Category Archives: United Airlines

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!  🙂

My First Points Redemption – Europe 2014

(This is a data recovered post, originally published on June 22nd, 2015.)
(Sorry, the jump links don’t work since recovering this page – you’ll have to scroll for now.)

Jump to section:
Trip Background Info
Planning Phase
Travel to Europe
Switzerland
Germany
Travel from Europe
Cost Summary
Cost Breakdown

Ancient and Modern History

1996

This is me wearing cotton shorts, standing next to a sign in 1996

When I was 14 years old I visited Europe for the first time.  It was a guided bus tour that went around Germany and Scandinavia. Two years later, in 1998, we hosted a German exchange student for a month. That June I stayed with his family for a month. I repeated the exchange program again in 2000. Having friends in Europe makes traveling there very affordable for a young adult, so I returned to Germany (among other countries) in 1999, 2001, 2002, and 2003. As the fairytale that is youth slowly ended, I found myself unable to reasonably return to Europe due to budgetary constraints. Fast forward to 2012, when I decided to jump into the credit card game head first. The endeavor had a dual purpose: move debt onto 0% interest cards and get some points and miles for my trouble. I didn’t have any concrete plans to use my miles and I soon half-forgot about my accumulated points/miles.

When my wife graduated from college in 2008 she cashed in a promise I had made to her years earlier, and we invested in a new car for her. In summer 2013 I graduated and thought to myself: I deserve a reward too, right? I knew it would be at least autumn before I heard back about any jobs, so I hatched a plan to return to my estranged vacation hang-out, Germany.

The Planning Phase

Historically my trip planning process has been overly involved and unnecessarily thorough. I enjoy the process. But for this trip, I had to act fast because award flights for the dates I was planning to travel were disappearing fast. I think the whole planning phase lasted about a week, from committing to the idea to booking the plane tickets.

My first step was to re-establish contact with my friends in Europe. Once I confirmed that I had a place to stay and people to see, I started shopping for award flights. My only real option at the time was United Airlines. A benefit to United’s award ticketing scheme is that you can book two one-ways for the same amount of miles as the round trip to and from the same region. One of my German friends had moved to Switzerland so an open jaw itinerary would be very convenient. Not needing to travel back to the city I flew into would save me at least half a day of train or car travel. My trip was short to begin with (7 days) so being able to fly out of a different city for the return flight was very valuable to me.

I found two economy one-way award seats, both at the saver miles level. I would fly from Minneapolis to Zürich, and then return from Frankfurt to Minneapolis.The cost was 60,000 United miles and $140.70 in fees. Not bad for a round trip flight to Europe in June!

Travel to Europe (MSP > YYZ > ZHR)

My short flight from Minneapolis to Toronto was uneventful. Although I booked through United, this flight was operated by Canada Air Jazz. The aircraft was a Bombardier CRJ-200 regional jet. The experience was what you would expect on a jet this size: short, cramped, and skimpy service (one beverage and a bag of pretzels).

My 5 hour layover at Toronto Pearson Int’l Airport was fairly comfortable considering I had no lounge access. The public seating areas feature nice leather chairs, stone tops, ample power outlets, and an iPad at every seat. The iPads can update you on your flight information, provide weather and news, and let you order from the nearest bar/cafe.
YYZ-seating
My only real complaint about the YYZ public areas was the horrendously slow and spotty wi-fi connectivity.

My flight from Toronto to Zürich was on a Canada Air Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, which is one of the flagships of the new generation of commercial jetliner engineering. It is supposedly very fuel efficient and comfortable. The on-board literature made several claims about the design, including: increased cabin pressurization and humidity (was supposed to reduce jet lag), passenger-dimmable window shading, more headroom for a more open feel, and aesthetically designed lighting for a calmer atmosphere. Oh, and by the way the seats are thinner too, so they can cram more seats in economy with supposedly no loss of leg room. Well, at 6’2″ I was cramped and uncomfortable anyway. However, the other gimmicky-sounding innovations actually seemed to improve the overall experience. The pressure and humidity seemed to make me feel generally not as crappy by the time we landed, and the lights and big windows were just really cool to look at!
dreamliner
Overall I think the Dreamliner is a bit hyped, but it does live up to a decent portion of that hype.

Switzerland

The first leg of my trip was to visit an old friend. Hannes is one of my German exchange students, now living in Switzerland. I won’t give too many details about my stay there except to say that Switzerland is an exceptionally beautiful and clean country, and I would recommend it to anyone. We spent most of my first day there driving through the Alps and we even swung by the tiny country of Liechtenstein.
alps
Part of my time with Hannes was spent just over the border in Konstanz, Germany, to visit his mother and to see the city where he went to school. Konstanz is perfectly charming and I would highly recommend it to anyone near southern Germany.
konstanz

Germany

The next part of my short trip brought me back to familiar Germany. There I stayed a few days each with two old friends, both named Christian. The first Christian was my first exchange student back in high school, and it was great to see him and his family again after so many years.

wagners

Christian’s family and I at Apfelwein Wagner, enjoying traditional Frankfurt cuisine

Christian 1 lives near Frankfurt and after a few short days it was time to move on to Christian 2, who lives near Siegburg. The timing worked out so I got to his house the day of his birthday party, so it was a perfect way to see all his friends and family together in one place.

Although the trip was only 7 days, it seemed like a lot longer. I managed to fit in a lot of variety in my short time, and the fact that the main expense (airfare) was virtually free made the whole thing seem even sweeter.

Travel from Europe (FRA > YYZ > MSP)

My return itinerary once again had me stopping over in Toronto, but the long haul flight was on Lufthansa. The flight was your standard transatlantic economy seat on a Boeing 747-400: nothing to write home [or online] about. Although it was an older aircraft, the service and food were better. I have always found Lufthansa to be a step above U.S. carriers in these departments.

My layover in YYZ was shorter on the return flight, and I spent most of my time sitting in a chair, staring at the wall, wishing I were still on vacation in Europe.

The flight from Toronto to Minneapolis was a mirror image of the previous Canada Air Jazz flight, except in a slightly larger aircraft, the Bombardier CRJ-705, which has a small 1×2 business class cabin in addition to the 2×2 economy seating.

Cost Summary

Airfare: $140.70
Other transportation: $179.88
Lodging: $0.00
Food, shopping, entertainment: $555.54

Total cost for my week long vacation in Switzerland and Germany: $819.55
Savings from using value tactics: at least $1,692.50

Cost Breakdown

This is the fun part! Using the tactics outlined on this site, a week long vacation spanning three European countries, including airfare, transportation, and lodging only cost me 320.58 !!

Airfare:
The airfare cost me 60,000 United miles, which I transferred from my Chase Ultimate Rewards account, earned mainly with my Sapphire Preferred card, and $140.70 in fees. Buying both one-way tickets (MSP > ZHR and FRA > MSP) directly from the United website would have cost $6587.90 in cash! Now to be fair, I would have never done that had I not had the miles to spend. Realistically I would have bought a round trip (MSP > < FRA) and spent the additional day traveling back to Frankfurt from Zürich. But even that ticket would have cost $1733.20 and I got a better itinerary for $140.70 cash!

Ground Transportation:
I took trains from Zürich to Frankfurt and Siegburg to back to Frankfurt. The total for my train travel was $195.74. I used my Barclay Arrival Plus for these online train purchases and later redeemed 10,000 Barclay Arrival miles for a $100 credit. So that brought the rail expenses down to $95.74.

I also traveled a lot by car. I recorded $252.41 charged to gas stations in Europe. These charges were split among three purposes: 1) paying my share of group travel (I count this as transportation cost); 2) being a stand-up guy and filling the tanks of my hosts (this was actually in lieu of bringing any gifts for them); and 3) using my friends as human ATMs, an awesome tactic I will write a whole post about soon. In stead of tracking every cent, I am just splitting the $252.41 three ways, for an estimated car travel cost of $84.14.

Lodging:
None, $0.00. Staying with friends makes travel cheap! Besides the cost savings, you get to see the real country, not just the tourist destinations. If you have any friends in foreign lands, I highly recommend staying with them when you travel. Just be sure to be a gracious guest and to reciprocate the offer to host them any time they are traveling in your corner of the world.

Food and Shopping:
I don’t include these costs in the value break-down because they are highly variable based on your shopping habits and your cuisine choices. But for what it’s worth, I spent an estimated $555.54 on food, gifts, local entertainment, and clothes. This included a $325 pair of Lederhosen, so the food and smaller gifts were actually just over $200 for the week. Considering I would have probably eaten about $75 in food in a week at home, this is getting by pretty cheap for the value I perceived.

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