Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Adoption

Hotel Punta Leona Review – Stellar Price for an All-Inclusive

My wife and I are in the process of moving from just the two of us to a family of five. After literally years of waiting, we are now in Costa Rica adopting three beautiful kids. Our focus during these weeks in Costa Rica is on bonding with our kids. But this doesn’t mean we can’t take them on a few trips to see their own beautiful country. In other words, we’re taking a couple overnight trips while we’re here, and the first was to Hotel Punta Leona.

Our adoption coordinator set us up with a great rate at the hotel for a couple days midweek. Hotel Punta Leona was running a special, and we were able to book a room for $158 per night, all meals included. For a family of five, this is *amazing*.

Arriving at the Hotel Punta Leona

The Hotel Punta Leona is located on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. It is about an hour and a half drive from SJO airport, and a little bit further than that from San José itself. A good portion of the drive is on Costa Rica’s only real freeway, so it is a lot easier to access than many other places in the country.

The turn off to Hotel Punta Leona is a little north of Jacó. Once you turn off the highway, the road is dirt essentially until you arrive at the hotel property.

The facilities reception have a manned security gate. After explaining that we had a reservation, the guard let us through half a minute later. It’s not that Costa Rica isn’t safe. I’ve just noticed that many places have manned security or attendants, including parking lots and other places that would be totally mundane in the U.S.

Check-in went smoothly, except for the fact that the hotel was currently without a computerized reservation system. The front desk even had to use one of the ancient, manual sliding credit card machines. With my Chase Sapphire Preferred Visa card that doesn’t have a nicely embossed front. Didn’t work so well. She had to manually write the numbers and other info.

Selvamar Room…for the 5 of us!

The Selvamar rooms are located a distance from reception and the rest of the facilities, so we had to hop back into the car and drive a couple minutes.

I knew going into this that the room was going to be small. It didn’t disappoint.

It was a fairly standard hotel room with two full-size beds, a desk, TV, and in-room coffee.

The bathroom was adequate. Overall, it was a tight squeeze for all of us for two days. But it was a deal!

The Selvamar rooms are at least in a nice setting. There rooms are arranged in groups of 4 with walkways and gardens in between. At dusk there were monkeys to watch swinging and climbing through the foliage above.

And there were iguanas along the path at times. Even though our daughter is a native Costa Rican, they totally freak her out!

There was also a small pool close to the restaurant and Selvamar rooms. Given the much nicer facilities elsewhere, we never used it.

Hotel Punta Leona Restaurant – Carabelas

Included in our rate were all meals at the restaurant near the Selvamar Rooms. It was a quick two-minute walk away.

Everything at Carabela’s is buffet style. I’d rate the food as above average as far as buffets go. Most tasted super fresh. The beef at our first lunch was amazing. There was typically enough variety that anyone would be satisfied.

They had starters and a nice salad bar.

Every meal featured a chef at the grill or stovetop making part of the meal. The first evening it was churrasco.

Soup.

And other entrees and sides.

Soft drinks were self serve. You could also order beer or wine. A server kindly offered both evenings, but we declined.

In the mornings we had an immersive breakfast experience with the local wildlife. We were approached by both monkeys and a coatimundi.

I had a good laugh when a monkey stole some food from a guest on our first morning. I wasn’t laughing when the same thing happened to me the next day!

Hotel Punta Leona Facilities

The facilities of the Hotel Punta Leona are spread out over a fairly large area. The main highlight for the kids were, of course, the large pools.

hotel punta leona pool

Compared to the other hotel at which we are staying for the bulk of the time in Costa Rica, they were wondrously warm.

There is also an activity center with foosball and other games if you happen to be at the resort during a downpour. Fortunately, the rain that had been a fixture every afternoon let up for both days we were at the coast. On the other side of the pool there is another restaurant. Our all-inclusive rate included snacks here from 10:00 to 5:00. We enjoyed some pizza the first afternoon, and then a raccoon that got a bit too close for comfort.

I promised our six-year-old that I’d take him to mini-golf. On our second afternoon we got the chance. What wasn’t explained to me was that some of the activities cost extra, and this was one of them. I’d figured that most of the activities listed on the paper given to us at check-in were part of the resort package and included in the rate.

So, we ended up paying about $11 for three of us to play mini-golf. Which ended up being a hysterical experience. After trying for maybe a minute to instruct them (as best I can…I’m no golfer), I gave up. They ended up racing through the entire course is a matter of 15 minutes, often swatting the ball as hard as they could and sending into the grass beyond the hole or onto another section of the course. I was content to watch and laugh while proceeding through the course behind them.

This was the worst mini-golf hole ever.

Some of the other activities and facilties offered by the hotel include a butterfly house, a morning nature walk, pool volleyball, and bingo and karaoke in the evenings. We didn’t take advantage of any of these. Turns out that basically all kids want to do is swim.

Playa Mantas

The bulk of the fun was had at Playa Mantas over our stay. We went swimming there the afternoon we arrived and the following morning. The waves were super calm, and the water was heavenly. I’d never swam in water so warm.

Now I finally understand why people enjoy beach destinations so much. I might have to revise my list of places I want to visit to include some more beach destinations. Growing up on the north coast of California has left me with a poor view of “going to the beach”, where the outing typically means a cold breeze and sand flying in my eyes. I’ll pass.

In contrast, this was like a tiny sliver of heaven on earth. I’d enjoyed walking in the surf in Florida in May, but this was even better. I could have swam all day. Unfortunately, swimming ended up resulting in a little incident that cost us a bit of time and money.

Playa Blanca

The final morning we paid the other beach a quick visit. It is a bit further from the facilities of Punta Leona, but it is a whole lot more beautiful than Playa Mantas.

However, there were red flags out warning against swimming. Luckily, we weren’t there to swim, but simply to play in the sand for a while and enjoy the beautiful setting. Afterwards we headed back, ate breakfast at Carabelas once again, and then took off.

Conclusion

Overall, we had a good stay. Although it would have been nice to rent a larger room for the 5 of us, we really couldn’t beat the rate the hotel gave us for the single room under the September kids promotion. In contrast, I sent the hotel an email asking what the day-use rate would be per person. We realized that it isn’t all that far away from San José. I almost spit out my coffee this morning when they quoted me $85 per person over 6 years old!

Leveraging the Southwest cancellation policy for adoption flights

My wife and I are now three weeks into an adoption trip of about 6 weeks in Costa Rica. We are thoroughly enjoying both our 3 kids and their beautiful country.

But it’s definitely a long trip. We can’t wait to head home and get things back to normal, albeit a new normal.

So I couldn’t keep myself from booking our tickets home. It may seem like it’s a bit early since we don’t know when we can come home yet. But with the stellar Southwest cancellation policy, there is no downside to booking now. I’ve actually leveraged their generous policy twice on this trip, so I figured I’d provide a rundown.

The fantastic Southwest cancellation policy

Southwest Airlines has one of the best cancellation policies I’ve ever encountered. Award tickets are completely refundable, up until just minutes before the flight. In a nutshell:

  • Tickets purchased with RapidRewards points are 100% refundable.
  • Tickets can be cancelled up to 10 minutes before the flight.
  • There is no cancellation fee!
  • Even if you “no show” your award ticket, your points are redeposited. Any taxes and fees will be added to your travel funds and usable toward future travel.

The Southwest cancellation policy for revenue tickets is good as well. Here everything depends on which fare type you purchased. For Wanna Get Away fares, the following applies:

  • Fares are non-refundable, but the funds will be saved and can be applied to purchase of future travel for the original ticketed passenger up to one year from the original flight date.
  • There is no cancellation fee!
  • In the event of a “no show”, the fare is forfeited. Note that if you can show up within 2 hours of your original flight time and still fly standby on the next flight as part of the unwritten “flat tire rule”.

Business Select and Anytime awards are completely refundable (or you can choose to keep the reusable travel funds). Even if you “no show” one of these tickets, your travel funds will be deposited in your account and will be usable for future travel.

Southwest cancellation policy - fare rules

Considering that many other airlines sell completely nonrefundable tickets or charge a hefty fee to refund a fare, Southwest’s policy is extremely generous.

Leveraging the policy on our way to Costa Rica

My wife and I flew to Costa Rica on one-way United award tickets. This allows us plenty of flexibility in deciding when to book tickets back. I *really* didn’t want to lock us into a date on United, since their change policy is so bad.

However, I failed to realize that Costa Rica requires proof of return flights. Oops. At the ticket kiosk in Houston we were given a final screen of “please see agent” rather than collecting our tickets. A United employee walked over and informed us that we had to have proof of return flights.

Southwest to the rescue. In only a few minutes I had award flights back to the U.S. booked on Southwest using my wife’s points. I didn’t really care that I’d only booked us back to Houston. We wouldn’t be using them anyway, and I cancelled them two days later. But it was enough to present to the agent and get us through check-in and onto our flight.

Do note that booking a ticket on another airline could have worked as well, but I would have had to cancel within the 24-hour refundable booking window.

Leveraging the Southwest cancellation policy for our return flights

Just a few weeks later I decided to lock in our return flights. By “lock in”, I simply mean locking in a good rate. The tickets are obviously 100% refundable under the Southwest cancellation policy.

Generally, our adoption agency doesn’t suggest that people book flights back until they have their final Visa appointment. This is obviously to save adoptive parents time and headache by avoiding tickets changes. But with the fantastic Southwest cancellation policy, there is no downside to booking now!

There was one more complication, however. Given that we aren’t 100% sure of what our children’s names will be on their passports, booking airfare is problematic. Name changes are typically not allowed.

I reached out to Southwest on Twitter and explained our adoption situation to them. An agent confirmed that we could change the names of the kids once we have their information. I sent our record locator over once I’d booked the tickets, and the agent added a note to our account. I was extremely happy Southwest was this gracious.

I also had to guesstimate our return date. I decided to play it safe and book a bit further out than we hoped to be here. Southwest also (sadly) doesn’t publish a SJO-HOU-OAK fare every day of the schedule, so I had to pick one of the few days this route is available.

If we do end up taking these flights, all five of us will fly home for 62,000 RapidRewards points and $290, which is a deal!

Be aware of the Southwest change policy!

Unlike the Southwest cancellation policy, the Southwest change policy is no longer as friendly as it once was. When changing a fare, you’ll be warned that the fare will become non-refundable! This kinda goes against the grain of the rest of Southwest’s policies, so make sure you keep this in mind.

If you still do want to change a ticket, you still won’t be charged a fee. Unlike most other airlines, change fees don’t fly with Southwest. You will still pay the difference in fare, if applicable.

Conclusion

The Southwest cancellation policy is definitely something to have in your back pocket. It has come in handy for us on multiple occasions, including twice on just this trip.

With Southwest, what’s not to LUV?

Featured image courtesy of BriYYZ under CC 2.0 license

4 Checked Bags…You Can Obviously Guess Why

Today is a big day. My wife and I are *finally* headed out to adopt our kids in Costa Rica. It has been a long-awaited trip. We packed over yesterday and today…and ended up with 4 checked bags. *sigh* Life is never going to be the same.

When I travel by myself, I travel fast and light. One carry on and a personal item is all I need. When my wife and I travel, we typically check a single bag. We would avoid this, too, except that my wife often has to bring some supplements and liquids and cooking items that are pretty much impossible to get through security.

But 4 checked bags? I thought I’d never see the day.

Going from 2 to 5

I’m kidding. Mostly. Obviously, it would be nice to keep up how we currently travel, but I knew long ago that things would change oh so drastically. You can’t keep up the same pace with kids in tow. I’m sure we’ll still travel (I already have ideas), but it will almost certainly be less frequently. Not to mention much harder to hack! But this is the life we want, and we cannot wait to meet our precious children (we’ve already been Skyping with them).

Preparing for this trip has been a chore. The longest my wife and I have ever been gone was for a month-long adventure in Europe. We checked two bags for most of those flights, and had to do laundry multiple times during the trip.

But this adventure is even longer. We are estimating that we should be in Costa Rica for six weeks!

With all of our clothing, plus kids clothing, plus toys and games for the kids, plus gifts for various people involved in the process and in our kids lives, four full checked bags is understandable.

Bright and early start

Morning came early at the awful hour of 3:00 a.m. It was pretty brutal. But we are flying out of our upstart little airport (which is a huge plus), and the 6:00 a.m. flight is the most reliable. Currently, it is on time as we sit here at the terminal. We *did* have one time where it was canceled, however.

We should get to Houston with plenty of time to rest and have a comfortable overnight before continuing on to San Jose tomorrow.

Conclusion

I hope to blog a bit while we’re away, but that is looking fairly doubtful. Even this week has been nigh but impossible. All of our focus will be on the kids while we are in Costa Rica. This is a critical time for all of us, as we will be beginning to bond as a family.

#Snyder2to5

Travel Hacking with Kids: A New Frontier

Confession time: I have *totally* been called out a couple times on the fact that I contribute to a blog called “Points with a Crew“, yet I have no crew. Yeah. Family travel blogger without a family. Kinda weird.

But that is finally changing. I knew when I took on the gig at PWaC that I *would* indeed have a family. At that time, I figured we’d have our kids home by now. But…per the typical timelines we’ve experienced with the adoption process, things *always* take longer. We should know that by now.

I’ve written a bit about travel hacking our adoption trip. There is not a lot of opportunity here. Maybe for some trips away from San Jose. The fact of the matter is that there is simply no cheap lodging that will meet our needs for an entire month that we can obtain for close to free.

But what about future trips?

Travel hacking for….5??

Things are never going to be the same. Travel hacking for 1 is a breeze. Travel hacking for 2 isn’t much different, especially if you both are into earning and burning miles and points via credit cards.

Travel hacking for 5, though? Yeah…this is gonna be a whole new level. Especially with kids who can’t get their own credit cards.

Consider flights to Europe. Last summer we spent 120,000 miles to fly to Europe. This was for 2 people round-trip. For 5 we would need 300,000 miles. Quite a bit more.

And that is just for economy. Business or first class for 5? Forget it. We’d be saving for a few years or more.

Hotels are gonna be rough

As a couple you can basically stay anywhere. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a hotel room where the occupancy *isn’t* at least 2 people. Award rooms always work (as long as there is availability).

Five people is another story. Many hotels don’t even offer a room with 5 person occupancy, let alone offer those rooms at the base award level.

Some places in the world are also more accommodating than others. In the U.S., occupancy rates are generally better/higher. I’ve found a decent number of rooms for 5 or 6 in various cities. You could also just book a room for 4 and bring in 5 (yes, ethics issue here).

Five is one of the hardest numbers. Six is probably worse (which I’ve booked for friends). Once you get above that, though, booking two rooms seems more and more ideal.

Cash back is where it’s at

I’ve decided that my strategy is going to shift substantially going forward. Until now, I’ve focused on mostly earning miles and points, with a little cash back and cash “points” on the side.

Now I am going to focus the bulk of my spending on cash back and/or flexible points that can be used to book paid travel at reasonable levels. One option is the Business Platinum card from American Express that gets 50% back when you book using your MR points (soon to be only 35%). Another is the BarclayCard Arrival+ which is essentially like a cash back card for just travel. A third is the US Bank FlexPerks which will essentially be like a 1.5% card for airline ticket purchases. There is also my trusty Citi DoubleCash.

With all the fare sales, we’ll often get a better deal (and have more flexibility) accruing cash “points” and using these to book our travels. Example: $500 fare to London on British Airways from SFO. We could use 40,000 UR points through the portal, or 25,000 Merrill+ points, or 33,333 FlexPerks (under the coming 2018 program). Any of these are better than 60,000 miles round-trip.

Miles will have their place

I definitely won’t give up miles entirely. I’d like to take my kids on “long distance dates” like Dan does with his kids, and miles will allow us to have some really special experiences.

I already have trip ideas. Family trip to Victoria, BC (using my Delta miles at a screaming good rate). Or flying to Hawaii using my (nearly) 125,000 Avios on Alaska Airlines. And then some trip ideas with a kid at a time.

Not so fast

Hold on now. My wheels are turning prematurely. We’ll be in an intense period of bonding as a family for the new several months, and I don’t expect to travel much the first year after we bring our kids home.

So the brakes are on when it comes to gallivanting across the globe. Full speed ahead on becoming a family.

There will be time enough for figuring out the points and miles game for a family of 5. It’ll be different. Maybe harder. But we’ll make it work.

Our Adoption Trip – Sorta Nailing Down a Plan

I’ve previously written a couple times about the planning that has gone into our upcoming adoption trip. Previously, we didn’t have a match *or* a travel timeline. But I’m sure you know by now that my wife and I are officially adopting 3 beautiful kids from Costa Rica, and that we only have a matter of weeks until we will be leaving to meet them!

This leaves me desperately wanting to plan the trip, yet still unable since we still do not have official travel dates. However, I’ve boiled things down to essentially Option A and Option B for our flights and hotel.

Flights to Costa Rica

I’ve had several ideas on what points or miles to use to fly to Costa Rica (SEE: 4 airline award options for our adoption trip…which do I choose?). Previously, I had saved AA miles for this purpose. However, given the dearth of AAvailability, this has become a less than stellar option. Plus, we’d have to drive to the area to fly (a good 4-5 hours). Ditto for Delta.

We’ve also considered Southwest, but I’d like to save our Southwest RapidRewards points for our flights back. This pretty much leaves us with using United miles. The plus here is that we don’t need to drive to the Bay to fly out. Well…as long as we trust United to get us out of Arcata (SEE: Our First “United Horror Story”).

Backup plan…there is always cash or the Chase UR portal. Not sure I want to do either.

Lodging in Costa Rica

No matter what, figuring out how to “hack” a month of lodging is extremely difficult. My wife and I did this on our trip to Europe, but we were changing location every few nights, and we burnt over 400,000 hotel points in the process.

Not to mention we were two people, and now we will be five! And there is no way we will be hotel hopping with the kids during our first weeks with them.

Our agency has suggested an extended stay hotel (including multiple bedrooms and a kitchenette) that looks nice. It is relatively affordable at $75 per night, which comes to $2,250 per month. I’ve also considered renting an AirBnb if I can find a good one for less than $1,500, however.

The plus with the hotel option is that it’s a place our agency has housed people over many trips. The staff know the drill. There is also free breakfast and a pool. The plus with the AirBnb (or other rental option) is the potential cost savings.

We’ll see which we end up choosing. The jury is still out on this one. But I have a clear Option A and Option B.

Flights back from Costa Rica

Here we have two main options: (1) Southwest from San Jose to Oakland, via Houston, or (2) Alaska Airlines from San Jose to Los Angeles, and then cheap cash flights back to the Bay (or a one-stop Alaska ticket). I’d be using the 50% “pay with points” benefit on my American Express Business Platinum to cover the latter (SEE: First Use of the Amex Business Platinum 50% Points Rebate).

Both options have pros and cons. The pros of the Southwest option is that option are that is should require fewer points, plus we would have plenty of free checked baggage. The cons are that it is via Houston and a longer journey.

The pros of the Los Angeles option is that it is direct to California. We’d probably overnight in a hotel, and then fly out late morning on the short hop to SFO/OAK/STS. The cons are that I’d be burning an awful lot of valuable Amex MR points.

Conclusion

So…we kinda have a plan for our travels to Costa Rica. I can’t wait until we get an official travel date so that we can finally lock in the outbound flights and lodging. This may not happen for a few more weeks, however.

The trip can’t come soon enough. We already long to meet our kids. Things are a mix of excitement and nervousness. I just want to be off and away. Work has been busy (which is probably a good thing), but I can’t wait to drop it all and spend time with our children. It will be the beginning of an amazing adventure.

Header image courtesy of Arturo Sotillo under CC 2.0 license