Flying overseas with points can be pretty easy, but deciding on a destination could be the tricky part. Let your stomach lead the way on a culinary travel tour. Here’s how to get to three of the world’s top food destinations on rewards – and what to do once you’re there.
Is it possible to beat walking through the piazzas of Florence with a hand-scooped gelato? Or chowing down on pad thai from a street vendor in Bangkok? Nothing beats the experience of slurping curry in India, ramen in Tokyo or diving deep into a steaming tagine while reclining in a restaurant in Morocco.
Whether you’re a foodie or just someone with a jetlagged appetite, there’s little that compares to getting a taste of a culture through a meal at its point of origin.
Food is life – and food is travel. Or, as Anthony Bourdain so eloquently put it, “I think food, culture, people and landscape are absolutely inseparable.”
One of the most authentic experiences anyone can have when traveling is to share a meal with a new local friend. A few years ago, for example, while traveling through Abu Dhabi with a friend, we happened to strike up a conversation with two Emeriti girls and their mother in a shop. One conversation led to another, and the next day we found ourselves in the most magical of circumstances: gathered together in their home sharing a meal cooked by their mother.
In my experience, the kitchen is no place for prejudice. Eating is a ritual created to bring us together around the same table. I learned more about Emeriti culture and lifestyle in those four hours than I had in my dozens of previous trips to UAE combined.
See related: Best airline credit cards
The rise of culinary travel
For a while, I wondered if it was just my thing to make cultural connections over espressos in foreign coffee shops and bowls of noodles in corner cafes; but then I learned culinary connections are actually a trend. Food tourism is on the rise – to put it mildly.
According to the 2020 Food Travel Monitor, a recent study conducted by the World Food Travel Association found 53% of leisure travelers are now considered culinary travelers.
Though I’m not sure I’d have ever labeled myself as a “food traveler” before reading this study, I’ve been known to dabble in cooking classes abroad. I’ve also tasted plenty of new foods over shared meals in strange locations, and this year I even took my very first bona fide food tour.
Riding by tuk-tuk between local restaurants and hidden roadside stalls, we covered a lot of culinary ground while simultaneously making friends, filling our bellies and soaking up lots of local culture.
Even though I had previously lived in Cambodia for over three years, the Lost Plate tour served up dishes I had never tried. I was also introduced to several local food stalls I had never ventured into on my own due to a language barrier, as I was unable to ask how things worked or order something that would please my palate.
That evening was only a few hours long, but I left with a full heart, a full belly and a greater appreciation for Cambodian cuisine and culture.
I also came away with a to-go bag full of intentions to explore more of the world through food on my future travels. My next goals: A food tour in Ethiopia, a cooking class in my great-grandparents’ hometown in Italy and another Lost Plate adventure discovering donuts in my hometown of Portland, Oregon.
World’s top food destinations: Getting there on rewards
If this has your mouth watering, you might be ready to book some food travel adventures for yourself. Here are a few tips on how to use your credit card points to get yourself to three of the world’s top foodie destinations:
Culinary travel in Italy
Who doesn’t want to sip espresso in a café with a view of the Trevi Fountain in Rome or taste the pizza in Napoli (the city that claims the origin of tomato pie)? While food aficionados may argue about what region of Italy has the best cuisine, the truth is you can’t lose no matter the city you pick.
There are many ways to get yourself to Italy on credit card points. If you’re a collector of American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards or Citi ThankYou points, you can transfer from all of these points currencies (or any combination of them) to Flying Blue (AirFrance, KLM). Flying Blue is also a SkyTeam partner of Alitalia, which offers a variety of ways to get yourself to any destination in the famous boot (and belly) of Europe.
My recommendation is to fly into Florence, find your way to Tuscany and book yourself into a cooking class on a local farm run by Montalcino Wine tours. You won’t regret it.
Culinary travel in Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam)
If you’re a foodie headed to Southeast Asia, it might be hard to choose a single destination. I personally recommend hitting up the Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam trifecta of nations where eating feels like an actual sport.
If you’re pooling miles on an American Airlines card, like the AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard, use AAdvantage miles to book a flight on Qatar Airways into a starting point of either Saigon (HCM), Bangkok (BKK) or Phnom Penh (PNH). And be sure to taste the local hummus when your flight transits via Doha (DOH).
When you make it to Cambodia, check out Lost Plate’s food and cocktail tour offerings in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. In Vietnam, make your way to Hoi An and eat your way down every hidden alley. Then, before you get to Bangkok, book yourself into a “Cooking with Poo” trip and class to the vegetable market (they fill up in advance).
Use your points to book a business-class seat on the way home because I promise you’ll be so stuffed you’ll want the extra space.
See related: American Airlines AAdvantage guide
Culinary travel in Ethiopia
The 1980s famine in Ethiopia is long over and modern-day Addis Ababa is a safe place to visit – as well as a diner’s dream destination. Stuff yourself on endless injera, tibs and wots. Then caffeinate yourself between meals with Ethiopia’s bottomless “buna,” served in the traditional coffee-making ceremony. Check out Go Addis Tours and their guided eating excursions across Addis (along with Rwanda and Uganda if you want to try an African culinary trifecta).
Getting to Addis Ababa Ethiopia (ADD) is as easy on Star Alliance carriers as Ethiopian Airlines since the national carrier is a Star Alliance member. Book a United/Ethiopian connection direct to ADD (or a United/Turkish connection via Istanbul (IST)) using United MileagePlus miles from your United Explorer Card or transfer Ultimate Rewards points to United to book.
Who’s hungry? Or, as my Italian grandmother always said, “Mangia, mangia!” Eat, eat!