Courtney Danser and friends were heading home from Croatia through Ireland on an Aer Lingus flight.
After a delay, they landed in Dublin for a connection, but customs had closed for the day.
Danser said they paid for other flights home after the airline said there were no flights available.
When Courtney Danser's Aer Lingus flight home from Croatia was delayed, panic immediately set in.
Danser was traveling home on August 2 with two friends after a weeklong trip to Croatia. The group's original itinerary, viewed by Insider, said the friends were scheduled to fly out of Dubrovnik, Croatia, with a layover in Dublin, before arriving at Danser's final destination, John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
But Danser told Insider their flight out of Dubrovnik left 30 minutes late — cutting their layover from 80 minutes to 50.
Danser said that mid-air, she chatted with a flight attendant about the delay and their short connection. Relief set in as the flight attendant told Danser that other JFK-bound passengers were on the plane and that they'd be able to catch their flight home.
"As soon as the flight attendant told me, 'You'll be fine,' I was blissfully unaware of what was about to happen," Danser said.
Once they landed in Dublin, Danser said she gained even more reassurance when she learned that their flight to New York had also been delayed. The 4:45 p.m. flight would be departing at 5:20 p.m., she said.
The group headed to customs. Although it was only about 4:15 p.m., Danser said they discovered that it had closed for the day. No one would be flying to the US — even though their plane hadn't departed yet.
The group ultimately spent over $4,000 to get home, and Aer Lingus denied Danser's request for a refund.
Aer Lingus and the Dublin Airport did not respond to requests for comment.
Courtney Danser said she was stranded in Dublin because customs had closed
While there wasn't anything on her ticket or online reservation about Dublin Airport's customs policy, Danser said she heard from a friend that she'd go through US customs in Dublin, not New York.
For any flight heading to the US, the Dublin Airport has a preclearance facility that passengers are required to go through, according to the airport's website. It's one of the few airports that offers preclearance before landing in the States. So when passengers finally arrive in the US, they're treated like domestic travelers instead of international ones. The airport's website also encourages travelers undergoing preclearance to arrive at their terminal three hours ahead of their flight.
Danser said she initially thought going through customs in Ireland would work in her favor. Once she landed in the US, she could skip customs and exit the airport immediately.
After disembarking their delayed Croatia flight, which landed at 3:50 p.m. in Dublin, Danser said she and her friends immediately headed to the US customs desk.
"When we get there, the doors are closed, the lights are off, and there are two women standing out front," Danser said. "They tell us that US customs is closed for the day, so no one else going to the US can board any flights for the rest of the day."
In a statement sent to Insider, a US Customs and Border Protection representative said that "the current hours of operation for preclearance at Dublin Airport are 7 a.m. - 5 p.m. IST."
"U.S. Customs and Border Protection will begin securing the Preclearance area at 4:30 p.m. if it is determined that no additional passengers will be arriving," the statement continued. "The airline may request operations to remain open past posted hours to accommodate late transfers. CBP frequently accommodates such requests, but does not control the operations of the other stakeholders. The vast majority of passengers who use preclearance do not miss their flights. The airlines have responsibility for late arriving connecting passengers."
Danser said that when she arrived at the customs area before 4:30 p.m. and found the office was closed, she assumed her group could go through customs once they landed in the US.
But Danser said that airport staff told her that wasn't the case. Instead, she was told that the US-bound airplanes leaving Dublin land at terminals that do not go through customs. Therefore, Danser said, she wouldn't be boarding a flight that night, and she was told to contact her airline for a rebooking.
Meanwhile, more and more people were arriving at the closed customs area, Danser said.
"There were hundreds of people that were in the same situation, and it just seemed absurd," she said.
While some were passengers from her Croatia flight, Danser said there were travelers from other flights, too.
Danser said when she called Aer Lingus to reschedule her flight, the airline informed her that the next available flight was in two days.
"I get through to customer service for Aer Lingus, and she says the next available flight to the US is Friday at 11 a.m.," Danser said. "That's two days away. We all have to work. I have a dog with a dog sitter. I can't fly out two days later."
Danser said she was open to flying anywhere in the US and then finding another flight home, but the airline staff told her there were no flights available to anywhere in the US for the next two days.
However, Danser said she didn't think that was true. When she looked at available flights on Aer Lingus' website, she said she saw numerous options for the next day.
"There are flights showing for Aer Lingus, but they're first-class," she said. "But the customer service representatives wouldn't entertain that."
The group booked their own flights instead
Danser said she couldn't wait until Friday to get home, so she booked a flight on Delta the following day for $1,725.
Another friend spent more than $1,000 to get home to Denver, Colorado, via Iceland, she said. And the third friend booked a $1,200 Aer Lingus flight the following day, opting for an economy seat that Aer Lingus representatives said wasn't available. Together, the group spent about $4,000 getting home.
Once she got home, Danser said she reached out to the airline for a refund.
"They denied my refund for the Delta flight that I booked. They denied my refund for the whole Aer Lingus flight, and I'm still waiting to hear back if they'll pay for just the flight that I missed — but that would only be $200," she said.
Danser said after receiving Aer Lingus' refund rejection she still had hope. Her credit card offers travel protection, so she filed a claim through them.
There, she hit another roadblock. Her credit-card company requires her to provide proof that she missed the flight for reasons out of her control, but she said she can't find any official documentation that states she missed her flight due to a closed customs desk.
Now that Danser's back home, she said she's on a tight budget until she knows if she'll get a refund or not.
"To me, $1,700 is just devastating," she said. "I don't have $1,700 to be dropping on a one-way flight — our total flight on Aer Lingus, round-trip, was $900."
The traveler said she was shocked the customs area would close before a scheduled flight
Danser said she and her two friends made the most of the situation. They each received a one-night hotel voucher as well as a dinner voucher from Aer Lingus, and they explored Dublin for a night.
But weeks later, she said she's still left wondering why the US customs area closes before US flights have departed.
She added that it wasn't just passengers who were affected by the situation.
She said she encountered airport and hotel staff, shuttle drivers, and restaurant workers who were all stressed by the influx of stuck passengers.
"You've inconvenienced so many people by doing this," she said. "It's mind-blowing."
Other travelers say they've paid thousands to get home when their flight plans went awry
Danser and her friends aren't alone in paying out-of-pocket to get home when flights go wrong.
As Insider previously reported, one family was flying home from Nigeria in August when they discovered they didn't have tickets for a flight they paid for.
Andrew Spector told Insider that United failed to issue tickets to its partner airline Lufthansa. When they showed up at the airport, the family of five was informed they couldn't board the plane.
Ultimately, United Airlines was able to rebook the family on flights; however, Spector said the family spent an additional $4,000 to get home, which included the cost of hotels, seat upgrades for flights they didn't board, and transportation costs.
Lufthansa did not respond to Insider's request for comment on the family's situation. However, a United representative told Insider that the airline "offered several options and ultimately rebooked the family on Turkish Airlines."
Insider also spoke to a couple traveling home from Singapore to New Jersey. Emma Giantisco and Dylan Marton booked their flights through United and had a connecting flight with Lufthansa.
When their connecting flight was canceled, the couple attempted to rebook the flights with both airlines. According to the couple, they were rebooked multiple times, but each time, the tickets and itineraries disappeared from their United apps hours later. After numerous failed attempts at rebooking with the airlines for free, they said they spent $4,000 to get home.
Lufthansa did not respond to a request for comment from Insider on the couple's situation. In a statement sent to Insider, a United representative said that "after receiving a new itinerary from their canceled Lufthansa flight, the customer called United to explore their options and we rebooked them on a new flight the following day. When the customers did not show for this flight, they reached out to Lufthansa instead."
Giantisco said the couple didn't show up for the flight because there wasn't any indication on the United app that they had confirmed reservations or tickets.
"It felt like they really just didn't care about our situation, nor did they care about us getting home. They cared about profits it seemed," Marton previously told Insider.
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