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Dreaming of Mongolia: How I'll book my bucket-list trip after the pandemic

April 16, 2020
6 min read
Dreaming of Mongolia: How I'll book my bucket-list trip after the pandemic
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Mongolia has long been on my list. When I was growing up during the Cold War, it was an unattainable dream, a Soviet satellite state where foreigners rarely ventured. That is no longer the case. The world’s most sparsely inhabited country — a landlocked nation twice the size of Texas but with fewer people than Brooklyn — now sees more than half a million visitors a year. It’s time to be one of them.

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Mongolia made TPG’s list of places to visit in 2017, and getting there does not involve bureaucracy. Unlike its neighbors Russia and China, the only countries it borders on, Mongolia does not require a visa for U.S. tourists. The capital, Ulaanbaatar — or Ulan Bator, depending on the translitteration — is no gem; the beauty of Mongolia is to be found in its boundless nature instead. But it’s where most international flights arrive, so that’s where I have set my sights for the time when we can all embrace travel again.

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Screenshot from Google Maps

You could get to Ulaanbataar the more adventurous way, by train. You could also try flying MIAT Mongolian, the national airline, which has modern Western jets and serves major Asian cities. It even offers a fascinating service to Berlin via Moscow.

But there are major international airlines that make getting there with one connection from several U.S. airports easy.

ALTAI MOUNTAIN RANGE, MONGOLIA - 14 JUNE 2015: Berik, one of Sailau's sons, holds his 7kg female golden eagle aloft in Altai Mountain Range, Mongolia, 14 June 2015. Remote nomadic families are supporting themselves using one unconventional method - hunting with golden eagles. In 2015 and 2016, videographer and photographer Joel Santos travelled for several days across Mongolia to reach their remote homes of the Kazakh nomads and witness the stringent training they endure to bond with their eagles. With only around 400 traditional eagle hunters left in the world, the custom is precious and unless your father was an eagle hunter, you cannot become one. PHOTOGRAPH BY Joel Santos / Barcroft Images London-T:+44 207 033 1031 E:hello@barcroftmedia.com - New York-T:+1 212 796 2458 E:hello@barcroftusa.com - New Delhi-T:+91 11 4053 2429 E:hello@barcroftindia.com www.barcroftmedia.com (Photo credit should read Joel Santos / Barcroft Media via Getty Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
A hunter with an eagle in the Altai mountains of Mongolia (Photo by Joel Santos / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

For a two-week trip from New York to ULN in August, the cheapest is currently Russian airline Aeroflot via Moscow, with a $750 round-trip airfare in economy or a very attractive $2,044 in business class. The latter is especially enticing for someone who, like me, is a Delta flyer. Aeroflot is a member of the SkyTeam alliance, meaning I would earn a ton of Delta elite-qualifying miles on those flights. I could not find those low Aeroflot airfares on Google Flights, but they were available on the airline's site. (If an eight-hour layover in Moscow seems daunting, keep in mind the Aeroflot lounges at Sheremetyevo airport are large and well-appointed, and accessible to Priority Pass cardholders.)

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Screenshot from Aeroflot site

For $883, I could also fly United from Newark to Beijing and hop on a MIAT 737 connecting to Ulaanbataar. Cash fares for August are significantly higher on Korean Air via Seoul or Turkish via Istanbul. Korean’s website in particular spat out an outrageous $1,991 coach fare. For that price Aeroflot will take me there and back in flat-bed biz on a Boeing 777 — at leat until Moscow, with the connecting flights to and from Mongolia on a MIAT 737 under an Aeroflot code share and biz-class seats comparable to domestic first class on a U.S. airline. The 2-2-2 layout in its business class isn't the best these days, but it's great for traveling as a couple.

Using points and miles, you could go business class round-trip on Korean for 105,000 Alaska Airlines miles with two stops, via Seattle and Seoul. The routing is long and a bit inconvenient, with an overnight in Seoul, but the price isn’t bad and Korean’s biz class is certainly worth a splurge. At our valuations, 105,000 Alaska miles plus $77.15 in taxes and fees equates to $1,967.15 — a very good deal for a flat bed to Asia and back. Note that the domestic and intra-Asia legs on the outbound trip would be in coach.

Screenshot from Alaska Airlines site

Lodging options range from luxury hotels part of international chains to traditional Mongolian gers, better known as yurts — dwellings perfectly suited to the life of nomadic herders on the steppes. You can stay at a perfectly good Holiday Inn in Ulaanbataar for about $100 a night, or spend $370 for the Shangri-La, the most expensive hotel in the city according to a search on Booking.com. Or you could go the Airbnb route and pay $49 per night for your own private space in a yurt on the outskirts of the city. That would also put you outside of the capital's notorious pollution, caused by burning coal for heat. (Speaking of yurts: That is a Russian word, and the language is widely spoken in Mongolia.)

But you won't want to stay in Ulaanbataar. Mongolia is huge, and a good way to see a chunk of it is by hooking up with an adventure-travel provider, whose website wil give you a good idea of where you can expect to stay.

I'm reading up before going, and discovering fascinating things even before buying airfare.

Featured image by LightRocket via Getty Images

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TPG featured card

Best card for premium perks while traveling
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards

2 - 10X points
10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
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Intro offer

75,000 bonus miles
Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel

Annual Fee

$395

Recommended Credit

740-850
Excellent
Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,400+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and our Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023
Best card for premium perks while traveling
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
2X2 Miles per dollar on every purchase, every day
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel

    75,000 bonus miles
  • Annual Fee

    $395
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    740-850
    Excellent

Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,400+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and our Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023