Attention airport and airline administrators: Prepare for some constructive criticism. (And travelers headed to Latin America: prepare to add a few things to your "must avoid" list.)
If you read my blog LatinFlyer.com regularly, you may already be familiar with the airline flight reviews that I publish. You may also have noticed, as you read my descriptions of airport and inflight experiences around the hemisphere, that the overall travel experience around Latin America is extremely varied in terms of what you have to go through in the airport and on board the plane -- indeed, depending on the nation, the airport, airline, the route and the aircraft, you may enjoy a relatively fast-and-easy airport check-in, security and boarding process, followed by a flight with a bunch of free amenities. Or you may find yourself standing in multiple lines and then have your water confiscated at the boarding gate as you try to figure out when you're supposed to board.
With an eye toward providing some constructive criticism -- as well as, admittedly, venting about some of my frequent flyer pet peeves -- I've put together a list of the seven most annoying things that airlines and airports do in Latin America. I'm open to feedback from anyone who has more to add to this list (as well as anyone who might be able to provide some justification for some of the annoyances below).
By the way, have you ever noticed that no Latin American airlines or airports ever make it into the "best of" travel lists in magazines like Travel + Leisure? Maybe if a few airline and airport administrators take a look at my little list of grievances, it might provide some ideas on how to upgrade the Latin America travel experience and land themselves alongside the global award winners in the future (and if the negativity of this post is a turnoff, not to worry. I'll soon be posting a cheery article about the best things about flying in economy class -- for real!).
So here we go: The 7 Most Annoying Things Airlines & Airports Do in Latin America:
1. Making passengers stand in an extra line to pay departure tax. I've visited at least one Central American country and one South American country where foreign visitors, upon departure, must stand in a separate line before approaching the airline ticket counter, either to pay a departure tax, or -- even sillier -- to get stamped as being exempt from the departure tax. In some situations, they only accept payment in cash, or only with certain credit cards. Long story short, travelers might find themselves standing in at least two lines just to check in. Why can't this be built into the ticket price, or at least paid at the airline ticket counter? (And if that's not possible, why don't they put up more visible signs in the airport, indicating where passengers should go first? I stood like an idiot in one line for 30 minutes once, before finally being told I should go to the departure tax line first.)
2. Being super-picky -- and inconsistent -- about carry-on baggage. Why is it that the same roll-aboard suitcase that I carried on board during my previous flight (which fit perfectly in the overhead) is suddenly being measured, weighed and forcibly checked? Airlines can be extremely inconsistent about how they apply carry-on rules -- which creates frustration for passengers.
3. Requiring passengers to stand in multiple customs and immigration lines to exit the country. In some countries, you can breeze through check-in and security to get to your gate. But in other Latin American countries, you need to stand in an often long line to have your passport reviewed and stamped by immigration. Why is that?
4. Not announcing the boarding gate until it's nearly flight time. Some Latin American airports won't announce the actual gate until an hour or so before the flight departs, which means you can't truly relax, because you need to stay alert and be ready to scramble to the gate once it's announced. I'm not clear about why some airports can assign gates 24 hours in advance and others seem to be incapable of assigning gates until 45 minutes before departure.
5. Not offering free WiFi. This is something that U.S. airports are guilty of as well. I've been able to stay productive and connected without paying a cent while at the airports in San Jose, Costa Rica and Managua, as well as -- with spotty success -- at Panama City's Tocumen International Airport. Quito's brand-new airport has free WiFi divided by gates (although the service wasn't always perfect during my last visit). Imagine how wonderful it would be if every airport offered at least some kind of free WiFi!
6. Strange boarding procedures: During a recent flight to Mexico City, the airline herded passengers into lines based on the letter of their seat -- it was the carrier's way of boarding people with window seats first, then middle seats, then aisle seats. It may make some sense to do this, but there was no explanation given about what to do if you're traveling with someone. My spouse had a middle seat and I had an aisle -- so would we need to board separately? Or if we could board together, which line do we get in? To add to the confusion, I had elite status, which meant I was categorized as Zone 2 on my boarding pass, yet there was no announcement made about any zone numbers whatsoever -- they jumped from first class straight into the strange "alphabet soup" boarding process. When I asked the ticket agent about zone numbers, she let us board with the first lettered group.
7. Not allowing water on board -- even when it's from the secure gate area. Two Central American nations have the practice of thoroughly inspecting carry-on bags both at the security checkpoint, and again at the gate (at least for flights to the United States). That's fine. But what's confusing and annoying is the curious policy these two airports have of not allowing any liquids whatsoever on the plane, even if they were purchased in the secure area around the gates. To make it worse, there are no signs anywhere in the terminal indicating that they will confiscate your drinks at the gate. So it's very easy for an unaware passenger (like me, for example) to waste several dollars on a bottle of water or a soda pop, only to have it taken from my thirsty little fingers before boarding. I'm not sure what the reasoning is behind restricting beverages on flights from a handful of destinations in Latin America, but not from others. I'd love to hear from anyone who has an explanation (and I'd appreciate some signage in the airports to inform passengers of these carry-on flight restrictions).