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.

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.

Rock N Roll San Diego – The Double Header Weekend

In my pursuit of the Cali Combo medal from the Rock ‘n’ Roll Limited Edition medals, I headed to San Diego for a double-header weekend. Running both Saturday and Sunday was also going to earn me the Remix medal.

Race Expo

This was my first time doing the Remix Challenge so I didn’t know I would have to fill out a waiver for each race before I could pick up my bibs for the 5k and ½ marathon. Lucky for me, the first person I approached for my first bib informed me I would need a waiver for my second bib.

After picking up my bibs I made my way through the rest of the expo including picking up the T-shirts for the 5k and ½ marathon, then onto the merchandise. I didn’t need to buy anything so I just made my way through to the exit.

Race Morning 1 – 5k

I was staying in an AirBnB on the Eastern side of Balboa Park and the race started and ended on the Western side. So I thought it would be a great way to warm-up for the race by walking to the race start. However, it was a 2.5 mi walk, with hills. I would have been fine but my dad joined me and was not a fan of the hills. Lucky for us, we handled the hills and made it to the start area.

Rock n Roll San Diego 5k course map

My dad stayed a little ways up the course from the start line so he could take photos and record video of me running because the 5k started by running North, making a U-turn, then running back South towards the start line before continuing for the remaining ~2 mi. After making it back past the start line, we were met with a long straight away and then a hill.

I thought I was in decent shape so I was aiming for roughly 9:00/mi at best, but I was running closer to 8:20/mi on the descent of the hill and that would come back to bite me. A little way down the hill was the turnaround point and I made it only part of the way back up before I needed to walk. There happened to be the one and only drink station just around the corner on the way back up the hill and I chose to start running right before I saw the drinks.

This drink station was about halfway up a small hill that led to another descent before reaching a quick left-hand turn that led to the finish which was, you guessed it, uphill! But this time the uphill climb to the 5k finish was gradual and hardly noticeable.

My official finish time was 33:42 placing me 1413/3338 Overall and 740/1306 for Men.

Race Morning 2 – ½ Marathon

Another day, another race to get to. I didn’t want to walk another 2.5mi to the race start so I requested a Lyft, but of course everyone was looking for one, and everyone was on the road so getting around the road closures made the Lyft difficult.

Eventually I made it to the start area, found my friend Lauren, and we dropped our gear off. I still needed to use a port-a-potty so I got in line even though the race was starting. Why was I okay and not nervous doing this? There were 20,000 people running the ½ and full marathons so it was taking a long time to get through all the corrals of runners. I was going to meet up with another friend who was also late getting to the race start, so Lauren and I decided to wait in the last corral. We ended up starting in corral 37 and every corral before ours was still packed like it was the 1st corral.

IMG_20170604_070539
Rock n Roll San Diego marathon and half marathon course map

As for the race, we started along the same street heading in the same direction as the 5k, but of course we continued on past the U-turn point from the 5k. The marathon and ½ follow the same route until about 7.5mi in giving my friend and me plenty of time to run together, the first time we’ve done this so far!

This wasn’t as flat as I expected, but I also thought we would be running through the Downtown area more. Instead, we (those of us running the ½) spent most of our time running through the North Park and Normal Heights areas which is actually where my AirBnB was. The race turned south to make its way towards Balboa Park around mile 8.5 which meant there were less than 5 miles left in the race.

Around mile 9.5 was a series of steep downhills leading into Balboa Park and towards mile 10 where a big inflatable rocker playing a double guitar advertising for Brooks running shoes.

Brooks advertisement from RnR SD half

Passing through the legs of the rockers led us to a short valley along the route, with a hill following shortly afterwards with a group playing large drums as we continued through Balboa Park. There was more uphill and downhill running as we made our way to mile 12 and into Downtown.

Finally into Downtown, I was feeling pretty good and thought it would be a good idea to all but sprint the last mile, so my pace went from 11:00 or 12:00/mi to 8:00/mi.

Needless to say, I “ran out of fuel” short of the finish line so I had to walk a little. I still finished strong and ran a decent pace into the finish line, but I need more practice with pacing my races and finishes.

My goal was to finish in 2:30 and I was very close at 2:32:04. This put me at 8555/15372 Overall, 252/328 for my Division and 4243/6204 for Men.

Like the start line, the finish line was packed when I finished even though the marathon finishers were still only trickling in.

Final Thoughts

I may have been far off on my desired time for the 5k (although right on pace for what I was aiming for in the ½) but I missed my desired time for the ½ marathon by just 2 minutes and I was happy with my performance. Coming into the race with more knowledge of the course profile may have helped my performance, but now I know what to expect if I return to run Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego again.

The weather wasn’t perfect on Saturday for the 5k, but Sunday was pretty good. Another highlight of this race was my lack of forethought meant I didn’t have gels along the race which ended up being beneficial because I didn’t need to take bathroom breaks every couple miles like I did during the California International Marathon (CIM) in December.

Would I do this race again? Definitely, because it’s flatter than San Francisco but not as flat as a pancake like San Jose will be in October. Plus, the weather and area (Downtown, North Park, and Normal Heights) has a lot to see and explore.

I have uploaded to YouTube a video shot on my GoPro Hero4 Black throughout the race. You can find it here if you want to check it out.

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.

Amtrak in California – The Variations

I’ve written about the Amtrak credit cards from Bank of America so I think it’s time I talk about options for riding Amtrak. Specifically, I will be discussing the routes for Amtrak found throughout my home state of California.

Amtrak has 8 routes which travel through at least some part of California. These 8 routes are the:

  • California Zephyr;
  • Capitol Corridor;
  • Coast Starlight;
  • Pacific Surfliner;
  • San Joaquins;
  • Southwest Chief;
  • Sunset Limited; and
  • Texas Eagle

Most of my travel is on the Capitol Corridor and every now and then I take the Coast Starlight. This is because I travel on Amtrak between my home town and university, Sacramento and San Jose.

Without further ado, “Where do these routes go?” The major cities served by each route listed on Amtrak’s website and duration from end to end are:

  • California Zephyr – 51 hours 20 minutes
    • Chicago
    • Denver
    • Glenwood Springs
    • Sacramento
    • Emeryville (San Francisco connection)
  • Capitol Corridor – 3 hours 15 minutes
    • Auburn (mostly by thruway bus)
    • Sacramento
    • Emeryville
    • Oakland
    • San Jose
  • Coast Starlight – 35 hours
    • Seattle
    • Portland
    • Sacramento
    • San Francisco Bay Area
    • Los Angeles
  • Pacific Surfliner – 5 hours 45 minutes
    • San Luis Obispo
    • Santa Barbara
    • Los Angeles
    • San Diego
  • San Joaquins – 6 hours 15 minutes
    • San Francisco Bay Area
    • Sacramento
    • Bakersfield
    • Southern California
  • Southwest Chief – 40+ hours
    • Chicago
    • Albuquerque
    • Los Angeles
  • Sunset Limited – 48 hours
    • New Orleans
    • San Antonio
    • Tucson
    • Phoenix
    • Los Angeles
  • Texas Eagle – 32 hours 25 minutes (Chicago to San Antonio) 65 hours 20 minutes (Chicago to Los Angeles)
    • Chicago
    • St. Louis
    • Dallas
    • San Antonio
    • Los Angeles

These travel time are slower than driving (San Jose to Sacramento is only 2 hours without congested traffic) and much slower than flying. However, there’s no need to worry about going through security like TSA at an airport, riding a train can be more scenic without as much trouble with changing pressure messing with your eardrums, and it can be cheaper than flying.

But there are times where time cannot be spared. In the end, how you travel really depends on what your preferences, needs, and options are.

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.

Action Cameras and YouTube Videos

I am joining the world of action camera videography. With a couple GoPro cameras in hand, I will be cataloging my traveling, races and training on YouTube.

There will be separate channels for travel and races and another for full length recordings of me training.

On the travel and races channel, I have uploaded a time lapse of my recent trip on Amtrak to San Jose. And I have begun uploading my run workouts as I prepare for the Rock ‘N’ Roll San Diego race weekend.

I already have several videos planned for this summer with the first coming from my weekend of racing in San Diego. The majority of my planned videos will be from my trip to Europe in July. These will include time lapses of the flights going to and coming back from Europe, and train rides throughout Europe.

A couple more videos I will be creating will be a follow up to my blog about my TomTom Spark and a brand new blog post about my newest phone, the OnePlus 3T.