How she learned a valuable lesson about Chinese visas

A lesson about Chinese visas

If you’re planning to fly into or through China, even if you’re just making a connection, get a Chinese visa. I repeat: get a Chinese visa. Without one, your airline can get away with denying you boarding. Sara Peterson had to learn this painful lesson about Chinese visas when China Southern Airlines wouldn’t let her fly.

Peterson’s story is one more reminder that it’s risky to book complicated international trips using third-party websites. It’s also a warning that even if a foreign embassy tells you that you don’t need a visa, you should obtain one anyway. Every traveler is responsible for obtaining the correct travel documents for transit through foreign countries. And no one, from airlines to travel agents to embassies, will accept responsibility for travelers not having the right documents. Peterson, like Rosalie Dajay, learned this lesson about Chinese visas the hard way.

A change to her itinerary

Peterson, her husband and their daughter were traveling from Busan, South Korea, to Rome. They booked their flights through Mytrip.com, a travel website. Peterson had a screenshot showing that her flight would stop in Wuhan, China, where she would make a connection to Rome on CSA Czech Airlines.

China allows air travelers from 53 countries, including the U.S. and South Korea, to transit through 18 cities for a 72-hour period without visas. Wuhan is among the 18 qualifying cities. But China firmly enforces restrictions on these travelers. They must have onward tickets with confirmed seats for flights out of the same cities into which they flew. The 72-hour clock starts at midnight on the day following the entry date. The visa-free option is not available for visiting more than one Chinese city within the 72-hour window.

Then Peterson learned that CSA Czech Airlines had canceled one of her flights. The airline offered her a choice of rescheduling or refunding the flight. She chose to reschedule. The airline rebooked her and her family on China Southern Airlines, which sent her new tickets. The new itinerary had two stops, one in Guangzhou and one in Shanghai. The stop in Wuhan no longer appeared on her itinerary.

A difficult lesson about Chinese visas: The Chinese embassy’s information was wrong!

Concerned about the change, Peterson contacted the Chinese embassy to inquire whether she needed a visa. The embassy employee to whom Peterson spoke told her that she would not need a visa. Relying on this information, Peterson and her family did not obtain Chinese visas.

When they tried to check in at the Busan airport, a China Southern Airlines agent asked for their Chinese transit visas. The agent informed them that there was a hidden layover in Wuhan, requiring them to have transit visas. Peterson asked the airline employees to reroute her and her family to avoid the layover in Wuhan. China Southern Airlines’ employees refused to assist her, claiming that the airline would not refund or change her tickets. It also refused to provide her with written proof of the interaction.

The $1,451 she forfeited for her family’s original tickets contained an expensive lesson about Chinese visas. Peterson had to pay for more costly tickets to continue the trip.

International finger-pointing

Peterson then contacted both China Southern Airlines and Mytrip.com, seeking a refund for the cost of her original tickets. Unfortunately, she learned another difficult lesson about what can happen when you book flights through a third-party website. China Southern Airlines told her that it could not assist her because she had booked her tickets through Mytrip.com. And Mytrip.com pointed its finger at CSA Czech Airlines, telling Peterson that she would have to fill out a complaint form on that airline’s website.

Peterson tried to follow up with each party, but the only response she received was silence. She then turned to our advocates for help. (Our website has contact information for China Southern Airlines and CSA Czech Airlines. We don’t yet have contact information for Mytrip.com.)

Unfortunately for Peterson, neither China Southern Airlines’ conditions of international carriage nor Mytrip.com’s terms of use help her out. Both sites contain the standard disclaimers of liability for errors in anything on their sites. China Southern Airlines’ conditions of international carriage contain the following language, which allows the airline to disclaim responsibility for travel documents:

The passenger shall present all exits [sic], entry, health and other documents required by laws, regulations, orders, demands or requirements of the countries concerned…. CSN reserves the right to refuse carriage of any passenger who has not complied with applicable laws, regulations, orders, demands or requirements or whose documents do not appear to be in order.

Mytrip.com’s terms of use contain a similar disclaimer:

Under no circumstances can Mytrip.com be responsible if you do not have the valid and correct travel documents or permissions to travel. It is your responsibility to be in possession of a valid passport and, if required, a visa. Every destination has its own requirements concerning entry formalities, customs, vaccinations, etc. Mytrip.com cannot be responsible for incidents deriving from cases when such official requirements are not followed.

A surprise ending

Peterson sent our advocate, Dwayne Coward, a screenshot of her original booking, showing the stop in Wuhan. She also provided a copy of her revised itinerary. Dwayne reached out to China Southern Airlines and Mytrip.com on Peterson’s behalf.

China Southern Airlines never responded to Dwayne or Peterson. An employee of Mytrip.com replied: “It looks like the information about the additional stop in Wuhan was not provided in that ticket and we agree that this is indeed misleading for the passenger. This misinformation from the side of the airline seems to have led to another misinformation from the embassy, which, in its turn, led to the confusion during boarding described by the passenger.” The employee agreed to help Peterson, but reiterated that Mytrip.com “cannot be held responsible for the lack of travel documents or wrong information provided to the passenger by the airline or the embassy.” But all Peterson or Dwayne heard after that from Mytrip.com was that the travel agency was waiting to hear back from China Southern Airlines.

After a month of silence, Peterson asked her credit card company to investigate the situation. The credit card company issued Peterson a chargeback. Peterson asked whether she should notify Mytrip.com of the chargeback. She wanted the travel agency to complete its investigation, concerned that China Southern Airlines might pursue her for the cost of her original ticket. Dwayne advised her that the airline could send her account to a collection agency. But as a foreign carrier, China Southern Airlines was not likely to do so.

Peterson’s lesson about Chinese visas was a long journey in search of a refund for an expensive trip. I’ll end this story with a third exhortation: If you’re going through China, get a Chinese visa. Just in case.

Who should have assumed responsibility for notifying Sara Peterson and her family that they needed Chinese visas?

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