Backpacking South America On A Shoestring



Image courtesy: Madeleine Holland

Trip Information

Reader Aaron went backpacking through Southeast Asia with his girlfriend of four years late in 2013. When planning their last trip, they were unaware of the savings that points and miles programs can bring.

Since then, Araon’s wised up to the possibilities and begun judiciously racking up balances with various programs. For their next trip, Aaron wants to go backpacking in Peru and Colombia sometime this Summer. That means he and his girlfriend need flights to take them there and back from Denver.

Current Program Status

Aaron currently has 50,000 United miles, 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points, 40,000 Frontier miles and 30,000 US Airways miles. He’s racked up nearly all of these miles since January 2014, serving as an impressive example of how so many miles can be earned so quickly.

Our Take

United’s our clear program of choice in this case, if mostly by process of elimination. Aaron’s Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred on a 1:1 basis to a variety of hotel and airline programs, including Untied. That means that, should he need them, Aaron could have as many as 100,000 United miles in total in a matter of minutes.

Unfortunately, the farthest south Frontier flies is Costa Rica. This flight would take just 15,000 miles each way, but Aaron would be short of the miles needed for two roundtrips even if this were his destination.

US Airways miles are equally unhelpful in this case due to the airline’s insistence on awards being booked as roundtrips. 30,000 miles is enough to take Aaron a few places, but not enough to cover two passengers.

Because we’d be relying exclusively on United for this trip, we can take advantage of the fact that United allows for stopovers on roundtrip awards. That means Aaron and his girlfriend can stop in Colombia and then catch a flight onwards to Peru before heading home and use no more miles than they would for a simple roundtrip!

Tackling Routing Rules & United Award Availability

For this trip, I searched for flights from Denver to Lima in Peru as well as flights to Medellín and Bogotá in Colombia. Award flights to South America can oftentimes be more challenging to book than you might expect, due to the hodgepodge of airlines spanning several different alliances that dominate the continent and the routing rules that govern awards.

For example, many United flights throughout South America have a tendency to connect through Panama City on Copa Airlines. The problem with this is that United’s award chart treats direct flights within South America different from flights that connect through Central American countries like Panama. That means a stopover is only bookable on this itinerary if we can find a direct flight between Lima and either Medellín or Bogotá. These exist, but availability is much more constrained than for flights with connections.

Here’s a look at award flight availability from Lima to Medellín, for example, including flights that connect through Panama:

Here’s a look at availability for direct flights only within the same time period:

Keep in mind that only dates listed in green have open Economy space. We don’t have the miles to swing a First Class trip for Aaron and his girlfriend, so finding Saver Economy seats is a must.

Award availability from Denver to and from Lima, Medellín and Bogotá was relatively sparse throughout much of the Summer, and the dates each city was available did not align well for our purposes. For example, flights from Denver to Lima and from Bogotá to Denver were often available within two or three days of each other, or listed with nearly a month’s gap between.

I figured Aaron wouldn’t want to spend more than two weeks on the ground, and thankfully was able to find an itinerary that should work well.

Plotting the Route

First, Aaron and his girlfriend would fly from Denver to Bogotá, with a connection in Houston. This is the most direct route to Bogotá I could find with United, so I was happy to be able to start the trip off without any major hassle:

A week later, Aaron would hop over to Peru on an Avianca flight, thanks to the fact that the airline is a Star Alliance member and partner of United:

One more week later, the pair would return home by a slightly more complex route. An unlikely stop in Amarillo, Texas is necessary based on what award seats United presently has available around the time Aaron would be looking to head home:

Other options are possible. At each juncture of this trip, there tended to be alternate flights open a few days earlier or later. That means if Aaron would like to spend a bit more – or less – time on the ground, that’s certainly possible.

The principles of the stopover would still stand if they change their mind about their destinations, as well. For example, a flight from Denver to Bogotá to Quito to Denver would also be perfectly valid, should Aaron decide to explore Ecuador instead of Peru.

In any case, especially given the extraordinary cost of many intra-South American flights, taking advantage of this stopover is a good way to really maximize the value of their award tickets.

For both passengers, we’re looking at a total of 80,000 miles and $248.48 in taxes and fees. Compare that to the 20,000 miles required each way for simple one-way passage from the United States to Northern South America per person and you’ll see that, sure enough, our extra flight from Colombia to Peru comes for no extra miles!

In order to jump from the 50,000 United miles he has now to the 80,000 he needs, Aaron can simply transfer 30,000 Ultimate Rewards points to his United account. They should post within just a few minutes, and then he can go ahead and make the booking as soon as he’d like!

If he’d like to build in another jump to this adventure, finding a short flight elsewhere in South America using British Airways Avios – also transferred from Ultimate Rewards – would be one way to really take things up a notch.

Wrapping Up

On the surface, this might appear to be an easy trip compared to some of the more complex tricks we’ve had to pull for other itineraries recently. It is indeed more straightforward, but the work for this one was mostly behind the scenes.

In this case, United’s program was clearly the one we wanted to use, but availability later in the summer came in odd spurts that didn’t piece together well for this trip. As such, I looked at every possible combination of Lima, Bogotá and Medellín – the three most viable cities for air travel within Colombia and Peru – in order to find a route that would work well.

To do so, I searched for each of these flights as a one way award. Only after I’d taken note of the availability for each separate flight did I then string together a multi-city award on United’s website to create the award as shown above. By searching one flight at a time, you can gain a much better feel for award availability and will likely have the chance to consider routes that might not have struck you as a viable option before.

Despite the difficulties in finding a good routing, you can see that the savings are tremendous versus a cash ticket. This adventure is a great use of United miles, reaping more than 9.2¢ per mile in value. With so little spent on the flight, Aaron and his girlfriend should have plenty left over to truly enjoy their time on the ground!

Trip Component Cash Price Points + Cash Savings
United Award Flight: Denver to Bogotá, Bogotá to Lima, Lima to Denver • Economy 2 Passengers $3,840.24 per person 40,000 United Miles + $124.24 Taxes/Fees Per Person $3,716
Total: $7,680.48 80,000 United Miles + $248.48 Taxes/Fees $7,432 (96.7% Off)

Happy travels!

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About PointsAway
Casey Ayers is a consultant and entrepreneur with a passion for travel. After amassing enough miles and points to travel anywhere in the world for almost free in less than six months, he developed PointsAway as a way to help others make travel dreams big and small come true.
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