Obviously the vast vast majority of folks visiting China do it by air, arriving in the great airports of Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and – occasionally – Guangzhou. Of course those already in Asia can reach other cities such as Xiamen, Kunming, Shenzhen, Dalian, Harbin, or Shenyang. The real challenge for most travelers, especially those intrepid souls interested in seeing more than just the major gateway cities, is how to plan the flights domestically.
Of course the internet has made it so that we can book flights from any airport in the world to any other airport from the comfort of our own home. Hence an obvious solution is to just book everything in advance using major airline booking sites such as expedia.com, orbitz.com, kayak.com, or flychina.com.
These are generally very good for booking the best prices on international flights to China which, wherever possible, should be booked far in advance. Although prices obviously vary depending on whether one is on the East or West Coast, in general do not expect to get round-trip tickets to and from China for less than $1000. Occasional deals can still be found from Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Once in China, the question is how to book that flexible travel I alluded to in an earlier post. Fortunately China has a wealth of national, regional and sub-regional carriers offering flights between and among all of the first, second, and third tier cities.
Quick Note: First tier cities in China are the largest and most famous – Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. Second Tier cities are usually provincial capitals or other major cities in the developed regions such as Chengdu, Chongqing, Wuhan, Ningbo, Harbin, Dalian, or Hangzhou. Third tier cities are major cities in the up and coming provinces such as Guiyang or Nanchang.
China has three national carriers, all of which descend from the old China Civil Aviation Corporation monopoly under the planned economy. If you fly a Chinese airline into China, most likely it will be one of these three – although some of the regional carriers now have international connections or code-share. The three Chinese carriers are:
Air China (in the Star Alliance with Continental, United, Air Canada and Singapore Airlines)
China Eastern (expected to join the SkyTeam alliance in 2011)
China Southern (part of the SkyTeam alliance with Delta, Air France, and Korean Airlines)
China regional carriers include – but are not limited to as new one’s open all the time:
Sichuan Airlines, Shanghai Airlines, Hainan Airlines, Shenzhen Airlines, Xiamen Airlines, Shandong Airlines, and several small private carriers including East Star, JuneYao, OK Air, Spring, and United Eagle Airlines. China’s domestic airline market – like the United States – remains protected and only Chinese carriers may serve wholly domestic routes.
When seeking to book a ticket, one could attempt to use the websites of these carriers directly although this is likely to be troublesome as many have unreliable interfaces and purchasing systems. Moreover, the best deals are available within China when making purchases in person (or over the phone). Every major hotel, as well as most hostels, has a travel desk or ticket booking service. These are connected to nationwide networks of tickets available at various discounts. Usually in the 5-14 days before a flight, there are a wide range of discounted tickets – sometimes as much as 50% off – available. Hence unlike international travel which pays to book as far in advance as possible, domestic flights can be purchased on much shorter time horizons. The cards passed out on the street featuring a picture of an airplane and a phone number are numbers for travel agencies; these usually have very good deals on domestic flights.
When purchasing from Chinese travel agents or through a hotel desk, the tickets will be hand delivered and payment is usually best done in cash – or else you can attempt to add the charge to your room. Nicer hotels have a surcharge added to the cost of the ticket. Hostels and travel agents do not and delivery is free. If you have a mobile phone number you can leave with the travel agents, they may contact you if there are changes to your flight plan such as cancelations.
The hand delivered tickets will be “e-tickets” but still function like traditional paper tickets so try to not lose it. When going through security you are usually required to show both the boarding pass and the ticket as well as your passport.
One caveat, although hotel and hostel services will be able to communicate in English, many travel agencies – especially the small neighborhood ones – will not. If you have an interpreter or friend on hand to assist, it should make the process rather painless but to try and book tickets through an agency without Chinese language skills may be somewhat difficult.