Tag: ANA

2013: Chicago to Rome to Singapore to Chicago

2013: Chicago to Rome to Singapore to Chicago

Trip Synopsis

Economy Class around the world via Europe and Asia on Lufthansa, Singapore, and ANA for 65K United Miles

The trip has a special place in my heart as it was my first dip into award booking inspired by miles and points aficionados. I was so excited afterwards that I even wrote my first trip report ever.

Encouraged by the success, I set my eyes on the next level of award travel: long haul international in business class.

MMB Analysis

  • United saw this as a round trip to Singapore (South Asia) at 32,500 miles each way with a stopover (ie, a stop over 24 hours) in Rome (Seven day Mediterranean cruise not included :-))
  • First time flying with Star Alliance partners Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines

Afterthoughts

  • I should have taken advantage of open draw at destination (arrive at/depart from different places in the same region). Since we visited Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia while at Singapore – bus outbound and AirAsia in bound, the KUL/SIN segment could have been avoided. It was nice to experience Asia’s most successful discount airliner AirAsia, but that alone not justified a long layover at Singapore. I could have booked Kuala Lumpur to Chicago as the return trip, going through one of Star Alliance’s hubs at Beijing (Air China), Taipei (EVA), Seoul (Asiana), or Tokyo (ANA).

How will it work out today

  • United mileage chart was devalued in 2014 and again in 2016. Singapore round trip would cost 70,000 in 2014 and 80000 miles now.
  • United eliminated stopover allowance in 2016. We could not have taken a seven-day stopover in Rome.

Trip Metrics

From To Distance (Miles)
Chicago Frankfurt 4344
Frankfurt Rome 595
Rome Frankfurt 595
Frankfurt Singapore 6389
Singapore Tokyo 3324
Tokyo Chicago 6274
Total 21521

Flying 21K on 65K miles. The ratio is stunning, particularly considering it’s my first booking!

2013: My first trip around the world

2013: My first trip around the world

Still excited from the just completed, 17-day trip around the world that saw us set foot on two continents and seven countries, I have developed a strong urge to attempt something that I have never done before and, in all likelihood, am pretty cumbersome at, that I should capture the highlights in a trip report.

My predominant interest in food and travel hardware dictates that the report will center on those aspects more than the learning experience, a predisposition that I find unforgiving if I ever dream of becoming a world-renowned travel blogger. On the other hand, it’s not my intention to discourage myself even before I start. Perfect is the enemy of good, I assure myself.
The trip began with a three day stay at Rome before boarding a seven day Eastern Mediterranean cruise with ports of call in Sicily, Greece, and Turkey. After disembarkation, we set off for Singapore, where we met my parents. The expanded family spent four days together in the Lion City, followed by two days at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The trip was concluded with an 18 hours flight from Singapore to Chicago, with a stopover at Tokyo. Our kids went to Shanghai with their grandparents and came home one week later.

Lufthansa, Singapore, ANA
Flight itinerary
Royal Caribbean, Navigator of the Seas, Easter Mediterranean, Rome
7-Day Cruise on Royal Caribbean Navigator of the Seas

All flights were booked by redeeming United Airlines frequent flier miles that I worked diligently to collect over the years and more aggressively in the past few months. Having flown United several times to China, I specifically chose variant airlines within the Star Alliance network to broaden our flight experience with different carriers. Altogether, we flew three Star Alliances airlines of Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, and All Nippon Airways (ANA), and one Kuala Lumpur-based, low-cost airline Air Asia. As exotic as “around the world” may sound like, only nominal fees were charged in booking the tickets. Even the miles needed for a trip like this can be obtained rather rapidly with minimum cost, if you are credit worthy, determined to earn free flights, and somewhat dedicated to the mileage accrue and redemption strategies. Since nearly exhausting our United MileagePlus accounts with 260,000 miles spent on this trip in December, we have already replenished more than half of the miles needed to replicate the same deal.

To Rome

During the trip, all long-haul flights took off in the evening. Such arrangement turned out to be convenient and practical. I was able to log a full day’s work on the day of departure, saving one precious vacation day.

Our first flight was with Lufthansa, a German airline with hubs in Frankfurt, Munich, and Dusseldorf. After the Boeing 747-400 took off shortly after 10 PM, dinner was served around midnight. The chicken meal I ordered, with cooked vegetable on the side, was like other western food served in the sky, that you had to eat it to keep from being hungry, yet the lingering taste accompanied by the jet leg quickly reminded you travel was not supposed to be pleasant to your stomach. The only bright spot was that wine and beer were still complimentary in trans-Atlantic economy class so you would not mistake the flight with a domestic one. However, the seating was uncomfortable. The pitch was noticeably short and seats in the 3-4-3, twin-isle configuration were narrow. They were no doubt designed with European travelers in mind instead of Americans, where over one-third of the adults are either overweight or obese.
With personal entertainment system handy, the overnight redeye flight was not particularly exhausting. I managed to watch a movie and sleep a couple of hours despite uncomfortable seats. Breakfast was served before landing at Frankfurt. Typical of airline food and not much different from United’s trans-Pacific offerings, the breakfast appeared uninspiring but tasted OK.

Lufthansa, food
Food and IFE on Lufthansa

I didn’t expect an immigration stamp on my passport at Frankfurt airport but not at Rome. Apparently European Union is unified at this front such that only the point of entry to EU is recorded, not the particular country to visit. There was no customs form to fill prior to entering either Germany or Italy. Talking about (lack of) border control!

Frankfurt, FRA, McDonald's
Welcome to Frankfurt where food is more expensive in dollar terms

Rome

Before the trip, we were fully aware that pickpocket is rampant in Rome. No sooner than at the very start of our tour of the city we fell victim to the act. Within steps off our first bus exit next to the Capital Museum, a young female panhandler nearly half his size approached our elder son and grabbed his arm for money. Although he successfully got rid of her after some skillful persuasion, in both English and Spanish, we soon realized that his wallet in his zipped pocket was stolen. Luckily, we were less than 100 feet away from the scene. Upon our swift return, the lady promptly handed over the wallet, claiming she found it on the ground. We could have spent the next hour or so contacting US credit card issuers!
After the rude awakening, we became extra careful in guarding our belongings. In a country where unemployment rate among the youth stood as high as 40%, everyone, tourists or locals alike, is wise to be prudent.

Coliseum, Rome
Inside and outside of Coliseum

Rome is a city full of architectural and historical gems. We could hardly cover the “top tier” in two full days. We visited the Coliseum first. The largest amphitheater in the world, the Coliseum was built at the beginning of the Roman Empire in year 70 A.D. This was the place where gladiators, often death roll prisoners, were left to fight for their own survival, against animals or other gladiators. As testimony of its marvelous architect and engineer work, as many as 50000 spectators can enter or exit the complex in as little as 15 minutes.

Rome, architectural ruins
architectural ruins are everywhere at Rome

Visiting Rome was in a way like going back to China. There were tourists all over the place. As a matter of fact, it’s hard to snap a picture without a stranger in the background or even foreground. The huge inflow of tourists was presumably desperately needed in the country battling fiercely against austerity. In contrast to that expectation, I did not particularly feel tourists were welcome in Rome. Part of that might be due to language barrier. We purchased Rome Pass which gave us unlimited ride on city transportation. However, we had a great deal of difficulty getting directions from bus drivers, local passengers, or even security guards, who appeared either impatient or indifferent. Although signs of past greatness were clearly visible as we strolled on omnipresent cobble stone alleys sparkled by grand structures easily centuries old, I could never let escape the thought of a lost civilization.

bus stop sign, Rome
bus stop sign – good luck if you have any questions about it
National Monument of Victor Emmanuel II, Rome
National Monument of Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a unified Italy
Trevi Fountain, Rome
Trevi Fountain
Pantheon, Rome
Pantheon
Capitoline Hill, Rome
Capitoline Hill
Spanish Steps, Rome
Spanish Steps

Rome is known for authentic Italian food. As expected, street side bites lived up to their names and were in general satisfying. Compared to their American counterpart, Italian pizza or calzone were richer in vegetable toppings and tastier. Food establishments were abundant among tourist sites and my tired legs were grateful that I did not have to walk far to find one. On the other hand, locating a great dinner restaurant proved to be hit or miss. I made a mistake of relying too much on TripAdvisor.com ratings. In one such highly rated restaurant in Camp de Flori neighborhood, for example, the waiter greeted us with “drink, eat, or both?” As it turned out, the restaurant was better known for its extensive wine selections. Our food orders did not arrive until 50 minutes later even though we appeared to be the only table waiting. Even then, one of our four orders was never taken! Instead of making it up there, we quickly headed to a restaurant across the street for the second round dinner. This time we let smell and crowd lead the way and were not disappointed at all. Dinner menu in Rome usually listed both primo and secondary entries, with the primo, or first, entry relatively light, usually featuring pastas, and second entry heavy and meaty, usually coming with fish or beef. On that night, we just mixed primo and secondary in two different restaurants.

Italian dishes, Rome
Italian dishes we tried

Vatican

A tour to Rome is incomplete without visiting Vatican City, the smallest country in the world yet yields significant influence over one billion-strong Roman Catholics around the world.
Weeks before leaving for Rome, I had booked an early morning guided tour of the Vatican Museums. With reservation in hand and taking comfort with the fact that we stayed within steps of Vatican wall, I made a mistake of being assumptive and allowing insufficient time to get to the museum. We were 10 minutes late for the tour and had to be rescheduled to noon. We spent 40 minutes of the three hours of unplanned time walking back to our bed and breakfast in a different direction than we came in from. Without us being aware at the time, we had circled an entire country by foot.
Erected in the 16th century, the Vatican Museums assembled huge collection of fine arts from the catholic world. I found myself quickly turning into a robotic photographer, as that was all left to be done by a person with little knowledge in Christianity. The mosaic floor, the painted hallway, and the famous Last Judgment ceiling painting at the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo, were simply stunning, to name a few. I am sure our elder son took home more messages than I did. The School of Athens by Italian painter Raphael, for example, was featured in his high school AP Art History course.

School of Athens, Raphael, Vatican, Sistine Chapel
School of Athens painting by Raphael at Sistine Chapel
Sistine Chapel, Vatican Museum, Rome
clockwise from top left: pinecone statue at Vatican Museum courtyard, lookout from Sistine Chapel, mosaic tile and carved ceiling at Sistine Chapel,
St. Peter's Square, Vatican
St. Peter’s Square at Vatican

St. Peter's Square, Vatican, Rome

Royal Caribbean Navigator of the Seas

With a tonnage of 138,000 and capacity of 3114 passengers, Navigator of the Seas is currently the 12th largest cruise ship in the world and the largest cruise ship we have ever been on.

Royal Caribbean Cruise, Navigator of the Seas
Royal Caribbean Navigator of the Seas
Royal Caribbean Cruise, Navigator of the Seas
Food decoration and presentation
Sunset, Royal Caribbean Cruise, Navigator of the Seas
Sunset on the sea

Messina, Sicily Island

Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. The city of Messina, capital of Messina Province, sits on the northeast corner of the island that is a couple of miles away from Italian mainland across the Strait of Messina.

Messina, Sicily
Clock Tower at Messina
Palazzo della Provincia, Messina
Old province building
Messina
Messina streets
Messina
Messina port

Athens, Greece

With only a few hours to spend, most of the first-time cruise tourists chose to head to Athens city center where the ancient ruins of Acropolis were located. The archaeological site sat on top of a sharp hill about 70 meter above the surrounding streets, unmistakably matched by the description of an acropolis, which in Greek means “city built on the edge”.
The cruise port, Piraeus, is about 8 kilometers from Acropolis. As soon as we got off the cruise ship, taxi drivers already knew what we were up to and yelled their offer to take all four of us to Acropolis for 20 euro. It’s probably not a bad deal, but we already had plans. I had learned from homework that taking a metro train to Acropolis is just as fast and unlikely to be interrupted by traffic. So we set off walking towards the train station. Some of the taxi drivers would not give up, following us hundreds of meters to the cruise gate. We must have sounded either too stubborn or too cheap to them.

Pireas, Athens, Greece
Pireas, main sea port to Athens

Athens public transportation systems charged flat rate, 1.40 euro per adult, children half price, regardless of distance of travel within 90 minutes time limit. After we bought the tickets and sat in the train waiting for its departure, the wording on the ticket caught my attention: “Validate on your first trip. Penalty for non-validation is 60 times the ticket price”. Still under the shadow from my Rome experience, I started to nervously ask fellow passengers how to tell a ticket had been validated. To my relief, they understood English well and had no difficulty explaining that all tickets had to be stamped, or validated, prior to boarding. My puzzled face must have looked more serious than at Rome as it convinced one of the local passengers to actually walk out of the train and lead us all the way to a row of yellow boxes at the end of the platform. He nearly missed the train as we fumbled the tickets into the yellow box for validation. I would have felt sorry if he did.

Athens metro
Public transportation in Athens

I have to give credits to my younger son who helped ended my otherwise total oblivion in Greek mythology by quizzing me each god’s responsibilities and relationships between them non-stop throughout the trip till this date, armed by his recently acquired knowledge on this topic through reading series of books by Rick Riodan. The trip became more revealing and entertaining as we traced the roots of the aforementioned stories. The mere naming rights of Athens involved no less than a heated contest between Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, and Poseidon, the God of the Seas. Athena won the battle as her gift to the city, an olive tree symbolizing peace and prosperity, was favored over the nearly useless salt water spring presented by Poseidon. The legend also had it that Athena was born out of her father, Zeus’s head in unbearable pain. Zeus, The King of Gods, who had overthrown his own child-eating father, Cronus, before becoming the leader, swallowed Athena’s mother for fear of threat against his realm. Stories like these were featured on countless limestone sculptures situated on various archeological remains at Acropolis, the most famous of which include Parthenon, Erechtheum, statue of Athena Promachos, and many more. These structures, believed started to be built in as early as 600 BC, witnessed the rise and fall of Greek civilization as well as the footprint of foreign occupancy. Even the mighty Greek gods could do nothing to stop the viscous cycle of building, destruction, repair, looting, and eventual burning-down of the citadel in their honor. Disappeared among the ruins lied the blurry of history and legends.

Acropolis, Athens, Greece
The Parthenon and nearby stadium at Acropolis

Much of what I learned about Acropolis was from the nearby Acropolis Museum. Some of the more complete columns and sculptures of archeological significance were preserved there. A short movie on Acropolis history was very informing, too. The admission fees to the museum were very reasonable at five euro for adults and three for children and students with International Student IDs. Since our elder son did not possess an International Student ID, we were expecting to pay full price. The admission agent honored student rate anyway after verbal verification. It could be no more than a random act of kindness. Personally I would rather choose to believe it’s the tip of the iceberg of a society of trust. I wish Athens well.

Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece
Acropolis Museum
The Parliament House, changing guards, Athens
Changing guards at the Parliament House

Kusadasi, Turkey

In Turkish, kus means bird, ada, island. Together, it refers to an island of birds. Despite of the name, the highlights of the port of the call were another series of archeological wonders and historical sanctuaries in the nearby city of Ephesus about 20 kilometers away, not the least of which laid claim to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Port of Kusadasi, Ephesus
Port of Kusadasi

The ancient city of Ephesus was once populated by more than 250,000 in the first century BC, making it one of the largest cities in Mediterranean World, only behind such metropolitans as Rome and Alexandria. In contrast to Rome where modern world has also thrived, Ephesus gradually lost its important role as the trading center on Aegean Sea with salt water backflow along the Cayster River. We can only gain glimpse of the past from what remained through centuries of human neglect and destruction on top of acts by nature including earthquakes.

The 1.5 km winding path through the city was packed with ruins of civilization. The Celcus Library, three stories tall, was one of the largest libraries in the world at the time of its build in year 120 by Roman Senator Celsus. Besides its size, the Roman influenced building was also unusual in that the sponsor Celsus himself was buried underneath the entrance as a monument to him. At Roman Baths, or public bathrooms as known today, the toilet structures not much different from what I saw in use during my childhood showcased civil engineering two thousand years in advance, although I might take exception to the usage of marble as the building material, particularly during the winter. Mediterranean winter could be hash. That had prompted the early dwellers to construct hollow ducts made of clay and embed them in the walls, in much the same way we build central air today. Considering that heating is still deemed a luxury in many parts of the world, the architect and engineering designs discovered in the ancient city were truly remarkable. A large city needed a huge gathering place, hence the great amphitheater with seating capacity of 25,000, not a trivial matter even measured in modern standard. Best of all, the theater is still intact and operable centuries later. In February 2009, Elton John performed in front of a large crowd right here. Imagine popular songs like Circle of Life and Someone Saved My Life played in modern acoustics mixing with rocks and limestone laid down by folks thousands years ago!

Ephesus
public bathroom of old Ephesus
facade, library
facade of old library
stadium, column, Ephesus
stadium and columns

As if the ancient Ephesus was not impressive enough in its archeological offerings, the city drew huge following from another group of faithful visitors, the Christians. Pilgrims followed the footsteps of St. John, who helped Mary, the mother of Jesus, avoid the prosecution of Christians in Jerusalem and took her to Ephesus. Mary ended up spending her final years here and died in year 54. After fulfilling his duty of caring for Mary, John eventually died in Ephesus in year 100. His burial site later on became the location of Basilica of St. John. Both the basilica
and the House of the Virgin Mary were featured in numerous tours available to visitors both local and around the world. The House of the Virgin Mary was no more than 10 x10 square meters in size. No photographs were allowed inside the house. We took our pace once inside after about 20 minutes of wait, trying to get as much from this holy place as we can. Behind the house, a wall of three water sprouts became a busy place for pilgrims. It was believed that the spring water under the house possesses healing power. Many visitors were apparently prepared, with small empty bottles in hand.

House of the Virgin Mary, Ephesus
visitors lining up to enter Virgin Mary’s house
Prayer Wall, Virgin Mary's House
Prayer Wall at Virgin Mary’s House
spring water, Virgin Mary's house, Ephesus
holy spring water at Virgin Mary’s house

Unlike the list of Seven Wonders of the World, which has been the subject of debate and interpretation by different organizations whose own proposals do not necessarily overlap, Seven Wonders of the Ancient World is clearly defined and accepted. The clarity may be due to the relative narrow definition of “Ancient World” in both geographical and chronological terms. Only architectural and artistic achievements widely viewed by Hellenistic tourists, who largely covered today’s Middle East and Mediterranean regions, and from years 200 to 100 BC were taken into account. Because the list was established more than 2000 years ago, with the exception of the Great Pyramid of Giza, which remains relatively intact, the other wonders have been reduced to ruins. Only one column of no more than 20 meters high and some pieces of foundation were clearly visible at  although a couple of vendors were eager to sell archeology-subjected books with diagrams of what the temple used to look like.

Temple of Artemis, Ancient Seven Wonders of the World
remains of The Temple of Artemis, one of the Ancient Seven Wonders of the World

I found it regretful that Chinese history, let alone world history, was never given its rightful place during my secondary education. If it were, I surely would have been in a better position to connect the dots and appreciate the great civilizations embedded in the ruins in front of me more profoundly. The cruise ship had been casting a line of itinerary hundreds of miles away from Rome, dotted at Sicily, Athens, and now in Ephesus. Yet the distance paled against Roman’s realm. From the basilicas in Messina, to the endowments in Athens and Ephesus, nearly all the architectural heavyweights were imprinted with Roman influence, whether it’s in the form of design, construction, sponsorship, or dismantle. I also became equally impressed by Greek’s superlative past, under whose control, Ephesus flourished. Temple of Artemis was a testament of Greek gods being celebrated and worshipped outside modern national boarders long before they were drawn. Roman knew better – Greek language and philosophy had been well sought after among Roman elites. Considering most of the stories I learned took place from an era up to hundreds of years before Qin Shi Huang united China, my preoccupied thought of enlightenment could not be overstated.

carpet demo, Ephesus
how carpet is made at carpet exhibition center

Chania, Greece

Chania, located at the northwest corner of the Crete Island, was the last stop of the cruise before heading back to Rome.
Situated in East Mediterranean and within close reach to Europe, Asia, and Africa, Crete Island was better known as a trading hub as well as safety heaven for pirates. Although the island had a rich history predating ancient Greece by thousands of years, we took an easy approach at this stop, opting to visit the commercially developed area instead of explore history. I really liked what I saw in Chania, a city of charm and tranquility.

Chania, Greece
Chania harbor area
Chania fortress, Greece
fortress with harbor view
Mosque of Kioutsouk Hassan-Giali Tzamisi, Chania, Greece
Mosque of Kioutsouk Hassan-Giali Tzamisi at the harbor square

We first stopped by a municipal market patronized mostly by locals. Starved for internet access after days on board, I asked for the wi-fi code available to customers at a bakery store even though we did not make any purchase. The lady at the store gave us the code with a friendly smile and let us use one of their tables, reminding me we were back to the friendly country of Greece. Overall, I found the produce prices comparable to those at the US, if not slightly more expensive.

Chania, Greece
local market

Most of the tourists gathered at the harbor. Over there, boat captains and restaurant greeters alike eagerly waved at the tourists. Despite the foot traffic, the water at the harbor was very clean and fish could be seen swimming freely. If it had not been for the unscrupulous eating on the cruise, we could have pulled a table by the seaside and enjoyed a dish or two.

To Singapore

After disembarkation, we arrived at Rome Fiumicino Airport three hours before scheduled departure time, only to find out our flight to Frankfurt was delayed. Central Europe was having one of the worst flooding in its history. Air traffic was disrupted as a result. We were lucky that our flight was delayed only by two hours.
At Fiumicino, we met two separate Chinese tour groups, each with about 20 people. We ended up boarding the same flight. Signaling a large Chinese presence was not particularly unusual, the gate agents greeted them in Chinese “Xie Xie” and the safety instructions were played in German, English, and Chinese. The Chinese tourists overwhelmed the 200-passenger A321 plane during the boarding process as they changed seats all over the place, some from all the way back to the front row of the Economy, carrying luggage with them along the way. At Frankfurt airport, our plane took a long taxi of at least 15 minutes before stopping at the terminal. That was apparently too long for many of the Chinese tourists who started to reach for their luggage. Flight attendants, still restrained by seat belts themselves, tried in vain to stop the unsafe maneuver. The frantic tourist guides had to stand up and yell at the fellow passengers in Chinese. They managed to sit everyone. But damage was already done. Several overhead bins were left open with the doors bouncing up and down as the plane approached the gate while pieces of carry-on luggage were left in the middle of the isle. Embracing wealthy Chinese tourists had its price, but travel safety should not be among them.
As a self-proclaimed travel aficionado, I can’t help but noticing all the praises about Singapore Airlines and have long considered it the jewel of the Star Alliance. I was very excited at the time of the booking that award seats on Singapore Airlines (aka SIA) were still available. Redeeming United’s miles on a top notch carrier? I would be happy to do that many times over! Not surprisingly, SIA’s service was more attentive compared to US airlines, even on their international routes. As soon as cruising altitude was attained, flight attendants started to run around to provide headset, convenience pouch containing a pair a socks and tooth brush kit, hot towel, and menu, before rolling out dinner. The three dinner choices, chicken piccata, fish fillet with Asian egg noodle, and roasted pork with steamed rice, all sounded very pleasing to my taste. I ordered fish, which was tender and juicy, definitely among the best airline food I ever had. Topping off the dinner with a Magnum ice cream bar, I was ready for the overnight flight. Lunch was served before arrival. Again, the chicken egg noodle I had did not disappoint. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t mind having this kind of food every day on land.

Singapore Airlines, food
fish, chicken, port meals served on Singapore Airlines

Out of curiosity, I checked recent rankings of world airlines. SkyTrx’s top 10 airlines in 2013 were as follows:

  1. Emirates
  2. Qatar Airways
  3. Singapore Airlines
  4. ANA All Nippon Airways
  5. Asiana Airlines
  6. Cathay Pacific Airways
  7. Etihad Airways
  8. Garuda Indonesia
  9. Turkish Airlines
  10. Qantas Airways

Interestingly, based on this survey of passenger satisfaction, none of the US airlines made to the top 40. I miss SIA already.

Singapore

Singapore is known for its lofty real estate price. Nonetheless I was shocked by ads on Straight Times that found many 1000 sq ft two bedroom condominium asked for more than one S$ million. Hotels were expensive, too. We stayed four nights at Conrad Centennial hotel, one of the higher rated in Singapore located at Marina Bay. The standard rate was S$380, about US$300, per room per day. Being a frugal traveler, I liked the hotel, but not the price. That’s when the hotel points came into play. Similar to United’s MileagePlus, Hilton’s loyalty program Hilton HHonors allowed four nights’ stay at the hotel in exchange for 132,000 HH points. With some careful strategizing and planning, that goal was met after a few points setback in credit scores and less than $200 in two credit card annual fees. On top of that, I strived to qualify HH gold status before the trip, which came with free breakfast at Hilton hotels, a savings of S$59 per person per day at Conrad. The vast variety of breakfast items, from Chinese style porridge, dim sum, to Western pound cakes, omelette, and fresh juices, made the free breakfast deal even sweeter.

Conrad Centennial, Singapore
room view at Conrad Centennial
Conrad Centennial, Singapore
High redemption values for Hilton HHonors points at Conrad Centennial, US$300/night for 33000 Hilton HHonors points

This little economic wonder of the 70s and 80s, combining the best of what the East and West could offer, was so inviting to me that I developed the sense of belonging after four days of stay, even though I had no business saying that as a tourist. Removal of language barrier certainly helped. Mandarin Chinese was as prevalent as English, the official language of the city state. Not only most ethnic Chinese that accounted for three forth of the population spoke Chinese, some of the Malays could communicate in that language as well, as I learned firsthand from talking to one of the hotel concierges, a Malay. From asking directions, to chatting with taxi drivers and ordering food, Chinese made my life easy as a visitor. I also felt a strong connection to the US in that, likewise, it’s a country well administered with law and order. At Changi Airport, Ground Transportation desk radioed in a large taxi van for the six of us in a matter of minutes who accepted posted fare for that type of car (I could not take that for granted as I learned from my experience at Kuala Lumpur later). Pedestrians, bikers, and motor vehicles alike strictly obeyed traffic signals. Streets were clean and I did not notice the presence of police or graffiti in public places, usually a telling sign of potential troubles. Metro stations were roomy and airy with station locations and route maps color-coded and alpha-numerically represented and easy to understand. eCommerce delivered as promised with my pre-ordered coach tickets to Kuala Lumpur honored at the station. Things ran smoothly as they were supposed to be.

Marina Bay Sands, Singapore
Marina Bay Sands, image of Singapore
The Fullerton Hotel, Singapore
The Fullerton Hotel at Marina
Singapore Marina
highrise at marina
shopping, Singapore
no lack of high end shopping
Singapore Chinatown
Chinatown

And then there was food. Singapore is foodie’s heaven. There were non-stop supplies of restaurants everywhere we went: along the Singapore River, underneath or on top of shopping complex, and of course, at Chinatown. They drew strong analogy to my favorite memories in this category both in terms of style and variety: alley food in Shanghai, family-owned restaurants in Hong Kong, and giant food court in Vancouver. For less than S$10, one can sample dim sum, Hainan Chicken rice, Thai flavored fish, or beef noodle made from your choice of fresh knife-carved or hand-pulled from the dough. Casual dining was at its climax at Makansutra Gluttons Bay, a row of restaurant featuring seafood on the northern bank of Singapore River. As darkness fell, tourists gathered around open table with famous local dishes such as chilly crab, grilled squid, or fried stingray, all emitting irresistible smell and temptation, whether coupled with cold beer, freshly squeezed lemon juice, or simply a coconut fruit. If the timing was right, the twice nightly Light and Laser Show on the bay would add another dimension to one’s sense of pleasure. We also visited Hai Di Lao, a hot pot style restaurant recently featured on Wall Street Journal, since none of the franchise in the US was close to Chicago. We were supposed to be entertained by a variety of board games and electronic games or even free manicure at the waiting area provided by Hai Di Lao. We did not have a chance to experience those offerings when we arrived at 4:30 PM for dinner. True to the WSJ description, ordering was conducted on an iPad and noodles were hand-pulled in front of us by a dancing worker till they were about two meters long.

Makansutra Gluttons Bay, Singapore
night market at Makansutra Gluttons Bay
Hidilao Hot Pot, Singapore
visiting Hidilao Hot Pot for the first time, before its first US store was opened

At less than two degrees north, Singapore was as close to the equator as I ever got to. Because the Sun was directly overhead above the northern Tropic of Cancer during the month of June, the sunlight came down to Singapore from the north. That’s why I lost my sense of direction at Botanic Gardens as I looked for the exit on the map. I was blaming an inaccurate map!

Kuala Lumpur

With two days to spare, I decided to visit Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia about 350 km to the north, by land on the way there and by air back. Funny as it might sound, part of the reason for including KL in the trip was my fond memory of the city after watching a movie in which Kuala Lumpur appeared neat and filled with sunshine, vibe and skyscrapers. I couldn’t recall the name of the movie, but one can never underestimate the power of persuasion by Hollywood.
The relative short distance between Singapore and KL could be misleading for travel planning, for reasons unrelated to highway congestion, although we got caught by traffic as we entered KL. We spent half an hour on the bus waiting to move up to Singapore Immigration, which took about 15 minutes itself. Once we were done, Malaysia was a short hop away across the bridge. There, we were asked to take our luggage to Malaysia Immigration and Customs. By the time the busload passengers completed the paperwork and all the baggage loaded on the bus again, we already ran two and half hours on the clock and Singapore was still in sight. On the plus side, the coach bus from Aeroline, whose double-decker was spacious and comfortable, provided a relaxing ride with lunch and entertainment.

Aeroline bus, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur
Aeroline bus from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, all-leather seats, food included, for under US$40

I had to admit coming to KL based on my movie fantasy was a mistake. The Iconic Petronas Twin Towers, among the tallest in the world, was about the only scene reminiscent of what’s in the movie. Streets, though relatively wide for the most part, struggled to handle the huge volume of vehicles. The blue sky gave away to smog not all accounted for by the omnipresent gas waste. I later learned the situation became worse since we left such that the air quality was rated “dangerous” at one point. If anything, the street vibe was still brimming, except it took courage to navigate through the crowds under the scorching sunshine in order to truly experience it. Adding irritation to the visit, we had hard time locating a taxi driver willing to run the meter, despite posted sign saying it’s unlawful to refuse meter usage. We had to negotiate fare before boarding, often paying a rate several times over the official one in our short hops in the city. Interestingly, when we found a dispatcher service at Pavilion KL, an upscale shopping plaza, who promised meter fare, we had to pay a fee for their service. Law abiding was apparently extra in KL.

Twin Tower, Kuala Lumpur
Twin Tower
Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur
Chinatown
Kuala Lumpur
Kuala Lumpur, day and night

Where KL fell below expectations, it was made up for elsewhere. The hotel stay was a pleasant surprise. Double Tree Hotel Kuala Lumpur was downgraded in March from a Category 3 to a lowly Category 2 in Hilton system, below most of run-of-the-mill Hampton Inns, let alone Hiltons or Hilton Garden Inns, in the US. The low tier level meant each room cost only 10000 HH points per day, a screaming bargain considering the hotel’s prime location at the city
center and favorite review by travelers at TripAdvisor.com. In addition, we received free wi-fi, executive lounge access on the top 34th floor, and complementary breakfast at Makan Kitchen on the 11th floor, thanks to HH Gold status. The huge selection of food at Makan Kitchen was jaw-dropping. The kitchen was so big that it had to be compartmentalized into separate food stations: Malaysian, Chinese, Indian, western, et al, each offering at least a dozen different dishes. Simple noodle soap could be mixed using choice of thick, thin, or egg noodle with chicken, beef, or herb soap, along with side items of vegetables, mushrooms, and seafood meat for personalization. I did not have a chance to sample all the food I liked to in two days. If Makan Kitchen stood out in variety, executive lounge enticed us with seclusion and service. Even though only snacks were available in the evening, they compared favorably in quality and taste with appetizers found at some of the more selective restaurants. We found our usual spot around a large table in a semi-enclosed meeting room, all to our family, since there were few other guests at the lounge. Similar to private party at a restaurant, wine and drinks were served as we enjoyed the food, the conversation, and the expansive valley view overlooking the city, at a cool temperature setting somewhat twenty degrees Fahrenheit lower than the outside. Moment like this possessed healing power: any displeasure with the poor trip planning would be easily dispelled and my memory of KL would be permanently updated with the warmth of family time no longer depending on movie recalls.

Double Tree Kuala Lumpur
Double Tree hotel, room view and lobby
Double Tree Kuala Lumpur, Executive Lounge
10,000 Hilton HHonor points per night with upgraded room and lounge privilege, including unlimited drink, making Double Tree KL my BEST HH redemption experience
Makan Kitchen, Double Tree Kuala Lumpur
Makan Kitchen on 11th floor, dozens of breakfast choices served, complimentary of Hilton HHonor Gold status
Makan Kitchen, Double Tree Kuala Lumpur
noodle station and omelet center

I found KL to be the least expensive among places I visited during the trip, at least in terms of food. Some of more elaborate Chinese restaurant dishes at the same plaza where Double Tree hotel was located cost about ten to fifteen Malaysian Ringgits (MYR), or three to five US dollars. Many food court items were under ten MYR. We visited Din Tai Fung at Pavilion KL whose locally renowned Xiao Long Bao cost less than 15 MYR per 12 pieces. The quality and authenticity was beyond the likes at Chicago Chinatown, but I would not mistake it for the namesake material found at either Yu Yuan in Shanghai or Nan Xiang Xiao Long in Jia Ding.

Din Tai Fung, Kuala Lumpur
Visiting renowned Din Tai Fung restaurant for the first time

Two thirds of the Malaysian population were Malays, followed by Chinese, about one-forth, and Indian, about 1/13. Islam was by far the dominant religion, with a 61% “market share”. On KL streets, there were many women in veil. Driven by the religious diversity not normally exposed to, we visited Sri Mahamariamman, a Hindu temple next to Chinatown, and Islamic Art Museum. The Hindu temple was basically a small courtyard with some statues honoring Hindu gods. It was not patronized by many worshippers, but one had to remove shoes before entrance. Islamic Art Museum, on the other hand, was very impressive, with well conveyed educational displays featuring Islamic architect, history, and Qur’an. I tried to take advantage of the visit and look for answers to the ever-deepening conflict and mistrust between Muslims and Christians that rooted many of the world tragic events today. Unfortunately, my lack of knowledge on this topic conveniently rendered this idea a futile effort. Beyond my rudimentary findings that Islam believed in Allah and his messenger Muhammad, as opposed to Jesus, my two hour political investigation was best described unproductive and inconclusive. However I did appreciate Qur’an dogmatism that embraces acceptance and tolerance. There is hope for world peace after all. The extremely clean, bright, and spacious three-story building reminded me of the popularity of Islam in this country, as well as the fact that we were neighboring Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world. We had undoubtedly left Christian-dominated Rome and Vatican and entered Muslim territory!

Islamic Art Museum, Kuala Lumpur
Islamic Art Museum
Sri Mahamariamman, Kuala Lumpur
culture diversity – Sri Mahamariamman, the Hindu temple next to Chinatown, in this Islamic dominant city

Back home

We flew back to Singapore from Kuala Lumpur via Air Asia. This was the first time we used the discount airline and found it pretty attractive. Based in KL, Air Asia had a wide reach in Asia including Japan, Australia, India, and China. Their main attraction was low fares, as low as ten US dollars between KL and Singapore, for example. Since we flew on a Sunday, as did many Malaysia-based Singapore workers, the price was little higher, particularly towards late afternoon and evening. Still, at $30 per person, about the same as coach bus serving the same route, the price was very reasonable. While Air Asia offered low flight fare, they made up the profit from amenities like meal and baggage service. We prepaid three checked-in baggage for $70, which could be easily doubled if we were to check in at the time of flight. My take with Air Asia was that if you planned ahead, you probably would come ahead.

AirAsia
flew AirAsia from Kuala Lumpur, the airline’s hub, to Singapore

All Nippon Airways (ANA) was the last airline we flew in the trip. From Singapore to Chicago, we had the option of flying trans-Atlantic via European hubs like London or Frankfurt, or trans-Pacific via Seoul, Korea. Taking Trans-Pacific routes saved a couple of hours.
We had a late start with ANA at Singapore. The Boeing 767-300 aircraft arrived late, squeezing our already tight connection time at Tokyo by one hour. An additional twenty minutes was spent on security checkpoint at Narita Airport, which was odd for a same-terminal connection. In the end, we literally had only five minutes of wait time before boarding the Chicago bound Boeing 777-300ER. I felt relieved we made the last connection, keeping the entire trip by and large trouble free and on schedule.

ANA
ANA

According to SkyTrx ranking, ANA was neck and neck with SIA, an assessment I could not agree more. SIA’s service was slightly more attentive and personal in my view whereas ANA’s food was just as tasty but a little easier to digest. I would love to include either one in the next trip.
Speaking of next trip, I felt emboldened by the initial success in booking sophisticated award travel using miles and points. I look forward to applying lessons learned during this trip and constructing more rewarding and satisfying itineraries next time with greater poise and confidence.