Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: United (page 1 of 6)

Planning a last minute getaway to…Atlanta!

Before summer is over I’d been looking to book a weekend getaway for my older son and I sometime in August. In July my daughter and I headed to San Antonio to surprise a friend of hers. She was lucky enough to even experience first class for the first time.

Our middle child was a bit sad that he didn’t get to go. He expressed that he like a trip with “just papá” as well. I’ve taken the older two several places (SEE: visiting grandparents, Sacramento, southwest road trip, Paris and Luxembourg) since we adopted our three kids last fall, but the trip with my daughter was the first time I’d only taken one of them.

But I’d run into a wall trying to plan a trip. I wanted to include air travel, since he is already obsessed with planes (which is probably my fault). But this meant either forking over some coveted United miles to fly out of Arcata, or finding a decent enough fare deal out of the Bay for which we could use some travel vouchers from previous poor experiences (SEE: United’s problem is…everything).

Plus, there was the issue of timing. And the drive to the Bay. I didn’t really want to drive 5 hours each way for a trip of just 2-3 nights. If other costs could be minimized, then maybe. Things would have to align perfectly to make this work.

But then they did, thanks to a site I follow for fare alerts. Looks like we’ll be heading to Atlanta in a couple weeks!

Why Atlanta? 

Honestly, I was originally looking at Boise. It checked the most boxes. Boise offers decent summer weather where my son and I could enjoy the outdoors. Plus, it is not a super long flight, and we have both United and Alaska vouchers that could pay for most of it. It would also be both a new state and new city for me, so there was that appeal. We’d still have to get to and from the Bay, pay $50 out of pocket for airfare, and use up $500 worth of flight vouchers. That’s a lot for a 3-night trip. So I kept putting off booking.

Which turned out to be for the best. Near the end of July, The Flight Deal notified me of a fantastic sale from San Jose to Atlanta. Tickets were offered at $168 round-trip. A second check of the United website found them for even cheaper: $154. And this was *not* basic economy!

Given that we’d have to rent a car if we visited Boise, visiting Atlanta for a few days makes a lot more sense logistically. The mass transit options are a lot better. We could stay in the city center and have plenty to do.

With the tickets safely booked within the 24-hour free cancellation window, I confirmed with my wife that the dates would work. Georgia it is, then.

Putting all the deals together

The tickets cost us $307.20 for the two of us, but with a $300 United voucher, I only had to shell out $7.20 in cash. We’ll have to rent a car to get to San Jose, but I still have a small stash of Hertz points. The rental car should run us about $20.

As far as hotels go, I’m using a combination of Radisson points for our first night near the airport and then Hilton points for two more at a hotel in downtown Atlanta. We’ll have free breakfast those three days. Our final night will be at the Hyatt in midtown on a cash and points rate. I’m positioning myself to earn the 5-brand bonus free night.

The metro will cost us a few bucks, and we’ll have to pay for attractions. We’ll also need ~$60 for Amtrak tickets on our return to take us to Sacramento. My son actually has a doctor’s appointment in the Sacramento Area the day we drive home. Finally, Enterprise points will keep our one-way car rental cost home to just $28.

So, things aren’t free. But I can get them pretty close…

Cash back for the win

Given that we’ve lately been blowing through our budget (seriously…kids are expensive), I don’t have a lot of cash allocated for this trip. Luckily, I’ve been saving the cash back on my Citi DoubleCash card for months. I also have earned nearly $50 from Ebates. I should also have enough “miles” for a redemption using my Barclaycard Arrival Mastercard (SEE: Increased bonus of this flexible point travel card!).

Combined, this should be about $150 in cash back, which will put a major dent in the expenses listed above. I love being able to put together a trip to another city for a few days for next to nothing.

Anyone have ideas of where we should go?

Hartsfield-Jackson airport is the only thing I’ve seen in Atlanta, and I’ve seen it 7 times. Once I was even able to spend the night in the terminal (story for another day). So I really don’t know what Atlanta has to offer. On my list so far are:

  • The Georgia Aquarium
  • World of Coca Cola
  • Centennial Olympic Park
  • Botanical Gardens

If you have any other ideas, be sure to let me know. I’m about to break the news to my son, who I know will be quite excited!

Featured image courtesy of tableatny under CC 2.0 license

Getting My First Complimentary Upgrade Ever

A few weeks ago I attained airline status for the first time ever. Due to the completion of a Marriott Platinum challenge (SEE: Fast track status: how to sign up for a Marriott Platinum challenge), I was granted Marriott Platinum status, which also gives United Premier Silver status as a published perk (the two programs offer a set of reciprocal benefits).

This coincided nicely with a work trip. I’ve flown Delta lately when headed east, which is my personal preference. But this time I couldn’t justify the expense and time of the drive to the Bay. So United it was out of our tiny local airport. At least this could be my first-ever shot at an upgrade.

Upgrade to First? Yes, please

When I checked in, I was told I’d be placed on the list for complimentary upgrades. I had high hopes for my first flight of the day. Only five first class seats were booked, leaving seven available for upgrades. There can’t be *that* many people with United status flying out of Arcata, can there? But I’d have to wait until the next day to find out.

Much to my surprise, the confirmation came within the hour. I received an automated email from United saying I’d been upgraded, and that my new seat was 4A. Score!

I had understood this wouldn’t be processed until the day of travel. But the news was happily welcomed. I’d even landed in one of the awesome seats along the left side of the plane that is both a window and an aisle seat. This really couldn’t be any better.

Flying in first for thirty-seven minutes

I was among the first to board the next day, and I got to gaze out the window and watch the other passengers climb the ramp to the plane. The flight attendant brought me an orange juice while I waited for everyone else to take their seats. It was a lovely Humboldt County morning.

We departed on time, and the flight attendant began beverage service as soon as we reached 10,000 feet. I requested a coffee. Unlike the economy experience, it came in an actual mug.

The flight attendant also brought around a basket loaded with snacks. We could pick what we wanted. I opted for just a stroopwafel.

The flight is a super short hop. I’ve done it many times in economy, and it’s a totally enjoyable experience on the ERJ-175. But it was super cool to be up in first this time. Even after all my flight segments, this was (amazingly) my first time traveling in domestic first class. I’ve traveled in international business class and first class once each, which is a different world entirely.

The misplaced focus on airline status

In the majority of cases, airline status is something that should be earned 100% organically. That is, if you have to expend extra effort or money to achieve status, you probably aren’t flying enough to really enjoy the benefits.

Even after saying this, I am on track to earn Delta Gold Medallion status this year. A couple work trips, plus our trip to France (paid with mostly points, but a cash fare), and some extra medallion qualifying miles (MQMs) from card bonuses makes it a fairly easy target. I’m losing a bit on opportunity cost, as Delta miles aren’t quite as valuable as other currencies. But it’s still something I’d like to shoot for while it is within reach and won’t cost any extra cash out the door [SEE: How to earn airline elite status without flying (a lot)].

Keeping it real

Although I could certainly get used to traveling like this, I have to remember that status won’t last forever. And it won’t always send me to the front of the plane. But even though it was just a 37-minute hop from Arcata to San Francisco, it was still super cool to sit in the front of the plane without shelling out either miles or cash. The ERJ-175 may be the nicest ride in domestic first class, too, even over larger aircraft. The ‘A’ seats are also by themselves, giving you both a window and aisle access.

Will I get upgraded again? Why, yes. I’m currently waiting to depart on the second leg my current trip, and I had another upgrade clear. Maybe it will be hard to go back to economy after this. 😉

My Kids Magically Fixed United

Let’s face it…traveling anywhere when you live on the beautiful California Redwood Coast is a chore. I have a love/hate relationship flying out of the Arcata airport. The convenience cannot be understated. But that is when things go smoothly. When things go wrong, and they go wrong far too often, it can be a major pain in the neck (SEE: My Second United Horror Story).

Lately I’ve taken to booking out of a bigger airport if time is of the essence, typically if I am flying across the country for work. But for our recent trip to the Southwest, convenience won.

Flying out of Arcata Airport worth the deal

For our trip to the Southwest, I booked last minute tickets for a steal: $91 and 22,500 Avianca LifeMiles for all three of us. The beauty of this plan was that we got to fly out of Arcata. The nerve-wracking part of the plan was also that we were flying out of Arcata.

Over a total of about 15 flights that I’ve flown in or out of Arcata, no fewer than 3 have been canceled. A solid 20% cancellation rate. That’s horrible. Delays or cancellation have thrown a wrench in our plans enough times that I literally prefer driving to the Bay to fly most places these days.

Given this experience, there was a bit of trepidation as our trip approached.

Wait…this was an Arcata flight, right?

I kept my eye on the United app during the day of our planned departure. The previous legs serviced by our aircraft were on time, so things were looking good. Our plane landed at the Arcata Airport right on time while we were still driving north. It looked like everything would go smoothly. And there was no fog to stop us this time (SEE: My Second United horror story)!

Boarding was quick in Arcata, as the plane was barely half full. Amazingly, there wasn’t any message from the captain stating the SFO tower had requested we stay on the ground. Too often they don’t have a spot for us and the flight gets delayed until SFO air traffic control can slip our landing into the incoming traffic. This time we were off the ground well ahead of schedule.

Maybe it was because we’d taken off “backwards”. On all other flights in or out of Arcata, the everything is operated off of Runway 32. This time we took off in the opposite direction, from Runway 14. This allowed me to get the shot of the airport as we circled around to the west.

Besides a little turbulence, the flight was fantastic. We were even in economy plus, and I had two seats to myself, so there was room to spare. These ERJ-175s are a much better ride than the tiny CRJs. I couldn’t believe it when we arrived in San Francisco a ridiculous 29 minutes early.

This has never happened on any flight I’ve taken out of Arcata. I’m pleased if we are even remotely on time. Had we really just flown the same little route that is so constantly plagued by delays???

I told the kids this was the best flight I’d ever taken out of Arcata. They didn’t seem to care in the slightest. Figures their first time flying outta here would go more smoothly than I’ve ever experienced.

Being treated like we’re in first class

To top things off, the service was ten times better than it’s ever been. While the flight attendants pretty much never offer drinks on the short hop to the Bay, they do bring by snacks. The offering consisted of only pretzels…unless you were my kids. The flight attendant offered them the last two stroopwafels from the morning. Lucky ducks. All they did was munch snacks and stare out the windows.

Then near the end of the flight the first-class flight attendant brought me two more snacks: Oreos and gummy bears. Do kids hardly fly? Or do the Skywest FAs single them out for special treatment? I’ve never really observed either. It’s like they knew we try to limit our kids sugar intake and were working against us.

To top it off, the flight attendant on the plane to Tucson handed me an small bag of Haribo gummy bears for the kids. I didn’t even know they had these on the plane! Or maybe they were her own. I have no clue. I just know people kept handing me candy for the kids, our flights were empty, and far more ahead of schedule than I’ve ever seen them. If this is the new United Airlines experience, sign me up every time.

Conclusion

I’m not sure what happened to the old United Airlines I’ve come to love endure, but this was definitely my best flight ever out of Arcata. And a great start to our week-long road trip.

Cheap United awards to the Rockies in early summer!

United is currently offering an award sale for a select number of outdoor-adventure destinations in the mountains, which could make for the perfect early summer getaway. Destinations include:

  • Aspen, Colorado (ASE)
  • Bozeman, Montana (BZN)
  • Gunnison, Colorado (GUC)
  • Jackson Hole, Wyoming (JAC)
  • Montrose, Colorado (MTJ)
  • Steamboat Springs, Colorado (HDN)
  • Vail, Colorado (EGE)

These prices are good for travel between June 9-27, 2018.

For itineraries less than 700 miles, you’re looking at a mere 15,000 miles round-trip. Anything longer than that is 18,750 miles. You do have to book a round-trip ticket to qualify for these prices. One quirk: United doesn’t take connections into consideration when determining the 700 mile cutoff, so a couple airports from Arcata qualify for the cheaper prices, even if they have a connection in Los Angeles (notably, Jackson Hole, Wyoming).

Important note: You do have to either be a United MileagePlus credit cardholder or a MileagePlus premier member to take advantage of these prices. If you aren’t either of these, you’ll pay the standard 12,500 miles each way. If you haven’t picked up the United MileagePlus Explorer card yet, consider the current inflight offer for 50,000 bonus miles and waived annual fee.

Is there award space?

An award sale is only good if there is actually space for people to book. I did a bit of research, and it appears there are a decent number of seats available. I actually stumbled onto the sale by looking to book an award to Jackson Hole. I hadn’t received an email and was scratching my head at the odd 7,500-mile price. Now it all makes sense!

Book by May 21 if you’re interested!

2 Tips for Planning a Last-Minute Trip

After deciding to abort my planned trip to Europe, my wife and I had a long discussion about how to approach my two weeks off. It would have been fairly easy to go back to work (I have been putting in a little time this week), but we decided to see if there were other options on the table. We ultimately settled on the idea of me taking the older two kids on a road trip for a week.

At only six days out, there wasn’t much time to plan. And awards can be expensive. But luckily I have a couple tricks up my sleeve….

Tip #1 – Understand how award space works

Last-minute awards can be a either a big ouch, or they can be a gold mine. It all depends on the loyalty program. Any revenue-based program (i.e. Southwest, JetBlue) will be a big ouch if you need to book a ticket a week out. Delta is usually awful as well. American is meh. United, on the other hand, is a stellar choice. In my experience, United tends to release a lot of award seats close-in. They are my go-to if we are looking for a last-minute award deal.

Not looking too bad for 4 people just a few days out

There is just one big hurdle: the utterly ridiculous close-in booking fee. It’s basically extortion. I can’t decide if I hate it more or less than hotel resort fees.

Booking tickets for the three of us from Arcata to Tucson would cost 37,500 miles and $241.80. Not fun. And not worth it. The space is there, but booking through United is a less-than-ideal option.

Enter Avianca Lifemiles

Avianca LifeMiles are a fantastic alternative. And we have a small pile of them right now from when I signed up for the Avianca Vuela Visa (SEE: Lucrative Offer! New Avianca Lifemiles credit cards). You can also get Lifemiles by transferring your Citi ThankYou Points to that program.

Avianca rolled out a short-haul award chart for the United State last year that divided the USA into 3 regions. All intra-region travel is only 7,500 miles each way, and this includes connections. We can head nearly anywhere in the west for either 2,500 or 5,000 miles less than what United charges! My only word of warning is that the system chokes on awards with more than one connection. And good luck if you have to call an agent (better brush up on your Spanish).

One critical piece of this puzzle is the fact that Avianca doesn’t charge extortion a close-in fee (but they do still charge an annoying $25 award booking fee). I managed to book our tickets out of our local Arcata airport (SEE: The Upstart Arcata-Eureka Airport), a rare treat for personal travel. It cost us a total of 22,500 miles plus $91.80 for the three of us.

Last minute tickets were going for $866 round-trip, so this yields a return of 5.3 cents per mile. In all honesty, we wouldn’t be taking this trip if it wasn’t for miles, so calculating redemption value is a bit silly. What really matters is that we are saving a lot compared to using United miles for the trip.

Tip #2 – Know when it is one-way rental season

A trip like this has been at the back of my mind for some time. Every spring, rental car companies will give you rock bottom rates to get their cars out of the desert, and every fall they will offer you deals to take them back. Why do they do this? Trust me, it has nothing to do with cutting you a deal on your family trip.

This annual cycle is summed up in two words: inventory management. Car rental companies need more cars in certain locations during different times of the year, so instead of paying top dollar to truck them from state to state, they’ll simply cut you a deal to move one for them.

So…in essence I am helping Alamo move a car from Tucson, where nobody wants to be in July, to Sacramento. Whether that is really a better summer destination is up for debate, but Alamo would rather have the car in California than in Arizona. For this I am paying a whopping $101 for an eight day rental.

Similar deals are available from Florida, where you can take cars at a discount back to summer markets in the Northeast. An even better tip: some systems won’t differentiate between the deals offered. On other words, even though the company says “rent in Florida and return in New York” and “rent in Arizona and return in California”, you can actually drive a car all the way across the country! I priced out a two week rental from Miami to San Francisco for $228!! I’ve paid that much for a four day work rental!!!

Stop. I’m getting all excited again. Let me finish up with our trip details…

Planning our time through the Southwest

The hotels easily fell into place for the trip. I have points with most major chains, and there were plenty to pick from at most destinations. The harder issue for me was maximizing value. Do I use the Hilton points? Or do I book with IHG? Or do I pay $55 cash for a nearby Quality Inn and save the points for a better use? I think I got the cost down to ~$100 cash for our 8 nights.

The plan is to make our way from Tucson to Sacramento day by day, averaging 3-4 hours on the road. Sightseeing stops are planned at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Saguaro National Park, Sedona, the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, Las Vegas, Death Valley, and the Harrah Collection in Reno. I’ve also thrown in a couple of cheap resort hotels where the kids can spend a day in the warmth and water.

I’ve honestly never put together a trip so quickly. Thirty-six hours is probably a record. But I decided that I could salvage the vacation time, and this seemed like one of the best options. More importantly, I hope to make up for how utterly disappointed I left our two older kids after pulling the plug on our Europe trip.

Featured image courtesy of Kentaro Iemoto under CC 2.0 license.  

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