Practical Tips for Train Travel in China
Train Travel is one of the best ways to get around China. It is a vast country and trains are efficient and reliable; they are the most popular way to travel in China. They are much cheaper than planes and the slower ones have smoking areas.
- Trains in China are cheap (class dependent).
- They are frequent to most destinations
- The go almost everywhere – they run over 91,000 km
- They are efficient and depart and arrive on time
How to buy a train ticket in China?
To prevent trains being sold out months in advance, you are only allowed to buy a ticket 20 days in advance on the internet and 18 days in advance in the train station.
Do it yourself
You can buy tickets in the train station or in numerous ticket offices in big cities. Ask your accommodation provider for the nearest one or use the ‘Train Ticket Office Search’ at www.cnvol.com. They charge a 5 yuan booking fee.
They usually don’t speak English so have your destination and other important information written down in Chinese such as date, time, destination and class. Ask your accommodation staff or use Google Translate.
You must also bring your passport to buy a ticket and to board the train.
The self-service ticket machines at stations only accept Chinese ID cards and they don’t recognise foreign passports which are necessary to buy tickets, even through they do have an English language setting.
Whether you are in China or outside China, you can book tickets with an agency, but be careful to only go with reputable companies. This will cost extra.
Well established agencies include
Click here to view a map of trains in China
To check train schedules and prices visit China Train Guide
To check how many seats are left on trains visit China Highlights
You can of course buy a ticket before just before you get on the train, but don’t be surprised if all the seats are gone and only Standing Room Tickets are available.
How to read your Ticket?
When to Travel/Not to Travel?
I would advise if at all possible not travelling during Spring Festival (week long holiday in January or February); the trains a quite literally crazy with huge numbers of people going home for the holiday.
National Day on 1st October is another time to try an avoid train travel, or at least buy your ticket as soon as possible.
Types of Trains
C, D & G trains are very modern high-speed daytime trains & sleeper trains; they are high-speed trains with modern air-conditioned carriages.
Z trains are top quality express sleeper trains; they are second best, but still have modern air-conditioned carriages
T trains are special express trains. They are faster and more expensive than K trains.
K trains are ‘fast speed’ trains although they are slower than the T trains.
Y trains are tourist trains that go to places like the Great Wall.
Other trains with numbers not beginning with a T, K or Y are normal speed trains.
Hard seat (硬座): Don’t be misled by the name; these seats are not at all hard. The seats are bench like (cushioned) in design and fit three people on one side of the isle, two people on the other side. There are no arm rests. Many people get standing tickets and on long distance trains they sleep in between carriages and in the isles. In the tourist trains there will be more room, but on non-tourist trains it can be absolutely packed. The lights are never turned off, people smoke, people spit on the floor, people sleep on the floor, small children can be draped anywhere, the carriage speakers sometimes play on when it would be better if they shut up.
Soft seat (软座): The newer trains have separate seats with armrests and fold out trays in the backs of the seats in this class. Older trains still have the same bench-like design as you will find in Hard Seat, but overcrowding is not permitted. Smoking is only allowed between carriages in this class (and the rule tends to be followed).
Hard sleeper (硬卧): The compartments have six people in three tier bunks; the bathrooms are quite clean as there are usually only 120 people in each carriage. Lights and speakers go out around 10pm. All bedding is provided. There won’t be a door from the hall to the cabin. There are fold out seats in the isle.
Soft sleeper (软卧): The compartments have four people in two tier bunks and you get a larger and slightly softer bed than you would with a hard sleeper. Soft sleeper is much more expensive. All bedding is provided. There is a door to the cabin, which is great for extra privacy. As with Hard Sleeper there are fold out seats in the isle.
Standing Room – (站在房票) these are only sold when all the Hard Seat tickets are sold out and are only permitted in Hard Seat carriages. The price is the same as the Hard Seat ticket.
1st and 2nd class seats ( 一等座 and 二等座) Just to make thing more complicated, high-speed C, D & G trains label their seats 1st class and 2nd class instead of hard and soft.
Business class (商务座): G trains have a premium first class called Business class. This has individual reclining seats with footrests, and meals are sometimes included and served at your seat.
Deluxe soft sleeper ( 高级软卧包厢 or 高包): Some trains also have deluxe soft sleepers; these include Beijing-Hong Kong, Beijing-Shanghai & Beijing-Xian. This class has 2-berth compartments with a private toilet. These are often taken by government officials
Practical Train Travelling Tips
There is free hot water on the train so it’s a good idea to bring a thermos or flask.
Shorter distance trains will have a food cart go through if you want to buy some water or fruit or vegetables, the shorter the distance is, the less variety generally. Prices are slightly inflated so buying food beforehand and bringing that will probably be cheaper.
Long distance trains have a restaurant carriage, but this is often crowded and expensive compared to food elsewhere in China. The menus are rarely if ever in English. Again it’s a good idea to buy some food before departure. Food is sold in the train station so this should be easy. Fruit, bread and instant noodles are popular choices.
Bring a blind fold or a bandanna especially if you are in Hard Seat.
Bring earplugs too.
Be careful around meal times if you are sitting or sleeping in the isle. You will be in everybody’s way and may need to dodge both feet and boiling hot water from instant noodles.
For Hard Sleeper pick the top bed if you want to focus on sleep and the bottom bed if you want to make friends and practise your Chinese. The middle bed is good because it is still easy for you to get into bed while random people are less likely to put their luggage on your bed or use it as a communal couch. However it is also on eye level with everyone walking past, and as there is no door, you will get little privacy.
You loose some head room in the top bed. Being vertically challenged, this isn’t much of an issue for me, but if you are tall it is something to consider.
Bring a torch with you, or at least a well lit phone; especially if you are in the sleeper carriages (even more so if you are in the top bunk). It is dark after lights out.
Keep your ticket until the end of your trip as they sometimes check it upon arrival.
Take toilet paper with you. It is not standard in China to provide paper in the toilets
Smoking is not allowed in sleeper carriage compartments or corridors or on the high speed trains. It is allowed in the areas between carriages on T and K trains. In the Hard Seat section the no smoking rule is usually ignored.
In theory the luggage allowance is 20 kg for adults and 10 kg for children, but as long as your bag fits through the x-ray scanner you’ll be fine.
Some people buy little fold out seats to avoid sitting on the floor when they have a Standing space ticket. It is good for shorter distance journeys. It is both more comfortable and more hygienic as it is not uncommon for people to spit on the floor.
On the majority of trains, the stations aren’t announced in English. Make sure you know the time that your stop will be and even set an alarm if you plan to sleep. If your stop is the last one then you are fine.
Lights come on blaring at 7:00 am. Be ready for noise, Karaoke is popular in China and people will often have music loudly playing on their phones – true for whatever class early in the morning.
Leaving the Station Tips
When you leave the train station you may be approached by people trying to take your luggage and bring you to a car. They can often be grabby and put their arm around you, or take hold of your arm and try to pull you or your luggage off. These people get a commission for finding you and usually take you to a private car acting as a fake taxi. It is best to avoid these as prices are almost always inflated two or three times the normal price. Push through them and go to a taxi with light on the top and a metre that can give you a receipt. If they can’t give a receipt then you are not technically obliged to pay them.
When you get in the taxi make sure they restart the metre, so you don’t pay for the last trip. The pick up fee should start at something like 6 or 8 yuan depending on the city.