Way Down South: An Adventure to South America

Delta Business Elite ECP-ATL-SCL
Four Points by Sheraton Santiago
W Santiago
Exploring Santiago
KLM World Business Class SCL-EZE
Hilton Buenos Aires
Exploring Buenos Aires
Aerolíneas Argentinas Club Economy AEP-USH
Alto Andino Hotel Ushuaia
Exploring Ushuaia
Aerolíneas Argentinas Economy USH-AEP
Sheraton Libertador Hotel Buenos Aires
Aerolíneas Argentinas Club Economy AEP-GRU + Delta Business Elite GRU-ATL-ECP

Almost immediately after returning from my trip in November/December to Hong Kong and Macau, I started plotting my next adventure. With how I knew the next year was going to be at work, I realized that the last chance for me to realistically take a full week or so off for a vacation would be around the May timeframe. If I didn’t take a week off by that point, it would be feasible that I wouldn’t be able to take a week off until the some point in the spring of 2015. Now I just couldn’t let that stand; there was 1.5 years between my trips to Japan and Christmas time in Europe and that was just too long for me to go without going overseas for a week. I knew I had to do something…plus my birthday is in May.

Also, Delta was raising the costs of many Business Class awards on 6/1/2014, so I knew I should get somewhere in Business Class before that happened.

So once again, it was back to the planning board to see what I could come up with. Naturally, the first runner up idea from last year became one of the options again: South America. The airfares in coach were decent, but trying to find Business Class award seats was being very difficult and that’s on top of the already high number of miles required to fly there. Unfortunately, that would kick Africa out of the running this time, and that’s despite having a full trip planned out from my previous research/planning.

So where did that leave me? Well Europe and South America were the two that were seeing low Business Class awards going up from 100,000 SkyMiles to 120,000 SkyMiles. Since I’ve been to Europe a handful of times and have never been to South America, the choice was clear.

I think there is one thing that all Delta frequent flyers or even just casual SkyMiles members can attest to: redeeming miles at the low levels or on partners can be a difficult and arduous task. The amount of work that goes into doing all of the research along with the tools that you need to effectively search (KVS Tool and ExpertFlyer) for those award buckets is definitely an investment. I won’t lie that I probably put in at least an equivalent of a full work week (40 hours) in order to find flights and then ultimately get them booked. That’s SkyMiles for you.

I had to be super-flexible in looking for destinations in South America where I could get to/from on Delta metal in BusinessElite. I figured that as long as I could get tickets to/from any of those, I could rely on Delta’s two South American partners, GOL and Aerolineas Argentinas, to get me the rest of the way. Of course there is the other option too, Aeromexico through Mexico City, that I also tried to use. In fact according to Alaska Airlines award search functionality I had found space on EZE-MEX-ATL available, but for whatever reason Delta told me there were no seats available. Perhaps Delta was blocking certain Aeromexico award space or perhaps Aeromexico likes to release more award space to non-SkyTeam airlines like Alaska versus SkyTeam partners like Delta. That’s a question, I don’t know the answer to, and it somewhat bums me out, as I wanted to try to get as many new airlines and Business Class experiences as possible on this journey.

While that was a fail, I still lucked out. There was low level award space in First and Business Elite ECP-ATL-SCL and GRU-ATL-ECP on dates that I wanted on Delta metal. Since Santiago and Buenos Aires were my two primary places to visit, I just had to work out flights between the two and up to Sao Paulo, Brazil. But the hard part was finding the Delta seats, and the other flights were much easier to get my hands on. Luckily, KLM flies from SCL-EZE (which then continues on to AMS) and had plenty of available award space in World Business Class (there were also Aerolineas Argentinas Flights, but I needed a reason to get another Delft House). Additionally, Brazilian carrier and Delta partner GOL had plenty of space in coach from Buenos Aires to Sao Paulo, so that took care of that. Although I wasn’t excited for a coach leg, being Platinum meant that I could keep looking for alternate routes such as EZE-ATL or hope that Business (“Club Economy”) on Aerolineas Argentinas would open up. Luckily that happened and I was able to switch from my GOL flight.

In the end I would be flying the following:
Delta First and Business Elite ECP-ATL-SCL
KLM World Business Class SCL-EZE
Aerolienas Argentinas AEP-GRU
Delta Business Elite and First GRU-ATL-ECP

The Final Itinerary (Not Counting Ushuaia Flights)

Even with that booked, I had wanted to get some other flights within South America as well, although because that award space quickly came and went and never opened back up, making a change to my ticket was going to be out of the question. Plus for Chile, Delta does not have any domestic partners.

I knew I didn’t want to spend the entire time in Santiago and wanted to see a different part of the country. I settled on the area around Valdivia and figured I would rent a car (funny thing – I was planning to rent a manual transmission vehicle and had never driven one before) and spend a day driving around, visiting a brewery, get some hiking in, check out the coast and maybe a natural hot spring. With a $150 ticket one-way on Sky Airline I planned on flying down a few hours after landing and then making my way back a few nights later by overnight bus to get the full South America experience (and save a few bucks on a night in a hotel!). Well, sometimes good plans don’t work out…not for any spoilers, but you’ll see in my next post following this one.

Additionally, I knew I wanted to visit Ushuaia, mostly because I wanted to see Penguins oh so very badly. Turns out that I would be missing “Penguin Season” by like a month, but I still figured I should visit the “Southernmost City In the World” (realizing that there is still a “town” slightly further south of Ushuaia on the Chilean side of the Beagle Channel). With having been to the Northernmost City in the US (Barrow, Alaska) back in 2012, it seemed fitting to have stood at more or less the top and the bottom of the Americas. Plus you never know what the future will hold, and I might not get an opportunity to come back to Ushuaia – especially if I were to have to pay cash for a ticket versus using miles. Just like Barrow, it can be very expensive to fly to, but with SkyMiles it’s super affordable.

Going to Ushuaia meant flying on Aerolineas Argentinas, of which I planned to fly in Economy for only 20,000 SkyMiles. However during my planning out of that part of my trip, Delta bumped up intra-South America flights to 25,000 SkyMiles in Economy and 40,000 SkyMiles for First/Business, meaning that it now mirrored the Domestic-US award chart. I kick myself for not booking earlier, and then on top of that I decided that I would go for a split Business/Economy award for 32,500 SkyMiles. Might as well try out both classes of service on a “mainline” AR flight (my AEP-GRU flight would be on their regional partner, Austral).

Buenos Aires – Ushuaia Flights

Final Map Of Flights Taken – Notice How Valdivia Is Missing?

With all the flights booked and locked in, it was time to start looking at hotels. Between my Hilton HHonors Diamond status and SPG Gold status it would give me a good range of properties to try out, including the W Santiago. All were booked pretty easily with a mixture of paid night and award nights, helping to drive the cost of the trip down. The fun part though? Having to book one of those hotels at the very last minute thanks to Delta. You’ll see how that worked out in the next few posts.

As for what to see/do/eat/drink for my trip, I decided to take the same approach I did with my trip from Hong Kong and Macau and started developing lists in Foursquare. This proved to be super handy on that trip and once again it proved handy for this trip as well, even if I had not put nearly as much into the lists in advance. Now that there is a new Foursquare app upon us after the split into local search and check-in only Swarm, we shall see if it continues to be useful for this purpose. If it interests you, you can check out my two lists on Foursquare here: Places to Check Out in Chile and Places to Check Out in Argentina.

With all my planning done, the start of my trip was soon upon me. In my next post I’ll cover the start of my trip and my long journey down to Santiago in Delta’s Business Elite. Until then, enjoy a few snapshots of the story to come!

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