Note: This is a tale from pre-COVID times.
My experience with China Southern Airlines (中国南方航空) has been nothing short of positive, and after using them for my latest trip home in 2018, I am happy to say their customer service is also top notch.
I’m not particularly fussy with airlines, as long as they get me to my destination safely, are relatively on time and don’t lose my luggage, then I’m pretty satisfied. Good food and in-flight entertainment are bonuses.
But one thing that does set an airline (and any company, for that matter) apart is their customer service. China Southern is my favourite Chinese airline because of this.
Every now and again while looking through photos or journal entries, I stumble across an episode or memory I had during my travels that I feel is worth sharing. This particular episode occurred when I was transiting in Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport during my journey back to Tokyo after going home to Perth for a week.
Background: China Southern offers free hotel stays for long layovers in Guangzhou, but I didn’t know this until I actually arrived at the airport. As such, I wanted to see if I could use their free offer despite having already booked a hotel for the layover myself.
Turn Back Time to January 2018…
Upon arrival to the airport in Guangzhou, the homebase for China Southern Airlines, I went to the counter in the transfer lounge to get my 24-hour transit visa. This took around 1.5 hours, mostly waiting, and when the staff finally called my number she handed me a flyer.
Leaving the transfer lounge, I made my way to another counter as directed by the flyer. A cute girl with sharp features and a bob haircut just below the ears attended to me.
Me: 你好，其实我已经订了个酒店，但是我刚发现你们有这个免费的优惠。。。 [Hi, I’ve actually already booked a hotel, but I just found out you guys have a free accommodation offer…]
Her: 你订了哪个酒店？ [Which hotel did you book?]
I show her the hotel name on my phone, but it’s only in English. She doesn’t know what it translates to in Chinese. So I search around the option plates laid on the counter until I find it.
Me: 是这个 [It’s this one.]
Her: 这个是在我们的名单，所以你可以免费住。你可以退你的预定。 [This is one of the hotels on the list, so you can stay for free. You should cancel your booking.]
Me: 但是他们会收费，因为已经过了免费取消时间。 [But they’ll charge me since it’s past the free cancellation date.]
Her: 你已经付了？ [Have you paid for the room already?]
Me: 还没。[No, not yet.]
Her: 那没问题，你不用付。 你可以用我们的优惠。 来，在这里签名。[Then it’s fine, don’t pay. You can use our offer. Here, write your name in this book.]
She then pastes a sticker on my arm indicating which hotel was to pick me up. While waiting, I was still not convinced that the hotel would let me cancel so easily, so I approached a maroon-uniformed girl who had also helped tend to me before.
Me: 如果我到了酒店后，他们要我付钱，我该怎么办？ 因为我有预定。[What happens if the hotel tries to charge me when I arrive? Since I already made a separate booking.]
Maroon girl: 他们不会，这个是南方的优惠。 如果有问题叫他们打给我们。 [They won’t, they’re one of the hotels part of the offer. But if there’s any trouble tell them to call us.]
She writes number on a back of a sticker, then says, “啊，我会更司机说一下。” [Actually, let me talk to the driver directly about it.]”
She walks off to talk to a guy for a few moments, motioning to me. He nods. She comes back.
Maroon girl: 他们知道了，没问题。 [He says it’s fine.]
She goes back to the counter, and not long after a van from the hotel comes and pick me and a few other travellers up.
We arrive at the hotel…
I go up to the front desk and talk to the staff there.
Me: I didn’t know about this offer, so I already booked a room. Can I still stay for free?
I show her the booking on my phone.
Staff: (types the booking number in) Okay, you should just cancel this booking.
Me: But it’s past the free cancellation date, and cancellations on the day are charged at 100%…
Staff: Where did you book?
Staff: Okay, you should just call them and cancel. They will contact us, but we won’t charge you. (She hands me the room keycard). Here, go up to your room and sort it out there.
Inside my nifty room, I call Hotels.com and tell them I would like to cancel my booking, explaining my situation. The customer service rep says he will need to call the hotel to confirm that they will not charge me for the cancellation. I say okay, and wait for the callback.
He returns the call and confirms the hotel has agreed not to charge me. I thank him, feeling grateful to all parties involved. Times like these, I greatly appreciate Chinese flexibility with processes and rules. I spend the rest of the night exploring the surrounds of my hotel.
The next morning I check out, take the free shuttle back to the airport, and fly home to Tokyo.
But it doesn’t end there…
A few weeks after returning to Tokyo, I check my credit card statement and see that the hotel has charged me a night’s stay for the cancellation after all! I am livid that despite the repeated assurances from both the airline and hotel, what I feared happened.
But I give them the benefit of a doubt: it probably wasn’t intentional, just that being China, the hotel staff had likely not properly documented the situation, and the system automatically charged me for a “no-show.”
I contact Hotels.com, who attempt to contact the hotel but tell me they can’t reach the appropriate person. They suggested I contact the hotel directly as they were the billing party.
So I contact the hotel, but the staff doesn’t speak English well enough to understand what I want, and my Chinese isn’t good enough to convey the intricacies of the issue over the phone.
So I ask a Taiwanese friend, who was my colleague at the time, to call on my behalf to explain the situation in Chinese. She does so, and tells me the hotel said I need to contact Hotels.com to get a refund. I am essentially being made to run around in circles as both sides shirk from the responsibility.
Frustrated, I call the China Southern Airlines customer service hotline in a last ditch effort to see if they can help. I get through.
Me: 我可以说英语吗？ [Can I speak English?]
Customer service rep: 可以啊。 [Yes.]
Me: 那我说英语。[Okay, so I’m going to speak in English.]
Customer service rep: 你说吧。[Go ahead.]
I almost laugh at the bluntness and quickly switch to English to avoid annoying her. When I explain my situation and tell her the hotel had charged me, she exclaims 啊？！！ [HUH?!!] in a really shocked manner.
She says she will call me back. When she does shortly after, she tells me she has explained to the hotel and that they will refund me.
“They promised me,” she says in English.
She adds that the hotel will email me regarding the details. I ask if they know my email.
“We know everything — we have your passport number, ticket number, name, even your birthday,” she says.
I almost laugh again at how casual she was about having so many of my personal details. I thank her and end the call.
But it turns out pressure from the major airline worked. The next day I receive an email from the hotel’s front desk supervisor apologizing for mistakenly charging me due to “operation problem of our staff.” She says she has issued a refund application to the bank, and it may take some time to get processed but I will get refunded.
I reply with a polite email thanking her, and said I will await the refund.
Two months later…
It’s April and I still haven’t seen the charge reversed on my credit card. I shoot the hotel an email asking about the status of the refund, but get no reply.
At this point, I’m tired of the issue and decide it’s not worth anymore of my time. I wasn’t aware of the free stay offer in the first place, and despite the goodwill of China Southern Airlines’ customer service to help me rectify that during the layover, it just didn’t pan out. I decide to cut my losses and learn for the future.
Life goes on, but a few months later I check my credit card statement and lo and behold! The amount has been refunded.
Success is sweet.
Tl; dr version of China Southern Airlines’ kickass customer service
Despite being in Guangzhou less than 24 hours, and having visited multiple times before, I had a great time there during my transit in January 2018.
This was thanks to the awesome customer service from China Southern Airlines, who made sure I was able to take advantage of their free hotel offer despite me having already booked myself.
The hotel which I had booked, despite some incompetence from staff, also deserves some kudos for letting me cancel my booking free of charge on the day.
Pro-tip: China Southern Airlines pays for your accommodation in Guangzhou if your layover time is between 8 to 48 hours! See their official website for the full details.
Read more episodes about my time in China, which is always a wild ride with off-the-wall interactions.