Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Southwest Road Trip 2018: A Recap

**This is a re-post, but after finally wrapping up all the posts I’d planned to write, I wanted to run a recap**

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 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.

We had 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 several months to find the time to post. Here the rundown of our 2018 Southwest U.S. road trip:

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 they can survive seven hours in the car in one day. 🙂

TBT: Getting Lost in Metz, France

My first Throwback Thursday post recounted how I got my wife and myself lost in Rome back in 2016, and I figured I’d follow up with another misadventure. This one is a bit more recent, as it occurred during my week in Europe with the kids last year. It didn’t make the original set of stories I blogged from our trip, but probably should have. Me getting lost is not a normal occurrence, and the fact the kids were along just made things that much more stressful.

Our tricky return plan to CDG Airport

When I initially looked into how to get us back from Luxembourg to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, the train was the preferred option. Tickets were fairly reasonable, and even considering the the two transfers, one in Metz and the other in Paris, it wasn’t a bad option. Not cheap for three people, but not bad. It would also give us most of the day in Luxembourg before the afternoon train departed.

So off to Paris we went,  spending three lovely days in the French capital (Day 1, Day 2, Day 3). Then it was off to Luxembourg (SEE: Our Whirlwind 44 Hours in Luxembourg) for a few days. It was on this day that I belatedly realized I hadn’t actually booked the tickets mentioned above. Although I had settled on a plan, I had failed to book the return leg. No matter. I would do it the morning before we left.

Except there was just one problem: the prices had gone up substantially. We would be spending quite a bit more than I anticipated. Exploring other options, I finally decided that booking a rental car from Metz to CDG directly was the cheapest and fastest option. We would still need to take the train from Luxembourg to Metz, but that was a quick journey and inexpensive.

I prepped…just not enough

This would be only the second time I have ever driven in a foreign country that is not named Canada or Mexico. But with several weeks of driving in San José, Costa Rica under my belt, I had no qualms about driving in France. The streets might be a bit tighter in the cities, but I would be doing mostly highway driving. Or so I thought. 

I carefully mapped out our route. I had directions noted down on paper that would take us from the center of Metz to the highway toward Paris. It was a series of only a few turns, and then it would be smooth sailing to the airport. I noted down the freeway exit as well, but I figured that once we got that far, there would be clear signs for Charles de Gaulle. 

But all this went out the window. When we arrived at the rental car center, it dawned on me that there weren’t any cars parked in the tiny front lot. Turns out they’re actually kept underground in a garage beneath the train station. We hopped in and took off in our tiny Citroen, and that was when things went off the rails. 

Instead of exiting to the east, like I’d planned, the garage spit us out going west. I hadn’t studied the streets on this side of the station and only had a vague idea of how to get back toward where we needed to be. Where was a paper map when you needed one?!? I should have bitten the bullet and just paid for a local SIM. At least then I would have an easy way of getting us out of this predicament.

I did the best I could to navigate toward the freeway, but instead got completely turned around in the middle of Metz. Driving a stick shift along narrow streets wasn’t the issue (SEE: 5 reasons why you should rent a car with a manual transmission). The mess of confusing roads that weren’t arranged in any sort of grid-like fashion was. I finally stopped the car by an old church to de-stress and think. We’d been driving almost 15 minutes, and we weren’t any closer to leaving Metz.

Navigating the old-fashioned way

Even though I was quite turned around, I eventually found my way back to the train station. Using what? The sun, of course. I’d finally figured out that we’d been weaving mostly south instead of west, like I’d originally thought (thank the very rough Google map). Keeping the sun on the left, I eventually spied a sign for Gare du Metz. Following this took eventually us onto a street that dropped us under the station and then back up onto the road I wanted to be on in the first place!

After that it was smooth sailing, following the signs to Paris and taking the few turns necessary to approach Charles de Gaulle airport from the east.

We arrived a bit late, but the Holiday Inn Express CDG Airport gave us a restful sleep before a nice flight home on an Air France A380 in economy.

Conclusion

In hindsight, I’m still happy with the choice I made. It was hectic and frustrating in the moment, but love driving. Flying at 130 kmh over the hills of Lorraine and Champagne on a beautiful evening is an experience I will not forget.

But for the “normal” traveler, I would recommend the train. If we were on an extended adventure through the French countryside, a car would be critical. But this was just to get us back to the airport. Save yourself the potential headache and travel by rail.

Seattle at Super Speed, Day 1: Packing in the Sights

After a long day of travel and late arrival into Seattle, my son and I woke up with a lovely view of the Space Needle. Our hotel couldn’t have been in a better location (SEE: Hyatt House Seattle Downtown Review). I love hotel rooms with a nice view, and this was certainly one of the best.

Besides the Space Needle, there are a few other prime Seattle attractions located all on the same grounds. The Seattle Monorail gives you easy access to downtown and other mass transit. But as we were so close to Seattle’s most iconic attraction, I figured we’d start there. I mean, what could be more fitting?

Exquisite views of the Emerald City

The Space Needle is literally a three-minute walk from the Hyatt House, so we were there in no time at all.

One aspect of this trip is that our sightseeing passes were sponsored by CityPASS. I wrote a full review of CityPASS over at Points with a Crew, detailing the value you can expect to get from the pass, depending on which Seattle attractions you enjoy. In general, if you’re going to hit four or more of the listed spots, it’s worth the money.

It was easy to pick up our passes at the Space Needle, as there was hardly a line this early in the morning. The pass is good for seven consecutive days, which means you can take your time enjoying Seattle. Given that we had only two days in the city, we had to pack in as much as possible. This first day would include three of the five attractions on the pass.

This was my third visit to the Space Needle, which I have visited every time I’ve been to Seattle. It provides some of the best views of the city. At the base there is an interesting exhibit that shows the planning and construction of the tower, which debuted for the 1962 World’s Fair, along with the monorail. It has been a Seattle icon ever since.

An elevator ride later,  and we were looking out over the city. It was an utterly typical Seattle day, which meant we didn’t get views of either Mount Rainier or the Olympics across Puget Sound. I’m not sure how often it gets that clear up here, but I hope to eventually visit during one of those times. I’d happily pay a premium at the Space Needle to enjoy those views.

We still had a lovely view of downtown Seattle, Elliot Bay, and Lake Union.

Heading downstairs, I enjoyed standing on the glass floor, which my son thought was crazy. No matter how much I assured him it was safe, there was no way he would step out there with me.

When we’d had our fill of the lovely views, we finally headed back down to earth and down to the waterfront for our next stop. Transit included the monorail, of course. It is a fun diversion, and the rail passes just feet from our hotel!

On to the aquarium!

The Seattle Aquarium was next on the list, another attraction available using CityPASS. I’m not going to go into detail since I did a separate write-up on that attraction as well. What I will say is that the Seattle Aquarium is worth a bit more time than we were able to spend.

Plan at least a couple of hours to enjoy the whole thing, even more if you hope to catch a few of the shows. My son and many of the other kids there really enjoyed the touch pool.

We visited during Octopus week, which was definitely an enjoyment. The “primetime” show featured both a wolf eel and a Giant Pacific Octopus, which was absolutely packed. I took the chance to enjoy it from the cafe upstairs while ordering lunch.

After our visit to the aquarium we picked up our Argosy tickets. It was my intent to hop on the midday sailing, but I forgot to factor in that it was a holiday weekend. It was completely sold out. We picked up tickets for the following day, which would be hard to catch, but probably doable between our Boeing factory tour and a visit to the Museum of Flight.

Pike Place coffee stop. No, not Starbucks

A pick-me-up was in order halfway through the day. It is common knowledge that the original Starbucks location is at Pike Place Market in Seattle, which could have been an obvious choice. But I have a little insider knowledge on the best coffee at Pike Place.

First we made another stop, though. The City Fish Co. is a great spot to stop by, just in case you catch the famous fish toss they are known for. Or maybe just buy a whole fish yourself. We arrived just in time to catch a customer buying a golden trout.

From there we headed across the street and up to the second story of the uphill building to Storyville Coffee, my favorite coffee spot in the market. The coffee is some of the best I’ve ever had, and the baristas are pleasant. They often offer free samples of some of the baked goods as well.

I do have a bit of an inside connection to Storyville, as their coffee roasting studio (located out on Bainbridge Island) and shops are owned by the same individual that formerly employed my dad. I had a chance meeting with the manager, who I’d previously met when he visited Ferndale years ago. It was great to see him again.

Supercold! and the Pacific Science Center

Warmed up and ready to tackle the afternoon, we rode the monorail back to the Space Needle station, headed for the Pacific Science Center. I hadn’t been here since I was a kid when my family visited Seattle way back in 2003. That’s 2003, give or take a year, as I cannot remember exactly when.

The Pacific Science Center has a number of different exhibits, ranging from animatronic dinosaurs, to space exploration, to a super cool model of Puget Sound that lets you watch the tidal currents in action. One day is simulated over the course of 73 seconds. Everything is controlled by a series of gears on the wall that cause weights to rises and fall, simulating the tides. 

There are also presentations, only one of which we attended. It was titled Supercold!, where Katy, a very enthusiastic staff member, engaged the kids with a presentation on the various states of matter. Of course freezing things with liquid nitrogen was a hit.

She even made the kids recite a hysterical “pledge”…I quote: “I promise to always…always, always, always…be safe around super cold things because I like my fingers and my eyeballs unfrozen.” All of this brought back my college science class days when we did some of the same things, making sure to keep our fingers and eyeballs unfrozen. 

I highly recommend the Pacific Science Center if you visit Seattle with your kids. It is much more than your typical kids museum, as it geared toward kids of all ages. There is enough for adults to enjoy, too.

Space Needle, take two

One of the perks of CityPASS is that you are able to enjoy the Space Needle twice, once during the daylight and again at night on the same day. Although I’m not sure I’d spring for the ticket if it wasn’t bunlded with the rest of the CityPASS, a night view of the city was definitely the perfect final stop.

Unlike our visit that morning when the Space Needle opened, there was much more of a line at dusk. I’m sure sunset is one of the most popular times, especially if it is clear and you can catch a beautiful sky as the sun drops past the Olympics across the sound. Although we didn’t make it up in time to really get a view, we did enjoy a great nighttime view of downtown Seattle.

Calling it a day

We found a place to eat dinner a couple blocks from our hotel. It had been a while since I’d had Thai food, and I figured we should give Mantra Thai a try. I thought the food was excellent. My son was a bit hesitant to try anything, but ended up enjoying the fried rice that we ordered. I wish my kids we all more adventurous eaters.

At the end of the day, we hit about as much as I figured we could do: the Space Needle, the Seattle Aquarium, the Pacific Science Center, and Pike Place Market. Given the amount of time each of these attractions requires, I don’t really think we could have packed in anything else. You could certainly spend more time at any of these and stretch out your visit. But we only had two days, and with the second full of aviation sights, Seattle at super speed it had to be!

The Club at DFW Review

My daughter and I transited Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) last week on our way to South America, and with a 7-hour layover, we had plenty of time to hop through a couple lounges. The first we hit up was The Club at DFW using my Priority Pass membership.

The Club at DFW is located in Terminal D. We’d landed at Terminal A, so we had to take the skytrain several stops until we arrived on the other side of the airport. The Club at DFW is located near Gate 27, on the mezzanine level of the airport. If you head into the middle of the cluster of shops, you’ll see the lounge at the escalator leading to it.

Head up, and turn right. You might be confused where to go from there, as the lounge is actually broken into multiple areas, but the signs should help.

the club at dfw review

We were greeted warmly by the attending lounge agent, and she scanned our boarding passes and my Priority Pass card. As this is the membership card from my Chase Sapphire Reserve, I can guest in up to two people for free. However, as is common with “The Club” network of lounges, kids 12 and under are free at The Club at DFW. This makes it a great choice if you’re traveling as a family. Unless you have more than one teen, you can get everyone in for free.

Layout and seating of The Club at DFW

The lounge agent explained the lounge to us, as it was our first visit. There are a couple different spaces, and it is a bit more unique than the other The Club lounges I’ve visited. There are a few different sections, including the dining and beverage section, an open-air business center, and then the “Relax” area meant to be more quiet.

As the dining section was pretty full, we opted for the Relax section, which is glassed in and had pleasant jazz music playing.

The seats are comfortable, and there is an ample number of power outlets for keeping your devices charged. Such a necessity in our modern connected world. It’s sad that heading to a lounge and not finding a seat with a plug for my laptop power cord is a source of frustration.

The open-air business area was a popular spot. Open-air being open to the terminal, not the warm Texas air.

It’d be cool if the lounge had views of aircraft or the runway, but you instead look out over airport shopping below.

Past the check in desk to the left is the dining area. We did move over here later when thing thinned out a bit and we both felt like eating.

The Club at DFW is *not* a large lounge. The make do with the space they have, and the space itself is nice, but overall it isn’t that big. Agents were often checking to see if seats were full, and I heard them call in on a walkie talkie a couple times how many were available in one of the areas. My guess is that The Club at DFW becomes capacity-controlled often.

The Club at DFW food and drink

I knew that we would be eating again later at the Premium Lounge as international business class customers, so we just snacked a bit at The Club at DFW. In the relax section there are some beverages, including soft drinks, coffee, and a lemonade tea beverage. I was expecting infused water, so both the sweetness and tang surprised me. It was quite good.

The food options included a small salad bar, rolls, sandwiches, wraps, brownies, cookies and fruit. This is all fairly typical of the Club lounges. There wasn’t really anything to distinguish The Club at DFW from that at SJC, or the one in Atlanta (SEE: The Club at ATL Review).

the club at dfw review food

You also have a coffee machine and a selection of tea. There was also a soup. I cannot recall what it was that day.

The bar is small and located behind the check in desk and is continually staffed. The Club lounges have a decent wine selection, and plenty of other options to choose from.

Other facilities of The Club at DFW

The Club at DFW may be the only lounge of this type that has a shower. At least it is the only one I know of. The shower is located in the restroom in the Relax section.

Note that this is the only restroom. If the shower is occupied and you need to use the facilities, you’ll need to exit the lounge and head across the mezzanine to the opposite side of the escalators for airport bathrooms. Not ideal, but easy enough to manage as they are maybe 100 feet from the lounge.

The WiFi was a bit of a struggle. Maybe it was just my computer. My daughter didn’t have much of an issue streaming Netflix, but I had trouble loading many web pages. We were also able to FaceTime friends (after moving to the dining area that was a bit more noisy), so the WiFi struggle may have just been my machine.

Conclusion

Overall, our experience was nice, and The Club at DFW might be my favorite of the lounges within The Club network. It is a solid domestic lounge if you have time to kill in Dallas while waiting for a flight. The primary drawbacks are getting there from other terminals, and also the size, as I’m sure it ends up capacity-controlled, especially considering the level of effort staff go through to manage seating.

Hope you enjoyed my review of The Club at DFW!

Our 5 Best Hotel Stays of 2018

It’s a bit late to be compiling posts about our travels last year, but hey, I’ve been behind on most of the personal trip blogging for quite some time. I try to keep up a bit better over at Points with a Crew, but things languish here sometimes.

I’ve been thinking back on our travels during 2018, and I thought I’d share our five favorite hotel stays for the year. I’ve reviewed all of these separately, but here they all are in one place.

Renaissance Beijing Wangfujing

Our stay in Beijing was not only one of favorite hotel stays of 2018, but of the past few years of traveling as a whole. At only 17,500 Marriott points per night, with the fifth night free, it was an excellent hotel at incredible value. Read the full review here.

My older two kids and I enjoyed breakfast and dinner daily at the hotel as part of the rate, as one of the elite status perks with Marriott. The location is also great, with easy access to the pedestrian streets of Wangfujing. The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square are also within walking distance. The Dongsi subway station, about 10 minutes from the hotel by foot, gives you access to the rest of Beijing.

DoubleTree Luxembourg

I only settled on this hotel as it made the most sense from a points perspective. There really isn’t anything else in Luxembourg will accommodate three people easily and it also a chain option bookable with points. The hotel isn’t convenient to the center of Luxembourg, but bus service is regular and efficient enough.

The hotel provided us with a larger room and the extra bed we requested was ready when we arrived. Free breakfast and a pool made it a great way to end our time playing tourist in Europe. Here is the full review.

The Claremont Berkeley

This was a special stay that was made possible by my final free night certificate from the Fairmont Visa which used to be issued by Chase. Both the card and program as we knew it is now dead. It was a last hurrah of sorts.

We had an enjoyable one night in the Bay Area, but was traveling just for this worth it with kids? There were a couple issues with our stay, including the fact that the upgrade certificate I’d tried to use to move us to a queen-queen room instead of one with two doubles did not actually get applied. And they didn’t have anything else available when we arrived (that they were willing to upgrade us into). A bummer traveling with two kids, but we managed. Here is the full review of this iconic property.

The American Hotel Atlanta

This iconic Atlanta hotel was one of the nicer Hilton stays I have had. My son and I enjoyed this hotel for two nights during our quick trip to Atlanta. We were upgraded to a themed suite and the location of the hotel in relation to downtown Atlanta attractions is perfect. Granted, there are a good number of fine hotels in downtown Atlanta, but I was impressed by this DoubleTree and would very happily stay here again. Full review.

Holiday Inn Express Pahrump

Yes. A Holiday Inn Express for a single night stay. But this may have been the nicest Holiday Inn Express at which I’ve ever stayed. The hotel is very new, and the design of the rooms and common areas so much more modern than other HIE hotels I’ve stayed with that it thoroughly impressed me. On top of that, it has a great pool, and everything was sparkling clean. It’s a gem in a town that is…not.

Conclusion

A bit of an odd mix, but these were the five stays I enjoyed most last year. I generally have good experiences with Hilton on the whole, but the Marriott stay in Beijing was probably the best of the bunch. And the Holiday Inn Express came out of left field. Never expected that would be a stellar stay!

What are some of the best hotel stays you’ve had?

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