Every day, thousands of travelers stop at Beijing Capital Airport (PEK) en route to another destination in Asia, or back to Europe or North America. Often times, these fares are jaw-droppingly cheap, with roundtrips from New York to Asia as low as $450 on Hainan Airlines or China Eastern. Although a 12 hour layover doesn’t seem ideal, especially after flying 14+ hours, I am here to show you how to make the most of it from my own personal experience stopping in China’s capital.
The 6-Hour Layover
I was blessed with a 6 hour layover the first time I transited in Beijing, while I was flying from Seattle to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. I was cursed, however, with the fact that the layover began at 7 PM and ended at 1 AM.
Although I had just flown a combined 22 hours (originating in New York), I was determined to leave the airport and walk on the streets. Luckily, the airport express train is easily accessible and can get you into the outskirts of the city within about 25 minutes. Be careful, though, as the train stops running around midnight. Each station has a posted sign declaring the first and last train of the day, so be sure to take note! Additionally, I’d say that 6 hours is the minimum amount of time necessary to pull this off, as you have to account for Chinese immigration and transit visa delays.
I took the train to the first stop, Sanyuanqiao, then explored the street for something to eat. Soon after, I found a small dumpling shop and ordered a snack and a Tsingtao. Being on my first transit in the city, though, I decided to head back to the airport to be sure I made my flight. In hindsight, I could have easily continued on the train to Dongzhimen and explored more of the city, but that leads me to my next point: Beijing Airport has a pay-for-access lounge with full buffet and showers. This was the perfect spot to freshen up and eat plate after plate of beef noodles, and it only cost me around $25. If you don’t want to leave the airport, but also don’t have access to the business or first class lounges, I recommend you go here (it’s on the second floor in the international terminal).
The 12-Hour Layover
Again, my first 12-hour layover in Beijing occurred overnight, so I decided to find budget accommodations and get some sleep. My hostel search lead me to Leo Hostel, a beautiful hostel located in a Hutong near Tiananmen Square.
It was affordable, clean, and unique, and when I arrived I quickly became friends with the other travelers hanging around the bar area. After a few drinks, my first Chinese cigarette, and some guitar jamming, I decided it was time to rest up for my flight back to Boston the next day. In the morning, I walked the streets and bought breakfast from a street vendor. There was plenty of time to tour Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, but since I had previously seen it I decided to sleep in a bit and make my way straight to the airport.
If you are interested in visiting Tiananmen, I recommend staying at Leo Hostel or another nearby, as it is the perfect place to stop en route back to the airport. Other than these two attractions, however, there’s probably not enough time to see much more unless you’re willing to sacrifice a lot of sleep (which is 100% worth it if it’s your only chance to visit Beijing!).
If you have 18 or more hours in Beijing, you have sufficient time to see a few of the top sites, including the Summer Palace. If you want to see the Great Wall of China, you can purchase one of the shorter tour packages and fit it into the layover, and if you’re crafty you may also be able to see Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.
At this point, you can consider the layover an additional leg of the trip!
I view layovers not as an inconvenience, but as a free add-on to my trip. In fact, choosing flights with stops over the nonstop equivalent has not only saved me money. It has introduced me to new cities and countries I would have never had the chance to visit. This June, for example, I have a 23 hour layover in Dubai, and I plan to visit Jumeirah beach and the Burj Khalifa.
Yes, long flights to Asia can be terribly draining, but if you’re brave enough to stay awake just a few more hours, you can potentially have an unforgettable experience. And yes, you may look this tired at the end of it all…