Lots of people have bucket lists, and I’ve been meaning to write mine down for quite some time. On my mental bucket list, Panama has always held a spot near the top of the leaderboard. The country has obviously had a lot of US influence over the years, though that has significantly waned since the canal was officially handed over to Panama at the end of last century. I was happy to schedule it for a family spring break trip, especially since we only booked it about 6 weeks ahead of time. Here’s a breakdown of what I expect to cover in a series of posts about our trip (I reserve the right to be wrong and consolidate or add as necessary):
- Booking a Trip To Panama
- Getting There. Planes and Rental Cars
- Westin Playa Bonita: Rooms Review
- Westin Playa Bonita: Restaurants & Activities
- Fantasia del Mar: Transiting the Panama Canal
- A Look At The Locks From Miraflores
- A Brief Exploration of Downtown Panama
- Wrapping Up And Heading Home
The booking of this trip was a more convoluted path than some of our past vacations. My daughter had already decided she wanted to go somewhere that had lots of snow for spring break. That was her only criteria. My wife and I preferred going somewhere warm and attempted a few strategies to change her mind. I compiled a list of properties and start showing our daughter various pictures of resort destinations (the vast majority being warm weather destinations). But, we just couldn’t shake our daughter from her quest for snow.
So, I went about booking us a trip to a ski resort North of Montreal. I booked hotel reservations and got a suite worked out for the length of our stay that would be perfect for our family. Then I found the ideal airline flights and redeemed a bunch of airline miles for the tickets. We were all set!
That’s when my daughter decided she wanted to go somewhere warm.
This is a great example of why status matters. Because of my 1K status with United Airlines, I was able to cancel all of our airline tickets with no penalty. Starwood refunded us our Starpoints and suite upgrades. Back to square one!
Our son is just a shade over 2 years old and doesn’t travel nearly as well as our daughter does. He doesn’t like sitting still, so a long flight wasn’t in our plans. The Caribbean seemed likely so I set out to find a place that had a great room at a resort property. And 4 airline tickets using miles. Preferably in First Class. Oh, and this was 3 weeks before spring break. No problem!
I spent quite a few hours missing the obvious. I have enough American AAdvantage and United Mileage Plus miles to book our 4 tickets on either airline, so that gave me some options. But when you’re traveling with young kids you need to consider flight times more carefully. Very early and very late flights disrupt children’s sleep plans, which in turn disrupt parent’s vacation enjoyment in an exponential fashion. Same for very long flights.
It was quickly apparent we wouldn’t be flying anywhere direct unless I was willing to pay a lot of money. Connecting options really weren’t much better. Bahamas, Grand Cayman, Aruba, St. Thomas, all had complications that seemed insurmountable. I was generally finding more seats available on United than American which struck me as a bit odd since American has some good Caribbean availability. But, they’ve gutted the schedule out of our home airport (Washington Dulles), so there was no joy there.
The United options weren’t really that much better. United partners with Copa Airlines, the “flag” carrier of Panama. There was a ton of availability using my MileagePlus miles, but everything I pulled up had a connection with a long layover. And, they all required us to fly to Panama first, hang out for a while in the airport, then fly on to somewhere in the Caribbean later in the evening.
That’s when the bag of bricks hanging over my head finally dropped and pointed out the obvious, that Panama had been our bucket list for a while. And this is also where my 1K status came in handy again. I was able to grab 4 tickets real quick (in First Class, no less), knowing that I could refund the miles to my account with no penalty if I couldn’t find a hotel. These tickets were only a bit more than a domestic US ticket (30,000 miles for coach and 60,000 miles for first).
I turned quickly to my two go-to hotel programs, Hyatt and Starwood. Hyatt doesn’t have any properties in Panama (though they have a couple on the way) but Starwood had 8, of which a few looked very promising.
Some quick research lead me to book the Westin Playa Bonita, a resort property not far from Panama City. It can be booked for 12,000 Starpoints a night, and they also have some great packages that include free full breakfast, a 5th paid night free and food & beverage credits to use on property.
A long path to get to a good result, but it’s also a great reminder that your points and miles can be used on short notice for peak travel times with just a little bit of patience. There’s plenty of opportunities out there if you’re willing to invest just a little bit of time to put it all together. And, I’m always happy to answer questions to help you plan that dream trip!
I’ll cover our trip down to Panama in the next post, and then on to the hotel and sightseeing we were able to enjoy. Hope you enjoy the trip!