Tag Archives: Frequent Flyer

Three Trips to Florida in Three Weeks, the debrief

I love Florida!

I love Miami Beach… specifically South Beach or SoBe for short. I like to go every opportunity I get. Last year I got incredibly lucky with some cheap $35 each way flights to Miami International with American Airlines… this year JetBlue had a similar promo flying to Fort Lauderdale in the neighboring Broward County for $39 bux so I jumped on that offer. I booked one two day round trip, followed by another a week later… and then realized that if I book one more flight on JetBlue I’d qualify for the 5,000 point bonus which they award for any 3 round trip flights booked with the airline in the calendar year (I already had 1 JetBlue flight under my belt flying to Oakland, California for the Miatas at Laguna Seca a month earlier).

The Daytona Beach road trip I wrote about a little earlier and the fiasco I got to experience with Hertz and their Black and White VW Beetle’s I was blessed with. It wasn’t a perfect trip because of a few glitches along the way, the most disappointing of them all turned out to be the weather. The seas were especially rough a week or so after Hurricane Matthew blasted through the area.

Miami Beach wasn’t that much better. The first trip was a dud… seas were super rough even when the weather was nice and sunny. I didn’t get a chance to do what I specifically came there to do: swim! Luckily second and final week in SoBe was almost perfect and I swam, and I swam, and I swam.

But there’s only so much swimming one could do in a day so I totally worked the schedule around to optimize my foodie tour opportunities and I didn’t waste any time to enjoy some of the finest cuisine US has to offer… specifically very authentic Latin cuisine from the huge Cuban community in Miami and Little Havana around Calle Ocho. Below are some pix from those visits… and recommendations along with captions:

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I used a different NYC area airport for each one of my trips. Daytona Beach flight arrived at JFK in Jamaica, Queens. The first Ft. Lauderdale flight used LaGuardia in Queens and the final Ft. Laud/Hollywood International flight used Newark Liberty in NJ. Both LaGuardia and Newark departures saw a real traffic jam of flights on departure, we were something like 10th in line to use the runway, so each flight departed about an hour late. Both of the return flights experienced close to an hour delay because of ground holds in Newark. The LaGuardia flight was especially interesting because shortly after leaving South Florida and while I was watching CNN on the JetBlue IFE system, the vice-presidential candidate’s Boeing 737 crashed at LaGuardia… the airport we were flying to. Luckily the only issue was that the plane overshot the runway, so the airport re-opened and we arrived there eventually. For a moment though it was looking pretty hairy… I was wondering where they were going to re-route us to. Upon landing it took the pilot a few attempts to negotiate the landing. I haven’t done an aborted landing before this flight yet.

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Upon arrival in SoBe the red flags were out. And much like in auto racing, red flag means no racing… or in my case no swimming! Boo…

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So on the first trip the alternative was a foodie tour of Calle Ocho in Little Havana… a short bus ride across Miami.

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The cocks are obviously very uniquely cuban “thing” and are running around on the streets pretty freely.

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Sopas at Rey de las Fritas are outstanding!

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And so are the little Cuban Hamburgers with the little fritas sprinkled in… a pretty unique taste and very filling.

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No trip to Calle Ocho could be complete without some Guarapo… or freshly squeezed sugar cane drink. I ordered a whole bucket which was a bit pricey at $7 bucks… but oh so delicious!

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A short drive down 8th Avenue is Brickell Mazda… I got off the bus to check out their ND Miata’s on the lot. While Miami looks amazing in post cards and on TV in shows like CSI Miami, the reality of it is it’s hard to maintain the exotic image, especially with a dark colored car. The mix of dust and recent rain drops made this car look a little neglected…

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Back to the beach…

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and it was still red flagged… so I continued with the foodie tour!

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One of my favorite dishes in South Florida is ceviche… and I got a real nice octopus version on Washington Ave between 2nd and 3rd. It’s a take-out only place next door to a hostel, very tasty!

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Next time give them a try… look up My Ceviche, Miami Beach

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Though I tried to organize a little mini meet with the local Miata community absolutely nothing materialized, which was disappointing especially since this little “Mazdaspeed” gem was parked outside my hostel both weeks I was there.

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So instead I went car spotting along the streets of Miami Beach, and the local PD always had something interesting parked outside their HQ… like this pink CVPI cruiser

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Or this one the next week… Police Car or Taxi?

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Lots of interesting cars driving by also… plenty of Maseratis, Aston Martins, Ferraris, Bentleys and Rolls Royces… the Bugatti was probably one of the few I got to see out in the wild though:

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Funny enough, plenty of exotics are available for rent, even as short as 1 hour period… saw a few beat up Ferraris, Lambos and Rolls’s:

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I went in asking if they had any Mazda Miata’s available, and the answer was NOPE!

So a Mazda Miata is a more rare car in Miami than most exotics!

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For some reason they really love Trump in Florida. kind of surprising!

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For another surprising reason I really drink a lot of Cuban coffee whenever I’m in South Florida… I don’t know what it is, I never drink coffee at home… but whenever I’m in Miami, cafe con leche is a must!

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One of my favorite places to get cafe con leche in Miami Beach is Playa Cafe on Washington Ave between 16th and Espanola Way. The other is Las Olas Cafe on Euclid and 6th Street.

Playa I visited especially frequently, trying many things on their menu:

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Most had some kind of combination of rice and beans as well as beef, pork and chicken. You really can’t go wrong, whether rice or yuca, it’s all finger licking good!

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But after a few days of Cuban I was ready for a change and sampled a few other places… like this Vietnamese on Washington called either Miss Saigon or What the Pho… depending what sign you read. The Pho was outstanding and so were the summer rolls wrapped in a thin condom-like rice pancake and lubricated by peanut sauce… Yum!

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Super delicious!

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More Trumpism!

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A french sandwich place behind a Walgreens on 14th Street was an amazing find. I had a “frenchie” sandwich with french salami and brie and all the fixings and it was a really excellent value. All the green stuff was super fresh, though the baugette was not. I should have come there earlier in the day rather than evening so it was my own fault. I would highly recommend this joint!

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One place that did disappoint me was South Beach Sushi on Washington and 17th. It was basically supermarket sushi quality even when the price was below typical SoBe prices. I was not a fan.

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The night I went for sushi it almost didn’t happen as I got caught out in a bit of a tropical rain storm… I wish I would have missed it!

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But like most rains in South Florida it went as quickly as it came after dumping a whole lot of water on unsuspecting tourists (like me). I waited it out over a coffee at a Mediterranean joint, on second thought I should have ordered a shawarma instead of going for sushi. There’s always next time!

Frequent Flyer: Falling Airfare after the Flight is Booked

Normally I like to share good flight deals I’ve taken advantage of to volunteer as a marshal. In this post I’d like to share what happens when I don’t get the best deal, and overpay for my trip somewhere.

Don’t you hate when the air fare drops after you’ve booked  your flights? Don’t you just hate it when it continues dropping further?

Who doesn’t? I certainly do. And it happened to me several time this year… Boo! Hopefully by writing this down I’ll remind myself to be more patient in the future and make smarter decisions.

So first things first. I used frequent flyer miles to book both of my European trips this season. I thought I got a pretty decent deal redeeming 20k AA miles to go to Belgium via Finland to volunteer at the Nurburgring in May, and 30k AA miles to fly back home, also through Finland but this time the price hike was due to the peak season starting. I used a similar strategy for my second trip to Belgium for Spa 24h to fly via Italy on Alitalia using 30k Delta miles, and 30k AA miles on the way home, again through Finland. I wanted to use domestic miles to fly foreign carriers like Aliatalia (AZ) and Finnair (AY). Both were decent experiences for me, and I’m happy with the way I used my miles.

The two domestic trips I had to book to volunteer in Austin for WEC at Circuit of the Americas and in Atlanta for IMSA at Road Atlanta I decided to use a combination of miles and paid tickets. The reason for using the miles is that I had some 6.5k miles left over in my Avianca Life Miles account which were due to expire in October, and I didn’t foresee using them on anything else, so the decision was made to book a United flight either to or from Austin on a routing that I liked. So that’s precisely what I did. Avianca frequent flyer program allows you to purchase the necessary miles towards an award redemption when you don’t have enough. So using my available miles I only had to purchase another 6k for a standard 12.5k one way award flying their Star Alliance partner: United. I chose an early morning flight on Sunday that would get me back in Newark by 1pm so I can go back to work the same day and work the half-day shift. I thought that was a great use for those miles and the timing was perfect. In all I spent the 6.5k miles and $120 in taxes, fees and of course the additional miles I had to purchase. At the time it seemed like a great idea, though mind you that last year I went to Austin twice flying JetBlue from Boston to Austin/Houston, for $106 round-trip. Basically, I flew two round trips last year for the price of a one way ticket this year. Not that great…

With the trip home taken care of I was eager to book something on the outbound leg. The cheapest option was flying JetBlue from Westchester County Airport (HPN) to Austin via Orlando for $118. Why did I book this trip? I have no idea… totally went against my best judgement but I did. Part of me was afraid that one way air fare would either go up or stay high. The other part of me wanted to participate in the JetBlue promo where this one trip would count as two legs in their TrueBlue frequent flyer program promo, that when combined with the existing trips I’ve taken with JetBlue this year would yield an additional 5k bonus points with the airline, which could be redeemed for a one way medium range flight, like one from NYC to South Florida. Still, using the previous year’s example I paid more for a one way trip than I paid for a round trip before. In all, I spend $238 for the single round trip to Austin. Not great at all…

Now ideally, the best airfare you can get is one you are comfortable paying at the time of the booking. I was comfortable with both of my bookings, and I should have stopped checking prices after I’ve booked because neither ticket was refundable. But I didn’t. Curiosity got the best of me and I continued checking weeks and months after. And what do you know? The prices continued to drop. First I found a Southwest flight for $216 round trip outright, without using frequent flyer miles and departing directly from Newark to Austin without having to drive for an hour to Westchester on the New York Connecticut border, or having to connect through Orlando or Houston. And then the price dropped further to $188 for the same flight. I would have been better off letting the Life Miles expire and still saved $50 bux on this trip. Doh!

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At this point I just wanted to kick myself. I paid $50 bux more for a connecting flight using multiple airports that are further away than my home airport and a direct flight now available through Southwest. Boo! The lesson to be learned is I didn’t have patience. (or common sense!)

Sometimes fares come along that you must pull a trigger on because the price is the rock bottom available for that market. This example happened with my Atlanta booking for Petit Le Mans. I saw Philadelphia to Atlanta direct flight advertised for $127 round trip, thought it was a great deal given the double and triple as expensive flights that were advertised around the same time, so I jumped on it. Only to see the price drop by $10 the very next day (more than 24 hours since my booking). Calling the airline didn’t really help. They were happy to cancel and rebook my trip using the cheaper fare, but it was going to cost me $200 in penalties/rebooking fees. Not very good! A few days later the same flights dropped another $10 bux to $107 round trip. Crap!

So I’m totally having buyer’s remorse for both of my domestic bookings this year. While the damage is fairly minimal on the grand scheme of things, people get burned by airlines for far greater amounts, I’m still not too thrilled with myself for making these rookie mistakes and not having enough discipline and patience to wait for the right deal to come along. For the $70 that I overpaid I could have had a car rental for a week in Atlanta.

But on the positive note I got the flights I wanted, for the precise times I wanted to fly. And I should get from the track right back to the office so I can make some money to pay for my next trip.

What’s the best price to pay for a ticket? The answers are many!

PS. there is one more flight I’m going to need to book this season and that is for my trip to marshal Dubai 24h in January. Normally the flight is in the $800 to $1000 range round trip. My goal is to get it between $300 and $400. We’ll see how successful I am 🙂

Ciao Roma!

I’m an #Avgeek to an extent. I read the frequent flyer forums like FlyerTalk.com and MilePoint.com and take advantage of the amazing deals people find on there to do most of my traveling. If not for FT or MP I wouldn’t be able to volunteer internationally, it’s as simple as that. But where I differ from other Mileage Runners out there is that I actually get out of the airport and check out the place I’ve flown into on a layover. The trip to marshal Spa 24h was a perfect example of this, where I attempted to stop over in Rome on a few hour layover. And spend a night in Chicago on the way home.

While I’m sure others would be weary of attempting a sightseeing tour of Rome after arriving at 7am and connecting to a 3pm flight, but I went for it. The Leonardo da Vinci airport is about an hour away from Rome using public transport, and at that hour of the morning rush hour traffic is guaranteed. However I got pretty lucky and made it to the city by 9am, by the time the flight arrived at the gate and I cleared customs it was 8am. The beauty of the bus ride is that it was great for sightseeing in air conditioned environment. For one, it passed right by the Colosseum (both on the way there and back along with a number of other historic sites that I know little about). But seeing that the Colosseum is in a hilly area I changed my plans of staring my tour from there and instead took the metro a few stops from Termini stations to Piazza di Spagna.

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Took a quick shot with the famous Spanish steps, and continued in the direction of the Pantheon.

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Along the way spotted a cool police car, a badge engineered Citroen version of a Mitsubishi electric city car. (which always looked like a four door version of the Smart ForTwo from Mercedes-Benz… and knowing that Daimler-Benz was a stakeholder in Mitsubishi when this car was designed, I’m sure there was some collaboration).

Before I could reach the Pantheon I stumbled into a neat gelato store which offered some much needed relief for the rising temps outside, both with the air conditioner and delicious gelato. Rome went up to 36 Celcius during my visit and I was melting while running around for the three hours I spend in the city… my jeans were soaking wet.

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After the obligatory selfie at the Pantheon I followed advice from a fellow FT’er from Germany to check out the classic salumeria in the square for a sample of their prosciutto and panini. It was delicious! I tend to compare foodie places to something I’m already familiar with, and my regular lunch place outside the office: Cosmo’s salumeria in Hackensack, NJ offers comparable experience as the authentic spot in Rome. I was very pleased discovering that.

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While making my way towards Piazza Venezia and the Roman Forum I spotted a familiar car badge engineered to represent the home country.

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This Chrysler 300 was wearing a Lancia badge which calls it Thema. And the limo driver behind the wheel did a great job trying to avoid me running after it with my cell phone camera.

Eventually I made it to the Roman Forum, which was incredible.

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These are several thousand year old ruins from the peak of Roman Empire. The sense of history is overwhelming in Rome, I highly recommend it for anyone even remotely interested in discovering things you learn in history books… experienced in real life.

The final stop on my tour was of course the Colosseum.

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My plans did include a visit to the Vatican, but with my flight departing late from NYC and arriving slightly behind schedule after catching up some time in the air, there just wasn’t enough time to venture across the river. So I left it for next time. Rome definitely deserves another, longer visit in the future!

With buses running only twice an hour between Termini and FCO I decided to leave Rome at noon to make sure I don’t jeopardize my flight at 3pm. Of course once I arrived at the airport the sightseeing didn’t stop as I was pretty impressed with the Automotive dining options there.

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Yes, there is a Mercedes-Benz Cafe in the terminal. Conveniently it was right next to my departure gate for Brussels. And as much as I was craving the authentic thin crust pizza sold by the slice on a beautifully crafted long plate adorning the Mercedes-Benz star, I was not at all hungry and still had most of my panini and prosciutto left to finish. So I took the picture instead of buying more food.

I used my Delta Sky Miles frequent flyer program miles to book the flight to Brussels via Rome on Alitalia. On the way home I used American AAdvantage miles to fly Finnair via Helsinki. But the NYC flight was completely sold out, so I finagled a routing via Chicago and American was kind enough to throw in a freebie leg from Chicago to NY which was a day after arrival. That gave me a couple of hours in the evening and almost the whole day next day to explore Chicago downtown. Which I totally turned into a Foodie Tour while sightseeing.

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First stop on the itinerary was Giordano’s deep dish pizza the evening of my arrival. It was delicious. Absolutely delicious. Though at $18 quite pricey and way too big for me to finish at around 10pm at night. But it was so good.

The next morning the foodie tour continued. I made a list of about five places that I had to sample, Chicago Hot Dogs was represented by a few iconic places. There was a joint selling Chicago style fries with cheddar cheese which was not my favorite especially after being on a fry diet in Belgium for a week. But the hot dog places rocked.

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I followed the Chicago River as I visited one eating establishment after another and really enjoyed the Rivewark, Michigan Avenue and Millenium Mile. I’ve been to Chicago a few times before, but somehow I never managed to find the famous Bean until this time. It was hiding from me in plain sight:

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What an impressive piece of art work. And I was super glad to finally discover it for myself with the obligatory selfie to keep for my memory.

The two side trips on this Motorsport Road Trip were as exciting to me as the Spa 24h race. I love taking advantage of opportunities to see something that I would otherwise not have a chance to experience. I always tried in the past to piggyback a visit to Thailand whenever working Singapore or Malaysia events. And I’m especially looking forward to visiting the Cook Islands on my next trip to Australia and New Zealand.

Bon voyage everyone! Happy Travels…

 

The Logistics Behind Planning a Trip to Australia, New Zealand and the Cook Islands

Very excited to say that the 2016 Grand Prix Road Trip of a lifetime has been booked! This post is a follow up to the previous two posts I made on the subject while planning the trip, and it’s nice to see the evolution of the plan over a period of time. Have a look at the previous post at the start of the planning stage here: “the logistics behind planning a trip to Australia & New Zealand,” and a follow up here when I discovered it’s cheaper to fly home from the Cook Islands via New Zealand than directly from New Zealand: “booked a flight to Rarotonga, Cook Islands.”

the trip should look something like this, image from Great Circle Mapper
the trip should look something like this, image from Great Circle Mapper

The planning process went from a mock-up above to the actual route depicted below on this beautiful Great Circle Mapper image. The difference being the addition of Hawai’i stopover on the way to SYD.

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the trip will actually look like this, image from Great Circle Mapper

For those that didn’t read the previous planning posts I’ll explain the process of selecting the routes based on the frequent flyer programs I used. Initially my plan was to burn some Virgin America frequent flyer points I had accumulated on a redemption on Virgin Australia to fly from Los Angeles to Sydney. I’ve determined that that was a poor use of those points, so instead I’ll save them for next year to fly on Singapore Airlines A380 between NYC and Frankfurt for one of the European events. Instead, I used American AAdvantage program to book the trip. My dilemma was that I had already used up 8,000 miles in rebates from booking this year’s European trips, and that 1,750 miles would be wasted as I would only get 2,000 back with the 10% rebate that AA offers for AA credit card holders (10,000 max/year). But in the grand scheme of things I’d rather waste 1,750 AA miles which I could earn back relatively quickly (use one of the many AA video promos or dining promos that give 1,000 bonus) instead of paying money on a connecting flight between NY and LA to position myself for the Virgin Australia alternative that I had dismissed earlier. The two options with AAdvantage were to fly Qantas from JFK-LAX-SYD or Hawaiian Airlines JFK-HNL-SYD. And while I was very much looking forward to another flight on Qantas on one of their soon to be retired Boeing 747’s, I chose the stopover in Honolulu instead. I’ve flown Hawaiian before on the way back from the Korean Grand Prix (ICN-HNL-LAX) and always wanted to step out of the Honolulu airport to see a little bit of the island, and now I’ll finally have that chance… I’ll spend the night in Honolulu arriving at 4pm and departing 12pm noon the next day.

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G’day Australia! Sydney Opera House from Kirribilli

The trip back home is just as convoluted as on the way over. I’ve blogged before that I booked a $21 USD flight from Auckland to Rarotonga and that was done for positioning purposes. You see, to fly from Auckland to New York requires 40,000 Mileage Plus miles to fly Air New Zealand, a United partner in the Star Alliance. Whereas it only takes 35,000 miles to do the same trip from Rarotonga to NYC. So it seems like a no-brainer, Kia Orana Rarotonga! The caveat is to fly home from the Cook Islands you actually fly via New Zealand, and a further caveat it is possible to spend the entire day in Auckland before heading home (with a 5am arrival and a 10:45pm departure). So I was absolutely sold on that deal. But since I didn’t have enough Mileage Plus miles in my own account, I asked mom for help. Signed her up for a new United credit card, spent very little time charging all the house renovation expenses on her card, and in a month I had the mileage at my disposal with enough miles left over in her account to book a round trip flight within the US. Great deal all around.

I have yet to book a flight between Australia and New Zealand mainly because the flights are quite pricey right now ($300+ with AirNZ direct or $149+ with AirNZ through a third party like Expedia). I will wait closer to the travel dates to book that leg of the trip hoping to use the remainder of my soon to expire AirNZ Airpoints. Luckily they’re spoiled for choice with connecting flights between the two countries, so if SYD-AKL doesn’t work out I can do SYD-WLG, MEL-AKL, MEL-WLG, etc.

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Kia Ora Aotearoa! Auckland Skyline from Westhaven Marina

So, compared to the previous trips I took to Oceania/Pacific with my numerous flights to Australia and New Zealand, I think this will be by far the most exotic one I’ve ever done. I’ve read great things about the Cook Islands and look forward to that being the highlight of my trip. But I’m also very excited to see my Aussie and Kiwi friends on their turf. Bathurst 12h is going to be an amazing event. Unfortunately I won’t get a chance to do the NZ V8 Supertourers (or just V8 Touring Cars since competing NZ V8 Supertourers and NZV8’s series merged), but I’m sure there will be a club event I could attend at Pukekohe or Hampton Downs while on the North Islands.

It’s going to be awesome!

For anyone needing help planning their next trip using a combination of frequent flyer miles and other cheap flights, please get in touch… I love a challenge.

 

Some stats on this trip, total mileage flown: 24,098 miles according to the Great Circle Mapper.  Honolulu is almost exactly half way from New York to Sydney, JFK-HNL 4,983 miles vs. HNL-SYD 5,066 miles. I will depart Auckland at 10am on a Monday morning and arrive the Cook Islands at 4pm Sunday afternoon, the day before! (giving me an extra day to spend on the island). Caveat: I will celebrate two Valentine’s Days one in Auckland and one in Rarotonga…