Epic travel fails and other misadventures of expatriate living

by Lisa McKay on March 14, 2014

A few words of introduction to my post for today…

The essay below was written several years ago now, in an attempt to redeem one of the silliest things I have ever done in all my years of traveling. And, oh my word. There have been a lot of silly things I’ve done involving airports and planes – including misplacing my only debit bank card just before a two week trip to Africa and after all the banks had closed for the weekend. I got out of that one by ringing around my Bible study group and getting five people to each float me $200 in cash. The incident reminded me yet again that it is a really good thing to be part of a Bible study group, folks, because you never know when you’re going to need a thousand dollars in cash on three hours notice.

So, my theory about epic-travel-fails is this: The more you travel, the more relaxed you get about the whole process and the more careless errors you make. When you look at it that way, spectacular travel screw-ups are really a sign that you’re a seasoned travel pro.

Like I said, that’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it.

Now, before I get to the essay itself, I’m going to spell out the take-home here for you just in case you don’t have three minutes to giggle over a cup of tea. This community is, after all, a place to learn from other’s mistakes wisdom about living overseas, and I’d hate for you to miss the practical take home because you were in a rush. So if you remember nothing else from this post, remember these two things:

  1. You cannot travel on an expired passport.
  2. You cannot enter a country that you are a citizen of on the passport of another country that you are also a citizen of.

Got that? Good. Now… the backstory

Aus passport

This, I thought as I stared at my passport, is possibly the stupidest travel-mistake I’ve ever made.

And that’s saying a lot.

During the last five years I’ve been stranded in Germany for a week on account of neglecting to get a visa for the Czech Republic. I’ve traveled to Colorado and left my wallet, all my money, and every credit card I own safely in my gym bag at home. I’ve turned up to the airport in LA to discover that I’d booked a flight to New York on Wednesday all right, but the Wednesday of the previous week. I’ve walked off an American Airlines flight in Chicago and sat down at the first gate I saw that said “London” and had the right departure time, without double checking the flight details on my boarding pass (which might have helped me notice that my connecting flight to London was, in fact, with British Airways instead of American). At various times I’ve forgotten to pack my malaria medication, my phone charger, my power-point presentation, and, yes, on one especially memorable occasion, my underwear.

Given this, you might find it ironic that I make my living at least partly by training humanitarian workers to cope more effectively with their “high transition lifestyles”. In other words, how to hop on a plane, go dashing off to a disaster scene to aid the recovery effort, return home, reorient, and then turn around and do it all again two weeks later. Oh, and stay sane in the process.

One point so obvious that I rarely mention it during workshops, is that it’s helpful to have a valid passport when you’re trying to board an international flight…which brings me to noon on December 15, a confirmed seat on a flight from LA to Sydney leaving at 10pm that night, and… an expired Australian passport.

Here’s how it happened.

Once upon a time I was born in Canada…

OK, OK. But it is relevant. Because of where that most joyous and happy event occurred I have an Australian and a Canadian passport. And it’s a lot easier for Canadians to get visas to work in the US than, well, the citizens of any other country. So at the moment I’m living in the States on a Canadian work visa. That means that I have to use my Canadian passport to enter and leave the US as I go dashing off to all those disaster scenes. Got that?

In July I noticed that my Australian passport was going to expire in October. But the thought of trying to navigate the maze of red tape that would inevitably surround my attempt to renew my Aussi passport in the States while living there on a Canadian visa made me feel exhausted.

So I hatched a brilliant plan. I would just go home to Australia at Christmas and take care of it there. If, for some obscure reason, the Australian immigration officials were upset that my passport had expired I could just pull out my other one, enter the country as a Canadian, and then get busy renewing my passport on home soil.

The plan, clearly, was flawless. But, because I am responsible and organized, I rang the Australian consulate in Los Angeles to run it past them, and a cheerful fellow named Malcolm and I had a brief conversation that went something like this…

“My passport is about to expire. I could get it renewed while I’m here, but I think it would just be easier to wait and renew it at home at Christmas, don’t you?”

“Yeah, mate,” Malcolm said. “Just do it when you get home. She’ll be apples.”

In retrospect, missing from my side of the conversation was the, perhaps vital, fact that the passport would expire before I was due to travel home. But, to be fair here, missing from Malcolm’s side was a detailed query somewhere along the lines of, “wait just a minute, you don’t happen to be a dual national living in the States on your other passport and thinking of using said other passport to enter Australia after your Australian passport expires, are you?” But at the time I hung up satisfied that I’d covered all my bases.

The next six months I was very busy. Busy traveling to Kenya, Colorado, Indiana, Canada, New York, and South Africa. Busy teaching people how to live life that way and be happy, healthy and well-adjusted. Like me.

That busyness might explain why it wasn’t until the morning of December 15 that I had the time to locate the website where an American friend who was going to fly over to visit me for New Years Eve could apply for their Australian tourist visa online. As I cut and pasted the link for him, I noticed a statement saying that everyone except citizens of New Zealand had to apply for a tourist visa before boarding arriving at the airport to board their flight to Australia.

Huh, I thought, I wonder if everyone includes Canadians, and whether that might cause a small hiccup if I suddenly pull out my Canadian passport, visaless, in Sydney airport.

So, trying to do the right thing here, I call the Australian consulate again. My pal Malcolm was gone. Perhaps he’d been fired for not asking enough questions. And in his place, I got Andrew.

“Hey, Andrew,” I greeted him warmly. “I just want to check that it won’t be a problem for me to enter Australia if my passport’s expired.”

“What are you talking about?” Andrew said. Clearly, whatever it was that I was talking about, he didn’t think much of it. “You can’t travel on an expired passport.”

“Huh,” I said, moving on to Plan B. “Okay then, will I need a tourist visa in my Canadian passport to get into the country, since I’m also an Australian citizen?”

“If you’re a citizen of Australia you can’t enter Australia on the passport of another country. It’s illegal,” Andrew said, in a tone that asked where I was in kindergarten when everyone else was learning international law.

There was a long silence while I digested this.

“Right, then,” I said. “Um, could you help me brainstorm my options, because my flight to Australia takes off at ten tonight.”

What?” Andrew said. I don’t know how he managed to pack incredulity, exasperation, and pity for my obviously deficient intellect into one word, but he did.

I wanted to defend myself. I wanted to tell him – hey buddy, I’m a smart, capable, person. I have two masters degrees. I direct a training program for a non-profit. I’ve written a novel, and… and… I can cook. These things happen. They just clearly haven’t happened to you lately.

But I didn’t defend myself. I chose the only option that I thought might get me somewhere. I begged.

“Please! I have to make that plane. I haven’t been home in a year and a half!”

“Well,” he said grudgingly. “You’re probably going to need to apply in person in the consulate at LA for an emergency travel document. That’ll take five working days. Your only other option is to call the airlines, explain the situation, and see if they are willing to call Canberra and get authorization to uplift you without a valid passport. But, the airlines don’t generally go for that sort of thing, and Canberra might not grant it anyway…”

As he spoke I had a vision of spending the first precious week of my holidays hanging out in the lobby of the Australian consulate in LA, and a second week trying to finagle another seat on a flight to Sydney before Christmas. There had to be another way.

“So,” I hazarded, looking around furtively as if the foreign affairs swat team was about to swoop into the office and take me into custody right there and then. “Hypothetically speaking, if a citizen of Australia was to show up at the airport and present another country’s passport, what do you think the chances are that the airline would figure it out and stop them from boarding?”

“I cannot advise you regarding that course of action,” Andrew said primly.

What is my country coming to? Doesn’t he know it’s his job to represent Australia around the world? Doesn’t he know that he is duty-bound to proclaim our national motto “no worries mate, she’ll be right” with nonchalant assurance in any and every situation? And where was some of that convict spirit we’re so famous for?

As I walked into LAX that night and presented my Canadian passport, safely impregnated with an electronic tourist visa that I’d applied for online, I was sweating. I like to think of myself as someone who could, if they chose, break laws with panache and style. But I could feel all my style clinging to me damply.

My grand plan was just to make it onto the plane and get to Sydney, whereupon I would confess all my sins and throw myself on the mercy of the immigration officials. I figured they would probably be cross, but I couldn’t see they’d have much choice about letting me into the country. I mean, they couldn’t very well deport me back to the US, could they? Can you even be deported from your own country?

But as I disembarked in Sydney I had second thoughts about the wisdom of confessing. Who knew whether, in my absence, Australian immigration officials had become as mean-spirited and irrational as American ones? Maybe they would deport me. I hesitated, and then joined the lengthy queue for non-citizens.

While I mourned the fact that I was wasting my one opportunity a year to sail through an immigration checkpoint in the citizens line (not to mention the money I’d paid for the tourist visa for my own country), I had plenty of time to wonder whether my name would flag the existence of my other passport and bring wrath and, I suddenly realized, possibly a hefty fine down upon my head.

In teaching others how to cope well with high transition lifestyles one of the things that I always talk about is the importance of having a sense of humor. And, when things like this go wrong, I can usually shrug and see the bright side in that fact that I provide so much raw material helpful for keeping mine in good working order. But at that moment I couldn’t see the funny side of the situation.

Possibly, as my father would point out later, because there wasn’t one.

Way too soon I was next in line. I glanced at the immigration agent and debated my options. Would it be too obvious to proclaim excitedly, “I’ve been looking forward to this trip for years, and I can’t believe it’s finally here!” Maybe my accent would give me away, even with a well-placed Canadian, “eh?” So I handed over my passport, reminded myself to breathe, and tried for my normal mien at this stage of the immigration process – bored and exhausted.

With just a glance and one casual anticlimactic flick of his wrist, it was over. Never have I been so glad to see a stamp come down and hear the words, “welcome to Australia.”

I was home.

Well, home as a tourist, anyway.

Welcome-to-Australia

OK, your turn. Don’t leave me hanging out here looking like an idiot all by myself. Tara Livesay has already shared a wonderful tale of taking a mastiff on home leave (bottom line: don’t), but I’d love to hear from the rest of you.

If you’ve had an epic travel fail or some other expat misadventure, tell us about it in the comments or leave us a link to a blog post that tells the story.

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About Lisa McKay

Lisa McKay is a psychologist and the award-winning author of the memoir Love At The Speed Of Email, the novel My Hands Came Away Red, and several books on long distance relationships. She lives in Laos with her husband and their two sons.
  • Jennifer

    Have you ever watched the movie Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray has to relive the day over and over? Let’s just say don’t land in Sicily on Easter weekend with four children under age ten at midnight and think you’ll just find a place to stay from your guidebook. And don’t show up to the ferry to Malta departing late the next night after a lovely day-long trip down the coast without checking to be sure you got your passports out of the safe many hours away where the not-so-helpful hotel staff put them the night before. And when you are back at that hotel after an all-night bus ride with those four kids, late at night, homeless, AGAIN, don’t expect to find anyplace to stay within the budget of a minor king. And since the ferry only runs once a week and you’re missing your mission’s meetings in Malta, don’t even dream that on Easter in Italy/Sicily you can waltz into the airport and find a flight, which lands you back looking for a hotel the THIRD time. But DO pray in the airport right before you completely break down, choose another line, and try again, and find that six seats miraculously opened up. Oh, and do be glad when you take the return leg of the high-speed ferry journey and your family collectively fills more barf bags than you can hold, that you missed the first trip, even if it meant a purgatory of disasters. All’s well that ends well, or perhaps theologically all will end well because it is well.

    • That. Sounds. Hideous… PTSD-esqe. (But thank you for sharing :)))).

  • Sam

    I am an American citizen living in the Philippines and I have had a similar embassy experience. They really are not very good at ‘helping’ citizens. I was trying to be the ‘responsible’ person and renew my passport which was due to expire in May, sent in my passport to the Embassy, paid the fee and then I got the phone call that my Dad was very sick and lucky to be alive and I need to come home ASAP. Once I finally got a hold of someone at the embassy, I was told to show up in person for an emergency passport, but they never told me I needed to buy a plane ticket first. I show up thinking I will get my passport and then buy a ticket and fly out the next day. Fail . . they looked at me as if I was ‘lying’ and said ‘well if this is an emergency, why didn’t you buy a plane ticket already,’ excuse me, you have my passport, why would I buy a plane ticket with no passport!! As the man was talking to me, he had my actual passport in his hand, I asked for it back (as it was not expired yet, it was February). He said, no he needs to send it to the US to be renewed, but I am going to the US!! Eventually, I ended up having to go all the way back to my house and buy a ticket and return the next day with proof I was leaving, then they gave me an emergency passport and I was able to fly out . . with my emergency passport and my old passport (thankfully since it has my VISA stamp in it).

    • That’s unbelievable. Seriously. It’s the last thing you need when things are so stressed. And was it even legal for him to refuse to give it back to you? Anyway, glad it all got sorted out, and hope it was in good time to get home to be with family.

  • Beth Bo.

    Hah, pretty much the same thing happened to me except I didn’t have the time or sense to worry about it. I was travelling on my Canadian passport accompanied by my expired American passport and entering the US. I got off the plane and headed to immigration where I was confronted with those two little lines – Citizens? Non-Citizens? Hmm, suddenly my dilemma hit me…not to mention the length of the lines. I didn’t know what to do but I am a citizen and there’s no denying that (never thought about the fact it could be against the law!). Anyhow, I chose the citizen line and explained the situation when I got to the front of the line. The official must have been having a good day…he scanned my expired American passport but I received a stern warning to “Never do that again!” Lesson learned…I keep both of those little passports valid!

    • Oooooh, lucky. I wonder if they’d do that nowadays? Thanks for sharing.

  • Kimberly

    We lived in Congo, were vacationing in Uganda, but needed to see a doctor in Kenya. So I hopped a last minute flight and a whirlwind trip through 3 doctor’s offices in the nation’s capital. All was wonderful until I realized (at 30,000 feet) that I had not one dollar on me to pay for our tourist visas. They have to be US Dollars of 2005 or newer and the ATMs are after the immigration desk! I panicked and prayed my way to the airport, expecting like you to throw myself on the one or two random friends I knew who worked at the airport. The fabulous surprise at the end was that in the 3 years since I had lived there myself, Kenya had installed several more ATM machines and some of them were even before the immigration line! AND the clerk allowed me to pay in Kenyan shillings… AND gave us Transfer visas for half the cost because we were in country less than 36 hours! You never know when your failings will turn into blessings!

    It’s good for us. Keeps us humble. In the right place.

    • Kimberly

      Oh, but the time we left our passports in a hotel safe and traveled across the country without them (and therefore missed connecting flights b/c you can’t board without passports!) – that is a better story.

      • I’m seeing a theme emerging in the comments. That’s at least the second mention of leaving passports in the hotel safe. Maybe we should write a travel advisory post with these “key pitfalls” all nicely listed out.

  • Mother goose

    I am so glad it isn’t just me! My poor husband thinks I need a keeper because of things like the story below.

    Yesterday, Patrick (my 10-year old son) and I flew from Quito, Ecuador to Ohio, because it just
    doesn’t get cold and snowy where we live and we were feeling cheated.
    The last leg of our trip was from LaGuardia to Cleveland. It was a
    regional jet, which I happen to like because they are actually
    comfortable, however they are really small and they don’t let you take
    your rolling carry-on on board because they don’t all fit. They tagged
    them all and we were supposed to leave them at the end of the jetway. I
    get up there and get mine all situated. Then, because WHY IN THE NAME OF
    ALL THAT IS HOLY COULD I NOT HAVE BEEN BORN WITH TWO GOOD EYES AND SOME
    DEPTH PERCEPTION, I turn around and proceed to trip over my carry-on.
    Which is on WHEELS. Like all 12 of the OTHER ONES that were sitting
    there. The next thing I know, all of them start rolling RAPIDLY toward
    the OPEN jetway door. Which is like 20 feet off the ground. There are
    people working UNDERNEATH the jetway. It is getting ready to RAIN DOWN
    CARRY-ONS, and they aren’t going to know what hit them. My first thought
    was “All those people are about to be DEAD. Or at least have a wicked
    headache.” I know what I carry in MY carry-on, so I can only imagine
    what other people have in theirs. Death by junk. I start scrambling
    like a crazy woman trying to prevent the carry-on Apocalypse, and the
    guy behind me starts LAUGHING. Then he sets HIS carry-on down, because
    he thinks he’s FUNNY, and it immediately heads for the jetway door,
    along with all the rest of them. At this point I am decorating my jail
    cell in my head, because I am about to wipe out a bunch of LaGuardia
    airport employees ALL BECAUSE I HAVE NO DEPTH PERCEPTION. I am about to
    make national news and be labeled a mass murderer, or at the very least
    the dumbest person alive, so as a last ditch effort I grab someone’s
    very expensive looking computer bag and finally manage to get it
    sideways and block the door, and the rest of them backed up behind it.
    Funny Guy is still laughing (instead of helping me–REALLY?), and he goes
    “Wow. That would have been a great story”.

    • Ha!!!! It IS a great story. And it reminded me of the time I went to get on a BA flight and dropped my boarding pass right as I stepped onto the plane from the jetway and it got sucked out that crack and was goooooone. And I had no idea what my seat number was. Fixable. But embarrassing.

    • Maggi

      I know I’m reading this way later than when you commented, but I just had to thank you for sharing. I feel for you – but you made my day telling this. I am laughing and crying and my stomach is having a better work-out than it’s had for a long time! You’re a great story-teller!

  • Alissa

    The FULL STORY can be read here…. http://redislandrestoration.com/?p=255

    but the gist— Three dumb mistakes and three very important lessons learned…. 1. ALWAYS look at when your visa expires before traveling. 2. ALWAYS book rooms that are refundable and cancelable, even if it costs an extra 20 bucks. 3. ALWAYS make sure you have adequate pages in your passport while traveling.

    • Alissa, that link didn’t work for some reason. Try again??

  • Christina

    yeah…. I did this once. I have two passports as well, and was living in Beijing at the time. I had sent off my UK passport to the Hong Kong consulate to be renewed and forgot that I did it since I used my US passport at the time for the Chinese resident visa. I have to show my US passport to get out of the country, and I don’t need a visa for up to 90 days in the UK. So I jumped on my flight to London and when I arrived, reached for my UK passport where it always is and “bam” it hits me. I tried the same thing… get in the non-citizen line and tried to present myself with the US passport. Except when they scanned it, they started getting that quiet British “this is under control voice”… the super calm litany of questions each more hushed than the other… “Where is your *real* passport? you are a British citizen, you can’t come in with this US passport…didn’t you know that?” Of course…. So explaining to them that I didn’t have it in my possession at all, since it was sent off to FCO to be renewed was not all that well-recieved… eventually after determining that my US passport was not fake (it didn’t have the RFID chip in it yet, since it was an old one before US put them in like the UK ones) they let me in with a stern warning. I learned my lesson!

    • “The super calm litany of questions each more hushed than the other…” HAHAHAHA… sigh. Can I just say that the 5th grade part of me is a little happy that I’m not the only person who’s done this.

  • E Miller

    When we moved to Asia eight years ago, we checked in with two young children (and one on the way) at the local airport with 12 big bags, plus carry-ons, and a stroller. We said good-bye to family and were at the gate, breathing a sigh of relief that we were finally after the way after months of exhausting preparation. Our first flight was delayed, then finally cancelled. After a lot of hassle, we finally got a flight out the next morning, but with two extra stops along the way. We ended up having trouble on every leg — stuck on the runway due to bad weather in Dallas, a flight cancelled in Chicago due to weather, in London they forced us to check in all our carry-ons because they were too heavy. In both London and Dubai, the airlines couldn’t find my e-ticket, but the family’s were all fine. Both times they hunted around and called until they finally figured out what was wrong. We finally landed in Asia 50-60 hours after leaving our home. We were waiting at the luggage carousel for our bags…. and waited… and waited…. and none of them came. The airlines managed to lose all 15 bags for us, including the three carry-ons that had our emergency changes of clothes…. So for the next several days we wore borrowed clothes and made multiple trips to the airport. The last suitcase finally arrived 2-3 weeks later. We’ve had other interesting trips — kids puking in the check-in line (not a good plan!), ticket agents who mistook my bleary, bloodshot eyes for a hangover, passport officials who want duty-free bottles of alcohol, electronics stolen from our suitcase, but none of them have matched our move to Asia!

    • AHHHHHH… there’s something vaguely cathartic about reading all these travel horror stories. I can’t quite put my finger on WHY that is, but I’m definitely deriving some “past misery shared” satisfaction from it.

  • Lauren Pinkston

    Once I tipped a Kenyan taxi driver 1/4 of all the shillings I had exchanged for 6 weeks by myself (because my brain and math don’t mix on a normal day, much less after a transatlantic flight). I even remember saying, “Are you sure that’s enough?” Dumb, dumb, dumb! I’m sure the best stories will come after this weekend, though, when I make the next big move with an infant. Excited to share a city with you!

    • I KNOW!! Safe travels. Looking forward to seeing you in Vientiane. By the time we get back (hopefully in five or six weeks, fingers crossed, you’ll actually have lived there about half as long as I have, so far 🙂

  • oooh, man. I left my passport once in a church in England several years ago and last year in a grocery store in Italy. Both times I thankfully found them. I left so much behind in places in Thailand that the people in Big C customer service new me by name (phone, did not pick my own groceries up at the counter, etc).

    My passport is not about to expire, but it’s almost out of pages, so I’m paniced of not being allowed in somewhere this summer just because they want me to have at least two blank pages. The problem is my passport is in bad shape because it was in my backpack and water dumped on it. This means I really don’t want to add pages, so I am putting off getting a new passport until I’m back in the states. Dude, I got so many passport stories it’s unreal. So Lisa’s story made me laugh.

    • The whole “do we have enough pages” worry. yeah. I know that one too. Could you get it renewed while you’re on the road. Sometimes it’s even quicker to get a new passport at an embassy overseas.

  • Not telling

    I decided to post this one anonymously, because we’re right in the midst of it. Living in a country that is quite likely on the verge of war, and not one–no TWO–of our children’s passports expired… quite a while ago. Ugh.

    • I won’t trivialize that by saying “whoops”. I’ll just stick with “oh no” and “I hope the paperwork is underway”. And, of course “may things stay serene.”

  • Kate

    I went to visit a friend in Korea while my school in another Asian country was on break. However, my friend still had to work, so I decided I would make the most of my time and travel to Seoul. On my way to Seoul, I missed my train and then got on the wrong train, but the stewardess on the train helped me transfer to the right train. When I got to Seoul, I got lunch, which lead to food poisoning and getting sick in a Seoul subway station.

  • Craig

    I am dual Aussie/US and didn’t know it was illegal to do so, and entered Australia as a tourist on the US passport. I found out later so the next time I tried with my Aussie passport–the first time I had ever used it at an immigration station–and they tried swiping it several times, then they had me follow to a back room. I was getting worried–thinking I was going to be arrested or something. Finally, the immigration agent told me I should get my money back for the passport. Apparently when they assembled it, the bar code strip was off centre and one number was cut off…so it couldn’t be scanned.

    And then there was the story I call “trial by luggage”, an episode with my wife and three young children and the QANTAS gate agents and their luggage rules. Apparently everything you read on the internet is not true, even if it is on their official website and you have a printout to prove it. But that’s another story.

  • Matt

    My day has been pretty sh1t. … I went to the airport this morning for a 6am flight from Switzerland to Nigeria…the checkin closed before I got there so had to plan another flight later in the day. I went home (back to bed) and then later took the train again to the airport… on the way there i realised my Visa was expired. I was scheduled to speak at a conference in front of over 300 people… this is such a FAIL

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