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Travel Tuesday Top 10: Mistakes That Will Ruin Your Award Trip – And How To Avoid Them

by on June 11, 2013 · 20 comments

in Allied Passport, Points Guy Pointers, Top 10, TPG Contributors

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.

Travel.State.Gov

Get information about obtaining a visa at travel.state.gov.

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.

Some countries such as Argentina require reciprocity fees to be paid in advance.

Some countries, such as Argentina, require reciprocity fees to be paid in advance.

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.

Make sure your passport is valid and won't expire for at least 6 months.

Make sure your passport is valid and won’t expire for at least 6 months.

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.

You may have to show proof that you have a return ticket.

You may have to show proof that you have a return ticket.

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.

There are plenty of rules and regulations to keep in mind, even when you're traveling with just a lap child.

There are plenty of rules and regulations to keep in mind, even when you’re traveling with just a lap child.

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.

Triple check your calendar and flight information before making your booking offical.

Triple check your calendar and flight information before making your booking official.

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.

Confusion regarding the International Date Line can result in you arriving a day early or a day late.

Confusion regarding the International Date Line can result in you arriving a day early or a day late.

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.

Codeshare and global alliances are sometimes cause added confusion that can ruin a trip.

Codeshare and global alliances sometimes cause added confusion that can ruin a trip. Be sure to contact the operating carrier for a confirmation and ticket number.

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.

Be aware of checked baggage rules and fees.

Be aware of checked baggage rules and fees.

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.

Make sure you have the correct credit card with you that you booked the reservation with.

Make sure you have the credit card that you used to book the reservation

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.

Disclaimer: This content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuer. Opinions expressed here are author.s alone, not those of the credit card issuer, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuer. This site may be compensated through the credit card issuer Affiliate Program.

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  • Matt C

    Regarding #4, I have award travel planned taking advantage of China’s ‘new’ 72-hour TWOV policy. Will airlines (DL) print my ticket for the stopover outbound? If not, what is an acceptable way to show onward travel?

  • avid reader

    in your point #1, you wanna say “…mailed to the nearest embassy or consulate…”

  • Greg Shaw

    I was recently stranded in Lima, Peru, on the day Argentina changed their reciprocity rules. Not only could I not pay the reciprocity fee because their website was down, the only option was for me to purchase a one-way first class ticket on TAM, which cost upwards of US$1,800 to get to São Paulo, Brazil. I am still trying to get a refund for the original flight on Aerolineas so if anyone has any suggestions, please let me know.

  • Elyse

    I had a friend that was not allowed to board her flight to South Africa recently (on Delta) because she did not have the required blank pages in her passport. This is definitely something I’m sure MANY people overlook!

  • seabass

    number #10 is the biggest uh oh…

  • Ben

    TPG (and others who may have insight), I have a question that relates to this and am having a hard time finding an answer.

    I am getting married in August, and my fiancee will take my last name. We have booked award tickets with United for travel to the Maldives in March 2014 (we booked with Conrad to use our Hilton points before the recent devaluation). Her passport is obviously currently in her maiden name, as are her United award tickets.

    How do we handle the name change? Does she wait until after the trip to file the change? Can she change her name but continue to use her current passport and tickets for the trip (i.e. basically just not reveal that she changed her name)? Should she change her name AND change her passport – but then will she have to change the name on the ticket? And if so, are we subject to a change fee?

    So many options, which one would you go with?

  • cbtanner

    My sister has had this same issue recently and what she’s told me is that she has kept her maiden name on all of her documents (passport/visas), but then when she shows up at the airport she brings a copy of her marriage certificate just to have further proof to validate the name change. I could be wrong on this but that’s what I’ve been told works

  • Dee

    I’m not TPG, but I am a woman who has been married twice. All the name change stuff should wait until after you return from your trip. Most require a marriage license with a seal and nothing happens quickly. If you are leaving for your trip right after the wedding, she won’t have time to do any of it anyway. Just enjoy your honeymoon, then deal with the bureaucracy when you get back.

    When I got married the first time 29 yrs ago, I booked a trip to another wedding of a colleague that took place 3 weeks after my wedding. My new hubby was in grad school and had midterms, so he didn’t come with me. I was smug, thinking I had the forethought to book my hotel room in my new married name when I was still single. At check-in, I didn’t have anything (credit card, drivers license) in my new married name yet. Thankfully it was a little independently owned hotel, looooong before 9/11, so they gave me my room. My two other friends on the trip (my husband’s former roommates) had a good laugh at my expense though.

    BTW – congratulations!

  • Dee

    Thanks for the reminder. Great post. We’re planning a trip to Asia next spring with a few stops. I forgot all about checking these requirements.

  • Colleen K

    In my (limited) experience, paying the international lap infant/child fee at the time of the adult ticket purchase is the way to go. If you fail to do so and have to pay taxes at the airport, the airlines are lawfully able to charge you 10% of that day’s walk-up ticket cost ($$$$) versus paying 10% of the ticket price at the time of advance purchase.

  • errant traveller

    I am reminded of an ORD-IST failed trip couple from a couple of years back-mentioned to a friend fares of $600 R/T in passing, next time I saw him I was booked along with 5 others. Problem: he had used middle name instead of initial despite my advise of correct passport entry. Dealing with TA turned into a never-ending nightmare with their final suggestion that I amend my passport to comply with their incorrect ticketing. Never made the trip and out some considerable $$$ as a result. Sure, likely to get into IST but getting out…? Aye, that would be the rub.
    Name on passport=name on ticket, exactimundo!

  • Jason Steele

    Having a printed itinerary will work

  • Jason Steele

    My wife waited until we got home to do the paperwork on the name change, and that worked out well. Also, taking your marriage certificate can also show that both names are valid.

  • Ben

    Thanks for posting everyone. The only thing I want to point out is that the wedding is in August, and this particular trip is in March. For the honeymoon itself, which is immediately after the wedding, we would just wait until we got back. But we currently have these tickets for 7 months after the wedding that are already booked under her current maiden name.

    What would you guys do with that?

  • CG23

    Hey Greg, I have had MANY arguments with TAM Airlines and it never got resolved via their awful customer service. However, the minute I got in touch with Better Business Bureau the problem got resolved within hours. Hopefully the same will go with Aerolineas – they sound just as bad.

  • Scott

    On 5/25 I flew from HNL to NRT on KE and wasn’t asked for the credit card that was used to book. However, I did book the flight using orbitz.com so that may factor into it.

  • Wandering Aramean

    Use TIMATIC, not the State Department or random 3rd party services you’re advertising for, when trying to figure out entry requirements. That’s what the airlines use as well and should be most up-to-date all the time. You can access it via many airlines’ websites, including this one from United: https://www.united.com/web/en-US/apps/vendors/default.aspx?i=TIMATIC.

  • Wandering Aramean

    The mistake you made was not taking the trip. It would have been quite fine.

  • Niks

    One more ! if you have connecting flights specially during international travel always check that your bag has been checked till last destination. I took a united flight from Delhi to Lansing via newark and then chicago and my bag was checked upto chicgo. I had to take my bag in newark for custom clearance and had to collect in chicago again. I had to check in baggage again from chicago to lansing and their scale showed overweight signal. Lots of hassle.

  • tim

    I’m a bit confused regarding #9. If I have an MP award ticket for a roundtrip itinerary, don’t US Dept of Transportation regulations state that my baggage allowance is as per the first flight (and in that case, would follow the US Airways allowance for the entire itinerary both outbound and return?)

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