When it comes to traveling in China in 2018, most tourists 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!
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.
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 run 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 seatmate was miserable during the entire ride! These kinds 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.
Image Credit: Asia Adventures
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 are a top and bottom bed the entire length of the bus.
Image credit: Earthlooping
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 guidebooks 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.
- 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
In my opinion, the most confusing part about taking an intercity bus in China is figuring out the schedule. Unlike trains and airplanes, you can’t easily check schedules 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, China buses commonly depart once every twenty minutes, half-hour or hour. I’m making a major generalization here, I realize. I’m assuming you’re not wanting to go to some podunk village that isn’t on any map.
There are some cases where only a handful or even one or two buses depart each day. In this case, you’ll want to have an idea of the bus schedule. I’m going to separate the following recommendations by whether or not you can read Mandarin:
- Yes, I Can Read Mandarin! Congratulations, your job will be a bit easier here. Most bus stations either post their schedule on the wall or have an LED board that lists destinations and departures to each city. Sometimes they are translated into English but often they are not. Since you can read Mandarin, I assume you can also write/type as well. In this case, I’ve had moderate success looking up “[city] to [city] bus schedule” in Mandarin on baidu.com. The results aren’t always up-to-date, but you’ll at least get a general idea of when a bus should depart and how much it should cost.
- No, I Can’t Read Mandarin. That’s ok, it’s really not a big deal. As I mentioned in an above chapter, you can always check out a good China travel guidebook for bus schedules, although you should make sure that the book is the latest edition. Other options include just asking the people at the bus ticket counter who can often show you on a computer screen the times of departure and how much a ticket will cost. Alternatively, perhaps your hotel or hostel can give you some good information.
How to Buy Bus Tickets 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.
China Buses: Frequently Asked Questions
I’ve tried to provide as much information as I can in the above chapter. However, I consistently receive questions that I want to answer here in detail.
What can you take on a bus?
The beauty of the Chinese bus is that you can take almost anything you want. People take bicycles, overweight pieces of luggage, instruments…you name it. There isn’t an official weight limit so whatever can easily fit in the underneath hatch is usually permitted.
What are you prohibited from taking on a bus?
Like any other form of transportation in China, there are still some things that you can’t take with you through the security checkpoint of the bus station. This includes: knives, bottles of any kind of liquid, fuel canisters, lighters, etc. For drinks, you can buy water and sodas at shops inside the bus station.
Can you smoke on a China bus?
While officially prohibited, unfortunately, I’ve seen plenty of passengers and even bus drivers smoke on a China bus. Most people wait for a rest stop to pull out their cigarettes but that’s not always the case. If you don’t like smoking, it’s not impolite to ask the smoker next to you to put out their cigarette. Be bold! You’re a foreigner and you can get away with it.
Are there electrical outlets on a China bus?
No. I wish there were but I have yet to see a seated or a sleeper bus with electrical outlets.
Can I get off anywhere along the bus route?
Yes, you can. Just tell the driver exactly where you want to get off. Whether it’s a specific village or place along the road, they will stop to let you off.
Do buses pick up hitchhikers in China?
Yes, they do. If you’re out in the boondocks, you can stand on the side of the road and try to wave down a bus. They won’t stop if they’re full, but if they stop just tell them where you’re going on and hop on. You’ll have to pay the driver directly and they’re usually pretty good about giving a fair price for transport.
Bus Tips from a Seasoned China Traveler
Over the many years that I’ve taken buses all across China, there are a few quick tips I’ve learned. I believe they could be helpful to you or even save you money. Hopefully, you find them useful!
- Take the Night Bus: Want to save some money? Take the night sleeper bus to save yourself the money of a hotel. It won’t be as comfortable of a sleep but you’ll manage, I promise.
- Take Your Own Food: The rest stops for buses can be sketchy at best. Food options are limited and the hole-in-the-wall restaurants are usually 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 Up Top: While I definitely recommend you store your luggage in the lower storage compartments, make sure you have all your valuables with you at your seat. I’ve known a couple people who have had items stolen from the below compartments.
- Bring Your Own Light: This tip is for the overnight sleeper buses. Sometimes you’ll have a light to read by but many times you won’t.
Conclusion: Taking a Bus in China
That’s it! I hope you’ve been encouraged to give buses in China try after reading this 2018 guide to taking a bus in China. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the experience and adventure of taking a bus across China’s beautiful landscape. I hope you have the opportunity to do the same!