Aug 132011
 
Flying over the cracked ice of Northern Canada!

Flying over the cracked ice of Northern Canada!

Hello from China, all the way across the world from where I was last week!

In the five days since I arrived here, I’ve already hiked the Great Wall, reunited with my dear friend Gareth who is teaching here through Peace Corps, toured the Forbidden City and Tienanmen Square, taken a 15 hour sleeper train to the center of the country, and (continuously) stuffed myself silly on mouth-watering Chinese food. In short, life is great, this trip is awesome, and you will hear about every part of it in detail. But first: let’s discuss the flight to get here!

One reason it is particularly important to re-create the experience of the flight is because this coming February, I’m taking several dozen Boston Public Schools students to China, and many of them have never flown before… let alone to China! I want them to find clarity and calmness from this article. And for the rest of you readers who are thinking of flying to Asia in the future, or for those just curious about what the experience is like, this article will work for you, too. Here we go!

Our super-cool Beijing (PEK) route: over the North Pole!

Our super-cool Beijing (PEK) route: over the North Pole!

Q1: What route does a plane take to fly from the U.S. to China?

A1: As with all plane routes, there are several options, but we took the coolest and fastest one: over the North Pole! As you can see from the lead photo, the scenery got more and more icy and dramatic. Did I see Santa and his elves? I shall not reveal.

Q2: How long does it take to fly from New York City directly to Beijing?

A2: The flight to China takes around 12 hours. Now, I wish I had known this before I sat down, because look at the photo to the left to see the horrific thing our welcome screen declared: “Time to Destination: 24 Hours.”  I freaked out about this for a solid hour until finding out THIS IS NOT TRUE! Rather, it is a cruel trick played by the 12 hour time difference being added to the 12 hour flight time. If, however, you’re still daunted by the idea of sitting in a plane seat for 12 hours, don’t sweat it because it goes by shockingly fast. Read the next bit for why.

24 hours to Beijing from New York?! NOT TRUE!

24 hours to Beijing from New York?! NOT TRUE!

Q3: What entertainment can I possibly do for 12 straight hours?

Q4: I promise you, the time will zip by. On almost all international flights, you have a cute private TV screen from which you can select any of the hundreds of free moves offered (including some really hot new releases). On your TV screen, you can also select and watch any of the dozens of popular TV shows available for no charge… and also play a bevy of video games!

If you ever tire of the colors coming from your screen, you can also read a book or play a game you’ve brought, gaze out the window, chat with fellow passengers, or… (particularly important on overnight flights) sleeeeeep!

Q4: What should I bring to be prepared?

China will welcome you! It's worth the flight.

China will welcome you! It’s worth the flight.

A4: The #1 item you should buy before your trip is an inflatable neck pillow that wraps in a “U” around your neck to support your head while you nap in a seated position. Though the airline will give you a free clean pillow and blanket, an inflatable neck pillow costs $6-$12 and makes you worlds more comfortable. If you are taking an overnight flight and planning on sightseeing starting the day you arrive, every minute of sleep you can get on the plane is important.

To this end, also bring a cheap eye mask to block the light, earplugs, a long-sleeved shirt (planes get chilly), and a water bottle as the air becomes dry and you need to keep hydrating. You will also want your toothbrush and toothpaste in your carry-on luggage, and contact lens solution and your case handy, though I always wear my glasses onto a plane ride longer than 4 hours because my eyes get so dry.

Other good items to bring for plane entertainment include: books to read (or an e-Reader like a Kindle), playing cards or small games (I thrive on crosswords), a camera (to take cool photos out the window), a journal and pen, possibly a laptop (if it’s light and you can turn off the WiFi), and anything else you enjoy to stay amused. Also, bring gum to chew and help your ears get accustomed to the altitude. Gum will also keep you sweet-smelling if you want to chat with your seatmates.

Q5: How’s the airplane food?

After the flight you can hike the Great Wall of China!

After the flight you can hike the Great Wall of China!

A5: Am I crazy if I tell you I honestly like airplane food? On our flight, the flight attendants were all fancy and handed us a menu of the three different meals we would be served during the flight… and I delighted in each meal as it arrived! I also like that you can get tons of juices and sodas that you don’t normally sample. Tomato juice, anyone?

Q6: What else should I know about a flight across the world?

A6: Because of the pressure changes, sealed liquid containers like water bottles and contact lens cases tend to leak. Make sure not to place your water bottle near valuables (unless they are sealed in plastic bags), and do check for leaks at the end of the flight.

Because you will be entering a different country, you will be expected to fill out entry paperwork in the last hour of the flight, so have a pen and your passport handy when the flight attendants come around with the forms.

But overall, remember this: your flight will be fantastic, it will go much more quickly than you expect, and you will have a great time, both on the plane and when you arrive in Asia!

Readers who have flown from the U.S. to Asia, what additional advice do you have for first-time long distance air travelers?

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  14 Responses to “What to Expect on a Flight from the U.S. to China”

  1. I’ve never been on a flight for longer than 8 hours, so I always wonder how I’d manage with one that’s longer! My trick would be to have a (strong) Irish coffee and try and get some sleep ;-)

  2. My tip is to figure out a way to fly business class on one of the planes where you have your own little cubicle and the seat lays flat into a bed ;-)

  3. My flights to/from China were into Hong Kong. First one was 22 1/2 hours with a layover in Vancouver. Best advice I have for the long flight is to take a sleeping pill or night time cold medicine to help knock you out–also helps with jetlag.

  4. I’m glad you enjoyed the flight. I have done a lot of long haul flights from New Zealand to LAX and back and you are right, they do go much quicker than you expect. A couple of other things – get up and walk as much as you can. I usually stop in the gap between the bathrooms and do some stretches. It’s really important to do that for your health. Watch out for your feet swelling up. If you don’t exercise and you slip your shoes off you may not be able to get them back on again at the end of the flight.If you have a laptop or tablet with you and you are doing an overnight flight, think about the people sitting next to you. I once did a 12 hr overnight flight sitting between 2 men who both had their laptops on all night. The flickering screens drove me nuts! I take a sleep mask with me now – you look like a total dork, but who cares because they work fine. Also – about the chewing gum. If you are culturally sensitive, you might like to think about that. Not everyone finds the American habit of chewing gum on all occasions to be particularly pleasant or appropriate! For some cultures it is seen as rude.

  5. Thanks for this post! I have my first long haul flight later this month from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, then onto Singapore. Was wondering how it would be like, but now I have an idea. :)

    • Great! You’ll have a positive experience. On my long flight from Shanghai back to Boston, I may or may not have watched 4 movies back to back… :)

  6. Sounds like you handled the flight like the traveling champ you are! Have a great trip, Lillie!

  7. Sounds like a great start to the trip. I forgot to tell you to say hi to Gareth, so do say hi next time (or hi anyway Gareth if you are reading this).

    I don’t mind airline food either. I think it is because it is served on long haul flights, which is then associated with an epic trip somewhere.

    Also on the 24 hours, that is how long it takes to fly from Melbourne to London, which is hard work in economy.

    Enjoy the rest of China!

    • James,

      Love this response! :) I will keep that 24-hour stat in mind if I fly to Melbourne in the future (which I do hope to, eventually). Yikes!
      Indeed, this China trip got off to a great start, and has remained epic and exceptional ever since. More updates coming asap, and Gareth says hi to you, too!

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