6 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE TRAVELING IN CHINA
With the gradual rise of the Chinese yuan, paired with domestic inflation, China may soon no longer be considered a budget destination. Now is the time to visit. My first visit in 2008 was far cheaper than our last visit this year in the summer of 2011. As the infrastructure improves, along with overall prosperity, the cost of travel in China may soon be more comparable to Korea and Taiwan than to Southeast Asia.
For the traveler, China is a country of idiosyncrasies, paperwork, language barriers and overall confusion. For some, this may add to the country’s exotic charm, but often makes it a daunting and frustrating country to visit. As we’ve visited here over eight times now, we’ll now pass along some essential information.
6. “DUO CIAO CHIEN” (“Dow Shou Chi-en”) 多少钱
In China, be careful of getting into financial exchanges without a set price being understood (from the beginning!) by all sides. Carry a pad and pen if you don’t understand Chinese numbers. Learning how to say “How much does it cost?” in Chinese is essential here if you’re eating street food and buying from vendors. Prices in China can be fluid, and not often in your favor. If there is any ambiguity as to how much you will be paying, then you may want to round up, and go up from there. Bargaining and being defensive / offensive about price is part of Chinese culture. You are highly unlikely to be a victim of street crime, but a poorly prepared shopper will get robbed in China. Informal prices are still a part of life, and going in prepared never hurt anyone.
5. AVOID ATMs: BRING TRAVELERS CHECKS
And cash them at the Bank of China. Chinese banks will give you the market exchange rate and charge awesomely low 0.75% commission fee (perhaps the world’s lowest) on traveler’s checks. So, get your checks from your bank back home (you should be able to get a good rate at your home bank) and bring them over. Don’t risk carrying around large amounts of cash. Don’t be a sucker and pay the ridiculous ATM fees charged by foreign banks, paired with additional fees from your own bank back home. For ATM withdrawals, my Citibank account charges me a 3% “foreign fee” + a $2 “non-Citi ATM fee” + whatever the foreign ATM wants to charge me. So, upon withdrawing $100 USD worth of foreign currency, I am often paying $10 “to the angels” in the form of various fees. As my dad would say: “that’s how they getchya”.
My American Express Travelers Checks I can leave unattended in my hotel or hostel locker and not have to worry about them. I can run them down to Bank of China (ubiquitous here in towns both small and large) and get $99.25 worth of Chinese RMB.
Considering that $1000+usd is a good starter backpacker budget for a month in China that may add up to a savings of up to almost $100usd in international fees. Come prepared.
4. BOOK YOUR TRAINS DAYS IN ADVANCE, OR PREPARE TO CHANGE YOUR TRAVEL PLANS
Personally, we hate buying train tickets days in advance. It kills the spontaneity of a trip and locks us into a set schedule that we may want to discard. However, we know others who are afraid to have an itinerary disrupted by unexpected delays. In China, trains (especially sleeping car tickets) often sell out days, or even weeks, in advance. For us, that may mean getting to the ticket window (after a 20 minute wait, of course) and suddenly being forced into a new city and a new route. Often, we “choose” to go wherever there happens to be a ticket toward. No tickets to Shenzhen!? Uh oh. How about Guangzhou? No? How about Guiyang? Hard seat leaving at midnight? Ok, whatever. How much?
This process has actually resulted in us seeing some awesome little (relatively) Chinese cities off the usual travel path. These unexpected diversions have included stops in places like Nanchang, Hefei, Wuhan and the aforementioned Guiyang.
However, some travelers, especially those on a short organized trip, may be daunted by the idea of just hopping a train to an unknown city with no preparation or reservation. Those organized travelers should book all of their tickets as soon as they arrive in China (generally in Beijing or Shanghai). Train stations will sell tickets for cities all over China. So, in Beijing it is possible to buy a Beijing-Qingdao ticket and also your Qingdao-Shanghai ticket as well. For the high-speed trains, tickets may sell out a day before the departure. For the slower, cheaper lines it’s often three or four days+ before departure along important routes. Prepare accordingly or toss away those down-the-line accommodation reservations you made.
3. GET A LONG-TERM MULTIPLE ENTRY VISA
China is such an unexpectedly awesome destination for all kinds of travelers. First-time visitors to China are now returning or settling here in large numbers. Don’t let your visa limit you to one single visit.
My first three China visas were all the standard 30-day, single-entry type (1000RBM, $155 to an American, around $45 for other passports). However, not all visas are born equal. Depending on the location of the visa office, you can get longer stays and validity. I wish I had done my homework and secured a 1-year unlimited entry visa back home before I departed.
From the US, we can use visa services to secure 10-year visas, which may even offer 60-day stays instead of the standard 30-day stays.
In Asia, try getting your visa in Hong Kong, where you can get a 6-month multiple-entry visa at the same cost as a single, 30-day entry from Seoul, Bangkok, KL and other Asian consulates.
2. DON’T USE INTERNATIONAL WEBSITES TO MAKE RESERVATIONS; USE DOMESTIC CHINESE SITES
As we mentioned before, China is full of quirks and idiosyncrasies. Another of which is that the cheapest airfares and hotel rates are usually found on Chinese websites; and yes, these are often in Chinese language. But, they’re manageable, especially if you have a friend or a hostel front desk.
www.elong.com is great for domestic flights and hotel reservations. For hotels bookings, you will receive an email, which gives you the hotel address in English and Chinese. This is endlessly useful when taking a taxi from the train station or airport you arrive in. I just copy the address onto my computer and let the driver figure it out.
www.qunar.com is also good for flights and hotels, but is in Chinese only. There is a pinyin option to type city names in.
www.chinahighlights.com has a nice train schedule in which you can simply plug your cities in and get organized fares and schedules
1. DON’T BE AFRAID TO SLEEP IN HOSTEL DORMITORIES
Perhaps you’ve had awful experiences in a sweaty 20-bed dorm room in Manhattan, or suffered through a Madrid hostel where everyone stumbles in at 6am, disrupting your next day at the Prado. Perhaps you’ve sworn off dormitories and wish to have your own space to unwind. However, when in China, give Chinese dorms a chance.
China doesn’t have the cheap, informal guesthouses of Southeast Asia, where you can often get a nice room for under $10. Chinese hotels are geared towards business, or sexual encounters, and generally start around $20usd, if you book online. For walk-ins, you should expect to be paying more like $30-40 if you don’t do your homework.
However, Chinese hostels may be the best in the world. And, they’re a bargain. With the facilities offering wifi, a bar/cafe (generally), a useful staff (varying friendliness, admittedly), lots of character and great opportunities to meet fellow travelers (especially Chinese travelers who are eager to share their trip with a foreign traveler), the hostels of China often seem more like lodges and are destinations in themselves. Lockers and safety deposit boxes are available for valuables (bring your own padlock). Don’t expect a business hotel front desk to speak much English or offer any help other than looking pretty. However, hostel staff generally speaks good English and can help you find unique local destinations with real character and value.
Additionally, since China does not yet have a raging party culture, dormitories are often quiet and peaceful and generally consist of six beds. So, ample sleep is waiting for you if you want it. Hostel choices abound in destinations such as Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu. Provincial cities such as Changsha, Wuhan and Nanning now offer great little hostels that make traveling to these untouristed cities both affordable and fun.