Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Walking Away from a Trip – Lessons Learned

I’ve been pretty silent of late, which has been primarily because of how busy work has been over the past month and a half. But added to that has been two weeks of deliberation over whether we would take a trip, or simply walk away from it. But now I finally have a bunch of thoughts to pen.

The travel hacking hobby allows us to do so much more than we otherwise could. My wife and I have had the ability to travel often during the past couple years, and I have started taking our older kids on quick getaways now and then, our most recent being to Sacramento. We also visited Disneyland, and while there is really no way to make a trip like that close to free, we were able to cut a good chunk of the cost.

Sometimes this means I try to plan “once-in-a-lifetime” trips at a fairly regular pace. I’d say we could do it on the order of once per year if I play the points game well.

Planning a trip to Europe

Back in February I broached the subject of taking the older two kids to Europe. In our initial conversations, my wife seemed supportive of the idea. It would give her needed time to plan a few aspects of our household that we hadn’t gotten to since the kids had been home.

I was initially looking at a 12 day adventure, but then upped it to 15. Our previous longest trip was four full days, so this is definitely a step up. After locking the flights in for a grand total of $0, the hotels easily fell into place over the next several weeks, all on points. We were looking at a completely free vacation in terms of lodging and air travel.

Fast-forward to a mere 2 weeks before the trip, and the misgivings are setting in. My wife is feeling conflicted about us all being apart that long. I had already told the kids, and the ball is rolling to get passports before we go (having adopted kids delayed and complicated things paperwork-wise, so we ran out of time). I decided to play things out and see if we would both come to consensus on the idea.

The departure day finally arrives and we say goodbye in Santa Rosa. The older two and I finish the journey to the city by bus. I’m feeling conflicted at this point, but I had other pressing concerns (work in the City being one of them), and decide to press forward and keep discussing things as we go.

Walking away at the last second

After spending the weekend in the Bay with the kids (while also working…definitely a difficult mix), we came down to the very day of travel. We woke up in a hotel with amazing views of planes taking off and landing at SFO, and the kids were super excited. I was not.

I’ve rarely felt so conflicted about anything. The trip was a big mess of various concerns. I had pragmatic reasons for planning it, those being giving mom time with the little one and time to get a bunch of household stuff done that she has wanted to do for literally months. But my wife wasn’t 100% in agreement with the idea. It was simply too long a time. That should have been enough to easily call it off, except I kept coming back to the big factor on the other side: the disappointment the older two would inevitably feel. How could we bring them this far along and then pull the rug out from under them? I simply didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t a precedent I wanted to set with them. At the very bottom there was the personal reason of me loving to travel, plus the fact that I knew we would lose some miles and cash should we cancel.

In the end, I finally pulled the plug. There was no other option. The moment of clarity came way too late.

What was the damage? Well….it could have been much worse than it was. I didn’t know this would be the case, but I got the two kids’ tickets back in the form of a Delta voucher for $464 each that is good anytime in the next year. This salvaged the roughly 66,000 Ultimate Rewards points I burned on them. I’m still waiting to hear back about my ticket (booked separately), but my guess is that it is a total loss. The 13,100 points I spent on the Norwegian Airlines intra-Europe flights are a total loss.

We also have to factor in the cost of getting expedited passports, the last minute cost of traveling home, and one hotel cancellation that may result in a charge (remains to be seen). I was technically a few hours after the cancellation deadline. All in all, the loss will be about $700 worth of points and maybe $300 cash.

The real damage was having to tell the kids we weren’t going to go. Getting them excited and working toward that goal as a family for the last two weeks just made it all that much harder. This was the main reason I had deliberated so much, since I didn’t want to face them and tell them this. There were tears, of course, and questions about why. I cried with them. The trip didn’t really matter to me at all any more. Seeing them hurt did. I had set them up for major disappointment. My heart still aches.

But in the end, I believe it was the right choice. This was simply too much for all of us.

Lessons learned

With fare sales, transient award availability, and other deals in constant flux, the typical motto of those who like to travel hack (or just cheaply) is “jump now and figure the rest out later.” While possibly good in some cases, this isn’t always the best advice. Our initial discussions about the trip idea had been during a period where I could take advantage of a great fare sale, and they were far more abbreviated than they should have been.

Our takeaway from this is that both of us need to be completely sure about something before I go ahead plan it. Especially a mostly non-refundable plan. And more especially if there is any way we could let the kids down. I know this isn’t always avoidable, and life will bring disappointment, but this could have been avoided in our case.

My wife and I are in agreement on most things. She and I both want her to have a break from time to time, and she needs time to plan things for our house. She is a very “all or nothing” person, and needs large chunks of time to be able to accomplish some things. Kids, especially our very needy adopted kids, make this nearly impossible. She was looking forward to an open week in which she could get a lot done. What she wasn’t looking forward to was being apart for so long. It took me too long to face the reality that I need to honor her emotional needs above all other concerns, even pragmatic ones and the emotions of the kids.

We’ll have another chance

This was my attempt at a consolation for the kids. The Eiffel Tower will still be there. We can ride the canals of Amsterdam and walk the streets of Bruges a different time. We may have an opportunity fairly soon, or it could be years from now. We’ll have plenty of opportunity to go other places as well. This didn’t stop the tears, but I made them a promise that I would take us to Paris some day, and hopefully all five of us will go.

The beauty of this hobby is that making a “once-in-a-lifetime” trip is not as hard as someone trying to save cash to do it. Walking away from one doesn’t hurt quite as bad, either. I’m thankful this wasn’t a case of shelling out $4,000 on a non-refundable trip and then having to pull the plug. It hurts to lose point and miles, but at the end of the day, my forfeited ticket was free. Completely free. I didn’t even pay a credit card annual fee for the points.

Conclusion

Everything about this was an important lesson. We have other trips in the works, which I’ll lay out in a separate post, so we also have something to look forward to. We may pencil a couple more in this summer, but right now my wife and I are reassessing our next couple months. I’m also taking a much needed week off since that was already the plan. It’ll just be the first time embracing the stay-cation.

Holiday Inn Rancho Cordova Review

Overall rating: 5/10

Pros: one of the cheapest chain hotels in the area, enjoyable hot tub

Cons: tired building, freezing cold and dirty pool, sup-par breakfast

We arrived at the Holiday Inn Rancho Cordova after about 5.5 hours of driving from Humboldt. From the outside the hotel looked a little dated, and I hoped it would be a bit nicer on the interior.

I’d booked a cash rate for our trip, as I was looking to maximize a promotion. At less than $100 per night, it was a pretty good deal, and not worth using points. I’d even booked a breakfast rate for about $4 more for all three of us.

Check in was smooth and easy. There was only one person in front of us, so we had to wait about 3 minutes. Our room was on the third floor, overlooking the pool.

Room at the Holiday Inn Rancho Cordova

The room was adequate. For a Holiday Inn, it was the most dated and tired room I’d stayed in. The kids thought it was very nice, but they don’t exactly have the same metrics that I do.

The beds were a standard two queen. This is usually bearable when with raveling with our older two kids, but I did make my son sleep on the floor the final night of the trip so I could get a good night’s sleep.

The freshly jumped-on beds.

There was a standard desk, the TV, and a rather old AC/heating unit.

The bathroom was a typical tub/shower with the sink outside.

We did have a view of the pool. I never saw anyone in it. More on that in a moment.

On the whole, the room was definitely dated. Holiday Inns can be pretty hit or miss. I’ve stayed in several, and the experiences have ranged from the low end of upscale to hardly better than a 2-star establishment you could get for $69 plus tax. My favorites are still the Holiday Inns in both Sydneys (one in Nova Scotia, the other a bit more famous, SEE: Holiday Inn Old Sydney Review).

Pool and Hot Tub

We hung out for a bit in the room before heading to the pool. I’d told the kids I’d swim if the water was warm (haha). I made it no further than my toes. It wasn’t just cold. It was frigid. That’s what we get for taking a trip in the winter! It would have been a different story if we were visiting the Sacramento area in the summer.

The kids hardly swam, either, which says a lot. They were totally fine with the cold water at our hotel in Costa Rica, but this pool was a bit too much. They didn’t like the mess at the bottom, either.

BY contrast, the hot tub was amazing. It was large, and we had it completely to ourselves both times we used it. The cold air outside made it hard to leave to head back to our room.

Although I love taking my kids to see the sights, a necessary part of traveling with them is spending some relaxing “down time” at the hotel. The hot tub definitely let us do that.

Breakfast at the Holiday Inn Rancho Cordova

Breakfast was in The Venetian Court, the hotel restaurant. The name might sound all hifalutin and fancy, but the place is pretty nondescript. There is no character or atmosphere to the restaurant at all.

I expected to have several menu options for breakfast, or a full buffet, but neither was offered. Instead, we were presented with a simple menu of three options:

So there you have it. Eggs with meat and potatoes, or pancakes, or oatmeal. Choose wisely.

Each of us ended up ordering something different. I didn’t plan things this way. None of us were impressed with any of the food.

The pancakes were actually slightly more appetizing than the plate of food I received, which says a lot. The quality of the potatoes and sausage was poor.

I’m not all that picky when it comes to food, so I easily finished it. But it definitely wasn’t what I was expecting for breakfast here. Neither of my kids finished their food, nor did either seem too thrilled with breakfast. But this doesn’t necessarily say a lot, as they turn their noses up at all kinds of things that are downright delicious.

My daughter wanted to enjoy some coffee. She knows the answer from me has been a continual “no.” The last thing that girl needs is caffeine.

Local Area

There really isn’t anything around the hotel. Rancho Cordova isn’t a place for walking or sightseeing. I hadn’t planned to do anything nearby, as all our activities were in Sacramento itself. We were only 20 minutes from Old Town Sacramento (SEE: Wandering through Old Town Sacramento, ALSO SEE: Visiting the California Railroad Museum) and the Zoo.

Conclusion

Overall, it was a pretty meh hotel. It’d probably be an adequate place in the summer, since the pool would be refreshing instead of frigid. But there really isn’t anything else to redeem the Holiday Inn Rancho Cordova. The main reason I’d booked the hotel was to avoid paying $50 more for a room in the city center, plus also pay for parking (assuming I stuck with IHG). This was simply the cheapest hotel I could find to meet my Q1 2018 IHG accelerate promotion. The points haul from this stay and the resulting bonuses would allow us to stay here nearly 3 more nights. You can look at it as a 5-for-2 deal, even though we will use the points somewhere else.

All said and done, I’ll almost certainly pass it up next time I am in the area.

Hey look, I’m a pilot…with what?!?

A few weeks ago I studied and passed the FAA Part 107 knowledge test. This allowed me to become a certified small unmanned aircraft system pilot. That mouthful just means I can now fly drones for commercial purposes. The company I work for had asked me to get certified (and I was able to work my test into a personal trip), and I now even have a little experience under my belt (including a crash, sadly).

Getting my remote pilot’s license

You can test to become a drone pilot even without any flying experience (but you really should have some). I’ve been doing hands-on training with another operator within our company. The exam is computerized, and if you pass, you can apply for a remote pilot’s license. I did this as soon as I could following the exam.

When the card arrived, I added it to the already large collection in my wallet. But not before reading it and discovering one detail they’d messed up. Look for it. You’ll see what I’m getting at.

Yeah. It looks like a requirement of being a pilot of any kind is that you possess gray hair. I have to admit, this *is* a shared characteristic of many pilots I see.

By my reckoning I probably have at least a decade until this is a reality. But you never know. Maybe the card will turn out to be right sooner rather than later!

Visiting the California Railroad Museum

During a long weekend in Sacramento with my older two kids, we visited the California Railroad Museum. It is located on the north end of Old Town Sacramento in a brick building (part of which is actually an old roundhouse, which is super cool).

Admission to the California Railroad Museum

The California Railroad Museum is managed by the State Park system. Adult admission is $12, while kids between 6 and 17 ring up at $6. Kids 5 and under are free.

The museum didn’t feel busy when we arrived, but there was a line of several people.

In the meantime, we decided to examine the small steam engine that greeted us.

The kids were excited. I don’t believe either have ever traveled by train, and they were very interested in seeing what trains were all about. After paying the admission, we decided we’d explore the place floor by floor.

First Floor

All the coolest stuff is on the first floor. Ok, that may have already spoiled floors two and three. But it’s true. You can’t really stick full size locomotives or railcars on the upper floors without some more serious engineering, so it follows that all of those at ground level. Which makes the first floor the coolest.

The first section focuses on the history of the railroad in California. Specifically, it highlights the Transcontinental Railroad. As a kid, this was a section of history I thoroughly enjoyed, and the fascination with the race to span a continent has not faded. I started to read every part of the exhibit.

California railroad museum

The kids quickly grew bored of this and ran ahead while I was engrossed in the details of the Central Pacific Railroad, the company racing eastward from California. If you’re not familiar with this section of American history, the Federal government offered financed the construction of the railroad by offering $16,000 per mile of track. The Central Pacific Railroad was the company constructing track eastward from California, eventually meeting the Union Pacific at Promontory Point, Utah.

The kids eventually arrived to drag me further into the museum. I seriously could have spent most of an hour in the first rooms.

The railroad revolutionized the economy in California by linking the Golden State with the rest of the country. The next area focuses on the development and impact of the railroad in our own state. One section in particular highlights Sacramento, including it’s role in the Pullman strike.

california railroad museum

Further along there are a variety of locomotives and railcars, some historic, others new.

You are able to walk inside several. One of the kids’ favorites was the bullet train.

I also enjoyed the mail car. There were park staff inside who explained how the sorters managed the mail as the train clicked along the track, picking up new bags and delivering sorted ones.

Dining and Pullman coaches

The most interesting cars at the California Railroad Museum were the Pullman sleeper car and the dining car. I’d read about Pullman cars and knew that they were the standard for sleeper cars in their time, but it was way cooler to actually experience one!

The general layout resembles Amtrak’s modern Roomettes. I may be dreaming, but the beds in the Pullman look both wider and more comfy. You lose the privacy of the modern version, though, as you only have curtains to block out your car companions.

Connected to the Pullman sleeper is an exquisite dining car from the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe named “Cochiti.” It has quite the kitchen! No, the cook is not real.

Displayed in the car are a large number of china sets from various trains. Unlike air travel where every pound counts, train china was designed to be beefy so it wouldn’t slide off the table as the train swayed.

There was also a menu displayed. If only prices were still this reasonable. Caviar for $1.75, anyone?

We spent a good amount of time on the first floor, but eventually it was time to check out the other sections of the California Railroad Museum.

Second Floor

The second floor of the museum contains some exhibits on high-speed rail, the museum theater, and…the simulator. This was a big hit with the kids. Both of them were up for waiting in line to drive a simulated Japanese bullet train. This might not sound as thrilling as an airplane simulator, but it was still fun for them.

The goal of the simulator is to take the train from one station to the next. You get to release the brakes and pull out of the station, carefully managing the throttle based on what section of track you’re on.

Later, the simulator skips to full speed, which is approaching 200 mph!

Finally, you get to stop the train at the next station. The goal is to park it as perfectly as possible and at the end it’ll tell you how how far off you were.

I as so engrossed watching my kids that I completely forgot to take pictures. Sorry.

Third Floor

The third floor of the California Railroad Museum is geared toward both kids and collectors. There are a large number of model trains displayed in cases, including many of the pieces that you’d use to set up a really nice diorama.

Maybe alluding to the Empire Builder Amtrak service?

There are also several full dioramas featuring moving trains at various scales. We enjoyed watching these.

The last section is the children’s play area. You also get a good view of the first floor laid out below you.

At the very end we stopped for a bit and played with the toy trains. There were a bunch of other kids there and it was sorta wild, so my two ended up wanting to head out pretty quickly.

Conclusion

Our visit to the California Railroad Museum made for a great half day excursion. I enjoyed reading the history of the railroad in California, seeing a variety of rail cars, and watching my kids enjoy themselves. I highly recommend the California Railroad Museum as a must-see if you are ever in the Sacramento area!

Centurion Lounge Las Vegas Review

Work sent me to Las Vegas for a couple days right at the end of 2017. Well, I actually was headed to Needles, California, but I had to fly into Las Vegas and drive the 2 hours south. Which was an adventure (nightmare?) in itself. When I headed home, I decided to check out the Centurion Lounge Las Vegas.

I have been to the Centurion Lounge SFO (SEE: Centurion Lounge SFO Review) several times and the Centurion Studio SeaTac once. While not the primary reason I picked up a Business Platinum Card from American Express (it was during the 100,000 MR bonus offer), the lounge access it provides has come in handy this year, most recently in Oakland (SEE: Escape Lounge Oakland review). I honestly didn’t expect to visit a Centurion Lounge after I won my first access from a Mommy Points giveaway, but I ended up getting the card the next month. Ironically, I’m probably going to drop it soon.

Arriving at the Centurion Lounge Las Vegas

The Centurion Lounge Las Vegas McCarran is located in Terminal 3. I dropped my rental car, quickly passed through security, and was on the tram under to the terminal in no time. Once in Terminal 3, you take the escalators up and turn left to head to the Centurion Lounge Las Vegas.

The front of the lounge is a bit more nondescript than the glass entry, greenery and vertical sign at SFO. I honestly almost missed it.

The lady at the front desk was friendly and professional, and she welcomed me as a first-timer to the Las Vegas location after asking whether I had visited previously. She provided a brief description of the facilities and services provided.

The space

The Centurion Lounge Las Vegas feels a bit larger than its counterpart in SFO. The space has similar seating, with some of the same pods and benches featured. I can imagine that all Centurion Lounges likely use the same style furniture.

A long wall separates the bar, food, and main dining area from much of the rest of the lounge. Facing the windows on the other side, the wall has several seating alcoves. I chose one of these initially to work from for a while.

centurion lounge las vegas

At the end there is a variety of seating. This also seemed like the quietest part of the lounge, as foot traffic is lessened. Had there been any open seats, I would have chosen to sit here.

There is a kids room at the Centurion Lounge Las Vegas, just like in San Francisco. It is a bit bigger. If only American Express hadn’t changed their entry policy and completely hosed families with more than one kid (SEE: American Express devalues lounge access, sticks it to families). Sigh.

Food at the Centurion Lounge Las Vegas

I didn’t bother checking out what the offerings were for breakfast. As I’d arrived at 10:00, it was still running. Instead, I simply got a coffee and sat down to write for a while.

The food changed after 11:00 to the lunch offerings. I eventually joined the line to grab myself a plate.

There was a decent salad selection that included peppers, carrots, cucumbers, cheese, and other items.

There was some ginger rice that I enjoyed. It was probably the best thing offered. There was also a sweet pea puree that I wasn’t keen on.

The meat offering was salmon. I found it mediocre. Definitely not full of flavor.

At the end was udon soup, which I didn’t try.

On the whole, the food at the Centurion Lounge Las Vegas wasn’t quite as good as what I’ve had at SFO. It was a decent lunch, but nothing stood out to me.

Per usual, I didn’t try anything at the bar. I’m sure it had a good selection of alcoholic beverages.

Overall experience

I was happy with the seating, food, and experience overall. The WiFi caused me some issues a few times, but I the root cause might have been my own computer. Each time it would cut out for about 3 minutes, before finally coming back. I would turn my WiFi on and off a few times until it would finally reconnect.

The lounge was fairly crowded when I arrived, and it got an even bit more so as lunchtime approached. I had not expected this, but it rivaled the insanity of the Centurion SFO for a while.

When I got up to go to the bathroom, my seat was occupied when I returned (since I took all my stuff with me), and I had trouble finding another. Things got better after 1:00 p.m. and then even kinda quiet by 2:30.

The line for the food around noon was definitely a turn off. I watched and waited for a good 15 minutes before getting up to grab something to eat.

Conclusion

The ability to grab lunch, sit somewhere quiet and comfortable, and be productive for a few hours in the Centurion Lounge Las Vegas was invaluable. It is also nice to have access to better WiFi (except for a few blips) and cleaner bathrooms than in the terminal. Nothing stood out to me as “above and beyond”, but the lounge is still definitely a step up from the typical United Club or Delta SkyClub.

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