IHG Rewards Club and MasterCard Priceless Surprises

This is an incredible offer to earn at least 47,000 points for a few hours of work and $49 for stamps and supplies. IHG and MasterCard have come together to offer this Priceless Surprises promotion with various prizes from a simple 500 bonus points to the trip of a lifetime in Paris, complete with airfare, hotel & car service. I have earned 500 points 79 times, 1K points 3 times, 2K points 1 time, and 5K points 1 time for 49,500 total points through 84 plays. Keep reading for step by step instructions on how to do this.

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What can 49,500 points get you? If you’re looking for luxury, a stay at the Crowne Plaza in Times Square is 50K points. However, a stay at a Candlewood Suites in Indianapolis or Holiday Inn Express in London, Ohio is only 10K points. If you combine this promotion with IHG PointBreaks, you can earn nearly 10 hotel stays. We are taking a road trip to Denver over Spring Break in April and are planning on utilizing this. There are a few possibilities for us to stay halfway such as the Holiday Inn Express in Vermillion, South Dakota for only 5K points. This hotel carries a $145 nightly price tag. For only 5,000 points of 49,500, I am already saving $96 ($145-$49) and could possibly get 9 more hotel stays for free!

I am also hopeful that the Summer 2016 PointBreaks will include properties in Doha, Abu Dhabi, Hong Kong, or Tokyo as we will have overnights in those four cities as we transit and explore the cities for 23 hours (reward miles trick) en route to other places. Maybe we’ll get lucky and get a stay at the InterContinental Abu Dhabi ($150/night or 35K points) or the famous InterContinental Hong Kong ($360/night or 50K points) for only 5,000 points.

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View from the Pool of the InterContinental Abu Dhabi
The main way to enter is to complete a qualifying stay at an IHG location, but once you look into the CAMPAIGN OFFICIAL RULES, you can enter without paying for anything except a postage stamp. In section 6. The Game: How to Enter part b. Mail in Alternate Method of Entry, it states that you can mail in up to 94 handwritten entries. That’s right, instead of paying ~$100 for a hotel stay, you can simply take 2-3 minutes of time to write in an entry to receive a promotional entry. And you can do this 94 times! The entries must be HANDWRITTEN, postmarked by February 15th, and received by February 22nd.

Step 1. You must have a MasterCard. This does NOT have to be an IHG branded MasterCard. I used my CITI AAdvantage MasterCard.

Step 2. Open up a FREE IHG Rewards Club account. If you ever stay at Holiday Inns or any other IHG hotel, you should have one of these anyway. Simply go to IHG.com and click on “Join” in the upper right hand corner by the IHG Rewards Club icon.

Step 3. Enter the IHG Rewards Club and MasterCard Priceless Surprises promotion. To do this, go to IHG Rewards Club Offers and click on Priceless Surprises Begin Here. Then, sign in using your IHG account. Now you’re ready!

Step 4. Fill out the entries. The entries must be handwritten on a 3×5 piece of paper and include a few pieces of information. I picked up 100 3×5 index cards at the Family Dollar for $0.65. I filled out 94 of them to get the maximum number of entries. The entries must include the following:

  • Full name
  • Complete mailing address
  • Day phone number
  • Night phone number
  • Valid email address
  • IHG member number
  • The first eight (8) digits of your MasterCard
  • Date of birth

Step 5. Fill out the envelopes. I bought two packs of 80 envelopes for $1 each. The entries must be handwritten, but the envelopes can be printed. I printed labels with our return address and addressed the envelopes to “IHG and MasterCard® Priceless Surprises® Promotion,” c/o HelloWorld, Inc., P.O. Box 5996, Kalamazoo, MI 49003-5996.

Step 6. Stamps! A roll of 100 stamps at Meijer cost $49. I considered buying stamps off eBay to save a few bucks, but ultimately decided I didn’t want to wait a few days for them to come in.

Step 7. Mail them in and wait. Within a week, I began receiving emails from IHG Rewards Club ePrize Promotions. I only received 1 to begin with, but the next day I received 83 more. I’m hopeful that I will still receive 10 more, but even if I don’t, I’m happy about my winnings and will be filling out 94 more entries for Skye later today.

Step 8. Click on the link in the email. Press play. Choose a floor on the elevator (1-6) and watch the elevator door open with your prize.

Note: You only have one unique link per account so you can continue clicking on the same link until all of your plays are up. You don’t need to click through each email. Also, some people have stated that they only receive one email, but can play multiple entries through the one email. This means continue playing until you get this picture…

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Do you plan on entering Priceless Surprises? How would you use ~50,000 points? What is the top IHG location that you’d like to see added to PointBreaks?


Expense Report: Playas del Coco, Costa Rica

We departed San Salvador at 14:30 and arrived in Liberia, Costa Rica at 16:03. Citizens of the United States can enter Costa Rica for a period up to 90 days without the purchase of a tourist visa. Be sure that your passport is valid for an additional 6 months after arrival. We arranged transportation from the Liberia Airport to our AirBnB in Playas del Coco through our host for $40 so we could get the insight of a local on the way.

Our costs in Costa Rica can be seen below. I will also attach a complete breakdown of our costs at the bottom of the page.

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Best and Worst Use of our Money

The BEST use of our money was on our food/drinks and scooter rentals. $117 on food and drinks over the course of 5+ days for 2 people eating out most meals is pretty good. We keep costs down by splitting main courses and grabbing a snack later. Our scooter rental days were some of our most memorable while keeping transportation costs down. We had a $30 scooter rental for 8 hours and then another 24 hour scooter rental for $40. It’s a great feeling to rent a scooter in a foreign country and just cruise around the countryside.

The WORST use of our money was on our AirBnB and the transportation from the airport. We spent $420 for 5 nights. That’s an $84 price tag per night, which is much higher than normal for us. Also, the location wasn’t ideal. We had to spend an additional $20 getting back and forth between town and our condo. We also hitchhiked a number of times to save money. The $40 ride from the airport was a ripoff. Our host told us the buses wouldn’t be running because it was close to Christmas, not true, and our best option was to ride with him. (Our host was a really nice guy so hopefully it was an honest mistake.) We decided to take the bus to the airport for a total of $2.55 for the two of us on our way home. It’s not a good feeling when you overspend by $37.45 on your first move in the country. However, I think it’s important to learn the ins and outs of the country as you travel and we definitely showed that with this change. It’s also a great experience to ride public transportation in foreign countries.

ACCOMMODATION- $420 ($84/night)

Beach Area Condo Near Coco/Ocotal$420 for five nights. The location was not the greatest and it did not warrant the price. I would have gladly paid more for a better location. We were a looooong walk from everything. However, it was clean and quiet and had two nice pools to hang out by after spending the day exploring. Also, our host was very nice, helpful, and always around.

EXCURSIONS: SCUBA, Scooters, and Zip-lines

SCUBA diving with Rich Coach Diving (TripAdvisor)– If you are in Playas del Coco, I HIGHLY recommend this dive shop. We paid $135 for a two-tank dive for me and for Skye to come along on the boat. I believe the breakdown was $110 and $25. Considering boat tours around the coast are closer to  $40-$50, this was a steal to get Skye out on the water too. My two dives were phenomenal. After some research, I decided to explore the Monkey Head dive site. The first dive was nice, but the second dive… was my first experience diving with sharks! We went down to a shipwreck and swam all the way to the seafloor. We started inching forward and then a group of five sharks came into view! We hung out with the group of black tip reef sharks and it was an amazing experience. One of them was somewhat curious about us and swam right by me. We headed out after this and saw Curious Shark on the other side of the ship on the way out.

SCUBA Diving at Monkey Head with Rich Coast Diving


Scooters- We rented our scooters from COCOLOCO Rentals. Our first scooter rental was $30 for 8 hours. We used this time to ride up to the car rental locations to see if we could get a car for the next day (with no luck) and then went into Liberia. Our second rental was $40 for 24 hours. We scooted almost 90 minutes to Catarata Llanos de Cortez. The waterfall was amazing. We used THIS guide from MyTanFeet to help find it.

Catarata Llanos de Cortez

It was after the waterfall that we found out the kind of people we rented from. The scooter would not start after we hiked back to the parking lot. Skye sprang into action and found a bilingual tour guide. He was sympathetic and called CocoLoco on our behalf. After listening to a conversation in Spanish, he got off the phone and told us that CocoLoco said we were “too far away” and “screwed.” Wow. Thanks a lot. A local elder was hanging around during all of this and, with our friendly tour guide as a translator, arranged a ride to a nearby town called Bagaces for only $5.60. He took us to three different locations (a mechanic and two houses) with no luck. We pulled up to the fourth spot, where a kid around 18 was hanging out, and it appeared this would be our mechanic. We unloaded the scooter and he got right to work. He took most of the engine apart and began sucking on lines that ended up spewing gas into his mouth. He nonchalantly spit it out and continued working. He put it back together and it started right up. I took out my wallet to try and communicate payment, but he wouldn’t accept any money. What? He was in a position to ask $50+ and didn’t want a dime. There are genuinely nice people left in this world! Faith in humanity restored! We decided to forgo our other plans in fear of the scooter breaking down again and head straight back.  We didn’t want to try and explain what happened to CocoLoco so we just told them it started back up on its own.


Zip-lining at The Congo Trail Canopy (TripAdvisor)- We went zip-lining and paid a little extra to enter their zoo area as well. It was an $80 package for the two of us that showed up as $84 on our credit card statement. I was hoping to be able to hold some snakes, or more specifically, get Skye to hold snakes, but they no longer do that. Instead, we saw a few snakes and monkeys in cages. Skye had fun feeding the monkeys, but we both decided it was kinda sad to see the same species of monkeys hanging out freely on top of the caged monkeys. Highly recommend the zip-line, but not the zoo!

Zip-lining through the Costa Rican jungle

The zip-lining was fantastic! We enjoyed the zip-lining here significantly more than the tour in the Dominican. The location in the Dominican was more scenic, but The Congo Trail did a great job of making you feel right at home in the trees. There were far fewer people and it felt less like we were part of an assembly line. I was also last in the group so the guide in the rear hooked me up a couple of different ways. I went upside down and Superman style! We highly recommend The Congo Trail Canopy!


We spent $117 on food and water. We ate out for breakfast one time, lunch five times, and dinner four times. We also made pasta for dinner once and had bread and jam for breakfast three times. It was $6.23 for the bread and jam that we ate on three occasions. The pasta dinner cost about the same as eating out on other nights at $8.30. The tap water in Playas del Coco is safe to drink so that saved us some cash. We continued to share entrees at most places to keep our food costs down.


Le Coq– Cool outdoor Lebanese spot overlooking the strip. $7.55 for two amazing falafel sandwiches. Highly recommended!

Casa del Mar– Outdoor spot with pool. We had a decent breakfast of pancakes, fruit, and bacon for $7.55.

Restaurante Marcelino– This is a second story restaurant overlooking the main road. I had the “typical” dish of rice, beans, meat, and pico de gallo and Skye had friend rice. It was Christmas so we sprang for a little nicer place and both got a meal for $18.40.

Pollo Finca– We stopped at this soda between Coco and Liberia. We ordered the”typical” for $5.66, but it came with fish this time. We split the meal, and since Skye doesn’t like seafood, she ate the majority of the rice and beans and I took the fish.

Restaurante Capitan Morgan– This is about 8 minutes outside of Coco on Route 151 before you get to Sardinal. We made sure to eat here both times we rented a scooter because it was delicious, tons of food, and a very reasonable price for the “typical” at $8.49. Highly recommended.

Soda by beach– $2 for a small chicken dish at Playas del Ocotal.

Zi Lounge– This felt like a typical outdoor open-air sports bar. We each had a drink ($5.85) during happy hour and I was able to watch sports for a little bit.

Subway– Our last meal before we hopped on the bus to get to the airport was a 12 inch turkey for $8.02.


We spent $60 on transportation. Our ride from the airport to our AirBnB was $40 from our host. The most disappointing cost on the trip! Take the bus! On the way back, we spent $2.55 for the bus. We spent $5.60 for a beat-up old truck to take us with our scooter to the next town. Well worth it! We also spent $11.54 for three taxi rides to our AirBnB from town. A better location would’ve saved this.

Fun time on the public bus


We spent $10 on four magnets. One for us and three to give to family/friends. We also saved a few Costa Rican colones as souvenirs.

List of expenses. The number in the ( ) is how much we paid in Costa Rican colones. The US dollar amount was calculated using the exchange rate we received from wherever we exchanged before purchasing.

Costa Rica
$40 ride to AirBnB
$1.63 (858) water
$8 (4000) dinner Le Coq falafel
$4 taxi to our AirBnb
$1 (550)
$7.55 (4000) (breakfast at hotel/pool) Casa del Mar Pancakes, fruit, bacon
$18.40 (9750) (lunch fried rice/typical) Restaurante Marcelino
$8.3 (4400) made dinner pasta
$3.77 (2000) taxi
$6.23 (3300) Bread and jam
$30 scooter CocoLoco
$84 Congo Trail Zipline
$5.66(3000) lunch (Pollo Finca typical fish)
$8.49 (4500) (dinner typical Restaurante Capitan Morgan)
$3.86 (2045) coca cola
$3.96 (2100) gasolina
$135 SCUBA
$2 (1000) lunch at beach
$10.17(5390) dinner typical/drinks by beach SODA
$5.85 (3100) drinks (piña colada/beer) Zi Lounge
$40 scooter
$8.49 (4500) lunch Capitan Morgan (typical)
$7.55 (4000) dinner le Coq falafel sandwich
$10 souvs (4 magnets)
$5.60 (3000) hitch
$5 mechanic
$4.91 (2600) gasolina
$3.77 (2000) taxi
$8.02 (4250) subway split 12 inch
$6.76 (3585) snacks
$2.55 (1350) bus

Oh yeah! We met Norman Reedus aka Daryl Dixon!

Expense Report: Panama City and San Salvador

We departed Punta Cana at 12:24 AST on December 23rd and arrived in Panama City at 14:11 EST. We passed through immigration with ease and got our passports stamped. Panama doesn’t require a tourist visa for citizens of the USA. We spent approximately 16 hours in Panama City before departing for San Salvador the next morning at 6:00 EST.

View of the Panama City skyline from atop Ancon Hill
View of the Panama Canal from atop Ancon Hill

We arranged a taxi tour of the city through Amber Moon Panama Taxi Service. I highly recommend them if you are doing something similar. Our five hour tour to Ancon Hill, Casco Viejo, and the Amador Causeway was $96. It’s a $35 cab ride ($70 roundtrip) between the airport and Casco Viejo anyways. For only $26 more, we had a tour guide at our service that would take us anywhere that we wanted. We also stopped at a food court on the way home to get a “cheap local dish.” I had the traditional Panamanian soup sancocho and Skye  had a plate of veges and potatoes. We spent $8.25 on dinner and $3.20 on eclairs for dessert and cinnamon rolls for breakfast the next morning. Our one night stay at the Crowne Plaza Panama Airport ($108) was expensive for us, but it was the closest hotel to the airport and offered a free shuttle service. This was especially important because we had to be to the airport by 4:00 am. We really enjoyed our one night in Panama and felt like we made great use of our time.

View of the Panama City skyline and Amador Causeway from Casco Viejo
View of Casco Viejo from the Amador Causeway

We arrived in San Salvador at 7:00 CST. The immigration in San Salvador wasn’t nearly as painless as Panama (and it was even worse on the way home when we tried to overnight in the airport.) I had read online that they like to charge a $37 airport tax and that you need to get proof that you’ve paid it prior to getting to immigration. I printed off our receipt from United ahead of time, which showed that we paid the tax and showed it to the immigration officers. After a few officers got together to talk in Spanish about our receipt, they took our passports and receipts away for a few minutes. They returned a few minutes later and directed us back into the airport to pay the $37 even though we had a receipt showing we already had. We talked to the Avianca information desk and showed them our receipt. Avianca looked up our itinerary and said we had indeed paid the $37 tax and issued us another receipt. We took that to immigration and we were finally cleared to pass after paying $10/person for a tourist visa. Our flight to Costa Rica was at 14:30 CST so we had 7.5 hours to explore San Salvador and get back through security and to our gate.

Once again, we arranged a tour ($135) ahead of time to view the city. We did this for two reasons. First and foremost, San Salvador is currently known as the “Murder Capital of the World” due to a gang war between MS-13 and Barrio 18. We wanted a local tour guide that knows the area to keep us in safe areas. Secondly, we had less than 8 hours in the country so we wanted to make the best use of our time. Our first stop was the lava fields. I had never seen anything like it before so it was pretty cool. We then drove to the top of the Parque Nacional el Boqueron to see the San Salvador volcano. There are great views of the city here too. However, ours were somewhat obstructed by smog over the city that our guide said was completely out of the ordinary.

View of the Boqueroncito cinder cone within the Boqueron crater
View of San Salvador

For lunch, we stopped for delicious popusas. For real, they are amazing. If you’ve never heard of them, you must try them. The three of us ate very well for $4.20. Our next stop was the center of San Salvador for an intense history lesson of the last 30 years from our amazing guide, Roberto. We visited the Iglesia el Rosario, Catedral Metropolitana de San Salvador, Plaza Libertad, and Plaza Civica. If you’re unfamiliar with the history of El Salvador, it is definitely worth researching.

Plaza Libertad downtown San Salvador
Plaza Civica and the National Palace in San Salvador
Iglesia El Rosario

Our expenses from our 23.5 hours in Panama City and San Salvador are below.

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Expense Report: Bavaro Beach, Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

We had a rather interesting entry into the country. Immigration was empty when we got there at 5am and we began to form a line at the counter to wait for the employees. When they arrived, obviously having just woken up, they started to direct us back to where we entered. We paid $10 each for a tourist card, but didn’t receive an actual card or a receipt of any kind. We just handed an employee $20 USD and they let us pass. We spent a total of 4 days and 7.5 hours in the Dominican Republic.

Our costs in the Dominican can be seen below. I will also attach a complete breakdown of our costs at the bottom of the page.

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Best and Worst Use of our Money-

The BEST use of our money was on our accommodation and food, which are two of the biggest expenses while traveling. $43 per night in Punta Cana is very cheap and we didn’t sacrifice comfortability for it. $115 on food and water for four and a half days of eating out is also good.

WORST: Almost half of our budget went to two excursions for a total of $296. We are usually much smarter while sightseeing, but we really wanted to do both of these. We overspent for our $35 taxi ride from the airport and our $10 on souvenirs was a waste.

ACCOMMODATION- $172 ($43/night)

El Dorado Village Bavaro Beach Studio: $172 for four nights. The location was great and the price was even better. We were only 500 meters from the beach with restaurants, a grocery story, and money exchange within walking distance. Our host even drove us to the airport at the end of our trip for only $5.

View from our balcony


SCUBA diving with SeaPro Divers (TripAdvisor): $190 total for a refresher dive ($10 tip) and a two-dive trip ($180) for both of us. We were refunded $90 after a horrible second dive that should have been called off due to zero visibility, which brought the total down to $100.  The dive shop is super laid back and fine for people with a bit of experience, but I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone trying to learn how to dive. The boat ride along the coast to get to the El Nino dive site was stunning with beaches lined with palm trees and perfect tropical turquoise water.

A fish photobombing our SCUBA selfie

Zip-lining and cenote at Scape Park (TripAdvisor): Zip-lining $89/person + $20 for a second activity and lunch. $218 total minus 10% discount for booking online for a total of $196. The zip-line tour was at the edge of a cliff overlooking the jungle with the coast in the distance. It was a really cool spot. The downfall was that it was super touristy, which meant a high price tag and waiting in line every time we got to the next platform. We had a decent American lunch of burgers, hot dogs, french fries and fruit between our two activities. The second part of the excursion was a short hike to a cenote called Hoyo Azul, or Blue Hole, where we went swimming for an hour. Transportation was also included from nearby hotels. Since we were staying at an AirBnB, we had to walk to the closest hotel to catch our ride.

Zip-lining at Scape Park
Hoyo Azul or Blue Hole at Scape Park


We spent $109 on food and $6 on water specifically. We ate out for breakfast five times, lunch three times, dinner four times, and a separate dessert place three times. Eating is one of the biggest expenses while traveling because you eat out almost every meal. We try to reduce this expense by sharing an entree and then getting a smaller dessert or snack later. We also rarely drink alcohol on vacation and when we do, we buy a bottle from a grocery store instead of getting drinks from a bar or restaurant. We spent $6 on water since the tap water was unsafe to drink. We bought 1.5 liter bottles for 30 DRP or $0.68 at the nearby Bam Market.

Dinner at Bali Cana


Delices Francais– Breakfast: $4-5 for the two of us.

Sweet Bella Napoli– Lunch: Split a chicken pesto sandwich ($5.23) Dessert: Nutella Rolls ($1.83) and Flan ($1.48)

Balicana– Dinner: Split a Thai vegetable wok and spring rolls ($15.24).

Pepito City– Lunch: Venezuelan arepas ($7.72 for two.) It’s a bit of a walk, but well worth it.

Garota Rodizio and Grill– Brazilian Dinner: Split a plate of chicken, potatoes and vegetables ($11.68).

La Posada de Gladys– Dinner: Split a Dominican dish of beef, rice, beans and fried plantains ($7.95)

Poseidon– Lunch: Split chicken fingers ($10.90). Located on Jellyfish Beach. There is a big plaza full of shops right behind it.

Nam Nam– Dinner: Two crepes ($9.09)


It was a $35 taxi from the airport to our place in Bavaro Beach. We arrived at 5am so our options were limited, but I probably could have haggled better. I couldn’t find any bus options so we were stuck with a taxi. However, we did get a ride back to the airport from our host for only $5. $30 saved!


…were less than impressive. Skye got a ring that broke already and I got a pint of Mamajuana, which is a Dominican drink mixing rum, red wine, and honey together and letting it soak in a bottle with tree bark and herbs. All of the shops have their own brews, which were quite tasty, but the mass-produced stuff that you buy tasted awful and gave me a stomach ache. I was going to bring the bottle full of tree bark home to try and make my own, but it was confiscated at the San Salvador airport. $10 wasted.

List of expenses. The number in the ( ) is how much we paid in Dominican pesos. The US dollar amount was calculated using the exchange rate we received from wherever we exchanged before purchasing.

$20 Dominican Tourist Card ($10/person)
$35 Taxi from airport to Bavaro Beach
$5 Breakfast pastries at Delices Francais
$2 Smoothie
$.68 (30 DRP) Water
$5.23 (230 DRP) Lunch Chicken Pesto Sandwich at Sweet Bella Napoli
$10 SeaPro Divers Scuba Refresh (tip)
$15.23 (670 DRP) Dinner Vegetable Wok at Balicana
$10.57 (465 DRP) Whiskey and Coca-Cola
$90 SCUBA SeaPro Divers at El Nino
$5 (200 DRP) Breakfast pastries at Delices Francais
$7.72 (340) Lunch Venezualan Arepas at Pepito City
$2 (90) Waters
$11.68 Dinner Chicken at Garota Rodizio and Grill
$3.75 (165) Dessert Nutella Rolls at Sweet Bella Napoli
$196 ZIPLINE and Hoyo Azul at Scape Park
$9.89 (435) Souvenirs- Ring and Mamajuana
$7.95 (350) Dinner Beef, rice, beans, plantains at La Posada de Gladys
$1.48 (65) Dessert Flan at Sweet Bella Napoli
$1.36 (60) Water
$3.4 (150) Breakfast pastries at Delices Francais
$0.91 (40) Water
$1.93 (85) Coca-Cola
$10.90 (480) Lunch Chicken Fingers at Poseidon
$9.09 (400) Dinner Crepes at Nam Nam
$3.75 (165) Dessert Nutella Rolls at Sweet Bella Napoli
$0.68 (30) Water
$4 Breakfast pastries at Delices Francais
$5 Ride to airport from host

Expense Report: Dominican Republic, Panama, El Salvador, and Costa Rica

We spent twelve days traveling over the 2015 winter break. We departed Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport at 6:22 on Friday, December 18th, just 3.5 hours after school let out for break. We arrived back in the US at Chicago O’Hare on December 30th at 1:45 EST.

The breakdown of our expenses is below. I will post a more thorough expense report for each individual country we visited as well. Those expense reports can be found at the following links: Dominican Republic, Panama, El Salvador, and Costa Rica.

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We transferred Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United MileagePlus in order to book our flights. We paid $394 and 95,000 points for two people to see four countries. You can read more about booking the reward with my How We Got There: Dominican Republic, Panama, El Salvador, and Costa Rica post. We took 7 flights in total.


We spent $700 on 10 nights of accommodations. Our  accommodations included four nights in the Dominican for $42 per night, five nights in Costa Rica for $84 per night, one night in Panama City for $108 per night and one night in the El Salvador International Airport and on a plane for free.


Over our twelve days of travel, we spent $283 on food. That’s less than $25 a day for eating out almost every meal. We were able to save a ton of money in this category by splitting entrees for almost every meal, with the exception being on Christmas day. We also saved money by getting bread and jam from a grocery store to eat for breakfast in Costa Rica. Skye also made a pasta dinner one night in Costa Rica.


Our biggest expense, even above accommodations and flights, were our excursions. We spent $830 on excursions. This is much higher than what we typically spend in this category, but is the norm for where we were traveling. There wasn’t much in the form of free and easy sights to see. Our $830 included $235 for two SCUBA diving trips, $240 for two zip-lining tours, approximately $90 for two scooter rentals and gas, $36 for a short hike to swim in a cenote, $96 for a layover taxi tour around Panama City for 5 hours, and $135 for a layover guide around San Salvador.

How We Got There: Dominican Republic, Panama, El Salvador, and Costa Rica

During our cross country bicycle tour of 60 days and 3,200 miles, Skye and I decided that we had probably earned a tropical and relaxing vacation. This is how we booked that reward with points.

Ziplining in the Dominican Republic!

We traveled with United MileagePlus miles to the Dominican Republic, Panama, El Salvador, and Costa Rica over winter break from December 18 – 30th. We earned the majority of our points through the Chase Freedom and Chase Sapphire Preferred to earn Chase Ultimate Rewards. Ultimate Rewards transfer to airline partners such as United, Southwest, British Airways, and Virgin Atlantic. They also transfer to hotel partners such as Hyatt, IHG, Marriot, and Ritz-Carlton. We knew we wanted to fly to the Caribbean and/or Latin America and, after some research, determined transferring to United Airlines was our best option.

I began searching United’s website for award availability and I really like how easy it is to use. There is simply a box titled “Search for award travel” that you need to check while searching for flights.

We could have easily booked a round-trip flight to either the Dominican or Costa Rica, but why see only one country when you can experience two for the same price? United allows a stopover on the way to your destination for no extra cost. A stopover is a “break of journey” between your origin and destination of any length.

Walking through O’Hare Airport in Chicago to catch our plane to the Dominican Republic.

My first step was to search for one way award availability. The goal on United is to find their Saver Awards. They are in the same cabin as the standard award, but cost less miles. I really started my search in early October, which is kind of late to look for awards over a peak travel time like the winter holiday.

I was able to find an Economy Saver Award home from Liberia, Costa Rica to Chicago for 17,500 per person. Score! This is what we were looking for. It departed Costa Rica on the 29th in the afternoon and arrived in Chicago on the 30th after a layover in El Salvador. Skye needed to work on the 31st so this was perfect.

We took this plane from San Salvador to Liberia and Liberia back to San Salvador!

The next step was to find another location to go to before Costa Rica. I was searching locations such as Panama, the Bahamas, Aruba, etc. Pretty much anything that would provide a tropical beach was on the list. I couldn’t find any Economy Saver Awards after hours/days of searching.

I started narrowing in on Punta Cana, Dominican Republic because I was seeing more availability there. I finally found a flight I liked at a decent award. It wasn’t the 17,500 award I was hoping for in Economy, but I did find a 30,000 Saver Award in Business/First Class! The Standard Award in Economy is 35,000 so we were going to save 5,000 per person and travel in Business/First Class. However, this was traveling from Chicago to Punta Cana so I wanted to see if I could do one better. And I did! I found an additional flight from Kalamazoo that leaves at 6:22 pm, school got out at 3pm for winter break on the same day, that arrived in Chicago in plenty of time to catch our flight to Punta Cana. As frugal travelers, we don’t usually opt for first class, but since I could only find Standard Awards in Economy, I was willing to save 5,000 points for Business/First Class.

Business class meant free food and entertainment!

This gave us our package for 47,500 per person for a total of 95,000 points. We had easily accrued this many points after both opening up the Freedom and Sapphire Preferred. It wasn’t the 35,000 per person and 70,000 total I was hoping for with Saver Awards in Economy, but we were definitely treated to a rare first class experience for us.

However, I wasn’t done perfecting this trip quite yet. Why see two countries when you could see three? In order to connect from the Dominican to Costa Rica, we had to travel through Panama City, Panama. Panama City is the main hub of Central America. I quickly found a flight from Punta Cana to Panama City on the 23rd, but couldn’t find a good outbound flight to Liberia.

View of the Dominican Republic coast from our plane.

This is when magic struck. I found a flight out the next morning to San Salvador, El Salvador and then another one to Liberia 7.5 hours after that. This enabled us to explore Panama City for five hours, get a hotel room for the night, then wake up and fly to San Salvador to see the city there, and then on to our final destination of Liberia, Costa Rica. This added no extra miles, only some airport taxes and fees, to add two more countries to our travel map.

I was able to book this all online at United.com by clicking on multi-city travel and plugging in all of the cities for the flights that I had already found.

I am very happy with my first experience booking flights with miles and really enjoyed the entire process. I can’t wait to do it again!