Question: My husband is from China and visits family there every couple of years. I haven't gone since 2007 and would like to see our relatives, but the idea of a 12- to 14-hour nonstop flight has become daunting as I have aged and flying has become an experience that can be compared to a root canal. Is there any route or airline that is cost-effective and lets me break up the flight to a reasonable degree?
Answer: There are a couple of ways to give yourself a break on that long journey. One is practical and comes from travel agent Tina Erskine, the owner of Tina's Travel Network in Pflugerville, Texas. The other requires the luxury of time and money and comes from my dreams.
Once upon a time, travel agents were happy to book airline tickets for you. Some still are. But many must charge a service fee because airlines don't compensate them.
Erskine is in the camp of those who think leisure travelers are better off booking their own tickets. If you don't feel confident booking online, she'll coach you on how to do it.
An important distinction she shares with her soon-to-be-coached clients: Use a search site — she likes Kayak.com, the aggregator search engine — instead of a booking site (or online travel agency such as Expedia, Travelocity or Orbitz). Also, there's no service fee if you book with the airline, and if you have trouble on your trip, you go through the airline rather than a third party.
For an itinerary like Zhan's, she suggests using the "multi-city" option that Kayak offers and entering a stopover city (Honolulu). "It would ultimately cost her about $200-$500 more, plus hotel stays, but it might be worth it to her," Erskine said.
The itinerary (late-spring dates chosen at random) is LAX-Honolulu (US Airways), overnight, Honolulu to Beijing (Korean Air with a 11/2-hour stop in Seoul). The return is the same routing, reversed. Total price: $1,797.89.
If Zhan flew on those dates, the best fare I found on Kayak was $1,635 nonstop (Air China), $1,110 on China Eastern/China Southern (stop in Shanghai) and $1,001 for two stops (ANA, with stops in San Francisco and Tokyo).
Breaking up the trip is better for you, said Dr. Michael Zimring, director of travel medicine at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore and author of "Healthy Travel: Don't Travel Without It!" (although he acknowledges he would rather fly nonstop). For older travelers, that stop can ease some of the stress of the journey.
Here's my solution to ease the stress: Sail to Hawaii, then fly to Beijing. This isn't the olden days of Matson Lines and American President Lines, which offered ship trips to Hawaii (and, in the case of APL, to Hong Kong). Today, some cruise lines (Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, among them) offer one-way trips to Hawaii when they reposition their ships. The embarkation may be Vancouver, Canada, or Ensenada, Mexico, to meet the requirements of the 1920 Jones Act. (Only U.S.-flagged ships may travel from one U.S. port to another, which means very few cruise ships sailing today.) These journeys typically last 11 days, and you'd have to wait several months upon return from Beijing to find a ship traveling back to the mainland. Still, sailing to Hawaii, spending a few months there waiting for a return trip and then sailing home? Now that's stress reduction.
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