Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Missionary Travel: A Few Unkown Details

When my daughter went on her mission in January 2009 I found out a few things that I didn't know about missionary travel. I found out that the Church will pay for your air fare to the Missionary Training Center (MTC) and several interesting travel facts. If you want to read a cool story jump to the bottom of the post and read the actual experience of one of the travel agents. If you want to know some real details read the whole post. I have some impressions and suggestions which are not officially sanctioned but can help get through the process.

When I went on a mission back in 1975 I had to provide my own transportation to the mission home in Salt Lake City from Las Vegas. When my two daughters went in 2007 since we were living in Vernal, Utah we just drove them over there. I have since discovered that if you live any reasonable distance away that they will fly you to Salt Lake City. Since we moved over to South Carolina my daughter filled out the post card in the back of the Missionary Information Booklet. She was in the process of graduating from BYU-Idaho so we didn't see the booklet. I am sure if you are very wealthy and want to maximize the church's resources you can pay yourself but they don't ask that. Since I was having a hard time financially with three other daughters in college and outfitting my missionary daughter I let her send in the card after arguing with her about who should pay.

You can mail the reservation post card or fax it (801-240-5115) to the Missionary Travel office, but only do one or the other so not to confuse them. Since we had a couple of months she mailed her form if she had less than a month she would have had to fax it. They also ask you only send your ticket request separate from other correspondence. A couple weeks later we received a one-way ticket with an intinerary. Fortunately for her she had three sisters at BYU who could pick her up. If she didn't have a ride she would have had to call Express Shuttle (800-596-1600; http://www.xpressshuttle.com) and paid $19. In addition you usually have to tip the driver a couple of bucks for putting your luggage in the back of the van.

If a whole family is going together to the MTC they offer you three different options for getting a ticket, which include, (1) buying your own ticket and getting reimbursed, (2) purchasing your family members tickets first then getting Missionary Travel to book you on same flight, or (3) letting Missionary Travel book you first then having your family members try to book on the same flight.

For option one, you can get reimbursed if you want to handle your own flight arrangements. You will need to mail them a copy of your itinerary. They will reimburse you the rate they would have paid at contracted rate or the actual cost if it is lower than their contracted rate. They will send the reimbursement to the missionary at the MTC.

For option two, they like you to call Missionary Travel ahead of time so they can suggest an airline they will be using then your family members can call the suggested airline and purchase tickets. You then send in post card putting under the "Comments" box their flight information.

For option three, you mail the request post card for normal processing and wait to get back your ticket and itinerary then your family can call and make flight arrangements.

I found an interesting strategy for trying to get my daughters' called to a foreign mission which they strongly desired. We applied for a passport a year or two in advance of a mission and took a short trip to Mexico or some other country which shows their desire to learn other cultures. Fortunately all my children have a passport. This actually can expedite their calls since all three of my children were called within a month or two of receiving their mission papers. One caveat the Church asks you not to use your passport for two months prior to going on your mission.

If you don't have a passport they ask you to expedite the process by paying the extra fee. It may take 10-12 weeks if you don't. Even expedited takes two or three weeks. They promise two weeks door-to-door but sometimes they screw it up. I found this out when I applied personally. They mail you a passport application form which you can take to a local post office or county clerk's office. A problem with getting a passport before the age of 16 is that they are only good for five years. If you are over 18 they are good for 10 years. Missionary Travel ask that if you have a current passport that it is good for the term of your mission 18 months to 24 months plus six months in case you are extended or go home in a group a month or two later. It costs $100 for an unexpedited passport and $60 for expediting it for a total cost of $160. You can get the costs for the various passport details from the United States Postal Services page. If you are simply renewing an old passport and are over 16 you can save $25 bucks by filling out Form DS-82.

In getting the photos you are asked to wear missionary appropriate attire. A parent can't go for you to get your passport even a minor child has to be present and sign the application. You will need an official birth certificate and an official photo ID (driver's license, old passport, military id) which is an actual government issued document. Driver's license or official id's (even if you can't drive) can be issued at driver's license office. My daughter Flora who is 21 has never passed the driving test to the day of her call and luckily had the official non driver's license id. The post office actually takes your long-form birth certificate and mails it to the government (Department of State) for processing at one of their regional Passport offices. You have to have a state issued birth certificate. I had a nice hospital one with my foot prints but had to mail off for the long form one from the Illinois Department of State. The U.S. Passport Office mails back the passport and birth certificate by registered mail which makes it relatively safe. When you get it make a couple of copies, one to leave home and one to take with you to the mission field. If you lose it or have it stolen you can get one reissued at an American embassy later.

There are official guidelines for the size of the photos for a passport. The photo needs to be 2 inches by 2 inches. The head has to be centered in the photo and should be 1 inch to 1-3/8 inches. The background has to white or off-white and no other color is accepted.

When you receive your passport if you are going on a foreign mission you will need to mail it as soon as you get it to the Missionary Travel office. We had some trouble with the VISA later since the passport pictures we had taken at Walmart weren't the right size. They will give you instructions on the size of the photos. When you get your passport pictures if they are 2 inches by 2 inches you can trim them usually to fit the VISA requirements from different countries. Usually they are the right size but remember they care mostly about the head and like to see your ears in the shot. When my daughter got her second group of photos you could only see her from the neck up so it didn't matter what she was wearing. Do not get too over worried about how you look since no one is usually satisfied with their passport or VISA pictures. The people who look at them are really just trying to determine if you are who the document really says.

Remember to get additional photos I recommend 8-10 when making your initial passport photographs. Having lived in other countries you sometimes have to have travel documents in some countries besides the VISA or medical clearance forms so these photographs come in handy for a variety of purposes. I recommend you use Walgreen, Walmart, or CVS if you want to save a little on the cost of the photos. It is convenient to have them taken at the Post Office but not all post offices have this service. I had some done at a local photography store but paid a premium.

I also learned to take a computer jump drive and had the photographs and passports scanned on it. I have printed my own pictures out a time or two in a crunch situation when I couldn't quickly go home and get them and someone demanded I get an official document such as a international driver's license or in Saudi Arabia where I worked an iquama (national id). When I arrived in Italy I had to have a local id issued by the police department in a couple of cities where I served. You can save a lot of money by being prepared picturewise. In addition the drive can be used for uploading missionary pictures later so the missionary can take more pictures on their mission. Jump drives don't get water damage and can be carried by a missionary easily in their missionary bag. I have learned to save my emails to them since even service providers like

A few weeks prior to leaving the MTC you will get flight plans. You will receive at no expense your itinerary, visa and a one-way airline ticket. Your passport will be returned to you also prior to departure.

In traveling worldwide you need to know a few things. Most other countries don't have a two carry-on limit like the United States. They make you put your purse in a bag sometimes. In fact they make you consolidate bags down to one carry-on. Once flying through Heathrow I had to go out and reboard from the ticket counter because we had too many bags.

The Missionary Travel says about general baggage allowance:
  • Two pieces of luggage can be checked: one bag not to exceed 62 total dimensional inches (total dimensional inches=length + width = height) and a second bag not to exceed 55 total dimensional inches.
  • You may also carry on board the airplane one piece of baggage not to exceed 45 total dimensional inches (for example, a flight bag or carry-on bag). Garment bags should not be carried on.
  • The maximum weight allowed without additional cost for each checked bag is 50 pounds. If you have more than two checked bags and one carry-on bag, or if your checked luggage is over 50 pounds per bag, you will be charged. Be prepared to pay as much as U.S. $100.
  • Both checked and carry-on bags may be searched by airport personnel. You will not be able to carry (either on your person or in anything you are carrying) a knife or any cutting instrument of any size or material. You must either put such items in your checked baggage or not take them with you at all. Hazardous materials such as aerosol cans, pepper spray, and Permethrin insectide are not allowed on an aircraft. To find all current details please go to the following website: www.tsa.gov
Individual missions have even more restrictive baggage requirements and your mission president will send you a letter before you arrive with those requirements. The West Indies Mission for example requires missionaries to only bring 44 total pounds!:

The current limit for luggage weight on flights around the West Indies is 44 pounds. That is a total weight - not per bag! Most planes are small and airlines are very strict about weight. Even if you decide to pay an extra fee to bring in more weight, you will face the same problem each time you have a transfer that involves air travel. We strongly recommend you limit your luggage weight to 44 pounds before arriving in the field.

You may wonder how you can possibly bring everything you need. Remember - you don’t need coats, sweaters, sweatshirts, hats or gloves like most other missionaries - just some nice lightweight shirts and pants plus a few other items. That should help. Also, you are allowed a small carry on that you can load up with heavy things like books. You can buy most toiletries in the field as well as sheets, towels and umbrella if you just can’t fit them in. Be sure to bring two pairs of good, broken in, comfortable, sturdy, sharp looking shoes - they are worth the weight!
Recently when my daughter went to the MTC we were greeted by some additional baggage fees. Her first bag weighed 55 pounds which made the U.S. limits but her second bag which was assessed $25 cost an additional $100 because it weighed 68 pounds. Remember foreign airlines have even stricter weight limits. One strategy to get your baggage weight down is to put heavy objects like books in your carry-on or to simply mail them to yourself at the MTC or your mission field. The training materials that you receive at the MTC which weigh 8 to 12 pounds can be mailed. You need essentially to keep your scriptures and your Preach My Gospel manual on you at all times.

If you mail the stuff even first class air mail it is cheaper than what the airlines will charge you. Many missionaries have to ship things home or abandon them at the MTC. I have seen missionaries come to the MTC with more than three total bags they are pretty strict on what leaves the MTC on the day of missionary departure. Missionaries are funny people my daughter became a pack rat on her mission and carried about one hundred extra pounds of Italian Liahonas and mission materials that she had to pay for. She could have saved a lot of money by sending it to herself by regular book rate.

When boarding an aircraft you will need to keep your passport or government issued id when passing through security points. Be careful not to make jokes abut terrorism, guns etc. as you will be arrested.

It is amazing how often missionaries can miss their flights. When moving between flights it is good to ask a ticket agent where your next gate is since gates are subject to change. Check the flight monitors and go to the next gate area even if you have an hour or two. In foreign countries you have to spend as much as an hour at security even to get to a gate. Don't take for granted you have a lot of time and stay attentive as gates change even when sitting at them. Check the monitors often and pay attention to the flight boards at the gate and on the departure screens.

The MTC personnel and Missionary Travel people are quite specific in what they tell a missionary so listen and keep your baggage and other things in strict compliance.

When my daughter came home from the Italy Rome Mission in July her plane was delayed and she and a couple of elders missed their connecting flight from New York to Salt Lake City. Three families were all at the airport to greet them. Even though the Missionary Travel will not release your travel information to others in a usual situation they will tell parents when someone is delayed since the missionaries maybe unable to call them. They were able to reroute the missionaries who arrived three hours later than scheduled.

In addition a lot of flights in other countries don't have strict on-time schedules so you might miss connections. You may even have to sleep on the floor in an airport. If for whatever reason you miss a flight immediately contact Missionary Travel. They will inform your mission president or family when going home if something comes up.

Information for Missionary Travel

Missionary Travel
50 E. North Temple Street Rm. 1442
Salt Lake City, UT 84150-5261

1-801-240-5111 (worldwide)
1-800-537-3537 (United States and Canada only)
1-801-240-5115 (Fax)

I ran across an unusual post by one of the Missionary Travel agents that is fascinating. A few interesting things I found out is that they use travel agents who work from home and they are on call 24/7 with revolving shifts. Even though my post is long I want to share something cool she shared on her personal blog last year:

I promised you something a little bit more exciting in my next post so here it goes...

Many of you may know that I work for Missionary Travel for the LDS Church. I am a stay-at-home travel agent that handles after-hours travel emergencies for our church's 50,000+ missionaries all around the world. There are four of us that share the responsibilities of booking travel for sick, stranded, or naughty missionaries when the regular travel office is closed. We each have our regular shift when we have to be home or near our computer in case there is some sort of travel emergency. I take a shift on Sunday afternoons. Sundays are usually REALLY slow and I rarely get any calls during my 6 hour shift.

Anyway, this past Sunday I was not feeling well so I skipped church and stayed in bed most of the day. About 1:30pm that afternoon, I was sitting in bed flipping through the channels when one of the operators at the office called and told me that Elder Scott was on the phone and needed to talk to me. Well, being zoned out as I was and being used to referring to most of the callers as Elder or Sister So 'n' So, I didn't think much of it until I heard that all too familiar voice of Elder Richard G. Scott. Of course, I jumped out of bed so fast that all of the blood rushed from my head and I nearly tripped over the bed post as I ran down the stairs to my computer...and my computer wasn't even on...of course...because I NEVER get calls on Sundays..... Needless to say, I was a little nervous because there are others that normally take calls from the General Authorities and I haven't really been trained on policies and protocols, etc. Thankfully, he was very kind and patient as I booted up my computer and got the information that he was looking for.

After the call was over, I called the operators back and told them that a little "heads-up" might be helpful next time. Just then, they got a call from an Elder Cook and asked if I would mind taking that call. I said I would and they connected me to Elder Quentin L. Cook, also a General Authority. His call was a little more complicated, but I did the best I could. He called back about an hour later and asked to speak to me since he had already worked with me...even though the agent that handles GA phone calls was available by this time. I helped him the best I could, but I didn't know how to do everything that he wanted. But I was polite and told him to "consider it done". Then I called the GA agent and let her finish it up.

Anyway, that might not seem like such a big deal, but it was pretty significant for me. Not only do I not usually have the opportunity to speak to General Authorities, I am still trying to learn the new computer reservation system that we just switched to. I don't feel very confident with this program yet, so I was very nervous trying to help such high profile clients. Also, working from home has it's own unique challenges. It's really hard to concentrate on a phone call when my kids are screaming in the background. I was very grateful that they weren't trying to kill eachother this particular time. They have in the past:) Anway, they (Elder Scott and Elder Cook) were both very sweet and understanding and that helped to calm my nerves...a little. But, alas, I did survive the experience and felt pretty lucky to have had it!

I hope that's as exciting as it gets for awhile. To much more excitement like that and I may not make it next time:)

Read the Missionary Booklet carefully and consult with Missionary Travel if you have any concerns or questions. You will receive detailed instructions on what to do every step of the way. They have the process down to a fine art.

1 comment:

Missionary Travel said...

Do y'all have missionary contracts with the airlines? If not, y'all should check out some of the awesome missionary-only contracts we have. We can do consolidator work for you, if you want.