Monday, 6 June 2005

An Unexpected Journey

My visits to Stuttgart and Nuremberg went according to plan. I particularly enjoyed Nuremberg --- a wonderful city. But then things took a turn...

Saturday, June 4

I showed up at Nuremberg airport with plenty of time to spare. Everything was fine until the Lufthansa checkin agent said the dreaded words "do you have a visa?" I said I didn't need one ... She said (drum roll) "your passport is not machine readable, you do need one". Then I found out that you can't get a visa waiver without a machine readable passport and mine (issued in 2002 in Washington DC) wasn't. Until June 25 there is a one-time exemption, but it's only for people who haven't visited the United States in the last year, and of course I have, although using an H-1 visa. The rules in this case weren't clear so the checkin agent went to her supervisor, but the verdict was final and grim: no flight to Boston for me.

I briefly had a "what on earth do I do now" moment, followed by somewhat more time praying. Then I had to sit down and think for a while. Three options came to mind: get a visa, get a new passport, or fly straight back to New Zealand. So I called Janet to get the phone number for the New Zealand embassy in Berlin, and called their emergency line for advice. A visa would take ten days so that was out of the question. She quoted me three days for a new passport from London.

At this point I thought that flying directly home would save time, money and hassle since I have no critical need to be in Boston (although I'd be very disappointed to miss my friend's wedding). The Lufthansa ticketing agent had more bad news for me: a new ticket to get back to New Zealand would cost 1700 euros, with no refund on my round-the-world ticket. They wouldn't let me continue on my round-the-world ticket because it turns out Star Alliance has no connections across the Pacific that do not go through the United States (Los Angeles or San Francisco). We looked for routes through Canada, Mexico and even Argentina to no avail. Apparently you can't even change planes in the USA without passing through immigration ... that surprises me but I've never tried it, and they were adamant.

The remaining option was to get a new passport. I called back to the Berlin embassy hotline, who told me I'd better go to London in person and gave me the emergency number there. Loneon told me I could get it done in one hour if I showed up in person, even on Sunday morning. So I decided to give it a go and asked Lufthansa to reroute me to London today and on to Boston tomorrow evening (Sunday). New snag: Star Alliance doesn't fly London to Boston. Fine, I asked them to send me to New York where I can catch the train to Boston. Another snag: the new itinerary appears to exceed the maximum mileage for a round the-world ticket. But after much calculation, apparently it's just under the limit. Phew!

So the current plan is to fly to London today, arriving 3:55pm local time. I can check into an airport hotel and relax a bit, hopefully get online. I'll have to cancel planned meetings with friends in Boston on Saturday night and in New York on Sunday, which is sad, but we'll survive it. On Sunday morning I need to find the New Zealand embassy and get my new passport issued. Then I fly out of London at 6pm, arriving New York 8:35pm ... where I need to find somewhere to stay until I catch an early train from New York City to Boston on Monday morning. If all goes according to plan the net impact will be that I have a less fun weekend than planned and arrive a couple of hours late for work on Monday and a few hundred euros out of pocket... but of course nothing is guaranteed :-).

I'm pleased to report that the New Zealand embassy staff and the Lufthansa agents have been extremely helpful and professional throughout. I'm less pleased with my travel agent, who should have at least mentioned the machine readability issue. In the end, however, the fault is mine.

Update! Sunday, June 5

I made it to London last night, stayed at an exorbitant hotel overnight and took the tube to Picadilly Circus this morning to get my new passport. It only took twenty minutes ... now I'm online at a Starbucks near Charing Cross Station. I should have no trouble making my flight to New York and I may even try to get an earlier flight. London is amazing and I wish I had more time here ... maybe a few months to visit all the museums, monuments, and buildings. I can really feel the weight of its long history, the impact of having been the capital of a great empire.

Update! Monday, June 6

I stayed the night with my friend in Tribeca (thanks mate!) and I should be on my way and in Boston by around mid-day.

Update! Monday afternoon, June 6

I finally made it to Boston, checked into my hotel and arrived at the office. Woohoo!


  1. Robert that sucks... can't think of any better word to describe the situation, I'm glad though you made it to London onwards to the US form there :) Good luck with the rest of your travel.

  2. Crazy story...glad it turned out fairly well.

  3. Well, lately the U.S. is trying so hard to keep people away from their airports it looks like they just don't want to know that there is something like the rest of the world. A shame, and bad for tourism, I heard several stories in dutch press saying random people were hold in prison just to be sure they weren't terrorist or highly armed. The greatest dangers for the U.S. are probably already in America and known.

  4. I would have come and shown you round, but I was at the other end of the country at the time...

  5. This entry prompted me to check if my UK passport issued in Liverpool in 1999 is machine-readable. Apparently it is, as are most UK passports issued after 1991.