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The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG Contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.
Lavish villas, overwater bungalows and million dollar views appeal to everyone, but the price of such accommodations can too often exclude all but seriously high-end travelers.
With points, however, even the most luxurious properties can be attainable to everyone. Stays that would otherwise cost thousands of dollars can cost next to nothing.
But unlike premium air travel, where the fare tends to be inclusive, the food, drinks and extras can be extremely expensive at resorts that already carry a hefty price tag. In a city, it’s not difficult to find affordable meals nearby, but at a resort, you’re often stuck with their options.
Resort fees, food and beverage costs and pricy amenities can even deter travelers from cashing in free award stays at upscale resorts, as it’s easy to run up a tab that is higher than your entire budget would be elsewhere. But with some planning and a bit of extra legwork, it’s possible to stay at a luxury resort and not break your budget with ancillary expenses.
I recently spent five nights between the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort & Thalasso Spa (full review coming soon) and the St. Regis Bora Bora, using only points and credit card free night certificates.
Here are seven tips that helped me enjoy the luxury without paying luxury prices on, well, everything else.
Your last stop before arriving at a resort should be the grocery store if you’re trying to minimize expenses at the property. The fanciest rooms tend to come equipped with, fortunately, the best amenities for travelers on a budget. If you can, opt for a room with a fridge or kitchenette: Perfect for making your own meals. Even a minibar fridge may have enough space for a few small perishables. If you’ve got a hot water kettle, you have instant noodles. (Self-contained meals like Cup Noodles won’t win any Michelin stars, but they are easy and quick.)
Closely review your room amenities, and select ingredients that work with the space. Sandwiches or cheese and crackers typically work well. Even if it’s just a few snacks or small meals, you’ll definitely save money throughout your stay this way. Basically, you want to avoid a scenario where you’re looking for a light lunch but the best you can find on a resort restaurant menu is a mediocre $25 sandwich.
Plan Your Meals
If you want to stick to a budget, carefully plan all your meals. Breakfast buffets that are included or available at a reasonable price are a great way to start a day. Make it a brunch that will satisfy you until dinner, which is easy with the the spreads at some resorts. (Don’t forget to peruse the buffet for snacks or small meals you can easily bring back to your room, like whole fruits, boxed cereal and hard-boiled eggs.) Appetizers at happy hour can also suffice for a meal, too.
For the best value, eat how the locals eat. In Bora Bora, this means grabbing a fresh baguette before each stay and adding local sandwich fixings. I had no problem eating avocados on every sandwich and mangos for snacks, both of which I had purchased from an inexpensive roadside stall.
Personally, I like to allow myself one nice dinner at a resort’s signature restaurant. Otherwise, I eat a big meal before my stay and leave the resort ready for my next meal. But if you’re not at all interested in fancy resort fare, you can in fact leave the property without a single food or beverage item on your folio. Figure out what works for you, and plan accordingly.
Drink Your Own Alcohol
Alcohol could easily be your biggest expense at a resort, with bottles of wine at dinner and a sampling of the cocktail menu. But you can shrink that significantly (or entirely) by bringing your own booze. On your grocery run, purchase whatever alcohol you think you’ll want, or pick it up at a duty-free shop.
Keep in mind that consuming your own alcohol in the common areas is typically prohibited. Instead, enjoy your homemade drinks in your villa or on your balcony. If the ice bucket provided isn’t sufficient, use a plastic-lined garbage bin as a cooler. (Why not?)
If you really want to try the resort’s cocktails, watch out for happy hour menus or complimentary tastings to cut down on the expense.
Find Alternate Transfers
There’s probably a convenient way to get between the airport and the resort, but it may be provided at an absurd charge. Instead, look for other methods of transportation.
In Bora Bora, for example, resorts charge an insane transfer fee of $71 per person each way for the 20-minute boat ride from the airport to the hotel. But this is not your only option.
Air Tahiti runs a free shuttle from the airport to the town of Vaitape, which is where you’ll stock up on groceries.
If you are staying at the InterContinental Thalasso, which is out on Motu, you can take a regularly-scheduled ferry for free before 4pm from the InterContinental Le Moana, which is on the main island. (I was able to get an incorrect $33 charge for this ride removed, but it seems this transfer may not be free beginning in April. Be sure to verify all costs with the property beforehand.) The St. Regis, similarly, offers a shuttle from their main island base for $12 if taken on their regular day schedule.
Taxis to the InterContinental Le Moana and St. Regis boat dock would cost $20 or $40 respectively from Vaitape, but even those fees are avoidable.
There are many countries where hitchhiking is considered a completely practical form of transportation. Obviously, common sense precautions need to be taken, but this was how I got around Bora Bora and all of the Society Islands in French Polynesia. It obviously takes a lot more time, but I met some very interesting, generous locals along the way — and saved an awful lot on taxi fares.
Maximize Elite Benefits
If you have elite status, be sure to take advantage of all the resort perks that may be included with your stay. Status may even be available for purchase, and at a high-end resort, that can quickly pay off.
InterContinental, for example, sells Ambassador status for $200 annually, and during this one stay at the InterContinental Thalasso, that status afforded me an upgrade to a mountain-facing bungalow; 4pm late checkout; and an invite to the weekly Ambassador Happy Hour with members of the staff. (Read: complimentary wine and appetizers.)
And at the St. Regis Bora Bora, my Marriott Lifetime Platinum status gave me complimentary access to a breakfast buffet that would have otherwise cost $50 per person, per day; an upgrade to a pool villa with private beach lagoon entrance; and 4pm late checkout.
Enjoy DIY Excursions
For pretty much any excursion booked through the resort, you’ll be paying a premium. Also, you won’t be maximizing the resort’s complimentary (and high-end) amenities. Enjoy the resort and the free activities it has to offer, and save bigger excursions for when you’re booked at a much cheaper property.
In Bora Bora, the most common boat excursion takes you to see stingrays, sharks and to the coral gardens for snorkeling for about $90 per person. However, the InterContinental Thalasso has a free stingray feeding every afternoon. You can also borrow a free kayak from the InterContinental Le Moana (accessible from the Thalasso property by a free boat shuttle), to paddle to the coral gardens and snorkel for free.
Search for Freebies
Not everything comes with a fee, and you’ll sometimes find snacks provided for free that would cost money elsewhere. A piece of fruit and coffee, for example, may cost money in the restaurant, but a bowl of fruit near reception is free and there may also be a gratis coffee machine near the concierge desk.
Personally, my favorite spot for free snacks is the fitness center. Filtered water is almost always provided here, so you can fill up your own bottle, avoid a premium water charge and avoid producing extra plastic waste.
The Bottom Line
You may have booked an incredible points deal for your stay, but you may not want to proclaim how you are enjoying such a luxurious resort for next to nothing. Chances are, other guests are paying much more for their rooms and meals, and if you’re following my tips above, you aren’t a resort’s most profitable customer.
Still, you should expect the same courtesy from staff members as any guest, and you should reciprocate it appropriately. So don’t discount gratuities, and always tip according to local customs.
Do What Works for You
A lot of people don’t agree with the concept of going to a resort and skipping some of the experiences. But the monetary value I put on a good plate of food simply simply doesn’t equate to what many resorts charge. And the deliberate absence of any cheap options can leave travelers choosing between something to eat and their budget.
Many travelers may be OK with the idea of traveling to a luxury resort for a week and splurging. But when you travel for much longer durations like I do, it’s simply not sustainable. Fortunately, with a bit of work, even long-term travelers, budget travelers and backpackers can enjoy a luxury stay without emptying their wallets.
If you’re looking to back that pack up and get some guidance, send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org !
All images courtesy of the author.
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