Cheap travel. Two words that every adventurer wants to hear. I remember dropping off my oldest brother at the airport. He headed off to his next once-in-a-lifetime adventure, while I stood there, watching him disappear in the crowd of people trying to make it past security. The SeaTac airport was a hive of activity. Parents ran to catch their plane, juggling five suitcases while dragging their screaming children behind them. Women waltzed by with heels, perfect manicures, and matching luggage. People from all different countries spoke their mother tongue. Airports seemed so exhilarating. I wanted to be a part of the travel club. I wanted to be the one to disappear in the security line as my family waved goodbye. Unfortunately, as most of you fellow adventurers know, traveling comes at a cost, and my traveling dream had to be put on hold.
It wasn’t until I moved to China that I learned traveling within China and other parts of Asia is actually affordable! There are definitely do’s and don’ts when traveling in China, most of them I had to learn by experience. After visiting ten different cities in four different provinces in China, I feel I’ve figured out what works and what doesn’t. Here are five challenges of traveling in China and how to overcome them!
1. The language barrier is the first and most obvious challenge of traveling in China. When I first flew to China, I knew no Chinese. It made it really difficult for me when my flight in Shanghai was canceled and my suitcases were lost in Zhengzhou. I tried to communicate using my phone translator, but it wasn’t working. It took hours for me to get everything sorted out with the workers in the airport who knew little to no English. I suggest learning some key phrases BEFORE traveling. If there isn’t enough time, at least print off some translated sentences that you could point to in the airport if you need help. Some phrases I suggest knowing are: “where is the bathroom,” “where is water,” “What is the wifi password,” “I need help,” “my bags are lost,” “I want to go to…” Don’t rely on your phone to translate everything. Have a back-up plan!
2. Luggage rules when traveling within China are much different than when traveling internationally. Check the weight and bag limits online through the airline website, but double check that information by calling the airline because sometimes their websites aren’t updated with current information. When I flew home for Chinese New Year break, I took four flights to get home. Two of those were domestic flights within China. Luckily, I didn’t bring a lot with me, so I had no issues. Only one large suitcase is allowed, and the carry-on suitcase weight limit is much less than Americans are used to. In my experience, Chinese airlines are firm on their weight limit and baggage allowance, so follow all their rules exactly.
3. Cell phone service is another big issue. When buying a Chinese phone plan, know that in most circumstances, the phone plan will only work in that province. If you decide to travel outside the province in which you bought your cell phone plan, your phone probably won’t work. Keep that in mind as you think about visiting a different place. Maybe you need to buy a Chinese-English dictionary instead of relying on your phone translator or maybe you need to look for a hotel with free wifi. To find out if your phone plan will work in a different province, go to the China Mobile store (or wherever you bought your phone plan) and ask them if your phone will work in whatever city.
4. Finding a taxi or a DiDi (China’s version of Uber) outside an airport or train station is nearly impossible. I waited for over an hour in line to grab a taxi once outside a train station. I know people who waited for three hours! Didi’s sometimes aren’t even allowed to pick people up from airports and train stations. Also, if you are arriving at night, it will be even more difficult to find a driver. It’s better to hire a driver for when your plane/train is scheduled to arrive. That way once you arrive, exhausted, probably ready for food, you don’t have to wait hours for a car to take you to where you need to go. You should hire a driver a few days before you’re planning on arriving. If you try to reserve a driver a week before, a driver won’t commit to driving you. In China, most plans are last minute, so you’ll have to be flexible!
5. The customs and security process is the last challenge that I’ve personally experienced. Because China has a huge population, airports are extremely crowded and can be confusing. You should plan ahead and allow for more layover time between flights when traveling in China. Every time I’ve been in the Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong airports, security and customs take a long time. I had a five-hour layover in Hong Kong, and just rechecking my suitcases, going through customs, and going through security took me four hours! Save yourself some stress and give yourself a longer layover time.
I hope my advice for overcoming challenges about traveling in China is helpful for you! The access to affordable travel is one of my most favorite parts about living in China. The more I travel, the more I learn, and the easier it becomes! Plus having a bit of unplanned excitement in your trip makes for a great dinner party story. Where do you most want to travel in China? Do you have any tips for traveling in China or Asia in general? Good luck on your next adventure!