December 30, 2016

Hotel Review: Free Night Stay At Radisson Blu Hotel Mall of America

Beautiful Lobby at Radisson Blue Mall of America
I used the free night certificate earned by Club Carlson credit card to spend one night at the Radisson Blu hotel in the Mall of America, Minneapolis. We had never been to the Twin Cities, so we decided to go check it out. Our stay at the Radisson Blu Mall of America was fantastic. Here is my review:

Price & Award Stay

This hotel nightly rate can be anywhere above $200-$300, close to $400 easily depending on the seasons. It is Club Carlson's current highest category hotel, which is 7. So it requires 70,000 points for a free stay. As mentioned, I used the free night certificate so I did not have to use points.

Visit Mall of America in Minneapolis and Stay inside the Mall!

Location

This Radisson Blu hotel is located right inside the Mall of America. As name suggests, this mall is huge. What I love about the mall in fact it's not the shops but the Nickelodeon Universe theme park inside the mall. We had a blast there with roller coasters! At first trying to find the Radisson Blu wasn't that fun given how big the mall is. It's actually located so close to the Legoland and the Nickelodeon Universe, which makes it even better for us as we stayed mostly in the theme park area. Overall, the location of this Radisson Blu is fantastic if you want to stay right inside the Mall of America. You can shop and when you are tired, you could just walk right into your room to relax and then shop for more :-)

The Mall of America has department stores that you can find in other cities as well. Some store has more shops in the mall on different level, but they are all the same. There are also restaurants and bars, which is another reason that we enjoyed staying at this hotel because we could drink and then just walked back to the hotel in the evening.

Go Play at Nickelodeon Universe While Staying at Radisson Blu Mall of America

Room

Our room is located on the high floor. There's no view that's worth talking about. However, because of my Gold Elite status with Club Carlson that comes from being a Club Carlson credit card holder, we got upgraded to the Business Class room which gives us access to the Business Lounge up there. Our room is beautifully designed with comfortable bed. I really love their colors choice. The mini bar inside the room is very cool.

Beautiful Decor Business Class Room
I Love the Bright Color Choice in the Room!
Mini Bar Inside Room
Bathroom

Lounge

The lounge is also very nice and spacious. There are several seats available, and the decor is really nice. The complimentary breakfast items in the lounge include eggs, ham and cheese, etc. The menu may change daily though. Access to the lounge is with the room key, so guest can go in and out during the lounge's operating hours. Lounge has snacks and drinks, a great place to relax.  

Radisson Blue Mall of America's Business Lounge
Plenty of Seats Inside The Lounge

Service

The service at this Radisson Blu is worth mentioning. The check in staff was really friendly and polite. She acknowledged my Gold status and the manager also gave me a welcome note along with small m&m candy nicely wrapped gift. I was very pleased with their customer service.

Club Carlson's Gold Elite's Welcome Note

Airport Shuttle

Given how close the Mall of America to the airport, Radisson Blu also provides complimentary airport shuttle for the guests. We took advantage of this service. Do keep in mind, it's not a 24 hours service, so make sure to check with the hotel. We found this service very useful during our stay and thought I'd share this as part of my review. Our driver was prompt and very professional.

Complimentary Airport Shuttle

Conclusion

Overall, using a free night certificate to stay at the Radisson Blu in Mall of America is a great choice. It was a good opportunity for me to check out Minneapolis and the Mall of America all together. The prime location of this hotel makes our stay really enjoyable. The room and lounge are great. Customer and complimentary airport shuttle service are nice. However, I am not sure if I would stay there paying with cash though as the rate can be too expensive for our pockets! If you are looking for a place to redeem your Club Carlson points or to use your free night certificate that's earned from the Club Carlson credit card, then I'd recommend staying there.

This is one of the memorable stays for me in 2016. The location, the service, the room and the lounge, etc. are so nice. One free annual night certificate allowed us to stay free with upgraded room, lounge access with complimentary breakfast, and complimentary airport shuttle. Thank you Club Carlson credit card.

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New York City Planning Part 2: Crown of the Statue of Liberty

New York's Iconic Statue of Liberty Monument
Yesterday I wrote about my New York City Planning to see the Book of Mormon at the Broadway Theatre in New York City. While checking on my list of things to do that I have not done in New York City, there's one more thing at the Statue of Liberty that I have not done - Go up to the Crown!

Any first timers to New York City should pay a visit to the Statue of Liberty. But did you know you can go inside the Liberty's Pedestal (the piece what the Liberty stands on) and her Crown?

I took my mom to the Pedestal before because I could not get the Crown ticket. The Crown tickets can be sold out months in advanced, especially during the tourist seasons. This time, we'll be visiting at the end of February, so scoring the crown tickets wasn't too difficult.

Pedestal ticket costs $18/adult, same as the regular reserved ticket without the Pedestal access, but for only $4 more, you have access to both the Pedestal and the Crown. All tickets include the roundtrip ferry ride to the Liberty and the Ellis Islands. So getting the Crown ticket is a no brainer. For more pricing information, please refer to the Statue Cruise website.

You Can Checkout the Museum Inside the Liberty Monument
With Pedestal or Crown Tickets

Here are top 3 things to consider if you want to go up to the Liberty's Crown:


Plan Months In Advanced

According to the Statue Cruise, "tickets to the crown sell out months in advance. We recommend purchasing your tickets to the crown 3 to 4 months in advance." This is very true.

Fit Test

There are 393 steps to the Crown with limited elevator access. 162 of those steps are narrow and tight from the top of the pedestal to the crown, no elevator. So you need to make sure you can do this without any assistance.

Crown Ticket Time

You select the time that you want to reserve for the crown access. The time that you pick is not the time that you will go get the ticket and onto the crown. Remember, getting to the Liberty ground requires ferry ride, queues, and security screening. Email delivery ticket is also not possible, you have to show up with proof of ID to get the reserved ticket at the ticket booth.

I contacted the Statue Cruise to clarify the time that I picked at 1pm, and here's their response:
"Please plan to arrive 1 hour prior to 1:00pm to pick up your tickets from the ticket booth. You will then proceed to the security line before boarding the ferry. Once you are on the island, the tour is self paced and self guided. You may enter the monument to tour the crown once you get to the island."

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December 29, 2016

New York City Planning Part 1: Broadway Show Tickets

We Are Going to See the Book of Mormon in New York City!
I have been to New York City twice now, but I have never been to the Broadway Show there yet. We are heading to New York at the end of February to fly out from there to Asia via Singapore Airlines Double Beds First Class. That Airbus 380 currently only operates out from New York JFK airport in the US. Anyway, this is a great time for me to go see a broadway show. Being the first timer to the show, especially in NYC, I was clueless how and where to get the tickets.

From my research, here are ways to get discounted tickets:

Online Discounted Websites:

My first intuition is to purchase the tickets online. If the show that is popular like Hamilton, The Book of Mormon, etc. chances are you won't be able to find any discounts for that. But if you just want to see a broadway show in New York, then check out BroadwayBox and TheaterMania websites. These two sites have discounted codes that you can use but subject to availability. You won't be able to get discounted codes for the popular shows though, but instead they redirect you to the official broadway ticket selling site: TicketMaster. Make sure to plan and purchase in advanced unless you are visiting NYC during the off-peak, which is typically in the winter time.

TKTS Booths

This option is like a gamble. It really depends on how much you really want to see the broadway show. In return, you will get substantial discounts on the tickets. The TKTS booths are operated by the Theatre Development Fund. On any given day, the show producer decides how many show tickets to send to the TKTS booths. This type of ticket allocation method therefore can run out quickly and it is first comes first served. So if seeing a broadway show and especially a particular show is a deal breaker to you, then this option does not make sense. For me, staying in queues especially in the winter to get tickets that I don't even know if it'll be available or not by the time I am at the booth is not worth my time. For more information on TKTS Booths, you can check out their website at https://www.tdf.org/nyc/7/TKTS-Overview

American Express 

You see that right. American Express is a credit card issuing company, what does it have to do anything with the broadway shows? American Express is a proud sponsor to certain broadway shows. From time to time, they pre-purchase amounts of tickets and allow their platinum card members access to those tickets at a very nice discounted price. Recently, they bought tickets for the Hamilton in Chicago and sold the ticket around $80/seat to their card members.

Being an American Express Business Platinum Credit Card holder myself, I phoned up the 24/7 concierge service (one of the benefits that come with that card) to see if I can get any deals on the Book of Mormon. Unfortunately, there's no discounts for that show. But the agent was so helpful and patient with my questions to help me search for availability and seats selection. She's a basically my concierge helping me booked the broadway show tickets so that I don't have to do all the work, without any service fees. I ended up getting the tickets for the Book of Mormon $129 a piece for a Friday night show. The price seems alright, but we really wanted to check out that show in New York City. So we decided to do it! That's right, we are going to New York to see the Book of Mormon. I can't wait to have my first experience at the broadway theatre in New York City. Our seats are on the Mezzanine level and you can check out seats configurations on Ticketmaster.

It is worth mentioning too that, if you have credit card that earns you American Express Membership Rewards Points:
  • You can redeem the points for the broadway tickets, but the rate is not so great. For example, 10,000 points = $50. If you want to go with this method, you will have to book with Ticket Master. During check out, you will have the option to use Amex points to pay for the tickets.
  • Another better option is to redeem your points as a credit back to your purchases. For 10,000 points = $100. This appears to be better. All you have do is make the purchase, then call the rewards membership number and tell them you want to use the points to apply as credit to a particular purchase. 
Keep in mind, the best way to redeem Amex points is to transfer them to airline miles/travel. You will get more values out of that redemption. However, paying cash out of pocket is not for everyone, and everyone's situation is completely different.

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December 28, 2016

Review: Capt. Andy's Na Pali Coast Kauai Boat Tour

A visit to Na Pali coast is a must do on Kauai Island. You can hike, boat, or helicopter to look at this stunning beautiful nature. During our visit to Kauai Island, we decided to do the boat tour with Capt. Andy's Na Pali Sunset Dinner Sail

See Na Pali Coast State Park With Boat Sailing Tour
Here's our review of that tour, but do keep in mind that there are several kinds of tours available offered by Capt. Andy's

Price

First and foremost, the price isn't too bad for a 4 hours tour on the water. The tour also includes: Snacks, Salads, Buffet Style Meals, and Beverages. All for $119 for adult and $89 for child. But if you make booking online, it costs $109/adult and $79/child. If you are driving, free parking is also available.

Service

Our tour's service on board was outstanding. There are three crew members on board and they were super nice. Their service exceeded our expectations. They were attentive to everyone. They went around bringing snacks and drinks to passengers, as well as taking dirty plates and trashes from the passengers. The crews were also quite entertaining.

Food & Drinks

The snacks were good. The buffet style meals include chicken, beef, rice, and salad. They were delicious and very good quality. There are various kinds of drinks such as sodas, water, beers, and a specialty cocktail.

The Boat Tour

The boat that we were on was alright. It got the job done. They have different kinds of boats, so there's a chance you would be on a newer boat than what we were on. The 4 hours tour were spend nicely as we enjoyed it very much. When the boat was out towards the Na Pali coastline, the water was really rough. A word of advice here is, take dramamine. You will thank it. The last thing you want is to get seasick. I am not joking here! If you can bring towels, do that as well because you will get wet, but that's what makes it fun! We also saw dolphins which were really cool. The Na Pali coast and mountains are beautiful.  You really need to see it in person to believe me.  One of the movies such as King Kong took place there. On the way back, of course we got to see the beautiful sunset of Kauai. The water was calmer then so it was really relaxing. We were lucky enough to spot a whale as well.

Stunning Na Pali Coast View
Kauai's Beautiful Sunset

Conclusion

Overall, I definitely recommend Capt. Andy's boat tour to those that want to see Na Pali and Sunset of Kauai. Their onboard service was outstanding and the food was delicious. It's a great way to spend time in Kauai. We had a blast! Again, keep in mind they have several kinds of tour. Head over to Capt. Andy's website and explore yourself.

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December 27, 2016

3 Places To Stay On The Big Island Hawaii


Hawaii island is also known as the Big Island. It is the biggest island in Hawaii state. Driving from one town to other town takes little bit of time. I suggest that you stay a few days on the island to be able to enjoy what this island has to offer. Consider the following three places to stay when you visit the Big Island:

Hilo

There are two airports on the Big Island. One of them is located in Hilo. This town is close to the Volcano National Park. If you want to start out visiting the national park early morning, staying in Hilo is a good option. Downtown Hilo is nice with shops and restaurants. Consider staying at the Grand Naniloa Hotel Hilo that was just acquired by DoubleTree Hilton this year. We stayed there for one night and it was a nice property.

Stay in Hilo Close To the Volcano National Park

Kailua-Kona

The other airport on the Big Island is the Kona airport, which is close to the Kailua-Kona town. This town is a very touristy one on the island. Lodging prices here are not too bad. Kona Square has several shops and restaurants. The Atlantis Submarine is also located there. Beach area isn't that great. But if you want to be in the center of actions, then consider staying in this town.

Kona Square Full of Restaurants and Shops - Right in the Center of Kailua-Kona

Kohala Coast

I am saving this one last because this is the most expensive area compared to the other two mentioned above. If you are looking for white sandy beaches and relaxation, then look no further. Kohala Coast has variety of resorts. This resort area is far from all the hustles and bustles, so your options are very limited to just what the resort offers. We stayed at the Hapuna Prince Beach Hotel. It was really nice as we mainly wanted to stay close to the sandy beach as much as possible. We had a rental car, so we just drove to the touristy town such as Kailua-Kona when we felt like leaving the resort for a few hours.

White Sandy Beach At the Hapuna Prince Beach Hotel on the Kohala Coast

Summary

In short, if you want to visit the Volcano National Park, consider staying in Hilo for one night; otherwise, you will have some driving to do back and forth. If you want to stay right in the middle of actions, then you can't go wrong with Kailua-Kona town. Accommodations there are a little bit more  expensive than Hilo, but a lot cheaper than resorts in Kohala Coast that offers tranquility and sandy beaches.

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December 2, 2016

5 Cruise Tips for First Timers


#1 Cruise Check-In

The main thing about cruise ship check-in is you must give plenty of time before departure. Cruise ship operates nothing like flights. There will be thousands of people all come at once to check in and to get on that ship. I’d recommend that if you can travel light, that’d be ideal for your first time on a cruise. You will simply walk straight through security, etc. and onto the check in counter where you receive your boarding pass. If you love the convenience of check in online, please do so. But please be aware that online check in let you put in all your travel document information before hand, but you still have to go through queues to get your boarding pass like everyone else. Therefore, if you don’t have time to do online check in, don’t worry about it. If you must travel with big luggages, you drop them at the port where you get tags for your bags, then walk through security, etc. to go to check in counters.

#2 Aboard Questions & Answers

It's overwhelming for the first timer on a cruise ship. Once you board the ship, you notice that there are so many people onboard. To make things worse, the cruise company tries to upsell you things and drink packages at the entrance. Try to avoid all that and head straight to the elevator to get to your stateroom. You will get a chance to buy those packages any time during your cruise. Talking of elevator, that's another nightmare. The amount and performance of the elevator cannot be efficient enough to operate for that many people. Be patient and if you have just carry on, sometimes stairs are much quicker if you are in good shape and your floor isn't too high.

Furthermore, it is human intuition that I need to go check out the ship, I need to go get internet, I need to go reception desk, etc. Slow down! It may ruin your excitement when you try to get up and down using the busy elevator and realize that there are long lines at the reception desk. It's not worth it. Instead, familiarize yourself with your stateroom. Check out the brochure and any information provided to you in the room. Turn on the TV and go to cruise guide channel if available. You'll be surprised a lot of information are answered right in your room. Don't even bother to call reception desk as they are too busy!

#3 Be strategic

When there are thousands of people on the ship, it's inevitable that there are lines to do everything. After browsing all the information in your room and you get yourself to explore the ship, be strategic about time and places. For example, which elevator that's less used by others? What time that's less people go eating? When reception desk is not too busy to answer my call from the room so I don't have to go down there? So on and so forth.

#4 Port of Call Exit & Enter

This is another crazy time when everyone tries to exit the ship all at once to enjoy the port of call or destination. I'm sure you are excited to get out too. At that time, the elevator is crazy busy again. If you can wait until the crowds are all gone, you will exit the ship easily. But if you can't, remember to be strategic, which elevator that's less used by and the rule applies the same when you return at unfortunate time that everyone returns as well.

If you don't want to go out, you will have the entire ship to yourself! No one competes with you for the lounge chairs, swimming pool will be yours to enjoy alone, etc.

#5 End of Cruise

After your cruise, if you need to exit the ship early and you can carry your bags by yourself to exit the cruise ship, make sure you register for self-assist at the reception desk. There's a deadline for it, so the sooner you do that the better. I don't recommend doing it last day or last minute as others are doing the same thing.

Moreover, this is an important part. Make sure all your bills are cleared and if you open any accounts during your entire time on the cruise ship, make sure you close them. Because if you do not, the cruise attendant won't let you get off once they scan your boarding pass and it shows that you still have unpaid or unclosed account with the cruise line. Trust me, you don't want to be in that position because you were in a long line to get out then you get sent back, and guess what, the line at the reception where you go to close the account is even worse because apparently lots of people make this type of mistake.

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December 1, 2016

Four LaGuardia Hotels With Shuttle and Within Walking Distance to Subway Station


If you are flying into LaGuardia New York airport (LGA), to get to tourist destinations such as Time Square and Downtown via public transportation, it requires two transfers. You need to catch bus then transfer to Subway. If you are arriving late night, this might not be ideal, especially in the cold winter time. Taxi or uber is your best chance, but you want to watch your budget and taxi isn't for everyone given how congested traffic can be in New York. Airport shuttle services are also expensive if you are not traveling alone.

My suggestion is, since you are arriving late night, you can't do much in New York city anyway. Why not pick a hotel airport that's close to a Subway station and provides airport shuttle pick up from LaGuardia airport? Catch your sleep at night, check out the next morning and walk to the nearest Subway station to your next destination.

If this plan sounds good to you, here are the 4 hotels that I have scoped out that is within walking distance to the Subway station and provides complimentary airport shuttle pick up from LGA. In fact, two of them also provides free breakfast in the morning.

Best Western Plus LaGuardia Airport Hotel Queens

This hotel's location is really close to the Subway station #7. It's only about 3 minutes walk. They offer free airport shuttle service to/from LGA. The room rate is very reasonable around $100 before tax and it comes with free hot breakfast buffet in the morning. If you like to redeem points for a free stay, it requires 20,000 points.

Holiday Inn : LaGuardia Airport

This comfortable hotel is about 8 minutes walk to the nearest Subway station #7. They offer free airport pick up and drop off. Nightly rate is above $150 with no breakfast unless you pay extra for it. You can also redeem 20,000 IHG points for one free night stay.

Hyatt Place Flushing/LaGuardia Airport

This Hyatt suite type hotel is only about 4 minutes walk to the nearest Subway station #7. They offer complimentary hotel shuttle to/from LGA airport and free hot breakfast every morning. The rate is above $170 per night. This hotel requires 12,000 Hyatt points for a free night stay.

Sheraton LaGuardia East Hotel

This cozy nice hotel is only about 4 minutes walk to the nearest Subway station #7. They offer free airport pick up and drop off services. The rate is a little bit steep above $200 per night with no breakfast. They do have club room that comes with lounge access. If you have access to the lounge based on your status with Starwood hotels, you can enjoy free breakfast there. You can also access the lounge if you have SPG Business credit card. You can redeem 10,000 star points for one free night stay there. 

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