As someone that has always considered themselves to be a “budget” traveler, I used to think that sites like Orbitz and CheapOAir were a godsend. What is better than putting your desired location and date of flight and getting numerous results for relatively cheap flights? While it is hard to argue that quick booking sites are convenient, my experience in using one to travel to Guatemala in March 2017 show that they are not conducive to international travel.
In December 2016, I spent about a month in Belize. During that time, I crossed over into northern Guatemala and spent a few days in Flores touring the various national parks in the area such as Tikal and Yaxha. In March 2017, as the time was quickly approaching for my next trip, I decided to continue my trek down Central America beginning with the southern half of Guatemala. As I had been conditioned to use quick booking sites for booking my flights, I booked a cheapish round-trip flight from Los Angeles to Guatemala City through Orbitz that cost around $420 USD. Being that it was cheap, the flight times were as inconvenient as possible. My flight from Los Angeles would leave at 12 AM and arrive in Guadalajara, Mexico at about 5 AM. From Guadalajara, I would fly to Mexico City arriving at 9 AM. The final leg of my flight would be from Mexico City to Guatemala City in which I would arrive at 1 PM. The carrier for all three flights would be AeroMexico.
My travel date arrived, and I caught a Greyhound from San Diego to Los Angeles where I took the LAX Flyaway shuttle to Los Angeles International Airport from Union Station. I easily caught the flight to Guadalajara. Before I continue, I would like to point out that although I had been to Mexico before, I never had crossed the border by air. When I had arrived in Guadalajara, I was tired and disoriented. After waiting in line for about an hour I finally passed through Mexican customs. My passport was stamped, and I was given a tiny multicolored slip, which I didn’t know at the time, would be very significant to my departure from Mexico. I easily caught my connecting flight to Mexico City which I didn’t have to show my passport because it was a domestic flight. After arriving in Mexico City, I was so excited to continue my travels that I was at the departing gate about 2 hours before my flight to Guatemala City. Time passed quickly, and it was finally time to board. I walked up to the ticketing agent and showed her both my passport and boarding pass. As I was walking into the terminal connector, she stopped me and said “No puede abordar porque no veo su papel” (You can’t board because I don’t see your paper). She pulled me over to the side and showed me the same slip of paper that I had been given in Guadalajara. It turns out that unlike crossing the land border, the Mexican government requires all foreigners to have this “tourist card” prior to flying out of the country. Even though I had turned my backpack inside out, I couldn’t find the stamped card that I need to board the plane. I had about 20 minutes until my flight to Guatemala City was wheels up. Although I had no idea at the time of how significant missing my flight would be, I didn’t want any unnecessary delays in my travel. I sprinted across two terminals eventually arriving at a “help desk”. The lady ended up informing me that in order to get a new card. I would have to go to the customs office at the airport entrance and pay them about $500 Mexican Pesos ($25 USD) and come back airport through security. At that point, I accepted the fact that I would miss my flight.
What happened next is the point of this post. Even before going to secure my new tourist card, I wanted to try and get on the next flight out. I walked to the AeroMexico customer support office and when the next flight was and how much it would cost me to be on it. When the agent said $900, I originally thought she was referring to Mexican pesos as $45 USD is a normal flight change fee. However, I was completely shocked when she clarified that it would be $900 USD if I wanted to reschedule my flight. To make matters worse, I found out that because I missed the connecting flight to Guatemala City, my return flights to Los Angeles had been cancelled. This meant that even if I had caught a flight from another carrier to Guatemala City, I would still have to buy another return flight. The reasoning is that whenever you buy a roundtrip plane ticket via a quick booking site, you purchase the tickets as bundle (which give you a small discount). If you miss one flight, then the whole purchase is invalidated and the tickets are put back up for resale. I called my travel insurance company and found out that losing your tourist card isn’t a “covered” reason for reimbursement. Thus, I was stuck in Mexico.
Even though I went on to enjoy my time in Mexico (see the Mexico Travel Page), I learned the hard way that quick booking sites such as Hotwire and Orbitz can’t always be relied on. In instances of domestic US travel where you only need to take one or two planes to reach a destination, the likelihood of missing your flight is relatively low. However, international travel presents a unique challenge because you take three or four flights that sometimes cross three different boarders, thus the likely hood of missing one of your flight increases significantly. While you get a SMALL discount using these sites, I learned that it is not worth the risk of being stranded should something go wrong. From that point forward, I have booked directly through the airline carrier after conducting the requisite research. While they say time is money, sometimes taking the time to do a little extra research can save you a lot of money.