Certain things about planning a trip to South America are fun, like forming a travel itinerary and brushing up on your Spanish.
But then there are the parts you dread. Things like spending hundreds of dollars on flights to and around the continent.
Booking airfare is the single biggest expenditure of an overseas trip. And given the sheer quantity of your hard-earned cash involved, the process can be somewhat stressful.
But working as a travel agent for two years taught me a thing or two about sussing out cheap airfares.
The truth is… there aren’t any magic formulas or hacks. We can, however, take advantage of a few clever tricks to wrangle the best possible deal.
So read on to learn how to find cheap South American airfares like a pro, leaving you with stacks of extra pesos to spend while you’re there.
Where to Arrive and Depart in South America
Major airports in South America
South America has five main international airport hubs. These locations tend to offer more competition and, therefore, better deals:
- El Dorado International Airport, Bogotá, Colombia
- Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport, Santiago, Chile
- Ministro Pistarini International Airport, Buenos Aires, Argentina
- Jorge Chávez International Airport, Lima, Peru
- Guarulhos International Airport, São Paulo, Brazil
Other international hubs include:
- Mariscal Sucre International Airport, Quito, Ecuador
- Viru Viru International Airport, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia
- Galeão International Airport, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Domestic and international connections
If those popular airports aren’t in your desired destination, you’ll need a connection.
Generally, it’s best to purchase a connection on the same ticket through the inbound or partner airline. Doing so usually allows baggage to connect automatically and—more importantly—protects you if you miss your connecting flight.
Booking a separate connection on a different ticket can end up being cheaper. However, you’ll be on your own should you miss your connection due to a delayed arrival.
And in South America, that happens all the time.
Open jaw tickets
Transcontinental travelers often opt for an “open jaw” ticket. Essentially, this industry term means flying into one destination and returning home from another.
For example, you could fly into Bolivia but return home from Peru.
Open jaw tickets can cost more upfront, but ultimately work out cheaper as they negate the need to backtrack.
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The Art of Scoring an Airline Deal
Understand booking classes
Airfares tend to fluctuate tremendously. More often than not, price differences are determined by the booking classes available on the day.
Ever wondered why the guy sitting next to you paid way less for this airfare, even though you’re both in economy? It’s because he scored a cheaper booking class.
Say “W class” is the cheapest. An airline might dedicate just 20 of its 300 seats to this coveted class. Once it’s sold out, customers must purchase the next cheapest. And so on.
The subsequent booking class is often several hundred dollars more, while the difference between the cheapest and most expensive economy seats on a flight to South America could be over 1,000 USD.
Okay, interesting… but what does that mean for me, the traveler?
In short, this means you should book early to secure the cheapest possible booking class.
The longer you wait, the less likely those precious “W class” seats will be available. For the most part, last minute discounts are a thing of the past.
Look for promotions
Don’t book too early though, because you might miss out on one of those super sweet airline specials.
Most airlines tend to release their best international deals between three and six months of departure. Book any earlier or later, and you might end up with an overpriced “standard” fare.
Use marketing to your advantage
So how can you find these airfare specials?
Nobody likes spam. Unless, of course, an unsolicited email could save them serious sums of cash. Sign up for airline and travel agent alerts. Or simply “like” their Facebook page to stay up to date on the best deals.
Other airfare alert options include Scott’s Cheap Flights and the Hopper mobile travel app. Find out when you can score a $1,200 flight to Brazil for only $600!
Once you’ve found a good special, study the airfare rules and search for flights accordingly.
Be flexible with your dates
Being flexible with travel dates often equates to snagging a bargain. After all, that sought-after “W class” might be available shortly before or after your intended departure date.
In my experience, Google Flights is the best engine to quickly and easily peruse multiple travel dates.
Ask about a waitlist
Sometimes, airlines reintroduce cheaper booking classes to quickly fill half-empty planes. Other times, passengers might cancel or reschedule, which results in renewed availability.
If you’re contracting the services of a human travel agent, ask them to waitlist a cheaper booking class. With a bit of luck, you could automatically get upgraded to a cheaper fare.
Fly out of season
High season in South America coincides with the Northern Hemisphere summer and the Andean dry season between June and August. Another peak period occurs between the New Year, meaning December and January can be just as dear.
Aim to travel outside of these months to secure the best possible deal. See if you can snag tickets in, say, March or October.
The Best International Airlines for South America
Airlines vary considerably in terms of service. Check Skytrax for reviews.
Flights from Australia and New Zealand
- Qantas flies direct from Sydney/Melbourne to Santiago
- LATAM flies direct from Sydney/Melbourne to Santiago
- Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Buenos Aires with connections to Australia
Flights from North America
- Delta flies direct from Atlanta/New York to most major South American hubs
- American Airlines flies direct from Dallas/Los Angeles/Miami to most major South American hubs
- Low-cost carrier Spirit flies direct from Fort Lauderdale to Lima/Guayaquil/Bogotá/Medellín/Cartagena
- United Airlines flies direct from Houston/New York to most major South American hubs
- Jet Blue flies direct from Fort Lauderdale to Lima/Quito/Bogotá/Medellín/Cartagena
- Avianca flies from multiple U.S. airports to Bogotá and other Colombian destinations
- Aerolineas Argentinas flies direct from New York/Miami to Buenos Aires
- LATAM flies direct from multiple U.S. airports to most major South American hubs
- Low-cost carrier Viva Air Colombia flies direct from Miami to Medellín
- Boliviana de Aviacion flies direct from Miami to Santa Cruz de la Sierra
- Air Canada flies direct from Toronto/Montreal to most major South American hubs
Flights from Europe
The best deals are often from London and Madrid.
- KLM flies direct from Amsterdam to most major South American hubs
- British Airways flies direct from London to most major South American hubs
- LATAM flies direct from multiple European airports to most major South American hubs
- Avianca flies direct from London/Madrid/Barcelona to Bogotá
- Iberia flies direct from Madrid to most major South American hubs
- Air France flies direct from Paris to most major South American hubs
- Swiss flies direct from Zurich to Rio de Janeiro/São Paulo/Buenos Aires
- Lufthansa flies direct from Frankfurt to most major South American hubs
- Aerolineas Argentinas flies direct from Madrid/Barcelona/Rome to Buenos Aires
The Best Domestic Airlines for South America
Due to its developing economy and low population density, internal flights within South America tend to be pricey. Opt for domestic airfares and cross borders overland for significant savings.
Of the following airlines, LATAM and Avianca have the best reputation. Others are prone to sub-par service and consistent delays.
It all depends on your preferences, though. If your biggest concern is your budget and you don’t mind a little inconvenience, one of the other airlines could be your perfect fit.
- Fly Bondi, a newcomer in 2018
- Aerolineas Argentinas, the national carrier
- LADE, limited flights in Patagonia
- Avianca, domestic and international routes
- TAM, Brazil’s national airline
- GOL, domestic and international low-cost carrier
- Azul Airlines, domestic and international
- ASTA, mostly serves the Amazon
- Passaredo Linhas Aereas, domestic only
- Avianca, the national carrier
- LATAM, flies throughout South America
- Viva Air Colombia, low-cost domestic and international airline
- EasyFly, low-cost domestic airline
- Wingo, domestic and Central American flights
- Copa Airlines, Panamanian domestic and international carrier
- Boliviano de Aviación (BOA), the national carrier
- Amaszonas, domestic and some international flights
- EcoJet, relatively new with limited routes
- Transporte Aeréo Militar (TAM), a military airline with no online bookings
- LATAM, the national carrier
- JetSmart, low-cost carrier newly opened in 2017
- Sky Airline, domestic and international low-cost carrier
- Avianca, limited domestic flights
- LATAM, limited domestic and international flights
- TAME, the national carrier
- LATAM, operates out of Lima
- LC Perú, domestic low-cost carrier
- Peruvian Air, domestic and international
- Star Perú, domestic airline
- JetSmart, low-cost carrier newly opened in 2017
- Viva Air, low-cost domestic airline
South American Air Passes
Those who plan on galavanting around South America through the skies might be better off with a South American air pass.
Using an air pass could be the most affordable way to fly to multiple spots around the continent.
- Price: 150-480 USD, depending on the miles traveled
- Applicable countries:
- One World Airlines only
- Must arrive at South America on a One World carrier
- 12-month validity
- Minimum of three flights, including the inbound journey
- Price: From 629 USD, including four flights
- Applicable countries:
- The Dominican Republic
- Brazilian or non-South American residents only
- 30-day validity
- Must arrive in Brazil on Air France, Delta, GOL or KLM
- Can only be booked outside of South America
Brazilian air passes
Visitors intending to travel extensively in Brazil should investigate a Brazil-only air pass from Avianca, GOL or Azul.
If you’ve made it this far, you’re now an expert in finding bargain basement South American airfares. So grab that credit card and start searching!
Maybe researching a good deal could even be a little fun.
Harry is a South American-based freelance writer who covers travel, the arts, and culture, among many other things.