By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 4/19/2007 1:16:16 PM ET 2007-04-19T17:16:16

Q: My husband and I recently purchased a package trip for two from Minneapolis to Costa Rica. We paid $3,791, which included tickets on American Airlines and accommodations.

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When we arrived at the ticket counter, an American Airlines agent told us that she would not issue us boarding passes because one of the two travelers had a passport that expired in less than six months.

We decided to call off our vacation. We immediately advised our travel agency about our change of plans. We later learned that Costa Rica has no such passport rule — it merely requires that passports not expire less than 30 days after arrival in the country.

I wrote a letter to the airline and to our travel agency, requesting reimbursement for the cost of our package. Our agency is doing its best to help, but American Airlines has gone into radio silence. Can you help us get through to someone?
— Nancy Dreher, Edina Minn.

A: It’s unusual for a major airline to go into radio silence. Often, it just takes time for it to answer your letter. But there are notable exceptions, which faithful readers of this column will probably remember. Fortunately, this isn’t one of them.

When your ticket agent checked the entry requirements for Costa Rica, the first paragraph applied only to passports for residents of the Northern Mariana Islands, which “must have six months validity.” Below that paragraph, it indicates that all other U.S. passports only require 30 days validity. The ticket agent read the first paragraph and believed that it applied to you, when in fact it didn’t.

“Our agent was incorrect to deny boarding,” airline spokesman Tim Wagner told me.

American is changing the reference material so that future errors won’t be made, moving the information on U.S. citizens higher in the document so that there is less chance an agent will be confused.

So what of the apparent radio silence? It can take anywhere from six to eight weeks to get a meaningful response from a travel company, and longer if it is over a holiday. Your query happened to coincide with a major holiday. (In a perfect world, it would take far less time for a company to reply to a customer query, of course.)

I’ve been getting many reader questions about passport and visa rules lately, and there seems to be a lot of confusion about what is required and what isn’t. My advice is to visit the U.S. State Department’s Web site before your international trip and read the foreign entry requirements for your country.

Then make a printout. Yes, a printout. If you run into trouble, have it ready.

American Airlines apologized and offered you the opportunity to rebook your trip at no additional charge. Your travel agent also helped you make a claim with your travel insurance company, which reimbursed you for your lost vacation.

Christopher Elliot is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. E-mail him at, or troubleshoot your trip through his Web site,

© 2007 Christopher Elliott ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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