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Getting Around China: Transportation Tips

China is a huge country with 22 provinces, five autonomous regions and two Special Administrative Regions (Hong Kong and Macau). To cover the long distances and avoid gridlock both on the road and at the airport, it’s important to plan ahead.

There are three major national holidays in China when freeways, trains, airplanes and popular destinations are crammed with travelers. The first one is the Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival. It typically lasts up to 15 days, starting any time between late January and mid-February (the dates are different each year). The other two are known as Golden Week holidays; May Day starts on May 1, and National Day starts on October 1. Each lasts a week.

During these three public holidays, millions of Chinese people will return to their home towns to visit family or visit the country’s most popular sightseeing spots. You do not want to be on the roads with them at the same time! In addition, train and airline tickets, hotel accommodations, and entrance fees to tourist attractions are both expensive and difficult to acquire.

Below are a few more essential things to know about getting around the vast expanse of the Middle Kingdom.

Flying to and Around China

Most nonstop flights from the U.S. to China land in one of the three major international gateways: Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Hong Kong International Airport, located on Lantau Island, is connected to the central business district by an efficient and comfortable light rail system. Shanghai has two airports, the older Hongqiao Airport (which handles mainly domestic flights) and the much larger and more modern Pudong Airport that connects Shanghai with the world. A fast Maglev train carries passengers between Pudong and central Shanghai.

Beijing’s Capital Airport currently ranks second in the world in passenger traffic, after only Atlanta’s Hartfield-Jackson International Airport. A new airport is being built in Daxing, about 30 miles south of Beijing, and will become the world’s largest airport when completed in 2018.

The big three U.S. airlines — American, Delta and United — have regular direct flights to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. United also recently added nonstop flights between San Francisco and Chengdu. All three U.S. airlines offer codeshare flights with their respective global airline alliances to other Chinese cities as well.

As for Chinese airlines, the three major ones that fly to and from China are Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines. All have daily service to Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou. In addition, Hainan Airlines flies nonstop to Beijing from Boston, Chicago and Seattle, and the Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways has daily flights to Hong Kong from Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York.

China’s domestic air market is growing rapidly, with more than 180 commercial airports. At least nine new airlines, a few of them focus on low-cost routes, have been approved for operation since the government lifted restrictions on privately invested airlines in 2013. Together with the more established domestic carriers such as Shanghai Airlines, Tianjin Airlines (part of China Eastern), Xiamen Airlines and Dragonair, these new startups provide a vast network of flight services to smaller domestic destinations that previously could be reached only by train or bus.

When booking a flight to China from the U.S., you’ll often pay less on sites like Priceline or Expedia than you would when purchasing directly through an airline’s own website. If you live in a major metropolitan area, you can also check with the many Chinese travel agencies located in the Chinatowns of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and elsewhere. They always have discount tickets to offer because of the special deals they have with various Chinese airlines. Almost all the travel agencies in Chinatown have English-speaking staff, and they welcome business from everyone.

For ordering domestic flight tickets while in China, Ctrip provides an excellent website if you have Internet access. You can also make your bookings through hotel reservation desks, airline ticket offices or local travel agencies. For a small service fee, you will be presented with different flight and fare options, and you won’t have to worry about the language barrier.

One important note: Flying in China is very much smog/weather dependent. Delays and cancellations are commonplace due to serious air pollution that affects pilots’ visibility during take-off and landing. All civilian flights and aerial activities in China are strictly monitored and controlled by the Chinese military. Traveling by high-speed rail (HSR) is a much more reliable alternative.


China by Train

China has one of the most extensive train networks in the world. It is a combination of the older, slower trains that stop at smaller towns; the D-class trains that run up to 124 mph; and the ultra-modern, high-speed G-class trains (HSR, or gao tie in Chinese) that connect bigger cities at speeds up to nearly 200 mph.

The HSR network in China is expanding. China’s central government is undertaking a massive infrastructure development project that will, by 2020, connect all the cities of at least 500,000 people by HSR. When completed, travelers will be able to get from the frosty northern outpost of Harbin, near Korea, to the southern factory hub of Guangzhou to the remote western oil city of Urumqi in a matter of hours, not days.

Certain segments of this massive HSR network are already in operation. For example, the 800-mile journey from Beijing to Shanghai now takes less than five hours by HSR. The trip from Guangzhou in the south to Beijing used to take 21 hours by express train, but now takes only eight. You can have tea and dim sum in Guangzhou in the morning, lunch in the midway city of Wuhan and barbecue duck in Beijing in the evening. Travel by HSR in China is fast, punctual, comfortable and clean.

Seats on HSR are divided into business, first and second classes. Some HSR trains also offer an additional class called superior, which is between business and first class, and provides free tea and dessert.

Seats on other short-distance trains are divided into soft seat and hard seat, while long-haul trains will include two additional categories of soft sleeper and hard sleeper. Hard seat is the cheapest class and has no assigned seating. Soft seat is assigned and has more elbow room and cleaner toilets. In the hard sleeper class you’ll have to share a compartment of six bunk berths. The pricier soft sleeper is more comfortable and set up as either a two- or four-bunk private compartment with a locking door.

Advance bookings are recommended, especially for sleeper classes. Keep your train tickets, as you will need them to exit at your destination.

Similar to other big cities in the world, many Chinese metropolitan areas such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have more than one railway station. Check carefully when booking your train tickets for the correct station information.


China by Bus

If you have a limited travel budget, long-distance buses are a good option. They are cheaper than flights and high-speed trains, and tickets are easier to secure. Bus service networks also cover many smaller towns and villages that cannot be reached by train.

The main drawbacks: Road conditions in some remote areas are less than ideal (and dangerous in bad weather), and the professionalism of some bus drivers leaves much to be desired. Traffic congestion on highways is common, and therefore delays are normal. A long-distance bus trip between Beijing and Shanghai takes 14 – 16 hours, compared to five hours by high-speed rail. Some long-haul routes provide sleeper buses, but these can be crowded (and noisy if you’ve got a snorer near you!).

Every province has its own long-distance bus company, and barely any of them have English websites. The vast majority of Chinese travelers buy their tickets at bus stations on the day of their travel, and English-speaking staff is rare. For foreign tourists the best way to purchase long-distance bus tickets is through your hotel or local travel agencies.

As with train stations, big cities in China tend to have multiple bus stations — so double-check where you’re going before you leave your hotel. And always be aware of your personal belongings when riding the bus.

China by Taxi

Taxis in China are plentiful and relatively cheap. Unfortunately, most taxi drivers do not speak English. It’s a good idea to have someone help you write down your destination(s) in Chinese, and always keep a business card of your hotel with you. When you get in the cab, check to make sure the meter is working before you set out.

We recommend asking for an official receipt (fapiao) printed from the taxi meter before you exit the car. The fapiao identifies the taxi company and the vehicle, which is helpful in case you leave any personal items behind.

Counterfeit currency can be a problem, so look over your change carefully, especially when receiving larger notes. It’s a good idea to pay with smaller-denomination bills if you can. has a handy guide to recognizing counterfeit bills.

Renting a Car in China

Renting a car in China isn’t a good option for most travelers. First of all, you will need a Chinese driver’s license and a residency permit to rent a car (although sometimes these rules are overlooked). Secondly, the process of procuring a local driver’s license varies from province to province.

The biggest challenge, however, is the driving itself. Many street and highway signs have no English translation, and traffic congestion, especially in big cities, is even worse than in the U.S. The ways that most Chinese drivers drive will shock the average foreign tourist. Every day many accidents take place, and you do not want to be caught in one of them.

If you need a car to get around, it is better and easier to hire a car and driver. Your hotel can provide assistance.

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–written by David Lang

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