China is huge, to say the least. Being the third largest country in the world, there are countless types of terrains, cultures, and cities to explore. From the dense rainforests of Yunnan to the historical palaces of Beijing to the sprawling beaches of Sanya, China has a wide variety of terrains. Whether you are looking for a relaxing resort in Xishuangbanna, a hard-core trek through the Zhangjiajie Avatar Mountains, or a historical tour of China’s ancient capital of Xi’an, there is a type of vacation for everyone. 

However, planning a vacation is easier said than done. Since it becomes increasingly difficult to find someone who speaks English the further outside the city you travel, planning a trip in China can be hard for those who do not speak Chinese. The last thing you want is to show up to a hotel you think you booked, be told no foreigners are allowed, and find that you are unable to find a hotel because it is 1 a.m. I am here to help make sure that does not happen by sharing the secrets of how I have planned 5+ trips in China. 

Trip.com:

For this entire guide, we will be using Trip.com. It is the international version of the Chinese app Ctrip, which lets you book trains, flights, hotels, and more, all in one app. It has amazing English customer service, prices comparable to Dianping and other Chinese booking websites, and accepts all major credit cards, Ali/WeChat Pay, and Union Pay. Their reward system, Trip coins, is actually really good, so make sure to take a second and make an account as it can save you some money. After booking a five-person trip to Yunnan, I was able to get a free flight from Qingdao to Huangshan and a free train back to Shanghai. They also tell you whether or not foreigners can stay in certain hotels. While nowadays, most hotels in big cities can accept foreigners, there are still some that can’t, which can be a real problem if arrive late to a city. Because it is designed for foreigners, Trip.com is the easiest way to plan a trip. 

Trains:

High-speed rail in China is world-class. It is always on time, convenient to use, and is more comfortable and typically much cheaper than a plane. When deciding between plane or train, I usually add the time it takes to get through security, how early you have to arrive, and how far airports are outside the city. For trains, I usually plan on arriving ~30 minutes early, as there is minimal security and they tend to be closer to the city centers than airports. Also, you will have cellular connection the entire time which is a plus for entertainment access. Most trains have outlets, but some do not. They may be under the seat so be sure to look around. You can also ask someone if you cannot find them. Trains do become fully booked, especially on holidays, so make sure to book at least a few days in advance.

Step 1: Click Trains

Step 2: Select Mainland China

Step 3 (Optional): Select high-speed trains only. Slower sleeper trains are typically half or a third the price as high speed one and you can take them overnight and save on a night at a hotel as well. Sleeper trains in China are a great experience. I met a one-legged professional skier on my first sleeper train. Be friendly with the people around you, maybe share a drink, and just chat with everyone. You never know who you are going to meet!

Step 4: Enter your destination and departure and return date.

Note: Most major cities will have multiple train stations, look on a maps app to see which is the closest to your hotel/destination. Consider that while one might be cheaper, the taxi/car service (didi) to the hotel might make it the same price if not more depending on the location.

Note: If you want to go to multiple cities, you need to book multiple one-way tickets, as you cannot book them together.

Step 5 (Optional): Select the time frame during which you want to leave.

Step 6: Clicking on a train will open this dropdown menu to select from 2nd, 1st, or business class. 

Note: There is essentially no difference between 2nd and 1st class, but business class is quite nice but very expensive. I always just go with 2nd class. There are also student tickets you can book through Alipay but they are essentially the same price and are a hassle to get so I’d just avoid them.

Step 7: Select your train times and it will add it to the bottom area. Then click book. 

Step 8: Add everyone’s information and select your seats. 

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you do not book together, you will not be able to sit next to each other and there is no way of requesting to sit next to each other after booking. If you want to sit next to each other, you have to book all tickets on the same computer at the same time.

Step 9: Click book and pay! If you are using WeChat / Alipay, you can scan a QR code that appears, or just enter your credit card information as you would anywhere else online.

Step 10: When you arrive at the train station, go through security and then ask the guards where the foreigner line is. Holding up your passport or saying 外国人(Waiguoren – Foreigner) or 护照 (Huzhao – Passport) is usually enough. They will direct you to the “manual check” line as the scanners usually only can read Chinese national IDs. There is no need for paper tickets (although you can request them at the ticket office) as everything is attached to your passport.

Step 11: Check the train board for your train number / ask the help desk. Usually, they get posted around 30 minutes before departure and the train WILL leave on time and WILL NOT wait for you. Make sure you line up when everyone starts to line up. Again, you will have to go through the manual checking line in most train stations (though some have new readers where you can scan your passport).

Flights: 

Again use Trip.com

Step 1: Select flights, one-way/ round trip, then enter the dates and your location.

Note: Again, you can’t do multicity unless you are leaving China. If you want to go to multiple cities you have to book multiple one-way flights.

Note: This calendar that pops down is very helpful for seeing the cheapest flying days so play around with the dates a bit if you’re flexible.

Step 2: Select the flight you want going there, then it will take you to the next page to select the return flight.

Note: Some tickets (the cheaper ones) do not include luggage as noted. This means you do not get a free carry-on bag other than a backpack, unlike in the US. 1 suitcase to carry on / check will be ~100-150 rmb.

Step 3: Enter your information on the next page then click Pay now at the bottom and follow the instructions.

Step 4: Arrive at the airport at least an hour early. 

IMPORTANT NOTE: Foreigners CAN NOT get E-tickets for planes. You MUST go to the counter to pick up your physical ticket and get your luggage checked. If you show up less than 45 minutes before your flight (changes slightly based on the airline), you can no longer check in and you will miss your flight.

Step 5: Go through security and you are on your way!

Hotels: 

Keep in mind that hotels in China are MUCH cheaper than in the US. When I went to Yunnan, I looked for 100-200 RMB per night hotels which were by no means 5-star but were clean and nice. Prices will change based on location but you should never pay more than 300-400 RMB per night for a nice hotel. For some perspective, the Shangri-La (a 5-star beach resort) in Sanya was 600 RMB per night during a holiday; breakfast included.

Step 1: Click hotels

Step 2: Enter your destination, check-in/out dates, and the number of rooms and guests then click search.

Note: you can enter keywords for the area you want to live in such as Yalong bay or airport, etc.

Step 3: Look at hotels

“Click on check availability” and look at the hotel. The most important things are reviews, location, and price.

Reviews: There are SO MANY fake reviews. My strategy is to click on reviews, then sort by low to high. If there are more than 2-3 reviews from the last year that say the hotel was dirty / sanitation was poor, I find a different hotel. Other reviews such as management being rude or check-in time being late or anything like this can be subjective and I usually ignore them unless there are tons of reviews like this. Also, most of the reviews are written in Chinese and then translated to English by Trip.com automatically which is why they sound so off.

Map: Generally just map out the areas you want to be in (landmarks, city center, hiking areas, beaches, etc) and choose a hotel that is near them. Trust me, you may spend a little more but you will make that back in didi costs/time spent on travel. 

Step 4: Choose a room

Scroll down to look at the room types. Look for things like free breakfast and refundable if those are important to you. If you scroll down to the bottom you can also click “Show XX remaining room types” which will show more room types that don’t exactly match your number of people/rooms but you can try and make work because they might be cheaper.

Step 5: Enter your information, pay, and it’s booked!

Now that you know how to book your transportation and accommodations, get planning on your Spring Break vacation or just a weekend getaway! Happy planning and look out for my upcoming article on how to plan activities once you get to a city.