Five Days in Sydney: Days One and Two

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

Sydney Opera House

Sydney Opera House

Arrival into Sydney

After clearing Australian immigration and customs, I headed to the local cell phone retailer in the baggage claim area to purchase SIM cards for my dad and I.  For about AUD $30, we each procured SIM cards that gave us unlimited data, unlimited local text, and a $450 credit for international calling and texting.  Considering we would be in Australia for two weeks, this was a steal compared to the international plans offered by Verizon Wireless prior to the trip.  After SIM card shopping, we hopped a cab to our hotel – the Sheraton on the Park.  We chose this hotel due to both its location in the Sydney central business district, and the relatively decent rate considering the otherwise astronomical average price of most properties in the area.

Though we arrived at the Sheraton on the Park before noon, they had a room ready for us, which was a relief because we wanted to relax a bit and freshen up after almost two full days of traveling.  Though we were tired from our travels, I always try to make it a point NOT to go to sleep.  I’ve found the best way to adjust to the new timezone and to defeat prolonged jet lag is to get oneself onto the new timezone’s sleep cycle as soon as possible.  In this case, I wanted to do everything possible to stay awake until 8 or 9pm local time — simply so we could get a full night of sleep and awake the next morning more or less adjusted to Australia time.

I’m Free – Free Sydney Walking Tour

One of my favorite things to do on the first day in a new city is to get oriented with my surroundings.  I’ve found that one of the best ways to do this is by taking a free walking tour, which is offered in many cities, all over the world.  I generally find these tours to be educational and really helpful in teaching one the “lay of the land” in an unfamiliar city.  These “free tours” operate on a tips-only basis.  If you participate in the tour, a tip is generally expected, and almost always is well-earned.  I encourage you NOT take one of these tours if you have no intention to tip — that’s just rude, as these guides are often local university students who do a really fantastic job.

After a quick Google search, I found a walking tour of Sydney departing a few blocks from our hotel at 2pm that day.  We went to meet the tour guides outside the Sydney Town Hall, just a couple blocks from our hotel.  There were quite a few people on the tour on this beautiful Friday afternoon, so the guides broke up into three groups.  Our guide walked us through the sites of Sydney taking us from the Sydney Town Hall, through the Queen Victoria Building and the Pitt Street Mall shopping district out to Hyde Park.  We continued towards Circular Quay with stops at Governor Macquarie’s Rum Hospital,  the Hyde Park Barracks Museum, and the bird cages on Angel Placebefore stopping for a break for water and ice cream.

After touring the Sydney Customs House, the group made its way around the edges of Circular Quay to the cruise terminal where we took in a wonderful view of the Sydney Opera House as a large cruise ship, the Voyager of the Seas departed.  The walking tour ended in the Rocks area after about three hours.  We found this tour to be extremely informative and well-done.  I’m not really sure what the “norm” for tipping is for a tour like this, but we tipped about AUD $20 per person, as we felt anything else would be pretty unfair considering the thoroughness of the tour.   I highly recommend spending a few hours one day in Sydney to take this economical and very nice “free” walking tour.

After the walking tour, we took he recommendation of our tour guide to try out a pub for dinner in the Rocks called, The Australian Hotel.  Here, we had a couple of beers and I tried a kangaroo burger.  The burger was tasty, but certainly a bit different.  My dad ordered some pizza, but decided not to try the somewhat famous “Coat of Arms” pizza that features both kangaroo and emu meat.  Australia is probably the only country whose citizens enjoy eating their national symbols — the kangaroo and emu.  Could you imagine walking into a bar in the USA ordering “Bald Eagle chicken wings”?   By the time we were done eating and having a few beers, we were pretty tired.  We took a leisurely walk in the late afternoon back to our hotel and called it a night at about 8pm.

Manly Beach

We awoke Sunday morning around 9am after a full thirteen hours sleep!  Of course, we were starving, so we walked down the street for a real Australian breakfast — McDonalds!  As we downed our egg McMuffins, we planned out the day and put together the things we wanted to do the next several days.   We knew we wanted to see more of the iconic Sydney Harbor, so we decided to walk that way to Circular Quay, and see what the options were.  What we found was a beautiful day in Sydney, where another Royal Caribbean cruse ship was docked at the harbor (the Rhapsody of the Seas).  Our two options for the day were to head to Manly Beach or the Taronga Zoo.  We opted to purchase roundtrip ferry tickets on the Manly Ferry out to Manly Beach since it was one of the longer ferry rides offered, and the weather was just perfect for a boat ride.  The cost was AUD $7.40, each way.

The ferry ride lasted about 35 minutes en route to Manly Beach, and the views were magnificent.  As we sailed out past the Sydney Harbor Bridge, we turned to the East and motored right past the famed Sydney Opera House.  I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

We arrived at Manly beach soon after.  A bustling beach community, Manly features a rather large, inviting beach with a number of shops, restaurants, and bars that line the beach and go back several blocks.  The two of us walked the beach for a while, zapping pictures before settling down for some lunch at the Manly Grill.  We had a nice, outdoor patio seat where we enjoyed a bucket of prawns, burgers, and beers as we watched the people of Manly Beach walk by.  After lunch, we explored the town a bit before heading into a cool looking bar in the Manly Wharf Hotel, right near the ferry pier.  Here, we enjoyed a few beers and tried to figure out the game of cricket, which had the locals captivated, as The Ashes Tournament between England and Australia was on the television.  After giving up on cricket, we hopped back on the ferry for another late afternoon, scenic ferry ride back into Sydney Harbor.  

 Upon returning to Sydney, we headed over to the Rocks to view the Rhapsody of the Seas as she departed the Port of Sydney for her cruise, and we got some wonderful pictures of the harbor and the cruise ship.  By this point, we were pretty spent, so we headed back to the hotel for a few hours of relaxation.  After a couple of hours in the room, it was clearly time to eat again.  We wanted to do something low-key, but fun, so we walked about fifteen minutes to Darling Harbour.

Darling Harbour

Darling Harbor is a highly developed harbor in Sydney that is lined with restaurants, bars, shops, movie theaters, and other touristy things.  By the time we got to Darling Harbor, the crowds were growing for the upcoming fireworks show, which takes place every Saturday night during the summer.  There were thousands of people — locals and tourists who decided to spend the evening dining al fresco to watch the fireworks.  We grabbed a quick bite to eat at a doner kebab stand in a food court just in time to watch the fireworks.  The show was pretty nice, but I figured it would pale in comparison to the fireworks show we would see a few nights later on New Years Eve.  After the relatively quick fireworks display, we explored the area a bit more and made our way back to the hotel for another full night of sleep.

Next up… More from Sydney:

  • Sydney:  Day Three and Four (Sydney Opera House, Taronga Zoo, The Rocks, Bondi Beach, Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens, Woolloomooloo, and the Sydney Fish Market)
  • New Year’s Eve in Sydney

Fifteen Days in Australia – Planning

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

Planning

Putting a two-week vacation to Australia is no small feat.  Doing so almost purely using frequent flyer miles for ones’ flights can be even more difficult, as finding award availability to Australia over New Years is a very, very tall order.  Nonetheless, I managed to throw together a memorable 15-day trip to Australia during in which almost all of the transportation and some of the hotels were paid for with miles.  Here’s how I planned everything…

International Flights

As previously mentioned, I speculatively reserved two Global First Class seats on United for a Christmas Day flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Sydney (SYD) since I’d always wanted to go to Australia.  Since I was fortunate enough to have a relatively large stash of United miles along with 1K status with United, I always kept my miles tied up in speculative awards since it ultimately costs nothing for a United passenger with at least Platinum status to refund or change these awards.

United Global First Class Suite - from United Airlines

United Global First Class Suite – from United Airlines

For months I tossed around the idea of spending New Years Eve in Sydney to friends, and it never seemed to really stick.  During a trip back home last September, I casually mentioned the idea of heading to Australia to my dad.  I never thought he’d accept the offer since he’s always maintained that he would never spend that amount of time on an airplane.  However, it seems the offer of first class seats to Australia dramatically changed the situation.  After conferring with my mom, my dad enthusiastically accepted my offer — and just like that, the serious planning for Australia began. At that time, I had two one-way trips to Sydney in United Global First Class booked.   I had them both originating in Tampa since I planned to be there for the Christmas holiday.  Since neither United nor one of its Star Alliance partners offered a nonstop flight from Tampa to Los Angeles, we were forced to take a layover somewhere.  Due to favorable flight times and the availability of first class award space, we decided to transit through Washington-Dulles (IAD) en route to LAX.

The Original 2 one-way awards on United.  80,000 miles each.

The Original 2 one-way awards on United:  TPA-IAD-LAX-SYD (80,000 miles each)

I had about 60,000 miles left in my United account, and I had a speculative round-trip award booked to Rio de Janeiro for the World Cup.  Since I’d already been to Brazil three times in 2013 alone (including here and here), I happily canceled my trip to the World Cup in favor of finding the two of us a way home from Australia!  It basically came down to the following decision:  Take my dad on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Australia OR Go to the World Cup in Brazil (and subsequently visit Brazil for the 4th time in 14 months). For me, the decision was easy:  we were going to Australia! Once I had the 100,000 miles from my World Cup trip refunded to my account, I started to look for a return routing back to the United States.  Ideally, I wanted a first class award. Sadly, there were no non-stop routings from Australia back to the United States available at any time during January 2014, so I was forced to come up with a backup plan and transit home via Asia.  On United’s website, the award search engine will not give you every combination of flights available when you search something like Sydney to Washington DC.  Instead, you need to break the flight up into smaller segments.  By doing this, I was able to find the following routing in first class on Thai, Air China, and United:

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Original Return:  SYD-BKK-PEK-NRT-SFO (Thai First / Thai Business / Air China First / United First)

I found the above individual segments available, but the United Award booking engine would not piece this itinerary together, as it frequently struggles with putting together multi-segment award itineraries.  In order to book this award, I dialed up the United Premier 1K phone line and had the friendly agent convert my one-way awards to Australia into round-trip awards that included the return home above. Before I hung up the phone with the United agent, I mentioned how I wished that there was award space available on one of the non-stop United flights from Sydney back to the States since I knew my dad would not be too excited about the prospect of spending 40-some hours on our flights home.  The agent then offered to put in a wait list request for first class award space on both the Sydney routes to the States (Los Angeles and San Francisco). Not thinking much of it, I agreed and then ticketed my award with the crazy routing. Not two hours later, I received an e-mail from Untied indicating that my wait list request had cleared for my preferred date for the Sydney to San Francisco (SFO) segment!

My Wait list confirmation email!

My Wait list confirmation email!

I immediately called United back, and sure enough — they opened non-stop first class space from Sydney to San Francisco!  I easily tacked on a non-stop flight from SFO to Washington-National (DCA) for myself, and a flight back from SFO to Tampa via Charlotte on US Airways for my dad.

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Return flights:  SYD-SFO-DCA (blue is my flight from SFO on United); SYD-SFO-CLT-TPA (red is my dad’s flights from SFO on US Airways)

Just like that, we had ourselves flights to and from Australia!

Finally had the long flights booked!

Total Cost:  160,000 miles each X 2 = 320,000 United miles (United Global First Class)

Total cost:  160,000 miles each X 2 = 320,000 United miles

What to do in Australia?

With the tough part taken care of, I then started to talk to my dad about what, exactly he wanted to do while we were in Australia.  One thing I was adamant about was spending New Years Even in Sydney, as I wanted to see the celebration on Sydney Harbor.  As such, I’d reserved a room at the Sheraton on the Park in Sydney for five nights, departing on New Years Day. The number one thing my dad wanted to do on this trip was to dive the Great Barrier Reef.  My dad and I were certified SCUBA diving together when I was twelve years old, and have always enjoyed going on dive trips together — and Australia would basically be the epitome of all our dive trips!  I knew that the Cairns / Port Douglas area was the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, so I started looking at options.  With the exception of a few day trips to the GBR, many of the diving options were multi-day live-aboard dive trips.  I broached this idea to my dad, and he was once again VERY enthusiastic about this.  I researched the various live-aboard dive boats that leave from Cairns, and based on reviews and descriptions, we decided to take a very highly recommended, four-day dive trip to the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea aboard the Spirit of Freedom.  Though it was one of the pricier options, we figured that it would be well worth the cost for such a “bucket-list” experience.  After a few e-mails back and forth to the folks at Spirit of Freedom, we were all set to depart Cairns on 02 January and return on 06 January.

Red = 4-day GBR and Coral Sea itinerary *Map from Spirit of Freedom

Red = 4-day GBR and Coral Sea itinerary
*Map from Spirit of Freedom

That left us three days until our return flight back to the States from Sydney.  I broached a couple of ideas to my dad including a trip to the Outback or spending a few days in Melbourne.  After asking around, he told me he wanted to do Melbourne — so that was the plan!

Domestic Flights

With the details planned out of what we wanted to do in Australia planned, I then turned to flights.  Domestically in Australia, there are three major players:  Qantas, Virgin Australia, and JetStar.  This left me with several options.  Since Qantas is partners with both American and British Airways, I could easily redeem those miles for travel should the flight be expensive.  For short-haul flights, British Airways Avios would work best, as it features a distance-based award chart that can be very advantageous — especially on flights under 651 miles.  At the same time, both Virgin Australia and JetStar are relatively low-cost airlines that sell somewhat cheap and reasonable flights domestically in Australia. I weighed my options for a couple of days and decided to buy our flight from Sydney to Cairns (via Brisbane) on New Years Day from on Virgin Australia.  Though it wasn’t cheap (around $240 per person), it was the only choice with a reasonable departure time (10am).  The mileage option would have required a 6am flight on New Years Day — no thank you. For the Cairns to Melbourne segment, I decided to use miles for a flight on Qantas.  At the time, I had very modest balances of both British Airways Avios and American Airlines miles.  I ultimately wanted to fly the both of us in business class, but unfortunately there was only one seat in business left on the Cairns to Sydney segment.   The cheapest way to do this flight in business was with American miles, as it only ran 17,500 miles for this one-way flight in business class.

17,500 miles for a one-way in business class "Wholly Within" Australia

17,500 miles for a one-way in business class “Wholly Within” Australia

Australia one of the "Wholly Within" listed countries

Australia one of the “Wholly Within” listed countries

I then used British Airways Avios for another ticket on the same flights, but in economy.  This came to 14,500 Avios due to the distance of Cairns – Sydney – Melbourne clocking in at two segments (10,000 + 4,500 avios).  See this post for a background in the distance-based British Airway Avios program.

Avios Redemption Chart Courtesy:  British Airways

Avios Redemption Chart
Courtesy: British Airways

Our last flight of the trip required a positioning flight from Melbourne back to Sydney.  I checked the option of award space on the Melbourne to Sydney tag-on flight that’s operated by United, but there was no award space available on that AT ALL.  The good thing about this flight is that Qantas runs hourly non-stops on the route, and as such, the prices are pretty reasonable.  We ended up just booking the flight in cash for less than $100 per person.

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 8.59.06 PM

Domestic Australia Flights — Purple: Virgin Australia; Red: Qantas; Cyan: Spirit of Freedom positioning flight via Hinterland Aviation

Total cost:  17,500 American Miles + 14,500 BA Avios + ~$680.

Hotels

As previously mentioned, I was able to get a very nice rate at the Sheraton on the Park in Sydney over New Years.   With its central Sydney location, it was perfect for getting around the city.  I use the phrase “very nice rate” lightly — as it was still pricey — just not nearly as obscene as the pricing at other properties in Sydney over New Years. We also found a pretty cheap rate at the Holiday Inn Cairns for our one and only night there before our dive trip. We agonized for a bit over our hotel selection in Melbourne.  We were torn between the Grand Hyatt and the Park Hyatt properties, but ultimately decided to stay at the Park Hyatt due mostly to the fact that some of my most amazing hotel stays up to that point had been at Park Hyatt properties (Tokyo, Dubai, and Zurich).  I used Hyatt points for two of the nights and we paid for the last night at this property.

Park Hyatt Melbourne

Park Hyatt Melbourne

The End Result

Booked with miles / points:

  • Domestic flights in United First Class from TPA-IAD-LAX
  • International flight in United Global First Class from LAX-SYD
  • Domestic flights in Qantas Business and Economy Class from CNS-SYD-MEL
  • 2 nights at the Park Hyatt Melbourne
  • International flight in United Global First Class from SYD-SFO
  • Domestic flight in United First Class from SFO-DCA and in US Airways First Class from SFO-CLT-TPA

Booked with cash

  • 5 nights at the Sheraton on the Park, Sydney
  • Domestic flights in Virgin Australia Economy Class from SYD-BNE-CNS
  • 1 night at the Holiday Inn, Cairns
  • 4 nights Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea dive trip on the Spirit of Freedom
  • 1 night at the Park Hyatt Melbourne
  • Domestic flight in Qantas Economy Class fromMEL-SYD

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    The End Result!

 

Well, this trip didn’t start as planned

So I was finishing up work yesterday when a co-worker mentioned to me that there was severe weather expected to roll through the DC area on Thursday.  Alarm bells immediately went off in my head as I was scheduled to fly from DCA to New York-JFK at around 12:30 on Thursday — the same time when the weather was supposed to be God-awful.  This flight was to get me to JFK in plenty of time for my flight to Rio de Janeiro – at 7pm on Thursday.  My concern was not necessarily the Rio flight; rather, it was being able to get to JFK in order to take that flight!  These were separate tickets after all, so the good folks at TAM Airlines really wouldn’t care less if Delta couldn’t get me to New York in time.

I got home and started running through my options.  I could:

  • Keep everything as it was, and just cross my fingers that there wouldn’t be a significant delay or cancellation of my flight to JFK
  • Try to fly out earlier in the morning from DCA-JFK
  • Err on the side of caution and take the Amtrak up to New York on Wednesday night to ensure I wouldn’t miss my flight to Rio.

If I kept everything as-is, I would have been a nervous wreck, and probably would not have slept very well.  The weather forecasts were extremely ominous, and I didn’t like my chances.  Many times with weather, there are many cancellations — primarily of regional jet traffic (which would include my DCA-JFK flight).  In situations of extremely bad weather, air traffic control tends to get the large planes flying internationally out, and the regionals end up with severe delays or cancellations.  After thinking about all this, I decided that I could not just stay with what I had — I needed to make a proactive change.

My first thought was to change the flight to an earlier flight to JFK on Thursday morning.  Then it dawned on me — I wasn’t flying United.  Since I have status with United, I’ve grown accustomed to being able to make same day changes to my flights — I almost take it for granted.  But no, this flight was with Delta.  An airline with which I have zero status.  Delta had not issued a weather waiver at that point, and it was unlikely I’d be able to change my flight unless they did.

The last option I had was to take the train up to New York on Wednesday, stay the night, and have a relaxing day during which I could find my way out to JFK.  I have a modest bank of Amtrak points from which I could use 4,000 of them to get to NYC, and I was able to find a very reasonable last minute rate at the Four Points Sheraton SoHo.  Perfect.

But then there was a small detail that I had to work with:  it was 6:15pm and my train left at 8:45pm.

I had not done laundry.  I had not packed.  At all.

Fast forward two hours, and I found myself scarfing down a slice of Sbarro pizza as my train was about to depart for New York’s Penn Station.  I made it!

The boarding scrum for the NE Regional Amtrak train DC-NYC.

The boarding scrum for the NE Regional Amtrak train DC-NYC.

The train ride was uneventful — a standard Northeast Regional experience.  It takes about 3:20 – 3:30 to get from Washington to New York on Amtrak, and it’s a good way to go, as it dumps you off at Penn Station — smack dab in the middle of Manhattan.

I arrived at Penn Station at about 12:10am, hailed a cab to the Four Points, and went right to bed.

I slept pretty well in the small room, and woke up at around 8am to do some work.  Again, the room was quite small, but the location is very good and is well situated in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan.

My small room

My small room at the 4 Points Sheraton SoHo

After a brief walk around the SoHo neighborhood, I packed my things and headed to Brooklyn where I planned to meet a friend for lunch.  The subway ride was about 15 minutes, and eventually plopped me out right in downtown Brooklyn near the brand new Barclay’s Center.  Wow – what a cool looking arena!

Photo Jun 13, 2 13 26 PM

The new Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn — home of the Nets

My friend took me for a roast beef sandwich at Brennan and Carr’s in Brooklyn… awesome!

The Gargiulo burger at Brennan & Carr's in Brooklyn

The Gargiulo burger at Brennan & Carr’s in Brooklyn

After lunch, he drove me to JFK, where I had plenty of time to check-in and make the flight to Rio!  In fact, I’m writing this from the comforts of the American Airlines AAdmirals Club at JFK in T8.  My flight is scheduled out for 7:10pm, I have a drink in hand, and things are good!

A whole bunch of AAirplanes at JFK

A whole bunch of AAirplanes at JFK

Next stop:  Rio de Janeiro!