Avianca is the national airline of Colombia and the second largest airline in South America. Also, it’s the largest airline in Colombia.

Avianca offers the biggest selection of domestic flights in Colombia and access to more international destinations from Colombia than any other airline. Also, Avianca has been rated by Skytrax and TripAdvisor as the best airline in South America

I have flown on over 100 Avianca flights since I started traveling to Colombia in 2006 and having lived in Colombia for over eight years. Also, I have flown on several flights for free using LifeMiles.

Several readers of the Medellín Guru website asked questions about Avianca and LifeMiles. So, we now have this guide.

Editors note: due to the coronavirus pandemic, Avianca is grounding 132 of its planes and normally operates 142 planes starting on March 23. So, the airline will be operating about 7 percent of its fleet.

The company announced that on March 23 it will completely suspend international flights until April 30 and only operate 10 planes for domestic flights in Colombia. The domestic operation of Avianca will continue at about 16 percent of capacity from Bogotá to certain destinations within Colombia.

Note the above photo of an Airbus A318 at Medellín’s José María Córdova airport is by Andrés Ramírez.

Avianca headquarters in Bogotá, photo by Antonio José Ranjel Serratto

Avianca headquarters in Bogotá, photo by Antonio José Ranjel Serratto

History of Avianca

Bogotá-based Avianca traces its history back to 1919, which makes it the world’s second-oldest airline and the oldest airline in the Western Hemisphere.

Avianca was formed in 1941 with the merger of SCADTA and Colombian regional carrier Servicio Aéreo Colombiano or SACO. SCADTA reportedly was the world’s second airline, operating from 1919 until World War II.

Avianca claims SCADTA’s history as its own, thus making it the world’s second-oldest airline.

In 1994, Avianca merged with regional carrier SAM and helicopter operator Helicol. This merger permitted the company to offer specialized cargo services and postal services. In 1996, the company’s Postal Services became Deprisa, which is still owned by Avianca.

In 2009, Avianca merged with TACA, which made the combined company one of the South American region’s largest airlines with over 100 aircraft and flights to more than 100 destinations.

In November 2010, Avianca became a member of Star Alliance, which is one of the world’s largest global airline alliances. Star Alliance’s 28 member airlines serve more than 1,300 airports in 192 countries.

In 2017, the company had to cope with a 51 day strike initiated by a minority labor union of pilots. This resulted in 20,899 flight cancellations that affected over 1 million passengers.

Avianca plane at the Cartagena airport for a domestic flight

Avianca plane at the Cartagena airport for a domestic flight

Avianca’s Aircraft Fleet

At the end of 2017, the company had a total of 185 aircraft in its fleet including:

Passenger aircraft:

  • 12 Boeing 787-8
  • 10 Airbus A330
  • 12 Airbus A321
  • 64 Airbus A320
  • 26 Airbus A319
  • 10 Airbus A318
  • 9 Embraer 190
  • 2 ATR-42
  • 15 ATR-72
  • 12 Cessna-208

Cargo aircraft:

  • 5 Airbus A330F
  • 5 Airbus A300F
  • 2 Boeing 767F

The airline flies to over 100 destination in 26 countries.

Avianca LifeMiles, photo courtesy of Avianca

Avianca LifeMiles, photo courtesy of Avianca

Avianca’s LifeMiles Frequent Flyer Program

Avianca’s frequent flyer program is LifeMiles, which is intended to reward customer loyalty. Membership in LifeMiles is free and you can register online. And LifeMiles has over 7.8 million members and over 300 partners.

If you fly Avianca, I recommend joining their Lifemiles frequent flyer program. I have been a member of LifeMiles for over 10 years and have received many free flights.

In addition, Avianca is a member of Star Alliance. So, with LifeMiles you can earn free flights on 28 airlines including Air Canada, Air China, Air New Zealand, Copa Airlines, United, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, Swiss and several others.

Also, LifeMiles has an elite program with three elite levels that permit you to earn miles faster with bonus miles:

  • Silver – 22,000 miles or 25 segments, elite bonus of 25 percent
  • Gold – 40,000 miles or 45 segments, elite bonus of 100 percent
  • Diamond – 75,000 miles or 85 segments, elite bonus of 100 percent, 2 upgrade certificates per year

All three LifeMiles elite levels permit upgrades to business class if available, access to VIP lounges, VIP priority airport check-in, priority boarding, priority baggage handling and access to an elite call center with more experienced agents.

LifeMiles can be redeemed for Avianca flights and there is a LifeMiles calculator on their site to show how many miles are needed. Also, LifeMiles can be redeemed for flights on Star Alliance airlines, as shown on this award chart. In addition, LifeMiles can redeemed for partners’ products.

How to Earn Avianca LifeMiles

You can earn LifeMiles on Avianca flights and also on flights of the 28 partner airlines in Star Alliance. You can also get LifeMiles credit for Iberia and Aeromexico flights, even though those airlines are not Star Alliance members.

In addition, you earn LifeMiles with several rental cars including Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Hertz, National and Thrifty. Also, you can also earn LifeMiles with a number of hotels including Best Western, Hilton and LaQuinta.

There are also two LifeMiles credit cards. The Avianca Vuela Visa Card has some attractive bonuses to earn miles:

  • 40,000 Bonus LifeMiles after first use (and 60,000 LifeMile if you use promo code AVSPWE on the application)
  • 3 LifeMiles for every dollar spent on Avianca products/services
  • 2 LifeMiles for every dollar spent at grocery stores and gas stations
  • 1 LifeMiles for every dollar spent
  • For travel to Central America or Colombia, there are two 50 percent discounts on award tickets: one after $12,000 and one after $24,000 in spending on the card each year, respectively
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • $149 annual fee

Also, there are LifeMiles-branded credit cards from Bancolombia, BBVA and Davivienda. In addition, the LifeMiles website has several other partners listed where you earn miles including the Euro supermarket chain.

LifeMiles also has buy miles bonuses that can sometimes give you up to 200 percent bonus miles.

Avianca plane at the Pereira Airport, photo by Edisonbcn

Avianca plane at the Pereira Airport, photo by Edisonbcn

How to Save on Avianca Domestic Flights

We previously looked at how to find cheap flights in Colombia and save money.

If you use Avianca for domestic flights in Colombia and want cheap flights make sure to book on Avianca’s website as if you are in Colombia and pay in pesos. If you do this, you will get a price that can be 50 percent cheaper (or even cheaper) compared to booking in the United States in U.S. dollars.

To do this simply choose the country on their website as Colombia. In addition you can still use English as the language on their website.

For example, using this method  I flew from Medellín to Bogotá early this year for only $70 round-trip. Also, I have flown from Medellín to Cartagena and several other cities in Colombia for less than $100 round-trip.

Also, to use this method, you will need to notify your credit card company that you are in Colombia, even if you aren’t.

How to Save on Avianca International Flights

We previously looked at how to find cheap international flights to Medellín and Colombia.

Obviously by buying tickets in advance you can save money compared to buying at the last minute. So, how far in advance should you buy?

Earlier this year the CheapAir.com website conducted a study of international airfares and looked at over 900 million airfares including over 1 million international trips over the past year.

For international travel to South America they found that best time to buy was about 110 days before your trip or almost three months before. They also found that the prime window to buy was five weeks to 11 months before your trip.

In addition, they found the cheapest month to travel to South America is February and the most expensive month is December. And the cheapest days to travel are Tuesday and Wednesday.

When I fly internationally on Avianca I have found that its cheaper flights typically available at least two months in advance.

Avianca's seat-back entertainment system, photo by Javier Franco "Topper"

Avianca’s seat-back entertainment system, photo by Javier Franco “Topper”

Tips When Flying with Avianca

Here are several tips for flying with Avianca based on my experiences over the past 12 years and traveling on over 100 flights:

  • Avianca has a free seat-back entertainment system on most of its aircraft with TV series, movies, music and games. And most of the TV series and movies are available in English and Spanish.
  • When booking domestic flights, always choose your location as Colombia on Avianca’s website as mentioned above. This has saved me thousands of dollars over the past 12 years.
  • Calling Avianca for anything can be painful, so always try and book online first. The call center employees’ English isn’t always great, hold times are long, and agents are ill-trained in partner bookings.
  • LifeMiles’s website can be temperamental and sometimes crashes without reason. So, don’t wait to the last minute to book award travel.
  • The Avianca LifeMiles elite levels are great as you can skip the long check-in lines at airports and use the VIP check-in plus you get access to VIP lounges.
  • Unlike some other airlines, there is no extra charge for checked bags or carryons, up a a limit of course. On domestic flights, you get 1 checked bag up to 50 pounds (23 kg) for free and on international flights you get 2 checked bags up to 50 pounds (23 kg) for free.
  • Avianca is reliable in my experience. It rarely cancels flights and flights normally arrive within 15 minutes of the scheduled time. In 2017, even with the pilot strike, less than 4.8 percent of flights were cancelled and 74.5 percent of flights had a delay on arrival of less than 15 minutes.
Avianca check-in at the Medellín airport

Avianca check-in at the Medellín airport

Airports in Colombia

In addition to the guide to traveling on Avianca, have provided guides to eight different airports in Colombia:

  1. El Dorado Airport (BOG) – Bogotá’s International Airport and the largest airport in Colombia.
  2. José María Córdova (MDE) – Medellín’s International Airport in Rionegro.
  3. Rafael Núñez Airport (CTG) – Cartagena’s International Airport.
  4. Alfonso Bonilla Aragón Airport (CLO) – Cali’s International Airport in Palmira.
  5. Ernesto Cortissoz International Airport (BAQ) – Barranquilla’s International Airport.
  6. Simón Bolívar International Airport (SMR) – Santa Marta’s International Airport.
  7. Matecaña International Airport (PEI) – Pereira’s International Airport.
  8. Olaya Herrera Airport (EOH) – Medellín’s domestic airport in the city.

Avianca flies to and from all these airports except for Olaya Herrera Airport in Medellín.

Avianca plane at the Alfonso Bonilla Aragón Cali Airport, photo by El Tobias

Avianca plane at the Alfonso Bonilla Aragón Cali Airport, photo by El Tobias

The Bottom Line: Traveling on Avianca and Earning LifeMiles

The bottom line is that Avianca has the biggest selection of flights to destinations in Colombia and also from Colombia to other countries.

My preference for domestic flights in Colombia is Avianca. One reason is that I have an elite LifeMiles membership, which means that I can use the shorter VIP check-in lines and the VIP lounges. Another reason is that the airline has the biggest selection of domestic flights in Colombia. Also, I like the free seat-back entertainment.

In addition, domestic flights on Avianca can be inexpensive if you buy far enough in advance. I have traveled roundtrip on Avianca from Medellín to Bogotá, to Bucaramanga, to Cartagena, to Cali and to Pereria for under $100 USD roundtrip multiple times.

Also, I have flown on international flights with Avianca to several countries including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Spain and the United States. However, when flying to the U.S. I normally use JetBlue.

But when traveling to other countries in Latin America I normally fly Avianca. And I have found that if I buy tickets far enough in advance, Avianca typically has fares that are competitive with the other airline options.

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Editors note: updated on March 20, 2020 with information that Avianca will suspend all international flights on March 23, 2020 and domestic operation will continue at 16 percent of capacity from Bogotá to certain destinations within Colombia.