$0 Trip to Latin America: Introduction

Screen Shot 2014-08-31 at 8.43.23 PMI thought about calling this series the Farewell to Royal Ambassador trip, or the Latin Hopper trip. But the goal is to have an abso-freaking-lutely free trip. Like $0.00. No taxes. No fuel surcharges (not that I would ever do that). No dollars.

While I’m not above couchsurfing and hitchhiking, this is a miles and points based trip. All flying and all 5 star luxury hotels. And to be clear, we are not paying for these miles/points. Meaning, these miles/points did not come from paying for flights/hotels, they did not come from just buying them from the airlines/hotels, and they did not come from some expensive MS strategy. It’s much more simple than that.

Basic outline:

  • 34,000 Lufthansa miles for both flights down
  • 40,000 United miles for both flights down
  • 35,000 AA miles for both flights back
  • 125,000 IHG points for both
  • At least 45,000 Barclay Arrival Plus points to cover taxes and fees

How we got the miles?

  • 60,000 Chase Ink Bold bonus – used 40,000 for United miles
  • 50,000 Aadvantage card bonus – used 35,000
  • 80,000 IHG card bonus x2 (160,000) – used 125,000
  • 50,000 Lufthansa card bonus– used 34,000
  • 40,000 Barclay card bonus

Since these cards were spread out enough I could almost hit all the spends on natural spending. Plus, there are a ton of free ways to MS, including Amazon Payments. So between light MS and natural spending (not changing spending routine at all) we got the bonuses and some miles.

I continued to put money on the Barclay card to make some extra cash since it provides 2 points per dollar. 10,000 points covers $100, which covered the airport taxes.

And with the IHG cards, that’s a story of its own. But in short, there are links for an 80,000 point IHG MasterCard (we do not receive a commission for this card). An interesting thing happened. See not too long ago, the IHG card was a visa card. There are some cases of people who had closed the IHG card being able to get the MasterCard as well. Hypothetically of course.

Either way, it’s publicly available for any first time card holders. So with the two of us now having the MasterCard, that’s 80,000 points each, and 160,000 IHG points total.

The arrival points were first used to cover flight airport taxes and then for transportation. But we’ll have more on that later.

And the last detail, and the only voodoo that had to happen to make this work. The Lufthanasa card technically came with a fee for the first year. For this reason, I’d put the Lufthansa card much lower on the list than many of the other cards mentioned. However, we may or may not have come even and donated 12,500 miles for the break-even cause.

Why it was able to happen?

Besides the credit cards… there were two deals I combined to make one awesome latin hopper trip.

Deal One: The PointBreaks list came

IHG PointBreaks, as you may know, is a list of hotels that are bookable for 2 months and all hotels are 5,000 points a night… which is nothing.

The list included 4 InterContinentals in Latin America, and they were new places. InterContinental Panama, Panama; InterContinental Cali, Colombia; InterContinental San Jose, Costa Rica; InterContinental Real Guatemala City, Guatemala.

We’ve spent one night in Panama City and by my travel standards, you can’t say you really know a place from one night. Plus, there’s a lot around to see in the area. However we’ve never been to Colombia, Costa Rica, or Guatemala! So this seemed like a great opportunity to go someplace new.

Deal Two: United Stopovers

Basically, as soon as I saw the deal, I figured I’d book the hotels then try to book a flight to connect them. And then worry about booking a flight there.

So for 20,000 miles  I booked a flight on United that went from Central America to South America and back to Central America. Except instead of returning to Panama city we returned to Guatemala City.

The ticket was this:

BtrHdOVCEAIOw1b (2)

If I had Amex points I would have totally done the entire thing on ANA miles or something to bring down the price. But I ended up hacking a number of things together. Because I’m flying out of Albequerque and returning to Las Vegas. So the entire thing is an odd ticket all together.

All the destinations together are: ABQ – PTY – CLO – SJO – GUA – LAS. Not at all a typical ticket.

So I used Lufthansa down and [will use] AA back.

One plus is that Lufthansa allows 24 hour layovers in the US, so we got a very long layover in Houston and I spent the day with my family. We got in at 11am and flew out the next morning. So it wasn’t long, but always nice to spend time with family.

(*Btw, I’m not from Texas and have never lived there*)


Totaling up the miles

Now it’s not a killer deal when you add it all up, 54,500 miles total per person. Considering that a regular roundtrip to Panama City would have been 35,000 miles on any airline, and the same trip could be bookable for 38,000 ANA miles. Still, I’m content with seeing all of this for 54,500 seeing 4 countries and open-jawing the ticket home. And the fact of the matter is, we were able to do this with 6 credit cards between the two of us and $0 out of pocket dollars spent.

A hodgepodge ticket, that gets me all free travel. Now if only I could get free food, (a living expense). Oh wait…


Deal 3: Farwell to RA Status

IHG has an unpublished top tier status called, Royal Ambassador. Until recently, when ever you earned this status (like after 70 paid stays), you also got a referral certificate to give to a friend. These things were traded pretty heavy on the internet… that is until they took away those certificates. I was fortunate enough to make a friend who had a cert a year ago when they were still offering them.

One year later, and our status is expiring. It only works at InterContinentals and it’s overall a terrible and inconsistent status, but we get lucky often with getting free minibar and lounge access. The lounge means free food in the morning and evening, as well as free drinks. And free minibar means free drinks.

The kicker here is that now we get free food, a non-travel expense that we’d have living anywhere. But because we’re traveling and staying at nice hotels (for free) we now get free food.

Think about it. Our living expenses (which are admittedly very minimal) will decrease because we’re traveling.


How much is travel costing us this trip?

Well $0 on flights and $0 on hotels. And again we’re seeing 4 countries, flying to different cities in the US, and staying all in 5 star hotels.

Travel = $0.00 (+ $0.00 in taxes and fees)

Non-travel costs? Well, because of our travels and elite status, we may actually spend less money on food than we would have living in Charlottesville and living a normal life. Travel in this case, is a wise economical decision.

More to come…

Soon, I’ll have details on how we booked the flights, screen shots for every reimbursement, and after the trip we’ll give every expense we spent on food and other things. We’ll also talk about the trip itself. Seeing these places is the reason behind all this crap. Right now, we’re in Cali, Colombia and I’m really enjoying being here. Perhaps I should detail the earning side too?

Also, if people are interested I can do a post on the hotels too. Our first two hotels we were generously given suites. We’re darn lucky.

People, I’d love your thoughts. If you have any suggestions for what to cover, things that would peak your curiousity, or suggestions at all, please comment below. I want to make this the best darn series ever. And more over, next time someone comments how travel isn’t free, I can point to this series. I’ll be able to point to this series, this trip, and the next trip, and the next trip… and say, “here’s proof, free travel can be done.”

But writing is about the user experience. So you tell me, what would make you share this page and say, “see, this guy did travel for free” if you heard someone say the same?

Much love,

Related Posts:


  1. How about calling this this “Farwell to Spellchecking” blog post?

    • I assure you Mr. Palmer, if there is one more typo I will straight fire the entire editorial staff!
      But really, thanks for pointing it out.

    • Lol!

  2. Had a big grin on my face when I saw you published the first installment in the series. Looking forward to it, thanks as always for the great content.

    • Glad, I hope it lives up to expectations.

  3. As much as I enjoy hearing about the construction and execution of the trips, I would also love to hear about what your experiences are on the ground, so to speak. Not that I consider your blog to be a “travel blog”, but I think it might add even more to what we, your reader’s, are also trying to do- travel.

    • You mean like site-seeing and what not? Posts on the places I go?
      I appreciate this, it’s good feedback.

    • Exactly, a “trip report”, if you will.

  4. I’d love to hear about the hotels too. I thought that elite status benefits were not necessarily honoured on award stays for IHG?

    • They aren’t always, but I have pretty good luck.

  5. I would like to get a second IHG card but I didn’t cancel it so I now have the original Visa IHG but let it get converted Mastercard IHG. So if I cancel this can I then apply for the Mastercard as a first timer?

    Also can I get a second Arrival card or do I have to cancel my first one first? I have a 40K but will they consider the 20K Arrival card a new product?

    Also what is the method to waive the Lufty card fees?

    • Not sure. It’s linked to flyertalk thread there maybe they’d know, honestly that’s your best bet, is asking there.
      Barclay doesn’t really have limiting rules.

  6. That’s a pretty amazing job of getting free tickets & hotels, the current IHG pointbreak list did make it easy. However don’t get so obsessed with “free” that you do yourself a disservice by not really enjoying the country you are in. We were in Belize, Guatemala, Costa Rica & Panama last year and I blogged extensively about the eco-tourism which is one of the main draws of the country. San Jose may have the free chain hotels but it is the least interesting part of the country. Doing day trips to more interesting places will waste a lot of time coming and going from San Jose, especially if you use local buses. Same with Guatemala, GUA is not the best place to hang out and Tikal is amazing! Panama City is closer to the main attractions of the country – the canal, Soberiania NP, craft market, Casco Viejo so that is a really good country to use hotel points in, but you should rent a car for a day.

    • So I was thinking of renting a car in San Jose for our four days. So where do you think I should go?

      Although I checked out Chase UR and the rental prices there were $30/day instead of $9/day for the same company. I’d be paying way too many points. Not sure what to do but will still try to get a car.

      Unfortunately, I looked and Tikal is just so dang far from GUA that I think it will have to be another trip despite being so close yet again. I’d like to do a Belize trip anyways. I’ll be in Cancun in November, maybe I’ll drop down and see.

    • You could do Tikal easily enough if you have Avianca Lifemiles. They really shine in Central & South America. It’s 7000 RT GUA-FRS-GUA plus tax or you can do miles + cash for 3000 miles + $63 RT each. There’s availability going up on 10 Sep at 17:30 and returning 11 Sep 19:10. You can see the ruins in a day. You can either stay in FRS and get the morning shuttle or get a taxi out and stay in the park which is much nicer. Flores is a cute little town and has good food. There’s a photo on my blog of a restaurant menu, don’t want to post links here as your spam blocker will catch it. Just search on Flores & Tikal.

      For Costa Rica, if you have a car and can get up early you could see Parque Nacional Braulio Cariilo but this is best done with a guide so you don’t miss the wildlife. Driving to Arenal for a day to see the volcano would be doable, nice hot springs too. If you want to see Quetzals, go to Savegre (search my blog) but you need to be there early. Call Savegre Mountain Lodge and see if they will let you join their group for a morning. Whatever you do, don’t try to drive yourself to Monteverde, the road is terrible! We didn’t drive in Costa Rica, we used a combination of public buses and tourist shuttles as I can’t drive a manual and automatics were expensive.

    • We stayed at the IC San Jose black when it was on pointbreaks in 2011. Nice hotel. However if you aren’t planning on leaving San Jose you’re doing yourself a disservice by not exploring coasts rica more. There’s a nice road down to the coast now. Manuel Antonio is nice. You could go all the way to Arenal but the La Paz waterfall and garden would suffice.

    • Great. Yea, it’s the shortest of our destinations, only 4 nights. But figured we’d rent a car. Definitely would like a nice drive down the coast. Like route 1 in CA, eh? :-p

    • Wow. That’s like all the info I would have tried to google and spent hours. Am still half planning to rent a car in SJO. So we may hit some of what you recommend. We also want to see the beach and stuff. Don’t know if you get out of the green wild and into the blue, but I’d love to do some of that too.

    • I used to do a lot of diving in the 90’s and a few here and there after marriage. I’m Padi Adv. I kind of lost interest in what’s below the sea as I got more interested in what’s flying around the trees! I think Belize & Roatan are better for diving.

      Manuel Antonio is too far for a day trip, even Carara would be pushing it and by the time you got there the macaws would be having a siesta. Using SJO as a base is really limiting, wish you guys could stay longer and hop around the country more.

  7. I was hoping for a more detailed overview of the accruing of miles. The cards you signed up for come with 18k in spending requirements. It would be nice to know the time frame in which you applied for/received the bonus for all the cards. And how much of the spending requirements were made using free MS techniques (AP/Serve) vs “real” spending. All of these are important pieces of information for someone that would like to plan out one of these “free” vacations.

    • Great. That will be in one of the next posts then. I hope to hit every detail.

  8. Story idea I would like to see you write about, in detail, along with other blog sites: Exactly how do you maintain extensive organization with all the cards, tracking miles, spend requirements etc. We all know about AwardWallet … but do you maintain all your records in the cloud in case your laptop is stolen? What computer and phone do you use? What apps or sites? You both must share an extensive system – so the How of getting all this done would be an enormous benefit to some readers. Finally – if you have all these cards, how do you meet the minimum spend since you seemed obsessed with not spending any money? Maybe a mortgage at home? Howe do you MS overseas? Thanks for listening to these suggestions. Huzzah!

    • Wow great suggestions. I actually have a spreadsheet. Maybe I should look into giving everyone the template. Anyways, just a great suggestion. Hopefully I’ll hit upon all those things. Remind me to do a staying organized post soon (if it doesn’t show up soon), I already have some ideas.

    • Just use Excel and email yourself the spreadsheet. Easy!

    • I use Roboform :-)

      As far as the cards go…I use a folder and my pen. It is pretty thick but works for me. You need to keep it simple and make it work for YOU!

    • I can’t have any more weight in my bags George. 😀

  9. Drew,
    I really enjoyed this post. Just got back from Nola and you motivated me to start planning the next trip!

    Regarding accruing these points, do you guys concentrate more on CC’s, additional MS, or a combination of both?

    I’m interested in reading about additional logistics of how you booked the trip, why you selected the destinations you did, and a trip report.

    You got me hooked and making me think outside of the normal award bookings.

    • Great questions/suggestions.
      I’ll say now that CCs are always big, and MS is really big when I’m in the USA… which is like a month here and a month or two there. Hopefully I’ll hit on those and will have to come back here and remember to add why we selected what we did. Again, hopefully I’ll hit it all.

      I won’t lie to you though… I had to google “nola”.

  10. My favorite part of this post was the following:

    *Btw, I’m not from Texas and have never lived there*

    • lol. I’m telling you ALL the time people ask me about when I lived in Texas. Or something about high school in texas. And I’m like, “dude, I went to school with you since we were kids!” So I steer away from any confusion. No offense to any Texans of course.

  11. I spend a lot of time in Cali. It would have been awesome to meet you IRL. Unfortunately I’m out of town.

    Hope you are enjoying Cali and learning how to dance Salsa!

    • Oh bummer! Let me know if you have any recommendations though.

      Man. Tonight on the boulevard I saw some legit Salsa dance. No way could I do that. Was sooo awesome to watch though. They were like pros. Everyone in Cali dance like that?

  12. Darius interviewed a blogger who posted a link to his Excel spread sheet for tracking … super helpful. But this kind of everyday, practical advise is woefully missing in most blogs. It is fun to brag about bagging miles and redemptions, but the nitty-gritty of establishing and maintaining organization provides tremendous value to newbies or those on the cusp of Advanced … huzzah and kudos 😉

  13. Drew, I have a question, but I want to try to lay out my thinking before I ask it. The money you spent to reach the bonuses you earned for the five cards you mentioned (Chase Ink Bold, AAdvantage, IHG, Lufthansa, and Barclay) must have taken about 25% of your $20K annual budget (around $5-6K?). Considering this trip wasn’t a significant amount of time compared to a full year, it doesnt seem like you would be able to get that many other bonuses to last the other 50 weeks of the year with the remaining $16K in your budget. So, the question is, if it took 100,000+ miles for one trip on 5 card bonuses on a 1/5 of your budget in spending for at most a few weeks, how can you do this all year unless you were making 2.6 million points a year? Matt


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We have spent the majority of our marriage traveling full time, living out of hotels.   All the while, we list our expenses publicly, budgeting $25,000 a year for our nomadic life while still staying in mostly 4 or 5 star hotels across ~20 countries a year.
Go to About Me to learn more.