Home Behind the Scenes My worst airport dramas – when things can go wrong they will

My worst airport dramas – when things can go wrong they will

by Silke Elzner

Since it’s Friday 13th today, I thought it would be a good idea to share some personal travel stories of things that did go wrong for me in the past.

And boy, did they go wrong. I am not talking about taking a wrong turn or having a wallet stolen, although these things are already bad enough. I am talking about being denied entry to my home country, being denied returning to my country of residence and being denied to board a plane. Well, almost.

After a shock moment (or a couple of hours) I was able to resolve all of these issues and was able to continue my trip.

If you know me a little bit you will know that I am quite a planner and quite anal in my travel preparation. I am not stupid either. Just inexperienced in travelling with two passports, travelling on my own with children and travelling with children.

I have learned my lessons the hard way. And maybe, by reading this you will be able to avoid some of the big mistakes that I made. Luckily, since all of these episodes ended positively for me and without major damage (other than to my dignity), they make for a good blog story – so enjoy!

When you clean out your wallet too thoroughly

I have an embarrassing history of making wrong decisions when cleaning out stuff. When we migrated to Australia we did a thorough clean-out of my wardrobe. I ended up with piles and piles of clothes in my bedroom. Things to take with me in Australia, things to throw away, things to donate to charity.

When my husband offered a helping hand to get rid of some of the stuff for me while I was busy digging through my clothes, I ordered him to take a certain pile of clothes to the next charity bin. Only when he was already through the door did I realise that I had pointed to the wrong pile. Instead of donating old clothes that I wasn’t going to wear anyway, I accidentally gave away my most favourite things, including a beloved limited edition souvenir concert t-shirt. It was the last time I would see this t-shirt again. Lesson learned.

Or so you think! Fast forward a couple of years and I am embarking on my first solo trip ever to Thailand to meet up with family who would come to Thailand from Germany. At the check-in counter of the airline, I was asked to produce the same credit card that I had used to make the booking. Strange, since I wasn’t aware that you needed to have the credit card on you when checking in, but even stranger when I discovered that I had cleaned out my wallet too thoroughly, leaving me without foreign currency or a credit card.

Fortunately, my dear husband was with me when I checked in. Not only was he was able to produce the right credit card (we have a joint account), he was also willing to lend me his card for the trip so that I wasn’t flying entirely without funds.

And on it went…

On the same trip the fun continued. Once I was checked in I proceeded to the security checks with my toddler son. Have you ever had issues with customs? Well, I can tell you that the people at Sydney Airport were just amazing given how stupid I was trying to leave the country with my son who didn’t have the right passport.

Let me explain… my son was born here in Australia. He is Australian. At the time I was a German citizen with permanent resident status in Australia. This made my son also a German citizen. So when he was born we rushed to the German consulate to organise a German passport, but we didn’t bother doing the same for Australia. For some reason we thought that having one passport was enough. Stupid, yeah I know.

So when I tried to leave Australia and approached the customs officials with my son, they asked about the missing visa in his German passport. I told them since he was an Australian citizen he wasn’t able or required to have a visa stamp in his German passport.

Naturally they asked for his Aussie passport, which I didn’t have… so you can imagine my shock and embarrassment. My dear husband was again my saviour. Ultra-protective as he is, he had urged me to take a copy of my son’s Aussie birth certificate with me. When I showed the customs official the document he was able to quickly confirm in the system that my son did indeed exist and that I was telling the truth.

Amazingly, we were allowed to continue our trip, no Aussie passport and all. I was just cautioned that I might get into trouble in Bangkok on my way back to Australia, so he suggested to plan in extra time at the airport, just in case. Bless this man!

And we are still not done…

If you think that this was all that went wrong on my doomed trip to Thailand to see my family you are wrong.

After our joint holidays we diligently arrived early at Bangkok airport, in anticipation of some sort of issue with my son’s travel documentation. We approached the check-in counter, poker-faced, handed over the passports. He glanced at my son’s German passport, nodded, handed it back. Phew! Then he looked at my passport. And looked. He studied the pages. Looked at my face. Asked me to wait a moment, consulted with a fellow check-in person. My heart sank. What was wrong? My passport was perfect, it was not expired. I had checked that!

He came back and said in thick Thai accent: “You are not allowed entry into Australia”.

I looked at him, disbelieving. What? Not allowed entry back into the country where I had a husband and a daughter, a job and a house? Why? I replied back, my voice almost a whisper, “But I am a permanent resident. I am allowed to live in Australia indefinitely.”

He shook his head, no. Pointing at my visa stamp he said, “It states here, ‘Must not enter after [date]’.” He turned the passport around so that could take a closer look. I was looking at something that was called a Resident Return Visa. It was glued in my passport. And the date was right. It had passed.

Up until that very moment I had thought that I was only carrying a visa that would state my PR status. I had no idea that the stamp in my passport was actually a Resident Return Visa which is an entirely different thing altogether. In short, a Resident Return Visa has to be renewed and paid for every couple of years. It is Australia’s way to make sure that permanent residents are actually living in the country. If they are having doubts then the renewal process is the time when PRs may have to prove that they are living in Australia for long periods of time. I didn’t know that back then. And neither did the airline staff.

But God bless also these people, as they sent an emergency fax to Canberra for a background check. In the meantime I was facing my family, all checked in happily on their flight to Sydney, fully prepared to fly to my house without me (yes, thank you very much for your support). After an hour of anxious waiting (it was late after all, who knows if someone in Canberra was actually answering urgent faxes?) I was cleared and allowed to board the plane together with my son and my family. Needless to say, the prospect of being stranded in Bangkok with my child was not a happy ending to a trip to reunite with my family.

When I arrived back in Sydney I was asked to step aside to fill in a form which was an application to a bridging visa (incidentally, my son was able to enter Australia on his German passport, no questions asked – oh, the irony!). I was allowed back in the country and I was given four weeks to organise a new Resident Return Visa. Which I duly did, of course.

That was the day that I swore to myself that I needed dual citizenship just like my children.

You think I had learned a lesson or two by now!

Well, I sure did. But still it didn’t rescue me from making yet another big mistake when travelling home to Germany with my son.

It was Christmas time, and I wanted to celebrate Christmas with my brothers and their families, my in-laws and my dad. I was looking forward to doing this after celebrating Christmas more than 7 years without them.

A couple of weeks earlier I had fallen very, very ill. It took me around 10 weeks to get over my pneumonia. Plus, I was suffering from a cracked rib, making every cough, every movement a torture. To give you some perspective on this, I was still so weakened that I had not even been able to pack my own suitcase.

Standing in line at the German customs after a 24-hour trip with a tired child, still weakened and exhausted from my long illness, I thought the struggle was finally over and that I could now relax. On the other side of the barrier there was my mother-in-law and her partner, waiting to take all the luggage off me and smothering my son with big bear hugs. I couldn’t wait.

The lines were lengthy. German citizens entering Germany of course don’t need to line up at all, or barely so. But foreigners are checked quite thoroughly. And we queued in this line because of my son: he finally had an Aussie passport, while his baby German passport had now expired.

Let me tell you: when you have a choice of where to queue up, make sure you queue up in the right queue. Because the guy at the other end was a grumpy old fellow without a neck. Probably xenophobic, too. The way he treated anyone coming into the country was a disgrace. Silently, I felt sorry for all the foreigners trying to travel to Germany on a non-EU passport, and I compared his rude behaviour with the sunny attitude of Australian customs officials. Maybe he sensed that I was not approving of his condescending behaviour.

Because when it was our turn to show our passports I was in for a big massive shock.

Where my son’s German passport was, he asked. I told him it was expired. I had it on me, just in case, but I had figured one legal non-expired travel document would be enough for him to travel. No, I was told in clear terms. Since my son was a German citizen he would have to enter the country on a valid German passport. If I cannot produce a valid document entry would be denied. Then he handed me with a grumble a print-out with an excerpt from the German constitution.

I was stunned. This was in conflict with the information that I had sourced, fleetingly, elsewhere. I was sure I had read somewhere on the consulate’s website that it was international “best practice” to enter your country with your citizen passport, but it had not said that it was mandatory. But staring at this print-out slip I couldn’t and I wouldn’t argue my case with this humourless man.

I did the only smart thing you can do in this situation – I apologised profusely, backed down, and pleaded leniency. You could clearly see that my son was overly tired from the long flight, that I was still looking quite sick myself.
The neckless man just blinked at me, and to my dismay, started to say things like: “And besides, do you have a written affidavit from your husband that you are allowed to travel alone with your child?”

I just stared at him with horror.

Of course I didn’t have such a document. Why would I? Ours was a happy marriage! Of course I am not kidnapping my child! And of course I understand that this a serious problem and that there are many cases where partners leave countries without the other parent’s consent. It’s disturbing and criminal. But that’s not me! Here, let’s call my husband! Let’s speak to my mother-in-law on the other side of the barrier! Let’s ask my husband to fax something over.

He just grunted at me, letting me dangle like a big fish on a rod. You could tell he was really enjoying the situation, in a sadistic kind of way. I am sorry, but this is my fellow countryman I am talking about, but this is really what I experienced. I swore to myself this very moment that Germany was no longer my home country if it was controlled by people like this individual.

So what now? Are you sending us back home? A pause.

Eventually, the customs official took a deep breath and said nonchalantly, “You have two options if you want to enter Germany today.” I nodded, gratefully. “For one, I can issue you with an emergency passport for your son so that he can enter the country legally. This will cost you [insert low euro amount here].” I continued nodding, now more hopeful than ever. “Or I can just let you get away with a warning. So you don’t need to pay.” And I said: “And what is your decision?” He smirked and replied: “I will just caution you today and will advise you that next time you need to have a German passport for your son. You will also need your husband’s affidavit when you travel without him and are accompanied by your child.”

I thanked him profusely, in a way I have never thanked anyone before in my life. I was close to tears. You could tell he was enjoying this moment of mastery, of having me reduced to a whimpering little mess thanks to having the law on his side.

We proceeded to baggage collection and to the other side of the barrier, where I fell into my mother-in-law’s arms, sobbing. I was in total shock. The prospect of being returned to Australia, sick and weakened, with a tired child, and alone, was so terrifying and beyond belief. I was just grateful that we could be together with our families for Christmas.

However, this episode had had a lasting effect on me for the rest of the trip, and I had a difficult time enjoying myself with this dark cloud looming over us. I knew that I would have to leave the Shengen Area for a short trip to London, only to re-enter Germany a couple of days later. I was expecting the worst. Luckily, on our second entry the custom’s official was way more forgiving and graceful, which just goes to show that you need to take extra care when picking a line to queue up.

As you can see, not everything will always go according to plan. I for my part I now check in and walk through customs with a racing heart, a child burnt. I let my husband do the talking when we travel together. I have become a dual citizen, just as I have promised myself, and both my kids have their travel documents in order. When we travel, we have now 8 passports on us. It’s a bit of a hassle but definitely better then being caught up in some airport drama.

Some words of advise before I finish

  • Have all your travel documents in order, check the expiry date (at least 6 months is mostly required)
  • Do make sure you carry copies of your travel documents
  • In my son’s case having a birth certificate with me was our saviour
  • Don’t rely on just one form of payment, and make sure you can access funds from overseas in different ways if needed
  • Have all your emergency numbers at hand
  • Notify someone at home and at your destination where possible that you travel so that they can jump on the phone and get help if there is trouble
  • Check all regulations, laws, etc thoroughly and ask beforehand if you are not sure about something
  • Factor in extra time in case you are held up somewhere
  • Be cooperative, calm and friendly when you deal with customs officials
  • When travelling solo with children, bring with you a signed affidavit by the other partner
  • Dual citizens (or triple citizens, for that matter) need to carry the right passports with them – so for me that’s a German passport when entering Germany, and an Australian passport when entering Australia

Happy travels & happy Friday 13th!

Now – over to you: did you ever get in trouble with airport officials? Send me your comments!