The stresses of planning for any trip can be a lot. Considerations to hotel, flight, food, and transportation are all things to consider prior to leaving. Especially, in China where the required visa forces you to have your trip booked in advance. Often times we forgot of the little nuances and cultural changes once we get to our destination. Below are 15 things to know if visiting China if you’re planning a trip.
15. No One Speaks English
I used to think there were two universal languages, a smile and English. That was until I visited China. English is rarely spoken by most people, in fact asking for help is almost pointless unless you have the translation in the Chinese language, thank you Google Translate. I thought this language barrier would make it hard place to visit, but pointing and asking for a “photo menu,” in most places gets you where you are trying to go, or eat. To help, I recommend you bring a map that has the places you are looking to go before adventuring out because all road names are in Chinese & if trying to limit the use of your phone the good old fashion map works great. I found, most hotels have English & Chinese version of their maps, which was a huge help.
14. Cell Service and WiFi
Before leaving for this trip I was happy to find out that I would have, with Sprint, free 2GB of cell speed and texting in China. Call costs were minimal costing $0.20/minute. Researching AT&T for my mom, we found that cell service with the company was about $10/day. Needless to say, the costs are quite minimal if needing to connect.
If you are looking for free, Wifi was available at most common areas, but when hopping on was extremely slow.
*Tip: Bring a charging stick, or port. It was rare to find any charging stations when visiting places. As a result, when you did find them they were always packed.
13. Don’t Rely on Your Credit Card, Bring Proper Chinese Currency
It is rare that I bring cash with me at all. But, after reading some blogs before I left on this trip I discovered that American credit cards are rarely accepted in most places. In fact, the only places that accept them we had found were in the shopping areas the tour groups would take you; and trust me you’re paying a premium for it; the cost of the products in these areas are a lot more than you can pay in the markets.
If looking to transfer monies at the airport, the cost typically to do so is a $10 service fee and the exchange rate difference. To get more, this requires you planning ahead and knowing how much you want to take with you in advance and getting the currency exchange with your local bank. Estimated time to get the monies back is 7-days, for it to be guaranteed in time. By me waiting until I got to the airport I ended up losing $70USD in fees and exchange rate, where my mom only had $10USD with Chase.
The Chinese money can take you a lot further than anywhere I’ve visited. Normally, I would say bring $50USD/day for food, transportation, and misc. costs. But, food on average is 50RMB/meal ($7USD). I’d say 650RMB ($102USD)/week would be comfortable (food & transportation).
*Helpful Tip: The common currency in China is WeChat & UnionPay (credit card). Both of these require a Chinese bank account be established with pre-paid funds in order to make purchases.
12. Get Comfortable in Bartering, or Accept Losing Money
I’ve never been too comfortable in trying to find what something is worth. Maybe because I have been so used to the American culture where everything is fixed, where the value has been pre-determined and where supply/demand seems to have worked. In China, you’ll find it an easy place to barter especially when choosing to walk away and the price you were getting comfortable in paying is slashed in half, and has you again question the value.
My suggestion is before buying anything walk around and understand the varying prices, this also helps with buyers remorse.
From my experience food should never be more than 40RMB (and that’s for a full meal including drink), and gift goods should be no more than 50RMB. In one instance my mom and I were haggling for cheap earrings, she started at 100RMB, by the time we were walking away for the 4th time she was down to 20RMB, and we finally negotiated at 15RMB (Yu Garden). Same place, different store we were interested in potentially getting a necklace that would have the English name with Chinese translation next to it and she started at 150RMB, and when walking away negotiated herself down to 20RMB. That’s right. You’ll know which places allow you to barter, because whenever you walk away they will lower their price and the places with fixed pricing usually have it listed in the door way (almost none of them).
And, if looking for real jade. Ask for the Jade of pearl. The ones with lighter green are worth more, and on average are around 80RMB (for 1 inch by 1 inch), and can go up to 3300RMB. In the Yu Garden you’ll find the best in what you’re looking for, and because there are so many vendors they are willing to take a lot less so they have your business rather than their neighbor. I ended up getting a Jade of pearl Buddha for 15RMB.
11. Don’t Bother Renting a Car if Beijing or Shanghai is Your Destination
Typically, I like the option to leave, and feel liberated by having a car. However, due to many affordable and abundant public transportation options, and the high traffic & aggressive drivers I’d say using public transit would be more relaxing.
By far, the most cost effective way to travel is by bus. It is 2RMB ($0.03USD) for each bus transfer. This allows getting around to be extremely cheap! The most difficult part of taking the bus is figuring out which bus to take and what stop to get off at. This is where going to the nearest hotel and pointing using your map becomes quite handy.
If you elected to use your cell service, you can always use Google maps to find where you’re going and just hop off when you know you’re nearing.
*Mindful Tip: If using the bus you must have exact change. If needed, your hotel can provide you small change.
**We found that costs for taxi cabs started at 20RMB, and based on the distance went up from there. To best estimate we found it is approx. 5RMB/5 mins.
10. Booking at Hotel Near the City Center Pays its Benefits
By now, most of you know that I love AirB&B and prefer a more authentic cultural stay, than to stay at hotels. This trip I chose to book a hotel because (1) the tours I booked would pick-up/drop off from your hotel, very convenient, and (2) I wanted to visit many of the tourist attractions which most in China are near the city center and within walking distance of the “first ring” of hotels.
The best way to find your hotel for your stay can be using booking sites like Hotels.com, and sorting by distance and cost to the city centers.
If visiting Beijing I would highly recommend the Novotel Beijing Peace Hotel it was $100/night + breakfast. Because we were staying more than 4 nights they upgraded us to a suite with no additional cost. And, the breakfast…FABULOUS. All you can eat food, they had a pastry section, cereal, fruit, egg, lunch/dinner food area, tea, and coffee areas. The hotel was about a 20 minute walk from the Time Square of Beijing, which was full of high-end stores, as well as from the outside market(s) with authentic Chinese foods and stores.
If visiting Shanghai I would recommend the SSaw Boutique Hotel. Right when you walk in it smells like an Abercrombie store, that was a great start. The hotel was the cheapest hotel within a 15 min walking distance to Yu Garden (a must see if looking for the Chinese style buildings, food markets, and handmade gifts). The cost was $89/night. Upon entrance they welcomed us with tea, recommendations based on the weather (raining) and time (since it was a holiday). Additionally, they went as far as booking our massage for us, and provided us a map and directions to the nearest bus stop in order to get there. Unlike any other hotel I’ve stayed, they had an online app that helped lay out unbiased opinions of where to go and what to see including estimated costs, open/close times, and feedback from their guests who have tried the places. This was a treat as this leg of our trip was not as planned as Beijing.
*FYI: The beds are not mattress-like, what you expect in the US and other places. They are more of a box-spring. At home I have a plush and soft bed, so this was quite different. After the first night, I realized this relieved a lot of back pain.
*Mindful Tip: Be prepared to have them put a hold on your credit card for incidentals, similar to what they do in the states. They run your card and pull the amount, and when you check out, they run it again to provide a refund. The first hotel we stayed held 1200RMB ($189USD), and the other held 400RMB ($63USD).
9. To Be Early is to Be on Time, and to Be on Time is to Be Late- BYE!
We found that in the Chinese culture, being early is to be on time. Most of our tours had hotel pick-up at 6:30a, and almost always showed up 15 minutes earlier. Keep this is mind because it goes for the use of bus, trains, and scheduled appointments. And, if you show up exactly when you’re supposed to then you’re too late and they leave without you. My mom and I watched many trains and tour guides leave without their necessary people. Maybe we Americans should start doing this to get people to value each others’ time just a little bit more.
8. Second Hand Smoking, Expect It
I am convinced that the Chinese don’t wear the masks due to the smog/air pollution, but rather because of all the people smoking. I have never been in a place where avoiding walking next to a smoker was nearly impossible. Beijing was full of smokers. I ended up buying perfume to spray my clothes at the end of each night.
7. Get Pushy, or Get Behind
I used to think the asian women at the grocery stores in the states (weird saying because I’m asian, but I consider myself Americanized) were rude because they pushed you without saying excuse me. Well now, I believe it to be culture. People here push their way through to get from point A to B. I don’t know if it’s because there are so many people, or if because the value of time is so important in their country and they don’t want to wait on someone who isn’t ready.
When my mom and I went to the zoo, we thought we were waiting in line for the cotton candy to find out a women with her money ready pushed her way to the front and got service.
Because of this, I recommend planning out meeting points throughout the trip in case you get lost in the shuffle. Especially since when the “walk” line turns green it’s a free for all on how you make it across the street, and if you aren’t forceful enough you will be bullied behind everyone.
Also, just know that people in China stand closer together, and personal space may not be what you’d be used to. Again, I think this goes along with saving the time.
6. Where’s the Toilet & Toilet Paper?
You better start learning how to squat before you leave. In most places there are no toilets as we are used to seeing them. They are holes in the ground. You use them facing the door, and when you’re done usually they auto flush if they have a sensor, or it will auto flush when you open the door. Also, bring/buy toilet paper before you need to go. Most places don’t have the luxury of carrying the paper for you.
When on a tour your guide will generally lead you to the nicer “10 star rated” toilets. But, most of the time you’re on your own.
5. No Tissues, No Problem, They Spit
I read a lot before I came to China that a lot of people spit. Come to find out when visiting it is because they don’t use tissues instead you’ll see them plug one side of their nose and blow. Sounds unsanitary for us, but you’ll notice it quite a lot. For peace of mind, you’ll find in midnight hours the streets are thoroughly washed. But, keep this in mind if you ever drop something if it’s worth picking it up.
4. Book a Tour Guide
In most English speaking places it is easy to create a self guided tour. But, in China finding anyone who speaks Chinese is difficult, so best understanding significant places, is truly best by planning ahead through various travel agencies and travel sites. If you need recommendations just ask me!
In Beijing, we had two tours planned, (1) Great Wall of China, Ming Tombs, Jade Palace, and a Tea House and (2) Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, Chinese Doctor & Foot Massage, a Silk Shop, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, and a Pearl Store. These tours gave us an overall understanding of culture, understanding of customs, and historical significance of places seen.
These tours in Beijing are quite cheap compared to tours I’ve booked in other countries. For an 8 hour tour, including lunch and transportation we paid $40-$70 per person.
In Shanghai, we elected not to take any guided tours. Instead, we elected to do a hop on/off bus, that had English speaking recordings that are sensored when passing certain buildings. My mom and I have historically found these quite fun to give a good lay of the land when we are unfamiliar of where to go.
3. Authentic Chinese Food is Different than American Chinese Food
Many people before visiting China told me not to expect the food to what we are used to having in the US. In my opinion the food was comparable, just not filled with salts and heavy sauces. The sauces were quite light.
On one of our tours we found that based on the region of China you visit, the food varies. In the north (Beijing) the foods are more salty and fried, in middle/east region (Shanghai) the foods are more spicy, and in the south region the foods are more filled with rice and organic veggies. All of which were palatable and tasty. But, not what we are used to tasting in a US Chinese restaurant.
2. If You Plan on Visiting More than One Chinese City, Use a Train!
Prior to visiting we knew that we were going to visit three different places throughout China. Similar to the US there are methods of airplane from one part of the country to the next, but can be quite expensive. We found that taking the train was the most cost effective and time saving option.
We took a train from Beijing to Shanghai, then from Shanghai to Guangzhou. From Beijing to Shanghai the train was about 4 hours and cost approximately $200USD, and from Shanghai to Guangzhou took about 8 hours and was about $300USD.
1. Arrive to the Airport Early, I Recommend at Least 3 Hours
To have more peace of mind I recommend that before you go to your flight make sure you call your airline and retrieve the ticket numbers, and your airline carrier name. Most people at the airport only speak Chinese so figuring out that these are the two things you need before you arrive will save you an hour; or at least that’s how long it took my mom and I.
My mom and I had booked our flight to/from using Delta, however, when arriving to the Guangzhou airport we found out that “Delta” did not exist. Instead the carrier name was China Eastern. Once we found this out we thought our hurtles were past us. Come to find out that the American flight confirmation is not enough, the ticket number is also needed; which isn’t known until seat assignments have been arranged. Calling your flight carrier to retrieve this information is easy, so long as you have cell service.
*Helpful Tip: You can not check-in if you are within 45-minutes of your flight, you are too late. And, you can’t board if you’re within 15-minutes to your gate.