Around the world in business class: ANA RTW in J
Up until about a month ago I thought I would be starting full time at Google on May 14th. Due to some new opportunities and big life changes, I decided to forego that job in exchange for another one. That also meant that I’d have some free time on my hands - from April 26th until June 10th.
As I write this I’m sitting in my Airbnb in Tokyo, Japan. I thought I’d write about how I got here, what my plan is, and where else I’ll be going, as well as keep a semi-daily log of my activities and travels.
Booking an RTW Flight
As a frequent member (and mod!) on /r/churning, I have a ton of miles + points accrued. I’ve had my eye on doing a Round-The-World flight (RTW) for half a decade now, ever since I started participating in the hobby. It’s one of the holy grails - flying all the way across the world in J (business class) entirely on miles.
This was going to be a short notice trip - I only had about 2 weeks before I had to take off, so I went from the idea of taking the trip to booking it in less than a week. I asked the community 3 weeks ago about what they recommended. I was originally looking at Singapore Airlines, but was quickly told about ANAs incredible RTW award chart.
ANA Award Chart
ANA RTW Award Chart
This means that I could travel 22,000 (real) miles, in business class, for only 125,000 ANA Miles (which is a transfer partner of American Express, with which I have over 200,000). This is an incredible deal - it’s not unrealistic to book a one way round trip in J between SFO and NRT for 125,000 miles on its own.
There are a few restrictions on RTW tickets, the main ones being that you must cross the Atlantic and the Pacific once each, you must visit all zones (Zone 1: North/South America, Zone 2: EMEA, Zone 3: Asia/Australia), and you cannot backtrack zones. You can also only do 8 stops with 12 total flight segments. There’s a more complete guide here.
I revised my plan and asked the community to check over my stops and math. It all looked good so I transferred over the miles from American Express to ANA on Thursday. By Saturday morning they were in my account, and I called in to book it (you cannot book RTW awards online, you have to call in). Note: If you do this yourself, it’s always nice to thank the community and post an update, as there will undoubtedly be other people like you in the future trying to do the same thing, and these posts help people understand the process!
In total it came out to cost 125,000 miles as well as $660.42 in taxes, fees, and surcharges.
If I had booked this trip in cash, my exact flights would’ve come out to be $22,897. That comes out to 18.32 cents per point, or 17.79cpp when adjusted for taxes and fees, a pretty great redemption for Amex MR!
Total cost if I had booked in cash
Total cost if I had booked in cash
My RTW flight map
|From||To||Dates (Arrival location)||Airline|
|SFO||NRT||5/7 to 5/14||ANA|
|NRT||ICN||5/14 to 5/18||OZ|
|ICN||TPE||5/18 to 5/21||TG|
|TPE||HKG||5/21 to 5/24||BR|
|BKK||HKT||5/24 to 5/29||TG|
|HKT||BKK||5/29 to 6/3||TG|
|FRA||PMI||6/3 to 6/6||RYR|
|FRA||JFK||6/6 to 6/8||LH|
|EWR||LAX||6/8 to 6/9||UA|
I’ll be updating this blog posts with excerpts of my travels, but I’ll be mostly posting on Instagram.
I took off from SFO on May 7th. I started off with a stay at the Centurion Lounge - unfortunately, the last few times I’ve been it’s been really crowded. I think Amex has been pushing the Plat pretty hard the last couple years, so the number of people with the card (especially tech people in the bay area) has skyrocketed. It’s obviously still preferable to waiting by the gate, and I still got my own table, but I would love to see an expansion of the CLs.
Lie flat business class
The flight itself was wonderful. I got fairly tipsy about an hour in, right after the meal was prepared. I went with a European appetizer and a steak for lunch. Flying in J really is a completely different ballgame. I was able to actually sleep for a majority of the flight, and it was midday in San Francisco. The flight was fairly uneventful, and we landed in Tokyo about 20 minutes ahead of schedule.
One thing to note is that the plane was definitely created with a Japanese scale in mind, where the average man is 5’7”. I’m 6’3”, ~270 pounds so I’m large even by American standards. A few things were just a little too small or scaled a couple sizes too little. Thankfully the lie flat seat was the perfect size, though - I was able to just barely fully extend - if I had to guess a couple more inches and I would’ve been cramped.
After landing everything went well. Customs took a bit long (about an hour and a half) but it was pretty efficient. I then took the JR train from Narita into the city, and finally took the metro to Hatagaya. My Airbnb is a 30 second walk from the station which is perfect. I arrived around 5pm and crashed pretty hard around 7pm (3am SF time), which was a bit earlier than I would’ve preferred, but much better than I normally fare on trans-oceanic flights.
Day 1 - Tokyo
I woke up around 3am, which isn’t that bad. Jet lag usually hits me pretty hard - I’ve done the LAX-VCE route the most, and that usually takes me 48 to 72 hours to get over. I think because of flying in J and being able to get actual good sleep on the flight that will be cut down to around a day, but we’ll see tomorrow.
I started the day by walking around Hatagaya around 6am. I grabbed a breakfast set from Matsuya, a Japanese fast food chain. After that I decided to take a stroll around Shinjuku and stopped by a Starbucks for my first coffee - decided to go tried and true for my much needed caffeine boost. I grabbed a couple other coffees in different coffee shops, and finally made my way to the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden around 9:30am. A week ago I bought a DJI Osmo Pocket and actually managed to shoot some pretty good footage - I’m editing it right now in Final Cut, and it will hopefully make a cool Tokyo retrospective. I spent about 3 hours wandering around and lounging in the garden, then decided to grab a something to eat. I’ve been meaning to get some authentic Wagyu Tonkatsu for a while, and I had heard good things about a place in Takashimaya, so I stopped by Katsukura Shinjuku Takashimaya.
At this point I’m a bit tired, so I stroll around the area a little more before getting on the New Keio Line (not to be confused with the Keio Line) and shot back to Hatagaya. Tonight I’m planning on checking out a bit of the night life in the area, as well as plan out day 2. I also just booked my resort for Phuket (staying at the Hilton Arcadia Resort)! I don’t think I’ll write this much about each day - I will, however, post a video retrospective for each city, as well as update this google photos link with images as I take them.
Day 2 - Tokyo
I fell asleep around 8pm and woke up at 400am today, which is quite the improvement! I think I’ll be able to fully get over jetlag today, which is quite welcome. If I’m being honest I’ve actually enjoyed the jetlag this time around - I’ve been able to hit a lot of the monuments and parks really early in the morning without feeling tired. For instance, today I managed to get to Meiji Jingu at 6:30am, and got there way before the crowds showed up.
I also managed to make my way down to Kiyomasa’s Well. It was so early that I was there on my own, and it was nice and serene.
I then walked around the corner to Tokyu Plaza for another coffee and some chill time. There was an Ichiran ramen right there as well, and it was definitely an experience. You get a small booth all to yourself and get served through a bamboo flap in front of you. It’s a privacy centric person’s dream, albeit a bit impersonal.
After a great lunch I metroed over to the Tokyo Tower and Shiba Park. I attended a Buddhist memorial and walked around the area. I hung around the area for a bit longer, enjoying the shrines and greenery. Finally I decided to return home after having hit 10 miles of walking and over 17000 steps. I’m also writing this at 11pm, which means I’ve officially gotten over jet lag!
Tomorrow I’ll move into my second Airbnb in a different part of the city. I’ll also hopefully check out the imperial palace and perhaps one of the other areas of Tokyo.
Day 3 - Tokyo
I woke up at a normal hour! 7:30am, which was perfect. I was a little lazy today, though - the new season of Lucifer came out and I sort of binged it. A little dumb to spend vacation watching tv but, hey, it’s a vacation.
I checked out of my Airbnb at 11am and headed toward Shinjuku. I grabbed a nice 400g ribeye steak for lunch at Ikinari, which was an interesting restaurant. All the tables are standing only, and it seems like a nice steakhouse geared towards people with little time on their hands. Regardless it was a great steak for under $30, and I hung around the area for a little longer.
Around 330pm I headed towards my new Airbnb, which is a bit removed from the main city. I’m right by the Tokyo Institute of Technology, which is around 40 minutes from the city via metro. I’m glad to be trying out different areas, though, and it’s not that bad given I’ll spend most of the day in the city and then just come back at night.
Right now I’m taking a brief respite and relaxing for a bit before going back to Shibuya tonight. I really want to see the Shibuya Crossing, as well as see some of the Tokyo nightlife, so hopefully it’ll be good on a Saturday night.
Day 4 - Tokyo
Last night I went to Shibuya and had dinner there. It was definitely an experience - the long windy roads, the tall neon signs, and the multitude of shops selling everything under the sun. Saturday night nightlife was pretty great as well, with plenty of bars and raucous crowds.
Shibuya Crossing, 5/11/19
I grabbed some pork Suigyoza for dinner, along with the typical miso soup and rice. I forgot to take a picture because I was so hungry, but they were quite good.
Today I’ll be going to the Imperial Palace and a few of the surrounding gardens. I’m currently at Glitch, a hipster coffee shop right around the corner. As I sit here it feels like I never left San Francisco. They do make a mean cup of coffee, though.
Glitch Coffee Shop
I still haven’t got any sushi, which is a travesty, so I’ll try and find a great place today.
The Imperial Palace was great, albeit just being a garden. Apparently you can’t even really see the palace, much less go in it. Regardless, I brought a book (When Breath Becomes Air, which was phenomenal) and read it in the gardens. I spent a couple hours there and finished the book, then walked over to the Yasukuni-jinja shrine.
After that I went to Shinjuku to grab some sushi, which did not disappoint.
Sushi in Shinjuku
Day 5 - Tokyo
Game of Thrones comes out at 6pm PST, which is 10am Tokyo time. I decided to just stay in and skip a half day in Tokyo to watch it - I’m on vacation, who says you have to spend the entire time doing tourist-y stuff?
I again headed to Shinjuku because I saw a lot of other great restaurants I wanted to check out. At this point I’ve pretty much done everything I wanted to do in Tokyo, save for a couple places, so I take my sweet time walking around and exploring. I find a great Gyoza place and grab lunch there. I had a decent Asahi beer for lunch as well. I don’t know if it’s the European in me but I’m not a huge fan of these light beers; it honestly didn’t really feel like I was drinking beer.
After lunch I made my way to my last stop in Tokyo, the two Government towers, which provide a great vantage point over the city. It reminded me a lot of LA in the fact that it felt like the city just kept going. The buildings made it all the way out to the horizon, which is always somewhat dystopian.
Views from the top of the Government building
At night I took a stroll around some residential areas and found a small shrine. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed walking around downtown Tokyo - transportation and getting around has actually been a breeze. I also thought that Japan was going to be the most expensive Asian country I visit on this trip, as well, so I was pleasantly surprised at how little I ended up sending here.
Day 6 - Tokyo
I’m flying to Seoul today around 1pm so I don’t think I’ll do much in Japan. I woke up early and checked out of my Airbnb, then hopped on the metro/JR train to Narita. The trip takes about 1h40m so I’ll have about an hour in the lounges before I have to board. Today’s going to be a travel day, so not a lot of updates. Excited to see the ANA business class lounge in NRT though!
Day 7 - Seoul
I landed in Seoul yesterday afternoon and went straight to my Airbnb.
One thing I didn’t realize - Apple and Google Maps don’t work in Seoul! Google maps has limited bus information, but it won’t give you walking directions, you can’t search for locations/restaurants as easily, and it won’t give subway routing. Apparently it’s from laws around exporting the countries maps. This was kind of a shock and actually made navigation much harder than anticipated - I’ve been leaning on Google pretty heavily during this trip.
Regardless everyone I’ve met has been really nice and have helped me get to where I need to be. My Airbnb is right in Hongdae, which is pretty great. The area came alive last night - Korean’s fashion is great, lot’s of young people and bars, and the overall atmosphere was lots of fun. I definitely (randomly) chose a great area to be in.
Another thing I didn’t realize was that Korean plugs are the European style ones, and are 220v. I had to go buy an adapter last night - thankfully all my devices are Apple made, which means that they’re 100v-240v compatible, so I didn’t need a voltage transformer.
I grabbed a quick dinner in the area and went to sleep - public transportation and international flights are really draining, even when it’s only 3 hours.
Today I woke up and grabbed breakfast at a Starbucks right across the street, then hung around Hongdae for a bit. I’ll grab lunch then head towards Jogno-gu and the National Palace Museum.
Day 8 - Seoul
Yesterday was a pretty big touristy day - I checked out the National Palace Museum, the Gyeongbokgung Palace, and the National Folk Museum. I also visited the Statue of Sejong the Great, and the museum within the statue. Seoul seems to have concentrated a lot of their biggest tourist attractions in one small area, which was great.
Imperial Palace and surrounding areas
My hair has gotten a bit unruly over the past month, as well, so I decided to get a haircut. Fortunately there’s a place right across the street from my Airbnb. As I was getting my hair cut I realized that my last 3 hair cuts have been in places that are about as far away from each other as possible. They are, in order:
Los Angeles, CA
Seoul, South Korea
Vicenza to LA is 6105 miles. LA to Seoul is 5955 miles. Seoul to Vicenza is 5434 miles. They’re pretty much equidistant, given a few hundred miles.
These have all been between January 2019 and May 2019. I just thought that was a pretty wild sentence, and indicative of how much I’ve been traveling this year.
After my haircut I went to a bar and had a few beers; fortunately it was right around the corner from my Airbnb. One thing I didn’t mention is that my Airbnb host absolutely loves the color pink. He’s aggressively into pink, as you can see below.
Day 9 - Seoul
Today I haven’t done much - I woke up a little late, drank some coffee and hung around the area. I saw online that there was a “Meerkat Cafe” within walking distance. There were a lot more animals than just meerkats. Apparently this is a big thing in Asia - animal themed coffee shops.
It was a cool experience and the animals were pretty cute and fun to play with but I don’t know if I’d do it regularly, I think I prefer my coffee to be drunk in a more sanitary environment.
Meerkat Cafe images
I’ll probably just hang around Hongdae today. Tomorrow morning I booked a DMZ tour, and it starts early in the morning (around 8AM) - I’m excited to be able to step inside the North Korean infiltration tunnels!
After the Meerkat Cafe I walked back to my Airbnb. On my way back I passed through the main shopping area of Hongdae, which was a blast. There were street performers, street vendors, and lots of people just enjoying the day. I grabbed a quick lunch and just meandered around for a bit.
Last night I was walking around Hongdae when I saw a ton of young students all heading towards Hongik University. Everyone was congregating around one area, so I stopped by on my way back from dinner - there was a giant, free concert going on!
I was blown away - I’d always heard of South Korean concert crowds but never seen one in person. It was definitely shocking, the crowd was so much more animated and into the artists than the ones I’ve seen in Italy and the United States.
I asked a Korean student next to me who was playing and he said the headliner was none other than PSY. I was blown away by my luck - I quickly walked back to my Airbnb that was about 5 minutes away to drop my bags off. I asked one of the other guests at the Airbnb, a Polish surgeon named Emi, if she wanted to go with me, and then we quickly walked back. We snuck into the student area and managed to catch quite a bit of the concert, although the screaming fans drowned out a lot of the music. We headed back up to get a better vantage point and watched PSY from there.
You can catch a video of the crowd below - apologies for the shaky iPhone video, I tried to clean it up a little in post, although it’s not great quality to begin with. I became what I normally hate, a guy that films concerts, but I think it’s worth it to see the crowd reaction.
After the concert I headed back home as I needed to wake up early to head to the North Korean border.
Day 10 - Seoul
Today I visited the DMZ and the North Korean infiltration tunnels.
South Korean DMZ
Unfortunately you are unable to visit the DMZ by yourself - you have to do it as part of a group tour. Normally I’m not a huge fan of group tours, as you can’t move at your own place, you can’t explore, and you’re usually slowed down by the other members in the group. While it would’ve been preferrable to do it on my own, it ended up not being terrible; our guide was fairly knowledgeable, and was quite passionate about the issues.
We started by visiting the first few infiltration tunnels. Cameras were not allowed, so unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures, but you can definitely imagine it for yourself - imagine a rock tunnel about 5 feet wide and 5 feet tall, with a lattice of scaffolding that ran the full length of about 300 meters. It was a little underwhelming, as you obviously couldn’t pop on out to North Korea - the South Korean government had put up a barricade at the North Korean border, so you just had to turn around and walk back. The experience was interesting if a bit uncomfortable for my 191cm self (the tunnel ranged up to about 200cm in height, but the vast majority of it was probably at around 160cm, which had my back almost at a 90º angle).
We then proceeded to the updated observatory. It was a building dedicated to informing about the history and dispute of the two countries, as well as a looking point on the roof with mounted binoculars. You could observe the southern border, as well as view a small North Korean town in the distance go about its daily routine. It was interesting if a bit mundane; I’m not sure what I was expecting but farmers tending to their rice fields nearby bored guards wasn’t necessarily what I had pictured.
After the observatory we finally headed to a non-operational train station. It was a bit eerie because it had all the infrastructure of a modern, bustling station, and was kept clean and up to date, but there were no people. It’s apparently supposed to signify the “future” of the two countries - everyone constantly talked about unification, and when that would happen they would open up the train station and connect South Korea to mainland Asia via this train station. It’s a valiant dream, although not one that’ll happen soon, I believe.
The tour ended at a Ginseng museum/shop. This was the least enjoyable part of the tour, as it was clearly just a sales pitch. They marketed Ginseng as preventing cancer from metastasizing, improving brain function, improving love making ability, etc. It was snake oil and the tour lead was obviously receiving some form of kickback. I left and returned to the bus before the full presentation was over, and just waited to get dropped off.
We wrapped up at about 2:30pm, after which I was exhausted - we were mostly walking around the border, and navigating the tunnels was much more physically exertive than I had anticipated. I went back to my Airbnb and watched a few episodes of Barry, a phenomenal TV series I just found out about.
In the evening I grabbed dinner at the Korean BBQ place nearby and went back to the concert - I did some reading and it was university festival season, where every university in the area threw a large, free party over multiple days. It turns out that Hongik’s was three days - the first day had Red Velvet, the second had PSY, and the third (today) had Yoonha and Dynamic Duo. Last night was pretty fun so I figured I’d go again.
Day 11 - Seoul/Taipei
Today I flew into Taipei; I was honestly pretty lazy and wanted to try to get some work done, so I called it for Seoul. It was a great city, the night life was amazing, and the food was phenomenal. I woke up late, hung around the Airbnb for a bit until it was time to check out, then headed straight for the airport. Security was a breeze and I immediately went to check out a few of the lounges. I found one I liked (Sky Hub West) and set up shop for a couple hours. I mostly watched Barry, which wasn’t a particularly efficient use of my time, but I also caught up on emails, did some modding on reddit, and just caught up with my online presence.
I was flying Thai Airways, which ended up being a pretty good airline. It’s yet another Asian airline that I’m clearly too big for - my legs blew past the foot hold at the bottom of the chairs. They also didn’t have fully lie flat seats, which was a bummer, they only reclined to about 170º, I believe.
It was also an almost completely empty business class; out of around 30 seats only 4 were occupied. Economy class was completely booked, however.
We made it in good time to Taipei, and my Airbnb host left detailed instructions on how to get there, so it all went swimmingly.
Swimmingly is also definitely the right adjective - Taipei is the most humid city I’ve ever been to, bar none. I was walking around with my backpack and my carry on, in a light shirt and hoodie, and was completely drenched by the time I walked to my apartment from the metro, which was around 10 minutes.
I’m shocked - the air clings to you, envelops you the moment you step outside. The only reprieve you get is as you make your way past the numerous designer stores that line most streets - it feels like a cruel alternating joke, as with every other step you get a breath of cold, crisp wind, and the next you get the snug embrace of wet air.
The thing that affected me the most, however, was the smell. Or should I say smells.
Taipei is one of the most odor-filled cities I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. I’ve been to many places that smelled, but none that changed odor as frequently and as arbitrarily as Taipei. Usually a city will smell pleasant or unpleasant, but at the very least it’ll be consistent for a while. There might be districts that smell better or worse than others, but it’s usually entire areas.
Not Taipei. I’ve never visited a city that, with every step, you get a completely different and unknown smell. My Airbnb is right off the Tonghua Night Market, and I arrived around 9pm, just when the market was in full swing. I’d be hit with the smell of freshly cooked dumplings, then the smell of raw chicken feet, then the smell of sewage, and finally a vaguely-Asian smell that I couldn’t quite place. This was all within feet of each other, and each one completely overpowering the previous. It wasn’t even a concoction of smells, each one was completely distinct and all-enveloping; as soon as you entered its radius, it was all you could feel.
Once I made it to my apartment I called it a night and crashed almost immediately. Thankfully my room has AC so I brought it down about 10º, to a temperature that was a livable, and went to sleep.
Day 12 - Taipei
Today was meant as mostly a catch up day - I woke up late, grabbed some Starbucks (which has been my sole western solace) and did my laundry. I’m about a 20 minute walk away from Taipei 101, so I decided that that would be the main event for the day.
Taipei 101 Tower
I honestly don’t have a lot of updates - I went and watched the new John Wick movie, which was excellent, and visited Taipei 101. I also stopped by at the eslite bookstore at a friends recommendation and was pleasantly surprised to see that they had a lot of books in English. I bought 4 books, which I think will serve me well over the next few days. I have 5 days in Phuket coming up that I intend to be entirely dedicated to beaches, reading, and mojitos. On the recommendation of one my old coworkers I also branched out from my usual type of book - I got 2 fiction, 2 non fiction. I had mentioned to her that I’ve basically only read non fiction for the past 4 years, since I got out of high school, and she recommmended a few fiction authors and books. Hopefully I can get lost in some of these easier reads.
Tomorrow I don’t have any concrete plans besides grabbing dinner with a couple friends from USC - they’re also visiting/doing an Asia post-grad trip, so it’ll be fun to catch up.
Day 13 - Taipei
Taipei seems to be a fairly food-heavy city - there aren’t that many tourist spots or must-sees, it’s mostly just a lot of street food. It rained pretty hard this morning which was nice to wake up to - it brought the temperature down, and made the humidity feel not as bad.
I grabbed a coffee and just lounged around the city. I had fried chicken on rice for lunch, in an establishment that definitely would not get an A health rating. It’s unfortunate that so many of the good food places also have a higher than normal chance of giving you food poisoning.
At night I met up with a few friends from USC for Hot Pot and then beers which was great - it was nice having people I knew and could speak fluent English with, for a change. Tomorrow I leave for Hong Kong, and I feel like I’ve done most of what I wanted to do in Taipei so I’ll just head to the airport early and work. I’ve been writing the /r/USC wiki so I’ll probably dedicated a good chunk of time to finishing up that task.
Day 14 - Taipei/Hong Kong
I spent 5 hours in lounges today, which was probably excessive, but I’m not going to complain - the lounges in TPE are head and shoulders better than the ones I’ve been to in the United States, save for the Centurion Lounges.
The food was a buffet, and they had self serve ice cream and all the liquor, beer, and wine you could want. I wrote a bit, watched some more episodes of Suburra and just hung out.
Buns at the TPE Lounge
I landed at 8pm and quickly made my way through immigration. I took the MTR into the city and then took a cab to the Dorsett Wanchai - for the rest of my time in Asia I think I’ll be staying in hotels, which definitely have a different atmosphere from Airbnbs.
I also noticed something disconcerting about my behavior - I realized that uber has conditioned me to hate cabs and always assume they’ll be worse. I checked uber, though, and a 10 minute ride was going to cost 160hkd, or about $20 usd. The cab ended up costing me about 80hkd, half the price! It was a good reminder that not everything translates the same as to the US.
Day 15 - Hong Kong
Today I toured around the city. I went to the city center and the bay and walked around. The British influence can be clearly felt - the double decker buses, the English subtitles, and the British accents were everywhere. I’ve enjoyed being able to trust that someone speaks English, however, as it’s been a welcome change of pace.
Around midday I went to the Ladies Market that was just filled with knock off goods and cheap trinkets. It was fun to see everything - they also definitely didn’t have any clothing my size, as the lady that gestured to me said “Hong Kong size small, you big boy”. There was a lot of fake Supreme, fake Nike and Yeezys, and a lot of small gadgets like cheap USBs and fans.
For lunch I went to a Taiwanese place and got BBQ Beef on rice and some breaded chicken. I retired to my hotel room as I was tired form walking around - I walked around 10 miles yesterday, which is on the higher end of my daily averages for this trip.
A friend also told me about the Wednesday night horse races. Fortunately I’m staying right around the corner from the Hong Kong Jockey Club; it was less than a 5 minute walk, and it was free admission! Yet another remnant from Colonial rule - horse racing is wildly popular in Hong Kong. The Happy Valley racecourse is the single largest tax payer in Hong Kong!
Happy Valley racecourse
Day 16 - Hong Kong
Today I grabbed brunch at the Brunch Club and Supper and then had a call with my parents. I’m writing this during a brief respite before returning to adventuring. Tonight I hope to catch Victorias Peak at sunset and then perhaps find a good place to eat in the city!
Day 17 - Hong Kong/Phuket
Last night I tried to go to Victoria’s Peak. It was the single foggiest day I’ve ever seen - you could hardly see 10 feet in front of you. It was drizzling and damp. Still a great experience due to the unique circumstances and the fact that you’re basically in a jungle, though I didn’t get any great views.
Today I flew into Phuket. Before my flight I stayed in the Hong Kong Centurion Lounge, which was phenomenal. Great food, great staff, and a bartender that actually makes any drink from memory. There was a tight connection in Bangkok which had me running to my flight to HKT but besides that it was uneventful.
Hong Kong Centurion Lounge
When I arrived at the Hilton I was prepared for a resort experience and it did not disappoint. There was a pre-reception area in which they take some of your information, and then a shuttle that takes you to the actual reception. I arrived at around 10pm and there was hardly a soul. I checked in and at every stage of the process they thanked me for being a loyal Gold member [sic, never stayed in a Hilton before] and I got upgraded to the suite on the highest floor! All my preferences were accomodated for, which was wonderful.
I immediately ordered room service, which was expensive for Thailand, but a little cheaper than the average meal in San Francisco, which assuaged my fiscal hesitations, and then crashed. I knew the next few days hold nothing in store for me besides the beach, books, and bacardi.
Day 18 - Phuket
Today I woke up early and just lounged around for a bit. My room has a great view, good AC, and a comfy bed; I watched some TV and just relaxed, enjoying the lack of pressure to do tourist-y things.
Because I’m a gold member I get free breakfast, which is a wonderful spread of Thai food and western food. I wanted to dedicate today to just lounging by the pool and reading so I promptly grabbed one of the books I picked up in Taiwan and headed for the pool.
I spent the next five hours there. I also, unfortunately, forgot to put sunscreen on my legs. I remembered to buy it (at the overpriced hotel store) and to put it on my face and arms, but neglected my calfs and shins. I got one of the worst sun burns I’ve ever gotten. I bought some aloe vera and it offered a temporary reprieve, but my legs begged for a new coating every couple hours. Regardless I spent the rest of the day relaxing and reading and drinking.
One of the pools at the Hilton Arcadia
At night I went into town and tried some food. It’s so cheap it’s almost shocking; $3 USD equivalent for a full plate of Thai food, $0.66 for a liter of beer, and this was in the touristy beach front shops!
Day 19 - Phuket
My legs still burn. The creams help but only mask the pain, which is unfortunate. It’s not so bad that I can’t walk, fortunately, and so I still made my way around Phuket and checked out the beach. This time I remembered to coat all exposed parts to copious amounts of sunscreen, which helped. I finished my book and started my next one, Flash Boys by Michael Lewis, which was excellent.
I also went into town and got a manicure, pedicure, and foot scrub, again for prices that would raise eyebrows in the United States, implying that there must be some catch or alterior motive.
I spent more time lounging around the pool, reading, and started a TV show I’ve heard good things about but never actually saw, Mad Men.
Day 20 - Phuket
Another lazy beach day - I went into town and grabbed lunch, but spent most of the day either watching TV, lounging by the beach, or drinking at the pool.
At night I went into town and got fried rice in a pineapple which was amazing.
Fried rice in a pineapple
Day 21 - Phuket
Today’s my last full day in Phuket so I figured I should do something besides beaches and pools. I went to the tourist desk and saw a half day Elephant bathing and feeding tour, which sounded interesting and not too expensive (~$45 USD), so I booked it.
I was picked up at my hotel on a truck that looked welded together and not at all safe to travel in. It was one of the trucks that had an open air back with the sides of the flat bed having been turned into improptu seats running parallel to the road. The driver was also driving much faster than he should’ve given that there were people in the back just straight up sitting in a flat bed truck.
There were 5 of us in the truck but he let the 4 of them off first; it seemed like they were doing a different tour. This surprised me, as I was now on my own going to this sanctuary. I couldn’t be the only one doing this, could I?
We arrived and I was greeted by an older man who spoke broken English and offered me a water bottle. He told me we had to wait until 1pm. I assumed this was to let the rest of the tour group arrive.
There was a small open air shack that he was chain smoking in. I took a few photos and waited for about 15 mins. When it hit 1 o’clock, he gestured to me to follow him. I asked if this was it, if I was the only one and he said yes! 1 o’clock is just when the elephants have their feeding and bathing time.
I follow him to another shack in which he starts preparing the elephant food - banana tree, sugarcane stalks, and banana leaves. He instructs me to carry the basket of food up to an eating area, in which he laid it out.
After calling out to one of his colleagues, we wait about 5 minutes. Out of the jungle comes the elephant, which he said is around 40 years old, followed by another worker at the sanctuary. In total they have 2 elephants and 4 full time staff, and have been in operation for about 2 years.
The elephant was quite docile and friendly - I was able to feed it directly, while petting and hugging it. This was my first time touching an elephant, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but it wasn’t that. There is quite a bit of hair, and it’s harder than you’d imagine, a little more bristly. Their skin is a bit corrugated and rough, like leather. It also didn’t smell at all, which I was surprised about.
After the feeding it was bath time. First we took him to the mud bath, where he was covered in mud, and then he took an overhead water shower, and finally into the regular pool, where he was scrubbed. I was the only guest, so I got his full attention, which was incredible! The guide instructed me to brush him, to rub mud on him, and even to write my name using mud!
Elephant retirement sanctuary in Ka Rorn, Phuket
Overall it was a great experience. I was definitely ripped off by the tourist booth (I overheard one of the actual sanctuary people answer an interested tourist 800 baht for 3 people, as opposed to my 1500 baht just for myself) but I wasn’t that angry - it was still well worth the money, and it went to supporting the sanctuary continue to operate.
Now I went home and took a long shower, as I was very apprehensive about the conditions I was swimming in (it’s a warm, swampy hole in the ground in south east Asia, sounds like the precursor to a Dr. House episode) and will now head out for a (very) late lunch.
Tonight I’ll pack up and get ready to leave tomorrow. My flight out is in the morning, to Bangkok!
Day 22 - Phuket/Bangkok
I checked out and took a cab straight to HKT. The lounge offerings there were minimal, so I wanted to spend as little time in the airport as possible. After a brisk 1 hour flight to Bangkok I arrived and took a Grab (SE Asia’s version of Uber) to my hotel. Everything is already cheaper than Phuket - my hour long ride from BKK to Le Meridien cost 380 baht, or $12 USD.
I checked in and got upgraded to a suite on the 22nd floor, which was great!
Some friends from USC are also in Bangkok, so at night I went out and grabbed dinner with them, and then we checked out Khao San road. It’s quite busy and aggressive - I had flyers shoved in my face every 10 feet. It does seem like a fun atmosphere, though, so I’m definitely going to come back another night.
Day 23 - Bangkok
Today I did absolutely nothing. I started working on a problem I’ve had in mind for a while, about a trivial maze game for phones. I’ll probably throw a couple hours of it while in Bangkok.
At night I walked around some of the night markets, grabbed some dinner, and just hung out. Bangkok seems to be mostly temples, and those can wait for another day. I also must’ve lost the books I bought in Taiwan at some point, as well, since I can no longer find them. I wanted to start a new book but I’m all out at this point.
Day 24 - Bangkok
I definitely put more than a couple hours towards that problem. I wanted to model Amaze!!!, the iOS maze game, in python and recreate it in HTML, and I ended up throwing a full day at it. I got it to a point in which it’s just a variation of the travelling salesman problem and called it a day. I don’t really want to work on permutations of NP hard problems for too long while on vacation. I threw my code up here, I want to get it to the point that I can procedurally generate levels since I’ve finished all the ones on my phone (I’m on level 14873 but they start repeating levels every 100 or so, which is quite the nuisance. I’ve done the sames one so many times that I’ve started memorizing the optimal patterns. If only writing the algorithm were that easy.).
Tonight I’ll probably meet up with a friend who’s visiting from Italy, which should be fun.
Day 25 - Bangkok
Last night I met up with a friend from Italy, who’s currently doing a stint in the Peace Corps in a small city 3 hours from Bangkok. It was nice to catch up and see how life has been over the last 6 months.
Today I’ve done pretty much nothing. I kept working on the AmazeSolver and tried to come up with a few other algorithms to solve it - BFS seems like the most efficient naive algorithm so far, but I want to try something a little more contrived like Q learning. I can tell I’m getting a little travel-sick when I spend a full day in a foreign city sitting in a Starbucks drinking coffee and coding - you couldn’t tell I wasn’t back home in San Francisco. I walked around for a bit and checked out the area I’m in, and then grabbed lunch at an Indian restaurant nearby.
I've seen pictures of this building before but I never realized it was in Bangkok!
Tonight I’ll head back to Khao San road with my friend from Italy and enjoy the party scene a bit more!
Day 26 - Bangkok
Last night I went to Khao San but wasn’t feeling so well so I left a little before midnight. The area is very hectic and loud, and it made communication even more difficult than the already quasi-impossible broken english most people seem to speak. It’s definitely a fun area, though; there are people just doing whip-its in public, offering fried scorpions from a box, and OSHA violations galore.
Today I went to the Grand Palace. It was a little underwhelming - it wasn’t that much bigger or better than other temple’s, and they were pretty strict about tourists. I’m grabbing lunch at the pier nearby, and I’ll probably go to the Golden Mountain Temple after this.
Day 27 - Bangkok/Mallorca
Last night I went out with my friend from Italy and a few of his peers from the Peace Corps. We grabbed dinner and pregamed at a food market area with live music, which was nice, and then We went back out to Khao San and did it properly. It was a stark contrast to the rest of my trip, which has been relatively docile and tourist-y.
Today I checked out of Le Meridien and ate lunch around the area. After that I went to BKK to get ready for my flight. The lounge was pretty nice, but the massage stole the show. All business class flights on Thai Airways out of BKK get a free massage from their flagship lounge, which was wonderful. They definitely know how to treat travelers in south east Asia.
I took a 12 hour flight from Bangkok to Frankfurt, then got on a flight from Frankfurt to Mallorca. The 12 hour flight was a breeze - it was at midnight, so I fell asleep immediately for around 9 hours. I woke up, watched a few episodes of Mad Men, and landed in Frankfurt.
My Mallorca flight, however, was not part of my RTW itinerary. It was on Ryan Air, and man could you tell. The last month of travel in J made me forget how abysmal budget travel can be. The tiny seats, the long queues, the nickel and diming for every part of the flight. I can’t expect much when it was $60 FRA-PMI round trip, but it was still annoying. The 2 hour flight to Palma was worse than the 12 hour from Bangkok.
I landed at 2 pm and went straight to our Airbnb. I met up with 3 friends from USC and we spent the rest of the day eating, lounging at the beach, and walking around Palma. The sun set after 9pm, which was incredible. The whole city was gorgeous; I forgot how much I missed Europe.
At night we went back and just chilled on the roof of our Airbnb, which overlooked an old church and school.
The plan for tomorrow is to rent a boat and ride around the island. I’m only spending 48 hours in Europe, so I want to make the most of it.
Day 28 - Mallorca
Today we got a boat and rode it around the island for most of the day. It was surreal - the island is absolutely gorgeous, with plenty of life. The water was really choppy the further out we went, though, so we spent most of the time in set of coves recommended by the owner of the boat. He was kind enough to provide us with a nice snorkeling mask, and with it I was able to see plenty of fish, crabs, and anemones.
Serra de Tramuntana and boating around
It was a relaxing day. We were definitely a little overconfident in our boating skills but we managed to make it around and back in one piece. The choppy water made us all a little seasick but nothing unmanageable.
We got back and were exhausted - a full day in the sun on a boat was draining. We decided to take it easy at night - there was a restaurant that was walking distance that we ate at and had some of the best paella I’ve ever had.
Authentic Spanish paella!
I really enjoy walking around cities in Europe right after sunset. I’m not sure if it’s nostalgic of my childhood or just a remnant from years past but it’s a very serene experience.
We grabbed gelato and returned to our Airbnb. Two of us needed to wake up early to catch our flights so we went to bed around midnight.
Day 29 - Mallorca/New York
I woke up at 7am today and left my Airbnb to go straight to PMI. The lounges there were mediocre at best, although definitely still better than just waiting outside. The flight was uneventful, as I had paid for priority since I didn’t want another experience like the flight here.
I’m writing this in the Lufthansa lounge in Frankfurt, which is really nice. They have their orange and grey vibe going on really strong, but it’s very clean and with lots of food choices (as well as German beer!). Overall I got what I wanted out of Europe - see friends for a few days, lounge in the Mediterranean sun, eat some great food and drink some great beer, then head back to the United States.
I’ll be in New York tonight, where I’m crashing with a friend from high school. My flight out is at 5pm tomorrow night, which hopefully lets me get a half day at the Met or Natural History Museum.
It’s been one of the most incredible vacations of my life but I’m definitely ready for my bed, a different set of clothes (I’ve been surviving off of 5 shirts and 3 pairs of pants that fit in a carry on - wild!), and a little more stability than I’ve had in the past year or so.
Day 30 - New York
I got into JFK at 7PM last night and took the E line into Manhattan. I forgot to book a hotel for the night so I was scrambling the past few days to get one. I was considering just booking one with my last unrestricted free night on IHG, but I thought it would be better to just crash on someones couch. Fortunately I know quite a few people in Manhattan; I have a friend from high school that lives on 34th. I met up with him and dropped off my bags and then we went into K-town to get some drinks. We spent the night reminiscing and catching up on what happened over the last 5 years.
Today I woke up early and grabbed some coffee. My flight out is at 3pm from EWR, which means I don’t have that long in the city. I’ve got a few things I want to do - go to Grand Central and hang out there for a bit, then do some banking errands at Chase and Schwab.
Spent less than 24 hours in New York but still managed to see some of the sites
Day 31 - San Francisco
I’m back home. It feels a little surreal - I’m reminded of the video I took on my bedside a month ago talking about how excited I was for the trip and how I didn’t know what it would be like. It feels like an eternity passed, but also that it went by in a flash.
Overall I feel like it was worth it. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll rearrange this blog a little to add more structure and thought to it, as well as add a total cost analysis of the trip. If I had to guess it’s going to clock in under $4000 USD, excluding the value of points/miles.
I’m glad to be back in my bed. Unpacking all my things, looking at my full closet, and realizing this is going to be my room indefinitely is a reassuring feeling - no more carry on, no more hotel staff, and no more flights for a while.
I did want to leave it with this, though:
App in the Air 5 year retrospective, through June 2019
There’s a great app called App in the Air that automatically imports all your flights and collects interesting statistics. Here’s also a fun video that App in the Air shows of the current years flight history:
All flights from January to June 2019
I started using it in 2014, and have tracked all my flights since then.
In the last 5 years, thanks to churning, I’ve:
- Flown 132,975 miles, or gone around the world at the equator 5.35 times
- Flown 94 flights, to 16 countries, on 19 airlines
- Spent 329 hours, or 13.7 days, in flight
I’m really grateful to the hobby and my profession for providing the flexibility and means to be able to travel like this. I’m extremely privileged to have been able to do something like this, and I’m thankful for the opportunities that have been afforded to me.
Full Cost Breakdown
It’s now been about a month since my trip and I finally sat down to do a full cost breakdown. This will get a little interesting due to some of the way things are calculated, especially in terms of my jobs’ bonus and churning.
In total, the trip cost me:
- 120,000 Amex MR (transfered to ANA)
- 100,000 Marriott Points
- 100,000 Hilton Points
The majority of the dollar spend was on a few key purchases.
The taxes and fees on the award flight were $600.42.
The Airbnbs I booked were $327.14, $230.74, and $202.04.
The ticket and lodging combined make up $1359.92, or around 37% of the trips entire cost. I could’ve gone for less on the Airbnbs, or used points, but I wanted the authentic experience of the households I stayed in.
The bulk of the remaining $2352.36 was food, travel, and tourist-y things like museums, entrance fees, and souvenirs.
However, a few other things of note:
Using the spend on this trip, I received an $810.42 reward from the Barclays Arrival+. Additionally, my job gave me a $5000 signing bonus to use specifically on travel (outside of regular signing bonus, pay, and relocation). If I had used that $5000 to directly book travel and accomodations I would not have had nearly as nice and extended vacationa as I did.
This is where the analysis becomes tricky. Point valuations fluctuate and aren’t actually tied to the US dollar. These are my best estimates for the valuations, in cash, of the points I used.
You can value the points as follows: Amex MR - 1.25cpp (Cash out) Marriott - 0.8cpp Hilton - 0.5cpp
The total absolute cost is above. The amortized cost is:
$3712.28 (Cash expenditures)
$1500 (Amex MR)
- $810.42 (Barclays Credit)
- $5000 (Travel signing bonus from new job)
So overall this trip cost me a little over $700. Not bad for a month of flying in J and staying in suites!
The full dollar breakdown is:
|Alcohol & Bars||6.24|
|Cash & ATM||687.58|
|Credit Card Payment||11.47|
|Electronics & Software||18.97|
|Food & Dining||47.78|
|Rental Car & Taxi||76.20|