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36 hours in Tucson | The Star

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TUCSON, ARIZ.—As Austin is to Texas, Tucson is to Arizona. In this outspoken university town, artists, intellectuals and athletes share their passions for good food and outdoor fun. In Tucson’s case, its location in the southern Sonoran Desert divides two sections of scenic Saguaro National Park where cactuses reside in multi-limbed groves. Two years ago, UNESCO cited Tucson as the nation’s first City of Gastronomy, highlighting its mix of Native American, colonial Spanish and border Mexican influences. That recognition seems only to have lit the fuse on new and adventurous breweries and distilleries as well as restaurants. With challenging urban hikes, other, more remote, trails nearby, and a new bike share system, Tucson makes for a calorically balanced weekend.

Friday

1) 1:30 p.m. Tour de Tucson

Reliably dry weather and a variety of terrain have made Tucson, newly home to a bike share system, popular with cyclists. For an overview of the city from the saddle, take an introductory ride with Tucson Bike Tours ($50). The owner, Jimmy Bultman, provides bright orange upright Civia bikes, helmets and commentary on city history and culture as he guides cyclists through neighbourhoods of vintage adobe homes that ring downtown. The route surveys Tucson’s history pre- and post-railroad arrival in 1880, when the city transformed from a sleepy town with a Spanish fort into a shipping centre. Risk adobe-envy in restored residential quarters such as Presidio and Barrio Viejo and cruise through the palm-filled campus of the University of Arizona.

2) 4:30 p.m. Prickly Pear Pint

Tucson’s strength in gastronomy, as saluted by UNESCO, does not solely belong to solids. Distillers and brewers are giving liquids a local accent. The tiny tasting room that fronts the brewery at Iron John’s Brewing Co. offers opportunities to sample owner John Adkisson’s rotating roster of sophisticated beers made with the likes of local mesquite flour, creosote blossoms or prickly pear cactus (flights of four 4-ounce samples, $8).

3) 7 p.m. Ranchero Beef

The owners of the 1922-vintage El Charro, which bills itself as the oldest continuously operating, family-run Mexican restaurant in the United States, recently expanded into the steakhouse business with Charro Steak. In a mash-up of Mexican flavours and cowboy fare, the menu includes guacamole made tableside ($10.95), tortilla soup ($8.95), and boneless rib-eye ($36.95) and bone-in strip ($30.95) steaks grilled on mesquite wood that scents the rustic room. Sides like chile-dusted creamed corn ($6) also have a south-of-the-border accent, while the mostly American wine list includes a blend from locally made Arizona Stronghold Vineyards ($13 a glass).

Saturday

4) 8 a.m. Natural StairMaster

To beat the reliable heat, Tucson is an early rising town. Join the jocks in a hike up Tumamoc Hill, an 860-acre ecological preserve operated by the University of Arizona and Pima County that functions as a public gym (free). Some run the 1.5-mile route that switchbacks uphill, but most find the 700-foot rise aerobically demanding enough to keep to a brisk hiking pace. A series of transmission towers and signs that say “Stop Walking” mark the top. But the views of Tucson, its surrounding mountains and the groves of saguaros picketing the hillside help distract from the challenge of the ascent.

5) 9:30 a.m. Chilaquiles and Trade

With whitewashed walls and a brick-paved courtyard, the Mercado San Agustin resembles a Spanish Colonial-era market, though it was built in 2010 to 21st-century environmental standards. The mix of restaurants and retailers includes the popular La Estrella Bakery, known for Mexican pastries and Presta Coffee. For a fuller meal, order the substantial chilaquiles ($9) from Seis Kitchen. After eating on the patio, browse the shops at the market, including Mast for locally made leather bags and jewelry, and San Augustin Trading Co. for handmade leather moccasins.

6) 11 a.m. History Beds

To gain a fuller sense of Tucson’s agricultural heritage — one of the key reasons the city won its UNESCO designation — make a stop at the Mission Garden. Open on Saturdays, the nonprofit 4-acre urban space re-creates a walled Spanish Colonial mission garden with desert-adapted orchards and vegetable beds that span local cultures from the ancient Hohokam people onward, representing more than 4,000 years of cultivation in the area.

7) Noon. Tokens and Tacos

Explore the city’s bohemian side along North Fourth Avenue, where a series of independent boutiques and restaurants line the blocks between roughly East Eighth and East Fourth streets. Spacious Antigone Books combines reading recommendations with gifts like notebooks and children’s toys. Tiny Town Gallery sells art prints, cards and T-shirts. Pop Cycle deals crafty goods from ceramic mugs to jewelry featuring mini horseshoes. Hit pause at Boca Tacos Y Tequila. The chef and owner, Maria Mazon, makes everything from the tortillas to the salsas, of which there are generally four daily, from scratch. Don’t miss the bistek ($3.60), featuring beef simmered in a savory ranchero sauce, and the Don Pancho, chopped steak atop a crunchy tortilla ($3.55).

8) 3 p.m. University Treasury

Among its many strengths, which includes the high-tech Mirror Lab producing massive telescope mirrors, the University of Arizona operates two small but significant museums. Photographers Ansel Adams and Harry Callahan are among the luminaries who have donated their archives to the Center for Creative Photography. Its ground-floor gallery (free) features rotating exhibitions from its archives. Across the street the University of Arizona Museum of Art (admission $8) holds an impressive Renaissance collection as well as a modern collection including a custom-lit Mark Rothko painting and a work by Jackson Pollock done on the back of a game board.

9) 5 p.m. Stars and Gems

The skies above the southern Arizona desert attract stargazers both amateur and professional (Kitt Peak National Observatory is about an hour’s drive from town). To gain an appreciation for what’s up there, visit Flandrau Science Center & Planetarium (admission $16). Shows projected in the newly renovated theatre explore the solar system in general, the night sky above Tucson specifically and sometimes veer off into the psychedelic arena with a Pink Floyd soundtrack. Don’t miss the basement where the University of Arizona Mineral Museum houses fantastically colourful rocks with names like Variscite and Mimetite, as well as pieces of meteors.

10) 7 p.m. Downtown Craft Crawl

Ten years ago, downtown Tucson had a handful of restaurants and a lot of parking space. Now the equation has been flipped, and the city’s most walkable neighbourhood makes it easy to taste and tour on foot. Dine on the Baja gardeners tostada ($12), grilled quail with roasted tomatoes ($25) and a serrano-infused gin Vietnam ($9.50) at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails from chef Janos Wilder. Then take a digestif tour of some of the city’s more interesting cocktail bars, including the Tough Luck Club in a basement once used as a morgue. Have a gin-and-port Tin Lizzy ($9) and a seat in a pew at the Owls Club lodged in a former funeral home. The raucous Hotel Congress, earsplitting as a hotel but essential on the night life circuit, offers four bars, a spacious outdoor patio and even a coffee shop for late-night tacos ($3).

Sunday

11) 8 a.m. Architectural Feast

Farm-to-table fare meets Googie design in Welcome Diner. A spinoff of the original Phoenix restaurant, Tucson’s version reinvigorated a mid-century-modern diner complete with sky-blue stools at the counter and window-lining booths with varnished wooden tables. For all the fun of the setting, the cooks are serious about their provisions, and list their local farmers on the walls and in the menu. The roasted vegetables topped with eggs ($12) and the burrito with squash, corn and tepary beans ($13) does them justice.

12) 9:30 a.m. Cactus League

The two divisions — east and west — of Saguaro National Park bracket Tucson in forests of cartoon-like cactuses. Hike the 2-mile, round-trip Mica View Loop in the east region to get up close to saguaros with arms that seem to point, salute and even hug. If the temperatures are too hot — and even if they’re not — take the 8-mile Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive that winds up hills and down dry sand beds with plenty of opportunities to pull over and appreciate the drama of the desert.

Lodging

The new 136-room AC Hotel by Marriott Tucson Downtown offers sleek style, a well-equipped gym, small pool, restaurant and bar. Its best asset is its central location that puts many downtown bars and restaurants within walking distance. Rooms from $299; Marriott.com.

Many of the luxury resorts that draw visitors to Tucson lie north in the foothills of the Catalina Mountains. Among the most atmospheric, the 59-room Hacienda del Sol retains its territorial character as a former 1929-vintage girls’ school with antiques-filled public rooms and flowering courtyards. Rooms from $149; Haciendadelsol.co.



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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

Published

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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Travel & Escape

A scramble, but worth it for the rewards points

Published

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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