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Living in China places most expats in a part of the world they have never been. While you often hear of people backpacking through Europe or taking road trips in the United States, the idea of travelling through Asia hasn’t quite caught up in popularity – yet. But as more flights open up every day, airline carriers have been able to offer some amazing deals that make city or country-hopping from China a very real possibility. Inexpensive airlines give us expats the golden opportunity to take advantage of our unique position on the global map. So what are your best bets when looking for airline travel on a budget? Luckily, you’ve got options.

Cheap Airlines Around China
Photo: appletravel.cn

1)  Spring Airlines (http://www.chinaspringtour.com/flight/index.jsp)
Spring Airlines is known as one of the cheapest of the cheap when it comes to domestic China travel. They connect to 21 different Chinese cities, including Shanghai, Beijing and Xi’an, and do so at prices that won’t gauge your wallet. For example, a flight from Guangzhou to Sanya can be found for 820 RMB*. This is the ideal airline to use if you’re planning on exploring the country and foregoing international travel. As with most budget airlines, however, you don’t get this cheap price for nothing. Leg room on the aircraft is, to put it nicely, cramped, and there is no free food or beverages offered on the plane. But the crew is always helpful and the planes are in good, if not great, condition.

In addition, you’ll have to listen to a constant sales talk as someone stands in the front and pitches various products throughout the duration of your flight. I’ve found sleeping to be a good way to avoid this annoyance, however, and certainly worth the cheap ticket price! Spring Airlines also has one of the more forgiving cancellation policies if your plans change. You can cancel online if you haven’t received your physical tickets yet. If you have, call their customer service department to cancel. If it’s more than 24 hours before your flight, they will charge you 10% of the ticket price and refund you the rest. If it’s within two to 24 hours, you’ll be charged 20%, and less than two hours before the flight will cost you 30%.

Cheap Airlines Around China
Photo: fastcompany.com

2)  Air Asia (www.airasia.com/cn/en/home.html)
There are also a few budget airlines that fly internationally. You can get a round trip flight from Guangzhou to Bangkok on Air Asia for example, for 1,094 RMB*. Because they’re an international airline, Air Asia’s starting destinations in China are restricted to the more outlying cities such as Chengdu, Guangzhou and Tianjin. Be aware, however, that these starting locations greatly limit your destination choices. If you begin in Chengdu, for example, your only flight options are to Australia and Malaysia, and starting in Guangzhou lets you fly to either Malaysia or Thailand. Air Asia is generally a great bargain, especially when you book online (trying to do so at the airport or physical ticket sales office is simply a hassle). The electronic check-in at the airport has a spotty record, but the staff is known to be quite friendly (if not fluent in English). Air Asia is great for making trips to the outlying Asian countries, but be sure you are absolutely committed once you book a flight – there are no cancellations or refunds given once payment is made.

Cheap Airlines Around China
Photo: wordpress.com

3)  Cebu Pacific Air (http://www.cebupacificair.com/)
If you’ve ever made a trip to the Philippines, chances are you’ve heard of Cebu Pacific Air. One of their most popular airlines, they’ve been shuttling people from China to the Philippines and back for years. Lest you think that’s their only destination, however, Cebu Pacific actually provides some of the most comprehensive flight routes of all the budget companies. While they only fly out of China from the main cities – Beijing, Shanghai, and Guanzhou – you have a wide range of international destinations to choose between, including Japan, South Korea and Indonesia. The prices are reasonable, with a flight from Guangzhou to Singapore only setting you back 1,900 RMB*. If you can snag one of their amazing (but elusive) “Go Fares,” the prices get even better.

Their customer service department doesn’t have the best reputation, so I’d recommend avoiding it if at all possible. Also keep in mind that they tend to be particularly strict with luggage weight restrictions, so make sure you follow the rules to avoid a headache. Overall, almost everyone I’ve talked to has found the hassles of the “no-frills” Cebu Pacific more than worth the price. And if you need to cancel your ticket for some reason, be aware that there is a flat 350 RMB* cancellation fee

4)  Tiger Airways (www.tigerairways.com/au/en/index.php)
Tiger Airways also offers international flights on a budget, although their range is more restrictive than Cebu Pacific’s. Their Chinese hubs are Guangzhou and Shenzhen, from which you can fly to Singapore. If you cross the border to Hong Kong and fly from there, your options expand to include Australia. Despite the fact that they are more restricted in their flight routes (or perhaps because of?), Tiger Airways can offer rock bottom deals. Their flight from Guangzhou to Singapore, for example, only runs 1,050 RMB* – about 850 RMB cheaper than Cebu Pacific’s. As with most budget airlines, you must pay for any food and drink you get on board. The cabins are some of the cleanest and least shabby ones out there, and the on board staff are particularly helpful. There have been numerous complaints from customers trying to swap or cancel a flight, so do your best to stick with whatever flight you originally booked. If you must cancel, however, there is a set 255 RMB fee to do so.

Tips for buying tickets:

1)There are some basic things you can do to get the lowest possible cost when buying plane tickets, whether you’re using a budget airline or not. Most importantly, you should shop around. Checking out the websites of different airlines helps, as does checking out websites like www.elong.com and www.ctrip.com which can do the comparisons for you. It’s very rare that you will find the cheapest flight the first place you look, so do your research before booking.

2)Also keep in mind that flying to or from neighboring cities may cut down the cost significantly. Flying out of Hangzhou, for example, can sometimes be much cheaper than flying out of Shanghai. This price difference may be worth the hour train ride between the two cities.

3)As crazy as it is, sometimes a round trip ticket is cheaper than buying a one-way. So even if you only have to go one-way, check out the round-trip price – I don’t know why or how it works, but I know from experience that it does!

4)You can usually find the cheapest fares if you book your flight early (three or more weeks in advance) or if you book your flight very late (within a day or two of the flight leaving). So if you know you’re going to want to go somewhere a few months in advance, go ahead and book it. Or, if you’re the spontaneous type, just check out what’s available right before you want to leave. You should find a signficant price difference either way.

5)And lastly, flexibility is the key to finding cheap airfare. While Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays have the reputation for being the cheapest days to fly, you can certainly find exceptions. That’s why it pays to be able to leave or come back a day or two earlier than originally planned. If that’s a possibility for you, make sure to investigate the fares for the surrounding dates.

Safe travels!

* Prices quoted accurate at the time of writing

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