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Budget

Prompt #18: BUDGET – My sixth entry for the 30 days of Indie Travel series.

Every traveler has a budget; for some it just might be higher or lower than for others What’s your style? What do you spend very little on and what are you always willing to pay more for?

I am in a very fortunate situation. As an ex-pat, my company helps out with my housing expenses. How they have it set up, however, is that they have a flex account that can be used for a variety of expenses, including travel. I have a much less expensive house than many of my co-workers and as a result have a very large portion of my leisure travel paid for by my school. This, combined with spending more and more time working on getting the most out of loyalty programs has allowed me over the last year to travel at a bit higher standard than I have previously done. I have been working on gaining top-tier status for United and as a result have paid for most of my flights this year. I am collecting my miles and points so that I can continue to travel when I change jobs to one that does not cover as much of this as my current employer.

This year I have stayed at some really nice hotels. Some of these were splurges (Mala Mala Safari Lodge, Correntoso Resort in Argentina) while others have been through the use of points and promotions (Marques de Riscal Winery in Spain, Cape Town Westin). When choosing a hotel I want someplace that is in a good location. Wireless internet and a comfortable bed are pluses as well. But at the end of the day a hotel is a place to spend the night. If the trip is going well, I do not actually spend all that much time at the hotel, though it is always nice to come back to a luxury hotel.

One thing I am usually hesitant to pay for is transportation. I will often walk “just a little bit further” rather than take public transportation or get a cab. I feel that walking through a city is the best way to get a feel for the place, to understand the culture and vibe of the city. That said, I know I have spent a lot of time and energy walking instead of paying for a 3 or 4 euro subway fare. At the end of the day I am not sure if this strategy is worth it, but I continue to do it, even when spending the night at a luxury hotel.

Food is something that I do not mind spending a lot on. I enjoy a nice meal, especially if it is the local cuisine. I have gone out of my way to visit places with a well known restaurant usually with a price tag to match. That said, many of my favorite meals are those that I have had on the street, snacking on local fare at very low prices. When it comes to food, a higher price does not necessarily mean higher quality.

I like to think of myself as a budget traveler, but this is really not the case. I like the nicer things in life and especially when traveling I am not going to give up an experience or enjoyment to save a little bit of money…except when it comes to transportation which is just weird. I need to work on changing that and maybe cutting back in some other areas of my travel budget.

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Mala Mala Game Reserve

October 28, 2011 1 comment

Upon my arrival at Mala Mala my bags were transferred to my room, I was offered a drink, my car was parked for me and I was given a quick tour of the grounds.  Within five minutes I had been loaded into a land rover and taken out into Mala Mala game reserve to meet my ranger and group for my stay there.  Within five minutes of driving I had caught my first sight of a lion and a herd of elephants, two of the “big five”.  The four game drives were filled with one highlight after another and almost constant sightings of game.  
The hotel is a throwback to the days of big game hunting safari’s, complete with a well stocked bar, animal skins and heads adorning the walls of the lodge and very personal service.  Today, of course, animals are only being shot with cameras, not guns, but the experience remains very personal and very thorough.  My ranger was knowledgeable and helpful, playing the role of game guide and tracker when on our drives and the role of personal butler at the lodge.  The service was actually a bit much at times, almost going over the top, especially for a more independent traveller like myself.  He did, however, insure that my stay was comfortable and very memorable.


The main feature of Mala Mala is not the hotel but instead the game drives.  That said, the hotel was very, very nice.  I had a private lodge, complete with three full bathrooms, a sitting room, patio overlooking the watering hole and a very comfortable bed.  Way more space than I needed as a solo traveler.  A number of the other lodges in the area offer much more modern and luxurious surroundings, but after experiencing Mala Mala they are just not worth it.  For me, you are on safari to see the wildlife.  The difference between a very nice hotel with great game sighting opportunities and a ultra-luxurious hotel with so-so game sighting opportunities is just not worth it.  I will take the game drives every time.

In addition to very comfortable rooms, there was a pool to lounge at during the day, complete with workout and massage facilities.  The dining area served some fantastic meals and was a throwback to yesteryear.  There were numerous eating areas that allowed us to have some variety in where we ate.  The patio overlooking the river was my favorite, though the “boma” was a taste of “traditional” dining in Africa.  In the boma, tables were set around a fire, allowing us to eat under the stars.  The food was delicious at every meal and was a great addition to the safari experience.  Instead of trying to justify the luxury experience with pretentious food, they instead focused on well done, home style meals with great ingredients.  
The hotel provided an experience that was exactly what I imagined a luxury safari would be.  While not cheap, I would recommend Mala Mala to anyone that was going to the greater Kruger National Park area on safari.  I am sure there are other great options available, but Mala Mala provided a top notch experience from the room, meals and service to an exceptional experience on the game drives.

First Class

Thai First Class
Bangkok to Beijing (~5 hours)

Photo courtesy of CC license from Flickr user FlackJacket2010

This was my first experience in first class and it left me in awe of the difference between coach and first class but also feeling like the experience is not really for me.  I loved it, but I loved business class as well.  I don’t really see the point spending either frequent flyer miles or money for this level of exclusivity.  It was really, really nice, but not so much better than business class.  The seat was pretty much the same seat as I had in South African business class.  Plenty of room but to the point where even I really did not need that much.  The service was attentive to the point of almost being hovering.  They did seem to read clues well though, letting people rest or get work done if that is what was desired.  But what really set the first class experience apart though was the lounge and service on the ground in Bangkok.

Photo courtesy of CC license from Flickr user Richard Moross

Upon my arrival, I was met at the gate and transported to the First Class Lounge.  I informed the agent that greeted me (by name) that I wanted to take a quick shower and then have a massage that is complementary for First Class passengers.  The shower rooms were huge, way bigger than my bathroom at home and featured very soft towels and up scale amenities.  After more than 20 hours in the air, it was very nice to have the chance to rinse off.  The massage was also a great mid-travel treat, that helped relieve some of the aches in my back and was very relaxing.  After the massage was finished there were just a few minutes to sit in the lounge catching up on the news and quickly reading email before another agent came up to get me to walk me to my gate.  This level of personal service really was amazing and might have been even more enjoyable if I had not been traveling for as long as I had been already.

Once on board I was greeted with a very large seat, a set of noise canceling headphones and a glass of champagne.  It was really good champagne and when I asked what kind it was, the flight attendant responded with a…Dom Perignon of course.  Delicious!  I had more than a few glasses on the flights, savoring every sip.  While I would be hesitant to ever pay for the cost of a bottle, it was a step above most champagnes I have had.  I also made sure to sample the scotch, Johnnie Walker Blue Label which was amazingly smooth and quit delicious as well.  This jaunt in First Class is spoiling me and creating some expensive tastes. Drinking was not the only thing to consume, as we were treated to a five course meal.  The service was at a leisurely pace, taking up almost half of the flight.  By the end I was stuffed.  While it was not as good as some landside meals I have had, it was far and away the best in flight meal I have had, featuring scallops, foie gras, veal loin, soup, a selection of cheeses and very, very good deserts.  It was so much food that I was almost feeling uncomfortable by the end of the flight.  
Photo courtesy of CC license from Flickr user Richard Moross

This was a great experience and unfortunately ended with almost 30 minutes of waiting for a gate to open once we were on the ground.  Getting off first was nice, but unfortunately I was once again met with someone holding my name on a sign.  This time it was not to whisk me off to a special place, but instead to inform me that one of my bags had sprung a leak and was now wrapped in plastic.  It seems that one of the many bottles of wine I had bought in South Africa had been crushed (actually three of them).  I thought I had packed them well but clearly not well enough.  The only good thing was that it was bottles of white wine instead of red so while my clothes needed a wash, they at least were not completely ruined.

More stories to come from South Africa, but needless to say, I had more enjoyment flying than I normally do.  I hope that this experience did not spoil me too much for my next trip in coach. I really could get used to having leg room and better service on flights.

The life of luxury

Over the last year I have spent more and more time trying to figure out the loyalty program game. This has included hours of research online, subscriptions to blogs, time spent in online forums such as flyertalk and applying for credit cards simply for the sign-up bonus. This effort has swelled my mileage accounts, gained me elite status on United Airlines and has allowed me to travel in a bit more comfort. Starwood hotel chain recently ran a promotion that awarded a free stay at any of their resorts after every three stays at any of their hotels. To take advantage of this, I made bookings at as many Starwood hotels as I could while in Belgium and Croatia. I earned two nights which I redeemed at the Marques de Riscal Winery and Hotel in Spain. I have stayed at some nice hotels this year, but this was the best so far.

Upon approach, what really makes Marques de Riscal stand out is the stunning architecture. The hotel was designed by Frank Gehry, the designer of the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum and the Walt Disney Music Hall in Los Angeles. Gehry designed buildings stand out with their sweeping lines and use of titanium and other reflective metals in their outer shells. The hotel is set amidst the winery and the vineyards, just across the road from the small town of Elciego. The colors that he used are designed to look like a Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva bottle of wine, purple (wine), silver (foil seal) and gold (mesh net that graces the bottles to keep counterfeiters at bay).

While the architecture is what first strikes your eye, our stay was defined by the helpful service and hospitality shown by the entire staff. Because we didn’t have a car, we were “stuck” at the hotel, enjoying the sun, sitting out at the spa, taking the complimentary winery tour, relaxing and partaking in the fantastic cuisine. Breakfast on the outdoor patio overlooking the vineyards was a highlight, as was the 8 course tasting menu we had at the restaurant.  Our meal started off with a cheese and truffle stuffed cracker soaked in honey and served on a river stone.  The cheese cracker might have been my favorite dish of the meal, the sweet and savory characteristics were in perfect balance.  This was followed up by croquettes which were fantastic. (no pictures).  The last of the appetizers was a foie gras cone, topped with grape caviar.The first of three main dishes was langoustine lobster in a white garlic sauce.  Simply delicious. Second up was Hake, candied in butter which was very rich and finally veal cheek which was not my favorite but still good.

Deserts featured an apple and honey ice cream dish that even for my palette may have been too sweet and finally chocolates.  To finish the meal, the sommelier came around with a tray of herbs to make us a custom infusion, featuring chocolate mint, a very sweet herb that we missed the name of and some lemongrass.  This was a great way to finish a meal that left us feeling very stuffed.

While the food was the major highlight, the rest of the stay left us feeling bathed in luxury.  The spa featured a pool, sauna and jacuzzi as well as massages that featured grapes such as a merlot seed scrub and grape oil massage.  It was the perfect place to sit out in the sun and relax before heading to Madrid and Barcelona.  If you are ever in the Rioja region, this hotel is a must visit.  It is pricey, but the food, surroundings, and staff make it worth it.   If you can, however, do it for free as part of a promotion you may want to find a way to get to Rioja to experience the life of luxury at Marques de Riscal.

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