An Unexpected Extra 24 Hours in Mexico!

As a seasoned traveler, I am honestly embarrassed to write this post. I have traveled to over 50 countries and have dealt with all kinds of travel woes and a variety of surprises. Having worked as a customer service agent at Southwest Airlines for over 5 years also gave me an inside understanding of air travel, in particular. I’ve always known how to handle delays and cancelations, I know my rights as a passenger and know what requests are reasonable and what are out of the question based on the contract of carriage and the FAA regulations. I thought my years of working at the airport (at the check-in counter, the gates and baggage service) as well as taking hundreds of flights all over the world, put me in the unique position of knowing how to be perfectly prepared for any eventuality in air travel. “People who have issues with air travel simply are inexperienced travelers”, I arrogantly said to myself, usually followed with an even more arrogant, “that would never happen to me.” Well, I was very humbled at Gate 61 of the Cancun airport! After my experience, I have changed my inner dialogue to “it could happen to anyone.”

I don’t chance anything. I always arrive ridiculously early for any international flight. I try to avoid swaths of people, especially in the security line. I also had the additional chore of getting a Covid test before traveling. My thought process is that I would rather sail through check-in and security and have to wait for 3 hours at the gate than to be bombarded with throngs of people and be rushing to the gate.

So, I ran through the familiar motions that all started the night before: I checked-in, filled out the Jet Blue Covid form, and filled out the Mexican government Covid form, all on-line.

The next morning, I got the Covid test at the end of Terminal 4. Since I was the only traveler taking the test, I received my negative result in only 15 minutes. Perfect! I was ahead of schedule! I checked in for my flight at the Jet Blue ticket counter showing proof of my Covid test, my vaccination forms (turns out this wasn’t needed) and my Mexican attestation form on my phone. They wanted to of course see my passport and Mexican exit immigration form that I had received when first entering Mexico (the bottom portion of the form you are given on the plane). The friendly agent returned my passport and gave me my boarding pass with, and this is important, the Mexican exit immigration stapled just behind it.

Security

I proceeded up the escalators, turned right and then left. I saw many people filling out the Mexican Covid form to the side (either on their phones or on paper) so they could proceed. After showing the Mexican attestation on my phone, I was allowed to enter the security line, which was relatively empty. Just like in the States, I had to present my passport and boarding pass. I was asked to lower my mask and the officer scanned my boarding pass as well as the Mexican attest on my phone.

I then placed my phone in my carry on next to my belt, which I had also stashed away ready to use on the other side of security. I simply walked through with no problem with my passport and ticket in hand. I grabbed my bags, put on my belt and placed my passport and boarding pass in my front jeans’ pocket. After walking through the duty-free shopping mall, I turned right, and made myself comfortable at Gate 61. I took advantage of the two hours I had before my departure by making some phone calls, working on my lesson plans for upcoming classes and played a few games on my phone.

Boarding

After going to the bathroom, it was my time to board. I was in boarding group B. I lined up where they instructed and was one of the first ones in my group to hand over my ticket and passport. “Where is your immigration card?” the agent asked. It was then that I noticed the staple on my boarding pass was no longer holding the most important document I needed that day. I stepped aside and started rummaging through my bag to find it. I checked and rechecked. Finally, I had to accept the reality of the situation. I told the agent that I didn’t have it and asked what I should do. He told me that I couldn’t board without it and that I would need to get a replacement card for $35. I was concerned that I would miss my flight; I was given directions to the immigration office, which was all the way past security, down the stairs and in an office marked “Authorities”. This office turned out to be right next to the Covid testing site, where I had begun my day.

What happened next was assuredly the most ungraceful site in the history of the Cancun airport. I went running as fast as I could with a roller bag and backpack, panting from breathing heavily through my mask (and let’s face it, I am also so out of shape). I was also definitely wearing the wrong bra for the situation, adding to the spectacle. It was not pretty.

I ran past the shopping mall and got to security. Not seeing anyway past, I asked one of the officers if she spoke English. She didn’t. So, out of breath, I tried my Spanish, “Por favor, donde esta la Immigration?” She removed a barrier, walked me down a hall, opened a door and gave me directions. I ran to the top of the escalators and of course both escalators were moving in the wrong direction, so I awkwardly escorted my luggage down the stairs and ran swiftly into the immigration office. The agent asked me for my passport and I thankfully I had the $35 in cash with me as they didn’t accept any other form of payment.

With the new exit immigration form in hand, I went back up the escalators and retraced my steps to security. Of course, now there were more people. Honestly, I was glad to have the break from running; my stomach hurt and I was out of breath. I approached the agent and had to explain why I was going through security a second time and she let me pass. I found myself behind an elderly couple who seemed to be taking off every single article of clothing they had and lots of our their bags and moving so slowly to boot. After confirming they spoke English, I asked if they would mind letting me go in front of them as my flight was leaving in only a few minutes. They obliged me.

After quickly collecting my things, I began to run again, back through the shopping area before making a right at the end of the hall. With Gate 61 in site, and 6 minutes to spare, I relaxed a little. I was going to make it! I approached the gate completely out of breath and said, “I made it”.

“I’m sorry, but we closed the gate a few minutes ago and we have removed your checked bag from the aircraft”. I asked if they could reopen it for me as there was still 5 minutes before departure, but of course they could not. I knew this even before I asked, knowing that the door gets closed 10 minutes before departure. As I watched my flight push back from the gate, I was told there were no other flights to Tampa that day. The closest they could get me was Fort Lauderdale.

Arriving to Mexico…Again

After opting to be rebooked for the same Tampa flight for the following day, it dawned on me that I would have to go through Mexican immigration again. I was told to wait in the gate area for an agent from baggage service to walk me through the process of “arriving” to Mexico without having left and to retrieve my bag. His name was Isaac and he honestly couldn’t have been nicer. He told me what would happen every step of the way and explained that this happens about 2 to 3 times per week.

We got to immigration and he had to fill out a form in duplicate to present to the officer in one of the back offices. After retrieving my bag, I was told to place all my bags through an X-ray machine. I was finally allowed to leave the airport. My friend Erick picked me up in the same place he dropped me off a few hours earlier.

Silver Lining

One of the benefits of this event was getting to spend another 24 hours with my bestie. He also made a super delicious meal of sopes with grilled vegetables and tofu that I was glad I didn’t miss. Another plus was that it turned out to be much easier for Chrissy to pick me up on the following day.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of this sudden surprise was the very obvious need to get into shape. I made a plan to begin working out again at the gym I had been paying for on a monthly basis anyway.

Advice

So, what advice can I pass along? I’ve been thinking long and hard about where I might have lost my exit immigration form. The only thing I can think of is when I went to the bathroom. I had the ticket along with my passport in the front pocket of my jeans and I think when I transferred them to my bag, the immigration form must have torn off without me noticing it. Hence, my first piece of advice is to place the ticket and passport together in its’ own section of your bag once on the other side of security and don’t touch it until it’s time for you to board.

I also recommend getting your Covid test just before heading over to the airline ticket counter. This was not only helpful in my situation (if I hadn’t waited until the last minute, I would have needed to take another test), but it could also be helpful in the case of a canceled flight for the same reason.

The online form from the Mexican government (vuelaseguro.com) is mandatory and can only be accessed up to 12 hours before your departure. If you prefer, a paper version of this document is also available at all ticket counters – simply request it from the airline employee when checking in. If you do choose to utilize the paper version, I highly recommend bringing reading glasses as it’s the smallest print I’ve ever seen.

And just to remind you, when boarding, you must present your passport open to the picture page, and your ticket. The Mexican exit immigration document must be stapled to your ticket in order to board.

What immigration snafus have you ever entered when traveling?

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