An Elegy for Citi Prestige
The time has come for me to cancel the Citi Prestige credit card due to the massive devaluations that Citi decided to wreak upon this card in 2019. The first devaluations announced for 2019 were bad enough– the fourth night free benefit was reduced from being an unlimited benefit to a twice-yearly benefit. Then, this summer, Citi dropped pretty much all of the card’s travel protections, like reimbursement for delayed flights and even the reimbursement for towing a car within ten miles of a repair shop. I honestly don’t know what Citi is thinking with these devaluations. The card will now cost $495 annually, but without many perks beyond Priority Pass and the now-limited fourth night free benefit.
In light of these devaluations, let’s look back on the golden age of the Citi Prestige Card. When I got this card in 2014, the card was almost magical if you were someone who travelled a lot. To start with, the American Airlines Admirals Club airline lounge benefit provided good lounge coverage beyond Priority Pass lounges. Access to Admirals Club was free and easy, and Citi even incentivized the purchase of flights on American Airlines due to discounts within the Citi travel portal. But the coolest benefit was definitely, obviously the fourth night free benefit. You could travel and pay only three fourths of your hotel expenses as long as you stayed four nights in each place. The fourth night free benefit even covered room taxes, originally, so it was a true fourth night free. Amazing. And then there were side perks like a free golf benefit every year, which I didn’t use, but which always sounded like a valuable thing to use if I were a golfer.
Citi began ratcheting down these benefits so that eventually the fourth night free did not cover taxes, and then to today where you can only use the fourth night free twice a year. At that point it becomes useless to me, since the process of booking the benefit has always been time-consuming and having to navigate it only to be able to save two hotel nights a year (while still having to pay room tax) doesn’t scale.
In some ways I’m glad Citi devalued this card to the point that it makes sense not to keep it. Because even though it had great perks at one point, from a points-earning perspective Citi Prestige was never great. ThankYou points can really only be used efficiently through international flights, and points earning wasn’t very quick in the 2015-2016 era. Citi has ramped up the points earning opportunities since then, but in the end you still only have ThankYou points rather than the more flexible Chase or Amex points. So in sum, while I will always remember the magical days of the benefit-laden Citi Prestige card, I’m going to be happy not to have to justify keeping it in my wallet any longer.
Farewell to Citi Prestige and to all the good times and fourth nights we spent together.
I never thought I’d feel inspired to blog about the Fairfield Inn & Suites brand of hotels but here we are. Fairfield Inn & Suites are part of the Marriott family and occupy a niche in the market that is akin to Hyatt Place: limited service hotels for guests who are looking for efficiency and value over amenities. If you compare Fairfield Inns to most Hyatt Places, however, the newly renovated Fairfield Inns knock it out of the park when it comes to comfort and style.
As I blogged about in another post, unlike the new Fairfield Inns Hyatt Place has a strange aesthetic, with lots of browns and greens like something out of the 1990s. I even talked with a Hyatt Place front desk person once about how the murky color scheme seems almost intentional, as a way to down-brand the hotel as a value hotel rather than a luxury one.
Fortunately, Fairfield Inn & Suites don’t seem to be trying as hard as Hyatt Place to remain low-end in feeling. The new color and design scheme of Fairfield Inn & Suites, which I have experienced at newly built Fairfields in Las Vegas and Joshua Tree, punches way above its two-star class. The midcentury-inspired blue carpet is bright and fresh, the white bedspreads and curtains are crisp, and the wood-look furniture is sleek and functional. Even the bathrooms feel larger and sleeker than the normal two-star hotel bath. And the suites at Fairfield Inn & Suites come with a pleasant, midcentury-styled couch, coffee table, desk set, and two televisions, making the suite feel as comfortable as a small apartment.
It appears that Fairfield is rolling out the same design to many of the newly built Fairfields, so you should be able to find this type of room or similar across the country. Based on the freshness of this look, I am likely to choose Fairfields over Hampton Inns and Hyatt Places whenever there is the option.
Acapulco is a city that I had put off visiting due to the strong warnings about crime. But after visiting many other beach cities in Mexico, I was still very curious to visit the famous coast of Acapulco, which was a playground for beach and sun lovers from around the world in the 1960s and 1970s. Going to Acapulco turned out to be an awesome trip, and a big part of the reason it was so fun was because of the Boca Chica Hotel.
The Boca Chica Hotel is a vintage hotel from the 1950s that, like many midcentury buildings, has a certain flair that new boutique hotels can’t match. I don’t know how they did it back then, but there’s just something better about midcentury buildings’ architectural details. From the rock faced walls to the tiered patios and curving steps, the Boca Chica feels like inhabiting some sort of glamorous beach mansion in a different era.
Due to SPG Platinum status I was given a La Roqueta Suite, which has large louvered doors on two sides of the room that allow you to have nearly 180 views of Acapulco Bay. The interior design of the room is somewhat minimalist in a Hemingway-like way, with rattan chairs, a desk, a bed, and a small standing closet for your clothes. But the true luxury of this room and the hotel is the amazing ocean breezes and unbelievable views.
Below the hotel building there is a lovely pool and various tiered patios with seating and umbrellas so you can pick just the right spot to take in views.
The restaurant on property serves tasty food that is a mix of Japanese and Mexican styles of cuisine. I am not usually a fan of fusion cuisine but everything I tasted was of good quality. Service can be slow at the restaurant, which is the only downside of this property.
The spa occupies several floors of the hotel facing the channel that leads out to sea. When I visited, the tubs were cold– not sure if that’s intentional or they don’t heat the hot tubs all the time. It would have been nice to enjoy a hot soak. I enjoyed a facial treatment in the spa that was quite comprehensive in terms of extractions, though it was a bit light on the other elements of a facial.
There’s a little cove at the base of the hotel where you can jump into the water and go for a swim. There are lots of rocks so if you have water shoes this is a good place to bring them.
Just a few minutes walk from the hotel is a beach with many food stands and restaurants. The area is patrolled by military officers and I didn’t feel unsafe there, though it did seem like the kind of place where you want to keep a careful eye out to your surroundings. Great seafood and cocktails can be enjoyed at the sit-down restaurants on this strip– and many of them let you sit out at a table on the sand!
All in all I would say that Acapulco is a much more interesting and enjoyable place than it gets press for lately. Pack your beachwear and sunscreen, and if you are a fan of midcentury modern architecture head for the Boca Chica Hotel. With the affordable prices and ease of enjoyment at the Boca Chica, it’s hard to go wrong.
If you are looking to get a lot for your money, traveling in Mexico is always a great choice. Not only can the lodging be very affordable and often very comfortable, but you can also enjoy really abundant meals for very little money. Just buying a taco or two often means getting all kinds of salsas and sides to go with your dishes. Eating is truly fun in Mexico because you’ll often be pleasantly surprised with tasty extras when you order.
But even though this is true nearly everywhere in Mexico, I was still surprised when I ordered a Michelada at Boca del Cielo, an affordable seafood restaurant in Guadalajara, and out came this enormous drink packed with shrimps, fruits, veggies, and spices. It was literally like having an entire salad come with my drink. The drink was delicious. And it turned out it wasn’t even the biggest Michelada they had; they also had Micheladas that came with three levels of fruit and shrimp, stacked on top of each other.
What is a Michelada?
A basic Michelada is made by mixing tomato juice, worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, and light beer. It’s like a bloody mary but less strong. But just like with bloody marys, bartenders sometimes add all kinds of fruit and snacks to garnish the drink.
So anyway, the next time you are in Mexico and want to experience true abundance, a Michelada could be the way to go. Micheladas aren’t always stacked like at Boca del Cielo, but they usually come with lots of great juice, spices, and cerveza.
So luxury might be everywhere in some form, but you probably won’t find it at a Hyatt Place… however you still may find yourself at a Hyatt Place one of these nights. Hyatt Places are springing up everywhere, consuming more and more of the Hyatt portfolio. If you use Hyatts at all you probably have found yourself staying at a Hyatt Place here or there, simply for convenience or because you needed to overnight at an airport or something. They can be useful and good value in circumstances like airport stays, or in smaller towns where nothing else is available. But here’s the thing: the longer that Hyatt Places are around, the stranger and funnier their design seems. Why? Here’s why:
When Hyatt Places were first launched in the mid-late 2000s, they used a palette that at the time was one of the going palettes used by mid-range hotels like Westins. Lots of brown tones mixed with green and sometimes a bit of yellow or purple. It wasn’t a pretty palette but it was a familiar palette that was used in many hotels and restaurants. It was supposed to mean “modern” then.
Fast forward to 2017 and nearly every restaurant or hotel is using fresh neutrals, like white and gray and black, or fresh organic colors like blue, spring yellow, and wood tones. So walking into a Hyatt Place with its brown, green, and purple palette is starting to feel like time-traveling to the 1990s or 2000s. In the photo of the Hyatt Place bar above, it looks like a coffee bar straight out of Friends, lol. But that’s not even what’s so funny about Hyatt Places. What is so funny about them is that it is pretty obvious that Hyatt wants the Hyatt Place to look outdated.
Why? Some Hyatt Places are pretty indistinguishable in architecture from an urban modern hotel like a Hyatt Centric. The big difference is in the color scheme at Hyatt Place, which is more outdated than a Hyatt Centric or another of the mid-end urban modern chain hotels.
So nowadays when I walk into a Hyatt Place and see the extremely outdated brown/green/purple tones, I think about how they are doing it absolutely on purpose nowadays. I wonder if they have a particular designer whose job is to make a Hyatt Place as studiously low-end and 90s looking as possible? It’s hilarious to think about having a job where the point is to make a hotel avoid looking too nice or aspirational. Because think about it, if the low-mid end hotel looks nice, it might as well be a Hyatt Centric or Hyatt Regency, and then they’ll have to charge too much to stay within Hyatt Place brand standards. So, green and purple it is.
I spent a few days in August at the Andaz Scottsdale, which is Hyatt’s recently opened new hotel offering in Scottsdale, Arizona. The hotel opened to the public in January 2017, so it still has that new hotel smell. The hotel was basically a completely new build, using just the frames and wood-beam rafters of an old adobe-style villa property that was called Cottonwoods Scottsdale Resort in its former life. Many of the tall palm trees from the former resort are still on site, but most of the rest of the landscaping and grounds have been entirely redone.
I was interested to check out the Andaz Scottsdale because the reviews online are largely positive, which isn’t the case for some of the other, older Andaz properties that have seen better days, like Andaz Wall Street. My first impression on driving into the property, which is secluded behind some restaurants and condos off of busy Scottsdale Road, was that the property seemed quiet and peaceful in comparison to the rest of the busy Scottsdale area. In the blazing heat of August the valet station was empty, so I parked the car in the circular driveway and entered the lobby, where they got my car sorted out to the valet. Valet parking is included in the hotel’s $44 resort fee.
As a Globalist Hyatt member my party was upgraded to the Presidential Suite (this isn’t the normal Hyatt Tier Suite Upgrade, but the property was very gracious to upgrade us). The Presidential Suites are located close to the pool and lobby, and feature lots of space and good privacy options, with an outdoor shower off of one bedroom and a high wall surrounding the suite’s outdoor social area. A cabana is included in the Presidential Suite, however we did not use it because it is a level above the pool and it was easier to just sit directly by the pool. The cabana would be most useful for a large group who was partying and wanted to have an area away from the pool for their social group.
The Suite itself was pleasant if a bit bare. The smaller rooms still have the old wood beamed ceiling which lends character, but the Presidential Suite has high, bare ceilings and a lot of empty space. Still, the large sliders give great views of the surrounding trees and the nicely furnished patio, which had a gas fire pit feature and lots of seating options.
Where the Andaz Scottsdale really shines is in the public areas like the pool. The pool has a really pleasant vibe for a hotel pool– good soundtrack (no annoying pop songs, it’s more like curated, hip background music), lots of comfortable lounge chairs, and some views of the mountains. The light crowd at the pool in August was pretty local and young, but not loud or out of control. It was a nice atmosphere; friendly but not invasive or overbearing. The bar staff is friendly. There are some “events” which are basically giveaways of interesting shots and drinks at various times of day. In the evening there are art “events” in the lobby; but make sure to get a schedule so you can show up at the right time.
All in all I got the vibe that the Andaz Scottsdale is Hyatt’s play at doing an Ace Hotel Palm Springs concept, where the hotel invites you to hang out on property by providing a pleasant, hip pool atmosphere and enough artistic color and events to make you feel like you are engaging with local creative culture. For most people who visit this hotel from out of state, what the Andaz provides is probably better than what they would be able to find on their own, given that Phoenix is a sprawling city where most of the local creative cultural centers are miles away. And for people who do staycations at the hotel, it probably works too by providing a place people can go to relax where they don’t have to spend the day driving or sitting in traffic. This makes the Andaz a pretty easy choice for people looking to relax in Scottsdale without the overbearing noise or hectic-ness of a more traditional big Scottsdale resort.
The Cross Border Express, or CBX, is an innovative way to get in or out of Tijuana Airport in Mexico from San Diego, without dealing with the long lines at the San Ysidro car/pedestrian border crossing that goes between Tijuana and San Diego. The CBX has been open a few years, but it seems like it is still a bit under the radar, so in this post I’ll explain why you might want to consider CBX for your next flight in or out of the San Diego area.
Aeromexico is the national airline of Mexico and is the main airline handling flights around Mexico and to international cities from Mexico. If you haven’t flown Aeromexico before, you might not know why you’d want to fly them. Here is why: Aeromexico tends to have good prices on flights, and many of their flights are on new airplanes! There are a few old duds with hard seats still flying, but on the majority of the Aeromexico flights I’ve taken, the planes are newer and nicer than their U.S. counterparts.
Not only that, but Aeromexico always serves some kind of snack in Economy, and you can order as much Mexican coke (no corn syrup!) and tequila (or coke and rum) as you like, for free. So, if you are flying anywhere in Mexico or even south of Mexico from San Diego, crossing the border to Tijuana so you can pick up an Aeromexico flight can make a lot of sense. Aeromexico flights from Tijuana to the rest of Mexico are usually cheaper than the same flight would be from LAX.
The Sala VIP Tijuana
If you have Priority Pass through a credit card, you have access to the Sala VIP at Tijuana Airport. The Sala VIP Tijuana is a fantastic lounge for such a small airport: they have snacks like chips, pizza, and mini-sandwiches, free Wifi, full service from very friendly and attentive waiters, and some comfortable lounge chairs that you can relax on while you wait for your flight. And unlike the United, Delta, and Airspace lounges at SAN, all the drinks and food are free.
And not only is the Sala VIP lounge a great lounge for such a small airport, it even has a VIP security entrance. This means that you can get into the Tijuana Airport secured area through a special security lane just for Sala VIP customers. It makes TSA Pre-Check look slooow.
How does CBX work?
Going to CBX/TIJ to catch a flight is mostly just like going to a regular American airport. You can either be dropped off in front of CBX on the U.S. side of the Mexican border, or you can park your car in the available parking lot. The lot is well-lit and seems to have a constant security patrol. There is a price to park there, though, and you can find a cheaper daily parking rate at some of the truck parking lots near CBX, like Delta Truck Parking. Delta Truck Parking will drive you over to CBX and drop you off there.
Once you’re at the curb at CBX, you enter and obtain your boarding pass from the Aeromexico clerks at the check-in desk. With your boarding pass, you then head to the border crossing, which is a long, secured tunnel that crosses over to the Tijuana Airport. You will have to show your passport and boarding pass, as well as pay a CBX crossing fee. Once you have crossed over, you’ll find yourself in a Duty Free shop with plenty of colognes, makeup, booze, and the usual Duty Free stuff on sale.
TIJ airport only has two concourses, and there is a small selection of restaurants and bars on each. So I usually go to the Sala VIP Tijuana to wait for my flight. The attendants there are super helpful and remember you if you’ve been before.
Returning to the U.S. through CBX
Returning to the U.S. through CBX is the same as leaving from there, but in reverse. You simply fly to Tijuana, and instead of leaving Tijuana Airport on the Mexico side, you follow the signs in the airport to the CBX exit. There, you pay your CBX fee and cross back over the CBX bridge to the U.S., where you show your passport to the U.S. Customs officers and enter the U.S. Upon exiting the CBX on the U.S. side, you are back where you started, and you can be picked up by friends or go to your parked car.
Prior to flying to Phnom Penh on a whim in 2016, I had no idea how interesting the coastal cities of Cambodia are. From Phnom Penh, you can catch a van that will take you to the coast. The first major destination from Phnom Penh is Kampot, which is a lovely river town with beautiful villas and cafes lining a wide river. The pepper grown in Kampot is its most famous export, and is well worth the price.
From Kampot, you can continue along a road lined with rice paddies and small villages to reach Kep, which is a coastal town that was once the redoubt of French colonial government officials during the French rulership of Cambodia.
French Colonial Ruins
All around Kep, you can see the ruins of the French Colonial vacation homes that French government officials kept while in Cambodia. Many of them were built in the modernist 1960s style, which makes their ruins even more interesting.
If you make it to Kep, you are likely to spend most of your time sitting by the water eating crab, drinking Cambodian beer, and looking off into the sunset. There are local and more luxury places to do this. Along the main waterfront there a series of beach restaurants that take fresh fish in from the fishing boats and prepare it in front of you. You can also go up the road a bit to to a new modernist hotel called Knai Bang Chatt that was established in an old 1960s French villa. There your environment will be a bit more expatriate in feeling, with many French guests. The hotel has a beautiful pier where you can sit sipping cocktails while the sun sets, and even take a dip in the warm waters if you feel like it.
Fish amok, a delightful and light Cambodian curry
Until very recently, Mexico City had a reputation for being extremely dangerous and not a place that the casual tourist would imagine visiting. I am glad that I took a chance and visited Mexico City, because the city itself is fantastic and much better than the reports would claim. Many people are starting to discover Mexico City as well: it is getting a well-deserved reputation as a foodie city. In fact, just across from the Hyatt Regency Mexico City at Agua e Sal you can eat amazing ceviche and enjoy a view of the goings on in the neighborhood.
If you are visiting Mexico City, there are a few neighborhoods that you might enjoy for tourism and luxury. The Polanco neighborhood is known as one of the wealthier neighborhoods in Mexico City, and this is where the Hyatt Regency is located. The Hyatt is a high-rise hotel of early 1990s provenance that was recently renovated. It bears all the markers of a typical concrete high-rise Hyatt, but it has been nicely renovated to make it a pretty nice place to spend a night or two in Mexico City.
Hyatt Regency Mexico City Atrium
The atrium area of the Hyatt Regency Mexico City hosts a very pleasant bar area with lots of seating for singles and groups. An atrium gives some light during the daytime. There are green walls to give the atrium a jungle-y look. The bar here serves whiskey, tequila, and other cocktails. In the morning, breakfast is served in this area.
Hyatt Regency Mexico City Room
The Hyatt Regency Mexico City was a Hotel Nikko in an earlier life, so the rooms have a distinctively Japanese design vibe. Each room is on the smaller side, but there are nice views of the large park outside.
Hyatt Regency Mexico City Club Lounge
The highlight of the Hyatt Regency Mexico City is the Regency Club Lounge. It doesn’t necessarily look like much, but the views are great and the service is excellent. Unlike many Regency Club lounges, the Hyatt Regency Mexico City features a full spread of freshly prepared appetizers, a hot dish or two, and dessert. And the lounge attendants are very helpful and attentive, pouring whatever beverages you care for without fuss.
All in all, I would recommend the Hyatt Regency Mexico City to anyone who desires to be in the Polanco area (lots of good restaurants and the park and museum are in walking distance). It isn’t the most charming, but it is efficient and pleasant, particularly if you have access to the Regency Club lounge. For charming cafes, you can always venture out of the Hyatt Regency Mexico City to the immediate neighborhood, where there are cafes with outdoor seating like the one pictured below.
If you have a Priority Pass membership through your credit card and you happen to be flying through Bogotá, Colombia, you are in luck. The LATAM lounge in Bogotá airport punches above its weight compared to most Priority Pass lounges. It is especially nice considering that the Bogotá airport is one of the more hectic ones I’ve been in recently.
On a recent trip through Bogotá I was flying Avianca in business class, which meant that I had access to both of the Avianca lounges at Bogotá airport. The problem is that both of these lounges are loud and the opposite of relaxing. One of the Avianca lounges is slightly better than the other (the better one, called Diamante, is reserved for business class customers, where the other one is for frequent Avianca flyers) but they both lack a calm atmosphere.
Fortunately, the LATAM lounge is there to provide refuge. The LATAM lounge is located on the higher floor of the airport overlooking the main floor, just like the Avianca lounges, but the LATAM lounge feels worlds apart. For one thing, its location slightly away from the windows makes it less bright. Also, the design of the lounge provides lots of space and separation between guests. Finally, the fact that Avianca is the Colombian flagship airline means that most flyers through Bogotá are likely to be flying Avianca and hence are using Avianca lounges. The LATAM lounge, then, has less people– only LATAM flyers, people with status on OneWorld airlines, and Priority Pass members can enter. In some other airport this could create a busy lounge but at Bogotá the LATAM lounge was pleasantly under-occupied both times I passed through.
LATAM Lounge Amenities
The first thing you will see when you enter the LATAM lounge is the wine wall, which is many feet high and makes a strong visual statement when you enter. It makes sense, I guess, when you realize that LATAM is a merger of LAN Chile and TAM Brazilian airlines. Chile is known for its wine, so that must be why they made the wine wall the center of the lounge.
Behind the wine wall is the food and drink bar. A beautiful marble island holds the day’s champagne as well as bottles of white and red wine. Behind the wine island is a counter holding many types of small tapas snacks, from meats and cheeses to small sandwiches. I didn’t find the snacks to be tremendously tasty, but they were perfectly adequate as snacks prior to boarding. You’ll want to make sure you’re going to have a meal on the plane, or buy a meal in the airport, if you are hanging out in the LATAM lounge because the snacks don’t make a full meal.
The lounge seating in the LATAM Bogotá lounge is pleasantly varied. There are cool modernist strappy lounge chairs where you can sit and watch the action below and on the tarmac. There are also tables along the inner areas of the lounge, with plenty of privacy screens so you don’t feel like you are in a cafeteria. The lighting in the lounge is dim (even during the daytime, though these pictures were taken at night) so you can work on your laptop and relax without feeling overly stressed by bright lighting.
All in all, my recommendation is that if you are traveling through Bogotá airport you should definitely choose the LATAM lounge to spend your time. The Avianca lounges are busy and crowded, and don’t have anything that the LATAM lounge doesn’t have. The fact that LATAM has champagne is an extra bonus.
Rio de Janeiro’s airport (GIG) wasn’t always very luxurious. I first visited the airport in the mid-2000s, and I remember that there wasn’t much there but a large departure hall with some fast food restaurants serving pão de queijo (Brazilian cheese bread). However, the 2016 Olympics brought a lot of development to the city and to the airport in order to impress international visitors.
On my most recent trip to Rio de Janeiro in July, I was excited to see that a new Star Alliance Lounge had recently opened in December 2016. Since I was flying Avianca in business class, I had access to the lounge. Mine was a relatively early flight, so when I visited the lounge was fairly empty. It was so nice that I wished I had more time to hang out there.
Entrance to Lounge
The entrance to the lounge features an array of international newspapers and clocks showing the time in New York, Rio, and Paris. The white rocks are a local design feature used as pavers on Rio’s Ipanema Beach sidewalks and boardwalk. The instrument hanging under the clocks is a berimbau, which is used in the traditional music of Brazil.
The bar at the Star Alliance lounge is, like the rest of the lounge, very modern and fresh. There are attendants there to make drinks or coffee, including the local Brazilian style of coffee called cafezinho.
The seating areas are similarly fresh and decorated in a style of Brazilian modernism that never goes out of style. Breeze block walls create privacy and are a beautiful, modern touch. You also see the white paver rocks from the Ipanema boardwalk carried through on the walls of the lounge, with photographs of the beach to make you feel like you haven’t left Rio yet.
The food bar in the Star Alliance Rio lounge is on par for an international business class lounge. There was plenty of salad, some soup, and various freshly made snacks as well as heavier options on display.
While the rest of the lounge is beautiful, whomever designed the Star Alliance lounge in Rio really went to town on the bathroom. There are beautiful mosaic tiles, a huge marble trough sink, and even some greenery growing in the corners.
While I wasn’t expecting to see such a gorgeous lounge at Rio’s GIG airport, I was very impressed by the new Star Alliance lounge. Not only is it beautifully designed, it also makes fantastic use of local Rio de Janeiro design elements. So while no one ever wants to leave Rio, at least you can spend your last hours there in local luxury.
The Dreaded SSSS
If you read travel blogs, you may be aware of the dreaded SSSS designation that can occasionally be applied to the boarding passes of passengers headed to the United States. For example, some bloggers have written about their experiences getting the SSSS on their boarding passes after visiting Istanbul.
For travelers with Pre-Check who value efficiency in travel, the SSSS is terrible because it cancels out Pre-Check and also comes with a variety of other extra, potentially invasive or time-consuming security measures.
Therefore, when I was traveling from Mexico City to LAX recently, I was understandably freaked out when I received my boarding pass with the SSSS on it. I had not done any travel to any places like Istanbul recently, so I wasn’t sure why I received it. Of course, the first thing I did was to go online and search for posts about “SSSS” and Mexico City. Sure enough, it turns out that getting an SSSS on your boarding pass at Mexico City International Airport is not uncommon. And in my case, since I had bought a one-way ticket just days before due to wanting to keep my travel plans flexible, it all started to make sense.
But even though I now understood why I had an SSSS, I still had to go through the process of traveling to the United States with the TSA equivalent of the Scarlet Letter. Here is what having the SSSS on my boarding pass entailed, in case you find yourself in a similar situation.
Going Through Security at MEX
In the security line entering the Mexico City Airport Terminal, there was no difference between having an SSSS on my boarding pass and not having one. This makes sense, because MEX doesn’t have Pre-Check, and the rules that the TSA applies to USA travelers don’t yet apply here. So I entered the Terminal 1, went through security, and went to the Avianca lounge (accessible via Priority Pass) to wait for my flight.
At the Gate in MEX Terminal 1
At the gate, I waited with others in line for boarding. When boarding was announced and I gave the gate attendant my boarding pass, this was when the SSSS kicked in. I was directed to an area to the side of the gate for extra screening. Fortunately, the screening was quite minimal– a very light pat-down and a quick perusal of the contents of my carry on. I was headed onto the plane in minutes. So far not so bad.
At Immigration at LAX
Once you arrive from a foreign country to LAX, you have to go through immigration before you can continue to your connecting flight. I was worried that at immigration the SSSS might kick in again, but since I have Global Entry I simply went through the normal Global Entry process and was ushered through in minutes. I then entered a long hallway that leads out of the immigration area and towards the domestic terminals.
I realized at that point that because of the dreaded SSSS on my MEX-LAX boarding pass, my usual TSA Pre-Check had not shown up on the boarding pass for my flight to my domestic destination. So I stopped at a United desk and told them my situation. “How did this happen to you?” the United agent said sympathetically and with a touch of pity. “I don’t know,” I said, “but now that I’m back in the US can we get my next boarding pass to show Pre-Check again?” She went to the computer and reprinted the boarding pass and presto! It came out with Pre-Check, meaning that I was no longer scarred with the Scarlet Letter SSSS for the remainder of my trip.
A Relatively Happy Ending
All in all, while getting the SSSS on my boarding pass was scary at first, it didn’t turn out to be so bad in this case. It seems much worse if the SSSS shows up repeatedly on your boarding pass and you are unable to return to normal status. But in the case of the Mexico City flight, it seemed like a temporary occurrence.