May 2, 2017
It is often remarked that for a city of its size, Suzhou should really have an airport of its own and that it certainly would if it was in Europe. Well, there is some truth in this I reckon, but people, particularly new arrivals, sometimes forget that there are more options than just leaving or arriving via Pudong. In this article I will explore the options that are Hongqiao and Wuxi airports and why they might be a better choice.
Despite being China’s busiest international hub, Pudong is singularly uninspired when compared with the great airports of Asia, such as Suvarnabhumi, Incheon, Kyoto or Hong Kong. It is architecturally drab and the departure area lacks both comfort and interesting dining options. It is one of the few truly global airports where getting on the plane is preferable to mooching around the terminal.
Is Hongqiao any better? In many ways no, but in some ways yes. Firstly, if you live in Suzhou it can at least be directly reached by train. All three main Suzhou railway stations, Suzhou, Suzhou North and Suzhou SIP have direct trains that service Hongqiao, and they get there in around half an hour. If you live near Suzhou’s growing metro network then this is ideal, being faster, more comfortable and significantly cheaper than going by taxi. Upon arrival you find an airport that is considerably less manically busy than Pudong.
Hongqiao airport dates back to as early as 1907 and it began civilian services in 1923. The current airport has been built in stages between then and 1991. Its importance dimmed somewhat when Pudong opened in 1999. Despite its relegation to second fiddle, it still handled more than 40 million passengers in 2016, and so Hongqiao is not like flying out of Sandown! Hongqiao is a hub for several airlines, including Juneyao, Spring and Shanghai. It services most of the Chinese mainland and has several international destinations, including Tokyo, Busan and Seoul, as well as Hong Kong, Macao and Taipei.
Check in is smoother and quicker than at Pudong, and I have never had to go to the little security room at the end of the line to open my case, which invariably happens at the other place. The departure lounge is clean and shiny, with a statue of a golden monkey at its entrance to welcome you. It is a little more comfortable than Pudong but the food options are basically the same – though there is a nice sushi bar just after you get in.
My other flying choice is Wuxi airport. This is closer to us still, but lacks a direct train line. This means either taking the 15 minute train and then a cab or going directly by taxi. This latter option takes around an hour and costs 300RMB from most companies.
Check in at Wuxi is clean, quiet and swift, because of its size and regional status. A friend remarked that everyone there is probably on the same flight as you, but this is a slight exaggeration, as Sunan Shuofang airport, to give it its official name, did handle more than three and a half million passengers in 2013. In departures there are the usual boring options of a bowl of noodles, a glass of Tsingdao or a Starbucks coffee, but the area is relatively quiet and not too bad a place to suffer one of the usual delays to internal flights as you can easily find some seats to stretch across and enjoy a kip on.
From Wuxi you can fly to all the main airports in China as well as Busan, Singapore, Siem Reap in Cambodia, Krabi in Thailand, Bangkok, Osaka, Tokyo and from this July, Nha Trang in Vietnam on Vietnam Airlines, a great airline going to a great destination. So, if you are flying within Asia I would recommend avoiding Pudong and giving one of its two smaller siblings a try. You will, at the very least, get on the plane in a more relaxed and calm state of mind.
About the Column
Markus is from the Isle of Wight in the UK and had been living in Suzhou since 2013. It is his first time living in China and before this he was in London. He has been teaching English all of his adult life and in HE since 2000. He is lucky to have his wife with him in Suzhou and together they are making a new life. His interests include eating out (a lot) and exploring local areas on his ebike. And recently, walking a doggie.