Desire to Go
For years I have wanted to visit Venezuela. For some that might seem odd, for others obvious – for my wife it just seemed dangerous. But between you and I, I don’t think she hates the idea of a little danger – something I am certain she will dispute. She’s not alone, just last week United changed their routing to stop in Aruba and Matthew discussed the security risks. On my first attempt to visit Venezuela, I made the most basic travel booking mistake.
My draw to the country is for a few reasons. Prior to the Chavez/Bush feud I wanted to see a true Bolivarian state, one that never lost the respect and appreciation for the liberation Bolivar brought. I also loved the fact that it was Caribbean facing but still held the elements that I love about South American culture: the food, the people – it held a mystique for me.
As of late, things economically have deteriorated. Less than a year ago the currency (Venezuelan Bolivar) had a black market rate of 450VEF to $1USD according to Bloomberg though the official ate has only risen about 25% over the period.
Because hyperinflation has taken over the currency’s value, Bloomberg came up with their own metric for tracking the true value of the Bolivar which is not reflected on the open market (today it officially trades at a rate of just under 10 VEF to $1USD). Their metric is the unofficial “Café Con Leche Index” which bases the movement of the currency solely on the rising cost of a single common drink in a cafe on the east side of Caracas. At last check, the currency had an unofficial inflation rate of 1,155% and the same café con leech in August of 2016 that cost around 450 Bolivars is now 1,800.
Other stories talk about bringing your own toilet paper, barren shelves, and taking backpacks full of cash to a restaurant for dinner to pay for a meal.
For most, this seems like the worst possible time to consider a trip, but for me, I read café con leche and instantly put myself in a sidewalk cafe in east Caracas on a warm and sunny day. I want to go and see a different story, one that shows Venezuelans filled with hope and going about their daily lives as opposed to the stories that play occasionally on the news.
If nothing else, perhaps I would go and prove those stories right, but most importantly, I just wanted to go and see for myself.
Flights to Caracas have been expensive as of late. Nearby Bogota in Colombia has seen fluctuations between $450-600 depending on the season and departure points which I considered a bargain. Last year I even completed a mileage run to Medellin in business class for $800 from LAX via JFK and Miami. Caracas, however, can run as high as $1200 in coach on a recent check from the east coast. That’s too rich for my blood and award space hasn’t been good.
When I saw a price that was just a shade over $500, I was sold. The rate was good (though some Caribbean islands just as far south are less than $300), and the timing was right. My wife and daughter who had no desire to join me would be away for a long weekend.
We discussed the whole process. The security risks, the costs, the timeline; it took a bit of convincing but my wife knows that I have wanted to go for some time and was a gracious though worried supporter.
As I often do with prospective trips, I held the tickets every 24 hours that the price remained in a certain range using American Airlines generous hold policy (still in effect for me though the carrier has indicated this may be going away). When the flight times are no longer available, or the price jumps, that indicates it is typically decision time. That exact situation occurred and about two and a half weeks out from departure, it was time to take the reservation off hold and purchase.
For the first time in a long while, completing my purchase brought mixed emotions. Had I really considered the safety aspects? I had arranged for a hotel car from the airport but was I taking an unnecessary risk – I’m a father now, people depend on me. At the same time I was also elated. I was finally going to see this place that had been on my list for so long. After 53 countries and hundreds of cities all over the world, the narrow list of places I have wanted to go for years but not yet been has its own attraction. In just a few weeks I would be in that cafe (I planned on trying several and comparing rates) drinking coffee and changing my perspective.
I woke up in the morning and started to have some doubts. It felt like something was missing, that all of the details were not complete. It’s times like these that I go to the State Department website to check for alerts. The standard “be cautious in public” type alerts were present, but then I saw this:
“U.S. citizens may be detained and/or deported by Venezuelan immigration officials for not complying with visa or immigration regulations. U.S. citizens traveling to Venezuela must have a valid visa that is appropriate for their specific type of travel (tourism, journalism, employment, study, etc.) “
I was planning on a tourist visa because, though I planned to write a post, I am certainly not a journalist by these standards.
“Journalists must possess the appropriate accreditation and work visa from the Venezuelan authorities before arriving. International journalists are closely scrutinized and have been expelled and/or detained for lacking appropriate permissions to work in Venezuela or for participation in what could be seen as any anti-government activity, including observing and reporting on public health facilities.”
But wait, tourist visa? Like visa on arrival visa? Like visa waiver for Americans visa?
I needed a proper visa. I will cover more on that soon, but suffice to say, this was substantial additional pressure on a trip I was already becoming reluctant to take just 10 hours after I booked it.
I have written extensively in the past regarding the CFR 399.88 (here, here, and my comments were part of a USA Today article) which is more or less the 24 hour cancelation rule. In essence it states two things, only one of which is enforced. The first is that airlines have to honor ticketed fares “even in the case of a mistake” – this is the portion that they have openly stated they will not enforce (which begs the question, why keep the language in the rule, or why not write a new one?) The second portion allows for travelers booking tickets to, from or transiting through the United States a 24 hour cancelation period following their booking for a full refund even on non-refundable tickets.
Many OTAs (Online Travel Agencies) boast this as a feature of their website, omitting that it’s required by law, and some have more generous policies than others. Some OTAs and airlines will allow you to cancel by midnight the following day (which could be up to nearly 48 hours) and still get a full refund. The rule doesn’t spell out how quickly refunds should return to customers so some are faster than others. It’s this rule that saves you from yourself and allows you to book any fare sale you like. If you see a good deal, grab it, put it on a credit card and if you don’t feel so enthusiastic about it tomorrow, cancel and you’re not out anything.
The long standing exception to this rule was American Airlines. American argued (and was able to defend) their position that because they offer a 24-hour free hold period, they are in compliance with the rule and actually exceed the requirements because there is no upfront payment from the customer. All other airlines dropped free holds on tickets and converted to the policy while American would not issue a refund on tickets because they offered the hold. They moved away from this policy in April for a variety of reasons. I had tried to cancel within the window before they changed their policy and was denied. I had not attempted since.
I called up American, gave them the record locator and stated, “In compliance with CFR 399.88 I would like to cancel this reservation and refund the ticket within the 24 hour window”. I held my breath. Not all agents get the memo every time there is a change and while I believed that my understanding was correct, I didn’t feel very confident because I was in a compromised position.
“No problem sir, I have canceled the reservation and the refund will be back to you in 7-10 business days”.
I was relieved but nervous. I could instantly see the reservation no longer appeared in my account, but there was no cancelation email, no confirmation of what just took place. Just two business days following my call I received an email stating that they had issued my refund. Two days following that it still had not yet materialized but at least now I have a paper trail.
Everyone makes mistakes, and this one is all mine. I should have checked in advance if Venezuela required a tourist visa and didn’t. I am so thankful that the process to cancel was an easy one, that American made it simple and quick and that I am able to re-book this later.
The question that remains: How many Bolivars will I need for a coffee when I finally make it to Venezuela?