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 (which you can buy at this link) costs just a few dollars, 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 (click here for the camera I love), 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.

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

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

Q5: How’s the airplane food?

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?

What are the best hotels in China?

Curious? Click for surprisingly good deals on:

What are good and affordable tour options in China?

I highly recommend this China tour search engine, Viator (click to see it) to find affordable tours of all different lengths in many locations in China.

Considered purchasing travel insurance?

For a big trip like China, it’s smart to get travel insurance. Click here for info on Allianz Travel Insurance, and here for deals on Travelex Insurance. Safe travels!

Still searching for flights?

Here are my favorite flight search engines for great deals:

  • CheapAir has a good interface and customer service
  • Skyscanner has yielded some of the best flight deals I’ve ever found
  • Priceline lets you bid on the lowest prices

Some links in this article are affiliates, providing a small commission at no extra cost to you.


Tempted to click another article? Do it...

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

  1. I like to know how much is it for a ticket to China?

  2. For travelling to China in April, what type of clothes do you recommend?
    Any preference on departure city between Chicago or New York?

    • Hi Harlem,
      Thanks for reading and commenting! The answer to both your questions is, “It depends.” Clothing depends on where you’re going and what you’re doing (look up local temperatures for April), and the best departure city depends on your preference and the airline. Have a great trip!

  3. I’m pretty scared of flights… Mainly due to turbulence. Did you experience any and if you did how did you cope with it.?

    • Hi Jaime,
      Thanks for writing, and I agree that turbulence can be scary! Two things I do to calm down if it comes: First, remember the statistics that it is FAR safer to fly than to drive, and we think of driving as quite safe. Second, I close my eyes and pretend I’m on a bus on a bumpy road, since I feel calmer on a bus. Good luck!

    • Ok good, but in your personal experience did you experience any turbulence? And did you travel through California or New York?

    • I’ve flown to China through New York and through Chicago. There may have been slight turbulence at times, but I don’t really remember any which is a good sign that it was not bad! The worst turbulence I ever experienced was on a short flight between Boston and Washington, DC, which suggests that it’s often worse on short flights with smaller planes. Best of luck!

  4. All sorts of recent developments:

    1) Beijing, Guangzhou, and several other key international arrival points have implemented 48-hour or 72-hour visa-free schemes; great for an extended stopover between international flights. The Shanghai region (including the beautiful cities of Hangzhou and Suzhou) has been allowed to go even further, with a 6-DAY visa-free period. That’s plenty of time to drink in traditional culture and 21st-century excitement in a very Westerner-friendly part of the country.

    2) New-generation Boeing 787 and soon Airbus A350 equipment is allowing Transpacific carriers to introduce new nonstop routes that will help many travelers eliminate a connection somewhere on their journey. For instance, United Airlines has started nonstops from their San Francisco hub to Xi’an, Chongqing, and soon Hangzhou. Hainan Airlines has begun San Jose-Beijing service and plans to start Las Vegas flights this fall. Japanese carriers ANA and JAL have started flights from Tokyo to places like San Diego, Boston, and San Jose, and Cathay Pacific has started Boston-Hong Kong service. Seattle has seen huge growth recently in Asian nonstops from a variety of carriers, especially Delta.

    3) With new aircraft, it’s much more likely that electric power (by plug or USB) will be available to each seat, even in Coach. Likewise, inflight entertainment on seatback screens has improved substantially (even on US-based carriers…) This gives families a lot more flexibility on whether/what devices and/or non-powered activities to carry on. Some flights will even have over-water Internet access (for a hefty fee though.) Travelers need to do their homework before booking a flight, however, as not all planes in a carrier’s fleet have the same features.

  5. I’m going to China to meet my fiancee. Her favorite flower is carnation. Can I get that at the airport?

    • Aw, so sweet! Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to that, but perhaps call or tweet the airport? Good luck!

    • That will be decided at which airport you land in. The Beijing airport has a floral shop, and the Xiamen one does too, as well as Nanjing and Shanghai. It depends if they have carnations or not.

    • Thanks, Kay!

  6. When you got to china did you have a tour guide from a small company waiting for you. Not over two more couples. I carry a high end camera so want to take photos. We do not speak any Chinese so need help. We are experienced travelers. thanks

    • Hi Margie,
      Thanks for your question. I really do recommend arranging a tour guide. I’m an experienced traveler, but China was the most challenging place I’ve visited, in a large part because of the language and the pace and scale of things. Unfortunately, I can’t offer you the name of a specific company because the two guides I used during my two trips are no longer in business, but I’m sure you’ll find someone good. Have a fabulous trip!

  7. Thanks for the info for trip to China. I will be traveling to Beijing in April. I have already flown from Atlanta to Bangkok so the 12 hours as opposed to the 21 hour trip should be a breeze. Is there one travel site over another that you have found helpful in booking your international flights?


    • Hi Carol,
      Thanks for reading and commenting! Honestly, I’ve used all methods of booking flights, from various online tools to a human travel agent, and each has its pros and cons, so I can’t recommend one over the other. Best of luck, and have a great trip!

  8. Great tips! I am flying from MO to Beijing then to Bangkok this fall for a 3 week trip. Helped clear up some things, thanks! Can’t wait to see the Great Wall, do you have a list of the best “don’t miss sites” for those cities? I’m excited about the food lol!

  9. I will be traveling to Bangkok via Beijing shortly. My question is how roomy are those planes (I’m nervous about not having a window seat)? And are the seats standard? I’m really nervous about being semi comfortable during the long flight.

    • Hi Wanda. Thanks for reading and commenting! Planes have very different sizes of seats depending on the company and flight, but I’d guess Bangkok to Beijing should be fine. That’s actually not a terribly long flight (4.5 hours), so you should be just fine. Enjoy!

  10. Hi Lillie. I’ve traveled all through Europe with my 2 sons 18 and 15. I’m thinking of China. my concern is turbulence in a long flight. how would you handle it

    • Hi Valerie! Sounds like an exciting trip! In my experience, bigger and longer flights tend to be smoother, perhaps because you are higher up. That said, the rumble and slight bumps on an airplane actually help soothe children, from what I’ve seen with mine. Again, I can’t make any magic guarantees, but I wouldn’t stress too much about turbulence.

  11. To go from the US to China is a passport enough or do you need to get a visa also from China? Thanks

  12. Thanks for the wonderful article. I will be traveling to Shanghai during the summer and I was having a lot of anxiety over the flight. The longer one I have taken has been 6 hours and to top it off, during my last trip we got a great deal of turbulence. Needless to say I got really scared. Do you have any other tips for travelers to China?

  13. I will be flying from NYC to China in April longest flight I have taken was 9 hours. Thanks for the advice. Although I am not diabetic I wore socks for diabetics during that 9 hour flight, no swelling occured. The eye mask works wonders.

  14. Thank you for the information. My fiancé got a job offer as a teacher in China which would start in July. We have been going back and forth over it because it seems like such a long flight, from AZ to Beijing n about 24 hours, not sure I want to be on a plan that long in one sitting with the same pilot. You answered a lot of my questions. Though, I wonder if small children, toddlers are required to be in car seats, since most blogs I have read states that small children in China don’t use them in taxis or anything.

    • I’m glad the article was helpful! My suggestion (now that I have a kid, myself) is to bring a car seat regardless of the regulations in China. Follow the regulations of general safety. There are many inexpensive but quality, light car seats that you can often take with you on the plane, or gate check if need be. Happy travels!

  15. Thanks for this article. Very short, sweet, honest and informative.

  16. Great information. Thank you. I am flying to Beijing from Seattle later today.

  17. I’m flying to China in May… any tips for the overnight train?

  18. 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 😉

  19. 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 😉

    • That would be ideal! But how to do it without paying a fortune??

    • I’m wondering if it’s safe to eat in Cambodia that’s where I’m going

    • Hi Bruce,
      I had WONDERFUL food in Cambodia, so don’t worry. Just follow basic travel food guidelines like avoiding tap water and leafy, uncooked vegetables.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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… 🙂

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

  24. 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!

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>