by Andrea Oxlade, The Telegraph, October 9, 2017
Our holiday of a lifetime to South Africa was wrecked this summer. We were barred from boarding our flight from Heathrow to Cape Town because we had the wrong type of birth certificate.
We didn’t even know there were two types – and that cost us our £8,300 holiday. Our experience is worth sharing if only it prevents others from suffering the same fate.
We live in an age when borders are tightening; travellers will increasingly fall victim to all sorts of red tape.
Our story also shines a light on how the travel industry operates when things go wrong. For some families visiting South Africa, things are going very wrong.
Well intentioned child trafficking rules were introduced in the country in 2015. The government now demands that travellers carry birth certificates for children who travel with them.
We took birth certificates for our two children, Sam, 13, and Kate, nine. But at the check-in desk, our holiday excitement turned to shock when the supervisor told us: “You’re not getting on that flight unless you have the right birth certificates.” It was hard to take in. Our certificates had “birth certificate” stamped across the top. How could they not be right?
As we now know, there are two types of certificate. You are issued with a free certificate at birth, but this is almost worthless. The legal document that carries the details of the parents normally requires an additional application and fee, depending on the council. This is called a “certified copy of an entry”.
My son has never had this document but has managed to hold a British passport for 13 years and travel to America, among other countries.
At the airport, there were tears. My youngest, an avid David Attenborough fan, had been so excited about our three days of safari. Even at that stage we’d expected to get some of the holiday. Maybe I’d watched too many Hollywood films, but I’d expected the airline to get us on another flight.
British Airways said flights were busy and put us on a waiting list for one three days later. But by the day of the flight, we’d been removed. Instead we were told the next available economy-class seats were another three days later and that we’d need to pay an additional fee of almost £6,000. We had no choice but to cancel the rest of the holiday.
We’d face further costs: failure to pick up the hire vehicle within 24 hours allowed Avis to rent out our booked car. Last-minute car hire would have meant spending another £700, possibly more.
The travel agent said the only accommodation money we could get back was half of the cost of our final three days at a game reserve – around £800. It also lodged a claim with BA to retrieve airline taxes of around £1,400, minus a processing fee of £200.
Unfortunately, we were told most of this wasn’t refundable under the airline’s conditions. We received less than £500.
We were told the car hire money would also be lost. But Avis, after two months, agreed to refund half the cost. In total we clawed back around £1,600.
What about recovering the rest? Atol protection covers only company failures, such as Monarch’s this week, but we did have travel insurance. To make a claim, we needed BA to confirm that we had been refused entry to the flight. It took a lengthy battle to get this, especially as the only way to communicate with the airline online is via a form.
Of course, we accept a degree of responsibility. The travel agent had told us we needed “unabridged” birth certificates with the names of the parents. BA’s website has similar wording.
The point is that two levels of red tape clash, catching people out: Britain’s bizarre dual-certificate system and zealous South African border enforcement.
We asked BA if it would consider improving the wording on its website to highlight that there were two types of certificate. It said: “We have not found this to be a problem for the majority of our passengers.”
It has certainly been a problem in the past. It was reported in late 2015, when the rules were introduced, that 10 families a day were being denied entry by airlines operating from Heathrow to South Africa.
Given that it’s known in the industry, we believe our travel agent should have explained the problem orally. We spent several hours discussing the details of the holiday. One minute of explanation would have prevented the cancellation of the entire trip. Our agent, a firm in East Surrey, said that in future it would explain the issues face to face. Others should do the same.
BA said: “Individual travellers, not airlines, are responsible for ensuring that they have all the documentation required to enter or leave a country. As an airline, we are required to ensure all customers have valid documents for the country of destination.”
That’s true. But the industry could try harder to help. It could acknowledge the dual system of certificates, while booking systems could show pictures of the necessary documents.
Of course, we as travellers need to be more vigilant. I wish I had been. And that’s why we want to warn others. In the age of increasingly strict border controls, this won’t be the last story you read of a dream holiday being ruined by a piece of paper.