What’s in Dia’s wallet: Panama on Points


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One morning during Spring Break as I sipped coffee from my hotel balcony while watching ships enter the Panama Canal, I wondered why no one seems to be talking about how Panama is an absolute steal if you are redeeming your miles and points. So let’s do that. 

I used points in three different ways—a Panama hat trick, if you will—to pay for my plane ticket, hotel, and activities for my Panama City trip. Each way allowed me to get outsized value from my points, so I’ll go through them one-by-one so you can see how the sausage is made. I’m a bit of an outlier in that I have a larger credit card collection than most, but the principles are the same and I hope will help you think strategically about how and where you spend your hard-earned points.

Trick #1: There is wide-open availability on Copa Airlines award tickets

Copa Airlines is a vastly under-rated Star Alliance partner that is based in Panama City. The airline has a hub-and-spoke route network between North, Central and South America and serves more cities in the United States than you would imagine:

Atlanta Fort Lauderdale Orlando
Austin Los Angeles San Francisco
Baltimore Las Vegas Tampa
Chicago Miami Washington DC
Denver New York

Because there are so many gateways, there are also so many more options when you are looking for award tickets. For instance, here’s coach saver availability in October from Baltimore to Panama City looking on United’s website:

United

20,000 United MileagePlus miles in coach for a five-hour flight is a pretty good deal. But a little magic can turn good to great. Let’s head over to Air Canada’s frequent flyer program, Aeroplan, and look for the same flight on the same date:

Aeroplan

That 20,000 miles just dropped to 12,500. And even better, business class on the same flight is only 25,000 miles. So for just 12,500 more miles you can get a comfy seat up front (on a five-hour flight, worth every penny), an extra checked bag, and lounge access. And on some routes, you may even get a lie-flat seat. Needless to say, that’s the option I took. For me it was an especially good deal because even though I was traveling during Easter week, award tickets on Copa were still plentiful. 

To find this deal, I used one of my favorite tools of the trade: point.me. The good news is that through a partnership with Bilt Mastercard®, I was able to search both United and Aeroplan availability for free.

To get Air Canada miles, I turned to my handy Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card card and transferred 50,000 Capital One Miles for a round-trip ticket in business class. Aeroplan has a ton of transfer partners that all transfer 1:1, so I also could have used Amex Membership Rewards, Bilt Rewards, or Chase Ultimate Rewards® . 

You will notice in the fine print that Air Canada charges a higher tax ($79 CAN or $58 USD) vs. United ($5.60) so if not spending a penny is your priority, you may still want to go with United. And United allows you to cancel for free, while Air Canada may charge a fee so keep that in mind as well. 

Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card

Intro bonus


Earn 75,000 bonus miles after spending $4,000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening






Annual Fee $395
Purchase APR 19.99%–29.99% variable
Foreign Transaction Fee None


Trick #2: Multiple points programs transfer 1:2 to Choice Privileges

Choice Privileges is the TJ Maxx of hotel rewards programs. You can’t go in guaranteeing you will find something that fits, but when you do you’ll get a great deal. That’s what happened for me in Panama City.

Choice hotels

The Radisson Panama Canal sits smack dab in front of the canal and Easter week went for 8,000 points a night. At the moment nights are available for 16,000 points per night. The hotel, which used to be a Country Inn and Suites, is by no means luxurious. But it is clean, has a lovely pool and the aforementioned perfect location for ship-spotting. Ubers are cheap and plentiful so even though it’s a bit out of the city most Ubers I took were around $5 USD. 

The secret sauce for Choice Privileges is the 1:2 transfer ratio from Citi Premier ThankYou Points and Autograph points. This means I only paid 4,000 Citi points per night for my hotel room. And I was even able to book an ocean-view suite because Choice had both the standard room and the suite bookable for the same amount of points.

Chase Sapphire Reserve®

Intro bonus


60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening





Annual fee $550
Regular APR 22.49%–29.49% variable


Trick #3: Chase Sapphire Reserve gives 1.5 cents per Ultimate Rewards point for activities

The Chase Sapphire Reserve® is my go-to card for travel expenses because not only does it earn 3X points on travel (after earning the $300 travel credit), it offers comprehensive cancellation insurance and auto rental coverage. But the Sapphire Reserve’s superpower is that Ultimate Rewards points are worth 1.5 cents each when you redeem them on Chase Travel℠’s site.

Dia Adams: Chase Screenshot

I used my Ultimate Rewards point to book a whopping five activities while in Panama—two airport transfers, a walking tour, a cooking class and a catamaran tour. The interesting thing I found while researching my trip is that if a tour was offered on Viator, I could find the exact same tour on Chase Travel for the same price. Tours add up and I saved hundreds of dollars out of pocket by redeeming points in Panama.

Viator

The takeaway

I would have been thrilled to score cheap business class award tickets, to snag a deal on an ocean-front suite, or to redeem points for activities at an elevated rate. The fact that I found all three for the same trip made for a Spring Break that was not only memorable, but guilt free because my only out-of-pocket expenses were food and a Panama hat to take home as a souvenir of my hat trick.

Welcome to What’s in Dia’s wallet. In this monthly column I’ll share what’s, yes, in my wallet but also what’s on my mind. After over a decade covering credit cards, traveling an average of 100 nights a year, and earning and spending over a million points each year to do it, I’ve learned a few things. If you have questions or ideas for future topics please reach out to me at creditcards@fortune.com. Dia Adams, Senior Editor


Fortune Recommends™ has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Fortune Recommends™ and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. 

Please note that card details are accurate as of the publish date, but are subject to change at any time at the discretion of the issuer. Please contact the card issuer to verify rates, fees, and benefits before applying. 



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