WHILE planning a recent trip, a business class sale fare on Aero Mexico to Buenos Aires, Argentina, caught my eye. It was ever so tempting.
So I snapped it up, and even managed to convince a friend to go. I purchased the ticket with full knowledge that making flight connections in Mexico City can be a royal pain.
But I had forgotten just how difficult it could be and was quickly reminded when we had to stand in long Immigration and Customs lines even though we were not even entering the country.
It’s such a cumbersome system. To make matters worse, we hadn’t gone online in advance to pay our fees to enter Argentina. My excuse: I had three back-to-back international trips and thought I had read that the fees could be paid on entry. This was my error.
We had received all of our boarding passes in Chicago, flew from Chicago to Mexico City, spent hours in the airport, and there we were, ready to board our MEX-EZE flight with boarding passes in hand.
We were then called up to be told we would not be allowed on the plane. With less than 30 minutes until takeoff, we ran to the lounge to try to pay the fees online, print off a receipt and get back to the remote gate.
In the first lounge, the printer was broken; the second lounge was chaos with no computer terminals available. It took much longer than the 30 minutes but to our benefit, the flight was delayed.
We secured the necessary receipts, and we were on our way to Buenos Aires. Our trip was fun and soon it was time to return home.
We checked in online for our flights and proceeded to pick up our boarding passes at the airport check-in desk. My friend’s passes printed out fine, but mine were emblazoned with the dreaded letters SSSS
The S’s refer to America’s Secondary Security Screening Selection and designate the holder for a special screening that can vary in severity (yes, even those travelling on Australian passports going to America, or connecting on flights in America, can get the dreaded SSSS).
I reflected on the trials of travel writer Brian Kelly when he and his friends received the same letters on their boarding passes after a visit to Turkey. Brian resorted to going on Fox News to state his case after receiving SSSS on his boarding pass.
He went through multiple extensive screenings, lost Transport Security Administration (TSA) Pre-Check status (which is pre-approval by US Customs and Border Protection, deeming you a low risk traveller) and was put on a terrorist watch list. I didn’t want to lose Pre-Check, go through extensive screening, and spend months, maybe years, trying to get off a terrorist watch list.
And I didn’t want to go on Fox News either! Prior to boarding in Buenos Aires, I was called up and told I could not board until I went through secondary screening and then they took my boarding pass.
I sat down and sweated for a short period, then was called up. The inspector basically went through my bag and purse thoroughly, swabbed everything for explosives, and asked a lot of questions.
The whole process took less than 10 minutes and I was on my way. Now I had nine hours to worry about what was going to happen when transiting through Mexico City’s Immigration and Customs. I’ll take that glass of champagne, please.
I tried to keep my boarding passes in the provided protective sleeve that hid the SSSS, but I knew that once they were scanned, the designation was obvious.
Mexico City TSA turned out to be similar to that in Buenos Aires but still nothing too uncomfortable. It was the entry back into the US that I now dreaded. Would my Global Entry (a US Customs program that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travellers) still work? Would I be held up and miss my connecting flight?
What unpleasantness was I in for? Luckily, my Global Entry worked fine. I was asked a lot of questions in Customs, but nothing unusual and I made my connecting flight.
The conclusion: Since my trip, I’ve read up on the SSSS designation and found that the resulting screening can include a simple pat down, additional screening questions, swabbing/inspection of your luggage and person, but it can go as far as a complete body search, detailed inspection of each item you are carrying, being added to the terrorist watch list, the loss of Global Entry/Pre-Check and the same level of treatment on future trips.
In other words, it can range from minor inconvenience to a full-blown nightmare. Luckily, my experience was just a minor inconvenience and some additional time.
I don’t know yet if on subsequent trips I will be subjected to extra screening, but I’ll find out this weekend on my trip to Santiago, Chile. I haven’t broken the news to my travel partner yet.
How do you end up with the SSSS?
While airlines and airport security have never revealed the criteria for how passengers could end up with the SSSS code, here are some things that might end up increasing your chances of getting it (mostly, they involve looking at your travel patterns):
This story originally appeared on TheFrugalTravelGuy.com.