Poutine on the Ritz

Hello Dear Readers!
Remember when I said I ended my night in Montreal reasonably sure I wouldn’t be hungover?

Yeah.

I guess my plan to drink lots of water and not enjoy too many adult beverages backfired on me because I woke up absolutely miserable.

But time pauses for no man. So I heaved myself out of bed, showered, ate, and dragged myself into the back of a cab in order to go to the Biodome.


And guys, this place is awesome. It’s the old Olympic Park, which the Montreal-ans have converted into a number of different spaces. The Biodome itself is this huge indoor stadium, divided into four separate sections. They’ve recreated different ecosystems in each section and filled them with plants and animals from the ecosystems.


Pictures don’t really show how cool this is, but it’s really neat to walk from the tropics to a cool fall day in a matter of moments.



I also got myself a ticket to the insectarium (ew) and the botanical gardens (awesome). The gardens are huge, and I spent a wonderful amount of time wandering through them.

Then, since it was getting late, I headed out to La Banquise, courtesy of this recommendation here, and indulged myself in a huge pile of greasy poutine.

Mmmm

 

It was just what the doctor ordered for my hangover and I enjoyed practicing my 2 words of French on the wait staff, who politely indulged in my ridiculousness.

In total, I spent almost exactly 24 hours in Montreal. I met some cool people, found a secret speakeasy, gorged myself on poutine, and wandered around some really beautiful places. In short, I had a wonderful time.

I’ll be back.

-Carissa “Schwarzenegger” Rawson

Feeling French in Montreal

Hello Dear Readers!
I was in Vermont just recently (for school) and found myself with a spare day, so decided to make the quick drive up to Montreal. I’ve been to Canada a few times, but only on the west coast, and I was really looking forward to seeing if French Canada was worth all that jazz. Spoiler alert: it totally is.

Anyway, it’s two and a half hours from Northfield, Vermont, up to Montreal, so I hopped in my rental car and sped up the highway to check out French Canada. I anticipated no problems at the border, since it’s, ya know, just Canada, but the border patrol agent was having none of me.

He asked me a thousand questions, looked extremely skeptical when I said I was just staying for a day, and questioned me specifically on what I was going to do in Montreal.

“Well,” I told him, “I hear the poutine is good.”

He busted out laughing and then sent me to extra security. Clearly, poutine is not the winning answer.

After they scanned my passport, examined every stamp in the book, and interrogated me (politely. It is Canada, after all) about my plans, they finally let me through.

And then I was in! It was only about another hour to Montreal, where I stayed the night at the Intercontinental. (I used my Ambassador status to get awesome perks).

Since I was just there for the night, I wanted to make sure I didn’t waste my time. I know I’ve told you guys about the Spotted By Locals app before, but it’s essentially a curated list of things to do and see in specific cities, made by the people who actually live in them.
Which is how I found myself in a secret speakeasy hidden down a set of stairs, sipping on a handcrafted cocktail and generally feeling very posh.

I hung out at the bar there for about two hours, just enjoying my drinks and the general atmosphere, before striking up a conversation with the two people next to me.

This side of Canada is weird, in that it’s…very French. But at the same time, they’re very similar to us. They’ve got all the same stores, roads, and buildings, but everything is written in French and everyone is perfectly bilingual. They slip from English to French and back almost unconsciously, which is really cool but also really difficult for me to understand as a non-French speaker.

But it’s fun! These two were very much French Canadian, and I spent a good portion of time staring back and forth between them as I attempted to deduce what they were saying via body language.

Eventually, they told me they were headed out to a different bar, and invited me to come along.

Now, as a single female I’ve got to be careful about where I go. So I did the natural thing and asked,

“You aren’t gonna murder me in a back alley, are you?”

To which they responded, that no, of course they weren’t, so clearly that was good enough for me.

(I know I’m being flippant about this guys, but I am actually extremely careful and would never head out somewhere without telling someone/if I felt the least bit unsafe/ etc etc. Don’t worry.)

We left the speakeasy and walked a few minutes down the road, to this very fancy, very busy night club.

Now, I know you’ve all seen photos of what I wear. I was in green pants and my walking shoes, coupled with a blouse, which was the nicest thing I had with me. As a traveler, I just don’t have room for fancy pants clothes.

Me.

In contrast, the guy I was with was in a full suit and the girl had on a cocktail dress. I was in no way fit for entry and thus hid behind the both of them as we walked into the club.

I then spent the whole night thinking “Don’t look at my feet, don’t look at my fe- oh god he’s seen the tennis shoes.”

I don’t know that I’ve ever been to a real night club before, but this place was really cool. It was packed, shoulder to shoulder, and between the giant bottles of Grey Goose and sparklers, people shouted at each other and sipped glasses of wine. And this was on a Thursday.

We were there until at 2am, at which point the guy in our group had had a little bit too much to drink, so his friend (they were just friends hanging out) decided it was time to go. We Uber’ed back to my hotel and I let them in the lounge, where we hung out and drank coffee until the wee hours of the morning.

Finally, a little more sobered up, they took off in a cab and I trudged up to my room, reasonably sure I wasn’t going to be hungover.

Ha.

-Carissa “Fancy Pants” Rawson

Ambassador Status- Elite on the Cheap

Hello Dear Readers!

Today I want to talk to you about the Intercontinental Ambassador program. Like I’ve mentioned before, it’s unique in that it’s a loyalty status you can purchase rather than earn. This is good for people who want to be treated like royalty without having to spend a lot of money/nights at hotels. The program’s benefits are pretty cool:

 They also gift you with 5,000 bonus points, which is enough for a free night at any of IHG’s PointsBreak hotels. The program costs $200 to buy into, but having that free night certificate can easily save you that much or more, depending on where you stay.

For instance, the Intercontinental Thalasso Bora Bora will run you $1000/night for a room, but using the certificate will snag you the second night for free, saving you a full $1000. You can also redeem reward points with this, so you can stack offers and create a longer stay for yourself.


I know, that sounds expensive. You can stay wherever you’d like, though. The Intercontinental San Francisco will usually run about $200/night, so even just using it there will save you the cost of the membership. Intercontinental’s hotels span the globe, so there are a lot of choices for you.

I also find a lot of value in the room upgrades. As I said in my post about the Intercontinental Moorea, I was upgraded to an entire bungalow, at a cost difference of over $1200 for three nights. That’s awesome!

Even better, when you go to renew your status, the price drops to just $150. Or, you can pay $200, receive 15,000 bonus points (instead of 5,000) and get 10% back on all points redemptions. This stacks with the IHG credit card’s 10% back, so you’ll receive 20% of your points back on every single booking.

Is It Worth It?

It’s not hard to find value in this program- though if Intercontinental is not somewhere you’d usually stay, or you aren’t looking to travel to one at least twice within the year, I wouldn’t recommend it. Otherwise, I think this is a fantastic way for those who don’t normally earn hotel status to be an elite without a lot of commitment.

-Carissa

 

Intercontinental Moorea: Family Friendly Fun

Hello Dear Readers!

I’m pretty excited to talk about this today, simply because the Intercontinental was such an awesome stay.

I’ve told you guys previously that I have Platinum status (the second highest) with the Intercontinental Hotel Group (IHG) simply because I hold their co-branded credit card. It’s got a $49 annual fee and gives you some pretty decent benefits. The sign up bonus from this card is also how I booked these nights, as detailed here.

Anyway, the benefits of being Platinum include early check-in, late check-out, a room upgrade, and a welcome amenity. That’s pretty cool, but there’s another oddball program out there specific to the Intercontinental Hotel called the Ambassador program.

Unlike every other program, this one you can purchase for $200, and it provides a host of benefits specifically at Intercontinental hotels. I’d been wavering on whether or not to purchase this, but on the day I was due to check-in, I went ahead and did it. (I’ll detail all the other benefits of the Ambassador program in a later post)

I’m so glad I did. You see, since I was booking my stay using points, I only qualified for the cheapest room available. That room, which goes for $300/night, is a hotel room in the main building.

With my status as a Platinum member, the hotel went ahead and upgraded me to a premium hotel room. This was about a $30/night difference. Not a huge deal, but pretty cool.

However, when I arrived, I wrote down my newly purchased Ambassador number on the check-in form, telling the reception clerk that I was indeed a Platinum Ambassador.

I kid you not, he gasped, starting typing furiously on his computer, and then swiftly disappeared to the back room.

When he came back, he handed me the key to my room, informing me that as a Platinum Ambassador, he’d gone ahead and upgraded me to their best available room, which was an entire bungalow with another private pool.

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These rooms go for about $600/night. That’s a difference of $1200 over the course of my three day stay, and an excellent return on the $250 investment in my status ($49 for the card and $200 for the Ambassador program).

I was floored. I thanked him profusely, loaded myself and my luggage (my backpack) into a golf cart, and I was off.

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The Intercontinental, while on the same island as the Hilton, is a totally different world. It’s on the opposite side, for one thing, and this hotel is much more…tropical.

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Where the Hilton was polished and pruned into perfection, the Intercontinental is a part of the environment, a fact you can see as wild animals climb the many lush trees. This hotel also houses a sea turtle recovery clinic and a dolphin program, both of which are free to check out as a hotel guest.

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How cool is that?

I really enjoyed my stay here. I dug the different vibe from the Hilton, and I’d have a hard time choosing between the two in the future. However, while the Hilton gave off a very romance-y honeymoon feeling, the Intercontinental seemed much more geared to families, and I saw a lot more kids here. The hotel is also a lot bigger, and takes a while to walk from place to place.

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I signed up for the themed buffet here too, since I was interested to see how the shows differed, and what kind of foods they would serve. The food was great- a traditional Polynesian barbecue, but you guys. It was the same show as the Hilton. Like, I don’t mean the same style. I mean the same exact performers came over two days later and did the exact same show at the Intercontinental. I was a little peeved, I’m not going to lie. At nearly $100 for dinner I felt a little gypped, and sat sulkily on my phone for a fair bit of it.

That is, until the lead dancer took advantage of my inattentiveness and pulled me on stage to dance. Luckily there was no one there to film it, so my poorly performed Polynesian dance is forever lost to history.

Next up- the benefits of the Ambassador program!

-Carissa “Platinum Ambassador” Rawson

 

A Tahitian Paradise

Hello Dear Readers!

So, I’ve come to admit that I…*may*…have a bit of a traveling addiction. One of my first posts on this website detailed my schedule for the upcoming year, and back in January I thought my schedule was jam-packed.

Well…I’ve since added a few new trips, the most recent of which is a five night stay in Tahiti. You may wonder why/where I get my ideas for travel, and honestly it’s an amalgamation of flight sales that I find, good opportunities for reward points redemptions, and sometimes even just places I want to go.

So how did I come to the idea of Tahiti? Well, I’ve mentioned before that American Express has offers that it passes out, some of which come in the form of a statement credit, some in the form of bonus points, etc. A couple months ago, they came out with an offer that gave you 20,000 membership reward points if you spent $1,000 on Air France. I’ve gotten a similar offer to this before (Spend $1,000 on Japan Airlines for 20k bonus points), and I’d been sitting on this offer for a while. I actually received it on a few different cards, but I obviously don’t have multiple thousands of dollars to be throwing around.

Anyway, it was the final day for the offer, and I’d been chewing on some different ways I could use it. Scrolling through Air France’s website, however, I saw that they had a monthly special on direct flights from Los Angeles to Tahiti for a cool $1000 round-trip. So, redeeming this offer, I bought the ticket and received 25,000 total membership rewards points (including the bonus categories rewards for purchasing airfare), which equals- at the minimum- $500 worth of airfare on American Express. I can also transfer it to other partners in order to get better value for my points, but I usually prefer to keep things simple.

Having booked my flights, I needed to find a place to stay. In case you didn’t know this, Tahiti happens to be…fairly expensive. However, there are quite a few different hotels out there, so I had plenty of options.

Hotels

Hilton Moorea

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You all know that I’m very partial to Hilton hotels, (It’s the status, really) so the first place I looked was at the Hilton website. Well…it’s not cheap. The Hilton Moorea is currently going for $1500 for a two night stay:

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However, there are often times when the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal will offer you lower rates on the hotel than the hotel website itself. Such was the case of the Hilton Moorea, where after much searching I found the same 1000sq ft bungalow pictured above on Hilton’s website for a mere $677 for two nights. ($772 after taxes) That’s a savings of 54% off the original price. (This works much the same way as Priceline, in that you get a discounted room rate by booking through a third party.) Even better, however, is that Chase allows you to redeem Ultimate Reward points at a value of 1.5 cents each if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, meaning that the two nights only ended up being 52,000 points total.

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For reference, the total amount of points required to redeem on Hilton’s website is 396,000.

Since the Hilton was such a splurge, I didn’t want to stay more than the two nights. Thus, I needed three more somewhere else, but where?

Intercontinental Moorea

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The next hotel I looked at was the Intercontinental Moorea. Again, there are tons of hotels in the area, but this one had the benefit of being amazing and also near to the Hilton, so my transportation between the two wouldn’t be a problem. Paid rates for a room here for three nights equal out to about $1000:

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However, back in January, I got the IHG credit card by Chase. Its sign-up bonus is 60k points after 1k spend in the first 90 days, and after my spend was done, I had a total of 70k points sitting in my account. The Intercontinental Moorea is redeemable for a total of 40,000 points a night, or you can use a combination of points + cash in order to redeem a stay. IHG works differently than other hotel chains with its cash + points offers, in that it has you “buy” points at a reduced rate and then make a full award redemption, as you can see below:

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The combination I chose was points + cash, in which I spent 80,000 points and $200 in cash for all three nights. Since I was 10,000 points shy of the 80,000 I needed, I transferred over points from my Chase Sapphire Reserve card to cover the difference. And then I booked my room! So, all told, I’ll be staying a total of five nights in Tahiti, at some really awesome hotels. My costs are as follows:

Costs
Flight: $1,038
Hotels: $200
-Total Cost: $1,238

In return, I am earning 25,000 American Express rewards points, which equal out to at least $500 worth of airfare. In addition, I’ll be earning thousands of Flying Blue miles on Air France, which I’ll put to use when I move to Scotland later this year.

Were I to pay completely out of pocket, my total would be this:

Costs
Flight: $1,038
Hotels: $2499 ($1511 for the Hilton, and $988 for the Intercontinental)
-Total Cost: $3,537

That’s 65% off! I’m pretty excited, as I’ve heard amazing things about both of these hotels.

Also, have you guys looked at the map of Tahiti?

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Looks remote enough for me!

-Carissa “Basically living on a beach” Ragland

Free Alcohol and Food! No, But Really.

Hello Dear Readers!

Do you know where I’m writing this from? No? You don’t? Well let me inform you. I am currently plopped in the dead middle of the Hilton Barcelona’s executive lounge.

“How does this happen?!?” you may ask, confounded, as you recall that I have been staying with some Argentinians in an Airbnb.

Ok, enough teasing (bragging) and let me tell you guys why I’m here. Do you remember a few weeks ago when I wrote about earning Hilton Diamond status with the increased sign up bonus? There’s actually another route you can take to earn Diamond and keep it through 2019. Hilton currently has a promotion going on where they will match your status with another chain’s (in an effort to poach you). Then, once your status is matched, you can complete 8 stays within 90 days in order to hold your status through 2019. It’s a pretty awesome deal if you can take advantage of it.

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Actually through 2019, not 2018.

However, I’m assuming most of you don’t have elite status with other hotels. Or, at least, you don’t have one high enough to match you to Diamond with Hilton. Well, luckily for us, there is one credit card that does offer such a benefit.

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IHG’s (Intercontinental Hotel Group) credit card offers 60,000 bonus points after 1k in spend, as well as automatic Platinum Status with the chain. Now, I’ve stayed at an IHG hotel a bare minimum of times, so don’t think I earned my status or anything.

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I deserve none of this

This is just something they give you when you get the card. Anyway, Hilton will match your IHG Platinum Status with their Diamond status and give you the option to complete the 8 stays in order to keep it.

So that’s what I’m doing! I’ve rebooked a few of my stays throughout the next few months in order to meet the challenge (any Hilton hotel within the portfolio will work), and then I’m good to go.

Why is Diamond so great? Well, it gives you a number of benefits, such as room upgrades, late check-out, early check-in, and free premium internet access. However, most importantly (to me) is executive lounge access, which means free food and drinks (including alcohol!) for the entirety of your stay.

For someone professionally unemployed, like me, this is a huge deal. Now please excuse me while I go stuff my pockets with free apples.

-Carissa “Elite AF” Rawson