Booking a domestic flight within Brazil

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Booking a domestic Brazilian flight on the web is a frustrating experience for non-Brazilians. I'll explain the problems, but first I'll tell you what to do instead.

There is no problem with buying a domestic connection to your international flights into Brazil. For example, if your ultimate destination in Brazil is the city of Campinas, your international airline (American Airlines, Air Canada, etc.) will offer codeshare connections on TAM, GOL, or other Brazilian airlines to take you to Campinas. This article is about buying domestic flights in Brazil that are separate from your international ticket.

The easiest ways to buy a domestic flight in Brazil

As a foreigner who wants a flight with origin and destination within Brazil, these are your best options:

  • Buy the ticket from a travel agency such as CVC. You can pay in cash or with your credit card (it doesn't need to be a Brazilian credit card), and you won't need to give a CPF number. (A CPF number is a unique identifying number that all Brazilians have.) However, the travel agent won't have access to all of the specials and discounts on the web and they'll add a service fee of about R$50 to R$100 (or US$25–50). If you go to CVC to buy your ticket, read the CVC section below.
  • Buy your ticket from the airline in person. In other words, go to the airport during business hours and find the ticket office for the airline. You can pay in cash or use a normal (non-Brazilian) credit card and you won't be asked for a CPF number.
  • Get a Brazilian friend to buy the ticket online on your behalf using his Brazilian credit card and CPF number. Note that a CPF number is demanded from the purchaser when booking online, but passengers can leave the CPF field empty.
  • Use TAM's international website. Go to TAM Airlines and pick your country (United States, Canada, or any country other than Brazil), and you'll be redirected to TAM's international website where you can use a non-Brazilian credit card and not be asked for a CPF number. But you'll pay 20–50% more than a Brazilian would have paid for exactly the same seat. TAM is the sole Brazilian airline I've seen that makes it possible for foreigners to buy online but they gouge you for it. For other Brazilian airlines, you have to use one of the methods above.

Special advice about buying airline tickets from CVC

CVC is a big travel agency chain in Brazil. If you go to a CVC location that is not accustomed to foreign visitors, the following information could save you a lot of time. Brazilians are accustomed to giving their CPF number for all sorts of purposes, and procedures break down if you don't have a CPF number. If the CVC agent seems to have trouble figuring out what to do for a customer without a CPF number, show him a printout of this page or ask him to pull up this page in his browser.

CVC makes their booking through a browser (such as Internet Explorer). Before booking the flight, the customer service agent needs to create a profile for you. The profile screen has two tabs: Dados Gerais and Endereço.

Under the Dados Gerais tab, for Nacionalidade, the choices are:

  • Brasileira
  • Estrangeira

The agent needs to select Estrangeira (which means foreigner).

Under the Endereço tab, for Origem, the choices are:

  • Brasil
  • Exterior

The agent must select Exterior.

If the agent does not select both Estrangeira and Exterior, then the CPF field needs to be filled in, and the agent won't be able to proceed beyond that step. Once he selects both Estrangeira and Exterior, he can create a profile without a CPF number, and then proceed to book your ticket.

Handy tip about searching airline websites

The IATA airport codes (three-letter airport codes) for Sao Paulo's two main airports are GRU (Guarulhos) and CGH (Congonhas). The special IATA code SAO means all airports serving Sao Paulo. Entering SAO on an airline website is a handy way to search simultaneously for flights to either Guarulhos or Congonhas. This works on TAM's website and most other airline search sites.

Similarly, entering RIO searches for flights at either of Rio de Janeiro's main airports: GIG (Galeão) and SDU (Santos Dumont).

Also handy to know: LON for all airports in London and NYC for any of New York City's airports.

Difficulties of airline booking for visitors to Brazil

None of the major domestic airlines in Brazil (TAM, GOL, Azul) allow you to buy a ticket online unless you have (1) a CPF number, a unique identifying number for Brazilians equivalent to the American SSN or Canadian SIN, and (2) a credit card issued by a Brazilian bank.

The CPF number is verified against the purchaser's name in a government database, therefore you can't make one up or use a friend's CPF number. Insisting on a CPF number is not dictated by law, but rather by dumb airline policy. Anyone can buy a ticket in person at the airport or from a travel agent without a CPF number. By the way, as a tourist or business visitor you can get a CPF number if you're willing to spend a half day on the bureaucracy, but that's still not enough to buy tickets online because you would still need a Brazilian credit card.

As far as I can determine, the explanation for this mess is that Brazil doesn't have the volume of foreign visitors that the US or Western Europe has. The CPF is a convenient database identifier, and probably more than 95% of the passengers on Brazilian airlines are Brazilians, hence it seems that all the airlines have adopted the same policy to demand a CPF number for online booking. I think a similar explanation applies for not accepting international credit cards.

Airline websites are not known to be models of efficient and clean design anywhere I've seen, but TAM, GOL, Azul, and others I tried in Brazil are worse than the average and particularly bad for foreigners. They all suffer from basic design and usability problems. A few examples from TAM's Brazilian website:

  • It doesn't tell you that you can't book a flight without a CPF number until you start the purchase.
  • It doesn't tell you that you can use only credit cards issued in Brazil until the last step of the purchase.
  • Very puzzling is that they don't accept Brazilian Visa or Mastercard debit cards. In terms of ensuring that they receive payment, this should be better than a credit card for them.
  • Pages won't print properly in any browser I tried. The side panel that shows prices never gets printed.
  • It shows a seat selection menu for flights on which they don't offer seat selection, and tells you it's not allowed only after you select a seat.

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