There are many reasons you might have left it late to book a trip over Spring Festival. Lazy HR departments not confirming holidays. Flaky friends holding everyone up. Or, in my case, sheer, undiluted laziness.
Whichever it is, you’re now in the travel equivalent of a bare-knuckle battle royale with 1.4 billion stressed, desperate people. Believe me, organizing a trip this late in the game is tough. But it can be done.
If you want to get to where you want to go, you’re going to have to fight; you’re going to have to be flexible; but, most of all, you’re going to have to be smart.
A lifetime of procrastination and general sloth has given me a lot of experience of last-minute booking frenzies and mad rushes across packed stations, and taught me the hard way how (and how not!) to organize a trip over Spring Festival.
Here, I’ve tried to distill what I’ve learned into a rough survival guide for booking (and surviving) a trip in China during Chinese New Year. I hope it’s useful!
BUYING TICKETS ONLINE
1. Be flexible!
Given that most employers follow the official public holiday dates to the letter, everyone battles to rush home at exactly the same time. This year, that’s February 7th. If you wait even one day, or better yet, get going a few days after, you’ll have a much better chance of getting a ticket (and if you’re going by train, you may even get a seat…).
The price difference can also be amazing – at time of writing, the cheapest price for a flight from Shanghai to Guilin is RMB700 on February 7 and 8, and just RMB450 on February 9.
2. You can buy a train ticket now and cancel it later
One of the good things about Chinese train tickets is that they are pretty easy to cancel, even for tickets booked online. If you’re the victim of the last-minute holiday whims of HR and have no idea when your holiday will actually start, you can buy a ticket and, if necessary, get a refund later fairly easily at the train station.
In fact, the ease with which you can cancel train tickets is part of the reason why getting a ticket is such a nightmare. I have heard stories of people buying train tickets back to their hometown for ten separate days, then cancelling nine of them when HR finally confirms their vacation dates. If you can’t beat them, join them!
This is not to say that there aren’t cancellation fees – there are, but they are much smaller than in many other countries. Even if you cancel just a couple of days in advance, you should get most of your money back. If you’re traveling long distance, the additional flexibility this option brings is well worth it.
3. Sometimes you can get lucky with cancellations
A knock-on effect of the ease with which you can cancel tickets in China is that there will be a lot of cancellations in the days before departure. If all else has failed, it is often possible to just turn up at the station on the day you want to travel and snap up a ticket that has been cancelled.
4. Even if tickets are available, paying for them online isn’t always easy
Ctrip is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it seems to be the only English-language travel website with a pretty comprehensive coverage of domestic Chinese flights and trains, and it’s (usually) possible to book online without a lot of hassle if you understand the quirks of their system.
On the other hand, everything else about Ctrip is godawful, and it’s even worse around Spring Festival when tickets are selling out fast and their system is overloaded. So if you’re going to use it, make sure you’re aware of these things first:
Despite claiming to accept foreign bank cards, Ctrip’s system often cannot cope with them. You will get a confirmation email confirming your booking, then hours later receive a second email saying that your booking has been cancelled. If you ring up their customer service line, they will advise you to use a Chinese card. If you have one, it’s better to avoid the hassle and uncertainty and not even bother with your foreign card.
When Ctrip tells you that your booking is confirmed, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you will actually get tickets for your flight/train. First, they need to check that there are still tickets available, and only once they have confirmed this will they email you a second time to let you know that you actually have tickets for the thing you already thought you had booked.
Sometimes this process can take up to day, which is infuriating if you’ve waited all that time only to be told that your booking was unsuccessful. If your Chinese is up to scratch, or you have a nice Chinese friend to help you, it’s much better to book through WeChat or another provider that can confirm ticket availability in real time.
Or, if you are travelling by train, it’s easier to just go to the station or a travel agent and get the tickets actually in your hand.
AT THE STATION
5. Check times and availability on WeChat or Ctrip first
While visiting the train station is definitely the most reliable method of getting your hands on those elusive tickets, it can also be a time-consuming endeavour (especially with the long lines that build up in the run up to the holiday season).
As such, it’s a good idea to check whether tickets are actually available first. As discussed above, Ctrip has an English site and can be useful, but is generally less reliable than WeChat, which – although only offering times/availability in Chinese – is pretty easy to navigate with even a rudimentary knowledge of the language (go to “Wallet” and click on “rail and flights” to select your journey).
Don’t trust the boards at stations, in my experience they are often slightly out of date, which can leave you waiting in a half hour-long line for a seat that no longer exists.
Having an idea of which times are available before you go to the station is also useful once you finally get to the front of the queue, especially if your Chinese isn’t great. If some of the journeys are sold out, the (usually extremely stressed) attendant is going to rattle off a string of alternative times in rapid Mandarin, and will expect you to answer equally quickly. It’s better to have a rough idea beforehand what he/she will say.
6. Embrace the bus
China’s high-speed rail network is awesome, and – if you can’t afford a flight – it’s definitely the best way to travel long distances. However, for journeys inside a province, the bus is often cheaper, much easier to get tickets for, and almost as fast.
In my experience, night buses (despite the “scary speeds and limited toilet” options) are almost as comfortable and efficient as a sleeper train. The options for foreigners booking bus tickets online are limited – I’ve never found a site that offers English language or the opportunity to use a non-Mainland bank card – so you’ll need to go to the station to book.
If your pronunciation isn’t near perfect, then it’s definitely best to take a Chinese-language print out of where you want to go and at what time. Writing out characters, or even numbers, by hand can often confuse attendants unfamiliar with your foreign scrawl.
DAY OF THE JOURNEY
If you’ve succeeded in buying your tickets, congrats! The hardest bit is over. But you’re not out of the woods yet. A train, bus, or even a plane journey at Spring Festival is definitely something that requires some preparation.
7. Get there early – like, really early
Seriously, make sure you plan to get there way earlier than you think is necessary. You will thank your lucky stars you did once you get to the station.
There are several reasons for this. If you’re getting a flight, you will need to a check in at least 45 minutes before your scheduled departure time anyway. Chinese airlines stick to this absolutely militantly, and even more so during the busy New Year period. I once got to the check-in desk 40 minutes before the departure time, and was not allowed to check in, even after some quite pitiful begging.
If you’re going by train, chances are you’ll need to collect your tickets at the station. If you want to do this immediately before your journey, you’ll need to get there at least an hour early [editor’s note: MINIMUM]. This may sound extreme, but given the long queues, frequent lack of helpful signposting, and the fact that people without a Chinese ID card cannot use the automatic ticket collection machines, it’s necessary.
8. Be prepared!
Stations in China are crowded at the best of times, but during the holidays it’s a whole new level of sweaty chaos. Even basic stuff like stocking up on snacks, tissues, or water can be a nightmare, especially if you’re pushed for time, so it’s a good idea to buy this stuff beforehand and take it with you.
Most importantly, if you are taking the train, do not forget your passport. Train-station security feels a bit like security at a provincial airport… the staff will take only a cursory glance at what you’re carrying (and may not even look at your passport), but if they do check it and find that you don’t have it, there is no way you’re getting on that train (the bus is much more relaxed, but it’s still best to keep your passport on you at all times).
If you’re collecting tickets at the station, it’s also a good idea to print out your booking references with all your info, so you can just hand it straight over to the person manning the booth, and (hopefully) collect your tickets with no fuss.
9. Embrace the tiny plastic stool
Take it from me – a standing ‘seat’ for any longer than 2 hours is pretty unpleasant (especially if you’re a bit worse for wear from celebrating the holiday the night before). If you’ve not been lucky enough to bag a seat, then getting your hands on one of those tiny plastic stools that you’ll often see locals using is definitely worth it (try Taobao, a big supermarket, or a store selling cheap knick-knacks).
10. Don’t drink too much before you get on
Most buses do not have toilet facilities, and stops are only every few hours or so. Trains are equipped with bathrooms, but you might not even be able to access them due to the sheer mass of bodies. And if you can somehow clamber over everyone and get into the cubicle, you’ll quickly regret doing so. Seriously, you’ll want to keep toilet stops to a minimum.
11. The journey doesn’t stop when you arrive at the final station
What’s the first thing most people do when they get off a train or bus in a new city? Find a taxi of course. This can mean long, long queues at the other end, when standing in a line of jostling people all keen to get home is the last thing you want to do. Rather than relying on the taxi rank, it’s best to arrange alternative transportation – ask your hotel to arrange transportation, use Uber or another ride share service, or – if you’re in a big city and want to save money – just get the metro.
12. Last but not least, enjoy the holiday!
The journey may be challenging, but the chance to see China during its biggest celebration is not one to be missed. Good luck!