Barely settled back into our simplified life in the developing world, Diane and I looked at the calendar and realized there’s only a few months left until our lease expires. Hoping to qualify for a reasonable visa to live in Thailand other than the infamous 90 day tourist visa, it seemed like early April might be a great time for a quick mini jaunt to Bali. Living in a “beach resort town” that features one of Southeast Asia’s dirtiest and grimiest beaches, we’re also longing for a nice place to soak up the sun, catch up on some books and remind ourselves that heat and humidity beats the frigid Canadian winters and minus twenty degrees anytime. Also thinking we’ll probably not venture south once we move further north, I did a quick search on flights and almost immediately changed my mind thanks once again to Penang’s horribly inconvenient, underutilized and ridiculously small airport. With no direct flights, everything runs through connections in one of KL’s two enormous shiny airports which literally means jacking up the price to over $425.
Always more patient than me, Diane decided to check AirAsiaGo.com, a website cleverly disguised as an Air Asia subsidiary that offers bundled packages including airfare, hotel, rental cars and various other services for one price. Normally, I always avoid package deals at all costs on this side of the world because unlike in North America, there’s no such thing as “all-inclusive resorts” like in Cancun or Cabo. Virtually every hotel room comes with free breakfast, free wifi and other amenities that they group together and call a “resort fee” in North America while tacking on $25 a night or more. Besides that, there’s a little thing called “consumer protection laws” that anyone raised in the USA or Canada takes for granted. Quickly learning that you get what you pay for in the developing world, things work quite differently here and if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. Initially pricing out five nights using Booking.com or a similar company, we found a highly rated hotel for less than $130 and I love the flexible payment options given to hotels in Asia like “pay later”, “pay at the hotel” or “pay now”. But adding in the airfare jolted the total cost over the top end of our travel budget and after an expensive trip to Canada, I probably should have just given up.
Always the less emotional one in our marriage, Diane quietly went back to AirAsiaGo.com, searched for the hotel and dates we found earlier and discovered all the same inconvenient flight options but this time the price included five nights at the hotel. Coming in at just over 3,900 Ringgit (about $890), the price knocked off about $300 from booking airfare and hotel separately. Hesitatingly, I glanced at all the fine print and found the usual “all bookings are fully non refundable” along withe two paragraphs explaining they don’t allow any changes to the itinerary once booked and some other junk about passport requirements and personal data policies. Basically, once you pay, say goodbye to the third-party vendor and hello to whatever you signed up for.
After another few minutes of justifying why I’m so against package deals from unidentifiable third-party vendors, I gave in to my worst instinct, clicked “purchase now” and immediately received two separate emails, one that looked like any other Air Asia flight itinerary (except for the “low fare” part which means we’ll need to pay for luggage and we can’t pick seats) and one from AirAsiaGo with a package itinerary number and confirmation code for the hotel. Hopping onto our online banking, three pending charges popped up but one was for $0.00. Calculating the hotel’s charge, it came to only $121 per night, almost $30 a night less than the best online booking offer and the airfare clocked in at $236.39, a discount of over $200 versus booking the flight directly with the airline’s website. All’s well that ends well, right? Unfortunately, not. Attached to all the fine print came this little gem:
- In accordance with local regulations, all visitors must remain within the hotel property during Seclusion Day/Hindu New Year on March 28, 2017 (from midnight March 27, 2017 to early morning March 29, 2017). Check-in and check-out will not be possible on March 28, 2017. For more details, please contact the office using the information on the reservation confirmation received after booking.
Thanks to the wonders of Google we discovered more about Hari Raya Nyepi. Also known as Hindu Lunar New Year, who knew that 93% of Bali’s population is Hindu in the world’s most populous Muslim nation? And I think you’ll agree the celebration is a bit restrictive for a tourist mecca.
Celebrations are centred on Bali and take two forms. Firstly according to custom, the arrival of Spring is the time of year when the Lord of Hell sends all the devils to Bali, who must then be cleared out to purify the island before the new year begins. People then run through the streets of villages and towns, with their faces painted, making as much noise as they possibly can.
The evil spirits are driven away by the local people who make massive papier-mache effigies of the evil spirits called ‘Ogoh Ogoh’. The Ogoh Ogoh are then paraded through towns and villages while people with their faces painted make as much noise as they possibly can to scare the monsters away. In the evening the effigies are ceremoniously burnt, followed by dancing, drinking feasting and generally unabashed partying.This noisy, brash festival is then followed by Nyepi, the Balinese “Day of Silence” also known as Seclusion Day. Nyepi, marks the start of the New Year and the arrival of spring. Beginning at 6 am and lasting until 6 am the following day, Nyepi is a day intended for self-reflection and anything that might disturb this is not allowed.
This means no cooking or fires, no entertainment, no travelling and no work of any kind is permitted.This means that the usually busy streets of Bali fall silent and even though Nyepi is a Hindu festival, non-Hindu residents of Bali will also observe the day of silence out of respect for their fellow citizens. Tourists are free to do what they want inside their hotels but nobody is permitted onto the beaches or streets. The airport in Bali will also be closed for Nyepi.
Given all the tolerance messages I’ve posted on the blog and Facebook, it’s plainly obvious I’d never mock any religious ceremony or celebration no matter how odd it may seem to us. But let’s be serious here. Clearly an obvious infringement on a beach holiday, not disclosing this prior to booking the plane ticket would border on fraud in the western world. Subjecting clients seeking rest and relaxation to “brash partying in the streets” on their arrival night and then locking them down in a hotel for 24 hours similar to a terrorist attack is absolutely ridiculous and should be disclosed before purchase. Unacceptable to us, Diane noticed a 24/7 customer service number on AirAsiaGo so we phoned and explained that we’d never pay for a package had we known about this strange disruption.
Patiently listening to our claim, the agent said he understood and would try to change our dates despite the “no changes even if the hotel gets destroyed in a typhoon” policy. Phoning the hotel, he told us the reservation desk had already closed but promised to send an email requesting different dates. Moving on to the airline, apparently vendors have mysterious access to real humans at Air Asia whereby they force average customers to join a live chat after a two-hour wait in the event something goes wrong (It often does; Air Asia’s website is slow, ambiguous and plagued with problems). Returning after about two dollars worth of Viber charges, he told us a large change fee applies and we’d have to contact the airline ourselves. First reason why I hate third-party vendors confirmed; If you have any issues, it’s not their problem.
Providing us with a phone number linked to The Philippines (which has exceedingly high per minute charges on Viber), we phoned and explained the problem to an agent we could barely understand and after wasting ten minutes, she determined that the flight segments are not controlled by Air Asia Philippines but by Air Asia SDN BHD in Malaysia so there’s nothing she could do but give us a different phone number. Frustrated, we called the second number and they told us we can change the itinerary for an extra charge of over 900 Ringgit. Explaining that “Air Asia is a discount airline”, she told us each segment change is subject to a 100 Ringgit per person charge (that makes 8 segments thanks to the lack of non-stops from Penang) plus any other price differences. After arguing they had no business selling us the package without disclosing the lock-down issue, it quickly reminded me of the second reason I avoid packages; Attempting to get anyone in Asia to think outside the box or waive any fees based on reasonable special circumstance is like thinking Trump will help his idiot core voters. It ain’t gonna happen.
Unwilling to pay a fee that would make the trip as expensive as not using the package company, we began feeling slighted and helpless and then I remembered our credit card is USA based so we called them. Explaining our situation, we asked their opinion on waiting for the charges to hit and disputing them. Advising us to first call back AirAsiaGo and ask for an outright cancellation of both charges, they agreed that if merchant refused, it clearly fell under the guise of “services charged but not provided”. Referring back to the concept of consumer protection, most credit cards give upwards of five or six situations where you can take a charge temporarily off your bill while they investigate disputes with the merchant as long as you make a concerted effort to resolve it first. Thanking them for their time, we called back the 24/7 customer service of AirAsiaGo and got a message saying the office is now closed. Giving up after two hours of frustration, we went to bed.
Starting fresh the next day, we called back and tried asking for a complete cancellation although we knew the odds of that were low. Making us explain the entire problem all over, a new customer service agent listened and then told us he needs to transfer us to AirAsiaGo. Huh? Asking who we’d called, he told us “This is Expedia; you need to call your agent”. Annoyed, we told him we called the only number on the AirAsiaGo website and he couldn’t give any further information but that would explain the $0.00 pending charge listed as “Expedia” that came on our online banking along with the other two charges. Confirming the third reason I hate using packages, it’s magnified tenfold in Asia: There’s no way of knowing who you’re dealing with and lax consumer laws means they only need to list some Malaysian name and registration number to do business. Normally, you’d never care but when something goes wrong, it’s “consumer beware”.
Naturally, he disconnected us and forced us into yet another call complete with a full explanation of the problem and a transfer to the supposed AirAsiaGo people. I should mention you get a recorded “press one for blah blah blah after entering your itinerary number” when you call so this time we tried a different option and somehow they didn’t want to transfer us but gave us the same basic story; There’s nothing they can do and we need to contact the airline to change flights. Instead, we decided to call the hotel directly first to see if they’d even accommodate new dates. Reaching a typically trained and soft-spoken Indonesian, we explained the holiday, lock-down and noise issues. Seeming unaware of the national holiday or hotel policy she said “So why do you want to change dates?”. Eventually after she found the email from the customer service guy, she asked for the reservation number and told us “Nothing we can do. You need to call your agent”. As I’ve stated, any kind of thinking outside the box isn’t understood or taught in Asian culture and especially in Muslim nations so we basically wasted more money on a useless phone call.
Giving Air Asia one last try, we got the same story and vowed to simply take a chance by disputing the charges. Understanding we might lose, we agreed that if they wouldn’t reverse the charges, we’d simply go and deal with two days of inconvenience despite paying for a beach vacation where you’re prohibited from visiting the beach. But later that day, my phone rang twice but I didn’t hear it because we were shopping. Noticing two calls originating from Phoenix, Arizona I also got an email from the first guy we talked to informing us that we can change airline dates for over 900 Ringgit but there was no mention of the hotel. Calling back the U.S. based number, we got a recorded message telling us “this number is for internal use only and you should call your agent”. Now it began to make more sense. Sure enough, AirAsiaGo is actually an American based shell subsidiary of Expedia disguised as a company representing an Air Asia subsidiary when they have absolutely nothing to do with them.
Hoping to at least reach the original agent, we called back the website number and asked for the first guy since he signed his name on the email but of course, they are “unable to connect you to specific agents”. Fortunately, she was very calm, helpful and understanding and even though she couldn’t change the extra fees or offer any compassionate fee waivers, she was willing to change the airline dates and hotel herself instead of making us call the airline. Giving in, we decided to accept the extra fees because claustrophobia and excessive partying wasn’t what we bargained for and we still wanted to go. Of course, after checking every five-day combination one month before and after the original dates, the hotel somehow claimed that the price was higher on any given set of dates.
Leading me to my last reason why I never use third-party vendors in Asia, we got financially fucked because of a fundamental difference between Asia and North America. Asia is all about efficiency. Nobody wastes time, effort and money coddling consumers who have issues. No company cares about customer satisfaction or social media Facebook pages calling for boycotts. Airplanes in Asia can easily board 300 passengers in ten to fifteen minutes because people follow the rules, airports are modern and well designed and nobody does stupid shit like forming their own line, abusing the carry-on space or showing up one minute before the gates close. Including the luggage fee, we wound up paying about $40 more than if we simply accepted that flying to Bali from Penang is expensive and booked the airfare through Air Asia and the hotel through the best possible online travel service. My favorite is Agoda.
Hoping this saves you some frustration, keep in mind that Asia is nothing like North America and if you become an overseas retired expat on a tight budget, remember that the biggest expression representing an oxymoron is probably “Consumer Protection”.
Comments always welcome. Cheers from comfortably cool Penang.