The Points & Miles Backpacker: Guide to the Elusive South America Airpasses
From the landscapes to the people to the culture, the beauty of South America is not to be missed. And on most of the continent, the dollar is strong, making it prime backpacking territory. However, train options are sparse and the size and terrain can make it tough to get everywhere you'd like on a bus. You also won't find the low-fare airline options that you do in Europe or the US. While there are still plenty of tools to compare flight prices, some areas of South America have another option.
Airpasses have specific eligibility and booking requirements and operate on a fixed-pricing model. They can save you a good bit of money if you're looking to cover a lot of ground or visit destinations that typically have high fares. These are your airpass options within South America. Compare these to booking the flight individually, and you may save some necessary reais for caipirinhas.
An airpass lets your fly a certain number of flights all within a specific country or countries over a set time frame for a fixed price. To qualify for an airpass, you typically have to have a round-trip ticket into the region that the airpass covers on the airline offering the pass or one of its partners. The ticket cannot be issued from within that region, so you'll need to book the entire itinerary before you depart your home country. Also, airpasses are only available in economy class.
Azul Brazil Airpass
International Entry Airlines: Azul, American, United, Delta
Option #1: 10 Days from arrival date
Option #2: 21 Days from arrival date
Availability: Must be booked in P class. All destinations have very good availability except for Fernando De Noronha (FEN). I was originally told by an agent that FEN is never available in P, and therefore not available with the airpass. However, I found sporadic availability in P from Recife to Fernando De Noronha on ExpertFlyer, and when I called again the agent told me FEN is a valid destination if P class is available. Peak days like the start and end dates of Carnaval aren't available, but the dates before and after are.
How to Book: Azul does not have airpass information on their website, and it has to be booked over the phone. The US reservations number is (888) 587-2985. You'll need to provide your incoming international ticket number in order to book.
- Only domestic flights within Brazil are included.
- The airpass duration begins the day you land in Brazil
Thoughts: If you're trying to cover a lot of ground in Brazil over a short period of time, the 21-day airpass can be a great deal; Azul boasts a vast domestic air network. Remember the clock on the airpass starts when you set foot in Brazil, not on your first airpass flight, so it's best to take an airpass flight right away and spend time in your entry point after the airpass expires.
GOL Brazil Airpass
International Entry Airlines Group 1: GOL, Air France, KLM, Delta
You can choose between 1 and 9 flight "coupons" in the table below, and the cost (in USD) varies based on the booking class.
|1 - 4 Coupons||$505||$607||$683||$786|
International Entry Airlines Group 2: Any airline with which GOL has a so-called "MITA" (multilateral interline traffic agreement.) A ccording to ExpertFlyer, this includes Air France, Aerolíneas Argentinas, Alitalia, Copa Airlines, Delta, Etihad, APG Airlines, Iberia, Korean Air, KLM, Qatar Airways, and TAP Air Portugal.
Flight "coupons" for this group are more expensive.
|1 - 4 Coupons||$571||$686||$771||$888|
Availability: Good in all booking classes. Even FEN has availability most days I checked. The exact dates of Carnaval aren't available but the days before or after are.
How to Book: Call GOL Airlines' US number, (855) 862-9190.
Notes: The GOL Brazil Airpass has lots of conditions:
- A "coupon" can be used for a one-way flight that can have up to two connections.
- Flights have to be booked in A, E, P or W.
- All coupons must be booked in the same booking class. Therefore, if you have 4 coupons, and 3 of the flights are available in A but one is only available in W, the entire itinerary will be booked in W.
- One way, round trip, circle trip and open jaw are allowed.
- You cannot use a coupon with the same origin and destination airport more than once. However, you can fly a flight segment more than once if it is part of a connecting flight.
- Maximum duration is 90 days from departure of first sector.
- An incoming international flight itinerary is needed to book the airpass.
- Complete information for the airpass is here.
Avianca Brazil Airpass
International Entry Airlines: Any airline with which Avianca has a MITA agreement. United is the only US-based airline on the list, but all Star Alliance carriers are also included.
You can choose between 1 and 8 flight coupons.
|1 - 4 Coupons||$500||$600||$675||$779|
Availability: Excellent. However, Avianca has a much smaller network in Brazil than Azul or GOL. Noticeably absent destinations are Fernando De Noronha and Manaus (MAO) — the main launching point for Amazon trips. All booking classes were available though for almost every route and date I checked.
How to Book: Call Avianca's US Call Center: (800) 284-2622.
Conditions: Almost identical to GOL's. All conditions I listed for GOL also apply to Avianca. Full conditions can be found here.
Thoughts: It looks like Avianca nearly copied GOL's airpass. Prices are slightly lower though and availability on routes is better, but the Avianca Brazil network is smaller. GOL and Avianca have different partner airlines for international arrival, so they aren't exactly competing. More flight options into Brazil is good news for us.
oneworld Visit South America Pass
International Entry Airlines: Any oneworld airline. Must arrive from outside of South America. Only incoming flight (not round trip) is required.
Pricing: Varies according to the distance of each flight sector. Distance ranges are divided into six zones, each with a fixed price that doesn't include taxes and carrier imposed surcharges.
|Zone||Mileage (kilometer) Range||Price (in USD)|
|1||Up to 560 miles (901km)||$153|
|2||561-750 miles (902-1207km)||$168|
|3||751-1280 miles (1208-2060km)||$251|
|4||1281-1810 miles (2061-2912km)||$285|
|5||1811-2300 miles (2913-3702km)||$390|
|6||2301-3500 miles (3703-5632km)||$480|
Availability: No booking class restrictions. As long as an economy seat is available, you can reserve it.
How to Book: Must be booked over the phone with any airline that's a member of the oneworld alliance.
- Good for any flights within South America on a oneworld carrier.
- Minimum of three sectors. No maximum.
- Maximum duration of 12 months
- Exact flight and date for the first sector must be booked before departing the home country.
- Entire routing must be defined beforehand. However, all flight dates can be left open ended after the first sector. Subsequent flights only need to be booked one day or more prior to travel.
Thoughts: Flight prices aren't a great bargain, but this does allow you to lock in a price in advance. Also, the open-ended dates allow for flexibility you'd want on a long trip, and this ticket allows up to a year. You can get to exotic locations like Galapagos and Easter Island, but the pricing for those zones isn't much better than you'd find normally.
GOL South America Airpass
International Entry Airlines: Any airline departing from outside South America to Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Dominican Republic, Paraguay, Uruguay or Venezuela.
Availability: Good in U, A and E classes, but less availability in B, especially with interline partners
How to Book: Call GOL Airlines' US number (855) 862-9190.
Conditions: The GOL South America Airpass has the same conditions as its Brazil Airpass, except for these terms:
- Flights must be on GOL or GOL interline partner, which within South America includes Aerolíneas Argentinas and Copa Airlines.
- Flights have to be booked in B, U, A or E.
- Maximum duration is 30 days from departure of first sector.
- Flights within Brazil are not allowed.
- Complete information for the airpass is here (scroll down).
Thoughts: Flights between countries in South America can get expensive, so this is a good way to visit several countries for relatively cheap. However, the 30-day maximum puts a damper on the airpass. There are still some interesting routing options, though. For example, the Dominican Republic is listed as a country you can fly into to begin your airpass. You could potentially fly to Punta Cana for cheap from the US, then fly from there to Sao Paulo on one of GOL's thrice-weekly flights as the first leg of your South America Airpass.
Aerolíneas Argentinas offers a Visit Argentina Airpass on their website that can supposedly be booked online. However, I wasn't able to find any availability using the online booking tool. I also didn't see any availability in the required G booking class on ExpertFlyer for the many routes and dates I checked.
TAM Airlines used to offer an airpass, but that stopped after merging with LAN and becoming LATAM. The oneworld South America pass is the closest offer for LATAM now.
Avianca Airlines website lists this teaser for an Avianca Experience Airpass, which seems exciting until you learn that teaser was posted in 2015, and there has been no update or response from Avianca about it since.
Should You Get an Airpass?
You should definitely look into an airpass if you're planning to hit many destinations, especially in a short time period. In most cases, a price comparison will give you your answer. Price out individual flights on the routing you'd like and compare that to the price of the airpass. You'll also have to consider other factors such as ticket flexibility and airline restrictions.
The Points & Miles Backpacker is a weekly column appearing every Monday. TPG Contributor Brian Biros, who has backpacked the globe for the past 15 years, discusses how to fund this adventurous, budgeted and increasingly popular form of travel with points and miles. He’ll also explore all things backpacking-related. Read his story here and his high-level approach here.
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All photos by the author.