Introduction: Roman Holiday
Qatar Airways A350-900 Business Class KUL-DOH
Qatar Airways A320 Business Class DOH-KBP
Waldorf Astoria Rome Cavalieri
St Regis Florence
Interlude: When interlining goes wrong
Cathay Pacific A350-1000 Business Class FCO-HKG
What’s the mark of a true miles fanatic? When given a choice to fly A->B, he/she will opt instead to fly A->C->D->E->B, just to try different cabin products, experience new airports, and annoy Greta Thunberg.
When these plans go right, they make for great memories and cocktail stories (did I tell you about this one time….). When they don’t, you end up feeling downright silly for a predicament of your own making. This, unfortunately, proved to be one of the latter occasions.
Where do I start?
In my trip planning post, I mentioned that I’d be flying back to Singapore via the totally straightforward and not-at-all convoluted routing of FCO-IST-KBP-DOH-BKK-SIN, or (4)-(9) in the map below.
There were several reasons for this routing:
- I wanted to review the Star Alliance lounge in Rome, and the new Turkish Airlines lounge in Istanbul
- I needed to pick up the Milelioness in Kiev
- Award space on Qatar Airways from Doha to Singapore was not available, but there were flights between Doha and Bangkok, and I could tag on a separate Singapore Airlines award back home
- It just looked awesome on a map
I’d done my homework beforehand, and confirmed that Turkish Airlines interlined to Qatar Airways, and Qatar Airways interlined to Singapore Airlines.
Plan A was to drop off my bag in Rome and never see it again until Singapore, but I figured that even in a worst case scenario, my bag would be checked to Bangkok and I’d simply pick it up, clear immigration quickly with my APEC card and check in again.
I arrived at Fiumicino Airport 3 hours before departure, and sauntered up to the Turkish Airlines check-in desk. There was no queue for Business Class, and I was served immediately. The lady at the desk asked me what my final destination was today.
“I’m going to Kiev via Istanbul, but after that I need to connect to Bangkok via Doha on Qatar Airways, and Singapore via Bangkok on Singapore Airlines. I understand you should be able to check the bag all the way through?”
Her brow furrowed.
“It’s ok to just check it to Bangkok if that’s easier,” I hastily conceded.
“I’m not sure we can even check it to Bangkok, because we do not interline with Qatar Airways; they are not part of Star Alliance,” she said.
I stayed calm. She was obviously mistaken, and indeed, after a quick call to her manager, confirmed that Turkish and Qatar did interline. A few minutes passed as she typed away on her computer. The frowning continued.
“I’m sorry sir, the furthest we can check the bag to is Doha. The system will not allow me to add any more segments.”
This was weird for two reasons. First, KBP-DOH-BKK was one ticket, and I would have thought that airline systems don’t allow short checking of bags (to prevent throwaway ticketing). Second, I knew there must be some logical segment limit on itineraries, but didn’t think that 3-stops was pushing the boundaries. After all, United Airlines can sell me a 3-stop, two carrier itinerary from CGK-HKG-SFO-DEN-ANC, so it stands to reason there’s enough space on those check-in tags to print at least four airport names.
We had some back and forth, but try as she might, her computer just wouldn’t spit out the magic bag tags. She then informed me of my options
- Check the bag to Kiev
- Check the bag to Doha
Here’s where it got complicated. I didn’t have a visa for Kiev, which meant landing there and rechecking the bag was out of the question. And even if the bag could be short checked to Doha, I was carrying those two great Italian treasures, guanciale and prosecco. The Middle East doesn’t look too kindly on that, and the last thing I wanted was to throw away my infidel treats.
So we reached an impasse, and time was running out. I had mentally accepted that this just wasn’t happening, and it was time to look for last-minute alternatives. SQ365 from FCO-SIN was departing in under two hours, so I sprinted across to their check-in area, hoping they’d render every and all assistance to a mighty KrisFlyer Elite Silver member.
I walked up to the counter and said something along the lines of “hi, I have no ticket but could you help me get on this flight with my miles” (I’m charming that way). They called the manager over, who while sympathetic to my predicament, told me that ticketing was up to the office in Singapore (the local office was closed for the weekend). He noted that the flight still had empty seats, and offered me his phone to call KrisFlyer, which was nice of him.
Unfortunately, KrisFlyer told me that all award space on the flight was closed and there was nothing they could do. As an interesting sidebar, the agent did say that if I were still on the waitlist, she could at least force it to clear (although this may be a moot point now that all waitlists are filled or killed 14 days before departure), but she wasn’t able to create a new booking.
It was then I remembered that I was casting my net too narrowly. Why was I just considering Singapore Airlines, when Cathay Pacific could get me back home with just one-stop? I called up the Asia Miles Hong Kong hotline, and thankfully they had no issues with last-minute awards. I was soon the proud owner of a one-way Business Class ticket from FCO-HKG-SIN for 65,000 miles and HKD 1,285 (~S$223)
That’s actually a really good price in and of itself, considering Singapore Airlines would have charged 92,000 miles + S$62 for the same route. It just so happens that FCO-HKG-SIN clocks in at ~7,365 miles, at the upper end of Cathay’s 7,500 miles distance band and a potential sweet spot to reference for the future!
I jogged over to the Cathay check-in desks where the staff were already able to see my reservation.
After that, I cleared security, plonked myself down in the lounge and started the long and arduous process of cancelling the award tickets I wouldn’t be using today. Just another day in the life, eh?
In retrospect, this routing was always going to be a gamble.
I’m still not 100% convinced the check-in agent was right about the restrictions, and may very well try a similar connection in the future. However, next time I won’t attempt to transit in a country where I need visa clearance to enter- the biggest mistake in this case was featuring Kiev in my plans, because it left me with no Plan B once the interlining was refused.
Here’s my takeaways from this incident:
Interlining isn’t an obligation
If you want to redeem a journey across alliances, take advantage of two different award chart sweet spots, or add a revenue leg to an award flight, you’ll have to travel on two separate tickets.
Assuming you have a bag, you’re going to want to make sure it can be interlined. Interlining, for the uninitiated, means that your bag is checked through to the final destination across different operating carriers.
Interlining isn’t just a convenience. Sometimes, it can be the difference between a valid and invalid connection. This is the case if you’re not legally able to enter the country of transit without a visa. Remember, you can’t just claim your bag and recheck it without clearing customs and immigration, so no visa and no interlining means no checked baggage.
Here’s the thing: interline agreements may be widespread, but interlining isn’t an obligation on separate tickets. So long as you respect the minimum connection times (MCTs), most airlines will interline for you where possible, but it’s never 100% guaranteed.
For reference, here are SQ’s current interline agreements:
|[KVS Tool 9.5.3 – Reference: Interline Agreements [IET]: SQ]
ELECTRONIC INTERLINE CARRIER AGREEMENTS-SQ
INTERLINE CARRIER CODES
AA – AC – AD – AE – AF – AH – AI – AM – AS – AT
AV – AY – AZ – A3 – BA – BE – BG – BI – BP – BR
BT – B6 – B7 – CA – CI – CM – CX – CZ – DJ – DL
EI – EK – EN – ET – EW – EY – FI – FJ – FM – FZ
GA – GF – G3 – HA – HM – HO – HR – HU – HX – IB
IC – IG – IY – JJ – JL – JO – JU – KA – KC – KE
KF – KK – KL – KM – KQ – KU – LA – LG – LH – LO
LP – LR – LX – LY – ME – MF – MH – MI – MK – MS
MU – NF – NH – NX – NZ – OA – OK – OM – OS – OU
OZ – O6 – PD – PG – PK – PR – PS – PX – PZ – QF
QR – QV – RA – RJ – RO – SA – SB – SC – SK – SN
SQ – SU – SV – SW – S7 – TA – TG – TK – TP – TR
T0 – UA – UB – UK – UL – UX – VA – VN – VS – VY
WF – WY – XL – ZH – 4M – 4U – 9B – 9W
Watch out for visa requirements (and other entry restrictions)
When traveling on separate tickets, it’s crucial to ensure the connecting point (i.e where your first ticket ends and your second begins) doesn’t have any restrictions that would prevent you from clearing immigration and rechecking your bag, in a worse case scenario where your bag can’t be checked through.
The most obvious entry restriction is a visa requirement. It can be tempting for Singapore passport holders to get complacent about this, but it’s worth remembering that there are still a handful of countries where you’ll need a visa.
But visas aren’t the only potential entry restriction. As mentioned, you can’t bring pork or alcohol into certain Islamic countries. You need special approval to bring certain medications into the UAE. You can’t bring fruit or vegetables into a country with strict quarantine rules (e.g the US or Australia). If you’ve brought a drone on vacation, you need to be careful about what country you enter on the way back, because some ban them outright.
All this wouldn’t be an issue if you were sure you wouldn’t need to enter the country of transit. If interlining isn’t allowed, however, all bets are off.
Keep an emergency miles balance
I don’t think it’s wise to hold a large miles balance for a prolonged period, because of the risk of devaluation. That said, it really makes sense to have an emergency stash on hand if possible.
In my case, I had miles tied up in award tickets that I couldn’t cancel until Plan B was ready. If my points were squirreled away on the bank side, it’d be as good as not having them, because there’d be no way to transfer them in time. In the end it was the working capital balance in my Asia Miles account which saved the day, allowing me to find a last-minute alternative.
I suppose this begs the question as to how big your emergency stash should be. I think it depends on where you’re flying to, and how many people you’re redeeming for. My rule of thumb would be to have enough for an alternative one-way ticket to your proposed final destination in your desired cabin class. For example, for my proposed FCO-IST-KBP-DOH-BKK-SIN itinerary, I should have enough for a separate FCO-SIN ticket.
And so, my five segment, four city odyssey became a plain vanilla one-stop connection.
It’s not all bad, as you’ll see in the next trip report, because I got to review a brand new Cathay Pacific A350-1000 plus experience an eerily quiet Hong Kong airport. Yes, I had to pay a whole bunch of cancellation fees (US$75 for Turkish Airlines, US$120 for Qatar Airways and US$25 to move my Singapore Airlines Bangkok flight), but all things considered it could have been a lot worse. I mean, I was already checking out Rome airport hotel prices.
Does anyone have similar fun stories to share?