tl;dr see last paragraph
updated 2015-06-08 to include SCAT Airlines
i made the decision last week to go to Kazakhstan (visa-free for US passport holders until mid-July!) instead of Cyprus, and needed a way to get there from Moscow (thanks, cheap airfares to Moscow for getting me across the Atlantic!). i actually had planned to go to Almaty (aka ALA) last month but made the last-minute decision to go to Helsinki instead due to work requirements for faster internet.
there are quite a number of options from the Moscow area to Almaty, but i decided ultimately to go via Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (aka FRU, because why not) for a day and then on to Almaty for the rest of the week before returning to Moscow.
i land in Moscow in the afternoon, and in order to make this work out, i needed a red-eye to Bishkek and a late-night flight to Almaty on the same day. the Bishkek-Almaty-Moscow (FRU-ALA-SVO above) flights were pretty easy to book on Air Astana via Orbitz; i just needed a way to get from Moscow to Almaty (DME-FRU). here were my options, via Skyscanner:
the Aeroflot option, while being perhaps the best option of the bunch (wow, i’m not sure that’s a line that’s often said), was out of the question because of the price and because i’d have to transfer from Domodedovo to Sheremetyevo. checking prices directly with the airlines, they actually were all about the same (indeed the prices were more in line last night–SPOILER: maybe i got the last cheap ticket on Air Kyrgyzstan?).
of course i tried booking with the airlines directly at first. note that the Chrome in-page translation option is your best bet for working Air Kyrgyzstan, though at this point i can do it in Russian, in my sleep. (p.s. it really helps to learn Cyrillic before you go to any country that uses it — so helpful — though nothing like deciphering and learning as you go and realizing that goddamn, you CAN read some Russian words that are close to English! for example: ресторан, театр, центр, телефон = restoran, teatr, tsentr, telefon)
you see, neither Air Kyrgyzstan nor Air Bishkek, the best options for me due to the schedule, would accept my American credit cards. i tried 3 cards on each site, nada. i’d get the Verified by Visa or MasterCard SecureCode screen, then a notice that the payment was not successful. i called Chase and they didn’t even see charges being attempted — it looks like Russian online payment processors don’t like credit cards that are not from Russia or surrounding countries.
so try a US or European online travel agency, you say. only Air Bishkek would show up on (some) non-Russian online travel agencies, and i was willing to go for it because nothing else was working, but alas, every time i’d try to book, it’d go almost all the way through and then at the very end, say the flight was sold out. also, prices were significantly higher. it appears that Ural Air is bookable, but it was my very very last choice due to the awkward arrival time.
i tried Russian online travel agency agent.ru, but ran into the same problem i did with Air Kyrgyzstan and Air Bishkek — none of the Russian payment processors (not even their online wallet solutions that are offered) would accept my credit cards. then i saw a notice, translated from Russian, mind you, that said i needed to email their customer support.
what a PITA!
the lengths i am going to to get the flight i want. no other OTAs will sell it (ok until you pay, then seat unavail). pic.twitter.com/uq49MZxR7Z
— Jonathan Khoo (@jonk) June 2, 2015
i sent off my credit card information as requested, but in the meantime, discovered another Russian travel agency, OneTwoTrip, which looked more promising as they even have a toll-free number reachable from the US! (not that you can book over the phone, but i did speak to a very nice lady who spoke fluent English, albeit with a Russian accent.)
i don’t know if something has changed, but now, the day after, i can’t find the options i used last night to make it work (and flights are $100 more!), so forgive the lack of screenshots — perhaps the problem is solved in a newer release that just so happened to be pushed sometime today?
during the checkout process, i had two options, either pay the airline directly, or pay through OneTwoTrip, which was around 1% more (the main benefit being faster turnaround times if you needed a refund). i tried my usual three cards (Chase Visa, Schwab debit Visa, Barclaycard MasterCard) to no avail with both of those booking options — none of them worked. i tried one last card, the one that has a foreign transaction fee (a Citibank MasterCard), with the option to pay OneTwoTrip, and IT WORKED!
FINALLY i have a plane ticket. you don't want to know how many websites and card combinations i tried. pic.twitter.com/0DkC1MqUW6
— Jonathan Khoo (@jonk) June 2, 2015
so, the moral of the story is, for any of these less-popular ex-Soviet/Central Asian airlines, try OneTwoTrip first, and if all else fails, you may just need to go with a less-than-optimal credit card (i.e., one with fees). in any case, i got my flight for a lot less than any of the other options at around $160 all in. PHEW. now let’s just hope the flight actually flies — the 52% cancellation rate (according to OneTwoTrip) and the fact that, while it appears as a bookable flight on their website, it isn’t on their timetable page makes me wonder if i’m in for more adventure than i bargained for.
if you are looking to book a SCAT Airlines ticket, their online payment system did not like my Chase Visa or my Citibank MasterCard, but did take my American Express! yay! it takes about 5 minutes for the reservation to update to the fact that it was paid; you’ll get a second email from them once everything goes through.