On the advantages and disadvantages of the modern aeroplane vs. the old time train
The majority of our group tours enter North Korea by plane. The default setting upon your return is the 24-hour international train from Pyongyang to Beijing. We believe this combination gives the most well-rounded travel experience to North Korea – arrive to Korea rested on your way in, enjoy a few more hours of the country on your way out.
But trains are not for everyone and on most tour you can opt for the plane back instead for an additional 50 EUR. The flight takes around 90 minutes, while the train trip lasts around 22 hours and 28 minutes.
So, plane or train?
There are pros and cons for both options. It all depends on your personal decision based on your preference, budget, and schedule/time.
Why would I take the train for almost a day when I can hop back to Beijing just under 2 hours by plane?
Simply put it, because it’s more interesting. You travel through the Korean country side, covering ca. 230 kilometers in a bit less than 5 hours till you reach the Korean border town of Sinuiju. After a rather thorough customs check you cross the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge over the Amnok/Yalu River into China right next to the Broken Bridge which was destroyed by USAF bombing during the Korean War.
You also have the rare opportunity to mingle with Koreans on the train – they tend to be very open and sharing –, and it is also a good chance to reminisce over the shared memories of your trip with your fellow travelers.
And last, but not least, you can save 50 Euros by opting for the train allowing to buy more books, propaganda posters, soju, and many other goodies while in Korea. No honey, though – Chinese customs don’t allow honey in China when entering at Dandong as it turned out on our last tour in November.
Sounds cool. So why would I rush back to Beijing on the plane, then?
First of all, you can save almost a day of your life by choosing the flight over the train. Although riding a train in China is an experience in itself once you leave Dandong at 18:31 you’re riding into the darkness and you spend the night on the train – a bit more than half of the total travel time. On the other hand, I personally love sleeping on sleeper trains, the steady movement puts me right into sleep, only to wake up for the announcement that we’re approaching Beijing Zhan and to Kenny G’s Going Home which marks the end of all train rides in China. Uniquely, when arriving in Beijing by plane you can enjoy Moranbong’s music.
It can be also more convenient if you don’t plan to spend time in Beijing and have a flight to catch at Beijing Airport. Just make sure that you allow ample time (5 hours at least) to go through immigration, reclaim your luggage, clear customs, transfer to Terminal 3 (if you need to), check-in to your onward flight, clear emigration and security check.
You can also take advantage of the 72-hour visa-free transit if your nationality allows to.
Obtaining a double-entry Chinese visa can be a hassle so I’d like to take advantage of the 72-hour visa-free transit. Can I still travel by train?
Unfortunately, not. To take advantage of the 72-hour visa-free transit in Beijing you must enter China at Beijing Capital International Airport and have a valid onward flight ticket to a destination outside mainland China (transfers within mainland China are not allowed, i.e. you have to board an international/Hong Kong/Macau/Taiwan flight at Beijing Capital airport). To exit the DPRK by train you have to have at least a single-entry Chinese visa (except for Singaporean, Japanese, and Bruneian citizens who can stay in China without a visa for up to 15 days) provided that you’re using the 72-hour visa-free transit option on your way to the DPRK.
What about flight enthusiasts?
Being a flight enthusiast, on my first tour I opted for the flight option in the hope of trying out more aircrafts of the international Air Koryo fleet. However, the chances of flying the same aircraft are rather high as most of the flights to Beijing are operated by the Tupolev Tu-204-100 aircraft. The shorter Tupolev Tu-204-300 and the Antonov An-148-100B aircraft is usually rotated on the flights to Shenyang and the latter one is a rare visitor to the Chinese capital. But don’t forget that if you chose to fly out, the last flavor of Korea will be the infamous Koryo burger which – in my opinion at least – deserves a better reputation and you can enjoy it while listening to the concert records of the Moranbong Band.
Air Koryo flies three times a week in the winter period (Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays) and five times during the summer (adding a Monday and Friday flight) between Beijing and Pyongyang, and twice to Shenyang (Wednesdays and Saturdays). During the summer, two flights connects the North Korean capital with Shanghai’s Pudong Airport. There is also a twice weekly air bridge between Pyongyang and Vladivostok throughout the year.
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Direct trains from Pyongyang leave for Beijing on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays; while on other days of the week there is a train to the Chinese border city of Dandong, offering a connection onward to Beijing. Trains for the North Korean capital leave Beijing on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays; and there are daily direct connections from Dandong.