It had been a while since I had left without Audrey and/or the kids! At the end of November 2022, I received an invitation to participate in a new Electronic Music Festival in Saudi Arabia (MDL Beast SoundStorm) and decided to combine this with a stop in Qatar for the Football World Cup.
And to accompany me on part of this trip, one of my oldest friends, Jerome, – we’ve known each other since we were 3 years old – jumped at the chance. He too is a fan of electronic music.
Istanbul, Riyadh and Doha
For this Middle East tour, we left from Nice (NCE) to Riyadh (RUH), choosing our flights appropriately to offer us a free 23:30 stopover in Istanbul (IST). To (re)-discover this beautiful city and try a new hotel.
After 6 nights in Riyadh, I went alone to Doha (DOH) in Qatar to attend a World Cup match between Portugal and Switzerland (and what a match!). And take the opportunity to discover Doha and the Qatar Airways QSuite experience twice: between Riyadh and Doha on Airbus A350 and between Doha and Montreal on Boeing 777.
Back in Montreal, it was time for the company Christmas party with all my colleagues from Milesopedia (only Marie-Claude and Audrey were missing, both in France):
Then it was time to launch our new partnership with Opération Enfant Soleil! I then returned to Nice in order to be in time to celebrate the end of year holidays with my family.
The power of points
On this trip, I paid almost nothing in cash thanks to reward points. To tell the truth, the points turned out to be CRUCIAL especially during my stay in Riyadh and Doha.
Indeed, during my stay in Riyadh, the city’s hotels seemed particularly busy considering the rates charged: over $250-300 per night for any quality hotel. In addition to the Electronic Music Festival, many business conventions were held in town.
And what about Doha in the middle of the World Cup? As much as $500 per night for an entry-level hotel and over $1,000 per night for high-end hotels.
Except that at the last minute, hotels decide to open up availability for reservations with points. And although dynamic pricing was recently introduced, it was obviously not in effect everywhere!
Just see for yourself: 20,000 Marriott Bonvoy points for the Royal Meridien Doha instead of $915 a night?
To book the various airline tickets, I used a combination of Aeroplan points and Avios points. While already preparing a next trip:
|Nice – Istanbul – Riyadh||Turkish Airlines||Economy||25,000 Aeroplan points||$60||–|
|Riyadh – Doha||Qatar Airways||Business||21,000 Avios points||$139||Review|
|Doha – Montreal||Qatar Airways||Business||70,000 Avios||$143||Review|
|Montreal – Munich – Nice||Lufthansa||Business||92,500 Aeroplan* points||$210||Already done|
|Nice – Dubai – Singapore||Emirates||Business||Review
With the arrival of Emirates as an Aeroplan partner, I decided to take advantage of the Aeroplan sweetspot between North America and the Pacific zone (87,500 Aeroplan points for a flight of up to 11,000 miles). So I booked this itinerary and added an Aeroplan stop for 5,000 points in Nice (less than 45 days), for a total of 92,500 Aeroplan points. While booking a flight from Montreal to Nice would have cost me 70,000 points.
In other words, I will be able to travel on Emirates between Nice and Dubai (Boeing 777) and between Dubai and Singapore (Airbus A380) for an additional cost of only 27,500 points, including the stopover in Nice!
For hotels, it was a mix of cash, Marriott Bonvoy and Hilton Honors points:
|Orientbank Hotel Istanbul, Autograph Collection||Istanbul||1||149 euros||Review|
|Riyadh Airport Marriott Hotel||Riyadh||1||20,000 Marriott Bonvoy points||Review|
|Le Méridien Riyadh||Riyadh||3||60,000 Marriott Bonvoy points||Review|
|JW Marriott Hotel Riyadh||Riyadh||1||30,000 Marriott Bonvoy points||Review|
|Courtyard Riyadh Diplomatic Quarter||Riyadh||1||20,000 Marriott Bonvoy points||Review|
|Hilton Doha The Pearl Hotel & Residences||Doha||1||60,000 Hilton Honors points||Review|
|Agora, Doha, Autograph Collection||Doha||1||30,000 Marriott Bonvoy points||Review|
|Le Royal Méridien Doha||Doha||1||20,000 Marriott Bonvoy points||Review|
In summary: 149 euros, 180,000 Marriott Bonvoy points and 60,000 Hilton Honors points for 10 nights in a hotel.
I rented a car at Riyadh airport to easily get to the MDLBEAST Music Festival away from the city and explore the surrounding area.
Although I usually prefer to rent with Hertz or National, here I opted for Sixt because of the rate offered (much cheaper than the others thanks to a Diamond status). Anyway, I have the highest status with all car rental companies thanks to this trick.
I was lucky: despite a prepaid rate via the Sixt website, the agency at the Riyadh airport insisted that I pay my rental again when I returned the vehicle. And I’ll skip the story of their failed attempt to charge me for damage to the vehicle.
I am therefore in dispute with Sixt and will not hesitate to initiate a chargeback process via my American Express® AeroplanMD* Business Reserve Card ExpressMD. I chose this card because of the 2 Aeroplan points per dollar and its high insurance coverage.
I can only advise you to choose another car rental agency in Riyadh.
Istanbul : the classics
I will come back in detail on an article presenting Istanbul and the various possible visits during a 24 hours stopover there. I must say that the hotel we chose, the Orientbank Hotel Istanbul, Autograph Collection, is particularly suitable since it is located in the heart of the historic district of the city.
Here are the classics we have done:
- Grand Bazaar
- Spice Bazaar
- Saint Sophia
- Blue Mosque
- Topkapi Palace Gardens
- Gülhane Park
Riyadh: Desert and electronic music
As I mentioned in the introduction, the starting point of this trip was an invitation to the MDL Beast Soundstorm Electronic Music Festival. This festival was launched in 2019 with the goal of being the largest festival of its kind in the Middle East to compete with big names like EDC Las Vegas or Tomorrowland.
Over the 3 nights of the Festival (taking place from 4pm to 3am), more than 600,000 participants danced on 7 stages while listening to the intoxicating music of David Guetta, Tiesto or Hardwell. I will of course give a detailed report of my experience on the spot.
Apart from the Festival, it was an opportunity to discover Riyadh and its surroundings, with points of interest such as:
- Edge of the World
- Kingdom Tower
- King Abdulah Park
- Al Masmak Palace
- Red Sand Dunes (Quad)
This made me want to come back to explore other places in the country with my family (I must say that Saudi Arabia was already in my travel plans after visiting the Saudi Arabia Pavilion at the Expo2020 in Dubai).
Doha: Culture and the Football World Cup
When I was organizing this trip at the last minute, I had already booked my flight from Doha to Montreal, having found a flight for 70,000 Avios points (which tends to be rare if you don’t plan 10-11 months in advance). Especially in the middle of the World Cup.
Moreover, during this World Cup, there was a requirement to enter Qatar: to have the Hayya card. The card was originally issued only to holders of World Cup tickets and/or accommodation booked through the official FIFA website.
After that, the rules were opened up a bit to allow more people to enter the territory as of December 1 (and the end of the group matches). For example, it was possible to provide proof of accommodation booked via other platforms (including bookings with points) and to visit Qatar without being a match ticket holder.
But this was the theory. In practice, it was much more complicated and many supporters learned this the hard way. I will explain my “obstacle course” in a dedicated article about my 2022 World Cup experience.
It was my first time in Qatar. During this 3-night stopover, I could only visit the city on one day (the other one being particularly busy with work). I still got a great overview of Doha including :
- Qatar National Museum
- Museum of Islamic Art
- Souq Waqif
- The Pearl
- Katara : Beach and cultural village
- Lusail and Place Vendôme
I will also share my experience with you in a dedicated article.
Credit cards used
Here are the credit cards I had in my wallet during this trip to the Middle East (and its preparation).
Of course, you don’t need to have all these credit cards to take a trip like this! But this shows you the ideal optimization of point accumulation and benefit use.
Aeroplan tax payment
As part of the preparation of this trip, to pay the taxes on my airline tickets booked with AeroplanI used my American Express®* Aeroplan® Reserve Card : it is the only Aeroplan credit card for individuals to offer 3 points per dollar for reservations made with Air Canada (including Aeroplan award tickets) or Air Canada Vacations.
And by using an Aeroplan credit card, I am covered by insurance in case of flight or baggage delays.
Note that the American Express® AeroplanMD* Business Reserve Card ExpressMD also offers 3 points per dollar for purchases made with Air Canada.
No Foreign Transaction Fee
One of the favorite credit cards in my wallet is the HSBC World EliteMD Mastercard®, for several reasons:
- No FX fee
- 6 points per dollar for travel purchases
- 3 points per dollar for all other purchases
- $100 in annual travel credit
- Premium insurance
And since it is a Mastercard, it is accepted everywhere. Well… almost everywhere! Indeed, in the stadiums of the World Cup, the major sponsor is Visa. For example, to buy food on site, it was impossible to use an American Express or Mastercard credit card!
5X points in hotels and restaurants
When traveling, even outside of Canada, I also use credit cards that have foreign currency conversion fees. In fact, when the point accumulation rate exceeds the 2.5% fee, I consider myself a winner!
So, for expenses at Marriott Bonvoy hotels (paid hotel nights, meals and bar drinks, etc.), I use my Marriott BonvoyMD American ExpressMD* Card.
And sometimes you can be lucky as it was the case at my hotel in Istanbul: the cab driver’s credit card machine was – strangely – not working when we arrived at the hotel. The receptionist then told me that he could give me the money in cash by charging it to my room! So I could get 5 times the Marriott Bonvoy points on this cash “withdrawal”. Of course I asked him to do the same for my return to the airport… just in case 😉
I hold both the Marriott BonvoyMD American ExpressMD* Card and the small business version, the Marriott BonvoyMD Business American ExpressMD* Card. This allows me to:
- To have an annual certificate worth 35,000 points on each of these two cards
- Benefit from American Express online offers on both cards
- To have 15 elite nights added to my Marriott Bonvoy account each year, facilitating my access to a higher elite status
This will more than pay for the $120 and $150 annual fees.
Access to airport lounges
On most of my trips, I traveled in business class and therefore had access to airport lounges.
However, when I left Nice, I was traveling with Turkish Airlines in economy class. I used my American Express Platinum CardMD Priority Pass to access the lounge in Terminal 1 at Nice Airport.
The Platinum CardMD from American Express is the only credit card in Canada for individuals to offerunlimited access for the cardholder and one guest to over 1,300 airport lounges worldwide (as well as many other benefits). Enough to make my French friend discover the comfort of airport lounges!
Note that the Business Platinum CardMD from American Express also offers the same access to airport lounges.
Travel insurance and travel credits
Finally, to be well covered on this trip, I paid the taxes for one of my flights with Qatar Airways with National Bank’s World Elite Mastercard®. In fact, it is one of the only credit cards in Canada that offers coverage even though we only paid part of our trip on it.
The coverage will reimburse expenses…if at least a portion of the cost of the trip has been charged to the account.Banque Nationale du Canada
And actually, the insurance that mattered most to me, the Emergency Medical Insurance, doesn’t even require you to pay for your trip with it! All you need is a National Bank’s World Elite Mastercard®.
This is a credit card that I keep year after year as it offers up to $150 in annual travel credit for these types of expenses:
- Airport parking
- Baggage fees
- Seat selection
- Access to airport lounges
- Flight upgrades
This way, you can use your annual travel credit, whether it’s a parking expense or any purchase made with an airline. 😉