Trip Review: All-Inclusive Resort in Cancun

We’ve just returned from our first “real” vacation of the year, a four-day trip down to Cancun, Mexico. It was a fantastic little getaway, and once again, the out-of-pocket cost of our trip was almost entirely FREE, thanks to our use of points and miles strategies.

We got our free flights, direct on Southwest from Austin to Cancun, as I’ve previously described in this post. Then, using points we earned from the sign-up bonus of the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, we booked our resort via the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal.

Booking via the portal was a great option for us, as you can can choose from nearly any property you can find on sites like Expedia or Travelocity; this meant we weren’t locked in to a particular hotel brand or chain. And in Mexico, when you look beyond the main American hotel brands, you open up an additional option: all-inclusives!

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The hubby with our beachfront resort’s mascot.

We had just under 60,000 points left in our Ultimate Rewards account, and thanks to the enhanced redemption rate you get as a Sapphire Reserve cardholder (with each point valued at 1.5 cents per point, as opposed the 1.25 cent rate with the Sapphire Preferred or a flat 1 cent with other Chase cards) that was enough to book 3 nights at the GR Caribe All-Inclusive by Solaris in a Deluxe Oceanview room (plus free premium wifi as part of the package).

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We were just about $40 shy of covering the total cost — not bad for a little Caribbean getaway!

And the resort turned out to be a good choice for us. While the GR Caribe itself is fairly small, it’s connected to the much larger sister property, the Royal Solaris Cancun, and guests receive full privileges at each resort. That means we got access to a total of nine restaurants, four bars, multiple pools and hot tubs, a marina full of non-motorized activities, and plenty more that was all included in the price of our stay.

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The courtyard just outside our room was comfortable and airy.
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The light on the adobe walls at night was particularly beautiful.
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Our Deluxe Oceanview Room featured a breakfast nook area and traditional accents.
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A rose and towel animal from the housecleaning staff.

I liked the GR Caribe in particular for its traditional Mexican adobe-style architecture. Our room, a Deluxe beachfront room on the ground floor, was spacious, nicely decorated and clean. Our only complaint is that, despite making our reservation for a King bed, we received two Queens. In the end, this wasn’t a big deal, but sleeping in separate beds did put a bit of a damper on the romance element.

Still, we made the best of it, and there was plenty to do. We visited the ocean, swam in each pool at least once, tried all myriad of frozen alcoholic concoctions, and even took the bus into Downtown Cancun to visit the large traditional Mexican market, Mercado 28, for some sightseeing and souvenir shopping.

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We enjoyed morning walks and afternoon swims on the well-kept beach (despite the red flag warning; we’re both very good swimmers.)
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One of the many pools at night.
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We also took advantage of the on-site mini golf course featuring Mayan-style sculptures.

As with many all-inclusives, however, there are a few a trade offs for not having to open your wallet from the moment you arrive. The restaurants were all pretty sub-standard in our opinion; even the fancy ones that required a reservation were pretty bad. We actually thought the best food came from the pool-side snack bars and the buffet; most days I ended up just loading up on chips, fresh salsas, and guacamole.

Additionally, you have to skillfully avoid the timeshare sellers. We knew to expect the sales pitches, and after a few tries, they recognized we were a lost cause and stopped bothering us. (As it turns out, telling them that the vast majority of your vacations are free because of points and miles is a pretty good deterrent — they had no counter to the fact that their “vacation club membership” wasn’t free.)

But overall, we really enjoyed our trip, and the fact that I resisted my normal urge to schedule every-minute of every-day made sure we had plenty of time to just relax. If you’re thinking about taking a trip to Mexico, now’s definitely a great time; the exchange rate is hugely in favor of Americans at the moment with the US Dollar equaling roughly 20 Mexican pesos. And besides, who wouldn’t want to take a picture like this?

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Those are some relaxed faces right there! That one’ll make the Christmas card for sure.
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Healthy Recipe: Easy Tuna Poke Bowl

I’ve always been a huge fan of sushi, but I’ve never actually tried making it at home. It just seems like a lot of work. Who has time for that on a week day?

But when we did the Meal Kit Review Series a couple months ago, one of the recipes was for a “poke bowl.” *Lightbulb moment*

I love poke. Essentially a rice bowl topped with marinated raw fish, it’s like a deconstructed version of all the best parts of sushi. We’ve made a few different varieties now, and it’s officially been added to my ongoing rotation. And the secret is really just the sauce/marinade. Here’s what goes in ours:

  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp sriracha sauce
  • 2 tbsp black vinegar
  • 1 tbsp olive oil (sesame oil works too, if you have any lying around)
  • 1 tsp lime juice
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 1/2 a scallion, finely chopped

You can adjust the quantities to your taste, but that works quite well for us. Pour half the mixture over your fresh, sushi-grade fish (tuna or salmon both work well; make sure your fish has been previously frozen so as to avoid any parasites, since you won’t be cooking it) in a Ziploc bag, and let marinate about 20-30 minutes, while you cook your rice.

You can use either traditional white sushi rice for this recipe, or go with a brown rice alternative for a healthier dish. If you go with brown rice, don’t rinse it as much, as the starch will give you that “sticky” texture that you’re looking for. If you want to be truly low-carb, skip the rice altogether and substitute mixed greens.

My favorite toppings are seaweed salad, shredded carrots, avocado, green onions, mango, and sesame seeds. Other ideas include nori pieces, fish roe, cherry tomatoes, red onion, pickled ginger, edamame, cilantro, red cabbage, wonton strips, etc. You can really include anything you like!

Finally, add the remaining sauce to your masterpiece to your own taste, and dig in. You’ll spend 1/3 of the dough you’d shell out at a sushi restaurant, and still get all the satisfaction!

What Did I Learn from the Meal Delivery Review Series?

As most of you know, for the past month, we’ve been trying out the many “meal-in-a-box” type delivery kits.  Having tried five of the leaders in this increasingly congested field, here are my takeaways.

  1.  If you can, you’re still better off just shopping and cooking for yourself.

Looking at these kits from a pure economic perspective, none of the meal delivery kits really make sense. Re-assembling the same or similar meals from the grocery store can be anywhere from 20% – 70% cheaper, depending on what kit you’re using and what go-tos you already have stored in your pantry. And I shudder to think of the environmental cost of all the added packaging and shipment needed here.

But note that I said “if you can.” If you have a disability that prevents you from making it to the supermarket very often, if you’ve just never learned how to cook on your own, or if you have a schedule that doesn’t allow for thoughtful meal planning and prepping, then these kits may still be right for you. In particular, for us, I think I might start ordering these for the week after we return from travel, where I know I’m not going to have time or energy to go to the grocery store. These kits *are* great for situations like that.

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One of the top meals we tried was this pan roasted chicken with potato and brussel sprout hash, from Plated. I gave it a 10/10.
  1. Plated and Green Chef are my top recommendations.

So, if you decide that a kit is right for you, which one should you go with? For us, hands down, Plated was the winner. Delicious meals, good selection, top-quality ingredients, and easy-to-follow recipes made Plated the real deal. In fact, I actually forgot to cancel my Plated subscription after the free box, and so got another shipment the following week. And we were just as happy even when paying for it out of pocket; Plated is the head and shoulders winner of the meal delivery game for the *average* diner.

That being said, I think Green Chef deserves a runner-up consideration for the variety they offer. We felt Green Chef was among the middle-of-the-pack taste wise, but they are the only kit to offer lots of different options for lots of different diners. With vegetarian, vegan, paleo, and gluten free options available, Green Chef is the best option for those with some sort of dietary restriction.

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This was another favorite meal, the Tuna Poke Bowl from Green Chef. I gave this a 9/10.
  1. Be careful about your subscription & cancellation dates. 

If you *are* going to try one of these services, though, make really sure that you know the terms of WHEN you have to cancel or “skip” the next week’s delivery. Several of these kits require you to cancel BEFORE YOU EVEN RECEIVE your first delivery, and certainly before you’ve gotten to try all the meals in your first box. It’s pretty shady, honestly.

So treat these the way you did Columbia House cd services (you know – the buy one, get 12 cds free promotion that 90s kids like myself so loved…) and just assume that the companies are out to trick you. If you do that and take appropriate precautions against being charged when you don’t actually want a shipment, then adding a meal delivery kit here or there can be a great change of pace to your regular cooking and dining schedule.

Want to read the individual reviews again?

I hope I’ve answered all your questions about meal delivery services in this series, but feel free to ask any followup questions in the comments.  Starting in 2017, be on the lookout for our “Resolution Series” of quick, healthy meals to kick off the New Year.

How We’re Saving $1,200 on our Five-Star Dublin Hotel

If you’re a fan of the blog, then you’ve likely been following our planning for next year’s UK & Ireland trip, including how we saved $6,500+ on our business class flights using Citi & Chase points on Singapore Airlines, and how we saved ~$600 on our hotels in Manchester & Liverpool using Starwood points.

The next item up for us to book was going to be the hotel for the bulk of our stay, in Dublin. The hubby wanted to stay right in the heart of the city centre, where (in his own words) “we could try a new pub every night and eat all the things.” And I mean..who could argue with that logic?

As we’d recently earned 100,000 new Chase Ultimate Rewards points for meeting the minimum spending requirements for the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, we were happily sitting atop roughly 114k UR points, and given the improved redemption rate for Chase Sapphire Reserve cardholders, we knew we could turn those points into $1,700+ of free travel through the Chase travel portal.

The only real question was whether that would be the best use of our points. In the past, we’ve frequently transferred UR points over to Hyatt, because of the great value of the Hyatt loyalty program. Unfortunately, Hyatt doesn’t have any hotels in Dublin, and so this time that wasn’t an option.

Another option was paying outright with our Citi ThankYou Prestige card, and using the 4th-night free benefit to get a reimbursement for the cost of the 4th night. However, with this method you don’t get the reimbursement until after you complete your stay, and we’re not sure right now whether it’s worth it to keep our Citi card for another year, given the steep $450 annual fee.

So that had us back to booking via the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. From here, I just needed to research what hotel was best for us. After looking at reviews on Yelp, TripAdvisor, and several other sites, I had narrowed it down to either The Morgan or The Fitzwilliam. Both hotels were five-star properties with overwhelmingly positive reviews, but a slightly lower price and the fact that it’s allegedly Beyonce-approved pushed us towards ultimately deciding on the Fitzwilliam.

One thing I really like about booking through the Chase portal is that, unlike is often the case with award nights booked directly with the hotel chains, you can usually book any available room through the portal and not just the lowest-category room.

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The lowest tier room at the Fitzwilliam.

As such, we reviewed the Fitzwilliam’s offerings and opted to upgrade from the “Executive Double” room to the “Signature Room” for just 3,000 additional points total; I mean, after all, it is our vacation — worth a little splurge. And in my experience, you’re also much more likely to be upgraded from a higher starting point room than if you book the bottom of the barrel.

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Yet for just 3,000 more points, we could upgrade two full categories!

Taking a look at this room category through the hotel’s website, we would have had to pay €1146, or roughly 1,257 USD across our entire stay.  But using the Chase portal, we were able to secure our stay for four nights in a Signature room for just 80,910 UR points. That’s even slightly better than the stated redemption rate of 1.5 cents per point; closer to 1.6 in fact.

If you’re keeping track, that means that the total value of our trip to date is $9,598.44, and we’ve only had to pay $941 of that ourselves, meaning 91% of this trip so far is ABSOLUTELY FREE to us. 

Next step: positioning flights, trains, and ferries to get us from city to city along the way!

Header image courtesy of The Fitzwilliam Hotel Dublin, a member of the Preferred Hotels and Resorts group.