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EUROPEAN VACATION, PART 1 – PRAGUE

**This is the first in a series of posts.

Off we go into the wild blue yonder. Where? Specifically Europe, but with a great many stops.  I will be in 11 countries over the month (the hubby 10) — seven of them for the first time.

How does one create the itinerary? Romania & Bulgaria fell by the wayside courtesy of Covid back in 2020. So those two were automatic.  We have long wanted to revisit Prague and Vienna, so those are stops 1 & 2.  The stops basically go geographically from north to south with some criss-crossing.  None of the destinations are more than five hours of driving in a single day. We will see a lot!

Yes, the country count is correct! Not shown here is a stop in London plus an extra week for me at a Tuscan cooking school.  More about that later. 

The group of countries are “Central Europe” (more or less) for the sake of brevity.

But back to Prague.  After a non-stop to London with a plane/terminal change, we arrive in Prague at night but still take in the glorious beauty of this city.  Soon after, the first “challenge” of the trip (every trip has them) upon receipt of an email from our Vienna hotel, the next stop.  More about that later.

We are on the “Castle side” of the river — as opposed to the “new town/old town” side.  Prague is definitely a walking city with most people traversing the area via the iconic Charles Bridge.   The bridge and towers date back 1,000 years, and obviously are the best place to capture images of the city.

The town center, below, looks exactly the same as it did in 2007, our previous visit here

The Jewish area in the older part of Prague

We intentionally did not plan any specific tours, but rather look to get acclimated and meander through the town — altogether an excellent plan. There’s something to be said for simply being here with no particular agenda.  The only impediment is the weather in Prague — low 40’s with rain, not exactly conducive to comfortable meandering.

Separately, note to self: Make sure to set cellphone and watch on local time.  The first morning I woke up and saw it was 9:45 and panicked that we might miss breakfast! (God forbid).  Jump in the shower, wake the hubby — get up! I need coffee in my travel haze! As we are about to dash out the door, I realize my phone is still on LA time (9:45pm) so locally it is just 7:45 AM. Oh, well. More hours to explore.

Above, Czech wines from our dinner at Restaurant Mlynec along with excellent food below: Salad with buttermilk, burrata, macademia nuts; veal steak “schnitzel” and Peanut Butter/Chocolate ganache.

As to the aforementioned challenge, our plan to drive from Prague to Vienna was shelved.  The Vienna hotel emailed that no vehicles may enter the main “ring” area surrounding the city due to the annual marathon.  So we left our transportation dilemma in the capable hands of the two concierges (Prague & Vienna) to sort it on our behalf.  A hired driver will get us to the Vienna hotel (with a fair amount of luggage) without a couple of seniors hauling the bags via public transportation.  We will drive ourselves from Vienna onward.  But with opera tickets the first night in Vienna, time is of the essence for a timely arrival!

Prague at night, beautifully lit

Snippets from the RoadThings You Should Know

WHY LOYALTY (STILL) MATTERS

customer loyalty

Why revisit the subject of loyalty now?  Because I believe it is more important than maybe ever.  Hence, a call back to a post from four years ago, which is linked HERE.

Upon receiving notification that American Airlines is making a number of changes, I learned that one is increasing their checked bag fees.  One of the perks of my longtime loyalty to the program is exemption from baggage fees.  While the amount might not make a difference in the scheme of things, it is nonetheless a nice perk to not have to think about that added cost.  Likewise, there is access to premium seating in certain sections at no additional cost; free upgrades, etc.

And this, from the Wall Street Journal Feb 21:  “The rising fees can help steer travelers into airline-loyalty programs or toward pricier premium tickets that include baggage fees.  At American, customers with the airline’s co-branded credit card or who have status will still receive complimentary bag-checking, as will those who buy seats in premium cabins.”  

Photo cred: WSJ Feb 21 2024

At this point, my travel is less domestic and more international.  Those “big” trips almost always rely on securing mileage seats for the longest flights.  One exception is travel to South America.  While there are flights to some major cities there, the miles required are astronomical! Plus virtually none are nonstop, and many fly through Miami — an airport I go to great lengths to avoid.

The end result for this year’s Antarctica trip?  Paying outright for seats on Delta (operated by LATAM).  At least there will be miles gained from the credit card used (Citi/AAdvantage Platinum).  As I begin to map out our spring travel for next year — back to South America plus the Caribbean for countries not previously visited — I am researching how best to incorporate AA/One World partners wherever possible.  It’s “work” yes, but for me both fun and challenging.

Next post will cover the coming changes to earning miles and loyalty points, as soon as I understand them! Stay tuned.

Snippets from the Road

SELECTING YOUR SEAT

sleeping on a plane

Do you stress about where you sit on a flight?  I do. When it comes to international flights, where I sit is nearly as important as the flight schedule and/or the cost. It sets the tone for the beginning (or ending) of memorable journeys.

I think about where I am most likely to avoid small children.  It’s not the kids; it’s the parents who think their children do not need to lower their voices or stay in their seats. Beyond that (over which I obviously have no control), I think about sitting on the left side window.  Why? Because I sleep on my left side, so that way I am facing away from the distractions.

Did I mention I stress about my seat?

For years, I went to SeatGuru for guidance.  You entered your flight details and voila — up came the seat configuration map. Additionally, the passenger reviews of the aircraft were very helpful.  Comments might be “this bulkhead seat eliminates some storage space” or “the window is not aligned with the seat” or “anticipate noise from the galley or restroom.”

A recent column in The Points Guy indicated that SeatGuru is certainly obsolete if not essentially non-existent.  The good news is:  AeroLOPA

AeroLOPA is a portfolio of aircraft seating plans, carefully developed and uniquely detailed to help you make the very best decision about where to sit on-board your next flight

In perusing the site, I found links to virtually every major airline.  So assuming you have the equipment details available via your booking (or flight you want to select), the site appears to have all of the seat maps.  While customer reviews are absent, the site provides much greater detail about a given aircraft’s cabin seating and even includes wi-fi and entertainment offerings.

Do I wish I were one of those people who gets on a plane without a second thought and drifts immediately into a blissful sleep?? Well, the hubby got that gene. I just figured out how to deal with what I have and feel victorious when it all works out.

International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

SPRING TRIP 2023: SINGAPORE

singapore1

Did you know that Singapore has four seasons?  They are hot, hotter, extremely hot, and monsoon rain (resulting in just mildly hot weather).  Frankly, I don’t know how people manage.

After the brief stay in Tokyo (in case you missed it, click HERE), we made a return visit to this center of remarkable capitalism.  Since declaring independence from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore has enjoyed incredible development.  It is:

A highly developed country, it has the second-highest GDP per capita (PPP) in the world. Identified as a tax haven, Singapore is the only country in Asia with a AAA sovereign credit rating from all major rating agencies. It is a major aviationfinancial, and maritime shipping hub, and has consistently been ranked as one of the most expensive cities to live in for expatriates and foreign workers. Singapore ranks highly in key social indicators: educationhealthcarequality of lifepersonal safetyinfrastructure, and housing, with a home-ownership rate of 88 percent. Singaporeans enjoy one of the longest life expectanciesfastest Internet connection speedslowest infant mortality rates, and lowest levels of corruption in the world. (Source: Wikipedia)

Now, if they could just do something about the weather.

I managed to score a highly-coveted booking at Burnt Ends in the Dempsey Hill area for our first night.  We sat at the bar and enjoyed a selection of small plates, one better than the next.  The real show was the bar itself, with truly artisan cocktails being mixed non-stop.  And the bartenders or “mixologists” are quite the showmen.  We were enthralled.

First, the food seen below (“slider”; wings; salad & taco bites; dessert)

Next; borrowed this one to show the bar area where we sat (photo courtesy Burnt Ends)

In answer to the question:  “How do you get to the bottles up top?”  

No trip to Singapore is complete without seeing the iconic Marina Bay Sands complex (casino, hotel, high-end shops galore and endless dining options).  While the 57th floor infinity pool is only available to hotel guests, there is an observation deck atop another tower.  I steeled myself with a libation at lunch (a White Cosmo with orchid petals in the ice cube) which took the edge off being up so high (and outside).  It is quite something to see the entirety of Singapore from that vantage point. Lunch (below) at Daniel Boulud’s bistro.

In the quest for some delicious Chinese food, we opted for Jian-Nan Chun at the Four Seasons Hotel. And what an auspicious decision that turned out to be.  While looking for the restaurant in the lobby, a gentleman offered to help us find the spot.  And then asked, “Have we met before?  Were you at the Four Seasons in the Maldives (Kudaa Hura)?”  Yes, in 2017.  He was the general manager there at the time.  How did he remember us?  Because he reads this blog!  How cool is that?  If ever I question why I continue to do this, it is stories like these that connect and inspire.  We’re still in touch with the executive chef from the Maldives who we visited in Kuala Lumpur in 2019 (who loved this reunion story when I shared it with him!).

A most delicious dinner below with gorgeous centerpiece:

After learning there are giant pandas at the Singapore Zoo complex, it was an easy decision to see them along with assorted other species.  But you had me at the pandas.  While the shy mom was in the den, we watched in awe of the father and the 2-year old Le Le consume copious amounts of bamboo.  That’s a lot of what they do besides exude cuteness overload!

Below, a more rare Red Panda

Patriarch of the family 

And the youngin’ Le Le

From our Orchard Road-adjacent hotel (the St. Regis), it was an short drive for our last dinner. That was at the Singapore outpost of Osteria Mozza. Nancy Silverton (who revolutionized bread via La Brea Bakery) has excellent personnel on hand making sure the food is identical to the flagship in Los Angeles.  Given that every ingredient must be imported, that is not easy. Among the comments shared with us from the Australian-born executive chef, we found out a young lady makes all the pasta from scratch.  It was delicious. By the way, that it is atypical for someone young to be so adept at this particular skill. Especially since there are none of the Italian “nonnas” teaching her how!

With a morning departure, we said our goodbyes and boarded Singapore Air for the 2+ hour flight to our next stop — Bali.

 

International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

SPRING TRIP 2023: TOKYO

tokyo 5

Many decisions made for the big trip are based on the farthest point we can achieve for the smallest outlay of dollars or miles. Getting across an ocean is typically involved, in this case the Pacific. For previous trips, that meant typically flying Cathay to Hong Kong, but unfortunately no more.  With American or OneWorld miles, it is now Tokyo via Japan Air.

I read a number of reviews of the plane, service, etc., and looked forward to the 12-hour flight.  I even bumped us up, taking advantage of using relatively few miles required (80k per person) for First Class. It is 60k for business, which is still a great deal!

There are just eight suites in the cabin — two rows with a 1-2-1 seat configuration. My time investment attempting to pick the ideal seat was for naught. I put us side by side and ceded the window seat to my left. That turned out to be occupied by an “influencer.” How did I know her “profession?” Because she spent the entire flight on her phone, mostly photographing herself or having the crew photograph her or taking photos of her food or changing outfits. And she wouldn’t lower her window shades (the only ones open in the cabin) because she needed light to take pictures (while many tried to sleep). Twelve hours’ worth of photos.

The staff are incredibly accommodating and do everything in their power to make a passenger happy. It was very enjoyable. Below, a few photos from the flight.  My favorite was the french press coffee! And then we were in Tokyo (Haneda airport, very close to the city).

What to do on this return trip to Tokyo?  Not much, other than acclimate to an enormous time change and hope to see a glimmer of cherry blossoms. The blossoms were gone because of an early spring debut, but I was reminded that we had a spectacular sighting of them in Stockholm last year (see below; read here).

We walked and shopped up and down the Ginza (12,000 steps worth), enjoying some delicious sushi (below) at one of Tokyo’s enormous department stores.

Our big splurge was a fabulous dinner at La Table de Joel Robuchon. Not only is the food special, but the dining room setting is just beautiful — mostly black and white with lavender everywhere.

Clockwise:  Amuse puffs; eggplant with avocado; a take on paella; waygu beef with amazing vegetables.

 

View from the 34th floor hotel room

It seems like Tokyo and Japan for that matter are on the “favored destination list” of many travelers lately.  There’s good reason for that — it’s safe, clean, beautiful, pleasant, modern and offers a great many things to do and see.  We’d happily return again, and for a longer stay.  For this trip, we head to Singapore for the second stop.

Snippets from the RoadThings You Should Know

ON BECOMING AN AGENT

TRAVEL AGENCY IMAGE

It only took me 10 years, but I am happy to report that my agency Travel with Teri B and I are now fully recognized by IATA.  What is that exactly?  Well, it the official trade association for air travel. It is also the professional designation for travel agencies and their agents.  So why now?

I liken it to getting a degree.  While many people have successful careers without one (present company is a good example), I simply analyzed that it was time to boost my travel knowledge by having access to more information. “Knowledge is power” as it is said.  And few things are more complex than navigating air travel these days.  So the more information at my disposal, the better to benefit clients!

This was no walk in the park — a ton of paperwork, forms, E&O insurance; fees (lots), etc.  But when that “Congratulations” notice arrived, it really was thrilling.

I look forward to sharing my travel stories, planning and booking travel itineraries for others, and drilling deeper into this great passion.  So, how may I be of assistance?

Reprinted from the Wall Street Journal Jan 24, 2023