Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

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Travel planning: penciling in the first half of 2019

If there is something that is nearly as fun as travel itself, it is the travel planning. One of the best parts of this hobby is seeing how I can best use our miles and points and/or fantastic travel deals to put together very inexpensive trips. And we have a good number planned for the first half of 2019.

New Years in Napa

We’re coming right up on this trip. Last year I took the older two away for one night over New Year’s Eve and Day. We had a nice dinner of Mexican food, swam in the pool at the Best Western Stevenson Manor, and stayed up late watching Sully (SEE: Celebrating New Year’s 2018). Mom and our youngest welcomed 2018 with a good night’s rest.

This year is very much a repeat of last year, as we are only driving a bit further to a resort hotel in Napa instead of Calistoga. The main different is that we will be gone for more than one night. We’re keeping the trip pretty budget. The rooms at the resort condo property have a small kitchen, so we will eat in much of the time. But we’ll still do some activities nearby and definitely spend time in the pool.

Long weekend in New Mexico

A few weeks later I’m planning to take my daughter on a long weekend winter trip to Santa Fe. We’ll explore this historic city as well as Taos Pueblo nearby. I’ve not been to New Mexico since a trip when I was 13 years old and traveling back and forth across the country with my grandparents and cousin.

Flights for this trip were booked as an Avianca LifeMiles award for a United ticket, much the same way we booked our flights to Tucson earlier this year (SEE: 2 Tips for Planning a Last-Minute Trip). The return were booked with Alaska vouchers. Our hotel is a mix of cash and points.

Seattle and Boise

Now that our two boys are in school, I have to worry about planning around school schedules (although I am willing to pull him out now and then). There will be a break in February for President’s Week, and I’m taking advantage of that to take my older son on a 5-day trip to Seattle and Boise. Seattle, since it is a cool city, and award tickets on Alaska were easy to book. Plus, there is an awesome flight museum, and a Boeing factory to tour!

Boise is on the list because, well, I haven’t been to Idaho yet, and I just had to tack on a second destination when an award ticket with an onward segment to Boise doesn’t cost any extra. The flight back was super cheap, too, as I used vouchers from our delayed return flight from our Disneyland trip (SEE: Turning 20,000 Amex points into 25,000 miles and $500). All hotel will be covered with Hyatt and Hilton points.

Day-trip to fly the shortest Flight in the U.S.

This trip may seem crazy, as it is a one-night, one-day blast to Los Angeles and back. The intent was for me to fly the shortest flight in the U.S. during the very last week it was offered before United discontinued the service. But the folks at United subsequently changed their mind, and the Santa Rosa to SFO hop will persist. At least for now.

Am I’m still gonna fly it, even though it is no longer being discontinued? Yeah…it’ll provide some good material for Points with a Crew.

Solo trip to Shanghai

This is one of those trips where the deals dictated it. After experiencing Beijing, I’ve been reading about visiting Shanghai, as well as other Chinese cities. I’m completely intrigued with this country now. The history and culture were a thrill when the older kids and I visited back in November (SEE: 5 Days in Beijing: Day 2 – History and Hutongs).

Well…the opportunity presented itself, and I jumped. The trip is super quick over a weekend in March, out on a Friday, back on a Tuesday. I dropped almost my entire stash of remaining LifeMiles for an Air China first class ticket to Shanghai via Beijing where I’ll spend a quick two days before heading home via Los Angeles. The return is booked in American Airlines Premium Economy, which I found for the amazing price of $367 one-way!

All of the reviews for this trip will be posted at Points with a Crew, primarily since I’m using money from my side hustles to pay for this one.

Buenos Aires and Montevideo

This is the biggest trip of the bunch. I’m hoping to take each of the kids one one international trip each year, and this will be the first one for me and my daughter. I cannot wait! We’ll spend a week split between these two cities in South America. It’ll give me (and her) a good excuse to break out the Spanish again. It has amazingly almost disappeared from our house. Funny to think back to 12 months ago when the kids were still begging us to talk with them in Spanish all the time.

Taiwan!

A few years ago you would never have caught me planning international trips that only span a few days. But the miles and points stockpiles make this entirely possible. Over Memorial Day weekend I’m planning on taking the older of my boys to Taiwan for three days, with an additional day in the Chinese city of Xiamen on a long layover during our return flight. Our flights there are in China Airlines business class, thanks to a large stash of Delta miles I’ve accumulated.

Xiamen is featured as an “up and coming” destination in China by Conde Nast Traveler. I’ve looked into a few cool things to do in the city. I’ve heard Taiwan is super kid friendly as well.

Conclusion

It’ll be a busy half-year. Here is everything planned in a nutshell:

  • 7 trips (only one of which doesn’t involve flying)
  • 6 long-haul flights
  • 3 countries (2 new)
  • 2 continents (1 new)
  • 1 new state
  • 19 airports (9 of which are new)
  • 20 segments totaling over 46,000 miles in the air

Beyond that, I’m not too sure what summer will hold. Work is in a bit of a lull, but I expect that the primary projects I’ve been working on will pick up more in the spring, with an additional increase in summer. It is possible that from June onward I won’t have much of a chance to do anything beyond the work anticipated work travel.

For now, I’m more than content with what we have planned for the first part of the year. It’s plenty!

Easiest Sedona Hike (with a view)

Sedona. I can still recall getting up before dawn and catching my first glimpse of the red cliffs all around before the sun peeked over the hills. Few mornings have felt as enchanting. Unlike that first trip to this spectacular corner of the southwestern U.S. where we had a few days to enjoy hiking in its breathtaking setting, our road trip this past spring was fast-paced; we had a mere afternoon to take in as much as we could. Which meant I wanted to find the easiest Sedona hike possible.

Yet I still wanted to find one that provided us with great views of the beautiful rock formations of this amazing corner of the southwest. I remembered one that was very close to the middle of town. It would be the perfect mix of fast and easy, and also provide an awesome view of the Sedona landscape.

Easiest Sedona Hike with a view

The trail of choice was the Teacup Trail, which would take us to the Sugarloaf Summit trail, which was the real goal. The trailhead is located in the middle of Sedona, in a residential neighborhood. You can find the parking lot on Buena Vista Drive.

The Teacup Trail is fairly well marked. You can generally follow the path easily, although there are places where you could possibly wander away from the main path. Any extra trails made by people who didn’t stay on the main path don’t disappear quickly in the desert. The damage is done.

If you do get confused as to where to go, you can generally spot a rock cage that will help guide you. These are placed fairly regularly along some of the trails in Sedona.

Even though this may be the easiest Sedona hike, there is no shortage of beautiful scenery. Some of the best is right here in the middle of town. The landscape is mesmerizing.

It will probably take you no more than about 10-15 minutes to come to the turnoff that will take you up Sugarloaf Summit. The Teacup Trail passes alongside the west side of this rocky outcrop, and you must hike back up from the north. You can see Coffee Pot Rock there to the left at the end of the mesa in the foreground.

Hiking Sugarloaf Summit

The Sugarloaf Summit Trail is a bit more strenuous than the Teacup Trail, but it really isn’t difficult. The trail is less than a quarter mile from the turnoff up to the top of the rocky dome. We took our time, and the kids enjoyed playing with rocks and looking for critters in the desert.

As you get to the top of Sugarloaf Summit, you start to get the best of the views. Sedona is truly incredible. I was just as amazed by this visit as I was by my first trip here.

easiest Sedona hike

There was a storm quickly approaching, and the wind was really moving across the top of Sugarloaf Summit. Luckily, it wasn’t cold. The temperature during our short Sedona hike was right around 70 degrees. Better than the cold we encountered later in the trip, and also better than the 90 degree days we spent enjoying Tucson (SEE: Kings Canyon – Gould Mine Loop Hike in Saguaro National Park).

Here is a panorama from the east side of Sugarloaf “Mountain”. You can see Coffee Pot Rock clearly in the center, and part of Sedona to the right.

Even though the kids aren’t all that crazy about hiking, they were sure enjoying this easy Sedona hike (SEE: 3 Tips for Hiking with Kids in the Desert). I think it was mainly because of the better temperatures and the fact they knew it wasn’t going to be all that far.

They were even being loving siblings. Which is sure better than dealing with the alternative.

We hiked a bit farther along the Teacup Trail, ending up pretty much right under Coffee Pot Rock before turning around. It was looking more and more like rain, and I wanted to make it back to the car before it started. Plus, we also had scheduled a time for my daughter to talk with a friend.

Overall, it was a great short hike. Hopefully we’ll be back to Sedona fairly soon to enjoy some more great, easy hiking.

Conclusion

Given our time constraints and the weather, our hike was the perfect length. It would have been nicer to see more of the exquisitely beautiful red rock surrounding us, but we had to settle for the easiest Sedona hike I was familiar with and knew would provide us with a lovely view of the valley. We’ll tackle something a bit more challenging next time.

Map image courtesy of Open Street Map

Fare Sale: Fly Nonstop to Paris for $375!

Delta is offering an excellent sale for nonstop tickets from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG) on partner Air France. This route is operated by both a Boeing 777 and an Airbus A380 on the two daily flights between these two cities. If you can depart and return midweek, this is one of the best prices I’ve seen on a full service airline.

The ticket is in basic economy, so there will be substantial restrictions. But if you’re simply interested in getting to Europe for cheap, this is an excellent deal! Here are some sample travel dates:

  • Tuesday, March 5 through Tuesday, March 12
  • Wednesday, March 13 through Wednesday, March 20
  • Wednesday, April 3 through Wednesday, April 10
  • Tuesday, April 16 through Tuesday, April 23

For this fare you’ll accrue over 11,000 medallion qualifying miles if credited to Delta. You’ll accrue 1,250 redeemable miles if booked through Delta.

Here is a link to Google Flights with just one set of travel dates. You can click through to book with Air France or Delta.

Air France’s A380 is a very nice way to cross between continents (SEE: Air France A380 Economy Review: Paris to San Francisco). If you’ve been dreaming of visiting France, this could be a great way to do it cheaply!

A Full Travel Year: Reflecting on 2018

Every year I like to take stock of where we went, what we saw, and the amazing experiences we were blessed to have. I ended up taking the kids more places than I anticipated this year, including two international trips. The older two have been great travelers, and I hope to have many more adventures with them. Soon enough their younger brother can be added to the mix as well.

Disneyland!

We kicked off the year with a trip to Disneyland in southern California. I’m blessed to have a coworker whose sister works for Disney. She was able to get us all in for close to free one of our two days. We also stayed at the Disneyland Resort, thanks to my in-laws, something I never thought we would have done. I was looking at points hotels close to the park for our stay.

Disney is the sort of vacation that makes you want to take a vacation, at least for me. The kids had a blast, but there is *so* much to do and see that we ended up running ourselves ragged. But they had a wonderful time, which is what matters the most.

Our week-long road-trip across the Southwest

When I initially called off our first planned trip to Europe, I decided the older kids and I would still spend a week away, but enjoying our own country. Given that spring is the best time to visit the Southwest, and there are amazing rental cars deals available, we hopped on a plane to Tucson and made our way back to California day by day. Stops included Saguaro National Park, Sedona, the Grand Canyon, Death Valley and Lake Tahoe.

The road trip was a blast. Sadly, I’m not quite done with those trip report posts (Overview). Even though the two had previously gotten car sick frequently [SEE: Trying (and failing) to help our kids with their constant carsickness], they did amazingly well on this long trek. I’m not sure how often we will road trip, but I’d like to work that into our plans now and then. Most of the time I think about traveling to some far-flung place, when there is still plenty to see and experience close to home.

Paris and Luxembourg

I ended up deciding to rebook a shorter version of our European adventure that was amenable to everyone. Instead of being gone 19 days, we would keep it to 8. This meant we’d really only get to spend six days in Europe, given the long plane rides each way. We could have spent all that in Paris and still not seen everything, but I decided that splitting the time between the French capital and the small principality of Luxembourg would be most ideal.

I’m infatuated with small countries, and Luxembourg was as interesting as every other one I’ve visited (SEE: 5 Reasons to Visit San Marino). The kids and I had a blast exploring the old city. The highlights of the trip were still back in Paris, though. The Eiffel Tower was everyone’s favorite. Except for climbing the stairs. The kids will always remember how I made them hike the tower.

Quick trips with the older kids

Summer brought two shorter trips, my first solo adventures with each of the older two. My daughter especially liked how we got upgraded to first class on our way to San Antonio to visit her friend (SEE: Treating My Daughter to American Domestic First Class).

When it was my son’s turn, I settled on Atlanta, mainly because of the great summer deal I came across, and the fact it cost us barely $7 out of pocket for the flights. But I’d never visited the city, and I figured it was as good a city as any to explore. Sometimes you chase specific destinations, sometimes you just let the deals take you places. We had an amazing time at the Delta Flight Museum and the Georgia Aquarium. Our downtown Atlanta accommodations were also pretty swanky, not to mention free (SEE: The American Hotel Atlanta Review).

Experiencing China

The capstone trip of the year was definitely our adventure in China. This was my first time visiting Asia, and it was an incredible experience on the whole. We spent 5 days sightseeing in Beijing, taking in the history of the Chinese capital. Standing on the Great Wall was probably the highlight for me (SEE: 5 Days in Beijing: Day 3 – Mutianyu Great Wall Excursion). It is a truly incredible experience.

Then we traded cold northern China for balmy Hong Kong for a few more days. This eclectic city is like no other I’ve ever visited, and it is just the sort of place I’d love to stopover in for a couple days at a time. From the food to the hustle and bustle to the exquisite skyline of the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island, I hope to come back. We had our first Michelin-starred dining as well: a dim sum restaurant that set us back about $25 for all three of us. Cheap and delish.

Conclusion

Now that the year has drawn to a close, I’m looking forward to a travel-filled 2019. We have more than a couple trips in the works, including a quick getaway over New Year’s. More on the rest of our adventures later. Merry Christmas, everyone!

5 Days in Beijing: Day 4 – Tiananmen and the Forbidden City

The kids finally slept in a bit more than the previous two days. After a day chock full of sightseeing followed by one where we had our excursion to the Great Wall, they were extra tired. I’d actually set the morning aside for school, which is exactly what we did after breakfast. We may be across the world, but they didn’t escape the books this trip!

We called it a day at about 11:00 a.m., though, which was a grand total of about 2 solid hours. Beijing would provide the history lesson for the day.

Tiananmen Square and China’s beloved Mao

Most people older than I probably remember the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989. I was born that year, so I don’t exactly have firsthand knowledge of what transpired, just what I’ve read and been told. While the square has a more lengthy history, including being the place where Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the first thing that always comes to mind when I hear “Tiananmen” is “tank man” and the protests that were forcibly subdued by the Chinese military, leaving a large number of people dead.

With that solemn history in mind (I didn’t try and explain anything to the kids), we made the walk to Tiananmen Square. The fall colors in Beijing were lovely along the way.

The walk was a bit further than I figured, but still not bad from the Renaissance on Wangfujing Street. Crossing under the street, we popped up in Tiananmen Square.

The square is immense. It can supposedly hold half a million people. To the north is the “Gate of Heavenly Peace”, from which Tiananmen gets its name.

In the middle (roughly) is the Monument to the People’s Heroes. To the south is a Mausoleum of Mao Zedong.

There were a good number of people out in the square, but given the size, it didn’t feel crowded at all. The National Museum of China flanks the square to the east. It was also on the list of sights to see, but given how many other things there were to do in Beijing, I decided to skip it. It’ll have to wait for another visit, probably once the kids can appreciate museums more.

Satisfied with our walk through the square, the kids and I once again crossed under the street, this time arriving in front of the “Gate of Heavenly Peace.” The placement of a large picture of Chairman Mao on the gate is paradoxical to me. He is the leader responsible for the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, ushering in China as we know it from this very spot on October 1, 1949. Yet he is also the man responsible for the “Great Leap Forward”, a period where tens of millions of Chinese people died due to poor governance that severely compounded natural disasters around 1960.

Seeing his photo here was enough. I didn’t have the desire to take the kids to see the embalmed leader in his Mausoleum on the other side of the square.

Entering into the Forbidden City, I decided we better find a place to eat. There isn’t anything very easily accessible at Tiananmen Square, unless you want some snack foods sold by the vendors. That just won’t cut it for me. Luckily, we found a spot.

Lunch was a solid introduction for the kids to how the Chinese don’t respect lines. The lunch counter we found in the first courtyard contained a throng of people slowly pushing their way along toward the counter. You basically just stand in the mob and shuffle your way to the front, eventually being the one closest to the cashier so that you can order.

I wouldn’t eat here if you can avoid it. The food had to be chock full of MSG. The flavors of the meatballs and beef we ordered were too intense and satisfying.

Exploring the Forbidden City

Entry tickets to the Forbidden City are fairly inexpensive like nearly everywhere we’ve visited in Beijing. I think I paid 80 yuan for the three of us to enter, 40 yuan for myself and half that for each of the kids. For reference, this is less than $12 for one of the foremost historical sites in Beijing.

I did also opt for a audio guide. I thought about getting more than one, but we either took turns listening to some of the explanations or I just relayed the main points to the kids. If you want to maximize your visit to the Forbidden Palace yet still go at your own pace, I would suggest one of these.

One of the features of the Forbidden Palace is the presence of multiple sundials, in a form I’d never seen before. From what I understood, the sundial was invented independently here in China, although the sundials of other cultures predate it. In this case, the sundial disk is oriented such that it is in line with the arc of the sun at each equinox. The upper disk is then read in the summer, when the sun is higher in the sky, while the lower disk is read in winter.

Another interesting feature of the bulk of the Imperial Palace buildings are the processions of tiny beasts at the corner of each roof. The Hall of Supreme Harmony boasts the most of these figures, which one gave it the highest status of all buildings in the Chinese empire.

The Forbidden Palace really is magnificent. It is (unsurprisingly) among the listed UNESCO sites for its cultural and historic significance.

The impressiveness of all this history sure didn’t keep the kids from being their goofy selves.

Near the very end of the palace (everyone passes through south to north), there is a very interesting feature. I didn’t really know what to make of it until the audio guide finally decided to explain what we were looking at. This odd rock face is actually artificially constructed from stones taken from a lake is a part of China quite distant from the capital. The pavilion at the top is said to have the best view of the entire Forbidden City.

Our visit to the Forbidden Palace lasted about 2 hours. We didn’t see all the sights,  but we were able to walk through or past the bulk of the halls and most interesting areas. If you’re really into the history of the palace, I’d suggest a visit of more like 4 hours.

Climbing the hill in Jingshan Park

We’d seen Jingshan Park during our second day in Beijing (Day 2), from the Drum tower. The Forbidden City, Jingshan Park and the Drum and Bell Towers all lie on the same central north-south axis of the city. Given the length of history of Beijing, the city has had this design for many centuries. You could stand right on it if you wished.

The walk up the hill was fun. At least…*I* thought it was fun. The elevation gain is seriously only 200 feet or so. Yet the kids acted like they were dying. I barely got my son to smile for this.

The air quality on Day 4 was also the best it had been the whole trip. I’d read so many stories about how awful many cities in China can be, but I did not that November is a better time for Beijing in general. Our view of Chaoyang from Jingshan Park was excellent, and the air was so much clearer than just the day before when we were headed to the wall.

The air was so clear we could see the hills miles away to the north. The sliver of lake on the left is near Shichahai, an area near the hutongs we wandered on Day 2.

After we’d made our way back down from the hill and toward the gate, we decided to watch the group of ladies dancing with streamers. We’d seen a bit of this at the Temple of Heaven on Day 2.  It is a lovely and enjoyable art to watch.

While surely not as picturesque as spring or summer, the park in the fall didn’t turn out to be that bad. So many bright yellow trees everywhere we went.

The kids had been asking for panda hats a couple times. While prices at the Great Wall shot that request down pretty quick, we found them a whole lot better here in Jingshan Park. Barely $5 for two hats? I’ll take ’em.

Evening in at the Renaissance

We walked back to our hotel from the park, wandering through a coupe hutongs on the way. The kids and I were solicited multiple times by rickshaw drivers who wanted to take us on a tour. One even had the clever idea of turning my kids against me by saying they must be tired from walking and are too young to be going so far. Luckily, I don’t have such sympathy. They will survive another half mile.

The kids wanted to play foosball when we got back, which was fine by me. It was the perfect activity for killing a half hour before the club lounge opened for dinner. As is typical, they couldn’t make it 15 minutes before they got in an argument and my daughter refused to play anymore. So I got to show my son who is the real foosball boss.

Dinner was quite good. I wish I’d realized our first night that “happy hour” of two hours between 5:30 and 7:30 was actually dinner and not just drinks. It would have saved us about $25 spent eating out and honestly been way easier.

The day came to a close with showers for the kids and then reading some Calvin and Hobbes together. Our last day in Beijing was yet unplanned, so I had a bit of work to do after the kids turned in. Would we make an easygoing day of it seeing some last sights in Beijing? Or would we cap things off with a day trip to Tianjin?

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