Mystery Solved: Flights Out of Venezuela Are Full — But Nobody Is Flying

The official exchange rate between Venezuelan Bolivers and American dollars is 6.3 to 1. Legally you can exchange dollars into Bolivars at that rate, but there are tight restrictions on the ability to buy dollars with the local currency.

In fact, the black market rate is apparently closer to 44 to 1.

However, it’s apparently now possible to buy up to US$3000 with Venezuelan Bolivars at the official exchange rate in conjunction with an international airline ticket.

So Venezuelans are making money through arbitrage — buying airline tickets they do not intend to use, for the right to buy US dollars at a massive discount relative to what those dollars can be sold for on the black market.

Many don’t take the flights, yet my own searches for space yield many days over the coming weeks where American’s Miami and New York flights are completely sold out in coach and a handful of days where only a seat or two is available at full fare.

And traveling abroad itself can be done at a profit.

Credit cards are used abroad to get a cash advance — rather than buying merchandise. The dollars are then carried back into Venezuela and sold on the black market for some seven times the original exchange rate.

The large profit margin easily absorbs the cost of flights and accommodation for a trip.

“I’ve been able to buy new clothes and give some cash to all my closest family members!” said one delighted Venezuelan lady, just back from a trip to Europe.

“It was really easy. There was a guy in a hotel room with 10 point-of-sale machines who swiped my card for $1,000 each day,” said a Venezuelan pensioner, also asking not to be named as he described his trip to a Caribbean island.

Many, though, don’t even take the trip. They exchange up to the allowed US$3000 limit and then also send their credit cards abroad to be used for cash advances.

Some Venezuelans do not even bother leaving the country, but merely send their credit cards to friends overseas, who swipe the cards and send the cash back to Venezuela.

“This is the reason many airlines are sending half-empty planes,” Ricardo Cusanno, head of a local tourism council, told Reuters, saying the government should cross-reference flight lists with those requesting foreign exchange to outwit the no-shows.

As a result of the high level of unused seats, some airlines are beginning to overbook at much higher rates than usual.

(HT: Tyler Cowen)

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About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. your story is missing a key word…INFLATION.
    the same thing has been happening in Iran.. airline ticket speculation

  2. Similarly, Argentinians travel to Uruguay, which dispenses USD at ATMs. I learned of this on a trip to Montevideo where I was confused to see Pesos and US Dollars available at the ATM. Turns out it’s primarily for this common practice. People exchange at specific places, and if you walk through those areas and look american, they assume you’re participating. It’s still not clear to me how the dollars are used by Argentinians (or Venzuelans), except to guard against the inflation (obviously USD can be a store of value that could be converted back to the local currency at a future time). Is that the only strategy though? It also interests me whether any Americans are ballsy enough to visit and buy goods, which I assume are already discounted, but are even more so if participating in the black market currency? Obviously there are limits that one can import/export, but would it similarly pay for a trip to Venezuela? It might be a little too dangerous for my blood, but the arbitrage is fascinating.

  3. @Ed, in the Venezuelan case, they use 20,000 bolivars and exchange them, at the official rate, for $3000, then they take the $3000 and sell them on the black market for 132,000 Bolivars and buy goods necessary for day to day life. Or they hold the dollars as a hedge against further devaluation.

    I am left to wonder, so long as airlines have the right to serve any given CCS-USA route, will it make sense for them to put their largest planes on the route? Never thought it could be beneficial for AA to put a 777 on CCS-SJU.

  4. Interesting, thanks !

    This not so new, but the ratio is now huge compared to when I made 3 or 4 trips there a decade ago. Back then it was maybe only a 50% premium. Most airlines were only taking cash dollars, although I used bolivars to buy a ticket to Merida on Santa Barbara airlines. The best rate was available from the guy at the AVIS counter in the airport !!

  5. Ed,

    With respect to Argentina, USD are extremely convertible to ARS – or may be used instead of them, often preferentially. Virtually all real estate transactions are conducted in USD for example.

    The problem withe the credit card tricks (at least for the Argentinians) is that credit card transactions outside of the country on Argentine issued cards are hit with what amounts to a withholding tax, that is only refunded if you report enough income (and are taxed upon it) to justify having that much cash to spend.

  6. … and the best thing that you can do in this situation is get a ton of AA miles with citi credit cards… that’s like 7 miles/$ (42Bs/$/6.3 Bs/$)…
    Beside the official rate, the reality is much more reflected by the black market $.
    The airlines are suppose to be getting paid in the official rate, but that’s every six months or so. So that’s why the price of going to the US got so expensive!! Much more than Europe!!

  7. You forgot to mention that Venezuela is a semi-communist nation run by the Castro brothers in Cuba using a moronic puppet called Nicolas Maduro.

    The exchange is much more evident with tickets to neighboring Colombia, Aruba and Brazil.

    Sad that a country with so much oil ( more than Saudi Arabia) has been run to the ground by a degenerate ideology.

    PS not sure why you are planning to go there, Gary. Caracas is more dangerous than Baghdag.

  8. @JJason, I don’t think anybody would go to Venezuela to visit Caracas these days (f they ever did). But there are lots of nice places to go – Mérida, a fun colonial town in the Andes with lots of adventure sports; Angel Falls, one of the natural wonders of the world; Margarita Island, with nice Caribbean beaches and sunsets.

  9. I see TONS of arbitrage opportunity if you already have trustworthy Venezuelan contacts. In 2009 I visited Caracas and enjoyed myself immensely with the people I met. At the time I believe the black market rate was 7 to 1.

  10. It seems that the lesson here is to take a wad of dollars on your trip to Venezuela and pay for everything in dollars?

  11. I’m here. Marco’s scheme is common. You can get to CCS (miles are a good value) and then buy a five continent RTW ticket for <1200$ IN BUSINESS after you sell the dollars in the black market.

    It's silly. Beyond ridiculous really. But hey…it's Venezuela. The land of the unexpected.

    Don't forget used cars appreciate with time here. We're crazy like that. Buy a brand new car, drive it off the dealership and sell it for 50% more than the original price the next day… rinse and repeat.

  12. @ HouseofV: So cars and luxury goods like watches are priced in Bsf at the official rate of 6,4 USD or are they using the unofficial rate to price out the goods?
    I googled it and it somehow seems to be the case that a lot of stores price out their goods using the unofficial rate since they have to buy the items abroad in USD/EUR…

  13. @ Marco I am interested in your services. Tried to reach you at the email you provided, but the email address is no good. Please repost a correct email address here or email me at Thanks!

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