Planes vs. Trains vs. Buses: China


As vast as China is, it’s necessary to go in armed with some basic information about the various transportation available so you don’t end up standing the entirety of a bumpy 16-hour bus journey.


The best advice I can give if you’re flying is to always take the first flight of the day. Flight delays are the rule, not the exception, so to have a better chance of leaving somewhat close to the scheduled time, take the earliest flight possible. Air China, China Southern and China Eastern are the more popular airlines, and there are a lot of smaller ones that operate out of Shanghai and Beijing as well.


You have several options for where to buy train tickets. If you buy them at the station, you’ll have to present your passport. Be prepared for long lines and unpleasant workers. CTS, or China Travel Service, is a well-known travel agency all over China, and is the best and probably safest option, because there is still not much train information in English on the internet, and train schedules can be really difficult to read. Plus, there’s the chance of more English being spoken if your Mandarin is iffy. If you’re staying in a foreigner-friendly place, they can also book tickets for you.

As far as I can tell for reading train schedules, the initials at the beginning of the train number indicate what kind of train it is. There are plenty of choices. You can choose which class you want and then also a hard or soft seat, or a hard or soft bed. The high-speed rail is quite nice and a good option if you can’t get on the first flight of the day. If you’re really in a bind, emergency tickets are usually set aside for foreigners, so be sure to ask about them.


Taking the bus is always an adventure. Due to traffic jams and the whims of the driver, arriving on time or by a direct route can be a pipe dream. Safety – in terms of driving – is a bit more tenuous than the train, but it’s easier to get a seat and a ticket. If you’re traveling in rural areas, the bus is the only option. These buses do not necessarily have set routes and will go to unlisted stops.However, this also means that the driver will drop you off at (or near) your out-there destination. You can also flag buses down, even on the highway. If they say yes, they do go to your destination, this may mean they will take you all the way, or they’ll take you to another bus that will.

Although China’s reputation is pretty iffy in some respects, it’s still quite a safe country for women travelers. Expect the usual – getting stared at and occasionally yelled at – but on public transportation, people will usually be way too preoccupied with defending their personal comfort to pay too much attention to you, unless, of course, you’re the one encroaching on what they’ve deemed to be their space. Then it’s up to you to decide if that’s a battle you want to fight.

What are your tips for traveling in China?


About Author

Maureen always knew she wanted to travel. In college, she studied and traveled through the Caribbean and Central America, and the first time she fell in love was with Mexico City. After graduating, she spent several years teaching EFL in Europe, the Americas and Southeast Asia and traveling in every spare moment. She's currently living in Hong Kong, and getting lost while traveling is her main hobby.

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