Tips for Traveling in China – 12 Things I Wish I Had Known

Traveling in China is not easy for many of us coming from other countries. There are quite a few things to know that will help you make the most of traveling in China. These are twelve things I wish I knew before my trip to China!

When I came back, I kept finding myself saying, “Did you know ___?” I am pretty sure it drove my friend’s crazy for a while, but my mind kept thinking of things that were different, interesting, and fascinating it was for me coming from such a different culture. I just had no clue about before visiting. So, I wanted to create a post with all the things I wish I had known and some tips for traveling in China.

Yes, some of these are travel tips for many countries but were way more pronounced or important in China. Here are some tips for traveling in China that I wish I had known.

1. Visas can be hard to get.

 

Start way ahead of time and be prepared to possibly have to retry getting a visa. Mine was denied twice. On the third try, my visa was finally accepted. You MUST go to an embassy to get it. Someone can go for you, for a fee—I used Passports and Visas. Check all the updated rules on your government’s website.

NOTE: These are the rules currently for US citizens, other countries have different rules. Here’s more on how to get a visa for China if you are interested!

 

2. Many tours include visits to factories and markets.

These visits are often not related to the tour and are more about selling products. Be careful of these situations on tours for two reasons. First, they can be a scam. Second, they can take most of the time you are on a tour. I saw many complaints before I went to China of this happening to people on tours, and it happened to us once. Research the tour carefully, ask if you can spend less time in a factory and more time at the location.

 

3. Expect problems to arise/Plan ahead as much as possible.

The train schedules will change, something will not be located where it was listed online, and you might not be able to talk to everyone you need to. Build in time and expect these problems to happen. This is not an easy place to go if you don’t know the language. There were times we just didn’t know what to do even though I planned ahead a lot. If you are not going with a tour group, take the time to research as much as you can!

The picture above is from when things did not go according to plan for us in Suzhou. We were supposed to go visit my friend James in Hangzhou and ended up missing a train so instead went to Suzhou. Well, this was fine until we ended up on an all Chinese tour and were unable to communicate with anyone on the tour at all. We saw many beautiful things and hung out for a long time in some factories. The best part was that in the end, we found out one family on the tour was from Michigan and spoke English the whole time! So we could have communicated with our guide or asked questions about where we were if we had only known… I’m still unsure what all we saw to this day, but it was beautiful and one of those moments where you just look back and laugh.

So while this isn’t a separate tip… Be gracious to yourself and allow mistakes. This one was a big lesson for me. I learned that I will make mistakes when traveling, especially somewhere so different than I am used to. I made some mistakes that cost us a day of our trip, but in the end, things worked out and everything was okay. It wasn’t my fault we didn’t know the rules for the train, and we learned from it (don’t lose a ticket—they can’t really be replaced).

Traveling with kids? It’s going to take some extra planning to visit Beijing with kids, or any other city in China for that matter. Really plan ahead and remember that things happen!

 

 

4. Trains have different classes, and they are vastly different than Europe/US. 

This is one of those tips for traveling in China that I didn’t realize would be so important until we got there… Make sure to really research and look into train tickets before purchasing! I would definitely buy them ahead of time if you do not speak Mandarin because, even at the English speaking ticket booths, it was difficult to communicate. We used China Travel Guide to book ours, and it made things so much easier. Below is some info for booking a ticket.

  • On bullet/high-speed trains (C, D, G trains): the first-class seat, second-class seat, business-class seat, VIP seat, soft sleeper, luxury soft sleeper. Bullet trains are usually divided into six classes. Among them, the second-class has five seats in a row, the first-class has four seats, while VIP class and business-class have three seats in a row. We took second-class seats on a bullet train, and it was very nice.
  • On non-bullet trains (Z, T, K, Y, K, S trains): hard sleeper, soft sleeper, luxury soft sleeper, hard seat, soft seat. Non-bullet trains have six classes of seats. Third, fourth, and fifth-class are all in the same cars.
  • Third-class has reserved seats on bench hard seats, fourth-class seats are for those without a reserved seat, and fifth-class seats are standing room only—I don’t recommend these seats! We had people already sitting in our seats when we got on the train. A man was lying on the table in the middle of the six seats where I was sitting and another person brought their own stool and was lying against my bench seat. It was a bit stressful of a situation for me, but very very cheap.

We also took an overnight train with hard sleeper tickets. The hard sleeper rooms are quite cramped together as well but were better than the third-class tickets. We used this to get to and from Xi’an. This was an experience I wouldn’t discourage as long as you are prepared for dirty bathrooms and sharing space with five other people!

Also, each of these trains has different facilities offered. You can look up the specific train by looking at its letter. This also tells you if it is a bullet train or not!

 
 

5. Don’t pack in too much too fast.

We only had 8 days and packed in a ton. Stay longer and adjust to the time difference. I had a whole month because I was going on to teach at a school in Tianjin, but my friends only had 8 days. I would have wanted to spend more time in Shanghai, especially. There was so much more to see and do! We were so tired from all the travel that we didn’t get to fully appreciate it.

 

6. Social Media is blocked, so get a VPN.

If you want to use social media, Google, or just don’t want the Chinese government potentially in your accounts, get a VPN (I used ExpressVPN.). Most social media sites are blocked in China including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Google, which can be a hassle all solved by having a VPN.

 

7. China is cheap compared to many other destinations.

Like really cheap—we only spent about $700 – 800 including the food, souvenirs, internal flights/train rides, and tours/tips.

 

8. Foreigners stand out.

It is still not common to see many Westerners while in China even though it is getting more popular. People are interested in foreigners—not in a bad way. Here my friend and I were being interviewed for an app (this happened over and over!). We got asked to take photos, and people who knew English were always interested in talking to us.

 

9. It is always crowded. Always.

There are so many people in the cities here. A small city has a population of millions. I read online about Suzhou being a smaller city. It has over 2 million people living there, which is still way larger than other cities I’d consider big, like DC!

 

 

10. Don’t expect to hear or see a lot of English.

Many people even in touristy areas do not speak English, even in Beijing or Shanghai. The picture below is one of my favorite examples of English in China—how to eat pizza!

 

 

11. Food regulations are different.

Food regulations are very different, and you can get sick from the food. Many places use a lot of MSG or other preservatives to make the food taste better. On our first day, we randomly chose a place, and I ended up finding three flies in my food! We should have looked around online before taking a seat, even though we were in a touristy area. After this, we looked around more carefully before choosing a place to eat.

 

 

12. Prepare for the Bathrooms! 

Even in the most touristy places in Beijing or Shanghai, public toilets will be a literal hole in the ground. Hotels and homes will have Western toilets. However, when out in public places bring your own toilet paper and prepare to squat when you need to go.

 

13. China is pretty safe.

China has a very low crime rate and is actually pretty safe for women to travel alone. You should always be vigilant of your things everywhere you go, but China does not have big issues with theft, which is good to know.

 

14. There are lots of places to store your luggage.

If you are in a city for the day, you’ve got options for where to leave your bags. Train stations, airports, and many big landmarks (specifically in Beijing and Shanghai) will have a place for you to leave your luggage while you go out and explore. You can find them by asking at the English-speaking ticket booths or researching on the internet before you go.

Honestly, China is so much fun, and you shouldn’t be intimidated by the planning needed. You will have a great time there, and I hope these tips for traveling in China will help you plan your trip!

 

Make the most of your trip to China with these helpful tips and insights. From cultural differences to travel advice, get ready for an unforgettable experience.
Make the most of your trip to China with these helpful tips and insights. From cultural differences to travel advice, get ready for an unforgettable experience.
 

There are so many incredible places to visit in China! I hope that you can think ahead and enjoy your trip. Save these tips for traveling in China!

Meghan

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