I travel a lot… How much? Well, I am usually purchasing airline tickets weekly. I am currently in Singapore, Manila tomorrow, Kuala Lumpur Thursday, Hong Kong Friday, and then I go to the States for 10 days. I try to get home at least 1 or 2 days per week, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
I was booking tickets today, and this idea hit me for my first column when I was on the PAL website and they yet again did not like my US credit cards. Why does travel have to be so difficult, and what can you do about it? How is the easiest way to get around and get things done?
Well, my travel is usually fairly complex… My company has had several travel agents and they usually goof things up, somehow. Trust me: It is no fun sitting in the Athens airport trying to rebook a mis-booked flight. Therefore, I usually book my own travel online, using the airline websites or, my favorite, Expedia. There are some problems when booking travel in the Philippines:
1. There is a Philippine law that states that air travel originating in the Philippines must be paid for in the Philippines. Fine, if you are flying Philippine airlines. Not so good if you are flying Cathay Pacific and using a US credit card. You then have to make the reservation and physically go to the local ticket office to pay for it. Forget trying to buy for someone else not travelling with you… Photocopies and fax of the credit cards, passports, etc. This impacts many of the travel websites or airline websites, particularly US-based, where I have my expense accounts. One of the reasons I use Expedia is that their call center is in Cebu, and they can book the tickets. This normally works, but Expedia sometimes has its glitches (Like TODAY…AAAARRRGGGGHHH!!!). You can also book complicated tickets departing from Hong Kong, and just buy a separate ticket to Hong Kong. I have found that, particularly, fares also can be cheaper from Hong Kong or Bangkok, particularly trans-Pacific flights, and Europe flights also tend to be more convenient.
2. Philippine-based companies often do not like US credit cards. Ever go into SM and see 7 different credit card scanners? One word in my mind: Ridiculous. However, you cannot change it. Local ticket offices are usually very crowded… Remember, 10% of the population works overseas. There are always people travelling and never a “slow” time at the ticket offices. Don’t forget traffic and all the other things associated with going in person.
3. Cebu Pacific, Seair, Air Asia (The best of the lot) and the other discount carriers are booming, offering cheap fares as low as 0 Pesos. Wonderful! However, you can expect to be self-loading cargo (Queues) and the taxes on the fares are not so cheap. For example, last month I flew to Gensan… RT fare was 2,000 Pesos, Taxes were around 3,000 Pesos…More than the fare. Do not expect so much as a free water on these flights, and prepare to pay baggage fees. (Don’t dismiss this… When Rebecca travels with me, the amount of “Pasabulong” we carry used to astonish me… Cooking oil??? She got the message when I had to pay US$150 extra in Macau for overweight bags. Sometimes it is best just to let the lesson happen… Gotta love ’em, though, and can’t live without ’em.) Also, and I can’t stress this enough, avoid ANY Domestic connection through NAIA… You may be delayed, bumped, etc. The discount carriers often only have one flight per day to some locations, if that many. Also, for business, it is better to book on a major airline than a discount, particularly if your business is urgent. Also, customer service on these airlines, particularly Cebu Pacific in my opinion, is horrendous. Expect to wait on the phone at least an hour if you call for anything, and expect little to no resolution of problems. I tend to fly these guys ONLY if I have no other options (Business, remember?). Sometimes, it is easier and cheaper just to buy another ticket than to try and rebook.
4. For domestic travel, schedules are often fairly limited, and can also sell out fast, particularly on less popular routes or during holidays (Big one there… If you want to travel in the RP during Holy Week, All Saints, or Christmas, book FAR in advance.) Also, Filipino airlines have a very annoying habit of giving incorrect information on the phone or web… They say “Sold Out” but there is space available, or worse, they say “Space available” and you get to the ticket office and the flight is “Sold Out”.
5. ALWAYS remember to bring a printout of your ticket to a Philippine airport. They have this habit of not letting you into the terminal counters without one, requiring you to go find a printer before you check in. Last year, I was in over 75 different airports, and the only places I encountered this silliness was the Philippines, India, and Colombia, and in India, 100 rupees took care of the problem. This is easy to forget, particularly since most airlines only issue e-tickets now. (BTW, my normal procedure was to just show them a confirmation on my Blackberry… No longer… MUST be printed physically.)
6. Don’t lose your baggage claim tags. They check them in the Philippines and create yet another queue after you leave customs while everyone sits there searching for theirs. Again, I only encountered this in Manila, San Juan, and Colombia… pointless, and another hassle. I tend to simply blow around the line and get selective hearing if the security protests, but I’ve had to argue with them a few times. Why is it silly? They want the actual claim ticket… Your name in your passport (and the baggage tags, too, BTW) is not good enough. I had a missed connection in HKG last month and Cathay took the folder with the claim by accident and didn’t give me a new one… explaining that to the security people is like having a conversation with the wall.
7. Don’t show up at the airport without any cash… 750 Pesos for international. Seems self evident. I have, on occasion, forgotten about the exit tax after not wanting a wallet full of Pesos befor going to Vietnam. Fortunately, at NAIA, there are ATMs nearby, but, in my experience, they are usually broken (or, in local vernacular, “offline”.)
8. If you live here on a tourist Visa, you MUST have a ticket departing the Philippines before your visa expires. This sometimes causes me problems, since I am here on a regular tourist visa until I get married. Most regular tourists won’t have this problem, since they did not originate in MNL, and people with residence can stay as long as they like. I normally have a flight booked, but very sometimes forget the printout before I leave. Now, most of the airlines are pretty good about letting you slide if you tell them something like, “Oh, I’m on the 9:00 Cathay flight on the 23rd” or something like that. I have also never been asked once for it at passport control, despite the signs saying otherwise… It is always at airline check-in. If I’m hassled, usually showing a stack of credit cards does the trick. You do need to be prepared to buy another ticket out, however, just in case. Think of it this way… A cheap one-way fare to HKG, TPE, or BKK can always be used as a shopping excursion, if need be. Just book the cheapest flight ON ANY AIRLINE that you can that shows you intend to leave… Also keep in mind that the cheap fare may not be changeable and you could lose the value of the ticket.
Well, this pretty much covers booking tickets… Tomorrow, I’ll post some hints about airports here, security, hotels, and other things common with air travel in the country. In Part 3, I’ll share some tricks I have learned about making travel easier and more affordable.