The Magnificent Maldives- Reserving a Room (For Free!)

Hello Dear Readers!

I’ve made so much fuss over the last year about the Maldives, and previously when I wrote about going, I detailed how I would spend points for nights at the Park Hyatt Maldives. Well, like I told you before, I ended up trading in those nights for a 4 day stay at the Conrad, simply because it was easier (and I wanted to go to their underwater restaurant.)

So how did I do it?

Well, the Conrad Maldives is the absolute highest category hotel that they’ve got, clocking in at an astonishing 95,000 points/ night. For reference, their cheapest hotels (Category 1) go for a mere 10,000 points/ night.

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I spent all year saving up for this, using sign up bonuses from the Hilton Honors Ascend card (which offers 100k points after 3k spend in 6 months) and the now defunct Citi Hilton Reserve card, which offered two free weekend nights at any hotel after 3k spend in the first three months.

I also saved up all the points I’d ever earned from doing my Diamond status challenge and made sure most of my stays during the last year were at Hiltons. This wasn’t just to earn points (though the earning ratio is vastly improved when you have status), but also because being a Diamond member means I get better perks here than at any other chain.

If you’re looking to acquire Hilton points, you can get the card I mentioned above as well as the Hilton Honors Aspire card, which earns you 100k points after 4k in spend in the first three months. (It also gives you Diamond status simply by owning it). There’s also the no annual fee Hilton Honors card, which gives you 50k bonus points after 1k in spend in the first three months.

Obtaining these three cards will net you a minimum of 250,000 points before spend (which will easily drive it up another 10-15k)- nearly enough for three nights at the Conrad Maldives. If you can get yourself up to 380,000 points (very doable in a year, as the Hilton cards earn rewards very quickly), you’ll have enough points for 4 nights. The Hilton Honors program gives the 5th night free on all hotel stays, so you’ll be able to stay for 5 nights for the cost of 4!

So, yes, it’s expensive. But you’re also redeeming your points at a hotel that regularly goes for over $2,000 a night, so you’re making it well worth your while.

The reward room you get is the beach villa, which is nice enough on its own. But a mere month before my arrival, Hilton accidentally made overwater villas (normally a $150-$300/ night upgrade) available for redemption for only 95,000 points a night- the same rate as a beach villa!

Unfortunately, I was past my cancellation window, so thought I had lost the opportunity to snag this. However, I still gave the Diamond desk a call and to my extreme surprise, they pulled some strings, replacing my 4 night stay in a beach villa with 4 nights in an overwater villa at no extra cost! I was more than a little pleased, and have continuously gloated since.

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For us!

Anyway, if you’re looking to stay, those three cards are the easiest way to earn large quantities of points, and once you’ve accumulated enough, it’s worth your while to aim for 4 nights and get 5. If you’re averse to too many cards, American Express transfers points to Hilton at a 2:1 ratio, so you’ll need a mere 190,000 American Express points for your 5 nights at the Maldives.

Up next, more fun and less points. See you soon!

– Carissa “Smug AF” Rawson

Exploring Ethiopia: A Culinary Adventure

Hello Dear Readers!

It’s been a few days, hasn’t it? I’ve had an incredible time traveling around these last few weeks, and let me tell you where.

Are you guys ready?

Ok! I went to Ethiopia!

The decision for this came kind of abruptly, as I was originally set to head to Dubai for eleven days. However, PJ, my brother, wasn’t able to come out for the entire trip and rather than hang out in the Middle East alone (again), I decided to meet up with a friend all the way in Africa. (He lives in the Middle East too, so it wasn’t such a stretch for him).

It was my first time anywhere on the African continent, and it was awesome!

Flights to Ethiopia from Dubai are actually fairly cheap and quick, so hopping a plane to Addis Ababa (the capital) was simple.

So what did I do in Ethiopia? Many things! I wandered the city of Addis Ababa, went on a food tour of the city, rode a horse down into an extinct volcano, visited a monastery (Ethiopians are super religious), and hiked across a four hundred year old bridge to stand on a waterfall. Was it great? Yes. Was it exhausting? Also yes. But it was so much fun!

Reading up on Addis Ababa, I saw that it is generally considered the ‘safest’ of cities in Africa, with the exception of pickpockets. With this in mind, I dumped everything of value with my parents (hi Joni!) during my one day back in the US before heading to Africa. The only things I took with me worth anything were my cell phone (my lifeline) and my iPad (my writing instrument). Other than that, I had my half-empty backpack, full of clothes and not much else. This turned out to be a good idea, as, over the course of the trip, I disappointed many pickpockets with my own state of poverty. I imagine robbing someone with nothing is frustrating at best.

My first day there, I had booked reservations at a cultural restaurant named Yod Abyssinia. I arrived in town at 9am but hadn’t slept for…2 days? So I was pretty exhausted. (I left California at 3pm on May 24th and arrived in town at 9am on the 26th) Thus, when I got to my hotel, I crashed out immediately and didn’t wake up until my friend, Harrison, arrived at 3pm.

A side note here: I stayed at the Marriott Executive Apartments, which give you a 1000sq ft apartment for around $170/night. This is expensive for Ethiopia, but not bad when splitting with someone else, especially as I used my Citi Prestige card’s 4th night free in order to save on the cost.

Anyway, I scrambled awake and tried to play it cool when Harrison arrived, which failed miserably since I still had on last night’s (3 days ago) makeup and my hair was a mess. Still, we had a good time catching up until the dinner at Yod Abyssinia, which, let me tell you guys, was really, really, cool.

This place is well known in Addis Ababa and features live entertainment, excellent Ethiopian food, and a really cool atmosphere.

We had no idea what to order, so accidentally ended up ordering a vegetarian fasting platter…which was… pretty tasty, to be honest.

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Did you guys know that Ethiopians don’t use utensils? They have this special kind of bread, called injera, which is made from an indigenous cereal crop called tef. It’s unlike anything we have in the west, so it’s hard to describe. Think…pita bread, but totally flat, and with the texture of a sponge. That doesn’t sound appetizing, does it?

Now you’re getting it.

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And it’s served with everything.

Anyway, this injera is used in lieu of a fork and knife. Food is served on a giant platter with rolled piles of injera around it, and you have to use a single hand to tear some injera off, wrap it around whatever food you’re trying to eat, and then shove it in your mouth. It’s not very easy, especially since the injera is prone to tearing.

We had no idea how to eat all this stuff when our food arrived, and spent a good five minutes searching surreptitiously around the restaurant, looking for people who were eating as well. (We did it wrong all night, as you guys can imagine).

The live show on stage showcased the dance styles of eleven different tribes within Ethiopia, as you guys can see below:

Now, ok, let me tell you something.

Near the end of the night, they were dragging people up to dance. Yes, I got called up. And here I am, two beers in, dancing along to this incredibly high speed music and totally feeling myself. My pride only intensified as three separate people told me how great I was after I finished dancing.

Well, Harrison took a video.



I was not great. I was not even close. At best, I can call my dancing a bastardized version of the musical Stomp. You know, the one with Irish line dancing? At worst, it looks like…like a tipsy white girl way out of her depth attempting to emulate some seriously high speed tribal dancing. No, I will not show you the video. Suffice to say that my dancing was not the best. And there is permanent evidence of it.

So! We ate this fasting platter the first day, (Ethiopians fast twice weekly, on Wednesdays and Fridays, so this food is common), and the next day had a food tour that took us around the city.

Our guide had us meet at a cafe’ called Oh Canada, which Harrison particularly enjoyed, since he is unapologetically Canadian. (Eh?)

Do you guys remember when I said I would eat a cow hoof and cheek, but draw the line at fish?

Well, peer pressure does a lot for you. Take a look at these deep-fried beauties, one of which I was convinced to shove down my gullet after much coercion:

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Ugh.
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Proof!

We also ate at this restaurant named Yilma, which Anthony Bourdain once visited, and which our food guide assured us was “totally safe.”

Which is how I ended up eating a pile of raw beef in the middle of Africa.

No, it wasn’t tasty.

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With injera!

We even had a traditional coffee ceremony, which was delicious. We ended the night with smoothies…at a mini mart, because apparently that is a thing?

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I’m a part-time mayonnaise model

Anyway, the tour was really spectacular overall, and I ate a lot of super weird things, which is basically what you’re paying for, right?

There isn’t much for tourist stuff in Addis Ababa, but the food tour was via Go Addis, which I highly recommend. They’re great people, and the fact that I wasn’t poisoned from any of the food is a rare and glorious thing when in Africa.

Next up, stories from Wenchi Crater lake and my attempts to ride a horse down a mountain.

-Carissa “Why Did I Eat Raw Meat?” Rawson

Making Disney Work for You: Spend Less and Do More

Hello Dear Readers!

So, I promised last post that I’d tell you guys some of the different tricks I used in order to save money at Disneyworld. Now, I’ve already gone over using points to pay for a hotel stay here, but to summarize, it goes like this:

Disney’s Dolphin and Swan Hotels

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There are two resorts on Disneyworld property that are not owned by Disney. These two, the Dolphin and the Swan, are actually part of the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) program, which means you can use points to stay there for free.

The Disney Dolphin is a category 4 hotel, which costs 10,000 points/night.

The Disney Swan is a category 5 hotel, which costs 12,000 points/night.

However, the SPG program also offers the 5th night free on any award redemption, meaning that you can score five nights at the Dolphin for 40,000 points and five nights at the Swan for 48,000 points.

In addition to this, last year Marriott bought Starwood, meaning that the two points programs have become interchangeable. Marriott points transfer to Starwood at a 3:1 ratio, so if you’ve got points to use in Marriott, you could always transfer them over and redeem a stay in that way. Transfers are instantaneous.

Ok!

There’s one other thing I did in order to *really* get my money’s worth while I was out there. (Aside from the normal bring your own snacks/water, etc)

Booking an Official Disney Hotel

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My hotel

I booked a one night stay in an official Disney hotel. This was the first night of my vacation, and I did this for a number of reasons:

1. I was flying in and didn’t want to rent a car. Disney’s Magical Express offered me free transportation from the airport to the hotel.

2. Disney sends its resort guests MagicBands for free, and I wanted to get my hands on one of the new versions without paying for one.

3. Booking a package with Disney meant I qualified for special ticket offers. In this case, I received two free days on my ticket for booking a Magic Your Way package. In total, I got a five day park hopper for the price of a three day ticket.

4. Since you’re a resort guest, you get first pick on booking Disney’s Fastpasses online- a full 30 day head start over anyone else. This important when trying to get those elusive, really busy rides like Frozen Ever After and Seven Dwarves Mine Train.

5. I had reservations at a *very* expensive restaurant, and used the Deluxe Disney Dining Plan to score a discount on my eating costs for the day.

California Grill Restaurant

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This last one requires some explanation. You see, Disney recently came out with a new brunch at one of its hotels. The restaurant, called the California Grill, is located in Disney’s Contemporary Resort and holds the distinction of costing $80/ person to enjoy.

Yes, that is expensive.

However, the California Grill is one of the best restaurants on property, and after reading EasyWDW’s review on the brunch, I felt like I had to go there. This is for a couple reasons:

First, eating brunch at the restaurant allows you to return at night and show your receipt, scoring premium seating for watching Magic Kingdom’s fireworks without the crowds.

Second, this brunch also features freshly made sushi, which you can watch the chefs prepare in front of you. Considering California Grill is known for its sushi (and its rolls can cost upwards of $24+ each), I figured getting to eat as much as I wanted was pretty great.

Finally, (and most importantly) this is the only meal on the entire dining plan that also includes alcohol. That’s right, this brunch includes bottomless mimosas in the cost of your meal. Disney specifically excludes drinks from their program, so getting to do this was really cool.

So, the California Grill costs two “table-service” credits on the dining plan. A regular dining plan only includes one “table service” and one “quick service” meal per day.

However, the deluxe dining plan comes with three “table service” credits. The current cost for the plan is $106/adult/day. I wouldn’t normally spend that much on food for myself in one day, but considering my breakfast alone was going to run me $96 with tax, I went ahead and got the plan.

What did this mean? It meant that my brunch was paid for. The deluxe dining plan also comes with three snacks per day. Since one of the major reasons I was going to Disney was for the Epcot Flower and Garden festival, and its main features are pavilions offering different snacks, I was really stoked about having three different ones freely available. I ended up using them on snack that ran about $6 each, which isn’t the *most* value you can get from them, but I ate whatever I wanted.

Finally, it meant that my dinner was also included at another table service restaurant. I ate at Tutto Italia Ristorante, a meal which included an appetizer, entree, dessert, and drink, and whose total hovered at around $71.

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So, I paid $106 for food for the day.

In turn, I had:
$96 breakfast
$18 in snacks
$71 at dinner

= $185 in food, were I to pay out of pocket. And again, I can’t emphasize this enough, drinks were included at brunch. This is important because prices for alcoholic drinks at Disney will usually run you about $10 a pop, so getting it in the cost of my meal represented a fantastic deal.

Ok, now let me break down the costs of doing the Disney hotel for you, versus what I would have spent staying at a different hotel.

Costs

Costs With a Stay at Disney (Using the Magic Your Way Package):

1 night at Disney’s Coronado Springs: $273
5 day park hopper ticket to Disneyworld: $350 (two days free)
Transportation to Disneyworld from airport: $0
MagicBand: $0
1 day Deluxe Disney dining plan: $106
= $729

Costs at an Offsite Hotel:

1 night stay elsewhere: $150 (hotels can range anywhere from $50-$500, but I would fall around here)
5 day park hopper ticket to Disneyworld: $473
Transportation to Disneyworld from airport: $30
MagicBand: $12
Out-of-pocket dining: $185
= $850

So you see, staying at a Disney resort actually saved me money in comparison to doing it all on my own. Of course the longer you stay at their resorts, the more that hotel price piles on, which is why I switched over to the Disney Dolphin for the next five nights. On the other hand, bringing more than one person along to share a hotel room brings down your per person costs significantly. (Obviously).

The Dolphin does continue to charge a nightly “resort fee” (the bane of my existence), so the total cost of my hotel for those five nights was $140 and 40,000 SPG points.

Compare that to the $2200 it would cost were I to pay out of pocket.

Ok, one more price breakdown for you all, so you can really see the difference in costs:

Actual Costs

My Costs:

1 Magic Your Way package as detailed above: $729
5 nights at the Disney Dolphin hotel: $140 and 40,000 SPG points

= 6 night stay at Disneyworld: $869 (including food for a day and all park tickets)

Out of Pocket Costs:

Individual pricing as detailed above: $850
5 nights at the Disney Dolphin hotel: $2257

= 6 night stay at Disneyworld: $3107 (including food for a day and all park tickets)

Ta-da! Just like that, we’ve paid less than a third of the cost for the whole trip!

I’d like to note (brag) again that since I have elite status with Starwood, they gave me a free upgrade to a newly refurbished corner room with two balconies and two separate fireworks views. (My elite status comes free with the American Express Platinum card).

That room upgrade alone was worth over a hundred dollars/night (compared to the room I booked).

Disney doesn’t have a(n) (official) loyalty program, so upgrades are at the whims of the people working there.

So there you have it! This is how I did Disney this time around, and how anyone can save when taking this budget-busting vacation.

Until next time!

-Carissa “Disney Nerd” Ragland

Phenomenal Flamenco

Hello!

I realize my last post was pretty serious. I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback, and I think you guys will be glad to know that I’ve decided to report the man to AirBnB. Cultural differences aside, if you’re going to be inviting people into your home, you should never force yourself on them or act so inappropriately.

So! That being said, I want to talk today about my most recent shenanigans with Sarah. She keeps cropping up, doesn’t she? That’s because we’re both so much fun!

You guys know all those really heartwarming videos of soldiers coming home and being reunited with their dogs? Well, Nala and I had a similar moment, which I will illustrate in the photo below:

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Isn’t she adorable? I got a full face tongue bath, which is really gross but also I love her so it’s ok. Since Sarah and I didn’t have much time together, we decided to go full out. We checked into our hotel, dropped off Nala and headed out to make the most of our time in Madrid.

Now, you guys know the last time I was in Spain I subsided almost solely on churros with dipping chocolate and champagne. I’m here to tell you that nothing has changed. I swiftly introduced Sarah to these vices, and within the space of twenty minutes we had consumed chocolate, churros, a pile of Iberian ham, and were each clutching a glass of Cava. We’re efficient, you know.

I had made reservations as a surprise to dinner and a Flamenco show, so we headed over there to have an awesome three course meal, which we complemented with a bottle of more champagne. I mean, why not?

Have you guys ever been to a Flamenco show? I know I’ve heard so much about the passion of the dancers (and Spanish people as a whole), but it all seemed a little blown out of proportion. Well, let me tell you…it’s not.

We had front row seats to the show, and at first, the place seemed kind of small and crowded. However, when the music started…just wow.

There were two singers, a violinist, and two guitarists. They began playing, slowly at first, to warm up the crowd, before breaking into amazing, fast-paced music. These people have got some serious skills. Shortly thereafter, the two dancers, a man and a woman, came out.

Words fail me here, but I’m going to try to describe it.

The music pulsed through the room as the crowd murmured, some leaning back in their seats, others sipping glasses of wine as everyone sat, waiting. A low tension hummed in the air, and slowly, subtly, the beat of the music sped up.

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Abruptly, the curtain at the back of the stage was turned aside, and a woman strode out. She was passion, personified. Her long dress trailed behind her as she took center stage, her face regal, her back straight.

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One breath, two, and she began to stomp, her shoes tapping a staccato on the wooden floor as she moved with the music.

The floor, scarred with the marks of a thousand dances, echoed with every step, and she twirled, her dress fanning out, her arms weaving, framing her face, her neck, her hips, as she poured her soul into the movement.

Suddenly, the curtain twitched again, and her partner came out, his clothes tailored tightly to his body, his eyes dark, and he, too, began to dance.

Together, they stepped across the stage, first moving together, then apart, each one competing to outdo the other. Faster, faster, they moved, the strain of the violin drifting past their frantic feet, until the room was full with the sound of their song.

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Sweat beaded on his brow as he spun, whirling around her, his feet a blur as he tapped, tapped, tapped, to the beat of the music. Together, they told a story- of love, of heat, of flame and fury and passion, until the music built to a crescendo and came, crashing, to a halt.

As one, they turned to us, arms outflung, chests heaving, and bowed.

The room exploded with applause.

To say it was phenomenal would be an understatement. If there’s one thing you do in Spain, go see a Flamenco show.

After the show we headed out to a rooftop bar, where we enjoyed a “few” drinks before heading back to the hotel at around 2am. Overall the night was a great success, and definitely a foreshadowing for the excellent day to come.
-Carissa “I wanna dance like that” Rawson

Cow Feet and Fried Pizza: Street Food in Napoli

Hello!

Today I wanted to talk about my time spent in Naples. Now, this may come as a surprise to no one except me but Naples is generally not considered a safe city. I found this out once I told Joni we were headed there, and she regaled me with tales of caution from her accountant, who insisted that Naples is one of the worst places in Italy.

Well crap.

Somehow, we managed to avoid getting robbed, harassed, hustled, or even hollered at, and had a wonderful time while we were there.

We spent our first day on a food tour, which took us through the streets of the city. Now, after reading the generally positive reviews of this tour, I felt pretty good about it. Everyone had really positive things to say, right?

Right.

It started out innocently enough, with our guide taking us to a coffee shop to enjoy Cafe’ Napoletano (espresso with whipped sugar and coffee), and then to enjoy some fresh Napoletano sweets. Delicious, and not at all a foreshadowing for what was to come.

You see, as our guide explained to us, Naples used to be a poor town, full of army folks and prostitution. These people just couldn’t afford to eat. So poor, so starving, so sad, etc etc.

Instead, they turned to the kinds of food others wouldn’t eat. Ya know, things like stomach. And hoof. And cheek. This, they boiled until all the fat melted off and it became somewhat chewable. Then, they doused it in salt and lemon and choked it down, a tradition which they continue to this day.

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Look at this stuff

You see where this is going, right?

I’m just going to pause right here and tell you that I wasn’t even going to eat this stuff, until Joni looked me squarely in the eye and declared “I’ll eat it if you will.” And guys, I can’t back down from a challenge. So we did.

We “enjoyed” cow udder, intestine, hoof, cheek, and stomach. It was…interesting.

I think my favorite part had to be when Joni attempted to chew her hoof. You see, a hoof is all cartilage, right? And whenever you chew cartilage, it doesn’t really break down. It just turns into smaller and smaller bits of cartilage. So, after a few minutes, Joni was still sitting there with a mouthful of hoof and looking increasingly queasy. I took the coward’s route and nearly swallowed it whole.

My second favorite part would have to be the hair still attached to the cow cheek, which my guide assured me was sanitary because ‘it was all boiled anyway.’

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Delicious cow cheek.

We finished up the tour with fried pizza and seafood, which I turned down because I may eat cow hoof, but I draw the line at shrimp, dammit.

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Gross.

More about our adventures tomorrow.

-Carissa “Cow Foot” Rawson