About the author: Mike Joy is a prolific traveler, connoisseur of open-ended backpacking trips, and Community Manager at Couchsurfing.
If you have ever bought a one-way ticket to start your backpacking adventure with no end in sight, and had these words uttered to you at the airport counter, you know the sinking feeling in your stomach as your trip seems to crash down before it even starts.
Your flight is already purchased, you have carefully budgeted how much you can spend a day and you have no idea where you will be flying home from, much less the date. Unfortunately, many, many countries have proof of onward travel as an entry requirement. Although I have RARELY been asked this by border control (in Costa Rica we did have to buy a return bus ticket back into Nicaragua, even though everyone knew we were not taking it) – the issue is the airline letting your board in the first place.
The reason airlines require this is actually quite simple, if you are denied entry because you don’t have proof of onward travel (an unenforced requirement for many nations) they are responsible for flying you back. Don’t worry though, there are ways to satisfy this requirement without having to choose an end date for your trip. I have used all three of these techniques to test this rule while traveling.
1) Buy a cheap flight
The first time this happened to me, in 2011, I was at the check-in counter in San Francisco flying into Thailand. I was planning on teaching English in Thailand after getting my TESOL certificate so I most definitely did not have a return flight. I bought a US$40 flight into Ho Chi Minh for some random date within my visa-free period with Air Asia. I never ended up using this flight and lost the money, but it got me on the plane and if I had been prepared, I could’ve actually done a side trip to Cambodia, Laos or any other Air Asia destination. In Europe, RyanAir and EasyJet often have incredibly low fares that can be used for a great weekend getaway and proof of onward travel!
2) Credit card miles
The year was 2018, I was flying into Quito, Ecuador and I was required to show proof of onward travel to board my flight from the USA. Luckily, I had racked up enough airline miles with my Chase Sapphire (no advertisement, it’s just the credit card I have) which allows you to cancel a flight within 24 hours with no penalty and instant return of your airline points. I booked the flight, boarded the plane four hours later, cancelled my booking 12 hours after that and saw the points back within 72 hours.
3) Reserve a seat
Only a few airlines do this, so you will need to do a little homework, but for Central and South America you are in luck. Panama’s National Carrier, COPA, has a ‘price lock’ option for 24-hours. It lets you book a flight and hold it under your name, for free, for 24 hours. It emails you the reservation and to the Avianca check-in desk, flying to Lima, it was enough proof of onward travel to get me on the flight. I never went back to complete the reservation, with payment, so the reservation just disappeared into the abyss of the internet and I explored Perú with no issues. To me, this feels the most risky as it is not an actual ticket, but I met many backpackers who did this and no one seemed to have encountered an issue.
When dealing with international flights it is often better to be safe than sorry. I’ve had friends had to book a refundable flight at the airport counter, then enter the hell of actually getting the refund and struggling without that money while traveling on the backpacker budget. Rather than hoping for the refund to come before your bank account goes into the red, use one of the above tips and start your trip worry-free.