BA miles dream trips to South America – tips and scars

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Yesterday The Rapid Traveler booked two trips to South America using BA points from the BA credit card 100,000 points sign-up bonus, getting ahead of the November 15 BA program devaluation (see here for the booking details, and here for the background).

Many other travelers are struggling to put together their dream trips, as noted in today’s reader question at The Point Guy, so here are a few tips from The Rapid Traveler’s experience.
  1. Start with a careful study of The Points Guy’s series on BA miles. Invaluable.
  2. Next, carefully study the route maps for American and Lan. The grainy Lan route maps are difficult to read and not current (for instance, Asuncion, Paraguay is not active), and you must toggle between the “Flights throughout America” and the “Flights within Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and Peru” maps.
  3. For American and Lan flight times and standard routings, ITA Software in time bars view is best.
  4. If planning to fly American, which is sufficient for reaching major South American cities, search American’s website first for saver awards, and then verify on British Airways. For an ex-NWA, force majeure Delta flier, seeing an award booking calendar that functions bring tears to the eyes. American is the best option for Brazil. And American allows travelers in non-Lan gateway cities to avoid separate re-positioning flights or the expensive multi-airline awards.
  5. Do tedious, segment by segment research on BA’s website. But do not overlook searching for full routing; sometimes the website surprises, like coming up with a JFK-LIM-IGU route when The Rapid Traveler thought the only option was JFK-EZE, AEP-IGR, which has horrendous availability.
  6. Save time by always searching for business class. If business is not available it automatically displays coach. If business class is found you can search specifically for economy on that date.
  7. Determine if you want the Part Cash Part Miles option (see The Points Guy’s discussion). This is offered on BA, Aer Lingus, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Finnair, Lan Airlines and Kingfisher. On AA and Lan in coach the options go down in increments to 50% of the mileage cost at 1.3 cents/mile. In business class it is down to 75% of the mileage cost at 1.65 cents/mile.BA Part Cash Part Miles
  8. The BA website can price a lot of simple itineraries. If possible, book online to save the hassle and fees. Fees for booking/change/cancel online are free/free/$50 versus telephone $20/$70/$70. The telephone booking fee of $20 is waived when the itinerary is not bookable online (follow Ben’s instructions). The Rapid Traveler tried to get the $70 change fee waived on a contemplated change and the agent was adamant that it could not be waived even though the original itinerary could not be booked online. Multiple attempts may lead to a different result but in the end he preferred to stay with the original itinerary.
  9. The BA website can book some itineraries that the telephone agents cannot. This was a surprise, and cost a ton of re-work, but three agents all had the same issue with Lan 0535 JFK-SCL on Oct 9. The website had availability for one seat in business, but no matter what they tried, they could not see it. It is unclear how widespread this issue is of if just a fluke.
  10. Miami has tremendously better availability than New York JFK on both AA and Lan. Consider separate repositioning flights to Miami.
  11. Many of the Lan routes within South America rarely have business class availability…
  12. …except Easter Island, which has decent business class availability but generally only a handful of dates per month in coach.
  13. Many of the Lan routes within South America, particularly domestic, are nearly hopeless in any class. Lima-Cuzco and Buenos Aires-Iguazu Falls (IGR) are examples (Lima to Foz de Iguacu (IGU) in Brazil has some availability).
  14. Find land alternatives. A luxury bus or train can be cheaper and less hassle than flying.
  15. Find flight alternatives, though international flights within South America can be astronomical on many routes. Domestis routes are not always cheaper either. Keep in mind that Peru domestic flights have the gringo and non-gringo pricing, but that is a subject for another post. Whatever you do, do not book Lima-Cuzco on Lan’s global English website.
  16. Say hello to Pluna. One of the few budget airlines in the region, it can solve a number of frustrations. Pluna’s hub is Montevideo, Uruguay (route map) so transit passengers can get a free stop in Uruguay, which is exactly what The Rapid Traveler booked for $155: Santiago, Chile – Montevideo, Uruguay – Asuncion, Paraguay. Their website requires Verified by Visa/MasterCard SecureCode/American Express (see here for a discussion of these issues). Or book through Expedia or similar.
  17. And then we reach the BA telephone agents. They are wise to the antics of hardcore travelers. If the agent immediately says phrases like “side trip” or “natural routing,” thank them for their time, say you will re-work your route and end the call. Of five agents The Rapid Traveler dealt with yesterday, one even insisted New York JFK – Santiago, Chile – Buenes Aires, Argentina – Iguazu, Argentina could only be booked as an expensive kilometer-based reward because the natural routing is New York JFK – Lima, Peru – Iguacu, Brazil. It did not matter that there was no availability for weeks via Lima and that there were no stopovers, just taking the next connecting flight each time.
  18. It seems the agents play gatekeeper because the system seems to be able to book just about anything within South America, routing and geography be darned. If you find a way to get them to enter it with flights you know are available online, then there is a good chance it will price well. Getting them to enter it is the trick. Playing dumb or saying you tried all the options, that this crazy routing is not ideal, but the only way you can travel on the dates you want, may work. Try to build a rapport with the agent and ask them to help problem solve, sprinkling in recommendations as you go.
  19. But there is a wonderful agent, name withheld for privacy, who spent nearly two hours helping The Rapid Traveler book his dream trip, starting with the JFK-SCL issue in #7. If things are going well and you hear “cool beans,” you have a treasure on the line and do not let go!
  20. Don’t forget to pay with your BA Signature Visa credit card: 2.5 miles per dollar spent on BA.

Readers, what have been your BA successes and horror stories? Please share tips for other readers to benefit. Tell us about your South America trips using BA miles – contributions welcome!

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