Bosnian Border Blitz

I have spent the last two weeks in Zagreb, Croatia. While most of my trip has been for business, I have had the opportunity for some personal travel as well. It’s about a month before the tourist season begins here in Croatia, so good deals are available on rental cars.

One of my favorite sites for booking discount rental cars in Europe is rentalcars.com. All the rates are prepaid and include basic insurance, so it’s relatively easy to avoid upsells. You can also see the rental car agency you’re using, which is different from sites like Priceline that don’t show you that. Better yet, the discounts they offer are sometimes astonishing, at 50% or less of the regular published price. Unfortunately, if you use Enterprise in Croatia, there is some fine print in the contract that is really limiting. They don’t allow you to travel to Serbia, Bosnia or Montenegro, all neighboring countries, unless you pay an additional 50 euro. This is simply a shakedown because the policy already includes coverage in these countries; they just won’t give you the insurance “green card” to prove it so you can’t get the car across the border. You can supposedly get around this by making a 10,000 euro deposit. I would have done this, but the Capital One credit card I used for this particular rental doesn’t have that large a limit (it’s irritating, because almost every other credit card I carry does).

I hate rental car scams and I hate being told I can’t go somewhere. I was determined to get to Bosnia, so I found a loophole. Dubrovnik, Croatia is an exclave and is only reachable via Bosnia through an area known as the “Neum corridor.” If you travel on this route, the Bosnian authorities do not require you to have a “green card” proof of insurance in order to cross. This presented an opportunity, so earlier this week, I made a Bosnian border blitz in order to experience a small slice of a rarely visited country.

The roads in Croatia are excellent, though expensive. It costs about $40 to travel from Zagreb to the Bosnian border. It’s easy to see why; the quality of the roads is similar to that in Switzerland and the route traverses some very challenging terrain. I passed through at least a dozen tunnels of varying length, some up to 2km long.

croatian highway

130km/hr across Croatia

The motorway route isn’t as spectacular as the old route along the coast (or so I’m told), but it was spectacular enough to me. Tall mountains tower over a stark arid scrubland, something that I didn’t expect to see in this part of the world. Roughly halfway, there is a mountain-crowned lake so spectacular that it would be a bustling national park in the United States, but appears to be a simple Croatian holiday village. Finally, I reached the border with Bosnia. A car in front of me was from Montenegro. The answers the driver gave were clearly unsatisfactory because, after a long delay, the car was directed aside and border guards started searching it very thoroughly. My experience was better. “Where are you going?” asked the officer. “Dubrovnik,” I said. “Only Dubrovnik?” he replied, to which I replied “Yes.” He asked “Why do you travel to Dubrovnik?” I replied “Because it is beautiful.” He handed back my passport, smiled, and said “In Dubrovnik the women are beautiful! Now talk to my colleague, he is Bosnian police.” I pulled forward to the next window, where a sour-faced guy scanned my passport into his computer. I asked whether it was possible to stamp my passport, and he handed back my passport saying “No. Now you go out.” I wasn’t interested in arguing the point, so I continued into Bosnia.

I had been warned by Croatians that the road would be terrible in Bosnia, but it wasn’t. One thing that I did think was very interesting was that the road signs had spray paint all over them, clearly obscuring something I couldn’t make out in the dark. However, the path to Dubrovnik was clearly marked. I drove into Neum, stopped at a restaurant for a bad and very expensive dinner where I got ripped off on the exchange rate, and then found an ATM to get some local currency, the Bosnian mark.

Bosnian marks worth about 40 euro.

Bosnian marks worth about 40 euro.

After my bad experience at dinner (don’t order the “Pirate Style Kebabs”), I wasn’t sure what to expect when it came to finding a hotel. However, I was tired and wanted to find somewhere to stay. I drove past the largest hotel (which I assumed would be expensive), and eventually came across a small boutique 3-star hotel called the Hotel Villa Nova. The office wasn’t open but a sign in the window said “we are downstairs,” so I went downstairs and the owner came out. Yes, a room was available, but without breakfast because I would be the only guest. Accordingly, there would be a small discount. The price was 30 euros, would I like to see the room?

Yes, I wanted to see the room. Rooms in Dubrovnik cost at least 3 times that. I had a look and everything was very clean and exactly in order. The hotel caters to Swiss and German visitors, who have very high expectations when they travel. All of the facilities were exactly as I would expect for a 3 star hotel and you can even drink the tap water. My room had a very nice balcony, comfortable bed, and the wireless Internet worked well. Basically, it’s exactly what I would expect of a property that caters to very particular Swiss visitors and it was almost frighteningly clean. Best of all, a spectacular view awaited me in the morning.

Room with a view

Room with a view

After checking out, I went to the post office to mail postcards home, and then to the gas station to fill up the car. There are two gas stations in Neum, but the one closest to the center of town has the cheapest prices (by about 20 eurocents per gallon). Unfortunately they only take cash and they rip you off on exchange rates if you don’t pay in Bosnian marks. Fuel is about 30% less expensive in Bosnia than in Croatia, so I definitely wanted to take advantage. I used up the remainder of my Bosnian marks which got me to about 3/4 tank, but I figured that would be enough to get me to Dubrovnik (it was more than enough; I topped off the tank to 100% on my way back to Zagreb).

Heading south toward Dubrovnik, I noticed why there was spray paint on the road signs. The Bosnian government apparently uses both Roman script and Cyrillic (in a nod to the Bosnian Serbs). Cyrillic script is thoroughly unacceptable to the local population, who are ethnically Croatian, so every trace of Cyrillic has been meticulously blacked out throughout the entire Neum corridor. This part of Bosnia was not spared the violence of the Serbian-Croatian war in the early 1990s, and even physical scars remain. The psychological ones will take longer to heal.

bombed out building

Bombed out building, Neum waterfront

If you’re faced with unreasonable restrictions from your rental car company, consider a visit to Neum if you’d like a taste of Bosnia. It provides a very affordable alternative to expensive accommodations in Dubrovnik, and is only an hour away.

Delta Denmark Deal – LA to Copenhagen for $555 return

In September, I’m flying to Denmark on Air France in their spectacular A380, the world’s largest passenger airplane. I will spend my birthday in Europe, and it only cost me $555 roundtrip! Best of all, I will earn miles. Why Denmark, and how did I manage to find such a crazy low fare? A healthy dose of old-fashioned competition.

Map of LA to Denmark

12,589 miles for just $555

The new kid on the block in transatlantic service is Norwegian Air Shuttle, who has roared into the US with a new Boeing 787 fleet and some exceptionally low fares to Scandanavia. As you may have heard, intra-Europe flights are fairly cheap. The expensive part is getting to Europe from the US. Norwegian is–incredibly–offering round-trip fares of under $500 for fall travel in some markets. This is something that obviously has traditional carriers worried. Nothing really justifies fares to Europe being as high as they are, but there has been limited competition and virtually no competition from low-cost carriers. With the arrival of Norwegian into the US, this has obviously changed.

Delta, Air France, KLM, United and Air Canada have vigorously responded, publishing low fares to match–and in some cases even undercut–Norwegian in markets where they compete. Some airlines, such as Air Canada, give only limited frequent flier credit for such low fares. However, Delta allows any fare purchased on delta.com and carrying a Delta flight number to accrue mileage in their SkyMiles program. While SkyMiles is not my favorite program because Delta miles are extremely difficult to redeem, $555 would be a great fall fare to Europe anyway–even without mileage credit. Even though my flights will entirely be operated by Air France, they carry a Delta fare code (V) and flight number, and they were booked directly with Delta, so they will earn mileage. The fare I booked is not eligible for Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan credit. Check your flight numbers carefully and ensure they are eligible for credit to alternative programs.

I am an avid follower of The Flight Deal, a site that tracks and posts exceptionally low fares. They published a heads-up on Twitter, and I was able to find availability from Los Angeles on the ITA Software Web site. While the flights I found were coded under a Delta flight number (and I purchased them on the Delta Web site), they are entirely operated by Air France. I tried a few tricks to play with the routing in an effort to earn more miles (with particular focus on routing through Seattle so I could earn the double miles bonus), but none worked. I was only able to book the most direct routing without stopovers. This was, for what it’s worth, entirely OK with me. While extra miles are nice, it’s also nice to take a very direct routing and arrive refreshed.

The miles earned from this trip will, under the 2015 Delta program, buy a one-way “saver” award ticket–or put you halfway to a free ticket within North America. I value Delta miles at 1 cent per mile, which makes the fare effectively $429 when you subtract the value of the miles earned for an effective transportation cost of 3.4 cents per mile. It’s hard to find a deal that good anywhere!

This deal is still available on select dates to airports throughout Scandanavia. Availability is limited, but you should find a deal you’ll like if you are flexible with your dates.

Going Dutch – Europe Budget Flights On Transavia

In case you’re wondering why I haven’t posted much lately, I am currently on a trip in The Netherlands and Italy with my parents. I just graduated with my MBA, and am enjoying a last couple of weeks of freedom before I settle down into my new job (which I know is going to keep me very busy).

On our trip, we planned to visit Venice, Lucca, Florence and Rome. I mostly booked accommodations through airbnb which ended up being a lot cheaper than staying in a hotel, and promises to get us better locations and the convenience of being able to cook at home if we prefer.

Getting to Italy on the train is possible from The Netherlands, but it’s surprisingly expensive and takes a long time. My parents are also not experienced travelers; they consider a trip 3 hours north to Vancouver from their Seattle-area home to be an exotic foreign vacation. Flying seemed to be a better solution, but there wasn’t actually any way to fly directly from Amsterdam to Venice on conventional airlines.

I plugged my route into SkyScanner which is my favorite tool for checking flight prices and routes within Europe. It is particularly useful because it picks up a lot of budget airlines and routes which aren’t bookable through conventional online sales channels (such as Expedia or Orbitz) and won’t show up on the ITA Software search tool. This uncovered a nonstop route on an airline called Transavia which was surprisingly inexpensive–under $100!

Transavia is a subsidiary of Dutch airline KLM, which itself is a subsidiary of Air France. They fly primarily to leisure destinations throughout Europe from Amsterdam and Rotterdam. For the most part, they sell tickets on their own Web site (transavia.com) and flights do not earn miles with any frequent flier program. Transavia operates more or less separately from KLM, although they do share gates and some ground staff at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam (and maybe other places, I only noticed this in Amsterdam). Transavia also uses the KLM Web site for online check-in. We used it and it worked fine.

The similarities more or less end there. However, Transavia is not Ryanair; I consider the service a notch above both Ryanair and Spirit. They offer assigned seating (free 24 hours in advance, or earlier for an extra charge). The hand baggage allowance is just one bag, which needs to be pretty small. You can’t additionally carry a purse or backpack; everything has to fit in your carry-on bag or you have to check it. Checked bag fees are reasonable, at 25 euro for a 23 kilogram (50 pound) allowance and cheaper fees for lighter weights (as low as 15 euro for 15 kilo).

All fares are actually 5 euro more than advertised, because there is an unavoidable “booking fee” charged. Incidentally, I really wish that the EU would follow the lead of the US and require an “all-in” fare to be published, rather than phony fares that can never actually be booked.

At Amsterdam Schiphol airport, our Transavia flight used a regular KLM gate. The check-in counter was run by Transavia staff (a very friendly woman from Suriname who was highly efficient), but KLM staff assisted us at the gate. Things worked pretty much like boarding a KLM flight and a jetway was even used (budget airlines usually try to avoid doing this because it is more expensive).

Trasavia plane at jetway

Transavia plane awaits at the end of the jetway

Transavia jetway

Transavia jetway – it was crowded!

Onboard, leg room wasn’t bad, and I had a whole row of seats to myself–until a really fat guy who required a seat belt extension helped himself to two of empty seats in my row. This wasn’t quite what I’d planned when I paid extra for a seat where the adjoining two seats were blocked, but it was only a 2 hour flight and I wasn’t going to make a big stink over it.

Transavia row of seats

My very own row… for about 5 minutes.

My parents prefer to show up at the airport several hours early for their flight, and to be at the boarding gate early–preferably before the check-in staff arrive. I suggested we have dinner instead, bearing in mind that Schiphol is efficient. They went along with my suggestion with a mix of reluctance and trepidation. We ultimately arrived at the gate around 10 minutes before Transavia started boarding, which is normally plenty of time. Unfortunately,”gate lice” rushed the gate and we ended up somewhere in the middle of the group to board. There was only one boarding call. So much for pre-boarding, for which we had paid extra along with our supposedly premium seats.

Despite the meager carry-on bag allowance, the overhead bins were completely full so my father had to store his bag in row 29 despite being seated in 1A (I got up later in the flight and moved it underneath the seat in front of me). Lesson learned? Don’t pay for pre-boarding or a premium seat on Transavia. You won’t actually get either.

My seat did recline, there was inflight entertainment (consisting mostly of a bizarre video showing the flight kitchen where Transavia sandwiches are made–not appetizing!) and there was food service available. Everything cost money, even water, there was no hot food, and the only thing that was substantial was sandwiches. This is basically what things are like in Holland anyway so it’s not a huge surprise. The inflight staff wasn’t aggressive in selling stuff and the plane wasn’t festooned with ads like a bus, so it seems that KLM is trying to maintain some semblance of dignity with their Transavia product.

Transavia legroom

Transavia legroom is about the same as United

Arrival in Venice was at a bus gate, which was relatively quick. Two buses were parked near the exits and Transavia opens two aircraft doors (at the front and rear) for arrival. Luggage service was very fast, no problems with the bags, and we were on our way in almost no time.

Would I fly with Transavia again? Sure, if the price is right. Add 30 euro to the fare you see to get the “real price” with the same domestic baggage allowance you’d have with a US airline, and with their “booking fee.” Skip the extras, they may not be honored anyway and you can pick any available seat you want during online check-in. Also subtract the value of the frequent flier miles you’d otherwise receive by flying a legacy airline. If the deal is less expensive (and it was both more convenient and less expensive in our case), go ahead and book! Our flight was professionally operated, arrived on time, and was certainly comfortable enough for a short (2 hour) journey. Most importantly, it passed the “Mom test!”

My parents in Venice

Mom and Dad enjoying their first big international trip!

21,152 Miles Around The World For Under $1200

In an unusual departure from my usual Seat 31B, I am sitting in the British Airways lounge in Seattle waiting for a delayed flight. I am on my way to The Netherlands to participate in my graduation. On Friday, I’ll officially be an MBA!

ba_loungeOrdinarily, I don’t fly in business class. It’s almost impossible to book it at the “saver” or “low” award level, and even if you can, it’s not particularly good value. This is especially true on British Airways, which requires payment of a fuel surcharge ($331 in my case) which can sometimes approach the cost of a ticket. In this case, it was the best deal I could find. Paid tickets are incredibly expensive right now (a one-way in economy class is going for around $800 from Seattle, even on Icelandair) and no award space was available in economy class. Using my Aadvantage points, I was able to redeem at the “saver” award level in business class. On the bright side, I will be very well rested for graduation.

This time, I will be traveling around the world on a combination of British Airways, Aeroflot, Cathay Pacific and Alaska Airlines. This trip will be entirely in economy class except for SEA-LHR-AMS. I will also note that Russia just invaded and annexed Ukraine and I will be flying through Russia without a visa, which is going to make matters really interesting. The total cost of the trip was $1174 in paid fares, taxes, fuel surcharges and booking fees.

rtw_clockwiseSEA-LHR-AMS: 50,000 Aadvantage miles (earned from a single Aadvantage Citi credit card signup, annual fee waived and $3,000 minimum spend) plus $331 in taxes and fuel surcharges. Club World business class

AMS-LGW+LHR-ZAG: $163 paid fare on British Airways. This fare is eligible to earn me 1,383 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles.

ZAG-SVO-PEK: $530 paid fare on Aeroflot. This low fare, amazingly, earns 100% mileage credit on Delta SkyMiles. I will earn 4,773 miles. The only catch is that I have to transit Russia with no visa in the midst of a Crimean invasion, and also amid very frosty relations with both Europe and the United States. My mother isn’t thrilled I have chosen to do this.

PEK-KMG: I will transfer ICBC points earned through my American Express card to my Hong Kong Airlines account, and redeem them for a domestic intra-China ticket from Beijing to Kunming, Yunnan. This has to be done in person when I arrive in Beijing. The redemption fee, as best I can tell, is zero! Now that’s the kind of price I like.

KMG-HKG-LAX: 30,000 Aadvantage miles (earned for free by signing up for an Aadvantage Visa to join my Aadvantage MasterCard, annual fee waived with $3,000 minimum spending requirement) plus $71 in taxes and booking fees. Note that I won’t even be realizing the full value of the award on this trip, because I added a free one-way to New York later this summer on the same award.

LGB-SEA: $79 paid fare on Alaska Airlines. This will earn me 965 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles.

I would have paid about $1200 for a round-trip ticket from Seattle to The Netherlands in economy class. By taking advantage of miles and points, I am flying all the way around the world for around the same price and 1/3 of the trip will be in British Airways Club World, one of the best business class services in the air. This is the beginning of an epic two month adventure, and it’s going to be amazing!

Discount Dental Dash in Los Algodones, MEXICO

Any small business owner will tell you that starting a business is the fastest way to spend all of your money. I found a faster way, though: I went for an MBA and then started a technology company. As my bank accounts continued their gut-wrenching race toward zero, I knew that I couldn’t pay full price for a dentist appointment.

I found a shady Scottsdale dentist offering cut-rate cleanings on LivingSocial, so I went ahead and signed up. To my surprise, I was actually able to get an appointment (the usual deal with these things is that you pay and the service provider finds a way to weasel out of giving you anything, but strings you along until after you can’t get a refund), so I went in. I had no idea of the horrors that awaited me.

“Welcome to the practice,” said the hygenist, abruptly sitting me down in a chair and going to work on my teeth immediately. She wasn’t from the “gentle dental” school of thought, and I am guessing that maybe the hygenist previously worked in a prison hospital. I have never endured a more painful cleaning in my life. Blood filled my mouth as dental tools tore hunks of flesh from my gums. “Do you see this?” said the hygenist, shoving a piece of bloody gauze in my face. “This came off of your back tooth! IT WAS BLACK!” Looked red to me. The scraping and scolding continued until finally, mercifully it was over. I rinsed my mouth out on command, and it came out red. “This is GUM DISEASE!” said the hygenist. “You are NOT a candidate for teeth whitening.”

Aha. Now I understood and it all became perfectly clear. The LivingSocial deal was for a cleaning and teeth whitening. But if I “wasn’t a candidate,” they wouldn’t have to provide the more expensive part of the deal, leaving me paying a slightly discounted rate for a cleaning only. The actual dentist came in. “How did you like our hygenist?” he asked. I didn’t say anything, and he said “She is one of the best hygenists you will ever encounter, your teeth will never be cleaner.” Poking around inside my mouth, washing blood off of my teeth so he could see what he was doing, he finally said “You have a cavity, tooth #3. We can fill that now if you’d like.”

I didn’t like. Absolutely not. I wanted out of there as quickly as possible. On my way out, the front desk provided me an estimate for $240 to have the filling done if I wanted to come back. They also recommended a $700 mouth guard because I was supposedly grinding my teeth at night (something no dentist had previously told me). Calling around to other dental offices in Phoenix, I was surprised that $240 was the market rate for a filling, which was entirely ridiculous to me. In Beijing (where I lived for 3 years and which I’m still using as a point of reference for whether costs are reasonable), the cost is about 10% of that.

And so it was that I found myself driving yesterday to Los Algodones, Mexico. This tiny Mexican town, only 9 square blocks, has perhaps the largest number of dentists per capiita of anywhere in the world. I followed my trusty Garmin GPS, which took me through Yuma, across farmland, up onto a river dike, and smack into a highly suspicious Border Patrol officer who wondered what, exactly, I was doing there.

Image credit http://i177.photobucket.com/albums/w220/surf_kat/EMT%20Excursion/EMTExcursionLeeStation.jpg

A US Border Patrol vehicle similar to the one I encountered

I pointed across to what appeared to be Mexico and said “I think I’m going there, I have a dentist appointment, but the GPS apparently doesn’t know that a river is in the way or that it’s in Mexico.” The border guard laughed and said “This happens a lot, Garmin, right?” He was friendly and gave me directions–which involved backtracking to Yuma, driving on Interstate 8 across the river to California, and then heading south from there. He also reminded me that the border closes at 10pm. “Get there early,” he said, “if you’re not through the border before 10, you’re going to be stuck in Mexico overnight.”

I made my way back through town, a trek back to the freeway that was several miles long. The exit was well signposted to Mexico. Along the way, several signs placed by the US government warned not to take any guns or ammunition into Mexico (this creates big problems with the local authorities). There is a parking lot operated by the local tribal authority (the border crossing is on tribal land), which costs $6. The lot is well guarded and is located directly on the border. If you’d like to see all the road signs, they have been collected here for your viewing pleasure.

It’s an easy walk across the border. You pass through a turnstile and you’re directly in Mexico. No authorities were checking documentation (this is normal in Mexican border cities because there are additional documentation checkpoints about 30km past the border). However, the Mexican INM office was open and available to stamp passports and issue tourist cards for people traveling further inland. I was traveling with only my Enhanced Drivers License and had no passport to stamp, so I didn’t contact them.

Image credit http://otrwjam.files.wordpress.com/2012/01/dsc01990.jpg

Border crossing as seen from the US side

I didn’t have an appointment anywhere, but figured I would be able to find a dentist’s office without much trouble because there were so many of them. Another expat steered me to an office called Clinica Dental Guadalajara, which turned out to be one of the only clinics still operating late in the afternoon. Most clinics close early, but the Clinica Dental Guadalajara stays open until 5:00pm Arizona time so local people from Yuma can make appointments after work. I described the service I needed and the front desk clerk apologetically stated “it will be about a 15 minute wait, the dentist is with another patient.” I was fine with that, and chatted with another of the Americans in the waiting room. I liked what I heard – she and her husband lived in Arizona, and always came to Los Algodones for their dental care. They had used several dentists, had a bad experience with one, and then someone recommended the Guadalajara clinic. They had been patients for a few years, had always been happy with the service, and were now confident enough to have major dental surgery done–which is what her husband was undergoing. Shortly thereafter they finished with him. He walked out into the lobby a bit unsteadily, the anasthetic starting to wear off, accompanied by two smartly dressed nurses who held his arm to make sure he didn’t fall. The dentist–speaking perfect English–went through all of the details of the surgery and the after-care with the couple, making sure that the wife understood every detail and that all prescriptions were filled. Medicine in Latin America is often very abrupt in tone, but this wasn’t the case here. I felt confident with what I saw.

Now it was my turn. I expected a clean, modern office with all of the latest equipment, so I wasn’t surprised. Everything was well organized and professional. The dentist and her assistant both spoke perfect English. Although I half expected there would be no cavity found on my tooth, the dentist confirmed there was–it was just very small so I hadn’t noticed. “It is good you caught it early,” she said. “You won’t need any anasthetic, I will only need to drill the surface. You should not feel any pain, but let me know if you do.” A quick inspection of my other teeth to make sure there were no other hidden problems, and she set to work, meticulously working with a tiny drill. This didn’t hurt at all, it actually felt similar to my teeth being cleaned with a rotating brush.

The dentist drilled and checked, then drilled and checked again. She was very meticulous about her work. Finally it was time to put in the filling. She used a white composite filing, the same as would be done in the US. Not happy with the bite profile, she drilled the filling a bit more to “shape” it properly, and I was on my way. I asked about the night guard the other dentist had recommended, and the special toothbrush. “You don’t need any of that,” she said. “I can see you are using a hard bristle toothbrush though, it’s really hard on your gums. Switch to a soft bristle toothbrush. The other dentist was definitely right about one thing, you do need to floss every day!” And then it was time to pay the bill.

$40.

Even after burning an entire tank of gas and driving roundtrip from Phoenix, I saved $150 all-in. No matter your political stripe, it’s hard not to see a big problem with this. For now, though, Los Algodones, Mexico is there for your own Discount Dental Dash! The quality of care is good, and the prices are some of the best I have seen in the world.

Do-It-Yourself Chinese Tourist Visa

I lived in Beijing for three years and still have a decent chunk of my life in China, so I have dealt with a lot of Chinese paperwork. However, until last week, I had never formally applied for a visa by myself.

If you want to apply for a Chinese visa, you have to either use an agent service (I recommend http://www.uschinavisa.com/ who has provided me excellent service in the past) or you have to apply by yourself in person. Last week, I needed to be in Los Angeles for a few days, and I needed a Chinese visa, so I was able to apply in person.

The first step is to fill out the application form and assemble the required documentation. The application form is pretty complicated (and has gotten more complicated) so it’s a good idea to follow the detailed instructions provided by the good folks at Best for China Visa. Triple-check everything on your application form and make sure that it is correct, and that it matches your supporting documentation. If anything is wrong or doesn’t match, you will risk having your application rejected by the Chinese embassy or consulate.

If you’re applying for a tourist visa, the process is relatively straightforward. You’ll need a hotel reservation for the first few days of your trip (5 days is good if you’re staying for a month; for a shorter trip, you need at least one night reserved). You also will need to have proof of a ticket into and out of China, or a detailed itinerary explaining how you will arrive in China if you are traveling by land. If you will fly into Hong Kong and cross into China overland, then include copies of your tickets to and from Hong Kong. Your passport must have at least 6 months of validity, and Chinese visas take up an entire page so you will also need at least one completely blank page in your passport.

There is no actual requirement to stay in the hotel you reserved or to fly on the ticket you booked when you submitted the visa application. You also don’t need to travel on the exact dates that you originally submitted, as long as you enter China before the date that your visa expires, and you don’t stay longer than you are allowed. Accordingly, some travelers find it more convenient to make reservations that are fully refundable and then rebook cheaper non-refundable tickets and hotel rooms after the visa has been issued. Also, a Chinese visa allows entry by any means. So, for example, if you originally planned to fly to Guangzhou but found a cheaper flight to Hong Kong instead, don’t worry. You can book the Hong Kong flight and cross overland into China. The Chinese government is actually very reasonable about this and recognizes that plans can change. Chinese people love a bargain, so if you change your plans to save money, don’t expect any trouble–just congratulations for your savvy.

Once you have your application form and supporting documentation, take it to the Chinese embassy or the consulate nearest you. Chinese consulates provide service based on your place of residence. A detailed list of consulates mapped to service areas is here. Technically, your application can be refused if you apply to a consulate that is different than the one that serves your area. In practice, this rarely happens if you apply by yourself without using a visa agent, but it’s best to apply using an address that is within the service area of the consulate to avoid any trouble. My family owns a vacation property in Arizona which is within the Los Angeles consulate’s service area, so I used that address rather than my Seattle address on my application and had no problems.

In Los Angeles, the Chinese consulate’s visa applications center is located in a nondescript office building on the third floor. It is across the street from the official Chinese consulate. Look for this sign:

Photo courtesy of YelpInside, there is a ticket machine. Press the button for the service you need, and you’ll get a ticket like this one:

Photo courtesy of YelpNow it’s time to wait! Thankfully the TVs were switched off, rather than blaring Chinese soap operas which is usually the case in a Chinese government office’s waiting room.

Photo courtesy of YelpWhen your number is called, go to your window quickly! They only wait a few seconds and if they don’t see anyone moving fast, they will go on to the next number and you will have to argue not to lose your turn. I had to run out to feed the parking meter but fortunately didn’t lose my turn.

After you submit your visa application, a visa officer will review your documentation. You may get some of it back if they decide they don’t need it. I brought paperwork reflecting practically my entire life’s history in China (when it comes to documentation, more is usually better than less when dealing with the Chinese government). I think this helped a lot, because I was asked very minimal questions and almost all of my documentation was quickly returned with an exasperated–but friendly–admonition of “Too many stuffs!” My application and passport was accepted, stamped, and I was given a receipt and told to come back on the following Tuesday (it was Thursday). To my surprise, payment was not accepted; this is collected when you pick up your visa.

Today, I went back to the Chinese consulate. I drove a little farther and found a non-metered 2 hour parking space this time, because a visit to the consulate takes about 90 minutes. The consulate was busy but the line moved pretty fast. A single consular officer was working, but her hands moved quickly, multitasking effortlessly. I had my ID, credit card, and application receipt handy (it is a pink form), and when my turn came I was on my way in–literally–30 seconds. To my delight, I was issued a 1 year visa, multiple entries, with a 60 day maximum stay per entry. This is the best visa currently being offered to foreigners who are not married to Chinese citizens, so even though I changed my passport it seems that the Chinese government was able to find my previous record of good conduct in order to issue me with a better visa.

You need a photo ID to collect your visa, and you can only pay by credit card, cashier’s check or money order. The cost is $140 for US passport holders. Cash is not accepted. Two people had to go buy a money order next door and stand in line again because they only brought cash! Also, parking enforcement is draconian, and running out to feed the meter won’t save you from a ticket if an officer sees you do it. It’s illegal to park for more than an hour at the metered spaces even if you pay for more than an hour. If you need to move your car, the security guards will allow you to reclaim your place in line if it is still there when you come back. It is better to drive farther away because there are some free parking spaces a couple of blocks away that will allow you to park for two hours.

Now that you have your Chinese visa, here are some tips on how to use it properly:

  • Enter before means that you need to enter China before that date. This can be anywhere from 3 months to 1 year from the issue date. It is usually better to apply for a visa to China around one month in advance. That way, if you aren’t given a long period of validity, you will have enough time to enter China.
  • Entries means the number of times you are allowed to enter China prior to the “Enter Before” date. Note that if you go out from mainland China into Hong Kong and then come back, that counts as two entries! Most of the time this will either be 1 entry or M, for multiple (unlimited) entries. If you need multiple entries, be sure to justify this with your proposed itinerary, otherwise you might get only one entry and have to adjust your travel plans!
  • Duration of each stay means how long you are allowed to stay in China after you enter, which must be before the “Enter Before” date. This is by calendar day, not by 24-hour day! Count your days carefully (and do not forget the international date line) to make sure you do not overstay your visa. Note that “enter before” means just that–as long as you enter China before the date shown, you can stay for the number of days allowed in the duration after you enter. There is a huge fine if you overstay, which can be up to 3,000 RMB per day. In extreme cases, you can also be barred from re-entering China for 5 years. Note that unlike many countries, China allows you to leave and immediately return to start the clock on another “stay.” If you have a US passport, you can enter Hong Kong and Mongolia without a visa, and many expats go on “visa runs” to these places.
  • No matter what the shady language school that tries to hire you off the street says, you are not allowed to work on a tourist visa. You get the fine and travel ban, not them, so they have an incentive to lie. If you decide that you want to stay and work in China, the only legal way to do it is on a visa category that explicitly allows work such as J-1, J-2, R, D or Z. Changing your visa type generally requires you to return to your home country and apply from there (although there are sometimes loopholes in applying either from Hong Kong or from within China, depending upon what you are trying to do and the strength of your employer’s relationships with the Chinese government).
  • It should go without saying, but you need to follow Chinese laws while you’re in China. Generally speaking, these aren’t much different from laws in the US, with a few exceptions around politically sensitive topics. In many ways Chinese society is more relaxed than the US, but there are “red lines” you need to be aware of and you must not cross them. There have been a lot of recent incidences of foreigners doing outrageous things and behaving badly in Chinese cities, and Chinese people are generally feeling very impatient with this and are more wary of foreigners than in the past. Being friendly, patient, polite, and having a ready smile will go a long way toward having a nice trip.
  • If you are staying in a private home (including an airbnb accommodation), you need to register your residence with the local Public Security Bureau (Chinese police) within 24 hours. Ask a Chinese friend or real estate company for help with this, but don’t ignore it: it’s really important and there can be a very large fine for failing to do so. One friend who visited me in Beijing and didn’t register on time was forced to write an apology letter to the police and promise never to do it again. He got off easy, because he could have been fined over $100. You will get a form proving your residence registration and you should always carry a copy of this with you, along with a copy of your passport. The Chinese police can demand to see this at any time and you can be fined if you fail to produce it. Technically you need the original (and your original passport) but the police are reasonable if you are carrying a copy, since they understand stolen passports are a big problem. Note that if you are staying in a hotel, hostel or any other licensed accommodation for foreigners, they will do the registration for you and you don’t need to do anything; this is only something to worry about if you are staying in a private residence.

Two trips to the Chinese consulate, several gallons of gasoline, a full day of my time, and a lot of quarters in the parking meter saved me around $50 in agent processing and mailing fees. On the other hand, by applying in person and bringing extra supporting documents, I got a better visa than an agent may have been able to get me. Would I apply in person again? Probably not–using the services of an agent saves a lot of time, and I have already been given a “good” visa so will probably not be downgraded next time, even if an agent applies on my behalf.

If this article was helpful and you use my favorite agent, http://www.uschinavisa.com, please enter my email address tprophet [at] seat31b [dot] com as the referral during your application process. You’ll pay the same for the service as you would without giving me referral credit, but with your referral, I will get a coupon good for $5 off my next Chinese visa application.

 

The Aeroflot Alley-Oop

When most people think of Aeroflot, they think old Soviet planes, surly service and one of the worst safety records in the world. “Sure, the fare is low,” you might think, “but there’s no way I’ll ever fly with Aeroflot.” Unfortunately, if you think this, you’re missing out on one of Europe’s best kept secrets.

Today’s Aeroflot is much different than in Soviet times. The fleet is modern and efficient with new Boeing and Airbus planes along with new Russian models. Aeroflot now has an excellent safety record–comparable to other European carriers–and a safety program that meets international standards. The in-flight entertainment on long-haul aircraft is some of the best in the skies. Meals are excellent, and the meals in economy class can even occasionally rival those served in business class on other airlines. Service is very professional, if not particularly friendly (to some degree this is cultural, because Russians are not very friendly in general). And best of all, you don’t need a visa to transit Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport as long as your final destination is not Belarus. All of this for a price that is generally lower–in many cases much lower–than most other airlines flying between Europe and Asia.

Aeroflot is a member of the SkyTeam alliance and transfers between Aeroflot and other SkyTeam carriers such as KLM are seamless in Moscow. Your bags will be tagged through to your final destination at check-in and will be transferred to the other carrier when you connect. When you consider the price you paid, mileage credit can also be surprisingly generous when credited to other programs such as Delta SkyMiles. In most cases, the minimum mileage credit you will receive is 75% (although on the most deeply discounted fares–rarely seen because the fares are so low–mileage credit is limited to 25%).

Newer terminal at Sheremetyevo has a modern look.

Newer terminal at Sheremetyevo has a modern look.

Old terminal at Sheremetyevo, left over from the USSR

Old terminal at Sheremetyevo, left over from the USSR

What are the potential downsides? In my experience, Aeroflot does not recover well if anything goes wrong. If you’re stuck overnight at Sheremetyevo due to a missed connection, you will be put in the “transit hotel.” They will ask you to share a room with a random person from the plane. You’re not allowed to leave your room and basically you’re locked in, it’s almost like a jail. The airline will decide when you’re leaving (in my case, it was 6 in the morning after not even getting to the hotel until 1 in the morning), and will decide when you eat. You will also not have access to anything from your checked luggage and you’re not even allowed to buy anything from the hotel store, so you can’t get anything like contact solution, toothpaste or even medication that might have been locked into your checked luggage.

To be fair, Aeroflot doesn’t control Russian immigration regulations, Customs regulations or visa policy. And if everything goes well, Aeroflot fares can represent an incredible value versus other airlines. The next time you are traveling between Europe and Asia, consider Aeroflot. The experience may pleasantly surprise you!