tricks to booking with miles

A friend recently gave me some great advice — always have your next trip decided before you finish your current one. That way you’ll have something to look forward to vs. experiencing post vacation blues. I plan on living by this advice.

To that end, my next trip Down Under (decided upon while recently traveling in Lisbon) is well underway in the planning department. First stop, booking my flights with miles. And imagine my disappointment when nearly two full weeks of return flights from Melbourne were blocked out on American Airline’s online booking tool during my chosen travel dates.

After nearly a full day wasted, spent looking at actually purchasing tickets and comparing multiple itineraries across multiple airlines where prices and options varied wildly, I was convinced there must be a way to book the trip I actually wanted to take, on the dates I wanted, flying in and out of the cities I wanted to. And darn it, I was gonna use miles — which is not free by the way. You have to pay the tax on the flight, you have to pay for a seat, and as it turns out you have to pay a booking fee. That’s right, $40 ($75 if within 21 days of departure) gets you exactly the trip you want. Not a big fee when you consider purchasing those tickets could be in the thousands.

So, for all you One World Alliance members out there, this is how you do it. . .

If you are an American Airlines Advantage member like me, start by looking online at AA.com. A few years back AA made using miles and booking international flights online possible which can save you the booking fee if you’re lucky.  Sometimes you’ll  find exactly the flights you want. Other times you won’t. And that is where this bit of knowledge comes in handy:

The AA online booking tool lies. It does not give you all your hard earned flight options when it comes to using miles. In fact, it only shows you other airlines if their own flights are not available and even then (as in my case), not always. Now that AA flies their own planes to Australia and are not just a One World partner to Qantas, never does a Qantas flight option appear on their website.

The good news … there are other search tools out there to help. Both British Airways and Qantas online booking tools, have search functions that allow you to see most, if not all,  flights available for miles anywhere in the world, on any One World Alliance airline. Search on these websites, find your exact flights, call an American Advantage international ticket agent, pay your forty bucks and tell them exactly the flights you want to book — et voila! Plane tickets sorted.

HELPFUL HINTS:

  • To use these search engines, you must be a member of that airlines rewards program. You’ll need a member number and password to search reward flights.
  • From the Qantas home page, (my search tool of choice) when you start typing in a city to fly in or out of, you immediately get the drop down planning tool below.  Fill in your plans, provide your rewards member info and click USE POINTS — CLASSIC FLIGHT REWARDS ONLY to search all One World airlines rewards availability.
  • While it may cost extra when paying for a ticket, it is no extra miles to fly into one city and out of another. All miles flights are calculated as one way rewards redemption. Use the Multi City tool to search available options.
  • Searching on the British Airways site is a little trickier but often more thorough depending upon your destination. First select the tab for Executive Club at the top of the home page. In the Executive Club drop down click “Spending Avios”.  When on the Spending Avios page, scroll down to “find availability” just above the book reward flights button. Then to find flight options on One World partner airlines, select the blue “search & book” button on the right. From there you will be directed to sign into your Executive Club account before you can start your search.
  • Have an American Airlines credit card? You qualify for Miles Saver Rewards — for a trip to Australia, that’s half the amount of miles for each leg. My round trip coach ticket into Sydney and out of Melbourne was 80,000 miles. When you consider you can easily use 60,000 miles to fly to NYC that’s a bargain, even with the $40 fee.
  • Have premium status on American? Lucky you — fee waived!
  • Business & First Class reward flights to Australia, come up just a few times a year, if at all. In other words, don’t count on being comfortable while in flight.
  • Seats on American Airlines to Australia start at $95. I opted to pay $150 for an extra 5 inches of leg room which on a long haul flight can make the world of difference. Because I was using miles, the extra $55 didn’t hurt too much and it gave me the opportunity to try out the new Dreamliner aircraft in one direction. Coming home I am flying Qantas where standard coach seats on the A380 are only $30 by comparison.
  • You should be supplied a different ticket locator number for each airline you book. You’ll have to go on the partner website with that partner airline ticket locator number to make & pay for your seat selection, provide your travel document information, etc . . . Once done, however, all that information will show up on your American Airlines trip overview using the AA ticket locator number so you can print it all out in one document.
  • DO opt to pay and choose your seat regardless of what airline you choose. You don’t want to get stuck in the middle when you could have paid a small fee to be on an aisle and free to get up and walk around at will. I promise you, on a 15 hour flight it is worth it!
  • Dress well, smile and ask for an upgrade at the airport. You never know when you might get lucky!

 

eating, sleeping & shopping lisbon

This, my friends, is how I prepare for a trip. Pins, maps, lists, more lists, spread sheets. I do my research. Make a plan. And then execute — albeit sometimes completely differently than planned. But for me, researching and planning is half the fun!

For this trip, I pretty much skipped the hotel research and requested bookings at two places I had pinned in my “one day” file figuring whichever could accommodate me would be the right place. That place was Santa Clara 1728, a small, 6 room, boutique hotel beautiful beyond compare  — if minimalism is your thing (it’s mine but I know not for everyone).Pricier than my other option (and indeed pricier than many accommodations in a very affordable city), I was willing to take the plunge. Just look at that view! That bathtub! That dining room! In addition to all that unparalleled beauty here is what you get:

  • An incredibly comfortable bed with a view, made with the most luxurious, crisp white linens. You won’t want to get out from between the sheets each day, but do . . .
  • The best reason to get out of bed in the morning, has got to be the hotel breakfast. Normally I don’t advocate eating in the hotel but here my friends — do not miss breakfast! A multi-course affair served at a 20 foot common table:  yogurt with homemade granola, fresh pressed juice — a different combination each day, fresh baked bread (honestly the best bread ever!) with your choice of cheese, jam, butter, curds or all of the above, a savory egg dish, followed by a fresh fruit course.
  • The most beautiful collection of wares to eat and drink from. I was so taken I immediately researched the brands and ordered a teapot, drinking glasses and dishes for my own home.
  • Free airport transfers in both directions. I love not having to worry about transport when i arrive in a foreign city.
  • Home made cakes and savories each afternoon along with wine, tea or coffee as desired from the help yourself pantry. It can even substitute for a light dinner if need be — and indeed one night, a piece of lasagna followed by a slice of almond cake was just what the doctor ordered instead of a night out.
  • A charming garden to read, chat, eat or just relax in.
  • Kind owners who live upstairs with their family and promote a “my house is your house” type atmosphere.

All that said, there are a few things you should be aware of before you spend the extra money.

  • This is Europe — no AC at the inn. Which should have been OK for a late October visit except it was unseasonably warm with 97% humidity when I arrived. The rooms all have ample french windows for fresh air, but no cross ventilation. Copious amounts of raw wood in the rooms added to the humidity lingering. I would think high summer might be quite challenging.
  • If you want to leave those windows open at night to take advantage of the fresh air, be warned there is an event venue across the street (which amounts to two car widths away) that can be quite loud. Two of five nights had very loud events, including a wedding that went until 4:30 AM. Even closing the sound proof windows and wooden shutters didn’t block out the loud music and booming PA system — and only resulted in a very hot room.
  • Two days a week, the largest flea market in Lisbon sets up on the streets of the neighborhood. Set up starts around 5:30 AM meaning once again, noise. The neighborhood becomes impassible other than by foot on those days until late afternoon.
  • The rooms are natural light filled during the day but artificial lighting is as minimal as the design. Most are narrow spot lights, soft floor lights or otherwise non-existent. You’ll find yourself showering in the dark, struggling to put make up on (luckily I had brought a lighted mirror just by happenstance which turned out to be a godsend). You can bathe by candlelight if you supply your own matches.
  • When I’m paying double the going rate to stay in luxury, I expect impeccable service. For the most part I would say the service was good, the small staff friendly. But something felt off to me in this area. Just little things that struck me again and again but were easy enough to ignore as I’m pretty self-sufficient. However, when at breakfast on my 5th day, I heard the guest relations girl telling new arrivals how they offer a day trip to Sintra with a lunch stop along the beach to guests staying more than 3 days, I was floored. Nobody offered any day trips to me.

Depending upon your budget and preferences, you may wish to check out The Lisboans. Well designed and appointed apartments that are more centrally located and offer a charming breakfast service of their own — a bag of fresh goodies left on your doorknob each morning — soon to be a part of a larger complex including a shop, restaurant and grocery.  But as I said, Lisbon is a very affordable city and there are a plethora of lovely and surprisingly affordable accommodations to choose from all over town.

I tried not to make this vacation all about food for a change. Although a girl has got to eat! With the ample morning meal, I opted for just a small afternoon snack each day instead of lunch — more of that fantastic bread swiped from the breakfast table, a couple of egg tarts (don’t be fooled they are heavy little suckers) and one day, a chocolate sorbetto that might just be one of the best things I have ever eaten in my life.Thanks to my research I headed straight to a tiny little coffee/chocolate shop in Principe Real called Bettina & Niccolo (Rua da Escola politécnica 4). A place i easily would have passed by without having read about it first. Research pays!  Imagine my surprise when I saw their chocolate was the same single origin chocolate from a small maker in Africa (turns out a previous Portuguese territory) that I had profiled back in 2013 here. They put that chocolate to good use with an entire chocolate menu. But trust me, order the sorbet. Somehow this made to order frozen concoction was both cool and warm at the same time. Incredibly rich but not overly sweet. For an afternoon treat on my final day it was between here and nearby Nannarella Gelati (another research find, seconded by my hotel staff). But I think I made the right choice!

From sorbet heaven I walked down the street (also downhill — well planned indeed!) towards downtown, stopping and shopping through a series of neighborhoods along the way. A nice stroll, I wouldn’t say the shopping is great but you will definitely find things to look at if not buy. Here’s just a handful of stores I can suggest:

Equador Chcolate Shop
Rue da Misericordia 72 — from their main shop in Porto these chocolate bars are filled with flavorful ganache inspired by local flavors (Port Wine, Cherry Ginja, etc…) and come beautifully wrapped. They were my gift of choice for friends and co-workers. And that white chocolate passion fruit combo is the bomb!

 

 

  • Mini by Luna, Rua Dom Pedro V 74 — a sweet clothing, homewares and baby boutique mix with both local and international brands alike. I bought a recycled blanket from Japan (I’m a big advocate – if you see it, like it, buy it regardless of origin)
  • Fabrica Features, Rua Garret 83 — on the 5th floor in the heart of Chiado above  Benetton of all places, is this little design shop with a graphic leaning, specializing in Portuguese goods. It felt akin to a small, museum gift shop.
  • A Vida Portuguesa, Rua da Anchieta 11 — with stores dotted around the city, it’s like a general store of all things Portuguese. Great for gifts and souvenirs from food to baskets to books and more . . .
  • +351 Designed in Lisbon, Rua da Anchieta 7 – a local label of casual t-shirts and beach inspired clothing mostly for men but easily unisex.
  • Teresa Pavao, Rua de São João da Praça 120 — I found out about this artisan from the one fine dining establishment I went to during my stay. Every single diner  inquired about the beautiful tiles and dishes the food was served on. Locally made, wonderfully minimal and modern ceramics with the workshop right in the Alfama district. (Closed Mondays)

The meal served on Teresa’s dishes at a little place called Leopold was phenomenal. An eight course tasting menu (plus a special treat) created in an open kitchen before your eyes from local ingredients. The restaurant is all of 4 tables, including a 10 seat chef’s table — making it easy for singles to partake. Heavily umami leaning thanks to an abundance of seaweed, each course was better than the last. The beef was the most tender I have ever, ever had. The mushroom broth with the fish — you’ll want to lick the plate. We were a collection of Brits, Americans, Italians and one Singaporian all enjoying the meal together. I would say the locals don’t know what they are missing out on. Sublime!

Lastly, what’s a vacation without a little pizza. Just down the hill from the hotel along the river (and often a cruise ship) is a nice little pizza joint with authentic Italian thin crust pizza of the knife and fork variety. The place gets mighty busy so be prepared for a wait. Restaurante Casanova, Av Infante Dom Henrique Loja 

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these shoes were made for walking

When i was 18 years old, I came home from Paris with two fashion trends firmly in my grasp 1) the white t-shirt layered under v-neck sweaters and 2) Stan Smith sneakers. Fast forward a million years, and i have rediscovered that the Stan Smith sneaker is awesome. Not only is it a classic fashion statement perfect for ripped jeans but super comfortable and just made for walking. Hello new travel shoes!  Recently tried and tested on the hills and cobblestones of Lisbon — not a slip, blister or achy foot in sight.

Even better, you can now customize your Stan Smiths to nearly any combination that appeals to you. (Although classic court green still has a certain cache if you ask me)

$60 for the classic version, $110  customized. Available here.

let’s talk lisbon

An absolutely beautiful city — Lisboa, Portugal. That is without doubt. Viewpoints galore overlooking red roofed buildings, the Tagus River — a river so wide it feels more like a lake or even the sea — hills and more hills, ancient architecture, cobblestone streets, tiled buildings, old fashion street cars . . . everything you would expect from a picturesque European city. And it’s small — just 800,000 population (similar to San Francisco) in it’s city center so easy to absorb. It’s for now, affordable as far a European cities go which makes it a hot destination. And that is where the city lost me just a bit. Even in late October, it was full of tourists. And when i say full — I mean everywhere, tourists walking without regard, back pack laden, down every street, every alley, speaking every language. I began to wonder if it was possible to have an authentic Lisboan experience. And I wondered even more what it must be like at the height of summer tourism season — my guess is a place i wouldn’t enjoy very much.

Not to say that I didn’t partake in tourist activities. Of course I did. The first thing I did after a quick shower was hop a Tuk Tuk for a tour around the old part of the city to get acclimated to the area where I was staying. Tuk Tuks are an easy way to get around the most hilly parts of the city and the drivers are well versed in history. So a quick hour or two gives you the basics. I did learn from my driver that what started as a single company with 9 Tuk Tuks a few years back, is now a competitive business of hundreds of Tuks Tuks vying for parking spots at all the best viewpoints and jamming the narrow streets all over the city. I even witnessed a Tuk Tuk robbery where a motorcycle wizzed between lanes of stopped traffic reaching into Tuk Tuks taking driver’s money as they went. When tourism is high so, unfortunately, is theft.

I also scheduled a food tour for my first afternoon. Often one of my favorite type of tours in any city, this one did not disappoint. And to be honest, I would never have known where to go in this city for authentic food just walking up and down the streets. To me, everything looked touristy in Alfama, a neighborhood where throngs of tourists were wandering the streets, souvenir shops abound and little old ladies sell low quality Cherry Liqueur (Ginja) off card tables down every alley. But Ruthy (pictured above) and her husband, guides extraordinaire, took our small group of six to a series of tiny little, family owned businesses tucked away in places I never would have found where we tasted cod delights, sardines, olive oils, cheese, sausage, desserts, coffee, beer, wine, quality cherry liqueur — I was happy, full and drunk for most of the afternoon. I promised Ruthy I wouldn’t share her secrets but I will say this — take the tour and indulge your inner tourist in a good way. You’ll also get a healthy dose of sights and history along the way.

I was in Lisbon for a conference and so happened upon my most favorite of places by happenstance — The Foundation Champalimaud. I liken it to the Portuguese Salk Institute. A biomedical research facility, housed in a modern architectural setting along the river at the far end of Belem where most tourists don’t venture. Not only is the building beautiful, with a stunning central water feature, there is a nearly hidden, small amphitheater overlooking the river that is as spiritual a space as I have come across in quite some time. I could have sat in that amphitheater for hours (and very nearly did), soaking up the sun, taking in the view and contemplating life. Bring a picnic or enjoy lunch next door on the balcony of the center’s cafeteria which is open to the public.

From here you are well poised to take in the Belem sights with the rest of the tourists — a jaunty walk along the river back towards town and away from the sun thankfully, takes you past the Belem Tower, The Monument to the Discoveries, The Maat (another stunning piece of modern architecture with a roof viewpoint not to be missed), The 25th of April Bridge, The Jerónimos Monastery. Then cross over the roadway to the center of Belem where there is an odd collection of museums on various subjects and the famous Pasteis de Belem — the original home of  Portuguese egg tarts which are honestly, worth the hype and the wait in line!

And you never know when you might look down an alley along the way and see a fun, modern take on tile art.

If only the sun weren’t cutting the artwork in half for better viewing. But if you like what you see, these tiles are part of a collection available for sale at a little family run shop whose grandfather bought out stock of closing tile factories in the 1960’s giving them a collection of locally made tiles that are simply beautiful and a far cry from the typical reproductions sold in every souvenir and antique shop in the city.

Like always, I try to find the things that are a bit more unique in a city as I am not a good or typical tourist by nature. I don’t know if I succeeded in Lisbon or if it’s even possible. But I’m happy to share more about my finds in this beautiful city here and in subsequent posts.

Helpful Links:

Eco Tuck Tours, Lisboa
Several standard 2-3 hour tours available or custom tours for $60/hr
Easy to book online in advance (recommended) or hire a Tuk Tuk in any major tourist venue

Treasures of Lisboa, Food Tours
Book through Ruthy’s website directly (link above) or on Air BnB Experiences
Twice Daily, Mon-Sat $67 US

Champalimaud Foundation/Center for the Unknown
Avenida Brasília,1400-038 Belem, Lisbon

MAAT (Museum of Art, Architecture & Technology)
Av. Brasília, Central Tejo 1300-598 Belém, Lisboa
11-7 PM except Tuesday

Cortico & Netos, Tile Store
Calçada de Santo André 66, 1100-022 Alfama, Lisboa,
Monday to Saturday from 10h-13h / 14h-19h

Tile Rooster Artwork: Down a little alley about a block east of Pasteis De Belem

Pasteis De Belem
Rua de Belém, 1300 – 085 Belem, Lisboa
Open Daily from 8-11

ice cream challenge

Today’s Contender:  Nancy’s Fancy by Nancy Silverton
Location:  Los Angeles, CA
Flavor:  Butterscotch Budino

The Butterscotch Budino at Nancy Silverton’s Pizzeria Mozza is undoubtedly one of my favorite desserts in town (one she stole by the way from restaurant Jar and then made famous) and now she has interpreted that same amazing dessert into a gelato version. WOW!  Just WOW!  It’s f-in amazing. Rich and thick and smooth and creamy.  Winner Winner Chicken Dinner!  And it’s available in your grocery store — although I hear scoop shops are in the works.

There isn’t anything Nancy Silverton does that isn’t the best in class. I dream of her pizza. Now she’s tackled my other favorite food and it too is worthy of dreams. Even though super rich, I couldn’t stop eating it. You will be marveled at the texture — and let’s face it, ice cream or gelato is all about the texture. This version is like nothing I’ve ever had in the smoothness category. In the richness category, it’s akin to Magee Beer’s ice cream from Australia (another grocery store favorite). The flavor is deep yet subtle, sophisticated and luscious. Well worth the $8.99 price tag for a 4 oz container.

Next her Roasted Banana flavor . . .

Not from LA?  For mail order Fancy Nancy’s go here.

 

 

best discovery ever!

My biggest fear when I travel alone, is figuring out how to get around without getting terribly lost, looking like a tourist or heading completely in the opposite direction and giving up on my destination altogether (which I have done more than I care to admit). Hello Citymapper!  How did I not know you existed?!

Because of my fears, I have become a huge planner when I travel. When I went to Prague many years ago pre-sophisticated smart phones, I packed my itinerary tight and had every tram journey planned & printed from point A to point B (I just love a city with trams!), even pre-booked taxis before I left home for trips farther afield. In Auckland and Melbourne (my oft-repeated destination) their transit systems have comprehensive apps that give you point to point instructions. And even in NYC, I find myself relying on Google Maps for subway or walking routes. Well no more . . .

As I started planning for my next trip to Lisbon – where I don’t speak the language, where transit system apps and quite frankly decent cross over transit maps don’t exist, where I seem to have chosen a hotel for which the closest form of transportation is a jam-packed tourist tram with waits up to an hour long and where hills upon hills can make walking a daunting task, I feared not only my usual woes but that my Uber bill would skyrocket out of control.

Then somehow, I stumbled upon CityMapper as a result of my 800th google search on how to get from said hotel to various points around the city. Boom! The best thing I have ever seen. Simply put in your starting address, your go to address — choose by clicking on a map or entering an exact address — and you get options galore with detailed English instructions and even step by step notifications if you wish. Save addresses, send meeting spots to friends, sync between devices, see what’s nearby. It’s everything you need for just about any major city, all in one simple to use app.

Now, I plan to leave for Lisbon without detailed pre-planning, just a list of places I want to see, a rough outline by day and I’ll figure it out on the fly.

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go bananas

When you don’t want sugar or dairy but you do want creamy goodness try some Hakuna Banana. Happened across this perfectly lovely frozen treat in my local Whole Foods store. Turns out it’s the creation of two Angelenos and while only available in the general Los Angeles area for now, look for it to go wide one day soon. It’s the no fuss nice cream you’ll love at first bite. Available in four tempting flavors:

celebrating jane

This book. Probably one of the most influential books I read in college. A required read that is still in my personal library today. I haven’t held on to many things from that era in my life but this book is still with me — tattered, worn, well read and well loved.

This July 1, 2017 my favorite city (oh Melbourne how I love thee!) will be celebrating the ideas of author Jane Jacobs with a screening of a new documentary on the fight to save her beloved Greenwich Village neighborhood from sure ruin by big bad government city planners, as the kick off to Open House Melbourne — an annual celebration of the city and its architecture where for two days, hundreds of buildings are opened to the public for tours amidst a month long series of related activities. I’m itching to get down there for one of these tour weekends but that’s a whole other story. In addition, there will be talks and walks as part of the What Would Jane Do? programming in this year’s cultural festival.

Fret not my fellow Americans, the documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is also on in this country, screening now in select cities and streaming On Demand.

It’s a thought provoking look at the fight Jane Jacobs lead in her lifetime with a healthy dose of commentary on city planning and where our cities are headed ’round the world. Worth a watch. But do me a favor, read the book. Jane Jacobs was not only a revolutionary thinker, she was an eloquent writer and inspiring teacher.

The ideas she expounded have not been lost. Not in the least. You can experience them right in the place where you live thru citizen-led walking tours known as Jane’s Walks. Walking tours that invite citizens to seek, observe and reflect upon their city surroundings, held every May on Jane Jacobs birthday around the world. A fitting tribute.

Related Links:

http://www.altimeterfilms.com/citizen-jane-battle-for-the-city/

http://www.openhousemelbourne.org/

http://janeswalk.org/

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