The most expensive plane ticket I’ve ever purchased was a $14k rescue mission for my dog Watson
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One of the best things about travel rewards is that when you’re not paying for flights and hotels, it frees up more cash to spend on the things that really matter to you in life. At the age of 23, I straddle the divide between the Millennial generation and Gen Z, which tells you right away that nothing is more important to me than my dog.
In fact, my two-year-old corgi Watson (named after Watson’s Bay in Sydney and Watson & Crick, not Sherlock) is so important to me that earlier this month I purchased the most expensive plane ticket of my life to get him out of China.
I wish this story were as simple as searching for a flight online and typing in my credit card number, but with bureaucratic nightmares at every turn, I wasn’t sure this was going to work until the day his plane took off. Read on for the full story of what it can take to bring a pet back from abroad, as well as some adorable pictures of our reunion.
Stuck worlds apart
Watson was a gift from a friend when I moved to Shanghai two years ago (I know, I have some pretty amazing friends). My girlfriend and I got him when he was only three months old, and Shanghai is the only place he’s ever lived.
Back in March, I flew to DC to deal with a family health emergency after a monthlong vacation that included a stop in the Maldives over Chinese New Year and ended up getting stuck stateside when China closed its border to all noncitizens. While I was incredibly disappointed by this, my girlfriend was teaching remotely back home, which meant she was able to give Watson plenty of love and attention during the day.
At the end of May, her school returned to in-person classes which meant long days away — so we made plans to get him out of the country.
At any other time in recent memory this would’ve been a relatively simple task, and Watson should’ve been ready to fly within about a week of us making up our minds. However, between coronavirus related flight cancellations and increasing diplomatic tension between the U.S. and China, the process would prove to be incredibly complicated.
Our backup-backup-backup plan
We reached out to a number of different pet shipping companies, most of whom told us that they were currently unable to help given the limited number of flights out of China. To curb the spread of coronavirus China had limited all foreign airlines to one flight a week per destination, and no U.S. airlines were flying to China at the time.
Finally, a friend in Shanghai put us in touch with a local company that would be able to help. For about ~$2,600 USD, Watson would be transported from Shanghai to Guangzhou where a China Southern cargo flight would take him to San Francisco. I am in the DC area, but I figured I’d be able to fly out to pick him up and take him back on Alaska Airlines, one of the few U.S. carriers that was still transporting pets as cargo.
Just as we were getting ready to book, two simultaneous developments stopped our plans dead in their tracks. First, the local authorities in Guangzhou began requiring the owner of the pet to show up in person for the final health check, which meant my girlfriend would’ve had to take time off and travel to Guangzhou, something her job would not allow. Then the next day, China temporarily banned the shipment of animals to the U.S. as cargo. No official reason was given for this decision, but it occurred on the same day that western countries were reacting to a proposed pro-Beijing national security law in Hong Kong.
Now after a few years working for TPG, I’ve gotten quite good at coming up with creative routings. As soon as I heard that Watson couldn’t fly directly to the U.S. from China, I immediately went into problem-solving mode to see if he could go the other direction, through Europe or the Middle East.
I reached back out to World Wide Pet Transport to see if they could help, and much to my delight I was told that Lufthansa was accepting animals as cargo and they’d be able to transport Watson to D.C. There was just one catch: cargo rates have been skyrocketing around the world as airlines try and offset lost passenger revenue, and Lufthansa had a monopoly on this particular market. The cost, including agency fees, health checks, export and import customs paperwork, and the incredibly expensive cargo rate, came out to just under $14,000 total. This is between 5x and 7x more expensive than every other quote we received, and the overwhelming bulk of that cost was simply Lufthansa’s elevated cargo rates.
Summer arrives early in Shanghai, and by this point in early June temperatures were already breaking into the mid 80s. Many airlines have temperature cutoffs above which they won’t transport pets, and it felt like we were running out of time. With no other options on the table, I decided to bite the bullet and do whatever it took to get Watson back.
I paid the invoice with my Business Platinum Card® from American Express, earning 1.5x points for a purchase over $5,000 (up to 1 million additional points per calendar year). I would’ve been much happier if this had been an airfare purchase, but because it was processed by the third-party shipping company this was just a regular, non-bonus “everyday spending” expense. I used the Business Platinum card so that the expense wouldn’t appear on my personal credit report, and because I didn’t have a high enough credit limit on my Blue Business® Plus Credit Card from American Express to cover it all.
The long way to D.C.
After having a number of plans fall through on us at the last minute, I tried not to get my hopes up. Still, the departure date inched closer.
Watson completed his final health check in Shanghai, we ordered his airplane crate, and before we knew it the big day was here. After one final brunch in his favorite dog-friendly cafe in our neighborhood, it was time to go.
The Lufthansa cargo website had a handy tracking tool where we could follow along with his progress, though I personally had my eyes glued to Flightradar24 every moment he was in the air.
His routing started with a cargo flight from Shanghai (PVG) to Frankfurt (FRA) on a Boeing 777-200 freighter, followed by a 24-hour layover in Lufthansa’s dedicated animal terminal. I was worried about him having so much time on the ground, but our agent Chris reassured us that Lufthansa’s animal handlers are some of the best in the world, and as a professional he gets excited every time he has a chance to work with Lufthansa.
After that, Watson would fly as cargo on a passenger A330 from Frankfurt to Newark (EWR) where I would meet him. (Lufthansa had suspended its flight from Frankfurt to Washington Dulles (IAD), so Newark was the closest airport.)
At the end of the day I’m sure having some time to rest and recover did him well, especially after an unforeseen hiccup early on.
While the tracking information we received from Lufthansa showed a direct route from Shanghai to Frankfurt, the plane ended up flying northeast through a nasty storm and landing in Seoul for an hour or two before continuing on. I was shocked to see Lufthansa actually had several 777 freighters on the ground in Seoul at the same time, all of which had originated in various Chinese cities like Chengdu and Beijing. Presumably Lufthansa is doing crew changes in Seoul to avoid layovers in China, the same strategy Delta will be using when it restarts flights to China next month.
Watson ended up being fine, but the unexpected stop rattled my nerves a bit.
Reunited and it feels so good
From the time he left Shanghai until his arrival in Newark, Watson’s journey took just over 48 hours.
My friend and I drove up to meet him, and thanks to Chris, who’d arranged for customs pre-clearance, Watson was ready to be picked up from the cargo facility barely an hour after his flight touched down.
Between our Chinese New Year vacation and this unexpected separation, Watson and I had been away from each other for four out of the five months of the year, but as soon as he got out of the crate he started zooming in circles and jumping up in my lap like no time had passed at all.
After such a long trip, even dogs take a few days to get over the jet lag.
While this was far and away the most expensive plane ticket I’ve ever purchased, I have no regrets.
A friend of mine shipped her dogs from Beijing to New York using a different company, and upon landing in JFK they were almost sent back to China because her agency forgot to translate one of the customs forms to English! The customs agent told her husband that they’ve already had to ship 50 dogs back for similar mistakes. Meanwhile, World Wide Pet Transport handled all of the paperwork perfectly without any problems.
Another wrinkle has since popped up for owners looking to ship pets out of China. As Beijing deals with a new coronavirus outbreak that’s infected over 180 people in the Chinese capital, many cities are now requiring that animals receive a negative COVID test in order to be cleared to fly. While World Wide Pet Transport handled all the logistics and paperwork for us, this extra step makes an already difficult process more complicated. I had a hunch that things weren’t going to get any easier if we waited, and I’m very happy that we saw an opportunity and took it.
I’m incredibly grateful to Chris and the rock star team at World Wide Pet Transport for getting my pup back to me safely, and I’m very fortunate that I had the means to do so at a time when there really didn’t seem to be any other way to get Watson out of China. He handled his journey like a champ, but I get the impression that he’s not as eager to get back on a plane as his dad is.
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