Xiamen Air Economy Class Review – Seattle to Xiamen Via Shenzhen

Xiamen Air is one of the smaller mainland Chinese airlines. A member of SkyTeam, it codeshares a limited number of routes with Delta and is definitely a “little sister” when stacked up against the two other mainland Chinese SkyTeam airlines, China Eastern and China Southern. The airline mostly serves destinations in China, with a handful of international destinations (primarily in Asia). However, they do offer service to New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle along with Amsterdam, Sydney and Melbourne.

Here in Seattle, Xiamen’s flight hasn’t been doing well. Of the transpacific flights to and from Sea-Tac, it is reputed to consistently have the lowest overall load factor. Given that the service is one of the only nonstops from the West Coast to the tech hub of Shenzhen, I was very surprised to hear this. However, I haven’t gone out of my way to take the flight because the fares were relatively high, and I lived in China for 3 years so I haven’t really been in a hurry to go back there.

All of this changed when I got the opportunity to attend and speak at DEF CON China, which was–to the best of my knowledge–the first international hacker conference to be hosted in China. I’ve been doing some research into a technical area where I thought feedback from a Chinese audience would be useful, so couldn’t pass it up. Only one problem: I figured out that I’d be going only about 2 weeks beforehand. This was enough time to get a visa together, but it was pretty late to book a flight. So I ended up booking with Xiamen Air despite their terrible itinerary due to their low price.

The Itinerary

The itinerary was truly terrible. It’s like flying from Hong Kong to Seattle, but via Los Angeles and a forced overnight in San Francisco. Here’s what it looked like:

sea-szx-xnm-pek

Seattle to Beijing… via Shenzhen and Xiamen

Why would I subject myself to this? Because, dear reader, it was the cheapest way to get to Beijing: $479. This blog isn’t called Seat 31B for nothing!

Check-in In Seattle

cardboard cut-out of flight attendant

No mistaking this for anything other than Xiamen Air!

Xiamen Air’s check-in desk is all the way at the far end. Rather than being on the back wall, it backs up against the airport drive. I was a little confused but Xiamen anticipated this and there was a cardboard cut-out to help me find my way.

The check-in desk wasn’t crowded, even for economy class. Granted, I arrived at the airport 3 hours before departure, because I hadn’t paid for a seat assignment, online check-in isn’t supported, and Xiamen doesn’t participate in TSA Precheck (you will not get precheck even if you have a known traveler number). I knew I would need plenty of extra time at the airport. Still, I got through the economy class line in about 5 minutes, and was able to arrange an aisle seat with no problem at all.

One of my friends recently had luck talking his way into the precheck line with a NEXUS card, which I hold, so I figured I’d give it a try. I was unceremoniously bounced. Even though the airline I was flying didn’t participate in Precheck, it didn’t matter: I wasn’t given access. My guess is that the TSA agent at the other airport thought my friend’s NEXUS card was some sort of military identification instead of a trusted traveler card. After being kicked out of the Precheck line, it took over 45 minutes to get through the “regular” TSA security line. I’m not sure why airport security is always such a disaster in in the US and UK when it’s both faster and more thorough in China, but that’s an entirely separate discussion.

After I got into the airport, I went to the Alaska Airlines lounge and was granted entry (after a short wait when the agent called upstairs to make sure there was room) with my Priority Pass card. The planespotting was great, as it always is from the Alaska lounge. It was around lunchtime and I wasn’t sure what or how much they’d serve us on the plane, so I had some soup, salad and bread in the lounge.

Alaska Airlines planes

All the planes you want to spot, as long as they’re Alaska jets! (Virgin America merged with Alaska)

Finally, it was getting close to the boarding time. The flight left from the south satellite, so I took the airport subway. This took longer than I expected and I was the last person to board the plane, although I still boarded about 20 minutes early. I was surprised to discover that this was my seat:

Airline seat 54J

Seat 54J

If you spend a lot of time in economy class, you probably picked up on it: the armrests are immovable and the IFE swings out from the front. Why might this be?

Poor man's business class seat

Unlimited legroom!

Seat 54J, as it turns out, is one of the two best seats in economy class. Although it’s close to the toilets, I don’t have a sensitive sense of smell. And there is unlimited legroom on these seats because they are directly on the exit row. The window seat is terrible in this row because there isn’t actually a window and the exit door protrudes, meaning there is less leg room than usual seats. However, the aisle and middle seats had unlimited legroom. A pillow and blanket was provided on each seat, and there were plenty of spares if you wanted one:

Pillow and blanket

You could have as many of these as you wanted because the flight was lightly loaded

My seat mates were both tech people and that’s the industry I work in too, so it was easy conversation to Shenzhen–particularly because one of the guys had brought a bunch of miniature bottles of booze on board, and the flight attendants were happy to look the other way. One thing that differentiates Xiamen from other Chinese airlines: the inflight service was very friendly and extremely attentive. Actually, Xiamen Air service in economy class was on par with my last Cathay Pacific business class flight! They really get the small details and human kindnesses right from making sure you have enough water to noticing if you sneeze and bringing you a tissue.

another airplane meal

Italian garden vegetable lasagna with fresh German salad, rustic pretzel bread, French Village yogurt and New York style cheesecake

I was worried about going hungry on the flight but in the end we were stuffed, and the quality of the food catered in Seattle (more later on the food catered in Shenzhen) was very good for economy class. They fed us two full meals and brought two rounds of sandwiches midflight as well. While liquor wasn’t available (even for purchase), beer and wine flowed freely. To my delight, they had my favorite Chinese beer on board, Yanjing. It’s a local Beijing beer and I didn’t expect they’d actually have it, because Xiamen is in the southern part of China.

The time passed pretty quickly in between meals because Xiamen Air has free WiFi on board and I made good use of it. Of course, like most things involving the Internet in China, using it is complicated because you have to register for it in advance. You can’t register more than 30 days in advance, or less than two days in advance, and only the first 50 users who register can get the service. Also, your access code only works on one device, a different access code is issued per flight, and access codes aren’t available for all flights, even though WiFi service was present on all of the flights I took. Got all that? If you do, you’ll get an access code that grants you access to…

…the Chinese Internet. Which is very special. And which, after you agree not to post any “illegal speech,” mercilessly blocks every VPN you throw at it (I did find a way around the firewall, but I am also far more technical than the average user). This is just fine if you’re Chinese though, or if you’re happy with reading the Global Times and Xinhua News. A few Western services aren’t blocked, maybe? Anyway, I happily used Twitter and Facebook the whole way to Shenzhen.

xiamen air cabin turned into rainbows

I like rainbows

When we approached Shenzhen, the cabin lighting turned into a rainbow. We landed at a remote stand (which is fairly common in China) and were herded onto buses that took us to the terminal. Once inside the terminal, it got a little bit confusing.

There are different immigration procedures, staff, and locations for people who are transiting China without a visa versus people who have a Chinese visa. I had a visa and two of the Americans on the plane, thinking I must know what I was doing, followed me into the wrong line. I redirected them back out of the line and into the correct place, although to be fair, Xiamen Airlines staff were there doing the same thing.

Additionally, once you get through immigration (which was efficient as always in China, although ever more intrusive–this time they captured my fingerprints) there are two different sets of baggage procedures. If you are continuing onward to Xiamen, you don’t claim your bag in Shenzhen; it is checked through to Xiamen. However, a lot of people went to the baggage area in Shenzhen, only to discover that their bags weren’t there. They then had to be escorted back out of the baggage area, because it’s a Customs zone and exits out of the secured area of the airport.

I followed the correct signs which took me down a long corridor to be re-screened (this is normal, every country you enter wants you to pass their own security procedures). There was only one screening checkpoint open and everyone shared it (including the flight crew), but I was right at the front of the line because I’d apparently gotten through immigration faster than people transiting without a visa, and I’d also followed the signs correctly (it wasn’t super easy to figure out what to do, but my guesses in China are right more often than not). After re-screening I was back into the international transit area of Shenzhen Airport.

After an underwhelming lounge visit, I went to the boarding gate, which had changed to the exact gate we’d arrived at. I then re-boarded the same aircraft (with the same crew) for the short (300 mile) flight up to Xiamen.

Arrival in Xiamen was also complicated, because just like in Shenzhen, the baggage gets separated out into Customs vs. non-Customs zones. Xiamen Air sells the Shenzhen-Xiamen leg as a separate flight, so bags checked on that leg go into the domestic arrivals area of the airport. However, bags checked on the Seattle-Shenzhen-Xiamen leg go to the international arrivals area. It gets even more confusing because China Customs screens your carry-on baggage in Shenzhen, but they screen it again in Xiamen along with your checked bags.

Xiamen airport I <3 Xiamen sign

Pay attention to the sign this guy is holding. It’s your only clue.

It took a long time to get our bags, and then I was on to the next adventure: finding out whether the promised transit hotel would materialize. I certainly hoped so, because I was exhausted after two flights!

Where have you been in Seat 31B?

I’ve been slow with posting because I am on the road (LA to Seattle to LA to San Francisco back to Seattle to LA to Istanbul to Zagreb to London…), so it’s time to open this blog up to readers.Where is the most interesting place you have traveled in the most awful seat in the plane? What’s the worst airline you’ve ever flown to the most amazing experience? The world is watching, so write your story below in the comments! 🙂

Cyber Monday Sale On Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines has a good Cyber Monday sale. They operate mainly up and down the West Coast, but there are also some good sale fares to Hawaii from many cities. The deals are good today only for dates between December and mid-March. The lowest fares are good for Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday travel only and require a 21-day advance purchase. Alaska also has service to many locations in western Canada and leisure destinations in Mexico. Not to be overlooked, Alaska serves many cities on the East Coast, such as Newark, Boston, Washington DC, St. Louis, and Orlando, although typically with limited service (one or two flights a day).

Alaska Airlines route map

Map courtesy of AirlineRouteMaps.com

You can visit the Alaska Airlines Cyber Monday page to find the sale fares for your city.

While Alaska Airlines has an excellent frequent flier program (Mileage Plan), they also partner with many other airlines including Delta and American. So, if you are a member of these programs, you can get mileage credit for your flights on Alaska.

UPDATE: Alaska Airlines tweeted a coupon code that can be used for an extra 5% off this already great offer. Enter SHOPNOW at checkout to save!

Double Miles Disaster

Delta Air Lines has been battling Alaska Airlines for market share in Seattle. Both airlines are running double miles promotions between Seattle and West Coast cities where the two airlines compete. However, it’s important to read the fine print (which, to Delta’s credit, is reasonably clear). As I discovered yesterday, double miles offers could be only as lucrative as the initial segment.

Delta double miles promo text

I had booked a flight between Seattle and Los Angeles via Salt Lake City, and traveled yesterday. Since I registered for the promotion several months ago, I didn’t remember the details. Disaster! I was surprised to see that when the flights credited to my account, I only received double miles for the Seattle to Salt Lake City portion, and I received only regular mileage credit between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles (note that although Alaska Airlines is now competing with Delta Air Lines on routes from Salt Lake City, Delta apparently doesn’t take the threat very seriously and is not offering a double miles promotion in these markets).

It’s worth pointing out that Delta is delivering exactly what they have promised here. I just failed to carefully read the fine print. For what it’s worth, I also failed to read the fine print a month ago on an Alaska flight from Long Beach to Seattle. Contrary to my expectations, I received only ordinary mileage credit even though Alaska Airlines is offering double miles to Seattle from every other Los Angeles area airport. Long Beach isn’t on the list.

Mileage promotions come and go, and Alaska and Delta aren’t the only airlines with promotions requiring registration. If you do register for a promotion, read the fine print! Otherwise you may be in for a nasty surprise when you view your statement.

Meet Seat31B This Summer in New York and Las Vegas!

Even though Seat 31B has been online for less than a year, I’m really happy with the overwhelmingly positive and supportive feedback that I have gotten so far. Interestingly enough, even though travel hacking has been a niche area for some time (and there are a number of blogs on the subject), this is an area that has been more popular with frequent fliers than hackers.

Hackers? Yes, for many years, I have been involved in the hacker scene and I am a regular columnist for 2600: The Hacker Quarterly (I write the Telecom Informer column). These days hacking isn’t about committing crimes (it never has been for me), and is a lot more about learning how things work and building amazing stuff. So, you can probably guess how excited I am to help connect the hacker world to the travel hacking scene this summer, where I will be speaking at HOPE X and bSides Las Vegas.

If you’re into travel hacking and you’d like to meet the world’s top experts at hacking computer systems and phones, you’ll definitely want to come to one of these conferences. I’ll cover some of the more common travel hacking techniques and I expect there will be an extensive Q&A where I’ll have the opportunity to cover a variety of subjects. It is sure to be a lively discussion!

Don’t come to either conference just for my talks. Also note that I’m paying my own travel expenses for both and they aren’t paying me anything, so you can rest assured that I’m not promoting these conferences for personal gain. Do, however, come if you’d like to broaden your knowledge about hacking things that you may never have considered were possible to hack! Even if you don’t know anything about being a hacker, all it takes is being curious about learning how things work and interested in finding out what happens when you try something out of the ordinary. You’re sure to learn at least one new skill, if my experience is any guide.Without you sharing these stories and telling your friends, Seat 31B would never have grown so fast. See you this summer, and thanks so much for your support!

Flying Aeroflot Amid A Ukranian Invasion

One of the best kept secrets for flying between Europe and Asia is the Russian flag carrier Aeroflot. It’s not only the average least expensive carrier, it’s also one of the most convenient, depending upon the airport from which you’re departing. How much less expensive and how much more convenient? On a recent flight I took from Zagreb to Beijing, Aeroflot was by far the fastest way to get there and, at around $500, the flight was $150 less than the next cheapest flight (via Qatar). There are sometimes other cheap flights–for example on the Polish flag carrier LOT–but Aeroflot has been the most consistent bargain in my experience.

Yeah, you might say, but it’s Aeroflot. The formerly crash-prone, formerly Soviet airline whose logo still bears a hammer and sickle. And if you’re going on Aeroflot, you have to fly through Russia, a country which requires a visa for nationals of most countries. And by the way, Russia just invaded Ukraine! All of these are valid points, some of which are entirely rational and some of which no longer apply.

If you’re flying through Russia, you don’t need a visa if you will not leave the sterile area of the connecting airport (in the case of Aeroflot, Sheremetyevo Airport). When you land, don’t go the passport control area; follow the signs to the transfer desk. The Russian authorities will run an INTERPOL check on your passport and then direct you through to Russian airport security. My US passport was no problem despite recent US sanctions against Russia. Also, even though Russia just annexed part of Ukraine, security at the transfer area of the airport was pretty lax. The Russians seem to trust the competence of security in EU airports.

Sheremetyevo is not Schiphol, and although it’s a more comfortable airport than Domodedovo (the other Moscow airport), it’s not the most comfortable for layovers. Two transit hotels are available, but they are absurdly expensive as is everything else at the airport. Depending upon what you buy, you’ll pay 3-7 times as much as you would elsewhere. My layover was 4.5 hours and I ended up spending about $50 at the airport in between food and the pharmacy (it would have been about $20 otherwise). Free WiFi is available in many parts of the airport but not everywhere. Look for the Sheremetyevo Free WiFi and Beeline Free WiFi IDs.

Sheremetyevo Airport

Sheremetyevo Airport is basic and functional.

So, how about the safety and the service? I flew on newer, modern Airbus and Boeing aircraft. These are maintained well according to international standards. Aeroflot is a member of the SkyTeam alliance. I accrued my mileage to SkyTeam partner Delta, and it posted to my SkyMiles account exactly as advertised within a week. This didn’t happen correctly on my last flight with Aeroflot (when I was stranded in Moscow overnight and rerouted on KLM for the final segment) and I had to fight to get my points, so I was careful to keep my boarding passes until I saw the miles post. In-flight announcements were made in English, Russian and Chinese. Interestingly enough, the Chinese-language announcements (made by a native Russian speaking crew member) were almost flawless, but the English-language announcements were difficult to understand.

Economy class cabin, Aeroflot Boeing 777.

Economy class cabin, Aeroflot Boeing 777.

Aeroflot has improved the beverage service since the last time I flew them, but the food wasn’t as good this time. In economy class on the short-haul flight (Zagreb to Moscow), we were served a platter of cold snacks. An almost identical platter of cold snacks was served for breakfast before landing in Beijing. The hot meal was served about an hour after takeoff from Moscow, and there was a choice of chicken or fish. I am allergic to some fish, so I chose the chicken option and wasn’t very impressed. Aeroflot was trying to do an Asian-style chicken but they should stick to Russian food, which they do much better. The fish entree looked much better.

Economy class Aeroflot meal.

Aeroflot breakfast served before landing in Beijing.

Beverage service used to be very odd; no alcohol served at all, and beverages were served only before the meal (none during or after). So, you’d drink your whole beverage and then be thirsty after eating. The beverage service has changed so that now red and white wine are offered with dinner (and only during dinner). Shortly after dinner was served, the crew came through the cabin offering hot beverages and water.

The in-flight entertainment on Aeroflot is some of the best that you will find anywhere. From the new 3-D maps to Russian propaganda (thinly veiled as news and documentaries) to the latest Hollywood movies, you’ll find something to enjoy. The system is fast and responsive and I was very pleased with nearly every aspect except the control box under my seat! If you choose an aisle seat, do so at either end of the middle row, not the aisle seat nearest the window.

Overall, I believe that Aeroflot still represents exceptional value and–as of today–there is little impact from US sanctions on Russia. Transit is still allowed through Moscow airports for US passport holders without any visa and with minimal hassle. The biggest problem so far is that Aeroflot currently cannot accept US-issued credit cards because the bank they use has been cut off from US banks. If you want to book with Aeroflot you’ll need to do so through an online travel agency (I use Orbitz, which typically shows the same fares and books into the same fare classes as booking with Aeroflot directly).

Should you fly Aeroflot? I consider it a little risky to book right now, because of the political headaches that could occur. However, if you’re traveling soon, the risk is probably low–sanctions generally don’t happen overnight and without a lot of prior warning. The inflight service is good, flight safety meets international standards, and the planes are comfortable. For the price, Aeroflot value is awfully hard to beat!