Help me calm anxiety about travel to China.
March 13, 2013 2:18 PM   Subscribe

I am travelling to China from Canada in the near future. I have hundreds of questions and concerns but mostly just need reassurance that I'm not forgetting anything. Bonus, what should I do for carry-on?

I'm travelling domestically in Canada, then from Toronto to Shanghai (Air Canada), then Shanghai to Guangzhou (Southern China Airlines). I have my visa, tickets are booked, I've got some RMB, and I'm not worried about actually being in China other than the travel aspect of it. I've travelled within Canada by air before but only internationally once, as a child. I am not an experienced traveller.

1. I know the luggage restrictions for both airlines as far as size, weight, and quantity go. If I understand it correctly, I can put pretty much anything that I need to in my checked luggage (other than my laptop, things with lithium batteries, and things I need). Correct? I'm not talking about prohibited items, although if there is something that would shock me, please let me know.

2. My luggage is going to be transferred from Canadian domestic flight to the international flight without any issues (same airline, same ticket) but I will have to pick it up in Shanghai and check it for the Chinese domestic flight (different airline, different ticket). Right? Will this mean anything as far as customs/security goes in Shanghai, will I be going out of the secure area and back in?

3. What are your experiences with dealing with airport staff (airline or airport, I guess) in China? I expect that someone will speak sufficient English to deal with any problems if my major fear is realized and I've missed my domestic Chinese flight or my luggage is lost or something. So long as the language barrier doesn't present an additional challenge I'll be happy.

4. My carry-on issue: I don't want to put my laptop in the overhead storage. I want to take a small purse with all my money, camera, ipod, and documents in it. I will also have things like food, carry-on appropriate toiletries, with me, and I don't want to be annoyingly going back and forth to the overhead compartment every time I want something. What carry-on container should I use? Here are my over-analyzed options as I see them:
- backpack. good size, but accessible to pick pockets. could I use a rain cover or something? is leaving it at my feet an awful idea? that way, I could sleep with my laptop tucked away and would be woken if someone tried to get into my bag
- small suitcase. don't want to keep it at my feet. will not leave it in overhead compartment if it has the laptop in it. if I keep the laptop on my person and put the suitcase up, what do I do with the laptop while I sleep?
*I know I am being paranoid about my laptop being stolen, most people are just travelling like me and have no interest. The more I plan, the less anxious I will be (hopefully)

5. Are there payphones in the Shanghai airport? If I needed to call the person meeting us at Guangzhou, how could I do it (without a Canadian or Chinese cell phone)?

6. In Shanghai, will I have to change terminals going from international to domestic? I don't have that info since I only have an e-ticket number. Do you have a good map of the Shanghai airport?

Am I missing anything? Do you have any experiences you could share? Am I flat out wrong about something? Anything else I should know?

Thanks in advance! I know I am over thinking and probably irrationally anxious.
posted by sarae to Travel & Transportation around China (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It sounds like what you want is a bag that will stow under the seat in front of you.

Something like this will work.

I really don't like keeping the bag under the seat in front of me because you need all the room you can get. But, if you must, this one is squishy.

I don't worry about doing anything annoyingly on an international flight. It's 16 hours, you need to get up and move around! Besides, everyone is annoying, although I will say that most of the folks on the Asiana flight I was on to Seoul all seemed to have taken a bottle of Nyquil and were dead to the world from take-off to landing.

I like the aisle seat because this lets me get up, get crap out of the overhead, wander to the john and do plies in the back of the plane by the lavs.

I highly recommend you get some Benedryl or something to help with sleep. A neck pillow and a blanket will be good too, it's cold up there!

Keep your laptop in a sleeve and tuck it behind you in the seat or in the pocket in front of you (depending on how heavy it is). Although I don't worry about it up in the overhead. Put the gross pillow they give you in the small of your back to buffer.

Also, breakfast in Asia is savory. So if you're more of a coffee roll person, plan accordingly.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:30 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm not sure if you are worried about traveling to China, or you are worried about traveling in general. Have you done international trips in recent years? I lived in China until last fall, but it has been a while since I traveled to Canada.

1. Packing luggage - I don't think there are any pitfalls if you have read both of the airlines' websites

2. Luggage transfer - You can call Air Canada and ask them this question. My assumption is that your luggage will go to Shanghai, where you will do customs and security, and check back in. So yes, you will be going out of the secure area and back in.

3. Chinese airport staff - my experience is that their English is severely limited. You will have better luck in Shanghai than in Guangzhou. I really really dislike China Southern (be prepared for REALLY bad service on their flight), so I may be biased. If you are worried, give yourself enough time for the transfer in Shanghai.

4. Carry-on - this is completely your personal choice, so do what seems best. I carry a backpack. I have never had pickpocketing in the airplane itself. Many Chinese people take huge amounts of stuff on the carry-on, so your overhead may be full, especially for the China southern flight.

5. I can't remember seeing a payphone in SH airport. Why not bring a phone? A SIM card is super cheap in China.

6. Shanghai airport - there are two airports in Shanghai. Which one are you referring to? (the airport code should be on your ticket)
posted by xmts at 2:31 PM on March 13, 2013

Best answer: I try to avoid bringing too much carry-on when traveling across the Pacific, because it's a long time to be lugging around a lot of stuff strung from neck and back and trailing behind oneself.

What I usually do is bring a carry-on suitcase that easily fits into the overhead bin. I loop on a different bag (small tote) for use while I am seated. That way, I can arrive at my seat, get the tote, put it on my seat, and then quickly put the carryone in the bin above.

My carryon has the essentials - change of clothes for the far side, shaving kit (minus liquids and gels) and important documentation. Always keep your passport and anything related to you flight on your person.

I usually keep my laptop in the carryone suitcase and rely on the inflight entertainment, or perhaps my smartphone during the flight.

In my tote, I have a good book and a couple of magazines, and a couple of bottles of water. I also keep my electronics stuff (rechargers, headphones, cameras) in a separate little case in my tote bag.

But I try for a minimal approach to flying.

You might want to bring an inflatable pillow and some disposable slippers if you can find them. I like to take my shoes off during the flight, but hate putting them back on to go to the bathroom, so slippers are nice.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:33 PM on March 13, 2013

Regarding (6), if you've got a quick turnaround, I assume that you are flying in and out of the same Shanghai airport, but please be sure! There are two airports in Shanghai: Pudong (PVG), the larger mostly-international one, and Hongqiao (SHA) which is mostly domestic.

Air Canada definitely lands in PVG, but China Southern flies out of both PVG and SHA to Guangzhou. If you're flying China Southern out of PVG they are in the same terminal (2) as Air Canada.
posted by andrewesque at 2:34 PM on March 13, 2013

Best answer: You should also be prepared for the fact that all of the overhead bin space has been hogged. So, your carry-on may be sent to a different part of the plane. In that case, make it easy for you to make sure all valuables are removed.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:35 PM on March 13, 2013

Response by poster: xmts - concern isn't so much about pickpocketing on the airplane, more so in the airport, in line ups, crowds, that sort of thing. My phone doesn't have a SIM card and I'm not there long enough to bother buying a phone.

I am definitely both flying into and out of Pudong airport. PVG.
posted by sarae at 2:36 PM on March 13, 2013

Best answer: I have never traveled to China, but I have traveled internationally to quite a few places including Southeast Asia. Regarding #4, I would strongly suggest using a backpack with limited outside pockets as a carry on. I usually use a hiking backpack as my carry on and put my (empty) travel purse inside my checked bag, so I can use it once I get to my destination. This way you only have to worry about two bags (Checked and carry on) and you can either put it in the overhead bin, or under the seat. I would also suggest trying to pack as little as possible in the carry on, since you will be carrying it the most, and believe me, it gets very old carrying a super heavy backpack when running through the airport to catch a plane.

I would pick up a Chinese phrasebook if possible, to help you in case a disaster happens at the airport. From what I have heard from friends and family traveling in china, few people speak sufficient English to converse.

Happy travels! China is one of the places I am itching to visit!
posted by ruhroh at 2:46 PM on March 13, 2013

Best answer: Regarding the carry-on: I travel a lot, always with a laptop. I use a slim backpack. In it goes the laptop, iPhone, Kindle, passport, visa, boarding pass, and snacks for the flight. It easily fits under the seat in front of me, and I can slip my feet on top or under it. If I were worried about pickpockets when I'm wearing the pack, I would close the zipper tabs with twist-ties to at least slow people down.

I've recently started traveling with a digital SLR. I was putting it in the backpack as well but it made the pack fatter and heavier. Now I bury the camera in the little suitcase I use as a carry-on. Yes, someone could steal the bag from the overhead, or on a very long flight they could pretend the bag is theirs, open it up, and dig around in it long enough to discover and remove the camera, but I think the chances are slim. My purse gets packed in the carry-on suitcase.

An aisle seat is good, but for a long flight, the best is a window seat in the exit row. Aisle seats in my experience often have a narrower-than-usual space in front for my carry-on pack, and people lurching up and down the aisles will bump you awake when you've finally managed to fall asleep. A window seat in the exit row can be cold (grab blankets from unoccupied seats) but you'll be sheltered from aisle-lurchers and be able to climb over your neighbors when you need to get out.

Here's a map of Pudong. And here's a page that reminds you to hit the ATMs when you arrive. Tell your Canadian bank that you'll be traveling before you go so they don't block your card when "someone" tries to use it in China.
posted by ceiba at 2:49 PM on March 13, 2013

Best answer: If you can get wifi then Skype and Google Chat should both allow you to call out to Chinese phone numbers. You will need to make sure you have a few dollars of credit in whichever system you're trying to use. I haven't been in China for a few years, but (unfortunately) this FlyerTalk thread suggests that you may need to have access to SMS to get on PVG free wifi -- but perhaps there is another PVG wifi solution.

Putting your laptop in a backpack should be fine. I have spent a lot of time carrying laptops around China (and Chinese airports) in backpacks. Obviously, I am not a representative sample, but it never felt like a terrible idea to me. Do remember to back up the laptop before you leave.

Echoing ruhroh, you probably at the very least want some kind of phrasebook so that you can point to sentences if something gets messed up with your flights. Some of the airport staff you encounter may speak excellent English, but you absolutely should not count on it.
posted by Serf at 2:57 PM on March 13, 2013

Best answer: For carry-on, I always use a backpack. You want something with zippered pouches, so you don't have to worry about stuff falling out when you shove it under the seat in front of you. I've never had a problem with pickpockets on an airplane.

I've flown to China twice, and have been in the airport in Beijing, Shanghai (both airports), Xian, and Kunming. I actually missed a connecting flight in Beijing bcs the first flight was 8 hours delayed (!) and had absolutely no problem; the staff at the airline counter spoke excellent English. In general I've never had a language problem with counter staff, but other staff (security etc) don't tend to be as fluent in English.

Be wary of people in airports who walk up to you and offer to help you, even if they're sort of dressed like airport staff. Be especially wary if they seem to be targeting Westerners. I don't know if this still happens, but about 10 years ago in the Beijing airport I almost had my passport stolen by 2 young men who took advantage of my confused state and helped me navigate through the airport system (a bit convoluted back then since you had to go to different places for luggage, airport tax, etc). After being helpful, they demanded money for my passport (which I had stupidly handed to one of them); I grabbed the passport, started yelling at them, and they backed off. No idea if this happens in Shanghai.

Also, be careful about taking a taxi right at the airport. There might be a bunch of "taxi drivers" competing for customers right as you get past the security area, and many of them are cons. There will probably be a regulated taxi area somewhere outside the airport (look for a line of identical-looking taxis), or take a bus into the city and get a taxi when you're in the city center; these are much more likely to be legit. (I did this in Beijing -- I've only been in Shanghai for flight transfers, so I don't know what the city is like, but do use plenty of caution.)

China is great, and many areas are tourist-friendly, so have a great time!
posted by phoenix_rising at 2:58 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 5. Are there payphones in the Shanghai airport? If I needed to call the person meeting us at Guangzhou, how could I do it (without a Canadian or Chinese cell phone)?

Wifi and Skype.

Seconding slippers.

I wouldn't worry about finding English speakers in Pudong airport; I had no problems there 8 years ago and I can only imagine it's become more cosmopolitan since.

Your laptop, and theft thereof seems to be a major source of stress. Could you pick up a cheapish Android tablet (7" Galaxy Tab is $180) if what you need it for is just email/internet/movies/etc? It's small, so that cuts the bulk down as well.

On the trivial side, bring earbud type headphones on the plane; they charge for them otherwise (and won't let you start the inflight entertainment until you reach altitude with over-the-ear type headphones). AC has a really good inflight entertainment setup; here is a website ("view AC movies") that emails you a list of the movies and programs available for your flight, sorted by IMDB ranking.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 3:02 PM on March 13, 2013

Best answer: 1. Yes, you can generally put anything in your checked luggage aside from prohibited items. Make sure the caps on your toiletries are on properly.

2. Yes, most of the time you must enter the country at the port of arrival (e.g. go through customs, immigration) and then move onto your domestic flight, so I assume this would be the case, although there are some exceptions.

4. If you are that worried about the laptop, take a suitcase, bag or backpack that you can lock, put the laptop in it and put it in the overhead bin. For a long flight, you will be cramped having it under your feet. So take something to put the laptop etc in, and then something like a soft tote bag to stick all your in-flight stuff and put under your seat.
posted by AnnaRat at 3:16 PM on March 13, 2013

Best answer: Any time you have access to checked luggage, you need to go through a security screening again. (It's legal to check many things that you can't carry on.) So yes, you pick up bags from International, transit Customs and officially enter the country, then check your bags back in for Domestic.

For carry-on, I recommend a smaller backpack that will fit under the seat in front of you, with or without a larger carry-on for the overhead bin. I enjoy the security of resting a foot on my wallet, laptop, etc., even though I recognize that this is just unresolved paranoia from many years of 3-tier Sleeper train travel in India as a child.

One thing I wish I'd known before my last trip to China: the VPN client my institution provided was only encrypting and tunneling traffic back home, not to the rest of the internet (a split-tunnel setup). So even with the VPN running, I couldn't connect to Facebook etc. from the convention center. I'd have done better with a free full-encryption VPN like ProXPN (what I picked up after I came home), installed in advance (obviously).

OTOH, I managed fine with the free and filtered internet access at the Beijing airport (scan your passport for a wifi login/password and be prepared for them to track everything, though).

I don't speak any Chinese beyond "Thank You", but I've never had trouble with travel in Beijing and Shanghai. The people on the street were friendly and helpful[*] without exception. You'll be fine - DON'T PANIC!

[*] Well, there was the amusing incident where I wanted to get to the nearest subway stop but got detailed directions to the nearest Subway restaurant instead. Cultural imperialism bites back...
posted by RedOrGreen at 3:23 PM on March 13, 2013

Best answer: The airports are very secure and, for the most part fairly empty, so if you're watching your things it shouldn't be a problem. In really crowded areas/on the street I just wore my backpack up front. Just be attentive. At the airport itself there should be plenty of security. Obviously, keep photocopies of all your important documents in your luggage, on your person, in your backpack.

I look Chinese but after they saw my American passport, the airport staff at PVG only spoke to me in English. You may not get so lucky but much of the staff hired now speak decent English. Chances are there might be someone in line who can help you too. While some older folks on the street might not know any English, most of the business-types and students in Beijing or Shanghai have some English and people are really quite helpful.

Usually to access wifi in China, you need SMS to get the passcode. There should be a pay phone; if not you can always stop at the airline desk right when you get off the plane and ask them to help you.
posted by mmmleaf at 3:27 PM on March 13, 2013

Best answer: There should be a pay phone; if not you can always stop at the airline desk right when you get off the plane and ask them to help you.
I've never flown from Pudong but at other airports in China there's payphones that require a phonecard, available for purchase from fairly obvious little concession stands around the building. Looking at Chinese-language Q&A sites where has been asked seems to confirm there are payphones at Pudong.
posted by Abiezer at 3:35 PM on March 13, 2013

Best answer: I like to bring my chargers with me in my carryon. Good for waiting at the airport and some international planes have outlets
posted by gt2 at 10:48 PM on March 13, 2013

Response by poster: Thank you all so much! Each answer had different information but it was all very useful, and in trying to mark a best answer I just kept adding more...

I think I will go take my backpack for carry-on, I really like the twist-tie idea! It should be large enough to carry what I need but small enough to stick under my seat - I think I'll go with avoiding the overhead compartment altogether for reasons of paranoia and capacity. I need to take my laptop with me as I need it once I get to China, so while a tablet is a great idea, it doesn't work in my situation. I'm paranoid about losing it because I'd be completely lost without it and I don't have the funds to replace it, but I will be sure to back it up before I go.

I do have a VPN set up and ready, but it didn't occur to me that it might not provide everything I need. It's provided through my university, any idea how I can find out if it is the right kind other than by trial and error once I get to China?

I'm not worried about actually being in China, I think I would have these same anxieties travelling to any foreign (not North American) country, simply because I don't travel much. I am trying to learn some Chinese and I'll be prepared with some form of a phrasebook. I'll be there for 4 weeks and I'm so excited.

Thanks again!
posted by sarae at 7:25 AM on March 15, 2013

I do have a VPN set up and ready, but it didn't occur to me that it might not provide everything I need. It's provided through my university, any idea how I can find out if it is the right kind other than by trial and error once I get to China?

Is it a Cisco VPN client? My client is Cisco AnyConnect - when I bring it up and click on "Details", it reports "Connection: Mode: Split Include; Protocol: DTLS; etc. I think the "Split Include" was the problem in my case - it would encrypt traffic back home but not the rest of it.

You might consider calling your IT support and asking - is it a split tunnel configuration or a full-encryption version?

Alternatively, since you mentioned a university, I'm guessing you don't have a draconian software lockdown policy. So just get a personal VPN client as well. It can't hurt to pack both belt and suspenders, just in case...
posted by RedOrGreen at 11:34 AM on March 15, 2013

Response by poster: Okay, so I made it! I took my backpack and I really had no reason to worry about pickpockets in airports. Maybe here, in rush hour at the metro or something, but the airport really wasn't as crowded as I thought. And the plane was fine too!

For anyone else who is in a similar situation, the airports are labelled very well. I've found that if a staff member at a Chinese place can't speak English, they'll grab someone who can and get them to translate.

The VPN I have from my university (where I am a student) is from Canada, and I think RedOrGreen was right, it was split - I got PandaPow and it is working great. I chose it over Astrill because it offers monthly subscriptions (rather than min 3 months) and over VPNinja because there is no data limit.

Oh, and at the airport in Shanghai we got off our plane, went through some foreign arrivals gate where they looked at our passports/visas and arrival card, got our luggage, and went through customs. It was all very easy, but I also didn't have anything to declare. The signage is all in Chinese and English.

Hope this helps someone else in the future. If you're prone to anxiety about travel, I am too, and I'm not even a little worried about my trip home now. Thanks again to everyone for their answers.
posted by sarae at 3:26 PM on March 31, 2013 [4 favorites]

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