In the past year, travel has become a mainstay of the Bitcoin economy. There are currently dozens of hostels and hotels accepting Bitcoin around the world, even including a hostel in the middle of the Guatemalan rainforest. For those who do not like hotels, Airbnb alternative 9flats, a service that allows homeowners to easily rent out their rooms to short-term travellers, has been accepting bitcoins since April. Bitcoin ATMs let people buy bitcoins in person whenever they need, and bi-directional ATMs will soon allow people to travel the world with nothing but Bitcoin and cash out into whatever local currency they need upon arrival. An increasingly large number of Bitcoin conferences provide a reason for people to travel and come together from around the country – or even around the world. All that was left is a way of buying plane tickets for bitcoins. Now, Martin Fernandez has come up with : BTCTrip.
Fernandez is, in many ways, the archetypal Bitcoin user. He had met original Linux developer Linus Torvalds and PGP creator Phil Zimmermann in the 1990s, and distinctly remembers Torvalds giving him a CD containing the first version of Slackware Linux in a meetup in 1998. “I was deep into this culture that all information had to be free,” Fernandez relates. He then proceeded to take up IT security as a career in 2004, and prospered for several years – until the 2007 economic crash hit. “It destroyed me completely,” Fernandez recalls. “I had to close my offices. I left the business scene for a couple of years completely, and I started to go into movies and use technology for the performing arts. [Several years later] I started teaching in Buenos Aires and working with technology again, and I was waiting for the one event that would drive me to come back. Then, I heard about Bitcoin and cryptocurrency.”
Excited about the project’s potential, Fernandez sent out emails to Phil Zimmermann and his other friends from the security community, and the responses he got were overwhelmingly positive. From there, Fernandez’s new career was set. All that was left was to figure out what it was that he could actually do for the Bitcoin community. Fernandez continues: “I called a designer friend, who is a crazy girl and makes flyers for electronics, and I said to her: Cassandra, design me a website for tickets, but we don’t want to just sell tickets, we want to sell the experience. Think of a programmer in Silicon Valley who just wants to take a break.” And so BTCTrip was born. The idea caught on quickly, with BitInstant founder Charlie Shrem becoming one of its earliest and loudest supporters, and many prominent Bitcoin users, including a number of Bitcoin Foundation members, quickly became BTCTrip customers.
BTCTrip functions similarly to other plane ticket selling intermediaries, like Skyscanner and Expedia. Users enter the city they want to fly from and fly to, their desired departure date (and arrival date for return trips) and optionally their tolerance for discomforts like stopovers and long flights, and BTCTrip scans through all major providers to figure out what the cheapest options are. The user then selects one of the routes, and is directed to a form where they can fill in their name, date of birth and email address, and then pay for the order with bitcoins. Once BTCTrip processes the order, the user receives the flight confirmation by email, and can either check in online at the company’s website or wait to check in at the airport.
Where BTCTrip truly shines, however, is in its prices. Most intermediary services that allow users to purchase products from the fiat currency economy with bitcoins by proxy work by charging a small percentage fee, so the services are actually more expensive than simply paying with one’s credit card directly. For this reason, most such services so far have seen little volume; their main customers are those whose primary income is in bitcoins, and so for whom it is converting from Bitcoin to fiat currency, rather than the other way around, that is the primary difficulty. BTCTrip, on the other hand, is often actually cheaper than its competition, charging buyers up to 5-10 less than what the ticket costs with a credit card. Most of the time intermediaries do this, it is either a marketing gimmick to attract more customers or a charity effort to support the Bitcoin community; not so with BTCTrip. Although Fernandez is unwilling to reveal the details of how his service does this, BTCTrip uses the bitcoins it receives from customers to provide liquidity for some kind of multi-currency arbitrage, exploiting inefficiencies in various Bitcoin and fiat currency exchange markets to earn a profit. “We are breaking even now,” Fernandez reports.
In practice, not all flights are cheaper on BTCTrip; sometimes, Skyscanner and Expedia provide significantly better options, and in one deliberately pathological test case of flying from Iqaluit, Canada to Auckland, New Zealand, BTCTrip’s offer of 8,200 USD was roughly triple the 1,970 EUR (2,630 USD) given by Expedia – although, in that particular case, switching the departure date from Aug 24 to Aug 25 brought BTCTrip’s offer down to $2,470 compared to Expedia’s $2,640. However, for those cases where BTCTrip’s search engine simply can’t win, there is still a way out: at the top of the results window, the site features a banner making a offer popular with discount vendors: “Found it cheaper somewhere? We can beat any offer.” And it’s true; you need only click the “Buy Now” button, and fill in a form containing their name, email and a link to the better offer, and within hours BTCTrip will send you an email offering the better deal – with a 5 discount applied. BTCTrip’s customer service is excellent, politely, professionally and, perhaps most importantly, quickly responding to travellers’ concerns or special needs.
Ultimately, BTCTrip’s mission extends far beyond simply offering flights for bitcoins; for Fernandez, the project is fundamentally about the community. The company does not purchase any advertising, relying entirely on word of mouth to get new customers, and places a heavy emphasis on public relations initiatives to support this strategy. BTCTrip has offered free tickets for Edward Snowden to use in Russia, and for free software advocate Richard Stallman to use in international travels. To support Bitcoin itself, Fernandez is actively trying to get Bitcoin accepted in Cuba, and BTCTrip frequently sells bitcoins to the Argentinian community, where most of the service’s employees are based. “These kinds of things are important to us,” Fernandez says. “Our business is based on community and trust in the community”
The two core pillars of BTCTrip – selling not flights but experience, and integrating with the community, will continue to serve as the basis of the company as it expands. Recently, BTCTrip announced that it intends to launch three new services: Rent a Car and Hotel (self-explanatory), BTCTrip Miles and Points, a rewards program for regular customers, and BTCTrip Surfing, a program targeted toward travelers attending international events like concerts, raves, social forums, hacker and tech conferences and, of course, Bitcoin events. After that, Fernandez has another service in mind: Couchsurfing for Bitcoin users. Couchsurfing is a site where travellers can find local people to stay with for the duration of their journeys, avoiding the need to pay for expensive hotels. The two most popular alternatives, Airbnb and 9Flats are hybrids between Couchsurfing and traditional rental, allowing hosts to collect a daily or monthly fee, and 9Flats has accepted bitcoins since April. An equivalent that was Bitcoin-only would work specifically to bring together Bitcoin users, giving visitors not just a place to stay but also at least one person with a common interest to talk about. Between Bitcoin flights, Bitcoin hotels and couchsurfing, and an increasing number of local Bitcoin restaurants, the nomad Bitcoiner has everything that they need to survive – although more Bitcoin grocery stores would certainly help cut down food costs from eating at restaurants three times a day.
Finally, BTCTrip might be planning a Bitcoin event of their own, to take place in Argentina. Argentina has seen a large growth in its local Bitcoin community because of the local government’s frequent economic mismanagement; the country last went bankrupt in 2001, and is currently experiencing inflation rates of around 30-50, depending on which exchange rate one believes. “Argentinians know very well about the problems of banks,” Fernandez explains, “and they don’t trust banks, even American banks.” Capital controls, high taxes, and a government that often wastes the tax money that it receives provider a further impetus for Bitcoin adoption. Finally, Fernandez explains, “Argentinians like new social and economic movements” in general. And the Argentinian Bitcoin economy is more than just talk; on Mercado Libre, a South America-focused equivalent of Craigslist, many people publish products and services for sale for bitcoins, and a significant number of Bitcoin trades actually take place. “I think interest in Bitcoin will increase and increase here,” Fernandez believes.
Watch out for more updates from BTCTrip about the potential conference and their upcoming services in the months to come.