Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

3 Best Loyalty Programs for Short-Haul Awards in the Western U.S.

Sometimes you want to spend your hard-earned miles to travel far across the globe, flying in first or business class. Other times you just want to get to the next state over for a friend’s wedding, and you may not know what your best options are.

Living where I do in Humboldt County, California gives me a unique perspective on the value of certain miles. When you live near a large airport, spending miles to fly a short, competitive hop, such as Los Angeles to San Francisco, typically doesn’t make sense. But when your rural airport wants a minimum of $350 to fly *anywhere*, it makes you dig deep and evaluate all other options.

And there definitely are some good ones. Here are three of the best miles for flying short-haul in the west:

Alaska MileagePlan

Alaska miles continue to be one of the most attractive mileage currencies out there. They are unfortunately not a transfer partner of any bank program, so it can be a bit tough to accumulate a lot of them. But they are absolutely worth accruing.

The beauty of MileagePlan awards is that they start at only 5,000 miles one-way for the shortest hops. This means that an Alaska Visa card with an elevated sign-up bonus can potentially provide a family of four with free round-trip tickets for the short hop between San Diego and Santa Rosa. Or San Jose and Seattle. You’ll just pay $5.60 each way per person to cover the TSA fee.

If you want to take things a step further, consider using your miles for *two* short-haul segments. Sometimes this won’t even increase the price! In the second example, you could actually fly San Jose to Portland, stop for a couple days, then make the hop from Portland to Seattle, still only paying 5,000 miles! This takes advantage of the fact that Alaska is one of the few programs to offer a stopover on a one-way award. My son and I actually did this recently, flying Oakland-Seattle-Boise on a one-way award, but stopping in Seattle for three nights. Still only 5,000 miles, as Alaska prices this itinerary based on start and end points.

You unfortunately can’t trick the system and fly San Francisco-Los Angeles-Oakland on the same award. What I’ve found is that if there is a nonstop available with a given award price, you can fly a stopover itinerary (that would often be more expensive) for the same award price.

The 5,000-mile price is good for any hop of 700 miles or less. This jumps to 7,500 miles for hops between 701 and 1,400 miles. For flights between 1,401 and 2,100 miles, you’ll pay 10,000 miles. Almost everything in the U.S. west should cost no more than 7,500 miles.

Avianca LifeMiles

I have the worst love/hate relationship with Avianca LifeMiles. On one hand, they have some of the worst customer service and policies I have ever encountered. On the other hand, they have a lucrative award chart and no fuel surcharges on any awards, making them an attractive option for those looking to save as much cash as possible.

Uniquely, the LifeMiles award chart breaks the U.S. up into multiple zones. Awards within each zone cost a mere 7,500 miles one-way. Since they are a Star Alliance member, you can use LifeMiles to book awards on . The web search is decent at pulling up options with up to one connection, but it seems to die if you want to connect more than once. However, this still gives you a *ton* of potential options, especially if your closest airport is Arcata (although you might want to think twice about flying out of here).

Interested in visiting Jackson, Wyoming in either the summer or winter, both peak season? That’ll be roughly $800 cash. Or you can use 15,000 LifeMiles and $35 in fees to fly round-trip, a very sweet deal. Admittedly, United offers this route as a short-haul award as well, only costing 20,000 miles round-trip, so if you want to avoid the potential headache of LifeMiles, it might be worth spending a few more miles. But LifeMiles are honestly easier to accrue, as they are a transfer partner of both American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou.

Other great award options include Arcata to Tucson, which my older kids and I flew last April (SEE: 2 Tips for Planning a Last Minute Trip), San Luis Obispo to Spokane, Fresno to Santa Fe, and Santa Rosa to Colorado Springs. Lifemiles are gold for any regional-to-regional hops passing through United hubs of San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Denver. The U.S. west zone includes California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. Oddly, and unfortunately, it does not include Montana.

American AAdvantage

American’s program is attractive for a couple reasons. First, they offer discounted short-haul awards for nonstop tickets of 500 miles or less. I’ve not booked any of these, but they are a pretty good deal at 7,500 miles one-way, if the cash price is fairly high. But unless you live in an AA hub with a number of options available, they won’t be especially useful.

Second, American offers their reduced mileage awards (SEE: Complete Guide to American Airlines Reduced Mileage Awards). These aren’t just for flights in one region, but actually apply across the country. However, you can *also* apply them to short-haul awards, if you can find a qualifying ticket. The price reduction isn’t as good, at 1,000 miles per direction, but 6,500 is still better than 7,500. For other flights (which will be most of them), the price is reduced from the standard 12,500 one-way to only 8,750 miles per direction.

Reduced mileage awards are only good to certain airports, and the list changes every couple months. However, if you live near one of the airports on the list, every flight out of that airport that you book during qualifying months on the reduced mileage award calendar will qualify for the reduced price. As an example, Santa Rosa has been on the list more often than not.

American now also has web specials, which are a variety of awards that are priced more cheaply than their standard award chart.

But why not just use flexible points?

If you live in a major hub, using your flexible points will almost certainly be the way to go. For example, an Alaska award that is $150 cash versus 10,000 Alaska miles round-trip is also just 10,000 Ultimate Rewards points, if redeeming with a Chase Sapphire Reserve. I’d almost certainly use the UR points, as the flight will earn miles, since it is treated as a paid ticket.

I’d do a cost analysis each time you book to make sure you’re getting a the best deal for your points. If a round-trip flight is less than $250, I would generally opt for using flexible points. For flights between $250-300, things can go either way, depending on the currency I’m looking to use. I’d save my actual miles for tickets that are typically $300+ (if short-haul pricing of 15,000 miles or less round-trip is an option), but preferably I’d be using them for flight that cost $500 or more.

General rule of thumb: I should be getting 2 cents per mile out of any of these currencies for miles to be the way to go. If I’m at or near 1.5 cents per mile, I’ll use Ultimate Rewards.

Conclusion

There are more award currencies that offer decent options for short-haul awards, including British Airways Avios if you live in an AA or Alaska hub. But these are the three that I find most useful in general.

Hong Kong with Kids Day 2: Lamma Island Adventure

Making plans based on an air quality forecast was a first for me. Living where we do, I take clean air for granted. But you really need to pay attention here in Hong Kong. I figured since we’d be walking quite a bit, heading out early before the worst of the air arrived in the afternoon was probably prudent. This meant I roused two grumpy kids at 6:00. Their unhappiness was gone by the time we headed to breakfast, and we were headed for the ferry terminal before 7:30.

Along the way we passed by a building undergoing renovation. Or something. I wouldn’t have really noticed, except that the scaffolding along the exterior was built entirely of bamboo. Now, I know the stuff is tough. But I’m not sure I’d be willing to climb out onto it ten stories above the ground. The whole structure is insane.

I was still in shock as we headed to the Star Ferry terminal again to cross over to Central. If you remember from our first day’s adventures (SEE: Hong Kong with Kids Day 1: Exploring from Kowloon Bay to Victoria Peak), this crossing costs like 80 cents for myself and two kids. It’s pretty much the best deal for entertainment in all of Hong Kong.

A window seat view is a must. The kids ran to the front of the ferry every time and each claimed a window to enjoy the view of the city.

Ferry to Lamma Island

The ferry between Kowloon and Central requires you to buy a token. I figured it would be the same system for the ferry to Yung Shue Wan on Lamma Island. Nope. The turnstile here requires exact fare for passengers to be deposited directly into it. I had a bunch of coins, but even all added together, it wasn’t enough for the three of us. I’d have to find some way to exchange it. 

A kind lady directed me to a ticket window where we exchanged $50 HKD for change to put into the machine. She then placed the fare in herself. Helping helpless tourists is probably a routine part of her job description for Star Ferry employees. I was super grateful. We were maybe 10 minutes from ferry departure, and I had gotten anxious when I realized we wouldn’t just breeze through.

The ferry to Yung Shue Wan arrived at the pier about 8 minutes later, and we were soon on board. The kids wanted to stand outside, which was entirely fine by me. It was a beautiful day. 

The ferry ride was lovely. Even with the fairly polluted morning air, the breeze was worth it. We passed along Hong Kong island, circling around until we were eventually headed south toward Lamma Island. Along the way we passed a giant cargo ship. 

The ride lasted maybe half an hour. We disembarked at the Yung Shue Wan terminal and walked into the small town by the same name.

While Lamma Island is still part of Hong Kong, it is an entirely different world than the bustling city we’d just left behind. I’m sure some of those in this quiet community commute to Hong Kong each day for work, yet have the good fortune to come home to this sanctuary every day. Lamma Island is a haven of artists and hippies, those looking to trade the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong for a more laid back pace of life. It was quite interesting to spy cafes touting raw, vegan, and organic foods along the narrow streets. The kids loved the tanks of live seafood at a couple vendors.

Yung Shue Wan is the largest town on the entire island, and ferry service is very regular. Even if you don’t want trek across the entire island like we did, hopping on the ferry from Central to Yung Shue Wan is easy and convenient, and there is enough to do on the northwestern end of the island to keep you occupied for at least half a day.

The kids wanted to play on the beach, but I told them we’d come across some nicer ones along our walk. I figured that the one near the end, Lo So Shing, was going to be the real winner of the bunch. 

The cove itself at Yung Shue Wan is picturesque. The one unfortunate blot on Lamma Island is the fact that it contains a power plant, the stacks of which are visible over the hill to the left. I guess Hong Kong needed to place it somewhere, and the outlying islands makes sense, at least from the perspective of the millions of people in the city who don’t want to see it. It is a real bummer to see it on an otherwise gorgeous island.

First stop, Hung Shing Ye

Leaving the main villages near the cove, we started on the trail toward Sok Kwu Wan. I’ll venture to say that the kids were oddly more interested in the small villages on Lamma Island as we meandered through them than they were of the skyscraper-lined streets of Kowloon and Hong Kong. We didn’t reach this awesome sign until the middle of the hike, but this will give you an idea of the walk we did. The ferry we arrived on dropped us at the northwestern end, and we proceeded to follow the brown line to the other ferry terminal near the middle of the island, with one detour.

After just a few hundred yards we started to leave the apartment buildings behind, now walking through the forest, interspersed by poorer, more ramshackle dwellings here and there. Definitely a different world than the gleaming skyscrapers a short ferry ride away. 

It didn’t take long for us to come upon the first beach at Hung Shing Ye. Not only was it kept up much more nicely than I anticipated, it was wonderfully quiet on this sunny weekday morning. I let the kids play for most of an hour. I hadn’t planned on necessarily stopping at this beach for this length of time, given the proximity to the Lamma Island Power Station. But they were loving it. 

The problem with kids is that they don’t want to move on when they start really enjoying something. Both of them were happily building a sand fort to guard against the gentle surf and didn’t want to abandon their project. I eventually had to coax them away with promises of a second beach we could enjoy even longer. 

Middle of Lamma Island

The next part of the hike has very little cover or shade. By this time is was approaching 80 degrees and also humid, not the most comfortable for hiking. The complaints started in earnest along this section, as the path began to meander up and down. Every once in a while we’d find a patch of trees and take a break. 

lamma island trail

The next stop for us was a rain shelter about a third of the way to the next beach. There is also a lookout pavilion, but it is 150 meters off the trail. Eventually we broke out to the other side of the island with a view of Sok Kwu Wan and a departing ferry below. Hong Kong island was barely visible through the haze in the distance. 

The path forks at Lo So Shing Village, where you can choose to either head to the Sok Kwu Wan and the fish farming villages, or to Lo So Shing beach like we did. The beach isn’t far down a narrow path through the forest. 

Lo So Shing, the second beach

We made it to Lo So Shing beach around 11:30, giving the kids at least an hour to play in the sand and surf. We still had another quick stop ahead, as well as lunch, but we were keeping to the schedule I’d penciled out for a departure on the 2:35 p.m. ferry. 

Lo So Shing Beach was small, but nice, and just as quiet as Hung Shing Ye Beach. I’m sure it’s a far more popular place in the summer. There is a nice shaded area with benches, letting me watch the kids while still relaxing after our hike. There are both bathroom facilities and a refreshment kiosk available (apparently closed in winter), if needed. 

The kids enjoyed building castles and playing in the water, which was surprisingly clear. I guess I figured that murky air would translate to murky ocean water, but that certainly wasn’t the case, at least not at this location. If we all had our bathing suits, it would have been perfectly suitable to swim, although there were signs posted saying not to swim, due to lack of a lifeguard. Lifeguards are present during the summer months. 

Two sad faces stared at me when it was finally time to move on. But we had a schedule to keep. I didn’t want to miss the ferry and have to wait another 90 minutes for the next one. 

Final stretch to Sok Kwu Wan. And Lunch.

Our next stop was the Kamikaze Caves. This might sound a bit intimidating, but they are literally just holes carved in the rock face where Japanese soldiers were to conceal speedboats loaded with explosives for use against Allied shipping late in World War II. The caves were never used for their intended purpose. 

From there we wound around to Sok Kwu Wan, where lunch awaited us at a small seafood restaurant along the cove. We stopped at the first place we found, Rainbow Seafood Restaurant, which was probably a mistake. I knew we’d be paying a bit more for lunch, but I didn’t expect it to set us back $50 USD for three dishes, two of which weren’t even seafood. The lemon chicken was excellent, though. We certainly could have eaten well for less than half of that cost back in Hong Kong itself. But when you’re on an island with a handful of restaurant options catering to tourists, there isn’t much else you can do. 

We finished up with just a few minutes to spare before we had to catch our ferry. It was arriving as we walked up the the queue at the dock. Turns out the 2:30 departure is quite popular, which makes sense, given it gets you back to Hong Kong with enough time to still enjoy part of the afternoon. 

This unfortunately meant we didn’t score al fresco window seats on the ferry back from Sok Kwu Wan like we had on our first ferry ride. After departure, I finally had the gumption to jump in the one unoccupied seat near the window between two other people for a few minutes to snap some photos. It totally makes sense that these seats are the best in the house. The view of the high-rises heading back into Central is spectacular. The Hong Kong skyline might be the finest I’ve ever seen. 

Wrapping up our day

We disembarked at Pier 6 and made our way over to the ferry back to Kowloon. One more ride across the water and two stops on the metro and we’d be back at the hotel for the evening. But first we had to stop and try the purple potato soft serve I’d been eyeing since our first ferry ride. 

It…tasted like sweet potato. The kids weren’t so keen on trying it, but it was a two for one special and they ended up liking it. So guess who gave up his ice cream.

Back at our hotel for the evening, the kids got in an hour of schoolwork. Trying to keep up while traveling is a bit tough, but we were managing. We’d also have additional time at the airport the next evening. 

Dinner was KFC and McDonalds eaten in-room. I’d obviously prefer something authentic, but if pressed for time with two rather unadventurous kids (when it comes to food), we had to stay close to our American roots. But foreign fast food comes with its own opportunity to stray from the mundane. McDonalds Hong Kong was offering a “bolognese and fried egg angus burger”, which sounded so utterly disgusting, I just had to try it. The concoction wasn’t quite as terrible as I expected. 

The evening was a bit special for me, however. I left the kids snoozing in the hotel room and headed downstairs to meet Jason Francisco, a fellow contributor to Points with a Crew, and another dad who has his own travel blog (SEE: Daddy Travels Now).

We chatted it up for a couple hours, some things related to life and kids but most of all travel. It was awesome to have someone else with whom to discuss both the love of travel and the usefulness of miles and points to make so much happen. When 10:00 p.m. rolled around, I had to call it a night, our last official night in Hong Kong. 

I finally understand! This is what our airport code stands for ​

A couple weeks ago I had quite the trip. Er, non-trip. I was supposed to fly from San Francisco back up to Arcata on the hour long hop after driving one way to the Bay, but that plan was crushed like always. Instead, I found myself driving back up in a rental car through the pouring rain.

Now I’m still fighting to get the miles back that I used for the trip. But that is a story for another day.

The frustrations of flying ACV

It’s no secret we live in an isolated pocket of the country, and our unreliable air service doesn’t help matters at all. Maybe it’s just me, but literally half of all flights I’ve ever taken with United between ACV and SFO (either way) have been either severely delayed or outright canceled. It’s so bad, that I gave up and generally fly out of Sacramento (SEE: 5 Reasons Why Sacramento is my Favorite Northern California Airport).

While at Arcata, I met a fellow member from the Travel Grumps 101 Facebook group that I am a part of. We’ve previously both commiserated online about the difficulties of flying out of Humboldt, and we got to chat travel for a bit. Until our flight was summarily canceled.

She headed out to retrieve her luggage and rent a car to drive home while I decided to grab dinner for free at the Giants Clubhouse before heading back to the city. A little while later I received a Facebook message from her saying the United baggage handler definitely knew the woes of flying into ACV. He asked her if she knew what ACV stands for.

I’ve always wondered what our airport code stands for, and his answer finally shed some light on the odd airport code. It makes complete sense now.

What does ACV stand for? That’s right: Another Canceled Vacation.

Hong Kong with Kids Day 1: Exploring from Kowloon Bay to Victoria Peak

After our long travel day and later evening than normal, I let the kids sleep in. It was nearly 8:00 when I finally roused them, which meant we didn’t wrap up breakfast at the Hilton Garden Inn until 9:30. But they needed the rest. 

Our Hong Kong adventures began with a subway ride from Mongkok to Tsim Sha Tsui. It’s only a couple stops, but it is better than hoofing it the whole way to the water. There is still a good amount of walking involved to and from the subway stations. Well…a good amount in the kids opinion. I told them this was hardly anything. 

Mongkok is a fascinating neighborhood. The sounds, smells and bustle make it one of my favorite places. It is a dense residential neighborhood, with a strip of brand-name retail and restaurant along Nathan Road, flanked by shops and stalls selling anything and everything imaginable along the side streets. I was unsure of staying here, but now I would actually recommend it.

Signal hill and tower

Before heading across the bay to Hong Kong itself, I wanted to make a brief stop at a small park in Kowloon. I figured it’d give us a good view of the city across the water. It didn’t have *quite* the view I hoped for, but we did get our first glimpse of Hong Kong Island from here. Visibility wasn’t great, but it honestly wasn’t bad given China’s notoriously bad air quality.

Signal Hill Park is barely a block from the Hyatt Regency Tsim Sha Tsui, which would have been in the running for our hotel stay has I had enough Hyatt points at the time. You can see it towering in the background, the taller of the two buildings. I love tall hotels, and China is full of them. In the foreground you can see the Signal Hill Tower.

The tower in Signal Hill Park is pretty cool. It has a very narrow spiral staircase that takes you up two more levels.

The view really isn’t any better since you’re not right on the edge of the hill, but we enjoyed exploring.

Harbour view of Hong Kong 

From Signal Hill we made our way down to the water. We walked along the edge of the bay, enjoying the view of the skyscrapers along the shore of Hong Kong Island, Victoria Peak towering over them. I was struck by the sheer uniqueness of the city. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere quite like Hong Kong. The mix of east and west, new and old, greenery and concrete is fascinating.

The weather was fantastic. Unlike Beijing, which was in the 40-50s most of the days we were there, Hong Kong was an utterly perfect 70-75 degrees for most of our visit. The kids enjoyed finally being able to wander around in shorts.

Taking the classic ferry ride from Kowloon to Hong Kong Central is a must, and it was next on the itinerary. It is also very affordable at $5.90 HKD (~80 U.S. cents) for all of us.

The view of Hong Kong is arguably the best from the water. You can definitely argue that it is fantastic from Victoria Peak as well, but that gives you more of an overview. From the channel, you get a view of both Kowloon and Hong Kong up close and personal.

Heading up the hill

From the central ferry terminal we slowly meandered in the direction of the Botanical and Zoological Gardens. These were our first minutes in Hong Kong proper. Hong Kong is now more than just Hong Kong Island, which is differentiated from Kowloon, the mainland peninsula where we were staying. The city is like the Asian version of New York, at least on the surface.

I made sure our trek included ascending the longest outdoor escalator that takes you from Central to the Mid-Levels. It was an enjoyable ride as we slowly climbed to the towering residential skyscrapers of the mid-levels. Hong Kong Island rises sharply from its shore, leaving only a relatively narrow flat strip down by the water. The “mid-levels” are the next neighborhood uphill of “downtown” Hong Kong, known as Central. 

We rounded a corner after getting off the escalator, and suddenly found ourselves in an enclosed courtyard. It turns out the area used to be the location of the central magistrate, and possibly the jail as well. Now one of the buildings is an arts and heritage center. As we made our way through, we came across a simple amphitheater. A band was playing live music, so we stopped and watched for a bit.

Continuing up the hill, there was no shortage of tall apartment buildings. Hong Kong holds the record for the most skyscrapers over 150 meters, with a whopping 80 more than New York City, which is in second place.

We eventually arrived at the Hong Kong Botanical and Zoological Gardens. The gardens are free and a perfect spot to burn an hour with kids. They have quite a few monkey exhibits, as well as some lemurs, tortoises, and a few other species.

We were getting hungry by this point, and exiting the gardens to the uphill side left us without dining options. We made our way along through a web of roads, eventually back down to one of the tram stations for Victoria Peak. Along the way we were treated to more great views of the city around us. 

Still without a cafe to stop at, and the time marching ever onward, I found that the only way lunch was going to happen quickly was by heading down the hill. We entered an office building that promised a food court. It didn’t disappoint. Lunch may have been over twice what we would have spent in Beijing, but the food was honestly delicious at a small place called Simplylife. I’d been hoping for something more authentic, but we were behind schedule and I took the closest thing we could find. 

Our stomachs satiated, we made our way to the Victoria Peak tram.

The best view in Hong Kong

The line was bad. I hate lines, so a wait of 20+ minutes wasn’t welcomed. But I’m sure it gets way worse at other times. We slowly shuffled through the queue until it was our turn to board the tram up the mountain. 

The Victoria Peak tram is an excellent way to get to the top. We bought combo tickets for the tram round-trip plus access to the viewing deck, which set us back nearly $30 USD. But I wanted the full experience. 

The tram was a bit reminiscent of the incline railway at the Blue Mountains in Australia, but with a little more sightseeing and less excitement. 

The viewing deck at the top was awesome. You have to scale multiple levels of escalators to the top and dodge a plethora of overpriced retail shops, but once you do, you’re in for a treat. The view is excellent. 

With the mediocre air quality and general haze over Hong Kong, it obviously isn’t the best you can get the day we were there. But we still had a very nice view of the channel between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island and all the skyscrapers lining both.

We decided to take a short walk along the old road around the top of the Peak. If you have the time, you could do the whole circuit. It’d be exquisite on a clear day. You can look back and see the whole structure of the viewing deck, including the numerous escalators inside. Further along, there are points from which you can get a great view of the Hong Kong side.

Wrapping up our first day

I decided we better turn back around 4:30. We had to make our way to the tram station, take it to the bottom, walk to the metro station, take the metro, and grab dinner on the walk back to our hotel. The kids had also skipped showers the night before, so I had to factor that in as well. I’d be lucky to get them to bed by 8:00. 

On our way to the Admiralty metro station we wandered through Hong Kong Park. With fish ponds, a waterfall, and fun fountains, it is a great little green space within the city.

Half an hour later we finally popped up in Kowloon once again, headed for McDonalds. I figured we’d better play it safe, given we were pressed for time. Not to mention it is always interesting to see what is offered at McDonalds in a foreign country. I think the bolognese burger with an egg wins “most odd menu item”. 

The kids still managed to hit the hay at 8:00. Not sure how we accomplished that. It was a full and fun first day in Hong Kong.

Fare Deal: Both Paris and Beijing for under $400!

These are the two primary international destinations to which I took my older two kids last year, and they are both on sale! You can fly one-stop from the San Francisco Bay Area to either destination for less than $400 on a couple different carriers.

Paris fare sale details

  • Departure from: San Francisco
  • Dates: March-April, September 2019
  • Destination(s): Paris (CDG)
  • Airline(s): American
  • Class: Basic economy
  • NotesMinimum two night stay (which would be silly anyway)
  • Sample Google Flights link

Beijing fare sale details

  • Departure from: San Jose
  • Dates: February-April 2019
  • Destination(s): Paris (CDG)
  • Airline(s): Air Canada
  • Class: Economy
  • Notes: None
  • Sample Google Flights link

These are both excellent sales to these destinations. We saw the very good Air Canada sale to Beijing out of SJC last year, and I would expect to see something similar again in the future.

Note that you will need a Chinese Visa to visit Beijing on a round-trip itinerary. The city is eligible for a transit without visa (TWOV) waiver, but you must have a confirmed onward ticket to another country.

Here is a rundown on some of the posts from our trip:

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