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We all know what it’s like, as a tourist, to feel as though you’re constantly competing with other travelers for a view; a table at a restaurant; or even just space on the sidewalk.
Sometimes, all you want is to have a place all to yourself.
Mastercard recently released a new study of the most popular origins and destinations for international travel. According to the study, most tourists originate from the US, mainland China, Germany, the United Kingdom and France. As to where all these tourists are heading, popular cities largely aren’t a shocker but included London, Palma de Mallorca and Tokyo.
Among US tourists, the top three international destinations were Cancún, Toronto and London.
We fully get it, it’s hard to resist the sun of Cancún on your back, the incredible scenery surrounding Toronto and the charm of red phone booths and black taxis in London. But in all three places, you’re likely to be surrounded by selfie-stick-wielding tourists and sharing your cultural experiences with crowds of, well, fellow Americans. So, instead of heading to a hot spot where you’re likely to be surrounded by other tourists, consider heading to one of these alternatives.
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While its true that there are some areas of Mexico with higher traveler alert advisories than others, there are plenty of places elsewhere in the country just as secure, beautiful and welcoming to tourists as bustling Cancún — without the same prices or crowds. If you’ve got Mexico on your mind, consider a getaway to one of these destinations (also located along the eastern edge of the nation).
Veracruz is both a city on the gulf and a state known as the home of the Pico De Orizaba volcano, the third highest mountain in North America. In the state of Veracruz, you can go whitewater rafting down the Los Pescados river; hike through the jungles surrounding Lake Catemaco; and swim in natural pools and waterfalls. The ruins of El Tajin, vestiges of a Mesoamerican civilization that include the grand Pyramid of the Niches, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The only nonstop flights to Veracruz (VER) from the United States are on United from Houston for an average $600, or 17,500 points plus $35, when saver awards are available. However, United, Delta and American Airlines offer one-stop service to Veracruz. Downtown Veracruz is only a 15-minute drive from VER, and there are rental cars or taxis available. Connections are available through Mexico’s ADO bus company and private bus shuttles are available from the airport. But because some of the main attractions are farther apart and certain places can be tricky to reach by bus, getting a rental car may be your best bet.
The region isn’t touristy, which will make your experience more authentic, but that also means there aren’t a ton of ways to use your points. There are two Hilton properties, for example: the DoubleTree in northern Veracruz (from 17,000 points per night) and the Garden Inn Boca del Rio Veracruz in southern Veracruz (from about 10,000 points per night). Marriott has four properties in Veracruz; two of which are in the center of the city of Veracruz with one in the southern and one in the northern Veracruz state. Best Western International has four properties spread throughout the state.
This southern destination is virtually bound to gain in popularity in the next few years, but for now it’s a relaxing alternative to Cancún. Bacalar is located on a lake, commonly referred to as the Lagoon of Seven Colors because of its clear turquoise-colored hue. Take a dip in the lagoon, boat and kayak around the lake, snorkel in the Cenote Azul or attempt to stand-up paddleboard. There are also on-land activities like exploring Mayan ruins, zip-lining over a jungle canopy and wandering through a 17th-century fortress.
The town of Bacalar is located about four hours by car southwest from Cancún International Airport (CUN). It’s often possible to find deals on flights from the US to Cancún, and either way it’s extremely easy to reach from major US cities: American Airlines, United, Delta, JetBlue, Spirit, Frontier and Sun Country all offer nonstop flights. Another option is to fly into Mexico City, take a nonstop flight to Chetumal (CTM) and drive about 45 minutes. If you want to arrive rested and in style, keep an eye on the routes and carriers that offer lie-flat service to Mexico.
If you choose to fly into Cancún and make the four-hour journey to Bacalar, you can get there by bus, taxi or rent a car. If you rent, make sure that you’re maximizing the expense and using a credit card with primary car rental insurance. For accommodations, travelers should look to Airbnb, where there are a number of stunning — and seriously affordable — stays, including lagoon-front bungalows and private villas.
Canada’s Understated West
Toronto is known for the arts, diverse cuisine, free museums and comfortable little neighborhoods. But head west, toward the Rockies, and you’ll discover one of Canada’s most unsung cities at the gateway to a truly spectacular national park.
Calgary is one of the largest cities in Canada, though when we think of urban Canada, many typically only picture Montreal, Quebec City and Vancouver. Calgary is a delightful mix of modern architecture and natural wonders. At Banff National Park — just an hour west — travelers can circle Lake Louise (that impossibly blue glacial lake) and explore Johnston Canyon; take a gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain; and canoe on Moraine Lake.
As for the city of Calgary itself, bikers can enjoy the longest bike path network in the world (over 600 miles) and then eat their way through the downright delicious Victoria Park neighborhood. Calgary Olympic Park, the site of the 1988 Winter Olympics, is still open to tourists looking to ski, snowboard, bobsled, etc. If you’d like a different perspective of the city, ride up the 626-foot Calgary Tower for 360-degree views.
From the West Coast of the US, there are many nonstop flights to Calgary International Airport (YYC) via Air Canada, WestJet, Alaska Air, United, American and even Frontier.
Once you’re on the ground, there are plenty of hotels available for point redemptions. There are 20 Marriott properties alone, five of them Category 5 hotels available from 35,000 points per night. Hilton Honors loyalists can choose from eight downtown properties, and IHG has 10 hotels, ranging from 20,000 to 35,000 points per night. If you’re looking to spend a few days in Banff, IHG, Marriott, Best Western International, Wyndham Hotels and Choice Hotels all have properties there.
If Banff is your dream destination, the Fairmont Banff Springs first opened in 1888 and is arguably one of the most sought after properties in the area. During peak season it can definitely get more expensive. Travelers with the Platinum Card® from American Express or the Business Platinum® Card from American Express can book using the Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts program to at least enjoy very nice inclusions and perks such as breakfast, late check-out and more.
Beyond the British Capital
I lived in London for five months and love it still, but I also understand the pain of too many people in too-narrow Tube stations. Tourists searching for a distinctly British experience should look toward smaller, less-traveled cities like Liverpool or Manchester, or venture out of England and explore other cities around the United Kingdom.
Liverpool and Manchester
Four hours northwest of London are two smaller versions of the capital city. Each one is about an hour from the other and easily accessible from London by way of plane, train, car or bus. If you head that direction, it’s worth visiting both.
This riverside town of Liverpool features The Beatles Story, the world’s biggest immersive permanent exhibition on the Fab Four, plus a variety of museums: the Museum of Liverpool, the Tate Liverpool (the regional branch of London’s Tate Modern), the Open Eye Gallery and Spaceport among them. Attractions also include a ferry ride on the River Mersey, the Radio City Tower and Anfield Stadium, home of the Liverpool Football Club.
Liverpool has been known for music since the 1960s, but music is also a major cultural influence in the city of Manchester. Venues like YES, Warehouse Project and Band on the Wall are top destinations for tourists and locals. For art connoisseurs, the Northern Quarter is filled with both professional galleries and talented street artists. From the river, you can see how the Lowry, the Imperial War Museum North and the Old Trafford Stadium (home of Manchester United) connect.
If you’re coming from the US, several airlines have nonstop service to Manchester Airport (MAN). These flights can get expensive with cash (Seattle to Manchester nonstop flights begin at around $1,000). However, Singapore Airlines added a nonstop service from Houston (IAH) to Manchester (MAN) in 2016 and awards aren’t that hard to nab if you have the right mileage currency. Singapore is one of the only airlines that partners with all four of the major transferable point programs: American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Capital One. Bonus: It’s also a Marriott Bonvoy transfer partner. Here’s more info on booking awards on Singapore to fly to Manchester and beyond.
Liverpool, unfortunately, is a little more difficult to get to, so the best option would be to fly into Manchester and take the train to Liverpool. There are trains, buses, rental cars and even some flights, but the train is usually your best bet.
Manchester and Liverpool, which not huge, are larger than many other UK towns, so there are still a variety of hotels to choose from where you can redeem points. Marriott has a dozen properties ranging from 17,500 points to 35,000 points per night. Soccer lovers will enjoy the Hotel Football in Manchester for 35,000 points per night or, for a more relaxing countryside stay, the Derbyshire Hotel and Country Club for 25,000 points per night. In Liverpool, IHG loyalists have five choices downtown, including a Staybridge Suites and Holiday Inn Express facing the river. Hilton also has three properties, including a DoubleTree Hotel and Spa.
If you’re in London and getting irritated with the crowds, Cardiff, the capital of Wales, is just a two-hour train ride to the west. You can tour Cardiff Castle, an 11th-century stone fortress, where you’ll pass through lavish rooms and head up to the rooftop garden. For music geeks, check out Spillers Records, a record shop that’s been open since 1894. Cardiff Bay is a day in itself. You can take boat tours (most notably seeing the Pierhead building and the Wales Millennium Centre) or just walk around the marina and sample the food and drink.
Cardiff Airport (CWL) is the largest airport in Wales, and not too difficult to reach. There aren’t any nonstop flights from the US, but more than 20 airports in the US have one-stop connections to Cardiff. Otherwise, from London, the best way to get there is by way of train for around $60. A Megabus can also take you on a four-hour journey for between $11 to $20, or look at flights from London to Cardiff, though they take around the same time as a bus.
Once again, the city, though small, has its fair share of hotels, including representatives from major brands like Hilton, IHG, Marriott and Radisson.
Don’t get us wrong, we have nothing wrong with any of the popular tourist destinations — they are popular for good reason and there are so many great ways to enjoy trips to Cancún, Toronto and London. (We’re especially fond of the latter, which is home to TPG UK.) But we always want you to have the most authentic travel experience possible while also maximizing your points, miles and purchases. So the next time you’re weighing a trip across the pond or to one of our neighbors to the north or south, consider a less-crowded destination instead of the well-traveled path. Doing so can even mitigate the impact of overtourism and help spread much-needed tourism dollars.
Featured image courtesy of Universal Images Group Editorial/Getty Images
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