Category Archives: Hotel Reviews

Review: Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel Sydney

For my trip to Sydney, I decided to stay at the Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel. This hotel has a convenient downtown location that’s within walking distance of a lot of touristy places as well as a number of ferries to get to other touristy places.

To book this stay, I booked two 50k awards out of two different Club Carlson accounts, so I ended up getting a 4-night consecutive stay for 100k Club Carlson points. This stay happened in August 2014, so not only was this hotel only 50k points per night, but there was still the option to get the last night free on any award stay. Boo on Club Carlson for their subsequent devaluations 🙁

Outside of the Radisson Blu Sydney Hotel

Outside of the Radisson Blu Sydney Hotel

Since I was visiting in August which is low season for tourism in Australia, I got a pretty nice upgrade to a corner room at the hotel. The room was super spacious and the bathroom ridiculously large. No dice on getting free breakfast, which is probably what I would have preferred given that I was traveling alone and didn’t need the extra space, but I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining about free upgrades.

Bed

Bed

Sitting area

Sitting area

Desk and TV

Desk and TV

Large tub

Large tub

Standing shower

Standing shower

Floor map to give sense how big corner room is

Floor map to give sense how big corner room is

The hotel itself was pretty nice. The onsite restaurant is apparently supposed to be quite good (I did not try it, although I generally ate quite well in Sydney). They have a decently equipped gym as well as a spa and small pool and hot tub. The front desk staff and doormen were friendly.

Gym

Gym

More gym

More gym

More gym

More gym

Overall, I have no complaints about my stay, and the location is super, super convenient. I’m just sad that this hotel is no longer such a good deal after all of the Club Carlson devaluations.

Bratislava is the Most Underrated Travel Destination I’ve Been To

I’m currently in Bratislava, and it’s easily the most underrated place I’ve ever had the pleasure of traveling to.

When I told people I was visiting Bratislava, most people didn’t really understand why I would bother. One friend, in fact, gave me a searing look of derision, so I quickly explained that we were just going to spend two nights there passing through, and she told me that there wasn’t even enough in this city to occupy myself for one full day. And to be honest, I mostly added Bratislava on to my current itinerary to check another country off my list. But now I sincerely wish I had scheduled more time to spend here.

No, Bratislava is not nearly as picturesque as Vienna (or even Prague). And it’s not as large or as cosmopolitan as Budapest. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised throughout my short time here, and I would heartily recommend it as a travel destination to others.

For one, it’s super cheap. Like you can get a full meal at a sit-down restaurant for 5 euro cheap. Maybe the city is not as cheap as it once was (and there are plenty of places where you’ll spend much more than 5 euro per person), but compared to Vienna, you’ll feel like a king. There are also plenty of “touristy” sights to see: walk around the Old Town; take a stroll up to the castle that overlooks the city; take a longer trip to Devin castle; visit the blue church; hang out with Cumil; see a performance; etc.

But there are also hipster cafes and restaurants with great food (and cheap prices!) that wouldn’t be out of place in Portland or Austin (U Kubistu and Funki Punki are two specific recommendations that are also good for people with dietary restrictions; we received better service at U Kubistu than I have at many Michelin-starred restaurants). You can go wine tasting at typical/normal spots, but you can also randomly go into the cellars of people’s homes where they sell home-brewed black currant wine (like an old Slovak man served us tastes of his wines and liquors out of giant barrels that may or may not be legal in the US). And we’ve encountered some crazy awesome people.

And finally, from a points perspective, your devalued Club Carlson points will still be put to good use in Bratislava. Even though the Park Inn here isn’t fancy, it’s still got a great location and it’ll still be only 9k points per night. It also has an actual gym, and the elite status recognition was good (upgrade to a junior suite and free breakfast) for someone who only has status through the credit card.

Sydney 2014: Introduction + Trip Planning

Earlier in 2014, there was a brief period when Qantas released a bit of first class award space to Australia. Qantas first class is a pretty challenging redemption, so I jumped on the opportunity, even though it meant that I would be heading to Australia during its winter. I redeemed 72,500  American miles for a first class award to the South Pacific.

I thus had a ticket there, but no specific thoughts on how to get back. There wasn’t any award space in first class on Qantas, which meant that if I wanted to use my AA miles, I’d have to route through Asia. AA’s award routing rules don’t let you route through Asia to get to/from the South Pacific without paying for two awards, so I decided to stop in Kuala Lumpur on the way back for a couple of days. This means that I paid for a business class award from Australia to KL and paid for a separate award from KL back to the US, which I would have had to do anyway even if I hadn’t stopped at KL. I booked a business class award on Malaysia Airlines for 35k AA miles for the nonstop from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur, and then I spent 67.5k AA miles for a first class award on Cathay Pacific through Hong Kong to get back to San Francisco.

Then, I considered lodging for my trip. I would be spending 4 nights in Sydney, so I booked two reservations for the Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel in Sydney, one from my personal Club Carlson account and the other from my business Club Carlson account. Since I have both the personal and the business versions of the Club Carlson credit card, each reservation received one free night, so I essentially paid for two award nights and got four in return. This was 100k Club Carlson points for 4 nights at a great hotel in a great location in Sydney.

In Kuala Lumpur, I booked 2 nights at the Hilton Doubletree for 10k points per night or 20k points total.

So in total, I spent 175k American miles, 100k Club Carlson points, and 20k Hilton points for a pretty darn luxurious week-long trip to Sydney and KL.

China 2014: Beijing Downtown Backpacker Hostel

The Beijing Downtown Backpacker Hostel is a funky hostel located smack dab in the middle of Nanluoguxiang aka where all Chinese teenagers seem to hang out and consume sugary beverages. It’s a cool area if you get off the main street, as the hutongs have lots of cool alleyways to explore.

We booked a private room to share, but the only room they had available was a private triple for 300 rmb per night (about $50 USD). It’s a hostel, so it’s not fancy, but there was air conditioning and wifi in the room, which are two keys for me whenever I’m traveling and it’s hot (I’m a wimp when it comes to temperature from growing up in Seattle).

Triple room

Triple room

A little tacky, but it works

A little tacky, but it works

Fun wall art

Fun wall art

The hostel also organizes a lot of tours, including a tour to the Great Wall which we took (and which I will write about tomorrow). Overall, I’d say that the hostel was pretty good–the rooms were clean and comfortable enough for the price. The location, however, is a double-edged sword. It’s in the midst of a lot of things, and it’s not that far distance-wise from the Nanluoguxiang metro station, but when you consider that the street gets mobbed, it can take 15 minutes to walk what should be a 5-minute walk. And, well, when all I want to do is get back to my air-conditioned room after a day of dealing with crowds and sweltering heat in Beijing, the last thing I want to deal with is another crowd, which extends the amount of time I need to spend in said heat. For that reason, I probably wouldn’t stay here again.

China 2014: Bund Riverside Hotel Review, Shanghai

I’m taking a week-long pause in my Southeast Asia 2014 trip report to bring you a week of posts about a trip to China that I took in July 2014. During this trip, I went to Shanghai and Beijing with a friend: Shanghai to eat; Beijing mostly to see the Great Wall of China.

In Shanghai, we stayed at the Bund Riverside Hotel, mostly because it was pretty cheap and had a decent location. The room rate was about $65 per night all in, which is only marginally more than booking dorm beds at a hostel would be. That being said, there’s a reason why the hotel is so cheap, because it honestly wasn’t a very good hotel and had some very strange service.

Note that the location on Google Maps for the hotel is incorrect if you search for “Bund Riverside Hotel”. It has the right address, but the location is just wrong (like it’s not even on the right street). If you search by the Chinese name, you’ll find it. Here’s the correct location: https://www.google.com/maps/place/上海新协通国际大酒店/@31.2406138,121.4839093,17z/data=!4m6!1m3!3m2!1s0x0000000000000000:0x30234c08c8a06c9c!2z5LiK5rW35paw5Y2P6YCa5Zu96ZmF5aSn6YWS5bqX!3m1!1s0x0000000000000000:0x30234c08c8a06c9c?hl=en

Hotel lobby

Hotel lobby

Our room wasn’t anything fancy, but it was functional. Nothing was great (like the beds were a bit hard, the pillows a bit meager), but I’m not going to complain too much given the price that we paid.

 

Twin beds

Twin beds

Room furnishings

Room furnishings

Bathroom

Bathroom

The location is also pretty decent. It’s a little over 5 minutes to the East Nanjing Road metro station, and East Nanjing Road is one of the main touristy shopping streets in Shanghai. There’s also a fair number of street food vendors on the way to the metro station, if you’re feeling adventurous (as you should, since Shanghai has some of my favorite street food in the world).

The odd part came when we left. We were taking an overnight train to Beijing, so we needed to get a taxi to the train station (the central Shanghai rail station, not Hongqiao). We asked the front desk to get us a taxi, and they said that they would. So we waited. And waited. After about 15 minutes of waiting, we were worried that we wouldn’t have enough time to get our tickets and make our train, so we went out on the street to try to catch a taxi ourselves since the front desk was being unhelpful and just told us to keep waiting.

We found someone getting out of a taxi at the hotel, so we thought to ourselves, great, we can just catch this taxi. But the doorman was physically preventing us from entering the cab (like he stood in the open car door). He kept saying that we couldn’t take this taxi because the front desk had already called us a cab. After trying to argue with him in Mandarin and failing, I got the concierge to come out and knock some sense into this doorman. The concierge said that of course we could use this cab, and so we were on our way.

Anyway, just an odd story. This hotel is pretty bare-bones, but it’s a decent budget option. Just be warned about potentially odd service.

SEA 2014: Hotel Review Holiday Inn Express Clarke Quay

For our time in Singapore, we stayed at the Holiday Inn Express Clarke Quay. As a category 3 IHG property, it’s 20k points a night.

I don’t have much experience with IHG hotels (I guess I don’t have much experience with hotels generally), but this was the nicest and hippest Holiday Inn Express I’ve stayed at. I generally don’t think of “cool” when I think of Holiday Inn, but the interior was designed to be pretty funky.

Outside of hotel

Outside of hotel

Tons of rooms (the hallways are technically open air)

Tons of rooms (the hallways are technically open air)

The rooms were small, but functional. The outside-facing rooms have interesting slanted windows, and there were warning signs to close the shades if you were doing anything private.

Rooms are small, but it's Asia

Rooms are small, but it’s Asia

The bathroom has sliding components to open up to the rest of the room, so they’re not noise-insulating at all. I don’t really understand the not-quite-separate bathroom concept in hotels. I’ve never thought to myself, “gee, I really wish I could look at my bed when I’m taking a dump”.

Bathroom is also tiny and opens up into rest of room

Bathroom is also tiny and opens up into rest of room

The fitness center was on the roof, which was decently sized. But the best part of the roof was definitely the pool. No, it’s not the Marina Bay Sands, but you can see the Marina Bay Sands from the roof, and the pool was surprisingly uncrowded whenever we used it.

Fitness center

Fitness center

Pool

Pool

Good views

Good views

Breakfast every morning was fine. But really, we only ate enough to appease our stomachs long enough to get to the real eating of the day.

Breakfast

Breakfast

Food was fine, but you should be eating out instead of a hotel buffet

Food was fine, but you should be eating out instead of a hotel buffet

The service at the hotel is limited, since it’s a Holiday Inn Express and not a full-service hotel. The location is convenient to Clarke Quay (obvi), but it’s actually a decently long walk to the nearest MRT station, which was inconvenient. I would stay here again given the right price (i.e. if it ever goes on PointsBreak), but I would choose lodging closer to the MRT in the future since this hotel isn’t anything special.

SEA 2014: Bunwin Boutique Hotel, Siem Reap, Cambodia

We stayed at the Bunwin Boutique Hotel for our time in Siem Reap, and I’d be happy to return again in the future. This was a solid, affordable choice with comfortable rooms, good amenities, and eager service.

The hotel offers free airport pickup and dropoff, which is done via either limo or tuk tuk. We got a tuk tuk. They also offer free tuk tuk service within Siem Reap, which is convenient for going out to dinner and such, and they give you a cell phone so that you can call them to request pick up when you’re done

Upon entering the hotel, it definitely feels intimate and boutiquey. There aren’t that many rooms, so you’re unlikely to run into that many other people, and the staff is friendly and eager to please.

Hotel lobby

Hotel lobby

Bar area

Bar area

Hotel pool

Hotel pool

What was slightly awkward was that we arrived to our hotel room to find a drawn bath full of flower petals. I understand that many of the tourists who come to this hotel are probably couples, but I’m not sure how many couples request twin beds. I’m sure most couples would appreciate the gesture, but my sister and I found it awkward. We also couldn’t actually drain the bath, and it ended up taking over an hour for the hotel to fix it (to be fair, the hotel manager was very gracious and wanted to make up any mistakes to us).

Twin beds

Twin beds

Unrequested romantic bath

Unrequested romantic bath

Functional room

Functional room

Rain head shower

Rain head shower

The hotel also offers tour services at very competitive prices. We hired our drivers and tour guides through the hotel and were generally happy, although we felt that the tour guide was most useful for taking pictures.

Hotel price list for tours

Hotel price list for tours

I also enjoyed breakfast each morning. They had a menu of western and Asian options, and I–being the fattie that I am–was able to request multiple servings with no problems (well, aside from the fact that many servers are often incredulous about the volume of food that I want to and can eat and then assume that they’re misunderstanding me due to a language barrier). The food wasn’t fancy, but it was tasty, and there were enough options on the menu that I didn’t feel bored after 4 days.

Upstairs dining area

Upstairs dining area

Breakfast bread basket

Breakfast bread basket

Fried noodles with eggs

Fried noodles with eggs

At the time that we stayed at the hotel, they also offered a promotion where people staying at least 3 nights would receive free hour-long massages at one of their sister hotels. The massages were good and appreciated.

Overall, I really enjoyed this hotel. The price was great, the rooms were comfortable, the amenities were good, and the service was eager. At the end of our stay, we left a very large tip just because we felt like the hotel was so underpriced for the value that we got.

SEA 2014: Golden Time Hostel 2 Hanoi, Vietnam

I normally wouldn’t write up a review of a hostel stay, but I feel like the Golden Time Hostel 2 in Hanoi deserves a special mention.

It’s not fancy by any means (but it’s a step up from a normal hostel since all of the rooms are private rooms), but the service was incredible. The front desk was staffed by some of the most service-oriented and friendly people that I’ve ever encountered at a place of lodging. Ann in particular always remembers who you are, who you’re with, what you’re doing, details about what you like, and she’s always willing to help out with anything that you need. She could work at any 5-star hotel and teach them about hospitality.

DSC05507 DSC05508 DSC05509Again, the facilities aren’t fancy, but it’s clean and comfortable. The beds and pillows might be a little hard, and the first day that we stayed there the electricity occasionally cut out (which was annoying mostly because it meant that the air conditioning would need to be turned back on), but the location is fantastic (super close to Hoan Kiem Lake and tons of good food around), and it’s very affordable (right now, starting at $20 per room per night). They also serve breakfast, but you should be exploring the streets of Hanoi instead for all of your meals.

When I go back to Hanoi, I’d be happy to stay here again, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who doesn’t need fancy accommodations but wants to experience great hospitality.

 

SEA 2014: Hilton Garden Inn Hanoi

This hotel is one of the few cheap Hilton redemptions after Hilton’s devaluation a couple of years ago. Since it’s a category 2 hotel, it’s only 10k Hilton points per night. In terms of Western hotels in Hanoi attainable using points, there’s also a category 2 Sheraton, a couple of IHG properties, a category 4 Marriott, and the Hilton Hanoi Opera, which is a category 5 (meaning 30k-40k Hilton points per night). While I haven’t stayed at any of the other hotels, I’d happily return to the Hilton Garden Inn as it was a solid choice, particularly with free breakfast via Hilton Gold status.

If you’re taking a taxi to the hotel, make sure that the driver understand that you’re going to the Hilton Garden Inn and NOT the Hilton Hanoi Opera. The latter is significantly more well known, so I was glad to have printed out a map that I could give to the driver for directions.

I unfortunately don’t have many photos of the hotel itself, so you’ll have to use your imagination. The hotel is pretty new, so things are generally nicely furnished, but it’s also not a full-service hotel, so keep that in mind. The lobby was nice and the staff was friendly, even in the face of rude hotel guests (one guy was very angry that there weren’t any bellhops to help him with his bags). The elevators weren’t air-conditioned, which I have found to be a relatively common complaint that I have in Asia.

Breakfast was surprisingly good for a not-full-service hotel. I thoroughly enjoyed the food–it wasn’t fancy or as extensive as Asian hotel breakfasts can be, but the food was solid and the pho was tasty. The service at breakfast could honestly rival first class on airlines and Michelin-starred restaurants. The servers were incredibly gracious, they were willing to fetch whatever you asked for, and they did that ninja thing that they do on Singapore such that your plates got cleared immediately upon you getting up without you noticing. It perhaps helped that I was there very early, so it wasn’t very crowded, but they were very eager to please and provide good service.

Breakfast spread

Breakfast spread

More breakfast and made-to-order station

More breakfast and made-to-order station

Typical breakfast for me

Typical breakfast for me

The room was perfectly comfortable and serviceable. My only small gripes were the design of the bathtub and the light switches. Essentially, because of the design of the bathroom, you’re going to get water on the floor when you shower. We thought that there was a leak in the tub, but when we called to get someone to come take a look, they acknowledged that the tub was poorly designed. And with the light switches, there was one light switch hidden behind a pillow that took us 15 minutes to find.

Overall, I’d happily stay at this hotel again. No, it’s not a Park Hyatt, but it’s a solid hotel with great service and tasty breakfast. And it’s one of the few affordable points redemptions left for Hilton.

Why I’m Canceling My Chase Hyatt Card

A lot of bloggers have said that the Chase Hyatt credit card is one of the cards to keep and pay the annual fee on every year because the card offers a free anniversary night certificate redeemable for a category 1-4 Hyatt property for an annual fee of $75.

Since the annual fee just posted on my account, I was forced to think about whether this made sense for me. Even though paying $75 for a night at a category 4 Hyatt property makes sense in comparison to paying the cash rate at many hotels, that’s more than I’d typically spend on a single night since I’m often content skimping on lodging and doing things like staying at capsule hotels or using Airbnb. The card does offer double points  on restaurants and some travel expenses and has no foreign transaction fees, which is nice given that I no longer have a Chase Sapphire Preferred.

But then I realized that all of this thought process was irrelevant. It makes almost no sense for me to keep the credit card given that I regularly apply for new credit cards. Chase cards can be churned every 24 months, and you keep award night certificates earned in your Hyatt account even if you close your credit card. Thus, I can cancel my credit card right now, keep the free category 1-4 certificate that has already posted to my Hyatt account, and then reapply for the same credit card in 12 months and get two annual free nights.

Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 2.05.31 PM

Screenshot from current offer

Scenario 1: Keep the credit card and pay the annual fee.
October 2013 – Applied for credit card. Received 2 free night certificates and $50 statement credit.
October 2014 – Pay $75, receive 1 free night category 1-4 certificate
October 2015 – Pay $75, receive 1 free night category 1-4 certificate
etc.
End result: Pay $100 ($75 annual fee x 2 – $50 statement credit), get 2 free night certs and 2 free night cat 1-4 certs.

Scenario 2: Close the credit card and churn at next opportunity.
October 2013 – Applied for credit card. Received 2 free night certificates and $50 statement credit.
October 2014 – Close card, receive 1 free night category 1-4 certificate.
October 2015 – Apply for credit card #2. Receive 2 free night certificates and possible additional statement credit.
etc.
End result: Receive $50 (or more), get 4 free night certs and 1 free night cat 1-4 cert.

Granted, in scenario 2, there might be a slight delay in terms of when I can apply for credit card #2 since the terms do state that it should be 24 months since the last time receiving the bonus and not the last time applying for the credit card, but still, scenario 2 is strictly better for almost everyone. And while scenario 2 does require meeting another minimum spend requirement, it’s only $1000 for this credit card.