Basic Rules for Travel in China

Always double check your documentation and allow plenty of time whenever you travel. Not doing so can cost you substantially in both time and money. This is always good advice regardless of where you are, but it is even more important when traveling in China. I didn’t and it caused me problems not once, but twice.

 

It was Sunday morning when I arrived at Shanghai-Hongqiao train station two hours before my 10:00am departure to Beijing. I thought that would be sufficient time. It would have been, but I was cutting it close. I knew the train station would be large but I was not prepared for how enormous it was and how long the lines would be. I approached an information booth to ask where to pick up my ticket. I had my question ready in Google Translate and my invoice, which was written in both English and Mandarin. The attendant pointed me to a nearby ticket counter. Forty-five minutes later, I made it to the front of the line. The ticket attendant put my information in her computer. She told me there was no ticket. She read my invoice and explained to me that this ticket counter was only for local trains and that the ticket counter for my train was upstairs. I went upstairs. It was now 9:15am. I was getting nervous but figured there was still plenty of time. I got in line again. Thirty minutes later, I made it to the counter. The ticket attendant put my passport information in her computer. She told me there was ticket. I started to panic. I asked her to check again. She put my invoice information in her computer. My ticket was there. I was relieved. Until she told me she could not issue the ticket because my passport number did not match. The information on my invoice was missing a digit from my passport number. We had found my ticket. I had clearly purchased it. We had positively identified me and that it was my ticket. Because of a typo somewhere, she would not print my ticket and give it to me. Bureaucracy at its finest. I had to buy a new ticket and get my current ticket refunded. A hassle, but not the worst thing. I had noticed on the departure board that trains left for Beijing every 30 to 60 minutes. I would just get there a little later than anticipated. I asked for an economy class ticket on the next available train. I was not expecting the answer I received: Wednesday. I would arrive the afternoon before I had to fly out Thursday morning. These trains had at least a dozen cars each with nearly 100 seats in each car and every ticket was sold for the next three days. There was a first-class ticket available on a train leaving in an hour. So, first class it was; for 1700 RMB ($270).

 

I did have a wonderful few days in Beijing. Come Thursday morning, it was time to head to the airport. I got to PEK airport with plenty of time. I got checked, went through security, and got to my gate. Then I started getting the notifications that my flight would be delayed; first 30 minutes and then an hour. I was getting worried. I had a connection back in Shanghai to Honolulu to visit friends from when I lived in Hawaii. My itinerary only had a two hour layover. I went to service desk. They told me not to worry. There would be plenty of time in Shanghai to make the connection. My following flight had been delayed as well. We ultimately took off 75 minutes late. We landed at 4:20pm. My second flight was scheduled to close boarding at 4:45pm and take-off at 5:15pm. But my flight was delayed until 5:30pm. It was going to be close but I thought I would still have time. I was hustling through the airport trying to make my connection. I was stopped at the at customs prior to entering the international terminal and asked for my documents. It was 4:35pm. They would not let me pass through because there wasn’t enough time. Boarding would close in ten minutes. I tried to show the agent that I still had time. I showed the notification that the flight was delayed and boarding was open until 5:00pm. It did not matter that boarding was open for another 25 minutes. They were only concerned that boarding was originally schedule to close at 4:45pm. They sent me to the transfer assistance desk. I was told they would put me on the next flight to Honolulu; in 24 hours. No hotel would be provided. I asked if they could send me anywhere else that I could possibly get a either late night or early morning flight from there to Hawaii. Tokyo? Osaka? Seoul? Incheon? It was 4:45pm. I was told there were no more flights that night. The last flight from Shanghai to any of those cities was to Tokyo at 5:00pm. I couldn’t believe that was true. I checked later. The airline and its partners had at least one flight, sometimes multiple, to each of those cities later that night. The attendant insisted that the only alternate flight they could put me on was to Los Angeles. It would arrive at 5:00pm. I asked them to put on that flight and the evening flight to Honolulu. They said there wasn’t one but they would put me on a flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu the following morning. I have lived in both Los Angeles and Honolulu. I knew there was an evening flight. I had been on it multiple times. At this point I was just tired and frustrated and agreed to the flight to Los Angeles. They sent me to the ticket counter in departures to get my boarding pass. I asked again there to be put on the evening flight to from Los Angeles to Honolulu. They also insisted that there was no evening flight. I decided I would just deal with it when I got to LAX. My flight out of Shanghai was delayed by over an hour. We didn’t make up any time in the air across the Pacific. We touched down about 6:10pm in LAX. By the time I got to a service counter it was 6:30pm. Ticketing for the 6:55pm flight to Honolulu had closed minutes earlier. The service representative wondered aloud why they hadn’t booked me on that flight before I left Shanghai. I had to tell him that they repeatedly insisted that the flight didn’t exist. The agent just shook his head. He was nice enough to switch my morning flight from Honolulu to Maui, which was my final destination. I ended up landing at the Kahului airport at the same time as if I had just stayed in Shanghai. It was a lot of extra flying time, but on the upside with my overnight in Los Angeles I was able to touch base with some old friends that lived there.

 

Double check your documentation and make sure you have plenty of time are good general travel rules that go double in China, but there is some other good advice to keep in mind when traveling in China.

 

Rules are followed without exception. Even when circumstances change and delays occur, there are no modifications to compensate. The old rules still apply.

 

Do not have any connecting flights within China prior to leaving the country. The risk from complications during a transfer are to great. Wherever the first leg of your journey is taking you, it should take you out of China.

 

Customer service is very different in China than in many other places. Service agents dismissing concerns with a smile and saying that it is not a problem are often attributed to the language barrier but that is not always the case. Even when translation is clearly not the issue, your concerns will be dismissed with a polite smile without being addressed. Even if you can provide solutions for your travel problems, if an agent is not familiar with that option, they will deny that it is a possibility. Being delayed by a day or more when traveling is not a problem in China. It’s a feature. A Chinese gentleman with extensive international travel experience was on my flight from Beijing to Shanghai. He explained to me that delays where so common when traveling in China that it is just an accepted part of the culture and that service agents aren’t helpful because they don’t consider it to be a problem.