While it pains me to even tell you this story, I trust you can enjoy a chuckle at my expense (maybe one day I will too…) and avoid a very carless mistake.
A couple weeks ago, I had a very special friend visit from Germany. It was her first time to the USA and I had a full itinerary planned for her 8-day trip to include New York City, Washington, and Los Angeles.
We made our plans relatively last minute and she indicated a willingness to fly standby in order to save money (standby was about ¼ the cost of a revenue ticket and this was low-season after all). I booked her on the early United direct flight from Frankfurt to Newark and the loads looked fine—she even had a shot at business class.
This story is not going where you think it is…
The morning of the trip she showed up at the United counter in Frankfurt. The flight was wide-open. But she never even made it to the check-in desk. For those who have flown out of Frankfurt on United, you know that before you can even approach the check-in desk you encounter a document check. For citizens of the 30-some- odd countries with visa waivers into the USA, no physical visa is required, but travelers must apply electronically (and remit $15) with ESTA, the Electronic System for Travel Authorization. This brainchild of the Department of Homeland Security is in addition to the white I-94 form that is filled out onboard the aircraft.
I am sure I was aware of this policy in the back of my mind, but I just assumed Germans did not need any sort of visa. Bad assumption. But this could have been an easy fix—typically approval is instant, much like the Australian electronic visa. Just fill out a short form online, pay the bogus $15 “administrative fee” and click submit. Seconds later you are approved and ready for travel.
The system was down. All credit cards were rejected (between us, we tried nine different cards). Yes, I suppose I am to blame for not taking care of this in advance, she is to blame for not finding out whether she needed a visa to come to America, and the Department of Homeland Security (those same agency that runs the Transportation Security Administration) is to blame for having a stupid policy and a broken system. But I feel better just blaming DHS…
She missed the flight. Keep in mind it was 2am ET in Philadelphia and I was sitting frantically on my bed trying, over and over again, to run my credit card through and get her visa waiver approved. Rejection each time, though when I rang Chase they had no record of any attempts at charging. Nor did American Express, Wells Fargo, or Diners Club…
The problem persisted. As I sat trying again and again to get this approved (naturally, the support desk was closed), I simultaneously tried to console my friend, telling her we would get this resolved.
Finally around 5am ET the credit card was processed and her visa waiver was instantly approved. I triumphantly called her and she at first she thought I was playing a mean joke on her, because she and the airport staff had been doing the same. But they slid her passport again and indeed, she was approved.
But she also had just missed the last non-stop flight to Newark…
So now I had a decision: scrap New York, send her on the 5pm direct flight to Washington and just spend a couple extra nights there or fly her to New York via Chicago at 12:20p. To foreshadow tomorrow’s conclusion of this sorry travel tale, I made the wrong choice.
To Be Continued.