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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!
Sun Country flight MSP-LIR
Hotel Andaz Peninsula Papagayo
Prieta Beach Club
United flight LIR-IAH-MSP
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.
Our Hyatt annual free nights were good for any category 1-4 Hyatt property. To get our money’s worth out of the $75 annual fee needed to get the free night, we needed to find a hotel stay worth more than $75 (not hard to do). Since the purpose of the trip was basically to burn our free nights, we weren’t looking to spend more than 3 or 4 nights. On the other hand, 2 free nights would be too short, so we needed at least 3 available award nights in a row. A short trip also requires short travel time, so we limited our search to North and Central America.
My general strategy when planning trips is thus:
Find the maximum optimal solution by adjusting variables while staying within constraints.
Our constraints were:
- Hyatt category 1-4 property with 3+ award nights available in February
- Located in North or Central America
- Somewhere unquestionably warm (escape from Minnesota winter)
Having spent a just a little bit of time researching destination hotels and resorts, I saw an obvious front runner. Andaz Peninsula Papagayo in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica is a known sweet spot in the Hyatt portfolio. Fortunately for Chase Hyatt card holders, it is category 4 so it qualifies for the annual free stay. Even more surprising is that award stays cost a mere 15,000 Hyatt gold passport points! (Similar properties around the world typically cost 25,000.) The hotel receives overwhelmingly positive reviews online. What sealed the deal for us was getting the recommendation for the property from some good friends who stayed there last year.
Chase Hyatt card anniversary nights and Hyatt Gold Passport award stays share the same availability. A quick search on the Andaz Papagayo website revealed a string of three nights, covering a weekend, in the middle of February. I immediately booked our two free nights, which are fully refundable so there was no risk. Someone else looking at the same dates would be less likely to book the single remaining night, which bought me some security as I arranged the rest of the details.
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
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.
Hotel Andaz Peninsula Papagayo
The Andaz Papagayo is the newest luxury resort of the very few developed properties on the Peninsula Papagayo. Papagayo is a sparingly-developed, forested peninsula on the Pacific side of Costa Rica. February falls in the dry season in the region, meaning the weather is uniformly hot and dry, with almost no chance of rain. It sounded like a great place to escape the cold Minnesota winter, and it was!
The Andaz brand vision is exemplified at their resort in Papagayo. The sleek, contemporary styling of the architecture blends beautifully into the natural surroundings. The service is courteous and friendly. The guest rooms, restaurants, and pools are interesting and unique.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The nachos were exceptionally good. The servings of guacamole and pico that seemed to come with everything in Costa Rica were more than ample. After our beers and bootlegged nachos, we made the next shuttle back to the Andaz.
United flight LIR-IAH-MSP
and KLM Lounge
The final day of the trip. After a quick morning walk on the beach and one last dip in the amazing swimming pools, it was time to say goodbye to the Andaz Papagayo. We packed up, checked out, and took our reserved private shuttle to the Liberia airport (LIR).
Our return flight had a 3 hour layover scheduled in Houston, where we had hoped to visit the KLM lounge. We had access to the lounge with the Priority Pass Select, which is a benefit of Nicoleen’s Chase Sapphire Reserve. Everything had worked perfectly with the planning and execution of this trip . . . until now.
The flight to Houston was delayed two hours due to weather. Instead of spending two more hours at the resort, we got to sit in the tiny Liberia airport and wait.
Two hours turned into nearly three hours, and on the flight it became evident we would probably miss our connection to Minneapolis. Suddenly the cramped economy seats and the missed free lounge opportunity were the least of our problems.
We had the last flight of the day from Houston to Minneapolis, and arriving a day late would mean a logistical nightmare for work, daycare, kids’ school transportation, airport transportation, etc. Miraculously, we managed to sprint and budge our way off the plane, through the baggage claim area, through customs, passport control, security, and a tram ride between terminals . . . all in less than 25 minutes. When I huffed onto the plane they shut the door right behind me.
* 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.
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.
We decided not to rent a car for our short trip. Anything we would need to leave the resort for would cut into our valuable relaxation time. Therefore, the only ground transportation we needed was to and from the airport. We reserved a private van with a company called Liberia Airport Shuttle Company. Catchy, isn’t it? The cost was $59 cash per way. Everything went smoothly and the van was air conditioned and comfortable.
Nightly rates at the Andaz Papagayo vary drastically throughout the year. Published rates get down to around $250 during the rainy season. Around holidays and during the peak season, rates for the basic room are up around $450 a night. Then you have to add taxes and the daily resort fee. The total cash cost for our 3-night stay was $1,541 as of the day I booked our room. We used the two annual free nights we earned by paying the annual fee on our Chase Hyatt cards. I booked the third night with 15,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points, for a redemption rate around 3 cents/point. Our hotel invoice was $0.00.
Food and Shopping:
As I discuss in my Andaz Papagayo review, we brought with a small suitcase of food and drinks. It’s hard to calculate how much we saved with this tactic. I would estimate that without the ~$50 worth of food and drinks we brought with us, we would have spent an additional $150-200 on meals and another $150-200 on drinks. That’s Andaz pricing for you. As it was, we got away with only spending $190 at the hotel restaurants.
Other than the food, we didn’t have many expenses. We left a few tips for the room service staff and the van drivers. At the airport on the way out we bought about $30 worth of coffee and little souvenirs for the kids.
This trip started as an idea to use up our two Hyatt annual free nights. Those pesky free nights – always obligating you to plan an entire free trip around them. When you’re into value tactics, sometimes you find yourself in inconvenient situations such as this. Luckily for us, the planning went smoothly and so did the vacation.
A few months ago we had zero plans for a winter trip. With a little planning effort, some points and miles, and a little bit of cash, we were able to take a refreshing long-weekend trip full of luxury in a unique destination.
If you want to learn more about the tactics used to get this incredible value, like the ValueTactics Facebook page and check the site often. I’m also always willing to give one-on-one advice and tactical instruction! Thanks for reading this trip review! 🙂