The one thing you need to know before you leave for the airport

Dong Heon Kim asked if we could help get him a refund from ExploreTrip after he was denied boarding on his recent Air Canada flight from Seattle to South Korea. Unfortunately, Kim is just one of a steady stream of would-be travelers we have seen recently, who have shown up at the airport ready for take-off only to have their plans thwarted by a missing travel document.

Can we help? Yes, but not in the way that Kim had hoped.

Our goal here is to remind future international travelers of the importance of consulting with an official source prior to heading to the airport, to ensure that you possess all of the documents that you need for your trip.

Kim’s story began when he purchased a ticket on Air Canada through an online ticketing agency called ExploreTrip. When he showed up at the airport for his flight, he was told that because his flight stopped in Vancouver, he needed an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) to transit through Canada.

Mistake number one: This was the first time Kim had heard about this requirement.

But since this ETA can sometimes be granted at the airport, the Air Canada staff assisted Kim with the application. However, he did not receive an immediate approval and missed his flight.

Mistake number two: Kim sent an email to Air Canada 20 minutes before the scheduled take-off asking for his flight to be canceled. Because this is not an instantaneous form of communication, Kim was listed as a no-show for his flight.

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When a passenger is listed as a no-show for any portion of their flight, the entire ticket is voided and the value is lost.

So when Kim contacted us, he wanted to know if he could hold the online travel agency responsible for his lost flight and force them to reimburse him. His belief was that someone at this agency should have informed him of his need for an ETA.

As we have pointed out before, passengers are responsible for making sure that they have all the required documents for travel. And, expecting an online agency with which Kim had no personal contact to inform him of his personalized travel needs was especially ill-advised.

We checked the terms of usage for ExploreTrip and as we expected, under FAQ’s we found this:

What kind of visa and documents are required for my travel? Do I need transit visa?
All international travelers need to have valid documents and visa to get entry into the other country even for certain transit countries. You are responsible to ensure that you have all necessary travel documents and visas before booking the ticket. To check the visa requirement for transit and destination country, please click on this link below to get the relevant details. We suggest you to contact the respective country embassy in [the U.S.] the usa as per your itinerary to get the accurate information for [your visa] and documents.

Under this FAQ was a link to an online tool provided by the International Air transport Association(IATA). With this tool, a traveler enters their specific travel information and instantly their required travel documents and health documents will be displayed for their prospective trip. If Kim had utilized this tool prior to his flight, he would have been alerted to his need for an ETA.

This type of language described in ExploreTrip’s FAQs can be found across the board in the travel industry. We have seen similar disclaimers with the airlines, online travel agencies and with traditional travel agencies.

The message is clear: The responsibility for knowing and obtaining the proper travel documents lies with the traveler. Kim’s case highlights the fact that you also need to check the entry requirements for any country through which your flight may connect.

It’s not just missing visas or ETAs that could put the brakes on your trip.

Rita Finger recently contacted us because her daughter was denied boarding to Switzerland on Airberlin when she attempted to check in with only three months’ validity left on her passport. The requirement for entry to Switzerland is six months beyond the dates of travel. As a result, she incurred an additional expense of $2500 (to change her flight) and the cost of an expedited passport. Her mother wants to know who will reimburse her daughter.

Unfortunately, the answer is no one. When a traveler makes a mistake such as this, they almost always bear the financial burden.

If you want to make sure that your vacation plans are not disrupted, make sure to consult the Department of State’s website long before packing your suitcase. Here, you will find an abundance of information for your international travel needs. You will also be able to find the contact information for the embassy of the country to which you plan to travel. This embassy will be the ultimate authority on the currently needed travel documents for your destination.

By the way, a consumer advocacy site also cannot be relied upon to give you advice as to what travel documents you will need. We have had several consumers post to our forums recently asking for advice about their complicated needs. We cannot give that type of advice. As we have seen time and again, the implications of having the wrong information can be disastrous. Please consult the embassy or consulate of the country to which you wish to travel.

We never like to hear about travelers missing their planned vacations and losing money in the process. But, we hope that by providing this information, we can prevent our readers from ending up in similar circumstances. Remember, doing your pre-travel research can save you a big headache down the road.

Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle is a consumer advocate, writer and licensed clinical social worker who spends as much time as possible exploring the world with her family. As the managing director of, she leads the advocacy, editorial and production departments. Read more of Michelle's articles here.

  • Asiansm Dan

    Correct me if I erred. the ETA is not required for US Passport holder,

  • The Original Joe S

    From his name, I might conclude that he’s a Korean.

  • PsyGuy

    The ETA is not required for US passport holders, it’s basically the only exception. Everyone else needs a visa or an ETA which is basically an airport tax, as many foreigners (those from the EU) who would otherwise not need a visa to visit Canada by land or sea. The ETA applies to air travel too or through mostly. You can apply and be approved in minutes online. I’ve traveled through CAN before and lots of PAX (not from the US) have had problems with this. It’s basically a $7 airport tax, but you can see the people huddled at the start of immigration waiting in the entry hall on their phones applying for the ETA before they approach the desk.

  • Extramail

    I just became aware that, as a resident of Kentucky, my drivers license will not be accepted as proper identification by TSA as of January 2018 because it does not have the required information from the federal government on it. I understand that Kentucky is not the only state not in compliance. I have contacted my representative and have not received an answer yet as to if this issue is going to be addressed anytime soon. If not, some folks are going to be sorely disappointed come January.

  • Jeff W.

    This article should be bookmarked, especially in light of some possible changes that may be coming in the months ahead.

    Americans do not need visa to travel to the Europe (EU) and most EU countries do not need visa to visit the US. The key word is “most”. There are a few countries that are exceptions (such as Poland and Romania) and EU rules specify that all EU countries be treated equally. So the EU is debating placing visa requirements for US travelers.

    Imagine the chaos if this is not resolved.

  • Carchar

    The requirement is supposed to be discussed again this year after being vetoed last year.

  • Extramail

    Thank you for that information. I better start working on finding my birth certificate which could prove a challenge given I was born almost 60 years ago! I have a feeling I’m not going to be the only one with that problem . . .

  • sirwired

    This is technically true, but they’ve been kicking that can down the road for years.

    BTW, the Vital Records Office in the state where you were born can provide you with your birth certificate for a nominal fee and a form (occasionally said form needs to be notarized.) Your BC is one of those important documents you should have a copy of anyway… (I keep mine in a cheap fireproof box along with my passport, car titles, insurance policies, etc.)

  • Attention All Passengers

    These so called travel “agents” are anything but. You are allowing some third party (unknown how knowledgeable or caring) to set up your trip and take your money. They provide nothing extra or important that you cannot just do yourself. Buyer beware.

  • BubbaJoe123

    Sometimes they provide the ability to book tickets for lower cost than directly through airlines, or on more complex itineraries.

    Certainly, you’re not paying for any customer service beyond booking the ticket, so I wouldn’t expect any.

  • BubbaJoe123

    FYI, the link provided above is to a system called TIMATIC, which is the system the airlines actually use to determine what, if any visas or passport restrictions a particular passenger will face. It’s not flawless, but it’s by far the best available tool.

  • Chris_In_NC

    … and sometimes these complex itineraries contain connections that while “legal” are ill advised because statistically it will be difficult if not impossible to make (ie 3 hr connect time with flight arrival LGA/departing JFK) or a 30 connect time in Atlanta.
    An inexperienced traveler can really get burned on some of these itineraries.

  • Extramail

    Agreed but it’s not something you think about until it’s needed. I know I have things like socal security cards and my children’s birth certificates in the safety deposit box. Last year I had to provide a copy of my marriage certificate to my spouses’ employer to prove that we were married 38 years ago so I could continue on the company insurance policy. Amazingly, it was also in the box. Guess it’s time to go to the bank to take an inventory . . .

  • Attention All Passengers

    Lower cost ?….followed by the aggravation level and more money spent by the unsuspecting victims (customers) to clean up the mess ?? These “lower prices” can easily be compared with airline/ hotel/ car rental direct websites before booking. Most, if not all times they will be equal in price.

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