A Guide to Airports in Beijing

Interior of Daxing International Airport in Beijing

Huainan Yu / Getty Images

 

Two big airports serve Beijing: the incredibly busy Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) and the shiny new Beijing Daxing International Airport (PKX), which opened in Sept. 2019. For now, most flights are still served by PEK; however, airlines are actively moving operations over to the new airport.

Beijing Daxing International Airport (PKX) is currently the largest single-structure airport in the world. By 2025, the behemoth terminal expects to handle 100 million passengers a year, making it the busiest airport in the world.

Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK)

  • Location: Approximately 20 miles (32 kilometers) northeast of Beijing. The airport is in the Chaoyang district before the Chaobai River.
  • Best If: PEK is the default airport for Beijing unless flights from your airline have been moved over to the new Beijing Daxing International Airport.
  • Avoid If: Flying into Beijing Daxing International Airport is an option.
  • Distance to Tiananmen Square: Driving to Tiananmen Square takes a little over an hour, depending on traffic. Another option is to use the express train then transfer to the subway.
  • Distance to the Great Wall: The Mutianyu section of the Great Wall is around 1.5 hours driving from PEK. Getting to Badaling (typically the busiest section) takes slightly longer.

In terms of passenger traffic, Beijing Capital International Airport is the busiest airport in Asia and the second busiest in the world, only behind Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, Georgia. This is the warhorse of airports in Asia; more than 100 million passengers pushed their way through in 2018. Queues can be chaotic. Fortunately, the cavernous terminals are spacious enough not to feel claustrophobic. Terminal 3, the international terminal constructed for the 2008 Olympics, is the second-largest passenger terminal in the world.

Calling PEK’s terminals “big” doesn’t do them justice. Navigating them can be a workout. Walking times and distances often end up longer than expected. The secret to survival in PEK is to allow an even greater time buffer (at least an additional hour) than you do for other airports.

Although facilities are impressive, signage and instructions are often inadequate when you need to do something such as transfer to a different terminal. Sometimes finding someone helpful can be a challenge. Stay on your toes, and realize that chaos can—and often does—erupt unexpectedly at any time (e.g., a last-minute gate change announcement made only in Mandarin Chinese).

Walking between Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 via the indoor walkway takes around 10 minutes. You’ll have to use the free shuttle service to reach Terminal 3.

Getting From PEK to Beijing

Getting from Beijing Capital International Airport to the city can be done by taxi, bus, or train.

  • Taxi: Taxi is the best option for travelers arriving late or with a lot of luggage. Many taxi drivers speak limited English. Don’t assume the worst if they ask you for more money: You’re responsible for tolls on the expressway.
  • Bus: The airport shuttle bus is the most inexpensive option for getting to the city, and you won't need to change subway lines/trains. Tell the ticket desk inside the terminal in which neighborhood you’re staying.
  • Train: The Airport Express Train is the fastest option, but you’ll need to make a transfer or two onto the busy subway system. This can be a challenge with luggage.
Aerial view of Beijing Daxing International Airport
Xiaodong Qiu / Getty Images

Beijing Daxing International Airport (PKX)

  • Location: Approximately 29 miles (46 kilometers) due south of Beijing.
  • Best If: If flying into PKX is an option, do it! The airport is currently the most modern and efficient in the world.
  • Avoid If: You hope to visit the Great Wall the same day as your flight.
  • Distance to Tiananmen Square: A taxi to Tiananmen Square will take a little over an hour.
  • Distance to the Great Wall: Unfortunately, the heart of Beijing sits between PKX and the Great Wall. Plan on at least 2.5 hours by car to reach any of the closest stretches of the wall.

China is known for “going big,” and they certainly did so with the starfish-shaped Beijing Daxing International Airport! PKX opened on Sept. 25, 2019, to become the largest single-structure airport in the world. The terminal boasts more than 11,000,000 square feet in a beautifully designed structure. More and more flights are being moved to PKX, providing some needed relief at PEK. Delta and other SkyTeam airlines will use the new terminal as a hub in Asia.

As one would expect in an $11.4 billion facility, passenger services abound. Fast 5G Wi-Fi is available everywhere as are dining (local food and Western), shopping, and entertainment options. Hands down, the most impressive parts of Beijing Daxing International Airport are the design and architecture. The geometric curves, abundant sunlight via skylights, and minimalism are beautiful to behold. But along with being aesthetically pleasing, the terminal is functional. The designers claim passengers will be able to reach any of the airport’s 79 gates within eight minutes or less of walking time.

Getting From PKX to Beijing

A high-speed express train connects Beijing Daxing International Airport with Beijing West Railway Station (the largest railway station in Asia). Trains travel at 160 mph and take only 28 minutes to reach the city!

Several other subway and rail options are either planned or currently under construction. Of course, taxi is always an option.

Great Wall of China in August
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Visiting the Great Wall from Beijing Capital International Airport

Many travelers with long layovers in PEK or a tight itinerary in Beijing don’t want to leave China without having stood atop some part of the Great Wall. If you fall into one of those categories, consider booking one of the popular “layover tours” that leave from PEK.

You’ll need at least two hours each way to get to the Mutianyu stretch of the wall, plus whatever additional time you’ll spend on top (two hours is a good average). Taking the cable car rather than climbing the stairs can free up around 40 minutes. Good layover tours can arrange an English-speaking driver, cable car tickets, and take you directly to where you need to be.

Of course, you can take a taxi and make your own arrangements, but doing so can be risky if time is scarce. The entrances to the Great Wall are often chaotic; knowing where to go and finding help in English can sometimes be challenging.

If the Great Wall is out of reach, you could opt to visit the Summer Palace or one of the other top sights in Beijing.

Keep in mind that Beijing Capital International Airport is the second busiest in the world. Extended delays happen. Allow a larger buffer than usual for security and checking in.

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