Reader Help: Booking to Machu Picchu & the Galapagos Islands

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

I am wondering if you can give me advice on how to use Delta miles to go to both Ecuador (Galapagos) and Peru (Machu Pichu) on the same trip. We would really like to go on a 5 day Galapagos tour so would need to have roughly a week around the Galapagos islands. 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’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:


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:


$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, 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 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.

About the author

- Written by Sam Simon. All ideas are my own, but I encourage you to see my point of view and I promise I'll try to do the same. Connect with me on Twitter @Milenomics.


  1. THANK YOU!!! Your post is awesome! We will read it several times and definitely will take your advice when we book. We are aware that we aren’t going at the best time of year but that, unfortunately, is the only time we can get away – so we will bring our best rain jackets and be happy that there will be fewer tourists. Can’t wait to book it!

    Thank you so much!!


  2. Interestingly enough, I booked this trip a couple of months ago. Things for Karen to investigate a little more:

    You seem to be doing a land-based touring of the islands. Are you really sure you don’t want to take a cruise in the Galapagos? And, if you take a cruise, then the cruise provider will want to arrange the GYE-Galapagos flights for you so expect that.

    There are direct flights from GYE to CUZ via LIM on Lan Chile. I burned AA miles to do that, and it was cheap. Basically, I did open jaw into GYE and out of CUZ using Star Alliance (primarily Copa), with Lan (using AA) in between the two jawpoints.

    1. Blue: Great tips about the cruise. Also, thanks for bringing up using oneworld/AA for CUZ-LIM-GYE or CUZ-GPS (or the opposite if Karen visits GPS first). A more direct flight is always better in my book.

      How were the Galapagos? Always thought about going…how’d you care for it?

      I edited your comment as you requested.

  3. Thanks so much for the suggestions! We are planning to take a cruise in the Galapagos. What cruise company did you use and were you happy with it?

    1. Let you all know when we get back in April. 🙂

      Yes, if you are doing a cruise, the company will have one of the shuttle flights from either GYE or Quito already booked. There are two ariports in Galapagos, so it’s important you work with your vendor.

      Good luck with booking the cruise–it’s a nightmare with all of the middlemen and resellers. I hope ours turns out good. I’ll let you know.

  4. I went to the Galapagos about five years ago.Click my name above and it should go to our photo albums from the trip. An amazing experience, but pricey. If I had to give one piece of advice, don’t rush it. You need time to get around to the different islands. You’ll see far, far more on a boat than via land. Look into tours and boats first. Then try to match up the flights.

    As far as the flights to the islands, LAN Ecuador does fly there from UIO/GYE, so you can book with Avios for 7500mi + tax. You’ll probably need to call in, and use the LAN Ecuador code, XL, not LN.

    The 10K/20K to GPS with United miles is a killer deal.
    Flights to the Galapagos for foreigners, just from GYE/UIO, run anywhere from $325-500+. It’s way cheaper for locals.

  5. Your pictures are wonderful! We are very excited that we are finally planning this – my dream trip! Wondering what cruise company you used and if you would recommend them. We have been thinking some of waiting to book our cruise (boat) until the last minute. It looks like there are some great last minute specials if we wait until 3 weeks before arrive. Is this a good idea or do you have other suggestions?
    Thanks again!

    1. It’s not only about the cost. Here’s how I figure you should approach it:
      1) figure out the time of year you can go. (you did that and it’s off season, so that’s good)
      2) figure out what is on each island and which islands you want to see
      3) figure out how many days

      once you got 2 and 3, you can start to view itineraries and ships (they all make for different combinations!)
      4) if you have a lot of choices to pick from, narrow down by size of ship and quality
      5) now find a vendor. try to eliminate the middlemen if possible (there are american companies that sell space on ships and make it look like their own)

      We booked about 3 months in advance and got a price we liked. If we were leaving in January, when there are a lot of openings, you *could* in theory get a great last minute price. But, because you don’t have time to spare and need to book your award tickets soon, I think that this option won’t work for you. If you want the best price, you need a lot of flexibility, so that you can leave plus or minus 2 days. You also need to not care about what islands you see. (that’s a deal breaker for me).

      For this reason, I think you should just book what you want and not worry of you are getting rock bottom price or not. You will still find some deals out there, esp. because it’s in January.

  6. Thanks for all the great suggestions Bluecat! Would you mind telling us what cruise you booked? You are right when you said it is a nightmare with all of the middlemen and resellers. We are totally confused! Have a great trip!

  7. We actually did the Inca Trail to MP coupled with the Galapagos last May.

    For the Inca Trail I highly recommend Llama Path. Great guides and they treat their porters the best out of all the guide companies.

    For the Galapagos cruise we hacked it by staying in the islands for 2 weeks and negotiating a last-minute deal for a 7-day cruise. Flexibility is the key to a good deal, both in departure and class. You can get info elsewhere but there are 5 classes of cruise, we wanted and got First Class and paid half of the list price, saving $3500+!

    The additional time in the islands was well worth it as there are land-based sights and experiences that aren’t available on a sea-based cruise. There is another island, San Cristobal, with flights from the mainland as well.

    At the time we booked, OneWorld was the only alliance to the Galapagos. Milenomics, when did StarAlliance/United gain a partnership there? Does Aerogal also fly into SCY? Most cruises leave from Santa Cruz Island (GPS), but there are a few that leave (or can pick up) from SCY, and SCY to town is much, much easier than GPS to town.

    1. Paul: I used Llamapath as well and also highly recommend them. Llamapath was great, took care of all the details and let us hike at our own pace. Unfortunately I don’t think Karen will be able to do a trail hike (Jan/Feb rains).

      I still regret that we didn’t Hike Wayna Picchu–we reserved tickets for the hike up to it, but were so wrecked from the trail that we thought it would be best to not attempt it. Better safe than sorry, sure, but the one that got away. 😉

    2. So glad to hear that Llama Path was excellent. After all the great information we’ve received here and our own research, we have decided to push our trip into March and hoping to hike part of the Inca trail. Great suggestions for setting up a cruise too. We have been talking about doing some of the land based tours and could do those around a last minute cruise – at least I’m willing to wait awhile and see what kind of specials come up – maybe not until we get there though! One of us is more adventurous than the other… and it’s not me. Thanks so much!!

      1. Mile: Wayna Picchu was nice, we did it the day after arriving via the Sun Gate. Mad Props to the couple in our group that did it the same day! Great views of MP, spectacular position. I highly recommend taking the “back” trail down to the Moon temple area, but please realize that from the temple it’s a good hard hike back up to the Wayna Picchu trailhead–bring food for the circuit trail!

        Still wonder if I missed a United partner opportunity for the seg to GPS….at that point I was a noob :-).

        Karen: Last minute deals are available either in Quito or Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. If you book in Santa Cruz you’ll probably have to do the bus/taxi-ferry-bus schlep back to the Baltra airport (GPS) to meet your cruise. Quito agencies want to include R/T air, for add’l markup but I think you can get without if you’ve already used miles for that.

  8. Great post! Planning a trip to GPS myself in the next few months and found this very helpful. Can you please elaborate a bit on how you booked flights to/from GPS using miles? I can’t even find paid flights to the locations on United’s website.


    1. Philip: Award seats fill up pretty quickly–try searching into 2015 and see if you can find seats. Once you do you’ll know you have the right search criteria and you can walk back your dates a bit and see if there are seats on your preferred dates. Good luck! Sounds like it will be a great trip.

      Also–try using for paid flight searches. You cannot buy tickets there, but it is very powerful for finding low fares.

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