With over 9.3 million square kilometers of landmass, China is the fourth largest country in the world. Consequently, getting from one city to another can be quite the journey. However, not everybody dares to brave Chinese roads, nor can the famous high-speed bullet trains reach every part of the country. Intercity buses as well as national flights are two alternative forms of transportation in China.
Coach services are often still the best choice for getting around. The network of routes is extensive and with the ever increasing quality and number of main roads and highways, bus journeys are smoother than ever. Buses cannot, of course, compete with some of the trains’ top speeds. However, many destinations in China are still better reached by bus than by train. Plus, traveling by coach is oftentimes the cheaper choice of transportation in China.
Purchasing a bus ticket is also somewhat less complicated than getting a train ticket. While the latter are normally only sold on a local basis, i.e. only for journeys starting where you are buying the ticket, you can even get the former as an e-ticket. If you speak Chinese, that is: Trip8080 is the self-proclaimed largest Chinese bus ticket sales network and also provides self-service terminals at a number of bus stations.
Those who do not speak Chinese or simply prefer to pay their fare ‘offline’ can directly do so at bus terminals or even on the coach itself. Your hotel and local travel agencies may similarly be able to help you with information on buses, timetables, and the ticket purchase.
When buying a ticket, bring along your travel details (date, time, destination, etc.) written down in Chinese. Tickets are typically not bought in advance, but there are usually options to do so if that’s what you prefer. Keep in mind that both buses and roads tend to get extremely crowded during holiday seasons when transportation in China, no matter its form, is in high demand.
The type and quality of your bus somewhat depends on your chosen route. While intercity buses between metropolises, such as e.g. Hangzhou and Shanghai, are typically new and quite clean, this is sadly not necessarily the case for less busy routes. On the latter, the use of minibuses is not uncommon as a form of transportation in China and your driver may well delay departure to get the bus full and his money worth.
Sleeper buses are an alternative if somewhat controversial way of getting around. While some swear by them as being cheap, relatively fast, and comfortable, others tell harrowing tales of cramped bunks, smoking passengers, severely delayed journeys, and near-death experiences on winding country roads. The sleeper buses typically feature three rows with upper and lower bunks each, making for quite narrow walkways in between. Bedding is provided and passengers are expected to take off their shoes when boarding a sleeper bus for transportation in China.
Just like the Chinese railway network, the nation’s aviation grid is steadily being expanded to cope with the growing demands for long-distance transportation in China. This includes, for instance, upgrading existing airports, building new ones, as well as adding to the existing fleet. Airlines include the well-known Air China, China Eastern, and China Southern, but also smaller, domestic carriers such as Shanghai or Shenzhen Airlines.
Tickets can be bought online with for example Ctrip, eLong, or via airline websites (usually in Chinese only), as well as through (local) travel agents and many hotels. Fares for civil air transportation in China are set at standard rates, with discounts being quite commonplace. Note, however, that the latter are often only available when purchasing locally instead of from abroad.
If you are planning on flying during peak travel times (e.g. holidays like the Chinese New Year), make sure to buy your ticket early on. At other times, purchasing a few weeks before the flight will normally get you the best deal in terms of available discounts. In general, flying is a relatively inexpensive form of transportation in China, anyway.
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