The Elusive Upgrade

Happy New Year!

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.

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Just boarded and settling in to his first class seat

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.

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Trying to get back on schedule! I try to wake him, he tries to sleep.

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.

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Langkawi, Malaysia

I am so behind recording our travels since this summer. Last I left off, I was writing about our time spent in the US — we spent several weeks in Michigan, Arizona, and Ohio before leaving and stopping in Amsterdam on our way back to Abu Dhabi. While I still want to write about those trips, I want to record our Malaysia trip while its still fresh in my mind.

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View of the beach at the St. Regis from the main patio

Tony read about the St. Regis in Langkawi, Malaysia while working on some travel hacking research. He searched the dates for time that he knew he would have off at the end of November/beginning of December for the UAE’s National Day. The rates for this 5 star property were dirt cheap and Tony was able to find a good deal on flights as well. The caveat on being that our travel day would have 3 legs both on the way there and back — Dubai to Doha then Doha to Kuala Lumpur and finally Kuala Lumpur to Langkawi.

Knowing my own limits and those of Matteo, I was hesitant to book simply because of the worry of that travel day. Typically, for shorter trips (week or less) we try to avoid complicated, long travel days, but this was one of those times when the opportunity presented itself and it felt like now or never — so we went for it.

The travel days were hard. I’ll state that clearly, right out front. We flew overnight, and while we slept better than we had over our summer economy overnight flights, it was still not enough rest. That said, the flights themselves (our first on Qatar Airlines) were as comfortable as you’re going to get in economy. Purely from a parent with a small child perspective, they were great — Matteo had a child’s meal provided quickly and it was food that he would actually eat (well, part of it) which was a first for us. They also had a great inflight entertainment selection and provided a Monopoly themed activity kit that we had so much fun with.

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When we arrived in Langkawi, we were met right outside the luggage area by our driver and escort from the St. Regis resort. They showed us to the BMW 7 series that was waiting for us in the parking lot, complete with refreshing towels, cookies and chilled water. What a relaxing way to end a loooonnngggg overnight of travel. The drive to the resort was about 30 minutes. As soon as we pulled in to the St. Regis’ private driveway we began to enjoy the beauty of the resort.

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Tony and Matteo at the entrance to the St. Regis

As gorgeous as the St. Regis is, I admit that this was not a perfect trip. There were several hiccups at the beginning of our trip, things that are not becoming of a 5 star resort. Tony addressed his concerns with the property management though and they were eager to make things right, starting with upgrading our room to a pool suite.

We were disappointed in the weather while in Langkawi, as the rain and clouds prevented us from doing some of the items on our wish list. Still, we had a blast spending a day at the Wildlife Park — where Tony and I each had a parrot on our shoulders, and we fed birds straight from our hands. I wish I had photographs of this, but they would only allow their photography (which they then charged outrageously for prints) so just take my word it was neat!! Matteo in particular had SO much fun feeding the animals and learning about the displays.

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View from the Westin property on Langkawi

The St. Regis’ sister property the Westin is right next door so one day we spent the morning over there, enjoying their pools and beach. They also had very cheap kayak rentals which Tony was able to enjoy. The Westin property wasn’t as new or lavish as the St. Regis but the property’s multiple pools and outdoor activities would make it a GREAT choice for families. The St. Regis definitely had more of a romantic feel, though there were several families with young children staying there.

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Tony heading out on his kayak

Our room rate included two meals a day, breakfast and either lunch or dinner. With the time change, we tended to eat breakfast late in the morning and would then chose to eat dinner. We also had a $100 USD equivalency daily credit that we could spend on food or at the spa. Typically, we used it on drinks at the pool but the $100 credit was quite generous with the prices at the resort and we never spent the full amount.

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No sun but a break in rain meant we went to the beach!

This was our first trip to Asia. Some of our assumptions played out as expected — neither of us loved the more traditional food, which I know will cause some who enjoy Asian cuisine to want to throttle us, but we tried, I swear! The one thing that kept this trip from being a home run was honestly the weather, nothing we could control. Had we had sun and clear skies, the beauty of Langkawi would be unmatched. We’ve been so fortunate, on our travels, to have great weather. That streak had to end at some point. Matteo sure had a blast though. By the last day, he was begging us to live at the hotel!

Now we’re back in Abu Dhabi with just enough time to adjust back to this time change and prepare for our Christmas trip. We leave next week for Paris!

Edinburgh, Scotland

The quiet, open spaces of the Highlands were such a contrast with bustling London — and made for a great opportunity to relax and gear up for the next stop on our trip, Edinburgh. Tony and I had been particularly excited to see Edinburgh — we both have heritage in Scotland (Tony’s maternal great grandfather was a butcher in Edinburgh, and my side goes further back but has Scottish roots as well) and my oldest brother and sister in law spent a summer in Edinburgh many years ago that made an impression on me as a teenager. So needless to say, we were excited.

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Watch out for sheep!

Unexpectedly, the drive to Edinburgh was one of the highlights on the trip. Normally, long car drives just feel like something you have to get through in order to get to where you really want to be, but in this case it was so enjoyable. The Scottish countryside is MESMERIZING. The roads were hilly and winding, the sky was vast and beautiful, wildflowers were everywhere. For much of the drive, there were no other cars in view and so we could slow or stop to snap a photo, pointing out ruins to each other or pulling to the side to let sheep pass as needed. It was really fun!

Edinburgh
Edinburgh — Such a beautiful city

Once we made it to Edinburgh, I was surprised both by the size of the city and the beauty. The hills made for some incredible views. We snagged an Airbnb apartment right on the Royal Mile, putting us at a 5 minute walk to the Castle.

We loved so many things about beautiful Edinburgh. The weather was lovely and cool, and we only had a few instances of rain (we’d been prepared for far more moisture).

Highlights of the trip were definitely visiting Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace (the Queen’s residence when in Scotland) and, for Tony, Arthur’s Seat. Edinburgh Castle was incredibly crowded on the day we were there, and was not stroller friendly, but even with those annoyances we thoroughly enjoyed seeing this historic site. The weather was absolutely perfect and the views from the castle walls were breathtaking!

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Edinburgh Castle

Holyrood Palace is on the opposite end of the Royal Mile from the castle. We toured the castle and grounds in the morning. The highlight of this tour for me was the special exhibit of the Queen’s fashion — including items the queen wore when she was only 3 years old (beautifully preserved) all the way to present day. The items were beautiful and included information about each designer. It was interesting to see the garments and notice that as she grew up, she developed a very clear sense of style as most of the later garments were very similar in shape and style. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take photographs inside the palace, but we did get a few nice photos on the grounds.

Holyrood Palace
Holyrood Palace

With the recommendation of my sister-in-law Melissa, we knew we wanted to venture up to Arthur’s Seat for the fun of a hike and the reward of more beautiful views. Because we would not be able to take Matteo, we decided to do the hike separately. Unfortunately, on the day I wanted to go we had rain and a cranky Matteo, so I didn’t get to do the hike, but Tony did and shared his lovely photos.

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Tony’s view from atop Arthur’s Seat

Because it’s Tony, he of course tool the long way and decided to run up to the top of the hill. In addition to being a great workout, he was greeted with gorgeous, albeit windy, views of Edinburgh.

Our time in England and Scotland went by so quickly. It left such an impression on us — it was love, really. If there’s one location we’ve visited that we think ANY AND EVERY ONE would enjoy, it’s the UK.

 

 

 

Oh, What A Summer (London)

What a great summer.

We have been absent from the blog because Tony, Matteo and I have been traveling for the past 6 weeks. Leaving a few days after Tony’s last day of work for the 15-16 school year in early July, we first flew to London (from Dubai, and via Amsterdam) before landing at Heathrow airport. After an uneventful, but not particularly restful overnight of flying, we were so exited to arrive in London and begin our week of sightseeing.

That excitement had to be contained for a bit, as we were dismayed upon arrival to have to wait a full two hours to get through the incredibly long, congested line at passport control. Something we should have anticipated we were arriving in London for the very busy summer holiday season. Once through passport control, we collected our bags, hailed an Uber and made our way to the Holiday Inn where we would spend our first night in the city. After the first overnight, we moved to the beautiful Andaz London Liverpool StreetAndaz London Liverpool Street — a beautiful, 5-star hotel that exceeded all of our expectations for comfort and relaxation.

While this was my first trip to London, it was Tony’s third and he already had a good feel for the tube routes/stops we would need to know. Tony wanted to make sure I got to see the bulk of the iconic London sights — Big Ben, the London Eye, Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, etc.

The first day of our arrival we had warm temperatures and plenty of sun, the rest of the trip was a bit more typical of London weather with intermittent haze, spitting rain, and cooler temperatures. Coming from the heat and humidity of Abu Dhabi, all of these changes were WELCOME.

It would be take far too long to describe everything we did while in London. If you followed along on Facebook or instagram, you probably have a good idea of what we were up to, but for now I’ll highlight three of our favorites from London.

HYDE PARK/PRINCESS DIANA MEMORIAL PLAYGROUND

Diana

If you aren’t traveling with young children, it might be tempting to skip this paragraph thinking its not for you, and technically you’d be correct — you can’t get in to the playground area unless you’re accompanying a child — but if you find yourself in London on a beautiful day, go to Hyde Park! Within Hyde Park is the Princess Diana Memorial Playground, and our family easily spent several hours playing at the playground and wandering the park. There is a beautiful carousel, ice cream, plenty of space for a picnic, gardens to tour, and a gorgeous expanse of green space to soak up in the middle of wonderful London. We happened upon the playground on a particularly beautiful day with lots of happy children, and giggled as we watched Matteo make fast friends with a little Brit named James.

HIGH TEA

Hightea

We knew we wanted another High Tea experience (our first was in Dubai, at the famed at.Mosphere restaurant atop the Burj Khalifa) while in London. A quick search on Groupon led us to a good deal at the London chain Patisserie Valerie. Tony ordered tea, I ordered coffee, and we enjoyed a simple, yet lovely, traditional English tea together. The finger sandwiches, scones, and sweets were all delicious.

STAMFORD BRIDGE

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Stamford Bridge is the home of Tony’s beloved Chelsea Football Club. As Chelsea FC is one of the reasons for Tony’s previous trips to London, I was excited to visit this spot myself. We decided to walk the majority of the way to Stamford Bridge, which happens to be in the middle of a rather lovely (and expensive) area of London. While there, we were able to visit the fan shop and take a few pictures outside. It was fun to share Tony’s passion for an afternoon.

London was fantastic! We thoroughly enjoyed our time here, though I think we both walked away with the opinion that it might be a better city to revisit once Matteo is old enough to walk several miles on his own, rather than drag the stroller everywhere. While it was doable, that part of the trip could have been more enjoyable, if that makes sense. But there’s a reason why London is one of the most visited cities in the world — it’s magic!

 

Spring in Copenhagen

For our first big trip of 2016, we are planning to make our way to Copenhagen for the last week of March during Tony’s Spring Break from work.  While Scandinavia may seem an odd choice for a trip in Spring, Copenhagen will be far less crowded than many warmer destinations (and if we wanted warm weather we could simply stay in Abu Dhabi).  For this trip we booked two separate, one way awards tickets via the One World Alliance program using American Airlines miles, and one ticket on Skyteam Alliance using Delta Skymiles.  The reason for the combination purchase simply boils down to award space availability, and trying to best utilize some of the miles we had in both accounts.

When we first started searching for flights, we found that there was extremely limited award space availability for our flight date in March to Copenhagen using Oneworld (American Airlines miles), and no availability using Star Alliance (United miles) so instead we opted to use Skyteam Alliance (Delta Skymiles) for the trip.  We were able to book Alitalia business class tickets to Copenhagen from via Abu Dhabi-Rome-Paris-Copenhagen.  

While, with two stopovers this route is not ideal, it was the only real option available to us if we wanted to book with award miles. To book, we combined Delta Skymiles that we had accumulated and then transferred some American Express membership rewards in to Skymiles at a 1:1 transfer rate. The transfer got us to the magic number of 42,000 miles per person, the going rate for the one way business class ticket. While this redemption is not quite as good as the American Airlines award price of 30,000 miles per one way in business class, it is still reasonable for us given the fact that we have built up many Skymiles in our Delta accounts. It also helps to consider that Delta no longer has a fixed award chart; they moved to a variable award chart that charges miles based on demand and occupancy at time of booking (something going against us at peak travel times like spring break). For the same trip to Copenhagen on other dates/times, the cost runs as high as 85,000 miles per person. The fees for this award trip were minimal and come to a total of only 260 AED ($71) for three tickets in business class. The price for this same one-way flight in business class is currently going for $6,560 — for the three tickets we would need, the total cost would be $19,680!

American Airlines policy allows one-way award ticket redemptions. The cost for a one way trip between the Middle East to Europe in business class runs 30,000. Between our two accounts we had just over 90,000 American miles and we figured this was a great time to splurge and spend an extra 10,000 miles per person to fly back Abu Dhabi in business class.  The route from Copenhagen to the UAE had much more award availability in both economy and business classes and we were able to find a great British Airways flight from Copenhagen to Dubai (with a brief stop in Heathrow) in their Club World business class seats.  The cash price for the ticket is $2,756.45 — consider again that we need three tickets and the cash price for the tickets would be $8,263.35 for our family. The only drawback to this route is that award flights through London come with higher fees than most award routes, meaning that each flight will cost us $235 in fee charges.  

Breaking down the costs of our spring break flights, we will fly business class to and from Copenhagen for an out of pocket cost of 127,000 skymiles, 90,000 AA miles, and a total of $776 in award fees. If we weren’t using points/awards, our total out of pocket cost for these flights would be $27,943.35.  Obviously we (and most others) would never consider of shelling out close to that much money for flights — it just  goes to show the tremendous value that on can capture by using miles and points to travel.

For our lodging in Copenhagen we decided to leverage a unique option with Ritz Carlton/Marriott Reward points program and purchase one of their “Flight+Hotel” packages.  Last year, we both signed up for the Ritz Carlton Visa card which on top of many benefits (lounge access, room upgrades, and airfare reimbursement each year), came with a hefty sign up  bonus of 140,000 points (each) last January.  The sign up bonus combined with points gained from some spending at Marriott last year meant that once we combined our points into one account (a perk allowed between spouses), we were sitting on a balance of 340,000 Marriott/Ritz Carlton Reward points.  This allowed us to book a package that includes seven nights in a Category 8 Marriott hotel (Marriott hotels are organized in to categories 1-9, with 1 requiring the fewest points to book and 9 requiring the most) as well as giving us 100,000 American Airlines miles.  This particular redemption was a good use of points because Copenhagen is a fairly expensive city to visit. Even though the end of March is far from peak season, the hotel rates at the time we booked were $295/night at the Copenhagen Marriott.  For a 7-night stay that equates to $2,065.  There are no award or resort fees for us to pay at this property and since we already achieved Marriott/Ritz Carlton “Gold” status (by having their credit card).  Our “gold status” also entitles us to a room upgrade based on availability, a late check out of 2:00 pm, and access to their executive lounge during our stay with breakfast, cocktails, and snacks for the entire week.  

As if all of that wasn’t enough, we booked our stay during the fall when American Airlines offered a 20% bonus for purchased miles — that means that we were credited 120,000 miles instead of the originally intended 100,000.  Lucky for us, 120,000 miles is the precise number of miles it takes to purchase three tickets to fly round trip to Europe from the Middle East (which will come in handy for our tentative plans to visit France for Christmas 2016).  To give you an idea of this value, consider that if you wanted to purchase 120,000 AA miles right now, the miles alone would cost $3,128 from American Airlines direct. 

This has been a somewhat lengthy and drawn out post, but the bottom line we want to drive home is that travel hacking WORKS! We have booked a luxurious trip to Copenhagen, flying business class, spending 7 nights at one of Mariott’s nicest European properties, and simultaneously banking the airlines points to pay for three round trip tickets to use on a later trip, all for under $800 out of pocket.  The price tag on this trip for the “rack rate” exceeds $30,000!  The credit card sign up bonuses and miles earned did convey some costs, but we have been able to gain enough utility from the credit card sign up fees to more than justify their use based solely on this trip. The ins and outs of these awards can be a bit difficult to understand at first; there is a lot of leg work up front to research best options based on schedule limitations and award availability, but in the end all of this time and effort will hopefully make for an amazing week in Scandanavia.

Abu Dhabi and Dubai

Thank you for all of the words of encouragement regarding our big move! Probably the hardest part of this process so far has been telling people of our plans to move, and hoping that we can explain our thinking and show that while the path we’re choosing is unusual, it’s also intentional. We want to make sure we’re living the lives we want to live, and that we are questioning our decisions to make sure that the opportunities we pursue are the ones that will bring us closer to goals. Moving to Al Ain ticks those boxes for us, even if it offers unique challenges at the same time.

Speaking of the UAE, back on Christmas morning Tony was up early and checking out Twitter when he saw some info about some insane plane fares to some far away cities – Abu Dhabi, Johannesburg, and Mumbai to name a few. And when I say the fares were insane, I mean insane – like $300 for a round trip ticket. Tony being who Tony is, he booked the tickets….and then came in to our bedroom where he woke me up saying, “Jen, don’t freak out, okay?”

That is my favorite way to be woken up, especially on a holiday. Once I was confident the house was not on fire and Matteo was fine, I listened as Tony told me about the fares he’d booked and told me that we had 24 hours to cancel if we decided it wasn’t something we wanted to do. So all day on Christmas, we kept finding time to check in with each other – we knew that Abu Dhabi was the only city that would work for us vacation timing with work so the conversation became “should we actually try to do this?”

Obviously, we decided yes. Our thinking at the time was “when will we ever have the option to go to Abu Dhabi again?” Hahahahahahaha. See? We really had no idea that just six short months later we’d be planning to move there! Anyways, once the decision was made, we put plans in place for Matteo to stay with his grandparents for the week, and we started to research the UAE.

In the midst of planning for this trip, we obviously also found out that we’ll be living there. Tony signed his work contract about a month before we traveled there on vacation, so it was fun to plan and enjoy the trip knowing that this place we were visiting will be our home in a few months’ time.

So, on to the actual trip. This was my first major international trip. I’m not the best flier – I’m far better than I used to be but take-off and landing still gets me nervous. The flight over, while long, was smooth and comfortable. The worst part was trying to mentally navigate the time change – we essentially lost a day on the way over. We left Dallas and 15 hours later we landed in Abu Dhabi. Once we were through customs, we found our way out of the airport and off to the pickup spot for the Etihad bus that would take us from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, and then once in Duabi we took a taxi to our hotel. It was a long, long, long day of travel. We stayed downtown, at the Radisson Blu and had a great view of the Burj Khalifa from our room. A few months prior to our trip, Tony had emailed the hotel’s concierge and was able to weasel his way in to a room upgrade – to the nicest suite in the hotel. So we were very spoiled with a gorgeous room.

view from the Hyatt Blue
view from the Hyatt Blue

First impressions of Dubai were – opulence. If you’re a fan of architecture, put this city on your travel bucket list. We could have spent all of our time in Dubai simply looking at the beautiful buildings. Based on the amount of construction currently going on in Dubai, I know that even just 5 years from now the city is going to be far different from what it is today. It’s also a very clean city. I don’t think we saw any litter anywhere, and even public rest rooms were very clean. Dubai is famous for its insanely large malls, so we spent some time just wandering the Dubai Mall – we went to the aquarium, checked out the ice rink, and just walked the massive wings/floors. Everything was there – from American Eagle and Gap to Versace and Gucci. Emirates also do there grocery shopping in the malls, so we were able to check out the cost of groceries for future reference.

At the aquarium in the Dubai Mall
At the aquarium in the Dubai Mall

The highlight of Dubai was our high tea service at the At.mosphere restaurant of the Burj Khalifa. We’d been anxiously looking forward to this vacation splurge and it did not disappoint. The views from the Burj Khalifa are almost dizzying – even on the somewhat hazy day, we could see so much of the development and architecture that has put this city on the map. The food? Amazing! And we were even treated to Dubai “mocktails” that were to die for. Without a doubt, this was our favorite part of our time in Dubai.

View during our high tea service
View during our high tea service

A few days in Dubai felt like enough though. It really is a city of excess, and at some point it just felt like too much. We were ready to leave and head to Abu Dhabi. In an effort to try something different, we decided to take the bus to Abu Dhabi – which was a fun experience in and of itself. A very clean bus with wifi service surprised us. From the bus stop in Abu Dhabi, we took a taxi to our hotel – the Ritz Carlton.

Waiting for the bus
Waiting for the bus

Can I just say, thank goodness for points? We were able to stay on this beautiful property where every detail was thought out and luxurious. You know how I just said that Dubai felt like too much excess? Abu Dhabi, even the Ritz Carlton at Abu Dhabi, had a different feel. It felt more like a big city, but one that wasn’t trying to prove its worth to everyone. Exploring Abu Dhabi reminded me of exploring New York City, back when I was 16. With different pockets to the city – an artists’ district, a financial district, religious sites, etc. Tony and I agreed – without really being able to put our fingers on why, we just liked Abu Dhabi better.

Pool at the Ritz Carlton
Pool at the Ritz Carlton

I’m sure the hotel had something to do with it. The Ritz Carlton Grand Canal in Abu Dhabi is magnificent. The rooms? Beautiful. The service? Impeccable. Hospitality as it should be. We enjoyed everything about our stay, including the knowledgeable employee we met named Rakesh — he greeted us by name each day and made suggestions to help us make the most of our sight seeing.

mosque

In Abu Dhabi, the highlight was our visit to the Grand Mosque, conveniently located just across the way from our hotel. This beautiful holy site is absolutely stunning in person – white marble everywhere, with crystal flowers inside, and the largest carpet in the world. There were many tourists on the site taking in the beautiful architecture, and Tony and I were far from alone in our stunned silence at the beauty of the structure. Its hard to explain – its just awe inspiring.

mosque2

The feel of the UAE was comfortable. I know the worries people have when we say that we’re moving to Al Ain – we say “United Arab Emirates” and people hear “Middle East.” I understand  why that’s scary, but its important to understand that the characterization that most people have of the Middle East is not accurate when we’re talking about the UAE. Neither Tony nor I ever felt unsafe or in harm’s way, even when we ventured away from the tourist areas. We felt welcome and we felt excited – excited to know that this beautiful country, with its blue sea and white sands, its palm trees and rolling sand dunes, will serve as our home for two short years.

It was an amazing trip. But man, oh man, were we happy to see our little boy when we made it home! Major thanks to Carl & Kathy, and Brian & Angie for taking care of Matteo while we were away!

Please Excuse the Absence

Happy June, friends!

Though its been a busy spring, with a few more trips under our belt since last we posted, we’ve been quietly absent for, oh the past two months. Whoops! Though there’s been lots to talk about (a trip to San Francisco, a week in Dubai/Abu Dhabi, a weekend away to wine country in California), there’s also been a little secret that we couldn’t talk about yet — and the need to keep a lid on that kept us away from blogging altogether (no one is pregnant…why does everyone assume that first?) 

Happily, I am hear to un-secret the secret today and then return to regular blogging. The news is…we’re moving to the United Arab Emirates!!!

UAE

If you’re like most of our friends and family, this will come as a shock. It’s a bit of a shock for us as well, excited as we are about it. The possibility of the move has been months in the making — back in the winter Tony and I took some time to really, really, take stock of our lives. Where we are vs. where we want to be. What we’re doing with our time vs. what we want to be doing with our time. We determined together that what is most important to us as a couple and a family is, in fact, being together — as long as the three of us are together, we are happy. We also realized that more important than accumulating “stuff” was experiencing the world — seeing new sites, experiencing different cultures, and having a sense of adventure in our lives. So we made some shifts to our thinking and our planning, making travel a more important goal and went merrily on our way.

The idea of working abroad has appealed to both of us for some time. Back in the winter, Tony did some research about education opportunities in other countries, and much of the information kept leading back to the massive education overhaul that Abu Dhabi (capital of the UAE) is in the midst of. They are seven years in to a 10 year plan and much of the plan involves bringing over Western educators (from the US, UK, Ireland, Australia, Canada, etc.) to work with local educators in an effort to improve the public education system in the Emirate. The UAE is a very safe, clean country and very hospitable to its large population of ex-pats (80% of the population are ex-pats). They also pay very well. After some discussion, Tony decided to apply for a vice principal position in the UAE via an education recruiting site. The entire time, it felt like something that wouldn’t actually come to fruition, but was a fun “what if” game. We continued planning for the changes in our lives that we wanted to pursue — moving out of Fountain Hills, selling our home and looking for a smaller, more efficient one, and dedicating our free time to spending time together and travel.

A few weeks after submitting his application, Tony was invited for a phone interview. It went really well, but things were quiet after that. We knew that there was a very large pool of applicants for few positions, and didn’t get our hopes up. Then, he got an email inviting him to Houston for an in-person interview. The email came on Friday and the interview was scheduled for the following Tuesday — not a lot of time to make a decision. Tony booked a flight and left for Houston. After a long, long day of interviewing and hell-acious travel issues, Tony left Houston feeling confident that the interview had gone very well, and that he would be offered a position. Two weeks later, he got the offer.

Once the offer was actually on paper, it was surreal. The offer itself was incredibly enticing — a two year contract, paid housing, paid flights for Tony and his dependents, paid health benefits, etc. The idea of living in Abu Dhabi, and having a jumping off point to see parts of the world we’ve never been to (Europe! Asia! Africa!) thrilled us. Knowing that I would be able to leave my job and spend two years home with Matteo before he’s off to kindergarten felt like a gift! Then there is the major con — moving halfway across the planet means being far, far, far away from family and friends.

We weighed the options. In the end, we felt like if we were to pass on this opportunity we would regret it for the rest of our lives. We’d always wonder, “what if…” After all of the thinking we’ve done this past year, all of the hard work we’ve done to change the direction of our lives, we couldn’t knowingly pass on this adventure and invite regret in to our lives. Life is short! We went out looking for an adventure and we’ve found one. Now we have to be brave, and take it.

There are so many details left to be worked out. For one, departure dates: we don’t have them yet. Tony’s visa is in the process of being issued, but I’m still waiting on paperwork needed to begin processing mine and Matteo’s visas. Our house is on the market, but we don’t have an offer yet. Tony’s last day of work is June 18th, but mine is still TBD. And we both want to make trips back to the MidWest to see family/friends before the big move. Lots and lots of planning — then there are the logistics of moving a family of three (with a toddler) to a different country. We have been working on minimizing our belongings since the winter as a part of other goals, so thankfully the inventory is already much smaller than it could have been, but still…I look at all of our “things” and know that it can’t all come with us to Al Ain (the city in Abu Dhabi where we will be living).

So that’s our big news for the moment. I still have lots to share, both about the move and about the travels we’ve been on this spring and a few more to come over the next months.

But that’s enough to digest for now. Thank you for for sharing in our excitement…or just pretending to if you’re among the group who think we are completely crazy!!