For Indians, the most painful part of international travel is usually the dreaded visa. If you haven’t yet applied for a visa and need to show a tentative itinerary, we have an article on how to book refundable tickets to obtain visas. However, once we’ve sorted out all our papers, made our plans, packed our bags, and arrived excitedly at the airport, sometimes we’re greeted with a question
Sir, do you have a return ticket?
This does happen to people of other nationalities as well. However, because I always travel with Zara, who is Portuguese, it’s interesting to note how we sometimes get treated differently at airports. Often her passport gets a cursory look and I, even though I have every required document (passport, visa, health insurance, credit cards, etc.) am usually subject to greater scrutiny.
Nishanth recently wrote in:
“I had a ticket to Thailand and after a few days a ticket to Indonesia. However, at Chennai airport, they did not let me board my flight to Thailand. They kept insisting that I needed a return ticket from Indonesia to India otherwise I cannot go. I said I’d book a ticket right there but they laughed at me and said that it wouldn’t be confirmed so quickly. I couldn’t make my flight and had to change my travel plans. What should I do to avoid this in the future?”
This type of situation is all too common in India. A few years ago, Zara and I were on our way to Hong Kong. The airline had issued our boarding passes and at the immigration desk in New Delhi, the officer asked me “Do you have a printout of your return ticket?”. I replied “No, but I have the digital copy on my iPad”. “They won’t let you in if you don’t have a printout.” “Well, that’s up to them, but I do have a ticket and I can show it to you if you like”. “I can OFFLOAD you at this very moment!”.
I thought things were going south really fast. Curiously, a moment after that he stamped my exit and I was on my way. Unfortunately, the same didn’t happen for Nishanth.
Getting out of India with an Indian passport can be a pain sometimes because the airlines and immigration are very cautious about your intent. This is doubly true for those with little to no travel history. It’s mostly because they are trying to prevent human trafficking. In India there are several agents and employment agencies that take advantage of people and send them abroad to work in slave labour like conditions. This is why there is additional scrutiny for international travelers and even more for those who fit a certain profile (young single male traveler from certain states with no return ticket). A few years ago, even Backpack ME became a hub for a racket like this! We wrote to Indian newspapers about this and now airlines and immigration are more cautious about travelers to certain Latin American countries. It’s not good for Indian backpackers who want to head out with an open plan, but it’s part of a larger effort to protect those who are vulnerable. These people often end up in terrible labor conditions or worse, as mules for narcotraffickers. Of course, it’s another debate whether this type of measure is really effective or not.
So the big question is:
How do you get around issues like this? Especially if you want to travel with an open plan and no return date?
Well, there can be many ways to do this, but my favorite is rather simple. Book a 24 hour free cancellation ticket on expedia.com. Let me explain that better.
If you take a look at expedia.com (not co.in, but the US .com domain), you’ll notice that most of the flights that show up there are marked as “Free cancellation within 24 hours”. The reason for this is that in 2013, the US Department of Transportation issued a 24 hour free/cancelable reservation requirement for all travel agencies and airlines that operate within the US. What this means is that any US travel agent (expedia.com but not .co.uk or .co.in) MUST offer either a reservation without payment for 24 hours, OR should give you a 24 hour full refund guarantee.
In practice it works like this, imagine I’m flying like Nishanth, to Thailand, and then to Indonesia after a few days.
- On the morning of my Chennai-Bangkok flight, I’ll log onto expedia.com and book the cheapest 24 hour Cancellation Guaranteed ticket back from Thailand to India. I’ll choose a date within 15 days since that’s the duration of stay that the visa on arrival gives me.
- I’ll take a printout of this actual legitimate confirmed ticket and go to the airport and show it to anyone who asks.
- Once I arrive in Thailand, they may ask to see my return ticket as well. I will show this to them.
- After clearing immigration, while I’m waiting for my bags I will log onto expedia.com, go to My Trips, and cancel the ticket. This will be within 24 hours of booking the flight.
- As Expedia holds the money, the refund is processed instantly and usually shows up back on my credit card within 3-4 days. As the refund happens within a 24 hour period, usually there is only a minor exchange rate fluctuation and I may lose Rs. 50 or gain Rs. 50 when the refund comes through. It’s not a huge cost and sometimes it does work in my favor.
- When I want to really leave Thailand and go to Indonesia I may repeat the above steps for a ticket back from Indonesia to India. Or an onward ticket to somewhere else. Usually other countries are not so fussy about ticket requirements so an onward ticket will suffice.
So the question you may be asking is: Is this legal? Yes, of course it is!
What you are showing to anyone who asks is a real confirmed airline ticket. Plans can and do change. As long as you follow all visa regulations and leave the country on time you will face no issues.
Just make sure you remember to cancel the ticket once you arrive. Sometimes in my excitement at arriving in a new country I’ve almost forgotten to cancel the ticket! That would’ve been an expensive mistake. So set a reminder on your phone/tablet/laptop/all of them so that you definitely don’t forget. Or, if you don’t trust digital technology, especially with time zone changes, write a letter to yourself and put it inside your bag so that when you open it at your destination you’ll be reminded to cancel the ticket.
You can use the above method of having a valid return ticket for any country and any travel plan. It’s worked very well for me over the years. If you have any other ideas on how to get around problems like this, please share them in the comments!