I have been to China a few times but always found the visa situation messy. The quickest way used to be to fly first to Hong Kong and then apply locally, where one could be rustled up quickly and cheaply.
Back in January 2013, all this changed. Beijing began offering a 72 hour stopover with no visa requirements. Over the last two years, more and more cities have been added to the list. It now comprises Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Shenyang, Dalian, Xian, Guilin, Kunming, Wuhan, Xiamen and Hangzhou.
Shanghai, Beijing and Chengdu are all available with British Airways. The ability to visit a Chinese city for up to three days before catching a connecting flight elsewhere in Asia is an attractive one, in my view. Onward flights are available with Avios points with a range of oneworld partners including Cathay Pacific / Dragonair via Hong Kong.
Virgin Atlantic also offers flights to Shanghai.
In general, redemptions to China are easier to get than for other cities in Asia which is another reason to consider a stopover.
The rules governing the 72 hour stopovers are a little complex:
Only citizens of certain countries qualify – the list circulated by British Airways this week says they are Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Russia, United Kingdom, Ireland, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, USA, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Japan, Singapore, Brunei, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar.
The 72 hours starts from midnight on the following day, so in theory you can stay for up to 95 hours. I did read that some officials do not understand this, however, and that it is best to leave within 72 hours of your actual arrival.
You must leave from the same airport as you arrived at, with the exception of Shanghai where you can depart from either airport.
Your stopover must be at the first Chinese city where your flight touches down. If you route London – Beijing – Xi’an, for example, you can only take your stopover in Beijing.
The official page on the UK Chinese Embassy website has not been updated since the end of 2013. Do make sure you research this topic in detail if you are thinking of taking advantage.