Booking (and Paying for) Flights Online in Brazil

Brazil is a great country. Really. And, its economy seems to be thriving. There are even multiple low-cost airlines (Avianca, Azul, GOL, TAM, Webjet) that provide enough competition to make flying inside the country oftentimes as cheap an option as taking the bus. And, some of the associated websites are pretty good. There’s only one problem: to actually PURCHASE a flight with a credit card you must have a Brazilian CPF number (similar to a social security number in the US; see how to get a CPF as a foreigner).

This is an annoying and, frankly, a puzzling situation as Brazil is quickly joining the world’s advanced economies and has many very modern advances, including widespread use of credit cards. Indeed, most restaurants even have portable credit card reading devices to process payments at the table. What I have not been able to learn is whether it is a problem driven by the foreign card companies themselves or by someone/something inside Brazil. If something internal to Brazil, is it a technical issue, a legal issue or just a bank policy issue? If anyone knows please share the answer in the comments.

One problem in particular with booking a flight is that nowhere is it made clear that you cannot pay with a foreign issued credit card. In fact, you can get quite far along in the purchase process before realizing that you are basically out of luck. When I tried to buy a ticket with Webjet I was even allowed to skip the CPF field when registering by stating I was a foreigner and entering in my passport number instead. That seemed like a clear indication to me that I was going to have success, but sure enough at the last stage of entering my credit card information I was prompted for a CPF and there was simply no way around it.

So, what are your options?

  1. Go to the airline office, usually only located at the airport, and buy your ticket in person. When I did this twice with Webjet I was charged the same processing fee I would have paid a travel agent. And it wasn’t a credit card processing fee as I was charged the fee when I paid cash once, so keep that in mind.
  2. Buy your ticket from an agency in town. I have read that sometimes agencies don’t have access to the promotional fares but this is not something I can confirm.
  3. Buy from the airlines’ international site. I have read that Avianca, GOL, Azul, and TAM have international websites where you can successfully make payment but I haven’t tried so I can’t verify that from personal experience. I also read that these international sites often don’t offer the promotional prices so definitely compare the two sites before deciding on a purchase.
  4. Get a CPF. If you plan to spend a long time in Brazil and fly a lot, getting a Brazilian CPF is probably worth the effort, which I understand isn’t too terrible.
  5. Get someone else to buy it for you. This is great if you have a Brazilian friend, but no so great if not. I have heard from other travelers that some hostels will offer this service for a small fee.

If you go with the last option, try to purchase directly from the airline site as decolar charges a fairly steep processing fee (R$30 if I recall correctly). Take the savings and buy your friend a drink as thanks!

Note that this issue seems to be the same in some other South American countries, not just Brazil. Still, with the Olympics and World Cup coming to Brazil in the coming years it seems like something they should figure out. And, while they are solving the problem for flights it would be great if they did so for bus tickets as well. How about you? Have you had similar experiences or found other workarounds?

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