Papers, please! Don’t let travel document problems ground your next vacation

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If you think your international travel documents for your next trip abroad are ship-shape, you might want to talk to Chrysoula Chrysogelou.

Chrysogelou, a hotel manager from Greece, was flying from Athens to Chicago recently when a Lufthansa agent told her – wrongly, as it turned out – that her permit from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s visa waiver program (ESTA) was invalid.

Because it was going to expire before she returned home, she had to pay $522 for an earlier flight. She hoped Lufthansa might refund the money once it realized its error, but it refused.

Travel document requirements can be complicated, but as Chrysogelou found out the hard way, they’ve become even trickier lately.

Passengers say that on top of having to obtain the proper visas for their destinations, they also now must meet an airline’s requirements, which can be even stricter. And even when airline staffers know the rules, those rules can be unevenly enforced.

So, unfortunately, it’s on you to make sure you dot every “i” and cross every “t” before you board your plane to Europe this summer.

Visa waivers may not be enough

If you’re traveling internationally, you might need a visa, which is an endorsement on your passport indicating that you may enter a country. Americans don’t need visas to enter 116 countries – including 26 in Europe – for short-term tourism, business or layovers on the way to a non-treaty country. However, some popular destinations such as China and Brazil do require U.S. citizens to obtain visas.

In Chrysogelou’s case, she qualified for a visa waiver for her trip to the United States. And while the waiver was valid when she began her trip, the German-based Lufthansa imposes an additional requirement: Passengers must have valid documents for the “entire duration” of their stay. (After I asked Lufthansa about her case, it rescheduled her flights to her original dates.)

In other words, you need to know how long you can remain in your destination country without a visa. If your trip exceeds that period – typically 90 days for U.S. passport holders visiting European countries on business or leisure trips – you need to obtain a visa through the embassy of the country where you will spend the bulk of your visit.

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