What started as a playful dating app prompt turned into a romantic two-week getaway.
In late August, Capricia Alston and her boyfriend Kim Raney Gales packed their bags for a 12-day trip from Maryland to French Polynesia — a group of islands in the South Pacific Ocean, roughly 2,600 miles south of Hawaii.
"We met on a dating app [two years ago], and one of the questions on his page was 'Dream destination,' and it was Bora Bora," Alston, 32, tells CNBC Make It. "So we decided ... to fulfill that dream that he's had."
Alston says she brings in low-six figures annually, as a a senior copywriter at marketing company Data Axle and occasional freelancer. She travels enthusiastically, spending around 30% of her annual income on travel — as evidenced by her Instagram handle, "ShesTotallyTrippin" — and has now visited six continents and 40 countries.
Get Chicago local news, weather forecasts, sports and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC Chicago newsletters.
Gales, who works in IT, declined to disclose any information about his income. But even with their combined salaries, French Polynesia was still an expensive trip — a "special occasion excursion," Alston says. In this case: Gales' 32nd birthday.
The couple budgeted $18,500 for their trip, splitting the costs equally. And they stuck to that budget tightly, going only a few dollars over.
Here's how they spent it:
Alston used Google Flights to book airfare back in February. "That's where I always start," she says. "Figuring out when it's cheapest." In this case, she had a $270 travel voucher from United Airlines, which helped reduce the cost.
The couple booked basic economy flights from Washington, D.C. to Tahiti, French Polynesia's largest island, with a layover in San Francisco — a total of 13 hours in the air, in one day.
Their timing was fortuitous: "The flight was actually empty, so we were able to upgrade [to economy plus] for free," Alston says. "And [they] gave us the goodie bags from first class."
Later in the week, they flew Air Tahiti from Tahiti to Bora Bora and back. Each roundtrip ticket cost $460.
Gales and Alston also factored Covid tests into their budget: To return to the U.S., the couple needed to test negative within three days before their travel. They bought two tests, for a total of $120.
Alston and Gales spent two days in Tahiti, five days in Mo'orea and five days in Bora Bora. They spent one final night in Tahiti before flying home.
The couple budgeted for a premium lodging experience, ranging from the four-star Le Tahiti Pearl Resort to an extravagant villa at the Conrad Nui Bora Bora — $400 per night and $1,200 per night, respectively.
The latter, a 1,600-square-foot overwater villa, was a splurge: It came with a spacious private terrace, an infinity pool, fully retractable windows and a personal butler service.
Alston says the butler service added some particular luxury to the experience: For example, a butler replaced their room's incense each night, which she says helped them sleep better.
"Couldn't have chosen a better room to stay in during a lockdown," she says. "It was totally worth that price."
"Food in French Polynesia is expensive," says Alston. That might be an understatement.
The couple spent between $75 and $300 on food per meal. Any alcohol drove up the price: A simple mimosa, Alston says, cost $25.
That's why she mostly stuck to Poke bowls, which only cost roughly $30 each. "My favorite meal was anything that had fresh fish in it," she says.
Their most expensive meal was a $280 breakfast in Bora Bora that was brought to their bungalow via canoe, and set up for them on their pool deck. It included fresh fruit, bacon, eggs, croissants and other breads, coffee, orange juice and a bottle of champagne.
Once Gales and Alston reached French Polynesia, their transit was surprisingly affordable.
To get from Tahiti to Mo'orea, the couple chose a $22 ferry over a $70 roundtrip propeller plane ticket. "We figured it would be fun," says Alston. "Especially since in order to get to Bora Bora, your only option is [briefly returning to Tahiti and flying]."
Once in Bora Bora, they primarily used free bikes to get around. In Mo'orea, they spent $60 on a one-day car rental to more thoroughly explore the island.
The car, Alston says, was manual: Automatic would have been $85, and the couple wanted to save their money for other parts of their budget. Neither of them knew how to drive stick shift, so they learned on the fly — worth the $25 in savings, Alston says.
Activities & Shopping
Traveling during Covid may get you a free upgrade on your flight, but it has at least one major drawback beyond any health and safety concerns: Lots of attractions remain limited or closed.
Alston had been looking forward to exploring the coral reefs and animal life on an underwater scooter. "I had been wanting to do that forever," she says. "And unfortunately that was cancelled during the lockdown."
Instead, the couple spent their activity budget on spa services, a professional photoshoot, and shopping. Their hotel in Mo'orea also offered some free activities, like kayaking and snorkeling.
Given their limited options, they spent freely: $660 on spa services, $620 on the photoshoot and $400 on shopping for keepsakes. "I got a spa service at every single hotel we went to," says Alston.
Alston also bought Gales a special birthday surprise: tickets to a traditional Polynesian feast and dance performance, where the dancers brought Gales up on stage and tried to teach him the dances.
"My boyfriend has no rhythm at all, and he's up there doing traditional Polynesian dances," Alston says. "I still can't get it out of my head."
The trip, Alston says, was unforgettable — and one she'd happily do again. But, she notes, planning ahead and building a sizable budget can make or break the experience.
"You will need to have the money to really enjoy it to the fullest," she says.
Sign up now: Get smarter about your money and career with our weekly newsletter