Help us get to Shanghai for cheap!
August 8, 2010 9:00 PM   Subscribe

Boyfriend and I are flying out to Shanghai from New York City sometime late September or October. Kayak's cheapest flights are on: China Eastern Airlines, Air China, Delta, and on occasion, Continental. Reviews for all seem pretty bleak. :( It's a good 14-20 hour flight; please help: Which airline is the best of the worst?

Other random facts: I am 5'10" tall so being cramped for half a day in the air isn't preferable. On the other hand, perhaps it might be bearable with decent entertainment options? We aren't staying in Shanghai long and I've read horror stories about certain airlines being notorious for having delays. That would be the absolute worst situation.

I think we're hoping for around a grand or less round-trip, after taxes and fees. Any tips on how to get cheaper flights (such as ideal travel dates) also definitely welcomed. :)
posted by pinksoftsoap to Travel & Transportation around Shanghai, China (24 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Try Under the 'flexible dates' link, you tell it how many nights you want to be gone & it can search a 30-day window for you. I've always found my cheapest flights here, with the exception of flying Delta. They always have either the same price as Hotwire (or cheaper) on
posted by East Siberian patchbelly wrangler at 9:14 PM on August 8, 2010

I've been to China four times and you get what you pay for. The Chinese Airlines are definitely low budget. For example I flew from Beijing to LA on Air China and they didn't have those little air blowers above your seat. And, the Chinese like their rooms/airplanes warm, it smells great after 14 hours in a confined cabin. Also the food on Chinese airlines will be not only typical airline quality but weird Chinese dishes....bleah!...and I'm pretty tolerant of Chinese food in general.

Chinese airlines will have a TV screen in the front of the cabin which will cycle through several movies/shorts, that's it except for the usual magazines/catalogs which will be mostly in Chinese.

In my experience flying both out of China and between destinations in China there will be weird inexplicable/unexplained delays. Suck it up, it's what you get.

Also flying out of China you will not be allowed to carry water onto the plane.

In summary, fly first world airlines.
Have fun Shanghai is excellent.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 9:18 PM on August 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Short version: what confess,fletch said. Do not under any circumstances fly a Chinese airline. If there's no other alternative... walk. Seriously. Life's just too short to do that to your body and senses.
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 9:23 PM on August 8, 2010

Chinese airlines all suck, in my experience. I wouldn't fly across an ocean on them. Other Asian airlines are great, however. I've flown Cathay Pacific, Asiana, and Korean Air--all were excellent. They're more expensive, but much better experiences.
posted by smorange at 9:28 PM on August 8, 2010

The Chinese airlines are definitely not "third world" airlines. In fact, I'd strongly place US international airlines in the "third world" category before grouping in the China carriers. The "little air blowers" at the seat are aircraft-type unique. You won't see them in a 747-400 or a 777 or in most wide-body aircraft, no matter which airline you fly.

As to the continued generalisations about Chinese preferring a hot cabin and serving weird Chinese dishes, again not true. You will likely get a chicken or beef and/or possibly fish option with rice or noodles. Although, the serving size is meagre. Carrying liquids on board returning back to the US is a US restriction and will be the same for all airlines. Lastly, there might not be a personal video screen, but there is slightly more room between the seats in Coach.

I'm based in Shanghai and fly regularly around the country and internationally. There are frequent delays on the domestic routes, but mainly due to weather conditions are the destination. Not for any inexplicable/unexplained reason. In fact, they do an excellent job of updating status on delayed flights, including the reasons why. If you watch the news, you'd realise that China has some pretty extreme weather that would reek havoc on the US networks as well.

If I had to fly direct from China to US and return in Coach, I'd choose China Eastern or Air China over any of the US carriers any day. But all that said, if I had the alternative I would take Cathay to HKG and then DragonAir to Shanghai. Fwiw, I'm originally from the US and am I'm 5'11" (or ~183cm)
posted by michswiss at 9:46 PM on August 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

I've flown from the East coast to China several times. It is a very unpleasant experience for someone who doesn't fit comfortably in an airline seat. If you've never experienced the jetlag of that kind of trip, you're in for a special treat.

I'd definitely agree to the sentiment about Chinese airlines, unless you count Cathay, they're all less pleasant to fly on than American airlines, which themselves are not so great. However, my first priority for any flight would be getting a good assigned seat if possible. My most nightmare flying experience ever was getting a middle seat on a 16 hour flight from Chicago to Hong Kong. I'd much rather fly Air China or whatever if I could assure my choice of seat.

Also, you should keep in mind that October 1st is a huge holiday in China and any type of travel within China can be nightmarish during that week. I'd do my best to avoid it.
posted by bluejayk at 9:47 PM on August 8, 2010

You are flying at a peak period so if you can, schedule around the October holiday of October 1-7. The two weeks immediately before and after would also be considered a peak period.

I haven't flown Delta or Continental, but I would rather fly Air China than American Airlines or United, that's for certain. Air China has meager entertainment options, but the food is okay. The seats are relatively small and the legroom between the seats equally tight.

China Eastern I've flown on and absolutely hate, as the food is pitiful and the service is rude.

I'm based in Beijing and like michswiss, when I fly in and out of China, I'll usually go through Hong Kong first. I prefer to fly on Cathay Pacific as well; it's more expensive but between the relatively tasty food, the comfortable seats (though I'm 5'1" so YMMV), the excellent and gracious service, and the entertainment consoles where you can choose your own entertainment options, it's been worth it.
posted by so much modern time at 10:32 PM on August 8, 2010

Stay the hell away from China Eastern.
The food is terrible and in general the passenger experience is awful (sorry, but substantially worse than Delta, US Airways or any budget class domestic US airline I've flown.)
For some reason, people (including the flight attendants) on the flight didn't seem to be in the habit of shutting the restroom door each time I've flown with them. Meaning that a faint chemical toilet smell wafting through the cabins unfortunately
posted by Bwithh at 11:08 PM on August 8, 2010

I've only flown China Eastern domestically and never had a significant issue with them. Mea culpa if their international service isn't up to standard (not that it's all that great.) I have a colleague that just completed a round trip from SH--BJ--NYC--BJ--SH two weeks ago. Outbound was on AA and the return on Air China. He's vowed to never fly AA again. I'll be in NYC in two weeks but will likely travel via Singapore, another option for the slightly more expensive tier 1 Asian airlines.

Lastly, Nthing the holidays. Things will be a little nuts, hopefully in a fun way, around those dates. Hope you have beds sorted.
posted by michswiss at 11:47 PM on August 8, 2010

Ugh, stay clear from China Eastern Airlines for long distance flights.

Cathay Pacific would be a good option if you're willing to do a stopover in Hong Kong. A quick search on the airline's website gives me a price of $1,264 - you may be able to find lower prices on third party sites.
posted by hellopanda at 12:11 AM on August 9, 2010

Korean Air, 27 Sep - 7 Oct (other dates were available), $1030 round-trip with tax, from their own website.

Great service
, easy transfer in Seoul, a great deal for this time of year.
posted by mdonley at 1:38 AM on August 9, 2010

For $1265, Cathay Pacific will get you from JFK to Shanghai and back via Hong Kong. Also great service, and a shorter layover.

Basically, check the airline's individual websites. I think the Korean Air deal is better - it's a shorter flight to Seoul as well!
posted by mdonley at 1:54 AM on August 9, 2010

I've done that route multiple times, and honestly flying with a Chinese airline is just the same as a US airlines, with the exception of Cathay Pacific (but they're Hong Kong, so well that's another topic). For both, the food's going to be bland and you're going to be squeeze in for a good while.

US airlines- not everyone fits in the seat so you could be crammed next to someone for a 10hr+ flight

Chinese airlines- smaller stature, but more pushing and shoving

Anyway, since you're flying from the east coast, I imagine for the cheapest flights they'll have you land somewhere in the midwest for a connection before going direct into China ie Delta or Continental. If you go a little more out of the way with a longer flight and a bit more pricey, it'd end up being Korean Airlines or Cathay Pacific. A good ball park cost with US airlines has always been $1000 for me (the last 2 years).
posted by peachtree at 5:05 AM on August 9, 2010

BTW, Cathay Pacific uses unusual seats. They don't recline. Instead they rotate within the seat's shell to basically tilt you back a bit. They are good because they preserve your leg room (the shell of the seat in front of you is fixed) but they don't really recline as nicely as a real seat. People have mixed opinions on them.
posted by smackfu at 5:54 AM on August 9, 2010

I agree with michswiss actually. I flew to Singapore via Beijing from JFK on Air China and it was fine. Not luxury mind you, bring your iPod and your own snacks etc. but I've had much, much worse experiences on US carriers in my time.
posted by the foreground at 8:32 AM on August 9, 2010

Two data points: I flew NY to Beijing on Korean Air and it was by far my favorite long-haul flight. Anything I've flown on AA has been basically awful.
posted by kate blank at 10:11 AM on August 9, 2010

I just made this *very* trip on China Eastern (the JFK-->PDG leg).

Here's my assessment:

*The airline itself is fine. Adequate, certainly. But the other posters are right that there will be very little in the way of entertainment on the flight for an English speaker.

*The food isn't terrible. Really, it's not. It's not amazing, but it's standard for a coach meal.

*Coughing. Oh god, the coughing. There seems to be a cultural rift between the US and China around when it's appropriate to cover your mouth when coughing. In China, it is apparently never necessary to cover your mouth. Just be prepared to get sick afterwards. I was ill for two weeks after I returned to the US, and I can pretty much pinpoint it to being stuck in that airplane. I also flew MU (China Eastern) to Singapore from Shanghai and had an even worse flight, filled with ailing passengers who were only too happy to share their germs.

*Cathay Pacific is substantially better. You can also get cheaper tickets on the Cathay flights if you look for their codeshare flights. I booked my ticket through an American airline, but the flight was actually a Cathay flight. I saved $600 off the cost of the same seat, versus what I would have paid, had I booked with Cathay.
posted by yellowcandy at 11:22 AM on August 9, 2010

As a westerner living in China for a while, I can substantiate the coughing. But I can also understand where it evolves. There's a lot of, um, stuff to clear on occasion. The air quality seems to have improved in Shanghai since last year, but it's still a far sight from what even a New Yorker is used to. They aren't ailing, they're just clearing out the lungs.

It isn't going to be a fun flight no matter what. What I would value most is the chance to get the best seat selection, which is often based on status. Air China is Star Alliance (United), China Eastern is Sky Team (Delta?), Cathay is Oneworld (AA). Factor that in with the price and the possible need for a transfer or layover. I find looking forward to the experience in the arrival airport after a long flight can offset some of the discomforts of the flight itself. Even if there's another short flight afterwards. Helps me feel human again.
posted by michswiss at 12:35 PM on August 9, 2010

Anyway, since you're flying from the east coast, I imagine for the cheapest flights they'll have you land somewhere in the midwest for a connection before going direct into China ie Delta or Continental.

I didn't realize this before I flew this route recently, but you really want a flight that goes straight north out of the New York area when going to SE Asia. Even though it's not how we think of the world, connecting in Chicago adds 500 miles, connecting in LA adds 1700.
posted by smackfu at 12:45 PM on August 9, 2010

I just flew China Eastern twice and it was later both times. First time we sat at the gate 1.5 hours with no air on. It was hot and sweaty. The stewardess told me I could stand in front of the refrigerator, which I did.

I also flew on Delta and they seem to have more than normal leg room in economy class. One leg of the flight had enough new and class movies to keep me busy the full 12 hours (if I didn't take that sleeping pill). Pretty good food on Delta, too! (2 meals and a snack, free beer and wine).
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 4:57 PM on August 9, 2010

*late both times
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 4:57 PM on August 9, 2010

Of the deals mentioned in this thread, I'd take the Korean Air flight. The service is much better than anything you'd get from a North American airline--and all the flight attendants speak clear English. The food is award-winning, and for good reason. A layover in Seoul/Incheon isn't such a bad thing either. The Incheon airport is big but easier to navigate than Hong Kong's.
posted by smorange at 8:35 PM on August 9, 2010

Matrix2 ( also shows some flights on Air Canada for around US$1050 via Toronto, later in October.

This is about the same price as the US carriers. Not sure if Air Canada is a better experience.
posted by dave99 at 1:29 AM on August 10, 2010

Chinas Airlines are fine if it is an international flight.
Continental "screw-U" is the worst airline.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 9:39 PM on August 27, 2010

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