China’s high-speed railway network is one of the largest in the world and it’s a thing of absolute wonder. It stretches across the country like a giant spider’s web, connecting hundreds of destinations. To the curious traveller, it’s a brilliant way to explore this massive country. It’s efficient, affordable and incredibly fast, with some trains reaching speeds of up to 300 km/h.
Even though most of the trains are modern high-speed coaches, travelling by train just seems more romantic than hurtling through the sky. The train offers a smooth journey with spectacular, up close views of the country side. Views that would’ve escaped you, had you decided to fly instead. On top of the sightseeing advantage of travelling by train, it also offers considerably more comfortable seating than a plane. Even the second class seats provide ample leg room for the taller fellows.
The trains in China are quite punctual and provide you with a platform to plan your trip down to a tee. They stand in direct contrast to the tardiness of the country’s airline industry. Flights in China are plagued by regular delays that are a result of the military’s control of all airspace. So, even though a journey on the train might take a couple of hours longer, at least it affords you the luxury of punctuality.
- 1 How to Book a Ticket
How to Book a Ticket
The two primary ways to buy a train ticket in China is to buy it at the station or to book it online. Both these methods have their advantages and disadvantages, but in most cases, either one is good enough to get you from point A to point B. During our travels in China, we’ve alternated between these two methods depending on the circumstances and our itineraries.
Two Tips for Travelling by Train in China
- Always remember your passport. You won’t be able to collect your booked tickets or buy tickets without it. Without your passport, you’re basically stranded.
- Make sure to arrive an hour before your train departs. You have to go through security before you can board and some of the train stations are huge. Your departure gate can easily be 10 to 15 minutes of walking from the security check.
Buying a Ticket at the Station
This is the best way to go about getting your ticket if you have a laid-back itinerary. China’s railway network is every slow-traveller’s dream and using it, to drift through the country, is as easy as pie. You simply go to the ticket booth, tell the assistant where you want to go, give them your passport, pay and voila. No booking fees, no hassles, just smooth sailing. You can pay using cash, Alipay or a Union Pay credit/debit card.
I would not recommend buying your ticket at the station if you’re on a tight schedule or if it’s a public holiday. It is also not wise to buy your tickets at the station when travelling in a group. If you’re buying the tickets at a peak time, your group can be split up between different trains.
On one of our trips, we decided to wing-it and bought our tickets just before we had to start boarding. The result was that we ended up in separate coaches and I had to stand for almost an hour.
- Quick and easy, except for the queues during peak travel times.
- No booking fees.
- You can pay cash or you can use Alipay.
- You run the risk of missing a train and having to wait for the next one.
- You may not be able to choose your seating arrangement.
- If you’re looking for something specific it might be problematic to convey your needs to the Chinese booking assistant.
Booking a Ticket on Ctrip
Booking your ticket on Ctrip is fairly easy and it’s a great way to ensure your seat on the train. You can book your ticket up to two months in advance and pick it up at any train station. The website (and app) provides you with a full list of all the trains, their scheduled times, travel times and prices of different seating options.
Booking your ticket on Ctrip is ideal when you need to take a train that arrives at its destination at a specific time or during public holidays. It is also convenient when you’re not travelling alone because it will book adjacent seats by default.
The biggest drawback of booking with Ctrip is the 20 RMB booking fee you have to pay. It’s not much, but if you’re only travelling a short distance to a neighbouring city it’ll basically double the price of your ticket.
You’ll also have to create a Ctrip account.
How to book train tickets on Ctrip
The Ctrip app makes it almost too easy to book a ticket. You start off on the home page by tapping the train icon. After that, you select your city of departure, your desired destination and the date you want to travel.
The next page will display all the trains available on that date, their prices, travel times and available seats. Choose the train that suits your time schedule and it’ll take you to the next page where you can choose your seating arrangement.
After this, you just need to provide your personal details and pay via Wechat Pay or a credit/debit card.
You can retrieve your tickets from any train station. All you need is your passport and the booking information provided by Ctrip (it’s all on the app). Hand these to the ticket sales assistant at the train station and that’s that.
- No waiting in line. Well, you might still have to wait in line to collect your ticket.
- Easy and simple.
- It’s easy to find and select the train that’ll fit your schedule.
- The app is in English and it makes it super easy to buy tickets on the go.
- You can buy your ticket using Wechat in the Ctrip app.
- You have to pay a 20 RMB booking fee.
- You still have to collect your tickets at a ticket booth, although you can do it before your departure date.
Booking train tickets with TravelChinaGuide
We haven’t yet used TravelChinaGuide to book train tickets, but their website seems pretty great. They offer ticket booking services at no additional cost if you collect the ticket at the departure station yourself. Otherwise for an additional $5 they will deliver your ticket to your hotel or to any private address in China. You can pay for your tickets using PayPal or a Visa credit/debit card.
- No additional costs if you collect the tickets yourself at the departure station. If you collect them at any other station you will only pay 5 RMB extra.
- For $5 extra you can get your ticket delivered to your hotel or any other address in China.
- Their website makes it easy to plan your entire trip.
- You can pay with PayPal.
- If you don’t want to cough up the extra cash you still have to brave the queues at the station.
Conclusion and other Recommendation
No matter which method you choose to buy your tickets, you’re bound to get good value for your money. Travelling by train in China is safe and very reliable. China has one of the largest high-speed railway networks in the world and it operates like a well-oiled machine.
If you find yourself still in the dark on some issues, I highly recommend A Beginners guide to Train Travel in China by Seat61. Seat61 is our go to website for anything train related.