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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 Costa Rica.
Over the past month, 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, and for Puerto Rico.
Today I want to continue this series by looking at credit card combinations that can get you to Costa Rica, which is a very popular award travel destination due to its warm climate, reasonable prices, and stunning scenery. 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).
Getting to Costa Rica
There are two major international airports in Costa Rica (near San José and Liberia), and both enjoy service from Delta, United, American, and US Airways. In addition, Southwest Airlines is beginning service on March 7, 2015 between San José Costa Rica and Baltimore. Finally, JetBlue, Frontier, and Spirit also offer service, but these airlines are of relatively limited value to award travelers.
In the traditional zone-based award programs, Costa Rica is considered part of the Central America/Caribbean zone; awards are typically 35,000 miles round-trip in economy, and 60,000 – 70,000 miles in first class.
Staying in Costa Rica
As Costa Rica has grown in popularity as a tourist destination, several of the major international hotel brands have introduced properties there. Westin, Hyatt, Hilton, and Marriott all offer luxury properties along the coast near Liberia and San José, while there are over a dozen hotels available for award stays in and around the city of San José. For the purpose of this exercise, I’ll assume the goal is to enjoy some sun and surf along the coast.
Here are my picks:
Southwest to San José
Southwest’s entry into the Costa Rica market makes it an irresistible choice for award travel. Not only can you pick any day of travel to redeem your points, but you can also take advantage of their unbeatable Companion Pass. For those reasons, this card combination starts with two of the co-branded Southwest cards from Chase: either the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card ($69 annual fee), or the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card ($99 annual fee).
These cards all currently offer a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 in the first three months. Once you receive two of these cards and meet the minimum spending requirements, you’ll be just 6,000 points short of the 110,000 points needed for the Companion Pass, which can be used for flights to Costa Rica and other international destinations.
The downside of this strategy is that you have to transit through Baltimore, which may mean an overnight stay there, since flights to Costa Rica leave very early and return quite late. However, if this plan does work for you, you could have enough points for four round-trip flights from Baltimore to Costa Rica, each with a free companion! Even if you’re coming from elsewhere (and need to position yourself in Baltimore for that flight), the sign-up bonus and Companion Pass should be worth at least two round-trip flights for two people from any U.S. city served by Southwest to San José. I do expect Southwest to serve Costa Rica when the new international terminal opens at Houston-Hobby, which would make this option much more attractive to flyers from the West Coast. However, I don’t have any insider information, and there are no guarantees.
As for hotels on the water near San José, the Los Sueños Marriott Ocean & Golf Resort is 60 miles southwest of the airport, and is a category 8 property that requires 35,000 – 40,000 points per night. To stay there for free, you could get the Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card from Chase, which offers a sign-up bonus of 140,000 points after spending just $3,000 within three months of account opening. This card alone will meet the minimum four-night requirement for this exercise, and you’d actually get five nights, since Marriott offers the fifth night free for award redemptions. This card has a steep $395 annual fee, but it also has a $300 annual travel credit per calendar year, which can actually be utilized twice in your first cardmember year, so it’s worth more than the annual fee if you use it strategically.
For the fourth card, I’d recommend the Barclaycard Arrival Plus, which offers a sign-up bonus of 40,000 miles after you spend $3,000 in the first 90 days. Those miles can be redeemed for travel expenses at a rate of 1 cent apiece, plus a 10% rebate for each redemption—so the sign-up bonus is worth over $440. Between that and the $300 from the Ritz-Carlton card, you’d have a lot of credit to play with. The $89 annual fee is waived for the first year, and (like the Southwest Premier) the card has no foreign transaction fees, as well as a smart chip with PIN capability, so it will come in handy abroad.
What you get: To meet the minimum spending requirements for all four of these cards, and receive the Southwest Companion pass, you’ll need to spend $16,000, while paying first year annual fees of $593 (assuming you get both Southwest Premier cards; $563 otherwise). That’s a lot to spend, though note that you could spread out your applications to balance your spending.
Avios to Andaz
One of the more attractive hotels for award travel in Costa Rica is the Andaz Peninsula Papagayo Resort (see TPG’s review), which is part of the Hyatt chain. This property is on the coast, about 19 miles from the Liberia airport. The best part is that it’s now a Category 4 award requiring a mere 15,000 points per night, and is eligible for use of the annual free night certificate offered by the Hyatt Credit Card from Chase.
So one way to stay here would be to apply for one of these Hyatt cards, which offers two free nights at any Hyatt property worldwide after spending $2,000 within three months. Frankly, it would be more valuable to use these unrestricted free nights at higher-tier luxury properties (like the Park Hyatt Sydney City Harbour), and use points or the annual free night certificates for your trip to Costa Rica. There’s a $75 annual fee for this card.
Since Hyatt is an Ultimate Rewards transfer partner, another way to earn the 60,000 points required for a four night stay would be to get the Chase Ink Plus. The offer linked here is for 50,000 points after spending $5,000 in three months, and waives the $95 annual fee for the first year. However, you may be able to find an offer for 70,000 points (with the same spending requirement, but without waiving the first year annual fee) in your local Chase branch.
I would also consider the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which currently offers 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months of account opening, The $95 annual fee is waived for the first year.
Finally, you could get the British Airways Visa Signature Card, which currently comes with a sign-up bonus of 50,000 Avios after spending $3,000 within first three months. You can use these Avios, plus transfers from any leftover Ultimate Rewards points to book award flights on American or US Airways. Flights from Charlotte are 25,000 points round-trip in economy, while Dallas and Miami are just 20,000, although any connecting flights would require more points, depending on the distance flown.
What you get: If you got one each of the Hyatt, Sapphire Preferred, Ink Plus, and Avios cards, you’ll have a total minimum spending requirement of $11,000. As a result, you’ll earn 176,000 combined Avios and Ultimate Rewards points, plus two free nights at any Hyatt in the world, all for a combined total of $170 annual fees the first year, and $360 beyond that.
The first credit card combination featuring Southwest flights is really only convenient if you can fly out of Baltimore, and the second combination uses distance-based awards that will require more points as you get further north. So for this final combination, I’ll look at a good old zone-based award program.
Start with two American Airlines co-branded cards, either the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select Mastercard or the Citibusiness AAdvantage Platinum Select World Mastercard, each of which offers 50,000 bonus miles and 2 one-day Admirals Club passes after spending $3,000 within three months. Both cards have a $95 annual fee that’s waived the first year. American charges 35,000 miles round-trip for awards to Central America or the Caribbean, so you’ll have more than enough. Note that you can get off-peak awards (from January 16 to June 14, or from September 7 to November 14) for 30,000 miles round-trip to Central America.
With few other great properties available with hotel points, you might just want to get two Barclaycard Arrival Plus cards. The 53,000 bonus miles earned after meeting the minimum spending requirements are worth $478 each, or $956 total. This should be more than enough to get a hotel room for at least four nights.
What you get: For meeting $12,000 in minimum spending requirements, you’ll receive 106,000 American Airlines miles plus $956 worth of travel statement credits. There are no annual fees the first year, and $368 in fees annually beyond that.
Which is best?
As has sometimes been the case with other posts in this series, the best combination depends on where you’re traveling from. Those in the Baltimore/Washington area (or even elsewhere in that part of the country) can make out great with the Southwest to San José plan, which easily exceeds the requirements for this exercise.
Those who have easy access to Dallas, Charlotte, or Miami can do great with the Avios to Andaz plan. Finally, the American Arrival plan can work out especially well for residents of Alaska or Canada, since they can make use of American’s zone-based program to fly thousands of miles to Costa Rica for only 35,000 miles round-trip.
Finally, keep in mind that these combinations aren’t set in stone, and it’s certainly possible to utilize two airline cards from one plan, and two hotel cards from another. In fact, these credit card suggestions can apply equally well to several other warm weather destinations in Mexico, the Caribbean, and elsewhere in Central America.
Which travel rewards cards would you get to plan an award trip to Costa Rica?
Know before you go.
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