An Epic Redemption To Svalbard And Moldova

Given that I have been traveling a lot less this year, I have been living vicariously to some degree through YouTube travel videos. Two of my favorite YouTubers are Drew Binsky and Bald and Bankrupt, both of whom travel to some places that are pretty far off the beaten path. After seeing Drew’s videos of Svalbard and Bald’s videos of Moldova, I knew that I needed to visit both.

If you have been following this blog for awhile (or know me in real life) you probably won’t be surprised that I’m interested in visiting Moldova. After all, I have already been to Armenia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Georgia and Ukraine. Svalbard, however, is an unusual choice for me given that it’s expensive. The largest town is administered by Norway, which is already one of the most expensive places in the world. Naturally, prices on Svalbard are even more expensive than the rest of Norway, given its extremely remote location.

That being said, I have visited other expensive islands. Adak, Alaska is probably the most expensive place I have ever been. The Seychelles, which I recently visited, are also a super expensive destination, as was Christmas Island, Australia. I have learned to moderate the cost of remote island destinations by staying in less expensive accommodations when possible (for example, I stayed in an airbnb on Christmas Island that was 1/3 the price of any hotels, and I found an excellent Couchsurfing host on Palau), and bringing extra food and supplies with me if I have a luggage allowance that permits it.

Svalbard is way north!

The island of Svalbard is interesting to me because apart from being one of the world’s most remote islands, Longyearbyen is the world’s northernmost town. It’s only about 650 miles from the North Pole!

The settlement of Barentsburg still has a statue of Lenin!

Sweetening the deal, of course, is the chance to visit the nearby Russian settlement of Barentsburg. It’s administered by Russia, but I won’t need a visa to visit. Making it even more interesting is the fact that they have kept it more or less like it was during Soviet times. They even still have a statue of Lenin!

Moldova, meanwhile, not only the the least visited country in Europe, it’s crazy cheap. How cheap? It makes Bulgaria look expensive. Like Ukraine, one of my favorite countries, it has an ethnic Russian breakaway region, the de facto country of Transnistria. Visiting would be possible, although I’m not 100% sure that’s the plan. Whether or not I visit, I expect to find the sort of decaying ex-Soviet stuff I like to check out along with a lot of surprises along the way. I don’t plan trips carefully to places like Moldova; instead, I just leave a lot of time for serendipitous discoveries.

Abandoned Soviet circus? Yes, please!

Naturally, with off-the-beaten-path destinations like these, flights to both places are also really expensive, which is where miles and points can really come in handy. With many award programs, tickets are priced based upon the regions in which you’re traveling, not on the cash cost of a ticket.

Selecting A Mileage Program

Although United has devalued their program for flights that involve a United segment (often more than doubling the previous price), they have —for now — maintained the previous award levels for partner flights. Additionally, they have maintained the “excursionist perk,” which gives you a free intra-Europe one way flight on a roundtrip flight to Europe. For my itinerary, this was extremely valuable given the high cost of flights between Svalbard and Moldova. All I had to do was find availability on dates that would work.

I try to book my travel around US holidays so I end up taking fewer vacation days, and it really took some work to find availability. When I’m planning a complicated itinerary like this, I focus on the most difficult flights to get first. Not surprisingly, these are flights to Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Why? There is only one flight a day on United’s partner SAS (from Oslo), and it’s really expensive so a lot of people try to use points on it. I was able to find availability on the 30th, so I worked backwards from there to find availability to Oslo.

I’m starting from Seattle and there wasn’t anything available that would get me to Oslo in time, but I was able to find an outbound itinerary on a combination of SWISS and SAS that routed the entire way from San Francisco. I’ll have to buy a positioning flight to San Francisco, but from Seattle, these aren’t expensive (sale fares commonly run as low as $59).

Onward from Longyearbyen, there was availability on SAS back to Oslo, continuing on Austrian via Vienna to Chisnau. This flight alone would cost $629 if booked with cash (other, less convenient flights were around $100 less). And finally, from Chisnau, I was able to find availability back to Seattle via Austrian (back to Vienna) and Lufthansa (via Munich).

16,773 miles in economy class

Yes, It’s In Economy Class

If you read most travel blogs, they’ll tell you that the only way to use miles and points is to book premium cabin award seats, sipping champagne and nibbling on caviar after a visit to an over-the-top fancy lounge, jetting off to an over-the-water bungalow on a private island in the Maldives. Or something. Now, I’m not knocking this. It’s nice to fly in premium cabins, and I’ll use my miles this way under limited circumstances (for example, on extremely long flights, which would be expensive in economy class, and where I can redeem at the lowest “sweet spot” redemption rate).

There’s another good way to spend miles and points, though: economy class flights that would otherwise be really expensive, especially those on flights where business class doesn’t matter. That’s how I typically use my miles and points. So let’s deconstruct this itinerary and I’ll explain why it made the most sense to book in economy class.

Considering The Cost

The minimum cost to book this itinerary in business class would be 140,000 points. This is because the most logical transatlantic flights from the West Coast aren’t on United for this itinerary, and there wasn’t availability anyway. This compares to the 60,000 point cost to book in economy class, an 80,000 point difference. I’d be getting these points from my Chase Ultimate Rewards account if I were to spend them.

80,000 points is really a lot. Even spending these through the Chase portal (and I can usually do better than that) would yield $1,200 in value. Is it worth $1,200 for a lie flat seat on a roughly 8 hour overnight trip? To me, definitely not.

Availability: The Toughest Hurdle

In economy class, there was availability over the 4th of July weekend, which would allow me to take one fewer vacation day for the trip. There wasn’t availability in business class over this week. I could find availability in business class over a different week, but it’d be for a trip that was a day shorter than I wanted. Making matters worse, the domestic legs were all in economy class to the East Coast, connecting to international flights on a third-tier carrier (LOT) from there.

This just didn’t make sense to me. Why blow 80,000 extra points on an itinerary chock full of intra-Europe legs, where intra-Europe “business class” would get me into the same lounge I can access with Priority Pass and an economy class seat (with a blocked middle)? It might have been worthwhile if the transatlantic flights originated on the West Coast, but almost none of them do.

One big downside: During the week I wanted to travel, there was no availability from Seattle at saver level for the outbound flight. I could only find availability from San Francisco. I was, however, able to find a return flight back into Seattle at saver level. This is a side effect of United changing to dynamic award pricing for award itineraries that include even a single flight on United. If I had departed from Seattle, the price would have been 70,000 points for the outbound flight, instead of 30,000 points. The 40,000 difference, at 1.5 cents per point when redeemed on the Chase portal, is like paying $600 for a 90 minute flight that regularly sells for $79.

Getting Nerdy: Cents Per Point Breakdown

I think one of the best measures of whether you got a good deal on a flight is how much it would cost if you paid for similar flights you’d actually buy. That’s really hard with this trip, because these flights are so expensive. Without using miles and points, visiting these destinations would be almost financially impossible.

The least expensive reasonable itinerary

I’m flying a better itinerary than the cheapest reasonable itinerary (which is on a combination of Norwegian, SAS, Austrian and Turkish), and I’m traveling on better airlines. This itinerary, from Seattle, costs $1,773. It’s the least expensive reasonable itinerary, and it’s what I’d most likely book.

Pricing out the value here isn’t as easy as just taking 1,773 and dividing it by 60,000, because I had to pay some money out of pocket for the award ticket. It cost $223 in taxes, and the flight departs from San Francisco where I don’t live. That ticket is currently selling for $79, which is a normal price for a flight between Seattle and the Bay Area. So the calculation goes as follows:

  • $1,773
  • $223
  • $79
  • = $1,471
  • % 60,000
  • = 2.5 cents per point

Is 2.5 cents per point a good value? I think so, even though it’s nothing close to the eye-popping values you see assigned to points by the credit card bloggers. Chase Ultimate Rewards points have a floor value of 1.5 cents per point. In practice, it is difficult to achieve on the Chase portal, so the floor is actually below that.

This booking even exceeds the 2.4 cents per point in value I can usually get out of Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles, which are generally considered the most valuable airline points. I think that’s really good. Sure, it’s not a huge inflated number based on an outrageously expensive business class fare, but that’s not a fare I’d ever actually buy. However, a flight on a nearly bankrupt airline via a dumpy secondary British airport is very much a flight I’d actually buy here at Seat 31B, so I think the valuation is fair.

Wrap-Up

I haven’t been more excited about a trip I’m taking in a long time. Having explored some of the farthest northern reaches of Alaska (including Barrow and Deadhorse), it’ll be incredible to see how Svalbard compares!

A Trip To Christmas Island

Part 1: Planning

Earlier this year, Qantas ran a crazy sale on flights to Australia. I was able to score a $550 roundtrip on their A380 from Vancouver to Sydney. These weren’t nonstop flights (the outbound was from Dallas and the return was to Los Angeles), and Vancouver isn’t exactly a convenient airport for me to use given that I live in the Seattle area, but the savings were worth it—especially since the over 16,000 miles of flying credits at 100% to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. I typically aim for 2.4 cents per point in fully loaded value from my Alaska Airlines points, and I’m regularly able to achieve this. So, it was like paying $75 each way. To Sydney, Australia.

Then, from a miles and points perspective, things got even better. Alaska ran a double miles promo for flights on Qantas, meaning that I’d get 200% mileage credit for these flights. When combined with the small mileage credit I received for my positioning flight on American, this $550 ticket scored me a massive points haul of 32,614 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles. The way I spend them, it’s $783 in value, so in effect, Alaska Airlines paid me $233 to go to Australia. I don’t have any elite status with Alaska (most of my flights are paid for with miles and points, not cash) but if I had, I could have scored a nice tier bonus on top of this.

The catch was that August is winter in Australia, the weather isn’t great in Sydney, and the sale fare wasn’t available to other Australian destinations. Australian friends warned me that it’d be cold, so I looked into flying onward from Sydney to warmer destinations. I have been on an island kick lately, most recently visiting The Seychelles. I also have a trip booked to Providencia later next year. So when I started researching Australian island destinations, Christmas Island caught my eye.

The majority of Christmas Island is a national park

The island is most famous for its red land crab migration, which occurs during the rainy season. Millions of them swarm the beaches and cover them (along with the roads), basically creating a river of crabs. I wouldn’t be visiting at the right time of year for that, but I would be visiting early enough to disconnect from the Internet. Christmas Island is one of the few places in the world still connected only by satellite (a fiber optic connection to Singapore is currently under construction). Also, there are only two flights a week. So it definitely checked my box of “not reachable from work.” When I’m on vacation, I like to truly unplug, which, given the ubiquity of the Internet, is really difficult to do these days.

Internet is available only by satellite

I scheduled a day in Sydney and an overnight in Perth en route (to allow recovery time for missed connections–this is super important when visiting a place where there only two flights per week), and booked my onward flights. Flights to Christmas Island are very expensive on Virgin Australia on their fully economy class configured aircraft, but I was able to book this flight with 45,000 Delta SkyMiles. I also needed to get from Sydney to Perth in order to catch my flight, so ended up using American Airlines AAdvantage points for this. Domestic flights on Qantas within Australia in economy class cost 10,000 AAdvantage points each way. I also received a 2000 mile rebate on the roundtrip using a now-discontinued Citi credit card benefit, so I ended up paying 18,000 miles plus about $40 in taxes.

Continue to Part 2 – Qantas A380 Economy Class Review

How I’m Getting To Providencia

In mid-February, I jumped on a really good sale fare to Bogota, Colombia. It was purchased really far in advance — in fact, a year in advance. And I have to fly from Vancouver, Canada. Then again, it was a hair over $200, was heading somewhere warm when it’s going to be cold in the Pacific Northwest next year, and — somehow — I haven’t been to Colombia yet. So it was one of those “buy it now and figure out the details later” things.

That was, until I mentioned to my friends and family where I was going. “Colombia?!” was the typical response. “You’re going to get yourself killed!” And if you don’t know anything about the country, I suppose this might seem like a rational response. Venezuela, their neighbor, is on the brink of a civil war. Crime rates are higher than in the US (even Nomadic Matt got stabbed). Still, mass shootings happen pretty much every week in the US and I don’t worry about getting killed when I visit the local shopping mall. Nevertheless, I figured if I planned out the trip more in advance than I usually do (I’m going to Sri Lanka in 3 weeks and only have my first hotel night booked), I’d at least be able to describe what I’m doing. And as it turns out, as I researched Colombia, one of the most interesting places is also one of the safest places in the country.

Providencia is a former English colony that is now part of Colombia. It’s distinctly Caribbean in flavor, and the residents mostly speak English. It’s closer to Nicaragua than the rest of Colombia. And most importantly, it’s complicated and expensive to get there, making it an exclusive destination by virtue of its remoteness. I like destinations like these, and it fits nicely in with my recent theme of visiting extremely remote islands like St. Helena and Christmas Island. Of course, crime and violence on the mainland are a world away from Providencia.

There are two ways to get to Providencia, both of which require starting from San Andrés Island. If you think of San Andrés and Providencia as Colombia’s version of Hawaii (which really isn’t a bad way to think about it), San Andrés would be the equivalent of Honolulu except with duty free shopping. It’s a big, busy tourist hub, attracting hordes of Colombian holidaymakers on package tours. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice, but it’s not the kind of “nice” I would spend about 20 hours of travel time and 3 flights in economy class to reach. Getting to San Andrés is an easy two hour flight from Bogota. I was able to book this for almost exactly $69 each way on Avianca. Unfortunately, this was a Web fare, sold only on Avianca’s Web site, so I wasn’t able to use my Chase Ultimate Rewards points to purchase it (Chase was selling the same flights for $108 each way).

Most visitors to the region don’t venture beyond San Andrés, though. Providencia is intentionally kept undeveloped in order to preserve its traditional culture. It’s quiet and peaceful, making it a less interesting destination than San Andrés for fun-loving Colombians. Since it’s undeveloped, transportation is limited. There is a catamaran, which, when it’s sort of safe to do so, irregularly traverses the very rough open ocean. This is an intense ride. It’s so rough you’re pretty much guaranteed to puke; they give you seasick pills with your tickets! There is even a dedicated crew member on board who runs around collecting vomit bags. For the privilege of losing your lunch, the catamaran is also really expensive and it takes 3 1/2 hours.

NOPE.

You can also fly. It costs $50 more than the catamaran roundtrip, and takes 20 minutes. The only problem is that it’s almost impossible to buy a ticket. There are only about 40 seats per day available for sale, in total, to Providencia, across the two daily flights. The flights are operated by Satena, a small regional Colombian airline. Satena doesn’t list their flights on online travel agencies such as Expedia. Their entire Web site is in Spanish, and even if you can manage to make it all the way through a booking, your transaction will fail (several hours later) because the credit card processor is set up to take Colombian cards, not foreign cards.

I tried to work around this by calling the airline. In Colombia, because that’s the only place where they have a phone number. Unfortunately this didn’t work. Everything on their phone system is in Spanish. I was able to figure out to press 1 to book a flight, I could say “Servicios en inglés, por favor” and they even put someone who spoke English on the phone, but telephone agents are only able to book flights through December, not through the end of the schedule.

Hmm, what’s this?

Right around the time I was close to giving up, I noticed a chat control at the very bottom of the page. Usually this sort of functionality is just a stupid useless bot, but I figured “what the heck” and gave it a try. To my complete and utter amazement, a fully competent reservations agent was on the other end of the chat. I gave her my previous reservation number, which she pulled up and was able to verify. While she was unable to make alternative payment arrangements, she was able to create a new reservation. The fare was roughly the same price, but with a roughly $18 service fee added. I quickly agreed to the fee, given that it wasn’t possible to complete the transaction on their Web site anyway, and the fare was still in the lowest bucket (around $90 each way, or $1 per kilometer).

I didn’t expect it, but chat actually worked!

Overall, the process took a long time – more than an hour. The agent spent a lot of time trying to figure out whether she needed to create a completely new reservation or could work with the existing one. Ultimately she created a new reservation, just copying all of the information from my previous one. She then emailed me an invoice from a Colombian payment service similar to PayPal. This is the same one they use on their Web site, but when you receive an invoice via email, you can pay with a non-Colombian credit card. As soon as I paid, I sent her the transaction confirmation number. My tickets were immediately issued, and I received them in my email.

Success!

Thoughtfully, Satena provided an itinerary in English, and provided all my ticket details (including ticket number) in Spanish. At over $1 per mile, this is — in terms of cost per mile — the most expensive air ticket I have ever purchased. On the other hand, I was able to purchase it at all, which is the most important consideration here. With only a handful of seats for sale to Providencia on any given day, it’s not crazy to book fully 10 months in advance.

Want to visit Providencia or anywhere else in the world? Let AwardCat help you use your miles and points to get there!

I’m Going To Christmas Island

I like visiting remote places. Like, really remote places. In colder parts of the world, I have been to Adak, along with Barrow, Deadhorse and Antarctica. In warmer parts of the world, I have been to Palau and Myanmar. There is something about being on the edge of civilization that gives me a sense of truly falling off the map. And one way to fall off the map is to be in a place that takes real effort to visit, and from which there isn’t an easy exit.

Christmas Island is an Australian-controlled territory closer to Sumatra in Indonesia than to Australia. Fewer than 2,000 people officially live there, and they are outnumbered by red land crabs at about 10,000 to one. In recent times, it has been home to an immigration jail, but that is closed. The Australian government is, however, considering reopening it for those convicted of terrorist offenses. It’s also, famously, the original home of an Internet meme called “goatse.” Go ahead, run that through your favorite search engine. I’ll wait.

As you might expect, given how remote it is, it’s not easy to get to Christmas Island. Once a week, there is a charter flight to Jakarta. Sometimes. If the flight actually goes. You have to book it through a travel agency. Twice a week, there is a flight to Australia. Usually. Sometimes it’s delayed for a week. This is not unusual. And for the privilege of generally unreliable service, it usually costs about $1,000 for the flight from mainland Australia. From Perth, this is 1,618 miles or roughly the distance from Seattle to Dallas.

Getting There With Points

This is where miles and points can come in handy. I often use them for economy class flights on non-competitive routes that would otherwise be very expensive. However, this is tricky in the case of getting to Christmas Island. Virgin Australia, who operates the only flight, is a partner of Delta and Singapore Airlines. This particular flight, though, is unusual. While it’s branded Virgin Australia and carries a Virgin Australia flight number, it’s not actually operated by Virgin Australia. It’s instead operated by Virgin Australia Regional Airlines, which was formerly known as Skywest (not the same company as the regional US carrier who operates flights on behalf of Alaska Airlines and others). Virgin Australia acquired Skywest but doesn’t operate the flights along with its other flights under a single operating certificate. So, this gets complicated when you want to book the flight with points. As it turns out, using Singapore KrisFlyer points, you can’t book it at all. For whatever reason, they don’t have access to ex-Skywest inventory. This is unfortunate because their award chart is much less expensive for Virgin Australia flights.

Fortunately, I also had some Delta points I could use, because Delta and Virgin Australia are partners, and Delta points work for this flight. Unfortunately, you can’t mix and match Virgin Australia flights with ex-Skywest flights and have it price as a normal intra-Australia flight, which is a still-expensive 22,500 points each way. I was starting from Sydney, and the only way to book from there was to book my ticket as–in effect–two awards at a cost of 40,000 miles each way. And this was only possible by booking over the phone; it’s not possible to book this routing online. The price is egregiously expensive and I refused to pay it. By manner of comparison, you can routinely fly from Los Angeles to Sydney or Melbourne in economy class for the same number of SkyMiles. There was simply no way I was willing to pay that much.

Instead, I booked my ticket originating from Perth. This was bookable online for 22,500 SkyMiles each way. It was still expensive, but the $860 savings (versus a deep discount advance purchase fare) yielded a solid value of about 1.8 cents per point when paid with SkyMiles. Other people consider lie flat seats with fancy champagne aspirational, but I consider a ticket to somewhere nobody has ever heard of–and for which I would have paid cash–aspirational. I was happy to spend my SkyMiles on this award, given that I value them at only one cent per point.

This left me needing to get from Sydney to Perth roundtrip, though. I’ll leave that for my next post!

My $174.41 Roundtrip Flight To Syndey

By default, I’m usually a little skeptical of crazy sale fares. Whether it’s the UK in the winter (rainy and cold), the Caribbean in the summer (hurricane season) or a screaming deal to San Pedro Sula, Honduras (the murder capital of the world), there is usually a reason why they’re cheap. 

However, there are occasional sale fares that are genuinely crazy. Air Canada and Qantas have been duking it out for supremacy in Vancouver, an airport a few hours up the road from me. They have been running some truly crazy sale fares. Last month, it was a $528 fare from Seattle to Melbourne on Air Canada. And on November 30th, I scored a $560 fare from Vancouver to Sydney on Qantas. 

Now, this was enough to get me excited. While Air Canada operates a miserable 10-across configuration in economy class, Qantas has a more comfortable (17.5″ width, 31″ pitch) economy class cabin on its A380 aircraft. I was able to book my flights on these aircraft. Granted, without paying extra, I’ll likely be assigned an inside middle seat. Also, it’s a bit of a hassle for me to fly from Vancouver because it requires crossing the border. However, for the price and mileage earned, I’m willing to do it. A wide range of dates were available. I ended up picking off peak early Austral spring dates (Labor Day weekend) to take advantage of the US holiday, but spring weather in the northern part of Australia was pretty nice.

18,900 Miles For $560

Mileage Earning – Choose Your Program Carefully

Qantas operates their own frequent flier program. However, crediting these flights to their program wouldn’t have been good value. First of all, the Qantas program is a very expensive program with which to buy tickets – it requires more points to book flights using Qantas points than with most other points. You might think that such a program would make it easier to earn points, but this isn’t the case. If I’d credited to Qantas, I would have earned the following points:

  • Vancouver-Dallas: 0 points
  • Dallas-Sydney: 4,900 points
  • Sydney-Los Angeles: 4,200 points
  • Los Angeles-Vancouver: 0 points

I would have received credit for just over half of the miles flown, in a program that is expensive and hard to use. No thanks!

Using the AAdvantage program of Qantas’ Oneworld partner American Airlines might seem, on the surface, to be a better bet. They would at least offer credit for the Vancouver-Dallas leg, and their award chart is a lot less expensive. However, the mileage earning is much worse:

  • Vancouver-Dallas: 439 AAdvantage miles
  • Dallas-Sydney: 2,145 Aadvantage miles
  • Sydney-Los Angeles: 1,872 AAdvantage miles
  • Los Angeles-Vancouver: 0 AAdvantage miles

What’s the best option? Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. The fare is in “O” class, meaning that it earns 100% credit: one Mileage Plan mile per mile flown. On Qantas. Unfortunately “On Qantas” is the operative term. This fare is a very good example of how airlines play games with mileage earning on codeshare flights.

For this particular itinerary, the flight from Vancouver to Dallas is operated by American Airlines. International flights on American do allow for mileage credit on Alaska Airlines, but for this particular class of service, there is only a 25% mileage credit. Additionally, the flight is operated by American on a Qantas flight and ticket number. In practice, Alaska will typically credit this as if it were an American flight, but technically, they only have to credit Qantas flights that are actually operated by Qantas. I will most likely earn 439 miles for this segment.

Similarly, for the return flight from Los Angeles to Vancouver, Alaska and Westjet aren’t partners. However, Westjet and Delta are partners. Westjet was willing to let me attempt to claim Delta mileage credit for this segment. If it goes through, I’ll get a minimum of 25% and a maximum of 100% SkyMiles credit for this segment, depending upon which fare class Delta recognizes. Delta is pretty good at denying mileage credit, so I am not expecting any, but it’s possible that I’ll see something. So, here’s how crediting to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan will look:

  • Vancouver-Dallas: 439 miles (probably)
  • Dallas-Sydney: 8,578 miles
  • Sydney-Los Angeles: 7,488 miles
  • Los Angeles-Vancouver: up to 1,081 SkyMiles (>50% chance of no credit).

I will receive a guaranteed 16,066 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles. It’s not unusual for me to receive 2.4 cents per mile in value for these points when I redeem them, meaning that the points are worth $385.58. So, factoring this in, I am effectively paying $174.41 for a roundtrip flight to Australia.

I’m not stopping in Sydney, by the way. This is just a positioning flight. My next post will be on where I’m headed next!


Xiamen Air Transit Hotel Disaster!

Xiamen Air offers some really cheap flights from Seattle to destinations in China and throughout Asia. The catch? You end up stuck overnight in Shenzhen, Xiamen or Fuzhou, China.

Not to worry, though, right? Xiamen Air provides a transit hotel. The details on their Web page are as follows:

Xiamen Airlines offers passengers transit accommodation services free of charge, when the tickets satisfying the following conditions apply:

1. All flights are carried by Xiamen Airlines. (code-sharing, chartered flights are not applicable);

2. Connection time of transit passengers is within 6 to 24 hours in Xiamen (G Class and Z Class are not applicable);

3. Must contain at least one international(regional) flight in the ticket;

4. The service contains only free hotel, passengers have to pay for meals and the other transportation fee.

The position of transfer counter:

Domestic Departure Hall on 2nd Floor, B11 counter or other check-in counter(no priority check-in counter)

Service consultation phone number: (0086-592)5739500 or (0086-592)95557

My tickets qualified. I called the US toll-free number to confirm, so it seemed like I was golden. And I have to admit, the room that was promised sure looked nice:

hotel room promised photo

Wow, what a nice hotel room. Would have been great to stay in it!

Now, if you have experience in mainland China, and with mainland Chinese airlines, you probably know where I’m headed with this. In China, this sort of thing is rarely easy to arrange in practice and also rarely works as advertised. While other airlines in other parts of the world might be expected to whisk you from your flight to a hotel room with a seamless transfer, Xiamen Air makes you figure out how to ask for the benefit when you arrive, and then they hit you with a couple of serious “gotchas.”

Gotcha #1: It’s Hard To Claim Your Room

When I arrived in Xiamen, and again in Shenzhen, I had to hunt around for the desk that could issue the voucher. In Xiamen, it’s a desk labeled “transfer services.” In Shenzhen, you have to go upstairs one floor from the baggage claim and find the ticket counter (where they sell tickets). This agent can take care of the hotel voucher. I’m not sure where to look in Fuzhou, but the guy who was sitting next to me on the flight to Shenzhen, and who continued onward to Fuzhou, emailed me and told me he couldn’t figure out how to get the room (or whether it was even possible) so he ended up sleeping in the airport overnight.

Gotcha #2: You Share A Room With A Random Stranger (Or Pay Extra)

When I arrived at the transfer counter for my room, some forlorn-looking guy was standing there waiting. “I guess we’re roommates,” he said. Um, maybe not. I insisted on escalating as far as possible, speaking to a supervisor, and showed screen shots from the Web page. It was no matter. The supervisor had heard it all before. She pointed to a laminated form and said “you must choose, either share a room (!) or pay 135 yuan (about $21) extra.”

How Xiamen Air tricks you

Oh, you thought you’d get your own room? What a strange Western idea.

This was discussed and explained in Xiamen but it was never discussed in Shenzhen (leading me to believe a different set of circumstances applied there). In Shenzhen, I arrived at the hotel, got my room, took a shower and was fast asleep when some random guy started trying to get into my room! Apparently the front desk had given him a key based on this crazy airline policy. The guy then tried to argue with me (in barely understandable English) that he was going to be my roommate etc. but I was having none of it. I shut the door, sent him back to the front desk and unplugged the phone. The hotel staff didn’t speak any English so I figured that would settle the matter (it did). It’s a good thing I’d locked the door with the chain from the inside! Otherwise, who knows what random stranger might have been trying to climb into bed with me.

Gotcha #3: Transportation Isn’t Always Included

In Shenzhen, the airport hotel has a shuttle that comes and picks you up at the airport, takes you to the hotel, and then returns you to the airport the following morning. You know, like you’d expect an airport hotel to do. In Xiamen, however, you have to take a local taxi to and from the hotel. However, this requires local currency, and the ATMs are all upstairs, and the airport closes down early, so you don’t have an easy way to get local currency for the taxi. Also, returning the next day, it’s hard to get a taxi on the street because the taxis have moved to using dispatch apps. This means you’ll need data service that works in China and an app called DiDi on your phone in order to get a taxi.

The Hotels

Both hotels were very local and Chinese. In Xiamen, it was the HMYL Hotel. It’s a basic Chinese business hotel on a leafy tree-lined street in central Xiamen. The room was typically Chinese with a hard twin bed, and was poorly soundproofed. Hotel staff was friendly but spoke no English.

In Shenzhen, the hotel was called the James Joyce Coffetel. I don’t know exactly what a coffetel is (coffin hotel? I wasn’t dead. Coffee hotel? No coffee in the room), but it had a room, and it was fine apart from being at the end of the airport runway (planes made the windows rattle starting around 6 in the morning) and being across the street from a giant noisy construction site. And, of course, apart from giving some random stranger a key to my room at 2am. They had a shuttle to and from the airport at least.

xiamen transit hotel

Tiny business hotel room with two beds in Xiamen. Should have been free, cost about $30 all-in.

shower picture

Large walk-in shower. This was nearly as big as the rest of the room.

trees in Xiamen picture

The Xiamen Air transit hotel is in a pleasant neighborhood with tree-lined streets.

 

I should probably point out that I lived in mainland China for 3 years and speak basic Chinese, but without that, I would probably have never ended up at either hotel.

James Joyce Coffeetel bed

The bed at the Shenzhen James Joyce Coffetel was more neatly made than this when I arrived, I put it back together for the picture

Extra bed picture

Second bed in a side bedroom. I didn’t sleep in this one. And the random guy who tried to come in at 2am didn’t either.

Shenzhen James Joyce Coffeetel view

Sweeping expansive view of … giant dusty construction site

Xiamen Air Staff Are Great, Despite It All

I have nothing bad to say about any of the employees I interacted with at Xiamen Air. Each and every one of them was kind, polite, and professional, and many went above and beyond for me (in Xiamen, a wonderful kind airline employee escorted me upstairs to the closed part of the airport so I could use the ATM, and then helped me get a taxi to the hotel without being ripped off). I think the airline puts them in a difficult situation of over-promising and under-delivering, and they’re all just making the best of it.

Wrap-Up

The Xiamen Air ground experience seems almost deliberately designed to strand Western travelers unfamiliar with navigating China and without a command of the Chinese language at the airport. Even with extensive China experience and the ability to speak basic Chinese (as long as I’m not trying to do it out of context or over the phone), I was thrown for a loop by the unadvertised shared room policy. It is understandable to do this when two people are traveling together on the same ticket, but hooking you up with a random stranger is absolutely insane. Unexpectedly giving someone a key to your room with no advance warning is even worse. And requiring foreigners to navigate the process of catching a taxi in Xiamen to and from the hotel (in Chinese) is an awful lot to ask.

If you’re prepared to pay extra and negotiate for your own room, and if you can speak Chinese and are familiar with how things operate in mainland China, you’ll probably manage (like I did) to muddle through. However, if you can’t speak Chinese, and you don’t have experience thinking on your feet in mainland China, you might find yourself sleeping in the airport instead.

Meeting Jonathan On St. Helena

The world’s oldest living land animal is a Seychelles giant tortoise named Jonathan. He is estimated to be about 186 years old, and he lives at the governor’s residence on St. Helena.

St. Helena governor's residence

The governor’s residence is beautifully maintained in Victorian style.

St. Helena queen's china

Tea is served on the Queen’s china. However, excellent local St. Helena coffee is also on offer.

While it’s possible to stop by and look at Jonathan and his friends (there are six tortoises in total) at any time, guided tours of the governor’s residence are offered once a week. You can either take a full tour or visit the library, which is well stocked with the sort of books that you would expect a territorial governor’s residence to have. The books date back hundreds of years but are primarily focused on the flora and fauna of the area, scientific discoveries, economics and politics (I read a book about the British West African Currency Board which operated in the 1950s) and even a collection of “Who’s Who” bound volumes.

governor's library, st. helena

The governor’s library is a pleasant place to spend an afternoon with a book about 1950s West African economics.

I called too late to get the full tour, but was able to visit the library. This is less expensive (costing 5 pounds) and I was still able to see most of the rooms in the governor’s residence; the primary difference between the library visit and the full tour is that you can’t go upstairs if you are on the library visit, there isn’t a formal guided tour, and you are served tea (on the Queen’s logo china) but not lunch.

Also on offer is local St. Helena coffee. It’s some of the best and most expensive coffee in the world, so I was happy to have that. It was, of course, excellent. The staff was friendly and accommodating and my cup was never empty.

Books and coffee cups

Coffee, tea, or economics?

When it became time for the library to close, I asked whether I could meet Jonathan. I expected that the staff would point out which one he was, and I’d be directed to the viewing area opposite. However, I was delighted to be allowed out onto the field directly with the tortoises for a little while so I could meet Jonathan up close and personally.

Jonathan the tortoise

Jonathan, the world’s oldest living land animal.

I’m not a spiritual person, but I could truly feel how old he is, how much he has seen, and the wisdom behind his piercing stare (clouded by cataracts though it was). He looked at me while chewing on the tall grass, and we didn’t need to have a conversation because there was nothing he could learn from me. I was the equivalent of a teenager beside a septugenarian. Maybe he spoke to me; I am not sure. I don’t speak tortoise.

Me with Jonathan

I feel less old when I look at this picture.

I heard the staff at the governor’s mansion calling to me from across the field. The front gate was being closed soon, so it was time for me to end my visit, and could I please be sure the enclosure was secure when I left? Of course I could, and gladly did.

passport stamp

The St. Helena exit stamp honors Jonathan.

Jonathan, along with the wirebird (which is native to St. Helena) holds a truly special place in the hearts of “Saints” (as residents are called) and the culture of the island. Many of the arts and crafts available for sale feature the tortoise, and he is even honored on the St. Helena exit stamp (the wirebird is on the entry stamp). I’m not sure whether Jonathan is aware he is so famous. Or that he would even care if he knew. After all, his life has spanned three of our generations. Of what use is fame when humans are so fleeting?

If you go to St. Helena, do visit the governor’s mansion. Read a book (or three) in the library. And enjoy the coffee and tea. But don’t miss the opportunity to spend some time with Jonathan!

Airlink Economy Class: Johannesburg to St. Helena

I was pretty sure my flight was at 1:15 in the afternoon. Sure enough that, from memory, I arranged with the front desk to take me to the airport at the appropriate time to make an afternoon flight. However, I’d asked for breakfast to be served early — around 6:00AM, since I missed dinner and knew I’d be up early due to jet lag.

At 3:00am, I woke up with the nagging feeling that something was wrong. I hadn’t actually checked my flight time, and I was operating from my fuzzy memory based on an entirely incorrect time zone. So I pulled out the paperwork and sure enough, my flight was at 9:00am. It *arrived* at 1:15 in the afternoon. It’s a good thing that I was planning to be up early. I set an alarm for 5:30AM and was in the lobby by 6:00AM.

Outlook Lodge breakfast area

The Outlook Lodge not only got me an early shuttle to the airport, but even made breakfast for me early.

Now, the general manager of the Outlook Lodge at OR Tambo International Airport is probably one of the best hotel general managers I’ve ever met. When I let him know there was a problem, there was absolutely no scolding me. He just immediately sprang into action and solved the problem, asking a driver to come in early to get me to the airport on time. And since I had asked for breakfast early, he even made sure that I had something to eat beforehand. I paid $26 per night for this hotel and I don’t think I have gotten better value anywhere else in the world, ever.

The driver dropped me off at the airport and I went to check in for my flight. The check-in agent could have worked for any US airline, being officious about weighing my bag and making me pointlessly move items around between the bags (the 3kg was going on the plane anyway, so there was absolutely no sense in this). This was also my first introduction to how many hoops that St. Helena authorities make the airline jump through. First, there was a thorough visa check. St. Helena’s visa policy is apparently now the same as the United Kingdom (it used to be more lax) but in the airline’s visa information database, they actually reference the visa policy of Ascension Island (a St. Helena possession) which only allows US and UK passport holders visa-free. But in any event, I had a US passport, so the check-in agent finally relented on the visa issue. None was actually required. The next hurdle involved travel insurance. I didn’t see anywhere that this was required, but it is. Fortunately I have a policy that offers global coverage and I had printed it out (assuming I’d possibly need it for South African authorities).

Clearly frustrated in her inability to trip me up, the check-in agent printed out my boarding passes and handed them to me. Looking directly at me, she said “Gate A30, boarding time 8:15.” I thought this was early for a 9:00am flight, but knew that the aircraft was a regional jet so thought it was possible that it would be at a remote stand which would explain the early boarding time. Taking note of the time, I saw that I had time to visit a lounge so I headed to the surprisingly excellent Shangololo Lounge. It’s brand new, very nicely decorated, had a selection of typical South African breakfast dishes along with a coffee machine (which is what I wanted), and was available to visit with my Priority Pass. While I chafe at paying $450 a year for my Chase Sapphire Reserve, I really do get a lot of mileage out of the Priority Pass and often end up eating in lounges for “free” when I would otherwise grab a snack in the airport.

shangololo lounge photo

The Shangololo Lounge has a smart, modern, and distinctively African design.

airlink bus gate

Don’t miss the bus for your Airlink flight! Get to the gate early.

At 8:10, I left the lounge and headed to my gate. I was right – the gate was a bus gate, and the aircraft was at a remote stand. Airlink had begun boarding at 8:15am sharp, and they were checking passports and travel insurance policies again at the gate. Obviously, there must be a massive fine involved for transporting people without proper insurance. After checking my documents once again, I was scanned through. I boarded the bus, and we waited and waited and waited and waited. Eventually the agent came on board looking for two people. They weren’t there. We waited a couple of minutes, and eventually a very frustrated gate agent boarded. There were two people missing, but they’d checked luggage, and now their bags would have to be offloaded. The gate agent wanted the flight out on time, and that wasn’t going to happen. She openly hated working the flight and all of its attendant hassles, especially the superfluous documentation checks.

My bag, as expected, was gate checked. There was no way it would fit in the overhead bin (despite meeting the published bag dimensions) which is why I’d offered to check it at the counter. Obviously the airline wouldn’t do that, because it would actually have made sense. The gate agent, to her credit, pulled me aside to gate check my bag before I carried it up the stairs–she knew it wouldn’t fit. Finally, I was on board. My economy class seat was surprisingly comfortable for a regional jet, and given that it was the appropriate width and nicely padded, it was actually more comfortable than many 737s.

We ended up waiting awhile longer – apparently as soon as the bus pulled away, the two late passengers showed up, looking appropriately sheepish and clearly fresh from a tongue-lashing. The annoyed gate agent apparently decided that shuttling them over to the flight would be faster than offloading their bags and doing all the paperwork so good news for them, they managed to make the one flight of the week. Bad news for us, though, we’d lost our take-off slot so the pilot announced we were on a short ground hold. However, this time, “short” actually meant that. We were making our way to the runway almost as soon as he finished the announcement. A few hours later, after being served a chicken salad sandwich for breakfast, we were landing in Windhoek, Namibia.

This flight is very unusual because it requires a technical stop in Windhoek, Namibia for fuel. Aircraft are required to have enough fuel to divert to another airport in the event the destination airport is unavailable. St. Helena can’t accept aircraft larger than an Embraer E75, and even these can have trouble landing due to the extreme cross-wind weather conditions at the airport. The aircraft that Airlink uses has enough range to safely divert if necessary, but only at slightly above 70% passenger load (meaning they can only sell 70 seats per flight) and only if the tanks are topped off in Namibia so there’s enough fuel to divert to either Ascension Island or Walvis Bay. What’s more, there aren’t any aircraft mechanics living on St. Helena (with only one flight a week, no locals have yet taken up the profession), so the airline has to bring a mechanic along on the flight. It started to become clear why the flight cost nearly $1,200 roundtrip: this was an extremely expensive flight for the airline to operate.

technical stop in windhoek

Tanks full to the brim during a technical stop in Windhoek. Enough fuel is needed to return to Walvis Bay. Air Namibia aircraft in the background.

Back up in the air, the flight crew came through again and served lunch. Yes, two full meals plus four beverage services on a 6 hour economy class flight! I chatted with the crew for a moment and learned that they do a turn at St. Helena and fly all the way back to Johannesburg the same day. It’s a 15 hour day. While this isn’t a longer work day than, say, a New York to Hong Kong flight, it’s arguably a lot more work getting two flights and three (and scheduled to be four) segments out the door. The crew gets one day for rest, and then they’re back to work the following day.

Airlink meal

Second meal on Airlink flight. This was more substantial than the sandwich served earlier.

We began our descent a few hours later. I had moved from my original seat to an empty window seat in the row across from me, and was delighted to have a first view of the island. My first thought was “how in the hell are we going to land on that?!” The island is the top of an undersea volcano, with craggy jagged peaks and sheer cliffs dramatically rising out of the ocean. But then we were looping around the island, turning around in the other direction, and with a more rapid descent than usual we had a very firm touchdown. Some of the folks seemed jarred by the firm landing, but I’d expected it. Crosswind conditions are nothing to mess with; pilots want to get the flight on the ground as quickly and safely as possible with comfort a secondary consideration (firm landings can also be safe landings–the pilot didn’t necessarily mess up if you really feel it).

The St. Helena authorities have clearly been extensively trained and they’re doing everything by the book. The immigration agent asked me a lot of questions about where I was staying that were difficult to answer because I didn’t have a formal reservation from a booking agency, but rather had just arranged private accommodations through the tourist office. I eventually dug up the name of the person I’d worked with at the tourist office and the immigration agent was satisfied I wouldn’t be homeless. I also told the immigration agent I was leaving on the next flight, and she stamped me in until … the next flight. That’s it! Technically I could have stayed for 6 months with no visa, but why give someone even a day longer than needed? They might extend their trip and spend more money! Something I was happier to see was proper and extensive attention paid to biological quarantine procedures. St. Helena has one of the last populations of bees that hasn’t been subject to colony collapse and biosecurity is extremely important on the island. After Customs scanned my bags and found them free of guns or whatever they were looking for, I was officially cleared and was on the island.

Wrap-Up

Overall, this flight is in a way very usual (be prepared for all of the regular airline hassles) and also very unusual (extensive documentation requirements, multiple meal services and a technical stop). I found it surprisingly comfortable for a regional jet and it felt safely and professionally operated. While it’s disappointing that I couldn’t book the flight with miles and had to pay cash, it’s understandable that it’s so expensive. Even given the very high airfare, the government of St. Helena still subsidizes the flight. Despite operating only once a week, the flight is a massive improvement versus the previous boat, which operated just once every 3 weeks, and took 5 days from Cape Town.

 

Planning And Preparing To Visit St. Helena

I’ll admit it: advance planning and preparation isn’t always my strong suit. A lot of the time when I travel, I like to book at the last minute and figure things out when I get there. St. Helena is not a destination where you can really get away with doing this so if you are planning to visit, planning and preparing in advance is essential.

Part of this is because St. Helena Island is one of the most remote places in the world. It’s slightly less remote than it used to be because there is now one flight a week, on a plane with 70 seats for sale (this is a tough flight to book, but I wrote instructions here). So, presuming you’re starting from South Africa, you can get there in a day.

Nevertheless, you can’t just show up and hope it’ll all work out. Really, you can’t. The population is only 4,255 people and while they do have some tourism infrastructure, it is limited and not fully developed. What is there is, of course, civilized (St. Helena is part of the UK after all), but you can’t just breeze into town and expect to be able to rent a car and find a hotel easily. In fact, the wrong assumptions can get you deported.

Have A Visa If You Need One

st helena passport stamp

You will be stamped in for exactly the length of your visit–no longer!

Numerous places on the Internet state that anyone can enter St. Helena for a period of up to 180 days without a visa. This is totally wrong. St. Helena has changed its visa policy with the initiation of flights. It mirrors the visa requirements for the United Kingdom except that South Africans, unlike when visiting the main part of the UK, do not need a visa.

In addition, St. Helena has Airlink (the airline) enforce this and given that the policies are different for St. Helena and Ascension island, sometimes the check-in agents will claim that only US and UK passports are allowed. Given that I had to remind the Airlink check-in agent that my passport was in fact a US passport, I decided not to argue the point any further.

Also, note that you won’t get 180 days automatically. You’ll be stamped in for only the exact number of days that you can prove that you have accommodations. My passport was stamped in for only a week, because my departure was then. I initially thought that this was pretty unfriendly because I’d be committing an immigration violation with no way to avoid it if the flight was delayed through no fault of my own. However, the tourist office explained that an extension would in fact be granted in such a circumstance. I still think that the policy limits flexibility (I wouldn’t have been able to extend my stay if I had wanted to do so), but these are the rules as they currently stand.

Round Trip Tickets Are Required

Obviously, because of the immigration policy above, you’re required to book (and show proof of) a round-trip ticket. It’s not possible to book a one way ticket, have an indeterminate visit, and then buy your return ticket on the island when you decide you want to leave. Again, this is just not a travel destination that allows for much spontaneity or flexibility. You need to make a specific plan and you’ll have to stick to it.

Travel Insurance Is Required

Travel insurance in the amount of GBP 1,000,000 is required to visit the island and the airline checks this before you’re allowed to board a flight. Fortunately the airline missed that the insurance was in USD rather than GBP, and fortunately St. Helena immigration officials also let that slide (technically, they could have deported me). Most visitors on my flight didn’t know that they had to provide proof of insurance and were scrambling to show it at the airport. This is checked when your boarding passes are issued, again before boarding the plane, and once more when clearing St. Helena immigration. They are really serious about this but they don’t sell insurance at the airport either.

You Need A Place To Stay

You aren’t allowed to enter St. Helena without accommodations already secured. They still do things very much the old fashioned way on the island. Accommodations aren’t listed on Web booking platforms like airbnb or booking.com, and for the most part, you can’t pay with a credit card either. Instead, you need to book through the St. Helena Tourism office.

This doesn’t happen instantly. The way it works is you email the tourist office (don’t call, because it costs a minimum of $1.50 per minute), then they call everyone on the island who rents rooms to see if any are available, and they’ll get back to you with a list of what’s available. This might be an extremely short list. When I reached out, there were only two options available, both relatively top end for the island. It took a few more days to sort things out and I only had the accommodations finalized the day before I arrived.

What I didn’t realize until I got there was just how high stakes having accommodations is. While the St. Helena tourism office does come to the airport to meet every flight, and presumably they can try to assist you last-minute, you’ll actually be turned around and sent home by immigration authorities if there isn’t anywhere for you to stay on the island. I normally travel pretty casually, making things up as I go and figuring things out when I get there. That’s just fine in most places (and often gets you great last-minute deals) but it 100% doesn’t work in St. Helena.

 

St. Helena bungalow

I stayed in this tidy bungalow for GBP 60 per night

The upshot? The place where I stayed was perfectly lovely! It was a “self catering cottage” which meant a house with a kitchen. The place was spotless but didn’t come with maid service. A couple of hotels are also available in Jamestown, but at much higher prices than the properties you can rent. These, however, come with amenities such as a restaurant and bar, and maid service is provided.

Book A Car In Advance

old rental car

Old, dented, manual transmission, but I was happy to have it!

If you’re wanting to explore the island, you’ll need a car… or be prepared to spend a lot on taxis. Since I hadn’t really booked in advance, the tourist office couldn’t arrange a car for me because none were available. The owner of my home was fortunately willing to drive me to the house (at an extra charge), and it turned out she knew someone who knew someone who had a car. It showed up a day later with a handshake and no paperwork (I didn’t even know I was paying GBP 12 daily until the end), so everything ultimately worked out and I was able to tour the island. However, it very well might not have worked out! I just got lucky, because a vehicle that was out of service when I originally tried to book was able to be returned to service, and my host just happened to know this.

There are no brand name rental car companies on the island. The companies are all family owned. None of them take credit cards, so your credit card insurance doesn’t apply either. Fortunately all of the companies include local insurance with your car rental, and the deductible is fairly low with a small out-of-pocket expense for damages (under GBP 100).

It’s worth noting that rental cars are equipped with manual transmissions and they have right-hand drive (which doesn’t matter much, because most roads on St. Helena are one lane, but your points of reference will all be different if you’re used to driving left-hand drive vehicles).

Print Out Everything

Mobile phones are still a relatively new and very expensive luxury on St. Helena, so immigration officials aren’t very used to navigating smartphones yet. Also, there isn’t any roaming data signal and there is no free WiFi in the airport, so your phone will be completely useless anyway (unless you have downloaded all of your documents). I saw a lot of folks fumbling with phones that weren’t working well and it was obviously uncomfortable for everyone involved. Print out all of your documentation proving your bona fides: your itinerary, housing arrangements, and travel insurance. Immigration authorities in St. Helena are friendly, but very thorough, and you can expect they will check this.

Bring Cash (In GBP)

St. Helena is almost entirely a cash economy, but there are no ATMs on the island. Let me repeat: There are no ATMs on the island. Yes, I know it’s 2018, but there is only one bank and it’s best avoided because it is both extremely archaic and extremely expensive to deal with. If you need money, they can only give you a cash advance from your credit card with a massive fee, plus the massive fee your bank charges on top of it. They will also change US dollars, euros or South African rand at poor rates.

uk pounds cash

The solution is to bring UK pounds with you, in cash. Where do you get those? I bought mine at HSBC on a layover in Hong Kong on the way to St. Helena where good rates are available. You can get them in South Africa at rates that aren’t as good as in Hong Kong or the UK, but better than on St. Helena.

You will need enough cash for everything you plan to do on the island. The number of places that take credit cards can be counted on one hand, and they all levy a stiff surcharge for accepting them.

While you can pay for things with UK pounds on the island, you’ll generally get your change in St. Helena pounds. These are worthless (except as souvenirs) as soon as you leave the island so you have to change them into UK pounds before you leave. The Bank of St. Helena will do this, but charges a 2% fee for changing your pounds into… well, pounds. However, St. Helena people are very friendly, so if you tell them you’re leaving the island and ask for change in UK pounds, they’ll try to accommodate your request if they can.

Don’t Miss Your Flight

“Don’t miss the boat” has turned into “don’t miss your flight.” There is only one flight a week, so when you’re visiting St. Helena, it’s really important that you don’t miss your flight. Two of the passengers for our flight showed up late, in fact, and nearly missed the flight. It’s easier to miss the flight than you might think. It leaves from a bus gate all the way at the far end of Johannesburg airport, about a 10 minute walk from any of the airport lounges. Because the gate is a bus gate, they just load everyone on the bus exactly when boarding starts. So if you aren’t there at the boarding time listed on your ticket, you actually missed the flight.

The two late passengers didn’t know it was a bus gate and figured that the start of boarding time wouldn’t be the end of boarding time, because it never is. Only because it would have taken the gate agent longer to offload their bags than to send the bus back to pick up the wayward passengers were they accommodated. If they’d showed up 3 minutes later, the result would have been the opposite.

Bring Supplies–But Mind The Quarantine

There are a handful of stores on the island and they do carry a basic selection of groceries and consumer goods. However, nearly every food item for sale on St. Helena (with the exception of some local fish, produce, eggs, bread, meat and coffee) is imported and therefore extremely expensive due to the very high cost of freight. I also don’t want to overstate how many local goods are actually available; I didn’t see a single egg for sale the whole time I was there, and bread is only available a couple of times each week. Many of the goods sold originate from the UK which means they are shipped first from there to South Africa, and then onward to St. Helena. Given my experience visiting similarly remote parts of Alaska, I knew that it was probably a good idea to maximize my baggage allowance and bring as many groceries with me as possible.

This turned out to be a very good decision, keeping in mind the baggage limitations. This is important: The baggage allowance on flights to South Africa is 23kg, but it’s 20kg within South Africa and from South Africa to St. Helena. I brought a large check-in bag and loaded it to exactly 20kg, then put all the heaviest things into my carry-on bag which was not weighed. If your bag is overweight, this will backfire because airline fees are very high for overweight baggage.

What did I bring? Stuff that I thought would be difficult or expensive to find there, could survive an 11,000 mile trip, and could clear St. Helena’s strict quarantine (canned and packaged food is OK, nearly everything else is out). The quarantine is really very important to follow because it protects the unique biodiversity on the island–the most important forbidden item is honey, but you should declare everything you have and let the authorities take whatever they want (I invited them to inspect my stuff and they were fine with all of it). Among the things I brought were tortillas, refried beans, Parmesan cheese, rice milk, breakfast supplies like pancake mix and oatmeal and granola bars, snacks, Tabasco sauce, taco sauce, real Vermont maple syrup… you’d be surprised how much you can fit in 20 kilos if you buy stuff that is not in heavy packaging. This saved me a bundle, easily more than $100. Was it a little more hassle dealing with a checked bag? Yes, but for $100, I really didn’t mind the hassle. I was mostly right on the items that would be hard to find there, but the variety of goods available was a little better than I was expecting. It was also totally worth it when I got to enjoy a stack of delicious pancakes on the patio.

View from the patio

A taste of home is a lot sweeter when it comes with this view!

Obviously, I didn’t use up everything I brought with me, so I just left the extra for the next visitors. I mean, how much of a treat is it to show up on St. Helena and find Snoqualmie Falls Lodge pancake mix in the cupboard and pure maple syrup in the refrigerator? A pretty big one for me, and the homeowner (Mrs. George) seemed to think it would be a nice surprise for them too.

If you don’t buy groceries to bring with you, at least bring your own booze. Max out the Customs allowance. It’s very expensive on St. Helena so if you want to enjoy a cocktail, you will be glad you brought it with you!

Wrap-Up

St. Helena is a wonderful holiday destination, but getting there requires considerably more planning and preparation than most destinations. The economy there is frozen in an era before ATMs and credit cards, and it is also expensive once you arrive. While St. Helena is not a budget travel destination, you can still save a lot of money on unnecessary expenses through advance planning.

How To Book A Ticket To St. Helena

For pretty much the entire history of St. Helena Island, the only way to get there has been to take a boat. In recent times, this has taken 5 days each direction from Cape Town aboard the RMS St. Helena. However, you can now fly there, and while there will undoubtedly still be opportunities to arrive by ship (most likely by cruise ship), the vast majority of travelers will be flying.

Forget Using Miles

However, believe it or not, it’s surprisingly difficult to book a flight there. It’s not the most complicated ticket in the world to book, but it’s close. Let me first get one thing out of the way: Unless you somehow have an absolutely crazy number of South African Airways Voyager points (because the only award flights available are extremely expensive under this program), this flight can’t be booked with miles. Airlink is an affiliate of South African Airways (SA) and operates their flights with SA flight numbers, but they don’t participate directly in StarAlliance. This means their flights aren’t bookable with StarAlliance miles like SA flights are. They’re only booked with South African Airways Voyager points. Unless you’re in South Africa, there is no easy or practical way to obtain these.

Forget Using Bank Points

This means you have to book with cash. However, even this is very complicated because the airport is so new that it doesn’t show up on a lot of online travel agencies yet, and because the airline (Airlink) publishes fares between only an extremely limited number of cities.

hle airport error

Want to book a flight to St. Helena? Most travel sites (such as Priceline) can’t handle it.

So, the next thing I thought was using bank points. Unfortunately none of the bank portals work, so forget using bank points to buy the ticket (unless you have a card that lets you use the points to reimburse a charge made on another travel Web site).

Forget Using Most Online Travel Agencies

On Expedia, the airport doesn’t exist. It does on Priceline, but you can’t actually book any flights to St. Helena; the booking engine doesn’t seem to work for this airport on the back end. Just before Christmas when I was buying my ticket, no travel agent site I tried could sell me the ticket.

Forget Buying From Airlink

Of course, you can always try to buy directly from the Airlink Web site. It theoretically works but is difficult to navigate, links you off to South African Airways, charges you in South African Rand, isn’t really set up to deal with US cards, and … well, let’s just say that banks in the US typically take a dim view of making charges on African Web sites. If the charge goes through at all (which it didn’t for me), expect it to be immediately flagged for fraud.

Forget Buying From American Airlines

American Airlines has a really powerful booking engine because the Sabre reservations system was originally developed by them. They used to be able to sell you tickets for almost any flight on any airline on their Web site (you had to use “Advanced Search” but it worked). Unfortunately they don’t do this anymore. So I tried calling them. The agent found the flight, quoted me a price, started to sell me a ticket, and then stopped and refused to proceed. It turns out that now, they’ll only sell you a ticket if an American flight is included on the itinerary. Since I wasn’t also buying a ticket on American, they wouldn’t take my money. I was surprised, but not surprised–it is American, after all.

Finally, A Breakthrough

This gave me an idea though. Airlink is an affiliate of South African Airways, which is a StarAlliance member. Well, United is also a StarAlliance member. Might it be possible to buy a ticket on the United Web site? I’d looked for award tickets, but hadn’t looked for paid ones. As it turns out, you can, and it’s reasonably easy. Not only is it possible to search for flights an entire month at a time (so you can easily find what day the flight operates), but you can book it on a US Web site and pay in US dollars. And you can book the real price, not the Orbitz price with fake taxes included:

Buying on United site costs less

Buying tickets to St. Helena from United instead of Orbitz will save you almost $30.

I was buying a ticket from Johannesburg and returning to Cape Town, so I didn’t even notice the routing problems you can encounter. More on that later.

Orbitz Works–With A Catch

Last week, Orbitz became the first major travel booking site to start selling tickets to St. Helena. Sort of. The site does technically work, but it’s very hard to search for flights (because there is only one flight a week and it doesn’t always go on the same day). Also, the site sneakily (and I think borderline deceptively) charges close to $30 in fees hidden in with the taxes:

orbitz ripoff

Orbitz sneaks fees disguised as taxes into your ticket price!

Forget Buying A Through Ticket

Of course, there is another problem: Even if you’re using the United Web site, you can’t search for flights and buy tickets the way that you normally do because of how the fare is published. What does this mean? Well, normally, when I want to fly from Seattle to somewhere, I look for a ticket directly from Seattle to that destination (in this case, Jamestown, St. Helena or HLE airport). Here is what happens when you do that:

no scheduled flights error

I assure you there actually are flights. You just searched wrong.

The problem is that Airlink, the operating carrier, only appears to publish two routes to and from St. Helena, one each from Cape Town and Johannesburg. So, if you’re trying to buy a ticket to or from anywhere else involving St. Helena, you can’t actually do it. You have to buy a ticket to South Africa from wherever you are, and then another ticket onward to St. Helena from there.

It’s Worth The Effort

St. Helena is one of the world’s most unique and special destinations. Visiting is an incredible experience. As much effort as it has historically been to visit, the island hasn’t been overtaken by tourism yet. Now that visiting doesn’t require a 10-day roundtrip on a boat, the island is much more accessible than before. Go now!