If you’re traveling overseas on a one-way ticket, but haven’t booked a journey out of the country you’re visiting, you may be in for a shock at the airport. As a precaution against tourists overstaying their visas, many countries require that you prove your intention to leave. Usually they pass the responsibility of checking this onto the airlines, meaning you’ll probably be asked for what’s known as “proof of onward travel” when you’re checking in at your departing airport. If you don’t have a ticket to demonstrate how and when you’ll be leaving the country, you may be prevented from boarding the aircraft.
But what if, like many long-term travelers, you don’t have an exact itinerary or solid idea of how and when you’re going to leave? Here are six ways to provide proof of onward travel without having to compromise on the spontaneity of your trip.
1. Buy a refundable ticket to depart
By booking yourself a fully refundable ticket to anywhere outside of your destination, you’ll have irrefutable proof that you intend to leave the country when you say you will. Even in the unlikely event that the airline checks your reservation, then you have a ticket that is legitimately valid.
Print the travel details before arriving at the airport so you have them, if requested. Once you’re safely in your new destination, cancel the ticket and redeem your refund.
This is probably the safest way to provide proof of onward travel, but you need to pay close attention when reading the terms and conditions before finalizing your booking. While some airlines claim to offer refundable tickets, what they actually offer is the price of your ticket returned in voucher or credit form. These tend to only be redeemable with the same carrier, and the cash that you’ve forked over won’t be coming back to you. Also, refundable tickets tend to be significantly more expensive than a regular fare, so be prepared to pay extra up front.
2. Book a 24-hour refundable ticket
Under the 24-Hour Reservation Requirement, mandated by the U.S. Department of Transportation, all U.S. airlines and foreign air carriers marketing to U.S. customers are obligated by law to “allow a reservation to be canceled within 24 hours without penalty.” Many other carriers and flight brokers offer the same terms when purchasing flights with them.
There are two ways to use this 24-hour cancellation period to your advantage. First, you can book a ticket, wait for your reservation details to come through, and print them off before immediately canceling. You run the risk that the airline you’re flying will check your return reservation and see it canceled, of course, though it’s rare they do anything more than look at the documents you provide. If you choose this option, book with a different company than the one you’re flying with so it’s not as easy for them to check the reservation.
Alternatively, you can purchase the onward ticket on the day of your flight so it’s valid regardless, and as long as you arrive at your destination within that 24-hour period, you can cancel the departing flight when you land. (See also: How to Save Money on Flights Using Fare Alerts)
Bonus tip: Expedia.com offers free one-click 24-hour cancellation on most flights. You don’t have to call the airline or talk to a representative, as there’s an easy cancel button that will allow you to get a full refund with no questions asked. Just make sure that the flight says “Free 24-Hour Cancellation” during the booking process at Expedia.com.
3. Use fare rental sites
An entire industry has arisen because of the need to provide onward travel, with companies like BestOnwardTicket offering a fare rental. For a fee of around $12, companies like this will purchase your chosen tickets based on the details you provide. They will then automatically cancel them within 24 to 48 hours, depending on the option you select.
It’s similar to booking a ticket yourself, but you don’t have to worry about canceling it as that responsibility falls to the fare rental company. There are no concerns around having the funds in place for the ticket in the first place, and you don’t have to do anything to secure that refund. You also don’t have to spend time looking for a carrier that offers a refund or searching for suitable flights yourself.
Note that some companies offering this service should not be trusted, so make sure to read customer reviews and thoroughly vet their terms and conditions before paying any fees.
4. Get a pre-booked itinerary from a travel agent
Pre-booked travel agent itineraries are more commonly used for visa applications where it’s important to show not only your onward travel details, but also your timetable for your entire journey. As part of this, many travel agents offer a service where they will hold airline tickets for a certain period of time for you, usually between seven and 21 days.
It’s similar to the fare rental services, but they tend to be slightly more expensive at $35 and up. The benefit of these itineraries is that they can be used by people traveling to multiple countries because you’re able to put more than one flight on them. Companies such as Flight Reservation for Visa and Visa Reservation offer competitive services.
5. Purchase a cheap ticket
In some instances, the most hassle-free option may be to purchase a cheap ticket to another country. It will give you peace of mind knowing you have an authentic ticket in your possession, and depending on where you are in the world, tickets can be extremely low-priced. Budget airlines regularly do flash sales, and many have routes that are always affordable.
Remember, proof of onward travel doesn’t have to be a flight, either, so you have many options to find an affordable ticket out of the country. Bus journeys or ferry crossings are commonly cheaper than flights, and you can often book them online in advance. This option also comes without the inconvenience of having to go through a refund claim. (See also: 10 Flight Booking Hacks to Save You Hundreds)
6. Sign off
Some airlines allow you to sign a contract at the departing airport saying that you don’t have valid proof of an onward journey, but you do have means to leave the country. If you arrive at your destination and are turned away by the immigration officers, this contract simply relieves the airline of any responsibility or liability for bringing you into the country, and you’ll be required to pay for a deportation flight ticket yourself.
I recently signed a document like this flying with Air China from Tokyo to Manzanillo, Mexico. Upon arriving at the airport, I was not asked about onward travel and was allowed into the country as usual.
If you arrive at the airport without proof of onward travel, you may want to speak to a manager at the check-in counter and request to sign a contract that will allow you to risk the journey.
Note: This is still a risky way to go, because if you don’t know the regulations in the country you’re arriving in and you do get turned away, it could be a costly endeavor.