When to buy tickets for trains in China?
September 25, 2007 9:39 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to China in a few days. Should I purchase train tickets in advance on the Web, or wait until I get there?

Possibly relevant details:

I will be traveling from Shanghai to Beijing the second week of October. Later, from Beijing to Xi'an. And later still, from Xi'an back to Shanghai. Total time elapsed: about a week. Two of the trips would be overnight on the train, if I'm reading the online train tables correctly.

I don't speak any Chinese.

I am weighing which is the worse scenario: buying tickets in advance on the Web and struggling to sort out some unforeseen problem in person later, or being unable to buy tickets in person later because they're sold out.

Any and all other advice you'd care to share will be much appreciated. I'm adventurous but would like to avoid any obvious snafus. Thanks!
posted by chippie to Technology (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Sorry, meant to post this to "travel and transportation," of course!
posted by chippie at 9:53 PM on September 25, 2007

Went the same route last February during the Great Annual Migration around the Spring Festival, which complicated things. In Beijing, this meant we had to be quick and buy train tickets at one of the numerours places that sell them as soon as they became available (I don't remember that well, it was something like "three days before the train goes at 8 pm") because the cheap-but-okay Hard Sleeper class sold out early.

In Xi'an it meant insane queues at the train station, but the youth hostel I stayed at offered to buy train tickets for a ~50 yuan surcharge (a service which was no longer available when my friends tried to use it the day after, but I ascribe that to the horrid queues). My friends subsequently went in person and reported a problem-free experience with an English speaking salesperson.

I assume you'll have an even easier time when you're not trying to travel at the same time as half of China :)
posted by themel at 10:26 PM on September 25, 2007

I have no experience buying Chinese train tickets on the web. In all of my travels in China, I've never had a problem securing a train ticket, although it did mean a 31-hour train ride in hard seat class once(luckily, I was able to upgrade to sleeper halfway through).

Luckily for you, your entire route is covered by Z trains, which are both luxurious, relatively cheap (for westerners), and easy to obtain tickets for, even on the day of travel. Take Z trains from Shanghai to Beijing to Xi'an to Shanghai. The seats on that class of train are so comfy they're just as good as having a sleeper on a regular class, and you should still be able to buy seats even same-day. Sleepers should be easy to get for Z trains too, although I've never tried buying them.

Do yourself a favor and don't buy train tickets at the station unless you absolutely have to. There are several places around the city where you can buy train tickets several days in advance of when they start selling them at the station (for example, in Xi'an you can start buying tickets 12 days in advance, at the station only 2 days). Ask a Chinese friend or search online to find these locations. Note that these locations are actually run by the railroad - you get an actual ticket, not just a reservation. For this reason it's important to get tickets as soon as possible (especially the coveted hard sleeper class) because they'll all have been bought up by the time you can buy at the station.
posted by pravit at 11:07 PM on September 25, 2007

Whoops, it appears there is no Z-train from Xi'an to Shanghai. In that case, I would recommend taking one of the trains prefixed "T" or "K." Particularly, I'm sure T163/T166 must be a nice train, as it's on the brand new line to/from Lhasa!

Check this website for train times:

Drop me an e-mail (in profile) if you have any more questions about traveling in China.
posted by pravit at 11:14 PM on September 25, 2007

I agree with pravit - buy your tickets from one of the downtown outlets after you get here. Another option is to get one of the bigger hotels to do it for you (you don't necessarily have to be a guest). You'll pay a surcharge (it was CNY30 last time I did it some years back iirc) but you may find it worth it as you'll be able to use English and not have to run around town so much. Back in the day, the hotels often had the connections to get the harder to reserve tickets, but now the system's computerised, it's not the issue it once was.
The first week of October is another peak travel time, as white-collar workers get a week off for National Day, but I think things should have calmed down adequately by the time you want to go. It's not quite the Biblical exodus of Spring Festival either anyway.
If you find yourself having problems when you get to Beijing, feel free to mail me (in profile). I speak Chinese and work from home here, so am able to lend a linguistic hand if you need (i have often given taxi directions down the phone for visiting friends etc.). Slim chance I may have to be out of town myself that week, but you'll be fine on your own anyway.
posted by Abiezer at 12:07 AM on September 26, 2007

I was going to suggest getting the hotel to do it as well. Another alternative is the China International Travel Service (CITS) offices. They aren't supposed to buy tickets for foreigners without massive fees, but that never stoped them from doing it anyway for a small (no doubt poketed) fee outside of Beijing. My Chinese is absolutely abysmal but I managed to make it from BJ to Kashgar and back in one piece riding the hard sleepers (which are freaking awesome, actually somewhat clean, and just an incredible experience) in the way off tourist season, so I don't envision you having a huge problem sticking to the tourist track even if you do wait.

Incidentally, I have never found the English language on-line services to be all that accurate, the hotel consierge or ticket kiosk is way more reliable as far as time-tables, availability and the accuracy of getting the ticket you ask for (ie hard sleeper, soft sleeper, upper, middle or lower bunk, hard seat, etc...). My Chinese literate friends and family swear by houchepiao.com though, but even this site with linguistic help has left me riding the sleeper bus on a fridgid Xinjiang morning.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:33 AM on September 26, 2007

Some advice for the trains themselves, if you get hard sleepers get the bottom bunk if you can (its reserved in advance so its not just something you get dibbs on when you board), it is much easier to sleep on it, and its also a bit wider then the upper bunks. That being said you will be much happier with soft sleepers, again I suggest the bottom bunk, but its not a big deal.

Also go to the bathroom for number 2 before you get on the train if you can, trust me on that. You dont know how to use a squat toilet I reckon, and a dirty bathroom on a rocking train is not the place to learn.
posted by BobbyDigital at 8:52 AM on September 26, 2007

I'm going to have to disagree with BobbyDigital about the bottom bunk (xiapu). The bottom is used as part of the ladder to/from the upper bunk(s) so you and it get stepped on. Also the bottom is the communal couch prior to lights out, so all the unwashed masses will be sitting, farting, drinking, eating, spitting and spilling on your bed all day. The air vent is in the ceiling, the closer you are to that, the more fresh air you get, of course this can be cold air in the winter, but heat rises. The top bunk (shanpu) is also the cheapest. Don't worry about the piped in patriotic music, they will turn this off at lights out when people actually go to bed, even the guys that were pounding baijiu and slurping noodles on the bottom bunk all afternoon. (The middle bunk is the zhongpu, also you will have to drink at least a few shots of baijiu with the mentioned gentlemen)

Incidentally, the true difference between soft and hard sleepers (other than price) is the fact that a soft has a door. Other than that it's pretty much the same digs, though often (certainly not always) a hard sleeper will have three tiers of bunks rather than two.

Two awesome sites for more info including photos of the aforementioned squaters!

One last bit of advice. When you arrive at the station and see that thousands upon thousands of people are "cued up" to board your train, look for the porters with carts stuffed with bags. You can pay these men a couple of qwai (about $0.25) to take you and your bags to the train before the long "line" starts to board. This boarding "process" can be a little daunting for those uninitiated to Chinese "line etiquette." I once saw an aproximately 4 foot tall woman whacking her two small children with a stick like you would a tired donkey to get them to push and literally climb over people faster so that all three and their hundreds of pounds of baggage could get ahead of the pushing masses (my friend actually managed to partially get this on video, I'll see if I can post it). Think rock concert riot, without the limitations of human sympathy or a sense of personal space.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:29 PM on September 27, 2007

You can pay these men a couple of qwai (about $0.25) to take you and your bags to the train before the long "line" starts to board.

Be careful, I've heard of many foreigners being scammed by railway workers claiming to let them on the platform earlier.

Also, I don't know what Pollomacho is complaining about. Yes, Chinese train stations are crowded, and yes, you will need to push a bit, but there's no reason to get all snobby Westerner about it. Personally, I'm one person of Chinese descent tired of being referred to as "the masses."

As for bottom bunks, they are indeed communal seats, but people usually ask before sitting down, and if you want to sleep, just tell them you want to sleep and they'll get up. I think Chinese are especially nice to foreign-looking people, so you should have no problem. Personally, I prefer top bunk, but if the fan is broken and there's no air-conditioning it can get very hot.
posted by pravit at 9:42 PM on September 30, 2007

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