Month: April 2018

Cheap Flights III: Travel Hacking

Travel Hacking – Defined by James’ English Dictionary as the art of maximizing your frequent flyer miles and hotel points for the optimal returns.

FYI DO NOT SKIP: Ticket class shorthand:  First – F; Business – J; Premium Economy – Y+; Economy – Y.

Before I go into further detail, I am not particularly sanguine about this field as an effective and practical option for many travelers.  For any digital nomads reading this, it tends to require “gaming” US-issued credit card rewards, which requires getting a card mailed to you overseas – a not insubstantial PITA. For Regular Person, while the logistics of cards aren’t an issue, hitting the minimum spend bonus can be.

Travel credit card sign-up bonuses tend to involve spending X dollars within Y timeframe.  Expect to see offers featuring a  $1,000 – $5,000 spending goal within a 1-3 month timeframe.  There are three ways around this: a high income, high spending lifestyle should make the spending target easy – duh. Otherwise, one applies before certain large planned expenditures (e.g. a new car purchase, tuition, etc) or engages in “manufactured spending.” 

Manufactured spending involves buying items readily convertible to cash. An old scheme that the US Mint killed involved buying $500 boxes of $1 coins and then cashing them in at a bank.  While the Mint hoped that this would allow the coins to circulate, they just ended up recycled back to banks. Contemporary manufactured spending plans typically involve buying gift cards, in effect front-loading future spending for gas/groceries/etc. 

Strategic Planning

While most airlines, even low-cost carriers (LCC) have frequent flyer programs, legacy carriers tend to benefit from their alliance and non-alliance partners.  An alliance is merely a formalized, substantial, multilateral cooperation arrangement between multiple airlines.  From the customer perspective, alliances allow you to earn and spend miles on partner flights as well as harmonizing frequent flyer elite status. 

Fun tidbit: Alliance partners are responsible for those really annoying gate announcements where Hypothetical American Airlines flight 238 is also called with a number of codeshare partner numbers like being British Airways Flight 4238, Qantas 2238, LAN 1238, and so on.

Non-alliance partners are airlines who have a strictly bilateral rather than a multilateral relationship.  One example is the partnership between Etihad and American Airlines. AA is part of Oneworld, and Etihad is a large non-alliance-affiliated carrier. 

The Three Major Alliances & Their US Carriers

Star AllianceUnited – The first alliance and often considered the premier alliance due to its top notch (Skytrax 5 star) carriers such as ANA, Singapore Airlines, Asiana, Lufthansa, and Eva Air. It’s a favorite for “aspirational” hackers who want to spend their miles in F or J. You’ve also got South African Airways and Air New Zealand if you’re up for a trip to the ends of the Earth as well as Air Canada to take you to the friendliest (if ridiculously cold half the year) place in North America.

OneworldAmerican Airlines – The second alliance formed. This alliance is something of a union of the Old Guard flag carriers. AA and British Airways have the US-UK market locked up as tight as Scrooge’s pocketbook.  Japan Airlines and Cathay Pacific are fan-favorites for J and F redemptions, as well as overall awesome service. If men from down under are your thing, Qantas has your back.  [Give my regards to Adam]  Substantial cooperation between some Oneworld carriers (AA, BA, Cathay) and Alaska Airlines is a thing.  

SkyteamDelta – The last major alliance formed.  While it has been disparagingly referred to as the leftover casserole of alliances, Skyteam may have the last laugh. Its member airlines serve some of the most promising economies of the developing world: China Eastern and China Southern, Kenya Airways, Garuda Indonesia, and Vietnam Airlines – to name a few. There’s a lot of potential.  From a customer service perspective, the two best products in the air are going to be Air France and Garuda. 

When doing your travel hacking, it helps to have a plan.  The “best” carrier for you is a product of your home airport, your willingness to take a connection, and where you want to go.   You may find that your hand is substantially forced.  A resident of Atlanta would be highly encouraged to be a Delta/Skyteam, while New York and LA are basically hubs for all players.  Larger cities tend to offer the most diverse array of feasible options.  

Given how award bookings (i.e. when you cash in your miles for a ticket) work, you need specific award inventory to be available.  The availability of seats for cash purchase does not mean that the airline is offering them for mileage redemption. It helps if your city has multiple options for a given alliance’s redemption options.  If you are a Oneworld guy, your epic round-the-world itinerary can be ruined if your Small Home City only has one American Airlines flight per day connecting to a larger hub – there may not be award inventory on that short hop!


In the AirThe earning of miles changes constantly as airlines re-evaluate their programs. Currently, we are in a period of peak demand, full planes, a booming economy, and low-ish fuel prices (this may be coming to an end?). Presently, airlines have no incentive to be generous. Currently, airlines are even more disproportionately generous to their flyers stumping up for business and first than ever. Given earning rates for no status flyers/economy flights and the subsequent “burn” rate (the cost in miles for a free ticket), it’s practically pointless to bother being loyal and saving up if you’re an occasional economy flyer. It’s better to just take the cheapest fare with the best schedule.

Example of earning today: Having elite status helps immensely. Airlines offer elites bonuses on mileage earning.  Delta currently offers 5 miles per dollar spent on their flights, but elites can earn up to 11 miles per dollar.

The combined move in the US of rewarding flyers directly for dollars spent versus miles flown has me less sanguine about the Frequent Flyer game than in the halcyon days of yore.

On the GroundThis is where things get interesting, especially for the absurdly generous American credit card market.  Amateur level players might rely on shifting their daily spending to the airline card augmented by a sign-on bonus for a free ticket. American right now is offering 50,000 bonus miles on their co-branded credit card if you spend $2,500 in 3 months. The problem is that a round-trip economy award between the US and the UK on AA costs 60,000 miles + taxes and fees.  This doesn’t impress me.

The most common method of generating large quantities of miles for the cool redemptions is “churning” with credit cards .  I would advise you that this is an area for the experts, travel fanatics, insomniac planners, and those who do not care about the number of hard pulls/inquiries on their credit report.  The most extensive churning strategies can leave you with a wallet like Ben Schlappig/Lucky of OMaaT.  Last I checked, he claimed to have 37 credit cards.  If you do some digging on the r/churning subreddit, you will see how this can happen.  A strategy might include signing up for an American Airlines credit card for the 50k bonus, then signing up with a card like Chase Ultimate Rewards or American Express to collect a points bonus that can then be transferred to American Airlines.  A 50k bonus from each could net you 150k miles, enough for 1 business class round trip to Asia.

American express credit card

Ryan Born

The value of an award

No two travelers look at award redemptions in the same way.  One traveler might aim to redeem only in J or F when they can because it is an indulgent treat.  Another may prefer to redeem in Y, as it allows them to travel more often.

I prefer J redemptions myself.  I’ve had the luck to have been part of programs like British Airways and Virgin Atlantic where significant fuel surcharges take the fun out of many (mostly Y) redemptions. Why cash in 40,000 miles +$475 in fuel charges for a Y ticket that costs $700?  Moreover, I have had the best luck on redeeming for short, costly flights. My personal favorite redemption is to spend BA Avios (miles) on Qantas domestic business flights between Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane. While short, having priority treatment, lounge access, and baggage makes a tedious 3-4 trip into quite a comfortable experience. At 5,000 avios + US$90 versus AU$650-700 each way, it’s a steal in terms of Avios per dollar.

Nicole Harrington

The easiest objective way to assign a value to miles is by comparing miles spent with the notional cash ticket cost.  Using the above Avios-for-Qantas-domestic-J case as an example, spending 5000 BA Avios to save (US)$450 means that each Avios point was worth 9 cents.  Given how wildly many air tickets fluctuate in price, it is difficult to assign an ideal redemption value, such as “Only spend if your miles are worth more than X cents each!” 

Another favored option is to, again, use BA Avios for regional J on Cathay Pacific/Cathay Dragon within Asia.    I can use a small-ish quantity of miles (5-15k) + a cash surcharge equivalent to a LCC economy ticket and fly an excellent carrier in business, with awesome Cathay service and their lounges in HKIA.  I also found such “equivalent” redemptions using United miles on Thai or Singapore Airlines regional business tickets to be awesome.

Other interesting redemptions (prices each way):

  • American Airlines: US Mainland to Hawaii @ 22.5k – Y
  • American Airlines: Canada-Hawaii @ 25k – Y
  • British Airways Avios on Qantas: Sydney-Brisbane; Sydney-Melbourne @ $87 +5k or $17 + 9k – J
  • BA Avios on Cathay Pacific: Hong Kong-Singapore @ 11,000 + $161.44 – J
  • Delta Skymiles on Saudia: New York to Cairo @ 42,500 + $32.80 – Y
  • Delta Skymiles on Virgin Atlantic: US to Johannesburg @ 50k + $52 – Y
  • Delta Skymiles: US Mainland to Honolulu @ 50,000 + $5.60 – F
  • United on Ethiopian Airlines: US to Africa @ 80,000 + $5.60 – J
  • United: US to Europe @ 30,000 + $5.60 – Y  

An International Health Info Must-Have for Travelling Women

In my meandering around the internet, I came across a discussion about nomad-friendly online resources for women’s health. Give how much of my network travels extensively, I thought that my findings might be of use.

Soroush Karimi

One particular resource stands out: Gynopedia. It aims to provide women’s sexual, reproductive, and women’s health info for cities and countries around the world. Further, the site also takes into account the needs of LGBTQ women. Users will find information on access to contraception, local attitudes that may complicate service provision, cost of healthcare goods/services (in local currency, often with US$ conversions).


This page lists the most complete/informative cities. You’ll note that for most countries, only the capital is covered. To my auld St Andrews/UK readers, you might be surprised to note that only London and Edinburgh have reasonably complete pages.


To my women readers: if you can spare 5 minutes to add some info or create a page for your city, you’re giving a great gift to community knowledge. For any reader, if you are affiliated or have contacts with a community that could benefit from local knowledge re: women’s health care, please circulate this site. Examples might include support groups/clubs for foreign students, LGBT societies, and recent migrants.


Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to subscribe!


Featured image credit:Hush Naidoo

Picture of a plane taking off

Cheap Flights II: The Search

Congratulations on making it to part II. 


Disclaimer: Broadly speaking, your options for searching and booking flights likely vastly outnumber your ability to give a damn about searching all of them.  Hopefully, this helps you figure out a strategy to more effectively manage your searches.   Here are, broadly speaking, the four options to choose from in your search. 


Booking direct with the airline: Barring a significant cost advantage, this is my preferred option.  Card transactions are seldom declined here, room for errors is small, and you’re a higher priority than those on tickets sold by a third party. Further, if there an inquiries/issues with your ticket, you deal directly with the airline rather than with the third party agent.  


Online travel agents (OTAs):  Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, et al.  You can search across the OTA’s inventory across all carriers.  Certain OTAs are capable of doing more complex routing and tickets than you’d be able to do with an airline’s own website or their phone booking operators.  There’s access to discounted inventory and flight packages.  Between the ability to assemble more complex/lengthy itineraries on one ticket and the cost savings, this might be a very attractive option.


Consolidators:  These are (usually) small agencies/OTAs that buy *really* deep discount inflexible tickets that you won’t find elsewhere.  Some don’t like dealing with these shops as many are here-today-gone-tomorrow websites. Some, like Vayama, endure.  Expect minimal customer service.


AggregatorsMomondo, skyscanner, google flights, etc.  These guys effectively meta-search the OTAs, consolidators and airlines to compare who is selling at the best price.  Note that you do not book directly with an aggregator. They direct you to another seller. I am a huge fan of starting here to gauge the market before making a final booking decision. It also saves the time of individually searching airlines, OTAs and consolidators.

Screen capture of momondo website business class itinerary between DC and Mexico City screen capture


Which one is best?


That’s impossible to say.  It depends entirely on your route, timing, flexibility, and preferred class of service. Someone looking to go home for Christmas with a 2 week travel window is at the mercy of the airlines compared with a retiree free to travel on their preferred itinerary any time between April and June.


How do I do it? Typically, I do a quick search of google flights to check out the lay of the land.  Google however doesn’t look super-deep, so to say. It will check out airline sites and top OTAs, but leave out quite a bit, so the overall scope you get is limited.


The Power of a Comprehensive Search


Gather round children, for I have a story to tell. 


Flight searches are a recreational activity for me. This is the simplest characterization.  I’ll look up flights simply for the hell of it.  When a friend is pondering a trip, I search with gusto.  If people paid me to search for flights, I’d probably be elated. 


When I was living in Auckland, I had a triangular trip planned. I was visiting Thailand and Sri Lanka. While I had my Auckland-Thailand and Thailand-Sri Lanka flights set up, I needed the final leg back to Auckland.


Nicole Harrington

Initially, I wasn’t optimistic.  Colombo has excellent flight links heading east (towards E and SE Asia) and west (mostly carrying Sri Lankan migrant workers to the Gulf States and Indian tourists to SL).  Links north and south are…limited.


Nonetheless, I pressed on and directly searched for Colombo-Auckland on momondo. Seeing little harm, I decided to do a business class search.  The result was unbelievable: a business ticket on Sri Lankan and Qantas via Singapore and Sydney ticketed with for £474 (about US$715 in January 2015). Quelle le fuck?!



Three legs, 20 hrs 15 min travel time (including reasonable stopovers), all business – including a flight on Qantas’ awesome new-to-them 1-2-1 business class seat. I checked on google flights. They didn’t pick it up.  Expedia’s US site didn’t show it for me. Hmm.


Further surprise happened when I clicked through to Expedia’s UK website, and the itinerary didn’t return an error. I felt the thrill of stealing the Hope Diamond as I clicked through with the purchase. 


Not content to lord over my once-in-a-year find, I decided to dig deeper and share with the world via Flyertalk.  This rock bottom fare was also available to Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne, dramatically increasing its utility to the travel hacking community.  Also, it priced out at roughly $1,175+ for a return ticket, a steal for someone wanting to visit AUS/NZ but needing/wanting to return to South Asia.


Alas, great fares die when publicized much as measuring quantum stuff changes the thing measured (paraphrasing from Futurama).  The pro travel bloggers picked up on this bargain, and that inventory disappeared damn quickly.  I guess Qantas wasn’t happy with their slice of the pie of a $700 ticket that they could charge AU$3,000 for on their own.


We have two lessons to take away from this.  First, POINT OF ORIGIN PRICING FTW!  Second, share your awesome fare finds at your peril. If you are considering booking the ticket yourself, don’t shout from the rooftops and mountainsides until you’ve secured your own passage.


– James out


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Featured Image Credit: Ricardo Mancía

The Art of Cheap Flights: Behind the Scenes

Does anyone like paying a high price for flights? Barring a few aging fossils who yearn for a return to a rosy, imagined past of exclusivity, most of us don’t.


The world of airfares is largely opaque to most people. They need to go somewhere from their home. On a site like Kayak or Expedia, they punch in their origin/destination info, dates, click, and hope for the best.


That’s not part of James’ Highly Effective Habits of Thrifty Flight Shoppers.  It’s an even worse idea for long-term travelers and digital nomads.

Picture of a flight time screen at an airport
Save your energy hoping for an on-time flight.

Matthew Smith



Before I delve into the juicy bits of, I want to cover the jargon and technical stuff for the uninitiated.  This will save us all time later on.  If you’re a veteran travel hacker or industry insider, feel free to skip to the next article.


Hub – An airline’s base (singular or one of many).  A hub will frequently be dominated by its carrier. Examples: Delta in Atlanta, British Airways at London Heathrow, and Emirates at Dubai.


O/D – Origin and destination – described travelers who start and end their journey on a non-stop between a city pair. Example: “75% of flyers on BA’s New York-London flights are O/D travelers.  The rest are connecting onward.”


Load: The passengers on board a flight, usually a percentage. 75% load = 75% of seats sold.


Yield: Profitability. Distinct from yield in that a full flight may not necessarily be profitable.


Irrops: Irregular operations – when something goes wrong and your flight is cancelled/delayed. 


Understanding fare classes


If you thought that this part would be a simple one, you’re wrong. Yes, we’re typically operating on the basis of First, Business, Premium Economy, and Economy fares.  Here’s what you probably don’t know: these classes are subdivided by letters – “fare buckets” – that determine price and privileges.


Here is an example of a typical fare bucket breakdown:

  • Economy buckets: Y, B, H, M, L, N, V, O, K, X
  • Premium Economy: W, T,  Q
  • Business: J, C, D, I, Z, U
  • First: F, A, P


Bold letters indicate “full fare” and italics indicate tickets paid for with frequent flier redemptions (henceforth simply “redemptions”). Non-italic letters are written in left-to-right order of diminishing price and flexibility.


When you search for a plane ticket, your search tool will show you by default the lowest available fare class. If the lowest economy fare bucket is a V, your search for an economy ticket won’t show an M fare. You can specify searches for refundable tickets, but you might get sticker shock. Most fliers are accustomed to the lowest bucket prices.  [Example: a full Y fare between the US and Europe can be $2,500 return] 


What are the differences aside from price? As you might have noticed from the verbiage of an e-ticket and the attached conditions of carriage, if you bother to even glance at them, you will notice many stipulations about fees, baggage allowances, and so on.


Using economy as an example, a Y fare will be quite expensive (possibly even more expensive than a discount ticket in a business/first seat). However, it will be fully flexible and refundable without additional fees. It will  often include complimentary baggage.  If applicable, frequent fliers on a Y fare will be the highest priority for an elite or operational upgrade (if overbooked) to business or first class. Also, again if applicable, Y fares are eligible to upgrade with frequent flyer miles.


On the other hand, the reverse is usually true with an ultra-cheap K fare.  You’ll pay the minimum price, but extras such as seat selection and checked baggage will often require additional payment. Changing or cancelling the ticket will often be impossible or only allowed with significant fees.  In the event of overbooking, you’re a bottom priority for upgrades. In the event of a cancellation, you are the lowest priority for on-ground assistance like re-booking or a courtesy hotel.


Were you able to see a matrix of all available fare buckets and their prices at once, the options would be overwhelming to most. Even by single cabin, it’s amazing to think of how you and your seatmate could have paid vastly different prices depending on time of booking, available fare classes, and desired flexibility.

Picture of a plane at a jet bridge loading or unloading passengers.

Riku Lu


Location, Location, Location…


…applies to more than real estate!


Suppose you are flying between New York and Taipei via Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific. Sitting next to you on the outbound is a Taiwanese resident returning home after a visit her sister who lives in New York.  You’re a New Yorker going to visit Taiwan. You both scored low O class fares. Did you pay the same price?


No! Flights are priced both on the overall route and the point of origin. You might have paid $825 for an economy ticket or $5,200 for a business ticket. She could have paid much more or less depending on how CX saw demand for tickets out of Taipei.


This point-of-origin pricing leads to some fascinating deals out there. Certain favorites include $1,400 business class round trips from Colombo, Sri Lanka to the US on the Middle East Three (Emirates, Etihad, Qatar) or $1,900 trips in business class from Canada to South Africa. Both of these represent discounts of thousands of dollars less than the global average for tickets to those routes. Try pricing San Francisco to Cape Town or  Dubai to Atlanta if you doubt me.


Competitive Bloodbaths Mean Savings for You


Have you noticed how much flight prices in the US suck?  Do you hate your friends who mention that their ticket from Paris to Munich was $50 when your ticket from Lexington to Atlanta was $500?  Do you thus find yourself staring skyward and curse creation as you part with hundreds of hard-won dollars for often dismal service on US carriers, wondering how your $200/hr ticket doesn’t even get you a whole can of seltzer?


Oh child, things may not be getting easier any time soon, but allow me to dispel the darkness!


There’s been a whole lot of consolidation in airline travel. First, Delta ate Northwest. Then, American merged with US Airways. Finally, United united with Continental with such acrimony that even a veteran divorce lawyer would have winced.


The result? Fortress hubs and lack of competition on certain peripheral routes leading to astronomical fares for the captives.  On the other hand, America’s tier one cities/destinations enjoy rock bottom fares due to brutal competition.  Some of the best fares on the market right now are New York-LA and LA-Honolulu.  However, others are quite expensive for the flight time. The 1-hour flight between Montgomery AL and Atlanta is $225 on Delta (round-trip) with hand baggage only.


Stay tuned for more, and don’t forget to subscribe below!


 -James out

Picture of a smart watch displaying flight information for an itinerary Toronto to London.

David Preston

Review: Conrad Miami

1 night, points & money rate of $137 + 46,000 Honors points. Peak season pricing. 

The Conrad Miami was an unusual choice for a 1 night stop on a road trip. Typically, I eschew hotels in the urban core in favor of peripheral properties for a variety of reasons, like extortionate downtown parking.  That said, I wanted to compare a Conrad property with the Casa Marina Waldorf Astoria in Key West. This seemed like  agreat way to compare Hilton’s luxury brands head-to-head.


The process of navigating from I-95 to the Conrad was…surprisingly painless for what I expected for Miami. Perhaps going into downtown at 5 P.M. helped. Eager to get out of my car, I left it with a valet, gave him a couple of bucks (the guys on the check-in shifts can get a bit short-changed).


The street level houses the concierge and valet desk.  You go up the elevators to the check-in desk on the 25th floor (also where you’ll find the bar and restaurant).  I was given an upgraded Bay (of Biscayne) view room on the 18th floor.  Down I go in a separate bank of elevators.


My room was quite small for a US hotel room.  Size-wise, it’s what you’d find at a 4.5 or 5 star (business) property in Hong Kong. That said, the room’s appointments were of high quality. I loved the espresso machine, Shanghai Tang amenities, and the deep bath tub separate from the rainfall shower.


The view can speak for itself. The view from the Conrad Miami hotel over the Bay of Biscayne.

Next errand: go to the pool. This is something of an adventure at the Conrad.  From my room on the 18th floor, I took an elevator to the lobby on the 25th floor, crossed the check-in lobby, went down on a separate elevator to the ground floor, crossed the driveway where cars arrive, and took a third elevator to the top (8th or 9th) floor of an annex building.  After a walk outside and up to the pool deck, my odyssey came to an end. 


After lap swimming in the invigoratingly cold pool, I decided to take a stroll around Brickell. The neighborhood is very pleasant, and in an alternate life, I would not object to living there.  After a little repast of sushi at Doraku in the nearby and bustling The Shops at Mary Brickell Village, it was time to unwind and sleep.


The bed was excellent, as I seemed to fall asleep immediately and woke up in good form. 


The next morning, I decided to see how the breakfast spread was. It pleases me to report that it is quite a cut above the usual Hilton-family fare.  The fruit spread included dragon fruit (OH HELL YES) and kiwi fruit in addition to melon, pinapple, berries, et al. We’re off the a roaring good start, as you might have intuited.  Japanese-style gyoza dumplings (steamed) and American breakfast proteins rounded out my plate.  I might have tried a croissant, which may have been superb. For as often as I eat calorie dense carbs (rarely), I want them to be of the best quality.  Finally, the wait staff deserve praise.  I enjoyed their efficient, friendly service that didn’t fall into the trap of obsequiousness (I find that dynamic of esteemed patron/obsequious server cringeworthy when I encounter it). 


Check-out that morning was effortless. I texted the valet to have my car readied, took care of the formalities at the front desk, and arrived downstairs to find my car waiting for me.  



  • Walking distance to most everything in Brickell downtown including restaurants, banks, and a CVS pharmacy. 
  • Short drive/taxi/uber to South Beach, if you don’t want to stay in South Beach proper. 
  • Easy freeway access for road trippers; straight shot for those flying into/out of MIA
  • Highest quality, albeit not most expansive, hotel spread I have seen in the USA. 
  • The morgue-cold pool incentivizes you to swim laps intensively to fight off hypothermia – yay exercise!
  • Unimpeachable service. 
  • Great standard room reward availability for Honors members. 



  • Without a B&B rate or Honors status, breakfast will be $40 per person including tip
  • Weird layout would get tiresome for going to the gym/pool. 
  • That pool is *very* cold. 
  • Many will find the room to be small.


All in all, this was an excellent stay. If this is a middling Conrad per what I parse on Flyertalk, I can’t wait to try the outstanding ones (helloooooo Asia…). 


– James out


View of central Singapore along the river

My Digital Nomad Debut

A very select few of you will be aware of this particular development, so I am writing for the rest of you.


On May 28, I will load up a rental car and drive to Miami, where I’ll catch a flight the next day for Tokyo via Zurich. Cheers to Swiss for selling a plane ticket for $662 when most other players wanted $900-$1300.


From the 31st onward, I will be a full time digital-nomad courtesy of freelance writing. I’ve been fortunate to pick up some substantial work that will keep me going for the foreseeable few months.  I’ll be treading relatively familiar ground in Tokyo, Phuket, and Ubud (Bali).


It will be fascinating to get a taste of living and working in these destination for weeks rather than visiting for days.  Blending into the daily rhythm, tasting all of the delicious food, and getting a handle on the local gay scene are immediate location goals.  In the background, I look forward to developing my professional skills and working on some side projects (SEO/digital marketing). The market values me these days as a travel writer (broadly), so I might as well continue to earn my chops there.


In August, I’ll begin on a holy grail of personal bucket list goals – learning Chinese in China.  After my time in Bali, I will jet off to Kunming, Yunnan to begin Chinese classes.  My brain is thrilled by the prospect, albeit part of me is cautiously girding itself for the challenge. I chose a non-tier 1 city so that I’d be forced to use Chinese or starve.  Learning the key dumpling words is currently high on my priority list.  Fortunately, I already know the word “cha” (tea), so I won’t go thirsty or (heaven forfend!) without caffeine! 


These past two years in the US have been interesting, but I’ve had enough for now and would like to reconnect with my expat self.  The stimulation of new experiences, places, and sensations – and it would be awesome to see my overseas friends again!


Here’s the adventure as it is booked until mid-December!

Tokyo 31/5 – 22/6

Hong Kong 22/6 – 24/6

Phuket 24/6 – 23/7

Bali 23/7 – 21/8

Bangkok 21/8 – 26-8

Kunming   26/8-14/12


Map of flights taken for my digital nomad adventure including Miami Zurich Tokyo Hong Kong Phuket Kuala Lumper Bali and Kunming


Interestingly, all airlines booked thus far will be new experiences to me.  I’m booked on Swiss, Vanilla Air (ANA’s low-cost subsidiary), Cathay Dragon (Cathay Pacific’s regional subsidiary), Air Asia, China Eastern, and Malindo Air. I’ll be sure to post reviews!


–   James out!


Maps generated by the
Great Circle Mapper –
copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

Casa Marina A Waldorf-Astoria Resort Key West

Review: Casa Marina Key West

March 17-19; 80,000 Hilton Honors points per night.

I arrived at the Casa Marina quite early, around 1:30.  Check-and and parking proved unnecessarily tedious.  Initially, I pulled up to the parking gate to find that it was room key-operated only, rather than the usual operation of offering a ticket for entry. I carefully maneuver out, make a u-turn, and pull round to the porte cochere – all while watching for the clueless cyclists.  


The check-in desks handled me promptly. I was offered an upgrade for $100 per night, which I declined. This was before any mention of my Honors diamond status was made. /Sigh  This was after a 10 minute wait for the IT system to reboot after an apparent digital siesta. I was offered two room keys, but asked not to use them until housekeeping could double-check the room (for monsters?). I was told that this would happen by text within about half an hour. No problem, I would be enjoying the beach and pool.   I was thanked for being a diamond, told that no diamond upgrades were available, and offered my breakfast vouchers, and a letter. 


Taking my gear, I went back to the car.  The street-parked cars blocked any safe view of oncoming traffic. Again, I worried about cyclists.  I said a prayer and went around to the parking lot.  I pull round to the self-parking lot and try the card. It. Won’t. Work. A car is behind me trying to get in.  Awesome. Fortunately, he lets me out without cursing me.  


By now, about 25 minutes have been wasted on what should have taken 3 minutes at…virtually any of hotels which saw 115 nights of my stays in 2017.  I return to the desk to request that the key be re-coded. I inform this front desk agent that her colleague handled my check-in, but the key would not let me into the self park lot.  After being reminded preschool-style that my room wasn’t able to be accessed (WTF?), I was given a parking-only key, since apparently I couldn’t be trusted to not break into my own room.  By now, I was furious at the slap-in-face of being sold an upgrade that elites are given complimentary on a space available basis, the waste of time on parking, the waste of time on their IT, and spoken to as if I were just lobotomized. 


The adult’s pool

Thank God for that beach and pool. I needed it.


The Casa Marina has a stretch of private beach adjacent to a public beach.  While it’s quite pretty, you can’t walk out from the Casa Marina’s property, due to rocks. The piers one could use to walk out beyond said rocks were heavily damaged during Irma and are still off limits. In order to wade out, I walked around the fence to the public beach. I passed a homeless chap resting on the public side of the fence. My social scientist side couldn’t help but notice the implicit commentary on his plight versus the position of those in a resort where the cheapest room was going, all in, at $690 per night.


After an hour at the beach followed by some time at the Casa Marina’s adult-only pool (kind of a godsend for various reasons), I went to my room.  The Casa Marina and its sister property, The Reach, aren’t well-regarded among my fellow Hilton-family elites/regulars on frequent traveler communities such as Flyertalk. Largely, it is due to the properties’ Waldorf-Astoria branding (at W-A pricing) delivering Doubletree (code for: business class, albeit inconsistent) service/style.


While I was braced for disappointment, I was happy enough with the room. The Ferragamo amenities in the bathroom were pleasant, as was the espresso machine. Waldorf Casa Marina Bathroom Key WestThe bathroom itself was generic US airport Hilton/Doubletree (ie no rainfall shower w/ separate tub, middling fixture quality).

The view was a mix of the parking lot and area/town. I imagine that paying $0 on the room rate strongly influenced my general contentedness.  At $690 + parking…well…


Before sunset, I headed out for a run along the coast.  In what felt like no time at all, I ended up at the airport and realized that I should turn back if I wanted to wash up and make it in time to make an appointment that first night. Key West is awesome for runners due to the sidewalks, scenery, sea air, and low speed limits, by the way.


The next morning, I used my $15 Honors diamond voucher at the Casa Marina’s breakfast buffet.  I was happy. 


Hilton Honors Gold and Diamond elites are entitled to a complimentary continental breakfast at full service properties around the world. Most properties chuck in the full buffet, but some institute an upcharge for hot items. US Waldorfs offer a $15 voucher. 


This is a rather parsimonious interpretation of the rules.  A coffee and muffin from a hotel’s coffee shop count, but given that Conrad’s (Hilton’s “contemporary” luxury brand) tend to throw in an excellent complete buffet or menu breakfast, the Waldorfs’ offerings come off as stingy.


Still, the buffet was quite good. Omelets to order, eggs benedict, great fruit, pastries etc.


Not so minor problem: My room was down the hall from the bathroom used by outside pool/bar/beachgoers as well as any guests in the adjacent ballroom. This presented a problem as I’d hear guests of on-property wedding receptions using the hand dryer and opening the creaky door.  That was rather annoying between 10 pm – midnight, especially. 


On the whole, this was a solid Hilton on a beach.  The use of a luxury brand on this property is…ambitious.  While the pool and breakfast were quite good, it wasn’t markedly “better” than the Hilton Hawaiian Village, for example.  The poorly-soundproofed rooms…are not acceptable at this price point. 


 James out!


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Miami & Key West – Trip Report – Part II

Congrats on making it to the Key West portion!


Note: For brevity, details about the Casa Marina have been written as a separate hotel review post here.  


As I left Homestead behind, civilization abruptly faded from the rearview mirror, and eventually I came to the beginning of the Overseas Highway that connects the Keys with the Florida mainland.  Fortunately, traffic was light on this Saturday, particularly after I passed a popular boat show on Key Largo.


Overseas Highway Florida Keys

My excitement only grew as the picture-perfect islands and seas unfolded before me.  I wanted to jump in and never get out. [Presumably, the mer-folk would adopt me? I didn’t think that through much.] The anticipation and average speed of 45 mph meant that the mileage didn’t quite tick down as fast as I would have liked, but I eventually settled on just enjoying the view.  The Keys were in surprisingly good condition post-Irma, and the most poignant reminder of nature’s destructive power wasn’t recent damage.  Rather, it was the remnants of Henry Flagler’s railroad.


When I eventually crossed onto Key West, I easily navigated to the Casa Marina – originally built as a resort for Flagler’s railroad passengers. As it’s on the southern coast, I just turned left onto A1A and followed that for a couple of miles.  I pulled around by the porte cochere and checked in. I was instructed to not go to the room quite yet.  No problem! I wanted to check out the beach.


After washing up from the beach, I put on my boots and began the 45 minute walk to Shrimp Daddy’s to meet B.  I wanted to see a bit of Key West, I didn’t fancy figuring out parking, and I am too cheap to pay for a taxi when I have a perfectly suitable car AND pair of legs. Lucky me, as I saw a Thai-Japanese restaurant where I could get some sushi en route.


Even with the dinner stop, I arrived in time.  Shrimp Daddy’s is a local dive bar, complete with all-you-can-breathe secondhand smoke and a dim lighting that hides all flaws. B’s stories were fascinating. While he did data analytics now (is the universe trying to tell me something?), his past included a stint in Hawaii and English teaching in Korea. My liver quailed in fear as he described the apparently ritualized sadism of drinking with one’s boss. “This will be a self-study day everyone,” because Teacher is hung-over to the point of death was (still is?) apparently a thing.


B’s transition to being a digital nomad was interesting to me. His company decided that his team was non-essential and could work from anywhere. He chose Key West.  He was looking to move on soon though, as Key West could be difficult socially.  I understood, as Hawaii was like that. The transient nature of the transplants (aggravated by very high living costs) and the constant flow of here-today-gone-tomorrow tourists can grind one down.


After two of the cheapest beers in Key West ($3.25 each) and by now smelling like an ash tray, it was time to call it a day. I caught an uber back to the Casa Marina to make a – personal appointment (oh, Grindr!).  But, you won’t hear a word more about that.


The next morning, I used my $15 Honors diamond voucher at the Casa Marina’s breakfast buffet.  I was happy. I indulged in a few extra carbs given that I’d be in the water snorkeling today!


I had booked myself on a Blu Q all-male, clothing-optional snorkeling/kayaking catamaran trip!  I’ve never been snorkeling, so I looked forward to swimming with the sashimi…I mean fish.


I put together a bag including a towel, various sunscreens (because I’m a ginger), and hunted for something bandana-ish. I guessed that a hat would blow away.  Eventually, I found what is used by the Key West boat crews for sun protection. It’s a synthetic fabric “tube” – a Buff – that can be manipulated into various uses.  $10 – why not? I came to like it. In classic James McCormack form, I bought it 4 minutes before boarding time @ 10:45 AM.


At the boat, I chatted a bit before boarding with my fellow guests before we all kicked off our shoes for boarding. Yay!  The first mate Thomas offered us water or soda. Ice water in hand, a brief safety demonstration was given, and we were underway.

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Tom was a great first mate!

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It wasn’t long before patrons stripped down to swimwear or nothing at all.  As is usual in such gay environments, age and quantity of clothing worn are inversely correlated. I bucked the trend for being the youngest on board and in my commando print Budgy Smugglers. The early 30s couple had boardshorts – booo!  The oldsters gave us a lesson in body confidence with nary a stitch on. (My gingerness doesn’t let me expose ‘those’ areas)


When we were within a few minutes of the snorkeling spot, I put on yet more sunscreen and got my snorkeling mask ready. A nearby boat advised us that the spot they just left had fish, was clear, and had no current. Yay for us.


The strangest navy ship I have ever seen

After a few seconds getting used to the flippers, I found them wonderful. My diving speed versus non-augmented feet was impressive. The sights down below were marvelous – bright (but not optimally health – far from it) coral and many-colored fish were in abundance.


When Thomas, our leader into the open water, led us back to the boat, we found that the captain had carved up a pineapple, put out some grapes, and was serving adult beverages. I opted for a white wine and water.  I noted the exceptional flavor of the pineapple, to find out that it was fresh from his front yard!  That’ll do it.


After some chatting and noshing, the Captain furnished lunch.  Pulled pork, rolls or gluten free tortillas, cole slaw, and pasta salad were on offer. I opted for pork and cole slaw. Delicious!


Due to the not-much-fun that is costochondritis, I opted out of kayaking in favor of another dip swimming in the 81 degree (Fahrenheit) water.


By now, our time was coming to an end.  The Captain passed around cookies (I declined), and we were soon heading back to Key West.


After a brief stroll around the neighborhood by the docks, I made my way to the Island House. Non-hotel guests can visit the bar and enjoy the facilities for $30. I decided to give it a go. The locker room, sauna, and steam room were decidedly bath house-like in vibe.  I decided to let the steam room patrons in particular have some privacy and decamped to the pool to relax. Overall, it wasn’t bad, but I think my $30 could be spent elsewhere.  Then again, I am not part of “generation bathhouse.”


After a run and yet another sushi dinner, it was time to call it a day, make a decaf espresso, vomit at the news, and go to bed.  As I drifted to sleep, I contemplated if all of this sushi had made me of interest for commercial mercury extraction. What’s your side hustle, fellow serf?


The adult-only pool at the Casa Marina

I arranged for a late check-out on Monday 3/18. Mostly, I spent it on a long breakfast and lounging by the pool in my yukata, a Japanese summer robe.


At last, I had some time to wander around and explore Key West a bit. I donned my boots, wandered around, and mailed some post cards to friends in Honolulu and New Zealand, before meeting B again for another drink.

Digital Nomad Bar humor
You can’t beat the juxtaposition



For my final night, I checked into the Seashell Motel.  As this night was paid with cash, I found the cheapest private room I could – $174 + taxes.  It was clean and basic, though the aircon was arctic strength. Score!


The next morning was my last in Key West. I decided to enjoy it at Fort Zachary Taylor, a historic fort and home to what I think is the best beach in Key West.  There’s some pebbled bits, but the water is more suited to swimming and frolicking in the low waves.  Yay!

After changing, it was time to head north with a stop to see my grandparents. More to come.


 – James out!


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Miami & Key West – Trip Report – Part I

Behold, my inaugural post!


On a sunny March morning, I began my trip to south Florida – I was booked for a long weekend in Miami and Key West.  This particular trip mixed a bit of the old and the new.  I cashed in a stash of Hilton Honors points for a night at the Conrad Miami downtown and the Casa Marina resort in Key West. Further, I looked forward to meeting B – a digital nomad temporarily resident in Key West. How would St Patrick’s in Key West be?


My drive down to Miami was quite uneventful. The Florida Turnpike, while visually uninteresting, is never boring. The uninhabited stretch between Kissimmee and Fort Pierce usually sees traffic moving at 80-90 mph, versus the speed limit of 70. Mein Chariot (named Duncan) eagerly obliged.


Whenever I pass through Palm Beach County, I make an effort to stop at an Indian restaurant for lunch, Aroma. They specialize in southern Indian cuisine, and their lunch buffet is always excellent.  Chicken 65, baigan bharta, veggie biriyani, and kheer is the lunch of the gods. After 4 hours of driving, the lunch is a great little reminder that the end of the journey is near.  Miami is another 2 hours away.


I hop back on the turnpike and then merge into I-95, taking advantage of the express lanes (yay Sunpass!). As always, I had written down the directions on paper. While I can refer to my shorthand-directions, I find that the act of physically writing them commits them to memory.  Why do I bother? I religiously avoid using a mobile phone while driving (seemingly unique, especially in Florida), and I lost the navigation disks for the car. C’est la guerre.


I managed to not utterly cock up the process of getting into the Brickell neighborhood. In short order, I had off my car to the valet.  For an extra $9, I’ll let them deal with the parking garage at rush hour (it was now 5:30).


The Conrad Miami sports an interesting configuration. The street level houses the concierge and valet desk.  You go up the elevators to the check-in desk on the 25th floor (also where you’ll find the bar and restaurant).  I was given an upgraded Bay (of Biscayne) view room on the 18th floor.  Down I go in a separate bank of elevators.


After unwinding in the invigoratingly cold pool, I decided to take a stroll around Brickell. The neighborhood is very pleasant, and in an alternate life, I would not object to living there.  After a little repast of sushi at Doraku in the nearby and bustling The Shops at Mary Brickell village, it was time to unwind and sleep.


The next day, I went for a pleasant walk with Andrew, a fellow I met on Grindr.  I grabbed an Earl Grey tea for myself and a coffee for him from the self-serve complimentary coffee bar at the Conrad. We seemed to click. It’s rare I can talk cogently with anyone on about Venezuelan economic-collapse-politics, data analytics/methodologies, and hilarious sights around us.  Such is the joy of meeting other gay internet strangers.  The farewell smooching on US-1 was nice.


Thoroughly perked up by such PG-hijinks, I summoned my car, tipped the valet, and was soon off towards Key West.  I took the Turnpike towards Homestead, FL where it connects with US-1.


 – James out!


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