Helpful Chilean Customs and Airport Tips!
Bruce Balick from U. Washington provided the observations below
about the cost of passing through airports in Chile based on a trip in
July, 1998. Supplementary commentary by Tom Ingerson and an
update from Brian Patten. Further information from Bruce and Tom
inserted June 2000 with some updates by Kelle Cruz January 2002.
Updates and corrections are always welcome.
1. Airline identity
2. Problems of dealing with immigration in Santiago.
Lan and Ladeco have merged and now are essentially the same airline, though
they still maintain separate flights usually with separate planes. Tickets
may be interchanged from one airline to the other as if they were the same.
In some cases, flights may have different numbers for the same physical
airplane such as when there are Lan and Ladeco flights departing at about
the same time but not many passengers so they decide to fly only one plane,
but call it two different flights (often with different scheduled departure
times - be careful!)
There is now a "partner" relationship between American and Lan/Ladeco.
At the gate in Miami or Dallas, the same flight may have different Lan
and American numbers. If you are expecting to fly on American and a Lan
flight seems to be departing at the same time, ask at the counter. It will
almost certainly be your American flight as well.
Avant and National (two Chilean airlines) have also created some sort of
a joint venture and often operate together to some extent as one airline.
This is not usually relevant to La Serena passengers since National mainly
operates in the south of Chile.
If you haven't been to Chile since your passport was issued then you will
need a tourist stamp. There is a special "reciprocity" counter where you
pay the reciprocity tax. Look for it 30 meters before passport control
at customs. You'll see a line of Canadians and Yankees. Be sure you have
US$61 **IN EXACT US CURRENCY** and your passport. After you have paid your
tax, you then go through customs.
Here's some further information (Jan. 99) from Brian Patten, updated
by Bruce May 99 and Kelle in January 2002:
"The "reciprocity concept" charge upon entering the country is currently
Several people ahead of me in line decided to "protest" this charge. The
only thing their protests succeeded in doing was to anger the rest of us
waiting behind them.
$61 for U.S. Citizens
$55? (probably more) for Canadians
$30? (probably more) for Australians
There were also several angry and confused Americans who complained
they had paid already [on a previous trip] and therefore should not have
to pay again. However, all of these people had *removed* the receipt that
was stapled into their passports from their last visit. If there is no
receipt, you *must* pay again (one gentleman told me he removed the receipt
in order to get reimbursed by his office, a no-no).
I was disappointed to overhear several of the customs officers laughing
about the protests. One proclaimed quite loudly that he loves gouging the
When you go through customs you'll get a stamped entry card. Keep it safe
in your passport. You'll need it to leave the country.
Note from TI-This tip is more important than it seems. The authorities
can get very upset if you don't have this innocuous looking scrap
of paper on egress. It looks about as important as a receipt for
a shoe shine so it's easy to think it is worthless.
Expect to pay an airport tax of US$8 if you fly from Santiago to La Serena.
The fee is collected upon check in. Again, EXACT CHANGE is required if
you pay in US$. Chilean pesos can be used.
4. Money tips
La Serena flights arrive and depart from the National Terminal on the
third level. If you fly in on American and connect with Lan or Ladeco,
you can now usually check your baggage all the way through to La
Serena. Other airline combinations may or may not work,
depending on the airlines involved. You still have to retrieve your
bag and pass it through customs and hand it yourself to the domestic
Baggage Security:Always be especially careful with your
belongings. Miami and Lima in particular have very bad reputations as
sites of baggage pilferage and theft though of course it
happens in Santiago too, albeit less frequently.
Electronic goodies, cameras, jewelery and any high value, easily sold
items are favorite targets for thieves. Don't put things like this in your
luggage if you can help it. Carry them with you but be careful. Thieves
know this and haunt airports looking for the unwary traveler.
Don't lay your camera down next to you while you take a snooze or
put your laptop on the floor while you are busy checking in at the
counter. Don't trust suitcase locks or itsy bitsy padlocks
to secure your bags. An experienced thief can open them in seconds.
Old hands at baggage safety will sometimes recommend that you retrieve
and recheck your bag when your connection is unusually long (more than
2-3 hours). This certainly used to be a good idea at Miami although it
is probably not necessary any more if you are traveling through on the
same major airline. The airlines are very sensitive to this issue and keep
a pretty careful eye on transfer baggage. When bags must move from airline
to airline, there are more opportunities for pilferage.
Bruce tells a story of a CTIO visitor who complains that he was advised
by an American Airlines check-in agent in the U.S. to check his bag all
the way from Miami to La Serena. The outcome was that his bags were held
in Santiago customs for two days before being cleared and sent on to La
Serena. His camera and binoculars were missing when the bag finally arrived
It is important to know that whenever you travel internationally,
you ALWAYS pick up your bag at the airport where you enter the country
even if it is checked all the way to your final destination. This is as
true in Miami or Dallas as it is in Santiago. You MUST take your luggage
through customs yourself and then deliver the baggage to your domestic
Apparently this person did not realize this and did not pick up his
bag. It doubtless arrived and sat on or near the baggage
carousel until it was identified as unaccompanied luggage.
Leaving a bag go through customs unattended is a serious mistake
anywhere. It was almost certainly taken to the customs warehouse,
opened by a customs agent, cleared through customs and delivered back
to the airline for shipment to La Serena. In this case, the
process took two days. During it the bag doubtless passed
through unreliable hands, one of which presumably stole the
valuables. It is essentially impossible to apprehend such
a thief or recover the goods.
The problem was caused by failing to retrieve the bag in Santiago, not
because it was checked to La Serena. Checking a bag "through" to La Serena
is neither more nor less secure than checking it once in the US and a second
time in Santiago. In both cases the owner picks it up on the carousel
in Santiago, takes it through customs and delivers it to the counter of
the domestic airline. Checking it "through" is only different in that it
arrives in Santiago with the bag claim check to La Serena already on it.
This saves time and hassle by avoiding the need to stand in line to check
the bag a second time and will sometimes allow a tighter connection to
be made. It is simply handed to the airline baggage handler.
The same is true in Dallas and Miami.
NOTE! When you return, if you travel on Lan/Ladeco-American
to gringoland, you can now usually check your bag through from La Serena
to your final destination. This can be very convenient, for it means
you will get seat selection for your international flight early and have
been issued boarding passes in La Serena so you won't have to wait in the
American line in Santiago. You'll need to drop by the American counter
to pick up a departure form but you can get one without waiting in line.
You will, of course, be trusting your bag to Lan/American to make the transfer
in Santiago but we have no evidence that this is especially risky. It is
more or less an intra-airline transfer and in any case Santiago doesn't
have the bad reputation for security problems that (say) Miami does.
Be sure and pick your bag up at Miami and take it through customs!
5. Final Notes
These days traveler's checks are an anachronism and usually a waste of
time and money. Don't change money at a bank,"Casa de Cambio"
or street vendor unless you must. You will usually get the best rate
with more safety, less bureaucracy and little time wasted if you use your
U.S. ATM bank card in any one of the hundreds of bank machines all
over Chile. The machine won't tell you what the actual rate is, so
you'll be in doubt until you get your statement at home. Be assured
that as far as we know, the bank machines all change at a standard
interbank rate which is better than you can get at just about any place
including banks or street vendors. The Chilean "Redbank" system is much
better integrated than the mixture of interbank systems in the States.
The fees and exchange rates are pretty standard and there are no private
machines waiting to rip you off by changing money at unfavorable rates
and/or with high fees.
Getting money via VISA or Mastercharge usually involves extra fees and
interest charges which can be quite significant, so use your bank card
if you can.
Bank machines will usually give you a maximum of about $200/day if your
bank in the U.S. is not open at the time you make the transaction and as
much as $400/day if your U.S. bank is open. There is generally
a fee of a couple of dollars per transaction imposed by your bank, so it
is more cost-effective to withdraw money in large chunks. There's
an ATM machine at the Santiago airport right after you leave customs so
just wave at the moneychanger in the booth as you walk by. There
is no shortage of ATM machines in La Serena.
The best way to get rid of excess pesos when you leave is usually to
use them to pay your bills at the CTIO Travel Office or by selling
them to a friend at the travel office rate. Moneychangers and
banks will give you significantly less but the rate isn't
terrible. Try not to take pesos home with you except to use for
playing Monopoly. Chilean pesos are a hard currency,
freely exchangable and there are almost no controls, but there isn't
any easily accessible market for selling them in the States.
American banks will usually change them, but with great reluctance,
bureaucracy, rending of garments and consequent delay. They'll
require you to give the money to them to send to some magic
clearinghouse somewhere. A couple of weeks later you'll get your
dollars at a lousy rate with lots of fees deducted for their
International baggage allowances are much more liberal than domestic
Chilean rules. Currently for international flights you can check two
bags, each one of which can weigh up to 70lbs whereas you are allowed
44 lbs total for your bags on domestic flights. According to the
rules, if your domestic flight is part of an internatioal trip, the
international baggage allowances apply. . However, if you break your
trip to spend some time in Santiago, you can't come back to the
airport and be sure of getting the international baggage rates for
your domestic portion. They might take pity on you but the rules say
the connection must be immediate. By going into town, you split your
trip in two, an international one and a domestic one.
On the way back if they try to charge you for excess baggage at the La
Serena aiport, be sure they see your international connecting
ticket. This will usually be enough to get them to give you the
international allowances for your domestic flight.
There is an airport tax of US$18 when you fly home from Santiago, though
it may already have been paid when you bought your ticket. EXACT CHANGE
is required if you pay in US$. Chilean pesos can be used.
Lan Chile and Ladeco schedules between Santiago and La Serena change without
much notice. Sometimes it is a good idea to check with your travel agent
for the latest information before leaving the U.S. especially if you have
reserved long in advance.
American, Continental, and United serve Santiago, and Delta claims they'll
start service soon. Be sure to take a non-stop if you can - some flights
stop at Lima or Buenos Aries.
Note from TI-A stop at Lima is especially to be avoided. Lima baggage
handlers are notorious for their light fingered behavior whilst transit
planes are on the ground. If you must stop at Lima, at least lock
your bag. Better yet, put a rattlesnake in it.
The travel people at CTIO are very astute and extremely helpful. Be sure
to follow the advisory to check in with them ASAP. Don't forget to reconfirm
your flight home. Try to get your seat selection reserved when you
reconfirm and don't wait till you get to the airport.
Remember in planning your flights that Chile is on Atlantic Time,
which is one hour ahead of Eastern Standard Time, two hours ahead of
CST, three of MST and four of PST. The seasons are
reversed so Chile goes on daylight saving time during the Austral
summer which is the North American winter. Thus during northern
winter, Chilean time is one hour farther ahead than the nominal
difference and during northern summer one hour less ahead.
Consequently from late April to early October, Chile is on the same
time as the East Coast and three hours ahead of the West Coast, while
from late October to early April, Chile is two hours ahead of the East
Coast and five hours ahead of the West Coast. Chile and the US
do not change time on the same dates so there are short intervals in
April and October when the differences are 1 and 4 hours,
respectively. Airline schedules are always juggled at this time of
the year, so be careful!
Finally, Bruce asks how best to get in touch with the CTIO Travel
Office to notify them in the event your plans change. If you
call Reception at 011-56-51-205200 between 0830-2000 hours M-F you
will get an English-speaking operator. If someone is in the
Travel Office, they will connect you. You can leave a message if
no one is there. Should you need to call this number
after hours or on weekends, you have a problem if you don't speak
Spanish. You will get the guard at the Main Gate.
These folks are nice and friendly but their knowledge of English
is non-existent. They can transfer your call to any
extension if they know who you want to talk to. Should you
happen to know anyone at CTIO, try repeating his or her name
over and over again as clearly as you can. If you
are desperate and don't know anybody, say "Casa cinco, por favor"
clearly and distinctly a few times. They'll connect you with my
house where everyone except the maid speaks
FYI on politics (from TI), the head tax that Chile charges American,
Canadian and Australian tourists upon entry to Chile is retaliation for
a charge that these countries put on Chilean nationals coming to the U.S.
The fee is deliberately discriminatory. The US imposes no similar charge
for Argentinians, for example.
This is why these are called "reciprocity fees". The Chileans say that
they'll elminate their charge immediately if and only if the other countries
The bottom line is that if you don't like paying $61 when you get to
the airport in Santiago, you should write your congressman rather than
the Chilean ambassador.
Don't even bother to complain to the person collecting the money. It's
a waste of time and energy. The charge is imposed from very high up and
the folks at the airport cannot waive it no matter how important or inconvenienced
the tourist perceives himself to be. They have heard so many complaints
on this theme that telling angry gringos to get lost has become a game
Different fees may or may not apply to nationals of other countries,
based on how they treat Chileans, I suppose. Alan Watson tells us
that folks from the U.K. don't get charged anything, which presumably means
that the Brits don't charge Chileans either.
Please drop us a line if you find any of this information to be incorrect
or you have anything to add.