Monday, January 30, 2017

Dubai Part 3: Burj Al Arab, Abu Dhabi and a free night at the Grand Hyatt

This is part 3 of a 4 part series about our travel deals in Dubai in October, 2016. You can read Part 1 and Part 2 first. 

After eating a leisurely free breakfast at the Waldorf, we spent some time exploring the grounds of the hotel before going on to our next adventure, which was an afternoon meal reservation at the Burj Al Arab, the world's only 7 Star hotel. The Al Arab is built on another man made island, and you can only go inside if you are staying there, or if you have a reservation at one of their many restaurants.  I had originally thought it would be fun to spend the night here, but the least expensive rooms go for over $2000.00 USD per night, so this was obviously out of the question. While the structure, built to resemble a sail, is certainly impressive, it reminded me of something straight out of Las Vegas or Macau, with its over-the-top golden glitzy splendor.
View from above. It was never this clear when we were here. Always dusty. 
In the lobby. They gave me roses!

Baked Alaska.

After our meal, which was nice, but not something I would do again, we took a taxi from the Waldorf to our next free hotel, the Grand Hyatt. It was quite late at night when we arrived, and I accidentally left my cell phone in the taxi....which also had my debit card it it.  Although the concierge at the Hyatt was very helpful, and I did end up getting the phone back, it made for a stressful evening and I didn't get very many photos of the hotel itself. The pool and grounds around the back were quite lovely, and I wished we had more time there. As a Platinum Elite Hyatt member, (which you receive simply for having a credit card with them,) we were again given a room upgrade with a lovely fruit basket. (In case you are wondering, I did carry all this fruit with me from hotel to hotel!)
Personally, if I could keep only one hotel branded credit card, it would be my Chase Visa Hyatt Card. (not a referral link.) When you sign up and spend $2000.00 in 3 months, you get 2 free nights at ANY Hyatt properties in the world. Some of these hotels are over $1000 a night, so this can be a fantastic perk. The best part is, every year on your card anniversary, you get one free night at any Category 1-4 hotel. That was how we scored this free night in Dubai, and considering it would have cost about $400 USD, it's well worth the $75 annual fee. You also get free room upgrades, early check in/late check out and free wifi. Last year, Mike and I used our free night stay in Hong Kong. Because the hotel happened to be really busy that night, and because I was a Platinum Elite member, they upgraded us to a Club Executive room for no charge, and we were able to eat a free dinner and free breakfast in the Club lounge.  Nice! Something else to keep in mind: If you are married, you should always sign up for these credit cards separately, so that you can both get all the perks.  We get 2 free nights with Hyatt each year. 

The next morning, we used a  Cobone (like Groupon) for an all day trip to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the UAE, which was about 2 hours south of Dubai. If I remember correctly, this only cost about $30 USD per person. The tour was a "group tour," but there were only several other people in our van, so it was not very crowded. They picked us up and dropped us off at our hotel, and gave us bottled water and juice drinks. This day ended up being far more driving than actual site seeing, as it was rush hour when we returned, and we were the last people to be dropped off, but it was still a good outing at a very reasonable price. We visited the Sheik Zayed Mosque, the largest in the world, and Ferrari World, which I suppose is self explanatory. We also stopped at a few other tourist spots and malls.

The stone work in the mosque was stunning. 

Ferrari World.

Upon our return, we went to our final free hotel, which I'll tell you about in part 4!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Dubai Part 2: A free night at the Waldorf Astoria!!

This is Part 2 of a 4 part series about our travel deals in Dubai in October, 2016. You may want to read  Part 1 and Part 3

(Disclaimer: This first activity was NOT Frugal!!)

During our second day in Dubai, we had high tea at AT.MOSPHERE, a super swanky restaurant on the 122 floor of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. We've seen some pretty tall buildings, but the Burj is simply mind-boggling. To say that the tea was over-the-top (pun intended) would be a huge understatement. I'm not even going to tell you how much it cost. If you decide to go, you can figure it out.  Of course, the views are astonishing.
View from 122 floors up! Those rings are part of the fountain show. 
Our table.
Berries with cream, complete with a real, edible gold leaf. I thought about selling it on ebay, but I ate it instead. 
Part of the tea Menu....some served only here. Creme Caramel Tea, anyone? There's a page of coffee drinks and a whole page of mocktails also. Oh, and guess what? You can order as many drinks as you like! 

 Little Bites, with yummies like lobster, foie gras, and melt-in-your-mouth rare beef. This was followed by miniature "main courses," which are not pictured... 

 ...which was followed by traditional tea cakes and scones with accompanying generous serving of clotted cream, whipped butter and jams. Overall, absolutely amazing. We were completely stuffed. 

After waddling back to our hotel, we took a taxi to our next destination, the Waldorf Astoria Dubai. It is located on the famed Dubai Palm, a man made land mass in the Gulf built in the shape of palm tree. Looking at pictures, one might be tempted to think it's not that big, but we were located on the right side of that outer ring, and it took a good 45 minutes to get there after crossing the main bridge. In other words, you are no longer close to downtown or the metro, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but you should be aware of it if you choose to stay at any of the hotels in that area. 

Waldorf is under the Hilton portfolio, and I was able to attain Diamond Status with Hilton through a "status match" promotion Hilton ran last year. They were giving Diamond status to those who had Platinum Elite status with IHG (The Intercontinental Group), which I received by simply signing up for their credit card. (Yes, it's a crazy game, but it's a hobby I enjoy!) This was the first time I had ever stayed anywhere as a Diamond member. Let's just say it was eye-opening. 

When we arrived at the property gate, we had to show the guard our reservation. The front door was maybe 50 feet from the gate, and yet 15 seconds later when we pulled up, the doorman opened our door and a lady in a suit held out her hand and said, "Welcome, Mrs. Cliff, we have been expecting you. Please follow me." We were escorted past the lobby/check-in to a private room where we were handed cool, wet towels to "refresh" and glasses of fresh squeezed kiwi juice. One of the managers told us all about our room, handed us coupons for free drinks, and escorted us personally to our room! He stopped to show us the restaurant where we would get our free breakfast in the morning and told us about the hotel on our way. Once in the room, he pointed out our welcome fruit basket, red velvet cakes and water and told us how everything worked. He handed us his card and told us to call his number directly if we needed anything at all.  

The welcome amenities. 

Honestly, I was feeling SUPER awkward the whole time. I kept thinking, "Wait, I think you have the wrong people. I'm just a little country hick from the back woods in Maine, you must have made a mistake." I also realized that this is what some people expect all the time...and that's a little mind- blowing.

Exquisite lobby.


Comfy bed.

Cushy robes.

Bath with Salvatore Ferragamo toiletries.

Super wide boardwalk that was always empty.

One of several pools.

View from the beach of the Persian Gulf.

We spent the afternoon at the pool and beach, and were so stuffed from our "tea," that we only ate  some of our welcome fruit and cakes for dinner and called it a night. The breakfast buffet was literally the most extensive I have ever seen. Custom made coffee/tea drinks, a huge selection of fresh squeezed juices, a section of local foods and every traditional breakfast food you can imagine. Sadly, I didn't take any pictures. 

Overall, this was by far the nicest hotel stay we had while in Dubai, and quite possibly anywhere for that matter. This night would have cost over $680 USD, so I won't be staying again anytime soon!

This freebie was compliments of my American Express Platinum card (not a referral link). This card has a whopping $450.00 annual fee, but is usually worth it the first year, and was definitely worth it last year when they ran a special 100,000 point sign on bonus for a short time. Right now, they offer 40,000 points if you spend $3000.00 in 3 months. For that you get a free Priority Pass membership, which gives you access to over a thousand airport lounges world wide (which we use frequently!), a $200 a year airline credit (which runs on the calendar year, so you can use it twice in your first year of membership), $100 reimbursement for global entry, free boingo wifi, and numerous other perks. This on top of the value of the points. I used some of my points to book directly through AMEX travel. I can't remember how many points it was, but it was less than using points on my Hilton card (more on that one later, perhaps.) 

My goal in writing is to inspire you to travel...and to teach you how to make the most of your money!

And that's a wrap on day 2. More to come.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

5 Free Nights in Dubai, Part 1

Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world

In October last year, Mike and I spent 5 nights in Dubai during our fall break. I had been wanting to visit Dubai, or more specifically the desert around Dubai, for years, and after snagging round trip tickets HK-Dubai during an Emirates (the official airline of Dubai) spring sale, I set out to find the cheapest lodging possible. There were a couple of activities that I really wanted to do while we were there, and I knew discounts on those would be minimal at best, so I wanted to spend as little as possible on hotels to counteract those costs.

I was able to stay 5 nights at 4 different hotels--including one swanky night at the Waldorf Astoria--using points earned on my credit cards. The first statement I usually hear when I talk about feats like this is, "You must spend a lot on your cards to get that many points." While it is true that I charge as much as possible in order to rack up points (while never carrying a balance), the majority of my points come from sign on bonuses. Most branded credit cards run special offers for significant sign up bonuses at least once a year. What this means for you is that you should never, NEVER, nEvER, sign up for a credit card that isn't offering you a sign-on bonus to do so.  How do you know when these offers are available, you might ask? I keep abreast of all the latest deals by reading several travel bloggers. You can see the links I use by looking under "blogs I read" in my header section. My favorite at this moment is The Points Guy. You can see his top cards listed in the header of his page. As I write about the cards/free nights, I will also add links here on my blog.  So, let me delve in.

First of all, there was our flight on Emirates. After flying with them twice last year, I can say that they are quickly becoming one of my favorite airlines. They offer more space in economy class, 2 free checked bags, great hot food at no extra cost, and the largest seat back screens in the industry, with a fantastic entertainment selection. This might not seem like a big deal, but when you are flying 15 hours, watching movies is a welcome diversion, at least for me. They also have built in chargers, as you can see in the photo. On our flight to the US at Christmas, they also gave us a nice little zippered amenities satchel filled with a toothbrush, toothpaste, eye mask, earplugs and socks. This isn't routine in economy class, and it was an unexpected perk. Needless to say, I'm hoping to find other good sales with them this year. 
After flying over endless desert, it is very surreal to fly into Dubai, this glittery city with what seems to be the world's tallest/biggest everything. Here are some amazing aerial views from Travel & Leisure.  The airport was very nice and easy to maneuver. English is one of the official languages of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), so it is easy to get around. The metro train links right to the airport, and we thought it would be easy to get to our first hotel from what appeared to be a close stop, so we bought a couple of tickets and boarded. The stop was downtown, and easy to find, but after a 30 minute train ride and then wandering around in the baking 100 degree sun for over 30 minutes, (while carrying heavy backpacks), we ended up hailing a taxi anyway. Come to find out, we weren't far away, and we were able to walk to the train later, it was just difficult to find the hotel the first time. 

Our first free night was at the Ramada Downtown. Because I am a Wyndham Gold Member, we were offered an upgrade to a nice suite with a balcony without my even asking. Our room was quite large, and included a very extensive kitchen, with a full size frig, microwave, dishwasher and even a washing machine! There was a sitting area, and the bath had a large tub and a separate walk in shower. My first thought was that this would have been a dream room had we been travelling with the kids. 

Living Room Area

View looking down at the pool.


This free night was compliments of my Wyndham Rewards Visa (not a referral link), offered through Barclay. Right now there are two cards available, offering different levels of bonus points and annual fees. When I signed up, I received 45,000 bonus points (no longer available) and Gold status, which, among other perks, gives you early check in and late check out along with a welcome amenity, in this case, a small bag of treats. I also get 6000 points a year on my card anniversary. After my current points are all used, I am going to have to decide if keeping the card will be worth the $50 annual fee. Wyndham recently changed their reward levels, and you can stay at ANY Wyndham property worldwide for 15,000 points. Considering you can get 30,000 points for signing up and spending $1000 in 3 months, this can be a great perk. Wyndham has some hotels and all-inclusive resorts that go for over $600 a night, so you can see that this would be well worth your money. The going rate for our room was $400 USD. Not a bad first night free!

Ramada Downtown was within walking distance of the Burj Khalifa, which was visible from our room, as were the world's tallest fountains, which are directly behind the Burj and right outside Dubai Mall, the largest mall in the world by total area. There was a small grocery market right next door, so we were able to buy some food there for our breakfast the next morning. We spent some time at the pool, and walked around the mall. Dubai also has Cobones, which are similar to our Groupons. I was able to snag a Cobone for the restaurant on site at our hotel and had a fantastic Middle Eastern four course meal for a very low price. Just be sure to look at expiration dates before you buy. I purchased some coffee coupons, and they expired a few days before we arrived!

This was day one...more to come! 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Grocery haul and menus this week. What do you spend per week?

The weekend was relaxingly that even a thing?

Saturday morning Mike and I headed out for routine check-ups, or as a friend of ours likes to call it, decay management. Like most everyone on the planet, I really believe that taking care of our physical bodies is an important and worthy goal, but also like most people, actually taking the time to do so is another matter. We went to Union Hospital in Tai Wai, where they offer various wellness packages, with names like "gold" and "prestige." We chose the middle of the road plans, and were very impressed with the whole process. The English was very good, and you never know how that is going to be. We both had general health histories taken, and then the routine procedures like blood pressure, height and weight, etc. We had full blood work ups and a urinalysis. Mike had an EKG, a prostate check, and colon cancer check, while mine included a pelvic ultrasound, mammogram and pap test. What I have always appreciated about Hong Kong healthcare in general, aside from much more reasonable costs, is that you tend to get everything done in one place, and this was no exception. In the US, what I had done would have required 3 different visits in 3 different offices, not to mention countless separate bills. We were in and out of the same building in about 2 hours with everything done, and we paid for all of it on our way out. We will go back in a couple of weeks for a follow up to discuss the results.

We do have health insurance through our employer, however, it does not cover well check-ups. BUT, our school also gives us a certain amount per year to go toward this, and the amount can be saved up for two years, so this will be applied. In the end, we will end up paying less than $100 US out of pocket--well worth the cost.

I did the grocery shopping for the week. One trip to Park N Shop, our local grocer, where I spent $405 HKD (US 52). This should about cover the week, although I usually end up making a couple of stops on my way home from work to grab missing items.  Here was the haul, minus a few items I had put away:

This included: 1L of olive oil, 8 apples, 3 oranges, 4 bananas, a pound of cherries, 1 head of broccoli, celery, 2 pounds of carrots, fresh cilantro, 4 potatoes, 4 tomatoes, 4 cucumbers, 3 avocados, 30 eggs, 1 loaf of bread, a pound of pasta, 1 pack of Oreos, 2 cans of chips, 1 box of instant coffee packets, 3 small containers of yogurt, and 3 packs of mints. 

We also will be getting our meat order this week, which comes once a month. This is good, because I have been running low! On average I spend about 550 HKD ($71US) once a month on this, or about $18 US per week. This month's order includes: chicken breasts, breakfast sausage, bacon, salmon, stew beef, ground beef, cheddar cheese, brat type sausages, pork chops and sliced ham.

The menu for the week:
Sunday: homemade chicken noodle soup
Monday: chicken and cheese quesadillas with homemade guacamole
Tuesday: homemade pizza (I had dough leftover from last week!)
Wednesday: leftover chicken soup
Thursday: scallops, mashed potatoes, carrots and salad
Friday: out to celebrate Chinese New Year's Eve!
Saturday: traveling for the CNY holiday

I also found an old leather basket of sorts in the trash pile at our apartment. It was in good shape, and I have been wanting a magazine rack, After I cleaned it all up, it fit the bill perfectly. Yeah! Here's to repurposing!

Sunday afternoon, I had lots of housework to do, but a rare, beautiful blue sky and 70 degree weather beckoned, so my husband and I went for a 2 hour walk along the river/bay instead. Sigh. The housework never goes away, does it?  

What have you re-purposed lately? Any great new menu items to share?

Friday, January 20, 2017

Friday's Frugal Five...and Freebies!

It's Friday! For most of us in the traditional working world, that's always a great feeling. 

Here are 5 frugal things I've done this week:

1. I downloaded 4 new free books on my kindle. One was through a new perk on my IHG Mastercard. Like everyone, I get what feels like a thousand emails a day. Often I am tempted to simply delete the "new information" emails from my many credit card companies. This reminded me that sometimes it's worth it to open them. As a new benefit, once a month, the IHG card lets you choose a free kindle download from hundreds of choices. Nice. Take some time to look at the "benefits" section of your credit card.

2. I took the first step into looking at a couple of new ways to create passive income--that is to say, income that occurs without going to a 9-5 job, and which, after you put in the initial work, doesn't require a lot of upkeep.

3. I contacted my boss about going to a nursing conference this spring. I can use the Pro-D funds that I am allotted annually to cover the costs for this, which will allow me to get needed continuing ed credits in my field...while visiting SINGAPORE. Win-Win. Do you know what benefits your company gives you? Do you actually use them?

4. I picked up a scarf from the free table this morning. This added to my current haul for the week: 2 shirts, a skirt and a pair of shorts. I have an unspoken rule at my house: with the exception of groceries/toiletries/gifts for others, I try to take something out of the house for everything I bring in. That means I sell items on our employee forum site (not too often) or I add to the free table. Helps keep the clutter down. 

5. I've been jogging two times so far this week. I consider this a cheap form of exercise. No costly gym membership. No special gear. Just put on a pair of running shoes and GO! Yesterday, it was quite dreary, dark and misty when I left at 6:30 am. When I came to the jungle-y stretch of road where I sometimes see wild monkeys, I felt like I was in planet of the apes. I came around a corner and they were the road, above me in the trees and climbing the mountain on both sides! There were probably 20 of them, including a little baby swinging from a tree branch with his mama. Even though I was a bit creeped out, I didn't slow down, and the monkeys largely ignored me. Reminders that "we're not in Kansas anymore!" 

And finally, I signed up for two freebies. Here's what you can get:

A free power bar

A coupon for a free organic balance protein shake (answer a 10 question survey).

Happy Friday! Comment and tell us what frugal things you did this week! Share your success with the rest of us so we can be inspired too!

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

It's been nearly 3 years...

....since I wrote a post here. 3 years! I did briefly begin a new blog, but it ended nearly as abruptly as it began.

I do miss writing. I miss sharing deals. I often take pictures "for a blog post." I think about what I could write and all things frugal. Most weeks I have plenty of free time to write posts, I simply haven't. I would like to begin again, but I am not going to make any grandiose promises. 

What have we been doing these past three years? Are we still living the "thankful and thrifty" life? I would like to think so, although life looks much different than it did, say, 5 years ago. My husband and I are still living in Hong Kong and working at International Christian School. Our three sons are all in college in the US (two in NY and one in PA) and our daughter married this past summer, so we added a delightful son-in-law to our family. They are living in Madison, WI.
Photo Credit: Lucas Botz Photography, Minneapolis

This past summer while we were home in Maine, we began construction of a small log cabin on our property in Lakeville. We are about half way done at this point:
Here she is all snow-decked at Christmas time.

We have been travelling...quite a bit, actually. This has been the focus of my frugality as of late. I had a dream of taking some trips in this our first year of empty nesting, and playing the credit card game has allowed us to do just that on a very reasonable budget. This school year we have traveled to:
Jeju Island, Korea for our son's Bible School graduation

Chiang Mai, Thailand
Phuket, Thailand

Dubai, UAE
and Boston and Maine for Christmas.

Since our children are all on the other side of the sea now, it made sense for us to go back to the US for Christmas this year. We had lots of snow and made some fun memories. We also had three extra Asian students staying with us, so lots of meal prep was happening!

Our daily life here in Hong Kong is fairly routine. We get up, go to work, run errands on the weekends, throw in a little exercise here and there, and try to save money wherever we can. What has that looked like this week? Saturday, I cleaned the apartment and went to the post office and bank.  I wrote out a menu and bought groceries for the week. Here is the menu:

Sunday: Clams and Pasta
Monday: Chili with meat
Tuesday: Sweet Fire Chicken/veggies/rice
Wednesday: dumplings/bok choi
Thursday: Thai Fish Salad/rice
Friday: out to eat
Saturday: homemade pizza

I don't always follow our menu exactly, but at least I have a plan and the ingredients to make everything. Breakfasts consist of coffee/tea/juice, and some combination of fruit, toast, oatmeal, granola, raisin bran, sausage, bacon or eggs in some form. Lunches are leftovers, salads or sandwiches. I spent the afternoon at our local Ronald McDonald House where I volunteer helping with birthday parties. Sunday, after church, I volunteered to take blood pressures at an event our school puts on for Hong Kong's many helpers (domestic maids). I read a free book on my Kindle.
Monday, I found a pair of shorts, a skirt and 2 shirts on the free/share table at our school. Tuesday, I began looking in depth at all the credit cards we currently have and am deciding which ones to keep and which ones no longer make sense. I applied for a local credit card here in Hong Kong. We've both been jogging for exercise. In the evenings, we read, watch movies or free TV, or go for a walk. 

I have found that the personal finance blogs I enjoy the most are the ones written by ordinary folks like me who are consistently making thrift work for them, wherever they live, whatever their goals. Some posts apply to me, many do not, but the spirit and inspiration are the same irregardless. 

So, here's to a thankful and thrifty 2017!