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Since we’ve been travelling for the past 7 years (excluding the pandemic), sometimes we get cocky.
We think that just because we’ve been to over 50 countries, applied for countless visas, navigated complex public transportation networks, and always made it to the airport on time, we got this travel thing down. Turns out, we were wrong. To quote the famous philosopher Chris Rock “ain’t nobody above an ass-whooping.”
Let me tell you about one of the worst travel days we’ve had recently so you can avoid our mistake.
Ever since 2020, we’ve been trying to get to Australia. Given that it’s on the other side of the world and takes an insane 22 hours to fly there, it’s not a place to easily hop to. However, back in the beginning of 2020, we were in Bali—just a 2.5 hour flight from Perth. We’ll never be this close the land of kangaroos again, we thought. So with flights and accommodations booked, we began making our Koala-petting plans in earnest.
But this was 2020, and the universe felt differently. So instead of flying to Australia, we were dragged, kicking and screaming, all the way back to Canada to be locked down for 2 years to deal with a series of seemingly never-ending family health emergencies. Ugh.
Now that we were finally out of the pandemic and care-giving jail and back on the road in Southeast Asia, we were ready to hop on a 9-hour flight from Hanoi to Melbourne, eager to finish what we started back in 2020.
The day started off normal enough, with us checking out of our Hanoi hotel by noon. After a 5 minute drive, we arrived at the airport with a whopping 4 hours to spare. Our fight wasn’t leaving until 4 PM. “Wow, so much time!” I thought. “I’m going to take a nap in the lounge.”
Famous last words.
We went to the check-in counter at Bamboo Airlines to get our boarding passes and were told to come back in an hour because the counter doesn’t open until 3 hours before the flight.
Fine. We waited, did some reading, and then headed back to the counter an hour later. Since we saved up our points and were flying business class, there was only one other couple head of us. The economy line, however, was overflowing. I estimated it would have taken at least an hour to get through. Normally, we would’ve been able to by-pass that line with our carry-on luggage but Bamboo Airlines is so new that their online check-in wasn’t available yet.
Within 5 mins, we’re able to get to the counter and present our passports and check-in info. At this point, we’re still very relaxed, thinking about all the free booze we’d drink in the lounge.
A member of Bamboo Airlines, dressed smartly in a blue uniform smiles and greets me “Good afternoon ma’am. May I see your e-visa please?”
“Oh my Vietnamese e-visa? Here you go,” I say, mentally patting myself on the back for being so organized.
“No, not your Vietnamese e-visa, ma’am. The one for Australia. The ETA.”
“ETA? What’s an ETA?” The blood starts to drain from my face.
“The visa you need to get into Australia, m’am.”
“Butbutbut” I stammer. “I have a Canadian passport! That was all I needed back in 2020!”
“You need the ETA to go to Australia, otherwise, I’m sorry but I can’t check you into the flight.”
Suddenly, I can’t breathe. What the hell is he talking about? What visa? Since when do I need a stupid visa to get into Australia? And how long is that going to take?
Turns out, an ETA isn’t exactly a visa, since Canada is on Australia’s visa-free country list. It’s an Electronic Travel Authorization that you need to separately apply for and get, even if you don’t need a visa to travel there. I was not aware of this.
It also dawns on me that my Vietnamese visa is expiring…TODAY.
So if I can’t get this Australian ETA in the next 2 hours, I can’t leave. But I also can’t stay. What the Hell do I do now?
“Ma’am, you could try to apply for the ETA now. I’ve had another customer who got theirs in 30 minutes.”
I take a deep breath and briskly walk to an area near the flight monitors with seats. Wanderer and I sit down, and with shaky fingers, start applying for the visas, which weirdly isn’t through the Australian government website but through an app you have to install on your phone. A message pops up, saying, that the app will go down for 2 days for maintenance, nearly giving us a heart attack. Luckily, we’re just outside the maintenance window.
Ping! Within 30 seconds of applying, Wanderer gets his ETA, attached to an e-mail in his inbox. I’m wringing my hands, waiting for mine, but I have a bad feeling in my stomach. Something tells me I won’t be so lucky, since I frequently get scrutinized by US customs, given that my Canadian passport says that I was born in China, whereas Wanderer’s says that he was born in Canada. But that’s the US and this is Australia. I’m hopeful.
Ping! I get an e-mail, but the preview looks different from Wanderer’s. My heart slams into the floor.
“Your application has been referred to the Australian immigration authorities for further assessment. This could take up to 12 hours…”
I don’t know whether to cry, scream, or laugh. Off course this was going to happen. Less than 2 hours before our flight to Australia. Again. Clearly, the universe just didn’t want me in Australia.
I shove my phone at Wanderer “Call the Australian embassy! If that doesn’t work, call a travel agency. Call the Canadian embassy. Call a crisis hotline. I DUNNO, JUST CALL SOMEONE!”
I slam my backpack onto the floor, tear open the zipper and start rummaging around blindly for my laptop. I need to find us a way out of here. Maybe there will be a last min flight to Bangkok or Singapore, and we can figure out how to get to Melbourne from there. It’s going to be crazy overpriced and shitty, but damn it we have no choice.
Why oh why didn’t I check the stupid Australian visa requirements last night. We had so much time!
I clamp down the scream of frustration in my throat, while glancing frantically at my watch, noticing that we have less than an hour before the check-in desk closes.
Of course, as fate would have it, it’s at this precise moment that my phone’s data decides to cut out.
I want to scream and tear my hair out. We stupidly only bought enough data to last until today, thinking we’d be flying out!
I start jamming random buttons on my phone, trying to connect to the Airport Wi-Fi. I can’t think. My mind is just too clouded with panic.
The airport Wi-Fi also doesn’t work.
Fuuuuuuck!!! I’m now in full panic mode. I run to the Bamboo check-in desk and beg them to let me on the flight. “It’s going to take 9 hours to get to Melbourne,” I explain, “I’ll receive my ETA on route!” But they don’t budge. No ETA, no flight.
I start running around the airport like a mad woman, trying to find out where I can buy a SIM card.
And then, by the miracle of all things good and Holy and with only 20 minutes left before the check-in desk closes, my phone pings.
I cautiously peek at the screen.
Holy shit! It was all I could do not to drop to my knees and weep with joy, because staring back at me from my inbox was my ETA, attached to an e-mail. The airport Wi-Fi had miraculously JUST started to work.
We race to the check-in counter. Luckily, Wanderer has already been checked-in (having gotten his ETA right away, the lucky bastard), so that saves us time. We race through security like our lives depend on it, finally making it to the gate with seconds to spare.
The flight is delayed. By a whole hour.
We’ve never been so happy to have a flight delayed.
So somehow, we’d gone from completely screwed to having extra time to visit the lounge! I finally find the appetite to eat the lunch I forgot about from 3 hours ago and use the Hell out of the massage chairs, because damn it I’ve never needed a massage so badly in my life.
And that is the story of how we barely made it to Australia. If we hadn’t been in the faster business class line, or if the airport Wi-Fi hadn’t suddenly started working, or if the app was in maintenance mode, we would’ve been totally screwed.
We got too arrogant thinking we were experienced travellers and got our asses kicked. And when we told this story to an Australian reader who we met up with, he recounted a time when his American friend tried to visit Australia last year and got blocked by this exact issue. He wasn’t so lucky and he missed his flight.
The moral of the story is: Always check, double-check, triple-check entry requirements of every single country you go to, via that country’s official immigration department website.
Even if you’ve visited that country before because those entry requirements can change. The EU is going to be introducing a similar system called the ETIAS in 2024, as is the UK. I expect that rollout will coincide with a lot of panicked experiences like mine at the airport.
So check your visa requirements and don’t get blindsided like we did. Happy travels!
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