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Staying off the grid nearly got us stuck abroad indefinitely — reader mistake story

April 27, 2020
7 min read
Staying off the grid nearly got us stuck abroad indefinitely — reader mistake story
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Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader Omar, who missed some pretty important news while on vacation:

On March 5 my wife and I departed the U.S. for our honeymoon in Argentina. We had an awesome itinerary that included a few days in Buenos Aires, a glacier hike in Patagonia and a week in Mendoza where we would relax while visiting some of the regions wineries. When we arrived in Buenos Aires we found it to be so accessible that we opted not to get a SIM card for our phones and stay reasonably off the grid. At the time, COVID-19 was just starting to become a major problem for people back in the U.S., but seemed to be an afterthought for those wandering around Buenos Aires.

After nearly a week in Buenos Aires we traveled to El Calafate where we planned to hike the Perito Moreno Glacier. After completing the second leg of our trip we arrived back at the El Calafate airport (FTE) where we were scheduled to travel to Mendoza for our final adventure in Argentina. Standing in line waiting for the check-in counter to open we noticed that the small airport was starting to fill up, with long lines forming throughout the check-in area and onsite ticket purchasing area. We figured it must just be due to the size of the airport and the nature of the city and didn’t think anything of it.

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Eventually we started chatting with a woman who was traveling home to London. After a few minutes she asked us point blank if we were being evacuated. Apparently within the past 24 hours the Argentinian government had issued travel restrictions into the country which included halting all incoming flights from the United States. This came as a shock to us, as we didn’t spend much time watching the news in our hotel room, didn’t receive any notification emails from United, and weren’t notified by our hotel in any way. Our flight to Mendoza included a stopover in Buenos Aires (where we were scheduled to depart five days later) so we figured we would regroup when we landed there.

I guess we were among the last people to hear the news because every U.S. carrier at the Buenos Aires airport (EZE) had lines formed that looked to be multiple hours long, so we logged into the EZE Wi-Fi to check to see if there were any updates with our flights. We also learned a very important lesson: You cannot make changes to award travel on the United app.

At this point we knew that it was time to face the music and cancel the final portion of our trip. We called Marriott Bonvoy to see what the damage would be (also a good lesson: 1-800, and 1-888 numbers are free over Skype). I luckily got through within five minutes, and after explaining the situation to the representative I was told that Mendoza was in a “flagged” region, and all of my points would be returned to me without penalty.

When we finally managed to get through to United about our flights back to the U.S., we were informed that there were no more United flights scheduled to leave Argentina, and a direct quote, “if your plans are flexible we will be resuming flights sometime in April.” Note, no definitive date in April. Sometime. For reference, the current date at this point is March 15, so an open-ended return date was out of the question. We asked to speak to the representative’s supervisor and got out the United app so we could see what flights were scheduled to leave EZE on our end and HOPEFULLY figure out what was going on.

After some back and forth the agent came back with an option that worked for us, a two-stop routing back to the U.S. flying Ethiopian Airlines from Buenos Aires to Sao Paolo, and then COPA to New York with a stop in Panama.

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This is a rather long story, but it highlights the many moving parts that go into planning (and canceling) a vacation, and how much you can benefit from quick, flexible thinking when things go sideways. While Omar submitted this to us as a reader mistake story, I'd argue that the way he managed to get himself and his wife out of the country as the borders were closing is an undeniable success.

The first point I want to address is his decision to stay off the grid and not buy a local SIM card for his phone. That can be a great decision if you're trying to have a relaxing vacation and immerse yourself in nature, but as he learned, it carries some risks as well. At the very least, all travelers should sign up for STEP, the State Department's "Smart Traveler Enrollment Program" before traveling abroad, so you can receive notifications about safety-related developments including border closures. This takes some of the pressure off you to follow the news when you're supposed to be vacationing, but makes sure you don't miss any important updates.

When you're rushing to make the last flight of the day or fighting something like a border closure, every minute counts. Small things like knowing how to call certain international numbers for free using Skype, or knowing that you can usually reroute on an alliance partner if your flight is disrupted, might have made the difference that allowed Omar to make it out on time.

Related: What to do if your flight is delayed or canceled

I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. In appreciation for sharing this experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending Omar a gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I’d like to do the same for you. Please email your own travel mistake stories to info@thepointsguy.com, and put “Reader Mistake Story” in the subject line. Tell us how things went wrong, and (where applicable) how you made them right. Offer any wisdom you gained from the experience, and explain what the rest of us can do to avoid the same pitfalls.

Feel free to also submit your best travel success stories. If your story is published in either case, I’ll send you a gift to jumpstart your next adventure. Due to the volume of submissions, we can’t respond to each story individually, but we’ll be in touch if yours is selected. I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!

Featured image by (Photo by chabybucko/Getty Images)

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  • Earns 3x points on restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, air travel and hotels.
  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
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Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases
Best starter travel card
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
1XEarn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Intro Offer
    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

    Earn 80,000 ThankYou® points
    60,000 points
  • Annual Fee

    $95
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    670-850
    Excellent, Good

Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

Pros

  • Earns 3x points on restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, air travel and hotels.
  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases