Whenever I have to book a long flight, I wrestle with balancing cost against convenience. It doesn’t take much online savvy to know that shorter, direct flights on well-known carriers are generally the most expensive, while the 24-hour-plus routings through cities you’d never want to visit on airlines you’ve never heard of entice you with irresistible price tags.
Such was the case on my trip to Thailand earlier this year. There are a number of ways to fly into Bangkok; it’s a huge hub and many airlines use it. After much comparison of flight lengths, layover times, routings, and prices (not forgetting to include extras like booking charges and baggage fees), I found return flights on XiamenAir for an incredible $700 Cdn. The flight lengths were comparable with other airlines’. The two downsides were a 6 hr 45 min-layover on the outward journey and routing through Xiamen, China. The arrival time in Bangkok was convenient for our schedule and arrival back home also worked well. With some misgivings, I booked.
Happily, my experience on XiamenAir was no worse than on any of the other airlines I’ve taken on long flights. Check-in was fine, although they weighed the largest of our carry-on bags, which is unusual (usually they just check the dimensions). They allow two free checked bags. On the plane, there was reasonable legroom, the seats were decently comfortable. Everything was about as clean as I’d expect. They gave us a blanket and pillow, slippers and headsets for free, which is more than a lot of airlines do nowadays. We also received two free meals and a couple of snacks. The food was average airline food—but we did get a little box of chocolates for flying on Valentine’s Day, which was a nice touch. Inflight entertainment choices in English were not as extensive as on some airlines, but I had enough to keep me amused, and the choices in Mandarin were excellent!
Once we arrived in Xiamen, the challenge began. We had that long layover and there were vague promises of a free hotel room. When we checked in at YVR, we specifically asked about this and the rep assured us that this would be possible. She told us that once we arrived in Xiamen, we would have to check in for the second flight (Xiamen to Bangkok) and the check-in people would have info about the hotel. However, as we wandered from corner to corner of the Xiamen airport, it became clear that this was easier said than done. First, we couldn’t find the place to check in. We were given conflicting directions from the various people we asked. To be honest, part of the problem was that (a) their English was rudimentary, (b) our Mandarin is nonexistent, and (c) we were trying to check into a flight that didn’t depart for 6 hours. It wasn’t even listed on the departures board yet.
Once we finally located the check-in counter, we were told that we couldn’t check in until two hours before the flight and that info about the hotel was not available there, but we could ask at the International Transit Lounge. So then we started hunting around for that. (Do not—as we did—confuse the transfer area with the transit area; the former refers to the place where you connect with—transfer to—other forms of transport, such as taxis and buses.) By the time we found the lounge, we had wasted so much time that we were afraid that if we left the airport for the hotel, we would not make it back in time for the flight—especially since we still had to check in—so we opted for the lounge instead.
This lounge is nothing to get excited about. There are a few beds to lie down, but they are popular, so your chances of getting one are small. There are cushioned chairs and we pushed a couple together to make a short bed. There is water, coffee, and tea, a few room-temperature soft drinks. Packaged snacks (nuts and bolts kind of thing). No entertainment. Airport wi-fi. Remember, this is China, so you may find some of your favourite websites blocked. We couldn’t access Google and our sent emails wouldn’t go. At least it’s quiet and there are plugs to charge your electronics.
Our return flights were similar to the outgoing ones. Economy class was clean and comfy, food was okay, entertainment ample, service friendly. The layover in Xiamen was short this time, only 1.5 hours, and because you must get a transit visa (free) on arrival, go through customs and security, and exit the arrival area, then go through the whole process in reverse one more time (find the check-in counter, check in, go through customs and security, and find your gate), we had only just enough time to make our connection. The only easy part was being able to check our bag all the way through from Bangkok to Vancouver, so we didn’t have to pick it up in Xiamen. Kudos to the airline which supplied each Canadian in the line-up with a personalized document to show to passport control officials. This paper made it clear that the baffled foreigner in possession was merely in transit and did, in fact, have a seat waiting in a departing plane.
I chatted with another passenger who had arrived in Xiamen from a different country and had a 20-hour(!!!) layover. He had been offered that mythical free hotel room and had taken advantage of the time to rest and tour the city a bit.
If you’re heading to Asia and you’re a confident traveler who can handle trying to navigate through a confusing bureaucracy and a foreign airport with little assistance (some airport personal may speak a little English, if you’re lucky), I suggest you check out XiamenAir’s prices and make your own comparisons on other features. Flying through an unfamiliar city with an obscure carrier may take you out of your comfort zone, but may turn out to be worth the trouble.
Have you had an experience good or bad with a less-known airline? Share your wisdom in a comment.