Thursday, January 31, 2013

Israel Family Reunion

After our long weekend in Istanbul, we arrived in Israel in time to celebrate New Years with my mother's side of the family. Here I am entertaining my great-grandmother and my great-uncles (my mother's uncles).

This was the first time they've seen me since I was only 4 months old. I had grown up a lot since then - practically a woman now.

I spent a lot of time with them and my grandparents because we were staying in Israel for almost all of January.  They only get to see me once a year, so they need their fill of baby time.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Dec 2012 - 3 Days in Istanbul

Quick photo recap of my weekend in Istanbul on the way to Israel.

Dec 2012 - Conrad Istanbul Hotel

Hotel Stay Details
Hotel: Conrad Istanbul Hotel
Dates: December 27-30, 2012
Rate Paid: $159 / night
Total $ Savings: $0
Points Earned: 11,877 Hilton Points 
Gold Status $ Value Received:  $265

I found out that Turkish people LOVE babies. I know that everyone says they love babies, but in Turkey, they really do.

Walking around the streets, literally 3 out of every 4 people would stop and stare adoringly at me as if they have never seen a baby before in their entire life. You can only imagine how excited they get when they see an adorable half-Asian/half-white baby.  Yes, some people in cars literally stopped in traffic to roll down the windows and look at me. A girl can get used to this kind of attention.

Walking around, we'd hear "maşallah" (wonderful) or "yerim seni bebek" (I want to eat your baby!).  I don't really understand that last one, but my father does tell me that for some reason, when adults see something so cute, they get this odd feeling of wanting to bite/eat it.  Perhaps it's something primitive that didn't get bred out over thousands of years of evolution. But I digress.

After the nightmare flight, we landed at Ataturk Airport (IST) around 6AM and got through customs/baggage by 6:30AM since my father had a Turkish Airlines Frequent Flyer Gold Status card with him.

This was his first/only flight on Turkish Airlines, but they offer a free status match if you have mid-tier status on another major airline (like United).  So back in August, he emailed "" and asked for a status match since he was Gold on United.  A week later, he received the Turkish Gold tier in their Miles & Smiles program.  With this frequent flyer card, my family was able to get into the VIP immigration line at Ataturk Airport, saving us another massive line with smelly foreigners.

After looking for our pre-arranged taxi driver (NEVER use!!!) for 30 minutes, we found a regular meter taxi who took us from the airport (A) to our hotel on the other side of the city (B). The taxi drive was about 60 Turkish Lira (about $33 USD).  Had the pre-arranged pickup been there, it would have been 30 Euro (~$40 USD).  Not a big difference.

View Larger Map

When we arrived to the hotel, it was closer to 8AM and check in is normally around 3PM.  My father again flashed his Elite Status card (this time it was his Hilton HHonors Gold status) and they apologized profusely for the room not being ready at 8AM.

They kindly asked us to visit the club lounge upstairs and to enjoy free breakfast while they saw what they could do.  Hungry after eating bland Kosher meals on the flight, my parents jumped at the chance to fill their faces with free food while overlooking Istanbul from the rooftop.

My father was shocked that they were so accommodating.  He hoped a room might possibly be available around 12PM, but to our pleasant surprise, it was ready by 9AM (six hours before they're supposed to be ready!).  After a long redeye flight, getting into your hotel room early is a huge win.

The King Deluxe City View room was simple but nice and gave us more than enough space for our Istanbul base camp.  It seemed to be a newly renovated room (as they were currently doing remodeling work on the other part of the hotel).

For a Conrad (Hilton's high end luxury brand), it really didn't amaze us like the St Regis (Starwoods) brand or the Park Hyatt (Hyatt), but we were perfectly happy.

Whenever my parents stay in a city center hotel, they opt for value over amenities/space because they don't plan on spending much time in the room or the hotel.  Cursed with Travel ADD, my father loves to spend as much time out of the hotel as possible, preferring to wake up early and explore the city instead.  And my mother enables goes along with his travel insanity (probably because saving money on a hotel means more money for shopping).

Value is where Hilton HHonors comes in strongest, relative to other mid-tier status at other hotel chains with loyalty programs.

With my father's Hilton HHonors Gold Status (received through a targeted promotion offering free gold status to Australian Visa card holders), he received the following benefits during his stays at Hilton hotels:

1.  Upgrade to an executive room (club lounge access - free snacks/beer)
2.  Free internet
3.  25% HHonors Points Bonus
4.  Free breakfast

So club lounge access isn't that important to a baby.  But it's important to my father because he can go have a few beers while my mother enjoys the city view or reads her book.  A few beers saves him maybe $10/day.  Not a big deal.

The free internet (especially in Europe) saves at least $15/day.  So that's $45 of additional savings.

25% HHonors Points Bonus is valuable but not until you have enough for a free night award (i.e., 50,000 HHonors Points = 1 night at Conrad Ko Samui which goes for $500+/night).  So let's say HHonors points are conservatively worth 0.8 cents/pt.  This 3 day stay earned my father 1,268 bonus Gold points on top of his 5,073 base points + 2,536 regular bonus points + 3,000 Q4 Hilton promotion bonus points for a total of 11,877 Hilton HHonors points earned during the stay.  So those 1,268 gold bonus points gave him another $10 of value (out of the total $95 value of overall points earned).

Free breakfast is where the real savings come in. Perhaps you're like me, a tiny baby who cannot appreciate the difference between an expensive meal at a nice restaurant and a warm bottle of milk.  But if you're like my parents, you'd probably enjoy an unlimited hot breakfast buffet with eggs, bacon, sausage, pastries, cold cuts, salads, soups, waffles, and cereals.

Now, my parents would never actually PAY $30/person for breakfast (they're more breakfast at McDonald's types), but they'd definitely find a way to eat $30 worth of food if it were free.  So perhaps they didn't "save" $60/day for breakfast because they wouldn't have paid for it anyway, but they definitely got $60/day of value.  So for a 3 day stay, that's $180 of value.

So for having Hilton HHonors gold status, my family received $265 of value for FREE during their 3 day stay at Conrad Istanbul ($30 club lounge + $45 internet + $10 Gold bonus points + $180 breakfast), received top tier VIP service from the staff, and enjoyed luxury surroundings for $159/night.

Looking at it another way, if you assume the $265 of Gold status value were actually a rebate to the hotel rate, then it would be about $83/night, bringing their all in cost for the room itself down to $76/night.  Including the other Hilton HHonors points he earned, that's $117/night of rebates implying the basic hotel room cost $42/night.

Dec 2012 - Turkish Adventure

Flight #26 - Turkish Airlines 4 
New York (JFK) – Istanbul (IST)  
Wednesday, Dec 26, 2012 
Depart: 12:55PM / Arrive: 5:45AM (+ 1 Day)
Duration: 9hr 50min 
Aircraft: Boeing 777 
Seat: 23D and 23E (Economy) 
Mileage: 5,016 miles
Lifetime Miles:  53,766

In October, my father found out he was going to have some free time coming up (a lot of it), so my mother convinced him to go to Israel for all of January.

He agreed, but threw out the idea of having a weekend stopover in Istanbul so he could try flying Turkish Airlines (a partner of United Airlines in the Star Alliance).  It was going to be my first long flight since August when we went to Japan/Korea.  But this time, I was almost 14 months old and fully aware of my surroundings.  I had a sense of humor and an understanding of boredom/frustration as well.

So when it was time to board the full Turkish flight, the departure gate was like a cattle call. Dozens of people started getting in line way before any announcements were made.  No regard for priority or order. I could make a comment about the demographics of the passengers on this particular flight, but I'm sure my parents would censor it anyway, so I'll refrain.

So instead of being able to walk around on my own feet having my mother chase me around the airport, I had to be held close since we were now in the middle of this massive line 30 minutes before normal. I was getting frustrated with the lack of order/process (the half-Asian side in me) and I was starting to express my disappointment (the half-Israeli side) by complaining and crying.

And when I start freaking out, I can't really stop.  So I continued making a scene while the onlooking passengers looked upon my parents with pity which slowly turned to personal disappointment when they realized they might be sitting next to a screaming baby for 11 hours.

Then, the flight staff called for passengers with disabilities and small children to come up front.  Suddenly, dozens of the non-American passengers collectively decided they met those qualifications because they all started to rush to the gate.  I didn't see them with any kids or wheelchairs, so I can only assume they were mentally disabled.

We finally boarded and took our seats (center seats behind the bulkhead in Economy for the bassinet).  While we were stowing our belongings, the other passengers decided to use our row as a walk-through to get to the other side.

My mother started to yell at them and my father passive-aggressively just stood there in the space to box out any Turkish grandfathers trying to cut across.  A few harsh words broke out, but I really couldn't hear because of all my crying.

It was a horrible start to a long flight, and it didn't really get any better.

  • My father's in flight entertainment (IFE) didn't work.
  • We accidentally pre-ordered the bland Kosher meal options on Turkish Airlines (which is well known in the flying community for the best in flight food)
  • After my 1 dose of Benadryl, I only slept 2 hours then wanted to move about the cabin for the next 8.
  • Certain demographics of people opt to use less deodorant than a typical American does.
  • And I got spanked for the first time for acting up and refusing to sit quietly/still.
Not my finest moment.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Dec 2012 - Beach Palace

Hotel Stay Details
Hotel: Cancun Beach Palace Resort
Dates: December 19-24, 2012
Rate Paid: $436 / night (including taxes)
Points Earned: 0

As I mentioned before, we were going back to our family's tradition of taking a Christmas vacation somewhere warm with my grandparents and aunt, so for 2012, we picked Cancun, Mexico.

I'm too young for Senior Frogs and Coco Bongo, but I've been told that Cancun is most famous for college spring break debauchery. But it's also great for families, because it's a great winter destination since the weather is 85 degrees, the sand/water are amazing, only a 3 hour flight from NYC, and you can self-select away from the hotels/restaurants that price themselves to the college student crowd.

Le Blanc
Before I was born and graced the lives of my parents, they wanted to take a final couples getaway trip called a Babymoon.  They got an AMAZING 45% off deal on ('s last minute flash sale for travel site) to a place called Le Blanc for $350/night.  Le Blanc was the high end sister property in the Palace Resorts collection (100% all inclusive).  Aside from being a very trendy all-inclusive hotel (unlimited top shelf liquor and NYC restaurant quality food) and having truly exceptional amazing levels of service (ranked #1 in TripAdvisor), Le Blanc was an adults-only resort targeting couples.  My parents loved their July 4th weekend trip so much, they wanted to come back with my grandparents for Christmas.

Beach Palace
But since I was tagging along this year, we had to pick a place that was kid-friendly.  Staying within the Palace Resort hotels in the Cancun area, my parents went with the Beach Palace located down the strip from Le Blanc.

Now while $436 / night (for 2 people) is definitely pricey, remember that it includes unlimited food and drink.  It also included $1500 of resort credits (for a 5 day stay) that you could use during your stay for Spa treatments (up to $300 credits), excursions and gift shopping (up to $200 credits).

Even excluding the resort credits, if you assume you'll conservatively spend $20 per person per meal, that's $120 per day in food alone (assuming you only eat 3 meals a day). Then add my father's bar tab and that's another $200 per day.  So right there, you're getting $320 of food and drink, implying $216/night for the room itself.  Not a bad deal especially for ravenous people like my father.  As my father says, "Whenever I hear all-inclusive food and drink, I respond with 'Challenge accepted'."

The other key detail I want my 2 blog-readers to know is that Beach Palace is exceptionally suited for families with children.  So much so that, if you're a childless couple in your 20's (or 30's - no judgement), I would not recommend you staying there unless you have a weird obsession for high chairs, swimming floaties and strollers.

The food at Beach Palace wasn't as good as Le Blanc (regular price $650-700/ night) and the service was a slight notch below (many more guests at Beach than at Le Blanc), but you get what you pay for.

Overall, my family and I had a great time.

Dec 2012 - Christmas in Cancun

Flight #24 - United 1048 
Newark (EWR) – Cancun (CUN)
Wed, Dec 19, 2012
Depart: 7:48AM / Arrive: 11:14AM
Duration: 4hr 26min
Aircraft: Boeing 737
Seat: 8A and 8B (Economy Plus)
Mileage: 1,933 miles
Lifetime Miles:  47,200

Before I was born, my father and his parents/sister had an annual tradition where instead of my father going "home for Christmas" (ie, taking the bus 25 miles from New York City to New Jersey), they would instead all travel together to a warm destination to celebrate the holidays.
  • 2005:  Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
  • 2006:  Kauai, Hawaii
  • 2007:  Naples, Florida
  • 2008:  Playa Herradura, Costa Rica
Christmas 2012 was the first time since 2008 they were able to do so.
  • 2009:  My father spent Christmas/New Years in Israel with my mother and her family.
  • 2010:  My parents went on their delayed Honeymoon to Bora Bora.
  • 2011:  I wasn't even 2 months old so we just drove to Vermont with my other grandmother.
Because we needed 5 tickets (my parents, my grandparents and my aunt) during the holidays, we booked our flights very early in May.  The prices held stable so I'm not convinced you needed to book that early, but then again, we did get the flights and seats we wanted so can't complain.  Plus, it's not like the $ we paid in May would have earned much interest sitting in the bank.

Oct 2012 - Hurricane Sandy & SPG

Hotel Stay Details 
Hotel: Sheraton New York 
Dates: October 31 - November 3, 2012 
Rate Paid: 12,000 SPG points / night 
Regular Rate: $400 / night (incl. taxes) 
Total $ Savings: $800 
Point Redemption Value: 3.3 cents/pt 

Around Halloween 2012, there was a Hurricane Sandy that tore apart much of the NJ coast as well as indirectly causing a blackout of lower Manhattan.

The blackout cut-off almost all power below 26th street.  Unfortunately, our apartment was on the wrong side of 26th and we spent a few nights in the dark while looking at all the happy people with electricity a few blocks up.

The first night (Monday 29th) was kind of fun as my parents lit candles and we all went to bed early.  However, spending all day the next day (Tues 30th) trapped on the 23rd floor with limited food and water was getting old quick.

Luckily, my father had enough power on his cell phone to check the news on Tuesday night and found out that the blackout would be for another few days! He immediately used his Starwood Preferred Guest app on his phone to book a room with SPG points at the Sheraton New York Hotel on 53rd Street for Wed the 31st.

It cost him 12,000 points, but given the dire situation (including a young baby), they made the call and didn't look back.  The going cash rate for the hotel was $400/night (implying a 3.3 cents/pt redemption value) and by the time everyone woke up Wednesday morning to check the latest news, everyone had already booked any hotel they could find.

Hotels that coming weekend were already pretty busy given the NYC Marathon (scheduled for Sunday) had thousands of people visiting the city to run/spectate.  In fact, my father heard that many guests with reservations for that weekend were being turned away as Manhattanites became hotel room squatters refusing to check out if they had secured a hotel room.

Nevertheless, we secured our room (for $0 cash out of pocket) and we were able to recharge (cell phones as well as our spirits).  Another reason to stock up on airline & hotel points.  You never know when they'll come in handy in an emergency.

Oct 2012 - Texas Wedding

Flight #19 - United 1078 
Newark (EWR) – San Antonio (SAT) 
Friday, Oct 12, 2012  
Depart: 4:10PM / Arrive: 7:22PM 
Duration: 4hr 12min 
Aircraft: Boeing 737 
Seat: 12A and 12B (Economy Plus) 
Mileage:  1,569 miles
Lifetime Miles:  44,187

John, my father's friend from growing up, was getting married to a South Texas gal so we all decided to make the trip to Sandia, TX (about 2 hours south of San Antonio) to celebrate with them.

We were originally scheduled to fly out Thursday night at 7PM and my father was going to miss work on Friday since the only Friday evening direct flight was 4PM (meaning he'd have to leave work at 1PM to get home by 1:30PM so they could leave the apartment by 2PM to make it to the airport by 3PM before boarding at 3:30PM).  If he was going to miss half of Friday anyway, what was the big deal about a few hours Friday morning?

Flight Change #1
But as luck would have it, a month or so before the departure date, the Thurs 7PM flight got moved to Thurs 4PM.  Now missing work on Thursday as well as Friday was getting a bit excessive, even if it was for a destination wedding.  Combined with a very important investor coming in that week, things were looking pretty challenging for my father at work.  So he called United and explained he wanted to re-book on another flight.

Normally, changing a flight would incur a $150 change fee (per ticket).  However, since it was United's decision to change the original flight time, he was able to get the change fee waived.

His new flight was for Friday 5:40AM connecting via Houston and arriving into San Antonio at 10:18AM.  Painful!

But of course, my father had a plan...

Flight Change #2
As the date approached, he knew the important work meeting for that Thursday was potentially being pushed to Friday morning.  As such, missing all of Friday was no longer an option and (as he anticipated) work prompted my father to change his flight yet again to Friday afternoon.  That would mean he would have to drive 2 hours after landing.

But on the bright side, the new flight was direct to San Antonio.  And also, since work asked him to change his scheduled travel plans, they reimbursed my father for the flight change fees (including the fare difference). While not ideal, he did pocket a few thousand United miles for using his United Select credit card to pay for the fees.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Sept 2012 - Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort

Hotel Stay Details
Hotel: Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort 
Dates: September 11-13, 2012 
Rate Paid: $157 / night (including taxes)
Points Earned:  6,799 Hilton HHonors Points

My father was here in Phoenix on a business trip, so I brought my mother along to watch me while we waited for his meetings to finish up.

Since she (like most New Yorkers) doesn't know how to drive, my mother and I were stuck at the hotel for the day.

Luckily for me, we were staying at Hilton's Squaw Peak Resort so I got to swim float in the lazy river in the hotel's own water park next door.

Sept 2012 - Phoenix Flight

Flight #14 - US Airways 196 
New York (JFK) – Phoenix (PHX)  
Tues, Sept 11 
Depart: 9:59AM / Arrive: 12:11PM 
Duration: 5hr 12min 
Aircraft: Airbus 321 
Seat: 4A (First) 
Mileage: 3,229 miles
Lifetime Miles:  35,983

As you've probably realized, I'm a United Airlines baby, so it's rare to fly domestically on other metal. But sometimes, my father goes on business trips and can't justify a more expensive United flight, just to rack up frequent flyer miles.  And this trip was to Phoenix, where US Airways has a hub so they're were the lowest cost option.

Luckily for him, however, US Airways (at that time) was part of the Star Alliance along with United.  So that means, he can fly US Airways but get credit into his United account.

But if this trip to Phoenix was for my father's work, what does it have to do with me?  Well, since my parents are so sick in love and had to spend 9 months apart before my mother's greencard came through, they do a lot of crazy things to maximize their time together.  So while my father's company paid for his business class ticket from JFK to PHX, my father paid for a 2nd ticket for my mother and her (free) lap child.

Of course, since he was paying for the 2nd ticket personally, he bought a coach ticket for $299 round trip (via San Francisco).  My parents agreed that whomever wanted to sit in first class would have to hold the baby - as if I were some punishment to offset the reward of a bigger seat and shoddy meal service.  So my mother and I took our seat in 4A while my father schlepped it 15 rows back in seat 19A.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Aug 2012 - 1st Year Party

There's a Korean tradition of celebrating a baby's 1st birthday (Dol) in grand fashion.  This custom originated from the era where babies (no matter how adorable) would not always survive their first year of life due to disease or malnutrition.

Of course, I'm growing up in the United States (the most sterline countries in the world), and my two parents (who eat like hogs) would never let me go too long without a meal.  So I was pretty confident I'd make it to my 1st birthday.

But since I was in Korea and with most of my extended Korean family, we all decided to have the Dol party while I was there - even if I was only turning 10 months old.

My great aunt set up the entire party and all I had to do was show up and look adorable.  Mission accomplished.