Friday, August 21, 2015

The Inca ‘Flight Path,’ or ‘A Mileage Burn To Write Home About’....

Correspondent’s note: I’m going to break this trip report up into the ‘what and why’ first, with a second post covering the ‘where and how.’  In other words, this is the how to book and why to book, with the experience based info coming next.


Yes, everyone has this shot.  Yes, it's worth going and taking it yourself, especially if you do it in style! 
In May, Mrs. Cruising Altitude and I did our second international mileage burn in as many years.  I have to say, that both trips, (the first being our Oneworld Explorer tour of Europe) turned out to be an amazing use of miles.  Great value throughout, reasonably ‘bookable,’ and a totally memorable trip to somewhere I might not have thought to go otherwise.

Awhile ago, some other savvy folks we’ve met in our travels, told us unequivocally that we “had to go to Tambo Del Inka, on a miles and points deal, and drink lots of Pisco Sours and coca tea.  Oh, and yeah... probably go to Machu Picchu at some point.”  Well then, who am I to decline such specific advice??
Welcome to Tambo Del Inka...

....Have a [large] Pisco Sour.

As you may or may not know, Tambo Del Inka is a stunning, relatively new, Starwood Luxury Collection resort in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, high up in the Peruvian Andes.  The resort is well designed, and tastefully constructed to fit in with the natural surroundings.  On one side rooms face a rushing river lined with towering eucalyptus trees, and the other has views of a year-round glacier.  The grounds are beautifully up-kept, and the facilities include a unique indoor/outdoor pool, water spa, gorgeous architecture featuring towering timber beams to the ceiling, and a reasonably priced, but fantastic restaurant.  
Quiet and peaceful grounds.

Indoor/outdoor pool and spa.

The resort has only been open for a few years, and so is not yet showing age.  Plus, for the environmentally conscious, it meets LEED standards.  A rarity in foreign construction, but feels good given the natural treasures this area holds.  

The town of Urubamba itself is next to the resort, and is easily walkable if you want to explore.  It’s not a ‘tourist area’ per se, but can be interesting to check out to take in some local culture.  While we were there there was a several day festival going on, complete with parades, dancers, and music.  What’s most useful about the proximity though is possibly that you can get a WAY better deal on transportation to the train stations, airport, and archeological sites by just walking a few blocks from the resort down to the nearest gas station and picking up a local taxi.  Tambo’s travel agency on site will happily arrange tours for you…. for double or more the price.  
Urubamba festival

View from the front of the Tambo lobby

For the nuts and bolts of this booking-  Tambo Del Inka, perhaps because of it’s remote location, does have ongoing decent availability for cash & points nights throughout the year, especially if booked far in advance.  At its hotel tier, it requires 6000 starpoints and $110.00 per night.  Worth it.  No question. The added great thing about cash & points is that those nights are generally completely refundable.  One not here though- as this is a ‘resort property’ make sure you keep on top of what the ‘cancel-by’ date is.  This property requires about 3 weeks’ notice to cancel, though I’ve had good luck getting around these rules by calling the Starwood Platinum line and pleading my case.  

Room selection-wise, if you can’t get one of the ground level suites that have a private patio, I’d go for the side facing the river (where we were).  It’s quiet, and with the placement of the trees, really feels like you’re out in nature.  Plus, you can open the sliding windows and listen to the water.

Tambo Del Inka is beautiful from any angle...
As an added note, this property is good with Platinum recognition.  While we ended up there during a peak time when the resort was fully committed and weren’t put in a suite, they did offer to move us for the portion of our stay that they had a suite available (we turned it down because our room was plenty nice), and apologized that they couldn’t confirm a suite and offered both extra points, and the free breakfast, rather than just one or the other.  Plus, for Plat guests they take an additional 15% off the restaurant and bar prices, which made the already good prices due to the exchange rate even better.  The 1:3 rate of dollars to soles was awesome, and resulted in wonderful dinners out for 2 people coming in around $30, with drinks.  

The 'riverside' rooms.

Both the lobby, and the restaurant feature huge fireplaces.  Walking into Tambo at the end of a day of adventuring is like getting a hug...especially when it comes with a warm cup of coca tea.

So….given all of the above, how does one get here???

That’s the best part!

I knew that LAN flies nonstop from LAX to Lima a couple times per day, and does it for a stunning 30k AA miles each way in business class.  Knowing this, and that I needed two tickets, I pulled out the calendar FAR in advance (ie. 331 days), and got on the phone.  The tickets can be booked as a Oneworld partner award, and I recommend booking them as one way tickets initially so you don’t have to wait until 331 days before your return date to book the outbound.  As a bonus, for the same mileage, you can add on the connecting flight LIM-Cuzco, which is where you need to get to to visit the Sacred Valley.  

On the phone, the booking was fairly simple, and stress free, as being an EXP my mileage tickets are fully refundable up to the day of travel.  Plus, no big taxes and fees here- only about $36 per ticket, round trip!  Done and done. the best, best part.  When I booked the tickets, the flight was on a 767-300, with a 2-2 config in J.  Fair enough, sounds good to me.  However, several months later, I found out that AA had reassigned me a new FF# due to an alleged hack of their database.  Annoyed, I called to find out what was happening, and ended up on the phone with an AAgent for 2 hours because my flights hadn’t moved over to my new profile, and in the moving, they lost my seat assignments.  

Anyhow… when the Lima itinerary was pulled up, the agent asked what seats I wanted, “it’s a 2-2-2 configuration” she said.  Wait, WHAT NOW??  I knew something was up, so I asked her what the plane type was showing as. It was….wait for it…. now a brand spanking new 787-900 Dreamliner that LAN just took delivery of at the start of the year.  

Cue avgeek meltdown.  

This plane’s so new, SeatGuru didn’t even have a map for it, and I couldn’t find any reviews, other than previews of the new cabin config and seats from LAN itself.     
Extremely spacious 2-2-2 lie-flat seat config. 

787-900 J cabin
Not bad at ALL- 8+ hours on the Dreamliner in J (there’s no F on this plane, so J is the pointy end) for 60k miles and $36.  I didn’t even mind (too much) that LAN only released tickets on the later departure from LAX that arrived LIM at about 11pm, and the return was a redeye.  I booked a layover hotel in LIM, and we slept a bit and then took a morning flight to CUZ.  The connections in and out of CUZ go at least once an hour, so that was no issue at all.

All in all, this trip can be a fantastic value- luxury plane and resort for very low points, miles, and cash.  Not too many times can you get 4 nights in a 5 star resort, and round trip airfare on this kind of flight for two for around $500!  
Let's go!

Up next- the trip report itself.  TBIT’s new lounge, LAN J service, and adventures- salt pools, Inka ruins, fun at altitude, fast and slow taxi drivers, and more Inka ruins….

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The ONE Time Silver Is Top Tier...

"Silver Elite"
This has been a long time coming, but as I just put over 200 miles on this shiny,  new, Audi A4 Quattro, I decided to make time.  The review at hand- "The car rental that doesn't suck." (their words, but mine as well)  This truly eloquent company is Silvercar, and yes, the internet has already sung its praises, but here's my take:

Renting from Silvercar has a certain 'Bond. James Bond.' appeal to it, as much as any reasonably priced car service can.  It's the 'Uber Black' of rentals, if you will.  No, you probably don't 'need' the horsepower or the bling to get to your airport hotel or to see the in-laws, but it sure doesn't hurt.  Plus, it feels good to roll up to 'that meeting,' or to take a client out to dinner with a little panache.

Glamour shot...


So far, I've rented at two of their locations- SFO and ORD.  Adding to the international 'man of mystery' feel, the pick up instructions at each location are different.  Awhile ago, when I rented at SFO, it was a covert-feeling multi-step process involving a non-Silvercar marked van, a location inside an offsite general use airport parking garage, and a guy with an iphone guarding two A4s parked in a corner.  The website generally just directs you to 'text us when you've landed, and we'll give you the details' ie., 'your mission, should you choose to accept it.'  But, when the benefit of finding the place is taking one of these for a weekend in Sonoma, I'll happily accept the challenge.

Never seen a National Ex aisle look like this!

 Thankfully, the staff are uniformly polite, young, and enthusiastic.  Little surprise, given that it's the 'tech startup' of rental cars.  Today I was dropped off personally at ORD in my actual rental car, eliminating any extra stops, or transferring of luggage.  I approve.

The Pros-
 -Guaranteed silver (get it??) current year Audi A4.  Every single time.  No picked over lots, or third-in-a-goddamn-row Malibus that always pull to the right. (I'm looking at you, Hertz 'gold')
-No base models here, they're all quattro all wheel drive.
-Slick rental app.
-Cars come (mostly) fully loaded, including some nice extras like nav, wifi, working bluetooth & sirius radio.
-Car charger to USB adapter included. 
-Concierge-feeling customer service.
-Feeling elite without paying (too bad) of a price.


The Cons:
-Severely limited locations, so it can't be your 'go-to' everywhere.
-On average, cars seem to have a decent amount of miles on them, at least in comparison to some of the very low mileage I can usually find on a well stocked National aisle.
-As they're new, and not a main line car rental, getting to their lot is a different experience at each location, and you need to be aware of the instructions before you go to pick up.
-No real elite program, or accrual of free days.
-If you need a bigger car, you'll have to go elsewhere. 

In short, I happily pick Silvercar where possible, and where they're price-compeditive.  Surprisingly, even with the premium fleet, they can meet this criteria pretty often.  The only hesitation I have is missing out on status and free day credits with National....but it passes about the time I hit 60mph!

Happy driving,


Monday, August 10, 2015

2014 Mileage Season in Review, Pt 1: No Kai Tak Heart Attack :(

Very retro-post, but hopefully still with some good trip tips going into this year's mileage season early:

Once again, I'm at the end of the year on a much appreciated trip to relax with family by the beach.  This year, it's a week in Puerto Vallarta on the Riviera Nyarit.  The weather is beautiful, the view is stunning, and it seems like a perfect chance to give a rundown of this year's mileage adventures.  As detailed earlier [Here], this season's trips were made up of two weekends in Asia for a total of just over 40,000 qualifying miles.  As it turned out due to some late breaking work travel, I happily ended up somewhat over my 100k goal, but I'm not complaining.  Maybe it just means I'll get my 'welcome to EXP' package from AA earlier than May, like I did last year.
Nyarit sunset from Villa Del Palmar- Flamingos

All in all, the trips were a great success and great little 'milecations'... as much as flying 17 hours for a one night stop can be.  The first trip was the most complex, with 3 Asian destinations with long(ish) stops.  Thankfully, the upgrades cleared on both the TPac segments on AA's 777-300ER, making the flights very enjoyable.  I managed to catch some good rest, and watched The Birdcage for probably the 126th time in my life.  For some reason, long flights make me want to re-watch my favorites.

After landing in HKG, I took the Airport Express train, which goes pretty much nonstop from the airport to Kowloon and then onto Central, so it's hard to get lost.  And by 'pretty much nonstop' I mean it just stops at Tsing Yi.  So, just, don't get off at Tsing Yi and you're good!  It's about a $20-something round trip if you buy both ways when you get there, which beats a taxi for sure.

Side note here- I'm honestly sad I didn't start flying to Hong Kong ten years ago to get to experience the "Kai Tak Heart Attack" approach at the old airport in Kowloon.  The old flight path required entering a 47-degree turn at under 1000 ft AGL (usually closer to 600ft), and exiting the turn at 150ft!!  It was called the "turn at the checkerboard," due to an orange and white checkerboard painted on a mountain that served as a visual waypoint.

The rest of the short final approach took the plane so close to the buildings of Kowloon that passengers would report being able to see people inside their apartments watching TV!!  Yes, yes, this probably sounds like the 6th circle of hell to any nervous fliers, but it really was a feat of good piloting, and a part of aviation history.

For the true AvGeeks, here's the chart for the Kai Tak approach, showing the location of the checkerboard-

Sadly though, the checkerboard is no longer maintained, and is getting progressively deteriorated and overgrown.  However, 'checkerboard hill' can still be visited by way of Kowloon Tsai Park.  I didn't have time to go check it out on these runs, but maybe another time.  As long as AA keeps flying the DFW-HKG route with such good prices, I'll probably get another chance.

Okay, okay, well I know none of that was really applicable to this trip report as I flew into the new(ish) Chek Lap Kok airport....but sometimes I get distracted by aviation history and big planes landing near tall buildings.  It happens, and we're just going to have to deal with that from time to time.


Since this run only gave us a short overnight in HKG, we went right to the JW Marriott in Central.  It's a short one stop after the Airport Express, and is built over the Admiralty train station, so it's very easy to find your way.  My traveling buddy for this run  was top-tier with Marriott, so we ended up in a nice room on a top floor with access to their impressive executive lounge.  The views were great, though the Marriott is towered over by the Conrad next door.
Dinner at the JWMarriott Lounge
And the first breakfast the next morning.  They have dragonfruit.  I love dragonfruit.

One thing to know about this, and other area hotels, is that their hosted lounge hours close early- most before 8pm.  So, given that AA137 from Dallas lands at 6:30, it's a tight schedule to get checked in in time to make use of them.  However, if you happen to get there on time, it's a great way to watch the nightly 'Symphony of Lights' laser show that lights up on both sides of the city.

After a quick sleep, we headed back to the HKG airport on the Airport Express.  Since the next flight down to Jakarta was on Cathay Pacific metal, I got to check in at the Cathay 'First Class/OW Emerald' desk, which is actually a row of individual kiosks with personal greeters and assistance.  Very nice, and exactly what you'd expect from a truly top tier airline at their home base.
I sure feel welcome, wouldn't you?
Up next (of course) was some quality time at Cathay's flagship lounge 'The Wing' for breakfast at the fully hosted restaurant 'The Haven.'  It serves both menu options, and a full buffet.  Hong Kong is one of my favorite cities in the world, the least of reasons why being it's got to be one of the only places where you can get Chinese/English fusion breakfast- congee (a traditional rice soup) with preserved egg, next to baked beans on toast.  As an aside, The Wing is only one of several high end airport lounges available to One World flyers at HKG.  However, it is one of only two that have a true 'first class' section, along with the newly opened Qantas lounge at the other end of the terminal.  The business class side is also quite nice, and has a made to order noodle bar.

The shower amenities at The Wing are also possibly the best in the system.  The shower suites are 'rainfall' showers with the water falling directly from the ceiling.  

A culturally complex breakfast...

Also noteworthy, is the champagne bar, which keeps Veuve Clicquot on ice all day long.  We enjoyed a glass with breakfast (all day is 5PM in airports, remember), and then whipped out the paper cups we'd brought from the AC stateside to get a little 'pre departure beverage' to go.  The CX servers were caught between being horrified at us pouring $70 champagne into coffee cups, and their overly polite CX indoctrination as they watched us do it, and tried to ignore our blatant bad manners.  The sweatshirt and track shoe 'mileage run uniform' didn't help our case either. 

"The Champagne Bar"

Our own "PDB"

Speaking of departure... up next- the CGK turn, and onto the redeye up to Tokyo.