Travel Hacking Costa Rica: How we used the Bonvoy Brilliant sign-up bonus
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We have done some travel hacking in the past (namely, our hotel stay in Tokyo in the fall of 2017). But for the most part, we are stockpiling travel rewards to cash in during early retirement. Our expectation is that we can take better advantage of our flexible schedules for valuable redemption. Also, it will enable us to travel without spending cash during those critical first few years when sequence risk is greatest.

That said, I was targeted in late 2018 with a 125,000 points offer for the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express card. We didn’t have a set plan for how to use these points, but this was a solid offer. We also knew we didn’t want to keep another premium annual fee travel card in either of our wallets long term. The card also came with a $300 annual credit to use at Marriott–automatically credited for stays or incidental charges. We decided it would be worth harvesting the sign up bonus to see how valuable the card would be for us. Another unexpected, but much enjoyed perk was that the gold status qualified me for a match to Caesar’s Diamond. You might recall that we made great use of the Diamond status in Las Vegas.

Our $300 Marriott credit was spent within two months and covered one night at a beachfront hotel following Mr. Vine’s grandfather’s birthday in Florida and meals during our stay at the Le Meridien Saigon during our Vietnam trip (we had pre-paid for the hotel stay). The card also provides Marriott Gold status, which got us a nice upgrade to a corner room in Saigon. Upon reaching the minimum spend, my sign up bonus was credited.

We started brainstorming possible ways to redeem the sign up bonus while I still had gold status because we were already planning to cancel the card. The card isn’t a bad value; we just didn’t want to pre-pay for $450 worth of Marriott charges every year. I had my eye on a warm weather destination in the winter. We also did some research to figure out which Marriott properties were particularly nice for the points cost. 

In addition the sign up bonus, I had 30,000 or so points in my account (both from earning with the card and hotel stays). I first booked the W Hotel in Punta Mita, Mexico. The redemption was a little more costly than my balance at the time, but with a year to go, there were lots of ways to make up the shortfall. 

After a few months of continued research, I changed my mind. El Mangroove, a boutique hotel in Costa Rica, looked like a better value and was a redemption I could fully cover with my available balance. I canceled the W and reserved a room at the El Mangroove, thinking it would be a placeholder in case nothing else struck our fancy. Months passed and we didn’t change our minds. We also didn’t change our minds about wanting a warm weather getaway. 

Flights were a bit problematic, with no great itineraries from the midwest to Liberia, Costa Rica. Mr. Vine found a Delta flight that could be booked with American Express Membership Rewards at a decent redemption rate. We have a business-owning friend and frequent travel companion who holds a Platinum card and is swimming in points. We pitched a plan whereby we would cover the hotel and our friend would buy our plane tickets. Our friend agreed and booked the plane tickets that evening. 

The cash cost of the hotel for our stay is $2,650. Flight prices varied, but we estimated roundtrip airfare at $600 per person. We’re getting $3,850 worth of value for 150,000 Bonvoy points. The hotel alone yields a redemption rate of around 1.8 cents per point, but including the flights brings it to 2.6 cents per point. Even subtracting the $450 annual fee from the hotel price, our redemption rate was still 1.5 cents per point (nearly double the typical valuation of 0.8 cents per point). It doesn’t seem fair to subtract the full annual fee as $300 was credited towards other travel. 

The Bonvoy Brilliant turned out to be an amazing card to harvest the sign up bonus. We calculated that the card would have likely provided a positive return of its annual fee if we had opted to keep it. However, to make it worth it, we’d need to spend at least $450 per year at Marriott hotels. It’s likely that my limited work travel would have accomplished this, but the hassle of fronting those stays in the form of paying the annual fee was not ideal. We’re already tied into another hotel chain and we have our timeshare. For all of these reasons, we decided not to renew. Here is a quick recap of what the Bonvoy Brilliant got us in the first year: Bonvoy Gold status; Caesars Diamond status; a five night stay worth $2600 in Costa Rica (which we split with a friend in exchange for two roundtrip plane tickets); an upgraded room at Le Meridien Saigon; nine meals (six breakfasts, three dinners) at Le Meridien Saigon; and one beachfront room at the Courtyard Jacksonville Beach. Approximate total value: $4,500. That’s incredible. Future years would be significantly less valuable because the sign up bonus is, of course, a one time thing. The big value came from the Costa Rica room and swap for airfare. 

We’re delighted with the value we’re getting from the Costa Rica trip. It was a fair amount of work, but we certainly squeezed a lot of value out of the Marriott card (which I’ve since canceled). We anticipate a rental car, food and drink, and activities (e.g. national park admissions) as additional out of pocket expenses. This should make for an economical vacation. 

Do you travel hack? Do you spend points as you earn them or save them for aspirational or future trips? What’s a favorite travel hack success story? 

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