How China Airlines Saved My Honeymoon

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When we initially tried to leave for our honeymoon on May 28, the early 1900’s-style door knob came off in my hand, locking us inside our apartment. I should have taken that as a sign that things were just not destined to go our way.

Still, SVV managed to pry us out with a crow bar and left the door unlocked—scary in a big city—until our landlord had time to send someone over to fix it. We had more important things in mind: three blissful weeks in Southeast Asia.

rasa ria, borneo, malaysia, travel, photography, shangri-la, kota kinabalu

We were both flying business class, thanks to SkyMiles and a lovely China Airlines employee named Francisco who managed to upgrade Scott’s ticket since we were honeymooners (uh, I’ve decided from here on out when we travel, we will be “on our honeymoon;” the treatment is just leagues better than non-honeymooning couples receive), so we arrived with more than three hours to kill in the business lounge. Only, we never got to kill those hours, as we never got on that plane.

We left Scott’s Jeep at a friend’s house in South City near the airport and took a taxi to the international terminal, hauling our two big suitcases, camera bag and carry-ons along with us. In my opinion, the best thing about flying biz is that you get to skip the long economy queues and go straight to the front in your own special row. So we did just that. We were nearly checked in, our boarding passes just out of fingers’ reach, when the China Air rep said, “I need to see the visas in your passports.”

Say what???

To clarify, we’re smart travelers. We’ve done this before. A LOT. The very first thing we looked into was visas. But we didn’t need them for Brunei or for Malaysian Borneo and, had we decided to cross over into Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the isle, we could get our visa upon entry. Just as you can at so many Asian countries that require visas. What we had NOT looked into was needing a transit visa for Vietnam. In fact, I’d never even heard of such a thing as a transit visa if you weren’t staying over.

You see, our China Airlines flight ended there, at which point we would catch a low-cost carrier, Royal Brunei—who I cannot NOT recommend enough; they were terrible—for the last hour and a half of our journey to Bandar Seri Begawan. We showed the rep our second ticket, but apparently she could not let us on board as we would have to retrieve our bags in Ho Chi Minh, go through customs and re-check them, and even with a valid connecting flight for proof, we wouldn’t be able to do so. (For the record, we booked our ticket through Delta, thanks to my needing to use up substantial SkyMiles before they expired, and Delta was supposed to have noted on our documents that we would not be allowed on the plane without a visa of some sort. We triple checked, and there was no such clarification. Shocker there.)

And if there’s a single most depressing scenario about traveling, it’s returning home to your own apartment from the airport, all bags in tow, without ever having gotten on the plane.

Better yet, it was a holiday weekend, so even if we could have gotten an emergency visa—which would have taken a few extra days and a couple extra hundred dollars to expedite—we would have had to wait three long days until Tuesday to start the process. By the time we would have been able to procure the paperwork and get on a new flight, we would have missed out on a whole week of our ‘moon, not to mention connecting flights and hotels that we had booked and which were non-refundable.

But! It gets better. Because the travel gods sent me an angel when I first got in touch with Francisco, and he spent the entire Saturday, his day off on a holiday weekend with his family, on the phone to multiple people to make sure our honeymoon happened. I have NEVER in my life had a rep from an airline go so above and beyond for me—in fact, I’ve gotten to the point where I think of all airlines (other than Virgin America) as the enemy—but Francisco gave me faith in China Air. SVV and I spent the following 24 hours trying to cancel our connecting flights in Brunei (to no avail; Royal Brunei wanted to charge us a $1,000 cancellation fee per ticket, when we only paid $180 each in the first place so we just didn’t show up) and our hotels the first few nights.

Meanwhile, Francisco was hard at work ensuring we reached our final destination. While he was busy sorting things out, I started looking at alternate routes to Asia and which cities connected on to Borneo. As luck would have it, our original flight stopped in Taipei. And Malaysian Airlines had a flight from there straight to Kota Kinabalu, where we were eventually going to end up. And even booking just 24 hours in advance, it was $400 per ticket (not bad for a three-and-a-half-hour flight), so after 72 phone calls back and forth with Francisco, he managed to get us on the same flight that night, but just cancel our connecting leg to Vietnam (which is pretty difficult to do on your own, as the airlines normally can’t just cancel part of the ticket without reissuing it entirely and slamming with fines). And best of all, we weren’t charged a penny in fees.

rasa ria, borneo, malaysia, travel, photography, shangri-la, kota kinabalu, china airlines

So we trudged back to the airport, skeptical that things weren’t going to work out, but they did! We made it to the business class lounge, we made it on board in side-by-side business seats on the upper deck, we drank some champagne to toast to a rough 24 hours, each took an Ambien and passed out. The funny thing is that because originally we had a substantial layover in Vietnam, then were connecting on to Brunei and taking a ferry from BSB to Kota Kinabalu, our new route from Taipei direct to KK meant that we actually arrived at our first resort seven hours before we would have had we gotten on that initial flight Friday night. Oh fate, you’re a funny thing. (But seriously, next time could you just make sure everything goes as planned in the first place? Pleaseandthanks. This whole scenario knocked a good five years off my life.)

Moral of this story: China Airlines rocks, it helps to have connections with airline reps, these sort of things happen to even those of us who do this for a living, and always, always check and make sure you don’t need a transit visa before committing such an error as we did.

****

By the way, I never announced the randomly selected commenter from my “Let’s Get Personal” post who will win a copy of my most recent guidebook, Frommer’s California. And the winner is…#24, Christy! Thanks again, you guys, for all your feedback. I’ve compiled it in a spreadsheet to help with my major blog makeover that’s underway. And if you never added your two cents, feel free to still do so!

COMMENTS
  • July 12, 2010

    Way to go, Francisco (and funny that as a San Franciscan your saint-du-jour was Francisco!)

  • July 12, 2010
    jules

    Just a thought — maybe you could write to China Airlines praising your friend Francisco and how he dealt with your issue? Companies love to hear those sorts of things about their employees, and a letter might go in Francisco’s permanent file so he is considered for a promotion down the line. It’s a pain to sit down and do something like that, but it might mean a lot!

  • July 12, 2010
    k

    I second the idea of writing a letter to praise him. I think that we are so quick to write and complain, but are less likely to point out when someone is awesome to us!

    My friends have used a similar get there earlier trick several times. They specifically fly from Seattle to Boston, via Dallas – but the Dallas flight is almost always oversold. So they give up their seats for free tickets and then get booked on the flight through Chicago, which gets them back to Boston earlier than the flights the gave up. They have done this 3 times – brilliant!

  • July 12, 2010

    When my best friend came to visit me in Indonesia back in 2008, she made it to New York from Nashville where she was boarding a China Air flight through Beijing to Jakarta. And they (at that point – don’t know why they didn’t tell her in Nashville?!?!) told her she needed a visa to spend 3 hours in transit in Beijing (which turned out to be false). They took her bags off the flight and told her to go into the city to get a visa for China. She ended up spending the night in New York, getting the visa, and came back to the airport where she thought she would be heading back to Nashville because someone told her overnight that there were no more flights going to Jakarta that week!

    Long story (and dramatic 24 hours that DID take 5 years off our lives) short she did NOT need the visa for a 3 hour transit in Beijing, but it was a good thing she got the visa anyway. Because her new flight would require an overnight stay in Bejing for which she DID need the visa. whew!

    She ended up making it to Jakarta almost a day later then originally scheduled. We missed our flights to Bali and had to buy new ones.

    And while it worked out, we were NOT impressed with what seemed to be incompetence on the part of China Air. I don’t think we’ll ever use them again. (I had researched everything because I’d never flown through Beijing to get to Indonesia, and found that a visa wasn’t needed for less than 6 hours or something like that. So when she called saying they wouldn’t let her on the flight, I swore up and down that she didn’t need one. I was right – they were wrong. There was also NO notification on her tickets anywhere that she would need a visa. We also checked to make sure beforehand.)

    Where was Fransisco when we needed him! 🙂

    Glad you ended up making it to your destination. Hopefully you got some of those years back that you lost.

  • July 12, 2010

    Holy ass crackers! And I thought we had it bad a few years ago when a flight got canceled, stranding us in DC. We might as well have been on a picnic compared to what you guys went through. Thank god for Fransisco!

  • July 12, 2010

    Ummm, I think I lost about 5 years off my life reading the drama you went through!!! I looove how everything worked out in the end, but my god I would have needed more than champagne and Ambien to calm my nerves!!!

  • July 12, 2010
    Sara

    You took 5 years off my life just reading that post! I have traveled the world over and have never had such a terrifying “near miss” experience…and on your honeymoon none the less! So glad it all worked out and it wasn’t a horrible outcome! Now, some honeymoon photos please!

  • July 12, 2010
    Brandy

    Wow, go Francisco! What an awesome guy. I’m glad he was able to sort things out for you guys.

  • July 12, 2010
    kat

    YAY francisco! i remember reading your tweets thinking HOLY CRAP! glad it all worked out…sometimes your traveling stories have me biting my nails!

  • July 13, 2010

    If I had been in your shoes, I would have been A MESS! One time our KLM flight was cancelled because the plane had a cracked windshield. We were sent to a nice hotel overnight, knowing we were booked on a new flight the next day. I couldn’t sleep. I was in agony over the fact that I was still in Canada when I should have been in Europe. Having to possibly deal with the fact that my honeymoon was being messed with? I probably would have been clawing walls and pulling out my hair, because that’s obviously the rational thing to do. What a guy that Francisco, what a guy. It’s so nice that there are such truly selfless people in the world. So nice.

  • July 13, 2010

    Yeah, those transit visas suck. We realized that we needed one in Shanghai but luckily they give it to you when you arrive. I am so so so glad that it worked out and y’all made it there.

    And, I am actually with you on China Air. We’ve been taking China Eastern/China Southern which is also a Skymiles partner and they are really great airlines. The flights are clean, they always provide a meal, and they arrive usually on time even in dreadful weather.

  • July 13, 2010
    Sandi

    Too bad China Air doesn’t fly domestically. I know what you mean about our “unfriendly skis”. Kudos for Francesco – incredible! Your trip sounds like a nightmare I wouldn’t want to experience. Think I will stick with Hawaii !!

  • July 13, 2010

    What a nightmare, almost. You do seem to have occasional adventures when you travel.

  • July 13, 2010

    Everything happens as it should, which I’ve adopted as my travelling mantra. I’ve had great reps and no so great reps, glad Francisco was on your side.
    And even though I love America? Usually can’t stand domestic airlines.

  • July 13, 2010

    Anyway, it’s good to know that it worked out in the end. I did hear of the transit visa a couple of years ago. My parents needed one for the UK as the connecting flight was from Heathrow. I really don’t see the point though.

  • July 15, 2010

    Oh no! I’m so glad it worked out in the end. 🙂 I have to get visas all the time for my bosses, it drives me nuts. Especially some that take up to 2 weeks to obtain and my bosses are hardly ever here so many days in total as they’re constantly traveling and need their passports.

  • July 16, 2010

    I love great customer service stories. I’m so glad everything worked out, that must have been a nightmare.

  • July 16, 2010

    I’m glad it all worked out in the end!

    By the way, the US requires transit visas. The visa waiver program applies for many nationalities but for people who need a visa to visit the US, they also need a visa to transit. Before the visa waiver program was introduced in the 1990s, my aunt and uncle and 3-year-old son spent a few hours being herded around Los Angeles Airport at gun point while en route from Sydney to London. They’d been told they didn’t need a visa because they were only transiting, but the border guards at LAX evidently thought otherwise. The main reason it’s faster to travel from Sydney to London via Asia rather than North America is not distance but the palaver of clearing US Immigration and Customs with bags in tow, which most countries don’t do for transit passengers. And Singapore Airport is so much nicer than LAX!

  • July 18, 2010

    I’m glad you made it safe and sound. Can’t wait to see pictures from the honeymoon.

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