Traveling by train is a great way to see China and cover a lot of ground on a smaller budget. In our month in China we took six different trains with the majority of them being overnight trips. And while a great distance was traveled during our sleeping hours, many of our rides were still over 20 hours long.

Train tickets in China are not released until 20 days prior and it’s not possible to directly buy them online. Popular routes tend to sell out fast such as departures from Xi’An. We met a few people during our travels who, due to sold-out trains, couldn’t visit a city they wanted to or were forced to take a long, uncomfortable bus trip instead. Not wanting to risk such delays with our limited timeframe, we got busy planning our route well ahead of time… with some help.

Travel China Guide is an online travel agency based in Xi’An who helped us book the tickets we needed for this trip. A complete schedule of all the trains with departure/arrival times can be found and searched on their website. When they acknowledged our ticket requests, which were made several months prior to our travel dates, we had to pay the entire balance and were also charged an extra $10 USD fee per ticket. If we had purchased the tickets while in China, the fee would have only been 10 CNY ($1.60 USD) for each ticket. Wanting to play it safe, we paid the extra fee to ensure we’d get the tickets we wanted.

We submitted our requests early, but once the time came for the agency to purchase the tickets 20 days out, they couldn’t book all our first choices. This happened with a certain route from Zhangjiajie to Guilin where the soft sleepers we wanted were already booked out. Our travel agent worked diligently to find a second option for us and were quick at responding to our questions through email. Once all the tickets were officially confirmed, Travel China Guide mailed our tickets by express mail to our hostels in Shanghai and Xi’An. We emailed our hostels in advanced to let them know that mail was coming for us and picked up our tickets at the front desk when we checked in.

Everything went smoothly and we never had any problems using Travel China Guide. Other travelers liked to use their website just to look up the train schedules before purchasing the tickets themselves at train stations, showing the destinations and schedules they wanted. In those cases, waiting to book a few days out from their travel date was risky as there were times tickets sold out in advance.

As for the trains themselves, we mostly traveled in soft sleepers, which were four-person berths with a door. We also tried the hard sleeper, which didn’t mean the beds were hard, just that we shared the space with more beds and people–six total–and there was no door to the compartment. It sometimes was quite noisy since there was row after row of six bunk beds open into the hallway.

One thing we didn’t realize was that if we boarded a train in the middle of its route, we risked sleeping on beds that had already been used by previous passengers. This meant we sometimes arrived on the train with dirty, used sheets greeting us on our beds. So we recommend looking at the schedule and checking to see if the desired train route is starting in your city or elsewhere. If it starts in your city, then you know you’ll definitely have clean sheets.

It was fairly easy to travel by train and staff on board notified us when we were at our destination. When we first boarded a train, an attendant came by and exchanged our ticket for a card. Later, as we neared our destination, the attendant would return with our tickets–even in the dead of night–which would be inspected before exiting the station. This process provided a good cue to start preparing for arrival as the next stop would be ours.

The only exception to the overnight trains was our journey from Xi’An to Beijing which was on board a CHR high speed train that only took five hours. All in great comfort and a very clean carriage compared to our previous trips.

For six trains that covered thousands of miles across China, we spent a total of $450 USD per person. Traveling by plane would have more than doubled this cost. Traveling by train in China was easy and inexpensive. It also gave us an opportunity to see much of the country we traveled through and we wouldn’t have wanted to do it any other way.

Next stop: the Trans-Mongolian Railway!

About The Author

Britnee traveled around the world with her husband on a shoestring budget for a year. A few of her favorite destinations include Scotland's Isle of Skye, Chile's Torres del Paine, Bolivia's Salt Flats and Nepal's Annapurna Circuit.

3 Responses


    Train travel can sometimes encounter delays that make it even more fun, by adding true uniqueness to the entire travel experience.

    • Britnee Johnston

      I agree, it’s definitely a more unique and memorable experience. Plus, traveling by train also brought us closer to the locals compared to being on a tour bus.