Wow! There have been lots of developments in the ValueTactics sphere of interest in the past couple of weeks. Some credit card deals have disappeared and others have materialized. Card issuing banks continue to modify their terms and policies. An airline announced some potentially exciting news. Personally, I have been very busy strategizing my own points and miles earning and usage. Nicoleen and I have almost earned the sign-up bonus on both of our new cards. And on top of all this, we leave for our family Disney trip in 2 days!
Air Travel News
You heard that right. We’re thrilled to share our intention to bring our world-famous hospitality and value to the Hawaiian Islands! pic.twitter.com/NoVNXlsSH7
Southwest Airlines has announced it will begin flying to Hawaii in 2018! More options are always better than fewer. This could mean cheaper flights across the board to this destination. It’s definitely good news for those of us who collect Southwest Rapid Rewards or their surrogate transfer point, Chase Ultimate Rewards. But I don’t know, could you endure the at least 6-hour flight to the islands with no meal service or assigned seats? Let me know in the comments below!
Recent ValueTactics Blog Posts
– Tighter Rules for Credit Card Sign-Up Bonuses explains how to tell if you’re eligible for a particular sign-up bonus on a credit card. The banks are making it harder and harder to play their game. Read the post to see the exact rules for each of the main rewards card issuing banks.
Credit Card News
As I reported in the last update post, Nicoleen recently got the Chase Ink Business Preferred and I got the Bank of America Premium Rewards card. I already hit the minimum spend on my BoA card, earning me $550+ worth of their cash-only rewards points. Nicoleen still has a bit of spending to do before earning the massively valuable 80,000 Ultimate Reward bonus on the Ink Preferred. I could use another card already but I’ve been agonizing over the decision of which one to apply for. The rules and limitations like I describe in the post linked above are really making it a difficult process to maximize the value of the credit card tactic.
There are currently several noteworthy elevated sign-up bonuses on co-branded airline cards:
The AAdvantage Aviator Red from Barclay is up to 60k American Airlines miles with no minimum spend requirement (well, actually you have to make one purchase of any amount.) American Airlines has been notoriously stingy with award space lately, but American miles is still worth having if you have flexible travel dates. With 60k miles you could fly round trip to Europe or get 2 domestic round trip flights in economy and have points leftover! Link to offer
The United MileagePlus Explorer card from Chase is back up to 40k United Airlines miles after $2k of spending in 90 days. This offer bounces back and forth between 30k and 50k, but the 50k public offer hasn’t been around for over a year. Link to offer
American Express’s Delta Gold comes with a 60k Skymiles bonus after spending $2k in the first 90 days. This offer is the highest ever seen for this card. When Nicoleen and I got this card the bonus was only 35k, and occasionally it goes up to 50k. With a once-per-lifetime limit on American Express bonuses, now is a great time to apply for the Delta Amex Gold! Link to offerEXPIRES 11/08/2017
On Saturday we leave for our trip to Florida! For our family of 5 (2 kids are staying home) the airfare and hotel combined only cost us $155! The entertainment and dining, on the other hand. . . let’s just say Orlando is an easy place to nail that required spend for a credit card sign-up bonus. 😉
I’ll try to post a field update or two from our trip. No promises though; something tells me I won’t have a lot of downtime!
Free Travel Photo
One kid attempting to strap down the other kid to our luggage rack during our family vacation last summer. As we prepare for our Florida trip, I am reminded of our last family trip to South Dakota last summer. It had a few value tactics sprinkled in, like a free hotel night and gas savings along the way.
Nicoleen and I stayed at Couples Resort in Negril, Jamaica, Feb 27-Mar 03, 2015. This was my last big travel splurge before fully embracing my new life of free travel. The occasion was our 10 year anniversary, but the trip was actually a decoy to conceal my larger plan for a surprise vacation to Europe later that summer. For details on how I planned the trip and got the flights for free, read my trip report post.
Couples Negril – Resort Overview
Couples is a small chain of four properties, all located in Jamaica. It was a pioneer in the all-inclusive resort model and is owned locally by the founding family. These resorts are for couples only and no kids are allowed. They advertise themselves as the only true all-inclusive resort chain in the Caribbean, with all dining options and amenities included in the room price. Tipping is not allowed at any Couples resort.
When choosing among the four resorts in the portfolio, I chose Couples Negril for a few reasons. It requires a shorter shuttle ride from the airport than other options, which was important for our short trip. It also supposedly has the best beach of any of the Couples locations, which I knew would be important to Nicoleen. Reviews online also said that Couples Negril had the best customer service among all the Couples resorts, and that the grounds featured mature vegetation that offered a secluded feeling.
Couples Negril has 234 rooms, 5 restaurants, 5 bars, 2 pools, 4 Jacuzzis, a treehouse spa, and an au naturel beach section. At the time of this writing it is ranked #9 of 84 hotels in Negril on Tripadvisor, and Google reviews give is 4.6 out of 5 stars.
Couples Lounge and Airport Shuttle
The resort provides free transportation from MBJ (Montego Bay, Sangster Int’l Airport) with a contract shuttle van company. They usually wait to fill up a van before departing the airport. Couples guests wait in a dedicated lounge near baggage claim. The Couples lounge is pretty small and basically just contains comfy chairs and a bar top with stools. Someone asked our names and tagged our luggage. He then directed us to the friendly bartender who offered us our choice of Red Stripe or Red Stripe Light. My beer came in a small plastic cup, but we saw several guests pull large tumblers out of their carry-ons, to be filled up. In fact, we were the only ones without our own cups. This was the first of many times we noticed that most guests were repeat visitors; a good sign for a resort!
Cool story, bro:
Halfway through our little beers, something strange happened. The guy who took our luggage approached Nicoleen with a cell phone and asked if she would like to talk to Ms. So-and-so. Completely confused, Nicoleen hesitantly declined. The guy looked a little confused himself and started quietly talking on the phone. As we were trying to figure out how someone got Nicoleen’s name and what kind of scam this might be, the guy asked Nicoleen again, “are you sure you don’t want to talk to Ms. So-and-so?” Nicoleen timidly grabbed the phone. “Hello?” After a minute she seemed to understand what was going on. I remained confused until she ended the call and explained it to me:
Nicoleen’s aunt had seen a facebook post Nicoleen wrote about flying to Montego Bay. Her aunt travels to Jamaica a lot and happens to be good friends with the owner of the shuttle bus company, Ms. So-and-so. Some strings were evidently pulled, and suddenly the driver of the “VIP Van” walked up and told us to get our bags immediately and head to the parking lot. He loaded our luggage and we were soon on our way, as the other guests were still waiting. It was a 1 hour drive along the coast, but we got to skip the midway stop at a touristy bar that the regular bus makes! Thanks, Aunt Judy!
We arrived at the front entrance and were met by the bellman. He greeted us by name, took our luggage, and told us in his deep, rhythmic voice, “You in Jamaica now, mon. You gonna eat. You gonna drink. You gonna relax. Welcome to Couples Negril.”
After being offered champagne (pregnant Nicoleen declined) we were checked into our room, on the second floor of building 1.
We booked a “Deluxe Garden” room, which was the cheapest available. It was a simple room with a desk area, king bed, and mosaic tiled bathroom. The room also included a stocked minibar and a furnished balcony overlooking the lush landscaping. The minibar contained Red Stripe and Red Stripe Light, Pepsi and Diet Pepsi, Ting (Jamaican citrus soft drink), ginger ale (with a hefty bite!), and juices. A little menu card was on the desk that had check boxes for minibar requests, which included full bottles of house booze.
Towel creatures and tropical flowers were regularly resupplied.
Coffee maker and iPod compatible radio.
The room decor and furnishings were nothing to write home about but nothing was in disrepair. Everything was very clean, which is important to us. No little piles of hair and dust in the corners! The wifi and air conditioning both worked well. I did not do a speed test on the connection. More than once, we ran into room service during the day. The ladies were always courteous and let us retrieve whatever we needed from the room. Our favorite room feature was probably the balcony. During the daily afternoon showers we would sit on the balcony with a book or headphones and watch the tropical birds zoom around the trees and shrubs.
They were greedy little buggers!
Couples likes to advertise that they are the Caribbean’s most inclusive all-inclusive resort. The range of activities and excursions included in your room price is truly impressive. They offer all the basic amenities you would expect: beach volleyball, board games and billiards, short guided walks, horseshoe pits and other games, etc. The beach options include snorkeling, paddleboarding, kayaking, Hobie Cat sailing, water skiing, and paddle boats.
Nicoleen paddleboarding on our last morning at Couples Negril.
However, Couples also offers complimentary activities which are usually paid excursions at other “all-inclusive” resorts: Glass bottom boat rides, sunset catamaran cruise, Scuba lessons and daily dives for certified divers, dance classes, golf (cart, caddy, and club rental for a fee), tennis lessons, and transportation to several local beach bars.
Of course there are also some options if you feel the need to spend some money. The on-site spa offers a variety of treatments, and you can pay to have a private dinner on the beach or in the treehouse. There are also several excursion options arranged by the resort that use contracted guides.
It was our impression that you could return to Couples for many years in a row and never run out of new things to do. In our 4 night stay we didn’t even scratch the surface. In addition to what I already listed, there are a lot of little extras that would pop up all over the place at different times. There was almost always some live music somewhere and there was a very nice beach campfire with a great guitarist on our last night. A few days a week there are local vendors selling handmade art, crafts, jewelry, and clothing. Prices seemed reasonably good but we quickly realized this was a haggle zone. I enjoy that whole song and dance; Nicoleen does not. 🙂
Evening campfire with music on the beach.
Merchant tables. We got most of our souvenir and gift shopping for the kids done at these.
One day we stumbled upon a round of beach games that was about to start. The winners would get Couples Cash which could be spent at an auction held on certain evenings. We missed out on the auction but we saved our cash for next time!
Pool, Jacuzzis, and Beach
Couples Negril has two pools and 4 Jacuzzis. We only used the main pool and the 2 hot tubs connected to it. The main pool has two levels connected by a soft infinity edge. The bottom level contains the swim-up bar, which was almost always busy. There was typically a wait for one of the submerged bar stools.
The hot tub was the hang-out spot during afternoon rain showers.
The hot tubs on either side of the main pool were our go-to refuge from the daily afternoon rain showers that came like clockwork. We learned this trick from some of the repeat guests we met. Who cares about a few rain drops if you’re sitting in a hot tub with a beer? This tactic came in handy over a year later on our free luxury vacation on Maui when we had a couple days of rare rainy weather in Wailea.
The resort is located on Bloody Bay, which is known for its pristine beaches. We were impressed by the cleanliness of the beach and the clarity of the water. There wasn’t any big surf while we were there, despite some windy weather. As expected on any Jamaican beach, we occasionally encountered wandering troubadours. Some had something to sell: cds, ciiiiigarettes, cigars! cigars!, . . . other dried plants. None were pushy or intrusive, and it was apparent that Couples beach/security staff actively kept out most of the real riff raff.
We saw little red flags on sticks, scattered around next to chairs on the beach. After observing for a few minutes, we realized they were for drink service. If you stick the flag upright in the sand, wait staff will come and take your drink order. Sometimes the service was really fast and other times it took up to 15 minutes to get a beer.
I will write another review of some specific activities we personally experienced. This resort review post is becoming a book. 🙂 — Read that article here! —
On the resort’s website it says Couples Negril has 5 restaurants. This is a bit of a stretch when you consider that one “restaurant” is a self-serve snack bar within the Beach Grill, and that breakfast is only served at one restaurant of the five. Lychee and Otaheite are only open for dinners, for about three hours per evening. There are also small time gaps before lunch and dinner where there is no food available. These were naturally the times when I went looking for a snack.
I made this handy spreadsheet to help visualize the dining options throughout the day:
Side note: If you’ve never dined in an all-inclusive situation, it can be a weird adjustment to make. Most people have eaten at an all-you-can-eat buffet, but ordering off a menu with no prices is not something our brains are used to. For most people, price always plays into the decision on what to order. At Couples we formed some opinions on how to eat at an all-inclusive. Ordering off a menu and having food brought to your table, all nicely plated, is a pleasant experience. Removing the price aspect is fun because you can truly order whatever your heart desires. However, buffet style dining has its perks as well. The whole meal takes less time out of your day, precious vacation time. You can also see all the food before you try it, so there’s less risk of being disappointed. Overall we found that a mix of the two options was best. We usually saved the sit down meal for the evening so it didn’t cut into our beach and pool time.
I’d call this the “main” dining option. It has the largest seating area on the property and has an attached bar, buffet area, and stage. The array of breakfast food was vast. All the standard American fare was available, as well as some European style options like bread rolls, cold cuts, and cheeses. Many of the warm dishes were Caribbean specialties, including several fish and seafood items, which I thought was interesting for breakfast. Our favorite breakfast item was the warm syrup with bits of banana and other tropical fruits floating in it. It was great on French toast and waffles.
The breakfast is a self-serve buffet but after seating yourself, a server will take beverage orders. (It took us a few minutes of standing around, confused, before we realized all this.) The coffee was excellent; local Jamaican coffee from the Blue Hills, French pressed. Nicoleen tried a coconut water on our last morning, after watching people get them from the bar each day. She was happy to discover she hadn’t been missing out – she hated it. 🙂
We ate dinner at Cassava Terrace a couple times. Service was friendly and the food was pretty good. One evening the end of our dinner overlapped with the start of the live entertainment on the stage. It was a really good reggae and cover band.
First meal at an all-inclusive and of course I went for the lobster tail!
If you have a sweet tooth, you’ll love the dessert mountains on display for lunch and dinner!
Beach Grill and Heliconia
We never ate dinner at Heliconia, so this review is for the Beach Grill. The same building and terrace that houses these two restaurants is also where the fruit and veggie bar is located during the day.
The fruit and veggie bar is basically a small buffet line on a counter top near the order window for the grill. There was an assortment of salad bar, fruit, nacho components, and ice cream. The tortilla chips for the nachos were burnt one time we tried to get some, and down to pieces and crumbs the other time. Nicoleen liked to get a small plate of fruit to nibble on while sunbathing.
According to other reviews I had read, the Beach Grill served up a mean jerk chicken. The walk from our room to the pool brought us right past the large barbecue where these chickens were being cooked, so I had been smelling their goodness for a day or two before I ordered one for lunch. The small half chicken was very yummy! The meat was tender and the jerk seasoning was a lot less spicy than I expected. Nicoleen enjoyed her burger from the grill as well.
We were never really sure exactly how to pronounce it, so we just called this the fancy restaurant. The dress code at Otaheite is one step under “jacket required.” We made our reservations for our last night, after our sunset catamaran cruise.
The food was a half step above the other meals we had experienced, and the service was attentive and pleasant.
Rack of lamb in the front.
We had a great time listening to our British neighbors’ antics during after-dinner drinks!
Overall Thoughts and Tips for Your Stay
Couples Negril exceeded my expectations in most respects. (Nicoleen had no expectations since she found out where we were going at the airport.) The room was clean and adequate, although we didn’t spend much time there. I definitely wouldn’t pay extra for any room but the basic one; there’s so much more to do than hang out in the room!
The food and booze were not super gourmet, but we ate and drank better than we would have normally paid for at home. Nicoleen was pregnant so we didn’t fully realize the value of the free alcohol (but she drank her share of diet Pepsi and virgin cocktails!). All of the other included amenities and activities were definitely worth a lot.
Even though we paid full price for our room ($405/night) I actually think we got a good value. Assuming we each ate and drank 3 nice restaurant meals a day, that’s $100-150 a day easily. We took a catamaran cruise, glass bottom boat rise, and guided snorkeling tour, which would have averaged close to $100 a day. If you take these values into consideration, we probably paid under $200 a night for just the room and normal resort facilities. The lush, mature vegetation and beautiful grounds and beach make Couples Negril an enviable place to stay, even without the many inclusions.
If you have an upcoming stay at the Couples Negril, here are some random tips Nicoleen and I came up with, based on our stay:
Put down a towel as a doormat in your room to capture the majority of the sand you’ll inevitably track in.
Try the fruit infused syrup for breakfast (warm pot of syrup with little bits of fruit floating in it). It’s great on French toast and waffles.
At Cassava Terrace request an outer ring table for dinner. It’s more private than interior tables and when the evening entertainment starts, you won’t be right next to the sound system.
A little known secret snack opportunity: There is a popcorn machine in the recreation room with the slot machines and the pool table.
In the spring of 2015 Nicoleen and I spent 4 nights at Couples Resort in Negril, Jamaica. Although we got the airfare for free by using the points and miles tactic, we paid to stay at the resort. In this trip report I’ll go into detail on how we got the free airfare and give a review of the resort.
Aside from the decoy plan, I also thought Nicoleen and I deserved a vacation (which we hadn’t done in years) since I finally had year round, full time income. My points and miles balances were still getting established at the time. I had no hotel points at all, so I started shopping for an all-inclusive resort at a destination we could reach by using miles.
The Planning Phase
Since this trip was a surprise for Nicoleen, I wanted to tailor it to her preferences. She loves warm, tropical, pool & beach type vacations. The trip was a decoy, so I needed it to be fairly short. But it had to be long enough for her to believe this was “the” anniversary vacation. Here was my thought process:
The “real” anniversary trip to Europe was to be in the summer, so this trip had to be in the spring. I can’t take time off in the spring because my new job requires me to be available during Minnesota’s wildfire season. Late February is the latest I could take time off.
Nicoleen loves warm weather vacations, but if she’s going to swim, it has to be actually hot. So I needed a destination with a definitively hot climate in late February. That ruled out anything north of Key West. It also had to be somewhere relatively quick to get to, which ruled out anything outside of North or Central America. The Caribbean met all these requirements.
I had no hotel points or free night certificates at the time, so that whole aspect of planning was a non-factor. I was shooting for a 4 night stay, so I didn’t want too much time locked up in logistics or ground transportation. An all-inclusive resort seemed to fit the bill nicely. We wouldn’t have to worry about finding places to eat or finding our way around with local transportation. With an all-inclusive, you can basically get to the resort and stay there the whole time.
Once I decided on all-inclusive resorts, my list got pretty short. There are the big ones: Beaches, Sandals, Club Med, etc. But I was looking for something a little less circus-like. After a few hours on TripAdvisor and other review sites, one resort chain stuck out. Couples Resorts has 4 locations, all in Jamaica. All rooms are double occupancy, and no kids are allowed! (I just sold half of you on this place with that one line 🙂 ) Couples resorts have almost universally positive reviews online. They are priced similarly to the giant all-inclusive chains, but they have fewer hidden fee amenities.
After some extensive searching I reverse-engineered most of their pricing structure. Each day of the year is priced according to demand, with prices changing in 2 week blocks or longer. A stay spanning two different price levels will show the average price for the stay, applied to each night individually. The different promotions listed on their website pretty much all result in the same discount, so I felt like I was getting the best price available.
Since I was splurging on a fancy all-inclusive resort and paying cash, I needed to get a stellar deal on the airfare. I set my budget at “free” and was able to stay within that budget!
At that time, my points and miles balances weren’t very built up, and I didn’t have much diversity in point types. I mainly had Chase Ultimate Rewards to work with, so my major airline options were United or Southwest. Both airlines are transfer partners with Chase Ultimate Rewards, with a 1:1 transfer ratio for points to miles. Southwest had recently started flying to Montego Bay, Jamaica, and they offered the cheapest flights, points-wise.
Airfare: $223.40 Other transportation: $30.00 (tips) Lodging: $2,102.00 Souvenirs: ~$100.0
Total cost for 5 day, 4 night Jamaican all-inclusive vacation: ~$2,913.80 Total cost we paid: ~$2,455.40 Savings from using value tactics: $458.40 Points earned on trip: 4,651 Ultimate Rewards
The airfare for both of us cost 40,880 Southwest Rapid Rewards, which I transferred from my Chase Ultimate Rewards account, earned mainly with my Sapphire Preferred card. Award tickets still incur taxes and fees, which came to $223.40 for both our round trip flights. The cash cost of both tickets would have been $681.80. That’s still a really good price and some may argue I should have saved the points for a better redemption value. I stick with my decision to use transferred UR points on the airfare. Free airfare at a slightly inefficient redemption rate is still free airfare!
Couples Resorts offers free shuttle service from the airport in Montego Bay to the resort in Negril. Through a weird turn of events I won’t get into here, we discovered that we had a connection to the contract transport company. Instead of waiting in the Couples lounge at the airport, we were whisked away in our own private van! I think between both trips we tipped $30.
As this trip represented the last vestiges of my old, unenlightened ways, we paid cash for the resort. (By “cash” I mean we paid the full price, but obviously we used a card to pay). This guilty splurge was $525.50 a night, totaling $2,102.
Food and Shopping: Food, drinks, entertainment, beach amenities, and even oceanside drink delivery were all included! That’s the beauty of an all-inclusive resort like Couples. Our only out-of-pocket expenses were purely optional and included a professional photo and some souvenirs. Even the formal dinner and the sunset catamaran cruise were included!
Overall we had a wonderful time! I think if I had to straight-up pay for a resort stay again, I wouldn’t hesitate doing so at Couples Negril. The weather was fantastic, and we met some fun and interesting people. Using points to book the flights made the sting of the resort cost a little less painful too.
I should really call these posts “Random Interval Updates” instead of Weekly Updates. This one covers almost two weeks and it gives and update on Nicoleen’s and my credit card situation, links to a couple new VT posts, and let’s you in on some pretty exciting credit card news for those who love free travel.
In the past random interval, I’ve pumped $10.15 in free gas. In this updates I only include gas pumped for commuting to and from work for myself. Personal miles for either of us and Nicoleen’s commute miles are not included in this figure.
New Posts this Week
– Free Menards Stuff – The Verdict is the long awaited analysis from my 2-year experiment for which I bought my limit of every free-after-rebate item in every sale ad at Menards. Check out the post to see if it was all worth it in the end, and how much money one could make with this tactic.
– Card Review – Wells Fargo Propel takes a look at the currently promoted premium points-earning credit card from Wells Fargo, the Propel World. You can easily get $650 value out of this card in the first year, with $450 of that being cold, hard cash! Read the review for the details and my assessment of the card.
Credit Card News First some personal news:
Nicoleen recently had three cards due for their first annual fee. She cancelled her Chase United Mileage Explorer after no retention deals were offered. She cancelled her Wells Fargo Propel World after no retention deals were offered, BUT she could have waited a few days and charged a $100 airline gift card, which would have been reimbursed by Wells Fargo, before cancelling. This was 100% my fault, as I neglected to think it all through properly before instructing her to cancel it.
Her third upcoming annual fee was for her Barclay American Airlines Aviator Red. As I mentioned in the previous weekly update, Barclay seems to be working hard on customer loyalty with this card in the form of bonus offers and retention deals. Nicoleen was already 2 months into the “spend $500/month for three months and get 15,000 miles” bonus offer. Not only did they let her keep this offer going, they added the 3x miles offer I recently signed up for on my card, AND they waived her annual fee. After the short conversation the rep also apologized for it taking so long (which it didn’t at all, according to Nicoleen). Now that’s service!
Now some exciting general card news:
Southwest and Chase have bumped up the bonuses on the Rapid Rewards personal and business cards to 50,000 points each. This set-up enables one of the most coveted free travel bucket list items: getting a Southwest companion pass good for almost 2 years, and 110,000 points to use with it. The companion pass allows one guest to fly free with you on any flight you book, with cash or rapid rewards. Since Southwest is a discount airline, this means you could theoretically get 10 or more domestic round trip tickets with just two card sign-ups.