Travel to the End of the World for Free*: Patagonia and Back on Airline Miles, pt. 1

A while back, a good friend of mine expressed the desire to see the summer solstice from the ends of  both the northern and southern hemispheres. I said I’d like to be a part of such a cool concept, and agreed to head to the southern hemisphere for a December 21st date with the longest day of the year. Nearly a year on, and still 300 days from our departure, I’m happy to say our tickets are booked and we’re going to Patagonia!

Getting to the southern tip of Argentina and Chile, I’ve learned, is an adventure all by itself, and required me to dig deep into my award miles playbook to come up with a way to get us there on the cheap. As it turns out, three strategic credit-card signups is all we needed to get the job done. This post will show how we used two of those cards to get to Santiago, the capital of Chile, one of two major gateway cities for those seeking flights into the wilds of Patagonia.

Many people laud the flexibility of the Starwood Preferred Guest AMEX card, which allows points transfers into a number of partner airlines and hotels. Knowing that LAN offers a particularly good exchange of 1.5 LANPass Kilometers to 1 SPG Point, and an additional 5,000 point transfer bonus for transfers of more than 20,000 points, I knew this was a good place to start.

LAN is a major Latin American airline with a number of international departures from LAX and connecting through their hub in Peru. For us, that meant we could reach Santiago, Chile for 70,000 LANPass Kilometers each. Signing up and meeting the spend requirement for the SPG card netted us 30,000 SPG Points, which became 35,000 thanks to the transfer bonus, and finally were converted into 52,500 LANPass Kilometers thanks to the 1.5:1 conversion ratio. That left us each 17,500 points short of our free roundtrip tickets, so it’s lucky that LAN also offers their own branded Visa card, netting 20,000 LANPass Kilometers on your very first purchase.

Now that we had the necessary LANPass Kilometers for the award booking, we simply had to search for availability, which began showing up 11 months out. Below is a screenshot of what we were able to book:

This is definitely the simplified version of how our LAX>SCL roundtrip tickets came to be, but even this may seem like a lot of effort. So, why did we go to all the trouble of credit card signups and point hoarding and transferring? Here’s the Google Flights search for the cheapest tickets for our dates:

The cheapest LAN flight was significantly higher, but even taking the cheapest available price we saved $1880 each, for a combined savings of $3,760. That’s significantly more than we will spend on the rest of our entire 2+ week trip. All we paid was a $50 per person fee for the award booking (we would have paid more than that in taxes and fees on top of the price of buying a ticket, so that was a net gain, too) and achieved an almost unheard of true value of 2.7 cents-per-kilometer.

Want to know more about our trip? I’ll be doing a travel report similar to my Colombia Travel Report Series after the trip, and next I’ll be writing about how we got the rest of our South America flights to Buenos Aires, El Calafate, and Bariloche for just $90 in fees and achieved another unbelievable cents-per-mile value using Delta Skymiles.