Bikes in China

Travel to China— Important Things to Know!

Why did I decide to travel to China? Great question; I would love to tell you.

I traveled to China in March of 2019, over my 49th birthday. This trip to China was a Groupon Air-Inclusive Getaway. What’s that, you ask? You can buy tours that include airfare and depart from major cities around the U.S. from Groupon. There are some things to understand about Groupon Getaways, but they can be a great deal. Different tour companies run them, so check the reviews. I’ve done Groupon Getaways twice and had great experiences!

This particular trip was a nine-day trip for $599. One of my adventurous girlfriends asked if I wanted to travel to China with her, and I looked at the deal and said, YES! There are a few other costs involved, like tips for the tour guides, some additional excursions and the cost of obtaining a visa. I spent around $1,200 for eight full days in China. Just to give you an idea of what an incredible deal this was, as I look at those same dates for March of 2023, the cost to fly from Chicago (where I departed) to Beijing is $3,400. And that’s the cheapest flight. 

If you are curious about Groupon Getaways, in particular for traveling to China, I explain all of that in our 12 Tips to Groupon Trips to China piece

After spending eight fast-paced days as part of this group tour, I’ll share some tips you should know before you travel to China. 

You’ll need a visa to travel to China. Unless you pass through and will be in the country for less than 72 hours, you will need to get a Chinese visa. If you are traveling with a tour company, they will provide you with a letter of invitation that you will need to include with your visa. If you are going on your own, providing details of your booked flights and hotel reservations will serve in place of the letter of invitation. I found the application process to be a bit exhausting, but I figured it out with the help of several websites. It is nerve-wracking. You will fill out your paperwork and send it with your passport just 60 days before your trip. Yes, you mail off your passport! You can pay a visa service to do all of this for you. I filled out my own paperwork and sent it overnight — via UPS so I could track it — to the Chinese Consulate in Chicago. The cost was around $140, and I paid for a visa that was good for ten years in case I wanted to go back someday. I’m glad I did because I loved it and want to return! I found this website on how to apply for a Chinese Visa to be very helpful. Please verify your own information. 

Practice your squats before you travel to China. Seriously. You’ll find when you travel to China, many places have squat toilets, which is simply a hole in the floor with places to put your feet. You squat and do your business. The most important lesson I learned in my travel to China was to line up with the actual hole and not squat over the shallow basin because SPLASH! I peed on my shoes a few times before getting it figured out. When we were in bigger cities or high tourist areas, we often encountered Western toilets, and some bathrooms had a mix of both. You will want to take your own toilet paper or personal wipes as many places, even if they had toilet paper, would be out. You do not put your paper or wipes in the toilet; they go in a bin next to it. This is a good time to suggest skirts to make this process easier. 

Carry hand sanitizer. Many bathrooms also did not have paper towels or hand dryers.

Learn basic etiquette. This is not just true when you are traveling to China; this applies to any new country you might be visiting. Are you traveling for business? Will you be in someone’s home? There are many things you can read about etiquette when traveling in China, but two fundamental ones: Never wear your shoes in someone’s house and greet everyone with a basic “Ni hao” (pronounced “knee how”). Personal space is not valued, so if you are used to having a personal space bubble, you might find the crowded spaces uncomfortable. 

Get a VPN. When traveling to China, you will need a VPN, or Virtual Private Network, to access Google, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram or other Western apps. The Chinese government censors its citizens from accessing many websites. This index of blocked sites has an up-to-date list you can access. You have to set up and install the VPN before you get to China, obviously — those are blocked too, so before you enter the country, make sure you have one set up. I used NORD VPN with success. Here is a more detailed look at VPNs and why you should have one.

Watch for vehicles. You can’t wrap your brain around how many people live in China. The numbers still boggle my mind. When I was in Bejing, I almost got run over by mopeds and bikes multiple times because I frequently found myself in the bike or moto lanes. Sometimes they were well marked, and sometimes they weren’t, but I was often overwhelmed and rubber-necking at everything. I’ve learned to be better about this!

Download a translation app. This is one of the best things you can do when you travel to China. I was so impressed with Google Translate. I would hold it up to signs and hover over menus, and it would translate the Chinese characters into English words. I would use the voice translate feature and speak into my phone what I was trying to communicate to someone, and it would translate to Mandarin. Sometimes it worked flawlessly; sometimes, people still couldn’t figure out what I was trying to say, but it helped a lot. As stated above, you need your VPN to access this unless you download key phrases and have them stored on your phone, which is also an option. 

I was surprised by how many signs were in English. The airport, public transportation and many menus in the larger cities were very English-friendly. We did run into instances where people did not speak English at all, understandably. We did our best to pantomime and use our Google Translate. 

Carry wet wipes. Napkins are scarce. I carry wet wipes whenever I travel anyway. They are great to have on hand to wipe down restaurant tables, seats, the light switch in your room and, of course, your hands. 

Prepare to be noticed and possibly photographed when you travel to China. While residents in the larger metropolitan areas are more indifferent to Western tourists, many Chinese didn’t start traveling either in-country or abroad until the last few decades. However, with China’s economy growing leaps and bounds over the previous 20 years, tourism opportunities have opened up to Chinese residents. As a blond, blue-eyed Westerner, I was often sought out for my photo, typically with older residents who probably haven’t traveled as much or been exposed to Westerners as often. This is what our tour guide conveyed to us. I had a lot of fun with it. These exchanges always made my day and are some of my favorite photos.

If you are traveling to remote areas, ensure you are up to date on all of your vaccines and check to see if there are ones you should have specific to traveling to China. Julianne has a great piece on travel vaccines and how to stay safe from bugs your body hasn’t been exposed to. 

Don’t drink the water when you travel to China. Don’t drink it. Don’t brush your teeth with it. Don’t let it run into your mouth in the shower. All of our hotels had an electric kettle to boil our water, which I would then put in my water bottle. My trip was primarily in larger cities, and bottled water was readily available in most restaurants and stores. I recommend a LifeStraw water bottle if you travel to rural areas or don’t want to hassle with boiling your water. The LifeStraw filter is good for five years, and this water bottle is a great investment.

Take some common medication when you travel to China, especially if you are part of a tour group. I always travel with a handful of common medications with me. I once got hit by a bug while traveling in Texas that took me down in just a few hours. I was so thankful I had some Tylenol to bring down my temp long enough to run out to a pharmacy. I regularly travel with Elderberry gummies and Emergen-C to bolster my immune system and Pepto Bismol, and Immodium in case I eat something that upsets my stomach. I always travel with ibuprofen, acetaminophen, bandages and antibacterial ointment for blisters. There is a reason that residents wear masks and have since long before Covid-19. With that many people, simple colds and the flu can spread quickly, and the air quality is poor in many areas. I bought a mask but didn’t wear it. I would next time.

Smart shoppers negotiate. I’ll put it right here: I hate bargaining over prices. I only did it once for a jade bracelet in a little shop in some random alley. I paid full price for everything else I brought home. I’d rather pay more than I should than bargain with someone — I just hate it. I have avoided so many street vendors in many places simply because I don’t like going through that process. Tell me the price, and I’ll pay it. If you love to haggle, you’ll love China! They will chase you down the street if you walk away, lowering their offer. If that’s your thing, you can get some great deals when you travel to China.

Go to the park. If you want to watch residents living their lives, go to the park. Walk around and watch the moms, dads and grandparents with the kids playing and having family time. One of my favorite things about traveling is seeing how similar we are, even with our differences. Please be mindful not to take pictures of people’s faces without permission. Pantomiming “picture” is universal, or wait until they ask for one of you first!

There are a few things to know before you travel to China, but if you have ever been curious about this country, I encourage you to seek out a trip!

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