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MONTREAL—Its cobblestone streets and French architecture make Old Montreal, the original settlement on the St. Lawrence Seaway, compelling. But Montreal, now 376 years old, also has much to offer in its surrounding neighbourhoods. From the new restaurants of the Gay Village to the annually updated murals of the Plateau and the trendy shopping of Mile End, the city’s districts make a strong case for buying a subway pass. Street festivals, outdoor performances, pop-up markets: Montreal so likes to mingle that even tourism boosters call it “the smoking and drinking section of Canada.” Come for the innovative food and drink — namely, the recently opened natural wine bars, speakeasies and restaurants serving Quebecois small plates — and stay for the culture, especially the new mural tours, digital light shows and symphonic experiments.

Friday3 p.m. Meet Montreal’s masters

The expansive Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is known for its vast collection, including encyclopedic holdings of graphic and decorative arts. Narrow it down by focusing on its Quebecois and Canadian art housed in a former Romanesque Revival church, one of five pavilions at the museum. Start at the top level with Inuit art and work your way down over five more levels, progressing from the 1700s to the 1970s. This is an immersive dive into Quebecois painting and the talents of Montrealers specifically, starring the moody landscapes of James Wilson Morrice, 1920s modernist portraits from the Beaver Hall Group, the urban landscapes of Marc-Aurèle Fortin and the abstractions by Jean-Paul Riopelle.

6 p.m. Cathedral of Light

Montreal is a city filled with churches, but few match the architectural splendour of the 19th-century Notre-Dame Basilica whose original Protestant designer, James O’Donnell, was so moved by the work that he converted to Catholicism when he finished the job. In its new sound and light show, Aura (admission, $24.50), the neo-Gothic interiors get the 21st-century digital treatment from Moment Factory, the Montreal-based multimedia studio that is also responsible for the climate-influenced lighting of the river-spanning Jacques Cartier Bridge. The 20-minute sound-and-light spectacle traces the arches, columns, altar and vaulted ceiling in colourful rays and uses them as canvases for projected images of lightning, shooting stars, crashing waves and autumnal leaves, all of which generate non-denominational awe.

7:30 p.m. Village People

When chef Antonin Mousseau-Rivard opened Le Mousso in 2015, it became an instant classic for inventive set-menu meals in a laid-back setting where diners could hear the jovial staff shouting out orders in the subterranean kitchen. Now the team has expanded, opening Le Petit Mousso, offering an à la carte sample of Le Mousso in the original space and moving its parent next door. The menu changes frequently but may include bites like a foie gras nub within a cloud of cotton candy and crab folded taco-style in a thin slice of rutabaga (dishes run from about $15 to $85). The grazing format makes it easier to hit two hot spots in one trip to the Gay Village neighbourhood. Head around the corner to Caribbean-rum-centric Agrikol, backed by Win Butler and Régine Chassagne of the band Arcade Fire, for Haitian beignets and a ti-punch.

Saturday10 a.m. Street Art Stroll

In the past five years, the commercial buildings lining St.-Laurent Boulevard in the Plateau district have emerged as a gallery for street artists in Montreal, and many of the walls are painted over during its annual Mural Festival in June. Take a two-hour walk ($25) to two dozen of these vibrant works with the mural tour from Spade Palacio, an innovative company run by Montrealers Danny Pavlopoulos and Anne-Marie Pellerin, who are so keen on their city they leave tour-goers with a list of their favourite bars, breweries, coffee shops and restaurants. The tour visits Kevin Ledo’s monumental portrait of the late Leonard Cohen; local street artist Fluke’s depiction of Jackie Robinson, who first played professional baseball in Montreal; and a 2018 contribution by Michael Reeder facing the mural-ringed parking lot that is the centre of the annual festival.

Noon. A Storied Sandwich

Montreal is known for its bagels, but its Jewish community has also made smoked meat a culinary centrepiece of the city’s delicatessens. Join the line at Schwartz’s Deli, which has been smoking brisket since Reuben Schwartz, an immigrant from Romania, opened shop in 1928. The narrow room festooned in old press clippings is perpetually crowded, and good cheer prevails at shared tables and counter stools. The substantial smoked meat sandwich ($9.95) comes with a generous dousing of yellow mustard and is accompanied by a large dill pickle and a black cherry soda.

1 p.m. Style by the Mile

Montreal’s creative class — a group that includes Cirque du Soleil performers, and digital art and video game makers who helped the city earn UNESCO’s City of Design distinction — surfaces in striking street fashion, and the Mile End neighbourhood is the best place to shop for Montreal-made style. Annex Vintage combines carefully selected thrift items with Stay Home Club T-shirts, pins and patches. Designer Sabina Barilà sells her vintage-inspired wrap dresses and striped palazzo pants at La Montréalaise Atelier. Yul Designs showcases the work of local fashion, graphics, housewares and jewelry designers. Lowell Mtl sells locally made leather bags, with several styles named after Montreal neighbourhoods. Nearby cafés provide ample respite, including Brooklyn Cantine, where sidewalk seating consists of vintage folding lawn chairs, or the competing bagel shops Fairmount and St-Viateur.

5 p.m. A Movable Feast

Judging by the number of new wine bars, Montrealers love natural wine. Follow the throngs to the new Mon Lapin in Little Italy. From the owners of the acclaimed restaurant Joe Beef, Mon Lapin (meaning My Rabbit) serves mostly small plates on a daily-changing menu — recent dishes included peppered whelks ($13) and duck with rhubarb ($25) — in a small and perpetually packed room decorated in cheeky rabbit-themed art. The place does not take reservations, so if you are squeezed out, head over to Montréal Plaza. Its partners, Charles-Antoine Crête and Cheryl Johnson, formerly worked at the high-end Le Toqué downtown. Here, in an energetic brasserie with an open kitchen, they let their hair down — the Star Wars theme song plays during birthday celebrations — but keep culinary standards high. Specials may include succulent lobster salad that arrives under the shell ($25) or veal heart shaved in a salad ($21).

8 p.m. Culture Trip

Montreal’s cultural scene covers the spectrum, from circus troops and comedy festivals to theatre in both English and French, the Montreal Opera, Grand Ballet and the symphony. The multi-venue Place des Arts makes one-stop shopping for many performing arts companies. A ticket to the Montréal Symphony Orchestra, directed by conductor Kent Nagano, provides entree to the acoustically state-of-the-art, 2,100-seat concert hall the Maison Symphonique de Montréal, where programming ranges from the classics to science fiction soundtracks.

10 p.m. Speakeasy Hour

Those in the know in Montreal scuttle off to drink at secret addresses in increasingly hard-to-find bars. Among a pair of newcomers, the Coldroom in Old Montreal is marked by a black door with a duck logo in the cement threshold. Ring the bell and a staffer guides you through a warren of pipelined stairways to the basement bar, a circa 1887 cold storage cellar, where bartenders specialize in seasonal cocktails like summer’s gin-basil-cucumber-green-strawberry Starling ($13). Even more discrete, the Cloakroom Bar in the Golden Square Mile is concealed behind a mirror in a men’s clothing shop. Only 25 people can squeeze into the walk-in-closet-size space where bartenders fittingly mix up made-to-order cocktails based on your flavour preferences (starting around $16).

Sunday9 a.m. DIY river tour

Montreal has 650 kilometres of bike paths and an extensive shared bike system called Bixi ($5 for one day; download the Bixi app for maps to bike stations). Pick one up near the river in the Old Port and follow the St. Lawrence to a series of riverside architectural sites starting with Habitat 67, the influential housing project of stacked boxes designed by architect Moshe Safdie for Expo 67. Catch the roughly 9-mile bike path that follows the park-buffered Lachine Canal past the grain silos that attest to the area’s industrial heritage, repurposed warehouses and plenty of new construction. Double back to the canal-side Atwater Market, one of Montreal’s lively green markets, to browse the bakeries, butcher shops, cheese mongers and flower stalls with a café au lait in hand from Première Moisson Atwater bakery.

11 a.m. Anglophile brunch

Reward your cycling efforts with brunch at the grand Bar George, newly opened in what was once the elaborate 1880-vintage home of Sir George Stephen, the former president of the Bank of Montreal and the Canadian Pacific Railway. Grab a seat at the oval bar in the main lounge to gorge visually on 300-year-old stained glass, the carved Ceylon satinwood ceiling and Italian onyx fireplace (impressive even in its day, the house was temporarily dismantled in 1893 and exhibited at the World’s Fair in Chicago). Savour it over George’s full English breakfast ($20), including black pudding and a Bloody Caesar ($11), Canada’s favourite eye-opener.

Lodging

St.-Laurent Boulevard threads through three distinct neighbourhoods — the Plateau, Mile End and Little Italy — that are popular on Airbnb, easily reached by bus and close to the Metro Orange line subway. One-bedroom apartments, condos and lofts in these areas tend to cost between $42 and $128. Airbnb.com.

The modern new Hôtel Monville near Old Montreal has 269 loftlike rooms with window walls, a lobby papered in black and white photos of city landmarks, staff uniforms designed by the local brand Frank and Oak and room service delivery by robot. Rooms from $198; 1041 Bleury St., hotelmonville.com.

Newly renovated, the 950-room Fairmont the Queen Elizabeth now has a trendy lobby bar, Nacarat, and a gourmet food court, Artisans. Guests can splurge on room 1742, the room where John Lennon and Yoko Ono staged their 1969 “bed-in” protest of the Vietnam War, newly decorated in period style. Rooms from $299; 900 René Lévesque Boulevard West, Fairmont.com/queen-elizabeth-montrea



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A scramble, but worth it for the rewards points

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On the shortest day of 2017, a day with less than eight hours of daylight available in my corner of the Northern Hemisphere, I squandered any opportunity I had to soak up some vitamin D, choosing instead to sit in planes and airports. I was a woman on a mission. An inane, pathetic mission, but a mission nonetheless.

Three weeks earlier, I had decided to fly from Baltimore to Providence, Rhode Island, have lunch with a friend, then return home in time for dinner. Projected time on planes: two hours, 30 minutes. Projected time in airports: three hours. Projected time in cabs to and from airports: 70 minutes. Estimated time in Providence, not counting airport or taxi: two hours, 20 minutes. And that was if nothing went wrong — a big “if” four days before Christmas.

There are four benefits to Southwest’s A List: priority boarding, free same-day standby, priority check-in and security lane access, and a 25-per-cent earning bonus on every ticket purchased.
There are four benefits to Southwest’s A List: priority boarding, free same-day standby, priority check-in and security lane access, and a 25-per-cent earning bonus on every ticket purchased.  (Ariel Davis / The New York Times)

No, I was not delivering an organ for transplant, although that should have been my cover story. I was on a quest to earn 297 TQPs — tier qualifying points — in the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards program. Since 2009, I have effortlessly qualified for the airline’s A List program, in part because I was on book tour every year except 2013. In the heady days of 2014, I made it to the next level, A List Preferred, minutes before the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve.

Last year, however, I once again didn’t publish a book. As the year wound down, the graphs showing my progress toward the A List remained stubbornly fixed at 34,703 TQPs and 20 flights.

To qualify for 2018, I needed either 35,000 TQPs or 25 flights by Dec. 31. There was no weekend in which I could travel, no weeknight available for me to be away from my chaotic household. My one business trip in December was to New York, where it made no sense to fly Southwest, as the only non-stop flights are to Islip on Long Island. The almost-three-hour regional Amtrak was the far better bargain in terms of time.

You might have inferred by now that I am a bit of a travel nerd, someone who knows that Dulles Airport is abbreviated IAD, that one should never use the ladies’ room closest to the gate of your just-arrived plane and that TSA personnel at New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong International Airport excel at finding forgotten corkscrews in carry-ons. During my daughter’s toddler years, I could break down her stroller faster than most travellers can remove their shoes. I sincerely loved the 2004 to 2005 reality show “Airline,” which showcased Southwest staff.

I’m also a grade-grubber, and the very name of Southwest’s loyalty program, A List, brings out the worst in me. Obviously.

So I found the two easiest day trips out of Baltimore: Providence and Raleigh, N.C. No contest: While Raleigh is closer, Providence is both cheaper and home to my friend, novelist Ann Hood, who is always up for lunch. And as a former flight attendant who has more airline miles than any civilian I know, Ann understands insane loyalty to a loyalty program. She evinced no shock at my idea, just booked a table at Camille’s, an Italian restaurant in Providence’s Federal Hill neighbourhood.

You may wonder what was at stake in all of this, what benefits one reaps from Southwest’s A List. There are four: priority boarding, free same-day standby, priority check-in and security lane access, and a 25 per cent earning bonus on every ticket purchased.

Because I’m a Global Entry Program member and therefore usually a TSA Precheck flyer, Southwest’s “Fly By” priority lane doesn’t matter to me. But given Southwest’s open-seating policy, priority boarding is important. If you’re A List, the airline automatically checks you in 36 hours before the flight, all but guaranteeing a spot in A, the first boarding group. Otherwise, the ticket-holder needs to check in exactly 24 hours before the flight to get the best boarding position available — or pay an extra $15 (U.S.) for Early Bird check-in.

I know, I know: I’m playing for peanuts, a teeny, tiny bag of honey-roasted peanuts, but I care about priority boarding. There is only one cabin class on Southwest, so one can’t aspire to an upgrade. If I didn’t qualify for A List in 2018, I would have to pay for Early Bird or resign myself to a year in the B or C groups. If I flew 20 flights on Southwest, as I had in 2017, Early Bird fees would add up to $300. A round-trip ticket to Providence, booked three weeks in advance, cost $230.96. That represents a saving of almost $70. The Points Guy blog values Southwest A List benefits at $685, with priority boarding accounting for $250 of that total.

But those are all facts gathered after the fact. I got on that plane to Providence — which left 20 minutes late, cutting into my on-ground, out-of-airport time in Rhode Island — sure of only two things: I would have the 297 points I needed even if the plane had to turn around after takeoff, and I was probably going to have veal parmesan for lunch.

Why does A-list status matter to me? First, modern plane travel is dehumanizing and demoralizing. I am loyal to Southwest because the employees tend to be cheerful, instead of giving off the prison-guard vibe I’ve encountered on some other airlines. It’s also the busiest carrier at the airport 20 minutes from my house, with the most flights in and out.

Finally, I am conflict-averse. I don’t want to scramble for bin space or aisle seats. Boarding early limits testy encounters.

Yet I feel squirmy admitting this. The rigid delineations among tiers in loyalty programs are uncomfortably vivid metaphors for the way we live now, no matter how euphemistic the terms. (I’m “Ruby” on OneWorld flights, which sounds impressive. It’s not.) In the spring of 2015, I flew to New Orleans with my mother, a once avid traveller who had been homebound in the last years of my father’s life. I accompanied her in the regular security line; in the time it took us to clear it, my husband and daughter sailed through the PreCheck line and ate a sit-down lunch. This irked me. No one enjoys a perceived drop in status, no matter how small the stakes. Once you stop taking off your shoes in airports, you want to keep them on.

The morning after my flight to Providence, my Rapid Rewards account showed me back on the A List. I needed only 34,813 more TQPs or 28 flights to get onto A List Preferred; the catch was that I had only nine days left to achieve this. The only way to do that would have been to fly Business Select round-trip to Los Angeles at least three times, which would have cost more than $3,000. I passed.

But now the game is afoot again. This year, I have angled to take Southwest flights whenever possible on my book tour. (Email to publicist: “What if, instead of flying from Gainesville to Baltimore via Charlotte, I drive 90 minutes to Jacksonville and take a non-stop Southwest flight home?”) By April 9, I qualified for the A List. Now, A List preferred — valued by the Points Guy at $2,935 — is 13,685 points (or 14 flights) away.

So maybe this December I’ll return to Providence for another veal parm and a glass or two of nebbiolo. Although I was careful with the wine at lunch: I know from watching “Airline” that inebriated passengers will be denied boarding. Not even A List status can save you from that. Although I do have four drink coupons for qualifying again.



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Travel & Escape

A scramble, but worth it for the rewards points

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On the shortest day of 2017, a day with less than eight hours of daylight available in my corner of the Northern Hemisphere, I squandered any opportunity I had to soak up some vitamin D, choosing instead to sit in planes and airports. I was a woman on a mission. An inane, pathetic mission, but a mission nonetheless.

Three weeks earlier, I had decided to fly from Baltimore to Providence, Rhode Island, have lunch with a friend, then return home in time for dinner. Projected time on planes: two hours, 30 minutes. Projected time in airports: three hours. Projected time in cabs to and from airports: 70 minutes. Estimated time in Providence, not counting airport or taxi: two hours, 20 minutes. And that was if nothing went wrong — a big “if” four days before Christmas.

There are four benefits to Southwest’s A List: priority boarding, free same-day standby, priority check-in and security lane access, and a 25-per-cent earning bonus on every ticket purchased.
There are four benefits to Southwest’s A List: priority boarding, free same-day standby, priority check-in and security lane access, and a 25-per-cent earning bonus on every ticket purchased.  (Ariel Davis / The New York Times)

No, I was not delivering an organ for transplant, although that should have been my cover story. I was on a quest to earn 297 TQPs — tier qualifying points — in the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards program. Since 2009, I have effortlessly qualified for the airline’s A List program, in part because I was on book tour every year except 2013. In the heady days of 2014, I made it to the next level, A List Preferred, minutes before the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve.

Last year, however, I once again didn’t publish a book. As the year wound down, the graphs showing my progress toward the A List remained stubbornly fixed at 34,703 TQPs and 20 flights.

To qualify for 2018, I needed either 35,000 TQPs or 25 flights by Dec. 31. There was no weekend in which I could travel, no weeknight available for me to be away from my chaotic household. My one business trip in December was to New York, where it made no sense to fly Southwest, as the only non-stop flights are to Islip on Long Island. The almost-three-hour regional Amtrak was the far better bargain in terms of time.

You might have inferred by now that I am a bit of a travel nerd, someone who knows that Dulles Airport is abbreviated IAD, that one should never use the ladies’ room closest to the gate of your just-arrived plane and that TSA personnel at New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong International Airport excel at finding forgotten corkscrews in carry-ons. During my daughter’s toddler years, I could break down her stroller faster than most travellers can remove their shoes. I sincerely loved the 2004 to 2005 reality show “Airline,” which showcased Southwest staff.

I’m also a grade-grubber, and the very name of Southwest’s loyalty program, A List, brings out the worst in me. Obviously.

So I found the two easiest day trips out of Baltimore: Providence and Raleigh, N.C. No contest: While Raleigh is closer, Providence is both cheaper and home to my friend, novelist Ann Hood, who is always up for lunch. And as a former flight attendant who has more airline miles than any civilian I know, Ann understands insane loyalty to a loyalty program. She evinced no shock at my idea, just booked a table at Camille’s, an Italian restaurant in Providence’s Federal Hill neighbourhood.

You may wonder what was at stake in all of this, what benefits one reaps from Southwest’s A List. There are four: priority boarding, free same-day standby, priority check-in and security lane access, and a 25 per cent earning bonus on every ticket purchased.

Because I’m a Global Entry Program member and therefore usually a TSA Precheck flyer, Southwest’s “Fly By” priority lane doesn’t matter to me. But given Southwest’s open-seating policy, priority boarding is important. If you’re A List, the airline automatically checks you in 36 hours before the flight, all but guaranteeing a spot in A, the first boarding group. Otherwise, the ticket-holder needs to check in exactly 24 hours before the flight to get the best boarding position available — or pay an extra $15 (U.S.) for Early Bird check-in.

I know, I know: I’m playing for peanuts, a teeny, tiny bag of honey-roasted peanuts, but I care about priority boarding. There is only one cabin class on Southwest, so one can’t aspire to an upgrade. If I didn’t qualify for A List in 2018, I would have to pay for Early Bird or resign myself to a year in the B or C groups. If I flew 20 flights on Southwest, as I had in 2017, Early Bird fees would add up to $300. A round-trip ticket to Providence, booked three weeks in advance, cost $230.96. That represents a saving of almost $70. The Points Guy blog values Southwest A List benefits at $685, with priority boarding accounting for $250 of that total.

But those are all facts gathered after the fact. I got on that plane to Providence — which left 20 minutes late, cutting into my on-ground, out-of-airport time in Rhode Island — sure of only two things: I would have the 297 points I needed even if the plane had to turn around after takeoff, and I was probably going to have veal parmesan for lunch.

Why does A-list status matter to me? First, modern plane travel is dehumanizing and demoralizing. I am loyal to Southwest because the employees tend to be cheerful, instead of giving off the prison-guard vibe I’ve encountered on some other airlines. It’s also the busiest carrier at the airport 20 minutes from my house, with the most flights in and out.

Finally, I am conflict-averse. I don’t want to scramble for bin space or aisle seats. Boarding early limits testy encounters.

Yet I feel squirmy admitting this. The rigid delineations among tiers in loyalty programs are uncomfortably vivid metaphors for the way we live now, no matter how euphemistic the terms. (I’m “Ruby” on OneWorld flights, which sounds impressive. It’s not.) In the spring of 2015, I flew to New Orleans with my mother, a once avid traveller who had been homebound in the last years of my father’s life. I accompanied her in the regular security line; in the time it took us to clear it, my husband and daughter sailed through the PreCheck line and ate a sit-down lunch. This irked me. No one enjoys a perceived drop in status, no matter how small the stakes. Once you stop taking off your shoes in airports, you want to keep them on.

The morning after my flight to Providence, my Rapid Rewards account showed me back on the A List. I needed only 34,813 more TQPs or 28 flights to get onto A List Preferred; the catch was that I had only nine days left to achieve this. The only way to do that would have been to fly Business Select round-trip to Los Angeles at least three times, which would have cost more than $3,000. I passed.

But now the game is afoot again. This year, I have angled to take Southwest flights whenever possible on my book tour. (Email to publicist: “What if, instead of flying from Gainesville to Baltimore via Charlotte, I drive 90 minutes to Jacksonville and take a non-stop Southwest flight home?”) By April 9, I qualified for the A List. Now, A List preferred — valued by the Points Guy at $2,935 — is 13,685 points (or 14 flights) away.

So maybe this December I’ll return to Providence for another veal parm and a glass or two of nebbiolo. Although I was careful with the wine at lunch: I know from watching “Airline” that inebriated passengers will be denied boarding. Not even A List status can save you from that. Although I do have four drink coupons for qualifying again.



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Travel & Escape

A scramble, but worth it for the rewards points

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on

By


On the shortest day of 2017, a day with less than eight hours of daylight available in my corner of the Northern Hemisphere, I squandered any opportunity I had to soak up some vitamin D, choosing instead to sit in planes and airports. I was a woman on a mission. An inane, pathetic mission, but a mission nonetheless.

Three weeks earlier, I had decided to fly from Baltimore to Providence, Rhode Island, have lunch with a friend, then return home in time for dinner. Projected time on planes: two hours, 30 minutes. Projected time in airports: three hours. Projected time in cabs to and from airports: 70 minutes. Estimated time in Providence, not counting airport or taxi: two hours, 20 minutes. And that was if nothing went wrong — a big “if” four days before Christmas.

There are four benefits to Southwest’s A List: priority boarding, free same-day standby, priority check-in and security lane access, and a 25-per-cent earning bonus on every ticket purchased.
There are four benefits to Southwest’s A List: priority boarding, free same-day standby, priority check-in and security lane access, and a 25-per-cent earning bonus on every ticket purchased.  (Ariel Davis / The New York Times)

No, I was not delivering an organ for transplant, although that should have been my cover story. I was on a quest to earn 297 TQPs — tier qualifying points — in the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards program. Since 2009, I have effortlessly qualified for the airline’s A List program, in part because I was on book tour every year except 2013. In the heady days of 2014, I made it to the next level, A List Preferred, minutes before the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve.

Last year, however, I once again didn’t publish a book. As the year wound down, the graphs showing my progress toward the A List remained stubbornly fixed at 34,703 TQPs and 20 flights.

To qualify for 2018, I needed either 35,000 TQPs or 25 flights by Dec. 31. There was no weekend in which I could travel, no weeknight available for me to be away from my chaotic household. My one business trip in December was to New York, where it made no sense to fly Southwest, as the only non-stop flights are to Islip on Long Island. The almost-three-hour regional Amtrak was the far better bargain in terms of time.

You might have inferred by now that I am a bit of a travel nerd, someone who knows that Dulles Airport is abbreviated IAD, that one should never use the ladies’ room closest to the gate of your just-arrived plane and that TSA personnel at New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong International Airport excel at finding forgotten corkscrews in carry-ons. During my daughter’s toddler years, I could break down her stroller faster than most travellers can remove their shoes. I sincerely loved the 2004 to 2005 reality show “Airline,” which showcased Southwest staff.

I’m also a grade-grubber, and the very name of Southwest’s loyalty program, A List, brings out the worst in me. Obviously.

So I found the two easiest day trips out of Baltimore: Providence and Raleigh, N.C. No contest: While Raleigh is closer, Providence is both cheaper and home to my friend, novelist Ann Hood, who is always up for lunch. And as a former flight attendant who has more airline miles than any civilian I know, Ann understands insane loyalty to a loyalty program. She evinced no shock at my idea, just booked a table at Camille’s, an Italian restaurant in Providence’s Federal Hill neighbourhood.

You may wonder what was at stake in all of this, what benefits one reaps from Southwest’s A List. There are four: priority boarding, free same-day standby, priority check-in and security lane access, and a 25 per cent earning bonus on every ticket purchased.

Because I’m a Global Entry Program member and therefore usually a TSA Precheck flyer, Southwest’s “Fly By” priority lane doesn’t matter to me. But given Southwest’s open-seating policy, priority boarding is important. If you’re A List, the airline automatically checks you in 36 hours before the flight, all but guaranteeing a spot in A, the first boarding group. Otherwise, the ticket-holder needs to check in exactly 24 hours before the flight to get the best boarding position available — or pay an extra $15 (U.S.) for Early Bird check-in.

I know, I know: I’m playing for peanuts, a teeny, tiny bag of honey-roasted peanuts, but I care about priority boarding. There is only one cabin class on Southwest, so one can’t aspire to an upgrade. If I didn’t qualify for A List in 2018, I would have to pay for Early Bird or resign myself to a year in the B or C groups. If I flew 20 flights on Southwest, as I had in 2017, Early Bird fees would add up to $300. A round-trip ticket to Providence, booked three weeks in advance, cost $230.96. That represents a saving of almost $70. The Points Guy blog values Southwest A List benefits at $685, with priority boarding accounting for $250 of that total.

But those are all facts gathered after the fact. I got on that plane to Providence — which left 20 minutes late, cutting into my on-ground, out-of-airport time in Rhode Island — sure of only two things: I would have the 297 points I needed even if the plane had to turn around after takeoff, and I was probably going to have veal parmesan for lunch.

Why does A-list status matter to me? First, modern plane travel is dehumanizing and demoralizing. I am loyal to Southwest because the employees tend to be cheerful, instead of giving off the prison-guard vibe I’ve encountered on some other airlines. It’s also the busiest carrier at the airport 20 minutes from my house, with the most flights in and out.

Finally, I am conflict-averse. I don’t want to scramble for bin space or aisle seats. Boarding early limits testy encounters.

Yet I feel squirmy admitting this. The rigid delineations among tiers in loyalty programs are uncomfortably vivid metaphors for the way we live now, no matter how euphemistic the terms. (I’m “Ruby” on OneWorld flights, which sounds impressive. It’s not.) In the spring of 2015, I flew to New Orleans with my mother, a once avid traveller who had been homebound in the last years of my father’s life. I accompanied her in the regular security line; in the time it took us to clear it, my husband and daughter sailed through the PreCheck line and ate a sit-down lunch. This irked me. No one enjoys a perceived drop in status, no matter how small the stakes. Once you stop taking off your shoes in airports, you want to keep them on.

The morning after my flight to Providence, my Rapid Rewards account showed me back on the A List. I needed only 34,813 more TQPs or 28 flights to get onto A List Preferred; the catch was that I had only nine days left to achieve this. The only way to do that would have been to fly Business Select round-trip to Los Angeles at least three times, which would have cost more than $3,000. I passed.

But now the game is afoot again. This year, I have angled to take Southwest flights whenever possible on my book tour. (Email to publicist: “What if, instead of flying from Gainesville to Baltimore via Charlotte, I drive 90 minutes to Jacksonville and take a non-stop Southwest flight home?”) By April 9, I qualified for the A List. Now, A List preferred — valued by the Points Guy at $2,935 — is 13,685 points (or 14 flights) away.

So maybe this December I’ll return to Providence for another veal parm and a glass or two of nebbiolo. Although I was careful with the wine at lunch: I know from watching “Airline” that inebriated passengers will be denied boarding. Not even A List status can save you from that. Although I do have four drink coupons for qualifying again.



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