Thursday, October 26, 2017

Japanese Suica Card + new iPhones = Japan Points Galore!

I've been debating getting an iPhone 8 before our next Japan trip, but was sorta on the fence. On one hand, I'd like to wait for the X, but on the other hand, I'd love to play with the 8's support for an AppleWallet version of the Japanese Suica card. (for the iPhone 7, only models sold in Japan supported Suica; with the 8, all iPhones worldwide do).

Since Suica transit payment card was launched over a decade ago, it's become the standard payment method for nearly all vending machines in the country, and many businesses have added support for their customers to pay at the register with it. Further, any shop within a train station has to accept Suica for payment, and huge numbers of stores in Japan are located within train stations.

all iPhone 8 models support mobile Suica

Add money instantly with your Apple Pay credit cards!

So aside from my train nerdery, why does this matter? Because with this new system, visitors can reload their mobile Suica with any ApplePay credit card. (In the past, visitors could only use cash).

Ergo, this means that every subway trip, vending machine beverage, and purchase from a convenience store now codes as travel on my Chase Sapphire Reserve, and that means:

3 points on anything I buy with my Suica

Furthermore, with this Chase ApplePay promotion, my first $1500 in Suica spending will yield 4 points per dollar (Not sure if I'll come anywhere near that, so effectively all of my spending will be at 4x!)

4x points!

Another exciting thing about this new feature is that I can instantly top up my card when it's getting low. I don't have to go find a machine, make sure I have enough cash, wait in line (gotta LOVE the first of the month in Tokyo when every single machine in the city has a massive queue), reload my card, and then get back on my way.

 

So how do you do it?

In short: lay your phone on top of your Suica and it will "ingest" your card to your Apple Wallet. The plastic card is deactivated in the process. That ¥500 you paid when you first bought your Suica is kindly refunded onto your mobile Suica as part of the ingest process.

The iPhone 8 can ingest Suica card to the Apple Wallet

There are some great step-by-step guides out there already, so I'll just link you to them rather than re-invent that wheel here. One quick tip from me before you begin: if your Japanese is a little rusty, remember that Google Translate works on screen captures.

 

Gotchas

Change.  One of my first thoughts was, "Wait, but Suica is how I used to get rid of all my coins! No more feeding 3 dozen coins into the machine to top my card off and lighten my wallet?!" According to this blog, there are now smart-phone savvy Suica machines where you can use cash to top-up a mobile Suica, but from the looks of the pictures and the video, there aren't any coin slots on them. I guess I'll have to report back if mobile Suica means I end up with fewer coins and/or if there are coin-accepting top off machines.

New phone/Reinstalls. Since your physical card is now dead, be careful when you do anything that resets your Apple Wallet (i.e., new phone, full reinstall). Make sure you set iTunes to make encrypted backups, so your Suica can be restored by an iTunes sync. Also, make sure you go back and set your phone's region to Japan before you do any upgrades or restores so the Apple Wallet can actually "see" the mobile Suica.

This is Suica ONLY. Official document say that other regions' IC cards (e.g., Kitaca, ICOCA) won't work.

No refilling your card at night. Suica's web payment system goes down for maintenance every night, just like the trains. You have to wait until 4 a.m. to reload with ApplePay. (This is more of a concern when you're in a different time zone topping off before you begin your journey).

 

Other useful links



Friday, October 20, 2017

fasting to fight jetlag on our upcoming trip



I've written before about the science behind timed fasting to help your body adjust to a new timezone. We've done this on every long-haul flight since we learned about it, and our own "anecdata" is that it helps significantly.

We're heading to Tokyo soon, so we'll start eating our meals by the Tokyo clock while we're still here at home in New York. Research suggests doing this helps your body adjust to the new timezone much quicker. In practice, this often means a 10+ hour stretch of daytime fasting. While that's annoying, it's absolutely worth it to me if it means not wasting two days in Tokyo to grogginess and sleepless nights.

Our flight leaves New York at 1:30am on Tuesday and arrives at 5:15am on Wednesday, so here's the plan:
  • Monday 9am NYC (10pm Tokyo)
    Eat big breakfast first when we wake up in NYC (aka eat "late dinner" Tokyo)
    Then fast for 9 hours

     
  • Monday 6pm NYC (7am Tokyo)
    Eat early dinner in NYC (aka "breakfast" in Tokyo)
     
  • Monday 11pm NYC (Noon Tokyo)
    Eat a midnight snack in NYC (aka "Lunch" in Tokyo)
     
  • Tuesday 4am NYC (5pm Tokyo)
    Eat first meal service aboard the plane (aka "early Dinner" in Tokyo)
    Then sleep on the plane as long as we can.
    Theoretically we should stay up five more hours until TYO bedtime, but that won't leave us enough time to get a full night's sleep before we land.
     
  • Wednesday, 6am Tokyo Time (aka 5pm NYC) If possible, eat breakfast after getting off the plane (i.e., 13 hour fast)
    Try to stay up until at least 10pm Tokyo time.
     
I also plan on using melatonin the first few nights to help with the changeover. If you're a melatonin fan, make sure you bring it with you since it's not legal over the counter in many places, including Japan.



Saturday, October 14, 2017

What, if any, Japan Rail Pass should I get?

It's quite common for visitors to Japan to buy a Japan Rail Pass before they go. It can save you money if your trip is involves lots of rail travel. I've purchased a pass for two of our previous trips, but decided not to on this coming one.

While JR is the biggest railway conglomerate in Japan, there are many private railways that compete with/compliment JR. The Japan Rail Pass works only on JR trains; for lines run by other companies, you'll have to buy a normal ticket like everyone else. The Rail Pass is also valid for travel on JR's urban railways like Tokyo's Yamanote line (you have to use a staffed entrance and show your pass), but not on the subways.

The typical sales pitch of the pass is, "It costs less than one round trip between Tokyo and Osaka". For an Economy Class, 7-Day pass, this is true. But if it's a longer pass, or you spring for the Green Car Business Class pass, the math isn't so simple.

Here's a few thoughts before you try to "do the math" on whether or not a pass is worth it.

 

1. People often buy more rail pass than they need

Tourists often want to use their pass on the Narita Express from the airport into Tokyo, so they activate their pass when they land and then spend 3 days seeing the sights in Tokyo and not using the pass much. But if you avoid that trap, you can activate the pass when you're ready to do long-haul travel and "waste" fewer days.

Narita Airport actually has two competing express trains: JR's Narita Express (a.k.a. N'ex) and Keisei Skyliner. Their platforms and ticket counters are right next to each other in Terminal 1. The Skyliner is actually faster than N'ex (41 minutes to Ueno vs N'ex's 61 minutes to Tokyo Station), plus it has more frequent service in the evenings.

(FYI one Japanse yen is worth slightly less than a US penny, so generally just divide ¥ prices by 100)

You can buy a discount Skyliner ticket online (link) before you go to Japan (¥2200 one way, ¥4300 round-trip). You have to take your receipt code and your passport to the counter and they hand you your actual ticket. One other nice add-on Keisei offers is a Tokyo-wide Subway pass: for ¥600 extra, you get a 24 Hour pass good anywhere on the Tokyo Metro and Toei private lines. ¥1000 will get you a 48 hour pass, and ¥1300 will get you a 72 hour pass. While these passes won't work on the Yamanote, Chuo, and other popular urban JR lines, there's almost always a reasonable subway alternative to these.

So for $48 you've got your ride to AND from the airport paid for, as well as 3 full days of unlimited subway rides around Tokyo for sightseeing. This should give you some flexibility in thinking about getting a Pass.
(Yes, I know there are cheaper options from the airport. But given that even a frugal vacation easily costs $15 per waking hour once you total up the airfare, lodging, food and incidentals, it seems ridiculous to waste 2 hours of precious vacation time to save a couple bucks.)

Keisei Skyliner
not intimidating in the least!

2. I sure wish they had the "ride 5 days within one month" option like Eurail Pass

But if they had that, I wouldn't be here blogging about this! Japan Rail Passes are available in 7, 14, and 21-day denominations. All are available in Economy or Green Class (i.e., Business Class). Now that you've thought about your airport transportation options, you might be able to structure your trip so you can buy a shorter pass.

A bit of math:
  • Economy class 21 day pass is $521 (i.e.,  $24 per day). A 14 day pass is $407 ($29/day), 7 days is $253 ($36/day). 
  • In Green class those numbers are $34, $39, and $48/day.
  • FYI, Gran Class, a true First Class experience on newer lines, is not available to pass users, and there is no means to "upgrade" to it from the seat your pass gets you

 

3. If you're only going to be traveling in one region, consider a regional pass. 

You can also buy much cheaper regional passes that might suit your needs more than a Japan-wide pass. Some options are here.


 

4. The normal fare isn't that expensive

Yes, the bullet trains (aka Shinkansen) are fast. So fast that most Americans don't quite grasp that the 2 hour and 30 minute trip from Tokyo to Osaka covers the same distance as Los Angeles to Phoenix (or for an East Coast example, New York to Portland, Maine). Considering what your options to get from LA to Phoenix would cost and how long they'd take, the $126 Shinkansen fare feels pretty, uh, fair, no?

You can use the Hyperdia website (which has options for searching with and without a rail pass) to look at exact times and prices for specific trips

Hyperdia

 

5. Sometimes, you should just fly

I love trains. A lot. And I love the Shinkansen more than any other train in the world. But once you've sailed past Mt. Fuji at 300 kph while eating a self-heating bento box and drinking a nice Otokoyama cup sake, you've checked off most of the "Bullet Train Experience" from the bucket list; spending 8 hours on a train, even in Green or Grand Class, gets boring.

Peach!
Intra-Japan flights can be quite cheap if you fly on a Low Cost Carrier (LCC) like Peach or Vanilla, with a few caveats:
  • There's no First Class on LCCs
  • Even if you fly a national carrier like ANA and book First, there's no priority line at security
  • Airplanes have abysmal on-time performance compared to the Shinkansen
  • Remember to factor the cost of getting to/from the airport into your pricing comparison
  • Remember to tack on two+ hours of time for getting to/from the airport to any fly vs. train time comparison.
I had to go from Fukuoka to Sapporo, a distance of 2338 kilometers (think San Diego to Vancouver, BC) and yes, it's an engineering feat that the Japanese rail system can make that trip in 13 hours. But I'd rather fly and be there in 5-ish hours door-to-door.

 

6. You can't sit with us!

Unfortunately Japan Rail Pass holders are barred from riding the fastest bullet trains (e.g., Nozomi, Mizuho). For example, on the Tokyo – Osaka run, the Nozomi is about 25 minutes faster than the Pass-friendly train. For long-distance trips, using the pass can add hours to your journey. This is especially important if you're using Google Maps to track train times, it assumes you're riding Nozomi.

If I'm on a fast train, I care a lot less about comfort. Only when the trip crests 3 hours do I start wishing I had the comforts of the Green car. So yes, for many trips, I'd say Economy on Nozomi is better than Green car on the slower Hikari.

Remember that the Japan Rail pass is only available to foreigners, so if you have (or make) any Japanese friends you'd like to travel with, I can promise you they'll silently roll their eyes when you tell them they have to take the slow train.
I mean, fellow New Yorkers, try to imagine your friend is visiting and wants you to go with them somewhere in the city but their tourist MTA card won't let them on any express subway trains? Or for you non-New Yorkers, imagine a visiting friend rented a car for their trip that wasn't allowed use the freeway, just surface streets. No big deal for a short trip, but for a long one, you'd roll your eyes loudly and you know it.  
Beyond the speed, riding Nozomi/Mizuho trains have a few other perks. Because so many visitors to Japan get the pass, the Nozomi/Mizuho trains have a lot fewer foreign tourists (i.e., Shinkansen novices) and are therefore less chaotic than the others. Also, since so many Japanese people use the Ta-Q-Bin courier service to move their bags when they travel, the Nozomi is refreshingly devoid of European backpackers trying in vain to shove a 60 kilo backpack into the overhead rack.

So who is on the train with you? Well, your train mates are likely to be a bunch of salarymen on their way back from a business trip. They're obnoxiously entertaining in their own way until they pass out from their 4th Sapporo tallboy.

 

7. Fewer lines to stand in

Seat reservations are free with a pass, but you still have to go to stand in line at a JR office and do it in person. When you purchasing a ticket, you can skip the line and do everything from a machine. I should point out here that I highly recommend bringing several cards with you to the machine – we found that in some machines, ONLY our Barclays-issued cards (e.g., our JetBlue and Arrival+ cards) would work because in kiosks they can operate in Chip+PIN mode.
Note: that's just my own "anecdata" on the topic of cards in kiosks. I don't really care if your Chase FartyPoints™ card "worked just fine" this one time back in 2011 in an old Keihan Railways machine in Kyoto. I'm just saying if you've EVER traveled abroad with a credit card, you know all about the "card roulette" you have to do now and then, so bring a few to choose from if you're going to try and use a JR train ticketing machine. And if you have a Barclays card, don't leave it in your sock drawer back in the US. 

These yellow ones at least warn you!

Card roulette anyone?


TIP: When reserving a seat with your rail pass, filling this form out while you wait can speed things up

 

In conclusion…

Well you're probably more confused now than you were before you started reading, but, hey, there's nothing more Japanese than being completely OCD about planning out your travel, so think of it as "getting into the local mindset" 😁 But seriously, think through your trip a bit before just blindly buying a pass that covers the entire duration of your visit – there might be faster and cheaper options if you plan a little bit.

 

Other useful links





Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Up to 1500 bonus points using your Chase card with Apple Pay





Chase is running a promo for their smartphone payment systems (ApplePay, Samsung Pay) – one extra point per dollar on transactions between now and Nov 4th. The promo is capped at 1500 bonus points.

I love ApplePay because:

  • Merchants never have my real card number in their systems so breaches like the one at Target don't affect me.
  • I trust Apple's track record on security vastly more than I do any US retailer's.
  • ApplePay works much faster than the chip readers do at most stores, so if I get an unhelpful employee who doesn't know how ApplePay works, I like to point out to them that it's literally 10 seconds faster than the chip and that usually makes them very happy.
  • If I forget my wallet I can still pay for a taxi, groceries, prescriptions, etc. 
  • With the forthcoming Apple Pay Cash app launching, I'll be able to keep this and my Venmo/Paypal-like transactions with friends all in one place.
  • Automated kiosks (like transit ticket machines) that support Apple Pay let you avoid card skimmers installed by identity thieves.  
  • I can carry 10 virtual cards around with me but only have 1 or 2 physical cards in my wallet.




Saturday, September 30, 2017

Mosaic status challenge came through!

As I mentioned earlier this year, JetBlue ran both a status challenge and status match promotion where you could quickly earn elite status with them.

My husband already has Mosaic status, but unfortunately he was not on-track to make it again for next year. He was about to book an expensive Mint flight to California for work and realized that flight would earn enough points to qualify for him the status challenge.

Well this email showed up last week...
Mosaic!
and along with it came the 15,000 bonus points (worth $210) that you get when you qualify for Mosaic the normal way. I mention this because in several online forums many were wondering if people doing the challenge would receive this bonus.

On top of that, this was apparently his 10th Mint flight so he got an additional 1,000 points for the "Never a Dull Mo-Mint" badge as well.

Double bonuses!

My post about the actual value of Mosaic status is here.







Thursday, September 28, 2017

How much did I make on Chase Sapphire Reserve's Bonus Categories?

Well the Chase Sapphire Reserve is a year old now, so I figured it was time to look back on a year's worth of spending to see how "worth it" the card was beyond the amazing 100,000 point signup bonus. (We spent our 100k bonuses on our upcoming Japan trip)




I kept my Amex Premier Rewards Gold card, but shifted most of my dining and non-airfare travel to the Reserve to take advantage of their 3x points in both of those categories. So how many extra points did doing that get me?

After looking it over I made a total of 29,617 Chase Ultimate Rewards points on dining. If I'd charged that dining to Amex (which only has 2x bonus in that category), I'd have only made 19,547 points. Those extra 9,892 points are worth about $200 (I value my Amex points around 2¢ each).

The card has an annual fee of $450, but when you subtract the $300 annual travel credit and Global Entry fee reimbursement ($100 every 5 years), the effective annual fee is $130. So just on dining alone the card has covered its annual fee.

In other words: spending $6500 per year on dining or $3250 on non-airfare travel is enough to offset the Reserve's annual fee versus the Amex Premier Rewards card. 

The travel category more difficult to calculate. They both earn 3x points for airfare. Amex even allows you to earn an extra bonus point per dollar for booking through their travel portal. But on the other hand Chase gives you 3x on all travel charges (e.g., hotels, subways, car rentals, and taxis), not just airfare. So even though I charged most of my airfare to my Amex, I still made 44,225 points on travel (worth $291) using my Sapphire.

So, oddly, this flips the question on its head: should I get rid of my Amex card? I thought about it for a minute and realized that the Amex Offers have netted me 39,000 points in the past 12 months (here plus here) – four times more than the annual fee for the card.

Amex has a very different list of airline transfer partners, so it's a good idea to accrue both Amex and Chase points for maximum flexibility. I could potentially switch to an American Express Card with no annual fee, but I'm concerned that I might not get the same lucrative Amex offers on a cheaper card.

I'm still hearing whispers in dark corners of Reddit that an Amex "Sapphire Killer" card is in the works, so I might hold out for that :) 







Friday, September 22, 2017

Puerto Vallarta Guide


For our 10th anniversary in 2007, we decided to take our first trip to Puerto Vallarta. What we thought was going to be a one-time thing has turned into an annual tradition. It’s a shabby-but-cute gay village on a bay that used to be a giant volcano. It’s old Mexico charm surrounded by high rise condos, all-inclusive resorts, Walmarts, shopping malls, an actual jungle, and an ocean full of whales, beautiful fish, and pelicans.

November through June, it’s also full of Canadians, Californians, cruise ship tourists, retired snowbirds both gay and straight (easily identified by their “NO! I dont want a &@%# -ing timeshare!” T-shirts), and of course lots of locals trying to hustle up a living by catering to all of the above.

I’ve put together a bunch of tips for visiting and staying here, with an emphasis on old Vallarta. Quick Sidenote: I moved this guide here from Medium.com because I'm unsure if Medium will be around much longer...

 

Sections

 

Getting here ✈️

First and foremost: American citizens need to have a passport to go to Mexico.
  
This chart on Wikipedia lists every direct flight destination to/from Puerto Vallarta – airport code PVR. Some are seasonal (i.e., only in winter). This is a good reference point if you're confused about why you're not finding a flight you wanted. Many of the flights aren't 7 days a week!
TIP: United sometimes stocks margarita mix and tequila on flights to/from Mexico but they run out fast so order early :)
There are a ton of direct charter flights from Canada (really, I saw a plane with direct service to Winnipeg!) but I’m not an expert on that topic. You might want to consider a long layover in Mexico City or Guadalajara en route. Both are incredibly fun.

I've got some more detailed information about flights to Puerto Vallarta here

 

Basics 💵📱

Mexico’s country code is +52 (on an iPhone, hold down the 0 key to make a plus sign). On your mobile, use the country code even when dialing from within Mexico to a local Vallarta business (example: +52 322 222 3333). WhatsApp seems to be popular for instant messaging. Most of the big American cellular companies' plans treat Mexico as part of the USA for roaming data and calls, but you should check and make sure before you go.

The currency is the Mexican peso and it’s usually denoted either $ or MXN$. It’s currently 17 Pesos to the USD (Oct 2017) which is way up from the usual 10–12 pesos of the past decade. Normally we recommend just getting pesos from the ATMs, but on last year’s trip even the “safe” ones ended up frauding out several of our friends’ cards. From what we’ve read, the fraud is not coming from skimmers, it’s from crooked armored car drivers putting skimmers inside the machine so they get your PIN too. In every case the fraud didn’t happen until weeks or months later. So this year we brought some pesos with us from the US, used the ATM normally, and then just immediately canceled our cards and ordered new ones with new PINs as soon as we got back. Many places take credit cards, but enough places don’t that you’ll need to have some cash.

While we’re on the topic of money, tipping is handled like it is in the USA — 20% for anyplace that has table, beach chair, or cabana service. Given how strong the USD is right now (seriously beers are like 50¢), you can afford to tip like a baller.

 

Getting around 🚖

I made a custom Google map of Vallarta with a bunch of notable places on it. Taxis are everywhere in the old town. (Uber hasn’t made its way to Vallarta from Mexico City yet…) They’re yellow, cheap, and reliable but they’re all quite small so groups might need more than one. Outside the old town, most hotels will have a taxi stand. Some of the drivers will offer you things (the whole “i know a great club…” thing) but a clear and firm “No.” has always been sufficient to end that discussion.

Where to stay 🏨

Casa Cupula if you want fancy and gay, Blue Chairs if you want a gay party-party beachfront atmosphere, Shearaton Bougainvillas if you absolutely positively have to earn/use Starwood points and don’t mind taking a taxi everywhere (Vallarta Cora and the Abbey are both closed now). AirBnB is really taking off – there’s even an "Unlock Vallarta" key hand-off retail shop in town. One big challenge doing AirBnB is that if your rental isn’t in the central city (where can just hail a taxi from the street), you have to speak Spanish to the taxi dispatch to get a car to come to you. If you’re up in the hills you might have a very hard time convincing them. Hopefully your AirBnB host can recommend a private, English-speaking car service they like. Also, stock up on snacks and beer if your AirBnB isn’t close to town — it gets super annoying to have to call a car every time you want a taco.

Beyond that I don’t have much first-hand experience with Vallarta hotels. Try to stay south of the Cual River in the Zona Romantica if you want to be close to the central old town. Also, the further you go from the beach, the less touristy and more “real Mexico” the town becomes. Check Trip Advisor because “more real” isn’t always a good thing…

Packing 🎒

For flip-flops and sunglasses, consider bringing the “beach pair” and the “town pair” since the former is about 10x more likely to get lost. Bring a beach bag large enough to hold your stuff and your towels. At least two swimsuits. Dress codes are fairly lax but bring a collared-shirt (a polo is fine) and nice jeans in case you decide to go to a nicer place. A tube of hydrocortisone for bug bites (there aren’t many, but I usually get one bite or two). I bring a small tube of nice facial sunscreen with me but then buy a big bottle once I get to town. Bring foot protection if your winter feet aren’t used to your summer shoes (I love these). While there is a late-night pharmacy, I still like having a couple of starters in my bag so I can head there on my own time: loperamide/anti-diarrhea, benadryl/anti-histamine, and sudafed in case I need to clear my ears for flying.

Netflix now lets you download shows for offline viewing, so queue up some plane/beach watching while you pack! Maybe also fire up Duolingo. Some more general packing tips are here on my blog.

Arriving 🛬

Most hotels will offer a paid car service to pick you up at the airport. Follow their instructions for meeting the driver.

There’s a gauntlet of vacation hawkers and taxi services right as you leave immigration. If you’re sourcing your own taxi, it’s best to walk past all of them and out into the main airport area to find a ride. For taxis, go to one of the small ticket booths near the exit and buy a ticket from them. (picture here). Then head outside and show your ticket to the uniformed staff and they’ll put you into the right cab. It’s around MX$300 from the airport to the center of old town. Alternatively, several car services have offices in the main airport hall and those cost a bit more.

If you’re fluent in Spanish and can schlep your bags up two flights of stairs, locals take the pedestrian bridge to the other side of the highway and get a cab there to avoid the airport surcharges. I wouldn’t do this alone or at night, personally.

The off-airport taxi stand can save you some money on airport tariffs if you don’t mind schlepping your bags…
It's just over this pedestrian bridge

Activities 🏄🛍

There’s a lot to do in Vallarta but I highly recommend loafing. If you wanted museums you’d have gone to Paris, if you want to hob-nob with East Coast gays who fancy themselves “A-listers”, you can do that next summer in Fire Island or P-Town. For now, have a margarita and a Xanax (they’re over-the-counter here!) and slowww-dowwwwwn.

Commence loafing!
If you’re here for Beef Dip Bear Week, their official Events calendar is here. They usually offer a group zip-lining and ATV day, so if you want to do those things with a group of big furry gay men, you’re all set. Their pool party and booze cruise are fun (just remember to take Dramamine for the latter). The “jungle dance” thing is a complete bust. I’d avoid any of their events at straight bars or outside the old town.

Your hotel should be able to arrange for the most common activities: whale watching, jet skiing, zip-lining, ATV riding, booze cruises, scuba diving, snorkeling, tequila distillery tours, parasailing, botanical gardens, horseback riding, parasailing, cooking classes, and private beach excursions. I’d trust the hotel over one of the people hawking these activities in the streets.

Also, if you want to do a day trip, renting a car is really easy. They usually bring the car right to your hotel. You sign like two forms and you’re on your way. MAKE SURE YOU KNOW WHAT TOPES ARE BEFORE YOU DRIVE!! San Pancho (sometimes called “San Francisco”) is a great day trip. Make sure you ask a local about potential destinations as road quality can drastically slow your driving.

Our rule is that we have one day out of the whole vacation with a planned activity and the rest of the days we just make up as we go.

Diving class

Day trip to Tequila

boating
Cooking class

 

Typical Day ☀️

Much like in Provincetown there’s a loose, hang-out sort of mentality yet that somehow ends up flowing into a fairly predictable routine.

Mornings 

Morning usually starts by stumbling to a nearby cafe for lots of strong coffee and a hair of the dog. Try a Cafe de Olla (a spiced Mexican drip coffee) if they offer it. Most places offer an American-style breakfast/brunch so you can get French toast if your stomach isn’t ready for chilaquiles yet. Birria and Menudo are both renowned hangover cures, but for me it’s chilaquiles rojas with an egg pretty much every single morning.

Chilaquiles - my favorite hangover helper

Afternoon 

In the afternoon people usually head to the beach. Nearly all of the beach resorts have umbrellas, reclining beach chairs, bathrooms, and full-service kitchen and bar. Most things on the menu are very reasonably priced. Gays tend to like the Blue Chairs beach club and the others near it. Order a bucket of Pacificos and make some new friends. It’s best to ask your waiter’s name so you can easily find him when it’s time to pay your bill and depart.

Afternoons on the beach
Beach vendors pester you about every 2 minutes to buy some crap. I shouldn’t have to tell you that eating oysters on the half-shell that some guy has been carrying down the beach for 2 hours in blazing sun is a bad idea. Say “No, gracias” and stick to getting food from your waiter. If the massage guy comes, definitely get a foot massage, though. It’s amazing. Also keep an eye out for the legendary “Howww mannnyyyyy” Christina too. She’s the beach vendor who has everything.
The legendary Christina
La Palapa is a beachfront restaurant near the Blue Chairs and they’ll give you a full-service beach day experience with umbrellas, white tablecloths, and silverware if your’e feeling a little fancy or need a quieter beach day. When I’m doing a beach day with my family, I love doing it here…

Mantamar is a new fancy beach club south of the Green Chairs that has a beachfront saltwater pool, hot tubs, private cabanas, “gourmet” food, blaring club music, and a cover charge.
If you’re not up for the beach or a full-on “activity”

Mantamar – private cabanas, beachfront pool, and loud, terrible music

For something casual that's not the beach:
  • Shop. There’s a bunch of places to buy Tequila, Mezcal, and if you ask nicely, Raicilla. (However, if you’re flying home on a non-stop and not checking a bag, you might want to just buy your liquor at the airport’s vast duty free shop). There are also a ton of places to get Mexican wrestler masks, woven ponchos, ridiculous hats, and other touristy souvenir crap.
  • Sightseeing. The Malecon is a long beachfront boardwalk full of shops and restaurants. Make sure to take a couple of detours off the boardwalk to check out the cathedral and Cual Island.
Walk the malecon
Visit the cathedral

Post-beach, late afternoon

If you’re already at Blue Chairs, lots of folks go up to the roof top bar to watch the sunset and watch bad bi-lingual drag shows.
Or you can head back to your hotel’s dipping pool. Order a round of margaritas, hop in, watch the sunset, and chat with other guests about what they’re doing tonight. It’s a great way to get invited to things you didn’t even know were happening.

Sunset in the hotel dipping pool

Alternatively, you can head to a beachfront restaurant for an early sunset dinner.  
Tip: you can actually Google “what time is sunset in puerto vallarta tonight?”… or “¿A qué hora es la puesta del sol en Puerto Vallarta esta noche?” if your browser has auto-forwarded to google.mx
Don’t forget that sometime between the beach and the club, you’re going to need a disco nap since you probably only slept six hours last night.

Dinner 

Dinner tends to be fairly late for locals, but given the high number of older folks and Canadians in town, you can get dinner as early as 5:30pm at some places. It’s also common for people you’ve met during the day to try and put together some kind of group dinner thing. Have your hotel concierge make a reservation for you even if you speak Spanish, since they might have relationships that could magically open up a table for you at a “fully booked” restaurant.

Dining on the beach at sunset

After dinner 

Many people head to one of the bars before moving on to the dance clubs. There are too many bars in town to even begin to list them all. There’s a good list here, but keep in mind that things change quite quickly, so one year’s hotspot will be next year’s dud (Club Mañana, I’m looking at you). Grab one of the free printed gay guides when you get to town or ask your concierge what’s hot. We usually start our night by drinking at Frida’s, Dos Amigos, or La Noche. Once we’re done there, we head to CC Slaughters or Paco Paco. Clubs are open late (past 4am when it’s busy).
A quick not here on “Dating”: local Vallarta guys are very friendly and helpful, but don’t be surprised or grumpy if, halfway through the evening, he lets you know that he’s also a massage therapist and that he’d happily come back to your place and give you a massage for MX$800. There’s a good chance the affection was genuine, but he’s got bills to pay just like you do. Vallarta is also a popular weekend getaway for Guadalajarans (especially in summer), so you might have better luck barking up that tree. Smartphones cost a zillion pesos here so The Apps will be full of other tourists (when they can get the WiFi to work!).

After the club 

It’s time for some street food! Taco stands line the streets near the bars and the alcohol level in your stomach should disinfect anything questionable that you’re about to eat, right? Our favorite is near the big Farmacia Guadalajara (the one closest to the intersection). Make sure you try the tocino (bacon) and the panela (a soft white cheese that’s amazing with grilled onions). “Wash” your hands by squeezing a lime onto them and treating the juice like Purell. If the plate is wrapped in plastic, return it when you’re done eating (even if it’s styrofoam!) and you’re ready to pay. Don’t use more napkins than you need if you want to stay on the cook’s good side (paper products are expensive in Mexico).

late night tacos!

 

Some general food tips 🌮

Mexican food in tourist towns has an identity crisis: restaurants often have to bend their own cuisine to meet the vision of how visitors expect it to be. If you’re at the very tourist-heavy Daquiri Dicks on the beach in Vallarta, it’s surprisingly similar to, say, Casa Bonita in Denver. The further from the beach and the more “authentic” the restaurant, the more respectful you should be about your expectations and requests. To that end:
  • Tacos come on corn tortillas, not flour.
  • Tacos don’t have cheese on them. Order a quesadilla with meat, or a queso fundito if you want cheese.
  • Chicken is not a common ingredient for tacos.
  • Burritos are American.
  • Keep in mind that Vallarta is in the state of Jalisco – the birthplace of tequila. Ergo, don’t order a nice añejo tequila and then shoot it like a college kid on spring break. Sip the good stuff as if you were in Scotland drinking a fine whisky. Patrón is only available at tourist bars (order Don Julio instead). Most Mexicans put a nice blanco/silver into their margaritas, rarely an aged reposado or añejo. 
  • While we’re on the topic of liquor, Controy is a local orange liqueur (and critical margarita ingredient) that tastes suspiciously close to the vastly-more-expensive Cointreau its name sounds like a mispronunciation of.
  • Always eat what’s popular. If 90% of the restaurant is eating al pastor tacos, eat al pastor tacos. The fastest way to get food poisoning is to order the hamburger at a place that serves one hamburger a month. 
  • Most corner stores sell a wide variety of drinkable yogurt products to keep your belly happy. Note that popular flavors are prune, celery, and cactus so do read the label.
  • Since this is a tourist town, tipping is largely handled like it is in the USA — 20% is customary.
  • Lastly, the orange salsa is always the hottest. Picante means spicy, caliente refers to temperature.

 

What and where to eat 🌽 

Al Pastor. Think greek gyros only with Mexican spices and slab of spit-roasted pineapple on there. Panchos Takos is my favorite place to get these. Or if you’re more daring, try one of the people cooking it on the street with a tiered charcoal spit-roaster.


Al pastor tacos!

Queso Fundito. It’s mexican cheese fondue, usually topped with crispy chorizo and served with fresh corn tortillas. Yes, it really gives you this face when you eat it. If you get there early enough, Panchos Takos will make this for you too.
Ryan's Queso Fundito face



Elote. Char-grilled corn covered with mayonnaise, chili, and lime.



Pozole is usually eaten on Sunday after church. It’s amazing. They make a white girl version if you’re too scared to eat tongue and tripe. (But you should totally get the one with tongue and tripe, live a little!). Our favorite place for this is Cenaduria Celia.


Michelada de mariscos. A spicy beer bloody mary with a jicama seafood salad in the top. The beer stand at the foot of Igualidad road has amazing ones.


You can also get micheladas without the seafood...



Torta ahogada (literally, “drowning sandwich”) originates nearby Guadalajara, where the high altitude gives the bread the necessary fortitude to stand up to a full dunking in super hot sauce. We've seen a couple of places in Vallarta that import their bread from Guadalajara so it has the right cooked-at-altitude consistency to stand up to all that sauce.

Torta Ahogada
Cafe des Artistes is the nicest restaurant in town. It’s quite expensive (around US$100 a person) but the food is fantastic. It’s one of the few places in town I’ve seen people dress up for – I’d at least wear a polo shirt and nice jeans.

Cafe des Artistes if you want fancy



Repollo Rojo (aka The Red Cabbage) is probably my favorite place for traditional Mexican sit-down dinner. The squash blossom quesadilla is fantastic. So is the peanut soup. Their mole Oaxaca and Chile en Nogada are both phenomenal. So is all of the Frida Kahlo memorabilia. They also offer cooking classes.



La Palapa has tables on the patio and directly on the beach. The food is decent if a bit touristy and the prices are high but, hey, you’re dining on the beach by a bonfire with a tippy-top-shelf margarita that goes down waaay faster than you ought to be drinking it. It’s also a great place to stop in after dinner elswhere for a round of top shelf tequila with a sangrita chaser.

 
Beachfront dining at La Palapa

 

More 🌎

My Vallarta Google map has a bunch of other restaurants and sights. 🌮🗺
My New York City food guide is here.
My Tokyo food guide is here.
My Instagram (all food with restaurant check-ins) is here.