What were my travel highlights and lowlights of 2016?

There is just one article today as we gently ease back into things.   What impressed me on my travels during 2016?  And what didn’t?

What I realised when I looked back over the last year of articles is that I haven’t done much which was radically new.  By letting Anika do most of the reviews – the only comped hotel stay mentioned below is St Regis Istanbul, the rest I paid for – I missed out on a few unexpected highlights in places such as Tallinn and Bordeaux.  However, of the stuff I did do:

My eyes are opened to family hotels

I think I did around 80 nights in hotels this year.  I only wrote about a fraction of them because I don’t write about run-of-the-mill hotels and generally keep our family trips off the site.

That said, I was hugely impressed by two family-focussed hotels we visited this year.  Both are ski properties in winter and walking properties in summer.  Near Salzburg you have Elmauhof and near Innsbruck Cavallino Bianco (photo below).  We spent an enjoyable week in each this year and will probably return to both in 2017.

There is nothing like this in the UK in terms of quality.  The village of Ortisei, where Cavallino Bianco sits, is also astoundingly pleasant.

cavallino-bianco

I returned to Virgin Atlantic after 18 years

Yes, how rubbish is that.  I run the biggest UK frequent flyer website and I hadn’t flown Virgin Upper Class since 1998!  (To be fair, Virgin could have offered me a press flight at any point in the last four years but didn’t 🙂 )

My review of Upper Class on the new 787 fleet is here.   The Heathrow Clubhouse remains very impressive (review here) – I was especially impressed by the food, as I was imagining the lounge was more design over substance – and I got another free haircut, following the one I got in 1998!  I am in two minds about the Upper Class seat but, for solo travellers, I preferred it to Club World.

Hotel revelations of the year

I was very impressed by the Waldorf-Astoria in Ras Al Khaimah (review here).  There isn’t much else to do in Ras, but if you don’t mind the hour drive from Dubai you will get an impressive five star beach hotel for substantially less than you pay in Dubai itself.

The InterContinental London O2 was also far better than I expected.  It is safe to say that this is now the best IHG hotel in the UK and I genuinely didn’t expect to be saying that when it opened.

InterContinental London O2

The Hilton Sa Torre in Mallorca also impressed and bears no relation to ANY other Hilton on the planet (unless there is another Hilton with a windmill out there).

The St Regis in Istanbul was also fantastic – it was the first time that I have even been to a St Regis which actually felt like I thought a St Regis should feel.

At the other end of the scale, the Premier Inn in Scarborough – assuming it is representative of the rest of the chain – showed me why budget hotels have been scooping up market share from established four star properties.  I was also impressed by the Holiday Inn Express in Ealing!  This is the first ‘next generation’ HIX property in the UK and has a more relevant, friendly, modern design.  Holiday Inn Express is finally getting to where Hilton’s Hampton chain was five years ago …..

Hotel frustration of the year

The JW Marriott resort in Venice, reviewed here.  It is good but it could be outstanding, if the hotel didn’t insist on scoring own goals at every possible opportunity.  2016 was our 2nd visit – I never got around to reviewing it the first time.

JW Marriott Venice main building

The InterContinental New York Barclay reopened (my review) with severe management issues, which are continuing looking at reports elsewhere.  The rooms are great, apart from the lack of plug sockets anywhere near the desks, but operationally it is chaos with almost no recognition of Ambassador or IHG status.  The hotel doesn’t even have a restaurant.

Bizarre lounge experience the year

Arriving into the Heathrow Arrivals lounge in Terminal 5 off a New York flight to find David Cameron on TV resigning.  That said, I had seen the first few EU vote declarations in The Concorde Room the evening before so I had felt it coming.

Qatar Airways continues to shine

The Qatar Airways flights I took down to Ras Al Khaimah (review) reminded me why Qatar Airways is easily the best oneworld option in Business Class.  It outclasses BA in every respect.  Etihad still has a slight edge with their A380 Business Class Studio – although the wine is low rent – and Qatar’s A380 First Class doesn’t cut it, but the business class product on the A380 / A350 / B787 is excellent.

Airline disappointment of the year

Turkish Airlines.  Despite a lot of hype, I just didn’t get it.  The 2 x 3 x 2 seating on the 777 doesn’t cut it in 2016 for a modern business class environment (review).  I didn’t even like the Istanbul lounge which has also been over-hyped elsewhere.

Cop7

Biggest letdown of the year

Ethiopian Airlines sounded us out about a press trip to Addis Ababa to try out their new Boeing 787 business class and have a tour of their local facilities.  I was genuinely excited about this as it would have been a totally new experience for me – my previous experience of Africa is limited to a month working in Johannesburg and Cape Town back in the 1990’s.  And then it never happened.

Pain in the arse of the year

La Compagnie, who eventually scrapped their Luton to New York flights.  Back in February I was offered (unprompted) a free New York flight to review their service.  It took five months and innumerable hours of negotiating with the company and its PR team to get this honoured (the eventual review is here) and we still had to reimburse them for the taxes and charges.  I also ran an interview with the CEO and founder who has since left after merging the business with a low-cost French airline ….

Party of the year (Part 1)

Ours!  I never thought we (well, Anika, who did 90% of the work) would find a way of arranging it that made financial sense.  I then thought that no-one would come.  I then thought something would go horribly wrong on the night.  I have never been happier to be proved wrong.  The total drinks bill was just under £6,000 …..

Thanks again to the Melia White House hotel at Regents Park for their generous sponsorship of the evening.

head-for-points-christmas-party-bar-2

Party of the year (Part 2)

The Sheraton Grand Park Lane reopening party.  “If you throw an average party”, a senior Starwood manager told me afterwards, “you get less-than-average benefit.  You need to go large.”  And they did.  It is also a lovely art deco hotel post restoration as our later review explained.

rsz_file_23-12-2016_15_48_58

BA status benefit of the year (Part 1)

We arrived at Palma Airport on a Saturday in August for an airberlin Avios redemption to Innsbruck to be confronted with a queue of 200 people.  A quick scoot around revealed a line for oneworld status card holders with a queue of 1 …..

BA status benefit of the year (Part 2)

If you have kids, the most underrated benefit of a BA Gold card is the ability to book Gold Priority Rewards during peak school holiday weeks.  This lets you book any seat, any flight on Avios as long as you pay double the normal price.  In February you will be paying £500 per person for a flight to a ski resort (Saturday out, Saturday back) during half term – or just 18,000 Avios if you force open Gold Priority Reward seats.  Which is what we did.

 

What is coming in 2017?

The diary is looking interesting at the moment.  If all goes to plan, you should see reviews in the next few months on:

  • LAN business class
  • Japan Airlines premium economy
  • Air China first class
  • Emirates first class
  • Etihad first class
  • A flight on a Boeing 747-(Lufthansa first class)
  • Air Nostrum business class
  • Aer Lingus long-haul business class (this one isn’t ticketed yet)
  • A 2nd go at Virgin Atlantic Upper Class

….. plus assorted hotels along the way.  It should be a fun year.

SAS manages to out-do BA with a new service cut .... which hopefully BA won't follow
Happy Christmas! Head for Points returns on Tuesday
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Comments

  1. Alistair Todd says:

    While we’re on the subject of IHG…. I’m trying for the first time to redeem the ambassador free weekend night certificate. Every one of the dozen or so hotels I’ve tried so far just says that the complimentary weekend night rate is not available. Is it always so hard to redeem? Makes the ambassador fee much less justifiable if there is so little availability for redemption. Already trying to make up trips I never intended just to use up the certificate… Any tips for finding availability?

    • Really? Never had this. You are trying IC hotels and not CP, HI etc?

      • Alistair Todd says:

        Yup. I started from intercontinental.com/ambweekend and looking at IC only. The only place I’ve found availability on any of the dates I can travel is the Paris Le Grand. Don’t want to go to Paris anyway, but even less so when the £300 per night standard advance room rate transforms into £430 per night using the free night certificate! As you wrote recently, the savings aren’t quite as good as they ought to be. Or at least, as I would like them to be.

        • Alistair Todd says:

          The value is even less when you notice that the first (paid) night costs way more than the second (free) night, so the “average nightly rate” is totally misleading and actually you’ll be saving even less compared to the standard rate. And it seems you have to pay both nights up front. Anyway, on 15 weekends from Feb to June across 9 hotels I can only find availability in Paris. This just seems ridiculous.

        • Alistair Todd says:

          OK, yes, it was ridiculous. Hours of searching later I’ve realised that the search form defaulted to “room preference = one bed”. Clear that, and suddenly the weekend rate is available. Which is great, but the value still totally sucks compared to the standard rate. Anyway, finally booked a room, so Kiev here I come, and now I can have a beer…

        • Just used a weekend certificate at IC Samui which has given amazing value considering the prices in Samui over New Year

  2. I’ve only been doing this for 18 months so this year was mainly about planning for me. First goal was to get BA gold early in my TP year and then enjoy for the remaining 20 months. Earn a 2-4-1 with my BAPP card to use in 2017 and build up enough Avios from flying and CC churn to be able to use the 2-4-1.

    +’s
    HfP and FT, there is so much great information provided by Rob and the FT guys (I am very grateful)
    Trip to HNL to get BA gold, the + is that my wife loved it!
    2-4-1 booked for LAS first class (first time ever) in Feb 17
    Well on the way to our second 2-4-1 and maybe even some guf2’s!
    BA Exec Club benefits, this is one good thing about BA, I’ve found the gold line very good too.

    -‘s
    BA are a penny pinching operator with a poor hard product and getting worse!
    FT apologists that constantly defend BA with really no justification
    Non-interlining of bags, this adds much more stress and time to the whole journey

    • My highlight was Etihad 380 First Class AUH to LHR
      Booked via AA at £14.20 per person.

      Many thanks Rob for all your assistance.

      I have 152,000 SPG with flights booked to New Orleans next October. Looking at Marriott options in New Orleans. Any recommendations for Marriott or other hotels.

    • Agree with your comment about BA penny pinching. BA used to be our first and only choice. This year we’ve flown – in business – Qatar (twice), Air Berlin (redemption), Air France, Finnair, Turkish (long and short haul) and Qantas. We’ve a Lloyds Avios upgrade next month with BA. Wouldn’t pay cash to fly with them anymore, other than short haul.

  3. Highs:
    Getting BA Gold for the first time.
    BA 241 in F to JFK.
    Getting Hilton Diamond.
    Free night at Edinburgh Waldorf Astoria saving about £400 thanks to Hilton Visa card.
    Rinsing Priority Pass lounge access free with Amex Plat.

    Lows:
    Poor Lloyds customer service.
    Disappointing Accor Platinum status benefits.
    Freccia Alata card almost useless.
    Horrific Air France & KLM economy experience.

    • What was so awful about klm and air france?

      • Must be economy bit

      • Ridiculous transfers at CDG and AMS. Having to go through security multiple times, run through terminals, rubbish lounges, not allowed cabin baggage even with status, uncomfortable seats, never again!

        • Another low – £0 again on Shop small!

          But more than cancelled out by £200 back on a £600 spend at Jessops – thank goodness the till lady let me split the bill into 4 chunks! Got Mrs W an excellent camera for xmas.

    • I have been using Freccia Alata card with Vietnam airlines and it’s been Really helpful. Business desk check in, fast tracked at immigration, priority baggage and lounge.

      What I saw though was that you must have the membership number in the booking and on boarding pass. A few folks who flashed their gold card were refused at the lounge and at fast track immigration.

  4. Our highlight would have to be heading to Japan in first class – for the third time thanks to this hobby! Our first time was on Swiss with BMI miles, so “lowlight” of the year would have to be the final demise of that scheme’s credit card.
    4 nights in the Conrad Tokyo whilst there was excellent – made possible by Hilton Visa vouchers and points. Still trying to figure out how we’re going to top that trip.
    Cheers to Raffles and also everyone who posts useful info in the comments section! Looking forward to the opportunities that 2017 brings (and maybe squeeze in another Japan trip before my 30th!)

    • Ya! Snap!

      3 times now…..terrific experiences, love Japan!

      PS If you do manage another trip in that direction, do give the Hilton Shinjuku a try, an excellent product (with better lounge & arguable location) and ‘if’ you get lucky, a great suite offering.

  5. Flight Detective says:

    Highs:
    Hitting BA Gold for the first time
    Qatar Airways AKL Flash Sale in May (heading off in April, can’t wait)
    3 nights in the InterContinental Hong Kong – fabulous hotel
    Qantas First Class Lounge Sydney
    Cathay Pacific The Pier First Class Lounge in Hong Kong
    Avios redemptions for Qantas Domestic Business Class – excellent value vs the price
    Aer Lingus in IAG

    Lows:
    No Kaligo 20,000 Avios offers this year
    No Irish Credit Card for the Aer Lingus Aer Club (yet?)
    Increased prices for Club Europe DUB-LHR meaning I have to use Avios for it always now

    Biggest Low:
    BA/Oneworld baggage changes – I mix redemptions and paid for flights, so many PNRs for my long trips. The Qatar flight to Auckland in April means I have to do DUB-LHR-PSA on one ticket, PSA-DOH-AKL on another, then AKL-SYD on another… with similar for the reverse. My minimum connection is 3 hours in AKL before I transfer to LAN so it’s just a headache I could do without. Being allowed to through check from or to redemption tickets would be a boon for me.

    Special mention – I discovered Head for Points in 2015 and I scored a colossal amount of Avios from Kaligo thanks to the recommendations here. My balance remains over 120,000 despite quite a few redemptions and with no earning apart from flights and hotels. Wouldn’t have even tried them without your backing. Love your work!

    • I found Qatar really helpful and they transferred my luggage across all sectors on a similar ticket to yours. They just needed the 6 figure booking reference. Worth asking nicely!

  6. My personal highlight would be the operational upgrade from Business to First on Qatar’s A380 in January, such a shame that DOH-BKK is such a short flight.
    On a different note, many thanks for some good bits of advise from this site in the past 2 years..

  7. Alistair Todd says:

    Only got into this lark about a year ago. Usually travel overland by motorcycle and sleep in a tent, so had little use for miles and points. Now though, I have a vague plan to visit every country in the world (currently on 77 with another 11 planned this year), and HFP is helping me achieve that more quickly and in much more style. Thanks Rob, and also the “community”.

    Highs:
    Qatar 787 business class to Cape Town for under £900 for a 4 week 4×4 trip through 7 countries
    Phenomenal hotel upgrades in Belgrade, Cape Town, Reykjavik, Oslo, Dublin, Davos…
    The £800 bill for damage to a hire car that was paid for by Amex
    The 20,000 Shangri-La points, and a free dinner for 2 in a pretty decent London restaurant, that I won in competitions
    18,000 avios (I hope) for a £40 car rental (guy behind the desk said “We seem oddly busy this weekend”)

    Lows:
    Well, my sister is a pilot with BA so I better keep it to myself….

    • I won 20,000 GC points with Shangri-La too. I hope you have been converting them into food and beverage vouchers which is by far the best way to redeem! 🙂

      • Alistair Todd says:

        I haven’t used them yet, but yes, I’ll take a look at that option. Thanks.

        • Each 1000 points is worth 100USD food and beverage credit. And with the exchange rate, i have been getting around £74 per voucher. So almost £1500 food and beverage credit. Or 20,000 is one night at the Shard worth approx £350 (so not as good value). You have to ‘order’ the vouchers online. Then you have 6 months to redeem. Once you take the ‘code’ to a Shangri La and they exchange for a physical voucher, you must redeem that day. Or you can use instant dining credits but I haven’t tried that yet as it only work at certain places I believe. Enjoy!

  8. Yes thanks Rob and Anika for a great year on HFP. My highlight was returning in Lufthansa F from JNB using United miles and a creative routing – if you start in the Canaries the number of miles needed is much lower. Was truly out of this world. Am now planning CMB to LON in Etihad F using AA miles accumulated by crediting our SFO business class flights to AA (the viking fare). So thanks Rob for everything and I wish you and all readers the best for 2017.

    One question which is using CMA to transfer from BA to IB – it keeps rejecting my lberia login credentials on the BA CMA site.Did someone have a tip of how to get round this?

    Thanks once again Jeremy

    • Iberia made some changes a few months ago. Login to your Iberia Plus account first to ensure details are correct. Best method I find is then to pull to Avios.com and then push to BA from Avios.com

  9. the real harry says:

    O/T today is T-355 if you want to book Xmas hols OUT on Saturday 16th December 2017 (which I have just done).

    For state schools, your school will probably follow a similar calendar to ours, ie last day of term is Tuesday 19 December, but there may be inset/ training days. Son’s school says no training days, daughter’s school can’t be bothered to stick it up this early, other son is over 16 now so doesn’t figure in my computations as to what we can get away with.

    It’s a short holiday next year with back to school on 3rd January same as this year.

    Damned if I am going to miss 4 days of holiday just to let them attend school on the Monday – Tuesday would be a waste of time in any case.

    So I’ve booked us out on the Saturday, think that’s fair as they otherwise will have a 100% attendance record (not allowed to e ill 🙂 ).

    No great shakes on value, currently 1.14p/ Avios but within days that will look better as that’s THE Saturday to fly out

    • Where you off to?

      Feel for you burning Avios at peak times… Wonder how long the peak last for Xmas/NY 17/18…

      Which segways us quite nicely into me asking Rob if the Offpeak redemption timetable is available for Jan 2018.??? 😀
      http://www.headforpoints.com/2016/04/15/peak-and-off-peak-avios-redemption-dates-2017/

      • the real harry says:

        Al my redemptions are peak, unfortunate but necessary timing as my wife hates me stealing even a day from the kids’ schooling.

        Similarly for now all our flights are to our place in the sun, no variation, which is a shame [apart from the fact I love it out here] as I used to enjoy experiencing new places particularly Australasia/ SE Asia, only 6 years to go until I can crank it up again 🙂

        Checked a couple of days ago & the timetable is not yet published but easy enough to work it out

  10. My highlight –
    I decided at quite short notice to go to a gig at Rock City in Nottingham on Saturday night. Loads of hotels were full and even the Ibis was £150 . To my amazement the Crowne Plaza which is directly opposite Rock City still had a room available as a reward night. I was chuffed enough with this but when I checked I checked in to hotel I found that my Spire status gave me to a club room, lounge access and two full breakfasts in the restaurant .
    The Wonder Stuff played a blinding set too !

    • We have stayed at the CP Nottingham 4 times, and although Spire, got club rooms every time but never breakfast, even after asking for it

  11. Graham Walsh says:

    I would quite happily read about “family” trips/experiences as I’m hoping to pay for most of my trips by maximising my work trips to help towards family trips.

  12. OT: does anyone know whether the status match for Marriott and SPG is ‘dynamic’? For example, I linked my memberships when I was SPG Gold. If I now move to SPG platinum, will my Marriott membership also upgrade to Platinum or will it stay Gold?

    Thanks!

    • Yes it will. It may even clear within 24 hours once the accounts are linked. However, Lifetime status isn’t yet being matched and probably won’t be until a full merger of the two separate programs

      The systems won’t merge completely until at least 2018. From that time on, apart from the chance they will match Lifetime Platinum, etc., it will probably be an amalgam of the least generous aspects of each program so take the best of both worlds while it’s still possible!

  13. Interesting account of abuse by US customs/TSA from around the family Christmas table.

    One professor level academic was taken away from his partner and subjected to the full nine yards while they were kept in the dark, because he shares a name with a convicted serious criminal. On the way out he received the same treatment and was told it would happen every time. Only in America. We are not a particularly connected family, and we have at least two acquaintances subjected to abuse by these services. How to lose friends etc…

    He now lectures worldwide but does not touch the USA with a barge pole. Someone else goes or the invitation goes begging.

    Presumably this will potentially be worse under Mr Trump.

    • This happened to a friend of mine when we went to miami 7 years ago…. his name is John Jones…. i mean there must be a lot of those entering the usa lol

    • Isn’t dealing with this what “redress number” is about?

  14. Highs:
    – 3 week hol in NZ in business with Singapore Airlines (family of 4). Had to get up at 3 am T-355 to book that!
    – Etihad biz studio A380 rtn to Abu Dhabi
    – SPG moment redemption for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – wow were we looked after!
    – Winning 20,000 GC points with Shangri-La and having meals/cocktails at The Shard.
    – Collecting 500,000 SQ miles in just 14 months
    – A couple of op-ups to Club Europe
    – Finally booking a Virgin Upper Class seat from HKG with just £35 tax
    – Surprising in-laws with biz avios seats on Iberia to Quito for the Galapagos
    – Getting a Lloyds avios card – love it.
    – Using the free Hilton Platinum status to enjoy free breakfast/lounges at many Hilton properties.
    – 2x awesome Luxury Travel Diary auction wins.
    – Winning 2 week meet and greet parking at Heathrow

    Lows
    – Missed out by 4 days on the increased sign up bonus for a Virgin Isa.
    – Nearly every hotel redemption resulted in no upgrade despite status (IHG & CC)
    – Filling my entire wardrobe with LEGO from Tesco promotions
    – Removal of CC points from gift cards at Tesco
    – The time it takes to transfer points into different schemes. Why on earth in this day and age is it not instant?!
    – Filling up my AVIS rental (Iberia deal) the other week and the fuel gauge not moving back to full!
    – Curve stopping Amex link
    – Converting 50,000 Virgin miles to Hilton for a Hilton Play redemption and they arrived 1 day after the auction ended!

    And to think I had no idea about the point collecting world until late 2013 when I came across this site! Thanks Rob – all the best 🙂

    • How did you manage 500k krisflyer in 14 months?!

      • A lot of Amex referrals across my card and my wife’s. Then combined MR balances when she cancelled. Then boosted whole lot by 1.55 using the IDC card. SPG points converted too and a few rocketmiles promotions. 🙂

    • How has BMI DiamondClub demise not made anyone’s list?

  15. Robert Norris says:

    Rob,
    Wish we’d seen your review of the Barclay before we booked our NYE break (and birthday). We booked through the BA website for a ‘premium’ room (which looks equivelant to the lowest level (superior) on the direct website. Checked in yesterday and was not welcomed as a Spire or Ambassador member. We were given 2 drinks vouchers but receptionist said this was because of my birthday (nothing to do with membership). No personalised letter, fruit bowl, gift or water in room, which was a superior. Phoned reception to ask about the water/fruit/upgrade, but was told that it WAS an upgrade as we been booked into the lowest room by BA. She seemed put out when I asked for our water and fruit (which then took 45 mins plus a chaser phone call to arrive).

    I’ve read the T&C carefully and while I’m not expecting to get points on this non-qualifying stay, there’s nothing in there that says third-party bookings don’t get the benefits of Ambassador (just says ‘when you stay’). I’ll speak to reception this morning to confirm we get our late check out, and make sure we at least get water each day for the rest of our stay.
    Don’t get me wrong, the hotel and room are lovely, but as you say the service and treatment of status members needs a lot of work!

    • Push them for the 2 x $20 drinks vouchers for the bar, they should hand them over.

      The rooms, as you have found, are great but it is run by idiots.