September 19, 2017

Everything You Want To Know About The San Juan Islands

Where Are the San Juan Islands?
San Juan Islands are archipelago in Washington State of America.

How Many Islands Are There?
There are many islands that make up the San Juan Islands. However, only four islands that are accessible by the Washing State Ferry Service. They are San Juan, Orcas, Shaw, and Lopez.

Which Island to Visit?
If you are looking for a pedestrian friendly town on the island and it offers a lot of things to do, then go to the Friday Harbor on the San Juan Island. If you are looking for more tranquil time, then consider going to Orcas Island. I'd say that for any first time visitor, these two islands are the most popular ones among all four. Lopez island is ideal for a day trip from these two islands, and so is Shaw island; however, Lopez has a lot more to offer than Shaw. Lopez is the flattest island among all four for biking. Shaw island has more local residents than tourists.

For more information on which island to visit, check out my article on San Juan islands Planning Part 1: Which Island? You can read up on more in depth about each island.

The View of Roche Harbor on San Juan Island

How To Get To Each Island?
Visitors can reach each island via seaplane, commercial flights, charter boats, etc. but the most economical way is through the Washington State Ferry Service. The ferry is a great way to reach each San Juan island. The port on the mainland to get to the San Juan Islands is in Anacortes town, which is about 1 and half drive from Seattle.

Washington State Ferry Docked in Anacortes

How Much Does A Ferry Ticket Cost?
The Washington State Ferry website is a great tool to determine the cost. But do keep in mind that, as long as you are traveling Westbound, you will NOT be charged whether you bring vehicle with you or not. You will only be charged if you are traveling Eastbound. For examples:
  • Anacortes to any of the four islands - Yes charge.
  • San Juan to Orcas island - Free of charge. 
  • Orcas to Shaw island - Free of charge.
  • Shaw - Lopez island - Free of charge. 
  • Any of the four islands to Anacortes - Free of charge. 
For island hopping, the inter-island ferry service is free of charge for pedestrians and those with bicycles only. It does not matter it's Westbound or Eastbound.

Go here to check out the Washing State Ferry Tickets Fare

Is Ferry Reservation Required?
It is strongly recommended to make ferry reservation during peak season. Even so, if you are bringing vehicle with you, it's best to secure a spot in advanced as the Washington State Ferry provides a very generous cancellation policy that reservations must be canceled by 5pm the day prior to travel in order to avoid a no-show fee of $10. Unlimited changes are permitted up to 5pm the day prior to the reserved sailing. Be sure to create an account on the website so that you can easily change/cancel reservation.

Washington State Ferry Service allows only advanced reservations for the following routes:
  • Anacortes to all four islands
  • Friday Harbor to Anacortes
  • Orcas to Anacortes
All other routes do not require reservation and are on first comes first served basis. It is worth noting that the inter-island ferries are not busy at all.

For more information on the ferry, do check out my article on San Juan Islands Planning Part 2: Washington State Ferries Fares and Reserve Ferry Tickets

The Date that I want to Sail is not Available. What to do?
This is why it is important to plan well in advanced if you are set on the date that you must sail. But do not worry. There's still some hope. Washington Ferry releases space in 3 tiers:
  • 1st Tier - 30% of vessel space is released 2 months prior to the season start date. 
  • 2nd Tier - Additional 30% of vessel space is released 2 weeks before each specific sailing date.
  • 3rd Tier - The final 30% of vessel space is released 2 days before each specific sailing date. 
  • Last but not least, 10% of vessel space is always held open for emergency and stand-by vehicles.
Set a calendar reminder to come back first thing when additional vessel space is released based on the tiers mentioned above. You should be able to secure a space without any issues. I also don't recommend you count on that last 10% of vessel space. 

Are Pets Allowed On The Ferry?
Absolutely! In fact, San Juan Islands are very pet-friendly. You will notice that most restaurants and shops there have at least one water bowl for pets outside, so you and your pet(s) are very much welcome there. The Washington Ferry allows pets on board as well, here are their pet policy:

"Pets in carriers are allowed in interior passenger areas on vessels. Uncaged, unrestrained pets are not allowed to remain in interior passenger areas for the duration of a voyage. In some cases, described below, leashed pets may transit though interior areas in order to access exterior passenger areas. 

WSF recognizes that it is impractical to require walk on passengers and their leashed pets to remain on the auto deck for the duration of a voyage. In order to provide shelter to these patrons, walk-on passengers with leashed pets are allowed in terminals and to board vessels and remain in exterior passenger areas, including shelter decks, promenade decks and/or sun decks."

You Can Bring Your Fur Buddy Onboard the Washington State Ferry
Enjoy Beautiful San Juan Islands With Your Best Friend!

Are These Islands Under Developed?
Yes, especially Shaw and Lopez. San Juan island is more developed. You will find several hotels and restaurants on San Juan island's town Friday Harbor. Orcas island is also developed, but not as developed as San Juan.

Is Vehicle Needed on San Juan Islands?
If you want to explore the island beyond the ferry's port, then you definitely need a car. Vehicle rentals are very limited on the island. Unless you just want to stay in the touristic Friday Harbor downtown on San Juan island that is also the ferry's port and it has several restaurants, bars and shops. You can walk around there and possibly attend a couple tours that provide transportation, then you don't need a car. My recommendation is to take the car with you on the ferry as you will enjoy driving around and explore the island on your own. The money spend on taking the vehicle on the ferry with you will be well worth it.

Explore Each Island Beyond The Ferry's Port With Your Vehicle

How About Bicycles?
I do know a lot of people go to San Juan Islands to bike. However, keep in mind that the road is pretty hilly, especially on Orcas Island. Therefore, if you are not active with biking, you may find the experience is not enjoyable. The Lopez Island, the flattest among four, is still little bit hilly to bike that you may not enjoy at all.

Biking on Lopez Island - Still Hilly!

Is It Easy to Take Vehicle on the Ferry?
Yes. Just follow the signals of the crew members about which lane, where to park, etc. you are good to go. The process is pretty simple and stress-free.

What Are Things to Do on San Juan Islands?
As far as things to do, water activities such as kayaking, snorkeling, whale watching, swimming, sunbathing on the beach... are pretty common there. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of visitors also enjoy riding bicycles there. If you just want to enjoy the island atmosphere, you can just hang out in Friday Harbor with good food and a few beers with outside patio seating. For us, driving around each island to see different things and take in the view along with beaches are incredibly fun things to do.

Beautiful Ocean View - Where Is Canada?

How About Camping?

Yes, camping is possible. Except for Shaw island, here are the available camp sites and I apologize but I do not have much information about each camp site, so please check out each camp site's website below to see which one meets your preference and budget.

San Juan Island
Free Horse Farm
Lakedale Resort At Three Lakes
San Juan County Parks Camping

Orcas Island
Doe Bay Resort & Retreat Camping
Leanto
Moran State Park Campground
West Beach Resort

Lopez Island
Lopez Islander Resort
Lopez Farm Cottages and Tent Camping
Odlin County Park Camping
Spencer Spit State Park

If you  have any other questions about San Juan Islands in Washington, please comment and I'll do my best to respond. Thanks for reading.

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September 18, 2017

Options To Get From Incheon International Airport To Seoul and Arriving Inchoen Airport At Night

Incheon International Airport is located in Inchoen, which is outside of Seoul. The distance from there to the tourism city Seoul is a little bit away that can take up to 1 hour travel time. Below are the options that are available:

Non-Stop AREX Express Train
If you arrive in Incheon airport during the AREX's operation hours, this is the best way to get from the ICN airport to Seoul station around 43 minutes. The train ride is comfortable and has space for your suitcases. It also has free wifi and toilets on board.

The earliest time that this express train leaves ICN airport station is at 5:20 A.M in the morning and the last train that leaves the airport station is at 9:50 P.M at night. So plan accordingly.

How to Purchase AREX Train Ticket:
  1. After clearing the immigration and onto the Arrival Hall, look for the sign that says "Airport Railroad" 
  2. At the station, you can either purchase the ticket from the vending machine or from the agent at the AREX ticket information counter. You may also purchase the ticket from the information center of Inchoen airport that is orange color.
  3. The latest ticket's fare for adult is 8,000 KRW (~$7 USD) and child is 6,900 KRW (~$6 USD). Please note that if you purchase a single journey/one way ticket, an additional 100 KRW will be added to the fare. There is also a refundable deposit of 500 KRW that will be added and can be returned to you at your destination station using the refund deposit machine.
  4. Once you have gotten your ticket, tap the card to enter the station and simply board the train. 
Purchase AREX Ticket From Ticket Counter
Photo Courtesy of AREX

Purchase AREX Ticket From Vending Machine in English
Photo Courtesy of AREX

There's also another commuter train that I am still researching about. It's my understanding it takes longer as it has 10 stops.

For more information about the AREX Express Train, you can go to the following website: Airport Railroad Information.

Late Night Bus
If you arrive in Incheon airport after the AREX express train option, your best way to get from the airport to Seoul is via the late night bus. There are two companies that operate the late night buses. They are the Airport Limousine and KAL Limousine. Keep in mind that the late night bus option is not that frequent. So there may be some waiting to do.

Airport Limousine
There are two routes that this bus goes to, here are the two routes:
  1. Incheon Airport → SongJeong Station → Yomchangdong → Seoul Station. The first bus's schedule that leaves from the airport is at 00:15 midnight and the last bus's schedule is at 4:40 A.M in the morning. The bus stop is on the 1st Floor 5A stop.
  2. Incheon Airport → SongJeong Station → Yomchangdong → Gangnam Express Bus Terminal. The first bus's schedule that leaves from the airport is at 23:50 midnight and the last bus's schedule is at 4:10 A.M in the morning. The bus stop is on the 1st Floor 5A stop.
KAL Limousine
This is a Korean Airline shuttle service. It has two routes also, but they only leave once a day from the Incheon airport. Here are the routes:
  1. Incheon Airport → Palace Hotel (Banpo) → COEX (Samseong Station) → Jamsil. This bus leaves the airport at around 23:20 P.M at night everyday from Passenger terminal 1st floor 4A stop.
  2. Incheon Airport → Mapo(Seoul Garden) → City Hall(KAL building) → Seoul Station. This bus leaves the airport at around 1 A.M in the morning everyday from Passenger terminal 1st floor 4A stop.
The KAL Limousine service make stops at hotels, so be sure your hotel is on the route/near by. For more information on which hotel that this service stops at, go to the following website: KAL Limousine Schedule
For more information on the schedule and fares about the late night buses, you can go to the following website: Airport Late Night Bus

Airport Hotels
Another option if you arrive in Incheon airport at night is to consider airport hotels. Unseo, also known as the Airport town has several lodgings available that range from cheap hostels and guesthouses to high end hotels. They do offer complimentary airport shuttle to/from the airport. The only draw back of some of these hotels is that their airport shuttle does not operate 24 hours. Therefore, it is very important that you check with the hotel or look up hotel's information in regards to their airport shuttle's hours of operation.

If you are arriving before midnight, there are two well known airport hotels. I am not affiliated with the hotels but these two hotels get several reviews on the TripAdvisor and I was able to learn about their shuttle policy that hopefully you will find them useful as well. Their price is also reasonable.

Hotel Queen Incheon Airport - TA's Review 4/5
We offer free shuttle service as below.
  • Please call us at 747-0070 using public phone when you arrive at the Incheon airport. (By Cell phone +82 32 747 0070) (There are information booths on each floor-1st and 3rd floor and they can phone the hotel for a driver to come and pick you up).
  • Then, we will pick you up within 15 minutes.
  • Pick-up location: Take the lift to level 3 then exit the building a door 7. Cross over the first road to the island walkway and you will be picked up from there.
  • Notice: A complimentary hotel shuttle runs until 23:30 P.M. If you arrive after that, please go to "Door(Gate) 7 on arrival floor" and take Incheon direction taxi ($12-20).
  • Shuttle bus schedule from Hotel Queen to Incheon Airport: 06:00 AM, 07:00 AM, 08:00 AM, 09:00 AM, 10:00 AM, 11:00 AM, 12:00 PM, Around 01:00.
Hotel Sky Incheon Airport - TA's Review 3.5/5
  • From Airport To Hotel (when you check-in)
  • Hotel SKY Incheon Airport provides  free pick-up service from the ICN airport when guest check in. (06:00~24:00)
  • Call the hotel on 752-1101 upon your arriving at the airport and wait in front of Door No.7 on the 3rd floor (Departure Floor). Please wait on the 2nd sidewalk after cross the crosswalk.. There are information booths on each floor-1st and 3rd floor and they can phone the hotel for a driver to come and pick you up).
  • Hotel staff goes for pick-up (It will takes about 10~15 minutes / Silver color mini van, Sky Hotel logo on it).
  • From Hotel To Airport (when you check-out)
  • The Time schedule from Hotel to Airport (Book at the front desk when you check-in) is 06:00   07:00  08:00  09:00  10:00  11:00  12:00
Side Note: I also want to mention too that if you want to use points for free stay, there's a Grand Hyatt Inchoen and a Best Western available there. They also offer complimentary airport shuttle; however, please check with them on their shuttle hours.

AT The Airport Hotels
If you are just in transit, there are couple options:
  • Incheon International Airport is one of my favorite airports in Asia. Not only they have free shower facility, the free lounging area for relaxing and sleeping is quite nice. The only draw back is because it's free, so it's available first comes first served only. There's a chance that you may not get the lounge chair. 
  • The airport also has transit hotel that you can book by hours. For more information on transit hotels, you can visit the following website: Incheon Transit Hotel
If Seoul is your final destination and you are not in transit but you don't want to deal with all the hassles of catching shuttle bus, etc. after a long haul flight, you may consider clearing the immigration and then stay at the following hotels that are inside the airport terminal:
  • DRARAKHYU - Capsule Hotel by Walkerhill - they have a few room options that are available depending on your occupancy. 
    • Their rates are reasonable by block of hours. 
    • They do accept reservation online
    • The have generous cancellation policy: "No fee charged if cancelled prior to 08:00 AM on check-in date, 2017(hotel time.)" So you have up until the morning of check in date to cancel should you change your mind or your trip has been disrupted. I'd encourage to make reservation as early as possible. 
    • The hotel is located after the immigration control and on the 1st floor of Transportation Center in Incheon International Airport. great for those that are taking train from Incheon to somewhere else in South Korea!
  • Airport Spa on Air - this is another place to stay that's at the airport; however, you cannot make reservation. It's operated under first comes first served basis and therefore there's a chance that you likely do not get to stay comfortably. This hotel is also located after the immigration control. 
Stay at DRARAKHYU - Capsule Hotel by Walkerhill to Recharge After Long Flight
Photo Courtesy of Capsule Hotel by Walkerhill

Taxi
I am leaving this as the last resort option because the cost can really add up, especially if you are traveling alone. Besides the cost, this option is the most intuitive and convenient way to get from the airport to your hotel directly. I am all about traveling far with small money and I only consider this option if there's absolutely no other simple options.

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September 16, 2017

How To Book Wyndham Vacation Properties Using Wyndham Rewards Points

Right now, Wyndam has a very generous promotion that if you reserve the room using MasterPass as the method of payment and do 1 stay, you will earn 7,500 Wyndham Rewards Points. After 2 stays, you will earn 15,000 points. That's enough for one free night at any Wyndham properties worldwide. You can earn up to 30,000 Wyndham points via this promotion.

In my opinion, Wyndham rewards program is under-rated by points travelers out there. Wynham requires only 15,000 points for ANY of their properties (a.k.a Wyndham calls it Go Free). That's being said, if you can redeem those points for one free night stay at their top tier properties including their all-inclusive ones, you are way ahead of the game. On the contrary, if you redeem those points for low tier properties such as Days Inn, Super 8, etc. you are giving your money away.

Stay at Wyndham Shearwater Vacation Property on Kauai Island in Princeville for 15,000 Wyndham Points
Photo Courtesy of Wyndham's Extra Holiday
Wyndham Vacation Properties
Not only you can redeem 15,000 Wyndham points for hotels, resorts, and all-inclusive that fall under Wyndham chains, you are also able to redeem those points for Wyndham's vacation properties (well known as timeshares) as well. Before you ask, no, you don't need to attend any timeshare presentation. The only catch about it is you cannot redeem those points online. Here are the step-to-step on How To Book Wyndham Vacation Properties Using Wyndham Rewards Points
  1. Go to https://www.extraholidays.com and search for the vacation property that you want. Minimum two nights required. 
  2. If the dates that you want are not available, you will be presented with availability calendar. I find that super useful so that I don't have to search by each date. 
  3. Once you see the available date, check to see if the 1 bedroom/studio or the lowest room rate available because that room type requires only 15,000 Wyndham points per night. 
  4. Note down the date and call this number 866-370-8548 to book using Wyndham points. As a reminder because these properties require minimum two night stays, you will have to redeem 30,000 Wyndham points. 
There you have it! I love the convenience to be able to book hotels using points online, but in this case, you will have to call in. On the bright side, at least we can check availability on each property online before calling in to book with points.

Useful Availability Calendar

Wyndham's vacation properties look aspiring, especially the ones in Hawaii, Florida, even Idaho!! You can explore the properties destinations here. Link


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August 1, 2017

Visit Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha this Summer With IHG PointBreaks Hotels For Only 5,000 IHG Points

IHG has released their Rewards PointBreaks for summer time that's valid through Oct 31, 2017. This promotion allows IHG member to redeem points for a free night stay at any IHG hotels that are on the participating list for only 5,000 IHG Points. I value IHG point at 0.7 cents per point, that means for 5,000 points, I am actually paying $35 for one night stay.

I happen to travel to two states that are on the list this coming August: Colorado and Nebraska. We originally wanted to stay in Wyoming for our road trip, but because of the Eclipse all the hotels are completely sold out on the date that we want. So instead, we started looking into Colorado. It appears that Longmont, Colorado that's not too far away has hotels available. What caught me by surprise is that it's only an hour away from the Rocky Mountain National Park. So, we are definitely going to check out the Rocky Mountain National Park for the first time and we decided to camp one night there prior to moving on to Omaha, Nebraska, etc.

Rocky Mountain National Park (Longmont, Colorado)
Fortunately, the Candlewood Suites in Longmont is on the list that participates with the IHG PointsBreaks promotion. I went ahead and reserved the room for 5,000 IHG Points per night. The property also accept pets for a fee; however, based on my experience, when I redeem points for IHG hotel stays, the hotels seem to waive the pet fees. I am not sure why or their system doesn't have a place to charge if it's an award stay or because of my Platinum Elite status with them. It's still a mystery to me! The regular nightly rate for the date that we want at Candlewood Suites is $171.50 before tax. With this promotion, I only pay 5,000 IHG points, which is equivalent to $35 based of my IHG point's valuation. So this is definitely a steal!

Stay At Candlewood Suites In Longmont Colorado This Summer For Only 5,000 IHG Points.
You Can Visit the Rocky Mountain National Park.
Omaha, Nebraska
Continuing on to Omaha, Nebraska - there are two properties that participate with the IHG PointsBreak: Holiday Inn Express & Suites Cherry Hills and Candlewood Suites Omaha – Millard Area. I took advantage of both places, but my preference goes to the Holiday Inn Express because they offer free hot breakfast that's not just continental breakfast. However, they do not accept pets. Whereas the Candlewood Suites does but they don't offer breakfast. I'll be staying at the Holiday Inn Express by myself for two nights (10,000 IHG Points) during my stays in Omaha and one night (5,000 IHG Points) in Candlewood Suites property when we have pets with us.

WHAT IS IHG REWARDS POINTBREAKS?
It is IHG hotel's special promotion that runs every 3 months for IHG rewards club members. Members can redeem points for a free night stay for only 5,000 points during the promotional period. I value IHG point at 0.7 cents per point, that means for 5,000 points, I am actually paying $35 for one night stay. The great thing about this promotion is that it's not just for IHG hotels in America, but also hotels around the world.

SO WHAT IS THE CATCH?
Do note that not all IHG hotels worldwide are participating with this promotion. Most hotels on the PointBreak's list that participate with this promotion are the ones that are usually in a destination that's less traveled to or the location of the property is not near tourist attractions; however, they do have good ones once in awhile. It makes it fun to wonder which awesome hotel could show up on the list. The popular ones obviously will be sold out quick, and therefore it's recommended that you jump on the deal quickly and cancel later as using points to redeem for an award night offers free cancellation up until check-in date. For those that will just happen to travel to the destination or on the road that has a participating IHG hotel on the PointsBreak's list, it's a fantastic deal to pass. It's also worth noting that each member can only book two reward nights reservations per hotel and each member also needs to have at least 5,000 IHG Points in his/her account to take advantage of this deal.

Complete list of IHG PointBreaks List Can Be Found Here


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July 31, 2017

My American Express Business Platinum Retention Offers

My American Express Business Platinum credit card's annual fee came due this weekend. It costs $450. That's pretty steep. However, I still love the benefits of this card a lot that I strongly believe that those benefits can really pay for the annual fee itself per year. Just with any other services, credit cards also have retention department that you can talk to someone to see if they have any offers prior to closing the card.

Enjoy Complimentary Drinks at American Express Centurion Lounge in Miami Airport With
American Express Business Platinum Credit Card's Privilege.

I called the American Express number on the back of my Platinum card. I said "cancel" to the automated machine. It then took me to a customer service representative. After verification, I told her about considering closing the card. That's when she had to bring up a specialist that handles retention. The process is rather simple and just be prepared to have a reason to answer the question why you want to close the account?

The specialist took a minute or so to check something out and then returned to offer me two options:
  1. $150 statement credit or 15,000 Membership Rewards Points - no spending requirement. 
  2. 6,000 Membership Rewards Points right away, plus if I spend $15,000 on the card in the next three month, I'll be rewarded additional 12,000 Membership Rewards Points
While #2 gives me opportunity to earn more points, but $15,000 spend is ridiculously high. So I opted for option #1. I picked the 15,000 Membership Rewards Points instead of the statement credit. The reason behind that is because I value points more than cash. Amex Membership Rewards Points are worth 1.9 cents a piece to me, so for 15,000 points that equals to $285. 

For the time being, I do think I'll keep my American Express Business Platinum Credit Card for now. As I mentioned above, although the annual fee is high, the benefits of this card can easily pay off the annual fee itself in a year. Here are the benefit that I value on this card:
  • Annual $200 airline credit - that lowers that annual fee to $250 per year. 
  • Access to American Express Centurion Lounges at airports. 
  • Access to Delta Sky Club at airports when flying with Delta. 
  • Access to Domestic and International Lounges at airports with Priority Pass.
  • Gold status with Hilton and Starwood (SPG). Great for complimentary room upgrade and earn bonus hotel points during paid stay. 
  • 10 Gogo in-flight wifi passes and unlimited wifi at Boingo hotspot. 
  • $100 credit for Global Entry and TSA Pre-Check. 
  • 35% points back when redeem Amex Membership Rewards Points for First & Business classes tickets with any airline. 
  • 5 points/$ spend on travel bookings through American Express Travel site. 
  • 1.5 points/$ spend on on purchases of $5,000 or more.
There are more benefits that come with this card such as purchase protection, rental car insurance, concierge services, etc. The concierge service was nice. I used it to book Broadway Tickets for New York City.


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