Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Family Travel (page 1 of 3)

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.

3 Tips for Hiking with Kids in the Desert

During our time traversing the Southwest a couple weeks ago, we embarked on four different short hikes in the desert. Well…some of them you really can’t call hikes. Even in 100-degree weather, walking 400 yards or so out onto the salt flats at Badwater Basin in Death Valley still doesn’t qualify as hiking in my book.

But…it does to some. Including my kids. They weren’t ecstatic about my ideas and made their position on hiking quite clear. It took some significant coaxing and prodding to get them out of the car a couple of times. To them it was sooooo miserable that they wanted to stay in the car in 100-degree weather (yes, really).

After all my effort, I thought I’d note down a few tips in case you consider traipsing through the desert with your own brood.

Tip #1 – Reconsider the whole idea

I mean, really. You probably shouldn’t go. Unless you enjoy dragging whiny children over sand and rock for a couple hours at a time, this isn’t for you. Whether it is their supposedly hurting feet, or the fact that they didn’t bring enough water (in other words…they poured it all on the ground…or on a sibling), they will let you know.

At every moment you have to not just urge yourself onward but your children as well. It’s like they think they are going to die from a mere 90 minutes of desert exposure. Somehow the kids that were soooo happy to finally be someone warm suddenly think they are going to melt if they have to do something besides splash in the pool in 85 degrees.

Save yourself the pain and just stay home. It’ll be better for everyone involved.

Tip #2 – Bring earplugs

If you decide to go against your better judgment and still embark on this fun family outing ridiculous escapade, earplugs might be in order. It’ll prevent you from hearing the birds chirping, but you’ll also be able to enjoy the beautiful vistas in utter tranquility. Such was life at this moment in Sedona.

Ahhhh, peaceful Sedona.

But you might not need them anyway id the kids repeat themselves enough. By about the fifth time I’d heard, “I’m dying”, I had pretty much tuned it out. So I honestly don’t know if if was the fifth time or the twenty-fifth. I do know the first four times had included a quick check of each child: Blood? No. Signs of heat stroke? Negative. Out of water? Possibly, but typically not because they’re drinking it. Sweating? Yes, but that just means the cooling system is functioning properly.

Definitely no signs of dying. . Carry on.

Tip #3 – Just laugh

This was my one consolation. I finally realized how hysterically overdramatic their reactions were. Whenever I’d hear the newest reason as to why we couldn’t continue, I’d smile and keep slowly marching along. They’d always eventually follow.

I’d also chuckle when they’d use their water for things like making mud or dumping it on their heads. When they’d invariably run out, I’d happily sip my own. They’d just have to make it the last mile without refreshment.

Death Valley was the best. Although the temperature was pushing 100°F, we could literally see the car from where we’d hiked. And it wasn’t very far away. I’d had them hydrate before we got to Badwater Basin, and we each had a water bottle for our short outing. We were prepared for our excursion.

Yet it definitely wasn’t their cup of tea. This picture will forever make me giggle.

As for my own experience, I’d happily take a walk in full sun on a flat surface in a bone dry 100°F than an ascent at 80°F with any sort of humidity.

Ok…we did have *some* fun

In case you can’t tell this is mostly tongue-in-cheek, we did actually have some fun hiking in the desert. I definitely had to keep spurring the kids on at times, but it was a good experience for us overall. They don’t have quite the same appreciation of the scenic beauty of the locations we visited, but I am hopeful someday that’ll change. They’ll have to at least get used to it. Walking and hiking are two of my favorite things to do when traveling.

Of our four partial days of hiking, the kids enjoyed the red rocks of Sedona and our short trek to the waterfall at Red Rocks National Conservation Area the most. The latter hike didn’t start out all that pleasantly (as they had no idea what was at the end of the trail), but I was smugly satisfied sitting up on a boulder watching them happily toss rocks in the pool and enjoy getting close to the fall. I wish I’d had my camera out to capture the looks of horror when I finally told them we had to head back. Apparently they like the end goal of hiking, just not the process.

Would I take the kids hiking in the desert again? Absolutely. And we I would love every minute of it.

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?

Feeding the Giraffe at the Sacramento Zoo!

I have a funny relationship with zoos. Growing up in Humboldt County, we visited the zoo in Eureka on occasion. The zoo is tiny, only a few acres in size. The biggest highlights were the river otters and famous Bill the Chimpanzee. At the time the zoo was free, as it had been since its inception. Now the Bit of ridiculous trivia: the Sequoia Park Zoo is the oldest zoo in California.

Based on this experience, I never really thought much of zoos. It wasn’t until my third or fourth trip to San Diego that I was finally convinced to go see the world-famous San Diego Zoo. The experience blew my socks off. I loved it so much that we went back the next time we were in San Diego. Kels’ grandma has a membership that lets her guest us in for free, and we love visiting the zoo with her.

Except now things have tipped the other direction. Every other zoo gets judged against San Diego. But the kids don’t have this same perspective, so this was an opportunity to enjoy a bigger zoo than our little one in Eureka.

General info on the Sacramento Zoo

The Sacramento Zoo is located south of downtown just off of Interstate 5. It is in the same park area as two other kids attractions: Fairytale Town and Funderland Park. You can get combo tickets for Fairytale Town and the Zoo if you desire.

The cost of the zoo isn’t all that high. Adults (13+) are $14.95 and kids (2-11) are $9.95. Senior (65+) tickets are $13.95. For the three of us I paid just under $35. If it had been our whole family of five, we would have had to shell out about $60. Not truly cheap, but neither is it an especially expensive family outing. For comparison, we paid an astounding $180 for admission and lunch at La Paz Waterfall Gardens in Costa Rica.

The Sacramento Zoo is not a huge zoo. Budgeting half a day will give you enough time to see everything. Summer hours are 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Hours during our winter visit (Nov-Jan) are 10:00 a.m. through 4:00 p.m.

Heading left from the main entrance, we first made our way past the lemurs and primates. The kids enjoyed the orangutans and chimps, as well as the gibbons, which were even noisier than those at our little local zoo.

Further toward the back left corner of the zoo are the zebras and giraffes. There is a nice viewing deck from which you can watch the giraffes. This is also where you are able to feed them at certain times of the day.

Circling back around, we headed down what is pretty much the “main street” of the zoo, which features the big cats. As is typical for felines, they were all rather lazy that day and hard to spot.

Near the back of the zoo are most of the Australian species they feature, including kangaroos, wallabies, emus and some birds from down under. There are also red pandas in the same area. Our tiny Eureka zoo is fortunate enough to feature these as well, and they are one of the highlights there.

After spending 15 minutes at the playground, our final stop was the reptile house.

Things to do beyond seeing the animals

There are a few things you can do at the Sacramento Zoo that cost a bit extra. One is riding the Conservation Carousel, which my kids were super excited to do. They had never ridden one. Considering that the carousel features animals far cooler than the typical horses, I figured we could give it a spin for $3.

You can also ride a tiny Zoo Train with a guide that runs along the feline enclosures. This costs $4 per person, and I opted not to spring for it. The last two are the Serengeti Cyclone (a wind chamber) and the Kilimanjaro Climb (climbing wall) which cost $2 and $3, resepctively.

Our Giraffe Encounter experience

The carousel and zoo train are the sorts of things you can do other places. But feeding a giraffe is not something you can repeat as easily. I’m sure there are other zoos that offer this encounter, but this is the first one at which I’ve seen it.

The Giraffe Feeding experience consists of you handing a couple pieces of lettuce to the large male giraffe at the zoo. His long, purple tongue startled the kids.

The encounter costs $5, which may seem a bit steep for the amount of time it takes the giraffe to snake his tongue around your two leafy offerings. But it was a great moment for the kids!

Calling it a day

We decided to cut out around 12:45. We’d seen most of what the Sacramento zoo offered, and the kids were getting hungry. But first someone wanted to be the parent kangaroo.

We also found some interesting reading material as we exited through the gift shop. Considering my mother-in-law gave us a book titled “Where’s the Poop?”, I almost bought it just for her.

Conclusion

While I have probably been spoiled forever after having visited the San Diego Zoo twice, the Sacramento Zoo is a great option that has good variety of animals and is a bit closer to home. Plus, it doesn’t break the bank. It is a nice balance of size, animal variety, and cost.

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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