Colombia is odd in the way that it taxes consumption for it citizens heavily but does NOT charge the 16% VAT for hotel stays for tourists and also does not charge the ‘Colombian Exit Tax‘ (or ‘impuesto de timbre nacional’) for non-citizens who have stayed in the country for less than 30 days.
The Colombian Exit Tax is only charged if you book a one-way from Colombia to another country. If you book a round-trip from the US, it is not charged.
It comes up automatically when the GDS calculates a fare. We had booked a redemption of Avios on LAN from Colombia to Brazil and had been charged the tax by British Airways. I emailed them that we intended to have a shorter stay so we should have not been charged, but the airline replied that proof of that shorter stay is necessary and that we could get a refund in CASH at the airport in Colombia when leaving the country.
There are old reports of the overly-complicated procedure, but things have since changed and the airport office that administers the taxes is closed.
Instead, the airlines themselves are now obliged to refund those taxes to you. Right now the tax is 78,000 COP – currently more than US$25. So since the sign said in big letters that the airline is now responsible for the refund, we walked over to the LAN check-in desk (which was open 4 hours before departure and had a number of available agents).
We tried asking four agents (two came by after we started inquiring), even though this should be an everyday thing since many foreigners are eligible for the refund. We showed them the Spanish name of the tax – impuesto de timbre nacional – since their English was decent, but just not in the matters of taxes. A fifth person – by the looks of it a supervisor – came by and joined this friendly chat. So by now we had five agents and they all came to the conclusion that the tax can ONLY BE REFUNDED by the gate agents. They said that we needed to show proof of exiting Colombia in order to get the tax refunded, that they had never done a refund at the desk and it CAN ONLY BE DONE with the gate agents. Now the sheer unity of almost all of the check-in folks at the INTERNATIONAL desk gave us safety in the thought that it would happen at the gate.
We duly proceeded towards immigration and security (which was super-quick) and settled into the Oneworld Lounge. We asked the lounge agents about the tax and after some initial confusion they also came to the conclusion that only the gate agents would be able to do that refund.
About 90 minutes before departure, I walked over to the (far-away) gate and nobody was there. I went back an hour before departure and to my surprise the agents were just starting to set up shop. I asked about the refund and the agent flat out told me that no refund would ever be done there and CAN ONLY BE DONE AT CHECK-IN. They said they had never done a refund (though, oddly, they knew about the process intimately) and said that I would have to go back outside immigration to get the refund. That was clearly impossible with boarding 15 minutes away.
I was furious and outlined my story. Since it was three of us, it was $78 in total. I kept pushing my case in English and the agent (after that initial hesitation) started to see my point of view and called a supervisor in Spanish. Without really confirming anything, she demanded to check our passports. Finally she started to confirm that a supervisor could get the amount and provide it before boarding time. Boarding was just 10 minutes away by then and I still had to get the family together (from the lounge) for boarding. She clearly expected me to give up again – but I insisted.
After many pictures of all the passport pages, I finally got back to the lounge where boarding was just about to start. Amazingly, she had the money and receipts ready for us and was suddenly all smiles (as was I). With a quick run back to the money exchange office, I was even able to get it exchanged into USD before making it before the boarding cut-off time.
I find it hard to believe that this was an oversight or accident. All check-in agents made the same (seemingly false) statement in unison. The lounge agents did as well and so did the gate agent initially. I feel that the airlines count on consumers giving up (as I had done two years ago) and just keep the money. It seems they try to do everything to intentionally confuse people. Now $25 is not worth the trouble, but if you travel in a group this adds up to a decent amount.