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Booked: A Humble Homebound Journey

It’s been a while since we’ve had a “Booked” post, hasn’t it?

While leisure travel remains limited for the time being, I do happen to be embarking on an international trip – my first of 2021 – this upcoming weekend. I’m headed back to China for a few months to spend some time with my family.

There aren’t too many exciting flight experiences or points redemptions to talk about, and I really haven’t firmed up too many travel plans beyond a simple one-way transpacific flight.

Instead, the objective of the trip is, in many ways, much simpler: reconnecting with family and friends and enjoying a bit of “normal” life back in one of the places I call home.

The Trip

Longtime readers will recall that I had headed back to Beijing in early 2020 for Chinese New Year, when the coronavirus was first beginning to take hold in China.

In fact, Wuhan had entered lockdown just as I had boarded my flight, and there was definitely a sense of great concern in the air as my parents picked me up from the airport on the 25th of January.

With so much uncertainty around the viral outbreak and the rapidly changing border restrictions, we decided it was best that I cut my trip short and leave early. After only two days at home, I booked a flight to Tokyo that evening, tagging onto a subsequent Qsuites redemption.

As we drove to the airport, I distinctly recall my parents warning me that the coronavirus would eventually wreak havoc around the world. Nothing would be the same for a long time, they said, including the pursuit of travel that I hold so dear.

I also distinctly recall not really believing them at the time – and with this trip, the story comes full circle.

Thanks to a strict and decisive lockdown in the early stages of the pandemic, life has very much returned to normal back in China, with businesses and restaurants open, swift measures to control any localized clusters, and even mask-wearing being optional in many cities.

As I prepare to head back after a year-long period of half-hearted restrictions and a renewed battle of vaccines vs. variants here in Canada, I’m reminded of the saying that “parents always know best”.

Of course, China isn’t really open to foreign passport holders at the moment. Visas that were issued prior to March 2020 have been suspended, and new visas are strictly limited to very narrow set of applicants – much to the frustration of the overseas Chinese diaspora, the international business community, and anyone else with strong ties in the nation.

I was able to qualify for a visa on emergency humanitarian grounds, due to my need to visit my ailing grandfather in hospital. The visa application process was a whole ordeal in itself, requiring a litany of official hospital notices (both signed and sealed by hospital staff) and documents to prove family relationships, but I’m glad I got through it in the end.

I’ll need to complete a 14-day centralized quarantine when I arrive in Shanghai, and I’ll be sure to share what that experience is like.

A typical Shanghai quarantine hotel, courtesy of a fellow traveller

Travellers to China are not able to pre-select their quarantine hotels, and based on others’ experiences, I could end up with anything between a Novotel (in which case, my Accor Gold status could hopefully get me at least a room upgrade) and a no-name guesthouse with leaky faucets and stained carpets.

I certainly don’t expect it to be anything close to the level of luxury that I’d usually prefer to seek out, but at least it should do an effective job of, you know, preventing virus transmission and keeping everyone safe (quite unlike the disastrous hotel quarantine we’ve had here in Canada).

While Shanghai only requires 14 days of quarantine, Beijing still requires 21 days, so I’ll need to drift around for a week or so before heading home. I can freely roam around Shanghai and other provinces with the 14-day rule, though, so at least I’ll be able to explore the city and meet some family and friends.

I’d also like to spend some time over the upcoming months visiting a few parts of China I haven’t been to before, such as the southwestern Sichuan Province, famed for its sizzling-hot spicy cuisine and giant panda bears.

I’ll probably also pass through Shenzhen, where my mom’s side of the family lives, and check out neighbouring megacity Guangzhou as well while I’m at it.

Eventually, I’d like to head down to Hong Kong at the conclusion of my trip. I hold a permanent residence card from back when I lived in Hong Kong as a child, and the city has recently indicated that it plans to expand its “Return2HK” quarantine-free return scheme for residents to encompass anyone who’s been in Mainland China for the past 14 days, which would really work in my favour.

Not only would it be a welcome opportunity to reconnect with a city that’s close to my heart after a few years of absence, but I’d also be able to get the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine when I’m there, with a view of completing the second dose when I’m back in Canada. Fingers crossed that it all works out. 

The Flight

With no firm return date set on this trip besides “sometime in mid-June”, I’ve only booked the outbound journey of this trip so far: a straightforward one-way flight on Air Canada 787 business class from Toronto to Shanghai.

While I would’ve loved to piece together a more creative routing, my hands were tied by China’s strict rules for inbound flights: passengers travelling from Canada must take direct flights from Canada; otherwise, they face a whole new set of pre-flight testing requirements at their intermediate connection points.

(Indeed, the current pre-travel testing requirements for China-bound passengers are already among the strictest in the world: not only do I need to present a negative COVID-19 PCR test within two days of their flight, but I also had to test negative on an antigen test as well. Thankfully, both tests have come through with no traces of the virus detected.)

These days, Air Canada operates the Toronto–Shanghai service (with an intermediate stop in Seoul to avoid excessive quarantine measures for their crew) once a week. As you can imagine, these tickets get very expensive due to the tight supply, both in cash and in Aeroplan points, now that dynamic pricing is in play.

So, did I end up paying 200,000+ points to book this Air Canada business class flight? Thanks to a stroke of luck, I didn’t have to.

You see, prior to the transition to the new Aeroplan program in late 2020, I had booked a flight with a destination of Songyuan in China under Aeroplan’s old rules, charts, and online search engine – all of which were more favourable than the new Aeroplan system we have today.

Inevitably, the itinerary was rocked by schedule changes, and I was able to parlay it into a revenue business class seat on the direct Toronto–Shanghai flight due to the involuntary nature of the schedule change.

With a trip like this, the priority is really to snag any available seat on a tightly capacity-controlled route. Indeed, my flight on Sunday is completely full in business class, and because I had actually pushed back the flight from last weekend, I’ve ended up being stuck in an aisle seat for the duration of the 17-hour journey.

Still, I’m grateful to the magic of Miles & Points that I was able to book this itinerary without having to pay out the nose for it, which is a situation that virtually anyone else who’s headed to a destination with very limited flights would otherwise face.

(As many of you know, I recently moved to Vancouver, although the flight had previously been booked out of Toronto. Tacking on an additional flight at the start would’ve been a voluntary change that reprices everything at the dynamic level, so instead, I’ve booked a one-way flight in Air Canada 787 premium economy – which I think will make for a useful review as many of us embark on cross-country journeys on our domestic trips.)

In terms of the return journey, I haven’t actually made any bookings yet, but I’m definitely leaving the door open to taking a more creative routing on the way home.

In particular, I’d love to give the Virgin Atlantic + ANA First Class sweet spot a go, as well as sample a few high-end flying experiences that I’ve really missed, like Qatar Airways Qsuites.

There are many complicating factors at play, though, including various countries’ reopening policies, airport transit policies, and the question of hotel quarantine back here in Canada if it hasn’t been relaxed by then. (If I want to cross the border by land instead of by air, I’d also then need to contend with the US travel ban on anyone who’s been in Mainland China for the past 14 days.)

Plotting out an optimized return journey is definitely one of the ways I’ll be keeping busy during my upcoming 14-day quarantine in Shanghai, and I’ll keep you updated as I go along.

The Hotels

I haven’t made any hotel bookings as of yet, but I’m definitely looking forward to checking out a few cool hotels across the region over the next few months.

It’s no secret that the Asia-Pacific region is where the major global hotel chains tend to offer the best elite treatment for their most loyal members. While I’ll be living at home in Beijing for a large chunk of the time, I’m planning to leveraging my Marriott Titanium, Hilton Diamond, and Hyatt Globalist status levels to enjoy some awesome stays when I’m visiting other cities.

In particular, I’m excited for my Hyatt Globalist “experiment” to get off the ground.

World of Hyatt had offered a generous opportunity to qualify for Globalist at the turn of the year, and I had paid about $1,200 for a mattress run that would earn me top-tier Globalist status through to February 2023. I’m looking forward to finding out whether Hyatt lives up to its hype.

Park Hyatt Shenzhen

Some of the luxury hotels on my “hit list” include the Park Hyatt Shanghai, the Shanghai EDITION, the Waldorf Astoria Chengdu, the Park Hyatt Shenzhen, and the St. Regis Hong Kong.

The Reviews section of Prince of Travel has been relatively quiet over the past year or so, and I’m excited to add a few more interesting reviews to help guide your travel plans as Asia opens its doors to visitors in 2022 and beyond.

Conclusion

I’ll be spending the next couple of months in China, and I’m really looking forward to spending some quality time with my family, being able to do “normal life” things like eat at a restaurant or go to the movies, and hopefully getting started on my COVID-19 vaccinations.

I’ll still be working full-time on Prince of Travel, of course, with Josh and the rest of the team holding down the fort whenever I’m sleeping. I’m also excited to share with you a little bit of what life is like on the other side of the world these days.

There’s not too much to say in terms of fancy points redemptions on this trip for now, although I do plan to incorporate them into the trip, and I’ll definitely keep you updated. Like many of you, I’ve earned a ton of points during the pandemic with no way to redeem them meaningfully thus far, so it’s now time to swing decisively towards the latter side of the “earn and burn” equation.