Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Month: July 2018

Treating My Daughter to American Domestic First Class

My daughter and I spent last weekend in San Antonio with friends that we met while in Costa Rica on our adoption trip. We and the Minors were in Costa Rica at the same time, adopting our kids through the same agency. We were even staying at the same hotel while in country. They adopted a girl about our daughters age, and the two became fast friends.

Our trip to San Antonio was planned to get the girls together for the first time since all of us have been back in the U.S. (SEE: Planning a Surprise Birthday Trip). The trip was be short and sweet, as we flew out Friday and headed back Tuesday.

During our first flight on the way to the Lone Star State, my daughter remarked how cool it would be to fly in first class. I’d previously told her about my solo trip to Australia and how I’d flown in first class and business class on the two international long-haul flights (SEE: United Polaris First SFO to ICN: A review, AND: Asiana business class review Seoul to Sydney). Obviously, it sounded amazing to her. I had to break it to her that domestic first class really isn’t all that amazing. But it is certainly a step up from economy.

A case of perfect timing

A couple weeks before we booked our trip to San Antonio, I’d accepted a status offer from American Airlines. I wasn’t sure I’d even bother with it, as I basically never fly American, but I decided to jump on it at the last minute before the offer expired. The offer gave me American Gold Elite, the lowest tier status, and eight 500-mile upgrade certificates. The status is only good through September.

As it turns out, the offer worked perfectly for me. The cheapest flights out of Sacramento to San Antonio happened to be on American Airlines, and the status offer meant that I could apply my 500-mile upgrade certificates to our flights. As I ended up booking a flight for work on American Airlines as well, I ended up only applying 4 of the certificates to upgrade one leg of our outbound flights.

Honestly, as I was only a Gold member, I didn’t expect them to clear. Especially given that American A319s only have 8 first class seats.

But amazingly they did. I was excited, knowing that my daughter was in for a treat.

Springing the surprise

Our first class was on time and uneventful. We spent half an hour in the lounge in Phoenix, and then we headed to our next gate. I handed my daughter her boarding pass to scan for boarding. Once heading down the jetway, I asked her which seat she was in.

She told me “1F.” That’s it. Not another word. She had no idea what that meant. I see that I need to teach her some basics about seat numbers. Row 1 is pretty much always first or business class (unless you’re on my least favorite type of plane).

I’ve tried to clue the kids in to the boarding process and general plane etiquette. But they still have very little idea about seating. My son may have put two and two together on this one, but the fact that we were in row 1 didn’t even register with my daughter.

Until we got on the plane, that is, and she saw that Row 1 was the first class section. The excitement was instantly off the charts.

We had a great flight of ~850 miles to San Antonio. While I’ve recently flown United domestic first class on the ERJ-175, this was my first time on American (and it might be my last, as my upgrades on my work trip haven’t been clearing so far).

She enjoyed a glass of ginger ale, a rare treat, and I enjoyed a glass of wine and a nap. Wine consumption for me is pretty much limited to when I’m flying.

It was a real airplane nap, something I haven’t had in a while. I woke up super groggy after 45 minutes as we were coming in for landing. My daughter said I looked like I was dead while I was sleeping and that my tongue was hanging out. I’m going to hope that is mostly her own fabrication.

Conclusion

I had to break it to her that on our return we wouldn’t be flying in First. Can’t get to used to life of luxury now, can we? ­čśë

Planning a Surprise Birthday Trip

Surprise trips are one of my favorite things to plan. Our honeymoon trip was a total surprise for my wife. She found out step by step along the way until I finally gave let her in on the rest of the plan about a week into the trip. I pulled the same thing on our 2015 trip to Niagara Falls, Toronto and the Canadian Maritimes.

So I’m excited to be planning another surprise trip, this time for our daughter.

Special friends from a special time

When we were in Costa Rica on our adoption trip, we stayed at an extended stay apart-hotel for the entire trip. Well…I guess we took a couple brief excursions (SEE: Hotel Punta Leona Review – Stellar Price for an All-Inclusive). But we were still renting the apart-hotel as well during that time.

The cool thing was, there were two other families adopting through the same agency we were that were in country at the same time. Both were adopting kids around our kids’ ages. But one family was adopting a girl particularly close to our daughter’s age. They became fast friends during our time together at the same hotel, and it was a sad day when we finally headed back to the U.S. and they stayed there to finish up the adoption process.

The girls keep in touch via FaceTime, but it is still tough to be 1,000 miles apart. But little do they know their parents have a plan in the works.

A birthday visit is in the works

As it turns out, their daughter’s birthday just happens to be the Fourth of July. We are unfortunately unable to visit on her birthday as it falls in the middle of the week this year, but we have settled on a plan to get them together this coming weekend.

Matthew, the father of my daughter’s friend, graciously had offered to fly our daughter out to Texas. Kels and I decided that we weren’t ready to let her fly by herself, so I’m headed out there with her. He is footing our tickets one-way, and I used the American Airlines Reduced Mileage Awards to get us back.

Neither of the girls know. It was a surprise for our daughter up through the 4th, and a surprise for her friend until we arrive. I definitely can’t wait to spring this one!

The Minors are an adventurous family, and you should check out their Instagram.┬áIt’ll be so cool to get back together.

6 Years Since our First Miles and Points Trip

On the first day of July my wife and I celebrated our 6th wedding anniversary. It’s crazy to think that we have already been married that long. Six years and three kids later, things are very different than they were when we were first married. But I’m sure that is the story of most married couples.

A honeymoon to remember

Today I find myself reminiscing about our honeymoon, a two-and-a-half week adventure where we spent thousands of miles on a train and saw the majestic mountains of Colorado, the sleepless streets of New York, and enjoyed fresh seafood and live music in laid-back New Orleans. It was a trip that we could not have and should not have afforded, save for one small detail: it was the very beginning of my travel hacking. You can read some of my original retelling of how the trip came to be in a previous post.

I do regret a couple things. Well…regret isn’t the right word; I just wish I would have had a better understanding of how eager issuers were at the time to sign anyone with a good credit score up for new credit card products. Hotel credit cards were off my radar. If I’d only picked up one, we may have had a much nicer stay in New York.

Rest in Peace, amazing Amtrak deals

The heart of our trip was made possible by two cards: the Chase Amtrak Mastercard (no longer issued) and the Chase Sapphire Preferred. In the “good ol’ days”, Amtrak was a Chase transfer partner, and a lucrative one at that. This was back when Amtrak still issued awards based on zone and not based on the cash cost of a ticket.

We were able to get $3,500+ worth of first-class train travel for all of $70. It’s rare that I can pull that much value from two card offers these days, but some trips come close (SEE: The Anatomy of a One Week Trip to Australia).

These deals are long gone. You can still get an Amtrak card, sometimes with an elevated 30,000 point bonus. That is still a recipe for a decent trip in a sleep car on a long-distance train, but it is nothing like it used to be.

Looking forward to when my wife and I can get away again

One of the most difficult things about jumping into parenthood has been the lack of time as a couple. This also translates to the inability to get away as a couple. We know this will change eventually as the kids become more grounded and we feel comfortable leaving them with our parents for a couple days, but we are not quite there yet. And even then, we won’t be able to do it often. My wife and I do fondly remember the trips we were able to take as a couple and how glad we are that we had those opportunities. I know we will have them again someday.

Should you Visit Colossal Cave Mountain Park?

After flying on literally the most ahead-of-schedule United flight I’ve ever set foot on (SEE: My Kids Magically Fixed United), the kids and I arrived in Tucson late at night. The next morning included getting a rental car from the airport. I’ll not let you forget the screaming deal I found on a one-way for our adventure driving back to California (SEE: 2 Tips for Planning a Last Minute Trip).

Our first stop on our first day was Colossal Cave Mountain Park. I’d found the attraction in the brief searching I’d done to find out if there was anything else in Tucson worth seeing besides the Air and Space Museum and Saguaro National Park. Since we’d have a full day to spend, I figured we’d split the time between the museum and the cave.

General Info on Colossal Cave Mountain Park

The park is actually located outside Tucson a good half hour. The easiest access is by taking I-10 east until you reach Exit 279. A left turn will send you onto Colossal Cave Road. From there, you can pretty much follow the signs.

A large arch greets you as you enter the park. The road then turns really rough. It made me wonder what sort of shape the place was in and what the quality of the tour would be like.

The parking lot was a bit confusing. We got up to the top, parked, and then I wasn’t quite sure where to go, so we walked the wrong direction. The path to the cave actually takes you down a bit, and I totally missed the sign and entrance since someone had been stopped in front of it when we’d parked.

The path takes you down to the gift shop and the entrance to the cave.

You can pay for a cave tour ahead of time by booking online. Tours are capacity-controlled, and I’m sure they sell out during busier times. There was only one tour sold out for our day at the time I booked, and I got the 11:00 a.m. tour like I’d hoped for. From what I’ve read, though, you might want to book early as the Classic Cave Tours do sell out on popular dates and at popular times.

If you want to chance things, you can buy tickets at the gift shop like we did. The only issue is that you may have to wait for a tour if one has filled up, and there wasn’t a whole lot to do in the interim. I’d recommend booking online if you know you’ll be there at a specific time.

Touring Colossal Cave

One of the things that surprised me was how warm the cave was. In Oregon, the cave is typically a chilly 40 degrees. And it is wet. Colossal Cave is exactly the opposite. Although it was a fairly scorching 90 degrees outside (hey…don’t judge this Humboldt boy), the cave is a perfect 70 degrees.

It is also a dry limestone cave, which means the formations aren’t growing anymore. This has been the state of Colossal Cave for at least a few hundred years.

Our tour guide’s name was Savannah. She was engaging and humorous, which makes for a great tour. She had great knowledge of the cave and was able to relay much of the science of limestone caves and the history of Colossal Cave in particular.

When the tour guide mentioned how many stairs we’d be either climbing or descending, my first thought was, wow, that is a ton.” But over the course of the tour I realized that it wasn’t as strenuous as I’d anticipated. You walk a good distance, and the stair sections are fairly well broken up.

The kids were fairly interested during most of the tour. There were instances where they wanted to move on, but others where they really enjoyed what we were looking at. Some of the formations had names, either due to the unique shape of the rock, or the way they would cast shadows when the guide shined her light on them. This was the “witch of the cave”.

My favorite parts were definitely the Crystal Forest and the Drapery Room. The sad part, however, is that because Colossal Cave is a dry cave, the broken stalactites are no longer growing and will not repair themselves.

colossal cave mountain park

All we can do now is limit additional damage to the cave.

There is also a story of bandits that hid gold in Colossal Cave and then died in a shootout soon after. The gold is worth tens of thousands of dollars, and to this day no one has found it. The tour guide played this story up, although she had the gall to insist that we had to share a cut of the gold with her should we find it.

Other tours and activities at Colossal Cave Mountain Park

The bulk of people take the normal cave tour. However, the park offers a few other levels of cave exploration for the more adventurous types. There is a ladder tour that costs $35 and is 90 minutes long, taking you to places the Classic Cave Tour doesn’t. You have to be at least 12 years old and physically able to climb ladders and move through narrow spaces.┬á For comparison, the normal tour is about 50 minutes long and is all concrete path and stairs.

Adventurous types can also take the Wild Cave Tour that last 3.5 hours and costs $85. Groups are limited to 6 people and require a minimum of 2. Young adults of 16 or 17 can take the tour, but they must be accompanied by an adult. You should be physically fit and need to bring gloves (which you can also purchase there).

Besides the other tours, there is a gift shop, a small “cafe” (it’s basically a food stand). We considered eating here but ended up opting for a Mexican restaurant about 15 minutes away.

There is also a super short nature trail. If this is your one chance to be up-close-and-personal with some saguaro, I’d take it. Otherwise, I’d pass. There is a lot more to see and enjoy in Saguaro National Park itself.

Conclusion

My takeaway is that if you have access to other, larger and more interesting caves, you might want to pass up Colossal Cave Mountain Park. The tour was interesting, but not quite as long or engaging as the tours I’ve taken at the Oregon Caves. And nothing has beaten my visit to Carlsbad Caverns in terms of size.

But…Colossal Cave Mountain Park does have some things going for it, including the perfect temperature, and the fact that it is a dry cave, which is a bit more rare. It is also within an easy drive of Tucson, so it could be a great place to spend a half a day if you are already in the area.

Complete guide to American Airlines reduced mileage awards

One of the lesser-known perks of holding an American Airlines co-branded credit card is the ability to book American Airlines reduced mileage awards. These will allow you to save up to 7,500 miles per round-trip depending on the card you hold and the length of the trip.

Save miles with AA reduced mileage awards

There are groups of cards that give you different levels of savings with the reduced mileage awards. Typically, the free or cheap co-branded cards offer less savings. There are also two tiers of awards. Because American Airlines already requires only 7,500 award miles for trips under 500 miles one-way, the savings aren’t as good on these routes.

Many credit cards offer a savings of up to 7,500 miles per round trip for itineraries over 500 miles and 2,000 miles per round-trip for itineraries of less than 500 miles. Here is the list of credit cards that offer these savings:

  • Citi┬« / AAdvantage┬« Executive World Elite™ MasterCard┬«
  • Citi┬« / AAdvantage┬« Platinum Select┬« MasterCard┬«
  • CitiBusiness┬« / AAdvantage┬« Platinum Select┬« MasterCard┬«
  • CitiBusiness┬« / AAdvantage┬« Select MasterCard┬«
  • AAdvantage┬« Aviator┬« Silver World Elite MasterCard┬«
  • AAdvantage┬« Aviator┬« Red MasterCard┬«
  • AAdvantage┬« Aviator┬« Business MasterCard┬«

This reduces the cost of a typical round-trip saver award from 25,000 miles to only 17,500 miles, and makes using your miles for domestic economy tickets far more lucrative. The cool thing is, some of the same cards that offer access to the American Airlines reduced mileage awards also offer 10% of your miles back when you redeem them, so you’re looking at a net cost of 15,750 per round-trip.

Here are the credit cards that give you access to a 5,000-mile discount for awards over 500 miles and 1,000-mile discount on round-trips itineraries of less than 500 miles:

  • Citi┬« / AAdvantage┬« Gold MasterCard┬«
  • AAdvantage┬« Aviator┬« Blue MasterCard┬«

Holding one of these cards will let you book a ticket to one of the listed destinations for only 20,000 miles per round-trip. A hop of 500 miles or less will only cost you 14,000 miles round-trip.

The cool thing is, you don’t have to book a round-trip award. If you book a one-way, the savings are simply half of the round-trip savings.

There are some other cards included in both of the lists that offer access to the American Airlines reduced mileage awards, but I’m not sure they are offered anymore. I don’t recognize them. I believe all the ones listed are the products that are currently available.

How to find a qualifying award

American Airlines offers a good number of destinations every month on their reduced mileage award chart. There are some major airports that never make the list. But they typically offer several dozen destinations every month. The chart is updated every other month, and you’ll only ever find the current month and the three upcoming months included. Don’t expect to be able to lock these in way ahead of time.

Head over to the American Airlines reduced mileage award page to view the list of destinations offered. The first paragraphs explain the discounts and process, after which you’ll find the table of current reduced mileage destinations. Note the months in the header at the top and then scroll through the list (or use the web page search) to find your destination. The green checks indicate that a destination is available for the reduced mileage price for that month.

American Airlines Reduced Mileage Awards

For example, if I’m interested in flying to Akron, Ohio, I can book a reduced mileage award for any of the months shown above. I can also fly out of any nearby airport served by American Airlines, which for us would be Santa Rosa, Sacramento, San Francisco, or Oakland. It doesn’t matter if your origin airport isn’t on the chart; all that matters is the destination. If I’m interested in flying to Albany, notice that I can only book that at the reduced mileage price for flights in September.

The current list for September 2018 is a gold mine. Most of the airports shown on the list are available for reduced mileage awards this month, which comes to a total of over 100. Chances are you’ll find the destination you’re looking for if you’re willing to travel outside of peak summer season.

Some people have previously reported that if your origin is included in the reduced mileage list for a given month, this gives you reduced mileage prices anywhere in the U.S. Not all agents would abide by this, but by using the “hang up, call again” (HUCA) trick, you could typically book them.

However, I don’t see this in the terms. Everything refers to the destination being on the list. Only the destination airport has to be on the list for a one-way or round-trip. The origin doesn’t seem to play into the equation at all. I could be wrong on this, though, or the terms could have changed such that they are now in line with my understanding. In any case, you’re more than welcome to try to see where you can get with an agent. Some airports are routinely available, and it would be amazing to fly for reduced mileage prices much of the year.

How to book a reduced mileage award

You have to call reservations at┬á800-882-8880 to book American Airlines reduced mileage awards. However, you’ll first need to make sure there is space available for the award you want, and I suggest doing this online. Head to aa.com and look for MileSAAver space. You cannot use the reduced milage award codes for standard awards.

You’ll also need the award code for the credit card you hold. You can find these on the American Airlines reduced mileage awards web page. The agent will ask for a code when you go to book the award.

My experience booking a reduced milage award was pretty painless. I called American Airlines reservations, spoke our date, origin and destination into the automated system, and was connected with an agent within only a few minutes. I explained that I wanted to book a reduced milage award. The lady was completely familiar with the process and asked for the code. She spent a minute confirming that our destination was on the list, and our tickets were booked a minute or two later.

The reservation service charge is waived for these awards since they are not bookable online, which totally makes sense.

Final notes on the American Airlines reduced mileage awards

American Airlines reduced mileage awards offer fantastic value for families since you can fly round-trip domestic itineraries for so much less. A family of 5 flying to a reduced mileage destination only needs 87,500 miles rather than 125,000 miles. Given that some of the American Airlines co-branded cards sometimes offer a sign-up bonus of 60,000 or even 70,000 miles, an application plus some spending can easily get free flights for the whole family.

A few final things to note:

  • The terribly (might I say AAwful) $75 close-in booking fee still applies to itineraries 21 days out or less.
  • The discounts only apply to awards within the United States. Even if you live at an airport on the list where flights should be at reduced cost to anywhere, don’t expect to head to Europe with a mileage discount.
  • You can actually apply the discount to business and first class domestically. I’m just never interested in premium cabin domestic awards, so details like this tend to slip my mind.
  • Finding American Airlines award space might be a real issue at times, but it can be done. Don’t expect to see wide-open awards to any of these destinations, but expect to be able to make something work if you are flexible with your dates.

Hope you make great use of the American Airlines reduced mileage awards!

Featured image courtesy of Grant Wickes.