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onthego2 Jul 3rd, 2004 07:26 PM

Air ticket within China
Is there way I can purchase airline tickets in the US for travel within China? I want ot purchase tickets for travel from Beijing-Xi'An-Shanghai-Hong Kong from the US.

I noticed some posts suggest wait till you get to China to purchase the tickets. If I was traveling by myself, I would but I will be traveling with 3 children and my mother. The more I can get done prior to my trip the better. I will be flying to and from Seoul to China.

Thank you.

Thank you for

PeterN_H Jul 3rd, 2004 09:23 PM

Quite see why you might want to avoid fuss, but buying for such a quantity of people will make the benefits of buying in China five times greater than if travelling by yourself. You could still buy all the tickets in Beijing, which would mean only one ticket buying stop, and the savings would still be significant.

But if you're determined to book in advance why haven't you simply spoken to a travel agent? Or have you thought of using the Web? Travelocity, for instance? Those routes are all there.

Peter N-H

easytraveler Jul 3rd, 2004 11:20 PM

I do agree with Peter that you should attempt to purchase all tickets in Beijing, if you already know your itinerary, or at each Chinese city along your route, if your itinerary is flexible.

I did a quick check for you on Travelocity (travelling July 24th in my hypothetical) and came up with $259, $309, and $419 for the three segments of your flights. This is before taxes and fees. Thus, the cost per person for booking in the States would run you around $1100. You did not mention the ages of your children, but that's still $4000 to $5000 as a rough guesstimate.

As a point of contrast: recently, on arrival in Hong Kong, I found that I had to leave IMMEDIATELY for Shanghai. I purchased a ticket in the Hong Kong Airport for about $200 US with no shopping around or bargaining, since I needed the next flight out, Hong Kong to Shanghai.

Thus, the savings to you of buying your flights in China rather than here in the States can be better than 50%.

The cities you mention are major cities and have several flights a day between them. You should have no problem getting seats, especially if you purchase the next leg immediately upon arrival in a city.

I understand how you may want to have less stress, but airline tickets are not like hotel rooms. You don't want to arrive in a strange city, possibly not speaking the language, with mother and children in tow AND have no idea where you are going to be spending the night. This is different from airline tickets.

With airline tickets you have the time to go and buy the tickets while you are in China. You could do it early one morning while everyone is still asleep. A lot of these places are open by 8 am.

Peter has given some good places in Beijing to get airline tickets. Check out the 2004 Frommers China guide. Try using travel agents outside of your hotel. The agents in the hotels charge a HUGE fee. You could also try the nearest CAAC office to your hotel.

Another possibility would be to contact a reputable Hong Kong travel agency like Swire & Co. They MAY be able to get the tickets for you at a better price. I haven't used a Hong Kong agent for years, so this information is not current.

Good luck!

PeterN_H Jul 4th, 2004 10:27 AM

When Travelocity is used and read properly, the results are quite different.

Assuming one child is over 14 and the other two under fourteen but over 2 (so therefore three adult tickets and two at 70%) when this route is selected as a multi-city trip, Travelocity gives for July and August a *total* of $2076 for all five people including taxes (except airport tax of Y50 p.p. domestically, and Y90 p.p. for the flight to HK, of course, which you'll have to pay in cash at each airport however you buy your ticket), and nothing like four or five thousand dollars even if all five pay adult fare. On some date combinations it comes out to only $1889, all-in.

Booking in China you will *not* be able to halve this price, but you should save at the very least two or three hundred dollars if you book all the legs in Beijing, and probably rather more (and definitely more if you do take the time to book the tickets as you go).

You will save yet more if you opt to fly from Shanghai to Shenzhen, a domestic flight which is considerably cheaper than the still 'international' route directly to Hong Kong, and take the turbocat from Shenzhen airport (there's a courtesy bus from the terminal ten minutes to Fuyong dock) to Kowloon directly. This also saves on the considerable cost of Airport Express or taxi from HK airport into town.

It doesn't really add much fuss and many Chinese and expats travel this way: Shenzhen airport is small and modern and transit through it is pretty quick, the bus leaves from right outside the terminal, and the turbocat may be a novelty for the children. For details see:

Note that if you are travelling at the beginning of October all bets are off, and you'll be paying full prices or premium prices almost wherever you book.

Incidentally, although your flight into Shanghai may be to Hong Qiao airport close to the centre of town, your flight to Shenzhen or HK will be from Pudong, which is very distant. It isn't quite so convenient, but you might want to take the chance to travel on the world's only functioning commercial magnetic levitation line out to the airport. It briefly reaches 430kph, which is the fastest you are ever likely to travel on land, and again may be something of a thrill for the children, as they was the speed rise on the indicator in every car. Leaves the new Korean version of the TGV eating its dust, although the trip only lasts about eight minutes.

Peter N-H

marilynfaye Jul 7th, 2004 10:10 PM

Is it legal to have someone living in China buy our tickets for us prior to our arrival?

PeterN_H Jul 8th, 2004 06:05 AM

Yes, no problem with this (I wonder why you might think there wouldn't be). But make sure it's someone willing to shop properly and bargain for you.

Peter N-H

marilynfaye Jul 8th, 2004 03:24 PM

You can bargain for airline tickets? Whom do you bargain with? China Eastern Airlines or a travel agent?

PeterN_H Jul 8th, 2004 03:53 PM

There have been a lot of postings about this which use of the search box will find for you, but yes: airline tickets are something you should haggle over in China, and not book in advance from anywhere else. You should haggle with travel agents, not the airline, preferably those away from your hotel or expat areas, simply by asking if they have something cheaper. On any route with competition, outside China's very limited peak travel periods, there is an oversupply of seats. There are limited numbers of seats at different levels of discount, and travel agents have different access to discounts, and/or a different degree of willingness to share what discount they can obtain, or what commission the airline pays them with you. 10% off published rate is standard. 30% is common. 50% is fairly common.

See this post for a discussion, which although it's done in the context of Hong Kong, tells you something about shopping for tickets at a mainland airport, the least favourable place to find discounts, and gives the general context.;tid=34474440

Peter N-H

xgao Jul 9th, 2004 06:52 AM

I grew up in China and travel back to China quite frequently on business lately. To buy your tickets in china really is the best choice to go. I don't think Travelocity and Expedia display all the flight choices for you. If you are not comfortable shopping around for the cheapest available flight, I think you can just simply use the travel agent at the hotels you stay. Airfares are quite transparent in China. When there is a discount, every agent will give you the discount, I think. Only slight variations I believe. Anyway, you would still come out better than booking in the States. Availability is rarely an issue, especially if you book just a few days before your actual departing date. Hope this helps.

EdEdwards Jul 9th, 2004 06:59 AM

Is availability really never an issue between major cities? I'm looking at a flight from Xian to Hangzhou on August 15, for instance, a Sunday, and all the websites seem to show only 2 flights the entire day -- one early morning, the other late evening. If there really are only 2 flights that day, perhaps because it is a Sunday, then it seems it would be risky to count on being able to get seats on one or the other flight if we wait until a few days before to buy the tickets.

PeterN_H Jul 9th, 2004 08:53 AM

Far from the situation being 'transparent', different agents will give different prices, and while some will volunteer a discount, others will wait for you to ask.

This is not a matter of finding one airline cheaper than another--fares are almost always identical, and based initially on the distance to be flown--but between the price asked by different agents for the same seat on the same plane.

To ask for a discount is the automatic reaction of any Chinese when presented with the price for almost anything, and foreigners, who are likely to be offered higher prices for everything anyway, should be no different.

Agents inside better hotels often rely on the laziness and ignorance of overseas guests in particular to ask published prices, deny there are discounts, or offer less of a discount than other agents.

As for the availability question, it would seem to be common sense that when there is only one airline flying, and when the frequency of service is less, then than discounts will be more rare and seats availability less. However, that does not mean that either is unavailable, or that even on routes with very numerous services there won't be peak times when there is no availability.

Wanting to make a relatively short flight from Hainan Island to the mainland this year, a route served infrequently by a single airline with a small plane, I found three agents emphatically denying that any discount was available. The fourth gave me 40% off. The plane was nowhere near full.

This isn't the West, and Sunday makes no difference. In China transport (and most other) services run the same hours seven days a week, although obviously there are some routes which do not have a flight every day. August is a low travel season in China.

There are no guarantees of any kind on offer here, merely the observations that there is in general a vast overcapacity on Chinese domestic airlines for all but the highest of high seasons, that the true price for which a ticket can be bought is never available from overseas by any booking method, that the price difference is usually significant, that there are many more flights available than are visible on Western booking computers, and that a little shopping around local agents will usually produce a good result for the independent traveller.

A great deal of flying in China is done on a walk-up basis, and very few tickets indeed (except at Chinese New Year, the first week of May, and the first week of October) are bought more then a very few days in advance.

Peter N-H

xgao Jul 9th, 2004 09:08 AM

That could be true. Xian is a major tourist destination, but not a major business destination. Keep in mind that airfares are still expensive for ordinary Chinese and many opt for traveling by train. I don't have personal experience with Xian. However, I don't think availability would be an issue even with only two flights per day. I could be wrong though. (Traffic volumns did pick up a lot last year due to a very strong economy).

xgao Jul 9th, 2004 09:23 AM

Just realized that Peter posted his message pretty much the same time as my previous one. Peter is an expert. I didn't realize that the discounts may not be offered to foreigners. I don't come to this China forum often. However I always received a lot of helps from other fodor forums for my planning to other destinations. That's why I would like to help to answer a few questions here as well. However, with Peter, I think participants of this forum are well served:)

EdEdwards Jul 9th, 2004 06:30 PM

I contacted ticket sales at the local CTS office in the States, because I was thinking of getting Xian-Hangzhou tickets in advance, given that there seem to be very limited air connections on the day we want to fly, and we'd like to stay on our schedule. However, a lady with CTS actually discouraged me from buying the tickets for mid-August yet, saying that "in China they cancel flights all the time." She seemed to suggest that, even if we purchased tickets now, it was perhaps a 50:50 shot whether the flight would actually occur! Is it true that flights are cancelled so frequently? We were in China last almost 20 years ago, and their airline industry was pretty primitive back then, but I thought things had improved dramatically. If there are truly so many cancelled flights, then there is the risk of buying an advance ticket but then having the hassle of trying to get refunds if the flights are cancelled and one has to take a different airline for the route -- assuming that domestic Chinese airlines don't honor each other's tickets.

However, when Peter makes the argument against advance ticketing, I don't think I've ever seen this point made, e.g. that flights are cancelled so frequently. That makes me wonder if it's true, of course.

PeterN_H Jul 9th, 2004 09:40 PM

CTS and CITS are not reliable sources of information about anything. If for some reason you must book in advance why not deal directly with China Eastern? The information is easily found on the Web. The company has ticket offices all over Europe, and three in the U.S. See:

Whether flights are cancelled more frequently in China than elsewhere I couldn't say. I can say that although I've flown domestically in China dozens of times in the last few years, no flight of mine has been cancelled. In fact the last time I experienced a cancellation in China was 1986 when things were indeed very different. This may be luck rather than anything else, but cancellations do not seem to be significant in number, and certainly nothing like 50%.

Many even small town airports in China are very modern and put their U.S. equivalents to shame, and the equipment on Chinese airlines is almost universally Airbus and Boeing. On the other had service is lacklustre (but often terrified of complaints since those leads to firings), food is poor, in-flight entertainment dire, and passenger behaviour unattractive. But for short domestic flights none of this really matters, especially given how cheap flying is.

Peter N-H

easytraveler Jul 9th, 2004 11:27 PM

EdEdwards: the short answer to your question is - yes, flights may be cancelled or the times changed.

Happened to a relative of mine this summer. She asked for information from the business desk of a major hotel in Shanghai, had the girl call the airline, got schedule, etc., but when she showed up with her family at the airport to purchase the tickets - no flight!

Peter is very knowledgeable, but China is a huge and complex country. He can give you generalities but your own specific situation/experience may be very different.

I happen to disagree with his harsh judgment of CTS and CITS. It's not that the agents are particularly unreliable. It's that the country is going through turmoil/chaos seemingly all the time, especially in reference to train/bus/plane schedules/prices.

I found that in the less touristy areas, you could ask three supposedly knowledgeable people and come up with three different answers!

Once, in a small village, I asked the girl selling bus tickets to sell me a ticket on the earliest bus leaving the next morning. Not only could she not sell me a ticket, she couldn't even tell me what time the earliest bus left the next morning! She gave me her personal cell phone number and I had to call her at 6 am the next morning!

If you discard the Western idea of definite and stable prices/schedules, you'll do fine! Go with the flow! :)

PeterN_H Jul 10th, 2004 07:58 AM

As everywhere else on the planet, flights may be cancelled, and the information that one particular flight was cancelled is hardly relevant. It does not demonstrate that 50% of flights are cancelled, or that the percentage of flights is cancelled significantly greater than in any other country, or that the percentage of cancellations is of a significance to worry the visitor. If this is relevant to booking airline tickets, then we'd be unwise to book in advance anywhere ever. There are reasons not to book in advance which have been set out in detail above, but this information does not add to them.

The route in question is not in 'less touristy areas' or 'a small village' or by bus, but an air route between two major destinations, to which remarks about rural bus services are hardly relevant.

The domestic timetable for China is published in book form twice a year, and is largely adhered to. The most recent winter schedule (I do not have the current summer one) shows four flights from Xi'an to Hangzhou on Sundays: one with China Hainan, two with China Eastern, and one with Air China. Due to amalgamations and route cut-backs not all of these may be flying in the summer, when domestic travel is anyway reduced. A randomly chosen Sunday in August on a Chinese-language-only on-line timetable nevertheless shows the same services, but as all travel agents in China are unreliable (CTS and CITS merely have a much longer history and a proven track record of towering incompetence, mendacity, and overcharging) this may merely mean that the agent mounting the site hasn't bothered to update it properly.

Several booking engines show China Eastern's flights (and the telephone numbers for its own offices overseas have already been provided, so it's easy to check if those exist). The Air China flight is on-line at its Web sites and can even be booked in English there (I happened to look at the UK site, where a one-way ticket is offered at UKL88). Air China has ticket offices all over the world which can be called, and many of its domestic routes are on standard travel agency computers. The China Hainan flight seems not be running this summer according to the airline's Web site--so much for Chinese travel agency information. But then the airlines' own Web sites are not famous for being up to date either.

But in addition to direct flights, however many there may turn out to be, there are almost innumerable possibilities for indirect routes. There are around half a dozen flights daily from Xi'an to Shanghai Hongqiao, and frequent, rapid, comfortable bus services from Shanghai to Hangzhou. It's also possible to fly via Beijing or Guangzhou, or Zhengzhou, or Shenzhen, or several other cities, giving dozens of choices.

In short, the chances of being unable to get from Xi'an to Hangzhou, even in the highly unlikely event that *all* the direct flights have been cancelled, are slim indeed.

The best source of information on flight availability is a travel agent in China, sitting at a ticketing computer with the options in front of him live on-line, and ready to hand you a ticket.

Peter N-H

kardon Jul 11th, 2004 03:00 PM

I just returned from China yesterday. Prior to leaving I went through the same concerns and worries as onthego2--especially because I had a very tight schedule and had to catch flights on certain dates at certain times--so really did not want to waste my time looking for bargain within China but didn't want to pay US price. My compromise (which may not be the wisest btw) was to get a Chinese travel agent to purchase tickets for me. It cost more than what I would have paid if I bought them myself in China, but less than over Expedia or Travelocity.

The cost were:
From Beijing to Xian. Expedia said $132. I paid the agent $122. The acutal price was $78.
From Xian to Dunhuang. Expedia said $208. I paid the agent $170. The actual price was $162.
From Dunhuang to Beijing. Expedia said $335. I paid the agent $210. The actual price was $159.50.

So altogether, my saving and his profit were about the same...which, to me, was a good compromise.

Also, two of the flights were ones not listed on Expedia at all (and still aren't). For the last leg, all daytime flights listed on Expedia were with one stop. I got a direct flight!!

He also provided English speaking guide at the when my flight out of Xian got cancelled at the last minute (the plane decided not to land????), she took care of the change immediately and settled me at a nice lounge to sit and wait (there really isn't any where comfortable to sit out by the ticket counters--).

xgao Jul 12th, 2004 05:10 AM

I think cancellation do happen once a while. However I never encountered one myself. And I believe most Chinese airlines honor tickets from other airlines (since all the airlines are majority owned by the government). I gerally go to a website: to check domestic flight schedules (I never book through them though) and I found their information quite reliable for the cities that are on their list. (It doesn't list all the cities that have air services.) I still think the easiest way (may not be the cheapest way) is simply using the travel agent in the hotel that you are staying (for people that don't want to shop around). Just make sure you ask for discounts. Airfares are generally fixed in China and only the % of discounts changes from time to time. I used numerous top hotels' agents and I never felt cheated (I may have to pay a few bucks more than I can get from somewhere else, which isn't a concern to me at all). I just came back from a vaction to Brazil. Comapred to China, air services in Brazil are much more chaotic.

PeterN_H Jul 12th, 2004 08:19 AM

Someone who doesn't actually check the difference between agents inside hotels and those outside them will of course not feel cheated.

However, I've found differences as great as 20% in the cost of airfare between agents in upmarket hotels and agents outside, and I'm quite sure what while sometimes there may be no difference, that sometimes it will be greater. But even 20% is not 'a few bucks more', and 'shopping around' may amount to no more then walking to one agent a few minutes from the hotel.

Some may well feel this is not worth the effort, but at least the potential difference in price paid should be clearly understood.

Peter N-H

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