My first solo travel experience turns into a nightmare when I find out that my pre-booked flight doesn’t exist.
It was a trip of many firsts. First time in China, first time on a solo trip, and my first time stranded in a foreign land with nowhere to go. There I was, freezing in the almost-winter November morning, all alone in the Shanghai airport, and feeling dazed from the overnight flight.
This is the story of how I booked a non-existent flight to China.
My first solo travel experience
It was end-2016 when I decided to take a solo trip to Shanghai to visit my sister, who was on her exchange program at Shanghai University.
I looked through Skyscanner, decided on a flight that worked best for me, picked the agency (via.com) that gave me the best price, and made my purchase.
I booked a flight with China Eastern airlines for its affordability and timing. Although I’ve never heard or taken this airline before, it was a full service carrier for only S$430. I thought that was a very good deal for a flight to China. According to my ticket, I was supposed to have a stopover in Nanjing before arriving at Shanghai. Unlike most travellers, I feel rather neutral about stopovers as I get to see another city, albeit only for a short time.
I checked in at about 1am, and walked into the departure hall feeling sleepy, excited and also slightly anxious about travelling alone. My last trip with a friend saw us sprinting from one end of the airport to the other at the last minute – because we were not informed of the boarding gate change (I even checked the boarding gate 5 times before the gate opened).
This time I made sure to arrive at the gate earlier. Yay! But there was a 30-minute take-off delay. Boo. I am usually quite okay with short delays, but not so much this time as I was really sleepy and needed to catch a connecting flight.
My most terrifying travel experience began when I arrived at Nanjing Lukou International airport.
Upon arrival, I was worried that the delay might cause me to miss my connecting flight. I scrambled out of the plane and towards the arrival hall, searching frantically for a sign that would take me to the transit area.
An airport staff told me that there’s no transit area and directed me to the immigration gates, as she said that’s the only way out. Having little experience with layovers, I thought that could possibly lead me to my connecting flight. It was about 30 minutes later when I cleared customs.
This left me with just one hour before my next flight.
Most travellers should have already checked in and waiting at the boarding gate at this time, I thought. I wouldn’t know what to do if I missed my flight.
Dragging my bulky luggage (containing not just my clothes but also a lot of necessities for my sister), I ran to China Eastern’s counter at the departure hall in a bid to die die catch my fight.
Am I thankful to see that there’s no queue!
While trying to catch my breath, I asked the gentleman in scrappy Mandarin, “Can I register for my flight?”
To his and my dismay, he answered, “There are no outgoing flights for the rest of the afternoon.”
I insisted that I have an e-ticket for a flight with the airline in an hour’s time. I handed him my e-ticket.
Looking at my printout, he frowned. He was clearly as puzzled as me.
“There’s no such flight,” he replied.
I felt my stomach flip. I could not believe what I had just heard.
As a not-too-well-travelled young lady, I was not sure of what alternatives were available to me.
I felt lost, terrified, and dead beat from the overnight flight.
The kind gentleman then checked the database multiple times and told me that there’s no such flight with the label of MU-6150.
He was also confused by my officially endorsed e-ticket from China Eastern. I did my own search and found out that he was right.
There really was no such flight.
A viable alternative
I was advised by the China Eastern staff to take the high-speed rail from Nanjing Railway Station. The journey to the railway station would take about two hours via subway, and I had to pay around RMB ¥20.
Upon reaching Nanjing Airport’s subway platform, it was already 11am. I’ve been awake since 10pm.
I was tired, hungry, and thirsty – so imagine my delight when I saw a beverage vending machine at the platform.
I popped a coin in and got myself a bottle of green tea. As I was about to twist open the cap, I noticed that the drink had already expired.
Alright then. No drinks for me.
I didn’t have a local SIM card and my phone battery was running low. I think I zoned out for the whole 2-hour journey towards Nanjing Railway Station.
I wish I could tell you that my ordeal ended here.
But it didn’t.
Thankfully, Nanjing Railway Station was connected to the subway station, so I could alight and go get my railway tickets. But it wasn’t the easiest trying to figure out the best ticket to purchase, which platform to get on, and how early in advance do I have to arrive at the platform.
Nanjing Railway Station was overflowing with travellers, and it didn’t help that the staff was not helpful in directing me to the correct platform, or what certain numbers on the ticket meant.
What do the numbers mean? What does that Chinese character read? Why are there so many platforms? Does that refer to cabin or train?????
I… was… lost.
My second attempt in getting help ended up with me getting chided.
“Hi, excuse me, may I ask which platform do I board this train?”
“Isn’t it written here? What’s wrong with you?” the female station staff pointed furiously on my ticket.
At least I found out what one number referred to…
It was only when I entered the train that I realised we had designated seats. My seat was at the other end from where I boarded.
I spent the next 3 minutes repeating, “I’m so sorry, please excuse me, please let me pass,” as I pushed my huge luggage along the narrow aisle to the other side of the train. Not fun.
But that was my bad. I should have read my ticket carefully.
It was about 1pm when I got to my seat, and it would be another two hours until I reach Shanghai. While I was still quite upset with the airline, I remember seeing pretty views during the train journey. I also got to see a bit of Nanjing, which was not in the plans.
I guess that’s one silver lining.
After a long arduous journey, my train pulled into Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station at 3pm. But that was not the end of my journey.
I had one last leg of travelling to do – get to my sister’s place. Again, I had to buy a subway ticket.
The subway station was bursting with commuters spewing from both the city and the railway station. It was total madness.
While I was shuffling and shoving my way through to the ticketing machines, two burly men suddenly appeared in front of me, deliberately blocking my path. They claimed that they needed some cash to buy train tickets home, and asked me for some change.
“We came to Shanghai for vacation, but we don’t have enough money to pay for our tickets home.”
I was already exhausted and mentally drained from the morning ordeal, and for sure I didn’t want any trouble from these towering men. Out of fear for my safety and sanity, I dug out RMB ¥10 and skirted around hastily.
Fortunately, they didn’t follow behind. Or maybe I was small enough to vanish into the crowd. Or maybe they were just surprised that someone would hand over their money this quickly. (I later heard that this was a common trick that con artists use to get money from tourists.)
Upon reaching the ticketing machine, I realised that I didn’t know how to navigate the machine, nor did I have enough coins. A grandpa at the adjacent machine saw my distressed face, and came forward to buy the ticket for me using his coins.
I tried returning his money with my own notes, but he declined with a smile, and gestured me towards the gantry.
Amidst the unfamiliar bustle, his kindness warmed my heart, especially after a crazy roller-coaster of a morning. I thanked him profusely and made my way towards the gantry.
It was another hour before I finally arrived at my sister’s place.
I knocked out for a few hours on her bed afterwards.
So what did I exactly book?
Did I really book a non-existent flight? I mean, the ticket was clearly endorsed by the airline, as was also verified by the airline staff.
I never found out as both the travel agency (via.com) and airline (China Eastern) never picked up my calls, nor responded to my emails. I gave up pursuing the matter after two months.
The writing of this article prompted me to dig a little deeper into what happened 2.5 years ago.
Surprisingly, via.com upgraded their web interface and I could still retrieve my booking from 2016. This feature was not available back in 2016.
And this time, my booking looked a little different.
As it turns out, MU-6150 was a connecting train.
What in the world…
What remains a mystery is, last I checked, China Eastern does not operate any trains between Nanjing and Shanghai. But the connecting train is labelled as ‘China Eastern Airlines’ with a flight number.
So what is this train?
If this was an official connecting flight, shouldn’t the airline staff be informed? He was clearly puzzled by my e-ticket too.
My best guess would be that I was recommended to take the high-speed rail on my own. Even so, this was not communicated at all and I was misled into paying for a flight instead of train.
While I had a pleasant journey on both flights (SIN > NKG and SHA > SIN), it does not excuse the ridiculous service I received. There was also no attempt at providing an explanation or response from both the airline and agency.
I did have a wonderful holiday in Shanghai and Hangzhou though – I saw many nice sights, had great food, and learnt a bit about China.
I just wish I didn’t have to go through the ordeal that I did, which was a huge waste of time, money, and energy. I suppose it remains an interesting story that I get to share at parties.
General reminders from YouTrip:
1. Always protect yourself with travel insurance
2. When booking through third-party sites, always call the airlines to double check your booking and ensure your booking is valid
3. Remember to carry spare currency wherever you go (kind grandpas are not everywhere)
Enjoy a worldwide fees-less travel experience!