The sheer vastness of Brazil (and the absence of rail travel) makes air travel the only viable option for those who want to visit a variety of cities and regions. However, the Brazilian airline industry has been experiencing turbulent times of late. The last 6 years has seen the bankruptcy of two Brazilian carriers, Transbrasil and Vasp, followed by the effective demise of the country's flagship carrier Varig. (A new, smaller Varig flew out of bankruptcy protection, only to merge with low-cost carrier Gol.) Disruptions by air-traffic controllers and delays at domestic airports lead the president to sack the head of the civilian air agency in mid-2007, and the new chief seems to be bringing order back to the skies. However, travelers should stock up on patience before entering a Brazilian airport. (It may well not be required, but you never know.) During peak travel times (holidays, high season) long delays are not an unlikely occurrence.
For those traveling larger distances in Brazil there is also the option of purchasing an air pass with Tam (much to the envy of Brazilians this pass is available to foreigners only). The pass offers travelers four flights within a 21-day period. Air passes need to be purchased and booked outside of Brazil. Only limited changes are allowed once you arrive in the country. Also, it's a good idea to read the small print before choosing your pass. Often flights between Rio and São Paulo's downtown airports are excluded (meaning you have to use the international airports) and the pass does not allow returns on the same stretch.
TAM (tel. 0800/123-100 in Brazil; www.tam.com.br) offers four segments for US$551 if you arrive on an international TAM flight (otherwise the pass costs US$635). The pass is valid for 21 days. Check TAM's special English-language site for more details on the air pass (www.tamairlines.com). If you're traveling to only one or two destinations within Brazil, it can be cheaper to skip the air pass and buy a separate ticket.
The big winner from much of the air chaos has been Gol (tel. 0300/789-2121 in Brazil; www.voegol.com.br). This airline has modeled itself after American discount carriers like Southwest Airlines -- quick bookings online and no-frills flights, now between nearly every significant city in Brazil. Tickets can be purchased online -- but only if you have an American Express card -- or at the airport. The company flies brand-new Boeing 737s and provides friendly and efficient service.
In the past couple of years a number of lower-cost airlines have sprung up, offering competitive and often cheaper fares between Brazilian cities. These newcomers include Azul (tel. 011/3003-2985; http://viajemais.voeazul.com.br); Ocean Air (tel. 0300/789-8160; www.oceanair.com.br); TRIP (tel. 011/3003-8747; www.voetrip.com.br); and Webjet (tel. 0300/210-1234; www.webjet.com.br).
Domestic departure tax is around R$21 at most airports, and international departures are a hefty R$108. Payment can only be made in cash with U.S. dollars or Brazilian currency but not in a combination of both.
Domestic Travel Do's and Don'ts -- There are a few tricks to avoiding delays and cancellations when flying domestically in Brazil. First, if at all possible, avoid flights stopping or connecting through São Paulo. That may be hard to do; the city serves as Brazil's major hub, and its airports as a result have a tendency to get clogged and backed up. Second, travel early in the day: Delays tend to accumulate throughout the day and lead to bigger and bigger backlogs. Third, don't book tight connections, especially if you have to transfer from the domestic airport in Rio or São Paulo to the international airport. For a simple connection within the same airport, give yourself an hour. For a transfer from domestic to international airports, allow for at least 2 hours in Rio and 3 hours in São Paulo.
Car rentals are expensive, and the distances are huge. From Recife to Brasilia is 2,121km (1,315 miles); Salvador to Rio is a 1,800km (1,116-mile) drive. Within Brazilian cities, renting a car is only for the confident driver. Brazilian drivers are aggressive, rules sporadically applied, and parking a competitive sport. That said, there are occasions -- a side trip to the mountain resorts of Rio, a visit to the historic towns of Minas Gerais, or a drive to the Chapada dos Guimarães outside of Cuiabá -- where a car makes sense. Local contact numbers for rental companies are given in each chapter.
Car rental in Brazil is more expensive than in North America. A two-door compact (Fiat Palio, Ford Ka) with air-conditioning and unlimited mileage costs about R$100 per day, plus some R$20 to R$30 for insurance. Most rental cars in Brazil will work on either unleaded gasoline, gasohol, or pure alcohol (ethanol). Gasoline costs about R$2.70 per liter. Ethanol costs significantly less, about R$1.70 per liter, but burns more quickly. Still, ethanol winds up being cheaper overall.
Officially you need an international driver's license but we have never encountered any problems having a U.S., Canadian, or European license. To obtain an international license, contact your local automobile association. While expensive, the comprehensive insurance is probably a good idea as Brazilian drivers are not as gentle with their cars as folks in North America. Bumpers are meant to be used, Brazilians believe, and if a bit of nudging is required to get into that parking spot, so be it.
Speed limits within the cities range from 40kmph to 70kmph (25mph-43mph. Many cities have radar and automated monitoring. Fines are expensive -- R$100 to R$500, depending on how fast you're going. Highway speed limits range from 90kmph to 120kmph (56mph-75mph), but are much less rigorously enforced.
Brazilians mark accident sites by leaving cut branches or small piles of leaves on the road. If you see such a pile of foliage on the tarmac, it means there's an accident ahead. Slow down. It's a good idea to seek local information about the state of the roads on the route you plan to travel. Brazilian roads have been improving, but some can still be potholed and difficult. Locals and your local rental agency will know the road conditions, and be able to suggest alternatives.
The following agencies have bureaus in most airports and major cities in Brazil: Avis (tel. 0800/725-2847; www.avis.com.br); Hertz (tel. 0800/701-7300; www.hertz.com.br); Localiza (tel. 0800/979-2000; www.localiza.com); Unidas (tel. 0800/121-121; www.unidas.com.br). To rent a car you need a passport and valid drivers license. An international license is not required.
Bus travel in Brazil is comfortable, efficient, and affordable. The only problem is, it's a long way from anywhere to anywhere else. A trip from Rio to São Paulo takes 6 to 8 hours, from Rio to Brasilia closer to 20 hours.
There are a vast number of bus companies, serving various regional routes. Unlike in North America, there is no nationwide bus company. To find out which bus company travels to your desired destination, you contact the bus station in your city of origin, and they pass on the number of the appropriate company. This can be tricky if you don't speak Portuguese. Fortunately, however, the bus stations in major cities now have websites, which allow you to select your destination from a drop-down menu, and then provide the departure times, price, and the name of the bus company. You can often also purchase tickets online. Tickets can be purchased ahead of time with reserved seats. All buses are nonsmoking. On many popular routes travelers can opt for a deluxe coach with air-conditioning and leito (seats that recline almost flat).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.