Saturday, February 18, 2012

Travel Tips: Flying to China and Back

First in a series of informational posts for those who are headed to China for an adoption, or considering doing so.

We began our trip in Beijing to get acclimated, do some sightseeing and visit the group foster home where our daughter had spent much of her life. We then traveled to Changchun, in Jilin Province, to begin the adoption process. Like all American families adopting from China, we ended our trip in Guangzhou because the U.S. Consulate that processes adoptions is located there.

We really enjoyed seeing different parts of the country during our two weeks. You may be among a select few whose child hails from Guangdong Province, and will therefore spend your entire trip in Guangzhou. If not, you will likely fly into one city and home from another. Most airlines will allow this kind of arrangement instead of simply buying two separate one-way tickets, which would be much more expensive. I am providing the following information with the caveat that everyone's experience is different. Our itinerary worked really well for us, but if we were turning around and adopting another child next week, we might choose to do it a different way.

Our itinerary was from Washington Dulles to Beijing nonstop on United, then from Hong Kong to Tokyo and Tokyo to Washington Dulles, also on United. We booked the tickets through Todd Gallinek, who has been doing adoption travel for ages. Todd does not have a website but can be reached by email, did an excellent job for us and was very responsive despite being on his own overseas vacation when we contacted him. I say this as the guy who always books travel arrangements for himself and other members of his family -- I never use travel agents. But Todd was great. His prices were competitive, and he was able to arrange the one-way ticket back for our daughter with ease. You won't be able to do this part on Orbitz or an airline website.

Flying to China is a long, hard trip even for a seasoned international traveler. Flying home, with a new family member who doesn't know you all that well, will be much harder. Your goal is to achieve the optimal combination of convenience, comfort and cost.

Here are a few things to consider:

Level of agency support. Your adoption agency's staff may require you to make your own overseas flight arrangements subject to a schedule they give you, as ours did; they may require you to take a certain combination of flights; or they may make the flight arrangements for you with your input. I was satisfied with the first model, and with the job our agency also did on arranging our travel within China.

Where you begin. The airports you choose will depend on the availability of service, their proximity to your origin and destination cities, and the cost. We chose Dulles even though we are closer to National Airport. The nonstop to Beijing on United was a no-brainer, as it was the shortest way there and also among the least expensive. You can also fly nonstop to China from Newark, New York/JFK, Detroit, Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The carriers are United, Delta, American, Air China, China Southern and Hainan.

Where you end. As I mentioned, everyone finishes their adoptions in Guangzhou. Guangzhou is a major Chinese city with a major international airport, but only China Southern flies nonstop to the United States from there -- to Los Angeles. Connecting to flights headed for the eastern United States can therefore be a time-consuming and expensive endeavor from Guangzhou. This is why many families, including ours, choose to take the train to Hong Kong and overnight there before flying off the next morning. I'll cover how this process works in a later post.

Connecting. It's unlikely you'll be blessed with nonstop flights on both legs, unless you happen to live near Detroit, Chicago or Los Angeles, or are spending the entire time in Guangzhou. For the rest of us, that means at least one connection. My strongest recommendation of this entire post is to make your home airport your first touchdown in the United States if possible. This won't work for everyone. But remember that taking a connecting flight in the U.S. from an international destination means that you will get off your first plane, go through immigration (which will probably take a bit longer than if you were flying solo, because of the adoption paperwork), claim your checked bags, go through customs, recheck your bags, possibly change terminals, and go through security again before catching your connecting flight! At Chicago O'Hare, for example, this means a transfer on a train from Terminal 5 to Terminal 1 or 3 after you've already gone through four of these steps. Not fun if you're an adult stepping off a 15-hour flight by yourself, let alone with a kid or kids. Instead, consider connecting somewhere like Tokyo, Seoul or back in Beijing. Our connection in Tokyo was a bit hair-raising because our first flight landed late and we didn't have a lot of time, but we got through. The only thing we had to do was go through security again with our carry-ons. It was also nice to break the trip up into chunks of 4 and 12 hours, instead of a really long flight followed by another, shorter one. Note: avoid Toronto, as I've heard you cannot transfer in Canada to a U.S.-bound flight with an immigrant child from China. They're not equipped to handle the paperwork.

Airline. The U.S. airlines pretty much own the field when it comes to flying nonstop to China, except if you're flying into Hong Kong, where Cathay Pacific serves several American cities. Unless you're willing to connect somewhere in Asia on both legs of your trip, you're likely to end up on United, Delta or possibly American. Our home carriers are not known for their amazing service when compared to airlines from other countries, but they have expansive networks of connecting flights, and there's something comforting about getting on a piece of equipment operated by a company from your own country after a long trip overseas. Sadly, and unlike airlines from other countries, the experience you get largely depends on the aircraft, which leads me to my next point.

Aircraft. Put Todd or your travel agent to work if you're using one, ask questions, and visit SeatGuru. The specific type of plane that flies the route you're considering is very important. For example, we flew on a United 777 with the new International Premium configuration. This means more to Business and First Class passengers than it did to us on the seating experience, but it is also like flying on a brand new aircraft even though the plane might be 10-15 years old. The new configuration also means three sections of three seats apiece per row, where the old configuration was two, five and two. If you're traveling with a spouse and a child, you don't want to have to reach across an aisle, and you don't want to subject a stranger to meltdowns and frequent trips to the bathroom. Finally, United's 777s with new interiors have individual TVs in the seat backs, meaning you and your child can choose from many different entertainment options (including a number with Chinese subtitles if he or she is old enough to read). The alternative is watching the same, possibly age-inappropriate movie that everyone else gets, or not being able to see the screen at all.

By contrast, United flies a 747-400 from San Francisco and Chicago to China. This double-decker airplane used to be the queen of the skies, but the airline has let its 747s run down without upgrading the interiors. This means no individual entertainment, and a denser, more shabby cabin with more people in a three-four-three seat configuration. Doesn't sound like a lot of fun. Delta's 747s are in better shape for overseas trips, and the airline is in the process of reconfiguring its cabins to provide individual entertainment in economy class.

Class of Service. If you have the money, the status or the miles available to upgrade to business or first class on a trip like this, my hat goes off to you. We didn't. Passengers in these cabins get better entertainment, lie-flat sleeper seats or something close to it, individual attention, and some tasty meals. They also get a much less crowded bathroom that nobody else may use. One thing to consider when deciding to go business or first on the way back from China is that a one-way ticket for your child will not cost much less than a whole round-trip. Another thing to consider is that we spent most of the 12-hour flight from Tokyo to Washington entertaining a toddler who wouldn't sleep, so those amazing lie-flat seats would have done us little good.

If you're flying economy, as most people do and we did, you have two choices: regular economy or an enhanced economy, which United calls Economy Plus and Delta calls Economy Comfort. These are regular economy seats with the same service and amenities, but adding a few inches of extra legroom. The upgrades are sold by the flight leg and can be purchased in advance or when you check in, if they're still available. It's usually less than $149 per passenger per leg, depending on the length of the flight. My opinion, as a 6'4" male with a 5'8" wife, is that it's well worth it. We upgraded to Economy Plus on United for the entire year for the both of us, for $425. It's since gone up to $499, but that pays for itself with a single round-trip for two people. We did have to pay $129 to upgrade our daughter to E+ on the way back, which is terribly ironic because she's not tall enough for her legs to reach the floor. Todd was able to plug into our annual upgrade and select the seats for us.

Final thoughts. Good luck! Feel free to shoot me a message if there's something I can update on this post, or if I can help you along your journey in any way.



Anonymous said...

this is completely awesome. Thanks so much for doing all the research and writing your experience. We are 5 days into our wait for TA, so I'm trying to figure out our travel logistics now. We're in the midwest, so flying out of Chicago is likely. I really appreciate all this great information! Also, I found your blog through RQ, and think it's fantastic. You are also inspiring us to stay at the Victory. (I'm Gardener1817 on RQ). Congratulations on your new family!

Tera said...

Thanks for the info!! We will also be flying out of Chicago like previous poster. So, does that mean Chicago doesn't offer United 777?? That sounds much better than not having our own TV,etc. What about Cathay? I think that's what it's called. I've seen other families use them. ??
(sweetgirls on RQ)

Alan said...

Hi everyone! Tera, it looks like United is flying the 777 from O'Hare to Beijing and Shanghai, and the 747 to Hong Kong. Cathay Pacific is supposed to be an amazing airline! They now fly from O'Hare to Hong Kong, so this would be a great choice if you were starting and ending in Guangzhou. If you're starting in Beijing, you might want to see if a partner airline can take you there and fly Cathay back.

By the way, you can use the flight status tools at and to check which aircraft an airline is using.

Good luck! Feel free to PM me (planet-rh) on RQ or send me an email using the link on the blog.

PinkDevora said...

Great post! We also used Todd, who was very helpful. We flew Cathay Pacific, which was excellent, even enjoyable (gasp). They fly direct from NYC to Hong Kong. The flight in is overkill, as you fly over Beijing on the way to HK, then fly back to Beijing, but I wanted to minimize the flight connections on the way back. We also took the train to HK.

Everyone else in our group flew from Guangzhou to Shanghai, had layovers of about 5 hours, and then connecting flights in the US. They didn't even know about the train option! Thanks RQ :).

Lori @ Five of My Own said...

Great info-you nailed it. I've been to China several times and I'm headed back on March 15th for kiddo #6 and I agree with all you've shared.

I do suggest that everyone sign up for airline FF program as the trip to China is a big miles trip. We are one of those lucky families bumping up to Business Class with our miles.

I would love to hear more about your take on the Victory. I chuckled on your comments about "real China" not being on the island. So true. But there is a certain calm that I grew to appreciate there.

Does the Victory's location outweigh it less luxurious accommodations (say compared to the Garden?) How was the breakfast?

BTW I'm loriprinty on RQ

Alan said...


Good question. We thought the Victory was just perfect for what we needed. The room was a good size, and the west building was more intimate. The breakfast was decent -- we are both vegan, and didn't have trouble finding enough to eat even if the spread wasn't as vast as a couple of the other hotels we'd visited in China. If you're into omelettes and noodle soup cooked to order, the typical American fare and some Chinese dishes too, you won't be disappointed. We even thought the coffee was decent.

I'm not sure what's missing by way of luxury. The hotel is clean and well-appointed, the bathroom is nice, and the room had all of the standard amenities including some really fluffy towels. We tend to go mid-level when we travel domestically, and were pretty astonished to see the prices at Garden and White Swan before it closed. For the room rate we had, the Victory was the only real hotel bargain of the five we stayed at on this trip.

My TripAdvisor review is here if you're interested.

Tera said...

Thanks again for all of the info! I will be sure to have Todd get us a 777 out of O'Hare. Thanks for the packing suggestions too. Now just have to talk DH into an ipad2 before we leave! ;)

Filippa Sartini said...

When travelling long hours, it’s advisable to take a business class upgrade. It offers one of the best perks when in flight, and that is having additional legroom. It would be more relaxing if you’re tippy toes don’t touch the floor, allowing you to sleep more comfortably. Although you had a long travel, I bet you and your family had a stress-free flight, Alan.

Earnestine Novick said...
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Travel said...

Thanks for the post, it was nice to go through your words and hope for the similar posts from you soon. Thanks