I’m pretty sure I could write “Go to Helsinki” and feel like I covered the most important part of this blog post. It really is a beautiful, beautiful city. Particularly in early August. Our entire summer trip this year was more or less built around Helsinki and a great price Tony found on a KLM business class flight to/from Toronto. With Helsinki mapped out as a main destination on our trip, everything else fell in to place, including Tony’s decision to sign up for his first marathon.
Tony has been running for years, becoming more serious about it in the last several years. He ran his first official half marathon in February 2016 up in Ras Al Khaimah and I think that very positive experience planted the seed of interest in him to sign up for a full marathon. With the dates aligning well for the Helsinki City Marathon, its like it was meant to be.
Originally we had booked at Airbnb for our stay in Helsinki but it was cancelled just before we left Abu Dhabi in early July. Luckily, Tony was able to book us in to stay at the Klaus K Hotel on points thanks to our Starwood membership. The location of the hotel was great, but otherwise we had a rather underwhelming stay at the hotel. I don’t have anything overtly negative to complain about, but the room was small (even by European standards) and the customer service was lack luster. Still, as I said it was a great location and for that we were grateful, especially considering the city was largely booked well in advance for this marathon weekend.
Jet lag hit us pretty hard in Helsinki. It was a 6 hour time difference from Toronto, and there’s just not a great way to get over that quickly. The first day there, Matteo and I slept until nearly 1:30 pm! Tony was up at 11 am, with some effort, but since it was Thursday and the marathon was on Saturday, I admit having some worries about how jet lag would affect Tony come race day. He remained optimistic and concentrated on getting quality rest when he could, and eating well in preparation.
The marathon didn’t begin until 3 pm which meant that the jet lag wasn’t as big a problem as I’d been expecting. Matteo and I joined Tony down at the starting line, cheering as the race began. The 14 km mark wasn’t far from our hotel so we made a plan to see him there too (scheduling it based on his expected km/minute time) before we made our way down to the finish to cheer him some more. It was such a cool thing for Matteo and I to watch Tony succeed in this marathon, after months of training and preparation. While Matteo is too young to vocalize it, his excitement as he cheered for his daddy as he crossed the finish line was absolute magic. Such a special moment for our family!
With the marathon complete, we had most of the day Sunday to relax and enjoy the city before we flew out Sunday evening for our next stop on the trip — Budapest, Hungary. Though our time there was relatively short, Helsinki made its mark on us and would definitely be a preferred repeat destination for the future. Clean, walkable, friendly and safe — it was everything we had hoped it would be.
We are back home in Abu Dhabi after a really great travel day last week. On Thursday morning, Tony packed up and left Geneva for Paris. He booked our flights on points and for our return flight there was not reward availability for all three of us to book the direct flight Geneva to Abu Dhabi. Instead Tony booked two business class seats on that flight for Matteo and I, and then booked a three leg flight path for himself that would take him home by going Geneva back to Paris, then to Doha, Qatar where he would have a 7 hour layover before flying to Abu Dhabi on Qatar Airlines. Tony genuinely enjoys flying and had not yet flown on Qatar Airlines so he was excited for the chance to check it out — especially since he was able to book first class seats for the latter two legs of the trip.
Tony left in the morning, leaving Matteo and I the majority of the day to pack and relax. Our flight was at 8:30 pm, so there was no rush to get to the airport. Our Airbnb host kindly let us move check out from the default 11 am until 4 pm — which we greatly appreciated! We were lucky that there was not another guest scheduled to come in on the same day. I scheduled an Uber to pick us up from the apartment shortly after 4pm and Matteo and I made our way to Geneva International Airport.
The airport was very busy with holiday travelers, but we found the staff kind and professional. Because we were so early for our flight, we had to wait for about an hour before we could even get in line to check our suitcase with Etihad, but we passed the time as best we could. Matteo hung out in his stroller (we still love our City Mini!) and watched some downloaded episodes on his iPad while we waited. Once it hit 5:30, three hours before our flight, we were able to check in for our flight, make our way through security, and go to the lounge to wait. The lounge had light snacks and beverages, wifi, comfy chairs and bite sized swiss chocolates that kept Matteo happy while we waited.
When we got to our gate to board our flight, we were quickly called for boarding. Upon giving our boarding passes to be scanned, the Etihad employee asked me to step aside as they needed to print new boarding passes for us. I just reminded them that I was traveling with a minor and asked that they make sure our seats were together — he double checked the computer, smiled, and let me know that our seats were still together, but we were being upgraded from business class to first class.
I was so excited! I knew the flight wasn’t sold out, and even though I’ve heard of frequent fliers being upgraded before, I’d never experienced it for myself. This was a great flight for it too — I was flying by myself with a 4 year old, and it was an overnight flight where the added comfort meant a far better chance for sleep. When we boarded the plane, we excitedly checked out the first class cabin. Matteo and I definitely got some skeptical and worried looks from fellow first class passengers, and I totally understood as we all know that a small child can be a wild card on a flight. I was so proud, though, as he quickly showed his skills as a frequent flyer. He sat down, fastened his seatbelt, enjoyed a water and a cookie, and was asleep before the plane even took off.
I stayed awake longer than I would have had I not been seated in first class, but I wanted to experience it! The Etihad service is phenomenal — kind and attentive. They were so helpful with Matteo too. Noticing that he was already asleep, a flight attendant grabbed me right after take off (when the crew is up and moving, but passengers are required to remain seated) so that we could recline Matteo’s sleep in to the bed position and get his sheets and blankets right away. I thought that was so kind! It worked too — Matteo was asleep from before take off until I had to wake him upon descent in to Abu Dhabi airport.
Longer trips are definitely harder on Matteo now as compared to when he was younger. We arrived last Friday morning, and as I write this on Wednesday morning we are still struggling to get him in bed before 11 pm Abu Dhabi time — and we are only dealing with a 3 hour time change between here and Paris/Geneva. Thankfully, we still have until January 8th before Matteo has to go back to school, so there’s still time to adjust. Getting back in to the routine of school will be great for him — he is really missing his friends.
It is always nice to be home, but made even more so as we returned to Abu Dhabi at its prime season — lovely mild weather and tourists everywhere. To our family and friends who are/will/might consider a trip here — whether to visit us or not — this is the time of year to do it! It is gorgeous!
We don’t have any trips booked yet for 2017, but have some ideas we’re working through and will be excited to share them as they are booked. For now, we’re ready to enjoy January here in Abu Dhabi, and plan to do some activities here as we enjoy the city that will be bursting with tourists for the next few months.
A fan/reader (ahem, my sister — hi Jules!) suggested I write a post all about travel favorites/memories from the year 2016. I loved the idea and think its a great way to reflect back on such a fun year.
So here goes, all answers are 2016 travel specific:
What was your favorite city/location?
Tony: After thinking about it silently for a few moments, he finally settled on the Scottish Highlands. He was debating between there and Paris.
Jen: Same answer for me, the Highlands! It was just otherworldly, misty and cool, green and lush. I’m sure it helped that we visited in the summer and stayed at an amazing Airbnb. Also, Paris was a close second. We had great weather for the end of December and really loved the beauty of the city at Christmas time.
Where/what was the best meal?
Tony: KöD Copenhagen. The meal was a splurge, but was so worth it! The steaks were fantastic.
Jen: I loved the fantastic breakfast I had in Paris at a cafe called The Hardware Société. I don’t know if its just because I was so hungry, or the excitement of being out and about exploring on our first day in Paris, but the breakfast blew me away. All of the food in Paris was fantastic.
Most memorable travel moment?
Tony: The chance to fly in the Etihad first class apartment to and from London in the spring. A once in a lifetime experience — made possible through the wonders of booking on points!
Jen: I know it will sound silly to some, but I really loved my morning exploring the Guerlain Perfumery on the Champs Elysses in Paris. It was amazing! So amazing, that even though I was there just to look, I ended up going back two days later and purchasing a bottle of their perfume, one who’s scent I couldn’t stop thinking about. For a beauty lover like myself, exploring that store with decades and decades of beauty indulgence was perfection.
Most kid friendly location?
Tony: Amsterdam. We didn’t go out and do too much because of the terribly jet lag, but overall there was a lot to do with kids.
Jen: The USA is what first came to mind — mostly because Matteo had the chance to play with family, specifically cousins who shared their toys! Non-family trips though, I think my answer is Copenhagen. I felt like we could take Matteo pretty much anywhere with us, the Danes were very friendly, and the city itself felt very accessible with a stroller. They also had a GREAT children’s exploratorium/museum. None of the locations we visited were outlandishly unfriendly for kids — the worst was probably Malaysia as the time change/food choices were rough for him.
Where do you want to go next?
Tony: When I asked him this, I got an audible sigh back. He hates hypothetical questions! But with a little prodding, he answered with this list: The Balkans, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Zanzibar, stating that they are all currently on his travel hacking radar.
Jen: Croatia and Iceland are at the top of my wish list, with New Zealand not far behind. I would also welcome another trip to France, maybe in warm weather and venture out in to the countryside this time.
On Monday the 26th, we packed up our things and prepared to leave Paris. The second stop on our Christmas vacation was Geneva, Switzerland.
Tony booked tickets on the high speed railway, leaving Paris and arriving in Geneva in just about 3 hours. The train made for a very comfortable trip! It was so fun to watch the scenery change from the city of Paris, to a more industrial area, to finally countryside for the remainder of the trip. According to the screen at the back of the train car, the majority of the trip was travelled at 290 km/hour.
We arrived at the train station in Geneva on time and ready to make our way to the Airbnb. While we had good weather for Paris in late December, much of the trip was under gray skies so it was a welcome change to see sunshine and blue skies staring at us. Our Airbnb host had told us which tram to take to get to her place, a short 10 minute ride away.
The airbnb Tony selected from this trip is one of my favorites (nothing can beat the renovated Oak Mill in the Highlands, though!). It is far larger than I was expecting for a centrally located city apartment. Well decorated and comfortable, with a better than average stocked kitchen for a vacation rental, I knew we would feel right at home here. Matteo was so happy to have a place to run around and play, and a HUGE bathtub to enjoy too.
As tends to be the case, after a week of traveling Matteo was starting to feel fatigued, so our time in Geneva has been far more relaxed and slower paced than Paris — which is fine, because its a much smaller city. We have taken advantage of the opportunity to simply wander the streets of this picturesque city — taking in the natural beauty that surrounds it. It reminds both of us a bit of both Salzburg and Innsbruck, Austria though has a distinct charm that is all its own. The not-as-big city feel is always my preference, so of course I’ve spent the last several days dreaming about what it would be like to live here.
Today is our travel day. Our flights home were booked on award points, and unfortunately there wasn’t availability for all three of us to fly direct from Geneva to Abu Dhabi, so while Matteo and I will take that flight this evening and arrive early Friday morning, Tony will first fly back to Paris and then have a layover in Doha, Qatar before landing in Abu Dhabi mid day on Friday. I don’t love that we’ll be traveling separated, but it is what it is — I am glad that we’re all flying on points rather than $$ (thanks travel hacking!)
Once back in Abu Dhabi, we’ll welcome the New Year before Tony returns to work on the 2nd. Matteo has more time off, as school doesn’t start until the 8th for students. I’m hoping to plan some play dates for him next week as he greatly misses his friends from his class.
It’s been a wonderful Christmas vacation. Two weeks in Europe — we feel so lucky! Of course, this is what we had in mind when pursuing and accepting the position in Abu Dhabi, and that has meant sacrificing time with our family and friends in the US, whom we certainly missed over the holidays. Lots of love to you all — we’re excited to see everyone in summer 2017!
Abu Dhabi to London is neither a quick nor easy flight by most people’s standards with about 8 hours in flight time from runway to runway. It certainly seems out of the way to go for an extended weekend break. Thanks to the world of airlines miles and points traveling, though, this route can be a once in a lifetime experience on its own even without experiencing the destination. Having just returned from 4 nights in London, I can easily say that this trip served as a wonderful reminder of why we started earning miles and points and got into this travel hacking game in the first place.
For 40,000 American Airlines miles each way and about $350 in taxes I was able to find availability to experience the most luxurious and private cabin in air travel booking the Etihad A380 “apartment” in the sky en route to London to watch Chelsea take on Stoke City on March 5. My trip began Thursday morning with a 9:00 am departure and finished on Monday night with an 8:30 pm arrival back into Abu Dhabi from Heathrow. In between I was able to explore London, get a taste of a real winter, take in a Chelsea match, and take a day trip to Birmingham to visit some friends.
The travel expereince began early on Thursday morning as I was greeted with a chauffeur at my apartment, picking me up in an Audi A4 — this pick up service is complimentary for all premium cabin passengers traveling aboard Etihad. After a quick 10-minute ride to the airport, I was greeted curb side with a luggage porter who quickly grabbed my bags and escorted me to the private business/first class check in in Etihad’s dedicated Abu Dhabi Terminal. At the first class check-in counter there was at least a dozen agents in the lobby and I was the only guest. I was quickly greeted, offered a new boarding pass, and then escorted the 25 steps to a dedicated passport control agent. Before I knew it, I was past security and on my way to the Etihad premium lounge.
The lounge itself was large and fairly crowded, but there was plenty of space to stretch out, relax, and order an omlette. First class passengers were given a roped off area in the lounge offering more privacy and were also offered a complimentary treatment at the lounge’s Six Senses Massage facility — including the option of a haircut or shave in the barber shop. At 8:00 am, I made my way to enjoy a wet shave prior to boarding — I had a wonderfully close shave with a straight razor — and then headed a few hundred meters down to Gate 10 where passengers were already boarding.
Boarding the A380 was an unusual experience since it is a double decker plane; the premium cabin is on the upper deck and had a separate boarding gate from economy passengers. Aboard the plane there are 8 private apartments and one 3 room “residence” which comes with a personal butler. Of the 8 available apartments, 5 were occupied on my flight in addition to two passengers in the residence up front. Upon arriving in my booked apartment 3K, I was blown away at the amount of space and the beauty of the cabin. The color tone and designs worked perfectly together. The entire cabin was inspired by many of the design elements of Islamic architecture and the middle east that emphasize symmetry, patterns, and creative lighting. The apartment is designed to have a seating area, that faces a long bench which can be folded out into a bed (made up upon request). Additionally, there was a mini-fridge, a lit vanity, drawer for personal storage, personal coat closet, and 24” TV screen that rotates so it can be viewed while laying in bed or stays flush with the cabin wall for viewing while seated.
After taking in the beauty and luxury of the cabin, the flight crew came over one by one to introduce themselves and offer me a pre-flight drink. I ordered a cappuccino that came on a beautiful silver tray complete with dates, a hot towel, and a hand written welcome note from the crew leader on board. Shortly after I had my drink, the on board chef came by and went over the “on-demand” dining menu and I ordered an omlette to be served after takeoff along with a sparkling water. I was also given my choice of timings for taking a shower during the flight and booked an appointment for an hour before landing. As we reached cruising altitude I was served some tea, along with a dish of warmed almonds, cashews, and a few olives. My omlette was delivered to my apartment about 30 minutes after we reached cruising altitude and the dining experience was nothing short of five stars with a table cloth, fine china, and Etihad branded designer flatware.
After breakfast the table was cleared and I scrolled through the in flight entertainment which featured live TV and radio stations in addition to hundreds of on demand movies and television shows for streaming. The “E-box” selection was extensive and it included many new releases; during this flight I watched The Big Short and Apollo in addition to streaming BBC news and CNN international live. About 4 hours into the flight, I had the bed made up and decided to get in a little nap and test out the bed. The crew made up the bed ,outfitting the bench with a mattress pad, sheets and an additional pillow for sleeping. While they made up the bed I changed into my Etihad sleepwear which was handed out at the start of the flight. When I returned the bed was made up and I got a quick hour of sleep. I didn’t want to sleep too long since it was the middle of the day, but if this were a red-eye flight it would be easy to get hours of uninterrupted rest as I found the bed quite comfortable; it was on the firm side which is perfect for me.
After my brief nap, I ordered the salmon lunch which was delicious. Along with the Salmon I had a glass of Duval Leroy Brut Rose along with a glass of sparkling water. The salmon was phenomenal and the entire presentation was amazing again. After the salmon, I had a cheese tray along with a glass of 12 year Glenlivet. Shortly after lunch, I was given a towel and taken to the shower suite as it was time for my designated appointment. Last summer on our Amtrak trip from LA to Seattle, we had a shower in our train cabin, and while this shower was larger than the Amtrak option, it was not large by any means. The shower was a bit of a novelty but it was also quite refreshing to arrive in London showered and ready to explore the city. Though not large, the shower’s water pressure was good, the body wash and shampoo were terrific, the water was hot and the experience was memorable. After heading back to my apartment, I ordered a gin and tonic (of course) and settled in for the last 45 minutes or so of the flight.
The flight arrived in London early and by the time we were at the jet way it was about 12:15. All premium passengers were given fast track cards for passport control and this allowed me to breeze through the airport stopping only briefly at the passport counter and then waiting an additional 5 minutes for my checked bag to arrive. At Heathrow there was an Etihad counter with the chaffier driver’s ready to take passenger’s to their final destination and this was complimentary up to 100-mile radius of the airport (an additional charge for anything past 100 miles). My chauffer met me and escorted me to a beautiful BMW 7 series and we headed into London to my Airbnb in the Victoria neighborhood. It was about a 45 minutes ride with traffic and it was great to head straight to my destination without having to bother with the Heathrow Express into town.
By 1:00 pm I was at my destination and ready to begin the next leg of my weekend adventure in the UK. Overall, I was thoroughly impressed with every aspect of the flight and transfer in both Abu Dhabi and London. Etihad has really spared no expense or detail when it comes to their premium 1st class product. It was a memorable experience and it made me excited to try again in a few days time upon my return from London.
Last week the three of us made the drive up to the northern most emirate, Ras Al Khaimah, for a weekend away. We left quite quickly after Tony returned home from work on Thursday afternoon, hoping that by leaving early in the afternoon we could avoid the worst of the rush hour traffic near Dubai. We still encountered a fair amount of traffic getting through Dubai, but the rest of the drive was smooth sailing.
The purpose of the trip to RAK was for Tony to participate in his first official half marathon. I say first official half marathon because it is not unheard of for Tony to run this distance on one of his longer runs on weekends. The man is a strong runner! This race is known as “the fastest half marathon in the world” due to the flat course and typically ideal conditions. I’ll let Tony speak more about the race in a later post.
For our weekend away, we chose to stay at a Hilton property, the Hilton Al Hamra Beach & Golf Resort. The property is very close to the architecturally lovely Waldorf Astoria, but rather than one large building full of rooms and suites, the Hilton Al Hamra has a series of smaller buildings housing rooms across the property. While we didn’t golf on this trip, there is an absolutely beautiful golf course surrounding the property. It seemed to be quite busy all day long and was clearly one of the biggest draws to this resort on this particular weekend.
The grounds of the hotel property were absolutely beautiful! We had an upgraded room in a small building housing about 8 total rooms, right on the beach. The paths around the property easily led us to the other amenities that were there to take advantage of — a lovely pool, children’s playground, outdoor refreshment stands, beach rentals, as well as the main hotel building that housed three restaurants, a coffee shop, concierge, and the spa.
Matteo has been to the beach before, but the easy access to the beach from our room on this trip made this trip extra fun for him. He loved picking up seashells to throw back in to the surf, playing in the surf, and running away from the waves as they broke on the beach.
The weather was cooler than what we’re used to, at highs in the low 70s, but the water wasn’t freezing so we were all comfortable wading in ankle deep and enjoying the sunshine. Evenings on the beach got quite cool (for desert acclimated people like ourselves) and the brisk wind was a change from the very warm winter we’ve been enjoying in Abu Dhabi.
Tony’s race was early on Friday morning (he crushed it) and he was back by late morning. Our preferred status with Hilton means that we enjoy a free breakfast at their properties, so when he returned the three of us went down to eat at the buffet breakfast in the main building. The breakfast selection was great, including a fresh egg station and even real pork bacon and sausage! Breakfast was packed at 10 am on Friday afternoon, but on Saturday we went early, at 8 am and enjoyed a largely empty dining room.
The hotel was in easy walking distance of a mall which meant that we could get a (less expensive) dinner just a walk away. We did indulge in room service for dinner on Friday night, which we both enjoyed as well.
On Friday afternoon, Tony surprised me by booking an appointment for me at the spa! I had a glorious massage and a manicure. The service at the spa was EXCELLENT. Perhaps the best spa experience I’ve ever had, or at least tied with my time at the Ritz Carlton Abu Dhabi last year. It was an unexpected, and very appreciated, two hours of pampering spent all by myself in glorious quiet.
I was surprised at how lovely RAK was (I didn’t realize what a beautiful resort town it is), and at just over a two hour drive, I definitely think we will make a return trip in the future. If nothing else, we plan to be back next year for the half marathon again.
So far since our move to Abu Dhabi, we have booked two award trips as a family which allows to save money while still traveling in more comfort than we could reasonably afford other wise. We originally booked a return from Munich on Air Berlin and had a long layover in Dusseldorf. A few weeks before we left for the trip I was able to find a direct flight to Abu Dhabi on Etihad Airways in business class. This upgrade cost us an additional 10,000 American Airlines miles each — the award ticket is 30,000 miles one way for business class as opposed to 20,000 miles in economy from when flying from Europe to the Middle East.
Upon arrival at the Munich airport we were fast tracked through check in, bag drop, security, passport control, and boarding (though admittedly none of these areas had any delays or lines since the airport was pretty quite at 7:00 pm on New Years Eve). We found ourselves in the Atlantic Lounge in Munich in no time at all with more than 1.5 hours to spare before boarding. While we enjoyed the pre-flight treatment traveling in business class, we would have had lounge access anyhow thanks to our priority club membership. The real reason we wanted this flight was for the onboard experience of Etihad business class.
Remade our way to our departure gate at about 9:00 pm where we quickly boarded through the jetway and made our way to the business class cabin. The cabin was configured in a 1-2-1 formation allowing direct aisle access for every seat. Jen and Teo had two adjoining seats, angled into each other which allowed her to help him with his meal/ipad/bed without having to move around the cabin to reach him thanks to the “honeymoon” style setup. I was seated in the row in front of them with my seat facing out towards the aisle which gave much more privacy even though the seat next to me was empty the whole flight.
We have flown Etihad economy half a dozen times the last year and have always been impressed with their crews, service, and attention to detail. We had another wonderful service experience by the business class team who paid attention to every last detail and made sure to give special attention to Matteo (including giving him a special children’s amenity kit which he loved). Pre-flight drinks were immediately handed out and my champagne flute was refilled every time I turned around. As soon as we reached cruising altitude, the crew sprang into action with a 3 course dinner service that started with a ramekin of warm nuts, followed by a starter, main course, dessert, and finally a cocktail or coffee/tea. I chose the Artichoke soup as my started (which was delicious), went with the salmon main dish (good but a touch over cooked), and finished with a cappuccino and some strawberry ice cream.
After watching some TV episodes on the expansive Etihad in flight entertainment during the meal, we all fell asleep for a good portion of the flight and before we knew it we were prepping for our landing. We were ready to get home to Abu Dhabi as it was now 7:00 am local time after losing 4 hours through the night to time changes. We were given fast track passes to go through immigration and once we landed we flew through immigration, collected our bags which were awaiting us at the carousel and then headed to the Etihad Arrivals lounge. We stopped to freshen up and grab a quick snack for breakfast. One of the nice touches of Etihad premium cabin tickets is that it includes chauffeur service to anywhere in the UAE upon arrival. We didn’t have to worry about a cab or airport pickup as we had a brand new Audi A6 awaiting us to quickly shuttle us home in style. Overall we had a terrific flight home which was possible only through earning points and redeeming them for terrific value.