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Our baby was denied boarding our international flight. Whose fault is this?

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Yes, your baby needs a passport to fly internationally, just like you do. Otherwise, your little tot will be denied boarding their flight just like any other passenger who doesn’t have the required documents for international travel.

Aly Meyer wishes someone had given her this critical information before her family arrived at the airport ready for their tropical vacation. That’s when an airline employee broke the bad news that without a passport, the baby was being denied boarding the international flight. As a result, instead of flying to Mexico, the family headed right back home.

Now Aly wants the United States Postal Service to reimburse her for this lost vacation. She says its employee gave her inaccurate passport information that caused the baby to be rejected for the international flight.  But is that really where the blame lies for this travel fiasco?

Like Aly, you might be unfamiliar with the differences between a passport card and a passport book. But if your travel plans include an international trip, it’s critical to understand the prime distinction: A passport card is not ever valid for travel on an international flight.

Planning the baby’s first international vacation

When Aly and her extended family decided to take a vacation together, she was charged with the planning.

“Coordinating the schedules of nine adults and one infant was no easy task. But we made a decision to vacation in Mexico,” Aly recalled. “At that time, we assumed the baby needed a passport. So we began the process. We scheduled an appointment to meet with the passport specialist at our local post office.”

Aly says that when they arrived at the post office for their passport appointment, the “specialist” told her that the baby didn’t need a passport. Instead, since they weren’t “traveling to Europe,” the employee suggested that she could travel with the less expensive passport card.

“We trusted her expertise because after all, she was the ‘passport specialist,’ and an employee of the U.S. government,” Aly explained. “We proceeded with the application for the passport card for the baby.”

Once the baby’s passport card arrived, Aly says that she made sure that all the information was correct. Then she tucked the small card away inside her own passport book.

Fact: If your baby doesn’t have a passport, she will be denied boarding your international flight.

On the day of the trip, the group headed to the airport. Initially, all went well — the family flew on a domestic flight from Grand Rapids to Chicago. The bad news came when they attempted to check in for their international flight.  That’s when Aly and her husband received the shocking news: The baby needed a passport to board the international flight – just like the rest of the group. Their infant daughter’s passport card could not be used to fly to Mexico.

Suddenly, Aly realized they wouldn’t be enjoying an afternoon siesta on the beach that day — they were going back home.

And once they arrived home, Aly became convinced that the United State Postal Service owed her family for this lost vacation. She contacted an attorney who told her that a lawsuit against the USPS would not be possible.

Without a passport, the baby was denied boarding

Next, Aly turned to our advocacy team for guidance. She wanted to know if we could convince the USPS to reimburse the family for the $6,000 that they lost in airfare and hotel fees.

If you are a regular reader of my column, then you know that it is always the traveler’s responsibility (or, in this case, the responsibility of the parents of the little passenger) to know and possess the required documents for crossing international borders and entering foreign destinations. As I’ve reported time and time again, the consequences of not having the necessary documents for travel can be devastating. See:

There is no question that the airline was correct when it denied boarding the baby on the international flight. There is also no question that the parents of the infant were responsible for making sure she had the passport she needed to travel.

But this complaint posed an interesting question: If the USPS employee told the family that the baby could fly to Mexico without a passport, should Aly have been able to rely on that information?

Warning: USPS employees are not passport specialists

According to the USPS website, the post office is a passport processing center, which will “forward your application to the State Department.” It does not claim that its employees are passport specialists, as Aly believed.

In fact, the passport application instructions explain that the paperwork must be filled out by the applicant — but not signed — before arriving for the processing appointment. The post office employee does not assist in filling out the application; they only act only acts as a witness to the signing of the form.

The passport application instructions that the family read as they determined whether the baby needed a full passport.
Fill out your baby’s passport application at home and then bring it to the U.S. post office for processing.

A passport card isn’t ever valid for international air travel

And that’s where it gets tricky for Aly’s complaint against the USPS. The DS-11 US passport application that she completed has multiple warnings in the body of the application, in the instructions, and directly under the passport card box that warns that the passport card is not valid for international air travel.

A baby must have a passport to fly internationally. The U.S. passport application warns the card is not valid for international air travel. Baby was denied boarding without a passport.
Warning on the passport application: “The U.S. passport card is not valid for international air travel.”

Additionally, the USPS site directs users to the U.S. State Department website for specific passport information and destination requirements.

There, under the heading Should I get a passport book or passport card? it reads:

Passport Books: International travel by air, sea, or land

Passport Cards: Entering the United States at land border crossings and sea ports-of-entry from: Canada, Mexico, The Caribbean and Bermuda

The passport card cannot be used for international air travel.

The passport card is Real ID compliant and can be used for domestic air travel.

The U.S. State Department

Clearly, for the international trip that Aly had planned, every member of the family needed a passport. The fact that the baby only had a passport card guaranteed that she would be denied boarding the international flight to Mexico.

The U.S. Post Office: We are an agent for the State Department

For further clarification, I contacted the United States Postal Service Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Our executive contact reiterated that the passport card is never valid for international air travel. Although she could not specifically address Aly’s experience, she confirmed that the USPS agents receive training in this basic information.

It is ultimately the responsibility of the consumer to determine what they need for their travels. We act as an agent for the State Department – we just process passport applications. In accepting the passport application, we make sure it’s filled out, signed, and with proper documentation. They should always check with the Department of State if there are any questions or concerns regarding passports or other proper documentation.

U.S. Postal Service spokesperson

The bottom line

Unfortunately, for this family and others who have contacted us under similar circumstances, there is no other entity to pursue for reimbursement of the loss of their vacations. 

Remember, when traveling, if you need a passport, so does your baby. If you’re flying internationally, your entire family will always need passports. And remember, the U.S. State Department is the final word on these matters — not the U.S. Post Office. (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Consumer Rescue)

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Michelle Couch-Friedman

Michelle Couch-Friedman is the founder and CEO of Consumer Rescue. She is a consumer advocate, ombudsman columnist, mediator, writer, and licensed psychotherapist. Michelle is a public speaker, and her expert guidance has been cited in Consumer Reports, Travel & Leisure, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Popular Science, CNN, CNBC, Travel Weekly, Reader's Digest and more. You might even catch Michelle on tv helping fix a situation. :) Michelle is also an travel ombudsman columnist for The Points Guy and is the former executive director of the nonprofit Elliott Advocacy. During her six years in that position, she resolved thousands of cases for troubled travelers and other consumers. You can read hundreds of 5-star reviews Michelle earned during her service to the nonprofit since 2016 here on Great Nonprofits. Today, she continues to spend as much time as possible fiercely defending consumers and traveling the world with her family. Contact her at Michelle Couch-Friedman or on Linkedin, Twitter or Facebook.