Traveling With a Damaged Passport — TPG Reader Mistake Story

Feb 12, 2017

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One of the things I love most about being The Points Guy is getting to hear stories from readers about all the positive ways award travel has affected their lives. That being said, while I love hearing about your successes, I think there’s also a lot we can learn by sharing our mistakes, and I’m calling on readers to send in your most egregious and woeful travel failures.

From time to time I’ll pick one that catches my eye and post it for everybody to enjoy (and commiserate with). If you’re interested, email your story to info@thepointsguy.com, and put “Reader Mistake Story” in the subject line. Include details of exactly how your trip went wrong, and (where applicable) how you made it right. Please offer any wisdom you gained from the experience, and explain what precautions the rest of us can take to avoid the same pitfalls. If we publish your story, I’ll send you a gift to help jump-start your next adventure (or make up for any blunders from the last one).

Recently, I posted a story from Kimberly, who missed out on a sign-up bonus after applying for the wrong credit card. Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader Jeff, who learned a hard lesson about passports at the start of a family vacation. Here’s what he had to say:

Jeff was headed to Cancun, but his passport held him back. Image courtesy of Federico Scotto via Getty Images.

My passport (the centerpiece of this story) had taken me to Korea multiple times, to China and Japan twice, and saw me back from spending two years in Argentina. But on a family trip from Salt Lake City to Cancun, neither my passport nor my fluent Spanish could save me from being immediately returned to the US upon arrival.

The best way to describe my passport condition is that the page that gets scanned had a slight tear, but really it was as if a piece of tape was slowly removed from the paper, making it thin and slightly see-through. I had sometimes had difficulties with this during my other travels when the scanner wouldn’t read my passport number electronically. In each case, however, an agent would manually type in the number and the problem was solved. No such luck in Mexico.

I watched the agent swipe my passport through the machine a couple times unsuccessfully, and I mentioned to him that he may have to type my number manually. This response spurred him to stare me down and immediately pick up his phone. He called his supervisor and they led me to a separate room, talking privately outside before entering. There they told me my passport was invalid, indicating the fine print on one of the pages that says the passport may be void if it’s altered or damaged in any way.

They told me I’d have to return to Salt Lake City immediately. I pleaded my case, showing them all my visas and entry stamps to different countries, and explaining that the passport had been in the same condition for years due to high use. But they just continued referencing the same page and saying my passport was void. I noticed bodies congregating outside the room, and then security guards came in to escort me back onto my plane, which was full of passengers returning to SLC who had now been delayed over 30 minutes because of me!

I pleaded that they at least let me get my luggage and tell my family what was happening. I couldn’t get my bags, but they gave me 5 minutes to relay the story to my parents and siblings, whose jaws hit the floor as I was led away. The trip home was the longest five hours of flying in my life, and anger started to set in. I had traveled to communist countries, countries that have in-depth visa requirements, and have even visited Mexico previously (on foot from California), and there I was getting sent home from one of the most tourist-heavy locations in the country.

My word of advice is make sure your passport is always in TIP-TOP shape, and understand that each country has the right to refuse anyone for any reason. Be respectful and don’t assume you’re immune to potential difficulties just because you’re an experienced traveler!

It’s easy to take your passport for granted until it doesn’t work as needed, and then it can be a painful, frustrating headache. I can understand why Jeff was taken by surprise, as I’ve seen some pretty shabby-looking passports work with no problem. However, US passport books specify that they aren’t to be altered or mutilated in any way. What counts as mutilation is open to interpretation, but if scanners sometimes have trouble reading your passport, then it’s time to get a replacement.

If you’re prone to misplacing or mistreating your belongings, consider getting a passport wallet. Apart from keeping your passport in good condition, a good wallet can shield you from anyone trying to extract personal information from your RFID chip — even if concerns about skimming are overblown, a little extra protection won’t hurt.

A damaged passport may have to be replaced ahead of schedule. Image courtesy of Joe Raedle via Getty Images.

I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. To thank Jeff for sharing his experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending him a $200 Visa gift card to enjoy on his travels.

I’d like to do the same for you! If you’ve ever arrived at the airport without ID, booked a hotel room in the wrong city, missed out on a credit card sign-up bonus or made another memorable travel or rewards mistake, I want to hear about it. Please indulge me and the whole TPG team by sending us your own stories (see instructions above). I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!

Featured image courtesy of kledge via Getty Images.

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