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Beware the Aeroflot Shuffle
a travel advisory from the Rant by Sean Reilly
Well Russia is a completely overwhelming experience and the most intimidating and difficult country I have traveled in since my ill-fated trip to Cambodia twelve years ago, and that time I was shot at. However it was also the greatest week I have ever spent straight, moderately straight. If you’re thinking of going there are two things you should know: the first is that Dirty Duck Pub five blocks from Red Square is open until five thirty in the morning, which is when the Metro opens up again and the second is to watch out for the Aeroflot Shuffle.
Remember the old American propaganda movies (from the eighties and nineties) with the people fleeing the Iron Curtain and the guards machine-gunning them and sending out the dogs. Well the New Russia is nothing if not traditional. There are several traps they lay in wait for the unsuspecting Aeroflot flyer.
The first game is a waiting game. If you show up for the flight three hours before with all your papers in order there should be no problem, right? What you will see is four lines turn to two before your eyes, one becoming a business and first class only line that never gets used. Three hours before departure easily becomes, “Oh shit, I’m going to miss my flight.” Check-in moves like an iceberg; like dread. Hunger sets in, legs cramp, reason flees, and panic ensues; now you’re ready for the Aeroflot Shuffle.
Overweight baggage is the first event. The ticket tells you that you are allowed 20 Kg of luggage; what it doesn’t tell you is that you are flying with the only carrier in the world that includes any carry-on things you might have. Like my 9Kg backpack that I had filled just that morning at a supermarket in St. Petersburg with pickles, olives, honey, caviar and vodka.
The fine was going to be 4000 rubles. (NT$ and rubles are roughly the same) for maybe a thousand rubles worth of groceries, which I happily gave to our amazing Moscow guide, Katya, before I told them to weigh it again. From what I saw about 1 in 5 people were sent out to pay baggage fines. No matter what the infraction, the fine was 4000.
The killing blow of the New KBG (which is how I now refer to Aeroflot) are those five magic words, ‘This ticket is no good.’ The check-in people are pathological in their determination to ferret out any reason why a ticket is no good. A smudge or tear that makes part of it unreadable. Your middle initial is an ‘E’ in your passport but looks like an ‘F’ on the ticket. Taiwanese passports are a field day because names are always transliterated differently into English. These problems are never discovered when you are entering the country, at which point it’s all smiles and hugs, dancing bears and free vodka.
One of the folks I was traveling with, a Taiwanese lady named May was told that the ticket that got her into the country wasn’t going to get her out. In the end she and the tour leader had to stay the night and buy new tickets in the morning. Earlier that day I met a Californian named John who was having trouble getting back to Moscow from St. Petersburg. This conversation took place as we were waiting to board the plane.
Aeroflot: This ticket is no good.
John: It got me here two days ago.
Aeroflot: This ticket is no good.
John: Are there any seats available for this flight?
John: Well, I guess I’ll take one.
Aeroflot: Only in Business Class.
The ‘Business Class’ fare was 5200 and the economy fare was 2600. From what I saw the two classes were exactly the same on that tiny plane. The nuts must have been ace.
After my brush with Stalin’s baggage people, I bought two sandwiches for the price of a new Lada and met an Irish aircraft engineer named Eddie, from County Kerry. He and his partner had been working in Moscow for four days and had both been told that their tickets were ‘no good’ on their way home. We stood under a huge no-smoking sign chain smoking cigarettes and he told me this was costing him about 8000 quid. He said that he had been going through a week of this kind of shell game. “It’s a lovely country, but at this point I’d rather be in fucking Cairo” he said quietly near the end.
So pack light, show up early for your flight and double check that the information on your ticket is 100% accurate. If it isn’t you’ll be paying some tourist taxes and possibly staying in Moscow a little longer that you had planned. Dasvidanya.
Sean Reilly, Tai Chung, Taiwan