Onward travel – it’s real!

All was going as planned. I returned my car, casually grabbed a latte before hopping on the shuttle to my terminal, stopped in the bathroom, strolled through security, sat at the gate and started playing around on my computer.

I was at the gate with plenty of time to spare and, just when I expect boarding to start any minute, I faintly hear an announcement competing with the noise of this cozy airport. Wait, was that my name? Yep, I think that was me. As I wander over to the JetBlue counter, I wonder, Could they be upgrading me? Did I enter some information wrong? But wait, why are there so many people being called?

I overhear the male JetBlue employee tell the man in front of me that he needs proof that he’s leaving Colombia. He needs to buy a plane ticket. The man is not happy and the employee’s attitude does little to comfort him. Knowing I’m going to have trouble, I think about how I might get myself out of this. I step up to the other JetBlue employee, a lady in her 40s or 50s, and hand her my passport. When I tell her of my plan to purchase a bus ticket once I’m in the country, she informs me that I need to purchase a ticket out of Colombia now. I ask what happens if I don’t have a ticket and am told I won’t be allowed to board this plane. She confirms that a bus ticket will also suffice.

I’d heard about a website (or multiple websites?) that will create a fake ticket for you, for this reason exactly. I quickly and calmly sit down, reopen my computer, and search for a) flights from somewhere in Colombia to anywhere but Colombia, b) buses from somewhere in Colombia to anywhere but Colombia, and c) a fake plane ticket from somewhere in Colombia to anywhere but Colombia.

I opened the fake ticket and was not pleased with its appearance as an authentic flight confirmation. This lady is already pretty pissed with stupid backpackers like me who try to push the rules. I figured it might get past immigration in Colombia (though I’m certain they wouldn’t even ask), but I had a feeling this less-than-friendly woman wouldn’t be so easy to convince. What would happen if I was caught with a fake airplane ticket? Would they just tell me I can’t fly? Would there be more severe punishments? Would they laugh at my foolishness and tell me to go book a real ticket? I didn’t want to take the chance, with my plane about to board.

I do a quick Google search and read a few things online about people have this same problem, most of whom seemed to agree that taking the fake ticket route was best, others booked bus tickets and some booked refundable plane tickets. The consensus seemed to be that if you can get on the plane, there will be no problems in Colombia, and one couple even told of how they talked their way onto the plane, after agreeing to pay whatever fines would be incurred should immigration be displeased with their lack of onward travel commitment.

I decided to try out this last route, thinking that if I pleasantly spoke to this woman and insisted that I’d take full responsibility for whatever may come, she’d let me board. As I approach the woman, I realize others are boarding the plane – I must have been so caught up in my research that I missed the announcement for the first boarding group. The realization that I have very little time begins to slowly dawn on me, but I’m still calm – how can they stop me from boarding this plane that I’ve been patiently waiting an hour for?

But when the lady quickly tells me she will not budge on the rules, I decide it’s not worth wasting time trying to convince her otherwise – especially with fellow passengers getting ready to board the plane. If I’m unsuccessful, I won’t be boarding with them. Not wanting to read any fine-print on refundable tickets online, I ask where I can book a ticket in the airport. She directs me to the JetBlue counter a few gates away and tells me to hurry. Damn, I’m running out of time… but I’ll be fine.

I walk, with a little more urgency, but still calm and collected, to the JetBlue counter. When I arrive, I am the first in line with two agents currently dealing with other customers. The wait is longer than expected but, hey, what can I do, right? I’ve learned to just wait in line and I’ll get there when I get there…. typically this mindset allows me to enjoy life more, be less stressed, make more friends, etc. But I suppose this mindset shouldn’t necessarily apply when I’m about to miss my flight.

The customer on the right walks away and I’m glad that it’ll soon be my turn. Except the JetBlue employee doesn’t look at me and welcome me forward as expected. Instead, she gets up and begins to walk away. I’m watching her, thinking to myself, Damn, is she really taking a break/finishing her shift right this very moment? Still not realizing the urgency of my situation, I said nothing, even when she smiled and told me someone would be with me shortly. Luckily, it really was ‘shortly’ that another lady sat down at the other computer and greeted me. Phew, this woman just started her shift – she’ll probably be in a good mood.

And she was. In a great mood! I tell her I need to buy a refundable ticket out of Colombia so I can board my plane. Because somehow I still feel I have the right to be stubborn and not give JetBlue any extra money they don’t deserve, I ask if there are any fees for cancelling a flight. Luckily, there aren’t (I mean, really what would I have done if there were?), but the flight will cost more. That’s fine – I’m just going to cancel it tomorrow anyway.

The lady, fresh on her shift, searches a flight back to Fort Lauderdale and tells me it’ll be two-hundred-something dollars. As I ponder the unexpectedly low price of this refundable flight, the lady next to her points out that she’s pulled up a non-refundable flight. We all have a laugh and she finds me a new flight – four-hundred-something dollars (“But Lauren – you don’t even know how much the flight was?” No, dammit! Price doesn’t matter at this point!). Both ladies are very pleasant, and I’m feeling good about this. As she’s searching, I hear an announcement: “Final boarding call for flight blah blah blah to Cartagena, Colombia. Blah blah, boarding now…”

“Oh, that’s my flight – but they’ll wait a few more minutes, right?” I ask, casually, unconcerned.

“Oh, that’s your flight?” the lady on the left asks with urgency. “They’re going to close the gate any minute!” She picks up her phone and  calls the gate as the other lady reserves my ticket. The conversation doesn’t appear to be going well:

“I’ve got a passenger, Lauren Gainsbrook, here. She’s just booking a return flight…. yes, I understand… I know, but we’re doing it right now… Yes, this very second… okay.” eye roll.

She hangs up the phone and mutters, “So rude,” to her colleague. Are they not going to wait for me? Surely they won’t close the gate when I am literally steps away…

The lady takes my credit card… she’s entering the information… The man next to her (oh, btw, the other customer has left now) calls the gate again after we hear another final boarding call. The conversation is very much the same. It appears the JetBlue peeps at the gate are not feeling very sympathetic and may or may not wait for me. “Yes, right this second…. yes, it’s printing in 2 seconds… uh-huh… well, when you’re done with that, you come over here and have a conversation with me… bye”. Perhaps I didn’t make such a good impression on this gate lady.

Eek. I’m feeling really anxious at this point. I tell the ladies their positivity and cheerfulness has brightened my day, and start to pace on the spot as the ticket prints.

She hands me my receipt, and one foot steps away. She hands me whatever the second, and final, paper is – I really don’t care at this point – and tells me that’s it. I turn and I run. The man takes a piece of my receipt – “I’ll record this after because I want you to board”. Oh, really – you want me to board? I wouldn’t have guessed…

I enter the plane to seat after seat of passengers who’ve casually and calmly boarded, put their luggage away, sat down, and have been patiently waiting for take-off. I take my seat, and within seconds we are informed that the gate has been closed and we are prepared for departure. And we’re off. All they needed was that damn backpacker who didn’t book a ticket to leave Colombia.

I know other airlines have done this. But the only other time I’ve ever been asked about my proof of onward travel was from JetBlue. Except that time I told the man I understand the risk and am prepared to deal with the consequences should the country (Mexico, I believe) refuse my entry. I wonder if JetBlue is a lot more strict with this rule than other airlines are or if everyone is more strict with Colombia, or if in fact the Colombian officials are more strict (she said the airline would get charged if a passenger was found without onward travel info)… either way, I booked this flight with JetBlue credit that was given to me after they royally f-ed up my last flight from Fort Lauderdale. On this day, I gave them the chance to redeem themselves and, while it may not have been their fault (entirely), I definitely don’t have a better vision of JetBlue in my mind. At least the flight was near-free.

I realize now that they probably didn’t need any sort of confirmation that I’d actually booked a flight. If I just gave the lady a flight date and number, I suspect it all would have been fine. In future, I’ll have this prepared to tell someone and, if I’m pushed, I’ll just go book a refundable flight.

Lesson learned: Research a little more and have my lies prepared ahead of time.

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