Brian’s Travel Spot: From San Francisco to Phoenix with American

Making airline coffee bearable: make your own! My Espro Travel Press and Knock Aergrind in the American Airlines lounge at San Francisco Airport before my flight to Phoenix.Welcome to the second instalment of the first Travel Spot of the new year, documenting my first trip of 2020. Part I saw me flying from London Heathrow to San Jose on 3rd January, where British Airways kindly upgraded me to Club World, thus ruining my plans for writing about my experiences in World Traveller Plus (premium economy to you and me). Not that I am complaining too much.

After a week in the Bay Area for work (plus visiting plenty of coffee shops and an unexpected Cat Café), Part II sees me on my way from San Francisco to Phoenix, flying with American Airlines. From there, I had two weeks in Arizona (one for work, one travelling) before flying from Phoenix to Portland (Maine) with Delta. From there, I made my way home via Boston with British Airways.

Flying internally in America is one of my least favourite activities, but I’m slowly learning to make the most of it, helped immensely by having a work travel budget that allows me to fly first class (not as grand as it sounds), plus having enough status with British Airways that I can use the lounge when flying with partner airlines such as American Airlines.

You can read more about the flight after the gallery, a short summary of my time in Bay Area.

  • My first day in San Jose started with coffee at the Chromatic Coffee Roastery Cafe.
  • This was followed by a hike in the Alum Rock State Park...
  • ... which saw my friend Richard and I cover about 16km and 700m of ascent...
  • ... which certainly blew the cobwebs away!
  • Next day, my friend Karen took us on an Oakland coffee tour, including RAWR Coffee Bar.
  • This is a speciality coffee shop attached to Cat Town, a cat cafe and adoption service.
  • I just had time for a day trip to San Francisco before work, visiting Ritual in The Mission...
  • ... and Linea Caffe, which was a few blocks away.
  • Then it was four days of work, but I did escape to Verve in Palo Alto for this one-and-one.
  • I was up far too early on Saturday morning, although I had the moon for company...
  • ... which made it slightly more bearable as I waited for the hotel shuttle bus...
  • ... to take me to San Francisco Airport for my flight to Phoenix.
  • I'd checked in on-line, so all I had to do was drop my bags...
  • ... using the automated terminals to print my luggage tags.
  • That sounds about right.
  • Then it was over to bag drop (literally 10 seconds away) to say goodbye to my rucksack.
My first day in San Jose started with coffee at the Chromatic Coffee Roastery Cafe.1 This was followed by a hike in the Alum Rock State Park...2 ... which saw my friend Richard and I cover about 16km and 700m of ascent...3 ... which certainly blew the cobwebs away!4 Next day, my friend Karen took us on an Oakland coffee tour, including RAWR Coffee Bar.5 This is a speciality coffee shop attached to Cat Town, a cat cafe and adoption service.6 I just had time for a day trip to San Francisco before work, visiting Ritual in The Mission...7 ... and Linea Caffe, which was a few blocks away.8 Then it was four days of work, but I did escape to Verve in Palo Alto for this one-and-one.9 I was up far too early on Saturday morning, although I had the moon for company...10 ... which made it slightly more bearable as I waited for the hotel shuttle bus...11 ... to take me to San Francisco Airport for my flight to Phoenix.12 I'd checked in on-line, so all I had to do was drop my bags...13 ... using the automated terminals to print my luggage tags.14 That sounds about right.15 Then it was over to bag drop (literally 10 seconds away) to say goodbye to my rucksack.16
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As a result of my work schedule, I only had the weekend to get from San Francisco to Phoenix, a route I’ve only done once before (in reverse), when in 2017, I drove from Phoenix to San Francisco via Los Angeles, taking a leisurely week to do the trip. This time, faced with a mere two days, I ruled out driving, since decided that I really wasn’t going to be able to see very much (the sun sets at 5pm in January, making for some very short days). Driving also tires me out and, since I would have to spend both days driving, I really didn’t want to arrive tired at my meeting on Monday morning.

My preferred option was to take the train, but American trains are not always cooperative. There’s a daily train from San Francisco to Los Angeles (which I’ve caught before, but in the other direction), from where you can catch an overnight train that will get you to Phoenix early the next morning. This is the Sunset Limited, from Los Angeles to New Orleans (which I’ve previously caught in, you guessed it, the other direction, when I went from New Orleans to Phoenix). Sadly, it only runs three times a week, and there was no way I could have done the trip in a weekend, the trains leaving Friday night (too early) or Monday night (too late).

So, unfortunately, that left flying or a very long bus journey as my only options, so I decided to fly, catching an early morning flight from San Francisco down to Phoenix. My flight left at 09:07, which meant catching the 7 o’clock shuttle from the hotel to the airport, a not unreasonably early start until you consider that there was a party going on until 01:30 in the atrium directly below my hotel room. In the end I complained to the front desk and was moved, at half past midnight, to a quieter part of the hotel, which was hardly the start I wanted…

The 7 o’clock shuttle didn’t arrive until ten past seven, so I had time to admire the setting full moon. Most nights I was in the Bay Area, it had rained, with the rain clearing before dawn and my final night was no different. Fortunately, the traffic, which can be horrendous during the week, was non-existent at that time of the morning on a Saturday, so within 15 minutes, I was at the airport. I’d checked in on-line, so all I had to do was print the baggage tags for my two bags at the automatic machine, drop them off with one of the agents and head off to security.

You can see how I got on after the gallery.

  • Queue for security was depressingly long, although I could use the fast track lane...
  • ... which meant that within 15 minutes I was out the other side, looking for the lounge...
  • ... which was here, on the left, just past security.
  • The entrance area to the Admiral's Club, American Airlines' lounge.
  • There's the usual range of seating, including tables...
  • ... lounge seating...
  • ... and, by the windows, some large armchairs.
  • The lounge is well placed if you like watching aeroplanes come and go.
  • Continuing on, there are laptop areas...
  • ... and beyond that, cocktail tables, more suitable for bar seating.
  • If you're hungry, there's a full kitchen menu, although you have to pay for it.
  • Instead I was drawn to the complimentary avocado toast...
  • ... which I duly had for my breakfast.
  • There's also a breakfast buffet bar, with toast, pastries and the like, while beyond that...
  • ... is cereal, followed by a fully-stocked bar.
  • I had some surprisingly good porridge, taking a surprisingly bad photo of it.
  • There's also coffee and other soft drinks. I turned down the pre-brewed filter and also...
  • ... the espresso-based selection...
  • ... instead settling for some hot water which I used...
  • ... with my Travel Press and Aergrind to make myself some coffee.
  • The finished article, in my Global WAKECup. By then it was time for my flight to board...
  • ... although since it was leaving from Gate C7, it wasn't on this list!
  • It turned out that the C Gates were in Terminal 1, a five-minute walk away. And there it is!
  • By the time I got to the gate (five minutes after scheduled boarding), boarding was...
  • ... already underway, so it was straight onto the airbridge for me!
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I’ve no idea how long the queue was for security, but it looked really, really long. Fortunately, this is where my status comes in, allowing me to use the priority lane, where there were about 15 people ahead of me. Within 20 minutes I was safely through and looking for the lounge, which was just on the other side of security.

As I’ve learnt, there are two very different lounge experiences in American airports. If you are flying internationally, you’ll get something akin to a major airline lounge anywhere in the world. If you’re flying internally, which, bizarrely, includes flying to Canada and Mexico, it’s a whole different ballgame.

For starters, access is solely based on status. Flying first class? That, by itself, doesn’t get you into the lounge. Although I don’t have any status with American Airlines, my British Airways Gold Status translates to lounge access, although Silver (which I had two years ago, when I flew from Miami to Phoenix), doesn’t.

Once inside the lounge, I was greeted with an offer of complimentary avocado toast, which I gratefully accepted, also helping myself to some surprisingly good porridge and a couple of toasted English muffins. These came from the self-service breakfast counter, while if you wanted something more substantial, you could order from the kitchen, where you had to pay. There was also free coffee (which, having tried at the American Airlines lounge in Phoenix last year, I was not inclined to try again) and a bar where, due to my status, I could order two free drinks had I decided to indulge myself at eight o’clock in the morning. Instead, I dug out my travelling coffee kit and made myself some coffee using the hot water from the coffee machine.

Although I critical of the lounge experience (compared to flying internationally), it’s still far better than having to wait at the gate, so I shouldn’t complain too much. By now, it was 08:30, the official boarding time of my flight, so I decided to head over to the gate.

One thing American airports do far better than their UK counterparts is in letting you know which gate your flight is leaving from. When I checked in 24 hours before the flight, the gate was already shown, which lets you plan for your time at the airport, rather than having to constantly check the monitors to see where you have to be next.

American Airlines flies from Terminal 2, with most of its flights leaving from the D Gates, which are part of the terminal. However, my flight was departing from Gate C7, which was over in Terminal 1 (the Delta terminal), resulting in a five-minute walk. By the time I got to the gate, boarding was already well underway. However, the queue was short (the priority numbering was being strictly enforced and everyone seemed happy to wait in their seats until their number was called) so within five minutes I was on the plane and at my seat.

You can see what I made of the cabin after the gallery.

  • My first class seat, 1F, right at the front of the plane.
  • And I do mean right at the front! I had managed to secure my usual bulkhead seat.
  • There's plenty of legroom, and I can get my laptop in the magazine pocket.
  • I also had a window, although it had been raining overnight, hence the raindrops.
  • There's a little drinks table which pivots out from the side of the central armrest...
  • ... and the usual fold out table, which is in the armrest to the other side.
  • This pivots up at the front...
  • ... then across...
  • ... then folds out again to rest on the central armrest, making it very stable.
  • It's also big enough for my laptop. All-in-all, a pretty good seat.
My first class seat, 1F, right at the front of the plane.1 And I do mean right at the front! I had managed to secure my usual bulkhead seat.2 There's plenty of legroom, and I can get my laptop in the magazine pocket.3 I also had a window, although it had been raining overnight, hence the raindrops.4 There's a little drinks table which pivots out from the side of the central armrest...5 ... and the usual fold out table, which is in the armrest to the other side.6 This pivots up at the front...7 ... then across...8 ... then folds out again to rest on the central armrest, making it very stable.9 It's also big enough for my laptop. All-in-all, a pretty good seat.10
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Although I was flying first class, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, first class on internal flights in the US is something of a misnomer. First class is akin to flying Club Europe with British Airways, although, in fairness, this is as much to do with the planes as anything else. For example, when I flew from Phoenix to Chicago this time last year, it was on a brand new 787 and I had a full business class pod for a seat which, had I wanted it to, would have converted to a lie flat bed.

However, on this occasion, I was on an Airbus A321, which had a small first class compartment right at the front of the plane, with just four rows of seats. Although I’ve compared this to flying Club Europe, the seats are definitely a step up. Whereas British Airways simply uses standard economy seats, with three seats each side of a central aisle, putting the middle seat out of use by converting it into a table, American Airlines has two seats either side of the aisle. These are much nicer than standard economy seats: to start with, they are wider, so you don’t feel as if you are levering yourself in/out, plus there’s a decent amount of leg room. In my case, I had the bulkhead seat, so had even more leg room, but in the past I’ve flown in the third row and had ample leg room.

There’s a decent gap between the seats, which is occupied by a wide armrest. This doubles as a small table and has a small drinks holder which pivots out. The table is pretty good too, with a large fold-out table which extends all the way across the seat, so that the far end rests on the central pillar between the two seats. This meant it was very stable, perfect for working on with my laptop.

While my seat was comfortable enough and met all my needs (enough legroom and space that I could use my laptop) the plane had no at-seat power or TV screens, although there is in-flight Wifi, with movies and TV shows streamed for free to your laptop or tablet, which might be the way to go with ever more people having portable devices with them on flights. You can also pay for Wifi access at $12 for an hour or $16 for the flight.

On my previous two first class flights with American (Miami to Phoenix two years ago and Phoenix to Chicago last year) there had been a full meal service. However, on this flight there was a very basic offering of drinks and a snack, presumably because we were only in the air for 90 minutes, which made me very happy that I’d had breakfast in the lounge. In comparison, British Airways offers a meal service in Club Europe for the short hop from Heathrow to Manchester, a truly herculean effort when you consider that the plane is only in the air for 35 minutes!

You can see how the flight went after the gallery.

  • We pushed back and waited for our turn to take off. Overnight rain had left the window...
  • ... more than a bit obscured! However, after five minutes, we were on our way.
  • This United aircraft went past us, a long-haul flight, I'm guessing, based on its size.
  • There it goes to join the queue for the outer runway.
  • Soon it was our turn...
  • ... and as we thundered off down the runway, the raindrops magically disappeared.
  • And we're airborne!
  • The view out over San Francisco Bay. Another aircraft had taken off on the runway to...
  • ... our right, quickly peeling away towards the northeast.
  • And there it is. I think it's an A319, on its way to Seattle.
  • The sky was pretty clear and I could see all the way to Oakland...
  • ... where I'd been the previous Sunday.
  • Just two minutes into the flight and already the Bay Bridge was coming into view.
  • One of the many ships down below in the bay, probably heading to/from...
  • ... the docks at Hunters Point.
  • At this point we began to turn to the west, bringing the other half of the bridge into view.
  • We were probably just south of The Mission at this point, looking due north to the...
  • ... Financial District. You can see the Salesforce Tower & Transamerica Pyramid to the left.
  • From the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate Bridge (maximum zoom). We continued turning...
  • ... flying south of the Twin Peaks with the Golden Gate Park and Presidio in the distance...
  • ... and then headed south parallel to the coast, going east of Lake Merced.
  • I'm pretty sure that's Highway 1 in the distance, coming to meet I280 in the foreground.
  • Continuing down the coast, the hills are the Milagra Ridge...
  • ... while this is the stretch of coast from Mori Point, along Rockaway Beach to Pedro Point.
  • Pedro Point and San Pedro Rock, jutting out into the Pacific Ocean.
  • Iinland are the Pedro Point Headlands...
  • ... where the iconic Highway 1 (which I drove three years ago) goes through a long tunnel.
  • The Pacific coastline south of Pedro Point, around Montara, I think.
  • By now the coastline was getting rather rugged and we'd left the towns behind...
  • ... although I can't honestly tell you which part of the coastline this is.
  • The mountains do form a beautiful backdrop to the coast though.
  • At this point we turned slightly inland...
  • ... flying over the cloud-wreathed mountains which were now far below.
  • Another sweep of coastline off in the distance. We've now been in the air for just over...
  • ... 10 minutes. Does anyone recognise that river? I think it might be Moss Landing.
  • By now we were leaving the coast behind, heading inland over more mountains...
  • ... which looked so beautiful through the gaps in the cloud.
  • I've always loved flying over mountains!
  • My final view of the coastline, 20 minutes into the flight, through a gap in the clouds.
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The flight boarded in good time and the doors closed at 09:07, which was bang on our scheduled departure time. We sat at the gate for the obligatory five minutes for the safety briefing, but then, after we were pushed back, we sat on the tarmac for another five minutes before taxiing out to join the queue of flights waiting to depart.

The pilot came on the intercom at 09:20 to inform us that the flight time would be just under 1½ hours and that he thought we’d be underway fairly shortly. Flights were taking off on two parallel runways, so it was hard to estimate exactly where we were in the queue, but he thought that there were three or fourth planes ahead of us. Each time a plane took off, we rolled forward a bit then stopped, a very different experience compared to the rolling queues I’ve been in at Heathrow and other airports.

A couple of larger planes went past us, presumably heading for the other runway, and then it was our turn. At 09:30, we thundered down the runway, with an Alaskan Airlines flight taking off seconds ahead of us on the other runway. We headed north, along the edge of the bay, before turning to the west, flying directly over San Francisco and then down the coast of the peninsular for a couple of minutes. I enjoyed some amazing views of the Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge and the heart of the city.

We turned again, this time flying southeast, down the spine of the peninsular, parallel with the coast, before turning inland, flying over mountains, leaving the coast behind for good. I want to say that my last glimpse of the Pacific was the sweep of Monterey Bay, but I don’t know my Californian geography nearly well enough to say so with any confidence!

You can see how the rest of the flight went after the gallery.

  • 25 minutes into the flight and we'd crossed over to one of California's long valleys.
  • If I had to guess, I'd say we were following the route of US101 / Salinas River...
  • ... although that is just a guess!
  • Once again, I was struck by the beauty of the mountains.
  • We kept flying along the valley, with the ridge to our right...
  • ... while down below was the occasional town, or maybe factory.
  • I spent almost all of the flight looking out of the window!
  • After 30 minutes, the valley bottom came to an abrupt end...
  • ... and mountains started to get really high...
  • ... with snow capped peaks and ridges.
  • Looking down at the highway far below, I started to wish that I'd driven!
  • We passed over some magnificent scenary. At this point, we're 35 minutes into the flight.
  • I can't be 100% certain, but I think that this might be Pyramid Lake and the road is I5...
  • ... which would make this Castaic Lake, just north of Santa Clarita.
  • If anyone knows for certain, please let me know!
  • Back to the snow-capped peaks, although 'snow-dusted' might be more accurate!
  • They are magnificent though!
  • I'm just going to leave the next few pictures...
  • ... here without any additional comment...
  • ... so that they can speak for themselves.
  • Another lake! We're now 40 minutes into the flight. Again, suggestions welcome.
  • At this point, 45 minutes into the flight, just over half way to Phoenix, the mountains...
  • ... started to give way to plains below...
  • ... and we have another lake to identify.
  • I'm going to take a punt and say that's Silverwood Lake, with San Bernardino beyond.
  • More snow-capped (and genuinely snow-capped this time) mountains followed...
  • ... but we were definitely coming to the end of the really big mountains.
  • We're now 55 minutes into the flight, almost two-thirds of the way to Phoenix...
  • ... and we have another lake to identify. I think this one is Salton Sea.
  • If I'm right, it puts us south of Joshua Tree National Park and the landscape is taking on...
  • ... a definite green tinge down below, very different in character from the mountains...
  • ... but with a beauty of its own.
  • An hour into the flight and suddenly there's water and agriculture. This has to be...
  • ... the Colorado River. I'm guessing we're flying south of I10, over Ripley or Palo Verde.
  • As quickly as it came, it was gone and we were back to flying over desert.
  • Again, this has a majestic beauty of its own, so I'm going to leave...
  • ... the next few photographs without comment...
  • ... so that they can speak for themselves.
  • It's now 10:45, and the pilot has called seats for landing. We're 10 minutes from Phoenix!
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There’s not a lot to say about the flight that the pictures in the gallery haven’t already said. Without a moving map display, I’m not too sure of the route that we took, although I’m fairly sure we flew roughly over Bakersfield and Palm Springs, passing over the San Gabriel Mountain Range, which are the really big, snow-covered mountains in the gallery. Our route then took us over the southern part of Joshua Tree National Park.

At this point, we’d been in the air for an hour and were passing what I’m fairly sure was Salton Sea, when the pilot announced that we had begun our descent. From there, I suspect we flew pretty much due east, following a line south of I-10 and over the Colorado River, before the pilot asked the cabin crew to take their seats for landing at 10:45 (11:45 local time, with Phoenix being an hour ahead of San Francisco during the winter). If anyone can identify/confirm the landmarks (mostly the lakes) please let me know.

You can see how I got on landing at Phoenix after the gallery.

  • With ten minutes to go, we were rapidly descending towards the hills west of Phoenix.
  • They look even better close up!
  • At last, a feature I absolutely recognise: the Estrella Mountains southwest of Phoenix.
  • We were coming in almost directly over the Gila River...
  • ... although if you are the sort who expects water to be in rivers, you'll be disappointed!
  • I love that Phoenix is surrounded by mountains. It is one of my favourite airports...
  • ... to fly into, just based on that one, simple fact.
  • At last! Some water in the river, although it looks very man-made.
  • The water parks in more detail.
  • Another look at the Estrella Mountains.
  • That's State Route 202, with the South Mountain range to the left.
  • The South Mountains run in a near east-west line south of Phoenix.
  • Almost there now.
  • That's I17, one of two Interstates which cut through Phoenix.
  • And we're on the ground. And on time too!
  • And there are the terminal buildings...
  • ... with more distant mountains.
  • These two local landmarks are out by Phoenix Zoo.
  • Despite being on time, we ended up parked out here for 20 minutes...
  • ... before we were finally cleared for our gate.
  • Here we go.
  • This is us, Gate A3...
  • ... with a nice man to guide us in. Once I was off the plane...
  • ... I made my usual pilgrimage to Cartel Coffee Lab on the other side of the terminal...
  • ... for a cappuccino to go in my HuskeeCup.
  • Check out the latte art.
  • Despite my detour, I still made it back to baggage reclaim before my bags!
  • Next, it was off to catch the shuttle bus to the car rental center...
  • ... where I was very glad I wasn't renting from Advantage.
  • Instead, I was heading over to the near-deserted Hertz counter. Near-deserted because...
  • ... all I had to do was go down to the garage and check my name on the board.
  • It turns out I could have ANY car I wanted. And what I actually wanted was a nice, small...
  • ... car, so I went straight over to the Ford Fiestas and picked this one.
  • Final check: can I get both my bags in the boot?
  • And the answer is yes, so we're good to go!
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Our approach to Phoenix was straightforward and we were on the ground at 11:55 (local time). Even though we were on time, our gate wasn’t ready, and we had to taxi off to one side of the airport to sit on the tarmac for nearly 20 minutes before heading to the gate, where we arrived at 12:25.

It’s now become a ritual that when I arrive at or depart from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, I pay a visit to Cartel Coffee Lab, which is over by the C Gates. American Airlines, of course, uses the A Gates, which are on the opposite corner of the terminal (think of it as a big rectangle with security and baggage reclaim in the middle and the gates on the corners/along the sides).

I dashed off to Cartel, had a cappuccino to go in my HuskeeCup (now the barista there wants one!) and dashed back, still getting to the baggage carousel before my bags, which arrived a few minutes later at 12:50. From there, I headed off to car rental center, where my hire car was waiting for me.

This trip, I’d switched from my usual car hire company and was using Hertz, which, I have to say, was a revelation. Rather than queuing up for ages, then having an agent try to upsell me all sorts of extras I don’t want, the Hertz desk sent me straight down to the garage where I was told I could pick any car I wanted.

No pre-assigned cars here. No, I could pick any car I wanted. Any car. Even though I’d booked a compact (something to do with my Gold Status, I believe). However, given my previous troubles with American hire cars where I always want a small car and end up being given something far too big, I was determined to actually get a small car this time!

I went to a row of Ford Fiestas and checked the one thing that was important to me: that my suitcase and rucksack would fit in the boot. And they did, so off I went (you wouldn’t believe the number of larger cars I’ve hired where the boots have been tiny, so I’ve had to put at least one bag on the back seat!).

And that was the end of that. Or it should have been. However, I arrived at my hotel, unpacked and couldn’t find my laptop, at which point I realised that I’d left it in the magazine pocket on the plane! I can’t tell you how awful I felt. And how foolish. Fortunately, I filled in an on-line report with American Airlines and two days later (I suspect it was something to do with it being the weekend, otherwise I’d have got a much quicker reply) I received a text to say that my laptop had been found, much to my considerable relief.

I had to pay $50 to have it shipped back to me, but I’m putting that down as a stupidity tax. Hopefully I won’t do that again in a hurry!

Don’t forget to check out the next instalment of the Travel Spot, which sees me flying from Phoenix to Portland (Maine) via Atlanta. You can also read about the whole trip if you’re interested.

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