After much back and forth debate with myself, I’ve finally decided to publish this post. I had previously held off because I like to keep my blog positive and talk about the wonderful, glamorous aspects of travel; but the fact of the matter is that travel is not always glamorous. In fact, sometimes it can be more stressful than anything and that’s exactly how I would describe my experience at the Beijing airport.
This story begins way before we arrived at the Beijing airport, in fact, it began before we even departed Toronto.
On our way to the Maldives, Logan and I had three stopovers in Montreal, Beijing, and Singapore, respectively. When we checked in at the Air Canada desk in Toronto, the representative told us we needed to pick up our bags in Beijing and re-check them for our Singapore flight, as this was our first port of entry. This sounded perfectly normal to me and was something I’ve had to do several times in the past with connecting flights, so I didn’t even think to double check that the information she had given us was correct. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.
If you’ve never been to China, their customs and immigration clearance is very strict. You can’t even leave the airport without and 72-hour visa and there are about 4 different customs lines to choose from, which can be very overwhelming.
We originally ended up in the customs line for connecting flights, in which you’d be sent straight through to the transit area without stopping at baggage claim. When we got to the front of this line we told the agent that we needed to pick up our bags. She was very confused, insisting that connecting flights weren’t required to collect their bags, but I was equally as insistent, not wanting to get to Singapore without any luggage. She ended up funneling us through to a different line where we had to get a 72-hour visa just to be allowed to enter the baggage claim area.
Once we arrived at baggage claim, the carrousel was fairly empty as we’d spent so long in the customs lines that all the bags had been collected already. Nonetheless, we waited an additional half an hour before coming to the conclusion that our bags were not coming. After taking our baggage tags to several different airport employees, they all confirmed our suspicions: our bags never needed to be picked up in Beijing, they were already on their way to Singapore.
At this point, I was annoyed with the inconvenience, but it was nothing more than a minor hassle.
However, because we had cleared the transit area to enter baggage claim, we now needed to go through security in order to get back into the transit area. Typically, when I travel, I have a carry-on backpack with my drone, camera, laptop, and GoPro’s. I’ve never really had an issue traveling with all this equipment; at most the security checkpoints the employees just want me to take out my drone and swab the batteries. However, as we approached the security checkpoint in Beijing I noticed a lot of signs about lithium batteries, with is what my drone and GoPro’s use. I knew I was under the wattage allowed on aircrafts, but all of the posted notices had me worried.
Upon unzipping my backpack to reveal my drone, the security agent demanded all of my electronic devices be removed from the bag; drone, batteries, cameras, laptop, phone, everything. Which was annoying, but I appreciate airport safety, so whatever.
After clearing the metal detector, the security agent asked to see my boarding pass and passport, which he took and entered some information on a computer before handing it back. Logan and I joked that he had flagged me because I was traveling with a drone – turns out we weren’t wrong.
We made it to Singapore and Maldives without any further issue and even survived another 18-hour layover in Singapore on our way back home. Our final layover in Beijing on the way home was 7 hours. A small feat compared to the day we’d just spent at Singapore’s airport, but after a tropical trip that was rained out and not getting proper sleep in two weeks, we were on edge, to say the least.
On the way back, we also left two of our GoPro’s and three extra batteries in our checked baggage, figuring we wouldn’t need more than one to document the journey home. I will note, that not all airlines allow lithium batteries in checked baggage because they pose a greater risk in the cargo if they catch fire. This rule varies from airline to airline and I did check beforehand and found nothing on Air China’s website regarding lithium batteries in check baggage. Nonetheless, GoPro lithium batteries are well below any wattage restrictions and I’ve never had any issues checking them previously.
Now, go back to the beginning of this story; remember when I told you the security agent at the Beijing airport took my boarding pass and passport to input something into a computer? Well turns out, he was flagging my name in the airport’s security system, so when I passed back through the airport an alert was created when my passport and baggage tags were scanned. Apparently said flag gives the airport authority, under the Peoples Republic of China, to open up my checked baggage and perform a search.
Upon returning home I had a note left in my suitcase stating that I had been flagged by the Peoples Republic of China and I was subject to a search by airport personnel. The notice literally stated that this was not a random search and my bag had been singled out because of a prior incident. The prior incident being me traveling with a drone and lithium batteries within the allowed wattage restrictions.
Underneath the note was my GoPro case, which I immediately noticed was out of place. Upon opening the case I realized all three of our extra batteries were missing. Checking the notice again, I saw the airport had disclosed they removed three lithium batteries from my suitcase. Despite the fact these batteries were within the allowed wattage restrictions, they were allowed to be removed from my suitcase, only because my name was flagged in the Chinese government’s system.
These batteries aren’t cheap, they retail for $50-$60 each, and those were all the extra batteries we had. Now Logan and I are short batteries as we’re preparing for another upcoming trip, so this was a little more than a minor inconvenience, it’s now directly affecting my ability to do my job efficiently because me, a 21-year female travel blogger from Canada, was incorrectly flagged as a threat.
Along with the aftermath of the airport, our experience in transit at the Beijing airport was a disaster in itself. As I said, we were exhausted upon arriving, like many transit passengers, and our patience was at an all-time low.
This is supposed to be the largest international airport in the world, yet every staff member refused to attempt to meet us halfway with English. I’m never one to disrespect other cultures, and I’m not someone who demands every foreign country be fluent in English, but as the largest international airport in the world, I think it’s appropriate that your staff members understand a few basic words in English so transit passengers can at least order food without incident. Logan and I were trying to order breakfast at KFC, which was apparently the only place other than Starbucks serving breakfast when we landed (way to go largest international airport in the world), and the experience was so stressful I contemplated starving for the next 7 hours.
The employees were flat out rude. Along with refusing to speak English or understand what we were trying to point out on the menu, they refused to take US currency because they didn’t want to deal with the conversion rate. The restaurant was able to accept US cash, as I saw some in the cashier till, but for whatever reason, this employee decided that she didn’t want to take ours and forced me to pay with credit card.
It goes without saying that I was relieved to finally board the plane and couldn’t wait to get home; but as it turns out, not even that could go smoothly. We boarded the plane at 1 pm and sat on the tarmac for 1.5 hours, waiting out tarmac traffic that apparently the airport was having a hard time controlling. As a result of leaving Beijing 90 minutes late, we missed our connecting flight from Montreal to Toronto.
Anyway, I recognize this post is a rant that may not sit well with all of my readers, but as many of you pointed out, it’s just as important to show the ugly parts of travel as it is the glamorous parts.
Do you have any travel horror stories? If you do, feel free to share them below!