Back to the Basics Part 2: Cheapest Miles to South America in the Post-COVID-19 World



Lençóis Maranhenses, Brazil: an unsung wonder of the world

My previous post on the best airline programs to fly to Europe:

Back to the Basics: Cheapest Miles to Europe in the Post-COVID-19 World

December 10, 2020 is a big day. Mark your calendar.

On that day the CDC will decide the fate of the emergency authorization of the new Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine. If the vaccine is approved, the vaccinations might begin on December 11.

This is a two-step vaccine. One would have to receive an initial shot, then a booster after 28 days. According to Pfizer, the vaccine is 94% – 95% effective.

Then, on December 17, the FDA will sit down again to discuss an emergency authorization for Moderna mRNA-1273 – another 2-shot vaccine candidate that claims 94.5% efficacy in its clinical trial.

Not too far behind are one-shot Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines. The AstraZeneca candidate is being eyed by most of the “low-income countries” due to its much lower price tag, which is also great news, since it’ll make accessible again some of the most fascinating spots on this planet.

According to Dr. Moncef Slaoui, chief science adviser for Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. can achieve real herd immunity in May. That really is beyond terrific!

At this point, barring some major drawbacks, the ability to freely traverse the world again might arrive – and I’m being conservative here – some time by fall of 2021.

Of course, “We plan, God laughs,” as the old Yiddish proverb goes, and this pandemic thing is so scary, I’d rather not jinx it (yes, I’m that superstitious, LOL). But how can you possibly avoid planning ahead in our wonderful hobby?

Well, you can’t, if you want to travel your way.

So let’s jump in, shall we?

Just to be clear, this post is dedicated to flying to the southern part of South America, namely Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, and Santiago de Chile. I’m going to cover some other interesting routes including northern South America in a separate post.

Cheapest miles to “Deep” South America in Economy

While all three U.S. legacies have embraced their own versions of dynamic pricing, they still maintain their Saver levels if only for partners’ booking, so their “regular” coach rate for travel to southern South America is 30,000 miles – the same as Europe.

But since you’re still reading this post, I’ll assume you’re looking for something better than regular. Here goes.

American with Etihad miles

The cheapest way to fly to South America Zone 2 is by using Etihad miles on American Airlines during the off-peak dates. As I mentioned in my previous post, Etihad is using the pre-devaluation American award chart, so if you can fly between March 1 and May 31, or between August 16 and November 30, you’ll only pay 20,000 miles per one-way travel. Any other dates, and you’re looking at 30,000. American miles to Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, and Santiago de Chile.

How to get Etihad miles
  • AmEx Membership Rewards transfer
  • Capital One transfer
  • Citi ThankYou transfer
  • Marriott Bonvoy transfer

You have to call Etihad to book an award flight on American (877-690-0767).

Delta with Virgin Atlantic points

Virgin treats South America as one region, so booking a Delta flight anywhere in South America will cost you 22,500 Virgin points. Keep in mind, though, that to take advantage of this rate you need a nonstop flight since any additional segments will increase the cost. Delta flies to Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, and Santiago de Chile.

How to get Virgin Atlantic points
  • Virgin Atlantic World Elite MasterCard from Bank of America
  • Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer
  • AmEx Membership Rewards transfer
  • Citi ThankYou transfer
  • Marriott Bonvoy transfer

LATAM with Alaska miles

LATAM is the only airline flying to Easter Island, but the flights are currently suspended

If you’re willing to part with exceptionally valuable Alaska miles for a coach flight to South America, something is seriously wrong with you :), but let’s say, for the sake of argument, that:

  • Alaska miles are the only miles you have and…
  • A Business Class ticket is unavailable and…
  • You want a free stopover on a one-way ticket.

Then your ticket to South America Zone 2 will cost you 25,000 miles, but only if you can travel on off-peak dates, from March 15 to June 30, and from August 1 to November 31. Otherwise, the cost is 30,000 miles. LATAM flies nonstop (from the U.S.) to Sao Paulo and Santiago de Chile, otherwise you can get anywhere in South America via Lima, Peru.

There are some other programs that let you save 3,000-4,000 miles compared to the Big Three, but in all seriousness, why bother?

How to get Alaska miles
  • Alaska Airlines personal and business credit cards from Bank of America
  • Marriott Bonvoy transfer

Special mention: Delta

As I already mentioned in my previous piece, always check Delta awards when you’re looking for an economy flight. Their dynamic pricing scheme can sometimes bring in some pleasantly unexpected results.

Check this itinerary for example.

You can see a flight that should cost at least 30,000 miles for 22,000 miles. Note that this is in Basic Economy, which is less than ideal, to say the least. Still, it’s interesting that Delta would be willing to sell you a long-haul ticket with a 30% discount.

And if you need a return ticket anyway, Delta often charges less per flight when you book the round trip. In this case, you’ll be paying 20,000 per leg, which is as good as you get for a flight to “deep” South America.

How to get Delta miles
  • Delta SkyMiles American Express personal and business credit cards: Blue, Gold, Platinum, Reserve
  • AmEx Membership Rewards transfer
  • Marriott Bonvoy transfer

Cheapest miles to “Deep” South America in Business Class

Redeeming ANA miles on United, Avianca, and Copa

ANA charges the same amount of miles to both Europe and South America – 88,000 per round trip (you can’t book a one-way trip with ANA miles).

I personally prefer booking one-way trips whenever I can, but if you’re fine with a round trip, you can’t beat the value. And ANA allows you a free stopover and open jaw almost anywhere along the way.

Another upside of booking your South America trip with ANA miles is that you can also use them on Star Alliance partners Avianca and Copa. That makes finding your Business Class ticket so much easier.

  • United flies to Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, and Santiago de Chile.
  • Copa flies to South America via Panama City (from the U.S.).
  • Avianca mostly flies via Bogota, but also San Salvador (from JFK and IAD) and La Paz (from IAD).
How to get ANA miles
  • AmEx Membership Rewards transfer
  • Marriott Bonvoy transfer

Delta with Virgin Atlantic points

Delta charges an arm and a leg for its Delta One award tickets. Yes, that 94,000 miles price you’re seeing is for a one-way flight between New York and Sao Paulo. Ouch!


However, Virgin Atlantic can transform this ugly redemption value into a thing of beauty, like a fairy godmother turning a pumpkin into a coach Business Class lie-flat seat for only 45,000 points.

As a reminder, if you want to take the full advantage of the Virgin Atlantic redemption rates, you must fly nonstop. Otherwise, you’ll pay for each segment separately.

LATAM with Alaska miles

If you want to redeem Alaska miles on a LATAM Business Class seat, you’ve got my blessing. At 45,000 miles, it’s a really good redemption, especially since you can get one free stopover per one-way flight and two for the round trip. In addition you can add an Alaska positioning flight to your international departure, so it doesn’t have to be a nonstop flight.

Here is a little tip on how to search for a LATAM flight. They don’t show on the Alaska website or (even though LATAM left oneworld to join SkyTeam, they’re still partners with British Airways and many other oneworld airlines). Theoretically, you should be able to find them on the Delta website, but since Delta flies to the same cities, it can “mask” LATAM flights displaying instead its own. So what do you do?

Search for LATAM award flights on Qantas and don’t bother with BA, Delta or anyone else. Surprisingly, I can see a lot of Business Class award space between Miami and Santiago for next fall.

I’m using the word “surprisingly” because LATAM is usually extremely stingy with its Business Class inventory, but this pandemic has skewed some old-fashioned bottom-line values everywhere. 🙂

Unless it’s phantom availability (possible but not likely).

After you’ve found your flight(s), you should be able to call Alaska (800-654-5669) and feed them the flights info.

American with Etihad miles

You’ll pay 50,000 miles for a one-way flight between the U.S. and South America Zone 2. While not a mind-blowing value, it’s better than AA’s own 57,500-mile price tag, and you’re not limited to nonstop travel.

Let’s recap

As is always the case, no one particular airline program is good for everything, which is fine because getting different miles currencies has never been easier. For the cheapest miles to South America in coach look into Etihad, Alaska and Virgin Atlantic, and for a Business Class ticket, look into ANA, Alaska, Virgin Atlantic and Etihad.

So, do you have any long-haul travel plans for 2021?
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Awesome, as always! Thanks Andy!

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