Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Month: May 2019 (page 1 of 2)

Four Day Blast to Taipei and Back

It’s been like ten days since I published a post, which is like two months in blog time. I just can’t keep up. The demands of family, work, and other, more lucrative side work (as this blog directly makes me $0) have resulted in me neglecting posting. But I *do* have some exciting news on one front that I will announce in due time.

In the middle of these hectic weeks was a trip that was planned months ago. I’d caught an amazing fare sale on trans-Pacific one-way tickets and combined it with award flights for the outbound to give my son and I three days in Taipei, Taiwan and then one day on a stopover in Xiamen, China.

You may be thinking that sounds insane. It kinda was. But it was also super cool to blast to Asia and back for an effective time of only four days.

Taipei – A city for foodies

I’ve conversed with a few different folks and read up on how great Taiwan is for travelers who love to eat. Jason, a former contributor at Points with a Crew, turned me on to a few places in the city that we enjoyed. I also picked another suggestion featured by Lonely Planet, and we explored some of the night markets, enjoying the eclectic sights, smells and flavors.

We spent a total of two nights and three full days, seeing everything from Taipei 101, to Dihua Street, to Yangmingshan National Park, to the history in Tamsui. It was a fast-paced and fun three days.

Xiamen – A rising Chinese gem

Our return itinerary included a full day in the mainland Chinese city of Xiamen. I could have planned things in such a way that we would have had a shorter layover and could have just hung out at the airport for several hours, but a late flight the night before and a hotel night would give us most of a day to explore this city. Xiamen was featured by Conde Nast Traveler as an up and coming destination.

Or so I thought. My son ended up feeling sick in the morning and then our afternoon didn’t go at all how I expected. But we did get to see an interesting part of the city before we had to head to the airport and board our flight back to California.

More to come on the trip. I have a number of other posts from previous trips that I still want to finish first, however.

Would I do it again?

In  a heartbeat. I went solo to Australia in early 2017, which was my first condensed trip abroad. But this was the first time I pulled off something this short with one or more kids. Our trip to France last year sorta qualifies, but that one was seven full days and eight nights, which is fairly normal for some people’s European adventures.

Four days and three nights in Asia? That’s a bit more crazy.

The 5 of the Top 25 Busiest U.S. Airports I Haven’t Visited

Every once in a while I like to see how the airline and airport statistics stack up across the U.S. and around the world. The busiest airports are easy to name: Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas and Denver (although my initial guess was New York’s JFK). All of these I have visited, some a number of times.

Looking further down the list, I realized that there are only 5 airports among the top 25 busiest U.S. airport that I have not visited. None of the airport in this list really surprised me, but a few did in terms of their placement on the list, such as Las Vegas, which ranks #9 in the country in terms of passenger traffic.

Top 25 busiest U.S. airports

I used the Wikipedia list of total passengers, based on 2018 data reported by the airports themselves. Here are the top 25 busiest U.S. airports:

  1. Atlanta Harstfield-Jackson (ATL)
  2. Los Angeles International (LAX)
  3. Chicago O’Hare International (ORD)
  4. Dallas/Fort Worth International (DFW)
  5. Denver International (DEN)
  6. New York John F. Kennedy (JFK)
  7. San Francisco International (SFO)
  8. Seattle-Tacoma International (SEA)
  9. Las Vegas McCarran (LAS)
  10. Orlando International (MCO)
  11. Charlotte Douglas International (CLT)
  12. Newark Liberty International (EWR)
  13. Miami International (MIA)
  14. Phoenix Sky Harbor (PHX)
  15. Houston Intercontinental (IAH)
  16. Boston Logan International (BOS)
  17. Minneapolis-Saint Paul (MSP)
  18. Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood (FLL)
  19. Detroit Metropolitan (DTW)
  20. Philadelphia International (PHL)
  21. New York LaGuardia (LGA)
  22. Baltimore-Washington (BWI)
  23. Salt Lake City International (SLC)
  24. San Diego International (SAN)
  25. Washington Dulles (IAD)

Any guesses as to the 5 I haven’t transited? Being based on the west coast, you can imagine that the large hubs of San Francisco and Los Angeles were checked off the list ages ago. Providing airline info would help in theory, but I have such split “loyalty” that it actually doesn’t. I’ve flown all the major airlines a number of times, although Delta and United have received the bulk of my air miles. Southwest used to be my favorite airline (not really the case anymore) and I’ve flown my share of Alaska as well.

Not to mention without some recent travels, I wouldn’t have the list whittled down to the remaining five. When my daughter and I visited Buenos Aires and Montevideo, we made a quick stop in Florida on the way home, hitting both Miami and Fort Lauderdale airports. Last year I also checked off Salt Lake City, Charlotte, Dallas/Fort Worth, Minneapolis-Saint Paul and Chicago O’Hare.

So which remain unvisited among the top 25 busiest U.S. airports? Here they are:

  • Boston Logan
  • Detroit Metropolitan
  • Philadelphia International
  • New York LaGuardia
  • Baltimore Washington

No plans to pass through any of these either. Someday I’ll hit all 25.

4 Things You Didn’t Know About Boise

In February my older son and I spent some time in Seattle, enjoying two days of sightseeing in both the typical downtown attractions and also the aviation attractions, including the Museum of Flight and the Boeing Everett Factory Tour.

Tacked onto this was a two-night stay in Boise, Idaho. I’d never been to Idaho, and as the flights didn’t cost any more (well, a mere $5.60 more because of the TSA fee), using Alaska’s amazing stopover trick, it was a no-brainer.

Our time here was a bit more laid-back than our lightning fast itinerary in Seattle, but we really enjoyed it. I also learned a number of things about both Idaho and Boise. Here are five facts about Boise you may not know:

It’s the City of Trees

Boise was originally named by French trappers who purportedly called it “Les Bois” (the forest) or “la Riviere Boisse” (the forested river) for the trees they finally found as they make their trek along the Snake River. Apparently they hadn’t seen trees for a while, so the stands along the river in the Boise area were a refreshing sight.

Personally, I didn’t see appreciably more trees than other small cities I’ve visited. The hills also weren’t very forested from what I could tell. But then again, I am comparing the distant scattered pines to the thick mixed evergreens we have in northern California. We also visited in winter when the trees are devoid of foliage. Boise has made a concerted effort to plant a maintain a large number of trees in the city, starting way back in the mid-1800s.

It’s Boy-see, not Boy-zee

I’m definitely one to try to learn place names as accurately as I can, preferably from locals. Notable examples include “Cal-gree” (Calgary), “Tronno” (Toronto), and “Row-noak” (Roanoke). But this distinction was one of which I was completely unaware before we arrived in the Idaho capital.

An incorrect pronunciation is something that will immediately tag you as an out-of-towner. Get that ‘s’ sound down before you pay Boise a visit. Otherwise you’ll stand out like an evergreen in a deciduous forest in winter.

It has the largest community of Basque Americans

The Basque are a European people from the area surrounding the western Pyrennes and are one of the larger people-groups in the world without their own country. What I find most interesting about the Basque is that their language is unlike any other in Europe and is completely unrelated to the Latin-derived (Romance) languages of surrounding Spain, France, Portugal and Italy.

The Basque diaspora has resulted in Basque people all over the world, including a few pockets within the United States. More than any other state, Idaho is associated with the Basque presence in the U.S. Boise is home to the Basque Museum and Cultural Center that celebrates the history, culture and heritage of this people. Boise and Gernika (officially Guernica, Spain) are also sister cities, and my son and I had dinner at Bar Gernika during our stay in Boise.

It’s an up-and-coming foodie city

The number and variety of the restaurants in Boise surprised me. From Thomas Hammer Coffee Roasters down the street from our hotel to an introduction to Basque cuisine at Bar Gernika, I definitely enjoyed our quick taste of Boise. I don’t do fine dining with the kids, but there is plenty to enjoy on the more budget end of the spectrum. Boise is off the food radar, but it shouldn’t be.

Craft beer, which has long been a fixture of the Pacific Northwest states of Washington and Oregon, is a distinct part of Idaho as well. If the food isn’t enough to satisfy you, a pint might. There are a number of breweries right in Boise, including award-winning Sockeye Brewing and Payette Brewing.


Boise may not be on your travel radar, but it is a city certainly worth visiting for a couple days. If you’re considering other places in Idaho for a potential trip, whether skiing in Sun Valley or a fun summer weekend in Coeur d’Alene, consider a stop in the Idahoan capital as well.

American Airlines A321 Economy Review: San Francisco to Dallas

I know. Who would bother reviewing a domestic economy flight? With the millions of people who fly every year, sometimes weekly, domestic economy is old hat. Laying out the details of the experience is passé. But I also get that there are folks out there who have not flown much, if at all (and I still know a few), so this American Airlines A321 economy review is for them.

My daughter and I took a trip to South America a couple weeks ago, visiting Buenos Aires, Argentina and two spots in Uruguay. It was a lovely trip, and we even made some new friends in the process. The trip started with a drive to San Francisco (nearly free, I might add, thanks to Hertz points), followed by an overnight stay before our morning flight. To kick things off, we’d fly American Airlines A321 economy to Dallas where we would connect to our long haul leg.

The flight was booked as part of a business class award using 57,500 American Airlines miles per person. I did check back a number of times to see if space had opened up in the first class cabin, as you can make this sort of change to American Airlines award tickets for no fee. But no such luck. American Airlines A321 economy it was.

Arriving at SFO

Since I’d rented a car, arriving at the airport was as easy as dropping it at the rental car center and hopping on the Airtrain. We pulled in at 8:40 a.m. You might not think this is sufficient time to make a 10:04 departure, but it’s plenty with TSA Precheck. I have the timing down.

While we were aboard the Airtrain, I noticed construction has been progressing nicely on the Grand Hyatt SFO. This is one hotel that I’m eagerly anticipating. One of my travel predictions for 2019 is that it will be a Category 4 Hyatt, but with the increase of the Grand Hyatt DFW to a Category 5 property, this may be a bit too hopeful (SEE: 5 award travel predictions for 2019).

Security was a breeze. Like I said, TSA Precheck meant the wait was minimal. I’ve loved this service after being approved for Global Entry, which also allows expedited immigration when returning to the United States. In general, normal security at SFO isn’t all that bad.

Even after cutting things closer than many would, we still had a wait of 20 minutes at the gate. My daughter and I were in boarding group 4 due to my American Gold elite status, earned via status challenge last year. Not that this matters much. We’d checked her bag and only had my large backpack to worry about stuffing in an overhead bin.

If there had been seats in Main Cabin Extra, I could have moved us to them at check-in. But there were only a handful of middles, plus a pair in the exit row. As my daughter is only 12, we are not be able to sit there. The minimum age for the exit row is 15 years old. But I have no qualms flying American Airlines A321 economy for a three-hour flight.

Boarding our Airbus A321

There was something a bit special about our American Airlines flight to Dallas that day. It was odd to see balloons. I knew it couldn’t be new service, as this route is nothing new. Once we were in the middle of boarding, I finally got a look at the sign. It was to welcome a Make-A-Wish passenger “Mikey” flying with us. He was headed to Paris, and I hope he enjoyed himself immensely. We sure did when we visited (SEE: 3 Days in Paris: Day 3 – Savoring the City).

This must have been the longest boarding process for a narrow body aircraft that I’ve ever experienced. Bags were consistently being placed 1-3 rows behind where their owners were seated, and passenger traffic was a perpetual jam. Add in the clueless passengers taking their sweet time to get seated or trying to access their carry-on in the overhead while boarding is still progressing, and I see why Southwest boards the way they do.

Seat and in-flight entertainment

American Airlines A321 economy class is essentially like any other narrow-body jet you can fly commercially. There is little to differentiate it from other products. The seats are 18 inches wide and offer 31 inches of pitch, which is about as standard as you can get.

American Airlines A321 economy seat

We were seated in 14E and 14F, a middle and window, respectively. The seats are comfortable enough, and I felt I had plenty of legroom, even in economy. My only hindrance is self-inflicted, as I almost always have items to place under the seat, which restricts the legroom.

American Airlines A321 economy leg room

I’ve done much more middle seat flying now that we have kids, as I nearly always manage to score either a window or aisle when traveling solo. When traveling with my kids, I give them the window (although I might not after this trip, as my daughter was very uninterested in looking out the window). I’m not sure which model American’s A321S is, unless they simply mean this is the safety card for the “A321s”, as in, the American Airlines and legacy US Airways A321s. What the plane certainly is not is one of AA’s transcon-configured A321s with lie-flat business and first class seats.

This A321 actually has in-flight entertainment screens, which was a pleasant surprise. I did not expect it. American Airlines has been actively removing it in favor of bring-your-own-device entertainment, and I’d told my daughter that this (relatively) short flight from San Francisco to Dallas wouldn’t have it.

American Airlines A321 economy ife

The American Airlines A321 economy seats feature power outlets as well. I really appreciate when carriers offer this. Given the connectivity and proliferation of devices in our modern world, it’s critical, especially for business travel. Overall, it’s a fine economy cabin. No complaints. Better than a CRJ-200 (SEE: Argh! I thought I’d seen the last of the United CRJ-200) or anything with poorly-padded slimline seats.

Departure and service

Remarkably, our “wheels up” time wasn’t all that for off from what was scheduled. Our taxi time was short, much shorter than I anticipated. SFO can have a nasty conga line of planes waiting to take off at certain times of the day. We would certainly arrive into Dallas on schedule. Not that it really mattered when you have a 7-hour layover!

Service started about 30 minutes into the flight. As we hadn’t eaten at SFO, I decided that ordering food would be best to tide us over until we arrived in Dallas and could enjoy the lounge. The wrap is $10.99. I thought paying for the wrap with my CitiBusiness AAdvantage card would receive a 25% discount, but it turns out that is only for in-flight WiFi. Turns out its the Barclay Aviator Business card that receives food and beverage discounts. I get all my card benefits mixed up sometimes. At least I received 2 miles per dollar.

American Airlines A321 economy food

Among the airplane food I’ve had fairly recently, this was one of the best choices. I tend to opt for the wraps offered on Delta flights as well. The food is fresh and definitely beats most long-haul economy meals. The obvious downside is that they are for purchase, not free.

My daughter was soon engrossed in a movie. She chose Smallfoot. Since we had one pair of headphones between the two of us, and I was too cheap to buy yet another pair of airplane headphones, I decided to work instead of watching a film.

The WiFi, at least what I experienced searching aa.com, was rather poor. It struggled to load most pages. I was able to put an award on hold for this fall after finding a nice itinerary including Finnair business class space, though, which was nice. But it struggled the entire time. I’m quite glad I only used it for AA-allowed pages and didn’t pay for access, as I would have been unhappy spending money on WiFi this bad.


Our flight in American Airlines A321 economy class was a fine experience. The seat and service were typical of what you can expect flying one of the full service U.S. carriers. The in-flight entertainment screens were an unexpected pleasure, and not something I am used to enjoying on American Airlines. I typically look at Delta as offering the best IFE among the large U.S. carriers. Meals are available for purchase, and they aren’t half bad.

Our day was just beginning, though. With roughly seven hours to kill in Dallas, we would have the ability to visit two airport lounges before enjoying our overnight flight to Buenos Aires in business class!

A New Favorite California Scenic Drive

*I’m still trying desperately to finish up the posts I planned from our Southwest Road Trip 2018. Almost there. Only two more!*

With our road trip winding down to the last couple days, the kids and I left Death Valley behind [SEE: 3 Highlights (and 2 Disappointments) Visiting Death Valley], heading west and climbing gradually out of this surreal place and back to a landscape we were far more used to seeing. The first part of the drive was solidly desert, but eventually we caught our first view of the Sierra Nevada Mountains as we neared Lone Pine.

Mountains will never cease to call my name. There is no landscape I find more enchanting. It should not surprise you that Switzerland, Norway, Patagonia, Nepal, and New Zealand are all among the places I wish to visit most.

What stunned me was the majesty of the peaks here in my home state. I’ve been to different parts of the Sierras multiple times, whether camping many years ago out east of Fresno, or hiking in Yosemite National Park with my family on a few occasions, or driving up to Reno for a conference. From the west, the change is gradual. The foothills mask how tall the Sierras are.

On the eastern side, the peaks are much more sharply defined. And I love it.

Highway 395 – A new favorite scenic drive

We made our way to Bishop for the night, staying at another Holiday Inn Express. Although it wasn’t as nice as the last one (SEE: Holiday Inn Express Pahrump Review), it is a fine hotel if you’re passing through the area. The next morning our drive started again. It was an utterly beautiful day.

Highway 395 parallels the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, running from Victorville in the south on up through Reno, continuing into the far northeastern reaches of California and then on up into Oregon. The section we drove our second to last day was from Bishop up to Tahoe. The first part of the drive provided us with the lovely vista you see below. I’d happily drive all day if the scenery always looked like this.

At one point where the mountains were especially lovely, I decided to meander down a side road for a bit. If there is somewhere in California to move where you can get away from it all, this is certainly it. Hours from any airport or city, this section of the state is pure beauty.

Our drive continued up past Mammoth and June Lakes. How I wished we could stop a couple more times, but this was yet another day during which we were on a tight schedule. If we dawdled now, we wouldn’t get to see much of Tahoe.

Morning at Mono Lake

After about an hour we arrived at Lee Vining and Mono Lake. It was awesome to finally be able to set eyes on a location I’d only ever seen on a map for so long. Our first stop was the visitor center of the State Natural Reserve. We didn’t stay inside long, instead choosing to walk the trails behind the visitor center. This  lake is truly picturesque.

As a shallow, saline lake with no outlet, Mono Lake has an interesting ecosystem. Thanks to the tiny brine shrimp that live in its waters, the lake is a major stop for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds that pass through. Like the video we watched of Death Valley, the one shown at the visitor center was equally as fascinating. It is even available on YouTube, if you’re interested. Once that was concluded, we headed out behind the visitor center and took a short walk on the trails.

There is a park down the road, close to the highway, from which you can embark on a short stroll to see some of the Mono Lake tufa. Created by mineral rich underwater springs that react with the lake water, the rocks are essentially limestone that precipitated and fused together into these towers over a period of time. As the lake level has risen and fallen through the years, some tufa are now stranded above the water line. These interesting formations are not unique to Mono Lake, but the examples here are excellent.

There are a few great areas to see the Mono Lake tufa, including the South Tufa Area, which is off the main highway a bit. We settled for a walk amid the towers at Mono Lake Park.

Finishing the drive through the Sierras

Our next pit stop was in Bridgeport where I got a cup of java at the 1881 Coffee Cafe. It’s a cute little place. From there we pressed onward along Highway 395, until departing to head sharply upward into Alpine County and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. We got our final view of Nevada. At least until we reached South Lake Tahoe.

Highway 395 from Lone Pine nearly all the way to Topaz Lake is now one of my favorite drives in this lovely state in which we live. It tops the list alongside the local 100-mile loop through the Lost Coast.


« Older posts