I like to think of myself as a seasoned traveler. So when I found myself being denied onto a flight and then stuck in China for more than one day, I was not prepared. To make matters worse, this all happened on my birthday and I was traveling solo.
My travel nightmare probably could have been avoided if I followed my instincts and paid attention to some key details.
The Numbers Don’t Add Up
In my defense, this was a last minute trip to Thailand with a long layover in China and I did very little research. However, the one thing I made sure to check is if I needed a visa in China. According to my research, I did not need a visa because I planned to be in China for less than 24 hours. I did see something about applying for a 72-hour visa and I started filling out the paperwork to be on the safe side. But then I got confused and stopped because I didn’t really need it anyways. I was fine with a 24-hour visa or so I thought.
Where I made a huge mistake is not calculating the total hours I was in China on the way back home. The way I read my ticket, I had 14 hours in Beijing and 12 hours in Qingdao. Had I added those two numbers together I would had known before leaving San Francisco that I was going to be in China for over 24 hours. Whoops!
Getting into Beijing
My overall experience with China Eastern Airlines made Spirit Airlines look like a luxury flying experience.
Each time I went to the ticket counter, they looked at my passport and their computer suspiciously and then huddled up with a manager or co-worker. I’d asked what was wrong and they’d tell me nothing when it was obvious something wasn’t right. The same thing happened in Shanghai and Kunming on the way to Thailand and I eventually got on those flights with no issues, so I didn’t think anything of it when it happened in Bangkok. That was until the ticket counter witch came back from her group huddle with an evil smirk on her face. She sat down in front of me and it was like the next words out of her mouth were in slow motion, “You can’t board this flight. You must buy a new ticket and reroute your trip “
Those were fighting words, there was no way in hell I planned to buy a last minute ticket back to San Francisco from Thailand. I wanted to get loud and turn into her worst nightmare, an angry black woman. Luckily for her, my inner scared female traveling alone came out instead. Now in tears, I pleaded “I can’t be stuck here! I can’t afford it!” “You guys promoted and booked this trip to a known American” She looked at me with no emotion and said again, “You can’t go to China because you need a visa.”
I still hadn’t figured out that my ticket had me in China for 26 hours; everything she said made no sense to me. Not sure what to do because I was definitely not buying a new ticket without a fight, I called on my travel 911, the Nomadness Travel Tribe. Nomadness is a private Facebook group of 10,000+ predominately black, savvy travelers. I knew if anyone could help me it would be them.
And I was right, someone in the group told me to talk to a manager. Duh. Rookie mistake. I tried to talk to one guy, he looked at me, rolled his eyes and then walked away. Eventually finding someone willing to help, they called another manager and I got approved to board the flight to Beijing.
I could tell when the ticket counter witch gave me my boarding pass she was sure Beijing would force me to go back to Thailand. What she didn’t know is that I had someone guiding me through how to get out the airport in Beijing. I knew it was risky to leave the airport, but I had also paid hella money for a private tour of the Great Wall and I had no intentions of missing it.
My tour guide instructed me not to stop at the visa counter or go to the 24-hour visa exit line. Instead, I was instructed to walk out the main customs line and inform them that I had a driver and tour guide waiting for me. I showed her my confirmation and my flight itinerary and she stamped my passport freeing me to enjoy a day in Beijing.
My tour guide told me I should have no more issues with being stuck in China at this point because it’s not like they want me to stay in the country. He was wrong!
Night Terrors in Qingdao
After avoiding my first fight in Beijing with a girl in the airport and possibly getting arrested in China, I was ready to quietly sit at a gate waiting to board my flight to San Francisco. The last thing I wanted to do is leave the security clearance area or deal with another ticket agent.
Not being one of the lucky eight to get a seat, I needed to decide how to spend the next 12 hours. I’m not above sitting on the ground in airports, but I’d need to get paid before I did it in China. It grossed me out the way people spit on the ground as if they were outside; I nearly lost it when someone did it on the plane.
My only quasi-sanitary option was to either stand for twelve hours like my personal survivor challenge or sit on a luggage cart. I instead got creative and turned a luggage cart into a bed using my backpack and tote for the bedding and my scarf as a blanket. It wasn’t the most comfortable situation, but it was about as comfortable as my hotel bed in Shanghai so I couldn’t complain.
Grateful that the nightmare part of this trip was over, I got up from my nap and headed to the ticket counter to grab my boarding pass for San Francisco. Little did I know this was when the real drama was about to begin.
Once again I had issues at the China Eastern ticket counter. After being shuffled around with no explanation, an agent pointed and said, “Go to domestic. You go to Shanghai” Tired and hungry, that’s when I lost it. Shanghai was not on my itinerary and no one would tell me why I needed to go to Shanghai. Yelling at them didn’t seem to work nor trying to talk calmly.
Looking back, the language barrier played a huge part in me being stuck in China. I like to think if I spoke Chinese, they would have explained why they were sending me to Shanghai. Completely exhausted from fighting and faced with the unknown, I boarded the plane to Shanghai.
Celebrity Status in Shanghai
An airline representative immediately grabbed me as I stepped off the plane like I was a celebrity. Well more like a D-List celebrity because they still weren’t telling me anything and there was no one waiting to take my picture. Still freaking out because no one would tell me what was going on, I followed this guy through some secured tunnel away from the general public. It turns out he was escorting me through a private customs and security area. I don’t think I’ve ever been through customs and security in less than ten minutes. They handed me a hand written boarding pass, which seemed suspect, and led me to a gate that had a sign for San Francisco.
Never had I been so happy to hit U.S. soil. I skipped through customs like I was Snow White in the forest. With tears of joy in my eyes, I was finally home and singing to China:
“We are never, ever, ever getting back together. Like, ever…”