South America Trip Report: "Logistics"

Yes, this guy actually laid down and rode the conveyor belt up into the plane. 
Taken at Jorge Newberry airport in Buenos Aires.

1 – Buenos Aires

This report is a bit behind the other ones, but I suppose that late is better than never. I normally wouldn’t do a post like this anyhow, but I thought that since I had gotten the plane tickets and one of the hotel rooms using frequent flyer miles, some of my readers might be able to benefit from a few tips on how to do the same. But then I also realized that it’d take more than one post to do that. So within the next few days I’ll put up a post dedicated only to frequent flyer miles and some tips about how to effectively accrue, monitor, and use them. This post will only focus on our South America trip.
FLIGHTS
Panama City, seen from the plane.
We had an interesting itinerary for our flights on this trip. Our main ticket was obviously the one from Costa Rica to South America and back again. We used United/Continental miles to get the free tickets on Copa Airlines, a member of the Star Alliance. We flew into Buenos Aires, traveled overland, then flew out of Santiago. Our itineraries were:
San José–Panama City–Buenos Aires
Santiago–Panama City–San José
Amazingly, this whole ticket cost us only about $35 each, to pay for the online booking fee and some sort of tax. Of course, we did have to use the frequent flyer miles, which were 40,000 per person. That still seems pretty good to me, though. I believe I priced a similar itinerary online around the same time, and it would have been well over $1,000 per person. 
Copa Airlines also turned out to be pretty decent. Then again, if you’re comparing any airline to one in the U.S., most any foreign carrier can make the American companies seem fairly crappy. The service has just steadily declined on American airlines since… well, since I can remember. But even on Copa, which appears to be based out of Panama and Colombia, had much better service in coach than I imagine some American carriers have in business class. We were even served a sandwich and drink on our Panama-Costa Rica flights, which is even more remarkable considering that the flight was only 50 minutes! And on the longer flights to and from South America, the very outgoing and professional crew served a few meals, all of which included free alcoholic drinks. You just don’t see that on United or American these days.
The only bad part was the Panama City layover. I’m sure the city itself is nice –you could see the canal and hundreds of shining towers on the coast– but the airport itself is pretty dumpy. It’s sort of like a huge outlet mall with airplanes. Seriously, there was much more commerce than travel going on, but I guess it must be cheaper to buy electronics and plastic crap in Panama than the rest of Latin America. I’m just not sure how you’d take a 42″ LCD TV on a plane as a carry-on. Anyhow, the airport part of the airport wasn’t that nice, either. The seats at the gate waiting areas were upholstered in stained green fabric, and even though there were open jet-ways, we had to board and deplane outside and get on buses to be transferred into the airport. All in all, kind of chintzy, but at least I was able to get a donut and some coffee on the way home to Costa Rica. 
Tocumen International Airport in Panama City.
If you think it looks more like a mall than an airport, you’re right.
Oh, and that’s another “tip,” I guess: Panama’s official currency is the U.S. Dollar, although they call it the “Balboa.” The bills are the same ones as used in the U.S. If you have American coins, they’re also legal currency, but the Panamanians also mint their own coins; they’re exactly the same size and color as quarters, nickels, dimes, and pennies, but with different, “Panamaniac” designs. And they apparently frequently use a different dollar coin (the lady at Dunkin Donuts had to wait to for some more customers to pay before she could give me change in bills). Basically: 
Panama City International Airport = Bizzaro Miami International Airport!
Buenos Aires (Jorge Newberry)–Ushuaia
Ushuaia–Buenos Aires (Jorge Newberry)
Jorge Newberry airport in Buenos Aires.
This was our flight to and from Ushuaia, obviously. We flew out of Jorge Newberry, the airport in Buenos Aires which is used mainly for domestic flights (the international airport is called Ezeiza). We flew on LAN, which was a new experience. We paid for these tickets, but accrued frequent flyer miles on American Airlines, since both AA and LAN are part of the oneworld alliance.
LAN was pretty nice. We had actually thought of taking buses for this part of the trip, but we’re definitely glad we didn’t. The flights were about 3.5 hours one-way, but I’d heard that the same trip on a bus can take over three days, if you ride almost non-stop. I paid my sitting-in-a-bus dues when I drove buses at CU, so for me it was definitely better to fly. The flights were nice and rather uneventful, although on the flight down Angela and I had the window and middle seats, respectively; when both of us got up to use the bathroom the weird old guy who had been in the aisle was now sitting in the window seat. He asked if we could “trade.” I think both of us were taken aback by his audacity and so we confusedly agreed. Only later did we realize that we should have just told him “No, sit in your own seat, you tool.” What a magnificent ol’ bastard, but oh well.
LODGING
I believe I mentioned in my Buenos Aires post that we found the apartment we stayed in through airbnb.com. If you’ve not tried it, you should at least check it out. Basically, you type in where you’re going and when, and then you see a list of people who are renting their places in the area. Some are entire homes, some are apartments, and some are even just single rooms in a house (don’t worry, though–it tells you which are which). The apartment we stayed at was in San Telmo, a historic part of Buenos Aires. It was big, quiet, and very comfortable, and it was definitely cheaper than most any other hotel option I can think of (except a youth hostel, but we’re getting too old for that). It’s just nice to have a “home” to come back to at the end of the day, where you can make your own food, relax, watch TV, shower, etc, just like at your own place. If you’re traveling soon, check it out. I’ve also heard good things about a similar service called homeaway.com, although I’ve never tried it. 
The view from the pool on the Sheraton’s roof.
During our later stay in Buenos Aires, we were at one of the two Sheratons downtown. This was also a pretty good deal. I had some points in Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG), the hotel alliance that Sheraton belongs to. I was able to combine some of those points with $40 per night with their Points and Money option; otherwise you’d have to use a lot more points (or pay a lot more money) for a room. I think this was also a pretty good deal. According to SPG.com, a room at the same time was going for $175, and the rates at the hotel’s sign board were over $300 per night (!), so either way, we got a pretty good rate for a really nice room.
Angela at the hotel hot tub and pool.
OTHER TRANSPORTATION
(You know, if this is getting boring, you can just stop reading; I’ll put up more about how to get the frequent flyer miles in a few days. Some of this stuff is actually more just for my own reference, so I don’t forget it in the future!)
Angela and I on the bus.
While in the city, we occasionally took taxis, but more than anything, we walked like crazy. We felt safe basically all the time, but later in the evening we did tend to get a “radio” taxi just to be sure. Such taxis are dispatched when you call them, and it’s a safer system than just hailing a cab on a random street corner.
We also used the bus a bit when we went from Buenos Aires to Neuquén. Buses in Argentina are something else, I tell you. Ours wasn’t even the nicest class, but it included seats that reclined nearly flat, movies, two full meals, a bathroom, and they even served champagne. Not too shabby, but I guess some of the fancier buses have lie-flat seats, personal DVD players, and other even fancier amenities. In any case, our trip was something like 13 hours, and it cost around $100 per person. Also not too bad, all things considered.
An even-fancier bus.
Well, that’s all for the moment, I guess. If you have any questions about any of this, whether out of curiosity or for your own trip, I’ll be happy to try to help in any way I can.
Thanks for reading, and check back soon for more Sitzblog fun!
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One thought on “South America Trip Report: "Logistics"

  1. You might think it is a mino detail, but having a pool or something to do while you are at the hotel is something important. I remember when I was in Argentina, I got an apartment rental in Buenos Aires that had a pool table in the livingroom. At first, I thought: “What am I going to use this for?” But then it turned out to be great to pass the time when I had to wait for the excursion guys to pick me out!
    Carla

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