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Geysers, Rain and Rednecks in First Class

One of the most-common barriers to family travel is a lack of time. Parents have jobs and responsibilities. Kids have school and activity schedules. And there’s only so much you can do with a 3-day weekend. But I think if you give it a shot you’ll find the 3 day weekend trip can be an amazing experience for the whole family even if it doesn’t fit all your criteria for a ‘good vacation’. This past Labor Day weekend we flew to Jackson Hole, Wyoming on our way to Yellowstone National Park. No time off of school or work, just an awesome weekend in some of the most spectacular country we have.


On one hand, this particular trip isn’t really fair. I mean, we’re not going to tell you that you can readily expect to be able to book award travel to Jackson Hole or West Yellowstone for Labor Day weekend unless at the highest price standard award level. I happened to find out about the Delta mistake fare last December by being on Flyertalk and this is one of the trips we booked, just a few minutes before the deal died. The fare including taxes was $56.63 per person, of which I paid $220 with our Arrival card. So the total for airfare was 22,000 Arrival points and $6.52. Two nights lodging inside the park took another 24,000 Arrival points, and I got a car rental from Budget through the Chase UR mall for 8900 points. With more time to check the map and schedules, I’d have tried to use West Yellowstone airport instead of Jackson and saved about an hour of driving. Also I might have booked an overnight layover so we could leave Friday after work and get into the park early Saturday morning. Now I subscribe to several threads where mistake fares will likely be posted when they are discovered including Saverocity Quick Flight Deals which includes most of the deals that make it to The Flight Deal so I won’t have to rely on dumb luck for the next one.


Map courtesy Great Circle Mapper.

Getting there

was very straightforward and simple. We don’t check bags and, though it had a different flight number, the A319 we took from San Antonio to Salt Lake City continued on to Jackson. I had been told to sit on the right hand side for views of the Teton Mountains. I definitely recommend it.

Approaching Jackson Hole from the North. Yellowstone National Park

Approaching Jackson Hole from the North.

Flights were full being Labor Day weekend, but all on time and there was no line at the Budget/Avis desk in Jackson. It took us about 10 minutes to turn on the Prius they gave us

Hint: press the power button, press the park button, push the gearshift-looking lever up to R and down to D, press the power and park buttons again randomly, repeat until the screen indicates you have been allowed to shift into drive or reverse. This process would be repeated many times throughout the weekend. I have no idea how to actually turn on the stupid car in one attempt.

and we were on our way. Other than getting the car to start or move after getting in, we liked the Prius which only took $40 of gas over 2 days of driving to and through the parks. From Jackson, we drove up through Grand Teton Mountains National Park toward Yellowstone. I should have a picture here of Bonnie grinning next to a gift card rack with one of our favorite cards, but she won’t play along. The card I’m talking about is her National Park Access Pass. Among other things, it lets you drive wherever we want like areas of Grand Canyon National Park that you have to ride shuttle buses to without it. And all parks are free so it saved $25. If you have are traveling with a family member who is actually disabled, definitely get one. Just please don’t try to hack your way into one.

Instead of the postcard views of majestic peaks reflected on peaceful lakes, we enjoyed wild skies around the mountains as thunderstorms passed through the area. We managed to make stops at Mud Volcano and the South Rim viewing area of the Upper Falls of the Yellowstone River before it started raining steadily so we headed up towards our ‘cabin’ at Canyon Lodge.

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Upper Falls

I had read reports of dining within the park being very expensive for mediocre food, but they happily allowed both of our kids (10 and 13) to order from the kids menu, and we shared the biggest steak they offered. It was all very good and didn’t cost any more than a typical meal at a decent restaurant, so we were definitely happy with the Canyon Lodge restaurant. The next time the rain let up, we took the short drive to the North Rim of the Canyon which has several awesome viewing areas of the Yellowstone River, falls and canyon.

We stayed in what they call a Frontier Cabin at Canyon Lodge. It was basically a cheaply built plywood box of a hotel room from the 1950s (I’m guessing) but it had plenty of space and everything worked just fine. And it was way cheaper than a hotel room and in the park where we wanted to be. IMG_0130e Yellowstone National ParkI booked our rooms at Canyon Lodge as well as Old Faithful Inn back in January, and the wording on Xanterra’s website was pretty vague. It read that I was prepaying based on estimated rates and might have to pay more if the actual rate was higher than estimated. This week that adjustment was finally done, and we got a pair of $6 refunds because the actual price was lower than what we had paid!

It rained pretty hard most of Friday night which had me kind of worried. After all, bad weather is the one thing that can really screw up a short nature/outdoors trip. But by Saturday morning the rain seemed to be tapering off. We headed North and stopped at several of the turnouts for waterfalls before the few cars out on the road all came to a stop for a bison slowly walking down the road. It did a good job of staying in its lane but apparently bison drive on the left. After waiting for the other cars to do the same, we crawled past the bison about 3 feet away from it. We also saw a few elk and lots more bison in the river valleys, but nothing else up close and personal.

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The road is the easiest way to cross Dunraven Pass.

In the end we had storms off and on all day Saturday but we were able to make the full loop around the North side of the park while enjoying skies that fit the surroundings: constantly changing and wild. We had lunch in the little village of Mammoth before heading South towards the main Geyser basins, making stops along the way at the various thermal formations along the Western portion of the Grand Loop road.

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Mammoth Hot Springs from below.

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Mammoth Hot Springs from above and Mammoth in the valley.

Yellowstone National Park mapTo me, what makes Yellowstone isn’t so much any one feature (although Old Faithful and the Grand Prismatic Spring would be worth centering any trip around) but rather the amazing variety of landforms, rivers, waterfalls, geysers, hot springs, and wildlife viewing opportunities. The cool damp weather we had made getting good pictures of the thermal features difficult due to the steam and mist hanging around, but no less spectacular to see and feel. One little warning if you haven’t been: most of the boiling water seeping, flowing and spraying out of the ground is accompanied by sulphur, which really stinks.

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There’s a lot more to the Upper Geyser Basin than just Old Faithful!

Old Faithful Inn

20140831_154405 Yellowstone National ParkYou need to go to Old Faithful Inn. Even if it’s just for lunch and to watch Old Faithful erupt from the second floor deck. The original building, built from 1903-1905 is just unbelievable. Especially when you consider how completely isolated it was at that time. We stayed in one of the original rooms which was, like everything but the fireplace in the oldest areas, all wood. Logs, slabs, shingles and twisted branches for handrails, it’s all hand crafted or shaved or carved wood. The room was a pretty typical sized 2-bed hotel room. There was one minor detail missing: a bathroom. Each wing of each floor in the original building has men’s and women’s bathrooms with showers as well as separate tub rooms. I wasn’t sure what that would be like, but it was just fine. Even though the hotel was completely full on the night before labor day, we didn’t have to wait for showers and each shower has a dressing area so it’s all completely private. If the whole ‘shared bath’ thing sounds scary, they have plenty of newer rooms with private bathrooms.

While I booked our rooms way in advance, I didn’t call to make dinner reservations until the Thursday before we left and had and had only early and late choices. We often eat light and then have an early dinner anyway, so we went with a 4:30 dinner. We got to watch Old Faithful erupt from the second floor deck and then head straight downstairs for dinner. It was a little more pricey than Canyon Lodge but again the food was good and not unreasonably priced. We went for a couple different kinds of bison. After dinner we watched Old Faithful erupt again (it wasn’t as faithful and ran about 10 minutes late) and then headed out to the Grand Prismatic Spring area before driving around until after dark hoping to find some wildlife. We struck out on the wildlife but it was a great evening to be out driving around the park.

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I had to put a picture of Old Faithful in here. Go, you’ll probably get a better one!

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Grand Prismatic Spring

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Kepler Cascades

We decided to head out Monday morning after watching one more Old Faithful eruption so we’d be able to spend a little time and eat lunch by the Teton Mountains before dropping our car off by 12:30.

The clouds never did lift off the peaks for a picture, but the contrast between the alpine scenery and the peaceful valley and lake below was no less striking.

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Jenny Lake

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With this view from the terminal, who needs a lounge? Jackson Hole airport.

I have Alaska MVP status which means I should have the very lowest possible upgrade priority on Delta flights, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Of course First class checked in full, it’s Labor Day! What was I thinking asking the gate agent? Anyway we gate checked our bags like everyone else on the CRJ700 for the 35 minute flight to Slat Lake City. We had 3 hours there to get dinner and I used my AMEX Platinum to get into the Delta lounge where I asked if they had any headphones or headsets since Dean had left his behind somewhere along the way. The agent said no at first but then went digging in a drawer and came up with a pair – one someone had left behind at some point. There’s no way I was paying $12 for the cheap earbuds they sell in the terminal! Of course only one side of the ‘new’ earphones worked, but it was something. I had tried. And I gave Dean a drink coupon since you are supposed to be able to get a headset with it. Hopefully with two working speakers.

When the gate agent showed up for our flight, a 3 1/2 hour ride in another little regional jet, I went to get our gate check tags. What the heck, I might as well ask about an upgrade, there are only like 12 names on the upgrade list and none of them are mine. She looks up our ticket and says “Oh, I was looking for you. You’re on a really expensive ticket and I can upgrade you to 3 window seats if you don’t mind not sitting together.” Um, our ticket cost less than 1 tenth of the lowest price I ever could have bought a discount economy fare for, but who am I to argue? A little more tapping on her computer and “Oh, there’s 4 of you. Um, how old are your kids? Will they be ok by themselves?” So I pointed to them and said sure they’ll be fine, that would be awesome if you could upgrade us.  Sure enough, she did and gave us 4 of the 12 first class seats on the CRJ900 on account of the fact that our tickets had been booked into M class which is just below full-fare Y. We got 150% miles for both segments of the return trip as well. And 4 Medallion qualifying dollars 🙂

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Sunset shortly after takeoff. I think coach might have had a decent view too.

The funny thing is we’d never been in any kind of first class before and Bonnie and the boys had no idea what to expect. And we weren’t sitting together so I couldn’t really tell them. So while I went ahead and took a little glass of beer before we took off, they all declined any preflight drink. I mean, why? There’s already a little bottle of water here!  By the second time the flight attendants came through I had managed to let Bonnie know that it’s all free. Yes, you can have a glass of wine and you won’t need a credit card. Yes, you can take a Kit Kat AND a bag of Goldfish. And a banana if you want. Then I heard Dean from behind me when the FA asked if he wanted more water: “No, but can I trade this (drink coupon) for a headset?” She did her best not to laugh out loud, but the guy next to him didn’t bother. Silly redneck kid, how ever did he get a seat up here! She composed herself and said no, but I can get you a headset. All around, first class was fine and having room to stretch out a little was nice, but definitely not worth paying a lot extra for. So I have a couple of Delta drink coupons (exp. Dec 31, 2014) that  I will be happy to mail to the first person who leaves a comment letting me know you could use them. If you managed to read this far, you’ve earned them!

– Kenny

{ 15 comments… add one }
  • Claire September 6, 2014, 11:04 pm

    Ten minutes is very good for a first-timer. After buying my Prius, it took about a month before I figured out how to start it on the first try consistently. (For future reference, you press down on the brake and keep it down while you push the power button.) I suppose I could’ve just read the manual…

    If I’m the first comment please give drink coupons to the next person (not to be ungrateful but I don’t drink).

  • Sam Simon September 6, 2014, 11:05 pm

    No need for the drink coupon, just wanted to say I’m bookmarking this for when I have a family trip to Yellowstone someday. Great writeup, good job scoring your upgrades, and shame on the guy sitting next to Dean for having no manners. Sounds, and looks, like it was a great getaway.

  • Mel September 6, 2014, 11:15 pm

    I’ll use them on our trip to our friends wedding in map!

  • stu September 6, 2014, 11:30 pm

    Sounds like a great trip. Drink coupons please!

  • Rich September 7, 2014, 12:04 am

    I enjoyed reading your comments. My wife’s sister lives in Bozeman so we got to visit Yellowstone last year. I don’t really need the drink coupons either. Can I suggest that you give them to an active duty military member? They are underpaid and under-appreciated. I used to be one, so I know 🙂

  • HaleyB September 7, 2014, 12:07 am

    I love Yellowstone and had a little bit of travel envy when I saw you were there.

    The Friday before Labor Day I was at a local glass studio for a talk by a glass artist, Richard Parish, that lives outside of Yellowstone. He had the most fantastic photos (and showed us an interesting teqnique as well). Not as exciting as a great mistake fare, but still pretty cool.

    We were in business/1st last month due to a lack of last minute sAAver award space in coach. With the 7.5k(rt) mile discount that comes with the Citi cards it was only a few extra miles to book a us up a class and it got us a slightly less horrible flight time.

    I don’t have use for drink coupons either. Next person, maybe?

  • Elaine September 7, 2014, 12:34 am

    Loved the photos and the write up. Sounds like a super family trip. You do make the most of your weekends!

  • Kenny September 7, 2014, 12:56 am

    @Claire Thanks for the tip. Now I’ll be all set if I wind up with another Prius.
    @Sam Thanks a lot!
    @Mel and Stu I emailed each of you. The drink tickets are gone, cheers!
    @Rich Thanks, we loved Yellowstone and would have loved to spend a week there. But two days is better than none!
    @HaleyB For sure, sometimes there are only business or first class seats. I’ll take free over not free.
    @Elaine Thanks, we have been able to have a lot of fun thanks to some great deals!

  • Narayan September 7, 2014, 7:21 am

    Kenny, definitely looks like you had a lot of fun there. I have been bookmarking most of your trip posts and booking posts. Hopefully will help me when we are ready to get there!!

  • Hua September 7, 2014, 3:47 pm

    Sounds like a great trip with some great deals! I am curious about one thing, though — you said that Dean was given a headset on the CRJ-900 from SLC to SAT. It has been a long time since I last flew a DL CRJ-900, but I wasn’t aware they had any kind of IFE (other than GoGo) — did this plane actually have IFE of some kind or were the headphones used for a personal device of some kind?

  • Kenny September 7, 2014, 4:09 pm

    @Narayan Thanks, we definitely recommend it!
    @Hua I didn’t think they would have any onboard either, hence the visit to the lounge. There was no IFE of any kind but they did have a headset to give him so he could use his ipod.

    • Hua September 7, 2014, 11:02 pm

      Gotcha! Wait… So the f/a on the Delta Connection flight actually had headphones available?

      • Kenny September 7, 2014, 11:42 pm

        Yep! I was a little surprised at that too.

        • Hua September 8, 2014, 1:36 am

          Wow… That’s surprising / impressive. Although if it was SkyWest they do seem to be a little better than the other regionals.

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