Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Airlines (page 1 of 9)

The Shortest Flight in the U.S. is at Our Doorstep

Did you know that the shortest flight in the U.S. is in northern California? I didn’t either until I saw the headline in a news piece recently.

United is connecting to Santa Rosa?!

When I first read about United adding the SFO-STS hop to their schedule, I thought they were insane. Are you really going to fly a route that people can drive in 90 minutes?

But then I sat back and thought about the market they are attacking. Sure, it is a super short flight. But it lets you avoid the hassle of driving (often in bad traffic) and paying for parking. Plus, if you’re local to Sonoma County, it’s an easy Uber ride to the airport. I can definitely see the appeal.

Not to mention Sonoma County is growing and demand for air service is increasing. The Charles M. Shulz Airport is looking at a desperately-needed expansion coming in 2019.

The flight time of the shortest flight in the United States? A mere 16 minutes in the air. United blocks it at 51 minutes. You spend more time taxiing than actually flying.

The shortest flight in the U.S. offers some great deals!

In contrast to flying out of Arcata, something that requires taking out a second mortgage on your house, there are actually some good deals out of STS. Not directly to SFO, but you can connect to a number of destinations cheaply. Examples, all one-way:

  • STS to LAX for $74
  • STS to SAN for $74
  • STS to SNA for $74
  • STS to PDX for $87

Most of those aren’t even United basic economy!

I’ve also looked at international flights that have either an outbound or return leg to STS rather than SFO. Generally, the price doesn’t jump too much if you decide to touch down among the vineyards instead of alongside the Bay. I’m hoping this holds out long enough for us to take advantage of it a couple times.

The flight above to Beijing is currently $489 flying nonstop from SFO. Adding the outbound from Santa Rosa only brings the price up to $538. Pretty sweet deal!

Next time you want to get out of Humboldt, consider taking the shortest flight in the U.S. out of Santa Rosa!

Leveraging the Southwest cancellation policy for adoption flights

My wife and I are now three weeks into an adoption trip of about 6 weeks in Costa Rica. We are thoroughly enjoying both our 3 kids and their beautiful country.

But it’s definitely a long trip. We can’t wait to head home and get things back to normal, albeit a new normal.

So I couldn’t keep myself from booking our tickets home. It may seem like it’s a bit early since we don’t know when we can come home yet. But with the stellar Southwest cancellation policy, there is no downside to booking now. I’ve actually leveraged their generous policy twice on this trip, so I figured I’d provide a rundown.

The fantastic Southwest cancellation policy

Southwest Airlines has one of the best cancellation policies I’ve ever encountered. Award tickets are completely refundable, up until just minutes before the flight. In a nutshell:

  • Tickets purchased with RapidRewards points are 100% refundable.
  • Tickets can be cancelled up to 10 minutes before the flight.
  • There is no cancellation fee!
  • Even if you “no show” your award ticket, your points are redeposited. Any taxes and fees will be added to your travel funds and usable toward future travel.

The Southwest cancellation policy for revenue tickets is good as well. Here everything depends on which fare type you purchased. For Wanna Get Away fares, the following applies:

  • Fares are non-refundable, but the funds will be saved and can be applied to purchase of future travel for the original ticketed passenger up to one year from the original flight date.
  • There is no cancellation fee!
  • In the event of a “no show”, the fare is forfeited. Note that if you can show up within 2 hours of your original flight time and still fly standby on the next flight as part of the unwritten “flat tire rule”.

Business Select and Anytime awards are completely refundable (or you can choose to keep the reusable travel funds). Even if you “no show” one of these tickets, your travel funds will be deposited in your account and will be usable for future travel.

Southwest cancellation policy - fare rules

Considering that many other airlines sell completely nonrefundable tickets or charge a hefty fee to refund a fare, Southwest’s policy is extremely generous.

Leveraging the policy on our way to Costa Rica

My wife and I flew to Costa Rica on one-way United award tickets. This allows us plenty of flexibility in deciding when to book tickets back. I *really* didn’t want to lock us into a date on United, since their change policy is so bad.

However, I failed to realize that Costa Rica requires proof of return flights. Oops. At the ticket kiosk in Houston we were given a final screen of “please see agent” rather than collecting our tickets. A United employee walked over and informed us that we had to have proof of return flights.

Southwest to the rescue. In only a few minutes I had award flights back to the U.S. booked on Southwest using my wife’s points. I didn’t really care that I’d only booked us back to Houston. We wouldn’t be using them anyway, and I cancelled them two days later. But it was enough to present to the agent and get us through check-in and onto our flight.

Do note that booking a ticket on another airline could have worked as well, but I would have had to cancel within the 24-hour refundable booking window.

Leveraging the Southwest cancellation policy for our return flights

Just a few weeks later I decided to lock in our return flights. By “lock in”, I simply mean locking in a good rate. The tickets are obviously 100% refundable under the Southwest cancellation policy.

Generally, our adoption agency doesn’t suggest that people book flights back until they have their final Visa appointment. This is obviously to save adoptive parents time and headache by avoiding tickets changes. But with the fantastic Southwest cancellation policy, there is no downside to booking now!

There was one more complication, however. Given that we aren’t 100% sure of what our children’s names will be on their passports, booking airfare is problematic. Name changes are typically not allowed.

I reached out to Southwest on Twitter and explained our adoption situation to them. An agent confirmed that we could change the names of the kids once we have their information. I sent our record locator over once I’d booked the tickets, and the agent added a note to our account. I was extremely happy Southwest was this gracious.

I also had to guesstimate our return date. I decided to play it safe and book a bit further out than we hoped to be here. Southwest also (sadly) doesn’t publish a SJO-HOU-OAK fare every day of the schedule, so I had to pick one of the few days this route is available.

If we do end up taking these flights, all five of us will fly home for 62,000 RapidRewards points and $290, which is a deal!

Be aware of the Southwest change policy!

Unlike the Southwest cancellation policy, the Southwest change policy is no longer as friendly as it once was. When changing a fare, you’ll be warned that the fare will become non-refundable! This kinda goes against the grain of the rest of Southwest’s policies, so make sure you keep this in mind.

If you still do want to change a ticket, you still won’t be charged a fee. Unlike most other airlines, change fees don’t fly with Southwest. You will still pay the difference in fare, if applicable.

Conclusion

The Southwest cancellation policy is definitely something to have in your back pocket. It has come in handy for us on multiple occasions, including twice on just this trip.

With Southwest, what’s not to LUV?

Featured image courtesy of BriYYZ under CC 2.0 license

Au Revoir, Pen Air: Humboldt is Again Stuck with ONE Airline

In a depressing move, PenAir notified our local Arcata-Eureka Airport that they will no longer be flying the ACV-PDX route. And they are dropping it fast. The last flight will be this coming Monday.

This leave us with just United Airlines as our only commercial option (yet again). Getting out from behind the redwood curtain just got a bit harder.

PenAir’s reason for leaving

It seems to be impossible for our area to keep a reasonable amount of commercial air service. My first guess when hearing the news was that the route wasn’t particularly profitable due to the rural nature of our area. The single flight I took on PenAir to Portland didn’t have that high of a load factor (SEE: The Pacific Northwest Stopover “Trick”). However, the United flights I’ve been on are almost always very full (and very expensive).

Turns out that the economics of the route had nothing to do with PenAir’s decision to axe it. The program director for the Humboldt County Aviation Division called the route “very successful”. So what is the problem?

Airlines need pilots

PenAir, like other regional airlines, is suffering from a pilot shortage. Horizon Air (another regional airline that flies under Alaska’s wing) had to cut some flights due to their pilot shortage in June. Pilots are retiring by the hundreds per week, and we can’t seem to fill the ranks with new talent fast enough.

PenAir actually cut all non-essential air service routes in the lower 48 states. This means you can still fly to Portland from Crescent City (an EAS airport) on PenAir, although for most of Humboldt County this is roughly a 2 hour drive north. Hardly ideal. Might as well drive to SFO.

Conclusion

This is sad news for Humboldt. I really liked the new little airline we acquired last year, and had hoped to fly them again. I’ll continue to hold out hope that we will pick up a new option. Three flights per day on United is hardly much of an option (plus they break guitars).

I want to add that if you’re young and considering a career, consider becoming a pilot. The investment isn’t all that much different than a moderately expensive university, but the demand for your skills will not be going away anytime soon. The world will need 637,000 new pilots by 2036 to fill the projected increase in air travel. North America will need 117,000 of those. Airline pilots make good wages, so the multi-year investment should be entirely worth it.

Best Uses of Delta Miles – the U.S. West

Delta SkyMiles have lately been derided as one of the poorer currencies to collect. They’ve even been given the moniker “SkyPesos” in reference to their lack of value in comparison to other currencies. Finding the best uses of Delta miles can be a bit tough.

At least if your MO is using miles for international premium cabin redemptions. There really aren’t many great sweet spots on the Delta award “chart” for these. Most awards require 10,000-30,000 miles more than other currencies, and you really can’t fly across an ocean for less than 70,000 miles one-way. And Delta often tacks on fuel surcharges.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that Delta doesn’t even publish an award chart (but try this one). You just need to know what the lowest level prices are. But there is one use for which I find Delta miles to be a great currency.

Delta shines domestically

Compared to other U.S. carriers, Delta is one best programs for redeeming miles on domestic flights. The only one I may consider better is Southwest, and possibly Alaska. It depends where you live.

Most Delta awards cost the same as awards with any of the other big airlines: 12,500 miles one-way. But there are many awards over shorter distances that Delta prices at substantially lower rates. Unlike United or American, these aren’t stratified by distance (although longer routes will often be more). They are just an artifact of the arcane way Delta prices awards.

The floor for Delta awards appears to be 5,500 miles one-way, which is an amazing deal. There are several routes that price at this level, and many more where the price is not much more, often 8,000 miles.

best uses of Delta miles

Last time we were at PDX, we were flying Delta

Best uses of Delta miles in the U.S. West

I’ve found that the best “territory” for finding these lower-level awards is on the West Coast of the U.S. Here are a bunch of one-way options and their associated prices:

  • Sacramento, CA to Victoria, BC for 5,500 miles
  • Denver, CO to Tucson, AZ for 5,500 miles
  • San Jose, CA to Cedar City, UT for 5,500 miles
  • Fresno, CA to Colorado Springs, CO for 5,500 miles
  • Salt Lake City, UT to Reno, NV for 5,500 miles
  • San Francisco, CA to Kalispell, MT for 8,000 miles
  • Las Vegas, NV to Casper, WY for 8,000 miles
  • Medford to Idaho Falls for 8,000 miles
  • Reno to Bozeman for 8,000 miles
  • Albuquerque to Billings for 11,000 miles

And many more. Search at delta.com for routes your interested in flying.

Will prices remain at these levels?

Probably not forever, but hopefully for a while. I’ve already noticed a small increase in prices since the last time I ran a bunch of searches several months ago. The floor used to be 5,000 miles, and the next “tier” was apparently 7,000 miles. Now the floor seems to be 5,500/6,000 miles, with the second tier at 8,000 miles.

As long as Delta doesn’t devalue these awards much, they will definitely outcompete most other carriers when it comes to domestic awards (except for Alaska short-haul – SEE: West Coast Magic with Alaska Miles: A Primer).

Conclusion

While there may be other decent uses, I’ll still posit that one of the best uses of Delta miles is flying short-haul in the western United States. When you can fly a family of 5 round-trip for 55,000 miles, that’s value.

Today is the very last day to get a Delta American Express card with an increased bonus. The Gold card is offering 60,000 miles after $4,000 in purchases, and the Platinum card is offering 70,000 miles (annual fee of $195). Consider applying for one if it makes sense to you. These are the highest bonuses that we’ve seen on these cards.

 

West Coast Magic with Alaska Miles: A Primer

One of my favorite things in this hobby is figuring out how to maximize my miles. Earning miles via credit cards is easy enough, but they are only as valuable as you make them.

Alaska MileagePlan is one of my favorite award programs. Back in late 2016, they rolled out new distance-based awards, both reducing the price on many awards and raising the “cap” on others in high demand. The new awards are called a hop, skip, jump, and leap, based on the distance traveled. Here’s the chart:

Overall, I think consumers came out slightly ahead. Especially if they know how to maximize Alaska’s award routing rules. Here are some great options to explore with your Alaska miles:

Scenario 1: The one-way “round-trip”

One of the most unique things about Alaska Airlines award tickets is that they offer a stopover on a one-way award. Granted, the stopover has to be in one of their hubs, or a hub of a partner. I’ve found a few awards that break this rule, but it generally holds true.

However, if you’re interested in traveling to one of their hubs (think Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, and Anchorage), you can often use this to your advantage.

Consider for a second that you want to visit Seattle from the Silicon Valley. At a distance of 696 miles from San Jose, a one-way flight *barely* qualifies for the lowest level Alaska award of 5,000 miles. But you can actually book a “round-trip” on a one-way ticket, if you’re willing to get creative.

Instead of booking a round-trip award to and from San Jose for a total of 10,000 miles, use the multi-search tool to add a different, but (sorta) close return airport, say Reno, Nevada. Looks like you even get to fly through Boise, for a total flight distance of 1,696 flown miles.

You’d expect this ticket to price out at 10,000 miles, given the flight distance. But it turns out Alaska prices award tickets on their own metal simply by distance between origin and destination! Because Reno and SJC are much less than 700 miles apart, this award will price out a 5,000 miles at the lowest level!

Now you just have to get yourself home to San Jose from Reno.  You could easily catch a cheap flight back, or maybe take Amtrak.

Sure, this may not be a desirable trip for many people, but what if you wanted to see Tahoe for a bit before heading back to the Bay? It could be just the ticket for you. You’re only looking at 5,000 miles and $70 for a two-stop vacation!

I’m mainly using this example as an illustration, although my wife and I did fly a “one-way” award from Arcata to the Bay Area, with a convenient stop in Portland to meet up with our in-laws (SEE: The Pacific Northwest Stopover Trick).

Scenario 2: The two-stop hop (aka the “in-laws”)

I’ve definitely had my in-laws in mind when considering some of the potential in the Alaska program. My mother-in-law often visits family in San Diego, typically flying out of the tiny Sonoma County (STS) airport. Since the route is under 700 miles, it prices out at 5,000 Alaska MileagePlan miles one-way.

But what if she and my father-in-law want to visit, say, Seattle for a few days, before heading to sunny southern California?

Utilizing Alaska’s amazing stopover on one-way tickets, you can actually book STS-SEA-SAN as a one-way ticket for the same 5,000 miles!

This is especially crazy given that the SEA-SAN flight distance is 1,050 miles and rings in at 7,500 award miles when booked by itself. Again, Alaska actually prices it based on the STS-SAN distance.

Tack on a cheap one-way, or another 5,000 mile award flight back to STS from San Diego, and you have a two destination vacation for a mere 10,000 miles. Not sure you can beat that.

Like the San Jose to Reno example, all you need to find is a cheap ticket back to Santa Rosa. Or you can burn another 5,000 miles, which will probably be worth it in this case. It’s still 10,000 miles for a two-destination vacation!

Scenario 3: The home “stopover”

Things get even more creative if you live in one of Alaska Airlines’ main hubs. Especially Seattle or Portland. The award routing rules are extremely advantageous.

Consider the scenario where you are taking two vacations in the western U.S. in the next several months. Say, one to San Francisco and the other to Las Vegas.

Instead of booking two round-trip awards, book a one-way for your first leg. Cash tickets for this route are competitive, so they may be the way to go instead.

Next, book your return, but combine it with your outbound to Las Vegas on the same one-way award (use the multi-city search tool). Bingo. Your “stopover” is now your several weeks at home between trips. And it is a crazy cheap 5,000 miles!

Now all you have to do is book your final leg and you’ve saved yourself up to 7,500 Alaska miles, the normal price of a SEA-LAS flight! Maybe later in the year you have a trip to Denver and another to Salt Lake City. You can pull this stunt again!

Scenario 4: Hawaii and a transcon on the same one-way

Let’s take the home stopover one step further. While useful before, this trick becomes even more lucrative if you combine a Hawaii trip with a transcontinental flight. For this example I still have to assume you live in an Alaska hub.

Imagine for a moment that you’re booking an award to Hawaii. If you’re located on the West Coast (I’m assuming you live in Seattle), hopefully you’re considering using British Airways Avios. They are generally the best currency for flying West Coast to Hawaii.

But what if you have a trip planned to the Big Apple a month after your Hawaii trip? Hold those Avios for a moment. Alaska miles will get you further, again with their amazing stopover.

If you plan this right, you can essentially get *both* one-way tickets on the same award, spanning two different trips.

Plan your outbound as a one-way with Avios (12,500 per ticket), and then plan your inbound as a one-way Alaska award for 17,500 MileagePlan miles. Add in a stopover in Seattle that spans your time at home.

Voila. You now have a one-way ticket back home from Hawaii, and then a one-way ticket to NYC, all for the less than a single flight to Hawaii would cost with many other mileage currencies.

Is it an awful red-eye? Yes. But for 17,500 miles, you can’t really complain (I’m sure you can find better flights if you book far in advance). Here’s another:

Honolulu back home to San Jose, before taking off for Alaska on another adventure.

Scenario 5: Rural Alaska

Flying to rural Alaska doesn’t really require any interesting “hacks” per se, but I find it is a fantastic use of Alaska miles. You can head to Barrow to experience 24-hour daylight, or maybe go hiking in Nome.

I mention rural Alaska since cash tickets are often super expensive. Consider this round trip between the Bay Area and Dutch Harbor. You’ll almost certainly spend over $1,000 on a cash ticket, if not closer to $1,500. You can fly the same trip for a mere 25,000 MileagePlan miles round-trip. Consider hanging out in Anchorage for a few days as well with your free stopover.

Frustratingly, there is far less award space available at the lowest level than there was last year. Because Alaska offers variable award pricing, you’ll probably end up paying more like 20,000 miles for the ticket. Still, this can make sense for destinations in rural Alaska that cost a ridiculous amount in cash.

A few issues

Annoyingly, Alaska Airlines still doesn’t recognize Bay Area airports as a “hub” for award routing stopover purposes under most circumstances. Given that the airline has bought Virgin America, I wish they would change this.

The system also knows some airports are co-located. You can’t book a “one-way” ticket from SFO to Oakland with a stop in Portland. Nor can you even return to Sacramento or Santa Rosa from the Bay. MileagePlan would be a gold mine if their system allowed these tickets.

Conclusion

I hope this has been useful in showing you how to unlock the potential of Alaska miles. Overall, the award price changes to the Alaska program have been good, but there are some quirks. Personally, I wish they would price awards on PenAir out of Arcata airport better.

If you’re not interested in domestic travel, there are a number of possibilities for using Alaska miles for some great premium products, like JAL and Cathay Pacific to Asia, and AirFrance and KLM to Europe. Business class awards to India on Emirates are also a decent deal.

Header image courtesy of Frank Kovalcheck under CC 2.0 license

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