I just got back from an actual, no-doubt-about-it vacation in Aruba — and it was exactly what the doctor ordered.
Not just because I needed an actual vacation (use your PTO days, people!), but because I had some clever tricks up my sleeve when I booked my flights and hotels. Allow me to explain.
It all started with a JetBlue Mint deal for about $330. Perks of being friends with me include the fact that you might get a text saying, “I just booked us really cheap flights to Aruba in January in lie-flat business class seats. You have 24 hours to tell me if you want to go,” which is exactly what happened with a group of my friends. I’m a delight, I swear.
I had heard so much about JetBlue’s amazing Mint business class and was dying to try it out, so when this deal popped up, I jumped on it. Thanks to the Department of Transportation guidelines, you have 24 hours to cancel a flight after you book without being charged. Moral of the story: When a good deal comes up, grab it. You can figure out the rest later.
Once flights were booked, it was time to plan the hotel stay. This is where things got fun.
I had a Marriott 50,000-point free night certificate thanks to my Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card. (Cardholders get a free night certificate on their card’s anniversary.) And my friend, who I was traveling with, has Titanium status with Marriott — and, of course, a boatload of points. While there are solid Hyatt and Hilton options in Aruba, Marriott was the obvious choice for us here.
We were deciding between the Marriott Stellaris and the Ritz-Carlton in Palm Beach, two popular options with a great location, gorgeous beaches and a ton of restaurant options nearby.
To stay at The Ritz and use my free night certificate, we would have needed to find off-peak award availability for 50,000 points, but no such luck. We could only find rooms for 60,000 points per night. Sigh.
The Stellaris, on the other hand, was only 50,000 points per night and had award availability to use my free night certificate for one of them. It seemed silly to fork over 10,000 more points per night just to stay at The Ritz, so we ended up booking the Stellaris with two different reservations — one with the free night and one with points — and linked them to keep the same room as well as the perks.
Was the Stellaris the best hotel I’ve ever stayed at? Definitely not. Was it pretty, with friendly staff, decent food and clean rooms? Yup, you bet. That’s as much of a hotel review you’re getting from me here because as I mentioned before: vacation. But, all in all, I’d definitely recommend it, especially if you can find off-peak award availability. Keep in mind, too, that you’ll get the fifth night free at any Marriott property when you book using points.
Because my friend has Titanium status, breakfast was included with our stay. The catch? We’d have to pay $15 per person per day to “upgrade” and get access to the omelet bar. There are few things I love more in life than a good breakfast buffet, and if you think I wasn’t upgrading to get my daily omelet, you are sorely mistaken, my friends.
Now for the good news: We ended up getting upgraded to a room with a full balcony and view of the pool and ocean. As far as the bad news? We were in a connecting room and the guest next to us was sick for the first two days. Yup, we heard everything.
We mentioned it to the front desk, and they gave us a $100 resort credit … which worked out splendidly and covered our $15 breakfast “upgrades.” Cha-ching.
Speaking of resort credit, remember how I mentioned that I used my free night certificate from my Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant Amex? That alone is worth about $400 (and not too shabby when you consider rooms were going for $1,000 per night!). Couple that with the fact that I used my $300 Marriott statement credit to pay for all of my poolside and beach lunches (naturally), and you’re looking at a pretty good way to offset the card’s $450 annual fee.
Let’s stop for a second and do some math here — but really just one second because I hate math. One-way flight: $336 on JetBlue Mint. Breakfast: $0, thanks to elite status and a little … mishap. Lunch (and daily Bloody Marys): $0, thanks to my $300 statement credit.
That’s right. The only food we ended up paying for was dinner. No matter where you stay in Aruba, you’ll definitely want to dine out for dinner. While the food at the resort was decent, Aruba has some really incredible restaurants that you should take advantage of. We went to Barefoot, Wacky Wahoo’s and Anna Maria’s. I highly recommend all of them, just promise me that you’ll make reservations ahead of time. Oh, and get the penne a la vodka at Anna Maria’s.
Now, you may have noticed by now that we didn’t have a return flight booked, and you’d be correct. While I would have loved to pack up my things and move to Aruba, I don’t think my sunburn would have been too happy about that. One-way flights between Aruba (AUA) and any airport in New York were in the $300-range, and unfortunately, not a JetBlue Mint deal in sight.
United was the cheapest option, and while we technically ended up paying slightly more for these economy flights, we were lucky enough to be upgraded thanks to my friend and coworker, Zach Honig. He was hosting his annual United winter upgrade, where generous United elites donate their expiring upgrades. Hi, Zach! Thanks, Zach!
Another quick math check-in for those of you that are keeping track: $0 for the hotel, $0 for breakfast, $0 for lunch. We paid a couple of hundred dollars for the flights and dinner out at night. That’s it.
All of this is to say that this whole points game really works, people. It takes some time and effort, but so do all the best things in life — and if you quite literally play your cards right, all that time and effort will put you on the beach with a Bloody Mary in hand.