Award Trip Breakdown: MLK Weekend in Aruba and an Escape from the NY Winter!

For the long Martin Luther King weekend, my wife and I joined a few friends and jetted down to Aruba to escape the New York winter for a weekend. Thanks to an amazingly cheap airfare and some hotel points, we were able to escape to the Caribbean for only $300 a person. Normally a trip this time of year, in the height of winter around a holiday weekend, can easily cost a few thousand dollars if you were paying for flights and hotels. Here is how we did it for only $300 a person.

Aruba

Airfare:

While I like to use miles instead of paying for my flights, sometimes when the airfare is cheap enough, it doesn’t make sense redeem valuable frequent flyer miles for airfare. Back in April, US Airways had a sale on fares to the Caribbean that included travel dates for early 2015 for around $300 roundtrip. The best part was long weekend trips around MLK and Presidents Day Weekend were included! For that time of year, those flights should easily cost $500-$600 (or more) from the East Coast. A roundtrip flight to the Caribbean generally requires 35,000 miles so I would have been getting only around about $.008 cents a mile in value which isn’t even the basic a penny per mile so for this trip, buying the airfare made much more sense. On top of that, it was unlikely to even find award availability over a holiday weekend to a peak destination like this.

After only a few minutes of searching different islands and flight times, we settled on a great itinerary to Aruba that left Saturday and came back on Tuesday. I quickly posted the findings on this blog and my personal Facebook/Twitter accounts and lucky enough, we got some friends to join us a long weekend of fun in the sun.

To take advantage of these limited time fares or even mistake fares by an airline, I recommend following The Flight Deal or following the Mileage Run forum on Flyertalk. Additionally, follow me on Twitter as I tend to post quick tweets on some great fares I see that I may not have time to blog about.

Hotel:

There seems to be two major sections of hotels in Aruba (the low rise and high rise) along the west coast of Aruba, north of the airport. This area of the island has the better beaches in Aruba, including the world famous Eagle Beach. With most major hotel chains present in the Palm Beach area (except for Hilton), you can easily use hotel points to stay in Aruba.

View from our room at the Holiday Inn

View from our room at the Holiday Inn

Our first choice was to stay at the Radisson Aruba due to my wife and I having a balance of over 500,000 Club Carlson points and the ability to get one award night free due to having the Club Carlson credit card. Unfortunately, when I tried to book this hotel, they were completely sold out and this was back in April!  I even called the hotel to confirm what I saw online and it was confirmed you could not book any room, either points or cash – kind of crazy for 9 months in advance! I never followed up but I wonder if any rooms ever opened up right before the cancellation period.

Plan B was the Hyatt Regency Aruba but unfortunately this didn’t make sense for all our friends who were going with us and as such, we didn’t book it. We are in the midst of planning a trip to Costa Rica to stay at the Andaz Peninsula Papagayo Resort so we didn’t want our friends to burn their Hyatt points since there were many other point options in Aruba but not as many in Costa Rica.

Eventually, we settled on the Holiday Inn Aruba which is only a few hotels down from the Radisson and Hyatt along the same stretch of beach. While a step down in the luxury compared to the Radisson and Hyatt, we cared more location and just wanted a clean, functional hotel for our stay so the Holiday Inn fit our needs perfectly for this trip. In fact, the Holiday Inn had been recently renovated so I was pleasantly surprised by our stay (review to follow in a future post). The cost was only 25,000 IHG points a night and there were no resort fees. In fact, when we checked out on Tuesday, our checkout bill came to only $92 for three days of drinks and one lunch we had by the pool. For the value, I would certainly return here in the future for a long weekend.

I’ll cover some of the dining option we took advantage of and the activities we did when I do a trip report but we had an awesome weekend in Aruba as it was 85 degrees and sunny the whole trip. I heard it rained/snowed back home when we were gone which makes me even happier we decided to go away for the weekend. I commented on Twitter I think Aruba is my new favorite Caribbean island and I would love to return one day in the near future.

Aruba

Totally empty beach we found by the natural pool

 

 

 

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Award Trip Breakdown: Burning the Last of the Avios to Antigua!

Update: There is now a devaluation effective April 28, 2015.

I posted the other day about the big devaluation scare at British Airways and how many people, including myself, rushed to burn our remaining Avios before they were devalued. While the devaluation didn’t happen, the false alarm on devaluation was the kick in the pants I needed to finalize our trip our next year. I had been looking at going somewhere warm in late February/early March once my busier time of year at work ended for a long weekend but I hadn’t settled on a location and did not know what miles I wanted to use.

When the news broke about the possible devaluation, my mindset immediately shifted to burning my Avios balance. As I’ve discussed previously, the British Airways Avios program is quite unique in that the mileage cost of a flight is based on the distance of flight instead of a set number. And since British Airways is partners with American Airlines in the oneworld alliance, I could book American Airline flights using British Airways Avios. Since I am based in New York, most direct flights to the Caribbean are only 20,000 miles roundtrip if I used Avios while similar flights using United, American or Delta miles would cost 35,000 miles.  With Avios, it’s almost like I got one trip for nearly free (in terms of miles) since I saved 15,000 miles compared to the legacy programs. In short, Avios are awesome for short to medium, direct flights.

I began searching for direct flights on American Airlines to the Caribbean and was hoping to find at least one option with award space in March which I thought might be difficult due to spring break/people trying to escape the end of winter in NY. I was looking at St. Thomas, San Juan, Cancun (not the Caribbean but still only 20,000 miles) but in the midst of all the “panic” going on about people furiously booking flights with Avios while we thought the devaluation was imminent, I saw a tweet from Matt @ Saverocity that would serve as inspiration for this trip.

Thanks Matt!

Thanks Matt!

I had forgotten about American’s direct JFK to Antigua flight!! When I think of the Caribbean, Antigua doesn’t pop into my mind first – it sounds too exotic to be the Caribbean and I certainly didn’t think I could get there on a direct flight (which I wanted to keep the cost in Avios at 20,000). I started searching for award space and it was a gold mine! There are a TON of award seats available – I’ve included snapshots as of 10pm on 8/27 to show all the award space for 2 peopleYou can disregard the 17.5k pricing – that is if I used American miles. If you see green space, it can be booked with Avios. 

JFK to Antigua Direct Award Space

JFK to Antigua Direct Award Space

Antigua to JFK Direct Award Space

Antigua to JFK Direct Award Space

Once I found dates that worked best for our schedules, I headed over to the British Airways website to book these same flights with Avios. It found the flights without any issues and the cost per person was 20,000 Avios + $98 a person in taxes (Antigua has an unavoidable $75 departure tax). I checked the price of these flights and American is selling them for $733 a person!!! That’s crazy but expected for a prime time trip to the Caribbean, especially on a route where there is no competition. My value per mile was a fantastic 3.66 cents per mile ($733/20,000 miles).  Even without a threat of devaluation, this was a superb use of miles and one I would make over and over. Better yet, I used all my Avios ( I now have a balance of 656 Avios) and in the event I want to make more Avios redemptions, I can always transfer points from Chase or American Express to Avios.

20k Avios instead of 35k AA Miles

20k Avios instead of 35k AA Miles

Mission Accomplished...Only 656 Avios Left

Mission Accomplished…Only 656 Avios Left

Anyone want to join us in Antigua in March?

Antigua

This looks just a BIT better than a NY winter…

Award Trip Breakdown: Flights for a Long Weekend in Puerto Rico for $26!

Greetings from San Juan, Puerto Rico!

20140815-092223.jpg

Andrea and I decided to get away for the weekend and decided upon San Juan to “relive” our first trip we took back together in 2008. That was before I was involved in the points and miles game so I think I spent over $1,000 for a 4 night stay + flights last time. Thankfully I’ve gotten a little smarter since 2008 and with the help of this amazing hobby of ours, Andrea and I booked our flights for a whopping total of $26 and ended up with a great rate on our hotel (and I used giftcards I acquired at 19% off to pay for the room). Here is how I did it.

Flights

Departing: American Airlines – Business Class – JFK-SJU  for a cost of 20,000 miles plus $2.50 in taxes per person.
Return: American Airlines – Economy Class – SJU-JFK for a cost of $208.50 a person, paid with $200 of American Airlines Gift Cards acquired as part of American Express Platinum card each.

I will get into this some more in my trip report but I used British Airways Avios instead of American Airline miles because of the uniqueness of British Airways award chart. Since it’s distance based, it cost 20,000 Avios for business class or I could have used 17,500 American miles for economy – easy choice there. British Airways miles can be obtained via transferring either Amex Membership Rewards points (which is what I did), Chase Ultimate Rewards, Starwood SPG points or by having the British Airways credit card. In short, there are a lot of easy ways to rack up Avios.

For the return, I was focused on flights that left after 6pm on a Sunday so I could maximize my time in San Juan. By doing this, I limited my flight options and there was no award availability for either economy or business class on the way home. I ended up choosing a 7pm American Airlines flight that cost $208.50 each but I only ended up paying $8.50 of it per person.

That is because I am an American Express Platinum card holder and each calendar year you are entitled to a $200 airline credit. With this credit, you can buy airline gift cards (though the rules technically prohibit this but it still works) twice in a one membership year. In other words, I signed up for the card in 2013 (and paid the $450 annual fee) BUT I got $400 of that back when I bought $200 of AA gift cards (technically 4 gift cards at $50 each) in March 2013 and again in January 2014. I simply applied this gift card to these flight and paid the remaining $8.50 per person.
 

Hotels:

Courtyard (Marriott) Isla Verde Beach Resort- 3 Nights. 

The Beach at the Marriott in Isla Verde

The Beach at the Marriott in Isla Verde

I know this isn’t the fanciest hotel on the nice strip of beach in Isla Verde as its right next store to the Ritz-Carlton San Juan and the InterContinental San Juan but it was far by the cheapest for our stay and I was able to use Marriott gift cards I acquired at 19% off to pay for the room!

AAA rates were only $122 for the first night and $139 for the remaining two nights so it didn’t make sense to redeem Marriott points for this stay since a free night would have cost 35,000 points a night resulting in a very poor value per point (.003 per point, not even half a penny!). Additionally, I had a $500 Marriott Gift card burning a hole in my safe that could be used for this stay. I only paid $405 for this $500 gift card via American Express Daily Getaways which typically happens once a year in which Amex partners with variouis companies to sell discounted travel.

Stay tuned for the trip report in which I’ll provide a little more detail on the flights and hotels and decide whether it was worth it.

Amazing Deal Alert: $200 Roundtrip Flights NYC to St. Lucia!

Update: Deal Dead!

I know I have a large NY based readership so I wanted to highlight this deal which I found from The Flight Deal.

You can fly from Newark to St. Lucia on US Airways for only $200 roundtrip and it’s available in the winter and early spring next year! This flight normally goes for at least double so this is quite the savings. It’s even better then the $300 flights to the Caribbean I highlighted months ago.

I HIGHLY recommend reading the post by the Flight Deal on how to search for this fare on ITA Matrix. Click here for that post.

Congrats on those who can take advantage!

Point & Center: $50 Off Hotels, Southwest Flies International & More…

Point & Center is a new feature here where I share some of the big news and offers in the points and miles world that necessitate their own blog post. Think of it as a 60 second summary of some of the highlights in the points and miles world today.

1) Expedia is offering $50 off a hotel booking over $200 if you book via their mobile app. Via Million Mile Secrets, click on their special 4th of July coupon link here and enter your cellphone number to get a unique coupon code. Book your reservation via their mobile app (download it first if necessary) and enter the coupon code Expedia texted you to take $50 off if you book by July 7th and stay before December 31st.

2) As of yesterday, Southwest Airlines now flies international to several destinations in the Caribbean and Mexico. Based on your travel needs, I think this could drastically increase the value of Southwest points for some of you. Legacy carriers like American, United and Delta all charge 35,000 miles roundtrip but I’ve found many itineraries on Southwest to be pricing significantly cheaper. Here is an example from Long Island, NY to Aruba in September pricing out at only 24,220 points!  Before you book your next Caribbean or Mexico getaway, remember now to always give Southwest a check as well for the best deal (both in dollars or points).

Only 24,200 points roundtrip!

Only 24,200 points roundtrip!

3) As highlighted in Points & Miles 101, Starwood SPG points are quite valuable as they can transfer to airlines at a ratio of 1 SPG point to 1.25 airline miles if you transfer in increments of 20,000 points. Well American Airlines has announced a promotion where you will receive a 20% bonus on the miles transferred from Starwood to American Airlines. So if you follow my advice and transfer in increments of 20,000 points, you will end up with 30,000 American Airlines miles instead of the standard 25,000 miles. I wouldn’t make any speculative transfers but if you need miles to book an AA award, this is a nice little bonus to save you some valuable SPG points.
UPDATE: This works for US airways as well!

4) Frontier is giving away 20 $100 gift cards and $1,000 off Frontier flights to one winner for celebrating their birthday by liking them on Facebook. I don’t heavily promote contests like these but it literally took 8 seconds to enter it, so why not? The link to enter the contest can be found here – Frontier Birthday Bash.

I hope you enjoyed the inaugural edition of Point & Center – feel free to let me know your thoughts on this and I can make this a more regular post!