Category Archives: Trip Planning

How to get from Singapore to Miami, or why March can’t come soon enough

I finally had time to sit down and plan my leave for 2017. Although the vast, unexplored spaces of South America and Africa beckoned, I consider myself to be pathologically boring and decided to visit the USA (again). But just so no one could call me predictable, I decided to explore the great state of Florida this time round.

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Florida, aka America’s wang

Miami would be my first port of call. My virgin US open experience had whet my appetite for more high quality tennis and the Miami Masters were scheduled to take place at the end of March/start of April.

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But Miami is also known for great beaches, beautiful art deco buildings, Cuban and Argentine influenced cuisine and much more.

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And since I’m in Florida, it only made sense to visit Orlando too. I do love theme parks and the idea of visiting the theme park capital of the world, excites me to no end. Orlando boasts Disney World, the Epcot Centre, Discovery Cove, Universal Studios, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, Legoland. Seaworld…the list goes on and on.

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I’ll definitely do a separate writeup on Orlando and Miami with things to do ala my DC trip report, but let’s first look at the higlight of the trip- getting there!

Getting to the States

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It’s not that straightforward to get from Singapore to Miami on miles (if you’re wiling to pay revenue prices you could fly SIN-LHR-MIA, with the LHR-MIA leg operated by Virgin Atlantic). The closest major international airports to Miami were Houston and New York, both of which were about 2.5 hour connecting flights away from Miami. SQ25/26 is one of the hardest routes to clear award flights on, so I decided to look at Houston instead.

SQ recently announced that it would start routing its IAH flight through Manchester instead of Moscow, presumably due to the downturn in the global oil sector leading to less oil-related travel between Houston and Moscow. The flight is currently operated in a 3-class 77W (with the 2006 premium cabin products) but eagle eyed observers noted that from 1 Jan 2017 First Class space was no longer available for redemption or revenue bookings. The most logical conclusion was that SQ has identified this route for deploying the A350.

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I’m going to fly Thai’s A350 in December from Bangkok to Singapore, but this will be my first long haul A350 experience and I’m really excited.

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SQ’s A350 has its newest (2013) business class seat, and although there are some complaints out there about how narrow the cabin is, I think it’ll still be a great trip report to write. The cost of a one-way redemption was 72,250 miles + S$412 of taxes.

Once I land in Houston I have 90 minutes to make my connection to a domestic flight to Miami. It’s a short connection for international-domestic and some might say I’m playing with fire, but I’ve recently been approved for Global Entry which gives me a good feeling about this. What could possibly go wrong!

Here’s where I took advantage of one of the great sweet spots on the Krisflyer partner award chart– the ability to redeem domestic US tickets for only 12,500 in economy.

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I did so because the one-way ticket prices from Houston to Miami that matched my schedule were in excess of S$400. 12,500 miles and S$8 of taxes got me my United economy ticket. It’s a 2.5 hour flight and since Netflix now lets you download movies to watch offline, I figured I’d be just fine.

Getting back to Singapore

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The next problem I faced was how to get back from the States. I had two options.

I could fly back to IAH and take EVA back to Singapore. The problem was that flights between Orlando and Houston were expensive and didn’t suit my timings. The most workable option was to fly with United, but that would get me into Houston at 5.55pm for a flight that took off after midnight.

And that would be an awkward kind of layover, because it’s too long to stay in the airport and too short to go out and explore. Plus, I didn’t really fancy paying US$70 for an Uber roundtrip to downtown Houston for just a couple of hours, with my bags in tow.

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So I looked at option 2 instead, which was to fly to JFK and take EVA’s 1.25am flight home. And that solved it- Jetblue was offering S$219 tickets one way from Orlando to JFK (with a bag included- any FYI, Jetblue flights now earn Krisflyer miles) that got me into JFK at 11pm. That was plenty of time to make the connection.

Despite hearing so many great things about Jetblue, this is actually going to be my first time flying with them, It’s unfortunate I couldn’t take advantage of their great points matching promotion not too long ago, but I’m nonetheless excited to see why this LCC is so much more loved than the legacy carriers in the states.

The only downside of this arrangement is that EVA operates its Hello Kitty service to Houston but not New York.

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High on my to-do list is try one of the EVA Air Hello Kitty flights at some point in the future. But I guess that’ll have to wait until I travel one of the follow routes…

Sidenote: I cannot access the EVA Air Hello Kitty website from my office. why? Well…

The flight cost me 78,000 Lifemiles +$30 of taxes for a total outlay of about US$1,100 (I bought my Lifemiles at 1.375 cents during the last sale)

My only regret is that I really wanted to try a new cabin product this time round. I suppose SQ’s A350 sort of counts, but I was secretly hoping there’d be award space on Asiana’s Business/First class or something available with one of the European carriers.

Has anyone been to Miami/Orlando? Any highlights/must dos?

Google Trips: A simple travel planner for the Gmail user

Louis believes he caught the premium travel bug after attaining KrisFlyer Elite Gold and occasionally being upgraded while shuttling between the UK, Singapore and Japan (in economy class). These travels have led to a wonderful marriage, as well as a burning desire to maximise his frequency of travel in business class or better.

He travels with a gryphon plush toy, Griffles, which often stands in for him in vacation photos. Griffles continues to amuse (and confuse) air stewardesses, hotel staff and just about everybody else, all around the world.


Earlier this week, the Google Trips app for Android and iOS was launched, promising to save hapless travellers from situations like finding a goat instead of accommodation where you expected your hotel to be.

Other than being a “Hilton man” (as Aaron puts it), I am also a bit of a Google fan, so I was quite eager to see what travel assistance our Google overlords have to offer those of us who have willingly surrendered our data in exchange for free email (i.e. Gmail users).

I’ll let the official Google blog do the honours of listing all its advertised features, and will zoom straight to my general impressions of the app.

The Good

Automagically-populated trip info Things to do (For you) Day plans Food & Drink  Saved place in Google Maps

  • Convenience – Google’s social contract with users is that we offer it our personal data so it can deliver more targeted ads to us, while it delivers us products and services that make our lives… better? This is where Google manages to deliver rather well – with access to my various reservation confirmation emails, Google Trips was automatically pre-populated with my trips (upcoming as well as past) when I launched it for the very first time!
  • Simple itinerary planning – I found the “Things to do” section pretty useful. There’s even a targeted ‘For you’ section that presumably makes use of your email and search history to surface places you might be interested in – Tsukiji Market appeared as the first item for me while looking at suggestions for my recent Tokyo trip, presumably because I’d searched for it while planning previously. The ‘Day Plans’ section also offers suggested itineraries with map locations, while the Food & Drinks section is, of course, indispensable to the average Singaporean traveller.
  • Google Maps integration – I particularly like the fact that places saved from within Google Trips are also starred in Maps, allowing for easy navigation later.
  • Extensive information – essentials such as transport (even on info such as bike rentals) and tipping culture are all covered, easily accessible within the app.
  • Offline access – the ability to pre-download and later access information when offline is a useful one, even though I usually get data roaming / local SIMs these days.

The Bad

Missing flight information Missing flight information even after updating in Inbox

  • Limited manual entry – the app is great when it works, but when it doesn’t… there’s nothing much you can do about it. I noticed that for some of my trips, there was some missing information – after fiddling for some time with the app, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only edits you can make are to the trip name, destinations and dates. That suffices for itinerary planning, but I was hoping that it could also be used as a quick reference for my reservation details so I can refer to things like flight details as required. The ability to key in details manually would help with that.
  • Troublesome manual entry – from what I understand, Google Trips evolved from the Trip Bundles feature within Inbox by Google – since they use the same data set, you can add/remove associated trip-related emails by accessing inbox.google.com, which is rather troublesome and hardly an ideal solution. What’s more, even after adding the correct relevant email, Google sometimes fails to recognise information, like a shared itinerary from SIA (I suspect the formatting differs from a typical booking).
  • No Google Flights integration – I find Google Flights to be an awesome resource for searching through airfares and even tracking prices. I think it’s a bit of a missed opportunity that Google Trips doesn’t integrate some of this functionality to allow users to look for cheap flights while building their itineraries!

The Ugly

Incorrectly ordered hotel stay in Trips Incorrectly identified year for hotel stay

  • Errors in automatic data recognition –  I have one particular trip scheduled for next year where the final hotel stay was incorrectly listed first. Puzzled, I took a look and realised that Google had somehow registered it as a 2016 stay, even though the reservation email clearly states that it is for 2017! I’m rather puzzled by this anomaly.
  • Inability to amend details – Limited data entry capability is bad, but when there’s no way to correct errors, I think it’s turned ugly. This is not limited to errors – sometimes, reservation details simply change (e.g. change in flight timings). Google sometimes captures and updates this data, but not always. Where it reflects outdated reservation information, there doesn’t seem to be any easy way to correct it.

Conclusion

All in all, the app feels more like a beta version than an actual polished product (i.e. typical Google). It has its strengths – I like being able to easily generate itineraries  – but its reliance on algorithms to extract reservation information can be really annoying.

If you’re at all concerned about accuracy of reservation details, you might be better off using alternatives like TripIt or WorldMate instead. On the other hand, I fully expect Google to eventually get its act together, so if you’re feeling up to being an early adopter, do feel free to give it a whirl!

The New York Gameplan

I wrote in April about how I’m heading to the USA in September to watch the US Open and revisit New York. I thought it’d be a good time to share a bit more about how that trip is shaping up and how you can plan a similar one if you’re into tennis the way I am.

The Flights

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To recap: I used 99,000 Lifemiles and US$92 of fees to  book a SIN-BKK-HND-NRT-ORD first class ticket with SQ, TG and ANA, and then a separate ORD-EWR ticket on United. This routing will let me experience Thai Airway’s first class product on its 747 as well as its first class spa in Bangkok, which I’m really looking forward to. It’ll also be a chance to try ANA’s excellent first class product again.

SQ Regional Business Class
Thai B747 First Class
ANA First Suite
United Economy. Saul Good, man.

If you’re going

I imagine you’re not keen on joining in with the fiasco that is SQ’s waitlist, so I’m going to talk about some other options here.

I see on Lifemiles that award seats are available to JFK (albeit on weekdays) during this period. You might want to play around with routings to EWR, BOS, ORD, perhaps even as far afield as IAH and see whether you can get a cheap domestic flight from there.

You might also want to try booking with Cathay, which charges much lower surcharges on award tickets than SQ.  They don’t require miles in your account to waitlist so it’s worth throwing your hat in anyway.

The Hotels

In New York I’ll be staying at the Sheraton New York Time Square hotel, a very average Sheraton property, for 5 nights and 48,000 points (12,000 points a night, 5th night free with SPG)  It does have a club lounge, but it’s the typical stingy US-based approach to lounges with a very small selection of food and alcohol for sale.

You can’t beat the location though, it’s right smack in the middle of Manhattan and near the Theater District. And although I’ve done all the touristy things in NY to death already, it’s always good to be central.

Because the typical rate for a 4 Star hotel is upwards of US$300 during this US Open period, I’d say I’ve got a pretty good deal here. I briefly considered staying somewhere closer to the US Open in Flushing (Queens) but decided that the better quality of F&B in Manhattan and my greater familiarity with that area made it a safer bet. Also, it wasn’t worth losing out on the 5th night free by breaking up the stays.

If you’re going

If you have no hotel points and  you’re looking for a cheap deal you might be a bit out of luck now given how close we are to the actual event, but there’s still hope yet! Try doing a blind bid with Hotwire and Priceline. Use the tricks I wrote about for Priceline to feel out the market, edging your bid up a bit at a time without triggering the time penalty (if none of that makes sense to you, read the article!). You might also want to consider staying outside of Manhattan, where hotel rates tend to be much lower (stay near a subway, and use common sense. Brooklyn is generally ok but Queens might be a bit more hairy. Don’t get me started on the Bronx).

If you’re a real risk taker, and I mean real risk taker, try a last minute OTA like HotelTonight. This app gives you last minute deals on hotels for tonight, the day after or 7 days from now. Presumably the best prices will be for tonight, and anecdotally I’m seeing hotels in Manhattan available for as low as S$190 (I’m assuming the rates will go up as September approaches though). If you use my sign up code you get S$27 of credit, with a minimum spend of S$160.

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You could also try Booking Now (by Booking.com), which has a much bigger selection of hotels. The prices I saw here were generally below US$200 around the 57th Street area.

The Tennis

SPG is a sponsor of the US Open and as such offers special experiences that money can’t buy on its SPG Moments site. I’m normally a big proponent of the mantra that SPG points should only be spent on hotels, but this is one major exception to the rule.

From reading around, I understood that SPG offers several different packages for the US Open. I’d been refreshing the site daily since June waiting for the packages to go live. They eventually did go on sale, but unfortunately the price was double what it was the year before. Instead of 25,000 for a pair of tickets to the SPG Luxury suite, it was 50,000. I agonized long and hard (10 hours) about this decision- I really valued those 50,000 Starpoints (the experts tell me those are worth more than $1K USD) but I knew that I’d never be able to afford luxury suite tickets by myself.

This was exactly the value vs access argument I talked about a long time ago when I outlined the value of travel hacking. In the end I went with access, knowing that I’d be able to share an amazing experience with my dad that money couldn’t buy.

I’ve read OMMAT’s report on the SPG luxury suite from the 2015 US Open and now I’m super excited to experience it for myself. (off topic: if anyone out there is NTRP 4.0+ and fancies a match please let me know in the comments. Always great to meet a reader!)

Otherwise, I thought the Louis Armstrong courtside seats were phenomenal value (15,000 for 2 tickets, when courtside seats usually start at US$200-300 plus for one ticket) but stupidly I’d bought my tickets already in a fit of kiasuism.

The Arthur Ashe tickets, well, I was a bit more indifferent. For 55,000 Starpoints you’d get seats in the Luxury Suite which, granted, may not be as good as courtside, but still offer a great view plus catering.

There are a couple of other unique experiences that you can bid for, like getting breakfast in the players’ dining room

Or playing an actual tennis game against some Pro-Am (former champions) pairs. I assume they have to let you win some points if you’re going to be paying upwards of 100,000 SPG points for the experience…

If you’re going

I believe you can still get grounds passes for the first week, which represent good value because they give you access to all the courts except Arthur Ashe. You can also go for the qualifying rounds which are absolutely free. Yes, you won’t see the big names, but I assure you that the quality of tennis you see will be much higher than anything you’ve ever seen in Singapore.

Bonus Material

I was only going to be able to catch the second week of the US Open because of work commitments in the first week, but I had two weeks in the States in total. That posed the question- what to do in the second week?

My first thought was to head across to the West Coast for more of the same old, same old, but then I realised- what about DC? I could finally put all that House of Cards trivia to good use.

The competition on the New York DC route means that you can find return airfare for just under S$200, which I thought was an ok enough deal. I could also take the train, but the journey time is about 3.5 hours.

 

In Washington DC I had another issue- should I spend 40,000 points for my 5 night stay at the Le Meridien Arlington, or go with something more economical like AirBnB? My SPG points account had already taken a huge beating from that 50,000 US Open redemption plus 48,000 points for the NY stay.

I decided to go with AirBnB and I was pleasantly surprised to find some very good, cheap options for private rooms which worked out to be ~S$100 a night including all fees and surcharges. When I was booking, I realise I had quite a bit of credit from Milelion readers who had used my link to sign up  (earning $33 of credit for themselves too!). Thank you everyone, I really appreciate it.

Although the Singapore bank- AirBnB promotions have since dried up, there are still a few tricks you can take advantage of. For example, add your work email to AirBnB and get a $50 off your next AirBnB stay.

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Work email here is really loosely defined, most people online say any non Gmail/Yahoo/etc mail address will work. You can click on your existing reservation to change it to a business stay (see below)

There’s of course plenty to do in DC, like visiting all the monuments and the Smithsonian museums. You can also (surprisingly) book tours of the Pentagon (fun fact: Singaporeans cannot book tours to the DMZ in Korea because apparently we are too close to China that we pose a security risk. I’m cereal), but not the White House. As per the White Houses’ official website, foreigners can contact their embassy to get access, but the SG embassy in Washington DC refutes this.

As for going home, I decided it was time to burn some Krisflyer miles. I later realised that it takes the same number of miles (93,500 for First) to fly JFK-FRA-SIN as it does JFK-FRA-SIN-BKK, so I booked the latter for the heck of it. Even though SIN-BKK doesn’t have First class, you’re allowed to access The Private Room when arriving in First class so long as you have an onwards connecting flight on Singapore Airlines. I’ll also have the chance to revisit the very excellent Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse in JFK which I last visited in 2004. I’m very keen to review that too (you can get a haircut in the lounge, apparently)

The only issue now is that I’m in waitlist purgatory for the JFK-FRA-SIN leg. Nothing a lot of persistent calling can’t fix though. I hope.

If anyone is heading to the US Open this year, please connect with me. Would be awesome to meet some readers on the road!