Book Your TAM First Class Awards to South America Before It’s Too Late

Six weeks ago I wrote about South American airline TAM’s fantastic first class award availability.

TAM has pretty much never released first class award space, occasionally I saw seats when they first joined Star Alliance but more or less not at all since then.

So it was a surprise that so I was shocked when the floodgates had opened. First class seats are now (either by change in policy or mistake) available in droves. On some flights it’s the entire cabin that’s open.

  • TAM flies from New York JFK, Miami, Orlando and Mexico City to São Paulo.

  • They also fly from New York JFK and Miami to Rio de Janeiro, and Miami to Manaus, but that’s with a 767 which doesn’t offer first class.

  • Business class availability is also very good at present.

TAM’s 777s offer a new first class product with just one row of 4 seats.

Some flights are on A330s with an older first class product.

Here’s a current snapshot of New York JFK – Sao Paulo first class availability for two passengers, September 1-29. On several days where “JFK-GRU” shows up, it’s actually both flights that are available.

That’s 26 out of 29 days where at least 2 first class seats are available.

Personally I do not expect this award availability to last.

This is purely speculation, but my hunch is that the massive release of award seats is related to TAM’s impending exit from Star Alliance, entry into oneworld, and realignment of booking classes.

Of course, if that were true we probably wouldn’t have seen the phenomenon start so early or last so long.

But a shift from releasing zero first class awards to releasing most first class seats as awards doesn’t seem plausible, and thus won’t likely last in any case.

My Own Experience Booking TAM First Class

My usual approach to South America is to book American Airlines flights and upgrade. As an Executive Platinum I can confirm upgrades at booking (if available) up to 8 times a year, from any fare.

But this really does look like the best inflight product between North and South America. (Korean’s first class route from Los Angeles to Sao Paulo could be the ‘exception’ and American’s 777-300ER flights are pretty good.)

And I’d like to try it, or at least have the option of trying it. And since my gut tells me the opportunity won’t last I decided to make a pretty speculative booking. I may make more speculative bookings.

I redeeemed 125,000 US Airways miles for a simple New York JFK – Sao Paulo roundtrip many months into the future.

In fact far enough into the future that I’m guessing my American Airlines Executive Platinum status will get me free changes and redeposits. At that time I’ll decide if I want to go beyond Sao Paulo, and where in the U.S. I’ll be starting the trip from.

Total cost for the award was ~ $55 in taxes and a $50 Dividend Miles processing fee (per person).

Of course, since it’s US Airways the telephone call took about 45 minutes, even though I knew the exact flights I wanted to book.

  • The agent asked if I knew the airport code “for San Paulo”? (I told her GRU..)
  • The original outbound date I selected, the agent saw only 1 first class seat available even though ANA and Aeroplan websites were showing 2. Since I didn’t have a strong preference in dates I shifted slightly. Availability for the other flights I checked matched up perfectly.
  • It took a couple of phone calls with hold time for the rate desk to price the taxes, and a manager to take a credit card on the award. (US Airways offers 3 days holds of course as well.)

Whose Miles Can You Use?

To redeem for flights between North America and São Paulo and beyond,

  • You can use 67,500 Aeroplan miles each way (and no fuel surcharges). Aeroplan is an American Express Membership Rewards transfer partner, and points transfer instantly.

  • You can use 70,000 United miles each way (and no fuel surcharges). United is a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner, and points transfer instantly. The price of South America first class awards went up only 2500 miles each way with the MileagePlus devaluation.

  • You can use 125,000 US Airways miles roundtrip (and no fuel surcharges). You can make bookings with US Airways miles for Star Alliance travel on TAM through March 30th, with travel to occur any time through the end of schedule. US Airways lets you put awards on hold for 3 days, and you can buy any needed miles to top off an account once the award is already held.

  • You can use 62,500 American miles each way (and no fuel surcharges). TAM is moving over to oneworld and is an American Airlines partner already. American allows 5 day award holds.

Of course, American Express Membership Rewards transfer instantly to Aeroplan. Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer instantly to United MileagePlus. And US Airways will bargain on the price of miles like the guy selling watches in Times Square (or Tijuana).

I chose US Airways miles because some folks have had great success booking the seats with American but some readers have had problems with agents seeing the first class availability. I figured it would just be an easier call. Hah.

I considered using United miles, I still have plenty and first class to South America is one of the better bargains when flying on a partner airline. However since TAM will be leaving Star Alliance, and I wanted to have flexibility to change dates and add on flights later (subject to availability) I wanted to book through an airline that will be a oneworld member rather than a member of Star. United won’t have access to different TAM flights later.

I’d jump on the opportunity to book TAM first class to South America now, even speculatively, because while I hope this level of inventory lasts I do not expect that it will.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Service from Miami is actually even more extensive than that. TAM also flies from Miami to Belem, Belo Horizonte, Brasilia and, starting in May, Fortaleza.

  2. @ Gary — So, can I book SFO-JFK(AA)-GRU(JJ) -JFK(JJ)-SFO(AA), or is mixing AA with Star partners not allowed?

  3. I booked a basic EZE-JFK return using aeroplan. AA was a complete fail after 7 different agents couldn’t book the JFK-GRU-JFK (I would have tacked on EZE my own way even) over a number of dates the end of this month. Ugh. No stopovers for me unfortunately, as a result.

  4. Not worth in my opinion. Although the seats in first class are better than in business class the overall service in first class is not up to standards when compared to other major airlines.

  5. Good Luck getting TAM F using AAdvantage. Agents stopped seeing O class since sometime last week.

  6. @Gene – you can’t mix American and Star Alliance partners on the same US Airways award ticket. Starting March 31 they’ll all be in oneworld of course and no such restriction will exist. (Of course we have to hope the seats are still there a week from now!)

  7. @ Gary — I am a US Chairman’s Preferred member, so if I go ahead and book the JJ flights today, I can call US after March 31 and add the AA SFO-JFK flights, correct?

  8. @ Gary — Call over…no ticket. The Chairman’s supervisor was unable to book it, so I don’t think this is a hang up, call back situation. What do you think? Any advice?

  9. @Gene – very strange, “seeing the space but can’t book” — try in the a.m.? I just booked JJ space this morning via US. Hard to know what’s wrong without having been on the call but perhaps they’re having systems issues. And of course you can always try to hang up call back anyway…

  10. @ Gary — I just called back. I was told that they cannot book TAM until after Mar 31 due to the switchover, blah, blah, blah…It was the exact same thing that I heard from the previous agent, who perhaps talked to the same supervisor.

    I was able to book the F space via UA (and then cancelled before ticketing), so I know the space exists. The annoying part is that UA has no business class space open for SFO/LAX – JFK, so I would have to buy a separate transcon ticket. I don’t mind buying that ticket since I need qualifying miles, but I would much prefer F on the A321T over J on UA or DL business class on an upgrade.

  11. @Gene – TAM is a Star Alliance member, and so is US Airways, US Airways can book it now. I did it yesterday. But they did have some challenges along the way and a supervisor had to get involved in the reservation. Sorry this is so frustrating!! US Airways often is… Much of the time that inures to our benefit, but not always.

  12. Looks like my comment got deleted, I guess because I posted a screenshot. Anyway, I’m searching NYC -> GRU using UA in Sept-Oct, and I get ZERO availability. I don’t understand how you’re seeing these TAM F seats.

  13. @Nat – so weird, I remember even REPLYING to your comment! Apologies.

    But I recommend searching on the ANA or Aeroplan sites and then CALLING United.

  14. @Gary — I am very aware that TAM is a *A member and that US can in theory book available TAM space. However, each agent I spoke to was receiving the following error message when trying to book my award — “O is not a valid booking class for TAM”. They were each puzzled since clearly O is the correct *A booking code for First Class. Did the agents you spoke with encounter this same issue? If so, how were they able to resolve the problem?

  15. @Gene I don’t know if the agents I spoke with had the same issue, because they just put me on hold whenever they had an issue and came back with the issue resolved. I didn’t ask what they were struggling with, not wanting to embarass them or make them feel awkward.

  16. I had issues booking with AA even though AEroplan and ANA showed availability in F. Frustrating because I was able to book without any issues last week but AA is not seeing JJ O space as of now

  17. @heather unfortunately your guess is as good as mine. I intend to keep trying with AA this week and will update you on your blog if I meet with any success

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