When it comes to traveling to China in 2023, most tourists choose to fly or take the train. The reasoning is very simple: flying is fast and trains are cheap. However, there are times when China's massive intercity bus system is the best (or only!) option. In these cases, you will want to understandhow to travel by bus in china– and that's where this travel guide will come in handy!
maybe you areTravel China on a budgetand the flights are too expensive or the train is full. Maybe you're going somewhere that doesn't have an airport or train station.
Regardless of the reason, if you plan to take a bus to China,this 2023 China Bus Guide should give you everything you need to know before you travel.
As it turns out to be a relatively long guide, I've split it into several "chapters" to make it easier to digest:
- Pros and cons of riding a bus in China
- Take a peek inside the Chinese bus
- How to get to the Chinese bus station
- How to find a bus schedule in China
- How to buy bus tickets in China
- China Bus: Frequently Asked Questions
- Bus tips from an experienced Chinese traveller
We hope you find this Chinese bus guide helpful! If you would like to download the PDF, you can do so here.
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Pros and cons of riding a bus in China
There are a number of reasons why you might want to take the bus to China... and a few reasons why you might want to avoid it. Over the decades, I've seen my fair share of both while traveling by Chinese bus.
Let's start by detailing some of the reasons why the bus is a good option for tourists:
- Frequency: Chinese buses generally operate more frequently thanflights in Chinaor trains. Most of the time you don't need to worry about booking in advance as there will be a bus between the two cities that runs at least once every hour, if not more often.
- Suitability: Compared to Chinese airports and railway stations, security at the bus station is very easy. I rarely arrive at the bus station earlier than 30 minutes before departure and still end up waiting 15 minutes.
- station location: Most of the time, Chinese bus stations are located in the city center, unlike airports and train stations which are usually located on the outskirts of the city. This can not only save you time, but also save you the cost of a taxi to the city.
- Availability: I have never bought a bus ticket a day in advance, and I often buy it on the day of departure. Unlike flights andtrends in China, bus tickets tend to have more availability, giving you the flexibility to change your itinerary at any time.
This is what makes traveling by Chinese bus great. Here are some things I don't like about traveling by bus in China:
- unreliable comfort: Sometimes you ride a relatively new bus, but often you find yourself in a vehicle that has been used for several decades. You are gambling and it can be quite embarrassing at times.
- unreliable delays: Unexpected delays are possible (or in China, very likely), regardless of the mode of transportation you choose to use. Unlike planes and trains, buses leave on time. The difficulties arise from the unpredictability of the roads. I've been stuck in horrible city traffic for hours, my bus has been stopped on the highway to a security checkpoint, my bus has broken down, and I've had road construction delays. It's bullshit, but there's nothing you can do about it.
- Another type of traveler: Buses are a means of transport for the poor, there is no other way. Don't get me wrong, the people are great, but since it's not a top mode of transportation, the rules aren't always enforced. Smoking is the best example: it is not uncommon to see people smoking on the bus, despite the many signs that say it is forbidden. I also saw a man get on the bus carrying a windshield from a car. I'm not even kidding. His seatmate was unhappy the whole ride! This sort of thing isn't technically allowed, but the rules are much more flexible on Chinese buses.
I hope I haven't stopped you from trying to take a bus in China, I just want to make sure you have a dose of reality.
There are many good reasons to take the bus in China – and I hope so! – but be sure to set your expectations before buying a ticket.
Take a peek inside the Chinese bus
If you've never had the chance to peek inside a Chinese bus and are afraid of what you're getting yourself into, let me walk you through a regular bus.
Generally speaking, there are two basic types of buses in China: the seater bus and the sleeper bus.
Chinese (traditional) buses with seats
The seated bus is exactly what it sounds like. There are usually two sets of two seats with a center aisle and all seats facing the front of the bus.
As a tall person, I've never had any complaints about legroom on a Chinese bus, but the seats can be a bit tight.
Most buses have an entertainment system that plays Chinese movies throughout the journey, and most buses have air conditioning and heating systems (although not all).
Your seat will recline slightly, but don't expect a great sleeping position. Some seater buses have toilets, but these are often not available (or you don't want to use them anyway).
All places in the bus with seats have the same price and are sold on a first-come, first-served basis. Prices are fixed.
Chinese sleeper bus
A sleeper bus differs in that each passenger has a bed instead of a seat. There are usually three rows of beds with two aisles between them and a bathroom at the back (which, again, may or may not be available for use). There is an upper and a lower berth along the entire length of the bus.
Anyone over 5'8" will have trouble fitting into one of these beds, like me. I don't have the ability to hang my legs over the edge because it's someone else's bed, so I end up having to curl up a bit.
These buses usually also have an entertainment system, air conditioning and heating, although it all depends on the age of the bus you are traveling on.
The price of the bed is higher for the upper berth than for the lower berth in the sleeper bus.
How to get to the Chinese bus station
For an inexperienced traveler to China, finding a bus station seems easy, right? Just search for the word "bus station" in yourA practical guide to Mandarin phrasesand tell the taxi driver.
Powder! Ready 🙂
Unfortunately, it's not always that simple. With the exception of small towns, most cities in China have several bus stations scattered around.
One might be "Intercity Bus Terminal" while the other is "International Bus Terminal". Bus stations are often categorized according to the direction of travel of their buses (north, south, east or west). Others according to which city or region they serve.
The bottom line is that the word "bus stop" is simply not enough. You need to know exactly which bus station you want to go to. How do you do it? Here are some ways:
- tourist guides: Often,the best Chinese travel guidesit will give details about which bus stops go to which cities.
- Ask your hotel: They probably won't know in advance, but they can ask the appropriate people and then write the name of the bus station on a piece of paper that you can give to your Chinese taxi driver (read more athow to take a taxi in china).
- Ask your taxi driver: Don't just tell the taxi driver that he is going to the bus station, tell him specifically which city you are going to by bus. In many cases, the taxi driver will know where to go.
How to find a bus schedule in China
In my opinion, the most confusing part of taking an intercity bus in China is figuring out the timetable.
Unlike trains and planes, you can't simply check the timetable or even buy tickets online. It's possible, but it's always in Chinese and it's not a simple process.
For most major intercity connections, buses from China generally depart every twenty minutes, half an hour or hourly. I realize I'm making a huge generalization here. I assume you don't want to go to some po-dunk village that isn't on any map.
There are cases where only a few or even one or two buses depart per day. In that case, you'll want to get an idea of the bus schedule.
I will separate the following recommendations for knowing or not reading Mandarin:
- Yes, I can read Mandarin!Congratulations, your job will be a little easier here. Most bus stations post their schedule on the wall or have an LED board with a list of destinations and departures for each city. Sometimes they are translated into English, but usually not. Since you can read Mandarin, I assume you can also write/type. In this case, I had moderate success searching for "[city] to [city] bus schedule" in Mandarin on baidu.com. The results aren't always up to date, but at least you'll have a general idea of when the bus should leave and how much it should cost.
- No, I can't read Mandarin. Okay, no big deal really. As I mentioned in the previous chapter, you can always check wellChinese travel guidefor the bus timetable, although you should check that the book is the latest edition. Other options include using aChinese voice translator appor just ask the people at the bus counter, who often know how to show you the departure time and the ticket price on their computer screen. Alternatively, maybe your hotel or guesthouse can give you some good information.
How to buy bus tickets in China
Since buying bus tickets online in China has not yet become an option, there are only two options left. You can buy the ticket at the bus station or (perhaps) have an agent do it for you.
China is now working on a "real name ticket system". This means that you must have an official form of identification (your passport) in order to buy bus tickets. Once you buy a ticket, you cannot transfer it to anyone else without returning it and buying a new one.
Standing in line at a Chinese bus station is not my favorite activity in the world. It's usually not as bad as, say, standing in line at a train station.
I usually come on the day of departure, stand in line and buy a ticket. You'll want to prepare cash for your purchases as bank cards are generally not accepted. They will accept WeChat and Alipay, so if you haveSetting up WeChat on your phoneyou can also pay with this.
Hostels used to offer a ticket-buying service for guests (I don't know how many still do). You have to provide a photocopy of your passport and they charge a fee, but at least you don't have to wait in line.
China Bus: Frequently Asked Questions
I have tried to provide as much information as possible in the above chapter. However, I always get questions that I want to answer in detail here.
What can you take on the bus?
The beauty of a Chinese bus is that you can take almost anything you want. People bring bicycles, overweight suitcases, instruments... whatever. There is no official weight limit, so anything that fits easily in the bottom opening is usually allowed.
What is forbidden to bring on the bus?
Like any other means of transportation in China, there are still some things that you cannot take with you through the bus terminal security checkpoint. This includes: knives, bottles with any type of liquid, fuel canisters (used forcamping andin China), lighters, etc. For drinks, you can buy water and juice in shops inside the bus station.
Are you allowed to smoke on the bus in China?
Although it is officially banned, unfortunately I have seen many passengers and even bus drivers smoking on the bus in China. Most people wait for a rest stop to get their cigarettes, but this is not always the case. If you don't like smoking, it's not rude to ask the smoker next to you to put out the cigarette. Be bald! You are a foreigner and you can get away with it.
Are there sockets on the bus in China?
Not. I wish there was one, but I have yet to see a bus with a seat or berth with electrical outlets.
Can I get off anywhere on the bus route?
Yes you can. Just tell the driver exactly where you want to get off. Whether it's a village or a certain roadside spot, they'll stop to let you out.
Do buses take over transportation in China?
Yes, they are. If you are halfway there, you can stand on the side of the road and try to stop the bus. They don't stop if they're full, but if they do, tell them where you're going and get in. You will need to pay the driver directly and they are usually very good at offering a fair fare.
Bus tips from an experienced Chinese traveller
Over many years of bus travel in China, I've learned a few quick tips. I believe they can be of use to you or even save you money. We hope you find it useful!
- Take the night bus: Do you want to save some money? Take the night bus to save money on the hotel. It won't be so comfortable to sleep, but you'll manage, I promise.
- take your food: bus stops can be sparse at best. Food options are limited, and simple restaurants are often a recipe for disaster. Stock up on food before you leave to make sure you can survive on what you have in your own bag.
- Keep valuables on top: While I definitely recommend storing your luggage in the lower compartments, make sure you have all your valuables with you on your seat. I know some people who have had items stolen from the sections below.
- bring your own light: This tip is for night buses. Sometimes you'll have reading light, but often you won't.
Enjoy your Chinese bus adventure!
I hope you are encouraged to try buses in China after reading this guide to bus driving in China in 2023. I really enjoyed the experience and adventure of riding a bus through the beautiful scenery of China. I hope you get a chance to do the same!
If you have any questions, let me know in the comments below. If this guide was helpful, please share it on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or any other social media platform.
Please note that if you would like to download a PDF version of this China Bus Travel Guide and keep it with you, please enter your email address below. I'll send it to you right away.
Don't have time to read this bus guide?
I will be happy to send a copy of The Ultimate China Bus Guide to your email address for you to read at your leisure!
Additional reading and sources
5 Creative Ways to Travel China on a Budget in 2020
5 Best China Travel Guide Books | 2023 edition
How to rent a phone in China | travel guide
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Train. Train travel is far and away the best way to get around China, for comfort, convenience and sustainability.