China is MASSIVE. An incredibly huge country. If you hope to explore even just a few of its highlights, it will involve cross-country travel. In fact, we spent 7 days out of our 23 day trip in China travelling to our next destination. There’s no avoiding it – exploring China means long days travelling.
But what’s the best way to get around? Plane, train, or bus? Time and money will be the biggest factors when making your decision. We took all modes of transport during our travels in China and learnt lots about what to do, what not to do so that we can help YOU get around China – hassle free!
a) By Plane
Air travel, for the most part is generally the quickest way to get from A to B. However, China is notorious for having the highest percentage of delayed and cancelled flights in the world. What was a quick, hour flight can quickly turn into a nightmare as you wait in the airport for the next available flight to your destination.
In saying that though, we took two domestic flights in China and both departed on time. We opted for flights over trains, as the journeys were much quicker (1.5 hours compared to 14+ hours) and the cost difference was minimal (within $10 AUD).
If you have a BIG distance to travel, its well worth comparing a flight from your nearest airport to a train journey.
How do you book flights in China? We booked our flights through Ctrip. Most local airline websites either didn’t translate to English or would not accept overseas credit cards, so we searched our flights through Skyscanner, and then booked through Ctrip.
Ctrip was quite user friendly, accepted foreign cards but was a two step process – the first email you receive is a confirmation of PROCESSING, but not a confirmation of BOOKING. Be sure to keep an eye out for the booking confirmation. One of our two flights was cancelled (prior to arriving in China) so we had to follow up regarding a refund and then book an alternative flight, but we were able to do so with no issues.
Print out your flight confirmation, and arrive to the airport early – as you would in for any flight in any country. Flights can change, so be sure to use an email with your Ctrip account that you can access whilst in China or get a VPN to keep an eye on things.
b) By Train
China has the world’s third largest railway system. Just about every town in every province is connected by rail. From bullet trains to slower, long haul trains, you can get just about anywhere by rail in China – comfortably and cheaply.
Bullet trains are more expensive than older trains, however are the obvious choice for getting to your destination in the shortest amount of time. Different classes are also available – you can opt for a comfortable soft bunk on an overnight or long train journey.
The difficult part, is booking your trains. At present, you can’t do this outside of the country. Your only alternative, is lining up a train station, with your list of dates and journeys and booking all your trains once in China and endeavouring to do so with someone who speaks no or very little English. Or is it?
In our research on trains, we discovered China DIY Travel – and they made our travels through China a BREEZE. China DIY Travel is travel agency that can book your train tickets, flight tickets, and provide assistance with any other China-travel related enquiries. Their search engine is connected to the China rail system, so you can use their website to plan your train travels. Once you’ve determined what trains you wish to take and on what dates, you can send this list through to the team at China DIY Travel.
The team will provide a quote for you, inclusive of booking fees (Just $10 USD per ticket) as well as make any suggestions for an easier journey or a route you may not have thought of. In the lead up to booking our tickets, we communicated back and forth (receiving responses almost right away!) about our train journeys and the ladies were always quick to get in touch with us if there were any issues. Once your itinerary is confirmed, the team then purchase your tickets for you – without having to pay up front!
Once the tickets are booked and funds transferred, China DIY travel sends through your e-tickets for all journeys as well as an abundance of information on how train travel works in China, and personalised, detailed instructions on how to pick up your tickets (e-tickets need to be converted to paper tickets on arrival in China) and information in Chinese for collecting your tickets from train station attendants, as well as instructions for taxi drivers in Chinese.
The entire booking process was so easy, and the process once we arrived in China was just as professional. We followed the instructions given to us by the team at China DIY Travel, and had zero problems picking up all 12 of our train tickets – taking the trains was also a breeze.
China DIY Travel can also book your flight tickets – they really are a one stop shop when it comes to getting organised to travel around China before your trip. The support continued even in China – whenever we had any questions, they were always quick to help. Travelling through China by train is made easy by the team at China DIY Travel – we highly recommend them, and will use them again on our next visit!
c) By Bus
If you can’t get there by train – then you can get there by bus. Buses are just as extensive as trains, and generally more frequent, so it might be that you opt to take a bus as it may leave before the next train departure.
There is usually a major bus station in every town and you can arrive without pre-booking. It is very important to know the correct pronunciation (or have it written down) of where you want to go to communicate it to the ticket clerk. Also be sure to specify if you want to head to the North, South, East or West bus station – not every town has multiple stations, but most do and therefore simply giving the destination is not enough. It’s easier to get the destination right at the start, then to realise your mistake and try and exchange your ticket – trust us!
Bus travel is usually fairly comfortable, its affordable but not super cheap so again – compare bus travel with train travel. You might take a bus that leaves an hour earlier but arrives at your destination later than a train would – and the price difference is not a huge amount.
d) Local Transport
Once you’re at your destination, what’s the best way to get around?
Bigger cities – places like Shanghai, Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Guilin, Guangzhou – all have their own subway system which list all stops in English as well as Chinese and have bilingual announcements. They are incredibly easy to take and VERY cheap to get around the city. The subway is the best way to travel long distances on the cheap, even if you connect to a local bus at either end – take the subway for the bulk of your travel if possible.
Hostel owners can generally advise which number bus to take to get around local attractions, and we found Google Maps very accurate in detailing which bus number to take – we could also follow the route to make sure we got off at the right stop. Again, you’ll need a sim card and a VPN to access this.
Most taxis use their meter so you can safely jump in these to get around also, but be sure to have your destination in Chinese for the driver as next to no one speaks English. It also pays to ask ahead of time what the approximate fee should be. For example, on a late night trip from the airport in Chengdu to our hostel, we were advised the journey should cost about 80 RMB and take 30 minutes. Nearly an hour and 130 RMB later – our taxi driver took a LONG route to increase the fare – we told our hostel who sorted the driver out and we paid 80 RMB. Never be afraid to cross-check prices and negotiate (if possible!)
Have you travelled cross-country across China? How did you get around? If you have any other tips, please share them in the comments below!