One helluva honeymoon

by Christopher Elliott on November 23, 2003

Q: My wife and I were married last month and were set to jet away to sunny Mexico for a 6-night, all-inclusive getaway to a very nice resort in Playa Del Carmen. It was a honeymoon we had planned and saved for. But it never happened.

We had booked our trip through a travel agent, and in all of the paperwork we received – including the fine print – the only instructions for travel documentation read that we needed “a valid US passport or an original or notarized copy of a birth certificate and valid driver’s license or photo ID.”

My wife brought the only birth certificate given to her mother, which had been in a safety deposit box until a week prior to our trip. It’s the same birth certificate her parents obtained her Social Security Card with, the same kind of birth certificate that her mother and father both used to get passports with, the same kind that her mother had gone to the Cayman Islands with.

But when we got to the airport, an extremely rude American Airlines ticket agent refused to allow my wife to board. She said her birth certificate was the wrong one.

It was 6 a.m. on a Sunday. Our travel agency was closed until Monday morning. There were no state or government agencies open, and the ticket agent refused us boarding on that flight which connected to Cancun via Miami, and wouldn’t let us fly to Miami to try and get someone there to help us. We had a very hard time understanding her accent and we requested a supervisor numerous times, but we were told that “it will be a while.”

She walked away from us and would not return. We tried to get other ticket agents to help us, but they said, “She was helping you…. we aren’t getting involved.” After some time, she returned with a gentleman who introduced himself as Tony, and said there was nothing the airline could do.

Our travel agent managed to get a refund on the land portion of our package, which we could apply to a new trip. The air portion has not been refunded. Our honeymoon was ruined. Can you help us?

– Mike Dickerson

A: It’s terrible when a vacation of any kind misfires, but it’s especially vexing when it’s a once-in-a-lifetime getaway like your honeymoon.

Although I can understand the reasons for focusing your anger on American Airlines – after all, it stopped your wife from boarding the plane, and according to your account, it wasn’t very nice about it – I wouldn’t be so quick to blame the carrier. Your travel agent should have also informed you about the paperwork requirements for traveling to Mexico, and you should have double-checked for yourself by consulting the requirements posted on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Web site.

Your agency should be commended for getting you a quick refund on your hotel. It shows that your business means something to it and that it’s willing to take some responsibility for what happened.

But what about American Airlines? I asked the carrier to take a look at its records. J. P. Oles, an immigration specialist for the airline’s customer relations department, responded, noting that documentation requirements for international travel can change frequently – sometimes with little advance notice. “It is therefore our policy – and that of most other airlines – that documentation requirements are the full responsibility of the traveler,” he wrote in an e-mail.

What, exactly, are the requirements? Oles says U.S. citizens traveling into Mexico are currently required to present either a valid passport or an original government-issued birth certificate from the Bureau of Vital Statistics having a raised seal, along with a government-issued photo identification, and a return or onward ticket from Mexico. Hospital-issued birth certificates like the one your wife tried to use are not acceptable for entry into Mexico because they aren’t issued by a government agency.

Next time you travel internationally, make sure you get your paperwork in order. If you’re planning to go overseas again, I’d consider applying for a passport, too. But don’t rely on anyone – not the airline, not your agent – for information on what you need. Get it straight from the source, which is to say, either from the U.S. government or a consulate or embassy of the country you’re visiting.

As “a gesture of regret for your disappointment” American Airlines exchanged your electronic tickets for transportation vouchers and waived the penalty fees. I think that’s an exceedingly fair resolution and hopefully a happy end to one helluva honeymoon.

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