Guide to Work, Study, Travel and Living Abroad  FacebookTwitterGoogle+  
As seen in the Transitions Abroad Webzine September 2008 Issue
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Air Travel in South America

Tips for Independent Travelers

Flying over the Amazon
The Amazon rain forest seen from above.
© Volker Poelzl. All Rights Reserved.

On a continent as vast as South America, air travel is a necessity in order to get around in a timely fashion. The Amazon basin with its myriad rivers and flood plains and the Andes are formidable obstacles to ground travel, and flying is safer, faster and more reliable than travel by bus or boat. Flying in South America is also a great way to get an idea of the geography of a country and its vastness. Try to get a window seat and bring your camera for some great shots of the rain forest and mountain ranges. Small planes on short flights have a lower flight elevation than large jets, and you will be able to enjoy the changing scenery during your flight. It is an unforgettable experience to fly over the Amazon rain forest or the Argentinean Pampas and then watch the landscape rise to form the magnificent Andes, with their snow-capped volcanoes and extensive high plains.

The Cost Factor

When thinking about buying a plane ticket in South America, it is important to keep the cost-benefit factor in mind. If you have plenty of time but are on a budget, you might opt for a boat trip on the Amazon, instead of flying. A boat trip will cost you half as much, but will take several days. If you have little time, it is best to skip long on uneventful bus or boat rides and fly to your destination. Most countries in South America have their own international airline(s) with both domestic flights and international flights to Europe and North America, allowing you to easily connect to domestic destinations.

As the dollar has slipped in recent years, it is no longer as cheap to fly in South America. When the Brazilian real was 3:1 to the U.S. dollar a few years ago, long-haul flights across Brazil were very affordable. Today with the exchange rate closer to 2:1, flights are now 30% more expensive. Fortunately, South America’s largest country Brazil has deregulated its airline industry over the past decade, and several low-cost carriers now connect many cities across Brazil and South America. Most other South American countries still have a favorable exchange rate, making it fairly affordable to fly.

Keep in mind that international flights in South America are more expensive than domestic flights covering the same distance. If you visit natural or cultural attractions that border several countries, it is best to fly to one country and then continue across the border by bus (or boat). This is the case with Patagonia, which is shared by Chile and Argentina, the Iguaçu waterfalls (Argentina, Brazil), the Jesuit missions (Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil), the Pantanal wetlands (Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay), the upper Amazon river (Peru, Colombia, Brazil), and the Andean high-altitude steppes (Argentina, Bolivia, Chile), just to mention the most popular.

Safety Considerations

Traveling up or down the Andes in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia by bus can be very dangerous, and flying is definitely safer. These roads, most of them badly maintained dirt roads, lead from the Amazon basin (average elevation 400 feet) up to an elevation of 10,000 to 15,000 feet and are mostly frequented by cargo trucks. Avoid bus travel in the Amazon basin during the rainy season (October through April south of the equator), when dirt roads turn into mud. Flying is your best option during this time.

If you plan to visit nature parks and reserves in the Amazon, be wise and book a flight. Flights are cheap enough to make them a very reasonable alternative to the long and precarious bus rides up or down the Andes. Most rain forest tours and excursions start from cities or towns that have developed airports and paved runways and are connected by conventional commercial flights. On the other hand, if you are adventurous, be aware that many flights to remote areas will land at very primitive airports, often consisting in small clearings in the jungle with a dirt runway.

In some South American countries government airlines or the Air Force provide cheap flights to remote locations, mostly transporting locals and their cargo, but they are also open to foreigners. Such flights serve the simple purpose of providing transportation for the locals, and do not follow international guidelines for passenger travel. Standing room is common, and don’t be surprised to climb onto a Russian cargo plane through the ramp in the back, putting your bags in the center of the fuselage and then sit on a wooden bench alongside the cabin. You might be traveling with chickens, pigs and bunches of bananas. Forget about air conditioning and sound proofing. These flights are cheap, but not very comfortable. Fortunately they are usually fairly short. However, with the exception of Air Force flights, all other passenger air travel in South America is carried out by regular commercial airlines that are up to international standards. Flights are more or less on time, and the airplanes are staffed with flight attendants. You won’t have to carry your baggage on the plane yourself, and you will most likely have an assigned seat.

Airport in Peru
A remote"'airport" in Peru.© Volker Poelzl. All Rights Reserved.

Booking a flight

Most airlines in South America have websites with English versions where you can book flights ahead of time. Air Force flights do not offer advanced bookings, and flights are filled on a first-come first-served basis. To book a flight locally, contact a travel agency or airline office. In remote locations or small towns, you may have to ask around to find a booking agency. It could be a restaurant or government office that doubles as a ticketing agency. If you travel with the Air Force in Peru or Bolivia, don’t expect exact timetables. The planes fly their daily routes with little regard for schedules. Get to the airport early and bring something to read while you wait. For the locals it is more important to know that the plane will come on a given day, not the exact time it will arrive. Be prepared to pay for you ticket in cash.

Flight Availability

Air travel is expensive for most South Americans, and fewer people fly than in North America and Europe. This means that there are fewer flights than you might be used to, often only one per day. You should also expect numerous stopovers before reaching your final destination. Keep in mind that the summer in the Southern hemisphere (December through March) is the main travel season and that flights may be completely booked months ahead of time. Last year in Argentina I wanted to fly south to visit one of the glacier national parks, but I could not get a seat for another few months. A huge part of a glacier had broken off a week earlier, and Argentineans were flocking to the area to see what was going on. It would have taken three days by bus, and I changed my travel plans. In Bolivia, on another occasion, I tried to book a flight from the Amazon basin to La Paz, but I was unaware that it was the weekend of Bolivia’s independence day celebration, and all flights to La Paz were booked. My only option was to take the bus, or fly four days later. I decided to take the bus, which I regretted it later, because the bus had many breakdowns and the journey took four days instead of two.

Although holidays, festivals, and unexpected natural events can suddenly impact seat availability on flights, it is generally quite easy in South America to book a flight on short notice without paying a higher fare. On several occasions I booked a same-day or next-day flight for a very low price. I have also found that flight dates can often be changed without penalty. It is also quite common to buy a one-way ticket, costing usually just half of a round-trip fare, which gives you more flexibility during your travels. Due to the smaller size of aircraft most flights have strict baggage rules. The allowed weight of your baggage varies from airline to airline, but you should expect to pay a surcharge for checked baggage over 15 kilos (33 lbs.).

For More Info

South American Airlines:

Argentinean Airlines, www.aerolineas.com.ar, is Argentina’s national airline with domestic and international flights.

LADE (Líneas Aéreas del Estado), www.lade.com.ar, is Argentina’s government airline (website in Spanish only) offering low-cost domestic flights.

LAN Chile, www.lan.com, is Chile’s national airline with domestic and international flights (with English version).