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Bitcoin, Ethereum, Ripple and a host of other virtual currencies have become mainstream weekly news and even infiltrated family conversations and bar talk. Due to the unprecedented rise in value of cryptocurrencies over the last year, they continue to gain traction as a payment option in lieu of cash or credit cards.
As early as 2013, airlines and online travel agencies began accepting Bitcoin as a payment method. Valuations back then were roughly $900 per BTC (Bitcoin) and with values in the last few months ranging between $13,000-$20,000 per BTC, the swing toward cryptocurrency as a payment option appears to only be in the beginning stages. Let’s look at the airlines and online travel agencies that are currently accepting Bitcoin and similar currnecies for payment.
When I started thinking about paying for air travel with cryptocurrency, one of my first questions was how a carrier could combine two very complicated and very dynamic pricing models. Airline ticket prices change from minute to minute, and cryptocurrency can have significant gains and losses over the course of a few minutes (or seconds). In a five-minute transaction, based on what the crypto market is doing, you could significantly under- or over-pay for a ticket. How would an airline know how much crypto to charge at any given second?
While I’m not a crypto expert, I have the basic understanding of the exchanges and marketplaces in existence, and it looks like many airlines and agencies have partnered with these exchanges to accept payment at the exact market value at the time of transaction. Expedia, for example, processes all payments through Coinbase, perhaps the most popular crypto trading platform in the US right now. There’s a clause for over or under payment, allowing Expedia to hold your booking until it receives the correct amount based on market conditions:
If you attempt to initiate a payment of Bitcoins different from the exact cost of the booking indicated by Coinbase, your booking will not complete. You will be required to re-submit payment for the correct amount in order to complete the booking. After a failed payment, the Bitcoin exchange rate may update or you may be required to restart the booking process.
It seems the payment platforms also have countdown timers for you to complete the transaction, so you wouldn’t be able to get to final payment screen and wait for the market to fluctuate until you’re at the point to save a few dollars.
Why Pay With Crypto?
This was the larger question I had from a consumer standpoint. Crypto currently has all the potential to increase in value in a short amount of time, unlike the cash in your wallet or bank account. The tenth of a Bitcoin I could use to pay for an economy ticket to Europe may cover the $1,300 airfare now (assuming a BTC price of ~ $13,000), but in a year it may be worth significantly more.
Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies obviously don’t have any of the built-in trip and delayed/lost baggage protection of premium credit cards, nor do you earn points when paying in crypto. While there are unsavory characters in the world who may use crypto to obscure where the funding is coming from for travel, I don’t see any particular incentive for the rational consumer to pay for air travel with crypto over cash or credit. Perhaps someone can point out some reasons in the comments.
Finally, if you’re hoping air travel may be a bit cheaper through crypto because you avoid credit card transaction or interchange fees, it won’t be the case. Each crypto payment platform I reviewed had a small note about an additional “network transaction” or “miner fee” added to payments — explained away, in most cases, as the cost of verifying Bitcoin/crypto transactions. The amount of these fees weren’t disclosed on any final checkout screens, and given the dynamic fluctuations in both pricing markets, it’d be almost impossible to find out the exact amount you’re being charged for the courtesy of paying crypto. My suspicion is it’s a nice bonus for the payment processors.
With some of the background to these payments covered, let’s look at which airlines and agencies are accepting crypto for payment.
Participating Airlines and Agencies
airBaltic — The Latvian carrier began accepting Bitcoin for payment in 2015 and utilizes BitPay as the payment processor. There’s a “miner fee” attached to each payment, which is made by scanning a QR code.
BTCtrip.com — The online travel agency allows you to pay for flights with Bitcoin or Litecoin (LTC), showing prices only in the amount of BTC/LTC required. This European site definitely has an alternative feel to it, but had competitive prices for the routes I searched.
Cheapair.com — In 2013, Cheapair.com was the first US website to start accepting Bitcoin for travel. You can still pay for air, hotel and car rentals with Bitcoin on the site. Cheapair also uses Coinbase for payment processing.
Destinia.com — The Spanish online travel agency accepts Bitcoin for flights, hotels and car rentals. Simply change the currency in the top-right corner to Bitcoin.
Expedia — The online travel agency only accepts Bitcoin for hotels (not flights) and uses Coinbase. You can send BTC to an address or use your Coinbase wallet to pay.
Peach — Japanese discount carrier Peach announced in May 2017 that it would begin accepting Bitcoin by the end of December 2017. However, I went through a few dummy bookings and it still doesn’t appear to be a payment option.
Surf Air — The California-based all-you-can fly airline announced in December 2017 that it would accept Bitcoin and Ethereum for monthly payments. I went to the site to try and find any mention of the payment form and got all the way to a checkout page for a new membership, but only credit card was listed. I called the airline to check and got a “no one is here to accept your call, goodbye” message and a hangup.
The people I know who have done extremely well over the last year with their crypto portfolio (gains in the 6-7 figures) told me they’d never pay for travel or goods right now with their crypto. They also added that while cryptocurrency continues to gain legitimacy, they should still be seen as risky place to park your money and treated akin to a trip to the Vegas craps tables.
A few airlines like LOT and Mexican regional carrier TAR have removed Bitcoin as a payment method, followed more recently by Microsoft removing Bitcoin as a payment method in its stores due to the dynamics and risk of the currency. With the current volatility of the currency, I don’t foresee many carriers feeling a rush to begin accepting the currency this year. However, I suspect it will happen down the line if the current path of cryptocurrency gains continues.
Featured image courtesy of Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images.
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