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We at TPG are a knowledgeable bunch of award travelers, but as TPG contributor Jason Steele relates, everyone makes mistakes – and some of them can keep your trip from getting off the ground. Here are some of the top mistakes that award (and revenue) travelers can make as well as his tips on how to avoid them so you can get where you need to go.
1. Not having an entry visa: This might seem like a no-brainer, and information on whether you need a visa or other documentation for a particular destination is easily obtainable at the State Department website, but visa requirements and restrictions change all the time, so even if you think you know what you need and have all the supporting materials for your trip, double check a few weeks ahead of your departure.
That’s what I should have done when, back in 2000, I took a long trip throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Africa without ever bothering to consider the entry requirements of the countries I was visiting. In retrospect, I was lucky not to have been denied entry. After 9/11, when the United States increased visa requirements for entry, other countries began requiring visas of Americans. For example, Americans must obtain visas in advance to enter friendly countries such as India, Brazil, and Australia. And in many cases, the visa application requires that your passport be mailed to the nearest consulate. Furthermore, countries can change their visa requirements at any time, and travelers who don’t show proof of compliance are likely to be denied boarding by their airline before the first leg of their trip.
How to avoid this problem: Today, my advice is to take nothing for granted. Research the requirements for entry of every country that you will visit or even transit (change planes) on your itinerary. And if you booked your trip long in advance, double check the requirements as your date of travel approaches. Also check out Allied Passport to obtain your entry visa before you travel.
2. Not paying a reciprocity fee: Like entry visas, another requirement that the United States has imposed on visitors are hefty fees. In retaliation, several countries now require “reciprocity fees” from American visitors. In fact, TPG editor Eric nearly ran afoul of this requirement on his latest trip to Buenos Aires. Until very recently, the fee was collected on arrival, but Argentina now requires it to be paid in advance. Fortunately for Eric, it can be quickly paid online (at the check-in counter in his case!).
How to avoid this problem: Again, assume nothing and do your research well in advance of traveling. See more about understanding South American visa and reciprocity fees, and be sure to verify that this information is current.
3. Passport not valid long enough or not enough blank pages: Just because you have your required entry visa and paid any required fees, that doesn’t mean that you’ve satisfied all of the entry requirements. In fact, many countries require passports to be valid for three or even six months beyond the last day of your itinerary.
Another common restriction is having enough blank pages in your passport. For example, the US State Department warns travelers to South Africa that they:
“Are strongly advised to have at least two fully blank passport visa pages upon arrival in South Africa. Travelers without the requisite blank visa pages in their passports may be refused entry into South Africa, fined, and returned to their point of origin at their own expense. In many cases, South African authorities have not granted approval for U.S. Consular officers to assist U.S. citizen travelers by adding extra visa pages.”
And while most nations are unlikely to actually deny Americans entry for these minor technical issues, the airlines frequently enforce these restrictions to the letter when travelers check in at their home airport. Carriers have zero tolerance because they are subject to steep fines when passengers are turned back.
How to avoid this problem: Renew your passport before it is ever within six months of expiring. And when doing so, Americans now have the option or requesting additional pages at no extra charge. Also check out Allied Passport when trying to renew your passport.
4. Not having proof of onward travel: Beyond your passport, visas, and fees, many countries require proof that you don’t intend to overstay your welcome. This is no problem for people traveling on a roundtrip ticket, but can be an issue in two other circumstances. First, if you are returning home on a separate ticket with another carrier, you will be required to present this ticket as proof. Additionally, those who intend to exit the country using a surface transportation or airline tickets that haven’t been purchased won’t have anything to show. As with passport issues, the airlines will strictly enforce these requirements even if the country in question seldom does.
How to avoid this problem: First, do your research and determine which countries have this requirement. If you have a return ticket, print it out and be ready to present it. But if you don’t have onward travel purchased, look into buying an inexpensive boat, train, or bus ticket. As a last resort, you can always purchase a refundable airline ticket and cancel it after arrival.
5. Not purchasing a lap child ticket: On domestic flights, parents are free to bring along children under two years old without a ticket, but children always require a ticket when traveling internationally. Yet I still come across new parents who are unaware of these rules, which are poorly understood by airline staff themselves. In fact, on my last trip, an American Airlines agent mistakenly informed me that the airline didn’t accept lap children on international flights, and was surprised when I presented my child’s ticket. In general, lap child tickets cost 10% of the adult fare, even on an award ticket (but there are exceptions). This can be a very large amount when traveling on an award in business or first class.
How to avoid this problem: Read my guide How to Plan Award Travel With An Infant Or Lap Child and confirm the rules for your carrier haven’t change since I posted it. I strongly recommend ticketing a lap child in advance, not at the airport.
6. Booking the wrong date: I plead guilty to this boneheaded mistake, but I have heard many other seasoned travelers confess this error as well. In my case, I even called to confirm my booking and select seats. The agent claimed to assign my family’s seats together, but when we arrived at the airport, I was told that my seat was on a flight the previous week. Problems can arise from a simple typo as well as from difficulties booking itineraries on the web sites of foreign carriers that display dates differently.
How to avoid this problem: Make a point of double checking the dates both before and immediately after purchase. Thankfully, American carriers must now offer refunds for all tickets within 24 hours of purchase, including award tickets.
7. Not accounting for date change on arrival: Overnight flights and those crossing the international date line can be confusing. On one of my first trips to Europe, I told a friend to meet me the airport on my departure date, not my arrival date. In another instance, TPG Managing Editor Eric was on a flight to Hong Kong that departed from LAX on March 17…but at 1:05am, which several other people traveling with him either mistakenly thought was 1:05pm, or showed up on the night of the 17th instead of the night of the 16th to catch the correct flight.
How to avoid this problem: Keep double checking your itinerary before and after purchase, and look for footnotes indicating arrival dates, not just times. Be extra careful when crossing the international date line and with late night/early morning flights.
8. Not confirming the reservation with the operating carrier: Codeshare partners and global alliances are great when they work, but a nightmare when they fail. After booking a partner award flight, passengers always need to contact the all the operating carriers (the company with the name on the side of the plane), to obtain a confirmation number and a ticket number on that carrier in case they need to reference it since the confirmation number you get through the booking airline will mean nothing to them. Having this information available throughout your entire trip can speed the check in process and is the best way to prove that you actually have a ticket.
How to avoid this problem: First, contact the airline that sold you the ticket and ask for the confirmation and ticket numbers provided by the operating carrier. Then, call those carriers to confirm the reservation and choose your seats.
9. Being surprised by baggage rules and fees: We all know that most airlines charge for checked baggage, but the airlines don’t always make it very easy to find out exactly what those charges will be. Fees constantly change and itineraries can involve multiple carriers with different policies.
How to avoid this problem: Understand that the rules of each operating carrier will apply. For example, if you receive a United Airlines MileagePlus award for an itinerary that starts on US Airways, with connections to Lufthansa and then to Turkish, US Airways rules on checked baggage will apply when you check in. And if you return along the same route, Turkish rules will apply. And along the way, the carry-on baggage policies of each carrier will apply.
10. Not providing the credit card used to purchase the ticket: Here is the most bizarre requirement. Some airlines will require passengers to present the credit card used to purchase the ticket, even if it was just $5.00 in taxes for an award. Supposedly, this is some kind of anti-fraud measure, and airlines tend to impose this requirement for tickets to parts of the developing world where fraud is more prevalent. Korean Air also has this requirement, as TPG and Eric found out last November. If you make any changes to your ticket, they are looking for the last card used. However, some of us use a different credit card to book a ticket than the ones we travel with, so you might just show up at the airport without the necessary credit card. Uh oh.
How to avoid this problem: Contact the ticketing carrier and ask if they have this requirement, especially when flying to developing countries. Keep track of which credit card you used to make each ticket purchase. Better yet, just use one card for all purchases. I tend to use my Chase Sapphire Preferred not just for the double points, but because it metal and plastic composition makes it the most durable. If your ticket was purchased by a third party, that person may have to appear at an airport before departure to show their card and remove the “hold” on the ticket. And if your card expires before the trip, or is cancelled, don’t destroy it! Retain it as the airlines simply want look at the card; it doesn’t actually need to be valid but is a form of identification verification. As a last resort, some passengers have been able to work around this requirement by checking in online.
International award travel is more complex than most people realize, and sadly, it is not unusual to find distressed travelers who have run afoul of one of these issues. Let’s just say that I would have had some much easier trips if I had been shown this list when I first started traveling.