If this is your first encounter with the Chinese culture like it was mine, I have just two words – prepare yourself.
There are millions upon millions of people in the cities and the noise level is loud. Just about any public place you go, you will find yourself talking just as loud as the Chinese in order to have a conversation with someone standing right beside you.
You will get bumped into and receive not even the slightest apology, and there is generally no queuing– if you want to get on an elevator, just push your way in.
Also, if you look the least bit exotic (and by “exotic” I basically mean not Chinese) you will get your picture taken or stared at pretty much anywhere you go.
Keep in mind though, none of this is considered rude in China. There are just so many people that it’s impossible to be what Westerners would consider “polite” all the time.
Given this little bit of preparation, you have the knowledge to have a great time in China. Much of the history has been preserved, and this country really has an incredible amount to offer.
Since China is halfway around the world for those of us who live in the United States, visiting this country is a major financial undertaking. If you’re like me, you will probably add up the anticipated cost of your trip to see if it falls within your budget before you decide to take the plunge and book it.
One of the biggest costs to consider when traveling so far is the flight. Luckily, the main cities tourists are most likely to fly into and out of are Beijing and Shanghai, and the fares for flying to these cities are pretty reasonable considering the distance and time to travel.
Depending if you’re leaving from a major international port like Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York, the round-trip price can be as low as 600 USD or up to about 1,000 USD per person when flying out of smaller airports.
Unless you can speak Mandarin at least semi-fluently, or if you only plan to visit Shanghai and no other cities in China, then I can recommend you to travel independently.
Otherwise, I highly encourage taking a tour. There is so much more in China than just Shanghai, and most Westerners do not speak Chinese, so a tour is my recommendation for 99% of Western visitors.
Unfortunately, tours using Western tour companies are very expensive. This is why I chose a Chinese company for my tour, and I highly recommend them. Travel China Guide offers small group tours (a small group is a must in my opinion) with exceptional service standards at very affordable prices. They have tons of itinerary options available and communicate quickly and efficiently in English through email. They can even customize your tour with a private guide if you wish to venture outside of the planned itinerary.
Truly, I cannot recommend Travel China Guide enough. Depending on the number of days you want to travel, they have options from 8 days with 3 cities for 900 USD to 14 days with 4 cities and a 3 day river cruise for 2,200 USD.
For Chinese, lunch is the biggest meal of the day, and therefore, the most expensive. You can have a nice sit-down lunch with multiple main dishes to share family-style with beer for about 20 USD per person. You can cut down the cost (and the waste) by only selecting one main dish per person, or even splitting one main dish among two people, which we found was still more than enough food. Quick service meals are much more affordable and range from 5 USD to 10 USD per person.
If you do book a tour, most meals will be included, but there may be a few days where you can venture out on your own for a meal, and this is good info to have.
Again, if you book a tour, your transportation will be included, but if you are brave enough to go out on your own then you will want to consider transportation costs. From my experience, the subways in China are clean, efficient, and cheap, with a one way ticket costing just a few cents when traveling in the same zone. The subways are also easily navigable with plenty of signage in English that directs you where to go.
Just like everywhere else in the world, it’s cheaper to travel during shoulder season. For China, this is March to May and October to November. Peak season is June to September, and the cold season is December to February. During shoulder season temperatures are pleasant, and even though it might not feel like it, there are less people traveling, so it is less crowded and prices are cheaper.
However, even the shoulder season comes with a few caveats. There are holidays such as Tomb Sweeping Day and Labor Day in April, and National Day/Golden Week in October when every Chinese citizen gets the weekend or week off and many travel to the already crowded cities.
With a time difference of at least 12 hours when visiting China’s east coast from the east cost of the United States, jet lag can be a major concern. However, if you follow a few of my tips you will be fine.
As soon as you board your departing flight begin adjusting to China time. If it’s noon at home but 12am in China, try to get a much sleep as you can on your flight – taking a sleeping pill if necessary. If it’s 2pm in China and 2am at home, try to stay awake – drinking coffee or tea if you must.
Do this on the return flight as well to better adjust to your time at home and reduce jet lag.
There is definitely a language barrier when visiting China because very little English is spoken, even in the big cities. While it’s easy enough to pantomime chicken or beef by using your arms as wings or mooing like a cow, there are probably cases where you need to communicate something more complex.
Before arriving in China download the Google Translate app on your phone and then download the Chinese language so the translation function is available even when you don’t have cell phone service. This tool was amazing for me. I was able to speak English into the phone and Chinese characters would pop up on the screen and could be read by anyone I needed to communicate with. The app also works in the opposite direction so Chinese can be spoken and English is written on the screen. It’s perfect for communicating in a different language!
While it’s difficult for Westerners to wrap our heads around it, tipping is not the norm in China, and it can actually be perceived as rude in some cases.
Restaurant servers who do an amazing job working with you and your Google Translate app might seem like they deserve a tip, but they are doing it to be helpful, not to dig into your wallet. If you hand them a tip they will most likely hand it back to you.
A visa is required before arrival in China for people of most nationalities. US citizens can get a multiple entry, 10 year Chinese visa for about $250.
I used itseasy.com to attain my visa and it couldn’t have been easier. I provided photos and filled out a form that requested the typical data such as name, address, birthdate, along with a few specifics about my upcoming trip to China including the departing and arrival information as well as the cities and hotels I would be visiting. My tour company also provided an Invitation Letter, which confirmed I booked a trip through their company and would be staying in China. If you don’t book a tour you must provide confirmations from each of the hotels you have booked.
The entire process of getting the photos, sending in the forms and passport, then receiving the passport back took about two weeks. In all, the scariest part was sending in my passport so the visa can be permanently stamped in it, but it was so quick and painless that I didn’t really worry about it.
China is about the size of the United States, but it is thousands of years older. With so much history along with the sheer size, it is impossible to see everything China has to offer in just a week or two. However, it is possible to get a good sense of China and its people when visiting a few locations. Below are the places I visited in China, and I highly recommend visiting all of them.
- Beijing – The historic cultural center of China. A visit to China isn’t complete without a trip to the Forbidden City or the Great Wall.
- Xian – The first Chinese empire, the start of the Silk Road, and the famous terra cotta army can be found here. This city is well-worth a visit.
- Chengdu – Home to giant panda research bases. If you want an up-close look at giant pandas and their natural habitat, this is the city for you.
- Shanghai – The most Western city, with all the glitz and glamour of New York City with a Chinese twist. Come to see the famous skyline and to explore a giant metropolitan city.
Researching a trip to China is a true undertaking, and I hope you find this guide inspiring and helpful in your planning process. Armed with a little bit of basic information, you are on your way to having an amazing trip. Not very many people get the opportunity to visit such an exotic faraway place. A visit to China is truly a trip of a lifetime.