Chase's missed opportunity to do the right thing

I mentioned in Friday’s post that the airport transfer I ordered through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal to pick us up at the Sofia airport never arrived, and that we ended up taking the (cheap, convenient) subway instead. I wrote, “I have a request in with Ultimate Rewards to refund the points, so hopefully this mistake will end up being free, but overall it was a silly experience and waste of time.”

Oddly, that’s not how it worked out.

Chase wanted the transfer company’s permission to refund me

On my first call with Chase, on Thursday, October 10, I was placed on hold several times as the representative tried to contact the transfer company, but wasn’t ultimately able to. She told me they would contact the company and be in touch by phone or e-mail once they’d resolved the issue.

I received the first e-mail followup on Saturday, from the e-mail address “VNA-INTL.chasetravel@customercare.expedia.com,” which is obviously the e-mail address for the person at Expedia that handles Ultimate Rewards reservations:

“Thank you for contacting Chase Travel about Refund Request for your Budapest Express - Transfers on travel in dates Sep 08,2019 and travel out dates Sep 28,2019 .

“We have made multiple attempts but are still in the process of making contact with [Budapest Express - Transfers] for your Refund Request. Please expect an email update from us within 24 hour.

“Thank you for choosing Chase Travel.

“Sincerely,
”Arnold Fajardo
”Travel Consultant Supervisor
”Chase Travel”

Ignoring Arnold’s grammar, this is a very strange e-mail for multiple reasons: the dates of my trip were not September 8-September 28, they were September 27-October 9. The name of the transfer company is given as “Budapest Express - Transfers,” when the pickup was at the Sofia airport in Bulgaria, and the company in my original reservation was “P-Airbus,” which is obviously a nonsense, but it’s a different nonsense than “Budapest Express - Transfers.”

The transfer company didn’t give it

The next e-mail, from the same Expedia e-mail address, tried to break the news to me gently:

“Thank you for contacting Chase Travel about your cancellation request for your reservation at Budapest Express - Transfers.

“We have advocated your case with Budapest Express - Transfers and due to their policy in relation to your reason for cancelling your reservation, they have unfortunately denied your request.

“We apologize that their response was not more favorable.

“We apologize for the delay in answering your e–mail. We are currently experiencing an extremely high volume of e–mail requests preventing us from responding within our normal standards.

“Thank you for choosing Chase Travel.

“Sincerely,
”Alvin Elona
”Travel Consultant Supervisor
”Chase Travel”

Again, obviously I did not cancel my reservation for any reason. They simply never showed up.

I’m not mad about the points, I’m confused about the missed opportunity

Obviously, in the grand scheme of things, 2,000 Ultimate Rewards points aren’t that big a deal to me, and they certainly aren’t that big a deal to Chase. But in its own way, that makes the situation more, not less, confusing. I understand Chase doesn’t have any way to exercise control over the service providers Expedia uses. But when you’re putting your customers, with whom you have a direct relationship, completely in the hands of your partners, the obvious way to resolve partner disputes is to err on the side of caution. Instead, Chase decided to very mildly annoy me in order to save $25 because they’re not willing to stand up to their partner.

Like I say, I’m not mad, I’m just confused.

I would have been better protected using a credit card

The final piece of this microdrama is that if I had simply booked an airport transfer with a credit card, and they didn’t show up, my credit card company would have cheerfully reversed the charge within minutes. By putting customers through this absurd three-step dance, where Chase contacts Expedia, Expedia contacts their in-country partner, and then it’s up to the partner whether or not to grant a refund, Chase may save 25 bucks here and there, but also sends a loud and clear message not to trust them with third-party reservations.

It’s not going to bankrupt them, and it’s not going to bankrupt me, but that doesn’t make it a good business decision.

Balkans travel: don't make my mistakes, learn from them!

When I wrote up my then-upcoming trip to the Balkans, I was still a bit vague about how I planned to get around once we were there. I had previously traveled between Zagreb, Ljubljana, and Belgrade by train, so my hope was that we’d be able to do as much travel as possible that way. Ultimately, that’s not how it worked out, and the result was two pretty expensive mistakes (and one cheap one).

In the interest of making sure nobody else makes the same mistakes I did, here’s my guide to how I’d suggest putting together our trip the right way.

Sofia airport transfer

The right way to do it: Sofia’s international airport has a subway station just steps from the arrival hall. Simply follow the blue line marked with a capital “M” to either of the two exits it leads to (you’ll see what I mean when you get there). Tickets cost 1.60 leva each, and there’s a vending machine that accepts credit cards in the station so there’s no need to change money at extortionate airport rates.

What we did: remembering that Robert Dwyer at Milenomics had recently written about using Ultimate Rewards points for airport transfers, I thought it would be a nice treat to have a guy waiting in the arrival hall for us, given our late night arrival and unfamiliarity with the city. As Robert explains, the Ultimate Rewards booking process is a bit complicated, and I think I ultimately had to disable some security settings to complete the reservation, but I was ultimately able to pay about 2,000 Ultimate Rewards points for a $25 transfer. When we arrived around 9:00 pm, we dutifully followed the instructions to find the meeting point. Then we waited. And waited. And waited. Then we took the subway. I have a request in with Ultimate Rewards to refund the points, so hopefully this mistake will end up being free, but overall it was a silly experience and waste of time.

Sofia-Belgrade

The right way to do it: there are three ways to get between Sofia, Bulgaria, and Belgrade, Serbia.

  • There is a train once per day, departing Sofia at 9:30 am (and departing Belgrade at 6:10 in the off-season and 9:12 during the summer). Tickets can only be bought with cash, and are about 40 leva each. In the summer (between roughly mid-June and mid-September), there is a direct train, while the rest of the year requires two transfers. The transfers are at the tiny stations of Dimitrovgrad and Nis and are very simple, since everyone is going to the same destination as you — just follow the most confident-looking person. The direct train takes about ten hours (there’s a one-hour time change), and the off-season trip takes about 11 and a half due to the added wait time. Unfortunately, the direct train terminates at the less-convenient Topcider train station in Belgrade, so while we were able to walk to our hotel from the Beograd-Centar station, you will probably need to take a cab from Topcider (unless you’re staying in that neighborhood).

  • There is a bus company called Florentia Bus that operates one, non-stop bus per day between Sofia and Belgrade (continuing on to Zagreb, Ljubljana, and ultimately Italy). It departs Sofia at 2:30 pm and arrives in Belgrade around 10:00 pm local time (remember the time zone change). Tickets cost between 20 and 30 euros. However, and I cannot stress this enough, you must book these tickets in advance. If you do not book your ticket in advance, you will not be able to buy a ticket, and you will not be taking this bus from Sofia to Belgrade. Every bus is sold out, every day, so if you think you might want to take this bus, book your ticket at least a week ahead of time. If you’re not sure which day you will want to travel, book tickets for multiple days. Just don’t try to buy tickets in person, because an extremely impatient woman who speaks exclusively Bulgarian is not going to sell you tickets in person. Trust me on this.

  • The right way to get to Belgrade, however, is to book a door-to-door minivan shuttle. There are a ton of “companies” that offer this service, but your best bet is simply to ask the concierge at your hotel in Sofia to arrange it for you. The cost shouldn’t be higher than 50 euro per person, so if it’s higher than that, ask at somebody else’s hotel.

What we did: as you may have gathered by now, we took the train. We arrived in Sofia Saturday night and planned to go down to the bus station Sunday morning to buy bus tickets for that afternoon. When we got there around 10:00 am (after the morning train to Belgrade had already departed, unfortunately), the woman at the Florentia Bus desk said that while the bus was full, we could come back at 2:00 pm to see if everyone with reserved seats had checked in. This, and I cannot stress this enough, was a lie, and you should not believe her if she says this to you. This fiasco meant that we had to spend an extra night in Sofia (fine), no-show the first night of our Belgrade reservation (expensive, although the Hilton Honors points I redeemed for the reservation were eventually automatically refunded), and take the indirect train the next morning (long, hot, and boring, although cheap).

Belgrade-Sarajevo

The right way to do it: in the recent past, minivan operators offered door-to-door transportation from Belgrade to Sarajevo as they do between Sofia and Belgrade, but apparently Bosnia and Herzegovina has now banned those transfers, so the best way is the once-a-day bus. It leaves Belgrade’s central bus station at 4:00 pm and arrives at a poorly-lit parking lot in Sarajevo around 10:45 pm. Tickets cost 2,630 Serbian dinar each, about $25. The bus ride is fairly unpleasant, especially in October when you’re taking narrow mountain roads in the dark, so the truly ambitious might consider renting a car and driving themselves.

What we did: fortunately, we got this one right. The morning after we (finally) got to Belgrade, we sauntered down to the central bus station and were able to easily buy tickets for the next day. For some reason in order to reach the busses themselves, you need to go through a turnstile, so when you buy your ticket the cashier will give you one turnstile token for each ticket. I have no idea if this is supposed to be security theatre of some kind, or simply a way to keep the loading and unloading area from getting too crowded with friends and family, but that’s what the token she gives you is for.

Sarajevo-Mostar

The right way to do it: there are two daily trains from Sarajevo to Mostar, leaving at 7:15 am and 4:49 pm and arriving about two hours later in each case. Tickets cost 11.90 Bosnia and Herzegovina convertible marks, or a bit less than $7. You can book tickets in person, or make a reservation online and pick up your tickets at the station, from the window with an “online tickets” sign barely taped to it. There, an elderly gentleman will go through dozens of loose-leaf sheets of paper looking for your reservation until he eventually asks for help and finds it and hands you your ticket. Then you’re good to go!

What we did: we got this one right. The train between Sarajevo and Mostar was easily the most modern and comfortable piece of transportation we used during this entire trip. The train even supposedly had wifi on board, although I was never able to get it to work. I have no idea whether Bosnia and Herzegovina’s entire train network has been retrofitted with these trains or if only the Mostar route got them, but the whole region would be well-served if they followed this example.

Mostar-Dubrovnik

The right way to do it: unfortunately, Mostar is the end of the train line, so if you’re traveling onward as we were, you need to take to the roads. There are several busses a day departing Mostar’s main bus station for Dubrovnik, with the latest departing at 12:30 pm during the off-season (there’s also a mid-afternoon bus during the summer). Due to the political geography of the Balkans, the bus crosses the Croatian border twice, and makes a stop in Neum, so a lot of the trip is spent waiting at international borders. Busses are apparently forbidden from taking the more direct route that crosses the Croatian border only once at Orahov Do. If you want to take the more direct route, you’ll need to rent or hire a car.

What we did: we got this one right as well. There was plenty of space on the bus and I booked our tickets the morning of our departure. Importantly, the Mostar-Dubrovnik bus does not stop at the location labeled in Google Maps when you search for “Dubrovnik bus station.” Instead, it stops at the “Autobusni Kolodvor” shown here. This is walking distance (we walked it) from central Dubrovnik, but it’s a pretty intense walk so if you’re staying near the Old City and have any mobility or health issues I’d strongly consider taking a bus or taxi instead.

Dubrovnik-Sofia

The right way to do it: at the most basic level, the right way to do it is to not do it at all. The only reason we needed to get back to Sofia is that due to procrastination I’d waited too long to book award tickets and was stuck booking a paid (albeit cheap) round-trip itinerary: since we flew into Sofia, we needed to fly out of Sofia as well. What you want to do is plan far enough in advance that you can book award tickets into Sofia (or Dubrovnik) and out of the other. That would let you follow the same trail through the Balkans we took, without having to double back in order to catch your return flight. Alternatively, this is an itinerary tailor-made for United’s “Excursionist” routing rules: if you are already booking an award itinerary between the US and Belgrade, it doesn’t cost any more Mileage Plus miles (although there will be some additional taxes and fees) to add an additional award leg between Dubrovnik and Sofia. If you are on a paid reservation like we were, then your only option may be a paid flight, but that can also be fairly cheap if you’re able to book it far enough in advance.

What we did: this was easily my most expensive mistake of the trip. I did end up booking a paid one-way back to Sofia, where we ended our trip, but I booked it so close in that it ended up costing an embarrassing amount of money. Don’t be like me.

Conclusion

I’m going to squeeze this trip for some more content next week, but I want this post to stand alone as a beginner’s guide to the logistics of Balkans travel. It is cheap to travel around the Balkans, which is great, but it is not fast and it is not particularly comfortable. You can pay more to get somewhat more comfort, and somewhat more speed, but it’s not a place you should try to visit in a rush.

And obviously, the fewer dumb mistakes you make, the cheaper and more comfortable your trip will be.

The great, good, weird, and apologetic about the Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria Resort

What a week! I bring you alohas (that means “hello”) from Maui, the second largest island in the state of Hawaii (or as the locals call it, “the aloha state”). As a reminder, I organized this trip as a belated honeymoon taking advantage of a few interlocking opportunities:

  • Hilton Honors offers the fifth night free on award stays to all elite members (everyone, in other words), which is naturally most valuable on stays of exactly 5 nights at top-tier 95,000-point properties;

  • the new American Express Hilton Honors Aspire card offers a $250 statement credit for charges made at “participating Hilton Resorts;”

  • there’s also currently an Amex Offer for a $70 statement credit when you spend $350 at Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts in the US, Amsterdam, Berlin, Edinburgh, and Paris and Conrad Hotels & Resorts in the US;

  • and the Bank of America Alaska Airlines companion ticket can be used to book moderately complex multi-city itineraries with a stopover, so we were able to use it to fly from my partner’s family in Indiana, to my family in Oregon, onward to Maui, and back to the East Coast, all for the price of a single Alaska Airlines ticket, plus taxes and fees.

There are a few ways the deal could have been stretched a little further. For example, I booked all five nights from my Hilton Honors account, including this weekend, while it would have been technically optimal to book a 5-night stay ending on a Friday night, then use the Aspire card’s free weekend night certificate to book a free 6th night and my Ascend free weekend night certificate for a 7th night, but that would have required my partner to take a lot more time off work, and we’ve already been traveling since before Christmas. As a rule I try to avoid organizing my travel around stunts unless I think I’m going to get a particularly good blog post out of them, and the free weekend night certificates will certainly get used, hopefully at a good redemption value.

The Grand Wailea breakfast mystery, solved

When I first wrote about this trip, I explained that I’d been told the Diamond breakfast benefit was “a daily $15.00 per day up to 2 person a in room dining credit. Unfortunately the $15.00 in Only for in Room dining” [sic]. But I’m now happy to be able to share the actual letter describing the benefit I was handed when checking in last Wednesday:

Breakfast, revealed!

Now, a civilian might think this letter is as clear as day: a $30 per day credit for food and beverage. But if you’re a travel hacker, you know this raises just as many questions as it answers. What’s a “day?” We arrived on Wednesday afternoon and departed on Monday; do we get six $30 credits, one per “day,” or five $30 credits, one per night of our stay? Is the credit “use it or lose it,” so we have to spend $30 per day, or can we splurge on one day?

I asked all these questions to our check-in clerk, and was told, “I don’t know, it doesn’t matter, we’ll just take $150 off your bill when you check-out.” And sure enough, when we checked out yesterday the front desk agent was happy to remove $150 from our room charges (although I did have to remind her, possibly due to the chaos the night before — see below).

The property is spectacular, but starting to show its age

Before arriving, I requested a quiet room, and we were given a ground floor king room in the “Chapel Wing,” with a balcony overlooking one of the resort’s many koi ponds. The room was indeed quiet, except for in the mornings when housekeeping carts rattled by on the tiles outside and the sprinkler system turned on to water the gardens. The room had a small refrigerator instead of a minibar, which was great for storing food, leftovers and drinks, which we found very convenient.

While everything in the room was great, it was the first place we started to notice wear and tear on the property, which opened in 1991 and underwent a major renovation as recently as 2017. At some point the door handles were replaced with longer, curved handles (possibly as an ADA compliance measure?), but the raised decorative designs on the doors were not taken into account. That means our door handle didn't have a full range of motion, and the bolt didn't fully withdraw when we turned the handle from the inside. Nine times out of ten, this doesn’t matter and the door closes anyway. The tenth time, the bolt catches against the doorframe and the door stays open. We noticed this happen one time and pulled the door shut on our way out, but the second time it took a a security guard to notice it, who promptly scared the daylights out of us when he walked into the room to make sure we were ok! Other than that, we mostly noticed small things like missing tiles in the swimming pools and chipped paint on the waterslides, but nothing that interfered with our fun.

Speaking of fun, the main attraction at the resort is its network of swimming pools and hot tubs, most of which are connected by waterslides, so you can start at the top level and slide down from one level to the next, or take one long fast ride all the way to the bottom. I don’t know why some people don’t like resorts with kids, but if you’re one of them, you are not going to like this place. There is one "adults-only” pool, but it’s right in the middle of all the other pools so there are still kids walking through all the time to get between the waterslides and the guest rooms. I guess they’re just not allowed to actually get into the water. Compare that to the Hyatt Zilara, where it was someone’s full-time job to keep kids from stepping over a rope onto the “adults-only” portion of the beach.

The adults-only Hibiscus Pool

Paying for (and eating) the food

I had my partner sign up for an Aspire card before this trip, so we had a $250 American Express credit (remember: this is a cardmember year, not calendar year, benefit) to spend in addition to the $150 food and beverage credit. Plus, since she had the $70 off $350 offer on her card, if we spent a total of exactly $500 we’d end up owing just $30 after the $150 property credit, $250 Aspire resort credit, and $70 Amex Offer credit.

Based on our experience at the Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall in Jamaica (an all-inclusive resort, so we didn’t actually spend any money there), I assumed we’d be spending a lot more than that, so I planned to charge any amount over $350 to my own Hilton Honors Ascend American Express to trigger another $70 credit. That ended up not being the case, for two main reasons: the food at the Grand Wailea isn’t very good, so we didn’t eat very much of it, and the Grand Wailea isn’t nearly as isolated as the Zilara.

In fact, there’s a shopping mall with a pair of grocery stores (same company, but with slightly different selections) just next door, so we were able to stock up on drinks, snacks, and even things like salads and sandwiches there and pay perfectly reasonable prices. Many of the prices didn’t even seem inflated compared to prices on the mainland, and Hawaii has a state sales tax that’s less than half what we pay at home.

Ultimately, when we woke up Monday morning, we still had over $50 left to spend to get up to $500 total, but we went for a morning swim and managed to run up a bill poolside to cover the difference.

Before I go any further, let me be clear that it’s perfectly possible to spend as much as I had expected to at the Grand Wailea. Importantly, we didn’t take advantage of the four luxurious options on the property: the fine dining Humuhumunukunukuapua’a, the Sunday brunch at the Grand Dining Room Maui, the Luau, or the “sunset cabana dining” option. We also didn’t order room service, which has both a $7 delivery charge and a 20% service charge. If you do any combination of those things, you’ll have no trouble triggering as many statement credits or minimum spend requirements as you please; entrees at “Humuhumu” are between $34 and $95, and sunset cabana reservations cost between $685 and $2,235 per couple (which at least is inclusive of taxes and tip). I don’t have anything to say one way or the other about whether you should try one or all of those options, I can only say I didn’t save $8,000 on my stay in order to spend it on food and drink; I saved $8,000 on my stay because I don’t have $8,000.

With that out of the way, we did eat at three on-site restaurants:

  • Café Kula. This was our go-to for breakfast, and we also ordered one lunch and a couple dinners there, all of which were basically a mixed bag. The "avocado toast” was guacamole on stale bread and the “kale burger” was a vegetarian burger patty on a bed of raw kale leaves. On the flip side, the "Wailea burger” was the best thing I had at the resort (I ordered it again our last night just because I was tired of being disappointed), and the “wild mushroom pizza” was very weird but not in a bad way at all, and if we return I’d happily try out some of their other pizzas.

  • Bistro Molokini. We had our only sit-down dinner of the trip here, and my partner thought her tofu dish was pretty good, but the real stars were the sides of asparagus and mashed potatoes we ordered. My “Hamakua Springs Bibb Lettuce” salad was a disaster, first because they gave me the identically named salad off the regular menu instead of the vegetarian menu, which wasn’t a problem, except the chef also forgot to put avocado on it, which was literally the only ingredient costing more than $0.50 in the whole $20 dish. When I pointed this out to our server she first tried to tell me that “sometimes the chef cuts the avocado so small people don’t know it’s there," but finally had to concede that there was obviously no avocado on my salad and took it off our bill.

  • Hibiscus Pool. Our final morning we ordered some onion rings off the adults-only Hibiscus Pool menu, and not only were the onion rings pretty good, once I’d taken a look at the menu I decided it might be the best “restaurant" at the resort! On the flip side, one day at the pool I overheard a waitress enthusiastically apologizing to another guest because his burger had tomato on it, which he had asked to be left off.

And that’s the vibe I got from virtually all our interactions with staff during our stay: enthusiastically apologetic. The security guard was apologetic our door was broken, the maintenance guy was apologetic our door was broken, our waitress was apologetic my salad was broken, the bartender was apologetic my cup was broken, the morning of our departure the housekeeper was apologetic for barging in on us (the one time I almost lost my temper pointing out the privacy sign on the door to her), and everyone worked hard to try to make things right.

And of course everyone was apologetic on our last night when a nearby transformer exploded and wiped out power to the entire area, with the convenient exception of the Grand Wailea’s Chapel Wing, where we were staying. When we walked up to the lobby bar for a nightcap we discovered folks were making the most of it, and the hotel was accommodating everyone with some portable emergency lighting equipment, seen here:

Desperate times = desperate measures

A note on transportation

I bounced around several times when deciding on what to do for transportation on the island. My preliminary plan was to rent a car for our entire stay at the airport and pay for parking at the hotel. Ultimately things ended up a lot simpler than that:

  • I paid $49.50 for a “shared” SpeediShuttle reservation for two from the Kahalui airport to the resort (although we were the only passengers);

  • On Friday, we paid about $34 each way to take a Lyft to and from Wailuku for the Friday Town Party;

  • On Sunday I paid $150.20 to rent a Jeep for the day from the Enterprise rental car desk at the Grand Wailea to drive up to Haleakala National Park;

  • Finally, on Monday I paid $38.13 for an Uber back to the airport.

There are two tricky things to note here. First, Lyft and Uber can drop off at the airport, but can’t pick up passengers there, so you slightly overpay for a shuttle to the Grand Wailea compared to the ride back.

Second, as convenient as it is to be able to pick up a rental car directly at the hotel, be careful when making an Enterprise reservation. The desk opens at 7:30 am, so I made a reservation for 7:30 am each morning we were there, assuming we’d only end up using one or two of the reservations. On Saturday we stopped by the desk around 9:30 am and were told they’d given our car away (which I was expecting) and that they’d have to give us a different vehicle (which I was expecting) and that they’d have to charge us $60 for the upgrade to a Jeep (which shocked me). I turned down the offer, went back to the room and changed my Sunday reservation to 9:30 am (for the same price).

Sunday morning we went by the desk at 9:30 and not only did they still have the car we reserved, but offered to upgrade us to a Jeep for $20, which I gladly accepted. I know rental agencies famously operate on slim margins, and I’m not even really upset they tried to gouge me on Saturday, but my word of warning is to make your reservation for the time you actually expect to get going in the morning, instead of the time the rental desk opens, so they don’t have an opportunity to rip you off.

One fun thing about myself I learned on this trip is that I thought I hated driving, but it turns out that was just because I’d never driven a Jeep before. They’re extremely fun.

We be wrangling

Conclusion

I hope this doesn’t sound like a “negative review” or anything like that. Our room was great, the weather was perfect the entire time we were there (until it started to drizzle on our way to the airport, just in time to help the firefighters working on the blaze started by the aforementioned transformer explosion), and we got to spend hours swimming, reading and playing in the resort’s terrific waterpark. But, we also made some obvious mistakes (“kale burger”) that hopefully this post will help readers avoid if they ever decide to check out this top-tier Hilton Honors redemption for themselves.

I’m not a tour guide, but we did spend a couple days exploring outside the resort, so I’ll try to write up a few brief suggestions for other things to consider checking out if you do find yourself at the Grand Wailea anytime soon.

Just another day in paradise

My experience with the current Atlantic City status matches and promotions

I just got back from a weekend in Atlantic City, where I took advantage of the status match promotions I wrote about a few weeks ago.

Getting there and back

Once I made my reservation I looked into train tickets to Atlantic City, and found they were somewhat more expensive than I usually pay. Leaving Friday evening left us only a few Amtrak departures that would allow us to connect to New Jersey Transit, and I ended up paying $249.50 for two tickets from Washington Union Station to Atlantic City, and $228 for two tickets from Philadelphia 30th Street Station back to Washington.

Note that Amtrak will sell tickets to Atlantic City, including the $21.50 fare from Philadelphia, but it won't sell return tickets originating in Atlantic City unless you're willing to pay a $15 "express delivery fee," I assume because New Jersey Transit conductors aren't able to accept Amtrak eTickets, so your trip needs to originate somewhere with an Amtrak ticketing kiosk.

Note that beginning Wednesday, September 5, 2018, and continuing "until early 2019," the Atlantic City Line will not operate between Philadelphia and Atlantic City. They apparently plan to replace train service with comparable bus service, but it seems to me most people would be better off simply renting a car and driving or taking a bus straight from their origin to Atlantic City while the maintenance work is being done.

If you want to take the train, go soon!

Both the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and Ocean Resort Casino wanted a physical, unexpired status card

When I status matched to Borgata Black Label status in 2016, they were happy to accept a screenshot of the status page on my account, but this time both the Hard Rock and Ocean loyalty desks insisted on seeing a physical, unexpired elite status card (I only had a card showing a 2017 expiration).

Fortunately, the Borgata has gotten rid of their bespoke loyalty program and aligned with Mlife status tiers, so I was able to get a physical Mlife Platinum card printed there.

Unfortunately, the Borgata is located in a weird corner of Atlantic City that took probably 20 minutes to get to on one of the city's "jitney" microbusses, and cost $4.50 to boot. The Uber ride back cost $9.03, which I strongly recommend doing instead. As far as I can tell the property is inaccessible by foot.

As I mentioned on Twitter, everyone who opens a Ocean loyalty account gets $15 in slot play, so you'll probably want to open an account and then match to Ocean Black, for a total of $115 in free slot play.

For my troubles, I got $150 in free Hard Rock slot play and $115 in free Ocean slot play, which I was able to convert into $147.50 in folding money. I also scored another $40 playing craps, but obviously that doesn't count.

My comped stay was, in fact, comped

As I wrote earlier this month, when I called to ask about the Hard Rock status match I was offered a free two-night stay, apparently just for calling. That free stay was the one I used on this trip, and I ultimately owed something like $46 in resort fees.

When I successfully completed my status match, I was then given another free two-night stay, as I'd anticipated. While I was a bit unclear initially about the expiration date of the free stay, the loyalty desk told me that while I had to book the stay by September 3, the stay doesn't have to be completed by September 3; I can apparently book it anytime in the future.

The Legends Lounge is nice

As part of the status match to "Rock Royalty" I also received entry for 2 to either the buffet or the Legends Lounge, which is Hard Rock's smaller, more "exclusive" lounge, and which normally costs 10 comp dollars to enter. It was honestly pretty great. I assume it has a much smaller selection of food than the buffet, but I've never really enjoyed casino buffets anyway, so the limited selection worked fine for me, balanced as it was with a very open bar.

There was a selection of 2-3 salads, hot sliced ham and New York strip steak, sides like mashed potatoes and mushrooms, and a dessert bar. If you get a waiter like ours who had no idea what he was doing, I'd recommend just ordering cocktails at the bar and cutting out the middle man.

When I completed my status match to Ocean Black, I was also given (possibly unlimited?) access to the Ocean Premier Player's Lounge, but we didn't actually make it in there so I can't say how it stacks up. Oops.

The Hard Rock is a dump, but what kind of a dump depends on how lucky you get

Since the Hard Rock took over the building of the former Taj Mahal, naturally the remodel was constrained to a large degree by the existing architecture. Our first night we were assigned a room in the "North Tower," which judging by cultural cues I would assume is the nicer, newer tower. It had double sinks in the bathroom, a walk-in shower, separate toilet, a full desk, etc.

Unfortunately, it also was an adjoining room, and the doors to the adjoining room were apparently thin as tissue paper, so when the psychopaths next door turned on Cartoon Network at 3 am at maximum volume, it was like Hank Hill was screaming directly at us. I even called the front desk to see if there was anything they could do, but after a security guy went to their door, knocked politely, and waited around for a few minutes, he left without even speaking to our neighbors, let alone resolving the noise issue.

The next afternoon I went down to the lobby to see if we could move to a non-adjoining room, and was told, "no, they're all adjoining." Nonetheless, she was able to relocate us to the "South Tower," which I gather must be the older, original hotel building. We were given a room on the fourth floor of the South Tower, which happens to be the same floor the pool is on. 

The thing is, it was actually nicer and more comfortable in many ways than the flashier North Tower. The bedroom was larger, or at least configured in a more comfortable way, since the bed wasn't wedged into a corner and jutting into the middle of the room. The bathroom had a single sink and bathtub, which if you like taking baths is of course a feature, not a bug. And while the furniture seems "dated," it also had a kind of classic aesthetic I didn't mind at all.

Our South Tower room also did have an adjoining room, but fortunately they seemed to get to bed earlier than us and I didn't hear anything from next door until 9:30 or 10 in the morning.

Conclusion

I am, in general, quite fond of Atlantic City and its overall seediness and degeneracy, so I'm not likely to turn down an opportunity to pop up for a weekend whenever the price is right. That was even more true when I lived in Philadelphia and Atlantic City was a day trip, and before gaming expanded to more cities and states on the East Coast.

Now that the MGM National Harbor and Maryland Live! have opened nearby, the cost of getting to and from Atlantic City has made it more of a special occasion destination for me, which makes it unfortunate the Hard Rock isn't better; it's hard to justify a special trip to a place where you can't sleep because of your neighbor's TV!

But, if I'm able to plan a trip before my Ocean free stay expires, I'll give them a try and report back if the experience is any better.

How Prague has (and hasn't) changed in the last 12 years

I first visited the Czech Republic for a semester in the spring of 2006, and I've returned frequently ever since then, completing my English-language teaching certificate, enrolling in three summers of Czech language study, and vacationing there whenever possible. This does not, I think, give me any insight into the Czech soul, but it has given me a little perspective on how the country has changed in the last 12 years.

Now that I'm back from this summer's adventure, I thought I'd share a few reflections.

Central Prague is an amusement park

This has been true as long as I've been visiting, but the amusement park has been increasingly professionalized over the years. To give a very simple, very absurd example, there's a traditional Czech (or possibly Slovak) dish called a "trdelník," which is a grilled bread tube rolled in a crushed nut mix. When I first started visited Prague, trdelník was sold in the Christmas markets for a month or two every year. Today, trdelník is sold on every street corner, year-round, and is adapted in all sorts of ways for the tourist market, rolled in sugar, and stuffed with ice cream.

We had one very bad trdelník and one very good trdelník during the trip, so I'm not claiming the quality of trdelník has dramatically declined, only that the market for it has changed over the years as it has become more of an amusement park treat, so the mass-market trdelník today resembles a kind of Czech-inspired churro more than anything else.

The neighborhoods are still distinctive

The amusement park basically extends west from the main train station across Charles Bridge to Prague Castle, and I think the amusement park is well worth visiting. But stepping even a little bit outside of the amusement park gives you immediate access to a completely different vision of the city.

Minutes outside the city center we stumbled onto Štvanice island and walked around and relaxed by the river totally undisturbed by the city surrounding us on all sides, enjoying the 2018 Landscape Festival exhibits that had been installed there.

It's just a short hike up from the city to Letná, where you can sit all day at a sturdy beer garden overlooking the city.

Another hike up to the National Monument in Vitkov is a way to explore Czech history with barely another soul in sight.

Vyšehrad is the site of the Slavín, where prominent Czech artists and cultural figures are interred, and the cemetery surrounding it is well worth exploring, along with the grounds and statuary.

None of this is to disparage the amusement park at all, since I love it there, but rather to suggest that Prague is the kind of city where stepping just a few feet off the beaten track can be incredibly rewarding.

The National Museum is still closed

This is more of an inside joke for me, since as long as I have been visiting Prague the majestic main building of the National Museum has been closed for renovations. I take it they're finishing up soon.

However, the new building of the National Museum is open, and typically offers several exhibits, at least one of which draws on the collections of the National Museum. We enjoyed the current exhibit on the Celts, who apparently settled Bohemia long before they made their way to Britain.

Prague has always been hip, but it's getting hipper

Taking advantage of the fifth-night-free benefit of booking an award stay with Hilton, we stayed at the Hilton Prague Old Town for our last five nights in the Czech Republic. Out for a walk our first evening in town, we discovered just a few blocks away something called "Manifesto."

Literally a pop-up beer and food truck space built out of repurposed shipping containers, Manifesto wouldn't raise an eyebrow in Brooklyn, Austin, Seattle, or Portland. But here it was in the Czech Republic, constructed in the shadow of a freeway overpass.

Prague has featured hip institutions like Radost FX, the vegetarian restaurant and music club, almost since independence, and the city has attracted like-minded entrepreneurs and customers ever since. But it seems to me the pace has somewhat accelerated, with more farmers markets, local crafts, and microbreweries than existed even a few years ago.

Visit Prague, and give it some time

My main recommendation for any visit to the Czech Republic is to give yourself enough time to both enjoy the main tourist attractions and to explore further afield, either by foot, streetcar, or subway. You can pack a lot into a day or two, but I think Prague is a place that uniquely rewards stepping away from the tourist groups and letting yourself breathe in the myriad nooks and crannies of the city.

Reflections on Karlovy Vary and my first film festival

Having concluded the first part of this trip, and safely ensconced in the Executive Lounge at the Hilton Prague Old Town, I thought I'd share some reflections on the Karlovy Vary and the 53rd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

Getting to Karlovy Vary

This was the easy part. We booked bus tickets with Student Agency ahead of time, and they took us directly from the airport to the main Karlovy Vary train station in about 2 hours. If you are leaving from Prague, you can also take the train, which takes 3 hours 15 minutes, and according to wikitravel has excellent views.

The original plan was to take that train back from Karlovy Vary to Prague, but the Czech railway website was showing a strange error message about requiring a bus connection so out of an overabundance of caution we decided to take the bus back to Prague as well, which ends at the main bus station Florenc.

Staying in Karlovy Vary

An important thing to know about Karlovy Vary is that it is built into a fairly narrow valley or canyon, and the city climbs out of the valley up the adjacent hillsides. I bring this up because if you don't inspect a topographical map, you might find yourself staying at the very top of one of those hills, like we did.

This didn't matter once we had settled into our hotel (except that we got a lot of exercise walking up and down the hill multiple times every day), but if I had known in advance that we'd have to walk our suitcases up multiple flights of stairs and steeply inclined streets, I might have ordered a taxi or booked a hotel on the floor of the valley instead. If you have mobility issues, you'll want to stick to the area immediately surrounding the Teplá river, ideally between the Hotel Thermal and Grandhotel Pupp. Even a block away could represent several hundred feet in elevation change or dozens of stairs.

There are no chain hotels in Karlovy Vary, but there are a lot of hotels, lining virtually every street in the city, mostly stately 4-6 story buildings that appear (to my untrained eye) to date back to the height of the Austo-Hungarian empire. Virtually all of them are available through one or more online travel agencies, but be sure to shop around since availability and price can vary enormously from one site to another. I used Booking.com for our reservation instead of Hotels.com because the price difference was much greater than the better rewards the Hotels.com reservation would have offered.

Our hotel was called "Villa Charlotte," which does not even seem to have its own website. The price was right and the breakfast was pretty good, so I don't have any particular complaints, but if you've ever stayed at a boutique European hotel you've stayed there: thin, useless towels, confusing plumbing, two double beds shoved together to make a "queen" bed, etc.

Eating in Karlovy Vary

There are a ton of replacement-level Czech restaurants in town, but I'll point out a few places that stood out:

  • Yeleny Skok is about a third of the way up the Southwestern canyon wall, and has great views of the valley floor and a solid venison goulash. You can hike up there by foot (the trail conveniently started across the street from our hotel), or take a funicular from immediately behind the Grandhotel Pupp.
  • Ristorante Italiano da Franco is a tiny hole in the wall where we had our "nice" meal of the trip (i.e. $15 entrees instead of $4 entrees — the Czech Republic is very cheap). It's a little off the beaten path but had some of the best Italian food I've had in Eastern Europe. It's unclear to me if the owner, who along with his wife seemed to be the only person working, speaks any language other than Italian, but the menu was descriptive enough in several languages.
  • When you want to really get away from the crowds, Kebab House on náměstí Dr. M. Horákové seemed like a popular choice with locals and offered straightforward kebabs with lots of fresh veggies, which are not exactly a staple of Czech cuisine so made for a nice change of pace when you'd like something besides bread, meat, and cheese.

Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

KVIFF is a really big deal in Karlovy Vary, but it seems like it's a pretty big deal in the movie industry as well, serving to both exhibit the world premier of movies that (I assume) weren't accepted into the more famous festivals and as another stop on the festival circuit, with producers continuing to shop their films around for distribution.

The operation of the festival is a bit curious, at least to me (maybe all festivals work this way). Each morning at 8 am, the box offices (located at Hotel Thermal and Grandhotel Pupp) open and you can purchase tickets for showings taking place the next day. If you have a properly configured mobile phone, you can also text your ticket order for the next day's screenings starting at 7 am, which seems to give Czechs and other Europeans an hour's advantage in booking the most in-demand tickets since most (all?) American phones won't have this functionality.

The most popular option seemed to be festival passes, which is what we bought. Passes include 3 tickets per day, and also allow you to stand by for seats 5-10 minutes before screenings begin.

We arrived Monday, and by the time we worked our way to the Hotel Thermal in the evening to buy our passes, there was only a single screening with tickets still available for Tuesday, a French heist movie directed by Romain Gavras called "Le Monde est à toi." We tried to wait in line for another movie Tuesday morning ("Putin's Witnesses"), but they ran out of seats just as we got to the front of the line. Having wasted 90 minutes on that, we didn't try last-minute seating again.

We got a full set of screenings in Wednesday:

Thursday morning before leaving town we also saw the 1967 Russian film "235,000,000."

So, we paid 600 Czech crowns each, about $27, for 5 movie tickets, which seems like a pretty good deal even if we didn't get the maximal film festival experience.

There is one final wrinkle: between 10 am and midnight on June 25 (four days before the start of the festival), KVIFF also released 10% of the tickets to each screening for online reservation. So if you have particular screenings you're particularly interested in and don't want to take your chances competing against everyone else at the festival, you could log in at 10 am (4 am Eastern time?) and frantically book tickets until the extremely limited supply is exhausted. This also might be worth doing for screenings the day of your arrival, since most screenings will have already sold out the day before.

Conclusion

If you're interested in the film festival experience but can't afford to spend a week in Cannes or Venice, then KVIFF is a very affordable chance to see movies that haven't been released theatrically (and may never be released theatrically at all!). Karlovy Vary itself is tucked into a beautiful landscape and offers lots of options to hike and, of course, take the waters that are the original reason for the town's existence.

For fun, check out some of the gag reels that were shown before the screenings we attended, featuring Casey Affleck, Zdenek Sverak, Milos Forman, and John Malkovich.

What to expect when you're expecting your first music festival

There's a storied tradition of bloggers not doing any research ahead of time and then making a series of predictable unforced errors. Bengali Miles Guru filed a classic of the genre about a last-minute jaunt to Cuba (Cuba is not a place you want to go on a last-minute jaunt). My own humble entry about the rotting cruise port of Galveston, Texas, belongs in the same category, and received so much heat from the upright citizens of Galveston that I was finally compelled to close the comments (do go read them though, if you want a laugh).

Most years I try to make it back to my hometown for the Western Montana Fair, and this year due to a stroke of luck the indie rock band The Decemberists inaugurated an annual music festival in town, so we got some tickets to that as well. I'd never been to a music festival before, but with two of my favorite bands on the schedule I was optimistic that it would be a good time.

In true blogger fashion, I didn't do any research ahead of time. While we had a good time, I learned a few lessons that would have been helpful to know 24 hours ahead of time. Here are a few.

1. Read up on the rules

Americans love nothing if not rules, and this festival had a lot of them: no outside beverages (ok, makes sense), no outside food (makes less sense), no umbrellas, no drones, low-profile single chairs allowed, larger chairs forbidden, cell phone recording allowed, professional recording prohibited, and so on.

I met someone who had been to another event at the same venue the previous week, and for that event umbrellas were allowed. Basically, each festival has different rules, and your strategy should depend on the specific rules of the festival you're attending.

2. Bring water vessels

While outside beverages were prohibited, bringing in empty water containers was allowed. Seeing this, I packed my little 16 ounce water bottle, figuring a big outdoor venue would have water fountains sprinkled throughout.

Big mistake. While water was available, there were just two small drinking fountains (an additional filling station was added later), and thousands of people waiting to fill up their containers. Unless you want to spend the whole festival waiting in line, bring lots of big bottles and fill them all up at once.

3. Strategize meals

Festivals that prohibit outside food are trying to get you to buy from the food vendors on-site. If there are multiple good vendors, that's not necessarily a problem. But if you have any kind of allergies or food restrictions, you may be limited to just one or two vendors. If that's the case, you might be best off having a big meal before getting to the festival and planning a late supper after leaving, for instance.

You can also strategize the timing of your meals. If there's a big act everyone is waiting to see, lines at food vendors may be shorter. Likewise immediately after a big act, everyone who was waiting to eat might decide to rush the food vendors all at once.

4. Bring something else to do

If you're going to spend all day trapped in a park with strangers, you may start to feel overwhelmed. Bring a book, newspaper, or knitting for when you need to sneak away and reset.

5. Bring seating

This was probably the biggest bone-headed move I made this weekend. The festival explicitly allowed chairs to be brought into the venue, but I figured, "I'll just sit on the grass."

It turns out sitting on the grass for long periods of time is insanely uncomfortable. You can sit cross-legged and ruin your posture, or lean on one arm or the other and torture your wrists or elbows. A $10 folding chair is the best investment you can make in a 9 hour day of music.

6. Be open-minded, tough, and fair

This goes for everything in life, not just music festivals, but I was still surprised by how much I was surprised at the music and performers. I had seen The Decemberists live once before and knew more or less what to expect from them, but one of my favorite bands, Belle & Sebastian, were also playing at the festival and I was shocked that their live performance sounded nothing at all like their studio albums.

Now, that may have been unfamiliar equipment, or the absence of post-production techniques, or they might have just been having a bad day. But the lesson is: don't pin too much hope on a single performer fulfilling your every dream, and give unfamiliar performers the chance to impress you, too!

Conclusion

Those are a few of the things I wish I'd known before going to Travelers' Rest (and could have learned with 5 minutes of light googling before going). I'm sure my more experienced readers have pro tips of their own for surviving and thriving at music festivals.

My Jamaica all-inclusive wasn't annoying for any of the reasons I expected

I got back from Jamaica on Monday night, and had an absolutely marvelous time. On Friday I wrote about some questions I had about the experience, since I've never visited an all-inclusive resort (or Jamaica) before.

Now I have the answers to those questions and more! This is a pretty detailed [i.e. boring — ed.] post so go ahead and skip it unless you're curious.

Getting to the resort is totally seamless

All the Zilara website says is "After passing through customs, simply visit the Hyatt Lounge, where airport agents will arrange travel to our hotel."

I had no idea what this meant, but it turns out be to uncannily accurate. Immediately after customs in Montego Bay, you enter a large arrival hall with "lounges" for most or all of the resorts on the island. There, I confirmed the credit card I had on file, filled out some paperwork, and after 5 or 10 minutes a driver arrived to take us to the resort.

I'm not entirely clear on the economics of these airport vans, since none of the vans I saw had any kind of resort branding, so I assume they're private contractors who take turns driving guests to and from all the resorts as they arrive and leave.

Everything about the physical property is terrific

Reader Ben commented on Friday's post that the Hyatt all-inclusive properties are relatively new, and as far as I can tell the Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall opened in late 2014. If anything, I'd say the property felt even newer than that. The little things that are usually the first to go worked flawlessly: the sinks, showers, light switches, air conditioning, phones, etc. never gave us any trouble at all, which is something at a property where people are constantly tracking around sand and seawater!

My Diamond status maybe got me an upgrade or two

When we checked in at the airport I saw that our room type was "Jr. Suite King," which is at least an upgrade from the room I'd reserved, and which I assume was based on my Diamond status (it certainly wasn't based on the rate I paid). We arrived at the property around noon, and were told that we wouldn't be able to check in until 3 pm, the guaranteed check-in time.

When 3 pm came and went, our room still wasn't available, so we parked in the lobby to wait. After half an hour more, the front desk clerk came over, apologized even more, and upgraded us again to an "Ocean View Jr. Suite King."

It was great! Here's the view from our balcony, in case you missed it on Twitter:

We ate several meals out on the balcony, as well as resting and reading out there.

The employees are incredibly friendly

I always have a lot of followup questions when I'm in a new and unfamiliar environment, and all the employees were friendly and accommodating.

One interesting thing I observed and finally asked someone about is that the hierarchy of employees felt very "flat." There were always a lot of staff around but I never observed anyone "managing" anyone else, giving instructions or criticism. It turns out the only way to identify the supervisors is that their shirts, which are otherwise identical, have a slight slit at the bottom that I never would have noticed if I hadn't asked. After that it was funny to keep an eye out for who was in charge at each restaurant, bar, and activity.

I discovered two and a half rules governing guests

As the curious sort, one of my biggest questions was just how many rules we'd accidentally bump against. I figured as a bumbling American people would always be telling me to do this and not do that.

But over the course of our 3-night stay I only ever observed 2 (and a half) rules being enforced.

First, children are absolutely forbidden on the adults-only Zilara side of the resort. This was somewhat funny because the Zilara side, especially at the beach, literally runs into the family-friendly Ziva side; it has to since the two properties share the same water sports booth. But if any kids stepped over onto the Zilara side security suddenly materialized and ushered them quickly away. The parents did not, usually, find this as funny as I did.

Second, you had to wear a shirt in the food service areas, which is not an unreasonable rule and one I only discovered because I tried to grab a sandwich from one of the to-go areas on my way back to my room.

The half-rule I also discovered is that the bars don't serve beer before 10 am. I don't have a good sense of why this rule exists, since the minibars in each room are restocked with beer every day.

You may ask, what rules did I expect to encounter? Lots! For example, the swimming pool is right next to the beach, and there's a long list of rules, including the obvious "guests must shower before using the pool." I am the only person I observed, in 3 days, showering before using the pool. So, the pool had some sand in it, but no one seemed to mind, including the employees.

I didn't observe anyone trying to sunbathe in the nude so I don't know whether they'd allow that or not. It seems like an obvious benefit of an adults-only resort, but perhaps they get too many American tourists for anyone to be interested. I didn't see any rules posted against it, though.

Order room service all the time

If I go back to this property I'll order room service for breakfast every day (I recommend the Yardie omelette, side of toast, side of bacon), and then just grab a sandwich, burger, or pizza for lunch. I tried a couple of the restaurants that open for breakfast and lunch every day and they made no impression whatsoever. One served a "barbecue chicken" that didn't taste like anything even after I doused it in hot sauce, and I got some eggs and toast at the other which tasted about the same. Just a waste of time waiting to be seated, waiting for a waiter, and waiting for your food.

Plan around dinner

I knew this going in, but didn't put enough emphasis on it while actually planning our days. The dinner restaurants open at 6 pm each day, and if you don't get there at 6 pm, you're going to have trouble eating there. Our first night we managed to be seated immediately at the French restaurant, our second night we gave up and ate at the buffet (big mistake), and our third night we couldn't get seated at the Italian restaurant but ended up having an amazing meal at the Caribbean restaurant.

It seemed like the consensus was that the Italian restaurant was the best on the property, so it's a bit disappointing we didn't get to eat there, although we could have done a lot worse. I'd recommend picking a restaurant in advance every day and simply planning to be there at 5:55 pm, since I don't know of another way to be sure you get your first choice.

People were tipping a lot

I don't know what the point of going to an all-inclusive is if you're going to walk around with a wallet, but people were tipping everywhere. People sitting, in swim trunks, at the swim-up bar would pull soggy dollar bills out of their underwater pockets to hand to the bartenders! I'm glad the US dollar is so durable, and I'm sure the staff were appreciative, but it seemed like overkill to me.

The entertainment surprised and delighted

In the evenings there were a lot of very strange events going on. One night on our way back to the room we accidentally stumbled upon a fashion show, firebreathing performance, and synchronized swimming show (in that order, not all at once). There was nothing about any of them in the daily program so it felt oddly serendipitous, although I'm sure I could have asked someone what the evening entertainment was in advance, if I'd known there would be evening entertainment.

Likewise someone told me Saturday morning that they'd just been going for a walk on the beach the night before and discovered the resort had set up a rum bar and dance party.

Basically, save some energy for the evening and walk around after dinner and you'll likely run into something totally unexpected.

Conclusion

Overall, I'd say my expectations were exceeded in almost every way: the resort was great, the beach was great, the pool was great, and the staff were terrific.

The only area where I'd say my expectations were met, but not exceeded, was at the themed restaurants, which it turned out work just like the cruise ship dining experience I feared: either plan ahead or plan to wait if you want to eat at the in-demand restaurants.

I'm going to Jamaica and I couldn't be more excited

This weekend I'm heading to the Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall for my first international trip of 2017 (and first since being approved for Global Entry). I'm not bringing my computer so there shouldn't be any activity here on the blog until next week, although if you find yourself in FQF-withdrawal you can check out my new personal finance blog on the Saverocity network. I hope you like it.

This is my first time visiting Jamaica and my first stay at an all-inclusive resort (although a couple Spanish girls did let me use their wristband at an all-inclusive in Cuba once), and I am both excited and extremely curious.

What will the facilities be like?

This is obviously an issue visiting any hotel for the first time, but it seems like a slightly bigger deal this time, since I don't plan on going anywhere else all weekend. If the swimming pools are cold, the rooms are dated, and the showers don't work it's not like I can go walk around Paris to distract myself.

What will the beach/ocean be like?

The quality of the sand and water, and the temperature of the ocean, can vary incredibly from beach to beach and from season to season. I've dived in crystal clear warm water off the coast of Cuba and trudged around in murky silt in Atlantic City. If the beaches are great and the ocean's clean, even if not warm, then I don't expect I'll have much to complain about.

What will the food be like?

I tried to reach out to the Hyatt but never got a response, so my current expectation is that none of the restaurants on the Zilara and connected Ziva properties require reservations, and I plan to try as many of them as possible (we'll only be there 3 nights). I'm not a food blogger or a very good photographer but I'll try to get some pictures to share when I get back.

Will my status get me anything?

As a newly-requalified Hyatt Diamond and soon-to-be Globalist I'm curious whether I'll get any kind of special treatment, like an upgraded room or slippers or something. I don't think of Hyatt Gold Passport as offering "soft" benefits, versus concrete benefits like confirmed suite upgrades and breakfast, but maybe they'll surprise me.

How annoyed will I be?

I like to say that the worst possible price for anything is "free," the proof of which is the line around the block every time Ben & Jerry's offers a free small ice cream cone. People waiting for hours to save $1.09 is both a moral and economic catastrophe.

Price is the greatest rationing mechanism mankind has devised so far, which means an all-inclusive resort is guaranteed to use some other mechanism. Will the restaurants have inconvenient hours? Limited capacity? How much time will I spend waiting in line versus drinking rum out of a coconut on the beach?

Conclusion

I don't want to come across as pessimistic; like I say, I'm absolutely thrilled about the trip and can't wait to get there. But I truly have no idea what to expect, which means the trip has the potential to give me a huge pleasant surprise or end in, well, disappointment.

I expect I'll have internet access at least some of the time I'm there so be sure to follow me on Twitter if you want to find out all the details in more-or-less real time, although God willing I won't be spending much time on my phone while I'm there!

Quick hits: Turkish Airlines, IST, Budapest

Hello from the Radisson Blu Carlton Hotel in Bratislava!

It's been a hectic few days, so I'm taking it slow today and thought I'd check in with some thoughts on the first leg of our trip.

Turkish Airlines is very nice

Thursday night, I flew from Chicago to Istanbul on TK6 in the economy cabin. The seats were pretty comfortable but there was not quite enough legroom for me to ever get comfortable enough to sleep for more than a few minutes. Next time: business class (famous last words).

Fortunately, there was a wide selection of movies available on the large seat-back screens, so I got caught up on some movies I'd missed this year. I particularly enjoyed this bizarre Indian television show "Great World Hotels," which follows sultry hostess Elisha Kriis as she coos over fresh fruit and in-room swimming pools at Amansara.

I also enjoyed watching our tiny Turkish flight attendants free-pour cocktails from novelty over-sized bottles of liquor.

Istanbul is a pretty easy place to connect internationally

It's become fashionable in certain circles to lament that US airports are collapsing into rubble around us while international airports are sleek hyper-modern affairs. Not Istanbul!

Istanbul Ataturk Airport still features the teeming mass of humanity and rundown facilities that makes you proud to be an American. I don't think I've ever seen an airport with more toilet facilities, or an airport where such a high percentage of the facilities were closed for "cleaning." It's also been a long time since I've seen someone casually smoking a cigarette in a public restroom!

Travel is fatal to prejudice, as people are fond of remarking in their social media profiles.

Anyway, connecting in Istanbul to our Budapest flight was a cinch, although a mobility-impaired person might struggle with the long walk between gates, and our bags were checked all the way through to Budapest without issue.

Budapest is lovely, and cheap

I had a three-night reservation at the Radisson Blu Hotel Beke, which is a fairly basic business hotel, and like all Club Carlson properties featured a range of confusing amenities:

  • Treadmills and other workout equipment were placed poolside in the basement athletic center;
  • The health center prominently advertised massages, but when I inquired about a massage with the attendant, he explained that his colleague used to provide the massages, but he doesn't work there anymore;
  • Our room featured a real king-size bed, but with two twin comforters;
  • When our room was made up, the housekeeper didn't replace the coffee — but did artfully rearrange the empty plastic packets we'd already used.

We spent a few days exploring Budapest, and visited the Széchenyi bathing complex, which was a very interesting experience. I've never seen so many pools with such slight differences in temperature before. Pro tip: either bring your own towel, or bring cash to rent one. You'll pay 3,000 Hungarian forints and receive a towel, then get 2,000 forints back once you return it.

Speaking of forints, Hungary still hasn't adopted the Euro, and at this rate it seems unlikely to ever do so, making visiting Budapest ludicrously cheap. Over 3 days in the city, I spent $308 total, including our pre-arranged (i.e., overpriced) cab to the hotel, train tickets to Bratislava, and some pretty thorough minibar-raiding at the hotel, and I don't think I could have spent any more money if I were trying to.

That's it for now; I'm off to see what I can see in Bratislava!