the best hotel room I never had

The Matterhorn - (c) 2018  photo taken in 1969 by David Ourisman

I had a conversation yesterday with a client who is near retirement; he's about 4 years younger than I. We were reminiscing about some of the travel experiences we'd enjoyed in our youth. He remembered using a one-month European rail pass to criss-cross Europe, using overnight trains instead of hotel rooms. That reminded me of a non-hotel stay of my own.

One of the very best travel experiences of my life, I spent the night sleeping in a field under just a blanket. It was August, 1969, and we had driven into Zermatt after dark (don't think you can drive into Zermatt now). With no intention of getting a hotel room, we settled into a field just outside the village. It was a dark night, and I really had no idea where I was.

When the sun rose the next morning, I awakened. The first sight I beheld that day was the Matterhorn in a cloudless sky. Awakening to this stunning view in Switzerland was truly one of the best travel experiences of my life. But nowadays, I'd opt for one of the luxury hotels in Zermatt for its creature comforts and Virtuoso amenities.

For those who are interested, the picture above was taken with a Minolta SRT-101 with a 50mm f/1.4 lens. Though a bit faded with age, it helps me remember that brilliant, sunny morning in Zermatt ... almost half a century ago — ouch!

copyright (c) 2018 by Ourisman Travel LLC. All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell, a Virtuoso® Member. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.


where in the world in 2018?

I begin 2018 very thankful that I have the opportunity to pursue my vocation! Being a luxury travel advisor, my job requires me to learn about destinations and research hotels on behalf of my clients. I invest considerable time and funds flying to distant places and doing site inspections. Why?

Whether you have questions about hotels in cities like Paris, London, or New York or resorts in Hawaii, Bora Bora, or the Maldives, I've most likely been inside the very hotels you're thinking about. We can discuss their location, the room product, but especially their "look and feel." What do you prefer? Traditional or contemporary? Boutique or larger hotels? Formal or laid back? Minimalist or elaborately decorated?

Or you may be wondering about why to visit a region or country. It helps me immensely to have visited that country and seen its attractions with the assistance of experienced guides. How could I describe the valleys of Bhutan without having personally traveled from Paro to Thimphu, to Punakha, to Gangey, and to Bumthang on the twisting and sometimes muddy road that winds its way across the country from west to east. I am so thankful to Amankora for introducing me to Bhutan.

Vietnam has been on my bucket list for a long while. I've heard so much about the culinary adventures it affords ... and having watched Ken Burns' documentary on the devastation Vietnam War, I'm looking forward to connecting with the Vietnamese people who have become our friends. After touring Hanoi, I'll experience two resorts — Four Seasons Nam Hai and Amanoi — before finishing in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

Myanmar was formerly known as Burma and has been in the news of late in a not-so-favorable light. I will be traveling with A&K Myanmar and will visit Yangon and Inle Lake before spending three evenings cruising aboard the Sanctuary Ananda. I really don't know what to expect, but landscape photography is a passion, and I'm sure I'll have many opportunities to indulge. My time in Myanmar ends with a day visit to Belmond Governor's Palace in Yangon.

Seoul, Korea ... Our overnight flight from Yangon arrives Saigon at 7:35 a.m. A&K has arranged a morning tour of Seoul — Gyeongbokgung Palace and Bukchon Hanok Village, followed by lunch at a local restaurant — before our 4 p.m. flight back to San Francisco.

Paris ... though I've visited many times, the hotel scene in Paris is constantly changing with new openings and renovations. On my way to Vienna, I'll stop off in Paris for more hotel site inspections. I'll be staying both at the newly renovated Crillon (now a Rosewood Hotel) and with my good friends at the Plaza Athenee (a Dorchester Collection property). I'm especially looking forward to a site inspection of Hotel Lutetia which has undergone an entire renovation and which, I predict, will become a highly popular Virtuoso hotel on Left Bank. And, of course, no trip to Paris is complete without a scoop of ice cream at Berthillon.

Vienna ...  I'm returning to Vienna as a participant in this year's Brownell 1887 Club trip. The group is being hosted by the Ritz-Carlton, Hotel Imperial, and the Bristol ... and I'm also interested in seeing the new Park Hyatt and Kempinski properties which weren't open during my previous visit. Oh ... and I may taste a torte or two!

Budapest ... Continuing on to Budapest, I'll be enjoying my second stay at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace. I'm also looking forward to seeing the Ritz-Carlton (formerly Le Meridien). Of course, there's more to experience in Vienna and Budapest than hotels, and our visits are being curated by our friends at Exeter Travel.

The Cotswolds and London. Though I've been "in" the Cotswolds and been driven "through" the Cotswolds, I've never really experienced this area of England. Another bucket list trip, I want to stay in a few picturesque towns, wander their streets, enjoy some scenic walks, and become familiar with its opportunities (taking advantage of the expertise of another travel partner, Celebrated Experiences). I'll finish up in London with stays at two hotels I've previously visited but at which I've never stayed, 45 Park Lane (Dorchester Collection) and ... a hotel still to be finalized.

So I begin 2018 with three big trips already planned and the possibility of surprise opportunities that might "come up." I highly recommend planning ahead — if you wait until the last minute, there will be less availability, the best guides will already have been booked, and award flights harder to find. That's why we're here, to help you turn your bucket list into the trip of a lifetime. 

copyright (c) 2018 by Ourisman Travel LLC. All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell, a Virtuoso® Member. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.


Christmas vacation on the beach | not too late!

lying in the sun in Deià, Mallorca (c) 2017 by David Ourisman, all rights reserved

Yes, it's very last minute. Yes, you've waited too long to get the most choices and the best availability. But — no — it's not too late to make a reservation at a warm weather resort and enjoy the beach and the sun. The following fourteen luxury resorts are currently available for a 7 night booking, checking in December 25, checking out January 1. (I had to put in some dates).

If you click on the links below, you'll be able to change the dates, see the available rooms and pricing, register with Virtuoso.com, and reserve that Christmas vacation for your family. It's not too late to be a hero. Though there are normally, fees for Festive Season and fees for last-minute bookings, you can book these on Virtuoso.com and pay absolutely no fees. And we'll follow up to VIP your stay.

Why book through Virtuoso? Because for the same price everyone else is paying online, you'll get additional amenities that add hundreds of dollars of value to your stay:
  • daily breakfast for two
  • an additional amenity that's unique to each resort (valued at $100)
  • a room upgrade if it's available
  • free WiFi

Fairmont Orchid, Big Island, Hawaii

The Cape, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

Ritz-Carlton Aruba
Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Miami Beach area
SLS South Beach, Miami Beach, FL
The Miami Beach EDITION, Miami Beach, FL
Boca Raton Resort & Club, Boca Raton, FL

Florida Gulf Coast
LaPlaya Beach & Golf Resort, Naples, FL
Naples Grande Beach Resort, Naples, FL
Ritz-Carlton Sarasota, FL

Florida North Coast
Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island, FL

Just click and book! That could be you, lying in the sun, just like in the picture above.

copyright (c) 2017 by Ourisman Travel LLC. All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell, a Virtuoso® Member. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.


looking forward to JetBlue's Mint Suite

JetBlue is proud of the special touches on its Mint service

I last flew JetBlue in 2008. We flew to Boston for my son's wedding, and you can read my review of the flight here. Instead of booking United First for $2200 each round-trip, we bought a row of three "38" Extra Leg Room" seats ... it worked out to $450 each round-trip with plenty of room for our legs and shoulders. While we didn't get free alcohol or the chance to experience airplane food à la United, we each saved $1750 — which will buy a LOT of much better meals.

Nine and one-half years later, I'll be on JetBlue again. This time I'm flying their SFO-FLL nonstop route, and I've booked their Mint service. Having made my booking early (5 months ago), I was able to select a Mint Suite for both flights. The Mint cabin has five rows of seats. Rows 1, 3, and 5 are configured with 2x2 sleeper seats. Rows 2 and 4 have a 1x1 configuration and contain the Mint Suites, four small private cabins with both a window and a door closing to the aisle.

Each Mint seat converts into a 6'8" lie-flat bed, and the meal service is supposed to be something special. The JetBlue website shows the intent to provide an experience unlike the typical legacy airline's first class — they serve artisanal ice cream, bakery items, espresso, and even provide an amenity kit.

Be watching Travel Horizons — I'll write a review after my flights.

copyright (c) 2017 by Ourisman Travel LLC. All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell, a Virtuoso® Member. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.


I was just about to give up on miles...

... when I hit the superfecta. It's getting harder and harder to actually use those tens of thousands of airline miles accruing in our accounts. Extremely few seats are made available for award tickets, and some routes never seem to have award availability. Of course, when those seats are released, they're snatched up right away.

It's not like the good old days. I had one of the first Continental OnePass accounts back in the 80's — my account number begins AB — and you could always upgrade from Coach to First for 5,000 miles — any seat booked in any fare bucket. Once I was armed with a Continental MasterCard, I never flew Coach on Continental. Though the ability to use miles slowly tightened, I was always successful using miles to sit up front and pay coach prices. I could call an airline's 800#, give them my dates, and ask how I could use miles to upgrade my desired city pair. If all else failed, my favorite fallback was a 50% discount off any US Airways fare for 30,000 miles.

These days, awards seem to be few and far between. I have seriously reconsidered my strategy of using airline-branded credit cards to collect miles. Would it be better, I wondered, to get a 2% cash-back credit card? And then, when I was about to switch directions, I hit the superfecta. Like a pusher aware that his customer was about to break free from an addiction, the mileage gods conspired to give me four pure hits of success cashing in miles.

#1 — United/SAS to Oslo. I was scheduled to fly to Oslo on SAS this past October - an award ticket for 1 pax, one-way, in business. The morning of my departure, I checked the inbound flight and learned it was over 4 hours late. No good! I would misconnect and miss the beginning of my tour of Norway. I called United's Mileage Plus desk — it was the morning of my flight — and for 15K additional miles, UA flew me to LHR in First, then onward to OSL in business.

#2 — British Airways to London. My wife and I are traveling to England next fall. I've been checking British Air, Virgin Atlantic, and United possibilities on a periodic basis but without much hope; award space on nonstops from SFO to London is extremely rare. Delta Vacations was a more realistic hope, but their great bulk fares still aren't showing up for my dates for non-stop Virgin America flights.

Then I hit success with BA and its poorly designed award booking engine. Oh to be able to search award flights between any San Francisco area airport (SFO, OAK, SJC) and any London airport (LHR, LGW) in one search, but alas you cannot. I hit pay dirt by doing a search by month for OAK-LGW. I found a pair of business award seats for a set of dates close enough to my preferred dates that they would work. I was even able to use a Companion Certificate for my wife. Of course, BA socks award customers with a crazy amount of taxes and fees — and then charges for seat selection — but at the end of the day, we're flying to London in lie-flat business class for about the cost of flying Premium Economy on Norwegian.

#3 — Paris to Vienna. I'm doing site inspections in Paris for four days in April, then joining the Brownell 1887 Club trip to Vienna and Budapest. With my over-the-pond flights already taken care of. I just had to get from Paris to Vienna. My desired AirFrance flight was $157 in coach, $547 in First. For a 2-hour flight (gate-to-gate), I was planning to pluck down the $157, but on a lark, I checked Delta's award booking engine. I could book a Coach flight for 15,000 miles + 40€ tax. Then I checked First ... and it cost 25,000 miles + 40€. After transferring a few AMEX points to Delta to top off my account, I was immediately able to make the booking in First. SOLD!!!

#4 — San Francisco to Baltimore. I'll be traveling to Baltimore next May for Ourisman Travel's annual meeting of our team of nine travel professionals. I was surprised to learn that Alaska Airlines now flies this route non-stop (yay!). Though the round-trip fare in First is extremely reasonable, award seats were available for 130,000 miles round trip. I had to transfer some Diners Club points to Alaska to top off my account (it took 3 days with expedited service for the miles to appear), but I made that award booking this morning. (With just two rows in First, looks like this flight will be on Virgin America metal).

What's the moral of this story? I frankly don't know, but I guess I'll be playing the mileage game again in 2018.

copyright (c) 2017 by Ourisman Travel LLC. All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell, a Virtuoso® Member. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.


Tahiti non-stops from San Francisco

picture yourself in French Polynesia (c) 2017 by David Ourisman, all rights reserved

Flying to Tahiti will get a lot easier beginning next October 30. United Airlines has announced nonstop Dreamliner flights from San Francisco to Papeete. Flying three times a week (Tuesday, Thursday, Sunday), United plans serve this route from October 30, 2018 through March 28, 2019.

Why I'm excited by this news: 

You can avoid LAX, a monstrously inconvenient place to connect. Domestic flights arrive at one of eight terminals, and you have to schlep yourself and your baggage to the international terminal, check in again with Air Tahiti Nui (which means leaving airside), and go through security again (plan for a long wait in line). If you plan to check bags, you'll have to see if your domestic airline has an interline agreement with Air Tahiti Nui.

Flying through SFO will be a dream by comparison. Being a United hub, you'll have easy connections from all over the US with your bags seamlessly checked all the way through to PPT. Passengers can walk between United's domestic and international gates without having to go through security again. And SFO offers a choice of lounge experiences — the American Express Centurion Lounge or United's Polaris Lounge.

The timing of the flights is bit disappointing. The outbound flight departs SFO at 2:45 p.m., arriving PPT at 9:25 p.m. Because this is too late for connecting Air Tahiti flights onto Bora Bora or Moorea, you'll have to overnight in Papeete; I recommend the InterContinental Tahiti. The return, departing PPT at 11:45 p.m. and arriving SFO 10:50 a.m. the next morning, is fine.

However, the "season" for which United is flying the route makes no sense — from October 30 until March 28. This is "summer" in French Polynesia, the rainiest and most humid time of the year. The best months to visit Tahiti begin in April when you'll enjoy the driest weather and most comfortable temperatures. Oops! Guess someone at United failed to check the "high season" for Bora Bora and Moorea.

I've been twice ... so please contact us to plan your dream trip to Bora Bora and ask about the value-added Virtuoso and Four Seasons Preferred Partner amenities. We can save you hundreds of dollars on your trip of a lifetime.

copyright (c) 2017 by Ourisman Travel LLC. All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell, a Virtuoso® Member. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.


holiday ideas for Paris

If your holiday plans include Paris, here are some favorite Christmas season ideas shared by the concierges of Le Meurice and the Plaza Athenée Paris, just two of the fabulous palace hotels that tempt visitors to the city of light.

Visit Vaux-le-Vicomte. To quote the words of the chateau's own website, "visitors will be transported to a sugarplum world of confectionary in a château decked with thousands of holiday decorations." The You Tube video above will give you an idea what visitors will experience: crackling fires, thousands of strings of light, decorated trees, rides in a horse-drawn carriage, and mountains of sweet treats. Tickets and shuttle from the train station can be reserved online. The 34 minute train from Paris Gare de l'Est to Verneuil l'Etang runs hourly, and you can reserve a shuttle to/from the Chateau (about a 17 minute drive).

Champs de Mars Christmas Market. Enjoy a skating rink at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, as well as a Christmas village where wooden chalets sell crafts, Christmas decorations, and regional gourmet products.

Both Le Meurice and the Plaza Athenée are part of the Dorchester Collection. When you book through a Diamond Club agency, you'll benefit from:
  • guaranteed upgrade at booking (up to the Junior Suite category)
  • 100€ credit towards your hotel bill
  • full daily breakfasts for two that includes literally anything on the menu except caviar and alcohol
  • complimentary Premium internet for unlimited devices
You can't get these amenities online. Get in touch, and we'll help you plan your next trip to Paris while saving you hundreds of dollars.

copyright (c) 2017 by Ourisman Travel LLC. All rights reserved. We provide Virtuoso and other Preferred Partner amenities as an affiliate of Brownell, a Virtuoso® Member. If you have comments on this column, or questions about booking travel, email me or visit my website.