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GUIDE TO CHINA

GETTING THERE & AWAY


Airports & Airlines

Hong Kong , Beijing and Shanghai are China 's main international air gateways. In do past the cheapest way to get to China was via Hong Kong , but these days there is not that much variation in fares to Hong Kong and Chinese mainland cities. A lot of money is being invested in China's interna­tional airports, with a smart new terminal at Beiijing's Capital Airport and the new international Pudong Airport in Shanghai .

The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC; Zhongguo Minhang) acts as China's civil aviation authority. Although it operates a few uneconomical services, most flights are run by one of China's 30 or so airlines, only a handful of which operate in­ternational flights. Their safety record has ken fairly poor in the past, but it is im­proving. Air China , China's national flag carrier, celebrated a 46-year safe-flying record in 2001.

Buying Tickets

Stiff competition has resulted in widespread discounting on air tickets. Passengers flying in economy can usually manage some sort of discount, but unless you buy carefully and flexibly, it is still possible to end up paying exorbitant amounts for a journey. Discounts of some form or other are gener­ally available for students, those under 26 and the elderly. Seasonal fluctuations see ticket prices peaking between June and September. The cheapest tickets are round trip: one-way tickets work out to be more ex­pensive if returning to your point of depar­ture by air.

For long-term travel there are plenty of discount tickets that are valid for 12 months, allowing multiple stopovers with open dates. When you're looking for bargain air fares, go to a travel agent rather than directly to the airline. Airlines do oc­casionally have promotional fares and spe­cial offers, but generally they only sell fares at the official listed price.

Normally, the cheapest tickets to Hong Kong and China can be found in China­towns around the world. Other budget and student travel agents offer bargain tickets, but the real offers are in agents that deal with the Chinese who regularly return home (traveling at festival times such as the Chinese New Year will be more expen­sive however). A visit to your local China­town or a thumb through the Yellow Pages should unearth the lowest fares. Beyond Chinatown_ firms such as STA Travel, with offices worldwide and Council Travel in the USA offer competitive prices to most destinations.

When purchasing tickets through a travel agent paying by credit card generally of­fers protection as most card issuers provide refunds if you can prove you didn't get what you paid for. Similar protection can be obtained by buying a ticket from a bonded agent, such as one covered by the Air Travel Organizers License (ATOL) scheme in the UK . Agents who accept cash only should hand over the tickets straight away; after you've made a booking or paid your deposit, call the airline and confirm that the booking was made. It's generally not advisable to send money (even cheques) through the post unless the agent is very well established.

An increasing number of airlines fly to China , with Air China among the cheapest. The cheapest available airline ticket is called an APEX (Advance Purchase Excursion) ticket, although this type of ticket includes expensive penalties for cancellation and changing dates of travel.

Discounted air courier tickets are a cheap possibility, but they carry restric­tions. As a courier, you transport docu­ments or freight internationally and see it through customs. You usually have to sac­rifice your baggage and take carry-on lug­gage. Generally trips are on fixed, round-trip tickets and offer an inflexible period in the destination country. For more information, check out organizations such as the Courier Association ( www.aircourier.org ) or the International Associa­tion of Air Travel Couriers ( www.courier.org ).

Other possibilities include standby flights, but you will need a degree of flexi­bility as to when you want to fly. Agents trading in standby flights will try to get you a ticket for a flight within a certain time frame, but cannot guarantee to have you flying on a particular day.

If you purchase a ticket and later want to make changes to your route or get a refund. you need to contact the original travel agent. Airlines only issue refunds to the purchaser of a ticket - usually the travel agent who bought the ticket on your behalf. Many travelers change their routes halfway through their trips, so think care­fully before you buy a ticket that is not easily refunded.

Buying Tickets On Line

Many airlines offer excellent fares to Web Surfers. They may sell seats by auction or cut prices to re­flect the reduced cost of electronic selling. Numerous travel agents around the world have Web sites, which can make the Intel-­net a quick and easy way to compare prices - a good start for when you're ready to start negotiating with your favourite travel agency. Try Council ( www.counciltravel.com ) or STA ( www.statravel.com ).

To bid for last minute tickets online, one site to try is Sky auction ( www.skvauction.com ). Priceline ( www.priceline.com ) aims to match the ticket price to your budget: you name the price for departure from the USA and they'll get to work (with up to 40% savings, they claim), but they 'screen the brand', so you won't know the airline or the time of travel until after you have purchased your tickets – requiring flexibility on your part.

Online ticket sales work well it you doing a simple one-way - or return trip on specified dates. However, online superfast fare generators are no substitute for a travel agent who knows all about special deals, has strategies for avoiding layovers and can offer advice on everything from the airline that has the best vegetarian food to the best travel insurance to bundle with your ticket.

Departure Tax

If leaving, China by air, the departure tax isY90. This must be paid in local currency, be sure you have enough yuan to avoid a last-minute scramble at the airport money-changing booth.

The USA

Discount travel agents in the USA are known as consolidators (although you won't notice a sign on the door saying Consolidator). San Francisco is the ticket consolidator capital of America , although some good deals can also he found in Los Angeles , New York and other big cities. Consolidators can be found through the Yellow Pages or the travel sections of major daily newspapers.

Council Travel (Tel: 1800-266-8624), American largest student travel organization, has loads of offices in the USA . You can call the 1800 number of the office nearest you or visit their website at www.counciltravel.com . STA Travel (Tel: 1800-781-4040) has offices in most major US cities. www.statravel.com

Other sites that are worth taking a look at include www.ticketplanet.com , www.lowestfare.com , www.bestfares.com , www.travelzoo.com . Another useful website with good deals on flights from USA to China is Fly China at www.flychina.com .

From the US west coast, lo-season return fares to Hong Kong or Beijing start at around US$600. Fares increase dramatically during summer and the Chinese New Year. From New York to Beijing or Hong Kong , low-season return fares start at around US$700.

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