Out-of-date passport? That'll do nicely, ma'am

One traveller was amazed when her airline allowed her to fly to Spain without the proper documents

We've all been there. We've spent so much time cramming holiday clothes into our suitcase, converting currency and rushing to the airport that we reach the check-in desk having failed to pack the most vital item of all: a valid passport.

We've all been there. We've spent so much time cramming holiday clothes into our suitcase, converting currency and rushing to the airport that we reach the check-in desk having failed to pack the most vital item of all: a valid passport.

Thousands of us find ourselves in this predicament every year. Either we've packed a passport that has passed its expiry date - or worse still, we've failed to pack a passport at all. Whether you are then allowed on to the plane or not seems to come down to the whim of the airline. Inconsistency is rife when it comes to dealing with the passport-less traveller.

I arrived at Gatwick to board a flight to Barcelona recently, armed with little more than sunglasses, a bikini and an out-of-date passport. I was shocked when I was allowed to travel. I was merely warned that I might have a difficult time re-entering Britain on my scheduled flight five days later.

It seems that I unwittingly benefited from a little known, reciprocal European scheme, under which holders of expired British passports are awarded a six-month "grace period". Although the Passport Agency denies that the scheme exists, it was confirmed to me by a British Airways spokeswoman, Camilla Wrey. "The six-month rule varies from country to country," she said. "We would advise all of our passengers to have the correct documents with them because, at the end of the day, gaining entry without the valid documents will depend on what mood the immigration officer is in. But passengers are legally entitled to travel within Europe during that six-month period and we would allow such a passenger to board a plane. But we couldn't guarantee what would happen at the other end."

In spite of evidence to the contrary, Mark Williams of the Passport Agency was adamant that "no British citizens will under any circumstances be allowed to travel overseas without a valid passport."

Such rules therefore are obviously far from clear-cut. A spokeswoman for Brittany Ferries said "we would not let anyone travel abroad with us, under any circumstances, unless they were in possession of a valid passport". But Eurostar was non-committal. "It's not our decision," said a spokesman. "It's up to the immigration authorities."

Then there are those passengers who benefit from carelessness at passport control. Donald Clark flew from Gatwick to New York and back using a passport that was more than six months out of date. "I'd mistakenly picked up my old passport rather than my new one," he said. "At Gatwick, they didn't even notice. Then, when I arrived at JFK, the officials there spotted it immediately. But after I explained what had happened and that I was in New York on business, they let me in. I was questioned again at JFK when I went to board my flight back to Britain, but after explaining what had happened I was allowed to fly. Again at Gatwick, no one noticed it was out of date. Being tall, white and in a suit certainly helped."

Mr Clark's experience contrasted with that of Victoria Ing, who recently arrived at Stansted for a flight to Madrid, having mistakenly picked up her 16-year-old daughter's out-of-date passport. The airline, British Airways' low-fare subsidiary Go, refused her entry not because the passport she was carrying was her daughter's - nobody even noticed that - but because it had recently expired. "In the end, my husband and eight-year-old son had to fly to Madrid without me," said Mrs Ing. "I had to go home, pick up the right passport and then wait for a flight the next morning. I was surprised there was so much inflexibility, especially as I was travelling to an EC country."

That's a common misconception. In spite of membership of the EC, Britons travelling to Europe still need their passports, because, an EC spokesman said, "we simply don't have any other universal type of ID in Britain. Obviously, even when travelling within Europe, the passenger needs to be able to prove that they are who they say they are. In order to do that they need to produce reliable photo ID." So don't leave yours at home.

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