I’ve figured out a couple of things while playing the miles and points game and enjoying the fruits of it. Apparently hotel bookings are not among those things. I hope you’ll enjoy laughing with (or at) me and our last trip, a quick weekend to Cancun.
With our wedding anniversary falling on a weekend with a school holiday during the short time it tends to get cold in South Texas, I can’t see any reason to stay home. Last year we enjoyed a trip to Roatan without the kids, and this year we decided on Cancun for simplicity. Southwest has a nonstop flight from Austin which saves several hours of connecting time, and we have a pair of companion passes. Very simple. On August 4, 2014, within an hour of Southwest opening their February schedule, I booked 3 tickets for Bonnie, Shaun and I. No problem, 22,610 Southwest points and $77.51 per person. I then tried to add Dean as my companion but couldn’t do so. Apparently you can only add a minor as a companion over the phone for international travel. Mistake #1: so I called. Don’t call Southwest on the day the schedule has just been extended! You’ll be on hold for a several hours rather than a few minutes any other day. Go ahead and book what you can online, and call in to add companions a few days later. Anyways we used points from the Barclays Arrival card to cover $75 of the taxes for each of us, and Bonnie got her companion pass from credit card applications in September and October. So the total for airfare after switching Shaun’s from a points ticket to a companion ticket, for the four of us was 45,220 Southwest points, 30,000 Arrival points and $10.04. Not bad at all.
We were in Israel on Black Friday so we missed Orbitz $100 off any stay sale, but we managed to get in on the second round on December 10th when they offered $100 off any 2-day stay. We didn’t care too much about luxury, we just wanted to be right on the beach in a room with a separate bedroom if possible. Using that Orbitz coupon we were able to book a prepaid stay at the Mia Hotel, which is an older 3-star hotel right in the middle of the Cancun Hotel Zone. We booked a suite with a bedroom and a kitchen that measures over 1800 square feet. Or more than 4 times the size of a typical standard hotel room. Reviews said the beach was great and the hotel was basic but fine. Perfect, and perfectly priced. Again I used an Arrival card and paid for the room with 15,620 points total to cover the $156.20 total prepaid reservation cost.
The price for a car from Budget was fine. It cost $86 for two and a half days, but hotel transfers aren’t cheap and I wanted to be able to get out and explore. They gave us a comically small Nissan March which worked just fine when it wasn’t attracting the attention of a Mexican cop. It got good gas mileage, I think. 8,620 Arrival points later, the car rental was covered.
The Southwest gate agent in Austin saw Bonnie walking (she’s an amputee) and her crutches, and let all four of us preboard. We sat in the first two rows – first class! Our Southwest flight of two and a half hours was smooth and simple, lots of ‘Happy Valentines’ from everyone at Southwest. Midway through the flight they had some girl celebrating her 21st birthday come to the front of the plane so we could sing happy birthday and they gave her a makeshift crown made from heart-shaped coffee stirs and bags of pretzels. I wanted to ask if her birthday is on Valentine’s every year.
Due to Bonnie’s limited ability to walk long distance or stand for long periods of time, we have decided to get a wheelchair at unfamiliar airports where we have to go through immigration and customs. With no checked bags to wait for and no line we were through customs and to the Budget counter within a couple of minutes. Not checking bags is NOT a mistake. We highly recommend it. By 1:00 PM we were on the road for our short drive to the hotel.
The Mia Cancun Resort
looks to be one of few remaining hotels from a time when Cancun was a much quieter, cheaper, less pretentious place. We were early for check-in, but they gave us a card that was good for free drinks at a small restaurant just outside. We took our time and ate lunch there before heading back to check in. While I waited in line to check in at 3:00, the boys played pool at the table in the open, unconditioned lobby. It wasn’t long before I realized my Mistake #2: I never contacted the hotel to confirm my reservation! Especially when booked on an online travel agency, that is just stupid! Confirm your reservations!
To make a long story short, our rate was never supposed to be offered to the OTA, there were (at least) three different families booked in our room. The hotel had alerted Orbitz but Orbitz had dropped the ball and not contacted us or offered us alternate lodging. It only took about an hour of back and forth with Orbitz to get to the bottom of that, and one other person out of the same situation didn’t take it well at all. He took every opportunity to loudly voice his displeasure with everyone involved and point out that he had booked his stay a long time ago (a month, I saw his paperwork) and flown all the way to Cancun (who didn’t?) and this is TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE!!! He wound up taking the one open room they had at the Mia Hotel, a standard room that opened directly into the lobby and faced the street. I think he got a refund for the price difference which would have been just about nothing.
Unlike many newer resorts, the Mia Hotel is actually close to the beach with a narrow pool running parallel to the beach. A little tired and a lot dated perhaps, but I think we’d have loved it if we had gotten the room we paid for. I guess the only way to be sure will be to go back!
During my call to Orbitz the rep said they would have to cancel my reservation and then would wind up refunding me the difference in price for a different hotel. I said please don’t cancel anything until we have something else lined up, but he had already transferred me and seconds later a cancellation email came in. The supervisor seemed to suggest that maybe Orbitz had tried to contact me and let me know there was a problem with the reservation, but she backed away from that in a hurry. After all, the reservation had shown up as valid a minute earlier, and no email had been received.
While on the phone to Orbitz I was searching their own site for replacement rooms. While I wasn’t exactly thrilled with it, the best available option (based on searches on Orbitz) appeared to be the Flamingo, just a quarter mile North of the hotel Mia. It is also rated as 3-star by Orbitz, but no room similar to ours was available and the last-minute price for 2 nights was listed at around $900. After lots of hold time made worse by a poor connection, the Orbitz supervisor took my credit card info and promised a refund of the difference. A confimation email came through and she said we could head over to the Flamingo and check in. Finally! We drove the short distance to the Flamingo, and with the fresh confirmation email loaded up on my phone I went in to check in. A few minutes and a couple of confused front desk agents later it bacame clear that they were completely full and Orbitz had booked us into a room that didn’t exist. Again!
The Flamingo staff, unlike the very helpful Mia staff, offered no help at all. Sure I could use their phone or wifi to contact Orbitz, as soon as I paid for it. All the way around, I’m glad we didn’t stay there!
By this time the sun was setting and any idea of an afternoon on the beach was long gone. Equally out of reach was any nice Valentine’s day dinner. I hadn’t yet raised my voice or expressed any real displeasure with Orbitz, but I was running out of patience! Not to mention getting sick of repeating the line ‘I paid for a room three months ago, and we need a place to sleep. Please!’ We decided to find a place to get something to eat while I called Orbitz yet again, and the kids were happy to eat at the Outback Steakhouse across the street from the Flamingo. Fly to Mexico and eat at an American chain restaurant that pretends to be Australian. Awful, I know, but they gave us a table in the sports bar section where I spent the entire meal on the phone. Finally the Orbitz supervisor manage to wrangle what must have been the last Cancun room available – at the Westin Lagunamar. I had tried to book it with points months before, but they had no rooms available. Turns out the Westin Laguamar is on Travel and Leisure’s top 500 hotels.
I can’t tell you how relieved I was to show up at the Westin and find out that we actually did have a room! Since Orbitz had booked it minutes before and it wasn’t a prepaid room, they didn’t have all of my info in the system. I suggested they put my SPG number in, which made check-in quick and easy and resulted in about 3,000 SPG points for the stay. The ‘oceanview studio villa’ room they put us in is probably designed to be used by Westin vacation ownership (timeshare – don’t buy one, at least not from the hotel!) members as it had a small full kitchen and laundry equipment in the room. All the way around, it was a great room, except it was missing that separate bedroom.
All in all, we lost half a day of a 2-day trip due to the hotel fiasco, but we wound up with a great room in a much nicer hotel for the same $78 per night that we initially paid. The lowest advance purchase price I’ve seen there is $216 per night, and that requires a 5-night stay. When I submitted the receipt to Orbitz I asked them to also pay for the breakfast we got there since it was to be included in our stay. They refunded my card for the full amount I requested, including breakfast.
After a late breakfast, the morning of our one full day in Cancun, our 15th wedding anniversary, was spent at the mammoth pools and beach there at the Westin Lagunamar.
Shaun wanted to go snorkeling (of course I did too!) so we asked on the beach and got offered a snorkeling tour consisting of a speedboat ride to the South of Cancun with an hour of snorkeling for $65 plus taxes per person. No thanks, we drove to Puerto Morelos instead and did nearly two hours of great snorkeling for $25 per person. I had taken the GoPro that Bonnie gave me for Christmas, but neglected to charge it. The reef wasn’t as ‘full of fish’ as some, but there was a great variety of coral and fish, and we saw a few bigger jacks and barracuda. Lots of fun – I can’t express how cool it is to be able to see clearly under water after snorkeling over the years without corrective lenses and unable to see anything more than a foot away! The beach at the town of Puerto Morelos was very narrow, had a lot of seaweed and was crowded.
After driving back to the Westin, we were ready for our late lunch/early dinner. I had made reservations for two inside and two outside, and we got to have our anniversary dinner with the kids in sight but out of mind. After they ate, they went and got paddles and a ball and played table tennis on the table between the restaurant and the pool. Table tennis and the sea breeze isn’t a good combination, so they spent most of the time chasing the ball – I think it would work a lot better with a golf ball.
Dinner was excellent, and they came and made a flaming fruit cocktail tableside before dessert, which was really cool. So yeah, go ahead and be celebrating something if someone asks!
Monday we enjoyed a nice lazy morning before checking out and setting out for Tulum to check out the Mayan ruins there. I drove, as I had the rest of the time, just a little over the speed limit and far slower than just about anyone else on the road. But when I was almost to where the hotel zone road meets the main highway, I got pulled over by a police officer on a motorcycle. He walked up, told me I was going over the speed limit of 70 KM/hr and asked for my license and then proceeded to ask, in excellent English, where we were staying where we were going, when we were leaving Mexico, etc. Next he invited me to come back to his motorcycle where he pulled out a book of tickets and then asked if I wanted a ticket. Well, not really, but you pulled me over. Write up a ticket, I’ll pay the fine or whatever. He said (having already asked and knowing I was leaving the same day) that I would have to go pay the ticket tomorrow at the police station. I asked why not today, he replied they were closed. I doubt it. But he kept picking up the ticket book, not writing on it and setting it down. Finally he said what I’m sure he wanted me to say all along: Do you want to pay now? I asked how much the ticket would be and he didn’t answer, but said “You can pay now, it’s 100.” I asked 100 pesos, and he said no, 100 dollars. By now I just wanted to go, and was pretty sure there was no way to get my license back except to play his game. But I had no US money, so I told him that and asked how much in pesos. He said 1000 ($67) and I told him I didn’t have that but I had 700. He said ok, I put it in the box on the back of his motorcycle, took my license and he did a U turn and was gone. To shake down another tourist, I guess. At the end of the day I paid $46 for speeding, but the whole thing sucks. I held my breath and drove painfully slow the rest of the day, and we made it to Tulum for lunch and a look at the ruins before it was time to head back to the airport. Mistake #3: I’m not sure! Driving in Mexico? Being unlucky? Driving too fast? I’d love to hear from a Yucatan regular that either 1) you have to follow the speed limit in Mexico, even though no one else drives anywhere close to it, or 2) I was just unlucky, and that it rare. I guess I’d say, to be safe, Drive slow in Mexico!
We left Tulum with plenty of time to make it back to the airport, but no time or money for another police encounter, so we religiously obeyed the constantly changing speed limits, managed to avoid any extra attention at the check point approaching Cancun, and headed to the Terminal 2 Mera Business lounge, Priority Pass and Citi Prestige cards in hand. Only to find out that it isn’t open to Priority Pass members from noon to 4:30. I think it should be renamed the YMMV Pass. Or maybe Low Priority Pass. Anyways there is only shopping around it, so we just waited outside until they invited us in as an Air Canada flight worth of business class passengers left at 4:20. Somehow we got 4 seats together, but until the BA flight left the lounge was a complete zoo. However, we enjoyed the food and something to drink and Bonnie managed to do a little needed online work before it was time to head out into the terminal and catch our flight.
The agent in Cancun only offered two seats if Bonnie preboarded, so we waited our turn at B40 or so and had no problem getting 4 seats together near the back of the plane.
There are only a few international flights into Austin each day, so our 737 (which, like the outbound one, had no empty seats) made up all of the passengers in customs and immigration. They invited those of us without checked bags to skip the kiosks and move on to the agent, which we gladly did. This was actually the first time I’ve ever cleared customs and been able to head home – if you live in an international gateway and regularly have this luxury, enjoy it! Those of us in secondary airports are stuck with a couple hours time cushion before boarding another flight, every international trip.
All in all, Cancun is beautiful but had a fake ‘tourist-land’ feel to it. It’s just too convenient and quick from South Texas for a long weekend, so I’m sure we’ll be back! I think next time we’ll try to get to Isla Mujeres or head straight out for the Tulum area.