In May I flew from Atlanta to Buenos Aires in Delta One, and only had to spend 45,000 Ultimate Rewards–transferred to Virgin Atlantic Flying Club– to do so. After a few weeks visiting my parents’ home outside of Charleston, SC, it was time to fly back to my home in the Southern hemisphere.
Here’s the series index for all posts related to this trip:
- Atlanta Delta SkyClub, Concourse F review (where I spent some time before the flight)
- Anatomy of an Award: 45k Virgin Atlantic miles for Delta One to Argentina (this post)
- Trip Report: Delta One, Atlanta to Buenos Aires (the in-cabin experience) coming soon
Today I’ll explain how and why I chose to use Virgin Atlantic miles, not Delta’s own SkyMiles, to book Delta’s premium cabin between the US and the bottom of South America.
Looking at Options
My most significant balances right now reside in my Alaska, United, and Chase Ultimate Reward accounts. That gives me access to all three alliance’s award space to Argentina….
- Alaska miles can be redeemed on the following partners that fly to Buenos Aires (which also both happen to be in the oneworld alliance, but Alaska isn’t a member of an alliance):
- American Airlines
- United can be redeemed on the following Star Alliance partners that fly to Buenos Aires:
- Ultimate Rewards can be transferred to:
- Aer Lingus, which can be redeemed on oneworld partners
- British Airways, which can be redeemed on oneworld parnters
- Iberia, which can be redeemed on oneworld parnters
- Singapore Airlines, which can be redeemed on Star Alliance partners
- United Airlines, which can be redeemed on Star Alliance partners
- Virgin Atlantic, which can be redeemed on partner Delta which flies to Buenos Aires (Virgin Atlantic is not part of an alliance)
- Flying Blue, which can be redeemed on SkyTeam Alliance partners (of which Delta flies to Buenos Aires)
JetBlue and Southwest are also Ultimate Rewards transfer partners, but it’s not possible to use solely those points to get to Buenos Aires. PRO TIP: To see who flies to your desired destination, google “destination airport code + wiki” and go that airport’s Wikipedia page. Here is the Wiki page for Buenos Aires’ Ministro Pistarini International Airport for example.
My heart was set on a flat bed for this trip, so all the analysis below is considering mileage prices and award space flying Business Class.
Alaska Mileage Plan
I have a bunch of Alaska Airlines miles stored up from back in the day when it was easier to churn Bank of America’s Alaska card. Now, by the way, you are restricted to opening one every 24 months, and the old one must be closed. It costs 57,500 Alaska miles to fly American Airlines to Buenos Aires, or 45,000 Alaska miles to fly LATAM. An important note about redeeming Alaska miles on LATAM flights: the flight must actually be operated by have LAN and have LA flight numbers, not a JJ flight number which means it’s operated by TAM. While LAN and TAM are marketed together as LATAM, they function as separate companies still and Alaska technically partners with LAN and not TAM, which (I’m guessing) is why their award chart reads LAN.
While you can see American’s award space on alaskaair.com, you will not find LATAM award space there. You need to search British Airways site for that.
There was nothing available on alaskair.com flying American Business Class… just a bunch of crappy mix-cabin awards pricing at the Business Class award level, flying domestic First for a leg or two, then economy for the long international flight. Mmmm, nope.
HEY ALASKA! I find it incredibly annoying that your website will not allow me to filter out these kind of mix-cabin results.
All of the mixed-cabin options I’ve ever seen on Alaska’s website are priced at the premium cabin level with only a short leg in Business or First and the rest in economy. That is obviously not what anyone wants, which forces us to search day-by-day for an acceptable option. If the short connection was in economy and the longer main award was in a premium cabin, fine, show me those. That is acceptable to most. But seriously, cut out the other crap. Or at least give me a convenient way to cut them out.
As far as using Alaska miles to fly LATAM, you cannot combine two partners on the same award unless one of them is Alaska. The only way to get between Buenos Aires and the US in one LATAM segment is to fly into Miami, and while there are American flights to Miami from Charleston, there are no Alaska flights. So I’d need to book a separate award CHS > MIA. That actually might have been worth it since the mileage price from Miami to Buenos Aires is cheap at 45k miles, but alas, ba.com did not show any Business award space around my desired travel date. I could’ve theoretically looked for award space between Buenos Aires to another LATAM South American destination, then that destination (like Santiago or Lima) to another US destination, but there’s not any other South American LATAM destination that flies into a little airport like Charleston, SC. So that would’ve meant four segments. Nah.
**Tip for searching ba.com: While it didn’t apply in my case as I was looking for a direct flight, remember that when searching for award space on ba.com for a flight with one or more connections, you will need to search segment-by-segment.**
Moving on from Alaska…
It costs 60,000 United miles to fly a Star Alliance carrier from the US to Southern South America, which most region-based mileage programs designate as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. At least, 60k is the Saver level (read: minimum) award price until mid November when United transitions to a dynamic award pricing system, where awards will be priced based not only on what regions you’re flying between but also the cash price.
I checked united.com for Star Alliance award space, not forgetting to log in to my Mileageplus account as I have a Chase United Explorer Business Card which gives me access to more award space than non-cardholders. You get the same extra award space perk by carrying the consumer version, the Chase United Explorer Card.
There were various options that worked around my desired travel date, the more preferable schedules flying United Polaris with just one connection in either Houston or Newark. Flying Avianca or Copa usually means two+ connections, one in the US at a United hub and another in Panama and/or Colombia.
So I’m left with an ok redemption, nothing to write home about it but would do in a pinch: 60k United miles to fly United Business to Buenos Aires.
I’d already checked for one world alliance award space when working through Alaska Air mile options, so I knew I could write off all the Avios programs. I double checked aa.com just in case (as I hadn’t when looking at award space to book with Alaska miles, and sometimes the award space that shows up on AA’s award search tool is different than that of Alaska’s), but there was nothing available at the SAAver Level. I already knew there was nothing available out of Miami on LATAM.
Star Alliance options
I also already knew there was viable Star Alliance Saver Level space from my United search. Ultimate Rewards transfer to both Singapore and United. I would never choose to redeem my Ultimate Rewards via United instead of redeeming outright United miles, unless perhaps I was on the verge of canceling the card I earned them with and had no other Ultimate Rewards account to move them to. But as that was not the case, I wrote off United MileagePlus as a transfer option.
Prior to April 16, 2019, it cost 50,000 Singapore miles to fly United Business one way between South America and the United States. Now it costs 57,500 Singapore miles. I could have potentially utilized this option on the United Business Saver space I found, but I’d rather spend 60,000 United miles than 57,500 Ultimate Rewards as I value Ultimate Rewards significantly more than United miles. As I was I was looking at booking within a week of departure, the pro of using Singapore miles to book that award would’ve been no $75 close-in booking fee, which United does collect. But it’s still possible to work around that fee, as you can tell in the comments of this post. Perhaps if I had a hard time getting around it, I could cancel for free within 24 hours and then re-book with Singapore to save $75.
Sky Team options
That left Virgin Atlantic Flying Club and Flying Blue awards to investigate, as I had not yet checked Delta’s award space.
Business Class prices to fly Delta through the Flying Blue program start at 72,000 miles one way, so I disregarded that option as using 60k United or 57.5k Singapore miles on available United Business Class is obviously much better option.
But what about Virgin Atlantic? The Flying Club, while not a member of any alliance, has many partners you can redeem their miles on. There are different award charts to fly each partner, all of which you can view here.
Finding a Winner
I have grown quite fond of the Flying Club program lately, as I’ve realized these award charts are full of sweet spots that cost much fewer miles than the status quo (like 90k miles roundtrip in ANA First Class to Japan). I’m going to be writing a roundup on a bunch of Flying Club sweetspots soon, so keep an eye out!
Up until recently, I assumed (due to either old or incorrect information) that the only way to book Delta awards between the US and South America with Flying Club miles was roundtrip. You know what they say about assumptions.
Searching for Award Space & Booking
I first looked on virginatlantic.com using their award search tool, but soon realized I would not be able to find the award space I was looking for because it did not allow me to choose Buenos Aires (EZE) as a destination in the search tool despite doing an Advanced Search and choosing Miles instead of Money.
A little googling will tell you that if your desired city pair isn’t loaded in Virgin Atlantic’s award search tool, you have to call them to find award space and book. There were no funky technology/internet tricks to make Ezeiza International Airport in Argentina show up. And looking on delta.com for award space is futile as Delta’s award pricing system is dynamic, not based on an award chart, so you can’t tell what’s Saver level space (in other words what’s accessible to book via partner miles).
I called the Flying Club at 1-800-365-9500 and asked for availability on a handful of dates surrounding my desired departure and found Delta Business Class space–Delta One–direct from Atlanta to Buenos Aires. And it was only 45,000 one way + $5.60 in taxes! Roundtrip booking not required. I was satisfied that I had finally found my top option to use the least amount of points flying Business Class. 45k versus 57.5k is a large savings of Ultimate Rewards, and for a comparable product: Delta Business vs United Business.
You can put Flying Club awards on hold for 72 hours, which I did before transferring my Ultimate Rewards to my Virgin Atlantic account. Here’s how to transfer Ultimate Rewards step-by-step.
Direct Flights Only Redeeming Flying Club Miles on Delta
I should back up though and explain what happened with my first few inquiries to the Flying Club agent. I asked for award space between Charleston, SC (CHS) and Buenos Aires, thinking I could add a segment in at least Delta economy to the award without changing the price. Delta flies direct between Charleston and Atlanta. I asked for five different days’ availability, and the agent rejected me flat out each time. Then I asked to check just Atlanta to Buenos Aires, and everything started coming up roses. There was space almost every day within a week of departure. (Side note: I read somewhere recently, can’t remember which blog or I’d link to it, about how premium cabin award space on Delta is often times readily available to with Virgin Atlantic miles because Delta members can’t book thanks to Delta’s own prices being prohibitively expensive. That makes a lot of sense to me).
It wasn’t until later when I looked back at Virgin Atlantic’s instructions for redeeming their miles on Delta flights that I noticed the line highlighted below. Guess what! It pays to read the directions.
So even if there had been economy award space on Delta bookable with Flying Club miles, I wouldn’t have been able to add it to the award without changing the price. It would’ve cost another 12,500 Flying Club miles to book it, as Virgin Atlantic awards flying Delta price per segment.
Best way to get to Atlanta from Charleston?
There was no viable award space period to fly the domestic segment I needed to get to Atlanta. The cash flights were pricey as it was a week out from travel. I didn’t consider hidden city ticketing an option either, as I had been at home a month so had a check bag.
I ended up using AutoSlash, my favorite free and easy way to save money on car rentals. I originally booked a refundable car rental for a little over $100, with pick up in Charleston and drop off at the Atlanta airport for the same day. All you have to do is give AutoSlash your refundable reservation confirmation number, they will track it for any price drops/applicable discounts, and then they email you a link to book the lower price if one comes along. They saved me about $20 this time. Car rental prices fluctuate like crazy, and often the lowest prices available are refundable, so there’s no reason not to use a service like AutoSlash in my opinion. I put the rental on my downgraded Barclaycard Arrival which used to be an Arrival Plus, as I had some leftover Arrival miles that would get me a further $25 discount. The drive from Seabrook Island, SC to Atlanta would take roughly six hours with stops, so it seemed like a fine option to me. I miss highway road trips anyway as that’s not something we do often in isolated Buenos Aires.
After considering different prices and award space available with every kind of mileage option I had available, I landed on booking Delta One between Atlanta and Buenos Aires with Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles transferred from Ultimate Rewards. It costs 45,000 miles one way with no fuel surcharges, just $5.60 in taxes. I booked a one-way car rental and took a 6 six hour drive to fill the gap between Charleston and Atlanta, for $80 ($85 for the car rental + $20 for gas – $25 from my Arrival miles). That brings my total cost, including points, award taxes, and car rental, to 45,000 Ultimate Rewards and $85.60. Not too shabby.
I was sad to see Singapore Krisflyer’s award price flying Star Alliance carriers to South America jump from 50k to 57.5k in April, and still am when you consider that the Virgin Atlantic Flying Club price only applies to direct flights. But if you live near Atlanta or New York (a city that has direct Delta flights to southern South America), 45k one way + taxes has got to be best mileage price in Business Class to the bottom of the continent, at least with easily accessible miles. Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles are a 1:1 transfer partner of all the major transferrable points: Membership Rewards, Ultimate Rewards, ThankYou Points, and Marriott Rewards.
Next up will be a review of the in-cabin experience in Trip Report: Delta One, Atlanta to Buenos Aires.