Tuesday, August 30, 2016

I Booked a Nearly Free Flight to Rwanda

Our latest international trip ended with a big first class Etihad Airways splash. People are probably getting tired of me talking about it, but it was epic. Well I caught wind of another deal that involves Etihad: booking Brussels Airlines award tickets with Etihad miles.

The prices are ridiculously low. For example the cheapest award ticket is economy class Brussels to Paris for 930 miles. A quick rule of thumb is to think of a mile as a cent, so that's pretty much $9.30 for a round trip. Business class for the same flight barely increases to $15.50.

People are always asking me "how can you afford to go to [X]" destination and I thought I would try harder to explain what I'm doing. Hopefully it doesn't bore you into a coma. So I have my crazy cheap Etihad award chart in hand. The flights from JFK to Brussels in business class are only 36620 points (or ~$350)!

I transferred enough points to cover the flight to Etihad's program from my SPG AMEX credit card. Then here comes the catch: this flight isn't bookable on the website, you have to call in. Not only that, but the award space isn't online either. So each call to their booking agents devolved into a game of Battleship.

"You sunk my patrol boat!"

By the time I finished booking I'd estimate I called in around 10 times, maybe for an hour total?

I never could find a business class flight from NY to Brussels but I got it booked economy class for 21972. Not too shabby. For my next trick I looked for the longest flight from Brussels I could find. They have an Africa-heavy lineup and Luanda, Angola was the farthest. I couldn't make the dates work, so I changed it to Kigali, Rwanda and I had success booking it business class for 39540 points! That's awesome because that flight will be even longer than the one from New York. Etihad is quickly becoming my new best friend.

So for those of you keeping score at home, these sample travel dates on JFK-BRU would have cost me $939 in cash money.

And BRU-KGL bidniz class would have cost me $2970, for a grand total of nearly $4K. I walked away spending only $173.23 in taxes.

As soon as I got off the phone I ran to my magnetic map and added the fabled green peg for a planned trip. Nothing says "official" like a magnet.

I'm looking forward to checking out Brussels Airlines' flagship lounge at Brussels airport. Their website's use of the word "flagship" is a bit generous as the only airports they even have lounges in are Brussels and Kinshasa, Congo. I had my mind blown at the Etihad First Class Lounge in Abu Dhabi and now I want to see what the rest of the world's airlines have to offer.

Well with Kigali, Rwanda pegged as my HQ I started checking out the neighboring countries to see if I could pick up any easy border crossings. Rwanda borders 4 countries, and the neighborhood is definitely a mixed bag. The State Department has a real sunny way of making one's vacation sound like a death march.

"The U.S. Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens against all travel to Burundi.
Political violence persists throughout Burundi in the aftermath of the country’s contested elections, an attempted coup d’etat, and the debate over the President standing for a third term.  Gunfire and grenade attacks by armed groups occur frequently.  The Government does not have full command of the armed forces and security services.  Police and military checkpoints throughout the country can restrict freedom of movement.  Police have searched the homes of private U.S. citizens as a part of larger weapons searches."

Democratic Republic of the Congo:
"The Department of State warns U.S. citizens of ongoing instability and sporadic violence, including armed robbery, murder, and kidnapping, in the provinces of North KivuSouth Kivu; the new provinces of Bas-Uele, Haut-Uele and Ituri (northeastern part of the former Oriental Province); and Tanganyika and Haut-Lomami (northeastern and central parts of the former province of Katanga)."
The fun-sounding provinces of North Kivu and South Kivu are the two that border Rwanda. According to CNN this area is known as the "rape capital of the world".

Uganda: No travel warnings

Tanzania: No travel warnings

Being both an Eagle Scout and a Millennial I decided to make myself this map that I can print out and bring with me for quick reference.

I've been reading a bit about Rwanda's culture and history. And of course I had to watch Hotel Rwanda which I hadn't previously seen. Early in the movie before things get ugly there are a few scenes at a nice hotel with UN guys hanging out. It gave me déjà vu from our hotel in Cap Haitien, Haiti which was was teeming with UN police.

I booked my flights for early May 2017 so I have plenty of time to plan. Nothing gets me quite as pumped as a trip on the horizon!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Kickball Fall 2016

By popular demand we played not only the spring season but now also the fall season of Big Balls kickball at Tower Grove Park. We are pretty terrible so I am torn between our jolly comraderie and the sting of getting stomped all the time. Sigh. Today was especially fun because the Festival of Nations was taking place at the same park on the same weekend as our game. We had an hour gap between matches so a bunch of us walked over to where the action was and grabbed some grub before heading back for the next match. It was fun.

Brandon's parents had a little concert at their house so we stopped by after kickball to listen to the Bottle Rockets bang out a few tunes.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Royce' Magic Japanese Chocolate

The Seagos were out of town for a week and I made sure their cat wasn't dead one time and so I was duly rewarded.

Royce chocolate is a killer confection that I had a few times in Japan years ago and honestly had since forgotten about. Even when Lydia and I popped over to Tokyo I didn't even think to look for it. They used to sell it in Tokyo's nearby Narita airport and if you bought it it was so important that it be kept at a constant low temperature they would pack it with dry ice. Apparently it can now be acquired on the US west coast.

As I've only ever eaten it in Japan I never bothered to decyper the label. This package's label was in sweet, sweet English though so I read it like a champion. Interestingly, the first ingredient is fresh cream.

The box comes with a little tool for separating and stabbing the little chocolate cubes.

 The fact that I shared this rare deliciousness with any other being means I am well on my way to sainthood.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Illinois State Fair 2016

We were on our way to Springfield, Illinois to go to the State Fair, but first I dutifully went to get my parents some cookies from Dad's Cookies in South St. Louis.

To be honest I'm not blown away by the cookies themselves but the experience of buying them was pretty killer. According to their website this location has been baking cookies since 1938. The cookies are sold by the pound, and are kept in these large garbage-can looking containers. The scale they use is the old timey kind where you put a one pound weight on one side and keep adding cookies until it balances. They then put the cookies in a brown paper bag and wrap it in twine. It was an experience that I would definitely recommend.

In Springfield on a fair day the first decision is where to park. I have a spiritual problem with paying for parking whenever it can be avoided but my parents sprang for paying a local school to park in their lot. The fair is pretty much the one time when having space in North Springfield is profitable so more power to them. Above is just a random parking sign that I liked.

Pretty high on our list was Cozy Dogs and lemon shake-ups so we got that taken care of ASAP. Those things are so good. Springfield invented the corn dog on a stick, but we don't like to brag.

Lydia was jelly that Lincoln wanted to be my best bud and not hers. Haters gonna hate.

We went to the Republican tent and pretended that Trump wasn't a joke long enough to get some free stickers and take a few pictures.

The Grandstand is where the concerts are held. On the ground floor they have a good size exhibit on the history of the fair that I like a lot. Tom had a few stories of people dying terrible deaths on the fair grounds. The above exhibit was about the animatronic characters that used to populate the dairy building. I have fond memories of them so it was a bit sad to see them in the dust bin of history already. It was a lot like the nightmare-inspiring creatures that used to live at Chuck E Cheese, but with more cheese promotion.

It's hard to argue with a confident claim like this one.

A year or two ago Springfield reenacted Lincoln's funeral procession, and even had an awesome replica horse-drawn hearse built for the ocassion that was on display. Springfield loves it some Lincoln.

Illinois: home of the blue ribbon winning chocolate cheese. Chocolate cheese: the most delicious way to get diabetes and heart disease at the same time.

Back in St. Louis, Paul McCartney was playing at Busch Stadium. It was so loud and so.. outside that there was a considerable number of slackers who were just hanging outside and enjoying the music without paying. God bless them.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Horse Hooky!

My buddy Matt invited me to Horse Hooky Tuesday at Fairmount Park Racetrack in Collinsville, Illinois. Times that were fun were had.

My strategy of betting on whichever horse had the funniest name did not serve me very well this time.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Cardinals And So Forth

We'd been feeling guilty about not going to more Cardinals game since we live downtown. There was a Groupon for cheap tickets so that sealed the deal. Zoe and her friend Emily joined our crew.

I die a little inside everytime I see JHONNY in big letters. Get. A. Dictionary.