I am in Stage 1 of planning our six-week trip to South America using points and miles this fall. I’m a natural planner but thank goodness I am because it’s taking a ton of it! We’ve already selected the countries where we will visit and for how long in each place. So far picking the countries has been the easiest part.
We have decided to spend our time in…
Chile–9 days (mainly in and around Santiago)
Miami–2 days on the way back to the U.S.
We started saving money for this trip in 2013 and will continue to save this year so we can spend six weeks away from our work. Because we are both self-employed we often have the freedom to take off when we want to but we also have the penalty of not making money when we aren’t working since our occupations require that we are physically present to make money. No paid vacations for us but we get as much vacation time as we can budget.
Booking Our Flights with Miles
By far, finding available award flights and making airline reservations is a bigger challenge than I expected. I’ve used miles in the past but not to such a great extent and trying to connect several cities on different airlines. Last year I signed up for credit cards with bonuses of 100,000 British Airways Avios miles and 100,000 American Airlines frequent flyer miles with this trip in mind. Both of those airlines are in the same family as LAN, which is the largest airline in South America.
I naively thought that any award seat on LAN could be booked by either BA or AA. NOT TRUE! So far, LAN has not released very many seats and in some cases no seats yet to some of the cities we want to travel. In other words, when I look on the LAN website there are lots of award seats but when I call BA and AA to book them, there are no award seats. (In most cases, you must call customer service to book the flights at BA and AA because most South American cities are not in their systems.)
My strategy has been to bookend our trip. I now have reservations for our initial flight and my flight back to the U.S. I’m going to have to wait for LAN to open seats up to BA and AA.
So far I have booked (information is per person):
Los Angeles-Lima-Cuzco (a 24-hour over night in Lima with enough time to sightsee in the city)
Business Class with AA for 30K miles plus $27.52 in taxes
If we had to purchase tickets the lowest coach flight costs $465 with two stops and $1068 with one stop. The actual flight we are on in business class is $5,158. Of course we would never pay for business class tickets at this price and we would probably opt for two stops if we had to shell out our own funds.
Cuzco-Lima-Santiago (only a short layover in Lima)
Coach Class with BA for 14.5k miles plus $34.99 in taxes
If we had to purchase tickets the lowest coach flight costs $434.
Buenos Aires-Miami-Los Angeles (a two-day layover in Miami to sightsee in the city)
Coach Class with AA for 20K miles plus $72 in taxes
If we had to purchase tickets the lowest coach flight costs $1,334.
We have saved $4,466 (for 2 people) so far by using points and miles rather than money on the above flights. I still need some flights within Argentina to open up but I’m happy with my planning so far.
Booking Our Hotel Stays with Points
This is not as easy as I expected either. We primarily have points with Starwood and I’m trying to decide which other hotel credit cards with big bonuses to apply for this year. What I’m discovering is that the large global chains require a ton of points per night in South America. For example, I can get a Hilton credit card offering 75,000 sign-up points, which sounds like a lot until I discovered we need 50k (or $200!) for one night at the Hilton in Buenos Aires. The good news is there are quite a few Airbnb apartments available in Buenos Aires and Santiago for less than $75 per night. (Actually, many are less than $50 per night.) Because we will be in both of those cities for quite a few nights we will book with Airbnb so we can self-cater breakfasts to help save money.
Currently we are booked for one night in Lima at the Sheraton for 4k, which is a great deal. We will probably also book 3 nights in Miami at the FourPoints by Sheraton in Miami South Beach for 10k per night.
Why We Bother With Points & Miles
A lot of friends and family can’t understand why we bother signing up for credit cards with large bonuses, shopping on line for bonus points and paying for our everyday expenses on credit cards to build miles. I admit it takes time and organization but for us it enables us to travel much more often and for longer than we could if we had to pay money. I look at it as a hobby, like exercising which I do on a daily basis. Both are good for me! Collecting points and miles is just one component to our money-saving strategies to travel more often but it is a significant one.