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I almost got my 20th country in June. Qatar was set to be our newest destination – but we never left the airport, even though we had planned to.

We flew Qatar Airways for a visit home in June. We chose them because they were, surprisingly, the least expensive – with the added bonus of a reputation for excellence. Our route was from Johannesburg to Doha to NYC to Denver (connecting on Jet Blue, a partner). We love new experiences and our travel a few years on Emirates was fantastic. We were really looking forward to another flight on a Gulf airline.

Turns out that Qatar can’t hold a candle to Emirates.

I could say that our problems started with customer service in Johannesburg, but they actually started when we tried to contact Qatar over the phone to change our flights. After booking, we found an earlier connection out of Doha, cutting out the 21 hour layover attached to our earlier flight. Despite multiple attempts, we weren’t able to reach any of their global desks. No one answered the phone at their offices in Johannesburg. The call to Qatar never even connected.

At O.R. Tambo we stopped at the Qatar desk and asked if we could change the flight. Customer services told us that they couldn’t change the flight because we booked through Kayak rather than directly through Qatar Airways. Looking back, we should have taken this as a sign of things to come. We’ve always booked through Kayak and have never encountered an airline that can’t change its own tickets at its own desks. Barring the ability to change the flight, we asked if we could book a transit hotel – a perk Qatar offers to travelers with layovers longer than 8 hours. We were told that the desk in JoBurg also couldn’t do that (for reasons never explained) but to check on the ground in Doha.

The flight itself was fine – nothing wrong, but certainly nothing exceptional. The first indication that we might be dealing with all style and no substance was when we boarded and were given, instead of the hot towel offered by Emirates, an overly-scented wet wipe in a plastic wrapping. It’s a small thing, but I’ll admit that it was a bit of a letdown. The seats were comfortable, the food just ok. It was, all in all, a very average flying experience.

On the ground in Doha at 6am, we visited customer services to ask for a transit hotel. And here is where their reputation for excellence collapsed. We were told that, despite our long layover, we were not eligible for a transit accommodation. Their fine print says that this perk is only available if there is no earlier connecting flight. We knew (after booking our original flights) that there was an earlier connecting flight to JFK – it was the one we tried to get on in Johannesburg. We explained to the Doha reps that their colleagues in South Africa wouldn’t change the ticket to this earlier flight, despite our asking. We were met with shrugs. No, they couldn’t explain why the JoBurg desk didn’t get us on the earlier flight. No, they wouldn’t give us an accommodation because the earlier flight did exist and its very existence, despite their own office’s inability to get us a connection on it, meant that the transit accommodation was null and void.

So – to reiterate: there was an earlier flight. We tried to get on it. They told us they couldn’t help us do that. Then they refused to accommodate us because we weren’t on the earlier flight.

The rest of the experience involved:

  • A suggestion that we go into Doha and buy a hotel room  – which we refused, as at that point I wasn’t willing to spend a cent in Qatar.
  • A suggestion that we could buy time in the Oryx Lounge – $55 USD a person for a maximum of 6 hours.
  • Being told that we should have booked the earlier flight to begin with, immediately followed by being told that we never would have made that flight anyway.
  • Being told that – and this is my favorite – if we had just bought a more expensive ticket we would have been given better customer service.

At that point, I gave up. I fired off a complaint to their customer service help desk (being told that there was no actual person I could talk with). Steve tweeted at them. We took ourselves off to a quiet room and fell asleep.

Let me be clear – Steve and I are not difficult travelers. We’re not those people who puff and fuss and act entitled. We’re experienced enough to see the wisdom in Anthony Bourdain’s advice to be polite and “go limp” when traveling. We never ask for accommodations – and only did this time because Qatar offered them.

Let me be clear – I wouldn’t be writing this review if, at any point, someone from Qatar Airlines customer service would have simply said “I’m sorry for your trouble.” But no one said this. Instead we were told, over and over again, that their inability to assist us was our fault – one we could remedy by just buying the more expensive ticket next time.

I’ve never had more indifferent customer service. It was so bad that we’ve decided to try to reschedule the extended layover we had planned in Doha on our way back to Johannesburg. I told the people we talked with in the airport that I have no desire to visit their country, being made to feel completely unwelcome as soon as we stepped off the flight. So much for legendary Gulf States hospitality. If you’re looking for that, fly Emirates through Dubai.

We ended up in the airport for 21 hours. We moved between the quiet sleeping rooms to the restaurants, which reinforced the fact that Qatar Airlines and Hamad International Airport just can’t compete. The first place we tried had no food or coffee, which we weren’t informed about until we were taken to our seats. Did we want a cold drink? Or a pre-wrapped sandwich? No, thank you. We did not.

We tried the other two restaurants – refined and fancy looking, tens of thousands of dollars worth of decoration masking what were essentially glorified Applebee’s . We ended up at the food court, where I ate a $20 falafel wrap and Steve ended up with chicken ramen because they were out of beef. We looked out the windows while eating and realized that the contractors for the food court seemed to be the same as those who made and delivered the actual airline food. Delicious.

No coffee. No food. Later in the day, no juice. It is entirely possible that Qatar is suffering from the embargoes imposed by the surrounding countries. These are so comprehensive that we couldn’t even fly over Saudi Arabia to get to Doha, skirting around the country and adding flight time. I’m actually sympathetic to Qatar insofar as one of the conditions for lifting the embargo is shuttering Al-Jazeera, which they are unwilling to do. I’m definitely willing to accept sub-par airport amenities in the name of freedom of speech and really, the airport itself wasn’t bad, though it was clearly suffering from lack of supplies. I’m not, however, willing to deal with rude customer service.

Our overall impression is of an airline and an airport that is all style and no substance. We won’t be flying Qatar again. We will recommend it to no one. Not only will we not recommend it, I’d actively discourage anyone thinking of flying on Qatar Airlines from doing so. If you have to buy a more expensive ticket, as they suggested, do it on another airline. May I recommend Emirates?




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