Introduction & Background
This week, Philly and I were supposed to be in Barcelona, in the midst of a week-and-a-half trip to western Spain (Catalonia region) and Andorra. Accompanying us would have been Middle Age Miles daughter Maria and her girlfriend Alicia, as we would have been celebrating the girls’ recent college graduations from the University of Washington in Seattle.
The timing of our trip was largely based on the girls’ graduation. Their graduation ceremonies would have been in mid-June, and then we had a few days for everyone to get ready before we left the US for this new adventure.
And the girls had much grander plans beyond this week-and-a-half trip with us. They planned to continue their journey all over Spain and probably into Portugal as well, spending several more weeks on the Iberian Peninsula before returning to the US in time to start their post-college “adult” careers.
Alas, coronavirus interrupted our grand plans. Missing out on our fun trip is nothing compared to others’ suffering as a result of the virus. Our hearts ache for the people impacted by this disease.
For those of us lucky enough to have stayed healthy or survived coronavirus, it’s fun to think about travel – what might have been, and what will hopefully come in the relatively near future. Middle Age Miles readers seemed to enjoy our “trip-that-wasn’t” report on Paris in May, so we thought we’d run it back with another report on this Spain-Andorra trip. We’ll cover our general planned itinerary (never totally finalized, of course) and how we booked our trip and got great value, all in this article.
The broad outline for this trip looked like this:
- Fly into Barcelona
- 2 nights at Terra Dominicata hotel (about 2 hours west of Barcelona)
- Drive to Andorra (about 3.5 hours)
- 3 nights at the Holiday Inn in Andorra La Vella
- Drive to Barcelona (about 2.5 hours)
- 4 nights at Hotel Sofia Barcelona
- Fly home to Dallas
For a visual of our travel plan in Spain & Andorra, here’s a map:
We seriously considered doing this trip a little differently and making a circle that would have taken us further to the west-northwest, where we could have:
- Explored more of the Pyrenees, including the Tour de France’s famed climb of the Col du Tourmalet
- Visited the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, in Lourdes, France
- This would be special to our family, as the grotto on the campus of Notre Dame is modeled after the Grotto of Massabielle in Lourdes
- Perhaps stayed at the Hyatt Unbound Collection’s spectacular-looking Hotel Du Palais Biarritz in the southwest corner of France
- Although as it turns out, it looks like the hotel is currently closed for renovations
- Visited the beautiful resort town of Donostia-San Sebastian in the Basque country of Spain
- Stayed at the unique Frank Gehry-designed Hotel Marques de Riscal, a Marriott Luxury Collection Hotel
Ultimately, we decided that we’d keep the trip simpler and more compact, to reduce the amount of driving time and number of hotel changes. We’ll have to work these sites into a separate trip sometime (hopefully soon!), perhaps scheduling our flights in and/or out of Pamplona, Spain, or Toulouse, France.
General Itinerary and How We Booked It
Here’s our general itinerary for our Summertime in Spain (Catalonia) & Andorra trip, along with notes on how we booked it:
Day 1 – Wednesday 6/24/2020
- Flight from DFW to Paris CDG
- AA 22 – depart DFW 8:30 pm – arrive CDG 12:50 pm (Thurs 6/25)
- Business Class
- Booked with Amex Membership Rewards (MR) points
- Using Pay With Points + the 35% points rebate from the Amex Business Platinum card
This flight would have been the “return” leg of a round-trip ticket on AA that would have “originated” in Paris back in May. For a complete discussion of how we used flights originating in Europe and paid with Amex & Chase points for the 3 European trips we’d planned for Spring/Summer 2020 for great savings with minimal out-of-pocket expense, see our earlier article:
- Middle Age Miles: Trip-That-Wasn’t Report – Paris in May – How We Booked It With Points (June 3, 2020)
Day 2 – Thursday 6/25/2020
- Flight from Paris CDG to Barcelona BCN
- We never actually booked this flight, but we probably would have taken a late-afternoon flight on Air France, which seemed to have the most convenient schedule
- It’s a good thing we waited, because we probably would have been stuck with Air France vouchers and no clear path to use them
- Meet Maria & Alicia, who had flights from Seattle directly into BCN
- Pick up our rental car from Hertz
- We used a Lufthansa frequent flier CDP code to book a large SUV (Volvo XC90; vehicle class S5)
- For whatever reason, the Lufthansa CDP code provided the best rate here. We’ve never had a situation before where this code was best. It was slightly better than the Amex Platinum CDP code, and far better than any other CDP code we tried or any other rental company for this class of vehicle. Go figure.
- It’s hard to find rental vehicles in Europe large enough for 4 people plus luggage at any decent price
- We were quite happy with our all-in rate of 571.07 Euros (about $630) for a 5-day rental
- We would save some money by returning the SUV to an in-city Hertz location as soon as we drove back from Andorra to Barcelona – no need to keep the vehicle once we got to Barcelona
- We would pay with a Chase Sapphire Reserve card to get primary auto collision damage coverage in addition to 3x Ultimate Rewards points
- We also booked the reservation through a shopping portal, although we haven’t had good luck getting them to pay on “pay later” car rentals
- We used a Lufthansa frequent flier CDP code to book a large SUV (Volvo XC90; vehicle class S5)
- Drive to Terra Dominicata (about 2 hours from BCN) and check in
Terra Dominicata is a 26-room 5-star boutique hotel & winery in a lovely, serene setting just outside Montsant Natural Park. The hotel and accompanying farm has its own winery and has wine-making tours and wine-tasting activities.
Terra Dominicata is affiliated with Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH), and as a SLH hotel, it’s available for World of Hyatt members to book with points. In the Hyatt program, it’s a Category 6 hotel, bookable for 25,000 points per night.
Paid rates during our stay were approximately 399 Euros per night (about $440), giving us a value of about 1.76 cents per Hyatt point. This is slightly above our baseline value of 1.5 cents per Hyatt point, so we felt like we were getting good value for our points. And perhaps more importantly, booking with points and no out-of-pocket costs allowed us to stay in a special place where we probably wouldn’t have paid the cash rate.
In addition, as a Hyatt member booking at a SLH hotel, we’d receive:
- Daily complimentary continental breakfast
- A one-category room upgrade at check-in, if available
- Complimentary Wi-Fi
- Early check-in (noon, based on availability; although we wouldn’t need this)
- Late check-out (2:00 pm, based on availability; we probably wouldn’t have used this either)
We were really looking forward to our stay at Terra Dominicata. Here are a few pictures of what we missed (all images courtesy Terra Dominicata):
Day 3 – Friday 6/26/2020
Originally, we were hoping to spend 3 nights and 2 full days at Terra Dominicata, but we had to shorten the trip by a night on the front end for personal reasons. That meant that we had 2 short day trips in mind during our Terra Dominicata stay, but we probably would have only been able to do one. Our 2 day-trip choices were:
- A day on the boardwalk & Llevant Beach in Salou; or
- A day in the mountains in Montsant Natural Park to hike and visit the village of Siurana
Either of these day trips would have been within an hour’s drive of Terra Dominicata. If we were feeling especially adventurous, we might have tried to jam both of them into one day – mountains first and then the boardwalk & beach. In any event, our day trip would have been followed by wine-tasting at the hotel!
Day 4 – Saturday 6/27/2020
- Drive from Terra Dominicata to Andorra (3.5 hours)
- Along the way, we wanted to take a short detour to visit Sort, Spain
Sort caught my eye a few years ago when a stage of the Tour de France passed through this small town in the Pyrenees. The town is alongside a river, and it seems to be a haven for rafting adventures. We probably wouldn’t have taken time to do a rafting trip on this visit, but it would have been nice to stop by, walk around and maybe have a meal, and soak in the charm of this lovely-looking mountain town.
- Check in to the Holiday Inn in Andorra La Vella
- We booked the Holiday Inn Andorra using IHG points for the remarkable rate of 15,000 points per night.
- Paid rates for our nights were at least $150/night, giving us an exceptional value of at least 1 cent per IHG point. This is well above our baseline value of 0.45 cents per point.
- We actually needed a few thousand more points to top off for this reservation, and we were able to purchase them for 0.5 cents per point, which was a great deal under the circumstances.
- There aren’t too many hotels in Andorra at all, and we didn’t see many options that looked much nicer than the Holiday Inn. The hotel looks modern, light and inviting.
- The Holiday Inn also seemed to have a reasonably convenient location – although the city is small, and nothing would be terribly far away from anything else in town.
Here are a few pictures of the Holiday Inn Andorra (all images courtesy of the hotel):
Days 5 & 6 – Sunday 6/28/2020 & Monday 6/29/2020
Philly and I have had Andorra on our short-list of places to visit for a few years. Again, the Tour de France was an inspiration, as we were introduced to Andorra a few years ago when a Tour stage finished in Andorra. We were captivated by its beauty and immediately started planning how and when we could get there. It took us a while to plan this trip, and now we’ll be waiting a little longer until we’re actually able to visit.
As you can see from our route map above, Andorra is a small country in the Pyrenees, wedged between Spain & France. Andorra is not a member of the EU, but it uses the Euro as its currency and has close ties to the EU. For more information on Andorra’s unique geopolitical situation, check out this Wikipedia article.
One of the main things that attracted us to Andorra was the spectacular Caldea spa. Traditionally, we’re not really “spa people,” but Caldea appears to be one-of-a-kind and we were certainly going to spend one of our days in Andorra soaking it in.
The featured image at the top of this article shows the striking exterior of Caldea, and the photo immediately above shows how the Caldea’s spire dominates the “skyline” of Andorra La Vella. And Caldea’s interior looks just as beautiful and grand as its exterior:
During our time in Andorra, we also planned to visit the Naturlandia adventure ecopark. Naturlandia includes an outdoor ropes course, but the main attraction for us would have been riding the Tobotronc alpine toboggan run. Tobotronc bills itself as “the longest alpine toboggan run in the world.” It’s 5.3 kilometers long (about 3.3 miles), with a total drop of 400 meters (more than 1,300 feet), and it lasts nearly 10 minutes (depending on how fast you go).
We were also looking to do some hiking in the Pyrenees, perhaps on the Coronallacs trail, which looks to have some incredible mountain views.
Day 7 – Tuesday 6/30/2020
- Drive from Andorra to Barcelona (about 2.5 hours)
- Return our rental vehicle to Hertz
- Check in at Hotel Sofia Barcelona
Hotel Sofia Barcelona is part of Hyatt’s Unbound Collection. It positions itself as a hip, fun and irreverant upscale hotel option. The hotel seems to be located in a good area. It’s near the Parc de Pedralbes with its palace, museum and gardens; the University of Barcelona; FC Barcelona’s famed Camp Nou stadium; and 2 Barcelona Metro stations (Palau Reial & Maria Cristina). We were even more excited to stay at Hotel Sofia after reading this glowing review from Matthew of Live and Let’s Fly:
- Live and Let’s Fly: My New Favorite Hotel in Barcelona (August 14, 2019)
Hotel Sofia Barcelona is a Category 5 hotel with World of Hyatt, with a standard redemption rate of 20,000 points per night. During the dates of our stay, rates for a basic room were about 450 Euros per night (almost $500/night). This meant that we were getting about 2.5 cents per Hyatt point, just on the base room – well in excess of our baseline value of 1.5 cents per point.
We also used a Suite Upgrade Award to confirm ourselves into a nice Junior Suite. Our Globalist concierge was able to confirm the upgrade quickly and efficiently. The paid rate for the suite was about 700 Euros per night for our stay (about $770). Thus, with our points enhanced by the suite upgrade award, we were getting more than 3.8 cents per Hyatt point on this redemption, and paying nothing out-of-pocket. Booking this stay was a “wow” moment and would have made the effort we spent earning Globalist status during 2019 well worth it if we could have stayed.
We also booked Maria & Alicia’s room using Hyatt Globalist “Guest of Honor” privileges, which meant that they would have received free breakfast and perhaps a room upgrade up to a suite, based on availability.
As you can tell, we were quite excited about this stay, and we’re really missing it as we write this article. Here are a few photos of Hotel Sofia Barcelona (all images courtesy of the hotel except for the exterior photo, which is courtesy Oyster.com):
Days 8/9/10 – Wed/Thurs/Fri, 7/1-3/2020
We planned to explore Barcelona for these 3 days. Much has been written about things to do and see in Barcelona by people who have actually been there, so we’ll leave the recommendations to those people. For example, here’s a recent article from The Telegraph that includes great suggestions:
- The Telegraph: 48 hours in … Barcelona, an insider guide to Gaudi’s playground (June 29, 2020)
Some of the things we would been sure to do in Barcelona would have been to visit the beach, see the famed eternally-under-construction Sagrada Familia (getting there very early one morning to avoid crowds as best as possible), and strolling Las Ramblas.
Day 11 – Saturday 7/4/2020
- Transfer from Hotel Sofia to BCN airport using our favorite European transfer service, Welcome Pickups
- Flight from BCN to Paris CDG
- As with the CDG-BCN leg on 6/25/2020 that we discussed earlier, we never actually booked this flight. We would have taken a very early-morning flight, or perhaps even a late-night flight on Friday 7/3, probably on Air France
- Flight from CDG to DFW
- AA 49 – depart CDG 11:25 am – arrive DFW 3:00 pm
- Business Class
- Booked with Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR) points
- Using the Chase Travel Portal, at 1.5 cents per UR point
Again, our CDG-DFW flight was part of a round-trip ticket originating in Europe to save money. Our “return” leg was to be a flight from DFW to Dublin in late August. Unfortunately, that Ireland trip has also cancelled, leaving us 0-for-3 on our planned European vacations for 2020. You can read about the details of how we used tickets originating in Europe and paid with MR/UR points in the article that we linked earlier. Bottom line, we saved about 40% in airfare on the 3 trips combined by booking 2 of our 3 round-trip tickets originating in Europe, and we “paid” for more than 90% of our business class airfare for these trips using MR & UR points.
Again, realizing that our disappointment is a very first-world problem, we’ve really missed being able to go on this great trip to Spain & Andorra. We would have fulfilled some experiences that we’d had on our bucket list for a while, we would have stayed in some cool hotels, and we would have experienced a part of the world that would be new to us. And most importantly, we would have been able to celebrate Maria’s and Alicia’s college graduations and spent some great quality time with them in a way that may not be possible for a while.
We hope that you’ve enjoyed this “trip that wasn’t” report as a pleasant diversion from our current coronavirus-addled times. We’ll all look forward to the days when we can travel the world again – and hopefully do it for less using points and miles!
What do you think about the itinerary for this trip and our ideas? What other tips do you have for traveling to Barcelona, the rest of Catalonia, Andorra and the surrounding region? Please share with us and other Middle Age Miles readers in the Comments!
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