Flight deals are the greatest. In conducting a little extra research, and by following the right Twitter feeds and Facebook deal sites, a family of four like ours can save thousands of dollars a year on air travel. Our family likes to explore, a lot, but we also enjoy seeing our retirement savings grow. Most of our vacations are short trips, which slowly draw from our travel budget, but we recently decided to book a family vacation to Sri Lanka, giving the kids a chance to see where their grandparents grew up and where Yashy was born. It would not be a cheap vacation.
Yashy spent several days scanning flights for the trip. Usually, she would find tickets in the range of $5,000 to $7,000 for the four of us, and we were just about resolved to pay that amount when she discovered a route to Colombo through SkyScanner (purchased on Flight Hub), which would include a stop in Shanghai, for the astoundingly low cost of $3,818.34, flying with China Eastern Airlines. The kids tickets were 20% cheaper than the adults, but on average, that works out to $954.58 each. If you have ever flown from Toronto to anywhere in Southeast Asia, you will likely notice that this fare is insanely low.
Once the flight was booked, I became intrigued, and started to take a look at China Eastern Airlines. The reviews online are a little less than kind, with countless complaints about the service, the food, and the policies, and so I admit to being quite worried in the days before our departure (as was Yashy as you may recall). Several reviewers described delays, and a friend of ours related a firsthand experience about how China Eastern cancelled a connecting flight on her parents and left them stranded. With our family due to arrive back in Toronto on December 24th, I was pretty worried that we would end up spending Christmas Day in an airport, but, in the end, we made it home safe and sound. The kids were quite well behaved during both our journeys and slept for a good portion of the trip. The pillows and blankets on China Eastern were also quite comfy and the stewardesses tended to love the kids.
Was China Eastern the best airline we had ever flown? Or course not, but we saved almost $3,000 on the flight, and so were were right to expect some hurdles. I think we got good value, and best of all, we have a number of great tips for those of you looking to survive flying with China Eastern Airlines, saving a lot of money. Here is a rundown of the problems we faced, and our solutions to the issues.
Problem 1 – Bad Food and No Milk
A number of reviewers commented on the food quality served on the flight. Yashy initially thought this was North Americans complaining about Asian cuisine they are not used to eating, but that was not the case. The food is awful. We had about 6 meals total on the 4 flights we took and they seem to get increasingly worse. The fish was probably the worst, followed by the beef and then the chicken. I didn’t try the pork. Luckily, the kids meals were quite good and so ensure you pre-book meals for the kids! However, none of the flights had milk on board so we were glad to have stocked the kids bottles with milk in our cooler bag. The stewardesses walked around with water frequently and the galley at the back had soft drinks which we helped ourselves to.
Solution – Pack food, Find a Lounge
I highly recommend packing a few sandwiches, granola bars, and some of your favorite comfort foods that you can take through security. The onboard meals usually include a few fruits, a roll, and even little packets of dried radish, which ranged from edible to pretty good. The dried radish is fermented and so I would recommend eating it for its antibacterial properties. Getting food sick on a plane would not be fun. Before we got on our 15 hour flights from Toronto and from Shanghai coming home, we paid for lounge access with our Priority Pass, available to us as BMO World Elite MasterCard holders. That was our true savior. We made sure to eat before boarding and then stocked up on the bottled liquids and snacks that the lounges have available. For all the money we saved on the flight, spending an extra $250 on lounge access was a no brainer. If lounge access is not an option, buying some extra water and snacks near the gate might save your day. Having a lot of water is a must for any long flight.
Problem 2 – Limited Alcohol Onboard
I find there is no better sleep inducer than a few drinks on board, but China Eastern only carries a few bottles of wine to serve with meals. The portion are small, and if you are in the back row like I was on one leg, the wine may run out by the time the stewardess arrives. Beer was available on one of the four legs on our trip, and so what is available is inconsistent.
Solution – Pre-drink
This is where we were glad to have paid for lounge access, where we enjoyed a few beverages before getting on our flights. Not too much of course, especially since we are travelling with two kids, but if you have ever enjoyed a beer on a hot afternoon, you’ll probably notice that it made you pretty sleepy about an hour later. This is perfect solution for sleeping on a plane.
Problem 3 – Phones are Not Allowed to be Used Onboard
For some inexplicable reason, using a cell phone, even in Airplane mode, is not allowed on China Eastern flights. Since it’s sometimes hard to hear the PA system, a lot of people on our flight, including myself, didn’t know this and were confused when we were asked to turn off our phones. I had mine stocked with a number of podcasts and a few movies and could not understand this rule. Tablets are allowed though.
Solution – Prepare for Tablet Use
If you have a tablet, ensure that all your movies and other entertainment are synced to your tablet rather than your cell phone. If you have to use your cell phone, be inconspicuous. For much of my flight, I listened to podcasts with my phone tucked behind my tablet in the front pocket, and made sure there were no stewardesses around when I switched tracks. An inflight entertainment system with a small selection of movies was available on our Toronto/Shanghai journeys but not on the Colombo/Shanghai trips. On those 7.5 hour flights, having your own entertainment is a must. Oh, battery packs are also a no go so be discrete when trying to re-charge your tablets in air! The flights that did have an entertainment system had a decent kids section which was great for when the kids were awake.
Problem 4 – Delays
Only one flight of the four we took left the gate on time. Our first flight out of Toronto was delayed 3 hours, others were less, but delays seem to be common based on the online reviews I read.
Solution – Prepare mentally, double check flight times
Not much can be done about delays, but it’s good to me mentally prepared. The 3 hour delay we faced in Toronto was made more palatable with our stay in the Plaza Premium lounge. However, we did find inconsistencies in communications from China Eastern Airlines employees. Our flight from Toronto was delayed to 5:50 pm but actually took off around 5:20 pm. We learned to confirmed all details with at least two different employees to ensure we were getting the right information.
Problem 5 – Language Barrier
Even in Toronto, we found there to be a language barrier with a number of China Eastern Employees. We would often ask a question that the employee would not understand, and the employee would occasionally try to end the conversation. We also found there to be some misinformation relayed to us by various staff.
Solution – Be Patient, Talk to Multiple Employees
We learned to confirm all details with at least two different employees to ensure we were getting the right information. When they didn’t seem to understand, we remained patient and tried to explain our problem in a different manner. Most of the China Eastern employees have sufficient English skills but can get frustrated easily. However, they always kept a calm demeanor and so patience pays off.
Problem 6 – Taking a Car Seat Onboard
Knowing that a car seat would allow our Little Man to sleep on the plane, and fearful that checking the seat could lead to damage, we kept insisting that we be allowed to bring our car seat onboard. This must not be done very often because we encountered resistance every step of the way.
Solution – Keep the Car Seat Close and Insist on Using it on the Flight
All airline manuals will have a provision regarding car seats on board the aircraft, but many employees will not know this (they are listed as “child restraint safety device”). When we checked-in from Toronto, the lady at the service counter was adamant that we would not be able to take the seat on board, as was her manager, who she would turn to in order to better explain the situation in English. Warned that we would need to gate check the seat, we bought it anyway and were fortunate to be greeted by an employee who allowed the seat on board. The issue, we discovered, was that most of the employees thought we wanted to put the car seat in the overhead bin on the airplane. I must have been told a dozen times over our 4 trips that we couldn’t bring the seat on the plane, but once I explained the the car seat would be placed in the plane seat, the employee would relent. On the return journey, the one of cabin crew even asked if she could take a picture of the Little Man in his seat – we said yes of course, all in the hopes of them making it easier for parents to bring car seats on board. All flights also had at least one bathroom at the back with change table.
We had pretty low expectations for the flight, but I firmly believe that you get what you pay for and so we should have expected some difficulties with China Eastern. Some of the issues, like the bad food, limited alcohol, and delays, are likely the result of China Eastern’s low cost approach, which enabled us to save a lot of money. Other issues just required patience. We were dealing with employees with limited English abilities, but who, in most cases, wanted to help. As a result of travelling with China Eastern, we had the chance to see Shanghai, not a city I ever expected to visit, and, most importantly, were able to save money for another trip. We knew what we were getting into, and, in the end, it wasn’t so bad.
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