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São Tomé and Príncipe, where nature has the upper hand

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The immense wall of crumbling, whitewashed stone might have belonged to an abandoned castle. Turrets lined a roof that was no longer there and watchtowers poked the sky at each corner. This had been the province of horses, though, not kings, servicing a Portuguese cocoa plantation on the tiny island of Príncipe. All that remained inside the stone stables was rain forest overgrowth in shades of green and purple.

“This,” said my host, Claudio Torres, “is the place where you can finally confirm that nature wins.”

The former horse stable at the Roca Sundy hotel, on the island of Principe, in São Tomé and Príncipe, Sept. 18. Owner Mark Shuttleworth’s approach has to been to treat the hotel, on the site of a former plantation, as a kind of living museum.
The former horse stable at the Roca Sundy hotel, on the island of Principe, in São Tomé and Príncipe, Sept. 18. Owner Mark Shuttleworth’s approach has to been to treat the hotel, on the site of a former plantation, as a kind of living museum.  (JADA YUAN / The New York Times)

Looking at a map of the dual-island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, Africa’s second-smallest country — some 225 kilometres off the coast of Gabon, right on the equator — cannot prepare you for the otherworldly feeling you get when stepping off a plane there. Even before you land, it is difficult to imagine that those two dots of dense, tropical forest in the expanse of blue below are an entire nation.

São Tomé, the larger of the two islands, has an international airport and a Portuguese-speaking population of 200,000. Roosters wander past pink and turquoise facades threaded with wild foliage in the capital city (also called São Tomé). Drive 10 minutes and urbanity gives way to quiet fishing villages and banana groves.

It wasn’t until I got there that I realized I should have brought euros to either use or to convert to dobras — since, like many places in West and Central Africa, cash is king. Luckily, my lovely hotel, Omali Lodge, was one of the places that took credit cards. And when the banks opened after the weekend, I was able to exchange some British pounds.

Príncipe, an impossibly green island

My plan had been to stick to the main island, which is filled with enough lush rainforest, volcanic peaks and cocoa plantations to keep an intrepid tourist interested for days. But at the airport I met some workers for UN-Habitat, the United Nations agency in charge of improving human settlements, who had just returned from a project in Príncipe. One of the workers connected me with Torres, the ebullient Chilean running the project. Within a day, I was on a propeller plane to an impossibly green island with a population of around 8,000.

The only way to get to Príncipe is infrequent flights from São Tomé, or a 24-hour boat ride that locals advised me not to take. But, oh, does that effort come with rewards. UNESCO designated the entire island a biosphere reserve, and at times it feels uninhabited. The largest gathering of people I saw was at the airport watching the spectacle of our plane touching down.

Tourists, too, are relatively rare, coming from mainly Europe or elsewhere in Africa to stay at isolated eco-resorts with access to some of the world’s most pristine beaches, like the hilltop Roça Belo Monte, Bom Bom, the island’s oldest resort; or the new five-star luxury tent complex Sundy Praia, with an infinity pool right on the ocean.

I had chosen the least resort-y option, Roça Sundy, both because its lack of beach access made it more affordable and because it’s the location of the UN-Habitat project. A hotel driver picked me up for a half-hour SUV ride on a red-dirt road, past bright, elevated homes and children running to school in cream-and-navy uniforms.

Some of those children live in a community on the Roça Sundy property, just opposite the hotel entrance. When I arrived, adults were cooking breadfruit in a wood-fired, outdoor kitchen. Young men passed a soccer ball back and forth. Many others were gathered at a bench under a large tree. “It’s called banco ma’ língua,” Torres said, “which is where people go to gossip.”

I was learning many Portuguese words. A roça is a plantation. And senzalas, the small cluster of buildings where those cooks and athletes and gossipers live, were once slave quarters.

Slavery is inextricably linked to these islands. Portuguese colonialists began using São Tomé and Príncipe as slave outposts in the 15th century, bringing forced labour from African countries like Angola and Guinea there to be sent to Brazil and the West. Many captives were kept on the islands to work the fertile volcanic soil, eventually leading São Tomé and Príncipe to become the biggest cocoa producer in the world — with labour exploitation continuing long after the official abolition of slavery. Before the islands achieved independence in 1975, almost all of the land had been divided into roças.

A street view in the city of São Tomé, in São Tomé and Príncipe, Sept. 17.
A street view in the city of São Tomé, in São Tomé and Príncipe, Sept. 17.  (JADA YUAN / The New York Times)

Roça Sundy, the hotel, just opened last year. It is a project of the South African tech entrepreneur (and second tourist in space) Mark Shuttleworth. Before his HBD (Here Be Dragons) venture capital firm swooped in, it was on the verge of being acquired by a palm oil company — a business that has led to the destruction of rainforests in São Tomé. Príncipe’s citizens were so against the idea, said Torres, they went to their capital city to protest.

“Príncipe’s government has taken another path,” said Torres. “They want to preserve the island.”

Shuttleworth’s approach has to been to treat the hotel as a kind of living museum. He’s preserved the plantation house’s facade and its original grand wooden staircase and ornate ceilings. Outside, a plaque commemorates the spot where astronomer Arthur Eddington came during a solar eclipse in May 1919 and took photographs that were the first experimental test to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity.

I certainly felt conflicted staying in a former plantation house, not just as an American whose country is still reckoning with its own history of slavery, but also as a tourist who is constantly assessing the privilege of being able to travel to a place as beautiful as this. By supporting their economy and telling their stories, could I, in a very small way, help those who live here move forward?

When Príncipe’s economy collapsed after independence, its people adapted to living off the land — but that doesn’t mean they have adequate living conditions. Families of four are crammed into one-room senzalas. Most children have respiratory issues because the unelevated senzalas are filled with mould from Príncipe’s frequent rains. By request of the regional government, and with funding from HBD, U.N.-Habitat has proposed a voluntary resettlement project, with new, sustainable housing that has basic amenities. All but three of 136 households have signed on. In an effort to cater to individual needs and to give the town some character, each household has chosen its future dwelling from four designs.

As I wandered through the senzalas with Torres and Danilson Gomes, a young manfrom the community who serves as a liaison, we got a warm welcome. One woman in her 70s grabbed my hand and held it as we walked around. Others, who were introduced to me as community leaders, invited us into their homes. There is some concern that the resettlement is a way of clearing up the senzalas to accommodate expansion of the hotel. But Dani, our young guide, told me that he and his family are excited about the move. He will be leaving the island for the first time to attend a university in Portugal, but plans to come back, he said, “to help my country and help my people.”

Back to São Tomé

I thought a lot about the spirit of community here on my last day back in São Tomé. I had hired a local guide, Juliano Pina, to take me to the beaches and villages on the southern end of the island. On the way back, our SUV got hopelessly stuck in mud, three hours before my flight. A man named Ricardo who had been fishing nearby, came over and began gathering palm fronds and rocks to help with traction. More friends from his village joined in, as did another guide taking a tourist to the beach, until we had a team of nine or 10, many of them children, pushing with all their might. The car broke free. I handed out the last of my dobras, and made my flight with time to spare.

This, Juliano said, was the São Tomé way: Leave no one behind. I like to think of it as a moment when nature could have won, but chose to give us a break.



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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 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

Published

on

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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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