2017 was a big year for me. I retired in February and moved to Thailand in March. My travel habits changed slightly as I added buses, trains, boats, and ferries to the mix. Yet, I ended up flying nearly the same number of miles in 2017 (95,743) as the year before (97,434) and took nearly the same number of trips.
There were disappointments and pleasant surprises along the way and one trip didn’t involve an airplane at all.
Art, Music, and Literature
First up was a Delta mileage run to Singapore that I booked long before I decided to move to Thailand. Serendipity came knocking shortly before I left and a regrettable waste of time and money turned into a business trip to Chiang Mai and a great opportunity to take some things over and leave them.
I took off with three checked bags, a carry-on, one personal item, and a piece of medical equipment and didn’t have to pay any baggage fees. I left three suitcases with a friend in Chiang Mai, crammed with clothes, music, art supplies, books, and a Bose music system. After all, what is life without art, music, and literature?
On the way back, I stayed at the exquisite InterContinental Singapore, enjoyed a mind-blowing meal at Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle, took in the Chinese New Year festivities in Chinatown, and spent a day exploring Gardens by the Bay. The year was off to a good start.
I am not throwing away my shot!
I am not throwing away my shot!
Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot!
I didn’t want to leave America without seeing the musical Hamilton but ticket prices had been wicked expensive. Then American Express offered me a ticket at face value for a performance in Chicago and I pulled the trigger.
Later that same day FedEx delivered a package I wasn’t expecting and, to my great surprise and delight, it contained enough Hyatt gift cards for a stay at the Park Hyatt Chicago. Hyatt had made good on some hacked gift cards just in the nick of time (you can’t use them abroad). I added an extra day for one last trip to the Art Institute of Chicago and headed to the Windy City for some baked mac and cheese at Pearl Tavern and a thrilling performance that exceeded my expectations.
Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!
My luck turned as I squeezed in one final trip before moving to Asia. This one was more about the journey than the destination. I had read glowing reviews of the Etihad Airways’ First Apartment on the A380, often referred to as the world’s best first-class suite. The A380 is my favorite plane and, if the Apartment was really better than Emirates Suites and Singapore Suites (my two favorites), I absolutely had to experience it.
I tallied up my miles and points and searched for the longest flights I could find. Award space finally opened up and I booked the Apartment from Melbourne to Abu Dhabi and Abu Dhabi to New York.
I put together a nice itinerary that included three nights at the Park Hyatt Sydney (two courtesy of my new Chase Hyatt credit card) and began the trip on one of United’s first Polaris flights from Dulles to Tokyo. They had me at ice cream! And those Saks Fifth Avenue amenities were pretty great, too. Especially the little memory foam pillow, which I may or may not still have.
The next leg, Tokyo to Beijing on Air China, didn’t go well and I ended up spending one of those three nights at the Hilton Beijing Capital Airport where I was upgraded to a two-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath, two-story suite with free breakfast and a six o’clock checkout. Wow!
Do you come from a land down under?
Where women glow and men plunder?
Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover
And the best was yet to come. Or so I thought. I took off for Melbourne on Qantas, eagerly awaiting my ride in the Apartment. It was my first time on Qantas and a delightful flight attendant blew me away when she whipped up a piece of buttered toast with a schmear of Vegemite after I asked what it tasted like. It was the last good in-flight food and service I would see until I got back to New York.
I arrived in Melbourne a few hours before my flight and Etihad would not give me a boarding pass, which I needed to get through security and into the lounge. They process one flight at a time and I was told I just had to wait until the flight ahead of me had cleared. After a very long wait in a very small area, I asked for a wheelchair and the boarding pass suddenly materialized. The lounge, by the way, was great.
I want to ride to the ridge where the West commences
And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses
And I can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences
Don’t fence me in
The time finally came to board and I stood on the threshold of entering the much-anticipated and highly-praised Apartment–sacred ground among aviation enthusiasts. I eagery turned left and hurried to get the first glimpse of my Apartment.
What lay before me was a long, uninviting, claustrophobic space with a bench on one wall and a chair in the corner, hemmed in by a floor-to-ceiling vanity. Oh, no! Was I having an in-flight MRI? This was a design and feng shui nightmare to my eye. The layout reminded me of how my home looks after the housekeepers have been there: everything shoved up against the wall at right angels.
The motorized bench flattened into a bed, making the suite seem even smaller. Covered in gorgeous Corinthian leather, fit for a Ferrari, it was just too hard and I couldn’t sleep at all. I really tried but there was just no way.
I kicked the blankets on the floor
Turned my pillow upside down
I never never did before
’cause I was tossin’ and turnin’
Turnin’ and tossin’
a-tossin’ and turnin’ all night
So I spent most of the flight sitting in the corner. Literally. And that chair! It can’t recline like a typical first-class seat because of the wall behind and the bench/bed in front. So, if you enjoy flying with your legs elevated, your only option is to put your feet on the bed. Yep. Fourteen hours with your feet on the bed and noth·ing supporting your legs. Let that sink in for a minute. #passengershaming #airlineshaming
The photo on the left shows the chair fully upright. The one on the right is fully reclined.
I’m not making this up. That’s all you get.
This is the world’s best first-class suite? Who started that rumor? Look at the layout below. Now that’s a beautiful, inviting design. I realize the new Singapore Suites wasn’t introduced until after my flight but, honestly, a student at Design and Architecture Senior High could probably have come up with a better layout than the Apartment.
Amateur Hour at 43,100 Feet
The in-flight service was shockingly bad and the crew extremely unprofessional. One flight attendant chastised me for jumping as she approached my chair, saying, “You called me, madam!” (Well, I’m sitting in a corner with my view obstructed by a useless vanity, so ‘scuse me for being startled, your highness.)
When I requested dinner, previously arranged with the “chef” (who later turned up to help me with my bags), a flight attendant informed me that he was sleeping. Seeing the surprise on my face, she assured me he had prepared everything and she would just “put it together.” Oh-Kaaaaay. So why tell me he’s sleeping?
When I ordered dinner, shortly after takeoff, I mentioned something to the chef that I specifically did not want on my plate or tray but the flight attendant brought it anyway, telling me “just don’t eat it if you don’t want it.” I hadn’t mentioned it to her–she saw it in his notes, did as she pleased, and said that. Still not kidding.
After fourteen hours and 35 minutes, this hell on wheels finally landed and let me off in Abu Dhabi.
Camels and Hookahs
I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
The InterContinental Abu Dhabi (brilliant club lounge!) offered an amazing view of Abu Dhabi’s ultra-modern skyline and the Louvre Abu Dhabi. After being cooped up in the Apartment, I eagerly headed outdoors for a night in the desert.
I picked up a book to read on the plane and headed back to the airport for Etihad Apartment, Part Deux. I had a plan that might make the bed more comfortable on the flight to New York. I would fold the duvet in half and put it on top of the mattress pad for extra softness. Fingers crossed, I boarded and settled in. Nope, nope, nope. It was still too hard. Even after my little pink friend, Benadryl, it was a no go.
The crew came in to retract the bed, the motor labored, made one last dying sound, and ground to halt. I had to move to another Apartment. I ended up begging them for a seat in business class.
After being spoiled by two elegant showers on Emirates in a gorgeous white bath with soft lighting, heated floors, and orchids in the shower, I headed for the bath with great expectations. Theirs was black, small, and ugly. Later, when I used the lavatory next door, the water tap didn’t work. A flight attendant just shrugged and said it was “sometimes broken.”
(Not to be petty, but Emirates and Singapore had caviar and PJs that fit, too. Just ‘sayin.)
Before landing in New York, I was unceremoniously presented with a breakfast of food I hadn’t ordered that didn’t include even one of the things I had asked for. I decided to let it go but the flight attendant asked if it was OK. Well, she asked… I just shrugged and casually mentioned that I hadn’t ordered a single thing on my plate and she, honest to God, blamed it on the United States of America and its “so many regulations.”
It was a fitting end to a baffling and deeply disappointing experience. I would rather spend a night on death row than take another long-haul flight in the Apartment.
The Land of Smiles
March came in like a lion and I headed for my new life in Thailand aboard Austrian Airlines from Dulles to Bangkok with a stopover in Vienna. I really enjoyed flying with them and liked everything about the experience–especially the food. True to her motto, “The Charming Way to Fly,” it was unpretentious and utterly polite, friendly, and appealing. One of my law school classmates was seated across the aisle so even the company was good.
Wien, Wien, nur du allein
Sollst stets die Stadt meiner Träume sein!
I arrived in Chiang Mai on March 14th–my birthday.
During my first few months in Thailand, I took three budget-friendly trips and soon realized I was happier to just stay put in Chiang Mai and get to know my new surroundings.
First I traveled by bus to Thailand’s northern border in Mae Sai and crossed into Tachileik, Myanmar for an afternoon. I also booked two one-week stays at Holiday Inns in Jakarta and Krabi for 5,000 points a night with IHG Rewards Club’s PointBreaks promotion. It was fun to be able to do that but one week in Jakarta is probably five days too many.
I spent a weekend in Bangkok on the way to Krabi, using a weekend night certificate at the InterContinental Bangkok (another brilliant club lounge!) and loved the hotel, its view, and the location near Erawan Shrine. I spent an awestruck day touring Bangkok’s Grand Palace before continuing on to Krabi.
During my week in Krabi, I took several Andaman Sea excursions, including one to the iconic James Bond Island, but the seas were too rough for a trip to Maya Bay. I left vowing to return for Christmas when the seas are calm and the weather is mild.
Vietnam is my neighbor now and I was eager to visit, but had a hard time choosing where to go. I had a certificate for another complimentary weekend night at any InterContinental Hotel and decided the InterContinental Hanoi Westlake (terrible lounge) was the perfect redemption. It was nice enough but not a good fit and I was ready to go home after one miserable day of walking around lost in Hanoi. I never did find that lake!
I went back to America in October for the 8th Annual Chicago Seminars to find out what was new in the miles and points world, and then down to Alexandria, Virginia to visit friends and schedule a long-overdue total knee replacement for early this year. I was in-and-out all too quickly and spent most of my time in doctors’ waiting rooms.
I flew Thai Airways, Swissair, United, American, and Cathay Pacific and there were delays, missed connections, and three nights in hotels (Zurich, San Francisco, and Bangkok), two of which were the result of the delays. While I was waiting for the last leg (BKK-CNX), I rented a sleep box at Suvarnabhumi Airport for seven hours.
Three Cats and a Lobster
I’ve wanted to go to Hua Hin ever since JoJo’s season of The Bachelorette (don’t judge), but it’s not that easy to get to so I kept putting it off. Then I met someone who told me about how she was travelling the world–free–as a house- and pet-sitter. She recommended TrustedHousesitters.com so I joined, created a profile, and starting looking for an interesting place to visit. Hua Hin popped up in my first search!
I applied for a gig there taking care of a home, three cats, some fish, a few turtles, and a lobster. The house had a western kitchen, a pool, and a housekeeper and I could eat and drink anything in the house. All I had to do was feed the pets once a day. To my surprise and delight, they picked me.
After Hua Hin, I took a bus to Surat Thani and a ferry to Koh Samui, stopping along the way at Koh Tao and a couple of other small islands. Using an anniversary free night certificate I earned as a Chase IHG Rewards Club Select Credit Card holder, I had booked a room at the InterContinental Samui Baan Taling Ngam Resort for one night but, once I saw the view from the lobby (below), I extended my stay for another two nights (50,000 points a night) before I had even checked in or seen the room. It was that gorgeous.
Neither Hua Hin nor Koh Samui has Uber and both are gratuitously expensive, so it’s unlikely I’ll go back.
Best in Show
Earning a free hotel night every year just for having a Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card is pretty amazing considering that the annual fee is only $85 and Marriott lets you choose among any of its category 1-5 properties. The place du jour is the JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay Resort & Spa (An Thoi Town, Vietnam) so I headed back to Vietnam in December for three nights (two with points).
A lot of things just sort of came together to make it my best trip of 2017.
- No visa was required.
- Bangkok Airways had just started flying there four times a week (from Bangkok).
- One of my friends was there when I arrived.
- Two of my friends had just left and gave me tips in advance on things to do.
- I made five new friends there who were friends-of-friends.
The resort, situated on the Gulf of Thailand, was designed by world-renowned designer Bill Bensley, who also designed the Four Seasons Chiang Mai, Park Hyatt Siem Reap, and InterContinental Danang Sun Peninsula. Built in the spirit of a fictional university, it is both whimsical and posh. This five-star resort had many activities and amenities, making it unnecessary to leave the ‘campus.’
I did go into town one night for dinner with friends and a second time to visit An Thoi Town’s vibrant walking street. The hotel provides a free shuttle and Uber is very inexpensive there.
On my last night at the resort, the hotel transformed Rue de Lamarck into its own walking street. It was a big success and they plan to make it a weekly event. I want to go back!
If you go, have the French toast.
Christmas at Maya Bay
I headed back to Krabi for Christmas, looking forward to finally making it to Maya Bay, a stunningly beautiful bay that’s sheltered by 100-meter high cliffs on three sides. There are several beaches inside, mostly small. The main one is around 200 meters long with powdery soft white sand and exceptionally clear water.
It became the main tourist attraction of Phi Phi Island after The Beach was filmed there in 1999 and is usually crowded with boats and people. I wanted to see it without all the tourists and booked an overnight stay on the Maya Bay SleepAboard.
I left Krabi Christmas morning and made my way to Phi Phi Island by ferry, where I picked up the SleepAboard boat. We got to Maya Bay mid-afternoon and spent Christmas night anchored there.
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
We didn’t have the beach to ourselves but the crowds were fairly small when we arrived, as well as the next morning.
What a beautiful way to end the year. I wouldn’t change a thing.
I look forward to reading the many blogs that inspire and inform me, to hearing about your travels, to earning and burning more miles and points, to welcoming friends to Chiang Mai, and to seeing old friends when I visit Florida and Virginia in the spring.
Thanks for reading, happy new year, and happy trails to you.
The Great Circle Mapper, including all software, data, and the compilation and presentation of data is Copyright ©1996-2018 Karl L. Swartz. All rights reserved.
I flew 95,743 miles (52 segments on 16 airlines), passing through 24 airports in 13 countries, on four continents:
DCA-JFK-DTW-NRT-SIN-BKK-CNX-BKK-SIN-NRT-DTW-DCA, DCA-ORD-DCA, IAD-NRT-PEK-SYD-MEL-AUH-JFK-DCA, IAD-VIE-BKK-CNX, CNX-SIN-CGK-SIN-CNX, CNX-BKK-KBV-BKK-CNX, CNX-BKK-HAN-BKK-CNX, CNX-DMK, USM-CNX, CNX-BKK-ZRH-ORD-DCA-PHL-SFO-HKG-BKK-CNX, CNX-BKK-PQC-BKK-CNX, CNX-KBV-CNX
New Countries: Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia, Australia, Japan.
New Continent: Australia.
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