Nicaragua Immigration Doesn’t Understand Mileage Runs

Perhaps file this one under the “no $&*%, Sherlock” category, but I had an interesting experience yesterday on a mileage run to Managua, Nicaragua.

I was flying from Miami to Managua and back, with a 65 minute layover in Managua. As it turns out, two frequent flyer friends happened to be on the same flights, even though it wasn’t coordinated in advance. I was planning on just making the best of the transit on my own, though they had contacted the airport VIP service to help with the transfer, which a lot of people on mileage runs have recommended in the past. It’s $30 per person, which seems steep for helping with a transfer, but then again if it’s the difference between making your connection and not, it’s worth every penny.

While we already had our boarding passes for both Miami to Managua and Managua to Miami, in Managua you have to clear entry immigration, then clear exit immigration, and then go through security, so it can get tight. Most of the time it’s not an issue since the airport doesn’t have a lot of flights, but if another flight lands around the same time you’re kind of hosed.

Our flight from Miami to Managua was late, meaning we only had about 50 minutes till our flight (the same plane) was scheduled to depart. The crew on the flight does a direct turn, and the purser, TC, was spectacular. I told her that she better not leave without us or we’d be stranded, and she was amused by the whole situation and said she’d do what she can.

So we get off the plane in Managua and sure enough at the corridor at the end of the jet bridge is someone that has a sign with my friend’s name on it. He didn’t speak any English (actually I don’t think anyone we interacted with at the airport comfortably spoke it).

Another representative approached, and we handed her our passports, immigration forms, and the $10 entry fee for Nicaragua.

Meanwhile the other agent escorted us to the “VIP Lounge.” We sat there for about 15 minutes and kind of felt like they didn’t grasp that we were on the flight back to Miami, though after showing them the boarding passes once again and pointing to the departure time they got the point, I think.


There’s an immigration officer in the lounge, and at this point he called me over because he wanted to “ask [me] some questions.” Funny enough in my over three million miles of flying and countless number of mileage runs I’ve never really been quizzed much at immigration.

That being said, when it comes to immigration I tend to take the following approach:

  • Be totally honest
  • Language barriers are a good thing, since they’re less likely to question you when they’re not comfortable doing so in your language
  • At the end of the day if you confuse them and you’re on a flight out of their country, aren’t they better off having you leave on the next flight vs. sticking around?

He asked if I spoke Spanish, and when I said I didn’t he did his best to speak in English, though it was clear he was outside of his comfort zone:

Immigration officer: What is the purpose of your visit?
Me: I’m just in transit, I have a one hour connection here and haven’t left the airport.
Immigration officer: You come from where?
Me: I’m coming from Miami.
Immigration officer: And you go where?
Me: I’m going to Miami.
Immigration officer: But… *lets out a loud sigh*
Me: I am doing this because American had a very cheap ticket and I earn a lot of miles I can use towards travel to Europe with this ticket.

He takes another deep breath and thumbs through my passport for about a minute and keeps opening his mouth as if he wants to say something, but can’t seem to get the words out. So he just says “okay, you can sit down.”

I sit back down, and several of the employees in the lounge are talking in Spanish. At this point we’re asked if we want a drink. No, ideally we’d like to get on our flight, since it was scheduled to depart in 25 minutes at this point.

A few minutes later another immigration officer in a more official looking uniform comes to where we’re sitting and sits down next to me.

Immigration officer: Benjamin, I must ask you a few questions about your travel.
Me: Okay…
Immigration officer: So you are flying from Miami… and flying to Miami. How long are you here for?
Me: Just an hour, we haven’t left the airport.
Immigration officer: So why would you come here?
Me: American had a very cheap fare so I booked it to earn some miles.

I figured I would quantify it a bit so he’d maybe understand a bit better (even if it was more of a theoretical explanation than anything else, given that he wouldn’t understand it any other way).

Me: The ticket cost $300 and because American Airlines is offering a promotion I earn enough miles from this ticket to take a trip to Europe for free.
Immigration officer: Which company do you collect miles for?
Me: I earn miles for myself, I don’t work for a company. But I am earning American Airlines miles.
Immigration officer: So you work for American Airlines and are collecting miles for them?

Oy, he really doesn’t get how this works!

He went off to speak to his colleagues, and after a couple more minutes of processing documents sent us on our way.

We made our flight with time to spare.

Anyway, surprisingly this is the first time I can recall actually being questioned at immigration. Back in my pre-Global Entry days I’ve had some US immigration officers ask the purpose of my trip and when I explained it was for the miles they’d smirk and send me on my way, since they realize it’s a harmless “thing.”

But it’s much tougher to explain the concept of a mileage run to someone that has probably never earned a mile in their life.

Filed Under: Mileage Runs
  1. Ben, mind sharing the fare/promo at AA? I have been thinking of Nicaragua for our next vacation and wanted to make sure I am signed up. Thanks.

  2. Great story — but I’m also interested to hear how your 4200 mile trip netted enough miles to go all the way to Europe! That’s certainly a lot of multipliers…Can you quickly explain?

  3. I would cut them some slack. My wife is a native born American and she doesn’t understand all of this either. 😉

  4. @ jettyboy @ Alex — To clarify, that part was simply to illustrate to the officer the benefits of mileage runs. One trip isn’t enough for a trip to Europe, though was trying to paint a picture of what one can do with miles (since there’s not really an easy way to do it).

  5. Gotta love (read: hate) the underlying condescension in all your blatantly patronizing posts concerning Latin America…

  6. “Why yes, officer, I often fly from Miami to Central America for an hour or two. Also to Medellin, Columbia. You want to see this parcel? This two kilogram parcel? No, I’d rather you didn’t open it, if you please. . .”

  7. @Lucky, what is cheap for you (or us) to do a MR it could be a 3 month salary for some of them, and that’s why maybe they do not understand that nor the europe thing..

  8. “underlying condescension in all your blatantly patronizing posts concerning Latin America”

    I’d don’t see any of that. Simply an understandable humour in trying to explain our weird hobby to folks with no experience with it. I imagine those immigration officers ended up thinking “these crazy gringos do the weirdest things”.

    Frankly, most of my friends don’t understand it either. Some of them suspect it’s at least unethical, if not in fact illegal. 😉

  9. Aside from wasting resources and people’s valuable time, your frivolous trips contribute to global warming.

    And no, you’re not just taking up a seat that otherwise would have gone empty and therefore have no responsibility. If that’s the case, then no one on that flight has any responsibility.

  10. I also would like to know how how many miles you got for that flight. 4200 in earlier post will not get you to Europe. Also how can I get informed about AA promotions like that?

  11. Funny, but it´s not surprising at all. Nicaragua is the 2nd poorest country in the Western Hempisphere after Haiti. A trip overseas (much less a mileage run!) is completely beyond the wildest dreams of most Nicaraguans. The immigration official must have been thinking you were up to something… which I´m sure just concluded: These Gringos and their mysterious ways! ha!

  12. You are out of your mind to do a turn that short in a foreign airport (with some exceptions, like Zurich). We flew out of SJO recently, and if we had been doing a straight turn in an hour, we would have definitely missed our flight. Anyway, glad you made it!

  13. @Voice of Reason- When will you accept that global warming is a fairy tale dreamed up by those searching for something to protest against? Science has proven its false!!

  14. I must admit i don’t really understand mileage runs either, so i can see where the immigration officer would be confused.

  15. @ JRL love your comment
    @ Paul take your head of the sand, are you for real?? Science proved it’s (by the way, proper spelling) false?!?!?!?

  16. Hmm… is there a reason only you were selected for questioning even though there were two other travelers doing the same?

  17. MGA is not one I’d recommend MRs for. They give a lot of trouble to normal travelers. We had a wheelchair bound friend getting a LOT of extra scrutiny one visit.

    You are lucky to make it. They are terrified of smuggling.

  18. I think you were perhaps playing with a loaded weapon there and are actually pretty lucky to depart on time…………….maybe why AA had the ticket so cheap………..

  19. Lucky somehow your numbers do not add up. Either you paid $300 or you found a mistake fare. Which one is it? Its even more suspicious where there were 2 other folks with you, so there must be something up. Care to shed some more details?

  20. I’ve never been to Nicaragua so excuse if dumb question but why did you have to go to immigration and not just stay at gate? Is it because airline won’t let you board without proper proof of exit tax payment?

  21. Or did they think you were Woody Allen from Bananas and needed you for the Revolution?

  22. Getting back to the point of the post — gee, isn’t it interesting that there are those of us that are mileage geeks and live for these subtle nuances, and occasionally we need reminders that not everyone has our passion for the minutiae of career travel. I sincerely do appreciate the occasional article like this — it grounds me (pardon the pun) that not everyone has the hobby that we do.

    Having said that, I’m sad when I read all of the negative comments — one of the downsides of the internet is that people tend to be more snarky and less forgiving in their comments than they would be if this were a face-to-face conversation.

    I’m sure someone will post a followup that critiques my capitalization choices, or disagrees with my excessive use of hyphenation — but that’s okay — I’m still a fan of Lucky’s posts.

    While I’m not at the point where I need a mileage run to renew status, I can appreciate Lucky’s situation, and as a loyal reader, I’m glad Lucky was able to make his return flight, despite a travel profile that doesn’t match Immigration’s per-conceived notions about what a business traveler or a tourist travels might look like. ..

  23. Haha. You know, I am really surprised mileage runners don’t get quizzed more. Turning up in Central America for an hour is about as sucpicious as it gets.

  24. I’m doing this run with the “2 other travelers” next month. They joked that instead of us doing this run together, I may be coming to bail them out”. It was a good deal so why not do more than one time? Last year when I did a run to PVG, immigration was not amused, but they didnt give me a hard time either.

  25. @Eric I agree, while I’m not a mile collector I’m an airline employee for a European airline (administrative stuff; so you likely won’t ever come in contact with me directly) so I get to travel a lot on a standby basis and as such I often fly weird routes with tickets often purchased on very short notice… Anyway, the only time so far I had a really hard time at immigration was when I flew on AC from SFO to YVR. They put me in some enclosed space with 3 other people (mostly of Asian and Arabic origin) with an immigration officer, they went through all my stuff, asked me lots and lots of questions (very personal in nature), and I really felt like kind of a criminal). Also I didn’t really have lots of plans in advance despite showing a hotel reservation, so the entry there kind of sucked.
    Once I finally was let in (apparently they decided I’m not a criminal after all) I did love Canada though; I travelled around the country and left via YYZ 2 weeks later.

    I never had a similar experience like that anywhere in the world…

    also compared to North America immigration pretty much anywhere in the world (especially in Europe; though I have a EU passport, so that might help too of course) is a cakewalk.

  26. Lucky, maybe you should print out a google translate small description of what you are doing to the immigration people will be able to understand in their native language. Just a thought…

  27. I think Grant has a good point. Something you should do every time you do a MR where you’re visiting a country where English isn’t used frequently.

  28. it’s a little annoying reading this, given that I’ve been stopped a few times including for 30 minutes during my first use of Global Entry a few months ago, and 1 hour when I landed in Vancouver, Canada this month.

  29. @Lucky – You got lucky, you where not stripped searched nor interrogated in a more serious manner. There are a lot of RUNNERS or “Mulas” taking cash instruments among other things between Miami and South America. They do quick turns just like yours. You truly got Lucky.

  30. Ah, Lucky transits my home airport. Sorry to have missed you!

    For anyone else doing turns on a run to MGA:

    ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS use the VIP service. While Lucky thinks the $30 is “steep” its worth every penny to not go through the mierda downstairs. I use it even when I only go to PTY or SJO for a 2 hour meeting.

    Same on “normal” departures — they will check you in, check your bags, and the private security “screening” makes Pre-Check look intrusive!

    The lounge itself is pretty 3rd world but escaping the “process” is what it’s all about!

    @mark you one funny guy.

    @JRL amen!

    @shonuffharlem no way to transit @MGA — everyone feeds into immigration/customs

  31. That is certainly an interesting exchange. In defense of the customs official, I am sure that virtually no one in Nicaragua makes “mileage runs” and the percentage of people there that have even flow is probably single digits compared to the United States. I am not sure what the best way to avoid such situations aside from avoiding doing mileage runs to third world countries. Perhaps obtaining a pocket translation device or preparing an information card in the home language of the country you are visiting to use. You might think that because they work at the airport, they would be fluent in foreign languages and/or travel but they don’t anymore than people that I know that work at airports here in the states.

  32. These people (the officers, NOT Lucky or my fellow commenters) are extremely outdated. Oh well. At least Lucky was Lucky enough to get through.

    Note to self: Avoid transiting MGA for a mileage run at all costs.

  33. @Craig – I’m not sure I’d submit a prepared statement or card, putting myself in the customs guys shoes, that might look suspicious – better to play dumb and no habla… 🙂

    @Voice of reason,

    Seriously, Not everyone is into your crazy Environmentalist cult – your continued evangelizing isn’t going to change the minds of the people who read these frequent flier blogs – if I could, I would buy empty seats on multiple heavy aircraft just to increase my carbon footprint!

  34. @Kevin — even then your carbon footprint would be about 10% of the cult’s High Priest Al Gore.

    Back on topic — there are often really really good MR fares to MGA. Use the VIP option and rake in the miles!

  35. What a disturbing bunch of comments. To those who DON’T find global warming based on fact, there really isn’t much to say. You’re wrong. Everyone knows you’re wrong, even the politicians who you believe agree with you. The airlines know you’re wrong. Coca Cola knows you’re wrong. Even Exxon knows you’re wrong.

    The question of how fast it is occurring is one which can be debated, but that’s pretty much it. You certainly can’t argue that the CO2 emissions from those flights that we’re taking isn’t contributing to it.

    As for the issue of MGA immigration, I don’t think Lucky was trying to be offensive; but I think it wise to keep in mind that not-quite-accurate “transcripts” of conversations can come across – sometimes – as patronizing. Especially when engaging in a pretty upper-middle class, and not terribly benevolent hobby.

  36. @Joe – Well said!

    @Kevin – Not everyone who reads these blogs is so shamelessly uncaring as you might like to think. Perhaps it makes you feel better to believe this. Some of us read this blog to learn how to make better use of the myriad of points that are thrown at us by airlines, hotels and credit card companies. Mileage runs, ordering and canceling credit cards you don’t need seems, to many of us, a vacuous exercise in self-fulfillment. If self-pleasuring is what you so desperately seek, try masterbation. It’s quicker than a mileage run, and with the time and energy you save, you’ll be able to shoot more baby seals, run over more squirrels or whatever you enjoy when you’re showing Mother Nature who’s boss.

  37. @ Joe “Everyone knows”.. Blah, blah, blah.

    AlGore said 15 years ago that the polar ice would be gone in 5 years. When that didn’t happen, 5 years later he repeated the same prediction. When that didn’t happen, 5 years later he again repeated the same prediction. As of now the polar ice cap is robust.

    We were told 10 years ago that in 5 years, snowfall in North America would cease to exist, and that future children would only know of snow due to history books. Yet this year is turning out to be the coldest in the past 100 years. And I can’t even count the number of flights cancelled this year on the East Coast alone due to snow and ice storms.

    This crazy cult has a prediction success rate equal to all of the Fundamentalist groups the continually predict the exact date that Jesus will come again. ie Nada

    Meanwhile, the top folks hollering about Climate Change, such as AlGore, Obama, and a whole slew of movie stars, all fly constantly in private jets. As Instapundit says, I’ll believe in Climate Change when the people who tout it start acting like they believe in it themselves.

    Finally, everyone knows is a bald faced lie. Google “petition project(dot)org”…

    “There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gasses is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate. Moreover, there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environments of the Earth.”

    Signed by 31,487 American scientists — including 9,029 with Ph.D.s

    I suggest you turn off that monitor, and recycle your computer. Every minute you spend surfing the net, powered by electricity produced by fossil fuels, does more damage to the planet. 😉

  38. @ Robert Hanson: I don’t doubt for a moment your sincerity, or ignore the apparent hypocrisy of others who take part in this debate. But nothing that you write changes the fact that the planet is warming, that CO2 emissions are generally human-made and unhelpful, and that it is a potential problem. Maybe not tomorrow, but at some point. You and others can throw statistics around about what is happening this year, or what may happen next year, but the reality of a warming planet is a fact.

    In any case, I am not asking you to give up anything that you do that I believe contributes to the problem; I am merely pointing out that you are indeed contributing to it. I am, too. That point is not lost on me.

    But let’s be real, Robert: those 9,029 PhD’s are but a tiny droplet of deniers in the ocean of science. I can find plenty of people to argue anything (Delta has an excellent FF program, for example), but it doesn’t make it true.

    Ultimately, this argument is neither here nor there. It doesn’t sound like you will be convinced. I won’t be convinced that we don’t have a potential catastrophe on our hands. Maybe long after you and I are dead, but there’s plenty of evidence – known as facts – to suggest that you are just plain wrong.

  39. @Joe What “facts”?

    As the leaked “Climategate” emails from the UK East Anglia group revealed, some of the top “climate change” promoters are deeply troubled that there has been no warming for the last 15+ years. This despite greatly increased emissions of so called green house gases. They have no way to explain that.

    Now the pro Climate Change UK Met Office has publically affirmed it. You can Google it: “Global Climate Warming Stopped 15 Years Ago, UK Met Office Admits”. Those are the actual facts.

    You can drop all the pretty prose you want, “tiny droplet of deniers in the ocean of science”, but it doesn’t change the fact that there is no warming; and has been no warming for a decade in a half.

    And none of the computer models that supposedly predict future warming could even predict this current coldest winter in 100 years. So there is no factual reason to even suspect that those models, which cannot predict conditions a few years in the future, can possibley predict what will happen decades from now.

    I suggest you look into actual history of the planet. You will find out that the Vikings prospered in Greenland during the period known as the Medieval Warm period. It was much hotter then than it is now, at a time when mankind’s so called carbon footprint (sic) was miniscule.

    You will also find that there was a time when the planet was much colder. The Little Ice Age was caused by a dearth of sunspots, which is the actual cause of warming and cooling here on Earth. We seem to be entering into another time of no sunspots, thus our current record cold weather. It will probably continue to get worse for years to come.

    I wonder how many years of no warming, and probably significant cooling, it will take you to admit the so called “facts” of AGW are no where to be found?

  40. @Robert
    It was warm here in San Francisco today and that didn’t stop me from jumping on the AA 100k offer…………If this type of heated competition starts up again I might even start traveling again as every time I am in the clouds I am truly closer to the divine……although the scientific proof of that is still in question…………

  41. Is this the same Robert Hanson guy who endlessly regurgitates Drudge Report and Fox News talking points on Gary Right’s overtly partisan travel blog?

  42. I never read the Drudge Report and vary rarely watch Fox. Unless you meant football broadcasts. 😉

    Frankly, endlessly regurgitating the words Drudge, Fox, and Right Wing, as though you were saying something of substance, is about as overtly partisan as it is possible to get.

    Have a nice day. 🙂

  43. Didn’t you also need to pay a $45 departure fee? My son/dil just came from Panama through Nicaragua and they needed to pay the $10 entry and $45 ext fee on a connecting flight! It was all on United but with a partner al for the first leg, Copa.

  44. Haha! I had the exact opposite experience on a domestic MR recently.

    When I went to check in at the Admiral’s Club in AUS, the agent brought up my itinerary and immediately asked; “Mileage Run today young man?”.

    Yeah, Nicaragua probably wasn’t the best stopover on a Mileage Run. Try some of the less ” notoriously drug trafficky” Central American countries next time.

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