Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Delta

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.

Flying United always reminds me why I love Delta

One of the pains of living where I do is the fact that United has a monopoly on our tiny regional airport. They offer three daily departures to San Francisco, one to LAX that just started recently, and another to Denver will start next year (SEE: United adds another nonstop destination out of Arcata!).

The convenience of our airport cannot be understated. Even though it is 45 minutes from home, that is much better than a solid 5 hour drive to San Francisco, Oakland or Sacramento. But every time I convince myself to try flying United out of Arcata yet again, something goes wrong (or must I bring my kids along to make everything magically go right?).

Why I dislike flying United

I’ve flown United more times than any other airline, and they have cause me the most pain. Nearly half of my United flights to date have either been substantially delayed or outright canceled. While their on-time performance has improved lately, I’ve had enough bad experiences that I will choose not to fly them if timing is critical.

Sure, avoiding a drive to the Bay is nice. But it would also be nice to arrive at my destination on time. And even if it takes me just as long including the drive, at least I have control of the situation. I’d rather hit the road for a few hours than sit at O’Hare with rolling delay updates.

Contrast this with Delta where I’ve experienced a single short delay and a single misconnect. The latter was many years ago and due to a large thunderstorm over Atlanta that caused a good number of planes to either enter a holding pattern or divert. Delta offered me a hotel voucher and meal voucher in that instance. As I was only 16 at the time, offering me a hotel voucher became an impossibility. I spent the night in the terminal. The Delta agent was over-the-top apologetic about the situation and gave me extra meal vouchers.

Contrast that with United, who doesn’t really care if they inconvenience you. When we experienced a 3-hour mechanical delay on Alaska Airlines back in January, the airline proactively sent us a text apologizing for the delay and informing us that they would be sending us a $100 voucher for the inconvenience. The $100 was in excess of the cash value for our tickets (SEE: Turning 20,000 Amex points into 25,000 Alaska miles and $500). This immediately changed my outlook.

With United, they’re just happy if they get you there…someday. Or they’ll send you a survey regarding your experience that deletes everything you’ve entered the moment you click submit. Ok…maybe I’m getting a bit too cynical.

I should mention United has made things somewhat right by handing me a voucher or two over the years when everything goes completely wrong. Usually it’s not for much.

Call me a control freak

One difficult aspect of air travel is that so much is out of your control. It’s nice when things go right. Stepping on a plane in Arcata, making a tight connection in San Francisco, and enjoying a pleasant flight to the east coast while getting some work done is awesome when it happens.

But then there are the times when everything goes wrong. So many times I’ve arrived at the gate just in time for the delay announcement. Or we sit on the apron forever waiting to take off. Or the plane has to turn around and head back to the gate due to some mechanical issue.

In short, I tend to want to have control of travel when possible. And for me, that means flying a carrier other than United. Due to cost, I can’t always justify driving to Sacramento or the Bay Area to fly with another airline for work. But I can justify it when I must be somewhere on time. When feasible, I leave town to catch a Delta flight out of Sacramento. It may be slightly longer. But it is also so much less painful.

My pipe dream is having a direct Delta flight to Salt Lake City once again. I’d choose them whenever possible. Although I’m excited United is adding another nonstop destination next year, I’m still hoping we will one day have a second carrier again.

Getting the Dreaded “Flight Canceled” Notification: What to do now?

A canceled flight is never fun. I’ve had (probably) more than my fair share of them, mostly flying out of Arcata. But they have happened in a couple other situations as well.

The most recent was at the beginning of our trip to Paris and Luxembourg for a week. We were booked on KLM 606 from SFO to Amsterdam. This was not only the cheapest ticket at the time, but it was also operated by a 747. Since I don’t ever want to pass up an opportunity to fly on the “Queen of the Skies”, and the schedule worked well for us, this is what I’d picked for our trip.

While I was half-expecting the connecting flight into Paris Charles de Gaulle to be canceled due to the routine French pilot, crew and air traffic controller strikes, the cancellation of the KLM flight came out of the blue. At least they gave us more than 24 hours notice.

What to do if your flight is canceled

First, don’t panic. In most cases, there are multiple options. In some cases, it might mean some quick and expensive choices, such as when I had to drive to the Bay to catch a flight for work (SEE: My Second United Horror Story). But this usually isn’t the case.

Second, act immediately. Don’t wait for the airline to get back to you with options, if their notification asks you to wait. Pick up the phone and try to get an agent immediately. If you have the ability, you should pursue two options at once. Typically, I pick up the phone immediately since it usually takes at least several minutes to get a person on the other end of the line. But at the same time, I start finding other options.

Sometimes, you’ll be offered a link for rebooking through the airline website or app. My two experiences using this with United were a bust. Both times it wanted to re-book us on a flight over a day later. This is why I suggest picking up the phone right away.

At the same time, I go to the airline’s website and Google Flights (SEE: 6 reasons Google Flights is the BEST flight search engine) to do my own research. If seats are still showing for sale, a flight still likely has seats left (although airlines sometimes *do* oversell flights). While waiting on hold, find some potential options that work for you. Think outside the box. If you are booked on United and there aren’t any of their flights available, see if there are any options on another carrier. United is unlikely to fly you on American or Delta, but the big airlines do have interline agreements with each other. Also consider other area airports at either your origin or destination that could work.

In my case, I did exactly what I just described. I called up Delta and headed to my computer to find options.

Being proactive works

The Delta agent initially offered me two options: an 8:30 p.m. departure nonstop to CDG on Air France, or an 11:00 a.m. departure on their own metal with a super tight connection in Salt Lake City. Neither were especially appealing. While the nonstop flight sounded nice, I didn’t really want to hang around the airport all day. I’d rather get to Paris. The super tight connection would also be risky if anything went wrong. We’d have to get rebooked again.

The agent mentioned that there was an earlier departure to Salt Lake City, but it was at 7:45 a.m. We’d have to wait around at SLC for over three hours. That wasn’t ideal, but I was leaning toward it. She put me on hold again to look for any more options.

By that time I’d made it to my computer at work where I was frantically searching Google Flights. Two options stood out to me: a routing through LAX to connect to an Air France flight, or a 8:10 a.m. departure to Seattle to another Delta flight. This still wasn’t ideal, but the connection time was reasonable. Plus, at SeaTac we would be able to hang out in the lounge instead of in the terminal. I figured 2.5 hours would be easier there. Plus, I despise LAX.

When the agent came back, she said she’d only found the two options originally quoted. I don’t know if she was being lazy, or maybe she had just ruled out all the early flights. I asked if there was an 8:10 departure to Seattle that connected to Delta flight 34. She found it easily, to my utter lack of surprise. Had I not done my own research, we would have been stuck with a risky 35-minute connection at SLC.

Everything worked out smoothly

The only real loss was that of our morning. Instead of having a stress-free late morning arrival at SFO, I had to get the kids up and moving pretty early. We flew out at 8:10 a.m. instead of the originally scheduled 1:55 p.m. KLM’s cancellation is also grounds for an EU261 claim, which will net us $700 (SEE: My EU261 claim is approved! But for how much?). We also landed in Paris ahead of our originally scheduled arrival, which gave us more time in Paris (although it meant we had to drag ourselves through an entire day on no sleep).

Featured image courtesy of Tom Page via Flickr under CC 2.0 license

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).


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.


Delta Portland To Amsterdam In Economy: A Review

As part of a trip to Europe this summer, I made my first Delta SkyMiles redemption ever for two one-way tickets from San Francisco, California to Nice, France. The trip was a three leg journey, with stops in Portland and Amsterdam. Because it was my first Delta flight in four years, and the first long-haul international flight I have taken in quite a while, I figured I should write a review.

First off, this flight is a really odd routing. When I booked the tickets back in March, I was quite surprised that a Portland-Amsterdam Delta route exists. My understanding was that Delta has West Coast hubs in Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Los Angeles (to an extent), but not Portland. For a saver award to Europe, I completely expected the booking engine to route us through one of Delta’s eastern hubs, such as Minneapolis/Saint Paul, Atlanta, or JFK.

Amazingly, the Portland routing wound up as the only saver level option over the dates I wanted! It was a three-leg flight, but it honestly didn’t seem that bad. At least on paper. We would have a short hop from SFO to Portland, then the long leg to Amsterdam on Delta flight 178. A final hop of a couple more hours on a KLM flight would take us to Nice. The tickets cost 30,000 Delta SkyMiles and $19.60 each. Flights were pricing out at over a grand for a round trip, so this was a great deal, in my opinion.

We arrived at the Portland airport via an Alaska flight from San Francisco, leaving us a few hours to kill. Our flight was Delta 178, departing at 1:30. The gate was easy to find, and we ate lunch and talked while we waited. We were early, and the gate was at the very end of the terminal, so it was nice and quiet.

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Portland International Airport, Concourse D.

As an aside, I really liked this part of the Portland airport. My wife and I traveled through PDX Concourse C a few months earlier, home to Alaska and Southwest flights, and it was packed! Concourse D was a nice change.

While we waited, I pulled out our tickets to look them over yet again. Due to some complication with Alaska’s online check-in system, we had been given a terrible seating assignment. My wife and I were placed in seats across the cabin from each other, completely separated by the middle section of the Airbus 330. Not exactly what we wanted for a 10 hour flight.

Luckily, this was easily fixed by checking in online again, this time through Delta’s website, and I moved our seats to 17D and 17F. They were middle seats in a center row of 4, but it was the only option I was being given to sit together. Per the seat map, the flight looked extremely full.

When the gate agents arrived, I kindly asked if there were any pairs of open window seats available. After a moment of searching, she said yes, but for a fee. Figuring these were Delta Comfort+, I turned the offer down. We had seats together, and that is what really mattered to us. We could manage in the middle for the 10 hours.

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Somehow we were boarding group 2, even though I canceled my Gold Delta SkyMiles Amex.

We boarded about 15 minutes late, and Kels and I settled into our seats. I expected people to sit on either side of us per the slim pickings, but the doors closed, and no one had. Looking around me, I saw far more open seats than I had expected. Researching online later, I realized that Delta offers ‘preferred seats’ to its elites and higher fare classes. This annoyed me. I thought economy was economy, at least on the legacy carriers. I understand if Frontier tried to charge me more for a bulkhead seat. The ‘preferred’ seats weren’t even Comfort+ with extra legroom! The fact that roughly half of the economy seats were designated ‘preferred’ meant a saver award simply cannot get you any two seat window/aisle combo. Arg.

The plane took off just a few minutes late. We had a good amount of time to make our Amsterdam connection, so I wasn’t worried at all. Each seat a blanket, a tiny pillows, ear buds, and a ‘sleep kit’. Very thoughtful, but we didn’t end up sleeping much.

Each seat also had a seat-back entertainment system. We first watched a movie together on my wife’s iPad, but later used the entertainment systems to each watch one separately. The movie selection was decent. When not using the system for a movie, we would keep the map on.

delta pdx_ams flight_map

During the middle of the flight, each of us tried to lay down for a while. Sleep was pretty futile. There were a couple center rows that people had entirely to themselves, and they were able to lay down completely. At first I envied them, but I quickly realized that even without having to prop my feet on my wife’s lap, I still was unlikely to really fall asleep.

The main meal service was actually better than I expected. It consisted of a chicken and rice dish, a salad, a roll, and a small, dense dessert cake. It was typical packaged airplane food, but honestly not that bad. I would show you a picture, if I had not forgotten to take one.

At some point the crew dimmed the lights. It was before I was really that tired, but I am guessing it was to help ease the transition to Amsterdam time. After our first movie, I was still doing pretty well, and I decided to watch Jurassic Park on the in-flight entertainment system. From there it was downhill. Since the row was only occupied by the two of us, we took turns trying to get a little sleep. Neither of us really succeeded beyond a short nap.

The lights came back on and breakfast was served as we neared Europe. Breakfast was on the light side for me, consisting of yogurt, a croissant, jelly, Tillamook cheese, orange juice, and mentos. There was also a fresh nap, which didn’t taste very good. Alright, I didn’t eat it.

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Breakfast aboard Delta flight 178.

As we descended over the Netherlands, I really, REALLY wished I had a window seat. The countryside looked magnificent, and I took in as much as I could from my seat in the center section. I always love landing…nearly as much as take off!

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Amsterdam Airport Schiphol.

We touched down in Amsterdam right on schedule, leaving us plenty of time to find our way to the gate for our fight to Nice, France. In our sleep-deprived stupor, we needed all the time we could get. We were starting a new day with maybe an hour of sleep, and it would be a long one.

Now you are probably thinking, “this isn’t much of a review.” Which is fine. It’s basically just a confirmation that international economy flights are long and exhausting, but at least you know that Delta will feed you acceptable food, give you something to watch for ten hours, and provide you with thin blankets and tiny pillows to trick you into thinking that you will sleep. Don’t be fooled, you probably won’t.