Miles Away: Pursuing Points Perfection in Aruba

Mar 20, 2019

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On today’s episode of Miles Away, TPG reviews editor Nick Ellis helps me plan my trip to Aruba, one of the most points-friendly destinations in the Caribbean. Nick and I talk food — of course — plus some top land and water activities (and some planespotting), before we dig into the wide variety of points hotels, including one property I’ve had my eye on, where a room key grants you exclusive access to a private island.

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Here Are 3 Key Takeaways:

Zach Honig: So is Aruba kind of your typical Caribbean destination is it a good starter island? Who is it for and what should I expect?

Nick Ellis: I think it’s really for anyone that wants good weather, you know, somewhere that you’re pretty much guaranteed sun and hot. Just the way of it’s geography, it’s kind of a dry more deserty island. You know, if it rains, it rains for five minutes, and then it blows over so fast. The wind is very strong so it’s hot, but the wind keeps you cool. You know, the white sand beaches, it has all of that.

Zach Honig: It’s picturesque. It’s kind of, if you’re picturing a stock photo of a Caribbean destinations.

Nick Ellis: Definitely, I mean where the Ritz was, was at the end of Palm Beach, it’s called, which is just a line of hotels basically. So you’re not getting too much deserted beach there. But where the Ritz was situated, it was the end of the beach. That was definitely the most private of the beaches there. Cause the other ones going down the strip where much more crowded, for sure.

Zach Honig: What about food, cause I’m always … I keep an eye out and I’ll look at Yelp or Foursquare. Actually, Foursquare is a new go-to for me. Did you find any amazing restaurants off the property?

Nick Ellis: Yeah, we got recommendations from friends of ours that we’ve met a long time ago that go to Aruba a lot. We actually met them on vacation last New Year’s, but they gave us several recommendations for restaurants. But my favorite was this restaurant called Barefoot. And it was in Oranjestad right near the airport. So when we sat down, we saw KLM’s A330 landing from Amsterdam. It was really cool, and it was almost like a Maho beach situation. Yeah. And you could see it right from this restaurant.

Full Transcription:

Zach Honig: Welcome back to Miles Away. This is your host, Zach Honig. Today I am sitting down with TPG’s Global Reviews Editor, Nick Ellis. Welcome, Nick.

Nick Ellis: Hey, thanks for having me, Zach.

Zach Honig: And we’re talking about Aruba, which is a destination that’s been on my list actually since I was a little kid. And the reason for that was I used to … my mom would drive me to school every day before we had a bus and we would listen to … I forgot the radio station, but everyday they seem to have an advertisement for Aruba. Something like, “You won’t hear the toot of the horn …” And I can’t do the accent, and I’m really embarrassed that I just did it, but we’re going to leave that in.

Zach Honig: But I’m like, what is this Aruba Place? I really want to go some day and somehow I haven’t gone yet. But you went there pretty recently, right?

Nick Ellis: Yeah, I was there over the new year holiday. So, like just after Christmas through New Year’s Day.

Zach Honig: OK. What brought you to Aruba? Was it the same commercial?

Nick Ellis: Yeah, we didn’t go as commercials in Michigan. I was just looking for somewhere to go with my family at that time. And Aruba was the first destination that I could get two rooms for the dates that we wanted to travel on points.

Zach Honig: So it was kind of circumstantial, I guess?

Nick Ellis: Totally.

Zach Honig: So where did you end up staying?

Nick Ellis: We stayed the Ritz-Carlton.

Zach Honig: Ooh. Ritz-Carlton. That sounds fancy. How was it, how does it compare to the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong?

Nick Ellis: It’s definitely a different experience. The rooms were definitely not to the level of Hong Kong. Definitely not to the level of some of the Ritz’s top properties, but …

Zach Honig: The ritziest Ritzes?

Nick Ellis: Yes, exactly. But, overall, the property was super nice. I love the food by the pool. The staff was great. The beach was gorgeous. Yeah, it was a great time.

Zach Honig: So is Aruba kind of your typical Caribbean destination? Is it a good starter island? Who is it for and what should I expect?

Nick Ellis: I think it’s really for anyone that wants good weather, you know, somewhere that you’re pretty much guaranteed sun and hot. Just the way of it’s geography, it’s kind of a dry more deserty island. You know, if it rains it rains for five minutes and then it blows over so fast. The wind is very strong so it’s hot, but the wind keeps you cool. You know, the white sand beaches … it’s yeah, it had all of that.

Zach Honig: It’s picturesque. It’s kind of, if you’re picturing a stock photo of a Caribbean destinations.

Nick Ellis: Definitely, I mean where the Ritz is, was at the end of Palm Beach, it’s called, which is just a line of hotels basically. So you’re not getting too much deserted beach there. But where the Ritz was situated, it was the end of the beach. That was definitely the most private of the beaches there. Cause the other ones going down the strip where much more crowded, for sure.

Zach Honig: So what was the makeup, I guess, of the other tourists? Did you see where there are a lot of couples there? Was it a lot of families? Was it, you know, groups of friends?

Nick Ellis: It was a lot of families when I was there. I think that’s probably typical, yeah for that time

Zach Honig: That’s probably time.

Nick Ellis: Yeah, for that time. Yeah, a lot of families, Though, I actually ran into a friend from college that I had no idea was going to be there and we ran into each other. And so that was really fun, actually, I had friends my own age.

Zach Honig: Definitely helps, especially over New Year’s.

Nick Ellis: Yeah, and they live in Boston, so it was easy for them to get there and you know. Yeah.

Zach Honig: Yeah. I mean Aruba is one of those destinations where there are quite a few nonstop options from the US and we definitely dig into that a little bit more in the second segment. But you know, it’s somewhere … It’s probably why we had the advertisements coming to think of it. I was in the Philadelphia area, and I’m sure there was a US airways flight to Aruba. Probably not from Grand Rapids, Michigan, right?

Nick Ellis: No, definitely not.

Zach Honig: OK, well that makes a little more sense. So what did you do when you were there? I know that you spent the first couple of days kinda hanging at the hotel, which when you’re saying at the Ritz, makes sense.

Nick Ellis: Yeah. We kind of just hung out a lot, but there’s a lot to do. Even just on the beaches alone, you can … The Ritz provided a bunch of free stuff to use in the water, kayaks and paddle boards and all those kinds of fun water toys. There were those people doing those water hovercraft things that are hooked up to the jet skis, and they’re levitating over the water.

Zach Honig: Yeah, where you’re floating above the water? That’s terrifying to me.

Nick Ellis: Yeah, very scary to me.

Zach Honig: I’m like I’m going to drown or something else will happen.

Nick Ellis: Very scary to me. But somehow people do that. I have no idea how. And then just down the beach from the Ritz was another rental area where you could do, kite surfing and

Zach Honig: Jet skis?

Nick Ellis: Yeah, all those, tubing. Yeah, it’s just kind of all day in the water it’s just nonstop activity. Parasailing, all that kind of stuff. So definitely lots of water activities. But like I said earlier, the island is a lot of desert, almost. It’s really dry and

Zach Honig: Are there hikes. Can you do hikes?

Nick Ellis: Well it’s not really hikes cause it’s pretty flat, but they’re like ATV tours.

Zach Honig: That’s my kind of hike.

Nick Ellis: Yeah, me too. Me Too.

Zach Honig: I hiked through the shopping mall.

Nick Ellis: Exactly. A hike right to the bar. There are ATV tours that you can do that you can go and take them out for an afternoon and that includes scuba diving and snorkeling and yeah, it’s just like a cool way to go kind of around and into the island more. Cause, you know, where the hotels are, it’s obviously around the island.

Zach Honig: Right, right. Did you grow into the main city and I don’t know how to pronounce it?

Nick Ellis: I finally figured it out, Oranjestad.

Zach Honig: Oranjestad, OK. Yes, that makes sense, now, hearing it, right. Did you make it into Oranjestad?

Nick Ellis: We did. My mother wanted to go jewelry shopping.

Zach Honig: Oh, OK. Did you buy her a piece of jewelry?

Nick Ellis: I did not buy her a piece of jewelry, she bought herself a piece of jewelry. But yeah, we went there for the shopping. It is a good place to go shopping, you have all …

Zach Honig: Is it safe? Can you go pretty much anywhere you want in Aruba and not …?

Nick Ellis: Totally, yeah, totally felt safe. But everything closed early downtown, so by six o’clock stuff was closed. I don’t know if that had anything to do with a holiday, but it was pretty quiet. But then they have the cruises coming in, they all dock in Oranjestad. So you have all those people coming in. So, I mean, unless you really want to go shopping for jewelry or high-end clothing that they have all the stores there, it’s not super noteworthy.

Zach Honig: So I forgot to mention this, but one of the reasons I wanted to talk about Aruba is because I just booked a trip to Aruba. And the reason for that was so I flew on the what was supposed to be the inaugural United 787-10 flight.

Nick Ellis: Yes. Before they surprised us.

Zach Honig: With many other 787-10 flights. But the fares were crazy. I think it was, it was $1,800 or $1,900 for just that one segment, LA to Newark in business. But I found out that if I added on a segment to Aruba in May, it brought the fare down to I think $700-$800 bucks. So I got that flight I needed out of LA to Newark and then I have another Newark to Aruba business flight.

Nick Ellis: And now you have a new trip.

Zach Honig: And I have a new trip. I’m like, you know what? And I don’t like throwing away tickets. I don’t want to get in trouble, but also I’m like, “Oh, I have a flight somewhere, I might as well use it.”

Nick Ellis: Especially somewhere appealing.

Zach Honig: Exactly. Yeah. So I’m like, OK, I’m going to Aruba. And I found the Renaissance. I wanted to stay. I’m still pretty loyal to Marriott and so that’s usually my first stop. When I was looking for hotels we could review and we didn’t have the Renaissance. And another very interesting thing about the Renaissance, obviously it’s not the Ritz. You kind of took the Ritz. So thanks, Nick. But there is a private island that is exclusively for guests of the Renaissance and they have a boat that takes you over there and they have tons of flamingos. Is that right?

Nick Ellis: Yup. Yup. Yeah. My friends actually that I mentioned earlier were staying at the Renaissance and they got upgraded. There are two portions of the resort. One that’s more on land, it’s right on the main road in the city. And then there’s the ocean suites, which are right on the beach.

Zach Honig: I’m realizing which one I booked. I think I got the road one.

Nick Ellis: Probably.

Zach Honig: Uh-oh, OK.

Nick Ellis: But they got upgraded. So you probably will too and over New Year’s.

Zach Honig: Yeah, I’m going, when am I going in just like a random weekend in May, so it should be fine.

Nick Ellis: I’m sure it will be fine.

Zach Honig: And May’s not really peak season, right? I mean I don’t think …

Nick Ellis: No, it’s actually … it’s April, May I was told are the lowest times there,  which I don’t really understand, cause the weather’s the same all year-round.

Zach Honig: So I know you spent a lot of time on the resort, but I want you to help me a little bit plan my trip. And to do that and kind of keep it concise, I’m going to say, let’s pick maybe five activities or you know, things that I should look out for, you know, that I should do. And one of them can be jet skiing if you have to go jet ski when you go to Aruba, we don’t have to go too deep. But what do you think I should do on my, let’s say, three-day trip to Aruba?

Nick Ellis: Sure. I definitely would visit the flamingos. They’re very fun and very pink and very weird. But it’s a lot of fun.

Zach Honig: Flamingo Island?

Nick Ellis: Yeah. The Flamingo Island, there was a fun cruise that you can do in the morning. It’s kind of like … you can just get on this boat and you pay $60 or something and you get free drinks and a lunch and they kind of cruise around and you jump off into the ocean.

Zach Honig: So early AM booze cruise?

Nick Ellis: Yeah, basically. It’s island time, it’s fine. And you jump off into the ocean and you can snorkel and swim and all that kind of stuff. And I mean the water was a little bit more rough out there, but you know, near shore it’s super calm.

Zach Honig: And is it warm water?

Nick Ellis: Yeah, it was warm. It was perfect to swim in. It was great. Yeah, then I would say, you know, partake in the water activities cause they’re fun, you know, rent jet skis. Like I said, the water’s super calm. You can just fly around the island. That is a lot of fun.

Zach Honig: What about food, cause I’m always … I keep an eye out and I’ll look at Yelp or Foursquare. Actually, Foursquare is a new go-to for me. Did you find any amazing restaurants off the property?

Nick Ellis: Yeah, we got recommendations from friends of ours that we’ve met a long time ago that go to Aruba a lot. We actually met them on vacation last New Year’s, but they gave us several recommendations for restaurants, but my favorite was this restaurant called Barefoot. And it was in Oranjestad right near the airport. So like when we sat down, we saw KLM’s A330 landing from Amsterdam. It was really cool and it was almost like a Maho beach situation. Yeah. And you could see it right from this restaurant.

Zach Honig: Oh, wow! And for those who don’t know what is Maho Beach?

Nick Ellis: It’s probably the most famous AvGeek airport in the world in Saint Martin.

Zach Honig: It’s like right there at the end of the runway.

Nick Ellis: Yeah. It’s a full beach that people hang out on and then enormous planes just landing on top of them.

Zach Honig: I went to Saint Martin for one day. It was during the JetBlue All You Can Jet, back in the day. And I spent the entire day just sitting under 747s. It was amazing.

Nick Ellis: It’s my dream to go there.

Zach Honig: Sorry you guys, that’s not in Aruba, though.

Nick Ellis: Not In Aruba. But anyways, Barefoot is a restaurant that’s … They have a little hut inside, it has a few tables, but most of the tables are just set up right on the beach and we went at 5:30 cause you could go for sunset and the sunset’s behind you. And the food was really good. I had super fresh fish. Really good and reasonably priced priced drinks. Cocktails were $8.

Zach Honig: What were the cocktail prices at the Ritz-Carlton?

Nick Ellis: A lot. But no different than New York, they’re between $14 and $16.

Zach Honig: Not insane, I guess. And would you say is Aruba and expensive destination?

Nick Ellis: It’s definitely not the cheapest place that I’ve been. I mean some restaurants were pricey but some surprised us in terms of being reasonable. Like that Barefoot restaurant that I was talking about was much more reasonable than I thought it would have been.

Zach Honig: But do you need to get away from the main tourist speech to find better deals or?

Nick Ellis: Not really. A lot of the restaurants we went to were kind of in a similar area, in the Palm Beach area, which is that main, kind of regarded as the nicest beach on the island. But they’re all really high-quality places. And we went to another restaurant at a different hotel. The restaurant was called Elements and it was also kind of on the beach that we went later, so the sun had already set. But it was delicious and great views. Really good service. Yeah. A lot of eating to do there, for sure.

Zach Honig: So I’m actually paying for my flights to Aruba and from Aruba, just because of my situation with that Los Angeles/Newark flight. But if I wanted to use miles to get there, what are my options? I know that American flies there, Delta flies there, United flies there, JetBlue flies there. And JetBlue, actually, the redemptions are based on the paid fare, cost of the ticket. And so if you’re going off season, that could actually make the most sense.

Nick Ellis: It could, yeah.

Zach Honig: Because Caribbean rates are a little high, actually.

Nick Ellis: Aruba is not cheap to get to. Sometimes you’ll see deal, I mean sometimes you’ll see fare deals around the $200 range. You know a lot of times JetBlue has has been selling those like heavily discounted mint fares even from New York and Boston. On Saturdays.

Zach Honig: Yeah. So, in some cases, I’ve seen fares in mint cheaper than coach. So that’s worth looking out for — $300 or something like that?

Nick Ellis: Yeah, around $300 which is a great deal for mint. And it’s not a quick flight. It’s only 20 miles from Venezuela. So it’s a five-hour flight from New York and Boston.

Zach Honig: Did you take a side trip to Venezuela?

Nick Ellis: We did not, but we were on the lookout for it. Apparently, you can see Venezuela like on a really clear day from some of the beaches, but I did not see anything.

Zach Honig: So are all the hotels kind of clustered around that Palm Beach area?

Nick Ellis: Not all of them, but a lot of them. Yeah.

Zach Honig: Is that what you want to be if you’re looking for a hotel, you’re like Palm Beach?

Nick Ellis: Yeah. That’s a safe bet for sure. Definitely the beach is gorgeous, it goes on for a long time. It’s kind of funny cause it was just the last four properties on the beach are all Marriott. There’s the Ritz-Carlton, then there’s the Marriott Stellaris resort, and then there are two Marriott timeshare properties, The Aruba Ocean Club, Marriott Vacation Club, Aruba Surf Club, and Aruba Ocean Club.

Zach Honig: It can be a little tricky using points with those sometimes, though.

Nick Ellis: Sometimes. If you look, you can see it. Yeah. Which would be nice, because …

Zach Honig: And then there’s the Renaissance as well, so that’s a fifth potential.

Nick Ellis: Yeah, exactly. There’s a Hyatt Regency, as well, which is on that Palm Beach area and a Hilton Resort. There’s even like all-inclusive Riu Palace there too.

Zach Honig: Oh, is that part of a program?

Nick Ellis: No.

Zach Honig: OK. You know, my Renaissance stay, actually, you could upgrade to an all-inclusive package. So it includes all of the drinks and all of the meals. It didn’t seem to be a very good deal though, is it was an extra $200 a night. Oh, you know what, now I’m realizing that that’s for two people. So I’m going to revisit that.

Nick Ellis: Definitely inquire about that. That’s …

Zach Honig: Well cause you can book it with Citi Prestige. So I booked my stay with Citi Prestige fourth-night free and that can include an all-inclusive. So if you’re doing a paid rate, especially if you’re going off season when it could make sense to pay for your hotel using points, I would say Citi Prestige is worth it for sure.

Zach Honig: All right Nick, well we are just about out of time, but is there anything else that we should talk about with Aruba? I mean I’m sure we could dig in more, but …

Nick Ellis: Yeah, we’d need a whole other hour.

Zach Honig: Are you going back anytime soon?

Nick Ellis: I think I’ll go back. Yeah, I had a great time. I would definitely recommend it to mostly everyone.

Zach Honig: All right. Well thank you so much for joining us, Global Reviews Editor Nick.

Nick Ellis: Thank you.

Zach Honig: And stay tuned for my review of the Renaissance.

Nick Ellis: Can’t wait.

Zach Honig: That’s it for this episode of miles away. Thanks again to TPG Reviews Editor Nick Ellis. Again, I am your host, Zach Honig, and this episode was produced by Caroline Chagrin with editing by Ryan Gables. Our theme music is by Alex Shiff. If you liked this episode, please subscribe, rate and review on Apple Podcasts. Tell your friends and we’ll see you back here next Wednesday.

Featured photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy.

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