A Kennewick substitute teacher’s backpacking trip to Central America went smoothly until she tried to leave Belize City on Dec. 23 with visions of spending Christmas at home dancing in her head.
What happened next sent the 28-year-old solo traveler back into the night in a Third World city and then on a roundabout journey that delayed her return by a couple days.
Krista Williams, a Washington State University Tri-Cities grad student who substitute teaches in Kennewick middle and high schools, said the trouble began when she used her debit card to pay for her round-trip ticket on Delta Airlines for her winter break adventure.
She chose Central America largely based on low air fares to and from Belize. She knew nothing about her destination but trusted her own experience trekking through out-of-the-way spots to carry her through. She left the Tri-Cities on Dec. 15, toting a credit card and passport, but not her debit card.
She spent more than a week trekking through Belize and Guatemala, an experience she called “awesome.”
When it was time to head home, she arrived at the Belize airport well in advance of her Dec. 23 return flight.
Expecting a routine flight, she was startled when an airline worker demanded she produce the debit card she had used to pay for the ticket. When she couldn’t, the official said she couldn’t board her flight and moved on to the next customer in line.
“They blew me off,” she said.
After four hours and one missed flight, the airline told her she could buy a new ticket for the equivalent of $600, twice the cost of her original ticket. Figuring that she would be out “only” $300 when her original airfare was refunded, she reluctantly took the deal and arranged to fly home Christmas Eve.
Nervous about venturing out into the night in Belize City alone, she shelled out more money for a hotel that offered shuttle service to the airport.
“It was getting dark. Belize City is really dangerous. I had avoided it for safety reasons,” she said.
It was getting dark. Belize City is really dangerous. I had avoided it for safety reasons.
Krista Williams of Kennewick
Things didn’t go any better the next day, Christmas Eve. Williams and other passengers boarded the flight, but the plane sat on the tarmac for hours before the flight was canceled.
Williams said they were informed the pilot ran out of working hours. Delta paid for all passengers to stay in a hotel and provided a bus to get them there and back.
On Christmas Day, Williams said she was first on the bus back to the airport and first in line to check in.
When an airline worker finally showed up 45 minutes later, she learned she hadn’t been booked on the new flight. Eventually, she was booked on a flight to Atlanta, with plans to switch airlines for the final leg home. Even then, her ordeal wasn’t over.
She cleared customs and a secondary screening, only to be met by blank stares when she tried to arrange the next leg of her journey. It turns out she’d traveled to the United States and cleared customs with the boarding pass of another passenger, a man with a Florida address. Delta agents said they couldn’t issue tickets because officially, the airline’s computer system thought she was still in Belize.
“How did you get here,” the confused man asked.
“I got on the plane in Belize at 7 o’clock this morning,” she told him.
Seven hours later, she was finally able to secure a spot on an Alaska Airlines flight. The ordeal ended at 9:30 Christmas night when the flight arrived in Seattle.
We’re looking into the matter and will reach out to this customer with an apology and goodwill gesture.
Morgan Durant, Delta Airlines
Morgan Durant, a spokesman for Delta, said the airline is looking into Williams’ story and pledged to make good.
“We’re sorry to hear of this experience, as it’s not what we want our customers to have. We’re looking into the matter and will reach out to this customer with an apology and goodwill gesture,” he said in a prepared statement.
As a seasoned traveler, Williams said she has plenty of questions about what happened. Nothing in the system said she would be required to produce the debit card, though she vowed she won’t make that mistake again. And she wonders why she was able to clear customs toting another person’s boarding pass.
But the experience hasn’t soured her passion for adventure.
“I travel quite a bit. I’m usually backpacking in Third World-types of places. It doesn’t make me nervous. When you travel on a budget, that kind of stuff happens.” she said.
“I’m already looking at tickets to go somewhere else.”
Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell