I’m a big fan of TPG. His blog is what got me into the points game. I’ve actually been reading and interacting on his blog for years. So, a couple weeks ago when I heard they were throwing a St. Paddy’s day party in DC, I thought I’d try to snag an invite. I half jokingly sent them a message, and then really forgot about it. Then, about a week later I received the following:
Hey Aaron- Congratulations! You’ve been selected to attend the TPG Pot of Points Happy Hour in Washington D.C. to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day!
Kind of made it seem like I won some contest, but who am I to question semantics.
Getting a Ride to DC
As the event was less than a week away, fares from PHX to the DC area were already quite expensive. The lowest cash price that would get me to the East Coast at any hour that still had some daylight was $563. However, as is usually the case, United had some Economy Saver awards available for their daily nonstop into IAD. For only 12,500 plus $80.60 in taxes/fees I was able to grab a ride out. This represents a very good redemption of $0.0386/mile. My most recent reckoning values United miles at only $0.0179/mile, so I was able to redeem for 215.6% of the ACRV.
Worth noting, is that these saver awards were not publicly available. As a United Mileageplus Explorer card holder, you’re generally provided with greater award availability. It’s one of the less-known card benefits. It’s really the only reason I’m considering keeping it past the first free year. Priority boarding and free checked bags are nice, but for an airline I rarely fly, those alone are not worth $95.
I haven’t flown United in years. No particular reason, other than being a Phoenix based traveler, American and Southwest typically have better nonstop options. I can say this, from my distant memory of my last flight, which, if I remember correctly was from PHX to BOI via SFO, wasn’t anything to write home about. I distinctly remember a particularly nasty flight attendant and getting to my destination late.
This flight however, was a significant step up. Being a relatively close-in booking on a busy route, seats were limited to the garbage variety. We’re talking nothing but back-of-the-bus middles. However, here’s a little #protip. Most airlines release a few more seats in the days immediately prior to departure. So, about 48 hours before we were scheduled to leave, I took another look. Sure enough, I timed it just right and there was now a decent selection of aisles/windows. I always prefer a view, and have decent bladder control, so I grabbed 14F.
I actually had to download the United app to grab my mobile boarding pass. Yes, it’s been that long since I’ve flown them. Once that was installed, and I was signed into my Mileageplus account, check-in was a breeze. For some reason, I had this idea in my head that because I haven’t flown with them in years, I they would somehow fail to recognize my KTN. To my relief, there were no problems here, and my Precheck status was faithfully showing.
Now, I feel bad for United travelers transiting PHX. They’re stuck using Terminal 2. A bare-bones relic that I’m surprised still exists. I’ve often wondered what people think of Skyharbor if that’s the only terminal they ever see. To my relief, there were no delays getting to the gate. This is always something I worry about when traveling through legacy aviation infrastructure.
I had priority boarding, also thanks to holding the Mileageplus card. So I quickly got on board and had a few minutes to grab some premium bin space and get organized. One thing I noticed/like, was that up until this point, I literally have had zero contact with any United employees. Booked online, got a mobile boarding pass, didn’t check any bags and scanned my own boarding pass at the gate while the agent was chatting with somebody. Very nice, as “customer service” often just gets in the way. It was like I ordered a flight from Amazon. I wish all flights commenced this smoothly.
The aircraft itself was a nearly new 737-900 with Boeing’s very nice “Sky” interior. This newer interior design really does make a smaller plan feel less cramped. Here is one “first-world problem” with priority boarding. It gives you false hope that you’ll have a open middle seat next to you. Think about it this way, if you’re sitting up front, and board first, you’ll be sitting alone for a while until the rest of the passengers are boarded from the rear. Needless to say, after getting my hopes up, they were dashed at the last minute when two husky gentlemen took their seats.
For the most part, unless ridiculously overpriced(Delta), I typically buy internet access on any flight over a couple hours. I find it a great opportunity to get some distraction-free work done. United fairly priced full-flight WiFi at $9.99 or 1540 miles.
Of course, buying internet access using miles is tempting, as to many people it would appear “free”. Don’t make this rookie mistake. At this price, it would represent a redemption value of $0.00649/mile. Just awful. I personally don’t ever redeem for less than $.03. So seeing less than 1 cent in value per mile made the decision to use cash a no-brainer.
Wifi was decently quick for an aircraft. I was seeing speeds of 15-19Mbps, though latency and upload speeds were abysmal. This was quick enough to stream Pandora as well as carry on a couple Facebook messenger sessions while simultaneously writing this article. Guess you can’t expect much more than that at 35,000 feet. On second though, I am looking forward to the day Wifi is free and able to stream HD.
Onboard service was quick and courteous, even in cattle class. Contrary to United’s reputation, the FA’s were actually friendly. I almost didn’t know what to make of it. Was I on Southwest or Jetblue metal? Nope, just checked, this is definitely United. Borderline surreal.
Finding a Place to Stay
I rarely accumulate hotels miles. Furthermore, I’m not loyal to any hotel chain. I just find that(Starpoints aside) you’ll find better redemption values using various air miles, or better yet, transferable points. That said, I did take a few minutes to check out award availability at IHG, Hyatt and Marriott, all of which are Ultimate Rewards transfer partners.
Marriott, always a disappointment, was pricing the Renaissance DC at 70,000 points/stay or $684. Giving me a potential redemption of $0.00977. No thanks, I’ll keep my UR’s at that rate. IHG wasn’t much better. The cash price for 2 nights at the Intercontinental DC was $752, or 120,000 points! That’s a redemption value of $0.00627. Can you believe that?! Who in their right mind would transfer an Ultimate Reward point that could theoretically be used to book international premium cabin travel for upwards of $.05/point.
Hyatt, on the other hand did have some decent options. The Grand Hyatt DC was pricing at $966 for two nights, or only 15,000 points per night. That works out to a totally respectable $0.0322 per point. That is a redemption I would be happy with…if it were the whole story…
You see, as I mentioned before, I’m not at all loyal to any hotel chain. None have ever wowed me so much that I’v never looked back. Conversely, I’ve never had such a bad experience that I’ve said “never again”. With that said, I find sites like Hotwire and HotelTonight particularly compelling options. I’ve yet to be disappointed by Hotwire, and for this trip I was going to give them another go.
For some reason, DC was really expensive this St. Paddy’s day weekend. Most decent Metro area hotels were advertising rates in the $4-500/night range. However, Hotwire had a very interesting property, an unknown 4-star hotel in Georgetown for $140/night. I took the bait and booked. If you’re able to pick a neighborhood and star level, how bad could it be? To my relief/satisfaction, I had booked the Westin Georgetown via my gamble. Considering this property was being advertised at ~$400 night, this was a fantastic booking.
As is always the case with travel purchases, I paid for the hotel using my Chase Sapphire Reserve card. With 3 points per dollar earned, I ended up with 1149 UR’s. This could easily be redeemed for $30-$50 in the future.
TPG held his event at Shenanigans Irish Pub. A great little spot in the heart of the Adam’s Morgan neighborhood in DC. Despite my best planning, I still managed to arrive late. To my relief, it appears everyone else was caught off-guard by the traffic and by 7:00PM things were just getting going.
I’m not typically the type to go out alone. I find it awkward and borderline depressing. Though I truly admire the Type A’s that can pull it off. However, being this was an event likely to be attended by like-minded individuals, I was less hesitant.
Thankfully, to help break the ice, TPG provided an entirely open bar. If there’s one thing better than 3x points on dining, it’s not paying for drinks at all. After a solo beverage at the bar, I met a couple DC area lawyers who were also P&M players. One beer and a couple shots later, and the whole crowd felt like old friends. In a sense they were, considering I’ve “virtually” interacted with many of the attending patrons. At least that’s how it felt at the time. After chatting with a good number of attendees and meeting Brian himself, the event was over. After TPG gave out 230,000 United miles, and people had drank their fill, the bar cleared quickly. As things were shutting down, I was told by a waitress that the place to be was across the street. As I had nothing else going on, that’s where I headed.
The rest of the night, well that’s for another post. However, I will tell you this. At the new venue, someone stole my camera. A brand new Canon G5 X that I had bought just for travel and vlogging. Especially frustrating because it contained all the event pics! However, this camera theft led to a very valuable lesson. The Chase Sapphire Preferred has excellent purchase protection…