The vast majority of first-time tourists from Western countries will fly into China, as opposed to overland border crossings. And most of these visitors will fly in and out of Beijing (PEK), Shanghai (PVG and SHA), or Hong Kong (HKG) international airports.
Beijing International Capital Airport is by far China’s biggest and busiest airport, serving over 65 million passengers in 2009. Located about 20 miles from the city, it opened in 1999 and got a major facelift and upgrade ahead of the 2008 Olympics.
Note that Shanghai has two international airports (I wonder how many travelers miss their outgoing flights each year): Hongqiao International (SHA) is more efficient and closer to Shanghai than Pudong International (PVG), its more modern and sleeker cousin.
But to boost business investment and tourism, the Chinese government is working hard to increase and upgrade the number of international airports throughout the country. For instance, both Guangzhou (CAN) and Shenzhen (SZX) international airports — located in the south near Hong Kong— see huge volumes of air traffic (but for now mostly serve Asian cities).
International flights from US & Canada:
Hong Kong currently has more flights to and from North America compared to Beijing and Shanghai. Direct flights from the west coast take somewhere around 12-14 hours. Historically, round-trip flights from the west coast (e.g. LAX, SFO, Vancouver) cost around US$800-1200 during the low season.
Check these airlines for direct flights to China:
• American Airlines (AA)
• Delta Airlines (DL)
• Continental Airlines (CO)
• US Airways (UA)
• United Airlines (UA)
• Air China (CA)
• China Southern Airlines (CZ)
• China Eastern Airlines (MU)
• China Hainan Airlines (HU)
• Cathay Pacific Airways (CX)
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Flights from UK & Ireland:
Direct flights from London to China take about 10-12 hours—try Air China, Virgin, British Airways, and Cathay Pacific. The budget airline Oasis also has flights from Gatwick to Hong Kong. For non-direct flights that usually involve a plane change, check out: Aeroflot, Air France, KLM, Singapore Air, Swiss Air and Thai Airlines.
Flights from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa:
If you’re flying in from Australia or New Zealand, Hong Kong is the closest entry point, though you can also fly direct from Australia to Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou.
From Australia, your best bets for cheap flights are: Cathay Pacific, China Airlines, EVA (Taiwan) or Singapore Air. Other airlines to check out are: China Eastern, Japan Airline (JAL), Malaysian Airlines, and Royal Brunei.
From New Zealand, you’ll probably pay a bit more. I’m told that the cheapest way to fly to China is via either Air New Zealand or Singapore Airlines (from Auckland to Hong Kong).
Another option worth checking out: Flying into the huge Bangkok International Airport (BKK) or Kuala Lumpur airport (KUL) and then getting a cheap AirAsia (a recommended budget airline– www.airasia.com ) flight to China. For instance, they fly into Shenzen (SZX), right next to Hong Kong.
Flights from South Africa:
South African Airlines has direct flights to Hong Kong.
Chinese domestic airlines: flying in and around China
The domestic airlines in China have come a long way in recent years. Although Chinese airlines have historically poor records compared to Western airlines, each year they get closer to Western standards in terms of both safety and service.
China is a big country so naturally flying is the quickest and most efficient way to get around. In general, I prefer rail travel, which is far more interesting (and cheaper). Many, if not most, first-time travelers to China will see the tourist highlights located in the eastern provinces. Traveling north-south and stopping along the way is conducive to traveling by train.
But taking domestic flights is a good option if you’re pressed for time or traveling long distances (for example, to Tibet). For shorter distances, note that domestic flights are often delayed so you might end up not saving that much extra time compared to traveling by train.
To book a ticket for a domestic flight, you can go online (Note: prices almost always one-way). But if you’re in China, I’d recommend booking through a local travel agent, hotel reservation desk, or airline booking offices, which you can easily find in any Chinese city. Even though you’ll probably pay a small service fee, they can detail all of your options and help find the cheapest flights. Also note: prices for domestic flights typically fall as you get closer to departure date (except for Chinese holidays).
China’s main domestic airlines:
• China Southern Airlines: www.csair.com
• China Eastern Airlines: www.flychinaeastern.com
• Air China (not to be confused with Taiwan’s “China Air”): www.airchina.com.cn
• Shanghai Airlines: www.shanghai-air.com