Map of South America flights

Flights I booked to South America.

Earlier this month I made my first award redemption using frequent flyer miles. And it was a bit of a doozy. I’m flying to South America with a friend and we’re flying out of Miami to Lima for a couple of days, then to Easter Island for a few more days and then on to Buenos Aires before returning back to Miami. It’s a total of three countries in 11 days, so it’s a bit of a whirlwind trip. It’s the first time either one of us has been to South America.

And the ironic part about the booking? Despite the miles being called “frequent flyer miles” I’d never set foot on the airline that I got the miles from. Plus, I got all the flights in business class. And my share of the taxes and fees only $150.

Here’s how I did it, and how it can still  be done through other methods.

I got the idea for the trip about a year ago. Near the end of 2009, Chase Bank offered a credit card that earned British Airways miles. Most of the time, banks will offer a 25,000 mile sign up bonus, which is enough miles to get a coach seat on a US domestic flight. Chase offered a whopping 100,000 mile sign up bonus. That’s enough to get 4 roundtrip domestic tickets or two roundtrip coach tickets from the US to Europe. It was an insane offer.

The folks over at a discussion forum for frequent flyers jumped all over this. They discussed creative ways those miles could be used. One of the suggestions was to use the miles on another oneworld carrier. Oneworld is one of three major airline alliances that most airlines belong to. Alliance members can usually book seats on each others’ flights, share lounges and use miles for award redemptions on other airlines. Because of the way British Airways redemption chart is set up, 80,000 miles could be used to book a business class seat from North America to South America. British doesn’t actually fly from the US to South America, but both American Airlines and LAN do.

Another bonus is that British allows for a stopover in each direction when booking a roundtrip. So I could fly from Miami on LAN to Easter Island and stopover in Lima, Buenos Aires or a number of other possible destinations in South America.

So, just by getting a credit card, I could get myself a very cheap trip to South America. Unbelievable! I jumped on the deal and applied for the card. The card itself had an annual fee of $75 and in order to get the full 100,000, I needed to spend $2,000 on the card in six months. Since I run most of my normal spending through a credit card and then pay it off in full each month, meeting the spend requirement was not a problem.

I got the card in January, and by the time summer rolled around I had the miles. By then, I had decided that I didn’t want to go to South America by myself. Which meant that I would need to find a way to get another 60,000 miles so I could get two tickets and take a friend along.

Enter the Starwood Preferred Guest card. SPG was running a promotion where you could get 30,000 points for signing up for their card. Now SPG is a hotel program for the Starwood chain of hotels (which include Westin, Le Meridian, etc.). How would that help me get airline miles? The program allows member to transfer points to over a dozen airlines and most have a 1:1 ratio of points to miles. And if a member transfers 25,000 points in one transaction, SPG throws in another 5,000 points because they’re just that awesome. So that put my mileage total to over 135,000 miles. Getting the last few miles involved a number of tactics, including running my normal spend through the card, getting a referral bonus for getting another person to sign up for the SPG card, and yes, a little flying too (thanks to an earlier deal offered by Expedia).

This month, I finally got all the miles I needed so it was time to give British Airways a call. Because of the complexity of the itinerary, booking online wasn’t an option. Before ringing them up, I used their website to make sure there were award seats available on all the flights I wanted. I also picked out some backup flights just in case I couldn’t get on my first choice. One phone call and 25 minutes chatting with a gentleman with the most charming accent later, I had all the flights. The flights were free, but I had to pay some taxes and fees on them which added up to just under $150 for each ticket. Had I bought the tickets outright, it would have cost more then $3,100 per ticket. Not bad at all for getting a couple of credit cards and doing some online research.

While both the Chase and the SPG promotion are both long gone, banks are constantly offering new promotions. They’re a quick way to get a bunch of miles if you don’t fly much, have good credit and can avoid carrying a balance.

If you wanted to do a similar trip, Citibank is offering some cards that will give 75,000 American Airlines miles for signing up. American offers business-class flights on LAN for 100,000 miles, but doesn’t include the extra stopovers. You can have multiple airlines though, so it makes it easier to get to a LAN hub. Of course, there’s plenty of other partners and options to choose from, including to many destinations in Asia, Australia and Europe.

If you’re looking for other ways to save on travel costs, check out my post on travel hacking.