Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Domestic Travel (page 1 of 2)

Hiking Table Rock near Medford, Oregon

Hiking is one of the primary activities to which I default when traveling. It is enjoyable, it lets you explore a new place, and it’s (nearly always) free. If a true hike isn’t available, a walk through a new city will do nearly as well.

Last weekend my brother-in-law and I took a quick vacation to southern Oregon. The first day included seeing Crater Lake, and the second day included two hikes, one of which was up Lower Table Rock near Medford.

Preparing to hike Table Rock

Our original plan was to hike Table rock mid-morning, but given the heat, we decided to swap our itinerary around. We would head out to hike near Lake of the Woods (cooler, and at a much higher altitude) during the morning. Our hike up Table Rock was then slated for the evening.

I looked up how to get to Table Rock using Google Maps. The route is pretty simple. You can get to Table Rock Road easily from the Highway 62 exit, heading north toward Crater Lake. Immediately turn left onto Biddle Road, as if you are heading to the Rogue Valley Airport. Then make a right when you intersect with Table Rock Road.

You continue on this road for a few miles before turning onto Wheeler Road, right along the base of Lower Table Rock.

hiking table rock medford

The trailhead was pretty easy to find, although I did initially blast by the turn off for Wheeler Road and had to turn around. It was still pretty warm when we arrived, but I knew things would get better as we climbed. I was *so* glad we didn’t hike Table Rock in the middle of the day!!

Hiking Table Rock

Looking up at Table Rock above us, I knew the hike was going to be moderately strenuous. The trail climbs quickly from the trailhead. There are some switchbacks, but at other times it’s simply a steep ascent. I didn’t realize how steep it was until we were heading down and I was trying not to lose my footing on the gravel path.

The lower part of the trail is through oak woodland. There were some wildflowers, although we were likely past the best of their display.

Soon we were under some larger trees, and unfortunately sheltered from the much-appreciated breeze. The switchbacks up the hill continued, and I couldn’t wait to break out on top of Table Rock.

Poison oak is abundant along the trail.  The trail is wide enough that brushing up against it shouldn’t be a concern, but definitely take note.

Top of Table Rock

A little over halfway through the hike we reached the top of Table Rock. The hard part was over. Now we just had a long stretch of flat trail that led us to the edge of the rock overlooking the Rogue Valley and Medford. The breeze at the top was also wonderful!

It took us another 15 minutes or so to reach the edge of Table Rock. The views were spectacular! Off to the east you could see the volcanic cone of Mount McLoughlin, and out to the west the Rogue Valley. Medford was in the middle, off in the distance.

We just sat and took everything in for several minutes. The temperature was now perfect, hovering in the upper 70s.

If I lived here, I’d definitely be hiking Table Rock routinely. Actually, who am I kidding? I probably wouldn’t. I hardly hike the redwoods anymore, and those are basically at my doorstep all the time.

Since my phone lacks panorama capability, I had to make do with a video. I’m desperately in need of a new smartphone so I can actually take some decent photos.

Heading down

The trip down was substantially easier than our trek up. We made our way back along the flat trail on top of Table Rock. As the sun was getting lower on the horizon, we had a little bit of fun with the shadows.

Soon enough we were heading back down the steep trail. I took a picture of Upper Table Rock before the sun dropped below the horizon completely.

It didn’t take long to reach the trailhead again. All in all, the hike was maybe 2 hours. We could have explored more of the top of Table Rock, but we had a date at Cold Stone that we couldn’t miss.

Conclusion

Hiking Table Rock should definitely be on your list if you plan to spend any time in or near Medford, Oregon. It is a great experience, and the view of the valley is gorgeous. The hike is also not very long, and easily doable in under a half day. Along with Crater Lake, the Oregon Caves, and historic Jacksonville, there is plenty to do and see in southern Oregon. Hopefully you can enjoy a trip to the area someday!

West Coast Magic with Alaska Miles: A Primer

One of my favorite things in this hobby is figuring out how to maximize my miles. Earning miles via credit cards is easy enough, but they are only as valuable as you make them.

Alaska MileagePlan is one of my favorite award programs. Back in late 2016, they rolled out new distance-based awards, both reducing the price on many awards and raising the “cap” on others in high demand. The new awards are called a hop, skip, jump, and leap, based on the distance traveled. Here’s the chart:

Overall, I think consumers came out slightly ahead. Especially if they know how to maximize Alaska’s award routing rules. Here are some great options to explore with your Alaska miles:

Scenario 1: The one-way “round-trip”

One of the most unique things about Alaska Airlines award tickets is that they offer a stopover on a one-way award. Granted, the stopover has to be in one of their hubs, or a hub of a partner. I’ve found a few awards that break this rule, but it generally holds true.

However, if you’re interested in traveling to one of their hubs (think Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, and Anchorage), you can often use this to your advantage.

Consider for a second that you want to visit Seattle from the Silicon Valley. At a distance of 696 miles from San Jose, a one-way flight *barely* qualifies for the lowest level Alaska award of 5,000 miles. But you can actually book a “round-trip” on a one-way ticket, if you’re willing to get creative.

Instead of booking a round-trip award to and from San Jose for a total of 10,000 miles, use the multi-search tool to add a different, but (sorta) close return airport, say Reno, Nevada. Looks like you even get to fly through Boise, for a total flight distance of 1,696 flown miles.

You’d expect this ticket to price out at 10,000 miles, given the flight distance. But it turns out Alaska prices award tickets on their own metal simply by distance between origin and destination! Because Reno and SJC are much less than 700 miles apart, this award will price out a 5,000 miles at the lowest level!

Now you just have to get yourself home to San Jose from Reno.  You could easily catch a cheap flight back, or maybe take Amtrak.

Sure, this may not be a desirable trip for many people, but what if you wanted to see Tahoe for a bit before heading back to the Bay? It could be just the ticket for you. You’re only looking at 5,000 miles and $70 for a two-stop vacation!

I’m mainly using this example as an illustration, although my wife and I did fly a “one-way” award from Arcata to the Bay Area, with a convenient stop in Portland to meet up with our in-laws (SEE: The Pacific Northwest Stopover Trick).

Scenario 2: The two-stop hop (aka the “in-laws”)

I’ve definitely had my in-laws in mind when considering some of the potential in the Alaska program. My mother-in-law often visits family in San Diego, typically flying out of the tiny Sonoma County (STS) airport. Since the route is under 700 miles, it prices out at 5,000 Alaska MileagePlan miles one-way.

But what if she and my father-in-law want to visit, say, Seattle for a few days, before heading to sunny southern California?

Utilizing Alaska’s amazing stopover on one-way tickets, you can actually book STS-SEA-SAN as a one-way ticket for the same 5,000 miles!

This is especially crazy given that the SEA-SAN flight distance is 1,050 miles and rings in at 7,500 award miles when booked by itself. Again, Alaska actually prices it based on the STS-SAN distance.

Tack on a cheap one-way, or another 5,000 mile award flight back to STS from San Diego, and you have a two destination vacation for a mere 10,000 miles. Not sure you can beat that.

Like the San Jose to Reno example, all you need to find is a cheap ticket back to Santa Rosa. Or you can burn another 5,000 miles, which will probably be worth it in this case. It’s still 10,000 miles for a two-destination vacation!

Scenario 3: The home “stopover”

Things get even more creative if you live in one of Alaska Airlines’ main hubs. Especially Seattle or Portland. The award routing rules are extremely advantageous.

Consider the scenario where you are taking two vacations in the western U.S. in the next several months. Say, one to San Francisco and the other to Las Vegas.

Instead of booking two round-trip awards, book a one-way for your first leg. Cash tickets for this route are competitive, so they may be the way to go instead.

Next, book your return, but combine it with your outbound to Las Vegas on the same one-way award (use the multi-city search tool). Bingo. Your “stopover” is now your several weeks at home between trips. And it is a crazy cheap 5,000 miles!

Now all you have to do is book your final leg and you’ve saved yourself up to 7,500 Alaska miles, the normal price of a SEA-LAS flight! Maybe later in the year you have a trip to Denver and another to Salt Lake City. You can pull this stunt again!

Scenario 4: Hawaii and a transcon on the same one-way

Let’s take the home stopover one step further. While useful before, this trick becomes even more lucrative if you combine a Hawaii trip with a transcontinental flight. For this example I still have to assume you live in an Alaska hub.

Imagine for a moment that you’re booking an award to Hawaii. If you’re located on the West Coast (I’m assuming you live in Seattle), hopefully you’re considering using British Airways Avios. They are generally the best currency for flying West Coast to Hawaii.

But what if you have a trip planned to the Big Apple a month after your Hawaii trip? Hold those Avios for a moment. Alaska miles will get you further, again with their amazing stopover.

If you plan this right, you can essentially get *both* one-way tickets on the same award, spanning two different trips.

Plan your outbound as a one-way with Avios (12,500 per ticket), and then plan your inbound as a one-way Alaska award for 17,500 MileagePlan miles. Add in a stopover in Seattle that spans your time at home.

Voila. You now have a one-way ticket back home from Hawaii, and then a one-way ticket to NYC, all for the less than a single flight to Hawaii would cost with many other mileage currencies.

Is it an awful red-eye? Yes. But for 17,500 miles, you can’t really complain (I’m sure you can find better flights if you book far in advance). Here’s another:

Honolulu back home to San Jose, before taking off for Alaska on another adventure.

Scenario 5: Rural Alaska

Flying to rural Alaska doesn’t really require any interesting “hacks” per se, but I find it is a fantastic use of Alaska miles. You can head to Barrow to experience 24-hour daylight, or maybe go hiking in Nome.

I mention rural Alaska since cash tickets are often super expensive. Consider this round trip between the Bay Area and Dutch Harbor. You’ll almost certainly spend over $1,000 on a cash ticket, if not closer to $1,500. You can fly the same trip for a mere 25,000 MileagePlan miles round-trip. Consider hanging out in Anchorage for a few days as well with your free stopover.

Frustratingly, there is far less award space available at the lowest level than there was last year. Because Alaska offers variable award pricing, you’ll probably end up paying more like 20,000 miles for the ticket. Still, this can make sense for destinations in rural Alaska that cost a ridiculous amount in cash.

A few issues

Annoyingly, Alaska Airlines still doesn’t recognize Bay Area airports as a “hub” for award routing stopover purposes under most circumstances. Given that the airline has bought Virgin America, I wish they would change this.

The system also knows some airports are co-located. You can’t book a “one-way” ticket from SFO to Oakland with a stop in Portland. Nor can you even return to Sacramento or Santa Rosa from the Bay. MileagePlan would be a gold mine if their system allowed these tickets.

Conclusion

I hope this has been useful in showing you how to unlock the potential of Alaska miles. Overall, the award price changes to the Alaska program have been good, but there are some quirks. Personally, I wish they would price awards on PenAir out of Arcata airport better.

If you’re not interested in domestic travel, there are a number of possibilities for using Alaska miles for some great premium products, like JAL and Cathay Pacific to Asia, and AirFrance and KLM to Europe. Business class awards to India on Emirates are also a decent deal.

Header image courtesy of Frank Kovalcheck under CC 2.0 license

A Day Exploring Orlando

Last weekend I flew to Orlando on a whirlwind trip to attend the Family Travel 4 Real Life conference. The event is held twice a year, and it was my first time going. More on that later.

I gave myself an extra day to get to the conference since you never know what United is going to pull when you fly out of Arcata (SEE: Our First United Horror Story). The ticket was booked using Merrill Lynch “miles” (actually flexible points worth up to 2.0 cents each toward travel), so I wasn’t beholden to United award availability.

My connection time at SFO was 35 minutes, which is asking for trouble. Amazingly, I made the flight no problem, literally walking off one plane and onto the next. If I hadn’t, I had a back up plan in place.

Waking up in Florida

I arrived late and got to my hotel after 10:00 p.m., but didn’t get to sleep until after midnight (still on California time). I didn’t set my alarm, so I slept in until 8:37, which is ridiculous. Until you realize that is only 6:37 back home.

It was late enough that I missed breakfast, however, at the Staybridge Suites. I guess I could have headed downstairs un-showered, but I wasn’t going to do that to everyone. An hour later I checked out and hit up Starbucks, and then figured out what I wanted to do for the day.

Looking at my options

Orlando is home to a TON of stuff to do. They have Disney World, of course, as well as Universal Studios, water parks, and other attractions. Without my wife (or future kids), though, I saw no point in heading to Disney for the day. It would be pretty costly, and I doubt I could make the day worth it since I had to be back at 5:00. Plus, I am finding more and more that I dislike crowds, and Disney parks are the epitome of crowds.

Another option was the Kennedy Space Center. But at $50, I didn’t really want to spring for it, even though I was extremely interested. It would be pushing noon by the time I got there, and I wanted to be checking into my hotel around 4:30 in time to meet up with the group  and head to dinner.

Settling on a cheap easygoing day

So, I figured I would instead split the day between the beach and a quick visit to downtown. I was already paying for a rental car, and this seemed like a fine way to both enjoy Florida and save money. Unfortunately the car ended up costing me much more than I anticipated (SEE: The ONE rental car mistake I often make).

The beach at Cape Canaveral was the closest, at about a 45 minute drive. The weather was glorious. A cold front had passed through during the night, and the temperature had dropped an easy 15 degrees since the time I landed the night before. I’m not sure how long it rained, but I slept through all of it.

My time at the beach consisted mainly of walking through the surf, taking pictures, and trying to relax and let my mind rest. I’d had a long chunk of work sandwiched between two trips, which meant I worked over the weekend.

The Atlantic Ocean in Florida is *so* nice compared to the ocean at home. The water is actually pleasant instead off frigid. This may start changing my mind when it comes to destinations.

Back into the “city”

Lunch was Cold Stone (yes, lunch), and then I headed back toward the city. Orlando has a good amount of sprawl, and it took longer to get to downtown than I anticipated.

Orlando isn’t really a “city” per se. I mean…it is, but it is nothing like New York, Los Angeles, Denver or even Calgary or Montreal. It has a totally different feel to it. I’m not sure what I can compare it to from my previous experiences.

I parked in a garage and took a walk to Lake Eola. There wasn’t much in particular I wanted to do, but I try to find parks in a new city as the first place to explore, as long as they are close to the urban area.

My remaining time consisted of a leisurely walk around the lake. I snapped some photos of both the city and the huge geese at the lake.

Off to the pre-conference dinner

I headed back to the other airport hotel (a Club Carlson hotel booked on points) directly across the street from the Hyatt Place where the conference was located. I met up with some of the other attendees and we headed out to dinner at a barbecue place.

Dinner was a good distance away in Winter Park, but we’d been told the barbecue place was good. Turned out it was Cinco de Mayo, so we ended up getting some fusion cuisine. A brisket taco and conversation with fellow travel hackers was just the beginning of a great experience.

My Crazy Weekend Adventure

Sometimes I spend months planning a trip. Other times I throw one together in a matter of hours. Such was the case when I planned a quick weekend adventure.

I had three fairly weak reasons: get myself home from the Bay Area after our California company holiday party, use the Centurion lounge pass I won in MommyPoints’ giveaway, and hopefully be able to volunteer to get bumped from a flight so that I would receive another voucher. Did I need to use the voucher? No, not quite yet. Could I have used the voucher to simply fly home? Sure. Or I could have driven.

But booking a ticket from SFO-DEN on Saturday and a return DEN-SFO-ACV on Sunday sounded like much more fun. And it cost like $12 more than the single leg to Arcata, so why not.

As it turned out, I was selected as a contributing writer to Points with a Crew before the trip rolled around, so the time at SFO airport all day Saturday allowed me to kick out my first posts.

Starting My Crazy Weekend Adventure

I arrived at the airport fairly early via BART (SEE: 4 Reasons to consider BART while visiting the Bay Area) and made it through security is only a few minutes. I was incredibly glad I did not have to check any bags, as the United ticket counter lines were ridiculously long. This is one of the main reasons I prefer to travel with only a carry on when traveling solo.

Entrance to the Centurion SFO

Entrance to the Centurion SFO

The Centurion lounge was easy enough to find in Terminal 3. It’s also fairly close to International Terminal G.

I had no issue using the pass, presenting my new SPG business Amex card along with it (access to the Centurion requires you to be an American Express client). I have heard that lounges sometimes refuse to take one-time passes during busy times.

Breakfast at the Centurion SFO

Breakfast at the Centurion SFO

The Centurion SFO was insanely busy when I arrived, which made me all the more grateful that they took my one-time pass. I found a place at a large table, grabbed breakfast, pulled out my laptop, and started writing.

I would have taken more pictures, except that I feel really awkward snapping photos with people all around. It feels like an invasion of their privacy. So….I hope you’re content with the shot of the exterior and one of breakfast. There are plenty of other great reviews of the various Centurion lounges on other blogs. Overall, I thought it was certainly the nicest lounge I have visited (out of my extremely limited experience).

Over the next several hours I did nothing except write and eat and chat with people on the PWAC Slack channel. Finally, around 6:00 I packed up my laptop and headed down to the gate.

My flight was (of course) delayed. The inbound aircraft was a little overdue, and they they had to pull the one sitting at the gate away and bring in ours.

Due to weather in Denver (I would assume), one of the earlier flights from SFO had been canceled, causing some cascading overbooking. I went up to the counter to discuss volunteering to get bumped, but the next departure wasn’t until 10:40. That didn’t sounds like fun, as I would get less than 3 hours of sleep if I took it.

My Mistake Heading Into the Flight

Instead of thinking on my feet, though, I simply said thank you and left. Looking back, I should have tried to bargain my seat in exchange for both a United voucher and a hotel voucher, as long as United could keep  me booked on just the SFO-ACV leg on Sunday. Probably a long shot, but I lost the opportunity to even ask. You never know what might happen. They did need 7 seats.

We then boarded, and the flight went smoothly. I did a little more writing on my post about little-known BA routes with low fuel surcharges.

Things got interesting after landing at DEN. The jetway wouldn’t attach to the aircraft. It turned out we were parked wrong, and the plane had to be repositioned. It wasn’t exactly fun to spend an extra 45 minutes on a plane, watching the clock tick past midnight.

But I was finally off and headed to the hotel. The only miserable part was the time spent standing in -4°F weather outside the terminal. Hey, I guess it was a reminder of our trip to Canada. Soon I was at the Marriott Denver Airport Gateway (for crazy cheap via a BRG!) and fast asleep.

The Return

Morning came too soon with the 1 hour time difference, and I was one my way back to the airport in no time. Security was quick. The United terminal was fairly empty, but I am sure the Frontier one was in much worse shape after their weekend meltdown.

My flight was delayed by an hour due to operations and an aircraft swap, so I decided to burn another United one-time lounge pass to grab breakfast. The sun came up while I was sitting in the lounge, and it was a gloriously beautiful day.

Denver Airport Morning - Lounge View

A lovely crisp morning at DIA

About 8:30 I headed down to the gate. Boarding went extremely quickly as there were only about 70-80 people and we were on a wide-body! Our original aircraft had been replaced by a Boeing 777, and it was set up for a long-haul flight. Pillows and all!

Empty Boeing 777

A very empty Boeing 777!

I am simply happy that United ran the flight at all, rather than rebooking us on later flights.

I loved the snow covered airport and the Front Range in the distance. It made me want to visit Colorado again soon.

Snowy United Terminal at DIA

Snowy United Terminal at DIA

There was a decent amount of turbulence after takeoff, but things mellowed out as we hit cruising altitude. I snapped a shot of Boulder and the Front Range as we started over the Rockies.

Two hours later we were landing again in San Francisco. It was a crazy quick back-and-forth, but thoroughly enjoyable for me.

Wrapping Up My Crazy Weekend Adventure

Since my flight from SFO back to Arcata was seriously delayed, I spent some time being an avgeek, snapping photos of the the 747s I saw.

United Boeing 747 - SFO Terminal G

United Boeing 747 – SFO Terminal G

Unfortunately, due to the time of boarding, I missed the Lufthansa A380 in Terminal G. I saw it out the Terminal 3 windows just minutes before we were to board.

The final leg to Arcata was quick and uneventful. A good friend of mine picked me up at the airport, and I was soon home to my wife.  🙂

A Little Post-Thanksgiving Trip

Too often I forget that a quick getaway can be just as enjoyable as a multi-week adventure. This weekend was a great reminder of that. Quick trips may not seem as grand, especially in light of some of our recent ones, but they are far more doable.

After a lovely Thanksgiving, my wife and I hit the road for some time together in San Francisco this past weekend. My job gives me both Thursday and Friday off for the holiday, so it was the perfect opportunity for a quick getaway.

westin_st_francis-exterior

The Westin St. Francis, venue for Tremaine Convention

There were some ulterior motives beyond simply visiting the City by the Bay. The annual Tremaine Dance Convention in San Francisco is traditionally been slated for the weekend after Thanksgiving, and this year was no exception. My wife has taught dance for several years at a local studio, and I figured we could catch some of her students’ competition dances at the event. As this is the last year she will be teaching (before we bring our kids home), I figured it would be extra special for her to attend.

I have been to San Francisco many times over the past few years. But rather than letting it feel like old hat, I was excited for a weekend away. Most of my trips to the Bay are for work, and it is rare that my wife and I get any time in the city. The last time was supposed to be special, but it turned into a hectic anniversary spent getting a passport.

mark_hopkins-exterior

The Mark Hopkins Hotel

For our first night I was able to get a fantastic rate for a night at the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins, an iconic, historic hotel located at the top of San Francisco’s Nob Hill. At only 4 blocks from the dance convention and Union Square, the location was great as well.

mark_hopkins-front

Front of the Mark Hopkins

The hotel normally runs $300+ per night for a standard room, or 60,000 IHG points. We got it for way less. It was actually the lowest rate I had ever seen for the Mark Hopkins.

mark_hopkins-christmas_tree

Christmas tree in the Mark Hopkins lobby

The Mark Hopkins is beautiful. The lobby and restaurant were already decorated for Christmas. Check-in was a little busy, and I could tell the front desk just wanted to get us on our way. They did upgrade us to a corner room, but not on a high floor or with a view of the Bay. But it was still very nice (main view is header photo).

mark_hopkins-lot

View of the front valet lot

We spent a relaxing night at the hotel, simply enjoying the time together. A great part of the experience was enjoying dessert at the Top of the Mark, the 19th floor restaurant with wonderful views of downtown San Francisco and the Bay.

top_of_the_mark-view

View from our table at the Top of the Mark

The next day we visited Union Square with its traditional Christmas tree. We considered ice skating at the rink as well, but were a bit turned off by the price. As it turned out, it was raining heavily during the middle of the day, so I was quite happy we didn’t buy tickets. We’ll have some skating opportunities near home before the season is over.

union_square-christmas_tree

The Christmas Tree in Union Square

After lunch and a crazy drive through town to re-park the van (we burnt an hour looking for an open parking garage), it was time for the dance competition. I left my wife at the mezzanine level of the Westin St. Francis and headed off to a coffee shop for the evening. After blogging and slacking for a while, I decided go watch Arrival at the AMC Metreon.

I fetched my wife roughly five(!) hours (man, that is a lot of dancing). Our second night was a cash and points booking at a Holiday Inn Express just over an hour from the city. The two stays would finish off my Fall 2016 IHG Accelerate promotion.

Sunday was spent driving home, enjoying the redwoods, the rain, and the time together. Now that we have a more reliable vehicle, I hope we can take many more weekend getaways.

 

 

 

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