Getting Around: How to Use Public Transport in China

Ann Lee shares her tips for travelers on how to best get around China on the cheap, and without too many delays.


Traffic in the city of Guangzhou, China Photo © Getty Images/simonlong

With a population of around 1.42 billion, when you travel around China you’ll need to get used to crowds, queues and a lot of company. However, with a bit of advance planning, it’s actually a lot easier than you might think and there are plenty of options to get you from A to B.

Domestic Flights in China

China is a large country, around – 3,705 million mi² (9,597,million km²) – and distances between places can be great. If you need to cover a huge distance, flying could save you time. Or not. Domestic flights in China are notorious for delays and last-minute cancellations and the country’s airports are ranked as the worst in the world when it comes to punctuality.

While it may seem more convenient on paper, flying may end up taking much longer than you expect, although that has not been my experience.

To increase your chances of arriving on time, take a morning flight, so if it’s cancelled you can be rebooked on a later one that day. Research the available airlines to travel with, as some are more reliable than others. China Eastern has a good reputation for domestic travel, despite having a bad reputation internationally.

Train Travel in China

The most reliable (and comfortable) way to travel in China is by train. Modern high-speed bullet trains, which reach a maximum speed of 217mi/h (350km/h), are a great choice for long journeys.

There are different classes ranging from standing (the cheapest) to business class and even special VIP seats on certain trains. Second class is usually the most reasonable ticket price to go for, offering comfy seats and plenty of room.

There are also overnight sleepers where you get your own berth, which is a good way to save on the cost of a night’s hotel.

China DIY Travel and Travel China Guide are two of the best-known websites, and can help you book train tickets in advance.

Bus Travel in China

Buses are cheaper than trains but slower. However, they're a good option if you’re on a budget – and want to savor your journey and the view.

Buses aren’t advised for journeys longer than eight hours as they can be cramped by passengers frequently packing the aisle with their possessions. There are overnight sleeper buses, which feature rows of bunk beds so at least you can get a good night's sleep.

Road Tripping Around China

China isn’t the easiest country to drive around; traffic can be extremely chaotic and drivers often ignore traffic signs and signals.

To get behind the wheel, you need to get a Chinese driving license first. If you have a 90-day visa, you can get a provisional license at Beijing Capital Airport. You will need your driving license and will need to have a medical exam.

For navigation, download Baidu Maps (the Chinese version of Google Maps) or Maps.Me, which both have an offline function so you can track your location while on the road. Download the maps prior to setting out where there is no reception or Wi-Fi available.

Using the Metro in Major Cities

Most of the major cities in China have a Metro system which is cheap, quick and easy to navigate. Everything is clearly signposted in English as well as Chinese.

It’s often hard to get a seat even at times you might consider off-peak. Just make sure you carry change for the ticket machines, which have an English language option.

Taxis and Ride Share in China

Taxis are cheap and plentiful in China and are usually brightly colored cars with a LED light in the front window and a meter. You will have to pay by cash as online payment options are not available to visitors.

Taxis are notoriously hard to catch during rush hour. So-called ‘black taxis’ are illegal and are essentially locals with a car. Negotiate your fare before getting in and take care.

DiDi, the Chinese version of Uber, is extremely handy and slightly cheaper than normal cabs. There is an English language version of the app and you can pay online. Set it up before arriving in China.

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