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

Apr 27, 2020

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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.

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 photo by chabybucko/Getty Images.

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