Tulum, Mexico is one of the trendiest destinations in the last several years, primarily because of the pristine beaches, eco-friendly culture and numerous organic restaurants. The authenticity of the culture makes it one of my favorite destinations in Latin America.
About an hour from Cancun, downtown Tulum is often given the "hard-to-get-to" label and either praised or shunned for the lack of chain hotels. This combined with the recent Zika virus - which has largely avoided the Mexican state Quintana Roo, where Tulum is located - has made it a quietly overlooked destination in the points community.
After recent successful trips to the region using points - and based on my high recommendation of the area - today we will dive into the magic of Tulum and how to use points to get and stay there.
As I mentioned above, the downtown heart of Tulum is where you want to be - a stretch of beach and high-end hotels that emit a unique, relaxed atmosphere still brimming in luxury.
The majority of these hotels are around an hour from Cancun International Airport (CUN), and accessible solely via a well-paved highway. It feels like a nice, just-as-secure Florida driving in - which may be why Quintana Roo is excluded from the United State's current travel advisory on Mexico.
Direct flights are available on major airlines from a number of highly-trafficked airports. I tend to focus on the coasts, where there a number of options from:
+ New York JFK (using American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Airlines and JetBlue),
+ Los Angeles LAX (using Delta Airlines, United Airlines and American Airlines),
+ San Francisco SFO (using United Airlines).
Points amounts vary according to class and date, but a few examples are given below.
+ American Airlines: 50,000+ for round-trip in business from JFK,
+ Delta Airlines: 40,000+ for round-trip in economy from LAX,
+ United Airlines: 65,000+ for round-trip in economy from SFO.
As always, I recommend searching for the dates you are interested, being flexible on when you depart / return, and planning as far ahead as possible. Having a stash across multiple points programs also helps in terms of flexibility. If you do these things, you will find a points flight relatively easily.
Now, the fun part - where to stay. The majority of hotels in the region are individually owned and operated, so I recommend thinking creatively with your points strategy.
This means focusing on cards that give travel statement credits, then accurately booking with hotels in the "travel" merchant category code (called an MCC code, this is what banks use to determine if a purchase is in the "travel" category).
Here is what I recommend:
+ Apply first to one of the three Chase Ultimate Rewards cards (Sapphire Preferred, Sapphire Reserve or Ink Business). This will give you flexible miles that can be used to book airfare (transferable to United or able to be booked via their in-house travel portal) or to book hotels in the region.
+ Apply second to the airline-dedicated card of your choosing, depending on your home airport location. For example, NYC residents could target the Citi AA card, since 50,000 can get a round-trip direct flight in business class.
+ Apply third to the Capital One Spark Cash business card. This card has a relatively steep spend at $4,500 in four months, but the $590 bonus ($500 after the spend + 2% back) can be applied to any purchase.
The reason the Spark Cash is the card to target here is the vast majority of hotels in the region have an incorrect MCC, so they do not count as "travel" purchases. By getting the Spark Cash, you avoid the need to find a correctly categorized hotel. As always, all of these cards (and more) can be found on the TFG card page.
I can't stress enough how unique Tulum is. The beachfront hotels are gorgeous properties, the food is excellent (try Hartwood and Sanará) and the general atmosphere is authentic - exactly what I search for in a beach getaway.
Also, if you are still struggling on cost, there are still some hotel options in the travel MCC - most notably Mi Amor or the Fairmont Riviera Maya, both fabulous properties in the region that can be booked as a travel purchase. This means cards like the Barclays Arrival Plus or Capital One Venture card can be used toward free nights.
If you are interested in a beach getaway and getting bored of the overly touristy atmosphere of some major destinations, use the above strategies to greatly minimize cost without impacting quality of experience at all.
And, if you have the time to tack on another destination, Cancun is only an hours flight from Havana, Cuba - not a bad way to spend a week of winter.