Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Domestic Travel (page 1 of 6)

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

Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort Agave Suite: A Review

Pros: Great resort pool and other activities, reasonable breakfast, spacious room, good for families

Cons: Facilities a bit tired

After a day in Tucson (SEE: Should you visit Colossal Cave Mountain Park?, AND: Pima Air and Space Museum – Must see for the aviation enthusiast!) and a morning spent hiking in Saguaro National Park,  our two older kids and I headed to the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort for a fun afternoon in the pool.

I booked the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort as an award night. Prices over our dates weren’t bad, but I still didn’t want to shell out the cash. Our single night cost 41,000 Honors points. The added benefit of booking an award stay is that we didn’t have to pay the resort fee. If I’d moved the slider even a little bit to change our booking to a mix of cash and points, or paid cash for the night, the entire resort fee would be due.

So, if you’re ever looking at an extended Hilton resort stay, points are absolutely the way to go. I despise resort fees. If you are unfamiliar with them, check out this site.

Arriving at the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort

We drove up to the Phoenix area after spending two nights in Tucson enjoying Colossal Cave and the Pima Air and Space Museum. The morning was spent at Saguaro National Park, and we finally rolled into Phoenix about 3:00 in the afternoon.

The entrance to the resort is fairly easy to find. We drove up to the main lobby and checked in. The agent at the front desk was cheerful and helpful, giving us an orientation of the property as it was our first time here.

The property is big enough, however, that you’ll probably need to drive around to get closer to your room. We were in the North Pointe building at the very end of the top floor.

The front desk gave us a modest upgrade to a slightly nicer suite. Standard suites are located in the south building, while the Agave Suites are located in the north building. There isn’t a whole lot of difference between them from what I read, but the Agave Suites have been more recently remodeled.

Taking a look at our Agave Suite

The suite had a sufficient amount of space and comfort that I’d be willing to come back here with the whole family. With a living area, we could actually make it work for 5, if the hotel would allow that.

 

The front area includes the desk, couches, and a TV. It’s a great little living space.

There isn’t a full kitchen, but the fridge and counter space is enough to easily prepare food and cook if you bring a hot plate.

There isn’t quite enough seating for five, but it’s better than a hotel room that has a single desk chair or armchair. You can use the desk chair in addition to the living room seating.

The Agave Suite is definitely a true suite in that you can close the door between the living area and the bedroom. The bathroom is situated in the middle between the living and bedroom areas. One side has the toilet while the other holds the shower. The design is great as one person won’t tie up the bathroom for everyone.

Beyond the tiny hall and bathroom is the bedroom area. Ours had two queens, which with the sofa in the other room would be sufficient for our family of five.

But since there were only three of us this time, the Agave Suite was extra spacious.

There is a small balcony at the back with a lovely view of the parking lot. Not. At least the hills in the distance are pretty cool.

Overall, I was super pleased with the our room at the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort.

The River Ranch

The primary reason I’d booked the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort was…the resort part. Which in its case is called the River Ranch.

The April weather in Phoenix was lovely, and the pools were wonderfully refreshing. The kids spent literally hours in the water. I swam for a while and then laid back and took in some sun.

The main pool stretches around a middle landscaped hill that contains the top of the waterslide.

At one end of the pool there is an artificial waterfall feature. You can swim right up underneath them, and there are even benches to sit behind the screen of water. This was our favorite area of the pool.

There were not very many people present the day we were there. I cannot imagine what the place would be like if most of the lounge chairs were filled. It would be a zoo. Luckily, we’d picked a quiet day to stay at the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort.

The kids also enjoyed the lazy river. You can ride a full circuit around the mini-golf course on a tube.

The kids and I also played one round of mini-golf. Our first experience with this was in Costa Rica when we stayed at the Hotel Punta Leona at the Pacific in Costa Rica (SEE: Hotel Punta Leona review – stellar price for an all-inclusive). That time, everything was crazy. There was no taking turns; it was everyone just hitting the golf ball willy-nilly. This time we had a much more controlled game.

One of the kids favorite parts of the resort was the water slide. It isn’t very big, but unlike our stay at the Disneyland Hotel (SEE: Disneyland Hotel Frontier Tower adjoining deluxe view rooms review), there really wasn’t ever a line.

They did it over and over and over again.

I could have taken dozens of photos.

The River Ranch at the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort was entirely worth booking a resort hotel. We really don’t have much experience with resorts of any type, as they’ve never been high on my list of places to visit. My wife and I aren’t the types (well…more so me) to just head to a beach and park it for several days. Travel to me means walking through nature, experiencing culture, and taking in a new place. Resorts don’t fit the bill.

But with kids things are a bit different. They just want to have fun sometimes, and I’m trying to find a balance between “fun” activities and seeing the sights. So a resort stay now and then might become a bit more common.

Breakfast at Rico’s American Grill

One of the benefits of holding Hilton Gold status was being able to enjoy a free hot breakfast at one of the hotel restaurants, Rico’s American Grill, during our stay.

Instead of giving free breakfast to all of us as a Hilton Honors Gold benefit, the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort provides vouchers at the front desk. These are enough to cover their continental breakfast option ($10), or the buffet for the kids. If I recall correctly, the hotel did give us three vouchers, even though the they only have to extend the benefit to one guest.

I’ve found on multiple occasions now that Hilton is accommodating in that way when I’m traveling with two kids (SEE: DoubleTree Luxembourg Review). The kids got to pick from all of the items, while I had to make do with pastries and coffee.

But I really didn’t mind. There was a reasonable enough variety at Rico’s.

Overall, breakfast was good. It didn’t wow us in any way, but there were plenty of options at the buffet and the atmosphere was both casual and nice. Solid hotel breakfast, especially since it was free. Not sure I’d pay $19.99 for the adult buffet.

Outside of Rico’s on the patio area are some games. It was a nice Phoenix morning and not yet hot, so we hung around for a while playing Connect 4 and bean bag toss.

When the kids tired of the games, we moseyed back to the pool for an hour and a half. They enjoyed the water slide and pool, and then we dried off, packed up and loaded the car.

After that it was (sadly) time to hit the road to Sedona!

Area around the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort

There isn’t much in the immediate area around the resort. You’re basically in suburbia. There are some business and stores along the same road as the resort, but the rest of the area is just surrounded by houses. To the east are the hills seen in a couple photos.

There really isn’t anywhere to walk around the resort. If you have a car, you can see other sights in the Phoenix area. I wouldn’t suggest trying to visit the resort without a car. Or the Phoenix area, for that matter. The Phoenix metro is the textbook definition of suburban sprawl.

We did find a local Mexican restaurant down the street for dinner the first night.

Conclusion

Our one night at the Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort was enjoyable and a great value. We had a fun-filled afternoon swimming and playing mini-golf before returning to our room for a movie. Having Hilton Gold status and using points for the night helped us bring the cost of our stay to nearly $0 out of pocket.

Eating off-property is easy since you are essentially in suburbia and there are plenty of cheap local options. Honestly, I would suggest it. If you also are a fan of cooking in your hotel room, you can definitely get one that would allow that to work easily as well. You’d just need to bring all the cookware and a hot plate.

The Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort isn’t a glamorous place, but it’s a great value for families looking to stretch both their points or their budget. It’s definitely on my list of places to take the whole family in the future.

United adds another nonstop destination out of Arcata!

After the launch of United’s nonstop Los Angeles service earlier this year, I didn’t really think another nonstop flight was in the cards for our tiny airport. I’ve dreamed for the day we might have other options. But I figured that would remain a pipe dream.

Well…in a rather unexpected move by United Airlines, our tiny, local airport *is* going to see another nonstop destination!

United adding Arcata to Denver service

Starting in June of 2019, United will provide a once-daily service between Arcata and United’s Denver hub. This will take Humboldt from a single option this spring to three different nonstop flight options in about a year’s time. Connections in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Denver

The flight will be a night-turn, similar to the new schedule for the Los Angeles flight. The regional jet serving the route will leave Denver at 7:00 p.m., landing in Arcata at 8:50 p.m. It will return to Denver the following morning at 6:30 a.m.

The schedule is fantastic for work travel. United offers connections in Denver to many midwest destinations, which may turn people’s two-stop itineraries to one with a single connection. A healthy layover in Denver would provide enough time to have a nice lunch at the Timberline Grill before catching a connection (SEE: Timberline Grille Denver Airport Review).

Salt Lake City still on my wish-list

While I heartily welcome any additional air service, what I’d really like to see is service from another airline, specifically Delta and specifically Salt Lake City. Delta has become my favorite domestic airline, and it would be amazing if I could fly them locally. They briefly offered this service over a decade ago, but discontinued it after only a year.

Beyond Delta, I’d happily take an Alaska connection to Seattle, or an American connection to either Los Angeles or Phoenix. Any other airline would provide needed competition.

Still, I’m thankful that our area is getting more air service. I’m sure I’ll end up flying the hop to Denver once service begins.

Planning a last minute getaway to…Atlanta!

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

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

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

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

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

Why Atlanta? 

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

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

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

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

Putting all the deals together

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

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

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

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

Cash back for the win

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

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

Anyone have ideas of where we should go?

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

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

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

Featured image courtesy of tableatny under CC 2.0 license

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