Why You Can’t Get AA/BA Partner Awards On Lan To The Galapagos

I experienced it myself – the frustration of trying to get award space on Lan from Guayaquil to the Galapagos.  Most people want to get to GPS (Baltra) as that is where the Galapagos cruises depart from and Lan flies there daily.  In my case, since we aren’t doing a cruise, I wanted to get to SCY (San Cristobal) since it has the best land-based birding options but Lan only has 4 flights a week there.  For the purposes of this demonstration, I will use GPS so you can see the fluctuations throughout a week on a daily basis.

Most people going to the Galapagos will want to book as far ahead as possible, especially if they are connecting to a cruise.  At the time I wrote this post, Lan has availability loaded to 25 July at the 20,000 round trip level (10,000 each way).  BA has picked this space up although it usually doesn’t at this level.  On the 4 days preceeding 25 July there is no award space on BA for this route.

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You can see here the different levels of economy awards.  Lan only flies economy class to the Galapagos.  Usually you need seats at the 8000 km each way level to have it show up on a partner award request.  These seats are selling for anywhere between 11,000 – 14,000 so you can only book them on Lan.

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It can get much worse – have a look at these flights over Semana Santa (Easter Holy Week) which is ultra-peak season!  Award seats can go up to 22,000 each way!

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You can sometimes get lucky with close-in bookings.  Although surrounding dates have the high award rates, there is a window of opportunity on a few dates in September as shown by the red dots.

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And this is how it looks on BA’s booking system.

Lan GPS7So how can you get to the Galapagos?

1.  Lanpass:  Get the US Bank Lan Visa card, then supplement the award with miles transferred from SPG.  It takes about a week for the miles to land which is really frustrating as the award prices can fluctuate daily.

2.  Fly on Aerogal, the Avianca partner who is a member of Star Alliance.  Unfortunately Avianca doesn’t have any transfer partners such as SPG, Ultimate Rewards, Thankyou Points or Amex MR so you have to buy miles, preferably on a promo deal.  They do have a co-branded card with US Bank.

3.  Use United, although availability has been patchy in the past, I am seeing good availability at time of writing.  Oddly enough if you are in GYE, you have to transfer in UIO to get to the Galapagos.

Lan GPS84.  Use your miles to Quito or Guayaquil and pay for the flights to the Galapagos.  Expedia search on random dates for RT flights.

Lan GPS9However you manage to get to the Galapagos, rest assured it will be well worth it!  We are going next year and can’t wait!

What To Do On Sea Days

Most cruises that have suitable itineraries for birders will be longer and visit more remote areas.  This means more sea days as you cruise from one port to another.  Since this isn’t a specialist cruise blog, I’ll just offer a few ideas if you are trying to convince your spouse/partner/family/friend to join you on a cruise.  First I’ll remind you of what birders should look for in a cruise itinerary if you haven’t seen the first post already.

Cruises can be very cost-effective because your food and entertainment are all included.  Ships do have alternative restaurants that you have to pay for but the main dining room with full service and a self-service buffet are always included in your rate.  There’s a wide variety of entertainment including full on production shows, headliners, comedians and more!

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Most Princess ships have a huge movie screen called MUTS where they screen recent feature films by the pool.  Popcorn is served by waiters and they have blankets if you get chilly.  On our cruise, they screened the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton live!  I had to get up at 4am but what a way to watch the royal wedding!

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Passengers are often invited to join special occasions such as this anniversary celebrating the different brands of Carnival Corporation.  I don’t remember what they were celebrating exactly but I do remember that cake!

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If you are a member of the cruise line’s loyalty program you will be invited to a captain’s cocktail party.  You can take photos with the captain and have a drink or 2 on the house!

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Penny slots used to be a great way to manufacture spend.  Load money at the casino onto your cruise card and put it in the slot machine and play a few spins. Then cash out – I mean for actual cash.  You pay for the cash at the end of the cruise with your miles/points earning credit card.  This was good back in 2011, I hear that some cruise lines now charge a fee to do this so you’ll have to check on this.


The crew talent show is always fun!


How old are these people trying to catch the balloons?  Feel like a kid again!

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Choose whether you want a table for 2 or to join others for dinner.  It’s up to you!


Traditional Baked Alaska parade!

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Towel animal demonstration – you will probably find one in your room each night as you get back after dinner and the evening show.

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Overview of the Coral Princess pool, we spent a lot of sea day time in the jacuzzi.


Champagne fountain and formal nights!

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Another production show.

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Balcony cabin – nice if you can afford one, even nicer if you get upgraded to one!

IMG_4822What I didn’t photograph but really enjoyed were the port lectures.  We had a really good lecturer, Dr Thomas Ryan who gave informative, educational and thoughtful lectures………….and not one mention of Diamonds International!  Cruises with more exotic ports do tend to have better port lecturers – authors, naturalists, historians.  Caribbean cruises just have shills for jewelry shops so don’t bother!

Other things to do on a ship include trivia, karaoke competitions, bingo, ballroom dance lessons, tours of the bridge and exercise classes.  There really is something for everyone!

White-throated Magpie-jay (Calocitta formosa)

The White-throated Magpie-jay (Calocitta formosa) is a large Central American species of magpie-jay. It ranges in Pacific-slope thorn forest from Jalisco, Mexico to Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Magpie-jays are noisy, gregarious birds, often traveling in easy-to-find flocks, mobbing their observers.

The first 2 pics are taken in Huatulco, last 2 were near Granada, Nicaragua.

IMG_4992a IMG_4991a IMG_5203a IMG_5204aGiven their large range from southern Mexico to mid Costa Rica, the chances are good to see these beauties.  On our cruise, we saw them in Huatulco and Granada, near San Juan del Sur.  In some resorts in Costa Rica, apparently they seek out tourists for free food (see video below).







Cookies aren’t the best thing to be offering to wild birds but I was really surprised at how aggressive this guy was after seeing the shy birds in Huatulco and Nicaragua.

Nice close up of a more wild bird, you also hear the call.


San Juan Del Sur Shore Excursion

For this port, Princess didn’t offer a specific birding excursion, nor could I find anything independent so we went with a mainstream shore excursion that I thought might bring us into contact with birds incidentally.  It visits the Masaya Market, Masaya Volcano and colonial city of Granada.

Your full-day, moderately active shopping and sightseeing excursion begins at the pier where you will board your comfortable, air-conditioned transportation and journey forth out of San Juan del Sur. Travel through the lush, tropical landscape as your knowledgeable guide points out areas of interest and regales you with the history of this exotic and mysterious country.

Visit the magical city of Masaya to explore its world renowned market. Nicknamed the “city of flowers” Masaya is the capital of Nicaraguan folklore and is known as the birthplace of the area’s best painters, singers, poets, artists and crafts people. So it’s only natural that is should be home to one of the largest crafts markets in Central America ? The Masaya Market! Shop, browse or even engage in some good-natured bargaining at the collection of shops and vendor stands that offer the very best value and quality in arts, crafts and culture. Among them: leather products, delicately embroidered clothing, wood carvings, Indian art and hand painted ceramics with traditional pre-Columbian designs.

Continue your journey to Masaya Volcano National Park. Established in 1979 this national park is a marvel of nature with its two towering volcanoes, lush forest and a crater lagoon. Your transportation will take you near the still active Masaya Volcano, once the object of veneration by indigenous peoples, for an up-close look at steaming fumaroles.

Take a break from your exploration to enjoy a complimentary buffet lunch at a local restaurant. Indulge in a traditional Nicaraguan meal that includes chicken medallions, sea bass, rice and beans, and dessert.

Step back in time as you visit the picturesque, colonial city of Granada, located in the shadow of the towering Mombacho Volcano on the shore of Lake Nicaragua (one of country’s largest freshwater lakes). Founded in 1524 by Spanish Conquistador Hernandez de Cordoba, Granada’s historic churches and convents have withstood the test of the centuries including invasions from English, Dutch and French pirates. Enjoy a delightful and informative guided tour of the grand Convent of San Francisco, now a museum housing an ample collection of pre-Columbian statues unearthed on local volcanic islands.

Stroll the Parque Central, the city’s social, cultural and economic hub, where local artisans and vendors offer their beautifully crafted products for sale. Take time to marvel at the timeless beauty and historic legacy that has been preserved in this amazing city prior to your scenic drive back to your Princess ship.

San Juan del SurThis port is served by tenders so you want to get down to the tender dock asap as they become crowded quickly.  Usually people who book a ship’s excursion get priority.

IMG_5214 IMG_5213 IMG_5212The market proved to have lots of bird themed artworks and I bought several nice paintings and some feather art.  The feathers are not from endangered species, most are from chickens or feathers found on the ground.

IMG_5124 IMG_5125 IMG_5126 IMG_5127 IMG_5128 IMG_5129 IMG_5132Next stop was the Masaya Volcano.  Some people chose to climb to the top but I chose to let my lens do the walking.


IMG_5140 IMG_5142 IMG_5143 IMG_5145We had lunch at a touristy restaurant but the food was still good.

IMG_5146 IMG_5147 IMG_5148 IMG_5149 IMG_5150 IMG_5153After lunch we went to Granada had had a tour of the city and the convent-museum.  There was a folk dance show in the main square that was pretty cool!

IMG_5155 IMG_5154 IMG_5158 IMG_5157 IMG_5156 IMG_5160 IMG_5161 IMG_5170 IMG_5173 IMG_5162 IMG_5164 IMG_5166 IMG_5167 IMG_5169 IMG_5177 IMG_5178 IMG_5179 IMG_5182 IMG_5183 IMG_5184 IMG_5185 IMG_5186 IMG_5187 IMG_5189 IMG_5191 IMG_5194 IMG_5195The last stop was on the lake so we could have a nice view of the volcano.  I finally got to see some birds!

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IMG_5203a IMG_5204a IMG_5205 IMG_5174We then drove through the town of San Juan del Sur and took the tender back to the ship.

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Watching the sun set as we sail away from San Juan del Sur.  The big movie screen (MUTS) movies under the stars is where I watched the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

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Splurging On Travel Comforts – Yea or Nay?

Eco-tourists are a breed apart yet the one thing we have in common with “normal” travelers is the decision to be frugal or splurge.  Conde Nast Traveler has their suggestions but do they work for us?

1.  Checking a bag – I say nay.  We don’t really need a big wardrobe for birding.  Who’s going to be looking at us when there are so many stunning birds to look at?  Besides, who wants to risk having a bag go astray or waste time at the carousel?  I never bring more than 3 days worth of clothes and wash along the way.  I can fit everything I need plus camera gear between the eBags Motherload convertible backpack and my Scottevest

2.  In-flight Internet – I say nay.  There’s enough to keep me amused while in-flight with the airline’s AVOD and I can always keep a few movies or eBooks on my tablet.  Or just get some sleep!

3.  Out-of-Hotel Breakfasts – Usually necessary due to birder’s hours unless it’s a transit city stay.  If breakfast is included in the rate, I’ll take it.  Birding lodges will have breakfasts served at birder-friendly times.  Otherwise, we grab something at a supermarket and bring it along.

4.  Taxis – I say mostly nay unless there is a safety issue.  I wouldn’t want to walk around some town late at night with my gear.  Plus there is just something wasteful and un-green about taking a taxi if there is safe public transport available.

5.  One lavish meal – I’m not a foodie so easy for me to say nay on this one.  Birding lodges usually provide meals in the package.  If birding from a city with short drives into the bush such as Panama, we are happy to just grab takeaway and bring it back to the hotel.

6.  Souvenirs – I say YEA!  But only if they are locally made items, preferably by people who are honoring their native wildlife in the artwork.  Always support local communities to encourage eco-tourism!  Molas from Panama, numerous paintings, batiks, statues and arpilleras from Peru’s Amazon have all found a place in our home and serve as wonderful memories of our trip!

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Orange-breasted Bunting (Passerina leclancherii)

The Orange-breasted Bunting (Passerina leclancherii) is a species of bird in the Cardinalidae family.

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It is endemic to Mexico, where its natural habitats are subtropical or tropical dry forests and subtropical or tropical dry shrubland. It is more abundant in second growth than in undisturbed forest.  We found them easily on our shore excursion in Huatulco.  Oaxaca is also popular according to Xeno-canto.






Orange-fronted Conure (Eupsittula canicularis)

The Orange-fronted Parakeet or Orange-fronted Conure (Eupsittula canicularis), also known as the Half-moon Conure, is a medium-sized parrot which is a resident from western Mexico to Costa Rica.

The first photo was taken in Huatulco and the 2nd photo which is in better light shows 2 released Orange-fronted Conures hanging around the still captive birds at El Manatial Sanctuary near Puntarenas, Costa Rica.

IMG_4851IMG_5656aOrange-fronted Conures have a large range down the Pacific coastal strip between roughly Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to Puntarenas, Costa Rica.  The black dot is Huatulco which is a popular cruise ship port where we saw them.



World Parrot Trust





Bird Watching Shore Excursion In Huatulco

We were up bright and early to join the Princess shore excursion for bird watching in Huatulco.  Princess no longer offers this excursion (they do have an eco-tour though) so I will show you a similar one from Holland America as it is likely the ships use the same tour operators.

Those interested in wildlife and tropical bird watching will discover a rich diversity in the estuary of the Copalita River and/or in a small mangrove and park and the unspoiled low-growth caducifolia jungle beauty, including cedar, mahogany, ficus, mocambos and almond. You will likely spy several of the region’s 227 bird species including orioles, woodpeckers, egrets, seagulls, falcons, sparrow hawks, parrots and eight varieties of hummingbirds. You will likely also see lizards, iguanas, deer, armadillos and squirrels. Enjoy a beverage while you take some great photos. During the journey, your guide will offer several stops to observe and comment. The total walking distance covered in this tour is approximately one mile.

The black line below indicates where the ship docks.  I wasn’t sure where they took us but we didn’t drive more than 15 minutes so I am reasonably sure it was in that big green area to the left!

HuatulcoBird List with images for Huatulco

Here are some of the birds we saw on just a 4 hour trip.  Our first stop gave us a nice look out over the bay and some Orange-fronted Parakeets who popped by to check us out.

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Here’s a bright Altamira Oriole.IMG_4871a IMG_4874

We then drove to another place, might have been near the university.

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Another Altamira Oriole.

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Citreoline Trogon


Golden-cheeked Woodpecker

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Orange-breasted Bunting – what a beautiful little bird!

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Here’s a stunning Black-throated Magpie Jay!


Shots not clear enough for me to find them in the book.  Any help appreciated!

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Black Vulture


Blue-winged Teals

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If anyone knows those birds I missed, please comment below!  We were brought back to the small market just outside the wharf for some shopping.  I am still kicking myself for not buying this.  It was out of my budget, don’t remember how much but I now regret not buying it.

IMG_5077 IMG_5081 IMG_5075 IMG_5082 IMG_5080 IMG_5084 IMG_5085That evening on the ship was a formal night but we didn’t have formal clothes so stuck to the buffet.  I did get my fair share of free champagne though!  As with most cruise ships, there is some kind of show each night.  They are all included so why not check them out!

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Mexico City & Acapulco Before The Cruise

Since the embarkation port was so far away from Australia, I wanted to allow plenty of buffer time in case of any flight delays. This is a good idea when you have something unmissable such as a cruise.  I figured 3 days would be enough.  We flew into Mexico City, did a morning trip to Teotihuacan by public bus, then picked up our bags and took a nice intercity bus to Acapulco.

We stayed at the Hampton Inn Mexico City Centro Historico as they had a special deal at the time (April 2011).  We arrived really late at night and took an official taxi and left very early in the morning so didn’t spend much time here but it was nice.  We’d gladly come back here again.

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This is the bus station to Teotihuacan, it’s the obvious one with the pyramid logo.  Coincidentally, another blogger (Point Me to the Plane) who has been there more recently posted precise directions.


We saw this contraption with acrobats as we got off the bus.  Not sure if they are always there or if it was for something special.


We spent a couple hours at the pyramids, then it got too hot and we didn’t want to hang around.  We also had to get a bus to Acapulco.

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Back in Mexico City, scenes from around the main plaza as we walked to the Metro station.

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The bus to Acapulco was really nice and comfortable.  We didn’t book in advance, just rocked up and asked for the next deluxe bus to Acapulco.  It was around $30 pp.

IMG_4717 IMG_4718 IMG_4719In Acapulco, we stayed at the Crowne Plaza on points and got a nice upgrade to a corner suite with fantastic views!

IMG_4769 IMG_4768 IMG_4720 IMG_4721 IMG_4722 IMG_4726 IMG_4787 IMG_4772 IMG_4786 IMG_4794 IMG_4800Since we had a couple of days, we saw most of the tourist sights – cliff divers, market, small zoo and the beach of course.

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I had to laugh seeing an Australian Budgie on a Mexican phone booth!  It’s not like Mexico doesn’t have cool parrots of their own!


We got around using the local buses.

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Finally our ship came in.

IMG_4806a IMG_4810 IMG_4816We eagerly boarded the beautiful Coral Princess and set off to explore the ship.  I was very pleasantly surprised to see we had been given a free upgrade to a balcony cabin after only paying for the cheapest cabin.  We later found out it was because the ship was only around 2/3 full but we were thrilled to have a balcony on a Panama Canal cruise!

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They had a nice Easter egg display as we boarded on Easter Sunday!

IMG_4826 IMG_4827We went up to the top deck to wave goodbye to Acapulco and anticipate adventures to come!

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