Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Animals of the Chinese Zodiac

It's a little bit late but Happy Year of the Dragon!  Do you recognize these statues?



Seeing as how its still within the Lunar New Year Festivities, I figured it might be somewhat relevant to post the twelve animals of the chinese zodiac as depicted in statue form in the Gyeongbokgung Palace compound in Seoul, South Korea.

Hotel Loyalty Program Airline Transfer Partners

One of the things to consider when deciding which hotel loyalty program to go and build a stash of points with is the ability to use their points.  Of course, free night redemptions is likely the key aspect of the program that should be used to decide but assuming you're one of those people who don't stay at hotels too frequently or don't have enough hotel points to redeem for free nights, transferring to or topping off air mile balances might be a strong secondary consideration to take into account.

To help determine which program has the best transfer ratio to partners, we'll make use of the Universal Hotel Point (UHP) to help evaluate the value of the transfer programs.  The UHP conversion below is based on regular spending on the best hotel associated credit card for each program where 1 UHP is earned after spending $1.

1 UHP = 4.5 HH (Hilton HHonors)
1 UHP = 1 SPG (Starwood Preferred Guest) 
1 UHP = 1.4 HGP (Hyatt Gold Passport)
1 UHP = 1.4 MR (Marriott Rewards)

Monday, January 30, 2012

Myeongdong

Myeongdong, essentially the equivalent of the Causeway Bay district in Hong Kong or the Shibuya ward of Tokyo, is one of the major shopping and tourist areas of Seoul. Here, you can find many department stores, shops, restaurants, noraebang (aka karaoke), roadside street-food vendors and even Samsung Fashion!


Sunday, January 29, 2012

Taipei Metro

One of my favorite pastimes when visiting different cities is experiencing the user-friendliness and usability of the mass transit system (typically metros). This is Nangang station near the east end of  Taipei.


Saturday, January 28, 2012

Hotel Loyalty Program Free Night Redemptions

*Updated May 7, 2013*

One of the biggest difficulties in evaluating which hotel program gives the best value for its free stays is because the point values of each program varies. Hilton points are often seen as being worth less per point whereas Starwood points are generally much more well-regarded. So does that mean Starwood points are the best and Hilton points the worst?

To better understand this problem, it is probably best to look at a few examples.

Starwood Preferred Guest

Starwood's Free Night Award requirements, listed here, outline how many points are required for a free night at the different category hotels in their program. For example, the Category 4 Sheraton Kona Resort in Hawaii charges 10,000 points for a free night that would usually cost about $200 USD after tax. In this case, its fairly clear that each point has a value of $200 / 10k = 2 cents / point. Assuming there is no spending at Starwood hotels (for us non-business travelers), the Amex Starwood card earns 1 point per $1 spent, hence we earn approximately 2 cents value back per $1 (in other words, 2% cashback).

Marriott Rewards

Similarly, if we look at the Marriott award chart here, we can do a similar calculation with say the Courtyard Denver Downtown. This category 4 hotel, requiring 20,000 points per night, generally goes for between $150-$250 / USD per night (lets call it $200). This easily translates to 1 cent / point. Since the Chase Marriott card gives 2 points per $1 on travel/restaurants but 1 point per $1 on everything else, we'll average it out to about 1.5 points earned per $1 spent and hence 1.5% cashback.

IHG

For IHG/Priority Club, given the wide-ranging categories spanning category 1 thru 9, redemption values are a bit harder to quantify as the redemption rates sometimes don't quite equate to cash pricing. Taking the Holiday Inn Vancouver Center for example, we would have a cost of $125 or 15,000 points giving a rate of about 0.8 cents / point. Alternatively, the Crowne Plaza Osaka can go for $150 or 25,000 points giving a rate of 0.6 cents / point. As the variation varies quite significantly for IHG properties, we'll use an approximation of 0.7 cents / point. As the Chase Priority Club card has category spend similar to the Marriott card but with gas stations and groceries added, we'll also average it out to about 1.7 points earned per $1 spent and hence 1.2% cashback when redeeming.

Hyatt Gold Passport

Hyatt redemptions are likely the most valuable based on their award chart as a Category 2 property Hyatt House Austin costing 8,000 points per night can be had for about $240 in cash working out to 3 cents / point. However, higher end Hyatt properties like the Category 4 Park Hyatt Toronto charges 15,000 points or say $300 per night giving a rate of 2 cents / point. Given the minor variation, we can average this out to about 2.5 cents / point. And since both the Chase Hyatt and Chase Sapphire Preferred cards again have category earning somewhat similar to the Chase Marriott, we'll use 1.5 points earned per $1 spent thus giving us an astonishing 3.75% cashback! I thus worry about a potentially huge Hyatt devaluation (whether it comes tomorrow or 2 years from now, no one knows) and hence I would urge anyone with Hyatt points to use your Hyatt points for redemptions

Hilton HHonors

Hilton, after its most recent devaluation of its program and tweaks to its credit card category bonuses, has brought their program more inline with the competition. A night at the Category 6 Hilton Orlando costs 30,000 points in June at a rate of about $175 translating to about 0.58 cents / point. A night at the Category 9 Conrad HK in the same month can go for 80,000 points or $450 USD thus equating to about 0.56 cents / point. We could go on and on but for the sake of argument we'll use the lower 0.56 cents per point. Given that the fee-free Hilton Amex gives 5 points per dollar for gas/groceries/restaurants and 1 point per $1 on all else, we'll average out to 4 points per dollar for general spending. This gives a rate of 2.24% cashback! Surprisingly good considering the most recent devaluation.

Admittedly, we have only looked at a very small number of hotels for these sample comparison and they cannot obviously reflect the actual redemption value for the specific dates/times/locations/hotels you may be looking for. However, based on the current award charts and the price/point redemption ratios I've generally seen around, my estimation for the value of reward bookings would be as follows:

Hyatt: 3.5% - 4% cashback
Starwood: 2% - 2.5% cashback
Hilton: 2% - 2.5% cashback
Marriott: 1% - 1.5% cashback
IHG: 1.2% cashback

As you can see, Hyatt offers the most value in its redemptions followed by Hilton & Starwood (yes, Starwood has been slowly devaluing its chart to the point that I would equate Starwood and Hilton redemptions). Marriott and IHG clearly fall well behind the pack. In general, I would recommend you get at least as good value as the above before making a free night redemption to make your stay worth it but for me, Hyatt is my current favorite hotel program as far as valuable free night redemptions go.

Friday, January 27, 2012

American Express Hilton Card

*Updated May 7, 2013*

I had done a review of the American Express Starwood Card a little while back (as it is one of the most flexible travel credit cards out there) but I'd like to also point out that American Express also offers a competitive alternative in the Hilton HHonors card for those loyal to the Hilton brand and are looking for a no annual fee travel rewards card.

While the credit card bonus for the Hilton, at 40k points, seems larger than the Starwood bonus, it is also important to determine the value of the points and the earnings rate of the card as well as any annual fees you might get hit with. Again, before we go into the details, I'd like to just point you at an example of what 35k Hilton HHonors points can get you - this was my stay at the (then) Category 5 Embassy Suites Montreal.  This was an excellent hotel with a great downtown location and superb rooms. One night would have cost about $250 USD after taxes and fees.

Last Christmas Review (2004)

Drama Rating: *****
Personal Rating: All time favourite!!

Story:
Haruki Kenji works in the Operations Department at Heart Sports, where his longtime friend Shintani Goro is the son of the company's President and also his boss. It was on a ski outing in New Zealand where he first meets Goro's secretary and girlfriend Aoi Yuki. Much to his surprise, when he returned to Japan, he finds that Aoi has moved into the apartment beside his and is now his new neighbour. What will Goro do when he finds out? Watch and see as this drama takes you on an enchanting Christmas adventure.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Taiwanese Ads' Stars

Alright!  Here's the Taiwanese version of 'recognize your favorite idol'!


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Beef Noodle Soup

Was recommended by a local to try this famous beef noodle soup shop in Taipei.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Hwaseong Haenggung

Much like the splendid Ch√Ęteau Chambord in France's Loire Valley was constructed as a hunting lodge for the king, Hwaseong Haenggung was similarly a resting shelter palace for the king. As you can see here, there are cut-outs of characters from Dae Jang Geum (which I, strangely enough, have not watched despite it being one of the most popular kdramas out there); parts of that historical drama were indeed filmed here.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Danshui Night Market

I'm a huge fan of markets when I go abroad and Taipei was certainly no exception.  I had already been to the largest night market at Shilin so I was expecting something similar for Danshui but I was certainly somewhat surprised.

Danshui is at the northern part of the city and is easily accessible by the MRT (metro) as the very last station of the line.  The first thing I noticed was that Danshui was quite a bit cooler than the rest of the city (given it was winter in Taipei but I certainly hadn't felt really cold for most of my stay) and I suppose that comes from the fact that Danshui is right next to open water leading out to the East China Sea.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Fugitive Plan B Review

Drama Rating: ***
Personal Rating: Decent

Story:
Ji Woo, played by Rain, is a private investigator who gets tangled up with Jin Yi, played by Lee Na Young, who is strangely getting pursued. As a result, Ji Woo becomes more and more involved in a case involving a huge sum of gold lost during the Korean War and shady characters from all around Asia, including yakuza from Japan, and operatives from Hong Kong to China to Macau. Where did the money disappear and why is Jin Yi a target?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Gwanghwamun Square

After stopping by Changgyecheon, I continued up the main road to head towards Gwanghwamun and the central plaza in front of it. Caught a nice, big ad for Samsung's Smart TV here.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Sweet 18 Review (2004)

Drama Rating: ***
Personal Rating: Enjoyable

Story:
Kwon Hyuk Joon and Yoon Jung Sook's grandfather's were best of friends and had decided long ago to arrange a marriage between their grandchildren. A number of years later, Jung Sook has grown up to be a headstrong and rebellious high school girl with no dreams or goals. Hyuk Joon has grown into respectful, hardworking prosecutor with a very down-to-earth demeanor. When the two families somehow manage to get back in contact, Hyuk Joon and Jung Sook are in for quite a surprise when they find out about the arranged marriage.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Soulmate Review (2006)

Drama Rating: ****
Personal Rating: Loved it!

Story:
Soulmate is a kdrama that tells of the interleaved lives of friends, coworkers and strangers and their complex web of relationships. From Dong Wook, an experienced playboy, to Yu Jin, a regular on the matchmaking circuit, none are immune from the forces of love, feelings and fate. Will Philip and Su Kyeong live happily ever after? Will Dong Wook finally find his true soulmate? Will Min Ae find someone who truly loves her?  Watch on and find out!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Fated To Love You Review (2008)

Drama Rating: ****
Personal Rating: All Time Favourite!

Story:
Chen Xin Yi is an office lady having some trouble keeping her boyfriend focused on her. In an attempt to salvage their relationship, she plans for a romantic love cruise in which she would gift her virginity to her boyfriend. Director Ji Cun Xi, a wealthy heir to a cleaning products company, was planning to propose to his long-time girlfriend and ballet dancer Anna on the exact same cruise. Unfortunately, Anna had a ballet engagement and due to various mix-ups, Xin Yi ends up in bed with Cun Xi, who was still under the impression he was with Anna. What happens when Xin Yi later finds out she is pregnant from that fateful night and what will happen to their relationships?


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

American Express Starwood Preferred Guest Card

*Updated May 7, 2013*

Given that I do a little bit of travelling every now and then, I thought some readers here might be interested in the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card.  There are a wide variety of credit cards out there (such as the Amex Hilton card) and picking and choosing between all those choices is sometimes a bit difficult.

Before I get into a huge analysis of points, fees, rewards and whatnot, I'd like to point at one of the stays I made recently with Starwood, at the Westin Chosun in Seoul as an example of the possibilities out there for redemption.  This was one of the top tier hotels in Seoul, very centrally located near Myeong Dong and definitely a superb place to stay when travelling..

At the time of my travels, one night would have cost almost $300 USD after taxes and fees.  At that rate, a 5 night stay would have cost a pretty penny (~$1500 USD)!  Using Starwood points however, this particular stay only cost me 40k SPG points (This category 4 hotel would have cost me 10k SPG points / night but by using the 'redeem 4 nights get the 5th free', only 40k points was required).  As to how I got those 40k points, I will detail that out below.


Monday, January 16, 2012

Incheon Airport Review

Having travelled for a little bit, I've been at numerous airports around the world and it is truly refreshing when you come across an airport like Incheon, one of the most pleasant airports I've had the pleasure of visiting. Most airports are quite functional, serving as an area where you need to go through security and customs before milling around in the gate seating area before getting herded onto the plane. To be fair, some airports have gone the extra mile to make the wait a bit more pleasant but I'll leave those for another time.

Incheon's approach is multi-pronged (I should point out this review was based on my trip back at Christmas 2010 although not too much has changed since I visited a few months ago in the fall of 2011). Upon arrival at the gate, a number of interesting pieces of furniture including some medicine chests and cupboards line the corridor welcoming visitors and people in transit alike with some cultural artefacts.



Sunday, January 15, 2012

Asiana Economy (LAX - ICN - TPE)

Its been a while since I actually flew this particular flight from LAX (Los Angeles) to TPE (Taipei) but it was certainly a pleasant and memorable experience flying with Asiana.  Here's a picture of my ride from LA to Incheon airport.


Quebec @ Night

Grabbed some night shots of Quebec as I was leaving the city.  Here is the restaurant 1640 I had lunch at earlier on in the day.


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Vieux Quebec

After wandering around Les Promenades and the boardwalk near the Chateau for a little bit, I decided to head down into Vieux Quebec (old town).  If you are driving by car, you can head down a curving, winding street just off of Rue Port Dauphin (just continuing from Rue du Fort).  There are a few parking spots on the short drive down so you can park there.  You can also walk down or the other way to get down easily would be to take funicular from the boardwalk next to the Chateau.

Here, from the curved, sloping street, you can get a nice view of the Chateau.  Looking down the stairs, you get a spectacular view of part of old town, beautifully lit with Christmas decorations all over.  This particular street is Rue du Petit Champlain which actually continues for quite a bit before reaching the main streets.


Friday, January 13, 2012

KBS Outdoor Studio @ Suwon

One of the stops on the Suwon City tour was the KBS outdoor TV studio.  This was really cool set of Seoul as it supposedly looked in the 1930s and 1940s for the filming of dramas.  Parts of the set could even be used as a backdrop for the 1960s and 70s.  In fact, after visiting this place, I am fairly certain that some of the early scenes in Baker King Kim Tak Goo were filmed exactly in this studio lot.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Changdeokgung

One of the Five Grand Palaces built by the Joseon Dynasty kings, Changdeokgung alternated with Gyeongbokgung as the main palace compound for the royal court throughout korean history.  As seen in the picture below, it is now a UNESCO world heritage site, added in 1997, as an example of far eastern palace architecture.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Cheonggyecheon @ night

If you thought Cheonggyecheon during the day was nice, Cheonggyecheon at night is perhaps even more alluring and romantic. Here, amidst the glow of the seashell sculpture and waterfall, the trickling sounds of water and the nice cool breeze, the atmosphere is just right for hanging out and taking a leisurely stroll along the banks.


Cheonggyecheon

One of my favourite parts of my Seoul trip was wandering around the downtown business area. You can feel the bustle and energy of the city as you walk up from the City Hall plaza on a street adjacent to the main  Sejong artery. Here, I ran into the amusing discovery that McDonald's even does deliveries!


Monday, January 9, 2012

Noryangjin Fish Market

When I go travelling, I'm a sucker for markets of all sorts, clothing markets, traditional markets, night markets, even fish markets. You tend to see another aspect of the culture and the way in which people do business in other countries in a variety of industries.  This fascination of mine was what brought me to Noryangjin (for future comparison with Tsukiji in Japan =P). The market is located at the Noryangjin subway stop and is a really rather non-descript building from the outside. In fact, if it weren't for the signs with the fish plastered on the poster, it would be unlikely that I would have taken this industrial-looking warehouse to be the market. Despite that however, the building is right at the subway station and not too difficult to find. Just exit the subway station and follow the signs with the fish to cross the bridge over the subway tracks and voila!


Sunday, January 8, 2012

Les Promenades du Vieux Quebec

Continuing on my brief Quebec sojourn - As I head into the heart of old Quebec via Rue St Jean, the gates of the city walls loomed in front while a crowd of people gathered on the side watching people skate in the public rink.


The festive Christmas and shopping mood was especially palpable along the street as I headed towards the hotel.  Les Promenades refers to the entire shopping district near the hotel where numerous stores line the street.  Off to one side is the stately Quebec City Hall:

Friday, January 6, 2012

Embassy Suites Montreal

The second night of our stay in Montreal was at the Embassy Suites Montreal located in the heart of downtown Montreal, a short distance away from Old Montreal, the financial district and Chinatown.  It's ideal location was what persuaded me to part with 35k HHonors points at this pleasant Category 5 (now Category 7) hotel.  There were plenty of other hotels in the area including a Hilton, Westin and W but based on the photos and room rates for Christmas, the Embassy Suites seemed to offer the best value with a suite and complimentary hot breakfast buffet.

The first thing I noted about the hotel was that the atrium/lobby seemed rather crowded.  The reception and concierge are located near the entrance of the hotel near the street but you immediately get the sense that space is at a premium with the hotel restaurant bulging out all the way into the lobby, leaving a less than spacious feeling when checking in and out.  The sofa/lounge area is nicely decorated although it too seems to be competing for space inside that seemingly tight main floor.  Personally, I would have done away with the lounge area altogether to allow more room for the restaurant and the check in/check out booths.


Thursday, January 5, 2012

Namdaemun Market

Namdaemun market is a more traditional market selling all sorts of goods, clothes, groceries and other odds and ends as compared to the clothing mecca of Dongdaemun.  Here is one of the entrances to the market with N Seoul Tower in the distance.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Personal Taste Review (2010)

Drama Rating: ***
Personal Rating: Decent

Story:
Lee Min Ho plays Jeon Jin Ho, an architect striving to make his name known. In a bid to win a project, Jin Ho pretends to be gay in order to become Park Gae In's roommate to find out more about the architectural uniqueness of her home. In the process, the two find themselves attracted to each other despite their differences and his supposed 'preference'. What will happen when Gae In finds out the truth?

Karaoke/Noraebang in Seoul

Went out the karaoke (ie. noraebang) a few times in Seoul and this was the first one at one of the karaoke places inside COEX Mall.  They've got a number of small rooms all with lots of 'decorative' graffiti on the walls and the mirrors of the room.


The most striking and obvious difference between karaoke in chinese establishments (in cities like NY, Toronto, LA, HK etc) and with korean ones is the remote for song selection.  It was to much bemusement to find a huge slab bigger than an iPad to use for picking songs.  One of the easier ways to look up korean songs is by typing out the song names using the strokes of the korean alphabet - especially if you know the song you want but are a slow korean reader like me (and would take forever to find the name of the artist).

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year!

Happy 2012 to everyone!  A new year, a fresh start - here's to 2012 bringing lots of opportunities, happiness and joy to all!

Dae Mul Review (2010)

Drama Rating: ****
Personal Rating: Loved it!

Story:
In an unexpected twist of fate, reporter Seo Hye Rim (Ko Hyun Jung) ends up announcing her husband's death on live television and eventually ends up getting fired after becoming quite emotional over the matter.  Kang Tae San (Cha In Pyo), an ambitious, up-and-coming Congressman, is intrigued by her story and convinces her to run for public office. Ha Do Ya (Kwon Sang Woo), a righteous public prosecutor whom Seo Hye Rim randomly met long ago, happens to see her again and becomes interested in her, becoming her strong support in her ultimate quest to become the first female President of Korea.