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A Californian status run – LHR/SAN/LAX/SFO, and half a dozen hotels.

A Californian status run – LHR/SAN/LAX/SFO, and half a dozen hotels.

Old Feb 17, 2013, 5:34 am
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A Californian status run – LHR/SAN/LAX/SFO, and half a dozen hotels.

I think this one got a bit out of hand, and I blame the FlyerTalk collective for making such a project seem sensible. This trip ended up being the longest I've ever taken, with the most flights, the most hotel changes (five in six days), my first First Class booking, my first Club World, my first use of points for upgrades (both hotel and flight), my first Admiral's Club, and was my first tier point run... all in less than a fortnight. For your entertainment, there were also missed connections, technical problems, and seven deeply unpleasant hours sweating out a fever in SFO. Remarkably, I also got some work done along the way.

JMM Venue

Allow me to backpedal a bit. The Joint Mathematics Meetings are the largest event in the American mathematics community, with several thousand academics, government employees, industry types and students descending on an assortment of hotels and conference venues for four intense days of activity. A typical conference might collect a couple of hundred participants at most, and have a very tightly focused scientific program – the joint meetings are essentially dozens of those glued together. The upside is that once you've attended the things relevant to your own research, you can dip in to an array of fascinating talks in areas you couldn't normally justify taking time away for. It also helps that the JMM wanders from one impressive US city to the next, and has enough clout to secure some pretty attractive hotel rates. My current fellowship (held in the UK) includes a generous travel allowance, and each year I've blown the majority of it on making the trip across the pond for this event.

The previous two – New Orleans, and Boston – were (apart from some mild hotel-hopping on the latter) entirely straightforward trips, where I combined the conference with some extra sightseeing time, but stayed local throughout. This year, though, the JMM was hitting San Diego. Whilst it's a city I was keen to explore more thoroughly, I had visited it before, and I have friends dotted around in various parts of California. Couple that with a desire to make the most of what could be my last big trip for a while (aforementioned generously-funded job coming to an end in June); being within striking range of silver status in BA's Executive Club; and the hefty quantities of tier points that can be bagged on AA domestic first legs, and it was perhaps inevitable that I was going to roam.

Things got slightly crazier when I decided to make a push for gold status with HHonors, signing up for their MVP challenge to complete four stays in 90 days (Hah! By our standards, I don't think nine days would be challenging...) I also had a voucher for a free night to burn, courtesy of the Hilton-branded Visa available in the UK- albeit constrained to weekend use, and which I wanted to get a reasonable return on. Hilton silently pulled the MVP promotion at the end of 2012, and when I started this report, a month after the stays had posted, it seemed that they would therefore not be enough. Eventually, however, I got the bump to gold - so either there's a staffer lurking in this thread, they felt the need to soften the blow of the upcoming points devaluation, or the process is simply very slow!

Anyway, here's how my US schedule ended up looking hotel-wise:

But first, of course, I had to get state-side...

Be warned, at well over ten thousand words, this is a bit of a monster. Although I've tried to intersperse my jabberings with plenty of photos, if that's what you're mostly here for, you may be better served by the corresponding galleries. Although those don't include coverage of hotel rooms, generally.

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Old Feb 17, 2013, 6:45 am
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January 1st: Bristol to West Drayton

The plan
15:30 Feet: Walk to Bristol Temple Meads (2 miles)
16:30 Train: First Great Western Bristol Temple Meads (First Class) to Reading (due 17:43)
18:05 Train: First Great Western (First Class) Reading to West Drayton (due 18:41)
18:45 Feet: West Drayton – Novotel London Heathrow (1.5 miles)

Setting off on New Year's Day meant there was no bus service to Temple Meads (or anywhere else), so I would be starting this journey, as with so many, on foot. I'm a firm believer that if you can walk somewhere in less than an hour, then that's probably the best way to get there. Whilst the encumbrance of a fortnight's worth of luggage is perhaps a compelling argument for a rethink, of greater concern to me was the weather. Temperatures were hovering around freezing here, but I was expecting much better conditions in California, and didn't want to be carrying bulky winter gear around the US just for a few hours use on the UK ends of the trip. Fortunately it was a crisp, dry day and so I toughed it out with just my suit jacket, successfully trundling from living room to platform in 40 minutes.

Whilst there I was able to perform online check-in for the LHR-SAN flight. The World Traveller Plus cabin is small, with just three rows of 2-4-2; my only choice was between two seats on the back row. I'd been assigned G, a middle aisle seat, but swapped it for B, in the hopes that I'd be clambered over less often.

I then turned my attention to my current mode of transport- one of First Great Western's InterCity 125's, the fastest diesel train in the world. They may all be older than me, but having grown up in the Southeast with the boring, square, Class 315 electrics (usually rammed full of London commuters), I love them dearly. Today's journey would be particularly enjoyable, as I'd secured tickets for first class:

The real perk of first class rail is the amount of space – seating is arranged 1-2, with tables at every seat and thus far fewer rows. There's somewhere to hang your jacket, and nearby space to stash a suitcase whilst maintaining line of sight. There were only three other passengers in my coach, so with no-one in the opposite seat I could properly stretch out.

The more astute amongst you will have noticed that I'm flying out of Heathrow, but not travelling there. The obvious journey from Bristol is to take this service all the way to Paddington, then swap to the Heathrow Express. Less obvious, but often cheaper, is to switch at Reading for a coach to Heathrow. However, in choosing the Novotel London Heathrow I realised there was yet another option: switch at Reading, but stay on the rail network and head for West Drayton, just over a mile from the hotel. This turned out to be an absolute bargain – admittedly I booked far in advance (the trick to UK rail travel in general) but the total journey BRI – WDT, in first class, cost me £22.50. For context, a standard class ticket for the Heathrow Express alone – never mind getting to Paddington first – is already £20.

However, no plan survives contact with Reading station. I know this. I was already puzzled by the train's configuration on arrival – coach G was out of service, and had somehow migrated past coach H (where I was booked). Five minutes after our scheduled departure, the dreaded bing-bong “Would the train manager please contact the driver” announcement sounds. I realise that night has already fallen as I gaze out at an unusually quiet Temple Meads. Ten minutes after that, I'm still gazing, now at the 17:00 service on the next platform. That gives me a backup for getting away from Bristol, but with only 22 minutes to connect at Reading, wouldn't get me there in time to stick to the plan. We set off, of course, 23 minutes late, so I will need an alternative train to West Drayton unless we seriously reel in some slack.

Due to the bank holiday, there is no trolley service (nor is it announced that there would be one). Fortunately, my years of grad school gave me a keen sense for free food opportunities, so I know my rights and head down to the buffet car to claim a couple of bottles of water and a stash of shortbread biscuits. I am well past caring about the 18:05 by the time (18:13) that I reach Reading, having reminded myself that the whole point of setting out the day before and using a hotel is to avoid stress and have a huge time buffer for potential rail trouble. So I don't even bother to examine the departure board and instead sort out dinner: annoyingly, the only places serving food that are open today are the wrong side of the security barriers. I'm not sure of my break-of-journey rights, but with a suitcase in tow I am able to get through a manned gate rather than risk a ticket-swallow by machine.

Fortified by a cornish pasty and wedges, I return to the platforms and figure out how I'm going to get to the hotel. Turns out I need the 18:33 stopping service to Paddington- not to be confused with the 18:27 stopping service to Paddington, which uses the same platform but has the unhelpful feature of not stopping at West Drayton.

Whilst still a First Great Western service, this is a less fancy train than the 125; however, that means that there's less incentive for anyone making a local journey to bother paying for first class, so I have the 16-seat compartment to myself. The journey is thus entirely uneventful, and I arrive at WDT about half an hour later than the plan called for. But again, what's the rush?

My terrible sense of direction means that I don't stride with purpose until I'm sure I'm pointed the right way, but once I'd extracted myself from the station and got onto the main road it's an uncomplicated – if chilly – mile and a bit to the Novotel, which I covered in about 25 minutes.

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Old Feb 17, 2013, 10:24 am
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January 1st-2nd: Novotel London Heathrow

I'm a recent inductee to Le Club Accor's loyalty program, managing to jump straight to their top (platinum) tier courtesy of one of the security-by-obscurity promotional links that surface fairly regularly. I am in two minds about the program: upgrades only happen at a few of their (pricier) brands, and the points earning seems terrible. For instance, even with double points as a plat, I collected a grand 67 avios from this stay; whereas a night at a Hilton will get me at least 500, on top of the Hhonors points. However, it's easy to get distracted by loyalty trinkets and forget that the ultimate goal in all this is saving some money, and that's why I was here today. A 50% off sale for Le Club members (40% for non-members) meant that this room ran me just £32.50. I'll forgive the stingy miles in exchange for an extra £30 or so in my pocket compared to staying loyal to Hilton.

Despite both computer difficulties and a queue (there was an elite desk, but it was unstaffed- to their credit, by the time I'd checked in they'd drafted in two extra people to speed things up), lobby to room took all of five minutes. Given the price, there's no need to be blown away by the quality of the room. But it was a reasonable size for the UK, with a sofa and a desk, and the impression that you could use both at once, plus the bathroom sported a bath and separate shower. The A/C was cheerfully supplying 24C, positively tropical after my bracing walk, so I dialled that down to something more seasonally appropriate and settled in for some undemanding television. I've certainly paid more to stay at worse places!

Hotel 1: Novotel London Heathrow, 1 night.
Le Club Accorhotels points collected: 134 (autotransfer to BA as 67 avios).

Novotel London Heathrow standard room.

Reverse-angle showing bathroom / hallway.

Bathroom with shower and bath.

Having stayed up for New Year's Eve, sleep proved elusive – or rather, it did at first, as although 1:30am saw me making some preliminary notes for this report, it took a pair of alarms to rouse me at 10am. I could well imagine sleeping through the midday checkout; perhaps my body was just pre-empting westcoast time?

Breakfast pricing was an entertainingly ambitious £15.95 for continental, £18.95 cooked, but I had planned ahead and brought provisions from home. Thus I spent a leisurely morning in the room before checking out and confirming details for transport to Heathrow. Hotels aren't allowed to run their own shuttles (except the T5-Hilton), but National Express has a network of 'Hotel Hoppa' routes, and a ticket for the 51 to T5 can be had for £4 using a convenient machine in the lobby. The bus actually left ahead of schedule, then spent a while meandering through a series of generally unappealing airport hotels, the ugliest of which was surely the Thistle. For all I know it's lovely inside, and on a business trip you might never see the exterior in daylight. Still. Such places wear at the soul.

Including a driver change, but without any particularly heavy traffic, it took 25 minutes to reach Terminal 5 from the Novotel. Rather than dealing with the stress of making a 120 mile train journey on the same day as the flight, in a season not known to be kind to the rail network, I arrived at check-in with plenty of spare time, having travelled in first class then had a decent night's sleep and a shower. All for less than the price of a standard class walk-up train fare- I'm doubtless preaching to the converted here, but it really does pay to plan!

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Old Feb 17, 2013, 11:41 am
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January 2nd: London to San Diego

The plan:
16:05 Plane: British Airways BA0273 LHR – SAN (due 19:15) 3-class 777-200ER. Seat 14B (World Traveller Plus, aisle).
Earnt 6836 avios, 90 tier points (promoted to BAEC bronze / One World Ruby). Actual times 17:35 - 20:10; flown by G-YMMD.

First port of call was the American Express desk, so that I couldn't make the mistake of checking in, clearing security, then realising my travel money was landside and I was airside. Amex had recently taken over as BA's forex partner, which meant extra avios, although my order form informed me I would have to ask for them. No need to worry about forgetting that aspect- the stand was plastered with info on the link-up, and I was proactively asked for my BAEC number. On presentation of my card, my name was recognised, or rather, the details of the order that went with my name were remembered without prompting. A nice touch! Foolishly I'd ordered a round amount in dollars rather than sterling, so it arrived as a collection of $50 notes – good job I still had an assortment of smaller denomination notes from previous trips.

Check-in, bag-drop and security were apparently uneventful enough that I made no notes on them; we all know the dance by now I'm sure. I set off to Giraffe for late lunch, assembling a slightly strange combo of smoked salmon, scrambled eggs on toast, and sweet potato fries. I momentarily take leave of my senses and order bottled water too, but don't get gouged too badly on that. With tip, it came to £16, and surely was a better meal than the Novotel's continental breafkast offering at the same price! I also got the entertainment of a nearby family expressing surprise that their bill was in “british dollars” instead of american ones...

It should probably be pointed out at this stage that I'm not a serious foodie, don't drink alcohol at all, and feel that there's plenty of photographic coverage of aircraft interiors to save me the awkwardness of building and wielding my dSLR on a crowded flight. Some may wonder what the hell I'm doing in the trip report game given all these! What I might lack by way of connoisseur credentials I hope I can make up as a dedicated cataloguer of minor details – and I am always happy to dig the camera out for a beautiful landscape.

G-YMMD, in typically glorious British weather

I am also, it seems, a BA disruption magnet. Of my 13 flights on BA metal in 2012, two were cancelled, one was so late it didn't leave until after it was meant to arrive, and two more had significant delays. It doesn't look like 2013 is going to be much better. Gate was called at 14:50 over in Terminal B, well in advance of our 16:05 scheduled departure. However, a never-quite-specified technical issue, and the subsequent wait for legal-signoff on some paperwork related to the work required to fix it, kept us from pushback for a full 90 minutes. Thankfully, these days on BA you can use the in-flight entertainment from boarding, and the on-demand system featured on this plane ('Upgraded TES', according to our fleet guide) has an excellent selection. I caught three films on this flight, and felt I still had strong options for the return.

All was well once we finally got airborne. Food service was at 7pm GMT (a bit over an hour after take-off), and despite the full cabin and being in the last row, all the menu options were still available. World Traveller Plus offers a subset of the Club World range, and you get the associated accoutrements such as a real plate and metal cutlery. Today's starter was potato and smoked salmon – my scribbled menu note simply reads 'not great' (see, I did warn you I'm not a sophisticated diner). The main was a choice between a seared tenderloin of angus beef with thyme sauce, basil tagliatelle, sauteιd fine beans and piquillo peppers, or a seared sea bream with green tea-infused sauce, braised chicory, carrot and cardamon mash and steamed cocotte potatoes. Despite not being familiar with all of those words, I opted for the fish, having heard a few disaster stories about BA beef. Finally, dessert was Brazilian orange and chocolate – this warranted an enthusiastic “GREAT!” in my notes.

I felt I had made the right choice in defecting from G to B, as the middle block of row 14 had a family with very young (but perfectly behaved) children. Unfortunately for me, Mr 14A wanted out from his window seat no less than five times throughout the flight... at least I wasn't sleeping, but it was still a hassle to pause AVOD, extract myself from my rather intimate headphones, and manoeuvre out of the seat due to the recline of the one in front. I'm going to enjoy being able to book window seats at the time of purchase for the next year!

The first of three drinks rounds was at 21:30 (GMT), and the baffling `afternoon tea' at 3am UK / 7pm US was a chicken sandwich. We touched down at 20:10 local, so our technical issues cost us less than an hour in the end. Still more than twelve hours in the same seat, though!

I've made a limited sample of immigration at US airports – SEA, MIA, BOS, SAN – and of those, San Diego is easily my favourite place to arrive. Wheels down to baggage reclaim was twenty minutes, with only brief enquiries (“Why are you here? Will you be leaving anything”) before the biometrics- they didn't even bother to stamp my passport! Admittedly, it was another 25 minutes before my suitcase appeared, but customs was a wave-through, and I'm pretty happy with 45 minutes all-in.

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Old Feb 17, 2013, 11:54 am
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Enjoyable report so far TheFlyingDoctor. Looking forward to the rest as I'm due to stay in a few of the properties your in later in the year.
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Old Feb 17, 2013, 3:16 pm
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January 2nd-3rd: Hampton Inn San Diego-Downtown

It's a couple of miles from SAN to my overnight stop, and having scouted the route along North Harbor Drive to convince myself that it was pedestrian friendly, I'm more than ready for a chance to stretch my legs. Besides, night-time temperatures here are better than the day can offer back home. In the event I get my Inns-that-start-with-H muddled up and aim myself at the bright lights of the Holiday Inn. I don't have roaming data, but I did have the TripAdvisor app installed on my ipad. This is extremely handy, as it contains offline maps, and you can search for the kind of landmarks that as a tourist you're most likely to spot – such as, say, the Holiday Inn. Discovering that I hadn't overshot too badly, it's an easy correction to arrive at my actual target, the Hampton Inn:

Hotel 2: Hampton Inn San Diego-Downtown, 1 night.
3467 Hhonors points collected (including 2500 from Visa introductory offer), plus 100 avios.

Hampton San Diego

Check-in is swift, and my Hilton honors preferences have all been fulfilled: a high floor (6th, as high as it gets!) away from the elevator with a king size bed. Wifi is free, and there's hot breakfast available until 10am. Sure, the dιcor was a bit tired, and the bathroom fixtures looked a bit fragile, but after a very long day my main interest is the bed.

Sadly, a few factors conspired against a peaceful night's sleep. The property backs onto the railway line, which terminates at the nearby Santa Fe depot. Rail traffic itself doesn't generally produce too much noise, but the series of level crossings that engage each time are (understandably) quite the distraction. And something particularly heavy lumbered through around 11pm, with enough force to shake the room! At 3:30am I was also wrenched awake by an explosion of cramp in my left calf – the most comfortable position is of course to mimic the angles that had been forced upon me by the seating on the plane.

At 6:30am I (still limping) get up – not a natural morning person, I'm hoping to exploit timezone confusion for early morning photography and to make it to 8am talks the following week. I make a first investigation of the breakfast buffet, chalk up the improbably-yellow scrambled eggs and a mysterious substance called `sausage gravy' to cultural differences, and stick to familiar cereal and breadstuffs. My misguided wanderings the night before paid off this morning, as I was able to take a pleasant stroll around the harbourside, snapping away at various craft that form the Maritime museum. Soon enough I discover that the approach to SAN brings aircraft over the city, and my oft-denied planespotter tendencies kick into action.

Not knowing the schedules, however, I satisfy myself with a few captures, then return to the Inn for a second breakfast (hey, it's free), braving the fluorescent eggs this time whilst working through the newspaper.

Soon enough, it's time to head back to the airport. This time I can make better progress on account of knowing the way and only having to get to the commuter terminal, but these are both offset by my need to gawp at the daytime view. Whilst we can get clear blue skies in Britain (honest!), they somehow work differently here – maybe it's an atmospheric thing, or perhaps the raw scale of American roads and buildings, but there's an enormous sense of space. I've heard parts of the US referred to as 'big sky country', and it certainly seems fitting. With flights to take me up there, and glorious weather on my back (I've stashed both jacket and jumper by the time I reach the terminal), I have a real sense of potential too – my Californian tier point run adventure is about to get into gear!

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Old Feb 18, 2013, 4:22 am
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Location: Home: East Mids UK - Work (Base): Accra, Ghana.
Programs: BAEC: Silver - Marriott: Titanium
Posts: 12,086

Really enjoyable so far... I like your style of writing. And, the pictures you have selected are very good ^

I look forward to the next instalments...

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Old Feb 18, 2013, 11:10 am
Join Date: Oct 2010
Location: London
Programs: BAEC Gold (thanks to BOB), UA, Flying Blue, Miles & Smiles, Amex BAPP & Platinum
Posts: 392
Extra interesting because I flew the same aeroplane back from SAN that day - although departure was delayed by about an hour and a half , so there must have been another reason beside late arrival...
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Old Feb 18, 2013, 11:46 am
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Enjoying this so far ^

Keep up the good work...
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Old Feb 18, 2013, 2:33 pm
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January 3rd: San Diego to San Francisco

The (original) plan:
13:15 Plane: American Eagle AA2612 SAN – LAX (due 14:00)
15:05 Plane: American Airlines AA1954 LAX – SFO (due 16:15).

So, let's talk a bit more about the flights. I made separate bookings, with BA and AA respectively, for the LHR/SAN and SAN/LAX/SFO aspects, the latter after convincing myself I wanted to make the status run (and simpler plans with friends in LA fell through on account of their not being in LA). My original booking was way back in September, and this turned out to be a mistake- AA will let you purchase flights for the winter before they've finalised their schedule, and so my timings looked a bit worse afterwards. Specifically, the SAN-LAX leg would be operated by Skywest, leaving fifteen minutes earlier, yet I'd end up at SFO 45 minutes later. Worse, the single-class LAX-SAN service would now be two-class, so had I booked after the changes I'd have been up the front for that too. I also did the think you should never do, and checked the new price, which was of course lower.

AA Instant-upgrade itineraries out of LAX are one of the best ways to scale the ranks of status with BA, and the experts in the tier point run thread routinely find deals at less than a pound per point. This 140TP jaunt for nearly £500, then, isn't going to turn any heads over there. But tier points are only useful if you're going to hit a new level, and in my case I needed 140 for silver, or 1040 for gold. No point, as such, in getting a flashy figure of say £1.20/TP, only for most of those to get scrubbed in the yearly reset without having had any effect. This way, I collected exactly what I needed, and no more. Besides, I felt this wasn't purely a run for the sake of points – I was genuinely interested in visiting San Francisco, and had a friend to meet in LA to break up the return.

The reality:
13:00 Plane: American Eagle operated by Skywest AA2612 SAN – LAX (due 13:45)
Flown by N869AS, single-class CRJ-200. Seat 2D (Economy, window). Earnt 109 avios, 20 tier points.
15:35 Plane: American Airlines AA1954 LAX – SFO (due 17:00).
Flown by N853NN, 2-class 737-800. Seat 5A (First class, window). Earnt 506 avios, 60 tier points.

So, flight 1 is a Skywest service, flying in American Eagle colours, booked through American Airlines, crediting to British Airways Executive Club. Everyone keeping up? All services from SAN to LAX operate out of the commuter terminal, a facility that is simpler than most bus stations I've been in... I'm the only one at the check-in desk, where they priority tag my luggage and explain it'll find its way to SFO without further intervention from me (both hoped for, but bonus marks for being proactive). Security is similarly slick – there's two belts and a single scanner, and I spot it's of the milimetre wave variety in time to take off my watch. Being ceramic, I can wear it through a traditional metal detector, but I've got complacent as a result, and the new kit does pick it up (and no-one wants extra attention at an american security checkpoint). Shoe surrender was mandatory for everyone, which saved me the will they, won't they? that I usually have with my big stompy boots. Even so, total time from hotel to airside was forty minutes.

Not that you should be in any rush to get through! There's a communal seating area for the three gates (American, Delta, United), a newsagents counter with small snacks, and another slightly more substantial food vendor with salads, sandwiches, and yoghurts. Still nothing I'd award the lofty title of 'lunch', so I opt for a smoothie (covering about half my daily sugar needs) and some more of my personal stockpile of rations, figuring I'll find something at LAX. Remarkably, there is free wifi, although it takes some cajoling, and appears at first to be tied to some scummy-looking app download by way of sponsorship, until I spot a discreet 'no thanks' option at the bottom of the page. It wasn't willing to let me run a VPN back to the UK, though.

It's entirely clear when your plane is ready, as they pull up in front of the terminal and it's a short stroll across the tarmac. Sadly the door/steps on our little jet must be deemed unsuitable for the public, as a boringly safe ramp is attached instead. Presumably because I was connecting to a first class flight, my boarding pass had been marked for priority access, not that the process was going to take long given the size of the plane!

Boarding at SAN commuter terminal.
The seat (2D) offered a decent amount of legroom and was comfortable enough, but honestly, it wouldn't matter if it wasn't. Gate to gate was 40 minutes, with just 23 spent in the air, topping out at 10,000 feet. It used to take me longer than that to get to school as a child! As you might imagine, there wasn't much in the way of in-flight service – just a drinks run – and entertainment consisted of looking out the window. Whilst there were some great coastal views on the way out of San Diego, I feel that Los Angeles is a hard place to love. Normally I'm a huge fan of looking down upon a cityscape, but LA is just too many identikit suburbs stamped out on uninspiring terrain, like cheap rate videogame texturing. Maybe it's better at night.

LAX's counterpart to SAN's commuter terminal is a cluster of gates – the 44s – from which you have to be bussed to the terminal building proper. This is only slightly faster than the flight, as the bus routes seem to hazardously interweave with the taxiway. Terminal 4 is AA's home; there's an Admiral's Club, but domestic first tickets such as mine don't qualify. However, once again there's free wifi (British airports, take note!) and I am able to obtain an acceptable hot meal.

After some confusion at the gate – they announce our time, but Las Vegas as the destination – I'm once again enjoying the perks of priority boarding: it occurs to me that once this trip is over, that's a perk I'll be entitled to for over a year! Besides the smug factor, it seems it'd be handy when travelling down the back as normal. Everyone seems to have brought a ridiculous amount of luggage (do AA charge for checked bags?) today, with items ending up a long way from their owners, and repeated (ignored) calls for volunteers to have theirs stashed in the hold.

First class is plenty spacious, with comfortable 2-2 seating, and leg room I'm simply not tall enough to make full use of. Refreshments consisted of a bag of savoury nibbles (pretzels, nuts, some sort of rice-based substance) and drinks in an actual glass; wifi was also available for an extra charge. Still, were I not in the tier point market, I don't think I'd bother paying the extra over economy for this short a flight. We had a slight wait for push-back (Delta were blamed, as they somehow own the gate?) but this only translated into five minutes delay into SFO.

Which is lovely! Easily my favourite of the Californian terminals I encountered on this trip. There were helpful announcements for luggage retrieval, works of art suspended from the ceiling, a set of museum exhibits (featuring board games), and just a general sense of cleanliness and spaciousness after LAX.

In a rare demonstration of social skills I get chatting to someone on the AirTrain, picking up some sightseeing and dining suggestions for both San Francisco and back in San Diego. Thankfully we part ways at the BART station, so they don't have to witness my supposedly-advanced maths brain grappling with the ticket machine. I knew I wanted an $8.25 ticket, but it took me a while to grasp that it didn't work like that. Instead, you simply load credit to a card – if you don't have one, it'll be issued at that point – and are charged for the journey you actually make. Except it'll eat whatever note you put in, and the change machines will only split 10s or 20s into 5s... minimum credit card transaction seemed to be $20, too, so it was a good job that I'd already broken up one of my 50s in San Diego. Something for those arriving internationally to keep in mind, perhaps!

Once I've managed to pay and get to the platform, the journey through to Powell Street is simply a waiting game, as it's served by all lines. There's nothing glamorous about the BART, but I don't think it's any worse than some London tube services – certainly didn't warrant the “wow, I guess this is how the other half have to live?” from one family that boarded as I did. Nor the overheard half of a phone call by a young woman further down the line, who was conveying to her unknown conversant a sense of mock unease that would be more appropriate to trench warfare than a light rail service. Yes, there are poor people, maybe even some of them homeless. Sure, a taxi might be a bit quicker and cleaner. But I really don't understand the cultural baggage that public transport seems to carry in the US. Conversely, having spent all my adult life in compact British cities, I've never seen the point of owning a car (and as such, never learnt to drive), and that seems to be just as alien a concept this side of the Atlantic. Boston and Seattle appeared workable without your own vehicle, but a previous Californian trip had emphasised that the car is king here, which was part of why I'd skipped over LA to San Fran, in the hope it'd be more viable for this would-be pedestrian.

Certainly it was easy enough to get myself to the hotel on foot, although I was a bit disoriented on emerging from an unknown exit of the station, armed only with a google printout of the general area. I picked a likely-looking direction, and strode off with purpose after I overheard a gaggle of young folk make reference to my brief glimpse at a map and the street and speculate that I knew what I was doing and should be asked for directions rather than continuing to wrestle with their uncooperative iThing. It should be pointed out that I can get lost even with a map, but on this occasion I was right. Well, mostly. Ok, right enough that I didn't have to double back and pass them heading the opposite direction.

Next stop, the most expensive hotel room I've ever paid for out of my own pocket – at the Hilton Union Square.

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Old Feb 19, 2013, 12:43 am
Join Date: Feb 2010
Posts: 801
The Hampton Inn SAN-Downtown is rather noisy. Great trip report so far ^. Thanks.
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Old Feb 19, 2013, 4:36 pm
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Join Date: Dec 2011
Location: EXT
Posts: 476
January 3rd-5th Hilton San Francisco Union Square

Chronology will get a bit wobbly from here on out, as I'll try to keep all my remarks about each hotel to a single post, and separate out sightseeing activity.

As I'd be doing one night for free in LA (courtesy of Visa), and my week in San Diego would be on expenses, it didn't seem unreasonable to splash the cash a bit for my brief detour to San Francisco. Of course, I forgot to factor in taxes when looking at the prices... So it was a bit more extravagant than was perhaps wise for a standard room. I solved this problem by using Hhonors points to upgrade to a tower room: in for a penny, in for a pound! As well as a better view, the rate bundled in wifi (normally $12.95/24 hours) and continental breakfast for two from the on-site starbucks. This was offered for 3600 points per night, which I value at less than £15. To do it on e-standby (which wouldn't guarantee the upgrade) would be $39 a night; booking today for tomorrow, there's a $50/night difference. So the points certainly seem the most effective way to gain some height!

However, I made this change pretty close to arrival (I can't remember if it was in London or San Diego, but I'd definitely started my trip), and this perhaps explains the kerfuffle in actually getting these benefits! I was correctly assigned a tower room on arrival, way up on the 39th floor, but no mention was made of the rest.

After a gravity-defying ride in the express lift (skipping past the riffraff in the first 30 floors) and a few photos before I got settled in, I tried to rejoin the loving embrace of the internet. To my inexpert eye it looked like signing in would add the usual $12.95 charge to my room, so I called up reception for guidance. There I got through to a lovely woman who confirmed that it was included in the room so I could go ahead without fear of turning this into an even more expensive stay; she was also on the ball enough to realise that if I didn't know this, I probably didn't understand breakfast either. So she cheerfully explained that I should have received vouchers when I checked in, and invited me to pop down to collect them.

Foolishly I never got her name, and thus after a high-speed plummet in the lift back to reception I ended up with my third member of staff in thirty minutes, this one cut from the same cloth as the first. Which is to say, he refused to accept that I was entitled to breakfast, claiming I was misinformed. Cue panic that the wifi wasn't mine for the taking either, but he acknowledged that was included. There is literally no rate available in a tower room that doesn't come with breakfast, and even if there was, for over $200 a night, isn't it better to just dish out something that probably costs them less than $5 rather than frustrate a guest? It reflects poorly on the higher-end brands in the Hilton family when you have to quibble over such details. Especially when you consider that at the Hampton Inn the night before it would be a complete non-issue, since everyone gets internet and food as part of a room rate less than half of this Hilton.

Skipping forward slightly, the situation was successfully resolved the next morning, as I approached staffer number four ready to brandish a screengrab of the rate details, but he was more than happy to issue my vouchers. These entitled me to any pastry, a piece of fruit, and a drink; sadly you don't get to double dip as a single occupant, so the upgrade is a better deal for a couple!

Anyway, the room:

Hotel 3: Hilton San Francisco Union Square, 2 nights, City View Tower Room.
6824 Hhonors points collected (inc. the last of my 2500 Visa bonuses), less 7200 for upgrade: net -376. Double-dipped for 500 avios.

Bed and sofa.

Reverse angle.

The room itself was of a decent size and well-appointed, but the real draw is that city view, which is maximised by the majority of the wall being window-

Yep, that'll do nicely.

I spent close to two months away from Bristol last year, and one of the (few) frustrations I have with such a mobile lifestyle is keeping healthy. I'm not a fitness fanatic, but I do try to grab at least a couple of workouts a week, with my preference being for indoor climbing, or compound lifts. Whilst I accept the climbing is a niche interest, I often despair of hotel gyms which – if they even exist – tend to emphasise cardio over weight lifting. I'll take a rowing machine if it's all that's available, but I am not the running type: a zombie apocalypse event, and being about to miss the last train out of Glasgow on a Friday night, are the only recent scenarios that pushed me up to a sprint. So I'm delighted to report that the basement of this Hilton houses an excellent fitness centre for all tastes. Besides the usual dumbbells and array of treadmills and cross-trainers, I had the option of barbells, a proper bench and rack for, well, bench press, a Smith machine, and various isolation exercise stations. A good way to work out the frustrations with the upgrade items!

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Old Feb 21, 2013, 2:54 pm
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Posts: 476
Scenic interlude – The Golden Gate Bridge

With my bodyclock still making its way across the Atlantic, I was able to maximise my limited sightseeing time by getting up at 5:30am. Half an hour later I was making use of my hard-won breakfast voucher at Starbucks, where despite the time there was already a sizeable queue.

I lost some of my time advantage trying to figure out the buses: Golden Gate Transit do have subtle markers at bus stops to confirm that something will be stopping there, but no indication of which routes, or in which direction. Thankfully I'm able to leech some wifi on, of all things, my ipod to get confirmation of where to join the number ten route. Headed, of course, for the obvious place to start a first day – the Golden Gate Bridge.

The early hour and season might go some way to explaining it, but I was amazed that once I passed the first tower, I didn't encounter another pedestrian until reaching its matching number on the Marin side. Still, that just made it easier for me to linger over photo opportunities, even taking the time to set up the tripod and work some magic with a neutral density filter.

Traffic calming

I had naively assumed that there would be somewhere to get food on the far side, but in the immediate vicinity of the bridge there's just parking, a view point and some bathrooms. Thus I felt it best to repeat the crossing promptly rather than plough on to Sausalito; although I did take the time for an elevated view from the headlands first.

On a return visit, i'd like to ditch most of the camera gear and hire a bike for some extra range. But if like me you opt for over-and-back in a morning, skip the temptation of hotdogs from the Roundhouse and push that little bit further on down to the Warming Hut Cafe for lunch. You'll have earnt it! The area around Fort Point and Torpedo Wharf also offers plenty of photographic opportunities, and I was happy of the chance to soak in some winter sun for a while.

A few more snaps can be found in this gallery, if you're interested.

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Old Feb 21, 2013, 9:25 pm
Join Date: Jun 2010
Location: RDU
Programs: AA EXP 2MM
Posts: 267
Nice photos of SF!
I'm enjoying your trip report - thanks!
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Old Feb 22, 2013, 2:24 pm
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Posts: 476
January 5th 2013 SFO-LAX, and Hilton LAX

The (Successful!) Plan:
20:05 Plane: American Airlines AA1960 SFO-LAX (due 21:25) 2-class 737-800. Seat 5A (First class, window).
Earnt 875 avios, 60 tier points.

The next phase of the trip will be rather poorly documented, for reasons that will become clear... I was once again up at Early O'Clock, with a view to packing in some more sightseeing activities during my last day here in San Francisco. However, shortly after breakfast I find myself experiencing uncontrollable tremors and wild fluctuations in temperature perception, plus a general notion that breakfast might have been a mistake. With retrospect it seems I merely picked up the unusually strong flu that was afflicting the US this winter. But with other fears in my mind (thanks to pre-trip dental woes), I made the executive decision to skip the tourism and to take it as easy as possible at the hotel until check-out time, at which stage I would convey myself (horrendously early) to the airport.

Fortunately I was able to fortify myself with a combination of painkillers and powerful anti-nausea medication; I carry both in a form that dissolves in the mouth, no need to swallow. That's extremely handy when travelling, but I haven't been able to find such 'meltlets' or buccal tablets in US pharmacies, so I'm glad I had stashed some in my luggage. Once both of these have had the time to kick in, I actually felt well enough to be in two minds about my hastily revised schedule, and at checkout pondered leaving my case to hit at least one more attraction. But I stuck to the safe option, and by the time I'd stumbled my way to the BART station, it was entirely clear that getting to SFO, let alone LAX, would be more than enough of a challenge for the day.

At the station I need to add $6.50 to my card to cover the fare, but as I'm figuring out the machine, a young man approaches me to offer a $10 ticket for $5. Although I've gifted on such items for free myself on many occasions – and even bemoaned the difficulty of giving one away to suspicious travellers – I find my scam senses tingling. Wondering if I'm about to be rushed for my wallet when I reach for the $5, or will simply be paying for a useless fake, I nonetheless decide to place my faith in humanity and make the gamble. The transaction goes ahead without incident, and he even offers to come with me to the barriers to prove it'll work. Which it does (I declined the escort), but I can't help the niggling sensation that one of my kidneys is going to turn up on ebay or something. I can only assume that he was in such a pressing situation that $5, right now, was of more use to him than $10 of transport credit.

The anti-nausea meds get me through the journey, which delivers me to the international terminal, so I must have been on a different line to my outbound service. It's a short hop to my desired Terminal 2, where I am a full 7.5 hours early... but flying first class means I am allowed to bag drop anyway. Security is mercifully swift, and then it's just a case of finding as comfortable a seat as possible to ride out the shakes, in the hope that if I deteriorate substantially then an airport is a good place to be noticed and get medical attention. Since I couldn't focus on anything to read, and eating seemed entirely out of the question, I spent the afternoon with eyes screwed shut, trying to ride out the fever and shakes; by the evening I've added regular trips to the bathroom to dry heave, and a massive amount of self-pity, to the symptom list.

Pathetically, I had worked out that -due to an unexpected 20 instead of 10 tier points on the SAN-LAX leg – I'll hit my status target even if I have to lay low in Los Angeles for a few more days than planned, and then take alternative transport down to San Diego- provided I complete this sector in first. And although I have excellent travel insurance, I was in no mood to have to book extra accommodation in San Francisco, or take a hit on the LA reservations. So I really wanted to make this flight! Careful scheduling of my pharmaceutical weapons did see me through and onto AA1960, which I complete in the same “eyes closed, cling on for dear life” fashion and thus can offer no fair opinion on.

Ultimately, I got where I wanted to go without incident, and at this point in proceedings, that's all I needed. Forty minutes for baggage reclaim did not help, but was balanced somewhat by not having to head into LA proper for a hotel, as I was staying at the LAX Hilton. Shuttle bus took longer to load than to complete the journey: I consider myself unusually burdened with my 18kg suitcase, but I can still casually one-hand that into a luggage rack; a family of five turned up with no less than eleven cases – and a backpack each! On inspecting their bag tags, they had dragged all this from Australia – I can think of no faster way to make travel a miserable experience than to turn every location change into an episode of the world's strongest man.

As you've probably guessed, I've little to report (and no photos) from the hotel room either. It was small, the view wasn't worth opening the curtains for, and I didn't care in the slightest: there was a bed, and I was heading straight for it.

Hotel 4: Hilton Los Angeles Airport (1 night)
1166 Hhonors points, plus 500 avios.
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