Our upcoming family trip to China is quickly turning into the most challenging I have ever planned – firstly there’s the country’s size and endless list of amazing places to visit, then the obvious difficulty with language and script, and finally the practical challenges of visiting a security-conscious communist country. And I haven’t even started thinking about accessibility of baby supplies or food!
I’ve spent weeks on research and thought it might be useful to share what I’ve learnt so far, to hopefully save others who plan a similar trip some time.
As I’m only half way there with my travel planning, I will keep updating this post as I go along.
So here is some step-by-step advice for organising a holiday in China.
1. Do I need a visa to travel to China?
Yes, and to anyone who is thinking of travelling to China, I strongly recommend you familiarise yourself with China’s visa policy first. There are several things to bear in mind with regards to a Chinese visa:
- The cost. A visa to China is pricey and adds considerably to the overall cost of your trip. For example, a single entry visa for UK citizens costs £151, plus admin fee. There is no distinction between adults and babies, a visa is required for everyone. You can find out more about costs in this schedule of China visa fees.
- The process. In the UK you can only apply for a visa in person, which means booking an appointment at the nearest Chinese embassy either in London, Manchester, Edinburgh or Belfast. Everyone travelling has to be present at the appointment.
- The paperwork. There are endless forms to be completed and documents to be submitted. You also have to present a booking confirmation of your return flight to and from China, as well as details of accommodation throughout your stay. Visitors who plan to stay with relatives or friends in China have to present a personal invitation.
How to apply for a visa
Travel agents can help you with the process, but organising the visa yourself is the cheapest option. Visa applications are processed by the Chinese Visa Application Service Centre and issued by the Chinese embassy. The centre’s website (www.visaforchina.org) provides a detailed step-by-step guide for the application process.
Note that Hong Kong and Macao are Special Administrative Regions with their own visa regulations. Short visits are visa-free for tourists from many countries, including the UK and Germany. Here are the links to visa requirements for Hong Kong and entry regulations for Macao.
Even if you follow the process to the letter it is not guaranteed that your application will be successful. As there is a small risk that you fork out lots of money for nothing, I’d recommend booking hotels with free cancellation policy, just in case.
2. Booking flights to China
Once you’ve made the decision to go to China, it’s time to book flights – the biggest upfront cost and visa requirement. Direct flights from London to Beijing are around £300-£500 per person out of season, slightly higher during high season and holidays.
British Airways operates direct flights from London Heathrow to Beijing and Hong Kong. We decided on a multi-city trip flying into Beijing and out of Hong Kong.
To anyone travelling with children under 2 years old who don’t yet need a seat of their own, I recommend booking the bassinet seats offered by most long-haul airlines. In British Airways’ case, these are free to book and can be used by children under 2 years old and up to 15kg. The bassinet cot can be replaced by a child seat that is fixed to the wall.
3. Planning an itinerary for two weeks in China
If you’ve decided to visit China, chances are you have a pretty good idea of the places you’d like to visit. If not, I suggest using online resources such as the roughguides.com, tour operators or tripadvisor.com to help narrow down your itinerary.
There are numerous tour operators out there who specialise in putting together tailored tours, private or group based, such as China Highlights or The China Guide. I’ve dealt with several local operators who provided helpful advice on what was feasible in the time we had, and considering we will be travelling with a 2-year old. It became apparent however, that a fully organised tailor-made tour was not cost effective for us, given the considerable amount of spare time we requested to allow for flexibility and playtime.
In the end we decided on a two week itinerary, which you can find in a separate post here.
4. Booking hotels in China
Booking hotels throughout China has proven relatively straight forward. As always, booking.com is my platform of choice and I found plenty of properties to choose from. China is known to be an expensive country to visit, relative to some of its Asian neighbours. As such I was surprised to find reasonable, in some cases amazing looking hotels and hostels for as little as £30-£40 per night. In Yangshuo I saw a simple but perfectly ok-looking hostel for £2 (!) per night!! So have a good look around, hotels in China might not be as expensive as you think.
Given we are travelling with a toddler and hygiene is somewhat a worry, I’ve booked mostly mid-range hotels and guest houses with excellent reviews. They all look great on paper, and I’ll be sure to report on how reality matches up!
Remember that you require proof of accommodation for every night of your stay in China for your visa application. So make sure you book your hotels in time for your visa appointment, ideally with free cancellation, just in case.
5. Getting around China
One of the first things I found out about getting around China was that only Chinese drivers’ licenses are accepted in China, making car hire practically impossible for foreign visitors.
Public transport and private hire of car and driver are the most common ways of getting around this huge country.
China has a very good train network, with high-speed bullet trains similar to neighbouring Japan. Trains seem to be not only a cost-effective way of getting from A to B but also part of the China experience.
As is getting hold of a ticket it seems.
As always, The Man in Seat 61 was most helpful for getting to grips with the complexities of booking train tickets in China. If you are considering travelling by train in China, I strongly recommend you read his Beginners Guide to Train Travel in China
Unless they have a Chinese credit card, foreign travellers have to go through agencies to book train tickets. On The Man in Seat 61’s recommendation I contacted DIY China Travel, who were not only helpful but also very quick to respond. DIY China Travel provide detailed instructions on how to ensure the booking form is filled in correctly, and any additional queries are answered promptly via email. Once tickets are released for purchase, DIY China Travel buy the tickets and send a simple PayPal invoice. Upon payment I promptly received the e-ticket together with several documents providing supporting information on how to collect the tickets at the station.
Depending on which train you choose, there are several different travel classes, from second class to deluxe. We decided to book the overnight train from Beijing to X’ian, in a soft sleeper compartment for four. For the journey from X’ian to Chengdu we will take the bullet train, which takes around 4 hours. For our final leg to Macau, we also opted for the bullet train travelling from Yangshuo / Guilin to Zhuhai. Although just outside of Macao, Zhuhai promises an easy taxi transfer to Macau.
6. Booking internal flights in China
An important thing to bear in mind when planning an itinerary involving internal flights is that not every flight operates every day, especially out of season. For example, we are planning to fly from Chengdu to Guilin, a service that operates only three times a week (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday). Equally, the route from Guilin to Hong Kong is only served Monday, Thursday and Friday. This obviously had implications on our trip planning, as we had to organise our itinerary around the flight schedule.
Payment with a foreign credit card can again be an issue, and I got stuck trying to book flights directly with Sichuan Airlines.
Although their focus is on train travel, DIY China Travel also offer a flight booking service. As there is no online booking form, travellers need to complete a separate order form and email it directly to the agency. An advisor from DIY China Travel will then confirm the flights available and at what cost. Note that upfront payment is required for flight bookings and that prices are very variable, so it’s best to confirm through payment as soon as possible.
7. Arranging private guides and drivers
My research suggests that most hostels and many hotels in China have tour desks through which tourists can book guides, drivers and experiences. As our itinerary is quite tight I am looking to pre-arrange guided tours for our relatively short list of ‘must-see’ sights.
Having read the fantastic reviews, I’ve decided to give toursbylocals a try and booked a full day tour visiting the Panda Research Base in Chengdu and the Giant Buddha in Leshan. Victor, the guide I’ve chosen, has been great responding to my emails and has promised to bring his daughter’s car seat so Rosalin can travel safely.
I will keep updating this post throughout my planning process and of course follow up with the real experience after our trip.