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What to Expect on a Flight from the U.S. to China

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 Tiananmen 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 affiliate 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 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

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


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Michel

Thursday 28th of February 2019

This just makes me want to go there! I've read it is pretty hard to get a Chinese visa, did you experience any issue there?

Lillie Marshall

Thursday 28th of February 2019

It definitely is a complicated process! More about it here: https://www.aroundtheworldl.com/2011/08/04/pre-travel-freakouts-seventeen-days-in-china-edition/

Lee Jackson

Friday 5th of October 2018

Thanks for this interesting post! This article has nicely describes how to travel to China from US. You have clearly mentioned everything.

Ashleygeorge

Friday 4th of May 2018

Thanks for this post! I have a flight from Newyork to Beijing, china. Was wondering how it would be like. But now I have an Great Idea. I really appreciate the blog and Thanks for sharing such a beautiful informative information on the blog. I Look forward to get some more Article about the topic because I am a regular traveler. Thank you. Great Article!

melody

Wednesday 23rd of August 2017

pls i'll like to where i am likely to have a stop over if i am travelling from las vegas usa to beijing china??

Lillie

Friday 25th of August 2017

Hi Melody! Your layover location usually depends on where the airline you pick has a "hub" or main center. Check online flight search tools for options. Good luck!

Lou

Sunday 11th of June 2017

Hi I love this site, I travel into Europe next week from Atlanta. However I am thinking of buying a ticket to china whilst out there. Will I be allowed into China with my American passport?? If so what part please and for how long as I won't have applied for a visa from the united states.

Lillie

Sunday 11th of June 2017

Hi Lou, Thanks for your comment! Please be advised you DO need a visa to enter China, and it can take some time to get, so apply soon. My understanding is that you do not need a visa to visit Hong Kong, however, but you will need to verify that. Good luck and happy travels!

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