Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Bound for China!

I’ve been waiting for a number of weeks to break the news about our next trip. This summer saw a good amount of work travel, plus a couple shorter trips, each with one of the older kids. I took my daughter to visit her friend in San Antonio, Texas in July. During our flights out she got to experience domestic first class for the first time. My older son had his turn in August, when we headed to Atlanta for a few days before he started school (SEE: 3 reasons why the Delta Flight Museum is an avgeek must-see).

The solo trips with each of them were super fun, and these were on the heels of a week spent in Europe with both of them (SEE: 3 Days in Paris: Day 3 – Savoring the City). We’d previously called it off back in April, and rebooked a shorter version that was more amenable to everyone.

Right around the time of that trip, I talked with my wife about planning a second international trip with the older two for late in the year. There was award space available for a return from Beijing with a stop in Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific, and I knew I could use the reimbursement I’d gotten from KLM after the cancellation on our Europe itinerary to cover most of it (SEE: Submitting an EU261 claim that could net me $1,500). The trip got the green light, and I moved ahead and planned it.

I’d been meaning to get this posted about a week ago, but a busy office move, onboarding new staff, and time at home kept me from wrapping it up. Figures that we would be en route when it is finally finished.

First stop, Beijing!

Our outbound flight is to Beijing, the capital of China. Like I mentioned above, I used the reimbursement from KLM to cover most of the fairly reasonable one-way fare for all of us. We have a total of six nights planned in Beijing, with 5 full days of sightseeing. On the itinerary are the core sights in central Beijing, including the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the parks nearby. We’ll also wander the hutongs and find plenty of cheap and delicious Chinese food.

Other plans include visiting the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven, two other iconic Beijing historic cultural sites. We also have an excursion to the Great Wall planned. I had my eye on the Mutianyu section, and after reading about Dan’s experience with his daughter (SEE: Great Wall Mutianyu Toboggan Ride review), this became a solid plan. It’s a slightly less visited section of the wall, so you avoid some crowds, and there are some fun things to do.

We did not obtain Chinese visas for the trip. I opted to use the 144-hour transit without visa (TWOV) policy that lets tourists visit a select number of Chinese cities for up to 144 hours without a visa. This is a fairly recent change by the Chinese government to promote more tourism. Other cities offer 72-hour TWOV, and another number offer 24-hour TWOV, which is basically only ideal for an overnight layover.

The 144-hour TWOV window in Beijing is honestly more than enough to see much of the city. And even if Beijing isn’t enough, the policy actually allows visitors to travel to other locations, as long as you stay within the Tianjin and Hebei provinces during your visit. Plenty of flexibility.

Our onward flight is to Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific. Which may seem confusing since Hong Kong is still technically part of China, but for the purposes of TWOV, it qualifies. Hong Kong is one of the special administrative regions, and U.S. passport holders do not need a Chinese visa to visit.

Then 3 days in Hong Kong

Our final three days will be spent exploring the bustling Asian financial center of Hong Kong. Hong Kong can be crazy expensive, and hotel rooms are small, so I’ve had difficulty finding a decent place to stay during our time in the city. I’m still waiting to hear back about the room capacity for the hotel I booked (but I have a backup plan if it falls through).

Our Hong Kong itinerary includes hiking up Victoria Peak, eating dim sum, and hopefully meeting up with Jason Francisco, one of the other writers for Points with a Crew, and his wife. We’ll see if we can make that happen. We may stuff in a day trip to Macau, but I’m not sure I want to cram it in, given the time and cost required.

The school issue

We made these plans before officially making the decision to enroll our two boys in New Life Christian school. We are fortunate that the school was able to send him with the work he needs to complete. We are homeschooling our daughter, so bringing along her work was pretty easy. We’ll just have to carve out some time in the evenings to get some done.

What will mom and the little guy do? They have their own fun-filled week planned. Our four-year-old is super excited to have mom all to himself (LOL). With only one kid to wrangle instead of three, mom will also be able to catch up on projects that she has been wanting to get to for months.

Conclusion

I’m excited. This will be my first time to any country in Asia. I don’t count my 90-minute visit to Seoul Incheon airport early last year (nor do I count my unplanned stop in Anchorage – SEE: 2 people getting engaged and 1 going into labor on my crazy flight). The more I’ve read and researched about China, the more fascinated I have become with the country. I’m excited to experience the culture and people.

Featured photo courtesy of Pexels

How to consistently fly for $270 or less round-trip out of Arcata

Flying out of our local regional airport can be a pain due to delays and cancellations. But it can also be extremely convenient, if things go smoothly. The only problem is…flights can be outrageously expensive.

Which makes using miles to fly in or out of Arcata a winning proposition almost every time since it represents a great value for your miles. If you’re interested in scoring a couple free flights, there are a couple great credit cards you can pick up that will earn you two round-trips out of our local airport.

But if you already have those card and/or are looking for another way to bring the cost of flights down, the Avianca LifeMiles program presents an interesting option. I’m going to be candid and state that this strategy is probably more of an intermediate level

Leveraging Avianca LifeMiles short-haul awards

Avianca LifeMiles has one of the best award charts for short-haul domestic awards within the United States. As a member of the Star Alliance, you can redeem your LifeMiles for flights on United Airlines. The LifeMiles chart breaks the U.S. into three regions, and flights within each region are only 7,500 miles one-way. You can even include connections (although the LifeMiles site seems to choke on itineraries that include more than 1 connection).

The “United States 3 zone” includes the following states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming. Oddly, Montana is in “United States 2”. But you can still fly to almost all the western states from Arcata for only 15,000 miles round-trip, an excellent deal (SEE: 3 reasons I am SUPER excited for the new LifeMiles shorthaul awards).

This is where the cost of miles can sometimes outweigh the cost of flights. Say you are interested in flying from Arcata to Jackson, Wyoming, an often expensive destination. Two round-trip tickets will probably run you $1,100 at the cheapest. Using LifeMiles for an award on this itinerary presents excellent value.

But what if you don’t have any LifeMiles?

How buying miles is actually cheaper than buying a ticket

It is extremely rare that I will ever advocate buying miles. In general, don’t do it. There are other ways to accrue them. But if you fly from Arcata frequently, this is one instance where buying miles could make some sense.

One of the most recent LifeMiles sales offered miles with “up to a 125% bonus”. The bonus for 1,000-50,000 miles purchased was 100%, so we’ll roll with that number. Let’s assume you want two round-trip tickets within the western U.S., which will cost you 15,000 miles each. Purchasing 15,000 miles will give you an extra 15,000 miles, enough for both tickets. Every 1,000 miles costs $33, so the total price will come to $495 for the miles you need.

Each ticket will also be subject to a $25 award ticketing fee (dumb, but it is what it is), and taxes of $5.60 each way, which is the TSA fee. Doing the math, each ticket will therefor cost $283.70. This is 50% or less of what many tickets to Jackson, Wyoming cost. Definitely worth buying miles in this case, if you would otherwise be looking to pay cash.

Even better, LifeMiles are fantastic for awards close-in, when prices are both high and United is charging you the obscene “close-in booking” fee of $75 for general members. The return on a LifeMiles purchase is even better in these cases. An added benefit is that United award availability is often better close-in.

So although I don’t typically advocate buying miles, this is one case I would consider it if I would otherwise need to pay cash for a ticket. You just need to ensure that there is sufficient award space to book the ticket you need.

Budget for flights with a monthly subscription

If buying a bunch of miles at once isn’t for you, LifeMiles offers a very unique option: a monthly miles subscription. It’s truly one-of-a-kind. I’ve never heard of another airline loyalty program that offers this feature.

In most cases, a subscription like this is silly. You pay a monthly fee, and they add miles to your account at a rate that isn’t really worth it in most cases. However, if you’re looking to fly a few round-trips per year out of Arcata and want a way to budget appropriately for them, this might just be something that interests you. It will also let you break out your flight “purchase” into manageable pieces through the year.

Avianca LifeMiles offers several subscription options, but two in particular stand out to me:

The “Plan 1,000” is a manageable cost and offers you one round-trip for $19.49 per month, with 1,000 extra miles to carry over per year. The “Plan 2,000” give you two round-trips per year, plus 2,000 carryover miles, for just under twice the cost. Visit Club LifeMiles for more info

Two other ways to accrue LifeMiles

There are a couple other ways to accrue LifeMiles. You have a few different credit card options. The Citi ThankYou Premier is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 50,000 ThankYou points, which can be transferred to LifeMilesat a 1:1 ratio. That’s how I topped off my own LifeMiles account most recently.

There are also two Avianca LifeMiles co-branded credit cards offered through Banco Popular. Haven’t heard of them? I hadn’t either. But the sign-up bonus was amazing when I got the card (SEE: My highest credit limit ever came with…what new card?). And the news just broke last week: the 60,000-point offer is back (read about it here)!

My words of caution

I’ve personally had no issues redeeming LifeMiles for a couple trips. It’s been totally painless through the LifeMiles website, and ticketing has happened quickly through United. It even easy to add the flight to your United account to select seats, check in via the app, etc. But there are numerous stories of people who have had nightmarish experiences with Avianca LifeMiles.

LifeMiles also doesn’t present you with all the options that the United website does, which means that a United award itinerary you’ve found might not be bookable with LifeMiles . I would *always* check for the itinerary through the LifeMiles site directly to ensure that your flight is an option presented. Since award seat availability varies, there is always the potential you could end up with miles that don’t work for your specific trip. If you’re locked into specific dates, I would be hesitant to go this route.

LifeMiles also doesn’t like awards with more than one connection. With connections in San Francisco, Los Angeles and (starting next year) Denver from ACV, you still have a great number of one-stop destinations available. There is also a workaround to this which I will cover at a later juncture, as it is a bit complicated.

All that said, if you have some flexibility of destination and dates, LifeMiles should work just fine. Be proactive about searching for award availability. It changes daily, especially when you get less than 3 weeks out. I find United sometimes releases a significant number of seats. As mentioned above, LifeMiles are a better option for a last-minute getaway since you’ll avoid the United close-in award fee, but you’ll still have to pay the $25 LifeMiles award fee.

Conclusion

If you’re willing to jumps through these hoops, you’re looking at much cheaper flights out of Arcata, up to half off of many itineraries in the western U.S. There are almost zero times I would suggest buying miles. This is one of the very, very few exceptions for which I’d even consider it, and even then, weigh the decision carefully. Still, the ability to fly round-trip out of Arcata for only $270 could be entirely worth it.

Questions or worries about this method? Hit me up anytime through my Contact Me page.

Avianca aircraft image courtesy of JTOcchialini via Flickr under CC BY SA 2.0 license

Fare Deal: San Francisco to Paris for under $400!

Fare deals are valid at time of publishing. Deals are only valid over specific dates and may require a minimum stay. I will nearly always suggest to head over to Google Flights to find the deal and click through to book. 

There is currently a fare sale between San Francisco and Paris on full service Star Alliance airlines. You can often find fares on low-cost carrier Norwegian to Paris out of Oakland for a comparable price, so this is an excellent sale.

Details

Origin/destination: San Francisco, California to Paris, France

Dates: Late November 2018 through May 2019, holidays excluded

Price: Starting at $375. Many options available for just under $400

Airlines: Star Alliance, including United, SWISS, and Lufthansa

Stay requirement: 6-7 days

Miles earned: ~1,250 redeemable miles and ~12,000 PQMs

How to book

Head to Google Flights and key in dates. Check out a sample itinerary in March here. Play around with the dates to find what works best for you. This deal is available over a good number of dates, and you can book a trip of anywhere from a week to over a month. You can also sometimes find these same deals through the Ultimate Rewards travel portal, allowing you to redeem your Chase points for tickets using your Sapphire Reserve or Sapphire Preferred card (SEE: 5 Reasons Why the Chase Sapphire Preferred is the Best Starter Travel Credit Card).

I headed to Paris and Luxembourg with our older two kids back in June of this year and we had an amazing time (SEE: 3 Days in Paris: Day 3 – Savoring the City). This is an excellent opportunity to book a trip if you’ve been thinking of visiting France yourself!

5 Reasons Why Sacramento is my Favorite Northern California Airport

With all the delays and cancellations that plague our tiny regional airport, I’ve had to look beyond our “Redwood Curtain” for reliable flights. Not to mention cheaper. Prices out of ACV are insane.

There are a number of options in the northern section of the state, including Redding, Santa Rosa, Sacramento and three more airports in the Bay Area. But one stands out above the rest: Sacramento.

If you’re a local and am wondering why I associated Sacramento with Northern California, have no fear. I’m firmly in your camp (SEE: 5 reasons you *must* visit coastal northern California). The Bay Area and Sacramento Area don’t qualify as NorCal in my mind. But since there are millions of people in the middle section of the state that don’t agree with us, I have to throw in the towel and go with the prevailing definition.

Couldn’t ask for easier access

The most appealing feature of Sacramento International Airport is the utter lack of traffic. Coming from Humboldt County, I head south on Highway 101, cross over to Interstate 5 by way of State Route 20, and then it’s another 45 minutes south to the airport.

Because the airport is located north of downtown Sacramento and busy Interstate 80, you don’t ever have to deal with any substantial traffic. I’ll take it over Oakland, San Francisco or San Jose any day.

From curbside to gate in no time at all

Along with the lack of the terrible traffic that plagues the Bay Area, everything is faster at Sacramento. The walk and time through security can be comparable to Oakland or San Jose, but its the proximity of the rental car center that helps significantly. It is located much closer, with a fast and frequent shuttle (ease of access to the rentals car center varies at San Jose airport depending on which terminal you are flying into or out of).

I’ve clocked my time through Sacramento Airport on a couple occasions. On one occasion I pulled up to drop my rental car with Enterprise at Sacramento at 4:58 a.m. I made it on the shuttle by 5:03, arriving at security at 5:05. Clearing security took all of a couple minutes and I made it to my gate by 5:09 a.m. Total of 11 minutes. No way I could do better than that at SFO.

Little to no price premium

As a mid-size airport, you might think Sacramento would have higher prices than a large hub like SFO. This is certainly the case if you’re looking to fly somewhere overseas, as Sacramento only has a few international flights (Air Canada to Vancouver and AeroMexico or Volaris to Guadalajara, if you are wondering). But for many domestic destinations, there is little to no difference in price. Sometimes it’s actually cheaper.

Don’t make the mistake of leaving off Sacramento Airport from your flight searches. It’s literally another 4 characters on the keyboard when searching airfare with Google Flights (SEE: 6 reasons Google flights is the BEST flight search engine). Just hit “S-M-F-space”, and then proceed to type in SFO like you planned to in the origin box.

Plenty of options

Sacramento has a leg up on Santa Rosa airport due to the number of airlines and flight options it offers. While Santa Rosa has definitely expanded in the past year, and is on track to continue this trend (SEE: Santa Rosa Airport Expands to Meet Crushing Demand), it still doesn’t have nearly the same number of flights. For example, American Airlines only offers one flight per day out of STS, and it is just after noon, making it hard to catch an eastbound connection in Phoenix that arrives on the East Coast at a reasonable time.

Sacramento offers many more options. Sure, it’s not SFO. But there are a number of reasonable departures on all the major carriers. You can pick from American, Delta, United, Alaska, Southwest, JetBlue, Frontier, and Hawaiian domestically. International carriers include Air Canada, AeroMexico and Volaris, as previously mentioned. Southwest offers the most nonstop destination options by far (which makes sense, as they have 53% of the market share at SMF).

Consistent rental car prices

Since I have to get myself to and from Sacramento Airport, I do have to take into consideration the cost of renting a car. I’ve found that I can pretty much always get a car for $100-150 depending on when and which direction I am going. This may sound like a lot, and it *is*, if it is coming out of my own pocket. But it work is paying, I can often justify it since the difference in fare is more than the cost of the rental car. The typical differential is $300+ between a fare out of Sacramento and a fare out of Arcata.

There is the issue of added travel time, but depending on the itinerary, even this may not be substantial. Most of my United itineraries for work back east involve two connections. Flying out of Sacramento allows me to cut it to only one. In some cases, flying out of Sacramento only adds 1-2 hours to my trip each direction. The added reliability makes this trade more than worth it.

Conclusion

I have a love/hate relationship with our local airport, which has made me look into flying out of other airports many times. Now I’ve finally settled on my favorite of the most easily accessible.

Header image courtesy of jericl cat via Flickr under CC BY 2.0 license

Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort Agave Suite: A Review

Pros: Great resort pool and other activities, reasonable breakfast, spacious room, good for families

Cons: Facilities a bit tired

After a day in Tucson (SEE: Should you visit Colossal Cave Mountain Park?, AND: Pima Air and Space Museum – Must see for the aviation enthusiast!) and a morning spent hiking in Saguaro National Park,  our two older kids and I headed to the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort for a fun afternoon in the pool.

I booked the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort as an award night. Prices over our dates weren’t bad, but I still didn’t want to shell out the cash. Our single night cost 41,000 Honors points. The added benefit of booking an award stay is that we didn’t have to pay the resort fee. If I’d moved the slider even a little bit to change our booking to a mix of cash and points, or paid cash for the night, the entire resort fee would be due.

So, if you’re ever looking at an extended Hilton resort stay, points are absolutely the way to go. I despise resort fees. If you are unfamiliar with them, check out this site.

Arriving at the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort

We drove up to the Phoenix area after spending two nights in Tucson enjoying Colossal Cave and the Pima Air and Space Museum. The morning was spent at Saguaro National Park, and we finally rolled into Phoenix about 3:00 in the afternoon.

The entrance to the resort is fairly easy to find. We drove up to the main lobby and checked in. The agent at the front desk was cheerful and helpful, giving us an orientation of the property as it was our first time here.

The property is big enough, however, that you’ll probably need to drive around to get closer to your room. We were in the North Pointe building at the very end of the top floor.

The front desk gave us a modest upgrade to a slightly nicer suite. Standard suites are located in the south building, while the Agave Suites are located in the north building. There isn’t a whole lot of difference between them from what I read, but the Agave Suites have been more recently remodeled.

Taking a look at our Agave Suite

The suite had a sufficient amount of space and comfort that I’d be willing to come back here with the whole family. With a living area, we could actually make it work for 5, if the hotel would allow that.

 

The front area includes the desk, couches, and a TV. It’s a great little living space.

There isn’t a full kitchen, but the fridge and counter space is enough to easily prepare food and cook if you bring a hot plate.

There isn’t quite enough seating for five, but it’s better than a hotel room that has a single desk chair or armchair. You can use the desk chair in addition to the living room seating.

The Agave Suite is definitely a true suite in that you can close the door between the living area and the bedroom. The bathroom is situated in the middle between the living and bedroom areas. One side has the toilet while the other holds the shower. The design is great as one person won’t tie up the bathroom for everyone.

Beyond the tiny hall and bathroom is the bedroom area. Ours had two queens, which with the sofa in the other room would be sufficient for our family of five.

But since there were only three of us this time, the Agave Suite was extra spacious.

There is a small balcony at the back with a lovely view of the parking lot. Not. At least the hills in the distance are pretty cool.

Overall, I was super pleased with the our room at the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort.

The River Ranch

The primary reason I’d booked the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort was…the resort part. Which in its case is called the River Ranch.

The April weather in Phoenix was lovely, and the pools were wonderfully refreshing. The kids spent literally hours in the water. I swam for a while and then laid back and took in some sun.

The main pool stretches around a middle landscaped hill that contains the top of the waterslide.

At one end of the pool there is an artificial waterfall feature. You can swim right up underneath them, and there are even benches to sit behind the screen of water. This was our favorite area of the pool.

There were not very many people present the day we were there. I cannot imagine what the place would be like if most of the lounge chairs were filled. It would be a zoo. Luckily, we’d picked a quiet day to stay at the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort.

The kids also enjoyed the lazy river. You can ride a full circuit around the mini-golf course on a tube.

The kids and I also played one round of mini-golf. Our first experience with this was in Costa Rica when we stayed at the Hotel Punta Leona at the Pacific in Costa Rica (SEE: Hotel Punta Leona review – stellar price for an all-inclusive). That time, everything was crazy. There was no taking turns; it was everyone just hitting the golf ball willy-nilly. This time we had a much more controlled game.

One of the kids favorite parts of the resort was the water slide. It isn’t very big, but unlike our stay at the Disneyland Hotel (SEE: Disneyland Hotel Frontier Tower adjoining deluxe view rooms review), there really wasn’t ever a line.

They did it over and over and over again.

I could have taken dozens of photos.

The River Ranch at the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort was entirely worth booking a resort hotel. We really don’t have much experience with resorts of any type, as they’ve never been high on my list of places to visit. My wife and I aren’t the types (well…more so me) to just head to a beach and park it for several days. Travel to me means walking through nature, experiencing culture, and taking in a new place. Resorts don’t fit the bill.

But with kids things are a bit different. They just want to have fun sometimes, and I’m trying to find a balance between “fun” activities and seeing the sights. So a resort stay now and then might become a bit more common.

Breakfast at Rico’s American Grill

One of the benefits of holding Hilton Gold status was being able to enjoy a free hot breakfast at one of the hotel restaurants, Rico’s American Grill, during our stay.

Instead of giving free breakfast to all of us as a Hilton Honors Gold benefit, the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort provides vouchers at the front desk. These are enough to cover their continental breakfast option ($10), or the buffet for the kids. If I recall correctly, the hotel did give us three vouchers, even though the they only have to extend the benefit to one guest.

I’ve found on multiple occasions now that Hilton is accommodating in that way when I’m traveling with two kids (SEE: DoubleTree Luxembourg Review). The kids got to pick from all of the items, while I had to make do with pastries and coffee.

But I really didn’t mind. There was a reasonable enough variety at Rico’s.

Overall, breakfast was good. It didn’t wow us in any way, but there were plenty of options at the buffet and the atmosphere was both casual and nice. Solid hotel breakfast, especially since it was free. Not sure I’d pay $19.99 for the adult buffet.

Outside of Rico’s on the patio area are some games. It was a nice Phoenix morning and not yet hot, so we hung around for a while playing Connect 4 and bean bag toss.

When the kids tired of the games, we moseyed back to the pool for an hour and a half. They enjoyed the water slide and pool, and then we dried off, packed up and loaded the car.

After that it was (sadly) time to hit the road to Sedona!

Area around the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort

There isn’t much in the immediate area around the resort. You’re basically in suburbia. There are some business and stores along the same road as the resort, but the rest of the area is just surrounded by houses. To the east are the hills seen in a couple photos.

There really isn’t anywhere to walk around the resort. If you have a car, you can see other sights in the Phoenix area. I wouldn’t suggest trying to visit the resort without a car. Or the Phoenix area, for that matter. The Phoenix metro is the textbook definition of suburban sprawl.

We did find a local Mexican restaurant down the street for dinner the first night.

Conclusion

Our one night at the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort was enjoyable and a great value. We had a fun-filled afternoon swimming and playing mini-golf before returning to our room for a movie. Having Hilton Gold status and using points for the night helped us bring the cost of our stay to nearly $0 out of pocket.

Eating off-property is easy since you are essentially in suburbia and there are plenty of cheap local options. Honestly, I would suggest it. If you also are a fan of cooking in your hotel room, you can definitely get one that would allow that to work easily as well. You’d just need to bring all the cookware and a hot plate.

The Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort isn’t a glamorous place, but it’s a great value for families looking to stretch both their points or their budget. It’s definitely on my list of places to take the whole family in the future.

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