Did you know? You can get to the Galapagos on points and miles
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This is the second edition of “Did You Know?” — a series of weekly posts exploring lesser-known corners of the world of points and miles, rewards credit cards, and air travel. Check back every Wednesday for a new article! The first post explores how to get to Greenland.
While we are all grounded, you might as well be planning your next adventure. Typically, the hardest part of going to a pretty remote destination is the journey itself. But, as we’ll see, it’s actually not that hard to get to the Galapagos — even if you plan to use points and miles.
The Galapagos is an archipelago roughly 600 miles west of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean. It was declared the country’s first national park in 1959, and has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1978. Though it’s become more popular over the years, it still remains one of the best spots for viewing a variety of unique animal and plant species.
The Galapagos comprises dozens of islands and islets formed by volcanic activity millions of years ago. Charles Darwin remarked that the “the archipelago is a little world within itself,” and having been there myself, I concur.
So, now let’s dive into your options for getting to this “little world.”
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The government of Ecuador is encouraging the gentle development of tourism there by subsidizing the construction of new lodgings and increasing ferry service among the islands. However, it is also taking protection and sustainability seriously.
To start, there are just two main airports in the Galapagos. The first, Seymour (GPS), is on the island of Baltra, which connects to the neighboring island of Santa Cruz by water taxi and bus. The second, San Cristobal (SCY), is on San Cristobal Island.
There are no direct commercial flights to these islands from the U.S. You’ll need to pass through mainland Ecuador in order to get to either of these airports.
Both Seymour and San Cristobal see daily service from Ecuador’s two largest cities, Guayaquil (GYE) and Quito (UIO). Guayaquil is better connected to the Galapagos than Quito, so you’ll probably end up flying from GYE to either GPS or SCY to begin your adventure.
Three airlines serve these routes: Avianca, LATAM and Ecuadorian flag carrier TAME. Fortunately for miles and points collectors, the former two airlines are both members of major alliances. Avianca calls Star Alliance its home, and LATAM was a member of Oneworld, but is on its way out (though it’s still keeping many of its frequent flier partnerships).
That means that redeeming miles for the intra-Ecuador flights is really easy. Some popular redemption options for Avianca flights are with Air Canada Aeroplan, Avianca Lifemiles or United MileagePlus. And for LATAM, I’d consider using British Airways Avios or Delta Skymiles.
Related: How to maximize Aeroplan miles
Before redeeming miles, though, make sure to take a look at the paid fares for these short, two-hour flights. It often makes sense to either pay for them outright (since they can be quite cheap) or redeem Amex or Chase points through the respective travel portals.
For instance, I was browsing a random date in July, and found an Avianca flight from GYE to GPS for $78. United wanted 8,000 miles and $11 for the one-way, which at a rate of 0.8 cents per point is well below our TPG valuations.
Using your miles and points is often a much better value when you book all your flights together — both from the U.S. to Ecuador and those within Ecuador. You see, since you can’t get from the U.S. to the Galapagos directly, you’re going to need to stop in either Guayaquil or Quito (and maybe connect in the U.S. to a major international gateway).
The cost of tickets on the major U.S. carriers to Ecuador can add up quickly. But, with points and miles, you can redeem a single one-way or roundtrip award from the U.S. to the Galapagos with one or more stops without (typically) needing to pay more miles. Plus, you can combine carriers within an alliance to create the perfect award redemption.
American Airlines (from Dallas and Miami), Eastern Airlines (from JFK and Miami), JetBlue (from Fort Lauderdale and JFK), LATAM (from JFK), Spirit (from Fort Lauderdale) and TAME (from Fort Lauderdale) all fly to Guayaquil. American Airlines (from Dallas and Miami), Delta (from Atlanta), JetBlue (from Fort Lauderdale) and United (from Houston) all fly to Quito. (Those flights are mostly suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
American, Delta, LATAM and United are the only carriers that belong to major alliances, so you’ll want to try searching for award availability on those carriers that you could combine with one of the intra-Ecuador flights.
The following are all excellent combinations for mileage redemptions: Delta and LATAM flights booked with Skymiles, United and Avianca flights booked with Air Canada Aeroplan, Avianca Lifemiles or United MileagePlus and American and LATAM flights booked with British Airways Avios.
The other thing to note is that JetBlue and Spirit have built up a presence in Ecuador. They don’t belong to an airline alliance, but you can often find great deals on these airlines — make sure to follow TPG on Twitter and Facebook for these breaking deals! In that case, it could make sense to pay for your flight from the U.S. to Guayaquil or Quito, and then book the intra-Ecuador flight separately.
Plus, JetBlue flies its brand-new Airbus A321neo to Guayaquil from JFK, so at least you’ll even have a comfortable ride if you score a deal.
All in all, there are a plethora of points-friendly options for getting to the Galapagos. However, you’re going to need to stop in mainland Ecuador on your way to the islands. Though you may consider adding a multi-day stopover in either Guayaquil or Quito, others will want to continue directly to the Galapagos.
Either way, as we’ve seen, miles and points can take you to one of the finest places for wildlife exploration.
Eric Rosen contributed reporting.
Featured photo by NickDale / EyeEm / Getty Photos
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