13 Practical Travel Tips for China – or What I learned from two weeks in Central China
After a two week trip to Jinan, Zhengzhou, Nanning, Ningbo and Wuhan - here are my travel related observations about (mostly) Central China.
Everyone codeshares on everyone
Chinese airlines are predominantly state-owned (major exception is Hainan Airlines, which nobody really knows who owns it). Many like China Eastern, Xiamen Air and China Southern (they recently left)
are part of Skyteam. To make it more confusing everyone seems to codeshare with almost everyone for domestic flights. Do not be surprised by these 'competing airlines' to all codeshare one
Domestic flying is like in the US before liberalization
All carriers have the same prices. All have bags included and there is a warm meal and a snack box. They all use the same planes and even the interior looks similar.
Air traffic is growing like crazy
Whatever the underlying reasons for the Chinese boom the sheer scale of enormous airports with hundreds of daily flights will impress you. Zhengzhou airport is currently at 27 million passengers (growing at 12% YOY and cargo traffic growing by 34%) per year but the enormous terminal can easily serve three times that.
The Internet is surprisingly slow - especially with a VPN
For a developed country Internet speeds are often very slow. Since many Internet sites are blocked you will need to use a VPN like Express VPN which makes it even slower. I even found the Internet slow at the Hyatt Regency Jinan, WeWork Wuhan or Regus Zhengzhou (all brands where I usually get very fast Internet).
Bring your discover card or else
UnionPay (which runs on the same payment network) is the only payment network with real traction in China. Visa and Mastercard have long been unable to do business outside of business areas with lots of foreigners in China. This is slowly changing. Do not expect any international forms of payment to work unless it is Discover or cash! Mobile payment options like Samsung Pay or Apple Pay also have no traction. The local WeChat pay does not work well with Visa cards as payment source either.
Customer Service is a pipe dream
Never expect any customer service. This is a feature not a bug. You are on your own - think of airlines and hotels more like the NYC subway. You by a ticket and there is a train rolling but customers
have to look out for themselves.
Bring some Chinese
Any interaction with a foreigner is a huge risk for locals as it may involve long questions or even interrogation by the secret police. The incentive to learn English is minimal therefore in many areas outside coastal China. Bring some Chinese including phrases and the handy Google Translate app which also translates restaurant menus quite nicely. Never expect any English to be understood even at airports or major chain hotels.
No carry-on drama
Almost all domestic airline tickets include a free bag and a free carry-on - nobody balks at a big carry-on and nobody ever gave me drama about it.
Surveillance is everywhere
This is not so different than US airports but cameras, biometric IDs are everywhere.
Airport Security is quick
The longest I ever waited in an airport security line during all my trips in China was five minutes. You will need to unpack umbrellas(!), power banks and laptops. Liquids or powders are not an issue and it is more like TSA Pre at any airport. Note that there is no gender separation so the manual pat down will be done by mixed genders.
Hotels are (very) good value
There are a lot of new hotels (and a good number of old ones) that are often great values. All major chains have been mushrooming in China and you can usually get a solid 4/5 Star for under $50
with bit of research in most secondary Chinese cities.
Beware the random rules
There are often small 'random rules' that are just completely out of the ordinary compared to an International experience. Some airport lounges will refuse access for Priority Pass holder (despite the lounge having a big such logo) as there is another lounge closer to your gate.
Flight attendants are the friendly one's here
I often feel flight attendants for US legacy airlines could not be any more nasty. My fellow passengers are typically fine. In China this is reversed with rowdy and often plain rude co-passengers but usually very friendly flight attendants.
Domestic tickets are not cheap
When we think of Chinese airline we see images of ultra low fares to the US. But guess what these international flights are subsidized by pretty steep fares for domestic travelers.
Uber's local subsidiary works well
DiDi is a bit clunky to use but after a short learning period I found it to be a reliable companion. The English version is a godsend with the inbuilt translation function.
Healthy, fresh food is almost impossible to find
I lost five pounds in two weeks. Healthy, clean and delicious food is almost impossible to find. Chinese are adventurous eaters but most dishes end up greasy, over garlicy and salty affairs. Make sure you have a backup plan in mind.