Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Tickets Please

For the most part, travel within China is not too expensive. However, getting the tickets can be an ordeal sometimes.

First of all, it is very difficult to use a credit card which means that you are dealing in large quantities of cash. Our trip to Lijiang cost around $1000 for the three of us. If we were buying in the US, we’d simply tell them our credit card number and be done with it. Even if we had to pay cash we’d hand over a thin stack of ten $100 bills. Here you first head to the ATM to take out as much money as the machine will allow. Luckily we have a high limit ATM near us that lets us take out $300 (or so) at a time. I am able to do this 3 times before the machine cuts me off. This still leaves me $100 short so Brad has to go to a different bank and use his card to get the rest. After combining our cash we have a large stack of eighty 100 RMB notes to hand over to the guy delivering our tickets.

The ticket delivery guy arrives and he has our tickets in hand, but speaks no English. We assume he’s the right guy and proceed to count out our money for him. All this takes place in front of the BoldTech security guard. We don’t know how much he makes, but our best guess is around $20 a day. It’s a little odd counting out so much cash in front of him.

We book our tickets online through elong.com which generally works out pretty well. However, while we were in Yasngshuo elong called to tell us that the flight we booked had been cancelled and we needed to choose another flight. One should think that this is not a problem, but you would be wrong. Since elong does not have an agent in Yangshuo we want to handle the change via the phone. This is just not possible. The new tickets are cheaper than the old tickets, but we can not just exchange them for some reason. Elong accepts credit cards, but phone authorization is not enough. To pay by credit card you must fill out a form and fax it back along with a copy of your passport and the credit card. So to do this you need internet to download the form, a printer to print it and a scanner or a fax to return it. Finding all of this in a small town in China is next to impossible, but I suppose it might be done. After begging them to authorize the purchase via the phone to no avail we decided it was best to just use a local travel agent. This meant getting cash for the new tickets. For some reason ATM’s in Yangshuo are particularly fickle and it took trying three different machines, but we finally found one that worked. We managed to communicate what we needed to travel agent who spoke no English after waiting some time for our receipts to be printed somewhere else and driven over to his storefront, we had our tickets in hand.

All that remained now was to get the refund on our original tickets. Brad had a co-worker call the travel agency affiliated with elong in Hangzhou that had originally issued the tickets. The had to call elong to confirm that we were entitled to a refund, but they said it should be no problem, just bring our receipt in. Luckily I had kept the receipt even though these were e-tickets and I was told I would not need it. We asked if they could deliver the refund as they had delivered the tickets. Not a chance, not even if we paid a service fee for it. The agency was located in a part of the city that I had never been to before but it wasn’t too much trouble to find. When I arrived and gave them our tickets they acted as if they had never heard of the situation though we had just talked to them less than an hour before. They had to call elong again, but in the end I walked out with a fat stack of cash.

Something that would have been so simple in the US that it would have taken a five minute phone call took several hours and had us running all over 2 different Chinese cities, but it all worked out in the end.

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