2019 Year in Review: Exotic Travel and the Search For a Home Begins
We went on some amazing exotic travel in 2019, flying in style courtesy of miles and points. A late fall exploratory trip to Portugal and more South America travel rounded out the year.
We spent a month at one of our favorite places in the world, Puerto Escondido, Mexico. The beach is one of the best ever: long, wide, beautiful surf, and importantly, uncrowded. The vibe is a little touristy, a little ex-pat (Canadians, so not obnoxious), but mostly real and authentic. Enchiladas de mole, anyone? We loved the condo with a jacuzzi on the balcony so much that before we left, we were already planning another month for 2020, this time with our dogs, where I am at the time of this writing.
We used AA miles to book a roundtrip to South Africa on Qatar business class “Q Suites,” which were everything they were advertised to be, including the lie-flat double bed for our adjoining seats. It’s a looooong way to South Africa from Houston, especially connecting through Doha, so this was one of our best travel redemptions ever. Stopping in Doha, we took advantage of a city tour and found the place utterly fascinating. The Arab world is intriguing and a bit repellent at the same time. The lounge in Doha was aweinspiring in appearance; the food merely good. South Africa, by the way, is simply fantastic: beautiful scenery, friendly people, stunning animals, and amazing quality of food (and wine). If it weren’t so far away from everything else, and so economically unequal, we’d certainly consider it as a place to live. At the end of the trip, we flew directly to Cartagena, Colombia to attend Liliana’s sister’s wedding. I think Cartagena is the most touristy place in Colombia at the moment, what with the cruise ships and other infrastructure, but I still enjoy the place.
Our trip to Portugal and Italy began with a business class flight from Houston to Lisbon, via Amsterdam on KLM, booked with an Amex points 30% transfer bonus ( a great way to increase the value of your transferable points). KLM/AirFrance awards have high surcharges, though. KLM biz is a solid, if unspectacular product. We absolutely adored Lisbon, where we enjoyed the food, culture and noting the differences between Portuguese and Spanish. After three days in Lisbon, we flew Ryannair to Pisa to spend ten days in Italy (Florence, Tuscany, Portovenere), enjoying the spectacular food, culture and beauty of this ancient country. Driving a tiny car on the narrow, twisty roads was fun! The topography of Italy is surprising to a boy from Texas: mountains to beach in thirty minutes is more than possible.
Our second exotic trip of 2019 began with a quick flight to San Diego, where we spent a couple of days in the charming beach town of Encinitas. I got to catch up with our host, Carolyn, and she took us to a legal marijuana store. For the second leg ot the trip, we took the Amtrak to Los Angeles, where we caught our first class flight on Asiana (booked with Avianca miles) to Seoul. After a couple of days enjoying Korean culture and food, we moved on to Vietnam, using Aegean miles to fly Thai business class and landing in Hanoi just in time for a typhoon to blow through. The culture and food more than made up for the rain and humidity, however, and then we took a short flight on Vietnam Airlines to the river town of Hoi An, close to Danang. Renting a scooter and getting around on it in Vietnam traffic was a fun and exciting highlight, followed closely by a cooking class. From there, we took a short hop to Siem Reap. Cambodia is even less developed than Vietnam, with all the good and bad that that implies, but the temple complex at Angkor Wat is a must see. Again, a scooter rental gave us some extra adventure and mobility to self-tour the ruins. After Siem Reap, we flew a previously unknown airline, Bangkok Airways, to Chiang Mai, Thailand. Bangkok Air turned out to be a surprisingly efficient and well-run airline. We enjoyed the elaborate Buddhist temples of Chiang Mai, but the highlight of the visit turned out to be the elephant rescue park, where we got up and personal with the elephants. After only three days in Chiang Mai, however, it was time to head back to Seoul, this time on Singapore business class, again booked with Aegean miles. We revisited our favorite dumpling house in Seoul, stayed at a too-basic-for-us Hanok (Korean guest house) and picked up a couple of souvenirs before our long, but comfortable flight back to the US. Pro tip: Rock N Burgers at LAX is one crappy restaurant, not even worth the Priority Pass $28.00/pp credit.
We used Iberia Avios purchased during the 2018 crazy flight sale promo to fly business class from Mexico City to the beautiful city of Madrid and then on to Lisbon. Hint: there’s a good reason Iberia isn’t considered one of the top airlines in the world, and their biz class reflected that. Adequate at best, but still a lie-flat seat. Renting a car, we drove from Lisbon to the south coast of Portugal to begin our exploration of finding a place to live. To our disappointment, however, the region seemed overblown and inauthentic. Particularly distressing were the large number of British ex-pats, the frenzied real estate market, and higher than expected prices. Briefly crossing the border into Spain (by driving across a bridge with no border controls whatsoever!) we immediately found lower prices. Hmmm. We’ll visit Spain next year to see how livable it is. At any rate, the beaches of Portugal are well worth a visit, especially in the shoulder seasons.
A relatively short twelve day trip to Colombia took us to the coastal city of Santa Marta and adjacent Tayrona National Park. The city has long been a tourist destination and is only mildly interesting, but Tayrona is wild and beautiful. It was during a quick excursion to a nearby beach that I received a regalo (gift) from the sea: a pair of highly expensive German sunglasses fished out of the bottom of the cove. A few days at home in Ibague and a few more in our favorite neighborhood in Bogota, Usaquen, rounded out the trip.
Just to fill some space, and because I found this really weird and cheap fare to Lima, we spent eight days in Arequipa, a city in southern Peru. The city, especially the historic center, is beautiful and quite quirky, in the sense that there are an enormous number of optical stores near where we stayed. Peru, of course, is notable for its fabulous food culture and we took full advantage of that, much like our trip to Lima and Cusco last year. I’m gradually getting used to the idea that there are certain things you might like to buy in certain countries, and for this trip, I took home a wool hat, two alpaca scarves, some original art, and naturally enough, a pair of really good and cheap prescription multi-focal glasses. As a side note, I flew Delta on this trip for the first time in years, and was quite impressed with their economy longhaul product. They seem to be trying hard to make the experience bearable, unlike the greedy United and the vile American.
Since Liliana was unfamiliar with New Orleans, we planned a three day excursion right before Xmas, notable this time for my use of free hotel nights and Southwest points to comprise a trip in which the transport and lodging was entirely free (if you don’t count the annual credit card fees). We stayed a night at the W Hotel and two more at the Eliza Jane, a Hyatt property, and enjoyed both quite a bit. A fabulous meal at a place called Restaurant Revolution was the highlight of the trip.
What’s On Tap For 2020
We’re intentionally slowing down the travel a bit in the next year, both to spend more time at home (yeah I know, we travel a lot) and to focus on finding a place to live in Europe. Two trips are currently in the planning stages, Spain in May and Europe again in the fall. We’ve got high hopes for Spain as a landing spot, and are hoping this May trip will reveal something significant. We’ll be spending more time in San Antonio as I wind down my work life and are thinking about some domestic travel, with possibly a trans-Canada train trip or showing Liliana summer in the Pacific Northwest.
Points and miles in the next year
Frankly, I’ve pretty much done a lot of my aspirational travel with points and miles, having flown some of the top Asian and Middle East carriers in business and first class. South America as a destination is really problematic as far as business class goes; the flights are just not long enough to justify spending points and miles. Europe is another problem; the flights from our gateways are just long enough, but finding good redemptions seems to be much more difficult than Asia, Africa or the Middle East. At any rate, this next year will probably see us accumulating points more than spending them, with perhaps the exception of using Chase points for economy flights through the Chase travel portal in conjunction with the Sapphire Reserve card. Will still keep an eye out for interesting redemption opportunities, which of course can happen at any time. Australia is a very appealing place to visit, and I’d like to return to New Zealand again, and perhaps fulfill my goal of seeing an All-Blacks game. Both destinations are quite a long way away and notoriously difficult to book using miles and points.