Sorry for the screaming caps, but I wanted to make this one stand out.

Regular readers may recall I mentioned that you can visit the Merpati office in Dili where they’ll book your flight for a $2 booking fee. No money changes hands, you simply take their printout to the airport in Kupang, hand over your cash, get your ticket and hop on the plane.

No. You don’t.

You turn up at the airport where they tell you that your booking is in status “XX” which means “cancelled”. It’s been cancelled because you didn’t pay for the ticket within three hours of making the booking. Or maybe it’s 4 days – the person I spoke to on the phone (after waiting 2 hours) seemed to change her mind partwat through the conversation.

I was told I would have to pay the short notice fare to get on the flight – twice the fee I booked at. I point blank refused and the guy at the counter kept saying “manager” and then failing to get said supervisor.

Eventually the little oik surfaced and proceeded to have a go at me for not following international air regulations (or some such utter crap) by not paying for the ticket within three hours. I pointed out that as I had booked the ticket in Dili and been told I had to pay in Kupang, this was physically impossible. This was Merpati’s fault, not mine, and I refused to pay for their mistake.

Only apparently it was my mistake – he kept repeating – for not following their rules. How, I enquired, could I follow their rules when the ones provided to me by their staff were incorrect? I asked for the rules, I was given some rules, and they were wrong. At what point was this my fault?

At this point he told me that he didn’t care about my problems and I think this is where I lost it and started yelling at him.

This seemed to work, especially as there were other customers around, and he hand wrote my ticket at the price I’d originally booked then tried to shake my hand. I just stared at him and walked off.

Thing is, I know at least one other person still in Dili who booked her ticket at the same time and who may have the same problem. I’m hoping my email to her gets there in time for her to check her booking.

Oh, and the plane was bloody awful as well. Broken seats, creaky overhead compartments, worn fittings, scratched paintwork… you name it. Most routes serviced by Merpati can also be reached by Garuda. If you have the choice, use the latter.

Just avoid Merpati.

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Tip: Applying for an Indonesian Visa in Dili, East Timor

The procedure for getting an Indonesian visa in Dili has sped up somewhat, but is still an administrative ballache. Before I came here I was told that I could expect to wait 7-10 days unless I “knew someone” who could speed up the process. As such, I was looking at flying out directly to Bali and using the Visa on Arrival system at the airport – $25 and an hour in a bloody queue if the last trip was anything to go by. The main reason for not doing this is the standard flight price of around $240.

Getting a bus back to Kupang ($20), staying one night ($3) and flying from there ($40-$60) is much cheaper, even given the $20 additional rip-off fee for the visa.

The embassy hours for visa-related goings-on are officially 9am (but see below) till midday for handing your paperwork in, then 2pm to 4pm for retrieval of your passport.

Prior to heading to the embassy, I made sure I had everything I was told to bring:

  • $45 (and you only get the 30-day visa for that, not 60 as you used to [but see below***])
  • One passport photo with a RED background, just to be awkward. You can get these in town. Expect to pay $2 to $4 depending on what mood the store clerk is in. Theoretically it’s $4 same day and $2 next day. However I got mine on a Saturday and was told $4 same day or Monday – $2 for Tuesday
  • Printout of departing flight details from Indonesia
  • Photocopy of your passport
  • Black pen (fill the form in in any other colour and they’re throw it back at you)
  • Letter detailing why you want to go to Indonesia. Apparently ticking a box marked “Tourism” isn’t enough

Although they have a price up for transit visas ($20), it’s nigh on impossible to get one. If you want one, they say, fly into Bali from Denpasar. Basically what they’re saying is you can only get a transit visa if you fly into Indonesia. Whether one is available at other land borders or embassies, I don’t know.

Get there early. They start dealing with the applications at 8:30am (mornings only – collections in the afternoon), but the doors are open for you to put your name down on the list from very early on. Make sure your name goes into the book. We got there around 7:30 and were numbers 9 and 10 on the list. At this point they also hand you the application form though you can pick one up in advance. Note that you cannot get one form and photocopy it for your mates. Each one has a unique serial code at the top.

At 8:30 they start calling out names. A clerk checks your paperwork, staples your photo to the application form and hands you a plastic card with a number on. Despite being 9th and 10th in the book, we got numbers 2 and 3 so were seen pretty quickly.

Despite all the form-filling and the brief letter telling them my plans for the 16 days I have in Bali, and the flight confirmation of my departure I was still asked roughly what I was doing and when I expected to leave. Just be polite – as with any border guard or embassy staffer, it doesn’t pay to piss them off. Remember, they’re the ones with your travel plans in their hands.

Next step is to hand over the cash. When I handed my documents over, they pushed the dollars back at me. I assume therefore that if you fail the check at this point, at least you get to keep your $45. However, as they seemed satisfied that I wasn’t going to marry the first native I found and set up home on the island, they happily swapped my passport and money for a small sheet of paper and instructions to return on Wednesday afternoon.

On collection day,

Overall, apart from the ridiculous requirements, a pretty smooth application process.

***UPDATE: I have come across two people in the last day or so who got 60-day visas. One guy from Hungary (and two of his friends he told me about) and a German guy. Basically, be persuasive. If you can, make sure your letter (above) is typed, and includes some kind of itinerary which details roughly what your plans are that require a 60-day stay. Emphasise the inconvenience of doing a visa run and the fact you’ll be chucking a ton of money into their tourist industry. And make sure you have proof that you will be heading elsewhere withing the 60-day limit.

There is no extra charge for the 60-day visa. In fact, for $45 you should get it by default as the 30-day one has an official cost of $25.

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Tip – Cancellations

Flight Ticket - PB240055

Don't need them? Cancel them!

This one’s definitely worth bearing in mind. I’m sure a lot of us book flights as cheap as we can get them. This usually means getting the ones that can’t be changed, upgraded, moved, altered or cancelled without a complete loss of the ticket cost.

Note those two words at the end: “ticket cost”.

As I’m sure you’re aware, a vast amount of the cost of a flight these days doesn’t pay for your seat – it’s taxes. And these – to some extent – can be claimed back should you cancel a flight, even if it’s a non-refundable ticket.

I just cancelled the return leg on my recent flights, due to flying back from Tokyo ahead of schedule. My original booking was with Etihad through Expedia, a return from Heathrow to Bangkok. The overall price was £402.90 of which £198 was tickets and £204.90 taxes! I called Etihad to cancel the return leg, and they told me to contact Expedia to organise a partial refund of the tax. As the girl on the phone said, I won’t get it all back but something is better than nothing.

Given that the return ticket only cost £50 more than a single, if I get £50 or more back then I’ve effectively not spent any more than I would have booking only the outbound flight anyway. The downside is that it can take up to three months for the refund to come through. I’ll try to update you folks with the final amount when I get it.

Still, a good one to remember. If you’re not going to use it, cancel it. You may still get something back into your bank account.

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TIP – Nationwide bank card changes… for the worst

Nationwide Building Society


For some years now I’ve been harping on about how great Nationwide are as the only UK bank with a debit card you can use abroad for no fees. Likewise, their credit card is one of only three (along with Abbey National and the Post Office) with the same no-fee deal. I even changed my regular current account to them to take advantage of these.

But – you guessed it – no more. From 6 May for its credit card, and 1 June on the debit card, you’ll pay an added 0.84% on spending outside Europe, jumping to 1% in July. Their wording is that they themselves are not adding a fee. They’re simply no longer going to “absorb” the fees that Visa charge to the bank. It’s still – I believe – less than virtually every other bank’s existing charges.

I got the first warning of this from the excellent Money Saving Expert site, though full details can be found (if you dig…) here at Nationwide.

So, without doing a huge amount of research it seems that changing the credit card could be worthwhile but that the debit card (for ATM withdrawals) is still a better deal than any other.

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Tip: avoid ANZ cashpoints

Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Limited

Preying on backpackers?

This one’s for people visiting Cambodia. ANZ, an Aussie/Kiwi bank, is by far the most pervasive here. There are more ATMs belonging to them, and they’re in more convenient locations, than any other bank. Thing is, of the ones which accept foreign cash cards they’re also the only ones that charge a fee on them.

$2 may not seem a lot. but think of the number of tourists going through here. ANZ are targetting YOU, the backpacker. My advice is simple – don’t use them.

I swear they’ve even taken over a few hole-in-the-wall locations that were home to other machines last time I visited. If at all possible, walk a little further and find a different bank. The vast majority of you will be paying your bank back home each time you withdraw. If you’re an ANZ customer you’ll be paying the greedy buggers TWICE. Save your cash, use someone else.

If every other bank in Cambodia can give you money without charging, what makes ANZ so special? Maybe they’re profiteering, maybe they’re teetering on the brink and need all the income they can get? If it’s the latter then ANZ customers may want to think about moving their accounts elsewhere for safety – or in protest.

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