Friday, November 27, 2015

Tips for Traveling to Papua New Guinea

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(Note: I've been traveling around the world for 30 years, and as I've gotten older and bigger, I've found that flying coach for long flights is painful.  This blog is not for backpackers or folks seeking the cheapest deal on flights.  It's for folks who prefer to spend a bit more money to fly comfortably, hopefully in business class, to dive destinations).  Some of the tips below do apply to anyone traveling to PNG, such as the "visa on arrival" and cell phone tips. 

I just traveled to Papua New Guinea to join the Golden Dawn live-aboard dive vessel, and here are some tips.  I had to meet the boat in Kimbe Bay, at Hoskins airport; and leave from Alotau. 

When planning my itinerary to PNG, I discovered the following:

Flying Air Niugini to Hoskins (the only option) meant researching gateway cities.  I could fly Air Niugini from Brisbane or Cairns (Australia); or from Manila (Philippines).  Flying from Melbourne or Sydney to Hoskins on Air Niugini was not logistically viable.  I discovered that flying from Brisbane (BNE) offered more times and better prices from flying from Cairns.  Flying all the way from Manila was not a good option for me.  Air Niugini proved to be a fine airline -- far better than the delays I experienced flying Silver Airlines to Bimini earlier this year.  But if you are traveling Air NG and traveling through Port Moresby especially, make very sure that your carry-on bags don’t weigh  more than 15 pounds!  I cannot stress this enough.

To get to smaller towns like Hoskins and Alotau, you must fly first to Port Moresby, whereupon you will connect to those smaller towns on smaller domestic flights.  To get to Port Moresby, there are more options.  For instance, you can fly Virgin Australia from Sydney to Port Moresby; or you can fly Air Niugini from Brisbane or Cairns (flying Air NG from Sydney or Melbourne usually involves very lengthy layovers so is not advised).  



Getting to Brisbane:
I initially booked a SkyCouch seat on Air New Zealand, which took me from SFO to Brisbane (BNE).  The SkyCouch seat is three coach seats combined into a "couch." 
I have a separate blog post about this SkyCouch seat, which I ultimately did not use. 

Air New Zealand had a relatively good cancellation policy.  I paid $899 for the coach seat and $1199 for the SkyCouch upgrade.  Cancelling the flight could be done up to a few hours before the flight, and it would "only" cost $300.  This is where the flying consumer is now -- paying $300 to cancel a ticket is considered "not too bad." (!!)

I've learned in just the past year that booking award travel (plane tickets using miles) can result in great deals if you wait until 72 hours before the flight leaves.  Sure enough, 72 hours before my Air NZ flight left, a biz class seat on United Airlines from SFO to Sydney opened up, at the Saver Award level (70,000 miles).  Most experts rate airlines miles at 2 cents per mile (and I've routinely been offered the opportunity to buy United miles at this rate), so that biz class seat "cost" me $1400.  This was far better than the one-way tickets to Brisbane from SFO that cost on the order of $8000 for business class. 

The United flight was OK.  The business class seats lie flat, but they are pretty narrow, and your neighbor is very close to you.  Fortunately, once the seats lie flat, there's a barrier between you and your neighbor.  Still, the seats seem only as wide as coach seats used to be.  I can't see paying more than I did for a biz class seat on United. 

I then researched and booked a business seat on Virgin Australia from Sydney to Brisbane.  I used points from my Virgin America account, and this was one of the best decisions I've made in a while.  Virgin Australia biz class was simply awesome.  I've written a separate blog post about my experience. 



Traveling to PNG:

Arriving in Port Moresby and getting a visa:
First, one should always allow at least three hours in Port Moresby between flights, to get luggage, go through customs, etc. 

You must get an ETA (electronic visa) to enter Australia as a US citizen.  I did this online and it was easy.  It cost about $15. 

I and others in the group on the boat had a question about whether we should get a visa for PNG ahead of time, or upon arrival.  Craig deWit from the Golden Dawn advised us to get a visa upon arrival. 

Howard and Michele Hall arrived before I did, and they gave me the following great tip about getting a visa upon arrival.  I've added some more detail:

“After you exit the plane at Port Moresby, you will enter a passport check line before getting your bags.  When you enter that big room, you will see a booth in front of you (in front, and to the right of the lines to get passports checked) saying "visa on arrivals."  This is for business travelers.  As a leisure traveler, you can ignore that booth and go to the "visa on arrivals" line to the far right of all the other lines to get your passport checked.  This could not have been easier and there was no fee!!! It would be helpful of PNG to add a sign to the first booth that said "visas upon arrival for travelers on business only". 

I had earlier asked Craig about the possibility of getting Internet in PNG. He wrote: “There are a number of options open to you for Internet. Yes when we are on the high seas we do have satellite Internet access. Its actually reasonably quick however does not come cheaply at US $ 10/mb. Most days that we are on charter however we have local mobile network, so you can buy a local Digicel SIM at the airport in Port Moresby when you arrive from overseas. Then you can purchase data for as little as 3 cents a mb. Its works slowly mostly but gets the job done. I have a range extender for the mobile network so that helps too.”

Michele emailed me the following tip also:
“One more thing:
After you clear immigration and customs in POM, you'll exit through glass doors. There's a Digicell store right there for purchasing your SIM card: 10 k for the card, and you'll want to buy the 30 day data package which gives you 1.5GB data. That's an additional 65kina. Total comes to about $27. “

Thanks to Michele, I did stop at the Digicel store.  I bought a SIM card for my GSM-enabled phone and the 30-day data and voice package.  It ended up costing $39.  The 3G Internet on my phone worked in some of the most surprisingly remote areas in PNG. 

By the way, I bought a Nexus 4 quad-band GSM phone about a year ago.  It was inexpensive at $150, and it has proven very useful when I travel overseas.  I simply buy a SIM card when I arrive somewhere (Scotland, PNG, Australia, etc.) and a data package -- and voila! -- I have a smartphone with Wi-Fi tethering.  The 3G speeds in PNG are excellent and quite fast.  I've been hugely impressed with Google's Nexus line of phones and tablets.  I use a Nexus 5 while in the US on the Freedompop network; a Nexus 4 when traveling overseas; and a Nexus 7 tablet for my drone. I wish I had just one phone for everything but that's a while away. 

The international terminal at Port Moresby is fine.  It is relatively cool, and I spent a good two hours at the cafe there.  




Now I'd like to describe what Air Niugini charges for excess bags -- which is something I could not find anywhere.  
First, for the international leg from SFO to SYD, United allowed me to check in three bags at 70 pounds at no charge.  This is because I am a Gold elite member traveling via business class.  Sometimes United only allows me two bags at 70 pounds for free. 

I then investigated what Virgin Australia would charge me for three bags.  By buying a biz class ticket, I got two bags at 23 kg free.  I then paid online for my third bag, which cost about $25.  I ended up packing my three bags so all weighed around 50 pounds.

Trying to figure out how to pack my bags for Air Niugini was complicated and confusing.  Their web pages give conflicting information.  This is what I've learned from actually flying:

You want to travel from Brisbane or other international destination like Cairns or Manila ALL THE WAY to your local PNG destination like Hoskins on the same day.  This is because if you travel from BNE on the same day, you are treated as an international, not a domestic, passenger. 

Air Niugini gave me the following bag allowance both when checking in at BNE and at Port Moresby.  They did not charge for a third bag but they DID charge for the baggage that weighed over the following allowances:

I was given a baggage allowance, as an economy class passenger, traveling internationally from BNE, 30 kg (66 pounds).  As a scuba diver, I was given an extra 15 kgs (33 pounds). 

Here's a link that describes the extra free baggage allowance for scuba divers:
http://www.airniugini.com.pg/faq-aviation/if-we-are-scuba-divers-is-there-any-special-baggage-allowance/

On another web page, conflicting information was given:
Air Niugini offers the following baggage allowance for scuba divers:
International flights – 20kgs (44lbs) plus an additional 15kgs (33lbs) per person.
Domestic flights – 16kgs (35lbs) plus an additional 15kgs (33lbs) per person.

Summary: from my practical experience, Air Niugini gives international passengers 30 kg (66 lb) plus an additional 15 kg (33 lb) for scuba divers, for a total of 99 pounds.  They don't seem to charge for a third bag, but they do charge for excess weight. 

In Brisbane, the agent at the check-in counter actually was a Qantas employee, and she directed me to another counter to pay my excess baggage weight charge.  The agent there was interested in my diving in PNG, and he let me go without paying anything.  I estimate that my three bags weighed about 120 pounds, 20 pounds overweight. 

Once I arrived in Port Moresby, I brought my bags to be transferred to the domestic terminal.  The agent wanted to charge me an excess baggage weight fee, but I argued that my bags had already been checked through to Hoskins and I had already been approved for the excess weight.  She relented and did not charge me anything.  At this point, normally I would not have to worry about a thing.  The bags had been checked all the way to my final, local destination and I just had to get to the domestic terminal, get through security, and get on the plane.  I've found over hundreds of flights that the security checkpoint folks don't care how many carry-ons you might have or how much the carry-ons weigh. 

I made the mistake of waiting in the international terminal too long.  I walked over to the domestic terminal in Port Moresby and when approaching the security checkpoint, the guard noticed that my carryon bag was too heavy, and he directed me to an agent.  Fark!  This was a pain in the butt.  I ended up having to check in my rolling carryon bag and having to pay the excess weight.  I believe it was 11 kg, and I paid $66 to get the bag from Port Moresby to Hoskins.  I did use my Scottevest for the first time (a vest with many pockets) and put a bunch of batteries and heavy gear in the vest and in my backpack.  That likely saved me another $60. 

The process of having to pay for excess bags in a domestic terminal in a third-world country is immensely frustrating.  You have to go to another agent behind a window.  Sometimes you have to wait for other folks, and almost always the clerk takes a very long time to process your payment, until you start panicking that you will miss your flight.  The same thing happened to me here. 


Summary: when traveling from the Port Moresby domestic terminal, be sure that your rolling carry-on is not too heavy -- or you will be forced to check it in and pay for it.  I believe that carry-ons are limited to 7 kg (15 lb).  Some more tips are below. 

On my domestic flight from Port Moresby to Hoskins, I was forced to check my carry-on bag, which was about 11 kg.  I was charged PGK 171.40 (US $60).  This equates to approximately US $6 per excess one kilogram, or US $3 per pound of excess baggage.

On my domestic flight from Alotau to Port Moresby, I was charged PGK 106, or US $36.78.  I believe this was for 5 kg excess but I am not sure.  From Port Moresby to Brisbane, an international flight, I was charged PGK 205 (US $71.14) for what seems to be 6 kg excess (from a note written on my itinerary by an agent).  That equates to about US $12 per kg, or $5.38 per pound.

It was impossible before the trip to get any sense whatsoever of what it would cost for an excess bag or if my bags weighed more than the free allowance.  I hope that this gives travelers some idea.  Unlike other destinations, if you have a lot of gear that goes over the 30 kg free allowance (plus 15 kg for scuba divers), DO NOT try to get around this by carrying a bunch of stuff with you on the plane.  I tried this, and I was stopped and sent back to the ticket counter repeatedly to check in my heavy carry-on bag, to pay, etc -- to the point where I almost missed my flight out of Port Moresby.  See my earlier blog post for excruciating details on this experience. 


Here are some notes from various websites and forums pertaining to the above:
Air Niugini honors the International allowance for International passengers in direct transit on same day to a domestic port in PNG.

At the transfer desk, if they want to charge you for excess or overweight baggage, make sure they know you have come from America (and not just from Australia). People traveling up from Australia are not allowed the same number of bags.

Air Niugini has just announced new economy baggage allowances for its passengers travelling on its Australian routes – Cairns, Brisbane and Sydney. Effective immediately passengers travelling in economy will be allowed one bag – 23 kg/50 lb (it was 20kg/44lb).  (Norb’s note – I was allowed 30 kg traveling from Brisbane, and an extra 15kg as a scuba diver). 

On your domestic Air Niugini flight, you are only allowed 7 kg/15 lb of hand luggage per person if you have transferred from an international flight, 5 kg/11 lb if just domestic. They have stopped anyone carrying large carry-on bags and weighed those on the scale that is right by their desk. If you can’t re-pack your things to get the weight down, you will have to step out and check your bag. If at all possible, check in those large carry-on bags with your luggage at the transfer counter. Or, redistribute the weight between all your carry-ons to lessen the load of the larger bag. Do not assume you can sweet-talk your way in with excess or heavy carry-ons.   (Norb’s note – I should have listened to this forum post – it would have saved me one of the worst airport experiences ever). 

Sometimes they will open the Transfer Desk INSIDE the Customs area (to the left after you go through the Customs line) so you can go straight there to check your bags through to your next flight and get your boarding passes. If that is not open, come through the double doors and go to the Transfer counters which are at the other end of the same building (don’t go outside). After you check your bags and get your boarding passes, then go outside and all the way down to the Domestic Terminal.

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