Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Getting the full pat down from the TSA at Arcata Airport

Thus far in my flying career, I’ve had very few notable incidents with the TSA. Sometimes the giant millimeter wave machine will erroneously say I have something in my back pocket or on my chest, and the Mr. TSA man will have to make sure I’m not carrying a hidden box cutter. Lately, security has actually been fairly painless when I’ve traveled.

But that all changed yesterday morning. I started things off with a full pat down from the TSA.

Of course my bag appears suspicious

I was headed off for a 5-night stint in Australia, eager to experience my first flights in a true international premium cabin. I had even managed to book seat 1A in the nose of a Boeing 747-400 (so geeky, I know). I was flying SFO to Seoul Incheon (ICN), and then ICN to Sydney, Australia (SYD). To start it all off, though, I had to make a quick connecting hop from our local Arcata-Eureka airport.

I arrived at Arcata-Eureka airport with about 50 minutes until our scheduled departure, and about 20 minutes until boarding. Security at the airport is a single line for the single departure gate, and is usually very quick and easy.

But not yesterday. I put all my stuff in the bins as usual, careful to leave my laptop in a bin by itself. The first TSA agent asked if I had any liquids, and I said yes, and that they were really tiny. She said that was fine and ushered me through.

I had no problems passing through the metal detector, but I knew something was up with my bag. The lady manning the x-ray machine stared at it for a long time. When it did come out, another agent promptly took it aside. Not good.

No, I don’t have explosives in my bag

After identifying it as mine, the TSA lady opened up my bag. My wife had packed me a substantial amount of homemade snack food, and she asked what a few items were. It was understandable, considering the homemade fruit roll ups do look a little suspicious.

She did an explosives swab of one of the bags, and I could tell it came back negative by the sound the machine made. After pulling out a second paper, she did a swab of the interior perimeter of the bag and inserted it into the machine.

Which set off a series of beeps a few seconds later that I had never heard before. Great. That can’t be good.

Another TSA agent came by, explains that my bag had tested positive for explosive residue, and informed me that he had to give me a pat down and that my entire bag would have to be searched.

At this point I was screaming inside my head, “Really, people?!?! This is the tiny Arcata Airport! Do I honestly look that suspicious to you?”

But instead I just said, “OK,” keeping my explosive reaction to myself. I wanted to say, “OK, whatever, this is why I can’t stand you guys,” but I kept my feelings to myself.

So I just stood there, holding my arms straight out to each side while TSA man gave me a full pat down while TSA lady searched my entire bag for the explosives that I supposedly had stashed in their somewhere. If there were any, I wasn’t aware of them. Maybe my wife makes explosives in her spare time and somehow forgot to inform me of her strange hobby.

The entire ordeal lasted about 12-15 minutes. A few people were staring at me, but by the time my full pat pat down from the TSA man was over, I didn’t care. I just wanted my bag back with enough time to pack it neatly before having to run onto the plane. It was almost boarding time. I hadn’t expected to burn this much time or have this much difficulty getting through security.

Fortunately, we were soon airborne, leaving my TSA troubles far behind.

Ok, I guess I should be thankful for the TSA

I do understand the need for airport and aircraft security. I really do. But the methods of the TSA often boggle my mind. And their statistics on what gets through them are less than stellar. Undoubtedly, they were just following protocol, but I didn’t have to like it. This is the first time I had ever set off the explosives scanner, and I hope I never do it again.

I have heard so many stories of people’s hands causing false positives for the explosives screening, especially if they have been on or near a farm. The whole thing is really a farce, anyway, since the TSA doesn’t even check everyone’s hands, just a random sample.

What about you? Do you have any crazy TSA stories?

My First Best Rate Guarantee: Initial Experiences

Ever since Travel is Free wrote an awesome rundown on his experiences using best rate guarantees to save significant money on hotels (also see his complete guide), I have been itching to make a claim of my own. I have looked for opportunities many times, but nothing has ever presented itself in terms of timing and need.

Until now. While planning a crazy one-night trip (just to use a lounge pass I won and burn a United voucher), I was able to try a best-rate guarantee for the first time. Actually, I was able to try two.

But let’s pause for a moment so I can clarify what exactly is a  best rate guarantee. A “best rate guarantee” (BRG) is a policy outlined by a hotel chain that guarantees that the best publicly available rate that you can find for their hotel is on their website. Typically, the hotel chain offers to match any lower, publicly available rate, and then reduce the even more by a given percentage. In the case of IHG, they simply offer you the first night free, which is incredible for single night stays.

Finding Best Rate Guarantee Targets

I was headed to the Bay Area for work, and I noticed that the Hilton Garden Inn Emeryville was advertised at a lower rate on Expedia than on Hilton’s website. I quickly booked 2 refundable nights and submitted my first claim.

Then I started shopping for my one quick night near Denver airport. Almost immediately I had a target: the Marriott Airport Gateway. It as an Expedia daily special, and the refundable rate was less than $70. At Marriott’s website, the refundable member rate was about $80.

Both inquiries were responded to within 24 hours. Of course they couldn’t find either. The Marriott deal had about 8 hours left on it when I found it, so all they really had to do was wait it out. Somehow the room types didn’t match on the Hilton BRG. Meh. Technicalities. I can easily find other Bay Area options. I canceled the Expedia reservation and moved on.

Pursuing the Marriott Best Rate Guarantee

But I didn’t want to give up on the Marriott at Denver Airport. I quickly replied to the email, including a printout of my hotel confirmation. It was still just under 24 hours from when I had submitted my initial claim, and I had hung on to the original Expedia reservation since it was refundable.

I sent a message back to the customer service rep who had emailed, explaining that the rate was a timed Expedia special. I sent an image of my confirmation and hoped for the best.

Within just a few hours, I received an email back from the rep, stating that while they couldn’t find the rate that I had quoted, they had found a different one. It was even cheaper, and they were taking the liberty of matching it and then reducing the price by 25%. Sweet. The final price came out to about $60 after tax.

I was honestly surprised Marriott offered this. While I had expected that they would honor the rate I had booked, as I had submitted my claim within the time specified with an eligible rate, it was totally unexpected that they would match me to a wholly different rate.

Thus, I really chalk this up to both good luck and a sympathetic (or overly eager) customer service representative.

Due to a slight delay, I didn’t do much more than sleep and shower at the hotel when I finally arrived for my brief single night. I covered the cost with Arrival miles and raked in an extra 5,000 Marriott points for the stay from a Fall promotion. Not a terrible trade-off and an interesting first best rate guarantee experience.

Header image courtesy of Marriott. 

Finally, $69 Transatlantic Flights are Coming!

Back in 2015 Norweigan Air Shuttle CEO Bjørn Kjos told interviewers that he hoped to sell $69 transatlantic flights as early as 2017. Well….it looks like his prediction will be true.

Norwegian has gotten permission to operate out of a few smaller, regional airports in the northeast U.S., from which it will offer budget transatlantic flights using the new 737 MAX jets. The first airport on the list is Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, New York. The main draw of utilizing “secondary airports” is the lower fees these airports charge. The efficiency and size of the revamped 737 jets will also significantly cut costs for Norwegian.

Although Stewart International Airport is roughly 5x further from Manhattan than JFK and Newark airport (and even further from La Guardia), the significantly lower prices will likely draw plenty of travelers. Currently, reasonable round-trip fares between New York and the British Isles hover around $500. With any luck Norwegian will soon be offering r/t fares for less than $150. That’s honestly insane. You can easily pay that much in fees on an award tickets.

I’ve written before about my hopes for both Norwegian and WOW (Iceland’s budget carrier) to provide enough U.S. competition that legacy carriers will follow suit with great pricing. With better and better technology, and barring any oil crisis of other disaster, I think that we are entering an even more accessible era of air travel. Bring on the $69 transatlantic flights!

Reflecting on our 2016 Travels

As I sit here on the 20th floor of the Hyatt Regency Vancouver, watching the snow gently swirling lazily down to the street below, I find myself reflecting on our 2016 travels. What a wonderful year of travel my wife and I have enjoyed. It has truly been amazing. So many experiences in so many place. And for so little out of pocket.

We started things off with a wonderful winter trip to Quebec City, Montreal, and New York City. Quebec City is about as European as you can get without traveling to Europe, and we had a lovely four days in a tiny apartment we rented. It was our first experience using AirBnb, and also our first experience of negative Fahrenheit temperatures. Additionally, I realized that my wife absolutely loves ice skating, but is terrified of skiing.

Spring included a couple trips to visit family and friends. Summer then brought our biggest adventure. We were able to spend 30 days in Europe, enjoying the balmy French Riviera, the art and history of Italy, and the exquisitely beautiful Emerald Isle. I already long to go back to Ireland.

During autumn we surprised my in-laws in Portland for a few days in the rainy Pacific Northwest. And now we are on our final adventure of the year, one that will bridge 2016 and 2017, here in Vancouver. We enjoyed Granville Public Market today, and plan to have an easygoing New Years Eve. Tomorrow will be spent in Stanley Park, and Monday is yet unplanned.

All Thanks to Travel Hacking

Through the miles and points we accrued in 2015 and 2016, we were able to enjoy these experiences at a fraction of what they normally would have cost. The flights for nearly all of our trips have been on miles we’ve earned, and much of our hotel has been on points. For our summer trip to Europe, we paid for a total of 4 nights of hotel, plus minimal amounts in taxes for many of the other nights. Flights for the two of us cost a mere $350 total.

I absolutely love helping others interested in the world of “travel hacking”. This is one of the biggest reasons I was so thrilled to be on-boarded with Points with a Crew as a contributor this month. It has allowed me to write for a larger, more established audience (sadly, I’ve written less here).

For my local friends and family, I hope to hold a “Travel Hacking 101” session in late January 2017. I am still thinking about the venue and format, but I would like to set up a time for both a presentation and some Q&A afterwards. If you’re reading this and live in Humboldt, send me a message via email or Facebook if you’re interested and want a spot before I release the invite to the world.

Reflecting on our 2016 travels

Looking forward now to 2017

Looking Forward

Things are mostly unknown looking into 2017. I wrote about 3 trips I look forward to over at Points with a Crew, but these only carry us through January (as we are currently on one of the 3 I wrote about!). We know that 2017 will likely bring a large amount of change to our lives.

Actually….our lives will probably be turned upside down. It is almost certain that 2017 will be the year we finally adopt our children. My wife and I recently had to do a home study update (since it has been so long since we completed the initial one), and from the communication we have had with our agency, they are very hopeful that we will have a referral soon. We are so excited.

This does mean we have to keep the travel plans to a minimum, since we will need to drop everything and be ready to travel about 6 weeks after we say yes to our kids. But I am completely fine with that. Starting our family will be our new adventure. 🙂

My Crazy Weekend Adventure

Sometimes I spend months planning a trip. Other times I throw one together in a matter of hours. Such was the case when I planned a quick weekend adventure.

I had three fairly weak reasons: get myself home from the Bay Area after our California company holiday party, use the Centurion lounge pass I won in MommyPoints’ giveaway, and hopefully be able to volunteer to get bumped from a flight so that I would receive another voucher. Did I need to use the voucher? No, not quite yet. Could I have used the voucher to simply fly home? Sure. Or I could have driven.

But booking a ticket from SFO-DEN on Saturday and a return DEN-SFO-ACV on Sunday sounded like much more fun. And it cost like $12 more than the single leg to Arcata, so why not.

As it turned out, I was selected as a contributing writer to Points with a Crew before the trip rolled around, so the time at SFO airport all day Saturday allowed me to kick out my first posts.

Starting My Crazy Weekend Adventure

I arrived at the airport fairly early via BART (SEE: 4 Reasons to consider BART while visiting the Bay Area) and made it through security is only a few minutes. I was incredibly glad I did not have to check any bags, as the United ticket counter lines were ridiculously long. This is one of the main reasons I prefer to travel with only a carry on when traveling solo.

Entrance to the Centurion SFO

Entrance to the Centurion SFO

The Centurion lounge was easy enough to find in Terminal 3. It’s also fairly close to International Terminal G.

I had no issue using the pass, presenting my new SPG business Amex card along with it (access to the Centurion requires you to be an American Express client). I have heard that lounges sometimes refuse to take one-time passes during busy times.

Breakfast at the Centurion SFO

Breakfast at the Centurion SFO

The Centurion SFO was insanely busy when I arrived, which made me all the more grateful that they took my one-time pass. I found a place at a large table, grabbed breakfast, pulled out my laptop, and started writing.

I would have taken more pictures, except that I feel really awkward snapping photos with people all around. It feels like an invasion of their privacy. So….I hope you’re content with the shot of the exterior and one of breakfast. There are plenty of other great reviews of the various Centurion lounges on other blogs. Overall, I thought it was certainly the nicest lounge I have visited (out of my extremely limited experience).

Over the next several hours I did nothing except write and eat and chat with people on the PWAC Slack channel. Finally, around 6:00 I packed up my laptop and headed down to the gate.

My flight was (of course) delayed. The inbound aircraft was a little overdue, and they they had to pull the one sitting at the gate away and bring in ours.

Due to weather in Denver (I would assume), one of the earlier flights from SFO had been canceled, causing some cascading overbooking. I went up to the counter to discuss volunteering to get bumped, but the next departure wasn’t until 10:40. That didn’t sounds like fun, as I would get less than 3 hours of sleep if I took it.

My Mistake Heading Into the Flight

Instead of thinking on my feet, though, I simply said thank you and left. Looking back, I should have tried to bargain my seat in exchange for both a United voucher and a hotel voucher, as long as United could keep  me booked on just the SFO-ACV leg on Sunday. Probably a long shot, but I lost the opportunity to even ask. You never know what might happen. They did need 7 seats.

We then boarded, and the flight went smoothly. I did a little more writing on my post about little-known BA routes with low fuel surcharges.

Things got interesting after landing at DEN. The jetway wouldn’t attach to the aircraft. It turned out we were parked wrong, and the plane had to be repositioned. It wasn’t exactly fun to spend an extra 45 minutes on a plane, watching the clock tick past midnight.

But I was finally off and headed to the hotel. The only miserable part was the time spent standing in -4°F weather outside the terminal. Hey, I guess it was a reminder of our trip to Canada. Soon I was at the Marriott Denver Airport Gateway (for crazy cheap via a BRG!) and fast asleep.

The Return

Morning came too soon with the 1 hour time difference, and I was one my way back to the airport in no time. Security was quick. The United terminal was fairly empty, but I am sure the Frontier one was in much worse shape after their weekend meltdown.

My flight was delayed by an hour due to operations and an aircraft swap, so I decided to burn another United one-time lounge pass to grab breakfast. The sun came up while I was sitting in the lounge, and it was a gloriously beautiful day.

Denver Airport Morning - Lounge View

A lovely crisp morning at DIA

About 8:30 I headed down to the gate. Boarding went extremely quickly as there were only about 70-80 people and we were on a wide-body! Our original aircraft had been replaced by a Boeing 777, and it was set up for a long-haul flight. Pillows and all!

Empty Boeing 777

A very empty Boeing 777!

I am simply happy that United ran the flight at all, rather than rebooking us on later flights.

I loved the snow covered airport and the Front Range in the distance. It made me want to visit Colorado again soon.

Snowy United Terminal at DIA

Snowy United Terminal at DIA

There was a decent amount of turbulence after takeoff, but things mellowed out as we hit cruising altitude. I snapped a shot of Boulder and the Front Range as we started over the Rockies.

Two hours later we were landing again in San Francisco. It was a crazy quick back-and-forth, but thoroughly enjoyable for me.

Wrapping Up My Crazy Weekend Adventure

Since my flight from SFO back to Arcata was seriously delayed, I spent some time being an avgeek, snapping photos of the the 747s I saw.

United Boeing 747 - SFO Terminal G

United Boeing 747 – SFO Terminal G

Unfortunately, due to the time of boarding, I missed the Lufthansa A380 in Terminal G. I saw it out the Terminal 3 windows just minutes before we were to board.

The final leg to Arcata was quick and uneventful. A good friend of mine picked me up at the airport, and I was soon home to my wife.  🙂

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