Hacking Award Seats to South America - All 132 Routes

Given our past attention to places farther from home, we round out the next part of this series with a look at award seats and routes to South America.

Part 1 - Hacking Award Seats to Europe - All 403 Routes

Part 2 - Hacking Award Seats to Asia - All 177 Routes

Part 3 - Hacking Award Seats to Down Under - All 31 Routes

I’m trying to push through these analyses so we can move onto a lot of fun content planned, but wanted to make the database a complete, helpful guide when people are planning their next trip, particularly during peak season, since I hate hunting and pecking - particularly close in to departure. I’m happy to open up editing if anyone is willing to add thoughts on business class products or as new routes are launched.

Excel Version - Award Route Database to South America

Google Drive Version - Award Route Database to South America

This analysis was fascinating for five reasons:

  1. Routes are considerably more concentrated at the North America gateway cities than the South American ones. There are only 16 cities within Canada, the US and Mexico with direct flights to South America, yet over 30 cities in South America have direct flights to the North and many are far less hub-captive.
  2. American Airlines in particular has massive penetration in the region, and almost all of it goes through Miami. They literally must have devised a strategy like “Let’s fly everywhere that has an airport south of Mexico City”
  3. Key vacation destinations offer great, cheap positioning cities, specifically MCO and CUN
  4. Hidden airports in Central America with lots of connections and potential 23 hour layover situations, particularly PTY, PUJ, SJO and SDQ could be good options to get south
  5. The standard up until recently was angle-flat or recliner seats, but thankfully fleet upgrades are catching up.

So what does this mean? - How you can book differently

Some NA hubs will be fine, others avoid like the plague


Different airport, but I’ve heard Miami often looks like this

Given the concentration of North America traffic, most airline search engines and agents will likely try to book you through a hub like Miami or Atlanta in the US. Depending on the hub, this may be fine. For others this could be a nightmare. From personal experience, connecting through ATL or IAH should be quite simple as flight times match up well and international and domestic connections are handled airside.

However, about half of all South America-bound traffic goes through MIA or JFK, which are notorious for customs delays. Given the lift going out of MIA southbound, this isn’t that surprising and JFK gets tons of international traffic from all corners of the world as well. At best you have a terminal change at JFK where you reclear security, but if making a domestic connection on Star Alliance to a UA flight, there is a strong possibility you’ll have to change airports to Newark. Nobody’s idea of fun!

In South America, the hubs don’t matter!


In some cases, Gol will even drive you to the plane - like LH’s FCT. Just be careful it’s not to the WRONG plane. I almost got inside the aircraft heading to Asuncion when I went down to Buenos Aires!

At least if you do get on the wrong plane, you’ll be well stocked with frozen caipirinha’s, pina coladas and energy drinks from the Gol Lounge!

Partly due to demand, partly due to how route networks and government policy align, it’s rarely as useful to connect via a South American hub to an onward destination. While this was a gem in Europe, due to great hub-hub frequency and connectivity, leveraging destination hubs just doesn’t make as much sense here. The airports are smaller, and just because an alliance partner is based there doesn’t mean you’ll have a logically timed connection. Try flying direct if possible and if not, connecting in Bogota, Lima, Buenos Aires, Santiago or Sao Paulo are all about the same, regardless of which mileage program you use. Unless you’re flying a completely different ticket on a budget airline, a terminal/landside change is unlikely.

Go north to go south

Air Canada actually serves 5 South American destinations and generally has a nicer product than its star alliance cousins UA and TA/AV, so it may make sense to book through YYZ. I actually flew the tag flight from Santiago to Buenos Aires (likely the shortest transcon at <1.5 hours!) this April and found the plane to be in great shape for both economy and business class.

West Coast underrepresented

Before this analysis, given the large Spanish-speaking population on the West Coast, I would have expected more than 4 flights out of LAX to South America. But it seems everyone gets funneled through the East Coast, and the fact that LAX is not a very hub captive airport means you may want to consider one of the AA legs or the Korean tag flight to Sao Paulo for your next flight down. Anecdotally, I flew KE to get to Argentina and it was wide open in availability and the plane itself was half full (and quite nice in J!). Great use of Skymiles!

One of the best uses of Skymiles to South America - Courtesy bizclassdeals.com

Even outside of that, AA is starting to put some of its newest business class seats on South America bound flights out of DFW and JFK to Sao Paulo in the coming months, so it’s worth considering if you want to arrive “lie-flat rested.”

Don’t be afraid to connect in South America - Avios and the AA award chart are your friends here

Much like North America, much of the interior of South America doesn’t have extremely developed infrastructure. Cars and buses are the norm on the ground and flying is more of a necessity than in Europe or parts of Asia. Since LAN (and its 6 subsidiaries) fly nearly everywhere within the continent, many distances are quite reasonable and Avios are at your disposal, this is probably the best region for sub-1000 mile flights.

Here’s a number of routes under 650 miles. Consider GIG-GRU, EZE-MDZ and LIM-CUZ are 4,500 avios, but can be upwards of $500 cash fares due to taxes.

It’s also worth perusing the AA award chart to look at how much (or little) they charge for in-country travel. If you look past the asterisks and pound signs, you may find some interesting gems given the distances involved.

Use airports as they weren’t intended

Turns out both Cancun and Orlando are huge vacation destinations for those from north and south alike. If your trip aligns with North America’s winter / South America’s summer, you could score some dirt cheap tickets to either vacation destination and hop a nearly empty plane to the Southern Hemispere.

There are many other routings to South American that aren’t completely obvious, but you’ll likely have recliner seats the whole way. This is where a lot of those “Fire Sale to Rio!” promos come from.

This is also true for a number of other airports in Central America and the Caribbean. While they are vacation destinations in their own right, they also provide pretty impressive lift to both continents. Here’s a screenshot of the two I found to be the most likely to have logical connecting times, Panama City - PTY and Punta Cana, Dominican Republic - PUJ, along with San Jose, Costa Rica - SJO and Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic - SDQ

Check the seat type and departure times before you go!

These flights are every bit as long as those to Europe, so it’s important to do your research and compare seats on various carriers. For instance, all LAN, Air Canada, Delta and United flights offer full lie-flat business class seats. Only AA, UA, Korean and TAM offer three cabin First Class. Several other carriers only offer recliner seats, even on flights over 8 hours, meaning there is a wider disparity in comfort than going to Europe or Asia.

Also, many cities in South America don’t have the same restrictions on departure and arrival times like those in the US do. A departure time of 3:40am is certainly possible in order to allow for aircraft to make same day turns, so make sure you double check the times when you book or you may miss your flight (like I did once!). Additionally, nobody wants their two hour layover to be from 12:30-2:30a as most airports all but shutdown during those times and airport hotels can be more scarce than in other parts of the world. You may also not want to stand in an immigration line at 4am. Remember, there’s no (substantive) time change! :)

And lest you thought I forgot, here’s a quick rundown of the least hub-captive airports for travel to South America (sorted by least hub-captive first)

North America:

  • Cancun - CUN
  • New York - JFK
  • Mexico City - MEX
  • Orlando - MCO
  • Los Angeles - LAX

South America:

  • Sao Paulo - GRU
  • Caracas - CCS
  • Quito - UIO
  • Lima - LIM
  • Rio De Janeiro - GIG
  • Buenos Aires - EZE
  • Bogota - BOG
  • Santiago - SCL

And, unsurprisingly, OneWorld has about half of all traffic, with AA, LAN and TAM killing it on lift.

OneWorld has about 50% of the market and AA alone about 25%. Guess that’s where all the planes missing from Europe, Asia and OZ routes have been hanging out!


As I mentioned earlier, a disproportionate amount of traffic is funneled through Miami, which may or may not be desirable, based on your travel habits. Avianca, in particular, seems to cherry pick routes from other destinations in both the US, Central America and Colombia, so these along with the Gol routes could be useful to some people.

We’re in the home stretch and will be finishing the series with the Middle East/Africa/India report soon. Feel free to comment below if you have other tips or advice for people heading to South America!

20 Responses to “Hacking Award Seats to South America - All 132 Routes”

  1. what about all the routes through PTY on copa/united?

  2. I assume when you write CP you mean CM (Copa)?

  3. Also realize if you fly to EZE and want to go to MDZ, you will need to transfer airports to AEP which is about an hour bus ride, so factor that in. It is better to fly SCL-MDZ as you don’t have to switch airports as well as the flight is awesome. Only like 45 min, up look at the Andes, then descend and you’re ready to drink some malbec.

    • There is a direct Aerolineas flight, but not useful for AA/Avios. Yes, it’s AEP-MDZ, but thankfully AEP is a super-convenient, easy airport from downtown or Palermo and there’s no reason you should skip Buenos Aires if you’re in the area right?

  4. How about Aeromexico? They should have a lot of flights out of MEX, and are always an option to someone on the West Coast (as it’s sorta in between).

    • MEX is a PITA to connect in as you have to clear immigration/customs if originating outside mexico. I wish they would do airside transit…

  5. The word “hack” does not mean what you seem to think it does.

  6. Great work as always, thanks!

  7. This is really helpful. I’m just planning a trip to SCL for later this year.

  8. You should’ve listed G3 along with SkyTeam. They have one foot inside the alliance, as DL elites have benefits, and AF, KL and AR can accrue and redeem miles.

    • They are on their way. I’m wondering if the alliance is waiting for a longer track record or more international flights. I’ve looked into how to accrue and redeem on them with other Skyteam partners, but it was pretty obtuse, do you know of anyone who has successfully done it?

      • On my part, I’ve flown Delta and credited the miles to Gol, and it worked alright (except for the Gol operated flight on codeshare, which required me to contact customer service). In the past (2012, I guess), I credited a Gol flight to AA, but the partnership has since ended. They still partner with QR and IB, and are supposed to begin partnership with EY and AZ. I’ve never heard a first person account of someone crediting their Gol flights to those FFP, only read about it in Brazilian blogs and forums.

  9. Very much appreciate the work to put together these great resources! I may not need them right this second, but I love knowing they’re here when I do. Thanks!

  10. You forgot to add the domestic airports in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro: CGH and SDU

  11. Presently in EZE on a Y award on UA from Lufthansa. (had to use the credit card miles within 3 years). My connection in IAH was 1 hour but my flight from DCA was late so had to spend the night in Houston. From now on when I have flights that are only once-daily I’ll plan longer connection times.

    LH only charges $60 change/cancel fees, their US rewards desk phone is all-American and very very helpful and intelligent. They have less availability on UA than UA. UA had a little AC and CM availability, LH had none.

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