After staying in China for several months, I have to admit, if you don’t know how to speak Chinese, it is not easy to get around. Even though almost all Chinese schools start teaching English from at least third grade all the way to college, rarely can you find someone who speaks English well enough to talk to on the street. Since all the tourist places in China are already near full capacity just to handle domestic tourists, there is not much motivation for local goverment to create an English-friendly environment.
Traveling to China is indeed very hard without a local tour guide. China is almost as large as the US, and has tons of wonderful places to explore, I figure I should do my part to at least make it easier for people to travel around China. In this post, I will focus on transportation in China first.
Train, especially high-speed train
No question about it, trains are the most popular way for people in China to get from city to city. High-speed trains, which travel as fast as 190 miles per hour, are available between almost all major cities. They are very clean, always on time, and comfortable to ride. You can almost always get a ticket whenever you need it ( The only exceptions being the period around Chinese New Year as well as National Day) , thus no far-ahead planning is needed. The price is distance based, from around $3 to $85 per ticket ( double the price for business-class tickets, which in my opinion are not necessary at all), refundable and exchangeable at a fee up to 10% of the ticket price ( no cost if canceled a week ahead). In addition, train stations are usually located in a convenient location inside a city, directly connected to subway systems if available, thus very easy to get to.
Let me give an example. From Beijing to Shanghai ( about the same driving distance from NYC to Chicago), there is a high-speed train almost every 30 minutes from 6:44am to 9:23pm, and it takes about 5 hours with a cost of about $85. On the other hand, if you take a flight, the cost may be similar for cheap tickets, but the total time would be longer if you consider the time spent on getting to the airport, waiting there, possible delays, etc. Airports in China are usually much further away from a city compared to train stations.
In addition to high-speed trains, there are many cheaper trains that run at a slower speed. For example, from Beijing to Shanghai, you can choose the overnight train leaving at 7:33pm and arrives at 7:41am the next day, and costs from $50 ( sitting seat ) to $190 ( best sleeping bed). If you don’t want to waste daytime on a train or want to save hotel money, such over-night trains are a very good choice. Basically, you can always find a train that meets your schedule at a cost that is within your budget.
Our personal experience: When we were in China, we definitely always chose high-speed trains over flights whenever it was possible. I always used the iphone app铁路12306 developed directly by the Chinese railway, although it is not the only choice. Typically, I would buy an electronic ticket two to three days ahead. With a non Chinese passport, you cannot use the automated kiosks for retrieving your paper ticket, however the line for getting our tickets was almost always very reasonable. We usually would arrive around 30 minutes before the train leaves, with no problem getting our tickets, and through security. There was not a single time that our train did not leave on time! And most times trains were quite empty. If there is one thing I really liked more than anything else in China ( except food of course), it is the high-speed trains. It really makes traveling in China so much easier!
You might sense that I don’t really like flights. However, compared to flights in the US, it is much more convenient and affordable to fly in China. There are more than 30 different airlines in total, which certainly gives you a lot of choices. So, how are Chinese flights different when compared with the US?
First, you don’t need to buy Chinese flight tickets more than two weeks ahead. This is probably the thing I like most about Chinese flights. In the US, if you wait until the last week to buy a ticket, the price just goes through the roof unless you fortunately get a last-minute deal ( which you cannot count on it). Somehow, for flights and hotels in China, buying far ahead actually costs more. So, a week or two is more than enough time to get a ticket.
Second, round trip tickets are not any cheaper than the cost of two one-way tickets. I don’t think I ever bought a round-trip ticket in China since there is really no advantage to buying ahead for return tickets.
Third, they are much cheaper (but make sure you buy it from the right place). $60 – $150 is a typical price range for a one-way ticket, depending on the distance and time of a flight. Flying in the early morning or late at night would be about half price compared to during the day. For the exact same ticket, if you buy from a typical US travel website such as Expedia, Priceline, etc, it is going to be twice of the price compared to buying from a Chinese company website such as Ctrip or Elong ( both of them have English websites).
Ten years ago, Chinese airports were usually quiet and comfortable since flights were not affordable for the majority of people. However, nowadays, they are not less crowded compared to train stations. As more and more flights become available, flights are getting more and more likely to be delayed.
oh, I almost forgot to mention, Chinese airlines still serve regular meals! Even for an one-hour long flight, you still get snacks and drinks.
Our personal experience: I certainly liked the food on Chinese flights. And all the flight attendants are quite hot! But it is really a pain to go from a city to its airport since it typically is an hour away. Oh, I always bought my tickets directly from Chinese Apps. If you don’t know Chinese, your best bet is Ctrip or Elong.
Cab and Uber/Didi
Once you arrive at a city, you most likely will need a car to get around. Compared to the US, cabs are much more affordable in China. The taxi rate is around 30 to 70 cents per mile in most cities. And due to the high population density, even in smaller cities, you won’t have much difficulty to grab a cab on the street. However, rarely will a cab driver speak English. Thus, you need to have the Chinese address of wherever you plan to go. Most importantly, you need to make sure the cab driver turns on the meter once he starts and only pay whatever amount is shown in the meter when you arrive. Otherwise, you are at the risk of getting ripped off by a cab driver. You should never get into a cab that doesn’t have a meter ( It is a big red flag!).
Luckily, Uber and Didi ( the chinese counterpart of Uber) are becoming very popular in China. They beat cabs in almost every aspect. They are much cheaper ( less than half of cab rate), better quality ( cars are nicer and cleaner), arrive fast ( usually less than 5 minutes), easier payment ( no cash is involved) and safer ( the cab driver’s true identity is in the network). Before you get to the car, you know roughly how much it’s going to cost; in the car you can see the route; and after the ride, you can review the service. With Didi, you can order different types of cars ( cab, average car, fancy car), prearrange a car days ahead, carpool with another person along the way, or even order a driver if you have a car but are too drunk to drive.
Our personal experience: I am a huge fan of Didi. It made our travel so much easier. The moment we arrived at a new city, I usually got a message from Didi telling me 50% to 80% off on every ride. It was seriously cheap, typically ranging from 50 cents to $3 dollar per ride. Sometimes I felt bad to pay only $2 after a ride of at least 30-minutes! How did the didi driver make any money! The only times we choose a cab over Didi/Uber were when we went from a train station or airport to our hotel since it is usually very difficult to pin-point a specific point for a Didi driver to pick up in those places. However, if you are familiar with the city already, Didi/Uber would be a better choice.
A side story, there was one time after we checked out of our hotel and had more than half a day to wander around before heading to the airport, we took a Didi ride to a park. Somehow, we decided to store our luggage in the didi driver’s trunk since he would come back to drive us to the airport later on. Even though we had never met the driver before, but hey, he is a Didi Driver, which is a job too valuable to risk if he takes anything from our bags.
As wonderful as Uber/Didi is, when a city becomes too big, the odds of hitting traffic at times is just too high, then the subway becomes a good choice. Subways are available in over 25 cities in China and more are under construction. If you take a subway, not knowing Chinese is not a problem at all. All subway stations have clear route maps with both Chinese and English-letter ( PingYin or English words) names. Each stop is typically broadcasted with both Chinese and English. Inside many subway cars the route map has digital lights to show you what stations were past and what would be the next one. So, as long as you know the name of the stop you need to go, you should have no problem.
However, don’t expect to get a seat in a subway if it is a popular route or during the traffic hours. I had an experience taking a subway during traffic hour years ago in Shanghai and have never tried to do that again!
Oh, one more thing, most subway entrances are typically inside a shopping mall, at the underground level, so don’t get too confused when your map shows a subway entrance and you cannot see one on the street. Just walk inside the mall, and follow the subway signs.
Our personal experience: We took subways only during on-traffic hours and when the route was very short ( less than 20 minutes). Also, we usually took a subway when we headed to a train station so that we knew exactly when to leave and had no risk of getting stuck in traffic.
Rent a Car with a Driver
After watching how the Chinese drive the first week we arrived in China, Ben swore he would never consider to drive in China himself. Unless you have lived in China long enough and know very well how the Chinese drive, it is probably a bad idea to rent a car and drive yourself.
However, you can rent a car and a driver together. In most cities, with around $80 a day, you can have a driver takes you wherever you want inside the city. He is basically your personal chauffeur. He will drop you off at a place you want to go, wait for you when you wander around, pick you up when you are done and take you to the next place you want. For a price of $80 a day, you get lots out of it if you want to see multiple places a day, or if you have a group of three to four people.
What if you want to have a road trip, visiting multiple cities in a row for several days or weeks? It is certainly doable. There are long distance drivers who specifically serve tourists who like to do road trips but don’t have a car or don’t want to drive. They usually drive the same route designed along tourist attractions year round, thus they know exactly where to stop, what to see, and where to stay. Thanks to social media, these drivers post their itinerary online and get customers from all over the country. The most common road trips are towards Tibet, Sichuan Province, and Yunan Province since the main attractions are along the route and hard to get to by air or train. The cost? It is usually $80 per person and the car usually can have 4 to 6 people.
Our personal experience: when we were in smaller cities and wanted to see multiple places in a day, we did rent a car with a driver. For example ,when we were in Xishuangbana, all the things we wanted to see were spread all over the place and impossible to get to with a cab, thus renting a car with a driver worked great. Also, we had a 10-day road trip in Sichuan Province with two total strangers, and a driver. The road trip was probably one of the best experience we had during our whole China trip. You really got to see the country side way more when you travel by car and on the road!
Public City Bus
How about public city bus? One word, don’t take it ( unless you just want to experience a public bus in China.). First of all, if you don’t know Chinese, it is very difficult to know which bus to get to and when to get out. Second, picture yourself standing in the crowd inside a bus stuck in traffic. If you grew up in a developing country like China, you probably can tolerate it, otherwise, you would swear never to get on a city bus again. It is very cheap, but unless it is a very off-peak time, it will be very crowded.
However, some public buses are run specifically to tourist attractions. In that case, there are much fewer stops, and are usually not as crowded.
Our personal experience: We took one regular city bus once because I wanted Ben to experience it. of course, he never wanted to take it again. Another time, we took the city bus in Xian directly heading to the Terracotta Warrior Museum. The museum was a 1 hour drive outside the city and the bus only had one stop in between, thus very convenient.
A Short Summary of My Recommendations
This post is probably already too long at this point, so, what transportation should you use once you are in China?
- If you plan to visit multiple cities in China, especially big cities, consider high-speed train first. It is cheaper, takes probably less time compared to a flight, and easier to get in and get out. The article from TravelChinaGuide website gives a very good guide on how to purchase a train ticket.
- Once you are in a city, if you are adventurous and want to experience Chinese culture as much as you want, try out the subway and Uber. Otherwise, a cab works as well if you know exactly where to go.
- If you have multiple places to see within a city, and are traveling with a small group ( 3-5 people), rent a car and a driver. You can book it through Didi, or Ctrip.
- If you really want to see what a road trip is like in China and want to see places that are impossible to see any other way, rent a car and a driver who specializes on road trips. But you would really want to find a Chinese friend who you can trust and go with you. He needs to know how to find such drivers and classic routes.
- Of course, you can always just book with a tour guide and go with it. My post is more geared towards people who like to travel by themselves and don’t want to spend too much money. If you do your research, and don’t get intimidated, your travel experience will be so different!