by Jill Morris
General recommendations for travel in China
Although it may be tempting to visit China simply for all the parks, appreciating Chinese amusement parks is really a matter of first appreciating and understanding China and then visiting the parks with that understanding. Comparing many parks directly with their American counterparts (unless they are very new) might make the Chinese ones disappointing (strange operating procedures, open construction zones, etc.). However, once you are able to separate “this is normal here” from “this park’s operations are strange,” you can enjoy these parks despite any differences between them and American parks.
Look for restaurants with picture menus (and point) if you don’t speak any Mandarin, take photos of the item you want and show it to the cashier at quick service restaurants at parks, or use a translation app (see below) to communicate with people with whom you do not share a language.
Getting money exchanged/paying for entry and other items
There are money exchange facilities in most major airports. However, it may be easier simply to withdraw RMB directly from your bank account from a Chinese ATM. Not all ATMs will work with foreign bank cards, but some do, and I have found this is the easiest way to get money. If the ATM asks for a six-digit PIN it will not work with your card no matter what the signage around it states. Others only ask for a four-digit one and will work fine.
Foreign credit cards also do not work in most places, including those that are owned by foreign companies (the exception is Disneyland). You will need cash to pay for almost everything. Most Chinese people will pay for all transactions using their cell phone (Alipay or WeChat Pay), but this won’t be available to tourists or even people on short-term work permits or business visas. Some businesses will not be happy about accepting cash but most do (far more than accept foreign credit).
Wifi and cell phones
Although SIM cards are sold at the airport in vending machines, these worked for some of the professors in my group better than others. Most SIM cards have to be tied to a Chinese national ID (which most visitors will not have unless they are immigrating), so our luck with using these has varied. If you will be in the country for a month or more and have a Chinese friend that can get a card for you with a normal plan, that will likely be your best option. Be sure to return the card to them so it can be properly canceled when you leave. Most plans will be 40 USD a month or less.
I recommend using ExpressVPN if you absolutely need Facebook, Google, etc. access while in China. It is not free, but it is worth the money. You will need a VPN to get past the country-wide firewall and visit many American websites. For a short trip this would not be required though. Additionally, if you travel close to any major anniversaries for the country or protests (like the ones currently in Hong Kong), the VPN may not work or will need updating before it will work.
Preload your phone with a translation app. It won’t be perfect but it will help. Be sure to download both languages (English and Mandarin) so it will work offline without a VPN if you are using Google Translate. It is not unusual to communicate back and forth with someone in a store this way. Most people know a little English (yes/no, hello, etc.) but not much. Staff at Disney need to know more, but don’t expect this at other parks. I also use pictures to communicate when English and Mandarin fail. (As an example, there are many different ways to ask for a bathroom in English in China: bathroom, restroom, water closet, WC, etc., but a picture of a toilet always works.)
Before going to China, set up a WeChat account for yourself, as this is how people communicate with one another in China. It has free voice and video chat for free too, so if you have people at home you want to communicate with, using WeChat is a great way to do so. WeChat can also be used to sign into free WiFi (including at the Beijing airport and many buses and businesses), so having an account is highly recommended.
Unless you are fluent in Mandarin, using ride sharing services like Didi is incredibly difficult as most drivers will call you before picking you up. Additionally, Didi needs to be tied to a payment service through a cell phone. Most foreigners cannot receive a driver’s license in China either, so driving yourself is not an option (and honestly, you probably would not want to).
Public transit in China is fantastic though, so in big cities you won’t need to worry about driving or using Didi. Both buses and subways will be available to you, so look up whether the park you want to visit is reachable by one or the other. Subway ticket machines will usually have an English option. Both are very very cheap (100 RMB = $14 USD right now) as a bus ride in Changsha was 1.4 RMB. Subway ride prices vary by length, but are still incredibly affordable. Chinese subways tend to be new, and they run often and are very clean. They may be full (just shove in with everyone else), but are the best way to get around.
The only and most important issue to know with public transit is it will shut down at 11 pm (give or take) in most cities. Therefore, if you stay off property at Disneyland and need to get back to your hotel on the other side of the city, you may need to leave by 8:30 or 9 pm when the park is open much later. Plan for this when visiting any city. Look up when public transit stops running and make plans to make it back all the way while it is still running. Keep extra cash and the address/name of your hotel (and a photo of the front) in Chinese in your phone in case you decide to stay late and need a taxi.
Traveling between cities: The two most popular methods of traveling between cities is by air or by high-speed rail. If you are traveling between cities that have mountains between them, unfortunately your best option will be an airplane. However, if the cities are not on either side of a mountain, then you should be able to purchase high-speed rail tickets.
Personally, I love the high-speed rail system in China and can’t say enough good things about it. Trains are clean, fast, and run on time. Furthermore, they are relatively inexpensive, so they are a great way to get between cities and visit multiple parks. They will also be connected to subways in major cities (small stops in the country might not be so connected), and so it is easy to get between your hotel, high-speed rail, and subway.
To purchase high-speed rail tickets, go to Trip.com. Your receipt will come to your phone or email, and you will need it to get your tickets at the window when you get to the station. I recommend that you pick up tickets a day or two before your trip if you can (not possible if you are flying into the country, but picking up tickets before your trip will keep you from getting stuck in a long line at the window and missing your train — this happened to me once). You will need the passport of all members of your party and the receipt in order to pick up the tickets, especially if you do not speak any Mandarin. Multiple tickets can be picked up at once though, so if you are going to multiple cities just show multiple receipts and they will print the tickets for you at the train station.
Chinese nationals say that once you have picked up your tickets at a station, your passport will be “in the system” and you can pick them up at a satellite location. This has never worked for me, despite having been on the trains multiple times. Don’t wait until the last minute assuming one of these other locations will work.
If you are picking up tickets on the day of your train, arrive at the station 2-3 hours early. Lines can be long to pick up tickets. Treat it like a plane until you have tickets in hand. Once you do, you can get there later. Trains will arrive and leave precisely on time though, so be careful to be near your gate at your scheduled time and check the board often.
Air travel is not as well scheduled. Many of the professors in the group I have traveled with have struggled with canceled and late flights, which are not a terrible problem when traveling to/from the country, but could be if you only had a day or two in a city to sightsee and visit parks. If you have to take a plane, try to do so in the early morning (so a delay could push you back to a later flight that same day). Although you can bring many checked bags on international flights, you can only bring one on flights within China (plus two personal items and a pillow). You will be charged if you have to travel with more luggage within the country, so plan ahead and find the desk to pay for an extra bag before checking in for your flight. It is not as expensive as checking an extra or overweight bag in the US. (Extra baggage on a train can be stored in the luggage racks near the bathrooms or over your seat.) When checking into your plane, look for a board that tells you which check-in counter to use for your flight and be sure to go to the one that your flight has been assigned. Also be aware that some subway stops do not have elevators or escalators, so do not travel with more than you can carry if at all possible. Some airports are also not connected to the subway system, and you will need to either take a maglev train to another part of the city or take a taxi. Also, if your flight lands late the public transit may be closed and you will have to take a taxi to the hotel you are staying at. Have everything pre-written in Chinese and saved in your phone. (People also tend to ask me how stressful it is to get through customs, but since the people who work there don’t seem to speak English I have not found this to be a problem at all. I give them my passport and entry card that I get on the plane, smile at the camera, and everything is fine.)
While this advice might make travel in China sound stressful, in reality, following this advice would mean that you are really unlikely to run into any major problems and it should be completely smooth. I travel at the end of each of my semesters in the country, and learning some of the tricks of the system has enabled me to be completely comfortable doing so without a Chinese guide.
Many people in China will be excited to attempt to speak English, so expect that random people will try to help you or will just want to practice with you (at the same time, don’t rely upon others knowing English if you can help it). This means that people will come up to you and want to talk and take photos with you. If you are comfortable doing so, let them. It will make their day.
Many of the problems that people report in traveling to China to visit amusement parks can partially be attributed not just to culture shock, but to not understanding what is cultural and what is a peculiarity of a specific park (also the time difference/jet lag can be extreme; from EST it is 12 hours). Complaints about bathrooms, odd knock-off coasters, strange food (I was not allowed to buy a pork bun at Happy Valley and I still don’t know why) and stranger operating procedures are real, but spending a few days in the country proper and seeing how things are before beginning to go to parks can help with the jet lag and beginning to get a feel for what China is like in general. Doing so will make for a better day at any park that you happen to visit.