Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Australia September 2013 - Qantas Airways 2504 Economy Class (HTI → CNS)

***This post is part 14 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Although I arrived in Airlie Beach via the Whitsunday Coast Airport (PPP) near Prosperpine, I was forced to depart via the Great Barrier Reef Airport (HTI) on Hamilton Island. The reason for this was simple: there were no flights operating the Prosperpine → Cairns route. The only way I could get to Cairns non-stop was through Hamilton Island, on the sole daily flight operated by QantasLink.

I previously wrote about how expensive the 1 hour 25 minute hop is due to the monopoly that Qantas has on this unusual route. Thankfully, I was able to put my stash of British Airways Avios to great use here, and I redeemed an award ticket for only 4,500 miles one-way.

One major disadvantage of taking this flight, however, was the inconvenience of getting to Hamilton Island. Cruise Whitsundays operates a Resort Connections ferry service that transports passengers from the mainland to several different islands in the region, in addition to a direct drop-off at the Great Barrier Reef Airport on Hamilton Island.

Unfortunately, ferry tickets are not cheap. The cost of a one-way journey to the airport is $48 AUD. If you are visiting Hamilton Island or staying at one of the resorts there, you'll need to be dropped off at the Hamilton Island Marina instead, which costs a whopping $56 AUD despite being virtually adjacent to the airport. Here is the full Resort Connections schedule, as well as how much it costs to get to each island.

Cruise Whitsundays serves arriving and departing passengers of every single scheduled flight to and from the Great Barrier Reef Airport. If you are taking the ferry from the mainland, make sure you confirm the departure point (either Abel Point Marina or Shute Harbour). Note that in September 2014, ferry facilities at Abel Point Marina will be relocated to the brand new Port of Airlie Marina.

My QantasLink flight was scheduled for 9:55 am, so I decided to catch the first ferry departing Shute Harbour at 7:50 am. It is highly recommended that you pre-purchase tickets online so you have a guaranteed spot. On the day of departure, I checked out of Base Airlie Beach early and walked to the qconnect public bus stop along Shute Harbour Road.

Qconnect links Proserpine, Airlie Beach, and Shute Harbour, and charges for tickets according to the number of zones transited. The trip from central Airlie Beach to Shute Harbour crosses one zone, so the total price was $3.60 AUD one-way. You can download a PDF of the zone descriptions and full schedule.

Qconnect bus stop on Shute Harbour Road

Qconnect timetable for Stop 29

Upon arriving at Shute Harbour, there was an amazing sunrise over the water, so I stopped for a brief moment to take in the view before walking over to the ferry terminal. There, my ticket to the Great Barrier Reef Airport was reconfirmed, and I was told to wait in the outdoor holding area until boarding was called.

Qconnect arrival at Shute Harbour

Sunrise over Shute Harbour

Monday, May 19, 2014

Australia September 2013 - Base Airlie Beach Resort & Exploring Airlie Beach

***This post is part 13 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

I booked two non-consecutive nights at the Base Airlie Beach Resort, one prior to the Whitsunday Islands sailing tour, and one after. The term "resort" is used very loosely here, as Base is a well-known backpackers hostel found throughout Australia and New Zealand. By making my reservations through TopCashBack and HotelClub, I was able to earn a fairly hefty rebate and cashback.

Base Airlie Beach Resort has mediocre reviews on TripAdvisor, but I think when it comes to hostels, it's very important to set your expectations accordingly. Some people complain about the slow service, dated amenities, and dirty rooms, but you have to remember that you're booking a bed at a hostel, not a suite at the Four Seasons (or even a Motel 6, for that matter)!

For the first night, I decided to go with a 5-bed shared dorm ensuite, and the total price was a reasonable $24.91. I took the Whitsunday Transit Shuttle from Prosperpine, which dropped me off just across the street from Base in the late afternoon. The location of the hostel was perfect, right in the middle of central Airlie Beach on Shute Harbour Road, the main artery in town.

Shute Harbour Road

Base Airlie Beach Resort

The reception area was small but utilitarian. Check-in is notoriously slow here, mainly because guests often have numerous questions regarding the property, and they tend to book their Whitsunday Islands tour with the hostel as well. There is also a plethora of add-ons, such as $4 AUD for 24-hours of WiFi, $5 AUD for a continental breakfast, and $6 AUD for luggage storage.

Coin-operated washer and dryer units are available on site, which I appreciated after almost two weeks of travel. As with most hostels, there is a shared kitchen where guests can prepare their own meals. I decided to eat out for both nights, so I can't comment on how functional the cooking facilities were.

The property is expansive, and there is actually much more open space than there are buildings. Behind the reception is a large parking lot for campervan site rentals, and closer to the center of the resort is a decent-sized pool with plenty of lounge chairs. I suppose this is where the term "resort" comes from. Surrounding the pool are the shared dorms and private rooms, grouped together as four-unit buildings.

Base Airlie Beach Resort property


Friday, May 16, 2014

Saving Big On Hotel Reservations Using HotelClub

Of the last few revenue hotel bookings I've made, all of them have been through HotelClub. Less than a year ago, I hadn't even heard of the name HotelClub, much less trusted them enough to attempt an actual booking. Now, they have quickly become my go-to source for non-reward advanced reservations.

So what is HotelClub, and why am I raving about it? First off, I am not earning any commission or kickback for promoting the site, I simply find their service to be ridiculously rewarding. The premise is fairly straightforward: you earn a rebate for every hotel booking you make, starting with your very first reservation. There are three member tiers in all, each with an increasing rebate percentage:
  • Silver Club Member: Upon signing up, you are automatically a Silver Club Member. Silver Club Members receive a 4% rebate on their first and second confirmed bookings.
  • Gold Club Member: You will become a Gold Club Member when you have made at least 2 confirmed bookings within the last 24 months from today. Gold Club Members earn a 5% rebate on on their third, fourth, fifth and sixth confirmed bookings.
  • Platinum Club Member: You will become a Platinum Club Member when you have made at least 6 confirmed bookings within the last 24 months from today. Platinum Club Members earn a 7% rebate on their seventh and subsequent confirmed bookings.
Rebates are given in the form of HotelClub credits, which can be used on any future bookings. I found there to be virtually no limitations on the use of these credits, and they become available immediately after being deposited into your account. Credits do expire if there is no account activity (revenue and/or reward booking) within 24 months. If you cancel a booking that includes the use of credits, the credits will return to your account with the original expiration date.

Despite the "club" moniker, signing up is just as easy as any other travel booking website. The only requirements are a minimum age of 18 years, an email, and a password. Of course, you can fill out your profile more thoroughly after joining, but that is completely optional.

The only major downside to HotelClub is the noticeable deficiency in worldwide coverage. And even in cities where HotelClub does have a presence, there is a substantial lack of variety and selection when compared to the larger OTAs. My assumption is that HotelClub only works with properties that provide them the biggest affiliate kickback in order to maintain their generous rewards program.

Stacking With TopCashBack

The single most important reason why I love HotelClub, however, is the additional 14% cashback you can earn by clicking through the TopCashBack portal. If you've never used TopCashBack before, it's one of the many commission-based shopping portals that passes on its referral earnings to members. They are also one of the largest, with partners in just about every category of e-commerce.

By always accessing the HotelClub website through TopCashBack, you can stack the 14% cashback on top of the standard member rewards you already earn through HotelClub. This means that if you sign up for HotelClub today, you can automatically start earning a whopping 18% off your first booking. If you are a Platinum Club Member, you will be earning 21% off each and every reservation!

Of course, I would always do some comparison shopping on Kayak or other sites before pulling the trigger, since HotelClub isn't guaranteed to have the lowest rates online. However, even if their rates are incrementally higher, I would still book with HotelClub since the rebate and cashback combined often far outweigh any difference in price.

One last word of warning about TopCashBack: if you use an online coupon code that is not authorized by TopCashBack for your HotelClub booking, you may not receive the 14% cashback. So do not try stacking this already awesome deal with even more coupon codes you found online!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Chase Southwest 50,000 Bonus Points Cards Are Back

Note: The links below are official Southwest offers available to everyone, and do not provide affiliate or referral bonuses to me or anyone else.

It seems like the Chase Southwest Visa Signature Card returns with a 50,000 bonus points offer every couple months. Well, it's here again, and it looks to be identical to the previous incarnations. There are four versions of the card, with only slight differences between them.

The good thing is all four will earn 50,000 bonus Rapid Rewards points after spending $2,000 within the first 3 months of opening your account. All four also earn 2 points per dollar spent on Southwest and AirTran purchase made directly with the airline, 2 points per dollar spent on Rapid Rewards Hotel and Car Rental Partners, and 1 point per dollar spent everywhere else. Here are the other features of each card:

While the offer states "earn two free flights", the 50,000 points can be redeemed any which way you like. Exactly how much is 50,000 points worth? Well, on March 31, Southwest supposedly devalued their points from a fixed value of about 1.7 cents/point to 1.4 cents/point when redeeming for Wanna Get Away fares, which would mean that 50,000 points is worth a total of $700. Not bad!

Strange thing is, I just did a few reward searches and found several examples where Wanna Get Away fares were still redeemable for around 1.7 cents/point. Does this mean the devaluation hasn't officially kicked in yet? Or is Southwest implementing a variable value system for points redemptions? I'm not sure at this point, but I'd imagine whether this was intentional or not, it will probably be fixed very soon. Essentially, the 50,000 points is still worth up to $880 right now.

Southwest Companion Pass

Of course, one of the most popular benefits of earning Rapid Rewards points is the Companion Pass. Rules state that if you earn 110,000 Rapid Rewards points within one year, you will receive the Companion Pass for the current year as well as the entire following year. This pass gives you a free companion ticket anytime you make a revenue or reward booking. All you have to do is pay for the taxes and fees.

As of now, points earned from credit card bonuses and purchases still count. So if you apply for just two of the above cards and complete the minimum spend requirement, you will already have 104,000 Rapid Rewards points earned for the year! The additional 6,000 points can be earned through more purchases or by transferring points into your account via partners such as Marriott, Hyatt, and Avis. However, points transfers from Chase Ultimate Rewards do not count.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that it is possible to have two cards concurrently. Any more than that, however, and you may run into rejections. No official word yet on when this offer will expire, but I wouldn't be surprised if it returned within a few months regardless.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Australia September 2013 - Three Days Sailing The Whitsunday Islands & The Outer Great Barrier Reef

***This post is part 12 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Choosing an overnight Whitsunday Islands sailing vessel was probably the most frustrating part of planning this trip. Strangely enough, it was very similar to the dilemma I faced while researching different ships for the Halong Bay overnight cruise when I visited Vietnam in 2011.

What it all boils down to is this: anytime there is an overabundance of operators, none of whom have a solid, user-friendly online presence, partnering with dozens of third-party travel agents who are all hawking identical tours at a mind-numbing variation of prices, what you get is an absolute cluster#&^*.

While the Whitsunday tour operators are slightly more tech-savvy, many of their websites are still primitive and informational only. Most still depend heavily on travel agents, who aggregate dozens, if not hundreds, of different day tours, overnight tours, adventure tours, diving tours, etc., all on an even wider variety of sailboats, ferries, catamarans, rafts, etc. Take a look at this website and see if you can make any sense of the options!

My first task was wading through all of the fragmented reviews on websites such as TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet. Gradually, I narrowed down my options. I then emailed a few online travel agents for quotes. If a specific tour operator has their own website, my first choice will always be to book directly with them, not only because they typically have the best rates, but also because changes and cancellations are much easier when dealing directly with the source.

There are Whitsunday Islands tours at just about every price point, but I had a few requirements that I knew I wouldn't deviate from:
  • Diving at the Outer Great Barrier Reef
  • Smaller, non-party boat with fewer passengers
  • 3 days/2 nights to maximize my time in the area
  • Preferably a sailing tour
I finally settled on the Kiana, a smaller sailboat with a maximum capacity of just 14 passengers. It was fully equipped for scuba-diving, and even included the first dive in the price. A second dive cost $70 AUD, a third was $50 AUD, and any additional dives were $30 AUD. They set sail every Monday and Friday for 3 days/2 nights, and the Outer Great Barrier Reef was part of the itinerary.

The primary reason why the Great Barrier Reef is typically not included in most Whitsunday Islands tours is distance. As you move south along the chain, its proximity from shore stretches further and further. From the Whitsunday coast, it takes approximately two hours to reach the reef, depending on conditions.

The Kiana itinerary

Since September 2013, Kiana has increased the shared room price from $649 to $669 AUD per person, while private rooms now cost $719 AUD. When I reserved my spot, I received a 10% discount for booking directly with them online, but I don't know if this discount still applies. There is also an additional 2% credit card fee (many merchants in Australia charge this).

While it was not even close to being the cheapest option available, I felt that for this specific itinerary, low-density layout, and scuba-dive inclusion, the Kiana was worth it. On the day prior to departure, all passengers were required to check in at the Whitsunday Sailing Adventures office in Airlie Beach by 5:30 pm. The next morning, I walked to Abel Point Marina and arrived at the meetup point at 8:00 am sharp.

Abel Point Marina

Remarkably, there were only seven of us total. I think we were all were extremely happy with the low number of passengers (and luckily, seven people was the minimum required to set sail). After turning in our dive forms and going through a few more formalities, we walked to the Kiana and boarded our home for the next three days.

The Kiana

There are a few rules that apply while on board the Kiana. First of all, no shoes are allowed, not even flip flops. They are collected when you step on the boat, and given to you whenever you step off. No backpacks or luggage of any kind are allowed. At check-in, you are given a linen bag, and all of your belongings for the next three days must fit in the bag (this is mostly a health precaution again bed bug infestations). Finally, you may not bring your own alcohol, as the Kiana is a licensed vessel and has drinks for sale on board.

I would highly recommend bringing bottled water, as the tap water on board has an unappetizing taste. The other passengers were none too pleased about this, but luckily, I had brought my own liter jug. Definitely bring a beach towel. If you forget, one can be rented at check-in. Nights on the water can be a little chilly, so be sure to carry a light jacket and perhaps a pair of long pants.

Monday, May 5, 2014

The Ridiculous Residence Cabin Of The New Etihad A380

And you thought the Singapore Airlines double bed suites were nice. Etihad has just unveiled the most luxurious seat in all of commercial aviation, aptly named "The Residence", to be found on their brand new A380s. With 125 square feet of space spread out between a living/dining room, bedroom, and private bathroom, Etihad apparently plans to give private jets a run for their money.

The living room includes a Poltrona Frau leather sofa with an ottoman, two dining tables, a chilled drink cabinet, and a 32-inch flat screen TV with HDMI inputs. The ensuite bathroom has (what else?) its own shower, along with exclusive toiletries and bathrobes, and the bedroom features a real double bed and a 27-inch flat screen TV.

The Residence living room

The Residence private bathroom and shower

The Residence bedroom

In addition to the hard product, guests booking The Residence will have access to their VIP Travel Concierge Service, which will take care of every aspect of the reservation, including luxury chauffeurs, private check-in, and lounge access at the airport. Onboard, your own personal Etihad Butler will cater to your every whim, while an in-flight chef can prepare your favorite dishes.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Australia September 2013 - Virgin Australia 1117 Economy Class (BNE → PPP)

***This post is part 11 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

Before heading to Brisbane Central Station, I made sure I still had enough funds on my TransLink go card. Using the handy journey planner tool, I was also able to find out the exact departure times for Airtrain and how long the trip to Brisbane Domestic Terminal would take (approximately 26 minutes).

Since last September, TransLink discontinued the off-peak discount for this route and the fare is now $16.50 AUD one-way throughout the day. However, if you pre-purchase the ticket online on Airtrain's website, there is still a small discount and the cost is $14.85 AUD.

Central Station to Brisbane Airport's Domestic Terminal

Boarding Airtrain

Much like the journey from Gold Coast to Brisbane, this train was fast, clean, and most importantly, complimentary WiFi-enabled. I honestly can't say enough good things about the public transport system in all the major cities of Australia.

Following a quick and pleasant ride, we pulled up to the Domestic Terminal and disembarked the train. Just past the station exit is a ticket counter where you can return your TransLink go card and get a refund for the $10 AUD deposit and any funds that may still be remaining in your account.

As I've mentioned already in a previous post, you must have used cash for your initial purchase (or the most recent top-up) of the TransLink go card to receive your refund in cash. If you used a credit or debit card, you will need to have an Australian bank account for them to deposit the refund directly.


Arriving at the Domestic Terminal

Airtrain ticket counter

Friday, May 2, 2014

New 60,000 Bonus Points Chase Ink Business Cards (Without The Affiliate Link Nonsense)

For a limited time (possibly until May 31, 2014), Chase has increased the sign-up bonus for both their Ink Business Cards from 50,000 to 60,000 Ultimate Rewards points when you spend $5,000 within the first 3 months. The blogosphere went wild in the past 24 hours with affiliate links plastered across just about every post and forum. You won't find them here. Here are the non-affiliate links to the same deal for both the Ink Bold and the Ink Plus Cards:

What's the difference between the two versions? It's quite simple. The Ink Bold is a charge card, meaning the statement balance needs to be paid off in full every month, while the Ink Plus is a standard credit card, meaning you can keep a balance and pay interest on it (of course, I would never recommend doing that for any rewards card). Otherwise, both are essentially identical in benefits:
  • Earn 60,000 bonus Ultimate Rewards points when you spend $5,000 within the first 3 months
  • Earn 5x points on the first $50,000 spent annually at office supply stores, and on cell phone, landline, internet, and cable TV services
  • Earn 2x points on the first $50,000 spent annually at gas stations and for hotels (when booked directly with the hotels)
  • Earn 1x points everywhere else
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Annual fee waived for the first year, $95 thereafter
Yes, you can have both cards at the same time, however, I would wait at least a week before applying for the other card (and who knows if the deal will still be around by then). Back in late 2013, Chase began issuing all Ink Cards as Visa Signature products rather than World MasterCard. Technically, after the switch, they are considered "new products", and you should be able to get the bonus again. There is anecdotal evidence that this is true, but as always, YMMV.

Approvals have gotten significantly tougher, as Chase knows some people are fudging the "business" aspect of these accounts, and using them to max out the 5x spending at office supply stores. Be ready to call the Chase reconsideration line for a grilling in case you get denied at first:
  • 1-800-453-9719  business credit analyst (8am-10pm M-F EDT)
  • 1-888-245-0625  personal credit analyst (7am-10pm M-F, 8am-10pm Sat, 9am-9pm Sun EDT)
Call the business credit analyst for the Ink Cards. I included the personal number for those who are denied for other Chase personal cards. Good luck!