Because traveling in China is no easy matter, I visited a bunch of travel sites for my last trip, searching for hotels, flight tickets and all kinds of information. Though the trip ended up being much smoother and less complicated thanks to my great relatives, I was glad I had done all that research, as haphazard and inadequate as it was, because now I have a better idea of how to plan future trips. Traveling in China could be tough, especially in dealing with issues like long distances, sketchy accommodations and toilets, puzzling or lack of clear info, and encountering dodgy people from time to time. But you can make things easier if you prepare well, do some research and just keep your wits about you. There are a lot of good English-language resources online, including Chinese travel sites, that provide a lot of information, including train schedules. By the way, with China’s extensive high-speed train networks (I consider the Wenzhou tragedy a one-off and it shouldn’t deter anybody from riding the trains), it is possible to travel long distances in some style and comfort, and affordable as well. Anyways, here’re several good English-language sites that are really useful for China travel. I’m not receiving anything from these sites; it’s just that I used them and found them good.
To search for and book hotels:
Booking.com is an international site that is easy to use and has lots of hotel listings for places all over the world. I used it to find a hotel in Cape Town in 2010 and I used it again for Nanjing. However, it may not have as much hotel choices for smaller and less well-known cities. Elong (eLong) is another good site to search and book hotels in China (you can also search for flights though I didn’t use that feature). As the name suggests, it is Chinese but they have a fully English site and it’s also easy to use. They also have staff who can understand and communicate in English so don’t hesitate to try them. Also, eLong sends you the name and address of your hotel in Chinese after you’ve booked one, so you can print it out and use it when necessary like if you take a taxi and can’t speak Chinese.
To search for and book airplane tickets:
Zuji (HK) is a good place to find cheap airline tickets. As part of the Zuji group, the company is owned by Travelocity and fairly reliable, based on my one experience so far. Also, given it’s a HK site and you pay in HK dollars, the exchange rate is in your favor if you’re from Taiwan. Flychina.com is also a good site to search for airfares to and from China, but the drawback is you must have an address in the US or China.
To get information about places, cities and transit:
First and foremost, TravelChinaguide is a great site because it lets you ask questions simply by typing and clicking submit (no need to sign up or go through any hassles) and within days, someone from China will answer them, in good English too. You can ask about pretty much anything from where is a place located to what time do buses from one city go to another city. This is really handy because getting accurate information about places in China can be tough, both because of the dearth of English info and also perhaps because data isn’t readily available. For instance, there are 2 museums in Nanjing, both named Nanjing Museum. They are supposedly located in different places but it wasn’t apparent so I posted a question on the site asking if they are indeed two separate museums and what’s the difference. Somebody answered me within a few days, confirming there are 2 museums and the provincial one (at the foot of the Purple Mountain and near the Ming Tomb) is bigger. I also asked about what buses to take from the Ningpo airport to Zhoushan, whether there are buses from Zhoushan to Ningpo and how to get from Hangzhou bus station to the train station. All were answered soon. To take a look at what questions people ask, go to this page and go to the bottom to see. This site is really comprehensive and not only does it provide city and place information and answers to travel questions, but there’s also flight and hotel booking, train schedule search, and of course, tours because it is a tour operator.
Synotrip has a lot of info on famous attractions in cities all over China but it also provides a unique service. The site lists private tour guides for various cities across China and their rates, usually hourly and daily, as well as whether they have a car or not. Most importantly, their pictures are listed so you can see what they look like and contact them (you need to sign up with Synotrip in order to contact them directly). The info on places is generally good as it often describes how to get there and there are many pictures of these places. The site might be a little too ambitious in listing cities outside of China but not actually having any info or tour guides listed for those cities.
To search for trains:
This site lets you search for trains in China easily. It lists both high-speed and regular trains but you can easily figure out which is which by looking at the travel duration. It’s good to verify information, so here’s another site where you can find train schedules.
In general, it’s good to check any information so don’t just rely on one source. Always note phone numbers of places, such as train or bus stations or hotels so you can call ahead of time. Also, make sure to learn the Chinese name of places or hotels that you want to go to, and write or print out the Chinese characters for these names to show people. I made this mistake with my hotel in Nanjing because having booked it through Booking.com (where there are no Chinese characters) and thinking it’d be easy to find, I didn’t bother to find out the Chinese name of the hotel. This almost made things hard for me because when I arrived in the city, I hired a “car” to take me to the hotel, we drove past the place without recognizing it. It was only when we called the hotel that we were able to double back. What made it confusing was that this hotel was part of a chain and there was another hotel from the chain near my hotel.