I hope all of you enjoyed following #wheresupgrd, a brief glimpse into our long-awaited vacation to Europe from which I just returned on Monday. Now it’s time for the real work – putting together a much more detailed set of trip reports chronicling our 12-day adventure across three continents and six countries, two of which, Greece and Malta, I’d visit for the first time (numbers 43 and 44 for me). I’ll kick things off with an introductory post about how this trip came together, and a quick description of the various pieces of our itinerary.
First, though, here’s an index of all of the reports I’m planning to write for this series. Some of these post titles will likely change before they are published, and will not necessarily be published in this order. You can always refer back to this introductory post to refer back to what has already been posted. (Note: if you’ve read this post previously, you may have noticed that a couple of entries have been added, and a couple others have been taken away and/or combined. Such is life when you try to put together an index before actually writing any posts, and come to realize that you either forgot something, or that the roadmap you put together isn’t logical for one reason or another.)
- The Srinivasans’ European Vacation, By Land, Air, and Sea
- Airport Lounge Review – The Club at ATL
- Flight Review – British Airways First Class, Atlanta to London Heathrow
- Driving The English Road More Traveled on the Wrong Side of the Road
- Hotel review – Doubletree by Hilton London Heathrow Airport
- Airport Lounge Review – British Airways Galleries Lounge South, London Heathrow
- Flight Review – British Airways Club Europe, London-Istanbul and Rome-London
- Hotel Review – Hotel Nena, Istanbul, Turkey
- Cruise Review – Istanbul to Rome on the Emerald Princess
- A Visit to the Birthplace of Light – Delos and Mykonos, Greece
- Traveling 5,600 Years in 22 Miles on the Island Nation of Malta
- The Road More Traveled, Sicilian Style – Road Trip to Taormina and Mount Etna
- Farewell to Italy – Naples and the Ruins of Herculaneum
- Airport Lounge Review – Le Anfore Lounge, Rome Fiumicino Airport
- Sightseeing at 35,000 Feet – Rome to London
- Hotel Review – Hilton London Heathrow Terminal 5
- Airport Lounge Review – The British Airways Concorde Room at London Heathrow
- Flight Review – British Airways First Class, London Heathrow to Washington Dulles
- Airport Lounge Review – British Airways Galleries Lounge, Washington Dulles
As you can see, this will take quite some time to complete, so your patience is appreciated. I do promise I’ll finish before 2016!
I will admit, the original plan for this trip was bittersweet. June 3rd would have been my mom and dad’s 50th wedding anniversary, and dad had talked for years about taking the entire family on a cruise to celebrate. Unfortunately, he passed away in September, 2013, 21 months short of the milestone. Late last year, mom came up with the idea of taking a cruise this summer to honor dad’s memory, and his longtime wish. Everyone was on board, but timing is always a challenge for a large group. My brother and I probably have the most flexible schedules, but one sister is self-employed, and thus 10 days away from work means 10 days without pay, and another has a very limited amount of vacation time each year plus two school age boys. Eventually, though, we were all able to agree on the June 27th-July 4th itinerary on the Emerald Princess from Istanbul to Rome.
The tricky part for my wife and I is that we’ve both been to both Istanbul and Rome, and we wanted to try and squeeze in time for something new on the way there and/or back. My wife and I both enjoy visiting historical sites, so we settled on leaving a day early to visit Stonehenge on the way. That would also give me the opportunity to road trip in another country, since a trip to Stonehenge would mean a roughly 75 mile drive from Heathrow Airport. We further contemplated driving around somewhere on the way back, but later, figuring we’d be tired and ready to go home, just decided to visit my cousin during our overnight in London.
For all you map geeks, here’s three separate maps showing our air route, driving route, and cruise route. My art skills are pretty awful, so I just used Great Circle Mapper to map out the cruise route.
The Cruise (Istanbul-Mykonos-Malta-Sicily-Naples-Rome)
The Flights To and Fro
Part of the deal of this trip was that mom would cover the cost of both the cruise fare and the airfare to get to Europe and back. We decided to use up my remaining stash of AAdvantage miles instead. Given that mom was being so generous to begin with, I wanted to cut her a break, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t an ulterior motive – we wanted to fly in a premium cabin, and I sure as heck wasn’t going to have mom pick up the tab for that.
I finally settled on cashing in 125,000 miles apiece for two British Airways First Class awards via LHR. I know, I know, you points & miles gurus out there are screaming in agony, since BA transatlantic awards mean fuel surcharges of $500+ each way. But before burning me in effigy, hear me out on my thought process. One, it’s a given that American will announce a devaluation, possibly a massive one, of the AAdvantage program any day now. That makes it critical to burn miles as quickly as possible, and the 125,000 miles each would come pretty close to emptying out both of our balances.
At the time we needed to book this trip, given the amount of vacation we’d be burning with the cruise, there was really nothing else within a reasonable period of time where we’d be able to burn up that many miles. Second, even though we’d have to fork over roughly $1,000 in fuel surcharges each roundtrip, I still viewed this is an acceptable value. Though multi-segment itineraries mixed in First and Club Europe are difficult to accurately price, ITA suggested something in the range of $11,000-14,000 if purchased outright. Using the low end of the range, that would mean $10,000 of value for 125,000 miles, or a redemption rate of 8 cents per mile. Perhaps most importantly, this selection of flights would put me on the Airbus A380 for the first time, a must for serious travel geeks. Yes, I could have done better, but that was good enough in my book.
All of the major mass-market cruise lines operate in the Mediterranean, but we pretty quickly settled on Princess. It certainly helped that we’ve had positive experiences with Princess in the past (I’ve had two, a Panama Canal cruise in 2005, and a cruise to Alaska in 2013), but what sealed the deal was an incredibly generous onboard credit promotion, which yielded $475 of credits. That’s a substantial sum for a 7-day cruise. My wife and I earned another $200 for having put down an open deposit on our 2013 Alaska cruise and for being Carnival Corp. shareholders, giving us $675 of funny money for the week. That’s enough to practically make the cruise all-inclusive, aside from shore excursions.
This particular itinerary also provided a good mix of both new and repeat destinations for my wife and I, and were brand new destinations for everyone else. And I have to admit, Istanbul is so fantastic, we were more than happy to be launching from there, even though we’ve been previously.
I’ll have my first trip report up next week most likely. In the meantime, sit back, relax, and live vicariously through UPGRD over the coming weeks!
Photo at top: Blue Mosque, Istanbul, lit up at night, June 26, 2015.