I recently got this great 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 might face anywhere. Travellers wanting to visit multiple countries in a convenient route (start somewhere, end somewhere else) often have to deal with the potential problems of flying on a single ticket. I wrote Viky a response, which quickly became quite a lengthy one as it’s a complicated subject. It seemed like it should be tackled properly 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 a little 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’s any issues at all at immigration.
Now, one of the frustrating things is that the rules are inconsistantly applied across the board. Nearly all of the time flying on a one-way ticket is no problem whatsoever, but then occasionally you end up facing some difficulties. This is why when you’re researching this issue online, you are sure to find lots of different opinions. The truth is that it’s impossible to say anything with complete certainty, because a lot of it just depends on individual airlines’ policies, where you are trying to fly, and whether you happen to have any bad luck.
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. 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 lady 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 lady 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
Understand that first of all it’s the airlines occasionally being difficult. While travelling on an EU passport, I’ve never had any issues with immigration itself.
Also know that they’re not necesserily asking you to have a return ticket back to your starting destination. This is really 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.
My advice is to simply fly one-way whenever this makes sense for your travel plans. Issues are very rare. But if you want to be a bit more prepared, here’s what I recommend:
- Arrive at the airport early. If they refuse to check you in, you’ll still have time to buy a ticket in a pinch. When I had to run around like a headless chicken trying to sort out a flight booking it got a little stressful. Make sure you’ve got at least an hour to spare.
- If needed, get a fully refundable 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 ticket, get the cheapest one you can find (assuming your plans are fluid and you don’t know for sure when or where you’re moving on to the next country). It actually doesn’t even have to be a flight out of the country–I’ve heard of many people who booked a super cheap train or bus ticket out of the destination country, and bizarelly this was enough to satisfy the airline staff.
- If you’re really worried, bring paperwork. Print out a recent bank statement and a destination plan or itinerary (this can even be a made up one). This can demonstrate to anyone that a) you have enough money to get out of the country and b) your intention is to travel onward.
I should mention that the immigration policies of certain countries is particularly stringent, for instance in Costa Rica and Panama, and here you actually need a bank statement or itinerary plan anyway. But normally, you don’t need this in actual practice. Basically use them as props to show airline staff that you’re prepared.
Generally speaking, flying on one-way tickets is fine, and if it makes sense for your trip, just do it. If you’re nervous about facing any problems, be sure to show up early and remember you can always get a cheap disposable ticket for your proof of onward travel.