Confessions of a Million Miler

I know it’s been a while since I last wrote. Over a year actually. As for those still wondering if I ever made Million Miler (and if the title didn’t give it away), yes, that happened. June 8th, 2016, United Flight 870, Sydney to San Francisco. I don’t know why, but at the time I couldn’t bring myself to write this final chapter, and then life continued to happen regardless of my (now lifetime) frequent flier status.

That morning in Sydney my family and I were met by a Global Services representative. I’m pretty sure someone I know on the inside tipped her off, because from what I’ve heard this isn’t the usual MM treatment, Regardless, she was really nice and very professional. She assisted with the check-in, handed me a card, thanked me for my loyalty, and offered to meet us again post-security. Once at the gate, she escorted us on the plane, introduced me to the crew, then I got a few minutes on the flight deck of a brand new 787-9. Pictures. Handshakes. Lot of smiles.

Back in the day on United, there used to be this thing called the Halfway to Hawaii game. Basically you were given some information about the flight (winds, airspeed, etc) and you had to guess at what time (HST, to the closest second) the plane crossed over the geographic midpoint between the US mainland (or Guam) and Hawaii. Winner gets a prize. We used to fly to Hawaii a lot when I was a kid and I can’t remember the number of times a had to give up that bottle of champagne to my parents. Anyway before this flight, some friends, family, a few internet peeps, and I had decided to play a variation called the Million Miler game. One of the flight crew that day was legacy United, so he knew what I was talking about when I started to explain, and he agreed to pass along the necessary information. After that I took my seat along with my husband and two kids in Economy Plus. The rest of the flight after my initial meet-and-greet was unremarkable. There was no special treatment or public recognition (which I actually appreciate after “celebrating” a birthday on Southwest). A few hours in, a flight attendant walked by and quietly handed me a napkin with “congratulations” and the time, 8:56 pm written on it. It was official. Some desk bling and new credentials showed up in the mail a few weeks later and it was more than a year before I eventually flew United again.

I could go on about how great having lifetime status is and recite the numerous “perks” of being a lifetime Premier Gold with what sadly has become one of the world’s most-hated airlines, but I wouldn’t be honest with you or myself. My status doesn’t make me special. What is special, is what I went through to get there. You know, the journey, and not so much the destination. United Million Miler is not something that can be bought or hacked; I served my time. Aside from that, the next best thing about being a United Million Miler is not having to fly United anymore.

Looking back, mileage running was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. To me there is nothing more freeing than being on a flight to nowhere. Sit back. Relax. Enjoy; Cruising at 36,000 feet above the earth, in what was at the time (and sometimes still is), a state of wifi-free, disconnected bliss. What started as red-eye benders to the east coast evolved into multi-day adventures across the Pacific to places I probably wouldn’t have visited otherwise. The grand finale- SFO Centurion Lounge margaritas, Tokyo and back three times in a month, and getting to say my farewell(s) to an old friend, the United 747. Then there was Guam; a place that I didn’t expect to like that I secretly fell in love with (shhh, don’t tell Hawaii…actually, don’t tell anyone).

Of course it wasn’t all fun, all the time. There were delayed flights, missed connections, nights spent in airports, lost bags, broken seats, broken wifi, some really unfriendly employees, and even some tears shed along the way. In the end though that’s the kind of stuff you learn from, and looking back that’s not how I choose to remember the overall experience.

Other things I don’t remember, literally…how I ended up in Denver that one time. I also do not recall how those few inappropriately-branded service items mysteriously made their way into my carry on, but whatever, they were going to throw that stuff out after the merger anyway. Long live the tulip.

San Francisco International

Finally, some lessons learned:

  • Any time you are given a meal, a drink, or the chance to shower, take it and say thank you
  • Hoard memories, not miles (or money for that matter), but keep enough in the account(s) just in case
  • Less entitlement, more gratitude
  • If you’re having a bad day, stay off the internet
  • Never say never (especially when it comes to never flying a certain airline again, because trust me, you will)
  • Every ending yields a new beginning

Now that my Million Miler journey has ended, it’s only natural that my blogging-about-it kind of has too. Miles, Points, and Mai Tais was always a labor of love and it was fun…until it was no more.Β  Other things slowly but surely took its place. In the not-so-short time it took for me to actually sit down and write this, one kid destroyed my room, the other managed to burn himself with an ipad charging cable, and I forgot to eat dinner. Priorities. Such is life. It is never easy saying goodbye, so maybe instead, see you later. Aloha oe, until we meet again…another place, another time, another forum, who knows, maybe another airline πŸ˜‰

THE END

 

United Island Hopper Adventures 2.0

Marshall Islands Nuclear Testing 1954 (US Department of Defense)

Marshall Islands Nuclear Testing 1954 (US Department of Defense)

The end is near! With 962,266 lifetime flight miles, there were only a few things left that I wanted to do before making Million Miler. The United Island Hopper being one of them. With five stops in the Republic of the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia, UA Flight 154 is often considered to be the ultimate #avgeek trip-of-a-lifetime, that is until and unless you’re crazy enough to sign up for it twice.

My day started at around 7am (island time) in Honolulu. I know that sounds pretty early, but it was a surprising reprieve given the completely inhumane 5:35am departure I experienced on my first island hopper adventure. No clue why the plane leaves later now, but hey, I’ll take it. I flew out to Honolulu the day before, as one should do to catch the island hopper, then headed to Waikiki, rented a paddle board and spent much of the afternoon catching waves; by no means the worst way to spend an 18 hour layover. The view of Diamond Head at sunset enjoyed with a Kona brew in hand didn’t exactly suck either.

My first stop after leisurely checking in at HNL was Starbucks to grab some food. As a previous island hopper survivor, I knew this was pretty important. Food on the plane is sparse. There are other words to describe the food, but if you’ve ever had a Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich paired with airplane coffee you know where this could be headed. Trust me. Go to Starbucks!

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Early morning at HNL

Boarding was rather uneventfully but I did happen to notice the large collection of United logo bags the mechanic sitting in 7c had on board with him. Of course as everyone already knows the island hopper always travels with a mechanic and I’ll let your imagination run wild as to reasons why. There’s also a relief crew of pilots seated in row 1.

I was seated a little further back in 29A. I can explain. When I booked my tickets lets just say there were some discrepancies on united.com regarding aircraft configuration. My itinerary showed a 737-800, however the seat map only had enough rows for 737-700. Three phone calls to United did little to clear up that mystery and seatguru.com didn’t really help either. Why care? I knew from unfortunate experience that there is a window missing in economy plus and it moves depending on which aircraft you’re on. Out of the seats what were left available I didn’t want to chance it. It turns out I made a good call. 737-800. Row 11. The only thing worse than spending 14 hours in economy, is spending 14 hours in economy (plus) without a window, especially on this flight. Row 29 turned out to be good choice though. It was far enough back to get a good view without a lot of obstruction, but I still snapped some good wing shots for ThirtySixThousand. I also ended up with an awesome new friend seated in 29B.

Making friends on the @united #islandhopper #29B #HNL #MAJ #livealoha #hemigram

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We took off from the reef at HNL, and after a few turns we were on our way out across the Pacific on another adventure.

Majuro

Centrally located approximately 2,000 away from Hawaii, Japan, and Australia, the Republic of the Marshall islands redefines the middle of nowhere. Either that, or it’s the center of the Pacific Rim’s Universe. I guess it’s all a matter of perspective. At 5 hours in, the first sight of land as we approached Majuro literally took my breath away, for a second time. Long narrow fringes of land extend to the horizon, encircling vibrant blue lagoons.

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Approaching Majuro

The Airport in Majuro is strategically placed on a section of atoll just wide enough to accommodate a runway. The length of the atoll however is a different story. After two times now flying into this place, I still haven’t determined exactly how big it is, but I’m pretty sure the answer is huge.

After several hours spent at altitude in an environment kept just above freezing, deplaning in Majuro was like stepping into a sauna. I was also pretty excited about stretching my legs. There’s a big sign welcoming you to the islands that you can take a picture with, and a small lounge for transiting passengers. Among other things, they sell beer there.

Yokwe means Aloha in Marshallese

Yokwe = Aloha in Marshallese

If for whatever reason you decide to not get off the plane, you get to participate in the security ritual, where everyone on one side of the plane moves to the other and has to identify their bags. Don’t worry about missing out on this though; unless you have a written note from the U.S. government, everyone on board gets to play at the next stop.

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Somewhere between Majuro and Kwajalein #nofilter

Kwajalein

Upon decent into Kwajalein an announcement was made kindly asking us to not take any pictures as it is still an active US military base. Funny, how I missed that announcement the first time, but I’ll take that to mean I probably shouldn’t be posting that shit on the internet. Luckily there’s Google for that.

Shortly after my first island hopping experience I remember sitting next to a rather drunk man on the plane between Guam and Manila. He told me about how used to be a private contractor at Kwaj, and that he’d lived on the north side of the atoll. “It’s beautiful there,” he said, crying into his beer, seemingly pining to go back like a character straight out of LOST. It was a little weird.

I initially had the same impression though. Kwajalein was incredibly beautiful. I don’t know if was that magic time of day or particles left over from former nuclear testing, but I swear the island sparkled. Lush green grass, gentle trade winds blowing through the coconut trees. The place looked like a freaking park. It certainly did not seem to be the most sinister place in paradise. Quite the opposite in fact.

My second impression was a little different. When we landed, I noticed the green grass was now brown, perhaps an indication that it hadn’t rained in a while, and from my perspective sitting on the other side of the plane, I saw that the paint was peeling on some of the government structures. What before had seemed almost dreamlike now appeared to be very real.

Of course there’s more to Kwajalein Atoll than just the military base that occupies Kwajalein Island. The atoll is one of the largest in the world, made up of several smaller islands and a lot of coral reef. A short ferry ride away (or I guess a long walk at low tide) is the settlement of Ebeye, where about 15,000 people live on an area that’s roughly 80 acres; by all accounts a stark contrast to conditions on the military base. However, I don’t really know for sure. It’s not exactly the easiest place to visit. Maybe someday…

Another funny thing I noticed about Kwajalein is that nobody really likes to talk about what goes on there. Again, there’s Google and Wikipedia. Once the venue for one of the most famous World War II naval battles, it has since been used primarily for anti-ballistic weapons testing. It’s location in the middle of the Pacific also makes it prime real estate for both the military and private companies like SpaceX to launch all sorts of stuff, having a choice between polar and equatorial orbits. Kwajalein is a pretty fascinating place.

Kosrae

If you like short field take offs and landings, the second half of the island hopper is for you. #Avgeek tip of the day- if you’re wondering how long a runway is there’s an easy way to find out. Have you ever noticed the big black square signs with numbers on them out on the tarmac? They indicate the length of remaining runway, in thousands of feet. Add both sides of the sign, multiply by 1,000, and there’s your answer. I didn’t count one longer than 6,000 ft. and the internet confirmed it. Buckle up.

The first of these really short runways is on the small island of Kosrae, Federated States of Micronisia (FSM). On days that the island hopper skips a certain island, this is the one. Famous for the “sleeping lady” mountain formation and some of the sweetest tangerines in the world which after two trips I still haven’t been able to get my hands on, that’s pretty much it.

Kosrae, FSM

Kosrae, FSM

The quaint little open air terminal where I spent 40 minutes on the ground last time has been “upgraded” to a drab cinder block holding cell; not among the changes that I like, but at least it was air conditioned.

Pohnpei

Out of the three stops in Micronesia, Pohnpei looks to be the true gem. If there was one place I’d really like to spend more time aside from the Marshalls, this would be it. From the air it’s reminiscent of a Mo’orea or a Roratonga- a beautiful, lush, emerald green aisle surrounded by a turquoise lagoon and a barrier reef. There’s Nan Modal, an ancient city made up of such large monoliths that local legend states a dragon might have moved them there, and beautiful Kepirohi Waterfalls; Two things definitely worth going back to see.

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If you look carefully you can see a boat stuck on the reef

Pohnpei has the nicest terminal of all the stops, indicating a relatively fair amount of tourism compared with the other islands. Sadly the vintage Continental Micronesia poster I’d fallen in love with on my first trip had been ripped off the wall, but there was an interesting poster about shark tourism. I normally try to avoid them, but apparently there is thriving industry propped up by those who want to go swimming with the creatures. Who knew?

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RIP Air Mike

While we were all standing around I was engaged in conversation by one of the pilots. Nice guy. “So where are you headed today?” Me: “Guam” “Why not the direct flight?” “I don’t know, this one seemed more interesting,” I responded with an awkward smile. He kind of shrugged non-judgmentally and somehow seemed to have got me. “Ok”. Despite having just been successfully outed as an #avgeek, I passed on the opportunity to ask any aviation related questions and instead we talked about surfing. Pohnpei is home to P-pass (Palikir Pass), a legendary reef-break and Micronesia’s answer to Teahupo’o and Cloudbreak. “Yeah, it was right under my approach,” one of the other pilot chimed in. “WORLD. CLASS.” I take it he would know. Even though he’s Guam-based, he still keeps two boards in Honolulu. While I wouldn’t exactly use the terms tube ride and barreling when describing my own surfing prowess, I guess there’s always that to live up to someday.

Chuuk

The island(s) of Chuuk are the final stop before Guam. That’s right, islands…lots of them! All clustered together inside of a huge lagoon framed by perhaps the most gorgeous barrier reef of them all. On my last island hopper adventure, I think I got the best photos of the trip here as we descended through a batch of rainbows towards the airport. The lagoon below is filled with all sorts of interesting stuff left over from another famous World War II battle. Unsurprisingly a lot of people come here to wreck dive. This time instead of rainbows, there was just rain, and the cool dive map from the airport which I was looking forward to checking out again, also ripped off the wall. In other news, the infamous airport motel appears to have undergone renovations, however I still don’t think I want to stay there.

Chuuk

Boarding the plane one last time in Chuuk

Guam

Yay! Finally! Don’t get me wrong, the island hopper is about as much fun as you can have sitting for 14 hours in economy, but it’ still…14 hours in United economy (best case scenario domestic first if you’re so inclined). After landing in Guam, it took about 2 minutes to clear US Customs, I caught a cab to the Hyatt, and was on the beach just in time for sundown. It was nice to finally get my toes in the sand, after having been teased for much of the day. The water was as warm as a bath, and getting to swim in the Philippine Sea was the best reward I can think of after a long day crossing the Pacific.

Watching the sunset in Guam

Watching the sunset in Guam

Next week I go back to Guam, this time on the direct flight. I don’t anticipate anything interesting happening. Let’s hope for the best. Shortly thereafter, I’m taking my entire family to Australia, and somewhere out over the Pacific, between Sydney and San Francisco, I’ll become a Million Miler.

As I think back on this most recent trip, The Marshall Islands stands out as one of the most enchanting places I’ve ever been. The delicately placed ribbons of land stretched across the Pacific as far as the eye can see has had me spending a lot of time in contemplation of the geopolitical climate that would make somebody think it was a good idea to blow up a nuke in such a serene paradise. I mean the place is stunning. With an economy now largely propped up by US foreign aid and the rent we pay for use of Kwajalein, I can’t help but wonder what makes one coral atoll in the middle of the ocean more worthy of a Park Hyatt or an Intercontinental than another. The people there are certainly among the nicest I’ve ever met. Maybe it’s the former nuclear testing, but then that argument doesn’t really hold up given the case of French Polynesia, where the powers that be there also decided it was a good idea to blow holes in the reef. What if the likes of Emirates or Etihad flew here? I mean, what’s so special about the Maldives? (I guess I’ll let you know when we visit there in October). Perhaps, just maybe, though, certain places are best left untouched and off the map, only to be served 3 times a week by United Airlines.

Where I’ve Been

It’s been a little over a year since I disappeared into the mountains of Jackson Hole, or so it may have seemed. I know things were just starting to get interesting when I decided to take an extended leave from the world of blogging. For the most part its been business as usual, continuing to live my life one adventure at a time, just sans taking the time to write about it part. Perhaps I owe an explanation. Perhaps not. You decide.

So why come back now? My quest for Million Miler has always been a central theme here at Miles, Points, and Mai Tais and that quest will soon be coming to an end. Really soon, actually. Every good story needs an ending. Right? No I haven’t given up, and yes, I’m still that crazy one out there flying for miles like an asshole when a trip across the Pacific yields about as much as a trip to In-n-Out with a credit card. Welcome to the land of revenue driven programs. I warned you all this was coming.

Again, so why? I get that a lot. The whole Million Miler thing? Why bother when I can easily travel hack my way into the likes of Emirates First and the Park Hyatt wherever? What’s so special about a mid-tier lifetime status that gets you in the same boarding group as someone who just signed up for a MileagePlus Explorer card? Sometimes life it isn’t about the destination, it’s the journey. And this one has been one hell of a ride; an adventure worth infinitely more than a gold card with my name on it. That, and, well, I said I would do it!

So where the hell have I been? Let’s catch up:

Shortly after I left Jackson Hole, I went skiing in Utah: Alta, Snowbird, and Park City.

 

I also skied a lot closer to home.

I took my dad with me to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida…twice

 

I took the rest of the family to Seattle

Olympic National Park #family #travelwithkids

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Maui. Tahoe. More Maui. More Tahoe.

Bonsai Rock #laketahoe #tahoe #bonsai #bonsairock #bonsaitree

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#Haleakala crater #maui #nofilter

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Thanks to today's paddle I now have a new screensaver on my phone #dlbliss #laketahoe #sup

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Shit happened on the open-jaw segment of a mileage run to Taipei and Hong Kong

I finally flew out of Reno. DC to visit Jeff the Wanderer and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

 

Traded in miles for a last-minute, middle-of-summer ski trip with Miles-Abound-Phil to Portillo and Valle Nevado, Chile. EPIC.

Après ski w/ @britinnc #skiportillo #chile #apres101

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I also flew First Class for the first time on a 3-class airplane…on American. Slightly less epic.

So what kind of self respecting travel hacker hadn’t flown International First Class before? *Raises Hand* That would be me. But in case anyone was starting to doubt my abilities, my husband has. I sent Mr. Mai Tais to visit his family in India on EK F. We traded in 90K not-so-hard-earned Alaska miles before all the shower selfies and people like Sam Huang led to the untimely demise of that award. Mr. Mai Tais also got to fly the ANA RD-D2 787 between San Jose, CA and Tokyo! *Jedi hand wave* Be jealous. At one point there was short-lived talk of doing my own kickstarter (for charity of course!) to try and get him to dress up in a costume for the flight, but ultimately I didn’t get my s-h-i together in time. Such is life with 2 small kids. Mr. Mai Tais is the one who takes care of them most of the time when I’m away so being able to treat him in return was even better than going myself. Truth.

So how are the kids? They’re great! They’re also very happy Alaska MVPs. SMF-OGG-SMF-OGG…our family loves Maui.

Off to #maui for my first birthday! #babyK #travelwithkids #iflyalaska

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#travelwithkids #travelstyle #OGG #alaskamvp

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What Happens in the LAS Centurion Lounge…yeah, let’s not even go there πŸ˜‰

Speaking of Alaska (the state, not the airline), We went back there in February to visit my cousin Steve and family using 100K Suntrust Skypesos (RIP). Delta Saver Awards really do exist! At least if you’re interested in going to Anchorage in the middle of February. It was great!

Hanging out with #family in Anchorage, #Alaska this weekend

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I then went skiing with Points Princess Caroline at Beaver Creek and Vail (The Westin Beaver Creek is awesome BTW). I like to ski πŸ™‚

Mileage Run to Tokyo

#view from the #skydeck at #moritower #tokyo #japan

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…and I also flew back and forth a bunch of times on a $40 fare between Los Angeles and Chicago. 5 times in 2 days. Some trips are better than others.

 

So What’s Next?

I look forward to sharing the closing chapter of my Million Miler story before I take off into the sunset one last time, Mai Tai in hand, in search of a nice beach somewhere to retire.

The #FinalCountdown is on!

It's a sign…#literally #australia2016 #flythefriendlyskies #DEN #airport #travel

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Why I Gave Up a $3600 Bump

Always take the bump. That’s like a rule, right up there with don’t call the airline. Voluntary denied boarding (VDB) situations are certainly nothing new. Early in my travel hacking career I used to fly home from college on the weekends once I figured out the key to free travel was United’s consistently oversold Monday morning flight between Chicago and Detroit. Conveniently, there was an almost-empty Northwest flight 30 minutes later that would still get me back to Ann Arbor in time for class. As a token of appreciation, I’d be issued a certificate, good for travel within the lower 48 states, and I’d use it to come back and do it again the next week. This went on for almost an entire semester. I’m the only one I know of who commuted to the University of Michigan on a red-eye from the west coast.

Now I find oversold flights by not buying my infant children their own seat (children under 2 can fly for free in your lap) when I’m sure the plane will be empty enough to bring their car seat on board without paying for it. The airlines seem to call my bluff almost every single time. Accordingly, a few weeks ago our Delta flight from Sacramento to Salt Lake City was oversold. Like WAY oversold. We’re talking like regional jet and they needed 5 people-oversold, and they were paying handsomely for it. $1200 per person, good for future travel on Delta. I immediately got in line to talk to the gate agent about it.

So my husband, 2 kids and I were headed to Jackson Hole to visit family and go skiing for the week. In other words, our plans were flexible. All I had to do was call my parents, tell them what time to come get us from the airport and we were good. But what if Delta couldn’t get us there until the next day? Ugh. We’d already come so far! I went back to talk to my husband.

6 am flight. 2 little kids. Having to get up at 3, pack up, again…car seats, strollers, skis, then repeating the walk with all that shit from long term parking…all for the privilege of getting to fly Delta Airlines another time? We debated the logistics. 3 x $1200 was a LOT of money, but somewhere between being a college freshman and an adult with 2 kids, things changed. I hesitated.

“Where do you want to go that we don’t have miles and points for?” my husband asked. Answer: I couldn’t come up with one. I mean, he kind of had a point. Thanks to our little hobby, it seems like we have more miles these days than time to use them. We continued to Wyoming as planned.

Then it hit me.

$3600! That’s like 4 tickets to Japan. I like Japan. $1200. Per. Person. All because Delta can’t effectively manage their inventory. In all my years of travel I’d never seen an offer like that! And I passed?!? What the hell was I thinking? Sure, that’s great some student who took it and now gets to backpack through Europe, but, seriously?!?

I tweeted. I cussed.

yeti

Within 15 minutes of landing in Jackson Hole we saw a moose. It was just chilling in front of the airport, no big deal, with the majestic Tetons in the background. I was still in a pretty bad mood, but that’s got to be worth like $800. The game was on to see if we could make up the $2800 difference. After all, you never know what you’re going to see in Wyoming.

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Moose Chilling in Front of the Jackson Hole Airport

On the way to lunch in town we saw 3 more. $100. A couple thousand elk in the National Elk Refuge- 25 cents a piece. Getting treated to buffalo burgers at the Wort Hotel. $50. The barista at Starbucks giving me a free drink after my phone died and I couldn’t use my birthday coupon…well, you can’t put a price on human kindness, but a grande caramel flan latte costs $4.75. My day was slowly but surely starting to turn around.

But then, how do you put a price on the Grand Tetons? It was one of the prettiest days I’d even seen in Wyoming and I still couldn’t come up with a value. $360? $3,600? $36,000,000??? People actually pay that kind of money to be there and I’m guessing its no coincidence that Teton County has one of the largest concentrations of billionaires in the country.

Our digs are a little more humble; we stay with family in the small town of Dubois, about an hour and a half away. The drive home: a scenic cruise through one of America’s premier National Parks. On the way we stopped at the Lava Mountain Lodge where I saw a bear. A hang out for snowmobilers on top of Togwotee Pass, this place has prime rib on Wednesday nights and a certain authenticity you can’t buy over the hill in Jackson. Just as skiers and snowboarders have Teton Gravity Research and Warren Miller films, these folks have their own brand of “snow porn” that plays continuously on the wide screen tv above the bar.

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Bear at Lava Mountain Lodge

The next day we drove back to Jackson and I got to go skiing. Nothing looks steep anymore after skiing at Jackson Hole. I swear they mark stuff as blue on the trail map because they can’t make the whole mountain a giant black diamond. The resort is legendary. Clear skies. Warm temps. Pretty darn good snow. It was spring-like conditions, but still one of the best days I’ve had all year. Now that I have two little kids, I don’t always get to ski as much as I’d like, so I’m not sure I would have given that up for any amount. As I stood on the mountain taking in the view of the valley below, I thought about how I could just be landing at the airport. Then I saw a yeti.

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So why’d I give up $3,600 in travel vouchers? Why, Wyoming? Because I saw a moose, a bear, and a fucking yeti, all within 24 hours. That’s why!

Jackson Hole Selfie with the Infamous Corbet's Couloir Behind Me

Jackson Hole Selfie with the Infamous Corbet’s Couloir Behind Me

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Beautiful Spring Day in Jackson Hole

Making New Friends in Wyoming!

Making New Friends in Wyoming

More Stunning Jackson Hole Scenery

More Stunning Jackson Hole Scenery

The Red Heli

The Red Heli

Trip Tab:

3 x 40,000 Skymiles SMF-JAC-SMF with a free domestic stopover in SLC

2014/15 Mountain Collective Pass including 2 days at Jackson Hole: $359

Annual Fee on the Suntrust Delta Skymiles debit card: $75

Getting schooled on how to live life without any regrets: PRICELESS

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The Grand Tetons

For more spontaneous outbursts be sure to follow me, @hulagrrl210 on twitter.

Skiing at Whistler Blackcomb 2015

Hiked a mountain. Skied a glacier. Just another day at Whistler-Blackcomb, British Colombia, Canada. Right? At least that’s how my trip started. After 4 years of not so great drought conditions closer to home at Lake Tahoe, I invested in a Mountain Collective pass and for $359 (purchased at the end of last season) I combined my love of travel with skiing, going in search of better snow. First up, Ski Magazine’s #1 rated mega-resort Whistler Blackcomb, about two hours along the Sea to Sky Highway from Vancouver, Canada. The only problem- snow at Whistler is possibly worse than Tahoe this year! Still, with C-/D+ conditions, I’d still give this mountain a solid A.

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Hiking to Blackcomb Glacier

Day 1 started on Blackcomb mountain, where I met up with fellow ski enthusiast/ miles-and-points blogger, Phil (milesabound), and one of his friends. After a few warm up runs around Seventh Heaven we rode the Showcase T-bar to the top of the mountain, hiked a little bit up a small ridge and dropped into Blackcomb Glacier. That’s right, GLACIER! There are two of them at Blackcomb, both within resort boundaries. Last time I checked, that’s not something I get to do at home in Lake Tahoe. The conditions above treeline were icy, and somewhat terrifying to be honest, but it was one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever seen, and definitely worth the effort. On the way out of the glacier, at one point, we skied next to a waterfall. Two thoughts went through my head at the time: 1) Wow, It sucks that it is warm enough for water to be flowing right now, and 2) a freaking WATERFALL! Are you kidding me?!? How cool is that! If Disney did ski resorts, this would be it, except for this was 100% real. I think. I’m still not really sure. Blackcomb mountain is totally out of this world and I’m still having dreams about what it would look like covered with fresh snow.

Blackcomb Glacier

Blackcomb Glacier

At the end of the day, I took the Peak 2 Peak gondola across the valley and skied down the Whistler side to the Village. The Peak 2 Peak, where do I even begin? It connects Whistler and Blackcomb mountains and it’s one of those seeing-is-believing incredible feats of engineering. It’s the largest of its kind anywhere in the world, and subject of numerous documentaries ranging from the Discovery Channel to Modern Marvels: Mountain Tech. 1.8 miles of the 2.73 mile journey is unsupported and the 11 minute ride suspends you about 1500′ above the ground. You know, just your average commute home.

Riding the Peak2Peak from Blackcomb to Whistler

One of the massive towers of the Peak2Peak Gondola at Whistler-Blackcomb

Despite otherwise lousy conditions on the mountain, they were making snow on the Whistler side, and my end of day run down to the bottom was the closest I’ve had to fresh tracks in a while. Fake snow is better than no snow.

Day 2: The Whistler side. Again I met up with Phil and new friend Kurt, and we skied Harmony, Symphony, and such other aptly-named areas on the top of the mountain. The wide open bowls, panoramic vistas, and huge Olympic rings right when you get off the gondola at Roundhouse lodge made this place oddly reminiscent of Squaw Valley, but on a much, much bigger scale.

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Whistler was home to several 2010 Olympic events

For lunch we skied the “Peak to Creek” run down to the bottom of the mountain to grab a bite. The elevation change: 7160′ – 2140′, making this one of the longest runs in North America. It’s also the same run they used for the downhill events of the 2010 Olympics. Phil currently holds the record for clocking 52 mph on his ski tracks!

So before I mentioned how the conditions weren’t great and Peak to Creek offered up the perfect sampling of what I was talking about: ice, more ice, icy hard pack, ice on a really steep slope that kind of gives you vertigo if you dare look more than a few feet in front of you, melted/refrozen ice, more hard pack, “dust on crust”, “rice on ice”, some weird-ass heavy fake snow that I swear resembled sand, snow that had been rained on, dirt, gravel, “cookies and cream”, and finally some slush. As much as it sucked, its days like this that truly make you a better skier.

On day 2 my husband and kiddos bought a sightseeing ticket ($46.95 CAD) and rode the Whistler Gondola up the mountain and took the Peak 2 Peak gondola across to Blackcomb and back. The best part of that arrangement: kids under 7 are free. They met up with a free (with purchase of a ticket) mountain tour and got behind the scenes access to some of the cat walks in the gondola building as well of a wealth of information about the lift’s construction. Although a bit pricey (less-so thanks to the current exchange rate), this is a perfect activity for non-skiers and shouldn’t be missed!

Riding the record-breaking Peak2Peak gondola from Whistler to Blacmcomb

Riding the record-breaking Peak2Peak Gondola from Whistler to Blackcomb

One of the 24 Passenger Peak2Peak Gondola cars

One of the 24 Passenger Peak2Peak Gondola cars

At the end of Day 2 I also rode the Peak 2 Peak gondola, again, as one can not get enough of such awesomeness, and skied down the Blackcomb side to the village. It was a challenge, given the melting snow conditions combined with my sheer exhaustion after two days, but I’m glad I did. Come to think of it, everything about this trip was “glad I did”. Glad I went to Canada, glad I hiked a mountain, skied a glacier…all of that good stuff. I’m also glad I went through the trouble to get my 5 month old daughter a passport and brought my whole family with me to share the experience.

Family time in Whistler!

Family time in Whistler!

Day 3 was family day. As much as I love skiing, I take my role as a mom just a seriously and it was nice to all spend some time together. On the agenda- absolutely nothing; We cruised the village, ate some food, drank a much-needed coffee, and then turned my son loose in the playground. The ultimate aprΓ©s party scene of Whistler Village is surprisingly family friendly by day and one thing that really impressed me was that the resort had even brought out the snow guns to make some fake stuff for the kids to play in. It was a perfect-if-you’re-not-skiing, warm, sunny, spring-like day and for a minute I almost forgot we were in Canada in the middle of winter.

Playground Not Maintained in Winter

Playground “Not Winter Maintained”

Even though the snow sucked (to put it nicely), Whistler B.C. is a destination truly worthy of trip-of-a-lifetime status. The good thing is though, that thanks to our little hobby- some SPG points, a couple of Alaska Airlines companion fares, and my Barclay’s Arrival card, it doesn’t have to be just ONCE in a lifetime…and I absolutely can’t wait to go back!

Next up on the 2015 Mountain Collective tour: Squaw Valley, Jackson Hole and Alta/Snowbird, UT. For more up-to-date coverage be sure to follow me on Instagram and Twitter!

Trip Tab:

  • 3 nights at the Westin Whistler (Cat 5, high season): 48,000 Starwood points
  • Ground Transportation: Whistler Connection via Ridebooker.com: 24,700 Barclay Arrival Points (or $247) for 2 people, YVR-Whistler-Vancouver Downtown. Door to door service, kids ride free!
  • Airfare: 120,800 Barclay Arrival Points ($1208) for 4 revenue tickets on Alaska Airlines (SMF-SEA-YVR-SEA-SMF) combined with 2 BofA companion fares.
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Pair of tickets booked with a BofA/Alaska Airlines $99 companion fare. International taxes and fees aren’t cheap!

Getting to show my kids what a drunk Australian looks like: PRICELESS πŸ˜‰

 

Miles and Points Problems: The Mistake Fare

I’m sure by now you’ve heard about yesterday’s big United mistake fare. Basically what happened is a currency conversion error made it possible to book round trip first and business class tickets originating in Europe to the US for under $100. All you had to do was lie a little and change your billing address to Denmark. Slightly shady, but easy enough.

I was at Lake Tahoe (again) when I first read about this on Gary Leff’s blog. Armed only with an iPhone, I immediately pulled up the full version of United.com on the tiny screen and tried to book a ticket. Denmark had completely disappeared off the face of the planet, or at least from the airline’s drop down menu. I even tried dk.united.com and united.com/dk and while it correctly displayed the Danish flag, it kept defaulting back to USD for the currency. Since I didn’t have a real computer, there wasn’t much else I could do about it. I was minutes (maybe even seconds?) too late.

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Where’s Denmark?

This isn’t the first time I’ve missed out on a killer deal while on vacation. I was on the beach in Maui when a 2012 glitch at Singapore Airlines made it possible to book premium cabin awards using United miles. We flew to Singapore in coach.

Was I mad? At first, maybe a little, and maybe not mad…but definitely a little bummed out. $85. BusinessFirst. London to Honolulu. WTF!!! I tried not to think about it. If I had been at home in front of a real computer I would have booked 4, 5, maybe 10 tickets! It would have cost me like, what?, $350 for me to finish my quest for million miler!?! After United recently stranded me at LAX, continuing to fly with them has become somewhat less of a priority; My new mileage running strategy strategy, if one exists, is/was to wait for a really good mistake fare (like this) then book a couple of long haul, premium cabin flights and just get it over with. No more trans-con same day turns. No more crazy itineraries where something is bound to go wrong. No more regional jets. No more coach. This was EXACTLY what I’ve been waiting for.

I tried not to let it ruin my day. I went skiing.

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I Also Crossed 1,000,000 Lifetime Vertical Feet Yesterday

I really can’t be that upset. Here I was, in one of the most beautiful places in the world, enjoying yet another almost-FREE vacation with my family. If I really want to go to London (or even Honolulu), I have more than enough miles, points, and cash back in several accounts to get me there. Clearly, life is good. Then I began to wonder how many other of my fellow peeps missed out yesterday because they were stuck flying on a plane somewhere, in premium cabin no doubt, feasting on caviar while sipping champagne that costs way more than the price they paid for their ticket. For those of us who travel hack, deals like this are a way of life and chances are we’re bound to miss out on a few because we’re “busy” on vacation. When the trip-of-a-lifetime becomes a once-a-month thing, s*** like this happens.

Feeling slightly defeated realizing I’d lost this round, I began gathering my gear from around my free room at Harrah’s to get ready for third day in a row of skiing at Heavenly. The view out the window: a foot and a half of fresh snow covering my favorite mountain. A classic rock soundtrack played in the background on the tv’s Keno channel…

“You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes well you might find
You get what you need”

–The Rolling Stones

#truestory

update: United has since decided to cancel everyone’s tickets.

Heavenly and Vail Season Pass Holders Stay Free at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Lake Tahoe

Get 2 Free Nights at the Hard Rock Lake Tahoe

So this just showed up in my inbox πŸ™‚

The brand new Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Lake Tahoe just opened this week and they’re celebrating by offering a FREE two night stay for Heavenly (and Vail) season pass holders! The property itself is re-branding of the former Horizon and I personally think Hard Rock is a perfect fit for this sometimes-overlooked, fun, yet casual party destination. Having actually stayed at the Horizon before, I’m curious to see what they did with the place and can’t wait to check it out (for FREE) later this spring! We’re usually regulars down the street at Harrah’s, but after I received this great offer, I immediately called and booked myself a room. The process was quick and easy. If you’re looking to do the same, here’s what you need to know:

The Details:

  • According to the email I received (from Heavenly), the offer valid for “Heavenly pass” holders. Seeing as how the Heavenly pass hasn’t existed, at least by name, for several years, I assume this means any of Vail’s Epic Passes with access to the resort (Epic, Epic Local, Tahoe Local, Tahoe Value). I currently have a Tahoe Local Pass and had no issues booking. If you have any of Vail’s other passes and are interested, I’d definitely still give them a call.
  • Valid Sunday-Friday, Feb 23- Apr 30
  • Call 844-588-ROCK to redeem
  • promo code: heavena
  • They did ask for my pass number over the phone and I will need to present it again along with ID when I check in. If you don’t have your physical pass handy when you call you can always log in to your snow.com account to find the number! (I actually booked my free room from Hawaii)
  • You can also get $10 in slot play and a $10 dining credit for joining their players club
  • Must book by Jan 31st!

If you’re an Epic pass holder looking to check out Tahoe (for free) later this season, what are you waiting for?Β  This seems like a can’t miss great deal! If you’re not a season pass holder, the Hard Rock still has some interesting stay-and-ski deals listed on their website. Even though this hasn’t been the best year for snow, keep in mind some of our biggest storms can come in March and early April.

Trip Report coming soon…stay tuned.

Pray for snow!

Mommy Needs a Vacation: Lake Tahoe Edition

One of the best parts of living where we do in Northern California is that Lake Tahoe is only about 2 hours away. So where do we go when we need a quick escape from reality…you guessed it!

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View From The Top of Heavenly Lake Tahoe

In the summer we go for the beautiful beaches, and in the winter I mostly go to ski. Although this hasn’t been the best winter on record (make that 4 years in a row now!), the views from Heavenly mountain definitely don’t suck and a bad day skiing is, well, still so much better than anything else!

The Nevada Side

The Nevada Side

During my most recent visit a few weeks ago I dragged my little family along for a quick overnight trip. We stayed at Harrah’s, per the usual, and even though our gambling comps and high roller suites are a distant memory from the days before kids, we still managed to score an almost free room thanks to our (…don’t laugh) Total Rewards Visa credit card (Comenity Bank). Because of our automatic Platinum status, we often get targeted for discount room rates, in this case, $59 (Harvey’s across the street was $29). We then traded in our points at check-out to pay for the stay including any on-property dining billed to the room. The card gets 2x at grocery stores, so if you do that math, that works out to about a 50% discount if you’re willing to do a little manufactured spending at Safeway ($5.95 for $500 VGC) and now that we’ve transitioned to Target “Redbird” we even get some of our points for free!

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Our Always Comfortable Luxury King Room at Harrah’s

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The View from our Room Didn’t Suck Either

My husband doesn’t ski, which means I have a babysitter when it’s time to hit the slopes. People always ask me if I get lonely skiing by myself, and the answer is no, not really (although I don’t mind skiing with friends if you care to join me!). When I’m by myself I get to explore the mountain at whatever pace I want, and I usually make new friends on just about every chairlift. Each ride to the top is kind of like speed dating for a new BFF. You already have one very important thing in common- you’re on the mountain. During this last trip I met so many cool people:Β  the typical semi-retired Heavenly pass holder who skis more than they work, visitors from all over the world, THE guy who actually makes those awesome ski trail maps for a living, and a fellow travel junkie with a Mountain Collective pass who plans on hitting up Whistler, Jackson Hole, Mammoth and a few other resorts we have on the list too! …and EVERYONE still talks about the 2010-2011 season.

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A Double Stroller is a Great Way to Get Gear to the Gondola!

South Lake Tahoe is the perfect mix of Vegas-meets-mountains, but our crazy partying ways have long since been given up in favor of in-bed-before-9. Booze-fueled all-nighters at the craps table have since been replaced by watching the “numbers channel” (keno) up in our room while our toddler son practices his counting. Now If I’m up at 2am, it’s to take care of a 4 month old baby girl. After years of drought, fresh tracks and epic powder days are dearly missed; this trip yielded two mediocre days of skiing in less-than-ideal hard pack man-made snow conditions, but I wouldn’t have traded any of it for the world! The demands of now-full-time-stay-at-home mommyhood are no joke, so having those few precious hours spent doing something I love, eating a few meals that I didn’t have to cook, and sleeping in a bed I didn’t make, was exactly what I needed to re-energize before returning to my “normal” life back at home. Amazing how a little mountain therapy, fresh air, sunshine, and a couple turns on the snow = a now happier, healthier, and perhaps slightly saner wife and mom! Tahoe is always a good idea. Now the only question is, when do I get to go back?

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You can check out all my stats at EpicMix.com

Goodbye 2014, Hello 2015!

I can’t believe it is 2015! The end of the year kind of snuck up on me and I completely missed my planned year-in-review post. Anyway, between caring for two (!) young kids, cleaning up around the house, paying my manufactured spending bills and watching bowl games today, I thought it would be fitting to pay a quick tribute to 2014:

Our Newest Little Traveler

Our Newest Little Traveler

Our newest little traveler, Baby K, joined us in September. Despite spending much of the year pregnant, I still managed to rack up some vertical feet on the ski slopes and fly for over 69,000 miles (ok, that’s not much compared to almost 150k in 2013!). I finally crossed 1 million miles on my flight memory (all airlines, including award tickets), although I am still chasing that lifetime status with United. We visited Japan and mainland China for the first time, then spent a lot of time as a family on the beach around more familiar places like Lake Tahoe and Maui.

Miles Flown: 69,065

Countries Visited: Japan, India, China, Mexico

Airlines Flown: United, Alaska, US Airways, ANA, Asiana, Air China

Elite Status: Premier Silver on United (barely), Alaska Airlines MVP, Turkish Airlines Miles & Smiles Gold

Highlights:

Powder Day at Heavenly Lake Tahoe

Powder Day at Heavenly Lake Tahoe

Mori Tower, Tokyo

Mori Tower, Tokyo

Forbidden City, Beijing

Forbidden City, Beijing

DL Bliss State Park, Lake Tahoe

DL Bliss State Park

Maui no ka oi

Maui no ka oi

Looking forward to 2015:

  • Maui in January
  • Whistler and Vancouver, BC in February (#skido2015)
  • Skiing in Jackson Hole and Utah in March (I finally redeemed a Delta award ticket!)
  • Father-daughter trip with my dad to the Kennedy Space Center in May (postponed from last year)
  • Surf, ski, and standup paddle as much as I can!
  • More family beach days
  • Oktoberfest
  • United Million Miler?

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Happy New Year, thanks for reading and safe travels!

Plane Spotting: Spirit of the Islands with Pualani at OGG

As 2014 comes to an end I wanted to celebrate by sharing a picture I took earlier this month during Baby K’s first trip to Maui. We were waiting to catch our flight home to Sacramento when one of my favorite planes, Alaska Airlines’ Spirit of the Islands, rolled up to the gate next to us. Just a few minutes after that, a Hawaiian Airlines A330 with the beautiful “Pualani” on the tail, landed right behind it. iPhone handy, I snapped a picture. Two of my favorite Hawaiian-themed liveries together at one of my favorite airports (OGG)- it doesn’t get much better than that!

Alaska's Spirit of the Islands with Hawaiian Airlines Pualani in the background at OGG

Alaska’s Spirit of the Islands with Hawaiian Airlines Pualani in the background at OGG

Same photo as above with a fun filter applied to it

Same photo as above with a fun filter applied to it

Aloha and Hau’oli Makahiki Hou! (Happy New Year!)

Some other Mai Tais’ Plane Spotting posts you might enjoy: