Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Domestic Travel (page 1 of 5)

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

Pima Air and Space Museum – Must see for the aviation enthusiast!

After visiting Colossal Cave Mountain Park, we headed to the Pima Air and Space Museum as our second stop on the first day of our road trip across the Southwest (SEE: Southwest Road Trip 2018: An Overview). As an aviation aficionado (and with a son that is already very much into airplanes as well), it was a must-see while we were in Tucson.

General info for the Pima Air and Space Museum

The Pima Air and Space Museum is located on the eastern outskirts of Tucson, not far from both the airport and the Air Force base. The museum includes a massive 80 acres of exhibits featuring hundreds of aircraft. It is one of the largest non-government-funded air museums in the world.

Single-day entry prices are as follows:

  • Adult (13+) – $16.50
  • Junior (5-12) – $10.00
  • Senior (65+)/Active Military – $13.75
  • Child (< 4) – Free

There is also a cheaper price for Pima County residents. I’m honestly surprised they don’t offer a fairly inexpensive annual membership. The group rate (20+) is also only $13.50 per person for the day.

While we only were there for one day, the Pima Air and Space Museum also offers 2-day passes. If you’re a serious aviation enthusiast, this might be the best way to go. The 2-day pass is a great deal at $22.00 for adults and $12.50 for kids.

Indoor Exhibits

It is fitting that you are greeted by a reconstruction of a Wright Flyer as the very first exhibit. This brought back memories of our visit to the Museum of Flight near Boeing Field when I was 13 years old, where I got to take a couple turns in a simulator that allowed you to control the Wright Flyer almost exactly how Oroville Wright controlled in on that famous day near Kitty Hawk.

The main indoor hangar is filled with an incredible assortment of all kinds of aircraft, both civilian and military. You could spend most of a day in just this space.

There are also a few short films to watch at various locations and short sound clips. One of my favorite planes in the main hangar was the Martin PBM Mariner.

One of the coolest aircraft on display is a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.

pima air and space museum

My aspiring pilot had a blast at the controls of this kit plane. No, he didn’t get off the ground. Can you believe you would assemble this thing yourself? Not sure I’d trust a plane I put together.

We spent the bulk of our time in the main hangar. There is simply that much to see.

Other Hangars

There are a total of three other hangars besides the main one, as well as an additional building that is a memorial of the 390th Bombing Group and houses a B-17 Flying Fortress. This was the first model plane I completed as a kid, and I have always been fascinated with it.

With such an abbreviated schedule, we spent about 10 minutes in the 390th museum (sadly). We didn’t even get a chance to enter the other hangars. I opted for a tour of the grounds instead.

Outdoor Exhibits

There is so much to see in the outdoor exhibits that you could literally spend all day walking around and under every single aircraft on the 80 acres of the museum.

I ended up paying for the tram, as it was a fairly hot Arizona day, and I knew the kids wouldn’t be up for walking much of the outside areas. Plus, it was faster and included a guide, and we didn’t have a lot of time. At $6 per person, the tram adds up quickly for a family. But I would recommend it, especially if you are on a schedule.

One of the perks is that the drivers are retired professionals from the aviation industry. Our tour guide’s name was Ron. He was a retired pilot who had a 27-year career with Northwest Airlines after seven years as a Navy Reserve pilot. His knowledge of aircraft and aviation history was impressive.

The first tram stops were near some U.S. military fighters. My favorite was “Big Sal”, an F-105 flown in the Vietnam War by Capt. John Hoffman and named for his wife, Sally.

One of the next stops was at a Marine Corps Sikorsky S-43.

Across from it on the other side beyond a fence is an Orbis Flying Eye Hospital DC-10. My son thought it was super cool with the engine built into the tail. However, this plane has the affectionate nickname “Death Contraption 10”, among other equally awful monikers, due to several incidents that resulted in loss of life. The most famous is very likely United flight 232. After suffering critical failure in the tail engine, the pilots were left with very little control of the plane. Amazingly, they still managed to nearly land it at Sioux City, Iowa.

One plane that stood out especially was the “Flying Guppy”.

Further along we saw a Trans World Airlines Lockheed Constellation. Our tour guide remarked how sleek and unique the plane’s lines are. The triple tail was a design feature that allowed the aircraft to fit into existing hangars with low ceilings. It’s a beaut.

The Lockheed Constellation (not this one specifically) holds the record for the longest duration, non-stop passenger flight on a piston powered aircraft. Trans World Airlines’ inaugural flight from London to San Francisco was a ridiculous 23 hours and 19 minutes. This wasn’t mentioned during the tour, but it is an amazing feat. The aircraft would have averaged a mere 230 miles per hour.

Soon we had passed enough aircraft that I began to lose track of what we saw. It was information overload. And my phone was dying, to boot.

I took a few more photos while I could, including this U.S. Air Force Douglas C-124 Globemaster II, nicknamed “Old Shaky” due to the aircraft’s tendency to due just that during flight. The large nose cone sported by the plane is a weather radar.

There were also a couple more modern airliners featured at the Pima Air and Space Museum. These included the second Boeing 787 ever manufactured. It is accompanied by a China Southern 737.

Near the end of the tour is what the tour guide called the queen of the lot: a Convair B-36.

Overall, I enjoyed the tram tour immensely. If we had had the time to spend (say, 2 full days), and had visited during the winter, I probably would have opted to walk the facility. But the knowledge of the tour guide plus the fact that we didn’t have to walk over 2 miles up and down through the outdoor section of the museum is definitely worth $6 per person.

After the tram ride, we spent maybe another 15 minutes inside. The kids were soon ready to move on, and we took off for the hotel (SEE: 2 Consistently Good Mid-Range Hotel Brands for Families).

Conclusion

The Pima Air and Space Museum was a great way to begin our trip. I already have a son that is very interested in aircraft and aviation in general, and it was the perfect place to see. Next on the list of aviation destinations is Seattle, where I’d like to take him to the Museum of Flight and on a tour of the Boeing factory. We’ll see when I manage to fit that trip into our schedule.

Complete guide to American Airlines reduced mileage awards

One of the lesser-known perks of holding an American Airlines co-branded credit card is the ability to book American Airlines reduced mileage awards. These will allow you to save up to 7,500 miles per round-trip depending on the card you hold and the length of the trip.

Save miles with AA reduced mileage awards

There are groups of cards that give you different levels of savings with the reduced mileage awards. Typically, the free or cheap co-branded cards offer less savings. There are also two tiers of awards. Because American Airlines already requires only 7,500 award miles for trips under 500 miles one-way, the savings aren’t as good on these routes.

Many credit cards offer a savings of up to 7,500 miles per round trip for itineraries over 500 miles and 2,000 miles per round-trip for itineraries of less than 500 miles. Here is the list of credit cards that offer these savings:

  • Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard®
  • Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard®
  • CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® MasterCard®
  • CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Select MasterCard®
  • AAdvantage® Aviator® Silver World Elite MasterCard®
  • AAdvantage® Aviator® Red MasterCard®
  • AAdvantage® Aviator® Business MasterCard®

This reduces the cost of a typical round-trip saver award from 25,000 miles to only 17,500 miles, and makes using your miles for domestic economy tickets far more lucrative. The cool thing is, some of the same cards that offer access to the American Airlines reduced mileage awards also offer 10% of your miles back when you redeem them, so you’re looking at a net cost of 15,750 per round-trip.

Here are the credit cards that give you access to a 5,000-mile discount for awards over 500 miles and 1,000-mile discount on round-trips itineraries of less than 500 miles:

  • Citi® / AAdvantage® Gold MasterCard®
  • AAdvantage® Aviator® Blue MasterCard®

Holding one of these cards will let you book a ticket to one of the listed destinations for only 20,000 miles per round-trip. A hop of 500 miles or less will only cost you 14,000 miles round-trip.

The cool thing is, you don’t have to book a round-trip award. If you book a one-way, the savings are simply half of the round-trip savings.

There are some other cards included in both of the lists that offer access to the American Airlines reduced mileage awards, but I’m not sure they are offered anymore. I don’t recognize them. I believe all the ones listed are the products that are currently available.

How to find a qualifying award

American Airlines offers a good number of destinations every month on their reduced mileage award chart. There are some major airports that never make the list. But they typically offer several dozen destinations every month. The chart is updated every other month, and you’ll only ever find the current month and the three upcoming months included. Don’t expect to be able to lock these in way ahead of time.

Head over to the American Airlines reduced mileage award page to view the list of destinations offered. The first paragraphs explain the discounts and process, after which you’ll find the table of current reduced mileage destinations. Note the months in the header at the top and then scroll through the list (or use the web page search) to find your destination. The green checks indicate that a destination is available for the reduced mileage price for that month.

American Airlines Reduced Mileage Awards

For example, if I’m interested in flying to Akron, Ohio, I can book a reduced mileage award for any of the months shown above. I can also fly out of any nearby airport served by American Airlines, which for us would be Santa Rosa, Sacramento, San Francisco, or Oakland. It doesn’t matter if your origin airport isn’t on the chart; all that matters is the destination. If I’m interested in flying to Albany, notice that I can only book that at the reduced mileage price for flights in September.

The current list for September 2018 is a gold mine. Most of the airports shown on the list are available for reduced mileage awards this month, which comes to a total of over 100. Chances are you’ll find the destination you’re looking for if you’re willing to travel outside of peak summer season.

Some people have previously reported that if your origin is included in the reduced mileage list for a given month, this gives you reduced mileage prices anywhere in the U.S. Not all agents would abide by this, but by using the “hang up, call again” (HUCA) trick, you could typically book them.

However, I don’t see this in the terms. Everything refers to the destination being on the list. Only the destination airport has to be on the list for a one-way or round-trip. The origin doesn’t seem to play into the equation at all. I could be wrong on this, though, or the terms could have changed such that they are now in line with my understanding. In any case, you’re more than welcome to try to see where you can get with an agent. Some airports are routinely available, and it would be amazing to fly for reduced mileage prices much of the year.

How to book a reduced mileage award

You have to call reservations at 800-882-8880 to book American Airlines reduced mileage awards. However, you’ll first need to make sure there is space available for the award you want, and I suggest doing this online. Head to aa.com and look for MileSAAver space. You cannot use the reduced milage award codes for standard awards.

You’ll also need the award code for the credit card you hold. You can find these on the American Airlines reduced mileage awards web page. The agent will ask for a code when you go to book the award.

My experience booking a reduced milage award was pretty painless. I called American Airlines reservations, spoke our date, origin and destination into the automated system, and was connected with an agent within only a few minutes. I explained that I wanted to book a reduced milage award. The lady was completely familiar with the process and asked for the code. She spent a minute confirming that our destination was on the list, and our tickets were booked a minute or two later.

The reservation service charge is waived for these awards since they are not bookable online, which totally makes sense.

Final notes on the American Airlines reduced mileage awards

American Airlines reduced mileage awards offer fantastic value for families since you can fly round-trip domestic itineraries for so much less. A family of 5 flying to a reduced mileage destination only needs 87,500 miles rather than 125,000 miles. Given that some of the American Airlines co-branded cards sometimes offer a sign-up bonus of 60,000 or even 70,000 miles, an application plus some spending can easily get free flights for the whole family.

A few final things to note:

  • The terribly (might I say AAwful) $75 close-in booking fee still applies to itineraries 21 days out or less.
  • The discounts only apply to awards within the United States. Even if you live at an airport on the list where flights should be at reduced cost to anywhere, don’t expect to head to Europe with a mileage discount.
  • You can actually apply the discount to business and first class domestically. I’m just never interested in premium cabin domestic awards, so details like this tend to slip my mind.
  • Finding American Airlines award space might be a real issue at times, but it can be done. Don’t expect to see wide-open awards to any of these destinations, but expect to be able to make something work if you are flexible with your dates.

Hope you make great use of the American Airlines reduced mileage awards!

Featured image courtesy of Grant Wickes. 

Getting My First Complimentary Upgrade Ever

A few weeks ago I attained airline status for the first time ever. Due to the completion of a Marriott Platinum challenge (SEE: Fast track status: how to sign up for a Marriott Platinum challenge), I was granted Marriott Platinum status, which also gives United Premier Silver status as a published perk (the two programs offer a set of reciprocal benefits).

This coincided nicely with a work trip. I’ve flown Delta lately when headed east, which is my personal preference. But this time I couldn’t justify the expense and time of the drive to the Bay. So United it was out of our tiny local airport. At least this could be my first-ever shot at an upgrade.

Upgrade to First? Yes, please

When I checked in, I was told I’d be placed on the list for complimentary upgrades. I had high hopes for my first flight of the day. Only five first class seats were booked, leaving seven available for upgrades. There can’t be *that* many people with United status flying out of Arcata, can there? But I’d have to wait until the next day to find out.

Much to my surprise, the confirmation came within the hour. I received an automated email from United saying I’d been upgraded, and that my new seat was 4A. Score!

I had understood this wouldn’t be processed until the day of travel. But the news was happily welcomed. I’d even landed in one of the awesome seats along the left side of the plane that is both a window and an aisle seat. This really couldn’t be any better.

Flying in first for thirty-seven minutes

I was among the first to board the next day, and I got to gaze out the window and watch the other passengers climb the ramp to the plane. The flight attendant brought me an orange juice while I waited for everyone else to take their seats. It was a lovely Humboldt County morning.

We departed on time, and the flight attendant began beverage service as soon as we reached 10,000 feet. I requested a coffee. Unlike the economy experience, it came in an actual mug.

The flight attendant also brought around a basket loaded with snacks. We could pick what we wanted. I opted for just a stroopwafel.

The flight is a super short hop. I’ve done it many times in economy, and it’s a totally enjoyable experience on the ERJ-175. But it was super cool to be up in first this time. Even after all my flight segments, this was (amazingly) my first time traveling in domestic first class. I’ve traveled in international business class and first class once each, which is a different world entirely.

The misplaced focus on airline status

In the majority of cases, airline status is something that should be earned 100% organically. That is, if you have to expend extra effort or money to achieve status, you probably aren’t flying enough to really enjoy the benefits.

Even after saying this, I am on track to earn Delta Gold Medallion status this year. A couple work trips, plus our trip to France (paid with mostly points, but a cash fare), and some extra medallion qualifying miles (MQMs) from card bonuses makes it a fairly easy target. I’m losing a bit on opportunity cost, as Delta miles aren’t quite as valuable as other currencies. But it’s still something I’d like to shoot for while it is within reach and won’t cost any extra cash out the door [SEE: How to earn airline elite status without flying (a lot)].

Keeping it real

Although I could certainly get used to traveling like this, I have to remember that status won’t last forever. And it won’t always send me to the front of the plane. But even though it was just a 37-minute hop from Arcata to San Francisco, it was still super cool to sit in the front of the plane without shelling out either miles or cash. The ERJ-175 may be the nicest ride in domestic first class, too, even over larger aircraft. The ‘A’ seats are also by themselves, giving you both a window and aisle access.

Will I get upgraded again? Why, yes. I’m currently waiting to depart on the second leg my current trip, and I had another upgrade clear. Maybe it will be hard to go back to economy after this. 😉

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.

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