How my one-way flight home with United cost an extra $4200

After recently returning from Brazil, I wanted to document the chaotic journey back and share it so others might avoid some of these issues.

Imagine getting ready to leave the country for a long while. After speaking to someone at an airline multiple times to organize your ticket, the idea settles in and a process starts. You say your goodbyes, vacate your apartment to the next renter, pack your things, and fly to a different city far away: it's the major one with international flights—if you don't live there, you may not know anyone, just passing through. You arrive a day before your flight and stay in an Airbnb to give plenty of time before this international journey. After checking into your flight online early in the day, you head to the airport, go through security, then immigration, then wait at the gate. The flight is an overnighter and the day is now almost done. An hour before the 10pm departure someone calls your name and very politely informs you in words I would paraphrase as "Sorry, no, please leave the airport to deal with this."

There was a travel ban for non-citizens entering the United States from Brazil and so the United Airlines representative at the gate wouldn't let me board. I wasn't aware of this rule. When I talk about it, most people react, "They didn't warn you ahead of time?", and so I'm writing this to make a case that yes, they could have, perhaps should have warned me ahead of time.

Why didn't they warn me? I asked them afterwards and received a variety of reasons such as "[You called the American number where they aren't aware of these kinds of things, whereas here in Brazil we are more familiar with the rules.]" or "[If you had bought the starting (domestic) leg of this trip with us, we would have been able to warn or help you.]" or "[You checked into your flight online, and so we didn't have a chance to talk to you until you showed up at the gate.]" The reality is that there are plenty of opportunities to catch this when calling in or using online systems, but it requires consistency between different aspects of the customer experience, something that this company perhaps hasn't yet nailed down despite operating since the 1930s. To give an idea of how high their standards are, consider how the representative at the gate told me this happens regularly and that "[Every week there's a Canadian who shows up here with this problem.]", or how after being denied boarding and calling in to resolve the issue, the representative on the phone tried to book various flights that again went through the United States, including the one I was just denied from! So it seems like they're unaware of the rules. I would suggest that that a United States airline selling flights entering the United States would do well to be aware of the rules for entering the United States.

So what happened after I got 'the news'? Well it sent me into a panic as 1) I didn't have a visa to stay in the country; 2) I wasn't able to easily leave soon as flights were booked for the week ahead; 3) many countries had travel restrictions and COVID complexities; 4) I was not yet vaccinated and potentially passing through places with higher case numbers; and 5) it's 10pm and I'm in the Departures section of an airport with nowhere to go but towards Arrivals, in a city where I don't really know anyone. Proceeding, I was graciously granted 10 days upon re-entry so that I can leave again… I called my previous Airbnb host and explained the situation—luckily they had another room in the house and let me deal with formally booking another day. I spent a few days trying to organize myself, unsure what was the best course of action, many times feeling like I can neither stay nor leave and every choice is expensive and/or complicated. Stressful. A few days later my father bailed me out by helping me buy some overpriced last-minute flights, each with their own arc of "solved, ok I can relax, wait what?, oh shit…" that I will omit here. In the end I flew to Mexico, where there was no travel ban for people in Brazil, and then to Cancún, where there were flights available to Canada.

There were all kinds of associated costs totalling about $4259, mostly from the last-minute flights (thanks Dad for helping me with those).

country expense price
BRAZIL Transport to lodging $6
BRAZIL Lodging São Paulo day 1-2 $28
BRAZIL Transport to airport $5
BRAZIL Transport to lodging $8
BRAZIL Lodging São Paulo day 3-4 $28
BRAZIL Data roaming $4
BRAZIL Transport to airport $11
MEXICO Flight to Mexico $1810
MEXICO Transport to lodging $10
MEXICO Lodging Mexico City 2 days $37
MEXICO Transport to airport $4
MEXICO Flight to Cancún $154
MEXICO PCR test $128
MEXICO Transport to lodging $19
MEXICO Lodging Cancún 2 days $42
MEXICO Transport to airport $16
CANADA Flight to Toronto $1949

United Airlines ultimately did nothing at any point to help me resolve this other than leaving the ticket open for another purchase—the privilege of paying to fly with them again after an experience like this. After meeting someone at their airport sales desk, they were only able to offer me information on flights by other companies, because their flights naturally go through the United States—I would need to organize this myself and buy new tickets. How should one feel about this?

I feel bad for anyone going through this experience without help to cover these costs as it's an assault on your mental well-being if you're not wealthy. This could have been avoided. I'm lucky that this will not affect me in a few years—if United is still around as a company by then, hopefully they would have learned something from this experience.

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