A Little-Known Choice Hotel Gave the Waldorf Astoria Grand Wailea a Run for Its Money on Our Hawaii Vacation

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It’s a treat to book award nights at hotels from aspirational brands like Conrad, Waldorf Astoria, St. Regis and Ritz-Carlton — pricey hotels that you wouldn’t normally pay for in cash. I’ve splurged with points on incredible experiences with my family at the Conrad Tokyo, St. Regis Abu Dhabi, Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa and the Waldorf Astoria Grand Wailea — stays worth thousands of dollars I couldn’t have otherwise afforded.

On our recent Hawaii vacation, we stayed five nights at Hawaii’s luxury Grand Wailea resort in Maui using Hilton Honors points, but I also booked three nights with points at a Choice Hotels Ascend Collection hotel I’d never heard of — the Kohea Kai Maui. This was to be our base for day trips to Hana and Haleakalā National Park. It’s well-reviewed on TripAdvisor, but we were expecting the Grand Wailea stay would be much more impressive.

We were wrong. The Grand Wailea was spectacular (and humongous), but we actually had a much more comfortable stay at the compact Kohea Kai because of its family-friendly vibe and a fabulous upgrade.

This was a good reminder not to make assumptions about hotels, particularly if you’re traveling as a group.

This Choice Hotels Ascend Collection award booking at the Kohea Kai Maui resulted in an upgrade to a massive suite the size of our house, and happier kids. (Photo by Jasmin Baron/Million Mile Secrets)

Think Outside the Box: Luxury Hotels Aren’t Always Better

Let me be clear: We had an excellent stay at the Waldorf Astoria Grand Wailea. The property is enormous and the kids can’t stop talking about the multiple pools, lazy river and water slides (there’s even a water elevator), plus we got upgraded to an ocean-view room (worth about $1,100 per night) thanks to having Diamond Hilton status from the Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express.

The information for the Hilton Aspire card has been collected independently by Million Mile Secrets. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

It cost a total of 380,000 Hilton points for our five-night stay (95,000 points per night x 4 nights) with the fifth night free for elite status members. That’s a big chunk of points, and the resort isn’t cheap either — everything from dining to activities to equipment rental will cost you. It’s an epic resort, with excellent food and top-notch service, but you pay for just about everything.

The plan was to spend most of our time enjoying what the Grand Wailea had to offer. Then, while staying at the relatively tiny and way-less-luxe Choice property, we’d venture out on day trips around the island and not spend much time at the hotel.

We enjoyed the expansive, beautiful grounds at the Waldorf Astoria Grand Wailea and the pools and waterslides were a hit with the kids. (Photo by Jasmin Baron/Million Mile Secrets)

But toward the end of our stay, the kids (and grownups) were getting a little cranky with the close quarters in our Grand Wailea room. Things were tight between the king bed, pull-out couch and additional rollaway bed, plus all of our luggage and gear.

It was easier when the kids were little to jam all three of them plus an adult or two in a room, but squeezing in a teen and two tweens is a whole other story. The only time the (massive, luxurious) bathtub got used was when my 12-year-old girl made a sleeping nest there in the middle of the night. (She’d had enough of two snoring adults, a jetlagged brother who stayed up late on his tablet and a starfish-like sister sprawled in the pull-out couch with her.) We were all looking forward to a bigger room at our next hotel.

We booked the Kohea Kai for a couple reasons. First, my boyfriend has a ridiculous number of Choice points to burn (and Platinum elite status) because he travels often for work and usually stays in a Choice hotel. And second, you can book a standard award stay there for 30,000 Choice points plus a $25 resort fee per night in a one-bedroom king suite, including a living room with pull-out couch, full kitchen and free breakfast for all. It sounded like a low-key spot where we could unwind, save money on meals and have a little more space to settle in.

We used Choice hotel points to book three nights at the 26-room Kohea Kai Maui, about a 15-minute drive from the Grand Wailea.

We’d asked for an upgrade if it was available (always ask for a hotel room upgrade, even if you don’t have elite status) and were shocked when we were given an 1,800-square-foot, three-bedroom penthouse suite with a massive living room, gourmet kitchen, two bathrooms, two lanais, laundry and more. It was the most impressive upgrade we’d ever received and I’ll never forget the astounded look on the kids’ faces when they walked into the unit.

This property was exactly what we needed after five nights at the Grand Wailea. Everyone had their own space and there was no fighting over the bathroom or what to watch next on Netflix because the suite had four televisions. And each morning, we received free hot breakfast complete with fresh fruit, waffles, bacon or sausage, eggs, pastries and cereal. The staff all treated us like family. We could borrow gear like boogie boards for free to use at the beach just across the street.

Were there massive pools or waterslides? Nope. Did we sleep and get along better? Absolutely.

The beach across the street from the Kohea Kai wasn’t as spotless or groomed as the Grand Wailea’s, but it was still lovely for swimming and boogie boarding and was a shorter walk. (Photo by Jasmin Baron/Million Mile Secrets)

I’m not suggesting you run out and book a Choice hotel instead of a high-end property for your family’s next vacation. In fact, the vast majority of Choice hotels are run-of-the-mill spots like Quality Inn or Comfort Inn. What I did learn from this experience is to not underestimate hotels like Choice’s Ascend Collection (and other brands that don’t get a lot of attention). You never know where you’ll find a hidden gem.

And don’t be put off because you aren’t collecting points specific to a particular chain. For example, many in our hobby don’t collect Choice points because they’re hard to earn directly from credit cards (the sole option is the Barclays Choice Privileges Visa Signature Card) and the only points currency that transfers to Choice is American Express Membership Rewards (there are far better Amex transfer partners that will get you more value from your Amex points). However, you can still book properties like this (and independent hotels) with some of the best credit cards for budget hotel chains.

Example: You could use Chase Ultimate Rewards points to book the Kohea Kai (even though Choice isn’t a Chase transfer partner) through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal. If you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve (as I do), your Chase Ultimate Rewards are worth 1.5 cents apiece when you book travel through the portal; with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Ink Business Preferred Credit Card, they’re worth 1.25 cents each.

With programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards, you can book just about any hotel brand (and independent hotels) with your flexible points.

In fact, this is an excellent way to hunt down stays at condominium-type resorts with separate bedrooms, living and dining areas, full kitchens and the like.

Bottom Line

My family’s vacation at the Waldorf Astoria Grand Wailea in Hawaii using Hilton Honors points was incredible, but the sleeper hit on this trip was an unknown Choice Hotels Ascend Collection hotel. The standard king-bedroom suite we’d booked with Choice points at the Kohea Kai Maui was upgraded to an 1,800-square-foot penthouse unit, and the kids are still talking about it.

Yes, the Grand Wailea was magical (and we got an upgrade there, too, because we had Diamond Hilton status from the Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express), but we had a much more comfortable and restful experience at the Kohea Kai. It cost 30,000 Choice points per night and even if you don’t collect Choice points, it’s possible to book a stay there with flexible points like Chase Ultimate Rewards (earned from credit cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Sapphire Preferred or Ink Business Preferred Credit Card).

I’d stay at the Grand Wailea again, but maybe only for a night or two. Otherwise, in Hawaii and other resort destinations, I’ll have my eyes open for more moderate but spacious accommodations that will save us points, money and sanity.

For more about using points and miles to save on hotel stays, check out these guides:

  • The best hotel credit cards
  • Hotels with free breakfast
  • How to save money on hotels

For the latest tips and tricks on traveling big without spending a fortune, please subscribe to the Million Mile Secrets daily email newsletter.

Jasmin Baron was an editor at Million Mile Secrets. She covers topics on points and miles, credit cards, airlines, hotels, and general travel. Her work has appeared in The Points Guy and Business Insider.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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