How to go to South America from Singapore

Many people have asked me how did I arrange for the air tickets of my solo trip this year? Did I buy tickets while I was travelling or did I buy them before hand? Hence this post.

Just to be clear, this is not an FAQ of how to buy air tickets which itself depends on a lot of factors: the place where you start your journey, your destination, the advantages/ease of using frequent flier miles on any particular flight. There are a lot of online materials on the strategies of buying air tickets. Some of them were the starting points of my research. However, a lot of these online discussions were written with destinations originating from North America and Europe in mind.

Hence, my post here aims to share about my experience of flying to South America from Singapore, since there isn’t much web literature on that. (I did toy with the idea of going by sea, but was running out of time to obtain more information so abandoned the idea in the end. If you have any useful ideas, please feel free to share).

1. Destination

To start off, it is helpful to know/narrow down where you want to go: – single country? multiple countries? In my case, the primary destination was the Andean region of South America, and I already had at least Ecuador and Bolivia in mind. But there were no direct flights from Singapore to South America at that time. I was told there was one direct flight via Malaysia Airlines from Kuala Lumpur to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which is all fine and well if Rio was your target destination. But Brazil was not on my itinerary for this year’s trip. This MAS route could also be defunct now.

[At the time of writing, Singapore Airlines had announced that it will be flying to Sao Paolo, Brazil starting in mid 2011 via Barcelona]

2. Research

It goes without saying that cost is a major consideration.

However, given that I was determined to go to South America which is far flung (yes, it’s far flung from where I’m based. It might not be so “far flung” for someone who is say, living in the same time zone e.g. North America), flight expense is inevitable. If you are cost-conscious but determined to travel anyway, you cannot afford to be lazy. Research is a must!

How to do research?

  1. Talking to people which I did but very few people I know had travelled specifically from Singapore to my target destinations.
  2. Calling up travel agencies although most ticket agents in Singapore tend to focus their business on destinations in Asia.
  3. More useful is calling up airlines, not for the purpose of obtaining the best price, but for finding out the different possible routes. If you don’t get someone who is helpful/knowledgeable on the line, you could always put down the phone and try again later. Incidentally, I was amused that one airline staff – after checking that said airline didn’t have a convenient route to S. America – tried to counsel me over the phone against going to South America and went on about how airlines there frequently go bust even though it is such a large continent that should be able to support air travel and how that  region is not very safe (hmm, where have I heard that before). Yes, while research there is a deluge of information that you need to sieve out.
  4. It also helps if you have some information first before talking to a travel agent/airline staff. Needless to say, I used online sites extensively to research flight routes and compare fares. In the end, although I didn’t book my tickets through any of these online sites, but they were helpful in piecing together the various information.

3. Shortlist the options

Singapore is a great hub for flights to and from Asia-Pacific/Europe and certain cities in North America, but not South America. Perhaps there is just insufficient economic ties. This could well change in the future.

I’m listing down the options that I explored, including the ones that I didn’t choose in the end. While it may not have been suitable for my purpose on this trip, others may find it useful and even I may consider it for future reference:

  • Option A: Combo of 2 parts:

Part 1: Singapore-a European city-a South American city return ticket. This already cost around SGD3k at that time (you could get it cheaper if you book earlier). This still doesn’t include the travel cost within the few South American countries that I had in mind.

Part 2: An airpass in South America

LAN, one of the biggest airlines with the most extensive connections in South America, offers airpass. The airpass fare is usually calculated based on mileage.

  • Option B:  One World Circle Pacific

The basic rule is that travel must be via the North / Central Pacific in one direction and via the South Pacific in the other direction or vice versa. Essentially, travel in a “circular” manner around the Pacific ocean.

Fares are based on mileage: 22,000-mile, 26,000-mile and 29,000-mile with varying degrees of flexibilities for each category.

Detailed info here.

  • Option C: One World Explorer/Round-the-World ticket

The basic rules are:

  1. travel for a min. of 3 days and a max.of 1 year
  2. Min. of 3 flight segments and a max. of 16 flight segments (with a prescribed maximum no. of segments in each continent, as defined by One World. E.g. one can only have a maximum of 4 flight segments in South America, with the option of topping 2 extra flight segments at US$150 each)

Some limited back-routing is permitted. Read the Rulesheet for more details. Otherwise, the primary rule is literally to fly around the world, crossing the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean once and only once.

Fares are based on:

  1. number of continents (as defined by One World) travelled to
  2. country where ticket is sold (airline staff usually explains this as the country where you start your flight journey). I checked out those countries nearest to me, and  the price differences between flying from Thailand vs. Singapore vs. Malaysia is negligble.
  3. class of travel (economy, business or first)

The fares can be easily found on One World’s page here.

I’m not a spokesman for One World Alliance or LAN. Rather they were simply viable options for my target destinations: at the time of planning my trip, One World Alliance was the only air alliance that has an extensive network in South America (because LAN is an alliance member).

The detailed rules of Option B and C can be found on www.oneworld.com, which also offers other options (not mentioned here, because they were irrelevant for my purpose). Expect to spend at least 30 minutes reading through them. Ditto for the airpass rules in Option A.

In the end I chose Option C, partly because I could include Scotland on my trip. Also, this RTW ticket allowed me to include a stop in Easter Island which would have cost US$400-600 if I had purchased a separate LAN return flight from Santiago de Chile (at the time of research, one could only fly to Easter Island from either Santiago de Chile or Papeete of Tahiti, with both routes monopolised by LAN). Easter Island had never been on my wanderlust radar, but as a result of this RTW ticket, I got to visit this strange island & its culture and had an unforgettable adventure – all at hardly any additional flight cost.

4. Booking/buying the ticket

The best way of booking a RTW ticket is through one of the member airlines itself. You are not likely to get it cheaper through a ticketing agent. If you do, please share with me the name of your ticket agent! 🙂

I booked mine through Qantas for 3 reasons:

1) my first and last flight of this journey are likely to be via Qantas.

2) I already had a Qantas frequent flyer account (although it’s also not difficult to just sign up for one).

3) Qantas has a Singapore telephone hotline. Saves me on IDD calls. [Although there was a Qantas office in Singapore at the time of booking, it was (maybe still is) just an administrative office and not a customer sales office. Hence booking was done through the phone.]

Expect to spend at least 30 minutes on the phone with the airline staff to create the itinerary. I also spent some time going back and forth with them to make changes prior to issuance of ticket.

5. When did I buy the ticket

I only finalised, paid and got the e-ticket issued 3 days before departure. Yes, with a round-the-world ticket like mine, the price is pretty much fixed and it didn’t really matter whether I bought it 3 days or 3 weeks before departure, just as long as there are still seats available. There had been some minor price adjustments compared to if I had bought it 1-2 months before, but the price differential is negligible (<SGD200).  The only non-transparent variable to the flight ticket is  airport taxes, which are only confirmed at the time the is ticket issued. But you could still enquire the estimate even at the time of booking before payment.

6.Itinerary & Cost of the RTW ticket

I started my journey here and the complete itinerary on the RTW flight ticket looks like this:

Singapore–Melbourne (connection at Adelaide)–Sydney–Santiago de Chile (stopover at Auckland)–Easter Island–Santiago de Chile–Quito (stopover at Guayaquil)-Cusco (connection at Lima)–Antofagasta–Santiago de Chile–Madrid–London–Edinburgh–London–Singapore

The flight ticket alone was SGD5k+. With taxes the total was about SGD6k+ for Economy. I estimated that Business class on the same itinerary would cost about SGD15k-16k.

Airlines flown: Qantas, LAN Chile/Ecuador/Peru, Iberia, British Airways

Total journey period: approx. 4 months

7. Feedback on the RTW trip

Changing date & time of travel

Although I’m required to have an itinerary before I commence my journey, the One World airlines have lived up to their promise that times & dates to each segment could be effected as long as the change is effected before you fly on that segment and provided there’s a seat on the date and time you wish to change to. There’ll usually be a seat on any flight if you persist politely with your enquiries, if not through the same airline, then through another. For example, while approaching BA to change a flight on BA, I also asked to change a Qantas flight, which apparently BA could do! But BA could only book me on another date that was not my first choice, citing that the date that I wanted was already fully booked. Later on, I contacted Qantas who is evidently more privy to its own seat allocations and who was able to book me on the actual date.

Cost of changes

There is no cost for a date & time change (versus, e.g. a route change) on your issued ticket. Qantas’ stated policy is that they will charge a service fee for helping you with the change and the fee depends on in which country you make that change. Although the stated service fee is not significant (SGD60-150) I managed to make several changes – either over the phone or over the counter at the airport – without being charged for any service fee. 

Customer service

I  had no problems contacting Qantas, British Airways and LAN to enquire about/make changes, whether over the phone or at airport counters.

Iberia is another story altogether, and luckily I only had one flight segment with them. While in Madrid, I had zero luck getting hold of an airline staff over the phone – what is a hotline for if nobody is on the other end to pick up the call? So I asked someone where the physical office was, thinking it might be easier if I just dropped by and asked a staff face-to-face. But to quote the Spaniard whom I asked:

“They (Iberia) don’t have an office. If they did, people (will go up) to kill them.”

Iberia’s notoriety is really not a myth at all.

In-flight wise, I’m low-maintenance and am happy as long as there are good movies to watch. The long haul flights on Qantas and in particular – LAN – were more than pleasant.

8. Other air tickets that I bought

Obviously, the RTW ticket alone wasn’t the complete flight travel picture. I did buy 2 more air tickets whilst on the road:

Quito-Baltra (the Galapagos) return via Aerogal – non-Ecuadorean fare approx. US$370

Quito-Cuenca return via Aerogal – approx. US$100

Even though in the end I didn’t fly within Peru and Bolivia, I did also enquire about domestic flights when I was there and the fares are generally very reasonably-priced (US$50-80).

Of course, I also crossed country borders by land. But that’s a topic for another post.

If you have any personal experience flying from Singapore to and within South America, do share! 🙂

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