Imagine traveling on one of the busiest travel days of the year – say, the day before Christmas or the day before Thanksgiving. Now imagine doing this in China, a country with a still developing infrastructure and very different ways of doing business. And then throw in the complexity of having booked the entire trip through US Airways, an airline that was technically in charge of making any changes that might be necessary, but an airline which had no ability to even so much as call Air China (the operating carrier). I knew I was setting myself up for trouble, but I’m a pretty experienced air traveler and figured I’d be able to make it all work. I did, with a stroke of luck, and I’m writing this on the final leg of my trip to Guiyang.

Chinese New Year is the biggest and most important holiday in China. Annually, it results in the world’s largest human migration, called Chun Yun, literally hundreds of millions of people traveling any way they can from China’s large coastal cities back to their hometowns. My friend Johnson invited me to visit his hometown, Guiyang, for the Spring Festival break. My employer follows the official government holiday calendar, which this year allowed me 7 consecutive days off (the 2nd through the 8th). Predictably, the airlines listened to Buzz Lightyear when setting prices – “To infinity and beyond!” So, I called US Airways to try my luck. I had a little more than 25,000 miles with them, theoretically enough for a free domestic US ticket, but seemingly impossible to redeem (25,000 is the “saver” award category which, as best I can tell, is only valid for flights to Anchorage in February). However, US Airways is a partner of Air China, and 25,000 miles is also good for a Chinese domestic ticket on Air China. Best of all, there are no award categories (peak, saver, etc.) on Air China, so 25,000 miles gives you access to all of Air China’s award inventory. Still, I knew it was a tall order finding free tickets during Spring Festival.

I researched all of the possible routes to get to Guiyang from Beijing on Air China. International airlines often only quote point-to-point routes to their American partners, and while it’s legal under the rules to build a trip one leg at a time using connecting flights, the system won’t automatically find these itineraries. So, you have to do a little legwork in advance if you want to redeem a ticket. I’m used to this, and it’s good that I did my homework – when redeeming US Airways miles on Air China, this is exactly how it works. I called and was very surprised to reach an agent who seemed to love her job, and was happy to search every connecting flight I gave her (maybe the high unemployment rate in the US is having a benefit of keeping around better help). The direct flights from Beijing to Guiyang were not available (unsurprisingly), but she found a flight through Guangzhou on the 2nd. We searched and searched different options and itineraries, but there was no way back on the 8th. The best she could do was get me to Shenzhen on the 8th, and then back to Beijing from Hong Kong on the 9th. No problem, that was fine with me, I’d just turn my return journey into a shopping trip. “Yes, I’d like to bo…,” I said…

…and then the phone went dead. China is still a developing country, and the Internet is not always reliable. I use a MagicJack for my calls back to the US, but it runs over a Chinese Internet connection and sometimes (although rarely) the connection drops unexpectedly. I was tempted to curse and scream and throw the phone, but I patiently waited for the Internet connection to reset and called US Airways again. Amazingly, I reached another agent who was able to pick up right where the previous one left off, booking my trip in no time. I’m still happy to have cleaned out my account with US Airways and there’s no way that I’ll go back to flying them (I think they are the worst, meanest, nastiest airline in the US), but in the end, my miles turned into something of value. All it cost was a $50 booking fee (this fee being one of the things that makes US Airways Dividend Miles the worst frequent flier program in America) and about $30 in airport taxes. Unbelievable.

Well, of course some things are too good to be true. Two days before my flight, I received a vauge voicemail from US Airways. “It looks like Air China has canceled some of your flights, and moved around some of the other ones – if you give us a call, we can try to protect your original itinerary.” So, I called US Airways. It turned out that Air China cancelled my flight from Guangzhou to Guiyang on February 2nd, and had rebooked me on a flight the following evening leaving Guangzhou – and leaving me alone in Guangzhou to ring in Chinese new year. Not quite what I had in mind. Unfortunately, US Airways could only rebook me to other available Air China award inventory, and predictably, there wasn’t any. They also didn’t have any way to even so much as call Air China. The StarAlliance relationship is relatively new to Air China, and US Airways isn’t interconnected with their systems the same way they are connected to Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, United and others. All US Airways could offer was to re-deposit my miles without charging a redeposit fee, and refund the taxes. However, I wouldn’t get the $50 booking fee back.

It was time to take matters into my own hands. I planned to take a quick weekend trip to Hangzhou and Shanghai the following day, so when I arrived back at the Beijing airport after the trip, I approached the Air China desk. Predictably, the agent shrugged his shoulders with disinterest and said “why don’t you just go the next day?” I explained that I planned to visit my Chinese friends for Chinese New Year, and they would be very disappointed if I could not come. He raised his eyebrows, his attitude changed immediately (much to my surprise), and he set to work on his computer searching for a way to rebook me. Everywhere he ran into a dead end. Eventually, he summoned his supervisor, a severe-looking woman wearing a Communist Party pin over her heart. “You cannot change your routing, it is not allowed,” she snapped. “And there are no other Air China flights.” The agent I’d been working with leaned over to her and said something in Chinese, and she stared at me. “You visit Chinese friends in Guiyang?” “Dui,” I replied, saying ‘yes’ in Chinese. “Please wait a moment,” she said, picking up the phone. Some hushed words, a few mentions of “laowai” (which usually isn’t a good thing), a few more steely glances in my direction, and she turned back to me. “We will not change your flight directly from Beijing,” she said. “You must change planes in Guangzhou to Hainan Airlines. Your new flight leaves at the same time as your original schedule.” Whipping out a triplicate form labeled FLIGHT INTERRUPTION MANIFEST in both English and Chinese, she painstakingly completed my new flight details. Tearing off the top form, handing it to me, and scowling, she said “This is your ticket. Do not lose it. It cannot be replaced. You must give it to Hainan Airlines in Guangzhou.” Turning to an ancient dot matrix printer which had been clattering away in the background, she then tore off a piece of paper and handed it to me. “This is your new flight schedule. You must take these flights.” And then–completely unexpectedly–her face broke into a warm smile. “Happy new year,” she said.

Sometimes things completely fall apart only to fall together again. This time, the travel gods were smiling on me. Next stop, Guiyang!