China can be a challenging place to visit, thanks to language barriers and its rapid pace of change. Many first-time visitors are intimidated by China's size, smog and geopolitical reputation, but open-minded travelers will find it an incredibly rewarding place to explore.
Are you planning a trip to China? Prepare for your trip with these practical tips for first-timers.
Do Some Reading
To get the most out of your trip, consider doing some reading and studying in the months leading up to your departure. The following three authors have lived and reported on the country for many years and are considered to be among China's top experts.
The Fall and Rise of China by Professor Richard Baum (a Great Course available on Amazon's Audible app)China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power by Rob Gifford
China Planning Essentials
Some visitors choose to travel independently to provide more opportunities to interact with the Chinese people, while others book one of many bargain tours. For the best of both worlds, consider a combination of the two.
There are numerous companies offering China package tours. When deciding which to choose, look beyond just the price and itinerary, and consider the size of the group, the luxury (or lack thereof) of the hotels and the general pace of the trip. Reputable companies include both local specialists (Travel China Guide, China Spree) and worldwide tour companies (Intrepid Travel, Gate1). Read reviews carefully before booking.
Apply for a visa at least six months in advance. A 10-year multiple entry visa is useful for repeated travel or for trips to Hong Kong or Macau with returns to China. Your current passport must remain valid a minimum of six months after you return from China.
To make the long transpacific flight more comfortable, consider paying for an upgrade to a premium economy seat. Bulkhead seats usually provide the most legroom and should be reserved as early as possible. For more tips, see 10 Ways to Survive a Long-Haul Flight.
Essential Medical Considerations
The standards of medical care in China are not equivalent to those in developed Western countries. While major Chinese cities often have VIP wards staffed with some English-speaking doctors, rural areas have rudimentary facilities and inadequate staffing.
We strongly recommend buying travel insurance that includes coverage for emergency medical evacuation. A website that represents numerous trip insurance companies is InsureMyTrip.com, which has staff who will help you select the policy that best meets your needs. MedjetAssist.com offers annual policies for frequent travelers.
The medications you rely on at home may not be available in China, so pack a first-aid kit that includes a broad-spectrum prescription antibiotic as well as hydrocortisone cream and any drugs for your own individual special needs. For more information, see 9 Products to Help You Stay Healthy While Traveling.
Do not drink the tap water in China, and carry toilet tissue and hand sanitizer with you everywhere.
Most stores, restaurants and hotels accept Visa and MasterCard in China, as do ATM machines, but in the countryside and villages cash is often required.
Alert your credit card companies of your China travel dates so they know you will be using the cards. For more advice, see The Best Way to Carry Money Overseas.
Useful China Travel Apps
Although China blocks Facebook and Google, most hotels in China now have free Wi-Fi. To make sure you have data while you're out and about, contact your cell phone provider to determine your options while traveling in China. (One experienced China traveler and techie swears by the advantages of his T-Mobile phone for free data in China, even though it was passing through the hotel's ChinaMobile server.)
Downloading the following free apps before departing for China will alleviate many potential challenges.
TravelChinaGuide-Tours, an app associated with a tour operator in China, includes answers to many frequently asked questions such as "When is the best time to travel in China?" and "What is the baggage allowance in China?"
Smart Traveler is an app from the U.S. State Department that includes information about the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), a free service that enables consulates and embassies to better assist you in case of an emergency. Note that apart from occasional petty theft and pedestrian accidents (frequently caused by the huge number of quiet electric bicycles), China remains a very safe country.
Google Translate is more important in China than many other countries because relatively few Chinese speak English. In addition, always carry your hotel's business card with contact information, and have a hotel employee write in Chinese the name and address of the place you plan to go.
WeChat is the most popular messaging service in China. It is ideal for high-quality free voice, text and video calls in China or anywhere in the world. Be sure friends and family in the U.S. also install this app before you leave. Most importantly, tell tour guides your plans when you leave the group, and have their WeChat contact information with you.
Maps.Me works worldwide offline to provide navigation and directions.
China Train Booking makes it super-easy to book high-speed train travel in China. The app indicates daily how many seats are available in each class of travel. Payment is quick via PayPal or credit card.
China's High-Speed Trains
High-speed train travel in China is fast, punctual, comfortable and clean. It is more reliable than air travel, which is often disrupted by delays and cancellations due to smog and weather.
The rapidly expanding high-speed rail lines are also an excellent value. For example, trains depart frequently from Shanghai to Hangzhou, offering a convenient and affordable way to visit this beautiful garden city. The trip only takes one hour and is surprisingly easy for an independent traveler to negotiate.
From Pudong International Airport, the Shanghai Maglev Train (SMT) is the world's first and fastest commercial magnetic levitation train line. Traveling at 268 mph, it takes passengers to central Shanghai in just eight minutes at a roundtrip fare of less than $20.
The SMT ticket counter is conveniently located just opposite the entrance to the Dahzong Airport Hotel, which offers a day rate for those with a long airport wait before their flight home.
Learn more with our guide to getting around China.
Go with an Open Mind
Avoid preconceived ideas based only on the media's adverse geopolitical coverage. Seek opportunities to interact with the Chinese and learn more about them.
Chinese people may sound like they are yelling at you. Try not to take it personally. You'll soon notice they are often loud and appear argumentative with one another. When I asked locals the reason, the most frequent answer was "They're not really arguing; it's just part of the culture.”
You May Also Like
Where to Stay in China: Accommodation Tips
Read China Trip Reviews by Real Travelers
Quiz: Which Asian City Are You?
9 Must-Dos Before a Long-Haul Flight
Get Our Best Travel Tips and Trip Ideas
--written by Judy M. Zimmerman