Venezuela Exchange Rate Magic Brings Free Flights, Cash Payday

Venezuela
Flickr/ jopimalg

Venezuela’s late socialist leader Hugo Chavez set money controls a decade ago that have caused a wacky system of disparity between official and black market rates for local currency. One result has been flights out of Venezuela booked for months in advance as locals take advantage of a loophole to gain financially.

In Venezuela, the disparity between the official and black-market rates for the local bolivar currency is insane. It sells on the illegal market at about seven times the government price of 6.3 to the dollar. To compound the problem, there are strict limits on the availability of dollars at the 6.3 rate.

But a special currency provision for travelers with a valid airline ticket allows Venezuelans to exchange up to $3,000 at the government rate. The result has sold out planes flying half full, tickets bought by Venezuelans who had no intention of traveling. Others are exchanging currency, easily paying for their travel via the financial gain afforded by the special travel provision.“It is possible to travel abroad for free due to this exchange rate magic,” said local economist Angel Garcia Banchs in a Reuters report.

Better yet, those actually flying take credit cards abroad to get a cash advance, bringing back dollars to sell on the black market for about seven times the original exchange rate. Bolivian President to Sue U.S. Over Venezuelan Flight Snub

Searching, Thinking, Speaking Travel Apps No Match For Human Brain, Maybe

travel appsUnder the premise that searching for a flight online is a time-consuming and annoying task, travel buyers have been presented with a number of solutions. As new technology moves from the lab to the street, we see it being applied in helpful ways that do indeed make life easier and save us time.

Searching for flights online, buyers commonly visit multiple websites, see something they like on one, look for it on another, cross-check with the airline site and so on. When the time comes to pull the trigger and buy, those flights are often unavailable or priced differently. It can be a frustrating task but one that has to be done to find a flight that works with our travel plans – until now.

Say hello to Pintrips, a new online tool that allows business and leisure travelers to “pin” and see flights they’ve found across the web in one spot. Find something you like on a Pintrips-enabled website? Pin it with a click on the pin button next to each flight and Pintrips saves the find, constantly tracks price changes and enables easy comparison.

Stop right there and Pintrips is a win, consolidating all the good stuff we see while searching and putting it in one place. But going a step further, Pintrips pulls in the results of similar searches done by others in a crowd-sourcing sort of way that might eventually be worth considering.

Called “Public Pinning Boards,” this new feature provides “a fast track to pinning by providing the latest pins from the community as well as latest deals,” said Pintrips in a Wall Street Journal statement.

Pintrips does have its limits; capability is currently available only on American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, United, US Air and Virgin America airline sites and search sites Google, Expedia, Kayak and Orbitz. But new sites are being added every month and users can request sites too.

Easier yet, Cheapair has a new voice-activated flight search travel app.

Basically, we don’t have to lift a finger with this one to find an abundance of flight information. Using the new CheapAir app available for iPhone and iPad, say a request like, “Orlando to Los Angeles, May 5th to the 10th” or “L.A. to Vegas tomorrow coming back Sunday” and up pop the results – no form to fill out.

Still, finding the right flight can be much like looking for a needle in a haystack; there are just so many different options. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just use our brains to narrow down the results, find the perfect flight, priced right, and be done with it?

Applying the flavor of recent research at University of California, Berkeley, that day may come. Scientists have discovered that when we embark on a targeted search, like looking for a contact lens on a bathroom floor or a car key in a bed of gravel, that various visual and non-visual regions of the brain mobilize to track them down.

“Our results show that our brains are much more dynamic than previously thought, rapidly reallocating resources based on behavioral demands, and optimizing our performance by increasing the precision with which we can perform relevant tasks,” said Tolga Cukur, a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at UC Berkeley in a RDMag article.

We look forward to more results from that research but know that the world of travel apps is constantly changing, as we see in this promotional video for the Travel Channel To Go app from 2008.


[Photo credit - Flickr user TZA]

Tiny Samoa Air First To Charge Passengers Based On Weight

Samoa Air will now charge passegners by weightConsidering the number of fake travel stories we posted in celebration of April Fool’s Day on Monday, we can understand why you might be skeptical of the following post. But it has actually been confirmed by a number of news outlets across the globe, including the BBC. Still, considering the timing, I was double and triple checking the news.

Samoa Air has announced that it will now start charging passengers based on weight. The controversial new pricing means that it will now be cheaper for thinner customers to travel with the tiny airline, which operates just two aircraft over a few relatively short routes. Those planes are small, which makes them more susceptible to heavy loads as they fly between Samoa, American Samoa, North Tonga, Niue, the North Cook Islands and French Polynesia.

According to the new policy, passengers, along with their bags, will be weighed at the airport to determine just how much they’ll have to pay. They will then be charged a fixed rate per kilogram, which varies based on which route the passenger is actually flying. Those rates range from as little as $1 all the way up to $4.16 per kilogram. There are no extra bag fees of any kind, just a simple scale based directly on weight.Chris Langton, the Chief Executive of Samoa Air, has been widely quoted in the media as saying that this is “the fairest way of traveling,” and I’m sure many would agree. Sitting next to a particularly large passenger who takes up half of your seat isn’t especially comfortable and while this new pricing scheme won’t alleviate that issue, at least svelte customers will have the satisfaction of knowing that they paid less for their fare. Langton also says that the policy will help promote a greater awareness of health in Samoa, a country that is known for having one of the highest obesity rates on the planet.

This is an interesting approach to pricing to say the least. As someone who tends to travel light, I personally wouldn’t mind seeing some of the bigger airlines adopt a similar approach. But considering the size of many passengers, not to mention their bags, I’m not sure how popular it would be with the general public. Besides, going through a TSA screening can be harrowing enough, how bad would you feel if you had to step on a scale at the ticket counter too?

[Photo Credit: Samoa Air]

How to Find a Cheap Flight

Another year has passed and the airline industry is still locked in its race to the bottom of quality and service. It now costs money to add anything special to your flight, from legroom to meals to Internet to in-flight television. Need to change your tickets? There’s a fee. Want to standby for an earlier flight? There’s a fee. On some carriers there’s even a fee to store your bags in an overhead bin, and others are removing bathrooms to make room for more paying passengers. Even Southwest Airlines, the king of no-hassle flying, recently announced that they’ll start charging fees for parts of their service.

No fee should surprise the frugal traveler at this point. The industry has adapted to à la carte pricing, which targets the casual and unwary traveler, and it’s up to the informed passenger to find the best priced and fee-free tickets. The good news is that these new fees have kept base fares low – it’s just a matter of finding the cheapest tickets. Here’s how you can get started in 2013. For 2012 tips, check out last year’s still very-relevant guide.

1. Cheat On Your Metacrawler
Oh, you use Kayak? Everyone does at this point, and though it’s hands down the best tool for quickly searching the widest spectrum of airline sites, it’s not the only authority. Sites like Momondo (based in Copenhagen) and Skyscanner (based in Edinburgh) often have access to different branches of Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) and can sometimes display completely different prices.

Here’s a recent example. A flight I recently booked between Munich and Berlin was coming up as $650 on Kayak via Airberlin.com. But Skyscanner pulled up availability on a site called Ebookers.co.uk for a cost of $560. Total savings by switching crawlers: $90.

2. Broaden Your Flexibility
The flexible tools on Kayak, Travelocity and Orbitz are great ways to find the cheapest availability, but if you want the best bang for your buck, check out the tools on ITA Software. The search tool, which is quietly owned by Google, has one of the most powerful engines for searching a huge range of tickets. You can select the number of days that you want to be gone, for example, and ITA will search for departures every day for a month. And that’s just in novice mode. In advanced mode, you can force connections in layover cities, call out specific carriers and integrate in a whole host of constraints geared towards finding the cheapest flight. Milepoint has an excellent thread on these commands.

The one drawback? ITA won’t actually book the flight for you. It’s not too hard to take its output and carry it over to Kayak or your local travel agent, but it adds an extra step that many don’t want to take.

3. Outsource Your Flight Searching
All of the searching in the world can help you find the perfect itinerary, but when the fares aren’t dropping, there’s always another solution: outsourcing. Flightfox is a service that allows you to fill in your ideal costs and constraints and then create a contest to identify the cheapest itinerary.

So you want to go to Paris from Chicago over the second weekend of February, right? But the cheapest fare on Kayak is $792. You can plug in your ideal price (say, $600) into FlightFox and then “experts” on the site dig through the myriad search engines to find you the best price. If someone finds an itinerary that matches your goals you can award them a fee from $24.

The best part about Flightfox, though, is that you can stipulate each requirement for your ticket. And that includes searches for mileage tickets. One of my recent requests was for a one-way ticket from Europe to New York City on a One World carrier departing on the 2nd of January for 20,000 miles. I had searched high and low on aa.com and over the phone, but a Flightfox user found a ticket from Madrid for me within two hours and my vacation was complete. For $24, that service was a godsend.

4. Stay Abreast With Sale Fares and Coupon Codes
One of the biggest misconceptions about airfares is that they’re constantly moving up, often with flashy headlines like “Spirit raises fares by $10!!!” If only it were that simple.

Airlines are absurdly competitive, and often, as soon as one carrier raises or lowers its price the others will follow suit to reduce that pricing advantage. It’s that competition that keeps costs from going through the roof.

One way that carriers have been working around that, though, is by using specialized fare sales and coupon codes. Just last week, Jetblue launched a weeklong flurry of fare sales up to 80% off when using a coupon code on their site. Virgin America and Southwest often do the same thing. By dangling those codes in front of passengers they convince consumers to use only their site when booking airfare – thus freeing you from the distraction of other competition out in the market.

It’s a good idea to keep up to speed with each airline and their respective fares when shopping for tickets. You can do that by browsing their respective websites, subscribing to their twitter feeds (a good list is here) and keeping up to date with newsletters from Travelzoo and Airfare Watchdog.

5. Manage your Mileage Program
There’s a tectonic shift moving loyalty programs around in the airline industry, and this year, budget travelers stand to lose precious ground. Delta Air Lines just announced that they’re changing the scope of their mileage program to factor in annual spend in addition to miles and segments flown. If you’re the budget traveler that scrapes together just enough miles for silver status or a mileage ticket on Delta, this is the year to consider other carriers. American and United are still regarded as the best airlines in the country in terms of mileage redemptions. Pick the one that best serves your home airport and give it a try.

6. Twitter Is Still King For Breaking Fares
Last year we pointed out that Twitter is the great aggregator of cheap breaking fares. Fact of the matter is, it takes time to put together blog posts and email newsletters and many brands are looking to gain clout in social media. To that end, they’ll often tweet fares before their email blast comes out, and those precious minutes can be the difference between a booked ticket and a missed deal. As suggested last year, make sure you follow and keep close track of @airfarewatchdog, @johnnyjet, @NYCAviation, @gadling, @globetrotscott and our very own @grantkmartin for any breaking airline news and fares.

Keep in mind, as well, that good deals don’t come up every day. Watching for airfare deals is like cultivating a Bonsai tree. It takes time, patience and a little bit of luck.

[Photo credit: Flickr user flyforfun]