Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Month: June 2018

Traveling is fun…but there is no place like home

As I wrap up a week of work followed by a weekend visiting good friends, I can’t help but reflect on how eager I am to return home. This is not the first time I’ve felt this way. Work was engaging and enjoyable. The weekend was full of fun and laughter with friends a bunch of crazies that I wish I could see far more often. But it is high time to get back. I miss my wife and kids, and I can’t wait to hug them and see their happy faces this evening.

The pros and cons of work travel

It’s no secret that I enjoy traveling. Walking out the door on a new adventure is still accompanied by exhilaration (especially when I get to fly first class). Even when traveling for work. Consulting has it pros and cons, and one of the pros for me is occasional work travel.

If I was a weekly road warrior, flying out every Monday and back every Friday, work travel would likely go in the opposite category. Being gone once once or twice a month for several days is plenty. It would also be hard if it was for a project or job I didn’t really enjoy. Fortunately, that is not the case. Our work out of state is engaging and keeps me on my toes. Getting the chance to do some interesting and enjoyable work across the country is an opportunity I can hardly pass up.

The other plus is being able to earn valuable airline miles and hotel points for our own adventures. This time I was able to perfectly match my hotel stay in Virginia to my Q2 2018 IHG Accelerate promotion, earning 42,000 IHG points in the process (worth about $250). These will be carefully guarded for our own adventures.

But it’s not all upside. Saying goodbye is still difficult. It was hard at times when it was just myself and my wife, and it has become even harder with kids. Yet even if saying goodbye is difficult, I can always look forward to that sweet moment when I return.

If I didn’t ever leave, I wouldn’t ever experience the joy of coming home again. There is nothing like being greeted by a shower of hugs from my kids and kisses from my wife. My completely amazing wife. She is an absolute wonder woman, handling the kids on her own for a week at a time. I’m thankful every day that I get to share this adventure of life with her.

Just a little while left

As I write this from the Denver airport, my one hope is that my flights will actually be on time this afternoon. United has a way of consistently being late. I know delays are simply a fact of air travel, but United is worse than most. Especially when flying in or out of Arcata. But if all goes as planned, I’ll be home tonight before the kids go to bed. And I can’t wait.

Getting My First Complimentary Upgrade Ever

A few weeks ago I attained airline status for the first time ever. Due to the completion of a Marriott Platinum challenge (SEE: Fast track status: how to sign up for a Marriott Platinum challenge), I was granted Marriott Platinum status, which also gives United Premier Silver status as a published perk (the two programs offer a set of reciprocal benefits).

This coincided nicely with a work trip. I’ve flown Delta lately when headed east, which is my personal preference. But this time I couldn’t justify the expense and time of the drive to the Bay. So United it was out of our tiny local airport. At least this could be my first-ever shot at an upgrade.

Upgrade to First? Yes, please

When I checked in, I was told I’d be placed on the list for complimentary upgrades. I had high hopes for my first flight of the day. Only five first class seats were booked, leaving seven available for upgrades. There can’t be *that* many people with United status flying out of Arcata, can there? But I’d have to wait until the next day to find out.

Much to my surprise, the confirmation came within the hour. I received an automated email from United saying I’d been upgraded, and that my new seat was 4A. Score!

I had understood this wouldn’t be processed until the day of travel. But the news was happily welcomed. I’d even landed in one of the awesome seats along the left side of the plane that is both a window and an aisle seat. This really couldn’t be any better.

Flying in first for thirty-seven minutes

I was among the first to board the next day, and I got to gaze out the window and watch the other passengers climb the ramp to the plane. The flight attendant brought me an orange juice while I waited for everyone else to take their seats. It was a lovely Humboldt County morning.

We departed on time, and the flight attendant began beverage service as soon as we reached 10,000 feet. I requested a coffee. Unlike the economy experience, it came in an actual mug.

The flight attendant also brought around a basket loaded with snacks. We could pick what we wanted. I opted for just a stroopwafel.

The flight is a super short hop. I’ve done it many times in economy, and it’s a totally enjoyable experience on the ERJ-175. But it was super cool to be up in first this time. Even after all my flight segments, this was (amazingly) my first time traveling in domestic first class. I’ve traveled in international business class and first class once each, which is a different world entirely.

The misplaced focus on airline status

In the majority of cases, airline status is something that should be earned 100% organically. That is, if you have to expend extra effort or money to achieve status, you probably aren’t flying enough to really enjoy the benefits.

Even after saying this, I am on track to earn Delta Gold Medallion status this year. A couple work trips, plus our trip to France (paid with mostly points, but a cash fare), and some extra medallion qualifying miles (MQMs) from card bonuses makes it a fairly easy target. I’m losing a bit on opportunity cost, as Delta miles aren’t quite as valuable as other currencies. But it’s still something I’d like to shoot for while it is within reach and won’t cost any extra cash out the door [SEE: How to earn airline elite status without flying (a lot)].

Keeping it real

Although I could certainly get used to traveling like this, I have to remember that status won’t last forever. And it won’t always send me to the front of the plane. But even though it was just a 37-minute hop from Arcata to San Francisco, it was still super cool to sit in the front of the plane without shelling out either miles or cash. The ERJ-175 may be the nicest ride in domestic first class, too, even over larger aircraft. The ‘A’ seats are also by themselves, giving you both a window and aisle access.

Will I get upgraded again? Why, yes. I’m currently waiting to depart on the second leg my current trip, and I had another upgrade clear. Maybe it will be hard to go back to economy after this. 😉

San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront Executive Studio Suite Review

Pros: Fantastic location, beautiful lobby, great loyalty recognition, room had an awesome airport view

Cons: Lounge wasn’t serviced well in the evening

Our final night before we called off our original trip to Europe (which was subsequently re-planned) was at the San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront. I wanted to be in close proximity to the airport for our flight out the next day, and it was a great option. It would also be the final night for finishing off my Marriott Platinum challenge (SEE: Fast track status: how to sign up for a Marriott Platinum challenge).

Arrival at the San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront

We didn’t have to travel far to the hotel since we’d been staying in SF for free the previous two nights. There were a couple reasons I wanted to be in a hotel that night. First, I needed to be able to clean the apartment, launder the linens and towels, and tidy up in general, and I didn’t want to rush through all that during our last morning. Second, I wanted the kids to be able to enjoy themselves after two days of being cooped up with just their math books, activity books, a few toys and a couple movies while I was in all-day work meetings. I knew that a swim in the pool would make their day. Plus, I was still split on whether we’d actually head out on the trip and I wanted them to enjoy some part of our excursion to San Francisco.

The most cost-effective option to get to the hotel was (amazingly) Uber from the city. We paid right about ~$30 to get to the airport hotel. BART to the airport would have cost us a hair more, and then we would have had to walk through the terminal and take the airport shuttle. After thanking the Uber driving we walked inside to a beautiful lobby with a great view of the Bay.

san francisco airport marriott waterfront lobby

There was no check-in line when we arrived at the San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront. I had decided not to check-in early with the Marriott app, hoping to ask for an upgrade to at least a bay view room from which we could watch the planes land. The agent at the front desk said that wouldn’t be a problem and soon we were on our way to the 10th floor with our room keys.

Sweet first impressions

The agent failed to tell me that he had gone beyond just an upgrade to a bay view room; we were given a corner executive suite with a stunning view of both the airport and runways! My kids were thrilled. To date this is the best Marriott upgrade we’d been given, and I didn’t even hold Platinum status (although I do now).

The suite had two queens beds in the bedroom area, which was separated from the living area by a doorway.

The living area for its part was furnished sufficiently, with a couch, armchair and a table and chairs for four.

san francisco airport marriott waterfront suite living space

The best part of all was the view, of course. I’ve already touched on that. Watching planes coming and going at SFO from the comfort of our room was awesome. You can sit and eat (or work) and catch every wide-body that touches down at SFO.

The room had the other typical amenities, like a desk and TV.

Oddly, there wasn’t a second TV in the living area.

Most suites I’ve ever been given have more than one TV if the bedroom and living areas are separate (or a creative solution like this Hyatt House hotel). But this is a small concern to me. We hardly ever turn it on anyway.

I don’t know the occupancy of the suite, but it would have been sufficient for our family of five. With a couch, a table and chairs, a desk and plenty of space, it is ideal for a family. The primary difficulty would be guaranteeing that you get the room, short of paying the $350 the San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront was asking that night.

Bathroom

The bathroom was the only awkward part of the room. For starters, the door didn’t lock. This really isn’t an issue if you’re traveling as a couple. But with two of my kids, it could have been a bit awkward. Luckily, the toddler wasn’t along to pull it open on me.

The suite had only a glass shower, which was fine. I actually prefer this. But note that there isn’t a tub, in case that is a necessary amenity for you.

I never really care what the branding is of the bathroom amenities as long as they give you some. The only ones that ever really wowed me were at the Park Hyatt Milan.

M Lounge at the San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront

Since I have Marriott Gold status, we were granted complimentary access to the M Lounge. Typically, lounges offer a light breakfast in the morning and snacks in the evening, plus some other amenities. The M Lounge offered a good amount of seating.

We arrived a little late, and there wasn’t much to be found in the lounge. They had a few canisters of snacks, consisting of gummies, M&Ms and Chex mix. Not really anything you could even being to call dinner. I prefer when places will at least have crackers, veggies and other light fare that you can eat enough to say you had dinner.

Well…the options here were let the kids eat snack food or go pay for dinner at the hotel restaurant. I did what any dad would do when mom is not around and let the kids eat Chex mix and gummies for dinner. We fortunately also found some yogurt, which ended up being the main staple. I’m sure it was in the cooler as part of breakfast, but I still considered it fair game. Our other choices were milk, butter and a single type of soft drink.

The lounge space itself was nice enough. The one problem was that people continued to come through, and no one was there to either clean or restock any of the snacks.

Finally, just when we were about to leave, an employee came by with more of everything to refill the canisters.

Breakfast

Breakfast in the morning was a bit better in the M Lounge. Selections included eggs and bacon, fruit, yogurt and other items. The selection wasn’t huge, but we found it sufficient.

The one downside was that the place was a zoo. This is the one reason I didn’t take any photos during breakfast. It always feels awkward to me trying to take photos at a hotel or lounge buffet with people all around me.

Alternatively, you could eat in the hotel restaurant. But free food at the lounge with Marriott elite status is a perk. I’m not going to turn it down.

Swimming Pool

If your kids are anything like mine, the most important amenity of a hotel is the pool. We definitely made time for a morning swim.

The pool at the San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront isn’t very large. But it’s nice enough. There is also a sizable hot tub.

The plus was that we had the pool to ourselves when we visited. We stayed about an hour before heading back up to our awesome suite to watch some more airplanes.

An avgeek paradise

The San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront sits to the south of SFO with enviable views of the airport, runways and bay. It’s in an ideal location for an aviation geek. If you decide to visit, make sure to book a room with a Bay View and/or ask for an upgrade at the desk. The view of the airport is really the hotel’s best feature.

We were in a corner suite on the airport side, so our views not only included runways 28L and 28R, but San Francisco Airport itself. We could watch jets land and take off at our leisure.

Given the dirty state of the windows, the photos aren’t the best.

san francisco airport marriott waterfront view

You could probably get some great shots from the waterfront walk along the Bay in front of the hotel, which is another great spot to hang out. How I wished I had a decent camera to take some photos of the airplane landing action on 28L and 28R.

Final remarks

The San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront is now in the running for best SFO airport hotel. The other one I’m really partial to is the Staybridge Suites San Bruno, where we burnt our IHG free night certificates last year (SEE: Why the “best value” redemptions might not actually provide the best value).  The benefit of Staybridge is that they offer a full breakfast and a better evening reception that can double as dinner. I wasn’t impress with what the M Lounge had to offer.

san francisco airport marriott waterfront dusk view

Still, the San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront has a lot going for it, especially given its amazing location near SFO Airport and its runways. For those with a love of airplanes, I’d highly recommend the hotel. Elite recognition was also good, given that we were upgraded to a suite without top-tier Marriott status. I’d happily stay here again.

Europe, Take 2

A few weeks ago I called off a trip to northern Europe with our older two kids (SEE: Walking away from a trip – lessons learned). It was a hard decision, given the investment and excitement we had all put into it. But it was the choice that was needed.

My wife and I talked a lot that week after we got back from our adventure-that-wasn’t-meant-to-be. The older two kids talked a lot with us, too. More than a few times they asked where we would have been and what we would have been doing, had we gone. I tried to keep my mind off it.

After a couple days, we came to the decision that a trimmed down version of the original plan would still work for all of us. I soon found an appropriate window and started the cement in plans once again.

Why we decided to re-plan the trip

The long and short of the matter was that the length of the previous trip was the biggest hurdle. It was originally going to be ~12 days, but turned into 15 based on when I found the cheapest tickets. Then we changed the plan to include a couple days in the Bay prior to our flights out, so the grand total came to 18 days. It was just too long.

So, once we found a window that trimmed the total length down to 8 days, my wife and I were far more settled. Fortunately, the kids tickets were reusable (cash value, although paid with points). Mine actually was, too, but I didn’t get the memo in time for it be of any use for this trip (SEE: Two weeks later, Air France responds to my service request). Prices had gone up since it wasn’t the great sale I’d caught before, but they weren’t terribly more. Luckily, I had a small stash of Delta gift cards (thank you Amex airline credits) that I used to cut much of the additional cost.

The main reason we desired to re-plan an abbreviated version of the trip was how awful of a letdown the last experience was for the kids.

Setting the kids up for disappointment

Life will brings its disappointments. Part of maturing is learning how to handle disappointment, and it is not my plan to shield my kids from this. Experiencing disappointment helps build confidence and resilience. Kids have to learn how to overcome setbacks.

But directly causing significant disappointment to your kids as a parent is a bit different to me. This was all my fault. I’d gotten the kids all geared up to go. We even traveled to the Bay Area to get passports, as the post office was less-than-helpful when it came to figuring out everything we needed to process them (the fact that the kids are internationally adopted was the main complicating factor). I’d set their sights on something, built up their hopes, and then crushed everything at the last minute. Holding my crying kids that day tore my heart out.

I know I’ll fail the kids at times. It’s inevitable. But they also need to know that I’m not going to play games with their emotions. If forces outside my control change our plans, they will have to cope with that. And I hope they understand.

What I want them to understand is that I will follow through on what I tell them we will do. We are also still in a phase of building trust. The kids have progressed by leaps and bounds over the eight months they have been with us. Our relationships are so much different than they were a matter of months ago. We are closer. We understand each other better. Communication and affection continue to grow. But we still have some distance left. I hope that being able to still take them on this adventure will help mend any breach of trust I caused.

Is it worth going overseas for “only” a week?

This is always a question in my mind. Quite a while ago, I would have quickly said “no”. To spend all that time and money (or miles) to head over to another continent for just a week seemed silly. That was at least how I approached our trip to France, Italy, and Ireland last year (SEE: Thirty Days in Europe).

But slowly my mind has changed. An analogous change of mind is whether it is worth spending miles to fly in a premium cabin. I used to think there was no way that was worth it. In most instances, you can fly twice for the same number of miles.  Both of these previous opinions were left in the dust when I planned a five night trip to the land down under (SEE: The Anatomy of a One Week Trip to Australia).

That trip ended up being very much worth it. In any other circumstance, I would have wanted to spend a minimum of 3 weeks to make the trek “worth it”. But given that I spent ~$300 out of pocket for the whole five days, it was a win all around. When you’re not spending a ton of cash for airline tickets, a week trip overseas is actually within the realm of reason. You can easily spend more on two days at Disneyland as a family.

As we are currently on our adventure, I can say that a week will be perfect. It is long enough that we can see a couple different places, yet short enough that they won’t get burnt out. By the end of our 8-day road trip, the kids were definitely ready to get home (although this was most likely a function of how much we had to drive during the last couple days).

Looking forward

With summer upon us, there is not a lot planned on the travel front. June will be the month of dance, then the kids will attend a couple vacation bible school programs and camps during July and August. We will likely pick things up again this fall.

With a pocket (er…AwardWallet account) full of miles, a lot is possible. I’m currently working on a rough schedule of trip ideas for the next couple years. This’ll give us more concrete goals on the earning side, as well as let me burn through points that have been aging for a while. But more on that later. For now, we will enjoy France.

Featured image courtesy of Eric Chan under CC 2.0 license