Reflections from China: I could have used a travel agent

'Reflections from China' series

Michelle in ChinaReporter Michelle Baran recently returned from a trip to China to discover how the country was faring with the Summer Olympics approaching. The second of her five reports follows.

Agents have my deepest respect.

In confronting the ultimate travel challenge of trying to get to China just two months before the 2008 Summer Olympics, I realized just how difficult it can be to plan a trip.

Travel Bound offered to host me on the ground in Shanghai and Beijing. As anyone who works with Travel Bound knows, the wholesaler specializes in providing individual components -- such as hotels, private transfers and various sightseeing options -- to create customized itineraries. (It also recently started offering packages.)

While Travel Bound was extremely accommodating and flexible, I still needed to make decisions, such as when I wanted to go to China and what I wanted to do there.

Travel Bound doesn’t sell air, so I had to find another operator to help me with the flight. I looked to China Travel Service (CTS) because the operator is, as the name suggests, a China specialist. Plus, I was hoping that in addition to air, CTS might be able to assist me with the visa process. CTS couldn’t help with the visa, as its outbound office is based in San Francisco and deals directly with the Chinese embassy there.

Regarding air travel, CTS told me that flights were rapidly escalating in price the closer the departure dates were to the Olympics. OK, that settled that. I needed to go as soon as possible.

With airline tickets reserved for June 6 and Travel Bound working to assemble a rough itinerary based on very rudimentary requirements, I headed off to the Chinese embassy in New York. My first trip was a complete failure.

With increased security measures in the lead-up to the Games, the embassy wanted a detailed itinerary of exactly where I would be and what I would be doing in China. I called Travel Bound (something the agent I was increasingly desperate for could have done). I needed to finalize my decisions.

Problem was, I wasn’t sure what I wanted. I was beginning to feel like the agent for my very own nightmare client -- me.

I knew I wanted to go to Beijing and Shanghai, China’s two top tourism destinations. Then what?

Originally, I had planned to go to Tibet, but the region was closed to foreign visitors after violent clashes there in March. With Tibet out of the question, I thought I would visit the earthquake-stricken Sichuan province. But Travel Bound wasn’t offering anything there because of complications due to the earthquake. If I was going to go there, I’d have to figure out that portion of the trip on my own. Fair enough.

But there wasn’t enough time to sort this all out before heading back to the embassy, so I told Travel Bound to complete the itinerary with just Shanghai and Beijing. I told the operator I would figure the rest out later. Then Travel Bound asked me if I wanted any additional sightseeing options. Ugh, where was my travel agent? Sightseeing options?

Quickly, and with minimal research, I requested a full-day tour to the Great Wall and Ming Tombs, a half-day tour to the Summer Palace (shown in below photo) on the outskirts of Beijing and a half-day cooking class in Shanghai. Agents, feel free to criticize.Summer Palace

With land itinerary in hand, I confidently walked back to the looming Chinese embassy on 42nd Street and 12th Avenue. Closed. Argh! OK, trip No. 2 was my mistake. (Yet again, a blunder an agent could have helped me prevent.)

The next day, I headed back for trip No. 3. I now had to plead with China Travel Service to extend my air reservation to avoid the risk of having to pay a penalty for canceling the ticket if for some reason I didn’t get the visa.

Trip No. 3 appeared to be a success. By some miracle of being at the end of my red tape, er, rope, I jumped in front of the line and managed to shove my documents in front of the embassy worker who sent me home the first time, all before the hours-long line began at 9 a.m.

I tried to look convincingly like someone who only wanted to go to Shanghai and Beijing (knowing full well I would likely tack on a third destination). Voila! My visa would be ready at 2 p.m. the same day, for a slightly higher fee.

I went back for trip No. 4, picked up the visa, called China Travel Service and booked the flight. I obviously have a calling as an agent.

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