Managing Venezuela airports

This item appears on page 15 of the August 2009 issue.
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For a 10-day trip to Venezuela in December ’08, two friends and I flew into Caracas, where we would return twice during our tour of the country. The Simón Bolívar International Airport is actually in Maiquetía (my-khet-EE-yah), on the Caribbean coast, not in Caracas proper. The domestic terminal is adjacent. I was told that it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours to drive between the airport and the city, depending on traffic.

The airport has a reputation for being a danger zone for foreigners, although we never felt at risk in any way. However, with its reputation in mind, I did something I’ve never bothered to do before: I arranged in advance for a transfer agent to meet us each time we arrived on a flight at either terminal. In fact, when we arrived in Caracas from Miami, our transfer agent met us at the baggage carousel even before we cleared Customs.

Similarly, each time we departed on a domestic flight and on our international fight home, we had a transfer agent drive us to the airport and then turn us over to a colleague, who handled the check-in procedures and accompanied us to the security screening.

This may not have been necessary, but it certainly was reassuring, especially because we spoke only a few words of Spanish and we could not assume that airline and airport personnel would speak any English (except for the American Airlines staff).

Our airport facilitator in Caracas was Jhoe Zamora (cell phone +58 424 127 6447 or e-mail turismo.altura@gmail.com). Jhoe is with Turismo de Altura, near Simón Bolívar Airport. He works both airports in Maiquetía and charges $40 per couple. He also makes reservations for flights, hotels and transport.

Our airport transfers were handled by Roberto Venta (e-mail robertoventa@cantv.net). For one-way transport between the airport and Caracas, he charges $40. He can arrange touring in the Caracas area as well.

One thing we learned when flying out of Caracas — do not believe any airport monitors that tell you when and where flights are departing.

We missed an early-morning flight to Mérida because our boarding passes were marked “Gate 11” while the monitor at Gate 11 showed a flight to a different city, departing at the same time as our flight, and the screens listing all departing flights showed our flight as leaving from Gate 5B.

When we noticed this, we hurried from Gate 11 to Gate 5B, where we were directed to Gate 5A instead, then sent back to 5B. We were watching both gates carefully when we heard an announcement telling us to return to Gate 11. By the time we ran back there, our flight had left.

Having encountered contradictory gate information from two seemingly authoritative sources, I naturally assumed that there had been a gate change and that the more recent information was more accurate. The airport staff was singularly unhelpful until after we’d missed our flight, when the staff from the airline Conviasa said emphatically that I should believe only what I was told by someone in a Conviasa uniform and I should ignore all display monitors and anything that anyone else told me.

Conviasa put us on an afternoon flight, also scheduled to depart from Gate 11. As our new departure time approached, the gate monitor again showed a different flight. When I saw one of the Conviasa employees with whom I’d spoken in the morning and pointed this out to him, he looked at me as if I were mentally defective and, pointing to the monitor, said, “Don’t pay any attention to that!”

My advice — become familiar with your airline’s uniform, and check repeatedly with people wearing that uniform as to when and where your flight is departing. Assume nothing and trust no other source of information.

Each time we took a flight in Venezuela, we had to pay a departure tax. For domestic flights, the tax ranged between 18 and 25 bolivares fuertes (near $8-$12). For our international departure, we each paid BF161 ($75). (Don’t assume this amount won’t change.)

We paid the international tax at the American Airlines check-in counter. For all our domestic flights, first we checked in and then we were directed to a separate booth elsewhere in the check-in hall where we paid the tax. The tax receipts always were checked before we were allowed to proceed through security.

Our baggage-claim tags also were always checked before we could leave the airport after a domestic or international flight, so keep track of where you’ve put your claim tags and keep them handy.

STANLEY BACH

Washington, DC

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For a 10-day trip to Venezuela in December ’08, two friends and I flew into Caracas, where we would return twice during our tour of the country. The Simón Bolívar International Airport is actually in Maiquetía (my-khet-EE-yah), on the Caribbean coast, not in Caracas proper. The domestic terminal is adjacent. I was told that it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours to drive between the airport and the city, depending on traffic.

The airport has a reputation for being a danger zone for foreigners, although we never felt at risk in any way. However, with its reputation in mind, I did something I’ve never bothered to do before: I arranged in advance for a transfer agent to meet us each time we arrived on a flight at either terminal. In fact, when we arrived in Caracas from Miami, our transfer agent met us at the baggage carousel even before we cleared Customs.

Similarly, each time we departed on a domestic flight and on our international fight home, we had a transfer agent drive us to the airport and then turn us over to a colleague, who handled the check-in procedures and accompanied us to the security screening.

This may not have been necessary, but it certainly was reassuring, especially because we spoke only a few words of Spanish and we could not assume that airline and airport personnel would speak any English (except for the American Airlines staff).

Our airport facilitator in Caracas was Jhoe Zamora (cell phone +58 424 127 6447 or e-mail turismo.altura@gmail.com). Jhoe is with Turismo de Altura, near Simón Bolívar Airport. He works both airports in Maiquetía and charges $40 per couple. He also makes reservations for flights, hotels and transport.

Our airport transfers were handled by Roberto Venta (e-mail robertoventa@cantv.net). For one-way transport between the airport and Caracas, he charges $40. He can arrange touring in the Caracas area as well.

One thing we learned when flying out of Caracas — do not believe any airport monitors that tell you when and where flights are departing.

We missed an early-morning flight to Mérida because our boarding passes were marked “Gate 11” while the monitor at Gate 11 showed a flight to a different city, departing at the same time as our flight, and the screens listing all departing flights showed our flight as leaving from Gate 5B.

When we noticed this, we hurried from Gate 11 to Gate 5B, where we were directed to Gate 5A instead, then sent back to 5B. We were watching both gates carefully when we heard an announcement telling us to return to Gate 11. By the time we ran back there, our flight had left.

Having encountered contradictory gate information from two seemingly authoritative sources, I naturally assumed that there had been a gate change and that the more recent information was more accurate. The airport staff was singularly unhelpful until after we’d missed our flight, when the staff from the airline Conviasa said emphatically that I should believe only what I was told by someone in a Conviasa uniform and I should ignore all display monitors and anything that anyone else told me.

Conviasa put us on an afternoon flight, also scheduled to depart from Gate 11. As our new departure time approached, the gate monitor again showed a different flight. When I saw one of the Conviasa employees with whom I’d spoken in the morning and pointed this out to him, he looked at me as if I were mentally defective and, pointing to the monitor, said, “Don’t pay any attention to that!”

My advice — become familiar with your airline’s uniform, and check repeatedly with people wearing that uniform as to when and where your flight is departing. Assume nothing and trust no other source of information.

Each time we took a flight in Venezuela, we had to pay a departure tax. For domestic flights, the tax ranged between 18 and 25 bolivares fuertes (near $8-$12). For our international departure, we each paid BF161 ($75). (Don’t assume this amount won’t change.)

We paid the international tax at the American Airlines check-in counter. For all our domestic flights, first we checked in and then we were directed to a separate booth elsewhere in the check-in hall where we paid the tax. The tax receipts always were checked before we were allowed to proceed through security.

Our baggage-claim tags also were always checked before we could leave the airport after a domestic or international flight, so keep track of where you’ve put your claim tags and keep them handy.

STANLEY BACH

Washington, DC