Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Domestic Travel (page 1 of 9)

Southwest Road Trip 2018: A Recap

**This is a re-post, but after finally wrapping up all the posts I’d planned to write, I wanted to run a recap**

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 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.

We had 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 several months to find the time to post. Here the rundown of our 2018 Southwest U.S. road trip:

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 they can survive seven hours in the car in one day. 🙂

Seattle at Super Speed, Day 1: Packing in the Sights

After a long day of travel and late arrival into Seattle, my son and I woke up with a lovely view of the Space Needle. Our hotel couldn’t have been in a better location (SEE: Hyatt House Seattle Downtown Review). I love hotel rooms with a nice view, and this was certainly one of the best.

Besides the Space Needle, there are a few other prime Seattle attractions located all on the same grounds. The Seattle Monorail gives you easy access to downtown and other mass transit. But as we were so close to Seattle’s most iconic attraction, I figured we’d start there. I mean, what could be more fitting?

Exquisite views of the Emerald City

The Space Needle is literally a three-minute walk from the Hyatt House, so we were there in no time at all.

One aspect of this trip is that our sightseeing passes were sponsored by CityPASS. I wrote a full review of CityPASS over at Points with a Crew, detailing the value you can expect to get from the pass, depending on which Seattle attractions you enjoy. In general, if you’re going to hit four or more of the listed spots, it’s worth the money.

It was easy to pick up our passes at the Space Needle, as there was hardly a line this early in the morning. The pass is good for seven consecutive days, which means you can take your time enjoying Seattle. Given that we had only two days in the city, we had to pack in as much as possible. This first day would include three of the five attractions on the pass.

This was my third visit to the Space Needle, which I have visited every time I’ve been to Seattle. It provides some of the best views of the city. At the base there is an interesting exhibit that shows the planning and construction of the tower, which debuted for the 1962 World’s Fair, along with the monorail. It has been a Seattle icon ever since.

An elevator ride later,  and we were looking out over the city. It was an utterly typical Seattle day, which meant we didn’t get views of either Mount Rainier or the Olympics across Puget Sound. I’m not sure how often it gets that clear up here, but I hope to eventually visit during one of those times. I’d happily pay a premium at the Space Needle to enjoy those views.

We still had a lovely view of downtown Seattle, Elliot Bay, and Lake Union.

Heading downstairs, I enjoyed standing on the glass floor, which my son thought was crazy. No matter how much I assured him it was safe, there was no way he would step out there with me.

When we’d had our fill of the lovely views, we finally headed back down to earth and down to the waterfront for our next stop. Transit included the monorail, of course. It is a fun diversion, and the rail passes just feet from our hotel!

On to the aquarium!

The Seattle Aquarium was next on the list, another attraction available using CityPASS. I’m not going to go into detail since I did a separate write-up on that attraction as well. What I will say is that the Seattle Aquarium is worth a bit more time than we were able to spend.

Plan at least a couple of hours to enjoy the whole thing, even more if you hope to catch a few of the shows. My son and many of the other kids there really enjoyed the touch pool.

We visited during Octopus week, which was definitely an enjoyment. The “primetime” show featured both a wolf eel and a Giant Pacific Octopus, which was absolutely packed. I took the chance to enjoy it from the cafe upstairs while ordering lunch.

After our visit to the aquarium we picked up our Argosy tickets. It was my intent to hop on the midday sailing, but I forgot to factor in that it was a holiday weekend. It was completely sold out. We picked up tickets for the following day, which would be hard to catch, but probably doable between our Boeing factory tour and a visit to the Museum of Flight.

Pike Place coffee stop. No, not Starbucks

A pick-me-up was in order halfway through the day. It is common knowledge that the original Starbucks location is at Pike Place Market in Seattle, which could have been an obvious choice. But I have a little insider knowledge on the best coffee at Pike Place.

First we made another stop, though. The City Fish Co. is a great spot to stop by, just in case you catch the famous fish toss they are known for. Or maybe just buy a whole fish yourself. We arrived just in time to catch a customer buying a golden trout.

From there we headed across the street and up to the second story of the uphill building to Storyville Coffee, my favorite coffee spot in the market. The coffee is some of the best I’ve ever had, and the baristas are pleasant. They often offer free samples of some of the baked goods as well.

I do have a bit of an inside connection to Storyville, as their coffee roasting studio (located out on Bainbridge Island) and shops are owned by the same individual that formerly employed my dad. I had a chance meeting with the manager, who I’d previously met when he visited Ferndale years ago. It was great to see him again.

Supercold! and the Pacific Science Center

Warmed up and ready to tackle the afternoon, we rode the monorail back to the Space Needle station, headed for the Pacific Science Center. I hadn’t been here since I was a kid when my family visited Seattle way back in 2003. That’s 2003, give or take a year, as I cannot remember exactly when.

The Pacific Science Center has a number of different exhibits, ranging from animatronic dinosaurs, to space exploration, to a super cool model of Puget Sound that lets you watch the tidal currents in action. One day is simulated over the course of 73 seconds. Everything is controlled by a series of gears on the wall that cause weights to rises and fall, simulating the tides. 

There are also presentations, only one of which we attended. It was titled Supercold!, where Katy, a very enthusiastic staff member, engaged the kids with a presentation on the various states of matter. Of course freezing things with liquid nitrogen was a hit.

She even made the kids recite a hysterical “pledge”…I quote: “I promise to always…always, always, always…be safe around super cold things because I like my fingers and my eyeballs unfrozen.” All of this brought back my college science class days when we did some of the same things, making sure to keep our fingers and eyeballs unfrozen. 

I highly recommend the Pacific Science Center if you visit Seattle with your kids. It is much more than your typical kids museum, as it geared toward kids of all ages. There is enough for adults to enjoy, too.

Space Needle, take two

One of the perks of CityPASS is that you are able to enjoy the Space Needle twice, once during the daylight and again at night on the same day. Although I’m not sure I’d spring for the ticket if it wasn’t bunlded with the rest of the CityPASS, a night view of the city was definitely the perfect final stop.

Unlike our visit that morning when the Space Needle opened, there was much more of a line at dusk. I’m sure sunset is one of the most popular times, especially if it is clear and you can catch a beautiful sky as the sun drops past the Olympics across the sound. Although we didn’t make it up in time to really get a view, we did enjoy a great nighttime view of downtown Seattle.

Calling it a day

We found a place to eat dinner a couple blocks from our hotel. It had been a while since I’d had Thai food, and I figured we should give Mantra Thai a try. I thought the food was excellent. My son was a bit hesitant to try anything, but ended up enjoying the fried rice that we ordered. I wish my kids we all more adventurous eaters.

At the end of the day, we hit about as much as I figured we could do: the Space Needle, the Seattle Aquarium, the Pacific Science Center, and Pike Place Market. Given the amount of time each of these attractions requires, I don’t really think we could have packed in anything else. You could certainly spend more time at any of these and stretch out your visit. But we only had two days, and with the second full of aviation sights, Seattle at super speed it had to be!

Laying Eyes on Tahoe for the First Time

While I’ve visited much of my hone state (I only have two counties left!), there are a number of places that I’ve still not had the opportunity to see. A couple of these are a mild source of shame, as they are some of the most beautiful locations within California. And at the top of this short list was Lake Tahoe (SEE: One place I am ashamed I haven’t visited).

When I planned a last-minute road trip with our older two kids last year, Tahoe seemed like a great final stop before returning home. It wasn’t too far off the most ideal route between Death Valley and northern California, and it was a far more beautiful option than crossing over into the central valley. It would be a fairly quick visit, but at least we’d get to see the lake.

The first stop: Emerald Bay

After a morning spent driving up Highway 395 and a stop a Mono Lake (SEE: A New Favorite California Scenic Drive), we finally crossed through Alpine County and over to Lake Tahoe. Emerald Bay was the first stop. You know those classic photos of Lake Tahoe? Sorta like this one?

That’s Emerald Bay. It’s an utterly picturesque spot, and probably the most photographed point around the entire lake, as it is easily accessible from South Lake Tahoe. Parking was a bit tricky, as everyone is competing for a spot. We were fortunate to find a place not too far from Emerald Bay and then walked down the road.

Not only did we get to see Emerald Bay stretching out before us, but we also enjoyed lovely Eagle Falls. The kids and I crossed through the water a few times, which was frigid, but we were careful to stay clear of the sharp drop. It is a very picturesque spot. Just don’t get too close to the edge, as there was a death here recently, directly related to taking a selfie.

We took a brief walk along the trail heading south from Eagle Falls, but all too soon had to return to the car and head back into town.

An evening at the “beach”

After checking into our hotel and enjoying some Mexican food for an early dinner, we headed to the beach at the South Lake Tahoe Recreation Area. We walked the short stretch of sand (which is rather unlike ocean sand), and the kids enjoyed playing on the rocks and in the very gently lapping waves.

It started to get chilly quickly, definitely a drawback of visiting in early April. But, man, is Tahoe beautiful. The photos don’t do it justice. It was so much better to finally be there in person and see this gem of our state. We’ll have to come back for a summer trip where we can explore and enjoy the lake longer than half a day.

Our last stop was for ice cream. I found a great spot right at the Nevada state line called The Baked Bear. I’d never heard of the chain before (they have a number of locations in California and in a smattering of other states), but it is an excellent place. Pricey, but excellent. They make custom ice cream sandwiches where you get to pick your cookies, ice cream, and a coating or topping. Definitely a hit with the kids.

Conclusion

We’ll miss you, Tahoe. Hopefully we’ll be back to visit soon. Don’t we look like a bunch of ragamuffins? Obviously none of us cared to really brush our hair after seven days in the car (LOL).

This wrapped up our final full day of our April 2018 road trip (SEE: Southwest Road Trip Overview). I’m finally done with my posts, only a little over a year later. Blogging over at Points with a Crew has taken precedence, but even that is changing, as I’ve landed a new opportunity that I am very excited about. More on that later. I’m just glad I’m done. A couple more trips to finish, and I’ll be wrapped up with most of our adventures.

4 Things You Didn’t Know About Boise

In February my older son and I spent some time in Seattle, enjoying two days of sightseeing in both the typical downtown attractions and also the aviation attractions, including the Museum of Flight and the Boeing Everett Factory Tour.

Tacked onto this was a two-night stay in Boise, Idaho. I’d never been to Idaho, and as the flights didn’t cost any more (well, a mere $5.60 more because of the TSA fee), using Alaska’s amazing stopover trick, it was a no-brainer.

Our time here was a bit more laid-back than our lightning fast itinerary in Seattle, but we really enjoyed it. I also learned a number of things about both Idaho and Boise. Here are five facts about Boise you may not know:

It’s the City of Trees

Boise was originally named by French trappers who purportedly called it “Les Bois” (the forest) or “la Riviere Boisse” (the forested river) for the trees they finally found as they make their trek along the Snake River. Apparently they hadn’t seen trees for a while, so the stands along the river in the Boise area were a refreshing sight.

Personally, I didn’t see appreciably more trees than other small cities I’ve visited. The hills also weren’t very forested from what I could tell. But then again, I am comparing the distant scattered pines to the thick mixed evergreens we have in northern California. We also visited in winter when the trees are devoid of foliage. Boise has made a concerted effort to plant a maintain a large number of trees in the city, starting way back in the mid-1800s.

It’s Boy-see, not Boy-zee

I’m definitely one to try to learn place names as accurately as I can, preferably from locals. Notable examples include “Cal-gree” (Calgary), “Tronno” (Toronto), and “Row-noak” (Roanoke). But this distinction was one of which I was completely unaware before we arrived in the Idaho capital.

An incorrect pronunciation is something that will immediately tag you as an out-of-towner. Get that ‘s’ sound down before you pay Boise a visit. Otherwise you’ll stand out like an evergreen in a deciduous forest in winter.

It has the largest community of Basque Americans

The Basque are a European people from the area surrounding the western Pyrennes and are one of the larger people-groups in the world without their own country. What I find most interesting about the Basque is that their language is unlike any other in Europe and is completely unrelated to the Latin-derived (Romance) languages of surrounding Spain, France, Portugal and Italy.

The Basque diaspora has resulted in Basque people all over the world, including a few pockets within the United States. More than any other state, Idaho is associated with the Basque presence in the U.S. Boise is home to the Basque Museum and Cultural Center that celebrates the history, culture and heritage of this people. Boise and Gernika (officially Guernica, Spain) are also sister cities, and my son and I had dinner at Bar Gernika during our stay in Boise.

It’s an up-and-coming foodie city

The number and variety of the restaurants in Boise surprised me. From Thomas Hammer Coffee Roasters down the street from our hotel to an introduction to Basque cuisine at Bar Gernika, I definitely enjoyed our quick taste of Boise. I don’t do fine dining with the kids, but there is plenty to enjoy on the more budget end of the spectrum. Boise is off the food radar, but it shouldn’t be.

Craft beer, which has long been a fixture of the Pacific Northwest states of Washington and Oregon, is a distinct part of Idaho as well. If the food isn’t enough to satisfy you, a pint might. There are a number of breweries right in Boise, including award-winning Sockeye Brewing and Payette Brewing.

Conclusion

Boise may not be on your travel radar, but it is a city certainly worth visiting for a couple days. If you’re considering other places in Idaho for a potential trip, whether skiing in Sun Valley or a fun summer weekend in Coeur d’Alene, consider a stop in the Idahoan capital as well.

American Airlines A321 Economy Review: San Francisco to Dallas

I know. Who would bother reviewing a domestic economy flight? With the millions of people who fly every year, sometimes weekly, domestic economy is old hat. Laying out the details of the experience is passé. But I also get that there are folks out there who have not flown much, if at all (and I still know a few), so this American Airlines A321 economy review is for them.

My daughter and I took a trip to South America a couple weeks ago, visiting Buenos Aires, Argentina and two spots in Uruguay. It was a lovely trip, and we even made some new friends in the process. The trip started with a drive to San Francisco (nearly free, I might add, thanks to Hertz points), followed by an overnight stay before our morning flight. To kick things off, we’d fly American Airlines A321 economy to Dallas where we would connect to our long haul leg.

The flight was booked as part of a business class award using 57,500 American Airlines miles per person. I did check back a number of times to see if space had opened up in the first class cabin, as you can make this sort of change to American Airlines award tickets for no fee. But no such luck. American Airlines A321 economy it was.

Arriving at SFO

Since I’d rented a car, arriving at the airport was as easy as dropping it at the rental car center and hopping on the Airtrain. We pulled in at 8:40 a.m. You might not think this is sufficient time to make a 10:04 departure, but it’s plenty with TSA Precheck. I have the timing down.

While we were aboard the Airtrain, I noticed construction has been progressing nicely on the Grand Hyatt SFO. This is one hotel that I’m eagerly anticipating. One of my travel predictions for 2019 is that it will be a Category 4 Hyatt, but with the increase of the Grand Hyatt DFW to a Category 5 property, this may be a bit too hopeful (SEE: 5 award travel predictions for 2019).

Security was a breeze. Like I said, TSA Precheck meant the wait was minimal. I’ve loved this service after being approved for Global Entry, which also allows expedited immigration when returning to the United States. In general, normal security at SFO isn’t all that bad.

Even after cutting things closer than many would, we still had a wait of 20 minutes at the gate. My daughter and I were in boarding group 4 due to my American Gold elite status, earned via status challenge last year. Not that this matters much. We’d checked her bag and only had my large backpack to worry about stuffing in an overhead bin.

If there had been seats in Main Cabin Extra, I could have moved us to them at check-in. But there were only a handful of middles, plus a pair in the exit row. As my daughter is only 12, we are not be able to sit there. The minimum age for the exit row is 15 years old. But I have no qualms flying American Airlines A321 economy for a three-hour flight.

Boarding our Airbus A321

There was something a bit special about our American Airlines flight to Dallas that day. It was odd to see balloons. I knew it couldn’t be new service, as this route is nothing new. Once we were in the middle of boarding, I finally got a look at the sign. It was to welcome a Make-A-Wish passenger “Mikey” flying with us. He was headed to Paris, and I hope he enjoyed himself immensely. We sure did when we visited (SEE: 3 Days in Paris: Day 3 – Savoring the City).

This must have been the longest boarding process for a narrow body aircraft that I’ve ever experienced. Bags were consistently being placed 1-3 rows behind where their owners were seated, and passenger traffic was a perpetual jam. Add in the clueless passengers taking their sweet time to get seated or trying to access their carry-on in the overhead while boarding is still progressing, and I see why Southwest boards the way they do.

Seat and in-flight entertainment

American Airlines A321 economy class is essentially like any other narrow-body jet you can fly commercially. There is little to differentiate it from other products. The seats are 18 inches wide and offer 31 inches of pitch, which is about as standard as you can get.

American Airlines A321 economy seat

We were seated in 14E and 14F, a middle and window, respectively. The seats are comfortable enough, and I felt I had plenty of legroom, even in economy. My only hindrance is self-inflicted, as I almost always have items to place under the seat, which restricts the legroom.

American Airlines A321 economy leg room

I’ve done much more middle seat flying now that we have kids, as I nearly always manage to score either a window or aisle when traveling solo. When traveling with my kids, I give them the window (although I might not after this trip, as my daughter was very uninterested in looking out the window). I’m not sure which model American’s A321S is, unless they simply mean this is the safety card for the “A321s”, as in, the American Airlines and legacy US Airways A321s. What the plane certainly is not is one of AA’s transcon-configured A321s with lie-flat business and first class seats.

This A321 actually has in-flight entertainment screens, which was a pleasant surprise. I did not expect it. American Airlines has been actively removing it in favor of bring-your-own-device entertainment, and I’d told my daughter that this (relatively) short flight from San Francisco to Dallas wouldn’t have it.

American Airlines A321 economy ife

The American Airlines A321 economy seats feature power outlets as well. I really appreciate when carriers offer this. Given the connectivity and proliferation of devices in our modern world, it’s critical, especially for business travel. Overall, it’s a fine economy cabin. No complaints. Better than a CRJ-200 (SEE: Argh! I thought I’d seen the last of the United CRJ-200) or anything with poorly-padded slimline seats.

Departure and service

Remarkably, our “wheels up” time wasn’t all that for off from what was scheduled. Our taxi time was short, much shorter than I anticipated. SFO can have a nasty conga line of planes waiting to take off at certain times of the day. We would certainly arrive into Dallas on schedule. Not that it really mattered when you have a 7-hour layover!

Service started about 30 minutes into the flight. As we hadn’t eaten at SFO, I decided that ordering food would be best to tide us over until we arrived in Dallas and could enjoy the lounge. The wrap is $10.99. I thought paying for the wrap with my CitiBusiness AAdvantage card would receive a 25% discount, but it turns out that is only for in-flight WiFi. Turns out its the Barclay Aviator Business card that receives food and beverage discounts. I get all my card benefits mixed up sometimes. At least I received 2 miles per dollar.

American Airlines A321 economy food

Among the airplane food I’ve had fairly recently, this was one of the best choices. I tend to opt for the wraps offered on Delta flights as well. The food is fresh and definitely beats most long-haul economy meals. The obvious downside is that they are for purchase, not free.

My daughter was soon engrossed in a movie. She chose Smallfoot. Since we had one pair of headphones between the two of us, and I was too cheap to buy yet another pair of airplane headphones, I decided to work instead of watching a film.

The WiFi, at least what I experienced searching aa.com, was rather poor. It struggled to load most pages. I was able to put an award on hold for this fall after finding a nice itinerary including Finnair business class space, though, which was nice. But it struggled the entire time. I’m quite glad I only used it for AA-allowed pages and didn’t pay for access, as I would have been unhappy spending money on WiFi this bad.

Conclusion

Our flight in American Airlines A321 economy class was a fine experience. The seat and service were typical of what you can expect flying one of the full service U.S. carriers. The in-flight entertainment screens were an unexpected pleasure, and not something I am used to enjoying on American Airlines. I typically look at Delta as offering the best IFE among the large U.S. carriers. Meals are available for purchase, and they aren’t half bad.

Our day was just beginning, though. With roughly seven hours to kill in Dallas, we would have the ability to visit two airport lounges before enjoying our overnight flight to Buenos Aires in business class!

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