Just before Thanksgiving, I planned a 5 night trip to Miami and the Florida Keys in late March since it would be our last time to fly without having to buy J a ticket. Then it hit me when I was going to book a rental car that trying to have a South Florida vacation is EXPENSIVE (not just in dollars but in points too) when you’re going at the tail end of Spring Break. So I almost started over and that brings up the topic of how to plan a trip on points and miles. The more point programs you have, the more options you have. But that means you have to spend more time researching availability, value, and feasibility. To be honest, I usually don’t have specific destinations in mind when I am trip planning. I am literally open to going anywhere as long as I can get there for almost free. I’ll explain how I create my trips in a bit, but first, here are the programs that I already have points, miles, and or free-night certificates:
Intercontinental Hotels Group
Starwood Preferred Guest
** In addition to these programs, I have more options for both hotels and airlines available in the form of transfers from Chase Ultimate Rewards (URs) and AMEX Membership Rewards (MRs)
Searching For A Destination
Since my home airport is San Antonio, TX (SAT), I have to fly to another city since SAT has very few non-stop flights to vacation destinations. Now that we are living back in the US, Joy and I are currently most interested in discovering Caribbean islands and South America. For a five day trip, we pretty much ruled out SouthAmerica because it takes too long to get to. I started just focusing on the Carribean because I already had flights booked with British Airways Avios to Miami and many flights to the Carribean are less than 1150 miles from Miami, which puts them in the 7,500 Avios per segment price range. Additionally, I looked at service from DFW since it would be easy to cancel my previous booking to Miami and use those obvious for flights on American. So I looked at the following cities:
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Los Cabos, Mexico
Punta Cana, Domincan Republic
San Jose, Costa Rica
Liberia, Costa Rica
Belize City, Belize
This late in the game (2.5 months in advance is late in the game for award planning because most seats during high season and on weekends begin disappearing 4-6 months out), it was hard to find seats to many of these destinations using Avios. So I started looking at Delta and United and I noticed, the same thing: I could get there but I couldn’t get back. So I took a break for a bit.
Where To Stay
The destination that I ultimately choose is often based on where I can stay on points as well. Belize City and Punta Cana came off the list when I realized that there are no places to stay on points. Nassau came off because the Hilton there is ridiculously overpriced on points (over 80,000 per night) and I don’t have enough points left with Marriott. All of the Mexico destinations were ideal for IHG points and free certificates, Aruba and Grand Cayman also have a Holiday Inn Resort at modest award prices, San Jose has plenty of options, and Liberia has a great option with the Andaz Papagayo where I can use my annual free night certificates from Chase. Honestly, I was pretty sold on Los Cabos, Ixtapa, and Puerto Vallarta because those cities all had all-inclusive options available using points/certificates and nothing could be more economical than all-inclusive.
Trimming Down The List
I finally had to rule out all destinations in Mexico because I just couldn’t find any flights out of those cities using miles. I even looked at stopovers in Mexico City in order to increase options but nothing worked out. Limited availability finally ruled out everything but Liberia, Aruba, and Grand Cayman. So now we started researching each place in detail and learned a lot about each destination. Here are some of the things I do to research destinations:
- I use Tripadvisor, USNews, CondeNast Traveler, Frommers, Lonely Planet and a few other sources to find things to do
- I use Google Maps to figure out how far the hotels are from the airport and from fun things to do
- I research the weather in all destinations to make sure it’s going to be pleasant (I’ll talk about the BIG MISTAKE I made in Vietnam in another post)
- I decide whether I need a car at the destination and price out how much it will cost
- I consider whether or not my lodging will provide meals or snacks for free and then figure out how much the approximate food bill will be
- I look at what time the available flights depart each destination (if the only flights available are at 8 am or before, that destination becomes dead to me- that’s no way to end a holiday)
- As a parent, I always consider what J will have to do for fun
I think the last bullet point is important to consider. Let’s face it, a 2 year old will eventually get bored of the beach so there has to be something besides just that.
Picking A Destination
We ended up ruling out Liberia due to how remote the Andaz is away from all the fun things we could do with Jared. Also, if we were stuck at the resort, the total price of food for 3-4 days would have been astronomical. We also ruled out Grand Cayman because the only attractions there are scuba diving – Joy and I love diving but when one of us is watching J while the other goes solo and disappears for the day, no one has as much fun as we would if we were all together. J is still too young for most hotel kid’s clubs so that’s not an option yet. So we settled on Aruba. It’s got plenty of things to do, is small enough to explore in 4 days, had good flight availability, not ridiculously expensive, and rental cars are cheap.
At this point, I just needed to book the hotel and rearrange the flights. It was no problem to arrange the hotels through the IHG website. 4 nights at the Holiday Inn Aruba would normally be over $1300 and I paid 100k points – not a bad deal. I kept my outbound flight from SAT to MIA and booked the flight to Aruba the following day because we’re still going to spend 1 night in South Beach at the Z Ocean Resort using a free night certificate (cost is over $500 per night due to high season). We could have just got straight through to Aruba and skipped MIA but the flight from SAT-MIA leaves at 6:25 am and I don’t want to arrive Aruba with everyone exhausted so it just makes sense to relax in Miami.
For the return, Southwest just lowered their prices for Aruba (AUA) to SAT with a stop at Houston Hobby (HOU) so I snagged that for just 26,020 points for both of us. The only details left are booking a rental car and paying the taxes for the infant ticket on Southwest (I’ll explain what a hassle this can be in another post).
I’m pretty excited that we are paying so little (basically just airlines taxes) for a trip that would normally cost over $3,300 in flights and hotel alone. But as you can see, it can take hours of research to plan well. My planning has been refined after years of mistakes that I will continue to share with you. Let me know if you have any questions.
* Cover Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia