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If only the space shuttle awarded frequent flyer miles

Two intrepid travelers hop a plane, and another, and another, to rack up the holy grail of mileage awards. Now, if they can just survive.

By DAVID BARTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 18, 2000


What's the worst part of travel? Sure, food poisoning, lost luggage and kidnapping by terrorists can blow a hole in any trip. But the absolute worst part of travel is, well, traveling.

The cab to the airport, the check-in, the metal detector, the wait by the gate, the too-small overhead space, the tight seat between the fat man and the crying baby, the rubber chicken and doorstop dinner roll. Then: the rocky flight, the jarring landing, the smell of the jet exhaust and the anxious search for luggage you hope is still there, and still in one piece.

And waiting. Always waiting.

Nonetheless, I recently spent one week traveling in and out of eight countries and 11 airports, on 14 flights, on eight airlines. What I hoped for, and am still hoping for, was the brass ring for many veteran travelers: the big frequent-flier miles score.

My companion and I would travel about 13,000 air miles, but we hoped to bag 500,000 frequent-flier miles.

That mileage was offered by LatinPass, the frequent-flier program cobbled together by 10 Latin American carriers: Aces, Copa, Avianca, Saeta, Aeropostal and Groupo Taca (Laksa, Aviateca, Nica, Taca, Taca Peru).

All we had to do was fly six international segments on six of the carriers, two segments on one of the LatinPass international partner airlines (TWA, US Airways, National and KLM), stay three nights in participating hotels and rent a car for three days, and we each would be awarded the 500,000 miles, good for use on all those airlines.

Even before we left, we were planning trips: a free flight to South Africa! Then another to Bali! And maybe a quick weekend trip from San Francisco to Miami, because, heck, it was free!

But as I searched the San Salvador airport for a plastic bag and some ice -- oh, my aching back -- the venture seemed just what our friends had said: crazy.

Indeed, as this story goes to press, we remain unsure that we will get our miles. And if the trip was all we actually get out of it, well, someone owes us big time. This was not a vacation:

For a week, my friend Dan and I lived in a blur of noise and exhaust and electronic voices feeding back and echoing on linoleum and glass, our noses full of the sweet, suffocating stink of jet exhaust and dry, recirculated air, our guts a churning stew of espresso, ibuprofen, Dramamine and beer, floating on cafeteria and airline food of questionable cultural origin.

Jittery. Red-eyed. Exhausted.

And there were the anxieties. What if we missed a flight? With our travel agent, we had constructed the scheduling equivalent of a house of cards. If any one card tumbled. . . .

That seemed to be the danger from the start. When we arrived in Miami from San Francisco, the desk clerk at the Fairfield Inn by Marriott, into which we had booked in order to satisfy part of the LatinPass hotel-stay requirement, said the motel did not accept LatinPass. But the clerk signed us right up for the Marriott frequent-sleeper program.

The next morning, we checked in at the Miami counter of Copa Airlines, the national carrier of Panama, and dutifully offered up our LatinPass numbers. Smiling, the woman cheerfully informed us that Copa was no longer part of LatinPass, but was now partnered (code-sharing in industry jargon) with Continental in its One-Pass program.

We contemplated changing carriers, then decided to go ahead with our travel agent's original booking, because the agent, the LatinPass Web site and brochure had all steered us to Copa. In fact, on returning home, Copa still was listed as one of the carriers on the LatinPass Web site.

Copa turned out to be a wonderful carrier, with a new Airbus jet, gracious service and -- in what turned out to be the norm for the LatinPass carriers -- an early departure, 15 minutes ahead of schedule. After the buslike feel of our TWA flights, it was a nice change.

The Copa flight was our first of three that day. We flew Copa south to Panama City, then back north, via Lacsa, to San Jose, Costa Rica -- look out the window at the pretty mountains! Waterfalls, even! The last flight of the day, again on Lasca, took us to Managua, and our plane bounced into the Nicaraguan capital like a yo-yo. I blessed the makers of Dramamine but still felt clammy and unsettled.

Managua was the first city we actually saw, but it was a depressing sight: too many unemployed people loitering and selling whatever they could find, a downtown dusty, dull and, according to nearly everyone we met, dangerous to venture in at night. At least that was no problem: We went straight to the Hotel Intercontinental (hotel stay No. 2) and off to bed.

Our next flight, on Taca International Airlines, left at 11:55 a.m. the next day for San Salvador, El Salvador. During our six hours in the San Salvador airport, we found it featured the usual duty-free shops and overpriced local arts and crafts (including ceramic eggs containing carved pornographic tableaux), but it was cool and fairly quiet. It also had one of the great features of Latin American airports: good, cheap espresso.

We finally arrived in Guatemala City after dark on the third day, having flown on Aviateca from San Salvador. Only two flights, a light day.

The Radisson Hotel, where we would log another qualifying night, did not have a shuttle, and we had to fend off touts for taxis. Eventually the hotel sent a cab for us. When we arrived at the front desk, the clerk was happy to register us for LatinPass credit -- if we would pay an additional $5 each. The staff insisted, and we had to defend our investment.

All this time, we were beginning to doubt that LatinPass was nearly as well-known or as well-supported by participating business as we had hoped. But by now we had no choice.

After walking down airport corridors lined with glossy photos of volcanos, colorfully clad Mayans and exotic animal life, we found ourselves eating, not at some gaily painted street stall or crowded, vibrant restaurant, but in Guatemala City's TGI Friday's. We sat like zombies and consumed a fajita salad with extra Tabasco sauce -- salsa was inexplicably unavailable. The fajita salad was the only indicator of our surroundings.

That restaurant would be it for sightseeing. While looking at the map before the trip, we had imagined excursions between flights: Look, we'll be that close to the Panama Canal; we could just hop a cab and check it out!

But after a couple of days of jetting about, we were in a hunkering-down mode that was far from the bright-eyed adventurism of travel at its best. We were no longer looking for diversion, or education or adventure. Mostly, we wanted to lie down and go to sleep.

It was starting to get to us: the sitting, the waiting, the ups and downs of it all. We began to miss things we took for granted. Not just our own beds -- or any beds -- but little things. Like fresh air.

The air quality hit its nadir at the end of the fourth day, while we were in Quito, Ecuador, on our only day off. (We had taken two more flights, from Guatemala City back to San Jose on Lacsa, then on to Quito, on the same airline.) There, as we walked the streets and enjoyed the combination of no flight and a delightful city, our eyes began stinging. Then our noses. And our throats.

mapRealizing that this was more than the plentiful automobile exhaust that fills the thin air of this 9,200-foot-high city, we saw that other pedestrians were clutching handkerchiefs to their faces and noses, and we did likewise. We never did identify the toxic gas that assaulted us, although it passed after a couple more blocks.

Just as intense was the noise pollution. It's a given of travel, but after a few days, that too became increasingly oppressive: noisy loudspeakers announcing flights, jets roaring, hotel air conditioners whispering insistently, the murmur or roar of crowds, and under it all, that low-frequency rumble of airplanes that passes right through earplugs to rattle the brain. By the fourth day or so, even the empty, echoing airport waiting rooms felt oppressive.

But the stopover in Quito was refreshing, and it was with renewed purpose -- and the end in sight -- that we clambered on the Aces flight at 11 p.m. from Quito to Lima, Peru. Soon we were sitting in a bar in the Lima airport, waiting for 1 a.m. to become 6 a.m., at which point we would fly out to Bogota, Colombia, on our sixth qualifying carrier, Avianca.

Lima's airport was confusing, with surprisingly lax security. Dan had checked a bag, and we wandered right past immigration officers to retrieve it from the baggage-claim area. We then walked back into the airport the way we had come, never even noticed by immigration or security. Decades of terrorism, now over, had evidently given way to a relaxed mood.

The Lima airport, unlike others on the trip, was not thoroughly air-conditioned, and the humid tropical air of the outside, scented with a strong odor of nearby brushfires, made sitting in the transit lounge intolerable. Nor was the Internet cafe -- yes, Internet cafe -- air-conditioned. So we ended up in a bar, and for the price of two local beers (a Cristal and a Pilsen, each $2.70), we were allowed to hang out for five hours under the watch of a sleepy waitress.

Outside, the wonders of Machu Pichu, the Andes and the Peruvian deserts beckoned. But we had to be content with representations of the world-famous Nasca Lines on T-shirts and the company of a stuffed llama in a gift shop. Otherwise, we could have been anywhere. At least we could smell something out there.

We did get a spectacular view of the Peruvian Andes as we flew out on a nearly empty and shabby Boeing 767 to Bogota. Covered in snow and clouds, stretching out toward the sunrise, another place we might have visited slipped by our tiny airplane windows. Perhaps on another trip. . . .

We will certainly have the mileage to do it. Or will we? With questions about Copa's participation, and the Fairfield Inn by Marriott, we have not even necessarily completed the requirements, though not for lack of trying.

And I still have to rent a car for three days, through Avis or Thrifty, to complete my requirements. When I called to rent a car with Thrifty in Baton Rouge, La. -- yes, I'm already heading off on another trip -- they said the rental could not be credited to the LatinPass program. I called again, and the clerk took my LatinPass number without question.

Meanwhile, LatinPass has removed most traces of the promotion from its Web site, and people who did not register as members of LatinPass before March 20 are not eligible for the million-mile promotion.

This makes a frequent flier who has invested about $3,000 in all this a tad nervous.

LatinPass general manager Monica Romero in Miami admits there has been some confusion, particularly around the issue of Copa Airlines. She explained that Copa is still a part of LatinPass, and credit on those flights will be counted in the LatinPass promotion. As far as Marriott goes, she said the hotel chain is so big that a lot of front-desk employees don't know about the promotion.

Romero said she is aware of at least 100 people who have set out to amass 1-million miles through a variation on the promotion, but there will be no way to know how many of LatinPass' 200,000 members have gone for the gold until the promotion closes on July 1.

I've done my part: I bought the tickets, flew the miles, kept the receipts. So far -- so very, very far -- so good.

But until I get my miles, the trip is not really over. And although I am once again breathing decent air, I won't breathe easily until then.

-- David Barton is a staff writer for the Sacramento Bee in California.

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