Buying Domestic Flights in China
While full rates for airfares are quite high, it is very rare that you won’t be able to find a discount of at least 30% off the full rate. Discounts of 40%-50% are common and a 60% discount is not too rare. Discounts of 70% and 80% are occasionally possible if you can be very flexible with your date and time of travel. Tickets can be booked at just about any travel agency (at a hotel or otherwise) or via a few websites online.
CTrip and eLong are the two biggest sellers of Chinese domestic flights online. However, they do not offer the possibility of purchasing tickets online with a foreign credit card. Instead they fax you a credit card authorization form which needs to be filled out and faxed back to them. This process has to be completed quickly as tickets are not guaranteed until they are paid in full and prices for tickets can change at any given moment. So booking flights with these companies can be difficult.
Another option is Ticket 9588, which does allow purchases with a foreign credit card online. However, there is a 5% surcharge for doing so and the first time you buy through them there will be some additional fraud protection measures – most likely they will ask you to call them to reconfirm.
A new player on the scene is TravelZen. This Hong Kong based company accepts foreign credit card payments online with no additional fees. There might be some additional fraud protection measures on your first purchase.
All of these websites require you to create an account before making a purchase. Prices are more or less exactly the same between all four and travel agencies will generally offer the same price as well. Though it’s still worth spending a little time shopping around. If you book through your hotel, it will be a bit more expensive (they add on a commission for themselves).
The Best Time to Buy Chinese Domestic Flights
There is some debate about the best time to buy airline tickets for domestic Chinese flights in order to get the biggest discount. Some people insist it’s better to buy in the week before the flight, while others say that 3-4 weeks in advance is the best time to buy. In truth, there is no steadfast algorithm that can derive the optimum time to purchase tickets. As a general rule, if you see a flight with a 40-50% discount then you should snap it up – it’s unlikely to get much cheaper. If it only has a 20-30% discount then you might as well wait. It could become cheaper and probably won’t become much more expensive.