I just got back from Venezuela and was quite stressed leading up to my trip about the currency issue. Here are my thoughts on the subject to help other travelers.
The safest bet is using your credit card and changing US$ at an official kiosk. The rate is 4.3, or about 4 after commissions. So if you are very nervous or are really rich then just do this.
The next bet is with a tour operator. I stayed at Nelson’s Place in Caracas. Great place by the way. He was willing to exchange at 5 to 1. That was 100% safe and would have given me an extra 25% bolivares with no risk. There are others like him.
But the tour I actually joined had arranged for someone to meet us and change money at 6 to 1. That was even better. And since our tour leader facilitated this I felt it was quite safe. So I did a small amount there.
However, once back at the Caracas airport later in my trip there were many money changers offering 7.5 to 1. This was in broad daylight right in front of all the airline counters. That would have quite easy to do. Instead I popped in to a kiosk selling trips to Margarita Island…I faked interest in their trip and said I first needed to talk with my friend, and then we had to find someone in the airport to exchange our dollars. They quietly offered 7 to 1. I said some guys had already offered 7.5. So they said they would do 7.8. Deal. Exchanged $400 at 7.8 right in their kiosk. Then I walked out. I didn’t feel bad since they still made some profit on that given the actual rate is 8 or 8.3. Since I’d been travelling for a couple weeks I knew what the bills looked like and felt very safe and confident.
I would also add if you find yourself near Santa Elena…this is a great place to exchange money at 7 or better. All the hotels are family run and are happy to make some extra cash by exchanging at 7 or even 7.5. Restaurants too.
Basically, avoid chain hotels or chain restaurants where the employee is merely an employee. Find someone that is actually running their business and looking to make a little extra cash. Be discrete. Try to do it with witnesses. It shouldn’t be too hard to get at least 7 to 1 and make Venezuela more affordable.