Greetings to all! I haven’t blogged much in the last month as the family and I have been in Nicaragua for the past few weeks courtesy of several credit card issuers. How did I pull off a trip for six people during peak season using points and miles, you ask? Great question! Let’s look at the plane tickets first.
British Airways Avios are my preferred currency, but the best way to travel from Charlotte to Managua is on American Airlines and I can’t book an Avios award without sAAver AAward AAvailability on American. Needless to say, there was no availability. Mid-December through mid-January is high season, so Avios wasn’t going to happen.
Fortunately, we had plenty of American Airlines miles thanks to some Citi card sign-ups as well as some merged USAir miles. But still, it wasn’t a slam-dunk. For most flights during the holiday period, you’re going to have to pay a lot of miles. In extreme cases you could even end up paying as much as 75,000 miles for a one-way. That’s per ticket, for a route that ought to be 17,500. With six of us, that’s obviously not going to happen.
But lo and behold, there was one acceptable day where the tickets were only 17,500 miles each! That day was Christmas Eve. The schedule was acceptable to us: it was a 7 am departure, which necessitated a 3:30 am wake-up call on the day of the trip, but it got us into Managua mid-afternoon with plenty of time for Christmas Eve festivities. And you don’t want to miss Christmas Eve in Managua, as it’s like Christmas + St. Patrick’s Day + Fourth of July rolled up into one great night.
We had a layover of almost four hours in Miami but that was no problem thanks to the Amex Centurion lounge. My wife received a juicy 150,000-point offer last year so we’ve currently got a Platinum card, and spouse + kids get into the lounge for free if they’re traveling with you. Yes, it was a little crowded, and yes, we had to pay $50 for my mother-in-law who was accompanying us, but it was worth it. We set up camps in the kids’ room there where the young ‘uns could watch Netflix (free wi-fi!) and play video games with obnoxiously loud sounds to their hearts’ content. Plus we had a leisurely breakfast/brunch. Plus my wife and mother-in-law got manicures. Win-win-win!
Going back was a little trickier. There was absolutely nothing good available at a reasonable miles price, so I borrowed a tactic I learned from Saverocity’s own Kenny of Miles4More fame. I don’t know why, but there was one fare with a MGA-MIA-DFW-CLT routing leaving on January 8 that was easily the cheapest with a low, low price of only 27,500 miles. Not only were there two stops on this trip, but the DFW one was an overnight arriving at 10 pm and leaving at 6 am the next morning. Overnight in an airport with four young kids! What could possibly go wrong?
I booked the ticket anyway, having learned from Kenny that airlines always change their schedules, in which case I’d be entitled to rebook for no fee, and that if you book far enough ahead of time (I booked the tickets last March) the odds are in your favor. It took until November, but American finally changed the arrival time in Dallas by over an hour, so I called up and changed to exactly the MGA-MIA-CLT routing that I wanted. No problem whatsoever making the change and I saved a bunch of miles!
(Incidentally, I learned about book-early-and-change-for-free from a Family Travel for Real Life meeting. I’m very glad I went, that one tip alone made it worthwhile! The next one will be in Orlando in April if you’re interested.)
The other part of the trip booking was the hotel. The good news is that Hyatt had scheduled a brand new Hyatt Place to open in Managua in 2015! And that the hotel would be about five minutes away from my sister’s family! And that it would probaby be a Category 1 based on similar properties elsewhere in Central America, making it a bargain at only 5,000 Hyatt points (transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards, of course) per night!
The bad news is that things tend to run behind schedule in Nicaragua, and the hotel was no exception. After much correspondence with the hotel manager, who told us it might be open in time for our trip, we learned that in fact it would not be. Time for our backup plan and some more good news / bad news!
The good news is that the Holiday Inn Express Managua was on the IHG PointBreaks list, making it only 5,000 points per night! The bad news is that availability is limited on PointBreaks inventory, and this particular hotel disappeared from the PointBreaks list literally one day before we received the definitive word that the Hyatt was a no-go. Time for our alternative backup plan!
As it happened, we had a decent alternative backup plan, which was to build up our HHilton HHonors accounts and then apply those points toward a stay at the Hilton Princess Managua. We stayed there three years ago and it was great–they have a nice executive lounge and the staff was exceptionally friendly and helpful. And since my wife and I both have the Amex Surpass, we both have gold status and therefore have lounge access, and when you have this many kids, the lounge is a huge win in both time and money.
The downside is that we hadn’t gone all-in on Hilton Points since we didn’t know we’d be needing all of them. We needed two rooms for 15 nights, and this hotel goes for 30,000 points per night (24K if you book for five nights). So best case, you’re looking at 720,000 Hilton points. And this, boys and girls, is where you learn that points and miles are no substitute for actually talking to people and negotiating.
My wife likes to negotiate, so after chatting with the hotel manager, she was told that if we booked executive floor rooms instead of regular rooms, they would recognize our gold status via an upgrade to a suite which could hold our family comfortably. And as oppposed to Miles For Family’s Hilton booking experience, the Princess hotel redemptions are downright sane. Executive floor rooms are only a few thousand points more than regular ones, so with the suite upgrade we only had to book one room per night instead of two, saving ourselves a lot of money. (Not all bloggers pull in the big bucks like TravelBloggerBuzz does, so every dollar helps.) And I’m pleased to report that the Hilton Princess Managua’s staff remains awesome–we had a great stay thanks to them!
Conclusions and Lessons
- A lot of points and miles blogs like to point out that “anybody” can do this, and I guess anybody can… but realistically, I wouldn’t encourage a noob to book a high-season trip for a whole bunch of people to a place without a ton of chain hotels as their first redemption. This trip took a fair amount of work on my part plus a fair amount of knowledge I’ve gained over the years plus a fair amount of points I’d hoarded just in case I needed them.
- Speaking of hoarding: everybody says to earn and burn (okay, Frequent Miler’s with me on the hoarding issue), but hoarding has come in handy for me more than once. I didn’t have any specific plan for those Hilton points when I acquired them, but they were quite helpful. There’s always room for both Jello and Hilton points.
- Book early!
- Like I said above: miles and points aren’t always the answer. Don’t be shy about negotiating with people who have the power to make decisions. Always be closing!