Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Airlines (page 1 of 14)

I finally understand! This is what our airport code stands for ​

A couple weeks ago I had quite the trip. Er, non-trip. I was supposed to fly from San Francisco back up to Arcata on the hour long hop after driving one way to the Bay, but that plan was crushed like always. Instead, I found myself driving back up in a rental car through the pouring rain.

Now I’m still fighting to get the miles back that I used for the trip. But that is a story for another day.

The frustrations of flying ACV

It’s no secret we live in an isolated pocket of the country, and our unreliable air service doesn’t help matters at all. Maybe it’s just me, but literally half of all flights I’ve ever taken with United between ACV and SFO (either way) have been either severely delayed or outright canceled. It’s so bad, that I gave up and generally fly out of Sacramento (SEE: 5 Reasons Why Sacramento is my Favorite Northern California Airport).

While at Arcata, I met a fellow member from the Travel Grumps 101 Facebook group that I am a part of. We’ve previously both commiserated online about the difficulties of flying out of Humboldt, and we got to chat travel for a bit. Until our flight was summarily canceled.

She headed out to retrieve her luggage and rent a car to drive home while I decided to grab dinner for free at the Giants Clubhouse before heading back to the city. A little while later I received a Facebook message from her saying the United baggage handler definitely knew the woes of flying into ACV. He asked her if she knew what ACV stands for.

I’ve always wondered what our airport code stands for, and his answer finally shed some light on the odd airport code. It makes complete sense now.

What does ACV stand for? That’s right: Another Canceled Vacation.

Fare Deal: Both Paris and Beijing for under $400!

These are the two primary international destinations to which I took my older two kids last year, and they are both on sale! You can fly one-stop from the San Francisco Bay Area to either destination for less than $400 on a couple different carriers.

Paris fare sale details

  • Departure from: San Francisco
  • Dates: March-April, September 2019
  • Destination(s): Paris (CDG)
  • Airline(s): American
  • Class: Basic economy
  • NotesMinimum two night stay (which would be silly anyway)
  • Sample Google Flights link

Beijing fare sale details

  • Departure from: San Jose
  • Dates: February-April 2019
  • Destination(s): Paris (CDG)
  • Airline(s): Air Canada
  • Class: Economy
  • Notes: None
  • Sample Google Flights link

These are both excellent sales to these destinations. We saw the very good Air Canada sale to Beijing out of SJC last year, and I would expect to see something similar again in the future.

Note that you will need a Chinese Visa to visit Beijing on a round-trip itinerary. The city is eligible for a transit without visa (TWOV) waiver, but you must have a confirmed onward ticket to another country.

Here is a rundown on some of the posts from our trip:

Time vs. Cost: Analyzing Work Travel Options

One of the perks of working on projects located on the east coast is that I get to travel now and then. Last year I visited our Roanoke office seven times over the course of 9 months, assisting our Virginia staff in a variety of ways. Now that I’m moving even more heavily into one of the two major projects we have in the state, it’s likely that I’ll be headed there a number of times this year as well.

Consulting travel has pretty open parameters, as long as the costs are reasonable and within the terms of our project contract. When traveling back east, I initially found myself waffling between flying out of our local airport versus flying out of either SFO or Sacramento airport. But now after several trips, one of the options clearly won. And it might not be the one you’d expect.

The dilemma: is driving faster than flying?

Flying to eastern Virginia requires a minimum of one connection. If I only wanted to fly to Dulles and then drive for several hours, I could find a nonstop option. But that would leave me driving on both sides of the trip. Getting to Roanoke means connecting in one of four places: Atlanta, Chicago, Dulles, or Charlotte. There might be a couple other options, but these are the ones most itineraries present me. Have to connect at least one of these places.

If I want to fly out of our local airport, there are a minimum of two connections. The fastest flight I can find out of Arcata has a total travel time of 12 hours. I would depart on the morning flight out of Arcata at 6:00 a.m. to SFO, and then arrive in Roanoke at 9:00 p.m. eastern time. At least…that is how it is supposed to work. Both times I booked this ticket, my flights were significantly delayed, and I clocked travel days of 15-16 hours on a domestic itinerary. I don’t mind a long day, but arriving at 1:00 a.m. is just not my cup of tea.

Fed up, I booked my next work trip out of Sacramento airport. Sure, it is 4.5 hours away, but I’d rather be in command of my own destiny rather than at the mercy of United. The fastest flights from SMF to ROA are 7:15-7:45, depending on the carrier and connection schedule. Definitely better than the option from Arcata. Adding on 4.5 hours of driving, the two alternatives have roughly equal travel times. I know driving 4.5 hours each way to an airport isn’t for everyone, but a seat in a car beats a seat on a completely full plane.

The costs are generally the same, too. Two one-way car rentals plus the plane ticket out of Sac usually adds up to what United is asking out of Arcata. If the client is paying the same, and the total time requirement is the same, what else is there to consider? Easy: reliability and comfort.

Hello, Delta

I learned quickly that flying Delta was the way to go. I tried American as well, but you really can’t beat having seat-back entertainment and a generally more cheerful crew. The service and amenities Delta offers are definitely a notch above the competition. I flew enough (and spent enough on their co-branded credit cards) last year to earn Platinum status, so now I even have the chance for a few extra inches of leg room when flying across the country in their Comfort+ seats. This, plus the fact I’ve never been delayed, will have me driving 4.5 hours every time to fly my new favorite carrier as of last year. It may seem crazy, but it’s what works for me. And fortunately what works for me works for work, too.

Travel Day – Beijing to Hong Kong

It was a bit sad to wake up and realize that our time in Beijing had already passed. Our five days in the Chinese capital were an amazing experience. I feel like we barely scratched the surface of what Beijing has to offer, but the food, history and people make it a great place to visit. Here are the posts from each day of our adventures in Beijing:

Breakfast was again complementary in the top-floor lounge of our central Beijing hotel (SEE: Renaissance Beijing Wangfujing Review). We even finished up early, a small miracle for my children. My bags in hand, we made our way downstairs and I asked the desk to call us a taxi. We could have taken the subway, but it would have meant a transfer and toting our bags a good distance. Given how cheap taxis are in Beijing, the convenience was totally worth it.

Our ride took off around 8:45 a.m. on a Sunday morning. I figured we would take an hour to get to the airport. The driver made me a bit nervous at times, cutting quickly from lane to lane. But we made it safely. The ride took 40 minutes on a Sunday morning leaving about 8:45 a.m.

Arriving at Beijing Capital Airport

Front of Beijing International Airport Terminal 3 is impressive. Our flight into Beijing had arrived into Terminal 2, and we’d taken the Airport Express straight from there. I didn’t get a good look at the airport. Plus, it was dark and we were exhausted. We also had an unfortunate incident where my son wet himself, as he hadn’t gotten up to use the lav before our final approach into Beijing. He has a habit of not being aware of his need to use the facilities, not to mention the worst timing on the airplane (every time he got up to go was during meal time). Just one of the hurdles of traveling with kids.

But I digress. The memories of our arrival into Beijing, although it was only a few days prior, already seemed distant. We walked through the doors into the massive departures hall of Terminal 3. There is row after row after row of check-in counters and there were huge queues of people. I’m not surprised Beijing in building a new airport that is projected to be the world’s busiest in short order.

Too early for a flight?

Turns out that due to our early departure from the hotel and faster drive than expected, we were an hour earlier than my anticipated arrival at the airport. We were also there an hour before the check-in desk opened for our flight. Now…I know there are some places where check-in counters don’t operate all the time. But given that Beijing Capital Airport is massive, and Cathay has more than just a few flights per day, the fact that the counter was not yet open surprised me.

There was one counter open. But the signage clearly marked counters for specific flights, something I’d never seen. We unfortunately had to kill an hour wandering the departures hall.

Once we were finally checked in and had dropped the bag, it was time for Chinese immigration. We’d had no issues entering the country on the 144-hour transit without visa (TWOV) exemption, but I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel a little bit of apprehension about passing through the country. I’d been instructed to keep the stubs from the original visa paperwork, and they were still in my wallet. Everything should be good.

And it was. We got a couple odd looks from the immigration officials, but we passed through just fine. Very glad that we were able to take advantage of this opportunity for a stopover in the Chinese capital.

Security went smoothly as well. This was the 14th segment for both of my older two kids, and they have learned the drill pretty well. I was a dolt this time though and insisted that my backpack didn’t have any water in it even when the security official flagged it in the x-ray. Had totally forgotten that I’d put in the last bottle from the hotel that morning. Oops.

Once through, we hung out in the lounge for a while where the kids did some school and I wrote a couple blog posts and enjoyed a glass of wine (SEE: Air China First Class Lounge Beijing Airport Review). We also ate an early lunch. All for free with my Priority Pass membership through my Chase Sapphire Reserve card.

Our plane was late, but we still got out early enough to make it to Hong Kong in time. You can read all about our experience flying Cathay Pacific 777 Premium Economy.

Hello, Hong Kong

We landed right before sunset and hopped on the Hong Kong Express toward Kowloon. A short bus ride later, and we were walking the last few blocks to our hotel through the bustling Mongkok neighborhood. I wasn’t so sure about staying here, but I would happily do so again. The energy and everyday-ness of Mongkok makes it a vibrant place to enjoy as a foreigner.

Bedtime came at about 8:30. It was a good travel day. Now we had Hong Kong to explore for our last three days!

How to consistently fly for $270 or less round-trip out of Arcata

Flying out of our local regional airport can be a pain due to delays and cancellations. But it can also be extremely convenient, if things go smoothly. The only problem is…flights can be outrageously expensive.

Which makes using miles to fly in or out of Arcata a winning proposition almost every time since it represents a great value for your miles. If you’re interested in scoring a couple free flights, there are a couple great credit cards you can pick up that will earn you two round-trips out of our local airport.

But if you already have those card and/or are looking for another way to bring the cost of flights down, the Avianca LifeMiles program presents an interesting option. I’m going to be candid and state that this strategy is probably more of an intermediate level

Leveraging Avianca LifeMiles short-haul awards

Avianca LifeMiles has one of the best award charts for short-haul domestic awards within the United States. As a member of the Star Alliance, you can redeem your LifeMiles for flights on United Airlines. The LifeMiles chart breaks the U.S. into three regions, and flights within each region are only 7,500 miles one-way. You can even include connections (although the LifeMiles site seems to choke on itineraries that include more than 1 connection).

The “United States 3 zone” includes the following states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming. Oddly, Montana is in “United States 2”. But you can still fly to almost all the western states from Arcata for only 15,000 miles round-trip, an excellent deal (SEE: 3 reasons I am SUPER excited for the new LifeMiles shorthaul awards).

This is where the cost of miles can sometimes outweigh the cost of flights. Say you are interested in flying from Arcata to Jackson, Wyoming, an often expensive destination. Two round-trip tickets will probably run you $1,100 at the cheapest. Using LifeMiles for an award on this itinerary presents excellent value.

But what if you don’t have any LifeMiles?

How buying miles is actually cheaper than buying a ticket

It is extremely rare that I will ever advocate buying miles. In general, don’t do it. There are other ways to accrue them. But if you fly from Arcata frequently, this is one instance where buying miles could make some sense.

One of the most recent LifeMiles sales offered miles with “up to a 125% bonus”. The bonus for 1,000-50,000 miles purchased was 100%, so we’ll roll with that number. Let’s assume you want two round-trip tickets within the western U.S., which will cost you 15,000 miles each. Purchasing 15,000 miles will give you an extra 15,000 miles, enough for both tickets. Every 1,000 miles costs $33, so the total price will come to $495 for the miles you need.

Each ticket will also be subject to a $25 award ticketing fee (dumb, but it is what it is), and taxes of $5.60 each way, which is the TSA fee. Doing the math, each ticket will therefor cost $283.70. This is 50% or less of what many tickets to Jackson, Wyoming cost. Definitely worth buying miles in this case, if you would otherwise be looking to pay cash.

Even better, LifeMiles are fantastic for awards close-in, when prices are both high and United is charging you the obscene “close-in booking” fee of $75 for general members. The return on a LifeMiles purchase is even better in these cases. An added benefit is that United award availability is often better close-in.

So although I don’t typically advocate buying miles, this is one case I would consider it if I would otherwise need to pay cash for a ticket. You just need to ensure that there is sufficient award space to book the ticket you need.

Budget for flights with a monthly subscription

If buying a bunch of miles at once isn’t for you, LifeMiles offers a very unique option: a monthly miles subscription. It’s truly one-of-a-kind. I’ve never heard of another airline loyalty program that offers this feature.

In most cases, a subscription like this is silly. You pay a monthly fee, and they add miles to your account at a rate that isn’t really worth it in most cases. However, if you’re looking to fly a few round-trips per year out of Arcata and want a way to budget appropriately for them, this might just be something that interests you. It will also let you break out your flight “purchase” into manageable pieces through the year.

Avianca LifeMiles offers several subscription options, but two in particular stand out to me:

The “Plan 1,000” is a manageable cost and offers you one round-trip for $19.49 per month, with 1,000 extra miles to carry over per year. The “Plan 2,000” give you two round-trips per year, plus 2,000 carryover miles, for just under twice the cost. Visit Club LifeMiles for more info

Two other ways to accrue LifeMiles

There are a couple other ways to accrue LifeMiles. You have a few different credit card options. The Citi ThankYou Premier is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 50,000 ThankYou points, which can be transferred to LifeMilesat a 1:1 ratio. That’s how I topped off my own LifeMiles account most recently.

There are also two Avianca LifeMiles co-branded credit cards offered through Banco Popular. Haven’t heard of them? I hadn’t either. But the sign-up bonus was amazing when I got the card (SEE: My highest credit limit ever came with…what new card?). And the news just broke last week: the 60,000-point offer is back (read about it here)!

My words of caution

I’ve personally had no issues redeeming LifeMiles for a couple trips. It’s been totally painless through the LifeMiles website, and ticketing has happened quickly through United. It even easy to add the flight to your United account to select seats, check in via the app, etc. But there are numerous stories of people who have had nightmarish experiences with Avianca LifeMiles.

LifeMiles also doesn’t present you with all the options that the United website does, which means that a United award itinerary you’ve found might not be bookable with LifeMiles . I would *always* check for the itinerary through the LifeMiles site directly to ensure that your flight is an option presented. Since award seat availability varies, there is always the potential you could end up with miles that don’t work for your specific trip. If you’re locked into specific dates, I would be hesitant to go this route.

LifeMiles also doesn’t like awards with more than one connection. With connections in San Francisco, Los Angeles and (starting next year) Denver from ACV, you still have a great number of one-stop destinations available. There is also a workaround to this which I will cover at a later juncture, as it is a bit complicated.

All that said, if you have some flexibility of destination and dates, LifeMiles should work just fine. Be proactive about searching for award availability. It changes daily, especially when you get less than 3 weeks out. I find United sometimes releases a significant number of seats. As mentioned above, LifeMiles are a better option for a last-minute getaway since you’ll avoid the United close-in award fee, but you’ll still have to pay the $25 LifeMiles award fee.

Conclusion

If you’re willing to jumps through these hoops, you’re looking at much cheaper flights out of Arcata, up to half off of many itineraries in the western U.S. There are almost zero times I would suggest buying miles. This is one of the very, very few exceptions for which I’d even consider it, and even then, weigh the decision carefully. Still, the ability to fly round-trip out of Arcata for only $270 could be entirely worth it.

Questions or worries about this method? Hit me up anytime through my Contact Me page.

Avianca aircraft image courtesy of JTOcchialini via Flickr under CC BY SA 2.0 license

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