Don't be shy! Get your rail ticket and GO!

So you are in China and you are planning a trip to another city. Good for you! You probably have a long list of water towns, historical gardens, temples, culinary adventures, and architecture is many are probably just a few hours and less than $30 away.  So you already have bookmarked tons of sights and restaurants and now you just need the courage to venture out and book that train ticket.  

Because I am a believer in 'working smart, not hard' I have decided not to further pollute the internet ecosystem and share a great resource Seat61.com .  I have addressed a few common questions below, however please visit the Seat61 Beginners guide to the China Railway system including images of tickets, railway station signage, and seat types. 

  • Book in advance
    • Trains often sell out. Until you are comfortable with the traffic flows on your route, good practice is 3-5 days prior to departure.  If you are traveling a popular route or between large cities same day tickets are ok but its best to buy these tickets online as you may need to depart from a different station. 
       
  • Bring your passport to purchase a ticket, and on the day of travel! 
    • Don't expect your passport card, or a copy won't work.  In China bring exactly the documents requested. In . China people often dont have authority to bend the rules and if they did, they would not want the blame in the case there was a problem. 
       
  • Triple Check the Railway Station
    • It is not uncommon for foreigners to go to the incorrect railway station.  Shanghai, Beijing, and Chengdu all have 4+ stations usually one is named after the city (Beijing Railway Station), several are named after the direction (East Railway Station), and some are named after important locations (Hongqiao Airport, Badaling (popular section of the great wall)).
    • Show the driver your ticket or confirmation to be sure you go to the correct location.  If you are unsure ask for help.
    • Refunds have limited time windows and are a headache that's completely avoidable. 
       
  • Should I buy online or at the station?
    • At the station-
      • Look/ask for an english counter (This does not guarantee they will be fluent)
      • Keep communication simple. Departure and Arrival City, Date, Time, Seat type.  Double check tickets are correct on the screen before you accept. Writing out the city, time, and date is helpful.
      • You have got your tickets, don't loose them!
    • Online-
      • Easy to see seat type availability
      • Easy to see all available times
      • You still have to go to the station to collect your tickets.  It is recommended to go 2 hours be for a trip to collect your tickets, or pick them up a day or two before. 
      • Expat favorite site is Trip.com (formerly Ctrip.com)
    • At your hotel-
      • Many hotels serving foreigners can provide you with rail tickets upon request at the concierge
      • Make sure to ask a couple days in advance in case tickets have to be delivered.  
         
  • What seat type should I choose?
    • How adventurous are you feeling? Keep in mind in the cheapest sections you may have a seat but people may be standing around you especially during Chinese New year. 
    • High-speed trains (1st & 2nd class / Business class /Sightseeing, VIP / deluxe / premium / superior class )
    • Other trains (Deluxe soft sleeper / Soft sleeper / Hard sleeper / Soft seat  / Hard seat)  
    • Hard seats and sleepers do have some padding if you want to save a few dollars, or soft seats are sold out.
  • Safety First
    • Be cautious when its time to board, people will push and shove. If you have trouble walking or need a little space don't try to get to the very front of the group forming to board. I have witnessed pushing, tripping and hitting. 
    • Be aware of your surroundings especially when exiting train stations.  Look for a legit taxi's and quickly go to your destination, pick pockets and theifs may be watching.
    • Plan transportation to your hotel/ tourist site fully. Know how much it costs to get there, and use a Didi if at all possible.  Check out this blog entry to learn more about Didi. 
       
  • Most Importantly..avoid travel during spring festival/new years (1/21-3/1)!
    • If you think the street's of China's megacities are packed wait until Chinese New Years at a Railway station. No its not like Christmas at the Airport.  Unless you want to experience sweaty sardines in a can, you may want to opt for a flight or staying put.  
    • If you want to brave the crowds, BOOK IN ADVANCE.  Buses, trains, and practically anything else on wheels will be sold out!  
    • If you still want to travel during Chinese new years, read this article on spring travel in China . 
    • If you STILL want to travel during Chinese new years. Get professional help. No, seriously you need a professional.  Call a travel agent as far in advance as possible. 

Buying the first few railway tickets can make you a little nervous but you have done your research. You don't know it but by reading this article you have saved valuable time and avoided costly and unfortunately common mistakes.  Enjoy your trip and repeat often.  Happy and safe travels!!!!