How to Buy a Train Ticket in China

How to Buy a Train Ticket in China

As I stood in line at the Guilin train station with my fingers and toes crossed, just in case it would actually help, I was kicking myself for neglecting all the information I had learned in my three plus months in China about how to buy train tickets.  I was trying to buy a ticket for the busiest travel period of the Chinese calendar:  National Day Golden Week.  While I waited in the never-ending, un-moving line I had that pit of my stomach feeling that the train ticket I wanted was already sold out.

Waiting in the Shanghai train station is a great time to catch up on your news...or nose-picking. If you end up in a hard seat it doesn't get less crowded on the train!

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Trains in China are nice, some of them are very nice, in fact, China’s train system is the world’s best.  There is no other system that can move you as far and as comfortably.  Taking trains to another level, China has almost 6000 km (~4000 miles) and counting of high-speed trains that cruise across the country in excess of 300 km/hr (~200 mph).  The high-speed trains have reduced the travel time between Beijing to Shanghai from 12 hours to 4.  In the very near future most major cities in China will be linked by these engineering marvels.  Even without taking a high-speed train, traveling by rail in China can be a wonderful, comfortable and smooth experience if you are in a hard or soft sleeper.  It can also be a tortuous journey if you are in a hard seat.

My experience buying a train ticket to travel during the Golden Week is instructive, with all I knew about traveling by train in China, ignoring what I knew cost me.  After traveling 20,000 km by rail in China, we left the hardest way: by hard seat for 27 hours, then connecting to another two trains to get to Hong Kong.  Using the simple tips below you can avoid suffering as we did.

THREE UNSPOKEN RULES TO BUYING CHINESE TRAIN TICKETS

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  1. You can buy tickets 10 days in advance of the date you would like to travel.  To guarantee you get the ticket you want, purchase it 10 days in advance, especially in the well-travelled summer months.  In general, if you are traveling to or from Beijing, Shanghai or Xian at least seven days advance purchase is recommended; for travel between any other cities five days advance purchase is recommended.  If you are attempting to travel during a national holiday, I wish you luck…
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  2. There are three types of seats on a Chinese train: soft sleeper, a four bed compartment with a door that closes and locks; a hard sleeper, a six bed compartment in a shared car (no doors); and a hard seat, which is a bench that seats 2-3 people in a crowded car with passengers standing in the aisles.  For any journey over four hours you will want a hard sleeper.  For any journey exceeding 12 hours, a soft-sleeper is the most comfortable option.  To see pictures and get more details about the classes on a Chinese train check out seat61.com.
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  3. Don’t expect to be able to communicate with the ticket agent, bring your request written in Chinese symbols like below.
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A few examples of the handwritten notes I took with me to the train station to buy my tickets, without these it would have been impossible to communicate what I wanted.

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SIMPLE STEPS TO PURCHASING TRAIN TICKETS IN CHINA

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  1. Know your route and possible alternative options.  A great resource for organizing your trip is Travel China Guide, which allows you to search the trains and times for travel between two cities (train schedule search).  This will show you the stops along the way, which will help you make an alternate plan if needed.
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  2. Have someone write down the city you want to depart from and the city you would like to arrive in as well as the date and time you prefer.  On a separate piece of paper have the symbols for soft sleeper, hard sleeper and hard seat written so that you can let them know what you are looking for.  If you have an alternate itinerary in the case that your first choice is sold out have that written on a separate piece of paper.
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  3. BRING YOUR PASSPORT and plenty of cash for your ticket and head to the local train station or better yet head to an advanced booking office, get directions from your hostel or hotel.  Wait in line, make sure you allot plenty of time for this as wait times can be up to an hour or more.
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  4. When you get to the ticket counter simply hand them your pre-written train ticket request they will do the rest.
    TIP: try to have the ticket agent turn their screen to face you so that you can point to the train you want, rather than try to communicate through charades.
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  5. Pay for your ticket and check the ticket as well as your change BEFORE you leave the ticket window to insure you got what you wanted.

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Note: these rules and steps do not apply for buying tickets to and from Tibet, for more information on traveling to Tibet see Tibet Logistics.  For more information of what we learned in 14 weeks of traveling China including places to see, costs and tourist traps, see our China Travel Guide.

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Best of luck and remember it’s about the journey, not the destination.  Then again, arriving at your destination after a nice, comfortable train ride isn’t that bad…

Follow the tips above and don't end up sleeping in the aisle of the "hard seats" like these travelers.


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Comments

» BKA :
Dec 17, 2011

The “blind trust” one needs to travel by Chinese characters is/was quite an adventure……one of our favorite China stories was in a restaurant with no English speakers around……we eventually took a hand in hand tour with waitress and pointed at food on people’s tables…..worked great and everyone seemed to enjoy the pointing and head nodding……arriving back home after a days taxi/walking travels was always the highlight of the day……love you….dad

LOCAVORista Reply:

Dad, travel has taught me so much about trust not just in China but everywhere. Just yesterday I got lost while walking around in Malaysia (since I was alone and thinkCHUA usually does the map reading) and a lovely woman gave me a ride back to our hostel. People are generally good whether you need help buying a train ticket or some navigational help.

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About the Author

LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.

About the Author
LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.
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