Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Award Travel (page 1 of 6)

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.

Conclusion

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!

Holiday Inn Express Pahrump Review – This may be the best HIE ever?

Location: Pahrump, Nevada. Never heard of it?

Overall rating: 10/10

Pros: Very clean, bright, airy, comfortable rooms

Cons: It’s in Pahrump?

After you get done asking, “where is Pahrump?”,  you might immediately wonder why I would bother reviewing a hotel there. Well…I didn’t expect to. But it made me want to (although the post has been sitting in my drafts forever). So here it is.

Pahrump is a city west of Las Vegas along Highway 160. It is along the route to Death Valley, at it made a convenient stopping point for the night after spending a morning enjoying the hotel pool in Las Vegas and an afternoon in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area (SEE: The Easiest Hike in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area).

Holiday Inn Express hotels are generally very cookie cutter. They are almost all the same style concrete tower, offer the same amenities, and the same breakfast. If you like consistency, they are one of the best brands for it. They do differ a little bit in Europe, but you can expect a consistent experience there as well. Just different.

But sometimes you get a bit of an outlier, and the Holiday Inn Express Pahrump is one of those. I booked the hotel for 20,000 IHG points. Cash rates were about $120 the night I booked, so it was a fairly run-of-the-mill redemption. Rates can vary, but begin as low as about $90 before taxes from what have seen. Expect spring to be a bit more and midsummer to be pretty low.

Arriving at the Holiday Inn Express Pahrump

We arrived in Pahrump after an hour drive from Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.  It is roughly 1:15 to Las Vegas, and about the same to Death Valley (a little more to Badwater Basin and the lowest point in North America). If you’re considering visiting Death Valley and don’t want to stay right in the valley, it’s not a bad option.

There’s not a lot to Pahrump. You’re essentially in the middle of a desert that nobody in their right mind would settle. Yet people did. Between the chronic water problems and the nothingness surrounding you, it’s no wonder real estate here is pretty affordable.

Walking into the hotel and checking in, it struck me how clean and new the Holiday Inn Express Pahrump feels. The lobby also has a bit more character than many other Holiday Inn Express hotels I’ve stayed at. I typically judge hotel lobbies by how inviting they would be for hanging out and socializing, and this was was a step up from most of their sister hotels.

Check-in was very quick and easy and the agent super polite. He welcomed us to the hotel and asked why we were in town. This is a fairly common question, but it amused me a bit considering where we were. I wonder if the typical reason is “just passing through” or if there is some other draw to Pahrump. Or more likely he is honestly curious what attracts visitors to this little desert town.

Queen-Queen Room

My thoughts about the cleanliness and newness of the Holiday Inn Express Pahrump continued as we entered our room on the third floor. The hallways are in great condition, just like the lobby.

In the entry there is a little corner counter, opposite the mini-fridge and coffee maker, all standard parts of a typical Holiday Inn Express room. The $20 Walmart luggage and Tutu the dog are not included.

It is a pretty typical design, but everything seemed very nice. There is also a microwave, which I don’t believe is something that every Holiday Inn Express includes. Maybe I don’t notice. We never use it.

The rest of the room was what surprised me. The design of the desk, luggage space, and dresser and rack for clothes are beyond anything I’ve ever seen at any other Holiday Inn Express. All items were sturdy, clean, and appeared new. Even with three different bags, it was easy to stay organized and nice not to have any luggage on the floor.

In the corner is a sofa/daybed that my son instantly claimed as his. He is a fickle one. Sometimes he wants to share the bed with me. Other times he wants to sleep in awkward spots like this. Only one thing is for certain: he never prefers an actual sofa bed. At least him sleeping here means a better night of sleep for me.

The bathroom was just as clean and nice as the rest of the hotel, albeit a very typical tub/shower and plain sink Holiday Inn Express design.

Our room also enjoyed a view of the pool below, nicely shielded from the afternoon sun by the hotel itself. The pool was our first stop after we got settled.

Hotel Pool

The Holiday Inn Express Pahrump offers an outdoor pool that is lovely on a warm spring day. I’m sure it’s nice as well in midsummer, if the desert heat doesn’t kill you before you reach it.

The kids had a nice swim. I sat down with a cup of coffee and enjoyed the warmth in the shade for a while before jumping in myself. We did all jump in the hot tub as well, but it is a bit nonsensical on a warm day in the sun!

Like the interior of the hotel, the pool area was very clean and well-maintained.

Breakfast at the Holiday Inn Express Pahrump

The Holiday Inn Express Pahrump offers the free breakfast that is standard for the brand. For domestic hotels, this typically includes eggs, sausage, yogurt, cereal, a couple bread and pastry options, and the iconic cinnamon rolls.

Nothing stood out about breakfast, but it was still good. It is nice to know that Holiday Inn Express hotels in the U.S. provide a consistent experience.

Things to do in Pahrump?

Don’t laugh. I gotta include something, don’t I? If you’re looking to gamble, there is of course a casino, but I don’t know of anything else off the bat in Pahrump itself that might be a draw. And I personally don’t find gambling a draw anyway, and would prefer to never, ever visit Las Vegas again.

The two points of interest for which the Holiday Inn Express Pahrump would be a great base are Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and Death Valley National Park. We visited both of these places, and thoroughly enjoyed our time in each, however brief. I would love to come back and explore more of Death Valley, hopefully when Dante’s View is actually open. And the Holiday Inn Express Pahrump would probably be my top choice of hotel if we don’t decide to stay right in the valley.

Conclusion

The Holiday Inn Express Pahrump is definitely the nicest Holiday Inn Express hotel at which I’ve ever stayed. The one we stayed at at Charles de Gaulle airport is a close second (SEE: Holiday Inn Express CDG Airport Review), but I’ll still give the edge to the one in Pahrump.

The room was more modern and more comfortable than pretty much any other HIE I’ve visited. The amenities were still the same, but the level of newness, modernness and cleanliness thoroughly impressed me. There are few properties, especially in the mid-scale range, that have felt this nice. The hotel is fairly new. I believe it opened in 2015. But management has been able to make it feel like it could have opened just a couple months prior.

If we ever happen to pass through Pahrump again (as doubtful as that is), the Holiday Inn Express Pahrump will be where we stay.

3 Best Loyalty Programs for Short-Haul Awards in the Western U.S.

Sometimes you want to spend your hard-earned miles to travel far across the globe, flying in first or business class. Other times you just want to get to the next state over for a friend’s wedding, and you may not know what your best options are.

Living where I do in Humboldt County, California gives me a unique perspective on the value of certain miles. When you live near a large airport, spending miles to fly a short, competitive hop, such as Los Angeles to San Francisco, typically doesn’t make sense. But when your rural airport wants a minimum of $350 to fly *anywhere*, it makes you dig deep and evaluate all other options.

And there definitely are some good ones. Here are three of the best miles for flying short-haul in the west:

Alaska MileagePlan

Alaska miles continue to be one of the most attractive mileage currencies out there. They are unfortunately not a transfer partner of any bank program, so it can be a bit tough to accumulate a lot of them. But they are absolutely worth accruing.

The beauty of MileagePlan awards is that they start at only 5,000 miles one-way for the shortest hops. This means that an Alaska Visa card with an elevated sign-up bonus can potentially provide a family of four with free round-trip tickets for the short hop between San Diego and Santa Rosa. Or San Jose and Seattle. You’ll just pay $5.60 each way per person to cover the TSA fee.

If you want to take things a step further, consider using your miles for *two* short-haul segments. Sometimes this won’t even increase the price! In the second example, you could actually fly San Jose to Portland, stop for a couple days, then make the hop from Portland to Seattle, still only paying 5,000 miles! This takes advantage of the fact that Alaska is one of the few programs to offer a stopover on a one-way award. My son and I actually did this recently, flying Oakland-Seattle-Boise on a one-way award, but stopping in Seattle for three nights. Still only 5,000 miles, as Alaska prices this itinerary based on start and end points.

You unfortunately can’t trick the system and fly San Francisco-Los Angeles-Oakland on the same award. What I’ve found is that if there is a nonstop available with a given award price, you can fly a stopover itinerary (that would often be more expensive) for the same award price.

The 5,000-mile price is good for any hop of 700 miles or less. This jumps to 7,500 miles for hops between 701 and 1,400 miles. For flights between 1,401 and 2,100 miles, you’ll pay 10,000 miles. Almost everything in the U.S. west should cost no more than 7,500 miles.

Avianca LifeMiles

I have the worst love/hate relationship with Avianca LifeMiles. On one hand, they have some of the worst customer service and policies I have ever encountered. On the other hand, they have a lucrative award chart and no fuel surcharges on any awards, making them an attractive option for those looking to save as much cash as possible.

Uniquely, the LifeMiles award chart breaks the U.S. up into multiple zones. Awards within each zone cost a mere 7,500 miles one-way. Since they are a Star Alliance member, you can use LifeMiles to book awards on . The web search is decent at pulling up options with up to one connection, but it seems to die if you want to connect more than once. However, this still gives you a *ton* of potential options, especially if your closest airport is Arcata (although you might want to think twice about flying out of here).

Interested in visiting Jackson, Wyoming in either the summer or winter, both peak season? That’ll be roughly $800 cash. Or you can use 15,000 LifeMiles and $35 in fees to fly round-trip, a very sweet deal. Admittedly, United offers this route as a short-haul award as well, only costing 20,000 miles round-trip, so if you want to avoid the potential headache of LifeMiles, it might be worth spending a few more miles. But LifeMiles are honestly easier to accrue, as they are a transfer partner of both American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou.

Other great award options include Arcata to Tucson, which my older kids and I flew last April (SEE: 2 Tips for Planning a Last Minute Trip), San Luis Obispo to Spokane, Fresno to Santa Fe, and Santa Rosa to Colorado Springs. Lifemiles are gold for any regional-to-regional hops passing through United hubs of San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Denver. The U.S. west zone includes California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. Oddly, and unfortunately, it does not include Montana.

American AAdvantage

American’s program is attractive for a couple reasons. First, they offer discounted short-haul awards for nonstop tickets of 500 miles or less. I’ve not booked any of these, but they are a pretty good deal at 7,500 miles one-way, if the cash price is fairly high. But unless you live in an AA hub with a number of options available, they won’t be especially useful.

Second, American offers their reduced mileage awards (SEE: Complete Guide to American Airlines Reduced Mileage Awards). These aren’t just for flights in one region, but actually apply across the country. However, you can *also* apply them to short-haul awards, if you can find a qualifying ticket. The price reduction isn’t as good, at 1,000 miles per direction, but 6,500 is still better than 7,500. For other flights (which will be most of them), the price is reduced from the standard 12,500 one-way to only 8,750 miles per direction.

Reduced mileage awards are only good to certain airports, and the list changes every couple months. However, if you live near one of the airports on the list, every flight out of that airport that you book during qualifying months on the reduced mileage award calendar will qualify for the reduced price. As an example, Santa Rosa has been on the list more often than not.

American now also has web specials, which are a variety of awards that are priced more cheaply than their standard award chart.

But why not just use flexible points?

If you live in a major hub, using your flexible points will almost certainly be the way to go. For example, an Alaska award that is $150 cash versus 10,000 Alaska miles round-trip is also just 10,000 Ultimate Rewards points, if redeeming with a Chase Sapphire Reserve. I’d almost certainly use the UR points, as the flight will earn miles, since it is treated as a paid ticket.

I’d do a cost analysis each time you book to make sure you’re getting a the best deal for your points. If a round-trip flight is less than $250, I would generally opt for using flexible points. For flights between $250-300, things can go either way, depending on the currency I’m looking to use. I’d save my actual miles for tickets that are typically $300+ (if short-haul pricing of 15,000 miles or less round-trip is an option), but preferably I’d be using them for flight that cost $500 or more.

General rule of thumb: I should be getting 2 cents per mile out of any of these currencies for miles to be the way to go. If I’m at or near 1.5 cents per mile, I’ll use Ultimate Rewards.

Conclusion

There are more award currencies that offer decent options for short-haul awards, including British Airways Avios if you live in an AA or Alaska hub. But these are the three that I find most useful in general.

Vino Bello Resort Napa Review

Over New Year’s 2019 I took our older two kids on a 3-night getaway to Napa. Amazingly, I was able to find a property in the Wyndham portfolio that did *not* have the dates over New Year’s blacked out and that looked like it would make for an excellent stay. We weren’t disappointed. Here is my Vino Bello Resort Napa Review:

I used a total of 45,000 Wyndham Rewards points for our stay. Most of these were earned from promotions during 2018, and 15,000 were from the annual bonus I receive each year when I renew my card at a cost of $69. We received over $600 in value, though, so I am not complaining! Wyndham’s award “chart” is a flat rate, as all hotels cost 15,000 points per night per bedroom. I’d booked a one bedroom suite with a king bed and a sofa bed.

Arriving at the Vino Bello Resort Napa

The drive down from where we live to Napa is just under 4 hours. Rather than head through Santa Rosa, I prefer to take Highway 128 and drive through the bulk of the Napa Valley. It’s just so scenic. We left the same way, too.

Dinner was at the same place we ate the year before when I took them on a quick one-night trip to the Best Western in Calistoga (SEECelebrating New Years 2018). It was our one splurge, since the Vino Bello Resort Napa has a kitchen and I cooked most of the rest of our meals. We had maybe another 40 minutes of driving until we finally arrived at the hotel.

Man, was the parking lot full when we showed up. I found a spot, not knowing it was conveniently in front of our building. The lobby of the Vino Bello Resort Napa is lovely. We were greeted warmly by the doorman who chatted it up with me until it was finally our turn at the desk.

Check-in was a bit interesting, as I was quoted a cash rate for our stay. I’m not sure how the system integrates with Wyndham’s but it apparently isn’t seamless. It took the lady most of a minute to confirm that we were indeed on a n award rate. Adding to the complication is that they actually have two resorts in one: the Vino Bello and the Meritage.

We were given a welcome packet after checking in from the concierge, who also tried to get me to sign up for a 90-minute timeshare presentation. If only my wife was along, I totally would have made us suffer through it. Unfortunately, your spouse must be present. We would have all received free breakfast that morning, plus 25,000 Wyndham points. Would have made up for most of our stay!

One Bedroom Suite at the Vino Bello Resort Napa

Our suite was in the Cabernet building, which is closest to the lobby and restaurant, and overlooking the pool. We were on the second floor. You have to go through no fewer than 4 doors to get there, all of which require your key card, which is a bit annoying. But I guess it makes it more secure? I really didn’t understand the point. This tiny “lobby” area was between the first and second doors.

Each door from the hall opens into a small entry room with two doors leading into two separate suites. I guess this would be super convenient if you booked two rooms, as they aren’t truly adjoining, but it would provide a secure way to still pass between them.

A one bedroom suite at the Vino Bello Resort Napa is excellent. The suite is spacious and would easily accommodate our family of five if we brought sufficient bedding one or two kids. You first enter into the kitchen. There is a nice high counter at the end.

Across from that is the large dining table. The bench against the wall is super soft and the kids sunk into the cushion until there chins were barely above the table.

Beyond that is the living room area with a sofa and two armchairs. The sofa also contains the extra queen bed.

The kids immediately eyed the fireplace. I grew up with a wood stove, so this is a sorry excuse for a fire, in my opinion. But they really enjoyed it. My daughter fell asleep with it on each night, and it did keep that corner cozy.

On the high counter was a welcome bottle of wine, part of what is included in the resort fee. Funny how you don’t get one per night, even though you pay the fee per night (unless you’re on an award stay). Spolier: the wine isn’t very good anyway.

The bedroom is connected to both the living room and the bathroom.

There is one king bed, and a second TV, as well as a full closet.

The spa tub is also inside the bedroom and not the bathroom. I’m not really a fan of this. I’d rather it be part of the bathroom as well.

The bathroom itself is very large with two sinks and an oversize shower.

I was in heaven each morning. I love a nice shower. This one wasn’t quite up to the awesome rain shower in our room in Beijing back in November (SEE: Renaissance Beijing Wangfujiung Review), nor did it top the most amazing shower I’ve ever used (SEE: Park Hyatt Milan: A Review). But it was still great. Until I realized one of the kids had dropped the bottle of shampoo the night before and I was suddenly unable to wash my hair and slipping all over the tile in the morning. The things they don’t tell you…

The one bedroom suite also has a deck, or lanai. I’m still not used to that word. Lanai is an island in Hawaii, not an outdoor deck thing. In December, it was exactly the nicest place to hang out. But I’m sure it is amazing in summer.

The best part of the one bedroom suite is the kitchen. Maybe you aren’t the sort of folks who like to cook on vacation, but depending on the situation, we really don’t mind. It’s way cheaper and quite easy when we have a more relaxed schedule, such as on this trip. The kitchen had pretty much everything you’d need for 4-6 people, including plates, cutlery and cookware. There is even a dishwasher and a couple soap packs.

You can ask for necessities from housekeeping and the front desk, but if you want the room actually cleaned, this comes at as a surcharge. I’m pretty sure this is standard to Wyndham’s condo properties. We managed just fine for three days without housekeeping, and it saved us $75.

On the whole, our one bedroom suite at the Vino Bello Resort Napa was excellent. I highly recommend this as a place to burn your Wyndham points as a family.

Facilities and activities

The Vino Bello Resort Napa offers a number of things to do on-property, as well as access to everything Napa has to offer. It may not be the full extent of what many expect from a resort, even though that is part of the name. There is a decent sized pool between the Chardonnay and Cabernet buildings, and we spent and evening and morning here enjoying it.

vino bello resort napa

The kids always try to get me to spend as much time as possible in the water. The pool at the Vino Bello Resort Napa is heated, but with the air temperatures as low as they are in December and January, it still isn’t all that comfortable. The kids didn’t care, but I would last only about 15 minutes before I wanted to soak in the hot tub for the remainder of the time.

On the opposite side of the restaurant and lobby is the Bordeaux building. It also has resort rooms, but also contains the crush lounge, which is where we headed the afternoon of New Year’s Eve. The lounge has a bar, but it is also family friendly (they serve food as well, so it is technically a restaurant). Kids are welcome.

One of the best features of the Crush Lounge at the Vino Bello Resort Napa is that it has a half dozen bowling lanes. Bowling isn’t especially cheap, but it was still reasonable enough that wanted to rent a land for an hour. We got two games in. Prices are per person per hour, $15 for adults and $10 for kids on weekdays. Prices go up $5 per person per hour on weekends.

The concierge is a helpful source of anything else you might want to know about the resort and the Napa area.

The Napa area

I know, most people probably don’t take their kids to Napa. The typical itinerary is probably all-day wine tasting at the many vineyards in the valley. There are a couple that are family friendly, and the concierge pointed these out. Taking them to the Castello di Amorosa, a winery in the style of a Tuscan castle, was an option, but I decided against it, mainly due to the cost. We had what we needed at the resort anyway.

But that doesn’t mean we didn’t do any sightseeing. The first day we headed to church at Calvary Chapel Petaluma and then spent the afternoon in Sonoma at Train Town and then the mission.

Train Town is good with kids for a couple hours. The train ride itself is fun for kids of pretty much all ages. The other rides are more fair-style, and aren’t all that thrilling for older kids. But we bought a single pack of tickets for these and had fun on a few.

The morning of our second day we drove over to Fairfield and toured the Jelly Belly Factory. It had been well over a decade since I’d visited, and I hardly remembered anything. Our one bummer: they gave everyone New Year’s Eve off as well as New Year’s Day, so we didn’t get to see any action on the factory floor. But the video monitors spaced out every 100 feet or so still let us have a glimpse into their candy making process.

There is plenty more to do in the Napa area, and I am not a Napa expert, so I’ll have to leave you to do your own research!

Conclusion

Our stay at the Vino Bello Resort Napa was excellent overall. The one bedroom condo is spacious and perfect for a family, I’d happily stay here again. We still have Wyndham points to burn, so another visit might be possible this year.

The one thing I should note is that the Vino Bello Resort tried to charge us a resort fee at check out. This is against the Wyndham Rewards free night policy. I had to pull up the terms on my phone and present it to the agent at the front desk, who then took it to his manager. They did relent, but it was a bit disappointing. There is a separate write-up on this whole experiences (SEE: Waive that resort fee! Holding a hotel to its program policies).

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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