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Buying Your Tickets
Buying plane tickets for travel in China is safe and easy -- easier than buying train tickets. The three largest online travel agent in China are eLong (for English, elong.net) and Ctrip (ctrip.com) and Travelzen (travelzen.com). There are a few others, but these definitely seem the most reliable. Ctrip is the largest of the three and possibly one of the largest online travel agent in the world. These agent are preferable to booking directly with the airlines when it comes to domestic travel. Most of the time, the English version of the airlines websites do not work very well. There are several threads on the China forum comparing the three key agents.
When booking, you first need to create an account on the site you use, as you may not get any emails or any other communication to let you know that the tickets were issued. The ticket numbers don't seem to work on the airlines' sites, so you can't verify them there. The only way I figured out I had a ticket was by going to the My Account section on eLong. When creating your account, make sure to put in your mobile number (Chinese number if you have one). One more reason for using these agents over direct booking with airlines is the service. If your flight is cancelled or there is a major change in schedule, they will call you while the airlines will never contact you.
Note that you may have to poke around the site a bit for the right information to show up. When comparing prices, understand that sometimes you only see the price before taxes while some website will show the price including taxes.
One useful tip on eLong: to get to your list of flights, go to the home page, click sign in, and enter your password. It will return you to the home page with no indication that you're signed in. Click on 'Customer Support' and then you'll see the link to 'My Account,' where you can click 'Flight Orders' to see your flights.
Making Sure You Make The Flight
Before you go on your trip, make sure you check both sites (and the airline) for each one of your flights. Sometimes flight times change without any notice, and sometimes they are wrong on a certain site. For example, I booked a flight on eLong, which had the wrong time listed. It was only because I checked the airline's site and the Ctrip site that I found out that the departure time was actually 45 minutes earlier than it said on eLong.
Another thing to note is that although you won't get a confirmation of your seat class, it is probably recorded correctly. I booked two flights in First and two in Economy Plus. I found no confirmation of my booking class until I got on the plane.
At the Airport
Make sure to get to the airport early. Boarding usually end 30 or 45 minutes before departure depending on the airline. They often start boarding long before the flight time, and announcements are not reliable.
When you enter the airport, simply look at gthe big screen to find out at which desk you are supposed to check-in. Most have you go to the airline's check-in desk, but some have generic check-in desks for all airlines. You may also have to check in at a check-in desk for a totally different airline.
If you use a lounge, make sure you note the boarding time on your ticket; it may be up to an hour before you thought it was. The safest option is to go to the gate and get in line when everyone else does.
Security at most airports is pretty lax. In general: although you can't have large liquids, if you pack a small bag of liquids, they don't make you take it out of the bag. And you don't have to take your shoes off. In some airports you are not allowed to have any liquids in yout carry-ons. At some airports, particularly in the province of Xinjiang, you cannot have carry-ons that have wheels or a telescopic handle. Also, do not leave batteries in your checked luggage. At some airport in Xinjiang, you also cannot have knives in your checked luggage. If you bought some Ouïgour knives, you need to have them shipped to another location. Otherwise, they are not very strict on how much or how big your carry-ons are.
The way the Chinese line up for security is different from the way we do in the West. After ticketing, you go into an area where there are a bunch of long, straight lines leading to doors. You can pick your line (instead of everyone snaking around in the same line). The lines seem really long, but they end right at the door ahead of you, and they move fast. Many airports don't have a dedicated security line for first/priority passengers.
Getting on the Plane
They don't seem to enforce the priority/first class lines, so most locals get in those lines and board first. By the time general boarding is called, only the tourists are left. If you want to get a good overhead bin, try to board in the priority lines. Unlike North America, there is usually plenty of overhead space as most Chinese travel light and will check even small bags.
On the Plane
Most flights serve full meals, even if they're really short. You'll get a box of noodle or rice with beef, pork of chicken. They will also serve soft drinks, juice, tea and coffee. The food is reasonably good. In the higher classes, you can generally expect pretty much the same food as coach.
Getting to the Hotel
Be careful when taking transportation from the airport. There are lots of people who will tell you all kinds of things to get you in their car and then rip you off. Just follow the signs that say "taxi" and get in line. Have the name and address of your hotel in writing in Chinese as well as the phone number. In most cities the taxis will use meters. You can also have your hotel arrange to have someone waiting for you. Make sure they write your name down so you know you are going with the right person. This latter option will cost you 3 times what a taxi will cost. There are also now a growing number of airports that are connected to the subway system. Most airports will also have shuttle buses taking you to different parts of the city. Airport hotel shuttles are pretty rare in China.
Taking everything into account, flying is often the fastest way to get from one city to another. The train is more scenic, but even the bullet trains take longer than flying (including airport time, etc) for longer distances. For, say, Beijing to Shanghai, the door-to-door travel time is about the same by flying as compared to the train. However flights are very often delayed by quite a bit. Some airports are worst. Beijing and Shanghai airports are generally pretty bad as are aisport in Yunnan and Sichuan (due to bad weather of frequent fog).
If you do take the train, make sure you buy your tickets well in advance. The best way to do this is an online agent. For train travel in China, read this article: http://www.tripadvisor.com/Travel-g29...