As home to some of the longest metro systems in the world, China certainly takes its commitment to providing public transport seriously. Shanghai Metro is the longest thanks to its 400 mile length, but it’s the way to travel in other major cities and towns, including Beijing, Chengdu, and Xi’an.
The subway or metro system is used by locals and visitors, with the latter finding it an affordable way to access many parts of Chinese cities and see all each has to offer.
Generally taking the subway in China is the easiest, cleanest and most convenient way to travel. Subway trains are also safe, comfortable and cheap – meaning travellers from all walks of life can unlock many more benefits especially when compared with other public transport options such as taxis, bicycles, and buses.
Getting used to any public transportation in a big city can be challenging. To help you on your way and to make seeing China at its best simple, we’ve devised our top tips for travelling by subway.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Most Chinese subways provide handy signs throughout, which are conveniently written in both Chinese and English. Yet, even with this useful signage, many people who are unfamiliar with the subway system find it bewildering. You don’t have to struggle in silence however. Ask for directions from the station staff or a friendly local.
To make asking for help extra easy, write down your destination in both Chinese and English so you can ask for directions without having to say the name or getting Google Translate out!
Do purchase your tickets in advance
Many Chinese cities have introduced prepaid smart cards. Hong Kong, Beijing, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou are just a few places where smart cards can be purchased at low prices. You don’t need to provide your name or an ID number to purchase these smart cards. Simply buy them direct from the station’s ticket booths or machines to start your journey.
Smart card discounts and prices differ from city to city, but the card itself is refundable. Smart cards can also be used on local buses, so if you want to travel to a place or attraction that isn’t covered by the subway system, you can still get there affordably.
Don’t forget to plan your route
A sure-fire way to make your journey by subway seamless is to plan your route in advance. Subway maps are available for free from the station – or you can view maps online and download them before your trip. Many subway systems in China even offer a simplified version complete with all the top attractions.
Do keep your wits about you
Safety is an important consideration in any city, at home or away. Whilst China is relatively safe, crowded places like subways naturally attract pickpockets, who prey on locals and visitors.
Exercise caution at all times when travelling through China, particularly when using the subway. With this in mind, never carry your backpack on your back, instead hold or carry your bag at the front where you can see it.
If you have buttons or zips on your pockets, use them. Try not to carry all your cash with you if possible, or at least don’t keep it in the same place. Try not to carry any valuables (including your passport, money, and gadgets) in your backpack or bag where possible.
Don’t be too polite
There are a number of unspoken rules that relate to subway travel. Whilst Chinese subway systems, particularly the metro in Shanghai, are compared to the Tube in London in many respects, its etiquette differs vastly as this handy guide from Teach English in China explains:
“Unlike in London, where strict rules exist about standing or walking on the escalator, no such expectation appears in Shanghai. Metro stations tend to get extremely busy and with the majority of exiting passengers opting for the escalator, any kind of lift etiquette goes out the window. The same goes for getting on and off the train.”
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