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Stuck In Customs and My Plane Is Leaving: Help!


Welcome to the Today in Travel Question of the Week. As always, you can submit a query below or via email.

Dear Carl,

I went to Guatemala last year, with a transfer stop in Houston. On the way back I had only 45 minutes to make my connecting flight, unfortunately for me, one of the customs officers decided that I needed to be more thoroughly inspected. He sent me over to a separated area to be looked at by another officer. Whether this was a random search or not, I am not sure. By this time I was agitated thinking that I was going to miss my connecting flight, which made the customs official automatically suspicious of me. He proceeded to very slowly inspect every bottle and nook of my carry-on luggage, at one point even sitting down for a few seconds. The officer seemed to relish his control and power over my dilemma. After he finished I ran all the way to my next flight, just making it. My question is, what would have been my options had I missed my flight through no fault of mine? Can one hold customs officials responsible for missed flights?

Ray

Ray,

I had a rather lengthy conversation with an official at the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) who, while sympathetic to your frustration, answered your question rather succinctly: No, travelers can't really hold customs officials responsible for missed flights.

Customs is just one of those aspects of travel that, inconvenient though it may be, can't be avoided. That said, there are steps you can take to expedite the customs process. Some of these are common sense measures, such as having your passport and properly filled-out declarations forms ready when it's your turn to be processed. CBP also has a fair amount of information on its website that can help U.S. citizens prepare for their eventual reentry into the country.

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However, your situation is about not having enough time, and while having your passport ready might save you a few seconds, it isn't likely to be the difference between making your flight and missing it. The first (and rather annoying—sorry) solution to this problem is to avoid it in the first place by scheduling a long enough layover. Sometimes customs is a breeze and sometimes it's a slog, but 45 minutes is tight either way, as you learned. Try to budget an hour or more, especially if you have to pick up your checked bags and re-check them.

But let's say you schedule a long enough layover, only to arrive late due to weather or mechanical delays. I would speak to an airline employee on your way off the plane. Explain that you suddenly have a short layover and need to get through customs. Airlines and customs can coordinate and expedite the process in emergency situations on a case-by-case basis. Your situation may not qualify as an emergency, but it's worth a shot.

Frequent international travelers can enroll in the Trusted Traveler program, which offers a time-saving shortcut through customs. The program comes with a nonrefundable $100 application fee, and you must undergo a multiple-layer threat assessment and in-person interview.

Lastly, with both customs and regular security procedures, the key is to remain patient. Customs officials are trained to look for anything suspicious, whether it's in your baggage or on your face. Nervousness, anxiousness, and agitation are red flags, and, as in your case, often trigger additional investigations. Also remember that customs officials are just doing their job. You may have a valid disagreement with the policy or process, but the person searching your bag has no control over that. The customs line is not the place to air your grievances. That's what SmarterTravel is for.

Readers, any tips for breezing through customs or security? Any stories of your own to share? Submit a comment below, and as always, please send along your travel questions for future installments of Question of the Week. Thanks!

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