Crossroads of the world, front door to all China.
Since the 1950’s, Hong Kong has been the West’s primary gateway to Mainland China. Strong financial and manufacturing sectors, well-developed ground-transport structure, transparent legal and regulatory systems, and liberal access to foreign carriers has ensured this city’s strong flight links.
For US and Canadian travelers, Hong Kong’s position at the ocean end of the Pearl River Delta with fast access to Guangzhou, Shenzhen, - and no 3rd country visa issues - has made it a comfortable transit point. With plenty of kid-friendly attractions (such as a Disneyland,) familiar foods and hotel chains, and many English-speaking residents, it is ideally-positioned to help travelers re-integrate to the West before heading home.
Of course, Hong Kong is itself one of the great cities in the world - its food, culture, and natural environment are unique and exciting. The city was a British colony, so English signage and literature can be found everywhere; you'll have no problem shopping, seeing the sights, or using mass transit.
Heading out from Hong Kong, hometown carrier Cathay Pacific (airline code CX) (oneworld alliance) reaches most of the major connecting points in North America with multiple flights each day. For instance, in Winter-Spring 2016, New York has 4 daily flights to JFK and 1 to Newark, Los Angeles 4 times per day, Vancouver and San Francisco twice daily. They also fly into Chicago, Boston, and Toronto. CX is a partner with American Airlines, who just launched their own Dallas/Ft. Worth - Hong Kong nonstop.
Local competition for Cathay Pacific comes in the form of Hong Kong Airlines, owned by HNA Corporation (who also owns Hainan Airlines.) Hong Kong Airlines intends to expand its Transpacific service and has opened nonstops to Vancouver, Los Angeles, and (in March 2018) San Francisco.
Across the Pacific, United (Star Alliance) flies nonstop daily to their hubs in San Francisco, Chicago, and Newark. Singapore Airlines (Star Alliance) gets a daily nonstop to San Francisco, too. Delta (SkyTeam alliance) has nonstops to its Seattle hub. Air Canada (Star Alliance) jets nonstop daily to both Vancouver and Toronto. Korean Air (SkyTeam) and Asiana (Star Alliance) offer many seats through Seoul-Incheon and convenient connections to numerous cities in North America. Japan Airlines (oneworld) and All Nippon Airways (Star Alliance) both route through Tokyo.
Service into China
Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) now enjoys nonstop service to many inland cities, especially in the south, including Changsha, Nanning, Hefei, Chongqing, Xi’an, Kunming, and Chengdu. Local carriers Cathay Dragon (a oneworld alliance partner and subsidiary of Cathay Pacific) and Hong Kong Airlines, plus all the mainland carriers such as China Southern, Xiamen Airlines, and China Eastern (from the SkyTeam alliance), and Air China and Shenzhen Airlines (both Star Alliance) all compete on these cross-border services.
As most of these flights leave Hong Kong during daylight hours - and most overseas flights arrive in the evening - you’ll probably have to spend a night here if entering China this way.
Close-in Pearl River Delta city Guangzhou itself is linked to HKIA with only a few flights, but there are hourly express trains, numerous coach services, and even high-speed ferries connecting the two cities. Shenzhen is a massive city literally on the border with Hong Kong, so only buses, trains, and ferry services are needed. High-speed rail is being laid to connect Hong Kong with other key areas in Guangdong, Guangxi, and Fujian provinces - once running, they'll offer transit times on par with flying.
Leaving your aircraft, you’ll take a ramp from the gate down to the arrivals level. From there you’ll follow the moving sidewalk to a very large Customs hall. Dozens of passport-check desks help keep the lines short - usually less than a 5-minute wait. The baggage claim hall lies just a few steps past the passport desks; picking up your luggage is easy and waiting times are usually short - some reviewers have said their bags were on the carrousel by the time they got there; we waited about 10 minutes on our recent trip.
From the baggage claim area you’ll work through a hallway where there are currency-exchange desks and out into the massive “meet & greet hall”. There are restaurants and shops here, hotel information desks, and passageways to the bus gates and Airport Express / MTR train station.
If Hong Kong is simply a connecting point to another destination, instead of heading in to the passport desks, follow the signage for the departures level, and go through a security screen before heading to your gate. HKIA does not make you go through Customs for connecting flights.
Navigating the Airport
When leaving Hong Kong, you'll note that check-in counters are spread across two buildings: Terminal 1 and Terminal 2, which lie on either side of the main roadway and train station. Terminal 1 is where most of the major international carriers’ counters are located; Terminal 2 tends to serve the low-cost airlines and carriers from Southeast Asia. Each terminal has its own immigration and security checkpoints, but both terminals feed into the same gate complex.
Since all flights leaving HKIA are international, you’ll go through two checkpoints: the first for passport control, and then a conventional security scan (no body scanners here, just the old-fashioned magnetic detectors.) Don’t be alarmed to see heavily-armed police roaming the check-in and security zone - although this may be the only place in peaceful Hong Kong you see a military presence.
HKIA is a massive operation, but centered on a simple Y-shaped main concourse. Moving sidewalks run right down the middle, and there is also an underground tram running from below the terminal security checkpoint to the center of the “Y” and then on to a remote concourse, called the "Skypier".
Each gate on the main and remote concourses is designed to handle jumbo jets, with plenty of seating. This makes the spacing between gates quite large - much further than you would think by looking at a map. Even using the moving sidewalks, figure a 20-minute hike from the security checkpoint out to one of the ends of the “Y”.
There are a few gates snuggled up against the terminal building which are dedicated to Cathay Pacific. Delta flights usually dock in the middle of the straight stretch; United is typically located out on the southwest leg of the “Y”. Gate assignments will vary, however, so pay attention to the staff at check-in and the big departure monitors.
Shorter-haul flights into mainland China often depart from the newer “North Satellite Concourse” which is connected to the main building by bus from near the central security checkpoint.
When boarding your flight, have your passports ready as there will be one more document cross-check on the jetway. They will also be searching your carry-on bags, and will confiscate any liquids bigger than 3 oz/100 mL, regardless of if they were purchased in the gate area or not. Very frustrating...so finish your coffee before boarding, and plan on keeping formula as powder until you can get hot water when airborne.
Family-friendly Amenities and Hidden Gems
Hong Kong loves kids, and HKIA is no exception. If you have time, in the pre-security area of Terminal 2, top level, there are several attractions for older kids and grown-ups:
- Aviation Discovery Centre and Sky Deck
- PlayStation(R) Gateway (free games!)
- 4-D Extreme Screen Cinema
The shops in Terminal 2 include several of interest to children, including an Exploration Store, Play ‘n Go, and a Disney Store.
Post-security, there’s another Disney Store in the East Hall shopping and restaurant complex (the area just after you get through security).
In the gate area, there are TV lounges near gates 1, 15, 40, and 60 and a large children’s playspace by gate 25 (more tuned for toddlers, though - no slides or climbing equipment.)
The wide-open concourse and big gate areas give plenty of room for youngsters to move around and burn off energy. The vast windows provide an awesome view of aircraft, the harbor, and Lantau Island (try to find the cable cars stretching over the mountain up to the Ngong Ping monastery!)
HKIA has placed artwork and cultural materials throughout the gate areas and much of it is fascinating to kids. The giant silver egg just before the escalators to the gate level compels children to touch it!
In the “hidden gems” category are the “resting lounges” near gates 61, 41-43, and 32-34. These are quiet garden spots with padded lounge chairs, great for stretching out and perhaps even taking a little nap.
If your flight leaves early in the morning, another “gem” is having the entire gate complex essentially all to yourself - a rare treat in this crowded city, and something you won’t get on a cramped airplane for the next 10 to 20 hours.
Family restrooms are generously spread throughout the terminals and gate areas, are spacious and well-equipped. Some even have seating inside.
Regular restrooms are functional and well-maintained, with adequate stall space but not much room for stowing your bag or coat. They can accomodate an A380-load of passengers quickly, however.
Pay attention to toilet seats - they are cleaned aggressively with strong chemicals. Make sure seats are dry to avoid irritation!
Of special note are the restrooms in the “meet and greet” public area in Terminal 1. There are “family stalls” in both the men’s and women’s facilities which are extra-large, have changing tables, and handsomely decorated with Hong Kong scenes.
Squat toilets can be found in the public areas of the terminal buildings; however, all the toilets in the gate area are Western-variety.
Food and Shopping
HKIA might as well be called a shopping mall with parking for airplanes. In the gate areas alone there are over 90 shops and about two dozen restaurants, plus dozens more stores and eateries in the two terminals pre-security.
Granted, many of the shops are of the Hermes / Burberry / Coach / Prada luxury tier, with plenty of jewelry, cosmetics, and shoe options at the expensive end. However, there are also a number of newsstands, convenience stores, and general gift shops as well, plus the kids’ specialty stores as described earlier.
Food choices are incredible, and you could easily spend a full day at HKIA simply trying everything. In the East Hall there is a McDonald’s and Popeye’s Chicken; Starbucks near gates 21 and 44, and an illy espresso stand near gate 30. And then there are noodle shops, sushi stands, traditional Chinese cafes, congee houses, seafood and caviar restaurants, bakeries and sweet shops...
A singular frustration with the dining and shopping are the opening hours - stores generally don’t open until 7:00 am at the earliest - many not opening until 8:00. The McDonald’s and Starbucks are 24-hour operations, but even the magazine stands don’t open until 7 - which means many early-morning departing passengers don’t have a chance to get breakfast or pick up reading material and last-minute supplies.
Wi-fi is free and strong throughout the terminal. There are also several cafes and restaurants with Internet stations, and electrical charging areas can be found at numerous points.
Rail links from HKIA come in the form of the Airport Express, with high-speed service to Kowloon and Central, and the conventional MTR subway, with which you can connect to most of the territory’s rail network through several intermediate stations. There are also several companies providing double-decker bus service to various hotels and neighborhoods around the city, and depending on your destination, can actually be faster than the MTR.