Friends can be a great source of travel information. However, some of it is wrong.

The traveler that inspired this post is no rookie. He regularly flies overseas, but he had never been to Istanbul. We booked an itinerary back in May from San Francisco for July travel. His British passport and green card were in order; it should have been a comparatively simple trip.

Except that, as the trip approached, a friend mentioned something about perhaps needing a visa. Technically, American and British travelers (among others) do need visas for Turkey. But for a stay of less than 90 days (at the time of writing this post) those visas are available upon arrival for a relatively low charge (currently UK£10, €15 or US$20).

Moreover, the visas don’t even need a picture, or any paperwork in advance. In fact, when I visited Turkey two years ago, it was a nearly instant procedure — two of the people in front of us in the customs line didn’t realize they needed one, and were cheerfully sent to the visa window just to the side. The guy checking passports smiled approvingly at our stamps and said, “Happens all the time.”

In retrospect, what my client should have done was to contact our agency or researched online, had he booked himself. But he called his company’s preferred visa service, which said they could do it by sending his passport to Washington, D.C. Of course, visas can be obtained in advance, but there’s really no point.

This generated one big question — WHY didn’t the visa service ask, “Uh, why do you want to spend a lot of money to get the visa in advance anyway?” But they did not, either because of greed or stupidity, or they had some other unknown reason.

In any case, the traveler sent off his passport to the visa service, which forwarded it to the Turkish Embassy in Washington, where the processing was delayed. (Maybe they were surprised by the request and wondered if something was up?) In any case, despite pleas from the service and the traveler, the Turkish officials held onto his passport until it was too late for them to get it back to him in San Francisco in time for his flight.

He did finally get his passport a day after he was scheduled to travel and made the trip, albeit at a much higher airfare. And he got his visa at the Istanbul airport with no problem.

Foreign travel requirements do change. In general, it is better to be safe than sorry. But, sending a passport out of the area always has some risk, especially when it is close to departure.

If you’re not sure about visa issues, ask your travel agent if they have access to current rules (a “Timatic” system is what many agents use), or call the consulate/embassy in question. In general, visa services have correct information as well, but as this episode illustrated, you may need to ask specifically what is required.

And if double-checking seems like too much work, remember: it’s a lot less work than showing up without a needed visa.

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons by Greenwich Photography