Are you thinking about visiting China? Read this post to find all the necessary information to organize a trip there. You won’t find indications for visiting specific places but valuable tips for visiting the country.
This is quite a long article, so if you are interested in a specific section, click on the links below:
Table of Contents
- When is the best time to travel to China?
- What is the best airline?
- How to get a Visa for China
- Which travel insurance to choose
- How to book hotels for your trip to China
- How to get around China
- What to eat
- How to use the internet in China
- Traveling to China: Guided Tour or DIY Tourist?
- Is China a safe country?
- Other useful tips for your trip to China
China is a fascinating country with thousands of years of history. Many things we use in our daily lives have been invented in China, and I am not only talking about the 4 most famous: paper, press, gunpowder, and compass. The list is very long, and you can find it here.
China has been isolated since the beginning of time, with few exceptions. It doesn’t seem to be very much interested in the outside world, nor does it seem particularly interested in opening up, even if things have recently changed. The result is that even today, China is an entirely different country from the rest of the world. It doesn’t matter if you have traveled a lot: China is unique.
One of the most significant difficulties when organizing a trip to China is linguistic: very few people can speak English. But there is another challenge when visiting China that is strongly related to the language: the culture. The thing is that it’s impossible to fully understand a person and his culture if you can’t communicate.
In addition, the mass media flood us with bad news that often portrays China as a terrible place. Nothing could be further away from reality: China is politically isolated, but precisely for this reason, the Chinese do not know much about what happens outside and are generally very curious and cordial towards foreigners.
This brief introduction aims to make you realize that before visiting China, you have to forget what you think you know about this country. You will be surprised to know, for example, that China is not the most polluted country in the world.
When is the best time to travel to China?
This is one of the first questions that those who decide to make a trip to China should ask. Unfortunately, most people cannot travel whenever they want. In Italy, for example, people travel around Christmas and in August, during the summer holidays, which are the most expensive periods of the year and not the best time to travel weather-wise.
The other point is that China is a vast nation; therefore, there is no wrong or right period to visit this country. Summer, for example, is hot and humid throughout Asia, but if you go to Tibet, you won’t have this problem. Winter is cold in the north, but the weather is nice and pleasant if you visit Hainan in the south. So here are some tips to help you decide when to visit China:
- Avoid periods of national holidays in China, such as Chinese New Year and the first ten days of October. Here, you will find a list of all Chinese festivals. Even if it is not a holiday, August is still considered high season.
- The rainy season usually begins in April.
- Summers are hot and humid throughout China, except for most of Yunnan and on the Tibetan plateau. Summer is not the ideal time to travel to China, but unfortunately, many people have no choice.
- Autumn is generally a good time to visit China.
- Winters can be frigid, especially in northern China. In southern China, the weather is much better (here’s my guide to Xishuangbanna).
- February and March are, in my experience, good times to travel. The temperatures start to rise, and generally, the sky is clear. It can still be cold in parts of China, but the weather gets more pleasant as the days get longer. In addition, at the beginning of March, flowers start to bloom. March, for example, is the perfect time to visit the canola flowers of Luoping. Remember to check when the Chinese New Year occurs, though. Avoid that week at all costs.
What is the best airline?
It depends on what you look for in an airline. Personally, I like an airline that can help me to save money. But that’s not always the best option. If I have to wait 10 hours at the airport and change three flights to save 50$, then it’s not worth it.
To find the cheapest flight, you can use Momondo or Trip.com and try different combinations of dates and destinations. When you find a good deal, check directly on the airline website. If you get a VPN, in addition to preventing someone from hacking you while you are connected to wifi, you can find cheaper flights because you can make it look as though your IP address comes from another country. Often, prices change depending on the country of origin of the visitor.
How to get a Visa for China
One of the main difficulties of a trip to China is related to visas. I don’t want to give you misleading information, so I recommend contacting the Chinese consulate or Visa For China (in several countries, they provide visas instead of the consulate). Remember that if you want to travel to China as a tourist, you need a tourist visa, and to obtain it, you must make all the reservations for hotels and airplanes and provide a detailed itinerary.
If, for some reason, you are already traveling around the world and need a Chinese visa, don’t worry. It is possible to apply for it in one of the many Visa for China agencies worldwide. If you are in Hong Kong, it is even easier. There are specialized agencies that can apply for your visa. Keep in mind, however, that if you already have a Chinese visa on your passport, it’s more challenging to get a new one in Hong Kong. Finally, please don’t overstay your visa because you can get in trouble.
Here, you can find my complete travel guide to Hong Kong.
Which travel insurance to choose
Traveling to China without insurance is quite risky.
This being said, in bigger cities, several hospitals have very high standards.
Dentists are much cheaper than in most Western countries, and in many places, you won’t have to pay if you want to do a simple check-up.
How to book hotels for your trip to China
Hotels in China deserve a particular post. I have been to many different kinds of hotels on my trips, from the best to the worst. I was, for example, in the oldest hotel in China, opened in the early 1800s in Shanghai, where Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russel also spent some nights (the photo above is the hotel’s ballroom). Once, I ended up in a hotel at an elevation of about 3000 meters during a snowstorm, and there was neither heating nor hot water! There were 3 degrees in the room. And I also camped at an elevation of 4500 meters in winter.
Most of the time I traveled around China, I haven’t had such traumatic experiences. Still, I can say that usually, Chinese hotels have much lower standards than what we are used to, especially if you get away from big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou.
One of the problems with Chinese hotels is the beds. According to Chinese medicine, the mattress should be hard, which you’ll find in most hotels. Only the most expensive hotels (4 or 5 stars) have soft mattresses.
Finally, the food. Don’t expect to find coffee and international breakfast in cheap Chinese hotels. You’ll find soup noodles and rice.
To put it short, in China, you can spend little money on hotels, but you have to be willing to adapt. With Booking.com, you can find great deals, especially if you book in advance. Agoda is another good option for booking hotels in China.
Another very useful site is Trip.com. It’s a Chinese search engine that allows you to book flights, trains, hotels, etc.
How to get around China
One of the most important things to plan for your trip to China is transportation. It’s a vast country, meaning you’ll have to plan your itinerary well or waste a lot of time traveling from one corner to the other. Moving around China is relatively cheap, especially if you don’t mind taking local buses.
Depending on the distances to be covered, you have several options. Remember that you will always need a passport to purchase a train or bus ticket.
Flying is the best option for longer distances like Beijing-Shenzhen unless you want to spend 2 days on a train. Once I did it, I traveled for 33 hours on a train. It was an interesting experience, but I don’t recommend it to everyone, especially if you have a few days available.
The problem with Chinese airlines is that their websites are only in Chinese; sometimes, they don’t even accept non-Chinese credit cards. In those cases, booking a ticket using Trip is the only solution. There are some low-cost airlines in China, but not as cheap as Ryanair in Europe. Flying around China is not as cheap as in Europe.
Trains are my favorite means of transport when traveling around China. A train allows you to get to know local people, and you’ll get to see amazing places. Taking a local train is quite an experience, especially if it’s your first time. First, a distinction must be made between regular and fast trains. Regular trains often depart and arrive at stations completely different from high-speed trains and are much slower.
Remember to buy the train ticket in advance. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to book it too much in advance. Tickets are sold only 15 days before the date of departure. I recommend using Trip.com since it accepts Western debit and credit cards.
These are the main types of tickets on sale for each REGULAR train:
Hard seat: as you can see in the picture, these are seats (hard and not reclining) in rows of three. It’s the cheapest but the most uncomfortable solution for a trip on a train. I don’t recommend this option unless you have to make a short trip or have a very low budget.
Once I spent about 7 hours in one of these seats, I won’t repeat that experience. It was awful. Another problem with this type of seat is that only the two seats near the window have a small table you can use.
Hard sleeper: the ideal solution if you are not interested in privacy. These are wagons with rows of bunk beds, one after another. Each compartment has three bunk beds in front of three other beds: 6 beds per section but no doors. There are some reclining seats along the corridor, but they are few.
When purchasing a ticket at the station, you can choose which bed to sleep on: the lower bed, the central bed, or the upper bed. Remember that you’ll have to spend all the time on the bed assigned to you. So if you are in the upper bed, it’s uncomfortable because you don’t have enough space to sit.
Remember also that if you don’t get on the train at the departing station, chances are that somebody was on the bed assigned to you before you got in, and blankets and pillows are not changed until the train reaches the final destination… Most of the time, this is the option I choose if a high-speed train is unavailable. If it’s your first trip to China, maybe the next option is better.
Soft sleeper: the name is deceiving because the truth is that the beds aren’t soft. The main difference instead is that there are private rooms with 4 beds each. This type of ticket is slightly more expensive than the hard sleeper. It’s ideal if you travel with a group of friends, perfect if you are four people, but if you’re alone, it might not be a good solution. You may be alone in your room with people you don’t know. Usually, Chinese people are friendly, and I’ve never had any problems, but if you are a woman and travel alone, I don’t feel like recommending this option.
Soft sleeper (in 1-bed compartment): tickets of this type are available for some destinations. As the name says, it’s a room with only one bed. The price is relatively high, and I haven’t yet had the opportunity to try this option. However, I don’t think that this is a good choice. It seems to me to be a waste of money.
Standing: Once all tickets in the Hard Seat car are sold out, you can buy standing tickets. They have the same price as the hard seat ticket. This ticket is only helpful if you need to reach a destination and have no choice.
Fast Train or Gaotie
Among all the records held by China, there is also that of the world’s most extensive high-speed railway system: more than 10000 km and counting. The incredible thing is that the first line was opened on April 18, 2007!
As with regular trains, if you want to buy a ticket, you must book in advance, especially for popular routes such as Shanghai-Beijing. The stations are often as large as small airports and are very clean. Prices are higher than regular trains but are not too expensive. Here, you can find more information on fast trains in China. The fast train is the best solution to move quickly around China if the distances are not excessive.
Long-distance buses are often the only solution and not an alternative to other means of transport, especially if you go to remote areas. They are generally comfortable and cheap. For popular routes, buy your ticket a day earlier. Night buses have beds instead of seats. As I explained at the beginning, remember to bring your passport, or you won’t be able to buy a ticket.
As with buses, minivans are often the only solution. In remote areas, they replace public transport. Most of the time, you can negotiate the price. It’s a good idea to have someone who can speak Chinese write everything on paper that you can then show to the driver. Prices are low as long as you know how to bargain.
A trip to China is incomplete if you don’t try a minivan at least once. 🙂
How to get around Chinese cities
Moving around Chinese cities is easy. You can choose the proper transport depending on how far your destination is. If you know Chinese well, you can download the APP Baidu Ditu (the equivalent of Google Maps), and you will be able to use public transportation easily. I use it often, and it is really useful.
If you don’t speak Chinese, the only public transport that is easy to take is the metro. Shanghai has the longest one in the world, and Beijing has the biggest number of passengers per day.
Taxis are cheap, but the best alternative to a taxi is Didi (the Uber of China). The app is in English, and it’s easy to use.
Recently, shared bikes have become very popular thanks to services like Hellobike, but they are not available in every city.
What to eat in China
Talking about Chinese food is challenging given that China is as big as Europe, which means a great variety of dishes. Each province has its typical cuisine. Another thing to keep in mind is that there are 56 officially recognized ethnic minorities, and each of them has a characteristic dish. That said, there are things you’ll find almost everywhere, like noodles, hotpot, fried rice, etc…
The advice I can give you is to try street food but at the same time pay attention to where you eat. A good reminder: if something you have on your dish touches the table, do not pick it up. In most restaurants, water is not usually served. They’ll give you tea instead, but you can bring your water bottle.
If you have problems with food intolerance (for example, celiac people), China is, in theory, the ideal country because most of the dishes are made with rice. In practice, things are more complex. Restaurants use the same pots for cooking both rice-based dishes and flour-based dishes. The best solution is to buy and cook the ingredients yourself, especially if you have a serious intolerance. Keep it in mind if you are planning a trip to China.
One last tip. The large Muslim community makes some of the best restaurants and some of the best food. Their restaurants are, on average, cleaner than the Han restaurants (the term used to refer to Chinese people).
How to use the Internet in China
One important thing to remember is that the Internet is heavily censored in China. Few people ever speak about the real reasons behind this censorship. While on the one hand, it is clear that the government censures news that is not favorable to its political agenda, on the other hand, it is increasingly evident that specific sites are being obscured to favor the Chinese counterpart. It’s protectionism.
Whatever the reasons, the point is that once you arrive in China, you won’t be able to access Google, so the Android Play Store doesn’t work, nor Gmail and practically all Western social networks: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WordPress, and so on.
As I explained in other articles, the best solution to avoid censorship is by using a VPN. There are several reasons always to use a VPN, no matter where you are. But in China, this is even more important. You can read more info about the VPN I suggest in this article. Please get one BEFORE arriving in China.
If you’re wondering if spending some money for a monthly subscription is worthwhile since there are several free VPNs, the answer is yes. Trust me when I say free VPNs don’t work well, and they will greatly slow your connection. In addition, maintaining a worldwide server structure is expensive, and offering a free VPN service is impossible. This means those companies somehow have to monetize and often do so in nonlegal ways (such as privacy infringement and malware). I use this VPN.
The most popular social network app in China is WeChat. If you want to make new friends, it’s a good idea to open a new account on this APP. Remember, though, that the government can access everything you write. It is a very useful app, and it’s much more than a social network. You can send and receive money, pay at the restaurant, the grocery store, or the market, pay the bills, use the shared bikes, make a video call, check the nearest bus, and many other things. If you can’t use WeChat to pay, then I recommend Alipay. Both are used everywhere, and cash has disappeared.
Internet in China is pretty fast unless you are in a remote area. Using a VPN will slow down the connection a little bit, though.
Traveling to China: Guided Tour or DIY Tourist?
At the end of this article, I hope you have a better idea of what to expect from a trip to China. If you think you can do it, I recommend organizing the trip yourself: you’ll save a lot of money. If you don’t feel like you can do it, then rely on an experienced travel agency.
Is China a safe country?
Simply put, yes, China is a safe country. One of the things that always strikes those who visit this country for the first time is the high number of police and security guards. Some people may try to scam you, but it is very rare to hear news about tourists who have been robbed or similar things, even though we are talking about the most populous country in the world. This is a stark contrast with neighboring Vietnam, as I unfortunately experienced.
Other helpful tips for your trip to China
- Please contact your bank before leaving to prevent your credit card from being blocked on your first transaction.
- If you want to change your currency to RMB, the only place you are allowed to do it is the Bank of China.
- It’s almost impossible to pay using your credit card. So always bring some money with you.
- An excellent app to translate between Chinese and English is Microsoft’s translator. It works even without the internet. Another great app is Pleco, which is the best app for translating characters and hearing pronunciation.
- Make a photocopy of the Visa and Passport in case you lose them.
- We Italians are often told that gestures are enough to communicate wherever we are… This is true everywhere except in China. They do not have the faintest idea of the meaning of gestures, not even the most basic ones like numbers. This photo shows an example. The most commonly used are the 6 and the 10.
- If you don’t know what to visit in China, I recommend starting with Yunnan, my favorite province. I’ve written extensively about it on my blog. Here is my Yunnan travel guide.
Check this page for ideas about great places to visit in China. Here, you can read an article about the curious and weird Snub-Nosed Monkey, one of the species native to China. Here is my travel guide to Zhangjiajie. If you are considering moving to China, check out this article.
One of the most interesting places I visited in China is Dulongjiang, famous for the women with tattooed faces.