Chillin’ in Jamaica Mon

As happens more often than you might think, in February I suddenly realized we had some hotel nights that would expire quickly if we didn’t use them.  Elliott and I each have a Chase Hyatt card, and each of those credit cards awarded us two nights at a Hyatt hotel after we met a certain spend requirement.  In the past the banks were often willing to extend the expiration dates on unused certificates, but they are no longer doing this for the most part.  Several years ago we had the cards and used our free nights at the Grand Hyatt Kauai, which we absolutely loved.  But this year we had no plans to go to Hawaii before the hotel nights’ expiration date, and since Chase was no longer willing to extend the expiration date, we had to find another option.

I quickly researched the best Hyatts at which to use the award nights issued by Chase.  Sometimes there are restrictions on how you can use free nights such as these, so I wanted to make sure I knew the rules before getting excited about any specific properties.  To my surprise, I found that Hyatt all-inclusive properties are included in those you can book with the Chase free night certificates, and Hyatt has all-inclusives in Jamaica and Mexico – both of which are about mid-way between our two home bases of Ecuador and Philadelphia.

I booked four nights for us at the adults-only Hyatt Zilara in Montego Bay, Jamaica.  The Hyatt Ziva is the next door “twin hotel” that accommodates families, and we would have access to both.  I knew we wouldn’t leave the property, but didn’t feel too guilty since we’ve been to Jamaica before (and seen a couple of the sites).  I tried not to do too much research on the property since I love surprises, but I did read that this particular one had a full schedule of activities.  Since I don’t sit still for too long at one time, I was psyched.

When we arrived we were checked in right away.  We went right up to our room and were tickled to see my name on the TV on the wall!

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My own personal welcome!

The room was spacious and gorgeous, with a desk, love seat, table and chair and bed with white linens.

It had a mini-bar in which everything was included, so we were sure to follow the advice someone had given us to take the snacks each day!

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I’m takin’ the snacks, yo!

The bathroom had a huge tub, separate tiled shower, terry-cloth robes and lots of toiletries, including a mini scrubby thingy!

And we had a balcony with an outdoor lounge/bed, table and chair, and views of the pools and sand and ocean beyond.  We were going to like this place!

Normally, I would have wanted to jump right into a pool or the ocean, but the weather was not what we expected.  There were such strong winds that despite the temperature, it felt too chilly to go in water, even for me.  The hot tubs were barely warmer than the pools, so it wasn’t even tempting to go in them!  We were hungry though, so we had lunch at Blue Grill by Calypzo, a beachfront grill serving fresh seafood.  We sat for a while on one of the swinging chairs on the beach and just relaxed.  We had a bean bag toss, and then went inside and pretended our bathtub was the hot tub since the actual hot tub was too cold.  That night we had some of the best mozzarella sticks at FuZion, the Asian Grill!  (Go figure…)

The next day we slept in and I had an amazing jerk chicken burrito at Jamaican Rootz by Horizon.

I walked along all of the beaches scoping out a few good spots for Elliott to do yoga.  While he did some yoga I tested out each swimming area on the various beaches.  None of them were great; I tried finding the deepest one, and as they got deeper, they had more seaweed.  Once Elliott finished yoga-fying, we did have fun bobbing in the water, ducking under the waves and throwing seaweed at one another.

That evening we went back to the gym and did a new workout.  Dinner at the Italian restaurant Di Roza that night was actually our least favorite meal.  The caprese salad and bruschetta were both very good, and the pesto gnocci was so delicious I was tempted to order more.  But they forgot to make the pizza I had ordered, and it wasn’t finished until Elliott was just about finished with his parmesan crusted tenderloin.  Once the pizza arrived, I didn’t even enjoy it – the bleu cheese (or goat, or gorgonzola) totally overpowered the other cheeses, to the point where I didn’t like the taste at all!

On Day 3 we sat by the Ziva pool.

I did the 11am Aqua Gym but I did it outside of the pool because the water felt too cold to go in!  I worked up a sweat though so when the class was more-or-less finished I did dip in the pool quickly.  At 12pm we took the Reggae class together.  Elliott found a few moves he liked and said he wants to incorporate them into his future dance moves.  After lunch at Choicez, we went back to the beach we had sat on for a long time yesterday.  After relaxing we went for a beach walk and played bean bags again.   I went swimming in the ocean again and Elliott joined me for a few minutes.

When we got back to our room, we had another welcome message – this time for Elliott:

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We had dinner at Brazil (a Brazilian steakhouse), and headed to the gym for another workout.

On our fourth day I joined the Reggae dance class by the pool which was a lot of fun and Elliott joined me part way through.  We had lunch inside our hotel at Urban Heat by Flavorz.  We finally got to sit on these cool “pretzel stick” chairs (sorry, no photo!).  I tried a new drink – Planter’s Punch – which I liked a lot.  It tasted great and was extremely visually appealing, with the drink color changing ever so slightly from top to bottom.  It looked like a red-orange sunset!  For lunch I had a beet salad and a salmon dish – both were absolutely delicious.

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Afterwards I went swimming in the Zilara pool for the first time!  I first swam in the lower pool, then went exploring the upper pool and the long narrow parts that go along the first floor junior suites with lounge chairs in the pool.  Later we went to the gym together and did another kick-butt workout – you’ve got to burn off all those included food and drink calories somehow!

We went to Choicez for dinner.  It was Moroccan Food which Elliott really likes and the live entertainment show was going on outside, so we asked to sit outside so we could listen and half-watch.  There was a great steel drum band playing on the stage.  The drummers were also dancing at times which was impressive, and at the end, they came out one at a time and did some amazing break-dancing and gymnastics-type moves.  We walked back to Zilara and found a fire pit just for us, and sat for a little while.  The fire pits at night were one of our favorite features of the resort, and sitting by them after dinner had become a nightly ritual.

On our last day we had to check out early so I set an alarm for 6:10am!  I was determined to have some pool time and enjoy our last morning before leaving.  I got us packed and headed out at 7:30 and claimed us some awesome chairs right next to the pool.  It was the nicest day since we had arrived!  We both went to the yoga class on the boardwalk leading to the gazebo.  I was impressed – there were a bunch of people, the instructor had us do some tough poses, and the class lasted an hour long.  I was happy!

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A great spot for a yoga class.

Afterwards we ate breakfast just across the way at the Blue Grill by Calypso – it was fitting as our first meal had been there too.  After breakfast we went back to the pool and we went swimming one last time.  Then we sat at the pool bar and ordered our last drinks – a Dark & Stormy for him, and a Bob Marley for me.  It was so much fun, finally sitting on those in-the-pool bar stools and enjoying drinks in the sun!  I went for one last swim under all the waterfalls as I said goodbye to the Hyatt Zilara.

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Love the waterfalls.

We packed the rest of our things and went downstairs for the free shuttle, hoping one day we can return again!

Quickstop: Seattle…and our first Mileage Run

If Amtrak was going to drop us off in Seattle, we might as well spend a day or two, right?  We got back to our roots by couch surfing which we hadn’t done for a long time.  It felt really good to stay with a total stranger again.  If you’ve never tried it before, that probably sounds a little weird, but we like meeting new people and making new friends.  It’s also nice to be reminded that there are humans who are good to each other for no reason.

After getting to our couch surfing host and getting to know him, our first downtown stop had to be that classic Seattle institution – Cow Chip Cookies.  We sampled these cookies last time we were in Seattle, and couldn’t wait to come back for more.  They’re as delicious as they are pricey – a gooey, chocolatey splurge.

But this is a post about Seattle, not cookies, so let’s continue…

But this is a post about Seattle, not cookies, so let’s continue….Our host suggested we go to the top of the Columbia Tower, rather than the Space Needle.  We decided to go for it.  Once we got to the 40th floor though, we decided not to shell out the large ticket price.  There were huge windows everywhere, and glass doors in front of them, so we could see the city views from where we were!  After a covert snapshot or two, we returned to street-level and headed off to the Seattle Central Library Library.

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At least the brochure is free

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Looks impressive, even from the lobby

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Yup, that’s Seattle alright

The library is an architectural marvel, so we were excited to finally go inside.  My favorite feature was the “book spiral.”  Four of the upper floors have a continuous ramp that slowly spirals you through the Dewey Decimal System without ever having to take stairs or an elevator to another floor. We also loved the magazine archives which have issues from pretty much every magazine you’ve ever heard of (and a good deal of those you haven’t).  We had fun looking up birthday issues, and Stephani even found the very issue of Arizona Highways magazine that made her fall in love with  and almost move to Arizona many years ago (she’s moved on).

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Inside the library

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Looking down at the floor waaay below

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Stephanie’s birthday issue

Up next was the Seattle Underground Tour.  Here’s the short story: Seattle was originally built on marshy wetlands that had a tendency to flood.  After a devastating fire, the decision was made to rebuild Seattle a little higher (kind of like the underground tunnels in the Magic Kingdom) in order to avoid future flooding.  The original streets were shored up with concrete walls, and new streets were built overhead so that what was once the second floor of a building was now at street level.  This left a whole warren of underground tunnels which are full of all kinds of history – including the gravity-fed flush toilet which was new to Seattle, and invented by one Thomas Crapper.  (For real!)

That evening, we caught up with our friend, Josh.  We both used to work with him in Philly before he relocated to Seattle.  We spent the evening playing games and reliving old times.  And just like that, our time in Seattle was over.  All that was left now was a mileage run on our way home.

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What’s a mileage run? Well I’m glad you asked.  A mileage run is when you take a very cheap flight just to rack up the miles.  Usually this is done to achieve status with an airline.  This time, we had a different goal.  JetBlue was offering 75,000 points if you (a) had at least 50,000 points with Virgin Atlantic (the competition!), and (b) took any round trip flight with JetBlue. I have always wanted to take a mileage run flight before, but we never found one we could take that we deemed worthwhile.  Until now!

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We do too

Okay, stay with me… our ticket home from Seattle had a long layover in Oakland.  We used that time to take a 45 JetBlue minute flight to Long Beach, California and then another back to Oakland.  This cost us about 75 bucks, and earned us 75,000 JetBlue miles.  Each!  After that, it was just a matter of flying home to Philly and spending almost five whole days(!) trying to catch our breath before heading out on our next adventure.

Water, Gold and Snow

For those of you who’ve just joined us, let me recap: Ten months ago, Stephanie found some mistakes in pricing from Etihad Airways. This is how we could afford to travel to Africa for a safari. That same pricing goof also yielded a round trip to Dubai for an unbelievable $187. Taxes included!! When my brother, Erik, heard about it, he decided to join us, and a family trip was born.

Fast-forward to the present. At the Etihad counter in JFK airport, Erik sauntered up dressed like the forgotten love child of Giorgio Armani and Orville Redenbacher. We were happy to see him anyway, and after a quick conference, decided that he could travel with us despite his wardrobe. In the months leading up to this trip, we struck a deal with him: We would get a credit card in his name, and in return for allowing us to earn the points on it, he could have the perks of airport lounge access and TSA Pre-Check (which totally didn’t help us at JFK). And so it was that we ushered Erik, wide-eyed with wonder, into the world of international airport lounges.

Stephanie, Erik and Carlos have cookies at the lounge in JFK

Stephanie, Erik and Carlos have cookies at the lounge in JFK

Dubai had not changed much since our last visit, and it was fun to show Erik all the things we remembered: The funky, art-deco buildings, the ridiculous wealth and our old friend the Dubai metro. We specifically chose a hotel in the Deira Creek section of town, also known as “Old Dubai.” Our room at the luxurious Radisson Blu, where we stayed on points, had a great view of the river, and of downtown beyond.

The last time we visited, Stephanie wasn’t feeling well, and so wasn’t up for several attractions. This time, fit as a fiddle, she prioritized what we would see. On our first full day, we went to Wild Wadi – an outdoor waterpark in the shadow of the iconic Burj Al Arab hotel. Some of the highlights included a multi-person raft where we could all ride together, a Flow Rider surfing simulator, and of course, the obligatory lazy river.

Group ride at Wild Wadi
Riding with my baby

The Segelbaum boys go watersliding

The Segelbaum boys go watersliding

No caption necessary

No caption necessary

Our next day we hit up the Gold Souk in search of a new watch for me. This was just a recon mission, though. Unfortunately we went on a Friday, which we learned is basically a weekend in the Arab world, meaning all the best stuff was closed. (Fortunately for you, dear reader, we have already blogged about the Gold Souk.) The guys touting “copy watches” were everywhere, though. It’s said that in Dubai’s Gold Souk, you can find perfect replicas of any watch you could want, so we set out to test that theory. The guy we chose to follow walked ahead of us as if he had no idea we were tailing him to his secret stash of illicit watches. The store he took us to only seemed to sell clothes, but suddenly a secret lift (dubbed the James Bond Lift by us) descended out of nowhere to take us to a hidden second floor full of watches, electronics, perfume and “designer” handbags. They kept trying to offer Stephanie designer purses, and me jewel-encrusted Rolexes, or giant, chunky Breitlings, but at least I had a sense of how this game worked. We could come back another day for some serious shopping.

The hidden James Bond elevator to the secret land of watches

The hidden James Bond elevator to the secret land of watches

That afternoon, it was swim time. The pool in our hotel was closed, but they shuttled us from our 4-star hotel to a 5-star one where we could enjoy the pool and the double-thick, queen-sized towels they provided. The views from the 7th floor pool were great. Here, take a look…

Day three, and the fun didn’t stop. We took this day to do the most unnecessary, gimmicky and totally cool thing there is in Dubai: We hit the indoor ski resort for a day in the (artificial) snow. Knowing that Erik is an expert snowboarder (and I’ve been known to rock a skateboard or two in my day), I decided to start on a snowboard. Stephanie started out with skis, but once she saw Erik giving lessons, she switched to snowboarding. I *thought* that it would be fun to do it together, but she soon proved that she’s better than me at picking up this new skill. I shouldn’t be surprised; she has a kid-like lack of fear when it comes to trying new activities. Me? I’m worried I’ll break a hip at my age.

We slowly picked our way down the hill while Erik carved up huge plumes of snow around us. After a break for some food and hot chocolate, we switched to skis for the afternoon. Although snowboarding feels more natural to me, I found that I was inherently better at skiing. I guess those couple of days on the slopes in my teens stuck with me. I let Erik and Stephanie convince me to take the lift all the way to the top of the double-black-diamond-super-secret-death run, and immediately wished I hadn’t. Even though it’s only a man-made, indoor construction, it still looked like a terrifyingly long way to the bottom. I only fell once as the two of them babied me down, but I’m glad I did it.

Holy $#!+, an indoor ski resort!

Holy $#!+, an indoor ski resort!

Carlos goes snowboarding

Carlos goes snowboarding

Marshmallow-y hot chocolate during a break

Marshmallow-y hot chocolate during a break

That night, we returned to the Gold Souk on a quest for the perfect watch. On our third attempt at following a copy-watch guy, we found what we were looking for. Now I had never heard of Vacheron Constantin before that night, but the watch was exactly what I was looking for. It turns out they’re one of the oldest watchmakers in the world, and that if my spiffy new watch had been an original, it would have set me back about $12K. Actually it would have set Stephanie back by that much. The traditional eleventh anniversary gift is steel, and Stephanie got me this stainless steel watch for an anniversary present. As you can see below, Carlos and I love it.

Carlos approves of my watch

Carlos approves of my watch

Not So Evil After All

A while ago, we wrote an entry to inform you of the evils of airport lounges. Despite my dire warnings, the lounges are really pretty cool. Not domestic lounges in the U.S., though. You really have to travel internationally to find these Shangri-Las hidden behind non-descript doors.

Fhloston Paradise from "The 5th Element" (brought to you by Gemini Croquettes)

Fhloston Paradise from “The 5th Element” (brought to you by Gemini Croquettes)

If you know us at all, you know that we usually travel on the cheap, so we’re not the types to drop 50 bucks apiece just to get in a lounge for a few hours. If you know us at all, you *also* know two very important facts about us: 1) Stephanie, being the miles-and-points junkie that she is, gets us free lounge access as a perk from a credit card with a just a teeny weeny annual fee. (Don’t worry, she gets us waaay more than that fee back in cash benefits.)

Seriously, doesn't everyone have one of these?

Seriously, doesn’t everyone have one of these?

2) Elliott will sell his own brother to Bedouin nomads if it means some free food. (Sorry, Erik!)

Hang on, Little Bro!

Hang on, Little bro!

Our most recent adventure took us from New York to Johannesburg by way of Abu Dhabi. One of my two favorite lounges ever was the one in Dubai, so I was really looking forward to Abu Dhabi. As we were waiting to check in at JFK with over four hours to go, Stephanie said in a quiet voice “Uh, oh. You’re gonna hate me forever!” It turns out she accidentally left our lounge access cards in Philly.

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Me

Okay, after I seethed for about two minutes, I remembered that if Stephanie had a nickel for every time *I* forgot something important, we wouldn’t be traveling in coach. I commuted my rage to disappointment, and changed my seething to sulking before I hit on the solution (I’m kind of a genius). Just call the lounge people, and get our membership numbers over the phone. Then they can be run manually. It worked like a charm (as I said, I’m kind of a genius), and before you can say “TSA pat-down,” we were in a lounge in JFK’s international terminal. Being an international lounge, it had everything we needed: food for Elliott, Wi-fi for Stephanie, alcohol for neither of us, and cookies for both of us. Here, take a look…

 

The time until our flight passed in a flash, until it was time for that ancient battle – do we board immediately with 100,000 other people all jockeying for space in the overhead bins, or do we wait and board last so as not to just sit on the plane for an extra half hour? As often happens, the answer lay somewhere in the middle.  We waited until I couldn’t stand it anymore, and then I dragged Stephanie aboard.

We settled in for a great flight on Etihad; an airline that was new to us, but is already our favorite. It’s like they were custom tailored for me: full-coverage, noise-cancelling headphones (in coach!), on-demand entertainment including music by Pink Floyd and Black Sabbath, an amenities pack with a toothbrush, socks, eyeshades, etc…, and killer Indian food. Proof that Etihad is way ahead of its time, however, were the eyeshades they provided. One side is red and says “Do Not Disturb.” Flip ‘em over and the green side says “Wake me up to eat.”

And I thought *I* was a genius!

And I thought *I* was a genius!

A mere 13 hours later, we were disembarking in Abu Dhabi. Only 14 more hours to go until our travels continued, so off we went to the lounge. This was the lounge I had been waiting for! Not just hot and cold dishes, but exotic ones such as chicken biryani and fresh hummus. There’s something about hummus in the Middle East that makes it extra tasty. For Stephanie, the main attraction was definitely the shot glasses filled with chocolate mousse. The Al Dhabi Lounge also had extra comfy chairs fit for sleeping, free showers and even an iPod charging cable we could use. (This was extra-helpful since ours had disappeared between Philly and New York.)

It's not all fitness and veggies, ya know

It’s not all fitness and veggies, ya know

The staff members in these lounges are like private concierges. They even helped us nail down seats for our return home. Our lounge access contract was only good for a four-hour visit, but the good people at the lounge simply found us and had us sign a new receipt every four hours. We watched people come and go all night in between sleeping, cross-stitching, and taking advantage of free Wi-Fi.

About an hour before we had to leave, we used the complimentary showers. Sometimes, we’ll use one shower facility together (it’s all about efficiency, people, get your minds out of the gutter!), but in the conservative Middle East, they simply could not grasp the concept of only using one shower between us. We opted not to rock any boats, and showered separately. The facilities were luxuriously appointed with everything you could need for the task of cleaning yourself – fluffy towels, hair dryers, full length mirrors, shaving mirrors, and little single use packs of razors, combs, toothbrushes, shower caps, Q-tips – the works. There are no photos because there were lots of mirrors, and y’all don’t want none of that.

You'll thank me later

You’ll thank me later

We got to our flight, and nine hours later, we were in South Africa – a new country for us. Now it was simply a matter of waiting 12 hours for our pickup. Johannesburg also had a lounge we could use. The only problem was that the lounges are (almost) always *after* you clear security (“airside” as us frequent travelers call it), and international airports tend to herd you through customs and out through baggage claim. So this time we resorted to one of our tried-and-true travel methods: sleeping in the airport.

Catching some Zzz's in Jo'burg

Catching some Zzz’s in Jo’burg

It sounds crazy, but we have done this everywhere from San Francisco to Buenos Aires, Mombasa to Cairns, and we are never the only ones nesting overnight.

Between naps, we walked around and checked out what the airport had to offer. We found sunglasses for Stephanie, which was a godsend considering hers had broken and we were about to explore a country known for its sun. Bonus for me: the airport had a real British Woolworth’s which carried real British Jelly Babies. If you’ve never tried these vast-improvements-over-gummy-bears, well, I ain’t sharing mine!

Don’t let the fact that they have names and look like ACTUAL babies scare you

Don’t let the fact that they all have names and look like ACTUAL babies scare you

After our fabulous safari adventure, we were ready to try that lounge in Johannesburg. Nope – stymied again! Apparently in this day of wondrous modern technology, they were unable to enter our numbers manually – only to swipe a card.

It’s that simple, people! (Well, if we had our cards. But pushing the numbered buttons is really easy too!)

Anyway, Abu Dhabi was coming (again), and we knew *they* would take care of us. Not only was our trusty lounge ready and waiting for us, but in Abu Dhabi you can clear U.S. customs and immigration before you even board your flight. This means that when we landed in New York, we landed in a domestic terminal and went straight to baggage claim. Yippee!

So, what have we learned?
Lounges – good.
Free food & Wi-Fi – good.
Pre-clearing customs – good.
Jelly Babies – extra good!
Forgetting your Priority Pass cards – not so bad (unless you’re in Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport).
Wife who gets you all this stuff and all you have to do is show up – PRICELESS.

It Was a Christmas Miracle

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Twas the night before Christmas, and Stephanie swore,
There’d be very few presents; she had nothing more.
Elliott smiled, and threw back his head
Then rippling with laughter, he climbed into bed.

He’d heard this same story, so many times past
Each time had been thrown off, even aghast,
Come morning when presents were stacked ‘neath the tree,
All bearing tags, labeled, ”Me, me, me, me!”

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But Stephanie fretted, then worried a bit,
Hoping come morning, he’d not throw a fit.
For this time she knew, the truth had been told
There were no extra presents, no new ones nor old.

Then slowly but surely, the two fell asleep,
Drifting off peacefully, to Dreamland so deep,
Til 4 in the morning, when she woke with a start
Eyes wide, brain going, and quick-beating heart.

Nothing to fear though; this was quite routine.
For though often told she was little and lean
Stephanie’s eyes were much larger than tummy
Insomnia the side effect of eating so yummy.

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She lay there a bit, and she thought and she reasoned,
With all of the gifts and excitement this season
Did it make sense, in some possible way
To wake up the others, so early this day?

Surely the presents, and chocolate chip cookies…
A day when everyone gets to play hooky…
But deep down she knew, there was no excuse,
To pull out the others, from their deep snooze.

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So quickly and quietly, she slipped out of bed,
And tip-toed upstairs with the lightest of tread.
At 4 in the morning, there was nothing to do,
Or was there? The laptop, the internet… oooh!

Would there be sales? First a big doubt.
The stores were all closed, but the web wasn’t out!
Would Dan have a Deal? She went to his site,
And wouldn’t you know, in the middle of night.

A fare had been posted, with a price so so low
No one would believe it, it had to be faux!
Surely, somewhere a mistake had been made
Best snag it real quick, before it could fade.

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It took more than two hours, to capture the fare
Her excitement peaked as she was aware
This present, unplanned, would turn out to be
A massive surprise in their history.

She ran down the stairs to wake Elliott up
A huge smile on her face, like that of a pup.
“Guess where we’re going? Guess what I found?”
She could hold nothing in – “We’re Africa-bound!”

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He looked very sleepy, then his eyes opened wide.
“Will we see animals? Will there be a guide?”
“Wait – how did this happen? Where did you – when?”
Then she told him the price of $293.10.

Now he couldn’t stop smiling, as he looked at his wife
“Why you’ve done it again, you’ve just lit up my life!”
“Very few presents you say, none big or small?”
“With this one my love, you have just topped them all!”

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Why We Don’t Hate Spirit Airlines

Many people in the travel world frown on our favorite low-budget carrier. But Spirit takes us from Philly to Florida for only 5,000 miles, and they even fly to Central America. In 2011, we flew to Costa Rica on Spirit, and it cost us only $525.90, for the two of us, round trip (including taxes and baggage fees). We did have a small problem that, could have been a major catastrophe…

In order to fully appreciate the excellent customer Spirit Airlines and their representatives provided us, let me share with you the problems we had on our Spirit flights from San Jose, Costa Rica (SJO) to Atlantic City (ACY) with a change in Ft. Lauderdale (FLL).

Problem #1
Due to a scheduling change by Spirit after we booked our flight, our connection window in FLL was reduced to just under one hour. Even though it was 5:30 AM, there were several international flights coming through FLL, and it took us well over an hour to clear customs. Now, it’s not Spirit’s fault that customs can take a while to clear, but the Spirit rep at customs was unable to convince the border patrol to fast-track us. (It was this situation and the fact that Amex picked up the tab that prompted us to join Global Entry, which allows us to soar through Customs.)

Problem #2
We needed to claim and then re-check our luggage in FLL. By the time we got through customs, one of our two bags had arrived, but the other hadn’t. Another plane (coming from Panama) was unloaded in its entirety before our second bag arrived on the same belt. This cost us another 30-45 minutes. This problem falls squarely on the shoulders of Spirit’s FLL baggage handlers.

Luckily, it turned out that our flight from FLL to ACY had been delayed, and was still at the gate an hour after it was supposed to depart. Which leads us to the next issue we had with Spirit…

Problem #3
We literally ran through the airport. My father-in-law, Barry, and I got held up at TSA screening. Stephanie ran to the gate where our flight was waiting and the door to the plane was still open. She begged them to wait five minutes for us to get through security. They refused, but reluctantly granted her two minutes after much pleading. When Barry and I arrived at the gate, the agent took our boarding passes and walked us down the jetway only to find that the door to the plane had been closed and would not be reopened. In addition, our luggage was already onboard and en route to ACY. I had a minor freak-out until they assured me that Stephanie was not aboard. She had run back to find Barry and me, and somehow we had missed each other.

This is actually my biggest problem with this entire story. I was very disappointed and more than a little ticked off that we were checked in and right there, yet they refused to hold the flight for 120 seconds so we could actually board. At the ticket counter, the agent told us there were no more open seats home for three days. We talked to a supervisor, and told her that her gate agents sailed without us, and she guaranteed us that we would be on a flight that evening.

Problem #4
When we got to the gate that evening, it turned out that we were given only stand-by tickets, and the flight was now oversold. At first it seemed like we were going to be trapped overnight with no luggage. The gate agents (Sonia and Elvin) spent a good deal of time trying to work out a solution. Eventually, they juggled several other people, and were able to squeeze us on, but we weren’t sitting anywhere near each other. After hearing our story, Art & Kathy, our flight attendants on the way home, juggled even more people, and eventually got Stephanie and I seated next to each other while Barry relaxed in the exit row. Fifteen hours later, we were finally on our way home.

Compensation
After we got home, I e-mailed the whole tale to Spirit airlines customer service who surprised me by not only apologizing, but crediting my FreeSpirit account with enough miles for a free round-trip ticket.

But it gets even better. Not six months later I had over 20,000 Free Spirit miles that were about to expire. That’s over four round trip tickets. I e-mailed customer service, and a very helpful Corporate Escalation Officer named Fay helped to ensure that my miles stayed active.

So thank you very, very much Spirit Customer Service, and thanks again as well to Sonia and Elvin, Art and Kathy and Fay. So to all those Spirit-haters out there, don’t judge them too harshly. They can be a pretty good carrier if you’re not a fancy-pants luxury flyer. I know we’re gonna keep flying with them.

spirit air

The Evils of Airport Lounges

As a side perk of opening certain credit cards, we have been able to get memberships to a few different airport lounge programs. As long as you go with a buddy airport lounges can be great – a relaxing, perk-filled oasis in the chaotic sea of air travel. But mark my words: If you go into an airport lounge alone you are risking all kinds of travel nightmares. Don’t let them fool you with their free Wi-Fi and free snacks and free drinks. Don’t believe me? Read on…

EXHIBIT A: Cairo, Egypt
Okay, this one we went to together, but it was here that we learned about green sushi. It didn’t start out green, but apparently, they have a technique of aging their sushi by leaving it out at room temperature all day. The room was all linoleum and uncomfortable college-dorm-in-the-70s chairs. I’m trying to ease you gently into the scary underworld of airport lounges, here. Let’s see what else we have…

EXHIBIT B: Istanbul, Turkey
We arrived very early to the airport to find that we couldn’t check our luggage until four hours before our flight. That meant waiting around for a while before we could dump our baggage. Stephanie nobly offered to let me go check out the lounge while she waited outside of security with our luggage. At least, it *sounds* noble. In reality, it was a self-preservation effort on her part since I was getting dangerously hungry. Since we already had our boarding passes, off I went. In this case, “through security” also meant through customs. They stamped my passport without me even thinking that this effectively means I have left the country as far as the government is concerned.

The lounge was nice – modern décor, fast Wi-Fi, yummy food and snacks, and the obligatory free alcohol. After checking my e-mail, and stockpiling some snacks for Stephanie, I headed back to security where I promptly had to explain to three different people why I needed to go back out. That pesky stamp in my passport, however, meant I needed to basically re-enter the country. I was directed through a non-descript hallway to a glass door that could only be opened from the other side. Once I convinced a uniformed security agent to let me through, I joined the 9,000 people who had just stepped off a plane and legitimately wanted to enter Turkey. I had to then explain to the customs agent why I wanted back into a country whose computers said I just left. They ended up sending me to the “special” line where once they understood what I wanted, they voided my departure, and it was as if I never slipped out of Turkey to get down on some free cookies. I eventually had to leave through baggage claim and find my way back to check-in. Total elapsed time – two hours, all of which was totally the fault of the lounge.

EXHIBIT C: San Juan, Puerto Rico
Just our standard run-of-the-mill trip to Ecuador: Southwest Airlines from Philly to Tampa and then from Tampa to San Juan. From there, we were to catch a United code share partner to Panama City where we would relax overnight in the airport. In the morning it would be on to Bogota, Colombia, and finally to Guayaquil, Ecuador where we could take our ol’ familiar 3.5 hour bus ride to Cuenca. But that meddling lounge got in the way as soon as we got to San Juan.

We checked in for our flight to Panama, dropped off our luggage, and decided to kill some time in the lounge. (Yay Wi-Fi!) Stephanie no longer had the credit card that let her into the lounges, but I did, so she convinced me to go in so we could take advantage of the internet (San Juan really doesn’t have Wi-Fi access), and to liberate some snacks on her behalf. Now, for the record, I didn’t want to go bask in all the wondrous glory of airport lounginess without her, but I bravely soldiered on at her urging. (Honest!) I even came out after a while just to be with her, but she sent me back in to wring every drop of juicy internet goodness out of our airport time.

I hadn’t been back inside for ten minutes when she came running up to me to share the news so important that the good folks at the lounge let her in to find me. Puerto Rico does not observe daylight savings (because evidently they’re smarter than us), which meant that unbeknownst to us, we were in fact ahead of Philly by an hour. So it was not 5:20, but 6:20. Bad luck when you have a 6:14 flight. We sprinted to the next terminal, but by the time we got to our gate, the lights were off, the plane was gone, and the whole area was eerily devoid of people.

We checked in with the TSA who radioed out to the ticket area, and were told that all representatives from United and its partners had left for the day since their last flight had just departed. We went back to the lounge where they realized that it was obviously all their fault, and they let us in to call the airline and figure out what’s what. After almost an hour on the phone, we learned that when you miss a leg of your flight, they cancel the rest of your ticket – regardless of where your luggage may be. This meant that not only were all our subsequent legs to Ecuador cancelled, but that our return home in two weeks was also cancelled. We also learned that there were no more mileage award tickets to be had for at least five days. It was getting better by the minute!

When the lounge closed at 8:00pm, and kicked us out laughing its diabolical, airport-lounge laugh, we tried to call the airline and right the wrongs, but we couldn’t find a strong enough Wi-Fi signal. We kept trying just long enough for every store, bar and restaurant in the airport to close, leaving us with no food options. Dinner was a healthy combo of chicken-flavored chips and always-delicious double chocolate coated Tim Tams (see our post from Australia on these babies!).

We did have a tiny glimmer of hope when we found a free Wi-Fi hotspot, ironically right at the gate from which we should have departed. We had another one when around 11:00 pm the supposedly-gone-for-the-day airline rep found us and told us they took our luggage back off the plane when we didn’t show for the flight.

And so now it’s the middle of the night, and rather than sleep, I’m seething and swearing off solo trips to airport lounges forever. We did find a way to Ecuador after all, but it will cost us an extra day of travel, an extra night in an airport, and very possibly my sanity. (Don’t you wish you were Stephanie right now?) A pox on you, airport lounge!