How I booked a ticket to Panama, Costa Rica, and Guatemala for under $150

costa rica aerial

Okay, so I cheated a bit.  But, desperate times call for desperate measures!

I was planning on just buying a ticket, and was looking forward to banking all those miles (x3, if you use United’s Award Accelerator, extra fee of about 2.1-2.2 cents a mile, but usually worth it for me) for a trip to SE Asia at the end of the year.  Miles are good, you want to get them since they will help you book flights to places that you would never, ever be able to afford (ex- the upcoming flights to SE Asia are looking like they will be well over $10,000 out of pocket.  I’m planning on paying well under $2000, including the money I spend on things like the award accelerator.  More on that later!)

Then I came back from Spain, and found out that my lucrative $15/hr part-time job I had started recently just disappeared, since they sold the business.  Major fail.  When you are living a life like me, poor person that I am, you have to plan ahead, and the plan for the next 2 month’s wages for that job, about $2000, was supposed to go for my upcoming trip.  So I had to fly for as little as possible.

I like to fly United in the US.  United and US Airways are partners, and these two airlines offer the cheapest flights usually to the main place I fly from LA, Philadelphia.  This is why you should fly United here (or any other one that does this.  I just only have experience with them, it happens probably every 3-4 flights I take with them): they often look for volunteers to go on the next flight.  This is what you NEED to do: volunteer!  I get an extra hundred or couple hundred for doing this, and usually a meal voucher (in this case also a hotel room since I’d have to wait until the next morning to fly).  I had a $300 credit from doing this on my way back from Turkey this year, so I had this money to play with for this trip.

Tickets originally were around $500 a couple months back when I wasn’t sure of my dates, but since I had waited until now to book (bad idea) they had gone up to over $660 for the dates I needed.  Travel tip: be flexible with your dates.  I often can’t be flexible, so if you can’t find a dirt-cheap fare, don’t let that dissuade you from your trip if that’s what you can do.  Be creative, fly somewhere cheaper, look for insane hotel deals, etc. to make up your cost.  Also make sure on kayak you unclick the button for “hide x# longer flights”.  These flights are longer, but might even allow you to go out and have fun on a layover, and maybe even earn extra miles.  Or, just use travel vouchers like I did.

I had an idea at this point- why don’t I fly into one airport and out of another.  By flying out of San Jose, Costa Rica, probably about as far from Bocas del Toro, my volunteer site, as Panama City, I got the price down to $610.  THEN I had an even better idea: why don’t I split the trip into two, use miles for one way, and use the voucher for the other.

I looked up the two one-ways I needed, and found that the cheaper of the two was LAX to Panama City (with a stop in between).  I used my voucher to buy this ticket for $122.  Then I looked for a flight using miles.  Trick: if you want to get a “free flight” to a place you might not otherwise visit, you can do it via a layover that’s under 24 hours.  It won’t count as a stopover that way.

I could explain it but Scott at MileValue does it better.  Basically, you do a multi-city search on award travel for the places you want to go, in my case San Juan, CR, to random Central American countries, to LA.  I tried using a couple of the major airports in the area and found a 23 hour layover possibility going through Guatemala City.  Sweet!  So this ticket cost 17,500 plus $26 in fees.

Total for my trip: $148 + 17,500 miles.  I would have liked to save the miles for another trip, but I really saved a lot of money here (cough, that I didn’t have much more to spend of) and get to visit another place, even if it’s brief.  And I’ll get to earn many of the miles back if I can use the miles accelerator for another $100-150 or so, on the one-way flight (3,149 x 3 = 9447)

If you want better directions, please visit Scott’s site at


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