Tuesday, January 12, 2010

How to Buy a Chinese Plane Ticket, in 50 Simple Steps, Part I

1. Decide when you want to go on your trip. Say you select "Spring Festival Vacation", the three-week break at the end of the first semester.

2. First you should figure out when Spring Festival actually is, because it's based on the lunar calendar. Look it up on the lunar calendar application which comes included with your cell phone, and then return to Step 1.

3. Though actually knowing when Spring Festival is doesn't help much, because you don't know when you school vacation is. It's no use trying to check the school calendar, because there is no school calendar: vacation dates are decided on an ad hoc basis during the school year. Text your boss to see if he has info, and then return to Step 1.

4. Go to Orbitz to look for plane tickets. Realize that the prices are in American Dollars, abandon this plan immediately. OK, China, it's on.

5. Go to ctrip.com, which Gus says is a good place to look for tickets. You can choose either the English or Chinese version of the website. The Chinese version has cheaper tickets, but on the other hand the English version is written in a language that you can understand.

6. Another reason not to choose the English version of the website is that the English version of ctrip appears to contain absolutely no tickets (literally zero) to the country of Thailand.

7. OK, neither does the Chinese version.

8. Try qunar.com. This website does not have an English version, but they do appear to have tickets to Thailand.

Beginners: skip step 9.

(9. Qunar.com doesn't actually sell tickets themselves, though. Qunar (which, incidentally, means "Where are you going?", as in, A: "Ni qunar?" B: "I'm trying to go to Thailand, but that seems to be totally impossible.") is a ticket aggregation service which collects prices from other airline websites. So finding a ticket on qunar is only the first step in a long process of humiliation and despair. But you don't know that yet.)

10. After clicking on a price on qunar.com, you are presented with a list of websites where tickets are available for purchase. Each website is rated according to 网站口碑 (user opinions) and 报价合理 ("reasonableness of quoted price", I guess), though these ratings seem totally uncorrelated, and furthermore the "reasonableness of quoted price" rating differs for websites which quote the exact same price, so what, in the end, is reasonable? And when does reason give way to madness?

11. Click on an attractive price on qunar, and choose to purchase the ticket on the Thai Air website. Price on the Thai Air website in no way corresponds to the price on qunar. Return to qunar and search for the same flight again. The flight no longer exists. Maybe it never existed.

12. Return to qunar and click on another flight, which sends you to another website which I will call YQF, and which also brokers tickets through various channels which are mysterious to me. This website is entirely in Chinese, and, unlike qunar, it doesn't even have an obvious button to press when you want to buy a ticket.

13. DO NOT ENTER YOUR CREDIT CARD INFORMATION ANYWHERE. As soon as you logon to a Chinese ticket website and put in any financial information, you live in constant fear of clicking on the wrong butting and purchasing a non-refundable ticket to Burma for 5000 RMB. I hear the military junta is lovely in the winter.

14. Click on a flight which looks promising. After a brief internal debate, enter your name and passport number. If this turns out to be a flight to Burma (Vice-Sr. Gen. Maung Aye, Vice Chairman of the State Peace and Development council welcomes your tourism!), and if they come after you demanding payment, you can always tear up your passport and disappear. Better than having to go to Burma (!).

15. Select a flight. The dates look like they will work (good job up there in Step 1!), and you can even fly out of Guangzhou, which is by far the most convenient option. Everything looks good, except for the 700 RMB tax/airport fee. 700 RMB in taxes? What is this, Obamacare? Why do you insist on redistributing my minimal wealth?

16. No, but seriously, we should go teabagging or something. 700 RMB is a lot of money.

17. You seem to have successfully purchased a ticket! Congrats! There is a confirmation email in your inbox. Good news -- you're going to Thailand!

18. Wait, you still have not entered your credit card information anywhere. When is that going to happen?

19. Receive a text message from YQF. Text messages are much, much more popular in China than the in United States. Voicemail doesn't exist here, because everyone uses cell phones and if they don't pick up you can just send a text. Remember how Obama was praised for his grass-roots mobilization via SMS? Chinese people would laugh at a candidate for political office who didn't send text messages, as soon as you explain to them what it means to be a "candidate for political office."

20. Read the text message which says that the price that you selected on the website only applies if you're purchasing two or more tickets at a time. You'd think that they'd tell you this more clearly during the ticket selection process on the website, because computers are really good at deciding when one number is bigger than another number.

21. Call YQF. A woman answers the phone and asks you a question you do not understand. You tell her that you just received a text message and are trying to solve a problem with your ticket. She puts you on hold.

22. A man comes on the phone and explains that the ticket you purchased is not valid. He offers to help you select a new ticket over the phone. You do not want to do this, because speaking Chinese over the phone with a man in a cubicle somewhere is much, much more confusing than looking things up on a Chinese website. Nevertheless, you accept.

See? Compulsively readable!

23. He suggests a flight on 肯尼亚 Airways. You know you've heard of 肯尼亚 before, but you forget where. Then you remember that it's Kenya. Kenya Airways is going to fly you from China to Thailand. Do they also do daily flights from El Paso to Denver or something? I don't understand this.

24. Kenya Airways literally has 26 planes. Surely they have better things to be doing with their planes than ferrying foreign teachers between Guangzhou and Bangkok.

25. You're all set to fly Kenya Airways (slogan: "The Pride of Africa", and also evidently Southeast Asia), and then your guy on the phone says that it'll be over 3000 RMB, which is double what you were planning on paying before. You tell him that that won't work, and that you'll need to find something cheaper. He says that he'll call you back tomorrow with other options. You still have not purchased a ticket to Thailand. Outside, it begins to rain.

End Part I.