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My travel highlights and lowlights of 2018

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As we gently ease back into things after Christmas, I wanted to do my annual look back at the past year.   What impressed me on my travels during 2018?  And what didn’t?

There are some very good unbranded family hotels in Europe

I think I did around 80 nights in hotels this year, which is about average.  I only wrote about a fraction of them because I don’t write about run-of-the-mill hotels, unless they are at airports, and generally keep our family trips off the site.

That said, I continue to be impressed by two family-focussed hotels we returned to 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 for the 3rd year running and are off to Elmauhof again in February.

cavallino-bianco

There is nothing like this in the UK, especially Cavallino Bianco.  The village of Ortisei, where Cavallino Bianco sits, is also astoundingly pleasant. Elmauhof is nowhere near as flash as Cavallino but does do a great job of looking after children.

The year starts with Ronan Keating …..

My first hotel review of the year was, to put it mildly, modest – the Holiday Inn at Southend Airport (click).  This was after a party to celebrate the opening of their new private jet centre.

This ended up being one of those stories I kept repeating all year in the pub.  The airport had secretly hired Ronan Keating to play at the party. It was so secret, however, that when I decided to leave after two hours – the hotel was next door and I had work to do – I still wasn’t told.  The airport CEO didn’t mention it when we were chatting and the entire team I passed on my way out of the door failed to mention it.  I was more than a little surprised to see other press reports in the following days …..

Later in January I popped down to the Waldorf Astoria Dubai The Palm for a couple of days, reviewed here.  It wasn’t bad although I simply don’t like The Palm hotels much – they are too far from the mainland and the beaches feel, because you are facing land across the channel, a little odd.  I flew down in SWISS First Class although I didn’t review it – it was a ‘mistake’ redemption, as SWISS normally blocks its First Class cabin for miles, and so not something any HFP reader could repeat without paying cash.

Coming back, I tried Royal Jordanian in Business Class (Dubai to Amman to Heathrow) which let me tick another oneworld airline off my list.  My Royal Jordanian flight review is here.

Back in the Middle East in October, I tried out the great value redemption which is The Ritz Carlton Al Hamra Beach in Ras Al-Khaimah (review here)

Into the pods

Even less enticing than a night at the Holiday Inn Southend Airport was my night at the Thistle Heathrow.  I did this purely to review the driverless pods, which take you from the car park to Terminal 5.  We even made a video of this and it was probably the geekiest thing we did all yearRead more here.

We went to Lapland

Over Easter we decided to head to (Swedish) Lapland.  Purely because we thought it would be interesting for the kids – there is a flight alternative – we took what was recently called “the greatest sleeper train trip in Europe”, the 15 hour train ride last week from Stockholm to Kiruna in Lapland.  You can read my review, and that of my ‘hotel’ in Kiruna, here.

The Guardian ran a great article about Kiruna recently – see here.  This is nothing to do with tourism and all to do with their plans to move the entire town down the road, before it disappears into a large hole in the ground caused by a century of mining.

We also visited the Icehotel whilst we were there – article here.

Off to South Africa

The biggest HfP trip of the year was Johannesburg, but I left this to Anika.  Her review of South African’s Business Class on its new A330 is here.  For those who think this stuff is glamorous, she flew down with a stinking cold, spent two days stuck in the InterContinental (review) due to the terrible weather and then flew home.  I’m not sure if this was better than her night in a windowless cabin at YOTEL Gatwick or her attempt to review Vueling’s Business Class but finding herself moved to a one-class charter plane.

Similarly, when Virgin Atlantic offered what was effectively a ‘party trip’ to New York to try out their Economy Delight product (review here), I passed it to Jamie.  Sadly the stories he came back with, being led astray by representatives of The Telegraph and The Sun, are not repeatable.

MOXY …..

The glamour continued when I visited the low-budget MOXY hotel at London Excel (review).  This confirmed what I already thought – that Marriott is on to a winner with this chain, which is cheap but smart.

To Washington ….

The best thing I did all year was my visit to Hilton’s HQ in Virginia.  The senior team at Hilton Honors threw a small conference and invited me along.  Chris Nassetta, Hilton’s CEO, even got involved in one session.

Sometimes you get a business trip where everything goes right.  This was one of them.  All of my flights were punctual (I got to try Virgin’s ex-Air Berlin business class on the way out), Hilton gave me a suite in the lovely The Graham hotel in Georgetown, I got to stay 30 seconds walk from the best of Georgetown’s historic shops and restaurants, I got to catch up with old US frequent flyer friends that I hadn’t seen in a few years, we got top tickets to a U2 concert and – importantly – Hilton scheduled the trip with plenty of downtime to allow us to keep our writing schedules up.

If you’re heading to Washington, consider The Graham.  Here’s my review.

To Paris …..

My other hotel surprise this year was Marriott’s Renaissance Paris Republique (review).  This is a hidden gem in the portfolio and actually got cheaper, for points, during 2018.  The hotel does a la carte for breakfast – no buffet here – which is all you need to know.

When I returned to Paris at Christmas I was at the Marriott Paris Champs-Elysees (review).  It isn’t as classy but the location can’t be beat and having my own private balcony hanging over the Champs-Elysees was pretty cool.

My ‘hotel of the year’ award is shared between Renaissance Paris Republique and Washington / Georgetown’s The Graham.  These were NOT the most luxurious hotels I visited all year, but the ones where the gap between expectation and reality was pleasurably wide – and where the entire trip was a pleasure.  It is probably not a coincidence that my kids did not accompany me on either trip, so I got to enjoy the hotels properly.

Coolest things I did all year …..

On a tour of Amsterdam Schiphol in October, I got to watch the fire fighting team put out a real fire on their dummy aircraft, from just a few feet away.  I wrote about that here, including a video.

I also got to visit my first airport catering facility, in Praguesee here.  Who else flies to Prague but doesn’t even leave the airport secure zone, stopping only to see a few sandwiches being made?

Other good stuff I got to do on points included Paul McCartney at the O2 a few days ago via Marriott Rewards which was fantastic.  We also had a great VIP day at Queen’s Club for the tennis during the Summer, courtesy of Emirates Skywards miles, as well as seeing a couple of Arsenal games from the Emirates Box.  

A private lunch at Clare Smyth’s restaurant via Marriott Rewards was another highlight, as was Hilton’s Bastille gig. All of these were bookable by anyone who had the points to do so.  Marriott also threw an excellent (trade only) private gig by Rag & Bone Man at the Renaissance St Pancras.

Party of the year

Despite not having Rag & Bone Man playing (see previous paragraph), I will say ours!  We decided to throw our first Summer Party in 2018 and increase the number of tickets from 150 to 250.  Despite this, it still sold out in under a minute.  Thank you to Etihad for supporting that event.

We returned to Holiday Inn Camden for our Christmas Party, with another epic raffle.  Thank you to Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Money for sponsoring us.  Again, tickets sold out ludicrously quickly.

We have some interesting plans for Summer 2019 …..

Thank you to my team

Head for Points ends the year in a position of change, although in truth we have never stood still.  Anika got married and, at least for the medium term, is not in London.  Rhys did a great job as our intern in November and December but is now back at University, although you haven’t seen the last of him.  Jamie will continue to contribute but only when we can fit it around his 26 weeks per year out of the country.

In the next week or so I need to make a final decision on a new full-time employee to work in London, who will focus mainly on editorial and free up some of my time for more strategic stuff.  Last year I promised a redesign and it didn’t happen – that is the first thing on the list.  With my kids getting older, I also have a bit more flexibility to travel to trade fairs, conferences etc.

What is coming in 2019?

Good question!  January is looking interesting, with trips to Barcelona and Abu Dhabi – and a potential chance to try out the new Emirates First Class Suite.  After that we hit trade show season.  My wife has some interesting holiday ideas for 2019, including Iceland and the new Four Seasons resort just outside Athens, although they are not in the diary yet.

In terms of reviews, I am hopeful that United finally puts their Polaris seat onto Heathrow-New York.  I’d also like to do more with the other oneworld partners, as well as try the new Aer Lingus single-aisle long-haul aircraft.

And, of course, both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic will be unveiling new Business Class seats for their new A350 fleets.  Don’t get too excited though – BA will only have the new seat on six aircraft by Christmas 2019 and, as the A350 fleet has no First Class, you won’t find them on ‘prime’ routes.  And will either BA or Virgin even get close to matching what Qatar Airways, Emirates, Etihad etc has been offering for years?  A cynic would say that they will struggle to match the Qatar Airways ‘herringbone’ seat which the airline has already rendered obsolete by moving to Qsuite!

Whatever happens, we’ll keep you in the loop.  Thank you for your continued support.


Hotel offers update – August 2021:

Want to earn more hotel points?  Click here to see our complete list of promotions from the major hotel chains or use the ‘Hotel Offers’ link in the menu bar at the top of the page.

Want to buy hotel points? There is currently a special offer running with IHG Rewards (75% bonus to 13th August) and World of Hyatt (25% discount to 25th August).

Comments (131)

  • Aliks says:

    Interesting stuff.

    Looking forward does your crystal ball see any significant changes in the airline business?

  • Nick says:

    Many thanks Rob for yet another year of great advice on points earning opportunities and other travelling benefits. All the best to you and the family for a happy & healthy 2019!

  • Alex W says:

    With baby W crawling around now, Mrs W has banned us from going abroad in 2019! It will be a shame to miss out on lap infant rates, but I think Mrs W is still recovering from the RTW trip. Also need to see what effect the B word will have. So, for 2019 I will be mostly earning rather than burning. To that end, I will be interested to see whether new Hilton and/or Marriott credit cards are launched in 2019.

    • Anna says:

      It’s not the most fun travelling with infants, however I would advise getting one or two “dream” trips in in the years before you find yourself trapped by school holiday dates and prices! We took our son abroad several times before he started school, including to New Zealand and Australia, which there would be pretty much no chance of doing at the moment.

      • Shoestring says:

        Haha – back at you! We took our 2 then 3 to NZ 3 times over 30 months (it was a try at migration & fulfilling the number of days resident in NZ requirement over 2 years to get the IRRV, which we managed though there’s a bit of a story there, some other time…). Also taking in hols in Thailand twice for several weeks with the tots.

        Same as you, it was a great opportunity & much cheaper than going with older children, though I think Alex W knows that as the RTW trip was with baby, wasn’t it? Worth the baby hassle.

        • Paul says:

          I’ve got two kids under ten, and I am biting the bullet and doing Australia next year (on points to Singapore at that pesky higher banding!). I did think about doing when they were younger, but on reflection they have greater independence (meaning they look after themselves way more) and they’ll remember what will hopefully be an amazing experience for them.

      • Crafty says:

        Yes, do it. We did Thailand and Goa at 12 months and 18 months and wish we had done more at this age.

      • Scallder says:

        Good to know Anna – we’ve got a 14 month old and already planned out holidays through until she starts school! 2 months SPL earlier im the year allowed for a month in NZ which was great (Singapore Airlines are amazing with babies too). Going to miss getting free seat selection on BA when the little one turns 2 as have no status 🙁

    • Pid says:

      We have tried to exploit opportunites since ours was born last Christmas Eve. Already 4 trips under her belt, although none longer than 5 hours yet. Got another short haul planned in about a week and then first big trip to Beijing in Apr in F. Need to plan some more trips later in the year before she costs more!

      BA extending my Silver for another year for free due to reduced travel(?) while I was on paternity was also another great perk. Hoping for some good Qatar offers in Jan so that I can retain it again this year.

      Thanks HfP for all of your tips over the years!

    • Michael C says:

      Have been doing several trips a year with our now 5-yr old, since he was born.
      The early days we’re obvs. cheaper, but the way he appreciates and observes everything now more than makes up for that.
      Just writing this as we’re having b/fast in the S Paulo Renaissance (fab!) overlooking the city & preparing our day out to the science museum & municipal market.

      A million thanks to everyone in the blog and all the contributors: couldn’t do without my 0500h article to start each day!

    • Cat says:

      Its much easier before they turn 2 – at that point fares go up, the speed with which they can move (and therefore get themselves into a pickle) increases alarmingly, and they discover the delights of the word “No!”. I recommend travelling as much as possible before then!

  • Jon says:

    Although only an admin change, the ability to redeem Virgin miles with Air France and KLM will be a significant change I think, opening up quite a few route options East and South to those with a few stashed away.

    • Shoestring says:

      Yep quite a few of us waiting to see the detail on this. Should also open up the AF/KLM European routes to finding reward flights with Virgin miles – great for added flexibility though not exactly going to be cheap compared to RFS with BA.

      Maybe the sweetspot will be if you can use the ‘50% off’ etc offers that pop up monthly on AF/KLM rewards flights.

  • rossmacd says:

    This overview shows how HfP is going downhill – the reviews are getting drab and bland.

    • Mr(s) Entitled says:

      Good morning troll. Hope your day outside the cave is pleasant.

    • Anna says:

      Well what would you have featured instead? Even if the articles aren’t of huge interest on a particular day, the comments can be extremely informative and helpful.

      • rossmacd says:

        CA A350 J, SQ SIN-EWR, QF PER-LHR, SQ A380 F/Suites would be a good start, but there are plenty more new product launches in the last few years to review.

        • meta says:

          If you were a regular reader, you would know that primary focus of this site is not reviews! Rob even mentioned it several times. There are dozens of other sites where you can find those reviews.

        • Stu N says:

          rossmacd, are these relatively easy to score redemptions on, which seems to be the main criteria for inclusion on the site?

          Air China is Star Alliance; miles are difficult to collect in the UK – might be easier with the Lufthansa card re-launch though jury seems to be out on that at the moment. SQ SIN-EWR is very niche given neither end of the route is in Europe. Are F suites available on redemptions from Europe? If not, hard to justify for the site’s audience. The Qantas Perth route has had loads of press coverage and reviews so hard to see what HfP could add, and would tie someone up for a week to review that.

          It would be good to see more coverage of SkyTeam as the Virgin-Delta-AF/KLM relationship gets closer – both reviews and collection/ redemption routes. AF/KLM are also a good option for people in the regions, it makes little difference whether you go London, Paris or Amsterdam from most non-London airports.

          You also get lounge access to Delta’s own lounges when flying Delta if you have an Amex Platinum card, which is a useful benefit.

    • Mike says:

      Rossmacd – Your comment could be easily misconstrued for criticism of HFP and the hard work that Rob and his small team do for us all. It may be worth you considering if you wish to renew your subscription for 2019.

      • Spurs Debs says:

        Hold up isn’t rossmacd allowed their opinion even if it is a criticism ? How will this site evolve if good and bad points aren’t addressed. It may just be that this site is no longer of interest to rossmacd but is off interest to others. You can never please everyone, but to call someone a troll for daring to say they are disappointed or because their view point is different to yours is ridiculous. You seem to think this site is run for free, true we might not pay a subscription but don’t be so naive to think that Rob doesn’t make a living from it.

        • Bazza says:

          No.

        • Nathan says:

          ‘Troll’ is fair; if the poster had opened with, say, the second comment in tandem then perhaps your point about proffering opinion or criticism would also hold, barely. Simple negativity without a contextual basis or a counter proposal forming the basis for an argument that itself can be critiqued is, by my definition, troll-worthy activity that is childlike and unwelcome at best.

        • Obi says:

          Yes. Exactly – of course rossmacd is entitled to his opinion. Keep this site’s comments balanced.

          The subscription back comment is so 2018 – the site now pays for Rob plus 2 full time employees on fairly decent wages.

      • Rob says:

        Everyone seemed very happy with Jamie’s reviews! I’ve hardly done any flight reviews this year (still sitting on a SWISS J and Etihad J review, chose not to do SWISS F) and we’re also sitting on a Delta J article. Hotels reviews are only done if they are interesting or the hotel is new – admittedly a review of a new hotel can be a bit dull but those are at least informative. I saved you from, for example, a Hilton Sheffield review and another 10 or so equally average hotels.

        • Worzel says:

          Some nonsense comments today…..

          @ ObI- How do you know that- ‘the site now pays for Rob plus 2 full time employees on fairly decent wages’ ?

          @ rossmacd: move on!

  • Mr(s) Entitled says:

    Iceland is exceptional and well worth a visit in the winter months to get the full effect.

    Hopefully you get your wish in 2019 and I get mine with a Hilton credit card finally returning to the market.

    • Kipto says:

      Agreed. Would highly recommmend the Canopy by Hilton in Reykjavik.

      • Liz says:

        We did Iceland in August and it was great. We had originally booked the Hilton for what we thought was a huge amount of points but cancelled for a lovely guesthouse 5 mins walk to the centre for £500 for 4 nights – it had great reviews on Hotels dot com. We were only there 4 days and were out every day on tours so only in the guesthouse for a bowl of cereal and cuppa in the morning and to sleep so didn’t want to spend loads on a hotel we wouldn’t really get the benefit from. We did the Golden Circle tour with add on of Blue Lagoon at the end of the day, the Ice Cave tour in a monster truck and the long tour out to Jokulsarlon in the east to see the amazing icebergs floating out to sea – a long day but well worth it. We loved it – we knew it was expensive but were still shocked at paying £46 for 2 lamb burgers and 1 coke! They were building a new hotel in the centre of town – think it is going to be a 5 star Marriott.

        • Liz says:

          It’s a Marriott EDITION being built right down by the waterfront close to the Harpa concert hall.

        • TripRep says:

          Hey Liz glad you enjoyed it, we may go back at some point but after being there in March ’13 I doubt we’d get the Hilton Reykjavik Nordic King Exec Room for as cheap as £68 / night ever again, having access to free booze n food in the lounge saved us a heap, also enjoyed the complementary massage in their spa. Awesome value for a Gold member.

  • Rashad says:

    To another fruitful year Rob, looking forward to read your reviews

  • John says:

    Appreciative thanks to the HFP team for invaluable advice and reviews. 2019 should be interesting particularly from April onwards !

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