Travel and tourism isn’t as easy to arrange or enjoy in China as in the West. Traveling independently in China, whether alone, with your family, or as a group, is usually a big adventure, and a lot of work, if not a nightmare of hassles.
Independent travel is harder in China than in Europe, for example, as so many things are done differently and in a more complicated way....
4 Keys to Travel Alone in China
Basically, the key difference between travel alone in China and in the West is that it takes much more time. If it doesn’t, you’re missing out, or risking trouble. See why according to the following aspects of your trip.
1. Transportation in China
Once on the ground in China, you will need to have thought about how you will get around. China is vast, and walking is not practical for much more than central locations and hikes. And need find an alternative for Google Maps or a VPN app as the China firewall blocks much of the Internet.
The need for a knowledge of Chinese, the more the better, will soon become apparent when using transportation in China, or even planning it.
2. The Tourist Sights
Planning your itinerary on your own, how will you choose what attractions to go to? And, even more crucially, what will be your plan of attack for getting the most out of each tourist sight? This often isn’t as easy as in the West, where attractions are less exotic, the layouts are safe, logical, and well-designed, and information/signage is readily available in English.
Even if you get to the attraction you want to see, and queue up, and eventually obtain your entry ticket, how will you navigate and appreciate an attraction like the Forbidden City?
The signage is in Chinese, and if an “English” translation is provided it often looks like it’s computer generated, untouched by anyone who understands English. The infamous humor of Chinglish signage abounds (e.g. the classic “Carefully Hit Your Head”, which is what you feel like doing after reading much Chinglish!!!), but that’s no help if you’re reliant on Chinglish for a clear explanation of an artifact or important safety instruction.
Without a guide you may wander through somewhere like the Forbidden City having only seen the backs of people’s heads and selfie sticks at popular halls, or wander off track to halls of little interest. How will you even find the exit, much less avoid wasting your time, amongst the maze of buildings?
Even if you tag along behind a tour group (pushing to the front being more of a Chinese thing, so you’ll be fighting the majority to do that), you may struggle to hear and understand any explanation given.
3. Find A Good Hotel
A good hotel is not as easy to find in China as in the West. Here standards are different, less reliable, and even vary from region to region. 5-star in Beijing is not the same as 5-star in Zhangjiajie! A big outlay may go a long way, but is still no guarantee that you get what you want.
Use TripAdvisor, as the hotel websites won’t tell you about the hard beds, leaking toilets, noisy environment, poor service, etc. that unbiased reviews will.
Booking in advance is recommended to avoid trailing from fully-booked hotel to fully-booked hotel in all but the slackest times for many places. This is due to China’s huge, increasingly mobile population.
4. Food in China
Food, it can’t be under-emphasized, is very different in China. Traveling America or Europe unaided, you’d be bound to find recognizable menus and flavors without too much trouble — not so easily done in China! Before planning to go to China independently you should think what you will eat, especially if you have allergies, intolerances, or particular tastes.
Western food can be found in larger cities (in places besides McDonalds), but still may be a bit different to what you’re used to. For the adventurous, pick a restaurant, point, and try. For those of you who want to stay on the safe side stick to what you recognize. Most cities have Muslim restaurants, which suit most Westerners’ taste buds better than mainstream Chinese or other minority cuisines. There’s more advice on our China Food Guide.
Food may be the decisive factor that makes you choose a private tour (with restaurants expertly chosen to suit you, and a guide to help you order), or a group tour with boring and standardized, but at least consistent, convenient, and reliable, catering.