The air travel requirement giving digital nomads a migraine — and how to avoid it

Airlines overcomplying with proof of onward travel has seen full-time travelers miss their flights. Here’s how to avoid the problem

A passport, boarding pass, and credit cards. Source: Cardmapr via Unsplash

In January, Veena Khan packed her suitcase and headed to Buenos Aires Ezeiza airport for a trip to see friends in Porto. But when she reached the check-in desk, the airline staff refused to issue her boarding pass. The reason? She didn’t have a return ticket back to the U.S.

A full-time traveler originally from New York, Khan was used to flying in and out of Argentina and was planning on returning to Buenos Aires. But, since she was not formally resident in Argentina, the airline said she could only board the plane if she had a return ticket to her country of origin — this despite the fact that she did not live in the United States.

“They wouldn’t let me return to another country, such as Brazil, and insisted I had to have a flight back to New York,” she said. 

Khan tried to secure a ticket number for a dummy ticket to Atlanta, but it didn’t work. In the end, she missed her flight. The whole experience left her frustrated and angry. Adding insult to injury, she couldn’t get a refund.

Legally, travelers do not have to present anything except a valid ID to leave Argentina. While some countries require proof of onward travel to enter, they do not typically place requirements on visitors’ next destination. But Khan is one of several travelers who recently told the Herald they had been refused boarding on their flights unless they had a return ticket to their home countries. 

Full-time remote work and travel — a lifestyle known as digital nomadism — has boomed since the COVID-19 pandemic, even as the near-total shutdown of the travel industry left many airlines gasping financially. As businesses taking on scores of new staff struggle to stay abreast of regulations, some travelers, like Khan, are falling through the cracks.

 An AirEuropa spokesperson said that the company was unable to identify the problem with Khan’s flight, and that it fell under the purview of “check-in staff, immigration and airport staff.” 

Why is this happening?

“Airlines are hyper-sensitive about regulations and making sure they’re not sending somebody somewhere they shouldn’t,” said Ryan Ewing, founder of air travel website AirlineGeeks.

“Airlines always need new ways to check regulations and requirements, which can change every week,” he added.

Ewing explains that because so many new workers have entered the industry since the COVID-19 pandemic, some are overcomplying with travel restrictions, creating complications that shouldn’t exist in the first place.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) produces a computerized system known as Timatic, which allows major carriers to check people’s passports against the current regulatory state when they check in. This allows airlines to double-check they are not accepting passengers who aren’t cleared for travel.

“Airlines like to overcomply because fines can be immense,” said Ewing. According to IATA, major carriers face fines of up to US$2 million annually for transportation of inadmissible passengers. 

Because mistakes come at such a high price, Ewing argues, airlines are relatively safe in failing to let admissible passengers on board. 

“There may be a legal argument that they’re violating the contract of carriage in some way, but otherwise there’s not a lot of accountability in that regard,” he said.

How can you avoid this problem?

Travelers should always check whether the country they’re traveling to requires proof of onward travel in order to enter. If it does, booking a refundable flight or bus ticket may allow them to get around the problem.

Andrew Brush, also from the U.S., found himself in the same situation as Veena when traveling from Miami to Buenos Aires with an open ticket on the Colombian airline, Avianca. “[They] would not let us board without showing a return flight,” said Brush. After having to cut short a previous trip to Argentina, he and his wife had not booked a return flight because they wanted to take their time while touring the country. 

Brush ended up buying a plane ticket from a U.S. airline, which US law allows him to cancel without penalty up to 24 hours beforehand, and canceling it after getting through security. 

“Nobody in passport control asked us about it,” said Brush. “Nobody in Argentina seemed to care. It was just the airline when you’re trying to get on the plane.”

Travelers heading to a third country before returning home can show proof of their trip home, even if it does not depart from the country to which they’re traveling.

Dawn Handy, who has ventured to North America, South America, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East in her two years as a digital nomad, was flying from Guayaquil, Ecuador, to Cape Town, South Africa, via KLM. 

“The woman at the counter asked, ‘Can I see your flight back to your home country?’” Handy told the Herald. “I assumed that she needed to see my departure from South Africa, so I showed her my ticket from Cape Town to Tunisia. But she then said she needed to see a boarding pass or ticket going back to my country of residence.”

Handy had a ticket from Tunisia to the US, but she insists that the airline employee “made it very clear that she wouldn’t have allowed me on the plane if she hadn’t seen that.”

KLM said they complied with all immigration regulations, while Avianca declined to comment.

Ewing suggested that passengers facing these issues shouldn’t be afraid to speak up and ask for a supervisor. 

“A lot of airlines use contractors that are not airline employees in their international stages,” he said. “Make sure you have multiple people reviewing your situation.”


All Right Reserved.  Buenos Aires Herald