How 8,000 Star Alliance miles saved me from a 16-plus hour bus ride

Nov 5, 2021

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Just before the pandemic hit I was travelling through Central America, with an adventurous plan to go via land from Mexico all the way down to Panama. I made it to the southern borderof Nicaragua before Costa Rica promptly closed their land border to all foreigners and I raced home, arriving on the first day of the U.K. lockdown all the way back in March 2020.

Related: I raced back home to the UK during the coronavirus pandemic — here’s what it was like

While hopping around Central America was not realistic during the pandemic, now that travel has well and truly returned I’m looking at how I can complete the trip, and it reminded me of one of the days early last year when using points and miles well and truly saved the day.

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I was in Guatemala City, Guatemala, and needed to get down to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. There were daily buses between the cities, crossing through El Salvador and Honduras. While it could technically all be done in one day, it would be an exceptionally long day.

The fastest land route?

Now having been in Central America for over a month at this stage, I knew these Google maps times were extremely ambitious. These estimated times are based on no stops and no delays.

The previous bus rides I’d taken through Mexico and Belize always took a fair bit longer than the estimate, because the driver would take breaks, there would often be roadwork and unexpected traffic delays and people would get on and off the bus regularly, forcing the buses to stop to load and unload passengers.

The bus might occasionally break down too.

I did some research about this bus option and, with a 4 a.m. departure time, previous tourists had managed the trip in “about 16 hours.” Though the bus companies promised luxury coaches with bathrooms, good legroom, onboard movies and even onboard Wi-FI, the thought of 16 hours spent on a bus in one day was about as appealing as a 16-hour flight in economy.

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So, I considered any other options. Once again, it was points and miles to the rescue.

I knew Star Alliance member Avianca had a good route network in the region and even had bases in multiple countries. Sure enough, not only was there a one-hour direct flight between Guatemala City (GUA) and Managua (MGA), but it was available to book for only 8,000 Lifemiles plus minimal taxes, versus more than $250 per person for a cash ticket.

The Lifemiles programme is a bit of a mess (especially its website), but I had some miles left over from one of the many bonus offers to purchase miles, so I booked immediately.

Related: I woke up to LifeMiles changing its programme, but don’t fret

The flight was great — quick, on time, a clean fresh aircraft and very pleasant staff — and I even enjoyed a free snack on board.

While the direct route has been suspended during the pandemic, you can still book redemptions between the two cities for even fewer Lifemiles than I paid (it’s now only 7,000 miles as a one-stop flight). Lifemiles pricing can be all over the place, but there are some great bargains to be had.

We met some fellow travellers in Antigua, Guatemala, at a local bar. They were also headed to Nicaragua and had decided to take the bus instead. We happened to run into them on the street in Leon, Nicaragua, (small world!) and they described their experience.

The advertised “luxury coach” was a cramped minivan with no air conditioning, legroom or entertainment. The van was so cramped they had to keep their luggage on their laps for the entire journey, and the drive took so long the driver stopped one night in Honduras and, without warning, ordered everyone out and told them to find their own accommodation for the night. In total, the journey — including the unexpected overnight stop — was more than 24 hours.

“Never again,” they said of the bus ride.

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I had plenty of fun bus rides around Central America; it was a fun way to see the region. But like a long-haul flight, anything longer than about six hours and I start to look for other options that could be quicker and more comfortable.

If you’re faced with a long journey by road, consider flights instead. While the cash fare of this direct flight cost hundreds of dollars due to the sheer convenience, I got incredible value by redeeming miles and saved myself from what could have been two days of discomfort and frustration.

Featured image by Markus Mainka/Shutterstock

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