Dreaming of the Middle East: The epic trip I’m planning for when we can travel again
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Editor’s note: The team at The Points Guy loves to travel, but now is not the time for unnecessary trips. Health officials say the fastest way to return to normalcy is to stop coming in contact with others. That includes ceasing travel. We are publishing travel guides because we should all use this time to think about and plan our next adventures. TPG doesn’t advise booking travel until later this year — and even then, be mindful of cancellation policies.
It’s now been more than a month since I left New York City for my parents’ house in Michigan to ride out the storm that is the still-spreading coronavirus pandemic. The move I originally thought would be a couple of weeks has turned into several, and may continue for months at this point.
Predictably, all this time in the house in which I grew up — and socially distant neighborhood walks with our family dogs — has given me more time than I could have possibly imagined to reflect on just about everything in my life, especially on the things I value most.
I’ve realized that travel is one of those things that is truly important. After family, friends and health, travel is something that feels like an essential part of who I am. It’s given me an almost indescribable amount of discovery and personal growth.
Many trips that I’ve taken in the last few years have been quick; I often spent more time on the journey than at the destination. This is not a bad thing at all, as I truly love flying and doing reviews for TPG. However, now that I’m totally grounded, I’m determined to take a trip long enough to get me out of my comfort zone and allow me to immerse myself in new cultures and make memories to last a lifetime.
I can’t think of a better place to have this kind of trip than the Middle East, specifically Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. I’ve had my eye on this region for a long time for a whole variety of reasons — from an obsession with ancient Egypt starting in my childhood to the fact that my ancestry is half Lebanese.
I’ve never visited Lebanon, where my father’s ancestors lived generations ago, and I’ve been feeling the pull to go — a pull that has only gotten stronger over the last few years.
Now, with all this time on my hands, there’s no better time to plan to make this trip that’s been swirling in my mind for years a reality. Once the world has healed and we’re on the move again, I’m going to do it.
Please note that I’m not booking anything that I’m discussing below, and will not book anything until medical experts and the world’s governments signal that it is once again safe to travel.
Getting there, around and back
I’d begin this trip in Egypt and end it in Lebanon, visiting Jordan in the middle. When I first started thinking about flights, I thought that I’d use Aeroplan miles to fly from New York to Cairo. Aeroplan, Air Canada’s frequent-flyer program, is a 1:1 transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, which are earned with cards such as The Platinum Card® from American Express and the American Express® Gold Card.
The program shows Star Alliance award availability, so in theory I could transfer 82,500 of my Amex points to my Aeroplan account and book any one of a number of business-class flights including EgyptAir’s nonstop 787 service between New York-JFK and Cairo (CAI) or something that’s more of an experience in and of itself like Turkish Airlines’ new Dreamliner, with a stop in Istanbul (IST), of course, before going on to Cairo.
To get home from Beirut, the Lebanese capital, I was originally targeting the Oneworld alliance, because I have a nice stash of American Airlines AAdvantage miles primarily from signing up for the Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Red card, which awarded 60,000 miles just for making one purchase with the card. And Amman, Jordan, is a Oneworld alliance hub thanks to the presence of Royal Jordanian, the kingdom’s flag carrier. The carrier flies nonstop between Amman (AMM) and New York-JFK, so theoretically I could use 70,000 AAdvantage miles to book a flight from Beirut (BEY) to New York via Amman in business class.
The information for the Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Red card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
However, no one knows what airline route networks will look like, which airlines will survive this dark period or when it will be safe to travel again, so I’ve also been looking at what my cash options could be. I may end up going the cash route because multi-city tickets on SkyTeam carriers that would take me from New York to Cairo and then from Beirut to New York are hovering around $650 through the rest of the year and into early next year.
And, because Delta has announced that it’s extending elite status for another year and that Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) earned during the rest of 2020 will roll over into 2021 to qualify for the 2022 Medallion year, any EQMs I earn this year will count toward next year’s earnings, making the prospect of booking a reasonably priced cash ticket much more realistic. Plus, since the itineraries involve connections in Europe, I don’t mind sitting in economy because the flight times aren’t all that long.
Once I’m in the Middle East, I hope to use British Airways Avios (transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards or Amex Membership Rewards) to book Royal Jordanian flights to take me between countries, or I would look at the Chase travel portal to redeem my points at 1.5 cents apiece for one-way flights between the cities I’ll be visiting.
Country #1: Egypt
I’d like to spend about seven to nine days in Egypt. Toward the end of 2019, TPG senior writer Lori Zaino took an amazing trip to the country, which reinforced my long-held desire to go. Based on her recommendations and plenty of reading, YouTube videos, Instagram searching and more, I aim to visit Cairo, Luxor and Aswan via a Nile River cruise.
Before the outbreak of the coronavirus, Egypt was enjoying a resurgence of tourism and there was plenty to look forward to in the country, most notably the soon-to-open Grand Egyptian Museum in Giza, just outside of Cairo near the iconic Great Pyramids of Giza. Hopefully, by the time I’m able to visit, the museum will be ready for visitors.
Besides exploring the gigantic museum and all its treasures, I plan to visit the pyramids and then spend some time getting a feel for everyday life in Cairo, Egypt’s frenetic capital city. I’d love to visit the city’s many mosques and bazaars, walk around Coptic Cairo, which is part of the old city, and take in the views of the mighty River Nile.
The Egyptian capital has many wonderful hotels, including two Four Seasons properties and plenty of top-tier properties from some of the world’s biggest hotel chains. I’ve had my eye on the forever-delayed St. Regis Cairo, but it’s looking like that hotel may never open, so I think I’ll choose The Nile Ritz-Carlton, Cairo, a Category 5 Marriott Bonvoy property with stunning Nile views, a beautiful pool deck, luxurious rooms and more.
Award nights at this property range from 30,000 to 40,000 points per night, meaning it qualifies for the up to 35,000-point free-night certificate that comes with cards like the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card if you can find off-peak or standard availability, and for the 50,000-point free-night certificate that comes with high-end cards like the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card on any night that you can find availability.
After a few days in Cairo, I’ll fly to Luxor, where I’ll spend several days exploring the Valley of the Kings, an ancient burial site of some of the most powerful pharaohs of ancient Egypt. And while I’m there, I hope to go on a daybreak hot-air balloon tour of the area (an experience that comes highly recommended by Lori).
In Luxor, I’ll stay at the Hilton Luxor Resort & Spa on the banks of the Nile. It’s reasonably priced, with rooms often under $100 per night. And, because I hold the Hilton Honors Aspire Card from American Express, I’ll earn 34 points per dollar spent while I’m there (thanks to the card’s 14x earning rate), and then earn an additional 20 points per dollar as a Diamond member, which is also a complimentary perk of the card. And then, as a Diamond member, I’ll receive free breakfast daily and maybe a room upgrade.
After my time in Luxor, I’ll embark on a Nile River cruise to Aswan. There are numerous cruise operators offering trips down the Nile, but I’ll be looking for one that takes three to four days and reasonably priced. Ideally, I’d like to choose an itinerary that makes enough stops for me to see ancient marvels like Hatshepsut Temple, the Philae temple complex, Abu Simbel Temples and more.
Country #2: Jordan
Coming from Egypt, my first stop in Jordan will be its capital city. Amman, a modern city with roots in the ancient world is now home to about 4 million people.
Before arriving, I’ll be sure to purchase the Jordan Pass, which includes access to 36 tourist sites in addition to a tourist visa to enter the country. There are three variations of the pass that you can purchase, though the only difference is the number of days that you’ll have access to the famous archeological site at Petra. The lowest-tier pass costs 70 Jordanian dinar (about $100) and includes one day of Petra access, which is all I need on this trip because I’m only planning on staying in the country for six days.
Although many people say that Amman is near the bottom of the list in terms of things to see in Jordan, I love exploring a country’s large cities for a taste of what daily life is like for the citizens. Plus, the large cities tend to have the highest concentration of cultural institutions and great restaurants, bars and other nightlife.
I’ll spend two days in the capital, with the first day devoted to seeing the historic sites and ruins around the city via a free walking tour — probably my favorite way of exploring an unfamiliar city. I’ll look for a tour that includes sites like the Amman Citadel, the Temple of Hercules and the Roman Theater of Amman as well as some modern attractions and perhaps a museum or two.
The second day will be all about walking around on my own, discovering neighborhoods filled with restaurants and shops — taking my time to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the city. I’ll be sure to have a meal of delicious Jordanian street food including falafel, hummus and other classic mezze at Hashem Restaurant, a downtown Amman restaurant sandwiched between buildings that many people consider a must-visit.
Amman is a great city if you’re a Marriott loyalist. The city is home to four properties, the most notable of which are the W Amman and The St. Regis Amman. The W is a Category 4 property, so nights range from 20,000 to 30,000 points per night, and The St. Regis, still fairly new, is a Category 6, so award nights will cost 40,000 to 60,000 points per night. Cash rates are reasonable, too, with the W often selling for around $165 per night and The St. Regis for about $230.
After my time in the capital, I’ll spend the next two days in Wadi Rum and Petra. I’ll go to Petra first, as it’s about a three-hour drive from Amman. Most people recommend hiring a guide to not only drive you to the site, but also to take you through the various parts, explaining the history and importance of what you’re looking at.
The Treasury is the most famous site in Petra, but there are many others that are part of the experience, and having a guide there will prove to be invaluable, especially because I’ll only have about a day to explore.
After the day at Petra, I’ll venture farther into the desert to reach the Wadi Rum, where I’ll stay at one of the many “bubble camps,” which feature individual bubbles for guests to stay in and resemble what you’d think a settlement on the planet Mars would look like. In fact, Wadi Rum is so extraterrestrial in its look and feel that it often plays the role of our neighbor in the galaxy in movies and TV shows.
Some of the bubble camps have fully translucent “ceilings” while others have see-through portions in the front of the dome.
I think that I’ll go all-out and choose a site that is on the more translucent side, like the Full of Stars luxury campsite that The Points Guy, Brian Kelly, stayed at during a trip to Jordan a few years ago. Sleeping under the starry night sky and rising with the desert sun will surely be an experience I’ll never forget.
For the second day in the desert, I would like to book a day-long Jeep tour with a local Bedouin guide. After another night in the bubble camp, it’ll be time to close out my week in Jordan with a couple of nights relaxing in the city of Aqaba on the Red Sea.
Marriott has two properties in the area: the Dead Sea Marriott Resort & Spa, and Al Manara, A Luxury Collection Hotel, Saraya Aqaba. The former is a Category 4 (20,000-30,000 points per night); the latter is a Category 5 (30,000-50,000 points per night). Both properties regularly go for under $150 per night, so I’d likely use cash for my stay here and save my points for a pricier property.
Country #3: Lebanon
The last part of my trip will be in Lebanon. In designing this trip, I chose to slot Lebanon last, as it’s probably the country I’m most excited to visit. I grew up in a community in Michigan with a sizable Lebanese population, eating Lebanese food and hearing stories of distant family members back in Lebanon. I knew I had to visit it.
The first stop in Lebanon will be Beirut. Known as the Paris of the Middle East and famous for its blend of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern life, the Lebanese capital has gone through countless ups and downs throughout its long history, with wars and widespread protests more or less a constant.
However, the city’s residents are unique in their resolve to carry on and live life on their terms, which has created a passion for life that’s palpable as you walk along the street — at least according to what I’ve been told.
Determined to experience it for myself, I want to spend four or five days in the city to give me enough time to slow down, explore it with meandering walks through its many neighborhoods and enjoy as much food as humanly possible at many of the city’s famous restaurants, cafes and bars.
I want to take it slow, doing a lot of walking and learning about the city primarily through its food, culture and daily life. And because I’ll have several days in the city, I won’t need to rush to see all the tourist sites, but I’ll be able to see the top sites, like the Gemmayzeh or Mar Mikhael, Martyrs’ Square, Pigeons’ Rock and more at a gradual pace, which will be welcome after two weeks of travel.
In terms of accommodations, I will likely stay in an Airbnb, because of the longer stay in the city and the opportunity to be right in the heart of some of the most exciting neighborhoods like Gemmayzeh or Mar Mikhael.
There are also a couple of hotels that have piqued my interest and where I’d consider staying if the price was right, like the Four Seasons Beirut in the heart of downtown or Le Gray, a pricey but super-cool spot featuring a rooftop pool and terrace with irresistible views of the city.
Lebanon is very small — so small, in fact, that you could go skiing, hike in a forest of cedar trees and jump into the ocean all in the same day. And all of those experiences are essential to the experience, so after several days in the city, I plan to head north from the city to spend a day (or a few more) exploring the majestic Qadisha Valley of Bsharri: a UNESCO heritage site that’s home to monasteries cut out of the rock and ancient clifftop towns.
Near the Qadisha Valley is a site that’s essential to the Lebanese identity: the Cedars of God. The cedar tree has been a fixture of the nation since ancient times, and the tree is the central image on the national flag. Today the Cedars of God are one of the last remaining pockets of these magnificent trees, and a must-see on anyone’s Lebanon itinerary.
If, miraculously, I have more time, I’d love to visit the Beqaa Valley, home to many of the nation’s wineries as well as the city of Byblos which is only about a half-hour drive from Beirut and known for being popular with partygoers in the summer months.
This is a trip I’ve been dreaming about for a long, long time. All this time inside under the pandemic stay-at-home orders has me more excited — and dedicated — than ever to finally make this dream a reality — once it’s safe to travel globally again.
For more TPG dream trips, see below:
- Dreaming of French Polynesia
- Dreaming of Mongolia
- Dreaming of the Pacific Islands
- Dreaming of Italy
- Dreaming of Patagonia
Featured image by Wyatt Smith/The Points Guy
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