Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Domestic Travel (page 1 of 7)

Saving $600+ on a New Year’s Getaway

After literally a couple years of watching and building my rewards balance, I finally put my Wyndham points to good use for a 2019 New Year’s getaway with the older kids. Last year we had a similar trip, albeit for a single night at the Best Western Stevenson Manor in Calistoga (SEECelebrating New Years 2018). But that exhausted my (already small) Best Western Rewards balance.

So I turned to Wyndham this year, and they really delivered. Compared to many rewards programs, Wyndham kinda gets a bad rap. They don’t offer the same sort of loyalty benefits, nor do they have a great portfolio of hotels; most are budget brands like Super 8 and Howard Johnson. But that does not mean that the loyalty program is without any merit.

Putting Wyndham’s flat rate award nights to good use

The most unique thing about the Wyndham Rewards program is that all rewards nights cost the same, no matter the hotel. You can you 15,000 points for a night at the Super 8 across town that is going for $49.99, or you could use it for a night at The Mills House, where I stayed in Charleston during a recent trip (SEE: The Mills House Charleston Review). You could also use 15,000 points per night for a stay at the Vino Bello Resort in Napa, which is where we headed for New Year’s 2019.

Extracting value out of the Wyndham program boils down to two things: earn points during their promotions, which are fairly uncommon, but tend to reward you quite well. Then burn the points at one of their good properties. This may require some searching, and you will not find nice hotels at a long list of destinations, but if you can make one work with your travel plans, the potential value is excellent.

You can also use Wyndham points for stays at their condo and resort properties, which includes the Vino Bello Resort. Wyndham IT has gotten better, and a good number of the condo properties show on their website, including the properties in San Francisco, Napa and many other places in the country.

The real issue is finding an award that works. The condo and resort properties typically require a minimum stay of 2 nights, which is not really a bad thing. But you will also find that a very large number of dates are blacked out. I often have to search weekend after weekend to finally find one that *is* available.

Pulling the trigger on a New Year’s stay

When I found that the Vino Bello Resort had availability over New Year’s, I immediately booked it. It’s rare to find, and I didn’t want it to slip away. My wife and I then discussed the idea of us going, and she was all for it. Instead of a single night like the year before, I booked three.

The value of using my pints here is much greater than using them at other properties. I try to always get at least 1 cent per Wyndham point, and I definitely succeeded on this stay. The base rate for a one bedroom condo for three nights was $514.35. Add in the $25 resort fee per night and taxes, and the total for the stay would have been over $600. This was 100% covered by 45,000 Wyndham points! Although I did have to squabble with the front desk to waive the resort fee. But policy is on my side (SEE: Waive that resort fee! Holding a hotel to its program policies).

I’d been waiting to use these points for a while. Admittedly, 15,000 of them were earned by renewing my Wyndham Visa card issued by Barclays bank, which meant paying an annual fee of $69. But for $69, we got a room worth $200+. I think that is an excellent deal.

Conclusion

Rumors have been flying around that Wyndham is going to devalue its program, moving to the 3-tier structure where some properties cost 7,500 points, others 15,000, and the highest tier 30,000 per night. This will severely devalue the program for me, and will probably make me ditch it entirely, as all properties at which I’d want to redeem points will not require twice as many. I can imagine that all Wyndham Grand properties, Viva All-Inclusive Resort Properties, and condo properties will fall in this new, highest tier. Even a stay at The Mining Exchange, where we stayed in 2016, would probably require 30,000 points (SEE: The Mining Exchange, Wyndham Grand Hotel: A Review).

All this to say, I am quite happy that I burnt 45,000 Wyndham points to get $600 in value now rather than holding onto them and watching their value potentially halve in the future.

Travel planning: penciling in the first half of 2019

If there is something that is nearly as fun as travel itself, it is the travel planning. One of the best parts of this hobby is seeing how I can best use our miles and points and/or fantastic travel deals to put together very inexpensive trips. And we have a good number planned for the first half of 2019.

New Years in Napa

We’re coming right up on this trip. Last year I took the older two away for one night over New Year’s Eve and Day. We had a nice dinner of Mexican food, swam in the pool at the Best Western Stevenson Manor, and stayed up late watching Sully (SEE: Celebrating New Year’s 2018). Mom and our youngest welcomed 2018 with a good night’s rest.

This year is very much a repeat of last year, as we are only driving a bit further to a resort hotel in Napa instead of Calistoga. The main different is that we will be gone for more than one night. We’re keeping the trip pretty budget. The rooms at the resort condo property have a small kitchen, so we will eat in much of the time. But we’ll still do some activities nearby and definitely spend time in the pool.

Long weekend in New Mexico

A few weeks later I’m planning to take my daughter on a long weekend winter trip to Santa Fe. We’ll explore this historic city as well as Taos Pueblo nearby. I’ve not been to New Mexico since a trip when I was 13 years old and traveling back and forth across the country with my grandparents and cousin.

Flights for this trip were booked as an Avianca LifeMiles award for a United ticket, much the same way we booked our flights to Tucson earlier this year (SEE: 2 Tips for Planning a Last-Minute Trip). The return were booked with Alaska vouchers. Our hotel is a mix of cash and points.

Seattle and Boise

Now that our two boys are in school, I have to worry about planning around school schedules (although I am willing to pull him out now and then). There will be a break in February for President’s Week, and I’m taking advantage of that to take my older son on a 5-day trip to Seattle and Boise. Seattle, since it is a cool city, and award tickets on Alaska were easy to book. Plus, there is an awesome flight museum, and a Boeing factory to tour!

Boise is on the list because, well, I haven’t been to Idaho yet, and I just had to tack on a second destination when an award ticket with an onward segment to Boise doesn’t cost any extra. The flight back was super cheap, too, as I used vouchers from our delayed return flight from our Disneyland trip (SEE: Turning 20,000 Amex points into 25,000 miles and $500). All hotel will be covered with Hyatt and Hilton points.

Day-trip to fly the shortest Flight in the U.S.

This trip may seem crazy, as it is a one-night, one-day blast to Los Angeles and back. The intent was for me to fly the shortest flight in the U.S. during the very last week it was offered before United discontinued the service. But the folks at United subsequently changed their mind, and the Santa Rosa to SFO hop will persist. At least for now.

Am I’m still gonna fly it, even though it is no longer being discontinued? Yeah…it’ll provide some good material for Points with a Crew.

Solo trip to Shanghai

This is one of those trips where the deals dictated it. After experiencing Beijing, I’ve been reading about visiting Shanghai, as well as other Chinese cities. I’m completely intrigued with this country now. The history and culture were a thrill when the older kids and I visited back in November (SEE: 5 Days in Beijing: Day 2 – History and Hutongs).

Well…the opportunity presented itself, and I jumped. The trip is super quick over a weekend in March, out on a Friday, back on a Tuesday. I dropped almost my entire stash of remaining LifeMiles for an Air China first class ticket to Shanghai via Beijing where I’ll spend a quick two days before heading home via Los Angeles. The return is booked in American Airlines Premium Economy, which I found for the amazing price of $367 one-way!

All of the reviews for this trip will be posted at Points with a Crew, primarily since I’m using money from my side hustles to pay for this one.

Buenos Aires and Montevideo

This is the biggest trip of the bunch. I’m hoping to take each of the kids one one international trip each year, and this will be the first one for me and my daughter. I cannot wait! We’ll spend a week split between these two cities in South America. It’ll give me (and her) a good excuse to break out the Spanish again. It has amazingly almost disappeared from our house. Funny to think back to 12 months ago when the kids were still begging us to talk with them in Spanish all the time.

Taiwan!

A few years ago you would never have caught me planning international trips that only span a few days. But the miles and points stockpiles make this entirely possible. Over Memorial Day weekend I’m planning on taking the older of my boys to Taiwan for three days, with an additional day in the Chinese city of Xiamen on a long layover during our return flight. Our flights there are in China Airlines business class, thanks to a large stash of Delta miles I’ve accumulated.

Xiamen is featured as an “up and coming” destination in China by Conde Nast Traveler. I’ve looked into a few cool things to do in the city. I’ve heard Taiwan is super kid friendly as well.

Conclusion

It’ll be a busy half-year. Here is everything planned in a nutshell:

  • 7 trips (only one of which doesn’t involve flying)
  • 6 long-haul flights
  • 3 countries (2 new)
  • 2 continents (1 new)
  • 1 new state
  • 19 airports (9 of which are new)
  • 20 segments totaling over 46,000 miles in the air

Beyond that, I’m not too sure what summer will hold. Work is in a bit of a lull, but I expect that the primary projects I’ve been working on will pick up more in the spring, with an additional increase in summer. It is possible that from June onward I won’t have much of a chance to do anything beyond the work anticipated work travel.

For now, I’m more than content with what we have planned for the first part of the year. It’s plenty!

Easiest Sedona Hike (with a view)

Sedona. I can still recall getting up before dawn and catching my first glimpse of the red cliffs all around before the sun peeked over the hills. Few mornings have felt as enchanting. Unlike that first trip to this spectacular corner of the southwestern U.S. where we had a few days to enjoy hiking in its breathtaking setting, our road trip this past spring was fast-paced; we had a mere afternoon to take in as much as we could. Which meant I wanted to find the easiest Sedona hike possible.

Yet I still wanted to find one that provided us with great views of the beautiful rock formations of this amazing corner of the southwest. I remembered one that was very close to the middle of town. It would be the perfect mix of fast and easy, and also provide an awesome view of the Sedona landscape.

Easiest Sedona Hike with a view

The trail of choice was the Teacup Trail, which would take us to the Sugarloaf Summit trail, which was the real goal. The trailhead is located in the middle of Sedona, in a residential neighborhood. You can find the parking lot on Buena Vista Drive.

The Teacup Trail is fairly well marked. You can generally follow the path easily, although there are places where you could possibly wander away from the main path. Any extra trails made by people who didn’t stay on the main path don’t disappear quickly in the desert. The damage is done.

If you do get confused as to where to go, you can generally spot a rock cage that will help guide you. These are placed fairly regularly along some of the trails in Sedona.

Even though this may be the easiest Sedona hike, there is no shortage of beautiful scenery. Some of the best is right here in the middle of town. The landscape is mesmerizing.

It will probably take you no more than about 10-15 minutes to come to the turnoff that will take you up Sugarloaf Summit. The Teacup Trail passes alongside the west side of this rocky outcrop, and you must hike back up from the north. You can see Coffee Pot Rock there to the left at the end of the mesa in the foreground.

Hiking Sugarloaf Summit

The Sugarloaf Summit Trail is a bit more strenuous than the Teacup Trail, but it really isn’t difficult. The trail is less than a quarter mile from the turnoff up to the top of the rocky dome. We took our time, and the kids enjoyed playing with rocks and looking for critters in the desert.

As you get to the top of Sugarloaf Summit, you start to get the best of the views. Sedona is truly incredible. I was just as amazed by this visit as I was by my first trip here.

easiest Sedona hike

There was a storm quickly approaching, and the wind was really moving across the top of Sugarloaf Summit. Luckily, it wasn’t cold. The temperature during our short Sedona hike was right around 70 degrees. Better than the cold we encountered later in the trip, and also better than the 90 degree days we spent enjoying Tucson (SEE: Kings Canyon – Gould Mine Loop Hike in Saguaro National Park).

Here is a panorama from the east side of Sugarloaf “Mountain”. You can see Coffee Pot Rock clearly in the center, and part of Sedona to the right.

Even though the kids aren’t all that crazy about hiking, they were sure enjoying this easy Sedona hike (SEE: 3 Tips for Hiking with Kids in the Desert). I think it was mainly because of the better temperatures and the fact they knew it wasn’t going to be all that far.

They were even being loving siblings. Which is sure better than dealing with the alternative.

We hiked a bit farther along the Teacup Trail, ending up pretty much right under Coffee Pot Rock before turning around. It was looking more and more like rain, and I wanted to make it back to the car before it started. Plus, we also had scheduled a time for my daughter to talk with a friend.

Overall, it was a great short hike. Hopefully we’ll be back to Sedona fairly soon to enjoy some more great, easy hiking.

Conclusion

Given our time constraints and the weather, our hike was the perfect length. It would have been nicer to see more of the exquisitely beautiful red rock surrounding us, but we had to settle for the easiest Sedona hike I was familiar with and knew would provide us with a lovely view of the valley. We’ll tackle something a bit more challenging next time.

Map image courtesy of Open Street Map

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

5 Reasons Why Sacramento is my Favorite Northern California Airport

With all the delays and cancellations that plague our tiny regional airport, I’ve had to look beyond our “Redwood Curtain” for reliable flights. Not to mention cheaper. Prices out of ACV are insane.

There are a number of options in the northern section of the state, including Redding, Santa Rosa, Sacramento and three more airports in the Bay Area. But one stands out above the rest: Sacramento.

If you’re a local and am wondering why I associated Sacramento with Northern California, have no fear. I’m firmly in your camp (SEE: 5 reasons you *must* visit coastal northern California). The Bay Area and Sacramento Area don’t qualify as NorCal in my mind. But since there are millions of people in the middle section of the state that don’t agree with us, I have to throw in the towel and go with the prevailing definition.

Couldn’t ask for easier access

The most appealing feature of Sacramento International Airport is the utter lack of traffic. Coming from Humboldt County, I head south on Highway 101, cross over to Interstate 5 by way of State Route 20, and then it’s another 45 minutes south to the airport.

Because the airport is located north of downtown Sacramento and busy Interstate 80, you don’t ever have to deal with any substantial traffic. I’ll take it over Oakland, San Francisco or San Jose any day.

From curbside to gate in no time at all

Along with the lack of the terrible traffic that plagues the Bay Area, everything is faster at Sacramento. The walk and time through security can be comparable to Oakland or San Jose, but its the proximity of the rental car center that helps significantly. It is located much closer, with a fast and frequent shuttle (ease of access to the rentals car center varies at San Jose airport depending on which terminal you are flying into or out of).

I’ve clocked my time through Sacramento Airport on a couple occasions. On one occasion I pulled up to drop my rental car with Enterprise at Sacramento at 4:58 a.m. I made it on the shuttle by 5:03, arriving at security at 5:05. Clearing security took all of a couple minutes and I made it to my gate by 5:09 a.m. Total of 11 minutes. No way I could do better than that at SFO.

Little to no price premium

As a mid-size airport, you might think Sacramento would have higher prices than a large hub like SFO. This is certainly the case if you’re looking to fly somewhere overseas, as Sacramento only has a few international flights (Air Canada to Vancouver and AeroMexico or Volaris to Guadalajara, if you are wondering). But for many domestic destinations, there is little to no difference in price. Sometimes it’s actually cheaper.

Don’t make the mistake of leaving off Sacramento Airport from your flight searches. It’s literally another 4 characters on the keyboard when searching airfare with Google Flights (SEE: 6 reasons Google flights is the BEST flight search engine). Just hit “S-M-F-space”, and then proceed to type in SFO like you planned to in the origin box.

Plenty of options

Sacramento has a leg up on Santa Rosa airport due to the number of airlines and flight options it offers. While Santa Rosa has definitely expanded in the past year, and is on track to continue this trend (SEE: Santa Rosa Airport Expands to Meet Crushing Demand), it still doesn’t have nearly the same number of flights. For example, American Airlines only offers one flight per day out of STS, and it is just after noon, making it hard to catch an eastbound connection in Phoenix that arrives on the East Coast at a reasonable time.

Sacramento offers many more options. Sure, it’s not SFO. But there are a number of reasonable departures on all the major carriers. You can pick from American, Delta, United, Alaska, Southwest, JetBlue, Frontier, and Hawaiian domestically. International carriers include Air Canada, AeroMexico and Volaris, as previously mentioned. Southwest offers the most nonstop destination options by far (which makes sense, as they have 53% of the market share at SMF).

Consistent rental car prices

Since I have to get myself to and from Sacramento Airport, I do have to take into consideration the cost of renting a car. I’ve found that I can pretty much always get a car for $100-150 depending on when and which direction I am going. This may sound like a lot, and it *is*, if it is coming out of my own pocket. But it work is paying, I can often justify it since the difference in fare is more than the cost of the rental car. The typical differential is $300+ between a fare out of Sacramento and a fare out of Arcata.

There is the issue of added travel time, but depending on the itinerary, even this may not be substantial. Most of my United itineraries for work back east involve two connections. Flying out of Sacramento allows me to cut it to only one. In some cases, flying out of Sacramento only adds 1-2 hours to my trip each direction. The added reliability makes this trade more than worth it.

Conclusion

I have a love/hate relationship with our local airport, which has made me look into flying out of other airports many times. Now I’ve finally settled on my favorite of the most easily accessible.

Header image courtesy of jericl cat via Flickr under CC BY 2.0 license

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