Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Month: January 2019 (page 1 of 2)

El Colibri Rojo Review – Visiting Costa Rica’s Caribbean Coast

**This is very dated, but I decided to finish up a review of the place we stayed in Limón province when we were in Costa Rica in Fall 2017**

After a nice excursion to one of Costa Rica’s beautiful Pacific beaches (SEE: Hotel Punta Leona Review), I figured we’d visit the other side of the country to compare. From all we’ve heard and read, the Caribbean coast is an entirely different animal.

There are no good chain options (unfortunately) along the Caribbean coast, so I started scouring various OTAs and AirBnb for good places. El Colibrí Rojo stood out to us since it offered a two bedroom apartment, a pool, the potential to purchase a reasonably priced breakfast, and proximity to some of the nicer beaches on the Caribbean near Cahuita. All of this for $288 for 3 nights.

Cahuita also came highly recommended to us by Costa Ricans working with us for our adoption. The national park nearby, plus the other beautiful beaches, made it an ideal place to visit on the Atlantic side of the country.

Arriving at El Colibrí Rojo

The drive from San José to Cahuita is about 3.5 hours. Our previous trip was only about 90 minutes, so this was substantially longer for the kids. We warned them of the length a few days before, and even then we started getting complaints. Our trip would have been quicker, but we had to go an alternate route since the main highway experienced a mudslide in the monsoon-like rains and was closed. So the winding, mountainous route through Cartago it was. At least the Costa Rican mountains are stunningly beautiful.

By the time we got to Cahuita, though, the sun was starting to set. We ended up checking into El Colibrí Rojo and then heading back to the sleepy town of Cahuita itself to pick up some dinner. We settled on pizza, taking it back to our apartment to eat. After that, it was pretty much time to get the kids to bed. It had been a long, exhausting day of driving.

The next day we got to see a bit more of the tiny hotel property. The “lobby” at El Colibrí Rojo  is super laid back, an inviting space to spend a little time with a game or guitar, and chatting with the wonderful hosts of the property. The welcome area/lobby is across the drive from the hosts home and attached to the open-air breakfast area.

Across the gravel parking area are the “cabinas”. Most of them are pretty simple, but ours is the largest with a few additional features.

There are a row of hammocks in front of the cabins, welcoming you to relax in the warm, humid climate of Limón, in the shade and hopefully with a nice breeze. The weather here was quite a change from the upper 60s and lower 70s we were experiencing in San José and the central valley.

Our apartment was just called the “apartamento”, without a number. It is the only unit to offer a full kitchen and air conditioning, from what I’d read in the property description of El Colibrí Rojo.

El Colibrí Rojo apartment

The apartment is modest, but plenty nice for what we paid and what we needed for the five of us for a few days in Cahuita. The kitchen comes fully stocked, with everything you need to cook and serve meals for an entire family. It is great.

Attached to the kitchen is a small living room area with a couch and television.

Between the two areas is the dining table, a unique and beautiful high wooden table. It is also the location of the much-needed and appreciated air conditioning. We had that thing running almost the entire stay, likely to the chagrin of the hosts. From what I understand in Costa Rica, power isn’t all that cheap, at least in comparison to earnings. But we are wimps from mild northern California, and there is no way we would have been able to sleep without A/C. And it took running that poor little unit all the time to keep things sufficiently cool in the bedrooms.

The apartment at El Colibrí Rojo has two bedrooms, one with two single beds and the other with a double bed. Pretty spartan accommodations, but just fine for our needs.

The apartment also includes an outdoor dining area that is just for the guests who book it, as well as our own hammock. It is covered to provide shelter from the elements and is a great place to relax.

Here we are at lunch one day, eating soup in the warm outdoors. Not a great meal choice for the climate, but it’s what we’d brought. This is only a little over a year ago, and I’m blown away by how much our kids have grown!

Overall, the apartment was perfect for a few days at the beach enjoying the Costa Rican sun and swimming in the water of the Caribbean.

El Colibrí Rojo breakfast

Breakfast is served each morning in the open-air dining area between the “lobby” and the pool. It is a continental affair, consisting of bread, pastries, fruit and yogurt, although I think that you could order an egg or two if you wanted. I can’t remember. It’s been a bit too long. But I remember it being enough, and worth the minimal price we paid.

Of course there is also coffee and tea, as well as cereal, which the kids enjoyed.

Our hosts were very welcoming, and we got to chat a bit each morning about our time in Costa Rica. They were obviously a bit intrigued to see a fair-skinned couple with a trio or darker Costa Rican kids, and we were able to talk about our adoption. The hosts of El Colibrí Rojo are actually from France, relocated there in search of a quieter and more laid-back life, and it was interesting to get their perspective on the country.

Pool and other facilities

The kids thoroughly enjoyed the pool at El Colibrí Rojo. It is not very big, but it fairly deep. I had to carefully watch our youngest for fear of him falling in. Our daughter was good about carrying him around so he could be part of the fun. The water was about the same temperature as the air, maybe just a hair cooler. Plenty warm for swimming.

When we weren’t at the beach, the kids were generally in the pool.

I liked the overall open-air design of the facilities at El Colibrí Rojo. Considering that it is always warm, it totally makes sense. Although there is also the argument for air-conditioned rooms. I believe ours is the only guest room that contains an A/C unit.

There is not much to the property, but certainly enough if all you’re looking for is a pool and breakfast. The small number of rooms (less than 10, I believe) also means it’s a pretty quiet place as well.

Playas near Cahuita

The nearby national park in Cahuita is the real gem of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, and the main reason we were here. The water is lovely, the sand is lovely, and the weather is lovely. Beach vacations have never been on my radar, but this experience started to change my mind. Now I understand that there is a lot more than the gritty, cold, windy beaches I’m used to in northern California.

Kels was sick some of the time, but she was still able to make it out to the beach with us a couple times to enjoy the sand and sun with the kids. The kids had a blast.

The sun scorches fast, though. We all had to be careful to put on plenty of sunscreen!

Conclusion

Our stay at El Colibrí Rojo was very nice. It was an inexpensive place that gave us some comforts of home (i.e. a kitchen and air conditioning) and the facilities we needed. I’d happily stay again, and I hope the hosts are still running the place and doing well.

Time vs. Cost: Analyzing Work Travel Options

One of the perks of working on projects located on the east coast is that I get to travel now and then. Last year I visited our Roanoke office seven times over the course of 9 months, assisting our Virginia staff in a variety of ways. Now that I’m moving even more heavily into one of the two major projects we have in the state, it’s likely that I’ll be headed there a number of times this year as well.

Consulting travel has pretty open parameters, as long as the costs are reasonable and within the terms of our project contract. When traveling back east, I initially found myself waffling between flying out of our local airport versus flying out of either SFO or Sacramento airport. But now after several trips, one of the options clearly won. And it might not be the one you’d expect.

The dilemma: is driving faster than flying?

Flying to eastern Virginia requires a minimum of one connection. If I only wanted to fly to Dulles and then drive for several hours, I could find a nonstop option. But that would leave me driving on both sides of the trip. Getting to Roanoke means connecting in one of four places: Atlanta, Chicago, Dulles, or Charlotte. There might be a couple other options, but these are the ones most itineraries present me. Have to connect at least one of these places.

If I want to fly out of our local airport, there are a minimum of two connections. The fastest flight I can find out of Arcata has a total travel time of 12 hours. I would depart on the morning flight out of Arcata at 6:00 a.m. to SFO, and then arrive in Roanoke at 9:00 p.m. eastern time. At least…that is how it is supposed to work. Both times I booked this ticket, my flights were significantly delayed, and I clocked travel days of 15-16 hours on a domestic itinerary. I don’t mind a long day, but arriving at 1:00 a.m. is just not my cup of tea.

Fed up, I booked my next work trip out of Sacramento airport. Sure, it is 4.5 hours away, but I’d rather be in command of my own destiny rather than at the mercy of United. The fastest flights from SMF to ROA are 7:15-7:45, depending on the carrier and connection schedule. Definitely better than the option from Arcata. Adding on 4.5 hours of driving, the two alternatives have roughly equal travel times. I know driving 4.5 hours each way to an airport isn’t for everyone, but a seat in a car beats a seat on a completely full plane.

The costs are generally the same, too. Two one-way car rentals plus the plane ticket out of Sac usually adds up to what United is asking out of Arcata. If the client is paying the same, and the total time requirement is the same, what else is there to consider? Easy: reliability and comfort.

Hello, Delta

I learned quickly that flying Delta was the way to go. I tried American as well, but you really can’t beat having seat-back entertainment and a generally more cheerful crew. The service and amenities Delta offers are definitely a notch above the competition. I flew enough (and spent enough on their co-branded credit cards) last year to earn Platinum status, so now I even have the chance for a few extra inches of leg room when flying across the country in their Comfort+ seats. This, plus the fact I’ve never been delayed, will have me driving 4.5 hours every time to fly my new favorite carrier as of last year. It may seem crazy, but it’s what works for me. And fortunately what works for me works for work, too.

4 Funniest Moments from our China Trip

After detailing each day of our trip, I thought I’d compile some of the funniest moments and encounters from our 10 days in Beijing and Hong Kong. You never know what kids are going to say, or how people in other cultures are going to perceive you. Which led to some funny exchanges.

This is China?

While headed to Eureka to pick up the rental car, the little guy chattered on about us going to China. He was excited to stay with mom for over a week by himself.

When we arrived at the rental lot and pulled in, he quizzically asked, “this is China?” Gave us all a good laugh. No concept of geography. Yet. If only we could travel across the Pacific in a mere 30 minutes!

Twenty-nine? No way.

After spending a few hours exploring the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, the kids and I got in line for the toboggan run back down the mountain. This was one of the highlights, from everything I’d read. We had just made it to the front of the line when the operator put the whole show on pause for a coffee break. He also started chatting it up with me and the kids.

Our first exchange was funny enough. He offered my his tin cup of coffee, which I politely declined. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I finally took a swig and handed it back.

Then he asked how old I was, which I found odd, but hey, I don’t mind answering questions. My response of “twenty nine” floored him. “No way,” were the first words out of his mouth. Apparently someone so young shouldn’t have kids so old, as he proceeded to be astounded at the ages of my two older children. He has a son who is three years the senior of my daughter, but at 46, he is quite a bit older than I am.

Ew, that’s its head!

During our last lunch in Beijing, the kids asked if we could order the duck. It was a bit pricier than other options, but I decided to humor them. I’m all about new food experiences (withing reason…we passed up the scorpions on a skewer).

However, I didn’t realize *I’d* be eating the whole thing. The instant my daughter saw the whole duck cut in half and then carved into slices on the platter, she refused to touch it. Apparently it was now the grossest thing ever. Ever. My son decided not to eat any either, so now I was left with a whole duck to consume. Funny, but also not funny.

Falling asleep in an upright lie-flat seat

Our flight back to the U.S. was in business class, a splurge that I justified because, hey, we had the miles, and we’d all arrive more rested back in the U.S. My son in particular wanted to jump right back into school the day after we got back. The only issue with the flight that I chose was that it left Hong Kong after midnight.

I knew the kids would be tired by the time we were aboard, but this would just mean they’d sleep better in their lie-flat seats. My daughter struggled to keep her eyes open as we boarded, and she ended up zonked before we even hit cruising altitude. I had a good laugh when I was finally able to unbuckle my seat belt and check on them, and she was fast asleep in her upright lie-flat seat.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, the difficult or tense moments often stick out the most from our travels, such as almost losing my son on the Beijing subway, or our scary encounter on BART in Oakland. But the funny ones make for better reflection. I can’t wait to see what this current year brings us.

Travel Day – Beijing to Hong Kong

It was a bit sad to wake up and realize that our time in Beijing had already passed. Our five days in the Chinese capital were an amazing experience. I feel like we barely scratched the surface of what Beijing has to offer, but the food, history and people make it a great place to visit. Here are the posts from each day of our adventures in Beijing:

Breakfast was again complementary in the top-floor lounge of our central Beijing hotel (SEE: Renaissance Beijing Wangfujing Review). We even finished up early, a small miracle for my children. My bags in hand, we made our way downstairs and I asked the desk to call us a taxi. We could have taken the subway, but it would have meant a transfer and toting our bags a good distance. Given how cheap taxis are in Beijing, the convenience was totally worth it.

Our ride took off around 8:45 a.m. on a Sunday morning. I figured we would take an hour to get to the airport. The driver made me a bit nervous at times, cutting quickly from lane to lane. But we made it safely. The ride took 40 minutes on a Sunday morning leaving about 8:45 a.m.

Arriving at Beijing Capital Airport

Front of Beijing International Airport Terminal 3 is impressive. Our flight into Beijing had arrived into Terminal 2, and we’d taken the Airport Express straight from there. I didn’t get a good look at the airport. Plus, it was dark and we were exhausted. We also had an unfortunate incident where my son wet himself, as he hadn’t gotten up to use the lav before our final approach into Beijing. He has a habit of not being aware of his need to use the facilities, not to mention the worst timing on the airplane (every time he got up to go was during meal time). Just one of the hurdles of traveling with kids.

But I digress. The memories of our arrival into Beijing, although it was only a few days prior, already seemed distant. We walked through the doors into the massive departures hall of Terminal 3. There is row after row after row of check-in counters and there were huge queues of people. I’m not surprised Beijing in building a new airport that is projected to be the world’s busiest in short order.

Too early for a flight?

Turns out that due to our early departure from the hotel and faster drive than expected, we were an hour earlier than my anticipated arrival at the airport. We were also there an hour before the check-in desk opened for our flight. Now…I know there are some places where check-in counters don’t operate all the time. But given that Beijing Capital Airport is massive, and Cathay has more than just a few flights per day, the fact that the counter was not yet open surprised me.

There was one counter open. But the signage clearly marked counters for specific flights, something I’d never seen. We unfortunately had to kill an hour wandering the departures hall.

Once we were finally checked in and had dropped the bag, it was time for Chinese immigration. We’d had no issues entering the country on the 144-hour transit without visa (TWOV) exemption, but I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel a little bit of apprehension about passing through the country. I’d been instructed to keep the stubs from the original visa paperwork, and they were still in my wallet. Everything should be good.

And it was. We got a couple odd looks from the immigration officials, but we passed through just fine. Very glad that we were able to take advantage of this opportunity for a stopover in the Chinese capital.

Security went smoothly as well. This was the 14th segment for both of my older two kids, and they have learned the drill pretty well. I was a dolt this time though and insisted that my backpack didn’t have any water in it even when the security official flagged it in the x-ray. Had totally forgotten that I’d put in the last bottle from the hotel that morning. Oops.

Once through, we hung out in the lounge for a while where the kids did some school and I wrote a couple blog posts and enjoyed a glass of wine (SEE: Air China First Class Lounge Beijing Airport Review). We also ate an early lunch. All for free with my Priority Pass membership through my Chase Sapphire Reserve card.

Our plane was late, but we still got out early enough to make it to Hong Kong in time. You can read all about our experience flying Cathay Pacific 777 Premium Economy.

Hello, Hong Kong

We landed right before sunset and hopped on the Hong Kong Express toward Kowloon. A short bus ride later, and we were walking the last few blocks to our hotel through the bustling Mongkok neighborhood. I wasn’t so sure about staying here, but I would happily do so again. The energy and everyday-ness of Mongkok makes it a vibrant place to enjoy as a foreigner.

Bedtime came at about 8:30. It was a good travel day. Now we had Hong Kong to explore for our last three days!

Saving $600+ on a New Year’s Getaway

After literally a couple years of watching and building my rewards balance, I finally put my Wyndham points to good use for a 2019 New Year’s getaway with the older kids. Last year we had a similar trip, albeit for a single night at the Best Western Stevenson Manor in Calistoga (SEECelebrating New Years 2018). But that exhausted my (already small) Best Western Rewards balance.

So I turned to Wyndham this year, and they really delivered. Compared to many rewards programs, Wyndham kinda gets a bad rap. They don’t offer the same sort of loyalty benefits, nor do they have a great portfolio of hotels; most are budget brands like Super 8 and Howard Johnson. But that does not mean that the loyalty program is without any merit.

Putting Wyndham’s flat rate award nights to good use

The most unique thing about the Wyndham Rewards program is that all rewards nights cost the same, no matter the hotel. You can you 15,000 points for a night at the Super 8 across town that is going for $49.99, or you could use it for a night at The Mills House, where I stayed in Charleston during a recent trip (SEE: The Mills House Charleston Review). You could also use 15,000 points per night for a stay at the Vino Bello Resort in Napa, which is where we headed for New Year’s 2019.

Extracting value out of the Wyndham program boils down to two things: earn points during their promotions, which are fairly uncommon, but tend to reward you quite well. Then burn the points at one of their good properties. This may require some searching, and you will not find nice hotels at a long list of destinations, but if you can make one work with your travel plans, the potential value is excellent.

You can also use Wyndham points for stays at their condo and resort properties, which includes the Vino Bello Resort. Wyndham IT has gotten better, and a good number of the condo properties show on their website, including the properties in San Francisco, Napa and many other places in the country.

The real issue is finding an award that works. The condo and resort properties typically require a minimum stay of 2 nights, which is not really a bad thing. But you will also find that a very large number of dates are blacked out. I often have to search weekend after weekend to finally find one that *is* available.

Pulling the trigger on a New Year’s stay

When I found that the Vino Bello Resort had availability over New Year’s, I immediately booked it. It’s rare to find, and I didn’t want it to slip away. My wife and I then discussed the idea of us going, and she was all for it. Instead of a single night like the year before, I booked three.

The value of using my pints here is much greater than using them at other properties. I try to always get at least 1 cent per Wyndham point, and I definitely succeeded on this stay. The base rate for a one bedroom condo for three nights was $514.35. Add in the $25 resort fee per night and taxes, and the total for the stay would have been over $600. This was 100% covered by 45,000 Wyndham points! Although I did have to squabble with the front desk to waive the resort fee. But policy is on my side (SEE: Waive that resort fee! Holding a hotel to its program policies).

I’d been waiting to use these points for a while. Admittedly, 15,000 of them were earned by renewing my Wyndham Visa card issued by Barclays bank, which meant paying an annual fee of $69. But for $69, we got a room worth $200+. I think that is an excellent deal.

Conclusion

Rumors have been flying around that Wyndham is going to devalue its program, moving to the 3-tier structure where some properties cost 7,500 points, others 15,000, and the highest tier 30,000 per night. This will severely devalue the program for me, and will probably make me ditch it entirely, as all properties at which I’d want to redeem points will not require twice as many. I can imagine that all Wyndham Grand properties, Viva All-Inclusive Resort Properties, and condo properties will fall in this new, highest tier. Even a stay at The Mining Exchange, where we stayed in 2016, would probably require 30,000 points (SEE: The Mining Exchange, Wyndham Grand Hotel: A Review).

All this to say, I am quite happy that I burnt 45,000 Wyndham points to get $600 in value now rather than holding onto them and watching their value potentially halve in the future.

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