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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)

  • Jtz says:

    Cat- sounds like an amazing 2019!!!

    OT but my iberia account is now in minus, no issue there but just to let others know who moved over.

  • Richard says:

    Slightly O/T – but I’m planning ahead for next year – want to book MAD-BOG for late Dec ’19, today BA shows availability to 16 Dec ’19, yet Iberia only shows availability to 22 Nov. It’s cheaper in Avios + cash with IB – is IB always 3 weeks behind BA? Anyway to close the gap – if I call IB do they see the later availability that BA show? Any guidance would be appreciated!

  • 1nfrequent says:

    Just wanted to add my thanks for the site, Rob, and my best wishes to you, Annika and the team.

    I did a 2-4-1 First redemption to KL this year, taking my mum away for a luxury week that she absolutely loved (even if she did say she was happier in the Club Lounge than the Concorde Room …). Also had a good trip to Hong Kong in BA J at the start of the year and an AY J and JL J trip to Bangkok and Japan.

    I’ve got a long trip to Canada to look forward to this year (dependent on Brexit!) and am biding my time for another trip to the Far East (looking at South Korea and Bali).

    1F

  • BP says:

    Highs:
    NYE in Kuala Lumpur
    Temple hopping in Bagan, Myanmar
    Koh Lipe in Thailand
    Safari in Sri Lanka
    Koh Rong Samloem in Cambodia
    Fusion Resort Phu Quoc, Vietnam – best hotel of 2018
    Junior Suite with balcony overlooking the Venice canals
    Amazing food all over Asia
    Club returns to Bangkok, NYC and Rome/Venice
    HSBC Premier Travel Insurance paying out

    Lows:
    12 hour overnight bus journey in Myanmar
    11 hours on a bus between Singapore and KL. Should have flown to avoid the traffic a few days before NYE.
    Visiting hospitals in Sri Lanka and Malaysia.
    7 hours jam packed in a minibus on horrendous roads in Laos.
    5 days very sick in Cambodia
    Getting walked from our hotel in Siem Reap while ill – full refund hotels.com

    • Cat says:

      Which beach did you stay on in Koh Rong Samloem? I loved it there!

      Your 2018 travels sound just incredible! What happened at the hotel in Siem Reap? Were you able to see the temples?

      • BP says:

        Saracen Bay at the One Resort. Basic for the price but one of the best options on the island. Celebrated my 34th Birthday there. Swimming with the bioluminescence plankton was incredible.

        Apparently there was a problem with our room in Siem Reap. The hotel picked us up at the airport and informed us while in the tuktuk. We were moved from a 4* to 3.5* so Hotels.com refunded all of our money when I complained. A free hotel for 4 nights was a decent outcome as we were travelling for 91 nights for our honeymoon and were trying not to blow the budget.

        We only got an afternoon at the temples which was disappointing as I was sick and couldn’t face leaving my room. I vomited 20+ times on the day I arrived in Siem Reap! I got ill in Laos I think either from eating street food or swallowing water while swimming in waterfalls.

        • Cat says:

          How lovely and how awful respectively! We stayed in Secret Paradise on Saracen Bay – just gorgeous!
          You may just have to go back to Siem Reap again one day to see the temples properly…

  • Stu N says:

    Highs:
    Weekend at Hotel Alfonso XIII in Seville in March while the country was under 3 feet of snow
    Tokyo – see above reply to Darren
    Cathay First from Tokyo to Hong Kong
    Night in Ritz Carlton HK with upgrade to harbour view suite
    Pinxtos in San Sebastian and redemption nights in Hotel Maria Christina
    Visiting Puligny-Montrachet and tasting amazing wine in sight of the vineyards.
    Yacht trip at sunset from Lisbon, out into the Atlantic and back under the suspension bridge
    The shower in Dakota Deluxe in Glasgow, easily the best rainfall shower I’ve ever had (ironic given location in the ‘weege!).
    NYC last week in BA First – superb flight both ways

    Lows:
    Digging the car out of 3 feet of snow when we got back from Seville, then having to dig a parking space out when we got home.
    Cleanliness of a BA First flight back from HK – manky ear plug and contact lens left on seat after plane delayed for 2 hours for cleaning. Yuk. Crew weren’t great and jetlag after the trip was awful.
    Birmingham airport too many times

  • Anna says:

    2018 was the year I became much more proficient at collecting points (though still an amateur compared to some on here!) The result is going to be for 2019 – CE to Rome, F to NYC, back in CW plus 3 nights accommodation courtesy of HH where the cash price is $1400, and finally CW both ways to Grand Cayman which is a 12 hour flight (plus regional connection) and therefore outstanding use of 150,000 avios plus 2 4 1. Thanks to all on HFP!

  • Genghis says:

    I think highs for me in 2018 leisure travel wise have been much more low key (and mainly food related) compared to others:
    – Northern Ireland – fantastic place
    – Porto and the IC there with great food and port tasting at Graham’s. Casa Marcelo in Santiago de Compostela, truly outstanding.
    – Going to most of the Momofuku restaurants in NYC – Ko was truly memorable
    – Seeing the faces of my parents in law when we rocked up at the Amstel recently for a weekend away.

    Lows:
    – more delays than I can think on aircraft, at airports and going round the M25 to LHR (roll on Crossrail)
    – BA CW dorm in the 777 cattle truck

  • Anna says:

    Many fabulous experiences including CW into IAD and out of BOS (superb service in both ways, felt totally pampered) but for sheer value highlights had to be 4 x RFS to Nice where the RFS fee was 10% of the cash price of the seats, and award seats from MIA to BOS in AA First which cost $6 each in tax!

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