Becoming Cuenca

How To Get to and from Cuenca – Part 1

Oct 25, 2022

I’m leavin’ on a jet plane

I don’t know when I’ll be back again

~Peter, Paul and Mary

Made famous by the singing trio and written by John Denver, the 1960s song may resonate with you concerning Cuenca, Ecuador. Maybe even more than that is getting to that point where you can catch a flight to Ecuador and on to Cuenca.

One of the most discussed topics at the largest Facebook group for expats in Ecuador is getting to and from Ecuador. The questions asked are all over the board as novices have many questions and well-traveled people have very specific issues.

Probably the biggest topic is how to get to Ecuador, specifically Cuenca. For seasoned travelers (and that includes me), they start with Kayak. It is one of the most popular travel search tools. You can use it to find flights, hotels, and car rentals. It is an excellent search engine to help you get from Point A to Point B.

In my opinion, it is a lot better than Google Flights. The Mountain View, California company’s website has some bells and whistles that Kayak doesn’t have, but the fares at Kayak are consistently lower than what Google finds. Try both websites to see what you get.

When you go to Kayak’s flights page, you have several things to consider. Starting at the top, you need to decide on a Round-Trip, Multi-City, or One-Way. Most likely, you will choose to have return flights.

The next choice is how many people will be flying. That is an easy answer for you. I do not need to explain this choice for your search.

Your next option is a bit tricky as there are several choices due to the airlines having so many types of classes for their flights: Economy, Premium Economy, Business, First, and Multiple. The last choice is mixing classes of seats for your journey.

When you purchase an Economy flight ticket, you are sitting in the main cabin. Most likely, you will have the worst seats on the plane. Seats are smaller and packed more closely together. You could end up in the row next to the bathroom. And if the ticket is super cheap, you will not be able to reserve a particular seat. On top of that, in-flight services are limited.

Premium Economy is more expensive. The seats are between Coach (Economy) and Business class. A seat in Premium Economy is often double the price. But according to Skyscanner (a metasearch engine and travel agency based in Edinburgh, Scotland), it’s still 65% less expensive than Business Class. Skyscanner adds that Premium Economy offers on average five to seven inches more legroom than economy, typically with “wider seats and more space to recline.”

Many expats opt for Business Class for a variety of reasons. A big reason is comfort. The comfort and seating that you get in Business Class varies widely depending upon the airline, aircraft, and route. Do not expect Qatar Airways plushness for most flights to Ecuador. The only time Joanna and I had seats above the rest was an AeroMexico flight from LAX to Mexico City. AeroMexico’s flight to Quito was like the rest of the airlines.

I am using Business Class for this post as it is the term used for international flights. First Class and Business Class are basically the same thing. First Class is used for domestic flights for the same seats and service.

One big advantage of Business Class is the check-in time. Airlines open three hours before an international flight. Many will tell you to show up four hours early, but you will be standing in line for an hour with no one to help you.

The queue for people not traveling in Business Class can be rather long. Our Delta Air Lines flight from Quito to Atlanta on a Boeing 757 has up to 183 seats. Copa Airlines flies Boeing 737s so there are fewer people. AeroMexico has 160 seats for their Boeing 737-800s. With Business Class, you get a dedicated line and ticket agent or two. This means there are only about 20 people at the most for this special line. It takes little time to check in with Business Class.

Baggage is a big deal. It is universal that everyone gets at least one free check bag for an international flight. Business Class gets two free checked bags. Like domestic flights, the weight limit for Economy and Premium Economy is 50 pounds / 23 kilograms. Because one has paid more their tickets, Business Class is allowed to have 70 pounds / 32 kilograms. That extra weight has paid off for us when we are schlepping wanted items back to Cuenca from the United States.

Some airlines tag your luggage as Business Class for priority baggage handling. In theory, more attention is paid to it as well as it coming off the plane first.

We shall skip the “From” and “To” for a moment and address the dates you will fly. Because most of us are interested in saving money, there are certain days of the week that are better for air fares. It is not a steadfast rule, but it is an excellent one to keep in mind while booking your flights.

You are dealing with two types of travelers: businesspeople and casual travelers. Businesspeople tend to travel on Mondays and Fridays. They fly first thing on a Monday morning to conduct business elsewhere. They wrap up their business on Friday and fly home the same day. This means Mondays and Fridays are more expensive.

The casual traveler (anyone flying for anything other than for business) tries to escape late on a Friday, and they wait until the last moment to fly home. This means Sundays are a busy day to travel. Busy days means more money leaving your pocket for traveling on those days.

That leaves four days of the week left for cheaper flights. Because Tuesday is next to Monday, it tends to be a bit more expensive for the remaining four days. Thursday is next to Friday, so it is at the same price level.

This leaves Wednesday and Saturday. Generally speaking, Wednesday is the cheapest day because it is in the middle of the week. No one wants to start and finish their trips on a Wednesday. Saturday is the second cheapest date as businesspeople are back home and the casual traveler does not want to go home a day early, so to speak.

Play around with Kayak’s search engine to find what works for you. Please note that Southwest Airlines does not allow Kayak to search its website for fares. When your search results come up, there will be nothing for Southwest Airlines. You will have to go the Southwest Airlines website.

Now, we are down to destinations. I will use RDU (Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina) as where I am flying from. Quito is my destination with the first example. Looking at the example above, you will see I chose the “Best” flights. What Kayak is saying is that it has factored in cost and time. Copa Airlines has a fare for $244 less, but it takes over 28 hours to get to Quito from RDU. If you don’t mind spending over a day in airports and on planes to get to Ecuador, go for it!

In the past, it has always been cheaper to book a roundtrip ticket to Quito or Guayaquil, with another roundtrip ticket to Cuenca. If one did not do that, the difference could be hundreds of dollars more if you book a roundtrip ticket from your home airport to Cuenca.

This is due to the very limited number of flights per day to and from Cuenca. The highest number of flights is with LATAM, a Chilean airline. They are a SkyTeam alliance partner with Delta Air Lines. Your other choice is Avianca, a Colombian airline. They are a Star Alliance partner with United Airlines. The other alliance is Oneworld, which American Airlines is a member of.

I highly suggest using Kayak for both possibilities. Using my example, look for RDU-UIO / UIO-CUE as well as RDU-CUE. Sometimes, there are pleasant surprises for your wallet. The three-letters for each airport are what the International Air Transport Association assigned to them. You do not have to know those codes as Kayak will automatically fill it in when you type in a city’s name.

I have been focusing on Quito as your destination as that is our preferred airport. It is rather new and has been recognized as one of the best airports in the world. Guayaquil is an old airport. The city is talking about replacing it, but a target date for that happening has not been set.

The other reason we prefer Quito over Guayaquil is that you are still four hours from Cuenca. There is a good chance you will need to hire a driver as flights to Cuenca from Guayaquil are extremely limited. LATAM just added seven flights for the entire week between these two cities. Four go to Cuenca and three return to Guayaquil.

Going overland, you will travel through the Cajas mountains to get to Cuenca. There have been numerous landslides at Km-49. Currently, the country is rebuilding the highway there due to the great instability. You can get through on the detour to get around Km-49.

On top of that, you have fog. It is not unusual to have your head in the clouds as you head to Cuenca. The highway through the Cajas mountains reaches a high altitude of 4,146 meters / 13,602 feet, at Tres Cruces. To put that into perspective, that is almost as high as Hawaii’s Mauna Loa.

There are expats who do not mind the unpredictability of the drive as their goal is to save money. In the interest of saving money, they will get a ride from the Guayaquil airport and go through the Cajas mountains at night.

The airlines these expats are usually choosing are the low-cost American air carriers. For Guayaquil, they are Spirit Airlines, Allegiant Air, and jetBlue. The main advantage of low-cost airlines is the price. Some have dubbed these type of airlines as “Cattle Cars in the Sky.”

These airlines may not have all of the amenities that the legacy carriers have. That includes passenger rights and compensation. In September 2022, the U.S. Department of Transportation came out with a “dashboard” for all of the American air carriers. It gives air travelers easy access to information about services that U.S. airlines provide to mitigate passenger inconveniences for delays and cancellations that are within the airline’s control. That includes crew problems, maintenance issues, baggage loading, and fueling problems.

In the image above from the USDOT website (, you will see green check marks. That means an airline has committed to providing that service or amenity to its customers. A red “X” means the airline has not made that commitment. You will notice that those red marks are for the airlines with the cheapest ticket prices. The three legacy carriers (American, Delta, and United) are all green.

Then, there are the airlines’ reputations. J.D. Power, the highly respected American consumer research, data, and analytics firm, ranks the airlines. In 2021, it included one airline from Canada in the rankings. Our favorite (Delta Air Lines) was ranked the best. Southwest Airlines was right behind. Please note Southwest does not fly to Ecuador and the rest of South America.

At the bottom for the American air carriers was American Airlines. This makes sense as by far, the airline that is complained about the most on Ecuadorian Facebook group pages is American. No other American air carrier comes even close to the number of negative posts.

This post should help you get your airline tickets to Cuenca. Now, you probably want to know what is involved in getting to and from Ecuador. This is a huge subject matter with the Ecuador Expats Facebook group. Covid is a major concern.

Many of you have never been overseas. I say that as a 2021 Economist / YouGov poll showed only 37 percent of American adults had a valid and unexpired passport. Because nearly two-thirds of Americans have not experienced international travel, my next post will be made very soon to show what to expect on your journey to and from three degrees south.

A lot more information on life in Cuenca can be found in my book, “Una Nueva Vida – A New Life.” Some say it is the most thorough book out there concerning moving to and living in this beautiful city.

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Salud, mi amigos.

Una Nueva Vida – A New Life

- by Stephen Vargha

There are over 80 professional-quality photos shot by me to give you a clear ‘picture’ about life in this historic mountain city.