Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Economy Class (page 1 of 2)

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!

3 Best Loyalty Programs for Short-Haul Awards in the Western U.S.

Sometimes you want to spend your hard-earned miles to travel far across the globe, flying in first or business class. Other times you just want to get to the next state over for a friend’s wedding, and you may not know what your best options are.

Living where I do in Humboldt County, California gives me a unique perspective on the value of certain miles. When you live near a large airport, spending miles to fly a short, competitive hop, such as Los Angeles to San Francisco, typically doesn’t make sense. But when your rural airport wants a minimum of $350 to fly *anywhere*, it makes you dig deep and evaluate all other options.

And there definitely are some good ones. Here are three of the best miles for flying short-haul in the west:

Alaska MileagePlan

Alaska miles continue to be one of the most attractive mileage currencies out there. They are unfortunately not a transfer partner of any bank program, so it can be a bit tough to accumulate a lot of them. But they are absolutely worth accruing.

The beauty of MileagePlan awards is that they start at only 5,000 miles one-way for the shortest hops. This means that an Alaska Visa card with an elevated sign-up bonus can potentially provide a family of four with free round-trip tickets for the short hop between San Diego and Santa Rosa. Or San Jose and Seattle. You’ll just pay $5.60 each way per person to cover the TSA fee.

If you want to take things a step further, consider using your miles for *two* short-haul segments. Sometimes this won’t even increase the price! In the second example, you could actually fly San Jose to Portland, stop for a couple days, then make the hop from Portland to Seattle, still only paying 5,000 miles! This takes advantage of the fact that Alaska is one of the few programs to offer a stopover on a one-way award. My son and I actually did this recently, flying Oakland-Seattle-Boise on a one-way award, but stopping in Seattle for three nights. Still only 5,000 miles, as Alaska prices this itinerary based on start and end points.

You unfortunately can’t trick the system and fly San Francisco-Los Angeles-Oakland on the same award. What I’ve found is that if there is a nonstop available with a given award price, you can fly a stopover itinerary (that would often be more expensive) for the same award price.

The 5,000-mile price is good for any hop of 700 miles or less. This jumps to 7,500 miles for hops between 701 and 1,400 miles. For flights between 1,401 and 2,100 miles, you’ll pay 10,000 miles. Almost everything in the U.S. west should cost no more than 7,500 miles.

Avianca LifeMiles

I have the worst love/hate relationship with Avianca LifeMiles. On one hand, they have some of the worst customer service and policies I have ever encountered. On the other hand, they have a lucrative award chart and no fuel surcharges on any awards, making them an attractive option for those looking to save as much cash as possible.

Uniquely, the LifeMiles award chart breaks the U.S. up into multiple zones. Awards within each zone cost a mere 7,500 miles one-way. Since they are a Star Alliance member, you can use LifeMiles to book awards on . The web search is decent at pulling up options with up to one connection, but it seems to die if you want to connect more than once. However, this still gives you a *ton* of potential options, especially if your closest airport is Arcata (although you might want to think twice about flying out of here).

Interested in visiting Jackson, Wyoming in either the summer or winter, both peak season? That’ll be roughly $800 cash. Or you can use 15,000 LifeMiles and $35 in fees to fly round-trip, a very sweet deal. Admittedly, United offers this route as a short-haul award as well, only costing 20,000 miles round-trip, so if you want to avoid the potential headache of LifeMiles, it might be worth spending a few more miles. But LifeMiles are honestly easier to accrue, as they are a transfer partner of both American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou.

Other great award options include Arcata to Tucson, which my older kids and I flew last April (SEE: 2 Tips for Planning a Last Minute Trip), San Luis Obispo to Spokane, Fresno to Santa Fe, and Santa Rosa to Colorado Springs. Lifemiles are gold for any regional-to-regional hops passing through United hubs of San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Denver. The U.S. west zone includes California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. Oddly, and unfortunately, it does not include Montana.

American AAdvantage

American’s program is attractive for a couple reasons. First, they offer discounted short-haul awards for nonstop tickets of 500 miles or less. I’ve not booked any of these, but they are a pretty good deal at 7,500 miles one-way, if the cash price is fairly high. But unless you live in an AA hub with a number of options available, they won’t be especially useful.

Second, American offers their reduced mileage awards (SEE: Complete Guide to American Airlines Reduced Mileage Awards). These aren’t just for flights in one region, but actually apply across the country. However, you can *also* apply them to short-haul awards, if you can find a qualifying ticket. The price reduction isn’t as good, at 1,000 miles per direction, but 6,500 is still better than 7,500. For other flights (which will be most of them), the price is reduced from the standard 12,500 one-way to only 8,750 miles per direction.

Reduced mileage awards are only good to certain airports, and the list changes every couple months. However, if you live near one of the airports on the list, every flight out of that airport that you book during qualifying months on the reduced mileage award calendar will qualify for the reduced price. As an example, Santa Rosa has been on the list more often than not.

American now also has web specials, which are a variety of awards that are priced more cheaply than their standard award chart.

But why not just use flexible points?

If you live in a major hub, using your flexible points will almost certainly be the way to go. For example, an Alaska award that is $150 cash versus 10,000 Alaska miles round-trip is also just 10,000 Ultimate Rewards points, if redeeming with a Chase Sapphire Reserve. I’d almost certainly use the UR points, as the flight will earn miles, since it is treated as a paid ticket.

I’d do a cost analysis each time you book to make sure you’re getting a the best deal for your points. If a round-trip flight is less than $250, I would generally opt for using flexible points. For flights between $250-300, things can go either way, depending on the currency I’m looking to use. I’d save my actual miles for tickets that are typically $300+ (if short-haul pricing of 15,000 miles or less round-trip is an option), but preferably I’d be using them for flight that cost $500 or more.

General rule of thumb: I should be getting 2 cents per mile out of any of these currencies for miles to be the way to go. If I’m at or near 1.5 cents per mile, I’ll use Ultimate Rewards.

Conclusion

There are more award currencies that offer decent options for short-haul awards, including British Airways Avios if you live in an AA or Alaska hub. But these are the three that I find most useful in general.

Fare Deal: Both Paris and Beijing for under $400!

These are the two primary international destinations to which I took my older two kids last year, and they are both on sale! You can fly one-stop from the San Francisco Bay Area to either destination for less than $400 on a couple different carriers.

Paris fare sale details

  • Departure from: San Francisco
  • Dates: March-April, September 2019
  • Destination(s): Paris (CDG)
  • Airline(s): American
  • Class: Basic economy
  • NotesMinimum two night stay (which would be silly anyway)
  • Sample Google Flights link

Beijing fare sale details

  • Departure from: San Jose
  • Dates: February-April 2019
  • Destination(s): Paris (CDG)
  • Airline(s): Air Canada
  • Class: Economy
  • Notes: None
  • Sample Google Flights link

These are both excellent sales to these destinations. We saw the very good Air Canada sale to Beijing out of SJC last year, and I would expect to see something similar again in the future.

Note that you will need a Chinese Visa to visit Beijing on a round-trip itinerary. The city is eligible for a transit without visa (TWOV) waiver, but you must have a confirmed onward ticket to another country.

Here is a rundown on some of the posts from our trip:

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

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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