Last year, I wrote a couple of guides on the best ways for Canadians to redeem points for business class between North American and both Europe and Asia; the intention of these guides was to summarize my top-choice airlines for flying to those parts of the world in luxury with a reasonable number of points and minimal out-of-pocket expense, so that you can explore each possibility one-by-one if you were planning a trip.
In this post, I wanted to continue the series and look at the best ways to redeem points for business class between North America and South America.
Unlike Europe and Asia, South America’s air travel infrastructure still has room to grow, meaning that the selection of airlines and premium products is going to be quite limited, and you won’t really find an ultra-luxurious world-class airlines operating these routes.
However, since a majority of flights are scheduled overnight to optimize rest, it can definitely be worth paying the mileage premium for a lie-flat bed on your trans-Americas journeys, so without further ado, let’s take a look at the seven top-choice airlines for that purpose.
In This Post
- 1. Air Canada
- 2. American Airlines
- 3. Avianca
- 4. Copa Airlines
- 5. LATAM
- 6. TAP Air Portugal…?
- 7. United
1. Air Canada
Air Canada maintains a respectable route network throughout South America, offering daily non-stop flights on the Toronto–São Paulo route, as well as a six-times-weekly Toronto–Santiago–Buenos Aires tag-flight service and a thrice-weekly Montreal–São Paulo service.
(In addition, the low-cost subsidiary, Air Canada Rouge, also offers direct flights from Toronto to Bogotá, Quito, and Lima. But since we’re thinking about lie-flat seats here, we’re going to do ourselves a favour and give Rouge no more attention than what it deserves – the bare minimum.)
110,000 Aeroplan miles would be the most intuitive way to redeem for the Air Canada flights down to Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, although you’ll probably need to be prepared to pay some exorbitant fuel surcharges.
Brazil does impose some restrictions in this regard, which limit, but do not fully eliminate, the Air Canada surcharge.
With the alternative being a much longer journey via either Colombia or Panama, there’s definitely a case for paying the surcharge for the privilege of taking the direct overnight flight.
(Having said that, if you already find yourself in South America and would like to enjoy Air Canada’s Signature Class service on the short Santiago–Buenos Aires segment, then the fuel surcharges are going to be pretty minimal.)
Air Canada’s South American routes are generally pretty in-demand given that there are only a handful of them, so it may be a somewhat tricky proposition to find award availability. The standard best practices of searching far in advance and setting up ExpertFlyer alerts come highly recommended.
Click here to read my review of Air Canada business class on Boeing 787 on the Toronto–Buenos Aires route, which is sadly no longer being offered. I’m mostly quite happy to fly Air Canada business class these days, as I find their catering and service to be quite reliable, although the limited-size footwell on the Dreamliner is definitely a major weakness.
2. American Airlines
American Airlines has the largest presence in South America out of all the major North American Airlines, so they’re naturally going to be one of the most popular ways to fly down to the continent in business class.
From a Canadian perspective, redeeming miles for American Airlines flights can be a little tricky, though. That’s because I’ve found that the award space that gets displayed to American’s own AAdvantage program rarely gets displayed to other partners like British Airways Avios.
For example, here’s a flight from Toronto to São Paulo via Dallas that’s available at the “saver” level via AAdvantage (thus pricing at 57,500 miles one-way, as per the AAdvantage award chart), but doesn’t show up on the Avios website.
That leaves you with the option of redeeming AAdvantage miles directly, but those are tougher to come by in Canada, with your only options being transferring RBC Avion points at a 1:0.7 ratio, transferring Marriott Bonvoy points at an optimal ratio of 60,000 points = 25,000 miles, or getting the US-issued AAdvantage credit cards.
What’s more, even after you’ve earned American miles, it’s difficult to say that flying on American flights down to South America is the best value, since partner redemptions like Qatar Airways Qsuites and the Etihad Apartments would make for much nicer experiences.
If you do decide to book this way (keeping in mind that American business class doesn’t exactly get glowing reviews), the availability situation is not too bad, but also not too great – it seems like you’re much more likely to find space on flights out of Dallas than out of New York JFK or Miami. If there’s no saver space available, you’ll see a much higher mileage price for the “anytime” award, which probably should be avoided.
Avianca, Colombia’s national airline, is the first of two Aeroplan options that involve a layover somewhere in the middle of the Americas. But that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, since it can allow you to take advantage of Aeroplan’s stopover policy and stitch two trips into one – for example, Colombia and Brazil, or El Salvador and Chile, or Peru and Argentina – very easily.
Avianca flights come with no fuel surcharges, and they have quite a few hubs across the Latin American world, such as San Salvador, Bogotá, and Lima. You can also build a customized routing on Aeroplan to create long layovers in other cities that they serve, like Medellín, Cartagena, Quito, Guayaquil, Guatemala City, San Jose, and so on.
In terms of Canadian destinations, the only link is the daily Toronto–San Salvador service operated by Avianca El Salvador, so you can either use that flight to hop onwards into Colombia, or catch one of the mainline carrier’s flagship US routes (like New York JFK–Bogotá, Los Angeles–Bogotá, or Chicago–Bogotá) after an Air Canada or United flight across the border.
Business class availability is pretty generous throughout the schedule and route network, making Avianca a reliable fallback option in case you can’t find award seats on an Air Canada or United long-haul service. If possible, try to get on one of their Boeing 787 Dreamliners, which provide a lie-flat reverse herringbone seat and a much more comfortable experience than their other aircraft.
4. Copa Airlines
Would you prefer a stopover in Panama rather than Colombia? Then you’d redeem your Aeroplan miles on Copa Airlines, whose entire business model is basically built around acting as a link between Americas North and South.
The Panamanian flag carrier also comes with no fuel surcharges and generous business class availability, including on their routes from Panama City to Toronto and Montreal. Their coverage in terms of South American destinations is very comprehensive, serving the major hubs like São Paulo or Santiago with multiple flights per day, as well as second-tier South American airports like Porto Alegre, Mendoza, and Santa Cruz.
You won’t find any lie-flat beds on Copa’s current fleet, though, as their Boeing 737s are only equipped with standard recliner seats. The airline was supposed to introduce lie-flat beds on their new Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, but those plans have, well, ground to a halt for now.
Click here to read my review of Copa Airlines business class on the Boeing 737, which I had flown from Rio de Janeiro to Panama City. Unfortunately, the recliner experience isn’t much to write home about, especially on an overnight red-eye flight – if you’re going the Copa route, I’d definitely recommend sticking to daytime flights if possible, perhaps even breaking up the journey with a 24-hour layover in Panama City if necessary.
While LATAM operates a large number of routes between North America and South America, their recently established joint venture with Delta – whose loyalty program leaves much to be desired in terms of the value in making partner bookings – means that they barely deserve a spot on this list.
Currently, it’s still possible to find LATAM business class award availability on certain routes using both British Airways Avios and Alaska Mileage Plan (with the caveat that the latter program doesn’t show LATAM flights on its search engine, and you’ll need to call in to book).
However, as of May 1, 2020, LATAM will be leaving the Oneworld alliance, meaning that Avios bookings will no longer be possible (and leaving a gaping hole in terms of Oneworld’s coverage in South America, a region in which it was previously very strong).
While no news has been announced on LATAM’s partnership with Alaska Airlines, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it eventually get phased out as well, since Alaska and Delta have a bit of a heated rivalry going on. In the long run, I suspect that it’s very likely we’ll only be able to redeem Delta SkyMiles on LATAM flights, and the opaqueness of the SkyMiles program doesn’t make this a very attractive option.
For now, you can still redeem Avios and Alaska miles for LATAM business class on a few of their routes where they release some availability (which tends to be their shorter-range flights to Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, rather than the long-haul services deep into the continent), but don’t expect this ability to last for too long.
6. TAP Air Portugal…?
Another niche option for getting to South America would be to go the long way around via Lisbon on TAP Air Portugal. An Aeroplan redemption between the North American West Coast and Brazil, for example, would have a maximum permitted mileage (MPM) large enough to allow such a routing.
You could combine a trip to Portugal and Brazil into a single pan-Lusosphere trip, building in a stopover in Lisbon (or Porto, Faro, or even Ponta Delgada for that matter) with another visit to one of the Brazilian cities served by TAP.
The Portuguese national airline is generally pretty reliable in terms of releasing business class award seats, but you’d almost certainly need to call the contact centre to make this kind of trip a reality.
TAP Air Portugal has modernized its fleet very rapidly in recent years, introducing Airbus A330-900neos and Airbus A321-LRs, all with new lie-flat business class seats, to accompany its existing set of older-generation Airbus A330s. Best of all, Aeroplan redemptions come with no fuel surcharges.
Click here to read my review TAP Air Portugal business class on the Airbus A330. The staggered seat type is still in use on some of their routes to Brazil, although most of their North American routes (including Toronto and Montreal) are now receiving either the refreshed A330neo seats or the single-aisle A321-LRs.
It’s pretty rare that we call United “ideal” for any type of trip, but in this case, it can arguably be the ideal choice for Canadians looking to fly down to South America in business class on points.
United offers a comfortable enough product on their newer Polaris seats, no fuel surcharges on Aeroplan redemptions, and convenient direct flights from many US gateway airports to Santiago, Buenos Aires, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Lima, Quito, and Bogotá.
The tricky part is that United’s business class availability patterns can be tough to predict, as they aren’t very reliable about releasing a certain number of seats at the start of the schedule, instead seemingly releasing extra unsold seats on a whim as the departure date approaches.
Also, note that United’s new-generation Polaris business class seat hasn’t yet been fully rolled-out across its fleet, and unfortunately the South American destinations appear to be lower in priority in terms of receiving the newer seats. There’s still a chance that you’ll end up on United’s 2-4-2 business class, in which case, well, at least it’s still a lie-flat seat…
South America’s aviation scene is rather nascent compared to its peers in Europe and Asia, which means that there’s a rather limited pool of options for you to redeem points for flights down there in business class, and even among those options, none are too appealing in terms of the luxury factor.
Instead, trans-Americas flights are often more about the convenience of an overnight journey on a lie-flat bed than anything else, and in that regard, United and Air Canada flights via Aeroplan miles will probably be your top choice. American Airlines flights can also be worthwhile if you happen to have access to AAdvantage miles, while a longer journey on Avianca or Copa are always reliable as backup options.