Left in the lurch over visas
For South Africans with children, siblings and cousins who have emigrated, visiting them is a very costly exercise indeed, given the price of air tickets and the devalued rand.
And so it was for Joburg school principal Logan Naina, who visited family in New Zealand with his wife in December, having paid R27,000 for their air tickets via Flight Centre in Carnival Mall in September.
They were to fly to Auckland, New Zealand, via Abu Dhabi on the way there and via Sydney on the way back.
All went well until it was time to fly home on December 29. When they tried to check in for their flight in Auckland, they were told by airline staff that, because their layover in Sydney was more than eight hours they had to have a transit visa, and they didn't.
They had no choice but spend another R37,000 on one-way tickets to Joburg via Hong Kong as they wanted to be home in time for the birth of their grandchild.
"I had to max out all my cards and get help from my hosts to raise enough money," said Naina.
"The irony is we had that 10-hour layover because we'd been looking for the cheapest tickets, and often those itineraries come with long layovers."
The Flight Centre contract states that "it is the responsibility of the customer to check visa requirements with the relevant embassy or consulate of each country to be visited." Although Naina's Flight Centre agent discussed visas with him, the eight-hour rule pertaining to stopovers in Sydney was not mentioned.
"What he said was that, since we had 10 hours in Sydney, we may want to get a transit visa so we could go into the city and see the sights, adding that we could get one over the counter from an address in Sandton. But I said we preferred to stay in the airport, and he left it at that."
The Flight Centre agent contacted Naina subsequent to the booking to inform him that New Zealand now requires South Africans to have a visa to enter the country, and invited him to collect the forms from him.
"I feel he should have known about Australia's eight-hour rule and warned us about it. After all, he provided me with a visa application form for New Zealand - why not one for the Australian transit visa, which was also compulsory for us given our itinerary?"
Shortly before the trip, Naina popped into Flight Centre and asked another agent what the procedure was to apply for an Australian transit visa in case the couple decided to venture into Sydney instead of remaining in the airport.
She responded via e-mail on December 8, two days before the Nainas' departure. It reads: "I have been advised that a transit visa can take up to 1 month to process so you will need to push them to issue your visa before the 10th of December 2016."
Understandably, Naina decided it wasn't worth the hassle.
"Once again," he said, "I was not warned that we needed transit visas, whether we left Sydney airport or not, because of that eight-hour rule."
Hoping for some compensation from Flight Centre, Naina approached the company's customer services division but was pointed to the contract, stating it was his responsibility to check on the visa requirements of the various countries on his itinerary.
"They also referred me to thate-mail about the transit visa which I was sent, but ignored the fact that it was sent as a response to my query. It didn't say that it was compulsory for us, regardless of whether we chose to leave the airport or not."
Naina asked for a refund of the return portion of the original tickets - about R13,500.
"But I was told that, while they empathised with me, they could only refund me R996, which was the unused airport taxes. I am out of pocket to the tune of R37,000.
"I feel responsible for being trusting, but I also feel that I was not informed due to ignorance on the part of the agents and they are using technicalities and fine print to absolve themselves."
I took up the case with Flight Centre's customer care team leader Kim Taylor, but the company remained firm its decision not to compensate Naina in any way.
Flight Centre agents are not visa experts, she said, and at the time of booking Naina declined the offer of third-party visa assistance and acknowledged the transit time in Sydney with his signature.
Taylor maintained that "our consultant advised Mr Naina that a transit visa would be required for the booking confirmed", something Naina vehemently denies.
"We deeply sympathise with Mr and Mrs Naina and regret that they were unable to proceed with their travel as booked," said Taylor.
"We do not believe that we have failed Mr Naina with his booking and that great care was taken to afford the customer with all applicable information and booking documentation prior to travel being confirmed.
"Although we sympathise with Mr Naina's situation, our company is unfortunately not in a position to offer any form of compensation."
Be warned: Never rely on a travel agent for up-to-date visa information.
LOCKDOWN: Not a padlock in sight at Checkers in Stellenbosch as the academic year got under way: students in residence require padlocks to secure the doors in their rooms