My personal experience with local Chinese airline companies has been mostly good, the planes are clean, in many cases new, the service is good, and my inability to speak Chinese has never been an issue. All the flights I’ve been on have had staff with English skills, and any messages are broadcast in both languages at a minimum.
The one major standout difference when travelling by plane in China is the crowds, it can get real busy at local airports and it can take a while to get through check-in and security, so allow plenty of time.
There are various ways to purchase flights in China being via travel agents, at your hotel, at airline offices, via the airline website or via online flight aggregator websites. Prices for flights vary based on demand and generally the earlier you book, the cheaper the flights will be.
Many hotels and hostels offer flight and tour booking services, most will also charge a small commission for this too. This is definitely the easy option for many people.
Alternatively, you may check with local travel agents who often have desks/offices in shopping malls, near supermarkets etc. Lucky dip as to whether you’ll find someone with English, and again you’ll be paying a commission.
Next option is direct with the airline. Many have local offices, where you can book tickets. Most of Chinas airlines also have online booking systems at their web sites and telephone booking systems.
The next option is to book online via the various discount flight aggregator web sites. At these sites you can check deals from various airlines at once, choose the best deal and flight time to suit you and book online. When booking the flight you’ll have the choice of getting an ‘e-ticket’ meaning you more or less just show your passport at check-in, pick up a hard copy of the ticket at a nearby agent or have a hard copy of the ticket delivered to your hotel.
I’ve used the ‘e-ticket’ from both cTrip.com and elong.net and have had no issues. It’s simply a matter of showing your passport or ID at the airline check in counter and they’ll print out the boarding pass for you.
CTrip and elong, are the two major online aggregators of Chinese domestic and international flights, and the most foreigner friendly, having English service (via phone and website).
List of China’s Domestic Airlines
http://www.hnair.com/ (flies to Australia)
http://www.airchina.com (flies to Australia)
http://www.csair.com (Flies to Australia)
http://www.dragonair.com / http://www.cathaypacific.com (flies to Australia)
(Services these Chinese airports: Beijing, Shanghai, Changsha, Chengdu, Chongqing, Dalian, Fuzhou, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Hong Kong, Kunming, Nanjing, Ningbo, Qigdao, Sanya, Wuhan, Xiamen)
(Services these Chinese airports: Shanghai, Beijing, Xiamen, Nanjing, Shenzhen, Changsha, Chengdu, Guilin, Haikou, Kunming, Hangzhou)