A day trip to Maine; The fun way we found to use the elusive Delta companion certificate
It was the start of summer, and while I’ve gotten back to some of my old travel patterns, something quintessentially summer was still missing … and I couldn’t shake it. It was a lobster roll.
I wanted to enjoy a good, fresh, legitimate lobster roll with a cold drink and a friend while sitting on the rocky coast of the Atlantic, preferably with a lighthouse nearby.
Silly and potentially wasteful and extravagant? Guilty as charged, but it was also something near and dear to my heart that I wanted to make happen.
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Like many other travelers, I have a backlog of things I want to do and a stockpile of certificates I accumulated during the pandemic, including three Delta Air Lines companion tickets.
There have been lots of discussions recently among TPG reporters and editors about the value of the certificates.
I’ve always had great luck using my certificates for far-off trips, such as heading to Florida during school breaks. Basically, if I book months ahead, I can typically use them. But recently, I was trying to help my parents use a certificate for an October trip between New York and Los Angeles and couldn’t find any dates with availability — four months out with a very flexible travel schedule. Ouch.
So, one afternoon, I started playing around on Delta’s website, trying to satisfy my craving for a fresh lobster roll, one that came with a side of sunshine and salty air.
Just nine days before travel, I was able to find flights from New York to Portland, Maine, that qualified for the companion certificate. I invited TPG’s managing editor for news, Clint Henderson, along for the trip. We quickly hit "purchase" and then bought ample carbon offsets for the 273-mile flight to Maine. Here’s how our adventure went.
Related: Use these Amex Offers to save up to $100 on your next Delta flight
How to use Delta Air Lines companion tickets
The concept of a companion ticket is pretty straightforward: You buy one ticket and you get to bring somebody along for (nearly) free.
On Delta, it works like this: If you buy one ticket, the companion just needs to pay taxes. But companion tickets can’t be used on all flights. Airlines split up fares into different classes or buckets. No, we’re not talking about first class versus coach. These are the little letters that you probably never look at on your boarding pass that help the airline split up the plane and set various rules of travel. Think of a fully refundable coach ticket versus a deeply discounted coach ticket. It’s the same seat but at very different prices.
TPG’s Ethan Klapper goes into much more detail in this great guide.
There are two types of companion tickets from Delta. The first comes each year upon renewal of the Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card. That’s right, you have to wait a year from signing up for the card to get a certificate. This certificate is good for flights in the following fare classes: L, U, T, X and V.
The other, more lucrative, one is granted each year upon renewal of the Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card. This one is good for all the fare classes above plus I, Z, P, A, G, W and S.
Related: Best Delta credit cards of 2022
Savvy travelers will note that the Reserve certificate includes Comfort+ and first class (however, you unfortunately can’t use it on the Delta One flights between New York and Los Angeles or San Francisco anymore, although there have been a few rare exceptions).
A few more rules: They are only good for travel within the 48 contiguous United States. (Residents of Hawaii, Alaska, Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands must travel from their home to anywhere within the 48 contiguous United States.)
So that means most of us won’t be able to use these certificates to visit Alaska or Hawaii.
And they can only be used for round-trip travel to and from the same airports. As a New Yorker, that means I can’t leave from LaGuardia Airport (LGA) and fly back into John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK).
The primary ticket will accrue miles and qualify for elite status; the companion’s ticket will not.
Delta used to prohibit the stacking of certificates but now allows passengers to apply global or regional upgrade certificates to trips where a companion ticket is used.
They are also eligible for normal elite upgrades. Since I'm a top-tier Diamond Medallion member, our trip was upgraded to Comfort+ seats minutes after booking. An upgrade to first class cleared five days before the trip for the early morning flight to Maine. The upgrade for the afternoon flight home cleared the day prior.
To start using certificates, just log in to your SkyMiles account and visit this page. Then search for the certificate you want to use (if you have multiple certficates) and click the box to select it and then start searching for flights.
Related: Delta SkyMiles Reserve Amex card review
Flying to and from Maine
For our trip, booked only nine days in advance, there were no eligible fare classes between LaGuardia and Portland. But nearby JFK had a 7:45 a.m. flight out and a 4 p.m. flight back. That would give us enough time to have lunch and see a few sights in Maine. The only downside was we wouldn't get to enjoy Delta’s new terminal at LaGuardia – and yes, we realize how ridiculous it is to care about a new terminal, but we do.
There was to be nothing glamorous about our regional jets; one was a Bombardier CRJ-900 and the other was an Embraer E175.
Two tickets would have cost $764.40 but thanks to my companion ticket, it was just $411.40 — a savings of $353.
In a summer full of flight cancellations, we got extremely lucky and didn't have any delays. In fact, both Delta flights arrived early. It was like the good old days of 2019.
We arrived nice and early at JFK and were through security in minutes thanks to TSA PreCheck and Clear. If you don't have membership in those programs, please read our story here on why they are so essential. A few minutes later, we were in the Delta Sky Club having breakfast. The outdoor deck was even open. (Upon our return at 5:20 p.m., I spotted a massive line of July Fourth weekend travelers waiting to get into that same club. You can see the craziness of that line in this video that I posted to Instagram.)
Our flight pushed back from the gate four minutes early and there was almost no wait to take off. By 8:47 a.m., the door was open again, letting that fresh Maine air into the cabin. We were 35 minutes early.
The trip back was almost as uneventful. Our flying time was just 47 minutes and we were off the jet by 5:13 p.m. — a shocking 17 minutes ahead of schedule.
Both flights had a snack basket with beverage service. Nothing more was needed.
What to do in Portland
With little time on the ground — about six hours of leisure time — we needed to prioritize attractions, most of which involved food.
This was actually Clint's first trip to Maine. He enjoyed it so much that an hour or so into the journey, he vowed to come back.
Our first stop was in the Old Port section of downtown Portland, about 20 minutes away from the airport.
This was my fourth trip to Portland and I had a few favorite foodie spots that I wanted to hit.
By 9:30 a.m., we were waiting in line for the fresh bread and pastries at Standard Baking Co.
Sure, there was breakfast a few hours earlier at the Delta Sky Club but this was much, much better. (Upstairs in the same building is one of my favorite spots for dinner, Fore Street Restaurant. Too bad we would be back in New York by the time it opened.)
We then strolled through the rest of the Old Port area, looking at some ships, checking out the various nearby hotels (we do work for TPG, after all) and stopping in stores like Sea Bags, which takes old sails and turns them into tote bags. We climbed up the hill and popped into Sherman's Books & Stationery, which proclaims it is the oldest bookshop in Maine, dating back to 1886.
Of course, there was more good food along the way. This time: doughnuts.
Yes, no trip to Portland is complete without a stop at The Holy Donut. These potato treats have a bit of a cult following (most good doughnut shops do). My favorite is the blueberry glazed, which includes fresh Maine blueberries in the dough. Yum.
We ordered two dozen assorted treats to go when we realized that TPG has a connection with the store. Well, actually I only realized the connection when stopping to use the bathroom. There, hanging on the wall, is a press clipping from 2015 when Travel + Leisure included The Holy Donut in its list of America's best doughnut shops. The story was written by Melanie Lieberman, who is now TPG's managing editor for global features. A photo was quickly shared with the whole staff. Yes, Melanie is Maine bathroom famous. Congrats!
After our quick two hours downtown, it was time for the highlight: lobster rolls.
TPG's senior aviation reporter David Slotnick, who lives in Boston, happened to be staying nearby and came to surprise Clint and spend the afternoon with us. Isn't it great when travel unites us?
Now, there are many places in Maine with lobster rolls. And I don't want to call any particular one "the best" but I've now been to Bite Into Maine three times and have not been disappointed. (If you can't make it to Maine, they do ship via Goldbelly. It's the same great food, minus the saltwater air.)
The best part about Bite Into Maine is its prime location: right at Fort Williams Park on Cape Elizabeth, near the famous Portland Head Light.
Like I said, I really wanted to eat fresh lobster on a rocky coast, near a lighthouse. Check, check and check.
We grabbed our food, found a picnic table and enjoyed the feast. The heaping lobster roll was worth the steep $36 price tag.
To cap off the afternoon — or really to best wash down that lobster — we headed to our final stop of the day: the Allagash Brewing Company.
By now, most beer lovers know about Allagash White. But this brewer makes so many more types of beer.
It was the perfect cap to a fun day. We sat outside, enjoying our drinks (and spotting another Bite Into Maine location on the brewery's grounds.)
The little industrial park around Allagash has turned into a small beer city, with a number of other breweries popping up including Foundation Brewing Company, Battery Steele Brewing, Definitive Brewing Company and Austin Street Brewery.
I could have spent the whole day there, but we had a flight to catch. And for the first time in a long time, I wished I was checking a suitcase so I could bring some beer home with me. (Since it was a daytrip, I had only brought a small backpack for my laptop and an emergency change of clothing.)
About 30 minutes later, we had gassed up the rental car, returned it at the airport and cleared security. It was almost too easy.
Yes, this was a crazy idea. But it was also an amazing use of an expiring Delta companion certificate.
I know I'm going to be criticized for the environmental impact of this daytrip, but it was an amazing day, a great way to celebrate the start of summer with some co-workers and a way to just enjoy life. If the pandemic taught me anything, it was that in-person connections and experiences are very important to our well-being.
I got to show Clint around one of my favorite New England cities and (easily) sell him on returning to Maine on his own.
Plus, while I couldn't fly home with some local beer, I did get to bring a little taste of Maine home to my wife and 7-year-old daughter. It was a worthwhile trip.