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Air Travel in South America

Tips for Independent Travelers

Flying over the Brazilian Amazon.
A view from a plane in Brazil flying over the Amazon.

On a continent as vast as South America, air travel is necessary 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 great rainforest, and mountain ranges shots. Small planes on short flights have a lower flight elevation than large jets, and you can 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 considering buying a plane ticket in South America, it is vital to consider the cost-benefit factor. 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 an uneventful bus or boat ride and fly to your destination. Most countries in South America have their international airline(s) with domestic and international flights to Europe and North America, allowing you to connect to domestic destinations easily.

The Cost of Flying Into South America Versus Flying Within South American Countries

The cost of flying into South America from abroad has a long and very complex history, and the factors that go into the price often seem illogical to outsiders due to internal airline inefficiencies. Flying into South America was more expensive when the dollar slipped against some South American currencies during recent years. When the Brazilian real was 3:1 to the U.S. dollar a few years ago, long-haul flights inside Brazil were affordable. Today with the exchange rate of the real closer to 5:1, you would think that flights would be less expensive for Americans flying into the country from North America. But inefficiencies in scheduling time (flights are usually overnight and idle at airports for long periods) often push the prices back up when flying into Brazil and other locations in South America, regardless of favorable exchange rates. On the flip side, 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, resulting in lower costs. But for incoming international flights, for example, due to the scarcity of flights to Buenos Aires, its long history of inflation problems, and its inefficiencies in scheduling, flying into the country can be costly. In other words, inefficiencies are a fundamental determinant in costs, so it is best to shop around for airlines that have figured their scheduling out for international flights from North America and realize there are huge disparities flying into countries from North America instead of within even the larger South American countries themselves — more about cheap flights within the larger countries below.

Remember 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). Such is the case with Patagonia, which Chile and Argentina share, 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), to mention the most popular.

Transportation Safety Considerations

Traveling up or down the Andes in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia by bus can be dangerous, and flying is definitely safer. These roads, most 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 reasonable alternative to the long and precarious bus rides up or down the Andes. Most rainforest tours and excursions start from cities or towns with developed airports and paved runways 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 of 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, primarily 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 standard, and don’t be surprised to climb onto a Russian cargo plane through the ramp in the back, put 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 soundproofing. These flights are cheap, but not very comfortable. Fortunately, they are usually relatively short. However, except for 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 aboard the plane and will most likely have an assigned seat.

An airplane landing in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
A plane ready to land in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

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 fill up on a first-come, first-served basis. To book a flight locally, contact a travel agency or airline office. You may have to ask around to find a booking agency in remote locations or small towns. It could be a restaurant or government office that doubles as a ticketing agency. Don't expect exact timetables if you travel with the Air Force in Peru or Bolivia. 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 arrive on a given day, not the exact time. Be prepared to pay for your ticket in cash.

Flight Availability

Air travel is expensive for most South Americans, and fewer people fly than in North America and Europe. As a result, 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. Remember that the summer in the Southern Hemisphere (December through March) is the primary travel season and that flights may be booked months ahead. 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 considerable part of a glacier had broken off a week earlier, and Argentineans were flocking to the area to see what was happening. 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. Still, 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 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 relatively easy in South America to book a flight on short notice without paying a higher fare. I booked a same-day or next-day flight for a relatively low price on several occasions. I have also found that flight dates often change without penalty. Buying a one-way ticket is also quite common, usually costing just half of a round-trip fare, which gives you more flexibility during your travels. Due to the smaller aircraft size, 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.).

Top South American Airlines

LATAM Airlines is a growing South American-based airline — originally Chilean but now has a parent company with Brazilian, Colombian, Peruvian, Argentinean, and Ecuadorian affiliations — offering many cheap domestic and international flights.

GOL is an airline based in Brazil.

Argentinean Airlines is Argentina’s national airline, providing domestic and international flights.

Avianca Airlines is based in Colombia but handles flights throughout South America and worldwide.

Related Topics
Independent Travel
Living in South America: Resources and Articles
Related Articles by Volker Poelzl
Boat Travel in South America
Overland Travel in South America
Safety Tips for Travel in South America
Health Tips for Travel in South America

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