Booking flights is a necessary part of any digital nomad’s travel shenanigans (and the bane of our existence). But depending on your destination, sooner or later you may be faced with this admonition by your airline of choice:
“Proof of onward travel required.”
Wait - what?
Which self-respecting digital nomad knows exactly when and where they plan to fly to next, every time they enter a new country?
We buy one-way tickets exactly because we more often than not don’t know our next destination or don’t want to commit to one just yet. The only thing we do know is that more often than not we don’t want to go back to the place we just came from, so a return-ticket is out from the get-go.
So what’s up with this proof of onward travel? Is it really that important? And how can you get around it without paying oodles of money for a ticket you don’t intend to use?
No worries, there are ways...
...and we know them all.
What is proof of onward travel?
Just to make sure we’re all on the same page:
Basically it’s to make sure that you:
have enough money to leave the country,
don’t intend to stay illegally, and
intend to leave before your visa expires.
Sometimes, this evidence comes in the form of a visa requirement. However, a country will often pass this responsibility on to the airlines. This means you’ll need that evidence at the check-in counter or the airline won’t let you board your flight.
The airlines are strict about this, and with good reason from their point of view. If they don’t check and let you on the flight with a one-way ticket, they will be responsible for the cost of both the fines and of flying you back when immigration officials refuse to let you in.
They may let you on the flight if you buy a return ticket from them right then and there - but don’t expect that to be a cheap deal, especially for a ticket you never intend to use.
Countries that have this stipulation include (but are not limited to) Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Japan, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil and most Central American countries.
Here are the ways you can prove your onward travel plans to any airline or immigration officer.
1. Book a fully refundable flight ticket
If you can afford to wait for your refund, then buying a fully refundable one-way ticket within your visa term is a viable option. You will have to buy this ticket before you leave for your destination to be able to show it at the check-in.
You can cancel this flight upon entering the country and simply have to wait to get your money back. Just be aware that this can sometimes take months.
Also, be sure to read the fine print. Some airlines charge cancellation fees or only give you flight vouchers instead of your actual money back.
2. Reserve a ticket for 24 hours (US only)
In the US, airline companies are required by law to provide full refunds on bookings within 24 hours. This gives you the option of buying a ticket with a US-airline at random right before your flight out, show it as proof of onward travel and get all your money back.
All you have to make sure of is to cancel the flight before the 24 hours are over.
As with the refundable ticket, read the fine print before you book! In theory, all US airlines should honor this refund period, but there has been talk about American Airlines phasing this option out. So just in case, do your research before you get stuck with an expensive flight you’re never going to take.
3. Book & Cancel with Miles or Points
If you’ve accumulated a ton of miles or points on your reward credit card, this option is kind of a no-brainer. Use those points to book a one-way flight and cancel it later. Most of the time, those points or miles are refunded immediately.
4. Book the cheapest ticket you can find - it needn’t be a plane ticket!
Since you’re not going to take this flight, it doesn’t matter where and at what time it goes (as long as it’s before your visa expires), so you can just book the cheapest possible flight out of the country.
With an extreme budget airline, that can be a ticket for $20. More likely it’ll be for $50 to $100.
But why focus solely on flight tickets? There are other ways to leave countries, after all. Namely via trains or buses. In Europe, Flixbus is a super cheap bus operator who offers rides from Bratislava to Vienna for about €5, for example.
Of course this isn’t an option in every country, but definitely worth checking out to save money and hassle.
6. Buy a flexible date ticket
If you know where you’ll be flying to next but are still uncertain about the when of it all, a flexible date ticket for which you can leave your flight dates open or change them might be a viable option.
The only caveat is that these tickets are usually quite a bit more expensive than for example flights from local airlines that offer inflexible but far cheaper options.
7. Rent a Ticket with an onward ticketing service
When asked, we from WiFi Tribe tend to suggest renting a ticket from an onward ticketing service - yes, renting it.
These service providers book real, legitimate flights in your name on the day of your flight and automatically cancel it within 24 or 48 hours. All you pay is a fee starting at around $10 for this service.
For most of these services, you are able to specify when you need to receive your ticket and for how long it needs to be valid for. If you don’t want to worry about refunds, paying large sums or cancellation policies, this is your best option.
Also, try to book an onward ticket from any of these services at least 24 hours in advance. They book and cancel tickets manually and usually have specific office hours. Most of them promise at least a 24-hour turnaround, so you should be fine within that time frame.
Renting a ticket this way is completely legal and our preferred proof of onward travel option, which is why here’s a short run-down of some of the current onward-ticket providers.
BestOnwardticket starts at $12 per ticket, and for a few extra bucks you can specify with a click whether you want a particular destination stated on your ticket or need the ticket for a later date:
Their office hours run from 5:30am to 11pm (GMT +7) seven days a week and they promise to email your ticket within ten minutes to two hours of your booking. Outside of these hours, BestOnwardticket doesn’t book flights or cancel them. So if you’re trying to book an onward ticket last minute when nobody is at the office, you may just be out of luck.
That’s where the Checkbox for receiving your onward ticket at a later date, specified by you, comes in handy - just make sure to book a few days before you fly out and you’ll receive the ticket in your email-inbox right on time.
You can pay for a BestOnwardticket ticket via credit card or Paypal.
At $7 for a ticket, Onwardflights.com is probably the cheapest onward flight provider out there - and one of our personal favourites.
Unlike BestOnwardticket, Onwardflights doesn’t state official office hours. They get around this by promising that you’ll receive your ticket within 12 hours of paying via Paypal, which is also the only payment method offered.
The France-based OneWayFly is interesting because you can book not only one-way flights but also round-trip and 1-year open flights:
The one-way- and round-trip tickets cost €20, while the 1-year open flight costs €40. You can also add a hotel voucher for €10. Not sure why you’d need or want to spend more money on those extra options and there’s no explanation to be found on the website. If you know what that’s about or can think of a scenario in which you’d book one of those options, feel free to pop down and tell us in the comments.
OneWayFly’s office hours are Monday through Sunday from 9:30am to 6:30pm CET (GMT +1), so this one is better geared towards Europeans. In general, they promise to send you your ticket via email within 24 hours of you booking it.
OneWayFly also accepts payment via credit card or Paypal, but you can also go to the agency and pay them directly, presumably in cash.
FlyOnward - Beware of scams!
We picked the aforementioned onward flight services because we’ve either had good personal experiences with them or because they have great customer ratings. This is not the case for all of them.
You may come across some older blog posts about onward travel services that still recommend using FlyOnward.com. Until fairly recently, a lot of people - including several of our own tribers - booked tickets with them, paid the money and then never received a ticket or a refund. FlyOnward was a scam. It has been since discontinued; even the website is no more.
Our point here is: there are more and more of these onward flight services popping up every year - the demand is growing right alongside people’s travel fevers and the rapidly increasing digital nomad community. Whichever (new) service you choose, take the time to do five minutes of research for the first time you book with them and make sure they’re legit.
So there you have it: these are our two cents on the subject of onward travel, gathered together via our Tribe’s infinite collective travel wisdom. Why not become a WiFi Tribe member and benefit from our experience in coworking and coliving directly and hassle-free? Just click here to apply or here to check out our next amazing destinations.
Pia Newman is a copywriter, translator, virtual assistant and novelist. She finds her inspiration in many things, but above all in traveling around the world as a digital nomad and a happy member of WiFi Tribe. Follow both her novel writing- and digital nomad journey on her English blog, or find out more about her services, as well as her guidebooks on virtual assistance and earning money online on her German website