The last stop of our Puerto Rico vacation was a night in Old San Juan.
We opted for the incredible, can't-recommend-enough Hotel El Convento, and it was so charming. The staff was also over-the-top awesome. Seriously, I'd like to live in this hotel in my next life. We were exhausted and famished upon arrival, so we didn't do nearly as much exploring as I would have liked, but reason to go back? Reason to encourage you to stay there when you visit Puerto Rico, so I can stalk your vacation photos? Yes to both!
We ate at the pizza place adjacent to the hotel and we literally chose it because we were (as I mentioned) so hungry and so tired and the thought of pulling out the guide book or Googling made me want to lay down in the middle of the adorable cobblestoned road. We just basically pointed at the closest place to eat and asked for a table. (Here's a link.)
It was delicious! I love when you randomly pick a gem without any planning whatsoever. (They had Peroni, a favorite beer of ours!)
After that, Mike needed a nap, so I took my Kindle to the rooftop pool. I spent a few hours reading, lounging, playing on my phone, and it was so nice.
Then, Mike got up and we went to the complimentary wine-and-cheese cocktail hour the hotel throws EVERY SINGLE NIGHT and enjoyed glasses of bubbly (and beer for Mike) and a helluva lot of cheese. It was nearly worth the stay by itself. Also, it was just for an hour and people were literally piling plates full of cheese and pouring MULTIPLE, LIKE TEN, glasses of wine, so I think it's a fairly liberal complimentary wine-and-cheese cocktail hour and you should feel free to go with an empty stomach. At one point, I said to Mike, "Maybe I should get a second glass, think that's okay?" And he said, "Well that person just took the bottle to her table, so go for it."
After the free booze, we just walked and snapped photos and I picked up a pair of earrings at a local shop. We then stopped in for ice cream at Ben & Jerry's on our way back to the hotel, which is really un-touristy, I know, but it was delicious. I make no apologies about ice cream, ever.
We read and watched tv the rest of the night, and slept something like 11 hours in anticipation of our full day of travel. It was a lovely, relaxing, slow-paced last night in Puerto Rico.
Some general wrap-up-type suggestions and thoughts:
- First, we probably would have planned our trip differently if we had the magic of hindsight. We would have split it up with 2-3 days in Old San Juan and 3-4 days on Vieques. Any other part of the island worth seeing (the Central Mountains, the rainforest, etc.) can be accessed via a rental car or tour company for a day trip and staying on another part of the island didn't feel special or worthwhile by itself. Our resort from the first part of our trip, while amazing (I really couldn't have been happier with it), could have been any resort in any beachy area.
(Disclaimer: we didn't get to the southern or eastern parts of the island, though, so those might be worth going off the beaten path.)
- We rented a car and that worked for our specific trip but the driving/roads are far more stressful than we could have imagined. If you plan to stay in Old San Juan/just take day trips for excursions, cabs or tour companies can handle your transporation.
- From what I can tell about the Carribbean (as a general group of islands) while you don't necessarily feel unsafe, there are certainly areas you should avoid, and Puerto Rico is no exception. Know those areas before you go. (La Perla is an area I heard to avoid, but we never got anywhere near it, as far as I could tell, so I can't speak from experience.)
Annnnnnnd, the fun dollars-and-cents section:
We paid for the flights and hotels almost completely with rewards points and airline miles, and here's how:
I stalked the aa.com website like a mad woman, which is where we had saved about 125K miles to use for the trip. (Side notes: 1) I opened a Citibank credit card in the fall for a 40,000-mile rewards incentive. In hindsight, this isn't the best travel rewards credit card, but it worked nicely in that we got a lot of miles in a short period of time. 2) We also signed up for a new energy company through AA and got 12.5K bonus miles from that. This energy company was cheaper than our previous one, and I did the entire transfer online, so that felt like no sacrifice at all.)
When we talked about taking this trip, we considered dozens of possibilities. We settled on a time of year (April - June) and then I punched in destination after destination to see if I could find good flight times + low mileage requirements. (Side note: Mike likes to travel, Mike does not like to travel plan. Thankfully, I do!) I also tried to do a very loose hotel cost check to see if we could afford to stay somewhere for a week once we actually got there -- which is how I took Turks & Caicos off the table. Reasonable to get to, hotels were really pricey. At first, Puerto Rico seemed completely off the table as well because from what I could find, it would take about 60K redeemed miles/person to get there and that would eat up ALL our miles. I didn't want that. (As a point of reference, searching now for a week trip to Puerto Rico shows basically the same thing I was finding: 60-70K miles/person.)
One day, I punched in our dates and decided to give San Juan another shot. Well, turns out the exact dates (Saturday - Saturday) were the same old thing (SO MANY MILES) but just a few days difference (Thursday - Thursday) offered a direct flight from DFW to SJU for about 35K/person or 70K total.
I snatched that deal right up.
I booked our first hotel using AA miles, as well. Before I did any deal scouting, I narrowed our hotel choice down to 3-5 places through TripAdvisor for rankings/reviews and Oyster.com for pictures. Hotels that 1) got a generally nice customer review rating, 2) seemed like a generally good price, if we were to pay out of pocket ($140-175/night seemed to be the average), and 3) that looked nice.
Once I had a few picked out, I checked the going rate on AA.com. The miles needed seemed high but you got an automatic 25-33% discount when you signed in with your account. The three nights we stayed at Gran Melia were popping up as worth ~60K miles for the whole time. When I signed in, the miles required dropped to 41.9K.
We had those miles left over from saving miles on the tickets, so I booked that room for no cost.
(It's hard to tell what the dollar value for an AA mile really is, so I can't say that we got such a fantastic bargain booking our hotel this way, but it felt like it, and that's sometimes enough, right?)
We had about 60,000 AmEx points saved, as well. (An AmEx Gold Rewards card is our usual go-to card of choice. It's what we use for nearly all our expenses (except our mortgage, day care, and the few months we were using our Citi card). I really like our AmEx card because you have to pay the balance in full each month, so you can't get into too much trouble, and the customer service is top-notch. While I like them a lot, I sometimes feel we don't get access to exceptional travel deals or rewards through their travel program alone, BUT we do get 20% of our points automatically returned whenever we book a flight, hotel, or package with points. Nice trade off!
We were using our points for our time in Vieques and, thankfully, our options were narrowed down for us since the island is so much smaller. For this part of our stay, I sent all my top choices to Mike and basically said PICK ONE, TRAVEL PLANNING IS EXHAUSTING. He did and I snatched those three nights up with our points. We had to spend $111 out of pocket for our three nights in Vieques BUT we got 20% of our points returned, so we were technically left with points after our purchase.
I waited to book our last night in Old San Juan until just a couple weeks before we left, and we chose the above Hotel El Convento, which would usually be out of our price range, but our remaining points covered about half of it (about $95).
My thoughts on activities and how to eat cheaper than we did
Other than our rental cars and transportation, nearly all the trip's cost was for activities, food, and drinks. We rarely shop on vacation. I'm not sure why, I like the idea of jewelry or art collected throughout our travels, but I also really like to eat, so that's usually what we focus our attention and wallet on.
First up, activities:
Probably a third (maybe even a little more) of the money we spent on the trip went toward activities. I won't regret a cent of that money, though, even the (many) cents we spent ziplining. Experiences are worth it, even the ones that make you want to vomit. (Feel free to quote me on that.) The other two excursions -- snorkeling at Culebra and kayaking with the bio-luminescent plankton -- were two of the trip's highlights and it seems like a small price to pay for those memories. Especially now, sitting on the couch and staring down a laundry pile. Being able to channel such an incredible memory during the busy day-to-day stress of life is worth the cost to me. Not always in the moment -- money is still money and we like to have it when bills are due -- but we try to let go of some of that neurotic penny counting when we're in a place we'll likely never be in again because we know we won't regret it.
There are also a lot of other activities I wish we would have had time and/or money for like horseback riding, a sunset cruise, a tour of the rainforest, a tour of the Bacardi factory (this one is free, but it was just logistically too hard for us to swing), so I'd suggest doing as much activity research as you can before you go so you feel you're getting the best deals and making the most of your time.
Remember that most activities are all-day affairs, and the sun is exhausting, so I wouldn't plan much else for the days you're DOING something. I know it's really annoying to hear vacationers complain about the exhausting snorkel cruise they took with free booze and beautiful views but our Culebra day trip had us in bed by 9pm. After a two-hour nap.
Now, the food
We spent a lot on money on food at our resort the first few nights and that's simply because the ease of eating AT the resort trumped driving into town to find a cheaper and more authentic meal at times. While I don't actually mind spending a little money on delicious food, resort food is usually overpriced just-okay food. Thankfully, we smartened up when we got to Vieques and did a lot more research and ate a lot more deliciously.
So, tip: try to research and bookmark a few places near your hotel or resort so that you can feel good about where you're going and what you'll likely spend (for at least a couple meals) without having to do much IN THE MOMENT to find those places. Look at menus before you go, check out Yelp!, etc. I don't hate spending money on food, but I really hate over-spending on food, and I think we fell into that trap a few times because we were tired and overwhelmed.
Holy hell, that was the longest post I've likely ever written and there's probably only ONE OF YOU who will ever find this information useful, but maybe someone will stumble upon it through a random Google search and ask me to write for the Puerto Rico Tourism Board (probably not, after I insulted their ziplining AND drivers), but it still feels good to get it all out.
At the off-chance you have any questions, feel free to leave a a comment or email me at shelikespurple AT gmail.com. I love talking travel. I'd also love to hear how you use miles or points or deals or tips or tricks or anything else to make traveling less expensive and more enjoyable.
Until the next trip!