Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Domestic Travel (page 1 of 4)

My Kids Magically Fixed United

Let’s face it…traveling anywhere when you live on the beautiful California Redwood Coast is a chore. I have a love/hate relationship flying out of the Arcata airport. The convenience cannot be understated. But that is when things go smoothly. When things go wrong, and they go wrong far too often, it can be a major pain in the neck (SEE: My Second United Horror Story).

Lately I’ve taken to booking out of a bigger airport if time is of the essence, typically if I am flying across the country for work. But for our recent trip to the Southwest, convenience won.

Flying out of Arcata Airport worth the deal

For our trip to the Southwest, I booked last minute tickets for a steal: $91 and 22,500 Avianca LifeMiles for all three of us. The beauty of this plan was that we got to fly out of Arcata. The nerve-wracking part of the plan was also that we were flying out of Arcata.

Over a total of about 15 flights that I’ve flown in or out of Arcata, no fewer than 3 have been canceled. A solid 20% cancellation rate. That’s horrible. Delays or cancellation have thrown a wrench in our plans enough times that I literally prefer driving to the Bay to fly most places these days.

Given this experience, there was a bit of trepidation as our trip approached.

Wait…this was an Arcata flight, right?

I kept my eye on the United app during the day of our planned departure. The previous legs serviced by our aircraft were on time, so things were looking good. Our plane landed at the Arcata Airport right on time while we were still driving north. It looked like everything would go smoothly. And there was no fog to stop us this time (SEE: My Second United horror story)!

Boarding was quick in Arcata, as the plane was barely half full. Amazingly, there wasn’t any message from the captain stating the SFO tower had requested we stay on the ground. Too often they don’t have a spot for us and the flight gets delayed until SFO air traffic control can slip our landing into the incoming traffic. This time we were off the ground well ahead of schedule.

Maybe it was because we’d taken off “backwards”. On all other flights in or out of Arcata, the everything is operated off of Runway 32. This time we took off in the opposite direction, from Runway 14. This allowed me to get the shot of the airport as we circled around to the west.

Besides a little turbulence, the flight was fantastic. We were even in economy plus, and I had two seats to myself, so there was room to spare. These ERJ-175s are a much better ride than the tiny CRJs. I couldn’t believe it when we arrived in San Francisco a ridiculous 29 minutes early.

This has never happened on any flight I’ve taken out of Arcata. I’m pleased if we are even remotely on time. Had we really just flown the same little route that is so constantly plagued by delays???

I told the kids this was the best flight I’d ever taken out of Arcata. They didn’t seem to care in the slightest. Figures their first time flying outta here would go more smoothly than I’ve ever experienced.

Being treated like we’re in first class

To top things off, the service was ten times better than it’s ever been. While the flight attendants pretty much never offer drinks on the short hop to the Bay, they do bring by snacks. The offering consisted of only pretzels…unless you were my kids. The flight attendant offered them the last two stroopwafels from the morning. Lucky ducks. All they did was munch snacks and stare out the windows.

Then near the end of the flight the first-class flight attendant brought me two more snacks: Oreos and gummy bears. Do kids hardly fly? Or do the Skywest FAs single them out for special treatment? I’ve never really observed either. It’s like they knew we try to limit our kids sugar intake and were working against us.

To top it off, the flight attendant on the plane to Tucson handed me an small bag of Haribo gummy bears for the kids. I didn’t even know they had these on the plane! Or maybe they were her own. I have no clue. I just know people kept handing me candy for the kids, our flights were empty, and far more ahead of schedule than I’ve ever seen them. If this is the new United Airlines experience, sign me up every time.

Conclusion

I’m not sure what happened to the old United Airlines I’ve come to love endure, but this was definitely my best flight ever out of Arcata. And a great start to our week-long road trip.

Cheap United awards to the Rockies in early summer!

United is currently offering an award sale for a select number of outdoor-adventure destinations in the mountains, which could make for the perfect early summer getaway. Destinations include:

  • Aspen, Colorado (ASE)
  • Bozeman, Montana (BZN)
  • Gunnison, Colorado (GUC)
  • Jackson Hole, Wyoming (JAC)
  • Montrose, Colorado (MTJ)
  • Steamboat Springs, Colorado (HDN)
  • Vail, Colorado (EGE)

These prices are good for travel between June 9-27, 2018.

For itineraries less than 700 miles, you’re looking at a mere 15,000 miles round-trip. Anything longer than that is 18,750 miles. You do have to book a round-trip ticket to qualify for these prices. One quirk: United doesn’t take connections into consideration when determining the 700 mile cutoff, so a couple airports from Arcata qualify for the cheaper prices, even if they have a connection in Los Angeles (notably, Jackson Hole, Wyoming).

Important note: You do have to either be a United MileagePlus credit cardholder or a MileagePlus premier member to take advantage of these prices. If you aren’t either of these, you’ll pay the standard 12,500 miles each way. If you haven’t picked up the United MileagePlus Explorer card yet, consider the current inflight offer for 50,000 bonus miles and waived annual fee.

Is there award space?

An award sale is only good if there is actually space for people to book. I did a bit of research, and it appears there are a decent number of seats available. I actually stumbled onto the sale by looking to book an award to Jackson Hole. I hadn’t received an email and was scratching my head at the odd 7,500-mile price. Now it all makes sense!

Book by May 21 if you’re interested!

Southwest Road Trip 2018: An Overview

After canceling a planned trip to Europe, I decided to still make the best of the vacation time I had allotted for myself. I was already planning on being away, so work was covered (I *did* work one week, still). The question was…what to do with the second one?

Planning a trip in record time

I’ve had many-a-whim of planning a trip. Depending on the given fare sale, wide open award space, or other deal-of-the-day, it’s been hard to restrain myself at times. Especially when it would be super inexpensive and a great use of points. The biggest hindrance is nearly always available time. For this last-minute trip, though, time wasn’t the issue. And I had a particular card up my sleeve I’ve been waiting to play.

For quite a while now, the idea of doing a one-way road trip from Arizona has been brewing in my mind. Late Spring is the perfect time to do this, as the weather is still nice, and you can score some amazing rental car deals. The companies all try to relocate their cars out of Arizona, since who wants to visit Phoenix in July??

Booking cheap flights to Tucson and a cheap rental car

With less than a week until departure, I locked our flights in for a total of $91 and 22,500 Avianca LifeMiles. Never heard of either? Read about using Avianca LifeMiles for United flights and how I scored an awesome last-minute redemption. United award space is generally good very close-in, and we took advantage of this. There was plenty of space to Tucson and Phoenix and other southwest destinations showing at united.com.

Our car rental was locked in for $101 for 8 days. This is pretty much unbeatable. I even made $3.50 cash back by booking through the Ebates cash-back portal (referral link, if you join and spend $25, I get a bonus). I’ve seen good rates on these deals, and this about matches the lowest I’ve ever found. It makes sense, though, as you are actually the one doing the rental car company a favor by moving their car. Otherwise they’d either pay to truck it to a better summer market, or it’d be a stranded asset for several months.

So we would have eight days to make it from Arizona back home. I quickly penciled in a few major destinations, and other ideas quickly filled out our itinerary. Among other places, we would see Saguaro National Park, Sedona, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, and Death Valley.

Overview of our travels

I’m trying to get a bit better about organizing trip reports. I know some are a quick rundown of a few sights and maybe a hotel review. For our longer trips, though, having an outline is the better way to go. It keeps me on track as I take a few weeks (or more) to find the time to post. Here is a quick rundown of what I plan to post in covering our Southwest road trip report:

  • My Kids Magically Fixed United
  • Should you Visit Colossal Cave Mountain Park?
  • Pima Air and Space Museum – Must see for the aviation enthusiast!
  • 2 Consistently Good Mid-Range Chain Hotel Brands for Families
  • Kings Canyon – Gould Mine Loop Hike at Saguaro National Park
  • Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort Agave Suite: A Review
  • Easiest Sedona Hike  with a View
  • 3 Tips for Hiking with Kids in the Desert
  • Visiting the Grand Canyon in May – What’s with the Snow?
  • Westgate Las Vegas Resort and Casino: A Review
  • Goodbye, Las Vegas. Let’s not ever do this again.
  • 3 Reasons Red Rocks National Conservation Area is a Must-See
  • Holiday Inn Express Pahrump Review – This may be the best HIE I’ve seen?
  • 3 Highlights (and 2 Disappointments) Visiting Death Valley
  • A New Favorite California Scenic Drive
  • Laying Eyes on Tahoe for the first time
  • This is the New Longest Our Kids Have Survived in the Car

Gutsy, I know, given my typical post rate of 1-2 per week. But having goals helps. I’ll add links to each as I post.

Overall, the trip was great. The kids had a blast. My only miscalculation was planning more driving near the end of the trip rather than pacing things a little more evenly. This meant they were very ready to get home during the last couple days. But…at least I now know the new longest time they can make it in the car?

Holiday Inn Auburn Review

Pros: Good quality for the Holiday Inn brand, great pool, nice location in Auburn

Cons: Decent breakfast, but service could use some improvement

Back in January I visited the Sacramento area with our older two kids on a long weekend adventure (SEE: Overview of our fun weekend in Sacramento). Not to let an opportunity pass me by to sandwich work and leisure together, I was able to tack on an extra night at the Holiday Inn Auburn so that I could take my FAA Part 107 test and receive my small unmanned aerial systems pilot license (which was subsequently hilariously messed up).

The Holiday Inn Auburn requires 20,000 IHG points per night, which is a pretty good deal considering their typical rates. For most dates I would be willing to burn my points to stay here. In this case, however, work was paying. I’d worked out a deal where they’d cover the last night of the trip since I’d normally have to travel for the test anyway, although not quite as far.

Arriving at the Holiday Inn Auburn

I found that there was a testing location in Auburn, which isn’t far from Sacramento, and so I booked the final night of our trip here. The Holiday Inn Auburn is right off the freeway in the middle of town. It was less than an hour drive from our other hotel, which meant the kids didn’t get carsick.

holiday inn auburn lobby

The lobby was appointed nicely and definitely felt more upscale. Due to the lack of standardization within the Holiday Inn brand, I don’t really consider them to be upscale. But some can border on it. If I’m looking for a truly upscale hotel, it’ll be something like the Marriott, the Westin or a Hyatt. But then I’d be paying for it with my own points.

Check in was smooth and easy, which has been the norm for IHG. Honestly, I tend to only ever have issues at either super budget hotels, or high end hotels that are quite busy and you have to wait in the queue. I hate waiting to simply check into a hotel. Actually, I really don’t like waiting in general.

Room

The room at the Holiday Inn Auburn was nice, and it felt in line with what I have come to expect from the good hotels after several stays with the brand. Rather than being dated and tired like the previous Holiday Inn we stayed in (SEE: Holiday Inn Rancho Cordova Review), the room felt clean and fresh.

holiday inn auburn beds

Our bed situation was two queens, which is pretty standard. The couple times I have accidentally booked or received two doubles, it makes for a terrible night as I get kicked incessantly by my son. A king and sofa-bed, when offered, is honestly the best when traveling with two kids of opposite genders.

A couple Holiday Inns at which I’ve stayed have been in fairly old buildings, which makes finding outlets for electronics a bit inconvenient. Not here. They have nicely installed sockets over the nightstand. The reading lights mounted to the beds were nice as well.

There was also a work desk and armchair, pretty standard for any hotel room. More outlets were available in the lamp.

The room also had a Keurig coffee maker, ceramic mugs, and a small selection of tea and coffee. It also included a fridge, which was unexpected. I don’t think it is a standard amenity for Holiday Inns. When traveling with my wife, a fridge is a must. A full kitchen is preferred.

There was nothing special about the bathroom, except it was in much better condition here at the Holiday Inn Auburn than at the Holiday Inn Rancho Cordova.

Overall, the room met expectations for what I consider to be standard for Holiday Inns. I wish there wasn’t so much variation among the chain. It’s kinda like Sheraton with SPG. Some are old and tired, others are new (or renovated) and great hotels. You really need to do some research before booking. The Holiday Inn Auburn passed the test for me.

The kids’ favorite place is always the pool

I keep coming back to this again and again. While the kids do comment on the overall quality of the hotel (and have quickly learned to distinguish between a $300 hotel we are getting for free versus the $50 motel I’ll sometimes book), most of their comments focus on the pool. Is there a pool? Is it warm? Is it nice? Having a pool is really all they care about. I’m constantly reminded of this post by Dan at Points with a Crew.

holiday inn auburn pool

The pool at the Holiday Inn Auburn turned out to be a great one for the kids. It was warmer than the last one, and it made for a great evening swim.

I camped out in the whirlpool spa, to the kids dismay. While the pool was warm enough for them, it wasn’t warm enough for me. Unless its super hot out, it better be bathwater.

Breakfast at the Holiday Inn Auburn

I’d booked a breakfast rate at the hotel for little more (~$5) than what the normal rate was. This normally includes breakfast for two, but kids eat free at Holiday Inns, so we all ate for the $5 extra. These rates are sometimes worth booking if it is available.

Obviously, it can easily make sense to book at another hotel that simply offers free breakfast to everyone, but this was a good deal for a hotel that typically charges for breakfast.

However, I was a bit skeptical after having breakfast at the Holiday Inn Rancho Cordova. Breakfast there wasn’t up to par from my previous experiences with Holiday Inns. My favorites are still the Holiday Inn Old Sydney and the Holiday Inn Sydney – Waterfront in Nova Scotia.

holiday inn auburn breakfast

While not fine dining by any means, breakfast here was a buffet that is a step above a Holiday Inn Express or most other “free breakfast hotels”. I still find it hard for a hotel to really make a “fancy” breakfast (and find it even harder to pay for it!).

The one way in which breakfast fell flat was service. The two attendants did very little besides talk to each other. There were a couple items that were out, and they barely got around to restocking them by the time we finished up.

What to do in Auburn

This was my second time in Auburn. Both visits have been quick, and I am actually pretty unfamiliar with what the area offers. Last time was with friends several years ago, and we headed to Roseville for most of the time. This time we didn’t really do much besides quickly stop in old town. True to their gold mining roots, it features a giant statue of a miner panning for gold. What I *do* know is that the area includes hiking and biking opportunities along the American River, breweries and wineries, and a couple museums.

My other stop with the kids was at Foresthill Bridge – the highest bridge in California. Years ago, this is where my friends and I got fiercely chewed out by a CHP officer for throwing rocks over 700 feet down into the river below. Considering that there are boaters, hikers and bikers below, it was a stupid choice on our part. Of the things on my “young and dumb” list, this is probably the worst. I made sure to tell my kids that rock throwing was off the table.

Conclusion

After that, we grabbed our bags and headed out. Overall, our stay at the Holliday Inn Auburn was nice. My kids enjoyed the pool, and the hotel met my expectations in terms of what a Holiday Inn should be. If we ever headed back to the area, I’d hope to stay again.

2 Tips for Planning a Last-Minute Trip

After deciding to abort my planned trip to Europe, my wife and I had a long discussion about how to approach my two weeks off. It would have been fairly easy to go back to work (I have been putting in a little time this week), but we decided to see if there were other options on the table. We ultimately settled on the idea of me taking the older two kids on a road trip for a week.

At only six days out, there wasn’t much time to plan. And awards can be expensive. But luckily I have a couple tricks up my sleeve….

Tip #1 – Understand how award space works

Last-minute awards can be a either a big ouch, or they can be a gold mine. It all depends on the loyalty program. Any revenue-based program (i.e. Southwest, JetBlue) will be a big ouch if you need to book a ticket a week out. Delta is usually awful as well. American is meh. United, on the other hand, is a stellar choice. In my experience, United tends to release a lot of award seats close-in. They are my go-to if we are looking for a last-minute award deal.

Not looking too bad for 4 people just a few days out

There is just one big hurdle: the utterly ridiculous close-in booking fee. It’s basically extortion. I can’t decide if I hate it more or less than hotel resort fees.

Booking tickets for the three of us from Arcata to Tucson would cost 37,500 miles and $241.80. Not fun. And not worth it. The space is there, but booking through United is a less-than-ideal option.

Enter Avianca Lifemiles

Avianca LifeMiles are a fantastic alternative. And we have a small pile of them right now from when I signed up for the Avianca Vuela Visa (SEE: Lucrative Offer! New Avianca Lifemiles credit cards). You can also get Lifemiles by transferring your Citi ThankYou Points to that program.

Avianca rolled out a short-haul award chart for the United State last year that divided the USA into 3 regions. All intra-region travel is only 7,500 miles each way, and this includes connections. We can head nearly anywhere in the west for either 2,500 or 5,000 miles less than what United charges! My only word of warning is that the system chokes on awards with more than one connection. And good luck if you have to call an agent (better brush up on your Spanish).

One critical piece of this puzzle is the fact that Avianca doesn’t charge extortion a close-in fee (but they do still charge an annoying $25 award booking fee). I managed to book our tickets out of our local Arcata airport (SEE: The Upstart Arcata-Eureka Airport), a rare treat for personal travel. It cost us a total of 22,500 miles plus $91.80 for the three of us.

Last minute tickets were going for $866 round-trip, so this yields a return of 5.3 cents per mile. In all honesty, we wouldn’t be taking this trip if it wasn’t for miles, so calculating redemption value is a bit silly. What really matters is that we are saving a lot compared to using United miles for the trip.

Tip #2 – Know when it is one-way rental season

A trip like this has been at the back of my mind for some time. Every spring, rental car companies will give you rock bottom rates to get their cars out of the desert, and every fall they will offer you deals to take them back. Why do they do this? Trust me, it has nothing to do with cutting you a deal on your family trip.

This annual cycle is summed up in two words: inventory management. Car rental companies need more cars in certain locations during different times of the year, so instead of paying top dollar to truck them from state to state, they’ll simply cut you a deal to move one for them.

So…in essence I am helping Alamo move a car from Tucson, where nobody wants to be in July, to Sacramento. Whether that is really a better summer destination is up for debate, but Alamo would rather have the car in California than in Arizona. For this I am paying a whopping $101 for an eight day rental.

Similar deals are available from Florida, where you can take cars at a discount back to summer markets in the Northeast. An even better tip: some systems won’t differentiate between the deals offered. On other words, even though the company says “rent in Florida and return in New York” and “rent in Arizona and return in California”, you can actually drive a car all the way across the country! I priced out a two week rental from Miami to San Francisco for $228!! I’ve paid that much for a four day work rental!!!

Stop. I’m getting all excited again. Let me finish up with our trip details…

Planning our time through the Southwest

The hotels easily fell into place for the trip. I have points with most major chains, and there were plenty to pick from at most destinations. The harder issue for me was maximizing value. Do I use the Hilton points? Or do I book with IHG? Or do I pay $55 cash for a nearby Quality Inn and save the points for a better use? I think I got the cost down to ~$100 cash for our 8 nights.

The plan is to make our way from Tucson to Sacramento day by day, averaging 3-4 hours on the road. Sightseeing stops are planned at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Saguaro National Park, Sedona, the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, Las Vegas, Death Valley, and the Harrah Collection in Reno. I’ve also thrown in a couple of cheap resort hotels where the kids can spend a day in the warmth and water.

I’ve honestly never put together a trip so quickly. Thirty-six hours is probably a record. But I decided that I could salvage the vacation time, and this seemed like one of the best options. More importantly, I hope to make up for how utterly disappointed I left our two older kids after pulling the plug on our Europe trip.

Featured image courtesy of Kentaro Iemoto under CC 2.0 license.  

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