So you have booked your train tickets, found a nice and hopefully cheap hotel in the center of the city, and are ready to go! But wait! What are you going to do once you get there?

A lot of people think, I am going to this amazing city! There will be so much to do that I can plan the day of. From my experience, this approach might work, but to get the most out of your experience, set aside a few hours before you leave to plan out your trip. Let’s look at the best ways to plan out your days and maximize the time in your trip.

Websites:

Let’s get one thing out of the way: I despise Tripadvisor. They have become completely commercialized with overpriced tour groups and chain restaurants dominating the front page. While it is definitely possible to use Tripadvisor, be ready to spend money everywhere you go, and lots of it. My recommendation is to avoid it at all costs.

Speaking of money, the biggest advice I can give people is to bring your student ID booklets. If you lost yours, talk to Student Life to get a new one. Your student ID card that you tap WILL NOT WORK (unless you can convince them in Chinese). At most major sites, there are discounts for Chinese students, which we are. It will usually be half off which is a lot as prices add up fast. When buying the ticket to the site, say “学生票(xueshengpiao – student ticket). They may be hesitant at first because we are foreigners but insist and show them your student ID booklet and they will give you the discount.

My advice is the following 3 sources: Dazhongdianping (大众点评), Xiaohongshu (小红书), and Chinese travel websites such as China Discovery, China Highlights, and Top China Travel. While Dianping and Xiaohongshu will let you find the more local destinations as well as avoid the foreigner tourist scams, they are only available in Chinese, whereas the other websites are in English. Let’s break them all down and how to use them:

Dianping:

You may know Dianping from finding restaurants and other activities in Shanghai. I use it every day to find restaurants and new coffee shops. It is essentially the Yelp of China. It can be used for anything from food to activities to hotels and for much, much more. Here’s how to use it to find activities:

Step 1: Select your current city and then select the section you want.

Note: You need to select your city in the top-right every time you go to a new place, it will not auto-update. For the section, the left is food and the right is activities/destinations.

I selected Xi’an as my city, and activities/destinations as my section.

Step 2: Scroll down to see the most famous things to do in the city. 

I have circled some of the filters I have found most useful in my experience:

Yellow: Location in the city. If you select nothing, it’s the whole city. You can filter by subway stop to easily find things near your hotel.

Blue: Left is just inside the city, right is in the city and the surrounding areas

Red: Free Entry only

Green: The price of entry

I am going to use the Zhongnan Mountain Scenic Area at the bottom of the screenshot as my example. 

Step 3: Check photos, opening hours, reviews

There is some information I have circled in different colors in the screenshot below.

Green: Reviews. Click here to read reviews in Chinese. You can screenshot them and upload them to Google Translate to see them in English.

Purple: Click here to see more pictures. I like to try and find the non-professional pictures to see what it’s actually going to look like.

Yellow: This is the student ticket price. You CANNOT book on Dianping for most of the attractions because you need a Chinese ID. Go in person and buy the tickets there.

Note: For Beijing locations such as Tiananmen Square or Forbidden city, you need to book a day or two in advance. I have not encountered this anywhere else, but for the larger sites, a quick Google search is suggested to make sure you don’t need to book in advance. If you do, there is usually a mini program on WeChat and a website online that can explain how to do it.

Step 4: Transportation

Circled in red above is the address, click on it, then click the button circled below, then select your desired map application. To select 高德地图 (my favorite) which is AMap, click 更多… (more) and it will show up.

For this location, it is about an hour outside the city which is a 116 rmb taxi. The price is not bad if you split between four people However, keep in mind that if you go far outside the city, it may be hard to call a taxi back. The drivers will sometimes offer to wait for you for a fee, but I have found this not to be worth it but it is the safest option. Clicking 公交地铁 selects public transportation, which will typically be the cheapest option, but slower. Chinese cities have extensive transit systems that can get you most places you need to go, and they can be accessed through the “transport” tab on Alipay. Every Chinese city larger than 5 million people has a metro system, and most cities have shared bikes that can be used just like in Shanghai (and some cities have electric ones). I prefer to take taxis everywhere around the city, however Chinese cities offer many ways to get around, I suggest you do not only rely on one. For example, I’ll take the bus back to a spot where I can call a car. You can also look for a high-speed rail which might be faster or cheaper by using AMap or Trip.com

Step 5: To save the location, I usually send it to a groupchat of the people on the trip. You can also file transfer on WeChat by clicking the share icon above, then select WeChat, and finally the place you want to send it to. You can go back later and  scroll through the locations you have sent.

Step 6: Go to the location!

小红书 (Xiaohongshu – Chinese social media app):

Xiaohongshu is another app that is all in Chinese. It is similar to Instagram but more travel related. Keep in mind that photos on this app tend to be extremely photoshopped, so while it is a good place to find ideas, I would always copy the names over to Dianping to make sure they are what they look like.

Step 1: Open the App and Check “Nearby.” You can also search for the city you are in.

Step 2: Find something you like, for example, this art gallery.

Step 3: Check the location circled in red OR check the description for the location.

Tap on the location name to see more about it on Xiaohongshu then copy it over to Dianping to see even more.

Step 4: Again, to save just send the post to a friend/file transfer on WeChat.

Step 4: Look on Dianping to confirm it really looks good and then go!

English Websites:

Links:

https://www.chinahighlights.com/

https://www.chinadiscovery.com/

https://www.topchinatravel.com/

English travel websites in China can also be great resources to find fun activities, especially in more internationally famous cities. Personally, China Highlights is my favorite because it provides lots of detailed information on the location, travel, and costs. They do try to sell you travel packages, but you can just ignore them and use the information provided.China Discovery is not bad but I will focus on China Highlights here:

Step 1: Google “City Name China Highlights”

For example “Xi’an China Highlights” and select the correct link. 

Step 2: Look through the information about the city such as the history and culture to get a good sense of where you are going. Cities are always more interesting when you understand their historical and cultural background.

Step 3: Scroll down to “Top Things to Do in ___”

This is where you will find the top attractions of the city. They are going to be tourist attractions, but it’s a foreigner tourist website so what do you expect? If you want more things off the breaten trail either use Dianping or talk to a travel agent or local person you know there.

Step 4: Click through a link. I chose the city wall.

Scroll through and see the information, again to get more background.

Step 5: Stop at Travel Essentials. This is where it tells you the cost, location, time needed, and how to get there. Make sure to save these and then you’re ready to go!

Of course, there are countless other ways to plan a trip in China, but these are my top three. Find cool places, plan ahead, and have a great trip!