The Best Bucket List Points Trips to Exotic Destinations
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What are some of your bucket-list travel to-dos? Do they include waddling along with penguins in Antarctica, stalking elephants on safari in Africa, hiking to hidden monasteries in Asia, or walking in the footsteps of Darwin in the Galápagos? No matter how exotic your wish list of destinations, even the most remote corners of the planet are within reach if you know how to use your points and miles.
While the actual on-the-ground experiences in many of these places might require a cash outlay, at least you can use points and miles to arrive in style, and save your money for incredible experiences while you’re there. Here are some of the most exotic bucket-list trips where your points and miles will come in handy.
We’re starting big, with what is probably the most exotic destination on earth. But for all its remoteness and harsh environment, Antarctica looms large for many travelers as the last undiscovered frontier.
The great southern ice continent is easier to reach than ever these days thanks to a preponderance of specialty cruises and flights. Most are on the extreme luxury side of the spectrum, but there are a few budget options and some ways your points can help. We won’t get into the logistics of planning an Antarctic visit, because what you need and when you go will depend on the type of tour you’re looking for. However, we will discuss some possibilities for getting to jumping-off points from which cruises and flights tend to leave.
A tour company called Antarctic Flight charters a Qantas 747 periodically to take tourists on all-day sightseeing flights over Antarctica. However, as the airline prepares to retire the jumbo jet, there’s no telling how long these types of flights will continue (though you couldn’t earn or redeem miles on them anyway). There are still three scheduled charters left in 2018, though: from Sydney (SYD) on November 18, Hobart (HBA) November 25 and Melbourne (MEL) December 31.
A few years ago, Starwood Preferred Guest partnered with National Geographic Expeditions and Lindblad to offer a points auction called “Journey to Antarctica: The White Continent.” Assuming this kind of experience doesn’t make a reappearance with the new Marriott Bonvoy, you’re not quite out of options.
There are a couple different ways to get to Antarctica, ranging from single-day or overnight excursions to multi-day luxury and expedition cruises. No matter which way you go, though, the first part of your plan will be getting to a departure point to catch one of them. In general, that means getting to Cape Town, South Africa; Ushuaia, Argentina; Punta Arenas, Chile; or Auckland, New Zealand.
Cape Town: Cape Town tends to be the base for ultra-high-end safari-style trips to Antarctica, so it might not be the destination for most folks. However, there are plenty of great mileage options to get you to Cape Town to the US. We’ve covered them extensively in other posts, including the 6 Best Ways to Get to South Africa on Points and Miles and The Top 9 Ways to fly to Africa Using Points and Miles. Your best bets are likely flying Air France/KLM using Delta SkyMiles or Flying Blue miles; British Airways or Qatar Airways using American Airlines AAdvantage miles; Cathay Pacific (starting in November) or Emirates using Alaska miles; and South African Airways or Turkish Airlines using ANA, Aeroplan or United miles.
Auckland: This is another jumping-off point for expedition cruises, and there are plenty of types of points and miles you can use to book free flights to Auckland. We’ll be coming out with an update soon, but in the meantime, consider using United or Air Canada Aeroplan miles to book an award on Air New Zealand (they’ve even been releasing business-class awards lately!); American AAdvantage or Alaska Mileage Plan miles to fly American from Los Angeles (LAX) to Auckland (AKL) starting in October, or via Australia on Qantas; Delta SkyMiles or Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles to fly Virgin Australia; Hawaiiian miles to fly Hawaiian Airlines via Honolulu (HNL); or Alaska miles to fly Fiji Airways via Nadi (NAN).
Ushuaia: Check out this post on the Top 6 Ways to Fly Business Class to South America for a primer on using miles to get to the southernmost city in the world. In that post, we highlighted a mix of US and South American carriers that will get you to Buenos Aires (EZE), among other destinations. If you want to go one step further, to Ushuaia (USH), flights usually use from Aeroparque Jorge Newberry (AEP), and nonstops are offered by both LATAM, on which you can use American AAdvantage miles, Alaska Mileage Plan miles, or British Airways Avios; and Aerolineas Argentinas, which is a SkyTeam member on which awards are bookable using Delta SkyMiles and Flying Blue miles.
Punta Arenas: For those on a budget — be it of time or finances — Chile might be your best opportunity. You can head right to Punta Arenas, where you can catch a DAP day-flight around southern Chile, including the Magellan Strait and Tierra del Fuego, then actually land to see penguin colonies on Ardley Island and take a zodiac boat around the Collins Glacier. It costs around $3,000 per person, though, so if you have the time, you might be better off taking a multi-day cruise, which won’t be much more expensive.
We recently covered the 7 Best Ways to Get to Chile on Points and Miles, so we’ll spare you the details here. However, the options include using American AAdvantage or Alaska Mileage Plan miles on American Airlines or LATAM; United MileagePlus, Air Canada Aeroplan or Avianca Lifemiles to fly a combination of those three carriers; or Delta SkyMiles or Flying Blue miles to fly Delta and/or Aeromexico down there.
As for folks who want to spend a week or two exploring Antarctica, there are myriad fly-and-cruise options from these four points of departure. While you will not be able to use points and miles for awards, you can certainly consider using a credit card with fixed-rate redemptions to offset some of the cost. For instance, if you charge a cruise to your Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card or Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard, you can redeem the miles you earn with either as statement credits toward travel purchases including cruises.
You could also book a luxury cruise through Amex Travel to earn 2 bonus points per dollar with a Membership Rewards-enrolled card like The Platinum Card® from American Express.
2. Galápagos, Ecuador
One of the world’s most celebrated wildlife destinations thanks to the writings of 19th-century scientist Charles Darwin, the Galápagos Islands are one of the most distinct ecosystems on earth. They’re also eminently reachable using airline miles.
Formed volcanically between three and five million years ago, the archipelago of 19 islands rises dramatically from the floor of the Pacific Ocean 600 miles from the coast of Ecuador. The Galápagos were declared Ecuador’s first national park in 1959, and have been a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site since 1978.
While in the past, the majority of tourism here was on expensive multi-day cruises, the Ecuadorean government has actually been encouraging travelers to come and spend time on the inhabited islands of San Cristóbal, Santa Cruz, Floreana and Isabela. The islands have ramped up ferry service among them and okayed the construction and opening of many small hotels. Basically, it’s feasible to put together a DIY itinerary to one of the world’s coolest bio hotspots, and about 200,000 people now do so each year. While cruises allow you to visit more islands on a faster timeframe, if you can go at a slower pace, or you are working with a smaller budget, a land-based trip might be the way to go.
Once over there, you can expect to see iguanas galore, catch glimpses of the famous finches that Darwin studied so intently, get up close with sea lions and hang out with the giant, ancient tortoises that call the islands home (they’re not going anywhere in a hurry). There are also opportunities to snorkel and scuba.
The two main airports in the islands are Seymour Airport (GPS) on Baltra, which connects to Santa Cruz by water taxi and bus, and San Cristóbal Airport (SCY) on the island of the same name.
From Guayaquil (GYE), you can catch nonstop flights on LATAM, Avianca and TAME to either, though there are far more flights to Santa Cruz. From Quito (UIO), both Avianca and LATAM offer some nonstops to Santa Cruz, but many more flights stop through Guayaquil. Flights from either of the mainland cities to the Galápagos are just over two hours.
If you are just flying from Quito or Guayaquil, it’s relatively easy to book award flights within the country. United.com does a great job of showing Avianca award availability on these routes. MileagePlus will charge you 12,500 miles each way in economy, or 20,000 in business class.
Aeroplan would charge the same for economy, but 22,500 miles each way in business class. Using Avianca Lifemiles is even more of a bargain, at just 8,500 miles each way in economy and 16,500 in business class.
That said, if you’re coming from the US, you could book all your flights including the ones to the Galápagos for just 20,000 miles each way in economy or 35,000 miles in business using United MileagePlus miles, so you might as well tack on the extra segments.
Lifemiles would charge you 16,000-17,500 miles in economy depending on your origin in the US, or 35,000 miles in business class.
Finding LATAM awards is trickier because there are fewer flights offered, but also because British Airways’ site, which is usually good at finding Oneworld award availability, does not seem to have either Galápagos airports in its search engine. However, an AAdvantage agent I spoke to was able to find some awards on LATAM’s flights for me. From the US, you’ll pay 20,000 miles each way in economy or 30,000 in business class, while just the domestic Ecuadorean flights would be 10,000 miles each way in economy, or 20,000 in business class.
While there are not points hotels in the islands, you’re not out of choices. You can actually Airbnb a handful of properties, and prices are not too crazy, ranging from $30-$100 per night, depending on when you visit and how large the place you want to rent. In terms of earning, Airbnb generally counts as a travel purchase with cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Citi Premier® Card. Likewise, you could use a travel-geared cash-back card like the Capital One Venture or Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card and redeem your points toward a statement credit on the purchase.
The tiny mountain kingdom of Bhutan remains one of the world’s most mysterious yet alluring destinations. The country’s government has imposed a strict “High Value. Low Impact.” tourism policy for decades. The point is to prevent the over-tourism and rampant development that have plagued other destinations like Bali.
And it seems to have worked. Today, Bhutan remains one of the last unspoiled corners of Asia, if not the world, where the local culture and traditions remain intact and thriving.
To get into this country of around 800,000 souls, you must make your arrangements through a registered Bhutanese tour operator. You must also apply for a visa well in advance, and expect to pay a minimum tourism fee of $200-$250…per day. That does cover things like basic accommodations, meals, a tour guide, internal transportation, taxes and a tourism royalty that benefits the Bhutanese population. If you want to arrange a luxury tour or book your own hotels, they tend to connect you with their preferred tourism operator and the fees will vary from there.
Once in Bhutan, you can spend your days trekking through pine forests to awe-inspiring fortresses and monasteries like the famous cliff-clinging Tiger’s Nest (Paro Taktsang) near Paro, paying your respects at colorful temples, visiting local families in their homes, and even seeing traditional Bhutanese customs, traditions and cuisine up close at celebrations like the Haa Summer Festival.
The only airlines that fly to Bhutan’s international airport in Paro (PBH) are Bhutan Airlines and Druk Air, which is the national carrier, so expect to buy a ticket for the last leg of your trip. To offset the cost, think about using a card like the Capital One Venture or Barclaycard Arrival Plus and redeem the miles you earn for a cash-back credit against the charge. Assuming you don’t expect to redeem points or miles for this segment, you could always use a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Citi Prestige, which earn bonus points on purchases made with airlines.
While Bhutan Airlines only seems to be flying from Kathmandu (KTM) at the moment, the good news is, Druk Air flies from several major Asian airports including Bangkok (BKK), New Delhi (DEL), Kolkata (CCU), Kathmandu and Singapore (SIN), among others. So there’s a plethora of ways to use miles to get to one of those gateways and catch a Druk Air flight from there.
We have written extensively on ways to get to Asia using miles, including many of the destinations above. So rather than going into great detail here, check out the following posts for tips and ideas:
- The Best Ways to Fly Business Class to Asia Using Miles
- The Best Ways to Get to Singapore Using Points and Miles
- The Best Ways to Get to India Using Points and Miles
However, points collectors aren’t out of luck. There is not one, but two, Le Méridien properties in the country at which Marriot Bonvoy members can redeem points. One is near the international airport in Paro, and the other is about an hour away in the capital of Thimphu.
Here were rates at both for dates this fall. As you can see, they’re both Category 5 properties where award nights range from 12,000-16,000 points per night, or 6,000 points + $110 with cash & points.
After the final SPG/Marriott Rewards merger August 18, award nights at both should cost 35,000 points each.
4. Faroe Islands, Denmark
Don’t let the heading fool you. Though the Faroe Islands are part of Denmark, they are actually 800 miles from Copenhagen, about halfway between Norway and Iceland. So what makes this far-flung archipelago of 18 isles so special?
Although they are, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere, the Faroe Islands have been regularly ranking high on lists of the world’s top undiscovered destinations thanks to their spectacular sea cliffs, jaw-dropping fjords and cacophonous colonies of puffins and other seabirds. Visitors can take ferries between islands, hike the scenic coastline, and taste some of the world’s best seafood in quaint restaurants. The villages are warrens of quaint cottages with grass-covered roofs (no wonder Google was using sheep-mounted cameras to map the region). The main town of Tórshavn is also home to Koks, which might just be the world’s most remote Michelin-starred restaurant.
Despite their northerly location, the weather is relatively temperate thanks to the Gulf Stream, meaning photography and nature enthusiasts alike can enjoy the vistas and vantage points for much of the year.
Before the comments begin, let me just say that I am aware that Faroe Islanders carry out an annual, non-commercial hunt for pilot whales called the grindadrap. The official tourism site for the islands has a full page devoted to the topic, as does PETA, so you can form your own opinion and decide whether a visit to the islands is worth your while.
To get here, you have a few options. One is to take a transatlantic cruise with a line like Viking, many of which are making the Faroe Islands a highlight of their transoceanic voyages.
If you want to fly, the Faroe Islands have just a single airport called Vágar (FAE) in Sørvágur, which is a 45-minute drive to Tórshavn. SAS flies one daily nonstop from Copenhagen (CPH) to Vágar. United MileagePlus (a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner) will charge you 30,000 miles plus $137 round-trip in economy, or 50,000 miles plus $137 round-trip in business, so you might just be better off paying for your ticket outright since fares run around $300.
Or, combine this leg into an overall European itinerary for 60,000 miles plus $140 round-trip in economy, or 140,000 miles plus $140 in business class.
You could also try using ANA miles (an Amex transfer partner) for just 55,000 miles round-trip in economy or 88,000 miles in business class. However, the airline’s online search engine does not even register FAE and phone agents were not able to see the space I found on United.com for the CPH-FAE flights specifically, so this might not be the best option.
The Faroe Islands’ own Atlantic Airways flies nonstop to Copenhagen (CPH) up to three times daily for about $300 round-trip, and to Billund (BLL), Denmark, three times a week for about $360 round-trip. Over the summer, Atlantic Airways also has a few flights from Edinburgh (EDI) and Bergen (BGO). Unfortunately, the airline is not in any alliance, so your miles won’t come in handy. But you could always purchase tickets using a card like the Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card (card no longer available) and redeem the points you earn for a statement credit toward the purchase.
The islands don’t have any points hotels, but, like in the Galápagos, there are plenty of cute accommodations like the cozy hilltop Hotel Foroyar overlooking Tórshavn, and you can even Airbnb a small selection of lodgings.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle might have called off their plans to honeymoon in this southern African safari wonderland, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. Despite its proximity to other major safari destinations including South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, Namibia has managed to remain off the radar, so you won’t find jeep caravans jammed with tourists clogging its national parks and preserves.
Among the top regions to visit is the Namib Desert along the Atlantic coast from which the country derives its name, and which is one of the largest deserts on earth, where species like the lions and elephants have adapted to the harsh environment. Seeing the towering sand dunes of the Kulala Wilderness Reserve and the jagged granite escarpments of the Naukluft Mountains is like touching down on other planets. A flight up to the northwest will bring you to the Skeleton Coast, whose beaches are littered with the bones of whales and shipwrecks, while the lush Kunene River valley of Kaokoland along the border with Angola offers unique water-based safaris and whitewater rafting.
Though it is one of the farthest points on the planet from the US, your options for flying to Namibia using miles are myriad.
If you have Star Alliance miles, such as with United MileagePlus (a Chase transfer partner) or Air Canada Aeroplan (a transfer partner of Amex), you could fly South African Airways from either New York (JFK) or Washington Dulles (IAD) to Johannesburg (JNB). Ethiopian Airlines flies from Los Angeles (LAX), Chicago O’Hare (ORD), Newark (EWR), or Washington Dulles to Addis Ababa (ADD), with stops on some routes like Dublin (DUB) and Lomé (LFW), and then on to Windhoek. You could also fly via Istanbul (IST) on Turkish Airlines. Finally, several European carriers fly to Johannesburg via their hubs, including Zurich (ZRH) on SWISS or Frankfurt (FRA) on Lufthansa. You could then continue to Windhoek from there on South African Airways.
United will charge you 40,000 miles each way in economy…
Or 80,000 miles in business class.
Aeroplan charges 50,000 miles each way in economy, or 75,000 miles in business class, but you have to pay attention to the mix of carriers since the taxes and surcharges can be high when booking awards on airlines like Lufthansa.
Delta flies nonstop from Atlanta (ATL) to Johannesburg. Decently priced awards are extremely scarce, but not non-existent. Here’s an economy award on Delta’s nonstop for just 45,000 Delta SkyMiles (an Amex transfer partner) one-way. Business class awards this fall on the route are averaging 465,000 miles…each way.
From Johannesburg, you could take a flight to Windhoek on South African Airways, Kulala or Air Namibia, for about $300 round-trip.
Finally, Qatar Airways, which flies to 10 US cities including Boston (BOS), Chicago, Los Angeles (LAX), Philadelphia (PHL) and New York (JFK), among others, also flies non-stop to Windhoek via its hub in Doha (DOH). Because it’s in Oneworld, you could use American Airlines AAdvantage miles to book awards for 40,000 miles each way in economy, or 75,000 miles in business class.
Surprisingly enough, there are a handful of points properties in Namibia at which you could save a few dollars…when you’re not staying at top-tier luxury safari lodges like andBeyond Sossusvlei, or Wilderness Safaris Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp. If you do book stays at a few of those luxury camps, though, it might be worthwhile to book using your Citi Prestige for its 4th Night Free benefit.
For the other times, Marriott fields six Protea-brand hotels around the country, all of which are Category 1-2 properties, including the Protea Hotel Walvis Bay Pelican Bay between the Namib National Reserve and the Skeleton Coast, and the Protea Hotel Zambezi River Lodge in the northeast near the border with Zambia. As you can see, paid rates are very reasonable…
As are points rates…
There is also a Hilton Windhoek, where room rates run about $120 per night, or 30,000 points.
With the notable exception of refusing to decriminalize homosexuality, Uzbekistan has made substantial strides toward reform and the advancement of human rights since the death of former president, strongman Islam Karimov, in 2016. The country recently created a $20 e-visa process for visitors from 51 countries, including the US, making it easier than ever to gain entry. There are also free transit visas for stays of up to five days on onward journeys. Though there is still a ways to go (and you should keep tabs on the progress as it concerns your own principles and safety), Uzbekistan is opening up rapidly.
Which is a good thing, because the region once lay at the heart of the Silk Road, and has the breathtaking and well-preserved cultural monuments to prove it. Over the course of its nearly 2,800-year past, the UNESCO-listed city of Samarkand has seen history’s great names, including Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Marco Polo. Architecturally stunning madrasas line the town’s enormous main square of Registan, and the stalls in the Siab Bazaar still peddle spices and handicrafts that have been traded on the Silk Road since time immemorial. Among the other major sights are the Ulugh Beg Observatory, the Mausoleum of Gur-e-Amir and the Bibi-Khanym Mosque, which was one of the largest in the world when it was built over 600 years ago.
The winding, car-free lanes and alleys of the caravan city of Khiva’s old town are still surrounded by fortification walls and overlooked by the unmistakable turquoise tower of the unfinished Kalta Minor minaret. Bukhara features draws like a 12th-century minaret and an unrivaled collection of Islamic religious buildings from the Middle Ages, plus bazaars teeming with exotic goods.
Any plans to travel to Uzbekistan will necessarily include a stop through the capital, Tashkent, and its international airport. Unfortunately, a devastating earthquake destroyed the city and many of its oldest buildings in 1966. However, you can still see restored 12th-century and imperial Russian styles around town, plus a whole lot of blocky Soviet architecture. From Tashkent, you can take a high-speed train called the Afrosiyob to Samarkand and Bukhara, among other cities.
You could fly to Tashkent (TAS) from a variety of cities on Uzbekistan Airlines. Or, you could fly more international carriers like Aeroflot (from Moscow SVO), Asiana (from Seoul ICN), China Southern (from Beijing PEK and Urumqu UMQ), Korean Air (from Seoul ICN) and Turkish Airlines (from Istanbul IST). Oneworld flyers won’t have much luck redeeming miles for awards here, but Star Alliance and SkyTeam both present plenty of choices.
Delta SkyMiles and Air France/KLM Flying Blue have both stopped publishing award charts, so your miles may vary. However, here are a few awards at the lowest levels I found from the US to Tashkent on assorted carriers including Delta, Air France, KLM, Aeroflot, China Eastern and China Southern.
The best options I found were using Flying Blue miles, in part because the program is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Marriott Bonvoy; but also because the mileage levels were pretty low.
Here’s an economy award for 46,000 miles one-way from Los Angeles (LAX) to Paris (CDG) on Delta, then to Moscow (SVO) on Air France and finally to Tashkent (TAS) on Aeroflot.
Here’s a similar award, just via Amsterdam (AMS) on KLM, for 42,500 miles.
And in business class on Air France and Aeroflot, I found awards starting at 98,500 miles each way.
Meanwhile, Delta now seems to charge 60,000 SkyMiles each way for economy, whether you fly Air France…
The lowest-level business class award I could find with Delta SkyMiles was 155,000 miles each way via Shanghai (PVG) and Beijing on China Eastern, then continuing to Tashkent on China Southern.
Korean Air flies from Seoul on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays, but I could not find a single award on that flight.
For you Star Alliance flyers out there, or holders of cards that rack up Chase Ultimate Rewards points that transfer to United, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred, there were options on both Turkish Airlines via Istanbul, and awards like this one on Asiana via Seoul for 42,500 miles each way in economy or 85,000 miles in business class.
Aeroplan might be a better choice for folks with Amex points, though taxes and surcharges on awards can be high. That program will charge you 40,000 miles each way in economy or 82,500 miles in business class.
Tashkent is home to two hotels that participate in points programs. The first and most luxurious is the Hyatt Regency Tashkent where rates this fall were going for $292 per night, or awards for 8,000 points (12,000 for a club room), or 4,000 points + $55.
Radisson Rewards has the Radisson Blu Tashkent with rooms from $214 per night, or 38,000 points.
Hilton also plans to open a hotel in the city…in December 2025. So stay tuned?
Even in the most faraway places, your points and miles can come in handy for planning the trip of a lifetime. There are points-participating hotels in some unexpected destinations, but even when there are not, the money you save by using your airline miles to book tickets can go toward making your on-the-ground time that much more special.
Featured photo of Miri Arab Madrassah, Bukhara, Bukhara, Uzbekistan. (Photo by Jeremy Woodhouse/Getty Images)
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