Train or Flight, Which Should You Choose?
Before going too deep into the subject of trains in China, the first thing to think about is whether a train or flight is better suited to this journey. Some of the distances covered by train travel in China are huge and only travelling by train is not suited for those with limited time. For extensive travel within China, we recommend a mix of flights and train travel.
- Offer a more scenic route, allowing you to see some of China’s diverse landscapes.
- A good opportunity to meet locals and interact with other travellers.
- Take more time. How long is your trip? High-speed trains help, but cost more than ordinary ones.
- If you plan on taking a sleeper train, chances are you’ll share the cabin with other passengers.
- Faster than the train, so better for more time-constrained itineraries.
- You have to allow time waiting at airports and any potential delays/transport there.
- Smaller seats and less leg room than trains.
How to Buy Train Tickets in China
There are several different methods for purchasing tickets. Which you choose will depend mainly on how comfortable you feel speaking and reading Chinese. Before making a booking, it’s important to remember that you will need your passport, and that of all the people for whom you are buying a ticket. Online and phone methods allow you to book 30 days in advance, while doing so in person at train stations can be done up to 28 days in advance. Be sure to book as soon as possible to avoid having tickets sell out or not find adjacent seats for your traveling companions.
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This is the official China Railway website. From here you can book train tickets, but there’s a catch, the website is only in Chinese and no English option is currently available. Additionally, payments can only be made using a debit or credit card from a Chinese bank. This may be a good option if you have Chinese friends to help you.
Booking on the Phone
You can call 95105105 in China to book train seats. Again, this method requires being able to speak Chinese, so try to find someone in your hotel/hostel who can help you. Tickets reserved over the phone must be picked up within 24 hours at a train station. This option should only be used while in China and is not suitable for booking in advance of your trip.
At any train station, you can purchase tickets for anywhere in the country. It is recommended that you talk to a friend or your hotel so they can print the itinerary in Chinese for the train you wish to book. English-speaking station staff are not always available in big cities like Shanghai or Beijing, and are rare in other locations. Avoiding the automatic ticket machines is advised as they tend not to accept foreign bank cards.
Related article – How to get a visa for China
Types of Train and Tickets in China
China has a wide railway network connecting many important cities. While the country is making efforts to increase the number of high-speed and bullet trains running between these locations, sometimes taking standard trains is necessary to complete the journey. Examples of these are the train between Xi’an and Chengdu, and the train between Guangzhou and Hong Kong. Below are some comparisons between the two, and the types of trains and the tickets you can get for each.
High-speed Trains (G, D, and C)
Good for getting around faster, but also costs more than the ordinary train.
- Second Class Seats: Similar to economy class seats on airplanes and also the cheapest available on high-speed trains.
- First Class Seats: Wider and more comfortable than Second Class seats, but you pay up to 40% more for these extras.
- Business Class Seats: The most spacious and comfortable seats available on high-speed trains. It is possible to turn them into flat beds for sleeping.
- VIP / Deluxe / Sightseeing / Premium Seats: The name of these seats varies but is all essentially the same thing. They are located behind the driver’s compartment on both ends of some trains. The price may be similar to or higher than a first class seat, but cheaper than a business seat.
Ordinary Trains (Z, T, K and No-Letter)
Best option for budget travel, but not for time-constrained travelers.
- Hard Seat: As the name implies, not a very comfortable seat (but not really hard) and it cannot be reclined.
- Soft Seat: More cushioned than the hard seat, but also around 50% pricier.
- Hard Sleeper: Compartments with three level bunk beds on both sides and no door into the space. Cost about double the amount of a hard seat.
- Soft Sleeper: Only two level bunk beds on each side of the compartment and the space has a door. The beds are wider and more comfortable, just expect to pay 50% more than the hard sleeper.
- Luxury Soft Sleeper: This well-equipped cabin comes with two double-level bunk beds, a small cushioned chair, a table, and a private washroom.
What if the Train Tickets are Sold Out?
There is always the option on ordinary trains of buying a Standing Room ticket. These will let you stand throughout the duration of your journey in a designated space within the hard seat carriages. Needless to say, this should be used only in emergencies, particularly for long trips!
Are There Any Discounts for Children?
Depending on the height of the child and the type of seat, the pricing can go from free to set discounted amounts. These are as follows:
Child under 3.9 feet (1.2 meters) of height
Rides free, but must sit on accompanying adult’s lap as no individual seat is assigned. Only valid for one child per accompanying adult, otherwise a child seat must be bought.
Child between 3.9 (1.2 meters) to 4.9 (1.5 meters) of height
- Regular seats: half the price of adult tickets.
- Hard or soft sleeper (shared with adult): half the price of adult sleeper tickets.
- Hard or soft sleeper (not shared): about 75% of the adult cost of the sleeper.
Related article – How to get a VPN for China
Are There Any Discounts for Students?
These are only available for students of Chinese colleges and are not available for foreign students. Foreigners studying in Chinese universities, however, should be able to receive them if they have their Chinese ID card.
Dates to Avoid for Train Travel
Chinese New Year
This period has a higher than usual number of travelers due to the first “Golden Week” of the year. During this 7 day national holiday, many Chinese nationals travel to visit family and friends. The effect can be felt for about two weeks before and after the New Year, which takes place on February 16 in 2018.
This is the second 7 day national holiday (Golden Week) in China. Like with the first, all methods of transportation will be very crowded and finding available seats in trains will be hard.
What is the Baggage Allowance for Trains in China?
- For adults: up to 20 kg. Dimensions should not exceed 23.6 x 15.7 x 15.7 inches (60 x 40 x 40cm).
- For children: up to 10 kg. Same dimension restrictions as above.
- Storage space only available in high-speed and bullet trains. It is limited, so try to board early to claim some space.
- Ordinary trains do not have space for large luggage.
- If you will be traveling using very large bags or bringing special items like bikes, these can be checked in at the station. Such baggage will be sent ahead of you to your destination station on another train or arrive some time after your arrival.
Train travel in China can be convenient and rewarding, but some forward planning is required. Do you have any experience traveling by train in China? Any useful tips? Let us know in the comments.
Liked this? Read our 72 hours in Shanghai itinerary