Travel Savvy

Still in waiting mode with less than a week to go now until the official “due date”. Also reminding myself that most first babies are more than a week late and so this waiting mode could continue for quite a while yet. I did try to hurry things along with my OBGYN yesterday at my 9am appointment by informing him that his receptionist had assured me his schedule could be cleared for the morning and I figured maybe we could just deal with this whole “having the baby thing” right then and there, before lunch.

Unfortunately he didn’t seem to think that was the wisest course of action.

So, waiting. And doing tasks. Like washing car seat covers, and packing the hospital bag, and researching what it takes to get a birth certificate and a passport. (Why are these paperwork things always more complicated than it seems that they should be?)

Passports have been a bit of a theme this week. My friend, Rachel Held Evans, did a travel survey over on her very popular blog asking people where the most interesting place was they’d ever been, the most beautiful, where they wanted to go next, and one tip they’d learned while traveling.

My tip was this: “Make sure your passport is valid because, believe it or not, you can’t travel on an expired one.”

So for today’s reading pleasure I offer you the essay Travel Savvy – the sad tale of how, five years ago, I learned this most basic piece of travel wisdom the hard way.

Travel Savvy…?

This, I thought as I stared at my passport, is possibly the stupidest travel-mistake I’ve ever made.

And that’s saying a lot.

During the last five years I’ve been stranded in Germany for a week on account of neglecting to get a visa for the Czech Republic. I’ve traveled to Colorado and left my wallet, all my money, and every credit card I own safely in my gym bag at home. I’ve turned up to the airport in LA to discover that I’d booked a flight to New York on Wednesday all right, but the Wednesday of the previous week. I’ve walked off an American Airlines flight in Chicago and sat down at the first gate I saw that said “London” and had the right departure time, without double checking the flight details on my boarding pass (which might have helped me notice that my connecting flight to London was, in fact, with British Airways instead of American). At various times I’ve forgotten to pack my malaria medication, my phone charger, my power-point presentation, and, yes, on one especially memorable occasion, any underwear.

Given this, you might find it ironic that I make my living at least partly by training humanitarian workers to cope more effectively with their “high transition lifestyles”. In other words, how to hop on a plane, go dashing off to a disaster scene to aid the recovery effort, return home, reorient, and then turn around and do it all again two weeks later. Oh, and stay sane in the process.

One point so obvious that I rarely mention it during workshops is that it’s helpful to have a valid passport when you’re trying to board an international flight…which brings me to noon on December 15, a confirmed seat on a flight from LA to Sydney leaving at 10pm that night, and an expired Australian passport.

Here’s how it happened.

Once upon a time I was born in Canada…

OK, OK. But it is relevant. Because of where that most joyous event occurred I have an Australian and a Canadian passport. And it’s a lot easier for Canadians to get visas to work in the US than, well, anyone else. So at the moment I’m living in the States on a Canadian work visa. That means that I have to use my Canadian passport to enter and leave the US as I go dashing off to all those disaster scenes. Got that?

In July I noticed that my Australian passport was going to expire in October. But the thought of trying to navigate the maze of red tape that would inevitably surround any attempt to renew my Aussi passport in the States while living there on a Canadian visa made me feel exhausted.

So I hatched a brilliant plan. I would just go home to Australia at Christmas and take care of it there. If, for some obscure reason, the Australian immigration officials were upset that my passport had expired I could just pull out my other one, enter the country as a Canadian, and then get busy renewing my Australian passport on home soil.

The plan, clearly, was flawless. But, because I am responsible and organized, I rang the Australian consulate to run it past them and a cheerful fellow named Malcolm and I had a brief conversation that went something like this…

Me: “My passport’s about to expire and I could get it renewed while I’m here in the States, but I think it would just be easier to wait and renew it at home at Christmas, don’t you?”

Malcolm: “Yeah, mate, just do it when you get home. She’ll be apples.”

In retrospect, missing from my side of the conversation was the perhaps vital fact that the passport would expire before I was due to travel home. But, to be fair here, missing from Malcolm’s side was a detailed query somewhere along the lines of: “Wait just a minute, you don’t happen to be a dual national living in the States on your other passport and thinking of using said other passport to enter Australia after your Australian passport expires, are you?” But at the time I hung up satisfied that I’d covered all my bases.

The next six months I was very busy. Busy traveling to Kenya, Colorado, Indiana, Canada, New York, and South Africa. Busy teaching people how to live life that way and be happy, healthy, and well-adjusted. Like me.

That busyness might explain why it wasn’t until the morning of December 15 that I had the time to locate the website where an American friend who was going to fly over for New Years Eve could apply for their Australian tourist visa online. As I cut and pasted the link for him, I noticed a statement saying that everyone except citizens of New Zealand had to apply for a tourist visa before boarding arriving at the airport to board their flight to Australia.

Huh, I thought, I wonder if everyone includes Canadians, and whether that might cause a small hiccup if I suddenly pull out my Canadian passport, visaless, in Sydney airport.

So, trying to do the right thing here, I call the Australian consulate again. My pal Malcolm was gone. Perhaps he’d been fired for not asking enough questions. In his place, I got Andrew.

“Andrew,” I greeted him warmly. “I just want to check that it won’t be a problem for me to enter Australia if my passport’s expired.”

“What are you talking about?” Andrew said. “You can’t travel on an expired passport.”

“Huh,” I said, moving on to Plan B. “Okay then. Will I need a tourist visa in my Canadian passport to get into the country, since I’m also an Australian citizen?”

“If you’re a citizen of Australia you can’t enter Australia on the passport of another country. It’s illegal,” Andrew said, in a tone that asked where I was in kindergarten when everyone else was learning international law.

There was a long pause while I digested this.

“Right, then,” I said. “Um, could you help me brainstorm my options because my flight to Australia takes off at ten tonight.”

What?” Andrew said. I don’t know how he managed to pack incredulity, exasperation, and pity for my obviously deficient intellect into one word, but he did.

I wanted to defend myself. I wanted to tell him – hey buddy, I’m a smart, capable, person. I have two masters degrees. I direct a training program for a non-profit. I’ve written a novel, and… and… I can cook. These things happen. They just clearly haven’t happened to you lately.

But I didn’t defend myself. I chose the only option that I thought might get me somewhere. I begged.

“Please! I have to make that plane. I haven’t been home in a year and a half!”

“Well,” he said grudgingly. “You’re probably going to need to apply in person in the consulate at LA for an emergency travel document. That’ll take five working days. Your only other option is to call the airlines, explain the situation, and see if they are willing to call Canberra and get authorization to uplift you without a valid passport. But, the airlines don’t generally go for that sort of thing, and Canberra might not grant it anyway…”

As he spoke I had a vision of spending the first week of my holidays hanging out in the lobby of the Australian consulate in LA, and a second week trying to finagle another seat on a flight to Sydney before Christmas. There had to be another way.

“So,” I hazarded, looking around furtively as if the foreign affairs swat team was about to swoop into the office and take me into custody right there and then. “Hypothetically speaking, if a citizen of Australia were to show up at the airport and present another country’s passport, what do you think the chances are that the airline would figure it out and stop them from boarding?”

“I cannot advise you regarding that course of action,” Andrew said primly.

What is my country coming to? Doesn’t he know it’s his job to represent Australia around the world? Doesn’t he know that he is duty-bound to proclaim our national motto “no worries mate, she’ll be right” with nonchalant assurance in any and every situation? And where was some of that convict spirit we’re so famous for?

As I walked into LAX that night and presented my Canadian passport, safely impregnated with an electronic tourist visa that I’d applied for online, I was sweating. I like to think of myself as someone who could, if they chose, break laws with panache and style. But I could feel all my style clinging to me damply.

My grand plan was make it onto the plane and get to Sydney whereupon I would confess all my sins and throw myself on the mercy of the immigration officials. I figured they’d probably be cross but I couldn’t see they’d have much choice about letting me into the country at that stage. I mean, they couldn’t very well deport me back to the US, could they? Can you even be deported from your own country?

But as I disembarked in Sydney I had second thoughts about the wisdom of confessing. Who knew whether, in my absence, Australian immigration officials had become as mean-spirited and irrational as American ones? Maybe they would deport me. I hesitated, and then joined the lengthy queue for non-citizens.

While I mourned the fact that I was wasting my one opportunity a year to sail through an immigration checkpoint in the citizens line (not to mention the money I’d paid for the tourist visa for my own country), I had plenty of time to wonder whether my name would flag the existence of my other passport and bring wrath and, I suddenly realized, possibly a hefty fine, down upon my head.

In teaching others how to cope well with high transition lifestyles one of the things that I always talk about is the importance of having a sense of humor. And when things like this go wrong I can usually shrug and see the bright side in that fact that I provide so much raw material helpful for keeping mine in good working order. But in that moment I couldn’t see the funny side of the situation. Possibly, as my father would point out later, because there wasn’t one.

Way too soon I was next in line. I glanced at the immigration agent and debated my options. Would it be too obvious to proclaim excitedly, “I’ve been looking forward to this trip for years, and I can’t believe it’s finally here!” Maybe my accent would give me away, even with a well-placed Canadian, “eh?” So I handed over my passport, reminded myself to breathe, and tried for my normal mien at this stage of the immigration process – bored and exhausted.

With just a glance and one casual anticlimactic flick of his wrist, it was over. Never have I been so glad to see a stamp come down and hear the words, “welcome to Australia.”

I was home.

Well, home as a tourist, anyway.

Over to you… So what travel lessons have you learned the hard way?

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10 responses to “Travel Savvy

  1. Ah, one of my “favorite” Lisa memories (& one of my finest friend moments as I recall being SO supportive when you called in a panic by giving you a chastising lecture…). But it does completely validate your Mum’s earlier question about the length of your visa for this stay!

    • I can’t remember the lecture… but I can totally see you doing that. And, nope, very nice try (and thanks for bringing back the maternal query re the visa memory as that was good for several smiles this morning) but it still doesn’t justify Mum’s question about how long my visa’s valid for for this stay. Not “completely” anyway.

  2. Oh man. Flying out of Chicago, I went to OHare, and I was supposed to be flying out of Midway. Missed my flight. Sad thing is… I did it again a year later.

    *sigh*….
    never again.

  3. Jenny & Stephen

    Well, I’ve also got a good story involving Canada. It all started when my Canadian cousin visited us in Atlanta. We had such a good time with her that we decided to travel up to Edmonton, pack up her car (with her in it) and try to find her a nursing job when we got back to ATL. We realize NOW that there were a lot of ill-conceived notions wrapped up in that scenario but let’s just roll with it. Caveat #1 Stephen and I are engaged but won’t wed until later in the year. Since we both had little money, we planned a flight on one of the discount airlines which required us making three connecting flights; ATL->DEN->PDX->SEA. The trip home was going to be one heck of roadtrip but that story is for another time. When we get to Portland, we have a 8 hr layover and Stephen decided it would fun to go into town on the bus, see a few sights and then ride the bus back. So, we leave our bags at the airport and head into town. It was a beautiful city with a well organized street structure (all the streets were tree names arranged alphabetically in one direction and numbers in the other). After we played around for a few hours, we knew we needed to get back to catch our pond-jumper to SEA where we would board the international flight to Edmonton. We find the central bus station and struggle a bit to find the right bus to take us back to the airport. At this point we are getting nervous since the bus is not moving very fast back to the airport. At one point we almost get out and hail a taxi. We finally get back to the airport with 5 minutes to spare. Grabbing our bags, we race to the terminal and find the plane almost completely booked and we are then notified that this was the beginning of our international flight and we should have been there two hours ago for check-in. We beg and plead and they let us on but we will have to get off in SEA and have to wait for someone to give up their seat. In the end, we get on in SEA and make it to Edmonton on time. It was a nice little adventure to begin our fun-filled trip through Canada and across the U.S.

    • Oh, I SO get the “I forgot Canada was a separate country thing”. I did that once too, flying out of LA and up to Vancouver to do an interview that afternoon. I made the flight in the end, just.

  4. ha ha ha! I like the ‘style clinging to me’ line. Nice.

    I have two passports, identical except the number, so I get confused sometimes when I’m in the middle of a trip and forget which one I used to registered the visa. In Japan and Vietnam, this resulted in both passports getting confiscated and taken to a back room, then a whispered interrogation…but in Australia when it went, ‘beep beep booooooop’ the immigration lady asked–without looking up–“do you have another passport?” and stamped me through. One of the many reasons everyone loves Australia!

    • WHAT? I have so never heard of this “two passports with different numbers” thing. How did that happen? That could seriously come in handy. Do they have different expiry dates too?

  5. As most of my traveling is done by car, and I’ve never left the US by air, I don’t have any comparable customs/immigrations stories. There was the time I drove with my college roommate (who was a native of Quebec and would go on to become the first Canadian member of the Harlem Globetrotters) to Montreal for spring break. His girlfriend was with us, she being a German national in the US on a study visa. We were well into upstate NY before she realized she may have a problem crossing the border. When we arrived at the border crossing the border patrol officer asked for my ID, noted my 7′ 2″ friend in the passenger seat, and may or may not have noticed the 6′ 0″ German girl in the backseat. He informed me that I should never allow anyone besides me drive my car the entire time we (me and my car apparently) were in Quebec, as I would risk having it seized by the government if anyone else but me were to drive it. I thought it was an odd rule, but gladly agreed and left with haste.

    Then there was the time I drove to California the first time, and had to stop at the border of California (coming from Nevada, mind you). I was asked if I had any fruits or vegetables in my possession. (Clearly this border patrol officer did not know me very well, as I seldom have either in my possession). I answered that I did not, and I was free to enter Truckee, California.

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