Category Archives: Trip Reports

Euro2017 – My Free Trip to Europe

In July of 2017 I took a trip to Switzerland, Austria, and Germany to visit friends, hike in the Alps, drink good beer, and try to salvage my waning German language skills.  I call it a free trip to Europe because by staying with friends and booking award flights, I ended up with very few expenses.  I flew business class on the way over and economy on the way back, with a total out-of-pocket cost of $215.52!

My free trip to Europe - Euro2017

Navigating my content

This post is the touchstone page for all of my trip reports and other posts related to this trip.  Below you will find links to the individual posts, similar to the page I made for our First Class to Europe Anniversary Trip in 2015.

Here’s a basic outline of my vacation so you can get your bearing when browsing the other blog posts:

  1. Fly economy class on American from Minneapolis to Chicago
  2. Fly business class on United and Swiss Air to Zürich via Dublin
  3. Visit friends in Zürich
  4. Overnight stay in Tirol, Austria at Hochzeiger Haus mountain hut
  5. Visit a friend’s mom in Konstanz, Germany and travel by train to Frankfurt
  6. Visit more friends in Frankfurt
  7. Return flight in economy class on France Air, Frankfurt to Minneapolis via Paris

Here are the individual posts and reviews for various parts of the trip, including a detailed explanation of how I planned it, what points and miles programs I utilized, etc.  (Links will become active once the posts are published):

  • Planning a Free Trip to Europe
  • Euro2017 – Cost and Value
  • Lounge Review:  United Polaris Lounge at Chicago (ORD)
  • Flight Review:  United 757-200 Polaris Business Class ORD-DUB
  • Euro2017 Field Report: First Post From 38,000 Feet!
  • Flight Review:  Swiss Air A321 Business Class DUB-ZRH
  • Hotel Review:  Hochzeiger Haus
  • Flight Review:  Air France A340-300 Economy Class CDG-MSP

Maps generated by the Great Circle Mapper – copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

Euro2017 Field Report: First Post From 38,000 Feet!

I paid $18 for an internet connection, so I thought, “why not publish a quick post?”


I’m currently at 38,000 ft altitude, over the Atlantic, approaching Ireland.  I’m in seat 3A on a Boeing 757-200, on a United flight in Polaris Business class.  It’s just after midnight back home and the sun is rising here.  Local time is 6:26 AM.  I was able to sleep a couple hours thanks to the lie-flat seat, but it’s hard to trick the body into thinking the night has passed.



The best way to prevent jet lag is to force the body into the new time zone, right?  What better way to do that than a hearty free breakfast at 12:30 A.M. (physiological time)!

The food was pretty good, despite not being very hungry.  I hope the coffee and the view of the sunrise will get me ready for my 3 hour layover in Dublin.  All in all, it’s been a pretty good experience in Polaris Class so far.  And the price was right at 57.5k United miles + $8.10!

Time to go

So long for now. . . I think we’ll be descending soon.  Time to stow all large electronic devices.


Our Hawaiian Get-Away 2016

In September of 2016, Nicoleen and I embarked on our long-awaited Hawaiian get-away.  This 7-night luxury trip to Maui was our first time to Hawaii, and knocked off one item in my bucket list.  It took some advanced tactical planning to get the flights and all the hotel stays to align properly.  Read on to find out how we planned and executed our much needed Hawaiian get-away and got $4,152 worth of lodging and airfare for $189 by tactically redeeming miles and free nights!Maui sunset from Grand Wailea

[Mostly] Free Hotels

After our involved and arduous planning phase, we accomplished our goal of 6 free nights at luxury resorts.  Since our flight didn’t arrive in Maui until late evening, we wanted to burn our first night at an inexpensive hotel near the airport.  That way we would get to enjoy our whole first day at the Andaz.

With a little help from Tripadvisor reviews (always part of my research) we settled on Maui Seaside Hotel in Kahului.  I had an e-mail offer from Rocketmiles for 4,000 bonus miles with my first booking.  The price for the room was only $11 more through the Rocketmiles price search.  Since I value 5,000 American Airlines miles at far higher than the $11 difference, the offer was well worth it.

maui seaside– Click for my full review of the Maui Seaside Hotel –

After the brief stay in Kahuilui it was on to the incredibly upscale southwest Maui town of Wailea.  There we stayed at the two resorts that our whole trip revolved around.  The first was the Andaz Maui at Wailea.  The second was the Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria Resort.

- Click for my full review of the Andaz Maui at Wailea -– Click for my full review of the Andaz Maui at Wailea –

Grand Wailea Pools– Click for my full review of the Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria Resort –

Our hotel schedule looked like this:

Cost Summary

Hawaiian Get-Away cost summary

* Add the $95 annual fee on the Citi Hilton Reserve to our lodging cost, if you want to count that.

Points earned on the trip were 4,993 Hyatt points, 4,693 Hilton points, 4,179 American Airlines miles, and approximately 1,500 Chase Ultimate Rewards.

Origin of Concept

I had known about the Chase Hyatt card and the Citi Hilton Reserve card from my early days of credit cards, points and miles.  These are very popular cards because of their sign-up bonuses: both cards offer two free nights at any category of property from their respective portfolios.  Obviously the value potential when redeeming these free nights is enormous.  Each card could conceivably be used for $1000+/night resorts.  I briefly discussed the possibilities for these free nights in this post when we first got these cards.

hyatt-hilton-smallBetween two people you’ll have a total of 8 free nights if each of you gets both cards.  It’s a little tricky though, because the Hilton free nights are only good on weekends (Fri, Sat, Sun nights).  So in order to get 8 nights in a row, you’d have to split your stay at the Hilton in two, with the 4 Hyatt nights in between.  We had no interest in switching hotels twice, so our goal was 6 nights split between 4 Hyatt nights and 2 Hilton nights.  (We had to do this anyway since I had already used both free nights from my Hilton card on previous trips).

The trick then became finding two amazing properties close to each other, one Hilton and one Hyatt. . .

The Planning Phase

As you may have guessed from the post I referenced above, I had already given some thought to which pair of Hilton and Hyatt properties I was aiming for.  There are a number of fantastic locations around the globe with worthwhile resorts from each chain near to each other.  But I had my heart set on Hawaii; specifically the Andaz Maui from Hyatt and the Grand Wailea from Hilton’s Waldorf Astoria collection.

The logistics of this trip were quite a feat to sort out . . . but possible with enough research and advanced planning!

The logistics of this trip were quite a tangled mess to sort out . . . but it was possible with enough research and advanced planning!

This trip was a real doozie to plan!  I had to coordinate 2 free hotel stays at highly in-demand properties.  The dates had to fit with our work schedules.  We needed to be reasonably certain we could arrange child care for the dates.  Plus, the hotel dates needed to mesh with available flights we could purchase with miles.

Here’s how my thought process worked as I approached this monumental task:
  1. Time window.  We got the card bonuses (free night certificates) in December and we had already picked out September or October as our target date range.  It’s a good time to visit Hawaii and it’s also a relatively slow time for me at work.  A 9-10 month lead time would also improve our chances of finding free nights and flights that all worked together.
  2. Free hotels.  There were multiple options for airlines and frequent flier programs to get to Hawaii, but we were aiming for two specific hotels with limited award night availability.  I knew that hotels would be the limiting factor, so that’s where I started.  The hotel availability was so limited that I didn’t even look at flights at all until I had the hotels set.  The free night certificates are completely refundable, so there was no risk to booking them “in the blind” as far as airfare was concerned.
  3. Free flights.  Once I locked down hotel reservations and used all 6 certificates, I began the flight search.  I checked my usual three: United, American, and Delta.  Right away I noticed that most flights from the lower 48 to Hawaii arrive in the evening, and most return flights are red-eyes.    That threw a wrench in the plans because I didn’t want to waste virtually the whole first day at one of the awesome hotels by getting in late.  So I moved my search for the outgoing flight up a day and figured we could stay the first night in an inexpensive hotel by the airport.  I settled on a Delta round trip, which would use up our entire Delta SkyMiles balances.  (good riddance!)
  4. Bonus night.  Because we would be arriving a night early, we would need to find a hotel for that first night.  I had recently seen an e-mail offer for bonus American Airlines miles when booking hotels through Rocketmiles.  I found a decent-looking hotel near the airport in Kahului and booked it through Rocketmiles for the bonus miles.
  5. Car rental.  We waited a little too close for comfort on this.  I think we reserved a rental car less than 2 months from the trip.  It ended up working out fine, but we should have taken care of it earlier, to be safe.

The struggle with free nights at the Andaz Maui

Certain Hyatt resorts are notorious for being difficult to book with points or free night certificates.  There’s a whole Flyertalk thread devoted to this annoyance.  It’s a combination of supply/demand, games some hotels play with room types, and minimum stay requirements.  The Andaz Maui at Wailea ranks up their with the worst of them, as it has all three factors going for it.

Example: If I try to book for two nights this coming September, it shows standard rooms available:

Check the box for paying with points and the rooms disappear:

But, if you extend the stay to 5 nights, the rooms are magically available again.  This is an example of a hidden minimum stay requirement:

The minimum stay requirement in the example above is probably the one that gets most people.  The minimum stays aren’t publicized; you just have to search around for room availability.  Some dates it’s 5 nights minimum, others it’s 2, or any other number.

Free night certificates can only be used to book “standard” rooms, which are the same ones bookable with points.  This is another way some Hyatts manipulate room availability.  They re-categorize a handful of rooms to a “lower” room type and calling that new type the “standard” room.  This new room type can exist for reasons such as a less desirable view or being on a lower floor.  I call shenanigans!

How we beat the shenanigans and booked the room

With a little help from reports on Flyertalk and blog posts like this one from Million Mile Secrets, I went to book our free rooms.  The Hyatt website was giving us the same minimum stay error for our selected dates as shown above.  I was anticipating that so I had Nicoleen call the Hyatt Gold Passport reservation line.

The rep put up a little resistance when the same online system didn’t let him book Nicoleen’s 2 night stay with her certificates from her Chase Hyatt card.  She played dumb and told him that each night showed up as available when she selected cash as the payment type.  And, she reasoned, if the same room type was available with cash, she should be able to book it with her certificates.  She was successful.  Two down, two to go!

Next It was my turn.  I tried the same thing but the rep I got actually cited the 5-day minimum stay.  I told him as long as the standard room was available (which it certainly was), I should be able to book it with my certificates.  He once again mentioned the 5 night minimum so I had to play my ace: “If it’s not possible, then how did my wife just book the two previous nights?  Here’s her confirmation number…”  The rep put me on hold and after about 10 minutes a manager greeted me.  She said usually it’s not possible, but in this case she would make an exception and book the room for me.

The Andaz Maui at Wailea is such an amazing property, it was worth the extra hassle to hunt and fight for the free night reservations.

The Andaz Maui at Wailea is such an amazing property, it was worth the extra hassle to hunt and fight for the free night reservations.

Apparently there is a way for the Hyatt customer service reps to book free nights and override the individual property’s minimum stay limit.  It might take a few HUCAs (Hang Up and Call Again) but it can be done.  Or at least it could be done when we booked this trip.  This type of thing is constantly evolving and I would recommend reading recent discussion in the Flyertalk forum for the latest intel.

Booking the Hilton free nights

Using the Hilton free nights from the Citi Hilton Reserve card is actually more restrictive than the Hyatt certificates, but it’s more cut and dry.

Hilton also limits their capacity of points-bookable rooms.  On top of the limited supply, they further limit the number of points-bookable rooms at the “standard” award level.  These are the equivalent of an airline’s “saver level” award seat.  Only the standard room type at the standard award level can be booked with the Citi free nights.  One more restriction: the Citi free nights can only be used on Fridays, Saturdays, or Sundays.

Despite the restrictions, it’s easy to search for available dates.  When searching for a room on the Hilton website, check the “flexible dates” and “Hilton Honors points” boxes:


The results will look like this:


You can then click “Forward a week” to scroll through the dates.  Standard award rates are always nice round numbers.  In the Grand Wailea’s case, it’s 95,000 points.  As of right now, September 8th-10th, 2017 is an available weekend stay!

Before booking the Hyatt nights, I had confirmed that the two days following that hotel stay were available weekend nights at the Grand Wailea at standard rates.  A few clicks later, and both hotels were booked!

Free airfare (the easy part)

By the time I got all the hotel stays to line up, our dates were the only stretch in our 2 month window that would work.  Being tied to specific flight dates typically makes finding free flights more difficult.  But we had a few factors working in our favor as well.  We had decent balances in all three major U.S. frequent flier programs (United, American, Delta), Hawaii is a popular place to fly, and we were starting our search 9 months in advance.

Right off the bat our specific travel dates narrowed us down to Delta flights.  Nicoleen and I had over 90k combined Delta miles.  Since Delta has the worst redemption rates in the universe for award flights, our round trip economy flights would cost us 45k miles per person.

The other option was to transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards to Korean Air and book the exact same Delta flight for 25k miles per person.  (For a full explanation of how this works, check out this post by Milevalue: Guide to Booking Delta Flights to Hawaii for 25k Korean Miles Roundtrip).

Despite living near a Delta hub (MSP) I value Delta Skymiles so lowly, I had previously resolved to use them the first chance I could.  So I gave up a potential 50,000 point savings on a 90,000 mile flight in order to get rid of my Delta balance!  I had to pay a $120 fee to transfer some of Nicoleen’s miles to me so we both had over 45k. . . and I still think I made the right choice!

My complimentary meal on the 5 hour flight LAX-OGG. The price of flying for free. :)

My complimentary meal on the 5 hour flight LAX-OGG. The price of flying for free. 🙂

Cost Breakdown


Our outgoing and return Delta flights were both two-leg economy flights with a layover at LAX.  The cash value was actually pretty reasonable at $605.01 per person, round trip.  We paid 45k Delta Skymiles per person.  There was a $120 transfer fee involved in order to get both our account balances up to 45k.  We also paid $25 each way to check a bag.

We earned the majority of our Skymiles with the Delta Gold American Express card, which we both got early in our credit card careers.


We stayed the first night of our Hawaiian get-away at the the Maui Seaside Hotel.  When all was said and done, it cost us $179.  With the stay we earned over 4,179 American Airlines Miles, which is worth at least $50 to me.

Our next 4 nights were at the Andaz Maui at Wailea.  We used 4 free night certificates that we earned by each getting the Chase Hyatt card.  The cash price for a fully refundable stay at the time we booked the room was $439.  With the mandatory valet fee ($25), daily resort fee ($40), and tax, the nightly total would have cost us $540, for a total of $2,160.  The resort fee is covered with the free night, so all we had to pay was the valet fee, $106!

The last two nights of the trip were at Hilton’s Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria Resort.  The cash price for our room at the Grand Wailea was $327.  With resort fee, valet, and tax, two nights would have been $872.  Our cost was just the valet with tax: $62.50!

Ground Transportation:

We decided to see what the smaller, non-chain car rental companies had to offer on Maui.  Our search revealed some amusing results.  One particular company had a category called “old vans” which consisted of early 90’s minivans at a bargain price!

We went with a company called Maui Car Rentals that had Mustang convertibles for less than the price of compact economy cars at the major chain rental agencies.  I got this 3-5 year old Mustang convertible that ran and looked great for $223!  We got a free ride from the airport and they let us drop the car off at the airport after hours.  Maui Car Rentals nō ka ’oi!


We had a running joke with the hotel valet drivers.  When requesting our car we told them we had the white Mustang convertible.  I think about 90% of the cars on the island were white Mustang convertible rentals!



This Hawaiian get-away for Nicoleen and me was the culmination of a lot of planning.  We had this or a similar trip in mind way back when we planned our credit card applications a year prior.  The Chase Hyatt card and the Citi Hilton Reserve cards make a potent combination if enough advanced thought it given to the bonus redemptions.  For us, the research and planning paid off!

We managed to stay at luxury resorts on Maui that we could have normally never afforded.  Throw in the virtually free airfare and the whole trip cost us less than a budget weekend to Florida would have cost!

Another added bonus of virtually free airfare and hotels is the freedom it affords you with other spending.  You can splurge on dining and entertainment and not feel guilty about it.

Lobster deviled eggs, Proletariat woodfired pizza, and the best fries on the planet - at Monkeypod farm-to-table restaurant in Wailea, Maui.

Lobster deviled eggs, Proletariat wood-fired pizza, and the best fries on the planet – at Monkeypod farm-to-table restaurant in Wailea, Maui.

Do you want to learn the tactics we used to plan and execute this amazing Hawaiian get-away?  Like the ValueTactics Facebook page, comment, ask, and interact!

For more on this Hawaiian get-away trip, check out these related posts:

A long weekend in paradise. . . why not?

Relaxing in Costa Rica
The idea for this vacation came about quite differently than most of my other trips.  There was no months-long planning phase; no advanced strategy.  Nicoleen and I realized in October we each had free nights on our Hyatt accounts after paying the $75 annual fees on our Chase Hyatt cards.  After looking at our yearly calendar, we figured out the only time we could fit in another trip was in February.  After only 2 hours of planning, all the stars aligned and we had our trip fully booked!

Jump to section:
Planning phase
Sun Country flight MSP-LIR
Hotel Andaz Peninsula Papagayo
Prieta Beach Club
United flight LIR-IAH-MSP and KLM Lounge (Prevented due to flight delay)
Cost summary
Cost breakdown

Planning phase

The planning for this trip couldn’t have been easier.  In a matter of 2 hours I had found outgoing and return flights that matched our desired hotel dates.  Additionally, the dates spanned a weekend so we would only have to take 2 days off work.  This was one of those rare free trips where everything lined up perfectly.  But it wasn’t just luck; the hotel we chose generally has great award night availability, which is why we were able to book our desired dates at this in-demand property only 4 months ahead of time.

Free Hotel

Our Hyatt annual free nights were good for any category 1-4 Hyatt property.  To get our money’s worth out of the $75 annual fee needed to get the free night, we needed to find a hotel stay worth more than $75 (not hard to do).  Since the purpose of the trip was basically to burn our free nights, we weren’t looking to spend more than 3 or 4 nights.  On the other hand, 2 free nights would be too short, so we needed at least 3 available award nights in a row.  A short trip also requires short travel time, so we limited our search to North and Central America.
My general strategy when planning trips is thus:

Find the maximum optimal solution by adjusting variables while staying within constraints.

Our constraints were:

  • Hyatt category 1-4 property with 3+ award nights available in February
  • Located in North or Central America
  • Somewhere unquestionably warm (escape from Minnesota winter)

Having spent a just a little bit of time researching destination hotels and resorts, I saw an obvious front runner.  Andaz Peninsula Papagayo in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica is a known sweet spot in the Hyatt portfolio.  Fortunately for Chase Hyatt card holders, it is category 4 so it qualifies for the annual free stay.  Even more surprising is that award stays cost a mere 15,000 Hyatt gold passport points!  (Similar properties around the world typically cost 25,000.)  The hotel receives overwhelmingly positive reviews online.  What sealed the deal for us was getting the recommendation for the property from some good friends who stayed there last year.
Chase Hyatt card anniversary nights and Hyatt Gold Passport award stays share the same availability.  A quick search on the Andaz Papagayo website revealed a string of three nights, covering a weekend, in the middle of February.  I immediately booked our two free nights, which are fully refundable so there was no risk.  Someone else looking at the same dates would be less likely to book the single remaining night, which bought me some security as I arranged the rest of the details.

Free Airfare

The next step was to find some free flights.  We were plumb out of Delta miles, so my first checks for award seats were United and American.  It’s only a 5 hour flight so I wasn’t looking for premium class seats; economy would be just fine.

For airfare my main criteria on a short trip like this is arrival and departure times at the destination.  The worst timing for a 3 day trip would be to arrive late at night on the first day and then leave early in the morning on the last day.  That would effectively make it a 3 night, 2 day trip.  Low value warning!  American Airlines had plenty of award seats available on our dates but the arrival and departure times were both horrible.  There was a United Airlines return flight that left at 1:30 in the afternoon which would allow us to have a quick swim in the morning before packing up at a leisurely pace on our last day.  I had to broaden my search for the outgoing flight and I found a direct flight on Sun Country that arrived in Costa Rica in the afternoon.

I used Citi Thank-You points to pay for the Sun Country flight.  The cash price on that flight was the cheapest I could find, and Thank-You points can be used to book travel at a 1.25x rate.  As a bonus, the ticket is considered paid with cash so I was credited the regular Sun Country UFly Rewards on that flight.  After securing the flights I transferred 4,000 supremely versatile Chase Ultimate Rewards to my Hyatt account to raise my balance to 15,000.  The transfer was completed within seconds, and I booked the last remaining night at the Andaz.

The planning went so well I felt like I was creating a beautiful work of art . . .

Sun Country flight MSP-LIR

sun country 737
It was everything I ever dreamed a 5 hour, budget economy flight at the back of an aging 737 would be.  Despite being cramped, having no free food and no in-flight entertainment, I did enjoy the scenery, the company, and the opportunity to begin writing this post.

The scenery: Yucatan Peninsula. That's one nice meander.

The scenery: Yucatan Peninsula. That’s one nice meander.

Nicoleen and Ross on the Sun Country flight

The company: my lovely wife Nicoleen.

My creative process at work.

The opportunity:  My creative process at work.

Hotel Andaz Peninsula Papagayo

The Andaz Papagayo is the newest luxury resort of the very few developed properties on the Peninsula Papagayo.  Papagayo is a sparingly-developed, forested peninsula on the Pacific side of Costa Rica.  February falls in the dry season in the region, meaning the weather is uniformly hot and dry, with almost no chance of rain.  It sounded like a great place to escape the cold Minnesota winter, and it was!
The Andaz brand vision is exemplified at their resort in Papagayo.  The sleek, contemporary styling of the architecture blends beautifully into the natural surroundings.  The service is courteous and friendly.  The guest rooms, restaurants, and pools are interesting and unique.
andaz pool
As I mentioned in the planning section above, the Andaz Papagayo is a magnet for value tacticians.  With its high dollar to points value for award stays and its relatively low Hyatt category rating, this resort seems custom made for free stays.

Click here to read my complete review of the Andaz Papagayo.

Prieta Beach Club

The only time we left the Andaz resort was for a short trip to the Prieta Beach Club.  Access to the beach club is one of the included perks at the Andaz, and guests of the Four Seasons and several smaller properties on the peninsula are also welcome there.  The Andaz provides a complimentary shuttle that goes anywhere on the Peninsula Papagayo, so we called the front desk to reserve our seats on the last shuttle before sundown.  Unlike our resort, Prieta Beach Club faces the Pacific side of the peninsula so it’s the best place around to see the sunset.

The Pacific sunset seen from Prieta Beach Club

The Pacific sunset seen from Prieta Beach Club

Nicoleen and I had some company on our little excursion.  AJ and Dana were a couple from Wisconsin (Go Pack!) who had graciously helped us out with a rum shortage the day before.  It turns out they were fellow points and miles aficionados and had booked their trip on points and miles too!  Obviously this led to some good discussions and we were happy they joined us for drinks, watching the sunset and dinner at the beach club.

The beach club is comprised of two restaurants, a large beach, a bar, a lap pool, fitness center, and spa.  Basically it’s a hotel with no guest rooms.  Only one of the two restaurants is open for each meal time: Olas for lunch and Marea for dinner.  We didn’t realize this until we got there and Nicoleen had her heart set on the nachos she had seen on the lunch menu online.  We ordered some beers to go with the lovely sunset, and Nicoleen kept working on the bartender for those unavailable nachos.

Pacific sunsetat Prieta Beach Club, Papagayo Peninsula, Costa Rica.

Nicoleen was shocked by the cold water of the Pacific at Prieta Beach Club, Papagayo Peninsula, Costa Rica.

Ordering something not on the menu isn’t too much to ask when you’re on a free, luxury vacation, right?  Apparently not!  Eventually the bartender very furtively let Nicoleen know that her nachos were on their way, and seated us on a cool little island deck near the lap pool.

bar at Prieta Beach Club

The open air bar at Prieta Beach Club.

Prieta Beach Club

The view from the bar at Prieta Beach Club. Both restaurants are visible: Marea on the right and Olas in the far background.  The bartender seated us across the bridge on the deck in the infinity pool.

Prieta Beach Club nachos

Nicoleen’s pride and joy: the nachos.

The nachos were exceptionally good.  The servings of guacamole and pico that seemed to come with everything in Costa Rica were more than ample.  After our beers and bootlegged nachos, we made the next shuttle back to the Andaz.

United flight LIR-IAH-MSP and KLM Lounge

The final day of the trip.  After a quick morning walk on the beach and one last dip in the amazing swimming pools, it was time to say goodbye to the Andaz Papagayo.  We packed up, checked out, and took our reserved private shuttle to the Liberia airport (LIR).

Our return flight had a 3 hour layover scheduled in Houston, where we had hoped to visit the KLM lounge.  We had access to the lounge with the Priority Pass Select, which is a benefit of Nicoleen’s Chase Sapphire Reserve.  Everything had worked perfectly with the planning and execution of this trip . . . until now.

The flight to Houston was delayed two hours due to weather.  Instead of spending two more hours at the resort, we got to sit in the tiny Liberia airport and wait.
Two hours turned into nearly three hours, and on the flight it became evident we would probably miss our connection to Minneapolis.  Suddenly the cramped economy seats and the missed free lounge opportunity were the least of our problems.

We had the last flight of the day from Houston to Minneapolis, and arriving a day late would mean a logistical nightmare for work, daycare, kids’ school transportation, airport transportation, etc.  Miraculously, we managed to sprint and budge our way off the plane, through the baggage claim area, through customs, passport control, security, and a tram ride between terminals . . . all in less than 25 minutes.  When I huffed onto the plane they shut the door right behind me.

Cost summary


* Our hotel invoice was $0.00.  I’m counting the $150 from our $75 annual fees paid on the Hyatt cards in order to get the two free nights.

Points earned on this trip: 602 Chase Ultimate Rewards (for hotel dining and airport souvenir shopping).  4,550 Sun Country UFly points for the flights purchased with Citi Thank-You points.

Cost breakdown


I booked the outbound flight on Sun Country airlines.  Sun Country had the best arrival time in Costa Rica (afternoon), and it was also the cheapest available flight.  The cash cost of the direct flight for both of us would have been $509.10.  Thank-You points, which I earned with my Citi Thank-You Premier, are worth 1.25 cents each when used to book travel through the Citi travel portal.  Uur outbound flight cost us 40,728 Citi Thank-You points, for a redemption value of 1.25 cents/point.  That’s not the best value I’ve received with Thank-You points, but hey – it’s still free airfare!

One nice little bonus when getting airfare this way is that Citi takes your points and buys the tickets.  The airline sees it as a paid purchase, so you still earn the regular frequent flyer miles for the flight.  This isn’t the case with regular award bookings.

For the return flight I found saver level award seats on United Airlines.  With taxes and fees, for the two of us it would have cost $1,016.  The saver level award seats were 17.5k miles each + taxes and fees.  Our cost for the return flight was 35k United miles and $121.  That’s a 2.6 cent/mile redemption rate, which is pretty good.

Ground Transportation:

We decided not to rent a car for our short trip.  Anything we would need to leave the resort for would cut into our valuable relaxation time.  Therefore, the only ground transportation we needed was to and from the airport.  We reserved a private van with a company called Liberia Airport Shuttle Company.  Catchy, isn’t it?  The cost was $59 cash per way.  Everything went smoothly and the van was air conditioned and comfortable.


Nightly rates at the Andaz Papagayo vary drastically throughout the year.  Published rates get down to around $250 during the rainy season.  Around holidays and during the peak season, rates for the basic room are up around $450 a night.  Then you have to add taxes and the daily resort fee.  The total cash cost for our 3-night stay was $1,541 as of the day I booked our room.  We used the two annual free nights we earned by paying the annual fee on our Chase Hyatt cards.  I booked the third night with 15,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points, for a redemption rate around 3 cents/point.  Our hotel invoice was $0.00.

Food and Shopping:

As I discuss in my Andaz Papagayo review, we brought with a small suitcase of food and drinks.  It’s hard to calculate how much we saved with this tactic.  I would estimate that without the ~$50 worth of food and drinks we brought with us, we would have spent an additional $150-200 on meals and another $150-200 on drinks.  That’s Andaz pricing for you.  As it was, we got away with only spending $190 at the hotel restaurants.

Other than the food, we didn’t have many expenses.  We left a few tips for the room service staff and the van drivers.  At the airport on the way out we bought about $30 worth of coffee and little souvenirs for the kids.


This trip started as an idea to use up our two Hyatt annual free nights.  Those pesky free nights – always obligating you to plan an entire free trip around them.  When you’re into value tactics, sometimes you find yourself in inconvenient situations such as this.  Luckily for us, the planning went smoothly and so did the vacation.

A few months ago we had zero plans for a winter trip.  With a little planning effort, some points and miles, and a little bit of cash, we were able to take a refreshing long-weekend trip full of luxury in a unique destination.

If you want to learn more about the tactics used to get this incredible value, like the ValueTactics Facebook page and check the site often.  I’m also always willing to give one-on-one advice and tactical instruction!  Thanks for reading this trip review!  🙂

Hotel Review – Andaz Peninsula Papagayo

Andaz PapagayoWe recently spent three nights at the Andaz Papagayo Hotel & Resort in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica.  The trip was an awesome break from the Minnesota winter!  Read my trip review here for details on how and why we planned this short, delightful vacation.  Experiencing the 90+ degree weather and the luxurious Andaz Papagayo was awesome in and of itself.  Paying only $150 for a $1,541 hotel stay was even more awesome!

Jump to section:
The Room
Cost and Value
Overall Thoughts
Tips for Your Stay

Andaz Peninsula Papagayo Resort Overview

The Andaz Papagayo opened in late 2013, which made it just over 3 years old at the time of our stay in February 2017.  There are 153 rooms, 3 restaurants, multiple pools, 2 beaches, a spa, and a kids’ center.  The architecture is all naturally inspired and blends in to the surroundings.  The resort is located on a steep slope and is positioned lengthwise so that most of the walking is across the slope.  Even so, you will definitely stretch your calves at the Andaz Papagayo; ramps and stairways are needed to access most locations.

Andaz Papagayo paths

Cross-slope pathways connect different parts of the resort.

Guanacaste is on the dry, Pacific side of Costa Rica.  The weather is heavily dependent on the time of year.  They rainy season is May-November and the rest of the year it is very dry.  The vegetation is very different from the rain forest only 75 miles away.  The forest on Peninsula Papagayo is classified as a “dry tropical” forest, and it becomes mostly brown during the dry season.  Despite the thick forest cover everywhere we looked, we saw more cacti than palms!  Click here to learn more about the climate in Guanacaste.

The Room

We booked 2 nights with our anniversary free nights from our Chase Hyatt cards, and one night with Hyatt Gold Passport points (15,000 pts).  Anniversary free nights and award stays can only book into the standard room, called the “Andaz Double” or the “Andaz King” depending on the bed configuration.  We got an Andaz King in building 7.
Andaz Papagayo resort map

I was a bit disappointed we didn’t get one of the many rooms with views of the bay I had seen in reviews.  Our room looked out into the forest and we could just barely see the ocean through the trees.  As our stay progressed I came to realize my disappointment was undeserved.Andaz papagayo balconyYes, the view would have been nice, but our room had two advantages the higher up buildings and rooms didn’t have.  One advantage was the monkeys!  We got very close and personal with the white-faced monkeys that roamed the property.  The rooms with balconies above the forest canopy didn’t have our front row seats for the monkey show.  The second advantage to our “no view” room was the privacy.  In three days I didn’t see a single soul from our balcony or bay window.  By the end of the stay I was comfortable changing into my swim trunks anywhere in the room.  It also allowed us to fully utilize the walk-through open air shower without fear of being creeped upon.

The rooms at the Andaz Papagayo have a very contemporary, clean design and utilize native wood in the cabinets and other decor.
Andaz papagayo king suite

The bathroom and shower has a contiguous river pebble floor which we really liked.  It felt like a mini foot massage with every step!  As I mentioned before, the shower has an open design, with a glass door to the vanity area at one end and a large folding door opening onto the balcony at the other end.  There’s a removable shower head and a large rain shower head.  There was ample space on the vanity top:
Andaz Papagayo Bathroom Vanity

Andaz Papagayo bathroom

The shower with vanity and toilet closet behind. Photo was taken from the balcony.

Our one complaint about the bathroom was the toilet closet.  The frosted glass door between the toilet room and the main bathroom area doesn’t seal at the top, bottom, or side.  And the frosted glass doesn’t provide adequate privacy.  As my long time readers may know, I’m a sucker for sleek design and aesthetics.  But there are some cases where function needs to trump design.  The poor planning on the toilet enclosure is one of those cases.

bath productsThe quality of the soap, shampoo, and body wash was a nice surprise.  The shampoo was some sort of tingly minty stuff, and the body wash smelled like an entire citrus grove smashed into a tiny bottle.

Like the Andaz Maui where we stayed for free in September, there was a small bonus amenity kit on the bathroom vanity with q-tips, make-up remover, and other such things.

Speaking of small bonus surprises, when we arrived there was a hand-written, personalized note on the desk welcoming us to the Andaz.  There was also a plate with three fresh oranges and another plate with biscotti and Nutella.  In my book, those little extra touches are definitely worth the resort’s cost, as they make guests feel that much more welcome and special.
andaz room gifts

Andaz Papagayo king bed

Our king bed. The hats (and flip flops – not pictured) were ours to keep.

The king bed was very comfortable, with a nice firm mattress.  The lighting options and brightness controls in the room were mind blowing, although with everything on full blast it was still not very bright in the room.  We also noticed that two of the light controls in the bathroom (for the vanity sconces and the shower) had their labels reversed.  One final nit pick about the lighting is that the snack cupboard light didn’t automatically turn off when the door was closed, as it was supposed to.  Being the manly man that I am, I was able to fix the switch in short order. 🙂

That snack cupboard with the broken light switch is one of the trademarks of the Andaz brand.  Well . . . the complimentary snacks; not the broken light.  Every day the cupboard is refilled with coffee, several kinds of chips, Diet Coke, Coke, Fresca (a citrus soft drink – not the early 90s American Fresca), and bottled water.  Like the Andaz Maui, this fridge is not a true fridge, but a cooling cabinet.  Drinks get cold but it takes a long time.  Unlike the Andaz Maui, this “fridge” was actually large enough to store some of our own drinks.
Andaz Papagayo snacks


The clock/alarm/stereo also came in handy.  The little unit actually had really good sound with the “Mega Super Bass Enhancer” (or whatever it was called) turned on.  It has an iPod dock but can also be used with any 1/8″ headphone jack device (bring your own patch cord).  While I’m on the subject of cords, I’ll also mention that the TV has VGA and HDMI inputs, but again: bring your own cord.

Overall the room was awesome.  We used every feature of the room: the small table and lounge chair overlooking the bay window, the closets, both balcony doors, the balcony furniture, and the desk.  The shower was wonderful and besides the complaint about the toilet closet, the bathroom was functional and convenient.  Room service was wonderful.  Despite the lack of an ocean view, the monkeys and their antics made us very happy with our room location!


Non-award bookings at the Andaz Papagayo Peninsula pay a resort fee which seems to fluctuate with the price of the room.  A few sample bookings on the website just brought up nightly resort fees of $37-75, depending on the time of year.  The fees cover use of all the facilities (this should actually be considered part of the room rate) and the included beach activities.  Award bookings and free nights have the resort fee waived.

Aside from the food and drinks, it feels a bit like an all-inclusive resort.  Most of the beach activities are included with the resort fee.  At all the pool areas there are towel stands with complimentary fruit-infused ice water and 3 different types of sunscreen.  We ended up with some sunburn despite frequently re-applying copious amounts of sunscreen from these stations.  There’s a reason why all the locals wear long sleeved shirts and shaded hats; the Costa Rica sun is strong!

Swimming Pools

The zero entry pool in the kid-friendly area. Click photo to see a larger version.

The zero entry pool in the kid-friendly area. Click photo to see a larger version.

I am in love with the Andaz vision for swimming pools!  Like those at Andaz Maui, the pools at Andaz Papagayo are incredibly beautiful.  They contribute equally to both the beauty of the resort and to the potential for tropical relaxation.
Andaz Papagayo swimming poolAndaz Papagayo has two main pool areas.  One is a family-friendly pool complex (pictured above) and the other is a single infinity pool in another area, for adults only.  The family-friendly area consists of a smaller pool on the highest terrace, with a larger zero-entry pool below it.  Another pool is around the corner, directly under Rio Bhongo restaurant.

The adults-only area contains a single swimming pool and is located under Ostra restaurant, at the far end of the resort from our room.  We didn’t swim in this pool until our last morning.  The distance from our room and the lack of obnoxious kids at the family-friendly pool area gave us little reason to swim here.
Andaz Papagayo Adults-only pool area

The peaceful adults-only pool.

The peaceful adults-only pool.

During our stay there were a few little kids in the family-friendly area, but it certainly wasn’t overrun.  We spent most of our time in that area since it was right next to the building with our room.

All swimming pools have infinity edges.  None are heated, from what we could tell.  The signage says the pools close at 9:00 p.m. but upon checking in, our host told us they were open 24/7.  Major points for having 24 hour pools!  We were however disappointed to find out there is no hot tub on the property.  It would have been the perfect place to hang out in the cooler evenings and meet fellow travelers.  In fact, the lack of a hot tub was our biggest single complaint about the property.

Beach and Activities

Prior to our trip I read multiple reviews decrying the lack of a good beach.  Knowing this ahead of time helped us avoid disappointment, but I have to agree with those reviews.  The two beaches at the Andaz Papagayo are small (virtually nonexistent during high tide) and the ocean floor is far from pure sand. On top of that, the water was as cold as a Minnesota lake!

This is as close as we came to swimming in the bay.

This is as close as we came to swimming in the bay.

However, what the beach lacks in swimming potential it makes up for in interesting flora and fauna.  We found tons of little hermit crabs on the sand and on the rocks.  During low tide the beach, which is a beautiful blend of tan and black sand, is littered with shells.  From the beach we got a good look at many types of lizards, including some 3-4 foot long iguanas.  They would scurry up into the woods a second before we would get close enough for a good photo!  As a forester, I was interested in the hundreds of different tree species in Costa Rica.

We signed up for a snorkeling tour the first morning of our trip.  When we got to the meeting place on the beach, the guide told us she had to cancel the tour because the bay was full of jellyfish.  No arguments here!  She told us they might be out to sea by early afternoon, but that the wind might be a problem.  The danger was getting blown into shore where the rocks are covered with spiny urchins.  There were also sharks to watch out for, and tiger eels, and poisonous sting rays, and occasionally deadly sea snakes. . .  We decided to sign up for a kayak tour instead, and see the sea life from above the water!

The kayaking tour was pretty fun.  They use plastic 2-person kayaks and the tour moves at a leisurely pace.  I told Nicoleen not to paddle and I don’t even think I broke a sweat.  The tour goes south along the coast and then back.  We saw puffer fish, a blue heron, an osprey, and several other kids of fish.  The guide talked about the peninsula and Costa Rica in general, focusing on the climate and biology of the area.

Stand up paddle-boarding was also an option and there was some sports equipment on the beach during low tide.  Wave runners were also available for rent: $75 for 30 minutes or $150 for an hour.  We considered renting one but decided to get in some more swimming pool time instead.

Neither of us used the fitness center or the spa, so I can’t comment on them.


The resort sits in a fairly remote location on the Peninsula Papagayo.  Therefore, guests are pretty much forced to eat at the on-site restaurants.  I call this kind of situation “hostage dining.”  There are restaurants at the nearby marina and beach club, but online reports indicate they are similar in price to the Andaz restaurants, with slightly less food quality.  I can’t imagine a scenario where resort guests didn’t eat at least some of their meals at the on-property restaurants.

The Andaz Papagayo offers three dining choices:

  • Rio Bhongo is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
  • Chao Pescao is open for dinner, tapas menu, bar is open late.
  • Ostra is the signature restaurant, open for dinner, reservations recommended

Having known about the hostage dining situation before the trip, we packed a carry-on sized suitcase with snacks, pop, and booze.  I used to make fun of people who brought their own food on vacation, but we didn’t do it to avoid local or cultural foods.  We did it to avoid $15 drinks and $100 restaurant breakfasts.  It did feel a bit lame though, but it did save us a lot of money and more importantly: time.  Quick breakfasts in the room meant more time to relax by the pool!

All that being said, we did end up having some meals at Rio Bhongo, so this review will cover the food and service at that restaurant only.  The restaurant is next to the kid-friendly pool area and gift shop.  Like all of the public areas at the resort, the building is open and airy.  Our first night at the Andaz we had a light supper.  Nicoleen had pasta and I got the patacones (fried plantain) appetizer.  We were both slightly underwhelmed by the food but I was pleased with my first taste of the Costa Rican beer they served.

Andaz Papagayo Rio Bhongo food

The fried plantains should have been crispy, but they were tough.

Rio Bhongo also services the pool area during the day.  Our second day we split a poolside chicken quesadilla.  (I don’t mean to say it was made with poolside chicken; I mean it was served to us when we were by the pool.)  The quesadilla was enough for both of us.  It was served with the same awesome fresh pico and guacamole I had the night before with my patacones.  The quesadilla was above average.  But having food delivered right to your face while drinking beer and sitting on a lounge chair by a scenic swimming pool is what really made the small lunch worth the ~$20 charge.
Andaz Papagayo Rio Bhongo quesadilla

The third and last time we ate at Rio Bhongo was for dinner.  I had been craving seafood and Nicoleen wasn’t up to the octopus I had been eying on the Chao Pescao menu.  So we returned to Rio Bhongo to discover it was “special grill night.”  Two of four selected sides were included with any grilled entree.  I got the salmon and Nicoleen got the steak.  It was probably the best grilled salmon I’ve ever had.  The rice and plantains in maple honey were wonderful as well.  In Costa Rica I learned that good pico and guac go with almost anything.
Andaz Papagayo Rio Bhongo salmon

Our only dining regret was not checking out the bar at Chao Pescao on our first night, when we heard the live music from our balcony.  Without a hot tub on the property, the live music and evening bar crowd seem to be the only after-dark opportunity for socializing.

Cost and Value

When we planned this trip in late November (3 months prior to traveling) the published rate for our room averaged $405 per night.  After adding the resort fee and taxes, the total cash value for our 3 night stay was $1,541.32.

micro-hyattBy using anniversary free nights from our Chase Hyatt cards (full review of this card coming soon!) for the first two nights and booking the third night with Hyatt Gold Passport points, we paid $0.00!  If you want to include the 2x $75 annual fees we paid on our Hyatt cards to get the anniversary nights, you could say it cost us $150 for a $1,541 stay.  Not bad at all!

Rooms at the Andaz Peninsula Papagayo cost 15,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points.  This category 4 resort is a definite sweet spot in their redemption table.  In contrast, the comparable Andaz Maui at Wailea costs 25,000 per night.  The Andaz Papagayo is also relatively easy to book with points.  There are minimum stay requirements on some dates, but they are far less restrictive than some other Hyatt properties.  With only a three month notice, I was able to find three nights in a row during a peak season.  Each night I searched was individually available for a points or free night redemption.  No minimum stay requirement blocked my search.

Hyatt Gold Passport is a 1:1 instant transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards.  You can get 59,000 Ultimate Rewards with the sign up bonus on the Chase Sapphire Preferred.  That’s almost enough for 4 free nights at the Andaz Peninsula Papagayo!

Click to ApplyClick Here for my review of the Sapphire Preferred and a link to the application page.
(I earn referral bonus points through the application link, which help to support this site.)

I am very confident this was a worthwhile use of our Chase Hyatt annual free nights.  The value of paying the $75 annual fee to get the annual free night is likewise a pretty easy case to make, considering one night here would normally cost over $500.  For 15,000 Hyatt points it’s also a steal.  A points redemption at the Andaz Papagayo puts Hyatt Gold Passport points at around 3.3 cents each; higher than most commonly assigned values for these points.

Whether or not a stay at the Andaz Peninsula Papagayo is worth the published cash prices is not for me to say.  It’s largely up to your personal finances and travel budget.  However, I hope this review helps to inform your opinion on how valuable staying here would be for you!

Overall Thoughts

This was our second stay at an Andaz brand resort and we continue to be impressed.  Hyatt has really nailed their goal of creating a chic, luxury, boutique experience with this chain.  Overall we received excellent customer service.  The grounds and facilities are as amazing in person as they look in the photos.
Andaz Papagayo entrance
Although this trip was as close to the equator as either Nicoleen or I have ever been, we didn’t get the typical “tropical vacation” feeling we’re used to.  Three factors gave the Andaz Papagayo a different feel than any other tropical location we’ve visited:

  1. The brown vegetation.  As you can see from my photos, it’s a beautiful landscape but don’t expect many palm trees.
  2. The low humidity.  Relative humidity percentages dropped to the 40s and 50s during the day.  Nighttime recovery was barely into the 80s.  Despite walking up steep hills in the heat and paddling for two on the kayak tour, I think I barely broke a sweat the entire time.
  3. The bay view.  The resort is located in Culebra Bay so you can’t see the horizon on the open ocean.  Instead, you get what could be described as a lake view.

Although we visited during the dry season and much of the natural vegetation was brown, the resort landscaping did a good job creating a lush atmosphere.  Around the resort there are lots of planted trees, shrubs, hedges, and flowers.  This landscaping is irrigated so it stays green all year round.  The builders must have taken great care to protect the existing vegetation.  The resort is only three years old but the mature forest comes right to the edge of many buildings.
During our stay the guest demographics were pretty varied.  There were couples in all age groups and a few families with small children.  Over half the guests seemed to be American, but we encountered people from Costa Rica, Germany, and Russia as well.  This was in sharp contrast to the guests we met at the Andaz Maui at Wailea, who were almost invariably affluent, 20-somethings from either L.A. or New York.  The Andaz Papagayo seems to attract laid back travelers of all ages and, of course, fellow points and miles aficionados!

Tips for Your Stay

If you have an upcoming stay at the Andaz Papagayo, here are some tips Nicoleen and I came up with, based on our stay:

  • There is no hot tub on the premises.  Don’t expect one!
  • There aren’t any publicly accessible ice makers. We called the front desk to have ice delivered and it never came. If you need ice, the bartenders by the kid-friendly pool will fill up any container you bring them.
  • The sun in Guanacaste is not like the sun in Florida or Southern California.  At 10 degrees north latitude it’s very strong.  Apply more sunscreen than you think you need!
  • If you’re on any sort of budget, don’t hesitate to bring some of your own food and alcohol.  It seems like a common thing to do at this resort.
  • All restaurant and bar prices will have a 13% tax and a 10% service charge added to them.  We never figured out if the service charge was supposed to cover the tip, so we added a tip anyways.  If anyone knows the standard tipping customs in Costa Rica, please explain it in the comments.
  • The whole beach basically vanishes at high tide, so mind the tide chart provided at check-in when planning beach activities.
  • Scenery, prices, wildlife, and weather all vary a lot depending on the time of year.  Plan accordingly.
  • Anything left on your balcony is subject to search and seizure by monkeys!  Thankfully we realized this without learning the hard way.
  • Have a back-up plan if you’re signed up for any activities involving the ocean.  Weather and sea life conditions may cancel your plans.

🙂 Thanks for reading my review! 🙂

Costa Rica monochrome

Costa Rica Field Report

I didn’t want to take the time to write a field report on this short trip, but United Airlines just graciously gave me some extra time at the airport.  It’s the last day of our trip, and a last minute delay pushed our flight to Houston back by almost 2 hours.  This might end our hopes of visiting the KLM lounge at IAH (Houston) during our now brief layover.

Instead of posting a live picture of myself in the packed airport terminal seating area, I’ll show you what Nicoleen and I were doing a mere 2 hours ago:

(Another “bonus” of the flight delay: knowing we could have stayed an extra 2 hours at the pool.)

The Andaz

We spent most of our short time in Costa Rica at the resort.  Overall it met our expectations, which were high.  A couple of details disappointed us, but others happily surprised us.  I will do a full review of the Andaz Papagayo in the coming weeks.

Morning sun on the zero entry pool at the Andaz Papagayo in Guanacaste, Costa Rica..

Morning sun on the zero entry pool at the Andaz Papagayo in Guanacaste, Costa Rica..

That’s all I have to write for this little field report.  I need to get back to sitting here, staring at the wall, pondering what kinds of tasty free foods and drinks we’re going to miss out on if we don’t have time to visit the KLM lounge in Houston.

Pura Vida!

Review – Couples Negril Resort Activities

Couples Resorts claim to be the Caribbean’s most all-inclusive, all-inclusive resorts.  What they mean by this is that you’re not just getting food and drinks with your room.  Couples offers a whole suite of activities, excursions, and rentals to their guests, all included in the price of the room.  I think they try to make it so you could spend your whole vacation at the resort and still never get bored.

And that’s exactly what we did on our anniversary trip.  We never left the resort (on land, that is) and felt completely satisfied with our experience.  It’s not like we are averse to getting to know the local culture; in fact it’s usually one of our goals while traveling.  But this vacation was only 4 nights and we had a lot of relaxing to catch up on!
To avoid bogging down my review of Couples Negril with too many details, I decided to write this separate post and do mini reviews of some of the amenities and activities we tried at the resort.  Click here to read my main review of Couples Negril, or click here to learn more about the planning and cost of the trip.

Glass bottom boat ride

We almost didn’t sign up for this tour because we thought it sounded a little boring.  When we got to the boat at the appointed time we realized no one else was looking for excitement either; we were the youngest couple by far.  (In fact, we were in the youngest 5% of all guests at the resort, at 31 and 33.)

It’s true the glass bottom boat ride was not a “thrilling” experience, but we had a good time nonetheless.  Mainly because this tour had something we weren’t expecting at all: lots of humor!  The tour guide, Milton, had us laughing a good portion of the time.  And you can’t attribute it to the alcohol either . . . Nicoleen was pregnant at the time and she was in stitches with the rest of us.
Couple Negril Resort Activities glass bottom boat
The boat ride goes along the edge of Bloody Bay and over to a nearby island and then back.  We saw lots of fish on the reef and some big sea stars in an open sandy area.


Nicoleen and I brought our own fins, snorkels, and masks so I can’t comment on the rental gear.  We were disappointed to learn we were required to wear life jackets during the snorkeling tour; no diving for us.  We met the boat on the beach at the appointed time and were ferried out to the south end of Bloody Bay.  The guide gave a few warnings about urchins and currents and then let us go.  For first timers he stayed at the boat and gave a mini lesson.

My mask was leaky, which cut into my enjoyment quite a bit.  The currents were strong and there was a strong wind, so it wasn’t a very relaxing experience.  However, the reef was a good one, with lots of different fish and sea life to look at.  I would recommend the snorkeling tour but I would try to wait until a calm day.

Sunset catamaran cruise

The catamaran cruise was our most memorable boat ride of the trip.  Around 3:00 we waded out into the water to board.  The large cat was staffed by a cruise director, a bartender, and a couple of deck hands.  The cruise began with some introductory instructions and safety messages by the cruise director.

As soon we we got underway, the bartender filled the entire bar top with plastic cups of pirate punch.  The bartender was awesome; he was singing, dancing, and lip syncing to the blasting reggae music the whole time he was shuttling out drinks.  Some mixed drinks were available upon request, and there was always punch on the bar, ready to walk up and grab.

NOTE: The catamaran is provided through a third party, so it’s not subject to Couples Resorts’ no tipping policy. Bring some cash and tip the crew!

The cruise took us south out of Bloody Bay and along the Negril coast.  At the halfway point we anchored in a little cove where steep cliffs overhung a cave.  The cave formed a horseshoe and we were invited to swim through it.  The cave walls were full of fossils and the floor was pure sand.  We were greeted by some local kids inside the cave who later dove from the cliffs for our entertainment.  Of course they were trying to get tips and several cruise guests indulged them with $1s and $5s as they swam near the catamaran.  The boat was equipped with a waterslide that launched you off the side, into the water.  Several other cruisers were amazed that Nicoleen, 12 weeks pregnant at the time, was feeling well enough to use the slide.

Couples Negril Resort Activities - catamaran cruise cliffs

A cliff jumper.

Couples Negril Resort Activities

Nicoleen flying off the waterslide.

Couples Negril sunset cruise

By sunset the party was getting pretty rowdy!

After the pause at the cave, we motored north again, back toward Bloody Bay.  As promised, we arrived at the bay just in time for a lovely sunset.  After the sun dipped underneath the horizon, we moored in front of Couples and disembarked.  The catamaran cruise was definitely worth the time!
couples sunset

Game room

Couples Negril Activities - Game Room
The game room is next to Lychee restaurant and has a pool table, board games, and gambling machines.  It also houses our secret snack source, a popcorn machine.  The slot machines take dollars and were the only time we used cash the entire stay at Couples Negril.

Stand up paddleboard

Couples Negril Resort Activities - paddle board

If you’re into that sort of thing, it’s available.  I personally find the idea to be boring and pointless, but Nicoleen took one out on our last morning.  She said it was nice to be above the water and to have good visibility into the water.  She saw a stingray but not much else for sea life.


The extra included amenities and activities at Couples Negril are definitely more than just marketing.  With a longer stay I think we would have taken advantage of more of the activities.  Some were more fun than others but I don’t think we regret spending out time on any of the ones we did.  Hopefully my mini reviews on this page will help you decide what’s worth it for you if you’re planning a stay at Couples in the near future.

Our Jamaican All-Inclusive Vacation

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.

Nicoleen and I in Jamaica, 2015

Origin of Concept

I graduated the U of MN in June 2013 and gained full time employment in January 2014.  My graduation present to myself was my trip to Europe that next summer.  But even before that trip was planned I was scheming to surprise Nicoleen with an unforgettable 10th anniversary vacation for the summer of 2015.  I figured the best way to make it a surprise was to create a decoy vacation, since she would probably be expecting some sort of trip for our milestone anniversary.

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.

Couples Resorts:

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.
Couples Resort, Negril
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.

Southwest Flights and Couples Negril

The flights on Southwest were unremarkable.  We forgot to check-in online 24 hours before the flight, but we still got to sit together.  For a full review of the wonderful and relaxing Couples Negril resort, see my review post!

Cost Summary

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

Cost Breakdown

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!

Ground Transportation:
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:
Otaheite dessert - Couples NegrilFood, 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!

Couples Negril sunset cruise

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.