

Gonzoles was his name, and he was actually an American of Bolivian descent who spoke perfect English and Spanish. He was informative, hilarious, and most importantly, genuine in his desire to provide a good tour for all 11 of us. I'll go into more detail later on, but needless to say, I think we were all very thankful we had him as our guide. After getting our two Land Cruisers loaded up with supplies, we were soon on our way. From here, I'll break this trip report down into the three separate days we spent in the Bolivian Altiplano.

Our two Land Cruisers

Monday, September 2, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Amaszonas Airlines 300 Economy Class (LPB-UYU)

***This post is part 9 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Uyuni is the main jump-off point for visiting Salar de Uyuni and the Southern Bolivian Altiplano. Its remote location in the rugged high plains, however, has always made it an extremely difficult place to access. In recent years, the construction of a modern runway and introduction of regular flights from La Paz has finally made it possible to reach this destination without an overnight journey.

No doubt the most grueling method of transportation is by bus. Despite being only about 340 miles from La Paz, this overnight trek can take upwards of 12-14 hours due to the poor road conditions. Buses are notorious for breaking down on this route, so be prepared for even more delays if that happens. In addition, temperatures in the Altiplano can plummet overnight, especially during winter. If the onboard heater fails (or is nonexistent to begin with), your only defense against the cold will be to pile on the thick layers.

Todo Turismo runs a direct tourist class bus that includes hot food, blankets, and even WiFi, but you will be paying more than double the price (230 Bolivianos) of standard buses for the added comfort. Be aware that certain itineraries will require a change of bus in the town of Oruro. There is also a train between Oruro and Uyuni that runs every Tuesday and Friday. It is possible to catch a bus from La Paz to Oruro, and then switch to this train for the remainder of the journey, although this tends to waste more time. Be sure to purchase your tickets at least a few days in advance, as they may sell out quickly.

In 2012, Línea Aérea Amaszonas began operating daily flights between La Paz and Uyuni, which has significantly reduced the transit time. With a scheduled duration of only 45 minutes, it is amazing to realize that you can now save almost half a day of travel and a whole lot of pain. The cost is approximately $130 USD for a one-way ticket, so this is obviously not the cheapest option, but for us, it was worth the extra cost simply because it allowed us more time in La Paz. Also, being able to enjoy a decent night's sleep prior to the three-day Salar de Uyuni tour was a huge benefit.

TAM, the civilian wing of the Bolivian Air Force, also runs flights to Uyuni on Mondays and Fridays at roughly the same schedule and cost as Amaszonas. However, their website is not user friendly, and as of September 2013, it is still impossible to purchase tickets online.

When we originally bought our tickets, the departure time was listed as 7:15 am. Luckily, I reconfirmed our flights on the website prior to the trip and realized that the time had been changed to 6:50 am. We printed out our boarding passes at the hotel (each person must bring two copies to the airport) and turned in early for the night.

The following morning, we checked out at 4:30 am and caught a taxi to El Alto International Airport on the outskirts of town. The cost for the roughly 25-minute journey was 60 Bolivianos, which seemed to be ten more than usual, but our taxi driver claimed there was a surcharge for such an early departure. He flew through the winding Autopista, swerving around other cars at speeds that must have been considered a felony in the States. Fortunately, we got to the airport in one piece... and a lot earlier than expected!

There were only a few people in line at the check-in counters when we arrived, and after verifying our payment credit cards and printed boarding passes, our large backpacks were tagged to Uyuni. We had already selected our seats online, and those were reconfirmed as well. By the time we were finished, a long line had formed behind us, including a large Japanese tourist group that was on the same flight.

Amaszonas check-in counters

El Alto International Airport check-in area

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The South American Altiplano March 2013 - Exploring La Paz

***This post is part 8 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

La Paz is a fascinating city to me primarily because of its unique location and layout. First off, it is the highest seat of government in the world. Assigning an actual altitude to the city, however, is difficult because the number ranges from about 10,170 feet to 13,313 feet at the border of El Alto, where the international airport is located. What other city in the world do you know covers an altitude range of nearly 3,200 feet?

Taking a bus into La Paz from the outskirts of the city gives you a good idea of its unusual topography. As you descend from dizzying heights along the edge of town, views of the massive sprawl set inside a wide, deep canyon are simply astonishing. At the very bottom of this canyon lies the heart of the city. From here, La Paz has grown outwards and upwards, spreading beyond the slopes until it finally reached the high plateau to the west.

Because the weather and effects of altitude grow milder as you descend into the canyon, the wealthiest residential districts and business centers are all located at the bottom, while the surrounding hillsides are lined with poorer neighborhoods. At the very top, the adjacent city of El Alto sits on a flat plain with an average altitude of 13,620 feet, making it the world's highest large city. More than a million people live here, many in shanty town-like conditions, and crime and poverty are both significant issues for its residents.

With our delayed arrival into La Paz on the first day, we missed out on a late afternoon of exploring the city. So with just one full day left, we made the most of our time by visiting some of the more prominent sights in town. The weather was beautiful in the morning, and we set off along El Prado, the main street just west of our hotel. The tree-lined road is surrounded by restaurants, department stores, and apartments catering to the mostly middle-class residents of the area. Social activism, of course, plays a prominent role in daily life, and just on our walk, we witnessed a political rally as well as a tent city protest.

Start of El Prado

Political rally

Tent city protest