Background

We recently popped over to the UK from Melbourne for 6 nights for “May Week” in Cambridge. I didn’t know if we would survive travelling from Australia-UK-Australia in the space of a week but can report we made it safely back.

After initially deciding against the trip, due to the cost and annual leave, we changed our minds and decided to embrace the opportunity to return to Cambridge after a year. It was also a great opportunity to go back while we still knew a large amount of people studying (as time goes on we will know less and less).


Short Version

Short trip to UK is achievable and long layover in Beijing can be quite good. Air China is ok. Leave plenty of time for immigration in Beijing.

Long version

Planning

To make this possible from Melbourne with minimum annual leave we flew out on a Friday night and flew home from London the following Friday night. This meant we only took five days annual leave to have the most incredible experience and catch up with some of our best friends.

The cheapest flights available were with Air China, via Beijing with a long layover each way. We had experience our first trip with long layovers in December 2016/January 2017 and really enjoyed them so thought why not give it a crack on this wild adventure.

Having lived in China (back in 2006/2007) and visited a few times, I asked Karl what he would like to see – the Great Wall was at the top of list and Tiananmen Square was second. I’m planning to write a full post on our layover tour and will link it back here later.

We flew Melbourne – Beijing – London with 12 hours in Beijing on each stop. This was just enough time to get out of the airport and do some things without feeling rushed. I wouldn’t recommend a layover in Beijing of less than 8/10 hours if you plan on leaving the airport.

Melbourne Airport

Before leaving Melbourne, we were excited to try out the new Centurion Lounge at Melbourne Airport. Never able to use any of our Qantas lounge passes, we had been enjoying the food credit provided by our Priority Passes at Melbourne Airport until now. The Centurion Lounge was small but well-appointed and had excellent dinner and drink options. We hit up the freshly squeezed juice for some vitamins and G&T’s to prepare for our English soujourn.

Melbourne to Beijing

The fleet seemed quite dated and our seats on the first flight were not ideal. We felt cramped and Karl was constantly bumped into by people passing and the flight attendants because the path narrowed at the point of our seats. The entertainment system on this flight was also difficult to navigate and our special “vegan meals” (we often order vegan meals for flying) were less than ideal, so we were thankful we ate something decent at the lounge. Luckily, we had downloaded lots of Netflix shows and podcasts in preparation for this. The flight had a lot of turbulence, so the flight attendants found it difficult to do the “water” rounds. We had filled up our drink bottles in the lounge as we generally distrust the amount of water supplied on airlines.

Arrival in Beijing Airport

After disembarking, we wandered along following the signs to immigration. Along with other adventurous travellers, we headed to the special visa-free desk, just before that we did the “fingerprinting” for foreigners, inserting our passports and getting a “OK” slip from the machine.

Many travellers were herded into the traditional immigration line or the layover transit line and the airport staff were unhelpful, often telling people in the line they needed to go to the layover transit area as they didn’t have enough time to leave the airport. Their English wasn’t great, and I tried to reason with her in my rusty Chinese but found it easier to just ignore her and stay put in the visa-free line. The airport staff are not the same as immigration officials, so don’t let them boss you around.

Some tour companies provide a statement in Chinese to help their customers who face these difficulties at immigration, as well as advising you to inform the staff you have paid for the booking and they will bring you back to the airport on time. In the visa-free queue you need to fill out a temporary visa exemption form, with your details and onward flight information. Once we reached the front of the queue, this was all quite simple, our passports were stamped then we joined the regular immigration queue to leave the airport, which took quite a bit of time. After clearing immigration we went straight to a “Family” change toilet and changed out of our plane clothes into something clean for our adventure. We followed the signs and airport shuttle train to bag claim and exited into the terminal to meet our guide.

There is a place to store luggage at Beijing airport called “left luggage”, after you exit bag claim. As we were on a private tour we didn’t bother with this.

Beijing Great Wall Tour

I’m planning to do a longer post on the Great Wall tour. In short, this is an awesome way to spend a layover and a great way to stretch your legs after a long flight. For ease, I would recommend visiting the Mutianyu section as we did.

Beijing Airport

Returning to Beijing airport we had to clear customs and security again which took a lot longer than expected. The airport security is quite strict and indiscriminate, it really depends on your luck of the draw with the immigration officer. Beijing is really a crossroads of parts of the world we wouldn’t normally encounter and the airport staff had to deal with all sorts of passports and “travel documents” as well as people who didn’t know how to properly behave during security screenings. Definitely leave plenty of time to get through the airport as there are trains between terminals you may have to take as well as long queues for immigration and security.

Flight to London

Our flight to London was significantly better than the flight from Australia. We think the fleet used for the Australian leg is sub-par due to the fact Aussies require planes to get anywhere overseas so have less choice and also just want the cheapest flight.

Week in Cambridge

May week was too much fun… despite the pain of jetlag and layovers it was totally worth it.

Return flight London to Beijing

After a week of debauchery we turned up at Heathrow feeling worse for wear. We hobbled onto our flight and repeated the visa exemption process in Beijing. This time the immigration officers nearly didn’t let Karl leave as his passport was due to expire in 6 months. This shouldn’t have been an issue, but luckily Karl has another passport so we could use that. My rusty Chinese came in hand explaining this.

Beijing layover

This time we visited Tiananmen and got massages in the Sanlitun area of Beijing at Bodhi Spa which was the highlight of our return home.

Return flight to Australia

Again, this plane was significantly more dated than the Beijing-London plane. We were feeling pretty rusty by now and just wanted to be home.

The verdict?

If you have something important in the UK or Europe, you can survive flying economy and back in a week if you take the right precautions, are in decent shape and stay hydrated. It is probably worth paying the extra couple of hundred to fly a higher end carrier, but if you choose to do it cheaply, having a long layover is a great way to break up the pain of being in an airplane seat for around 24 hours each way.

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