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When it comes to traveling in China, most tourist opt to either fly or hop on a train. The reasoning is quite simple: flying is fast and trains are cheap. There are times, however, when China’s massive, intercity bus system is your best (or only!) option. In these cases, you’ll want to understand how to travel by bus in China – and that’s where this traveler’s guide will come in handy!
Perhaps you’re traveling China on a budget and flights are too expensive or the train is too full. Maybe you’re heading to a place that isn’t serviced by an airport or train station.
Whatever the reason, if you plan to take a bus in China, this 2018 guide to China buses should provide everything you need to know before you travel. Since it has ended up being a relatively long guide, I’ve divided this into multiple “chapters” to help make it easy to digest or you can download the PDF version below as well:
Pros and Cons of Taking a Bus in China
There are a number of reasons why you might want to take a bus in China…as well as a few reasons you would potentially want to avoid it. Over the decade, I’ve seen my fair share of both while traveling on a Chinese bus.
Let’s start by breaking down a few of the reasons that a bus is a good option for tourists:
Frequency: Chinese buses often run at a higher frequency than flights in China or trains. Most of the time you don’t have to worry about booking in advance because there will be a bus between two cities that runs at least once every hour, if not more.
Convenience: Compared to Chinese airports and train stations, security at a bus station is a breeze. I rarely arrive at a bus station any earlier than 30 minutes before my departure and I still end up waiting for 15 minutes.
Station Location: Most of the time, Chinese bus stations are located in the heart of a city as opposed to airports and train stations which are usually on the edge of town. This can not only save you time, it also saves you the expense of a taxi into town.
Availability: I have never bought a bus ticket earlier than a day in advance and often I buy it on the day of departure. Unlike flights and trains in China, bus tickets tend to have more availability, giving you the flexibility to change your itinerary at a moment’s notice.
That’s what makes China bus travel good. Here’s a bit of what I don’t like about China bus travel:
Unreliable Comfort: Sometimes you get a relatively new bus but often you’ll find yourself riding a vehicle that has seen a couple decades worth of use. It’s a gamble you take and sometimes it can be quite uncomfortable.
Unreliable Delays: Unexpected delays are possible (or in China, rather probable) no matter what form of transportation you decide to take. Unlike planes and trains, buses usually leave right on time. The difficulty comes with the unpredictability of the roads. I have been stuck in horrendous city traffic for hours, my bus has been stopped on the highway for a security checkpoint, my bus has broken down and I’ve run into road construction delays. It sucks but there’s nothing you can do about it.
A Different Kind of Traveler: Buses are the poor man’s transportation, there’s just no way around it. Don’t get me wrong, the people are great, but since it’s not a high-profile means of transportation the rules don’t always get enforced. Smoking is a great example: it’s not uncommon to see people smoking on a bus despite numerous signs saying it is forbidden. I’ve also seen a man walk onto a bus carrying a car windshield. I’m not even kidding. His seat mate was miserable during the entire ride! These kind of things technically aren’t permitted but the rules are much more relaxed on Chinese buses.
Hopefully I haven’t discouraged you from attempting to take a bus in China, I just want to make sure you have a dose of reality. There are plenty of good reasons to take a bus in China – and I hope you do! – but make sure you set your expectations before buying your ticket.
A Peek Inside a Chinese Bus
If you’ve never had a chance to look inside a Chinese bus and you’re afraid about what you’re getting into, allow me to walk you through the average bus.
Generally speaking, there are two basic kinds of buses in China: the seated bus and the sleeper bus.
Seated Bus: the seated bus is exactly what it sounds like. There are usually two sets of two seats with a middle aisle and all the seats facing toward the front of the bus. As a tall guy, I’ve never had a complaint about the leg room in a Chinese bus but the seats can be somewhat narrow.
Most buses have an entertainment system that will play Chinese movies throughout the duration of the journey and most buses have an air-conditioning and heating system (though not all). Your seat will recline slightly but don’t expect a great sleeping position. A few seated buses have a bathroom but often they won’t be available for use (or you won’t want to use them anyway).
All seats in a seated bus are priced equally and are sold on a first-come-first-serve basis. Prices are fixed.
Sleeper Bus: A sleeper bus is different in that travelers each have a bed instead of a seat. There are usually three rows of beds with two aisles in between and a bathroom toward the back (which again, may or may not be available for use). There is a top and bottom bed the entire length of the bus.
Anybody whose height exceeds 5’8″ will have trouble fitting onto one of these beds, as I do. I don’t have the option to hang my feet over the edge since that is somebody else’s bed so I end up having to scrunch up a little.
These buses also usually have an entertainment system, A/C and heating, although it all depends on the age of the bus you’re riding.
Beds are priced higher for the top bunk than the bottom bunk in a sleeper bus.
Getting to a Chinese Bus Station
To the unseasoned China traveler, it seems simple enough to find a bus station, right? Just look up the word for “bus station” in your handy Mandarin phrasebook and tell the taxi driver. Boom! You’re done
Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy. With the exception of small towns, most cities in China have a number of different bus stations scattered around. One may be a “long distance bus station” while the other is an “International Bus Station.” Often, bus stations are categorized by which direction their buses head (north, south, east or west). Others by which specific city or region they service.
The bottom line is that the word “bus station” just doesn’t cut it. You need to know exactly which bus station you want to go to. How do you do this? Here are a couple ways:
Travel Guide Books: Often, the best China travel guide books will give details on which bus stations go to which cities.
Ask Your Hotel: Chances are they won’t know off-hand, but they’ll be able to ask the appropriate people and then write down the name of the bus station on a piece of paper that you can hand your China taxi driver (read more on how to take a taxi in China).
Ask Your Taxi Driver: Don’t just tell the taxi driver to head to a bus station, tell him specifically which city you’re taking a bus to. In many cases, a taxi driver will know where you should go.
How to Find the Bus Schedule in China
Since buying tickets online for a bus in China has not yet become an option, you’re left with only two options. You can buy a ticket at the bus station or (maybe) have a proxy do it for you.
China now runs on a “real-name ticket system.” This means that you have to have an official form of ID (your passport) in order to purchase bus tickets. Once your ticket is bought, you can’t transfer this ticket to anybody else without returning it and buying a new one.
Standing in line at a Chinese bus station isn’t my favorite activity in the world. It’s usually not as bad as, say, standing in line at a train station though. Most of the time I arrive on my day of departure, stand in line and purchase a ticket. You’ll want to have cash ready for the purchase since bank cards usually aren’t accepted. They will accept WeChat and Alipay, though, so if you have WeChat setup on your phone you can pay using this as well.
It used to be that hostels would offer a ticket purchasing service for guests (I’m not sure how many still offer this). You would need to provide a photocopy of your passport and they’ll charge you a fee, but at least you don’t have to stand in line yourself.