Anatomy of an Award: To Patagonia with American Airlines and Singapore Miles

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I recently went to Patagonia with my friend from Hawaii.

I helped her book her trip with American Airlines and Singapore miles, and I learned some things along the way. Takeaways:

  • Days of the year with good award space
  • The only airline within the Americas with fuel surcharges
  • When to book and when to wait

The Plan

My friend and I wanted to see Chilean and Argentine Patagonia plus Buenos Aires. The centerpiece of our trip was to be an eight day hike in Torres del Paine National Park in Southern Chile.

We wanted to book her a three or four week trip in late December or January. She was starting her trip in Los Angeles and wanted to finish in Honolulu.

She had a ton of ThankYou Points from opening the Citi ThankYou Premier and Citi Prestige and American Airlines miles from opening the Citi American Airlines personal and business cards.

We wanted to start the trip at Torres del Paine National park and end it in Buenos Aires.

The nearest “major” airport to Torres del Paine is Punta Arenas, Chile where American Airlines partner LATAM flies. Using any other type of miles would get her only as far as Santiago, Chile from which she could use cash to fly Sky Airlines to Punta Arenas or Avios to fly LATAM. Not only is it more miles to book two awards or an award plus a cash flight, but it can make connections awkward when you’re on two separate tickets. My strong preference, therefore, was to use her American Airlines miles from Los Angeles to Punta Arenas.

The cheapest return from Buenos Aires to Honolulu would cost 25,000 Singapore miles. Singapore charges 30,000 one way in economy from South America to the Continental US but less to Hawaii because Hawaii and Central America are one region on its chart. Other programs charge 30,000 or more miles from Argentina to Hawaii, so my strong preference was to transfer ThankYou Points to Singapore miles to book the return.

The Search

Outbound with American Airlines Miles

American Airlines flies from Miami and Dallas to Santiago, so I searched from Los Angeles to Santiago on aa.com. I found no award space in any cabin for the time frame she wanted to travel, kind of like how for the next month the route has no Economy MileSAAver award space (though it does have Business Saver.)

Undeterred, I went to ba.com to search for award space on LATAM award flights to Santiago. (LATAM like many AA partners doesn’t appear on aa.com. Here’s where to search all AA partners.)

LATAM generally has pretty awful award space, so it didn’t surprise me that there was no award space on most dates I searched. But there were four days on which I did find award space on a direct flight from Los Angeles to Santiago: December 24, 25, 31, and January 1. I guess LATAM couldn’t sell seats on the holiday flights, so it decided to make award space available.

My friend decided to skip New Year’s Eve and fly out December 31 from Los Angeles. After a short layover in Santiago, she arrived in Punta Arenas, Chile around noon on January 1st (and took a three hour bus directly from the airport to Puerto Natales, Chile, the staging town for hikes in Torres del Paine. I was already there, having hitchhiked from Argentina.)

Booking

To book LATAM awards with American Airlines miles, call American Airlines at 800-882-8880 and give the agent the date, cabin, and flight number of LATAM award space you found at ba.com, all of which is bookable with AA miles.

My friend’s award was 30,000 American Airlines miles plus $16.80 in taxes. There are never any fuel surcharges when booking LATAM awards with AA miles, and there are no phone fees for any AA awards that can’t be booked on aa.com.

Next Year

If you want to use American Airlines miles to get to Torres del Paine next Summer (December 2017 to March 2018), there is currently economy award space on American Airlines flights to Santiago except during a 13 day period surrounding Christmas.

To get all the way to Punta Arenas, you’d need to find award space on LATAM from Santiago to Punta Arenas on ba.com and call AA to book the whole award.

Just like last year, LATAM is making award space to Santiago available on holiday flights:
Return with Singapore Miles

At the same time as I found the award space to Chile, I found her an award from Buenos Aires to Honolulu that included the Air Canada flight from Buenos Aires to Toronto on united.com. Any Saver award space on Star Alliance carriers on united.com is bookable with Singapore miles.

She called Singapore Airlines to try to book the award space. The agent found the space no problem and quoted her the 25,000 mile price, but taxes and fuel surcharges were over $300.

I was shocked because I didn’t realize that any tickets within the Americas had fuel surcharges. However, when I checked ITA Matrix, Air Canada’s flight from Buenos Aires to Canada does have about $300 in fuel surcharges (4,161 ARS = $268.)

At the time, we couldn’t find any other award space from Buenos Aires to Hawaii, but from looking at last minute award space I was confident that we could find award space at the last minute some time during the one week window when my friend wanted to return. I told my friend: “I’ll make you a deal. I think award space will open up for your return while you’re in South America. If it doesn’t, I’ll use my miles to book you an AAnytime (double or triple price) award back.” She agreed.

While she was in South America, United finally opened Saver award space from Buenos Aires to Houston and from there to Honolulu. We booked it by calling Singapore Airlines. It cost 25,000 Singapore miles and about $90 in taxes.

Total Price

For Los Angeles to Punta Arenas and Buenos Aires to Honolulu, my friend paid 30,000 American Airlines miles, 25,000 Singapore miles, and $110. This award would have cost well over $1,000, so I think she got well over two cents of value per mile.

Within South America, we paid $150 per person for a Sky Airlines flight from Punta Arenas to Puerto Montt, Chile; $40 for a bus from Puerto Montt to Villa La Angostura, Argentina; and 12,500 Delta miles from Bariloche to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Bottom Line

In hindsight and in most of real time, we had the time of our lives hiking in Patagonia. (In some of real time, we were miserably cold or in pain or whatever the word for being bombarded by strong wind is, but that’s part of the fun!)

We disconnected for eight days and walked over 100 km through glaciers, and lakes, and and mountains, and forests.

We could have booked our trip with cash, but my friend saved over $1,000 from the United States by using American Airlines miles to fly LATAM and Singapore miles to fly United. You can do the same thing for next South American summer.


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