Have you ever been barred from boarding a plane?
As in, ticket in hand, luggage in tow, Pinterest boards filled… but denied entry at the very last second?
The answer for me is almost. A very very close almost.
And because that sense of panic (and profuse sweating) is something I’d never wish on anybody, I’m here today with a mildly serious post about a travel mistake many of you might make, and what you can do to prevent it.
TL;DR – If the phrase “proof of onward travel” means nothing to you, you need to keep reading.
If you want a full recount of my experience ‘lawyering’ my way onto a flight to Germany, you can scroll to the bottom of the post (or click here), but for now – here are the important nuggets of info you need to know.
What is proof of onward travel?
Simply put: many countries require proof that you won’t be staying longer than your visa allows. For most of us, this proof usually comes in the form of a return ticket (i.e. yes, I’m going home on this day!) but for digital nomads, spontaneous backpackers, and one way ticketers, it’s not as easy to prove that you will, in fact, GTFO.
So, while one way tickets sound awfully romantic (the possibilities! The self actualization!), sadly, these indulgent fantasies couldn’t carry any LESS weight to border police and airline employees. Can you imagine entering a new country with a one way ticket, and just being like “Yeah don’t worry… I’m not here to stay illegally. It’s just an Eat Pray Love sorta situation.”
You’d probably be home in time for supper.
Let’s be real: border police and airline employees have jobs to do… And part of that job is to make sure people don’t stay longer than they’re supposed to. Most countries do actually require proof of onward travel, but it’s not universally enforced, which is why you might have never encountered the issue before. Always remember to research entry requirements for any country you visit.
When will I be asked for proof of onward travel?
Sometimes, they’ll ask for it at Passport Control before you’re allowed into a country (I’ve seen a sobbing girl get refused at the Ireland border for not having it!). Other times, you’ll be asked for it before you get on the plane (like in my case) or even just when you check in. Regardless, there isn’t a universal time when you will be asked, and how picky they’ll be will also depend on the employee you’re dealing with.
But hey, it’s all good, friend. Now that you know this complication exists, here’s how you can make sure you never get withheld from boarding your plane!
So… what are my options with proof of onward travel?
Option 1: … Just have it.
Sorry Spontaneous Sally, but the best way to make sure you don’t run into trouble is to simply have your onward travel sorted. And beyond just booking it, make sure you have solid PROOF too. A paper copy of a bus, train or plane ticket would probably be easiest to have and show off, but make sure you have digital copies on your phone too (screenshots, people!) just in case. If ‘go with the flow’ travel is more your thing, here are some other options:
Option 2: Take advantage of refundable tickets.
There are several airlines that refund tickets within a specified time frame, so you can easily purchase a ticket and then refund it right after. Be careful with this method though: be sure to read the fine print and Google individual airline policies before you buy. Some companies might only refund you credit, rather than actual money. Others might have strict rules about when refunds apply or have a stiff cancellation fee.
If you’re not keen to spend loads on a plane ticket (even temporarily), you can look into other transport options like buses. My friends in Europe, Flixbus offers very cheap rates and they charge only a 1 euro cancellation fee, at which point you get the rest of the money as Flixbus credit. Not too bad, considering tickets will be less than 60 euros most of the time, which is way cheaper than a plane ticket.
NOTE: While a bus ticket should be sufficient, it really depends on the employee you deal with… For some, a plane ticket might seem more “legitimate”, so keep that in mind!
Option 3: Just buy a cheap ticket.
In parts of the world where traveling between countries is cheap, you could always just buy the cheapest ticket you can find, with no intention of using it. This will likely be your best bet if you’re crunched for time (i.e. about to board the plane).
A slightly sassy note on not cutting corners:
Okay, so there is plenty of shady advice out there on the Internet telling you how you can ‘fake’ proof by amending emails or even using online ticket generators. Guys, please use your common sense. Do you REALLY want to provide fake documents to government officials just to save (in the case of FlyOnward) 10 bucks? It’s not worth it! Really really!
My ‘proof of onward travel’ disaster story
With all that practical information out of the way, here’s how I was almost denied entry on my flight to Germany.
Fresh off a flight from Vancouver to Montreal, I had my passport in hand, a carry-on full of snacks and an all-too-excited grin at the prospect of living in Europe again for a few months. Everything had been smooth sailing up until this point – my flight landed early and I even had time to buy a bag of delicious MTL bagels. I was only one flight away from being back in Germany and I swear I could already smell the pretzels.
My carb-loaded buzz was short lived. Instead of a chirpy check of the passport and a syrupy “have a nice flight!”, I was greeted with a stern airline employee who looked me up and down, then demanded to know when I would come back.
I had prepared for this, I thought. With a psychotically large smile, I whipped out the return ticket confirmation on my phone, citing a June return for my university grad ceremony. “I can haz Germany now?” I thought through my ‘calm’ smile.
The short answer was no.
“That’s more than 90 days. I can’t let you on the plane,” he said almost as if it was a non-negotiable fact.
It was in that moment that I snapped out of my dreamy daze and kicked into lawyer mode. I knew that I only had 90 days to spend in the Schengen Zone, but it had been my plan all along to simply travel outside of that zone for a few weeks to ensure I never maxed my allowance. I cleared my throat, and spewed out a (likely less eloquent) version of the following: “I’m aware that as a Canadian citizen I get only 90 days of free travel in the Schengen zone. My plan is to travel around the Balkans for a month to ensure that I don’t exceed those 90 days.” I had done my homework, or so I thought.
“Well do you have proof you’re leaving the Schengen Zone?”
A million thoughts flooded through my mind as the passenger queue grew behind me. I hadn’t planned any of my Balkans itinerary because Type A me decided to embrace spontaneity for once. I told him that no, I hadn’t purchased any tickets yet, but I had a rough plan and if I needed to, I would buy a plane ticket on the spot right there.
He then proceeded to quiz me on my plans.
It seemed like he as all too eager to somehow “catch me”, because as soon as I mentioned Croatia, he exclaimed with a snooty tone “well, Croatia IS in the Schengen Zone.”
Haaaa, I knew right then that he was wrong. I had read the rules a million times. Exasperated (but still sassy), I told him to Google it. And he did, as curious passengers stood by like they were watching an intense boxing match. After a few taps of the phone, the redness in his face said it all. I was right. I out-Schengen’d the airline guy. A win for obsessive Googlers all over the world!
“Okay, I’ll let you on the plane under one condition… that you UNDERSTAND that you only have 90 days in the Schengen Zone, and overstaying may result in a fine or a ban from the area,” I nodded, sassy again. I might have flipped my hair a bit, but that could just be my overactive imagination at work.
And so I got on the plane. Shaking, but on-board, ready to drink a lot of airplane wine. Funnily enough, I was so paranoid I ended up buying a bus ticket to Croatia in case the Munich border police asked me similar questions. They didn’t ask me a single thing, just smiled, stamped my passport and waved me off on my merry way.
SO, learn from my mistakes! Take this as a cautionary tale that you are not immune to random checks, even if it has never happened to you before. Especially these days, countries are getting more strict and careful about people coming and staying illegally… so at least have a plan on what to do if this situation arises.
Now, tell me – have you ever had any “proof of onward travel” horror stories? Let me know in the comments!