The usual way to reach Chengdu by air is to connect via Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, or Shanghai. A typical round-trip airfare from Los Angeles or a major European hub is US$1400, but this can be considerably reduced if you book through a consolidator. A consolidator is a discount ticket shop; they exist in most international air hub cities such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, etc. You can find them by consulting the travel section of your local newspaper.
From the United States, there are three ways to go:
1. Cheap. Use a Chinese carrier such as China Eastern Airlines, fly from the West Coast to Guangzhou, then change planes to Chengdu. Mainland Chinese carriers offer service that’s inferior to some others (for example, United or Cathay), but if it saves you $500 it might be worth it. They are usually more flexible on date changes and last minute bookings, than U.S. carriers. Total RT airfare might be as low as $800 -$900.
2. Cushy. Fly Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong, changing to Dragonair to continue on to Chengdu. Cathay has got the nicest service we know about on this route. Dragonair is great also, but they are really expensive $600-700 for the HKG-CTU roundtrip portion alone. Total bill $1400 -$1600. If you have to overnight in a Hong Kong hotel, you will spend lots more.
3. Compromise for the adventurous. Fly on a U.S. carrier to Hong Kong, take the train to Kowloon Station, taxi or walk 3-4 blocks to Hong Kong Ferry Terminal, then ride the ferry across the border to the Shenzhen Airport. A free shuttle bus takes you from the dock to the airport. From here you can fly to Chengdu for about $130 one way, or more like $160 when you add in the ferry ticket. Lots and lots of people do this. Chinese airlines are usually pretty good with last minute bookings – you can get a seat, and often the ticket is cheaper this way than when bought in advance. Also, the ferry is really nice.
Upon entering China, where ever you change planes from an international flight to a domestic one, you will have to go through customs and immigration, change some money, go to the domestic terminal and check in again. Look for a kiosk where you pay the airport tax of 50 yuan (about $6); you need this receipt to get thru security and on the plane.
It is even cheaper if you travel across China by rail, and not a bad way to see the countryside. Consult a guidebook such as Lonely Planet, or a travel agent.
Important notes about Hong Kong
(1) Handover not withstanding, citizens of most western countries still do not need to obtain a visa in advance to visit; and (2) This is the quickest place to get a visa for the mainland. If you don’t mind paying an extra fee, you can get your Chinese visa in as little as three hours.
Other air routes
NEW: there is now service from Seoul, Korea direct to Chengdu, on Asiana. They offer some of the cheapest prices available.
Other air routes to Chengdu include Kathmandu-Lhasa-Chengdu or Bangkok-Kunming-Chengdu or Singapore-Chengdu. These routes are not served every day. Transiting in Lhasa may require a special permit.
Travel during the busy Chinese New Year season is crowded and difficult, owing to huge crowds heading home to their families for this biggest Chinese holiday of the year. Book far in advance and avoid train and bus travel.
On arrival in Chengdu
There are airport buses which take you (after a number of stops) to the airline booking office in the center of town, next to a big hotel called the Minshan Hotel. From here you can walk ten minutes to the Traffic Hotel. (Jiaotong Fandian in Chinese) which is the backpacker hangout. Very friendly, about $20 a night for a standard double with bath, including breakfast. They have bathless single rooms for maybe $10, very decent also. Any Chengdu guide book will tell you about the Traffic Hotel. There are lots of other hotels in town, some of which offer better value for the money, but none that is so convenient for the non-Chinese speaking traveler on his or her way to Kham.
If you want more luxurious accommodation, the Tibet Hotel (Xizang Fandian) has Tibetan-themed decor. (Note: few, if any, of the employees at the Tibet Hotel are actually Tibetan). Other upscale choices are the Jinjiang Hotel and the Minshan Hotel. The fanciest hotel in Chengdu is probably the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza. There are many many others, in all price ranges; see a China travel guide for the latest.
If you don’ t want to take the airport bus, just hail a taxi at the airport, and they will take you directly to your hotel, which you should have written down in Chinese characters or be able to make a stab at pronouncing. If the taxi driver is experienced, he may well assume that you are going to the Traffic Hotel. Make sure the driver uses a meter. There is a ten yuan toll that you, the passenger, have to pay to use the airport expressway.
Inside the airport the taxis are all the expensive variety: large cars, air conditioned. Cheap taxis are not allowed to pick up inside the airport. But it’s not far to the gate, and there you can get one of the littler taxis.
Remember: if it doesn’t have a working meter, then it’s not an official taxi, but a free-lancer. Ride at your own risk.