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Top 9 Things to Expect From Budget China Airlines

low cost airlines in china
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If you want to travel in or around the land of moon cake and smelly tofu but lack the budget China airlines may just be for you. Budget flights China has to offer are more than affordable & a better value than what you may realize.

Back when I made my first trip to Asia in 2013, my goal was to fly to Japan cheap and then nab a cheap flight to China.

While I did manage to secure an average fare cost from LA to Tokyo, the combined trip climbed up over $1,000 in total after my Tokyo to Hong Kong flight and subsequent through train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou. At the time I thought that my trip costs to the Far East were pretty darn good, but when I consider it now, I realize that the prices were–as a friend in China put it–“Very so-so.”

what to expect from chinese budget airlines

The truth is that these were booked about a month or so prior to my departure, AND they were one-way trips, not round-trip. Nowadays I can actually book a round-trip flight to LA from Shanghai WITH a planned layover in another city and still come out cheaper! Amazing, right? Still, the question remains: what can you expect from these low-cost Chinese carriers for forking over your hard-earned renminbi (the people’s money, basically, but it is actually called by more than one name!)?

I’ll show you what I do to fly in and around China for cheap and what to expect, using 20 (that’s right) main points.

Let’s kick it off with point number one:

1. PRICE

how much do china airlines cost

If you’re looking to buy a decent apartment in China at a discount or value, then you’re quite literally out of luck as of this writing; however, picking up an affordable airline ticket from one city to another or from within China to a country nearby–well, this is more than doable, especially if you do it right. Depending on where you’re at and where you’re going, the prices can be similar to your home country–or much, much cheaper! There are three main tips for spending wisely so that you are able to get that holy grail after passing as a penitent man (Indiana Jones, anyone? Anyone? Meh…never mind…)

    1. Book in Advance: This is kind of a no-brainer but it pays to be reminded and many people just don’t plan early enough. By booking well-ahead of time you will definitely save money and this is, in my opinion, just as evident as it is in other countries.
    2. Keep in Mind Chinese Holidays: If you’re not from China, haven’t lived in China, or aren’t yet familiar with living there, then chances are you are unfamiliar with the holidays and what it means for the travel industry. Being from the US myself, I understand the ramifications of flying during the Christmas and New Year holidays, but after having experienced both that AND traveling during the lunar New Year holiday in China, I can tell you with 100% certainty that it is much worse in panda land! China has a huge population and during this holiday they are not only encouraged by the government to “go back home” to visit family, they take it to heart and put in a yearly migration of dense transportation bottlenecks of which you would have to see to really appreciate–although you wouldn’t appreciate it at all!
    3. Consider Different Websites & Airlines: One of the most popular names in online travel booking in China is Ctrip, now known outside of China as Trip.com. Do not allow yourself to be fooled–they are one in the same and a quick glance at both sites will reveal that. Being a travel site and not an airline, it’s good for various travel-related assistance for not only locating and booking flight tickets but also trains, hotels, rental cars, and so on. I personally haven’t used Ctrip or Trip but a few times, mainly because I can get better deals by using independent, budget airlines directly and hotel sites like Booking.com (I am a regular customer of theirs, which led me to become an affiliate as well–I fully back and recommend their site!) in order to save money.

Booking.com

Overall, expect the prices to be well within your budget, even if you have to buy last-minute and aren’t stingy about claiming business-class seats. However, some websites like Spring Airlines offer very affordable upgrades such as pick your seat and front-row seating. This is a budget airline which I’ll discuss more about later.

2. Availability

when to book a flight

By and large, you can pretty much find a flight to more or less anywhere at any time–save the aforementioned holidays of course. One day I decided that I would move further north and close to Shanghai, leaving Guangzhou behind. Before I even knew where or when I’d go, I packed up my bags, straightened up my temporary dwelling, and expected to leave within a week. Less than five days later, I was on a flight which was booked for me the day before–and for less than $80. This is definitely what I would call a “normal” day, but of course your results may vary, depending on which app/site you use and what time of year it is!

3. Check-In

Because most people in China are really big on saving dough–a little too concerned with it from my viewpoint–expect some long lines at the check-in counter prior to departure. It kind of sucks to have to wait for a long time and it does seem that people normally get there kind of early for this cattle-line process. I haven’t had the pleasure yet of seeing the self-check-in with the budget airlines, however I do believe it might be possible to do online check-in for domestic flights, assuming you don’t have any checked luggage to turn over prior to going through security.

If you do have larger luggage that you aren’t going to carry onto the plane, then it’s off to the cattle line with you!

As for hospitality, I have received nothing but good treatment thus far with all of the budget airlines, especially Spring, whom I mentioned earlier. I have a feeling that I get better treatment being a foreigner, which is part of the double-edged sword of living or traveling in China. Sometimes you get treated really well–much better than the locals treat other locals–and other times you get shunned, annoying remarks, or shunned. You just have to take it in stride.

To sum up, you should expect check-in to go all right, but you MUST remember not to take more than you’re allowed to carry! If you have extra luggage–especially when returning from a trip–be sure to weigh your bags and, if needed, pay for the extra weight the day BEFORE your flight! If you don’t, then you’ll have to pay an additional fee at the check-in counter.

*Special Note: There were a few times when my good looks alone got me past the ladies at the check-in counter, even though my bags were overweight or I was carrying too many things. However, this is part of the double-edged sword I mentioned earlier: I have seen them make the locals pay many, many times! Perk of being a waiguoren! (foreigner)

**Second Special Note: Okay, so maybe it isn’t my good looks, but please allow me my own fantasies, okay?

4. Food

budget chinese airline food

Typically airlines aren’t known for their quality or diversity in the culinary arts and there’s little reason for us to change that earned stereotype here. There are a couple of things I can tell you if you’re wondering “what’s budget airline food like?”

  • First, don’t pull out your pen and pad–or tablet–to write home about it. It’s more or less consistent with what you’re going to find on most airlines. While it’s true that you should get better choices and possibly quality in First or Business class flights in China or elsewhere, on budget airlines there is scant difference in the variety area. From what I’ve sampled, the food really isn’t any worse (or better) than any other airline I’ve had–and that’s been several! As mentioned before, the choices are slim but the quality and taste hit right in the “very so-so” area.
  • Second, don’t expect a variety of choices, such as vegan or vegetarian options. While these can occasionally be available, they are definitely far from the norm as I’ve personally experienced.
  • Third, don’t expect to get fed at all. Remember that it’s a budget flight so this means you probably won’t be flying very far and would be lucky to even get peanuts! Since it is a Chinese flight, remember that you will most likely get the opportunity to have water, juice, coffee, tea, or maybe even a glass of wine if you’re lucky!
  • Fourth, even if food is offered, don’t expect that it will be immediately available for you to order, if at all! If you plan on chowing down on their glorious fare, then I would recommend you pre-order it online so that it’s more or less guaranteed when you climb aboard, heated up, and ready to go.
  • is chinese airline food good

    The food may generally be so-so, but the service is typically friendly and attractive!

    Fifth, bring your own? Yep, that’s all right. Many of us don’t think about this too far in advance, but if you want to eat on the plane but don’t want plane food, then you can simply bring aboard something from elsewhere. While I don’t recommend preparing something at home, it’s easy enough to pick up some takeout from one of the local shops or cafes in the terminal–assuming your departure airport is a decent one! Luckily, it’s very common in China for people to get food and bring it onto the plane (and unfortunately they do the same practically everywhere else, including theaters, Starbucks, parks, and even different restaurants!), so for this reason alone it’s easy to find some grub prior to boarding time. However, remember that this is China so if your palate for the local offerings isn’t very high, then you may not have many choices in a smaller airport.

  • Sixth, I haven’t become sick once from having the budget airline food in China. While I cannot say the same for Chinese street food, I can attest to the fact that the airline food meets a much higher standard. To date however, I have been sick from street food more than 60% of the time, which is why I don’t eat it unless forced–and even then with severe resistance.
  • Seventh, there is usually a book on the back of the seat in front of you which shows you your snack, beverage, and food options–as well as other items you may or may not want or need. As long as you order it early enough, you should normally be able to get your order fulfilled.

5. Hocking Goods

Okay, so this is the most annoying thing I’ve experienced while flying on the low-cost Chinese airline carriers but, given that I paid such a low price, I suppose I can’t complain…much. During the flight, they’ll whip out a cart full of a variety of tax-free goods and try to peddle them off to you at prices I consider just ‘reasonable.’ They offer cigarettes, alcohol, toy planes (who DOESN’T want a budget airline toy plane??), electric shavers, scarves, and more. I have purchased a few little things before when I needed a gift in a pinch, but overall it’s more annoying to me than anything–especially when I want to sleep!

A crew member will stand at the front of the cabin and pull out a microphone to begin the auction…err, promoting. He’ll drone on and on and on for too long about his amazing wares, telling you every last important yet worthless freaking detail! Finally, after it’s all said and done, they’ll wheel their cart of wonder along the aisle from back to front in order to fulfill the lifelong dreams of those who’ve waited so long and patiently for this grand, memorable, and life-changing moment!

6. Unusual Behavior

removing shoes on a plane

Well, it will most likely be unusual to you. China is a country filled with quite the array of habits, traditions, beliefs, and practices. Some of these I love very much and believe are much better than the way things are done in more developed places like the US, such as traditional medicine and treatments. However, there are some carryover habits from China’s more recent past which can leave many visitors either scratching their heads in confusion, outright shocked, or even tightening their fists in anger. There are several well-known examples of these online, but we will narrow it down to what you might see on the plane. While some of these may seem a bit inappropriate to you, some of them are just interesting, while others are actually enjoyable!

  • Shoes off — it doesn’t take long to notice when a plane passenger has kicked off his or her shoes in an effort to make themselves at home, especially if there is a nice aroma to go with it! Nevertheless, with or without the smell, it can be quite uncomfortable for those of us who aren’t used to sitting next to someone in public who has removed their shoes and is actively scratching their toes. I myself like to take off my shoes on long flights, but I still can’t quite get my head around the toe-scratching and occasional dirty-footed uncle.
  • The cabin is destroyed — when you begin to disembark from the plane, it will most likely appear as if the plane’s cabin resembles your parents’ house after the party you threw while they were away. This will be especially true when coming back from a tourist destination, especially a shopper’s paradise like Japan or South Korea.
  • Talking–loudly. This one is everywhere in China but since we are more or less stuck in place without much recourse other than our headphones, it becomes more evident. Our recommendation is to bring some nice headphones that can block out the people around you as best as possible. From children to young adults, middle-aged adults to senior citizens, practically everyone has their normal talking volume set to 11, which is one louder than 10 and at least 5 louder than you’ll prefer. It may seem annoying to many of us, but part of the reason why so many people speak loudly is because they believe it shows how happy they and their family are. However, it is also a “face” issue and is sometimes used to make people believe they are more important or successful. Either way, bring your earphones unless you can speak fluent Mandarin and want to get into the conversations!
  • Stretching with the cabin crew — Yep, that’s right! Near the end of your trip, don’t be surprised if the stewardesses lead the entire cabin in a “wake up” series of stretches, all counted out in Chinese. This may or may not be your thing but it certainly does a body good and helps to wake you up or get the kinks out.
  • Simple seats — even if you book the front row of the budget airliners, don’t expect too much in the way of comfort. While you’ll definitely have (a bit) more room, it won’t be super special and you won’t be enjoying your own television, either.
  • Sleeping — this may not seem like a big deal but if you understand that sleeping for many in China is almost like a pastime, then you won’t be surprised when the food tray, multiple seats, or even your shoulder are used as pillows (and they will be!). I remember once when a woman slept on my shoulder for over an hour and when the crew announced our preparations for landing, she woke up and apologized. I still think it was because of my rugged good looks and she couldn’t resist!

7. Check-In & Boarding Gate are Far Away

airline checkin counters are sometimes far away

If you don’t know this already, then consider this your warning: budget airlines don’t necessarily get choice selection for where their check-in counters are located, nor are their boarding gate locations always impressive.

If you happen to be familiar with the airport your’e going to–or can become so before you go–then you should do your best to get dropped off nearest the correct end of your designated terminal if possible. If you are arriving by subway, then perhaps you don’t have much of a choice…

Anyway, the budget airlines often have their check-in counters located quite far from the center, and usually on one end or the other of the check-in area of the terminal. If you enter the building on the left side, chances are good that you’ll have to hoof it to the other end. While you may appreciate the extra exercise, it’s not a very helpful situation for those trying to catch a flight they’re late for. A little bit of pre-check goes a long way!

The boarding gate itself is something you really don’t have much control over. If you are at a large airport and the transportation from the security area to your boarding gate is slow, then you’ll be in for quite a walk sometimes. At airports like Hong Kong, I’ve noticed that the walk is less but typically you’ll have to take the airport’s shuttle train, which while convenient isn’t necessarily “fast.” Still, thank goodness we don’t have to walk that distance! In Shanghai, Spring Airlines is at the very far end–to the right of the entrance, looking outside-in. So, if you walk into the left end, you’ll have to walk all the way down to the other before you can stand in line and wait…again.

8. Luggage Restrictions

check your checked luggage weight

This is something that you really must remember! If you don’t pay for additional luggage or weight prior to your check-in day, then you will have to pay a good bit more, normally. As I mentioned before, you may get off with your good looks, but I wouldn’t bank on that! (actually, I do often bank on that, but perhaps I’m just a bit lazy).

Super Tip: If you are traveling with two or more people, you can actually divide your weight among everyone. I traveled with a group on a budget airline to Japan and I planned for this by taking my large checked suitcase (which I didn’t actually need for myself). On the way back, my Chinese friends stuffed this suitcase full of their duty-free purchases and we spent over an hour working together in the hotel lobby, evenly distributing the weight between us and weighing it all (yes, my friend brought a small scale).

9. Relax, and Rush

disembarking from a plane

This is the last point I’ll make here. While I find that most everywhere in China is rather laid back, relaxed, and casual, there are indeed times when it seems like someone yelled out “LET’S GET IT ON!” Suddenly, everyone seems quite lively and wants to move faster than they do 99% of the time.

One of these times is when a place in line opens (or seems to open in their eyes), when the subway train doors open, when the elevator doors open, and–of course–when it’s time to board and especially get off the plane. Don’t be surprised when you’re confronted with a large group of people who are trying to get on or off as quickly as possible, even though they have prearranged seating arrangements.

The last time I took a flight, I was returning from Australia to Shanghai and witnessed a man who pushed and squeezed his way from the back and almost all the way to the front. It was really annoying, considering how everyone was already in the aisles with their bags, but also confusing because this man was carrying no bags. He managed his way up to two spaces in front of me before he was halted by some people with a ton of bags in his way. He seemed annoyed but assuredly not more than the ones he passed. As we disembarked, he paused at the front of the plane to begin pulling out several bags from the overhead storage–where he had placed them at the beginning of the flight! I seized this opportunity to push past him, as did several more people. After I was off the plane and on the first shuttle bus with my friend, I watched as the man exited the plane and then waited to regroup with a couple of others who were traveling with him. After seeing how capable they all were–and that they had to wait for the second bus anyway–I was confused again as to his actions.

Remember:

While you’re traveling in China, in other countries, and even your home country, some odd or surprising things will happen to you sometimes but, as Steve Winwood might say, just roll with it, baby.

 


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