Budapest, Hungary

Of all of the cities we were scheduled to see on this summer trip, Budapest was the one I (Jen) was least excited for. It’s silly really — I used to have a friend from Romania and if you’re not aware, the Hungarians and Romanians have a complicated, difficult relationship. For that reason, this friend used to regularly tell me how awful Hungary was and basically, without me realizing it, she planted in me a preconceived notion that I would not like Budapest. Which is ridiculous, because Budapest absolutely wowed me!

We arrived at night so it wasn’t until the next morning that I realized what a beautiful city Budapest was. Separated in the middle by the Dabube River, one side of the river is the Buda side of the city and the other is the Pest side. Full of history, the gorgeous architecture along the banks of the river had me surprised at every turn.

We spent one morning on a river cruise with audio tour — one of my favorite things we’ve done all summer long. Typically I’m not able to give my full attention during an audio tour at a museum because I’m busy wrangling Matteo but here he was contained and enjoying just being on the boat so I was able to actually listen to the tour as we cruised down the river.

Buda’s Castle

Our hotel was in a great location, just down the hill from Buda’s Castle. The castle itself is stunning, but the views you get when you reach the top of the stairs — WOW! Absolutely amazing. We also spent a morning on Margaret’s Island where we rented a family bicycle (which I thought Matteo would love  — and he did, for about 5 minutes and then it was “this is boring”).

Climbing trees on Margaret’s Island

On our third day in Budapest, Tony picked up our rental car for the next portion of the trip — a road trip from Budapest to Kosice, Slovakia > Zakopane, Poland > Krakow, Poland > Ostrava, Czech Republic > Bratislava, Slovakia and finally back to Budapest, Hungary to return the rental car and fly out of Budapest and back to Abu Dhabi.


Arriving in Paris

Bonjour from Paris!

Christmas vacation is here! That means we get to spend ten days in Paris and three in Geneva!

Before the vacation could begin though, we had to get to Paris. Fresh off of practically 24 hour travel days getting to/from Malaysia, I was so relieved that this time we would only have to deal with one direct flight Abu Dhabi to Paris. Utilizing our American Airlines points, Tony was able to secure Business Class seats for the 7.5 hour flight.

Frequent Flier

When booking an Etihad flight with American Airlines points, you don’t get to choose your seats and so while we ended up with two seats next to each other, the third seat was four rows up and on the opposite aisle. Up in row 8, Tony got to relax, sip champagne and watch movies while back in row 12 with Matteo, it took me 4 hours to get through a 1.5 hour long movie, and I ended up logging about 1,000 steps according to my Withings watch with only 2 steps between my seat and Matteo’s.

I kid, I kid. Honestly, Matteo was great on the flight, but he was busy; wanting/needing snacks, distractions, the iPad, his headphones, his batman toys, activity pack, stickers, all at different times and then back out again once I had put them all away. Oh well, he still does GREAT flying and for that we are so grateful.

Matteo outside the beautiful Notre Dame

We arrived in Paris at around 2 pm local time. Getting through passport control and collecting our bags was a piece of cake. My favorite part of flying business class with Etihad is their chauffeur service — a ride to/from the airport. By the time we left the airport in Paris, we were beginning to hit rush hour. It ended up taking almost 2 hours to get to our Airbnb apartment in the Opera district but we just got to sit back and relax.

The Airbnb we’re staying at is a first floor, 2 bedroom apartment with a kitchenette and tiny bathroom. We’ve been very pleased with the location. The only negative is that the washer/dryer isn’t working — which is a bummer as when packing as lightly as possible, we factored in being able to do laundry at the 2 Airbnbs we’re staying at on the front and back end of the trip. For what it’s worth, Matteo’s doing his part to lessen the dirty laundry pile by insisting on wearing the same superhero shirt for the last three days.

Each day, we choose a “big” attraction to see in the morning (when Matteo’s at his best) and then “secondary” sightseeing for the afternoon. So far we’ve been able to visit the Sacre-Coeur, Notre Dame, and we’ve taken a river cruise down the Seine as well as vintage shopping, visiting the Lego store, shopping at Galeries Lafayette, and browsing the shelves at the beautiful book store Shakespeare & Company.

View of Paris from the Sacre-Coeur

The food we’ve sampled so far in Paris has been wonderful! One of the ways we save money when traveling is by only eating two meals a day (a late breakfast or early lunch + dinner) and thanks to the Airbnb, we’ve been able to grocery shop in order to avoid eating out every meal, but what we have had, we’ve enjoyed. Of note was a beautiful breakfast/brunch near the Sacre-Couer at a restaurant called Hardware Society. YUM. We’ve also indulged a bit in street food — there’s a crepe stand about a block away from our Airbnb. We also walked through the Christmas market at the Champs Elysees, and each sampled a treat along the way (Tony ordered mini pancakes with fresh strawberries, I had a beignet).

We are really enjoying our time in Paris so far. The good thing about being here for 10 days is knowing that we can take our time — our days don’t have to be packed from morning to night in order to see it all. And that slower pace is nice for Matteo too, who definitely needs a break now and then in order to stay happy as we travel (that, and a stready diet of Goldfish crackers and McDonald’s chicken nuggets).

Tomorrow we check out of the Airbnb and in to the Park Hyatt. It will be fun to get to see another Paris neighborhood and we know from experience that the Park Hyatt amenities will be second to none. I’ll be looking forward to sharing more of our trip over the coming week.

Au revoir!

p.s. Thank you to Tony’s high school French teacher, wherever you are. He retained enough knoweldge from his two years of French to do quite nicely ordering food and asking simple questions. I am so impressed!

Austria and Germany

Trip Two: Abu Dhabi – Vienna – Salzburg – Innsbruck – Munich – Abu Dhabi December 18 – 31

With a nice, long two week winter break at the end of the first school term we have decided to head to Austria and Germany for the holiday season to check out the Christmas markets. We booked this trip as soon as we arrived in Abu Dhabi as flights and hotels tend to book up fast for much of Europe during the festive season and rates can get quite expensive with so many traveling over the holidays corresponding with school breaks.  Because airfare is relatively expensive during the holiday season, and we chose Vienna (one of the most expensive cities in Europe), we decided to make full use of banked miles and points for this trip.Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 7.08.55 PM

We had a stash of American Airlines miles earned last year when we both received sign up bonus’s for American Airlines and old US Airways credit cards (now they are the same miles since the merger). American miles are a great way to get to Europe from the Middle East as they require only 40,000 round trip in economy.  We booked this award trip by purchasing two, one-way tickets since we wanted to fly into Vienna and then out of Munich at the end of our trip.  By mid-September there was not a lot of award availability and round trip flights listed us to flying to Vienna direct from Dubai at 1:40 am. This would have meant we would have to leave our apartment in Abu Dhabi around 9:30 pm and drive to the Dubai airport and basically be up all night.  We chose instead to fly via Air Berlin flight —  a One World Partner and bookable via American Airlines website. We found a flight departing from Abu Dhabi at a much more reasonable 9:30 am and arriving in Vienna via Düsseldorf. This leg of the trip cost us 60K miles (20K x 3 people) and $120 in fees ($40 x 3 people).  For the return leg, we found a flight back to Abu Dhabi from Munich on December 31, again on Air Berlin, with a 10 hour layover in Düsseldorf — long enough to allow us to pop into Düsseldorf for the afternoon to grab lunch and have a walk about the city.  This flight again cost us 60K miles (20k x 3 people) and $120 in fees ($40 x 3 people).  This is a great value for us as it is difficult to find award space during the Christmas season when booking so late in the year for a family of three.

Once in Vienna the expenses are just beginning  — Vienna is one of the more expensive European cities, especially during the peak of the holiday season.  We have booked three nights at the Park Hyatt Vienna,  currently running at $584 per night for its base Park Hyatt King Studio room.  We booked our first two nights there using two free nights that are valid at any Hyatt in the world after signing up for the Hyatt Visa.  Our third night was booked using Hyatt’s “points+cash” program which allows gold passport members to use a combination of a fixed amount of cash and points no matter what the rack rate of the hotel may be during the stay.  The third night cost us 12,500 points + $150, the going rate for all Category 7 Hyatt properties.  This gives us a great redemption value, as we would gladly spend 12,500 points in place of an additional $434.  We get to  stay at one of Hyatt’s premier European properties, which would have cost us $1,752 for three nights, for a total of only $150 plus 12,500 Hyatt Gold Passport points.  On top of this value, because we have earned Diamond status, we are also eligible for a free room upgrade (based on availability), will have a free breakfast each morning, a 4:00 pm check out, and have access to the premium lounge throughout our stay (free snacks all day!).Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 7.59.56 PM

After a few days in Vienna we will train to Salzburg, then to Innsbruck, before finally reaching Munich. The hotel stays at each of these cities are much more reasonable than the super expensive capital Vienna.  Visiting a major European capital over the holiday can potentially break the bank. Thankfully, with a lot of planning, flexibility, patience, and travelhacking it is possible to travel in comfort and style (and on a budget) even during peak seasons.

As if this trip wasn’t exciting enough, we recently found out that the rest of the Galietti clan will be joining us from the US and it will be a great holiday celebration in Vienna and Salzburg with Brian and Angie, and Mom and Dad! We are looking forward to a wonderful Christmas vacation with family — as well as Matteo’s first experience with real winter weather!