Back in April, I was perusing through Google Flights one day, just to see what’s there. After all, I watch flight prices much like some people watch the stock market: just to see what the prices – in this case, ticket prices instead of share prices – are.
When I discovered that Hainan Airlines – which happens to be a five-star airline – was selling round trip tickets on its Boston Logan to Beijing Capital route for $659 round trip, I was extremely tempted. And while I didn’t go ahead and buy the ticket same day, like I did when I stumbled upon an exceptional Norwegian Air Shuttle fare, I waited barely 24 hours before booking. This would be my first trip to Asia, but – given that the date was April 30th – it seemed so far in the future that it was barely real.
As summer turned into fall, however, I realized that things were getting real. I had to obtain a visa, which was a lengthy process, but it eventually came. Additionally, a week or so before my departure, I found out that the China Southern Airlines flight that I was supposed to take from Beijing to Chengdu on the Airbus A380 was downgauged to an A330. Instead of keeping that itinerary, I found that CS was running an A380 between Beijing and Guangzhou, so I ended up switching my ticket to that flight instead. All told, I’d be in Beijing for four days, Guangzhou for one, and Shanghai for one.
November 5, 2016
To my surprise, instead of the Boeing 787-800 that was scheduled to operate the route – I was initially disappointed that I’d booked this flight for just a week after the 787-900 was to be taken off the route for the winter – the plane inbound to Boston was a 787-9! I’d never tried this aircraft before, only the 787-8 that I flew on to Norway and back, so I was excited at the prospect of flying on the larger version of Boeing’s latest fleet addition.
Ready to Fly
After a somewhat extensive boarding process, I found myself seated in 43K. We pushed back from the gate relatively quickly, and – just 15 minutes after pushback – we took off from Runway 33L. Upon rotation, I saw the wing flex, and then droop somewhat, as it was evident that the plane was extremely full of fuel. A minor observation, but one that I found intriguing.
As we climbed through the clouds on our plane, which just made its first flight in August of 2016, I watched the in-flight map for a while. Throughout the 14 hours we were in the air, I watched a variety of things on the TV, including The Wolf of Wall Street. I even managed to get four or so hours of very good sleep, a major boon, thanks to the fact that I had three seats to myself (43H and 43J were empty). For its part, Hainan was excellent, and I understand why it has garnered the praise it has: the food, service, and accommodations all exceeded my expectations.
We landed at Beijing Capital on Runway 01 around 10:20 p.m., local time, and – after an extensive wait on the tarmac – were bussed to border control.
November 7, 2016
Barely 8 hours after arriving at my hotel, I was on the road again to Beijing Capital to board a flight to Shanghai Hongqiao. Shanghai wasn’t originally on my itinerary, but I felt tempted to see it, as it’s the biggest city in the world. Given that I ended up ditching my planned two-day trip to Chengdu in favor of a single day venture to Guangzhou, I realized that I had time to see Shanghai. And when I found a cheap round trip on China Eastern Airlines for a day trip, it was an opportunity I wasn’t about to pass up – despite the first leg being less than 24 hours after I was to arrive in Beijing!
The flight from Beijing to Hongqiao was on an A330-300. Though I’d previously flown on the A330 during my winter trip to Miami, those were both on the A330-200: this was my first trip on the A330-300. In the United States, A330s are used mostly on intercontinental flights, with a few being used for high-volume domestic routes. In Asia, however, there are a significant number of A330s used on domestic routes – a testament to how populated the continent is.
After a significant wait for takeoff – we sat for around 45 minutes without moving – my flight to Shanghai eventually took off. It was relatively short, around 2 hours in length, and we landed at Hongqiao – on Shanghai’s west side – around 2:30 p.m., giving me almost seven hours to make my 9:15 p.m. return flight out of Shanghai Pudong – the city’s major international airport located on the east city of the city.
Having taken the subway into the city, I explored for a few hours before boarding the maglev train to Pudong. I arrived with plenty of time before my flight – due to depart at 9:15 – and finally had some time to relax.
Time For Sleep
My flight from Pudong to Beijing was on an A321. I was pretty sure that it was originally supposed to be on another A330, but I could well be wrong. Much like the flight down, we waited a significant amount of time on the tarmac before takeoff – a symptom of the incredible congestion that is pervasive in Chinese airports, which is understandable given that the country has more than a billion people. Either way, I was excited to finally get back to my hotel room for some well-deserved rest.
November 10, 2016
On the way to the airport on this cloudy Thursday morning, I debated selecting a seat on the upper deck or not, as I didn’t want to have an experience that – barring a ride in business class – I would never get on the 747-400. However, I decided that I absolutely would try it for a couple of reasons: 1. Besides the price of business class, British Airways – the only carrier that I’d ever want to fly on the upper deck of a 747 with – does not have forward-facing window seats on its 747s, and I wouldn’t want to fly on a rear-facing seat. 2. As much as I love the 747, the A380 is generally larger, and thus this represented an excellent opportunity for me.
Whether this was my mistake or the computer’s, I’m not sure, because I’m fairly certain that I selected the upper deck seat map. Regardless, I explained to the flight attendants asked the flight attendants if there were any seats available upstairs. They said that there were two aisle seats available, but I didn’t want an aisle seat – I wanted to be by the window.
Upstairs at Last
As it turned out, there was exactly one window seat left when the cabin door closed – 72A. I sat down, happy with the outcome, and looked out the window at the majestic view from the second floor.
We floated through a layer of fog (or smog, I’m not sure) before eventually getting to our cruising altitude. Throughout the 2 1/2 hours we were in the air, I was extremely impressed with the A380, while also finding its size mind-boggling. We touched down in Guangzhou on Runway 02L around 12:30 p.m., bringing my inaugural A380 adventure to an end.
To fill the six-hour gap between my arrival and return flight on an Air China A330-300, I ventured into Guangzhou on the subway, and found the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. I’m not usually one for museums, but this was an incredibly compelling place full of intriguing history. Though it was raining, I walked around the city for a while, before boarding the metro to return to the airport.
November 12, 2016
It was finally time to go home. And while I certainly had an incredible week full of awesome experiences, I was certainly looking forward to being back on American soil.
I arrived at the airport around three hours before departure, which is the recommended amount of time for an international flight. And it was good that I did, as – when leaving China – you have to pass through immigration control, which took around a half-hour. Even so, I was still through security a full two hours before my flight.
A common theme at Beijing is that – because it’s so big – a number of planes are forced to sit at stands and have passengers be bussed out to them. In fact, 2 of the 3 flights I took out of Beijing all boarded from stands, which was somewhat frustrating, as boarding from a jetway is significantly easier. Oh well, I guess that’s simply the possibility you have to accept when you’re at a large airport.
The Return Home
For this flight, I would be on a 787-800 painted in Hainan’s traditional livery. While I was surprised and excited to fly on the 787-900 on the way over, I did want to fly at least once on a plane with Hainan’s traditional livery. Once we were all boarded – I was seated in 43A this time – pushback and startup was relatively uneventful, and – thankfully – our takeoff queue wasn’t that long.
A Memorable Ending
The most fun part of the flight was easily the last hour. I knew that we’d be flying over Southern Maine via the Kennebunk VOR on our way into Logan, but I didn’t know how much I’d be able to see, if anything at all. Turns out I saw a ton: my hometown of Freeport, the Cousins Island power plant in Yarmouth, Halfway Rock Light way out in Casco Bay, and an extensive amount of downtown Portland. I snapped a few photos for good measure – discreetly, of course – and did well to contain my excitement as we continued our descent.
After arriving home, I was surprised to find that I wasn’t nearly as jetlagged as I’d anticipated being. Part of that owed to the fact that I slept most of the day before my return in an effort to be as rested as possible for the flight. Regardless, I was extremely happy to have gone on this trip: while the flights were indeed memorable and awesome for me, the visit to China was memorable for many additional reasons as well.