Booking China Domestic Flight Outside China

My friend asked me whether it is cheaper to book China domestic flights within China than outside China. It is for sure – almost always so.

When I check popular ticket booking website in U.S, like Expedia, Travelocity, I am amazed on how big the price difference is, for the same China domestic flight between US agent price and China local price. Here are some examples for China domestic flight booking.

Example 1: Shanghai to Beijing Round Trip

SHAPEK: March 19

PEKSHA: March 21 price: 308 USD or 2464 RMB. There are two flights to be chosen from.


Image in courtesy of

From (The largest China online booking system)

SHAPEK: March 19

PEKSHA: March 21

CTRIP Price:

SHAPEK: CA178 08:20 10:30 767 Y 50/40 1130 620

PEKSHA: HU7603 17:00 18:40 767 Y 50/40 1130 570

The lowest combination is 1190 RMB, or about 150 USD.

There are 42 flights to be chosen from on the day of March 19, from Shanghai to Beijing…

Example 2: From Shanghai to Guiyang

Let’s choose another route – a more rare route.

SHAKWE: March 19

KWESHA: March 21

Round trip.

Expedia Price: 579 USD

CTRIP Price: 1440 RMB or 180 USD

For other routes, the local price is definitely cheaper than U.S. price.

Conclusion: Find Friends in China to book your tickets

So when you are traveling with limited budget within China, and you need to transit to cities other than port cities (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou), my suggestion is to find local friends to help you to book the ticket using domestic agent, or just use

The difference for International flights are not so big compared to China domestic flights. There are several reasons: 1. For domestic flights, the discounted price is the mainstream offering. You can easily find 70% to 50% discount prices. 2. Domestic flights are not in the global distribution system, so it is invisible for most users.

The airline market in China, as many other areas, are highly competitive, and flexible – by flexible, I mean the price, the service, and the schedule are not fixed. It is not always good thing, (also, not always bad thing to have). This kind of flexibility seldom gets reflected in the international systems.

P.S. Previous, I have published an article called PVG: Book Domestic Flight in China

37 thoughts on “Booking China Domestic Flight Outside China

  1. Even booking tickets through your hotel’s travel desk would be cheaper, possibly even cheaper than CTrip.

  2. I fear the deep discounted fare will eventually render the airliners to operate with a lower denominator. At the end, it is the traveller who suffers.

  3. i have relatives who work as ex-pat executives in the chinese airline industry. what a nightmare it is from the inside… safety issues, ticketing nightmares, terrible customer service and rarely the ‘flexibility’ issue you speak of.

    just the fact that they can’t sell you a ticket 6 months down the road (let alone 2 months!) doesn’t lend itself to much flexibility. as convoluted as the international airline industry is, it is set up much better still…

    expect the unexpected when you fly chinese airlines: cancelled flights, changing departure gates (without notification in english!), etc.

    to their credit, i’m told chinese airlines are MUCH better than they were even 3-5 years ago..but they still have a long way to go.

  4. On the quality of most Chinese airlines, (and other services), I would complain as much as you do dezza. However, I would argue that complain is the first step someone can do to help. There are second and third steps that one should take. Of cause, people who are not from China may only compare the airlines with other airlines and does not choose it. However, as a Chinese resident, I believe there must be some ways to help.

    To setup a page to explain the difference (in English) can be a way. To try to learn the difference (consistency? efficiency?) is another way to help. Only when more and more people in China start to learn the difference and taking more global perspective can the airlines, along with other industries, improve.

    I read a book about history. To grow a tulip and see it from root to flower can help you appreciate the flower much more than those in shops. it is the same for Chinese airlines. The different is, people within the country are the one to improve it while it is only part of his/her own world-wide travel experience for visitors just stayed few days in the country.

  5. Many of the domestic Chinese airlines are trying to join one of the international points programs ie. Star Alliance.

    The problem is that these alliances require the airline to live up to a certain standard. They therefore are not allowing any of the Chinese airlines to join yet.

    I’m biased with Star Alliance and will only fly their airlines if possible. I flew China Eastern international on 2 trips. I will never fly with them again even if they were 100 USD cheaper compared to Air Canada. For some reason, China Eastern decided to shrink the legroom in only my seat by 6 inches. 6 inches in economy is a big deal when you are flying a 12 hour flight. They refused to upgrade the 2 of us to executive although it was obvious it was their fault. CE, go to hell!

    When you see a Chinese airline join one of those programs, you’ll know that it is one of the safer and trustworthy airlines to fly… I might not live to see that date.

  6. This is interesting discussion. The market in China and U.S are different. Customers have different preference and priority in choosing product, including airlines. We need to understand the different, and don’t operate the business in China using the U.S. way… Let’s me try to explain it in more details in the next entry… The discussion will continue..

  7. JS,

    It is the people who made the industry different than the others. Just like in the hospitality industry, the difference between 3 stars and five stars rating (Mandarin Oriental standard) are purely depend on human factors, people doing the right things at the right times and at the right places. The building, furniture, equipment and fixture plays an insignificant role in rating. The same also apply to airline industry.

  8. Never buy a domestic ticket for China online through a US agency. It just doesn’t make sense and you end up getting charged way too much.

    The other thing Americans need to know about Chinese domestic flights is the rather harsh baggage limits. Generally, you are limited to 1 (one) CHECKED bag, and even then the weight is below what you would expect in the US. Sometimes you can get by saying ‘I’m continuing from an International flight’ but sometimes you just get hosed.

    Also, and I’m not sure on this, remember that some Chinese airports require you to pay your airline tax separately, by going to a booth, giving up some money, and then taking the receipt to the counter to get your ticket. And some have SARS forms to fill out. I haven’t been domestic in China in about a year or so, so both of these things may have changed.

  9. Stephen: As I always tell my friends in and outside China, it’s not the hardware that needs changing. The hardware is top notch. It’s the software (people’s attitude) that need changing. Buying hundreds of new airplanes may make your airline look new and modern, but in actual fact, the training of the staff are the same as before. This also applies to new buildings and other new and shiny things in China.

    Andrew Leyden: It depends which city you fly out of. In Shanghai, you no longer have to pay the airport tax as that is charged in your ticket price already. That makes it a little more convenient.

  10. shockr,

    Want to hear something funny?, the world best airline operator is actually based in Hong Kong – CX, and the principal shareholder of this company is registrated in China, I guess this is merely a poor exchange of information.

  11. Some short remarks:

    Airport Tax for domestic and international flights is already for some time included in the ticket price. No need to worry about finding the desk to put down a 50 Rmb banknote.

    Health forms are pretty much part of travelling these days. Expect to fill in one of these before you can board.

    Luggage limits. One piece is the standard, max. weight is 20 Kg.

    From my experience it depends on the airport if they give you a break. Some airports are known for the fact their scales are working against you in order for you to fork out more money, (Tour guides told me Guilin Airport is good at this.

    But that is the Checked-in luggage. You can be pretty creative with luggage you bring on board.

    Some questions in case anybody knows.

    I was wondering if the seat pitch on Chinese airlines is less than on Western Airlines. I have the feeling it is but no proof.

  12. Thanks, Chinasnippets. All the information you provided as accurate.

    For the seat space, I would say, most of flight I took are the standard version of Boeing or Airbus. The airline I have ever took with shorter space is Dragon airlines. I was very happy to try out dragon airlines last time I went to Hong Kong. I thought it is a very nice one, but I was really driven mad by the short space they have.

  13. fyi, cathay’s majority shareholder is swire, a british conglomerate based in hong kong. company is registered in hong kong, china not china, china per se. senior management are all highly experienced aviation personnels and are predominantly from australia, uk and hong kong, none from china.

  14. CX principal shareholder is CITIC (25%) a state owned investment company in China and both CTS and CNAC have stake in the company and I don’t have the latest update.

  15. CX did the deal to aquire a piece of China Air or Dragon that I thought required a piece of CX being sold to China. Sort of a stock swap.

    When I asked some guys in Hong Kong if it meant we were going to see Chinese managers take over Cathay, he replied that would be like “the Keystone Cops taking over the FBI.”

    The current Cathay management are here:,,47774,00.html

  16. stephen,

    please check your facts before stating it as if it is fact – cathay has always been been majority owned by swire pacific, since the day it was listed on the hk stock exchange. citic is a passive shareholder and has only invested in cx post listing. checkout cathay’s website at to correct yourself.

    swire owns 46.82 % of cathay pacific and citic only holds 25.69 %. management is all from international / multinational backgrounds, none from china. the professionalism at cathay is not from china. citic doesn’t run anything at cathay pacific, only as a passive investor.

    they have no input other than helping out cathay in getting china route allocations when and if it happens. so far cathay only flies to xiamen and beijing in china, the shanghai route has been discussed and on the table for the last 3 years and citic has done nothing much in aiding to get the route going.

    chairman and ceo of cathay pacific has been british or australian since the day it became a airline until the present hong kong ceo came into his post. he was previously from dragonair, another hk based airline that has a level of professionalism that the chinese airlines only tries to adopt but had difficulties. check around on the airfares between dragonair and the china based airlines… there is a very noticeable difference……

    here’s a complet list of the Senior Management at cathay pacific


    Christopher Pratt

    Deputy Chairman

    Henry Fan

    Chief Executive

    Philip Chen

    Chief Operating Officer

    Tony Tyler

    Finance Director

    Robert Atkinson

    Director Service Delivery

    Quince Chong

    Director Flight Operations

    Nick Rhodes

    Engineering Director

    Derek Cridland

    Director Sales & Marketing

    James Barrington

    Director Personnel

    William Chau

    Director Corporate Development

    Augustus Tang

    Director Information Management & e-Business

    Edward Nicol

    Director and General Manager Cargo

    Ron Mathison

  17. zippy,

    I think you have misinterpreted the team ‘principal’ shareholder, yes, both Swire and CITIC are the owners of CX together with other shareholders, but the management is appointed by the board of directors represented by the owners.

  18. zippy,

    I just remember both CX and CITIC are also the owners of Dragonair, or as the principal shareholders. The relation and interest between Swire CNAC and CITIC are beyond my knowledge.

  19. stephen,

    if u don’t understand how corporate jargon goes, brush up before posting.

    there are majority, substantial and minority shareholders , no principal shareholders in ibank talk. ask any ibanker.

    and i do understand how a proper corporation is managed.

    the whole board of executive directors at cathay pacific are controlled by directors nominated by swire pacific, thus ensuring the day to day management at cathay is controlled by swire as thay are the majority shareholder of cathay (46.82%)

    executive directors, which cathay has 5 – are all nominated by swire pacific and all of either uk, hk or australia origin. 5 out of 5 executive directors are all from swire group – that makes swire the driver in cathay pacific. this 5 executive directors then designate and hire other senior management to run the day to day operations at cathay together with themselves. there are no china “expertise” in running cathay pacific. cathay’s claim to fame as the 2005 airline of the year is led by this 5 executive directors which are all not from china. cathay is not a china, china firm.

    citic has nominated a couple of directors on to the board of cathay as they are substantial shareholder (25.69%) of cathay but they are of the non executive directors category (persons not running the firm) – son of citic chairman, carl yung and another person from china – zhang xianlin. there are 7 non executive directors and citic has only 2 nominations… 2 out of 7 – more to check on the books and making sure their interest in cathay as passive investors are not forgotten.

    then, there are the independent non executive directors – 4 persons to ensure the minority shareholders are given some say. these 2 groups of independent non executive directors and non executive directors don’t run cathay.

    as u can see, swire directors run the show at cathay and the professionalism comes from these senior managers of the firm, not chinese parties from citic. cnac doesn’t own any shares of cathay pacific anymore. and the substantial shareholder (citic) has no input in the daily going ons at cathay pacific.

    hope that explains how things are at cathay pacific. hope cathay’s glory as a hong kong, china corporation is not gonna be claimed by self promoting china, china parties. professionalism rests in hong kong, not china.

    please ensure facts are checked and not misrepresent cathay as a “china, china” company – its a british/australian/hk run company, located in hong kong, china and the majority shareholder being the swire pacific group, a british conglomerate that has diversified biz operations all over the world that includes shipping, commodities trading, properties, hospitality and aviation not unlike the other big british conglomerate, jardines group.

  20. zippy, you are so funny, if you allege no Chinese from mainland are the member of CX management team, so let it be! I just said China is the part owner – principal shareholder of CX.

    Talking of the term ‘principal shareholder’ in the corporate jargon, check this out

    I am not intend to embarrass you, but after all, this blog are for casual chating only and I happen to have an accounting degree.

  21. stephen,

    u r the one thats offering the laughs here, ignorant of how things are at cathay and misusing of terms in labeling shareholding structures.

    ask anyone who is in ibanking if they use the term principal shareholder? u must the the sole accountant that uses this term and thinking its the way to go. like i said, stating things as facts before checking it out properly or understanding it is a huge problem with posts like this. the half knowledgable thinks that they know it all…. leave this matter to those that really knows – like someone that structures deals for cathay pacific. accountants are better at looking at the numbers and making sure its in the right columns and in a standarized format and acceptable standards. nothing else. r u an auditor? r u a corporate restructuring specialist? what is your invlovement in structures like cathay?

    u posted what u posted initially and what was the original true meaning of it?

    what were u trying to insinuate by linking a chinese (citic) substantial shareholding has with the best airline in the world for 2006 (cathay pacific)? any third grader can sense that u are trying to say that the china, china party is offering a world’s best airline to the world. absolutely hogwash and thats what i’m telling u and the rest that reads this postings/chats.

    and i can tell u for a fact that there is not a single chinese from mainland china that is running the really critical parts of cathay that makes it the 2006 airline of the year. there are chinese persons that works for cathay in various positions within cathay as an employee but none in the senior management and executive directors category.

    please don’t try to linked things together that doesn’t exist in the first place.

  22. zippy, you are so persistent, okay, let me say it one more time, CITIC a Chinese state owned investment company based in China has 25% stake in CX….. and is a principal shareholder.

    Talking of ibanking, are you referring as investment banking? the web which provided the definition on the term actually operated by one of the investment bank in US.

    If you wish to bickering on the same subject over and over again, I afraid I am unable to entertain you any longer.

  23. zippy, Don’t get mad with me! The in-depth knowledge of CX you posted couldn’t said better by the secretary-general himself. My compliment to you.

    In the last paragraph you mentioned both Swire and Jardine, as a matter of curious, how do these two ‘blue’ blooded British congomerates operate under the red flag without the British blessing. Have they loss their domination in business previously established?

  24. CX is a HK based company with foreign management skills. It is not a Chinese company with Chinese management skills. As a person that lives in Shanghai and deals with many nationalities in business, I do see the difference.

    I don’t want to get political but if you ask a HK citizen about who they are first, they will probably tell you they are a HK Chinese, and not just Chinese. There IS a difference. Now… do we want to discuss Taiwan? Haha.

  25. Thank you, Jian Shuo!

    I found some tickets on – works great. Can you tell me what airlines are better? Those in question are (Haikou-Beijing, 18/06/06):

    * Hainan Airlines

    * China Southern Airlines

    * Air China

    I primarily mean which one is likely to have better service.

    Yours, I.

  26. I’m looking at booking an Air China domestic ticket from the US. The price using Air China’s website (posted by ZZ, is much cheaper than ctrip. I’m wondering if you can use a US-based VISA (I called Air China and they said no, although I’m not sure if that is more due to my poor Mandarin/their poor English) or even a DISCOVER card, owing to their partnership with China Union Pay (which would avoid the foreign transaction fees associated with VISA). Also, does anyone know how you get the ticket (i.e., are they e-tickets that just require a printout, or do you have to pick up a ticket at an office or ticket counter)?

  27. I also have a huge problem with booking on the website with an Australian Visa Card. I spent probably about 7 hours longer than I should have in total to get a discount fare from Beijing to Guangzhou, the Visa payment gateway operated by ChinaBank just wont work for me, no matter who’s Visa card I used. I contacted the Call Centre, and China Bank, and they both blame each other! While in the mean time there is no way to book the ticket at all! So much for the benifits of Joining the Star Alliance Air China!

  28. I am trying to geta cheap ticket from Beijing to Kunming for next sunday returning one week later, Any tips?

    I tried to use all the chinese airlines website b ut they all wouldnt work for me


  29. I need domestic flights for 2 persons as follows:

    bejing – Chengdu : 28/4

    chengdu-guilin :4.5

    guilin- hong kong : 10/5

    How much it costs? give me a price for each flight


  30. I have made a lot of search on the internet, currently the best domestic website that provide domestic air ticket is, it’s very easy to navigate and search, and you can pay online via paypal, most important: they offer real-time discount fare as low as 60% off. Beleive or not, you can try it!

  31. Alright folks?

    There’s been some really awesome and helpful stuff here – thanks! :)

    I have a question that is probably quite obvious – if I were to book an internal flight in the UK (where I’m from) then I would book it really really early – possibly months in advance if I could – so I could get the cheapest fare possible. Is this the same rule for Chinese domestic flights? Or can you book them just a month or two in advance and get the cheapest fares? I’m wanting a round-trip from BeiJing to GuiLin end of June, beginning of July time.

    Looking forward to your invaluable help!

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