Our first family trip during the pandemic: An escape to mountains in North Carolina
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This was supposed to be the year of the bucket-list trip for us. My wife and I had both planned to take extended time off from work as we carefully crafted our month-long adventure throughout Southeast Asia with our kids. As we watched the pandemic sweep the globe, we knew we'd have to cancel our aspirational trip to the Far East and put it off for another year at least.
Since the start of the pandemic, we've stayed home in South Florida almost entirely, except for a few local road trips where we could isolate safely. We canceled all other travel plans and instead refocused our energy on homeownership again. But with the colder weather arriving in other states, and loads of quarantine-stricken travelers yearning for the Florida sunshine, we decided to head somewhere with considerably fewer crowds and natural social distancing: Asheville, North Carolina.
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After briefly considering a road trip, we opted for flying to fresh, mountain air. I know the odds of catching COVID-19 on a plane are lower than getting struck by lightning and the idea of driving 11 hours each way with kids seemed daunting. Therefore, we decided that our first flight since the start of the pandemic would be a short one — under two hours, and I would monitor the flight loads a few weeks prior to our day of travel to ensure the flight was not at full capacity. (We had the flexibility to change our flights if we had to.)
Once we settled on the Asheville area as our vacation destination, I began to compare flight options from South Florida. Our choices were only one nonstop flight into Asheville (AVL) on Allegiant from Fort Lauderdale (FLL) or plenty of flight options to Charlotte via Miami (MIA) on American with a two-hour drive upon landing.
Ultimately, we opted for flying nonstop to Asheville as it would allow us to arrive earlier at our Airbnb. Additionally, I spent a considerable time researching the outbound flight loads to Asheville (AVL) for all options, and the Allegiant flight was the least booked (under 65% capacity), much less than the busier American flights to Charlotte. Overall, the in-flight experience was uneventful, on-time and we took the necessary precautions needed to feel safe during the flight.
Our Allegiant tickets were booked with Chase Ultimate Rewards points at a rate of 1.25 cents apiece due to being a Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card holder. Those with the Chase Sapphire Reserve® can do notably better, and redeem their points at 1.5 cents toward flights. The only caveat with redeeming Ultimate Rewards points for Allegiant flights is that tickets cannot be purchased online. Fortunately, cardholders can call the Chase Travel Center at (866) 951-6592 to use UR points for Allegiant flights as well as flights on Gol, Norwegian Air and Southwest.
Related: How to fly safely during the pandemic
Long wanting to explore Asheville for its vibrant arts scene and reputation as a well-respected food city, we opted to spend our first and only night in Downtown Asheville. In addition, we were arriving after dark and wanted to check out the city before venturing toward our Airbnb in the mountains the next day. I had an expiring Hyatt anniversary award night certificate courtesy of the World of Hyatt Credit Card but with the pandemic impacting our travels, usage opportunities had been few and far between.
As the lone Hyatt property in the Asheville area, the Hyatt Place Asheville Downtown, a category 3 hotel, provided a decent redemption value of our award night, with rates exceeding $150 per night. The hotel is off I-240 and an easy 20-minute drive from the airport. Within a 10-minute walk of the hotel, you can reach the Grove Arcade, as well as plenty of shops, restaurants and bars.
The rooms are spacious for families, clean and share contemporary decor all throughout the hotel. As is customary with the Hyatt Place brand, it offers free breakfast for World of Hyatt members. (Just note that Hyatt Place has made some changes to its breakfast options during the pandemic.) When we visited, the hotel offered prepackaged egg sandwiches, baked pastries, coffee and other assorted grab-and-go breakfast options. The next morning, we skipped the hotel's free breakfast and opted to brunch outdoors at one of Asheville's popular eateries.
Related: The best hotel credit cards that come with an annual free night
Since the plan all along was to spend the first night within Downtown Asheville and then seclude ourselves in the mountains the rest of the trip, we needed a car rental. This was the only purchase we opted to pay cash for -- even though I could have redeemed points for the car rental.
I found the best rates for a midsize vehicle with National -- thanks in large part to holding a credit card that offers elite status with a rental car company. The Emerald Club Executive status allowed us to select a full-size car from the Executive area at the reserved midsize rate. We rented directly at the airport since National is on-site and the small, regional airport was extremely easy to navigate.
While I did book directly with National, a step I always take after completing an online car rental booking is entering my confirmation details into AutoSlash. AutoSlash tracks car rental rates for you so if there's a price drop or more competitive pricing with other rental companies, AutoSlash alerts you immediately via email. You can also search for quotes directly with AutoSlash and the site will look for lower prices using coupons, discount codes and membership-related discounts.
Related: 9 rental car rewards programs you need to know about
Popular point hotels are scarce in the Western North Carolina mountains and with isolation still a priority, we wanted to rent a lovely Airbnb instead of a hotel for our extended stay. The goal for our lodging was to find a quiet, charming cabin in the mountains but within an hour's drive of Asheville. We settled on a wood cabin near Lake Lure, encompassing a treehouse with electricity, a movie room, an outdoor fire pit and a Ping-Pong table. Best of all, we had neighbors on each side of our cabin but remote enough that we felt in complete privacy.
Since Airbnb doesn't have a loyalty program yet and lacks a cobranded travel card, we put the cabin rental on our favorite fixed-value credit card: the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. Because Airbnb codes as a travel merchant with Capital One, you can redeem Venture miles to erase the cost of your Airbnb. We did just that and it helped offset the cost of our cabin and provided us with more cash for food and entertainment experiences.
Once you find your ideal home rental, you’ll want to double-check you’re getting the most value out of your stay by paying for it with the right credit card. As a result, you’ll earn bonus points/miles on travel charges that you can use for travel -- including on your next Airbnb, flight or hotel stay.
Besides the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card (2x miles), some of our favorite travel rewards cards are the Chase Sapphire Reserve® (3x points), and the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card (2x points).
Related: Best cards for home rentals
A much-needed escape to the Western Carolina mountains was just what my family needed after eight months cooped up at home, juggling work and remote schooling. A bit of planning went a long way to ensure we felt safe and prepared to travel.
In any event, whenever you're ready to embark on travel again, make sure you have all the safety essentials at your disposal (face masks, hand sanitizers and disinfecting wipes) and examine your flight and accommodation plans ahead of time so you can make any necessary adjustments.