A 16-Year Rewards Credit Card Veteran Used Marriott and Southwest Points for a 7-Night Family Vacation to Costa Rica!
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Welcome to the next installment of our Reader Success Series where Million Mile Secrets Readers share how they booked a trip with miles & points to get Big Travel with Small Money! This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Mike is our newest reader success story to show folks it’s possible to travel without spending a lot of money. If you’re planning a vacation, take a look our list of top rewards credit cards to see how you can book your trip for a fraction of the retail cost!
1. What’s your name and how long have you been involved in the miles & points hobby?
My name is Mike and I’ve been involved in the miles and points hobby for approximately 16 years. I started soon after working at my first job after college. The first reward credit card I ever opened was a United Airlines card with Chase. That card got the ball rolling and I haven’t looked back since. I’ve found the miles and points hobby to be very beneficial in helping us save money, especially now that I have a family and 2 kids! I also introduced my wife to this wonderful hobby shortly after we got married about 7 years ago.
2. What was the goal of your trip?
The goal of the trip was to enjoy the remainder of the summer before the kids were scheduled to go back to school. Although we live in San Diego, the beaches aren’t as nice here and the water temperatures tend to be a bit on the colder side. We wanted to go somewhere with warmer waters and nicer beaches, preferably an international destination that Southwest flies to since we have a lot of Southwest points, and have also earned the Southwest Companion Pass.
3. How long did you collect miles and points for your trip?
No matter how many trips we take, it seems like we earn Southwest points faster than we can spend! By the time we decided to take this trip, we already had more than enough points, so it’s tough to say exactly how long it took.
Although for our Marriott hotel stays, we did not have enough points until about 2 months before our trip. To help us quickly earn enough the last of the points needed, I applied for the Marriott Rewards® Premier Plus Credit Card.
What I like about Marriott is the fact that you can get the 5th night free on award stays of 4 consecutive nights. And not only that, you’re able to reserve the hotel in advance even if you haven’t yet earned enough points to fully book an award stay!
4. Which points did you save to take your trip?
We used Southwest Rapid Rewards points and Marriott points only.
5. Which cards would you recommend to open for a trip like yours?
It really depends on your situation, but if you have a family I would highly recommend any of the Southwest cards issued by Chase. I believe Southwest started flying to Costa Rica a few years ago, and going this route is probably the cheapest way to get there with a family. And as an added benefit, earning the intro bonuses on these credit cards counts towards the requirements for the Southwest Companion Pass!
- Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Business Credit Card
- Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card
- Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card
- Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card
We don’t have any real specific recommendations for a hotel card. I’d say it will just be based on what preferences you have for hotels. For us, we went with a Marriott hotel because we still had a free 7-night stay certificate from a prior promotion they were running. We were only staying for 5 nights though, so we decided to top up our points by earning the intro bonus on the Marriott Rewards® Premier Plus Credit Card instead.
6. How did you search and find the award flights?
We searched for flights using the Southwest website. It’s pretty straightforward – the cheaper the flight is with cash the less points you’ll need.
7. How did you find your hotel accommodations?
One of the first things we did was look on the Marriott website to see what hotels were available in Costa Rica. We’re pretty flexible with our travel dates, so most times we go with whatever is available with miles and points.
We do have points with quite a few different hotel chains and find that hotelhustle.com helps us more quickly determine our best option. That’s because the website determines point values needed for different hotels and hotel chains. We also use hotels.com to read about other people’s experiences, read reviews, and get an idea of availability and price.
We stayed close to the airport for our first and last nights of this trip, and also paid cash for it because it was relatively cheap and we wouldn’t have gotten good value out of an award booking. I did use some leftover Expedia rewards to offset some of the costs as well, including booking a VIP Access hotel which earned us more points simply for booking it.
8. What was the most challenging part about planning your trip? How did you solve it?
The most challenging part of the trip was trying to figure out which hotel to book, since we have points with multiple hotel chains. We knew that we wanted to stay on the west coast for 5 nights, and found that Marriott seemed to have the best availability for the dates we wanted.
The other challenging part was figuring out the logistics of renting a car, which I was worried about because I had heard that it could be very expensive in Costa Rica, particularly the insurance! I did some research online to compare prices, and ultimately ended up going with Alamo. We were able to save $100 by declining the rental car insurance offered by Alamo because one of our credit cards offers free rental car coverage. Here are some of the best credit cards to use for car rentals.
9. Give us a few recommendations or tips for what to do at your destination. Parks, restaurants, hidden gems, etc.
On our way from the San Jose airport to the Guanacaste region, we stopped by Arenal Volcano and the hanging bridges at Mistico Park. The hanging bridges were really fun, though it might not be for you it you’re scared of heights! We also did a mangrove tour near our hotel and were able to see crocodiles and howler monkeys.
Costa Rica is known for tree-top zip-lining so you have to try it if you travel here. Even our 4-year old son enjoyed it and kept asking to go back and do it again!
The beaches are also really nice and we found that the ocean water was really warm. Finally, Costa Rica has a lot of “soda” restaurants. They’re local, inexpensive eateries with really good food that you absolutely have to try!
10. What did you learn about yourself on the trip?
We learned that we really enjoy the outdoors. Costa Rica has so much to offer and it was really nice to disconnect from our electronic gadgets and the hustle and bustle of everyday life, and just enjoy the beauty of nature!
11. What would you say to folks looking to plan a similar trip? Or to those who haven’t taken a miles & points trip yet!
Costa Rica is a great destination for nature, ocean, adventure and general outdoor activities. The people are friendly and the weather is great. Plus, now that Southwest flies there it’s a great time to get into the miles and points hobby and earn miles. And if you can earn the Southwest Companion Pass, it can help drastically offset the cost of a trip! We’re already brainstorming our next trip to take with miles and points and before our Companion Passes expire!
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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! :)