Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Award Travel (page 1 of 7)

Our 5 Best Hotel Stays of 2018

It’s a bit late to be compiling posts about our travels last year, but hey, I’ve been behind on most of the personal trip blogging for quite some time. I try to keep up a bit better over at Points with a Crew, but things languish here sometimes.

I’ve been thinking back on our travels during 2018, and I thought I’d share our five favorite hotel stays for the year. I’ve reviewed all of these separately, but here they all are in one place.

Renaissance Beijing Wangfujing

Our stay in Beijing was not only one of favorite hotel stays of 2018, but of the past few years of traveling as a whole. At only 17,500 Marriott points per night, with the fifth night free, it was an excellent hotel at incredible value. Read the full review here.

My older two kids and I enjoyed breakfast and dinner daily at the hotel as part of the rate, as one of the elite status perks with Marriott. The location is also great, with easy access to the pedestrian streets of Wangfujing. The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square are also within walking distance. The Dongsi subway station, about 10 minutes from the hotel by foot, gives you access to the rest of Beijing.

DoubleTree Luxembourg

I only settled on this hotel as it made the most sense from a points perspective. There really isn’t anything else in Luxembourg will accommodate three people easily and it also a chain option bookable with points. The hotel isn’t convenient to the center of Luxembourg, but bus service is regular and efficient enough.

The hotel provided us with a larger room and the extra bed we requested was ready when we arrived. Free breakfast and a pool made it a great way to end our time playing tourist in Europe. Here is the full review.

The Claremont Berkeley

This was a special stay that was made possible by my final free night certificate from the Fairmont Visa which used to be issued by Chase. Both the card and program as we knew it is now dead. It was a last hurrah of sorts.

We had an enjoyable one night in the Bay Area, but was traveling just for this worth it with kids? There were a couple issues with our stay, including the fact that the upgrade certificate I’d tried to use to move us to a queen-queen room instead of one with two doubles did not actually get applied. And they didn’t have anything else available when we arrived (that they were willing to upgrade us into). A bummer traveling with two kids, but we managed. Here is the full review of this iconic property.

The American Hotel Atlanta

This iconic Atlanta hotel was one of the nicer Hilton stays I have had. My son and I enjoyed this hotel for two nights during our quick trip to Atlanta. We were upgraded to a themed suite and the location of the hotel in relation to downtown Atlanta attractions is perfect. Granted, there are a good number of fine hotels in downtown Atlanta, but I was impressed by this DoubleTree and would very happily stay here again. Full review.

Holiday Inn Express Pahrump

Yes. A Holiday Inn Express for a single night stay. But this may have been the nicest Holiday Inn Express at which I’ve ever stayed. The hotel is very new, and the design of the rooms and common areas so much more modern than other HIE hotels I’ve stayed with that it thoroughly impressed me. On top of that, it has a great pool, and everything was sparkling clean. It’s a gem in a town that is…not.

Conclusion

A bit of an odd mix, but these were the five stays I enjoyed most last year. I generally have good experiences with Hilton on the whole, but the Marriott stay in Beijing was probably the best of the bunch. And the Holiday Inn Express came out of left field. Never expected that would be a stellar stay!

What are some of the best hotel stays you’ve had?

4 things award travel has taught my phone’s autocorrect ​

Autocorrect fails are some of the funniest things. I wish I would note down every random thing my iPhone *thinks* I meant, many of which are words I’ve never ever typed. And probably never would have, except for the “helpful” interference.

But autocorrect can actually learn, which has been useful. Here are four award travel-related words my phone has picked up on:

SFO and HKG (and many other airport codes)

These are two airport codes I’ve used a lot. San Francisco International is a typical departure point for us, and Hong Kong seems to come up in a lot of deals and also as the backbone award segment when flying to Asia, as the route between these two cities is served by United, Cathay Pacific, and Singapore. It’s little wonder my phone will correct to these a lot.

There are a number of others it knows, including ACV, SMF, LAX, and ROA.

Bonvoy(ed)

It’s sad, but true. My phone will now correct things to “bonvoy” as I type. As least it’s not audibly yelling “Bonvoy!” at me, although that might be the logical next step. I’ve had a couple instances where I’ve tried to type something else, and my phone has changed the text to “Bonvoy”.

Maybe this is the ultimate way of being bonvoyed? I guess most of the time this is what I’m trying to write anyway. If you’re unaware of the issues plaguing Marriott’s new Bonvoy loyalty program, check out the website dedicated to cataloging customer problems.

AAdvantage and MileagePlus

It makes sense that two of the primary award programs among U.S. carriers are used commonly enough that my phone knows when to insert them, correct capitalization and all.

MileagePlus is unique enough that I’m not surprised. But it is surprising that American’s program name is recognized. If I mess up just trying to type “advantage”, sometimes I get the version with the double A.

LifeMiles

Don’t get me started. I have a love-hate relationship with Avianca’s program. While I’d managed to put up with their quirky website and other nuances, things pretty much disintegrated when I experienced a flight cancellation and they refused to refund the ticket. If their system says its flown, it means you flew it, no matter how much evidence you present to the contrary (SEE: My epic battle with LifeMiles and how I was finally victorious).

I’ve ranted about LifeMiles enough, often by email with Mark Ostermann of Miles to Memories, who has his own long list of grievances with the program.

Conclusion

Maybe a funny post, but it was a humorous revelation when I started noticing how often some of these words come up. Being active in a few award travel Facebook groups as well as being an award travel writer has resulted in an odd number of additions to my phone’s learned words.

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.

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