Trip Debrief: Thoughts on Portland, Las Vegas & Points Between

Trip Debrief: Thoughts on Portland, Las Vegas & Points Between
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I’m just back from a week of travel, first to Portland for Pioneer Nation and then to Las Vegas for a few days before heading back to Jacksonville. I thought I’d take a post to talk about some of the fun stuff from my trip, and hopefully share a few tips worth remembering!

JAX-DEN-PDX & LAS-JAX on Southwest

I booked each of my Southwest flights using Rapid Rewards points transferred over from Ultimate Rewards. I love that Ultimate Rewards transfers take place instantly, so it was easy to move over the necessary points for each flight and book them as soon as I found a good fare.

My New Favorite Seat

Southwest might only have a single class of seating, but one seat in particular stands out as a winner: 11B might be the best seat on the plane, at least if you don’t care much about seat recline. This is one of two rows placed right near the wing emergency exit. The front of these two rows consists only of an aisle and middle seat; there is no window seat on this row, as it would impede access to the exit in case of an emergency.

On my flight out to Portland, and on my flight home from Las Vegas, this seat was available. For some reason, it was passed by by dozens of passengers who were somehow turned off by this odd seating arrangement. I like it very much because it gave me plenty of extra room to the left side, and access to a second tray table. That meant I could get a great amount of work done on my 15″ MacBook Pro but still have a place to put a beverage and snacks.

The space underneath the window seat in front of this 2-seat row really belongs to whoever is sitting in the window seat behind; that is, 13A should be able to put their bag under 11A. This person has an extraordinary amount of leg room, since there’s no seat in front of them. However, access to the tray table is very difficult since it’s truly two rows ahead. For some, the extra legroom might be the premium, but I very much prefer the extra arm room, providing more area to work and spread out during a long flight. On the way out, I was even able to put my backpack under 11A and stretch out, enjoying the best of both worlds.

Stops With Southwest

I’ve flown Southwest countless times in the past, but somehow have only ever been a passenger on direct flights or those requiring a connection. As such, I’ve missed out on an important quirk of Southwest’s routing philosophy: Rather than flying on a hub-and-spoke basis the way many airlines do, Southwest flights tend to hop from city to city along a route not unlike one would find with a train or bus. That means stops along the way for many routes, where passengers simply remain onboard. As it turns out, the flight from Jacksonville to Denver on Southwest continues on to Portland, so I was in for a short stop along the way.

After all passengers completing their journey in Denver or connecting to another flight had deplaned, the flight attendants took a quick headcount of the half-dozen or so of us left on the plane. Then, they offered to let us debark briefly, for which I was grateful. I was prepared to remain on the plane for the entire itinerary, but took the opportunity to grab a piece of pizza and dash back to the plane.

On the way off, I simply had to show my ID to the gate agent. On the way back, I didn’t wait in line with new passengers to re-board; I was waved back on by the gate agent right away. I was able to leave my backpack on board in order to hold onto my new favorite seat.

Gate Checking My Bag

In order to get in a good (half) day of work before my 2:30PM departure from Las Vegas, I arrived at around 9AM at the airport intent on being productive from the Centurion Lounge. I’ll reiterate why I love the Centurion Lounge so much shortly, but first must note a minor hiccup in my flight home. It turns out – at least in Las Vegas – Southwest only allows bags to be checked four hours or less prior to departure. As I arrived a bit more than 5 hours prior, they wouldn’t let me check my bag.

Thankfully, it was carry-on-sized, anyway, so I simply headed on through TSA Pre-Check with it. However, I really didn’t want to fight to get it into one of the overhead bins, as I was near the tail end of B group to board and didn’t mind simply picking up the bag at the carousel in Jacksonville. I asked the gate agent if I could gate check the bag. A few seconds later, I had a new sticker and transfer tag affixed to my bag, and was instructed to simply leave it at the end of the jetway before boarding.

There wasn’t an attendant at the end of the jetway, so I was a bit nervous to simply leave it sitting there, but sure enough, someone grabbed it and stashed it into the belly of the plane before takeoff. I didn’t feel guilty about sticking my backpack into the overhead bin since I wasn’t lugging along an extra bag!

Thoughts On Portland

Pioneer Nation was a blast, and well worth its own post. Maybe I’ll revisit it after I’ve had some more time to digest those few days. It was certainly valuable in planning for something very cool I’ll be telling you all about soon.

If you find yourself in Portland, make sure to add two stops to your itinerary:

Ground Kontrol

Ground Kontrol is the arcade. In an era where old coin-op games are harder and harder to find and pinball machines are all but extinct, Ground Kontrol is one of the last bastions of gaming’s first golden age.

The first floor is populated with games ranging from the dawn of gaming, including Pac-Man and Asteroids, to brand new titles like Mario Kart GP 2 Arcade. There’s also a bar and snack area, with a large projector showcasing games being played on a PC rig.

Upstairs is a veritable museum of pinball’s greatest hits, ranging from the Addams Family and Twilight Zone to South Park and Star Wars: Episode One. A few more arcade games are interspersed here, as well.

If you care about gaming at all, you’d be remiss to skip Ground Kontrol on any visit to Portland.

Voodoo Doughnuts

If you’ve been to Portland or spoken to anyone familiar with the city, you already know about this landmark. Voodoo Doughnuts sells a ridiculous array of confections liable to have you in a sugar coma before you finish a few bites.

Here’s a look at their menu:

I ordered the Captain My Captain, which is a glazed doughnut crowned with marshmallow topping and Crunch Berries. It ranks among the best-worst things I’ve eaten.

As good as this doughnut tasted – and as bad for me as it was – I think the apple fritter I got was even better. No matter your choice, start your day in Portland off with an obscene amount of sugar at Voodoo, but warning: they’re a cash only joint, so don’t expect to earn any points here!

PDX-SFO-LAS on Virgin America

By the time I left Portland, my carry-on bag was bulging thanks to poor refolding of clothes and the addition of a few souvenirs. I didn’t feel like dealing with it but also didn’t want to part with $25 or $30 to check it when I was indeed within the carry-on limits (or close enough). During check-in, my eye was caught by the option to upgrade, and I quickly decided this was the best option.

Virgin America allows passengers to purchase upgrades prior to departure, even if they’re flying on award tickets.[/quote_right]Virgin America allows flights to be upgraded 24 hours prior to departure to Main Cabin Select and 4 hours prior to First Class. The cost for these upgrades depends on the length of the flight, and is levied on a segment-by-segment basis. Upgrades, when available, can be purchased by passengers on award tickets. Since I’d booked mine using some old Elevate points and a couple thousand transferred Membership Rewards points, that made bumping up an already free flight quite appealing.

In my case, since I was flying from Portland through San Francisco on to Las Vegas, I’d need to pay for two upgrades if I wanted Main Cabin Select or First Class for the entire trip. Each are among the shortest routes flown by Virgin America, so upgrades to Main Cabin Select could be had for just $39 and to First Class for $79.

Given the small marginal difference between checking a bag and upgrading to Main Cabin Select – which includes one checked bag – I decided to check out the other perks an extra couple bucks would get me. Since I already have TSA Pre-Check, the expedited security line access wasn’t of particular draw, but being able to drop my bag off at the First Class counter was a nice perk, as was the priority boarding.

In addition to these minor niceties, Main Cabin Select passengers also enjoy complimentary premium beverages, food items and movies on the signature seat-back RED entertainment system found across the Virgin America fleet.

Upgrading to First Class was tempting, as seats in Virgin America’s First Class are phenomenally comfortable, but the short length of the flight meant meal options – another major draw of First Class – would almost certainly be limited. Knowing I was on my way to lose money in Vegas already, I decided Main Cabin Select was a good enough upgrade for me.

I only upgraded the flight form Portland to San Francisco, as the seating chart showed wide availability in First Class and Main Cabin Select. I was hopeful taking 3A, since 3C was already occupied, would keep anyone from picking up the middle seat between us. Just because I only upgraded Portland to San Francisco, of course, didn’t affect the checked bag perk; my bag was free all the way to Las Vegas despite riding in a standard Main Cabin seat for the second segment of my journey.

Main Cabin Select seats are located in Row 3, by the First Class bulkhead, and Row 10, in the Exit Row. I chose Row 3. Both rows come with reserved overhead storage unavailable to other passengers. That’s a necessity in Row 3, since there’s no seat under which a bag can be placed, due to the partition separating the Main Cabin from First Class.

After a several hour delay due to fog in San Francisco, we finally boarded. There were only one or two First Class passengers, so I was one of the first five people on the plane. Happily, the entertainment system was ready to go at the gate, and wasn’t inactive until after takeoff. That meant I was able to start a movie right away and see a good 20 minutes or more before the last passengers had boarded.

A wide variety of recent-run films were available, including Wolf of Wall Street, Gravity, Catching Fire and much more. I chose Thor: The Dark World, which matched up nicely with the length of the flight. Happily, by the time the plane door closed, it was clear I’d gambled well on the seat; no middle passenger showed up. Between the extra leg room and

After takeoff, beverage and food orders opened up. The First Class attendant was kind enough to see to our needs in Row 3, as well, since there were only a couple passengers in the first two rows of the plane. I ordered an Anchor Steam and had it in hand in just a few seconds. He offered a second without me having to ask a bit later on, which I gladly accepted.

Later on, I ordered their Protein Meal and a can of Pringles. The meal was filled with yummy snacks – spreadable cheese, crackers, salami, fruit snacks and pretzels – and the Pringles were served in a can about half the standard size, larger than the snack size I expected.

I took note of the pricing on these snacks during my flight from San Francisco to Las Vegas. Turns out the Anchor Steams would have set me back $7 each, as would have the Protein Meal. The Pringles were listed at $3.25. That meant I got about $25 worth of food out of the upgrade on top of the free checked bag and other niceties. Given my good fortune in having an open middle seat and the special attention of the First Class attendant, I thought the upgrade was very well worth it, and the flight ranked among the better in recent memory.

Admiral’s Club – SFO

I didn’t have long to explore the Admiral’s Club in San Francisco, as my connecting flight wasn’t nearly as delayed as my first, but I made a point to pop my head in the door and see how it compared to the Sky Clubs I visited recently in Atlanta. With my new Citi AAdvantage Executive card, I’m granted complimentary access to all of American’s Admiral’s Clubs, something I’m already enjoying quite a bit.

This is one of American’s newer lounges, and it shows. The lounge was quite sizable, with some nice greenery in the middle separating the lounging area from a large bar counter and set of high-top tables. Behind the greenery was a small business center, with a couple computers, printers and a copier.

The bar included a deli case with sandwiches and some desserts, unfortunately not offered for free but available for a lower price than something similar at an airport restaurant might be.

Over in the lounging area, a series of reclining chairs were lined against the back wall. I enjoyed getting to stretch out for a few minutes and make a few quick phone calls before heading on for my flight to Las Vegas.

Staying At Hard Rock

This was my first time staying off the Strip when in Las Vegas. I took advantage of the $35 sign-up bonus offered by TravelPony, as well as a limited time $50 coupon, in order to book a room at the Hard Rock. I paid for my with my Barclaycard Arrival, so I intend to wipe out a sizable portion of the remaining charge soon using miles I’ve earned with it.

It took over a half-hour of standing in line before I was able to check in, and when I arrived at the room, I was disappointed to find I’d been put into a queen room with two beds rather than the king with one I’d requested. I didn’t make a fuss as I had a show to get to.

Aside from a very sizable HDTV, which was fed only standard definition channels, the room was quite spartan.

The large dresser’s small seating area was too small to really work from, so I found myself working from locations like the Fashion Square Mall and one of the upper floors of The Cosmopolitan more often than in the room itself.

Its location off-Strip isn’t helped much by Hard Rock’s shuttle service. One shuttle runs just once per hour from 10AM until 5PM from Hard Rock to the Fashion Square Mall, which is just across from Wynn and Encore.

The early cut-off time for Hard Rock’s shuttles made getting to and from the Strip more painful than it should have been.[/quote_right]I was able to use the shuttle to get to the Strip, but given how early its service is shut down, it was useless in finding my way back. I had to take a cab to Hard Rock each night. By leaving from the south end of the Strip, from Aria and MGM Grand, I was able to cut down on transit time and cab costs, but being off-Strip was definitely an impediment. I don’t anticipate staying at Hard Rock again, unless, as they were this time, they are clearly the most affordable option by a wide margin that isn’t completely sketchy!

The Perks of Status

I’m an Mlife Platinum member thanks to MGM’s status match program with Hyatt, so I was happy to take advantage of a few key benefits even though I wasn’t staying at an MGM property on this trip.

Among these was complimentary access to the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat at The Mirage. This is an unpublished benefit of Mlife Platinum status, and saved on the $20 admission. Getting to see the white lions and tigers once featured in Siegfried and Roy’s famous act was neat, but I was surprised to see Siegfried himself up front greeting guests. Lucky timing!

The dolphin show was a nice touch, as well, and the clear blue waters of the dolphin habitat make it easy to watch them when compared with the dolphin habitat I last visited in the Florida Keys.

I didn’t make it down to Mandalay Bay this time, but Mlife Platinum members receive complimentary access to the aquarium there, as well, so take advantage of this when you’re in town if you either hold Platinum through MGM directly or by virtue of a status match with Hyatt! At the very least, it’ll burn an hour or two that might otherwise be spent losing money at the casino!

Three Nights, Three Shows

On night one in Vegas, I saw Penn & Teller at the Rio. It was my third time seeing the show, which as you might guess I enjoy quite a bit. While the majority of their act has remained the same over the past few years, each time there’s a new trick or wrinkle added into the mix. Spotting the changes has become part of the fun.

Night two was Elton John at Caesars’ Colosseum. This was, simply, an incredible show. I hadn’t seen Elton John in concert in over a decade, and certainly not in a venue and with production values as rich as those found at Caesars. If you’re in town, don’t miss this if you’re a fan of even just a handful of his songs:

On the final night, I saw Zarkana at Aria. The show was fine, but I feel like I would have enjoyed it more had I not been so blown away by Elton John’s concert the night prior and if I hadn’t already seen a fair number of the Cirque du Soleil shows up and down the Strip. Zarkana, similar in some ways to Mystére at Treasure Island, puts the circus back in Cirque, focusing on acrobatics and stunts more than shows like LOVE at The Mirage, which is focused primarily on showcasing the music of The Beatles.

Despite a lot of high-flying stunts and impressive feats, my favorite part of the show came midway through, when an artist working in silhouette with nothing more than sand and a backlit table created some beautiful artwork that helped to further the story of the show. Zarkana wouldn’t be my first choice of show in Vegas, but it’s still well worth checking out if you’re a Cirque fan.

That’s it for now!

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Casey Ayers is a consultant and entrepreneur with a passion for travel. After amassing enough miles and points to travel anywhere in the world for almost free in less than six months, he developed PointsAway as a way to help others make travel dreams big and small come true.
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