Category Archives: Travel Planning

Koh Samui: Part 1 – Any Hilton in the World

This is the first post in a multiple part trip report of our long weekend trip to Koh Samui, Thailand. 

Koh Samui: Part 1 – Any Hilton in the World

I’m a sucker for a deal.  I really am.  And I’m all about maximizing value.  So, knowing that I had a soon to expire certificate for a free weekend night at any Hilton in the world, I wanted to find the most expensive Hiltons in the world to choose from.  As plenty of other people have earned these same certificates from the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card, there is a lot of information out there on where to use them.  Conrads are Hilton’s top hotel brand, and so that’s where the search began.  While they are certainly a minority in the family of Hilton properties, there are plenty of Conrads in great locations to choose from.

Of all the Hiltons in the world, the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island seems to get top rating among bloggers and miles and points enthusiasts.  It seems that the Maldives is the Mecca of that crowd.  It’s the absolute dream beach vacation – top notch resorts only reachable by sea plane with nothing but crystal clear water and white sandy beaches.  It’s the ultimate vacation that only the richest of the rich can afford, but it can be done somewhat easily with miles and points.  The Conrad Maldives Rangali Island is one of the places that miles and points enthusiasts flock to.  If Dawn and I weren’t already headed there next month on points, the Conrad Maldives would have been the easy choice for spending these Hilton certificates.  

Besides the Maldives, there are Conrads in Tokyo, Bangkok, Bali, Hong Kong, Istanbul, and plenty of other places.  Besides the Conrads, some other incredibly beautiful and expensive Hiltons are located in London, Rome, and Bora Bora.  Bora Bora is way too far away from us here in Doha for a short trip, so that wasn’t even really considered.  Dawn and I would both love to visit Bali at some point, but I’m pretty sure there are other inexpensive lodging options there that we could choose from.  Istanbul is in the same situation.  At this point in my life, I’m not extremely interested in returning to Western Europe because I’ve already visited many of the cities there (including both Rome and London); plus it’s an easy trip from the States.  Tokyo is on my travel list for sure, but Dawn isn’t as interested.  Plus, again, with cities there are always more options to find cheaper accommodations.

When choosing where to use our certificates I considered all of the things mentioned above, but it really was a pretty easy decision.  After our trip to Cambodia last fall we both fell in love with Southeast Asia.  Thailand was high on our list of countries to visit, and so the Conrad Koh Samui came in easily as the next best Hilton behind the Conrad Maldives.  The property just looked absolutely gorgeous.  Instead of the rooms being just rooms, each ‘room’ is actually an individual villa built up on the side of a mountain overlooking the Gulf of Thailand.  Each villa comes with it’s own infinity pool.  Of course there is a main pool where you can hang out, as well as a a small ‘real’ beach that goes out into the sea and a small ‘fake’ beach with lounge chairs in sand that overlook the water.  Plenty of bloggers had made the pilgrimage to the Conrad Koh Samui, and none had been disappointed.  The place seemed to exceed everyone’s expectations.  It didn’t hurt that the weekend I was looking at visiting, rates were around $700-$800 per night, so I was pretty excited about the value I’d be getting from the free night certificates.

Conrad Koh Samui Nightly Rates

Squeezing as much value out of those free weekend night certificates as possible

The only hesitation I had in booking it was that in all the reports I had read they mentioned how far away it was from everything.  Most people recommended staying at the resort the whole time.  I’m really not a resort kind of guy.  I’d much rather be out hiking in a forest or checking out a local market than lounging in front of a pool with a book.  I like the beach, but I like beaches where there is a lot of activity.  I want to be in the water swimming or walking up and down the beach to see what’s going on.  We were going to be there for 3 nights and most of 4 days.  I didn’t know if I was going to be able to sit still and do nothing for four days.  Dawn was very good with doing a whole lot of nothing except relaxing at the pool though.  Our own personal pool and the free breakfasts were more than enough to sell Dawn on the place.  I figured a good compromise was to book a rental car so that we had the option of leaving the resort to check out more of Koh Samui if we wanted.  Plus, I didn’t really want to pay resort prices on all of our meals, and I wanted an easy way to get out to those famous Thai street food vendors.  

Conrad Koh Samui

View from our patio

As the certificates were only good for weekend nights you can only use them on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights no matter where you are in the world.  I actually found that a little strange as the weekend here in the Middle East is actually Friday and Saturday instead of Saturday and Sunday.  While Dawn and I had each earned two certificates, due to the weekend night requirement, we could only string three certificates together for a single stay.  Knowing we’d want to use 3 of the certificates together, Dawn and I used one of my certificates back in November for a single night stay at the Conrad Dubai.  For this trip we could have used some of our Hilton points to tack on an additional night, but I needed to make this a short trip due to work obligations so I kept it to a three night stay.  I also didn’t feel much like burning 95,000 HHonors points for just an additional night.

Our 3 night, 4 day stay would allow us plenty of time to enjoy both the resort and whatever else the island had to offer.  While it was just a long weekend, we were certainly excited about staying at a place we would never be able to afford if we had to pay cash for the stay.  

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Cambodia and Vietnam in Style

If I’ve learned anything from my time in the miles and points world, it’s if you can’t get what you want, hang up and call back.  If I’ve learned two things, the second would be jump on a deal quickly when it comes up because it may not last long.  I’ve read quite a few stories about dirt cheap mistake fares and incredible mileage redemptions, but I was never able to take advantage of any of them.  That was until a couple of days ago.  I read about a deal that might actually work out quite well for Dawn and me.  It certainly wasn’t as lucrative as some of deals I’ve read about previously, but I also felt more confident that this particular deal would be honored and the tickets wouldn’t be cancelled.  

Looking forward to flying in one of these seats again soon.

Looking forward to flying in one of these seats again soon.

The basic summary of the deal is that you can get a one way ticket from Phnom Penh (PNH), Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City (SGN), Vietnam for only $245.  The two cities only require a 40 minute flight to travel from one to the other, and so it appears that flights between the two cities are typically fairly inexpensive.  The kicker for this particular deal is that for $245 you can fly through Doha (DOH) to get there, which just so happens to be about 3600 miles away.  And it’s in Business Class.  I found the deal from reading View From the Wing, and Gary does an excellent job explaining the details of it here from the perspective of mileage running.  As I’m not really into mileage running, I’m much more interested in the fact that this deal allows us to visit a couple of places that are quite high on our travel list – Vietnam and Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

The fare doesn’t get me to Cambodia; it only gets me home from Cambodia and onto Vietnam.  Also, it only allows you to book that one way flight from PNH-DOH-SGN for $245 if you have less than a 24 hour layover in DOH.  The price bumps up to $430 if you take a stopover (anything longer than 24 hrs) in DOH.  Being based in Doha and not really feeling like back to back 11 hr and 7 hr flights I opted for the ‘pricey’ option of a 2 month stopover in DOH.  This allows us to spread out our 2 trips and not just hang out on planes all day (although I might enjoy that – Dawn, not so much, even in business class).  We’re headed to Cambodia in mid-November and Vietnam in mid-January.

So after I booked our flight from PNH-DOH (November) and our flight from DOH-SGN (January), it was time to figure out how to get to Cambodia, and how to get home from Vietnam.  Originally, I thought I’d be able to book SGN-DOH-PNH (the opposite of the first flight I booked) for the ‘deal’ price, but I couldn’t get it to work out.  Eventually, I gave up and just booked PNH-DOH-SGN again to return from Vietnam in January.  Since PNH is in Cambodia and not Vietnam we’ll have to book ourselves a separate, cheap flight from wherever we are in Vietnam at the time back to PNH before our long haul business class flight home to DOH.  Once we arrive in DOH, we can either hop on the next segment of the flight to SGN or we can just conveniently miss that segment of the flight… and then head back to our apartment in Doha.  As that last segment from DOH-SGN isn’t as important to us, I was able to book the ticket for the lower, non-stopover price of $245.

So, now that our return from Vietnam is taken care of, I just need to figure out our ticket to Cambodia.  Since the main focus of the trip is to visit the ruins of Angkor near Siem Reap (REP) I’ll probably book our flights from DOH-REP.  That ticket is looking like it’ll cost around $700.  We’ll spend a few days there, and then fly the 45 mins to PNH (about $130).  There will be plenty to see and do to fill up a 4-5 day trip between both places.

For the Vietnam trip, with both the long haul flights there and back booked, all we have left to figure out is what to do with our 10 days there.  We’ll certainly spend a few days in Ho Chi Minh City, and since Halong Bay is on Dawn’s list, we’ll most likely head north for a few days as well.  With the time left over we may visit a beach town or maybe we’ll take a quick flight over to Bangkok or somewhere else in Thailand.  The possibilities are almost endless, and that’s what I really love about planning these trips.  So many options.

Here’s what the Cambodia trip looks like:

Cambodia - DOH-REP-PNH-DOH

Cambodia in November: DOH-REP-PNH-DOH

And here’s what the Vietnam trip looks like for now:

Vietnam:  DOH-SGN-PNH-DOH

Vietnam in January: DOH-SGN-PNH-DOH

They look the pretty much the same, don’t they?

In the end, this is what the end cost of the two trips will most likely look like without any additional SE Asia flights for the Vietnam trip:

Cambodia
DOH-REP     Economy     $700
REP-PNH     Economy     $130
PNH-DOH    Business       $215 (split between the two segments)

Vietnam
DOH-SGN     Business     $215 (split between the two segments)
SGN-PNH     Economy   $150
PNH-DOH    Business     $245 (including the ‘unused’ portion back to SGN)

Total flight costs for 2 vacations:  $1655/person

The price will probably jump a bit as we start to add intra-Southeast Asia flights for the Vietnam trip, but not significantly.  It’s was a little bit of work to figure out all of the right flights that were needed, but it was worth the time and effort.  It may seem like a lot of money to some, but when you consider we’re flying long haul business class on one of the top airlines in the world, it’s a pretty good deal.  It’s nothing earth shattering, but I’m pretty excited about it.  Booking similar trips in economy without the ‘deal’ flights would cost about $2400/person.  The normal cost of flying Business class on those same trips would be about $5400/person.

It seems like our list of places we want to visit while living here in Doha is constantly changing (as my mind has a tendency to change quite a bit), but I’m pretty excited that I was able to jump on a deal for a couple of places that were on our travel list from the very beginning.

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A Scandinavian Escape

I’ve been in Doha for 4 months and 2 days.  Straight.  124 days.  That’s a very long time.  Especially for Doha.  That’s roughly 3 months longer than I’d like to stay in the country at any one time.  Don’t get me wrong, I love living here.  It’s an incredible opportunity, but sometimes you just need a break.  Working six days a week is wearing me out, and I’m ready for a change in scenery.  It’s about time to get out of this country.  Go see something green.  Maybe even catch a cloud or two.

Olden fjord, Norway

Olden fjord, Norway by Kenny Muir, on Flickr

With Eid Al-Fitr (the Islamic holiday to celebrate the end of the holy month of Ramadan) coming up the office is closed for a few days.  Combine that with a couple of weekends and a few days of vacation and I had myself a 9 day trip to plan.  Before moving over here, Dawn and I came up with quite a list of must see places that we wanted to visit during our time here.  We knew we wouldn’t be able to see them all, but we tried to prioritize them as best we could.  Thailand, Jordan, Cambodia.  All very high on the list.  Sometimes the best laid plans are thrown out.  Those places all have something in common.  They’re all ridiculously hot.  Yeah, maybe they’re not Doha hot, but while I’m in Doha I’m sitting in an air conditioned office, car, or apartment for most of the day while it’s 110ºF outside.  I’m not out trekking around visiting temples and ancient ruins.  That did not seem like a good idea at this time of the year.

It turns out Scandinavia can be quite green this time of year, and I think they even have clouds.  More importantly, though, it has highs in the 60’s and low 70’s.  Exactly what we need.  Scandinavia wasn’t really on our radar as far as places to visit, but after talking with a coworker, I remembered that Dawn had mentioned that she’d like to visit those northern countries.  I started looking at flights, and all of a sudden I had a pretty nice looking itinerary.  

I have read quite a bit about how everyone loves Stockholm, and the fjords in Norway are not to be missed.  So, Oslo and Stockholm were definites, and I figured if I’m going to be close, why not try to work in Copenhagen as well.  I may be (I know I am) cramming in too much into a 9 day trip, but if I’m shooting for that Traveler’s Century Club membership I need to visit as many countries as possible.  Actually, as I was searching for flights I looked into  flying into both Copenhagen and Stockholm, and out of Oslo.  And the other way around.  And probably a few more iterations in there as well.  I love searching for flights.  It’s odd, I know, but I enjoy it.  Anyway, for the flights and times I wanted it was actually cheaper to fly into Copenhagen for a little over 30 hours and add the one way from Copenhagen to Stockholm than it was just to fly straight to Stockholm.  Of course then we had to add in our flight from Stockholm to Norway (we ended up with a flight to Stavanger), and then we had our return flight from Oslo to Doha.  Our flights look like this:

Doha to Copenhagen; Copenhagen to Stockholm; Stockholm to Stavanger; Oslo to Doha; map taken from gcmap.com

Doha to Copenhagen; Copenhagen to Stockholm; Stockholm to Stavanger (via Oslo); Oslo to Doha; map taken from gcmap.com

As I mentioned, we only have about a day and a half in Copenhagen, three days in Stockholm, and four and a half days spread out in Norway between Stavanger, Bergen, and Oslo.  It was really tough divvying up only 9 days between the three countries, but I’m looking forward to getting at least a little taste of each country.  Over my years of travel I’ve determined I really enjoy visiting the rural parts of a country over their cities, even while I tend to prefer to live in cities.  My wife certainly prefers the time spent in nature over cities as well.  I think that our Norway in a Nutshell tour of the mountains and fjords of Norway will be the highlight of our trip, and so I’m glad that it’s last on our itinerary (except for Oslo of course).  From the little reading I’ve done on Copenhagen, I have a feeling that there will be a lot we’ll miss out on having such a short time there, but the great thing about major international cities (especially in Europe) is they’re pretty easy to get to.  I hope that three days in Stockholm will be enough, at least for a trip of this length.  We don’t have a lot planned for much of the trip as of yet except for the Norway in a Nutshell tour, but I’m hoping that will change by the time we head to the airport on Friday morning.

No matter what we end up doing and seeing, it’ll just be great to get out of the heat for a few days and experience another part of the world.

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It’s Not A Small World After All

People say it’s a small world, but I disagree.

Sure, it may seem like the world is getting smaller with the globalization of businesses and the ease of communication and information flow, but there’s still a great big world out there to explore.  Even in this day and age, there are more than a few places that feel completely untouched by the rest of the world around it.

There are 196 countries in the world (195 if you don’t count Taiwan), but there are 321 “countries and territories” (read distinct places) according to the Traveler’s Century Club.  At last count I had been to twenty some countries and six continents, but I haven’t taken the time yet to make a list of the Traveler’s Century Club places I’ve visited.  I may only have one continent left to visit, but there are plenty of distinct places in the world left for my wife and I to experience.  Quite too many in fact.  It’s the reason behind wanting to take that RTW trip.  Sure, we can’t see it all, but we’re going to do our absolute best trying.

Since I know we’re probably not going to be able to visit all 321 distinct places on this earth, I’m going to have to narrow it down a bit.  The question is where to start.  When anyone asks me where I want to go I usually stumble a bit because there are just so many places I want to see.  Eventually, though, there always seem to be three places that always come into my head:  Machu Picchu in Peru, Petra in Jordan, and Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  Why those three places?  To be honest, I have no idea.  If I sat down to really think hard on it, I’m not even sure those would be my top three – top five or ten for sure, but I’m too noncommittal to lock in those as the ultimate.

The other thing about those places is I think they have popped into my head relatively recently (as in the last 5 years or so).  It’s not like I grew up longing to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.  I didn’t realize  the treasury in Petra was featured in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade until long after I decided Petra was on my must visit list.  And I doubt I even knew that Angkor Wat was a real place when I saw Tomb Raider for the first time.  Somehow, though, these places have crept into my psyche.  For whatever reason, those three places seem to be at the top of my list, but give it a month or even a day, and I’ll probably have come up with at least one other destination that would give those three a run for their money.  Heck, give me a few minutes.  Patagonia just popped into my head as a destination that would be right up there with any of those three.  

Since it doesn’t make much sense to make a trip to South America from Qatar, we’re probably going to hold off on Patagonia and Machu Picchu until we’re living back in the States.  Petra and Angkor Wat are certainly much more accessible from here rather than the States, though.  Amman, Jordan is only a two and a half hour nonstop flight from Doha.  Angkor Wat is about 10-12 hours away with one stop, but much better than the 28-36 hour travel time from Kansas City.  The plan is to make both of those trips at some point while living here in Doha.

Sure, I’ve got plenty of other places that pop into my head from time to time that I’d like to see while here, but like I said, it’s tough to narrow it down.  Plus, maybe there’s a few places of that I haven’t even thought of yet that would be easier to get to or that I’d like to see more.  One of the great things about being over here is everything is so much closer than it is in the States.  Europe isn’t as close as I thought it was (anywhere from a 5.5 to 7 hours if you can get a decently priced nonstop flight), but there are still quite a few destinations all within 3-4 hours which, to me, makes them great weekend trips.  I could probably make that 7 hour flight to London be a great weekend trip, too, though, if the flight times were to work out.

The question is, how do you discover all of the weekend trip possibilities?  Well, first, you ask around and see what others have done.  Dubai is obviously a standard for expats to visit (clocking in at just a 58 minute flight), and people say that Muscat, Oman is beautiful (1:22 nonstop).  So, both of those are now on my weekend list.  I’ve been told Bahrain is where all the Saudi’s drive to on the weekend since apparently fun is outlawed in their country (although I’d still very much like to visit Saudi).  Bahrain is only a 40 minute flight or a five hour drive through Saudi Arabia (probably the easiest way to visit Saudi is getting the transit visa to get to Bahrain, although I’m not sure if it’s worth the hassle).  Bahrain sounds like a great weekender, but it’s had some issues of it’s own lately.  Ok, so now I’m up to three places, make it four if you throw Abu Dhabi in there as well.  There’s got to be more than that right?

I got this bright idea that I was going to compile all of the nonstop flights that originate in Doha into a spreadsheet so that I could organize them by distance, time of the flight, airline, etc.  Ideally, I’d like it to even include a rough estimate of pricing for a certain time period out, say one month.  I knew that would be a bit trickier to gather that information though.  I didn’t know what it’d take to gather the rest of this information, but gathering the nonstop flights from DOH together in one place seemed like the most definitive way to come up with all of the easiest possible travel options.  It was a good starting point at least.  (I could have tried to gather all the one stop possibilities, but the amount of information would be insane.  You throw a single layover in there, and I bet you could hit almost every country in the world from DOH.)  I really know nothing about gathering all of this information together or if someone has already done it.  Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, I went to the one guy who might know the best way to gather this information together, The Wandering Aramean.  The guy has built some incredible travel tools, and writes a great travel blog.  I actually got to meet up and grab dinner with him and another friend/reader of his during his 13 hour layover here in Doha.  The great thing about the miles and points community is everyone is so incredibly willing to share their knowledge and help others out.  Sure enough, within minutes of my email, he had responded and told me to start with www.openflights.org.  It turns out that site has most of the information I wanted for my spreadsheet – airport, airline, distance, and length of flight.  All I had to do was type in DOH, and voila, all of that information returned.  It took some massaging of the information to get it into a spreadsheet I liked, but the bulk of the work was done in one fell swoop.  I’m still tweaking two different versions of it, but below is the basic version (without Airline data) sorted by flight time.  There are 102 different destinations serviced by nonstop flights out of Doha, which is quite incredible to me.  Not sure what MCI’s number is, but it’s a lot less.

Nonstop Flights from DOH (taken from openflights.org)

Nonstop Flights from DOH (taken from openflights.org)

Take a look at the list below and let me know if you have any suggestions for must see places – Baghdad and Tehran both look quite enticing coming in at just under 2 hours a flight…  

Wanna get out of Doha?

Wanna get out of Doha?

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