South / Latin America is a huge continent, and flying certain routes is highly preferable to travelling by bus. Airpasses are a way of purchasing internal flights within South America and a discounted cost - they are only available to tourists and are often very good value……
To purchase an airpass, you will need your “international ticket number” associated with your international flights. Do some research starting here, then find a flights specialist to book the airpass flights for you. Most Latin America specialist tour operators will have a flights department that can book any of these airpasses for you.
The All America Airpass
The basic airpass is the Hahn airpass, or in Latin / South America’s case the “All America Airpass”. In a nutshell, it’s almost like a contract that Hahn has with various airlines making prices much cheaper than if you book the internal flights with the airlines directly. Discounts can be up to 50% on certain routings. You can take as few, or as many flights as you want - there are very few restrictions. On the whole, the flights are date changeable ($50) but this is not always the case. The All America Airpass can be used for a huge number of routings operated by South America’s international carriers such as Taca (Central America), AeroMexico, Aviacsa and Mexicana (Mexico), Copa (Panama), Avianca (Colombia), Aerorepublica (Colombia), Aeropostal (Venezuela), Lan (Ecuador, Peru, Chile & Argentina), Aerolineas Argentinas (Argentina), Aerosur (Bolivia) and Tam and Varig (Brazil), to name a few.
You can fly almost any routing using the All America Airpass. I’ve a couple of tips - firstly, flights via Panama city with Copa are often extremely good value, and secondly flights to Bolivia are also often very cheap.
To be entitled to an “All America Airpass” you’ll need to be flying from outside of “the Americas” to either North or South America. Technically speaking, those who reside in North America and take a flight to South America are not entitled to the airpass. You should be able to overcome this problem - simply call a flights specialist in UK and tell them “I’ve already booked my international flights to South America. Can you help with an airpass?”. A lot of the time they won’t check where you’re flying from in the first place, and you may well be able to wangle this airpass.
Try calling Journey Latin America, Last Frontiers or any other UK based Latin America specialist tour operator to book this, or any other airpasses mentioned here.
LAN Airpasses - Argentina, Chile, Peru & Ecuador
In addition to the All America airpass, various airlines offer airpasses that are more regionally specific. One of the best is the Lan South America Airpass, which offers internal / domestic flights within and between Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina (plus flight routings beyond those countries to Brazil, Colombia and Panama to name a few). The costs are routing specific (generally, the longer the flight the higher the cost). You must purchase a minimum of three flights and you must have flown to the continent with a One World Carrier to be entitled to this airpass. Even if you’re only seeking two internal flights in South America, you’ll often find it is cheaper to purchase a three coupon (ie 3 flights) Lan airpass, including a short flight (eg. Buenos Aires to Mendoza, or Lima to Cuzco) that you don’t actually use.
Tam Airpasses - Brazil
In Brazil, Tam also offers an airpass, known as the Tam Airpass. The cost of the airpass is based upon the number of flights you take. The minimum number of flights you must take is 4, but again it’s often cheaper to purchase an additional flight that you don’t itend to use. Tam flies most routes within Brazil, and the airpass is very good value (though regularly increasing in price). Tam also offers the “Tam South America Airpass” which works in a similar fashion and can be used to include a flight out of Brazil (eg. to Argentina). The Mercosur airpass is an alternative option if you plan on visiting Uruguay and Argentina in addition to Brazil, and works in a similar fashion to the Tam Airpass. See the post on Tam’s Airpasses for more information. Alternatively, see the article about the Gol airpasses, which are similar in nature to the Tam airpasses.
Other Airpasses - Aerolineas Argentinas (Argentina), Mexicana (Mexico) and Avianca (Colombia)
Other airlines offer airpasses for internal flights within South America. The Aerolineas Argentinas Airpass is an example, but in reality this airpass is almost always more expensive than purchasing standard flight tickets directly from the airline. See my previous post on tips on booking domestic flights in Argentina for more advice.
Mexicana / AeroMexico also offers an airpass for flights within Mexico. Again, the airpass is not good value (at the time of writing this) and it’s cheaper to purchase standard tickets. In Mexico, the cheapest internal flights are invariably found with Aviacsa.
In Colombia, Avianca also offer the Avianca Airpass. It’s great value, and is priced according to where you want to fly. Almost all of Avianca’s domestic destinations in Colombia are covered by this airpass. You’ll need to take a minimum of 3 flights, though even if you only need two flights it’s often cheaper to book the airpass and not use one of the coupons. avianca now (2010) also offer an airpass covering all of Latin America & the Caribbean.
General advice on Flights within South America
That’s all the airpasses covered. I’ve a few more general travel tips to add when it comes to internal flights within South America. Bear in mind, that the flights are almost always going to be via the capital city of the country you are in, with a few exceptions. You can’t fly from Cuzco to Iguassu Falls for example - you’ll need to change firstly in Lima, and again in Buenos Aires [13 Oct 2008 edit - that’s no longer true - Aerosur now fly via La Paz between Iguasu and Cuzco]. There are a few (not well known) exceptions that might help travel planning if you’re considering an extensive trip. Cancun is well connected to Panama City, which itself is well connected to just about everywhere in Latin America. There’s flights between Manaus and Panama City for example. There’s also flights (at the time of writing) between Manaus and Havana in Cuba. Brazil is served by numerous flights that don’t involve a change of planes in any travel hubs (you can jump between many places along the coastline for example). In Argentina, most flights will be via Buenos Aires, unless you’re in the south of the country where places such as El Calafate, Bariloche, Ushuaia and Trelew are all served by direct flights between eachother. Other useful flight routings from Argentina include Buenos Aires to Floranopolis and Salvador (both in Brazil), Mendoza to Santiago in Chile, and Ushuaia to Punta Arenas (near Torres del Paine in Chile).
To book airpasses in Latin America, try contacting the airline directly, or alternatively try a Latin America specialist tour operator such as Journey Latin America (UK). As for a USA alternative, I don’t know of any company that books such airpasses, though I’m sure many exist - comments and suggestions welcome in this case!