Three nights in Manhattan

“The City That Never Sleeps” certainly showcased why it got its nickname in the scant few days that I was in New York City for work. For three nights (I don’t count the first one because I arrived at my hostel at 9pm, dead-tired from a trans-Pacific flight), I returned to my hostel past 9pm because there was always something to see, even at the late hour.

First night: outside Grand Central Terminal, Times Square, Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick’s Cathedral

We started walking from Instituto Cervantes on E 40th St towards Times Square (where a co-delegate was meeting his aunt) on W 46th St, but with a slight detour to pass by Grand Central Station on E 42nd St. It sounded near enough in my head, forgetting to take into account the width of NYC’s blocks.

We didn’t have the time to enter Grand Central Terminal (I did that the next day) but even seeing just the outside was enough. Continue reading “Three nights in Manhattan”

Touring Manhattan in 12 hours

Before I start, please note that allocating only one day to see Manhattan is absolutely ridiculous. There’s just so much to see and do that you can easily spend three days or more just in Manhattan, not to mention the rest of New York City. However, I was in NYC for work and had only one free day between meetings and had no way to extend my stay, so making the most of that one full day was imperative.

Part of what made this itinerary work was basing out of Manhattan already. I stayed in the Vanderbilt YMCA and had a mostly good experience, except for a major grievance that resulted from Front Desk not talking to Security. I started this itinerary at 9 am, but I would have had to start it much earlier if I weren’t in Manhattan already.

Stop 1: St. Patrick’s Cathedral

I passed St. Patrick’s at night on my 2nd day and took photos (of course), but it’s still something else to see it in the daytime. The architecture just amazed me. It felt weird to take photos inside the church but the staff said it was okay. Still only took a few though. Also managed to squeeze in some quiet time.

Continue reading “Touring Manhattan in 12 hours”

The Five-0 Dream comes true, Part 6: getting to Mauna Kea

(YES this is a super late post. WHOOO. My Hawaii trip actually happened in June 2016! If you missed my previous posts, I talked about presenting my research at the International Coral Reef Symposium, exploring Diamond Head, the Waikiki Aquarium, and the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology, exploring the Bishop Museum and eating my way around Honolulu, and exploring Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.)

We woke up slightly early so we could hike down to the the Kīlauea Iki Crater lava lake before we left for Mauna Kea but it turned out to be a drizzly, windy, AND foggy morning so that plan was canceled real quick.

Nope, no hiking to be done in the Kīlauea Iki Crater lava lake.

We did manage to take a few photos of the endangered nene (pronounced “nay-nay”, YES like the song and YES my friends made a ton of corny jokes )  that was hanging out in front of Volcano House.

After that, we went back to Holoholo In to pack our bags and head to Mauna Kea via the long way AKA a scenic drive along the coast. We wanted to get to Mauna Kea just before sunset so the long way, with the postcard-perfect views and casual driving, was perfect.

Continue reading “The Five-0 Dream comes true, Part 6: getting to Mauna Kea”

How to get discounted luggage on Hawaiian Airlines even with a Delta award ticket

For the first time ever, I redeemed my Delta SkyMiles for an award ticket. While I’ve redeemed miles before under their Pay with Miles program (though that was frustrating because it was before Pay with Miles tickets earned mileage credit), I’ve never had enough miles for a full award ticket. That changed when I booked a Honolulu-Hilo-Honolulu (HNL-ITO-HNL) ticket with Hawaiian Airlines during our happy days extension after the International Coral Reef Symposium (post about the ICRS experience on the way!). $180 saved! 😀

hawaiian

The only downside was that since it was a Delta ticket and thus tagged with my SkyMiles number, I (theoretically) wouldn’t be eligible for the discounted check-in baggage fee that Hawaiian extends to their HawaiianMiles members. Regular rate for Neighboring Island flights (i.e. HNL-ITO-HNL) is $25 per way for the first bag and $35 per way for the second, while the discounted rate is $15 for the first bag and $20 for the second.

*Restrictions may apply. As a member benefit, HawaiianMiles members will enjoy reduced 1st and 2nd checked baggage fees when flying between the Neighbor Islands, traveling wholly within the State of Hawaii … Discount applies to confirmed Hawaiian Airlines revenue tickets and flight award tickets redeemed with HawaiianMiles. Discount is applicable on any fare class ticket. Baggage discounts will only be applied when your HawaiianMiles number is present in your reservation, or added prior to completing the check-in process.

So that’s that, right? Not exactly. I accidentally found a loophole in their setup after signing up for HawaiianMiles and poking around their website.

  1. Sign up for HawaiianMiles! Super easy.
  2. Find your booking in the HA site using Delta’s confirmation code.
  3. HA displays your itinerary with them and a separate HA confirmation code. You can either print this page out or just remember the new confirmation code.
  4. Upon check-in (we used the self-check in stations), use the HA confirmation code instead of Delta’s, input your HawaiianMiles number, and voilà! You’re eligible for the baggage discount 😀

It seems that HA’s system gives a separate confirmation code because it treats the Delta award ticket as a third-party booking, same as a ticket bought through a travel agency.

The funny thing is that I only discovered this during our return leg. When I tried to check-in for the HNL-ITO leg, the self-service station wouldn’t accept Delta’s confirmation code. Since it was the first flight of the day (ugh 5:30 am) and there weren’t any HA staff yet, I ended up checking in online through my phone while my friend checked my bag in under her regular HA ticket. Why the HA website accepted Delta’s code while the self-service station did not, I have no idea. I looked up my flight details the day before we flew back, and that’s when I discovered that HA gives a new confirmation number.

Let me know if this works out for anybody else!

My top Hong Kong travel apps

The smorgasbord of travel apps have made planning and executing travel plans so much easier. But which ones do you need for a trip to Hong Kong? Here are my tried and tested favorites:

HK eTransport
Hong Kong’s public transportation system, in my opinion, is what every other system in the world hopes to become. (Of course, this is helped by the fact that Hong Kong is smaller compared to everywhere else but that’s besides the point.) Everything runs like clockwork: the trains, the buses, the ferries, even the taxis! But navigating the entire system can be confusing to the newcomer (like me!) so this is where HK eTransport comes in.

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The HK eTransport app was created by Hong Kong’s Transport Department and gives you a complete guide on how to get from Point A to Point B. Just enter your starting location and your ending location and the app will calculate the various commuting routes available to you using the Mass Transit Railway (MTR), Light Rail Transit (LRT), franchised buses, green minibuses, ferries (the famous Star Ferry and the ferries that service the Outlying Islands), regular trams, the Peak Tram, cross-boundary coach to Huanggang (China), and the bus to Ma Wan and Discovery Bay. It will even give you a detailed breakdown of each route and you can sort through the routes according to the number of interchanges, total fare, and estimated trip time.

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Suggested routes from where we stayed to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum

Cons: Requires an active data connection to use. Also, the suggested routes only include stops that are a maximum of 400 meters away from your origin or destination, thus potentially limiting your route choices. For example, there are normally two options for getting to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum from where we stayed in Tsim Sha Tsui: 1) taking the East Rail line from East Tsim Sha Tsui to Sha Tin (no transfers) then walking for 15 minutes to the museum), and 2) taking the East Rail line from East Tsim Sha Tsui to Tai Wai, transfering to the Ma On Sha line and take it to Che Kung Temple station, and walking for 5 minutes. But because of the 400 m restriction, the first option doesn’t appear. While it’s not necessarily a bad thing, there are bound to be times when you just want to walk and see the sights.

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Download for iOS and Android

Official MTR app
This standalone application developed by the MTR gives you a detailed guide to Hong Kong’s MTR system. Enter your start and end stations and the app will give you the line you’ll take (and any line changes, if ever), estimated trip time, and total fare. It also lists the different points of interest accessible at each stop.

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If you don’t know the specific name of the station, you can search for popular landmarks instead.

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MTR map from Tsim Sha Tsui to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, with Che Kung Temple as the nearest station.

Pros: The app works even without an active data connection. However, you should have an active data connection when you first open it so it can download the latest fare guides.
Cons: The app is redundant if you already have the HK eTransport app.

Download for iOS and Android.

OpenRice Hong Kong
Hong Kong is all about the food and the OpenRice Hong Kong app is your best guide to Hong Kong’s best eats. It has an extensive list of restaurants, where they’re located, estimated cost per person, and reviews from the community. Aside from searching for a specific restaurant, OpenRice can also use your location to suggest nearby restaurants that you can sort according to cost, cuisine, and review scores.

2015-03-11 19.39.29

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That blue dot was me and the Wah Kee Snack Food stall was a restaurant near me that served cheap but good food.

My friend Eric used it to bring up restaurant recommendations for me and sent the information via Facebook. You can also send the information through email, SMS, Twitter, and WhatsApp. In my case, Eric suggested that I try Honeymoon Desserts in Sha Tin (this was after our visit to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum). Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to eat there at the time as I accidentally left my wallet at home (long story). No sweat though, as I used OpenRice to find the Tsim Sha Tsui branch (it’s located inside Harbour Mall) and I was able to walk there from where I was staying.

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Directions from my apartment to the nearest branch of Honeymoon Dessert

 

Cons: Requires an active data connection to use.

Download for iOS and Android.

General travel needs:

XE Currency Converter
This app is a staple in my phone, regardless of whether I’m traveling or not. The user interface is easy to use and very pretty. Don’t forget to check the exchange rate for the day to make sure that you’re getting the most out of your money.

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Pro: the app works even without a data connection. Just remember that the exchange rate you’ll be using is the one the app got the last time it was online.

Download for iOS, Android, and Blackberry 10.

A SIM card and a data plan:

If your (unlocked) phone uses a micro or nano SIM card, you’re only in Hong Kong for 5 days or less, and don’t mind throwing the SIM card away after your trip, get the PCCW Discover Hong Kong Tourist SIM card. The HK$69 SIM card is the cheapest available, is valid for 5 days, and you get 1.5 GB of data (3G speed), unlimited local calls, unlimited csl Wi-Fi, and HK$25 of usable value. If you want to extend the validity for another 5 days, you pay an additional HK$50 and get the same benefits. There’s an 8-day SIM card for HK$96 (gives you 5 GB data and HK$35 of useable value) but you cannot extend the validity of this card. Please note that this SIM card does NOT work on Blackberry devices. BOOOO!

hong kong tourist sim

If you’re staying for more than 5 days, I suggest that you get the regular China Mobile SIM card instead. The SIM card sells for HK$80 (HK$78 consumable) and is valid for 180 days since the last time it’s used. However, be sure to subscribe to the data plan you need. If you don’t, you’ll be charged HK$0.5/MB. I went with 1.5 GB data for 5 days (same as the Tourist SIM), costing HK $48. Subscription codes are here.

china mobile sim card

 Many, many thanks to Eric who suggested all the HK apps and the China Mobile SIM card! 😀

Macy’s Top Ten Taiwan travel tricks and tips

It’s been a week since I got back from a 10-day trip to Taiwan to present at the 3rd Asia-Pacific Coral Reef Symposium (APCRS). APCRS was my first time to present at an international scientific conference so YAY ME! After a hectic schedule of shuttling back and forth between Taipei and Pingtung, of balancing work and having fun, here’s my Top Ten list of (suggested) things to remember and/or do to make your trip easier, more fun, and less tiring.

1. Good news! Filipinos holding valid multiple-entry US, Canada, Japan, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, or Schengen visas are visa-exempt for Taiwan! Just register online 1-2 months before you leave and bring a printed copy of the authorization certificate with you. The authorization certificate is valid for multiple entries for 30 days, starting from when you first enter Taiwan. I have US and Canadian visas so the exemption saved me time and around P2,000 in visa application fees.

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2. If you’re between 15 to 30 years old, apply for a Youth Travel Card at the airport Visitor Information counter when you arrive. It’s free, the card gets you discounts at participating attractions (the National Palace Museum is included!), and it makes for a cool souvenir. Unfortunately, I didn’t do enough Googling prior to leaving so I thought that you could only get it at the airport. Since the counter closed at 10pm and we arrived at 1:30am AND I didn’t know that you could get it elsewhere, I wasn’t able to get the Youth Travel Card myself. So yes, this tip comes from a (sorta) shallow well of bitterness 😛

3. Get an EasyCard. This reloadable tap-and-go card is the single-most important thing you’d need to travel around Taipei and possibly the rest of Taiwan. It works for the MRT, buses, the High Speed Rail, the Tamsui ferries, even the Taipei Zoo! You can also use it in convenience stores. Some Starbucks branches also take it 😛 It’s basically the equivalent of Hong Kong’s Octopus card. You can get the EasyCard at any MRT station. A NT$100 deposit is required plus any credits that you want to load on the card. You can return the card at the end of your trip (also at the MRT station) for a refund of the deposit and any unused value, minus a NT$20 administration fee for a card that’s been in circulation for less than 3 months or used less than 5 times.

01 easycard

4. Taipei Taoyuan International Airport is Taiwan’s main gateway but it’s not located inside Taipei itself. The airport is about 1 hour out of Taipei and the cheapest and most convenient way to travel between Taipei and Taoyuan Aiport is via bus. Kuo Kuang Motor Transportation operates express buses between Taipei West Bus Station (beside Taipei Main Station) and Taoyuan Airport and the trip generally takes 50 minutes to an hour. Adult tickets are NT$125 each. Operating hours are:

Taoyuan Airport to Taipei West Bus Station: 5:30am to 12:20am the next day (buses leave every 10-15 minutes)
Taiwan West Bus Station to Taoyuan Airport: 4:30am to 11:50pm (buses leave every 10-15 minutes)

Since we arrived at the airport at 1:30am, we had to take a taxi to our hostel. The taxi cost NT$1,200 with similar travel time as the bus.

5. Unless you want to take advantage of discounted early bird tickets and/or are traveling during super peak times, there’s really no reason for you to buy High Speed Rail tickets in advance. I got my Taipei-Zuoying ticket at NT $1300 (30% off) instead of the usual NT $1630 but my Zuoying-Taipei ticket was at regular price. My friends had no problems buying tickets even five minutes before the train was scheduled to leave.

6. Get a translator app and maps. Yes, this seems like a no-brainer but I thought it worth mentioning it anyway just in case you somehow forget it in the rush of getting ready. None of the taxi drivers we got spoke English – one of them asked us (politely?) to get out of the cab once he found out that we didn’t speak Mandarin. He only agreed to take us to Taipei Main Station once I pointed it out on the map. The map itself was in English (the street names were also in English) but Taipei Main Station had a cute illustration to mark the spot and the driver recognized it.

7. Eat at the roadside eateries and streetfood areas. All of the places we ate at served cheap and delicious food AND we didn’t get sick. Hooray! If you plan correctly, NT $400 can get you 3 square meals plus snacks. The only semi-letdown was the not-so-stuffed takoyaki I got at Shilin Night Market. Boo 🙁

8. If you’re the type that flinches at the idea of no Wi-Fi, never fear! Taipei offers free Wi-Fi in many public areas, including the MRT, bus, and train stations. Some users can register using their mobile phones (depends on the country where your mobile phone is registered) but for others, you’ll have to register at one of the many Visitor Information Centers. A valid ID is required to register at the centers.

9. Bring an umbrella if you’re visiting in June. Seriously. I’m Filipino so I’m used to the heat but Taiwan’s heat and humidity is something else. I felt ready to take another shower after just three hours of walking outside.

10. Bring a little notebook with you to collect stamps. Yes I’m serious again. In a brilliant (IMHO) move by Taiwan’s tourism authority, they have stamping stations located in their top tourist destinations and even the MRT. The collected stamps are a fun, cute, and free souvenir of your trip. If you’re a completist, the stamps can be a standalone goal. Bonus points if you buy your stamping notebook in Taiwan and get the ones with Taiwan maps and images on them (like mine!).

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What’s in my summer bag

It’s summer! Summer! My favorite time of the year! A time to dream of the beach, get to the beach, swim in the ocean, and everything else that comes after 😀 As a proud veteran of 6+ years of island living, I’d like to think that I’ve perfected the art of packing for the beach 🙂 So here goes: what’s in my (waterproof) gear bag for Summer 2014!

Clockwise from top left:

theislandergirl gearbag_small

Dry Pak waterproof pouch – essential for all electronics. The pouch is padded so it floats when dropped in the water (awesome!). The yellow sealing clip makes it easy to spot too. Comes with a lanyard and a carabiner. You can still use your phone through the pouch (only a very slight muffling of the sound) though using a touchscreen takes some practice. Good thing I use a Blackberry Q10 then 😛

Aquazorb travel towel – superior water-absorbing capabilities at the fraction of the weight of a regular terrycloth towel

Panasonic Lumix TS4 camera – 12 megapixels, waterproof up to 12 meters, shockproof up to 5 feet, and dustproof. Easy to use too. The default “Underwater” white balance setting is excellent in shallow water though it does lose something as you go deeper. But since I use this mainly for beach and snorkeling photos versus a Canon S95 with Ikelite underwater housing for diving photos, it’s all good. This camera has seen action in Orlando, El Nido, Leyte, and La Union. And remember the #1 rule of traveling: take only pictures! 😀

VMV Hypoallergenics Armada Sport 70 sunblock – the best sunscreen you’ll ever use. Excellent protection from UVA and UVB rays, easy to apply, absorbs easily into the skin, no greasy feeling afterwards, and no smell so you can also apply it to your face. I’ve used this for the past 5 years and have no regrets.

VMV Hypoallergenics Essence Skin-Saving Milk Conditioner – something for after the beach. I have sensitive skin so I can’t use just any shampoo or conditioner since whatever I apply to my hair will eventually end up on my face as it washes off when I shower. I love this conditioner because it makes my hair all smooth and shiny and doesn’t cause my face to break out.

O’Neill Superkini – my favorite bikini ever. I have this one plus another Superkini in teal. It’s made of Nanofront fabric that develops 200% more grip between the suit and your skin when wet. Read my full review.

Rusty boardshorts – top tip: shop for boardshorts in SM’s Surplus Shop. They stock brands like Roxy, Volcom, O’Neill, and Rusty but selling at much lower prices compared to other retailers.

Not included in the photo are my Fluidsurf rashguards (Filipino brand, great quality, good price compared to rashguards from Billabong and Roxy) and Flopeds filpflops (the best flipflops ever IMHO).

I brought all the gear described to San Juan, La Union last April and they worked perfectly. I’ll also be bringing the same gear to El Nido and Sagay, Negros Oriental in June when I help MSI in the training of DENR personnel. Yay for thorough field testing 😀