Monday, September 26, 2011

Hilton Q4 Promo: Fast Ways to Free Stays

Hilton just announced their Q4 promo and it looks to be a good one. Summary as follows:
  • Get 1 free night for every 4 stays/10 nights OR
  • Opt for double points after your 4th stay or 10 nights.

Some key points to take note of:
  • There is no limit to the number of free nights you can earn.
  • The free night is only valid for 6 months after the voucher is generated. 
  • Once you signed up for either the free night or double points option, you cannot change that option mid way.
  • There is a long list of hotels who are not participating in this promo. This hotels are mostly in the US but there are some international locations.
  • There are some rates that do not qualify for this promo. One example would be the "PR13CB" code which I used for the Christmas trip back to Kuching. Wasted a stay here.

The natural question right now would be to whether opt for the free night or double points option. This would depend on everyone's unique situation. For example, if you have long stays at relatively expensive locations, I would opt for the double points. Conversely, if you have a bunch of short stays at cheaper options, it would make more sense for the free nights with the caveat that you can use them in the next 6 months.

This promo would make a good mattress run sense in Q4 if you have a cheap hotel in the Hilton family that you can stay in. An example would be to stay at a $100/night Embassy Suites and after 4 stays, you earn a one free night voucher where you could use at say Conrad Bora Bora, Koh Samui or Maldives where the room rates are about $600 giving you a savings of about $200.

Personally, I am going for the free nights. I have two stays for a trip to Brisbane in December and adding a couple of mattress runs back home in Kuching, I would earn that one free night which we plan to use at Koh Samui or Bora Bora. The question I am pondering is whether to make some more trips that I really don't need to make to Kuala Lumpur and/or Phuket to get another free night. Kinda wish there was a Hilton in Penang.......

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Almaty Adventure: ALA - FRA on Lufthansa First Class

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If there was one part of the trip we could redo, this would be it. For those who are following this trip report for advice on Almaty (I believe there are a few who are flying to Almaty thanks to the "no YQ fare"), please heed the following advice:
  • If you're traveling on the Lufthansa flight that leaves at ~3am in the morning, don't be a cheapskate (like us) and pay for another night.
  • Do NOT get to the airport early. You should be okay if you show up ~1.5 - 2 hours before the flight. It's also an easy 20-30 minute ride to the airport at that time. 
Since our flight was scheduled to depart at  the ungodly hour of 3.30 am in the morning, we paid half a day rate for the late check out at 6pm. We walked around Almaty, had cake and coffee and dinner before running out of things to do to kill time. We spent the rest of the evening back in the hotel lobby using the free Wifi and more coffee. The pre-arranged hotel airport transport (~$50 USD for both of us) promptly picked us up at midnight and 20 minutes later, we were at the airport.

We got to the airport way too early. The check-in counters for Lufthansa were not opened yet and similar to airports in Colombo and India, we were told to wait in the waiting outside the check-in area. We made our way to some empty seats and killed time with what would be a common theme for the rest of the night - Angry Birds!

Angry birds - Good way to kill time!
The check in counters finally open about 2 hours before departure. Check in was prompt and we tagged our bags all the way to Hong Kong. Getting through immigration however ended being a slight adventure. The immigration agent in their limited English wanted to know where our final destination would be and whether we needed visas for Germany. Did they like us so much that they didn't want us to leave Almaty? Guess they don't see too many Malaysians flying on Lufthansa?

The Almaty departure hall was a dump. It's small for one thing for seating is limited. In comparison, I would guess that the B1-B4 departure hold rooms at Changi is even bigger. We quickly found our way to the only business lounge in the airport and with no one manning it, we simply walked in and parked our butts on the sofas that must have been form the 80s. The lounge was simply underwhelming - no internet and there was a counter where I think the drinks and food would have to be paid. There was no Lufthansa staff around to bitch on this so we just spent the rest of the time playing Angry Birds and browsing the magazines. We did see some other Lufthansa passengers walking in but they quickly just walked out.




Almaty Adventure: Destination Almaty - The Surprise

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It so happened that it was my birthday when we were in Almaty. I wasn't planning on any big celebration since the trip itself was already a celebration in my mind. I was completely caught by surprise when we stepped in our room at the Saltanat to first notice a what I thought was a larger room than what I had booked. I was then perplexed as to why there was a chilled bottle of champange on the desk in the room. Lydia laughed immediately when I jokingly asked if the champange was on the house.
hmm.. what's the champange doing there?
Imagine my shock when I went up close to the desk and saw the note up-front:

Lydia had apparently contacted the hotel ahead of time and arranged all of this! This was the best birthday surprise ever. Totally unexpected and was one of the highlights of our trip. How many can say that they celebrated their birthday with a surprise in Almaty :)

If that wasn't enough, the hotel decided to throw in another surprise (which Lydia herself wasn't expecting). About 15 minutes after we arrived in the room, we heard a knock on the door and in comes a trolley with the birthday cake!
Thanks to my amazing wife for the surprise and to the staff at the Saltanat hotel that made this such a memorable birthday! Did I forget to mention the upgrades, champange, cake, etc were all complimentary?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Almaty Adventure: Destination Almaty - The Hotels

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We stayed for 4 days and nights in Almaty. Instead of just staying in one hotel, we ended up splitting the stays to 2 hotels - Astra Hotel for the first 3 nights and World Hotel Saltanet for a splurge and to take advantage of the hotels.com free night offer.

Hotels (as with most things) in Almaty are extremely expensive! Astra Hotel which was a mediocre 3 star hotel costs about ~$100 USD a night. On the high end of things, we paid ~$200 USD a night for World Hotel Saltanet which was a 4.5-5 star business hotels. Other hotels that we researched like the Holiday Inn and Intercontinental costs between $250 to $400 USD a night.

Astra Hotel
The room itself was the size of a typical Ibis/budget hotel and seemed pretty new. The carpets were slightly stained and dirty but other than that, the room was pretty clean. The bed however was too soft and it was hard to sleep when one of us was tossing around in bed. There was a flat screen TV in the room but there was only one English channel. It was a "unique" experience watching shows like CSI which were dubbed over in Russian.

There was also a gym and small pool in the basement but it was pretty grungy so we didn't use it the whole time we were there. The good thing about the hotel was that there was free internet (which was pretty fast) and the breakfast was decent. Would recommend the hotel to those on a budget if you can take the soft beds.

Hotel Lobby

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Almaty Adventure: Destination Almaty - The Food

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There are many restaurants with a large variety of cuisine ranging from Kazakh, Chinese, Indian, etc in Almaty although some might not have an English menu. Interestingly, there is a KFC and Pizza Hut but no McDonalds in Almaty. Prices for eating out is on the expensive end with prices similar to what you find in Europe and the US. We had all our breakfasts in the hotels since it was included in the rate and lunch was included on the days we took the tour. 

Picnic by the lake
The most interesting and unique meal we had was when we visited a traditional Kazakh restaurant at Kok Tobe Hill. This was at the end of the city tour so we had our guide with us and she did a great job in ordering and explaining the food to us.To most of the world, horse meat is a delicacy but in Kazakhstan, it's everyday meat and actually preferred to other meats since it is leaner and supposedly much healthier. We definitely liked the horse meat and tasted like a very lean and flavorful piece of beef. We also had for the first time, camel and horse milk which was an acquired taste. We did finish our bowl of milk but let's just say it's not on our drinks to order next time the opportunity arises. 
Kazakh Restaurant

Fried Bread and Horse Sausages

Kazakh Noodles & Boiled Meats (includes Horse!)

Almaty Adventure: Destination Almaty - The Attractions

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We stayed for 4 days and nights in Almaty. We researched on the internet before the trip and ended up hiring a guide from City Tours for about ~$600 USD for both of us 3 of the days to take us on a city tour, Charyn Canyon and Issyk Lake. $600 USD is not cheap but decided against trying to figure it out by ourselves would be too difficult due to the lack of English speakers. It turned out to be a good decision as the tours were pretty good especially the excursion to Issyk Lake due to having a really good guide that went above and beyond by explaining the history, culture and background of Kazakhstan.

The city tour was your "typical" run of the mill city tour showing the highlights and monuments of the city like Panfilov Park, Medeu Gorge and Kok Tobe Hill. The excursion to Charyn Canyon was underwhelming due to maybe unfair comparisons to the Grand Canyon and it took a good 3 hours on a bumpy road to get there. We did however really enjoy the trip to Issyk Lake. The lake was blue and clean and it was really nice to get some clean air and hike/walk around the lake. I was definitely interested in coming back to Kazakhstan to visit other lakes for some camping and hiking!

Panfilov Park:

Ascension Cathedral
Memorial Flame

Heroes Monument

Almaty Adventure: Destination Almaty - Impressions

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Let me first debunk the generalized misconceptions of Kazakhstan. Before we arrived in Almaty, there were some concern from both of us - is it like the movie Borat? Is the country safe? How modern or backward in the country? After  4 days in Almaty, it was nothing like we what we thought it to be. Almaty was a modern city with pretty good road infrastructure, layout and is even less chaotic then cities like Bangalore or even Penang. Almaty feels more so like any city in Europe than Asia. People were well dressed and  there were probably more Porsches, Hummers, Mercedes and Ferraris than in Penang!


The weather when we there was also very nice. The sun was out and the temperature was a cool ~20 Celcius which reminded us of our trip Melbourne in Australia. We also felt pretty safe walking the streets of Almaty and we didn't meet police officers who might have wanted to check our visas or ask for a bribe.

People who we met and interacted with in Almaty were also very nice, helpful and friendly. This could be as our tour guide explain was part of their Kazakh and nomadic culture where they would graciously except guests. At some restaurants, there would be no English menu and only basic English was spoken but they patiently explained the menu.

Things were slightly "different" however outside Almaty. There are no highways per se and the roads can get pretty bumpy in some places. The biggest adventure ended up being visiting the toilets or more descriptively a shack containing a hole in the floor. If you think porta-portys are nasty, wait till you experience those in Almaty. Our advice would be to hold it in unless you REALLY have to go.

Out of the city
The "Shack"
In spite of some of the difficulties, we would recommend visiting Almaty or Kazakhstan for those looking for a off the beaten path kind of holiday. The hiking and outdoors are spectacular and again, the people are extremely friendly. It wouldn't surprise me that in the years to come, this could be the next tourist hot spot once the infrastructure improves which is not too difficult considering the country is pretty wealthy with all the oil reserves.



Monday, September 12, 2011

Review: Matsu, Lone Pine Hotel, Penang

We were up in Batu Ferringhi, Penang a couple of weeks ago showing some friend and relative around, when we came across this promotion at Matsu, Lone Pine Hotel. They are currently having this “All You Can Eat Ala Carte Menu Selection” promotion on every Wednesday for Aug and Sept. It also comes with free flow of Sake or Shochu.

We've been to Lone Pine a couple of times before but as the restaurant is on the first floor of the hotel we had no idea how it looked like. When we got there we were amazed to see the sleek and modern interior d├ęcor. We love the restaurant setting which is chic and comfortable. 

As we had made a reservation in advance we were seated in the restaurant where we dine in the comfort of  the air-conditioned room. We saw that the place was quite packed with a lot of diners sitting outside on the balcony in the hot humid weather, we were glad we made reservation in advance. 

After being shown to our table and ordered our first round of sake the waitress left us to browse through the menu. After waiting for like the longest time (as we were quite hungry) the waitress was back to take our orders from the ala carte menu. The service that night was definitely not as per expected. The staff seemed overwhelmed and rushing and that's one of our pet peeves when visiting a pretty high-end restaurant. We would expect the staff to be calm and not rushing.

Matsu described itself as a Japanese charcoal grill restaurant and we were surprise to see that they really do grill their food over charcoal in the kitchen. Impressed! We ordered one of the “charcoal grilled” dish, the lamb and it was delicious. There's also a buffet line consisting of salads, fried rice, noodles and my favorite - fried Salmon heads! Some of the food we tried:

Some stuff from the buffet

Sashimi

Sushis

Agedashi Tofu

Scallops

More Sashimi

Teriyaki Chicken

Mushroom Tempura

Dessert - Green Tea Cake
Overall, the choices of food was pretty extensive and presentation of the food was good. However, the taste of the food itself was just okay and definitely not the best Japanese food that we had. None of the dishes were outstanding and mineblowing. With the food being mediocre and overall service needing improvement, we don't think we'll be trying the buffet again but might return for their ala-carte options.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Almaty Adventure: FRA - ALA on Lufthansa First Class

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We took the cab (~25 Euro) instead of the train back (7.90 Euro) to Frankfurt airport figuring it would be nice to experience what a First Class check-in experience would be like through the First Class Terminal and were not too keen about lugging about bags to and from the train station. The cab ride took only ~20 minutes from the hotel and before we knew it, we arrived at the FCT. We were met at the door by a Lufthansa staff with our luggage promptly collected.  Another 2-3 minutes to verify our flights on the computer and to pass through security, we were inside the terminal and having breakfast. Talk about efficient – no lines, TSA and long walks!
"Check-in" Area

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Almaty Adventure: Frankfurt Layover

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This would be our second time in Frankfurt but our first time actually heading to town having just stayed in the Lufthansa FCT for 6 hours during our first visit. We headed to town using the S-bahn from the airport. It was pretty easy - follow the signs to the trains in Concourse B terminal 1, buy tickets from the ticket machine choosing the "Frankfurt City" option in the menu (English available) and 20-30 minutes later, we were at the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof or Main Central Station.

From the train station, it was 15 minute walk to the Main River where our hotel Ibis Frankfurt Centrum was located. The hotel was good value for money especially those on a budget. The rooms were slightly bigger than what I expected for an Ibis, the beds were REALLY comfortable and the good location right by the river and a 20 minute walk to Romerberg.




Monday, September 5, 2011

Almaty Adventure: ICN - FRA on Asiana First Class

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I'd like to begin this part of the trip report that Asiana First Class lived up to the hype and expectations. It was definitely a WOW experience on our part. The service both on the ground and in the air was outstanding. The food in flight was one of the best we have eaten and being a lover of Asian food, it was comforting to be able to have a good warm bowl of rice in flight. The only slight disappointment was the quality of champange (no Dom here) but I did try a really good glass of Grand Cru.

As expected, there was no line in the first class check-in counters. We were promptly checked in and told that we would be the only ones in the first class cabin today. We were then escorted to the staff entrance of the security check point where again, there was no line. As this was our first time flying out of ICN, we browsed through the airport and duty free before proceeding to the first class lounge.



Sunday, September 4, 2011

Friday, September 2, 2011

Almaty Adventure: HKG - ICN on Asiana Business Class

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After a good morning run on Avenue of the Stars and a good breakfast of noodles and porridge, we headed back to the airport on the bus. We got to the airport before the Asiana counters were open and just browsed around the shops in the terminal while waiting for the counters to open.
Hazy day in HKG

Saying hello to Bruce.
After being promptly checked in, we headed first to the Singapore Airlines Krisflyer lounge (instead of the Asiana contracted CNAC lounge). This was our first time visiting after the renovation a couple of years ago that merged the first and business class lounges together. The lounge has plenty of space with a large area with provided computers and an eating area. The food and drinks in this lounge was pretty good – love the beef brisket and champagne! The one major area of disappointment with this lounge was that there were no toilets or showers (similar disappointment in the Krisflyer lounges in Singapore) – not sure what SQ management is thinking of not having toilets in their lounges. 

Entrance
Food Area

Light snack

Computer Area

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Almaty Adventure: Hong Kong Layover

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We stayed at the Novotel Nathan Road in Kowloon, Hong Kong for our one night layover in Hong Kong. The hotel is easily accessible from the airport via public bus A21 and getting of the #10 stop. The hotel is located in the Jordan area giving easy access to the plenty of restaurants and shopping. The Jordan MTR is also a 5 minute walk away which would give easy and cheap access to other parts of Hong Kong.

As Aclub Gold member, we were upgraded to a room on the Premier Floor but none of the benefits like the breakfast, internet and use of the lounge that would typically come with the room. We were also provided vouchers for a free welcome drink at the hotel bar which included house wine, beer or soft drinks.


Hotel Bar

Welcome Drinks