The Philly Pho Fare: Trip Planning
Cathay Pacific Business Class Lounge Terminal 4 SIN
Vietnam Airlines A321 Economy SIN-HAN
Qatar Airways B77W Business Class HAN-DOH
Qatar Airways A350 Business Class DOH-PHL
Aloft Philadelphia Downtown
British Airways Business Class Lounge PHL
Qatar Airways A350 Business Class PHL-DOH
Qatar Airways Arrivals Lounge DOH
Qatar Airways Complimentary Doha Stopover Package (Westin Doha)
Qatar Airways Al Mourjan Business Class Lounge DOH
Vietnam Airlines Business Class Lounge HAN
Silk Air B737 Business Class HAN-SIN
In the planning segment of this trip report, I mentioned that I’d be positioning myself to Hanoi on a Vietnam Airlines economy ticket. I was considering skipping this report altogether and just jumping from the Cathay lounge review to Qatar’s contract lounge in Hanoi, because, in my own words, a narrowbody economy flight would be “nothing to write home about”.
Shows what I know, because this turned out to be one of the most pivotal moments of the entire trip.
Here’s the thing about mistake fares- if you book one and the airline honors it, you’d better make sure everything goes precisely, exactly according to plan. That’s because any change to your ticket, be it a date change, a no show, a missed segment, will at best lead to a hefty change fee (because you’d be paying the fare difference between a regular priced premium cabin ticket and the reduced price you paid) or at worse lead to a cancellation of the entire ticket.
This means there’s no room for error. Problems with an award flight? Change the date and pay a small fee, change the route and pay a small fee, heck cancel it and start over with all your miles intact and a small penalty. But on a mistake fare? One error on your part and that could be the end of your trip. And good luck getting any sympathy from the airline.
My flight from Hanoi to Doha (via BKK) was scheduled to depart at 5.25pm local time. The Qatar Airways site suggested that all check-in counters closed 60 minutes before departure, meaning that I’d need to check in by 4.25pm.
VN662 from Singapore to Hanoi was scheduled to land at 3.40pm, and although 45 minutes may sound tight for most people, all international flights from Hanoi operated out of the same terminal and I figured that with my APEC Business Travel card I’d be through immigration in no time, pick up my bag, recheck it and be on my way.
Judging by VN662’s historical operating performance, I believed I’d be fine- the flight seemed to reliably land by 3.50pm on most days (in a classic example of confirmation bias, I chose to ignore 11 November’s data point as an outlier).
So naturally, this happened.
Boarding at Changi was delayed for whatever reason and we took off at 2.05pm (it says 1.45pm in the screenshot above but that refers to the time the aircraft pushes back from the gate, not actual takeoff) after a long wait on the tarmac. Our projected arrival time was now well past 4pm.
You want to know how the flight was? I don’t even remember. I’ve only really got two photos of note- the business class seat on Vietnam’s A321…
…and the meal in economy. It was pork with rice, and it tasted fine.
But you see, I couldn’t focus on anything else, because the entire 3 hours I was worrying myself silly about what I’d do if I missed my flight.
I knew there was little to no chance of Qatar accommodating me on the next day’s flight, so I was facing the prospect of writing off the entire US$683. My mind raced through permutations and combinations. Book HAN-SIN-FRA-JFK as a business class award for 92K miles and then buy a cheap JFK-PHL ticket? Book HAN-SIN-SFO and fly cross continent to PHL? Call the whole trip off and make this a genuine Pho fare by exploring Hanoi?
We landed just after 4pm and I thought: ok, this can still be done if I run like the wind. So naturally, the plane taxied to a remote gate which it reached at 4.15pm. A separate bus whisked off business class passengers to the terminal, while I had to fidget nervously on the economy bus and wait for every last passenger to get on board. When you’re pressed for time, you tend to take everything personally and I swear the other passengers weren’t locomoting as fast as they should be.
As if to add insult to injury, the bus drove past QR835 en route to the terminal. QR835, which was so close and yet so far.
I sprinted from the bus to immigration, and by 4.30pm was done with formalities. But there was still baggage claim. I’m so used to having priority luggage tags (either from premium cabin flying or through Star Gold status when in economy) that I totally forgot bags can actually take a long time to reach you if you’re status-less.
It gets better- you know how some luggage claim carousels have that newfangled feature where the new luggage doesn’t pop out if it detects existing luggage on the carousel passing by? The idea is to prevent the system from jamming, but what happens when the entire carousel is full and everyone else is still stuck at immigration? That’s right- no new luggage comes out and you’re left waiting for someone else to take their bag before a new one can come out. (I guess I could have taken someone else’s bag off the belt to make way for new bags but there was a security officer close by giving me the evil eye for standing so close to the head of the belt that I didn’t dare touch something that wasn’t mine)
It was 4.55pm when my bag unapologetically rolled onto the belt and I now felt defeated. I had gambled on a short connection and lost, and in doing so had given up the chance to fly my first ever mistake fare. I’d have to cancel my accommodation in Philly and beg for a refund, I’d have to figure out whether it was still worth going there and on top of it all I’d be stranded in Hanoi for at least a night.
I sauntered up to the check-in counter, resigning myself to being told that I was out of luck and had to call up customer service to get reticketed. So imagine my shock when the manager told me to get out my documents as fast as I could and put my bag on the belt.
The next few minutes are a blur because I was in shock. This was actually happening. I was being checked in, with a bag, with less than 30 minutes to go before the flight departed. How was this even possible? As the check-in staff typed furiously on her computer, I was expecting it to beep at any moment telling her that it wasn’t possible to check in someone this late. When the boarding pass printer failed, I was all ready to wake up before the staff cleared a paper jam and reset it. Even when my luggage tags to PHL via DOH were printed I was still mentally prepared to be told “sorry, just not your day (and also you should have known better)”.
But two boarding passes were presented and I was urged to hurry to the gate as boarding had already started. The manager called over a colleague, and after my bag was sent on its way he whisked me through immigration and security, escorting me directly to the gate. I thanked him profusely (to do: write commendation letter for the ground staff in Hanoi) and dashed onto the plane at 5.10pm, completely out of breath and in a daze, still unable to completely process what had just happened. The crew brought over still water and a glass of champagne, and I collapsed into my seat and prayed.
Let’s be very clear here- I made a dumb, amateurish mistake. You don’t book yourself on separate tickets with a 45 minute connection on two airlines without an interline agreement. You just don’t. And you certainly don’t do it when your connecting flight is a non-cancellable, non-changeable mistake fare.
If anyone ever scores a mistake fare in the future that requires positioning, let me tell you that you need to give yourself plenty, plenty of time to make your connection and whatever you do, have a Plan B. Me going into this without any backup at all was asking for trouble, and it’s by the sheer grace of God that I now sit in a Philadelphia hotel room typing this post.
Throughout the entire ordeal I was praying for two things- the first was that I’d be able to make my flight, but the second, and perhaps more important thing, was for the strength and clarity of mind to sort things out even if I missed it. And, let’s be clear, this wasn’t a life or death thing. Worse come to worse, I’d lose a vacation I wasn’t even intending to take before the deal came up. Which is why it amazes me all the more that God provided a way for something that in the grand scheme of things isn’t that important. This is the post I shared on Instagram summarizing the experience:
As my bus drove past QR835 en route to Hanoi terminal with just 1 hour to go to departure, a sinking feeling was building in my stomach. My Vietnam Airlines flight to Hanoi had landed late, and I still had immigration to clear and bags to collect. I was already mentally preparing to call up SQ to redeem HAN-SIN-FRA-JFK and buy a cheap JFK-PHL ticket. Or calling it all off. But I prayed and God answered- even though I reached the check in counter with 30 minutes to go, I was still checked in and rushed straight to the gate. I didn't even have time to put my belt back on after security. So as I stepped onto the plane and Qatar's preflight prayer played, I gave thanks to my God who "answers me when I call, and strengthens me with His strength" (Psalm 138:3). Philly Pho Fare still on, and a mental reminder that if you book a mistake fare you'd better get your positioning right #phillyphofare
Oh, and I was so certain my bag wouldn’t make the flight, but it turned out to be one of the first off the carousel in PHL.
So yes, that’s my very interesting positioning flight. Now please don’t do what I did.