Flights to Santiago arrive at Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport. Citizens of Australia, Mexico, Canada, and Albania have to pay a reciprocity fee before passing through immigration. (UPDATE: When I arrived, US citizens also had to pay a US$160 reciprocity fee, but that fee was lifted as of May 2, 2014.)
Customs is very strict in Chile. All food, plant, or animal products must be declared before arriving. Don’t risk being fined for having an apple or something ridiculous. Chile is very serious about keeping their land and nature free of disease and invasive species.
The arrivals hall of the airport can be chaotic. Taxi drivers and transport companies will come at you like hawks. A taxi is obviously the most expensive ride into the city center, but ask about the price before accepting a ride. A friend got ripped off and ended up paying CLP $40,000. It shouldn’t cost more than $15,000.
Official transport companies include TransVIP. You can hire a shared ride for less than CLP $7,000 that will take you directly to your destination. You can also call them ahead of time when you are ready to arrange a ride back to the airport.
There is also an airport bus that can drop you off at either Pajaritos or Universidad de Santiago metro station. It’s run by TurBus every 20 minutes. Another bus run by Centropuerto drops off and picks up at Pajaritos and Los Héroes metro stations, at a frequency of every 15 minutes. When going into the city, it’s better to hop off at Pajaritos, and when going to the airport, it’s better to go to the pickups at Alameda or Los Héroes to ensure you get a seat. It shouldn’t be more than a 45 minute ride.
The metro system in Santiago is very good. You can take the metro to pretty much anywhere a tourist will most likely visit. You have to buy a metro card, called a Bip! card (for the “beep” sound it makes when you scan the machine). You can add credit to the card any time you run out. Transfers to other lines are free. Notice that there is no flat fee to ride the metro. It costs more during peak hours.
As for the buses, I’ve only had to use one line in three months in Santiago. The metro drops me off within short walking distance to any point of interest except Vitacura. Your Bip! card is good for use on the buses. If you need to find the correct bus route, use the Transantiago website. It’s in Spanish, but still easy to use.
Crime in Santiago is not as big a problem as in other Latin American cities, but you still must be very careful with your belongings. Most crimes are crimes of opportunity. Keep your bags secure, don’t wear jewelry, and keep your cameras around your neck. At night, especially if you are alone, take a taxi. Even if you are only going a few blocks, it’s not worth the risk in certain areas. Most muggings happen at night and in areas close to bars. Taxis are cheaper here than in other cities so they’re worth it for your safety at night.
Also, some streets in the city center are dead on weekends. Explore with caution. I have had some people stop their car to tell me to put my camera away.
For sightseeing, as a general note, most museums and points of interest will be closed on Mondays.
I did not find Santiago cheap by South American terms. It’s one of the most expensive cities in Latin America with prices for food sometimes mirroring those of big cities in the US or Europe. You can find cheap food in certain places, but be prepared to spend money. Read my post about Chilean food to learn more.
Chilean wine, however, is cheap, and good! Take advantage and enjoy the wine that Chile has to offer. In a supermarket or bottle shop, you can get a good bottle of wine for US $6 or $7!
Tipping in Santiago is a standard 10%. Some restaurants will add 10% to the bill automatically, others will not. You should keep an eye out to avoid overtipping.
For a short-term budget place to stay, I can recommend one hostel – Hostal Rio Amazonas. I did not stay there personally but visited a group of friends who did. It was clean, the staff was friendly, and the location is safe and central. My friends really enjoyed their stay.
I also stayed in a friend’s room at San Cristóbal Tower. It’s a five star luxury hotel with a restaurant, pool, and other amenities you would expect from such a place. The views of Santiago from the top floors are amazing.
For long-term stays, I can get you in contact with Grace. She is an Argentinian who runs a house with private rooms and rooms for two in Providencia. She works very hard to keep the place clean and in order, and is one of the most genuine people you will ever meet. I lived in Grace’s house for two months and really enjoyed it. It can get crowded at times, especially in the kitchen, but it’s in a nice, safe area, with lots of restaurants and bars around. It is just a block from the metro and a supermarket. The price is all-inclusive, monthly only.
For nightlife, it seemed like I always went to Bellavista. There were all kinds of restaurants, bars, and clubs. Club Chocolate was a fun place for a friend’s birthday. The door staff was a little snooty but once inside it was fine. Otherwise, there are some dive bars along Pio Nono and a few other clubs in the neighborhood. Parque Arauco, a mall in Las Condes, was also a place I liked to go as well as a few places in Providencia.