Award Travel

Flight Review: Qantas B787-9 Brisbane – Los Angeles

Trip Report: Two Weeks Down Under
Flight Review: Qantas B747-400 San Francisco – Sydney
Lounge Review: Qantas Business Class Lounge, Sydney
Flight Review: Qantas A330-300 Sydney – Auckland
Lodging Review: Holiday Inn Auckland Airport
Lodging Review: The Pavilions Hotel, Christchurch
Our Time in Christchurch
Lodging Review: Hilton Queenstown Resort & Spa
Our Time in Queenstown including Doubtful Sound Tour
Lodging Review: Avani Metropolis, Auckland
Our Time in Auckland
Lodging Review: Oceans Mooloolaba
Our Time on the Sunshine Coast
Lodging Review: Brisbane Marriott
Flight Review: Qantas B787-9 Brisbane – Los Angeles

It was time for our flight back to the US. As I mentioned in the intro to this trip report, this was the leg I booked first, simply because we found 3 business class tickets on the same flight. And I got to give the birthday girl the present of a business class flight when she usually chooses to fly economy.

Our bird for this flight

Qantas 15 BNE-LAX
Boeing 787-9
Seat: 7A (Business Class, Window)
Scheduled Departure: 1010 (Actual: 1019)
Scheduled Arrival: 0545 (Actual: 0535)
Scheduled Duration: 12h 50m

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Categories: Award Travel, Flight Review, OneWorld, Qantas | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Our Time on the Sunshine Coast

Trip Report: Two Weeks Down Under
Flight Review: Qantas B747-400 San Francisco – Sydney
Lounge Review: Qantas Business Class Lounge, Sydney
Flight Review: Qantas A330-300 Sydney – Auckland
Lodging Review: Holiday Inn Auckland Airport
Lodging Review: The Pavilions Hotel, Christchurch
Our Time in Christchurch
Lodging Review: Hilton Queenstown Resort & Spa
Our Time in Queenstown including Doubtful Sound Tour
Lodging Review: Avani Metropolis, Auckland
Our Time in Auckland
Lodging Review: Oceans Mooloolaba
Our Time on the Sunshine Coast
Lodging Review: Brisbane Marriott
Flight Review: Qantas B787-9 Brisbane – Los Angeles

Though we weren’t nearly as tired as we expected to be after 1.5 weeks of travel, it was still nice to get to the beach town of Mooloolaba to relax. As it turned out, late October was a wonderful time to visit the Sunshine Coast. The weather was warm – upper 70s to low 80s for the high – but not hot.

The day we arrived we enjoyed just walking along the beach south of our condo. We kept on the beach as long as we could and on the way back we walked along the path above the beach. There were lots of folks running and walking for exercise and there were picnic spots in several places.

These rocks were just across the esplanade from our condo. Bad for swimming but cool for looks!

Lots of beautiful beaches in the area. Be sure to swim between the flags only!

The next day we spent time at the beach and in the water. The ocean was cool but warm enough to swim in, even if it was a bit bumpy, I assume as a result of a thunderstorm the night before. We spent the rest of the day cruising the shops along the Esplanade and sampling the cuisine.

Australia Zoo

The next day I took an Uber to see Australia Zoo, home of the Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin. I loved the original shows and had been at the Great Barrier Reef just a couple of months before Irwin’s untimely death. I’d kind of lost track of what all was going on with the family until seeing that his daughter Bindi got engaged over the summer of 2019. It was hard for me to believe how the kids had grown up so quickly. My travel companions didn’t care anything about coming so I left them to do their own adventure while I took an Uber to the zoo.

One of my first impressions was that if you didn’t know Steve Irwin was dead, you’d expect him to pop out at any moment. His likeness is everywhere and the big monitor at the Crocoseum (the arena where the crocodile demonstrations are held) constantly plays videos of his shows and interviews. In my reading since returning I’ve learned that he and his wife Terri had set up a 10-year plan before he died and they’ve been diligently working on that ever since. The zoo is truly impressive and I had a blast spending the day there. I considered taking one of the behind-the-scenes tours but was concerned I wouldn’t get to spend enough time at exhibits that I wanted to see. However, if I ever get back that’s something I will definitely do. All money from the tours and animal encounters goes to the non-profit Wildlife Warriors fund which directly impacts wildlife and does not go for overhead costs at all. There are several wildlife reserves supported by these funds as well as the Wildlife Animal Hospital located on the zoo grounds. To date the hospital has treated over 90,000 patients and with the recent wildfires in the country, more animals than ever are being sent to the hospital for rehabilitation. It’s a great work they do there and I’m thankful there are facilities like this.

Here are a few of the animals I saw on my visit.

Rhinoceros Iguanas enjoying brunch

American Alligators are less aggressive than their saltwater crocodile cousins

An Aldabran Tortise. Tortoises have more block-like feet while turtles have feet more like flippers. Aldabrans can live over 100 years and grow up to one meter tall.

A blue-tongued skink

One of the staff with a wedge-tailed hawk

River otters sunning for just a moment

A Perentie goanna, one of the largest monitor lizards

Binturongs have prehensile tails but are carnivores.

Brolgas love to dance as part of their mating ritual.

An Emu blending in quite well with the foliage

A koala takes a nap. They can sleep for up to 20 hours a day!

Roo Heaven is an open area where kangaroos and wallabies run freely and guests can pet and feed them.

Mick giving Mossman some food. Mossman is 12.8 feet long and 1100 pounds!

Toby’s turn to feed Mossman

Mossman comes out of the water for food

One of the laughing kookaburras

Bubbles and Cuddles the macaws

One of the ring-tailed lemurs in a rare quiet moment

A meerkat plays sentry in their exhibit

Little lizards run wild in the zoo!

One of the Sumatran Tigers in the Tiger Temple exhibit

Rhino mom Caballe with her baby Carrie

One of the wombats, possibly Poa, takes a nap

Spartacus and Lucas, the Zebras

The giraffe family

There’s no cheetah exhibit but the zoo has several boys who walk around for meet ‘n greets.

Camel rides are available for an extra cost. This camel waits in the shade for his turn to give a ride.

In the end

Mooloolaba was a great ending to the main portion of our trip. It’s definitely a resort town but late October was a great time to visit as it wasn’t crowded at all yet was perfect weather. If you stay here and plan to return to the US from Brisbane you’ll either need to head there VERY early in the morning or, as we did, go the night before. If you’re returning from Sydney to LAX, all the flights seem to be in the 11 AM – 12 PM hour so you’d need one of the early morning flights out of the Sunshine Coast (MCY) airport there too. If you’re flying from Sydney to San Francisco, Vancouver or Dallas/Ft. Worth you’ll have a little more time. Even though we were spending the night in Brisbane, we were able to take a shuttle bus from our condo to the Brisbane airport and from there we took an Uber to our hotel. I loved visiting the Sunshine Coast and hope to return again one day.

Categories: Australia, Award Travel, Oceania | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Lodging Review: The Pavilions Hotel, Christchurch

Trip Report: Two Weeks Down Under
Flight Review: Qantas B747-400 San Francisco – Sydney
Lounge Review: Qantas Business Class Lounge, Sydney
Flight Review: Qantas A330-300 Sydney – Auckland
Lodging Review: Holiday Inn Auckland Airport
Lodging Review: The Pavilions Hotel, Christchurch
Our Time in Christchurch
Lodging Review: Hilton Queenstown Resort & Spa
Our Time in Queenstown including Doubtful Sound Tour
Lodging Review: Avani Metropolis, Auckland
Our Time in Auckland
Lodging Review: Oceans Mooloolaba
Our Time on the Sunshine Coast
Lodging Review: Brisbane Marriott
Flight Review: Qantas B787-9 Brisbane – Los Angeles

We left Auckland just a day after landing, flying Air New Zealand to Christchurch.  Wow, domestic travel in NZ is so much like it used to be in the US.  Nobody checked my ID.  I checked my bag myself. I did go through security but it was much less intrusive.  It was so nice!  The flight is blocked at 1h 24m but it seemed to arrive much more quickly.  The plane was a single-cabin A320 and as cheap as tickets were, this seems to be a very common way to jump between cities in NZ.

The biggest challenge I face when booking travel with two friends is that we prefer to use points for travel and we each want our own bed. I tried everything I know of to find a points-friendly hotel where we could have three beds and it just wasn’t happening. It’s hard enough to find in the US and much tougher abroad. Even suites – which would have enough room for a third bed – seem to provide only a king bed and not one that can be split apart. We could have booked through the Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR) portal, the Amex Membership Rewards portal or the Citi ThankYou Points portal or even redeemed points against my Barclays ArrivalPlus but in the end we decided to use cash. That would allow the birthday girl to pay and earn UR points from her Sapphire Preferred card which would help to offset the points she used buying her plane ticket to New Zealand.  The room was less than $200/night USD all in so with each of us effectively paying for a night, the price wasn’t bad at all.

I used Trip Advisor as a starting point and narrowed the list down to about 8-10 places that fit our criteria. I then started weeding places out based on reviews before presenting a list of about 4-5 places to my friends. The birthday girl ended up choosing The Pavilions. I was a little skeptical of how this would work but things turned out quite well.

Pavilions Hotel
(photo courtesy pavilionshotel.co.nz)

The hotel is family-owned and has been around quite awhile. It was raining the day we arrived and our room was in a building behind the main one. Fortunately a staff member helped us with our bags and guided us through the correct wing of the main building to make our dash across the parking lot as short as possible.

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Categories: Award Travel, Hotel, Lodging Review, New Zealand, Oceania, Other Hotels | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trip Report: Two Weeks Down Under

Trip Report: Two Weeks Down Under
Flight Review: Qantas B747-400 San Francisco – Sydney
Lounge Review: Qantas Business Class Lounge, Sydney
Flight Review: Qantas A330-300 Sydney – Auckland
Lodging Review: Holiday Inn Auckland Airport
Lodging Review: The Pavilions Hotel, Christchurch
Our Time in Christchurch
Lodging Review: Hilton Queenstown Resort & Spa
Our Time in Queenstown including Doubtful Sound Tour
Lodging Review: Avani Metropolis, Auckland
Our Time in Auckland
Lodging Review: Oceans Mooloolaba
Our Time on the Sunshine Coast
Lodging Review: Brisbane Marriott
Flight Review: Qantas B787-9 Brisbane – Los Angeles

Each year my friends and I try to take a two week vacation in the fall. We have a system that whoever had the birthday ending in 5 or 0 that year gets to pick the location. That’s served us well and covers 6 years out of any decade. This year the birthday girl decided on spending most of our time exploring New Zealand with a few days on the end on the beaches of Australia.

That decision was made late in 2018 so our first task was finding business class award space on the longhaul segments for two of us (one doesn’t mind flying coach). We were fine buying our positioning flights as long as we could lock in business class for those 14 hour flights!

I was looking for award space on American, Qantas and United as well as keeping an eye out for space on Air New Zealand. I knew that American was pretty stingy on longhaul award space in premium cabins but they look positively generous compared to what Air New Zealand typically opens up. As luck would have it I found three business class award seats from Brisbane (near the Australian beaches we wanted to visit) back to Los Angeles for the last Wednesday in October. That was perfect so we snagged those even though we didn’t have our outbound tickets yet. I used my miles for the birthday girl’s return ticket which cost 80,000 American AAdvantage miles + $81.83 for each ticket. However, thanks to my Citibank AAdvantage MasterCard I get a rebate of up to 10,000 miles each year so the net cost was 150K miles. I considered using 55,000 Alaska Mileage Plan miles per ticket instead but our friend who lives in Chicago was using her AA miles to get one of the tickets and I know that sometimes Alaska has access to one less award ticket than oneworld alliance airlines and I just wanted to make things easier by having the two of us on a single PNR. I bought a United domestic flight from LA to Denver to Memphis for my return flight and my Chicago friend bought a United ticket home as well. However, when United made the fall schedule adjustments, I would land in Denver too late to catch the afternoon flight back to Memphis so they re-routed me through Chicago. While I was stuck on a one-cabin plane for the Chicago-Memphis leg, at least I got to fly back with my friend as far as Chicago.

After buying the return flights we sweated for a couple of weeks until Qantas opened up two business class seats on their 747 from San Francisco to Sydney. The seats were available two weeks and one day before the return flight. That couldn’t have worked out any better for us. My friend from Chicago and I were even able to include positioning flights with the cost of our tickets: 80,000 American AAdvantage miles + $28.20 in fees

Long haul flights: the green line indicates my outbound flight while the blue is my return flight.

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Categories: Award Travel, Hilton, Hotel, IHG, New Zealand, Oceania, OneWorld, Other Hotels, Qantas | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: aloft Munich

Trip Report: Amsterdam, Iceland and Munich
Review: Iberia A340-600 Business Class
Review: Kimpton DeWitt Amsterdam
A Brief Tour of Amsterdam
Review: Sheraton Amsterdam Airport Hotel and Conference Center
Review: Radisson Blu 1919, Reykjavik
Review: Center Hotel Plaza, Reykjavik
A Week in Iceland
Review: aloft Munich
Visiting Dachau
A Brief Tour of Munich
Review: Hilton Munich Airport

After wrapping up our tour of Iceland we took an early-morning Icelandair flight to Munich where we’d spend the last few days of our trip. With the time change we arrived in Munich in the early afternoon. We took the train to the city center.

You know the old real estate slogan “Location, Location, Location”? That’s absolutely true of the aloft Munich. It’s literally across the street from the Hauptbanhof, or Main Train Station. This makes it not only easy to get to anywhere the train goes, but it’s also a stop for the intra-city tram system and the hop-on/hop-off buses have their offices and stops nearby as well.

aloft Munich location in relation to the Hauptbanhof

 

aloft Munich
(photo courtesy marriott.com)

We reached the front desk and were greeted by a friendly clerk who seemed to be working almost the whole time we were there. He noted that my Gold status did not qualify for a free breakfast. We were given keys to our room on the first floor (and since we’re not in the US, that’s the floor above the ground/current floor). The elevators are right beside the front desk so they’re hard to miss. Continue reading

Categories: Award Travel, Europe, Germany, Hotel, Lodging Review, Marriott, Starwood | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Et tu, United?

On Friday, like many of you, I got an email from United telling me about upcoming changes to their MileagePlus® program. Since they released this information on a Friday afternoon, you may be thinking this is not good news. You would be right, for the most part.

The Bad News

Just in time for the holiday season, United is removing their award chart. For flights on November 15, 2019 or later, the current rules for how much an award flight costs will be flexible. That is, an award flight will cost whatever they say it costs for that date on that route. So for popular routes for holiday travel you can expect higher prices – in some cases much higher.

The Good News

Award flights within the US and Canada that currently price at 10K to 12.5K miles may price lower sometimes. This pricing is already available for some routes.

Effective November 15 the close-in booking fee of $75 will be eliminated if you book a flight within 21 days of departure. Previously this fee was waived only for certain elite members.

If you are an elite member or hold one of the Chase United credit cards there are still no blackout dates for award travel – though of course you might not like the price that is charged.

For now, the Star Alliance award chart is not changing. For now.

In the end

It’s very disappointing to see United following Delta’s lead with this dynamic pricing. I would bet that American is not far behind. While it’s nice that the close-in fee is being eliminated, it’s not something I’ve ever had to pay as I typically book many months in advance. This is going to make award trip planning more challenging as you may see an award price for X-miles one day, save up enough for that, only to find it now costs Y-miles when you’re ready to book.

I’m just a lowly Silver elite this year and unless I take a business trip this year am unlikely to requalify. I chose United because it’s more reliable than American and I could do more with my miles than I could with Delta miles. Yet they’ve taken that advantage away.

The United website has a page with more detail.

Categories: Award Travel, Star Alliance, United | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Trip Report: Amsterdam, Iceland and Munich

Trip Report: Amsterdam, Iceland and Munich
Review: Iberia A340-600 Business Class
Review: Kimpton DeWitt Amsterdam
A Brief Tour of Amsterdam
Review: Sheraton Amsterdam Airport Hotel and Conference Center
Review: Radisson Blu 1919, Reykjavik
Review: Center Hotel Plaza, Reykjavik
A Week in Iceland
Review: aloft Munich
Visiting Dachau
A Brief Tour of Munich
Review: Hilton Munich Airport

The genesis of this trip was a friend telling me about a group tour of Iceland that several friends were going on and asking if I wanted to go or not. Of course the tour wanted to sell us airfare and options using points and miles aren’t all that plentiful, especially if fixed dates are involved.

The group tour was only a week and since October is when we we usually take a two-week vacation anyway, my travel companion and I decided to use our miles to get to Europe, enjoy a few days there, then buy tickets to Iceland, do the tour and then fly to another city in Europe where our miles could get us back to the US in business class. Continue reading

Categories: Award Travel, Europe, Germany, Hilton, Hotel, Iberia, Iceland, Icelandair, IHG, Marriott, Netherlands, OneWorld, Radisson, Starwood | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Review: SpringHill Suites Salt Lake City Airport

One good thing about flying to my ski destination a day before the group is that often I can use the free night that comes with one of several credit cards in my wallet. That’s one of the reasons I selected the SpringHill Suites at the SLC airport. Another is that they have a free airport shuttle. Normally the included breakfast would be a draw as well but in this case I have friends in the SLC area and they came and picked me up for breakfast so that was a non-factor this time around.

SpringHill Suites Salt Lake City Airport

I arrived at the airport and while one of my bags was one of the first bags on the belt, it took another 30-45 minutes for my skis to be delivered. It was after 10:30 PM before I collected my luggage and called the hotel regarding the shuttle but fortunately it did not take very long for it to arrive. The shuttle services both Hilton and Marriott properties that are all very close together. In my case the cabin crew from a recent flight was on the shuttle with me but was not staying at the same hotel. The SHS was the third stop for this particular shuttle run. Continue reading

Categories: Award Travel, Hotel, Lodging Review, Marriott | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

All Nippon Airways B777-300ER First Class Tokyo Narita to Houston

Exploring Asia Overview
Cathay Pacific B777-300ER Business Class San Francisco to Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific Lounge Review: The Cabin at HKG
Cathay Dragon A330-300 Business Class Hong Kong to Beijing
Lodging Review: Regent Beijing Hotel
Beijing: Dongcheng District
Beijing: The Great Wall
Beijing: Run-ze Jade Garden
Beijing: The Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs
Beijing: The Legend of Kung Fu
Beijing: Tiananmen Square
Beijing: The Forbidden City
Beijing: Hutong Tour via Rickshaw, Tea Tasting, Flying to Xi’an
Lodging Review: Hotel Shangri-La Xi’an
Xi’an: Qing Dynasty Terra Cotta Warriors
Xi’an: Tang Dynasty Dinner and Show
Xi’an Wrap-Up, Flying to Lhasa, Lhasa Home Visit
Lodging Review: Shangri-La Hotel Lhasa
Lhasa: Jokhang Temple and Barkhor Market
Lhasa: Canggu Nunnery and Sera Monastery
Lhasa: Potala Palace
Leaving Lhasa and Flying to Chongqing
Viking Emerald
Shibaozhai Temple
Cruising the Three Gorges
Three Gorges Dam
Jingzhou City Walls Tour
Wuhan: Hubei Bells Performance and Provincial Museum
Shanghai: Shanghai Museum
Lodging Review: Fairmont Peace Hotel, Shanghai
Shanghai: Old Shanghai and Yuyan Gardens
Lodging Review: The New Otani Tokyo Hotel
Tokyo: City Tour
Mt. Fuji and Hakone Tour Returning by Shinkansen
ANA Suites Lounge Review, Tokyo Narita
All Nippon Airways B777-300ER First Class Tokyo Narita to Houston

Date: October 24, 2017
Flight: NH 174 NRT-IAH
Seat: 2A (ANA Suites)
Aircraft: B777-300
Depart: 11:15 AM

We departed from gate 56, which was a 3-minute walk from my seat in the ANA Suites lounge. It was just a brief escalator ride down one level and a very short walk to the gate.

Boarding was scheduled to begin at 10:45 AM so I left the lounge at 10:30 AM just to have a look around the gate area. We had a nice nose-on view of our aircraft but for some reason the photo I tried to take didn’t work.

About 10:40 AM an announcement was made indicating that boarding would begin soon. I loved how civilized it was, with separate boarding lanes for First (and Star Alliance Gold), Business Class (and Star Alliance Silver) and Economy. There were about 5-6 (really young looking!) agents in the area working the flight and monitors overhead let everyone know they needed not only their boarding passes, but also their passports open to the photo page.

Once pre-boarding of one wheelchair and one family with small children was complete, precisely at 10:45, those of us in First Class were allowed to board. I was a bit amused that after passing the gate agents, we turned a corner to reach the jet bridge and there were another half-dozen gate agents – and even some ramp/maintenance workers – and they all bowed to us as we walked through. Once on the jet bridge, two doors were being used for boarding – 1L for First and 2L for everyone else. It was one time I didn’t mind turning right after boarding!

I was promptly greeted and escorted to my seat, 2A. The Flight Attendant, Mami, was just lovely and informed me that since only 3 of the 8 First Class seats were occupied, she would make my bed across the aisle in 2D. Wow, two suites just for me! Neither 1A nor 1D were occupied so I had the whole left side of the plane to myself.

ANA First Class Suite

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Categories: ANA, Award Travel, Star Alliance | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

Cathay Dragon A330-300 Business Class Hong Kong to Beijing

Exploring Asia Overview
Cathay Pacific B777-300ER Business Class San Francisco to Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific Lounge Review: The Cabin at HKG
Cathay Dragon A330-300 Business Class Hong Kong to Beijing
Lodging Review: Regent Beijing Hotel
Beijing: Dongcheng District
Beijing: The Great Wall
Beijing: Run-ze Jade Garden
Beijing: The Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs
Beijing: The Legend of Kung Fu
Beijing: Tiananmen Square
Beijing: The Forbidden City
Beijing: Hutong Tour via Rickshaw, Tea Tasting, Flying to Xi’an
Lodging Review: Hotel Shangri-La Xi’an
Xi’an: Qing Dynasty Terra Cotta Warriors
Xi’an: Tang Dynasty Dinner and Show
Xi’an Wrap-Up, Flying to Lhasa, Lhasa Home Visit
Lodging Review: Shangri-La Hotel Lhasa
Lhasa: Jokhang Temple and Barkhor Market
Lhasa: Canggu Nunnery and Sera Monastery
Lhasa: Potala Palace
Leaving Lhasa and Flying to Chongqing
Viking Emerald
Shibaozhai Temple
Cruising the Three Gorges
Three Gorges Dam
Jingzhou City Walls Tour
Wuhan: Hubei Bells Performance and Provincial Museum
Shanghai: Shanghai Museum
Lodging Review: Fairmont Peace Hotel, Shanghai
Shanghai: Old Shanghai and Yuyan Gardens
Lodging Review: The New Otani Tokyo Hotel
Tokyo: City Tour
Mt. Fuji and Hakone Tour Returning by Shinkansen
ANA Suites Lounge Review, Tokyo Narita
All Nippon Airways B777-300ER First Class Tokyo Narita to Houston

About 10 minutes before boarding time one of my companions and I left our third companion in The Cabin (his flight was an hour later) and headed back upstairs to our gate, which was only about two gates away from the entrance to The Cabin.

Boarding started on time and we entered through door 1L, turned right and went through the small (8 seats) first class cabin and into the first of the two business class cabins.

KA 900 – HKG-PEK
Departs: 8:00 AM
Arrives: 11:15 AM
Duration: 3h 20m
Aircraft: A330-300
Seat: 12C (Business Class)

Though our flight was on Cathay’s regional subsidiary, Dragon Air, I can’t imagine there was much difference between this plane and the Cathay B777 our friend flew an hour later.

I didn’t seem to get a photo of the seats though they reminded me a bit of those in Turkish Business Class. Seat controls were built into the side of the armrest, above the magazine holder.

Seat Controls

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Categories: Award Travel, Cathay Pacific, Dragonair, OneWorld | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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