Welcome to the first installment of my “Expat’s Mongolia Survival Guide”! I will be adding new chapters as time allows, covering various aspects of traveling to and living in Mongolia. But to kick it off, we’re going to go over the air travel options to travel here.

Most of those reading this will be flying into Mongolia’s largest city and capital, Ulaanbaatar (often referred to as simply “U.B.”). As of this writing in 2019, the major cities with direct flights going to UB are Seoul/Incheon (South Korea), Narita (Japan), Moscow (Russian Federation), Beijing (China), Hong Kong (China), Bangkok (Thailand) and Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan). Some of the air carriers on these routes include MIAT Mongolian Airlines, Korean Airlines, Asiana Airlines, Air China, and Turkish Airlines. There are also some direct flights into Mongolia from a handful of cities in China and Russia, which is served by Aero Mongolia.

If you’re traveling from Europe, the Middle East, or Africa, odds are you’re going to travel here through Moscow.

I’ve only traveled this way one time, and that was via Aeroflot (Oslo to Moscow) and Miat Mongolian (Moscow to Ulaanbaatar). Miat Mongolian is a decent and fairly average airline, but I have to say Aeroflot didn’t impress me at all… their customer service at the ticket counter was terrible and the flight staff was not much better, despite my wife being able to speak with them in Russian (we thought doing that instead of English would help… it didn’t). If you can use a different airline from Aeroflot, I would recommend doing so.

The international terminal in the Moscow airport was strange in that the stores and shops TOTALLY dominated the area, making it more like a packed shopping mall that makes the gates hard to spot. But otherwise I had no big complaints. Though I do find it funny that a former hard-core communist nation ends up making its airport such an overwhelming display of capitalism and consumerism.

If you’re traveling here from the Americas or Australia, it is most likely you are going to travel through Beijing, Seoul/Incheon, or Narita. I have yet to travel through Japan, but I have taken the routes through Korea and China multiple times.

The Korea route is typically more expensive, but the usual carrier (Korean Air) is a much better flying experience and the air travel time is shorter. Sometimes the way the flights are arranged one ends up staying overnight in Seoul, but Korean Airlines has typically arranged a complimentary layover stay with breakfast at their nearby hotel (which is pretty decent IMO). I think they still do this free layover hotel stay for most international flights going through Seoul, but you may want to verify with your agent or airline that it is available and that they have you booked for a stay. Korean Air also has transit tours available for day trips in Seoul; I haven’t done their tours, but having seen quite a bit of Seoul I think it’s definitely worth considering if you have the energy.

I really liked what I saw of the Seoul/Incheon Airport the handful of times I’ve been in there. I admit we never spent a lot of time there or went to their restaurants, given that we spent most of our transit time at or near the layover hotel. But it’s a nice airport from what I could see and the airport and airline staff was always helpful. There was one time that involved quite a bit of walking to get between gates, however, so make some allowances for that.

As for the Beijing route, so far I’ve found it impossible to beat as far as ticket prices go, being the lowest priced option between Ulaanbaatar and America for years now (this year I paid about $680 for an adult round trip fare from UB to Seattle for this winter season). The downsides to this route though include longer air travel times and long connection times (between 3 to almost 7 hours) in the airport. Most typically I’ve left the US through San Francisco with either United Airlines or Air China, and flying into Ulaanbaatar with Miat Mongolian. I prefer United Airlines (there’s something you don’t often hear about United!) as their service seems a bit better (wait, we are talking about United, right?). Admittedly, their selection of onboard movies is better too. Also, during my last flight with Air China they had a disquieting announcement… namely stating that onboard conversations are subject to monitoring and recording by State authorities. So there’s that.

(For what’s supposed to be a rising power, China’s Communist government sure comes off as awfully insecure, huh?)

To actually buy this best priced route with United and Miat Mongolian, it is usually only accessible through a travel agent or the travel sites CheapoAir, JustFly, or Kayak. I prefer Kayak to other online alternatives (less BS fees) but many times their re-direction to United’s website doesn’t work right. And you can’t find these fares by directly searching on United’s website, presumably because Miat Mongolian is not one of their partner airlines. But this year I’ve had good results using a travel agency here in Mongolia, with the prices being about the same (even less if you pay in cash or debit). So if you’re traveling this route (or any other I suppose), it may be worth it to explore your options with a reputable travel agent. Trying to change your flight with United’s customer service is often a nightmare, so using a travel agent might help avoid that headache as well.

Lastly, just be aware that flights to/from Ulaanbaatar will typically be priced higher between late spring and early fall than flights during the rest of the year. Mongolia is steadily gaining popularity as a tourist destination, so less expensive tickets during the warmer months (and especially around the Naadam holiday) will sell out more quickly. So if you’re relocating or traveling here in those warmer months, don’t wait till the last minute to get your ticket!

Cheers and happy travels!