A lukewarm football fan wins a last-minute trip to the Super Bowl

On Sunday, my girlfriend and I found ourselves in the fifth row on the side of the endzone as Super Bowl 50 kicked off at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Just 72 hours earlier, the idea of being there would not have crossed my mind. But, I won a contest sponsored by the Visa Commerce Network and Uber.

This contest was offered to Uber users as a way to get a free Uber ride by using the same Visa credit card to pay for groceries at Whole Foods Market and for an Uber ride within the same week. Visa would give you a statement credit for the value of your next Uber ride, up to $20.

When I applied for the Visa statement credit, I was also entered in a contest for a grand prize trip for two to the Super Bowl.

I am hardly a football fan. I don’t watch games on TV and only tangentially follow scores and standings. Baseball is more my sport. So, when I heard that I was selected as the Grand Prize winner, pending verification of eligibility, my first thought was “Why pick me?”

I had forgotten that I’d even entered this contest — I was only really interested in the free Uber ride. My girlfriend, on the other hand, is a lifelong Panthers fan (we both grew up in Greensboro, NC), so I accepted the prize, figuring it’d be a real treat for her and an interesting experience for me, and another opportunity for us to be together (she lives in Kansas City and I’m in Washington, DC).

We flew out on Saturday, met in San Francisco, stayed at a hotel near Fisherman’s Wharf, attended the Super Bowl and flew back Monday. Here are some of my observations on travel-related matters based on this once-in-a-lifetime trip:

Distinguish between genuine contests and scams. Remember, no legitimate contest will require sensitive personal information (particularly credit card and bank account numbers) to be sent through non-secure channels in order to enter. Most require you to provide your email address, and some require a phone number and/or mailing address. If asked over the phone or online to provide a Social Security number (SSN) or credit card information, do not do so. For this contest, I was never asked for my credit card information, and I only provided my contact info and SSN on official forms that I sent through secure channels.

Another thing to keep in mind is that prize winnings (including the fair market value of flights, hotel stays, event tickets, etc.) are taxed as part of your income, and a major prize will add substantially to your tax bill.

To accept a prize, you will be required to give your SSN on a W-9 form, as well as that and your employer’s name and contact info on a form to verify your eligibility (as employees and others with a business relationship with the prize sponsor are generally prohibited from winning).

Booking last-minute flights: If you win a prize trip, you will most likely find out only a few days before you are to depart, which means booking travel last-minute. The management agent for my prize was very accommodating and worked with me over the phone to find the optimal schedule.

Be sure to give the booking agent (preferably by phone) your frequent flyer number for the chosen airline (if you have one) and your Known Traveler Number, if you qualify for TSA PreCheck, as well as your date of birth (required for booking any flight).

At the time I booked, I was able to get a seat on a nonstop flight out on Virgin America, which is one of my favorite airlines (along with Southwest and JetBlue). However, the only option was a flight on American Airlines connecting through Dallas-Fort Worth. At booking, I was not given a seat assignment, and the seating chart showed no seats available on the SFO to DFW flight. To be sure of securing a spot, I went to the American ticket counter right when I arrived at SFO, and was able to secure a middle exit-row seat.

Note: Both American flights were on their new-ish Airbus A321 planes, which offered ample legroom in the exit row, but hardly any in the regular economy seat and a very narrow under-seat storage area. The flights have WiFi, an at-seat entertainment console, and three lavatories in the main cabin, including one mid-plane.

The Bay Area’s investments in public transportation paid off: Being a railroad and mass transit buff, I was interested in San Francisco’s robust networks of rail and bus transit..

Taking trains and buses was the most efficient and affordable way to get to the game.

The rail systems that serve the stadium directly, Caltrain commuter rail and Santa Clara VTA light rail, fielded extra trains, pre-sold special tickets to game attendees, and VTA limited access to the key section of its light rail system only to those with these special tickets and tickets to the game.

BART, the rapid rail transit system connecting San Francisco to the East Bay, also added capacity, and VTA marshalled fleets of buses to connect the stadium to downtown San Jose and to the Fremont BART station.

Weekend ridership records were set by BART, Caltrain and VTA for the Super Bowl. While the trains we rode were quite crowded, most were able to get seats and the trains generally stayed on schedule. (It also helped that we left the stadium a little early, with two and a half minutes remaining in the 4th quarter, once we knew the game was out of reach for the Panthers.)

Often the selection of a city to host a marquee event like the Super Bowl may be a catalyst for some cities to make major infrastructure investments to ensure that it goes off smoothly. For this Super Bowl, those investments had already been made and paid off.

A surreal experience
From the moment I won this contest, the experience was surreal. Being physically present for a major annual event that is symbolic of American culture was fascinating. The halftime show and the other spectacles surrounding the game were dazzling. We had to cope with being part of tremendous crowds and raucous, boisterous fans the entire time, but that was part of the experience.

This was a “trip-of-a-lifetime.” I am, still, hardly a football fan. I don’t plan to watch much football on TV. And, unless I win another contest, I don’t plan on attending a Super Bowl in the future. However, if a contest comes around for a trip to baseball’s World Series, count me in.