Booking your clients on a low cost carrier through China? Read this first.
In this edition of our bimonthly Goway ezine, I thought I’d share a personal experience that I hope you might find useful. I consider myself to be somewhat of an expert in travel, especially to Asia. After all, I’ve been selling Asia for almost 30 years. But even I still learn things every day. It’s one of the things I love about this industry.
I’m a bit of a cheapskate. I pride myself on my ability to stretch a penny. Some people don’t understand me. I think it’s an endearing quality. I’m not that dissimilar to many of your clients that walk through your doors looking for a deal. As they are planning their trips in the comfort of their homes, choosing a budget airline in order to save a few dollars doesn’t seem like such a hardship. After all, it’s just a few hours to Asia anyway right?
Okay, maybe it’s just me.
I was en route to Thailand for a travel conference. As you know, there are no direct flights to Thailand from North America, so I had to decide where I would have my layover. I was given a host of different options to choose from but I decided it would make sense to take one of the cheaper options and fly via Shanghai. I hadn’t been in years and I thought adding a day to see the bund on my return flight would be a nice stopover option. I flew Air Canada to Shanghai (to collect points of course) and then opted for a low-cost Chinese carrier Juneyao Airlines to take me into Chiang Mai. What a deal!
Or so I thought.
After almost 15 hours of flying time sitting at the back of the bus, I landed at Pudong Airport, Shanghai. Truthfully, I can’t sleep on planes but I get a lot done. I read a heap. Write when I can. Watch a few movies. Anxiously await the meal service for some unknown reason. I love the whole aeroplane experience.
The first thing I hadn’t realized was that I had to clear immigration in China. Any passage via the country of pandas and pagodas requires you to collect your bags, go through customs and recheck in. Despite the fact that you have no plans on staying and are only in transit. That’s not the craziest thing. Its true for travel via the US as well. I simply wasn’t prepared for it. You don’t have to clear customs flying through other Asian gateways.
We landed at 3 AM-ish, no sleep for me. Pudong airport is massive so you feel like you are walking and walking and walking. The baggage claim area is enormous but at 3 AM, even in a country of almost 1.4 billion people, there seemed to be only one carousel in operation. It still felt like hours before my suitcase emerged from the cavernous darkness.
Then it’s immigration time. There are no obvious signs of where to go next, so I do the most logical thing and follow the other big noses (the term Chinese people give to Caucasian foreigners). I make a small detour that cost me about 20 additional minutes by queuing in the wrong line. Eventually, I get diverted to the transit visa line where I begin my wait. There’s one guy on duty and about 30 others just like me…. waiting. And he’s thorough! Either it’s the start of his shift or his boss is watching, because he is taking his time with each and every one of us. 15 hours on a flight and now this. After about a half hour, a friend joins him and we begin to move a bit quicker. But by this stage, I’m getting a little grumpy. I tend to get frustrated when I don’t understand the “why” behind something. As in, why am I queuing to get a stamp in my passport for a country I’m not even visiting?
I make it through, and I haven’t even reached the best part of this story yet. It indeed gets better.
I eventually make it through immigration and find my gate. At this stage, the whole ordeal to date has taken so much time that I have little time to wait for the next flight. I grab myself a $12 regular, good ol’ Starbucks coffee and await boarding.
My zone is called. I queue in line again and take my seat at the back of the plane. It’s full. The airline is Juneyao Airlines and it’s a 3 x 3 configuration. I have a nice elderly couple seated beside me but the rest of the plane seems to be revellers en route to a Lucky 7 Casino. It’s loud and noisy. I glance at my complimentary blanket and pillow and notice the stains on them despite being wrapped in plastic. By no means am I a germaphobe but I’m not a fan of unwashed bedding either. I decide to discard the additional warmth and pull my hoodie over my head to block out the light. Again, it’s now 6 AM and I’ve had no sleep. The plane is full and a cacophony of laughter permeates the air. Everyone is having a good time but me.
I do what every human would do at this stage… pull out my cell phone and start to play Candy Crush while I await take-off. There are no TV monitors on the back of the seats. I had downloaded a few episodes of Luther on Netflix to tide me over. As we are about to take off, the airline attendant comes by to remind me to put away my phone. At least that’s the message I think she’s trying to convey. She doesn’t speak English but her pointy gestures lead me to believe she wants the phone gone. I’m not proud to admit that I may have given her ‘stink eye.’ After all, it’s 2018. Almost every airline in the world now allows you to use your phone during takeoff and landing as long as you have it in aeroplane mode. I showed her the little aeroplane icon in the top left corner but that didn’t seem to phase her. To avoid further conflict, I acquiesced. I didn’t have the energy to argue further. The phone went into the seat pocket and I settled in for takeoff.
Once we were at cruising altitude, with no in-flight entertainment to be had, I decided to watch those Luther episodes after all. Great viewing fodder. It was a 4-hour and 30-minute flight. Don’t forget that by this time, I’d been up for almost 24 plus hours. I wanted to make it to Chiang Mai and fall into the Thai sleep schedule as it would be late at night by the time we got there.
There I sat with my hoodie pulled over my head, looking very Kanye West. My noise-cancelling headphones are on and I’m trying to drown out any possible outside interference. But every so often, I could see out of the corner of my eye, an attendant finger encroach my periphery seemingly directed at my phone. I was confused about what she wanted but remember, I was tired. I didn’t care. Maybe she was put off by the torture scenes that seem commonplace in any Luther episode but eventually she moved on so I assumed all was good. I kept watching.
Out of nowhere, came the pilot or co-pilot, I don’t know which. Somebody super important with lots of badges on his jacket and sporting a very unpleasant scowl on his face. Doesn’t he stop at 45F and start yelling at me in Mandarin. I don’t speak Mandarin but it’s clear to me he’s unhappy with me and my phone. I just can’t work out why. We are in-flight – 35,000 feet over China. We are no longer in take-off or landing mode. Why is he so angry?
Does he not like Luther either? It’s a really good series – lots of people think so, I want to tell him. I do a repeat performance of showing him the little aeroplane icon but this exercise does not have the outcome I intended. He seems even angrier. But now I’m kinda getting upset. Truth be told, I may have given him the ‘stink eye’ as well. It’s my go-to response when I don’t like what I’m being told. This important looking dude is not as forgiving as the earlier flight attendant.
I did ask him what the problem was and he muttered something back that sounded like… “China, China.” So I slammed my phone down on the tray table. Yes, I overreacted. Guilty as charged. But I was just at the really good part of the show where the bad guy is about to get it and I only had a few minutes left.
But this guy was still not happy. Cell phone off was not doing the trick. With pure malice in his eyes, he spat out his final request, “Power off, power off!” I decided not to ask for the extra serving of peanuts.
By this point, there is no need for in-flight entertainment. I am the in-flight entertainment. The entire plane of travellers is now fully engaged in my delinquent activity. And I still have 3 and a half hours left to travel. Nothing to do. Nowhere to look and that little elderly couple beside me? Well, one of them can’t stop coughing and clearing his throat. The sound is making me wince. I am clearly in the middle of one of the worst nights of my life. Why had I not opted for the more expensive airline? Why did I decide to fly through China? Great job Diane, is all I can think. You saved yourself $500, but my heart is racing as a result.
By the time I reached Chiang Mai, 26 hours after departing Pearson International, I was spent. No fight left in me. I couldn’t wait to grab my belongings from the overhead compartments and make haste.
When I finally got settled, I did take a moment to Google what had just happened. I was still in shock. As it turns out, this apparently is a thing. Cell phones are not allowed on any Chinese carriers. It’s completely fine to take out your laptop or iPad and watch all 4 seasons of Luther (?). But don’t even think about unearthing your cell phone. I have since spoken to many of colleagues and this little piece of travel trivia was unknown to them as well. I thought maybe I should share this experience with our agent community as a cautionary tale and a great one to share with your clients when they ask you “Do you have a cheaper option?”
Finally, as a lasting souvenir, I ended up with a bout of bronchitis from that little old couple that lasted 2 months. Even as I write this, I still sound a little bit like Marge Simpson.
Please don’t get me wrong, I love China. Goway has a wide range of incredible trips through China and of course, we are experts at crafting an itinerary that is perfect for your clients. It’s a wonderful country and one of my favourites. I just would never choose it again as a hub to change planes for another destination.
Some of my preferred stopover options en route to Thailand would be:
Feel free to share this tale with your clients and recommend they spend a few more dollars and arrive rested and relaxed.