With major cutbacks on American Airline flights servicing DR's five other major airports, more travelers are finding themselves at Santo Domingo's Aeropuerto Internacional Las Americas and then needing to take Ground Transportation to final destinations The airport's close proximity to Boca Chica is a bonus for the added convenience of catching early morning departures while being able to avoid the actual further distance and chaos of staying within the capital.
Publications continue to rank this airport as worst for the entire Caribbean. After all, it does set the tone for most travelers' first and last impressions of the country. For various reasons, even I have tried to avoid using this airport, but was quite surprised by the major renovation improvements, which have taken place over the last three years. Here are some introductory suggestions for survivng potential confusions:
- First Taste Upon entering the terminal, you'll be greeted by a local rum representative distributing loaded complimentary cocktails. Sip slowly! Coming off the plane on an empty stomach, dehydrated and potentially tired, an immediate woozy state is not what you want for what's next required.
- Tourist Cards If you haven't obtained one before arriving, there's a booth just to the right entry of the customs hall where you'll need to purchase one for $10 using the currency from the country you hail from. Counters are scattered about for filling out the cards; you'll need to have your own pen. These are stamped along with your passport when clearing customs and should be kept on your person at all times during your stay. They must be surrendered at departure; expect a fine if you've lost yours.
- Currency Exchange Directly next to the Tourist Card booth is another for exchanging money. I highly recommend using these airport services since they tend to offer the best exchange rates. Waiting in the slow-moving line with all your fellow passengers will perhaps be your first introductory lesson for how Dominicans don't hurry for anything or anyone. To help avoid this initial wait, there has now been a currency exchange booth set-up in the baggage claim area just before you exit. There was no one waiting here.
- Claiming Luggage This is the area which has received the greatest improvements - unlike the days when only one of the three carousels seemed to be working and travelers jockeyed for position around the one with a mixed dispersion of bags from all flights which had just arrived. There's now a large bank of carousels with flight-announcement monitors in a well-lit environment like you'd expect to find in any major airport. As a U.S. citizen, I have never had my bags checked when leaving any of DR'sterminals. Departing is a different story.
- Exiting the Terminal As if catching that first gasp of salty sea air from the nearby Caribbean and blast of Merengue (potentially compounded by the earlier rum) won't be enough to send your head spinning, this is definitely where you'll need to have your wits about you.
The crowds are thick with locals waiting to pick-up family members. The frenzied hubbub of activities is worsened by unofficial individuals offering to assist you with directions or excessive baggage. Since all forms of public transportation are banned from local airports, taxi service is the only means for departing the airport provided pick-up service isn't included with your travel package or you haven't obtained a rental car from one of the counters just beyond the luggage retrieval area.
Look for official transportation airport employees designated by their vests and name badges. Don't expect them to be bilingual, nor for there to be any semblance of waiting your turn in line. Tourists are usually given private service, but can also be grouped with others traveling to the same vicinity which helps minimize cost. Actual fares are supposed to be preset, but make the verbal confirmation before allowing them to load your luggage just to be sure.
- U.S. Agriculture Just as in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the department of agriculture now has prescreening check-points set-up outside the terminal where all passengers must first have their bags inspected and tagged. As you might expect, they're looking for fresh fruits, foods and types of plant or animal byproducts as well as shells and other forms of marine life, which could carry bacteria. And yes, they were avidly checking suspect bags.
- Check-in This is the one place where you'll definitely want to abide by the airline's suggestion of arriving two to three hours before your international departure. Don't expect to find the automated check-in machines now located in most major airports to use as a timesaving shortcut. My 4am departure from Boca Chica for a 6am flight cut things too close; not factoring in the cab experienced a near break down along the way!
I've yet to be on any flight to/from Santo Domingo that had any empty seats or that didn't have an apparent long stand-by list. Agents are now on-hand to write your arrival time on the ticket jacket as if to suggest a "first come first serve" for seats potentially to help curb the locals' excessive tardiness.
Random passengers were pulled from the slow-moving check-in lines to have bags thoroughly examined before approaching the counter. All luggage is officially screened after being checked. And as if all of this wasn't enough to have me sweating bullets for catching this flight, the excitement and chaos were only compounded by all the International teams departing that morning after the Pan Am games!
- The Departure Tax This is potentially the most frustrating and confusing issue for traveling to DR since the policy and procedure has been different every time I have ever left the country regardless of which airport I've used.
For this particular trip, the tax is now collected at the departure counter when checking in for your flight. Where it gets confusing is how they're willing to accept payment. Expecting a flat fee in currency of the country you originated from is no longer accepted. The departure tax was set at RD350 which puts the actual cost at the day's exchange rate. Fortunately since I had no leftover pesos, they were willing to accept credit cards for the first time. The actual converted cost was US$10.71, but based on the government's willy-nilly changes and fluctuating rates of peso value and tax amount based on the season, travelers would be advised to have ample amounts of pesos, home currency and credit card on hand just in case. You can not board your flight until this tax is paid - No Excuses!
- Clearing Customs Once your passport has been stamped and the tourist card and departure tax statement have been handed over, expect to have any carry-on bags completely tossed! I again experienced them opening every black film canister to verify contents as well as having them confiscate cigarette lighters, matches, and "illegal contraband" that is actually prohibited on flights but seemingly only enforced here.
- Duty-Free Shopping Getting to the actual departure gates is like walking through a mall with all the Duty-Free Shops which were surprisingly even open of an early morning. Since you've already cleared the local customs, there's no limit to what you can purchase for exporting from the country.
Liquor seems to be the best buys; 1.75-liters of quality rum for as little as US$3. Actually getting it back into the States is a different story. While I've never been checked when reentering the country through New York's JFK, they tend to be much more strict on enforcing limits for flights connecting through Miami International.