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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Trip Report: Getting Shanghaied from Seattle

Intro: Ticketing and Getting Ready

This is the first chapter of this trip report; however I did start writing this report starting in the middle, when I met up with my VNA flight

Other chapters:
Being based in the US, I do have to fly other airlines to get to Vietnam (or to connect to a Vietnam Airlines [VNA] flight) since VNA can't fly directly to the US. My preferred carrier is American Airlines (AA), and on this trip my lovely wife and I were starting our trip in Seattle (SEA).

Our itinerary:
  • Outbound
    • Day 1: Fly from SEA-Los Angeles (LAX) on Alaska Airlines (AS); spend the night in Los Angeles (14 hours)
    • Day 2: Fly from LAX to Shanghai (PVG) on AA; spend the night in Shanghai (20 hours)
    • Day 3: Fly from PVG to Saigon (SGN) on VNA, reaching our final destination.
  • Return
    • Day 1: Fly from SGN to Tokyo-Narita (NRT) on Japan Airlines (JL); 1.5 hours connection in NRT, then flying NRT-LAX on AA; spend the night in Los Angeles (23 hours)
    • Day 2: Fly LAX-SEA, completing our trip.
Image source: Seattle/Tacoma
International Airport / Facebook
Even though our first flight was with AS, it was still an AA-issued ticket and it was the controlling carrier by virtue of the international segment operated by AA.

We were able to take advantage of some long layovers allowed by our fare rules, so we were able to visit family in LA twice, as well as visit Shanghai.

This trip required me to go out to the airport to book and ticket, not because it was complicated, but because there seemed to be a problem with AA's system communicating with JL's systems and showing the correct availability.

The airport agent was quite surprised that anyone decided to come in personally to book a ticket, but I'm glad I did. It took him several attempts but he finally managed to get the system to book my itinerary (again, it wasn't because of the complexity, it was because JL's system denied that there was the available fare). With printed confirmation in hand, I go home to pack up and leave in a few days' time.

Travel Documents

Thankfully, my U.S. passport still has several years before expiration (entry into Vietnam requires at least 6 months of validity), and I have a visa waiver issued from Vietnam (valid for 5 years), meaning that I'm not required to apply for a visa when I visit. The stress of having the apply for the visa and wait for it to be issue is eliminated, and I can focus on other things.

Image source: US CBP
I've also previously signed up for Global Entry (GE), an expedited reentry program from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Part of the "Trusted Traveler" family of programs, GE holders agree to a background check to be declared as low-risk and be given access to lines for both passport and customs inspections upon returning to a U.S. airport, so that the holder does not have to stand in the regular lines.

My first time using GE was at LAX, before the most recent renovations to the Tom Bradley International Terminal. I decided to time myself from the opening of the aircraft door to exiting the building: 18 minutes, the majority of which was waiting for my checked bags to come out. I had essentially skipped every line, and never had to wait behind anyone. I had lunch with a friend last week who took 4 hours to exit LAX, and that's as a US citizen.

Image source: TSA
Also included with Global Entry is TSA Pre-Check, which you may have seen at the airport. Pre-Check allows for expedited security screening (again, on the basis that you're a trusted traveler), and gives access to a special line where you do NOT have to take off your shoes or take out your laptop.

The application fee for Global Entry costs $100, and is non-refundable if you are happened to be denied. After applying online, you'll have to schedule an interview at a Global Entry office (located at most major airports).

A similar program called NEXUS costs just $50 and allows the holder to also enter Canada on an expedited basis. However, the required interview must be scheduled at a border office, and appointments are usually booked months in advance because it requires the presence of a Canadian immigration agent as well.

If you can get to the border, and have plenty of lead time, NEXUS is the best deal, costing half of Global Entry yet including all the benefits.

Next chapter: Checking in at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA); SEA-LAX on Alaska Airlines

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