Booked: South America 2021
My first international trip of 2021 will lead me to explore a new continent, try out new languages, and visit two world adventure cities. I have three main goals for this trip:
Accommodate a full-time remote work schedule with zero interruptions
Pay $0 cash out of pocket on taxes, fees, and accommodation
Step out of my comfort zone and practice survival Spanish
This trip will see me spending a weekend in Bogota, Colombia, two weeks in Ecuador, and a weekend in Fort Lauderdale.
Planning: The Outbound Route
After testing different Aeroplan combinations to test how dynamic pricing affects Air Canada flights, I booked this flight on a total fluke. As predicted, I saw prices to Europe and Asia well above the published range. The sole exception was a flight to Quito, with two stops in Toronto and Bogota, the first two legs in Air Canada 777 and 787 Business Class and the third leg on an Avianca A321 in Business Class. The published price was 49.3 thousand Aeroplan, well below the 60 thousand quoted range. I was intrigued. Having never been to South America and given the cheap price, I booked it. Worst case, a flexible booking allowance would let me change or cancel for no fees later.
I pondered if adding a stopover in Bogota was worth it. I was constrained to a maximum two-week trip, and a weekend in Bogota potentially put plans to spend a weekend in Baños in jeopardy. Ultimately, two countries are better than one, and I phoned Air Canada to push my the Avianca flight by two days. Oddly, this came to an additional 5500 points rather than what an additional stopover should cost, a flat 5000. The agent and I couldn't figure out why, but this goes to show you why Air Canada's dynamic pricing is still...weird. No point complaining about 500 points.
Planning: The Inbound Route
If the outbound route was a fluke of a booking, the inbound was anything but. I stressed over this for days, figuring out the most optimal way to book. I had to balance many issues: I was connecting through the States, so a Covid test is required. Did it make sense to get one PCR in Quito and use it for a flight to the US and Canada? Or should I get an antigen in Quito and a PCR in the States, giving me more time in Florida? I wanted to fly United with my newly minted United Silver status and try out some Centurion lounges, but I couldn't find an optimal way home. Further, the Ecuadorian government layer on heavy departure taxes of nearly $175, stripping away all value received from an award booking.
The flight leaving Quito proved to be highly challenging. I couldn't fly during the day due to work constraints, and the high departure tax increased prices across the board. The idea was to fly JetBlue, on their interesting, low-competition route, from UIO - FLL. I'd pay cash, stay for a night, and would be able to use the same PCR obtained in Ecuador to board my flight to Canada. I booked a latitude award fare from Fort Lauderdale to Vancouver, connecting in Montreal, both legs on the A330. I wanted to burn some eUpgrade credits, and for four, it made sense. I immediately cleared the J cabin on the YUL - YVR leg but would be waitlisted from FLL - YUL. Unfortunately, the JetBlue flight cost increased the overall trip by a lot - but it's a new carrier for me, and I'm excited to try it out. Note that the jet operating does not have Mint suites installed, thankfully. I'm sure I'd be bidding for a last-minute upgrade if that was the case.
Bogota: Labour Day Weekend
I have put a lot of thought into Bogota. I've wanted to visit for a while. With such a short time, I need to pack as much as I can into the two and a half days I'll be visiting. I am usually pretty good at getting climatized to a higher elevation; however, a 4 AM arrival time will put me to the test. Bogota's elevation is 2640M - the highest city I have visited...until I head to Quito two days later.
With a plentiful stash of Marriott points, I booked W Bogota for 60 thousand points. Cash rates are hovering around 160 USD/night. Using points for this proved low redemption value, especially considering I could book the Sheraton Four Points for 60 USD/night. However, I have many Marriott points, and I have heard excellent things about this property. I am excited because this will be my 75th Marriott Night, and will qualify me for Titanium status. Prior guests have mentioned wonderful surprises waiting for them upon this milestone - from complimentary champagne to cake. After requalifying for Marriott Platinum status earlier this year and earning five Suite Night Awards, I decided to apply two to this booking. With the SNAs expiring soon, I thought this would be a good choice and might help me "suite-talk" or pay a surcharge to the top-tier WOW Suite levels (fingers crossed).
I am excited to try out the Bogota Bike Tours as a fun way to see the city and get acclimate. Prior guests rave about it being the best way to see the city, try new food, and I'll be thankful to have a translator by my side for the first day in South America while I settle in.
For my second day, I'll be participating in a horseback tour. Booked through Airbnb experiences, this will be my first time riding a horse. What better place to do it than on a tour of the Andes, just outside Bogota? Transportation from the hotel, food, and drink included.
Quito: September 6 - 16
My time in Quito will be much more relaxed than in Bogota. I have no major plans, will be playing it by ear, and will be spending my days working from home.
Hotel rates are cheap in Quito. I considered paying to stay in the JW Marriott for the entire two weeks, but I'd be missing access to a kitchen and would be banking on a complimentary upgrade to a suite for more space. I elected to stay in an Airbnb in the La Carolina neighbourhood - one of the nicer areas, with surrounding parks and experimental kitchens and bars.
With my flight leaving at midnight and without late checkout at Airbnbs, I had to book my final night in the JW Marriott Quito to give me a spot to work from and to relax before heading to the airport to catch a JetBlue flight to Florida.
I joined the group Expats in Quito, Ecuador to meet some people and find hiking groups. Everyone has been great. I am in WhatsApp channels, and am meeting up with a few people and have some hikes scheduled.
I would like to spend the weekend in Baños and am considering some exhilarating activities such as white water rafting or bungee jumping. It not, I'd love to visit the thermal baths and mountain swing and hike to the Devil's Cauldron. I am sure some Facebook group expats would be interested in sharing some transportation costs involved, so I'm not on the hook for a full car rental.
Fort Lauderdale: September 17 - 18
This trip is one of the early morning arrivals: Bogota at 4 AM and Fort Lauderdale at 5:30 AM. That's okay, as it means I can reuse my PCR test obtained in Quito for arrival into both the US and Canada, saving me money and another tickle in my nose.
I have always wanted to stay in W South Beach. However, it would be too hard to justify the extra distance from Fort Lauderdale airport, where I will be flying in and out, especially for a one-night stay. I considered the Marriott Harbor Beach Resort and Spa but ultimately booked W Fort Lauderdale. Recent renovations, plus healthy SNA redemptions, made this the place for my one night in Florida. Cash rates hover around 550 USD/night, so my PointSaver redemption of 40 thousand Bonvoy Points was good value.
Once again, I applied SNAs, and hope to clear into a mid-level Fabulous or Fantastic suite.
The bad: the hotel comes with a "resort" fee of 45 USD/night. Marriott is well behind its competitors in regards to waiving resort fees on award redemptions. For this nearly 60 CAD fee, I get "two beach chairs and an umbrella, a two-hour bike rental, phone calls, two bottles of water, and in-room internet." As a Marriott Titanium member, I already receive internet for free, so I will be sure to inquire about a replacement benefit to help swallow this high fee. Historically, I have been compensated with cocktails for two, or a fee reduction at other Marriott brands.
I am way past due for an international trip. I am excited to explore a new continent, burn some points, leverage latitude fares and eUpgrades, and visit W Hotels. Bogota and Quito are adventure capitals of the world, and I'm excited to meet some interesting people, try new things, and sample some of South America's best culture.
I know that focusing on cost reduction would help support people traveling more frequently. One of the reasons I started this blog is that I want to focus on reducing costs and increasing cost transparency. See below for a complete cost breakdown of this trip. The JetBlue flight, award taxes and fees, and Quito Airbnb was offset by Scotiabank's recent healthy welcome bonus, nearly wiping out all additional cash costs in this trip, satisfying goal number two.