How American Airlines Nearly Cost Us Our Trip to China

Forbidden City, Imperial Palace, Beijing - Winter

Did you know that you don’t need a tourist visa for China if you plan a short trip carefully? Since 2013, in an effort to open the country to tourism, the Chinese government has implemented a free 72-hour transit visa rule. Though the rules have some major restrictions, in that you cannot change planes in China and must then be traveling on to a 3rd country within 72 hours. But another great thing is that you can actually utilize the 72-hour visa multiple times (meaning you can book two roundtrip tickets, which is what we did). We knew we needed to be organized when we left Boston for Beijing via Chicago, before then traveling to Australia, but were absolutely appalled by the way American Airlines treated us.

Upon arrival at the American Airlines check-in desk at Boston’s Logan Airport we were told “you need a tourist visa for China.” We said, “no we don’t, here is the print out of our ongoing Air Asia flight from Beijing to Melbourne via Kuala Lumpur, we’re using the free 72-hour transit visa”. “You need a tourist visa for China” was again the reply, like they hadn’t listened to a word we said. There was a steady back and forth of repeated dialogue and shrugging of shoulders on their end. “Can you please check with someone else” we pleaded? “No” they replied. “No, seriously???” We could not believe that the American Airlines staff were actually against putting us on the airplane from the moment we arrived. 

So the onus was on to actually call other unhelpful American Airlines staff members from our own cell phone because they refused to ask a superior about rules they did not know, understand, or have any interest to comprehend. Big deal, American Airlines only sells plane tickets to China so why would they need to bother knowing the Chinese laws regarding travelers right? One staff member even pretended to research the rule saying, “the law regarding the 72-hour Chinese transit visa changed January 21st. You can’t fly to China but we do sell plane tickets for Australia.” We were seriously concerned because American Airlines staff were leading us to believe we could not travel to China and would need to pay a lot extra if we wanted to visit Bell’s family in Australia, meaning we’d be out thousands of dollars!

Bell was crying and I was seriously panicking. American Airlines had us believing that we’d somehow royally screwed up. But their staff members stories kept changing so we had a gut feeling we were still right and to persist that we knew the law and were organized. During our 45 minute hold up at the check-in counter, which almost had us miss our flight to Chicago and subsequently the ongoing flight to Beijing, we heard it all.

From lies to outrageous stories, AA staff members were looking for any reason possible to not put us on the plane. Eventually they produced a complicated print out of the visa requirements published by IATA (International Air Transport Authority) only because they thought it showed definitive proof that we could not fly to China. But in fact, a few paragraphs down, the form stated:

A visa is required, except for Nationals of USA holding confirmed onward airline tickets to a third country, if arriving in and departing the same city: at Beijing (PEK)… for a max. transit time of 72 hours….

“Here, look” we said…repeatedly. After having to underline the key words, they decided to skeptically clear us to fly. “What if you decide to stay in China” they said. “One guy got sent back last week” another said. Their behaviour was not only unprofessional, but one of the most outlandish spectacles we’ve ever encountered in our travels. Upon receiving our boarding passes they even said “next time get the visa.”

American Airlines held us up for so long at check-in that we had to plead with security to let us jump the line and I found myself relieved to be putting my belt back on at the gate. This after having to run through Logan Airport holding my pants up. A fellow passenger who witnessed the spectacle high fived us saying “Yeah, you guys made it! I can’t believe the way they treated you.”

We were both sick to our stomachs but relieved we made the flight to Chicago. But even though our boarding passes said “Docs Ok” all passengers were told in Chicago to have their passports open to the page with their Chinese tourist visas. The American Airlines gate agent held up boarding the plane to Beijing for over 5 minutes because he needed to double check the 72-hour transit visa with a superior. Seriously, after fighting for 45 minutes to clear our documents in Boston? But again, American Airlines only sells plane tickets to Beijing from the USA, so why would they know the laws regarding tourist visas to China for Americans? Though worrisome for 5 minutes, the incident in Chicago was far less of a spectacle than in Boston and we were allowed to board the plane for Beijing.

Alex & Bell, Forbidden City, China

My stomach never settled on the 14 hour flight from Chicago to Beijing because of the way American Airlines treated us before boarding. While the flight crew on board were pleasant and efficient, the in-flight entertainment selection was limited. Given the ordeal, we probably should have flown with the Chinese carrier Hainan Airlines, which now flies from Boston to Beijing direct and the tickets were actually a little cheaper than American Airlines for our dates (we didn’t because we’d read some poor reviews).

Upon arrival in Beijing’s airport we were directed to a special line to have the 72-hour transit visa processed. The Chinese immigration officer asked to see our ongoing plane ticket out of Beijing within 72 hours, which we produced, along with our hotel reservation. If you make a hotel reservation before arriving in China, the hotel staff will process your information with the local police station after you check-in. If you stay with a friend or in an apartment, it’s your obligation to register with a local police station within 24 hours of arrival in China. This is very important so you don’t encounter any problems with immigration leaving China (which we didn’t).

We’d never believe that Chinese immigration would be a breeze compared to checking in with American Airlines for our flight to Beijing. On top of this, we filed a formal complaint with American Airlines, as per the request of American Airlines Twitter staff, only to receive an automatic response that could be given to anybody that complains about rude staff members, not even offering us a complimentary cocktail on our flight home. Then American Airlines Twitter staff continued to toy with us, encouraging us to waste more of our time by re-submitting the complaint form again manually, which we did not, as we provided them the reference number to follow up. In a nutshell, American Airlines knowledge of visa requirements to China and customer service is the opposite of #AAwesome.  

Alex & Bell Docklands, Melbourne

Update March 4th, 2016: We had no problems returning to Beijing for our second 72 hour transit stop with Air Asia from Melbourne. Their check-in representative was professional and again we encountered no problems with Chinese immigration and just returned home to Boston. In fairness to American Airlines staff, the flight crew were very friendly from Beijing to Dallas and the plane was a 787 Dreamliner that offered much better in-flight entertainment than the Chicago-Beijing flight. But for weeks, American Airlines Twitter representatives continue to state that our comments are being forwarded to their leadership team but nobody from their leadership team has bothered to contact us, leading us to believe that this could unnecessarily happen again to others. We want to get our message out there so other travelers are not treated in the nightmare fashion we were when they have their paperwork in order and are following proper guidelines.

Update: July 25th, 2018: China now offers a 144 hour free transit visa to cities like Beijing and Shanghai!

Where to Stay in Beijing?

First you’ll probably need a place to stay in Beijing and we highly recommend staying at the Inner Mongolia Grand Hotel. This is a fantastic valued 5 star hotel that’s very comfortable and nicely decorated. Don’t stay in a western chain that will be decorated the same as a hotel in Chicago or London if you don’t have to.

If that’s booked, we also recommend the Prime Hotel Beijing which is another 5 star hotel centrally located in the Wangfujing district of Beijing. We stayed there our second visit to Beijing because the Inner Mongolia was booked. It’s also a very nice hotel but the beds were a little firm for our liking. Beautiful rooms and nice amenities otherwise though.

You can possibly book either hotel with free cancellation to hold the room and then cancel later if your plans change.

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This article contains some affiliate links. We receive a small commission when you book or sign up through certain links and it costs you nothing extra. When it suits you, please use them, as it helps us help you with your travels! 


  • Alex&Bell

    Alex and Bell originally met while solo traveling after finishing university in 2002, in Brugge, Belgium. Alex grew up in the USA and Bell hails from Australia. During our nearly 20 year marriage we've lived around the world, including spending six years living in the Netherlands and Ireland. We have traveled to nearly 70 countries and enjoy giving readers authentic and quality travel tips. Alex is an award winning travel journalist and travel planner, who also freelances for other outlets. Bell is an award winning PhD scientist who currently works for a non-profit lung cancer advocacy research organization called Lungevity. Happy travels and if you have any questions leave a comment or drop an email!

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31 thoughts on “How American Airlines Nearly Cost Us Our Trip to China

  1. Great you made it to Aus and we have had a great 2 weeks in Melbourne. Next time I am in the State it is Delta all the way!!!!

    1. Indeed! 🙂 Yeah, don’t bother with American Airlines. They don’t care, and if something goes wrong they’re not sorry!

  2. WOW! What an ordeal. I’ve had my share of dramas with various airlines (like my rant about US Airways here:, and I remember once lodging a complaint with American (about their on-board staff), only to receive the same canned response that you did. When I suggested that there should be some form of compensation, I was told that’s not their policy, but they’ll alert the vice president to my concerns. Somehow I doubt that ever happened! 😉

    1. Thanks for commenting and sharing your post! The airline industry is a tough business but lying to people about visas and trying to pressure them to spend thousands of extra dollars is another level of terrible business that we’ve never experienced in all our travels around the world. Our recent experience, and based on the stories of others, this is obviously an issue that will only change by replacing the higher ups in this airline. There’s other options out there, and next time we certainly won’t choose American Airlines. Mistakes are fine, but at least offer the smallest of gestures with a credit for next time. It’s fine though, there won’t be a next time.

  3. Why am I not surprised? These airlines have so many useless people working for them – it’s their job to know this kind of stuff, they should be up on the latest Visa requirements. Definitely not your job to be convincing them,

    Sorry for your ordeal.

    Frank (bbqboy)

    1. Thanks Frank!

      Yeah, if AA sells tickets to a destination their staff needs to be able and willing to access visa requirements, otherwise stop flying there. The fact that their staff was not only ignorant regarding the law, but initially unwilling to access the information is a serious problem.

      We’ve repeatedly complained to AA staff about this incident and they have offered zero compensation as an apology and this latest insincere response:

      “We appreciate your feedback. We’re always looking for ways to improve our customers experience. We’ve forwarded your details on to our leadership team for internal review. Our apologies for any inconvenience.”

      This is after we’ve complained about this nightmare incident several times. If someone is planning to fly from the US to China on the 72 hour transit visa, you would be much safer purchasing a ticket with a Chinese carrier who understands the laws.

  4. You are not the only one. I met someone that was flying into Guangzhou from Sydney and was almost denied boarding. She was finally allowed on the plane as by chance the deputy mayor of Guangzhou was on the same flight, overheard the problem and verified that the women was correct and could get a transit visa on arrival.

    1. Hi Wai, thanks for sharing! We’re interested to know which carrier that was. We flew back to Beijing on the 72 hour transit visa from Melbourne on Malaysian based Air Asia and their check-in staff was fully aware of the laws regarding the transit visa. She asked to see our ongoing flight from Beijing, and we produced the print out for our tickets with American Airlines onward to the United States. She cleared our documents in a very professional manner, which was the complete opposite of American Airlines.

  5. Wow travel horror story! Especially scary on something so expensive like an international, long-haul, plane ticket. I’ve never used AA but this isn’t the first bad experience I’ve heard about them. Think I put them on my ‘avoid’ list. Glad everything worked out for you in the end though!

    1. Hey Hannah! Indeed, AA put us through a 45 minute nightmare that felt like hours. It was not only a couple thousand in non-refundable plane tickets at stake but also a trip home for Bell to Australia. And the only reason they finally produced the IATA document they did was because they thought it read that we could not fly, when in fact it said we could. In our opinion, AA is unqualified to sell plane tickets to China, and possibly elsewhere. Thanks and happy travels to you!

  6. I can’t believe that happened, well, actually I can! These airlines are totally clueless about keeping up to date with laws and stuff. Had it twice this year, once flying to Vietnam as they are temporally lifting visas for British nationals and on the way back from India to Australia they wouldn’t let me check in as they couldn’t physically see my working e-visa, again it took hours and a lot of hunting online for documents. I’m doing your same trip from the UK next month, hopefully the Chinese 72 hour visa news has spread!

    1. Thanks for sharing , Daniel! Indeed, visa situations can be complicated so it’s nice to feel the check-in staff is on your side, willing to ask a superior for clarification if they don’t know the laws…Sorry to hear you’ve also had some stressful issues recently. Very best of luck to you traveling on the 72 hour Chinese transit visa! We would definitely advise you show up to the airport with a print out of the law, just in case the staff is as rude as those working for AA at Boston Logan. We’re doing our best to spread the word here! 🙂

  7. Ahh! I would have been sick to my stomach! I’m glad you guys were able to make the flight in the end. I’ve flown with AA a couple times, but they definitely are not my preferred airline. I hope your trip was still a blast despite everything!

    1. Thanks, Amber! It was a phenomenal trip and it’s crazy that this was honestly the worst part of our 3 week trip. You always expect to have some small issues on a long international trek, but this was beyond what we expected for so many reasons. Especially since we called AA ahead of time and informed the representative that we’d be traveling on the 72 hour Chinese transit visa and he said he’d made a note of it and it was fine. He lied, in addition to the staff at Logan. Clearly there’s some serious customer service issues over at AA.

  8. Wow. Glad it all worked out finally! I hold an Indian passport, and it’s almost impossible to travel without visas – so that’s become second nature for me, but have had many such incidents before and during travel!

    1. Hi Aparna. Thanks for sharing your story of traveling on an Indian passport. We’re sorry to hear that incidents similar to these happen to you every now and again. Way to go for not allowing the added hassle get in your way of seeing the world. Happy travels!

  9. I followed this ordeal on your frustrating! Ok admittedly, China has, in the last few years, changed their visa requirements, (and different requirements in different cities too which makes it more confusing). But that is not excuse for airline staff to not be on top of these regulations. And it does sound like a scam to get you guys to buy a new ticket in a panic. Its great you guys are well-informed!

    1. Thanks, Jean! That’s a great point about different Chinese cities having slightly different rules and people should always double check before purchasing in case rules change again. But AA only flies to Beijing and Shanghai. It’s OK for the staff to be uncertain, but to have been against us and initially refusing to contact a superior to double check the requirement is an entirely different story. I will try and follow up via AA’s customer complaint form one more time. Happy travels to you! 🙂

  10. Appreciate you sharing your story! I do have a question about the process of leaving the Chinese airport. I am flying China Eastern from Chicago and will be staying overnight in Shanghai en route to Sydney. Do you have to get your luggage when you leave the Chinese airport? Or do you leave it at the airport and it is put on the plane to your final destination? This is something I can’t seem to find out anywhere on the web…

    1. Hi Tyson. With the 72 hour transit visa we collected our checked luggage in Beijing upon arrival. With the 24 hour transit, flying the same airline, you *should* receive the option at check-in to either collect your luggage in Shanghai or have it held in the airport and collect it when you arrive in Sydney. We’d recommend calling China Eastern for clarification.

  11. I had a similar experience with AA but flying to Germany, not China. I am a US national with a German residence permit, which is a valid travel document; however, I was not allowed passage back to Berlin by AA because my passport was expiring in less than 3 months. After explaining them for 4 hours (!) how a residence permit works as travel document, missing my original flight in the meantime, I was only able to convince them by having the German consulate in San Francisco explain it on my behalf. It was an utter nightmare and I am still, 9 months later, trying to get reimbursements for the extra costs I had! Haven’t flown AA since.

    1. Thank you for sharing, Max. It sounds like AA’s check-in staff for your flight to Germany was just as unhelpful and unprofessional as the AA staff for our flight China. They should be looking up this information, rather than putting the sole burden on the passenger to provide proof of legality. We’re sorry to hear you missed your flight, and AA essentially stole money from you that they have not reimbursed. After our horrible experience, and hearing similar stories like yours, we do not recommend flying with AA. Their check-in staff is showing a pattern of unprofessionalism that probably stems from the top down.

  12. Thank you for sharing Max. My parents, retired seniors, take an annual trip to Laos to get away from the harsh mid-west winter. Upon arrival at the AA check-in counter, they were denied boarding because they did not have a Visa document to enter the country of Laos. We have done our homework and we nicely advised the counter agent, that Laos is a country that provides Visa upon arrivals and obtaining it beforehand was not needed. The counter agent was citing a law that are for travelers who are visiting the US! We printed the regulations from the Embassy of Laos to show the counter agent and she still insisted we needed a Visa! By this time, we were infuriated, and we too asked to speak to a supervisor or manager on duty. She still insisted that they would say the same thing. Informed the agent, that my parents have made the same travels for the last five years and had no issues, citing that the law has changed. No, the US law may have changed for people traveling to the US, but it hadn’t changed for the country of Laos, all research on the internet and the Embassy of Laos will tell you, my parents can and will obtain the Visa upon arrival to Laos. They have done this many of times. Anyway, long ordeal with the counter agent, she said she will notate that the passengers insisted on boarding flights and if there is a fine to the airline, that she, the counter agent was not responsible. I told her she can notate whatever she needs to because there won’t be a fine when the rules and regulations are clearly stated for this PARTICULAR TRAVEL to this PARTICULAR COUNTRY. If we do our homework as travelers, the airlines need to have a better system in place. A simple bookmark or footnotes to countries being traveled to, a tool designed specifically for their system. It was easy for me to find the information, why can’t the airline simplified this for their staff and travelers.

    1. Thanks for sharing this story, Mouki. It sounds so similar to what happened to us with our trip to China in 2016. It’s a shame AA hasn’t implemented better training and a better system since then. We understand the agents don’t want something coming back to them, but it’s very unprofessional when paying customers are showing them proof that they are legally allowed to fly, and AA staff are making up information to the contrary. Mistakes happen. But they should not have a problem getting a manager if there is any confusion. We agree – AA absolutely needs to do a better job with implementing a system where staff can see and understand visa rules. And when there is an issue, grab a manager without hesitation. Best to you and your parents. Happy travels!

  13. This literally just happened to us today – they would not let us in the plane and the manager on duty refused to call the internal HelpDesk even though the customer service agent I spoke with said she had taken advantage of this rule and that the manager on duty just needed to call the HelpDesk. So we have been turned away and have now lost thousands of dollars!

    1. Hi Sara, we are so sorry to read this happened to you and that you were turned away. These airlines need to provide training to their staff so they are aware of the visa rules. We recognize there are many different visas and the rules get complicated, but if they sell tickets, it is their duty to know the rules. We do suggest trying to take it up with the airlines and move it to social media if you can as that can sometimes be the mechanism to get them to move. We hope you get your money back at the least, but it isn’t the same as getting to take your vacation.

    2. Hi Sara. I’m so sorry that just happened to you and that it cost you thousands of dollars. It’s terrible to hear that four years later American Airlines doesn’t seem to care about making the situation right with the free Chinese transit visa. They have an obligation to know the rules for the flights they operate and to allow paying passengers to fly. I recently flew an international Qantas flight one way between Tokyo and Melbourne, Australia. My return ticket is on China Eastern Airlines and Qantas didn’t even question my one way ticket to Australia when departing Tokyo airport. So they left the onus to legally leave Australia on me, which is the way it should be. Thanks for sharing your story, and I hope AA fixes this ASAP.

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