Friday, October 18, 2013

Big Ships: Trip Data and Rationale

This trip originated in early April when Copa had a deal between NYC and Montevideo, Uruguay for $400 round trip, bookable through end of schedule. We had previously been to Uruguay, but only to Colonia, so it was an appealing new destination at a great price.  When we realized that it was possible to add a stopover in Panama City for just $40 more, it was a deal.   We eventually booked our positioning flights on United, to and from LaGuardia, knowing that we would need to do the usual cross-Long-Island waltz between airports.

For our hotel night in New York, we were originally going to use a Radisson Free Night cert at the Martinique in Manhattan, but when Priority Club (oops, I mean IHG) launched the Big Win promotion and NYC was one of my two target cities (along with Denver, go figure) we decided to stay near LaGuardia at the Holiday Inn Express.  Sure, the room was $200 (about the going rate in the area), but we got back more than that in points when it was all said and done (not really kidding).

For our lodging in Panama, we opted to stay the Country Inn and Suites by Carlson since it is located next to the canal and would give the kids a chance to watch some big ships.  Plus, with my Gold status and credit card benefits, we would be able to use 28K points for one night, and get the next night free – a really good deal.  We also expected a decent chance at an upgrade, and sure enough, we were upgraded to a canal view master suite, which was wonderful.  This was easily the fanciest Country Inn that we've ever been too and could probably pass as a Radisson. 

In Montevideo, we also stayed at a Carlson property, the Radisson Victoria Plaza.  This time we used Free Night certificates that we had earned in last year’s Stay One Get One promotion (stay at any Radisson in the US, get a free night at any Radisson in North America – we’re still not sure how they allowed these to be used in Uruguay, but hey, it’s not the first time we’ve seen loyalty programs fail geography, so we’ve learned not to question it!)  We used three free nights in total, including the night we arrived at 430AM and also the night we left at 11PM to go back to the airport.  So we were there for less than 48 hours, but somehow used 3 nights of certs.  (In reality, we weren’t too bothered by it because the certs were expiring soon anyway, and we had acquired them at a modest cost.) 

Just as in Panama, the hotel treated us as royalty, er, I mean like a diplomat, even assigning us an Ambassador Suite on the 21st floor overlooking the harbor.  It was very classic.  Wood floors, crystal chandeliers, dark wood furniture….  You name it, they made sure that you felt like you had walked back into the 70’s, right down to the welcoming faint cigarette smoke smell.  But we couldn’t complain because the sheer amount of space was awesome—probably close to 800 sq ft.  Breakfast was included, but based on our late arrival and change of time zones, we never made it up in time for it.  Parking was valet at $10 per day, but I was able to talk them out of it claiming that I thought it should be waived for Gold members.

For transportation, we rented cars in both countries.  In Panama, we thought it absolutely made sense to rent a car because we knew that the hotel was about a $40 cab ride away and then we’d want to go to the Canal.  When we found a mid-size SUV for about $100, it seemed like a no-brainer.  And it was, until they sprung the mandatory Panamanian taxes on us of about $40.  At that point, we probably broke even as compared to a cab, but with two kiddos (and their car seats) there is a certain convenience to having your own wheels.  We don’t regret our decision. 

In Uruguay, we knew the economics were less in our favor.  We expected to arrive at 230AM, which would probably negate our ability to take the bus to the city.  And our research indicated that the taxi mafia is rather unpredictable, with fares to the city ranging from $50-$80.  So we again rented a car, this time from Avis at $135, as they were the only agency that stays open all night.  The problem here was that car rental in Montevideo is not a high-volume operation.  There is one agent and he both rents you the car (which takes forever) and then he goes out to the parking lot to get the car and drive it up to the terminal for you.  (The procedure is the same at Panama City, but they have  few more staff so the operation scales a bit better.)  The problem was that the agent had just left to get someone a car before we got there, so we had to wait for him to come back before we could even get started.  I would estimate that we blew ¾ of an hour getting a car, time that we could have been sleeping!  Interestingly, the car only had a half tank of gas (slightly less actually) – the agent explained that there had been a strike the day before so they couldn’t fill it up.  Thus, I was to return it with half a tank, something that is actually relatively hard to do.  (How do you tell the guy at the filling station that you only want half a tank of gas???  Now try doing that in Spanish!  In the end, we estimated the MPG of the car and got pretty close.

In reality, we probably didn’t need the car as we didn’t use it for anything other than getting to / from the hotel.   Montevideo is quite walkable and we really didn’t have time to leave the city.  By the time we got the parking waived, we might have broken even versus taking a cab, but again, it was nice to buckle the car seats in once and be done. 

Flying Copa was a bit of an adventure.  The good side was that we got upgraded on 3 of the 4 flights.  The downside is that the flight we didn’t get upgraded on turned out to be the worst debacle I’ve ever experienced in air travel.

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