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.
Plan for Airline Delays
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.
Use the VIP Lines
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?
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 the Wi-fi function for 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 don’t have a SIM card. Just use the native maps program while connected to wifi and track your progress while you travel.
Translation: one of my favorite new apps is iTranslate, a program that allows you to have a conversation with somebody as the phone translates. The only down side is that it requires the use of data (or wifi) but I’ve found the translations to be quite accurate!
Travel eBooks: don’t carry 10 lbs worth of travel books! Many of the top China travel books are now published electronically.
Get a VPN Before You Arrive
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. There are literally hundreds of VPN services available but not all of them work here in China. These are the VPN services that I recommend.
Travel by Train…and 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, 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. The following link 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.
Exchange Money Wisely
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.
Always be Ready 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, public toilets in most Chinese cities are neither commonplace nor sanitary.
Whenever I’m traveling around China I always make sure to carry two important things: Tums to calm my stomach and a pack of tissue paper that can be used in case the toilet doesn’t have toilet paper.
For more packing tips, see How to Pack for China.
Ask Locals where to Eat
If you’re unsure where to eat, ask a local. 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.
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 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!
Push to the Front
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.
So those are my China travel hacks. What would you add to this list?