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Old May 22, 11, 3:52 am
Ambassador, China
Join Date: Oct 2007
Location: Beijing
Programs: TG, OZ, UA, AA
Posts: 6,622
Local Area Transport

Covered in this section are options for the independent traveler to get around a specific city area, including transport to/from airports. Methods, some of which may not be available in every location, include:

Airport shuttle buses and minibuses
Private Car
Light Rail
Local Bus
Tourist Experience (pedicab, electric cart)
Self-propelled (bicycle)

Airport Shuttles

If there is a Chinese airport without a shuttle bus, we have yet to find it. It is almost always the cheapest way to get from airport into town. Airport shuttle buses are often faster than taxis--no need to wait in line and the bus gets access to special lanes on critical roads and expressways and bypasses toll booth stops. For cities like Guangzhou, Lanzhou, or Xi'an, where the airport is significantly distant from the city, the price difference can be substantial.

The downside is that there will be a fixed route (or routes) which you must match your destination to the closest fit. There will be room for large luggage in the cargo bay below, but you will have to handle it after the bus drop point. Shuttles generally run at limited hours. In smaller airports with limited flights, the bus schedule will match up with departures and arrivals, and a smaller capacity vehicle may be used.. In large airports such as Beijing or Shanghai, buses will be full size, will leave continuously on a fixed schedule, and/or as soon as one fills up, usually from around 07:00 to 22:00, with limited route service until midnight or the last flight of the night is in.

For information on:
Beijing Airport Shuttle Bus service:
Shanghai Pudong Shuttle:
Shanghai Hongqiao Shuttle:
Guangzhou Airport Shuttle:
General List of Airports and Times for Shuttles vs Taxis:

Arriving/departing travelers in a party of 2-3 or more, or laden heavily with luggage, should probably stick with the door-to-door service a taxi provides.


In addition to getting to and from airport to city, taxis are generally the mainstay of the average foreign visitor’s local transport methods. By world standards, Chinese taxis are inexpensive and generally honest. Very few cabbies speak any English or other foreign language, even in the largest Chinese cities. Each city is responsible for regulating its own cab companies and for setting fares. Legal cabs in most major cities are metered, and provide receipts. One’s journey should always start with the cabbie engaging the flag and resetting the meter to base cost. In most cities, taxis gather at popular places (hotel areas, office buildings at rush hour, etc.) and they can also be hailed from the street as they cruise around. Taxi drivers are supposed to display their photo ID and taxi license on the front passenger side, if there are any serious complaints, you take down their license number and call the specified company complaint hotline (generally just a threat to do so will fix whatever driver behavior is troubling you).

Taxi fares vary a little between cities, with fares in the largest cities such as Beijing and Shanghai slightly more expensive than those in secondary cities. Flag fall will generally be between RMB 8 -12 for the first 3 km, with additional RMB at increments thereafter. There is a nominal waiting charge when sitting in traffic. There is usually a nominal night surcharge for journeys after 23:00. There are no extra charges for additional passengers or for luggage. Cabbies are allowed to charge the following extra in addition to the metered charge: official highway/expressway tolls (commonly RMB 5-10), fuel surcharge fee (currently RMB 1-2 in cities where this exists). Receipts are available for these upon request, the magic word is “fapiao.” As a benchmark, a 5 km, 20-minute daytime ride in average traffic in Beijing should cost around RMB 20.

Frequent major issues foreign travelers have with Chinese cabbies:
---Not being able to find an empty cab when you need one. This should be expected between 07:30-09:30 and 16:00-19:00 on weekdays, and anytime it rains or snows. Some cities or parts of cities are just difficult, period. Try the nearest hotel taxi queue (pretend you are a guest) if street hailing is unproductive.
--Not being able to communicate with the cab driver. Non-Chinese speakers should have their destination written in Chinese, and (very important) a phone number at the destination so the cabbie can call for directions if needed. All cabbies carry mobile phones. Most cabbies will at least know the major tourist sites for their city, though.

Minor issues that are not universal but do happen from time to time:
---Cabbies not wanting to use the meter but negotiating instead. This tends to be locational (culture common to the particular city) or situational (i.e. taxi mafias at certain airports like Shenyang).
---Taking the long way around to run up the meter. Sometimes this happens deliberately (Shanghai has a subset of cabbies that like to pull this trick), but other times it happens because the cabbie really doesn’t know where he’s going. Speakers of Chinese can help their case by learning the route and directing the cabbie along the way. Most cab drivers do not read maps nor navigate that way, so this is rarely a fruitful course of action.

Payment for cabs is RMB cash. Alternative payment cards, where introduced, have not been enthusiastically received by drivers. Carry plenty of small bills—try not to be caught with only RMB 100 notes for payment. No tipping. Chinese cabbies do not expect tips, it is not the culture, and they are baffled why you would give them free expect your exact change in return as a matter of course.

If you need a cab at a specific time (such as a very early morning departure for the airport), your hotel should be able to arrange this the day ahead to ensure your transport.

For local area daytrips, cab drivers are often willing to drive you around for a flat, negotiated fee, payable upon delivery to your final destination. Very common in the Beijing area for trips to the Great Wall (cabbie will wait while you are on the Wall). It helps to be (or enlist) a Chinese speaker to simplify the negotiation, and to have a local mobile number to communicate with the cabbie when not in the car. Dependent upon distance and exact location(s) desired, a 4 hour block might be in the RMB 350-400 range and a full 8-hour day around RMB 600-700. Experienced shrewd bargainers speaking Chinese might be able to do better.

Related Links:
Are Beijing taxis on strike or something?
Taxi to Beijing airport at 5 am on a Saturday
BJ taxi fuel surcharge increased two days ago
The Shanghai ground transportation data thread
Shanghai taxis with a toddler
Suzhou to Shanghai (PVG) taxi

Private Car with Driver

For those willing to spend the money, a private car can be extremely worthwhile, especially on days when visiting locations out of the central city (i.e. Great Wall outside Beijing) or when planning a lot of shopping and needing to transport purchases. It is also the method of choice when one or more of the traveling party has limited mobility or is easily fatigued. Besides cost, the main downside is needing to coordinate with the driver, who is unlikely to speak much English. (English-speaking drivers do exist but need to be specially requested, and come at a premium). For parties of 4 adults or larger, two cars will be needed, or better yet, a minivan. It is also possible to engage a larger vehicle for groups.

Prices vary depending on car size/quality and also method of booking--generally, through hotels will be the most expensive. The least expensive would be booking directly with the driver based on a personal recommendation. Somewhere in the middle are tour agents or vehicle + driver rental companies. At this writing, expect RMB 800-1000 per day (8-9 hours) for a full-size, late model car booked through a vehicle company. About 20% more for a 7 seater minivan, and above that for a small bus. This should include all tolls, fuel, and the driver looking after his own meals and personal needs during the journey. Drivers hired personally should be paid at conclusion of day and delivery to your final, agreed-upon drop point. Drivers booked through hotels and commercial vehicle hire companies may require upfront payment (and will normally take credit cards).

When using a private car and driver at sights that have multiple entrances and exits (i.e. Beijing Summer Palace), it is essential to have someone in the travel party carry a local Chinese mobile phone/number, and to get that of the driver, in case of misconnects or the need to communicate delays. It is helpful to speak rudimentary Chinese, but not absolutely essential if the plan is communicated upfront.

Related Links:
Beijing Drivers-Phone-Prices
Beijing car service - book off the web or at hotel
Hotel Car or Taxi from Beijing Airport
Shanghai in a Wheelchair, Questions?
Bus Rental in Shanghai or Beijing
PVG private transfers

Light Rail

A few Chinese cities have this method currently in operation for public transport--and usually it is connected to the subway system (if one exists) and/or general transportation system. Beijing’s Line 13 and Airport Express, and the Shanghai Maglev come to mind. Chongqing and Xiamen also each have a light rail line that connects the central city with some useful transportation and other nodes. Beijing's Line 13 is a suburban loop line—integrated with the subway system--that few casual travelers would have occasion to use. It can be valuable for transport to the northwest university district of Beijing and for those with business at suburban high-tech facilities beyond. Beijing’s Airport Express is significantly more useful, and cost for a ride is RMB 25 either direction. It generally makes the most sense for solo or pair travelers who can interconnect with its city connection points fairly seamlessly, and who are not traveling heavy with luggage. Information:

Shanghai’s controversial Maglev is priced expensively on a per km basis, is not particularly useful, but as the only commercially-functioning system of its type in the world, has a certain appeal just for the experience. Information:

Chongqing and Xiamen's light rail lines can be extremely useful for movement. Expect more of these to show up in the future in other cities, as local transportation infrastructure continues to develop.

Related Links:
Beijing Airport Express at night?
Maglev or Taxi at Shanghai?
Killing Transit Time at PVG - Ride Maglev?


A number of large Chinese cities have subway systems that range from simple (Tianjin, Nanjing) to extensive (Beijing, Shanghai). Subways can be a cheap and excellent way to get from point A to point B without wasting time in traffic. They can also be crowded at weekday morning and evening rush hours, as well as Saturday afternoon in shopping districts. Chinese subways are quite user-friendly for finding the proper station and purchasing tickets. System maps are posted, and all signage is in Chinese characters and English (pinyin) so non-Chinese speakers will be able to self-direct quite easily. Most subway lines in most cities run from approximately 06:00 to 23:00 daily, with some variations per line. For those interested, a list of cities with current and planned systems can be found on this website although the information may be slightly out of date. (For instance, some cities like Chengdu and Xi'an have their first line already in operation.)

Purchasing tickets can be done in two ways: automatic ticket dispensers and at staffed ticket windows. Some systems such as Beijing’s are flat rate (RMB 2) per ride regardless of distance and with unlimited transfers. Others, such as Shanghai’s are distance dependent and a typical ride in the most touristed area will be between RMB 3-5, transfers allowed. Single-use tickets can be purchased, as can stored-value cards which automatically deduct the appropriate amount after each entry/exit to the system. Stored value cards can be obtained at any station window for a nominal deposit fee (i.e. RMB 20), then add whatever additional travel money you wish. The additional money is non-refundable, but the deposit will be refunded when you hand in the card. Stored value cards have the advantage of avoiding ticket window/machine queues during busy periods...and we recommend them for travelers who will be using this form of transit extensively over a multiday period.

Subway Day passes: Have not yet caught on in China. Shanghai however, introduced a One-day pass during Shanghai Expo in 2010 and continues to make it available. Cost is RMB 18. It is good all-day, for one calendar day, throughout the subway system with unlimited transfers and no area restrictions. It must be purchased manually from the service desks (from an attendant) at subway stations and is not available from the automatic ticket dispensing machines. Useful if you plan to go on at least 3 segment rides, as it also saves you time queueing at ticket machines or customer service booths to repeatedly buy individual tickets. Visitors staying 3 or more days will probably find a non-time limited, stored-value card a better buy.

Two caveats: Transfers between subway lines are nearly always well-signed, but in rush hours, can be very crowded and also may require surprisingly long walks. Also, many if not most subway stations require negotiating various flights of stairs, particularly in the entrance (down) direction. Very few are truly accessible, so those burdened permanently or temporarily by mobility issues should reconsider using this method of local transport.

Local Bus (including trams and trolleys)

For getting to all locations in a city, local buses are hard to beat, coverage is much greater than any subway system, and there is always some night bus service after the subway is shut for the evening. Bus rides are generally cheap in most cities, with some types of buses RMB 1 or less, others distance-priced but rarely more than RMB 2-3 for a fairly long ride. You will either need exact change in RMB or use a stored-value card and swipe at the card reader as you enter the bus. In most cities, a stored-value card will work for both bus and subway public transport.

The biggest problem with Chinese local bus systems is that figuring out the routes is not easy for the non-Chinese reader. The placards at bus stops which detail the stops are not useful if you cannot read Chinese. There are few good resources available in English. For Beijing buses, try playing with but sometimes the best way is to just ask your hotel or hostel. For Shanghai buses, a comparable tool in English hasn’t been located yet, but some useful routes are listed at:

Buses can be crowded in rush hour but no worse than the subway. However, heavy traffic will slow buses down, even in cities like Beijing where there are designated bus-only traffic lanes on major roads. There are relatively few seats on buses, so much of the time you will be standing. Despite the drawbacks, they are one of the more reliable forms of transport when there are no empty taxis, when the weather is bad, or when you need to go somewhere not served by subway.

Buses can be particularly useful to get to suburban tourist sites at reasonable cost. Very popular tourist destinations may have special public buses running dedicated routes, especially during warm weather months (i.e. from Beijing to the Great Wall).

Tourist Experience

A relatively limited genre of local transportation such as pedicabs in the Beijing hutongs and other neighborhoods, or the electric tram carts used at Pingyao old city. For short rides in a well-defined small area, when you need to rest your feet or just want a different experience. If you are negotiating independently (i.e. not part of a prearranged tour), then be very clear with the driver on price. Write it down in RMB, get agreement, and keep the written paper in case there are disputes at the other end. Beijing has some rather sneaky pedicab drivers that like to verbally negotiate with the unwitting tourist, and then demand the number in USD not RMB, or per person, or similar nonsense. On a per km basis, expect this type of transport is fairly expensive—more so than a taxi. Once in a trip is generally enough for most visitors.

Self-Propelled (Bicycle)

Another often-overlooked mode for leisure travelers, bicycle transport for shorter or medium distances can be an interesting option for those of average or better fitness, in selected cities that are bike-friendly. Seeing the city (or parts of it) by bicycle is much more efficient than walking, yet lets you see much more up-close-and-personal than vehicular transport. When traffic is gridlocked and the bike lanes are stuffed with cars, you can take the high road (sidewalk) and keep on moving. Not to mention dart down alleys that cars can only dream of. The key to safety on major streets is to ride with the pack of your fellow cyclists, and do what they do. Cities that have dedicated bike lanes separated from auto traffic on many streets and/or that have a strong biking culture are the best bets. Highways are to be avoided.

Most cities have private shops that will rent bikes by the hour or by the day, and they may want a cash deposit (do not leave a passport), refundable when you return the bike. A few cities (i.e. Hangzhou) have an well-organized public bicycle system with kiosks throughout the city: you put a deposit on an electronic card, go to kiosk, unlock the bike electronically, ride around, drop it off at another kiosk and electronically lock it. Rinse and repeat. Return the card and get the balance of your money back. Very cheap on an hourly basis—a day’s transport Fall 2010 around Hangzhou city sights, plus the perimeter of West Lake ended up costing the whopping amount of RMB 2, plus calories lost along the way. Sometimes a mention to your hotel can produce a bicycle--especially in smaller cities and towns. The recent need for some personal wheels for an afternoon around Huangshan town (Tunxi) for sightseeing and misc errands/provision shopping produced a lovely bike in great shape courtesy of the hotel--an RMB 500 deposit but free for the using. Returned 4 hours later with missions accomplished (and yes, deposit refunded). Bicycles can be a very pleasant and inexpensive way to tour areas such as the villages adjacent to Lijiang, Yunnan.

Last edited by jiejie; Aug 23, 12 at 9:49 am Reason: updated information
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