Friday, May 31, 2013

Bienvenue à Paris!

If you were born in the 1980's, you may remember a 1992 video where a little French baby rapper named Jordy sang how hard it was to be a baby. Truth! But I digress.

Since we've been busy the past few days, I have to catch everyone up on what I've been up to since we left Germany earlier this week.


While we actually landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport around 7PM Tuesday evening, my father decided to just check into the nearby Hyatt Regency CDG by the airport the first night and save some Hyatt points (12,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points vs. 22,000 at the Park Hyatt in central Paris). Plus, there was something nice about arriving into Paris on his birthday (Wednesday) that made it a bit more special.


So the next morning, we slept in, had free breakfast in the Hyatt Regency Club Lounge and slowly made our way into the city. I say "slowly" because the traffic from CDG Airport can be pretty horrible. It took us about an hour to drive 27 km (17 miles), but I guess we can't complain because I've heard traffic horror stories of 2.5 hours. We were thinking about taking the RER Train, but then would have had to negotiate a lot of stairs with 2 rollerboard bags and a stroller, then also find a taxi from the train station to our hotel. The airport taxi was much easier, but also more expensive (€65 or $85, including €1 per bag fees and no tip). Fortunately, they took credit cards, so at least we earned some points.

By the time we got to the Park Hyatt Paris Vendôme, it was closer to 12PM and we decided to have nice Parisian lunch before taking our room. My father asked the Concierge if there were any good bistros in the area. The Concierge laughed and said "Yes, there are many bistros in Paris." Thanks, Concierge.

Eventually, he understood the intent of my father's inquiry and suggested Chez Flottes (2 Rue Cambon). Despite it's #3,416 ranking in TripAdvisor (to be fair, it's out of 9,567 Paris restaurants), we found the restaurant to be quite nice overall.

As my father warned us about before, the wait staff was quite abrupt and less than charming. As soon as we sat down and opened our English menus, the waitress asked us what we wanted. We asked for more time, and she ran away as if we were making her late for an appointment. But eventually, she came back and took our orders - a French onion soup and a marinated suckling pig. My mother said the soup was fine, but she's had better in NYC. However, my father's pork was amazing. Highly recommended.

We spent the next few hours walking around the neighborhood, passing posh designer stores, small cafes and bistros, and tourist souvenir shops. We eventually found a small grocery (Franprix, 20 Place du Marché Saint-Honoré) where my parents stocked up on some bottled waters and baby food and snacks for me.

That evening, my parents found me a trustworthy sitter and went to have a celebratory birthday dinner at Kinugawa (a Parisian Japanese restaurant on 9 rue du Mont Thabor). While the place was recommended by the hotel concierge, I think my father wanted a Japanese restaurant because then he could actually order without having to pronounce French words and have the waiter roll his eyes.

Apparently, getting reservations for restaurants in Paris can be quite difficult, so we had our hotel concierge call Kinugawa at 6:30PM when the restaurant opened to request a 9PM seating that evening. My parents arrived on time and were seated downstairs by the bar. In retrospect, they should have sat upstairs where the space is larger and the crowd more energetic.

Reading on TripAdvisor, they heard some reviews that the food could be quite salty so my father took "precautions." By that I mean that he told the waiter that he had health/dietary restrictions on sodium so asked them to use very little salt. Unfortunately, the waiter responded by eliminating several menu choices as they could not adjust the salt content in the dishes. My parents selected a soft shell crab roll appetizer (€18) to start, followed by a steamed sea bass in a yuzu sauce (€30) and a 12 piece order of nigiri sushi (€36). The food was all very good, but nothing you couldn't find in New York at half the price. The real kicker was the sake which was the best they've had, but also came at a steep price. I asked how much they paid for the bottle, but they didn't want to tell me out of fear that I'd worry about my college savings.


The next day, it was overcast and rainy, so we decided to check out the Musée du Louvre (instead of taking the double decker tour bus to orient ourselves to the city). Fortunately for us, it was Thursday because on Tuesdays, the Louvre is closed.

We had ordered some Paris Museum Passes (2 days for €39/person) in advance so we were ready for some culture. The passes are economically worth it if you plan to visit at least 3 museums in 2 consecutive days. However, they also have the benefit of allowing you to skip the ticket lines which may save you a good 10-20 minutes of waiting and having to deal with another French person.

But, the much longer line was the single security line to enter through the famous Pyramid. Fortunately, however, if you have a stroller or wheelchair, you get priority access and can skip security altogether (not just the line). I guess babies, disabled people and their caregivers aren't threats. There are other entrances to the Louvre, but only the main Pyramid one is accessible by strollers/wheelchairs, so you have to enter through that one.

We started with the Ancient Egyptian section and then made our way over to the Italian Renaissance section.  Since I'm not even 2 years old yet, I don't know much about Art or History, but I liked the paintings of the babies the best.

In one of the rooms, we saw the massive crowd of tourists all pushing and shoving each other to take a picture of the world famous painting, the Mona Lisa. 

I'm not sure why this painting is so much more popular than the thousands of others I saw today, but it was nice to see it in person. However, I only saw it from a distance because of the big crowd in front. But while my mother and I waited on the sidelines, my father passive aggressively boxed out a small, elderly Spanish grandmother to get a clean photo for me. I think elbows to the ribs were involved. Father of the year.

Since some of you readers might be young children or parents of young children, I should warn you Bugaboo / UPPAbaby mega-stroller types that the Louvre has a lot of stairs and not that many elevators. My father had to carry me and the stroller up & down a few flights at times. Not so difficult that you can't visit the museum, but just something to prepare for. Also, apparently the French museum guards frown upon riding on your father's shoulders, FYI.

So to summarize the Lourve, here are some tips to remember:
  • Louvre is closed on Tuesdays
  • Musée d'Orsay is closed on Mondays so Louvre will have longer lines that day
  • Paris Museum Passes save you money if you see more than 3 museums in 2 consecutive days
  • Strollers/wheelchairs can only enter through the Pyramid entrance, but you will have a priority line to bypass the security line
  • If you don't have a stroller, you can rent one for free inside
  • Lockers and coat check are also provided for free
  • Prepare for a lot of stairs - smaller umbrella strollers are easier to carry than super strollers
  • The elderly have weak ribs and bad balance, so keep your elbows out to help box them out.
More Paris posts to come...

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Maximizing Mileage - Double Dipping

Chapter 1 - Shopping Portals
Chapter 2 - Dining Programs
Chapter 3 - Double Dipping

If you're as old as my father, you probably know what this photo is and why it's an appropriate reference for this post.

Earlier in this series, I told you how to get your parents to start earning extra miles from shopping online and from eating out. Now, we're going to discuss how to earn extra points from Double Dipping.

The Double Dip isn't really a new way to earn points as much as it is a way to maximize how you're earning. In the simplest terms, you earn points by buying a gift card to a retailer you were going to buy something from anyway. Then you go through your online Shopping Portal of choice and use the gift card to purchase your items.

Here's an example:
  1. My mother wants to buy me an iPad mini for being such a great baby. Retail price is $329.99 at Best Buy.
  2. She first goes to Walgreens to pick up a Best Buy few gift cards to cover $300 of the purchase and uses her Citi Thank You Preferred Visa because it gives 5 Thank You Points per $1 spent at a drugstore for the first 12 months. $300 in Best Buy gift cards = 6,000 Thank You Points worth at least $60 cash back.
  3. She logs onto her Chase Ultimate Rewards Shopping Portal and searches for Best Buy. Chase is offering 1 extra Chase UR point for every $1 spent. So a $330 purchase would give her 330 extra Chase UR points.
  4. Purchases the iPad mini using the $300 in gift cards and pays for the rest ($30 + tax) with her Starwood American Express. 
  5. She selects the option to pick it up in-store. A few hours later she walks over to the neighborhood Best Buy and picks up my gift immediately.
So now my mother has earned 6,000 Citi Thank You Points, 330 Chase UR Points, and 30+ SPG Points. Had she just made the purchase directly in the store, she would have just earned 330+ SPG Points for using her American Express credit card. But by taking a few extra steps, she earned 6,360+ total points.

The biggest step is buying the End Retailer's (Best Buy) gift card from an Intermediary Retailer (Walgreens) that offers a credit card bonus. The best retailer bonuses are currently:
  • The Office Supply Stores (Staples, Office Depot and OfficeMax) using the Chase Ink Bold or Ink Plus credit cards which give 5x Chase UR points
  • Drugstores and Grocery Stores using the special Citi Thank You Preferred credit card which gives 5x Thank You Points (if you signed up using the special offer link) or the American Express Premier Rewards Gold  card which gives 2x Membership Reward points at Grocery Stores.
  • Gas Stations using the Chase Ink cards (2x) or the American Express Premier Rewards Gold (2x).
If you're thinking this all the way through, this strategy has a lot of permutations as well. 

For example, when my father makes donations to his favorite non-profits/charities, he can just pay with his credit card and earn 1 point per dollar donated. 

Or, he could go to CVS and buy a $500 Prepaid Visa gift card for $504.95 (due to the $4.95 activation fee) and earn 2,525 Citi Thank You points upfront. Then he can slowly use the gift card over time to make the donations that he was going to make anyway. 

Yes, he spent an extra $4.95, but the 2,525 Citi TYP are worth at least $25.25, so he's coming out ahead.

Through this process of Double Dipping as well as regular gas/grocery/drugstore spending, my parents have earned about 90,000 Citi Thank You Points over the past few months - worth about $900. They COULD just use the points to lower their monthly Citi credit card bill, but where's the fun in that? Personally, I think they should redeem the points for $900 worth of Best Buy gift cards and get a few "free" iPad minis and start the Double Dipping cycle all over again.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Eating Like A German

Growing up in the Northeast, my father probably had his fair share of Dunkin Donuts. His favorite was called the Bavarian Cream. Fun fact: As a child, sometimes my father would take the doughnut and freeze it over night for a tasty frozen snack the next day.

But I digress. Over the past Memorial Day Weekend, we learned first hand that Bavarian food is so much more than cream doughnuts.

Despite having a very good Michelin Star restaurant inside our hotel, we opted to dine at more authentic local (albeit touristy) venues.

Here's a rundown of the delicious (but very heavy) Bavarian delicacies that we've enjoyed.

1. Bratwurst and Sauerkraut (hearty pork and beef sausages)

2. Schnitzel (thinly pounded and breaded meat)

3. Hirschgulasch (venison stew)

4. Leberwurst Soup (liverwurst meatball soup)

5. Schweinsteak (pork steak)

6. Apple Strudel (pastry filled with apples and surrounded by whipped cream)

In between meals, I got to play with some of the local kids in the village. I know that everyone says Asian kids are supposed to be super smart, but these kids were very impressive. I mean, they were barely bigger than I was and they were already speaking German!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

InterContinental Berchtesgaden

Hotel Stay Detail
Hotel: InterContinental Berchtesgaden
Dates: May 25-28, 2013 
Rate Paid: 30,000 Priority Club Points/night 
Regular Room Rate: $307/night (incl. tax) 
Total $ Benefit: $921 
Point Redemption: 1.0 cents/pt

"Wow." All I can I say is "Wow." If you've been following my family's travels, you'll know that we're Starwood Hotel loyalists with a propensity to cheat sometimes with Hyatt, but this was our first stay at an Intercontinental Hotel (the luxury flagship of the Intercontinental Hotel Group which includes Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza).


The Intercontinental is located atop a windy mountain road above the village of Berchtesgaden. It's a little hard to find because you have to take a side road off the main mountain road and only a small sign to show you the way. Thank goodness for GPS.

When we pulled up, I knew we'd be in for a treat. They immediately came out to greet us at the car and helped us unload our car. The front desk welcomed us to the property and the general manager even came out to greet my father.

The hotel was quite sleek and modern in its style. It reminded me of how a Howard Roark building might look if he were asked to design a luxury hotel in the German Alps. It's really quite stunning, especially with the snow topped mountains all around.

Hotel Room

My mother and I were taken to the room while my father made a trip back down the mountain to get some baby supplies. The room was very clean and classic, but had just enough of modern touches without being over the top (hear that W Hotel?)

The hotel was shaped like a horseshoe with an expansive interior lawn between the two sides. We had Room 126 which was an interior area facing room, but we had a nice patio area that looked across the grass to the other side of hotel rooms. I'm sure the exterior facing rooms were great, but we were pretty happy, especially since it was a free hotel room on points!

The hotel had a very nice looking lounge off the main lobby, flanked by a library area (with a flat screen TV) and the Rocks bar. It also had 3 formal restaurants in case you were up for either a Michelin star restaurant or some local Bavarian food or just wanted a regular international meal. IC Berchtesgaden also had the Mountain Spa with a heated indoor and outdoor swimming pool.

Special Features

But the highlights that really set this resort apart were the following:
  • Amazing service (from the front desk, to the bellmen, to the housekeeping, to the room service, to the valet parking). Everything and everyone was exceptionally well trained and enthusiastic to help you. It was a welcome change from some of the grumpy TSA agents we met at JFK airport.
  • Heated bathroom floor. There's nothing worse than walking into the bathroom and feeling the icy cold floor sending chills up your body. (Well, that's not true, especially since I've been known to have a few baby diaper blow outs now and then. And trust me, those are MUCH worse). But having a warm heated floor to walk on as you step out of the shower or as you brush your teeth...that's something special.
  • Free drinks in the mini-bar. They don't stock it with any alcohol since this is a "wellness resort," but they do have an assortment of mineral waters, teas and fruit juices.
  • A well stocked supply of baby amenities, including a crib, bath mat, diaper pail and, my personal favorite, a baby sized Intercontinental Berchtesgaden bathrobe. Best. Baby Hotel. Ever.
  • They even have a Kid's Club on the weekends. We didn't get to use it this time, since I wanted to go with my parents to see the Lake, but we'll be sure to use it next time we come back.
  • The indoor swimming pool is located in the spa, but so is the outdoor swimming pool. Confused? Maybe these photos will do the trick.

Loyalty Program & Points

As I mentioned, the Intercontinental is the flagship luxury brand of the IHG (who have a loyalty program called Priority Club). We don't actively go after Priority Club points because we focus our points on Starwood and Hyatt, but IHG has some great properties like this one.

We heard about this hotel from the same blogger I mentioned yesterday (OneMileAtATime) who loved Berchtesgaden and the Intercontinental here. If you want more photos of the resort, I'd check out his blog. He's a sort of travel hero of mine. He travels in premium class flights all over the globe and stays at some of the best hotels all over the world. And best of all, he's only a little older than me (23 years old).

But I digress. As I was saying before, we didn't have many Priority Club points to spend. While my father could have transferred some of his Chase Ultimate Reward points into Priority Club, he thought the Chase UR points were too valuable and kept them for future United Airlines or Hyatt conversions later on.

So he opened a Priority Club Visa credit card from Chase. The official offer was only 60,000 points for signing up, but he was able to get a special 80,000 point sign up bonus by asking the Chase representative to give him the better offer out there. But at 30,000 PC points/night, he was just shy of 3 free nights which cost 90,000 points total. (Note: the hotel has since gone up in points and now costs 40,000 Priority Club points per night.)

But of course, my father had an ace up his abnormally short sleeve. Using a trick he read about, he booked 1 night online using $70 cash & 20,000 points. He then cancelled the booking and received 30,000 points as a refund, but lost the $70. In other words, he "bought" 10,000 points for $0.7 cents/point. So now he had 90,000 total points available in his account. For a cash outlay of just $70, he had enough for 3 nights at the amazing Intercontinental Berchtesgaden.

While the redemption rate for PC points was relatively low (1 cent/pt), these points aren't as valuable as Hyatt or Starwood. And also, my father didn't have a better redemption in mind for his Priority Club points, so saving them for a better opportunity didn't matter.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Where is Berchtesgaden?

"Where is Berchtesgaden?"

So if you're a baby like me, you may have heard of the German cities like Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich. Maybe you've even heard of Hamburg, Nuremberg and Stuttgard. But you've probably never ever heard of Berchtesgaden.

Berchtesgaden is a small Bavarian mountain village in the far southeastern corner of Germany, a 2 hour drive from Munich just by the border of Austria. In fact, it's only about a 30 minute drive to Salzburg, birthplace of the great Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Unfortunately, despite Mozart's growing up closeby, the more infamous Berchtesgaden association is that it was the summer vacation spot of some notable Nazis, including Mr. A Hitler. But we didn't let that detract from our visit to this beautiful German countryside village.

OK, so now that you know where Berchtesgaden is on a map, the next question is...

"Why did you decide to go there?"

Well, here's a photo why.

As you can see, the town is embedded within the German Alps and it makes for quite a stunning backdrop. In the past few months, my parents and I have been fortunate to see a lot of beautiful mountain ranges:
  • Thai Limestone Cliffs
  • Chilean Andes
  • Canadian Rockies
  • Idaho Rockies
And now we've added a European flavor to the list.

"How did you even hear about Berchtesgaden?"

My father is an avid reader of several other Travel & Points/Miles blogs out there (but LapChild Diaries is his all time favorite, of course). One of them (One Mile At A Time) absolutely raved about this place and how it was his "favorite place on earth." With an outrageous statement like that, we had to see for ourselves. And we weren't disappointed.

"What did you do there?"

On Saturday (our first day in Germany), we actually just walked around Munich and had lunch there before driving 2 hours to Berchtesgaden to our hotel. Once we checked in, we just stayed in our rooms resting up and trying to adjust to the time difference (+6 hours from NYC and +9 hours from Vancouver).

We were super tired, mostly because I didn't really let my parents sleep on the overnight outbound flight (since it was a 5:40PM departure and I was still on Vancouver time, so it wasn't even close to my usual 11PM bedtime). But even without me fussing around on the flight, my father was too busy watching his in-flight movies (Gangster Squad and Parental Guidance) and didn't sleep the entire 8.5 hour flight over. In fact, he was so tired that first day that he pulled the car over at a highway rest stop to take an hour nap at 2:30PM. Better safe than sorry, especially when you're carrying precious cargo!

So on Sunday morning, I woke my parents up at 4:30AM local time, and we all decided to just get up and get ready for the day. Our plan was to have breakfast in Berchtesgaden village at the base of the mountain and then head over to Königssee, the nearby village where you could hop on a boat ride across Lake Königssee.

The boats are operated by the Bavarian lake boat company, Bayerische Seenschifffahrt GmbH. You had the choice to take the 35 minute ride to St. Bartholomä or the full 55 minute ride to Salet. The round trip prices were as follows:
  • Königssee to St. Bartholomä - €13.30/adult round trip
  • Königssee to Salet - €16.30/adult round trip
  • Kids between 6-17 were €6.70 and €8.20, respectively
  • Kids under 5 years old were free
To be completely honest, neither St. Bartholomä or Salet had much to offer that was worth spending more than 10 minutes at (maybe 3-4 buildings at each stop), but they made for great places to get off the boat and take some amazing photos.

Königssee & the Boat Ride Over

St. Bartholomä Church & Salet

Then after we made it back to Königssee, we had lunch at the nearby lakeside Bavarian restaurant called Echostuberl that we found on My mother had some schweinswurstel (bavarian sausages and sauerkraut, €8.90), while my father ordered a holzhacker (pork steak topped with bacon and fried onions, €11.90). We could have sat outside, but it was a bit chilly here (like 40 degrees) and I told my parents I wanted to eat indoors, hence the bad lighting for the food photos.

And finally, we stopped our way back at the Berchtesgaden village at the base of the mountain. It's truly a place lost in time, with its cobblestone streets, traditional architecture and classic fountains and side streets. Unfortunately, we visited on a Sunday so most of the shops were closed, though a few streetside cafes and markets were open.

"Where did you stay in Berchtesgaden?"

That, my dear readers, is for tomorrow's edition of LCD.