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(CNN) — When I made up my mind to travel outside of Hong Kong in early March, the city's daily Covid-19 case count had just passed 50,000, with the highest fatality rate in the world.
But I was trying to go to Shanghai, my hometown, for the first time in more than two years.
I knew traveling from a Covid hotspot to an area with a rigorous zero-Covid policy was going to be tricky. I thought I was ready for all the hassles and hurdles to go back -- countless Covid-19 tests, approved time off from work and mandatory hotel quarantines, not to mention a sizable cost.
Little did I know that the challenges were only beginning.
Third party pressures
In late February, rumors emerged that Shanghai was slashing the number of inbound flights from Hong Kong as well as capping the capacity at 50% per flight.
The policy had not been publicly announced, but the reaction was swift. When I checked airline ticket websites, I saw dates for flights in the near future turn gray one after another. In less than an hour, all available slots in the entire month of March were fully booked.
Panicking, I turned to a travel agent I knew. The next day, she called and offered me an option to fly on March 8 to Shanghai with Hong Kong Airlines.
"Do you want it or not? Make a decision now, or it'll go away," the agent pressured me.
I wasn't comfortable making the decision under pressure. But seeing the tickets disappearing at a speed I had never seen, I decided to go for it.
Medical workers collect PCR test swabs in Hong Kong
Lo Ping Fai/Xinhua/Getty Images
Three days before departure, my flight got canceled. The airline offered no official explanation, but a popular theory was floated that it was the result of Shanghai's further control on inbound flights from Hong Kong as the city was reporting Covid-19 outbreaks. I frantically called airlines and searched for more options, only to find that everything was sold out.
I felt trapped in an endless loop.
Scalpers and scams
Next, I turned to another ticketing agent: Ms. Yu, who I found on social media after seeing the recent booking she'd scored for someone else.
"Ms. Yu" doesn't have a website. She just runs her business via WeChat, a popular social messaging app in China.
Air ticketing agents in China used to sell deeply discounted tickets from airlines. But as China essentially seals itself off from the outside world and cuts down on the number of incoming travelers, international flights have dwindled to a miniscule 2% of the pre-pandemic level, said the state aviation administration.
However, demand from Chinese people who study and work overseas continues to grow. And the extremely short supply of flights to China has turned these agents into scalpers who resell coveted tickets at exorbitant prices.
I asked the agent how much of a "premium" I would need to pay for a ticket within the month.
"To be honest, it's really expensive these days. I feel like it's beyond the budget of many people," she replied. "I usually warn my customers right off their inquiry."
It's not just about money, either. The tickets are essentially sold on public ticketing platforms and agents aren't given preference. What they can do, however, is keep a close eye on the reservation system and quickly scoop up any remaining tickets.
The agent said there are bots that continuously search for requested flights and seize the available tickets in no time, but the system still needs considerable manual work.
Yu said she had to work overnight to monitor the ticketing system, because the airlines tended to "drop some bookings late at night."
For the date I planned to travel, she asked for 11,000 RMB (around $1,650) for a new booking. It was a ridiculous amount for the 2.5-hour route. The full prices pre-pandemic ranged from $300-450 per trip.
Feeling like I had no other choice, I agreed on the price and paid a $450 deposit, which Yu said would return to me if she couldn't secure a booking within 24 hours.
As the air tickets and Covid-19 test results must work in tandem, she suggested I line up one Covid-19 test per day for the entire week in case she found any last-minute seats I could book, to ensure I'd have time to get tested before my flight, as per the rules.
Luckily, Yu helped me secure a booking on March 8. She notified me just 20 hours before the scheduled departure. Around the same time, my PCR test from the day before came back negative. I was ready to go.
Once a major global hub, Hong Kong's airport traffic has decreased significantly during the pandemic.
Dale De La Rey/AFP/Getty Images
A ticket isn't a promise
The day of my trip arrived. Hong Kong International Airport was incredibly quiet, with only a few counters operating.
When it was my turn to check in, I confidently presented everything -- my travel document, a Covid test report and a QR code assigned to travelers going to mainland.
"Sorry, Ms. Wang. The flight is full. We can't get you on the plane today," the airline clerk said.
"The Shanghai authorities only allow 50% capacity and the space is filled. But we can make sure that you make it on tomorrow's flight."
The airline staff members were apologetic. They continued to comfort me and promised that I could get the seat for the same flight tomorrow.
They also said they could arrange a PCR test at the airport immediately so I could have the required report ready for the following day. I felt I had no choice but to say yes. The airline also gave me $1,000 HKD ($128) in compensation.
While waiting for the airline to process my case, I saw a group of four young college students following around airline staff, begging to be let onto the flight. They looked tired and miserable. The students later told me they'd been booked on the same flight and route as me, but on a different day.
"Sorry we couldn't get you on that plane. See that lady waiting there? She has a ticket, but we can't even get her on today," the clerk responded to the group, pointing in my direction.
The girl from the group walked up to me and started to talk. After I confirmed what the clerk said was true, she asked to add me as a friend on WeChat so we would stay in touch.
Her name was Sarah Wang. She told me she was with a few other friends who were mainland students studying in Hong Kong colleges. Unable to afford one of the high priced tickets from the scalpers like I had, she bought a ticket that offered flexible booking and stood by at the airport overnight, hoping to get on a plane.
The author's view from on board a plane from Hong Kong to Shanghai
When money isn't enough
The next day, I finally boarded the plane. Instead of excited, I felt dejected and weary.
Despite all the hardships, I was among the lucky ones to make it home.
Altogether, I had spent over $3,000: I lost $160 for the canceled booking and then paid $1,726 for a new one, plus $1,130 for the mandatory quarantine hotel.
In some cases, even money can't buy a trip home. I learned that scammers were targeting overseas Chinese and taking advantage of their desperation.
Student Sarah Wang told me that her tactic worked and she eventually made it to Chengdu in southeast China with a regularly-priced booking ($420). But before that, she lost $940 to a scalper, who promised her two bookings from Hong Kong to the mainland if she paid the deposit. The person never responded after she transferred the payment.
I could have fallen into the same trap just as easily. The agent who secured the original booking for me looked no more credible.
The market for fights to China has been the Wild West since the early days of the pandemic.
In March of 2020, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) announced it would cut down the number of international flights to only one flight a week on one route for every airline to China. On top of that, there's a fluid "circuit breaker" system that could suspend the route for up to four weeks if more than four positive cases are found on a single flight or route.
Meanwhile, Sarah Wang has joined a WeChat group for victims of airline ticket scams. The group has more than 30 members -- all fellow overseas Chinese who were or are trying to fly home.
Altogether they believe they have lost more than $70,000 to scammers pretending to be ticket scalpers.
The CAAC has rolled out regulations on the pricing of international prices flights -- it imposed price control and banned some ticketing proxies, transfers and exchanges.
But the black market continues to thrive.