WebRotation: China booking sites, don’t pay the full fare tickets listed on global sites

On the heels of yesterday’s post on Southeast Asia booking sites, reader Jimmy asked about ctrip for China.

The Chinese government sets a maximum for domestic airline ticket prices based on route and distance, and guidelines for how much airlines can discount from that. If you use global websites you will almost always be charged the full-fare, which is flexible to change but quite expensive. Discounts on Air China have started to show on global websites but not nearly as low as on tickets bought within China.

China air booking 1

Expedia's lowest is $138 and the others are priced full-fare $209

Instead book on either ctrip or eLong (owned by Expedia, make sure to go to eLong, not the redirect to Expedia), both will quote virtually the same prices and  be significantly less than global sites. Each prices the lowest fare but if you want more flexibility, each flight has an option to see the different fare classes with explanations of the fare rules. It used to be a pain to use foreign credit cards on these sites, but those issues have mostly been resolved. The Rapid Traveler has used both extensively and has no complaints.

China air booking 2

Ctrip's lowest is RMB 640 = $102

China air booking 3

Some of Ctrip's fare classes, notice the full-fare is RMB 1320 = $209

China air booking 4

And from eLong

Travelzen is a relatively new player and can be used as a backup.

These sites also cover hotels and tours. There are few stupendous deals for global chain hotels, but there is greater selection and information on local hotels, so worth a check.

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  1. […] Vietnam shares much influence from the Russia and China in how things work, so my first thought was a system similar to China’s, where government sets full-fares and airlines discount from those in approved ranges. Pull up China domestic flights on most international websites and you’ll get eye-popping numbers. Use ctrip, eLong, travelzen or other domestic OTAs, or the airlines, and you’ll get substantially cheaper fares. […]

  • i used ctrip a lot when i lived in china and would highly recommend it. again the foreign card thing up til 2011 was still a problem at times though! Also always carry the card you used to buy the ticket day of travel!

  • Thanks for the follow-up post! I did not know that the foreign credit card issue had been resolved, as I had not had time to travel within China, except for quick visits to Shanghai to see family.

  • Excellent tips! I used ctrip two years ago for domestic China flights and it was a lot cheaper than booking on US sites. Just about to use them again on a booking for my mom this year!

  • @Jimmy – to clarify, the credit card issue is pretty much resolved when booking on these sites, though still some cards can have issues and cumbersome procedures might materialize as everyone in China seems to frequently change credit card procedures.

    That is not to say that general foreign credit card use in China is not still an issue outside international hotels/retail chains/restaurants, even when Visa/MasterCard/AmEx logos are on the door. Cash is still best when on the ground in China.

  • LarzMN

    The other thing I’d add is that for China, even discounted rates are usually changeable/cancellable to one extent or another. This means that one should continue to check back at the sites for improved pricing. Case in point, I booked a flight from Chengdu to Beijing on eLong last September because I’m an obsessive housekeeper and like all aspects of my trips locked down months in advance. This was for a flight in mid-April. Just two days ago, I thought to recheck the prices and low and behold, the price had dropped by 50%. So my $532 tickets (for two) turned into $297 tickets. And even my 50% off tickets can be changed or cancelled for a 20% surcharge.

    I found CTrip much better for hotels a ways out and eLong much better for flights a ways out. YMMV.

  • LarzMN

    Oh, and one more thing, if you plan to take domestic China flights within the country, make sure to research the free baggage allowance. For economy, for China Southern and Air China that limit is 20 kg / 44 lbs. This is much less than the allowance for international flights by most every carrier. Baggage size allowances appear to be standard (at least relative to British Airways and Delta), but you should construct a spreadsheet of all airlines you plan to use and determine your weight allowance least common denominator between them. Or be prepared to pay excess baggage fees. (which don’t appear to be too bad for domestic only)

    Another alternative is to book business or first class tickets as they give you greater allowances. Also, being Delta Silver Medallion in SkyTeam supposedly gives me an extra 10 kg on China Southern as they are in the SkyTeam alliance. Not super confident I’ll be able to get that honored being a non-Chinese speaker though. 🙂

    In short, think through all these concerns as they all contribute to how much you pay to get from point A to point B.

  • @LarzMN – excellent points, especially on the luggage. I still remember my first bad experience with the tight luggage allowances in my student days. The cost was not a lot but still hit me as a student.

    With regarding to recognizing SkyTeam status, make sure to bring your Delta card AND printouts of the policy.

  • Great information here. The flight price differences are similar to what I experienced while planning my trip to the Middle East a couple of years back.
    Booking through Egypt Air, if you select that you are in Egypt you get a pretty decent price for your flights but if you put in that you are in the US, the flights are significantly higher. It did take some time to get the credit cards to work but it saved me a lot of $.

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