Reader Help: Booking to Machu Picchu & the Galapagos Islands

Today’s post is written in response to a reader’s question.

Hi,
I am wondering if you can give me advice on how to use Delta miles to go to both Ecuador (Gallapagos) and Peru (Machu Pichu) in the same trip. I have about 160,000 Delta miles and my husband has about 90,000 Delta miles. We would like to go in either January or February of 2015. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

-Karen

Karen’s starting her trip in MSP, and wants help with this booking using her Delta Miles.  In addition to those miles Karen mentioned they have a good amount of American and United Miles as well. Today I’ll  step through how I research a trip like this, and go step by step into what I’ve found for Karen.

Note: I’m not being compensated for this advice (so you know how much it is worth, Ha!)

Looking at Routes, Bad news Develops

I’ve written before on Milenomics how I like to use airline route mapper for my trip planning.  Today’s booking is no exception. For this trip I’m starting in MSP, and working my way to GPS and CUZ.

Immediately upon looking at the possible routes I see a big problem:

The two blue boxes represent Karen's desired destinations. Neither is serviced by Delta or its partners.

The two blue boxes represent Karen’s desired destinations. Neither is serviced by Delta or its alliance partners.

Even without looking for awards we’ve already hit a snag.  Neither of the two destinations Karen has asked about are available to be booked purely with DL miles. The closest we can get to Cusco is Lima (LIM), and the closest to the Galapagos islands we can get is Quito, UIO.

An quick way to check if certain miles could be used for a destination is to try to buy a paid ticket on the carrier’s site. Trying to do so for an MSP-CUZ flight returns the following:

DL MSP-CUZ

This check isn’t always right, but it can be used in a pinch to see if your miles might work for your destination (award space permitting, of course).

What Now?

We know that MSP-LIM is a routing which can be booked with Skymiles.  Let’s explore other avenues to fill in the trip to Machu Picchu.  We have a few options:

  1. 1. Buy tickets to/from Cusco with cash
  2. 2. Use miles to “fill in” the rest of the trip.
  3. 3. Look for other alternatives (if possible).

Booking with Cash

If Karen and her husband only had Delta miles things would get pretty expensive. Searching for LIM-CUZ tickets with Cash reveals a harsh truth–Lima is close to Cusco, just 364 miles away, but separated by an extremly jagged mountain range.  Because Cusco is pretty much only accessible via airplane and is a popular tourist destination fares are expensive.

Doing a simple search for flights from LIM-CUZ and back reveals that each ticket is $350+ round trip:

LIM-CUZ-LIM

$732 for two people to fly 45 minutes isn’t a great use of cash.  But if we don’t have the right miles (Avios, or AA) then we’re stuck paying the $732. In fact this is why Milenomics asks you to plan a trip and earn towards that trip. Either select a destination, and earn the miles for it, or select a mileage program and then look at possible destinations.

Getting to MP will have further expenses (tickets, train rides, hotels, guides), so we should try to conserve Karen and her husband’s cash as best as possible.

Booking with other types of Miles:

Looking at Option #2, the absolute cheapest way to book LIM-CUZ is with British Airways Avios. A one way trip from LIM-CUZ would be 4,500 avios and $5. This represents a value of nearly 4 cents per avios!

If Karen and her Husband were only looking to go to Machu Picchu I might suggest booking MSP-LIM with Delta Miles, and then booking to/from Cusco with BA Avios.  However, here are some negatives to switching alliances with award tickets, which you should be award of:

The biggest of issues is that if there is a delay in the flight from MSP-LIM and Karen ends up missing her LAN flight LIM-CUZ the airlines may force her to pay for a new flight. There is no “protection” between skyteam and oneworld flights for mechanical or weather delays.  Switching alliances like this I’d recommend Karen book an overnight in LIM both directions to ensure she makes her LIM flights.

The second issue I have with switching alliances is that building in overnights kills so much of your time. Time is precious here at Milenomics, and should be valued accordingly.  Maybe Karen and her husband want to see Lima for a few days–in that case they could even book LIM-CUZ a few days after they arrive in LIM. Then on the return they’ll have to build in some time as well. Switching alliances mid trip is at worst risky, and at best a good way to waste time.

Even after all of this we still haven’t addressed the GPS trip. If we tried to force this trip to be booked with DL miles we’ll still need to use some other type of mile to reach our true destinations. Doing so means the following needs to be booked (all separate):

MSP-LIM with DL (17.5k miles)

LIM-CUZ with BA (4.5k)

CUZ-LIM-GYE-GPS with UA miles (10k)

GPS-GYE-LIM with UA Miles (10k miles)

LIM-MSP with DL (17.5k Miles)

As I mentioned earlier if Machu Pichu was Karen’s only destination then this trip wouldn’t be too bad, as the MSP-LIM section and then the LIM-CUZ could be booked for 17.5k DL and 4.5k BA each way.  Adding in GPS means Karent would need to spend miles to get back to LIM just to fly home. She’d be wasting at least 10,000 miles, and one thing Milenomics hates is wasted miles.

Looking for other Alternatives Seems Our Best Bet-

There’s just no good way to get to these two destinations with Delta miles. Some of this is because Delta doesn’t allow one way awards–but mostly it is because CUZ and GPS are not along the same flight path.

Usually when you hear about someone taking a trip and using a stopover, or free one way to visit two cities those cities are along the same flight path–LAX-NRT stop, then NRT-BKK for example:

The Z is formed by two cities served by two different hubs such as CUZ and GPS. BKK is served by NRT and creates a single flight path. Z patterns mean wasted time and miles, and often times can result in back tracking just to return home.

CUZ and GPS are serviced by two different hubs, LIM and GYE/UIO, which means you need to make a “Z” to get between them. Z shapes can mean long connections, and an awful lot of flying even to go a relatively short distance. Try to use open jaws to minimize the time spent flying these Z patterns.

Booking with Different Miles

Lets instead look at ways to use Karen’s AA and UA miles to make this trip happen.  Before we do that we’ll need to retrain our brain–this isn’t two trips –it is really three one way flights. Thinking of it as three one way flights allows us to pick and choose between oneworld and Star Alliance flights whenever it is to our advantage. 

As long as they choose to leave after Jan 16th the longest legs can be booked off peak, and with just 15k AA miles each way. In addition the middle leg, CUZ-GPS is a fantastic value at just 10k UA. For Today we’ll be doing something like this:

MSP-CUZ with AA miles (15k)

CUZ-GPS with UA miles (just 10k UA for a $600 flight)

GPS-MSP with AA miles (15k or 20k UA)

This is by far the simplest way to handle the trip. At 40,000 miles per person we’ll use 32% fewer miles, and save so many possible headaches. No misconnect issues, no hours spent on flights back to LIM just to return home, more time spent enjoying our travels.  

If you’re saving up Delta miles to go to Galapagos and Machu Picchu the value of your miles to do so is near $0.  That doesn’t mean Delta miles are worthless, just that in this specific situation they’re worth less than AA, UA (or even BA) miles. The alliance is the key here, and skyteam is the wrong one for CUZ and GPS.

Booking this trip

First a disclaimer: I have no idea if these flights will work for Karen or her Husband. These flights have long layovers and may not be good options. Also, January and February are the rainiest months for Machu Picchu and surrounding areas. The Inca Trail is closed February due to water levels rising, so they may wish to consider other months for the trips.

Step one is to book MSP-CUZ with AA miles. This booking cannot be done online, you can only book as far as Lima online. Keeping in mind we want to leave after 1/16 to fly off peak, there are seats on 1/18:

MSP-LIM 1-18

Phone AA reservations, and let them know you want to fly MSP-CUZ on 1/18 and 1/19.  Feed them the above flights, and ask the phone agent to connect those two flights with the following:

LIM-CUZ 1-19

Ask for the phone booking fee to be waived, since you could not book this online.  Your total should be 15k miles, plus about $50 in fees.

Next, you’ll go to United.com, and book CUZ-GPS, there are flights on either 1/23 or 1/25 depending on how many days you want to spend in Cusco, Urubamba, and Machu Picchu.  I’ll select the 1/25 flights:

CUZ-GPS 1-25

Note: this is an awful lot of flying for 10k UA miles. I’d categorize this trip as an official “Adventure.” This specific CUZ-GPS flight alone.

From there you’ll need to book GPS-MSP home. I started searching from GYE-MSP using AA miles and couldn’t find low level space from GYE any day in January. Even if there was a GPS-GYE flight AA looks to be a dead end getting us home.  As a backup I checked United.com and found flights home on 1/31:

Another pretty epic trek home.

Another pretty epic trek home. Feel free to build in 23 hour stopovers on either AA, UA or DL when flying international.  Sometimes a night in a hotel is better than 10 hours in an airport.

Final cost: 15k AA per person + 30k UA per person, and about $160 in fees.

Red (and LIM-CUZ) is flown with 15k AA miles, Green (And GYE-GPS) is flown with 10k UA miles, and Blue is flown with 20k UA miles.  We’re still suffering from the “Z” between CUZ and GPS, evident by long travel time between the two destinations.

Wrap Up

As we stepped through this booking we saw that using Delta miles for these two trips just won’t work well. Then again, the above trip might not work either.  It could be too many flight segments, or Karen and her husband might not want to travel this many days, or the long layovers might be more than they care to deal with.

What it does represent is a possibility. Breaking the trip into 3 one way flights allowed us to search two different alliances (oneworld and *A), and also allowed us to capitalize on the great value of a CUZ-GPS 10k one way flight with UA miles. Remember: when we’re stuck we can change classes (up or down), change alliances, or change dates.

If you have tips or ideas to better these routes share them in the comments section. And best of luck to Karen and her Husband in making this trip happen.