Beijing Airport Surprises

Ok, though not exactly related to cruising, it is in the sense that with each cruise beginning or ending there is a port city to arrive at or leave from.  Our Grand Asia cruise (Princess 17 days) which just ended put us in Beijing China.

The over all visit experience to Beijing was quite pleasant and I will post more about that part of it later.  Right now I just want to make a few comments related to the airport experience as we prepared to make our return trip home.  I will try to make these comments sound less like gripes and complaints and more as I intend them to be.  Warnings and suggestions.

Now throughout my career I have been a "frequent traveler" using commercial air service all through the States, North America and other foreign countries.  Thus I usually know what to expect.  Well that did not much apply to the Beijing airport experience.

First off, yes, in International travel you do want to arrive at the airport and check in at least three hours before your flight.  In most cases, that is more than enough time and you may end up with time to kill at the departure gate.  Here, three hours was just barely enough but unfortunately it was not possible to extend the check in buffer time as we did arrive at the airport well in time exceeding three hours but the check in ticket counters for our airline did not open until about two and a half hours prior to the flight.  So much for arriving early to allow for the extra needed time.

The passage through China Customs was not unreasonable.  The passenger volume was large but every Customs booth was manned and that process went pretty typically well.  What happened next began the hint that it was going to be rough.

Immediately behind the Customs check point began the mess to the Security screening area.  Lines?  Hardly, but we did finally make out what turned out to be queues.  Even though our boarding passes are stamped with the TSA pre-check note, and though I did not expect to find a fast lane for that purpose, I still hoped.  To no avail, of course.  If there was a marked lane for that priority screening, I did not see it.  For that matter, I saw no markings indicating anything.  Just the long snaking back and fourth queues.  The entire area where the entrance to the security check area was not very large and thus the bunching up of the mass of humanity.

Surprise number two.  Normally, and it has been this way for years in all of the many airports I have traveled through, there are certain items which must be removed from carry on bags to be sent through separately.  This applies to my laptop.  Here, they also added cameras.  That I had not seen elsewhere, but ok, we'll pull them out too.  My wife's camera, my two SLR cameras and the GoPro.  Actually I forgot to remove the GoPro but that oversight was corrected when we reached the x-ray belt.

One thing which really slowed down the process of passing through the security check point is that for virtually every passenger passing through, the security folks literally tore apart their bags for their version of examination.  Perhaps the security folks there do not trust their own x-ray systems to detect suspicious items as everything imaginal was removed from bags, placed in separate bins and run back through the scanner.  In my case, that included not only what I had already removed to pass through separately but every little USB charger cord (no, I don't have any of the prohibited portable chargers), the individual extra batteries for each of the cameras, the previously mentioned GoPro, my long lens, and an assortment of small non-threatening objects.  Now when I finally get everything back on the exit side of the scanner, I must make sure to check through several open bins to make sure I don't miss anything.  Oh yes, and that included a dress belt which had been in the carry on.  So one roller carry on plus my back pack.  In the meantime it looks like my wife has made it through without her bags being torn apart.  But, at least they did give her the full body scan which I managed to avoid.

The point is, this really can eat up the time so the planned three hours of buffer time is now just about eaten up.  No, we were not the only ones to receive this attention.  From what I could tell between trying to keep an eye on my possessions during the process as well as my wife's so that we leave with everything we entered with, it looked like most everyone else got the same going over.

Surprise number three.  It had been some time since breakfast and not knowing how long it would be before we were served something aboard the aircraft, we wanted to find something to at least snack on. By this time we had given up on the idea of having time to find a sit down eatery.  A quick sandwich and a bottle of water. 

Well about that bottle of water.  It's a known practice to disallow any water or other drink in containers to pass through the security screening area.  So, once past security, just buy a bottle of water there.  If it's not finished, take it on the plane with you.  Unless you are flying out of Beijing, that is.  We had only taken a few sips out of our purchased water bottles (which as of right now I am not sure how much I paid for them until I look at the receipt) so we figured it would be good to have the rest of the water to consume during the flight.  On the jet bridge, another security check point was set up.  What were they looking for?  Containers of water.  That's right.  Our just now, in side of the secured area purchased bottles of water, hardly touched were confiscated.  So much for the loss of the purchase of those bottles.  I guess it was a good thing we had devoured the sandwiches we had just purchased or we might have lost them too.  Crying

If there is any advice to be intended it would be this.  There is nothing to be suggested about increasing your buffer time before the flight.  It appears to be pretty well fixed to no more than three hours if not a little less.  Just make sure to have at least that time available.  For packing those little items which are in the carry on bag, rather than having them loose and spread around inside your carry on, putting them in smaller bags inside the carry on will help keep things together.  The little bag I had inside my carry on which included the battery chargers, extra USB cables, and things of that sort, though the bag itself was removed from the carry on for separate screening, at least it did not get opened.  Items such as extra lenses are going to be pulled for the second pass so it is probably a good idea to take the meaning of the signs which say remove laptops and cameras to include anything remotely related to those objects and put them in the bin or bins on the first pass.  Perhaps that will avoid some of the wait for the second pass of your valuables which does put them nervously out of your view as they will be placed within the line of other passengers bags being sent through the scanner.  If you buy a drink including a bottle of water near the gate, you might as well drink it all before boarding the aircraft.  Don't expect to be able to finish it aboard.

Tags: Other (Asia/Africa/Middle East) Beijing (Peking) China

10 Answers

Thank you for posting your experience in Beijing. It definitely helps us be prepared for any future trips that involve that airport.

Thanks for sharing this. My granddaughter is going to China in the near future as part of a college group. I forwarded this to her. Some good to know points you mentioned should help her not be unexpectedly surprised.

While not pleasant, your Chinese terminal experience doesn't come close to matching the mess we encountered at London Heathrow in 2008 with British Airways. We checked in at BAW in Lisbon very early in the morning for our flights to Seattle, all on BAW. Unfortunately, they canceled their flight to London due a sick pilot. But they got us HAL cruisers on other carriers up to London.

Initially, since our connecting flight at LHR wasn't until late in the afternoon, things looked pretty good for us compared to most of the others, we had all sorts of time, we thought. We got into the LHR terminal over 7 hours before departure. But then unfolded the most terrible mess we have ever encountered in all our years of air carrier travel. British Immigrations ineptitude, uncoordinated airport security procedures and personnel, huge queue lines, airline or airport agents forcing their way into hand carry baggage lines ahead of us while bringing other passengers with them who still had their "check in baggage", on and on, you name it.

Finally made it to the gate, with 30 minutes to spare. BAW then told us they gave away our seats because we were late. How can that be we asked? They said they had to clear us hours in advance with US immigrations and they could not do that in 30 minutes. You must remain in London overnight. I said, two weeks ago on the ship, via internet, we took care of all that with you at your request. Furthermore, this very morning very early, British Airways checked us and luggage all the way to Seattle, here is my ticket. Catching them in their lie scheme got us on the flight, albeit in crappy seats.

Airports are part of cruising. Thanks for posting valuable information.

Very interesting points about air travel. As I have noted before we have to fly anywhere in order to cruise, so this is very valuable info.

Thanks for posting your experience, good information.

Interesting article, however, I have to disagree with you on the security procedures. I spent 3 months teaching in China in the fall of 2013. I arrived and departed through Beijing airport. I found their procedures no different than any other airport. I was not subjected to the investigation of luggage or food as you were. Maybe, they have changed their procedures since then.

I do agree with your comment on the ticket counters. It would be nice if they opened them earlier. Beijing is no different than any other airport in this respect.

One other warning you might include is the so called "taxi" station. There are taxis and then there are so called "taxis" (really private vehicles posing as taxis). Unfortunately, if you are a foreigner, you often get shuffled to the "taxi". This can cost you more for your transfer to your hotel. Maybe you can investigate a way for you readers to avoid this surprise.

I'm sure that procedures can change at any time and some changes may be well advised while others may be more arbitrary. This is the experience we had. This was last week so it is current. This was our first time to pass through the Beijing airport but as a career long high volume air traveler, I've been through countless airports. Sure, mostly in North America but some in Europe and in past years some in Asia.

Virtually every piece (or at least most of them) of carry on luggage was opened in all of the lanes I noted and that severely slowed down the passage through the lines until they were literally bunching up at the exit of the Customs/Passport Control desks. This was in Terminal 3. Perhaps the layout of the other terminals allowed for better traffic flow. Who knows.

The confiscation of water bottles on the jetway can be attributed to no other explanation than bureaucratic inefficiency. If there was some sort of security threat or situation they were responding too, who knows. We will never know.

I don't dispute your experience as this can happen to anyone at anytime as can be seen by one of the other posts above. I agree that some things happen at any airport because of no other explanation than bureaucratic (inefficiency) actions.

We had to delay our flight to the US in the late 90's because we did not have any documentation proofing the child travelling with us was our son. We called the friend taking care of your place, walked them through our home processions to find adequate proof for the child, had them drive the proof to the airport, give it to an AC person, which placed it on a flight to us, arriving 30 minutes before that flight the next day out of Toronto (now that's hand delivery). I mention this because, later that year while camping and crossing the border (both ways), it was, "What a nice looking boy. Did you enjoy yourself, fella?". What a difference between procedures.

I hope this airport experience does not put you off revisiting this very interesting country.

I had another surprise at Beijing airport last week! After a long walk towards gate 51, I could finally see the sign for 51 so I stopped at Starbucks for a coffee. Once I continued to gate there was a sign leading down escalator to lower level to catch a shuttle bus to plane. At least they didn't take my coffee away from me!

Absolutely not. That one experience was just one of those little hiccups and was certainly not going to hinder our overall enjoyment of our visit to China. We came away with many fond memories and a heck of a lot of photos which will require some time to get them all processed and displayed. Happy Whether we would ever get back to China is hard to say. Not because of that little experience but simply due to the distance involved and the fact that there are so many other places we have yet to visit which reduces the chances of making repeat visits to any particular place.


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