Recently I’ve wrapped up my three-part trip report on visiting Costa Rica with kids over Labor Day. In the introduction I’ve promised to do a deep dive into hidden $ costs of our adventure, and I’m not talking about out-of-pocket expenses, like food and sightseeing. This was a classic case of a “free” trip, where flights and hotels were covered entirely by miles and points. But was it really free? Let’s take a look.
I used British Airways Avios points for five people, previously accumulated via transfer (40% bonus) from Amex Membership Rewards.
So far, the only real cost is $382, which is dirt cheap for five roundtrip tickets from Miami to Liberia. However, let’s not forget that I had to transfer around 65k MR points, which could have been redeemed towards $650 in Home Depot gift cards. Yes, I’m aware that you can cash out MR points at 1.1 cents apiece if you have a Schwab Platinum card. But let’s ignore that because most people (including me) don’t have access to it.
Of course, a $650 Home Depot gift card is not the same as cash. Still, it shouldn’t be too hard to sell it for $550 to a friend or relative. My SIL is currently doing renovations on a bathroom, and would gladly buy it for that price. Of course, you can also use it for a project on your own home.
Real cost of our five tickets: $932
2) Cost of hotels
On this trip we stayed at two resorts: Andaz Costa Rica at Papagayo Peninsula and Rio Perdido. We also spent one night (two rooms) at Hyatt Place Miami Airport West/Doral. I used a total of 126k Hyatt points, which I’ve accumulated via 1:1 transfer from Chase Ultimate Rewards. This one is pretty straightforward. I could have cashed out these points for $1,260 in statement credits.
Real cost of hotels: $1,260
3) Transportation and parking costs
We chose to hire a local company rather than rent a van. The total came down to $385, and I left $65 in tips.
We also spent around $70 on gas for driving to/from Miami, plus $30 to leave our car in Hyatt parking lot. We also spent $80 on Uber for driving from Hyatt to Miami airport and back.
Transportation expenses total: $630
Grand total for everything: $2750
Wow, that’s a lot of money, especially for a “free” trip. And keep in mind, this is just a bare bones total, not taking into account the money you will spend on sightseeing, hotel tips, souvenirs and dining out. Now let’s see if we can figure out a rough per-hour cost of our vacation. We only had three nights in Costa Rica, and had to leave at 9:00 AM the last morning in order to catch our flight. So, we only had two and a half days there, really. I’m not counting the time spent sleeping, for obvious reasons.
Anyway, in reality, we probably had around 27 hours total to enjoy our time in Costa Rica. That works out to around $100 per hour. Again, the true cost is even higher since there are other incidental expenses. But I’m only focusing on non-negotiable costs here.
What’s the point of this masochistic exercise
Believe it or not, it’s not to discourage you from travel. Not at all. I was fully aware of the real and hidden costs of this trip, and booked it anyway. Which brings me to my main points.
1) Book the trips you actually want to take
Might as well, because you are paying for them. Sometimes a lot. That trip to Maldives? Not free. A trip to Disney World? You know the answer. I loved travel before I discovered miles and points. I would still be going places even if I had to pay cash. It just wouldn’t be to Andaz Costa Rica where rooms cost $650 per night in low season. And I probably would not be flying from Miami to Liberia, since those flights cost $800 per person. So, using just 18k Avios+$78 is a price I’m more than willing to pay.
2) Resist being penny-wise and pound-foolish
One of the reasons I’ve decided to go with the transfer company instead of renting a car is precisely because I knew our per-hour trip cost would be close to $100. I figured I would need to save at least $200 to make up for the inconvenience of dealing with a car rental. That’s because it would take us probably an hour to sign all the documents upon arrival and I would also need to leave for the airport an hour earlier.
I’ve determined that it would not be worth it because in the end we would maybe save $135 at most, even after factoring in tips. I’m not even taking into consideration the nuisance factor of driving in a foreign country. If you’ve read my post on transportation logistics in Japan, you will notice the same theme. We spent extra on Uber and private transfers in order to buy out precious time, as well as make it easier for my elderly MIL.
Travel is expensive even when it’s “free”. This is especially true when you are flying a family of five to an international destination (high departure taxes) and only spend a few nights there. For some, the overall cost may be a deal breaker, and that’s OK. We all have different goals, and there is nothing wrong with redeeming points on low-category hotels and doing a road trip. Or just cashing out Chase UR points for a bathroom remodel. They are your points, spend them the way you want.
Going to Maldives is not a rite of passage in order to be considered a successful travel hacker. Neither is staying in Park Hyatt Vendome Paris or Park Hyatt Tokyo. Nothing wrong with those places, of course, but it’s not that big of a deal if you choose to skip them. We actually went to Paris last year and booked a non-chain hotel via AirBnB. And we loved it.
I was also perfectly happy staying in Comfort Inn Tokyo Roppongi, and would do so again. We did spend two nights in Park Hyatt Sydney in 2018 since we had uncapped Hyatt certificates, though I personally would not use points on it. But I respect that many folks feel differently, and am not here to rain on anyone’s parade.
Leana is the founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.