China for Beginners: Tips for Planning a Trip to China

I recently shared this guest post sharing some tips for planning a trip to Japan, and now I'm doing something similar for those planning a first trip to China. Except, I'm not doing it, someone else is. Katie O'Donoghue, to be precise. She and her husband are currently living in Tianjin, China and she reached out to me offering to give you my dear readers something of a guide to China for beginners, because again it is a country that I know very (VERY) little about as I've never visited China before, but I would like to one day, but before I do I feel the need to know more. I want to know more about China's history, culture and social structures. I would also like to know more about how best to travel around the country - logistically and in terms of making sure I see everything I would like to see. This article offering some basic but essential tips for planning a trip to China cover many of these things, and give me (and you!) a great place from where to start planning a trip to China.

China for Beginners: What you need to know for first-time travel to China

So please do read on to find out everything you need to know about China, for beginners! And thank you Katie for writing these fantastic tips. You can find out more about her and her blog below the article.

Here are Katie's essential tips for planning a trip to China, from when you should travel, what you should pack, and why checking the weather is so important.

China for Beginners: Essential tips for planning a trip to China

Think ahead so you can plan the best time to visit China

China isn’t the type of country that you can visit on a whim – you will need to apply for your visa ahead of time and you should have a plan so you know where you are going and even the names of the hotels you are staying in.

You can use China as a stopover destination and visit the cities without a visa but this limits you to just 144 hours in China so it is best to plan ahead, apply for a visa at your nearest embassy or visa application centre and enjoy an extended trip in China.

Know how to find the best places to visit in China

Google Maps is great to use when plotting out a general itinerary of your trip prior to arriving in China but you won’t be able to see the street view of hotels and restaurants because it is not available once you're in China. Plus, very few hotels (especially in smaller cities) are reviewed on Tripadvisor so you'll need to switch up what apps and websites you look at to book accommodation and activities in China.

We look at cTrip to book and check reviews of hotels. You can use the English version and translate any Chinese reviews to English. Plus, the prices are often cheaper on this app than other hotel comparison websites.

Download the right apps to make travel in China easier

There are some important apps for China travel that you will need to download before you go. A VPN (virtual private network) is needed if you want to access social media or Google because many websites are blocked in China – personally we use Express VPN because we live here and it is the most reliable but apps like STAR VPN are free and work fine if you are just checking emails.

Didi is a helpful app if you want to travel to more remote locations and use car transport (it is the Chinese equivalent to Uber), and Pleco is similar to Google Translate and you don't need a VPN to access it. We also use Google Translate (via a VPN) because they have a photo option where you can take a photo of Chinese writing and it will translate it for you, this is really convenient in restaurants or when taking public transport.

Check the weather before you leave to travel in China

Checking the weather before you plan your trip to China is important for two reasons.

Firstly, there are some areas of China that get bitterly cold in the winter. Known for it’s annual Ice Festival, it is not uncommon for places like Harbin to reach lows of -30 degrees Celsius. Conversely, anything south of Shanghai doesn't reach minus temperatures but will still get colder during the autumn and winter, although most places do not have heating because of government rules so you should be aware of this if travelling in China during the winter. From April onwards, however, it does warm up and summers can be very warm in China.

Secondly, you need to know that when the weather is cold, most factories in the north of China are working overtime to heat all the apartments and condensed cities. This means that the pollution is at an all time high and cities like Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu, Chongqing and Tianjin, where you will have more smoggy days than clear.

To summarise, plan your visit to China for between the months of April and October to enjoy the best weather and the best air quality.

Find out when there are Chinese national holidays before you travel

As with most trips, it is always a good idea to keep an eye on the national holidays of your destination. That is even more important with travel to China. So-called golden week falls on the first week of October, and Chinese New Year is normally around February time, and as these are the two biggest holidays in Chinese, the majority of locals will have the time off work and so attractions, shops and restaurants may be closed, and likewise hotels and other accommodation will be extra busy. It also means that travel prices go up and major sights are very busy. It's therefore my best advice that you avoid travelling to China during these times.

Tips for packing for first-time travel to China 

Generally speaking as we've discussed above, China is cold in the winter, and warm and humid in the summer but temperatures can dramatically change depending on where in China you are. Pack layers and proper shoes – rural areas (and even some cities) can be harder to walk on because of uneven ground.

Pack mosquito spray too, personally I get bitten alive the second spring comes around and temperatures go up. I use a mixture of spray and lemon body products and that seems to do the trick.

Learn some Chinese before you travel to China

It doesn’t have to be much but try your best to learn some Chinese before you move to China. Simple things like "Nǐhǎo" (Nee how) means hello, Xièxiè (Shieh-shieh) meaning "Thank you" and Duō shǎo? (Dwuh shauw?) meaning "How much?" It may just give you a bit of a confidence boost if you know a few words.

Before moving, we used an app called ChineseSkill which taught us some very basic Mandarin and was also a fun, engaging app to practise with.

Before you travel to China for the first time, learn how to use chopsticks!

If you have visited Asia before then this may not be essential for you, but before we moved, I was AWFUL at using chopsticks and I had to learn very quickly once we were in China, otherwise I would have gone hungry! Very few restaurants (perhaps Hard Rock Café?!) have cutlery like you do in Europe and other Western nations, and I really wish I had practised using chopsticks before we had moved to China. However, too many days of struggling to eat food meant that I learnt pretty quickly!

Take some time to learn more about Chinese history and culture before you travel

Most itineraries around China will no doubt include a trip to a museum, memorial or major site. Try your best to learn the history before your visit; although many museums will have some English translations, it is rare that you will be able to get an English tour guide in quieter cities and not all museums and sites will have as much information available in English. So be sure to do a little reading and research about the places you will visit in China so that you know more about what you are going to see and do, without relying on English translations which may not exist.

China for beginners: A few extra essential tips for first time travel in China

To finish off, there are a few little things to be aware of:

  • It is not essential to tip in China, in fact, locals may find it offensive if you tip them. In markets, always haggle unless the prices are listed and visible somewhere.
  • WeChat pay is everything but as a visitor, it may be more difficult to use this unless you have a Chinese card or an international card that WeChat accepts.
  • So, bring plenty of cash because very few stalls and markets will accept card payments.
  • Don’t drink from the taps in China.
  • If you are travelling in the Winter, bring a face mask to protect you for the pollution.
  • Take toilet paper in your bag when you are out for the day and practise the squatting skills!
  • Oh and for many of the above reasons you may want to have hand soap or hand sanitizer with you too.

Have an amazing trip to China, we have lived here for two years not and love it! There are so many places in China to visit and it really is an exceptional place to explore. 

FURTHER READING: Find out more specifically about what it's like to go backpacking in China.

About the author

Katie and her husband Calum are British expats, currently living in Tianjin, China. Katie is a primary teacher, working at an International school and the couple blog about their experience of live and travel in China, Asia and beyond at Creative Travel Guide. You can also follow their travels on Instagram.

(Photos from Pexels.)

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Frances M. Thompson

Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before starting a family with her Australian partner. Frankie is the author of three short story collections, and is a freelance writer for travel and creative brands. In 2017, she launched WriteNOW Cards, affirmation cards for writers that help build a productive and positive writing practice. When not writing contemporary fiction, Frankie shops for vintage clothes, dances to 70s disco music and chases her two young sons around Amsterdam.
Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+.

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