Update 8/26/2013: I made it to Mendoza, Argentina by bus to make up for the loss I incurred during this ordeal with LAN Airlines. Not only did the bus company have a warning on their website when I purchased the ticket about the visa tax, but they also verified it during check-in and boarding. I was in contact with LAN and they did not make any attempts to help reconcile the matter. As the largest airline provider in South America, the customer service I received was sub-par and I warn others about using them in the future. Only they benefit from experiences like this as you`re required to pay for your return flight.
I´m writing this post partially to vent and partially to seek options on what I can do considering what happened yesterday.
In short, I flew into Buenos Aires, Argentina and was forced to leave the country for not paying their Visa tax beforehand. They would not let me use the phone or Internet, go to the US Embassy, or even grab something to eat.
Here`s the longer story.
I caught my flight from Medellin and flew into Ecuador for a hellish 10-hr layover. Because Quito is 1.5 hours from the airport, I stayed overnight and took my connecting flight at 6:55am. After another stop in Guayaquil, we set off for Buenos Aires at 8am and made it to the airport at 4pm (UTC time zone). At the customs window, I was asked if I had paid the Visa tax. I replied no, and inquired if I needed to pay her or go to another window. She said I should have paid it before arriving and left to get a supervisor. After a few minutes, she came back and motioned me to follow her into the Immigration office. I was put in a small, cold room and told to wait for someone to see me.
At this point, I´m tired but a little antsy. I had barely slept at the airport and was looking forward to checking into my hostel. I also had not eaten much besides the eggs they served during my flight and was overdue for lunch. I thought they would just have someone take my payment and I would be sent on my way.
I was dead wrong.
First, I´ve been learning Spanish but I am in no way fluent. I could hear them talking about me but I couldn´t understand their accent besides a few words here and there. About 20 minutes later, a woman from LAN (the airline I took) came down and explained that because I had not paid the Visa tax, I had to return to Ecuador.
¨Seriously? Why can´t I just pay it here?¨
“You can´t. Their policy is you must pay it before you enter the country. You must go back to Ecuador, pay it there, and come back.”
“You want me to fly another 8 hours and back, 16 in all, to make a payment? I don´t understand.”
This went on for a few more minutes. I asked if I can have a friend in Colombia or Ecuador pay the tax for me while I was there. No.
I asked if I can pay double there to stay. No.
I asked if any exceptions were made to that rule. No.
I asked if I can go to the US embassy. No.
I asked if I can make any phone calls. No.
When it finally sank in she was telling the truth, that a hidden camera crew wasn´t going to come out and say it was all a bad joke, I asked if I can go to another Country instead of enduring another long flight. She came back, presented me with options and I ultimately decided to head to Chile because it was closest and my next destination after Argentina. She found a flight that was leaving in 30 minutes and made arrangements to get me on it.
I don´t like to cry, ESPECIALLY in public and as much as I tried to resist I could feel tears well up in my eyes out of frustration. I inquired about the rule. My Lonely Planet guide said I could pay at the airport. When had the policy been altered and why had it changed? As upset as I was and as much as I wanted to be angry at the Argentinian officials, her answer made sense. It`s because the US government has the same regulations and forces Argentinians to go through it as well. When I asked how often this happens, how many times a day she has to send Americans away, she responded, “all day, at least a dozen times.” And that´s just one airline.
When we found out the flight was delayed for 20 minutes, I tried to get online to make hotel arrangements in Chile. At first, they would not let me. Finally, I appealed to their human nature, “What if your sister or daughter was alone in a foreign country, barely spoke the language, and had to go somewhere unprepared at the last minute? Would you send her off at night to find a place to stay?” We found a terminal that had free WIFI, and with a slow connection, I made a reservation and cancelled mine in Argentina.
I was chaperoned like a criminal, with the woman from LAN directing me on where I can go. Exhausted, spent, cold and hungry, I boarded my fourth flight in the last 24 hours to made it into Chile around 8pm. They require a Visa too but have a window at the airport where you can pay. They call it a reciprocity fee because the US government makes them pay the same amount to visit.
I looked into the regulations to try to make sense of them this morning. I had two options to pay for the tax: at the airport I was departing from or by credit card. The US government does have the same policy and Argentina recently changed theirs to match it. I don´t understand the benefit. Why make someone go back to where they were to pay the tax? Who benefits besides the airlines? I had spent almost $1,000 to fly from Colombia to Argentina. My flight to Chile wasn’t free either. I had to pay to leave.
What am I missing here? Did they have a right to deny me a phone call/visit to the US Embassy? Did I have other options I didn´t consider? A friend told me it was the airlines responsibility to make sure I had paid the tax before leaving. Is this true and what can I do about it? Will my travel insurance cover my expenses? Some of these answers I need to look into myself but I am still tired and don’t have the energy to fight anyone on the phone.
Lesson learned: Double check entry requirements before leaving the Country.
I became a US citizen last year and as happy as I am about it, I wish I would have been more patient and applied for dual citizenship so I can use another passport for countries with visa requirements. Because we make it so hard for foreigners from some countries to enter, they´re fighting back by implementing similar regulations. I can´t blame them for that.
For now, I´m going to figure out what to do in Chile. Maybe, just maybe, I´ll try Argentina again. I snapped the pictures below from the airplane. It looks too beautiful to miss despite all the trouble.