‘Wrong type of birth cer­tifi­cate cost us our £8k African hol­i­day’

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couldn’t wait to take her fam­ily on a long-planned trip to South Africa. But it was scup­pered by Byzan­tine red tape

Our hol­i­day of a life­time to South Africa was wrecked this sum­mer. We were barred from board­ing our flight from Heathrow to Cape Town be­cause we had the wrong type of birth cer­tifi­cate. We didn’t even know there were two types – and that cost us our £8,300 hol­i­day.

Our ex­pe­ri­ence is worth shar­ing if only it pre­vents oth­ers from suf­fer­ing the same fate. We live in an age when bor­ders are tight­en­ing; trav­ellers will in­creas­ingly fall vic­tim to all sorts of red tape.

Our story also shines a light on how the travel in­dus­try op­er­ates when things go wrong.

For some fam­i­lies vis­it­ing South Africa, things are go­ing very wrong. Well in­ten­tioned child traf­fick­ing rules were in­tro­duced in the coun­try in 2015. The gov­ern­ment now de­mands that trav­ellers carry birth cer­tifi­cates for chil­dren who travel with them.

We took birth cer­tifi­cates for our two chil­dren, Sam, 13, and Kate, nine. But at the check-in desk, our hol­i­day ex­cite­ment turned to shock when the su­per­vi­sor told us: “You’re not get­ting on that flight un­less you have the right birth cer­tifi­cates.”

It was hard to take in. Our cer­tifi­cates had “birth cer­tifi­cate” stamped across the top. How could they not be right? As we now know, there are two types of cer­tifi­cate. You are is­sued with a free cer­tifi­cate at birth, but this is al­most worth­less. The le­gal doc­u­ment that car­ries the de­tails of the par­ents nor­mally re­quires an ad­di­tional ap­pli­ca­tion and fee, de­pend­ing on the coun­cil. This is called a “cer­ti­fied copy of an en­try”. My son has never had this doc­u­ment but has man­aged to hold a Bri­tish pass­port for 13 years and travel to Amer­ica, among other coun­tries.

At the air­port, there were tears. My youngest, an avid David At­ten­bor­ough fan, had been so ex­cited about our three days of sa­fari. Even at that stage we’d ex­pected to get some of the hol­i­day. Maybe I’d watched too many Hol­ly­wood films, but I’d ex­pected the air­line to get us on an­other flight.

Bri­tish Air­ways said flights were busy and put us on a wait­ing list for one three days later. But by the day of the flight, we’d been re­moved. In­stead we were told the next avail­able econ­omy-class seats were an­other three days later and that we’d need to pay an ad­di­tional fee of al­most £6,000.

We had no choice but to can­cel the rest of the hol­i­day. We’d face fur­ther costs: fail­ure to pick up the hire ve­hi­cle within 24 hours al­lowed Avis to rent out our booked car. Last-minute car hire would have meant spend­ing an­other £700, pos­si­bly more.

The travel agent said the only ac­com­mo­da­tion money we could get back was half of the cost of our fi­nal three days at a game re­serve – around £800. It also lodged a claim with BA to re­trieve air­line taxes of around £1,400, mi­nus a pro­cess­ing fee of £200. Un­for­tu­nately, we were told most of this wasn’t re­fund­able un­der the air­line’s con­di­tions. We re­ceived less than £500.

We were told the car hire money would also be lost. But Avis, af­ter two months, agreed to re­fund half the cost. In to­tal we clawed back around £1,600.

What about re­cov­er­ing the rest? Atol pro­tec­tion cov­ers only com­pany fail­ures, such as Monarch’s this week, but we did have travel in­sur­ance. To make a claim, we needed BA to con­firm that we had been re­fused en­try to the flight. It took a lengthy bat­tle to get this, es­pe­cially as the only way to com­mu­ni­cate with the air­line on­line is via a form.

Of course, we ac­cept a de­gree of re­spon­si­bil­ity. The travel agent had told us we needed “unabridged” birth cer­tifi­cates with the names of the par­ents. BA’s web­site has sim­i­lar word­ing. The point is that two lev­els of red tape clash, catch­ing peo­ple out: Bri­tain’s bizarre dual-cer­tifi­cate sys­tem and zeal­ous South African bor­der en­force­ment. We asked BA if it would con­sider im­prov­ing the word­ing on its web­site to high­light that there were two types of cer­tifi­cate. It said: “We have not found this to be a prob­lem for the ma­jor­ity of our pas­sen­gers.”

It has cer­tainly been a prob­lem in the past. It was re­ported in late 2015, when the rules were in­tro­duced, that 10 fam­i­lies a day were be­ing de­nied en­try by air­lines op­er­at­ing from Heathrow to South Africa. Given that it’s known in the in­dus­try, we be­lieve our travel agent should have ex­plained the prob­lem orally.

We spent sev­eral hours dis­cussing the de­tails of the hol­i­day. One minute of ex­pla­na­tion would have pre­vented the can­cel­la­tion of the en­tire trip. Our agent, a firm in East Sur­rey, said that in fu­ture it would ex­plain the is­sues face to face. Oth­ers should do the same.

BA said: “In­di­vid­ual trav­ellers, not air­lines, are re­spon­si­ble for en­sur­ing that they have all the doc­u­men­ta­tion re­quired to en­ter or leave a coun­try. As an air­line, we are re­quired to en­sure all cus­tomers have valid doc­u­ments for the coun­try of des­ti­na­tion.”

That’s true. But the in­dus­try could try harder to help. It could ac­knowl­edge the dual sys­tem of cer­tifi­cates, while book­ing sys­tems could show pic­tures of the nec­es­sary doc­u­ments.

Of course, we as trav­ellers need to be more vig­i­lant. I wish I had been. And that’s why we want to warn oth­ers. In the age of in­creas­ingly strict bor­der con­trols, this won’t be the last story you read of a dream hol­i­day be­ing ru­ined by a piece of pa­per.

A prob­lem with the birth cer­tifi­cates of Andrea Oxlade’s chil­dren, Sam and Kate, below, caused their sa­fari to be can­celled

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