Almost locked up abroad (or, so I thought)

I should have seen it right there on my boarding pass, 4-Ss in the upper left-hand corner of my boarding pass. But I completely overlooked the SSSS printed boldly on my ticket. But even if I had seen it, I wouldn’t have known what it meant. Therefore, what should have been fairly uneventful turned into pure panic.

If you see this on your boarding card it indicates that you have been singled out for a Secondary Security Screening Selection, which is typically a random selection. However, if you don’t even know this is a thing, it could be unnerving. And in my case, I had some freakish circumstances that had occurred earlier in my trip that had me certain I was going to be locked up in a foreign prison. What follows is the full wildly unforeseeable adventure. 

The Great Coffee Mishap

On my last day in England, my husband, Bill and I were traveling with friends to Brighton by train from London. We were to headed there to celebrate their 50th wedding Anniversary.

Prior to boarding our train at Victoria Station, my husband and I decided to grab a cup of coffee. I ordered my large Americano with milk. If you have been to Europe you may know that some coffee shops add hot milk to their coffee rather than cold as we would do in the US. That was the case at the coffee shop where we purchased our morning Joe.

Pretty coffee in San Diego

Coffee in hand, we proceeded to board our train. What happens next, I can’t recall with 100% certainty but I will do my best.  Readying myself for about an hour’s journey,  I was sitting down on the train. Within the blink of an eye, the lid of my coffee popped off my cup sending entire contents of my large (probably 20-ounces) Americano all over my lap. The dress I was wearing immediately clung to me like a terrified 2-year-old sticks to its mother.  All the while scalding the hell out of my legs. Front, inside and back of my thighs. Yes. thighs, plural, meaning both.

A quick-thinking lovely young woman handed me her freshly opened bottle of cold water and said, “Quick, pour this on it. It will stop the burning.” I did. It was too late! So, now, I am no longer simply scalded, I am soaking wet too. And worst of all I have an empty cup of coffee!

You’re probably wondering how this has anything to do with a Secondary Security Screening Selection at the airport. Hang in there, I’ll get to that but if you are only interested in what to do about the “SSSS” on your boarding pass, you can skip to that here. But I hope you will read on and my experience will prevent you from fearing a trip to a foreign prison. 

London Eye

A Pharmacist, Pharmacist and a Physician

When we arrived at our destination, we hurried to get a cab as we now needed to make an additional stop. Entering the cab we immediately requested the driver to take us to a pharmacy. He did and was kind enough to wait for us while we consulted with the pharmacist and picked up bandages and other remedies for burns and pain.

She was reluctant to give me bandages and topical treatments as the burns were severe enough that she thought I should see a doctor. I explained that we were on our way to an anniversary party and would get ice on it when we arrived at the restaurant. Additionally, I assured her I would seek a physician if necessary. Psst! I had no intention of seeing a doctor.

Having convinced the pharmacist I understood the severity of my situation, she hesitantly gave me something for pain, a cream and gauze wrap. We went on to the party and before the other guests arrived I iced my legs and bandaged them. Eventually, my dress dried and no one was wiser. 

By the next morning, I was not in any significant pain but the burns had begun to blister. I thought, “this will be fine as long as they don’t burst.”  My husband and I were headed to Paris that day so there was no time to get bogged down with such trivial things as my well-being.

We got ourselves together and headed to the train station. We were taking the Chunnel to Paris. This was something Bill had wanted to do for as long as I can remember. Unfortunately, we both felt it was a bit of a letdown by the experience. 

Thankfully, my injuries did not interfere too much with enjoying our time in Paris. The biggest obstacle was trying to keep my bandages in place. I can honestly say, I don’t think I have ever cared for a burn as diligently as I did these. This meant a number of trips to the pharmacy over the course of the next several days for supplies.

I quickly became better acquainted with the pharmacist in Paris than any other in my lifetime. I couldn’t simply go in and pick up what I needed as the product names were in french and often named entirely different than in the US. Interacting with the pharmacist was a must. Upon telling the young woman that I needed treatment for burns, she insisted she take a look. We went to the storeroom and I showed her. (Pharmacists in Europe are much more hands-on than in the US) She was horrified more at the extent of the burns than the severity. But by this point, some of the blisters had burst and like the pharmacist in England, she was seriously concerned about infection. She referred me to a nice young French doctor.

The next morning I showed up at his office before he opened. He kindly took me in and evaluated the wounds, prescribed an antibiotic, charged me 30 euros (which he apologized a hundred time for doing) and sent me on my way. While there I learned that I was his first patient in as a private practice physician. We was just opening his new practice that day. 

Preparing for Jail. Oops. I Mean Take Off

By this time, Bill and I only had a day left in Paris. We continued our sightseeing without any issues beyond my constant need to go to the restroom to rewrap my blistered thighs.

But as we wound down our stay and prepared to leave, something unusual happened. Neither of us was able to check-in online for our flight back to the US. We assumed the airline’s system was down. 

The next morning, we took a cab to the airport, which I don’t recommend if you can avoid it as it is expensive. Upon our arrival, we proceeded to the kiosks to check-in. Bill had no issues. However, when I scanned my passport I had a screen come up informing me I needed assistance from an American Airlines representative. I found one. She came to my kiosk and swiped her badge and entered a code.  Once we checked in and printed our boarding passes we proceeded to the counter and checked our bags. Then onward to security. Aside from needing assistance at the kiosk, the process was fairly routine. 

At security, they directed me to the metal detector. In the US I have TSA Precheck so unless I am singled out, I can bypass the scanner. But for whatever reason, 50% of the time they select me. That’s more than anyone I travel with.

I know from past experience that depending on how sensitive the detector, I may trip it. I had my hip replaced a few years ago and despite being told it wouldn’t sound the alarm because my replacement is titanium, it happens more often than not. It’s generally not a big deal. I tell the security person I’ve had my right hip replaced and sure enough, that’s the area where they get the alarm. Sometimes this means I will get a quick pat-down from a female TSA agent. 

Well, sure enough, I sounded the bell. I go through my usual explanation and get the once over from the female agent. But this time was much more thorough than what I normally get. I began getting nervous because I knew my legs were bandaged and she was going to be able to tell there was something under the leggings I was wearing. I told her about the burns. She said nothing. Therefore, I have no idea if she even understood. Nevertheless, she sent me on my way. But we were just getting started

My husband and I find our gate and then go to grab a bite to eat before boarding. As we are eating, I hear names being called to see a representative at the desk. But I was only half listening. Bill and I finish our food and he heads to the restroom. While I am waiting near the gate, I hear my name called over the intercom. I debate going directly to the desk but am afraid Bill may not know where I’ve gone. He’s taking longer than I anticipate and my name is called again. I begin to make my way to the desk while keeping an eye open for him.

“You’ve been Randomly Selected...To Go to Prison" (Not Really)

The agent looks at my boarding pass and tells me, “you’ve been randomly selected for additional screening. Please follow me.” At that point, I am more concerned about Bill being unable to find me than anything else.

The gate attended begins to hustle me off to another area, just as Bill appears. I shout to him that they are taking me somewhere for another security check. He nods and tells me to go on. I follow the agent.

Moulin Rouge

We get to the area between the waiting area at the gate and the entrance to the plane. The representative puts me in the queue and tells me to wait until I am called. There are other people ahead of me with security personnel being scrutinized and having their electronics swabbed.

This is when PANIC sets in. My brain begins to race and I start thinking of all those episodes of “Locked Up Abroad” I’ve watched. Oh, shit! Oh, shit! Oh, shit! I know I’ve done nothing wrong but they are going to frisk me again and feel those bandages under my clothes and think I’m smuggling.

I’m certain, I will be swept off to an out-of-the-way location. My mind heads back to those episodes of “Locked Up Abroad.” Now, I’m certain, some scary-looking Inspector Clouseau guy is going to interrogate me. Then they are going to bring in Helga to strip-search me. I’m sure of it. They will tell my husband he must board the plane and I will be left behind. Did I say, Oh, shit”?

Looking around, again, I see the American Airlines representative who had placed me in the line and assisted me at the kiosk. Knowing she speaks English, I call her to my aid. I tell her about my burns and that if they pat me down they are going to feel the bandages on my legs. She steps away and goes to speak with one of the security personnel. I suspect it was whoever was overseeing the operation.

She comes back to me and tells me something. I don’t remember what she said but I suppose it was something to reassure me.

Moments later they call me to the next security station. I head over to the gentleman. I can’t imagine he will perform a full-body search. He asks me to take my items out of my carry-on. Next, he begins swabbing all my electronics. He has me remove my shoes, then wipes them. At this point, I am fully expecting him to call over a female security agent. He doesn’t. He tells me to put my items back in my bag. I do and he tells me I can go.

I’m relieved and confused. I’m not sure if I must board the plane or if I can go back to the waiting area with my husband. I ask. He tells me I must board.

Now my concern shifts to Bill. Is he going to know that I’ve boarded and get on the plane too? Will they tell him? Have they already told him? If they don’t tell him, I’m sure he will ask. I tell myself, he’ll get on the plane.

Once I’ve taken my seat my mind begins to slow. I take some deep breathes and close my eyes for a moment. The plane is boarding. Here comes Bill. He sees me, smiles and says, “There you are.”

I feel better. He takes his seat and I ask him if he was told I would be on the plane. He tells me, “No. I was keeping an eye on you from the gate. I saw you board.” Really, they sweep me off and they didn’t tell him what happens next? Unbelievable!

Susan Decoteau-Ferrier

Travel writer/blogger, photographer. Avid potter and wanna-be artist. Wife, Mom to 6 fur kids, gardener, coffee snob.


  1. Love it!! Reminds me of getting seperated from my friends in Guatemala City for extra screening.

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