Miles, Points, and Elite Status Save the Day!

This spring, we received an invitation to our good friends' wedding in mid-May. We had been excitedly anticipating this wedding for a long time, but also knew it could prove a challenge for our schedules and pocketbooks. The challenges were several-fold: the wedding was across the country in North Carolina, Johanna couldn't get a day off work, flights were already getting expensive by the time we had the date, and Nascar had a big race the same weekend. Here's how miles, points, and elite status allowed us to have an excellent trip celebrating our friends' marriage!

Challenge #1: Flying Cross-Country and Back in 48 Hours without Breaking the Bank (and Our Bodies!)

Johanna wasn't able to take a day off work on Friday and the wedding was Saturday at 11am, making a red-eye flight an absolute necessity. Many actually like this flight, because it wastes no day-time hours and saves a night in a hotel. Unsurprisingly, this flight combined with a return on Sunday was going for $500-$600 per-person.

Instead, I looked to use American Airlines miles to get us to Charlotte (an AA hub) from LAX. While I didn't find anything in economy, I did find availability in first class and given the need to sleep on the plane, gladly accepted those seats at 25,000 miles per-person (we slept nearly every minute of the 4.5hr flight). Instead of spending another 50,000 miles on the day-time return flights, I was able to utilize our Southwest Companion Pass and airline credits we had from Johanna's Citi Prestige card to reduce our return flight to $130 total.

Since we were flying American and had the Citi Prestige card, we were granted access to the AA Admiral's Club at LAX before our trip began and the Admiral's Club in Charlotte after our arrival. This helped us take care of dinner and breakfast for free and gave us a comfortable place to hang out while in the airports. We also visited the Korean Air Lounge at LAX with our Priority Pass Club Cards, but weren't particularly impressed. Airport lounges aren't a necessity, but they do make travel more enjoyable and came in very handy during this trip!

Challenge #2: Hotel on a Busy Weekend + Early Check-In

Since we would be at the wedding all day and have to leave fairly early the next morning, I was hoping to avoid spending too much on our night in a hotel. At the same time, it was important to be close to the wedding and after-party locations. After spending a bit of time searching for nearby hotels, I realized that it was Nascar Weekend; most of the hotels were booked and most of those that weren't were charging $150-200 per night...ouch!

Instead, we took advantage of my Hilton Honors Diamond account (top-tier elite status) to book a Hilton Garden Inn at preferred pricing. In the event that all hotels had been booked, Diamond Status means we are guaranteed a room within 48hrs of arrival, but there were a few still available anyway. 

We spent $120 after tax and earned 4,000 HH points in the process (valued at $20). Another reason I booked a Hilton is that Diamond status included free cooked-to-order breakfast (valued at $20) and early check-in (priceless!!!) as benefits. The hotel had our room ready at 8am so that we could shower and even get a little extra sleep before heading to what was a beautiful and enjoyable wedding.

The Bottom Line

  1. Instead of spending $1,000-$1,200 on flights, we used 50,000 AA miles + $130 in cash.
  2. Instead of paying exorbitant airport prices for food and drinks, we used free lounge access for dinner, drinks, and breakfast on the way to Charlotte (estimated savings: $50), while enjoying quiet, comfortable seating instead of waiting by the terminal.
  3. Instead of spending $150-$200 on a hotel room we wouldn't even be able to access before the wedding, we parlayed Hilton Honors Diamond status into a $120 - $20 (points earned) - $20 (free breakfast) = $80 hotel room that we checked into at 8am!

Utilizing miles, points, and elite status to travel hack our way to and from our friends' wedding in North Carolina, we saved between $990-$1,240. For those not yet taking advantage of the miles and points game, that's a significant sum of money to spend on a 48-hour trip, during which nearly half of those hours were spent in-transit. Utilizing our travel-hacking skills allowed us to fully appreciate the special occasion without suffering over the cost of getting there. Win!

Dreams of Hvar: A Special Place by the Sea

I live a busy life. It's not by accident and almost everything I take on is a labor of love, but sometimes, like everyone, I just want to get away. In these moments, the image above is what usually pops into my head first; sitting in a chair, admiring the Mediterranean at Falco Bar as rhythmic euro-groove plays in the background.

Johanna and I visited Hvar Island as part of a larger trip along the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia (full report here!) and the connection was instant. Just a short ferry ride from the bustling town of Split, Hvar is something altogether different.

We visited at the beginning of high-season, meaning the jet-set and part-set had not yet come in full-force. Consequently, we found Hvar Island a calm and relaxing environment. We took daily walks from our rented apartment to the seafront promenade leading into town and sometimes in the other direction to Falco at the far edge of the walkway.

Other times we walked up through the city streets of Hvar Town and up to the fortress guarding the marina below. Everywhere we went, the crisp blue sea was on display and the scent of lavender and pine hung in the humid, summer air.

It's the same in other parts of Hvar Island, but also different. The quiet port town of Jelsa doesn't even pretend to be a club scene at night, but offers boats and fishing nets and other vestiges of the sea. There are the necessary cafes and resto-bars to quench ones thirst, but also a very real feeling that little has changed in this place.

Travel inland and to more remote parts of the island and Hvar is practically ancient. Single-street towns hewn of stone stand the test of time as do the residents. They have goats and grapes and lavender and rosemary oil, but most of all, they have been blessed by the limitless bounty of the sea.

It's easy to ignore the harsh winters these islanders endure, the isolation turning from idyllic to daunting. These people are also struggling to continue a simple life threatened by development and modernization, so the things I dream about Hvar are a comfort to me. It's good to recognize that the island has imparted its wisdom of simple living and that it has taken hold.

Life may be full of challenges and opportunities and trappings, but Hvar will always be in my mind when I need a moment by the sea. That is the power of travel.

The Lost Coast Road Trip: Thirteen Less-Visited Places in California

Last spring, Johanna and I embarked on a drive up to the very top of California with very little in the way of plans. If you've been reading this blog, you'll know that this was a departure for me. We rented an SUV, packed our camping gear, and pointed the wheels north.

In just a few days, we covered 1,500 miles and visited some of the most under-the-radar destinations in California. We were struck by the sheer beauty even the least-visited places in California can produce. Here's a list of some of the places we visited and things we did:

  1. Spotted wildflowers along Jolon Road, a part of Monterey County that tourists rarely find.
  2. Drove down a five-mile dirt road to camp at Prewitt Ridge, overlooking the Big Sur coastline.
  3. Snacked on artisan foods in Pescadero, just a few miles inland of the well-worn HWY 1 route.
  4. Sped past Napa to visit Anderson Valley's greatest Pinot Noir producer (Toulouse Vineyard).
  5. Drew messages in the sand at Mendocino Headlands State Park.
  6. Hopped around the tide-pools at Glass Beach in Fort Bragg.
  7. Stopped to admire the coastal views from Pacific Star Winery.
  8. Headed inland to hammock-camp along the Avenue of the Giants (old-growth redwoods).
  9. Followed Wilder Ridge Road to Mattole Point, passing bucolic homesteads on the way.
  10. Got taken aback by fields of wildflowers near the victorian town of Ferndale.
  11. Paid our respects to those lost at sea at Trinidad Memorial Lighthouse.
  12. Communed with wild elk at Gold Bluffs Beach.
  13. Entered the jurassic era in Fern Canyon (filming location of Jurassic Park 2).

Here is a small selection of photos from our trip:

Enjoyed this post? Pin the image below to share with others! Also, consider visiting another blogger The Daily Adventures of Me, who has put together a list of US Road-Trip posts to stoke your wanderlust!

Initial Reflections upon My Return from Backpacking in Patagonia

El Chalten, Argentina - Near the top of Mt. FitzRoy

El Chalten, Argentina - Near the top of Mt. FitzRoy

I’m still emerging from the travel haze that tends to occur when I’ve been away from home long enough to unlearn my daily routine. It’s a time where it’s easy to get caught between what was temporary and what is permanent, and to wish they might be reversed. This is an important moment.

It’s like the ancient traditions of boys going out into the wilderness to become men, the psychedelic-driven spirit journeys of tribesmen, and more recently, the “tame by comparison” experience of going off to college. When you travel to a far-off place and allow yourself to forget what you know on a daily basis, your mind is open to the things that can improve and even transform that existence. This is something every person should pursue.

Does this mean I will be quitting my day job to travel the world with just a backpack upon my shoulders? No, or at least, certainly not yet. I am passionate about what I do for work, the friends I keep, and the home my wife and I have created, and these journeys serve as the reminder. It is easy to take the everyday minutiae for granted unless you remove yourself from it for a while, but that too is important.

Self-examination is crucial; reflection is what propels us towards enlightenment. I may never fully understand the unbounded beauty of this earth, but I can become more familiar with it and I can learn to better appreciate what it has to offer. In 41 countries visited and thousands of miles of roads ridden and trails traveled, I’ve found no place more magnificent or better suited to this sort of seeking than Patagonia.

A SLO Weekend: Taking a Break in San Luis Obispo County

The Mrs. and I really needed to step away from our daily lives last week, if only for a 24-hour period, so we decided to explore the area immediately north of where we live. This led us to the San Luis Obispo area, which is full of vineyards, rolling green hills, and a number of coastal gems, all within 1.5-2 hours drive-time from the Santa Barbara area, and just a bit farther from Los Angeles.

We stumbled upon quite a lot during this short trip, but most importantly, we were reminded that traveling without any real plans, reservations, or goals can be lots of fun. We had a great time stopping wherever we pleased and just generally wandering about in an area very close to us that we hadn’t really explored. Come with us for a tour of some of the best bits of SLO County!

1. The Sea Caves of Avila Bay – Gorgeous Views and Tidal Pools

Our first stop on the trip was a short, unplanned hike down to what I had read were some pretty cool sea caves. They are sort of hard to find at first, but the short-and-easy is to exit the freeway towards the town of Avila Beach and then turn up the steep road on the left shortly before you arrive in town. From there, a dirt parking lot ends the road and the hike down begins. After a few false-starts, we found our way down to this precipitous-looking ledge with several ropes tied to an iron spike in the ground. While this is certainly a “do at your own risk” situation, the ropes were in good condition and the spike well-entrenched, so I decided to give it a go. For the most part, the ropes aren’t even necessary, and the part where rappelling is necessary is close enough to the bottom to jump, had there been a need.

Taking the short, careful descent to the bottom yields a world of coastal marine exploration. There are many tide pools and caves, worn by the waves, but as we arrived at low-tide, there was plenty of room to walk around. It was clear along the trail down to this spot that it is frequented by the under-21 and carelessly drinking set, with a fair bit of beer-bottle glass strewn about on the trails, but down at the bottom, it was quite pristine. There were seals amongst the rocks in the ocean and they had with them a few fishermen in kayaks for company. Several hours could have easily been spent investigating the cliffs, caves, and outcroppings, but after a short while we decided to continue our way north.

2. Prefumo & See Canyon – Backroads, Grassy Hills, and Hard Apple Cider

Later in the day, we took the opportunity to visit Kelsey See Canyon Winery and Domaine Lemieux, both proprietors of locally-sourced wines and ciders. Kelsey was a happening place, with live music and a healthy number of Cal Poly students hanging about, enjoying the beautiful day. This establishment is a working apple farm, and as such, they had both cider (very strong at 11% alc) and blends of cider and wine called Red Delicious and Golden Delicious. These were some of the most easy-going, sunny-day wines we’ve ever experienced and we had to snag a bottle of the Red Delicious, which they nicknamed “the hot-tub wine.”

Domaine Lemieux was a quieter environment, seemingly not as established as its See Canyon neighbor. They featured voignier, including a sparkling version, as well as a tempranillo that was, true to the grape, very easy drinking. Our favorite, however, was the See Canyon Cider, which is also bottled at Domaine Lemieux. Crisp (the not overly so), refreshing, and more appropriately fermented (7.5% alc), this is perhaps the best hard cider either of us have had, so we picked up a bottle to enjoy back home.

It would be easy to have missed all of this, as See Canyon Road is fairly hidden in the hills just outside San Luis Obispo. We only knew to look there because I had ridden the partially dirt road during the Solvang Double-Century cycling event. On that occasion, we climbed by bicycle up the impressively steep Prefumo Canyon, before descending the other side to See Canyon. What I find to be almost universally true is that steep grades lead to excellent viewpoints, and Prefumo/See Canyon is certainly no exception. We took a moment to play in the fields atop the peak, with just a few stray cars passing here and there.

3. Morro Bay – Camping and a Car Show

Morro Bay is no stranger to either of us, as we’ve passed through and even stayed on several occasions in the last few years. Morro Rock stands out for miles (you can see it from the top of Prefumo Canyon Road, some 20 miles away), and the towns friendly little downtown and waterfront tend to pull travelers to its streets. On this occasion, we pulled into Morro Bay State Park to signs of “campground full,” but undeterred, we managed to snag one of two site that had just been vacated. From our camp, just on the edge of town, we hopped on our bicycles and cruised into the city-center to find a wonderful car show awaiting us. We noted that we seem always to find an event of some sort downtown, and they’re always fun to stumble upon.

Later that day, we drove (we got lazy, it’s a short bike ride) over to Morro Rock for a quick visit, and then to the candy store at the edge of the waterfront that also features some great soft-serve ice-cream (we do this every time we’re in town), and then headed back to settle into our campsite. With a beer in hand and our fire dancing in the night, we chatted with the couple from the neighboring campsite about a stunning number of collective adventures and common travel interests.

We drove home the next morning to return to a nearly-full day of work, but our little 24-hour bug-out up the coast was a great success. It’s funny that we explore the whole world, but often forget to check out the areas immediately around us. We’ve definitely decided to do this sort of trip more often, and I highly recommend it to you readers as well. There’s always something new and great just around the corner. Go find it!