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Flights

Getting around by air

The region's main air links to the 'outside' are through the main cities of Almaty (Kazakhstan), Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Tashkent (Uzbekistan), Ashgabat (Turkmenistan) and, to a lesser extent, Dushanbe (Tajikistan) and Astana (Kazakhstan). Tiny Osh (Kyrgyzstan) even has a couple of interesting international connections.

A few cities in Kazakhstan have international links to Europe, and cities in all republics have connections to Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, especially Russia.

Of the many routes in, two handy corridors are via Turkey (thanks to the geopolitics of the future) and via Russia (thanks to the geopolitics of the past). Turkish Airlines has the best connections and in-flight service but is at the higher end of the fare scale, while Russian and Central Asian carriers have the most connections. Turkey also has the advantage of a full house of Central Asian embassies and airline offices. Moscow has four airports and connections can be inconvenient.

Airports

Almaty International Airport A useful gateway to both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (Bishkek is just three hours by road).

Ashgabat International Airport Less well connected, most reliably by Lufthansa and Turkish Airlines. The newly reconstructed airport opened in 2016.

Astana International Airport Has a range of international flights.

Bishkek Manas International Airport Kyrgyzstan's main hub with relatively inexpensive international connections.

Dushanbe Airport The least connected, with most people using Turkish Airlines. A modern and efficient terminal was opened in 2014 and there are plans to build a new airport.

Tashkent International Airport Possibly the most central airport in Eurasia and the busiest airport in Central Asia. The airport is due to get a new international terminal in 2020.

Airlines

The following are the main Central Asian airlines, of which Uzbekistan Airways and Air Astana are the best.

Air Astana (www.airastana.com; airline code KC; hub Almaty) Most flights from Almaty but an increasing number of international flights from Astana and some international flights from Atyrau, Kostanay and Aktau.

Air Kyrgyzstan (http://air.kg; airline code QH; hub Bishkek) Limited number of regional flights.

Air Manas (www.airmanas.com; airline code ZM; hub Bishkek) A reliable Kyrgyz-Turkish airline that is part of Pegasus Airlines. Flies to Ürümqi, Delhi and İstanbul, with connections on Pegasus to most European cities.

Somon Air (www.somonair.com; airline code 4J; hub Dushanbe) A handful of regional flights, with flights to Frankfurt and Ürümqi.

Tajik Air (www.tajikair.tj; airline code 7J; hub Dushanbe) Mostly regional flights.

Turkmenistan Airlines (www.turkmenairlines.com; airline code T5; hub Ashgabat) Flights include Bangkok, Beijing, Birmingham, Frankfurt and London.

Uzbekistan Airways (www.uzairways.com; airline code HY; hub Tashkent) A good selection of flights to Europe, Asia and the US.

Departure Tax

Departure tax is included in your air ticket so you won't face any extra charges when you fly out of Central Asia. Turkmenistan is odd as usual, with an arrival tax of around US$14.

Tickets

Finding flights to Central Asia isn't always easy, as travel agents are generally unaware of the region and many don't book flights on Russian or Central Asian airlines.

  • Contact the airlines directly for schedules and contact details of their consolidators, or sales agents, who often sell the airlines' tickets cheaper than the airlines themselves.
  • Consider paying a little extra for a reliable airline such as KLM or Turkish Airlines, rather than a cash-strapped one such as Tajik Air.
  • Always check what time the flight arrives: many airlines arrive in Central Asia in the dead of night.
  • Specialist agencies such as www.alternativeairlines.com can often book Central Asian airline tickets when others can't.
  • Some budget airlines such as Pegasus Airlines and Air Baltic don't show up on online searches, so try those airlines' websites directly.

Visa Checks

You can buy air tickets without a visa but in most places outside Central Asia you will have trouble getting on a plane without one (with the exception of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan).

If you have made arrangements to get a visa on arrival, have your Letter of Invitation (LOI) handy at check-in and check with the airline beforehand.

Airline Safety

Aeroflot, the former Soviet state airline, was decentralised into around 400 splinter airlines and many of these 'baby-flots' now have the worst regional safety record in the world, due to poor maintenance, ageing aircraft and gross overloading. In general though, the main Central Asian carriers have lifted their services towards international safety standards, at least on international routes.

Most Kazakh airlines (except Air Astana) and all Kyrgyz airlines are currently banned from flying into EU airspace.

From Asia

From Beijing there are four weekly flights to Tashkent on Uzbekistan Airways and China Southern, five weekly to Almaty and Astana on Air Astana and a couple per week to Ashgabat on Turkmenistan Airlines.

Ürümqi in China's Xinjiang province has between two and seven flights a week to/from Almaty, Astana, Tashkent, Bishkek, Osh, Dushanbe and Ashgabat, with China Southern offering the most flights. One-way prices are around US$200, but Air Manas to Bishkek often dips below US$100.

Bangkok, Hong Kong, Delhi and Seoul also have useful connections into Central Asia.

From Australia & New Zealand

Most flights to Central Asia go via Seoul (to pick up Asiana or Korean Air flights to Tashkent and Almaty or Air Astana to Almaty), Kuala Lumpur (for Uzbekistan Airways to Tashkent, Air Astana to Almaty), Bangkok (Uzbekistan Airways to Tashkent, Air Astana to Almaty or Turkmenistan Airlines to Ashgabat) or İstanbul.

China Southern is often among the cheapest options, via Guangzhou and Beijing or Ürümqi. One cheap option to Kyrgyzstan is a ticket that connects in Delhi to the Air Manas flight to Bishkek.

For Dushanbe and Bishkek you'll probably have to go via İstanbul.

From Continental Europe

The best fares from Europe to Central Asia are generally with Aeroflot via Moscow or Turkish Airlines via İstanbul. Air Astana offers some good fares to Almaty/Astana, from Amsterdam and Frankfurt, or try KLM and Belavia (via Minsk).

Somon Air has a weekly direct Frankfurt–Dushanbe flight, costing around €400/650 one way/return.

From Russia

Budget airlines such as airBaltic fly to Moscow, making it a decent travel option if you are pinching pennies or want to travel overland by train. Remember to figure in the cost and hassle of a visa and transfer between airports in Moscow when comparing costs.

There are daily flights from Moscow to almost all Central Asian cities. One-way fares range from US$220 to US$300. There are slightly fewer connections from St Petersburg. Major Siberian cities such as Novosibirsk also have connections to the Central Asia capitals.

Uzbekistan Airways flies from Moscow to Samarkand, Bukhara, Urgench, Termiz, Andijon and several others several times weekly for around US$230. Aeroflot flies from Moscow to Tashkent, Bishkek, Almaty and Astana.

Note that Moscow has two main international airports: Sheremetyevo (www.svo.aero/en) and Domodedovo (www.domodedovo.ru/en). Sheremetyevo is itself divided into several terminals: Terminal B (Sheremetyevo-1), the international Terminal F (Sheremetyevo-2), and newly renovated terminals C, D and E.

At the time of research Aeroflot and Air Astana operated from Sheremetyevo, while Tajik Air, Turkmenistan Airways, Uzbekistan Airways, Somon Air, Manas Air and Air Kyrgyzstan used Domodedovo airport. You will need to get a Russian transit visa in advance if you have to transfer between airports and you should budget at least four or five hours to negotiate Moscow's crazy traffic.

Travel agencies in Moscow include Unifest Travel for rail and air tickets and Central Asia packages, affiliated with the Travellers Guest House.

From Turkey

Turkish Airlines flies from İstanbul to Almaty (daily), Astana (two to four weekly), Bishkek (daily), Dushanbe (twice weekly), Tashkent (five weekly) and Ashgabat (daily). The various republics' national airlines also fly once or twice a week.

There are also cheap flights from İstanbul's smaller Sabiha Gökçen airport to Bishkek and Almaty with Turkish budget airline Pegasus Airlines.

One-way flights to İstanbul cost from around US$200 from most Central Asian capitals.

Air Astana flies from Baku, Azerbaijan to Almaty and Astana, and from Tbilisi, Georgia to Almaty. There are also flights from Baku, Tbilisi and Yerevan, Armenia to Aktau two to three times weekly. Uzbekistan Airways makes the connection from Baku to Tashkent.

From the UK

The best return summer fares to Tashkent are around £500 with Uzbekistan Airways (direct), or a bit more with Turkish Airlines via İstanbul.

The cheapest flights to Bishkek are currently with the budget Turkish airline Pegasus Airlines, which has fares as low £300 return from London Stansted. Be aware that Pegasus has a reputation for losing travellers' luggage and that transfers at İstanbul's Sabiha Gökçen can be time-consuming. Check also about cheap flights to Osh with Turkish Airlines.

Fares to Almaty are about £400 return on Turkish Airlines via İstanbul, on Aeroflot via Moscow or Air Astana via Astana.

The best flights to Ashgabat are with Lufthansa or Turkish Airlines at around £700 return. A cheaper but harder-to-book option is Turkmenistan Airlines (www.flyturkmenistanairlines.eu), which flies weekly to Ashgabat from London and also four times a week from Birmingham. Most passengers are headed either to/from Amritsar. For cheap fares contact Amritsar Travel (www.amritsartravel.com).

The best way to Dushanbe is on Turkish Airlines via İstanbul but discounted fares are hard to come by.

From the USA

From North America you generally have the choice of routing your trip via İstanbul (Turkish Airlines), Moscow (Aeroflot) or a major European city (with KLM, British Airways, Lufthansa etc). Stopovers can be lengthy. From the west coast it's possible to fly to Almaty or Tashkent via Seoul on Asiana or Korean Air.

Uzbekistan Airways flies from New York (JFK airport) to Tashkent (via Riga) once a week, an 18-hour flight.

East Site (www.east-site.com) offers discounted Central Asian fares, including on Uzbekistan Airways.