How I will be staying at a Waldorf Astoria for free (and getting $13 out of it)

Update:

I received my $75 Visa gift card today (19 Oct). When I contacted their marketing department, they wrote back saying it will arrive 6 weeks after check out. This took a little longer than 6 weeks, but hey, at least it’s here!

I will finally be adding to my new country count again this year. Recently, I hopped onto the miles/points bandwagon, and my OCD + google-ful skills are finally paying off. I was mucking around the internet, looking for hotels for another trip, when I spotted this promotion on the Visa Signature Hotels website, which states that if I book an eligible Waldorf Astoria or Conrad hotel by 31st July, and complete the stay by 31st October, I will get a $75 USD Visa gift card:

Screen Shot 2015-07-14 at 7.56.09 PM

With some luck, I will be in Panama City during the promotion period, and the Waldorf Astoria Panama City is included in the list of hotels. I went online to check the rates, and some nights are going for 79USD + taxes (with taxes = 87 USD).

Screen Shot 2015-07-14 at 7.57.49 PM

As it is also eligible for Visa Signature benefits, some of the benefits include free breakfast, and a 25USD F&B credit. At the end of the day, I will actually come up on top with about 13USD. Not too bad for an evening of googling eh? I will update if I do indeed get my 75USD Visa gift card in the mail when I get back from the trip.

Screen Shot 2015-07-14 at 7.56.44 PM

Note: Do read the T&C carefully. You can only get one gift card for each household, regardless of the number of Visa Signature cards that you have. Pictures are screen captures from Visa Signature Hotels website.

Advertisements

Hotel Review: Hampton Inn Panama City, Panama, 5 – 9 September 2015

King bed room at Hampton Panama CityLocation:

El Cangrejo

This is the older gambling district of Panama City, so you can find casinos like Wyndham’s Veneto, and Crowne Plaza’s casino within short walking distance. As the casino district, there are also lots of late night eateries, e.g. Niko’s, and a bunch of others around the casinos. It is also between two of the metro stations, making public transportation easy. There are also bus stops running in front of Via Espana, one of which serves Tocumen International Airport. Rey’s supermarket is also within short walking distance. So, there are many amenities within a short walk from the hotel.

Hampton Panama CityCheck In/Check out:

There were two couples in front of me at check in at 2.45 pm. There was just one guy manning the counter, so that took a while. I used the time to take photos of the lobby. I was given the room that I booked – a non-smoking King bed room, but I was given the accessible room on the lowest floor (Level 1) on a 10-level building, so that was rather annoying.

I checked out at 5.45 am for my early flight, so suffice to say, there was nobody there, and so the check out took all of 1 min.

King bed room at Hampton Panama CityThe room:

I booked into a city-view King room. It had a ‘city’ view, but at the first level, I really couldn’t see much. The room was very spacious and clean, and the bed was comfortable. I liked that their power plugs are updated with USB chargers.

King bed room at Hampton Panama CityThe bathroom was also very spacious. I am not sure if this was a standard thing, or because this is an accessible room. They stock neutrogena bath products. The drainage of the room had some issues. The shower stall had a tendency to flood, and because it was an accessible room, they couldn’t have the shower area sunken in, so that made for a whole lot of fun. I also had an issue with the toilet plugging up on the second day.

They provide a “coffee maker” in the room, which is once again, slightly misleading. I did not use it, but it looked more like a hot water boiler more so than a coffee maker. They did make packs of instant coffee and tea bags available.

Buffet breakfast at Hampton PanamaBreakfast:

The breakfast was actually pretty good. They had at least four hot stations, and my favorite part – a waffle maker! The waffle maker was very popular, but the make-it-yourself waffle was a total crowd pleaser. They had your usual breads, cereals, and also, drip coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and two-three juices.

Service:

It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad either. I called for the toilet to be unclogged, and left the room after the phone call. Perhaps a plumber came by and knocked, and didn’t enter when I didn’t answer, but regardless, my toilet wasn’t unclogged that evening. It only got unclogged when I left the room for the day. But for what it’s worth, this was the only place that I stayed that acknowledged my Hilton status, even if it didn’t mean much.

Swimming pool at Hampton PanamaAmenities:

They have a pool at the roof top, which closes at 11 pm. It seemed very popular. As I swim to exercise, and am a lap swimmer, I decided against it – didn’t want to kill families having some fun in the pool. They also have a gym beside the pool. It was smallish, but adequate.

Other stuff:

They do have a kitchen, so you could order room service, or eat in the dining area. The entrees (e.g. pizza, pasta) were around 10+ USD, which is slightly pricey, but also somewhat reasonable for Panama City prices.

One of my favorite things about this hotel is, from 9 pm – 11 pm, they put out coffee, tea, and hot chocolate for guests in the lobby area. So if you are just coming in from your day’s adventures, it is kinda nice to have a hot beverage before turning in for the night. Or maybe you just need your late night caffeine fix for gambling.

Overall:

I am not sure how long this hotel will remain a category 1 hotel. But at 5000 Hilton points, it was a pretty good deal. Generally, casino hotels in Panama City aren’t very expensive, but hey, if you can just spend 5000 Hilton points, and not pay anything out of your pocket, it’s hard to argue with that.

Miles & Points: How much I saved visiting Cuba, Colombia and Panama

Havana

The trickiest part of this whole trip was getting to Cuba, due to the (slowly lifting) sanctions on travel from US to Cuba. While it is possible according to this blog, I didn’t quite have that kind of flexibility with miles, since a lot of mine are with Delta and United, currently.

After checking out a bunch of options, my cheapest option was flying from Panama City to Havana on Copa. This simple, 2.5 hr flight cost 500 USD round trip. This would have been cheaper than most charter flights from the US, which run around 700 USD. This was not inclusive of me having to get a flight from SEA to these departure points, e.g. Florida, New York, either via miles or points. Either way, charter flights seemed like a bad value proposition. So, I settled on Copa, where I could get mileage credited to my united account.

But as my goal is to see as many countries in the world as possible, even if it’s not ideal, I try to tag on as many countries as it’s possible with every trip, which led me to Colombia. Since I was going to be based in Panama City, I looked around to see what were some of the redemption values like for the neighbors of Panama. I found out that I could redeem points for a trip from Panama to Colombia for 20000 points, but when I saw the taxes (94.50 USD), I decided to check how much it would cost for me to just add Colombia to my Cuba trip. Result? 200 USD. So, if I used a 20000 points redemption, I would actually just have saved 100 USD. That seemed like really bad value. So I wound up paying for this add-on leg. So, how much did I save?

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 12.46.55 AM

Air tickets

I paid: 700 USD – PTY – HAV – PTY – BOG – PTY (and earned mileage for it)

What I saved: ~ 500 USD (that’s a low estimate – it generally costs more than that to fly SEA-PTY)

Hotels

Cuba

Not too many options here, so I used Airbnb, and stayed at a place for 40 USD a night

Total: 160 USD

Colombia

Hampton: On the Hilton site, nights go for around 70 USD. I used points and cash in this instance.

Potential cost: 280 USD

What I paid: 100 USD + 16000 Hilton points

What I saved: 180 USD

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 12.38.38 AM

Panama

I had initially used the 5th award night free, but after spotting the Visa Signature Promotion, I decided it was worth my time to cancel that free night, as a night in the Waldorf Astoria would have just cost me 14 USD out of my pocket, and I earned 5000 Hilton points as well (not to mention, add minimum spend on my credit card)

Waldorf Astoria: I booked a King room for 89 USD, but got upgraded to a Junior Suite. I can’t say I saved 200 USD, but I can say I paid 14 USD for a Junior Suite.

What I paid: 14 USD

What I saved: 75 USD

Hampton: On the Hilton site, nights go for around 75 USD

What I paid: 0 USD + 20000 Hilton points

What I saved: 300 USD

Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 12.29.38 AM

Conclusion

This trip could have potentially cost me a lot more. Granted, if I did not have all these points and miles, I’d probably have found some hostel that costs closer to 20 USD to stay at. But hey, if I can stay at a nicer place, that makes life better. Also, all the inclusive hotel breakfasts were a key to me cutting down my day-to-day expenses on the trip.

What this trip could have cost: 1200 USD + 160 USD + 280 USD + 89 USD + 300 USD = 2029 USD

What I actually paid: 700 USD + 14 USD + 100 + 160 USD = 974 USD + 36000 Hilton points + 35000 Delta Miles (I got back 6000 of it, so effectively, 30000 Hilton points)

How much I saved: 1055 USD

Through some googling, and the use of hotel points and airline miles, I was able to visit 3 new countries at a reasonable cost, and made some substantial savings for this trip.

Panama: To the market … for some fish, 08 September 2015

Panama City Skyline

I didn’t have any grand plans today, but my friends who visited Panama sometime back said the fish market was worth a visit. I haven’t exactly found what is Panamanian food either, so I figured, eating at a restaurant above a fish market is the closest thing to that. I took the subway again to Cinco de Mayo, but this time, followed the freeway, which led me to the fish market. There is like a 8-lane road that you kinda have to cross to get to the fish market. I tried to use a local as my body shield, he used me as a body shield from oncoming traffic instead. Well, I would say, all my years of training from crossing Vietnamese roads paid off! I didn’t really go down to the fish market. I’ve been to many fish markets in Southeast Asia. Erm, well, looked like a fish market? Fish Market

At the restaurant above the fish market, I got a guacho, which is some sort of seafood stew (5 USD). The prices are decent for fresh seafood, but just don’t expect it to be a steal. A lobster is like 47 USD. They also add a 7% tax, and there’s no need to bring a bundle of cash if you decide to order the lobster – they take credit cards here, too. The gaucho was pretty nice, I was expecting something to be more of the consistency/taste of a seafood bisque, but it was more of a seafood bits cooked in a tomato sauce. It was a decent meal to tide over a couple of hours, but not quite a go-home-with-belly-in-wheelbarrow kinda meal.

Seafood restaurant above fish markketGauchoGuacho

After lunch, I decided to stroll the park of Ave Balboa. It is a very nice waterfront park, and you can get some great skyline views of Panama City. Well, at least the Panama City of glass buildings in all sizes. They also have restaurants, exercise stations, tennis courts and other amenities at this park. I assume it’s quite the place on weekends!

Panama City Skyline

After my short stroll, I had planned to take a bus to visit Punta Paitilla, but after waiting for a bus for like 20+ minutes, I gave up, and took the bus that dropped me off in front of Multicentro. Then the skies opened up. Those tropical downpours really remind me of Singapore. I got drenched, but it gave the feeling of home. After some futile walking in circles, I just gave up on trying to find Punta Paitilla, and just walked back to El Cangrejo, ending my day.

Costs:

Public transport: 0.60

Lunch: 8.25 USD

Dinner: 3 USD

Total: 11.85 USD

Panama: Miraflores Locks, 07 September 2015

Miraflores Locks

If I could re-title my blog, it would actually be called travel on the cheap. I try to travel by local buses, walk, and eat at supermarkets. I remember summer 2004, when my friend and I actually bought salami, cheese, and bread from a French supermarket, and I was counting out the slices of salami and cheese for our meals. She never forgave me for that incident. 🙂 Back in my backpacker days more than a decade ago, I used to stay at the cheapest hostels of each country I’m visiting (like bunk bed in 22-person co-ed dorm), take overnight trains, buses, and redeye flights to save on one night’s accommodation. I think that part of me has not changed some one decade later. At the end of the day, what am I suffering for? It is easy to suffer, when I remember that every dollar I save goes into paying for my next trip, and it allows me to see more of the world that we walk through.

So, getting to Miraflores Locks for cheap.

I took the metro from Iglesias Del Carmen to Albrook. It is not necessary to take other inter-state buses, which involve buying a rapidpass, and tapping through the bus turnstiles. The MiBus, which runs the Panama City bus system, actually has a bus that goes to Miraflores. Just head towards the platform with the sign for Entrada F (northern end of Albrook Bus station). You will see one stand that’s attached to the bus station, and one that’s closer to the mall, where there are lots of taxis. Stay on the side that’s still part of the bus station, i.e. don’t cross the street to where all the taxis are. The buses to Miraflores don’t come by that often – I waited for over 20 mins, but when it comes by, it would actually flash “Miraflores” on the bus, so that should be self-evident. You can check out the route here. The Miraflores Locks in the last stop, and you will hear Escuela Miraflores. Albrook bus station

Albrook Bus Terminal

The bus costs 0.25 USD, you need the metrobus pass to pay for it, and it takes 15-20 min, and drops you right in front of the visitor’s center, so there is no extra walking involved. At the ticket booth, they usually list the times that ships will be passing the locks (usually up to 11 am, and mid-afternoon). One of the nice things about the Miraflores Locks is, your ticket is good for the day. So, if you happen to come by at the wrong window where there are no ships, you can always come back later in the day. Just be aware that they close at 4.30 pm. Their website is pretty good; entry for adults costs 15 USD. They do take credit cards, so for those trying to charge their cards for points, this is awesome. I had luck getting them to acknowledge my student card, and sell me a discounted student ticket at 10 USD. The English movie runs every hour, i.e. 12 pm, 1 pm, 2 pm.

They do have a cafe, a restaurant, and a gelato place on site, and also free wifi on the ground floor. The cafe (Botawa coffee house) prices are very competitive with Panama City prices, and serves beans from Boquette. It is a decent spot to hang out for a bit (grande Cafe Con Leche – 3.20 USD). I arrived at 12.30 pm, and it was a wait for ships to come by, but I decided to make a day of it working by the Miraflores Locks. How many people can say they wrote part of their dissertation sitting by the Miraflores Locks? 🙂

Miraflores Locks

Miraflores Locks looking out to the Pacific

Ever Delight from Evergreen finally moves into the lock

Locomotives towing in Ever Delight of Evergreen Lines

If you are at the museum walking around, and fear missing out on a ship coming into the locks, no worries, they do make announcements every time a ship comes by the locks, so that visitors won’t miss it. Announcements are in both Spanish (first) and English.

Costs:

Public transport: 1.20 USD

Entrance: 10 USD

Coffee: 4.45 USD

Dinner: 3.95 USD

Accommodations: 5000 Hilton points

Total: 19.60 USD

Panama: Casco Viejo, 06 September 2015

Casco Viejo

After the complimentary breakfast at my hotel, I walked towards the Iglesia El Carmen subway station. According to the subway map, the closest metro station to Casco Viejo is the Cinco de Mayo station, so that was where I was headed. The subway ride was pretty simple. Tap in card, $0.35 deducted from card, and the trains (3 carriage) came by every 5 mins or so. It was a Sunday, they weren’t empty, but they weren’t like sardines in a tin can packed either. To get to Casco Viejo from the Cinco de Mayo subway station, locate the Av Central exit. When you get out, you should see a freeway overhead. Cross the street under the freeway, and just follow the street. You will see Hotel Stanford at some point, and then you’ll see a pedestrian street. That’s Av Central. Just keep walking down Av Central and you will hit Casco Viejo. At this point, maps on boards, and tourist signs will show up, guiding you the rest of the way. An alternative way would be to follow under the freeway after you exit the metro station. Take a left after you exit the metro station, and follow the freeway. That way, you will hit the Fish Market, before Casco Viejo. Just keep in mind that it would involve crossing some rather large lanes of traffic on this route. Av Central features quite a bit of graffiti and street life in Panama, so, despite all the warnings on Wikitravel, it might still be worth your time walking down. #graffiti

A UNESCO world heritage site, Casco Viejo is the old town of Panama City. Erm, I don’t know what to say, except think 1600s Spanish architecture? It is a nice tourist-y spot with lots of cafes, restaurants, hostels, hotels, which would appeal to tourists. Think red brick streets, plazas, and old churches. It is quite different from the rest of Panama City, for sure.

I planned on spending my day working at a nice cafe, so to that end, I got lured by the Casco Viejo website, and wound up at the Casa Sucre Coffeehouse (they accept credit cards, and have free wifi). They feature coffees from the Boquette region, and are slightly pricey (about ~$0.50 more than their competitors), but it’s not a bad spot to hang out. It used to be a nunnery or something, and their tiled floor are (mostly) originals from the 1800s. I wound up spending more time than I intended, thanks to a tropical downpour in the middle of the day. But, can’t complain. I got an iced latte, and liked their coffee. It has a bold flavor, without being acidic.

Casa Sucre Coffeehouse

When there was a break in the downpour, I headed towards Cafe Coca-Cola, a budget (it’s really not that cheap, though it’s cheap relative to some of the things on offer in Casco Viejo) cafe, and one of the oldest in Casco. To date, i am not sure what Panamanian cuisine really is. The menu looked very much like diner food, complete with a Aunt Jemina and Maggi Ketchup on my table. Cafe Coca-Cola also has quite an interesting clientele – mostly older men? I definitely felt rather conscious as the single female diner there. I wound up getting a 1/4 fried chicken (5 USD). Nothing much to report there. Cafe Coca Cola

After my main meal of the day, I headed to Unido Coffee Roasters, which is housed in the premises of the luxurious American Trade Hotel. Unido Coffee Roasters is this hipster cafe, now with three branches in Panama City. They also feature unique beans from Panama, and are pricier than Casa Sucre Coffeehouse (iced latte – 4 USD). They either don’t have wifi, or it wasn’t working, but they do take credit cards. My iced latte had a nice clean, strong flavor to it, and wasn’t acidic either.

Cafe Unido

After coffee, I headed back towards my hotel. One of the more intriguing questions for me is – where are all the Panamanians on Sunday? After a short rest at my guest house, I decided to walk towards the Multicentro Mall. I think I saw more people in the taxi line at the Radisson Decapolis, and at a church on the walk to Multicentro, than all my time spent at Casco Viejo. It’s always interesting to know where people choose to spend their weekends.

Also, as a side note on those who love gaming. Things do change rapidly in Panama – Veneto was kinda empty when I visited on a Saturday evening. But when I went to Majestic at Multicentro, there were a whole lot more people playing.

Costs:

Subway: 0.70 USD

Coffee: 7.80 USD

Dinner: 5 USD

Accommodations: 5000 Hilton points

Total: 13.50 USD

Panama: If Johor Bahru and Singapore had a Love Child, 05 September 2015

El Cangrejo - the gambling district

After my late check-out at the Waldorf Astoria, I had to move to my next hotel – Hampton Inn Panama City. I tried to walk it, but after taking a wrong turn and getting hopelessly lost (the badly maintained sidewalks aren’t kind to a spinner carry-on either), I gave up and took a cab. I read online that most taxi rides within the city should cost no more than $2, and the key is to not negotiate, and just leave what seems to be an appropriate fare, so I did just that – handed the guy $2. I probably overpaid, but it is still better than getting completely ripped off. By this point, it was fairly late in the afternoon, the weather wasn’t being kind, so my plan was just to check out the metro (subway) system, get myself a metro card, grab some food, and spend the rest of the evening working on my dissertation. The Hampton Inn is in the Cangrejo district, which is sorta like the (older) casino district. It is located equidistance between two subway stations – Via Argentina and Iglesia El Carmen. I decided to head towards the one at Via Argentina. Panama Metro station

Panama City Subway StationSubway mapPanama City Metro Line – corresponds with map of Panama City

The machines at the subway station have both English and Spanish. You just have to push the EN button for the English menu. They vary a little bit. Some of them dispense change; others don’t. I found one that gave change, paid $2 to buy the card, and then loaded up the card with $2. On a funny note, I looked so confused (the English was actually slightly confusing), that some abuela came up, grabbed the card from me, and started grabbing dollar bills on my hand, and pressed all those buttons like a pro. She must have been secretly sighing. Rides on the subway cost $0.35, and I am guessing you can’t get your money back, so not loading too much is probably a good idea.

Metro cardPanama City Metro Card

After dinner, I got bored so I decided to stroll around the block. Apparently, some of the largest casinos in Panama City are around my area. I did go into the Veneto, lost $4, and came out. It was kinda large but empty. I visited it because of what this blog had to write about the Veneto:

According to LCB, the Veneto is the largest casino in Panama City with 56 table games and 625 slots. Not only is the Veneto the largest, but in my opinion, also the best. This is because there is an abundance of beautiful Columbian prostitutes on the casino floor.

I do kinda enjoy people-watching, but there weren’t people to watch in the Veneto. The bar area does show a lot of MLB games, though!

Veneto casino

One of the upsides of being in the casino/slightly seedy underbelly area of a city? 24hr eateries. I did not go into any of them, but it is always nice to know that one has options.

So, why the title? In my short walk around my area, I guess I do find that Panama City is a city of contrasts. By the waterfront are all these aspirational (not in my opinion, but I assume they built it for that reason), modern high rise buildings, which is very much in keeping with Singapore’s (or Dubai, or Shanghai) style of building these spectacular eyesores buildings. But if you look at the ground level, sidewalks, roads, are not exactly in the best state of repair. Potholes, cracks etc. characterize the streets beyond the glory and glitter of the waterfront with its shiny hotels, banks and malls, the ground tells a different story.

Costs:

Taxi: 2 USD

Metro card: 2 USD

Dinner: 7 USD (many establishments take credit card – woohoo!)

Casino: 4 USD 😦

Hotel: 5000 Hilton points

Total: 15 USD