Trip Review: San Diego & Palm Springs Getaway

A view of the Coachella Valley, including Palm Springs, from the surrounding desert mountains.

Last month, we set off on our first “real” vacation of 2018, joining some friends for a weekend in La Quinta, California, just outside of Palm Springs. Getting away from winter weather sounded like a fantastic idea, but we faced one big challenge: how to get there.

As loyal readers know, we LOVE our Southwest Airlines Companion Pass, and use it combined with Southwest miles in order to get most of our domestic flights for free. But we faced a problem this time; Southwest doesn’t fly into the Palm Springs Airport. Even worse, the flights we could find on other airlines were ridiculously pricey — it would have likely cost more than $700 for the two of us to fly there round-trip.

Not thrilled with the idea of parting with so much cash, I began looking at alternate options. Palm Springs is only about a 2.5 hour drive from both Los Angeles and San Diego, and we had a lot of points options that could get us to either of those cities for free. Even adding in the cost of renting a car, it would still end up being far less expensive. So that’s what we did!

Ultimately, I converted some Virgin America miles earned from old work travel into Alaska Airlines miles — and since Alaska had recently acquired Virgin, they were offering members a 30% “bonus” for the conversion. That left me with 20,000 Alaska miles, which was exactly what I needed to purchase two round-trip flights from Austin to San Diego.

Just $50 to upgrade to first class? Sold!

Just $50 to upgrade to first class on Alaska Airlines? Sold!

Getting what otherwise would have been a pricey flight for free was good enough, but we were able to kick things up a notch even more when it came time to check in. $50 per person each way was enough to buy us a first-class upgrade, giving us access to a large, comfy seat with plenty of legroom, unlimited drinks, free movies, and a full meal onboard. While we certainly fly economy most of the time, we were excited to splurge a little for this trip and get the perks of the first class experience.

Once we got to San Diego, we decided to take full advantage of our arrival destination, and went to visit the world-famous San Diego Zoo. As we’d arrived on a Thursday, during the winter, when school was in session, we were treated to a nearly-empty zoo, which was a fantastic way to get to see all the animals. Here are some of our favorites!

A giraffe at the San Diego Zoo.

An animal at the San Diego Zoo.

A jaguar at the San Diego Zoo.

A meerkat at the San Diego Zoo.

A crocodile at the San Diego Zoo.

A polar bear blep at the San Diego Zoo.

Ring tailed lemurs at the San Diego Zoo.

A camel at the San Diego Zoo.

A panda eating bamboo at the San Diego Zoo.

The San Diego Zoo is truly amazing — it’s no wonder why it was named the best zoo in the world. And while we managed to see all of the numerous exhibits in one day, I would say that families with children would be better off allocating two days to this attraction; according to my Fitbit, we took more than 18k steps in order to get it all in.

Finally, after getting our fill of the zoo, we headed out for our ultimate destination and joined our friends at their vacation house in Palm Springs, where we enjoyed three more days of great hiking, food, and fun.

Palm trees shading the hot tub, overlooking one of the many golf courses in Palm Springs.

Palm trees shading the hot tub, overlooking one of the many golf courses in Palm Springs.

Overlooking the Coachella Valley

A scenic overlook of the Coachella Valley

An oasis in the middle of the desert — one of the great hikes we did.

An oasis in the middle of the desert — one of the great hikes we did.

As we get older, vacations like these where it’s more about just hanging out with friends in a beautiful locale, rather than trying to squeeze in every single tourist attraction we can find are becoming more and more attractive to me.

All in all, it was a really great trip, and because the flights were covered by points, and we stayed at our friends’ house, our only expense was the rental car. I’ll take an almost free vacation like that any day!