The Shanghai Sprint – Visiting China Without A Visa

Many people have avoided China in the past because with very few exceptions, a visa is required. Chinese visas are relatively complicated to obtain and they are very expensive for US passport holders. This has put Chinese airlines at a competitive disadvantage because until recently, the Chinese government required almost everyone entering the territory of the People’s Republic of China to be in possession of a valid visa. This applied even if you were just flying through a Chinese airport en route to somewhere else.

I am pleased to report that this has all changed. Almost overnight, and probably in response to heavy lobbying from Chinese airlines (who are trying to grow their international business), China has substantially liberalized its visa regime. At most gateway cities in China, it is now possible to transit for 72 hours. The full list is here. Unfortunately there is still a lot of confusion over the 72-hour transit policy, so I’ll try to make things as clear as possible.

What can you do in 72 hours? A lot! You can easily see the Great Wall, Forbidden City and Summer Palace in Beijing, but you could actually do much more. Other Chinese cities are equally rich, vibrant and exciting. The only limit to what you can do is your imagination.

Great Wall pic

Visit the Great Wall on a perfect fall day

city park

Enjoy an afternoon stroll around an urban lake

ditan park

Try morning exercises with friendly local seniors in Ditan Park

“Transit” in China is defined as flying into a Chinese city en route to somewhere else outside China. The definition of “outside China” includes Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong for visa purposes. So, if you fly from San Francisco to Beijing, spend 72 hours in Beijing, and then continue onward to Hong Kong, this is allowed under the policy and you’ll have no problems. The same applies if you’re going to any other country outside China, as long as it’s a third country and isn’t the country from which you originated.

Unfortunately, there are still a few snags and restrictions, and my friend Jesse was tripped up by one of them today. He bought a ticket from Seattle to Shanghai via Beijing. He planned to use the 72 hour visa-free transit in Shanghai, and then continue to Hong Kong for 4 days before returning to Seattle. It all seemed like a perfect plan and would totally have worked except for the fact that visa-free transit begins in the city where you enter China. In order to use visa-free transit, you have to enter and leave China from the same city, and you also aren’t allowed to travel between cities in China while you’re on a visa-free transit. So, if Jesse wasn’t rejected at the airport in Seattle for his failure to hold a Chinese visa, he would have been turned around in Beijing–or, at best, he would have had to re-book his connecting itinerary to Hong Kong from Beijing instead of Shanghai. Not the sort of thing that is a nice surprise! I advised Jesse to instead obtain a tourist visa for China. I wrote detailed information about how to do so here. He wasn’t thrilled that he has to get a visa, but he’s happy to learn this before taking the trip.

So, in summary, here are the things to double-check before you plan to use 72-hour visa-free transit in China:

  • It only works in the participating list of cities. This includes the major transit hubs of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Make sure the city you plan to transit participates.
  • It only works for eligible countries. Most Western and many Asian countries are eligible but many countries (such as India) are not. Make sure your passport qualifies.
  • You need to be traveling from China directly to a third country. You can’t fly from, for example, the US to China directly back to the US. However, if you’re flying from San Francisco to Beijing to Tokyo to San Francisco, you are transiting Japan, which means that you’re continuing from China to a third country. This makes you eligible for 72-hour visa free transit in China.
  • Your transit city is considered the city that you first enter China.
  • You must fly in and out of the same city.
  • You are not allowed to leave the city you are transiting. This means no side trips to Hangzhou from Shanghai, or Tianjin from Beijing.
  • You can’t apply for a regular Chinese visa in China while you’re in transit. If, however, you have extenuating circumstances (such as a cancelled flight or a sudden illness requiring medical treatment), the Chinese police will not punish you if you explain and prove the reason for your overstay. It is best to contact the Public Security Bureau (the Chinese police) as soon as you are aware of an issue that will require an extended stay in China, as well as your airline, so they can both help you to apply for a proper visa and avoid punishment.
  • Not to scare you, but visa issues are taken very seriously in China. It isn’t unheard of for the police to throw you in an immigration jail until they figure out what to do with you in the event that you break the law. This is no different than what happens to illegal immigrants in the United States. If you’re enjoying your visit so much that you want to spend more time in China, travel to a neighboring country and apply for a visa.

Next time you are searching for a flight to Asia, consider flying with a Chinese airline and spending some time in China! The service on Chinese airlines may surprise you–it is rapidly improving–and brash, modern China is truly one of the most exciting destinations in the world.

Turning Lost Into Found

I flew US Airways yesterday from Phoenix to Seattle. I had been in Phoenix for over two months, and it was a long day of packing up all of my stuff. One checked bag, a carry-on, and a backpack stuffed full of gear. Once I was on the plane, I grabbed my iPad. After reading for awhile, I tucked it into the seat pocket in front of me and nodded off.

I woke up again just when we landed. As soon as I was at the gate, I jumped up, grabbed my carry-on bag and backpack, and was on my way. I picked up my checked bag, headed out to my parents’ car, and we drove back to their house. I was happy that everything had worked out exactly as planned–my flight was on time and there were no problems with my bags. As usual, I pulled out my chargers for various devices and started plugging them in to charge. Right away, I noticed something missing. My iPad. Reality came crashing down and I realized where I had left it.

Photo credit http://www.ausbt.com.au/photos/view/maxsize:640,480/4f28b1f065684bdb87172f9c767f2254-qs10.jpg

I wasn’t flying Qantas, but you get the idea.

I knew there was one more US Airways flight due to arrive in Seattle, so I jumped in the car and headed back to the airport hoping to find someone to help. Nobody was at the US Airways counter or at the baggage service desk, but two people were at the American Airlines ticket counter. I asked them for help, and they had a way to get in touch with their colleagues at US Airways (at the time of this writing, US Airways and American Airlines have merged but are still operating separately). One person was still working. She wasn’t able to meet me immediately, but agreed to meet me as soon as the incoming flight landed.

I met the very friendly agent at the baggage claim. She took all of the information about my incoming flight and went upstairs to look for my iPad on the plane. It wasn’t there, but the aircraft had already been cleaned so she got in touch with the cleaning company. This resulted in good news: one of the cleaning staff had found my iPad! The only problem was that it was locked up in the manager’s office, the manager was the only one with the key, and she had already gone home. At least I knew my iPad was safe, and the US Airways staff told me that I could call the following day to find out when I could pick it up. Nonetheless, I logged onto iCloud and marked my iPad “lost” on the “Find My iPhone” service, something that–in retrospect–I should have done as soon as I noticed it was missing.

The next day I dutifully called, left a message, and I received a call back the following afternoon: my iPad had been delivered to US Airways and I could stop by anytime to pick it up! I went to the airport and reclaimed my “baby.” It hadn’t been tampered with at all. As soon as I connected to the Internet, the “Find My iPad” service kicked in and locked me out, so I at least learned that this service actually works.

So, I lost my iPad and got it back. You may be wondering why this justifies an article. Most of the time I read about items going missing on planes, it’s about items that were lost, not found and returned. So, I wanted to show the other side of the story: sometimes, your stuff can make its way back to you! Here are the things that I think worked in my favor:

Acting Immediately: Every minute that separates you from your lost item is another minute that it could fly away. Aircraft cleaners don’t always find and remove everything, and airlines turn planes around for their next flight very fast. Airplanes routinely travel thousands of miles and through several cities a day. Once your plane leaves the airport, the chances of finding anything left on board substantially diminish and the time and trouble involved in getting it back increases, even if your item is found.

Asking For Help: I couldn’t find anyone from US Airways who was working at the time I arrived, but US Airways and American are part of the same company so I approached American to ask for help. This worked very well, and a seasoned and experienced American ticket agent sprang into action to help me solve the problem. Granted, most of the time you probably won’t be dealing with the product of a recent merger, but don’t limit yourself to asking only your own airline for help. Try approaching any uniformed airline staff member. Airlines do compete, but they also work together. The ground staff at most airlines will have phone numbers to reach the ground staff of any other airline and most are happy to help in a scenario like this.

Staying Flexible: The ground staff at US Airways was willing to help, but they weren’t quite ready at the time I asked. There was only one staff member working and while she was apologetic, she also wasn’t able to help me immediately because she was busy making time-sensitive logistical arrangements for a delayed incoming flight. I recognized that my case was an exception, and was patient, friendly and not demanding. This is my personality anyway, but it’s worth noting that people are a lot more interested in helping you to solve problems if you’re polite about asking them for help. As soon as the staff member was available, she did a great job of assisting me.

Lucky Location: Let’s face it, lost items are often stolen in airports. Entire Web sites are dedicated to stories about items pilfered, plundered and pillaged at airports by staff, other passengers and even the police. It’s enough to make some people think they might as well not bother trying to find a missing item. Seattle is one of the more honest cities in the United States, and I think that this helped. There is not a culture of corruption as exists in many American cities.

If you lose an item on a plane, take heart: you might get it back, if you follow my example and act quickly. And if you take a nap before landing, always remember to check the seat pocket before leaving the plane!

Partnership Pitfalls And Codeshare Confusion

It is very common in the travel industry that airlines will partner with one another. Unfortunately, partnerships aren’t always seamless and this can leave you paying more than you bargained for, and getting fewer benefits than you planned. Sometimes the issues are so sticky that even the best people at the airline you’re paying don’t know the answer.
AmericanDoesn'tKnow

The answer to what, you might ask? Well, it’s a question that ought to be pretty simple. I was shopping for flights last night on the American Airlines Web site (aa.com) and found a great deal for a flight from Long Beach to Seattle. I’ll be in the Los Angeles area in May and although I wouldn’t normally prefer to fly home from Long Beach, the fare was really exceptional: only $79! And, if you didn’t look at the small print under the flight number, you might even reasonably think it was an American Airlines flight. After all, it’s sold on the American Airlines website and there is an American Airlines flight number.

 

Aadvantage1

Better yet, since I am a Citi Aadvantage cardholder, that should entitle me to a free checked bag, right? After all, further down the page, there is a huge ad for the Citi Aadvantage card. It has a whopping $95 annual fee, one of the highest in the airline industry, but offers a fee waiver for the first checked bag.

aadvantage2

 

There it is, right on the page, first checked bag free! With that, probably every CitiAadvantage cardholder in the world other than me would make the logical assumption: you’re buying a ticket on the American Airlines Web site, it has an American Airlines flight number, there’s an advertisement from Citi and American Airlines on the confirmation page promising a free checked bag, so you’re probably getting a free checked bag, right?

I went ahead and put the itinerary on hold (American Airlines allows you to place a 24 hour hold on tickets) and got the confirmation. Check out the confirmation page:

 

Aadvantage3

Right there up at the top in the right hand corner, well, what’s that? An ad for the Citi Aadvantage Signature MasterCard, promising a free checked bag in exchange for their expensive $95 annual fee (almost double the fee of a Costco membership). So now on the AA.com front page, the AA.com sales page, and in the American Airlines confirmation email, American and Citi have promised a free checked bag. It’s all right there, you can see it in the screen shots. So, do you think if you book this flight and you have a Citi Aadvantage Signature MasterCard you’re getting a free checked bag? This isn’t a trick question, take as long as you need.

Aadvantage4

No. Of course not. This suddenly isn’t an American Airlines flight, it’s an Alaska Airlines flight. Ignore all the ads you saw promising a free checked bag, you don’t actually get that.

Well, if it’s suddenly an Alaska Airlines ticket now, I should at least get Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan credit, right? Let’s check with Alaska Airlines to find out:

aadvantage5

 

Suddenly the flight isn’t an Alaska Airlines flight after all. Remember back on the confirmation page where the fare class was shown?

Aadvantage6

 

You have to check these carefully, because the fare class is how airlines weasel out of giving you frequent flier credit for flights you book. This is an especially huge problem with codeshare flights such as the one that I reserved. If I had tried to claim Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan credit for the flight, I would have gotten a nasty surprise of no frequent flier credit to go along with the other nasty surprise of no free checked bag.

I am a reasonably expert traveler, the Twitter teams of both Alaska Airlines and American Airlines are among the best people working for both airlines, and it took all of us combined to figure out what I would actually get and how it differs from what is being promised. I am not normally a fan of government regulation, but there is currently too large a disconnect between what consumers are promised and what they are actually getting. The average consumer doesn’t stand a chance.

In the meantime, what can you do? Don’t assume that you’re going to get anything that is promised and double-check everything. Also, consider credit cards other than the Citi Aadvantage Signature MasterCard. The “first bag free” promise doesn’t measure up.