Twas the morning after Christmas
A slow day at work,
I finished the morning’s tasks
And took a short break
Glanced at the MR forum on Flyertalk
And instantly any leftover Christmas poetic thoughts (no matter how terribly put together) were gone. By complete luck, I had stumbled into a major booking emergency. The best possible kind of mistake – a major mistake fare that works from everywhere in the U.S.!
Unfortunately I don’t have a screenshot to share, but when I got to the Flyertalk forum there were at least 8 threads that had been started within 10 minutes with titles like ‘DL JAX-ANC $65 AI’. Of course these are typical FT MR acronyms. Oops, that was still more codespeak. Mileage run forums on Flyertalk and elsewhere are heavy on acronyms which makes it easy to get all the pertinent information into a short headline or post title. This one is Delta (DL) Jacksonville to Anchorage $66 all-in (AI). Other common acronyms include CPM or cents per elite-qualifying mile and EOS, where ‘through EOS’ means a fare is valid through the end of the schedule. In these cases, people had stumbled onto this mistake fare which priced out all travel within the U.S. and Canada, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, ranging from $1 to $50 for the actual fare. Add the taxes onto that and you get all-in fares from about $30 to $110. For about 35 minutes, this was the price range for every Delta domestic trip.
My work break got extended by most of that half hour as I booked our return from Alaska to replace the messy award booking I had, then this trip to the Big Island of Hawaii, and finally the trip to Yellowstone we took Labor Day weekend. Delta’s website was struggling with the traffic as it gave away tickets for next to nothing, so I booked on the Canadian and British sites expedia.ca and ebookers.com. Unfortunately the only card I had in my wallet with 0% foreign transaction fees was a Barclays Arrival card, and it triggered a fraud alert on the second purchase at this foreign travel agency. I wasn’t about to wait and sort that out, so our ticket price for these tickets to Hawaii after paying the foreign transaction fee was $80. Some people in the Flyertalk thread were booking in first class for a very small premium. I decided $320 total was better for our already-full travel schedule and budget than the $1050 that it would have taken for four first-class tickets. Yeah, that would have been a great deal too!
We’d never been to Hawaii at all, so why the big island? Pretty simple: Catania became the destination for our trip to Europe in November 2013 simply because the kids wanted to see the volcano (Mt. Etna) there. That didn’t work out due to weather while we were in Sicily, so the Big Island immediately became the first Hawaiian island our sights were set on. The schedule to Kona was better than Hilo at the time of booking. Both had two stops as Delta doesn’t have direct service from San Antonio to LAX nor from Salt Lake City to either Big Island airport. Initially our routing was San Antonio-Minneapolis-Los Angeles-Kona with the return via Los Angeles and Salt Lake City.
After some asking around and research, we decided to spend two days in and around Volcano and the last two days at Hapuna Beach. As usual our planning wasn’t very thorough. We didn’t realize until way too late that we had scheduled our arrival into Kona the day before the Ironman Triathlon championships. It’s kind of a big race or something, and every room in Kona was booked up long before Delta changed our scheduled arrival (and their one daily flight to Kona) time from 4:30 PM to 8:50 P.M. Hawaii time. With that change the only thing I wanted was a place to sleep near the airport after our arrival (at 1:50 A.M. our time). In the end the best option was the Marriott at Wiakoloa beach using AA miles to pay for it (16K vs. $250). Somehow I expected rental cars to be available too. They weren’t, according to pretty much every site except Chase’s UR portal which offered a car from Alamo. Even Alamo said they had no cars until noon on Saturday, and quoted $72 per day. Instead we gladly paid 15K Chase UR points total for a compact car for 4 days. A small SUV wouldn’t have been much more, and probably would have been worth it. The Nissan Sentra that Alamo gave us would have been a decent car – if the year were 1990. But it didn’t use much gas and got us everywhere we wanted to go, so no complaints!
After the schedule change, our departure was still set for 6:30 A.M. but our arrival was 4 hours later than initially ticketed. Not cool. Delta happily changed our routing, though, to give us those 4 hours back Friday morning. By routing us through Atlanta. As a mileage run the trip just got even better but it made for a looong day. All 3 flights arrived slightly early and completely full. We went ahead and got a wheelchair for our 36 minute layover in LAX which let us breathe easy. Not that it would have mattered too much – Delta’s gate agents have been great on our trips with them this year. If only Delta opened any type of saver award seats on their flights… we credited the miles we earned to Alaska Airlines. The math on this trip works out to $0.0084 per mile earned so as long as we get at least 1 cent per mile value out of those Alaska miles as expected, we’re coming out way ahead without even counting the awesome time we had on the Big Island!
Like I said, this was pretty much our only choice for a hotel Friday night near (20 miles away from) Kona. It also turned out to be a great choice. We made it to the Marriott by 10:30 for a quick easy check-in. They put us in a good-sized room with a king bed and pull-out couch, and told us the pool is open 24 hours. Perfect! It’s like 3:30 in the morning for us! We woke up at some point much later to a great view, I bought one breakfast plate to go for like $18 which was plenty for Bonnie and me, and the boys ate the breakfast we had packed. We made the most of our morning there at the beach and in the pools. There are 5 pools of all different depths and a couple of hot tubs as well as a nice water slide that Shaun tested using every form and technique possible. Dean and I did a bit of snorkeling there around the reef and swimming in the protected water. There were only a few fish but there were turtles which are always cool to follow around.
The beach in front of the Marriott isn’t very wide, so the one thing it lacks is enough room to go for a walk of any distance down the beach. In the hotel, pool and beach areas the Marriott Wiakoloa felt like a resort with nothing else around. Actually it’s not at all – within maybe 5 minutes walk are shopping areas and several restaurants. I would have preferred that aspect at Wiakoloa over Hapuna Beach Prince where you are basically captive to the resort for anything you didn’t bring in with you.
After checking out Saturday we drove to Wiamea for lunch at Merrimans which was excellent as recommended by The Big Island Revealed book, which we used pretty much the whole time when deciding where to go. I definitely recommend getting the latest version of the Hawaii Revealed book or ebook for the island you go to on a first trip to any of the Hawaiian Islands.
From Wiamea we continued on Saddle Road between Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa to Hilo and on up to our vacation rental in Volcano.
It was not nearly as cool as Kirsten’s treehouse, but it was perfect for us. The one problem we have with VRBO properties is the 3-day minimum that many of them have. I found one that offered a 2-day stay – Ohia Paniolo – on VRBO for a 2-bedroom house in a great rainforest setting with a hot tub. Perfect for the cooler temperatures up at 4,000 feet! It is in a small quiet neighborhood less than 3 miles from the National Park entry and nicely landscaped for privacy – from the street only the carport is visible, and the feeling from the front porch as well as the hot tub area behind the carport is one of total privacy. The house didn’t have or need air conditioning, but we used the small portable heater each morning for a few minutes. As usual at all of the VRBO properties we’ve stayed at, the owner went above and beyond to welcome us and make sure we had everything we could need for our stay. Fresh fruit, everything we needed for a pancake breakfast, cinnamon bread, chocolate and a very well stocked kitchen waited for us. Compared to any hotel, vacation rentals win every time for us on parking, internet, laundry, privacy and all the things you get nickel-and-dimed for at hotels. The total for 2 nights including cleaning and tax was $340.
After getting settled, we headed out for the National Park and made stops at several of the lookouts into the Halema’uma’u Crater on Kiluea. Unfortunately there was no lava flow visible, only the steam coming from the boiling pit of lava in the crater.
We went on to Thurston’s Lava Tube which is a really nice rainforest hike
interrupted highlighted by a walk through one of Kiluea’s lava tubes.
Continuing on down chain of Craters Road took us past one crater after another and through each of the lava flows from the 1960s to 1990s. The varying lava landscapes are just awesome and otherworldly until finally you reach the lava cliffs that are fighting the open Pacific Ocean as the lava adds to the island while the sea tries to take it back. At the end of Chain of Craters Road is the Holei Sea Arch where we watched a great sunset.
We spent most of Sunday morning driving around the Punalu’u blach sand beach and Pahoa.
Some of the Pahoa area is threatened by lava flows right now, and likely to be cut in half and completely cut off from Hilo (a few miles away) within the next two months or so. We got to where we could see smoke from the slowly advancing lava, but it wasn’t out into any accessible area yet. The sleepy little neighborhood that is in danger of being burned to the ground was closed except to residents.
This part of the island is a little rough (maybe a lot rough in some areas) but we really enjoyed just driving around and exploring the wildness of it. A light rain chased us back to our rental house for lunch, some hot tub time and a little work that had to be done before we went back up to the National Park to watch darkness fall over the crater and see it go from having a slightly pink tinged smoke to glowing orange.
We never really adjusted to the 5 hour time difference, so we were up around 5:30 as usual Monday morning. We ate breakfast, packed our stuff and headed up to check out the rainforest, valleys and waterfalls North of Hilo.
That wound up being perfect timing as thunderstorms rolled in just as we turned West towards Waimea. They followed us to the dry side of the island and then didn’t really bother us at all, giving us some great stormy sky views from Hapuna Beach instead.
Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel
Hapuna Beach Prince Hotel was very nice. The lobby at Hapuna Beach Prince isn’t air conditioned as it looks out onto the restaurants, pool and beach below. Sure enough the first thing they gave us at the check-in counter was damp towels and juice. The kids thought that was just hilarious – everyone there came from an unconditioned airport and is planning to spend most of their time outside but has to cool themselves off with a towel to check in?! They clearly need to read more trip reports by people with more
class money than us!
I just had one little problem with the resort setting at Hapuna Beach Prince: You paid for a room, and you get one. Everything else is extra. It’s kind of odd to me – low cost airlines are derided for charging for everything on a couple hour flight, but midpriced hotels almost always include far more than higher-end hotels. It has always made no sense to me how they manage to charge for internet that usually doesn’t work as well as the free internet at a Holiday Inn Express. One little detail made it all worthwhile to us, though. I somehow left Bonnie’s crutches at the vacation rental. Not a big deal as long as she’s using her prostetic leg, but it can’t go in the water. So I was looking at a half hour trip to the
cashback drug store for some $50 crutches that don’t fold and we probably can’t even take home, or a 4 hour roundtrip back to Volcano. Plan C: maybe they have a pair they could loan us at the hotel. Sure enough, they had 3 or 4 pairs of crutches and we I didn’t have to burn a bunch of time just to help Bonnie get into the water. That was great service for us!
I hadn’t booked a luau before leaving, and the only time we really had for one was Monday night. However, the storms that had followed us across the island were dumping rain on everything South of us including the hotel where I finally reserved a luau. So we cancelled and ate at The Coast, Hapuna’s restaurant. It was very good, with prices to match.
As usual for our travels, our last day (Tuesday) was the only time we slowed down and spent a little time doing nothing. Except Dean who worked on homework for the 3 school days missed.
Both boys had talked to their teachers in advance and gotten work they needed to avoid missing out or falling behind. We have always been fortunate with schools and teachers who are reasonable and understanding of missing a couple of days of school. The fact that they have good grades, near-perfect attendance outside of our travels, and come home talking about the history and geography they got to experience probably helps!
If you visit the Big Island via Kona, unless you’re island-hopping, you’ll be flying out around 10:00 P.M. You don’t need to wait around the hotel for dinner – the perfect great quick dinner is about 4 miles South of the airport at Pine Tree Cafe. They serve Hawaiian and Asian food plates as well as burgers and sandwiches, likely as good as or better than what you’d get at the hotel and half the price. Kona airport is basically all outdoors which has to be really hot at sometimes and downright miserable in the rare cases when it rains there. Otherwise it’s really cool. The airport Tuesday night was full of extremely fit people from all over the world as the Ironman triathletes were headed back home. So yeah, we had to pass on $3200 in Delta vouchers and 2 more days on the Big Island with our hotel and rental car all paid for by Delta… Schedules suck! Our trip home was a little less backwards with stops in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City and, other than the sort of creepy 1950s-hospitalesque tunnel between terminals 5 and 6 at LAX, all smooth sailing.
For this trip that gave us 4 days on the ground in Hawaii, we wound up spending $320 total on airfare. Hotels cost 16K AA miles, 21.5K Arrival points and $380 cash including parking and resort fees. The car rental cost 15K Chase UR points. And we earned 36K Alaska miles for the flights.New crutches added $53.
This wound up being a long report, thanks for reading! I have a couple of things leftover: one Delta drink coupon, one Delta lounge pass (both expire 12/30/14) and a nice clean copy of The Big Island Revealed guidebook. Just leave a comment if you’ll be able to put any of these to good use, and I’ll get it in the mail to you!
A couple more words on mistake fares
They don’t happen on domestic fares very frequently. I don’t rely on dumb luck to find them anymore, though. I follow theflightdeal, get notifications of new posts on Flyertalk, Travel Codex and Saverocity forums, and network with some local friends. Like I wrote about here, mistake fares and great deals aren’t likely to be of any use to you unless you do some dummy trip planning and are ready to book trips on a moment’s notice. Points With a Crew also has a good post on planning for mistakes (sounds kind of funny, doesn’t it?) here. Remember: the cancellation policy is your friend!