Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Humboldt (page 1 of 3)

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

United adds another nonstop destination out of Arcata!

After the launch of United’s nonstop Los Angeles service earlier this year, I didn’t really think another nonstop flight was in the cards for our tiny airport. I’ve dreamed for the day we might have other options. But I figured that would remain a pipe dream.

Well…in a rather unexpected move by United Airlines, our tiny, local airport *is* going to see another nonstop destination!

United adding Arcata to Denver service

Starting in June of 2019, United will provide a once-daily service between Arcata and United’s Denver hub. This will take Humboldt from a single option this spring to three different nonstop flight options in about a year’s time. Connections in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Denver

The flight will be a night-turn, similar to the new schedule for the Los Angeles flight. The regional jet serving the route will leave Denver at 7:00 p.m., landing in Arcata at 8:50 p.m. It will return to Denver the following morning at 6:30 a.m.

The schedule is fantastic for work travel. United offers connections in Denver to many midwest destinations, which may turn people’s two-stop itineraries to one with a single connection. A healthy layover in Denver would provide enough time to have a nice lunch at the Timberline Grill before catching a connection (SEE: Timberline Grille Denver Airport Review).

Salt Lake City still on my wish-list

While I heartily welcome any additional air service, what I’d really like to see is service from another airline, specifically Delta and specifically Salt Lake City. Delta has become my favorite domestic airline, and it would be amazing if I could fly them locally. They briefly offered this service over a decade ago, but discontinued it after only a year.

Beyond Delta, I’d happily take an Alaska connection to Seattle, or an American connection to either Los Angeles or Phoenix. Any other airline would provide needed competition.

Still, I’m thankful that our area is getting more air service. I’m sure I’ll end up flying the hop to Denver once service begins.

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.

My Second United Horror Story

Almost two years to the day after our first debacle (SEE: Our First United Horror Story), United managed to leave me high and dry again. Well, it wasn’t all their fault. But the whole experience was still frustrating.

Last-minute work trip

Work sent me to Needles this week. I booked a flight from Arcata to Las Vegas and rented a car to make the 2 hour drive. After departing on Thursday, I am in the process of returning today (and things are looking fine to make it home on time…so far). Hotel, rental car, I had everything quickly and easily booked for the trip. What could go wrong?

Things started with a minor delay notification just as I arrived at ACV. This was expected, as I had been monitoring the inbound aircraft for a few hours. It had been delayed a couple legs prior, so I expected departure from Arcata to be 20-30 minutes late. Really not bad compared to what our little airport often experiences. Assuming that was the extent of it, I would still make my connection in SFO.

Hmmm….I can’t see the runway

After going through security at ACV (which can be an ordeal, SEE: Getting the full pat down from the TSA at Arcata Airport), I sat down and thought I’d be waiting maybe 15 minutes for our aircraft to arrive. I chose to sit by the window to have a good view of the CRJ-200 landing.

But then I realized that the fog was so thick I couldn’t see the runway. This was mildly concerning, but no one had said anything about the flight being canceled.

It was barely 10 minutes later when another announcement came over the PA system: our inbound aircraft had been diverted to Medford. They could not safely land the plane due to the thick fog.

Making alternate plans

I gave myself 3 minutes to collect my thoughts and look up alternate flight options out of ACV, STS and SFO. As it had not been this foggy when we arrived at the airport, the blanket had just rolled in. Who knows when it would clear up enough for an aircraft to land. In any case, I knew I’d be missing my connection to Las Vegas for sure. If I was lucky, I could still get on one of the other two departures out of SFO that evening.

I decided to call United while also heading to the check-in counter. As expected, there were plenty of other people there already. Fortunately, I got a United rep on the phone within 3 minutes, which beat waiting in a long line to get rebooked.

I asked the rep about the status of the flight and what my options were. There was one more departure out that day, but I didn’t know if I could get a seat on it. Or if the fog would cooperate.

While I was on the phone, the cancellation announcement came over the PA. Now I had to make a call: cancel the trip or drive to SFO. I chose to roll with things as long as I could. Time to multitask.

Rebooking a flight, booking a car

I walked to the National counter and asked the guy for a car. He had a grand total of one. I was glad I got there first. Meanwhile, I fed the United rep the flight number I wanted out of SFO, a 10:20 p.m. departure nonstop to Vegas. It’d cost a bundle for the rental car, but I could still get to Las Vegas and to my hotel by midnight.

But her reply stunned me: there were no seats left on the flight. Now I started to panic a bit inside.

She offered to book me on an 8:56 departure out of SFO to LAX, with an 11:15 connection to Las Vegas. I hesitated. Could I make it to SFO in time? It was currently 3:25, so that gave me about 4:30 to reasonably make the flight, and that would still be cutting it close. I’ve never driven that quickly to the Bay, and I need to tack on an additional 30+ minutes to my typical time, as I was in Arcata and not Ferndale.

I decided to risk it. In any case, if I got stuck in the Bay, I could always get a hotel and be on the first flight out the net morning (assuming it isn’t full, too). I’d have to pay extra for that as well, but at least I’d still make the appointments I’d set up.

Pedal to the metal

Key in had, I dashed to my rental car, threw my bag in, and took off. With any luck, I’d have a shot at making the flight.

My heart sunk when the navigation forecast an 8:40 p.m. arrival at SFO. With a scheduled flight time 16 minutes later, there was no way I’d make it. But maybe I could make up a little time?

It was a race against the clock. I did 10 over the posted limit most of the way (don’t be like me), and the arrival time slowly walked back minute by minute.

Fortunately, I’ve driven 101 south the Bay numerous times in the past few years. I know the road really well, and this was a major advantage. The only poor ingredient is being in an unfamiliar car. But the Kia Soul I’d been given handled well enough.

Glimmer of hope?

Traffic was amazingly good the whole drive. I didn’t get stuck behind any big trucks, and only for a couple minutes behind slow moving cars with no passing lane. The navigation kept walking back the arrival time, and I became more hopeful.

When I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, my forecasted arrival time was 8:04. I might actually do this.

Stupidly, I didn’t pre-pay the gas tank (SEE: The ONE rental car mistake I always make). This meant I would burn 5 minutes at the gas station. I banked on there being one easily accessible off of 19th Avenue as I headed through San Francisco.

This turned out to be exactly correct. I was in and out of Chevron in the fastest time ever. It still cost me 6 minutes.

The rest of the drive was easy, and I returned the car promptly at 8:10. Receipt in hand, I took off toward the air train at a sprint. I had about 35 minutes to get to the terminal, through security, and to my gate before the airplane door closed.

Will I make it?

I missed an Airtrain from the rental car center by seconds. Luckily, the next one was in the distance already, and headed toward us.

It took about 20 minutes for the Airtrain to arrive at Terminal 3. I tore down the escalator and to security.

Even though security took maybe 12 minutes, it felt like forever. If I missed this flight, I wasn’t getting out of San Francisco until the next day.

At 8:42 I was finally free of the TSA. Time to sprint. Luckily, the gate wasn’t too far.

I arrived at the gate at 8:45 and there were (amazingly) a few people still in the boarding line. They turned out to be a family flying standby who were discussing seating arrangements with the staff. It sounded like the middle school aged kids weren’t with their parents. I was glad that their discussion had bought me a minute or two. I had made it.

We pushed back on time. Actually, 4 minutes early. But then air traffic kept us on the ground for a few minutes. In any case, we took off close enough to on-time that I was confident I’d make my connection. I’ve never been happier to be on a plane.

No, I don’t want to spend the night in LA

We touched down at 10:22, giving me plenty of time to make my 11:15 connection. Or so I thought.

The Boeing 737-900 came to a stop sooner than expected . I don’t know exactly where we were, but we were not next to a gate. By my guess, we were west of the International Terminal still.

Which is exactly what my phone confirmed. The captain came on after a minute and said that our gate was occupied and that we were hanging out here out of the way until they push back. Great.

The minutes ticked by, and my tight (but reasonable) connection evaporated. I would be hard pressed to get on the plane to Vegas.

To make things worse, we were going to park at Terminal 8. My next flight was out of Terminal 7.

It seemed to take people forever to get off the plane. I was in an exit row and aisle, which is not too far back. Finally, I pushed past one guy (a major no-no deplaning) taking his sweet time gathering his stuff into his luggage in the aisle, and hurried down the aisle and off the plane.

Another sprint it was. Until my lungs felt like they were on fire, then it was walk fast for 15 seconds to catch a breath and then sprint again.

I would have been the last person on the plane, had the guy in front of me hurrying to gate had his boarding pass out and ready. He didn’t, and he told me to go ahead.

It’s a (post) Christmas miracle!

The instant I set foot on that plane a wave of relief washed over me. I’d actually made it. I’d be in Las Vegas that night (well, the next morning, as we landed around 12:30 a.m.). Everything looked so bleak when I started my drive, but it turned out fine.

I made it to my hotel about 1:45 a.m. and to bed by 2:00. Never has a pillow felt so good.

Final thoughts

I hope to never do this again. Ever. But with flights as fickle as they are between San Francisco and Arcata, I’ll undoubtedly face another situation like this.

I’m glad everything turned out well. I managed to get 6 hours of sleep, and I still made my work appointments.

As convenient as ACV is compared to the Bay, I have a love-hate relationship with our airport. It is situations like this that end up costing extra time, money and inconvenience. I was fortunate everything turned out well enough in my case. But it may not in the future.

Au Revoir, Pen Air: Humboldt is Again Stuck with ONE Airline

In a depressing move, PenAir notified our local Arcata-Eureka Airport that they will no longer be flying the ACV-PDX route. And they are dropping it fast. The last flight will be this coming Monday.

This leave us with just United Airlines as our only commercial option (yet again). Getting out from behind the redwood curtain just got a bit harder.

PenAir’s reason for leaving

It seems to be impossible for our area to keep a reasonable amount of commercial air service. My first guess when hearing the news was that the route wasn’t particularly profitable due to the rural nature of our area. The single flight I took on PenAir to Portland didn’t have that high of a load factor (SEE: The Pacific Northwest Stopover “Trick”). However, the United flights I’ve been on are almost always very full (and very expensive).

Turns out that the economics of the route had nothing to do with PenAir’s decision to axe it. The program director for the Humboldt County Aviation Division called the route “very successful”. So what is the problem?

Airlines need pilots

PenAir, like other regional airlines, is suffering from a pilot shortage. Horizon Air (another regional airline that flies under Alaska’s wing) had to cut some flights due to their pilot shortage in June. Pilots are retiring by the hundreds per week, and we can’t seem to fill the ranks with new talent fast enough.

PenAir actually cut all non-essential air service routes in the lower 48 states. This means you can still fly to Portland from Crescent City (an EAS airport) on PenAir, although for most of Humboldt County this is roughly a 2 hour drive north. Hardly ideal. Might as well drive to SFO.

Conclusion

This is sad news for Humboldt. I really liked the new little airline we acquired last year, and had hoped to fly them again. I’ll continue to hold out hope that we will pick up a new option. Three flights per day on United is hardly much of an option (plus they break guitars).

I want to add that if you’re young and considering a career, consider becoming a pilot. The investment isn’t all that much different than a moderately expensive university, but the demand for your skills will not be going away anytime soon. The world will need 637,000 new pilots by 2036 to fill the projected increase in air travel. North America will need 117,000 of those. Airline pilots make good wages, so the multi-year investment should be entirely worth it.

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