A guide to Buying Train Tickets in China
In this article, we will discover how to buy train tickets in China. From online to at the station, we will cover everything you need to know to plan and book that perfect train trip in the Middle Kingdom!
China has one of the best rail networks in the world with both high-speed bullet trains, and slower sleeper trains. It is easy to reach all the major tourist destinations and many off-the-beaten-path places by rail in China, and ass far as I’m concerned, is a much better option than flying!
If you are thinking about backpacking across China, read my guide which is full of money-saving tips! Check out my ultimate overland packing guide for some useful items when traveling by train in China.
Here we will look at the types of trains and the different seats available. If you already know the ticket type you want, jump straight to buying train tickets in China section.
Types of Train
There are two main types of trains in China; high-speed “bullet” trains and slower overnight sleeper trains. I often travel using a combination of the two to get the best results.
There are three types of tickets for fast trains; second class, first class, and business class.
Second Class Seats
Second class carriages are made up of rows of three seats on one side of the aisle, and two on the opposite side. Seats recline to allow more comfort.
There is more legroom than you find on most flights and second-class seats are perfectly comfortable even for long journeys. All seats have a tray table and access to electricity outputs for charging your electronic devices.
First Class Seats
First-class carriages are made up of rows of two seats on each side of the aisle. There is more legroom and space between seats and each one has its own charging spot. First-class seats also include a complimentary drink and snack. Seats cost around 70% more than for second class.
Business Class Seats
Business class carriages are made up of two seats on one side of the aisle, and one on the other. The seats are much larger and more comfortable than in first or second class (not that those are uncomfortable) with much more legroom.
Services on Board the Fast Trains
The fast trains have a small restaurant/bar but no kitchen, so all meals are pre-made and reheated. They offer a large selection of soft drinks and one or two types of beer (no wine, unfortunately). However, prices are a lot higher than buying in a convenience store or supermarket so stocking up first is recommended.
There are both western-style and squat toilets between each carriage as well as a small washroom and sink. The toilets are clean and kept to a high standard.
A restricted wifi connection may be available on the more popular routes.
Slow (Sleeper) Trains
There are four types of tickets for slow trains; standing, hard seat, hard sleeper and soft sleeper. The sleeper trains make an excellent option for budget travellers as you can save on a night’s accommodation and wake up at your destination!
Don’t even consider buying a standing ticket unless absolutely necessary (like you’re going to miss your flight unless you get this train). I’ve had the misfortune of a standing ticket for an 11-hour journey and it was not fun, I can tell you!
Again, unless absolutely necessary, avoid getting a hard seat. The carriages are packed with people sitting and standing in every space.
I once did 33 hours on a hard seat (Urumqi to Luoyang) and it was the worst 33 hours of my life! The seats are upright and don’t recline and there is no room to stretch out or get comfortable. Going to the toilet is an expedition in itself.
Unlike the hard seats, the hard sleepers are perfectly comfortable and this is how I travel most of the time around China. What were once open-plan carriages are now partitioned cabins of six beds, with three on either side (but no door).
There is an upper, middle and lower berth, with seating along the corridor. Electricity outlets are few and far between, so ensure your devices are charged.
There is a luggage rack for smaller bags and space under the lower berths for larger belongings.
Soft sleeper carriages are made up of four-berth cabins with two upper and two lower bunks and a lockable door. There is luggage space above the corridor and under the lower berths. Each cabin has its own electrical outlet. A soft sleeper ticket costs around 60% more than a hard sleeper.
Services on Board sleeper trains
The sleeper trains have the added bonus of a restaurant car with fully working kitchen. The quality of the meals is usually very high, but it’s pricier than eating at restaurants elsewhere in China (around $15 for a meat dish, rice, vegetable side and drink).
In my opinion, it’s worth the extra expense for the sheer pleasure of enjoying a nice meal with the scenery. Menu’s don’t have English translations.
There are both western-style and squat toilets between each carriage as well as a small washroom and sink. The toilets aren’t to the same standard as on the fast trains but are kept relatively clean.
There is no wifi on slow trains.
When to book your China Train Ticket
You can buy tickets up to one month before departure.
Buying Train Tickets in China
There are three main ways to buy train tickets in China; at the station, at a ticket office or online.
Buy China Train Tickets Online
Buying china train tickets online is the easiest and fastest way to secure your ticket. You can check times, fares and book up to one month in advance at Trip.com.
Simply add your starting point and destination, travel date and hit “search”. This will bring up a list of every train and every ticket still available. It’s also possible to secure a ticket for departures over one month away.
Once you have selected the train and seat you want, click “book”. You will need to fill in the name and passport number for each person travelling as well as an email address to receive your E-ticket.
You can pay by credit/debit card, Paypal or WeChat. Once the payment is complete you will be emailed your reservation. Make a note of your carriage and seat number.
All you need to do is then show your passport at the train station to board the train (your passport will be scanned and staff will see that a ticket is linked). This is really the easiest way of buying train tickets in China and is how I always book trains here.
How to Buy Train Tickets in China – At the Station
You can buy tickets at any train station in China for departures within the next 30 days. Just go to the ticket window with your passport. It’s unlikely that staff will speak English so you should already have details of the train and seat you wish to book (and therefore it’s probably better to just buy online).
How to buy Train Tickets in China – at Ticket Offices
There are train ticket offices located across all Chinese towns and cities. Here you can buy tickets just like at the station, but they charge a ¥5 fee.
Other China Train Posts
I have travelled much of China by train, from east to west and north to south, but by far the most incredible journey was the legendary Qinghai Express from Xining to Lhasa in Tibet. The train reaches a staggering height of 5,000 metres (16,000 feet) as it crossed the Tibetan Plateau of the Himalayas.
I hope you found this guide on how to buy train tickets in China Useful. Comment below if you have any questions!
About the author:
Steve Rohan is a writer from Essex, England. He has travelled to over 60 countries, lived in China and Hong Kong, and is now living the digital nomad life on the road.
Steve prefers “slow travel” and has covered much of Europe and Asia by train, bus and boat.