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Old May 22, 11, 3:47 am
Ambassador, China
Join Date: Oct 2007
Location: Beijing
Programs: TG, OZ, UA, AA
Posts: 6,622
Intercity Travel--Domestic Flights


The Chinese domestic flight market is structured differently from that of many other countries and it is useful to understand the key features. In nearly every aspect, the Chinese system of locating and purchasing flights is more straightforward and less geared to outfoxing and outwitting the airlines. The most meaningful differences are:

• Chinese air ticketing is essentially a point-to-point based model.
• Chinese base airfares are government-set according to distance.
• Airlines and third-party agents may discount off of the full-fare government price according to supply, demand, and other considerations.
• Fares for all booking classes including the discounted ones are loaded into the system on a quarterly basis, so it is unproductive to look for the best fares too far in advance.
• Chinese habits are geared to walk-up flying and short-term planning, not booking months in advance.
• There is normally no benefit to buying a round-trip fare, vs two one-way fares.

The traveler’s first choice should always be direct point-to-point travel when available. There is very rarely any cost benefit to making a connection in China—because of the distance basis of flight pricing, traveling A ->C directly is always going to be cheaper than A->B->C, mostly because the latter will be priced as the sum of two separate tickets A->B + B->C. Only occasionally will a pricing anomaly make a connection the cheaper routing. There are no issues with complexities such as hidden cities, end-on-end, Saturday night stays, etc

The Chinese government sets baseline plane fares that are based on distance (i.e, 1 km = X RMB) which is the standard full-fare economy ticket price. Airlines and third-party agents are then free to discount off this baseline price. Taxes and fuel surcharges are additional, but are standardized by the government, levied on a per ticket basis, and not discounted. As of August, 2013, there is a standard domestic departure tax (also known as the "Airport Construction Fee") of RMB 50 per ticket, plus a fuel tax of RMB 60 per ticket for flights under 800 km, and RMB 110 for flights over 800 km. This would make a total "taxes and fees" of RMB 110 for the shorter distances and RMB 160 for the longer. This tax is subject to adjustment up and down as fuel price conditions warrant.

Flight Pricing and Booking

In general, most Chinese domestic tickets offered by travel agents outside China will be offered only at the full-fare price + tax. This includes online mass agents such as Expedia. Chinese domestic agents, as well as Chinese airlines directly, can offer discounts. Discounts are typically done in 5% or 10% increments, and on some flights at certain times of the year, this can be as much as 70-75% off base price. However, more typical discounts range up to 40-50% off baseline. The deeper the discount, the more restrictive the ticket on cancellation, refunding, date or flight changes, endorsability, etc. Make sure you know the rules before you finalize your purchase. If you wish to earn miles towards a Frequent Flyer program, make sure you know what Chinese airline booking classes earn miles on your program—in generally only the highest cost booking classes will earn. Chinese FFP’s are relatively useless, even to China residents that frequently fly domestic.

Note that tickets to/from the mainland to Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan are considered international, with different pricing and tax/fee structure, and generally expensive per km.

When is the optimum time to book to get the best discount? Over the past year or so, our collective FT wisdom is that there is a sweet spot for booking, which generally is 2-6 weeks before flight departure. Book too early, and the best discounts will not be available—and flight schedules might change a bit. Book too late, and the most heavily discounted booking classes will be sold out and you’ll get a lesser discount. There are some routes where significant discounting is unfortunately uncommon: Kunming-Lijiang, Lhasa-Chengdu come to mind. The main reason to deviate from the sweet spot period and book farther in advance is for travel during Chinese major holiday periods, especially if there is little schedule flexibility on flight choice.

For people already in China, office-based TA’s usually have access to the same discounts that the online agents have. For those who wish to book in advance, the most popular online agents with English-language interfaces, live-person support, and ability to take foreign credit cards for the traveler located outside China are (best used with Internet Explorer browser):
Ctrip. Mainland-based.
Elong. Mainland-based.
Travelzen. Taiwan-based. Travelzen does not levy the 3% fee for using a foreign credit card that the others do.
9588. Mainland-based. This website is popular with some expats though not as well-known outside China.

Note: Please be cognizant that with any China-based company or merchant, use of a foreign bank-issued Visa or Mastercard may result being charged in your home currency using DCC (Dynamic Currency Conversion) rather than in local currency. The exchange rate used may be unfavorable. This may or may not be objectionable, but be aware the potential of DCC exists so you are not surprised. While you are supposed to have a choice, in China DCC is increasingly being imposed unilaterally, without consultation with or agreement by you.

If you are looking for China to Country X (outbound international travel from China), these outlets may be checked to see what's on offer. However, they do not automatically have the best options or pricing, and should be compared with airline-direct fares and those of major international booking companies also.

Qunar is a Kayak-like site that is very useful for readers of Chinese who can work with the Chinese payment system. Each of the major Chinese airlines also offers ticketing on their own websites, sometimes at slightly better rates. However, the English-language pages of the websites are not necessarily fully functional or updated as frequently as the Chinese pages, and a check with their latest payment policies is always in order.

Pricing example: Let's take SHA-PEK. Full fare economy is currently RMB 1130 + RMB 160 tax. If you buy your tickets from many foreign travel agents (Expedia being one), this may be the only price they have in their system, though there may be a few (Edreams being one) that do load some of the discounted fares into their booking systems. If you use a Chinese travel agent, you definitely will be able to tap into all the discounted booking classes available, let's say 40% on a specific flight. This lowers the price to RMB 680 + 160. Very few residents of China buy full fares unless they need full refund and endorsability privileges.

Domestic First Class fares are not cheap, however on some routes for some flights, discounted First Class is sometimes available for no more than full fare economy, and sometimes a bit less. Discounted First Class fares are one of the exceptions to the booking time window—for these, earlier is better and if you see them offered, commit quickly if that's what you want.

E-tickets are now the norm on nearly all domestic airlines.

Chinese Airlines

There is no consensus on which of the following is the "best" Chinese domestic airline. Same goes for which one is the worst! (Again, Chinese websites are designed to work best with Internet Explorer.)

• Big Three State-Owned enterprises: Air China, China Eastern Airlines (includes Shanghai Airlines), China Southern Airlines
• Significant fourth: Hainan Airlines (a group that includes Capital Airlines--formerly Deer Air, also Tianjin Airlines—formerly Grand China Express; West Air; and Hong Kong Airlines and Hong Kong Express)
• Major Regional Players: Shenzhen Airlines, Xiamen Airlines, Sichuan Airlines (last is Chinese-language only)
• Smaller Regionals or Niche players: Shandong Airlines, Chongqing Airlines, Chengdu Airlines, Hebei Airlines, Lucky Air (last four are Chinese-language only)
• Unique: China United Airlines (ex-military, MU owns it now, flies to some interesting places and airports) (Chinese-language only)
• Private, relatively new carriers: Juneyao Airlines (Chinese-language only), Okay Airlines (Chinese only) Spring Airlines (a low cost carrier not hooked into central reservations systems)

Note that some of the regional, smaller, and unique players are owned or part-owned by one of the Big Three. This thread has a good outline for anybody interested in this sort of thing.

Related Links:
Domestic China flights
Ctrip also CTrip Question
Using for bookings
Recent experiences with
Air China e-ticket
ChinaSouthern online purchase
Juneyao / Spring Airlines: PVG - HKG
Frequent flyer benefits flying within China

And for getting to/from the airports on ground transportation: Airport-City Transfer Time and Fares for Various Chinese Cities

Last edited by jiejie; Sep 2, 13 at 11:28 am Reason: updated information
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