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One Last Hurrah: Europe / Africa Itinerary – Part 1

One Last Hurrah

On an absolute whim, way back in June 2013, my friend and I booked the Etihad Airways Seychelles -> Dublin mistake fare for $361.

After booking the trip, I got accepted into Grad School for Fall 2013. Since the Seychelles -> Dublin trip meant we were already going to be in Africa and Europe, I decided to really go all out before school starts since I am going to be sidelined from traveling for the next year.

In addition to the Seychelles trip, my Cousin wanted to go to Central / Eastern Europe so I decided to tack that on before doing the Seychelles -> Dublin leg.

All in all, I will be traveling for around 37 days non-stop, from August 22 to September 30th!

If you have been following me on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram (you don’t need an Instagram account to see the photos), you are well aware this trip has already begun!

If you aren’t following me on social media, I highly recommend it because it is way easier for me to post on there than type up an entire blog post on my iPhone!

Flights

Since we paid for the Seychelles (SEZ) –> Dublin (DUB) fare out of pocket, I basically needed a one way ticket to Africa and a one way ticket home from Dublin.

When I originally bought the SEZ -> DUB fare, I assumed there were tons of possible award options like using United miles there and then flying back on Aer Lingus (using Avios) or burning Delta miles or using ANA, etc.

However after looking at all the possible options, plus the fact that my Cousin wanted to go to Central / Eastern Europe before hand, the only viable option left was to burn United Miles.

Although I would have preferred to burn any of my other miles since United miles are probably the most valuable mileage currency, most of the other options did not allow the double open jaw & stopover that United allows.

I REALLY wanted to use up all my 90,000 US Airways miles before the AA / US Airways merger (which was still on track to happen when I was booking these flights).

From what I have heard US Airways agents are notorious for being clueless as to how much award itineraries should cost, so they would have no problem believing that Seychelles (which is off of Africa in the Indian Ocean) is simply an island in the Caribbean or North Asia. Unfortunately, I tried US Airways and while the agent asked no questions about where Addis Ababa or Seychelles were, US Airways computers only allow a stopover OR an open jaw, not both options which I happened to need!

So I ultimately decided to use United miles!

In the past when I did my 45 hour First Class Extravaganza in December, I didn’t really have any issue pushing the limits on what was considered acceptable for a United Award ticket. I clearly went over the acceptable routing requirements and turned a 15,000 mile flight from ORD-BOM-ORD into a 25,000 mile flight that took me from ORD-IAD-FRA-NRT-BKK-BOM-EWR-ORD-DCA. I thought booking this ticket would be a similar case but boy was I wrong.

Via Flyertalk, I had read that you can have up to 12 segments per a United award but every time I called into United after spending hours creating an itinerary using the ANA tool, I couldn’t get United to price the award.

The agents would always try to get me to split the reservation into 2 separate tickets (or basically 2 one ways) but then I would lose the valuable double open jaw & stopover which doesn’t apply to one way tickets.

Eventually I figured out that anything more than 8 segments messes up United’s computers, so I carefully whittled my itinerary down to 8 segments.

The most annoying part about booking this award was that many of the segments were unnecessary like flying ORD-AMS-CPH-PRG, instead of ORD-PRG, because at the time I made the booking, there was no United availability.

However if I had waited for availability to open up closer to my departure (as it almost always does), then I would have gotten hit with United’s bogus $75 close-in ticketing fee, so it was really a catch-22. Either book unnecessary stops or pay $75 in nonsense close-in ticketing fees.

After 20+ hours on the phone with United (not even an exaggeration), I finally booked the following itinerary for 90,000 United miles.

The first leg to Africa is in Business Class (76,000 miles), while the return from Europe is in Economy (30,000 miles).

First Leg

August 22, 2013

Chicago to Amsterdam

United Business Class – Boeing 767

As this trip started almost 3 weeks ago, I already flew this leg and it was surprisingly awesome!

United is certainly not known for having a “great” Business or First Class product and this was my first time flying United Business Class (and not BusinessFirst), but I was extremely impressed.

It may have helped that I got an awesome Purser, who was easily the best United Flight Attendant I have ever had, but United also has real 180 degree lie-flat seats and an awesome In-Flight Entertainment system with shows people actually want to watch like House of Cards, Modern Family, Curb Your Enthusiasm, etc.

Even the food was surprisingly good!

The pre-departure water was the best I’ve ever had ; )

For dinner, I had a salad to start followed by tamale stuffed chicken.

I have always gone out of my way to NOT fly United Business Class because of the normally terrible service but this flight definitely changed my view. 

At the end of the day, you fly Business Class for the seat and not the service, which many people seem to forget!

Going forward, I will definitely consider flying United Business Class in the future if there is a lie-flat seat available.

August 23, 2013

Amsterdam to Copenhagen

SAS Euro Business Class – MD-80

I have been to Amsterdam before, so instead of laying over for 23 hours, I instead opted to go onwards to Copenhagen and spend 23 hours.

Euro Business Class is fairly boring and basically they block out the middle seat. However much to my surprise, the flight from AMS – CPH was on an SAS MD-80, which is set to retire and is part of the SAS DO later this month.

I am not sure what the fascination with the MD-80 is besides it being an old plane because the inside is pretty terrible. I guess since it is set to retire, it is cool to say I have now flown on the MD-80 but it isn’t exactly the same as saying you flew the Concorde before it was retired…

For lodging in Copenhagen, I stayed at a great hostel called Copenhagen Downtown Hostel for $40 a a night.

European Stopover Detour Leg

August 24, 2013

Copenhagen to Prague

Norwegian Airways Economy Class

After spending 23 hours exploring Copenhagen, I hopped on a plane to Prague where I met up with my Cousin.

Normally doing a 23-hour layover wouldn’t be a problem but because of the 8 segment max limit for my United award, I actually had to take a full 11 day stopover in Copenhagen and then pay out of pocket for a ticket from CPH -> PRG on Norwegian Airways for $100.

As the itinerary unfolds you will see why this was necessary, but if a United.com agent was looking at my award, my trip effectively stops in Copenhagen for 11 days.

Prague – 3 days

We spent 3 days in Prague doing a whole host of activities. Prague is very cheap and had some really unique restaurants and bars. I’d highly recommend visiting!

For lodging, we opted to get a private double room at the Czech Inn Hostel. Although it was a hostel, it was as nice as a Four Points and since it was a private room, it was basically like we were staying in a hotel. Not to mention it was only $30 each a night!

Vienna – 2 days

From Prague, we took the train to Vienna for around $40.

Although our train from Prague to Vienna was definitely from the Soviet era, we ended up getting our own cabin which had a sliding door, “lie flat bed”, in-flight entertainment (via our computers), internet (via wi-fi hotspot), etc.

Basically bring your own bottle of Krug or Dom Pieriegon and you have a Singapore First Class Suite : )

Vienna was like any other small European city. Outside of museums and random outdoor opera, there wasn’t much to do besides eat Wiener Schnitzel and Sacher Torte cake.  

We did venture out to the 1,410 room Schönbrunn Palace for one day and it was fairly amazing. In my opinion, it was even better than Versailles.

For lodging, since Vienna is on the Euro, hotels were extremely expensive. I was able to use the CarlsonF code, and get the Radisson Blu for $80 Euro a night. While it certainly wasn’t cheap, the normal rate was $150 Euro a night, so it was a steal. Plus since I am Radisson Gold, we got upgraded and the breakfast and the minibar was included in the CarlsonF rate!

Bratislava – 1 day

Since Vienna and Bratislava are the 2 closest country capitals in the world and were only an hour away from one another by train, we decided to visit Bratislava for the day.

Bratislava is fairly small, so in 1 day we were able to see the entire city with plenty of time left over.

For lodging, we stayed at the Sheraton Bratislava on Cash & Points for 7,000 points and $50.

It is easily one of the nicest Sheratons in the world and being SPG Gold, we were upgraded to a room that had an entire terrace!

Budapest – 3 days

Finally 10 days after starting, we took the train to Budapest and ended the first leg of our trip.

Budapest is again like Prague where everything is really cheap. There are also quite a few cool sites to see!

The food in Budapest was actually surprisingly tasty, however the highlight had to be the Baths, which are the largest Baths in all of Europe!

Nothing like spending the day soaking!

In addition, there are many “ruin bars”, which are basically dilapidated building turned into the most unique bars I have ever seen in my life.

For lodging, we stayed at the Radisson Blu again. While it was pretty dated hotel, it was in a central location and was only $40 a night total. That is how cheap Budapest is… 

My Cousin has a real job so he unfortunately he had to return back to Seattle, but another friend / FlyertTalker that many of you probably know, Eric B., joined me after my Cousin left.

Unfortunately due to scheduling, Eric arrived in Europe 3 days after my Cousin left, so I opted to go visit Rome for 2 days and then meet him at London Heathrow.

September 2, 2013

Budapest to Rome

Wizz Air Economy Class

It is pretty common knowledge that intra-Europe airfare can be had fairly cheaply via low cost carriers like Ryan Air, Wizz Air, Easy Jet, etc.

While cheap is good in my book, you really get for what you pay for with these airlines (which is basically nothing) and ultimately you are signing up to get nickeled and dimed for every single thing.

I’ve flown Ryan Air twice before and while it was fine, I was carrying so much stuff for 37 days on my back, that after calculating the baggage fees, etc, I realized it was better to pay a little more and not have to worry about unnecessary baggage fees. If your bag weighs too much or it doesn’t fit into the metal cage, it can easily be an extra $100 to check it.

Ultimately I settled on Wizz Air, which is a Hungarian low cost carrier. The flight was around $150, which is way more than I wanted to spend BUT it is certainly cheaper than flying from Chicago to Rome, so I decided to just do it.

If you bag can fit under the seat, then it flies free but if you need to put it in the above bins, then it is a small fee of $20. I opted to just pay the $20 more and was able to put my backpack, laptop, camera, shoes, etc into the rain cover for my backpack and make it all look like 1 piece of luggage.

The seat on Wizz Air was the smallest seat I have ever sat in. The knees touched the seat in front of me but you get what you pay for…

For lodging in Rome, I again opted to stay at a hostel called the Yellow Hostel. The hostel was fine and a great way to meet other travelers who were also doing extended trips.

Although it was ungodly hot and humid in Rome, I spent 2 days doing walking tours with Romeing Tours for $40 Euros, which was a great way to see the city, sites, and the Pope, all while not feeling bad about eating gelato with basically every meal.

September 5, 2013

Rome to Copenhagen

Easy Jet Economy Class

I have also flown Easy Jet before and they are kind of like Southwest in my book. I was able to get a flight from Rome – Copenhagen for $50, which is a steal!

Of all the low cost carriers, Easy Jet doesn’t charge you anything to take on carry-ons, so I was surprised when they made everyone put their carry-on into the metal test cage before boarding!

Of course, my “one” carry-on bag was actually 4 separate pieces of small luggage that I had stuffed into a larger soft-sided rain cover, so it definitely didn’t fit into the metal test cage. The options were basically put as much stuff as I could in my pockets and hide the rest, or pay $100 to check my bag. I opted to get creative and hid my laptop and camera into a smaller backpack which I then in turn hid under my jacket so I looked like a hunch back. Thankfully the gate agent didn’t notice the huge bulge in my back and my main backpack ended up fitting in the metal cage so I didn’t have to pay to check it. It was a stressful 10 minutes to say the least but I avoided any additional baggage fees!

In total I was able to get from Budapest to Rome to Copenhagen for around $200! While it wasn’t an exceptional price, it certainly wasn’t a bad deal.

If you are wondering why I had to fly from Rome back to Copenhagen to begin with, the reason is that I needed to return to Copenhagen to restart my stopover on my United award.

I had always assumed that if you did a stopover, you could stop in 1 city and restart your journey in another city. Apparently this isn’t the case and you have to restart where you stopped at.

So as I explained earlier, on my United award ticket I “stopped” in Copenhagen for 11 days, so to continue on my United award to Africa, I had to return to Copenhagen to restart my trip.

First Leg Continued

September 5, 2013

Copenhagen to London Heathrow

SAS Euro Business Class

I put a 3-hour buffer between landing in Copenhagen and continuing onwards to London, in the event my Rome –> Copenhagen EasyJet flight got delayed.

Thankfully that flight was fine, so I ended up having 3 hours in Copenhagen!

Since I was once again flying on my United award ticket, I had access to the SAS Business Class Lounge!

One word: wow!

I only managed to get one picture, but the SAS Lounge has to be one of the nicest Star Alliance Business Lounges after Turkish Airlines in Istanbul.

Great food, great ambiance, and there was even a working fireplace!

September 5, 2013

London Heathrow to Addis Ababa

Ethiopian Airlines Business Class – 787 Dreamliner

As I explained in my post about using the ANA tool to search for United flights, there are only a few good options into Addis Ababa, which is the hub for Ethiopian Airlines and also the ONLY Star Alliance carrier that flies into Seychelles!

While most people avoid flying out of London due to the Premium Cabin Tax, Ethiopian Ailines flies the 787 Dreamliner from Heathrow, so it seemed like the most comfortable option to Addis Ababa. Mind you that this is the exact same Ethiopian 787 plane that caught on fire while parked at Heathrow…

Not to mention that in the Singapore Lounge at Heathrow, you have to worry about this. You know that this sign is only up because this has been an issue in the past…

While I have flown the United 787 during the SMD4, the Ethiopian 787 doesn’t have lie-flat seats which was of concern.

Eric has opted to do a trip report on our Ethiopian 787 experience since I was sleeping most of the time, so I won’t spoil it, but all in all, the flight was surprisingly good.

The Ethiopian service was on par with what you would find on United and the food and drinks were pretty good. While the 787 didn’t have lie flat seats, the seats did go down to about 165 degrees so you weren’t sliding down like on Lufthansa.

While I’d definitely recommend flying Ethiopian 787 down to Africa, the Ethiopian Airport is something else and is exactly what you would expect at an African airport. There are only 9 gates, no real food options, and the “duty free” shops only accept cash and many sell counterfeit goods.

While we did have lounge access, the lounge was lit only by natural light in the ceiling if that is any indication of what type of airport this is…

So if you can fly the 787 down to Addis Ababa and have a short 3-hour connection like we did, I would highly recommend flying Ethiopian, BUT if you have a 3+ hour layover, I’d recommend flying a different route.

September 6, 2013

Addis Ababa – Seychelles

Ethiopian Airways Economy Class – Boeing 737

In Addis Ababa, we had a short 3-hour layover and then flew onwards to Seychelles.

Unfortunately, even though there was no one in Business Class, Ethiopian Airways did not release any Business Class award seats, so we were relegated back to Economy. Thankfully the flight was not full at all, so were able to get a full row to ourselves and basically had a “lie-flat” bed to sleep on for 4 hours!

While I did want to spend time in Africa on this trip, due to the rules of only 1 stopover, outside of spending 23 hours in ADD (which didn’t work because of the limited flights to Seychelles), there wasn’t any real way to spend any time in Ethiopia.

Honestly I think not stopping in Africa is for the best and it ultimately makes more sense to come back to Africa on a separate trip rather than try to slip in a visit on an already cramped trip.

As for the United award ticket, Seychelles the official end of the first leg of our journey.

If you were paying attention, for 60,000 United miles, I was able to go from Chicago -> Amsterdam -> Copenhagen (11 day stopover) -> London-> Addis Ababa -> Seychelles in Business Class!

On top of that, by taking advantage of United’s liberal award rules, cheap trains, and even cheaper European low cost airlines, on one leg of my journey, I was also able to squeeze in seeing Copenhagen, Prague, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, Rome for around $350 in additional transportation costs!

I plan on covering Seychelles and the hotels in a separate post but I can say that it was absolutely amazing and is basically paradise. The island is developed enough that there are quite a few luxury resorts but at the same time it is remote enough that there aren’t many tourists and you don’t feel like you are in Caribbean or Hawaii.

Not to mention the locals are extremely friendly. One night we were walking to the local store and ended up making random friends with some locals playing dominos and were invited to join in.

We were in Seychelles for 5 nights and since hotels can be expensive, we decided to minimize out of pocket expenses by burning hotel points.

For the first night, since Eric is SPG Platinum, we burned 20,000 SPG points at the Le Meridian Fisherman’s Cove and were upgraded to a villa. It was a great property with a nice pool and great views.

View from the villa

For the next 2 nights, I burned my 2 free night certificates that I received from the Citi Hilton Reserve Card at the Hilton Northolme.

There is always hesitation in using free night certificates, because they can basically used for any property, but I am EXTREMELY HAPPY that I used the 2 free nights at this Hilton property.

The property was absolutely stunning!

It is actually the smallest Hilton property in the world with only 40 villas! Also all the villas are identical, so no worries about having to be upgraded!

We ended up getting a hilltop villa, complete with a huge balcony and unreal views. Below is a photo of just the bathroom…

In addition, since I am Hilton Gold via the credit card, we got free breakfast, which saved us around $40 each a day.

The best part about the Hilton Northolme is that they have a private cove for snorkeling with free gear. It also helps that the fishes in the cove are basically Hilton employees, since Hilton throws bread into the water everyday to keep them coming back. So as soon as you enter the water, you are mobbed by tons of fish and basically guaranteed to have an amazing time snorkeling.  

Second private beach

View from the beach looking up at the resort

If you are thinking about visiting Seychelles and using points, the Hilton Northolme is the way to go, absolutely no contest. 

For the final 2 nights, we opted to do Airbnb for $100 a night, and got a villa high up in the mountains. While it wasn’t Le Meridian or Hilton Northolme, it is hard to complain when you are enjoying some fresh papaya with passion fruit, along with a killer view!

Recap

Part 2 of One Last Hurrah is auto set to be posted tomorrow and will cover the UAE, Dublin, Amsterdam, Athens, Santorini, Mykonos, and Munich.

I still have another 2 weeks of traveling until I am back home and am about to board the Etihad flight to Abu Dhabi, so I encourage anyone who is interested in following my trip to follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

-Parag

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