Essential China Travel Tips from a Seasoned China Expat
What are some of the most important, essential China travel tips? There are quite a few things to consider as you plan a trip abroad, but with China – as with any country – there are specific tips and tricks that can help you along the way. I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned from traveling all across China for the past decade.
Over the past decade I have had the privilege of traveling all across China – from Beijing to Kashgar, from Xi’an to Hong Kong. Along the way I’ve learned quite a few China travel tips that have helped make travel in this crazy country just a bit easier!
Perhaps you’ve been living in China for years or maybe this is your first time headed to China – either way these top travel hacks will be incredibly useful to you.
Some of these China travel hacks can be applied to travel anywhere across the world, but for the most part these tips are specific to this region of Asia.
If you find these travel tips to be useful, make sure to download my free 44 Travel Tips guide that goes into even more detail about what to expect in China and how to get around easily.
1. Plan for Airline Delays | China Travel Tips
Anybody who has done even a small amount of travel in China knows how often flights get delayed here. I’ve been put up in numerous hotels overnight for that very purpose. After a while, you just come to expect delays in order not to be disappointed during the journey.
I always keep one change of clothes and a toothbrush in my carry-on just in case I get delayed overnight. This also helps in case my luggage gets lost, which hasn’t happened to me yet in China but I’ve heard has happened with other travelers.
2. Use the VIP Lines | China Travel Tips
Lines in China are ridiculously long. What’s worse, if you stand in line long enough you’re bound to see multiple people “cut” in the long line, a fact of life here that infuriates me to no end. So what’s the solution?
Use the VIP lines, if available. I love using this trick at airports especially. The very fact that I’m white means that most people believe I am supposed to use the VIP line. Oftentimes the VIP line is absolutely empty and I’ll just walk up with my passport. Nine times out of ten they’ve processed me without question. What’s the worst that could happen, really?
This is also true for those of you who may have status with airlines back home. When you purchase flight tickets in China, look into which airlines are affiliated with your preferred airline. In many cases, you can automatically get special status in China based on your status back home.
3. Take Advantage of Your Smartphone in China
The rise of the smartphone has revolutionized travel in China. Even if you don’t plan to unlock your phone in China, you can still use Wi-fi in China in order to enjoy maps, translation and ebook reading. Here are my favorite China travel apps:
- Maps: If you’re traveling to any of the major cities in China I recommend downloading some free subway maps for Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong – all of which are free! In any case, many people don’t realize that your phone still has GPS capabilities even if you didn’t set up your phone to use in China. Just use the native maps program while connected to wifi and track your progress while you travel.
- Translation: There are quite a few really good voice translation apps for China. Once downloaded, you can have simultaneous translations as both you and a Chinese person speak into the phone. Many of these apps are even free!
- Travel eBooks: Don’t carry 10 lbs. worth of travel books! Many of the top China travel books are now published electronically.
Love using maps? Learn how to use Google Maps in China.
4. Get a VPN Before You Arrive in China
If internet access is important to you, it’s best to plan ahead. Once you arrive in the country it becomes much more difficult to negotiate access to sites like Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, CNN, and thousands of others (see more about how to get onto Facebook in China).
It takes all of 10 minutes to set up a VPN before you travel and I promise you it’s well worth the effort. Personally, I have used ExpressVPNfor years and it has been great, but there are literally hundreds of VPN services available. Not all of them work here in China, though, so you’ll want to check out the VPN services that I recommend.
**China Travel Tip** – If staying connected to email and social media is important to you while traveling to China, I highly recommend getting set up with two VPNs. I use one as my primary and a second as my backup.
5. Travel by Train (and Easily Book Online)
For me, one of the joys of traveling is taking the train in China. Whether it’s a slow train or one of the new high-speed trains (such as the new Hong Kong high speed train), you not only get to see the countryside, you also get to hang out with the locals.
Many travelers avoid train travel because (they tell me) they don’t understand how exactly to buy tickets. I understand – walking into a train station ticket hall can be overwhelming! Add to that the confusion of how many days in advance you can book and the uncertainty of available seats and…you see what I mean.
Thankfully it is now possible to book Chinese train tickets online. This China travel tips guide will show you exactly how the Chinese people do it, but if you don’t have a Chinese bank account then you can use this service by China Highlights. I’ve used it and it works great.
6. Exchange Money Wisely in China
If you find yourself exchanging money at the airport, you’ve done something wrong.
If you think traveler’s cheques are a good idea in China, you’ve done something wrong.
My recommendation for most people is to try to buy some RMB (renminbi) if possible before you arrive – enough to just get you to your hotel.
Once at the hotel you can usually exchange cash for a reasonable rate or – and this is what I recommend most often – you can just use your personal debit card to get money from a Chinese ATM. Your bank will probably charge you a small fee but the exchange rate won’t be as bad as the airport.
Need other ideas? Here are 5 ways to get money to China.
7. Always be Prepared For “Mao’s Revenge”
Even those of us who have been eating local food for years can have a sudden reaction while traveling. I like to call it “Mao’s Revenge” and I hope you never have to experience it.
To make matters worse, what you can expect with bathrooms in China is that they aren’t always easy to find – nor are they always sanitary. Honestly, what public toilet is?
Whenever I’m traveling around China I always make sure to carry three important things:
- Tums: I use Tums to calm my stomach when I’ve eaten something crazy.
- Pack of Tissue Paper: I always bring my own tissue because Chinese bathrooms don’t always have any.
- Hand Sanitizer: I also rarely find soap in a Chinese public bathroom so I generally bring my own sanitizer.
For more packing tips, see How to Pack for China.
8. Ask Chinese Locals Where They Eat
If you’re unsure where to eat, ask a local. This is one of my favorite China travel tips since it not only gets you in contact with locals, it also gets you some good food! They can direct you to the best places to find certain local dishes.
As a rule of thumb, if I enter a restaurant and see that tourist make up more than 20% of the customers seated, I leave. It’s not that the food will be bad, it’s just more likely that it’s not authentic.
It’s also possible to take a food tour in major cities around China, which I highly recommend. These tours generally take you to the restaurants that are popular with the local crowd and help you order dishes you wouldn’t have known to try.
9. Don’t Ask What You Don’t Want to Know
Speaking of food, you’re bound to run into something that you’re not sure what it is. It’s happened multiple times to me in China and I’ve come to realize that finding out exactly what it is before I eat it makes the experience quite negative.
Instead, I at least give myself the opportunity to formulate an unbiased opinion and then ask what I just ate. Using this method I’ve had the chance to try horse meat, dog meat, turtle shell, fish eyes and much more. I know it sounds crazy but it really wasn’t that bad and the stories I have to tell are great!
10. Push to the Front in China
Finally, I hate to stress you out here but if you really want to get anything done here in China you might just need to push your way to the front. This includes ordering a burger at McDonalds, buying an entrance ticket to a tourist attraction or just buying a Coke on the street.
It may feel rude, but sometimes I just have to push my way through.
Final Thoughts | Best China Travel Tips
Based on this list of China travel tips, you can see that it’s good to come prepared. Whether you’re bringing tissue paper with you for Chinese toilets, getting a great VPN before you arrive, setting up your smart phone to use in China or trying to eat where the locals eat – every little bit makes the trip easier.
There are plenty more tips that could be added to this list, but I think this is a good start. I hope you’re getting excited for your trip and make sure you read through our getting started page for more great China travel hacks.
So those are my China travel hacks. What would you add to this list? Leave a comment below.