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Even before Aerolineas Argentinas became an official member of SkyTeam in September 2012, it entered into a partnership with Delta last May that entitled Delta SkyMiles members to earn miles on Aerolineas flights and to redeem their SkyMiles for flights on Argentina’s national airline as well. During his recent month-long stay in Argentina, TPG Managing Editor Eric Rosen got the opportunity to put his SkyMiles to use on what would have been an otherwise prohibitively expensive itinerary. Here was his experience.
I’m not a big Delta flyer – and by that I mean that over the past three or four years, I have only earned a total of 29,600 SkyMiles by flying the airline and its SkyTeam partners including Air France and China Eastern. The program also hasn’t been a major part of my credit cards strategy since I choose to focus instead on United and American as my primary programs. But my recent experience booking flights on Aerolineas using Delta miles made me realize that I should be paying more attention to it in the future and expanding my points portfolio since airline partnerships are a great way to earn and redeem miles in far-flung corners of the globe.
While down in Argentina, I spent most of a month in and around Buenos Aires, but since I love exploring wine regions, I also wanted to visit the regions of Mendoza and Salta (including the town of Cafayate).
Looking up itineraries online, it soon became clear that I would have one of two airline options that service both destinations: LAN or Aerolineas. But the key was that I didn’t want to fly back to Buenos Aires in between destinations since that would in effect double the amount of award miles I would need to redeem. Instead, I needed to make this all into one itinerary by incorporating a stopover in either Mendoza or Salta and just fly from Buenos Aires to Mendoza to Salta back to Buenos Aires, or the other way around, and because it offers that service , Aerolineas was going to have to be my airline since it operates four weekly flights between the cities while LAN flights all transit via Buenos Aires.
As I mentioned, I only had 29,000 miles, which I thought might be enough for what was arguably a roundtrip within South America (which only requires 20,000 miles according to Delta’s award chart).
However, reading the fine print on the award chart: “Award mileage shown is each-way based on a required round-trip or multi-leg Award Ticket purchase.” So since my itinerary would be three legs, I’d need 30,000 miles. Still, it was worth an investigation since tickets between Buenos Aires and either Mendoza or Salta were costing $500-$700 each, and the overall itinerary would be close to $1,000, so miles were going to be my only choice.
The next stumbling block: I was unable to search for award availability on Aerolineas using Delta.com. This wasn’t a huge surprise given I was talking about basically regional airports (even the Buenos Aires airport I was searching for was the domestic Aeroparque Jorge Newberry (AEP) not EZE), but it wouldn’t even populate the To or From fields with the airports I was searching for.
I could, however, search for award availability on Aerolineas using ExpertFlyer, and within moments, I had found availability on several flights in both directions between Buenos Aires and both Mendoza and Salta, as well as flights from Mendoza to Salta right in the middle of the week I was hoping to travel.ExpertFlyer shows plenty of availability.
Without hesitating, I picked up the phone immediately to call Delta. Here’s where it got frustrating. The SkyMiles agent I got, though impeccably polite, was completely incompetent. I’m not saying that to be nasty. The fact is, he couldn’t even look up AEP or MDZ (the airport code for Mendoza) and kept saying the system was not letting him do it and he couldn’t even see Aerolineas as a partner. When he said that, it actually made me feel better because I realized it was him, and not me! So I thanked him for his time, said goodbye and hung up.
Going back to ExpertFlyer, I made sure to make a thorough list of each flight listed with availability on each route, and then I called SkyMiles back. Then a little miracle happened, and her name was Ana.
When I started talking to Ana, I noticed she had a little accent, but didn’t think anything of it. I told her about my trip and she lit up on the other end of the phone. It turns out, she is originally from Argentina and she knew the details about Delta’s Aerolineas partnership, all the airport codes, and the fact that I was looking for flights out of “Aeroparque,” as she called it familiarly, not Ezeiza. She said she was also curious about what I thought of Salta since she had never been to that part of the country herself.
While we were chatting, apparently Ana’s fingers were flying and by the time I had finished telling her my potential dates, she had an itinerary ready to go for me, and it was exactly what I wanted. It also helped that she realized that Austral was part of Aerolineas since my MDZ-SLA flight would be on that.
I would fly from Buenos Aires to Mendoza on Wednesday morning, catch one of Aerolineas’s four weekly flights between Mendoza and Salta on that Sunday, then fly directly back to Buenos Aires the following Wednesday. Done and done.
As I suspected, the ticket ended up costing me 30,000 miles plus $44 in taxes and fees, so I only need to scrounge up 400 miles from somewhere and would still be getting 3.1 cents per mile in value. Ana saw I didn’t have the miles in my account, so she was able to put the itinerary on hold for me for 24 hours to give me time to boost my mileage.
I had two options – I could either buy 1,000 miles for $35 plus the 7.5% tax and $30 processing fee for a total of $67 or so, or I could transfer Amex Membership Rewards points into my account for $0.60, so I chose the latter, was credited with the last 1,000 points I needed instantaneously and called Delta back to confirm the booking. Done and done!
My experience retaught me a few lessons that it makes sense to remember both when putting together a points strategy and booking travel:
1. Don’t discount a mileage program. Even if you don’t fly a particular airline or alliance much, stay on top of your accounts with it. I think it was personally foolish that I’d ignored SkyTeam for so long, especially considering it’s the second biggest alliance after Star Alliance and I need to consider its partner airlines more for future travel.
2. Keep track of your miles. 29,000 miles isn’t a lot of miles in the grand scheme of things, but knowing I had them in my Delta account meant that I knew to search for Aerolineas awards in the first place and that this trip would be possible.
3. Transferable points are a great way to top up your account. If it hadn’t been for those Amex points, I would have had to purchase the miles necessary for my itinerary, and while 1,000 miles aren’t necessarily expensive, 5,000 or 10,000 miles would have cost a relative fortune!
4. Do as much homework as possible. Especially if an airline partnership is new, it pays to do as much of the legwork yourself before calling an airline to book your award, that way you can guide agents through what you need.
5. Your booking can depend entirely on the agent. This instance was probably the starkest example of this, but the agent you get on the phone can make or break your itinerary. One Delta agent had no idea about anything to do with Aerolineas, and the other was a lifesaver who knew the airport booking codes by heart and basically took care of my entire itinerary in one fell swoop (and was a pleasure to talk to, to boot!). So if at first you don’t succeed, but you know the award space is there, hang up and try again. There’s no telling how much longer these cards will be around and available for new applications because of the Marriott takeover, so now might just be the perfect time to apply. Apart from hotel redemptions, you can transfer Starpoints to over 30 airline partners, and now also transfer points from Starwood to Marriott Rewards at a 1:3 ratio, opening up even more redemption options.
There’s no telling how much longer these cards will be around and available for new applications because of the Marriott takeover, so now might just be the perfect time to apply. Apart from hotel redemptions, you can transfer Starpoints to over 30 airline partners, and now also transfer points from Starwood to Marriott Rewards at a 1:3 ratio, opening up even more redemption options.