Grand Cayman!

The planning

Last year I took the kids to Florida for their spring break and Delta called me a few months before our trip and asked if we would change our flights for 30,000 miles each. Of course I changed the flights (to ones I liked better than our originals) and we banked 90,000 skymiles! I also had what I call “puke miles” from our unfortunate luck sitting in seats near or where someone puked on our Delta flights to Spain and home from San Miguel de Allende. By combining all of those points o was able to book three round trip tickets for the kids and I to Grand Cayman for their February break.

For lodging, I looked at Airbnbs. Similar to Turks and Caicos, Grand Cayman is known for being crazy expensive, and I just couldn’t afford the hotels. Plus as always I love having the space and amenities of an Airbnb. I found two that I liked and was really torn. One was right by the famous Seven Mile Beach, and had a washer and dryer, which is so helpful on a beach trip with kids. The. second was further down the island, closer to Rum Point, right on a snorkeling beach (and you know I love snorkeling) and had a pool! Which to choose?!? I decided to just book both and do three nights in the first one and three nights in the second. That way we could do the 7 mile beach attractions first and the other side of the island second. The only downside was paying the Airbnb fees twice.

Originally my husband had to work that week but in the Fall when he got his teaching schedule for the spring, he ended up only teaching one class on Mondays and Wednesdays and the rest online. I asked him if he would want to fly out and meet us on Tuesday, that way he could teach Monday and only miss one class that week. He agreed. I ended up getting him an AA basic economy flight Tuesday morning from Syracuse to Grand Cayman using Chase ultimate rewards. I was also able to get him on our same return flight home on Delta – I even got him seats next to us! I honestly can’t remember how I booked it but I think I used Delta miles and I may have transferred some from Amex membership rewards (I need to start writing some of this down!)

The Trip

The kids and I spent the weekend in NJ and then drove out to the Philadelphia airport after lunch. We were able to pop into the Centurion lounge and get another bite to eat before our flight to Atlanta. I had the kids find the gate as I am trying to teach them to read airport signs and learn how to navigate themselves. Our flight to Atlanta was uneventful and we were able to take the shuttle to the airport Hilton Garden Inn, booked with 20k Hilton Honors points. In the morning we enjoyed a free hot breakfast thanks to my Hilton Honors gold status and we took the airport shuttle back to the domestic terminal, and the international shuttle all the way to the international terminal (the ATL airport is SO HUGE!)

At Atlanta we had time to visit the Priority Pass Lounge, The Club at Atl, for some more refreshments, before we boarded our flight to Grand Cayman. Everything was on time and we landed around 2pm, went through customs, and got our rental car. We made it to our Airbnb around 3, after driving on the left, eek! It was a nice and clean two bedroom apartment in an area called West Bay, on the west end of 7 mile beach, away from all the big resorts.

We were starving so we went to a little restaurant for lunch and chatted with the Australian server for a while who gave us some local tips. I was prepared for food to be expensive like it was in Turks and Caicos. So while our lunch was delicious it ended up running us $75 US with tip!!! We had to make sure to hit up the grocery store soon.

After lunch we drove about 5 minutes to a beach called “Cemetery Beach” because it’s behind a cemetery. It wasn’t crowded at all and the kids swam while I watched the sunset. After heading back to the Airbnb to clean up I went to the grocery store for some supplies ($43 US, not too bad actually) and we had an early night. The kids liked this Airbnb because there is a big TV in their room with Netflix and YouTube on it.

The next morning my husband was to board a 6am flight in Syracuse with a connection in Charlotte to get to Grand Cayman around 12:30pm. He texted me in the morning saying he was at the airport and the flight was delayed for an equipment malfunction. He eventually took off about an hour later, but while he was en route to Charlotte I was biting nails as he only had 10 minutes to make his connection! Turned out he made it with 5 minutes to spare. The kids and I went back to cemetery beach for a little snorkeling before he arrived, and we got caught in a torrential downpour!

The sun came out, literally and figuratively, after he arrived. That afternoon we returned to the same beach and snorkeled for a few hours. Did I mention this happened to be my birthday?? That evening we fed the kids at home and hired a babysitter that our Airbnb hosts recommended. My husband and I went out to a fancy dinner at an Italian restaurant. Everything was fabulous. The food, the view of the moon over the water, the service…it was a wonderful ending to a great birthday.

On our third day after breakfast we visited the Cayman Turtle Farm, which was only about 4 minutes from our Airbnb. They are a turtle breeding farm and while they do release some of the turtles into the wild, they mainly sell the meat as it is a local specialty. In their informational video they said this keeps people from poaching turtles in the wild. They had several large tanks of turtles and some touch tanks where you can pick them up. They also have an entire other section where you can snorkel with turtles and swim on their pool which has a waterslide. That would have been an extra $100 however, so we decided to skip that part.

One helpful hint if you are in the area. A lot of the tour excursions from the cruise ship show up around 10am, when we did. If you want to avoid the crowds, go later in the afternoon after these folks have gotten back on the ship. We left after about an hour and a half and ate lunch at a nearby restaurant on the water. After that we rested and then later we headed back to the turtle farm for about a half hour since our armbands got us in all day (and it was much less crowded this time). Then we had some more beach time and dinner at home.

After dinner we headed over to an upscale shopping area (almost all of this part of Grand Cayman is upscale), called Camana Bay. It was fun to walk around and we got some delicious gelato. The kids had fun running through a fountain, and they got soaked!

The next morning after breakfast we drove to the office of the boat tour company for our trip out to Stingray City. We took a shuttle bus to the boat and they drove us out to Stingray City. This is the quintessential Cayman activity. The story is that the fishermen used to stop at this sandbar to toss their scraps, and so the stingrays started hanging out here once they realized there was food. Now hundreds, of not thousands of tourists flock here each day on tour boats, in order to kiss and hold these ultra calm sea creatures. We anchored in a circle with about 10 other boats and there were already hundreds of people in the water. That plus the choppy water that day made the experience somewhat stressful. You could stand in the water but the sea was pretty rough so you were treading water for a lot of it. The guide holds a stingray and gathers his group around so that everyone can get a turn kissing the stingray, getting a “back massage” from it, and feeding it. Although it was definitely a circus act, it was pretty cool to hold one of these guys up close. My youngest was very scared so he stayed on my back the whole time and then I went back on the boat with him while my husband and oldest son played with the stingrays for a little longer.

After about 20 minutes they gathered everyone up and then we stopped at two snorkeling stops. Unfortunately because the water was so choppy the snorkeling was tough. The guide even said he normally goes to the barrier reef but it would have been to difficult to snorkel so he picked another spot. I did manage to get some good videos, including some of more stingrays.

After our boat tour was over we went to a burger place for lunch and then we drove down to the east end of the island to our next Airbnb. This place was in a condo complex right on the beach and it had a really nice pool. The ocean view from the balcony was spectacular! The condo itself was nice too, with 2 bedrooms, 2 baths, and a fully equipped kitchen. We spent the afternoon hanging out at the pool and we ate dinner at the condo.

The next morning after breakfast we drove north to check our Starfish point. This is a little beach all the way on the northernmost tip of the island. In the crystal clear water are a bunch of starfish. Afterwards we headed almost next door to a place called, Rum Point. It was highly recommended in everything I’d read about Grand Cayman, but I was a little disappointed that this beach was pretty much a tourist trap. It’s a private beach club and so you can use their beach loungers but you can’t bring in any outside food so that you would only buy from their restaurants. I wish some of the guidebooks had mentioned that because we brought our own food!

There is a little public beach right next door so we camped out there for a bit and ate our picnic lunch. The water was very calm and shallow. There wasn’t much of a reef but a lot of sea grass. I did buy us each a mudslide from the bar as they supposedly invented them here. I have to admit they were pretty delicious.

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The place itself was packed with tourists so we left after lunch and headed back to our condo to rest and swim in the pool for the afternoon. We had dinner at a little place called “the Czech inn” (run by, you guessed it, a Czech).

On our last morning we decided to go back to Rum Point to swim, since the water was too rough at the beach near our condo. We stopped at “the Blowholes,” an area of rock and coral where the water spews up like a geyser when the waves come in. We then drove all around the north end of the island and back to Rum Point. It was actually much less crowded this time which made it more enjoyable. You can sit in their beach chairs and unlike other beaches I’ve been to, they don’t make you buy a certain amount of food and beverage to use them. The coolest thing about it was we got to see two sea turtles swimming in the water near the dock!!!

After a swim we headed back to the condo for lunch, and once we ate and showered we drove over to the Pedro St. James castle, a national historic landmark. This was actually a really cool site, inexpensive, and we were the only ones there! They first show you an multi-media film about the history of this building and the Cayman Islands. It was so elaborate, we actually felt like we were on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney. They even misted you with water during a “lightning storm.” Afterwards you could tour the grounds and the Pedro St. James Castle, the oldest and largest building on the island, which has been restored to look as it had in the 18th century when it was built. The whole museum was very well done and we learned so much about the island.

Afterward we went to their bar and did a rum tasting and talked to a local to learn even more about how the island has changed since the 60s with the massive development of the last 40 years. On our way home we stopped by a great jerk stand for our only reasonably priced meal of the trip, and the kids got to have one last swim in the condo pool. The next morning we left at 5:30am to head back to the airport! Good bye Grand Cayman!

My review of our trip

I had read somewhere that Grand Cayman is kind of like South Florida, and I agree, it was definitely the most developed Caribbean island I’ve ever been to. There were lots of strip malls, high end stores, and no shortage of multi-million dollar homes. It was a little weird to be amongst all that money, but the upside was that everything being so developed made for nice roads and easy amenities. We also did meet some locals and they were very nice. The island has an interesting, insular history and lacks the problems of its neighbor Jamaica, although apparently the boom in development has led to an influx of immigrant workers which has led to some issues for the locals.

The beaches were gorgeous and there were lots of opportunities to snorkel, although the reef did not seem very healthy. We also got to interact with a lot of wildlife such as the turtles, stingrays, and starfish. The island was quiet and easy to get around. You could see most of the major sites in a few days.

I wasn’t sure whether splitting our time between the two Airbnbs was a good idea or not, but in the end I’m glad we did. It’s only about 20-30 minutes between the West End, (where our first Airbnb near Seven Mile Beach was), and our second Airbnb in Boddentown (which is kind of in the middle but closer to the east and north ends), but there is actually a fair amount of traffic on the island. Plus the driving is already stressful with driving on the left and all the traffic circles. So I liked that at our first place we were 2 minutes from Seven Mile Beach and 4 minutes from the turtle farm. We were also very close to our boat tour. For the second half of our trip, we got to see the quieter part of the island and we were closer to Starfish point, Rum point, and the blowholes. I did like that

the first place had a washer and dryer and the second place had a pool.  Also the first airbnb was cleaner with better

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I could live with this view!

amenities but the second one was right on the beach with an amazing view. It was almost a toss-up but if I went back I would stay in the second one for a week. It was just so amazing to have that view every day.

What I didn’t like about the island was how expensive the food was, although we anticipated that and so we brought some dry food from home and also shopped at the grocery store there. I also did not like how crazy busy some of the sites were when the cruise ships were docked. If you are headed to GC (not on a cruise) I highly recommend you look at the cruise schedule before you do some activities such as stingray city.

Overall, it was a lovely trip and we got to cross another Caribbean island off our list. I’m not sure if we will ever be back but I would definitely recommend it as a great vacation spot for families looking to escape the winter weather for a week.

 

Jamaica!

I have wanted to check out Jamaica and specifically Negril for a while now. I had decided that Christmas break would be a good time because the kids would have off and we could fly out of a major airport after visiting our family in NJ for the holidays.

The planning

So to try to book travel during the week between Christmas and New Years on a budget (including a points budget), is very challenging. This is probably the most expensive week to travel, especially to warm, beachy places like the Caribbean. I knew it would be tough and cost a lot of points but I was up for the challenge.

Sometimes when you don’t have enough points for round trip flights you need to get creative and look at one-way flights on different airlines. I had enough Alaska airline miles to book us one-way, so I booked us on American Airlines from Montego Bay (MBJ) to Philadelphia on 12/31 for 17,500 miles each, 70,000 total. Now to had to figure out how to get to MBJ. I found flights leaving at 9am from JFK to MBJ on 12/26 Delta for $407 each. Since Delta was my preferred airline with American Express business platinum I could buy the tickets for 162,840 membership rewards (MR) points and still receive 50% back. So total MR rewards spent was 81,420 (or 20,355 per ticket).

I really wanted to stay in Negril so I started looking at lodging on the Chase ultimate rewards portal. Eventually I decided on the Traveller’s Beach Resort on Negril because it was affordable and got great reviews. I bought 5 nights for 63,858 ultimate rewards. Now keep in mind this is about twice what this hotel usually costs, however I find that most hotels triple their price for that Christmas-new years week.

So, Christmas 2017 happens and we are down on NJ at my mom and step-dad’s house, with all of our stuff packed for Jamaica. We were planning on hiring a car service to drive us to JFK the morning after Christmas and since we came back through Philly we would do some combo of the train and Uber back to my moms, no big deal since they are about halfway between NYC and Philly. Unfortunately, life had other plans. My father-in-law has a major health crisis that landed him in the hospital. He stabilized but it became clear pretty quickly that my husband would need to stay in Philadelphia to help take care of while they figured out the next steps. We thought of every possible way but in the end there was no way we could make it to Jamaica. After many phone calls on Christmas Eve with the various companies, we were able to reschedule our trip for May. For the flights there, Delta agreed to waive our change fees so I just picked the same flight in May but leaving from Syracuse and commenting through JFK. With Alaska, they charged me change fees because they said they have a rule that there are no exceptions. I think it ended up being $200 total in change fees and I booked flights that landed in Syracuse as well. At least if we were going to have to stick with the exorbitant Xmas week prices we could travel throughout home airport.

The hotel got a little tricky. I did book the room as non-refundable (on points), because that was all that was available at the time. When I called to see if there was anything we could do, they said they could refund the last three nights but we would be out of luck for he first two. I thought I would need to file an insurance claim through Chase travel (included with your Chase Sapphire Reserve card) and started that process, which was going to entail tracking down doctors who treated my father-in-law. I also called Chase travel and explained my situation and the woman on the phone (working on Christmas Eve), was so helpful she actually called the hotel while I was on the phone with her and got them to refund the points! All of the original points spent were re-posted almost immediately! When I went back on the Chase travel site to book the room for May, the price had decreased significantly and I was able to get the room for 7,000 ultimate rewards points a night, for a total of 35,000 ultimate rewards!

The Trip

We flew Delta from Syracuse to JFK at 6am and had about an hour layover at JFK. Our gate was by the Delta skylounge, where my husband and I could get in with our Amex Platinum cards but they would have charged us $29 for each kid. Instead I went in quick, wolfed down some food, and made Malk and the kids some “to go” breakfast sandwiches.

We landed in Montego Bay a little early and went to Club Mobay, which is an arrivals lounge you can get into with your Priority Pass card. They had some snacks as well as rum punch for us and lemonade for the kids. After that we exited the airport into a downpour, but found our transport which I arranged ahead of time with Joe Cool transportation, whom I highly recommend. We then had a two and a half hour drive to Negril down the west coast where we got to experience Jamaican traffic and see some small towns.

When we arrived at our hotel we had some food and played in the ocean and pool. It was still a little overcast and rainy. The next day we also spent mainly at the beach and pool, and we were able to try some local Jamaican cuisine such as salt fish and ackee, johnny cakes, patties, jerk chicken, and escoveitch fish.

 

The following day we were picked up by Joe Cool again for a tour of YS Falls and a Black River safari. Our tour guide was super nice and taught us about the local towns and culture. We hit YS falls first which was very cool. When you first buy your ticket they take you in a jitney up to the falls. It’s very well laid out and you climb up steps to a part of the falls where you can swim and swing on a rope swing into the water. The kids were too nervous for the ripe swing but the hubs and I channeled our inner Tarzan and Jane. They also have some really nice salt water pools throughout the property and a decent little grill. Once we had our fill of swimming we got back in the car and headed to the town of Black River, where we did a tour down the river on a pontoon boat to see the mangrove forest and several crocodiles! They also had a small nursery where the kids got to hold a baby croc.

 

The next day we took a glass bottom boat ride out to the reef, where we were able to snorkel for over an hour. My oldest son went right in the water but my youngest took a little coaxing because he got scared from a snorkeling trip we did in Turks and Caicos where the water was kind of rough. Eventually my husband convinced him to go in and both kids had a great time floating around. The reef looked fairly healthy here and there were lots of colorful fish and sea urchins. Unfortunately my underwater camera stopped holding a charge so I didn’t get any pictures. On the way back we cruised along 7 mile beach and were able to see a lot of the resorts that line the beach.

 

The rest of the day we hung out at the hotel and later that evening we headed out to the famous Rick’s Cafe. The place was definitely a tourist trap but it was cool to see some cliff jumpers dive off the high cliff.

 

On our last day we just swam and ate, making sure to get some last patties and jerk chicken. The following morning we headed out early and made it to the airport with some time to go to the Club Mobay departures lounge (we could get in with Priority Pass), which was very nice with a good food selection. Our flight to Philadelphia took off on time, and thanks to our Global Entry/TSA pre-check, we flew through immigration! I have gone through immigration and customs at PHL a number of time, and it is always horrendous and can take over 2 hours. We made it through in 15 minutes, mostly because of walking!!! We then headed over to the Centurion Lounge, however unlike on our recent trip to Mexico, it was incredibly crowded and we barely got a place to sit. We were able to finally find a spot and got on our next flight to Syracuse. All flights were on time without issues!

 

Overall, we loved Negril and Jamaica. The food and culture were great, the beach was amazing, and we loved getting out to do a few excursions off the beach. We were warned that the hustlers on the beach were very persistent and they did not disappoint. And of course, I felt like I had a contact high as the whole place was covered in a cloud of ganja smoke. I also have to give a shout out to a few of our places to eat: Hammond’s bakery in Negril (for the best patties!), Kayuba restaurant, Naila’s on the beach, Cafe Goa and Coletta’s. I also loved Traveller’s Beach Resort! What a wonderful little resort right on 7 mile beach. The pool was awesome with a waterfall that the kids loved swimming under and the staff was fabulous. It’s super affordable, even without points, so if you are looking for a budget-friendly but nice place to stay in Negril, check them out.

Mom and sons trip: Turks and Caicos!

The planning

Winter in Syracuse. It’s long, it’s grey, and there’s more snow than anyone who hasn’t lived here can imagine. They also do this odd thing that so far I’ve only experienced in Central New York, the kids get off for a week in February, it’s called “February Break.” Usually since my husband has to work (his break is in March), we put the kids in a camp for a week. This year I thought, I can spend $600 on camp for both of them, or I can see what travel deals I can find so we can spend the week somewhere warm and tropical. Of course, since my husband had to work it would be just me and the boys, but he approved and so I got about researching.

For convenience the obvious first choice is Florida, but we already had a trip booked there for April break and honestly February was a little too iffy for me, weather-wise. If I am going to escape the great white north I want to make sure we’ll have lots of heat. So the next step was to search flights for the Caribbean. The easiest way to do this is to use the google flights explorer. You can’t just google this for some reason though. You have to actually type in the web address http://www.google.com/flights/explore

Once you do this you can put in an area you want to travel to, like “Europe” or “Caribbean,” and some graphs will pop up showing you different dates. As I was searching for the cheapest flights a lot of what came up were islands recently hit by the hurricane, such as Puerto Rico and Barbados. But also, Turks and Caicos popped up for $280 on Delta, round trip from Newark over Feb break. Hmmm. I hadn’t considered TCI but after some research it seemed like a great option, especially for traveling alone with the kids. It’s safe, kid-friendly, and they speak English (cutting down on the stress factor). Bingo! Since I have the Amex business platinum and I had chosen Delta as my preferred airline, if I bought the flights using MR rewards points, I would get 50% of those points back. So the total spent was 28,000×3=84,000 MR points, but with 35% back the total MR points spent was 54,600. Not bad for 3 RT tickets!

For lodging, I started searching hotels and Airbnbs. I’m not gonna lie, TCI is expensive this time of year, but I was able to find a 2 bedroom Airbnb for $150 a night. That’s about half was most hotels there cost (and don’t even think about a mega-resort like Beaches or Club Med). Now, we would not be on the beach or have a pool, but the trade off is we get a whole cottage with a full kitchen to make some of our own meals. I could have used my Chase UR points to book a hotel but I didn’t feel like spending my cache of points on lodging so we went with the Airbnb. Plus, for reasons I’ve already stated so many times, I just usually prefer Airbnbs. You get more for your money and they are usually so much better for kids. I love having our own apartment or house. It’s so much more convenient and it’s cool to live a little more “local.”

Here are a couple pics of the place. There were also two bedrooms. Nice and large and bright!

Finally, I booked a snorkeling excursion using my Chase Ultimate Rewards points. In addition to flights, hotels, and rental cars, you can use Chase UR to book lots of tours and excursions (usually the ones booked through visitor). So the $300 boat trip was also free (minus tipping the guides of course).

The trip

Our flight did not leave Newark until Monday evening of the break, so we decided to drive down for the weekend to visit family, especially my Father-in-law who just moved into a nursing home in NJ. So we drove down with my husband and he left us at my mom’s house in NJ and drove home Sunday. Monday was my birthday but my mom was sick so we didn’t do much, and we took an Uber to the airport that afternoon. After visiting the priority pass lounge there for “dinner,” (kind of gross), we boarded our flight for Atlanta. We landed in Atlanta around 9:30, but it took FOREVER to get to the hotel shuttle because the air train was broken down. We finally made it to our Hampton inn around 10:30pm (have I mentioned how I always use Hampton Inns?), but thanks to digital check in and a digital key on my phone, we got in the room and went right to bed. The next morning we got up, ate the free Hampton breakfast, and took their shuttle to the airport. OMG the Atlanta Airport is HUGE! We then had to take another 15 min shuttle just to get to the international terminal! Luckily we got there early and so were able to visit another Priority Pass Lounge (the Club at ATL), which was much nicer than the one at EWR. The flight was a few minutes delayed but they got us boarded quick and we took off right on time.

We finally landed in Providenciales around 2pm. Immigration and customs was a breeze and we went straight to the rental car place to pick up our tiny little McCar. Now was the moment of truth, I had to drive on the left side of the road! To be honest I was kind of freaking out about that since I booked the trip. But I took a deep breath, asked the kids to STFU, and hit the road! It was actually not as bad as I imagined, it just takes some extra concentration.

Our Airbnb was really nice, in a residential neighborhood so we had to drive wherever we wanted to go. They provided beach towels and chairs for us and one of the nicest and least crowded beaches was a two minute drive away. We split our time between that beach and some of the more crowded beaches in Grace Bay, especially one in an area called “The Bight,” which has a reef for snorkeling.

As far as the trip, here are my pros and cons on Turks and Caicos

Pros:

  • Small and relaxed
  • Amazing beaches, gorgeous water!!!
  • Great seafood
  • Locals are super nice
  • They speak English and use American dollars
  • Easy to get to from the east coast

Cons:

  • Lots of rich tourists, hard to experience local culture
  • Have to drive on the left
  • Not a lot of extra activities other than than the beach
  • Food is really expensive – bring stuff from home!

For most of the trip we just spent time on the beautiful beaches and checking out some local restaurants. We did go to the Thursday night fish fry (like a food stand market) and we did our snorkeling trip where we got to visit a little island with lots of iguanas. To be honest,  if the kids were older or I had another adult with me, we would probably have done some more adventurous activities, but I kept things pretty low key.

Here are some pics. The light was incredible so it was hard to take a bad one!

Overall it’s a nice choice for a winter getaway, especially from the east coast of the US. I would love to get to Grand Turk and Salt Cay one day, which are supposed to have a very different vibe; to get there you would take an extra little flight from Providenciales. I’ll save that one for when my husband can join us.

Curaçao!

Want to know how to take a week long trip to Curacao for free? Read on and I’ll tell you.

Maybe it’s because I’m a Pisces, but I absolutely love snorkeling. I could do it all day. So for our latest trip I wanted to go to one of the Caribbean islands that had the best snorkeling that was easy for kids to do as well (i.e.; beach access). I did a little research and discovered in addition to some of the world’s best diving, Curacao also offers amazing snorkeling. Also, the temperature when we wanted to travel in late June/early July is, as it is year round, in the low 80’s and dry. I was sold. 

Initially I started looking at house rentals as those are usually are first choice, but I didn’t see anything online I liked and they seemed a little pricey. Time to start travel hacking! I looked at some of the hotels on the island that are connected to chains that offer big point bonuses for taking out their cards. Hilton and Marriott were the two that came up. After some more research it seemed that the Hilton had more of what we were looking for – on the beach and good for kids. Now to accrue the points!

For the flights, I saw that AA had pretty decent award redemptions. This is where you start to do your research by looking at the various airlines’ award pages for the destinations you want. It really helps if you start looking waaay in advance, even like 2 years, so that you an see for example to get from the east coast to Curacao in June will cost me roughly X amount of points (yes the award costs change but many do remain stable over time). American Airlines seemed to have the best options for us. To get there from Syracuse was out of the question – we would have at least two layovers (no big surprise there), so I started looking at my go-to east coast airports; JFK, EWR, and PHL. The one that offered the best schedule and points redemption with the least amount of layovers (only one in Miami) was PHL, so that was the route I picked.

Then my husband and I each took out a Citibank AA mastercard. I have had this one before and gotten the award (see my Las Vegas post), but Citibank lets you take this card out every two years and I was overdue for that. Yay! My husband had never had one so he took one out for a 60k mile bonus (enough for 2 tickets), and I took one out for 50k bonus and 2 admirals club passes. I don’t remember why my bonus was less but I already had at least 10k AA miles, so I would get the 60k needed for two tickets as well. Once we met the spent to get the bonus we had 120k miles and I waited until the day the award flights came out for the dates we wanted (331 days in advance) and then we each booked one ticket for us and one for each kid. Even though they were separate “purchases” we could choose seats next to each other.

At some point over the next year I looked at the schedules again, and I realized we could get to the island earlier if we took a flight to Miami the night before with an overnight layover. Initially we were scheduled to arrive in Curaçao at 8:30pm on Tues but if we left PHL on Monday at 12 and stayed overnight at Miami we could catch the earlier flight on Tues and get to Curacao at 3pm! The good thing with AA award flights is that you are allowed to change them like this for free as long as they have availability in your category (e.g. Saver). So I called AA and switched the flights. It worked out because we were going to be in NJ the weekend before visiting our family so flying out on Monday was no problem. I then researched some hotels in Miami that were near the airport and had shuttle service (there are a lot) and booked a Hampton Inn using my Chase ultimate rewards.

For the hotel in Curaçao, I started researching how many Hilton honors points we would need per night and figured we would probably be able to get enough points for about 6 nights (that would be 234,000 HH points. As a HH gold member you get your 6th night free).  It sounds like a lot of points but Hilton’s “scale” for points is different for a lot of hotels, and you can accrue those fairly easily. Since I already took out Hilton cards for our Disney trip, it was now my husband’s turn. Luckily, Amex was offering a 100k points bonus and Citibank was offering a 75k bonus on their card. He took out both and pretty quickly he had 175k points in his account. To make up the difference he also transferred some Amex membership rewards at a 1:1.5 ratio (so I think about 20k that became 30k HH Points), and then we just used the Amex HH to buy groceries and gas for a few months because you get 6x points for those categories. As soon as he had the 234,000 needed for 6 nights, I booked it.

Time to go!

A little bit about the traveling itself. When you travel hack you usually get airport lounge access as one of the perks of some of the cards. I find this to be an invaluable benefit, especially when traveling with kids. The lounges are quieter and cleaner than the regular gate areas, and they usually offer complimentary food and booze (and more!). For this trip, in the Philadelphia airport on the way out I used my two AA admirals club passes that I received from taking out the Citibank AA card to get all four of us in the lounge. They had enough fresh food to make a nice snack (cheeses, crudités, hummus, soups, and fresh, made to order guacamole!), and the grown-ups could have some cocktails and relax.

We landed in Miami right at dinner time, but before heading over to  our hotel, we hit the Centurion Lounge in the Miami airport. The Centurion Lounge is the lounge exclusively for Amex platinum card members, and there’s only a handful of them. They always have a gourmet buffet with a few main courses, side dishes, and salad. So we ate dinner here before calling for our hotel shuttle. You are able to access lounges on arrival, as long as you show your same-day boarding pass.

We headed back to the lounge the next morning for a delicious mid-morning snack (we had free breakfast at the hotel), and complimentary manis and massages in their mini-spa! On the way back home from Curacao we were able to use the lounge in the Curaçao airport with our Priority Pass membership (free with Chase Sapphire Reserve and several other cards), and then when we landed in Miami we had just enough time for a quick dinner back at the Centurion Lounge, thanks to our Global Entry passes that got us through Customs much, much faster than usual (also a perk of several cards – you can get reimbursed for getting TSA pre check or Global Entry).

At the hotel in Curacao, our Hilton honors Gold status (which you get with either of those cards or your Amex platinum card), allowed us access to the executive lounge which has free breakfast and evening snacks. So we saved more money with that. Here are some pictures of that executive lounge: 

We did get an upgrade on check in for $8 a night to a larger, oceanfront room. We asked about upgrading to a suite but the hotel, being older, does not have suites with separate rooms. The manager told us even their “executive” rooms just have a larger sitting area. So we got a room that had more of a sitting area than the standard rooms.


Our other expenses for the trip were rental car and food. I read online that the driving is fairly easy in Curaçao, and necessary if you want to do a lot of exploring (we usually do). In March, Chase was doing a promotion where you could get 10x ultimate rewards for hotel and car rentals booked through their travel site, so I booked the car through them for $175 for the week (and I got 1,750 UR for that).

The food on the island was equivalent in price to the US, although we have been traveling in Mexico so much the last few years we were in a bit of sticker shock. It’s not the peso! But we did a mix of restaurants and street food so overall it wasn’t too bad, especially considering our air travel and lodging was free!

My review of the hotel gives it a B+. It was dated and could use new carpets and furniture. Also I never really got hot water. The grounds were amazing though. They have two incredible beaches. The main beach was awesome for snorkeling. I saw so many varieties of fish and even some squid! They also have a 2nd beach that is shared with a beach club owned by the same guy who owns the Hilton. The two times we went to that beach hardly anyone was there. That one had more waves for th kids to jump and they loved it. Their pool was also awesome and the view was incredible. They also have a dive shop, a casino, an Italian restaurant, 2 bars, a coffee shop, and a spa an exercise classes (so I’ve heard, lol). The staff was great, especially in the executive lounge, and parking was free which was awesome because we definitely made use of the rental car to explore the island. 

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The Hilton (the black marks on the corner are from my weird phone case, not an impending storm!)

Now for the fun part!

The island of Curacao was simply amazing. It had picture perfect beaches, incredible snorkeling, great food, and interesting culture and history. It was such a cool coincidence that I happened to travel to Amsterdam 6 months ago so I could see the similarities- in architecture, food, and culture. There were parts of Willemstad that almost looked like Amsterdam with the cafe culture and food, but with a Caribbean flair.

The west side of the island (where the hard core divers stay) was like a different world. It was a sparsely populated desert, almost like Arizona or Nevada, with amazing beaches on the edges. It was more quiet and laid back and if you wanted to truly escape, renting a house in this side would be incredible.

I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a trip to this island with kids. There are a few activities such as Hato caves and the aquarium and the rest of the time you could just swim and snorkel to your hearts content. Here are some more pics from the trip: