Iguazu Falls 3 ways – Party of 5 Daily Update


Update from Carrie: Hard to believe we’ve come to the final day of the Frequent Miler “Party of 5” challenge. As the grand finale of the Team SFO itinerary (and final day of our 2-week adventure together), we got to see the Iguazu Falls – not just once, but in 3 very different ways.

To learn how to watch all the videos from the Team SFO trip and the Team TYO trip, click here and follow the instructions below.

Before I dive in, let me explain this challenge to anyone new: If you’ve been following along, you know that the entire Frequent Miler team just embarked on a group trip where no one person knows the entire itinerary. As you may recall, this particular trip divides us into two teams with Greg as our referee. Team Tokyo has designed a five day surprise itinerary in Asia, (originating in Tokyo), while Team San Francisco has designed five days of mystery adventure in the Americas, (originating in San Francisco). Even though Greg is our judge in this contest, each team has tried to make great use of points and miles to build a trip our whole “family of 5” will love.

Not sure what this challenge is? Start at the beginning for a full explanation.

Frequent Miler team in our team hats

(Final) Day 13 itinerary: Iguazu Falls 3 Ways

Before we’d even gotten to sleep, we’d reoriented ourselves into a hotel on the Brazil side of the Iguazu region in a fairly modest Wyndham hotel. We got an early start so we could fit as much in as possible on our very last day as a Party of 5, and so that we could squeeze in a particularly weather-dependent activity before the rain hit. The truth is, visiting the roaring and expansive Iguazu Falls is not a very dry activity, so it’s hard to imagine why avoiding the rain even matters.

Because “helicopters” of course! This was, (incredibly), our first method for viewing the Iguazu Falls. We arrived fairly early (somewhere between 9 am and 10 am?) and waited just over half an hour for our ride with Helisul. The ride was only 10 minutes, but it was a high-octane 10 minutes. I’d never ridden in a helicopter before, so that alone gave me butterflies as we circled the falls – but it was also an excellent way to see what a phenomenon these falls are – like a Canyon with walls of water.

Carrie Iguazu Falls Brazil Side Helisul Helicopter

But you can’t get the full Iguazu experience from above…that’s too dry. The logical next vantage point is from the water itself, of course. For this experience, we had the choice of the “Wet” boat or the “Less Wet” boat. Effectively, this just determines whether or not your boat driver will take the raft directly under the cascade spray, or just within reach. We chose the “Less Wet” boat. The boat ride was much more than just a scenic excursion – it was downright fun racing over the peaks and undulations in the water. And of course, it gave us another incredible view of the waterfalls.

Tim Iguazu Falls from boat Brazil SideThe only vantage point missing was directly on top of the water falls. No, we didn’t hop in any barrels – instead we walked along the elevated paths built directly over the water. This was shockingly the wettest and coldest vantage point. (Did I mention that the 80 degree weather dipped down to 50 just in time for our visit?) It may have been the most mesmerizing vantage point though (and the cheapest as well, if I recall.) Viewing the falls from the middle of the spray, it felt like all the air in the sky was liquifying before my eyes – some dream-world where water gods create vapors out of thin air to dissolve the notion of existing in dry, solid form. I left with soaking socks and feeling surprisingly reminiscent of the Tokyo TeamLabs afterglow.

Nick Iguazu Falls Brasil Side OverlookThough I was sad to reach our final day of Party of 5, it was an excellent end to an excellent trip, despite the rain and cold. The falls are too incredible not to enjoy in any weather.

Day 12 itinerary: Party of 5 takes to the streets

We took the morning slow, then headed to a specific street corner where Nick and Tim introduced my special activity – a tour of the local murals. This was a great pick for me because I love photographing street art, but also have dabbled with painting my own murals. (Last year I did my first mural for a local business in Charlottesville for instance.)

I particularly loved the first and last pieces we visited, both by a local artist named “Luxor”. I felt like his pieces were reminiscent of wood-block prints, an art form I love and try to sort of mimic in my own dood-lings. I was surprised that the fellas nailed my art preferences so much with the murals they chose to visit…and then something even more shocking happened. We hopped in a taxi to what I thought was just another mural locale, but we arrived in front of a blank wall where a trio of locals were waiting for us. Perhaps you already see where this is going. Somehow Nick and Tim worked some crazy activity-planning magic and arranged for the muralist Luxor to give us a class in mural painting!

The fellas have seen my jaw drop in excitement many times on this trip: when we happened upon some bats in the wild in the Philippines, when we saw the ANA first class suite…but I’m not sure anything compared to this. They probably didn’t realize how perfectly tuned to my interests (and even my personal dreams) this activity was. Not only is becoming a muralist in some form or another is sort of a secret dream of mine, but the artist teaching us the ropes happened to have a style I really loved. Even though the others don’t share this dream, Luxor did an excellent job making it fun for everyone, and informative for those of us (…ok just me) who want to remember these skills for the future. Make sure and check out his instagram here.

Then, as usual for Team SFO’s portion of this trip, it was time to take another flight. This time, a domestic flight to Iguazu!

Day 11 itinerary: A home cooked meal in a new country for all

Finally our luck turned around on Day 11. We started the day with a super-informative walking tour with a local guide and former teacher. Fascinatingly, the prevalence of earthquakes in Chile means fewer impressive old buildings than you might see on downtown walking tours in other cities, but our Santiago tour was less centered around large old buildings, and more centered around various conflicts in recent history, and their impact on Chileans. It was an excellent way to get to know Santiago.

Walking tour in Santiago

After our leisurely morning, we dashed off to catch yet another flight. And again, Steven and I didn’t find out the destination until the very last moment…Buenos Aires! This was particularly exciting for me because, though I enjoyed Santiago, I’ve been there before. I recognized a few of the spots we visited on our walking tour for instance. But Argentina is not only a new destination for me, it was a new destination for our entire group!

Team SFO had warned us that it would be a late night…but the flight from Santiago to Buenos Aires isn’t very long…so we knew they had something up their sleeves.

We landed around 9pm then scurried off to a random street corner. I started wondering if we were checking into an Airbnb, or maybe doing an Airbnb experience of some kind. After just a few minutes of very curious waiting, our hosts invited us in – not Airbnb hosts, but dinner hosts. As Greg’s special activity, Nick and Tim used Viator to book a home-cooked meal with locals. The food was creative and delicious, and each dish was paired with a local Argentinian wine. We had a late night of chatting with our hosts all about life in Argentina, a great way to immerse ourselves in this new country.

Local meal in Argentina

Day 10 itinerary: Cop cars and go karts

The overnight LATAM business class flight had us landing in Santiago bright and early in the morning with plenty of time to explore the Andes. Nick and Tim had arranged for guides to meet us at the Ritz Carlton Santiago where we’d store our bags then dash off into the Andes for some white water rafting and hot springs. That would have been an epic day…

I say “would have” because we never made it to our Andes adventure. As soon as we started to unpack the bags, Greg discovered that his bag was missing. This was not only frustrating but also incredibly puzzling because multiple people remembered him putting his bag in the trunk of the Uber- and the Uber driver was very helpful and even shared his personal phone number with us. Just as we were considering sending a troop out to the airport to look for it, Greg started getting fraud alerts on his cards….one after the next.

It’s so hard to know what to do in situations like this, and ultimately, there’s not a lot you even can do, but for a number of reasons, it can be a very good idea to at least file a police report. This is typically required for any kind of insurance you might be hoping to submit a claim to for instance. But be prepared to spend half a day doing it – and sure enough, that’s exactly what Greg did next. He and Nick spent the next 6 hours hopping from police station to police station. The first was simply to file a police report. The others were to play whack-a-mole with the bag location, as indicated by Greg’s air pod tracking. (Every time the bag changed location across district lines, they got handed off to that district’s police.) So instead of white water rafting Greg and Nick got a tour of the rough parts of town from the back of a variety of cop cars.

Rally Kart in Santiago

Team SFO was not going to let the whole day go to waste though. They not only redeemed the day with an evening activity we all enjoyed, they also redeemed the activity Stephen and I had needed to cancel in Macau (due to rain). We finished the evening with insanely fun go karting which helped us all expel all the pent up energy from the day.

Day 8 and 9 itinerary: The team heads south

When we headed to Haneda to board our highly anticipated ANA first class flight (which was sort of the booking that kicked off the whole Party of 5 planning), that signified the end of Team TYO’s portion of this competition, but not yet the beginning of Team SFO. This flight was a neutral period where we all just enjoyed each other’s company and marveled at our good luck with getting the whole First Class cabin to ourselves! You can read all about that here.

coastline hike in SFO

But for this post, I want to focus on the competing itineraries, so I’ll fast forward to when we landed in the early afternoon. Much to my surprise, Team SFO actually included an overnight in San Francisco in their itinerary. We enjoyed a leisurely coastline hike with beautiful views before we hit the hay in our (tiny) Holiday Inn rooms. In the morning, we packed up and hit the town for a few stops on our way back to the airport. First, a place called The Buena Vista Cafe for a locally famous Irish Coffee, then a quick photo in front of the actual “Party of 5” house, from the television show, then on to the airport for a quick SouthWest flight to LAX. Nick and Tim were making sure to send all kinds of confusing signals to make us think we were staying in LAX. Despite there being a running conversation about our divided opinions on In-N-Out Burger, Stephen and I wondered if that would be the big destination reveal.

But, not so! Instead, we boarded a very long (11 hour!) but very comfortable LATAM business class flight to…Santiago, Chile! Stay tuned to keep tabs on what’s next.

LATAM Business Class

Day 7 itinerary: TeamLabs Tokyo: a spa for the brain

Though most of the day was a sort of work day for the team, we did have one last special activity planned for the hours before our 10pm flight in ANA first class suites. We haven’t been highlighting it too much, but Stephen and I designed our trip to have one little Easter egg for each of our travel companions. The resident-chef at our Philippines Airbnb was our Easter egg for Greg (since his 3 Cards, 3 Continents trip was built around culinary adventures, complete with culinary concierge.) Nick’s Easter egg was the Wynn Palace fountain show (since he’s a big fan of Vegas’ Bellagio fountain.) Stephen’s Easter egg was sadly the VR park which we weren’t able to reach because of our failed Macau navigations, and the panda’s in Macau were my Easter egg.

Party of 5 teamlabs bouncy ball exhibit
This room was full of mirrors and giant bouncy balls with faint glowing lights inside. We had a little too much fun launching these at one another.

So that left Tim as the only person who hadn’t received an Easter egg yet. By the time we got to his easter egg in Tokyo, it should have been (and maybe was) pretty obvious what it was. You see, months ago even before the challenge was planned, Tim had suggested that if any of us ever end up in Tokyo, we’d need to check out the teamLabs “Borderless” interactive art experience.

Party of 5 Teamlabs Tokyo Crystal forest
This display, (called the crystal forest) was probably our favorite. We could’ve sat here in this large, mirrored room forever watching the incredible lights around us. Again, so hard to describe.
Here’s another shot of the crystal palace – just as cool as looking up into the lights was looking down into the infinite light reflections in the mirrored floor.

Unfortunately the “Borderless” experience was closed for renovations, but the smaller “Planets” experience was open. Even as a paired down version of the larger exhibit, this blew us all away. The experience takes you through interactive rooms where lights, mirrors, giant balls, bean-bag floors, smoky rippling water, and even live flowers are all part of an interactive, otherworldly experience. We spent almost two hours exploring these rooms. It’s hard to describe other than to say it felt like a spa for your brain – and it left us all feeling in awe. This put us in a great mood for heading off to Haneda for our ANA Fist class flight in “the suites”, which you can read all about here.

Flower exhibit for Party of 5 TeamLabs
This room had real live orchids hanging down – they would rise and fall based on your movements so we could cocoon ourselves in them. Incredible.

Day 6 itinerary: Another Day, Another Fancy Macau Breakfast

Starting the day in the Grand Hyatt Macau, (where we’d enjoyed spreading out amongst 3 suites, all with incredible views of the Wynn Palace water fountain) we joined up for breakfast in the meza9 restaurant. We spent a not insignificant portion of breakfast discussing which hotel we liked best between the Four Seasons and the Grand Hyatt Macau. The verdict almost unanimously was for the Grand Hyatt Macau, though there were elements we liked better about the Four Seasons. The thing that stood out about the Grand Hyatt Macau was the incredible service. Just as one small example, the attendants at breakfast took mental note of exactly where we were sitting so they could help us take our plates to our seats. Very impressive.

Unfortunately, it was time to get back into transit mode. Since a large part of this trip has been built around incredible award availability we’d found for all 5 of us to fly ANA’s “The suites” from Tokyo to SFO, Steven and I have been very careful to plan our itinerary with a fair amount of buffer space so that we wouldn’t be in jeopardy of missing that flight. That means, you guessed it, we spent the day making our way back to Tokyo. Thanks to the HK Airport Direct bus line, we had a very smooth transit experience from Macau to the HongKong international airport. And of course as we left the hotel this morning, I winced a bit at how beautiful the weather was turning out to be today. If only we could have had that nice weather yesterday.

Chase Sapphire Lounge by Club Hong Kong

Our journey back to Japan was a lovely one. First we checked out the Chase Sapphire Lounge by the Club Hong Kong, (which ironically, didn’t accept the Chase Sapphire card for entry – only Priority Pass), then we boarded a JAL business class flight to Haneda where we checked into yet another stellar hotel – the Hyatt Regency Tokyo Bay. Even if we struck out with yesterday’s activities, you’ve got to admit we’ve been managing some pretty incredible accommodations.

Day 5 itinerary: Stephen and Carrie find bad luck in Macau

Our good luck must have stayed behind in the Philippines because anything we tried to do outside of our hotel doors flopped like this panda’s sleep posture.

Sleeping panda

Our spirits were sky-high when the day started with an incredible and truly interesting breakfast at the Four Seasons Macau. Not only was the food great, but the variety was even better.  I saw a bagel with bacon, almonds, and candied orange peel on Nick’s plate, a solid array of dim sum on Greg’s plate, double-smoked black chicken soup on Tim’s plate, and lobster claws on Stephen’s plate. And on our shared plate – we all mustered the courage to try the weirdly rubbery century egg.

Lobster at Hyatt Macao breakfast

Most of our plan A wouldn’t have worked in the rain, but Stephen and I thought we’d come up with a decent alternative to accommodate the day’s rainy forecast. We first headed to the Giant Panda Pavilion – a small but free exhibit with Giant pandas, red pandas, lemurs, and more (and the only part of our original Plan A which was still ok with rain). A first sign of back luck (and a metaphor for the rest of our outings today,) the panda decided to relieve himself right as I started photographing him. (The second sign was the pavilion’s vending machine vehemently spitting Greg’s Curve card out into a puddle on the ground.)

A bad omen to be sure. Next, a slew of construction made our walking route to the next stop impassable, and the cabs all refused to stop, seemingly all on a system we don’t have access to (and none of the ride-share apps seemed to work either.) Finally we got an apartment front-desk attendant to call a cab for us, but at this point, it was time to return to the hotel so we could make use of our dining credits before checkout.

This was only the beginning, but we had a bad-luck-break when we transferred hotels – moving to the Grand Hyatt Macau. Here, we had 3 suites, all with club access. Stephen will share more about how this was booked later, but it was an instant win. For one, we all had a view of the Bellagio-like fountain show, and for another, we had a view of the planes taking off of a runway over the water. For a moment, we felt the day was redeemed.

After the lounge closed around 7:30, we made the mistake of leaving it for another attempt at activities. We watched the fountain show without a hitch, but then the gondolas at the Venetian failed us with unexplained closure and the St. Regis Jazz Bar failed us with no more tables left (on a Tuesday evening.) At this point, we threw our hands up in the air and decided a bottle of wine in our suite overlooking the fountain would be our activity for the night.

House party in Macao

The lesson we learned? Macau is a huge success as long as you don’t leave your (incredible) hotel rooms. Are we wrong? What are your experiences with Macau?

Day 4 itinerary: A 6-modes-of-transport day

It often takes a lot of transit logistics to visit tropical islands, and today we did it all in reverse and then some. We managed to improve our transit conditions a bit from our Tokyo to Puerto Galera run. For instance this time the ferry’s “business class” was a lot less crowded (though the movie playing in the background was unimproved), and this time we got to fly Cathay Business Class (instead of JAL economy). Upon landing in HongKong however, Steven and I had a lot of stressful puzzle pieces to work out – none helped by the fact that it was after 9 pm.

Four Seasons Macao wooden key

When Drew and I travel, I kind of just buckle up and assume there will be some trial and error and guess work in sorting out if google’s how-to for getting from airport to hotel is at all realistic with the actual on-the-ground options – especially in certain parts of the world and at greater distances. It’s one thing to slog through late night transit puzzles for yourself and it’s another to do it with a whole group of people you’re meant to impress and delight throughout the competition. Needless to say – I felt nervous about this piece of the journey, but we made it ok with the help of our patient travel-mates, and 6 varieties of transportation. The Jeepney + ferry + van + plane + taxi + bus made arriving at the Four Seasons Macau (with rooms upgraded to suites) feel all the more wonderful.

Goodnight from Macau, and watch for more updates from my weary travel companions tomorrow!

Day 3 itinerary: Carried by Carabao and snorkeling made simple

Carrie says

Today we returned to the “Jeepney” to hit some of Mindoro’s hot spots. First, we visited the Tamaraw Falls and Tukuran Falls. At the latter, we made use of a “Caribao Cart” to travel from the road to the falls.

We had a nice, leisurely time swimming in the pools around the base of the falls (and even getting a “waterfall massage” as the locals called it), but the real highlight of today’s activities came at our next stop – a snorkeling “tour” of the coral garden in The Muelle Bay. None of us had ever experienced snorkeling while being sort of towed by the traditional Bangka boat.

We held onto ropes on either side of the boat while the captain led us directly over a stunning and extensive garden of coral. We spotted giant clams, brightly colored coral and fish, and even a pair of giant sea turtles. And best of all – our whole “family” seemed to love it.

Nick says

The Philippines suit me well.

I love waterfalls, and after a few days being hunched over my computer instead of at a desk at home, I was happy to get a “water massage” from a waterfall at Tukuran Falls. The scenery was beautiful and though the hiking was a bit tricky, I was glad to have a set of rubber sandals that I purchased a year or two ago with a Platinum card Saks credit (I almost only packed sneakers for this trip, which wouldn’t have worked well with hiking through some water today!). For those curious, these are the sandals on Amazon and I find them very comfortable. For those more interested in seeing the entire Frequent Miler team get pummeled by a waterfall, I present:

Then we moved on to a snorkeling tour built for someone who wants to lay in the water and not have to work to see amazing ocean life. That’s because we were essentially able to hang on to a rope on an outrigger and get motored along a coral garden with the chance to see countless fish, a greater variety of (healthy) corals than I’ve ever seen in one place, and even a pair of sea turtles. Stephen and Carrie really rolled the dice coming to the Philippines just ahead of peak typhoon season and it paid off with a gorgeous, action-packed day.

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We even encountered a colony of bats during a walk along some mangroves.

Greg caught this shot of one of the bats in mid-flight.

One member of the team was especially excited to see bats (no joke!). Care to venture a guess as to who was most excited about our bat sighting? Leave your guess in the comments.

Stephen and Carrie have certainly set the bar high in terms of “wow” factor. Can they keep it up? They’ve been pretty lucky with the tight layover in Tokyo, and the mostly fair weather in Puerto Galera — will they continue to tempt fate?

Stephen says

The snorkeling experience was incredible. Getting pulled along by the boat meant we got to see so much more of the coral and fish than we’d have been able to see just swimming along. Add to that (mostly) beautiful weather, waterfalls and more and we had a great day here in Puerto Galera.

Tim says

After two days of traveling, we were ready to finally get out and explore Mindoro Island. Team TYO hired a “jeepney” for the day and, while billed as a method of transportation, I’m not convinced that it wasn’t an attempt by Carrie and Stephen to scrunch my 6’3″ frame into submission for the rest of the challenge. Regardless of their motives, we took a jungle trek with a water buffalo to a series of waterfalls north of our Airbnb. The idea was to walk behind the waterfall and jump through the cascade. Unfortunately, the cascade tried to take my swimsuit..and it was all I could do to keep from mooning the Filipino families swimming in the pool beneath (keeping my trend of losing things on this challenge fresh and vibrant). Afterwards, we snorkeled Muelle Bay, where everyone but Greg saw sea turtles…tough luck for the referee. Dinner was fresh shrimp and adobo and now we’re ready to head off to Team TYO’s 2nd destination.

Greg says

I could get used to this! During the trip so far, it’s been a little difficult to sit back and assume that Team Tokyo had everything handled. But only a little. Overall, I’ve loved it. I haven’t had to worry about how we’ll get from point A to point B (nor have I usually known where point B was!); I haven’t been involved in decision making; I haven’t had to worry about pesky details like how much to tip. All of that has been covered. Awesome. As I said, I could get used to this!
Today was our activity day on the island…
  • The carabao (water buffalo) cart rides were silly but pleasant enough
  • I would have enjoyed standing under a waterfall, but the water came down so fast and strong that it was literally impossible to actually stand. Worse, I forgot I was wearing my favorite pair of sunglasses when I stepped under the waterfall. When I climbed out of it, the sunglasses were gone. I won’t dock Team Asia for my stupidity. I really would have enjoyed it if only I had thought to remove those sunglasses before stepping in.
  • Later, we stopped to take pictures of bigger waterfalls. Okay, maybe those would have impressed me if I hadn’t recently seen spectacular waterfalls in New Zealand, Niagara Falls, and Norway. But… meh.
  • The best part of the day… by far… was snorkeling. The reefs and plentiful fish were gorgeous. I could have happily spent all day there! My only frustration was that everyone but me saw sea turtles. Fortunately, I’ve had fantastic experiences in the past snorkeling around sea turtles in Hawaii. Still, there’s something majestic about these creatures and I hate that I missed out this time. Oh well!
Overall, despite my sunglasses fiasco, it was a pretty awesome day.

Day 2 itinerary: An Airbnb mansion in Puerto Galera, Philippines

Carrie says…
While yesterday was all about positioning, Stephen and I finally got to show off what we’ve been scheming. The day wasn’t without its transit however – we started with a 2 hour van ride to Batangas where we caught a ~1.5 hour ferry to Puerto Galera, then a 15 minute “Jeepney” ride up into the hills where the most incredible Airbnb awaited us. If you’re wondering what a Jeepney is…it’s basically a bus-sized tuk-tuk.

Jeepney in Puerto Galera

The Airbnb is both hard to describe and hard to properly photograph, but imagine a castle made of shells, tapestries, sculptures, and artwork from all over Asia. This 10-room mansion includes a personal chef, a pool, a pool table, a fabulous view of the water, and a million things to look at. It’s such a labyrinth of oddities and artwork that after receiving a tour of all the bedrooms we could choose from, it took me half an hour just to find my way back to the one that had caught my eye. This Airbnb is an experience in and of itself.

Airbnb Mansion in Puerto Galera Philippines

Local dishes in our Airbnb mansion

Stephen says…
Today was the day on our portion of the trip that I’ve been most looking forward to. We’d found an incredible Airbnb in Puerto Galera which has to be seen to be believed. The photos on Airbnb gave a good idea as to what it would look like, but it’s simply magnificent in person. Its 10 bedrooms, pool, stunning views and private chef absolutely make it worth taking the relatively short economy flight from Tokyo to Manila yesterday.

Day 2 itinerary: Feedback from the “fam”

Nick says…
Wow, what a day! After a long journey, we got to what can only be described as the most incredible looking Airbnb that you’ve never seen. Pictures and video do not do this place justice by a long shot. We’ll see how everyone sleeps, but so far it seems it would be hard to top the level of surprise of walking in here with anything else on this trip. I can now see why Carrie and Stephen seemed so confident. They’ve set the bar high – here’s hoping they can reach it again for several more days!

Tim says…
Today we woke up in Manila listened to Referree Greg’s breakdown of how successful Team TYO was in wowing him on challenge day 1. While the rest of the day was effectively a long travel day, split between vans and ferry, Stephen and Carrie definitely brought their A game with their Filipino Airbnb find. It’s part Disneyland, part Xanadu and part… I’ve never seen another Airbnb (or house) like it…and we have a swimming pool and personal chef to boot. Gauntlet thrown!

Greg says…
The first half of this day was all travel again. First by van, then by boat, then by Jeepney (I previously didn’t know what that meant either). While on the boat I assumed that Team Tokyo had found a good deal at a beachside hotel. Nope! Instead they had found what must be one of the most unique Airbnbs in the world. It’s an eight bedroom Asian fusion wonderland with a pool, a driver, a private chef and more for just over $200 per night. The house was built piece by piece over many years and it has become a maze. Most rooms are connected to other rooms by doors or by circular staircases going up or down. Seriously, if you don’t hear from us tomorrow, we’re lost in here. I wish I had a video of us trying to pick rooms, where we popped in and out of locations all over this sprawling estate, and then struggled to find our chosen rooms again when we returned with our bags. Anyway, kudos to Team Tokyo for such an incredible find!

Day 1 itinerary: Team TYO heads to Manila

Carrie says…
It’s been a long time since I’ve flown business class, so I was thrilled to have that experience again. I slept great, and even though the vegetarian food was pretty lackluster, it’s kind of what I expected and therefore, more my fault than JAL’s. In hindsight, I would have rather not made any special requests with my menu in advance, and simply picked from the many vegetarian items on the standard menu. Aside from that, I enjoyed it all (and had way more leg room than I needed, as usual.)

Plenty of leg room in business JAL

Then, Stephen and I took over as soon as our SFO-NRT flight landed, and somehow incredibly withheld our onward plans from the team all the way to our next gate, (despite needing to share those onward plans with the friendly folks at the Sakura Lounge during our brief layover.) Our onward tickets were economy tickets, but our incoming Business class tickets with JAL allowed us entry where we (quickly) enjoyed the lounge’s dining, then dashed off to board a flight to…Manila! While the Manila destination may have been a pleasant surprise for the team, the 5 hour economy flight wasn’t.

Sakura Business Class Lounge
Sakura Business Class Lounge in Narita

After an exhausting flight, we’d purposely booked the Holiday Inn Express Manila Newport city because of its location right by the airport – a convenient jaunt down to the next terminal, we thought. However, in Manila, you’re not allowed to board the terminal shuttles unless you have an onward ticket, with a flight the next day for example. This leaves a clue as to what we might or might not be doing next, and left us taking a Grab to the hotel instead.

While this was a snafu we weren’t expecting and added some salt to the economy wound, we felt lucky enough that we escaped any trouble from Typhoon Mawar, especially since our Narita transfer was a short one which didn’t have wiggle room for delays. And hopefully the rest of the team trusts us that the economy flight will be worth the treats which await…

Day 1 itinerary: How it was booked

Before we check in with the team to see what they thought of our Day 1 itinerary, here are some notes from Stephen on how it all got booked.

Stephen says…
Greg had originally booked the NRT-MNL flight in economy using 20k American Airlines AAdvantage miles + $27.80 per person as this meant it was easily cancelable. We ended up flying that same route a day earlier and he chose to book that using 11k British Airways Avios + $120.70 per person. Another option was – in theory – Iberia as that was 11k Avios too, but only ~$26 in taxes and fees per person. However, that wasn’t bookable online as their website kept erroring out and so I think he chose not to call in to try to book for five people.

The cash pricing for the flight was $1,431.20 per person on Japan Airlines, so from that perspective it was a great redemption. However, there was a nonstop Jetstar flight costing $303.20 per person that evening. However, it wouldn’t have gotten us in until 11:40pm which, at the time, was much later than we’d have liked. However, a delay in our departure from Narita due to weather meant that we ended up landing about that same time anyway.
Side note: British Airways somehow had Carrie down as Viscountess for her title – that thankfully didn’t cause any issues when checking in.

Day 1 itinerary: Feedback from the “fam”

One of our challenges is to try to impress our Frequent Miler Family, so let’s see what they thought of Day 1.

Nick says…
Day One is in the books and it has been a ride already. Service aboard Japan Airlines was splendid (as expected) and both the ramen and vegetable curry managed to exceed my expectations. I can understand why people love the Japan Airlines business class Apex Suites, but that seat continues to be my least favorite business class option thanks to very limited storage at the seat and a lack of elbow room. The seat space had all the length one could want in a business class seat, and aisle access even on the window is great, but overall I find that Apex Suites leave me appreciating all of the other styles of business class seats a smidge more. Our arrival in Japan was full of anticipation and despite a couple of moments where Carrie thought the surprise had been blown, I didn’t know where we were going until I saw it on the board at the gate. Curiously, Carrie and Stephen flew us from Tokyo to Manila in economy class and put us up at a Holiday Inn Express, both of which were good value options but neither of which score any extra points on the comfort & luxury scale. That leaves me *very* curious to find out why we’re here in Manila….and I guess that thrilla is to be continuined in the morning….

Tim says…
The team challenge is underway! After pizza party in a Premier Suite at the Hyatt Regency SFO, we traveled for just shy of 24-hours getting from San Francisco all the way to Manila. We got to try out Japan Airlines (JAL) 787 business class and Sakura Business lounges in Tokyo and San Francisco. The Tokyo lounge was terrific, the San Francisco lounge was, uh, not terrific. The catering and service throughout were very good. I actually unknowingly left my wallet the the SFO-Tokyo flight and someone found it, ran it over to our departure gate and it was there when we got there…before I even knew it was missing!

Greg the referee says…
Pre-game notes: We stayed at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport the night before flying JAL business class to Tokyo. The hotel was a fantastic choice: I booked us directly into a premium suite with points; and our second room, for which I paid only ~$150, was upgraded to a premium suite. There was plenty of room for all 5 of us. Plus, the first room had a pool table, which proved to be lots of fun. The JAL flight to Tokyo was excellent. Service was fantastic, and the food was very good. The seats were great for sleeping as they had tons of legroom, and mattress pads were available as well. The seats weren’t great for working, though, because there was no place to put a laptop when food service was in play.

Once in the Tokyo Narita airport, Team Tokyo took over. They did a fantastic job in hiding our ultimate destination from Team SFO. We spent a bit of time in the business class lounge before boarding our JAL flight to Manilla. This time we flew economy as that was the only award space available. Normally a sub 5 hour flight in economy wouldn’t be too bad, but I was wiped out from the previous long flight (where I didn’t sleep much despite the comfy sleeping conditions) and so I was a bit more uncomfortable than I normally would have been. Luckily I slept for the first two hours of that flight! I’m writing this now from the Holiday Inn Express Manilla where I have a private room (thank you!) whereas the other four are sharing two 2-bed rooms.

I now have to put my referee cap on. Most of the travel so far has been positioning us to Manilla so there’s not much to give bonus points for (but I do need to do some homework to see how good of a deal the flight and hotel were so that I can optionally award bonus points for those). Now that we’re here, I’m looking forward to amazing activities, food, and lodging so that I can start giving out the big bucks points!

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What a great experience you are all having with this Challenge!!How much time did it take to organize all of this>?? Especially since no one knew all of the stops… Maybe take a few followers next time…


Regarding to the poll in FMI, I would like to see a break down including cost by both teams like previous challenges. Should we vote based on the itinerary without considering the cost? If so, here are my thoughts.
Team TYO: Different modes of transportation, but Greg may not be a big fan. Airbnb in Philippines and the activities there are definitely the highlight. While in Macau, great stays but the planned activities were greatly affected by weather. Flight back to Tokyo in biz class. Teamlabs in Tokyo looks cool.
Team SFO: Coastal hike is a nice start. Showcase LATAM biz class using Alaska miles. After their plans greatly impacted by the bag incident, they managed to Kart racing, enjoy the local bar and tour Santiago before going to Argentina. Interact and dine with the locals via Viator, then mural painting in the morning. Iguazu falls is impressive. However, Greg mentioned twice he was hungry during lunch. One time Greg was eating lunch at 4pm and one time Greg got a granola bar from Carrie.

So, if everything works according to the original plans, I like Team SFO. (I believed there was dog sled, white water rafting and hot spring.) But as of now, I like Team TYO a little bit better.

Tim Steinke

We’ll be publishing summaries of the daily activities and costs Monday (TYO) and Tuesday (SFO) of next week. We’re also still a bit backed up on Instagram updates, so hopefully most of the SFO footage will be up by then as well.


I think Team SFO lost this challenge by a landslide based on everything I have seen on FM and Insta.

Tim Steinke

What, you don’t like murals? 🙂

Seriously, though, don’t just tell us TYO won, tell us why! This is your chance to influence Greg!

Last edited 3 months ago by Tim Steinke

Carrie, where is you mural in C-ville? My family loves street murals and we visit there a few times a year.


What an epic ending to the trip. Both teams deserve props. Wonder what Greg’s final tally will be.


How do I go about finding a mural painting lesson in LA? (Or any city?) My favorite activity on your adventure yet!


I’ve seen some on Airbnb experiences. Some mural tours are conducted by artists or orgs affiliated to artists so also try reaching out directly if one isn’t offered.


Great tip! Thanks. Found a couple of possibilities and tons of other fun things to do in LA.


Not sure if this was on Airbnb but I’ve done a tour with Hector which was fascinating. Looks like they also do workshops. https://www.laarttours.com/guides-and-artists/


Awesome! I’ll get in touch with him. Thanks again!


Looks like your South America trip is similar to our family’s upcoming trip this weekend.


It’s dual. Although with Chile and Argentina, “duel” makes sense!


Booking a home-cooked meal in another country might be the coolest idea ever.


Sorry about the bag hassle, but more importantly, congrats, you just got a Californian to take the bait you just dangled out there… so dish on who falls where on In-n-out.

Last edited 3 months ago by Joe

So, did you find the bag?

Greg The Frequent Miler



bummer. But check eBay for a similar used one, since you are so keen on it. I saw a couple.


Sounds like a nightmare


sorry Greg – one thing I’ve learned the hard way, have the bag with anything valuable on your person even if it’s cumbersome. And as someone who usually tries to make public transport and Uber work, I now always take hotel arranged transfer in a developing country – it’ll be more expensive but generally will be acceptably priced to an American and a luxury hotel is less likely to be involved in a scam like this. Hopefully the rest of the trip goes well!

[…] with our first day in Santiago (and to keep up with whatever is next), you’ll want to check our Daily Update post and follow us on Instagram to see our stories and […]


I suppose you must be headed to Easter Island, which sits right at the top of my bucket list. What kind of miles did you use for the LATAM flights?

Nick Reyes

Alaska Mileage Plan. Post coming in the morning.


Curious where you guys hiked along the coast near SFO? I live near there!

Izzy Kvetch

OY VEy, those hats!
Nick they need help, please become the official FM Milliner.

Nick Reyes



1.Who never rides a jeepney? Greg, Tim, Stephen?
2.Who is most excited to see the bat? Greg?

It would be nice to see the pictures of the airbnb rooms for each member and how they decide to pick the one at the end. The video about Greg’s curve card is so funny. The vending machines really don’t like it. It looks like the curve card works fine in Japan based on the latest video.


I overthink myself on the bat question. It should be clear to me from the video.

That is a shame about the failed SD card. It would have been fun!

What happened to you in TeamLab? Did you lose your balance and Nick captured it on video? It is very dark so I am not sure.

Last edited 3 months ago by AlexL

I agree TeamLabs is great. Hope you were able to stop by nearby Toyosu or Tsukiji fish market for sushi as well


Please consider hosting a special YouTube live session after getting back home from the trip. It was great to listen to all the fresh memories from the team during Ask us Anything.


Nick and Tim’s victory is all but guaranteed. Hope I’m wrong.


Are you going to be doing full reviews of the flights and hotels? Hearing that you preferred the GH Macau over Four Seasons is a wow.

Stephen Pepper

Yep, we’ll have more details about all the flights and accommodations in future posts – we’ve been so busy that we’ve not had a chance to publish any yet.


Sorry to hear that! I was waiting for your Macau report anxiously because I am from Macau, born and raised there until I came to California for college. Macau is a lovely Portuguese colonial town and walking the old town area, trying Macauese (Macau version of Portuguese) food, Portuguese egg tart, would be highly recommended. I am also extremely disappointed by lack of cabs situation in Macau as I often face that when I went home. Unless you hail it from hotels or terminals, they are hard to come by. Locals take buses or the free hotel shuttles that go into central area. The Taipa side (where Venetian and new hotels are) actually has a lovely historic street with great restaurants and traditional snacks.


Looks like more than one team member needs to invest in some new socks. Hard times:)


First thing that came to my mind is Tim and Nick could use the saks credit to buy bombas socks. ^_^ They looks like kids that stuck at home because of the weather.

Nick Reyes

Ha! I have a pair of bombas from Saks in my bag. Didn’t even notice the pair I had on had a hole! 😀


Man, that was a horrible Macau day. We travelled with our 4 children (10,12,13 and 16 at the time). Booked two rooms for two nights at Conrad Macao on points (160,000 points then, 240000 now) upgraded to two 1700 square foot premier suites. Saw the house of dancing waters show (absolutely mesmerizing), toured the old town, made our way to some amazing seafood/portuguese restaurants, all by public busses. One of our favorite destinations, amazing both in the our massive suites and around the territory

eponymous coward

Restaurante Fernando in Coloane and find some egg tarts off Senado Square, but sounds like y’all are moving a bit fast for that.

(This was literally what I was doing 12 years ago today.)

Nick Reyes

We did enjoy egg tarts at the Four Seasons (they had some waiting in our room when we arrived and I had one again at breakfast) and the Grand Hyatt (where they were on the breakfast buffet and in the lounge).


These Cole Haan sandals Nick got are not at Saks now. Oh well, hopefully, I can find something useful with a $50 discount. Don’t need a $3800 bomber leather jacket 🙂


I found a Thule clean/dirty packing cube that was just under $50 with shipping. Normally I spend $30 of time to find a $40 item that is worth $10.

Nick Reyes

Yeah, it’s too bad that Saks doesn’t seem to carry them now. They are actually really comfortable!


In Macao, kind of need to visit the old historical center (St Paul cathedral ruins), and eat Portuguese food. Too bad no extra points for overlapping Grand Prix event

Last edited 3 months ago by TimR
Nick Reyes

That was certainly in Carrie & Stephen’s original plan — the bummer was that it was pouring rain, so talking outdoors didn’t really work out.


You better have had some killer Portugese food in Macau. I love Macau. And it’s changed a looooooot.


Abusing the Carabao is just heartbreaking.For me you already lost the game.
Also Puerto Galera is one of the worst destinations in the Philipines.
There are so many jaw dropping places to visit there.


It’s too bad that the ferry direct from HKIA is currently suspended.

Mark P

exactly my thought too. such an easier transfer


Caroline, what a wonderful trip you have planned along with Steven so far! I think some of these types of challenges may not be fair to measure especially with the time limit applied. With such a long and convoluted transit, I would have stayed at the airbnb at least 4 nights but the whole challenge duration for the Tokyo team is 5 days? And there’s jet lag to make things worse….That said, it might still be interesting for some folks to travel exactly as you do, but I would argue that it’d be a group of adults as this just won’t work with kids…
Thanks again to the whole team to carry this live and I am so addicted to your Instagram feeds(and thank you Caroline for the tutorial video, that helps a lot for someone like me who knows nothing about instagram)
Actually, I am wondering about whether team USA has changed any of their itinerary along the trip from lesson learned, or there’s a rule against that?


The nature of the beast is that they have to fit so much traveling into a relatively short amount of time. I don’t think they mean to suggest that if you were to visit you should follow the same accelerated itinerary. The takeaway is that places like that exists and are affordable. If I went, I would certainly plan a longer stay.

Nick Reyes

Larry is spot on. The purpose of these challenges is not to show you something you would copy turn-for-turn but rather to highlight opportunities you would (hopefully) find intriguing.

In reality, the five of us don’t all have the time flexibility for multiple 4-night stops (2 weeks is already pushing it!), but if we can make six 2-night tops (just an example, not necessarily what’s happening on this trip), you might find one or two that you find intriguing for a weeklong trip and/or you may use the techniques included to design your own trip. I certainly expect that if you decided to go to Puerto Galera you would stay there for more than two nights. So would I if I were going with my family, but I think from a blog reader standpoint, I would find it far more interesting to find out how I can bounce to another location in Asia for a small number of miles (after spending the 4 or 6 or 8 or 18 nights that I personally decide I’d like to spend in Puerto Galera, recognizing that the quantity will vary for everyone) and stay in a suite at a Four Seasons or Grand Hyatt than following a couple of extra days of activities in Puerto Galera.

For instance, I’m not a big Airbnb user. I didn’t even know the filter that Stephen and Carrie used to find that existed — but now that I know it does, I’ll certainly be taking a look at it. I probably won’t return to Puerto Galera with my family (that specific property wouldn’t work for our situation), but I absolutely would design a trip around some similarly wild Airbnb, which I think is a concept that may uniquely appeal to award travelers – thanks to miles and points, we aren’t bound by locations that are economically feasible to reach since we have the capacity to generate miles and get to, for instance, Manila for the same price as Tokyo or Bangkok or Hong Kong or other destinations. And knowing how to get from Manila to Macau to Tokyo is less about knowing how to connect those specific dots than it is about knowing how you might connect dots between the cities in Asia that appeal to you. So that’s the kind of takeaway I would argue people should be looking for rather than a blueprint for a trip of your own.

In terms of changing based on lessons learned, we didn’t create any rule against that and that is certainly an advantage of going second, but it’s one we haven’t really leveraged apart from taking advantage of having additional time before we had to commit (not because we were holding out to pick up hints from Stephen and Carrie, just because Plan A wasn’t available and we didn’t need to commit to Plan B until we knew Plan A couldn’t happen). There is one tiny piece we had verbally talked about adding that would have been inspired by the trip so far and we had been running Plan A, B, and C scenarios around including that very small piece of inspiration. Team Tokyo’s Macau misfortune caused us to look into the details of timing that we had taken for granted, at which point we were surprised to find that it wasn’t physically possible to do. That came much to our surprise, and I think there is a fair chance that we’d have not looked into it and gotten there under the blind assumption that it could be done only to be surprised and find out it couldn’t if not for the Macau misfortunes encouraging us to make sure we’d dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s. In the end, I’ll eventually share what it was for completeness, but I think you’ll agree that it was fairly inconsequential and I think there is a chance that you’ll be happy that we had what you are now thinking is an unfair advantage but you will come to see as serendipitous fortune….and not really for Tim and I.

I know that doesn’t make any sense, and I can already picture Carrie reading my comment and her frustration in trying to read between the lines (don’t bother trying, Carrie — it won’t make any sense until you know and you won’t know before you know!), but take my word for it: You (the reader) will (probably) not feel like Tim and I leveraged our positional advantage in an unfair way.


I feel like Stephen was most excited to see the bats!

Nick Reyes

That guess makes sense since Stephen more or less keeps the hours of a vampire day-to-day, but you are unfortunately not correct.


What a fun trip already! Team TYO already deserves major points for going off the beaten path and finding unusual experiences. So much more interesting and inspiring than hops between resorts. Greg, I would suggest you hand out bonus points for local immersion…

T. Jones

I appreciated the hot links Nick shared in this Day 3 update (especially I’ve been looking for some new water shoes). Team SFO100 points “engagement bonus” for helpful links. They may need every last point they can get the way team TYO is rockin’ this challenge! My guess on the bats is that Greg was most excited – he caught a great pic!

Nick Reyes

He did catch a great pic! However, not captured in the frame was the wild excitement of another team member. I only caught a second of it on video myself….


Price of this Airbnb just got jacked up by a lot haha


It is still $204 for 5 people per night.

Ryan del Mundo

Love that AirBNB, we stayed there for my friends bachelor/bachelorette party a few years ago. Amazing spot,and the owner is quite the character. Not sure how much luggage youre carrying, but its a really easy and quick walk to that Holiday Inn from NAIA. Not sure why you didnt book the Marriott across the street as it has a fantastic lounge and rooftop pool, although the beds are hard as rocks. Look forward to seeing whats next!

Stephen Pepper

That’s awesome that you stayed here too! With the Holiday Inn Express, we landed in terminal 1 & had to get to terminal 3 to use the bridgeway to the hotel. However, they said we couldn’t walk there, nor get a shuttle because we didn’t have a flight out that evening or the next day.

As for the Marriott, we were due to be getting in late and leaving relatively early, so we weren’t going to get to enjoy the amenities of whichever hotel we booked. As a result, we picked the hotel that seemed most convenient to get to from the airport so that we could just crash because we’d have been traveling for close to 24 hours by that point.

Ryan del Mundo

Oh thats bad luck! Ive arrived via JAL and thought all international was at t3. Guess not. Glad u could grab a Grab as sometimes the wait is immense. HI def good for a quick overnight,..tho last time i was there they ran out of food at breakfast. Puerto Galera is nice but sort of a marathon to get to. Panglao/Bohol is a quick hour flight from Manila and five minutes after landing you are on the beach (a world record i think), hope thats your next stop!


Can you share the link for the Airbnb? Need to mark it down to my list!


plus 1 on that


So far so good for transit. Food for thought: Since the Manila flight was on the same carrier, could you have added NRT-MNL to the SFO-NRT itinerary? We’re the BA or IHG points transferred or orphaned? We’re the IHG rooms booked as suites or was there an upgrade? Definitely deserving of bonus points for hotel convenience after 24 hours of transit, flying in any class of service. Even if it’s a quick Grab. Sorry about the lack of luxury Nick. Sometimes you get what you get with 5 pax booking on points with fixed dates 🙂

Greg The Frequent Miler

Multiple AA reps tried to add that leg for us but JAL wouldn’t confirm the tickets. No idea why not.


Ahh, AA miles… Most partner segment add ons have to be available as one itinerary now. Even if the separate segment is available. Had this issue with QR last month. Several DP’s popped up that this was the case with other OW partners as well. Ended up booking my additional segment with BA as well.


Does the Sakura Lounge in NRT still have a huge buffet upstairs? We were there about five years ago and we thought the food was really good.

Greg The Frequent Miler


Daniel Alexander

Great to hear that BA has brought down the fees on these JAL flights! I was looking to book TYO to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, or Manila with BA avios about 6 months ago and the fees were prohibitively high (I’m remembering ~$300 one-way economy). I just checked and the fees and all three routes are $110 or less one-way.


I named my wife’s title High Chief and it showed up on her BA ticket and caused a bit of trouble at check in through security in the US.
Luckily my explanation was accepted.


How would they prove that she’s not a viscountess? I wonder if the rank will stick with her. We are a little short on royalty in this area since the Points Princess renamed herself a while back.


Absolutely a viscountess. You think the hoi polloi are booking a place like that?

Jun Bal

Visit BGC while in Mnl.


I miss my motherland Have fun out there!


Hat tip on the “thrillla” label. Thankfully not drinking milk at the time when I read that. Woulda hurt.


Great team photo. I think Viscountess suits Carrie just fine 😉

Dan @ Points With a Crew

Nice recap Viscountess!