Hotel Review: Hyatt Regency Baku

Hyatt Regency Baku

Elite Status: Hyatt Globalist

Hyatt Regency Baku is a 5-star category 3 Hyatt property that is located some 3 miles from downtown Baku. The grounds of the property are lovely, and they have the most amazing service staff there.

I spent two nights here on a cash rate.

Hyatt Regency Baku

Check In/Check Out

Both check in and check out was fast. I also requested a 4pm check out, and that was honored with no issues.

Hyatt Regency Baku

Room

I was upgraded to a lovely Regency Suite, which is generously-sized. Upon entry, there is a guest bathroom to the right, and a closet. Beyond the entryway is a living room with a 5-seater sofa and a large coffee table. There’s also a four-seater rectangular dining set. Atop a little console are coffee/tea-making amenities.

Hyatt Regency Baku

The bedroom is of a good size, with the king-sized bed in the middle. There’s a work desk and lounge chair by the window, and a mini-fridge by the TV console.

Hyatt Regency Baku

There are power outlets by the bed, and the wifi is decent.

Additionally, I also received a welcome amenity of a box of chocolates and a bowl of fruit.

Hyatt Regency Baku

Hyatt Regency Baku

Bathroom

Hyatt Regency Baku

The large bathroom has a double-sink vanity, toilet, bidet, tub, and shower.

Hyatt Regency Baku

They stock Portico amenities, which is fine by me.

Hyatt Regency Baku

Food

Breakfast for globalists is served in their ground floor restaurant, and the spread is generous. They have an egg station, and at least six hot options. Their pastries selection is also amazing. More incredibly, the hotel actually has a section for special dietary needs, e.g. diabetic, gluten-free, etc.

Hyatt Regency Baku

Their outdoor terrace is really lovely.

Hyatt Regency Baku

Service

The service in this hotel is outstanding. Ms Aziza at breakfast gave suggestions of a local egg dish to try at breakfast, and I’m glad I took her suggestion. Mr. Nizami at the club lounge also provided really attentive service.

Club Lounge

Located on the 7th floor, the club lounge has evening cocktail service from 6 to 8. They serve an excellent array of canapés. The double-story lounge is also a lovely space to sit in.

Hyatt Regency Baku

Amenities

They have a lovely lap pool, and a large gym.

Hyatt Regency Baku

Overall

Although Hyatt Regency Baku is located some ways from most tourist sites, it has a lot going for it. It has lovely grounds featuring a garden, excellent pool and gym, and above all, they have amazing staff.

Advertisements

Marshrutka from Tbilisi to Yerevan

Please note that information is only accurate at time of posting, so please note date of posting, and check for updates accordingly.

Mashrutka from Tbilisi to Yerevan

Time taken: 4 hrs (11.00 – 15.00)

Vehicle: Mercedes Vito

Price: 35 GEL (13.50 USD at time of posting)

Getting from Tbilisi to Yerevan by Marshrutka

Maybe it’s beginner’s luck, but my first marshrutka (shared minivan) ride went very well! Tripadvisor actually has several reports of crappy vehicles, crappy drivers, waiting forever for the van to fill, but none of that happened to me.

First off, there are several bus stations for marshrutkas going from Tbilisi to Yerevan. From my understanding, there are three, one from the Tbilisi Railway Station, one from Ortachala (the most popular, apparently), and one from Avlabari metro station. I chose the last option, because it’s convenient by metro, and more recent reports suggest that you get better vehicles, and there’s supposedly a timetable of sorts.

Based on a supposed timetable by someone on Tripadvisor, I aimed to go for the 11 am departure. I arrived at Avlabari station at 10.50 am. Following the excellent directions from another traveler on Tripadvisor, I located the marshrutkas easily.

Where are the Marshrutkas in Avlabari?

When you come to the top of the escalators, take the left door. Once you exit the door, look to the right. There is a parking lot with several mashrutkas. On the day I was there, they were all heading to Yerevan.

Despite comments suggesting that English isn’t used, the marshrutkas had the English word “Yerevan” written on the signs displayed on their dashboard. Once I got there, I approached a gentleman holding a notebook. I said “Yerevan”, he asked if I had reservations (so, you can make reservations!). I said no, after which he directed me to one of the marshrutkas. I was the second last person on that marshrutka. He filled the last spot in less than 2 mins, and we were off before 11 am.

The marshrutka I got on was a new Mercedes Vito seating 7. It also seems to have a functioning wifi, as advertised – I say “seem” because I didn’t try it myself, but the guy in front seemed to have used it with no problems. I was in the front row, middle seat. Even though I was in the middle seat, it was actually very roomy. I didn’t feel cramped or uncomfortable throughout the trip. I did have to buckle up, because the driver occasionally jammed his brakes, and the seatbelt prevented me from flying forward.

Mashrutka from Tbilisi to Yerevan

Georgia – Armenia Border Crossing

This was easy peasy. The Georgian side didn’t take took long to check me out of their country. We then hopped back on the marshrutka, and he drove a short distance over to the Armenian side. The Armenian side took slightly longer. Be prepared with address/proof of your accommodation in Armenia. It’s not a super strict requirement. The immigration officer just read the address off a third party app on my phone. He also scanned in my Azerbaijiani visas without comments.

For the border crossing, either remember the people in your marshrutka, your driver, or take a picture of your marshrutka. There are several similar-looking vehicles heading in the same direction. I’d say the whole border crossing took under 30 mins.

Changing money at the Georgia – Armenia Border

I changed the last of my GEL into Armenian drams at the exchange after the Georgian border. Rates were ~10% worse than market rates, but whatever.

We stopped for a short rest on the Armenian side of the border. And about 1 hr after the first stop, we stopped for another break, and also for the driver to fuel up. He dropped several people off en route on request.

We finally pulled into Kilikia Bus Station in Yerevan at around 3pm.

Quite frankly, I was expecting the worst after reading all those reports about marshrutka travel. It did not reflect my experience. I had pleasant ride in a new vehicle and a decent driver. I didn’t stumble out of the marshrutka thinking to myself “never again”, so yay!

Flight Review: Economy Class in Azerbaijan Airlines J2 76 from Istanbul to Baku (IST-GYD)

Flight time: 2hr 45 min
Aircraft Type: Boeing 787-800
Route: IST-GYD
Seat: 22F (Aisle seat of the middle row)

Azerbaijan Airlines J2 76 Istanbul to Baku (IST-GYD) Boeing 787-800 Economy Class

I usually fly alliance airlines to maintain status and the perks associated with it, but sometimes destinations are not served by alliance, or in this case, an alliance airline was less convenient, and would have cost almost twice as much.

Azerbaijan Airlines has several daily flights between Istanbul and Baku. They usually deploy their narrow-body aircraft on this route, but in my case, I lucked out – I ended up with their Dreamliner aircraft, which I love.

Azerbaijan Airlines J2 76 Istanbul to Baku (IST-GYD) Boeing 787-800 Economy Class

They have three classes of service on this aircraft: Business, Premium Economy, and Economy. Business is 3 rows of 2-2-2; Premium Economy is 5 rows of 2-3-2, and Economy is a lot more rows of 3-3-3. In aircrafts where the Economy seat arrangement is 3-3-3, I usually choose the middle aisle, because it minimizes disruption – middle seat person has a 50% chance of bothering you. Look cranky, and maybe s/he will choose to bother the other person instead of you.

Azerbaijan Airlines J2 76 Istanbul to Baku (IST-GYD) Boeing 787-800 Economy Class

The flight was great, actually! The aircraft is new, clean, and the seat is decent. I got an aisle seat, and the legroom was decent as well. Seats also have IFE with USB chargers, although I didn’t find anything to my liking (I usually just watch sitcoms). I did stream some Azerbaijan music just for kicks. There’s also a USB charger on the IFE if you want to charge your phone.

Azerbaijan Airlines J2 76 Istanbul to Baku (IST-GYD) Boeing 787-800 Economy Class

Although this is a short 2.75-hr flight, the service was good. After takeoff, the flight attendants came around with hot towels. After hot towel service, lunch was served. I got their beef plov (pilaf), which was edible.

Azerbaijan Airlines J2 76 Istanbul to Baku (IST-GYD) Boeing 787-800 Economy Class

Overall

I don’t know what it’s like to fly their narrow-body aircraft, but I’d say that their Dreamliner is a solid option for short-haul economy.

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

A Series of Unfortunate Events: Or How I Ended Up Bumming $10 from a Fellow Traveler for a Tajikistani Visa

I generally don’t carry a lot of cash. This extended trip is no exception. Where did the screw up start?

ONE
fullsizeoutput_22a3.jpeg
# I love Bishkek

Between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. I have been changing money between borders, e.g. I successfully changed Azerbaijani Manat into Georgian Lari at a Tbilisi metro station money exchange, successfully changed Georgian Lari into Armenian Drams at a money exchange between the two borders. I also changed my Kazakhstani Tenge into Kyrgyzstani Som at an Almaty moneychanger.

At the Bishkek airport, I had 2000 Kyrgzystani Som (almost ~30 USD), but didn’t find a money exchange at the airport. I didn’t think too much about it, figuring that I probably can change that into Uzbekistani Som at the Tashkent International Airport. That assumption, however, was the first domino to fall.

I had set aside 50 USD to pay for the 40 USD Tajikistani visa on arrival (it’s 50 USD for an electronic visa – I also read elsewhere erroneously that I needed to apply 5 working days in advance, so I was outside the window). The Tashkent International Airport money exchange only exchanges the following currencies: USD, Euros, Chinese Yuan, and Russian Rubles. Of the list, I only had USD hard currency on me. I figured, no biggie – I’ll just change 10 USD so I will have the bus fare into town, and then grab some cash in an Uzbekistani ATM.

TWO
fullsizeoutput_226d.jpeg
# Tashkent Loves You

That was the second domino to fall: Uzbekistan has weird ATMs. Cirrus, Plus (and more recently), UnionPay are some common ATM processors. For some odd reason or other, ATMs in Tashkent only have (more commonly) Visa and Mastercard. Que??? Apparently, you are supposed to do a cash advance of sorts on the ATMs to get cash, assuming the ATMs aren’t empty.

Well, what’s the problem? Several years ago, I was the victim of a very bad spate of bank fraud. Both my USA and Singapore bank accounts got cleaned out by some asshole(s), because they used my debit cards to run up purchases. It took months before various banks returned my money to me. For a while, I lived off $12 for weeks. Since then, I no longer have a debit card. I have an ATM card on the Plus system. I also carry a lot of credit cards, as it’s a lot easier to dispute charges than debit cards. Also, it’s not tied to my bank account.

If I have so many credit cards, why can’t I get cash from ATMs? Well, although I have several credit cards, I don’t have a single credit card that uses chip and pin. None of my credit cards actually have a pin, making ATM withdrawals impossible. Uh oh.

THREE
fullsizeoutput_2273.jpeg
Registan Ensemble in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Living off $10 for 3 days in Uzbekistan is actually not hard. I usually travel by buses, and eat cheaply. Unfortunately for me, my flight from Tashkent to Dushanbe was at 7.35 am. Buses in Tashkent don’t start at 5.30 am. This would have cut things a bit too close. Given that there are only that many direct flights a week between Tashkent and Dushanbe, I had to make that flight. So now, I had to take a cab to the airport, which according to research, will cost ~$3-$4. My (credit card) alternative was to book a hotel car for $60.

FOUR
fullsizeoutput_22a4.jpeg
All the cash that can’t be used

The day before my trip to Tajikistan, I decided to see what I could do to solve this problem. I looked more in-depth into the Tajikistani electronic visa. More research threw up a range of answers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the visa ranges from immediate, to a couple of hours, to a few working days. There were many data points suggesting that it can get approved in under 24 hrs, so I decided I shall take a shot on the electronic visa. I figured I had about 16 hrs to get it approved, and I can check it at the Bishkek airport using my phone.

If the above fails, hopefully, there will be a working ATM in Tajikistan that’s hopefully different from Uzbekistan’s ATMs … or perhaps a moneychanger that will take Kyrgyzstan Som, or maybe Japanese Yen (digging deep here – I found spare cash in my wallet).

FIVE
Screen Shot 2018-09-28 at 1.10.29 AM.png
Google’s ProjectFi is not available in Tajikistan

In the wee hours of the morning, my incessant checking of my e-mail in the Tashkent airport yielded nada. Let’s hope that it gets approved while I’m in the air.

The Bishkek International Airport is a special kind of hell. There is nothing between disembarking from the plane, and getting to immigration. Also, while my ProjectFi data roaming has worked into most countries I’ve visited thus far, well, Tajikistan is not in its coverage zone. Talk about bad timing.

The immigration control also didn’t have these things: 1) Free wifi; 2) Money Changer; 3) ATM. Boy, are we in a pickle! I have $30 in cash, and some Japanese Yen, but that’s not going to help me. It is starting to become apparent that I would probably have to purchase a Tajikistani visa on arrival as well, but I was short of $10.

True Heroes Don’t Wear Capes
At the Visa on Arrival counter, an Israeli guy actually had to purchase a VOA, because his country is not eligible for electronic visa. I decided to ask him how much the VOA is, because there’s also conflicting information online (the rules flux quite a bit, so information is time sensitive). He confirmed it is $40 – I was hoping against hope it’s less, or they take other currencies.

Eventually, I explained my situation to the Israeli gentleman. Without much ado, he simply handed over $10, and offered to wait with me while I sort out my visa issues.

This is probably one of the most humbling experiences in my life, as I had to bum $10 off a total stranger for the first time in my life. The truth is, heroes aren’t dressed in capes. Heroes are people who basically put faith in other human beings.

Well, as it turns out, my electronic visa did get approved before the plane even landed (I saw the time stamp on my e-mail later). It was actually in their system, but the Tajikistani visa office at the airport just decided to hold some of us who didn’t print it out to shake us down (probably for extra cash).

Screen Shot 2018-09-28 at 1.05.35 AM.png
I was actually approved 20min before my flight touched down

After one hour of holding us there, and as it became increasingly apparent that we weren’t going to pay up, they simply stamped us in. For future reference, do print out a copy of your electronic visa to avoid problems.

I did eventually find Eldad (the Israeli gentleman who generously spotted me $10) in Dushanbe to return his money. You’re a true hero. And yes, I know my problem was self-inflicted.

Hotel Review: Nish Palas Istanbul

Nish Palas Istanbul
Elite Status: Hyatt Globalist

Nish Palas Istanbul is part of the Unbound Collection in the Hyatt portfolio. Located in Nisantasi district, it is a category-2 Hyatt hotel with just 45 rooms. I spent one night here on a long Istanbul layover using 8000 Hyatt points, and liked the boutique-hotel feel of Nish Palas Istanbul.

Check In/Check Out

I showed up at around noon, but was checked in immediately and given a room.

Check out was fast as well.

Nish Palas Istanbul

Room

As a Hyatt Globalist, I was upgraded to a View room, which is a corner room with some views of the Bosphorous and the surrounding area. The room is quite lovely, with a small sofa set by the window, and a beautiful wood console by the wall with a Nespresso machine, excellent tea selection, and a well-stocked mini-fridge.

Nish Palas Istanbul

Nish Palas Istanbul

Nish Palas Istanbul

The King bed is quite unique, as it has built-in room controls by the headboard, so you can flick the master switch on the headboard. There are power outlets by the bedside, and I appreciated their special charging cord by the bed with all charging outlets imaginable. The wifi worked well.

Nish Palas Istanbul

Nish Palas Istanbul

Bathroom

The bathroom is on the smaller side of things, but is beautiful with dark marble accents. It has a shower stall with a rain shower and hand wand, and a single-sink vanity.

Nish Palas Istanbul

Nish Palas Istanbul

They feature their house-branded shower amenities, namely Nish Palace. I thought it was fine.

Nish Palas Istanbul

Food

Breakfast is served from 7-10 am at their ground floor restaurant Glens, although when I rolled down at 7 am, they informed me that they will only be ready at 7.30.

Nish Palas Istanbul

The breakfast was very continental, i.e. cereals, pastries. Although the selection was limited, the croissants were nice, and the orange juice was very fresh. They didn’t have lattes when I asked, but they did have a tea.

Nish Palas Istanbul

Service

Friendly and efficient.

Amenities

According to their booklet, they can direct you to a gym nearby. I didn’t enquire. They do have an inhouse spa/hamman, but I didn’t try.

Overall

This is my first stay in an Unbound Collection property. I really liked the boutique hotel experience. The Nish Palas Istanbul is almost like a regular apartment in a nice Istanbul neighborhood, and the unique touches in the room made for a memorable stay. The Nisantasi neighborhood is very lovely, with lots of shops, cafes, restaurants. It is also within walking distance to Taksim, and just a 10 min walk to Osmanbey metro station. I recommend staying here to experience a different part of Istanbul.

Hotel Review: Le Meridien Cairo Airport

Le Meridien Cairo Airport

Elite Status: Marriott Gold

Le Meridien Cairo is a 5-star Category-1 Marriott property located across the street from Cairo International Airport Terminal 3. It is connected by an elevated walkway, which you can access within the terminal.

I probably stayed here for 4 hrs as I wanted a place to lie down for a few hours and shower. I booked it prior to the August 26 Starwood/Marriott merger, and paid 2,000 SPG points, because it’s a weekend stay.

Check In/Check Out

They only had one check in counter at 2 am, though one of the desk managers stepped up and processed my check in.

Same with check out, but it didn’t take too long.

Le Meridien Cairo Airport

Room

I was given a King bed room. It is a decent size, with King bed, work desk and lounge chair with a table. On the table, there was a nice little welcome amenity of petit-fours, welcoming me to Le Meridien Cairo.

There were no power outlets by the bed, so I charged my electronics on the desk. The wifi worked fine.

Le Meridien Cairo Airport

Bathroom

A little on the small side, it has a long rain shower and single vanity.

They stock Le Meridien shower products.

Le Meridien Cairo Airport

Le Meridien Cairo Airport

Service

Friendly and efficient.

Overall

Le Meridien Cairo airport checks the list for a good hotel airport – proximity, speed and comfortable rooms. The location is excellent, you can access the hotel from the terminal, so if you have a short layover and don’t want to deal with the horrors of Cairo traffic, it’s an excellent choice.

Le Meridien Cairo Airport