Some tips for first-time China travelers Pt. 1

I have talked to a few people lately who told me they are planning a first trip to China.  Although I have written about first trips to China before these posts are more focused on first-time vendor visits and I have really not written a post about first-time China travel for the general traveler.  Accordingly, over the next two posts I will talk about travelling to China.

Best time to travel to China

I have always enjoyed travelling to China in the Spring and Summer. There are a lot of tourists at this time but generally that means that the service industry is in high gear and you will encounter fewer problems.  There are also no major holidays in China during the summer. The time to avoid China travel is during major holidays because transportation hubs are crowded beyond belief.  Major holidays that come to mind are Spring Festival ( Jan Feb), National Day ( Oct) and May Day ( May).  Don’t make the mistake of looking at the Calendar and thinking these holidays last for a day or two e.g. May Day. In fact, holidays in China can impact local transportation for a week or two, and even longer.  So a good rule might be this:  Don’t plan travel in China that a month before or after a major holiday. Check this list carefully and avoid travel in China around these times. China Holidays

Booking  your flight

The flight to China from overseas is lengthy and can be exhausting. For example, it takes 12-13 hrs from San Francisco to Shanghai and 15-16 hrs from NY to Shanghai.  So do yourself a favor and try to book a non-stop flight.  If you stopover in Tokyo, for example, you will have to get off the plane, go through transit security and then get back on the plane. This is not something you look forward to after having been on a plane for ten hours.  The best carriers are Cathay Pacific, China Eastern, China Airlines.  In fact, you may get better service flying the Chinese airlines than the other major carriers. A case in point: once  I was on a Japan Airlines flight that was forced to wait on the tarmac at the airport in Guangzhou for four hours during a thunderstorm. The pilot complained that some of the Chinese airlines had been allowed to take off but the Japanese carrier was made to wait. After that experience, when travelling to China from Japan I always made sure to book China Eastern.   

Selecting a hotel

Hotels in China age fast. Travelling to Guangzhou for the Canton Fair, I used to stay at the Ramada Plaza.  Unlike the Ramada chain in the US which is tacky, if nothing else, the Ramada hotels in China are first class, five star hotels.  And the Ramada Guangzhou was no exception.  It was a beautiful hotel, first class all the way when it opened in 2007 and I looked forward to staying there over the subsequent 3-4 years whenever I traveled to Guangzhou.  However, after a few years I started to notice that the hotel was beginning to look run down; tiles were coming off the floor, the gym which used to be open 24 hrs a day was now open just a few hrs a day,  chain smoking locals seemed to outnumber sophisticated international buyers in the lobby etc etc.  The transformation was noticeable.   So see how old the hotel is. If it is more than 10 years old there are likely issues..  The newer the better.  Opt for a Western Chain, Sheraton, Hyatt, Holiday Inn, These hotels are much nicer than their American equivalents. They are all western managed and the services tend to be extraordinary. You will also profit from the use of an airport shuttle. Arriving in China for the first time after a long flight can be overwhelming and you will appreciate the airport shuttle. Don’t overlook this.  Regarding Chinese hotels you will not get nearly as nice service in a Chinese managed hotel, the exception being the historical Chinese hotels  e.g. Peace Hotel in Shanghai,  Peking Hotel in Beijing. 

Finally, one more tip is to choose a hotel that is within walking distance to a metro or bus. In this way, you will not have to rely on taxis to get around.  The metros in China’s big cities are very user-friendly and have announcements in English. .

Applying for your visa

Once you have your itinerary planned and tickets and hotel booked you need to go to the Chinese Consulate or Embassy in your area and apply for a visa.  There are many categories of Visa so you have to make sure you apply for the appropriate category.  Citizens from certain countries are exempt from visa requirements so be sure to check all this carefully.  Visas are valid only for a limited time so make sure you have looked at your schedule carefully.  A visa approval generally takes no more than a week and there is an expedited service. You should also run your itinerary by a local travel agent.

Here is the link to the visa page of the China Consulate in San Francisco. All visa categories are listed here.  China Visa types

Learning some Chinese 

Don’t make the mistake of going to China not being able to speak some Chinese.  If you are planning this trip well in advance, as you should, your preparations should include a course in Chinese, whether that is online or at your local adult school. Your trip will be so much more enjoyable if you are able to communicate, even at a very rudimentary level, with your Chinese hosts.  And you will probably enjoy better service all around if you attempt to speak some Chinese.    At the very least learn how to say thank you and perhaps some weather terms. And if you really want to impress your hosts learn how to write a few characters.

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