The Best Bucket List Points Trips to Culinary Destinations

Aug 5, 2018

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As the late, great Anthony Bourdain taught us, food and travel are inextricably linked. No amount of museum hopping or guided tours can replace the cultural understanding that comes from sitting down to a local meal. While I absolutely hate the term “foodie” (a good authentic meal shouldn’t be reduced to a #instagrammoment), I have enjoyed a surprisingly large amount of good food during my own travels, from street food in Southeast Asia to Michelin starred French restaurants.

As luck would have it, some of the world’s best food can be found in cities that are bucket list destinations for other reasons. So today, we’ll take a look at some of them and how to get there using points and miles.

Paris

Eiffel Tower at sunset
Photo courtesy of Mark Lovatt via Getty Images

What to eat: The short answer? Absolutely everything. I didn’t have a single bad meal during my 10-week study abroad in the City of Light, and it’s the only place in the world where if you dropped me there for 24 hours I already know exactly what I’d have for every meal. The morning would start with a banana Nutella crepe, and while you can find them all over the city, I do have a favorite stand I’d go back to. Lunch would be at Le Relais de L’entrecote, which has three locations around the city. A simple and delicious steak frites, but the real surprise is that just when you think you’re done… they bring out an entire second plate. Two steaks for the price of one will get me any day. For dinner I’d wander around the Seine until I found something that caught my eye, or possibly head over to world-famous L’As du Fallafel. Drinks would be at La Fee Verte, an old-fashioned absinthe bar done right with icy water spigots brought to each table. Can you tell how badly I want to go back?

How to get there: There are plenty of ways to get to Paris, with service offered by all three major US airlines. The table below shows the cost of a round-trip saver-level award ticket.

Airline Round-Trip Economy Round-Trip Business Class Round-Trip First Class
United 60,000 miles 120,000-140,000 miles **  220,000 miles **
American 60,000 miles 115,000 miles 170,000 miles

** United charges extra miles for business-class redemptions on Star Alliance partners (such as Lufthansa), and first-class awards will be on partner airlines as United has begun to retire its own first class.

You might notice that Delta is missing from this list, and yes that was intentional. Since Delta removed its award chart and switched to purely variable pricing, it’s become difficult to talk generally about how much a Delta award costs. Add in the fact that nearly every economy award to Paris I saw started at over 100,000 miles one-way, and I can’t in good conscience propose it as a good option for redeeming miles to Paris.

Although we’re all about redeeming miles here at TPG, you should definitely check the cash prices before you book. It’s not unusual to see fare sales to Europe as low as $500-600 round-trip. And with low-cost carriers continuing their explosive expansion, you might even see tickets as cheap as $350.

If you would rather save that hard-earned cash for something else, consider using a pay-with-points option, available with cards such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve (CSR), Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (CSP), Ink Business Preferred Credit Card and The Business Platinum Card® from American Express. With the CSR, you’ll get 1.5 cents per point when booking through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal, meaning a $500 round-trip ticket would cost just 33,333 points. With the CSP and Ink Preferred you get 1.25 cents, so that same $500 ticket would cost 40,000 points. With the Business Platinum you’ll need the full number of points up front, but will get a 35% rebate after booking on amextravel.com (up to 500,000 additional points per calendar year) . Note that if you’re trying to use your points to pay for tickets on a low-cost carrier, you’ll probably need to call your card company directly and hope an agent can find the flights you want.

Tokyo

Photo courtesy of Michael H via Getty Images
Photo courtesy of Michael H via Getty Images

What to eat: Tokyo is the only city on this list I haven’t visited myself, but I’m hoping to change that ASAP. It goes without saying that you’ll eat some of the freshest sushi of your life here, but there’s more to it than that. Wake up long before sunrise to head over to Tsukiji fish market, where over 1,800 tons of fish are sold daily. Find something you like and you can have it prepared freshly for you just the way you like it, be it nigiri, sashimi, fried, etc. Ramen is popular here as well, and chains like Ippudo and Ichiran have even broken into the US markets in recent years. End the day with a drink in one of Tokyo’s many Izakayas, pubs serving food and drink, and wake up early to do it all again.

How to get there: Tokyo is a lovely niche for award travelers, as most airlines price it slightly cheaper than the rest of Asia. For United, Japan is its own award region, with one-way award tickets costing the following amounts:

  • Economy: 35,000 miles
  • Business: 70,000-80,000 miles
  • First: 110,000 miles

Flying all the way to Japan for just 15% more miles than it takes to get to Europe is a great deal, as is 110,000 miles for ANA’s refined first-class experience. But if you’re looking to fly up front, there’s potentially a much cheaper way to do so which I’ll talk about in a minute.

American Airlines’ Asia 1 region includes Japan and Korea. Even after the mega-devAAluation, awards to Asia 1 are still pretty reasonable with one-way tickets costing the following amounts:

  • Economy: 35,000 miles
  • Business: 60,000miles
  • First: 80,000 miles

You can redeem these miles for flights on AA metal (good luck finding award space!) or on Japan Airlines. 10+ hours of JAL first class seems like a pretty great deal, but you can also book the same ticket for only 70,000 Alaska miles one-way.

Speaking of getting the same flight for fewer miles, let’s revisit ANA for a minute. Instead of paying 110,000 United miles for a one-way ticket, you’d be much better off paying 120,000 Virgin Atlantic miles for a round-trip first-class ticket. This guide will walk you through earning and redeeming Virgin Atlantic miles, which can really get you outsized value if you know where to look.

Shanghai

Colourful Shanghai style steamed pork dumplings in bamboo steamer
Courtesy of Eurngkwan via Getty Images

What to eat: Every new city I’ve visited in China has further shown me that before this year, I knew nothing about Chinese food. While the differences between the eight Chinese cuisines, including Cantonese and Sichuan, could be an entire post in their own right, here we’ll focus on my personal favorite: the smoky-sweet deliciousness of Shanghainese food. And there’s no food more classically Shanghainese than the Xiao Long Bao. Literally translated as “small basket buns,” these scalding hot soupy delights can be found in high-end restaurants and working-class food stalls all around the city. Pick them up as gingerly as you would a newborn baby, bite the neck and slurp out the delicious soup inside. Then a quick dip in vinegar, plop it in your mouth, and on to the next one before they get cold!

How to get there: If you exclude low-cost carriers from the equation, Shanghai (PVG) — and even Beijing (PEK) and Hong Kong (HKG) — consistently have some of the lowest cash fares for US departures. This means your search should start on Google Flights, and booking directly through the Chase or Amex portal to take advantage of pay-with-points bonuses might make sense. Take, for example, this $547 round-trip ticket from Chicago (ORD) to Shanghai (PVG) on Hainan. If you have a Chase Sapphire Reserve and pay with Ultimate Rewards points, this ticket would only cost you ~36,000 points for the round-trip, nearly half as many as if you transferred those points to a partner to book.

Of course if you’re looking to travel in a premium cabin, this strategy won’t work as well. Luckily, you have two great options for well-priced first-class redemptions. First is using Alaska Mileage Plan miles, an SPG transfer partner, to book awards on either JAL or Cathay Pacific. First-class awards will be 70,000 miles one-way for either airline, while business class with Cathay is slightly cheaper at 50,000 miles-one way vs. 60,000 with JAL. You’ll also be entitled to a free stopover (in either Tokyo or Hong Kong), giving you two vacations for the price of one.

Another great option is Korean Air, one of the most overlooked transfer partners of Chase Ultimate Rewards. 80,000 miles will get you a one way first-class ticket from the US to Shanghai, and again you’ll have the option of a free stopover in Seoul on the way. Korean Air also uses Apex Suites (shown below) in business class on much of their fleet. At 62,500 miles one-way, this is a cheaper but still private and comfortable way to cross the pacific.

India

Photo courtesy of Junaid Bhat via Getty Images
Photo courtesy of Junaid Bhat via Getty Images

What to eat: India is a complete sensory overload for the tastebuds, with a complete aromatic palette as colorfully diverse as it is delicious. It’s also a downright massive country, and while you’ll enjoy delicious curry dishes and naan in most parts, the regional delicacies are some of the most exciting. From Hyderabad’s world-famous biryani in the south, to dal and kulcha in the north, Indian cuisine will never run out of ways to impress you.

How to get there: If you’re planning a trip to India, this guide can walk you through some of the multitudinous flight options but we’ll highlight some of the best choices again here.

If you’re traveling to a major city like Delhi or Mumbai, a nonstop flight would make your long travel day that much more bearable. Between Air India and United, there are nonstop flights to India leaving from Newark (EWR), New York (JFK), Chicago (ORD) and San Francisco (SFO). You can book these with either United MileagePlus miles or Aeroplan miles at the following rates for a round-trip ticket:

Points Program Economy Business First
United MileagePlus 85,000 miles 150,000-170,000 miles 280,000 miles
Aeroplan 100,000 miles 150,000 miles 210,000 miles

 

If you’re looking to fly first class, by far the best option you have is to use 70,000 Alaska Mileage Plan miles to book Cathay Pacific first class. Not only will you have the option of a free stopover in Hong Kong, but you’ll also enjoy one of the nicest 777 first-class seats out there, aside from Emirates’ new suites.

If you’re looking to burn some American AAdvantage miles, or travel to a smaller city in India, Qatar might be your best option. You can connect through Doha (DOH) to at least a dozen cities across India, and if you’re departing from Chicago (ORD), Washington DC (IAD), New York (JFK), or Houston (IAH), you can fly the world’s best business-class seat for privacy on the long-haul leg. One-way awards booked with AA will cost the following amounts:

  • Economy: 40,000 miles
  • Business: 70,000 miles
Buy enough miles to try out Qsuites between Europe and Doha for just $___.
Try out Qsuites on your way to India.

Israel

Photo courtesy of Maremagum via Getty Images
Photo courtesy of Maremagum via Getty Images

What to eat: You don’t have to travel all the way to India or Southeast Asia to find a street market worthy of your time. Mahane Yehuda in downtown Jerusalem, shown above, is a must if (like me) you’d rather barter for your food than pay a fixed price off a menu. Don’t worry, the cacophony of angry screaming is all good natured as everything at this market, from dinner to weekly groceries, is up for negotiation. You can opt for a more traditional sit-down meal instead, or grab a pita and falafel just about anywhere on the street. Add in humus, tahini, baba ganoush and even some schwarma, and you can quickly roll many of the country’s favorite dishes into one delicious on-the-go sandwich.

How to get there: Given how far away Israel is, many people will want to opt for a nonstop flight if they can possibly find one. United flies nonstop from Newark (EWR) to Tel Aviv (TLV), and while the 777-300ER it uses on this route features new Polaris seats up front, the 10-across economy seating is quite a squeeze on the 10+ hour flight. One-way awards will cost you 42,500 United miles in economy or 75,000 miles in Polaris business, but since this is a popular route, saver-level award space can be hard to find. It’s worth mentioning that El Al flies the same Newark-Tel Aviv route with a 787-9. TPG’s Emily McNutt reviewed the flight in business class, and found it to be a huge step up from El Al’s outdated fleet of 777s. While El Al is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, its award chart is outrageously expensive. If you’re looking to fly El Al over United, you’ll probably be better off paying cash.

Delta flies nonstop from New York (JFK) to Tel Aviv, but with flights starting at 130,000 miles one-way for economy and 300,000 for business class, this is really only a last-ditch option. Playing around with the departure city and taking one-stop itineraries on SkyTeam partners might get your costs down to ~75,000 miles one-way in economy, but that’s still a pretty poor value.

I’m also intentionally leaving American Airlines miles off this list for two overlapping reasons. Since AA doesn’t fly nonstop from the US to Israel, you’ll have to route through Europe on a Oneworld partner. Unless your home airport is served by Iberia or Finnair, you’ll likely be routing through London (LHR) on British Airways. The $400+ in taxes that these tickets often come with can easily negate the value of your “free” flight.

Bottom Line

Whether you’re traveling specifically to experience a new type of food, or it just ends up being a happy coincidence, a good meal, a bold flavor, or a local take on a classic dish can quickly become one of the more memorable parts of your trip. And when you score free flights thanks to a well thought-out redemption, that just means you have more money to spend on food and drink!

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