A few months back, reader Lauren stopped by to ask us how best to get to Grand Cayman for her upcoming honeymoon. After spending some more time thinking about it, we heard from her fiancé, Matthew, who let us know they’re now thinking about traveling from Orlando to the Gulf of Papagayo in Costa Rica instead! That’s because they found a resort they’re really looking forward to visiting: the Hilton Papagayo Resort, one of Hilton’s few all-inclusive properties.
Matthew asked if we could apply some points and miles magic to this new itinerary, and we were more than happy to help out!
Current Program Status
After following our advice for their initial itinerary, Matthew signed up for Chase Sapphire Preferred and has racked up 47,000 Ultimate Rewards points between its sign-up bonus and points earned thus far on spending.
In addition, they have 86,000 points saved up with their Citi ThankYou Preferred. It’s not a card we talk about regularly, as similar cards like Barclaycard Arrival offer richer sign-up bonuses and earnings opportunities, but these points can be redeemed toward travel expenses at a rate of 1¢ per point.
Though Matthew also has about 23,000 Delta SkyMiles, those won’t come in particularly handy for this trip.
Putting Ultimate Rewards to Work
Whenever flying from Florida to the Caribbean or Central America, the best deal will almost always be found by flying on American Airlines using British Airways Avios. That’s because the points price of Avios flights is determined by the distance of each segment of a trip, rather than by the kind of region chart used for most other programs, including American’s own AAdvantage program.
Whether flying to Central American destinations like Costa Rica from Miami or anywhere else in North America – including Hawaii! – 15,000 AAdvantage miles will be required. That’s a tremendous value if you’re coming from far away, but Florida is relatively close to Costa Rica, so Avios can offer a better value.
The best destination airport for this trip would be Liberia Costa Rica Airport, located just 20 minutes away from the Hilton Matthew has in mind:
American offers direct flights from MIA to LIR. When booking this flight via British Airways, only 7,500 Avios are required each way. That’s half of what’s required by American for the same flight!
Of course, British Airways is a 1:1 Transfer Partner with Ultimate Rewards, so Matthew could transfer 30,000 of his Ultimate Rewards points in order to fully cover the cost of this roundtrip for both passengers.
Since Matthew is traveling from Orlando, it would obviously be preferable to begin the journey there instead of Miami. Distance-based Avios awards are best booked for direct flights, as each segment is calculated separately. That means the total distance of MCO to MIA to LIR isn’t what’s used to calculate the cost of the trip in Avios; rather, MCO to MIA is calculated first, then MIA to LIR separately. That means a total of 4,500 Avios plus 7,500 Avios for the two flights, or a total of 48,000 total to cover both passengers roundtrip.
Based on the difference in Avios alone, I’d be liable to make the drive to Miami to start the trip, but for better or worse, award availability on American makes the decision an easy one. Matthew and his fiancé are looking to travel from roughly May 25th until May 31st.
To book an Avios award, Saver level seats must be available on American to AAdvantage flyers. Here’s a look at availability from Orlando to Costa Rica:
Ouch. As you can see, there are slim pickings for this award, and certainly no seats available at all when Matthew’s looking to travel.
However, take a look at availability from Miami to Costa Rica:
As you can see, availability out of Miami is far better. That’s because the Orlando to Miami flight is the bottleneck. While the above illustrate only outbound availability, the same story held true on the way home.
It would be possible to pay for flights to and from Miami in order to avoid any driving, but at between $110-$130 per person each way, I can’t recommend doing so over simply driving.
As such, we’d recommend using Avios to book both flights between MIA and LIR. Here’s our guide to booking trips with Avios. This lowers the price per person to just 15,000 Avios and $43.82 roundtrip.
Compare that to the price to book the same two award seats using AAdvantage miles:
Finally, check out the astoundingly high cash price for this flight, at $732 per person:
While both AAdvantage and Avios offer significant savings, using Avios results in twice as much value since only half as many miles must be used. In this case, we’re earning more than 4.8¢ per Avio in value!
This looks like a tremendous resort, and its all-inclusive nature means Matthew and Lauren won’t have to worry about much on the ground. The only up-charges on property are for diving, snorkeling, jet skis, spa time and other excursion-type activity. All meals are served by a professional wait staff, and all beverages – including alcohol – are included as part of the nightly rate.
Unfortunately, these very perks land the Hilton Papagayo on the short list of properties excluded from the free weekend night certificates that can be earned with the HHonors Reserve Card. Similarly, using HHonors points for this stay wouldn’t be a realistic option even if Matthew and Lauren had a stockpile ready to go.
Thankfully, they have a good option to turn to in the form of their ThankYou points. As these can be applied at a rate of 1¢ per point to travel expenses, Matthew and Lauren can simply pay for this stay, using their ThankYou points to cover a large portion of it.
We searched for the nights they’d be staying, based on their timeline and when flights were available, putting them on property from May 25th until June 1st.
While cards like Arrival and Venture let you pay for a stay and simply credit yourself back using miles after the fact, ThankYou redemptions must be booked through Citi, so the Leisure Escapes option is unfortunately not likely to be available to Matthew and Lauren. If it is, we’d recommend they spring for that option, as it’s a good value on fun activities during their stay.
In total, a basic stay for all seven nights in a King Room comes to $1,806. By booking the stay through Citi and using all of their ThankYou points, this can be knocked down by $860 to just $946 for the week, or $135 per night! That’s quite the deal, especially considering the resort’s all-inclusive nature.
Knocking the Price Down Even More
If the price is still too high, Matthew and Lauren could consider signing up for the Barclaycard Arrival now that they’ve met their spending goal on the Sapphire Preferred and earn $510 in additional travel credit.
They could book the first four nights using all of their ThankYou points for a total of $172 and book the final three nights using the Arrival card as a separate transaction, redeeming Arrival credit worth $460, leaving them with just $314 of additional out of pocket expenses.
To squeeze a bit more value, Matthew and Lauren could use enough Ultimate Rewards as a statement credit to cover the $87 in taxes for the flights, but at just 1¢ each, they’d be getting far less value doing this than they did from the Ultimate Rewards points they converted to Avios, so we wouldn’t recommend it.
Sometimes, points and miles travel requires flexibility in order to reap the most value. In this case, the dates for travel are pretty fixed – after the wedding! That means making it to Miami to begin the trip rather than waiting for availability on connecting flights to open from Orlando makes the most sense.
Booking the flights to Costa Rica using Avios saves a tremendous amount of money for very few points, leaving Matthew and Lauren with a healthy nest of Ultimate Rewards points that they can use for their first vacation following their honeymoon.
Further, this stay at the Hilton Papagayo is a close to best-case redemption for ThankYou points. It will save Matthew and Lauren real money while allowing them to enjoy a property difficult to reach using traditional points and miles programs.
Signing up for the Arrival card would undoubtedly save extra money, and combining two separate bookings into one stay should be zero problem to manage at check-in. Further, it’s worth remembering that even reimbursable travel expenses charged to Arrival count toward its minimum spend requirement, making its sign-up bonus easy to earn. Even so, we’ll assume Matthew and Lauren stick to the miles and points they have on hand, even though savings would skyrocket to 82% off if they use Arrival to help defray more of their trip.
We’d recommend locking down the flight and hotel quickly since they already have all the points they need in hand to do so. That way, they can take one big thing off their to-do list as the big wedding day draws nearer!
|Trip Component||Cash Price||Points + Cash||Savings|
|Avios Award Flight on American: MIA to LIR • Economy 2 Passengers||$732 Each||15,000 Avios (via Ultimate Rewards) + $43.82 Taxes/Fees Each||$1,376.36|
|Hilton Papagayo Resort: 7 Nights All-Inclusive • King Bedroom||$258 Nightly||$946 Cash + $860 in ThankYou Points||$860|
|Total:||$3,270||15,000 Avios + 86,000 ThankYou Points + $1,033.64 Cash||~$4,994.00 (68% Off)|