Euro-trip Part 1: Getting to New York

Flight 1: Sacramento to Minneapolis-St. Paul (SMF-MSP) – DL1742

This was a red-eye flight leaving at 12:52 am. Delta starts boarding 40 minutes early so the flight started pre-boarding at 12:12 am.

We flew on a MD-90 which is roughly the same as a Boeing 717, which is what our next flight would be on. Seats were arranged as 2-3 in Economy (1-2 in First). This meant the overhead storage was above only 2 seats, on the left that was both seats and the right the middle and window seats, leaving a weird gap on the headspace while walking through the plane.

The seats weren’t particularly comfortable because they were flat and hard. Legroom was minimal and the food tray was not sturdy, especially when it had to rest on my knees in the down position.

I chose this flight for multiple reasons, but one was being able to record the sunrise out of the window. I captured some pictures and did a [time lapse] which can be found on my YouTube channel.

We landed around 6:00 am local time, which put us a little ahead of schedule and gave us some extra time to get from one end of the airport to the opposite side of the airport. Something which took about 10-15 minutes. But it was worth it because we stopped by the Escape Lounge in MSP.

Escape Lounge at MSP

Considering it was about 6:30 am, the lounge was pretty quiet and pleasant. However, the lounge was still being set up with the food being put out for about 30 or 45 minutes after arriving in the lounge.

The lounge is pretty big with lots of seating that was mostly new; maybe a few chairs were 2 or 3 years old. I think this is the first lounge I’ve been to with paper coffee cups for taking your espresso out of the lounge, instead of having only ceramic cups for drinking within the lounge.

Another benefit of being a quiet lounge in the early morning was the ability to take a nap despite not having designated sleeping “pods”. There were some couches and big chairs which ended up being great spots to catch some “z”s.

Flight 2: Minneapolis to New York (MSP-JFK) – DL1310

Featuring a B717, this flight experience was similar to the flight into MSP since the planes are almost identical. One difference between the MD-90 and B717 were the seats, because there was an adjustable headrest on the B717.

Neither flight had In-Flight Entertainment on the back of the seats like the plane I took from SMF-SLC nor is there a TV mounted every few days for everyone to watch the same program like American offers.

I was tired so I ended up napping through take off and a little more of the flight. But after waking up for good I got to work on this blog thanks to T-Mobile.

Delta offers GoGo inflight WiFi and I could have bought a pass but I have T-Mobile for my cell phone carrier and they offer a free “WiFi and Texting” pass. So I picked the free option.

Bathrooms in airplanes are known to be small and the bathrooms on this flight were small. I’m about 6’2” (189 cm) and my head nearly reaches the ceiling even though my shoes have barely any thickness to them.

Back to the seats, legroom still was not good, but it wasn’t terrible. I had room between my knees and the seat in front of me so I’ll call that a success. I can’t wait to fly business so I have not only plenty of legroom but also a lie flat bed.

Getting to Europe via Flexible Rewards and Airline Miles

My recent post announcing I’m going to Europe mentioned I will be flying business class on Brussels Airlines. I booked that flight with Membership Rewards (MR) points I earned from sign-up bonuses. However, that flight is from the East Coast and I live on the West Coast of the USA.

Getting to New York could have been done multiple ways:  a long road trip; flying an early morning, direct flight from SMF to BWI then taking a bus or Amtrak to New York; swimming through the Panama Cannel; and many others. I wanted to keep things simple, and comfortable, so I chose to fly Delta from Sacramento (SMF) to New York (JFK) with a stop in Minneapolis (MSP). This splits the cross-country flight into two 3-hour flights in economy, something more bearable for someone with long legs.

However, I could have picked a flight with American Airlines using the points from the sign-up bonuses from the Aviator Red and AAdvantage Platinum cards. We would have flown into a different airport, but still in the same area a day early so it would have worked out.

Or we could have used United miles from either the United MileagePlus Explorer card or Chase Ultimate Rewards points transferred to United’s program from the Chase Sapphire Preferred (CSP). Another option could have been transferring my MR points to Alitalia and flown from SFO to Amsterdam for 80,000 points roundtrip.

What I’m getting at is there are so many options. And there are probably more than 1 that will be a great choice for any one trip.

The biggest reason I chose to fly Brussels Airlines from the East Coast is because I didn’t want to be on a flight for half a day if I flew out of California. I also wanted to try out a few different “products.” “Products” meaning the type of airplane, seating arrangement, seats, and in-flight service offered by an airline.

Flying Delta from Sacramento to Minneapolis to New York (SMF-MSP-JFK) allows me to be more comfortable flying cross-country and trans-Atlantic, while experiencing lounges (which can reduce my cost of food) in MSP, JFK, and Brussels (BRU).

My reasons for not flying American Airlines to get to New York include not being able to visit a lounge in my layover (or not having a layover), and saving my AA miles for another big trip, either with both of my parents or a solo trip in a business or first class cabin to Asia.

The biggest take-away anyone should get from this is that regardless of what points (or how much cash) you have, there are countless options, including some you may never have heard of yet.

I always check Google Flights for cash prices, and I track prices for a flight to be notified if a flight increases or decreases in price. It also gives me the flexibility to search several Departure airports and multiple arrival airports to find the cheapest flight for a trip.

What to do When Annual Fees Post

Many credit cards with annual fees waive the annual fee the first twelve months. Twelve months have passed since I got my first credit cards with an annual fees (AFs) so my twelve months of waived annual fees have ended. This means I have to decide what to do with these cards.

My three options are:

  1. Cancel the card and not pay the annual fee;
  2. Keep the card and pay the annual fee; or
  3. Keep the card, but product change the card to a no-AF version

Keeping a budget for the entire year has meant I budgeted enough money each month to be able to pay any annual fees (AF) once it came time to pay up. However, a year of use has helped me learn more about my spending habits, and how much I value each of the cards I have acquired.

So what am I doing with these cards?

The biggest reason I’m okay with signing up for credit cards is knowing I am building credit history, so I prioritize options 2 and 3 from above.

Now, I could cancel all of my cards and the accounts would continue to increase my Age of Credit History for 10 years until they fall off my credit report (10 years from now), but I’d rather keep them forever and have 30+ year old accounts. Plus, keeping as many accounts open helps me build a relationship with banks.

Product Changing

I wrote about flying to Hawaii using points from the United MileagePlus Explorer card and flying to the east coast to visit family using American Airlines miles from the Citi AAdvantage Platinum card last year. And I decided to product change these two cards instead of canceling or paying the AFs.

By product changing (PCing) these cards within 30 days of the AF posting, the $95 annual fees were refunded to my accounts. If the cards did not have fee-free versions, I would have canceled the cards and still been refunded the annual fees.

Canceling

Another card mentioned in the post about flying to Hawaii was the American Express Premier Rewards Gold card. I am still unsure of what to do with this card because it offers good category bonuses, but I’m not sure if I would benefit from earning Membership Reward points since I don’t spend enough to accumulate enough for a full trip. Fortunately, I have a couple more months to decide whether I will cancel the card or pay the AF.

A third card I used during my Hawaii trip was the Barclaycard ArrivalPlus. This card allowed me to redeem points to zero out the cost of the GoCity Card I bought to hit all the tourist attractions. These points are very flexible, but the ArrivalPlus requires a minimum of 10,000 points ($100) to redeem against a travel expense. I could have changed the card to the no-AF version, but I had too much trouble with the card so I ended up canceling it.

Keeping and Paying the Annual Fee

At the other end of the spectrum, I am planning to keep the Hyatt and IHG credit cards from Chase and pay the annual fees because I get a free 1-night stay from each card every anniversary. The Hyatt certificate restricts use to category 1-4 hotels. However, the IHG annual certificate has no restrictions on hotel categories, so I could spend the night in Times Square for the $49 annual fee on the card.

How to Use Citi ThankYou Points (TYP)

Citibank has several cards which earn their flexible reward points called ThankYou Points (TYP). I talked about these cards in my post about TYP earning cards which you can read here.

These points are similar to Ultimate Rewards points from Chase and Membership Rewards points from American Express by having multiple options for redemption.

TYP have a lot of uses: paying student loans or mortgages, redeeming for gift cards or statement credits for select expenses, transferring to airline and hotel partners, or redeeming the points through the TYP portal for flights based on cash prices.

For this post, I’ll focus on the redemptions giving each point a value of at least 1 cent. That is, 100 points = $1.00 or more.

The “better” methods:

  • Loan payments (might have devalued recently)
  • Gift cards
  • ThankYou Point travel portal
  • Transfer to Hotels or Airlines

Other uses for TYP:

  • Statement credit
  • Cash back (bad value)
  • Shop with TYP (bad value)
  • Shop with TYP at Amazon (bad value)

From the list of “Other Uses”, statement credits are the best option at a value of 0.75 cents per points (cpp) while cash back has a value of 0.5 cpp. These two redemptions are essentially the same (redeeming points for straight money) but different methods.

To give you an idea of what these values mean: 100 points can be redeemed for either $0.75 as a statement credit, or the same 100 points can be redeemed for $0.50 cash back (going directly into a bank account).

If you have a couple hundred points that you want to use up, redeeming those points for a statement credit could save you the money from a meal or two.

As for the “better” methods, loan payments and gift cards are exactly 1 cpp. Transferring points gives a value which varies on which airline or hotel you transfer to and what you’re booking with that hotel or airline.

Hilton seems to be the only hotel transfer partner where 1000 TYP convert into 1500 Hilton points.

Airline partners TYP can be transferred to included:

  • JetBlue
  • Virgin Atlantic
  • Cathay Pacific (Asia Miles)
  • EVA Air
  • Etihad
  • Air France and KLM (Flying Blue)
  • Garuda Indonesia
  • Malaysia
  • Qantas
  • Qatar
  • Singapore Airlines
  • Thai Airways

Booking travel through the TYP portal gives either 1, 1.25, 1.33, or 1.6 cpp depending on which card you have, what you’re booking, and how long you’ve had your card.

TYP have the following values through the travel portal if you have:

  • Citi Prestige
    • 1.6 cents/point (cpp) for American Airline flights
    • 1.33 cpp for other airlines (1.25 cpp starting July 23, 2017)
    • 1 cpp for car rentals, hotels, and cruises
  • Citi Premier
    • 1.33 cpp for American Airlines flights
    • 1.25 cpp for all other airlines, car rentals, hotels, and cruises

The good redemptions tend to be either booking American Airline flights with the Citi Prestige before the end of July this year, flights on any airline with either card, or transferring points to other airlines where the cents/point value is strictly dependent on the flight booked.

However, this means you need large amounts of points except for short flights like from SFO to LAX or LAX to PHX. This is where many people might consider using their low balance of TYP for a statement credit against a meal they enjoyed.

How You Can Earn 100,000 American Airline Miles

100,000 AAdvantage miles is enough to take 4 round trip flights with American Airlines within the 48 contiguous states. To get these miles, all you need are two cards (and a little luck).

Card #1

Citi offers the AAdvantage Platinum ($95 waived annual fee) and AAdvantage Executive ($450 annual fee) World Elite credit cards which typically have a sign-up bonus of 50,000 miles after $3,000 spent in the first 3 months.

Sometimes people get sign-up offers mailed or emailed to them for 60,000 miles and then ask Citi to match this offer because they got it just after signing up for the 50,000 miles offer. This worked for me and I was very happy Citi was generous.

Now, at this point you might be thinking I’m suggesting you sign up for the two Citi cards and pay over $500 in annual fees. But I’m not. I’d recommend the AA Platinum card, because you can only get 1 sign-up bonus for each point family (1 AAdvantage + 1 Hilton Honors + 1 ThankYou Point) every 24 months.

Card #2

The second card comes from Barclaycard, a British bank with a US suite of credit cards.

The AAdvantage Aviator Red was recently brought back and offers 40,000 AAdvantage miles after your first purchase. Yes, this means an apple from the supermarket will earn you 1 round trip and 1 one-way flights.

The catch to this card, however, is the $95 annual fee is not waived the first year but you get the same benefits from this card as you do from the Citi AAdvantage Platinum card.

Both cards offer no foreign transaction fees, if you plan to travel internationally, but the Aviator Red has Chip + PIN functionality, something the AA Platinum does not.

Flying American Airlines SFO – DCA: Part 2, the Departure

This is a continuation of Flying American Airlines SFO – DCA Part 1: The Arrival

Going back to DCA from Baltimore was smooth but stressful because I was cutting things close on time. I hopped on a MARC train, caught the Metro Red Line, transfered to the Yellow Line, and arrived at DCA with about an hour to get to my terminal before boarding began.

Flying Away from DCA towards Miami

I hurried to security because of feeling rushed which lead me to standing in the security line for the Gates 25-34 line when I was leaving from Gate 40. Neither security line were too long, but I wished I had TSA PreCheck or Global Entry so I could have gone through the much shorter security line.

Gate 40 was around the corner from the food shop and the number was not visible from the walkway to the Gates. A good idea is to check terminal maps either before or at the airport so you have an idea of where your gate is like I did to prevent worrying you missed your gate along the way.

Like my previous flights, Group 1 boarding was more like Group 5. I was in row 13 and the front of the plane was rather empty. Each row probably averaged 2 people where the middle of the plane had maybe 2.5 people/row.

As for the seats, there was a cushion on the back rest that made me lean forward more than I already was with the seat upright. The cushion went up to my upper back right around the middle of my shoulder blades so the seats are probably uncomfortable for anyone above 5′ 8″. Reclining my chair helped me be a little more comfortable but only made the leg room less comfortable, because the seat slides forward while reclining the back.

Uncomfortable
American Airlines 737 seat back cushion

Leg room could have been better because I always felt the bottom of the chair in front of me when I extended my legs even a little. My row was in front of the first exit row which only had one person. I could have moved back a row but decided not to since this was a short flight.

Being in row 13 meant I had a closer view of the 1st class cabin which made me curious to try business or first class on a domestic flight. For this flight, the flight attendants were not too busy so I was able to get a few waters to hydrate. Anyways, I will be sticking with Economy for now.

Flying into MIA was smooth, we even arrived an hour early, but our gate (D12) was busy so we had to wait 35 minutes to finish our arrival. Once I was off the plane I headed to the gate next door for the elevator up to the MIA Centurion Lounge.

Centurion Lounge in Miami

Mixed pretzels and soft drinks were the only free food options during the 3 hour flight to Miami so I was fairly hungry upon landing. After finding a seat in the Centurion Lounge I made a drink with the espresso machine (no mocha option so my 1st drink was a latte) then I grabbed a salad, a banana, and a chocolate chip cookie.

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Meal with salad and latte

After the light meal I wanted to see if anything else at the food bar looked appetizing. I found a small dish with a small piece of chicken on a yellow mushy substance, so I took a chance and tried the dish.

This was the best dish I have had in any of the lounges I have been to (all 4 of them) so I went back for seconds, and would have gone for a third serving but I needed to leave to get to my gate. Also, I was creative with making a mocha by combining a hot chocolate with a single espresso due to the lack of a mocha option.

Delicious
Chicken dish from the Centurion Lounge in Miami

Before leaving I explored the rest of the lounge, and took some pictures along the way.

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View from inside the lounge

The entrance had a hallway on either side, the right side only had two sections while the left side had about 6 areas including a second espresso/tea bar with chocolate chip cookies. Various seating types and arrangements were found on the left with mostly counter/bar type seating on the right of the entrance.

 

Making My Way to Terminal D, Gate 23

After taking the elevator from the 4th floor, where the Centurion Lounge is located, down to the 2nd floor, where all the gates are, I followed the signs towards Terminal D. I thought 15 minutes would be enough time to get from Terminal E to D but I underestimated by a long shot.

Walking out of the Gate 10/12 area I flew into I found signs directing me up two flights of stairs, to floor 4, where I took the AirTram from Location 1 to Location 3. At Location 3 I had the options to either take an elevator or stairs down from Floor 5 (yes, we apparently went up a floor without any change in elevation) to Floor 2. I elected for the elevator.

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View of American Airlines planes from the first AirTram

Following the elevator ride down to Floor 2 I needed to walk through about 10 hallways until I found myself at another set of stairs which lead to a second AirTram. This tram went between Terminals D and E.

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Wide view of Terminal D from the D/E tram

Arriving in Terminal D I no longer had to navigate stairs and elevators…until I got to my gate. Several more hallways later I arrived at my gate to find the entire flight had boarded and I had another escalator to descend before walking onto my plane.

I was glad to see some people still in the walkway into the airplane, but that also meant I would have a long wait to get to my seat towards the back of the plane.

Flying Away From Miami

This flight was mostly full but with enough seats still open that Flight Attendants were informing people in the middle and window seats there were plenty of aisle seats to move to later in the 6 hour flight if they liked to. I had an aisle seat, so I did not need to move. The charging outlet at my seat was not working so I ended up moving to one of the last rows in the back.

I had not been drinking much water the last day on the East Coast so I wanted to refill on water, however the Flight Attendants (FA) were not so happy about it. About 4 hours into the flight I had drank 2 full bottles of water, which happened to be about 1 L each. When I asked for another cup of water an FA came back and told me “You’ve drank two whole bottles already. We’re going to give you another bottle but this will be your last.”

Final Thoughts

With a rough start getting to the East Coast and DC, with some misadventures during my stay, I still enjoyed visiting my brother and family before starting back at school. With about 40,000 AAdvantage points left from the sign-up bonus, I certainly will not let them expire, and I want to make sure my departure from SFO was only a fluke in an otherwise functional airline (all the other segments of my trip went by without much trouble).

Flying American Airlines SFO – DCA Part 1: The Arrival

I booked this flight with American Airlines AAdvantage points I received from the AAdvantage Platinum card from Citi. The sign-up bonus I applied for was 50,000 AAdvantage miles. I received a targeted offer for 60,000 miles shortly after being approved so I asked and Citi gladly increased my sign-up bonus from 50,000 to 60,000 points.

My flight cost 25,000 points ($611.60 if I had paid cash). This specific redemption was a value of 2.4 cents/point ($0.024) based on the cash price when I booked the ticket.

Flying out of SFO airport meant I could use my Amex Platinum Card to access The Centurion Lounge before my flight. My flight was scheduled to leave around 1:00 am the next day but I was still able to enter the lounge and enjoy the amenities.

SFO Centurion Lounge

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Centurion Lounge Entrance near Gate 74

The Centurion Lounge is located in Terminal 3, one of the two United Airlines terminals, near Gate 74 which means anyone flying United (domestic or international) has access to the lounge without needing to go through security more than once. I went through security at International Terminal G because I thought the Centurion Lounge was closer to Terminal G than Terminal 3. The Lounge being at the end of Terminal 3 meant I needed to make my way through the connecting walkway between G and 3 to find the entrance to the Lounge at the end.

The bowl in the middle of the coffee table (see the picture below) near the entrance radiated its citrus perfume as a more welcoming scent than the sterile airport air. Once inside the lounge I went to the food because I was hungry. I had some leafy greens, brown rice, and roasted cauliflower paired with a mocha. There was a bar with a large selection and wine tasting, but I skipped over these this time.

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My first meal with the greens
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Espresso machine making my mocha

Later I grabbed seconds: roasted cauliflower and brown rice again but with the chicken instead of greens, and another mocha. I made the second mocha before leaving to get my food but the clean-up staff took my freshly made, completely full mocha by the time I returned with my second plate so I had to make a new mocha. At least they make sure the dishes are picked up quickly.

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Second meal with the chicken

After eating my second plate of food one of the sofa beds behind the wall were open so I claimed my seat and grabbed some dessert. There were three beds which had a tall back and side to lean against. I took the middle one to relax and enjoy my triangular brownie with a peanut butter topping (PB & chocolate, my fave) and white chocolate chips.

Centurion relaxing area bed.jpg
Sofa bed
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Triangular brownie with peanut butter topping and white chocolate chips

The lounge closed at 11 so I chugged a hot chocolate before heading over to Terminal 2 to wait by my gate.

Waiting at the Terminal – Being Thankful for Mocha Lattes

Still at SFO, I arrived at Terminal 2 and found a nice bar/counter to sit at while I waited for boarding to begin. The counter was a 3 pointed star with seating and outlets on both sides meaning there was plenty of room for people to charge any and all of their electronics. I used this opportunity to charge my phone.

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Three-pointed bar in Terminal 2
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Three-pointed bar in Terminal 2 up close

My flight was delayed initially about 2 hours, then it was delayed another hour and finally canceled. I re-booked my connecting flights after each delay and cancellation but I still routed through Chicago.

I was a little disappointed with the first re-booking because I called the American Airlines number in the mobile app and was told the wait would be 2+ hours. About 30 minutes later an employee passed out a reservations number and the call to that number was picked up immediately. Once someone was on the phone with me, the re-booking went smoothly each time I called 1-800-446-7834.

Eventually I got on my flight from SFO -> ORD and I boarded in Group 1, which is really like Group 4 or 5 because of pre-boarding and each AAdvantage and Oneworld status tier boarding before Group 1. (United Group 2 boarding is actually Group 2 not Group 4).

Because I booked less than 2 hours before my flight I was stuck with a middle seat, but I wasn’t too worried since I could always ask the person on the aisle if they would be okay switching with me. Except this time the person on the aisle was tall and wider than me, so I made sure they kept their aisle seat.

Navigating Chicago O’Hare

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I made it!

Upon landing in Chicago I received 4 texts from American Airlines updating me on my gate changes for my flight out to DCA, but none notifying me my flight had been delayed by about an hour. Since my flight into ORD landed about the time my flight out was supposed to start boarding I felt very rushed to get from one side to the other.

Eventually I learned my flight had been delayed and I was able to relax a little. I grabbed a smoothie and headed back to my correct gate.

By the time I was flying from ORD -> DCA I was exhausted. I was able to sleep about an hour on the flight, and saw some of the landscape (and all the water) when we were flying over Maryland and before landing in Arlington, VA.

My flights were pleasant overall because I was able to get maybe 3 hours of sleep between the two flights. After leaving 4 hours late, I only arrived 4 hours late so I was only upset I had less time to sight see in DC.

Finally in DC

Landing in DCA was smooth, though a little nerve wracking because it looks like a water-landing until the asphalt runway appears at the last second. Having not checked any luggage I made my way out of the terminal and to the left where I found the bridge (towards the far end of the airport) taking me over to the Metro station. I was meeting my brother at Union Station (although we could have met right at Gallery Place/China Town) so I bought a Metro card and loaded $4.25 to make my way on the Yellow Line then the Red Line.

My brother and I did some sight seeing and grabbed dinner at Shake Shack before heading back to Union Station to take MARC (Maryland Transit Authority) towards Baltimore. I forgot my suitcase under the table at Shake Shack so we had to end our sightseeing a little early but it also meant we were on time for our train.

 

I wish I had taken more pictures of my seats and in-flight making my way to the East Coast but, like I said, I was exhausted and was focused on getting some sleep. The soon-to-come  post about my departure will have some pictures of the seats and flight experiences, so stay on the look out if you want to see my legs in a tight spot.