“Someplace Warmer” – Portland to El Salvador

“Someplace Warmer” – Portland to El Salvador


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Trip Information

Reader Tiffany wants to head with her family from Portland to someplace warmer early next year. She’s looking for a trip to somewhere in Central or South America or the Caribbean. Having previously been to Costa Rica and Jamaica, they’d like to try someplace new and spend between 7-12 days total on the trip.

Current Program Status

Tiffany’s husband presently has 225,000 Alaska Airlines Miles. Tiffany has an additional 21,000 of her own. They also have 91,000 Marriott Points. They presently each hold the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature from Bank of America. They’d like to use only around 100,000 of their Alaska miles in order to save more for future travel.

Our Take

This is a great chance to explore Alaska’s award chart, something we haven’t spent much time doing prior to now. Much like Hawaiian Airlines, Alaska partners with many other carriers, providing them with access to remote locations in America’s northernmost state. In return, Alaska Airlines mileage earners win a tremendous amount of flexibility that goes beyond the normal bounds of airline alliances.

In this case, we’ll make a suggestion of one possible destination and show Tiffany how to get there, but the information will apply more broadly should she choose to go somewhere else instead. For now, we’ll set our sights on San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. Here’s why:

Alaska’s Caribbean Chart

Alaska partners with both American and Delta for flights to the Caribbean.

Here’s a look at the chart to fly on American:

As you can see, Alaska awards on American allow one-way bookings for half-price. This breakdown is equal to American’s own chart, with one exception: AAdvantage flyers can take advantage of an off-peak season from September 7 – November 14 each year for only 12,500 miles each way. In this case, the off-peak season isn’t applicable, so the charts really are equal.

Here’s a look at the chart to fly with Delta:

As you may notice, there’s no separate award level for one-way travel. That’s because Alaska redemptions on Delta follow the same rules as regular SkyMiles redemptions: no one-way awards are offered. Again, the miles required equal those necessary to redeem directly with Delta using SkyMiles, which is good news, at least.

Unfortunately, as you can see, both of these charts indicate a minimum of 35,000 miles per passenger, which would put the whole trip at 140,000 miles for four passengers to somewhere in the Caribbean. That’s simply too far over Tiffany’s goal of 100,000 miles.

However, good news awaits us in Central America!

Central and South America

Alaska partners with four different airlines for service to Central and South America: Aeromexico, American, Delta and LAN.

Aeromexico roundtrips start at 40,000 miles, so they’re out of the hunt for this one.

Delta roundtrips require 35,000 miles roundtrip to Central America or Colombia, Ecuador, Peru or Venezuela, which is a bit better.

LAN requires either 50,000 or 60,000 miles roundtrip to South America depending on the time of year, making them the most costly choice yet.

Thankfully, we find relief in American. From January 16 – June 14 and September 7 – November 14, they require just 30,000 miles roundtrip to Central America or Colombia, Ecuador, Peru or Venezuela.

This is the best value we’ll find using Alaska miles, so it’s the one we’ll go with. Of course, 30,000 multiplied by four people indicates a total points spend of 120,000. Should Tiffany be dead set on using only about 100,000 miles, it’s possible to book one-way flights with American, so she could bring her mileage spend down to 105,000 by paying for half of one flight out of pocket. However, we’ll assume she’s okay going a bit over her goal in order to spend as little as possible.

Now that we know what carrier offers the best award rates, it’s time to answer the most important question: where to?

A Case for San Salvador

I confess I know little firsthand about Central and South American destinations, making it difficult for me to suggest a specific itinerary in this case. American offers more than 30 destinations that qualify for this off-peak rate, so there are certainly a variety of options. Personally, I’d be liable to place somewhere in Costa Rica at the top of my list, but Tiffany’s been there and wants to try somewhere different.

I considered Panama City as a possible destination for quite some time last night but was disappointed to discover that, although the city is located on a bay, there are no real beaches to frequent due to a pollution problem with the local water and overgrowth of development on the water’s edge. Disappointed, I set my sights farther north to San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. Although not located on the beach, its setting in more rugged terrain appears to be quite beautiful, and the beaches of La Libertad are only about a 40 minute drive away, perfect for an excursion should Tiffany rent a vehicle.

Happily, flight availability is quite excellent early in the year, even for four passengers, which can often be a more difficult award proposition. Here’s American’s availability chart from Portland to San Salvador.

We figured leaving in late January and returning early in February would give Tiffany enough time to pack while still taking full advantage of a respite from winter weather, so we checked on January 31 – February 8. There’s no particular reason for these dates. With so much availability, Tiffany is free to travel pretty much as she pleases.

The total, including taxes and fees for all four passengers, comes to 120,000 miles and $358.52:

Where to Stay

We spent some time surveying the hotel landscape in San Salvador to find a good place for Tiffany and her family to spend their trip. Unfortunately, her Marriott miles aren’t of much use here. The only Marriott property in San Salvador is the Courtyard San Salvador, requiring a ridiculous 70,000 points per night for a room that retails at $149.

This is an abysmal two-tenths of a cent worth of value per point, which is more an indictment of Marriott’s program than anything. Because Tiffany’s Marriott points would only cover one night at this rate, we decided simply looking for the best deal on a quality property made more sense than hinging the trip on using those points.

With some more research, we found the Crowne Plaza San Salvador at Hotels.com and thought it might be a good fit. At an average rate of just $111 per night for a room with two beds, the hotel offers a great blend of comfort and value. The Crowne Plaza features a large outdoor swimming pool with views of the mountains that surround the city.

Image courtesy: IHG

The hotel also offers a complimentary shuttle service within a 10km range, making it easy to explore the nearby area, including the city’s best museums, a plethora of dining options and the handcraft market. As we said earlier, beautiful beaches are only about 40 minutes away and El Boqueron Park is even closer, affording the opportunity to visit the San Salvador Volcano.

We like booking through Hotels.com so long as they have the lowest price – and they do, in this case – because of their WelcomeRewards program. After staying for 10 nights booked through Hotels.com, you can earn a free night. Based on our dates, Tiffany would have 9 of 10 nights completed, but staying one more night is certainly possible.

The free night is valued at the average of all 10 nights. Therefore, you could expect a free night worth about $111, assuming the tenth night follows the first nine in value. Hotels.com is flexible with this benefit, so you can book a more expensive night and apply the “free night” as credit up to its full value.

Driving Down the Price

While their stock of Alaska miles is quite healthy, Tiffany and her husband may be well-served by having another travel-building mechanism in their credit portfolio. In this case, we’d recommend they each apply for Barclaycard Arrival.

The card offers an excellent 40,000 points after $1,000 in spending. Each point is worth 1¢ toward any travel expense, and all purchases earn 2 points per $1. That means Tiffany and her husband will each have at least $440 worth of travel credits in place after earning the sign-up bonus. Arrival also offers a 10% Redemption Bonus that deposits points back into your account the next day. That means a $400 redemption, for example, would deposit $40 worth of points back into your account for future use.

We love Arrival for these kinds of trips because they can be used to help pay taxes and fees on award tickets and rewards you for finding cheap cash bookings at hotels.

$440 is enough to nearly cover four full nights at the Crowne Plaza, which is a far better deal than any hotel points redemption program could offer. Remember, Tiffany’s 91,000 Marriott points – not a number to sneeze at! – still is only enough to cover one night at a property that doesn’t look as nice as the Crowne Plaza. Arrival would allow her to take advantage of Central America’s cheap hotel rates and still save big.

While it’s possible to maximize value further and take advantage of the 10% Redemption Bonus right away by booking flights and splitting hotel nights into separate bookings over the course of a few days, we’d keep things simple in this case by recommending Tiffany’s husband apply his bonus toward the taxes and fees on the Alaska award bookings, wiping out these costs entirely, and having Tiffany apply her bonus toward the total hotel booking at Hotels.com. They’ll each have some credit left over after the redemption bonus, and also be a night away from a free night with WelcomeRewards.

Wrapping Up

As we said upfront, this is just one possible plan out of many. Tiffany’s options are open throughout Central America, and also in Peru, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. While San Salvador sounds like fun to us, she can certainly look around and find other possibilities. The process would remain the same, both in our recommendation of how to book the award tickets and how she could use Arrival to defray the taxes/fees and a large portion of their hotel stay. In any case, this looks like a great way to find some warmer weather in the dead of winter and should be fun for the whole family!

Trip Component Cash Price Points + Cash Savings
Alaska Award Flights: PDX->SAL Roundtrip • Coach $510 per passenger on American 120,000 Alaska Miles + $358.52 Taxes/Fees – $358.52 Arrival Redemption $2,040
9 Nights at Crowne Plaza San Salvador $1,182.42 Including Taxes/Fees $440 in Arrival credit + $742.42 in cash $440
Total: $3,222.42 120,000 Alaska Miles + $798.52 in Arrival Credits + $742.42 in Cash. $2,480 (77% Off)

After this, Tiffany and her husband will have a combined minimum of $176.22 in Arrival credits left over after taking into account the points earned paying for the hotel remainder plus $100 in WelcomeRewards towards a free night, unlocked once they spend one more night with Hotels.com somewhere, whether on this trip or in the future. Those credits will definitely come in handy when using more of their Alaska miles in the future!

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Casey Ayers is a consultant and entrepreneur with a passion for travel. After amassing enough miles and points to travel anywhere in the world for almost free in less than six months, he developed PointsAway as a way to help others make travel dreams big and small come true.
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