Cheeseburgers and planespotting: Why I made the trek to the famous LAX In-N-Out
Last month, I flew 2,600 miles to get a cheeseburger.
That sounds like excess. And in a way, it was. But it made a lot of sense for my personal travel situation.
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I flew more in 2021 than I ever have in the past, largely because the nature of my job changed — I joined TPG from another publication in March of last year, as the vaccination rollout was ramping up and travel was starting to reopen. I earned status on the three major network carriers and visited airports I'd never been to.
By December, I knew that 2022 would look a little different than I expected thanks to the omicron variant. A few work and personal trips I had planned for January and February were postponed, and it became clear that my travel would be more weighted toward the latter three quarters of the year.
But that left me in a predicament. I had earned Platinum status on American Airlines, but was closing in on Platinum Pro. I needed a few flights' worth of elite qualifying miles, or one transcontinental flight in a premium cabin, which would include an EQM multiplier. While I had assumed I'd be able to get that organically, my slower January and February meant that I'd end up missing out.
While not as valuable as top-tier Executive Platinum, Platinum Pro carries enough benefits that it was worth my time to try and earn it. As a Platinum, I'd missed out on quite a few upgrades out of my home airport — Boston Logan International (BOS) — while the person just ahead of me on the list cleared. Plus, a systemwide upgrade as a choice benefit would practically pay for itself based on my upcoming travel plans for 2022.
And of course, having a higher level of status this year would make it easier to earn status next year under American's revamped AAdvantage program.
I found some less expensive round-trip fares to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), decided to make a mileage run — something I've generally avoided doing for a few reasons, including the obvious environmental costs — and kill a few other birds with the same stone.
First, I'd use my flight to LAX to cross an item off my AvGeek bucket list — visiting the In-N-Out Burger just north of the airport, which sits directly under one of the approach passes and affords incredible views of landing airplanes (along with one of the best fast-food burgers you can find). I’d hoped to attend the mostly annual Cranky Dorkfest at the In-N-Out hosted by Brett Snyder of CrankyFlyer in September but had a friend’s wedding that same weekend. So, even though I missed out on the group outing at Dorkfest, I could at least finally try a double-double.
In addition to watching the planes land at In-N-Out, the short trip to LAX would offer a chance to spend a few hours planespotting from other vantage points around the airport and take photos for TPG's library of stock images, a side project I've been starting to work on over the past few months.
An early morning flight
I chose a quick turnaround, affording me about five hours on the ground.
This meant a brutally early departure. Thankfully, American recently returned its luxe A321T — featuring lie-flat Flagship First and business classes — to transcontinental routes out of Boston, so I figured that even with the early wake-up, I could go back to sleep on the flight.
There was a surprisingly long line at TSA PreCheck when I got to the checkpoint at 5:10 a.m., most of which did not actually have PreCheck, based on the number of people who I saw reach the head of the line only to be turned away.
I made it through the checkpoint, bought a bottle of water and stopped by the Admirals Club for about five minutes to drink a quick cup of coffee. I left the lounge and pretty much walked right onto the flight just as Boarding Group 2 was called — perfect timing.
The business-class cabin on the A321T is arranged in a 2-2 configuration. I found my seat, 7A, a port-side window seat, and settled in. A flight attendant came by within a few minutes to offer a predeparture beverage choice of orange juice, Champagne or a mimosa. I went with the latter, because why not?
After takeoff, the flight attendant came by to take breakfast orders. There was an egg and fire-roasted corn enchilada on the menu, but it had been replaced with a cheese and tomato omelet, which turned out to be delicious. As soon as I finished breakfast, I put my seat back and slept through the rest of the flight.
Burgers and planes
We landed at about 10 a.m. Los Angeles time. I wasn't quite ready for lunch yet, but figured I'd be up for a burger after a leisurely walk to In-N-Out.
Thanks to the airport's current layout with its "LAXit" exit hub for all of the airport's terminals, it was a bit confusing to walk outside of the airport. At one point I ended up having to walk in a traffic lane filled with Ubers and Lyfts before I could get to a sidewalk.
I managed to avoid being hit by any cars, though, and soon enough found myself walking up South Sepulveda Boulevard with In-N-Out in sight.
I walked around the area to get my bearings. It's easy to see planes from the In-N-Out, but the unobstructed views are actually the best just across the side street in a small park.
Still, no matter where you go, the views are great. All the car-dodging on the walk over had made me hungry, so I went inside and ordered my double-double.
The burger joint has plenty of booths inside but also has a few tables just outside the main door. It's next to the drive-through line, but worth it for the fun of watching the planes as you eat.
(The rave reviews of the burger, I'm happy to report, are well deserved. This was my first time at an In-N-Out, but it was enough to give me a new favorite fast-food burger joint.)
After I finished, I walked across the street to the park.
The In-N-Out and park sit at the northeast corner of LAX, just off of airport property, and adjacent to the arrivals path for runway 24R, one of the four runways at the airport.
It's a fun area to sit and watch the planes, which feel almost impossibly close. It takes a few arrivals to get used to just how near they are on their final approach.
It isn't, however, great for photography.
For one thing, you're just too close. I used a 24-105 mm zoom lens on a standard full-frame camera, and while I used the entire range of the lens, most of my photos were in the 40-50 mm range. Still, it's virtually impossible to isolate the planes, and your window to get shots of aircraft with the surrounding buildings but without planes being obstructed by traffic lights or power lines is incredibly small — I used my camera's high-speed burst mode liberally to make up for this.
While some creativity means you can still get good shots, the second issue is that the aircraft are largely backlit for most of the day, except a bit in the evening. I had to overexpose the sky and really stretch my camera's dynamic range then bring the highlights down in Adobe Lightroom to make it work.
That said, if you're less worried about taking photos and more concerned with relaxing and watching aircraft, it's a blast to hang out and watch the last moments of the flights bound for 24R.
The arrivals on 24R the day I went were mostly domestic narrow-body flights, which, though maybe a bit repetitive, are still fun to watch. Still, I got a few surprises, including a Turkish Airways Boeing 787-9, a United Boeing 767 and a China Airlines Airbus A350-900.
Clutter's Park — a southern runway view
After some time spent digesting my burger and watching approaches to 24R, I called an Uber to relocate to my second vantage point of the day: Clutter's Park on Imperial Hill.
This is the "most popular spotting location" at LAX, according to SpotterGuide, and with good reason: it's comfortable and has a perfect, unobstructed view of the southern runways and taxiways, including phenomenal views of departures.
I wasn't alone here — there were a few photographers and YouTubers watching too.
I saw more domestic narrow-bodies, along with appearances by wide-body aircraft and international airlines. Highlights included a Japan Airlines Boeing 777-300ER in the Oneworld livery, the same Turkish Dreamliner I had seen arriving earlier, a Western Global cargo 747, an American Airlines 777-300ER, a Delta 767-400ER and a Korean Airlines 777-300ER.
I filled a memory card and had plenty of photos to sort through for our stock library on the flight home. Speaking of which ...
5 hours later, back on board
I looked down at my watch and saw that I had lost track of time; I had less than 45 minutes until boarding. I haven't flown out of LAX in a while — certainly since the LAXit implementation — and wasn't sure whether there would be issues getting to the airport or through security. I called an Uber and fretted over the nine-minute wait, but everything was fine — it was a quick drive, and I didn't have much of a line at security.
I stopped by the Admirals Club, again for about five minutes, before making my way to the gate. It was another A321T, which meant a lie-flat seat. This time, I didn't even have a seatmate.
One thing I appreciated on this flight was the flight attendants. They all seemed happy — maybe it was the holidays coming up, and the associated bonuses — but everyone was attentive, fun and chatty (in a good way). I asked for a Woodford Reserve during the initial drink service, and the flight attendant brought me two — and kept bringing another minibottle every time she passed through the cabin ("Why not make it a party," she asked).
The grain and greens bowl for dinner was fresh and tasty, and the ice cream sundae that followed was delicious.
We landed in Boston at 10:30 p.m., just over 17 hours after I left. I was certainly tired.
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But as I unlocked my phone and pulled up the American Airlines app, I saw that the miles from the day's flight had already been posted, and my status was already listed as Platinum Pro.
It was a long day, but a fruitful one: some tasty fast food, incredible planespotting, a productive photo outing, and status to help me through 2022's travels and beyond.
The financial and environmental cost of mileage and status runs is worth considering (even though I rationalized the environmental aspect by noting that the planes were flying anyway, and I bought an empty seat fairly close to the travel date). But still, after taking this one, I'd say it was a day well spent.