Friday, October 25, 2013

Planning for Christmas - Part 2

Yesterday, we discussed my parents' thought process around figuring out which general region we should target for our winter vacation this December. Based on my mother's preferences and our large supply of British Airways Avois miles, we focused our search on Caribbean islands where American Airlines has several direct flights from JFK Airport.

Part 1 - Searching for a Destination
Part 2 - Finding A Hotel

While most people pick the final destination first and then search for the hotels (in that order), my father often works backwards, especially in the Caribbean where many of the island experiences are somewhat comparable.

He has a strong preference for either (a) a chain hotel where he knows his loyalty membership will get us a decent room with high levels of customer service or (b) an exceptional property that will still provide us with VIP-quality service, such as the Le Blanc Resort in Cancun, where my parents spent their July 4th "babymoon" before I was born.

One resource we use is the magazine Travel & Leisure which has their annual list of Top 500 Hotels and Resorts available online. We often look through that to get some ideas for the non-chain properties.

But as you know, we do frequent and quite often. In terms of the Caribbean, Hyatt has almost no presence (until they open up a few of their new Mexico properties in development). The Marriott family (including the Ritz-Carlton) also has some well known properties in St. Thomas, Turks & Caicos, and the Caymans. But of course, we focused on our beloved Starwood brand. In fact, here's a great write up of some of the Starwood options in the Caribbean by the blogger, the Miles Professor - Top Five Values for Starwood Hotels in the Caribbean With Points. According to her, here are the best point redemptions:

  1. Grand Cayman
  2. St. John
  3. St. Maarten
  4. Aruba
  5. Puerto Rico Vieques

So looking at those SPG options, we narrowed our search to either St. John (Westin) or Puerto Rico (St Regis or W Hotel) where we would get the benefit of Starwood Platinum status perks (possible room upgrade, free breakfast, and complimentary wifi).

Then we start looking up the reviews and posts on TripAdvisor (for photos) and Flyertalk (for substantive reviews from frequent travelers). Based on that research, it was obvious we should go for Puerto Rico where we'd have two excellent (albeit expensive) options.

While the St Regis Bahia (SPG Category 7) looked amazing (seen here), we quickly found that December prices were $600+ per night or 30,000 SPG points per night. Since we typically target up to $200-300/night for hotels (or 10,000-12,000 SPG points/night), the St Regis wasn't a viable option for us right now, especially since food on the property would also be quite expensive given how remote the hotel was.

The W Vieques (SPG Category 6), however, while also pretty pricey, was about half the price of the St Regis. Fortunately, we had a few big things going for us.
  1. November/December is the low season for Vieques (while peak season rates are $620/night).
  2. My father's AAA Membership card could secure us a more modest rate ($60/night lower than the regular rate). Plus it was refundable until November 22.
  3. I am not in school yet, so we could travel BEFORE the busy Christmas week when the hotel would be significantly fuller (and much more expensive).
So we're booked for 4 nights in mid December for only $287/night. Well, actually, it will end up as $378/night including taxes and a ridiculous $60/day resort fee). Still pretty pricey, but we'll be able to save money on food because there will be many outside options including some highly recommended food trucks.

UPDATE: After booking this refundable AAA fare in October, we later found an even better SPG Hot Deals limited time offer in November for $239/night + taxes and resort fees, saving us about $50/night. This was now a prepaid, non-refundable rate, but we were OK with that since it was a lot closer to the trip.

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