A Very Asian Conrad Christmas: Trip Planning

  • Trip Planning
  • Cathay Pacific The Pier Business Class Lounge (HKG)
  • Cathay Pacific B777 Business Class HKG-HND / HND-HKG
  • Conrad Tokyo
  • Conrad Tokyo (Executive suite)
  • Cathay Pacific Tokyo Haneda Lounge (HND)
  • Conrad Macao
  • Conrad Hong Kong
  • Cathay Pacific The Pier First Class Lounge (HKG)

For Christmas 2017 I attempted to plan an end-of-year holiday travelling in style, leveraging various deals to attempt to keep the total cost manageable.

Maximising Hilton Honors Diamond

Having already planned for a trip to the US in July, I aimed to do something a little closer to home. Based on the various discussion threads on FlyerTalk, particularly a thread dedicated specifically to sharing of opinions on the best Conrad properties, I narrowed my hit list down to Tokyo, Macao and Hong Kong.

Conrad Tokyo

Hotel entrance at Conrad Tokyo

This was initially my grand masterplan to empty out my Hilton Honors point balance – at 80,000 points per night, combined with the 5th night free benefit for (silver and above) Hilton Honors redemptions, I planned to redeem five nights at the property for 320,000 points (about $1920 if you value the points at 0.6¢ each). Not really the best of deals, but considering that the revenue rate was about ¥230,000 (S$2700) I figured it was not a terrible way to burn off my points while enjoying Diamond benefits.

Then, two things happened.

First, I managed to get my Diamond status extended one extra year. Now that I had another year to enjoy its benefits, saving my points for Conrad Maldives seemed like a very attractive proposition…

Ask and you shall receive – I tried my luck requesting an extension and was offered a status challenge.

Second, a number of flash sales came up later in the year. The most enticing one I’d observed was a 50% discount for Japan (and South Korea) properties.

 

The anticipated damage was thus brought down to a more manageable ¥115,000 (S$1,350). Still not cheap, but definitely a lot more affordable. Coupled with a booking via the Citi Prestige concierge to activate the fourth night free benefit (a ¥20,000 rebate), I was looking at an out-of-pocket cost of ¥95,000 (S$1,120). A 4-night booking would have been a more optimal combo, but since the rest of my plans had been firmed by then, I decided to stick with the original 5-night plan.

Anyway, at about S$220 per night, I wasn’t complaining about staying there a little longer.

Conrad Macao

Hotel lobby at Conrad Macao

The plan for this was rather straightforward – redemption rates for the property were pretty low at 40,000 points per night (which I value at S$240), so I went ahead to lock in two nights for 80,000 points.

Interestingly enough, when I made the redemption the higher-tier ‘KING DELUXE CITY VIEW’ room was offered at the same rate as the standard ‘KING DELUXE’ room. The only difference was probably the view, but since it cost me nothing, I figured why not?

Conrad Hong Kong

For Conrad Hong Kong I made use of a different strategy. Awards stays are also priced around 80,000 points and I was not too keen on spending S$480 worth of points per night at that property. I was also only planning a short 2-night stay, so the 4/5-night combos mentioned above didn’t really help. Knowing this, I decided to give the Entertainer a go.

The Entertainer (essentially an electronic coupon book) is probably better known in Singapore for offering many 1-for-1 deals at various eateries ranging from as Yoshinoya to high-end (high cost) establishments such as The Fat Cow. Something that’s mentioned a little less frequently is that these deals exist for selected hotels as well.

How this works is that you email the property informing them that you wish to make a reservation using the Entertainer 1-for-1 offer, they proceed to make the reservations for you, and you redeem the electronic coupon during check in. For Conrad Hong Kong, this was done by making a full revenue reservation for the first night followed by a complimentary reservation for the second. I received full elite recognition throughout my stay and had points credited for the first night, though I’m not certain if the second night counted towards status requalification (I suspect not).

I was quoted 3,740HKD (S$635) for the reservation, so it worked out to about S$318 per night at this property. I was somewhat dissatisfied that the nightly rate was effectively higher than Conrad Tokyo’s, but since this was a cancellable rate and saved me the hassle of looking out for other offers throughout the year I decided that it was good enough.

Unfortunately, it seems like Conrad Hong Kong is no longer listed on the Entertainer for 2018 – I’m not aware of any good deal for this then, other than perhaps waiting for an opportune flash sale to come by once more!

Exploring Asia Miles

I hadn’t actually redeemed anything on Asia Miles before, but started considering giving it a go after the KrisFlyer devaluation early last year. I took the chance to explore the utility of companion ticket awards and got myself a pair of tickets from SIN-HND, with a Hong Kong stopover on the way back.

The specifics are detailed in this post. I wasn’t too excited about the regional business hardware I’d be in for most of the trip, but it seemed like the most efficient way to get to my intended destinations in relative comfort.

The ground experience, though, I was pretty excited about.

Cathay Pacific The Pier Business Class Lounge

Fro what I’d read, The Pier was the best of the bunch of CX lounges in HKG, so I was rather excited to have the chance to visit and review it on my way to Tokyo.

Cathay Pacific The Pier First Class Lounge

The Milelion also reached out to the CX team to see if we could possibly do a review of their First Class lounge experience while I was in Hong Kong.  They graciously agreed and invited me to visit The Pier First Class lounge before flying back to Singapore.

So this was actually rather unplanned, but definitely something I looked forward to greatly.

Fast Forward

The trip actually started off with a visit to the Cathay Pacific Business Class Lounge at SIN Terminal 4, followed by a SIN-HKG flight on a Cathay Pacific A350 aircraft, but since the Milelion had already reviewed both of those (excellent) places/products I thought I’d skip ahead and begin the trip report with my visit to Hong Kong’s lounges.

I’ll probably be cranking out the actual reviews in the weeks ahead – but first up, instead of delaying it any longer, I’d start by sharing my review of The Pier First Class Lounge… soon! Really soon.

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The great unknown

2017’s gone already? Time for another (belated) annual post.

Things have moved so very quickly this year; the momentum I’d mentioned previously is still very much present now. I find myself hurtling forward at breakneck speed, unable to eliminate the many vagaries of the future.

Sometimes, it’s even a little scary.

Work

It’s not all been smooth-sailing. One major hiccup I’d encountered was probably the failed bid to secure funding to pursue a master’s degree.

I’d first applied for postgraduate funding from my organisation back in 2014, and back then I’d advanced to the interview panel before crashing out. Three years on, I made the application again and was surprised to find myself eliminated even earlier in the process. I think I’ve been contributing more to the organisation in my current position than I had previously, so it’s all rather disheartening and unexpected.

I still think I’m doing pretty well at work (perhaps I’m mistaken) – the environment probably has a big part to play in this. It’s really awesome to be able to work together with highly motivated and competent colleagues (who don’t participate in office politics) and to work under bosses who entrust you with plenty of space to get your work done.

So I’m trying one last time this year. If it fails to go through again, I’ll probably have to think through some decisions like whether to pursue further studies independently of the organisation, whether to follow the default path for career progression, or whether to attempt to stay on in my current unit.

Will the third time be the charm? Only time will tell.

Travel

I think I’ve been incredibly blessed to be able to travel as much as I have in the past two years. As someone who’s flown fewer than five times (I’m counting return air travel) before legal adulthood, it’s rather amazing to be able to zip around the world on premium class cabins and staying in nice places.

(This is a rather geeky thing to say, but I was especially glad to have finally made it to Conrad Tokyo in December.)

I’m also more involved with the Milelion now – other than increased writing frequency, there are some side projects the team is working on together. It’s rather exciting to be a part of all these fledgeling dreams – there’s a bit of the feeling of being in a startup, which is probably as much as I’ll have the chance to sample without giving up a relatively stable job.

I really, really think that my travel frequency will be going down pretty soon though (see below), so I’m not too sure how this will pan out once that happens.

Family

Finally, come July, it’s going to be a little more crowded at home. It’s something that I’d already thought about previously, but I guess it took some time to decide it was really the path we wanted to go down.

And now that it’s finally happening, I feel like a whole other universe of unknowns that I’ve previously been ignoring has opened itself to us. There’s still some time to prepare, but I suspect that there’s going to be plenty of just-in-time learning.

2018 seems like it’s going to be all about dealing with unknowns. Not quite my favourite thing to do, but I guess I’ll just have to learn.

California Dreamin’: Virgin Airlines First Class SAN-SFO


Exiting San Diego

After the dust settled at the end of Comic-Con, we needed to reposition ourselves to San Francisco to catch our A350 flight home. Back during trip planning, we’d already decided that we would be flying out of San Diego to avoid traffic – it also made more sense since we really just wanted to get to SFO airport.

By the time we’d confirmed our Comic-Con badges and started making arrangements for the flight out, though, we’d found that first class (really equivalent to our regional business class, but that’s US domestic flight labels for you) was selling for just US$19 more than coach for the flight we wanted. If that isn’t a good excuse reason to go for first class, I don’t know what is.

Virgin is generally a rather interesting brand (I’d taken one of their trains in London previously), with the American airline advertising stuff like in-flight Netflix streaming and curated Spotify mood lists based on the route you’re flying (how very millennial). They also feature funky things like all-white seating and mood lighting. Here’s what they look like without mood lighting:


(Image from Virgin America website)

Unfortunately, the days are numbered for this hip and happening hardware (oh hey, alliteration) – Virgin is currently in the midst of merging with (being absorbed by, more like) Alaska, and word is that the existing VX hardware will be axed along with this merger.

“With 50 percent more premium seats being introduced to the Airbus fleet, elite loyalty members will enjoy the most generous complimentary upgrades in the industry,” says Sangita Woerner, Alaska Airlines’ VP of marketing…

Wow, cramming more seats in the first class cabin definitely sounds like an enhancement, said nobody ever. I mean, just take a look at Alaska’s First Class cabin:


(Image from Alaska Airlines website)

While not terrible, it’s definitely more cramped and less… interesting. It’s a sure shame to see that VX hardware go away.

So, how did it feel flying on the VX product? Here’s a quick review of the <90min experience.

The VX Experience

Premium domestic/regional travel is usually nothing to get excited over, but Virgin America’s first class cabin contains a total of just 8 seats laid out in a 2-2 configuration. I can’t say the purple mood lighting really made a big impact on my experience, but it certainly made it feel… different.

It wasn’t the case that the cabin was just extremely small, either – seat pitch was very generous at a healthy 55″  (translation – with the seat belt on, I could fully extend my legs and still have space to spare in front of me).

I’m clearly not the only one enjoying this generous legroom, I thought, as I creepily stealthily took a picture of the other half of the first class cabin.

No meals were served on this super short flight (that’s only for flights above 2h), but I did get to order some sparkling wine (Le Grand Courtâge, I believe).

The in-flight entertainment system was pretty comprehensive, though the screen (the type that swings out from the arm of the seat) is rather on the small side – more typical of other regional business flights I’ve taken – I imagine I would still be sufficiently entertained on a cross-continent journey.

Conclusion

All in all, I was really impressed by the level of comfort afforded by the first class seat – perhaps because it was such a short flight, there wasn’t really all that much to focus on. I’ve never expected to enjoy flying US domestic, but Virgin Airlines managed to make me do just that. It’s too bad that it won’t be staying around for much longer – if you happen to be moving around in the States in early 2018, it might be worth trying to see if you can catch this experience before it’s gone forever, especially if you are able to get tickets cheaply.

For what it’s worth, Alaska Airlines’s Mileage Plan can be used for redemption on VX, though I think the number of miles required seems rather excessive for first class redemptions (e.g. 25,000 miles for the same SAN-SFO flight I’d taken).

The Comic-Con Experience


Overview

I’d mentioned before that planning to get to Comic-Con was a bit of a nightmare, especially as a first-timer. Not only are there many processes you’ll need to get familiar with (such as signing up for a Member ID and the waiting room system for purchasing of badges), you would have missed out on the Returning Registration phase that is available for attendees from the previous year.

This site estimates the odds of scoring a badge at 6.11%. If you’re going with other people (or have others helping you with purchasing badges), this is likely an under-estimate since each person is allowed to buy badges for up to three people. Still, it’s very possible to end up with nothing for your efforts.

This post won’t deal with how to register for Comic-Con – the specific details are likely to change with time, so I’d suggest just sticking with the official Comic-Con badge FAQ page and probably registering for a Member ID (free!) so you’ll be notified when the next round of registrations are starting. This post will instead explore what you can get out of this experience.

(An additional note – this time round, Open Registration for Comic-Con 2018 happened at the end of November 2017, about four months earlier than it used to. On the plus side, it makes trip planning somewhat easier in the future. On the other hand, if you’re interested in doing Comic-Con, you’ll probably be looking at 2019 at the earliest…)

Inside Comic-Con

The official Comic-Con programme has events scheduled over the span of five days – preview night (Wed), and full-day programmes on Thu-Sun. Preview night starts at about 6pm and mainly allows early access to the Exhibitor’s Hall, with some smaller programmes thrown in as well. The Sunday programme ends earlier as well (5pm) and the ‘best stuff’ is usually scheduled for the middle two days (Friday and Saturday).

As it turns out, we didn’t manage to get badges for those two days.

Much of the hype for Comic-Con comes from being present at early/exclusive announcements/previews by major studios for big franchises such as The Avengers. These high-profile events typically happen at Hall H, which has a separate queue of its own and often involves waiting for hours (even overnight) to secure a pass to be used for entry.

One example of this exclusive content would be the Marvel presentation, where an exclusive trailer for Avengers: Infinity War was screened. While it ended up being leaked online anyway, it’s a massive treat for fans given that the official trailer was only released four months down the road…

If waiting in massive lines isn’t quite your thing, other opportunities to wait in (shorter) lines exist within the convention centre.

Exhibit Hall

At 460,000 square feet (occupying Halls A-G of the convention centre), or about seven football/soccer fields, the Exhibit Hall is a prominent centrepiece of Comic-Con. As suggested by the name, the hall is filled with exhibits and booths by companies and individuals alike.

The big players are well-represented, and you can see signs of their branding pretty much everywhere you go.

The larger companies typically give out freebies, show trailers, offer interactive experiences, and (of course) sell merchandise.

There are also smaller areas dedicated to individuals to show their wares.

Offering various novelties such as superheroes / movie characters illustrated as cats…

Comic characters in the style of Dr Seuss…

And monster heads from the Dungeons & Dragons universe. A trophy for your living room, anyone?

Smaller-scale Events

Other than the massive events and programmes occurring at the larger venues such as Hall H, a wide range of programmes (often previews or panels featuring the creative team or cast of shows) are scheduled over the four main days of Comic-Con. If you’re attending, you’d probably want to browse the programme and identify the events you’d like to go to.

They’re not all publicity events for upcoming shows – as an convention catering to a community of fans, there are plenty of events tied to older properties as well, such as this panel comprising the creative team an cast for Batman: The Animated Series (in line with its 25th anniversary).

Outside Comic-Con

There’s plenty of stuff to be done outside the convention centre (i.e. without the need for Comic-Con badges), which is great news if you didn’t manage to get badges every day of the programme. Just across the railway tracks there’s Petco Park, which has booths serving free food such as free ice cream from the Lich King’s Ice Cream Citadel (promoting Blizzard’s Warcraft – more specifically, the Hearthstone digital card game).

We also checked out The Netflix Experience, which had some exhibits tied to The Defenders, Stranger Things 2, and an upcoming movie called Bright. I’ve no idea if it’ll be any good, but the world premise (modern setting with stock fantasy races like elves and orcs living alongside humans) sounds interesting.

Westworld: The Experience was probably the hottest event of 2017, but since that involved queues of six hours or longer (reportedly even overnight) I never did get to try it.

Blade Runner 2049 Experience

The one experience that I enjoyed most was the the Blade Runner 2049 Experience. I’m not really a big fan of the original movie, so I wasn’t expecting much of this, but was impressed by how well done it was. We’d opted for the VR experience, which included an extra 5min VR segment where you took part in a futuristic (flying) car chase before the VR headgear was removed, the doors opened and suddenly you found yourself in the movie’s dystopian futuristic version of Los Angeles.

When entering the experience area, some of us were immediately asked by a policeman (one of the actors) to get ourselves scanned to check if we were replicants (the android antagonists of the movie). I was one of those singled out (racial profiling, I tell you).

I thought that the experience made rather clever use of RFID – at registration we keyed in our details that was loaded to an RFID wristband that was given to us. To get scanned, you just tap the wristband on the sensor at the right and wait for the scanning sequence to complete.

As it turned out, I was a replicant and was promptly ordered to do a number of jumping jacks (I suppose that killing or arresting said replicants, while making more sense in the movie universe, would probably make for a less pleasant fan experience).

Another way the RFID wristband was used was to redeem a free T-shirt (yay free swag)! The T-shirt size was one of the details keyed in at registration, and after scanning your wristband at a designated vending machine, your name flashes on the screens and a T-shirt is dispensed.

 

The actors did their part to build a rather believable atmosphere, with details such as this friendly lady beckoning tourists while leaning on a taxi cab.

Sometimes actors would interact directly with guests, but other times they would just interact among themselves, essentially putting on a show for observers to watch, like this bunch of customers chatting with a bartender.

Wait a minute, is that the same policeman (who’d made me get scanned) chatting up the friendly lady?

When you feel that you’ve had enough of the main experience, you could proceed to the bar, proudly sponsored by Johnnie Walker.

The final use of the RFID wristband – scan for a sampler of three whisky shots (served in test tubes) and some ramen (not that great). I assume that if you’d admitted to being under 18 at registration, you won’t get access to the alcohol.

Cosplay

I’ve never been a fan of cosplay, but I felt like it seemed like something that had to be done while at Comic-Con. Purchasing a $10 horse mask off Amazon, I proceeded to slap on some of my existing clothing, make creative use of a black marker, and transform myself into Bojack Horseman.

I lasted all of 5 minutes walking through the halls of the convention centre before giving up and tearing off the mask. As it turns out, visibility out of the horse mask is remarkably poor (the nostrils acted as eye-holes), and having a latex layer covering most of your face is actually remarkably uncomfortable.

I now have a greater level of respect for people who go all out with their costumes, like this Megatron I’d spotted in the convention centre…

Kids got into the action too – I spotted a fair number of miniature superheroes and Star Wars costumes.

Star Wars was definitely one of the more common themes, with some creative use of pets as co-pilots, or modifications to create a rapping stormtrooper.

Cosplayers tend to be rather friendly (I imagine they’re only happy to be photographed) – as I was walking past this guy playing Chef (from South Park), he suddenly exclaimed something to the tune of “Oh my God it’s Jessica Rabbit! I had such a crush on you when I was a kid…” and proceeded to get a picture with the other cosplayer (playing Jessica from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?).

My favourite costume was probably this rendition of lobster-eating Batman (from The LEGO Batman Movie), who I’d randomly walked past while exploring the city.

Conclusion

I’m glad to have done Comic-Con, though it’s probably not something I’m likely to repeat. While I did get to have plenty of unique experiences that I wouldn’t usually get a chance to, the crowds were often really unpleasant to deal with, as were the multi-hour lines. Comic-Con has been growing in scale more recently with the rise in popularity of the fantasy, science fiction and superhero genres, and I suspect the situation with the crowds and lines will only get worse.

Knowing all this, if the idea of going to Comic-Con still intrigues you, perhaps it’s time to start making plans for Comic-Con 2019!

Hotel Review: Hilton San Diego Airport Harbor Island Hotel


San Diego accommodation during Comic-Con

If you ever intend to visit San Diego in the month of July, you should probably keep in mind that the (central) city of San Diego as most people know it effectively ceases to exist during the weekend of Comic-Con.

Instead, it morphs into world where giant banners for fantastic worlds are displayed prominently everywhere…

Where the Walking Dead roam…

Where crowds spontaneously form to catch random T-shirts being thrown out of office buildings…

And where even the police get in on the cosplay action.

And in this alternate version of San Diego, accommodation becomes a truly scarce commodity. Hotels typically lock up the bulk of their inventory, put it on the market at exorbitant rates, or do a mix of both.

The official way to get accommodation for Comic-Con is to source for the blocked inventory via the official Comic-Con webpage and look for what’s available. Prices aren’t great, cancellation restrictions may apply, and the inventory is released in different batches – it’s all rather complicated (you can search online for guides on how to do all this), and is really annoying if you’re the type who likes to have everything planned out well in advance.

Without hoping for too much, I decided to try my luck searching on the Hilton MVP website (a year in advance) and found the Hilton San Diego Airport Harbor Island Hotel had rooms available at a rather low price (I’d paid less than US$700 for 4 nights, including taxes). This availability disappeared within days, so I suspect that I had managed to catch it before they had got round to blocking inventory.

Given that this was a cancellable rate (low risk) and would alleviate a lot of uncertainty from trip planning, I proceeded to lock it in as quickly as I could. I would have loved to combine this with a Prestige 4th night free booking, but availability had disappeared by the time I got round to attempting it.

Property

The hotel is conveniently located near the airport and a mere 15-minute drive (with minimal traffic) to the San Diego Convention Center. It’s not that conveniently located for walking around to explore the city, but in a place where Uber is plentiful and rather affordable, I’d say it’s pretty well-located.

During Comic-Con, it also benefited from a free shuttle bus serving three hotels (including two Marriott properties) on the Harbor Island stretch. Since the route didn’t serve that many hotels, it got us to our destinations relatively quickly.

Harbor Island is pretty much a long strip of reclaimed land, so the hotel is technically a seaside one.

The property is full of quirky designs – for instance, the building itself has a rather unique trefoil shape, although the way the rooms are designed, you don’t notice the weird curves that much when you’re inside.

The property operates a shuttle bus to and from the airport, though during peak Comic-Con periods you’ll need to request a pickup instead of relying on the schedule. When you finally get to the hotel, you proceed to check in at yet another example of their quirky design – three individual check-in booths.


(Image from Hilton San Diego Airport website)

We were upgraded to a harbor view room, though from what I understand it’s pretty much the same as the basic room, just with a better view.

The Room

It’s a rather unexciting thing to say, but I rather enjoy staying at chain hotels due to their predictability. Though there are (many) exceptions, I find comfort in knowing there will be a certain level of cleanliness and comfort that may not be present in a (though probably cheaper) Airbnb booking, for instance.

I am happy to report, then, that this was not an exception – the bedding was indeed predictably clean and comfortable. More examples of the quirky design aesthetic in the bedside lamps.

There’s the standard arm chair, work desk, flatscreen TV (just off the picture to the left). The room’s not huge, but there’s plenty of space to walk around.

The working desk is a little on the small side, but should suffice for most purposes (happily, not much work was done during my stay).

A rather standard coffee machine, with non-complimentary water. (Really? $4 for bottled water?)

Just a single sink in the bathroom, but with plenty of counter space around the Peter Thomas Roth amenities provided.

There’s a bathtub, but it’s rather shallow and so it didn’t really seem all that great an experience to soak in it.

I rather enjoyed the fact that the rooms come with a little balcony to sit at.

The view wasn’t fantastic, but it was good enough.

Breakfast

As a Hilton Gold/Diamond member, you get access to complimentary continental breakfast here, with the option to upgrade to hot food for an extra charge. I found the continental spread to be more than adequate, with a good range of pastries and desserts to choose from.

I particularly enjoyed the free flow of berries.

The view of the marina is pretty good, too.



(Image from Hilton San Diego Airport website)

Facilities

As usual, I totally forgot to check out the facilities at the hotel, though the website confirms that there’s a pool and a gym on the property…


(Image from Hilton San Diego Airport website)


(Image from Hilton San Diego Airport website)

But really, who has time for exercise when you’re busy shuttling to the Gaslamp district for Comic-Con?

Conclusion

The Hilton San Diego Airport Harbor Island Hotel is situated near the airport (obviously) as well as central San Diego. It’s well-located for sight-seeing as well as conferences/conventions/business. Though nothing luxurious, the property’s well-maintained and offers a good quality of comfort and cleanliness.  I thought it was a great place to stay over Comic-Con.

Hotel Review: Hampton Inn & Suites Merced


The Hampton brand

I quite enjoy visiting the States, but one thing I don’t enjoy so much is the relatively poor Hilton elite recognition you get in the country – the upgrade rate seems poorer, and properties really limit you to continental complimentary breakfasts (no hot food). I know that’s what’s in the T&C, but given that I’ve previously really enjoyed making use of Hilton Gold/Diamond status around Asia, I’ve found little love even as a Diamond member in America.

Strangely enough, I found greater value in patronising the budget end of the the Hilton family. There’s still no significant elite recognition to speak of, but at the price range it’s not really expected like in pricier full-service properties. The Hampton brand tends to offer a rather decent (and reliable) standard of accommodation that won’t break the bank either, usually costing about US$100-150 per night (especially if booked via the Hilton MVP portal).

It’s especially useful when doing a road trip – when all you really need is pretty much the ability to drive up to the property and rest for the night, you don’t really miss executive lounge access all that much.

Parking

After leaving Yosemite, we headed towards Hampton Inn & Suites Merced, possibly the nearest Hilton property (depending on which direction you exit the valley). This review is based on that visit, though I think it’s safe to say that one US Hampton property is pretty much the same as any other.


(Image from Hampton Merced website)

One of the elite benefits that Hamptons offer is dedicated parking lots for Diamond members. It’s a benefit that the FlyerTalk folk seem to enjoy, though the Hamptons I’d stayed at didn’t ask for my vehicle number at check-in, so I’m not sure what’s to prevent non-Diamonds from taking those lots. In practice, I’m pretty sure it’s not policed.

Still, there’s something to be said about the glorious feeling of pulling into a premium parking space that’s reserved just for the deserving, the crème de la crème, the people who know how to type accents and sound fancy. Never mind that just about everyone else can do it too. Never mind that these special parking spaces typically save you a mere couple of minutes walking to the lobby. No, you can drive up to any Hampton and get yourself a Diamond Elite Parking space because you deserve it. From the very moment you step out of your vehicle, you’re aware that you’re an Elite.

Checking In

And then you snap back to reality, because at the end of the day, a Hampton property is pretty much a budget hotel. There’s a small check in area, usually manned by one or two agents. As a Gold/Diamond member, you’re entitled to “250 Hilton Honors Bonus Points per stay or choice of snack and non-alcoholic beverage”. I’ve got my preferences set to gain the bonus points, but I was usually still asked to take some freebies anyway (I usually opted to take free chocolate bars).


(Image from Hampton Merced website)

Just behind the check-in area is a ‘suite shop’, where you can get various snacks and travel items like single-use laundry detergent. The items aren’t dirt cheap, but they’re pretty affordable. Since it’s quite possible for there not to be a grocery store nearby, these shops could prove to be rather convenient.

The Room

The Hampton rooms tend to be rather basic (and possibly rather dated), but also clean and comfortable, which is what really matters after hours of driving on the road.

The same goes for the toilet/shower area – clean and well maintained.

It’s a good thing it was clean, since they placed the coffee machine in that very room – a rather unusual choice of location, but I suppose it helps to save space.

Full sliding shower doors for the shower area…

Lots of space on the counter around the sink, along with the Neutrogena-branded toiletries.

Breakfast

Another Hampton feature – free breakfast with every room; no need for status. I particularly enjoy the waffle machines.

Some basic fruit and salad (the former is pretty convenient for grab and go).

There’ll be some hot food served as well – the meal we saw at Merced was actually one of the better ones, comprising bagel toppers (bagels with melted cheese and bacon) and fried potatoes.

Some bread and pastries…

…and cereal, if that’s what you prefer.

All in all, the breakfast wasn’t really something I looked forward to having, but it served its purpose.

Facilities

I didn’t actually use it at Merced, but Hamptons come equipped with a business center (with an iMacs and a laser printer). Pretty useful for printing stuff, actually – came in pretty handy when I later wanted a hard copy of the Comic-Con programme for easier reference.

Other places I didn’t even notice during my stay – a gym and a swimming pool. Man, this place actually had everything!


(Image from Hampton Merced website)


(Image from Hampton Merced website)

Conclusion

All in all, I find Hampton to be a perfectly decent budget brand within the US Hilton portfolio. The property in Merced is pretty representative of the chain – it’s nothing luxurious, but does offer reliable quality at a relatively low price range, while continuing to chalk up points and stays/nights if you’re a Hilton member. Many are located in rural areas, so they’re probably best used for road trips, where you’re unlikely to spend too much time at the hotel anyway.

Hotel Review: The Majestic Yosemite Hotel


Majestic

I was pretty excited at the prospect of staying at the Majestic Yosemite Hotel – formerly known as the Ahwahnee Hotel, yet another National Historic Landmark. Located within Yosemite Valley itself, the place is far better situated than Big Trees Lodge for accessing the main attractions within the park.

It’s also a lot nicer – a (very brief) overview of the history of the place is that the first US Director of the National Parks Service, a businessman turned tree-hugger named Stephen Mather, thought up the idea of building a luxury hotel within the park to attract rich city folk over and fall in love with nature like he had, thus impressing upon these influential people the wonders of nature. Cue fund-raising.

I’m not quite the target audience he probably had in mind, but I was indeed impressed. The place is so iconic that the park rangers conduct (free) guided tours of the public areas. The Overlook Hotel from The Shining was also based on this property – it’s great knowing you’re staying at the hotel that inspired  the visual aesthetic of “Here’s Johnny!”.

A not-so-Majestic Entrance

When you first get to the vicinity of the hotel, you might start wondering where exactly the place is – it’s not particularly visible from the carpark (which is also near where the complimentary shuttle bus stops). As it turns out, the main entrance of the hotel was originally designed to be the side entrance – when siting the original main entrance, they hadn’t considered the pollution created by idling vehicles as passengers unloaded.

This design flaw was highlighted rather late, just days before the hotel opened, and thus a quick solution was effected by converting the existing side entrance and adding a long covered walkway to distance the rooms from vehicle-generated pollution.

The original main entrance thus opens instead to the property’s lawn, which is where the more impressive facade of the property can be viewed from.

Inside the Property

The heritage of the property is clearly a large part of its identity – old-looking plaques abound (even if they’re dated to the late 20th century, which isn’t really all that long ago…)

Upon reaching the property you step up to a really old-school lobby, decked with chandeliers (albeit electric ones) and all.

To the left, ye olde sweet shop for weary travellers to purchase sweet sugary pick-me-ups.

To the right, ye olde gift shop for refreshed travellers to part ways with more cash before heading home.

Somewhere behind the check-in counter is a dining reservations booth – I assume it’s manned at some part of the day, though I never noticed that happening during my stay. Apparently, this area was converted from old school bank counters – I’m guessing they once provided on-site banking services, before the day of the ATM?

Ye olde school post box, just opposite the dining reservations booth.

A large fireplace along the way… Not too sure if it’s still used during winter.

And a large indoor area where afternoon tea was served (we arrived too late to really enjoy it, unfortunately).

The (architectural) highlight for me was the magnificent dining room, with its intricate roof and grand scale. It’s what you might imagine an American (wild west) version of Harry Potter might look like, as opposed to the New York version that’s made it to the cinemas.

The Room

I was assigned to Room 601, one of the smallest rooms on the top floor of the property. Having booked the cheapest available class of room, that sounded about right.

The rooms on the sixth floor were all named – 601 was named after the property’s founder himself, and was a pretty nice room with a good view – wonder if it’s nicer than the average basic room? That’s the delusion I’m happy living with, anyway.

The king bed was large, clean and comfortable. No complaints from me.

It also came with a plush black bear, though unfortunately it cost extra to take home. Mine remained in the hotel room…

The room was equipped with a flat screen TV and all the technological wonders of the 20th century (read: crappy wifi).

Walk-in closet? Storeroom? Blurred lines.

The bathroom was, though a little on the small side, clean and functional.

I really enjoyed the provided Tarocco Sicilian Red Orange amenities, with its strong pleasant scent.

In one corner of the room was a small sitting area, right beside the room’s sole window. That window offered what was possibly the room’s best feature – the view.

It wasn’t perfect, but there was an almost-direct view of Half Dome – it was pretty awesome watching it turn orange around dusk right from the comfort of our own room. Too bad it was still partially obstructed!

 

Breakfast

Breakfast was, unfortunately, not included with the room rate. I was pretty keen to spend some time actually dining in the dining hall, so I made a reservation for breakfast (you can do this using OpenTable).

Breakfast was a full buffet affair, though it seemed somewhat unclassy to take pictures of the spread in a place like this, so I didn’t.

…or perhaps I simply forgot to document the full spread.

I’ve got some shots of sample plated offerings, though. The offerings aren’t too different from any typical western hotel buffet breakfast, but I did think the quality of the food was really good.

Ultimately, it’s still rather pricey, and ultimately you’re paying for the ambience; the delicious food serves as a pretty good consolation prize.

Around the Property

After breakfast we took a walk around the grounds. Just beside the lawn was the swimming pool – it’s rather small and not particularly conducive for swimming laps; probably better suited for families.

Walking further away from the main hotel towards the wooded areas brings you to the cottages, essentially the property’s private villas. They look pretty nice, but at an even higher price point I figured it made more sense to go for the cheaper option in the main (historical) building.

Still, looking at the beautiful scenery around the cottages, I kinda got the appeal.

After all, how often do you get to see wildlife scurrying around your backyard? It’s possibly quite a common for country-dwellers, but for the urbanites this property caters to, it’s a rather unique experience.

Conclusion

The Majestic Yosemite Hotel (née Ahwahnee Hotel) is undoubtably the swishest hotel located within Yosemite Park. Very frankly, you’re paying for the historicity and location – though it doesn’t quite match up to modern luxury hotels in many ways, it’s still pretty decent and offers a unique experience to be had in the midst of awesome natural beauty.

Penny-pinchers should consider staying somewhere cheaper and just doing the complimentary guided tour. Unfortunately, it’s owned by the U.S. Government and (I think) there’s pretty much no way to access it on cheap, but if you value such experiences it could make a worthwhile treat.

Hotel Review: Big Trees Lodge


Staying in Yosemite

When planning trips many months in advance, sometimes you make decisions without having done the full extent of research necessary for a well-informed decision. In this instance, it was initially planning to stay for only night in Yosemite National Park, sandwiching that between stays at the nearest Hilton property (Hampton Merced).

What my Singaporean brain failed to process was that a ‘park’ could be massively gigantic and that it was a 2h drive from Merced to Yosemite Valley (probably the most central part in Yosemite).

So, sometime closer to the actual trip, I started looking for a property within the park to stay in, focusing my search on national park properties and basically looking for whatever was available. I’m not the camping sort, and any of the properties book out months in advance (especially since I was visiting in summer), so my options were rather limited – I was probably looking for rooms made available through others’ cancellations.

The search yielded Big Trees Lodge, a property with a rather uninspiring-sounding name (though it’s formerly Wawona Hotel, a National Historic Landmark) with some rooms available. Beggars can’t be choosers, so I decided to just take whatever was available. It had the bonus advantage of being more moderately priced than the other hotel within the park I’d be staying at the next night.

Arriving

It was nearly dusk by the time we arrived at the property – at that time, there was a fair amount of parking available, mostly around the loop around a central fountain that leads up to the lodge’s main building.

This main building is where you check in, and it’s also where the dining room (essentially the restaurant) is located. We arrived pretty late and checked out quite early the next morning, so we never ate there. The building is also the only place on the property equipped with WiFi.

Upon checking in, we were given a map of the property – most of the rooms were actually located in cottages around the main building. Happily, we were assigned a room just a short walk away.

The Room

I’d mentioned earlier that this place is a National Historic Landmark – this becomes quite apparent when you step into the room.

I’d opted for a room with an ensuite bathroom – there were cheaper options where you had to go to a common toilet/shower. The bathroom wasn’t particularly large, but I thought it was worth the additional investment.

There’s also a walk-in closet with plenty of space for your luggage, should you be hauling trunks of stuff through Yosemite. Mine felt very empty in my one night there.

There’s also a door leading to an adjoining room, so it’s probably possible for families to request for two connected rooms with direct access.

It had been a relatively long drive up from San Francisco, so most of the stay was really spent catching up on rest.

The Grounds

After dawn broke, we spent some time taking a look around the property. We finally got to see Clark Cottage (where our room was) in the light of day.

There’re some chairs and a table just outside each room (on the porch) – it’s pretty relaxing just sitting there looking out at the trees. For awhile, anyway.

A short walk away from our cottage (also visible in the above image, actually) was the ‘swimming tank’, which looked pretty much like a normal swimming pool to me.

We ended up not exploring the property all that much since we’d wanted to explore the park instead, but I imagine that if you wanted an inexpensive property within the park to relax at over a few days, this one would do rather nicely.

 

Conclusion

I’m not usually a fan of quaint and old hotels, but I suppose the location of the property changes that attitude somewhat. When staying in the middle of all that nature, quaint old lodging with minimal internet connectivity becomes rather… well, natural.

The location is still a little far (almost an hour’s drive) from Yosemite Valley, though – if I had a choice I might go for the more centrally-located Yosemite Valley Lodge instead, especially if not that much time will actually be spent indoors.

Hotel Review: Parc 55 San Francisco


Location

I’d planned to stay a few nights (four, to optimise the Citi Prestige 4th night free benefit) and was looking for a central location to base myself for the duration – it turned out that Hilton had not just one, but two properties in the Union Square area which fit my needs – Parc 55 and Hilton San Francisco Union Square.

The two properties seem to be under the same management, even, since their websites actually cross-referenced each other (referring potential customers over should one property be full, I imagine).

FlyerTalk seemed to lack consensus over which was superior so I ended up choosing the one with the fancier name. It’s also right across the street from a BART station which made it really easy to take the train directly from the airport.

FlyerTalk also made much about the number of homeless in the area (especially if you walk the wrong way), which could make staying here rather unpleasant – I found this to be somewhat true, but found this to be rather true of the city in general. All in all, it was centrally located and very well-situated for exploring the city.

The Room

I was given a corner room on level 25, which seemed to be slightly larger than the typical room (though still smaller than a suite).

On entering the room you’re greeted to a narrow corridor (toilet to the left, with a high window on the right).

The room’s relatively spacious; plenty of room to lay out multiple pieces of luggage.

I did rather like the large windows all around the room, offering a good semi-panoramic view of the city around the building.

I found it rather pleasant to be able to sit at the desk with views of the city right in front of me; if you happen to be trying to get some work done in the afternoon the brightness would be rather annoying, though.

The toilet was clean, a little old, but generally unremarkable.

Breakfast

Unfortunately, Parc 55 gets flak for offering really sucky breakfast options for Gold members. It seems that all you get is a coffee and a pastry at a cafe. As a Diamond you get it slightly better, since you get access to continental breakfast at the restaurant, with the option to top up US$10 per person to enjoy the hot food.

I thought the continental offerings were adequate,  especially since they had prosciutto wraps in that section.

 

I also enjoyed the range of fruit available – I particularly enjoyed having access to copious amounts of strawberries.

All in all, I found breakfast serviceable but rather lacklustre, especially if you’re used to what’s usually on offer at Asian Hilton properties.

Conclusion

A San Francisco property with a great central location, Parc 55’s breakfast offerings are rather disappointing for the Gold/Diamond Hilton guest. If I were to do this again I think I might opt for the Hilton San Francisco Financial District instead – it’s a little further off, but still central enough with better complimentary breakfast offerings (or so I’ve read). In the worst case, it’s right at the doorstep of Chinatown, so affordable breakfast options would be just a short walk away…

California Dreamin’: Singapore Airlines Business Class SIN-SFO / SFO-SIN

  • California Dreamin’: A Tale of Going West
  • Singapore Airlines Business Class SIN-SFO / SFO-SIN (A350)
  • Parc 55 San Francisco – A Hilton Hotel
  • Big Trees Lodge
  • The Majestic Yosemite Hotel
  • Hampton Inn & Suites Merced, or Just About Any Hampton in the States
  • Hilton San Diego Airport Harbor Island Hotel
  • The Comic-Con Experience
  • Virgin Airlines Business Class SAN-SFO (A319)

SilverKris Lounge SIN T3

You would think that I’d have spent more time cataloguing the T3 business class lounge – however, perhaps because it’s my home city, I’m usually not too excited about using the lounges in Changi Airport. There’re also plenty of excellent reviews already out there, like this one on the Shutterwhale.

That said, I’m not too good for some free laksa. The one offered in the SilverKris lounge is pretty good – the ability to vary the ratio of ingredients is always welcome.

Overall, though, I find the food offerings to be rather lacklustre (sacrilege, I know!). Again, this might be a home city thing – why settle for dry, rubbery chwee kueh when I can get it cheaply at the coffee shops near home?

When situated in a foodie paradise, I think the lounge could afford to up its game when offering dining options to well-heeled premium travellers (also, by extension, undeserving travel hackers like myself). Case in point – why stock maple flavoured syrup? Is genuine maple syrup too pricey?

I’m not particularly bothered by it myself, but given SIA’s image and price point, I’d have thought there’d be greater investment into maintaining an image of using the very best.

The Hardware

Perhaps some of my disenchantment with the lounge came from my excitement to get onboard the aircraft. Having previously sat in (and been impressed by) economy class on an SQ A350, I was pretty eager to get in the air and enjoy business class on the 15h journey to SFO.

Welcome drinks were served shortly after boarding. I opted for champagne; since I know next to nothing about alcohol (oh hey I like fizzy drinks let’s get this expensive-sounding drink) I can’t comment too much beyond… err, it was nice, I guess. I assume it’s the same Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve that was listed in their menu.

The seat isn’t too different from any other recent SQ business class seat, which isn’t a bad thing. Plenty of space, pretty comfortable.

I’m not a big fan of the design of the foot rest (most likely requiring you to lie/sit diagonally), but it wasn’t too bad; still plenty comfy.

Plenty of storage space for your miscellaneous items throughout the flight. TV screen is great.

The SQ app now allows you to pair your mobile device to your in-flight entertainment system for use as an additional controller – it’s an interesting feature, though hardly necessary, I think.

What I found more impressive/useful was the ability to plug in your personal devices via HDMI and view media on the screen. Yes, the airline’s invested in building up a library of relatively current TV shows and movies for you to browse; but if you’ve got other stuff on hand you’d rather watch, why not do so in style? (particularly useful since it’s quite possible to get tired of the SQ library after 2x 15h flights.)

The seat is relatively easily converted into the lie-flat bed mode – I did struggle for awhile, but once I figured out the unlatching mechanism (which I’ve since forgotten, unfortunately) it was easy enough to handle on my own, which is great since I’m not really a fan of relying on (and waiting for) cabin crew to assist with setup, as is the case on Suites.

Amenities

I actually received one of those 70th anniversary amenity kits with Laundress products (mine was the black version) when flying out of Singapore. I thought it was an interesting concept, though it’s still not really stuff I’d really use. Make a nice gift, though.

Other than that, you do get the usual slippers, socks and eye mask as well.

The Food

The menu cover was branded for the 70th anniversary – despite the branding, I didn’t see all that much local fare like chicken rice that they were supposed to be offering (think the only item offered char siew rice on my outbound trip, which I didn’t get in the end).

I’ll be showcasing the meals from the return journey as well, so this section will probably just make me look like a glutton. We begin with cauliflower and smoked gouda soup, lobster thermidor (via Book the Cook) and a Meneghina doughnut.

For the mid-flight meal I tried the spice coated smoked egg (not a fan) and pan-seared salmon fillet.

Somewhere along the way (I can’t remember when) I got this prawn skewer. It was surprisingly large, although I did wonder why I was never offered the signature satay on both legs of the flight.

From SFO-SIN my first meal comprised the smoke duck, lamb biryani and two desserts (because YOLO) – Gotham “pineapple” (why the quote marks, SQ menu?) and petite patisserie.

Because I thought I should try out their mid-flight snack as well, I requested for chicken kway teow as well. It was surprisingly good.

Salt baked chicken for my final meal on the return flight – thought this one was rather meh.

Generally, I found the worst meal to be merely mediocre (as opposed to actually bad) but generally I was pleased with the offerings and didn’t feel like too much stomach space was being wasted on undeserving calories. That might not sound like much, but we’re talking airline food here and I think SQ offers pretty good in-flight catering on business class (at least, for the Singaporean palate).

Conclusion

As air travellers, we live in a rather privileged era – it was an absolutely surreal experience being able to step onto a plane in Singapore and alight at San Francisco just 15 hours later (and vice versa). It’s still a long flight (aside – I was reminded of a YouTube video I’d watched explaining why air travel hasn’t been getting any faster – essentially, lowering cost has been a bigger priority than increasing speed), and when you want to grab some shut-eye along the way you might start feeling grateful to be in a lie-flat business class seat (flying SQ, no less) and infinitely thankful that strategic credit card spend allows you to access such luxuries relatively affordably.

In my opinion, if you are interested in taking a trip to the US (non-stop flights to LA and NYC are supposed to be on the cards for 2018) this is possibly one of the best uses of airlines miles available, allowing you to simultaneously minimise travel time while enjoying a luxurious experience, enabling you to arrive at your destination fresh and ready to embark on your vacation.