Lesson Learned: Multi-city airline tickets

Back in the beginning of July, Jason and I made the decision to purchase a multi-city airline ticket that would bring us through the countries we wanted to visit in South America.

When we first left Canada for our travels, we had nothing planned.  Two weeks in, we had a rough idea of the route we wanted to take through South America: Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina.  So we purchased a multi-city airline ticket that would take us through the major cities in those countries.  Although it locked us into set travel dates, the money we saved purchasing a multi-city ticket (vs. purchasing the tickets between each of the cities separate) seemed like it was well worth it.

  • Leg 1: Bogota (Colombia) to Lima (Peru)
  • Leg 2: Lima (Peru) to Santa Cruz (Bolivia)
  • Leg 3: Santa Cruz (Bolivia) to Santiago (Chile)
  • Leg 4: Santiago (Chile) to Buenos Aires (Argentina)

At first things were going well – we caught our Bogota (Colombia) to Lima (Peru) flight without any incident.  Although we didn’t know it at the time, things started going awry when we decided to skip our Lima (Peru) to Santa Cruz (Bolivia) flight.

When it was time to catch our Santa Cruz (Bolivia) to Santiago (Chile) flight, we arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare.  We had spent the majority of our time in Bolivia in the city of La Paz but we were scheduled to fly out of Santa Cruz, so we caught an early flight from La Paz to Santa Cruz.  We arrived in Santa Cruz at 8am but our flight to Santiago was at 5:30pm – so we had about 9 hours to kill.  Little did we know, it would the most stressful 9 hours of our travels so far.

Santa Cruz (Bolivia) airport

We were lucky that the Santa Cruz had some good food options, bank machines, travel agents, internet/phone kiosk. We’ve been stranded in worse airports before.

We tried to check-in electronically since our airline ticket counter was still closed.  We received an electronic message saying that there was no record of our reservation since it had been cancelled.

My immediate thought was that our flight was cancelled, but a quick search showed that our flight was still set to arrive as originally scheduled.

So then we had to call the customer service line of the company we booked our multi-city airline ticket through: CheapOair (I know, sketchy-sounding company, eh? But we’ve used them before without incident).  Problem was, we had no cell phone.  Since we were travelling for 6 months, we had both put our cellphone plans on hold.  There was no stores in the airport that sold SIM cards either.  Luckily, there was an internet/phone kiosk in the airport.

Internet/Phone Kiosk in the Santa Cruz, Bolivia Airport

The Internet/Phone Kiosk in the airport. Jason spent a lot of time in the phone booth here.

Jason got on the line with CheapOair and found out why flights booked through them were so cheap – their customer service sucks!  1-800 and 1-888 numbers do not work outside of North America so we had to call their number for International callers.  Companies that provide good customer service usually provide collect call services for their international callers.  CheapOair did not.  So we had to bite the bullet and call  long-distance.  They immediately put Jason on hold and at the 20-minute mark, we decided to drop the call as we were quickly racking up long-distance costs without any idea of how long we’d be on hold.

The airport had free WIFI, so we decided to call CheapOair via Skype.    Granted, the WIFI was spotty, but at least the call would be free.  Jason waited on hold for 30 minutes before a customer service rep got on the line.  Fifteen minutes into the conversation, the call dropped – the WIFI had cut out!  Jason called back when the WIFI came back on and had to wait on hold for another 30 minutes for another rep.  The call dropped again after 10 minutes.  This painful cycle repeated itself several times before we were able to get the whole story.

Apparently, the airline (Avianca Air) that we flew with for our Bogota-Lima flight had cancelled our reservation for this flight.  The CheapOair rep told us that we had to call Avianca and resolve the situation ourselves.  Jason was pretty annoyed at this and argued that, since CheapOAir was acting on behalf of us as a travel agent, they should be responsible for resolving the issue with Avianca.  CheapOair shrugged (or at least it sounded like a shrug over the phone) and said there was nothing they could do.

Jason called Avianca and talked to a customer rep there.  Luckily, Avianca had a toll-free number that worked in South America, so we were able to use the land-line phone for this call (i.e. no dropped calls because of spotty WIFI).  Avianca told us that it was, in fact, CheapOAir that had called THEM to cancel the flight reservation!  They had a very detailed activity log outlining dates and times of CheapOAir’s activities regarding our airline reservations.  They also informed us that, as an airline, they do not cancel a customer’s airline reservation unless instructed to do so by the customer or the customer’s travel agent.

We were livid!  CheapOAir was giving us the run-around.  By then, it was almost 2pm.  We should’ve be checking into our flight.

Jason got back onto Skype and called CheapOAir.  Let’s just say there were a lot of heated words exchanged in that phone booth.  The rep who took the call said that Avianca cancelled our reservation but we knew he was lying as Jason had already talked to Avianca and they had an activity log of CheapOAir’s instructions.  Jason finally convinced the rep to call Avianca themselves to straighten it out – and then the call dropped AGAIN!   Jason called them back, waited on hold, and got another rep.  This one told us that we had to talk to LAN, the airline that would be flying us to Santiago (Chile) at 5:30pm.  Sounded like another run-around.  Jason stayed on the phone with them while I went downstairs to the LAN ticket counter to talk to them.

I was still in line when Jason joined me downstairs.  The call had dropped again and he was sick of having to call them back and waiting on hold.  He was getting nowhere with them.

We finally got to a ticket agent.  We told them that our airline reservation had been cancelled and that we couldn’t check in.  She was incredibly apologetic for the inconvenience and told us that she would help us out. FINALLY!  A helpful customer service rep!

After a couple of keyboard clicks and some digging around, she told us that she could see our reservations but that there were no airline tickets attached.  She called the manager over for help.  Some discussions in Spanish ensued and the manager took over.  The manager apologized again for the inconvenience and asked whether we had missed the second leg of our multi-city airline travel.  I didn’t have a good feeling about this: ‘Yes, we did but we still need the third leg of our airline travel‘  She sadly informed us that we cannot skip any leg of a multi-city airline ticket.  Once we skip one, the entire ticket is then null and void – apparently that’s the policy for multi-city airline tickets.

We stood there flabbergasted!  We tried pulling the sympathy card (‘But we were never informed of the policy!‘) but the manager couldn’t do anything.  We had no airline reservations to Chile and even our fourth flight to Argentina has been voided.  She suggested that we can talk to the airline’s head office on Monday (it was currently Saturday) to try to plead our case, but nothing was guaranteed.   She gave us a sympathetic look and called for the next customer in line.

We were numb as we wandered away from the ticket counter.  We had just lost two flights and a LOT of money – almost 10% of our travel budget!  I tried to stay positive but Jason was having a pretty hard time.  We let ourselves wallow in our misery for a few minutes.  But then I forced us to get past it and start thinking about the options in front of us.

  1. Stay in Bolivia until Monday to talk to the head office of the airline.
    1. Pros: we might be able to recoup our flights
    2. Cons: we’d have stay in Bolivia for two additional nights and find last-minute accommodation.  Also, there’s no guarantee that we’d be able to recoup anything
  2. Buy another flight to Santiago, Chile
    1. Pros: we’d get to leave Bolivia sooner
    2. Cons: flying to Chile would be expensive, as would the eventual flight out of Chile to Argentina

After a lot of thought, we decided to go with our 3rd option: book a flight straight to Buenos Aires, Argentina.  We would cut Chile from our travels (Chile is an expensive country and flying into and out of Chile would just add to our travel expenses).  We didn’t have much planned in Chile and haven’t heard too many things about the country that made us feel like we had to go there.  While on the other hand, there were plenty of things we wanted to do in Argentina.

So we chalked our cancelled flights up to a really expensive life lesson and started looking for the next flight out to Buenos Aires and  accommodations.  I think we must’ve used up all our bad luck, because within a few hours, Jason had found a beautiful apartment in Buenos Aires that was available and I found a flight that would fly us out the next morning for an amazing price.

It was an emotional rollercoaster of a day, but by 7pm, we had finalized our plans and settled down with beer and wings in the food court to celebrate.

Food court in Santa Cruz, Bolivia airport

During our 24 hours here at the airport, we ate at every single food counter here. The place on the left served wings and beer 🙂

The travel agent who helped me book the flight to Buenos Aires even let us spend the night in the employee lounge behind their ticket counter (i.e. a secure space to store our backpacks, a comfy couch, and a huge flatscreen TV).  So Jason and I settled in after our food court dinner and dreamed of Buenos Aires.

Lesson Learned: DO NOT skip any leg of travel if travelling via a multi-city airline ticket.  Doing so will make any subsequent flights on the ticket null and void

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Bolivia: The Wild West of South America

Okay, geographically speaking, Bolivia is actually more accurately described as in the middle of South America.  But Jason and I had an inside joke going: whenever we saw something crazy happen in Bolivia, we’d shrug at each other and say: “It’s the Wild West!”

La Paz parade

Dancers in an unofficial parade in La Paz

Impromptu Bolivian Independence day parade marching down the main avenue in La Paz during rush hour without any permits or safety blockades? It’s the Wild West!

La Paz parade

Man handing out shots of liquor to all the parade performers

Random man handing out shot after shot of liquor to all the dancers in the parade? It’s the Wild West!

Drunken dancers getting more irate with the increasing enraged rush-hour drivers caught behind the parade? It’s the Wild West!

Enraged rush-hour drivers jumping the curb and driving in the oncoming traffic lanes?  It’s the Wild West!

Llama fetuses in the Witches' Market in La Paz, Bolivia

Llama fetuses in La Paz, Bolivia

Market stalls selling Llama fetuses on the streets? It’s the Wild West!

Drunken man relieving himself on the sidewalk in the middle of the day – requiring me to jump over the stream of urine running across the pavement? It’s the Wild West!

Cholitas Wrestling in La Paz, Bolivia

Cholitias Wrestling: Bolivian ladies letting off steam every Sunday

Bolivian ladies wrestling each other for entertainment every Sunday in La Paz? It’s the Wild West!

Santa Cruz (Bolivia) airport

Sleeping over in the Bolivian airport

Spending 24-hours and sleeping over in the Bolivian airport because our airline ticket was cancelled? Its the Wild West!

Even though we only spent a week in Bolivia, it left a very lasting impression.  Oh crazy, chaotic Bolivia…it was fun while it lasted.

Eating: Bolivia

Jason and I enjoyed 3 wonderful weeks of gastronomical joy in Peru. We knew it had to end sooner or later. But we didn’t expect it to end so suddenly.

While still in Peru, we talked to a few travellers who had just come from Bolivia and we didn’t entirely believe them – but this IS the only good thing to eat in Bolivia:

Salteñas in La Paz, Bolivia

Salteñas: the only good thing to eat in Bolivia!

Salteñas!

They’re a type of Bolivian baked empanada. They’re savoury and filled with ground beef, chicken, or pork and swimming in sweet, slightly spicy sauce. They sometimes contain peas, potatoes, and other ingredients and there are vegetarian versions available too. The delicious filling is like a stew and there’s a trick in eating them: hold the pastry upright, start at the top corner, and work your way towards the bottom – trying to avoid spilling the hot, juicy filling all over your hand.

Eat them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Repeat until you leave Bolivia.

Photography Travel: Bolivia Salt Flats (Salar De Uyuni)

Country flag in Salar De Uyuni

I’m a photography traveller. No, not a travel photographer (though I would love to get into that more seriously someday). I’m a photography traveller. When I see a photograph of a place that is beautiful, unusual, or awe-inspiring; I add it onto my list of places to travel to.

It’s actually worked out really well for me so far. More often than not, when I see a photo of these types of places, I won’t even know where the photo was taken. I might be flipping through a magazine or see the photograph on a wall, so I’ll have no idea where the place is. All I’ll know is that I’ll have to go there one day. It’s led me to discover beautiful places like Plitvice Lakes in Croatia and Halong Bay in Vietnam.

Salar de Uyuni is one of those place. I stumbled across a picture of it a few years ago and, I have to admit, it’s the main reason why Bolivia is one of our stops in South America.

Salar De Uyuni (Bolivia salt flats)

Salar de Uyuni (or Salt Flat of Uyuni) is the world’s largest salt flat, near the southwestern region of Bolivia, standing at 3,600 metres above sea level. On a side note: at this time, we’ve been travelling through high-altitude cities for almost 3 weeks. We missed being able to climb up a flight of stairs (or do jumping photos) without getting winded.

Salar De Uyuni (Bolivia salt flats)

My signature jumping shot!

It’s an incredibly flat expanse of salt (I would describe it as a salt desert) that looks other-worldly. During the wet season, it makes for fascinating photographs, as the salt flat gets flooded over with a thin layer of water. It produces a mirror-like surface that allows for perfect reflections of the sky. Looks like something out of a space-travel movie.

Even though we’re visiting during the dry season, the landscape is still incredible – making for some surreal photographs.

Salar De Uyuni (Bolivia salt flats)

We were lucky enough spend the day with a great tour group: a fun Kiwi couple and a well-travelled Japanese lady who was learning Spanish in Ecuador.

Our tour group for Salar De Uyuni

Our fun tour group!

One of the popular things to do on the salt flat is to take funny perspective shots. Like doing yoga poses on a can of Pringles.

Perspective shots on Salar De Uyuni

It’s actually quite funny to watch people pose for these perspective shots:

Perspective shots on Salar De Uyuni

There are a lot of poses where one person stands on another person’s palm:

Perspective shots on Salar De Uyuni

Jason being ironic:

Ironic perspective shot on Salar De Uyuni

Some Tips for Travelling to the Bolivia Salt Flats

Psst! Come closer, I’ll whisper them in your ear:

Perspective shots on Salar De Uyuni

Tip #1: Wear comfortable shoes, as you might be doing some hiking up some of the “islands” in the middle of the salt flat.

Perspective shots on Salar De Uyuni

We visited the Incahausi “island” that’s in the middle of the salar. It’s home to the funny-looking ‘giant cactus’ – some 1000 years old. They grow at a rate of 1cm/year.

Incahausi Island in Salar De Uyuni

Incahausi Island

Tip #2: Bring extra water (2L.per day) since you’ll want to stay hydrated under the intense sun. Also, bring along a few snacks for the road. Or you might find yourself having to outrun your tour group for the last Pringles chip.

Perspective shots on Salar De Uyuni

It was such a beautiful day – perfect sunny weather and clear skies. I didn’t want to leave. Jason had to carry me kicking and screaming from the salt flat.

Perspective shots on Salar De Uyuni

After a long day of sightseeing and picture-taking, I was pretty exhausted. Time for a nap – goodnight!

Perspective shots on Salar De Uyuni

Crossing the border from Puno, Peru to La Paz, Bolivia

To make our way down through South America, we purchased a multi-city airline ticket which would bring us through Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina via its’ major cities. We had taken our Bogota, Colombia to Lima, Peru flight a few weeks back, but we were now near the southern-most tip of Peru. We were in the city of Puno, which is just under 150 km from the Peru/Bolivia border.

Since we were already so close to the Peru/Bolivia border, we made the (in retrospect, very wrong – but more on that in a later post) decision to skip our Peru to Bolivia flight. Instead, we would take the bus over the Peru/Bolivia border, saving us a flight back to Lima to catch the second leg of our multi-city flight.

We’ve read that crossing into Bolivia from Peru can seem a little sketchy, but if you’re prepared for the chaos, it’s actually quite okay. We had read about other travellers’ experiences that made it seem there were quite a few bus scams (i.e. purchasing an overnight VIP bus ticket from Cusco, and then being forced to switch to a rickety old local bus once you cross the border into Bolivia, being told to pay extra for the bus they were being switched to). Most of these negative experiences seem to stem from the Cusco – La Paz route. Since our trip from Puno to La Paz would be relatively short (~7 hours), we didn’t need a take an expensive overnight bus. But just in case, we read up on which bus companies to avoid (i.e. PeruTour, and/or any bus company that used Diana Tours) and went to the main bus terminal (Terminal Terrestre) in Puno to inquire about tickets for the next day.

From our initial research and after talking to a few bus companies, we discovered a few things:

  1. There are two south shore routes from Puno to Bolivia:
    • the safer, more scenic, more popular route through Yunguyo / Copacabana (most bus companies from Puno will take this route).
    • the shorter, less safer, more direct route through Desaguadero (Ormeño offers this route). We read that the only reason you would take this less safe route is if you’re pressed for time. Try not to spend the night in Desaguadero and note that the Peruvian police have a bad reputation here for requiring you to pay an imaginary ‘exit tax’.
  2. Almost all bus companies will make you switch from a Peruvian bus to a Bolivian bus once you’re in Bolivia. The sketchier ones will switch you to another bus run by a totally different bus company. We ended up going with a bus company called Tourismo Titicaca as they repeatedly assured us that the bus switch in Copacabana was to another bus run by the same company.
  3. The one-way trip from Puno to La Paz will run you about S/. 35 (CDN $13)
  4. Most bus companies will require you to leave early in the morning so that you make it past the Peru/Bolivian border before it closes. (Yunguyo/Copacabana border closes at 6pm Peruvian time, Desguadero border closes 8:30pm Bolivian time) Tourismo Titicaca offered a 2:30pm departure, which allowed us to visit the floating reed islands in the morning.

The next day, after visiting the floating reed islands, we caught our bus at 2:30pm. Tourismo Titicaca offers a fairly comfortable tourist bus. We picked up some sandwiches at the bus station since this bus company does not offer any refreshments onboard.

The 3.5-hour ride to the border to Yunguyo was calm and scenic. We drifted in and out of sleep until the guide woke us up by announcing instructions on how to cross the Peru/Bolivia border in Spanish. Jason and I were dumbfounded as to what was going on as people packed up their things and got off the bus. Once we got off the bus, we were met with absolute chaos.

The bus stops in front of the casa de cambio (exchange office) on the Peruvian side and drives off with our luggage, leaving us in the dust. One of the guides must have noticed our wide-eyed confusion as he came over to provide some instructions in broken English. He told us that there are exchange offices on the Bolivian side too but we had read that the exchange rate on the Peruvian side was a little bit better, so we hustled over when the guide told us to hurry.

After some more wide-eyed confusion, we were instructed to first visit the Peruvian police where they make sure you have all your necessary exit papers and documentation. Then it’s next door to the Immigration Office.

After all the paperwork, you then walk up a dirt road, weaving through all the bus traffic, diesel fumes, road vendors, and sketchy exchange stands towards the archway at the border. I’ve never walked across any country border before so I thought it was pretty cool, as we stepped foot under the archway and over the border to Bolivia. You’ll be greeted by the “Welcome to Bolivia” sign at this point. But no time for dilly-dallying. You’re swept off to the Bolivian immigration services at that point. Save time by making sure you complete your Bolivian entry form before you get there. Also, if your country requires you to arrange for a visa beforehand, make sure that’s all in order too. Currently, North Americans don’t need a visa, but US citizens will need to pay a hefty US $135 entry fee.

Bolivian Immigration Control Office

The Bolivian Immigration Control office – the only picture I took all day since it was so hectic.

Afterwards, some guides pointed us to our bus – which was parked patiently on the side of the road. All in all, our border crossing took us about 20 minutes in total.

Half an hour later, as the sun was setting, our bus stopped in Copacabana. Tourismo Titicaca had originally told us that we’d have about an hour to explore the city, but we were hustled off the bus and taken to another bus that was waiting for us. Unfortunately, Jason and I were the last ones to board the second bus and when we got on, we discovered there were no more seats! Our guide took us off the bus and had a frantic conversation with the lady who took our tickets when we boarded the overbooked bus. The two English-speaking guides who would remain with the overbooked bus reassured us that the lady will bring us to another bus heading to La Paz. Our first thoughts were: ‘We had read about these scams beforehand! This can’t be happening to us!

But we had no choice but to grab our backpacks and follow the lady. We saw a bus with the sign “La Paz” on the windshield that was slowly driving by. She knocked on the door and I would imagine said something to the effect of “We have two extra travellers that need to get to La Paz – will you take them? to the Spanish-speaking guide who peeked his head out. He hesitated, then appeared to agree, and took our backpacks to the luggage storage. As we boarded the bus, the English-speaking guide who would remain with the overbooked bus quickly relayed some instructions: ‘you’ll be getting off the bus at a ferry crossing about an hour from now. Make sure you take a picture of this bus so you know which bus to get back on‘. Did we just hear that correctly? Take a picture of the bus? What’s worse is that we no longer had our bus ticket to La Paz with us – the lady had taken them. We were now on a bus that we had no proof of payment for, bound for a city that we hoped would be La Paz.

As we go on the bus, we realized that this second bus was also full! The Spanish-speaking guide tried to motion for us to move down further into the bus, which would require us to step over passengers who were already sitting on the aisle floor. And then some of the passengers started motioning for us to come towards to the back of this very sketchy-looking, jam-packed bus. There were two seats at the very back of the bus, wedged between a sleeping Peruvian man and an overweight Bolivian woman. We settled in and readied ourselves for a bumpy, high-speed bus ride through the pitch-black Bolivian countryside. Every once in awhile, I would catch glimpses of the edge of a cliff as we hurtled down the dirt highway. Weren’t there a lot of Bolivian bus accidents? were one of the many questions that crossed my mind during the hour to the ferry crossing.

After we arrived at the the ferry terminal at the Straits of Taquina, we followed everyone off the bus. But while I was taking a million pictures of our bus and committing the license plate to memory, everyone disappeared. We asked the Spanish-speaking guide where to go, but we couldn’t understand anything he was telling us. One of the stragglers, a nice old Bolivian lady, motioned for us to follow her. We followed her to a ticket booth where we had to pay $b 2.00 (or $CDN 0.30) for the motor boat that would take you across the water. They pack a lot of people onto the little motor boat. As we were boarding the little boat, we noticed our bus being driven aboard a large wooden raft. The giant bus and all our luggage would cross the same water on that rickety raft. The entire ride across the water took place in complete darkness. There were no lights on the boat – so if we hadn’t already crossed the Bolivian border, I would’ve thought they were trying to smuggle us into the country. The whole operation was majorly sketchy and kind of insane. What’s more, it felt like the lady sitting next to me in the dark was trying to pick my pocket. Welcome to Bolivia.

Once we reached the other side, we waited patiently for our bus (which did, in fact, survive the ride over via the wooden raft ). While we were waiting to board our bus, we actually saw our original overbooked bus and our English-speaking guides. They recognized us and waved – although, to me, they looked a little bit guilty for leaving us behind. We reboarded our jam-packed bus but managed to score the window seat, so I didn’t have to endure another 2.5 hours of a Peruvian man falling asleep on me.

After the crazy ferry crossing and bus switcharoo, the rest of the ride to La Paz was (thankfully) non-eventful.

So here are some highlights and tips:

  • Try to search long and hard for a reputable bus company (i.e. highly recommended by other travellers, trusted travel guides, etc). Even though we tried our best with advance research, we still ended up with a bus company that provided a sketchy travel experience.
  • The ferry-crossing and bus-switching was a little more nerve-wracking since it was all in pitch-black darkness. Take an earlier bus if you want to avoid travel in the dark.
  • Purchase your bus ticket a day in advance and at the bus station in Puno, as buses fill up quickly.
  • Hang onto your ticket or ticket stub to prove you’ve paid for your entire trip to La Paz.
  • There’s a one-hour time difference once you cross into Bolivia. Adjust your watch forward an hour if you’re travelling from Peru into Bolivia.
  • Exchange your Peruvian Soles for Bolivianos on the Peru side, since the exchange rate is a bit better.
  • Be prepared for some chaos, regardless of how much you read up and ready yourself.