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

The Magnificent Maldives- Diamond Status Is Important!

Hello Dear Readers!

Are you guys as excited as I am for this series of posts on the Maldives? I had such an excellent time there, and really cannot think of a more excellent way to spend my 28th birthday.

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Mandatory paradise selfie

So aside from all the beautiful photos, there are actually quite a few things that went into coordinating my trip to the Maldives.

Our topic today is Hilton Diamond status, which I’ve written about before, but whose importance becomes significant when talking about the Conrad Maldives. You see, when you book a $2,000/night hotel, they sort of expect you to be able to afford it. Their bottom line doesn’t rest on travel hackers who use points to manipulate themselves into luxury. And why would it?

But here’s the thing. When your hotel comes in at 2k a night, it suddenly seems reasonable to start charging $50/person for breakfast. Or $500/person for dinner.

What I’m saying is, it’s not cheap.

And I’m only fake rich. I’m points rich. Which means that I absolutely cannot afford to eat my way through my annual budget.

This is where status comes in. You see, Diamond members receive all kinds of perks whenever they visit Hilton hotels. At the Conrad Maldives, there’s an entire list of benefits you get- check these out!

• Free breakfast for two at their restaurants Atoll and Vilu, daily

• Afternoon Tea at their Mandhoo Restaurant from 4-5pm, daily

• Happy hour at Vilu, from 5-6pm, daily

• Fruit basket with chocolate in your room at check-in (refilled daily)

• Free bottle of wine at check-in

• $25 spa discount card on arrival

These benefits are especially important when you consider the fact that I wasn’t kidding about those meal prices. The price to eat dinner at their underwater restaurant really is $500/person, though you can certainly eat cheaper at any of their other restaurants. Over the course of a four night stay, your meal bill can easily run into the thousands, and that doesn’t begin to cover alcohol. But, if you play your cards right, you can avoid most of the costs of staying at the hotel- eat breakfast late, snack on fruit for lunch, indulge in tea at 4, and run over to happy hour to have a few free drinks before dinner. With that, most of your day is covered. It turns an incredible indulgence of a vacation into something financially manageable.

So that’s what we did. Harrison and I enjoyed the hell out of their massive breakfast, which included a sushi station, an egg station, ice cream, crepes, pancakes, waffles, and even sparkling wine! In short, it’s amazing. You better believe I ate as much food as humanly possible.

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Round one of ten

Even better, our personal concierge, upon learning that it was my birthday, arranged to have a cake (complete with candles and matches) sent to our room. It was excellent!

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Feeling like a queen

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Anyway, long story short, the importance of Diamond status cannot be overstated, especially at these crazy expensive resorts, where you can save hundreds of dollars on your vacation simply by having status. Oh, and how did I get it? Check it out here, for a guide to matching your way to elite status.

See you all soon for more posts on the Maldives!

-Carissa

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

Awesome Amman

Hello Friends!

So I wouldn’t say that my time in Jordan got off to a…good…start. As you guys read previously, almost everything went wrong immediately. However! We’re both fully recovered and have spent some fun time wandering around this city.

I told you guys that I lived here before, so there have been lots of things I wanted to show David. It’s surreal being back. We’ve been making the rounds, climbing up to the citadel:

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Checking out the Roman Theatre:

And eating at every restaurant I’ve ever been to. It’s been a stomach-busting adventure, and we’re having a lot of fun.

In fact, yesterday we made some new friends! Basically as soon as people figure out we can speak Arabic, we’re instantly 100% more interesting. (Me, mostly. It’s the hair).

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Look at this stuff. So hairy

So we spent the entirety of our Uber ride yesterday chatting with our driver, who declared us his new friends from California, and asked if he could climb into our checked luggage back to the US. Something…tells me that wouldn’t work out.

And oh my god.

While we were at the Roman theatre, we made friends with a couple of kids who were there hanging out. Now, I don’t know if you guys know this, but the Jordanian concept of personal space is very different than in the US (for men only). Thus, we found ourselves sitting at the top of the theatre with a couple of 17 year-olds, who immediately started hanging all over David and asking him to sing.

So he did. He obliged them with a rap.

Have you met David?

It went a little something like this:

“My name is David and I’m in the city of Amman, sitting here with my new friends- I forgot your name- what’s your name? Kasm! Yeahhhhhhh”

I actually doubled over in laughter. And no matter how impressed they were with our American-ness, they were not impressed with this rap. The disbelief, doubt, and confusion ran across their faces as they stared at him, wondering if he was joking.

He wasn’t. He’s just not…uh…adept at rapping.

After this debacle, we headed to a rooftop bar, where we enjoyed amazing Arab food, including mansaf, which is the official dish of Jordan. It’s a sour yogurt, rice, and lamb dish, and pretty good if you like Arab food overall. (Which we do).

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Mmmm

It was a great day with a beautiful ending.

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Today we’re heading out the the souks for a little shopping and hopefully more new friends.

-Carissa “Nour” Rawson

Running Through Rome: The Adventure of a Lifetime

Hello!

I told you guys I’d be back with more Europe posts, and I am not one to disappoint! As I was sitting here thinking about the rest of the time Joni and I spent in Roma, a vision of dozens of posts swarmed before my eyes. You see, we fit in so much, and saw so many things, that it would take me forever to write it all up. So, I’m going to do something a little different. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so here we go:

The Colosseum was an incredible experience, and when I asked Joni later, she said it was one of her favorite things that we did. Why? Because it’s some of the coolest history we have. (Side note, you can click on any of the pictures in groups to make them larger).

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There’s nothing like visiting these ancient buildings and trying to wrap your mind around the fact that people, real people, lived and fought and died here 2500 years ago.

Along with the Colosseum, we went to the Vatican Museum, where we saw the Sistine Chapel and rubbed shoulders with thousands of other awed visitors.

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Not the Sistine Chapel.

We also found out that the Sistine Chapel, where no photos are allowed, is actually enormous, and the most famous panel within it is actually quite small:

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We visited St. Peter’s Basilica, listened to audio guides about a thousand dead popes, and got to see some of the best religious art in the world.

We walked through the Roman Forum, an entire city’s worth of ruins that culminate in a palace overlooking the Circus Maximus (where the old chariot races were held).

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I call this “Joni Unawares”

We went to the Trevi Fountain and the top of the Piazza Venezia, which the Romans hate because it’s made of white marble, but looks just as beautiful to us:

We ate more gelato than any person has a right to- though the best was the one separately recommended to us by two different tour guides.

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From La Romana

We made real, Italian pasta in a class taught by a real, Italian chef. And then we ate every last bite.

We drank bottles of wine and climbed the entire city and when people asked us if we were tired, we stared.

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Because this is what Rome is about. It’s life. It’s the past and the present and the art, all mashed together into one teeming, thriving city.

And it’s beautiful.

-Carissa

Tourists in Tuscany

Hello All!

I am currently on a train, heading from Naples to Rome, where I will board my flight allll the way to Amman, Jordan. I haven’t spent the last few weeks writing as much, because I’ve finally had company! I already told you all about my nefarious weekend in Rome with Sarah, but shortly after she left, my step-mom, Joni, arrived.

Now, I don’t know if you guys know this, but we’re the kind of family that spends 13 hours at Disneyland and rides all the rides in one day. Since Joni was only going to be around for five days each in Roma and Napoli, we went full out.

Which I will tell you all about, in great detail!

But today I’m going to start with our trip to Tuscany. Now, Joni had never been to Italy before, so I wanted to make sure we had the best time possible. I booked us a one day trip through Tuscany using viator, which started at 07:30am and ended at around 9pm back in Rome.

This was the first large tour group I’d been in since coming to Europe, and about 70 of us climbed into a bus, where we received headphone sets and walkmans. We were basically just missing the fanny packs. Our tour guide was an Italian woman with a British accent, which sounded probably as weird as you’re thinking.

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Note the headphones and lanyards

Our bus stopped for a coffee break about an hour into the drive, at a location clearly designed for us tourists. They had free samples of about….oh, 50 types of chocolate, as well as olive oil, limoncello, wine, champagne, and more. I mean I think they thought we would try only one or two, but come on, it’s me. I tried every single one. (Free!)

Breakfast accomplished, we climbed back into the bus and finished our drive through the Tuscan countryside.

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On the steps of the church

Arriving at the city of Montepulciano at around 0930, we walked through the ancient village, with a guide telling us all about its history. Like how people rolls barrels full of nails up the mountain for…fun? It was absolutely beautiful, and I wish we were able to spend more time there.

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From the top of Montepulciano

Alas! Our time there ended, and we were whisked away to an ancient monastery, where we took several scenic photos and thought ravenously about lunch, which was forthcoming.

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Scenic.

I have to say, one of the best things about being on a tour like this is the ease of it. You know how people go on cruises because all the entertainment is there, in front of you, and you hardly have to think of anything? The tour was like this. They took us from place to place, fed us amazing Tuscan food and wine, and taught us all about the history of the area. So relaxing, but also so much fun. (Especially the wine!)

To that end, we ate this crazy lunch, with approximately 1000 different kinds of cheese and wine tastings from all around the Tuscan region. And we had this…dessert wine? With a biscotti? I mean I was thinking something like moscato when I dipped my biscotti in it and took a bite…but it was more like Crown Royal. Or jet fuel. Just awful.

Afterwards, we headed to the city of Piensa, a picturesque little town famous for cheese. (according to me). We walked around the whole city, got some souvenirs, and then boarded the bus back home for another drive through the winding Tuscan countryside. There’s something just absolutely peaceful about the golden rolling hills, and it reminded me a lot of home. *tear*

Ah, well, one day I’ll go back!

Anyway, the day ended late and we were all tuckered out after the trip, so we returned to our super luxurious hotel (did I mention that? They upgraded our room for free!) and crashed out for the night.

Don’t worry though, I’ve got plenty more stories about the days ahead.

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-Carissa

The Incredible Côte D’Azur

Ok!

I promised a happy post and here it is. Guys, Nice is beautiful. There is a reason that the rich and famous come to play here, and that’s because this city is basically paradise. I’m sat here, on the beach, just watching the waves roll in and wondering how I got to be so lucky. In short, you need to visit. Spend some points (there’s a Hyatt here!) or get an Airbnb and just let yourself rejuvenate in this fresh French air.

Plus, a bottle of wine is only 2 bucks! I mean, that makes this place at least 1000% better.

Ok pause right now. My waiter just came over and was starstruck to learn that I write a travel blog, and that I was in fact writing about Nice at this very moment. Does that make me famous? Anyway, since he was so kind, I’ll go ahead and plug his restaurant. Everyone, go to the Neptune Plage on the beach because the wine is cheap and the view is gorgeous (and I don’t just mean the waiters).

So, what about Nice is nice? Apart from the water, there’s a lot to do. My first day here, I wandered the fresh market, picking up some of the plushest produce I’ve ever seen and enjoying it while sipping a cappuccino on an outside terrace.

Today, I gave in to my baser instincts and headed to Blast: An American Bar, where I stereotypically ate French Toast and loved every minute of it. The service was some of the bet I’ve ever gotten, so I left a 2 Euro tip (See? See how tipping is done?)

Nala and I have wandered the streets, eyeing the luxury shopping (Chanel? Gucci? Please.) and every so often visited something historic. That’s the beauty of Europe, you see. Everything is old, and oftentimes, beautifully preserved. We can find things here that predate the US by hundreds of years, still in use, and still gorgeous.

I’ve gone on a tour to see the rich and famous in Monaco. Along the way, I stopped in the medical village of Eze, which houses 40 people and a huge cactus garden because…France?

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I even went to the Le Casino Monte Carlo, where I paid 10 Euro for entry and got stared at because perhaps my leggings weren’t quite in the dress code.

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Le Casino Monte Carlo

In short, the French Riviera is everything you’ve heard it is and more. It is elegant, grand and rich, welcoming, humble and affordable.

Come visit.

-Carissa

The Tipping Point: What not to Do

Bonjour!

I am writing to you today from the beach of Nice, where I have sat myself with a glass of wine and the most incredible view.

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Seriously

 

But! Enough about the view. Today I’d like to talk about what happened yesterday, a ridiculous fiasco in the Principality of Monaco that has taught me, more than anything, to stick to my guns.

So let me lay the scene out for you here. Yesterday I took a tour to the village of Eze and to Monaco, an all day affair that showed us around some really beautiful places. I happened to be with three fantastic women from Philly, who ended up adopting me into their group and spending the day with me.

We had a great time wandering throughout Monaco (which I will write about later), minus this one, ridiculous, affair. You see, we stopped off for lunch at a nice, touristy, restaurant, where an insistent waiter urged our group inside. (He actually thought we were French at first, and spent several minutes coaxing us in with French, which obviously failed). I ordered the pumpkin soup, which was ah-mazing, and everything generally went over really well until the bill came.

We were mid-conversation, the women having asked me about tipping in Europe, when the waiter arrived with the bill and presented it with a flourish to one of the women (she had offered to pay for me, as thanks for my military service. Generosity is found everywhere!)

Upon presenting, he told her, “the service is not included in the bill.”

Now, I don’t know how much you guys know about tipping in Europe. I know for us, in the US, tipping is essentially required and at a minimum of 15%. This isn’t so in the EU. Here, tipping is not only optional, the amount you tip (if you do) generally spans from a few Euro onwards.

At this point, the woman told him to add five Euro extra onto the bill, to which he repeated “the service is not included in the bill.”

Ok, so maybe he was confused? Could he not do math? I myself turned around and explained to him that there was additional already added into the amount to be charged….at which point he emphasized, again, that service was not already included.

He emphasized insistently and very, very, rudely. At this point my jaw was hanging open, wondering what sort of waiter would address patrons like this. (Obviously the kind that preys on tourists).

Upon being asked, he told our party that tipping was generally at 15%-20%, at which point we folded and added a full 15 Euro to the bill, an altogether ridiculous amount in a society that doesn’t ever rely on tipping.

Now this is the first time I’ve ever been harassed for a tip, and I think it had a lot to do with the company I was in. I myself look vaguely like a down-on-her-luck college student (ok, high school), an image I have carefully cultivated so as not to be robbed of my earthly possessions. But the rest of us, who were obviously well-off enough to travel all the way to Monaco, weren’t quite as shabby as me. Thus, the waiter felt entitled to ask for, nay, demand, more money.

When we told our guide later what had happened, her jaw also dropped.

“This,” she declared in her amazing French accent, “is absurd. If someone spoke to me like this I would give them nothing.”

So. Lesson learned. All the things people tell you about tipping in Europe are true. Don’t overpay just because some pushy asshole is lying to you about how things work in their country. What a poor ambassador for Monaco, and most especially, what a terrible impression to leave on people who are naturally very generous. Tipping in the future? I think not.

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Here’s a tip: try looking at the camera.

-Carissa