Onward, Oh?!

I knew at some point during my adventures toting around a backpack I’d encounter this one small issue, but I just didn’t think it’d happen before even leaving Japan.  I’m talking about the need to have an onward ticket to get in to a country.

For those not in the know of the lingo, a number of countries (including Malaysia and Thailand) technically require you to have proof of onward travel – namely, possessing a plane ticket that will get you out of their country in a time aligned with the duration of your visitor visa.  On a practical immigration policy level, this ensures that people who are not citizens have a plan to get out of a country after visiting it – and are not using a tourist visa to clandestinely immigrate.

While the onward ticket has been a historical requirement of many countries, it’s one of those things other travellers say is rarely checked (save for Thailand and the Philippines, which the Internet tells me are sticklers for documentation these days).  For long-term travellers who are prone to going whatever way the wind blows them, this can be problematic – especially if they intend to use overland travel (bus, train) in their journey to get them from one country to another (since tickets are not bought in advance).

The first line of defence in ensuring you have a ticket out of the destination is the airline’s check-in counter. The reason for this is if you’re denied access to the destination, the airline is ultimately responsible for getting you out of there. That’s a cost many airlines don’t want to bare – especially the low cost carriers.

For my trip to Southeast Asia, I had intended to fly in to Kuala Lumpur and take my time touring around the country (Canadians are allowed a 90 day stay), before heading (at some point) to Thailand. I hadn’t booked my onward ticket because I didn’t want to presuppose how long I wanted to spend in Malaysia. However, when I got to the check-in counter of Air Asia, this wasn’t exactly a plan they were in favour of.

To be clear – the lady at the check-in counter was very pleasant and helpful.  She explained the airline’s responsibility for me in the event of being denied entry in to Malaysia, and that because there have been problems in the past with some customers they required me to sign a release form stating that I was on my own if Malaysian immigration denied me entry.  I signed off on the piece of paper, and took my copy along with my boarding pass and passport to clear security and wait for my plane. That’s when I started to think about the problems that could arise.

Air Asia X's release form makes it really clear that if you get hung up at immigration, it's not their problem.
Air Asia X’s release form makes it really clear that if you get hung up at immigration, it’s not their problem.

I knew Malaysia does state they want you to have proof of onward travel, although every message board I’ve read said that it was completely unnecessary.  But then again, I have this rather officious piece of paper from Air Asia in my hands saying “tough luck” if I end up drawing the short straw at immigration.

The deep-rooted worry wart who lives inside my brain got the better of me in this situation, and over a Yebisu beer in the airport lounge, I whipped out my iPhone and promptly booked a ticket from KL to Phuket for Valentine’s Day. Total price : $40. Peace of mind : priceless. (For everything else, there’s Mastercard.)  I showed the booking to the attendant at the gate, and she took the release form from me and thanked me for making the booking.

Air Asia's cheap fares make travelling the region great, but are also a life-saver for something like needing proof of onward travel.
Air Asia’s cheap fares make travelling the region great, but are also a life-saver for something like needing proof of onward travel.

In the end, I cleared Malaysian immigration in a breeze with not even a word of conversation with the guard, let alone him asking for my proof of onward travel. Some might say I should have stood my ground rather than waste $40, but I believe I bought a ticket I needed anyway (I plan to go to Phuket, I might just change the date), and in the process got a little piece of mind as I entered the first of what will hopefully be many new countries during the course of this trip.

For destinations where a low-cost carrier ticket might not be possible (or if you have no intention of getting on an airplane until changing continents), the best advice I’ve read on this topic is from Wandering Earl who recently updated his own suggestion on how to deal with the matter of the ticket. He suggests purchasing a ticket using Orbitz prior to checking in. Orbitz, he says, has a refund policy – regardless of airline – which will give you your money back if you cancel within 24 hours. This is a great solution for anyone who is stuck.

Have you had issues with proving onward travel on your long-term trip? What are the solutions you’ve used as a result? Let me know in the comments.

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