Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Flights (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!

Travel Day – Beijing to Hong Kong

It was a bit sad to wake up and realize that our time in Beijing had already passed. Our five days in the Chinese capital were an amazing experience. I feel like we barely scratched the surface of what Beijing has to offer, but the food, history and people make it a great place to visit. Here are the posts from each day of our adventures in Beijing:

Breakfast was again complementary in the top-floor lounge of our central Beijing hotel (SEE: Renaissance Beijing Wangfujing Review). We even finished up early, a small miracle for my children. My bags in hand, we made our way downstairs and I asked the desk to call us a taxi. We could have taken the subway, but it would have meant a transfer and toting our bags a good distance. Given how cheap taxis are in Beijing, the convenience was totally worth it.

Our ride took off around 8:45 a.m. on a Sunday morning. I figured we would take an hour to get to the airport. The driver made me a bit nervous at times, cutting quickly from lane to lane. But we made it safely. The ride took 40 minutes on a Sunday morning leaving about 8:45 a.m.

Arriving at Beijing Capital Airport

Front of Beijing International Airport Terminal 3 is impressive. Our flight into Beijing had arrived into Terminal 2, and we’d taken the Airport Express straight from there. I didn’t get a good look at the airport. Plus, it was dark and we were exhausted. We also had an unfortunate incident where my son wet himself, as he hadn’t gotten up to use the lav before our final approach into Beijing. He has a habit of not being aware of his need to use the facilities, not to mention the worst timing on the airplane (every time he got up to go was during meal time). Just one of the hurdles of traveling with kids.

But I digress. The memories of our arrival into Beijing, although it was only a few days prior, already seemed distant. We walked through the doors into the massive departures hall of Terminal 3. There is row after row after row of check-in counters and there were huge queues of people. I’m not surprised Beijing in building a new airport that is projected to be the world’s busiest in short order.

Too early for a flight?

Turns out that due to our early departure from the hotel and faster drive than expected, we were an hour earlier than my anticipated arrival at the airport. We were also there an hour before the check-in desk opened for our flight. Now…I know there are some places where check-in counters don’t operate all the time. But given that Beijing Capital Airport is massive, and Cathay has more than just a few flights per day, the fact that the counter was not yet open surprised me.

There was one counter open. But the signage clearly marked counters for specific flights, something I’d never seen. We unfortunately had to kill an hour wandering the departures hall.

Once we were finally checked in and had dropped the bag, it was time for Chinese immigration. We’d had no issues entering the country on the 144-hour transit without visa (TWOV) exemption, but I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel a little bit of apprehension about passing through the country. I’d been instructed to keep the stubs from the original visa paperwork, and they were still in my wallet. Everything should be good.

And it was. We got a couple odd looks from the immigration officials, but we passed through just fine. Very glad that we were able to take advantage of this opportunity for a stopover in the Chinese capital.

Security went smoothly as well. This was the 14th segment for both of my older two kids, and they have learned the drill pretty well. I was a dolt this time though and insisted that my backpack didn’t have any water in it even when the security official flagged it in the x-ray. Had totally forgotten that I’d put in the last bottle from the hotel that morning. Oops.

Once through, we hung out in the lounge for a while where the kids did some school and I wrote a couple blog posts and enjoyed a glass of wine (SEE: Air China First Class Lounge Beijing Airport Review). We also ate an early lunch. All for free with my Priority Pass membership through my Chase Sapphire Reserve card.

Our plane was late, but we still got out early enough to make it to Hong Kong in time. You can read all about our experience flying Cathay Pacific 777 Premium Economy.

Hello, Hong Kong

We landed right before sunset and hopped on the Hong Kong Express toward Kowloon. A short bus ride later, and we were walking the last few blocks to our hotel through the bustling Mongkok neighborhood. I wasn’t so sure about staying here, but I would happily do so again. The energy and everyday-ness of Mongkok makes it a vibrant place to enjoy as a foreigner.

Bedtime came at about 8:30. It was a good travel day. Now we had Hong Kong to explore for our last three days!

The Two-Hour Time-Traveling Flight

An odd pastime of mine is looking up obscure flights, simply for fun. Lately I’ve spent a bit exploring options in central Asia, as I’d like to visit Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan someday (among lots of other places). This allowed me to stumble upon a perplexing schedule for a China Southern flight.

We really arrive 10 minutes before we left?

The flight that goes backwards in time

The fact that some flights “go backwards” in time isn’t exactly news. Most that cross the international date line from west to east end up arriving at an earlier time than they departed. Sometimes they arrive during the previous day. My Qantas return flight from Brisbane did just that when I visited Australia for a week on the cheap. Check out this Jetstar flight from Sydney to Honolulu as an example:

It leaves at 4:25 p.m. and arrives at 6:00 a.m. the same day. It’s like Groundhog Day. You get to repeat it a second time.

What is odd about the China Eastern flight is that it has a block time of a mere 1:50 and has a scheduled arrival time 10 minutes earlier than departure. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a flight that does this outside of those that cross the date line. I’ve seen super short hops that arrive at basically the same time they left. They are simply in neighboring time zones. But losing time?

Apparently you get to travel 10 minutes backward in time if you fly from Urumqi, China to Almaty, Kazakhstan on this China Southern flight. Urumqi is at GMT+8, while Almaty is at GMT+6. The two cities are barely 500 miles apart. Even crazier is the fact that China at GMT+8 borders central Asia countries that operate at GMT+5. The flight from Urumqi to Tashkent lands exactly when it arrives.

How is that for wonky?

The odd time zones of western China

Western China drew the short straw when it comes to time zones. Actually, they didn’t really get any say in the matter. As a matter of national unification, Mao Zedong changed the country to a single time zone.

This leads to some interesting sights in the western part of the country. In Kashgar, China’s westernmost city of a reasonable size, you may experience sunset a mere hour before midnight. It could be completely disorienting if you aren’t expecting it. Plus, the extreme difference leads to two time systems being used concurrently. Talk about confusing.

Urumqi overwhelmingly uses Beijing standard time, as there are a large number of Han Chinese who have migrated there. Beijing standard time is their system; they wouldn’t conceive of using something else.

But other cities that are predominantly minority Uighur population tend to disregard the time imposed on them by Beijing. Some places will post two schedules, one in Beijing time and the other in local time. In more rural areas, Beijing time isn’t even on the radar.

Imagine for a moment if the U.S. operated the same way. The distance across China is roughly the same as across America. If everywhere had to adopt East Coast time, the sun wouldn’t come up in California until 10:30 in the winter. Sunset would be at midnight in the summer. The reverse would be just as bad. New York would have a 2:30 a.m. sunrise in the summer months. It’d be a mess.

Conclusion

I’ve probably either bored you or intrigued you by my musings on the oddities of time zones and traveling rapidly across them. One thing is for certain, though. Changing multiple zones at a time is always disorienting. We experienced utter exhaustion re-starting a day on our recent trip to Paris (SEE: 3 Days in Pars: Day 1 – Surviving the Jetlag).

My First Flight to Nowhere

On the heels of a miserably long day of travel (for the flight distance) after a canceled flight (SEE: My Second United Horror Story), I had another awesome experience with United. It was deja vu.

Instead of a flight cancellation stranding me hundreds of miles from the next closest airport, however, this was different. I took my first flight to nowhere.

Work isn’t the problem, travel is

After finally arriving in Las Vegas at 2:00 a.m. Friday morning, I had to be up and in Needles by 10:00 or so. This allowed me about 5.5 hours of sleep, but it was enough. My day of work went well, and I made it back by evening into Henderson.

Since my flight was middle of the day on Saturday, I got plenty of rest my second night. The morning was leisurely, and I worked a couple hours and got some blog posts written for Points with a Crew from the Centurion Lounge Las Vegas. Then it was time to head to the plane. An uneventful 2 hours later, I stepped off in San Francisco.

From the Centurion Lounge San Francisco and while walking to my gate, I was thinking about how smoothly today had gone compared to Thursday. Except it wasn’t over yet.

Flying to nowhere

It all started with some confusion at the gate. I arrived just as boarding was supposed to start, but no one was in line. Gate 84 can be confusing since United parks multiple CRJs at the gate and often boards them back to back.

The fact that it was scheduled boarding time and nothing was happening should have been my first clue that something was amiss. I just chalked it up to a typical United delay. When I finally asked a gate agent what was happening, she said that the flight was delayed due to weather. I only had to assume it was the Arcata weather.

About 20 minutes later we finally boarded. I sat in my tiny window seat on a tiny CRJ-200. This is definitely not my favorite plane (SEE: Argh! I thought I’d seen the last of the United CRJ-200). But seat 2A did give me a great view of the captain when he came back to discuss why we were sitting so long. We were playing the waiting game with the Humboldt fog.

Kudos to the captain for keeping us on the ground as long as he did. It was a serious mark of professionalism for him to come back in person to address everyone. You could tell that this wasn’t his first rodeo with the wild SFO-ACV hop.

He finally decided to depart when conditions in Arcata were “improving”. We had already sat on the ground for about an hour, and the CRJ-200 had two more flights scheduled that evening, so it had to get going sometime.

Taxi and takeoff were quick, one of the quickest out of SFO I’ve ever experienced. As we got closer and closer to Arcata, I began to figure all was fine and dandy.

Then the plane started a long, slow bank to the right, and I realized I might not be making it home that night. Back to San Francisco we went. We parked at the same gate. I had literally gone nowhere.

All’s well that ends well

After arriving back at SFO, the gate agent printed me a standby ticket and told me to run to gate 77. Which I did. No more running. I’m tired of these United games.

Out of breath, I arrived at the final flight to ACV. Which I almost didn’t take. I wanted to get a hotel and get some sleep. The idea of wasting another 2 hours trying again seemed foolish. But the next flight they could get me on happened to be the following day at 7:00 p.m., so I figured I’d give it a shot.

After a long delay, we were finally in the air and headed for Humboldt again. To my astonishment, we didn’t turn around this time, and the ERJ-175 touched down smoothly at ACV. Everyone clapped. I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard anyone clap on a domestic flight.

Conclusion

I really have a love-hate relationship with our tiny airport. It’s so convenient, but it is so unreliable. The considerable delays and cancellations plus no other airline options is a recipe for disaster. United has left me in the lurch now three times with canceled flights. Two of these involved Arcata Airport. Let’s hope this is the last for a while.

Fly Around the World for $1,000? Yes, It’s Possible!

A while back I challenged myself to put together an around-the-world itinerary for $1,000. While I failed at the time (not by too much as it was only $1,300), I have been interested in trying other options.

So this is take #2 of that endeavor. I’ve gained a lot more knowledge about cheap routes, cheap airlines, and especially the best places to look for cheap one-ways in the past several months. With those tools in my belt, I decided it’d be fun to explore the cheap around-the-world idea some more.

An around-the-world trip for a grand?

Given that I live in northern California, I decided my starting point would be the Bay Area. The San Francisco Bay Area has 3 major airports. Although SFO may dominate in terms of traffic, the other have some of the best deals.

For example, I found a one-way ticket from San Jose to Shanghai on Delta for $268 a couple weeks ago. Similarly, Oakland has some deals to Europe on Norwegian. I decided to start things off with their Oakland-Barcelona route, and things just fell into place from there.

The itinerary I compiled was the following:

  • Oakland to Barcelona for $186 on Iberia LEVEL
  • Barcelona to Rome for $34 on Ryan Air
  • Rome to Athens for $35 on Ryan Air
  • Athens to Tel Aviv for $65 on Aegean
  • Ground transfer to Amman, Jordan (is this cheating?)
  • Amman to Delhi for $234 on Gulf Air
  • Delhi to Kuala Lumpur for $97 on Air Asia
  • Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong for $59 on Malindo Air
  • Hong Kong to SFO for $308 on Delta

The full itinerary is 7 destinations and only $1,016. That’s pretty insane. Catch a couple fare sales within that ticket, and you’ll be back under 4 digits.

Previously, the toughest segment to find cheaply was the one-way transpacific leg. But it appears you may be able to score a deal if you are patient and/or search thoroughly, as this Hong Kong to San Francisco segment is more than $100 less than what I found the previous time I did this exercise.

Tips for putting together around-the-world itineraries

Around-the-world itineraries are definitely possible with a number of different mileage currencies. Two of my favorite programs for these itineraries are ANA Mileage Club and Asia Miles. I’ll write more on this in another post.

But if you’re looking to put together an around-the-world trip with cash, like I was, things are a bit different. Here are four tips to help you put together a cheap around-the-world itinerary:

Do your research

This is the heart of everything in this hobby. Putting together an around the world itinerary might seem daunting. But if you have some tools in your belt and know what you’re looking for, it isn’t all that bad. It took me maybe half an hour to compile the ticket I did.

Research the low cost carriers in various areas. Know which airlines price round-trips as one-ways as the summation of two one-ways. And know those that don’t (e.g. Austrian). For many airlines, cheap one-way tickets are only available on certain routes.

Norwegian is a great airline for finding low cost long haul flights.

Find the airports that tend to have deals. Or the entire regions. Also, look for secondary airports at major destinations, such as London Gatwick or Rome Ciampino. These might not give you the full “airport experience”, but they will often have better fares.

Get familiar with Google Flights

Google Flights is my best friend. If you haven’t used it, you should spend some time trying the interface out. They are my #1 go-to for finding standard flight prices between a given origin and destination. The search speed plus intuitive UI makes it the hands-down best place to start.

I priced out my entire itinerary using Google Flights. I would open a new tab for each segment, plus in the previous endpoint, and then start searching for another potential destination. The map view is especially helpful, as it lets me quickly identify cities I can get to cheaply.

Subscribe to fare sales

This is one way to find cheap flights in general. My favorite site is Secret Flying, who typically send out daily alerts for cheap flights around the world. If you’re patient, you can often snag a round-trip flight to major destinations in either Europe and Asia for about $400. Sometimes more like $300. With fares falling in general, you can find standard fares to places like London and Beijing for $500 all the time.

Other good fare sales sites include Airfarewatchdog and The Flight Deal. I might even consider looking into the Mileage Run thread on FlyerTalk since people will often report great (or unique) deals.

Fill in the gaps with miles

Maybe you’re putting together an around-the-world trip, and you just have to visit Mauritius. Well…there is realistically no cheap way to get there. You could burn more on a one-way ticket to the island nation from Europe than you would flying a transpacific round-trip.

In cases like this, don’t be afraid to burn your hard-earned miles. Remember than this is your trip and not just an exercise to see if you can fly around the world for less than a grand. If you want to see an out of the way place, miles can make it happen for cheap.

Conclusion

Here are my thoughts on a cheap around-the-world ticket in a nutshell:

  • Around the world itineraries are possible, and much cheaper than you might think
  • Do your research to find which airlines and airports often have cheap fares, especially cheap one-way fares.
  • Watch for fare sales. One-way fare sales *do* happen, but they are a bit more rare than round-trip.
  • Consider filling in the gaps with miles.

Some of this advice applies to ideas beyond an around the world itinerary. For example, you can use the low cost carrier Norwegian Air to reach Europe, and then hop around on budget carrier Ryan Air to multiple other destinations.

A final note: you’ll more than likely have to travel light to save on baggage fees if you put together a cheap itinerary. Many of the airlines that you can utilize to keep costs down will charge you for checked luggage (and maybe even a carry on). So be prepared to travel with little more than your backpack. The lighter the better, in my opinion. I headed to Australia for a week with nothing but my weekender backpack, and it was perfect.

Happy circumnavigating the globe!

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