How to Use Points and Miles for a Galápagos Trip
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“The archipelago is a little world within itself.” That is how Charles Darwin described the Galápagos after spending five weeks there in 1835 cataloguing its myriad of animals and plants. His work — and the tales of subsequent visitors to the remote island chain — have continued to capture the popular imagination.
Images of windswept rocks populated by giant tortoises and sunbathing iguanas, frolicking finches and blue-footed boobies, surrounded by seas teeming with sharks, whales, sea lions and rays all lend the Galápagos the patina of a natural utopia.
Geologists believe the Galápagos were formed by volcanic activity between three and five million years ago. Today, they comprise 19 islands. While the isolation of lying 600 miles off the coast of South America protected them for millennia, tourism to the Galápagos is up, and it’s actually easier than ever to get there using points and miles.
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.
The archipelago was declared Ecuador’s first national park in 1959, and has been a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site since 1978. That means that even though you’re likely to encounter more tourists, you won’t be thronged by hordes of them, and you can still enjoy the islands’ natural attractions in relative peace and calm.
While over there, visitors can boat and hike around the various islands, photographing their famous animal inhabitants, and even take the opportunity to snorkel and scuba dive in the wild waters.
Whether you want a luxurious cruising experience, or more of a rustic backpackaer vibe, there are plenty of ways to travel to and enjoy the Galápagos. Here’s how you can use your points and miles to experience this island paradise for yourself.
Your strategy for getting to the Galápagos will depend on whether you plan to fly there directly, catch a cruise from Guayaquil, or spend a few extra days before or after in Quito. Let’s start with the options for flying to Guayaquil (GYE) and Quito (UIO).
There have been some fantastic airfare deals to both cities from various US gateways recently, including Los Angeles (LAX), New York (JFK), Miami (MIA) and San Francisco (SFO). In June, you could book round-trip flights from New York to Guayaquil for just $232 on JetBlue. There were also phenomenal business-class fares on Avianca from JFK to Quito starting at $679 in June. In May, there was an economy deal from various US cities to Ecuador starting $362 round-trip in economy, while late last year, we saw business-class fares as low as $869 on Aeromexico.
If you’re just flying to Guayaquil or Quito and you find airfares are this low, it might be better to redeem your points directly through a portal like Amex Travel or Chase Ultimate Rewards rather than searching for award space. For instance, if you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve — where your Ultimate Rewards points are worth 1.5 cents apiece — you’d only need 15,467 of them for that $232 fare.
Via ThankYou.com, you could redeem Citi ThankYou Rewards points for 1.25 cents apiece if you have the Citi Premier Card. Or more generally, you could redeem miles from your Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card at a rate of one cent apiece for these fares and still get a great value.
On the other hand, if you want to fly all the way to the Galápagos, there are two main airports. Seymour (GPS) is on the island of Baltra, which connects to the neighboring island of Santa Cruz by water taxi and bus. San Cristóbal (SCY) is on San Cristóbal Island. To get to either, chances are you’ll have to pass through Guayaquil (GYE) or Quito (UIO).
From Guayaquil (GYE), you can catch nonstop flights on LATAM, Avianca and TAME to either Galápagos terminus. From Quito (UIO), both Avianca and LATAM offer some nonstops to Seymour/Baltra but not San Cristóbal. There are many more flights that stop in Guayaquil. Flights from either of the mainland cities to the Galápagos take around two hours, and round-trip itineraries cost around $300-$350.
Now for a look at award strategies and mileage, which will vary depending on whether you want to use miles to fly all the way from the US or if you just want to use them for flights within Ecuador.
If you’re a Star Alliance flyer, you have a few different options. Look up award availability through United, Aeroplan or Avianca Lifemiles. If you need to top up any of your mileage accounts, United is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards. Aeroplan partners with both Amex Membership Rewards and Capital One, and Avianca Lifemiles is a transfer partner of Amex, Capital One and Citi ThankYou Rewards. You can use miles from any of these three to fly a combination of United, Copa, Air Canada and Avianca down there.
From the US to either Guayaquil, Quito or the islands themselves, United will charge you 20,000 miles each way in coach or 35,000 miles in business class — assuming the carrier’s shift to dynamic award pricing doesn’t eventually extend to partners. If you just want to fly from Guayquil or Quito to the islands, you’ll pay 12,500 miles each way in economy or 20,000 miles in business class. Award availability on nonstop flights from Guayaquil is very tight. However, the nonstop from Quito to Baltra is available on a few days most weeks.
Aeroplan will charge you 25,000 miles each way in economy from North America to Ecuador or 37,500 miles in business class; for one-way flights within Ecuador, you’ll need to shell out 12,500 miles for economy or 22,500 miles for business class.
With these two programs, if you’re coming from the US and planning to fly all the way to the Galápagos, you might as well book all your flights — including the ones to the islands — for the same number of miles as ending your award itinerary in Guayaquil or Quito.
Avianca Lifemiles seems to be switching to more dynamic pricing at the moment, so award rates are up in the air. Economy awards from the US to Ecuador seem to be starting at 15,000 miles each way, or 30,000-35,000 miles for business class, depending on where you originate. Flights within Ecuador seem to be starting at 8,500 miles each way in economy and 16,500 in business class.
If you’re a Oneworld loyalist, your best bet will be to fly a combo of American Airlines and LATAM. Finding awards on LATAM is a bit difficult, not only because the airline offers fewer flights from the US to Ecuador, but also because British Airways’ site — which is usually the best at finding Oneworld award availability — does not list either Galápagos airport in its search engine.
You’ll need 20,000 American AAdvantage miles each way in economy and 30,000 in business class to fly from the US to Ecuador or 10,000/20,000 each way in economy/business within the country. An AAdvantage agent I spoke to was able to find awards on LATAM-operated flights, including to the islands, though it took a bit of searching.
Interestingly, the city name and airport code for Guayaquil do not seem to be searchable on Delta.com. However, I was able to find plenty of award tickets between various US cities and Quito over the fall starting at 27,000 SkyMiles each way in economy. Remember that Delta is an Amex transfer partner if you need to top up your account.
Finally, JetBlue flies from Fort Lauderdale (FLL) to both Quito and Guayaquil, and airfares are often under $400 round-trip, which means this can be a great, inexpensive way to redeem some TrueBlue points.
Even though JetBlue TrueBlue is now a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou Rewards and Capital One, you’ll want to carefully compare the award rates vs. using those transferable points to book directly.
Aside from flying there and spending time on the ground, one of the most popular ways to visit the Galápagos is by cruise ship. You can find everything from luxury experiences aboard Silversea and Celebrity to dive trips with Explorer Ventures and expedition-style adventures with Lindblad.
Hyatt recently launched a partnership with Lindblad so that World of Hyatt members can earn and redeem points for expeditions. So far, there have been just two points auctions for redemptions, but hopefully these will ramp up over time. In the meantime, members can earn 5x base points per dollar on eligible spending excluding incidentals plus standard elite bonuses and elite-qualifying night credits. All members will also receive a $250 onboard credit to use on incidentals like excursions and spa treatments.
You can maximize your other cruise purchase in a number of ways. First, you can use a card that earns multiple points per dollar on travel purchases. The Chase Sapphire Reserve earns 3x points per dollar, while the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card earns 2x points per dollar. The Citi Premier Card and Citi Prestige both earn 3x points per dollar on cruises. And keep your eyes peeled for Amex Offers on cards like The Platinum Card® from American Express, as we’ve seen a number of cruise-related bonuses and discounts pop up recently.
We also have some tips on using points to pay for cruises if you’d rather redeem than earn. If you do book a cruise, consider purchasing trip insurance, and be sure to review the various travel protections afforded by the credit card you use to pay for your trip.
If you plan to stay on one of the islands, you won’t be able to use hotel points to do so for now. The one ray of light is that the eco-chic Pikaia Lodge is a member of Small Luxury Hotels, so hopefully you’ll be able to earn and redeem World of Hyatt points there in the future — though at the time of publication it hasn’t been added to the program in earlier waves from November, January, February and May.
In the meantime, you can stay in one of the other rustic hotels and inns around the islands, at the luxurious Finch Bay on Santa Cruz, or even book an Airbnb. Maximize your points earning by using a credit card that earns bonuses for hotel or general travel purchases. With Airbnb, you can double-dip and earn Delta SkyMiles to boot.
If you have the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card or the Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card, you can take advantage of the issuer’s partnership with Hotels.com to earn a whopping 10x miles per dollar on hotel rooms booked and paid for at via a dedicated Hotels.com link (ends Jan. 31, 2020). You can then redeem your points for the purchase at a rate of one cent apiece, getting a fantastic 10% rate of return on your spending. Note that this can also be stacked with the Hotels.com Rewards program, giving you another 10% return for your stay.
If your trip includes time in Quito and Guayaquil on either end, you have some decent points options. Marriott has a Sheraton and a Courtyard in Guayaquil…
And a JW Marriott and Sheraton in Quito.
Guayaquil and Quito have a Hilton each, both of which are also inexpensive.
Award rates start at 30,000 per night at either.
There is a Holiday Inn Express in Quito.
And a Holiday Inn near the Guayaquil Airport, which is convenient after late-night arrivals.
Then there’s a new Park Inn by Radisson in Quito that costs 28,000 points per night.
And a Radisson in Guayaquil for the same rate.
Finally, if you want to splurge and you have the The Platinum Card® from American Express or The Business Platinum® Card from American Express, you can book via Fine Hotels & Resorts (and earn 5x points per dollar on prepaid hotels to stay at the Casa Gangotena in Quito.
Rates run $300-$450 per night but include daily breakfast for two, a space-available room upgrade and a complimentary lunch or dinner during your stay.
Featured photo by NickDale / EyeEm / Getty Photos.
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