I recently got this question via e-mail from Viky from Germany:
“In your experience, how strict are the immigration officials and/or the airlines about the required return/onward tickets in Central and South America? I’ll be going travelling for a long time (open end actually) and am currently trying to decide whether to buy a RTW or single tickets and this is a crucial point for the decision.”
This is a great question, not just specifically with regards to Latin America, but it’s really an issue you could face anywhere when flying internationally.
My response to Viky quickly became quite a lengthy one as it’s a complicated subject, so it seemed better tackled in a post!
The problem with one-way tickets
So here’s the issue: technically speaking, immigration could deny you entry to a country for a range of different reasons. If that were to happen, the airline would be liable for flying you back to your point of origin.
That’s why airlines can sometimes get fussy when you’re trying to fly on a single ticket. Even though they sold you a one-way ticket, once you actually get to the check-in desk they might start to ask you about your return ticket or proof of onward travel. That’s because they don’t want to risk having to take you back if there are any issues at all at immigration.
Now, one of the frustrating things is that the rule is inconsistently applied.
Flying on a one-way ticket is often no problem whatsoever, but then occasionally you end up facing some major difficulties. This is why when you’re researching this issue online, you are sure to find lots of different opinions based on many individual experiences. But the reality is that a lot depends on the airline’s policies, where you are trying to fly, and whether you happen to have any bad luck that day.
So here’s what happened to me
As a traveller who often visits multiple countries on one trip (starting in one country and ending in another), I routinely fly one-way.
Predictably I’ve never had any issues with domestic flights as you can take these one-way and never have any questions asked whatsoever. Often you don’t even need to show your passport to go on a short-haul domestic flight. So don’t worry about these.
A few times I’ve flown on an intercontinental flight one-way. Once, when flying with Virgin Airlines one-way from London to Mexico, I was actually asked about why I didn’t have a return. I explained to the woman at check-in that I was a backpacker going on a longer trip, and I don’t yet know when I was going back. I also said that I was planning to be in Mexico for about 60 days (the visa-on-arrival gives you 90 days). This was enough for her to drop the subject, and she promptly checked me in.
There were two times when I had some actual issues. Once was when flying one-way from Singapore to the Philippines with AirAsia. I was told that immigration requires proof of onward travel. There were only 15 minutes left until check-in would close, so I ran around looking for an internet cafe at the airport, and then booked the cheapest possible flight out of the Philippines with AirAsia just in the nick of time. It cost about 30 Euros, and I booked it not actually expecting to use it (and I ultimately didn’t). Showing this booking let me get on the flight with no further questions asked.
The other time was when flying from Miami to Honduras with Spirit Airlines. I was again told that I’d need proof of onward travel for immigration. This time, the staff at the check-in desk actually booked a refundable return for me, and gave me the phone number I could call after I’d landed and crossed the border to immediately cancel and refund this flight.
How to avoid problems
If you want to reduce the risk of any issues when flying one-way, then I can recommend a couple of things:
- Arrive at the airport early. If they refuse to check you in, you’ll still have time to buy a (preferably throw-away or refundable) ticket in a pinch. When I had to run around like a headless chicken trying to sort out a flight booking, things got a little stressful.
- If needed, buy a separate fully refundable return ticket. Ask the check-in staff if they have any. Otherwise, ask at service desks at the airport, or go online at the airport and find one. If you can’t get a refundable return ticket, then see if there’s just a cheap one you can find (that you might not actually use in the end).
- Or: book some cheap overland transportation. While it’s best to have a return flight ticket, it may also be sufficient to book a cheap train or bus ride out of the destination country. No perfect guarantees, but I’ve heard quite a few travelers who successfully submitted this as proof of onward travel.
- Or: create a ‘temporary’ return ticket. Okay, I’m not a lawyer, and I’m not telling you to do this… but services do exist for generating a pretty legit-looking ‘return ticket’ that may pass inspection at the check-in desk. Less dubiously, the site Flyonward lets you basically rent a ticket just to use it as temporary proof of onward travel.
Generally, keep in mind that they’re not necessarily asking you to have a return ticket back to your starting destination. This is just about immigration (and by extension the airline) being comfortable that you have proof of onward travel, i.e. you have plans to leave the country again before your visa runs out, and you are able to leave the country when you have to. That doesn’t have to be a return all the way home; it can just be that you’re moving on to another country on your trip.
Flying on one-way tickets is sometimes necessary, especially for longer-term travelers who can’t always plan that far ahead. Obviously, it would be crazy to have to pay for a return flight you’ll never use. If you’re worried about facing any problems, be sure to show up early at the airport and remember you can always get a cheap disposable ticket for your proof of onward travel.