It was a late Thursday evening, well after El Al had closed its offices in Israel. There were few personnel to speak to until Sunday. It was the onset of the pre-holiday rush to Israel to celebrate both Passover & Easter, when the call came through to the emergency line of the travel agency. “They won’t let my wife on the flight,” the voice crackled over the mobile phone from a place far, far away. The seasoned operator working the phone knew her job well – calm the customer down and get the facts.
Start with the basic information. “Who won’t let you on, what is your name, where are you calling from” was her staccato response.
“We’re in Phoenix Airport and American Airlines won’t let my wife board the flight to LA to connect to the El Al flight to Tel Aviv as her name doesn’t match what’s on her passport” came the furtive retort. Quickly booting up her computer, the travel consultant discovered the trio consisted of a mother, a father and a very young infant who had purchased three tickets several months earlier, all under the same last name. The itinerary was a mishmash of airlines: American Airlines from Phoenix to LA, El Al from LA to Tel Aviv and back to LA, and then US Airways from LA back to Phoenix. The tickets were issued by El Al, and the American Airline ground crew was only responsible for the 90-minute flight from Phoenix to LA.
US law is quite strict about passengers’ names matching exactly the names on their passports. In fact, most Internet airline sites as well as the vast majority of agencies are almost fanatical at insisting that clients check and double check the name on the passport, making certain that no middle name or maiden name is omitted if appearing on the passport. In this instance, the woman, in her debut role as mother, left the planning of the trip in the hands of her less-pressured husband and his in-laws. Unfortunately, she had never taken her married name, keeping all travel documents under her maiden name! The emergency travel consultant quickly phoned the agent in charge, who could not recollect if three months earlier, when the tickets were purchased, the husband had provided scans of everyone’s passports.
Mining the data in their own office system revealed only passport numbers for the adults, with the infant’s details incomplete, no doubt due to the fact that she had only entered the world two months earlier. The emergency travel consultant did phone El Al’s night crew, but they sadly confirmed that they could do nothing to persuade American Airlines to accept the ticket. The only solution offered by American Airlines was that they purchase brand new tickets on American Airlines ticket stock to the tune of $2900. No amount of pleading on their part could convince American to bend the rules. Why nobody thought of only purchasing a one-way AA ticket from Phoenix to LA for $230, and using the El Al portion from LA, was never explained. Rather than return home and solve the problem with the travel agency, the beleaguered parents forked over the money and boarded the plane.
In fact, copies of the email communication were put forward the next day showing the agent sent the reservations with the same last name to the father several times, and beseeched that he check all the data carefully and provide her with passport numbers and expiration dates.
The following day he made his selection, no doubt forgetting to show the email to his wife, who would have hit on the fact that her name was wrong. Emailing the travel agent back and forwarding the email to his parents, they called up the travel agent the next day and made payment.
Their E-tickets were sent out, and in his response at the bottom of their tickets he finally submitted, in a very small script, his and his wife’s correct name and passport numbers, which were not what was written on the E-ticket. Sadly he never noticed the tickets were issued under the wrong name, and the travel agent too never noticed the discrepancy.
Whether American Airlines will own up to their own role in this mess remains a mystery. The travel agent immediately canceled the wife’s original El Al ticket, and the ping-pong of letters to AA has now commenced.
This is one of the most disconcerting travel mishaps that can occur, and it is easily avoidable.
Always communicate in writing with your travel agent; while you may wish to discuss it over the phone, never commit to any itinerary without a complete written proposal. Moreover, carefully study what has been prepared. Never assume it’s error free; both Internet sites and travel consultants make mistakes. Don’t blindly accept what has been sent; check the connections, check the dates, check the times, check the names.
Here is another tale, completely preventable and aimed to harden your resolve to review all material.
Jason and Anne decided to visit Israel, and they also ended up purchasing an El Al ticket from LA. Their travel consultant was adamant that they carefully review what was sent, making sure they understood that Israel required of all tourists that their passports be valid six months beyond the date of entry into Israel. By the way, frequent travelers will note that while Israel does have that six-month rule, the US does not require tourists entering the US to have a passport valid for six months beyond their entry.
The US only requires it be valid throughout their stay in the US.
Jason and Anne sent their passport details, selected their seats and made payment. Yet the moment they touched down on Israeli soil and entered passport control, Anne was stopped cold. It seems that she had been born in Israel and her parents had taken her to live in the US many years ago. In fact, she had an expired Israeli passport, which the Israeli authorities discovered in their computer system in under one minute. Rattling off the names of her parents, Anne to her shock was told that while she was welcome to enter Israel, her ability to depart would be stymied if she did not renew her Israeli passport or obtain from the Interior Ministry a 24-hour pass to leave Israel! With her long-expired Israeli passport tucked away among her mementos back in her apartment in LA, she had no choice but to spend hours at the Interior Ministry to arrange a pass enabling her to leave the country. Once more, despite the urgings of their travel consultant to provide passport numbers and expiration dates, she had simply omitted that she was also an Israeli citizen, even if her passport had long ago expired.
Finally one travel mishap that you cannot necessarily avoid: You get robbed.
Staying in safe areas and avoiding dangerous neighborhoods can only get you so far. Unfortunately, travelers can get mugged even in well-lit, populated places. Clients of ours have had their wallets and iPhones lifted in areas as diverse as Times Square and downtown Paris. First and foremost, always keep a copy of your passport in a separate location along with your credit card details, without expiration dates or security codes. If disaster strikes and you do get robbed, report the incident to the nearest police station even if the odds they’ll do anything is slim. It’s imperative for any insurance claim you make, as well as for getting some type of temporary passport.
You won’t be stuck in some Turkish prison if you lose your passport overseas. You need to contact the nearest embassy or consulate so that the local staff can assist you with obtaining a temporary passport. In order to expedite the process, you’ll need that copy of the passport as well as a second form of identification.
We all know that travel mishaps occur far too often, be it bad weather or delayed crews or traffic jams in the sky or on the street. We know your luggage can get lost or damaged, and many of us have shown up to a hotel property we thought was a four-star delight only to find out the mattress hasn’t been replaced this century and the room has an unpleasant smell of stale cigarette smoke. Some of these mishaps could have been avoided by better planning, but by and large, travelers today learn to roll with the punches and stay calm. Losing your temper after the fact does no benefit to you or to the people around you. For as the saying goes, ‘tis far easier to catch flies with honey than with vinegar.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at mark.feldman@ ziontours.co.il