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When talking about award travel, it’s easy to focus on earning points and miles and lose sight of the actual traveling. Today, however, TPG Senior Points and Miles Correspondent Jason Steele offers a detailed analysis of how you can use your travel rewards to get to Puerto Rico.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve explored how award travelers could construct specific vacations from the points and miles earned through credit card sign-up bonuses. First, I looked at Credit Card Combinations for a Hawaiian Vacation, followed by options for Paris.
Today I want to continue this series with a look at credit card combinations that can get you to Puerto Rico, which is somewhat of a Caribbean counterpart to Hawaii— warm weather, fantastic beaches, an exotic feel, and still a part of the United States. For travelers east of the Rockies, Puerto Rico is closer than the 50th state, while the island is still easily accessible to West Coast travelers.
As in the previous posts, The goal is for two travelers to earn enough points and miles for two round-trip award flights and a minimum of four hotel nights by signing up for two credit cards each (four total).
Award travel considerations for Puerto Rico
While Hawaii is usually in its own award zone in most frequent flyer programs, Puerto Rico is always part of the Caribbean in zone-based award charts, which requires more miles than destinations in the contiguous United States or Canada. American Airlines used to have a pretty large hub in San Juan; it shuttered that operation in 2011, but still offers strong service to Puerto Rico from its other hub cities. In its place, Jet Blue has stepped up to provide service to about 10 mainland destinations.
Unfortunately, JetBlue rarely offers exceptional value from its TrueBlue frequent flyer points, which are worth 1 to 1.7 cents each, according to TPG’s latest valuations. Beyond the major legacy carriers, Southwest offers service to San Juan from Baltimore, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, and Tampa, as well as seasonal service from Houston-Hobby (Flights from Atlanta end March 7, 2015). Finally, Spirit offers service to Puerto Rico from Fort Lauderdale and Orlando, but it’s not much of an award travel opportunity.
When it comes to hotels, several of the major chains have properties in Puerto Rico, so it’s a fairly easy destination to visit with points alone. As I examine some award travel possibilities, keep in mind that many of these options apply to other Caribbean destinations as well. Here are my picks:
The Southwest Plan (with plenty to spare)
This credit card combination starts off with the killer one-two punch of two Southwest Rapid Rewards cards from Chase. While the standard offer for these cards is 25,000 points after spending $1,000 in the first 3 months, Chase periodically offers larger sign-up bonuses of 50,000 points after spending $2,000 in the first three months. If you can get in on the higher offers, earning the sign-up bonuses from two of these cards would leave you just 6,000 points short of the coveted Southwest Companion Pass, which is valid for flights to Puerto Rico and other international destinations. Altogether you’d have more than enough for several trips to San Juan!
For example, here’s an itinerary from Chicago (MDW) to San Juan for a week-long trip over Valentine’s Day weekend, costing just over 20,000 points per person round-trip, or 20,000 total if you can use the Companion Pass.
You can still get the 50,000-point offer for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card, and then either wait a few months to get a second card with the higher offer (assuming it comes around again), or try to get someone to send you a referral link via this Flyertalk thread. There are currently two versions of the personal card offered, along with one version of the business card, and one person can be approved for any two cards. The Premier business and personal cards have a $99 annual fee, while the Plus personal card has a $69 annual fee.
If you’re unable to get two of the higher offers and the Companion Pass, you may still be able to get two passengers to Puerto Rico and back with just the one 50,000 point sign-up bonus, as demonstrated by the itinerary above. It’s not the most efficient use of points, but it will do the trick.
Next, you’ll need hotel awards. Club Carlson has the Radisson Ambassador Plaza Hotel & Casino San Juan, which costs 38,000 points per night. To earn those points, you could apply for the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature card from US Bank, which earns you 50,000 Gold Points after your first purchase, and another 35,000 points after you spend $2,500 within 90 days of your account opening. Since this card offers at least five points per dollar on all purchases, you’ll end up with 97,500 points after meeting the minimum spending requirement. There’s a $75 annual fee for this card.
The best feature of this card is that you receive your last award night free for award stays of two nights or more. If you and your travel partner each sign up for this card, then you could book alternating two night awards for only 38,000 points each, or 76,000 points total (you can’t use this benefit to book consecutive two night stays under the same name). You’d each have 59,500 points left over, enough to extend your stay by a few nights if you so choose.
What it costs: These four cards come with a total of $318 in annual fees if you get a Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus and Premier card, or $348 if you get two Premier cards. The minimum spending requirements are $5,000 for the two hotel cards and $4,000 for the two Southwest cards (plus another $6,000 to earn the Companion Pass through credit card spending).
While those annual fees are substantial, one nice thing about these cards is that they all offer an anniversary bonus that covers some or all of the cost. The Club Carlson Premier card comes with a renewal bonus of 40,000 points on your account anniversary (worth an impressive $240 according to TPG’s valuations). The Southwest Plus card comes with an annual bonus of 3,000 Rapid Rewards points (worth $42), while the Southwest Premier cards offer a bonus of 6,000 points (worth $84).
San Juan is 1,045 miles southeast of Miami, which puts it just within the 1,151 mile limit of a 7,500 mile award using distance-based British Airways Avios. So a couple in Miami could spend a mere 30,000 miles for round-trip flights to Puerto Rico, while two flights from New York would be 40,000 points. This all compares very favorably to the 70-80,000 points required by most other programs for two round-trip tickets to the Caribbean.
To earn the necessary points, you could go one of two ways. First, you could apply for the British Airways Visa Signature Card from Chase, which offers 50,000 Avios after you make $3,000 in purchases within the first three months. While this isn’t as exciting as the 100,000-mile offers of years past, Chase is currently waiving the $95 annual fee for the first year. Another option would be to apply for the Ink Plus card at a Chase branch, where you can get an offer for 70,000 points spending $5,000 within three months, with a $95 annual fee.
For hotels, you can go with Hilton, which has over a dozen properties in Puerto Rico. One strategy would be to get the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card, which offers two free weekend nights after spending $2,500 within three months, and use those free nights at the Waldorf Astoria Resort El Conquistador, which normally costs 60,000 points (or around $300) per night.
Both travelers could also apply for the Hilton HHonors Surpass Card from American Express, which offers 75,000 Hilton HHonors Bonus Points after you spend $3,000 in purchases on the card within your first three months. That will give you just enough points for almost three more nights there, or almost two nights at one of the 40,000 point properties, such as the Embassy Suites Dorado del Mar Beach Resort. Both of these Hilton HHonors cards come with automatic Gold status, which could help you get room upgrades and other perks.
What it costs: These four cards total $245 in annual fees for the first year if you go with the British Airways Visa, or $340 if you go with the Chase Ink Plus. The minimum spending requirements would be $10,500 or $13,500, respectively.
If Puerto Rico is where you want to go, and you don’t live along the East Coast, then you might need options with a more traditional frequent flyer program. Citi offers its Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard and a similar CitiBusiness card, both of which offer 50,000 bonus miles and two Admirals Club one-day passes after you spend $3,000 within three months. Each card has a $95 annual fee that is waived the first year, and easily offers enough points for a single flight to Puerto Rico in coach at 35,000 miles round-trip, or 25,000 miles during off-peak times (September 7 – November 14). While the sign-up bonus alone wouldn’t cover it, you could for first class at 60,000 miles round-trip per person.
As for hotels, you might try just winging it with fixed value cards like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard or the Capital One Venture Rewards. Both cards offer 40,000 miles after you spend $3,000 within three months of account opening. The Arrival Plus has an $89 annual fee that is waived the first year, while the Capital One card has a $59 annual fee that is also waived the first year. The miles offered by both programs are worth one cent apiece toward travel statement credits, so two cards get you at least $860 worth of credits that can be used for hotels, rental cars, and even the taxes and fees paid for award flights.
Unlike Hawaii, Puerto Rico is a relatively inexpensive destination, and there are plenty of hotels and resorts that have rooms for less than $200/night. For example, the highly rated Hyatt House San Juan starts at $170/night.
What it costs: The beauty of this plan is that there are no annual fees in the first year for any of these cards! The combined minimum spending requirements are $12,000.
Which is best?
The Southwest Plan clearly offers the most value per dollar spent on annual fees and for meeting the minimum spending requirements. This plan goes way beyond the two award flights and four award nights for two people, especially if you can get the Companion Pass. On the other hand, some flyers just aren’t into the Southwest way of flying, or live in cities that Southwest doesn’t serve. These travelers will be better off with the East Coast or West Coast plan, depending on where they live. East Coasters can leverage their shorter flights by using one card for flights, leaving three cards to enjoy the luxurious Waldorf Astoria. West Coasters can take advantage of first class flights on their much longer trip, and don’t owe any annual fees in the first year.
Whichever plan you choose, know that you can be enjoying the sun in Puerto Rico, no matter what part of the country you live in.
How would you plan an award trip to Puerto Rico?