Thursday, February 28, 2013

Thai Transportation

My father got us a great 6 night free stay in Koh Samui, but it cost us our prepaid tickets on Bangkok Airways' 55 minute direct flight to Krabi Airport (KBV) because by the time we changed our plans, the 1 flight to Krabi on our new departure date (Feb 28) was already fully booked.  So were all the other flights that backtracked through Bangkok or went to nearby Phuket.

We could have paid $1,000+ each for a flight that connected through Hong Kong on an airline that my father never heard of, but we passed on that otherwise attractive 9.5 hour itinerary.

So now, we were on the waitlist for our Feb 28th USM-KBV flight.  If we were extremely hopeful, we could have gone to the airport and prayed that TWO people were going to miss their flight, but (a) that was a very unlikely scenario and (b) we had luggage that needed to be checked and didn't want to risk having our luggage get on the flight without us.  Also, given that the Airport (think 1 o'clock) was on the complete other side of the island from the Conrad (think 7 o'clock), we didn't want to pay $50 for a taxi ride just to find out that we wouldn't get on the flight.

So instead, my father went online and found us our Plan B: a 1.5 hour ferry to the mainland at Don Sak Pier and then a 3 hour drive to Krabi.

If this were the United States (or even Europe), it wouldn't have been such a nervous experience.  But this wasn't some established Western country, it was Thailand where things are delayed, break down and poop happens.

Nevertheless, my anal detail oriented father did his homework (like a good Asian).  He did research on what his options were, submitted a few requests for price quotes via email and found online validation from travel forums on TripAdvisor to make sure those companies were reputable.

First, we needed to get off Koh Samui and onto the mainland. There were 2 ferries we could take: Seatran and Raja Ferry. Both ferries were the same price (150 THB/person or about $5 USD) and took 1.5 hours to Don Sak Pier on the mainland, but Raja's schedule worked better for us since there was a ferry leaving every hour on the hour.

Now we needed to get from Don Sak Pier to Krabi. We could have gotten a public bus, but I demanded my father get us a taxi instead. The last thing I needed was to sit next to some old Thai man with a live chicken in his lap.

So after getting a few quotes online, we settled on that charged us 3,200 THB ($107 USD) for the scenic 3 hour taxi ride in a "Toyota Corolla or similar." I don't know about you, but NYC taxis only take you from Manhattan to JFK and charge you like $60 + toll + tip for the 45 minute drive. Plus, Krabi Shuttle took Visa (earning us 2x Chase UR points for using the Sapphire Preferred card with no F/X fees).

Hopefully by the time you're all reading this, my parents and I have made it safe and sound to Krabi for the last week of our Thailand adventure.

The Kohs in Pictures

For the past 11 days, my parents and I have been relaxing in Koh Phangan and Koh Samui, enjoying beautiful sunrises, even more stunning sunsets, impressive island mountain landscapes and eating pretty well also.  I don't think I have enough commentary for a standalone post, but I'll just try to capture my favorite moments with photos.  Hope you Americans/Europeans are enjoying your February weather!

If you didn't figure it out by now, "Koh" means "island" in Thai.  And if you thought the Kohs were an Asian family, then you're a racist.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

How We Earned Points to Travel

As I mentioned on Friday, my father really outdid himself with some last minute points & miles manipulation, getting us 6 free nights at the amazing Conrad Koh Samui.

Because of (a) my father's career in Wall Street and (b) my parents' frequent travel adventures, most people probably assume we just blow through a ton of money.  They probably also assume my mother was a Russian mail order bride, or that she married my father for a U.S. greencard, so we can all acknowledge that they're ignorant and uninformed.

The truth is that my father is usually really stingy with spending money on himself.  He buys a pair of shoes once every 5 years, a pair of jeans every 4 years, and his other clothes at Old Navy when they're on sale.

He says he's saving money for my college account (he started my 529 college savings plan 8 months before I was even born) and for a house in the next 7-8 years when I force my parents to finally move out of the city (and get a free public school education).

So how do we get to fly around in business class and stay at these amazing hotels?  Frequent flyer miles and hotel loyalty points.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, you can travel like a jetsetter but pay like a backpacker if you're (a) diligent about using certain airlines/hotels, (b) thoughtful about how you spend your money and (c) smart about how manage your credit score.

Now, there are two ways to earn miles & points.
  • Actually fly on airlines using your frequent flyer number or stay in hotels using your hotel loyalty number - but that gets very EXPENSIVE and takes a long time to get enough miles/points
  • Sign up for credit cards that offer big new account bonuses - free/low cost and quick

Big warning!  If you have any debt at all (student loans, credit card, personal loans or mob gambling debt), then you're better off not opening more credit cards, because you're probably spending more than you're making and ruining your future.  The last thing you need is another credit card.

But assuming you have a very good handle on your personal finances and can pay off your credit cards IN FULL every month, then you could play the Points & Miles game too and enjoy some aspirational awards that you probably could/would never personally pay for.

To give you an example, my father's agreed to let me disclose exactly how he "earned" the 225,000 Hilton HHonors points we used for this 6 night stay at Conrad Koh Samui. 
1.  July 2012 - My father signed up for a Hilton HHonors American Express card with a 40,000 point sign up bonus if he spent $750 in 3 months.  No annual fee.

2.  July 2012 - My mother signed up for the same Hilton HHonors American Express card but with a 50,000 point sign up bonus if she spent $750 in 3 months.  This bonus was higher because there was a special promotional URL link that my parents found after already applying for the first card.  When asked for her Hilton HHonors account #, she put in my father's instead. No annual fee.
3.  July 2012 - My father signed up for a Hawaiian Airlines Visa issued by Bank of Hawaii with a 35,000 Hawaiian Airline miles bonus if he spent $1,000 in 3 months.  But 35,000 Hawaiian Airline Miles can be converted to 70,000 Hilton HHonors points by calling Hawaiian Airlines.  $79 annual fee.
4. November 2012 - My father signed up for another Hawaiian Airlines Visa but this one was issued by Bank of America with the same 35,000 mile sign on bonus (if he spent $1,000 in 3 months) and ability to convert to 70,000 Hilton HHonors points. $79 annual fee.
So now my parents had to spend a total of $3,500 over the following months (staggered a bit because one card was opened in November).  Unlike many Americans who spend way beyond their means and rack up debt, my parents didn't view the new credit cards as an ability to buy more things.

Instead, they just bought the same amount of stuff they usually did such as groceries, subway metrocards, diapers (I poop a lot), eating out, charitable donations, but used plastic instead of spending their cash.

Now at the end of the month, since they didn't use cash, they had an artificially higher balance in their checking account.  But more importantly, they used this "extra" cash to pay off the credit cards in full - so no interest charges or late payment fees to negate the points.

So in total, my parents earned a total of 230,000 HH points from the four card sign up bonuses after reaching the 4 minimum spend requirements.  All it cost them was two $79 annual card fees ($158 total for those of you bad at math).

Plus, spending $1 earned 3 HH points on the Hilton Amex or 1 Hawaiian mile (= 2 HH points) on the Hawaiian Visa.  So the $3,500 of spend on the 4 cards earned another 8,500 HH points (2,250 HH points x 2 Amex cards + 2,000 HH points x 2 Visas).  Hope you all remember your order of operations from 2nd grade.

Total Hilton HHonors Points = 238,500 HH Points

Now because my father had the Hilton Amex card, he got free Silver Hilton HHonors status and got access to special Hilton GLON Awards that allowed him to book a 6 night stay at any Hilton using points with a 25% point discount.  [UPDATE:  GLON awards may be going away starting March 28, 2013.]

So instead of needing 300,000 HH Points for 6 nights at the Conrad Koh Samui (where rates run at 50,000 HH points/night), we booked for a total of 225,000 HH Points (or 37,500 HH points/night) and saved $850/night (total of $5,100 for 6 nights).

On top of all this, my father became an instant Hilton HHonors Gold last year for free (click here to see how) and that got us all the free breakfast buffet each morning (which costs ~$28/person normally).  That's $5,436 of value for almost free!

Now, to be completely fair, my parents didn't really save $5,436, because it's not as if they were going to come to the Conrad Koh Samui and pay cash anyway.  But they still received $5,436 of value FOR FREE - just for being smart about hotel loyalty programs and managing their credit cards.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Conrad Koh Samui

Hotel Stay Details
Hotel: Conrad Koh Samui
Dates: February 22-28, 2013
Rate Paid:  37,500 Hilton Points/night
Regular Rate: $850 / night (incl. taxes) Total $ Savings: $5,100
Point Redemption Value: 2.3 cents/pt*

My parents and I had spent the past few weeks primarily staying at Starwood hotels (Le Meridien, W, St Regis and soon Sheraton).  But for a few days this week, we switched to the Conrad - Hilton's luxury brand.

We arrived in a shared van from Nathon Pier on the western side of the island.  The drive took about 30 minutes and went through a few small towns and even smaller villages along the way.

View Larger Map

As we got closer, the other couple in our van asked if we could all stop at the FamilyMart (like a 7-11 convenience store) to load up on groceries since we all knew the Conrad's mini-bar would be expensive (think $5 USD for a Coke and $8 for a Singha beer).  I had my father buy me a bunch of milk boxes and some cup-o-noodle soups for me.  He picked up a few beers for himself and my mom as well.

After 5 more minutes of crazy steep roads up the mountain, we finally arrived at the resort which had a modern style water fountain in the center of the driveway overlooking a beautiful view of the Gulf of Thailand.  To the side, was the Welcome Reception Area where we were checked in.

We were the 3rd group to check in but the front desk was well staffed so that we each were attended to right away (I think the security at the bottom of the mountain road alerted the hotel staff how many guests were coming). Cold scented towels and chilled glasses of a flavored water were exchanged for all our passports - even mine!

Shortly thereafter inputting our information, they returned, thanked us for being Hilton Gold members and explained that our villa was ready for us and our pre-arrival request (crib for a baby) was accommodated. Since all the villas were identical (each with their own private pool), there was nothing to upgrade us to. They apologized for that and hoped that a bottle of red wine would serve as enough compensation.

As I mentioned, the Welcome Reception Area is at the top of the mountain.  The resort property is actually built along the steep cliff edge of the island with a series of zig-zagging paved paths that get you up or down. (photo from

The paths could be used for walking but since they were so steep at times, they had a fleet of golf carts ("buggies") on call to take guests back and forth whenever/wherever you wanted.

My parents and I hopped on the back of our buggy and made our way down to Villa 219 past the massive "Conrad Residences" (which were full 2-3 bedroom condos with kitchens and living rooms), the various resort restaurants, and the actual Main Lobby/Concierge (see the large purple structure next to the pool) located halfway down the mountain.

After a few hairpin turns and quick descents that scared my mother, we finally reached our villa and were given the 5 minute tour by our gracious guide/driver.

As soon as we entered, we felt the crisp cool blast of 70 degree air welcoming you. The small foyer led you to main bedroom which had 15 foot high ceilings and a king sized bed adorned with some sleek colored accent pillows that matched the rest of the room's relaxing color scheme.

As mentioned, the beautiful crib was also set up and waiting for us in the room, complete with fresh new bedding that looked like it was brand new.

Along the side window there was a chair and desk for people like my father who can't get away from his computer while on vacation, complete with a collection of various device chargers in case you left yours at home (though my father notes that they didn't have one for a Blackberry).

Along the far side wall, there was a large flat screen internet enabled television that could be pulled out and angled so that you could watch TV from the bed. Conrad also gave you 4 bottles of drinking water that they replenished daily (or upon request).

Across from the TV, there was a small couch and coffee table with the aforementioned bottle of red wine and some apples nicely presented on the coffee table with a nice welcome snack.

But nothing could take your eyes off the amazing view of the private infinity plunge pool through the floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors.

Each of the villas had their own outdoor patio area with a pretty sizable pool (about 32 feet long x 7 feet wide x 4 feet deep).  Perfect for a family with a young child to enjoy, especially without the annoying complaints of any other guests.

The patio had a small table, chair, outdoor couch and also 2 sun loungers chairs with the nice mesh to conform to your body (much better than those foam mattresses or inflexible plastic chairs that leave marks on your skin).

From the other end of the pool area, you could enter into the bathroom which was itself quite a beautiful room. As you can see, the massive circular bathtub (that could fit a family of 3-4) was the main centerpiece. There was even a small flat screen TV that kids like me could enjoy while taking our baths.

Having dual sinks came in handy as well because my parents often fight over who gets to use the bathroom like sorority girls before a formal.  Conrad also gave us a lot of bathroom amenities to make sure all our lavatory needs were met, including baby supplies like powder, lotion and shampoo.

There was also a large stand-up rain shower (large enough for 2 people to fit comfortably) and a smaller closet-like room for the toilet (which as my father pointed out, does not get WiFi signal).

Speaking of technology, the villa was very well equipped. In addition to having a strong WiFi signal (that didn't need a password to connect), there was also an iPad for guests to use to web surf and contact Guest Services/Room Service with.

From the touch of your fingers, you could use the iPad Conrad App to request a buggy to pick you up, have your room cleaned, order a burger from the pool bar, or book a spa appointment.

If the iPad was too high tech for you, then they also had a nice chest full of fun family games like Scrabble, chess, Monopoly and even Jenga!

From what we read, the Conrad's unique property layout made getting around the resort a bit more challenging than usual, so they tried to make each villa self-sufficient for those guests who preferred to never leave their rooms.

After scheming his way to get Hilton HHonors Gold status, my father was able to get us free breakfast at their restaurant Zest for each morning of our stay.  I'm not sure what the breakfast normally cost (because there were no prices on the menu) but I'm sure it wasn't cheap. Each morning, you had your choice of fresh fruit, breads/cheeses/cold cuts, pastries, dim sum, noodle soups, fresh fruit juices and of course the requisite omelette station.

Since we had everything we needed in our villa and that we wanted a week to just relax comfortably, we didn't really spend too much time at the rest of the resort nor did we venture out too much outside to see the rest of touristy Koh Samui.

But if we wanted to, we could have enjoyed our time at the main pool, the few boutique shops, the Library, or even taken a complimentary speedboat to the Conrad's own private island beach (since there was no beach available here).  But I'm more of pool girl than a beach girl anyway. As I mentioned in another post, I hate sand.

Overall, we were very happy with the Conrad Koh Samui and while my father would never pay the $600-850+ USD / night to stay here, he was more than happy to burn Hilton HHonor Points to stay/eat here for FREE (post coming later this week to show you how he got those HH points).

* Note:  Hilton HHonors Points are generally MUCH easier to earn (3x) than Starwood SPG points.  Comparing it to currency might make more sense. 3 HH points : 1 SPG point :: 3 Israeli Sheckles : 1 US Dollar.  So I'd compare this 2.3 cents/HH pt redemption to being 6.9 cents/SPG pt.