Category Archives: Trip Reports

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:

hiltonplan1

The results will look like this:

hiltonplan2

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

Airfare:

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.

Lodging:

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!

Jpeg

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!

Conclusion

hawaii-get-away

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
Conclusion

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.
planning
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.
andaz-preview
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!
map
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.
sitting
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

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

Airfare:

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.

Lodging:

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.

Conclusion

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.

monkeys
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:
Overview
The Room
Amenities
Dining
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.
monkey2
monkey3

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

Jpeg

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!
monkeys4

Amenities

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.




Dining

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.
monkeys1
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!
couples-relax
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.

Snorkeling

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.

Conclusion

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:

Timing:

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.

Destination:

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.

Accommodations:

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.

Flights

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.
sw_ua_xfer

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!
sw_flightjamaica1

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

Airfare:
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.

Lodging:
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.

Hotel Review – Grand Wailea: A Waldorf Astoria Resort

Grand Wailea title
The second major hotel stay on our 2016 Hawaiian get-away was at the opulent Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria resort.  Our two night stay wasn’t nearly enough time to fully appreciate the scope of this place.  One of the first major resorts built in Wailea, it covers 40 acres and has almost 850 guest rooms.  Like every property in the Waldorf Astoria portfolio, the Grand Wailea oozes elegance. . . and has a price tag to match.  Including all taxes and fees, the cash price for our room was 480.90/night.  Our cost after employing value tactics?  $31.25/night!  Before I get to the full cost breakdown, here’s the review:




Grand Wailea Resort Overview

Coming directly from our 4 night stay at Hyatt’s Andaz Maui, we were shocked at the size of the Grand Wailea.  The resort boasts 847 guest rooms, 5 dining options, a swim-up grotto bar, a large spa and fitness center, an on-site wedding chapel, several shops and art galleries, a full service beach club, cabanas for rent, and a huge pool complex featuring water slides, a lazy river, a sand bottom zero-entry pool, Tarzan swing, SCUBA dive pool, a water elevator, an adults-only pool, and several hot tubs.

Add to all that countless koi ponds, waterfalls, lush tropical gardens and landscaping, huge open air atriums, scattered statues and other artwork, a large beach, and on-site Luau area. . . this place is IMPRESSIVE.  If you’re ever in Wailea, it’s worth a drive around the valet loop just to get a small visual taste of the Grand Wailea’s grounds and architecture.  If you don’t happen to be in Wailea right now,  you’ll have to settle for a few of my photos:
Grand Wailea Chapel

Grand Wailea Botero Bar

Grand Wailea Grounds

Grand Wailea Dolphin Pool

Grand Wailea Restaurant

It’s hard to believe a 2-night stay at a property like this is attainable for $62.50 and a single credit card sign-up bonus!

Around 1:00 on a Saturday afternoon, the front desk was a zoo.  At check-in Nicoleen’s Hilton Gold status was recognized and we were given 1000 bonus points, a $20 gift certificate for Bistro Molokini, and 2 drink vouchers for the Botero Lounge.

The bellman then escorted us and our luggage to our room on the 6th floor in the Molokini Wing, far, far away from the lobby.  He gave us a brief tour of the room and left to fetch a microwave at Nicoleen’s request.

The Room

Since we booked our 2 night stay with Hilton free weekend night certificates, we got the cheapest room category on the property, the “terrace view king.”  Of course this was code for “parking garage view.”

We knew this going in and expected the worst.  We were pleasantly surprised to discover that the beauty of Hawaii trumps the frugally devised room placement of hotel developers.  Even the worst views on Maui are beautiful:

Ignore the foreground and what do you see? The gentle slope of Haleakala on the left and the Pacific ocean on the right.

Ignore the foreground and what do you see? The gentle slope of Haleakala on the left and the Pacific ocean on the right.

In contrast to our room at the Andaz, this one was more about traditional luxury.  The king bed was very comfortable, with a custom embroidered Waldorf Astoria duvet cover and an ample pillow supply.  There was a writing desk with regular and usb charging outlets.
Grand Wailea bed

Grand Wailea room desk

I got to replenish my supply of my favorite hotel pens! The Grand Wailea had the same pens in the room as the Amsterdam Hilton. My kids took care of that one for me by taking it apart and smashing it 🙁

gw-room-outlet

Hidden, flip-down power centers on either side of the bed contained regular and usb charging outlets, which we found to be a nice added convenience.

The bathroom was marble and granite, featuring a separate shower and tub, toilet closet, and a large vanity.  Nicoleen appreciated the large vanity after the cramped situation in the Andaz bathroom.
Grand Wailea bathroom 1
Grand Wailea bathroom 2

Then lanai (balcony) was small but the furniture was comfortable.
gw-lanai-furniture

Unlike the Andaz, the Grand Wailea has mini-fridges in every room.  Above the fridge was a Keurig with a selection of coffee and tea.

Grand Wailea Keurig

This counter top was later cluttered with a microwave and all of our foodstuffs.

Amenities

Grand Wailea swimming pool complex

Grand Wailea Pools
The swimming pool area at the Grand Wailea is EXTENSIVE.  After 2 days of using the pools, we were still getting lost trying to get from one place to another.  All of the water features are woven into the garden landscaping.  The Grotto Bar, the beach & pool shop, Bistro Molokini (restaurant), and the Volcano Bar are all integrated into the pool area as well.  It’s truly an impressive attraction and is about as close as you can get to a water park experience without actually going to a water park.
from maps.google.com
Each day, registered guests need to check in at a pool desk to get the day’s wrist band, which is a different color every day.  We saw some lucky kids wearing 6-7 different colored wristbands all at once.  We only used the pools for 2 days but I wanted to be cool too, so I kept mine on all the way back to Minnesota 🙂  Towels and complimentary sunscreen were also available at the pool desks.




Understandably the pool area was pretty crowded most of the time.  However, despite what we read online, it wasn’t hard to get a chair or umbrella as long as we got out there reasonably early (8:30 and 90% of the chairs around the Hibiscus Pool were still available).
Grand Wailea Hibiscus Pool
With the number of pool features at the Grand Wailea, the easiest way to review them all is to list each one and offer some thoughts on each:

  • Hibiscus pool:  This large adults-only pool is made up entirely of 1″ mosaic tiles, with a 630,000 tile hibiscus flower design on the bottom.  Although some of the adults were acting like children when we were there, it was our go-to area to get chairs and was the most relaxing and quiet spot in the whole pool complex.
    Grand Wailea - Hibiscus Pool
  • Grotto Bar:  (covered in the “Dining” section below)
  • Lazy River:  This river doesn’t make a complete circuit.  It starts at the bottom of several cascading pools connected with tiny slides.  The first slide on the lazy river portion is wide enough for a tube.  The current moves you along the river, with chances to exit at all of the other major pool features.  We bought a cheap tube ($8) from the beach/pool shop and floated down the river one time.  If our stay would have been longer we would have probably utilized it more.  And in case you’re wondering, it’s perfectly fine to bring drinks with you down the river.
  • Water Elevator:  Supposedly this is pretty cool but after asking the attendant about it, we later returned to find it had just closed for the day.
  • Water Slides:  A quick search online will inform you that the largest and fastest slide recently closed permanently.  The other slides are apparently fun as well, but when we went to use them on our last afternoon at the Grand Wailea, they had just closed for the day.
  • Baby beach pool:  This is a zero-entry pool with a sand beach.  We saw it as we floated by on the lazy river.  It looked like the tiny kids were enjoying it.
  • Tarzan rope swing:  We didn’t try this but it was getting some pretty good use from lots of screaming, excited kids, so I assume they liked it.
  • SCUBA dive pool:  We didn’t use this pool but we thought it was pretty cool that there are mosaic tile fish and coral reef adorning it’s walls and floor.

Overall the swimming pool complex at the Grand Wailea was very fun, and we thought it had more potential we weren’t able to tap into during our short stay.  However, we have a few complaints.  The odd hours of the different pool features surprised us and prevented us from even trying out several of them.  A closer look at the resort’s website reveals the actual hours:

Pools: 7am – 10pm
Slides: 10am – 5pm
Water Elevator: 11am – 4pm

Even the Grotto Bar closes at 5:00 PM, being connected to the pool system.  The “normal” swimming pools close at 10:00 PM, which is standard for most hotels but nonetheless annoying.  With over a thousand guests, I’m sure at least a handful of adults would enjoy some late night relaxation in the hot tubs or Hibiscus pool.

Haleakala from Grand Wailea night

Haleakala at night from our balcony at the Grand Wailea

The last complaint about the swimming pool complex might be considered a nitpick, but many other reviewers have noticed it as well.  A lot of tiles were missing from all pool areas, the painted coating was worn down to concrete on some of the slides, and some of the concrete along the pool edges was crumbling.  This is to be expected for a resort of this age, but it did slightly detract from the experience.

Beach and Other Amenities

In contrast to our previous nights’ stay at the Hyatt Andaz, it was hard to figure out what was included with our $30 resort fee (waived for us since we used free night certificates) at the Grand Wailea.  The website says it’s good for free internet (which we got through Nicoleen’s gold status anyway), beach umbrellas for use on Wailea Beach, admission to twice daily SCUBA clinics, bike rentals, and free local phone calls (what year is this?).  We didn’t use the bike rental or SCUBA lessons.  The beach in front of the hotel is actually a public beach, so the umbrella perk was probably worthwhile for some people.  (NOTE: being a public beach means alcoholic beverages are technically not allowed.)
Grand Wailea Beach
The beach itself was much like the rest of the beaches in the area: spotless, calm in the morning and rougher in the afternoon, almost purely sand, and warm.

The on-property shops reminded us of the “impulse buy alleys” that you find on some cruise ship piers in the Caribbean.  However, unlike these duty free circuses, the Shops at Grand Wailea weren’t staffed by pushy salesmen.  There are several art shops/galleries, clothing and swimwear stores, and souvenir shops.  If we had the budget and the kid-free house (seems like those two things might go together) for fine art, we would have loved to buy one of the awesome glass framed photographic prints we saw, or one of the crashing wave glass sculptures.  I’m sure we would have been shocked by the prices on these pieces so we didn’t even check, but they were lovely to look at!

We were flying out the evening after our last night at the Grand Wailea, which meant we had an entire day to fill after checking out.  We had no luck trying for a late check-out, but we were offered the continued use of the pool and grounds until we departed.  Living out of a beach bag for most of the day is inconvenient but the front desk person made it easier by offering us the use of an hospitality room.  We just had to notify the front desk when we were done swimming for the day and they gave us a key and told us to try and keep it under an hour.  We were able to take showers, get changed, and repack our carry-ons.  The hospitality room available for us was a suite in Napua Tower:

Grand Wailea Suite

Our room for an hour. This Napua Nani Suite can be yours for a mere $2220 per night!

Neither Nicoleen nor I used the fitness center or the spa, so I can’t comment on these.

Dining

Of the multiple restaurants and bars available at the Grand Wailea, two were under construction during our stay.  Humuhumunukunukuapua’a was being relocated and the Volcano Bar was being renovated.  Humuhumunukunukuapua’a had plastic sheeting in the windows and the pool surrounding the restaurant had been drained.  The whole thing was an eyesore.  The Volcano Bar was getting boarded up while we watched the Sunday night NFL game from the nearby Grotto Bar.  They set up a temporary replacement bar with a limited selection of menu items in tents near one of the pools.  I guess there’s no good time to remodel a bustling resort, and yet it has to be done; but it’s still annoying when it happens to fall on the dates of your stay.

Bistro Molokini

Our first evening at the Grand Wailea we decided to use our $20 voucher at Bistro Molokini.  We made reservations for 8:40 and were promptly seated at an outer table overlooking the swimming pool area.  We ordered the onion ring appetizer and a kalua pork flat bread pizza.  The food was excellent!  The onion rings were very possibly the best I’ve ever had.

Bistro Molokini Onion Rings

Everyone loves having their picture taken while taking a bite of food, right?

The service however, was abysmal.  Our server never spoke to us from the time we ordered until she came to ask if we wanted dessert.  She helped adjacent tables several times and totally ignored us.  My beer glass was empty for the majority of the meal.  On top of it all, she was rude and unfriendly.  I’m a classic passive Midwesterner when it comes to things like this so I very rarely complain about restaurant service.  But this was really bad.  The manager must have overheard us talking about the server and offered us free dessert or another round of beers for our trouble.  We accepted the free beer.  (ValueTactics pro-tip: free beer is rare in the U.S. – take advantage of it when you can!)
Bistro Molokini - Grand Wailea
Aside from the bad service the place was also extremely loud, with groups of individuals standing by the bar emitting almost non-stop, boisterous, cackling laughter.  It’s probably not fair to judge and entire restaurant based on what was very likely just one employee’s bad day.  On the other hand, Bistro Molokini had one chance to make an impression on us and it was generally negative, so that’s the review I have to give it.  The only aspects that saved our dining experience from being a total disaster were the great food and lovely scenery.
Bistro Molokini view

Grotto Bar

After a valet driver called the Grotto Bar for us and confirmed that the Packers-Vikings game would be on the TVs, we decided this is where we would park ourselves for the Sunday evening (early afternoon in Hawaii) NFL game.  Nicoleen managed to find one open seat at the end of the bar right before the game started.  I joined her and we promptly staked a claim on the bar for Packer Nation:

Packer Nation at Grand Wailea Grotto Bar

(Just don’t ask how the game ended . . .)

Grand Wailea Grotto BarThe grotto was packed.  The lone bartender, Tim, was shuttling out $13 cocktails at an incredible rate.  We weren’t there for cocktails, however; a Packers-Vikings game requires beer.  Unfortunately for us, the draft beers all ran dry shortly after we arrived.  Even several of the bottled beer choices were eventually exhausted.  Apparently the Grotto Bar is a “while supplies last” kind of operation.  We were able to supplement our beverage needs with our own drinks brought from our beach bag.  I think this is acceptable as long as we periodically ordered food or drink from the bar.  Maybe the fact that the entire bar had one beer choice available (Corona cans) helped to soften their outside food and beverage policy.  Or maybe it’s always like that- I don’t know.

We ordered shredded pork nachos ($17) which was more than enough food to keep us full for the whole game.  They were filling, but otherwise unremarkable.

gw-nicoleen-packersSpeaking of the “whole game” here’s where our major complaint about the Grotto Bar comes in.  All three TVs had the same football game on.  The place was raking in many hundreds of dollars per hour with just the one bartender.  And yet, around the end of the 3rd quarter, we noticed that the water was being drained from the seating area.  Shortly after noticing this, Tim was taking requests for last call.  The Grotto Bar closes at 5:00 PM!  Even with one quarter left of a major sports game on the TV, there was no stopping the closing time.  We were shocked.  We had to make the 10 minute trek to our room to watch the end of the game.

Like the other swimming pool features, the Grotto Bar has a bizarrely early closing time.  Well, it was fun (and expensive) while it lasted.  (Props to bartender Tim for staying upbeat and super friendly despite the beer shortage and the angry mob of football fans having their game viewing cut short!)

Cost and Value

This is the fun part 🙂  At the time of booking (9 months in advance) the best available rate for our room was $326.80/night.  With the $30 resort fee, the $30 valet fee, and all taxes, the total would have been $435.93/night.  We used free weekend night certificates for our two nights at the Grand Wailea, earned as the sign-up bonus on Nicoleen’s Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve card.  The free night certificates cover the resort fee so our only cost was the valet fee plus tax.  In total we got an $871.86 stay for $62.50!

Even if you want to include the $95 up-front annual fee on the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve card as part of our cost, it’s still extreme value!  When calculating the value of the annual fee, don’t forget the value of the perks that the gold status got us during our stay: free internet, the $20 restaurant voucher, the 2 drink coupons, and the 1000 bonus points (worth about $3).




Overall Thoughts and Tips for Your Stay

We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves at the Grand Wailea.  It definitely has a different feel than our previous hotel on the trip, the Hyatt Andaz.  (In the near future I would like to write an entire blog post comparing the two.)  It took us some time to adjust to the sheer size and scope of the place.  There is a bit of a learning curve to getting your full enjoyment out of this resort.  That’s not meant in a negative way; only to highlight the amount of opportunities the Grand Wailea has to offer.

The intuitive layout and elegant appointments of the guest room were definitely a highlight for us.  Despite the disappointing hours of operation we repeatedly encountered at the pool complex, this watery wonderland was also a major favorite of ours.  If we were infatuated with the design and landscaping of the swimming pool area, I can only imagine what the younger guests though of it.  I think my 10 year old self would have been in heaven at this place!

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

  • Learn the hours of operation for the pool area features early, and incorporate this knowledge into your daily schedule.
  • Plan ahead when you leave your room; many of them require quite a long walk to get to the restaurants, pools, and beach.
  • If you’re in the Molokini Wing, bring your car to the north valet.  It will make a shorter walk for you and a shorter car retrieval for the valet drivers.
  • Don’t be shy about bringing your own beverages and snacks with you to the pool complex.  The nice attendant at the Hibiscus pool even got ice for us to mix our own drinks several times.  You can even sip your libations while on the lazy river.
  • Most basic rooms don’t include a microwave; request one early if you want one brought up for you.
  • If you can’t get a late check-out, take advantage of the hospitality room to extend your stay.

🙂 Thanks for reading my review! 🙂

Hotel Review – Andaz Maui at Wailea

Andaz Maui Panorama
Our stay at the Andaz Maui at Wailea was definitely one of the highlights of our recent Hawai’ian get-away.  The property is beyond beautiful, the beach is top notch, and the service and little extras made the whole stay seem extra-special.  The staff made us feel like VIPs, which I guess is to be expected for the $439/night price tag.  But this is ValueTactics you’re reading, so we paid $26.25/night!  More on that in a bit . . .

Andaz Maui Resort Overview

The Andaz Maui is a new resort, only 3 years old at the time of this writing.  Andaz hotels are part of Hyatt’s portfolio and are branded as chic, luxury boutique hotels.  The property has 297 rooms and suites, several condos and for-sale villas, 5 swimming pools, multiple dining options, a full service spa, and a full service beach club.  Our 4 night stay wasn’t even close to enough time to see and do all this resort has to offer.

Even if we would have had the time (and money) for a larger variety of on-site activities, the resort would have provided enough of a distraction all by itself.  In fact, I spent a good deal of my time just walking around in awe, taking pictures of the grounds:
Andaz Maui infinity pool edge
maui andaz grounds 3
maui andaz grounds 4
The Andaz Maui is rife with native stone and wood.  Like a forest on a foggy day or a scenic mountain vista, the Maui Andaz makes everyone feel like a professional photographer.  Everywhere you turn it looks like a postcard.  Even the elevator waiting areas and the lobby looked awesome:
Andaz Maui Elevator

Andaz Maui lobby

View toward the front entrance from the main lobby, where you can find the front desk, concierge, and zen garden.




The Room

Since we booked our stay with free night certificates from our Chase Hyatt cards, we were put in the cheapest room category, a “garden view king”. (For details about how we booked the room, read the trip’s main page and cost breakdown.) We stayed in room 127, which is on the ground floor, facing the pool area, in the Makai wing . The lobby is on the 4th floor so the first trip to the room felt like we were going down to the sub-basement. The whole resort is built on a hill, so what felt like a basement room turned out to be a convenient walk-out right by the pool area! I’m sure the lack of an ocean view is what puts these rooms in the lowest category, but Nicoleen and I both agreed we would take the convenience of the walk-out over the better view any day. Any besides, the view from our lanai (patio) was actually quite nice:
Andaz Maui Lanai
The room is equipped with a large flat screen TV with a fully adjustable mounting arm. The TV inputs are located in the snack cabinet next to it. I wish I would have brought an HDMI cable so we could have watched streaming TV and movies from my laptop.
Andaz Maui Room TV
The microwave and the fridge had to be requested from the front desk (via the bellman) and were subject to availability. If these hadn’t been available, we were going to consider buying one of each from Walmart and then leaving them in the room upon our departure. (I think this is where the hotel’s collection of random microwaves and mini-fridges comes from in the first place.) With a breakfast buffet price of $50 per person, it doesn’t take much math to figure out that even a few meals prepared in the room would be worth the cost of the appliances. Restaurant leftovers could also be kept this way. Luckily they were available so we didn’t have to do the Walmart appliance tactic.

Andaz Maui CoolerAlthough the room didn’t have a real fridge, there was a cooler cabinet built into the desk with complimentary Hawaiian pop (yes, it’s called “pop” -deal with it), juice, and gas station-type coffee creamers, which were replenished daily.
Andaz Maui Snacks

The complimentary Maui cookies, chips, and Starbucks instant coffee were also replenished daily. In the lobby brewed Kona coffee was available every morning. If you’re a late sleeper beware though; that coffee is only available until 9:00. I missed the cutoff one morning and had to settle for the instant Starbucks.

Some other reviews I have read complained about the weird layout of the bathroom. The long, narrow shower is between the vanity area and the bedroom, with a full height glass wall looking right into the bedroom. Sliding shutter doors can be closed from the bedroom side for privacy. The vanity top is fairly small, considering the wooden slat construction which isn’t very good for setting small items on. The toilet is in a separate closet room.
Andaz Maui Bathroom
I am a sucker for design and aesthetics. I can easily forgive the weirdness and the slight inconveniences of the bathroom for the sake of appearance.
Andaz Maui soap
Maui Andaz soap 2

Andaz Maui amenity kit

The surprise little amenity kit we discovered on the vanity.

Amenities

Swimming pools

The cascading infinity pools at Andaz Maui
It’s no secret that Hyatt loves to highlight the cascading infinity pools at the Andaz Maui, and for good reason.  These are easily the most interesting and unique pools at any hotel I’ve stayed at.  And they are more than just architectural art.  With a shallow depth and lots of nearby pool chairs they are perfect for wading around, swimming leisurely laps, or leaning on the infinity edge to watch the lovely Maui sunsets.  We spent many hours just hanging out by the pools on our first couple days.  Of course part of the convenience for us came from our ground floor room.  Our drink refills, sunscreen, and e-book readers were a quick 10 second walk away.
maui andaz pool 1
The hot tub and surrounding pool are open 24 hours, which is a feature I would have appreciated on many hotel stays elsewhere.  There is a separate pool with half submerged lounge chairs that is for adults only.  During our stay the “adults only” was pretty much a joke since we saw 3 kids, all infants or toddlers, the entire time.  The bottom pool is zero entry, which is a nice feature, frequently enjoyed by those 3 toddlers and their moms.

Andaz Maui zero entry pool

Zero-entry pool

The towel stations were well stocked and also had complimentary sunscreen and infused water available.  Pool attendants put seat covers on our pool chairs upon request.  We never had a problem finding open chairs by the pool.  However the hotel was not fully booked during our stay and we usually went out to the pool before most other guests, so take that for what it’s worth.

Beach and Water Activities

Wailea Beach in front of Andaz
Wailea Beach is supposedly rated one of the best in the world.  From my somewhat limited experience, the high rating is definitely justified.  The water was warm, clear, and the beach was 100% soft sand with absolutely no washed up plant matter.  (And that’s saying something, considering we were there a week after a passing hurricane caused some rain and wind.)  Great snorkeling reefs are scattered around the resort area, all accessible from shore.  The beach in front of the Andaz is sandwiched between two such reefs.  The surf was calm to start the day but as the day wore on it got up a bit, enough to do some body surfing by the afternoon, but never too wild to casually swim just out from the breaking waves.

The $40/night resort fee at the Andaz Maui (covered for us since we booked with free night certificates) includes most of the offered rentals and beach activities.

One morning we went on the outrigger canoe trip.  It’s a 30 minute tour with a guide.  (When you turn in your paddles to the rental hut, there is a chance to charge the guide’s tip to your sign-out slip.)  We went a short way down the shore, past some neighboring properties.  The guide pointed out some good snorkeling spots, talked about the other visible islands, and gave us a run down on what sea life we were likely to see at the current time of year.  We were lucky enough to see a sea turtle- something on my bucket list for the trip.  He was hanging out on the surface just ahead of us when the guide pointed him out.  He then swam down and surfaced between the outrigger and my spot on the canoe, 2 feet away from me!  He looked right at me and waved “hi” one time before diving down again.

We also took advantage of the snorkel gear and boogie board rental.  The apparently world class snorkeling, however, was ruined by murky waters caused by recent torrential rains.  Some people we talked to reported better luck snorkeling with a paid, off-shore excursion.  We considered one of those tours but never got around to it.

This doctored photo shows how crummy the water conditions were for snorkeling. We did see a lot of colorful fish, but we'll have to wait til next time for the whole experience!

This doctored photo shows how crummy the water conditions were for snorkeling. We did see a lot of colorful fish, but we’ll have to wait til next time for the whole experience!

Other Amenities

Another benefit included in the resort fee is complementary GoPro camera rentals, available at the concierge desk.  GoPros are available from 6:00 in the morning until 8:00 at night, and are first come, first served.  The camera came with a waterproof case, which was the main reason we wanted it.  The photos above of our snorkeling attempt were taken on the GoPro.  We also took it to nearby Makena Beach, more commonly known as “Big Beach.”  The surf was much bigger here than at the hotel, and we got some pretty cool pictures with the GoPro.
Makena "Big Beach" wave

The concierge gave us a map and some tips for our trip to watch the sunrise on Haleakala.  If you want to call it an amenity, we also used the [mandatory] valet parking.  Getting our car was usually pretty fast, under 5 minutes.  The only time it was a bit longer (10-15 minutes) was when we left around 4:30 PM for dinner one afternoon.  The valet drivers were courteous and always offered to put our convertible top up or down for us, depending on whether we were picking up or dropping off.  One thing to note is that calling ahead to say that we were coming for our car seemed to do absolutely nothing to reduce the wait time.  The valet fee is $25 per night and there is no self-parking option at the hotel.  This was the only expense not covered by the free night certificates!

There is a 24 hour convenience store connected to the lobby, but most prices are even higher than you would imagine.  Nicoleen went there to look for sunglasses after she lost hers and the selection was mostly Maui Jim brand, most with a $250+ price tag.  On someone else’s review I saw a photo of a $24 six pack of Bud Light cans in this store.

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




Dining

After a quick glance at the menu prices on the Andaz Maui website before our trip, we realized we wouldn’t be doing a lot of on-site dining.  The breakfast is $50/person, cocktails are $17, and appetizers are in the $15-30 range.  Needless to say, a dinner for two would easily be over $125 . . . and that would be on the cheap end.

We never ate a sit-down meal at any of the on-site dining choices, but we did order a poolside snack one day.  Menus from Bumbye Beach Bar (located by the zero entry pool) were brought around daily to sun worshipers by the pool.  Nicoleen had her heart set on the waffle fries she had seen (and smelled) others eating.  And I ordered a Pimm’s Rangoon; that 10 second walk to the room to get a drink refresh was looking pretty arduous at the time 😉  The cocktail was good but unremarkable.  Same goes for the fries.  With tip the damage was $30.  We figured it was OK to splurge a tiny bit considering we were staying at one of Hawaii’s nicest resorts for nearly free!

Cost and Value

At the time of booking (over 9 months in advance) the published rate for the room we stayed in was $439 a night.  With the $40 resort fee, $25 valet fee, and all taxes that total ends up at $539.56 per night.  This trip was part of our Hawaiian get-away, a trip designed from the start to get extreme value out of a few strategically acquired new credit cards.  Nicoleen and I each got Chase Hyatt cards last fall.  Each card comes with a sign-up bonus of 2 free night certificates, good for the standard room type at any Hyatt property in the world.
hyatt approved 3
Between the 4 free night certificates we earned from these two cards, we got $2,158.24 in value!  All we had to pay was the nightly valet fee, which totaled $106.40.  I’d call that extreme value!

Free nights with Hyatt Gold Passport points are 25,000 per night*.  Hyatt Gold Passport points can be earned with paid stays at Hyatt properties, with regular spending on the Chase Hyatt card, or by transferring points from Chase Ultimate Rewards at a 1:1 ratio.

* Recently some Hyatt properties have been playing games with their reward night availability.  It may be difficult to find available reward stay (points or certificates) nights at the Andaz Maui.  The Park Hyatt on Maui is also reportedly extremely nice and has widespread calendar availability for reward stays.  See this Flyertalk post for more info.

Overall Thoughts and Tips for Your Stay

From the pictures posted here and elsewhere, I think you can see why everyone agrees the Andaz Maui at Wailea is an amazing property.  Some reviews I have read complained about unfriendly service by hotel staff.  We didn’t find this to be the case at all; in our experience everyone was friendly and courteous.  It seemed like they genuinely cared about guest experiences.  One night our air conditioning refused to stay on longer than 10 seconds.  It was 1:30 in the morning and a technician was there to fix it within 5 minutes of our complaint.  That episode was indicative of our general experience with the staff.

Other reviews I have read mention that the hotel is not kid friendly.  I didn’t see anything that would have been kid unfriendly.  However I do agree there is no particular draws for kids there.  A lot of the beauty of the property and the quality of the service and amenities would be lost on little kids.
andaz maui pools at ni
The Andaz Maui definitely markets to a certain demographic, and they cater to that demographic.  We estimated the average age of guests was 28 (with a low standard deviation).  Many were on their honeymoon.  Of the 50 or so people we interacted with, only 4 were from the country’s interior.  All the rest were from the East or West Coast.  Of course most of the population is from the coasts, but I think it may indicate Hyatt’s success in attracting young, affluent professionals to this hotel.

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

  • Don’t miss the coffee!  The lobby coffee is available from 6:00 to 9:00 and then it’s gone.
  • Ask for a room with walk-out access.  The better view on higher floors isn’t worth the convenience of easy access to the pool area.
  • Get your GoPro rental early; the first time we tried to get one they were all out the whole day.  The same goes for any scheduled beach activity like the outrigger tour.  The outrigger tour takes reservations and the list is sometimes days out.
  • Don’t sweat the mandatory valet.  I wasn’t looking forward to the extra step every time we wanted to leave the property.  It seriously wasn’t a hassle at all.
  • If you want a microwave and/or mini-fridge, request it as soon as possible; they are subject to availability.  We called the morning of our check-in and the microwave was waiting in our room.
  • Plan on snorkeling as early in the day as possible.  When the surf rises later in the day, swimming around the shallow reefs can get dangerous.  We met one couple with bloody legs who were smashed against the rocks while snorkeling in the early afternoon right in front of the hotel.
  • Skip the $17 cocktails if you want.  You’re not missing much; at least not $17 worth!
  • Resorts on Maui seem to really roll up the streets at night.  If you’re looking for lively socialization at night, the hot tub on the 3rd tier pool deck is your best bet.

🙂 Thanks for reading my review! 🙂

grey-aloha