One of the most exciting things in life is the promise of a new destination to concur, one more bucket-list location ticked off. The adventure of immersing yourself in a new culture; the sights, smells and tastes of travel. The collection of passport stamps to showoff and the pride of owning more than one passport because you’ve filled the previous one up.
For the South African traveler, things are not always that simple. In fact, it rarely is. With good reason our passport is jokingly referred to as the green mamba, it bites to have our passport because of all its limitations. Among my circle of friends, I am a late entrant to the international travel circuit. I first left our beloved continent in 2006 and quickly worked my way through twenty-two countries since then, with several repeat visits to many of these nations. This blog post collates some of my travel nightmare experiences as well as a few of friends.
In 2006 I used travel agents. I soon realized that I could get cheaper flights by shopping online and that at the end of the day, you’re the one who has to do the schlep work of completing those dreaded visa forms. The value of their contribution was therefore not obvious. In 2007 I invited a colleague to London to participate in a workshop. It was his first international travel experience but sadly the airline turned him away. It was not clear why he needed clearance so I rebooked his flight and sent him back. This time he was told that he was thought to be Nigerian and was turned away again. On the third occasion I sent him with a journalist, he was allowed to travel without any further trouble.
In 2008, I popped into South Africa while my work visa application was being considered in the United Kingdom. Upon re-entry to the UK, I was detained at Gatwick (along with nine Nigerians), and cross-questioned for over six hours about my intentions of being in the country. It turned out that my volunteer time at schools in London counted toward work time in my two-year working holiday visa time so I was infringing on my allowance by three months. I was refused entry to the country and immediately sent back to SA via Dubai and treated like a criminal without communication, forcing me to go without a shower and much sleep for three days. The year 2008 was when the Uk government decided that South Africans cannot have visa-free visits.
Last year when applying for a visa to the UK, a backlog due to the Olympics visitor visa applications along with several public holidays created some of the biggest travel stress I have ever had. I paid double the cost for the speed service but when I did not have my passport returned to me by the morning of my travel date, I went directly to the embassy in Pretoria. They saw me and kept promising that I would receive it within a few hours. They kept missing the deadline and I eventually needed to just take my passport so I would not miss my meeting in the Netherlands the next day. This was not before I was humiliated and broke down in tears when the rude senior manager told me that they could not find my biometrics in the UK and it’s the traveler’s responsibility to apply for their visa in time. It did not matter that I followed script on their website, no apology or refund was due to me.
At the end of 2007 I was flying back to London from Brazil via Portugal with a bunch of friends. The airline forgot to transfer a crate of luggage from the airport in Portugal to London. Thank goodness we all had our luggage reclaim slips, but a friend had his apartment key in his main luggage. At his own expense he had to get a locksmith late at night to open his door.
In 2009 I took my third trip to Denmark, this time for the United Nations annual COP (climate change) conference. On arrival at the embassy, I was told that I had missed the window period of getting a visa to the country as no business or tourist visas were being issued. In hindsight, I could have entered via another Schengan country, but eventually got a friend working with the embassy in Denmark to fuss about giving me entry after several attempts to get in the ‘normal way’. Changing my flight a few times cost me quite a bit of cash, but I finally boarded the plane to travel via Amsterdam where I was stranded for a few days because of cancelled flights due to heavy snow. After loads of arguments, I got KLM to move me to Scandinavian Airways who were used to flying in such weather conditions. I eventually got to Copenhagen with lost luggage, after missing the conference and when leaving the country on Christmas Eve they finally found my luggage but had broken my bag. It was replaced with an inferior quality one at the airline’s cost.
In 2011 I was making my way to Spain, flying via Frankfurt. I stocked up on liquid gifts at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. Since these were duty-free purchases, they were naturally sealed. It was however confiscated in Frankfurt as I was about to take my connecting flight. I made a huge fuss, missed my connecting flight, but got most of my purchases back. This morning a friend who is a seasoned traveler (has lived in about six countries) posted on facebook that she had a similar experience at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport. It turns out that one cannot purchase duty free outside the Euro zone. Someone, please tell me why there is no warning at point of purchase?!
Two months ago I was excited to be introduced to www.ebookers.com. I proceeded to book multi-city flights for my mom and I. I noticed a bold warning sign to check for the need for a transit visa if traveling via the US, but saw no such warning for the UK. Last month we confidently walked to check-in at British Airways airline. My travel documents were accepted but not my moms’. She needed a transit visa. Before cancelling both our flights, I asked a BA staff member to check the refund policy. He told me that we would lose ZAR1,700 (about €150) each. We then went shopping for another flight for that evening. I am now in a dispute with www.ebookers.com as they are refusing any form of refund because I do not have in writing what the British Airways staff member told me. In their books, I was a no-show. This includes the other flights booked within Europe despite me having sent an email days prior to the internal flights. The response once again is that it’s the passenger’s responsibility to check passport requrements. The total loss amounts ZAR24,000 (about €2000)!
Flying from Vienna to Rome, I arrived in time having checked in the early hours prior to the flight. There was what I can only explain as a language misunderstanding. When arriving at the boarding gate, I asked a staff member where to drop off luggage. In difficult English, she asked for our boarding passes and ushered us hastily in – there was a mounting queue. When going through the gates we found ourselves at security control with no time to go back to drop off our luggage. An embarrassing amount of expensive toiletries were lost.
Whether a travel novice or not, I have learnt to check and re-check travel requirements wherever I go – read that fine print! It’s impossible to cover all your basis, but reduce risk of loss as far as possible. I will always get Schengan visas from the Dutch Embassy; the most efficient and friendly in the EU region. Thank goodness I now have a five-year Schengan visa and a ten-year US visa. I am also a convert to travel agencies!