Planes, Trains & Automobiles: Getting around China

It seems like a paradox that one of the geographically largest countries in the world is also one of the easiest to travel around, but it’s true. China has an exhaustive network of trains and airports, which mean you can get between almost any two cities at the click of a button (or through sign language at the relevant station, whatever you prefer).

Trains

China has two types of trains that are important to know about: high speed trains, and longer overnight style trains. These are broken down into further classifications, but that’s essentially the difference. Trains are definitely the cheapest way to travel around China, and generally speaking they are just as fast as flying. What I love about trains is that you get to see the landscape as you travel – you can look out your window and see villages, mountains, lakes and all sorts of incredible sights while you go between cities.

The table below outlines some of the main features of each train, based on my personal experience. I can’t speak to every type of train, as I’ve only caught some specific trains, however the below will give a general guidance on what to expect.

Train TypeClassFeaturesOverall Thoughts
G – High SpeedFirst– 2 -2 seat configuration
– Seat can recline
– Head and footrest
– Powerpoint at seat
– Dining car
– Western style toilet in carriage
This isn’t really necessary on high speed trains up to about five hours. It’s like Business Class on a flight – only buy it if you can spare the cash and really want the extra comfort.
Second– 2-3 seat configuration
– Seat can recline
– Tray table
This is the best and cheapest way to take a short, daytime high-speed train. The seats are perfectly comfortable and the carriages are nice and clean.
D/K Trains – Normal SpeedSoft Sleeper– 2 x bunks to a cabin
– Small table
– Luggage storage
– Powerpoint access
– Western style toilet in carriage
– Food trolley service
– Boiling water
This is the way I’d recommend travelling on overnight trains. It’s more affordable than a flight, although about three times the cost of a hard seat, but you’ll arrive pretty well-rested. You can charge your phone and the carriages are pretty clean.
Soft Seat– 2-2 seat configuration
– Tray table
– Seat reclines
– Luggage storage above seat
I’ve only done this on six-hour journeys, so not really overnight. I would still recommend the soft sleeper for a real overnight journey, but if you’re looking to travel on a serious budget this beats a hard seat. I’d compare it to a slightly hard aeroplane seat.

Planes

Flying in China is much like any other country. The cities all have decent airport connections to other cities in China, and there’s several international airports. China has an abundance of low-cost carriers, and they’re all quite safe to fly. The state-owned airlines tend to be the easiest to book, the flight attendants all speak English and generally signage will be in both English and Chinese.

One thing to note when flying domestically in China is that a lot of airfares don’t automatically include checked baggage. So if you’re on a longer trip and have a suitcase or backpack, make sure that you book some checked baggage. The airlines aren’t as strict about onboard luggage as what you may be used to in your home country, but they do randomly check weights and sizes – I always say better safe than sorry, you’ll regret having to pay hundreds of dollars to check at the gate!

Another thing to be aware of is that the airports often aren’t close to major city centres. China has an excellent metro system in most major cities, so if you’re comfortable with public transport this is the easiest way to get around. Taxis also aren’t expensive. If the city you’re in doesn’t have a metro system, I would highly recommend a taxi to your hotel. Don’t expect your taxi driver to speak English, equally don’t expect them to be able to read. I would suggest getting a local to translate your destination and tell the taxi driver.

Taxis and Cars

I will give you my top tip for travelling around China safely: do not drive. The roads are very busy and driving is totally different to what it would be for you back home. Road rules are more comparable to road suggestions, and unless you know the traffic driving is very difficult. There’s great public transport in every city, taxis are common and they also have Uber or Didi for the braver among you.

Be prepared for your taxi driver to not speak any English. While it helps to carry your destination address written down, a lot of taxi drivers can’t read. They’ll do their best to work out where you want to go, but often it’s easier to flag down a friendly local to translate for you. If you’re going from your hotel or hostel, the staff at the front desk can be really helpful in organising a taxi for you.

Uber and Didi are both excellent options for easily getting from Point A to Point B – my only comment would be that if you don’t speak any Chinese, it might be hard. The drivers will usually call to ask where you want to go, and if you can’t tell them in Chinese there’s a risk that they’ll cancel. You’ll usually find a driver who’ll take you anyway, but it might be longer to get one compared to flagging a taxi on a busy road.

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