Booking KLM tickets online, a disaster…

I urgently need to fly to Holland this week, so last night I went to the site to book a return ticket from Shanghai. I also needed to book another return ticket from Amsterdam, so I decided to book that as well. At first everything went relatively well. The site was a bit slow, but that’s something I am used to when browsing the KLM site in China. Because the last time I used was in Holland it was still set to departure country Holland, so I first had to manually delete the cookies in order to get a departure city outside of the Netherlands.

I started by booking the flight Shanghai-Amsterdam-Shanghai. I selected the dates and the site told me there were tickets available for RMB 3800, amazingly low. I read about their special promotion for flights to Europe before, but did not imagine that they would still have tickets available a few days before departure. In the past I was always wary about these promotional prices, because lots of taxes and surcharges would be applied. But last year the Dutch government issued a law saying that airlines are not allowed to show prices without taxes and surcharges anymore. KLM was one of the first to publicly announce that they would follow this strictly. But not too strictly it turns out, because when I looked at the end price they added an additional RMB 2400 to the price! They have to make money, so I am not going to bash them for that, but I find it a bit misleading when they announce in Holland that all their prices are including taxes and surcharges, but when they don’t follow that if you log on from China. Anyway, so far so good.

When I selected the exact flights that I wanted to take (KLM has day and night flights from Shanghai and they also do code shares with Air France) I wanted to confirm my selection. And what happened? There was no confirmation button on the site! I refreshed it (which took another 2 minutes) and again the same problem. I decided to start all over again, but 10 minutes later I had the same problem, the site did not load any further. I could not proceed to do the actual booking. Why? Probably because KLM has no servers within China’s Great Firewall. That also explains why the site is so slow all the time, and why it sometimes does not load at all. KLM has probably no clue about this, because their staff never makes any online bookings themselves.

I decided to make the round trip booking from Amsterdam first. Because now I had a Dutch departure city the site and booking procedure were completely different. I wonder why? Would it not be much easier to have one booking engine? Anyway, I am not their CTO so I don’t know their internal reasons, but it does not seem like the most efficient way to build your website. The booking went easier than the flight booking from Shanghai, until I wanted to confirm the exact flying time. This time there was a confirmation button, but on the next page I got an Error 500 message (without any further error description, very user friendly…). I retried to do the whole booking and again had the same problems.

At the same time I started Twittering about it, and several of my followers replied with similar negative KLM experiences. I had a bit of fun about that, but was getting very angry at KLM’s amateurism at the same time. This whole thing had cost me almost an hour, and it’s not the thing I prefer to do at 10pm on a Saturday night. I finally tried to do the booking one more time, and this time it went through! Maybe less traffic on the site? I don’t know, but this time there was no Error 500 message. I paid with my KLM credit card and everything seemed to be confirmed, until I received a message that the credit card details were incorrect. Huh? I checked them all, but they were right. I use this card all the time and never have trouble, but when using the KLM card on the KLM site I get an error message? I tried it one more time, and again got the same message. On Twitter someone told me that KLM was having trouble with their payment partner, which may have caused the problem with my card. Could be, but why not let the customer know instead of only telling me my details are wrong.

I decided to give the Shanghai booking one more try, but here I failed again at the same point as before. On Twitter someone suggested to use the Air France site (KLM and Air France merged a few years ago), and that worked much better than the KLM site. But the AF site did not show any direct flights between Shanghai and Amsterdam! Amazing, if you want to fly from Shanghai to Amsterdam you are forced to fly over Paris, instead of taking the direct flight. At least the KLM site still shows the indirect Air France flights, but AF did not reciprocrate with the direct KLM flights.

I gave up and decided to give my parents a call. They are in Holland, and presumably the KLM site works better there. And that was the case. They could book the Shanghai-Amsterdam-Shanghai flight without any problem. Well, with one problem: my credit card details were once again refused. So they used their own card and the booking was confirmed. Then they booked the other flight for me, which went fine as well. Here they also had the option to pay by iDeal (a Dutch online banking tool) and the money was paid from my Dutch bank account. Don’t ask my why you cannot pay flights originating from outside Holland by online banking, and typical KLM: not customer oriented. Their own staff probably does not even know, because they never use the site themselves.

In total it took me 90 minutes, but then I had my reservations. KLM sent me a confirmation by email, but when I read it I got a surprise. Part of the message read:

If the card holder is not one of the passengers, card holder must fax the 2 sides of credit card used for ticket purchase, along with a valid picture ID & a signed attestation to KLM’s Sales and Service Center, 24 hours before departure (Fax no: 020 38785225). Please contact us to receive the attestation form. In Guangzhou and Shanghai, cardholder can also come personally to the airport the day of departure with his ID and credit card.

So my parents would have to fax all kinds of info to KLM together with an attestation form (for which no contact number was provided, by the way). Not only is that very customer unfriendly, but it was a problem as well, because my parents don’t have a fax machine at home. And because of a public holiday they could not go to a post office to fax either before I would fly. This made me even more angry with KLM. Why do they not warn you while booking? They just assume their customers accept anything? I fly KLM at least 10 times a year and I’m a Gold Elite member, but they treat me like a first-time customer who may be using a fake credit card. Come on guys, this is ridiculous.

After fuming about it for some time last night I decided to call the KLM hotline this morning. After being on hold for 10 minutes I finally got through and explained my story. I told them I would not able to provide the required information in time, and they told me I could not board the flight in that case. So what happened? I finally had no other possibility than to cancel my booking. So now I am back to where I started off, and I hope I can still get a seat on the flight to Amsterdam. Great job KLM, this is exactly how you should treat your most loyal customers in difficult economic times.

Update (June 3): Just received a letter from American Express, they blocked my KLM credit card because it had been used for an unusual transaction. I used it to pay for a big part of my wife’s c-section (tot
al over EUR 10,000), which was more than I normally spend. This was the reason the card did not work on the KLM site. Of course it just not change all the other complaints that I had 🙂

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  1. Living in China for a couple of years now, and traveling to Europe frequently, I had similar problems with KLM. Even though KLM is the shortest connection, I now try to avoid them where I can because of their lack of respect for their customers. Their online booking system is too slow and too limited. The thing just doesn’t have the flexibility you’d expect/need, and often it just doesn’t work at all. Finally the only option was using their Guangzhou based booking office, charging an extra 100 RMB/pax (we’re a family of 5) just for telephone booking service as a penalty for not using the (too limited thus not available) online booking system. I had issues with other airlines as well, but KLM is certainly the one I try to avoid most of all).

  2. First of all sorry to hear about your grandma. I hope you and your family will find the way back into normal life very fast.

    Sorry but I am a bit laughing now. Second time you bash a airline and second time I cannot see any problems by the airline.

    No question, the credit-card auth. companies in europe or the us are rejecting a lot of payments if, by IP, they are from china. For sure!

    To solve that problem, my wife do love internet shopping in the US, I used VPN Services like Swissvpn or Witopia as the IP would change. But step-by-step a lot of these credit-card-auth. companies also rejected payments like that, they blocked VPN IPs or complete VPN IP blocks. To talk about service. Still most of the shops my wife uses in the US do not deliver to foreign countries. Do they all not need money? KLM is not special in that. If their credit-card auth. company rejected the payment, it is ever a result of security. So please no worries about that.

    Not only european goverments are target of typical chinese spam and hacking tools. Payments systems are targets too. I am investor of such a payment system and can tell you a lot of bad stories. Min. 70 percent of all attacks coming from chinese mainland. NO of the what is called “third payment solution companies” is writing down how much they loose coz of this, but believe me, you will wonder how much it is. The company I invest in is working with 17 full time, high educated software engineers from the US and Europa to work against all of these daily attacks. And there is no light at the end uf tunnel.

    Funny story. To solve my, no, have to say mostly me wifes IP problem I ( was tired to see that she was very unhappy weekly ) tried to book my first own, private VPN Server at a huge webhosting comp. in germany. Yes, the payment did not work for that. I called them as the CEO is a very old friend, he did not really remember me but I still had his number. All he did is to confirm that the payment problem is a result of my chinese IP adress and/or my VPN adress I used during the booking precedure. No way for my to pay. So I changed and chagned an the 4th hoster worked. Until 2 years now my wife is fine with the internet shopping. And I tried to KLM website 10 minutes ago. Very fast, no error, but sure, I did not try to pay – I am sure it will work as I never had problems in the past 2 years.

    Some shops are asking me for a chinese credit-card holder. That also sometimes worked if my own card is not working. Seems that if you are outside you homecountry you are a kind of alien from mars, or china is mars? We cannot change that, but KLM also cannot change it.

    About the Error 500. Mostly it is a security reason. To solve that error KLM may delete the .htaccess file on their server. No, for sure they wont to that. Say thank you to the great firewall technology, to the slow internet and to the millions of spammers and hackers, but it is not a KLM problem!

    About the booking from PVG to Europe and back. Similar problems, not fair prices at several of the airlines. KLM is no alone!

    The only thing I don

  3. Hi Marc,

    I fly between Shanghai and Amsterdam every week and the klm site sucks. Try to use next time. Prices are same or slightly cheaper than booking directy with klm.


    Paul Jongeling

  4. @anonymous 3:14pm The direct flight to Amsterdam is the main reason that I fly KLM. Too bad there is no competition.

    @anonymous 5:43pm Enjoying playing the role of the Devil’s Advocate again? Surprised you cannot see the problems with the airline, did you actually read the post and understand the problem? Half your comment is about the fact that my credit card did not work because I am in China and your solution for that. As you can see from the post my parents tried to input my card details as well and there it also did not work, so it has actually nothing to do with a Chinese IP address. By the way, I normally have no trouble paying online at US or European sites with a credit card from an IP address in China, I do it all the time.

    But that was not the point of the article. For me it’s all about being customer and service oriented, that’s missing at many big companies. They got away with it for a long time, but the Internet is changing that. Maybe your expectations are different from mine, but if a customer tries to buy your product and he/she does not succeed you have a problem as a company. If I would run a company like KLM I would make sure the customer is #1 and listening to him/her would be my #1 priority. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes and learn from that. It’s not so difficult to make the booking process better and easier to use: most other airlines I fly with don’t have these problems when using their sites from China. So yes, it is a KLM problem and I hope they will try to solve it soon.

    @Paul will give Expedia a try next time, never used them.

  5. Yes, service, service, service but no one will pay for it, right?

    Sorry, but you did not understand that the IP problem is not a KLM problem. Your card was blocked by a credit-card auth.because of the chinese IP. Why else? A technical problem? No! Sure your father had no chance to book as he was using the same, blocked card and as most credit-card auth. need 24 to 48h to umblock. Now clear?

    I don

  6. @anonymous Good to know that you know it better than I do.

    However, I’m sorry to say that my card was not blocked, it just gave the message that the details were incorrect. I did not keep on trying until the card would be blocked, and I used the card the next morning without any problem to book a ticket online through another vendor. On Twitter I learned that KLM had problems with its payment provider. Had KLM provided other payment options (like when booking a ticket from Holland) it would have been easy to solve, but they did not.

    And even if it had been a Chinese IP problem like you suggest, it would mean that no foreigner credit card holder would be able to book a ticket from China. That would be a major screw-up for KLM, especially considering that other airlines don’t have that problem.

    Conclusion is simple for me and does not change: KLM is the one who made mistakes.

  7. I find the KLM-website very user unfriendly as well, but nevertheless managed to book a return flight Shanghai – Amsterdam without any problems recently. I used a European creditcard.

    Hate it though, just like you Marc, that they advertise with flights starting from RMB 3000 (at the time I booked) when the actual price is almost double that.

    Furthermore I don’t understand why KLM is flying with ‘old’ 747’s from Shanghai and with their newest 777’s from Chengdu. They are so far behind other airlines in terms of service in my opinion.

    It’s time indeed for more competition on the direct route between Shanghai and Amsterdam.

  8. @Paul That person was really lucky that the Air France site did not work!

  9. Oh it's been frustrating to book and use KLM for 4 years now here in China. I now just use their site for their prices and call my agent. He adds a few 100rmb and that's it. The only thing is that agents require cash, but that will solve all this fuzz. Let me know if you need a reliable agent, I can introduce mine.

  10. You paid 11,000 euros for a C-section. I thought you were an old china hand, thats highway robbery.

  11. haha your story kind of shows your incompetence in buying a ticket.
    So can’t put al the blame on the airline