Buying transport tickets in a strange country with an alien language can be a daunting prospect, some people ask ‘how do you do it?’ I could never find much useful information on the internet or guide books on the cheapest and most pain free way of buying tickets in China, so I have managed to do enough research via word of mouth and other sources to put together this simple guide for buying train tickets in China , without being pushed to the brink of insanity.
First, some information on the types of trains and tickets available.
Types of Train
All Chinese train numbers are usually prefixed with a letter, this tells you the category of train
C-type Ultra-speed express
D-type High-speed express
These three types of train are new and luxurious trains which rapidly shuttle between major cities, the best way to travel but also the most expensive
K-type Fast train
Z-type Direct express (overnight)
Number Normal train
Over night Z trains are not as fast as the bullet trains but still rather comfortable. K and T are older and more basic. Trains without a letter prefix are old and the worst (but cheapest) available.
Types of ticket
On the C,D and G type trains there are two types of ticket available:-
•First class – has all the luxury features such as TVs, laptop dock, very comfortable seats etc
•Second class – is still good and probably comparable to a normal train in Europe
Z,T,K and number trains have five classes:-
•Soft Sleeper – four beds in a private cabin, decent bedding
•Hard sleeper – six beds per berth, no door, less bedding, half the price of soft sleeper
•Soft Seat – Similar to second class on the high speed trains, over crowding is not permitted
•Hard Seat – Not actually hard, but as I have mentioned before, hard on your sanity, very crowded at times with people standing and sleeping in the gangways
•Standing room – Last resort ticket where you will stand in the hard seat area or in between carriages with the smokers
How to buy a ticket
By using the internet to check availability of tickets first, you can save yourself the hassle of trying to get a ticket which is sold out, when the clerks don’t speak English this can be a difficult one to work out. Never try to book online, or you will be charged more than the ticket is actially worth. I use these three sites for checking ticket prices and availability China travel guide, China highlights and China tour. The reason for using three is that some smaller stations may be listed on one site but not on the other two, but I find China travel guide the most convenient. Type in your departure station, arrival station and up will come a list of trains available, listed the shortest journey time first.
Here is an example of our route from Pingyao to Hefei, with a transit in Tiyuan. The site will work out automatically if there are no direct trains and you need transit. Click the select class drop down menu for prices and number of tickets available. Here you can find out how many seats there are on the date and class you want to travel. Simply write down the travel dates, train numbers, departure and arrival stations and the class tickets you would like. Also write in the station names and class type in Chinese characters which can be found in your guide/phrase book. Alternatively have someone write it down for you.
Simply hand the paper over to the clerk who will type in the details and show you the price on the screen, which you should already know. Then use a few hand signals to let them know how many tickets, if you would like a top, middle or bottom bed in sleeper classes, produce your passport, the clerk with show you the final details on the screen and there you have it, a stress free Chinese train ticket. The easy part is done, now you just have to push your way through a very busy station to your platform and cope with actually doing the journey.
A few things to know:-
•Tickets can not be purchased more than ten days in advance
•Soft Sleeper and even more so, Hard Sleeper, sell out first. If you try to buy these tickets on the day of travel assume they will all be gone, so plan ahead, especially for popular routes
•It is possible to upgrade your ticket once on the train, if they are available
•There is a slight difference in price with the top, middle and bottom bunks, the website will display the most expensive. Some people have a preferred bunk
Finally my advice for travelling on a budget, always buy a hard seat ticket to keep the cost down if travelling through the day, and buy a sleeper for travelling through the night. You can try hard seat through the night if you really want to save a few quid and don’t mind being pushed to breaking point.
Hope you all find this helpful and enjoy your China rail journey!