Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

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Feeding the Giraffe at the Sacramento Zoo!

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

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

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

General info on the Sacramento Zoo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things to do beyond seeing the animals

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

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

Our Giraffe Encounter experience

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

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

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

Calling it a day

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

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

Conclusion

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

2 Tips for Planning a Last-Minute Trip

After deciding to abort my planned trip to Europe, my wife and I had a long discussion about how to approach my two weeks off. It would have been fairly easy to go back to work (I have been putting in a little time this week), but we decided to see if there were other options on the table. We ultimately settled on the idea of me taking the older two kids on a road trip for a week.

At only six days out, there wasn’t much time to plan. And awards can be expensive. But luckily I have a couple tricks up my sleeve….

Tip #1 – Understand how award space works

Last-minute awards can be a either a big ouch, or they can be a gold mine. It all depends on the loyalty program. Any revenue-based program (i.e. Southwest, JetBlue) will be a big ouch if you need to book a ticket a week out. Delta is usually awful as well. American is meh. United, on the other hand, is a stellar choice. In my experience, United tends to release a lot of award seats close-in. They are my go-to if we are looking for a last-minute award deal.

Not looking too bad for 4 people just a few days out

There is just one big hurdle: the utterly ridiculous close-in booking fee. It’s basically extortion. I can’t decide if I hate it more or less than hotel resort fees.

Booking tickets for the three of us from Arcata to Tucson would cost 37,500 miles and $241.80. Not fun. And not worth it. The space is there, but booking through United is a less-than-ideal option.

Enter Avianca Lifemiles

Avianca LifeMiles are a fantastic alternative. And we have a small pile of them right now from when I signed up for the Avianca Vuela Visa (SEE: Lucrative Offer! New Avianca Lifemiles credit cards). You can also get Lifemiles by transferring your Citi ThankYou Points to that program.

Avianca rolled out a short-haul award chart for the United State last year that divided the USA into 3 regions. All intra-region travel is only 7,500 miles each way, and this includes connections. We can head nearly anywhere in the west for either 2,500 or 5,000 miles less than what United charges! My only word of warning is that the system chokes on awards with more than one connection. And good luck if you have to call an agent (better brush up on your Spanish).

One critical piece of this puzzle is the fact that Avianca doesn’t charge extortion a close-in fee (but they do still charge an annoying $25 award booking fee). I managed to book our tickets out of our local Arcata airport (SEE: The Upstart Arcata-Eureka Airport), a rare treat for personal travel. It cost us a total of 22,500 miles plus $91.80 for the three of us.

Last minute tickets were going for $866 round-trip, so this yields a return of 5.3 cents per mile. In all honesty, we wouldn’t be taking this trip if it wasn’t for miles, so calculating redemption value is a bit silly. What really matters is that we are saving a lot compared to using United miles for the trip.

Tip #2 – Know when it is one-way rental season

A trip like this has been at the back of my mind for some time. Every spring, rental car companies will give you rock bottom rates to get their cars out of the desert, and every fall they will offer you deals to take them back. Why do they do this? Trust me, it has nothing to do with cutting you a deal on your family trip.

This annual cycle is summed up in two words: inventory management. Car rental companies need more cars in certain locations during different times of the year, so instead of paying top dollar to truck them from state to state, they’ll simply cut you a deal to move one for them.

So…in essence I am helping Alamo move a car from Tucson, where nobody wants to be in July, to Sacramento. Whether that is really a better summer destination is up for debate, but Alamo would rather have the car in California than in Arizona. For this I am paying a whopping $101 for an eight day rental.

Similar deals are available from Florida, where you can take cars at a discount back to summer markets in the Northeast. An even better tip: some systems won’t differentiate between the deals offered. On other words, even though the company says “rent in Florida and return in New York” and “rent in Arizona and return in California”, you can actually drive a car all the way across the country! I priced out a two week rental from Miami to San Francisco for $228!! I’ve paid that much for a four day work rental!!!

Stop. I’m getting all excited again. Let me finish up with our trip details…

Planning our time through the Southwest

The hotels easily fell into place for the trip. I have points with most major chains, and there were plenty to pick from at most destinations. The harder issue for me was maximizing value. Do I use the Hilton points? Or do I book with IHG? Or do I pay $55 cash for a nearby Quality Inn and save the points for a better use? I think I got the cost down to ~$100 cash for our 8 nights.

The plan is to make our way from Tucson to Sacramento day by day, averaging 3-4 hours on the road. Sightseeing stops are planned at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Saguaro National Park, Sedona, the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam, Las Vegas, Death Valley, and the Harrah Collection in Reno. I’ve also thrown in a couple of cheap resort hotels where the kids can spend a day in the warmth and water.

I’ve honestly never put together a trip so quickly. Thirty-six hours is probably a record. But I decided that I could salvage the vacation time, and this seemed like one of the best options. More importantly, I hope to make up for how utterly disappointed I left our two older kids after pulling the plug on our Europe trip.

Featured image courtesy of Kentaro Iemoto under CC 2.0 license.  

Walking Away from a Trip – Lessons Learned

I’ve been pretty silent of late, which has been primarily because of how busy work has been over the past month and a half. But added to that has been two weeks of deliberation over whether we would take a trip, or simply walk away from it. But now I finally have a bunch of thoughts to pen.

The travel hacking hobby allows us to do so much more than we otherwise could. My wife and I have had the ability to travel often during the past couple years, and I have started taking our older kids on quick getaways now and then, our most recent being to Sacramento. We also visited Disneyland, and while there is really no way to make a trip like that close to free, we were able to cut a good chunk of the cost.

Sometimes this means I try to plan “once-in-a-lifetime” trips at a fairly regular pace. I’d say we could do it on the order of once per year if I play the points game well.

Planning a trip to Europe

Back in February I broached the subject of taking the older two kids to Europe. In our initial conversations, my wife seemed supportive of the idea. It would give her needed time to plan a few aspects of our household that we hadn’t gotten to since the kids had been home.

I was initially looking at a 12 day adventure, but then upped it to 15. Our previous longest trip was four full days, so this is definitely a step up. After locking the flights in for a grand total of $0, the hotels easily fell into place over the next several weeks, all on points. We were looking at a completely free vacation in terms of lodging and air travel.

Fast-forward to a mere 2 weeks before the trip, and the misgivings are setting in. My wife is feeling conflicted about us all being apart that long. I had already told the kids, and the ball is rolling to get passports before we go (having adopted kids delayed and complicated things paperwork-wise, so we ran out of time). I decided to play things out and see if we would both come to consensus on the idea.

The departure day finally arrives and we say goodbye in Santa Rosa. The older two and I finish the journey to the city by bus. I’m feeling conflicted at this point, but I had other pressing concerns (work in the City being one of them), and decide to press forward and keep discussing things as we go.

Walking away at the last second

After spending the weekend in the Bay with the kids (while also working…definitely a difficult mix), we came down to the very day of travel. We woke up in a hotel with amazing views of planes taking off and landing at SFO, and the kids were super excited. I was not.

I’ve rarely felt so conflicted about anything. The trip was a big mess of various concerns. I had pragmatic reasons for planning it, those being giving mom time with the little one and time to get a bunch of household stuff done that she has wanted to do for literally months. But my wife wasn’t 100% in agreement with the idea. It was simply too long a time. That should have been enough to easily call it off, except I kept coming back to the big factor on the other side: the disappointment the older two would inevitably feel. How could we bring them this far along and then pull the rug out from under them? I simply didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t a precedent I wanted to set with them. At the very bottom there was the personal reason of me loving to travel, plus the fact that I knew we would lose some miles and cash should we cancel.

In the end, I finally pulled the plug. There was no other option. The moment of clarity came way too late.

What was the damage? Well….it could have been much worse than it was. I didn’t know this would be the case, but I got the two kids’ tickets back in the form of a Delta voucher for $464 each that is good anytime in the next year. This salvaged the roughly 66,000 Ultimate Rewards points I burned on them. I’m still waiting to hear back about my ticket (booked separately), but my guess is that it is a total loss. The 13,100 points I spent on the Norwegian Airlines intra-Europe flights are a total loss.

We also have to factor in the cost of getting expedited passports, the last minute cost of traveling home, and one hotel cancellation that may result in a charge (remains to be seen). I was technically a few hours after the cancellation deadline. All in all, the loss will be about $700 worth of points and maybe $300 cash.

The real damage was having to tell the kids we weren’t going to go. Getting them excited and working toward that goal as a family for the last two weeks just made it all that much harder. This was the main reason I had deliberated so much, since I didn’t want to face them and tell them this. There were tears, of course, and questions about why. I cried with them. The trip didn’t really matter to me at all any more. Seeing them hurt did. I had set them up for major disappointment. My heart still aches.

But in the end, I believe it was the right choice. This was simply too much for all of us.

Lessons learned

With fare sales, transient award availability, and other deals in constant flux, the typical motto of those who like to travel hack (or just cheaply) is “jump now and figure the rest out later.” While possibly good in some cases, this isn’t always the best advice. Our initial discussions about the trip idea had been during a period where I could take advantage of a great fare sale, and they were far more abbreviated than they should have been.

Our takeaway from this is that both of us need to be completely sure about something before I go ahead plan it. Especially a mostly non-refundable plan. And more especially if there is any way we could let the kids down. I know this isn’t always avoidable, and life will bring disappointment, but this could have been avoided in our case.

My wife and I are in agreement on most things. She and I both want her to have a break from time to time, and she needs time to plan things for our house. She is a very “all or nothing” person, and needs large chunks of time to be able to accomplish some things. Kids, especially our very needy adopted kids, make this nearly impossible. She was looking forward to an open week in which she could get a lot done. What she wasn’t looking forward to was being apart for so long. It took me too long to face the reality that I need to honor her emotional needs above all other concerns, even pragmatic ones and the emotions of the kids.

We’ll have another chance

This was my attempt at a consolation for the kids. The Eiffel Tower will still be there. We can ride the canals of Amsterdam and walk the streets of Bruges a different time. We may have an opportunity fairly soon, or it could be years from now. We’ll have plenty of opportunity to go other places as well. This didn’t stop the tears, but I made them a promise that I would take us to Paris some day, and hopefully all five of us will go.

The beauty of this hobby is that making a “once-in-a-lifetime” trip is not as hard as someone trying to save cash to do it. Walking away from one doesn’t hurt quite as bad, either. I’m thankful this wasn’t a case of shelling out $4,000 on a non-refundable trip and then having to pull the plug. It hurts to lose point and miles, but at the end of the day, my forfeited ticket was free. Completely free. I didn’t even pay a credit card annual fee for the points.

Conclusion

Everything about this was an important lesson. We have other trips in the works, which I’ll lay out in a separate post, so we also have something to look forward to. We may pencil a couple more in this summer, but right now my wife and I are reassessing our next couple months. I’m also taking a much needed week off since that was already the plan. It’ll just be the first time embracing the stay-cation.

Holiday Inn Rancho Cordova Review

Overall rating: 5/10

Pros: one of the cheapest chain hotels in the area, enjoyable hot tub

Cons: tired building, freezing cold and dirty pool, sup-par breakfast

We arrived at the Holiday Inn Rancho Cordova after about 5.5 hours of driving from Humboldt. From the outside the hotel looked a little dated, and I hoped it would be a bit nicer on the interior.

I’d booked a cash rate for our trip, as I was looking to maximize a promotion. At less than $100 per night, it was a pretty good deal, and not worth using points. I’d even booked a breakfast rate for about $4 more for all three of us.

Check in was smooth and easy. There was only one person in front of us, so we had to wait about 3 minutes. Our room was on the third floor, overlooking the pool.

Room at the Holiday Inn Rancho Cordova

The room was adequate. For a Holiday Inn, it was the most dated and tired room I’d stayed in. The kids thought it was very nice, but they don’t exactly have the same metrics that I do.

The beds were a standard two queen. This is usually bearable when with raveling with our older two kids, but I did make my son sleep on the floor the final night of the trip so I could get a good night’s sleep.

The freshly jumped-on beds.

There was a standard desk, the TV, and a rather old AC/heating unit.

The bathroom was a typical tub/shower with the sink outside.

We did have a view of the pool. I never saw anyone in it. More on that in a moment.

On the whole, the room was definitely dated. Holiday Inns can be pretty hit or miss. I’ve stayed in several, and the experiences have ranged from the low end of upscale to hardly better than a 2-star establishment you could get for $69 plus tax. My favorites are still the Holiday Inns in both Sydneys (one in Nova Scotia, the other a bit more famous, SEE: Holiday Inn Old Sydney Review).

Pool and Hot Tub

We hung out for a bit in the room before heading to the pool. I’d told the kids I’d swim if the water was warm (haha). I made it no further than my toes. It wasn’t just cold. It was frigid. That’s what we get for taking a trip in the winter! It would have been a different story if we were visiting the Sacramento area in the summer.

The kids hardly swam, either, which says a lot. They were totally fine with the cold water at our hotel in Costa Rica, but this pool was a bit too much. They didn’t like the mess at the bottom, either.

BY contrast, the hot tub was amazing. It was large, and we had it completely to ourselves both times we used it. The cold air outside made it hard to leave to head back to our room.

Although I love taking my kids to see the sights, a necessary part of traveling with them is spending some relaxing “down time” at the hotel. The hot tub definitely let us do that.

Breakfast at the Holiday Inn Rancho Cordova

Breakfast was in The Venetian Court, the hotel restaurant. The name might sound all hifalutin and fancy, but the place is pretty nondescript. There is no character or atmosphere to the restaurant at all.

I expected to have several menu options for breakfast, or a full buffet, but neither was offered. Instead, we were presented with a simple menu of three options:

So there you have it. Eggs with meat and potatoes, or pancakes, or oatmeal. Choose wisely.

Each of us ended up ordering something different. I didn’t plan things this way. None of us were impressed with any of the food.

The pancakes were actually slightly more appetizing than the plate of food I received, which says a lot. The quality of the potatoes and sausage was poor.

I’m not all that picky when it comes to food, so I easily finished it. But it definitely wasn’t what I was expecting for breakfast here. Neither of my kids finished their food, nor did either seem too thrilled with breakfast. But this doesn’t necessarily say a lot, as they turn their noses up at all kinds of things that are downright delicious.

My daughter wanted to enjoy some coffee. She knows the answer from me has been a continual “no.” The last thing that girl needs is caffeine.

Local Area

There really isn’t anything around the hotel. Rancho Cordova isn’t a place for walking or sightseeing. I hadn’t planned to do anything nearby, as all our activities were in Sacramento itself. We were only 20 minutes from Old Town Sacramento (SEE: Wandering through Old Town Sacramento, ALSO SEE: Visiting the California Railroad Museum) and the Zoo.

Conclusion

Overall, it was a pretty meh hotel. It’d probably be an adequate place in the summer, since the pool would be refreshing instead of frigid. But there really isn’t anything else to redeem the Holiday Inn Rancho Cordova. The main reason I’d booked the hotel was to avoid paying $50 more for a room in the city center, plus also pay for parking (assuming I stuck with IHG). This was simply the cheapest hotel I could find to meet my Q1 2018 IHG accelerate promotion. The points haul from this stay and the resulting bonuses would allow us to stay here nearly 3 more nights. You can look at it as a 5-for-2 deal, even though we will use the points somewhere else.

All said and done, I’ll almost certainly pass it up next time I am in the area.

Hey look, I’m a pilot…with what?!?

A few weeks ago I studied and passed the FAA Part 107 knowledge test. This allowed me to become a certified small unmanned aircraft system pilot. That mouthful just means I can now fly drones for commercial purposes. The company I work for had asked me to get certified (and I was able to work my test into a personal trip), and I now even have a little experience under my belt (including a crash, sadly).

Getting my remote pilot’s license

You can test to become a drone pilot even without any flying experience (but you really should have some). I’ve been doing hands-on training with another operator within our company. The exam is computerized, and if you pass, you can apply for a remote pilot’s license. I did this as soon as I could following the exam.

When the card arrived, I added it to the already large collection in my wallet. But not before reading it and discovering one detail they’d messed up. Look for it. You’ll see what I’m getting at.

Yeah. It looks like a requirement of being a pilot of any kind is that you possess gray hair. I have to admit, this *is* a shared characteristic of many pilots I see.

By my reckoning I probably have at least a decade until this is a reality. But you never know. Maybe the card will turn out to be right sooner rather than later!

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