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Before Your First China Vacation – 33 Things You Need to Know

Before Your First China Vacation – 33 Things You Need to Know

When the ex-husband’s girlfriend invited me to go on a China vacation to celebrate her 50th birthday, of course, I said yes! Who better to travel halfway around the world with than the crazy lady my son calls the evil step-monster?

While she’d been dreaming of visiting China for almost 25 years, we still researched hard and planned meticulously. Despite all of our planning, China was a revelation and a culture shock. It’s a profoundly beautiful, challenging, and thought-provoking country that’s left an imprint deep in our hearts.

This post may contain affiliate links. That means that I may earn a small commission, at no extra cost to you, if you buy something through my site. This helps me run my website and produce the articles that I hope you find helpful.

First China Vacation Hacks | 33 Tips For Visiting China

We’re already busy plotting planning our next Chinese vacation as there’s so much more to see.

Things to Know Before Your China Vacation

Don’t believe all the travel stories you hear. By the time you’re ready to head off to China, you might feel you could write a small novel with all the ‘facts about China’ you’ve heard. And it’s sometimes tricky to work out what’s real and what’s an urban myth.

Here’s what you need to know to have an excellent China vacation.


Part of the stunning architecture of the Summer Palace, Beijing. China Vacation Hacks | Grey Globetrotters
Just one part of the Summer Palace, Beijing

Booking Accommodation has thousands of properties across China, including hotels, apartments, and hostels. You can stay in monasteries, tented camps or on a farm if that’s your idea of a real escape. One of the best things about using is its flexibility, with free cancellation in many rooms. Combine this with their book now, pay later (at check-in) system and you get the security of bagging the accommodation you want at a price you’re happy with, plus the option to make changes to your itinerary if you want/need to. Check out offers here.

Pro Tip: If you’re planning to visit more than one location, it’s good to build some flexibility into your schedule. China is tiring, and you might need to factor in the odd ‘chill day’.

Once you’ve got your accommodation booked, you’ll want to plan what to do on your trip. Check out the best things to do in Beijing and the absolute essentials for visiting Xi’an (for the Terracotta Warriors).

Getting Your Visa

You can’t get a visa on arrival in China. You have to organise it before you travel and you need to provide evidence of your travel plans, including flights and accommodation to get a visa. So book those first.

Pro Tip: If you search online, you’ll find a host of companies suggesting it’s hard to get a visa for China. Don’t believe them – they want to charge a hefty fee doing it for you. The DIY route is a little time-consuming, but it’s not difficult, and it will save you £££s. Everything you need to know is online, including the detailed process, costs, and timelines.

SEE ALSO: How to get a Chinese Visa without paying stupid fees to an agent

You Need Travel Insurance for Your China Vacation

Don’t even think about travelling so far from home without a comprehensive travel insurance policy. China is safe for visitors, but it’s notorious for transport delays, and if you have an accident, you don’t want to spend any extended time in a Chinese hospital. Pick a travel insurance company that has you (and all of your kit) covered. World Nomads offers excellent value, comprehensive travel insurance, and top-notch customer service. They will get you home whatever your trip throws at you.

Organise Your Documents

Save all the documents you printed for your visa application, as you’ll need to carry the following with you while you’re on your China vacation:

  • Passport and a photocopy of it
  • Travel insurance policy
  • Name, address and contact details for your accommodation, with proof of payment/reservation
  • The full itinerary, including all flight details
  • Visa approval letter
  • Name and contact details for any guide(s) you have hired


Get the Best Exchange Rate

Do your homework and find the best holiday cash deal online. While you won’t want to travel with a lot of cash, save ££s by ordering your foreign currency in plenty of time and bagging the best rate. Some banks/post offices/bureaux de change need to order Chinese Yen, so don’t leave it to the last minute to buy yours.

Cash is King

While cards are widely accepted in the big cities, they’re not accepted everywhere. Don’t get caught out – expect to use cash for street food, in markets and rural areas. And it needs to be Chinese Yen – vendors won’t accept anything else!

Prepare For Rural China

If your China vacation involves heading off the beaten track, don’t expect there to be an ATM at your destination. Grab some cash before you go.

You May Also Like: 9 Ways to Keep Your Cash Safe When Travelling

Tell Your Bank Your Travel Plans

When you let your bank know you’re travelling abroad; they can update their records, and it will reduce the chance of them declining a transaction while you’re away from home.

Know When to Tip on Your China Vacation

Expect to tip guides and private drivers on your vacation in China, but not in hotels/restaurants/taxis, although the custom is creeping in, especially at the swankier hotels in big cities.

Pro Tip: Most people working in the service industry earn a pittance, and a small tip makes a big difference.

Get Your Haggle On

Explore the markets and enjoy a bit of haggling. Never accept the first price you’re offered, and you could be taking home some great bargains, but be a responsible traveller too. Vendors have families to feed!


Expect Space Invaders on the Plane

We flew back from China with Cathay Pacific, upgrading to Premium Economy for extra legroom, wider seats, and more comfort. It was a nightmarish journey, with a never-ending procession of Chinese people clambering over us all night to get to the nearest loo! (All the Europeans dutifully trooped off to the toilet they could reach without standing on us/our bags).

Don’t Miss the Toboggan

The section of the Great Wall at Mutianyu has the longest toboggan run in the world as one of the options for descending from the wall. Michelle Obama tried it, and it’s much more exciting than the cable car. It’s a must-do.

DON’T MISS: The only way to see the Great Wall of China


Travelling with Prescription Meds

You can take prescription drugs with you to China, with a few easy preparations.

  • Make sure all of your meds have clear a pharmacy label and doctor’s instructions (it’s worth getting a doctor’s letter too)
  • Speak to your doctor and work out what meds you might need on your trip so you can take enough to last your whole trip.
  • Ask your doctor what the generic name is for your prescription drug. Brand names in China are likely to be different from the ones you’re familiar with, so you need to know what to ask for if you need additional meds.
  • Pack meds in your carry-on luggage

Avoid Tap Water

Only drink bottled water, use it to brush your teeth and don’t get ice in your drinks. Check that bottles still have an unbroken seal too. NEVER touch the tap water! Here’s what to do if you are struck down with “Holiday Tummy”.

Take Non-Prescription Meds with You

While most Western medicines are available in China, non-prescription medicine, including paracetamol, ibuprofen, Lomotil (anti-diarrhoea), rehydration salts, and laxatives. Once you’re outside the big cities, it’s harder to find medications you’re familiar with using.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: How I learned the hard way that forgetting to pack Lomotil was a horrible travel mistake to make!

Prepare For Air Pollution

China is infamous for its pollution problems, which are worst in the mega-cities. Buy a supply of anti-pollution face masks before you go or pick them up cheaply at any pharmacy when you arrive, especially if you’re asthmatic or have any other breathing problems. We bought anti-pollution masks but didn’t end up needing them at all in China.

Always Carry Toilet Paper

Chinese toilets are an experience.

If you want a Western-style loo in China, look out for signs for a ‘potty toilet’; the alternative is a squat toilet (a cubicle with a hole in the floor you have to squat over!) Some places only have squat toilets, but most malls, airports, and the bullet train have ‘proper loos’.

Most of the loos are OK in the cities, but you’ll need to carry toilet paper/a pack of wipes with you, as this isn’t usually provided. You also have to put all used toilet paper in the basket (yuk!), or you’ll block the loo.

Carry Hand Sanitiser

Finding soap in a toilet is a bit of a lottery, so be prepared and carry a hand sanitiser. Use it a lot!

Carry Bug Spray

Pack bug repellent, whatever time of year you take your China vacation, especially if you’re going anywhere near water. We got savagely bitten on the bullet train.


Expect Beds to be Hard

For hard, read ‘like sleeping on the floor’. If you have a back problem or prefer a softer bed, you’ll be glad to know that most hotels use mattress toppers. If your bed is uncomfortable, ask for extra duvets to sleep on. Everywhere we asked, the housekeeping team was more than happy to help.

Get Used to People Spitting

Chinese people don’t use tissues or hankies. They clear their noses and throats by hawking, snorting, and spitting, which we found gross! Chinese people are equally horrified that we blow our noses and keep the evidence in a tissue!

Look Out for the Beijing Bikinis

In the hot summer months, Chinese men roll up their shirts and walk around with their bellies exposed. Ugh! The bigger the gut, the more likely you are to see it! Expats in some of the main cities in China find this belly-baring so offensive they take photos and post them on Instagram with the hashtag #BeijingBikini.

Take a Gift if Visiting a Chinese Home

Gift-giving and receiving are important to Chinese people, and it’s definitely the thought that counts. A small gift from your home country is a great way to say a polite thank you to someone for hosting you in their home.

Pick something local to your country/area and take the time to share the story around the gift too.

Cover-Up to Visit a Mosque/Temple

It’s a universal sign of respect to cover up when visiting sacred places. Pop a simple scarf or cardigan in your bag so that you can cover up at the appropriate moment.

Expect People to Photograph You

Chinese tourists visiting the major cities from rural China love to take selfies with Westerners because they’re fascinated by our ‘big’ noses and round eyes! While it happens everywhere and can be quite overwhelming, you’ll make their day if you agree.

Practice your best A-lister pose, smile and take it all in good humour. Be a movie star for a day.

Understand That Some Subjects Remain Taboo

When you’re having fun on your vacation, it’s easy to forget that China is still a communist country. If you visit Tiananmen Square with a guide, don’t expect them to mention/discuss the 1989 student protests. It’s something they are not allowed to talk about and not permitted to have an opinion on either.

China is Clean (Where Tourists Go)

China has started to clean up its act. Almost everywhere we visited was immaculately clean, with a small army of municipal workers toiling to pick up the slightest sign of rubbish. Most of the back streets of the major cities and the street markets were litter-free too.

When we stepped away from the manicured image presented for tourists, the picture was less rosy. We saw grimy rivers, littering, and children brazenly defecating and urinating in the street.  Then there’s the dog poo!


Prepare for The Great (Fire) Wall of China

China blocks thousands of websites and mobile apps including Google, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and some news sites too. Use this handy little website to check if a website is blocked in China before you head off on your trip.

Download a Translator App

Waygo scans Chinese text and automatically translates it into English. You don’t need an internet connection to use it to translate restaurant menus and signage. It’s no substitute for Google translate, but it does the job, and it’s free for up to 10 translations a day.

Get a Local SIM Card

It’s a much cheapest way to stay in touch than international roaming. Pick one up at the airport or a local store. (You will pay roaming charges if you’re visiting different provinces, but you won’t be stung for international rates!)


Chinese Street Food is Cheap and Fabulous

Getting out of your hotel and finding local places to eat is one of the best experiences of a China vacation. You’ll save a packet, have the most delicious food and feel like you’ve been to the ‘real’ China. Watch where the locals go to find the best places.

Beware of Chinese Hot-Pot

If you like (love) viciously hot chili, this might be right up your street, but it was a hilarious mistake for us. Unwittingly, we wandered into a hot-pot restaurant and ordered the chili hot pot. It nearly blew our heads off.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: Why having a Chinese Hot Pot in Guilin was a huge travel mistake!

Avoid Salads Like the Plague

Even in posh restaurants salad is washed in tap water. Stick to food that’s been cooked, and you’ll steer clear of tummy upsets.

Be Careful About Fruit

The best way to stay healthy is to follow the ‘If you can cook it, boil it, or peel it you can eat it, otherwise, forget itrule.

A Private Guide is Worth Every Penny

You won’t want to miss a thing on your China vacation. If you’re an independent spirit and can’t face the thought of a big, organised group tour, a private guide will help you see everything you want, based on your agenda.

We fell in love with China during our trip. While the sites we visited were awesome, it was the charming Chinese people we met who made the holiday for us.

Have you been to China? What tips would you share with a first visitor?

35 things you need to know before you visit China
All you need to know about China before you set off for your China vacation

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Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. That means that I may earn a small commission, at no extra cost to you, if you buy something through my site. This helps me run my website and produce the articles that I hope you find helpful.