Thursday, February 28, 2008
A Blast from the LatinPass Past
Ric and tour guide, Cuzco, Peru, May 2000
Presidents Week Vacation - February 2000
I was anxious and suffering a vacation hangover upon my return from Holland at the end of my two week trip for flying on five member airlines of the Oneworld Alliance for a 100,000 frequent flyer miles bonus. Travel euphoria withdrawal was a shock to my mind. The Christmas holidays 1999 were designed to celebrate my 40th birthday and the days had been a whirlwind tour of Europe. I dubbed it our “industrial tour” because the routing took us from London to Manchester on British Airways, Manchester to Amsterdam on Cathay Pacific, and Amsterdam to Barcelona on Christmas Day and back to Amsterdam on December 26 for another 3 nights in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Rotterdam blew our minds as the most cosmopolitan city we had ever visited. Rotterdam is a mix of world cultures.
The remedy for a vacation hangover is to start planning the next trip. I desired another adventure to energize my soul with the buzz of planning travel.
Fortunately, I had a quick recovery for my vacation hangover on January 7, 2000. I learned about the possibility for a one million mile bonus by flying with a group of Latin American airlines. It took a few days to ascertain the authenticity of the offer. And another week passed before the details were published on the Latinpass website.
I then worked through three weeks of intensive travel planning.
I planned an itinerary for the 500,000 mile bonus with six flights through Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Venezuela, and either Puerto Rico, Aruba, or Curacao. Using free award tickets from California to Central America or South America would drop the cost of airfare to under $2,000 and the miles earned would be sufficient for six Business Class tickets with KLM Airlines, a LatinPass affiliate airline, from San Francisco to Europe.
There were some reservations in planning the LatinPass tour, and I am using reservations in the hesitation sense.
1. Guatemala having a major volcanic eruption
2. Caracas having devastating floods
3. Terrorist kidnap danger in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru
I have mapped out a dozen routings for flights. The route changes all the time. The key to this trip for me is getting several free award nights at Starwood and Hilton hotels. I actually planned on using Starwood points for hotel stays on this trip and needing the points I developed a scheme for the first two weeks of February to accumulate Starwood points. Starwood Preferred Guest became a partner in the internet company ClickRewards and for the months of February and March, ClickReward miles are worth 2 Starpoints. In addition to that bonus FTD had a Valentine’s Day special offer for double points. I was able to earn 16,000 Starpoints by purchasing $550 in gift certificates for several shops where we regularly shop anyway. I bought $110 in Barnes and Noble gift certificates and while in Denver I purchased Let’s Go Central America 2000.
My first ticket purchase for the LatinPass promotion was a KLM roundtrip from London to Amsterdam for the Easter week vacation. I booked The Pulitzer Hotel for 7,000 Starpoints. The cheapest cash rate for the week was $350 per night. I also redeemed 45,000 HHonors points for two nights at the Amsterdam Hilton.
My initial LatinPass itinerary planning required two trips and were designed via these routings:
First LatinPass Trip: 12 flights and 7 nights
San Francisco – Guatemala City (American Airlines award ticket 30,000 miles) (SFO-GUA)
Guatemala City – San Salvador, El Salvador (GUA-SAL) – Aviateca Airlines $100 one-way
San Salvador, El Salvador – Managua, Nicaragua (SAL-MGA) – Taca Airlines $175 one-way
Managua – Miami, Florida (MGA-MIA) – Nica Airlines $500 one-way
Miami, Florida – Caracas, Venezuela (MIA-CCS) – Aeropostal $250 one-way
Caracas, Venezuela – Bogota, Colombia (CCS-BOG) – Avianca $250 one-way
Bogota, Colombia – San Juan, Puerto Rico (BOG-SJU) – ACES $450 one-way
San Juan, Puerto Rico – San Jose, Costa Rica (SJU-SJO) – Lacsa $300 one-way
San Jose, Costa Rica – Guatemala City, Guatemala (SJO-GUA) – Copa $250 one-way
Second LatinPass Trip: 6 flights and 4 nights
San Francisco – Quito, Ecuador (American Airlines award ticket – 60,000 miles Business Class)
Quito, Ecuador – Lima (UIO-LIM) – SAETA $330 round-trip
Lima, Peru – Cuzco, Peru (LIM-CUZ) – Taca Peru $170 round-trip
This LatinPass scheme kept me up all night thinking and I decided to ask for a week off work and fly the six airlines. Then I kept thinking how easy it would be to get 8 airlines in one trip as I showed above. And then I figured why not just go for one million miles since it only costs about $1,000 to $1,200 more.
First Day of LatinPass Run March 31, 2000
I completely rerouted my trip from the February planning. I waited until this morning to pack a suitcase and at the last minute I threw in my Sharper Image mini-luggage cart. I didn’t pack much: socks, underwear, 4 shirts, jeans, and Teva sandals. I didn’t bring a raincoat. I figure I won’t be outside much. I actually had jeans in the car and at the last minute before leaving the airport I went out to get them.
I am flying in seat 5A, the first row of Business Class. It has been a few years since I’ve flown this class and the comfort level is really incredible. I had to read the card on the seat control functions to learn the features of all these buttons. There are 7 knobs for adjustment and the seat goes damn near horizontal. I have the leg rest up and the head rest out and it more comfortable than any place I sit at home. I have my own video monitor with a choice of five movies and several audio channels. The flight has been incredibly smooth so far.
The plane is over Nevada and the Becks beer has arrived. The movie hasn’t yet started and I fell like I am in a near full-service bed, trapped between a video monitor straight up in front of me, a tray table horizontally across my lap and a headphones cord draped diagonally across my chest. It is good I do not feel the need to go anywhere quickly. I am on a 767 to Miami that continues on to Buenos Aires. San Francisco was gorgeous today and forecasted to be 75 to 80 degrees.
So what else did I pack? I brought a flashlight, a tape recorder, an alarm clock, a camera and 7 rolls of film.
The coolest feature is being able to listen to music while watching a flight map of the current plane position. The sun is just about setting over Duncan, Oklahoma. This is so cool.
I ate a bland Hindu rice and veggie meal and drank a couple of glasses of cabernet for dinner. We are traveling at 626 mph at 37,000 feet altitude. The outside temperature is -73 F. There is a 120 mph tailwind.
I drank a couple of more Becks and grooved on New Age music and tripped on the lights of Florida. This was quite a ride. Passed over Tampa Bay as I listened to Celtic tunes with a tartan blanket across my legs to cover my bare knees against the cabin cold. I can’t wait for the harsh reality of Miami 80 degrees F at 10 pm at night. The flight attendant just offered me another Becks with only 15 minutes of flight time left. I love Business Class. I declined the beer. This buzz is just right and Miami is below. This is fun.
Avianca Airlines flight #9 on-time departure from Miami to Bogota, Colombia. The safety instructions for the flight are running in Spanish with German subtitles. Guess I will wait and see if American comes up. This flight is a 767-300 and only about 25% full in economy. I am in the back section of the plane and look to be the only person seated next to someone on the entire aircraft. The woman beside me is Spanish speaking, but holds an American passport. I moved two rows back to the empty three seats in the middle section of the plane. The safety messages are now playing in English with French subtitles as the aircraft taxis down the runway.
Flying over the Caribbean Sea and the water below is a shade of light blue, so different from the dark Pacific Ocean of the California coast. The colors are hypnotizing. Looking down on the wisps of clouds sitting above the light blue water gives the illusion of gazing up into the bright sky. The imagery is beautiful.
The white edges of sea breaking on the shoreline of Cuba breaks the hypnotic azure spell. The green agricultural landscape of Cuba comes into view.
The drink cart coming down the aisle refocuses my attention. There are 2-liter bottles of Coke and Diet Coke, and 1-liter bottles of scotch and vodka. I receive a can of Club Colombia, Bavaria Brewery, 4% Colombian beer. The two women flight attendants do not appear to be even 20 years old. Several men are also working the aisles. This flight has a large crew to service a small passenger load.
The island of Jamaica appears much browner and extensively developed compared to the interior green cultivated farmlands of rural Cuba. Jamaica passed by quickly as we skirted the western end of the island over Negril. The sea once again is reflecting the white clouds and mirrors the sky.
The snacks on the plane were something different to eat. Coctel, a Colombian product – crunchy chick peas and faba beans – kind of like Corn Nuts. I also received Achiras, original Colombian biscuits made expressly for Avianca. They are made from cottage cheese and achira starch to make a biscuit. They are quite tasty and different. I can’t think of another food they taste like. It is a kind of mini-bread stick with a cheesy flavor, sort of Cheetos-like, but definitely different.
The subtle differences of travel. Despite the hassle of a language barrier there are entertaining, ordinary changes like the kinds of snack foods served on a Colombian airline compared to United Airlines. The little alterations make all the difference in the travel experience.
We have just crossed the Colombian coastline and the rivers, brown with sediment and silt, flow into the Caribbean. There are no coastal cities below us and we cross over to land. I picked up a Colombian paper on the plane and the Bogota section had an article about deaths and 59% of people who die of unnatural causes are murder victims. Traffic accidents account for 21%, suicide 8%, 9% by accidents, and 2% undetermined causes.
Tomorrow, April 2, 2000, is some kind of Colombia Peace Day ribbon campaign, being promoted by a newspaper half-page ad.
The sky was too hazy to see the ground once we crossed over Colombia. Flying into Bogota the skies cleared and the beautiful countryside appeared below. We passed over farmhouses and country estates. An upscale country club golf course was on the outskirts of the city. The few cars on the streets below appeared to be moving slow. Most people on the roads were traveling on bicycles. Bogota Airport is situated in a beautiful valley about ten miles from the downtown urban sprawl. The region looks to be about 20 flat square miles surrounded by mountains.
[Feb 2008 note: This is interesting to see my enthusiasm for air travel back in 2000. Back in the days when travel was solely for fun. I ended up with 1,014,000 LatinPass miles. The miles allowed me to live about 4 months in the Hilton Hotels after transferring most of the airline miles to Hilton HHonors over the course of several years.]