Wrapping Up An Amazing Trip & Southwest Observations

After our brief visit to El Yunque, cut short due to car mishap, it was time to return the car and get to the airport for our Southwest flight to Orlando.  I am really glad that Puerto Rico is part of the USA and has the full CDW with no excess, otherwise I don’t know what would have happened with the ding on the hubcap.


San Juan’s airport is modern and easy to navigate.  The rental car return area is well-signed and thanks to the full CDW package there were no dramas on returning the car.DSCN4598

San Juan to Orlando is a domestic USA flight so there was only security to get through (no dramas or delays) and then we were free to explore the gift shops.DSCN4601

My husband watching my backpack while I shop.DSCN4599 DSCN4600

We are new to Southwest so a few observations that are probably nothing new to those who fly them often.

  1.  Do online check-in at exactly T-24.  Since these were award tickets booked with transferred Ultimate Rewards points, we each had our own record locator.  I had my ticket open in Firefox and hubby’s ticket in Chrome and was refreshing from 3 minutes beforehand until it allowed us to check in and get boarding positions.  We got A46 & A48, not bad for beginners!
  2.  Despite all this manoeuvering, there were at least 20+ wheelchairs queued up for preboarding.  A few regular pax tried to sneak ahead of us in the A line claiming not to understand (in Spanish) but I had enough Spanish skills to point them to where they were supposed to be and make it clear I wasn’t going to allow line cutters.
  3.  When we got on board, the first section of the plane was completely filled with the preboarded wheelchair pax, their companions and then the people ahead of us in line.  Despite all this, we could have had exit row except the FA wasn’t happy with my husband’s command of the English language (his first language is Maori) and chased us off.  We got aisles across from each other a few rows behind.  The flight was full.
  4.  I don’t know what they put in the water on Southwest but miraculously, there were only about 5 or 6 wheelchairs waiting for the disembarking pax to clear so they could disembark their assigned pax.

Here’s the gate area at SJU for Southwest.  We were there fairly early.


Anyway, we live in Australia and not likely to fly Southwest again so I am not going to dwell on it, but I wouldn’t have chosen this airline in the first place if there had been award seats available on AA or UA (there weren’t) so we did the best we could.

Well that wraps up the epic adventure to Ecuador, Colombia & the Caribbean.  In the end, we saw some truly amazing birds.  Many at a distance, but still they were there flying freely in all their glory!

Birding The Lesser Antilles

Before I move on to the final chapter of the Caribbean birding adventure, let’s have a look at the Lesser Antilles from the perspective of an organized birding tour that went to 9 islands.  Rigdon Currie has a wonderful channel on Youtube for birders and I always enjoy seeing how other people experience the same birding locations.  You get a better perspective of the parrot outlooks and how difficult it is to spot the parrots as they zoom past.

Last but not least, Puerto Rico coming up next!

Antillean Crested Hummingbird (Orthorhyncus cristatus)

The Antillean Crested Hummingbird (Orthorhyncus cristatus) is a species of hummingbird in the Trochilidae family.  I saw this one as we were driving up to the Syndicate Forest.  I think it’s a female as the crest isn’t that bright blue colour.

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They are found in found in the Caribbean Islands of Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Montserrat, north-east Puerto Rico, Saba, Saint-Barthélemy, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Martin, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Sint Eustatius, the British Virgin Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Lesser Antilles.  The only island where I saw one was Dominica.




Neotropical Birds


These clips really show the beauty of the male bird’s crest!



And this one is trying to have a drink and a bath at the same time!

Failed Shopping Trip To Kingston, St Vincent

After hiking the Vermont Trail and visiting the Parrot Breeding aviary in the botanical garden, I was hoping to find some kind of knickknack with a Vincie Parrot on it as a souvenir.  This was on a Saturday afternoon and I had trouble finding minibuses to get around, wasted a lot of time waiting.  The scenery was really nice as we drove from the Vermont Trail to town.  I was lucky and got a front seat.

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Upon arrival at the market, everyone had pretty much packed and gone home.  They close early on a Saturday afternoon.dscn4226 dscn4227 dscn4230 dscn4232 dscn4233 dscn4234 dscn4235

I grabbed a taxi to the wharf (where cruise ships dock) as someone told me they had souvenir shops there but unfortunately they were also closed.dscn4236 dscn4237 dscn4238 dscn4239 dscn4240 dscn4241 dscn4242 dscn4243

There was nothing to do but get a taxi back to the hotel as I couldn’t even find a minibus by then!  Lesson learned, find out what time the shops close in advance!dscn4246

Kingston Botanical Garden, St Vincent

After an exhausting hike up the Vermont Trail, I was still keen to see the St Vincent Parrot close up as they are really stunning birds.  I knew that the St Vincent Botanical Gardens has a Vincie Breeding Facility so headed there hoping to see them up close and personal.


The gardens themselves are lush and beautiful.dscn4196 dscn4197 dscn4198 dscn4199

The aviaries for the breeding facility are in the rear of the garden.dscn4200a dscn4214 dscn4215

Here you can get fairly close to the parrots, especially if they like you and come to the cage wire.  Getting photos is a lot harder as there is a barrier preventing you from going right up to the wire (they don’t want people to touch the birds).  While I did SEE the birds very well, I had trouble getting past the wire to get a photo.dscn4212 dscn4211 dscn4210 dscn4207a dscn4205a

This was the best I could do and it doesn’t come close to doing this amazing bird justice.dscn4222 dscn4221 dscn4218

This shows the set up of the aviaries, see the barrier that keeps you away from the wire.dscn4216

Hiking The Vermont Trail, St Vincent

The highlight of a birding trip to St Vincent is undoubtably the lush tropical Vermont Trail.  Most people of good fitness seem to make it up to the Parrot Lookout in an hour of steady hiking.  Being of poor fitness, it took me about 2.5 hours!


From the Beachcomber’s Hotel, I took a minibus to the market.  It was a Saturday morning so they weren’t as frequent and despite my early start, it was 7:30 by the time I arrived at the market.  I was alone, my husband needed a rest day by the pool.  I waited another half hour for the minibus to the start of the Vermont Trail.  I would have had to walk up another hill from the main road so I paid the driver to take me all the way to the entrance.

It costs $5 to enter but there weren’t any staff on hand so I just walked in.  I did pay on the way out.  They seem used to birders doing this.

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It starts out as a pretty well-marked trail with a gradual ascent.dscn4156 dscn4157 The trail gets more challenging as you keep going up.  They do have signs to point the way. dscn4160 dscn4161

There were some parts where I could barely tell which way to go.  dscn4162 dscn4163

Rest area about halfway up.dscn4165 dscn4166 dscn4167a


Finally you reach the parrot lookout.  This is the best place to stop and just listen and wait.  They fly back and forth the valley.  You will hear them first, then try to find them!dscn4172 dscn4173 dscn4174 dscn4175 dscn4178

Along the trail, I saw both Purple & Green-throated Carib Hummingbirds.  Unfortunately I couldn’t get them in decent light.img_7974 img_7974a img_7977a

I was at the Parrot Lookout by around 10am.  They kept me waiting almost 2 hours and I was getting worried I hiked all the way up there for nothing.  Thankfully they appeared and started swooping the valley before noon.  It is really hard to get a good shot unless you are lucky enough to have them perch near you (which I wasn’t).  When they flew against the sky all I got were silhouettes, when they flew against the trees I couldn’t get them in focus – green bird against green tree background and I don’t have that good aim!img_7987 img_7988a img_7993 img_7996a img_8002a img_8003a img_8007a img_8009 img_8009a img_8010a img_8011a img_8019a img_8022a img_8026a img_8027a img_8029a img_8030 img_8040 img_8041a

They stopped swooping after around half an hour so I walked back down to the office, paid the $5 fee and looked around their displays.dscn4181

I wish they would have had smaller ones like this for sale!dscn4183a dscn4184 dscn4186 dscn4185

Of course there were no taxis or buses to take me back down.  Many people will pre-book one but I had no idea what time I would finish as I wasn’t going to leave until I saw the parrots even if it took all day!  Finally a car came and dropped off a staff member and I got a ride back to the main road.  From there I got a minibus back to town.

Hotel Review: Beachcomber’s St Vincent

The Beachcomber’s Hotel in St Vincent ticks all the boxes for the traveling birder in the Caibbean who also wants a bit of R&R on the side.  It’s conveniently located near the airport and you can get minibuses just outside the property into town.


We arrived at night, walked across the street to the bus stop and got a minibus which let us out at the gate.dscn4148

Night time view of Beachcomber’s.dscn4149

Daylight reveals an attractive garden full of flowers.dscn4249

Our room was on the end with a small table & chairs for our use on the patio.dscn4248 dscn4150

A comfortable king bed with attractive artwork in our comfortable room.dscn4151 dscn4152 dscn4153

This is the entrance to the restaurant with the pool area just beyond.dscn4250

The pool area overlooks the beach.dscn4253 dscn4269 dscn4267a dscn4270 dscn4251 dscn4252

Always time for a bit of birdwatching while sunbathing!  dscn4256

Random lizarddscn4259 dscn4260

Our stay was over a Saturday so we got to enjoy their weekly BBQ.  They had some traditional Caribbean music………….dscn4265

…………..a salad bar (sorry for blurry pic)……………dscn4264

……..and a choice of meats from the menu.  I had the ribs and my husband had the fish.dscn4261 dscn4262 dscn4263

We had a great albeit short stay here and found that the Beachcomber’s was a nice all-rounder at a very reasonable price.  They average 4 stars on Trip Advisor although I gave them 5 as we were very happy with our stay.  You can book direct on their website or use online booking portals such as Rocketmiles, Pointshound or similar to maximise your benefits.

Introduction To Liat Airlines

If you’ve been researching the Caribbean, you’ll have heard it before.











But if you want to visit some of the smaller islands like St Vincent, St Lucia & Dominca and travel between one or more island you won’t be able to avoid Liat.  Believe me, I tried!  These are the routes we ended up taking:

St Lucia – St Vincent

St Vincent – Dominica

Dominica – San Juan, Puerto Rico


Liat does not have a loyalty program nor does it partner with any other airline so your only option is to pay cash.  This is fairly easy to do on their website.  Try to book a few months in advance so you can get the “web promo” deal which is good value, otherwise flights can be expensive for the short hops.  Also check out their Facebook page for the occasional promo code.



  1.  Online check-in is limited to a few islands and for carry-on bags only.  You can’t choose your seats, they are assigned automatically.  If you check bags, you have to check in at the airport and get your seats.    dscn4135
  2.   Carry-on bags are extremely limited (7 kgs)– and they will actually weigh every bag even if it looks small.  We were caught out here as our backpacks are fairly small but with camera gear weighed about 10 kgs each.  We ended up carrying on what we could but we still had to check one bag with the least valuable items. Thankfully the bag didn’t get lost on any of the flights
  3. dscn4137dscn4272   Boarding is generally via stairs on the tarmac through both front & rear doors.  Therefore you don’t want a seat in the middle of the plane.  Passport control lines are long and move slowly at most islands.dscn4143
  4.   The planes are small with a 2 x 2 configuration.  I liked this as it meant we didn’t have to squish in with a stranger.   dscn4145
  5.   This is a rare occasion.  Our flight from St Lucia to St Vincent was on time!  All the rest of our flights were 2-3 hours late.  In Dominica, we missed the last bus to Portsmouth and would have had to get an expensive taxi but we ended up paying a local a lesser amount to take us along as he was headed that way.  In San Juan, we arrived well after midnight but at least we had a rental car and they are open 24/7.     Try to build in a buffer of an extra day if you have to be somewhere at a certain time (like a cruise or group tour).  dscn4136
  6.   Flights are often cancelled due to storms and hurricanes.  I would avoid visiting the Caribbean during the hurricane season.  Or you could leave it to a couple weeks ahead if you must travel during July-November as hurricanes are usually predicted a couple weeks in advance.
  7.   Check in lines can be very long and move slowly.  Get there as early as possible.  But bring your own entertainment as the waiting rooms/gates usually leave a lot to be desired!dscn4271




If you are traveling directly from the USA, UK or Europe to your chosen island and returning directly, you probably won’t have to fly Liat.  But if you want to island hop around, especially the smaller islands (where all the cool birds are) then you can’t avoid Liat.  Hopefully these tips will help you make the best of it.

Planning A Birding Trip To The Caribbean

The Caribbean is one of the most challenging regions to go birding in, especially if you are on a budget.  You can get to most of the best islands for birding with miles but if you want to hop around between islands you are stuck with very expensive short flights.  Sooner or later, you will probably have to fly on Liat which is popularly known as “Leave Island Any Time or Luggage In Another Termnal”.

The other option is birding from a cruise ship.  This will get you to several islands and if you choose your itinerary wisely you could position yourself for some excellent birding.  I was successful in birding Jamaica & Grand Cayman from a cruise ship several years ago.

The islands highlighted in yellow are some of the most popular ones for birding and for parrot lovers, they all have endemic parrot species.



This was the easiest part.  The islands are fairly small and it’s easy to find out where the birds are.  I used eBird to get an idea but knew I would be hiring a guide at least on St Lucia and Dominica since time was short.  I was after several amazing Amazon Parrot species which are endemic to particular islands.  Puerto Rico has the Puerto Rican Amazon.  Dominica has the Imperial Amazon (Sisserou) & Red-necked Amazon (Jaco).  St Lucia has the St Lucia Parrot.  St Vincent has the St Vincent Parrot.  Trinidad has a couple of Parrotlets I was chasing – Green-rumped Parrotlets & Lilac-tailed Parrotlet.  There are also several Macaws and Amazon species plus lots of hummingbirds & manakins around the island so it was a great all-rounder.



We used United miles on Copa to get from Bogota to Trinidad via Panama.  Then we used miles from Port-of-Spain to St Lucia, only 4500 Avios for the short flight.  After that, we had to use Liat to St Vincent, Dominica & San Juan.

On Trinidad & Puerto Rico, we rented a car and drove around on our own.  On St Lucia, St Vincent & Dominica, we used a combination of guided birding tours (St Lucia), buses & taxis to national parks (St Vincent) and a private birding day trip on Dominica.


The Caribbean can be very expensive and even small lodges can be at least $150 a night.  Luckily I had some Hotels.com free nights, 2 Expedia credits for a promo they messed up on and some Orbucks from a photo competition they ran in 2014 which got our small hotels on St Lucia, St Vincent & Dominica plus one night at a small hotel south of San Juan for free.

We had 2 nights free in Trinidad at the Radisson thanks to the 2 for 1 redemption opportunity that came with the Club Carlson Visa booked just one month before that particular benefit went away.

We had one free night at the San Juan Intercontinental courtesy of the Chase free night with the IHG Rewards Visa.

Yes, you read that right, getting lucky with some hotel promos got us the entire week in the Caribbean for FREE!

Over the next few weeks, I will be posting in detail about our birding in the Caribbean so stay tuned!

Getting To The Caribbean Islands With Airline Miles

There are so many islands in the Caribbean that it would take forever to list them all but I will concentrate on the islands that will appeal to birders.  The bad news is that very few islands are served by a member of the main three alliances (Star Alliance, OneWorld, Sky Team) so you would be able to book a ticket with miles.  The easiest island with the most connections, especially via the USA is Puerto Rico and I have a separate post with the details.  So lets look at the rest of the Caribbean.  On the map below, I have highlighted in yellow the islands that are most attractive to birders.



ARUBA –  American & LATAM (OneWorld), Avianca, Copa, United (Star Alliance), Delta, KLM (SkyTeam)

BONAIRE – United (Star Alliance), Delta, KLM (SkyTeam)

CAYMAN ISLANDS – American & British Airways (OneWorld),  United (Star Alliance), Delta  (SkyTeam)

CUBA – American, Air Berlin, Iberia & LATAM (OneWorld), Avianca, Copa, Air Canada, Swiss, Austrian, United (Star Alliance), Aeromexico, Air France, Delta, KLM (SkyTeam)

CURACAO – American, Air Berlin  (OneWorld), Avianca, Air Canada,, Copa, United (Star Alliance), KLM (SkyTeam)

DOMINICA – Seaborne is a partner of American Airlines (OneWorld) but not a member of OneWorld.  In my experience they rarely release seats, I tried over several months then had to settle for LIAT.

DOMINCAN REPUBLIC (Punta Cana) – American, British Airways  (OneWorld), Avianca, Air Canada, Swiss, Copa, United (Star Alliance), Delta, KLM, Aerolineas Argentinas (SkyTeam)

JAMAICA – American, British Airways  (OneWorld),   Copa, Air Canada (Star Alliance), Delta (SkyTeam)

ST LUCIA – American, British Airways (OneWorld), Air Canada, United (Star Alliance), Delta (SkyTeam)

ST VINCENT – no alliances

TRINIDAD & TOBAGO – American, British Airways  (OneWorld),   Copa, United (Star Alliance)



Every airline member of the 3 main alliances has it’s own frequent flier program. They often have alliances with other airlines outside the program. I have made some reference charts for the airline alliances and I strongly recommend that you check out the program of the airline in your country and the USA based partners of each program as the USA airlines tend to have the most lucrative bonuses. Americans can get very generous credit card bonuses. Details of credit card partners (and other partners) will be on each airline’s website, however often there are more lucrative sign up bonuses. Details are usually posted in the Flyer Talk thread so I strongly suggest you read this thread and the Miles Buzz forum before you apply for any cards just in case a better bonus has been offered. I don’t have any affiliate links and I recommend you do extensive research on your own when applying for airline credit cards.  I’m going to use Port of Spain (POS), Trinidad for my example airport in OneWorld & Star Alliance and Curacao (CUR) for Sky Team.



No matter where you live, frequent flyer programs based in the USA usually offer the best deals but it’s still a good idea to look at other members of the alliance. Try to avoid carriers that charge a fuel surcharge. Looking at AA’s award chart, we can see that the Caribbean has it’s own region.  These are the miles you will need when traveling to the Caribbean.


You will notice there are taxes and fees with certain routes and that the awards are prices as one way trips.

We can see that a South Pacific to the Caribbean award will cost 45,000 miles each way (90,000 round trip) in economy, 82,500 (160,000 round trip) in business class and 112,500 each way (225,000 round trip in first class.

If you are based in North America, economy will cost 17.500 each way (35,000 round trip), business class is 27,500 each way (45,000 round trip) and first is 52,500 each way or 105,000 round trip. You would be flying on AA or LATAM.


Avios can be a great bargain for shorter flights. The awards are priced by distance flown per segment rather than zone to zone.


Avios chart

Using the Great Circle Mapper, we can see that a direct flight from Miami to Port of Spain, Trinidad would cost 10,000 Avios each way, a direct flight from LAX to Port of Spain would cost 20,000 Avios and a direct flight from NYC to Port of Spain would cost 12,500 Avios. If you are using credit card miles, transferring them to Avios rather than UA or AA could save you some points. If you need a connection from elsewhere in the USA to the gateway city, you need to pay for that segment separately with the Avios cost for the distance flown. Example OKC-MIA is 1222 miles so you need to add 10,000 Avios to the total price of the ticket.  There are also some attractive 5th freedom routes on British Airways such as Port of Spain to St Lucia for a mere 4500 Avios!




For Qantas, it is easiest to use their points calculator to see how many points you need, then look for availability. Not all itineraries can be booked online, sometimes you have to call them. Using the example of Sydney to Port of Spain we can see that they route through London or the USA  and economy is 75,000 points one way.  Be careful with the business class offering, if you hover over it, you will see that the SYD-LHR segment is in economy.  On the last screen you see the miles required and the taxes including YQ fuel surcharges you have to pay.

pos-qf1 pos-qf2 pos-qf3


If you are based somewhere else, leave a comment if you don’t understand this part and I will help you out. Meanwhile, here is a reference list for other One World carriers.


United, Avianca and Singapore are probably the most common Star Alliance programs in use because of good credit card deals and buy miles promos.


United Airlines is a USA based carrier that offers one way awards on its own flights and other Star Alliance carriers. Due to the size of their award chart, I can’t paste it here so will link to it and give examples. For example Orlando to Port of Spain has availability on several dates which I picked at random. They are colour coded for economy, business/first or all three classes. Make sure you scroll all the way down to see all the options. Some routes are only 17.5k and others are a whopping 37.5k! And beware of routes where it is cheaper to fly business class than economy!

pos-ua1 pos-ua2



Lifemiles has some very attractive promos to buy and share miles. While this doesn’t give you a free trip, it can greatly reduce the cost of a trip especially if you are after business or first class awards. You need to be an existing member of Lifemiles when they announce a promo so join now if you haven’t already. Use their calculator to get an idea of award costs. This will be a range which depends on class and any promos.


They have a Star Alliance Award chart and you can see that they divide the continent of South America into northern and southern regions and the Caribbean is on it’s own region. Australia and New Zealand are in the “Others” category. The chart shows one-way awards. I prefer to keep my Lifemiles for intra-South/Central America awards which can get pricy but are bargains using awards.




SQ miles have become much easier to get in recent years. Americans can use Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi Thank You, Amex Membership Rewards. Aussies can use the Australian Amex Membership Rewards. Everyone can use SPG. Just beware of the high fuel (carrier) surcharges when you use Krisflyer. Personally, I would be happy to use SQ miles for intra-South America awards where surcharges are low or even non-existant but would use other programs to get from Australia to the Caribbean. The one oddity is that they include Hawaii, Central America & the Caribbean in the same region so you can get really good value if you are making a multi-centre holiday!





The only Sky Team program I use and can personally recommend is Air France/KLM.  The awards are reasonably priced and fuel surcharges aren’t TOO bad!  Let’s use a sample route of Madrid to Curacao.  You can do even better than this if Flying Blue is running a promo but these promos are usually only for the next couple months so you can’t book far in advance.



I don’t use all the programs that are out there but these are the most commonly used programs by travel hackers in the USA and Australia so do some research to see which one works for you! Bear in mind that the tickets are not completely free, there is usually a booking fee of $25-50 and various taxes, but you would have to pay the taxes whether you pay cash or miles for the ticket in any case.