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.

I’m Going to Europe!

Thanks to Membership Reward (MR) transfer partners, I will be flying business class on Brussels Airlines (SN). The original plan was to transfer my MR points to Etihad and book 2 round-trip tickets for ~73,000 points, but that didn’t work out. So I transferred my points to Aeroplan and booked the same tickets, just for more points.

Flying Brussels requires flying out of either New York (JFK) or Washington, DC (IAD). This trip will originate in New York, meaning my second visit to New York. Peter Lik has galleries around the country, and I discovered him when I found his gallery in Hawaii last June, and I’ll be stopping by the gallery in New York.

Europe is a large continent so I will be a little more specific. My main purpose for this trip is to be in Paris, France for the final stage of the Tour de France this year. Other countries I’m visiting are England, German, and obviously Belgium.

While I have strong, and close, roots in Northern Europe, this trip is primarily for tourist and sight-seeing fun. As well as watching the Tour de France live in-person.

Flight to San Diego #1: SMF – SLC

I chose to run the Rock ‘N’ Roll San Diego for the first weekend of June. To get to San Diego, I chose to fly on Delta. My chosen route with Delta was Sacramento (SMF) → Salt Lake City (SLC) → San Diego (SAN) so I could check out the Delta Sky Club in SLC.

The Delta credit cards from American Express currently have their highest sign-up bonuses being offered, 60,000 points for the Delta Gold card with the annual fee waived the first year. These points are good for 1 or 2 round trip tickets for longer flights, like SFO – JFK, or roughly 5 or 6 short one-way segments like SFO-LAX.

To the Airport!

The trip to SMF was smooth without any congestion on the drive to the airport. Once at the airport, security was not busy at all so I spent maybe 10 minutes going through TSA. Delta flies out of Terminal A which is also used only by United and American which might account for the speed of security compared to Terminal B which has 7 airlines.

The Airplane

My flight to SLC was on an Airbus 319-100 which seats 126 people and has 2 cabins, First and Comfort+/Economy. Having only 2 cabins meant boarding went quickly, first Pre-boarding, then First Class and Diamond Medallion members, with Sky board followed by Group 1, 2, and 3 to finish things off.

The overhead storage bins were like buckets that came down from the ceiling and we dumped our luggage into them. I recently got a carry-on suitcase with a battery from Away called “The Bigger Carry-On” and it fit just fine in the overhead bin. Seating was 3 on either side of the aisle, so a 3-3 configuration.

 

This airplane felt new because the light and air vent controls looked like a WiFi router, which it might have been since there was an illuminated “WiFi” icon during the flight. The In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) also seemed updated because even though there was a screen in the back of the headrest on each seat, the screens were independent of one another and they were touch screens.

What impressed me was not only the touch and independence of each screen, but the fact there were hours of modern movies (like Moana, Hidden Figures, and Rogue One), TV series, and full albums all for free.

On the underside of the IFE screen was a headphone jack and a USB port. Each of these inputs had a blue light illuminating them but the light would switch off and on without any known reason. I couldn’t tell if my camera was charging or not, so I used the universal power socket that was on the near the floor of the seats in front of me.

Being about 6’ 2”, leg room is of great importance to me. With that said, I chose the window because SMF-SLC is just over an hour.

I didn’t have much to complain about in terms of legroom. My knees were about an inch away from the seat in front of me while my feet were directly below my knees and the seat was upright. Even the tray table was well above my knees when my legs were in the same position.

The short duration of this flight meant I didn’t find using the available GoGo WiFi worthwhile to use, but I did take a water and pretzel snack when the food cart came through. Another consequence of such a short flight was not being able to tell if the seats were comfortable. They weren’t uncomfortable and they looked new, but I couldn’t tell if they would hurt during a 2+ hour flight.

Landing in Salt Lake City went smoothly and I had a 3 hour layover so I headed from Gate D13 to the Delta SkyClub located between the D and C gates. The review of my flight from Salt Lake City to San Diego will be published in a few days, and videos of my flights can be found here.

If you think it’s as awesome as I did to have a battery for charging various things while sitting around with a carry-on suitcase, and you’d like $20 off your order of an Away suitcase, you can use my referral link and I will also get $20.

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.

Changes to the American Express Platinum Charge Card

A week ago, on March 31st, American Express made some changes to their Platinum Charge card. Some simple and small, others more dramatic.

Here is a list of all the changes, in no particular order:

  • Card is now made of metal
  • Increased annual fee to $550
  • 5x rewards category for hotels booked through amextravel.com
  • Monthly Uber credit, max of $200/year
  • No annual fee for Gold cards for Authorized User cards

The biggest change was increasing the annual fee from $450 to $550. However, the Uber credit was added to make up for this increase while also, potentially, competing with the Chase Sapphire Reserve‘s $300 annual travel credit. The airline fee credit and the new Uber credit brings the Platinum card “travel credits” up to $400.

I feel the card being metal was long overdue considering the Chase Sapphire Preferred has been made of metal since it’s release (in 2011 I believe) and only has a $95 annual fee. Another small change that I think is great, the removal of annual fees on Gold cards for Authorized Users (AU). Previously, AU Gold cards were either $45 or $50, and a separate Gold Card has an annual fee of $160.

The Platinum card still doesn’t have bonus categories for food like the Gold and Premier Rewards Gold cards I discussed in my Introduction to American Express Charge Cards post. Now you can earn – 5x points on flights and hotels with the main Platinum card, and earn 2x points on restaurants with the Gold AU card.

With that said, the 5x points on hotels are not as simple as the 5x points on flights. For flights, you can book on amextravel.com or directly with the airline. Hotels have to be booked through the amextravel website, and they have to be qualifying hotels.

Qualified hotels are prepaid bookings which includes hotels from The Hotel Collection (HC), but not the Fine Hotels & Resorts (FHR). I am disappointed with requiring pre-paid bookings being these tend to go through 3rd party sites.

The Platinum card gives complimentary Gold status with Starwood Preferred Guest. However, booking a stay at an SPG property through the amextravel site prevents you from adding your SPG number to the reservation and earn rewards or get the benefits of having Gold status.

So this new reward category forces people to choose whether they want the benefits of any potential status they might hold (like Gold at SPG or Hilton) by booking directly with the hotel or earn 5x points through amextravel.com.

If you’ve read my post about A (Hypothetical) Weekend in Seattle, you’ll know some hotel reward programs allow you to earn points very easily which can equal a free reward night pretty quickly.

Earning points with a hotel program will be better than earning 5x Membership Rewards with the Platinum card most of the time. If you tend to go to which ever hotel is cheapest, instead of sticking with a single hotel program, then 5x points would make more sense for you.

Overview of the Changes and Final Thoughts

Some of these changes I like, such as no annual fee for Gold AU cards, and some were overdue, like the card being made of metal.

I don’t buy airplane tickets, and AirBnB is usually cheaper than a hotel, so the 5x categories aren’t worth much to me if I had the Platinum card. A generic travel credit or travel bonus category like the Chase Sapphire Reserve would serve me much better since I usually buy train tickets.

Do you like these changes, or would you rather not have the higher annual fee and a generic travel category?

Parc 55 San Francisco – a Hilton Hotel

Getting to the Parc 55

San Francisco is about 2 hours away from San Jose whether I took Caltrain directly from SJ -> SF or if I took a bus to Fremont to catch BART. The Parc 55 is immediately across the street from the Powell BART station so I elected to take BART.

Leaving the Powell BART station, most people turned right to go towards the escalators up to Market St. I turned left and saw the Parc 55 hotel calling for me to check-in to my room.

Getting to the street level was easy since I was able to take the stairs near the Parc 55, but someone who needed the escalator would have had to go to the opposite side nearer Market St than the hotel.

The Hotel

A quick crossing of the street led me to the driveway and drop off for valet parking, as well as the doorman and entrance to the hotel.

Driveway doorway of Parc 55

Walking through the ground floor lobby didn’t take long with the stairs just inside and the escalators on the opposite side of the stairs. I made my way past the stairs and onto the escalators to head up to the check-in desk.

Being a member of Hilton Honors, the Hilton rewards program, allows guests to check in and choose a room the day before their stay. I checked in and picked a room on the 12th floor before arriving, but I still headed to the check-in desk in case there were any upgrades since I have Diamond status.

As luck would have it, there were a couple rooms on floors 24, 25 and 27 and the person at the desk gave me a room on the 27th floor. I didn’t know what type of view this would have, but the view ended up being great.

View from the 27th floor of the Parc 55 San Francisco

After checking in, I headed to the elevators and found there were no up/down buttons. There was, instead, a number pad to punch in the desired floor. So I punched in “2” and “7” and the display told me which elevator and points in the direction of the elevator (A and to the left).

The Room

Reaching my room was easy, but opening the door posed another new obstacle. Every other hotel I’ve stayed in required the keycard to be slid into a slot for the magnetic strip to be read. This keycard, however, only needed to be placed against the reader to unlock the door.

Immediately inside the door to the left was the bathroom and to the right was the closet with mirrors on the sliding doors. Directly ahead were the beds, the desk, dresser, arm chairs, and the windows with the view from above.

2 Bed bedroom in Parc 55 San Francisco

My parents were staying with me so I reserved a room with two beds. They had not yet arrived, so I took some time to tour the room.

The desk was large enough to have my laptop and a textbook, if I had brought a textbook, set up for doing homework. Sitting in the chairs was a little weird because the arms were so tall. But the dresser and the TV on top were probably the most interesting things in the room.

A row of digital inputs and outputs were available on the side of the dresser for connecting a laptop or DVD player, or whatever you had. I forgot my HDMI chord in my room so I let myself down by having only my laptop screen to watch Netflix on. The end of the row near the wall had 4 wall adapters and each one was rotated 90 degrees around each other to prevent anything plugged in from getting in the way of another adapter.

TV inputs/outputs in the Parc 55 San Francisco hotel room

Moving on to the windows and the view, venting the room meant not opening the window. Instead, there were little vents at the bottom that lifted up or down.

Here is a clip of the vent opening.

Texts from the Desk?

A few hours after I checked in, and while I was away at dinner, I received a text from the hotel, probably the concierge desk, asking me how everything was in my room. That night and the next morning I received a few more texts, and I asked them a few questions. My most important question I asked them was if I could get a late check-out.

Being a member of the Hilton Honors program also gives you the option for checking out late. Normal check-out time is 11am and I was going to be cutting things close, and not have time for a shower, so I shot a quick text to the desk. Fortunately they extended my check-out time by another hour which gave me enough time to grab some breakfast, shower, and pack before heading down to the check-out desk.

Checking out was smooth, although there were numerous people so it took a few minutes. I paid for my valet, texted the valet to get the car ready, and then headed down the escalators to find my parents already at the car.

Overall experience

I enjoyed my stay. The building looked nice, the room was better than I expected, and the texts from the (concierge) desk was the final piece to convince me to pick the Parc 55 San Francisco if I ever need a hotel in San Francisco again.

Rewards Time

In my post about A (Hypothetical) Weekend in Seattle I go over the rewards earning structure of different hotel programs including Hilton. To keep recap, my American Express Hilton Honors card (with no annual fee) earns 7 points/$1 on Hilton transactions, and from being a member of Hilton Honors I get 10 points, Diamond I get an extra 5 points, and for earning Points + Points I get another 5 points on the room rate. This means the room rate of $220 earned me 20x points (4400 points), and my card earned 7x points on the final price of $256 + $71 for valet parking.

My total earnings from this one night stay with my parents earned me 4400 points for the room, 2289 points from my card, which comes to 6685 points total.

Looking at the breakdown on Hilton’s website, I’m seeing something a little different. I earned 2820 base points and 1410 for each of the Diamond and Points+Points bonuses. Plus, I earned 500 points for booking my stay with an American Express card, and I received a gift of 1000 bonus points as my Diamond benefit from the hotel (I chose points over a water bottle). This brings my actual total points earned to 9429 points.

In the A (Hypothetical) Weekend in Seattle, I mentioned the cheapest rooms available for each of the hotel programs is 5000 points, which means this one night stay was enough to earn a full night at a Tier 1 hotel, and almost 2 nights at a Tier 1 or 1 night at a Tier 2 hotel.

 

If you would like to use my referral link for the American Express Hilton Honors credit card, you will earn 80,000 Hilton Honors points after spending $2,000 in the first 3 months. This is more than enough for a typical 1 night stay at the Parc 55 San Francisco.

Using my link is voluntary and will help support me by me earning 20,000 Honors points which I can use towards another hotel review.

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).