Hey Continental Airlines, North Korea Isn't The Same As South Korea

Just wanted to let you guys know about an absurd situation my wife and I encountered when trying to check in for a flight from Newark, NJ to Cancun on Friday Dec 14, 2007:

My wife (a South Korean citizen and non-immigrant to the U.S.) was initially denied check-in due to the fact that their “computer” stated that she was required to have a Visa to enter Mexico. We quickly informed the attendant (Donna [redacted]) that the Republic of Korea aka South Korea aka NOT North Korea, is a treaty nation with Mexico and that tourist Visa’s for minimal stays are not required.

Instead of an expected, “we apologize for the confusion and we’ll look into it”, we received a lecture on how the PASSENGERS are usually wrong in cases like this and that we should just go home. If we were completely spineless we might have listened but after bringing in three more Continental attendants to assist, all of whom looked at the same ‘holy computer’ and stated that my wife needed a Visa, we were moved to a supervisor’s counter and the process of deciphering the ‘Countries Requiring/Not Requiring Visa’ list took another 20 minutes. (I think a list of known UN countries in alphabetical order is probably less than 300 so a quick scan in my book would take about 20 seconds). After some quiet side conversations where we overheard the discussion about the “Democratic People Republic of Korea” (NK) and the “Republic of Korea” (SK) I reminded the Continental rep not to confuse North and South Korea (again). I (again) was told to ‘tone it down’. After about another five minutes we were handed our passports back with two boarding passes without a word – no apology, no ‘enjoy your flight’.

To add to the wonder of it all, Continental dedicates an entire section of check-in counters for travel to tourist destinations in the Caribbean at Newark’s Terminal C. Why they also don’t dedicate employees with a passing knowledge of countries in the world for their INTERNATIONAL check in agents is beyond me. I guess that’s asking for too much behind courtesy and professionalism for their front-facing customer service reps.


We think you should forward your complaint to Continental’s executive customer service team, and the Department of Transportation as well. It’s a good thing you stood your ground and refused to be bossed around, but other travelers might not be so self-confident in the face of Continental’s rude employees.

(Photo:Google Maps)


Edit Your Comment

  1. tokenblackgirl says:


  2. SOhp101 says:

    Yet another reason to avoid a US airline when traveling abroad.

  3. darkened says:

    Like any of us every expected anything different

  4. 92BuickLeSabre says:

    Well, you know, there are tons of North Koreans traveling from the New Jersey to Cancun, so I could see how they might make that mistake.

    Oh wait, did I say “tons”? My bad. Unless New Jersey is the middle leg on that Pyongyang->Cancun flight they were talking about setting up, I meant to say “none, ever, in the history of international flight.”

  5. realjen01 says:

    @92BuickLeSabre: real klassy response. and yes, spelling ‘c’ words with a ‘k’ makes them more klassier…

  6. DrGirlfriend says:

    I had a similar issue once, flying from Portland to San Juan, Puerto Rico. My husband and I were headed there for our wedding, as I am from there.

    You do not need a passport to travel to PR, as PR is part of the US and we are all US citizens. I have traveled back and forth virtually all my life and am familiar with the requirements.

    When we arrived at the ticket counter, the agent insisted that we needed passports. I explained that we do not, PR is part of the US, we have US passports, etc etc, and he would not budge. Even though I was feeling half fearful of losing an important flight, half angry that the guy could be making this mistake, I kept my cool and asked for a supervisor. After several more minutes of this back-and-forth, it comes out that they are confusing San Juan, Puerto Rico with San Jose, Costa Rica.

    Fortunately, in my case they were very apologetic and tried hard to accomodate the seating requests we made prior to our little misunderstanding.

  7. hollerhither says:

    A little joking about the absurdity of it all suddenly lacks class in your book? Seems not out of line with most other posts on the site — actually, a bit funnier than some.

    And it’s not blaming the victim, although I’m sure someone will figure out a way.

  8. KJones says:

    The same idiots probably warn people about visas and New Mexico.

  9. hc5duke says:

    @KJones: There’s a NEW Mexico? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard since someone told me there is a “West” Virginia now… sheesh

  10. This reminds me of a roommate I had in London who thought Ireland was part of “England,” but that Scotland was a different country than “England” and was very upset she couldn’t get “Scottish” money.

    After an hour of going round and round, I convinced her to take her passport with her to Ireland “just in case.”

  11. Major-General says:

    @realjen01: Who cares if his comment was claßy?

  12. Major-General says:

    @Eyebrows McGee: Guess she didn’t try hard enough to get the Scottish currency.

  13. Benny Gesserit says:

    @Eyebrows McGee: Actually, she could have gotten Scottish money – the Bank of Scotland issues currency that’s clearly marked “Bank of Scotland” and (generally) interchangeable with English money.

    I say generally because the absolute ANGEL who worked in a shop in Glasgow’s Central train station warned me that I might have trouble with them when we got back to London. Sure enough, when I tried to buy some groceries in Sainbury’s, the clerk asked her supervisor “Do we accept these??”

  14. spinachdip says:

    @92BuickLeSabre: You’d think people in, of all places, North Jersey would know the difference between the two Koreas. Christ, they even have a town named Fort Lee (which, appropriately enough, has probably the largest Korean diaspora this side of LA).

    @Eyebrows McGee: For what it’s worth, Scotland *does* print its own pound notes. It’s worth the same as the kind they have in London, but just saying.

  15. JustAGuy2 says:

    @Eyebrows McGee:

    Well, there are Scottish pound coins, for example. As for Ireland, none is part of England, but part of Ireland is part of the United Kingdom.

    Great Britain=England, Scotland, and Wales
    United Kingdom=Great Britain and Northern Ireland

  16. dialing_wand says:

    I and I though Continental was one of the better ones. Now I need to avoid all US carriers. Sheesh.

  17. Golly, I guess I should have been way more clear! I realize Bank of Scotland prints it own notes. She didn’t think her UK money would be any good in Scotland because it was a “different country.”

    And as my sister lives in Dublin, I’m pretty clear on the Irish political situation. :)

    Last time I try to be concise for the nitpicky consumerist crowd! ;)

  18. MaliBoo Radley says:

    @Jim (The Canuck One):

    The reason they don’t like to take Scottish notes in England is that they are far easier to forge than Bank Of England notes … I always try to spend my before going over the border.

  19. specialed5000 says:

    @hc5duke: You would be surprised at how many people have no idea that West Virginia is a state. When I tell people I live here, many, many times they start talking about having been in Norfolk or Richmond or somewhere else in Virginia that is 300-400 miles miles away from Charleston, WV, and seem surprised when I tell them that WV has been a separate state since 1863.

  20. waldy says:

    @Eyebrows McGee: Reminds ME of the time my mom was visiting me over there–I was studying in England, and we were in Edinburgh for a couple days. My mom, like many Americans, grew up using the words “English” and “British” interchangeably. She’s an intelligent lady and can certainly explain the differences, but old language habits die hard.

    She needed to exchange some dollars for pounds. The bank teller gave her Scottish pounds. Knowing we were headed back across the border soon and that English pounds would be easier to use there, she said, “May I have British pounds instead?” The teller looked down her nose, over her glasses, and witheringly intoned, “Madam, we arrrre all citizens of the Queen herrrre. Those ARRRRRRe Brrritish pounds!”

    Needless to say, Mom never got the words mixed up again.

  21. FLConsumer says:

    @SOhp101: Considering that most Americans can’t even name all 50 states and their respective capitals, why would this come as a shock?

  22. Woofer00 says:

    @FLConsumer: When it’s your job to accommodate the needs of international travelers, a modicum of international geography is quite reasonable to expect. Would you expect a taxicab driver in NYC to be oblivious to the location of Times Square? Even if most Americans can’t name all 50 states and capitals, I would still expect the receptionist at the terminal to have to capability to distinguish between similarly named states, (N.Carolina/S.Carolina, N.Dakota/S.Dakota, W.Virginia/Virginia, etc)

  23. crzdmn says:

    For all those with state issues in the US try being from New York THE STATE.

    I have to explain to most people that there is more to New York than a giant city. Usually I get this head cocked slightly sideway look of “what the heck do you mean you’re not from New York the City?”.

    On another note, I did move to Texas and nothing personal but I’ve heard more people ask me where Australia (NOT AUSTRIA, believe I didn’t think people were that dumb either) is in Europe. The look on their face when you tell them Australia is a Continent AND a country no where near Europe is priceless. Then again I took 2 years of “Global Studies” in NY they take 1 year and have courses like “The History of Texas”

  24. JustAGuy2 says:


    I hear you on Austria/Australia. It’s a fight for my mom every year to make sure my relatives’ xmas gifts don’t get sent to the land of kangaroos and excessive beer consumption rather that the land of Alps and exported genocidal dictators.

  25. spinachdip says:

    @FLConsumer: To be fair, most of the 50 states are, for lack of a better, kinder descriptor, inconsequential. A butterfly flapping its wings in Idaho isn’t going to cause a Tsunami in Kentucky, if you will.

    The Korean peninsula and the North/South divide, on the other hand, is of great political import. The US and the Koreas are all major players in East Asia, and if Kim Jong Il gets drunk and presses a few wrong keys, or if the Seoul stock market goes into the tank again, that actually matters to us.

  26. 92BuickLeSabre says:

    @crzdmn: Stop pretending. I live in New York, and we all know there is nothing more to New York than Manhattan. “The City” is just a quaint term made up by the people who live in that part of New Jersey to the east, particularly in Queens and Kings County, NJ or Long Island (1/2 NJ & 1/2 Connecticut).

    Of course “West New Jersey” does have it’s own charms, particularly for the excellent Korean food mentioned above, and that’s where we like to keep our football teams and our refineries.

    The rumored “Upstate” is largely myth.

    (How’s that for classy?)

  27. ratbastid says:

    The U.N. currently recognizes 192 sovereign nations. Just FYI. Ran across that fact just the other day, and look! it’s already useful in proving me a complete nerd.

  28. shor0814 says:

    Lets just hope the pilots know the difference between North Korea and South Korea, or someone is in for a rough vacation.

  29. backbroken says:

    South Korea is the one with the Mt. Rushmore thingy, right?

  30. stickystyle says:

    This wouldn’t be a problem if more American’s had maps.

  31. Jean Naimard says:

    They booked a flight on an US airline.

    What did they expect? Service?

  32. TangDrinker says:

    @stickystyle: or knew what to do with their apostrophes…. :P

  33. LTS! says:

    Anyone from NY State who does not live in the major metropolitan area of NY City will gladly trade said city to New Jersey for some cash and a player to be named later. However, we aren’t interested in Fort Lee.

    Christ, even vendors send me seminar alerts for events in NYC. I live in Rochester, generally I could get to Cleveland before I could get to the Jacob Javitz Center in NYC.

    Then again, we’re talking about Jersey folk here, you know, they call it “The Garden State” so clearly they don’t even recognize their own surrounding properly, either that or they are pretty bad liars.

  34. yg17 says:

    If you enter the VIN number for a Hyundai or Kia that was built in Korea, it will tell you that it was manufactured in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is North Korea. Obviously, the cars are built in South Korea, as it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that we don’t export to or import from North Korea.

  35. kc-guy says:

    I’m always frustrated to hear references to Americans’ incompetence regarding European culture. Europe is made up of several countries, each with distinct traditions.

    It’s a lot easier to become acquainted with the customs of another country when a trip across the entire continent it is closer than New York to LA.

    There’s a range of cultures here in the US, and we don’t expect foreigners to know the difference between a New York and a KC strip steak, or the danger of cheering for the Yankees while staying in Boston.

    Common courtesy is universal, but it’s a big world out there, and expecting someone on the other side of an ocean to know the details of traditions ingrained for hundreds of years borders on ignorance itself.

  36. My Japanese had the same problem about one month ago. An airline ( I can’t remember if it was also Continental ) kept telling him he needed a visa to enter the U.S. from Canada. After much insisting, he was finally let through, but there was nothing resembling an apology, which shocked him because he’s used to all the profuse “sorry”s and “thank you”s of Japanese customer service.

  37. ej00807 says:

    I see lots of errors in software as far as languages, time, dates and so forth. Having made a few mistakes myself, I can say, managers aren’t always sympathetic to developers who suddenly reallize they need more time for making code ‘international’. The amazing thing is, the errors sometimes stay in the code – for years or decades.

    I was never required to take US or world geography in my academic years in Arizona. None-the-less, I’ve always loved maps and learning world geography. Perhaps I can enjoy it now, never having been tortured with it as a student.

    I guess if I were in a beauty pagent and somebody asked me why Americans seemed to be geography ‘illiterate’, i’d have to say, ‘perhaps we spend too much time watching sexy teen pagents and not enough time reading’.

  38. bilge says:

    @92BuickLeSabre: It’s all those North Korean mileage runners trying to get elite status on Air Koryo.

  39. MrEvil says:

    @kc-guy: I’m under the impression that alot of our friends across the pond have the notion that because we all fly the same flag that we all have the same traditions, when that is clearly not the case. I know some of my fellow Americans have the same misconception about Western Europe.

    Like KC-Guy said, there’s differences between places in the US, just like there is in Europe. We also don’t expect them to know the difference between a Southern and Texan accent (There IS a difference).

  40. jooverz says:

    They trust their computers more than they trust their common sense. Oh wait, geography is sadly not part of American common sense. Damn.

  41. spinachdip says:

    @kc-guy: You’re right. Confusing Australia and Austria is just like not knowing the difference between Western and Eastern Carolina BBQ.

    Oh wait, it’s not. For all the regional differences, the US is relatively homogeneous, at least from region to region. Stuff like customs and language and food, if you discount some minor quirks, are relatively similar whether you’re in Maryland or Nebraska or Oregon. Sure, you notice the differences, but the differences are no more pronounced than, say, the differences between Provence and Normandy or Ruhr Valley and Bavaria.

    Western Europe is pretty easy to figure out, no matter how different New England and Manhattan clam chowders are (that’s your argument, right?). I mean, I’d understand getting confused over countries in Central Africa or some shit, but those countries in Europe that have been intact for the better part of the last century? There’s no excuse for that type of ignorance.

  42. Neurotic1 says:

    The sad part of all this, beyond the ridiculous, is that over 36,000 US soldiers died on the Korean Peninsula.

  43. bonzombiekitty says:

    @Jim (The Canuck One): Yeah, when I went to Edinburgh I got Bank of Scotland notes. It really confused me. After all Scotland and England are part of the UK so why would they have different money? When I got back to england, my sister explained that they’re interchangeable.

  44. elisa says:

    As someone else pointed out, it’s not the general geographic ignorance of Americans we’re lamenting here. It’s the fact that these people worked at an AIRLINE, taking care of INTERNATIONAL flights, and thus, you know, might be EXPECTED to know more about the world than someone who has no need of that knowledge might.

  45. elisa says:

    reread the article…ok it was a US to Mexico counter. (Technically international, but…) Still, it’s an airline, so I stand by my comment.

  46. Rusted says:

    It’s still amazing that some people think that New Mexico is on the other side of the border.

  47. jbourne says:

    In a similar vein, I was selling Japanese-imported DDR games on eBay a few months back. A buyer asks, “will this work in my Playstation”, the typical question. I reply with the standard answer, “if you purchased your Playstation in North America and haven’t modified it in any way, most likely it won’t”. The person’s reply? (I quote):

    “OK you said in north america what do you do if you got it here im florida (south)”.

    She must’ve moved to Continental since that time.

  48. Pizza Club says:

    Miss Teen South Carolina should start doing advertisements for Continental Airlines.

  49. finite_elephant says:

    meh. I get this once in a great while at the post office when mailing things to my in-laws in Seoul. It’s easy to tell when they’ve entered the wrong country, though. The postage is about 10x what it should be.

  50. Jaysyn was banned for: https://consumerist.com/5032912/the-subprime-meltdown-will-be-nothing-compared-to-the-prime-meltdown#c7042646 says:

    Aren’t they subjects & not citizens?

  51. KJones says:

    re: States of denial
    For all those who think they know were the US states are, try this puzzle:
    I just scored 88% (44 out of 50 perfect) with an average error of 28 miles. The interior ones are the hardest while those that border oceans and lakes are easy; the game usually hits you with centre states first.

    re: Which one’s Pink…er, Red.
    Here’s an easy way to remember which countries are communist, folks: only communist countries put the word “democratic” in their names (eg. DR Germany, DR Congo, DPR Korea, etc.).

    North Korea *is* a democracy, with one man, one vote…except that only one man ever gets to vote. ^_^

  52. JustAGuy2 says:


    Yup, it’s the old rule: “People’s Democratic Republics aren’t.”

  53. 92BuickLeSabre says:

    @yg17: Actually, Hyundai is the lead player in the massive (and growing) Gaesong Industrial Complex, managed by South Korean companies, but located just over the border in North Korea.

    So while it is unlikely that they come from the North, you never know….

  54. metroplexual says:

    My wife has worked for Continental at Newark Liberty Airport for nearly 14 years. She claims it is likely the fault of the traveller for not disclosing her nationality at the time of purchase of the tickets. The computer issuing the boarding passes references these aspects of the traveller and defaults as an American.

    There is no way that a gate agent could possibly know the treaties that exist between all of the nations of the world. The people griping about this person’s experience just like to complain.

  55. yg17 says:

    @92BuickLeSabre: My car was built in Ulsan which is a city in South Korea (and in the southern part of the country, nowhere near the NK border)

  56. @LTS!: “Christ, even vendors send me seminar alerts for events in NYC. I live in Rochester, generally I could get to Cleveland before I could get to the Jacob Javitz Center in NYC.”

    I have the same problem in downstate Illinois (sort-of) — apparently there’s “Chicago” and then “the rest of Illinois” which means I routinely get recruiters calling me for jobs in Carbondale and then sounding shocked — SHOCKED! — to discover it’s NOT COMMUTABLE from Peoria and I’m not moving.

    I grumblingly tell them if they’re recruiting outside Chicago they should probably look at a map if the area code between the company and the recruit don’t match. But I doubt they take my advice, because I keep getting the calls.

  57. iqag says:

    Not only does Scotland issue its own notes, it IS a separate country from England.

    @92BUICK: Jersey, the Outer Boroughs, and Nassau are where actual New Yorkers live. The Westchester and Suffolk counties are part of Connecticut, and upstate is actually just Eastern Michigan. Manhattan is for Eurotrash, and Iowans who want to pretend their Eurotrash.

  58. 92BuickLeSabre says:

    @iqag: “Outer Boroughs…are where actual New Yorkers live.”

    Yeah, my in-laws try to tell me that all the time. My wife however, contends that it’s only where real NY’ers live if they can’t “move on up….to the east siiiiide.”

    And no, Jersey is not where actual New Yorkers live. I’ve passed by way to many B&T bars to believe for a second that those are real New Yorkers. Jersey is for suburbanites who want to live “close to New York!”

  59. timsgm1418 says:

    @hc5duke: don’t be scared…there is also a New England

  60. sibertater says:

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a situation to confuse N. Korea with S. Korea…ahhh…the people look just alike to me!

    But seriously…Geography is NOT about rocks and stalagmites. I am a university student and during a persuasive speech I set everyone in the class up to be stupid by talking about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and then showed them a map and randomly picked 3 students from the class and said, “I’ll give you $10 if you can find either of these countries.” I ended up giving the $10 to someone who at least got the continent right.

    I don’t know what we are teaching students today, but it does not include learning maps.

  61. Sihanouk-s-Poodle says:

    USPS gets confused too. I had a package sent to Cambodia once, but it was first sent to Colombia, then Japan, then China, before finally making its way to the right country.

  62. waldy says:

    @Jaysyn: Oh, prolly. Give a girl some credit for remembering MOST of the quotation a whole ten years later, willya? ;-)@Eyebrows McGee: Having grown up in Champaign, I know this problem well. Wait…there’s an Illinois *outside* of Chicago? Shocking! (Ironically, it was while living in the UK that I started telling people I was from “near Chicago,” because none had ever heard of Illinois.)

  63. googethis says:

    @metroplexual: besides the fact that you have a completely unbiased view of continental… your comment basically made them look worse as you are validating that continental a) defaults to American because of course, if you’re not American, we have to assume you are an idiot for not telling us you aren’t, b) continental defaults ‘fault’ to the customer first – great business practice btw and c) it is too much to ask international check-in agents to know about international requirements for the country they are sending their passengers to… which is besides the point because the issue isn’t that the gate agent didnt know whether south korea was a treaty/non-treaty country, it’s that the gate agent didnt know that north/south korea were two different countries. actually what is your point other than the fact that you should be the new face of customer service for continental?

  64. bigduke says:

    When are people that use airplanes ever gonna figure out that the airlines are in the business of moving CARGO! Cargo is best when it doesn’t make any noises or shift during travel. Please try to act appropriately!

  65. dmk2113 says:


    I agree with you to some extent but this story is more of a sad statement of people’s knowledge of global affairs than anything. Anyone who knows a thing or two about the world knows that North Koreans are, except for very special government cases like if they’re the shameful sons of Kim Jong-Il, not allowed out of North Korea. Furthermore, regardless of whether or not this woman has read a newspaper in her life, from a customer service perspective, the airline counter should have double-checked when the customer, who likely has more experience on matters of his own nationality, argues a point.

    I had a nearly identical experience earlier today flying to Japan from (South) Korea when they tried to tell me that I needed a visa to enter as a tourist. Nevermind that I live in Japan and that I had SIX long-term and four short-term visas already in my passport, the woman was so insistent that I had to have her supervisor call the Japanese department of immigration.

  66. ginnylavender says:

    @kjones: Thanks for sending that geography test. It was fun and it made me humble: 78% with an average error of 51 miles.