5 Crucial Tips for Successful China Train Travel

If you’re planning a trip out to China in 2015, chances are you’re considering taking a train. This is especially true if you hope to save money while journeying across China.

Trains are by far the best way to see China on a budget but unless you know exactly what you’re doing or can speak fluent Mandarin, you may not be prepared to travel by train. And trust me, nothing kills a trip faster than doing an overnight trip in a China train hard seat.


So if you want to have a successful China train experience I suggest you take these 5 tips to heart. It’s based on years of experience – both good and bad!

#1 Buy Tickets in Advance

China Train Ticket

It used to be that China travelers could only purchase their train tickets at most 20 days prior to departure. And you usually had to do so from the station of departure!

Thankfully those days are over. As of 2015, new rules have allowed for passengers to buy train tickets up to 60 days in advance. This is both good news and bad news.

The good news is that you can purchase your tickets 60 days in advance. The bad news is that so can over a billion Chinese people. This means that if you really want that hard sleeper or soft sleeper, you need to book early.

But how can you book early from a different city or even across the globe?

#2 Buy China Train Tickets Online

As of a couple years ago, the China rail commission made a huge leap forward by offering train tickets for sale online at 12306.cn.

The problem is, this is only useful for people who can read Mandarin and who have a China bank account. For those of you who have a bank account but don’t speak great Mandarin, there is a step-by-step guide that will walk you through the purchasing process.

China's website to buy train tickets online

For the majority of people, however, the best bet is to just use a ticket agent. I know it sounds like a waste of money, but after you stand in line for a couple hours at a train station only to find that your train has been booked solid – you may not think the extra few bucks is such a bad idea.

There are quite a few agents that can do this but one of the most trustworthy and well known is China Highlights. Their site will tell you which train are available and let you book on the spot. They’ll purchase the tickets and even deliver it to your hotel or hostel!

#3 Take a Hard/Soft Sleeper Unless You Hate Your Body

Unless you’re a penny-pincher who can’t stand to spend more than a dime more than he or she has to, maybe a hard seat is just for you. Or maybe you buy into the bunk that a hard seat gives you the “real China experience.”

I call BS.

You get the same “China experience” with a hard sleeper ticket as you do with a hard seat ticket, the only difference is your body won’t punish you for it later.

As the name suggests, a hard or soft sleeper train ticket in China affords you the luxury of a bed (albeit not an extremely comfortable one). A hard seat is, well…a hard seat. Sure the hard and soft sleeper tickets may cost a little bit more but not enough to truly matter.

There are other ways to save money such as…

#4 Take an Overnight Train to Save Cash

Save yourself the expense of a hotel by taking an overnight train to your next destination. I don’t know about you, but nothing puts me to sleep faster than a moving train!

Overnight trains don’t cost more but they sometimes depart or arrive at odd hours, making things a bit tricky at times. If you’re worried about the fact that you’re a light sleeper, just remember to take earplugs and cover your eyes with either shades or a shirt.

Oh, and be sure to set some sort of alarm if your stop isn’t the last one for the train. Most train attendants know which passengers should get off at each stop but you don’t want to be the idiot caught having to pay for an extra leg!

A China train stops at the station

#5 Come Prepared or Be Prepared to Starve

My final tip is to come prepared with food. The stuff they sell on the train is both poor in taste and high in price.

Noodles aren’t a bad option – or really anything that “cooks” by adding boiling water. That’s the only thing that you’ll have easy access to your entire trip.

I also like to bring some extra water (I prefer my drinking water not be boiling) and some chips and other snacks. More than likely people next to you will share whatever fruit or nuts they have.

So there you have it. Follow these 5 tips and you should be good to go! Enjoy your trip on a China train!

About Josh Summers

Josh has lived, worked and studied in China since 2006. He currently lives in China's beautiful region of Xinjiang where he continues to explore, study and write.
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2 Responses to 5 Crucial Tips for Successful China Train Travel

  1. Robert Shwab says:

    Good ideas here in this article. Buying a ticket at the train station in many cities is utterly confusing. I recall in Guilin having to find out, after standing on line, that I had to first go to another building outside the station to purchase the ticket.

    A great trip by train was from Beijing at night, and wake up in Xian in the center of town the next morning. I walked a couple blocks to a hotel.

    • Josh Summers says:

      Thanks for the comment, Robert! Glad you enjoyed the article.

      I agree about the Xi’an train station…very conveniently located within the city!