No transit visa — and now, no refund

By | January 27th, 2017

When Gurvinder Sandhu bought airline tickets for himself and his girlfriend, Veerpal Kaur Sidhu, for a trip from Toronto to Melbourne, Australia, via Houston and Auckland, New Zealand, it didn’t occur to him to ask about the paperwork they would need to travel.

If he had done so, they might have departed on the flights they booked instead of being grounded at the Toronto airport — and he wouldn’t have had to seek help in getting a refund.

Their case is a reminder: Always, always, always do your homework. Find out what documents you need to travel overseas and obtain them prior to your departure date. And that’s your responsibility — even when you book your trip through a travel agent.

Sandhu used the online travel site CheapOair, a division of Fareportal, to book the tickets on Air New Zealand. According to Sandhu, a CheapOair representative told them that the tickets were refundable and that they would have to pay a small penalty if they canceled and rebooked their flights. Says Sandhu: “I was never told how much the penalty would be.”

Something else Sandhu claims that he and Sidhu were never told was that to make their connection at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston for the Houston-to-Auckland leg of their trip, they would need transit visas to enter the U.S. They found this out the hard way at the Toronto airport, when they were not permitted to board their flight from Toronto to Houston.

Sandhu and Sidhu contacted CheapOair two hours prior to the flight departure from the Air New Zealand ticket counter. CheapOair’s agent agreed to cancel the tickets for the outbound journey and advised them that they could rebook or change the flight at any time for a small fee.

Related story:   This refund request should have been easy. Why did American make it so hard?

But when they asked CheapOair to rebook themselves on a direct flight from Toronto to Australia, CheapOair quoted cancellation fees of $1,200 per ticket. Its representative told Sandhu and Sidhu that the penalty fees for canceling this type of airfare are “enormous” because “the airlines want to recoup their lost revenue.”

Says Sandhu:

We have accepted our responsibility for the cancellation, but think $1,200 per ticket for tickets worth $1,486 is excessive. We have lost a fair amount of money because we had to buy the last minute direct flight to Melbourne. We ended up paying $3,200 for the new tickets and lost another $500 due to changed hotel bookings, domestic flights to Perth and other bookings for the various activities that were planned. The least we can ask for and expect is $1,486 tickets that we didn’t use and are still waiting to be refunded.

They might have escalated their complaint to executives of CheapOair and Fareportal using our executive contacts for Fareportal, but Sandhu contacted our advocacy team for assistance in getting full refunds for their tickets.

Unfortunately for Sandhu and Sidhu, CheapOair’s terms and conditions disclaim legal responsibility for travelers’ failure to have available the documents required to enter other countries, including those through which they are passing to catch connecting flights:

All customers are advised to verify travel documents (transit visa/entry visa) for the country through which they are transiting and/or entering. Reliable information regarding international travel can be found at, and also with the consulate/embassy of the country(s) you are visiting or transiting through. CheapOair will not be responsible if proper travel documents are not available and you are denied entry or transit into a Country.

Your transaction with CheapOair does not guarantee entrance to the country of destination. Traveler understands that CheapOair accepts no responsibility for determining passenger’s eligibility to enter or transit through any specific country. Information, if any, given by CheapOair’s employees must be verified with government authorities. Such information does not imply responsibility on CheapOair’s behalf.

When our advocates reached out to CheapOair on behalf of Sandhu and Sidhu, we received the following response:

In order to submit a claim to the airline, the passenger must present a letter from the Embassy showing that they applied for a visa and were denied. Since the passenger noted they were unaware of this step, I’m assuming they don’t have this document.

When making an online reservation it is advised in our Terms and Conditions that the passenger is responsible to obtain any travel documents needed. … The U.S. requires citizens of many countries to have a transit visa and unfortunately it is the responsibility of the passenger to ensure they meet U.S. government requirements when traveling to/through the U.S.

The agent handling the case has tried to reach the passenger multiple times to let them know that the airline would not accept their claim for a refund but was unable to reach anyone.

We also inquired whether the $1,200 cancellation fees CheapOair had quoted were change fees or fare differences between Sandhu and Sidhu’s original tickets and their replacement tickets. We were told:

The $1,200 quoted to change the ticket could have been a combination of fees and the fare difference. It’s hard to say for sure because they ended up not going with that option so the exact breakdown isn’t noted in our system.

Since they made a completely new reservation on the day of their flight, the original [tickets are] still valid and can be applied towards another trip (subject to change fees per the airline fare rules) up to one year from the date of booking.

Sandhu and Sidhu may still be able to apply their original airfares to future flights. We hope that if they do so, they remember to acquire all the necessary travel documents prior to their flights. Meanwhile, our advocates are sending this in our “Case Dismissed” file.

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  • Dutchess

    I don’t like the poll question because CheapOair isn’t REALLY a travel agent in the conventional sense, it’s a travel aggregator. There’s a huge difference. Not that my answer would have been much different if the LW used a traditional travel agent, but the likelihood that they would have been warned about needing transit visas through the US would have increased greatly. Ultimately, obtaining necessary travel documents is up to the traveler.

    As for the change fee, according to CheapOair’s website, they’re set by the airline so I have to assume the $1200 was for the change fee and fare differential.

  • sirwired

    “Sandhu used the online travel site CheapOair, a division of Fareportal, to book the tickets on Air New Zealand. According to Sandhu, a CheapOair representative told them that the tickets were refundable and that they would have to pay a small penalty if they canceled and rebooked their flights.”

    If he used the website, how would a rep tell him the tickets were refundable? The website itself usually makes it pretty clear if a ticket is refundable. (A $1,486 R/T ticket from New Zealand to Toronto is unlikely to be refundable…) Does CheapoAir even sell refundable tickets?

    On a more general note…

    One of the big advantages of using a “real” (quality) travel agent vs. just a random website is that you can have the agent go through TIMATIC with you for doc requirements at booking time. (This is also what airlines themselves use at the ticket counter and gate.) Though it’s important to note that these requirements change frequently, and it’s the traveler’s responsibility to know the latest requirements for their itinerary before departure.

    TIMATIC is kind of complicated, not free, and has some subjective criteria, so it’s not really going to happen on a low/zero margin online booking engine. (In fact, I don’t know of any online booking engine, not even airline websites, that run doc checks.)

    Also, as a supplement to the article, you cannot solely rely on; it’s important to ALSO check the consular services website for the country you want to visit. The State Dept. tries to keep up to date, but a country may make a change and forget to tell the State Dept. about it.

  • Asiansm Dan

    A real Travel Agent never miss that detail to inform the travellers about Visa & Passports requirements that my real live TA always remind me on every trip. And that because they don’t want to deal with my mess if I forget to check.
    You want to save, take your lost. And CheapoAir couldn’t be more happier if you have to pay the fees or another ticket.

  • Bill___A

    There are a lot of things that don’t add up here. However, every travel website I’ve been on that sells cross border transportation is quite explicit about the traveler being responsible for ensuring they can get into each country on the itinerary. And it is still up to the passenger to make sure of this,warning or not. When you are carrying a passport that requires you to have a visa to go to the USA and you live in Canada,that means you are already a person who has experienced the need for paperwork in addition to a passport to cross the border. Although the penalty was high, it is difficult to have a lot of sympathy for them, unfortunately. As for the tickets that “didn’t get used” I’m pretty sure there’s a good chance those seats flew empty since the airline had very little opportunity to sell them.

  • BubbaJoe123

    FYI, you can get free access to TIMATIC here:

  • greg watson

    I am surprised at the voting here. The question was really “should travel agents have a legal responsibility to their clients to disclose all documentation requirements ?’ The answer should obviously be ‘yes’……………………isn’t that why we use reputable travel agents ??…………..isn’t it ?

  • Alan Gore

    Being fullly informed on documentation requirements is why you use a travel agent, a real one, for this type of booking. The US is the only country that does not have an airside ‘transit zone’ for pax making connections in the US to pass through without needing a visa. Too many passengers get tripped up by this, and we lose a pile of business as a result.

  • cscasi

    Very good information and it was there. He should have had a C-1 transit visa to transit the USA on his way to a third country; New Zealand.

  • Maxwell Smart

    No such thing as a direct or nonstop flight from Toronto to Melbourne. Air Canada does fly Vancouver to Brisbane & to Sydney nonstop.

  • PsyGuy

    First, this is CheapOair, the name says it all. Second, this isn’t a TA, and it’s not even an OTA, it’s just a CSR. Third, I don’t know how anyone would know this who wasn’t a seasoned actual TA. Can someone explain this to me why did they need Transit visas, didn’t they move from one area of the international terminal to another area? It’s not like LAX where they had to move from the TB INT terminal to a domestic terminal?

  • PsyGuy

    Good point

  • PsyGuy

    Be thankful you’re not from one of the Drump countries banned trying to make connections through the US.

  • PsyGuy

    As a prior FSO, the reason that fee is so high, is that we want you to go A) Somewhere else. B) The cost with maintaining the infrastructure and supporting the mission does not come at a discount based on your need or service requested. All the security and access and entry controls comes at a cost that far exceeds what your bank needs to maintain.

  • PsyGuy

    Reputable and competent are not the same thing.

  • The Original Joe S

    Excuse me, prior FSO, but there is no place else to go when Thai immigration requires a letter signed by a State toad before they will renew your visa in-country.

    In my 30 years with the gubmint, I never met any State toad who was any good, EXCEPT this one woman who had smarts, guts, looks too. I liked her; she was OK. The rest of the State toads that I met were never people with whom I would associate.

  • sirwired

    The US is not the only country with the concept of the transit visa. The UK and Schengen zone require one for passengers traveling on a passport issued by certain countries.

    I think we are unique in that we don’t have a transit zone; I think those other countries rely on the airline doc check and passenger manifest to enforce transit visa requirements. But I don’t see the lack of a transit zone itself as much of an issue; it’s more the need for a visa for transit that is the problem.

  • sirwired

    I don’t think anybody is saying that travel agents shouldn’t be expected to do this for their clients, more that it shouldn’t be a legal obligation. (The requirements change constantly, travelers frequently provide incorrect information, and a legal requirement would get the law all in the middle of such disputes, where it doesn’t belong.)

  • sirwired

    CheapoAir certainly seems to feature in this space far more than their marketshare would indicate.

  • Alan Gore

    In other countries it’s “transit zone with certain exceptions” while we don’t have a transit zone at all. An Air Canada passenger would have to do a connection like Toronto-Vancouver-Auckland.

  • greg watson

    maybe not a legal requirement, but a competent TA would no doubt be expected to prepare his travellers with up-to-date info & necessary travel requirements

  • greg watson

    picky, picky

  • PsyGuy

    The name says it all.

  • PsyGuy

    Your issue is with Thai immigration, their desire for a DOS letter is arbitrary, however you have the option of leaving the country for say Malaysia and re-enter. I know your rationale is to laugh and say “why should I do that” and our response would be that we haven’t made the embassy route more prohibitive in terms of costs or effort. If we made the fee for that letter something around the hourly consulting rate of about $400 an hour, and made the process take 6 hours over two days, that Malaysia trip would look like the better deal.

    You would have never met me, I wasn’t in consular services except for the 2 weeks I spent cross training.

    Mistakes have a cost, you made an error, and had to resubmit, that service and time has a cost. I agree, many of the more esoteric forms are very difficult to understand. They are written by policy lawyers to comply with various federal and international laws.

    Yeah they really do, Passports are expensive to create, produce, and secure in the US. The security of the production process is higher than it is for the Federal Gold Repository, but it’s got to be kept subtle. The only federal document with higher security and safeguards is currency plates.

    It’s actually a 52 page passport, it used to be 48. However, since DOS no longer adds additional pages to passports (cost prohibitive) all currently issued passports are 52 pages.

    Diplomacy is more art than science, and like everyone we are only human and make mistakes, some of them with grave (no pun intended) consequences. Like many aspects of federal service our mistakes make better news and entertainment than our success which largely goes unnoticed by the public. It’s the plumbing principal. No one thinks much about the work and resources needed to make your poo go away when you flush the toilet, until of course the plumbing doesn’t work.

  • The Original Joe S

    Try reading CAREFULLY. I realize that as a State guy, you may have missed something.

    I need the letter for RETIREMENT VISA RENEWAL. I don’t believe going to Malaysia would do anything for me. Furthermore, that letter is HORST SHIRT! State will put a stamp on just about anything you give them. I could write that I’m Mork from Ork, and they’d take the $50 and stamp the letter. More often, it involves some impecunious loser claiming a higher monthly income by a factor of 2 or 3 in order to qualify for residency in Thailand under laws mandating minimum income. State doesn’t check the veracity of the statement; they merely take the $50 and stamp the letter, no matter what amount is written therein. So they are charging $50 for a $5 stamp on a letter that the petitioner brings them – they don’t even provide the letter. How much costs the ink in the stamp they place on the paper? How much salary is expended for a 30 second interaction by a low-grade local citizen employee of consular services to stamp the letter which he doesn’t vet?

    I made NO error. The initial submission was by people who couldn’t read / write Ænglish. When I did it, it went through. And the cost of a simple mistake should NOT be several hundred dollars X 2 for a couple. You cannot convince me that the cost of re-submission is that high. It’s like the airlines charging $1200 to change the spelling of a name on a $1400 ticket. Same balderdash.

    Maybe you guys are used to making mistakes and saying “oh, well we’re human.” Where I was, mistakes were not tolerated because of the consequences which could and often did happen because of the mistakes. Let’s be perfectly clear: With the exception of the lady consul-general I mentioned before, I have been disappointed in my interactions with almost EVERY State Department person I ever met during my career with the Feral Gubmint. [ Also not including a certain ambassador with whom I worked who had a real life before taking the ambassadorship – he was a genuine person and not a state toad, and consequently not infected with that state department malaise which I disdain and to which I refer. ]

    It should now be a 52 page passport, but some INATTENTIVE State toad failed to look C-A-R-E-F-U-L-L-Y at the application at that time my son applied, when he checked off the box for the larger number of pages, and they issued a smaller one.

    Bottom line: I don’t generally like State Dept types. Nothing personal.

  • PsyGuy

    I read nothing in your prior post that indicated it was for a retirement visa.
    Just about anything, your Mork from Ork would probably not have been approved.
    It’s not a $5 stamp it’s a $50 stamp because you had to move and pay for everything from the door to the desk. We don’t print letters for several reasons. 1) We don’t want your flash drive, or other media on our computers. 2) It would slow the whole process down. 3) We don’t want to be in the position of “an interested party”. Much like a notary we need to be a disinterested party, we ask you what you want and we provide it if it meets the regulatory criteria (your mistakes didn’t meet the regulatory criteria). We don’t assess the appropriateness of the request.

    The difference between the airline changing the name and the DOS mission, is we are a government agency we are not in the business of producing a profit. Still it costs what it costs, I’d suggest being more careful if the cost is prohibitive.

    It could have been human error, could have been a machining error as well. Regardless, it was an error and if you had brought it to passport services attention they would have corrected it.

    No offense taken.

  • Mark

    As it’s a flight from Canada, I assume all passengers have to clear US immigration at the Toronto airport.

  • The Original Joe S

    1 ] Who prints it is irrelevant.
    2 ] State over-charges people.
    3 ] I don’t like State.
    4 ] Next time I go, I’m gonna try Mork from Ork and see if they stamp it. Betcha they will. Worth $50 to see if they are, as I surmise, that stupid.
    5 ] They don’t verify the content. As i wrote, anyone can LIE and State will stamp it for $50.
    6 ] Glad no offense taken. I don’t know you personally, but like many of your posts. But, you’re STILL a STATE TOAD, so NYAH! :-)

  • DChamp56

    Wait, they didn’t USE a travel agent. They used an online cheapest fare, no real human interaction site. The onus is on the traveler to research what they need.
    Had this been a real, TA, they would be responsible.

  • IGoEverywhere

    The law through many past cases is specific. The traveler is responsible to have produce all necessary documentation for travel. That being said, I accept the moral responsibility to inform and assist my client with all visas, tourist cards, transit visas, and papers that I never knew were needed. The client is paying for my knowledge, and I accept that responsibility. I bet that there were pages of small print on Cheapoair that explained everything, but clients that think they are saving money are too lazy to read 5-6 pages of rules and regulations. “Small penalties”? I guarantee that there was specific information spelled out in the small print. CASE DISMISSED – for sure due to laziness.

  • Mark

    I think it’s a reasonable assumption that they’re not. Otherwise they’d have an IDB claim against the airline operating the first leg of their trip.

  • greg watson

    Is a transit visa the same as my passport ? That’s all that I’ve ever had to use to enter the US, by train,bus,car or plane from Canada

  • PsyGuy

    – Isn’t 1-3 really just 3?
    – 4-5 are pretty much the same thing. They probably would certify it, we aren’t in the verification business in that aspect. All we’re doing is affirming that you declared the statement was true to us. The consequences of the statement not being true are yours, we aren’t arbitrators of fact.
    – Well I was an FSO, I am not anymore.

  • PsyGuy

    That’s what I would have thought. CPB would have cleared them before they boarded the first leg of the flight.

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