I’m supposed to be spending this weekend finishing a book chapter on a not particularly exciting topic in my other law life. While doing so yesterday morning, I decided that I rather work on my upcoming trip to South America using British Airways miles I’d gotten through credit card signup.
As background, British Airways has often run promotions where you can get 100,000 miles for signing up for their Chase Visa card, and achieving a minimum spend on the card. I signed up earlier this year. Up until a few weeks ago, British Airways had some of the most generous routing rules for award ticketing, allowing both one-ways and multiple stopovers. The best use of these miles was on partners LAN and Cathay Pacific. Prior to my November Peruvian adventure, I’d never been to South America, and have always wanted to go. So over the summer, I decided I’d spend 10 days around Presidents’ Day in South America.
LAN flies nonstop from JFK to Santiago, and its business class product gets generally positive reviews, including its lie-flat seats. Award availability was wide open. I knew I also wanted to hit Buenos Aires, and I had a choice of a nonstop on American, or a return direct via Santiago on LAN. Since its an overnight flight anyway, I preferred the lie-flat of LAN. But what to do in between?
One of the challenges of flying around South America is that many South American countries charge “reciprocity fees” of $130-140 to enter (and Brazil requires a visa). For a good explanation of these fees, see the Points Guy’s post on the topic. My goal was to see as many countries as possible while paying the fewest reciprocity fees.
Uruguay does not charge a reciprocity fee, and I’d heard great things about Punta del Este. Even better, if you take the ferry from Montevideo to Buenos Aires, you don’t have to pay a reciprocity fee in Argentina. So I booked JFK-SCL, SCL-MVD, and EZE-SCL-JFK, all in business class, for 80,000 miles and about $100 in taxes and fees. Not bad!
The plan was to do one night in Vina del Mar, 2 nights in Santiago, 2 nights in Punta del Este, 1 night in Montevideo, and 3 nights in Buenos Aires. What I hadn’t realized, though, was that my trip had me passing through Punta del Este in the middle of Carnaval, resulting in absurdly expensive hotel prices. I was able to find an okay property for about $220 a night as my cheapest not-disgusting option. The hotel is not in the middle of Punta, though. Everyone says you should rent a car in Punta, and the cheapest automatic I could find was also about $200 a day. This was adding up to be a very expensive proposition for a solo traveler.
So after stewing on it for a few weeks, I decided Uruguay wasn’t going to happen. I really wanted to go to Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego, but LAN doesn’t seem to release any award availability on those flights. I also considered Mar de Plata, but that entails either a long bus ride or a flight on Aerolineas Argentinas. I was growing more and more excited about Vina del Mar, though, and, in particular, my stay at the Sheraton Miramar. So I decided I’d add another night in Vina del Mar, which would allow me to enjoy neighboring Valparaiso as well, and then pass two nights somewhere in Western Argentina. Mendoza was the most logical choice given its frequent LAN schedule to/from Santiago and Buenos Aires. Making Mendoza my first stop in Argentina also means no reciprocity fee.
I was able to see award availability on all my new flights on BritishAirways.com, and had my flight numbers all written out and ready to go. Alas, Fortunately, BA is allowing tickets booked under the old rules to be changed under the old rules as well. For some reason, though, the agent had a hard time for some reason, and the call was much longer than it should have been. At one point, she told me I had to call back in 3 hours, but then changed her mind. Eventually, my new itinerary was booked, and for a total of $74 ($70 change fee and $4 extra taxes).
So now my trip is JFK-SCL, SCL-MDZ, MDZ-AEP, EZE-SCL-JFK. Alas SCL-MDZ and MDZ-AEP are on single cabin aircraft, but I’ll survive in coach for the 55 min and 1h 40 min flights respectively.
Flights booked, now I needed new hotels!
For Vina del Mar, I had snagged a cash and points room at the Sheraton Miramar- $60 and 4000 points – a bargain, as the cheapest rate I found was $300 a night. But there is no cash and points availability for my second night, so I took a room for 10000 points. Here’s hoping cash and points will open up!
For Santiago, I had gotten a great rate at the Four Points by Sheraton via Starwood’s Best Rate Guarantee claim. But now I needed to move the dates. Since it was a BRG rate, Starwood wouldn’t let me cancel or change the reservation online. I called the SPG Gold line, and the agent apparently couldn’t do anything either, as she transferred me to the property itself. The poor clerk could not understand what was going on at all. I tried English, I tried Spanish, but she kept thinking my last name was Cooper for some reason (it’s not). Finally, after about 10 minutes, she said she found my reservation and it was cancelled. Here’s hoping! I am keeping an eye on Santiago hotel rates, which have oddly shot up. I may end up using 44,000 of my 50,000 Radisson points earned from my upcoming stay in Puerto Rico and stay at the Radisson Plaza Santiago. I also submitted a new Best Rate Guarantee claim on the Crowne Plaza Santiago which could get me a night free!
For Mendoza, I was tempted to splurge for the Park Hyatt Mendoza, which has rates of $239 a night. But the Sheraton Mendoza seems more than adequate, and I was able to pursue a successful best rate guarantee there, meaning I’ll be paying $155 a night and getting 2,000 bonus points. Not bad.
If anyone has tips on any of these sights, please share!