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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:

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Comments (131)

  • A270 says:

    Thank you Rob for a wonderful site. I have learnt greatly from it and I’m sure regular readers must have benefited from it too else they wouldn’t be visiting it regularly.
    Criticism is good and Rob takes it in his stride. However, as a closing, end-of-the-year comment, I found it unfair as if that’s all rossmacd can summarise, it really isn’t worth his while to keep visiting the site. A lot of other websites are from a US perspective and I have to skip their credit card reviews (which are frequent!) etc. so I do appreciate this site’s content and it’s relevance to me.
    Best wishes for 2019 and keep the good work going.

    • Alan says:

      I find their hotel articles are also massively swayed by credit card benefits too – see recent Gary Leff Hilton/Marriott articles.

  • Darren says:

    Great work this year, thanks.

    My travel highs and lows this year.
    Highs –
    Etihad biz, MAN-AUH in a Dreamliner plus Peninsula BKK.
    Seabourn Carib Cruise and BA CW.
    Villefranche sur Mer in a Airbnb during the World Cup.

    Lows- Holiday Inn Naples (dire) and dodgy weather in Capri. So a pretty successful year.

    2019 plans.
    Miami BA CW incl my fav lounge in T3 followed by another Airbnb on the gulf coast.
    HKG in F then Vietnam and BKK on the return.

  • Leo says:

    Cheers Rob. As usual I’ve got a great trip planned this Spring – assisted by HfP. Couldn’t do it without you.

  • Andy says:

    Thank you Rob for another great year on the site. I have been reading for 5 years now and while some of the “bargains”, deals, and opportunities are not so attractive to me as they once were, I still find this an excellent site, resource and community.

    All the very best for a prosperous New Year.

  • Anna says:

    My New Year’s resolution is to give up trying to convert my (wealthy, retired, globetrotting) in-laws to the hobby after they proudly announced yesterday that they have used their avios for seat selection on their (economy) flights to West Coast US next year. Horses to water and all that…

  • David says:

    This year’s 241 F trip to Japan for three weeks, including essentially ‘free’ internal flights to travel the length and breadth of the country and reward nights at the Tokyo Hilton amongst the amazing stuff elsewhere simply wouldn’t have been possible without the knowledge of Rob and fellow contributors.

    Here’s to 2019 for our South American 241 adventure; this time J flights (into EZE and out of SCL), and a little New York jaunt in the meantime 😀.

    Happy travels everyone!

    • Darren says:

      I must do Japan soon.

      • Stu N says:

        We visited Tokyo in March as part of a HK trip – we redeemed on Cathay (J out and F back) and are itching to go back and see more of Japan. Only had 4 days there which wasn’t anything like enough.

        • Darren says:

          Robs travels in 2017 were an inspiration, I’ll have to dig out those articles and have a read again.

        • Darren says:

          Tokyo looks intimidating, so big. Kyoto appears to be a less hectic, but maybe I need to do more research.

        • Stu N says:

          Darren – Tokyo is huge but not unmanageable. We had a day with a local guide (Mac from Maction Planet – http://www.mactionplanet.com) who I couldn’t recommend highly enough, easily the best guiding experience we have had anywhere in the world. As well as being a day of exceptional guiding, Mac helped us get orientated and learn about the city and Japanese history and culture plus all the practical stuff like how the metro works, local etiquette, how to find International ATMs etc.

          We also got ideas for the rest of our time in the city so we were following a coherent plan rather than darting around from one side of the city to the other to see things so we made the most of our too-limited time in Tokyo. People were super-friendly too; English isn’t widely spoken but pointing and smiling gets you a very long way. Once we were looking a bit lost on the Metro a young guy came up and offered, very politely, his help. He actually walked us to the right metro exit to make sure we got above ground in the right place.

          Another top suggestion is a local SIM so you can use Google Maps to get around, it makes a huge difference. Roaming is ferociously expensive but you can get Japanese PAYG SIMs at Narita for about £20 – this had loads of data for two sharing via hotspot for the time we had in Tokyo.

        • George says:

          Hey Stu – thanks for recommending Maction Planet – my partner and I are off to Tokyo in a few months and have just started thinking about how we’re going to get around it all!

      • David says:

        We’ve done 2×3 week trips now. There’s still so much to see and the people are some of the most welcoming I’ve met around the world.

        As for the food – just amazing!

        Mobile 4G WiFi is a must, makes on-the-hoof planning and route mapping easy.

        We particularly enjoyed Kagoshima in the far south west, and Shikotsu in Hokkaido for the onsen.

        Already planning a return trip! Maybe 2021…

      • Alan says:

        I’ve got a week booked in Oct, really looking forward to it and very glad to have snagged ANA F return LHR-HND for 120k VS miles + £400, total bargain!

    • Joseph Heenan says:

      Sounds awesome. Can you expand on the “essentially ‘free’ internal flights” please… sounds like I’ve been missing a trick when I’ve booked 241s to Japan?

      • David says:

        Book domestic JAL flights with Avios and there’s virtually no taxes, fees etc. So a few thousand Avios and hilarious amounts of cash, £1.80pp here, £2pp there etc. Fantastic value redemptions!

  • Mike G says:

    One of the travel lowlights of the year from Hilton/Doubletree:

    https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/422874-oregon-hotel-calls-cops-on-black-guest-talking-to-his-mom-in

    Really quite disgusting from such a major chain.

  • Cat says:

    Travel highs of 2018:

    A lovely winter sun hiking trip to Antalya in February, staying at the Crowne Plaza to meet my Accelerate targets and hiking sections of the Lycian way with an old friend who’s currently working for an NGO in Iraq.

    Justifying 4 weeks in the Seychelles by booking mostly Airbnbs and using my £200 off £600 AMEX Platinum discount to book direct flights for £400 in school summer holidays.

    A week with my nearest and dearest for my 40th birthday in a gorgeous holiday house in the Algarve in October half term, when the weather was so unexpectedly glorious that we could swim in the unheated outdoor pool all week.

    Travel lows of 2018:

    Attempting to hike Offa’s Dyke in April. Remember the dreadful weather we had before winter turned suddenly into summer, bypassing spring entirely, in May? Most of the route seemed to have become marshland or mudslide, we were covered in mud, and soaked through and after one night camping in a tent in a flooded field in 8 degrees, we ditched and came home hanging our heads!

    I think at this stage I’ve mentioned my plans for 2018 more often than TripRep mentions the Conrad Rangali, and almost as often as Harry mentions his place in the sun, so I’ll refrain from gloating again, but trust me – I’m rubbing my hands together in anticipatory glee!

    • Darren says:

      Oh, go on. I’d like to here it.

      • Darren says:

        *hear.

        • Cat says:

          I can’t talk – *2019*! Adding 1 really shouldn’t be this much of an annual challenge, given that I’m a maths teacher!

          Easter hols in the Philippines (Palawan and outlying Islands, as well as Siquijor and Bohol) in Cathay First for the London to Hong Kong (and vice versa) legs, then my mad summer of camping in the Alsace (with the less mad boyfriend) , followed by hiking the Tour de Mont Blanc, followed by Lufthansa First to Mexico City (via the Zurich Swiss First class lounges and the Frankfurt First class terminal), the Yucatan peninsula, then Costa Rica on a wildlife spotting trip for 2 weeks, flying home in Iberia business. That’s as well as a quick jaunt to Carcassonne to save my Flying Blue miles from expiry in Feb, as well as the trip to Mallorca and Madrid in May half term that got me all the miles for the flight back from Costa Rica! Now I have that £200 off £600 spend to play with for October half term…

        • Darren says:

          Wow!

          That’s packing a lot in, sounds fantastic. Palawan is on my wish list, which never seems to get any smaller as there’s always another place to explore.

        • Cat says:

          I have 3 nights on Coron, then a 5 day boat trip island hopping to Palawan, and then 3 nights in El Nido, before heading to Cebu! I’m so excited!
          The wish list never does get any smaller though, mainly because I often go back to my favourites…

    • meta says:

      Last year was full of travels for my partner and me too. Sao Tome in January, Helsinki and Japan in April, Rome in May and Sardinia in September.

      Cat, took your advice for Seychelles. Now staying 6 nights on Praslin, 2 on La Digue and 2 on Mahe. Can’t wait. Trip is entirely funded by points – CW with Lloyds voucher to SEZ, then stays on Praslin/La Digue for 8 nights funded by hotels.com reward nights/Clubcard, then economy flights with Emirates from Seychelles to Dubai funded by Amex MR points, 2 nights at Ritz Carlton Al Hamra Beach (on points pre-merger), followed by 2 nights at Sofitel Abu Dhabi (almost free via PartnerPlusBenefit hotel cards). Flying back with Etihad First Class apartment with AAdvantage miles from pre-merger Marriott Travel Package (can’t believe taxes were less than $30).

      Then in June I’m spending a week in New York where I’ll be using the Marriott package hotel nights and flying business class with Iberia (via June/July promo). I’ll also be spending the weekend before in Madrid as I haven’t been there for about 20 years. And then it’s back to Sao Tome next Christmas/New Years. Hopefully, I’ll be able to squeeze a one or two short-haul trips.

      I never thought this would be possible a few years ago, but thanks to this site everything now seems easily achievable if you put in a little bit of effort.

      • Cat says:

        Wow, that sounds incredible! I’m impressed!

        I hope you love the Seychelles as much as I did! If you’re reasonably fit, bring a dry bag and try to make it to Anse Pierrot from the far end of Anse Source D’Argent 2 hours before high tide, if possible, it’s so beautiful and peaceful! Have a fab time!

        • Cat says:

          Oops, two hours before *low* tide! Sorry, guzzled too much wine last night!
          Also, head to Bellevue for dinner. The views are, in fact, belle! The food’s lovely.

        • meta says:

          Thanks. Will have a look once I start planning things to do. The trip is in April, so still have time.

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