Travel in China during Chinese New Year

Tourists at Beijing's Lama Temple

Thinking of traveling within China for Chinese New Year? One word: DON’T! It is absolutely one of the worst times to travel within China. For Americans, think of Thanksgiving travel but multiply the amount of people at the airport, train stations, and bus stations by about a factor of three. Getting a ticket to travel anywhere in China will be hard unless it’s planned well in advance. Even if you do get to your travel destination, all major tourist sites will be filled to the brim with Chinese tourists. Remember, Chinese New Year is actually a two week celebration so you will be fighting for breathing space with a bunch of locals.

If you absolutely insist on traveling within China during Chinese New Year, here are some tips to avoid some major headaches and annoyances to make your travel in China smoother.

1. Fly. Don’t take the train. Don’t take the bus. Fly.

Train travel in China is a complicated beast, but the most important thing you need to know about Chinese train travel is you can’t reserve online and only two weeks before the travel date. Unless, you want to be crushed by the thousands of people trying to reserve train spots. So fly and book your plane tickets a month or two in advance.

2. Don’t fly to a major tourist destinations.

Many Chinese nationals take this time to take their nuclear families on vacation. So major cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Lhasa are overrun by camera-toting tourists. Tiananmen Square is one of the biggest city plazas in the world. Imagine an entire plaza covered in people. All you see is an ocean of black hair and winter coats. Instead try one of the second tier or third tier cities like the ones along the southeastern coast.

3. Don’t visit UNESCO World Heritage sites.

I had the unfortunate pleasure of climbing one of the UNESCO World Heritage mountains in the Sichuan province during a Chinese holiday. I spent about four hours waiting in line for a gondola while I actually only had about twenty minutes to actually see the mountain. It was tourism at its worst. Having the UNESCO moniker makes it a little worst because the Chinese people are like children when it comes to praise. If you give them a little, it makes them so proud that they keep having to show it off.

4. Take in local shows.

There will be a variety of Chinese New Year celebrations all over the country. From dance recitals, music concerts, and local operas, these are all abundant activities to share with your fellow yellow-skinned man. Check the local expat blogs and magazines like Shanghaiist, Beijinger, or TimeOut for more information in English. If you have a local friend, the more the merrier.

5. Enjoy fireworks at the street level.

Fireworks will going off everywhere in China for the entire two weeks of Chinese New Year. That’s not an exaggeration. Every night for two weeks, you will hear the sound of firecrackers from some street corner in China. With that said, go to the local park or pedestrian street to see some of the firework displays. You can always buy fireworks, but all firework safety applies if you’re doing it yourself or even watching someone else. A vacation spent in a Chinese hospital is no fun.

6. Make restaurant reservations

Many restaurants will be closed during the holiday, but there will still be some open that cater to families who rather eat out for Chinese New Year. If you’re going to eat at a big restaurant in China, make reservations. Otherwise, be on the lookout for the odd local restaurant that remains open. There is always the option of fast food, which don’t close what ever the reason

One world of caution during any high travel season is that scams will be abundant. The bar scam, art auction scam, and food scam. These are the most prevalent ones and ones where I have known someone to be the victim of or myself approached for these kind of scams. I will write about these Chinese specific scams in a later post.

Parting Words

Chinese New Year is a great celebration and a time for Chinese families to enjoy each others company. With the migrant workforces making up a substantial part of the labor, travel will be made up of most of these laborers. It might be the only time they see their families during the year, so they could be bringing a lot of gifts. I myself will be spending New Year’s at home with my family and big feast of hot pot.

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About the Author

John is always trying to find his way back to the road. He has an affinity for Germany due to his three years studying German at Cal, and a year working as an intern in the Stuttgart area. He also likes chocolate cake and good cheese.