Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Road Trips

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?

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.  

Trying (and failing) to help our kids with their constant carsickness

Since we’ve had our kids home, we have taken a number of excursions. The most recent was to Disneyland, which was our first trip as an entire family (plus the mother-in-law). Most of the rest of these have been one to three night getaways on which I take just our older two kids.

One thing is always for certain: someone will get sick. And someone will nearly always throw up. Never mind the happy featured photo.

Combating carsickness

Ever since our precious kids first entered our lives back in September 2017, we have been battling carsickness. The complaints are near-constant whenever we drive, ranging from a mild headache to full on you-better-pull-over-i-am-gonna-puke. We had a few instances in Costa Rica where they upchucked, most notably Zion after our day visiting Volcán Irazú (SEE: Visiting Irazu Volcano in Costa Rica).

Locally, they have been doing better. We still get the headaches and mild tummy troubles. But after one bout in November, we haven’t had any puking during our normal, everyday driving.

Long car trips are a whole different animal. Here the puking is almost a given. Our first trip included a 5-hour drive to Oakland where we enjoyed some time in the lounge before boarding a tiny plane to go visit my grandparents (SEE: Escape Lounge Oakland Review, and SEE: Boutique Air Flight Review: the closest I’ll ever come to flying private).

Along the way we picked up breakfast in Ukiah. This was later deposited in Windsor and Berkeley, as each kid successively expelled it. Fortunately, the drive back a couple days later was free from vomit.

Since then we haven’t had a trip without someone puking. Sure, we may be vomit-free on one leg. But it happens at least once, typically on the southbound drive to the Bay or middle of the state.

What do we do?

After our trip to Calistoga for New Year’s (SEE: Celebrating New Year’s 2018), I emailed my mom, explaining that the only thing that was a real bummer on the trip was both kids puking again. I got a two word response: “USE DRAMAMINE!”

Turns out, I already was. But it doesn’t seem to be doing anything for them. They have puked with it and without it. They have also managed fine with and without it. There is no real rhyme or reason.

The only hint I have at a solution is that their tummies seem to do slightly better when full rather than empty. We have tried to leave early in the morning, something I like to do to help the drive pass by more quickly for them. But it is on this leg that someone almost invariably pukes.

Even on our recent trip to Sacramento, the kids couldn’t make it. Lion threw up along Highway 101. Then later along Highway 20. Fortunately, they were both hungry when we reached Williams, and we had a nice late breakfast at Granzella’s.

The Sinclair dinosaur also cheered them up.

Conclusion

I’m still searching for a silver bullet to help our kids. Having full tummies seems to help, as does slowing down. My wife thinks I drive too fast, and maybe the kids tummies do, too. I’ll need to see if this helps much (last trip, it didn’t seem to).

For the record, when I was small I did a lot of upchucking when we took family trips, but eventually grew out of this. I hope the same happens with our kids.

Overview of our fun weekend in Sacramento

Over MLKJ weekend I took our older two kids away again. We previously made a quick trip to visit the great-grandparents in December, followed by an overnight in Calistoga for New Year’s. This is quickly becoming a monthly tradition, as I already have a weekend getaway planned in February.

Each trip gives me some great uninterrupted time with them, and also gives mom a bit of a break. One child is much easier to manage than three.

Rundown on our quick trip

We left early on Saturday, which is already my preferred modus operandi for traveling with the kids. It gives them a couple hours to snooze, and by the time they wake up fully, we usually have less than 3 hours of driving left. I’ve let them watch one movie at this point, and then they only need to entertain themselves for maybe another 90 minutes before we reach our destination.

Our time in the capital of the Golden State was spent seeing old town Sacramento, the California Railroad Museum, and the Sacramento Zoo. I’ll cover each of those separately, among other things, in upcoming posts:

Tacking on work

After I planned the trip, I found out that I needed to get certified ASAP for commercial operation of small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS). While recreational use doesn’t require any sort of permit, you need to pass a test to operate one commercially. My boss approached me about operating a UAS on one of our upcoming projects, and I gladly agreed.

But this did mean I needed to cram and pass the test ASAP. He graciously allowed me to tack the test onto the end of our trip and covered some of our expenses.

So, our final night was booked in Auburn, California (on the company dime), where I scheduled the exam. We have friends there who were able to watch the kids while I took the test (so, so thankful!).

After lunch, we hit the road home. It was a quick but fun weekend!

Driving the Sea to Sky Highway in British Columbia

This trip is a bit dated, but I figured I’d walk (or drive) down memory lane and describe the fun day my wife and I had together when we were visiting Vancouver last winter. 

As a Christmas gift to my wife, I planned a short getaway to Vancouver, British Columbia over New Years 2017. After enjoying Capilano Suspension Bridge and  Bright Nights in Stanley Park, we finished with a spectacular drive on our last full day in beautiful British Columbia.

All of our nights were spent in Vancouver, so this was our starting point. Vancouver has one of the best settings of any city I’ve ever visited. With the sea and Vancouver Island in the distance to the west and snow-capped mountains to the north, the city has a beautiful backdrop no matter the angle. It also has amazing outdoor recreation opportunities. You can be in the mountains within only a few minutes of the city.

Driving the Sea to Sky Highway

The stretch of highway heading north from Vancouver is aptly named the Sea to Sky Highway. And even in winter it is totally worth a drive.

We took off mid-morning from Vancouver, heading through Stanley Park and over the Lion’s Gate Bridge. After passing through the suburbs on the north side of the city, the road turns north at Horseshoe Bay. This is where the views begin. For nearly 30 miles, the highway is rarely more than a stone’s throw from the ocean, flanked by mountains on the east and with a backdrop of snow capped peaks to the west.

We would have stopped more along this stretch had we known conditions were going to be as nice as they were on the rest of the drive. We pulled over at a park just before the Sea to Sky Gondola. Given that it was a beautifully clear day, I was quite bummed that the gondola itself was closed due to high winds. I wanted to soak in the view of the snow capped peaks of British Columbia stretching to the north. But standing at the side of the road in the icy shade would have to do.

Stopping in Squamish

A few minutes later we were in Squamish, where we made a brief pit stop. Squamish markets itself as the recreation capital of Canada. Random fact: the company I work for has a client whose son chose to go to college in Squamish for exactly this reason.

We ate some lunch in the car after meandering away from the highway for a couple minutes. I then took a very brief walk along the river. Don’t let the picturesque photo fool you. While the view was lovely, the wind was ripping, and man was it cold. Kels stayed nice and toasty warm in the car.

As we continued our trek north from Squamish, the road began to climb. The sun was fully out and heating the asphalt, so I became less worried about ice on this stretch. We made good time and the trip took a little under an hour.

Arriving in Whistler

We were nearly to Whistler before we finally started driving over snow. It was packed in patches and sloppy in others. I knew whatever tires our California-rented Corolla had wouldn’t allow much room for error, so I was extra careful. I made a right at the first major intersection we came upon.

The end of the road for us was the resort area on the south end of Whistler known as Creekside Village. We hopped out of the car to wander around for a bit.

We did stop in at the convenient Starbucks for a warm pick-me-up. Strangely, the barista that took my order was from Australia. His accent was very obvious. Then I realized all the baristas were from Australia, which was even more weird. They even had name tags with their hometown on it. I didn’t have the nerve to ask how and why they were all here, and if they were part of some sort of Starbucks barista exchange program. Their Canadian counterparts would surely be enjoying the land down under during the height of summer (I sure did a few weeks later).

We then walked up toward the lift to take a little look at the slopes. I greatly enjoy skiing. My wife does not. When we went skiing in Quebec the previous winter, she did one run down the “easiest way down” and then decided she better stick to the bunny slope.

So, given the cost of the sport plus the trek to get to any decent ski resort, I don’t really go often (a total of 3 times in a decade). But one day we’ll have to come back to Whistler and enjoy a day or two on the slopes. The place looks and feels amazing. I’m not surprised it is one of the top rated ski resorts in North America. Others say it is the best in the world.

Returning along the Sea to Sky Highway

The drive back was just as pleasant. We stopped several times along the way to take in the scenic vistas.

Canada makes me want to move there every time I visit it. But then I remember their politics.

What mountains.

My wife’s signature photo style where all or part of the sun is in the frame.

We made another pit stop in Squamish so I could grab a coffee. We enjoyed the views of the water again as we continued southward, the sun slowly sinking towards the southwest.

Then it was back over the Lion’s Gate Bridge and into Downtown Vancouver.

Conclusion

Driving the Sea to Sky Highway is one of my favorite memories of our trip to Vancouver. It was a wonderful midday outing. Going into it, I didn’t know if we would make it to Whistler or not, but I am glad conditions were nice and we got to take a look around.

We did make it to Canada a second time in 2017, visiting Banff National Park and Calgary, Alberta (SEE: Banff, Alberta in 14 photos). This was also a major travel hacking win (SEE: Staying at the Fairmont Banff Springs for $99.18).

Until next time, Vancouver. This time we’ll have kids along for the journey.