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Simon Rogerson

Another tale of luggage pedantry

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Long haul travel seems designed to test your sanity – here’s the story of a slightly maddening journey that I feel the need to share. Make of it what you will.

 

My Big Trip of 2010 was a three-week epic to Papua New Guinea; I was flying with Malaysian Airlines and Air Niugini on a convoluted route from London to Port Moresby via Kuala Lumpur and Manila. For the London-KL-Manila segment I had a luggage allowance of 30kg – generous by today’s standards. These days, I usually beg use of a BC and regulator from the host operator, a little journalist’s perk that saves me a few kilos.

 

The trouble is, I got greedy. PNG is a very special place, one of the best dive spots I have ever visited. So I took two housings. One in my faithful Peli case, one in my hand luggage. After treating myself to a few more camera back-up luxuries, I had worked my hold luggage up to the 30kg max, and my hand luggage was at 10kg, as weighed on a set of scales I had bought for £5 at a gas/petrol station.

 

When I pitched up the checkout counter, it turned out my bargain scales were a tad optimistic. On the Malaysian Airlines scales, the hold luggage came in at 36kg, and that extra 6kg was going to cost me £200 – one-way.

 

For once, I had planned for the problem. I always travel with my worn-out fins, which have been due for replacement for years. The idea was that my eminently expendable fins coul be quickly jettisoned if I needed to save a few kilos, and that’s exactly what I did at Terminal Four’s ‘repacking area’. Almost as soon as I had placed my knackered old fins in the clear refuse sacks, a little guy appeared from no-where and, cheekily, whipped my fins away right in front of me! Apparently these characters hang around the repacking areas waiting to claim discarded goods – he was going to have a hard time using my ancient Quattros, however, as I had removed the buckles.

 

Then I put the rest of plan B into effect, bulking up my hand luggage with a few heavy items from the hold bags. I often see business types travelling with a laptop bag loosely attached to the top of their hand luggage, and no-one ever seems to object, so I did the same. It freed up more space in my hand luggage, which I filled with a couple of items from my holdall to redistribute the weight.

 

It was just enough to satisfy the hatchet-faced woman at the checkout desk, who shot me a suspicious look as she printed out the tickets. “Any hand luggage?” she asked. I tried to look as nonchalant as possible as I held the standard bag aloft, the tendons in my arm close to snapping with the strain.

 

The rest of the journey was exhausting but uncomplicated until I reached Manila, where I foolishly paid $20 for use of an ‘executive' lounge that was just as grotty as the rest of the airport. In any case, I spend two hours at a transfer desk, where the hapless airline reps treated each and every transaction as a dizzying novelty, as if no-one had ever before moved from one aircraft to another in the Philippines, and had the temerity to expect their luggage to be moved across as part of the bargain.

 

Waiting in the queue, I got talking to two Lebanese engineers who were also flying on to PNG, but were running into visa difficulties, in addition to excess luggage charges. Unfortunately the transfer clerk became utterly convinced that I too was Lebanese, despite the evidence to the contrary in my UK passport.

 

Anyway, once that was cleared up we had a long argument about my excess luggage. Well, the argument wasn’t with him, but with his superior on the end of a radio. This made life very difficult for me, as I generally like to look into the eyes of the person who is trying to charge me $220 for no rational reason.

 

Every time I made a point, there would be a 10-minute pause, then the clerk would relay his boss’s response. It was all down to the Air Niugini officials, came the explanation-by-proxy, as Port Moresby is apparently ‘very strict’* on excess luggage. In the end I managed to win them over on the ‘scuba allowance’ argument, even though there was no such exemption on my ticketing, and the fact that by now, the only actual ‘scuba’ equipment in my holdall was a wetsuit and mask.

 

When the time came for internal flights in PNG, they didn’t even blink. It all got on, no charge. It even arrived with me in Hoskins Airport [home of the world’s worst toilet outside a penal colony], and I was able to enjoy some of the world’s most amazing coral reef diving. On board the ‘plane, I met a relief worker who was moving his family out to New Britain. They had flown from California, with 30 hard packs between four of them, and through the sheer force of the father’s persuasion, they hadn’t paid a cent of excess.

 

My journey back started badly, but got easier. We stopped off at Lae, where passengers were treated to the alarming sight of their luggage being unloaded and replaced with palm seeds. Crucial though agricultural product doubtless is to the local economy, it seemed rather unfair. The beleaguered official at Port Moresby airport had the air of a reluctant work experience teeneageer, and did not inspire much confidence. He photocopied my onward itinerary; I took his email details and wondered if I’d ever see my luggage again.

 

Feeling a bit hard done by, I asked for an upgrade on the five-hour flight from Port Moresby to Manila. I don’t normally bother asking, but it seemed as good a time as any. My chances were slim; indeed I had already pulled my ‘disappointed homeless puppy’ face in a last-ditch attempt to win sympathy, seemingly to no avail. But just as I was just about to take my economy-size seat (next to an over-nourished lad who was already spilling out of his seat) when they called me to the other side of the curtain.

 

I was the only soul in the Business Class section, where I sat popping the complimentary peanuts while the hostesses giggled and pointed at me. There were 29 empty seats, and nothing for the girls to do but ask me if I wanted another drink every two or three minutes. Eventually one of them plucked up some courage and asked – “Are you from Iceland?”. It turned out that the airplane, a Boeing 767, was leased from Icelandair, and pretty much the only people who get upgraded on Air Niugini are Icelandic engineers on troubleshooting missions.

 

Anyway, I bought some fresh clothes in Manila, and with no controversial luggage to be weighed, there were no further altercations with the check-in mafia. I breezed in and out of the terminals with my hand luggage, not a care in the world. Two days after I got back home, I got a call from the local handlers representing Air Malaysia. Because Air Niugini has no direct representation in the UK, there was no way the handler was going to pay for it to be sent to my home, so I called back into Heathrow on my way to work and picked it up myself.

 

My two bags had been routed via Perth, for some reason. The Peli was still secured with cable ties, and someone had kindly secured my holdall with a combination lock, which had to be opened with a hammer because no one knew the combination.

 

So what’s to be learned from this? Well, pack conservatively (which I failed to do), have a plan B (which I did), and don’t expect an easy journey if you’re going anywhere remote. If you adopt a fatalistic attitude and roll with the punches, you may just stay sane.

 

As for the destination I dived for two days at Loloata Island Resort (spellcheck suggests ‘Lolita’ for ‘Loloata’. What would people think!) five days at Walindi Plantation resort and had an eight-night trip around the Witu Islands and the Fathers on FeBrina liveaboard with Alan Raabe at the helm. Was it worth all the fuss? Of course it was.

 

*I later discovered that this was, as we say in England, utter bollocks.

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A good read Simon, thanks for posting this, as someone who used to travel 32 abroad weeks a year with lots of camera gear i feel your pain, and you are right, planning and rolling with the punches keeps you sane, well, sort of :)

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As soon as I read " Malaysian Air " I knew that meant £'s.

 

Stew

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I love the scene that you described at the Manila transfer desk. I'm always amazed that no one ever seems to know how to do something that they've probably had to do hundreds of times before I showed up.

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Nice read Simon, thank you for sharing it with us here. It does sound familar even tho I dont travel as much as I guess you do, I had to pay £200 from Manado to Singapore once. I'm off to Miami soon, thankfully I'm with BA, probably one of the best to fly with (that I have experienced), hand luggage is a generous 45 x 25 x 56cm, weight limit = as long as you can lift it into the oveerhead compartment (theres the housing gear)...+ a laptop bag kept under your lap only a generouas size restriuction (camera gear)on that too + 20k (dive gear and clothes) in the hold and an extra bag in there is only £30, I flew with them to Maldives in August also and not a problem whatsoever ..apart from the seaplane of course..$90, now we dont go to Maldives resorts where we need a seaplane

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Simon, I must say I'm surprised you did not arrange with the airlines over the luggage before you even flew. Usually if you are writing an article or 3, they will be friendly with luggage weight as a courtesy of being mentioned in the article. Of course MAS would rather you do the article about Sipadan than PNG.

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Drew - I'm not sure what the situation is where you live, but from the UK, 90 per cent of the airlines have become pretty intractable when it comes to excess luggage. With a few exceptions, the PR people are generally powerless. You can waste hours on the telephone, or writing emails to airline representatives, with little chance of success. In the end, they simply refer you to whatever policy they have in place. I occasionally freelance for one of the most prestigious newspapers in the UK, and even then the story is much the same.

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Good tale and great advice at the end of it. Thanks for sharing!

Jack

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Good read Simon, I really want to go to PNG some day, but daunted by your and other people's experiences.

 

Just returned from Puerto Galera flying to Manila on Emirates. My hand baggage usually weighs in at 25Kg (pelican case with housing, ports and strobes and backpack with bodies, lenses and laptop), never an issue.

 

My suitcase only weighs in at 27Kg with remaining dive gear :)

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I'm glad you and your gear reached your destination and that you had a great trip. It's even nicer that your gear followed you back home!

 

We recently purchased these luggage tags: http://www.magellans.com/store/Luggage_Sca...ks___TagsLA316# They include a pocket to hold a copy of your contact info and itinerary, and the outside includes instructions in 8 languages for the baggage handler to look inside for that info. I figure it's an ounce of prevention.

 

-Gina

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Simon, and everyone else who reads this.

 

I was discussing this topic with some Malaysian friends last night and was reliably informed by somebody working for Malaysian Airlines that check in staff are encouraged to charge overweight baggage allowance and receive commission based on how much more income they bring in for the airline.

 

So now you know, fly with another airline if possible. It is always good to check beforehand as scuba equipment is classed as sports equipment with some airlines.

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The first time I flew to PNG, Air New Guinea agreed to wave my overweight. Alas Singapore Airlines (London to Singapore) did not. They wanted to charge me £1500 but I checked in only to Singapore and got it down to around £950. I'm off on Wednesday to SoWrong via Jakarta with Emirates. I wonder what my excess baggage charge will be with Merpati from Jakarta to SoWrong!

Edited by John Bantin

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Drew - I'm not sure what the situation is where you live, but from the UK, 90 per cent of the airlines have become pretty intractable when it comes to excess luggage. With a few exceptions, the PR people are generally powerless. You can waste hours on the telephone, or writing emails to airline representatives, with little chance of success. In the end, they simply refer you to whatever policy they have in place. I occasionally freelance for one of the most prestigious newspapers in the UK, and even then the story is much the same.

 

My neighbour is the boss of BA. He says it's better to get friendly with the check-in staff. He can't help me.

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Isn't that because Willie isn't friendly with any of the staff at BA right now? :D

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Ha - Ha,

 

Yea - it may be a brave move to admit to being Willies chum - you could end up with more than the rubber chicken surprise in the next tinfoil packet you open...

 

Paul C

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This is a common occurance in too many places around the world. So far, I have been lucky on most trips and being press really hasn't paid off for me when I was unlucky. You would think that the industry that brings divers to these remote places, who depend upon 'tourist divers' for their economic well being, would put forth some kind of proactive effort to ameliorate the conditions Simon wrote about so well. If the charter boats and resorts actually did something, and I believe they could if they wanted to, then there would be a positive impact for all of us. I have been to most places but hesitate to go back to places like the Philippines or PNG simply because of the hassles. It is bad enough spending 2 days on a plane and in airports but then to have to haggle over a few pounds overweight and pay outrageous costs if you are overweight is simply allowing oneself to be treated like crap and I am too damn old to permit that anymore. It was bad enough to be treated like that by the cops when I was a young, long haired hippy at Woodstock.

Sorry you had to go through that Simon and I hope those fins disintergrate on that guys first use.

Steve

Edited by steve

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Thanks for sharing Simon.

 

It reminds me why, for years, I've tried to book all long haul with British Airways whenever possible - even if it means taking a slightly indirect route.

 

Their reasonable set of excess baggage charges, combined with no weight limits on hand baggage (and you can carry a decent sized laptop bag in addition to normal hand baggage) is just worth such a lot when you look at how much airlines like Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines charge for excess, and it takes the stress out of the situation.

 

BA really came up trumps on the way back from a trip earlier this year, when neither me nor a friend had our 5 x 23kgs bags with us for reasons I won't go into here. A quick and polite chat with the BA rep at Buenos Aires airport led to them transferring our free baggage allowance to another passenger who was bringing our bags home a few days later - he had 8 bags with him in total. I can't imagine many airlines treating us that fairly. I've never been able to fault them on their customer service.

 

Granted though it's simply not always possible to use them, but whenever I can cover the bulk of the journey with them, I do.

 

Cheers

 

Steve

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Just a quick note for those folks flying to PNG via Australia that Pacificblue (Virgin Airlines) has a pretty nice baggage allowance for people with sports equipment (Dive Gear).

 

The normal allowance is 20kg of checked baggage and 7kg of carry on. But if you have sports equipment they allow one bag for your dive gear and take off 5kg from your normal check in allowance. This one piece of sports gear can weight up to 32kg!

 

Therefore you can pack your dive gear and camera gear in one big dive bag and have it weigh 32kg and under and your other checkin bag with 15kg and under. Still have a carry on bag with 7kg. 47kg of checkin and 7 kg of carry on!

 

 

Regards Mark

Edited by Aussiebyron

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