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Getting Out of Asia
Concluding my previous posts about being suddenly ticketless and stranded in Malaysia, here is the dramatic close. If you want to catch up you can read the posts here part 1, part 2, part 3, or you can read the entire post in one sitting (aren’t you brave) right… here.
For the quick catch-up, we had just gotten our tickets, went through security, it was not yet 7AM on Sunday morning.
We cleared exit immigration, made our way over to the separate building for departures and found the lounge. For a complete view of the Golden Lounge read this. We grabbed some breakfast and set our stuff down, it was a relief to get to the lounge because it felt safe there. We know that the best in their airport typically works there. They would be focused on making our trip a delight, providing good customer service, and if we hit a snag, they would have the know-how to handle it, and the gumption to do something about it.
Still very nervous, I contacted some fellow UPGRD bloggers for help. At this point in the process there were really just two approaches left of our original four. We could:
•Do nothing and have a nice day in the airport. If the ticket cancels and I go to board the flight, I still have my boarding card and the luggage is loaded onto the plane, they will likely just correct the error and send me on my way.
•Go to the experts at the front desk, and make sure we were actually good to go, that the first leg had dropped off, and we would have no problems throughout the day.
We were all mixed on our assessment. After all, we had a legitimate reason for skipping the first flight. I was already in KL as were our bags, but we all knew that once the first leg is missed it WILL cancel and it would be a huge problem to deal with it.
We decided to put our carry-ons in a locker, and venture into the airport which was a spectacle in and of itself. We decided to find a reason for them to look at our itinerary and then see what came of it. If they needed a full recount of the details of the day, we would provide it, if they didn’t then that was fine by us too. Either way we refused to spend all day worried that our tickets were cancelled or that we would be stuck in Malaysia, even if it was in this swanky lounge.
Sherpa: “Good morning, I just have two questions for you.”
Roslan (agent at the reception desk of the lounge): “I’m sorry sir, you only get one!” He makes a crack, everyone laughs, the mood is light.
This is my guy.
I ask him to apply our Delta numbers to our reservation please, he does so and hands our tickets back to us.
Sherpa: “And could you just tell me if us dropping the Yangon leg was a problem?”
He wrinkles his face a little.
Roslan: “Sir, I told you, only one question.”
Sherpa: “I’m using hers.” I motion to the Sherpstress.
He takes my ticket back, and says that everything looks fine, we don’t have any problems. Not jokingly (but seeming affable) I mention that I am holding him responsible if anything goes wrong. We all laugh, and we get out of the lounge and grab a much needed Starbucks. We make calls back home to our folks to let them know what’s going on and whether intentional or not seek and find comfort in only the way a parent can provide. Once we exhausted every shop we could find, and went through the jungle (see photo below), we headed back to the lounge for lunch and as I watched the clock tick by, and tracked our missed first flight’s departure. I had to approach the issue and see if the missed flight had now cancelled our entire journey home. So I did what any brave travel expert would do, I sent the Sherpstress to do my bidding.
She got up without question, and went to ensure our tickets had not cancelled by asking a nominal question and confirming our itinerary was still active. Ten minutes passed by, she had not returned. I feared the worst, and as I approached the counter, the Sherpstress was returning to me shaking her head “No”.
Roslan looked very concerned when I got to the desk.
“Your ticket has been deleted from the system and I am not sure why. I am working on it” He carried on speaking to someone over the phone in Malay and as I waited, I caught words like “Oh, oh, ow-toe (auto)”, “Cansole (cancel)”. He put his hand over the receiver and said, “Don’t worry, sir. I take care of it and bring it to you.”
So I went back and waited. It was no less than 20 minutes before Roslan reappeared smiling, boarding passes and passports in hand. We thanked him and we started to breathe easy finally, it was 2PM – 11 hours after we woke up, and our 8th hour in the airport so far for the day. Highly appreciative, I ran out to get a gift card from Starbucks for my new friend Roslan, nothing crazy, but enough to show him that we were grateful not being stuck in Asia with no way home.
I continued to eat just about everything in the lounge, until 4:05PM when… uh oh, Roslan runs to us sweating and upset.
Roslan: “It cancelled out again. I don’t- give me your whole trip details.”
Sherpa: “You mean today, or…”
Roslan: “Give me everything”
Roslan writes on the back of one of our boarding passes the itinerary as I speak it. He repeats back the names of the cities as I provide airport codes.
We clarified that we skipped the RGN portion for which he took no issue. He went back to his desk with our passports and went to work. This is (for clarification purposes) the second time that this particular ticket has cancelled, and the third travel failure of the day.
While he was working to save our trip, I make another unpleasant discovery.
But before I get into that I thought I should mention that editing on my book, Travel Like a Pro: Carry-on Edition is nearly completed. It will have tips and tricks that I use to get around the world inexpensively, and of course Travel Like a Pro.
Because I am a self-appointed Travel Pro, I thought I would take a peek at our connecting flight details in Montreal, Canada. The plan was to arrive at 3:45PM from Frankfurt, connect to the US (clear customs in Montreal with a special US Customs office) and then continue home to Pittsburgh the same very long day as our flight from Frankfurt.
This Travel Pro booked the wrong day. I had been shopping so many options because I could not get over how expensive the one-way fare was from Montreal, a short 900 miles from Pittsburgh. It was $250-275 one-way pretty consistently, ($400 on a return flight, more on that later), and it was hard for me to stomach paying that much for a short distance when the rest of our trip was so cheap. Sure, it was a mistake fare, but I routinely see trans-continental flights (6,000 miles) from NYC-SFO/LAX for $150-200 roundtrip. It seemed crazy to pay that much to get home. To lower the costs I started looking at secondary dates, for example, would it be cheaper for us to stay the night in Montreal and fly out the next day, and at some point, I confused the “next day” with the “same day” so though we would arrive Montreal on the 21st of January, our “connecting” flights were booked for the 22nd.
We had no hotel reservations and had I not looked (this is where the pro part comes back into play) to confirm my flights, we would have had quite a mess when we landed in Montreal, going through the wrong customs lane, expensive hotel, no plans, etc.
To deal with this new and awesome problem, I called US Airways with whom we had booked. I asked the agent to pull up the reservation and she did, I asked her to confirm the dates and flight times, which matched my fears. I then asked for how much it would be to change the reservation by a day ($600 for the two of us). That was a dead-end. Then I started to look for ways around the fee, what about for US Airways credit card holders? One-time courtesy? Nope. Star Silver with another airline – of course not! Then I asked about the connection time, just 45 minutes in DC. I asked if that would be enough time to clear customs. She said no and put me on hold, coming from anywhere else, I would have my free change, but when she came back she informed me that the US Customs and Immigration have a special setup in Montreal and I would actually clear in Canada making my arrival into the US a domestic one.
Here is a pro tip from someone who made a rookie mistake: Suck it up and move forward.
The reality is that sometimes these things happen, no matter how well travelled you may be, this sort of thing just takes place, so don’t whine about it, or fret, just make a hotel reservation and embrace it. So that’s what we did, the Hyatt Regency Montreal to continue enjoying our Diamond status.
Really annoyed with myself, I started to dig into some Trip Sherpa work when I noticed that it had been 45 minutes since Roslan (who already stayed late for us to check our ticket one last time) had come over to us sweating, nervous and pretty much freaking out. This caused a little alarm for me, as he was usually able to resolve it quickly. I went to the desk to investigate.
Roslan: “It ow-toe cansal aggen”
Me: “Is it going to be okay? Am I stuck in the lounge?” trying to make the situation lighter.
Roslan: “No, but I am very nervous. I have made it right aggen, but I will check before 10p.m. when I leave the other lounge.”
Me: “Okay, but you think we are good again, all the way to Montreal?”
Roslan: “Yes but I’m very nervous about this.”
I took the passports and boarding cards and never really calmed my nerves over the next few hours. It would be another seven hours until we boarded and being on edge and having as many mistakes and close calls as we have have left us exhausted, shaky and unnerved.
I would help myself to the Noodle Bar (the best part of the lounge in my opinion), a Haagen-Das here and there (I was still on vacation) but mostly charged our devices and prepared ourselves with plenty of downloaded TV shows for the Frankfurt-Montreal flight which would regrettably be eight hours in coach, something we had not done in quite some time and really never wanted to again. Don’t get the Sherpa wrong. I know how it sounds – snobby and entitled, but this doesn’t apply to all coach seats. I would never pay (upfront, maybe a discounted last second upgrade) for domestic first class ticket, and I would never redeem miles for the same. If it’s less than five hours, I really don’t see the point with few exceptions (red-eye west coast to east coast with a meeting the next day). Knowing full-well when I booked the ticket that I had booked the last leg economy, I would still ride in the back for 8 hours if it meant a $250 trip to Asia in business every other leg, and I would be happy to do so. In fact, at this point in the journey we would simply be happy if we had tickets at all when we arrived in Frankfurt.
The time finally came and we had never been happier to leave a lounge in our lives. We had been there 17 hours, and awake a total of 20 and a half. We were tired, and just wanted to sleep.
We got down to the gate and passed our tickets across for scanning, this would be the point of concern, if they cancelled again, we would find out now, but all of our friends that had helped us along the way had gone home for the night. We know they wouldn’t hold the flight for us to sort out our ticket yet again that day. The light went green, the display said, “Boarded” and our tickets were given back to us! Now we knew that at least a portion of our flight was repaired (hopefully the whole itinerary) and this also meant in business terms that they started the contract with us. Once we start the contract, we have a reasonable expectation to finish it and we felt this would be strong enough to get us home.
While in the lounge, I also used another pro-tip: Think ahead, plan against failure.
I was fully trusting that Roslan had corrected the situation, each time he returned to me, but in case it wasn’t I wanted to hedge my bets and get home. I priced out some one-way tickets, and they were pretty expensive, though of course this was with nearly no notice (20 hours). The cheapest I found wanted $1500 each which is ridiculous. But from living in Europe, I know that sometimes one-ways are much more expensive than return tickets.
I ran some dates starting with a departure from Frankfurt, skipping Montreal all together (we would recoup our $120 for a hotel if we cancelled and could apply that to our unexpected ticket cost) and going straight to Pittsburgh. I picked a low travel season return date, and if we couldn’t make the trip we could just throw it away and still save the money over the one-way. A random Tuesday in the middle of March came back as $680/RT each which was substantially cheaper than booking a one-way and much more tolerable than $3000 dropped on a ticket we had already purchased. From there we extended out the dates, and I chose an airline (American) with whom I was sure I could place on hold free of charge and purchase at the airport on arrival if we found ourselves ticketless and stuck in Europe. This was much more palpable than the situation we expected that morning when we first discovered that we would not make our Yangon flight. In fact, the return tickets to Europe (some 8,000 miles in total) were cheaper than one-ways to Yangon the morning of departure from a connecting airline, so our decision not to buy those and go find a plan B was still better off.
Our backup flights on hold were good until 09:30 (an hour prior to their departure) and we could purchase them over the phone or at the counter until then. We were scheduled to land at 06:45 that morning and connect to our afternoon departure at 13:30. When we landed we would see the transfer desk and agreed that if we did not have tickets by 08:30 for our afternoon flight, we would give up on those broken tickets and fly home with American and be done with it.
We took our seats in 2J/2K, second row business class, right side of the plane. I will review the flight later in another post. Let’s just fast forward and assume there was food, sleeping and a mostly uneventful 13 hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Frankfurt airspace.
We had hit some serious headwinds coming in (95KM) and though the Sherpstress and I were laughing at our British friends, who were outside playing in the snow which amounted to a “dusting” (less than one inch) – we weren’t laughing now.
Captain: “Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls” (it sounded like Disneyland and he came across in a Malaysian radio voice. “We are currently circling the Frankfurt airport waiting for a landing slot due to some bad weather. We should be on the ground in about 45 minutes.”
This would put us about 20 minutes behind, but not going to change our plan really. Then we heard from the captain in about 40 minutes.
Captain: “Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, due to some weather situation in Frankfurt, we are going to land in Munich and refuel, we should take-off from there for Frankfurt in about an hour and have you on your way. Sorry for this inconvenience which is completely out of our control.”
Now we are cutting it a shade close, only because our backup plan cut-off time would be really close. We knew we had until 9:30 to buy the tickets, but without German SIM cards, we would have been relying on airport lounge wifi which we may or may not have been able to reach. Or we could stand in line at the American Airlines desk, but what if we had to exit for ticketing as you do in most airports?
The snow on our window was beginning to pile-up when I started to utilize yet another pro-tip: If there’s nothing you can do, just relax. I finished reading a book, got a good start another, had a cup of coffee. Had another cup of coffee. The Sherpstress slept a little bit. Then this:
Captain: “Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, we should be able to pushback and take-off in the next 30 minutes, but if not, we will need to terminate our service here in Munich and make other arrangements. Do not worry about anything. We will update you again shortly.”
My initial reaction was that Malaysia Airlines would now ensure we had passage onto our next destination and that perhaps our cancellation woes would be muted by the line of travellers also stranded behind us. It might expedite a ticket in the case that we were to miss our next flight and save us from having a confusing explanation.
It wasn’t 30 minutes, it was 40. Then the ground staff that had come on and off the aircraft to exchange paperwork were asked to exit as we were ready for departure. We were elated. It was 11:20AM but with a short 30 minute flight over to Frankfurt we might just make the connection we needed to get home after being inside the same airplane for an exhausting 18 hours at this point (13 in the air, 5 on the ground in Munich).
We made our way to the runway, still covered in snow, and passed a massive truck with a large extended cherry-picker. Without warning, orange goo was sprayed on top of the plane and started oozing down our windows. This prompted another interesting English announcement from our captain.
“Ladies and gentelemen, boys and girls, you will notice outside your window… some sort of… chemical sliding down the windows. Do not be alarmed, this is for to melt the snow and ice off the plane before take-off. It should only set our take-off back 20-40 minutes.”
And he was right, by the time we took off it was 10 minutes to noon, the short 30 minute flight to Frankfurt was as advertised and we arrived at the gate and deplaned exactly at 12:30, just one hour to make our connecting flight.
The Sherpstress and I fled the plane, quickly making our way to the end of the jetbridge looking frantically for the Malaysian Airlines reps who were promised to be there waiting for us with our onward connections or re-routing instructions. They were not there. No one was there, other than other travelers waiting to use the gate or rushing past us. A German man who looked the part casually walked up to the gate with some stapled papers which generally indicate boarding gates.
“Vich flight ist you connecting to?” he asked as he could tell we were looking for some help.
“Montreal, on Air Can-” I started
“B3” – and he flipped back through the list.
“Can we make it? We have only an hour, our bags?”
“B3” he ended the conversation.
We took our cue and followed the signs for the B gates. At the end of the corridor was a train that would take us to the B gates, and we headed there. When we got there we were told by an airport employee passing by that the train was closed and we needed to take a bus, found between some gates we just passed.
For my readers that don’t transit internationally, when connecting planes in a foreign country, just like connecting planes in the US you don’t have to go back through security and in this case customs. In fact, if you do, in most cases this means something went wrong and you typically would like to avoid having to go through exit customs and immigration (without a valid reason for being “in” the country) and then immediately through departure immigration and customs as is the case in Germany. It’s an added delay when our time was already short and something we could ill-afford.
We approach the gates where we are to find the bus taking us from our arriving terminal (C) to terminal B, and of course there is a security checkpoint. We are timid, we make sure to ask if the bus is on the other side as security staff is waving us and nodding yes but not really elaying our concerns.
We empty everything at security. My bag has to go back through. The time is now 12:43PM, boarding will have commenced, we still do not have physical tickets, we do not know if we will go home today. The security agent working my bag pulls out our newly acquired amenity kits (see future post) and removes two bottles of mouthwash and explains we are not allowed liquids. We tried to explain several times that it was from the previous flight and that we understand. She would not let us leave them. We tried to discard them, she returned them to me. By this time the Sherpstress was already at the door of the stairs down to where the buses pickup and drop-off when finally I just found a way to put the mouthwash back in our bags and joined her.
“10 minutes” some guy sitting off to the side of the doors said and shook his finger at us. Who is this guy? How does he know where we are going and does he even work here? Doesn’t he need a badge or something?
“Is this the bus to terminal B?” We asked the random guy who may or may not even work at the airport.
I burn a hole through this guy with my eyes, and then incinerate my watch for the next 7 minutes. Finally a burly 6ft 300 lb German woman approached the door. She got the same spiel but now “3 minutes” but she was having none of this, she pushed past him and he decided it was time to go now. He took us down stairs to the buses, we boarded and drove around the terminals until we arrived at terminal B. It was just after 1PM. International flights usually close about 20 minutes prior to departure, we were working with mere minutes.
We frantically run around like idiot Americans for a little while and then calm down. We have a look around and find where our gate is, we find a map, we make a quick effort down the hall to the gate. It’s packed.
This is not good for two reasons, 1) It means they have started boarding or there is a cancellation, 2) We are going to be last in line to speak with an agent who can print our tickets or get us on the flight at all.
We wait patiently at the end of a 10 person queue and take in the surroundings fully. Passengers are skipping the line to run up and ask questions that are clearly annoying the agents. We keep smiling, keep a pleasant attitude and make eye contact with our agent, Anita who was getting a little fed up with the incessant impatient customers cutting in line to ask yet another benign question in an entitled kind of way.
But the worse it gets for her, the better it gets for us. We are the calm collected customers, we are the sunshine in an otherwise bleak period of the day.
We get the the front of the line and indicate that we do not yet have our tickets printed and she asks us for our boarding passes from the previous flight and our passports. We made some light chit chat, tried to keep her smiling and just to be pleasant as opposed to the nightmare that was going on around us. We hand them across she starts typing on the computer and then prints our tickets.
Side note: When I booked this trip in a middle of the night frenzy, I was unable to replicate the routings in international first class which is a noticable difference from business class. The most popular routing was this one with Swiss Airlines, exposed by Gary Leff and then also by hundreds of others. When I went to search just before the error was closed down, the only route that was left was RGN-KUL-FRA on Malaysia Airlines Business and Air Canada in coach FRA-YUL (Montreal). I booked it, even though we try to avoid coach because it was a tremendous deal and I also kind of assumed since the rest of the ticket was in business (J) class, that the coach leg would have been in coach (Y) class – the full fare and free upgrade if available seats. I was shocked when I found it was not Y, even more so when the Air Canada agent stated it was in W class. I looked it up on the Air Canada Prestige website and it showed that there was not an option to even use upgrade certificates in my account. I called to follow-up, it was confirmed that there was no possible way to upgrade my seat from W without buying a business class upgrade.
Before she slid the tickets across they were sitting there on the desk while she sorted out our bags. I noticed the fare class on the boarding cards, Y. I grabbed my wallet and produced my Air Canada Prestige card and asked if it was possible to upgrade today.
“I’m not sure if you will be able to if you are just Prestige, let me see.” She types and clacks the keyboard. “Did you select upgrades as your reward benefit?”
I don’t remember for certain but I can’t imagine what I would possibly choose instead. “Yes”
“And is she your designated companion?”
“I can’t imagine who else would be.” I reply back. I learned later that I had not designated anyone at all.
More clacks on the keyboard. Printing. “There you go sir” She hands them across with J business class on the bottom.
We boarded, settled into our fully lie-flat seats and got comfortable. Finally we were heading back to North America, we knew we would get there and if we had to we could hitchhike from there. What a fortunate turn of events on a very long journey home.
Lessons from this journey include (but are not limited to):
1) Checking over your travel details before making a purchase to make sure you have it right every time.
2) If there is an easy option to get a visa when transiting a country with a discount carrier, do it.
3) Be NICE – the airport is filled with surly people who have been groped at security, shuttled around terminals, over-charged for cheeseburgers, and shoved into a tiny coach seat for more money than they would like. Being polite, friendly, and understanding that the person working in front of you has had a long day already and you can make it better or worse for them by just being nice will go a long way. Without Roslan in KL, or Anita in Frankfurt, we would stuck somewhere on the other side of the world.
Keeping with my theme of the UN-Trip report you can expect to read about a secret restaurant in Hong Kong, a treasure map in Tokyo, Making a Difference in Bali, and more experiences from our trip around the world.
I will also post a brief trip report for the flights I have already discussed so that you can see how lucky we were to get back to North America.
WOW Talk about the cards really being in your favor! I need to pray to your travel god!
My goodness. Good job on the last-minute upgrade. Why/how do you have Air Canada status?
OMG, the drama!!! Great writing, v. interesting experiences. It is just amazing how one little document, namely a visa, can just turn your trip upside down if not done right. The more moving parts of a trip, the greater the likelihood this will happen. In the last year I have had my first two experiences of not paying careful enough attention and screwing up my air travel. Fortunately for me it was not all that painful financially, but it was quite a wake-up call.
I’m happy you enjoyed the piece, problems were bound to happen at some point. I’m glad I’m not alone!
@Matt – Thanks again for the advice from you and Mike. It was a tense day in the lounge. I have AC status from a match they offered BMI Diamond members, it was a really fortunate day all the way around.
@Rocky – Too many things went wrong for it to be anything but divine intervention my friend.
Did the status match come with upgrade? That’s pretty cool. Glad you could use them!
@Matthew – It did come with the upgrade certs but I’m not even sure she used them. I checked the account and I couldn’t find where they were stored but I did notice thee Sherpstress was not a designated partner as I had thought (I didn’t have any at all) and somehow with a wink and a nod she was able to get her a seat too. It left me with a great impression of AC either way.
You and your business class luck! Nice job getting home 🙂
@Meg – First world problems for sure.
Wow, what a fabulous, yet exhausting, story! So glad you got to enjoy those lie-flat seats back to North America!
Great story, profiles in “traveling” courage. My anxiety level was raised drastically, as I read of your traveling woes.
A cool head, and a smile will take you hurdling over many problems that will trip up angry, surly customers. By and large,overseas travel professionals may not speak the same language we do, but kindness and compassion, can translate successful outcomes.
Reading your story I was reminded of a quote that I visit often:
“We make our plans, and God laughs”
I was proud and thankful, that your return home was safe, and made for a terrific story.
Wow, what an amazing story! Thanks for the great read.
I do want to comment on one point you made:
For my readers that don’t transit internationally, when connecting planes in a foreign country, just like connecting planes in the US you don’t have to go back through security and in this case customs. In fact, if you do, in most cases this means something went wrong…
For almost every connection I’ve made in Europe, even if connecting between non-Shengen countries, I’ve had to reclear security. I think that’s pretty standard. However, you are correct that if you find yourself clearing customs (and aren’t making a Shengen to non-Shengen transfer or vice-versa) then you are definitely doing something wrong!!!
@Brad – Thanks for the comment. In the UK you tend to be able to go through without additional security screening (MAN, LHR) but perhaps the statement was sweeping and I welcome the clarification.
We were hesitant about EVERYTHING at that point in the day, the margin for error was so thin, that I was suspicious of everything that would cause us delay.
Thanks again for the great comment, I appreciate your readership.