Why are airlines redefining national borders?


Is Aruba part of the United States? I’m not the one asking. Hank Roden, a fine art photographer from Urbanna, Va., is, and it’s more of a rhetorical question.

When he tried to check a bag on a recent US Airways flight from Aruba to Miami, a gate agent charged him $25.

But hang on — aren’t checked bags on international flights included in the price of your US Airways ticket? Yes, they are.

“This is not an international flight,” the ticket agent deadpanned as she scanned his passport.

The experience was a little “weird,” Roden said. Why would an airline classify a flight as domestic when it’s obviously not? Could be the money.

Redrawing the map can benefit a travel company in several unseen ways, from giving it a competitive edge to allowing it to collect more fees from unsuspecting passengers.

US Airways has a perfectly logical explanation for what happened to Roden. Airlines classify their international operations differently when it comes to fees. Oddly, the Caribbean is regarded as a domestic operation, which may come as a little bit of a surprise to the good citizens of Aruba. Roden flew there on American Airlines, which has a different bag policy than US Airways, and which may have added to the passenger’s confusion. The two airlines are currently merging operations.

“He was charged correctly,” says John McDonald, a spokesman for both airlines.

If you think that’s odd, then pay attention to your next credit card bill. If you’ve booked a trip with a company based outside the United States — say, an international airline or a hotel based outside of the country — you might find an unpleasant surprise on your statement. It’s a foreign exchange fee, arbitrarily charged if you’re doing business with a company outside the States, even if you’re buying it at home and paying in dollars.

Does it cost the company anything extra? Nope. They define your U.S. purchase as being international, slapping an extra 3% on your bill.

Why? Because they can.

A few years ago, I was lucky enough to snag an upgrade on a flight from Atlanta to Honolulu with my family. I spent the first few hours of the flight in the front of the plane. But when I tried to yield my business class seat to my better half, who was in economy class with the kids, a flight attendant blocked my way.

“You can’t do that on an international flight,” she says.

“Hawaii is part of the United States,” I reminded her.

She allowed me to downgrade.

“It’s a semantic game,” says Skip Miller, who’s had an identical conversation with a flight attendant in the past. Now retired from the Air Force, he recalls the U.S. military does the same thing, categorizing assignments in Alaska and Hawaii as “overseas” because they are not physically connected to the lower 48 states.

In talking with travelers, though, it seems this kind of gerrymandering — redrawing national borders to suit a company — usually benefits the company more than the customer.

Pat Volovnik, for example, was recently flying from Philadelphia to Cancun, Mexico, in first class. She decided to stop by the US Airways lounge, since you get access to the lounge when you’re flying first class internationally.

But no. “I was told that unless I paid for a day pass, I would not be able to enter,” says Volovnik, a real estate agent from Philadelphia. “Mexico is considered a domestic flight.”

How can they get away with calling something domestic when it’s not? Stephen Pickford, a travel agent who hosts a Canadian radio show about travel, explains that the practice dates to the days before the current “Open Skies” agreements, when you could clear U.S. immigration in Canada and Mexico.

“Once cleared,” he explains, “they were technically considered to be in the United States.”

It is also clear that travel companies, notably airlines, have exploited the ability to call Aruba or Mexico part of the United States.

Should that be allowed? Of course not. If you buy something with your credit card in the United States, and pay in dollars, you shouldn’t have to shell out a foreign exchange fee — any more than an airline should redraw national boundaries.

Where’s the border patrol when you need it?

Should airlines be allowed to redefine national borders?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Plan ahead to dodge charges

1. Avoid foreign currency fees.

Some credit cards, notably, Capital One, and credit unions offer cards with no exchange fees. You’ll avoid gerrymandering your card purchases.

2. Look at the airline’s route map.

Many airlines consider Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean “domestic” destinations. Don’t look at the map to determine which policies apply — look at the airline’s route map, and call if you have questions.

3. Argue your case.

John McDonald, a US Airways-American representative, says policies are being “harmonized,” which is a reminder that airlines sometimes redefine their redefined borders. You may be able to argue your way out of paying some fees — but be polite.

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirportParkingReservations.com

With nearly 20 years in the industry, over 128 airport covered in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 Hotel and Parking Partners-we provide travelers the best options on how to get to the airport when flying. Whether you want to; drive yourself and park near an Airport (Airport Parking), stay the night before your flight at an airport hotel and leave your car (Hotel and Parking Package), or take a shared Shuttle/Private Car/Limo to the Airport- we got you covered. The best deals can be found online, and booking a reservation has never been easier. You can explore all of our options by visiting us at AirportParkingReservations.com, ParkSleepFly.com, AirportParking.com, and ShuttleFinder.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Generali Global Assistance

Generali Global Assistance has been a leading provider of travel insurance and other assistance services for more than 25 years. We offer a full suite of innovative, vertically integrated travel insurance and emergency services. Generali Global Assistance is part of The Europ Assistance (EA) Group, who pioneered the travel assistance industry in 1963 and continues to be the leader in providing real-time assistance anywhere in the world, delivering on our motto – You Live, We Care.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by G1G.com

Since its inception over three decades ago, G1G has continued to revolutionize the travel insurance industry by being the only aggregator to operate a customer portal, placing all of the user's primary needs in one place. We have continued to innovate and disrupt the market by reimagining the way travel insurance can be delivered to the end user in ways no competition can. Simply put, no one knows the market as well as its founders and no one else shares G1G values and mission.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

VisitorsCoverage is one of the world’s most trusted providers of travel insurance for millions of global travelers in over 175 countries. Working with top-rated travel insurance partner providers, VisitorsCoverage’s award-winning search, compare and purchase technology simplifies the travel insurance process and finds the best deals for the coverage you need to explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at VisitorsCoverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend