Pro Tips for Booking International Flights to China

In this post, we’ll offer you lessons we’ve learned over the years about booking the long haul flights into the Chinese mainland, or for any international flight.

Yushu Airport

Book your flights 4-5 months in advance

Some research indicates that 4 months in advance is generally prime time to buy with lowest fares and good selection of flights and seats. Conde Nast reckons that the best time is 167 days for flights from N. America to Asia (about 5 and a half months). Google Flight Explore is a cool tool that gives you average prices on dates throughout the year. The take home message is that you want to look and book early.

Consider working with a travel agent specializing in Asia

With a big fare to Asia, travel agents can sometimes do better or the same as online prices, and it’s good to have a human you can contact if anything goes wrong. Just pop in a search for “best international travel agent” or “best travel agent for asia” for your area on Yelp. If there’s no one nearby, search a bigger geographic area — it’s still nice to have someone to call for help.

Try out the meta flight search engines

Start with meta search engines like TripAdvisor Flights, KAYAK, Expedia, or Google Flights (On Google, searching for “Flights from San Francisco to Chengdu” gives a nice chart summarizing flights, and you can drill down further.) Note that the flight search engines don’t always include the very cheapest airlines, which can be a blessing if you don’t want to deal with their poor customer service.

Check the ratings of the airlines you are considering

The lowest pricing, not surprisingly, is sometimes on really shabby airlines. In a 2012 survey, China had 3 of the 10 worst airlines in the world: Air China (different from China Airways), China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines were all on the list. Some popular carriers in the Asia space are, fortunately, on the Best 20 Airlines in the World list, including: Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Hainan, Thai Airways, Asiana and Bangkok Airways. See the 2016 ratings by Skytrax. (We personally would try to stay above #30 or so.) If you wonder if getting a cheap fare is worth booking one of the “worst” airlines, read some reviews. Yikes!

Book directly through the airline if possible

(This applies to travelers booking online, not those using a travel agency.)
It seems to us a good idea to book directly through an airline’s website than through a meta search engine or other online booking service. If something goes wrong, it can be helpful to be working directly with an airline. Also, in some cases, the cancellation policies of the airlines are not honored by the online agents.

Check the change and cancellation policies of your possible flights

It’s good to have a quick check on the terms and conditions of your ticket. If you have a travel agent, they can tell you. If you’re booking through an airline, it’s helpful to call them up and find out. (If you’re booking through a different agency, like KAYAK, find out if there change and cancel policies are different from the airlines. If it’s hard to find this out, that might not be a good sign.

Try connecting through various cities in China

On Yolanda’s last trip to Kham, the inbound destination was Xining and the departure city was Jyekundo/Yushu. Rather than booking all the way through to Xining, she flew roundtrip from San Francisco to Xi’an on Alaska Airlines/Hainan, then bought separate domestic legs for Xi’an to Xining and Jyekundo/Yushu to Xi’an. The domestic legs were all purchased separately, through Ctrip. The entire flight was cheaper this way than booking the original flight through to Xining. The downside of course is that there were a lot of connections, and that we had to purchase more flights on Chinese airlines than we wanted to.

Cheap sacrifices time and comfort

Buying cheaper international flights usually means some creative routing that adds hours and stops to your journey. On the trip mentioned above, Hainan had a good fare, and decent legroom in economy seats, but the routing was pretty arduous: San Francisco-Seattle-Shanghai-Xi’an on the way out and on return Xi’an-Beijing-Seattle-San Francisco. If she had to do it again she might have taken a more expensive direct flight from San Francisco to Chengdu.

Use your most travel-friendly credit card

If you have multiple credit cards, you may find that one or the other of them has better perks for international travel. Some have limited cancellation policies, lost or stolen baggage help, etc.

Take note of travel insurance deadlines

If you’re getting travel insurance, note that some policies, or riders on policies, require that you insure trip purchases within a certain time frame of making the purchase. For us, to get a cancel-for-any reason policy, the time limit was 14 days, meaning we had to buy the insurance within 14 days of buying the flights.