How to find cheap flights in and around South America

In Travel Guides
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With flight prices to South America at an all time low, there’s never been a better time to go

Thanks to the introduction of new routes by Air New Zealand direct to South America, return flights for us Aussies are at an all time low. The increase in competition between LAN, Qantas and Air New Zealand has come as a win for consumers and is facilitating travellers’ dreams of making the trip across the Pacific to our southern hemisphere neighbours.

To give you an idea of the affordability of reaching SA, I recently purchased a return ticket with Qantas direct to Santiago for just $1650 AUD, departing in January of 2016. I couldn’t believe it. When my sister flew to SA in 2009 her return flight set her back $3000 AUD.

You’ve bought your ticket, now what?

After doing some research into the countries and cities I wanted to visit, it became apparent just how much I had underestimated the size of this great continent. It is big. Really big.

My initial hopes to explore both the southern tip of Patagonia in Argentina as well as the sandy shores of Cartagena in Colombia were scaled back to create a more realistic itinerary. However, I didn’t cut back my trip entirely thanks to some clever purchasing of internal flights. This meant that I avoided several 24hr bus trips (and whole days wasted) and instead opted for a few 2-4hr flights.

If you’re like me, you spend your time procrastinating at work or at university by researching travel. I love it. I take great pride in reading up on the best off-the-beaten-track things to do in a new city and compile documents with tips from locals, street art to browse, shops I want to explore and dishes I NEED to eat. Yes, you may call me anal-retentive. But I can tell you that once I hit the ground in a new country, I am completely stress-free in the knowledge that I don’t have to waste a second wondering where I’ll go or thinking about what I should be seeing (and worrying about what I’m missing out on).

Planes or buses: plan in advance and air travel will become more affordable (and save you a heap of time)

This brings me to the topic of getting organised ahead of time and buying internal flights in South America. Not only will you save some serious $$$, you’ll also save a whole heap of time and avoid uncomfortable backaches. I’ve had numerous friends and family travel to South America and experience a range of outcomes when it comes to bus travel. I have no doubt that there are some seriously comfortable and luxe bus companies to get you from A-B, but at the end of the day you’re still on a bus for 24-72hrs.

The main attraction for bus travel is price. Buying a bus ticket last minute is a lot cheaper than buying a flight. But what if you were able to get an airfare that was only slightly more expensive and saved you a whole heap of time?

Having selected to visit Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia in 3 months, I began my scout for cheap flights and discovered a few hints and tricks that will hopefully help a fellow traveller out.

Top 4 hints and tricks to help you save money on plane tickets in South America

  1. It goes without saying, but booking in advance seriously pays off. Yes, it means you have to be slightly more organised and know where you want to be when. But if you’re making the effort to read this, you’re probably the kind of person that looks forward to organising a trip, so getting sorted early with your itinerary shouldn’t be too much of a hassle. I recommend booking flights as early as 6 months out to nab the cheapest prices. But in reality, anything up to 2 months in advance puts you in good stead. Also, make sure luggage is included! There is nothing worse then buying a cheap, non-refundable ticket and realising it doesn’t include bringing along your precious cargo.
  1. Book domestic flights where possible rather than international flights in SA, even if they get you a short bus ride away from your destination. Airlines in South America are most cost effective when you fly within the geographical confines of one country. I discovered this when looking to purchase a flight from Rio De Janeiro in Brazil to Bogota in Colombia. This is not something you want to do by bus, unless you work it into your trip and do quite a few stops along the way. A bus trip would see you spending a solid 5 days (minimum) on the road, whereas a flight can be done in a day. Having looked at flights that included several stop overs and cost over $750 AUD, I trawled through the net to find first hand travel advice in search of a cheaper, more comfortable way to do it. Lucky for me I found an option that seemed pretty painless and set me back a total of $350 AUD for the trip. How did I do it? Well, keeping in line with searching for domestic flights where possible, I booked with Azul (a Brazilian budget airline) for a flight between Rio and Tabatinga, a town on the Amazon River in very close proximity to the Colombian border. I then booked a flight from Leticia, a Colombian town 7km away from Tabatinga, to Bogota. It is worth noting that this second leg of the journey was purchased as a return ticket, as I could use this to get back to Peru. Thanks to the this return ticket back to Leticia, I only needed to sort out a fast ferry (12hrs) to Iquitos in Peru and a domestic flight from Iquitos to get me to Lima. I highly recommend this for travellers who do not wish to bus from Cartagena or Bogota to Peru, which takes a minimum of 72hrs.
  1. Even though it sounds non-logical, always search for return domestic and international flights within South America, even if you are only making a single journey. Why? Because more often then not a return ticket is cheaper than a one-way ticket. It seems bizarre and I don’t fully understand it, but I recently encountered this when looking for a flight to take me from Calama, just near San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile, to Santiago. I found it crazy that the search results yielded prices of around $450-700 AUD for a 2hr domestic journey. So, out of sheer curiosity, I searched for a return trip in the full knowledge that I would not use, or even be in the country for, the return flight. The search revealed return prices around the $260 AUD mark. Winning!
  1. My final tip is to always check with the airline’s own website before booking through a third party. I often begin by searching for a flight on Skyscanner, Kayak and Expedia, and whilst I have found that buying through third party websites like BravoFly can yield cheaper results, I always double check and compare with the airline’s own website. This is to ensure that I am receiving the best price and not absorbing the third party’s commission.

Airline options in South America

To end, here is a list of some airline carriers (by country) worth checking out for your domestic and international flights in South America:

Colombia: Copa Airlines, VivaColombia, Avianca, Satena and LAN

Peru: Avianca Peru, LAN Peru, Peruvian Airlines and STAR Peru

Chile: LAN, Sky

Brazil: Avianca, Azul, GOL, TAM

Argentina: Aerolineas Argentinas, Austral, LAN, Andes Lineas Aereas

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