Well, traveling has its surprises, right? Sometimes good, sometimes bad. While trying to fly from Amsterdam to Cape Town with our 10-year old daughter, we found out at the very last minute that we couldn’t board because we didn’t have her birth certificate. I felt the ground disappear from under my feet.
Do you think that’s the end of the story? Not really. Unfortunately, one problem led to another. It was a domino effect. Definitely tough, but we managed to have a happy ending.
Want to find out more about it? Planning on traveling to South Africa with a minor? Keep reading and you will find out what happened and how we managed to get out of such stressful situation.
Problem # 1
After an amazing 3-day vacation in Amsterdam, we were so excited about our next destination: Cape Town, South Africa.
Our flight was in the early afternoon, so after having breakfast, packing up, and a quick visit to the Van Gogh Museum, we took an Uber to the airport. We were still early, so we strolled to the Lufthansa counter. The lady at the ticket counter was very friendly. Between smiles and small talk, we started the check-in process.
Everything was going smoothly, until she asked, “Can I please have your child’s birth certificate?”
“What? We don’t have a birth certificate. We have her passport.”
“For her to get on this flight, I need her birth certificate.”
“We don’t understand. Why do you need her birth certificate?”
My husband rushed to find a copy on Dropbox, where he always saves all our important documents. He found it! We were relieved, but just for a minute. According to the airline employee, it must be an original. I couldn’t believe what I just had heard. I was still hoping that the situation would be resolved one way or another. As time passed I started feeling devastated, nervous, disappointed, and angry.
The lady kindly called her supervisor who informed us that by law, all children under 18 years old entering or leaving South Africa, regardless of nationality, need to present an original birth certificate or a certified copy. She was nice, and she was doing her job. She explained that even if we could board, we would get stuck at every single airport in South Africa. It is a law to prevent child trafficking.
I felt my legs paralyzed and my heartbeat was over the speed limit. It was hard to believe that we were about to lose a two-week, prepaid, non-refundable vacation. We were still in front of the Lufthansa counter, wondering what we could do to save this trip, when my husband thought about the American Consulate. Quickly he checked and there was one in Amsterdam, next to the Van Gogh Museum. The nice lady agreed that we should go there for help. Since we were so early, we hoped we might have time to go there, certify the birth certificate, and be back in time to catch our flight.
Before leaving the airport, we asked her about other flight options, just in case we couldn’t make it in time and she informed us that there was another option later that day.
We gathered up our luggage and headed to the American Consulate. To make a long story short, they couldn’t help us because birth certificates are state issued documents, not federal, so they had no jurisdiction to assist.
Still in front of the Consulate, we were desperately trying to think of a solution. The stress was palpable and both of us were holding back any comment or action that could cause an explosion. A quiet, short pause and my husband suddenly said, “There is only one option left. We need someone to go to our apartment, get the birth certificate, and send it here overnight.”
A small light shined at the end of the tunnel. But who? We had just moved to Houston, and we had no friends to ask such a favor. Two remote possibilities: a) my husband’s boss; b) a sweet mom from my daughter’s school whom I met not long ago. We aimed first at the mom. My husband got on the phone with Fedex and I got on the phone with her. Fedex informed us that it would take two days instead of one because it was international. My kind new friend confirmed that she would get the birth certificate for us.
Luckily, we live in an apartment building that has a management company offering 24/7 service. We got in touch with the office manager who asked us for an email authorization to let our friend get in our apartment. So we did. Thanks to technology, problems like that could be solved with a phone call and an email.
The next step was to book a hotel as soon as possible to have an address where she could send the birth certificate. We logged into Booking.com and reserved a room at the nearest hotel right around the corner.
The major problem was solved. We knew we would have to wait a couple days to fly to South Africa, but at least only two days in Cape Town would be missed and we would be able to catch up the rest of the vacation.
A new friend kindly saved our trip. Thank you! You know who you are.
Problem # 2
When we thought everything was okay, another problem came up. After getting settled at the hotel in Amsterdam and confirming that the birth certificate would get there two days later, it was time to re-book the flight. My husband got on the phone with JustFly to reschedule the flights. To our surprise, we had these two options: pay $800 per person to reschedule or book a new flight to Cape Town. The rep said he found a flight on Egypt Air for $500 per person. We booked that flight and ended up flying through Cairo to South Africa.
Note: the nice lady at Lufthansa didn’t inform us that we’d lose our tickets, nor did she make any notes that we had showed up attempting to fly to Cape Town. JustFly was showing “no show”. Live and learn.
Problem # 3
Some readers may already know what’s next: “Gracie, if you skip part of your flight, the rest of your itinerary gets cancelled!” We didn’t know that, and the last leg of our trip, South Africa back to Houston, was cancelled. We figured that out in Cape Town and no matter how much we begged and pleaded they would not reinstate the flight. The new flight would cost $1,500 per person since it was so close to departure. On the positive side, we could get the same seats we had lost, if that’s any consolation.
We were furious that JustFly had not mentioned that when they recommended the Egypt Air flight. We had to make a decision: pay $4,500 for new flights, or use frequent flier miles that we had been accumulating for another vacation. In exchange for 150,000 frequent flier miles, we re-booked our original seats.
Luckily, we booked separately all of our flights within Africa, so no issues there.
If our stop in Amsterdam was just to connect with the next flight instead of staying there for three days, supposedly we would have find out about the birth certificate requirement while in Houston. However, I think the airline had the obligation to check where our final destination was and let us know about the special requirement when flying to South Africa with a child.
Learning the hard way. Those are mistakes that we won’t make again.