The Travel Adviser: Entering the US? Don't always trust your agent

The first rule of any travel consultant is not to rely upon a client's memory.

Often this column lends itself to criticism from many sources. Airlines complain that I'm too hard on them and readers comment that I'm too easy on the airlines. Now my profession itself comes under attack from a disgruntled traveler. "Beware! Travel agents may not be as responsible, professional or supportive as you may think they are. Just because you book your plane ticket through a recognized and tangible operator - doesn't necessarily mean you can rely on them to cover all your bases and make sure you are aware of all the latest rules and regulations that may have come into force since your last foray beyond these shores." The facts are as follows: Barry, in possession of both a British and an Israeli passport, booked a trip to Chicago. He was satisfied with his travel agent and selected a flight via Amsterdam. His agent took the trouble to ask him if he had a visa for the US and he replied: "I have a British passport and there is no need to apply for a tourist visa to enter the United States." He actually had flown years ago and was confident that British passport holders could enter the US under the wordy title of the Visa Waiver Pilot Program. Now the first rule of any travel consultant is not to rely upon a client's memory. Make sure your travel agent requests your passport details, especially the expiration dates. His travel agent did not bother to ask for such vital details. And then the fun began. Like a lamb to the slaughter, our innocent passenger trudged to the airport. Scheduled to fly Tel Aviv to Amsterdam with a connection to Chicago, the airline permitted him to board the flight. It was either unaware that the regulation had been changed or too lazy to deal with it, and elected to pass the problem on to his next destination. The authorities in Amsterdam were not amused. Pulling him out from the transit line they informed him that without a tourist visa or a new passport with a machine-readable bar code he could not board the plane. This requirement has been in place for five years, heavily advertised to the entire travel community and was a gross error on the part of his travel agent. Back to our stranded passenger: "What followed was nothing short of a nightmare even though, it must be said, that if you're going to get stuck anywhere Amsterdam isn't a bad place to do it. My cell phone then went into overdrive as I called my family in the US and my wife to inform them of my predicament. "I also had to call the British Embassy, American Embassy and American Consulate in the Netherlands to see if it was at all possible to expedite the tourist visa. "I ended up spending two days in Amsterdam, endeavoring to keep my spirits up and my food, accommodation and other expenses bills down until a visa was procured." Since then, a long drawn out process of e-mail and phone bargaining has been going on between our passenger and his travel agency for full compensation of his expenses. The agency generously offered to cover less than half of his expenses, despite the fact that the entire snafu was the responsibility of the travel agent. In fairness, the only amount the travel agent is not responsible for is the price of the Tourist Visa which should have been arranged in Israel. He concludes his e-mail to me with a simple inquiry: "What I would like to be absolutely clear on is whether the travel agent is solely responsible for ascertaining that the customer is in possession of all the necessary valid documents to reach his or her destination." In my opinion the answer is quite succinct - Yes. Keeping in mind that mistakes can occur, and trust me they do, the travel agency should have simply apologized profusely for its oversight and remitted in full all of his expenses. It is the tactic of trying to negotiate a settlement that is irksome. In fact, it should have demanded that the airline that flew him from Israel to the US should compensate the passenger too, as it is next in line when it comes to checking one's travel documents. He should never have been permitted to depart Ben-Gurion Airport. Airlines are responsible for checking that one has a valid passport and a visa to the final destination. Remember, our client was simply transferring flights in Amsterdam, and not stopping for a visit. The ability to enter the US on a Tourist Visa is a burdensome process. Those fortunate enough to hold a European passport, for example, must check prior to their trip that their passport meets the latest requirements. Furthermore, the US has recently demanded that passengers holding a European passport register online before they fly. This too has had passengers at Ben-Gurion Airport befuddled as they seek some Internet connection to comply. So while I fervently believe in travel agents, in these pressured times, you should also not take anything for granted, unless you want to enjoy an unplanned stop in Amsterdam... Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments e-mail him at