While relatively new to long distance travel in China we have quickly progressed and despite speaking little more Chinese than nihao and xiexie we have travelled to and from numerous major cities, often stopping at small towns along the way, and with outside attractions we will always travel independently. Long distance travel in China is easy and for me it is the fun part of travel with much of my interest and intrigue found in poking through small towns along the way. To date China would also be one of few countries where we don’t book accommodation in advance due to the availability of cheap walk-in rates which we find at almost every transit point. To name some of the better known chains look out for Super 8, Home Inn, 7 Days Inn, ‘Horse’ (Hanting) or Jinjiang. During peak season, however, or at least with the more popular tourist destinations, it maybe safer to book hotels in advance. For this we use Agoda.com which lists the better of the above hotel chains at walk-in prices. Again, surrounding any travel hub there will be street food (Chinese Street Food Guide Here), noodle stalls, minimarts, ATMs and everything necessary for long distance travel in China.
To make communication easier I suggest bringing photographs or images of attractions to point to at ticket offices and maybe a Chinese translation app in case of confusion. To get an idea of what your up against with ticketing I have added an example bus ticket below with the English equivalent for Price, Date, Time, Seat, Gate and Destination. Most tickets will show similar and they will quickly become obvious to read. The destination would be the harder to understand so for this just match the symbols with the correct bus sign etc. or ask the conductors, drivers etc. for the correct gate, line, queue etc. Someone will happily point you the right way. Also, it is best to bring your passport even for the shorter journeys and day trips.
We’ve only flown 3 domestic flights but to date they’ve proved to be the most troublesome form of long distance travel in China. We have also used the two main booking companies ctrip.com and elong.net. From our first experience with elong we were informed two nights before departure that our flight was cancelled (on Christmas eve..) but fortunately they found alternative flights and asked us only to confirm. In this situation we would have to pay, or be refunded, the difference. Our second experience with ctrip was even worse as we turn up to airport check-in to find our flight no longer existed, and probably hadn’t for a while. We received no contact or email to inform us at all. So at the airport we contact the ctrip booth and they manage to put us on a later flight. They also offer a giftcard of ‘c-money’ for the hassle which would clear in 14 days, long after our last flight back out of China. A nice gesture but useless now. Our third flight was with ctrip again so to be safe we emailed numerous times in advance to be sure the flight still existed. This flight went well. Domestic flights would be the least reliable option for long distance travel; not only because of our haphazard experiences but cancellations and delays are common at certain times of the year.
Train travel will of course vary throughout China with different speeds, layouts, bogeys, sleepers etc, so this is more of a guide to the booking and boarding process. With train travel I find it is best to book in advance (more so during peak periods) but this is unfortunately not made easy, or at least the options are limited as I write this. Trains do not offer e-tickets and the only way to book in advance is through reservation of tickets, for delivery or pickup at the station. For independent and international travellers the delivery option is not really an option as a Chinese address is necessary and the tickets will need to be accepted in person. This leaves pickup as the only feasible option but again it isn’t made easy. Pickup will be at the, or any, train station before departure and a print out of the reservation and number will be necessary for collection. It should be easy but many online reservation websites over-complicate the procedure with added fees and processes on both sides. The best option we’ve found so far is TravelChinaGuide.com which make the process relatively simple with not so much dicking around. Bring your passport even for day trips and it is often recommended to arrive early for departure. Trains would be my preferred mode for overnight, long distance travel in China where options of both hard or soft sleepers are available. They also give more freedom to walk around and stretch your legs. Train stations will more than not have English translations for destinations and travel.
The levels of comfort in buses will vary throughout China so this is more of a guide to the booking and boarding process of buses. For us, with long distance travel in China, we would use long haul buses more than any. While more cramped than the above options they are also more regular throughout the day and they cover more routes and destinations throughout China. There is also less need for advance booking and travel agents at tourist areas will often help to reserve tickets. Again, when booking through agents you will receive a reservation form which will need to be exchanged on arrival at the ticketing office, before forwarding to board the bus. Unlike airports and train stations there will be next to no English offered at many bus stations and it is best to confirm with drivers, conductors etc. on arrival at the bus station. Always double check before getting on a bus and match the symbols or bus numbers if you can. Overnight bus travel is an occasional option with sleeper buses but this mode of travel is slowly going out of existent due to dangers of travelling at night. Personally I don’t feel uncomfortable travelling on roads at night in China as there’s rarely any lighting and the only other type of vehicles on the road tends to be huge juggernauts and lorries. Sleeper trains are without a doubt the better option.
Minivans are the least likely option for long distance travel in China and would be used more for the shorter long-haul distances generally within an hour or two drive of your current destination. They will likely leave from the main bus terminal but can be boarded anywhere along the route and advance purchase of tickets is not necessary. Just hop on the minibus and go. Along the way a conductor will hop on to sell tickets to the passengers and the fares are generally cheap. Conductors will often hop off and on minivans along the line jumping back and forth on alternating routes. If you miss them on your journey then hand the fare up to the driver when getting off. It also best to tell the driver, the conductor etc. your destination as it maybe only a stop along the way and not final destination. Minivans are often numbered making it easier to find your route.
With most major towns or cites there will be a metro or rail transit system which will more than likely give English as an option on the ticketing machines. However, many of the maps dotted through the stations maybe only written in Chinese so it is best to keep an English copy of the network handy; along with your destinations, what line they are on, and if possible the exit number. Metros and rail systems normally cost next to nothing and run regularly from early morning to late night. The fares will be around 1 Yuan, maybe 2 or 3 within central city areas. With accommodation I suggest staying near a transit line then travelling out from here. If outside of the network area, or in a smaller town with no transit line, the local taxis are generally cheap and almost always safe and metered. Note, don’t use unmarked or illegal taxis (I wrote a bit here about potential scams in Beijing). With metered taxis the vehicle is often separated with metal bars for safety and the ticket fare will be printed on a receipt with many. Check here for my guide to Xian as a handy indicator on how to navigate Chinese cities.