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July 2013

Have Cat, Will Travel: The good, bad & ugly of traveling abroad with pets


(VERY long post. Skip if you don't have pets!)

Habibi the world travelin' kitty has arrived safely in Seoul, and adjusting to his new home quite nicely!  However, his journey from Washington to South Korea was not the most pleasant experience, for kitty and owners alike. 

A bit of background: we adopted Habibi during our first tour in Bahrain. When we returned to DC for training, Mrs. Crab and Habibi traveled from Bahrain to DC via Amsterdam on KLM - by far the best pet shipping experience to date. Kitty was even fed, watered and walked at the Pet Hotel in Amsterdam. The total cost was about 400 Euros. 

Flash forward to 2013. We began making preparations to export kitty several months in advance. This required a rabies titer test and a complete physical about 6 months before we departed. The most difficult task was finding an airline that would agree to ship Kitty in July; most airlines have very strict pet embargoes during summer months. Some airlines like Delta won't ship pets if the temperature is over 85F degrees at departure or arrival city. Other airlines won't ship pets at all between May and August. The only American carrier that would agree to fly Kitty was United Airlines, via their new PetSafe program. The itinerary was further complicated by the fact that we had to stop in San Francisco for some meetings en route to Seoul. 

United introduced PetSafe about a year ago, and since then, it's been rife with problems. Our relationship PetSafe began about four months before departure. Mrs. Crab booked a reservation for Habibi. However, depending on what day you called and who you spoke to, the total cost quote varied from $559 to $997. PetSafe reps were very confused over their own PetSafe company policy. The few reps who had even heard of the Foreign Service did not understand that State Department employees on government travel orders receive the same benefits as active duty military. On several calls, they attempted to charge us twice for each leg of our itinerary (WRONG: USG employees on orders pay a flat rate, IF the stopover is listed on travel orders). PetSafe reps also had little knowledge of operating procedure at airports. Some reps said we had to drop off or pick up Kitty at airport cargo warehouse (WRONG: State employees can drop off at the terminal check-in desk).  

Flash forward to July 2013. Ten days before traveling, Habibi had to get one final physical to confirm he was healthy enough to travel. The vet's documents had to be validated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture pet office in Richmond, Virginia, which required us to take a day trip down to the capital because Richmond is the only office that handles pet export documents for DelMarVa, DC & WVa.  

On the morning of July 19, we arrived three hours early at Washington Dulles Airport (IAD) for our flight to San Francisco. The United staff were friendly and sympathetic but completely unaware of the PetSafe policy or rates. The United staff called PetSafe's headquarters helpline and spent an hour on the phone, most of that time on hold, to clarify the rates and our elegibility for military benefits. We were finally allowed to pay the flat original rate of $559. However, nobody ever mentioned that we also had to pay $113 in taxes and handling fees, for a total cost of $702!  

After finally sorting everything out, we were instructed to take the cat & carrier to the TSA bag drop area. This place was a madhouse. The TSA officer told us we would have to take the cat out of the carrier so they could Xray the carrier. Habibi was cared shitless, as passengers around us ran by, dumping suitcases, golf clubs and boxes right next to us without any consideration. But that was nothing compared to what happened next. A female TSA officer asked to touch the cat. We're thinking she just wants to pet him. Nope. She proceeded to feel up Habibi from head to tail, including his private kitty bits. Habibi looked horrified and shaking. To add insult to injury, we were instructed to put the shaking cat back in the carrier and never touch him or the carrier again. As we tried to calm the cat, the TSA lady barked at us, "STOP, DON'T TOUCH HIM. BACK AWAY FROM THE CARRIER." That was the last we saw of Habibi at Dulles airport.

On board the plane, Mrs. Crab refused to leave until we received confirmation that kitty was on board. The United flight attendants were very kind and understanding. About 5 minutes before we pushed out, a kind gentleman confirmed Habibi was on board and ready to fly.

About five hours later, we arrived at SFO (San Francisco). No one seemed to know where we could pick up Habibi. The United lost luggage staff had never even heard of PetSafe!  We walked around aimlessly trying to find out where to find our pet. Finally, a very nice gentleman from the SFO's odd sized baggage office took it upon himself to track down Habibi. He finally reached PetSafe's cargo office and arranged for them to deliver Habibi directly to us at the terminal. 

Cat in hand, we took a taxi to Embassy Suites Airport hotel. Only to be told upon arrival that they no longer accept cats, and demanded that we find a new hotel! Never mind that we reconfirmed our cat stay with their front desk several weeks before our arrival. Mrs. Crab demanded they either let us stay or find us a new hotel, at per diem rates, on a busy weekend at the height of SanFran tourist season. By the time we reached our room, they called back and informed us they would make a special exception and would allow us to stay with kitty. Do NOT stay at Embassy Suites Airport if you have a pet.

In preparation, Mrs. Crab called PetSafe to reconfirm that everything was sorted.  On the morning of July 24, we returned to SFO to catch our flight to Seoul. The experience at SFO compared to IAD was night and day. The United staff at SFO International Terminal were completely aware and knowledgeable about how to deal with pet shipping and PetSafe. The United staff escorted to us to a more private, less congested TSA screening area of the airport. There, the kind and considerate TSA agent asked us to take the cat out while he inspected the carrier. He never touched the cat, were allowed to place him back in the carrier and say our goodbyes. Once we were on board, the flight attend even handed us a little card, confirming that Habibi was on board! 

Twelve hours later, we arrived in Seoul. Our sponsor walked us over to baggage claim, where we were presented with a DOG!  After some confusion, they brought out Habibi, who appeared a bit confused but no worse for the wear. We then walked over to the pet inspection station, where the attendant looked over his records and verified his microchip. We were in & out of the airport within 30 minutes. 

All in all, Habibi is fine. He's adjusting quite nicely to our new home in Seoul.

Every employee we dealt with at United and PetSafe were actually very kind folks and were clearly pet lovers. So it's not the staff thats the issue. All the problems at United & PetSafe seems to boil down to a lack of training and lack of dissemination of information. The right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing. We appreciate that UA is now extending military benefits to Foreign Service employees. But UA & PetSafe would do great by better informing and training its staff, especially with regards to company policies.

If you're flying abroad with a pet, do not wait until the last minute. Start planning several months in advance. Keep calling and confirming everything. Take note of the times, dates and name of person you speak with each time. At the airport, bring copies of all your orders, and details of your conversations with PetSafe & United. And of course, make sure your pup or kitty is prepared, especially if they are nervous travelers. It's not easy or cheap to move abroad with a pet. But at the end of the day, our pets are part of our household.  


We're in Korea!

IMG_4037The Two Crabs have arrived at our new home in Seoul, South Korea! Slightly jet-lagged (typing this entry at 4am) but no worse for the wear. Our house is slightly smaller than our second place in Bahrain, but feels a lot more cozy. Our kitty has adjusted very well, although the trip here for Habibi was not exactly pleasant (more on that in our next blog entry). 

Folks might be surprised to learn that we are living on a US Army base. Mr. & Mrs Crab are both prior Army so we are not unfamiliar with military life. But it's kind of a strange existance. We are civilians but living the military lifestyle!  This base is HUGE. It's little America with movie theaters, bowling alleys, commissary, PX, American fast food places, everyone takes U.S. dollars and speaks English, and even our housing has 110-volt and U.S. plugs even though Korea is 220v with European-style plugs.  It's easy to see why some servicemembers serve their entire tour and never leave the base. But just 5 minutes outside our gate is another country. Hope to do some exploring this weekend, after we adjust to the time zone!

On Monday, I start my new job. Wish me luck! 

Season of change

Yesterday, my mom sold her house. It wasnt just any house. It was our family home in the Virginia exurbs of Washington DC. My parents bought this house for $50,000 in 1977. At the time it seemed like a mansion compared to the small Maryland apartment where they started out life together in the DC area. My parents were both immigrants; dad worked for the government, mom was then a homemaker. Though I was very young at the time, I remember the proud look on my dads face when we walked into this house. They were first-time homeowners, living the American dream. Me and my sisters grew up here, playing cowboys & Indians and Star Wars in the woods behind the house, collecting toads from the nearby creek, building tree forts and other outdoorsy activities that kids today don't seem to do anymore. I moved out at 18 but it was still home. Years later my wife and I held our wedding reception in the back yard. My father passed away in 2007 but my mom and niece stayed put.

Yesterday, my mom sold the house. She's retired, starting her next stage of her life in a new state with new adventures. My mom leaves Virginia tomorrow; we are leaving Friday.

I thought I would feel more sad or sentimental about the house. But in actually happy for my mom. At the end of the day, it's just a house. And if the Army and Foreign Service has taught us anything, it's change. Change comes with the career and lifestyle. It's unavoidable. And usually, change is good.

Good luck, mom!

Season of change

Jul 13, 2013

Pack out #5 accomplished! We just had the BEST movers ever! They were by far the most professional and speedy movers we've worked with, plus they were such a fun & pleasant group of folks! It was a small group of 4 people: 2 men, 2 women (yes our first female movers). They split our move into two days: HHE and UAB on day 1 (a full 8 hours from start to finish), and DC local storage on day 2, which was only 3 hours. Our group was from Pullen Moving Co of Woodbridge, VA. (No, we don't get royalties for this plug, I just believe in giving credit where credit is due!)

We have now moved 5 times in just over 3 years in the Foreign Service: London to DC; DC to Bahrain; Bahrain to Bahrain (long story), Bahrain to DC, and now DC to Seoul. By now we've learned a few tips and tricks to make the move go slowly.

1. Separate everything you own into separate HHE, UAB and Storage (if any) areas of your house, preferably into separate rooms. That way, things won't end up in the wrong continent.

2. The night before the movers arrive, do a dress rehearsal of your travel day. Pack your suitcases (check-in and carry-on) as if you are flying out immediately. Too much junk? This is the time to move overflow stuff into UAB.

3. Warn your neighbors. They will be putting up with your noise and inconvenience. We asked our neighbors if we could use their parking space, as it was most convenient for moving truck. In return we allowed them to use our space and I put my car on street parking.

4. On the morning of the pack out, we always have coffee, donuts and fruit ready. Throughout the day we have snacks, sodas, water, etc. Some movers break for lunch. Our movers today refused to stop. I should have ordered pizza but I completely forgot but luckily they got but with our snacks and stuff they brought.

5. TIP YOUR MOVERS! Whether domestic or overseas, it's just nice to tip the people who are responsible for your worldly possessions. I'm a big believer in Karma, and wife & I worked enough crap jobs to know these folks don't get paid much.
Exceptions: don't tip movers in countries where it's unacceptable/insulting to tip, and don't tip if they did such a horrible job such as breaking stuff. That's why the coffee & donuts will be sufficient in those cases.

Jul 13, 2013


Moving-day Today is Pack-Out Day!  Although Seoul will only be my second tour in the Foreign Service, this will be our FIFTH pack-out since joining DOS: London to DC; DC to Bahrain; Bahrain to Bahrain (we were moved to a safer neighborhood due to deteriorating security situation); Bahrain to DC; and now DC to Seoul.  

After 5 moves, we almost have it down to a science. The most important challenge is figuring out what will go to Post and what will stay. And of the stuff going abroad, you need to decide what will go in UAB (Unaccompanied Air Baggage; arrives at Post within 2-3 weeks); HHE (Household Effects; usually goes by ship and can take 6-12 weeks); Washington storage; check-in luggage and carry-on bags. 

Our #1 moving tip: SEPARATE YOUR STUFF!  On our last tour we ended up shipping crap that should have stayed in storage, and stored stuff we could have used at Post. So now we separate everything (HHE/UAB/Storage/Plane) into different rooms. It's very time-consuming but so worth it.  

Full report to come!

CONGEN UPDATE: Mission Accomplished! I graduated ConGen yesterday with flying colors.  And I was named "Mr. ConGen-iality!" I'm not sure what job requirements or benefits come with this title, but I swear (or affirm) that I will serve with distinction. So help me, 214-B.


Greetings from ConGen

 For the past few weeks, Mr. Crab has been enrolled in Consular Training course, affectionally known as ConGen (Consular General). All Foreign Service Officers, regardless of "cone," must serve a Consular tour in one of their first two tours.  But unlike most of my classmates, I am actually a consular-coned officer.

The six-week ConGen course introduces officers to U.S. immigration law. In fact the course seems more like a law course, sprinkled with lecture hall, study hall, computer application courses and more. FSI even has a mock jail and embassy consulate section where students practice their tradecraft. Students focus on topics such as Non-Immigrant Visas (NIV), Immigrant Visas (IV), and American Citizen Services (ACS). There is a test every week, which students MUST pass in order to pass the course. 

In the middle of ConGen, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional. Suddenly, much of what we learned in the first half of ConGen changed -- for the better.  It's an exciting time to be working Consular Affairs!  

Incidentally, Mrs. Crab took ConGen in December & January as an EFM (Eligible Family Member)!  Yes, spouses can take ConGen, so they will be eligible to find employment overseas in roles such as Consular Associates or Consular Assistants. 

Also in case you're wondering, the photo at the top of the page is the official flag of the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs. It's the only bureau within in the DOS that has it's own flag!

Apart from ConGen, we are busy sorting through our belongings, and getting our house ready for our new tenants. We pack out this weekend. More on that later!  

We leave you with this, a consular section video from U.S. Embassy San Jose, Costa Rica: