“Do you have proof of onward travel?”, the dreaded question from airline check-in personnel.
You arrive at the airport, armed with bags, passport and your one-way ticket, ready for a big adventure exploring your next new destination. And this question pops up at check-in. Most round the world travelers and digital nomads have faced this question at one time or another, and if you aren’t prepared for it, it can ruin your trip before it even gets started.
Why do you need proof of onward travel?
People are denied entry into countries all the time. Visa problems, not meeting certain financial requirements, or previous criminal activity are just a few of the reasons. So is a suspicion that a traveler is planning to move permanently to the new place without the necessary approvals.
When a person is denied entry at immigration, it becomes the airline’s responsibility to return their passenger to their previous destination. For this reason, while the rules regarding entry are set up by a country’s government, in most cases the airlines are the ones that are checking and policing the policy.
If you travel on a round trip ticket, as most people do, that ticket is essentially your proof that you are planning on leaving the country you are visiting. A one way ticket, however, will often prompt the airline worker to ask for your proof of onward travel before you even get on the plane. And if you don’t have it, they can refuse to let you board the flight.
So, what are your options for proof of onward travel if you have a one-way ticket into another country?
Buy a cheap throwaway ticket
Low-cost airlines can offer fares so low that can be worth it to purchase a ticket that you don’t plan on ever using. Budget airlines are notorious for charging you for every add-on: You have luggage? That’ll be extra. You want a seat assignment? Extra! But if you’re only using the ticket for proof of onward travel you don’t need any of these extras and you can score a deal.
Search engines such as kayak explore and adioso.com make it easy to search for the cheapest ticket from a particular destination, using the “anywhere” function and flexible dates to give you an idea of what a throwaway ticket would cost.
Pros: It’s exactly what the airline or immigration person is looking for
Cons: It’s still going to cost you – and depending on where and when you’re traveling, it may not be cheap
Use a service
Onward Ticket provides you with legitimate and confirmed onward ticket from their website or app. The onward ticket has PNR (booking reference) with your name, and the ticket is good for 48 hours. One nice feature of this service is that they advertise that you will receive your ticket within two minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They charge $12.00 for each ticket.
We’ve used a similar service called Best Onward Ticket, which provided a confirmed itinerary and ticket number with a major airline, and provided great customer service, including following up to ensure their were no issues with the ticket they provided us. They charge $12.00.
Another service provider, called Air Onward Ticket, offers the same service for only $7.99. Their ticket is good for 36 hours, and will be delivered as a pdf via email.
One Way Fly provides an actual ticket as proof of onward travel, and has the option of allowing you to pick a specific flight to be ticketed. They’re the most costly, however, at $19.00.
Pros: No need to go through the hassle of canceling a ticket.
Cons: There’s still a cost involved.
Mock up a fake ticket
First of all, we are NOT recommending that anyone attempt to defraud an airline or immigration service. That said, our research has shown that a lot of travelers use variations of this method. Some people we talked to use an old ticket, and change the dates and departure using photoshop.
Others have faked an email from a travel agent, mocking up an itinerary. Travel blogger Wandering Earl even provides a how-to article on mocking up a ticket on his blog.
In preparation for this article, we reached out to a number of travel communities to see if anyone had actually been caught with a fake ticket, and couldn’t find a single person who had. So, the risk seems low, but I’m not sure this option is worth it.
Also, keep in mind that particularly suspicious airline personnel can look up your reservation number and flight on their own system while you wait.
Pros: Perfect for do-it-yourselfers, and won’t cost you anything
Cons: Technically, you are lying to airport personnel or an immigration officer. If you get caught – fines, deportation, prison time?
Purchase a round trip ticket
Airline pricing is a very strange beast. Rarely is a round trip ticket twice the cost of a one-way ticket. We’ve even seen one way fares that are basically the same as the round trip. So, if you can find a cheap return fare (look for terrible/unpopular flight times or multiple stops on the return and you’ll probably get a deal). It might be worth it to purchase it since you’re not planning on using anyway.
Pros: You won’t even be asked the dreaded question
Cons: You’ll probably pay more than you would for a one-way ticket
Plan ahead and buy a real ticket
Of course, this is what most airlines and governments expect – full-time travelers or digital nomads aren’t the norm, and they expect vacationers and business travelers to always book a round trip or onward ticket. If you’re planning a couple of months in advance, you can already know your next destination and book a real ticket, that you’re planning on using.
We have our next destination planned about half of the time, and it certainly makes things easier. Just make sure to have a hard copy or a pdf of your ticket on your phone available if asked.
Pros: Real ticket, no worries about not getting a refund
Cons: What? Plan ahead?
Shell out for a fully refundable ticket
A full fair ticket is usually refundable, though you might want to check the fine print on the specific airline you’re doing this with to be sure you don’t get stuck paying some nonrefundable tax or fee. It also might take time to get the money back, so if you’re short on cash it might not be an option.
In the U.S., the Dept. of Transportation requires all carriers for flights booked in the USA to be cancelled within 24 hours. Most airlines offer this cancellation as an option, with the exception of American Airlines, which instead allows you to “hold” a reservation for 24 hours without a purchase.
Make sure to read the fine print when using this option. It doesn’t apply to tickets not purchased in the USA, and the terms may be different if the actual flight is on a partner airline rather than the airline site you are booking on.
Pros: A real ticket will hold up under heavy scrutiny
Cons: Fully refundable fares are some of the most expensive, and it can take time (in some cases, months) to receive your refund. And often, certain fees will NOT be refundable, so it’s important to read the fine print.
Buy a ticket using points or miles
If you’ve accumulated a lot of airplane miles, you can book award travel. While you need to check the airline’s specific terms of services, canceling a flight booked with miles is usually pretty easily, and you typically get credited back your miles immediately. Any fees associated with the award ticket may not be refunded, though.
Pros: Doesn’t tie up cash, refunds are usually not a problem, refund of points on cancellation are immediate
Cons: You need to have enough points, and award availability from your destination.
Alternative onward transportation (bus/train)
Onward travel doesn’t need to be via plane. Buses, trains, and even ferries are options. Remember, onward travel is just that – proof that you’re leaving your destination country. It doesn’t need to be a return to your original departure point. In most cases, you’ll pay less for a bus ticket out of the country than a plane ticket.
We love Rome2Rio for finding alternative trip options. The Man in Seat Sixty-One is a great resource for one-stop shopping for train and ferry travel worldwide. Buses are a little tougher – it’s best to search for bus companies operating in your destination countries.
Airline personnel may balk at overland onward travel documents. After all, if you are refused entry into the country at the immigration point, it seems unlikely that you would be allowed to leave the airport to hop on a bus or train.
Pros: Legitimate ticket, often at lower cost.
Cons: Airline personnel might not accept a non-flight option.
Don’t do a thing and risk it
Whether you are asked for proof of onward travel depends on your destination country and airline, and even on the particular airline personnel that’s checking you in. If the country imposes strict penalties on an airline for not checking for onward travel, it’s likely that the airline will ask you for your proof at check in.
In our experience, we’ve been asked for proof about one third of our inter-country plane trips. I’ll admit, it’s a little frustrating to go through the bother of arranging onward travel and not be asked for it, but we treat it like an insurance policy – it’s better to have it and not use it, than be caught without it.
There are certain countries absolutely require an onward ticket: Peru, New Zealand, United Kingdom, United States, Philippines, Indonesia and Brazil are a short (and likely incomplete) list of these. Of course, even when traveling to these countries you may not be asked for proof on onward travel.
Pros: Takes no time, money, or effort
Cons: That pit in your stomach while checking in, wondering if they will ask you for proof. And, if they do ask for it – uh oh.
What’s the best option?
That’s really up to you, and your level of comfort with risk. After trying many of these over the years, and looking into the options further for this post, I think some of the services that allow you to “rent” a ticket are our best bet. Ten bucks is a small price to pay to not worry, and to not have to do battle with the airlines trying to get your money refunded.
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