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.
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.”
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.
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!