I Finally Met the Caspian in the Caucasus: A Week in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia, 10 – 17 September 2018

Baku

Seeing the Caspian has been an obsession of mine since I read Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. I visited Iran after the book, but not the Caspian Sea, due to time constraints. I did get Azerbaijan’s view of the Caspian on this trip. It wasn’t too glorious; I probably went to the wrong place. I will try again from another spot.

Having said that, do visit the Caucasus. I experienced amazing hospitality in my week-long visit. Here goes:

Total Cost

Flight

8,000 UR + $31.50: Air Azerbaijan from Istanbul to Baku, booked through Chase portal ($131.50)

Hotels

23,000 UR points (as statement credit): 2 nights, Hyatt Regency Baku ($230). It’s a Cat 3 Hyatt, so transferring to Hyatt made no sense. I also needed the night credits for requalification, so I didn’t book through the portal

20,000 IHG points: 1 night, Holiday Inn Tbilisi

8,000 UR points (transferred to Hyatt): 1 night, Hyatt Place Yerevan (I wanted to stay here all three nights, but they weren’t available for the other two nights)

60,000 Hilton Honors Points: 2 nights, DoubleTree Yerevan

Others

Local Transportation (train, mashrutka, metro): $42

Food: $46 (food is actually cheap there, I just went to some nicer restaurants)

Azerbaijan Visa on Arrival: $20

Total: ~$140 + 39,000 UR + 20,000 IHG + 60,000 HH

Itinerary

10 September 2018: Istanbul to Baku on Air Azerbaijan, Hyatt Regency Baku

11 September 2018: Baku, Hyatt Regency Baku

12 September 2018: Baku to Tbilisi, Overnight Train

13 September 2018: Tbilisi, Holiday Inn Tbilisi

14 September 2018: Tbilisi to Yerevan by Mashrutka, Hyatt Place Yerevan

15 September 2018: Yerevan, DoubleTree Yerevan

16 September 2018: Yerevan, DoubleTree Yerevan

17 September 2018: Yerevan to Kiev to Almaty on Ukraine International Airlines

Baku

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My Butt, My Sore Sore Butt: Bussing From Kenya to Uganda to Rwanda, 01 – 08 September 2018

Kigali Downtown
Oy! Saving money is hard. I am no longer in my 20s, and these long-distance buses really took a toll on my old bones. I was definitely cussing at myself throughout the bus journeys, telling myself I shouldn’t have been cheap. Here’s the breakdown of my trip to Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda.

Total cost

30,000 IHG points: 2 nights Crowne Plaza Nairobi on Points break (2 x 15,000)

40,000 Marriott Rewards Points: 2 nights Protea Kampala pre-deval (2 x 10,000); 2 nights Marriott Kigali pre-deval (2 x 10,000)

6619 UR points: 1 night in 5 Swiss Kigali, booked through Chase Rewards

$85: $59 transportation + $26 food

Itinerary

01 September 2018: Nairobi, Crowne Plaza Nairobi

02 September 2018: Nairobi, Crowne Plaza Nairobi

03 September 2018: Nairobi, Kenya to Kampala, Uganda (by Modern Coast Bus), Protea Kampala

04 September 2018: Kampala, Protea Kampala

05 September 2018: Kampala, Uganda to Kigali, Rwanda (by Modern Coast Bus), 5 Swiss

06 September 2018: Kigali, Marriott Kigali

07 September 2018: Kigali, Marriott Kigali

08 September 2018: Kigali, Rwanda to Cairo, Egypt

In Tanzania for some R&R: 3 Days of Luxury in Tanzania, 29 August 2018 – 01 September 2018

Zanzibar

No, I didn’t visit the Serengeti, no I didn’t go for a safari. I did, however, walk around Stone Town in Zanzibar. More than anything else, I just read and rested in my hotel suite in Park Hyatt Zanzibar. If you are here to read about visiting wildlife in Tanzania, move along, nothing to see here.

29 August 2018: Johannesburg – Blantyre – Dar Es Salaam (JNB – BLZ- DAR)

30 August 2018: Dar Es Salaam – Zanzibar. You can read about my night at Hyatt Regency Dar Es Salaam.

31 August 2018: Stonetown, Zanzibar. You can read about my two nights at the Park Hyatt Zanzibar.

01 September 2018: Zanzibar to Wilson International Airport (Nairobi)

Zanzibar

Where Four Countries Converge: Visiting Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, 23 – 28 August 2018

Flower of Africa

Total Cost: ~$560 + 30,000 Marriott Rewards Points

  • British Airways Johannesburg – Livingstone round trip: $305
  • Transportation to and from Livingstone airport: $ 23
  • Botswana Day Trip: $185 (could have been a LOT cheaper)
  • Entrance to Zambia’s side of Victoria Falls: $20
  • Food: $27

Unless money is no object, country counting does require some level of efficiency, e.g. visiting a bunch of countries that are in close proximity to each other. If you look at the map, you’ll see where Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe converge. So with one round-trip flight from Johannesburg, I was able to squeeze in three new countries. It’s not a super awesome way to travel sometimes, but hopefully I’ll get to return to these countries for a more in-depth visit in the future.

23 August 2018: Johannesburg – Livingstone (British Airways/South Africa Airways flies into both Livingstone, Zambia and Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, if Victoria Falls is your goal. I picked Livingstone because it has a category 1 Marriott, and it was cheaper). You can read about my obnoxious seatmate here.

24 August 2018: Livingstone, Zambia – Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe – Livingstone, Zambia. I walked!

25 August 2018: Livingstone, Zambia. The walk took a lot out of me, but you can check out my café review.

26 August 2018: Livingstone, Zambia. I just hung out by Protea Livingstone’s pool. Check out my review of Protea Livingstone, where I spent 5 nights.

27 August 2018: Livingstone, Zambia – Chobe National Park, Botswana – Livingstone, Zambia

28 August 2018: Livingstone – Johannesburg

Livingstone

The Cheapskate’s Guide to Namibia: No Safaris, Just Hanging, 18 – 22 August 2018

Pelicans at Walvis Bay

Country Number: 68

Total spent: ~$400 + 22,500 Marriott Rewards Points, inclusive of flights into Namibia, 4 nights accommodation, and all expenses.

Number of Big Five seen: 0. I did see some pelicans, though.

My country counting ways really gets in the way of enjoyment sometimes. My friends tell me about the awesomeness of the safaris in Namibia, the dunes. You get the drift. Except, these activities cost money. However, I am currently on a mission to visit as many countries as possible, with the hope that I can hit the round number of 100, before I get a job again. I am currently at 67, and need another 33. I have ~2200 USD to do it, so in other words, I gave myself a budget of some 100 USD/week to do this. 100 USD/week is a lot of money in a lot of places. But you know how it’s not a lot of money? When you are trying to get from point to point. Those long distance buses, those necessary cab rides from the airport, those all add up.

May I present to you, the cheapskate’s way of visiting countries, miles and points required. It’s not going to involve anything spectacular – no safaris, no dune bashing, no quad bikes. But it does allow you to visit a new country.

Costs:

Flights (from Johannesburg): 300 USD on British Airways. You can get flights from ~200 if you book strategically

Accommodations: 25,500 Marriott Rewards Points (4 nights)

Other expenses: 1400 NAD (1100 NAD for transportation, 300 NAD for all other expenses)

Itinerary:

18 August: Johannesburg to Windhoek

19 August: Windhoek to Walvis Bay

20 August: Walvis Bay

21 August: Walvis Bay to Windhoek

22 August: Windhoek to Johannesburg

To the Islands: Guam, Palau, Tokyo – the Non-Survivor Edition, 29 Jan – 07 Feb 2017

Palau

I’ve actually never watched Survivor, but Palau is on my list, because it’s a miles&points redemption dream. It’s one of those places that’s so close (~2000 miles from Singapore as the crow flies), yet so expensive (over 1000 USD) and hard to get to (multiple stops).

Enter United miles. Palau is in the same region as Japan and Korea, making it a cheap redemption (12,500 miles one way for economy saver). It’s not often that one can get over 500 usd for a 12,500 mile redemption. Ok, in reality I paid 50,000 United miles because while waiting for my friend to confirm, economy saver availability went away, and I ended up taking business class saver one way, and economy standard the other way.

Anyway, here goes my island-hopping itinerary!

29 January 2017: Singapore to Haneda (on Japan Airlines Business Class redeye for 25,000 Alaska Miles)

30 January 2017: Narita to Guam (on United Airlines Business class, priced as a free stopover, 25,000 miles)

31 January 2017: Guam

01 February 2017: Guam to Palau (on United Airlines Business class)

02 February 2017: Palau

03 February 2017: Palau

04 February 2017: Palau to Narita (redeye, United Airlines)

05 February 2017: Tokyo

06 February 2017: Tokyo

07 February 2017: Tokyo – Singapore (Delta, I paid for it, and got 5,000 Alaska miles from the flight)

Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, 06-08 August 2016

Conrad Maldives Rangali

Introduction

Back in June 2015, I signed up for Citi’s Hilton Reserve, which gives 2 weekend nights in any Hilton property anywhere in the world after spending $3000 in 3 months. This set the wheels in motion. Where could I go that I’d never pay for? Maldives.

Maldives has always struck me as this expensive, couples/honeymoon place. Almost everyone I know went there for their honeymoon and shelled out a 5 figure sum. I like beaches, climate change and rising sea-levels are winning against places like the Maldives, so I sure as hell was not going to depend on finding someone before mother nature wins!

The Conrad Maldives retails from $500 to $900 for their regular rooms (and up), so this was a perfect candidate for me to blow my two free nights, and not shell out a lot of money. I also get to check another country off my list. Travel hacking for the win!

Trans-Maldivian Airlines

Getting to and from Male and Rangali

At this point, I moved back to Singapore, so getting to Male wasn’t difficult. I did make a bit of a mistake, because I actually booked a one way mileage ticket on Singapore Airlines. That cost me 15,725 Krisflyer miles, and more importantly, 139 USD. I could have done things differently, because the taxes on the award is almost the same price as a one-way on the budget airline, Tigerair, which also flies direct to Male. It has a less-than-ideal timing, but I could have just paid more, and saved some Krisflyer miles. But as luck would have it, things worked out in my favour, because the Singapore Airlines flight I took was full so I did a voluntary bump, and got 250 SGD in cash, getting there a couple of hours later. For my trip back, I simply booked a Tigerair one-way flight for 220 USD. It could have been a lot cheaper if I didn’t book it at the last minute.

The real big expense, is getting from Male to your resort. As long as you are on one of the standalone resort-islands, you have to take a seaplane, and there’s no way to avoid the 500 USD per person round trip charge, so that was a big one for me.

Conrad Maldives Rangali

Pre-Departure Communications with Conrad

Despite my stay being an award stay, I’d say that their communications were excellent. A week or so before my stay, I got an e-mail from their pre-booking coordinator, asking for details of my flights, so they could arrange my seaplane transfer to Rangali.

Additionally, I was very interested in dining in Ithaa, their underwater restaurant, so they were also able to secure a reservation for me as well.

Even as a Hilton Diamond, I wasn’t expecting any upgrades on the property from their (already humongous) beach villa, which is the standard room, but I did ask if they would assign me a room on the sunset side of the island, which they did!

What was impressive, was when I threw a monkey wrench in their plans with my voluntary bump. Right after the bump, I shot them an e-mail, and their team actually arranged alternative plans, and managed to still get me to Rangali with very little downtime.

Conrad Maldives Rangali

Arrival/Departure in Male – Conrad Lounge

Upon arrival, I was met at airport by a staff of Conrad, who then handled all the details of my seaplane transfer. Shortly after that, I was put on a coach, and driven to the Conrad Lounge. The Conrad has a special lounge for its guests waiting for the seaplane, and it was excellent.

There are several comfortable lie-flat couches in the lounge, for those looking to take a nap after a long flight, or just stretch out their legs. There’s also a complimentary 15-min massage for guests. There’s also a buffet station for those who want to grab some food before or after their flights. There are also showers for those who wish to freshen up as well.

Conrad Rangali Maldives

Check In/Check Out

Very painless process. I was introduced to my concierge, who’s in charge of my stay, and he gave me a set of brochures for reference. There is also a small waiting room after check out, where you can get refreshments while waiting for the seaplane.

The reception area is also covered in sand, which enhanced the whole island feeling of the resort, and puts you in the mood for a vacation right away.

Conrad Rangali Maldives

Room

I got a standard beach villa, which is a massive 150 sq m/1614 sq ft. My room was a renovated villa. Previously, there was a water fountain in the villa, which created a lot of dead space, but that has since been replaced by incorporating that space into the room, putting skylights and a daybed.

Broadly, the villa has three areas. There’s the outdoor shower, which comes with a soaking tub. Enclosed within the room, are double vanities. If you so desire, there’s also a clothes line near the door, so you can dry your swim wear after a fun day at the beach. The walk-in closet is also in this area.

Conrad Rangali Maldives

In the middle section of the room, there’s the day bed with a coffee table. There are curtains, so if you have a small child, or a third adult, you can always sleep the extra person here, and still get some level of privacy. These curtains are thin though. Close to the daybed is the toilet and one more sink.

The bed/sleeping area takes up majority of the space in the room. There is a king sized bed facing the TV, and a sofa by the foot of the bed, if you want to watch some TV. There’s also a desk by the corner, and opposite the desk, there was the fridge with the Nespresso and an electric kettle. Guests are supplied with water, and if you want ice, just call housekeeping for ice.

Conrad Rangali Maldives

Each beach villa also has offers beach access. Just outside the room, there are a couple of chairs and loungers if you wish to spend time outdoors, but still shaded. This leads directly to the beach. And by your personal strip of beach, there are also loungers, along with beach towels.

Conrad Rangali Maldives

The set-up is simply amazing.

Conrad Rangali Maldives

Hilton Diamond Amenities

As a Hilton Diamond, there’s complimentary breakfast in the two restaurants that offer breakfast on the island. It’s a buffet with an excellent selection. I particularly loved their smoothies. If you eat late enough in the day, you probably can turn it into a brunch and simply eat dinner, saving some money. This represents some serious cost savings, because everything in the resort is expensive.

Conrad Maldives Rangali

In addition to breakfast, there is also a complimentary tea break at Mandhoo Restaurant, featuring finger sandwiches, and coffee/tea. Think of it as a dainty high tea. Also, they offer a cocktail hour at the Vilu restaurant as well for diamonds, should you wish to obtain a complimentary alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverage. I went with a mocktail, which was tasty.

Conrad Maldives Rangali

My room was also stocked with diamond amenities. There was a sparkling wine, a bowl of fruit, and some chocolates.

Conrad Maldives Rangali

Dining 

Dining is expensive. I’ve heard of stories of people who basically pack a lot of instant noodles, and cook it in their room to cut costs. That’s always an option. I did, however, dine at the resort when I was there.

Conrad Rangali Maldives

I really wanted to try their Ithaa Undersea restaurant, since it’s a unique feature. To cut costs, I went with their lunch service, which was a prix fixe at ~200 USD. It was pretty cool, and the food was pretty decent (I guess you are paying for the atmosphere), but as a lunch service, it was definitely not romantic or anything. There was a family with some unruly kids, and the parental units didn’t feel compelled to rein in their wildlings. The servers actually had to tactfully escort the kids back to their table, and there was only temporary respite for the other diners, as the wildlings were back to their disruptive behavior (one of them tried to jump on me).

Conrad Rangali Maldives

For my two dinners, I ate at the Rangali Bar, which is one of the more affordable options. Even then, a Wagyu burger with a soda set me back ~50 USD after tips. The Chicken Tikka that I had the next evening cost about the same price. In short, if you are going to pay for food, there’s really no escape from paying ~50 per entree.

Conrad Maldives Rangali

Activities

Many people do cruises or diving, but I was on a very short trip, so I just wanted to swim/lounge around.

Conrad Rangali Maldives

Snorkeling equipment rental is available for free at the dive shop. I checked out a set on my second day there, and went snorkeling around the house reef. It wasn’t spectacular, but it was a very calming experience.

Conrad Maldives Rangali

I spent most of my time swimming. I swam at the sea in front of my beach villa, and on my last day there, I actually swam between the islands. I also spent my time lounging. My personal favorite was the adult-only infinity pool on the island with the overwater villas.

Service

This is probably the defining factor for the Conrad Maldives – top-notch service. Everything was perfect. One day, I was at the infinity pool. I spotted a pair of flip flops under one of the lounge chairs. An attendant asked for my room number before bringing some towels. Some 30 mins after I returned to my room, my personal concierge asked if I left my flip flops at infinity pool.

Conrad Rangali Maldives

Overall

I never quite got the hype of the Maldives, but I must say, this was one of the most relaxing vacations I’ve ever had. Just walking around the various sandy paths between the islands and swimming and lounging in the clear blue sea. It was an incredibly calming experience, which was topped off by impeccable service. I actually found myself researching other options for Maldives vacations right after returning from this trip!

Miles & Points

Well, I didn’t get this vacation for free, but I did do it for ~1000 USD, which is still pricey for a weekend.

Accommodations:

2 Nights Hotel Stay: Citi Hilton Reserve (free) – at least 1000 usd saved

Flights:

Singapore – Male: 120 USD + 15000 KF points on Singapore Airlines

Male – Singapore: 220 USD on Tigerair

Seaplane in Maldives: 500 USD

Food:

300 USD

Hilton Gold status, which comes with the credit card, would have given you free breakfast at the Conrad, so the credit card itself would have effectively reduced your food costs.

I saved about 1100 USD on this trip with miles and points. This trip probably can be done with about 700 USD (seaplanes and budget airlines), if you’re willing to eat instant noodles for your trip.