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Planning A Trip To China? 33 Important Things to Know!

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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?

She’d been dreaming of a China vacation for almost 25 years, so we got to work fast, planning a trip to China that we would both enjoy. China was a revelation and a culture shock: it’s a profoundly beautiful, challenging, and thought-provoking country.

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

What to Know When Planning a Trip to China

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.

Planning Tips

Part of the stunning architecture of the Summer Palace, Beijing. Planning a Trip to China | Grey Globetrotters
The Summer Palace, Beijing

Booking Accommodation

Booking.com 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 Booking.com 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 Booking.com offers here.

Tip: If you’re planning to visit more than one location during your China trip, 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 which tours you want to do before you travel. Skip-the-line tickets will save you a ton of time, so you can make the most of your precious China vacation. Here are some of the best-selling skip-the-line tours in China for you to consider:

Xi’an: Terracotta Warriors Private Day Tour

From Beijing: Great Wall & Forbidden City Full-Day Trip

From Tianjin Xingang Port: Private 2-Day Beijing Tour

One day as a Volunteer: Big Panda in Sechuan

Full-Day Tour of Leshan’s Giant Buddha from Chengdu

Check out the best things to do in Beijing and the absolute essentials for visiting the city of Xi’an.

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 for 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.

Read : 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

China Travel Tips: Money

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, so don’t get caught out: expect to use cash for street food, in markets, and in 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.

Related: 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.

Most people working in the service industry earn a pittance – 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!

General China Travel Guide

Expect Space Invaders on the Plane

We flew home 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 people clambering over us all night to get to the nearest loo!

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.

Read Next: The most thrilling way to see the Great Wall of China

Health Tips

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 a clear 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 have 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. If you run out, you’ll want to know what to ask for.
  • ALWAYS 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 and NEVER touch the tap water! Here’s what to do if you are struck down with ‘Holiday Tummy’.

Take Non-Prescription Meds with You

Most Western medicines are available in the most significant Chinese cities. Once you’re outside the big cities, however, it might be harder to find non-prescription medications you’re familiar with, including paracetamol, ibuprofen, anti-diarrhoeal pills, laxatives, and rehydration salts.

Related: Why forgetting to pack non-prescription medications is a huge mistake.

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.

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 toilets are sanitary in the cities, but you’ll need to carry toilet paper or a pack of wipes with you, as this often isn’t provided. You may also have to put used toilet paper in a basket (yuk!), or you’ll block the loo.

Carry Hand Sanitiser

Finding soap 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.

Cultural Tips for Your Chinese Vacation

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 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 behind 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 pretty 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 trip to China, 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, we saw grimy rivers, littering, and children brazenly defecating and urinating in the street. Then there’s the dog poo!

Technology Tips

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.

Download a Translator App

Waygo is a helpful app that 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!)

Food and Drink Tips

Chinese Street Food is Cheap and Fabulous

Getting out of your hotel and finding local places to eat is one of the best things to do on 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 chilli, 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.

Read: Why experimenting with a Chinese Hot Pot was a mistake on our China trip!

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 With 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 incredible, 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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