Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Challenge: 20 Things to do in Italy

Last year I managed to head to Europe (yet again) for a short adventure. An opportunity came up 6 weeks before the travels and it didn't take me long to decide to go on the trip. I did the maths and sums, and could even afford a business class trip on the way home with my American Express Membership Rewards. Sweet! So a trip to Berlin, Italy and Paris was planned for a short 18 days. An andante pace trip it was not – hectic yet completely optimised amazing racing it turned out to be.
Prior to heading to Italy, I stumbled across this article whilst doing my trip planning and research:
20 Things Everyone should do in Italy. I read it and thought it would be novel to do it, but completely forgot about it when I went full steam ahead mapping out the itinerary and doing flight & train & hotel bookings. Whilst searching for other travel emails in my inbox recently, I found this link again, so thought it would be worthwhile to assess and review my amateur 11 day trip to an Italy-travel expert!
1. Take a night ride on the #1 vaporetto in Venice - Yes...and No
Did I take a ride on the vaporetto? Yes! I didn’t do it at night though and I didn’t sit on it for a full trip but it’s the experience that counts right? I did take an evening sunset ride on a Gondola with my travel partner along with 2 Japanese Tourists on a honeymoon though! I don't think they minded us crashing their romantic holiday (I hope?). One way to save on the pricey EU80 Gondola Ride is to just find other travellers that are willing to share the cost with you. As cheesy as it sounds, a ride on the Venice waters on a gondola is a must if you only plan to see Venice once.

2. Spend 15 minutes with “The Last Supper” in Milan – No to Last Supper. Yes to Milan
By the time I decided to take this trip, I would have been on the waiting list to see 'The Last Supper' in time for maybe Christmas. I did however go to Milan for half a day and saw the stunningly gorgeous Gothic Duomo. It’s incredible to see it as you surface from the metro station. I wandered around the Milanese streets in search of lunch and hit quite a few cool spots, and took snapshots of cool ‘design things’ I spotted. Milan is after all the design capital of Italy. I did see drafts and copies of da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ whilst in Venice though - there was an exhibition dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings at the Academia - 'The Universal Man', so I saw at least conceptual drawings and sketches of ‘The Last Supper’. The best part of my Milan visiting was actually the opportunity to meet up with my parents for an hour or so to have tea at the stunning Park Hyatt Milan where they were staying for a few nights.

3. Overdose on Renaissance art at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence - Yes!
I think I overdosed before I even entered Uffizi! The queues for the Uffizi were unlike anything I have seen. And under that strong Tuscan sun in early October (I can only imagine how the summer would have felt), it’s not the best place to be standing in Florence. Even with pre-purchased tickets, we had to queue at our allocated time slot to get inside the museum. Actually, just be prepared to queue in Florence wherever you go if it is not winter. I LOVE art museums, but I can’t say Uffizi was my favourite museum I have visited in the world. But a mighty collection of Renaissance art it is - all the big names can be found here - Michaelangelo, da Vinci, Botticelli etc. Where else to better understand and appreciate this art style which pioneered western paintings but in the Renaissance birthplace of Florence. And in an old Medici palace! My favourite painting in the entire Uffizi would have to be Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ - something captivating about the long wavy blonde hair and the curves of a woman’s figure!

The queue to get in!

4. Get a guided tour of the Vatican Museums - Yes...and No
I did go to the Vatican Museum not on a guided tour but with an audio guide. I would highly recommend pre-purchasing tickets to the Vatican Museum to ensure you get in on the day you would like to visit. I’m sure a guided tour would have been fantastic had I remembered to book it prior to going on holidays. The audio guide is still a good alternative and worth your money. The Sistine Chapel was definitely the highlight, so make that your last stop so you can fully appreciate everything in this museum. There are multiple tour groups that are on a tight schedule and race through this museum just to get to Michaelangelo's masterpiece, and unfortunately race out again. My advice is to take your time to appreciate the incredible detail in Michaelangelo's art (and not to lose your travel partner in the crowds!). You cannot take photos inside the Sistine Chapel so you may as well take it all in.

The beautiful spiral staircase inside Vatican Museum

5. Climb Florence’s Duomo - No...but
I didn’t climb it, but certainly did enjoy a view of the Duomo from my accommodation. My first Airbnb experience was pretty awesome. And I didn’t even know the apartment had a view at the time of my booking! Bonus! To be honest, I didn't even walk into the Duomo during my 2 nights in Florence. Refer to point 3 regarding crowds and queuing in Florence. I did take in a sunset view of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo - stunning!

Yep, that was the view!
6. Eat pizza in Naples – Yes!
Naples is the birthplace of the world famous pizza. Not many people actually put Naples on their itinerary if they are on a 11 day trip of Italy. I did out of necessity to connect us to essential travel points (airports). The Naples I saw was rather grungy and dirty, and frankly dirtier than places I’ve visited in parts of Asia! However the pizza I ate in Naples was the best ever. Full stop. Head to Pizzeria Starita for a meal you will remember forever! By sheer luck we managed to get a table immediately even though there was a queue!

Friday, October 25, 2013

2013 Point Spending Spree!

Most girls I know enjoy a good shopping spree, especially when a sale is on, be it to buy shoes, clothes, handbags or all. Exhilaration and hysteria is experienced as beautiful items are purchased, money 'saved' and the credit card is handed over to get its workout. As life would have it, I am not most girls - exhilaration and hysteria is experienced when I am sitting at my desk comfortably accumulating 'points', particularly those bonus points that come from new credit card applications, upgrades and referrals! (That is not to say I don't enjoy a good sale either). After years of consolidation and treasuring my beloved American Express Membership Reward points, this year I went on an unintentional point spending spree.

This is how the point-spending blow out occurred:
  • 20,000 points for a One Way Economy Class ticket – Melbourne to Sydney on Jetstar
  • 46,750 points for a One Way Business Class ticket – Sydney to Shanghai on Malaysia Airlines
  • 46,750 points for a One Way Business Class ticket – Kuala Lumpur to Sydney on Singapore Airlines
  • 51,000 points for a One Way Business Class ticket – Paris to Sydney on Malaysia Airlines
  • 40,000 points for a One Way Business Class upgrade – Paris to Sydney on Malaysia Airlines for my travel partner

Total Blowout = 204,500 points!!

Now that is quite a spending spree and all in one calendar year, but hey, I probably saved thousands of dollars with the business class trips I took :)

In the interest of full disclosure, I did use some personal funds to supplement the point-spending spree as well.
  • I applied for a David Jones American Express card this year which came with 20,000 sign up bonus points for a $99 annual fee. Those points funded my one way Melbourne-Sydney Jetstar flight which was a pretty good deal since I was purchasing the ticket one week before a long weekend! (FYI: I used my own money to purchase the Sydney-Melbourne ticket) I made the flight redemption by using a cool feature in Webjet to 'redeem' my points. However, I do not recommend this strategy unless it is last minute! Also, I don't think the DJ Amex points are really worth all that much...but hey I wanted to save some money.
  • Since 2011, I have been paying $99 p.a for my American Express Platinum Edge card. I get a discount on the annual fee as I am a member of the ICAA (Institute of Chartered Accountants). The best thing about this card was my sign-on bonus of 20,000 points! Additionally, I have been referring family, friends and colleagues this card and I have pocketed another 70,000 points from that. Another awesome feature of this card is the 'free' domestic flight you get each year - I managed to fly to Launceston for free this year so well worth my $99!
  • Each flight redemption triggers surcharges & taxes. For the Asia trip in earlier in the year I spent about $600 on those taxes & surcharges; and for the Paris-Sydney flight on Malaysia Airlines A380 business class I spent about $580. These surcharges do sound hefty, but when you compare it to the actual dollar value of a business class flight and the utility consumed, I think it is well worth it!

So what is the deal with buying one-way tickets everywhere?
I wanted to do a few 'open jaw' trips this year, and a lot of the online flight redemption booking tools do not allow this. To overcome this issue, I bought one way tickets and it allowed more flexibility in choosing my reward flights and carriers. Another reason for this decision is that I lacked points to complete my Europe trip wholly in business class this year + upgrade my travel partner, so it was easier to buy a one way economy ticket combined with a one way business class flight redemption. (The sacrifices I made!)

For example, this is how I structured my short 8 day Asia trip this year
  1. Sydney-Shanghai via Kuala Lumpur on Malaysia Airlines Business Class - 46,750 points  + $352.71 in taxes & surcharges
  2. Shanghai to Kuala Lumpur on Malaysia Airlines - bought one way economy ticket for $237.31 - it was cheaper to buy MAS than Air Asia at the time. 
  3. Kuala Lumpur-Sydney via Singapore on Singapore Airlines - 46,750 points+$252.60 in taxes & surcharges - and it gave me a chance to try the A380 cabin!
Total = 93,500 points + $842.62

A Sydney-Shanghai business class flight on MAS is about $5,500, so I definitely think this point redemption was value for money! Not to mention the additional comfort of a lie-flat bed, fantastic champagnes and wines to indulge on, proper headsets, a huge screen to watch my movies etc. To provide some perspective, 95,000 Amex Membership Reward points only convert to a $750 gift voucher. It still puzzles me to learn people would rather use points for a gift voucher instead of treating themselves to a business class flight you otherwise can't afford ordinarily!

I could have avoided the point blow out if I had known that I was going to be flying overseas twice this year. I was only planning on doing one trip this year (hence my logic to blow out points on Asia), but sometimes life takes a turn and new opportunities arise. Sure I could have found a better way to utilise my points to the max, but I am thankful that I had such a healthy balance of Amex Reward points to treat myself another time this year.

The point blowout obviously means that I am not sitting on a healthy Amex Membership Rewards balance anymore, nor do I see any bonus points coming my way soon. (If anyone in Amex is reading this, please feel free to send some bonus points my way!) For my upcoming travel endeavours, I will be going back to my 'purchased' US Airways points to make a redemption. Once you've sat in business class a few times on a long haul flight, it is pretty hard to go back to Economy.

Meanwhile, I am diversifying my points portfolio and really hoping the HSBC Platinum Qantas card I have applied for will be approved so I can start building on my Qantas Frequent Flyer points! Always good to have options when it comes to travel and point redemptions :)

Monday, August 19, 2013

Four Days in Provence

Head to 'Taking to the Open Road' to read my first ever guest post - Four Days in Provence!

Read about my travel tips and experiences exploring the gorgeous villages and towns in Provence - Avignon, Les Baux de Provence, Rousillon amongst others!


Les Baux de Provence

Monday, July 15, 2013

Provence, Purple, Lavender...trip planning!

Traveled June 2012

The decision to travel to the sunny, warm, French countryside was made at the bookshop whilst my travel partner and I were flicking through French travel guide books. Conflicted with the array of options and choices - Lyon? Normandy Coastline? Mont St Michel? The Champagne region? Loire Valley? Once we saw photo spreads of Lavender fields, we both decided that there was no other choice, we had to head to Provence!

Beautiful Lavender fields
Months and many after-work long nights were spent researching the best options to tour Provence. Bus trips? Private Tour? Self-drive? Trains? There is an abundance of information and resources in books, web pages, travel forums, blogs dedicated to ‘Provence’ that it was all a bit overwhelming! I actually spent weeks researching all the private tour operators, since it is meant to be a ‘holiday’ and I didn’t want to plan out each day and stress myself out with driving…on the other side of the road! However, the price-point for a private tour just proved a bit too expensive for us (approx EU350-450 per day), so we went with the self-drive option to cut costs down. In hindsight, I can say the self-drive option worked out very well – it definitely added an element of adventure to the holiday - moments of cursing the GPS; accidentally setting the speed limit to 50km/h on the German hybrid Mercedes C-Class hired car; driving 6 different ways from Avignon to our B&B; taking the backroads of Provence and almost driving through private driveways. After conquering the hills and windy roads of the Alpilles region (why is the GPS showing trees? omg we are driving up the little alps!) I can now say with confidence I am able to drive on the other side of the road. Win!

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Archi-tour of Spain: Part 3 | Barcelona

Visited: June 2012

I’ve been fortunate to see quite a bit of this world through my travels, but one city that always eluded me all these years and one that I've been super keen to visit - Barcelona.

Almost every visitor of Barcelona that I have spoken to sings praises of this city. The culture, architecture, food, shopping, weather, shopping, eating, shopping, eating (one can just rotate on shopping and eating) – everything about it seems to enchant its visitors. Little did I know this city was going to completely blow me away!

I’ve already given you all a taste of Barcelona through my Food Safari post, and if you are a foodie, please make it a mission to visit this amazing food capital! To me, the most stunning aspect of Barcelona would have to be its architecture. Whilst Gaudi’s buildings are stamped all over Barcelona, and I do love Gaudi’s incredible mind, imagination and willingness to experiment and push the boundaries in modern architecture, but it is actually the component of its small parts that make Barcelona shine. 

Now onto the photographs so one can see why Barcelona is such a cool place to visit!
Centuries old buildings that are still standing strong!

No building looks the same in Barcelona!

The mansions on Prasseig de Gracia

The Chimney Tops (or we liked to call them 'ice-cream cones') from Palau Guell are incredible works of art. They are imaginative, distinctive, colourful, fun and just plain unusual! Really appreciated and admired the creative efforts of artisans of the time, and of course thank you Gaudi for having such a vivid imagination.

I actually thought another cool feature of Guell Palace was being able to checkout the Barcelonean rooftops, which was such a contrast from the colourful, imaginative chimney tops!


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