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TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Jason Steele shares 10 far-flung destinations worth visiting, all of which can be reached using travel rewards.
Like many award travel enthusiasts, I’m often guilty of sticking to the beaten path, redeeming my points and miles for flights to major cities like Tokyo, Milan and Buenos Aires. But for today’s post, I’ll take a look at how far you can really fly with your points and miles — with a focus on exotic destinations that make for unforgettable trips.
1. Fernando de Noronha, Brazil
Located 220 miles off the coast of northeast Brazil, this island is a favorite of TPG, myself and many other travelers. As an ecological sanctuary, the island is home to turtles and dolphins among many other animals — no wonder it’s often called the Galapagos of the Atlantic. Other reasons to visit include one of the world’s best beaches and the amazing seafood buffet at the Hotel Ze Maria, which I regard as perhaps the best meal of my life. Plus, there’s this fun fact: This island of about 3,000 residents is the only populated land mass in its entire time zone, GMT -02:00, which has the fewest people of any time zone in the world.
Only two airlines serve this island’s small airstrip: the Brazilian carriers Azul and Gol. Thankfully, Azul is a United MileagePlus partner, which means that one-way award flights from North America start at 30,000 miles in economy class and 55,000 miles in business. Plus, the Gol Smiles frequent flyer program is a transfer partner of the Starwood Preferred Guest program, albeit with a less-than-ideal 2:1 transfer ratio.
2. Kaktovik, Alaska
Just about any destination in Alaska outside of Anchorage is pretty remote by most people’s standards, but the village of Kaktovik on Barter Island in the Arctic Ocean is far-flung even for most Alaskans. You go to Kaktovik (with a population of less than 300) to see the polar bears and other sights of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
To get there, you must fly into the Barter Island Airport on carrier Ravn Alaska via Deadhorse/Prudhoe Bay, Fairbanks or Nuiqsut. And wouldn’t you know it, Ravn Alaska is a partner of the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan program. This means that you can get there using miles from your Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card or by transferring points earned from your Starwood Preferred Guest Card from American Express to Mileage Plan at a 1:1 ratio. Plus, for every 20,000 Starpoints you transfer, you’ll get a 5,000-mile bonus.
3. Christmas Island
If you’re expecting to see Santa all year long, think again. Christmas Island is an Australian territory about 300 miles south of Indonesia and about 1,600 miles northwest of Perth. It’s famous for its spectacular annual red crab migration, which features millions of these crustaceans crossing the island. Other attractions include beautiful beaches, fishing and whale shark sightings.
Virgin Australia is the only airline that serves Christmas Island, with flights from Perth that also stop at the nearby Cocos (Keeling) Islands — another remote destination worth visiting. You can use miles from several different airlines to redeem for award flights on Virgin Australia, such as Delta, Virgin America and Virgin Atlantic. In addition, Virgin Australia’s Velocity frequent flyer program is a transfer partner of the Starwood Preferred Guest program, letting you transfer Starpoints at a 1:1 ratio.
4. Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan
Iraq probably isn’t on too many people’s list of places to visit, but hear me out. First, Erbil is the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq, and is the fastest-growing city in Iraq. It’s also one of the oldest cities in the world, and it boasts a rich cultural and architectural heritage. The Kurdish people are known for being very friendly to outside cultures, and the area’s experienced tremendous tourism growth.
Erbil enjoys excellent service to its new airport, built in 2010, from several different carriers including Austrian Airlines, EgyptAir, Lufthansa, Qatar, Royal Jordanian and Turkish. This means that you could reach Erbil with programs such as American AAdvantage, Alaska Mileage Plan and United MileagePlus.
5. Tibet Autonomous Region, China
If Tibet is somewhere you yearn to visit, you’ll be happy to learn you can get there by air, using your miles. In fact, your adventure will begin even before your aircraft lands. Nyingchi Mainling Airport sits at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level at the end of a long river valley surrounded by some of the highest mountains in the world; the airfield is considered to have one of the most challenging instrument approaches in the world.
Air China, a Star Alliance partner, offers service into the airport. This means Tibet’s yet another destination you can reach using United miles. You can also transfer Starpoints to Air China at a 1:1 ratio.
6. Svalbard, Norway
Well north of the Arctic Circle and the mainland of Europe are the Svalbard Islands of Norway, with a population of 2,642 (as of 2012). Visitors can enjoy numerous outdoor activities, including polar bear watching, dog sledding, snowmobiling and viewing the aurora borealis.
You can reach Svalbard by flying SAS, a Star Alliance partner. You can book awards using United miles, with one-way economy Saver fares starting at 30,000 miles. You can even use points from the Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature Card to stay at the Radisson Blu Polar Hotel Spitsbergen.
7. Resolute, Nunavut Canada
It doesn’t get a whole lot more remote than this community — one of the northernmost in Canada — with a population of 229 (as of 2006). Local attractions include polar bear viewing, sledding, wind boarding (snowboarding with a parasail) and arctic exploration.
You can use your Air Canada Aeroplan miles to reach Resolute on its partner First Air. Air Canada Aeroplan is a 1:1 transfer partner of both American Express Membership Rewards and the Starwood Preferred Guest program.
8. St. Paul Island, Alaska
I could easily fill this list entirely with Alaskan destinations, but I’ll include just one more. This tiny island of 40 square miles is set hundreds of miles off the coast of the Alaskan mainland in the middle of the Bering Sea. It’s famous for its scenic landscapes, bird watching and wildlife including harbor seals, sea lions, walrus and whales.
Alaska Airlines partner Pen Air is the only airline that flies to St. Paul Island, with service from Anchorage. I even went so far as to write to PenAir’s marketing department, which confirmed that visitors have redeemed their Mileage Plan miles for this flight.
9. Ascension and St. Helena Islands
These two remote islands in the southern Atlantic Ocean will soon receive scheduled airline service courtesy of ComAir, a South African carrier owned by British Airways. This will effectively open these destinations up to tourists, since previous visits required military transport or a long boat ride. In fact, the planned service to St. Helena required construction of the island’s first airport — though the project is currently facing delays due to concerns about wind shear.
10. Barra, Scotland
The Scottish island of Barra is home to the world’s only commercial airport that uses a beach as its runway. Local attractions include grasslands, wild flowers, castles and scenic bike rides.
British airline FlyBe offers service from Glasgow in a DeHavilland Twin Otter (an unpressurized turboprop commuter aircraft), although only at low tide. While FlyBe isn’t a partner of the British Airways Executive Club program, you can book award flights on the carrier using Avios.com. To book this flight, you can transfer points from American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest and Citi ThankYou Rewards. Alternatively, you could transfer your Amex Membership Rewards points to Iberia Avios. Either way, you can then follow my post, How To Get Around the Glitch Moving Avios Between British Airways And Iberia, which explains how to transfer your points to and from Avios.com, from which you can book award flights to Barra on FlyBe.
Tips and Tricks for Reaching Exotic Destinations with Points and Miles
- Use Wikipedia, but cautiously — To find airline service to out-of-the-way places, it’s best to start with the Wikipedia page for your destination’s airport. Just note that while it should list all the airlines that offer service — and which destinations it flies from to that airport — you need to be a little skeptical, since Wikipedia’s accuracy decreases as you research destinations that are sparsely populated and less frequently visited by Wikipedia editors.
- Find out the airport’s IATA code — Every airport with commercial service (and some without) has a three-letter IATA (International Airline Transport Association) code. If you’re unable to book your award flight online, this code can help the airline representative find your destination in the system. When trying to book an award to an extremely remote place, you should probably just skip past the name of the destination and read out the airline code instead. You can find this code at the airport’s Wikipedia page or with a quick Google search.
- Be persistent — Sadly, it’s not uncommon for telephone representatives to be unaware that you can use miles for an award on a major airline’s alliance partner, so you can only imagine how they might refuse to consider redeeming your miles for a flight to a far-flung destination, especially if the award requires flying on a smaller carrier. To reach the ends of the earth, you may have to make several attempts to book your flight, perhaps escalating to a supervisor who has a deeper understanding of the frequent flyer program and its lesser-known partners.
- Search for award space leg by leg — I was able to use United’s website to find awards to some of these destinations since it will put together itineraries that consist of up to four flights each way. However, most other airline websites will only show two- or three-leg itineraries, so it will be up to you to construct your own award routing piece by piece. Follow the routing rules of the program from which you’re redeeming your miles, then call the airline to feed a representative the flights you’ve found.
- Consider credit card miles from Barclaycard and Capital One — With the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard and the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, you can actually use your miles to reach any point on earth. With both of these programs, you can redeem your rewards for any flight on any airline, including flights that are part of a tour. So long as it’s classified as a travel or travel agency expense, you can use your miles.
Featured image of Barra in Scotland courtesy of Shutterstock.
What are your favorite remote destinations that you can reach using points and miles?
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