Booking Train Tickets

Let’s say you want to go from Shanghai to Nanjing. How in the world do you do it? I’ll walk you through my process. I’ve mentioned before that I am super cheap, so I do what I can to avoid any extra fees, including those acquired by booking train tickets online. There are no extra fees when you book directly at the train station. So, for my non-Chinese speaking friends, I suggest you follow the steps below, take a screenshot of the tickets you want, and hand your phone to the ticket teller at the train station. They’ll scroll through the options you’ve given them and book you on whichever train still has tickets left. Boom. Tickets bought, fees avoided.

Note: I’m writing this assuming that most of the readers do not speak conversational Chinese. If you’re one of the lucky ones who can speak Chinese, please do not be annoyed with all my nonverbal communication methods 🙏🏼.


  1. After I have a destination in mind, Nanjing for the purposes of this demonstration, I go to and starting looking for trains that will work with my schedule. This is what the homepage will look like:Screen Shot 2017-06-14 at 10.01.50 PM
  2. Here are the search results:Screen Shot 2017-06-14 at 10.04.26 PM
  3. Make sure you’ve read the “Different Kinds of Trains” post. Pay attention to the letter included in the train number, it will tell you what condition the train is in, how fast it is, and how many stops it will make.
  4. The little camera icon next to the seat options will give you an idea of the kind of seat or bed you will be buying.
  5. Here’s where we have a couple options 1) you could hit the little “book” button and be done. If this is the case, you’ll pay online with a credit or debit card (I think sometimes it will only accept Chinese bank cards) and then pick up your tickets at the train station later before your trip. Or, 2) you can take a screen shot of a couple trains that would work with you schedule.
  6. If you’re cheap like me and choose option 2, here’s what you’ll want to do:
    • Give your phone to the worker at the train station’s ticket office. They’ll scroll through your screenshots until they find a train that still have tickets available. You might want a to a have a picture of the kind of seat or bed you want in order to get exactly what you’re looking for. You’ll also need to give them your passport.
  7. After they print out your ticket, step to the side of the line and check that everything is correct, especially the dates. Here’s how to read it:new-train-ticketIf everything is correct, you’re good to go! Just make sure to be an hour or so early to the train station on the day of departure, just in case. Have fun!

Different Kinds of Trains

Contrary to popular belief, not all trains were created equal. Below is a breakdown of the various train and seat options available for your traveling needs in China.


  • G – these are the bullet trains you read about. They go 300 kilometers per hour and hover off the train tracks. They are super clean and comfortable. Like, way more comfy than any economy plane ride I’ve ever taken. They have clean Western toilets, air conditioning, a no smoking rule, and electrical outlets at every seat. The seat options are business, first, and second class. Pay attention to which one you’re booking, the prices vary significantly between the classes.
  • D – I think of D trains as decommissioned G trains. They’re nice, they’re fast, they’re clean, but still not on the same level as G trains. They’re just a bit slower and make a few more stops. Again, they have business, first, and second class seats. maxresdefault
  • Z and T – Now, we’re getting into the good stuff. These trains look more like what you would expect a Chinese train to look like, choo choo style ya know? They’re a significantly slower than G and D’s, but they are also significantly cheaper. 50% of Z and T’s have air conditioning. The locals will most likely be smoking in-between the cars, which can be a bit stifling, especially in summer. There are more seating options though. Soft sleepers, hard sleepers, and hard seats.                                                    soft-sleeper
    • Soft sleepers: there are 4 beds per unit and each unit has closing doors. The beds are pretty wide and comfortable. They often have electrical outlets. images
    • Hard sleepers: Not to fear, the beds aren’t hard, they’re just a bit thinner than the soft sleepers. There are 6 beds per units with no closing doors. It’s rare to see outlets here.hard-seat
    • Hard seats:I.LOVE.HARD.SEATS. Hard seat passengers are the coolest. They are usually pretty stoked to practice English with you. If you’re looking for an authentic experience, you have to take a hard seat at least once.  If trains were prison, this would be gen-pop. It’s just where everyone sits if they’re on the train for just a few hours or if they lack funds for the sleepers. These seats are lightly padded benches that seat 2-3 people each.
  • K and Number only – These are the bottom of the train food chain, but hey if you don’t have anything to do overnight you might as well hop on a sleeper and wake up at your destination the next morning. These trains make the most stops and are the slowest. They usually have soft sleeper, hard sleeper, and hard seat options.

Booking Housing


Preface: a hostel is like a hotel, but you rent a bed instead of a whole room. Most often you’ll be sharing a dorm room with 3-7 other people. These dorms are pretty cheap, like $4 – $20 a night, depending on the location and days of the week. There are gender specific dorms or mixed dorms, whatever you are comfortable with. There are usually cabinets in the rooms for you to keep your valuables or luggage in while you’re out touring. If you’re not okay with sharing a room you can check out the “private room” options.

Okay, onto the good stuff, Hostel World is my booking method of choice. I’m not techy at all, so when I say this site is easy to use…you can believe that it is dang comprehensive. The first thing to do is create an account with your bank card and some other information. After that just scroll through the hostels and when one looks good you can book it with two clicks. A small deposit will come out of your account at the time of booking and you can pay the balance in cash upon arrival to the hostel.

There is a “maps” tab for your convenience. Pay close attention to the location of the hostel. You’ll want to make sure the hostel is in a location that will work well with your travel and sightseeing needs. Most Chinese cities are huge; you don’t want to accidently book housing on the outskirts of town if all the places you want to see are an hour away. Take note of how close the location is to subways and bus stations.

Make sure to read the reviews that have been left on the site by previous visitors. Sometimes I feel they can be a smidge too judgmental, but at least they will give you their honest opinions.


Agoda is very similar to hostelworld, but they mainly deal in hotels, not hostels. Hotels are advantageous if you are looking for more privacy, a specific location, or a shuttle to an airport. Of course you’ll pay more, but that’s to be expected.

Airbnb and Couchsurfing:

I am not an expert in using these sites as hostelworld is my go to, but I have had very positive experiences with them both. These sites usually place you in homes of the natives, but there are sometimes hotel and hostel options as well. There is a pretty rigorous screening method for the hosts to ensure your safety. Again, pay attention to the reviews. Sometimes things aren’t quite what they seem to be online. While staying with strangers may feel well…strange, it is great for immersing yourself in the culture and experiencing how the locals live.

Note: Airbnb and couchsurfing are not just for college students. My parents recently traveled Europe using Airbnb exclusively. They fell in love with the authentic experience staying in various homes provided them. Give it a try regardless of your age!

Other Advice:

For Christmas 2015, my sister and I celebrated with all the guests and the staff by attending a free dumpling party that was thrown by the hostel we were staying in at the time. The staff taught us how to fold and cook dumplings. We had fun and met great people at the same time. Moral of this story: make sure to ask for help and advice no matter where you are staying. Many places will have bicycles or e-bikes for rent, diners, city maps, local tour packages, and generally useful information. They can also give you precious advice for wherever you are: where the best food is, how to avoid crowds, or transportation tips. Just ask, they’ll be stoked to help you and they’ll be your new best friend if you bring them a small gift at the end of the day.

Apps You’ll Need

Apps. I think we all know they make the world go ’round. Especially if they’re free. Here’s a small confession, I’ve never paid for an app and I never intend to. Therefore, all of the following app recommendations are free and completely functional, you won’t have to buy anything extra to actually get the features you want. Without further ado, I present the most essential seven apps for navigating China:

unnamed-4WeChat is a magical communication app that is going to change your life. Basically, every adult human in China has WeChat on their phones. That of course means that you should have it on your phone. Even when I’m in America, WeChat is still my preferred mode of communication. It allows you to send voice messages, make large group chats (and mute them when necessary), group video chat, translate from Chinese to English or English to Chinese and so much more. If you make a new friend, but you can’t really understand one another, you can add each other on WeChat (you can search their username or scan their QR code) and message back and forth using the translate feature.  Because it is a Chinese made app and is not subject to any censoring it is also a handy way to keep in contact with your friends and family.

Metroman China
256x256bbThe name is a bit silly, but this app will save your life when you’re wandering around the bigger cities. After it’s downloaded it does not require data. Select the city you’re in and enter a starting metro station and your destination station. After it calculates different routes it will spit a few different travel options depending on which metro lines you want to take, how many times you want to transfer, how long each route will take, and how much each route will cost. If you have a good sense of direction, you’ll appreciate the option to look at that city’s metro system as a whole. Below are examples of the different search options.

unnamedMaps.Me lets you download maps directly to your phone. The maps are kept up-to-date and go into detail. If you zoom in you can even see the location of local businesses. The maps don’t take up very much room on your phone. Maps of whole provinces are only about 25MB. Similarly to Metroman China, you can plan routes between locations. My most favorite feature is that it places Pinyin Romanization above each Chinese character, which will make your life so much easier.



Ctrip can help book flights, hotels, and trains. Note: there is a 20 kuai service fee if you buy tickets through the app. Let me explain the method behind my madness of not paying that service fee. Search for trains that will work with your schedule, take screen shots of the various tickets you could use, and just hand your phone to the teller at the train station. The tellers are always super nice. They’ll know what to do immediately and scroll through your screenshots until they find trains that still have open seats and book the tickets you need. You will always needs to have your passport to book a train ticket. Oh, just for future reference, a train ticket looks like this:new-train-ticket

Google Translate
unnamed-2Google Translate is a miracle. Once the languages are downloaded the app doesn’t require data. You use your phone to scan the Chinese characters and it will translate it in real time. It can also translate pictures that you have on your phone already. This can be a life saver for restaurant menus or street signs.

unnamed-3This is a downloadable Chinese/English dictionary. It’s fantastic for translating one word at a time because it will show you all the possible options. It’s even great for phrases. Every once in a while I’ll type a word, hit translate, and hand the phone to the person I’m trying to talk to. They usually got the gist of what I was trying to communicate. Below is a search for the word China:unnamed-6


Hostel World
unnamed-7Hostel World is a really great app for finding affordable lodging. You need to understand that a hostel is different from a hotel. Instead of paying for a room, you’re paying for a bed. There will be options for private rooms, but they’re not as affordable as the group dorms rooms. You can also choose whether you want your room to be co-ed or limited to your own gender. Create an account and you’ll be able to put a deposit down for your room and pay the rest when you get to the hostel. Hostel World is just my favorite, but AirBnB, Couchsurfing, Agoda, and are also great.