So, you’re planning a trip to China?
Get ready for sites that most travelers won’t ever see, a culture that’s incredibly different to your own, and food that will leave your mouth begging for more.
China has a lot to offer, and because it’s so huge and a little intimidating, some parts aren’t heavily traveled.
That gives you a unique opportunity to see and do things that will leave even your well-traveled friends marveling.
But going on vacation isn’t always smooth sailing, especially if you haven’t thought things through.
Don’t worry, though. I’ve lived and traveled in China and have laid out some key things for you to consider.
So, if you’re ready to take the plunge and plan a trip to China (once it’s safe to do so), here are six steps to help get you started.
1. Choose where to go
The first thing you need to do when you’re planning a trip to China is choose where you want to go.
This may seem obvious, but China is a massive country. Unless you’re planning on spending months there, you’ll never be able to see everything.
Every part of China is different too.
You might think that you know a lot about Chinese culture. But when you visit the country, you’ll realize that every region has its own unique culture, food, language, customs, beliefs and ways of doing things.
In fact, China is like a lot of small countries all pressed in close together!
When you travel there, the cities you want to visit will depend on what you want to see. But if you aren’t sure about where to go, you could take the well-traveled route.
Practically all tour packages include the big two – Beijing and Shanghai. Many tours will also include Xi’an, while Chengdu is an emerging place to visit (and for good reason, as outlined below).
But even if you’re traveling solo in China, the big cities are a decent starting point.
Everyone has heard about Beijing. It’s a mega-city with a lot of history behind it.
This is the place to travel to when you’re interested in exploring the country’s imperial history and its monuments.
And, importantly, this is one of the closest cities to well-preserved sections of the Great Wall of China.
Beijing is located in the north of China, so the weather is generally cooler than other parts of the country. It’s particularly bitter in winter.
See also: What is the weather like in China?
Shanghai is an easy entry point into China. It’s a bustling modern city where you’ll find international shops and restaurants and a busy, vibrant culture.
A lot of the local people in Shanghai speak English, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble navigating the city.
That’s why, if you’re nervous about travelling in China, this city is the perfect place to start and gain some confidence.
This city is the home of the Terracotta Warriors.
It’s one of the most popular sights in China, and you can’t miss out on seeing them while you’re in the country.
But Xi’an has even more to offer than these amazing pieces of history. Xi’an is near the center of China and its food reflects all the many influences around it.
So, if you’re looking to try a range of different Chinese cuisines, Xi’an is the perfect place to do it.
China is known for its panda population and Chengdu is their hometown.
In this big but fairly relaxed city, you can explore the life cycle of these iconic animals as well as see the efforts that are being made to preserve their habitat and protect the species.
There are also some historic landmarks in this city for you to explore and some unique spicy dishes as well!
If you’d prefer to get off the beaten path, here are just a few suggestions:
If you’ve ever seen the movie Avatar, then you’ve seen Zhangjiajie.
The mountains in the movie were actually inspired by mountains in the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, which should give you an idea of how amazing this part of the country is.
It’s one of the most scenic areas in China and boasts dense forests, karst caves, awesome cliff peaks and incredible biodiversity.
If you’re travelling in China and tired of the big cities, this area is the perfect antidote.
You need a special pass to visit Tibet.
I recommend going to Chengdu and checking out the pandas and the touristy stuff there, as a way to acclimatize yourself to China.
Then, book a Tibet tour with a local, English-speaking travel agency. It’s usually cheaper this way.
Though I haven’t done it (it’s on my bucket list), you catch a bullet train with your tour group from Chengdu to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
Half the fun is getting there, right?
Located in Guizhou, one of China’s poorer provinces, Guiyang is a mid-sized city with a population of over 3.5 million.
Guiyang’s biggest drawcard isn’t the town itself. Rather, it’s the extraordinary natural beauty and enchanting rural villages surrounding it.
If you have any interest in the diverse cultures of southern China’s ethnic minorities, the region offers an authentic and immersive cultural experience.
2. Choose the length of your trip
For most people who visit China as a tourist, it’s the trip of a lifetime.
So, if you’re unlikely to find yourself in China again, make sure that you take your time and see everything you want to see.
China is an enormous country, and has a lot of amazing, unique, and just plain unusual things to see.
That’s why you need to do your research first and make sure you know what your absolute must-sees are.
I would just write down what you want to see and allocate time for each place.
Keep some space in your itinerary to allow for things like travel between cities, unexpected delays, a ‘nothing day’ (e.g. if you want to spend time in the hotel), or even if you happen to get sick.
As a general guide, if you want to see two major cities and all their best sites, make sure you stay at least a week.
That way, you shouldn’t miss anything major.
Ten days would be ideal for a tour that includes Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an.
The most important thing to do is not squeeze in a hundred things in a short period of time. Some tour packages are notoriously bad for this.
3. Choose when to go
The best times to travel in China are spring, between April and May, and fall, which is between September and October.
At this time of year, it isn’t too hot or too cold. And as an added bonus, these are the shoulder seasons, so your accommodation should be a little cheaper.
There’s nothing worse than fighting with hordes of local tourists to see the best sights!
Try to avoid traveling during any national holiday in China, especially Chinese New Year which is in January or February depending on the lunar calendar.
During Chinese New Year, hundreds of millions of Chinese people return to their hometowns to celebrate the holidays with their families.
The transport systems in China are usually prepared to deal with these types of crowds. After all, it happens every year.
But it’s still a chaotic, stressful, and packed way to travel and should be avoided if at all possible.
Prices for accommodation may also be higher during these periods and you might have trouble finding a hotel room at all.
This website lays out all the holiday dates to make planning a trip to China a bit easier.
4. Check out the visa requirements
Getting a visa can take some time, so make sure you start the process early. The last thing you want is to realize at the last minute that you need to have a visa and that you won’t be able to get it done it time.
I recommend starting the process at least a month before you plan to go, assuming you already have a passport.
If you need the visa processed quickly, you’ll need to pay more.
Time frames, costs and documentation requirements are different depending on the country you’re from.
So, check with your nearest consulate, chat with a travel agent or take a read of this helpful China visa guide.
You can take advantage of what’s known as the Visa-Free Transit initiative.
If you’ll only be in China for a short stay en route to somewhere else, you may not need a visa at all.
For rules and eligibility, check out the China visa guide.
5. Book accommodation and internal flights
As you would know, there are a plethora of hotel and flight booking sites available.
You’ve probably got your favorites, but one that is good for domestic China travel is Trip (formerly known as CTrip).
It’s a website that allows you to compare domestic Chinese flights, book accommodation, and even book your train tickets. There’s an English version and the site is organized and reliable with an easy-to-use booking and confirmation system.
Agoda is also popular in Asia, particularly for hotel bookings.
Even if you choose to do a package tour in China, where all the accommodations are included, you may have days either side of your trip requiring your own bookings.
And that’s where sites like Trip and Agoda come in handy.
A word of advice about dirt-cheap tours to China
You may have heard about or even know someone who has been to China on a tour that was dirt cheap.
In this context, the old saying “You get what you pay for” could not be truer.
You may get an all-inclusive tour (i.e. flights, hotels, attractions and food) for just a couple of thousand dollars, but the airline could be dodgy, the hotels could be below average, and chances are you’ll be squeezed onto a big tourist bus.
That’s not my idea of a great vacation.
(If you’re interested, check out this scathing review about budget carrier Beijing Capital Airlines.)
6. Brace yourself for the Chinese culture and language barrier
If you step out of the tourist areas of major cities like Shanghai, you’ll encounter quite a substantial language barrier in China.
And, if you’re determined to go way off the beaten path, chances are that you won’t meet anyone who speaks English at all.
This is a substantial barrier to travelling in China, but it’s also one that will make your trip so much more exciting!
When you travel in China, you’re reliant on your own street smarts, independence and problem-solving skills. And that’s part of what will make your trip so exciting and memorable.
However, if traveling in a place where you can’t understand the locals is a problem, you can always try a tour.
There are countless companies that run tours through the most popular parts of China, and you could always do a tour for a few days until you’re comfortable enough to strike out on your own.
This is often a good way to get used to the general complexity of this huge and special country.
While the Chinese culture is beautiful and unique, it can also feel overwhelming and very different to what you’re used to.
I’ve actually written an article about some of the quirks of the Chinese, like why they drink hot water and why some men have long fingernails (I kid you not). You can read about that here.
In summary, read up on Chinese culture when you’re planning a trip to China. It’ll make the adjustment a little easier.
Don’t forget your VPN!
In case you haven’t heard, the Chinese internet is censored.
This means you won’t have access to all your favorite sites like Google, Gmail, Facebook and Instagram unless you get a virtual private network (VPN) on your phone or laptop.
Check out this article for a VPN that works in China. Problem solved!
Why you should definitely plan a trip to China
China is a big, baffling, confusing, amazing and exciting country with a lot to offer travelers of all kinds.
The better you plan for China, the more you’ll get out of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Whether you want to visit for a week and just see the main sights or really immerse yourself for longer, you’ll come away from your trip to China with lots of stories, pictures, and the memory of every emotion you could imagine.
You may even end up like me and stay for a whole year!
Planning your trip to China doesn’t end here. I’ve only just scratched the surface.
Take a read of one of these helpful articles: