China's biggest and longest national holiday is the Spring Festival or Chinese New Year (CNY), and it causes the biggest and longest annual period of transport stress anywhere in the world. In 2016 Chinese New Year's Day is on February 8.
People will try to get to their family reunions or their hometowns by Chinese New Year's Eve, and the Spring Festival celebrations last for a week or two. So the rush (known as 春运 Chunyun 'Spring Movement') starts from mid-January and finishes late in February (when people head back to the cities).
Vacations: Most people have the first three days of Chinese New Year off, and many get the whole New Year week off as company vacation. Some even take a two or three week vacation.
The Spring Festival transport stress season last about 40 days (about two weeks either side of the CNY break). Students and workers head home, often over long distances, to prepare for Chinese New Year. From the sixth day after Chinese New Year, Chinese start heading back to work: first office workers, then migrant laborers, then students and teachers.
Transportation into the country, around the country, and in the major cities and tourist destinations will be very crowded, so it is best to either avoid traveling during this time or get your tickets in advance.
If you plan to visit China during Chinese New Year period, or two weeks either side of it, it is best to try to get your tickets well in advance. Chinese living abroad and Chinese students at foreign universities try to get their tickets well in advance to return home during the holidays and university winter vacation periods.
China's major international airports are in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong.
If you land in Hong Kong, instead of taking flights between Hong Kong and mainland cities, it is much cheaper to take bus/taxi/subway to Shenzhen's Bao'an Airport or Guangzhou Baiyun Airport. You could take the MTR to the Luohu border, and then take the airport bus from the bus station at the borderto Baoan Airport. There are also direct ferries between Hong Kong's International Airport and Shenzhen's Baoan airport. See HK Transport...
This is the best CNY transport option, if you can afford it, which usually doesn't sell out, though incomes are rising in China.
For those planning to travel by rail around Chinese New Year, the pre-holiday ticket sales are expected to peak around early January. Major cities such as Guangzhou and Chengdu will use a real-name ticket selling system. Some cities will use a telephone booking system.
Internet ticket sales with automated ID card collection have boomed in the last two years. Foreigners still have to line up, for usually over an hour around CNY, and show passports at the ticket window to collect tickets... unless we deliver them.
As 12306.cn can be confusing, it is best for foreigners to buy tickets in advance from train station ticket windows or from us. There are touts trying to sell tickets to foreigners in the stations, but they often are scamming or selling the tickets for a lot more than the window price.
If possible, it is best to get a high-speed train ticket or a (soft) sleeper ticket on a regular train. The hard-seat compartments are very crowded and uncomfortable around CNY, and the no-seat tickets are a very uncomfortable choice, sometimes worse than a long-distance bus...
Cities that are an overnight journey apart are connected by overnight long-distance buses. This may be your last option if planes and trains are sold out, or too expensive.
Price and service: Most of these buses have (very narrow) bunk beds and no seats. Usually cheaper than hard-bed train tickets, they are less comfortable. Overnight regular seat buses are certainly cheaper, for those who can bear the hours of sitting. Foreigners are often overcharged for tickets (if not using an official ticket window). There are both "official" buses and private buses. Both may give good service, but be particularly careful of your belongings.
The experience: The buses may not be clean, and many foreigners have difficulty sleeping, particularly those who suffer from motion sickness or sensitivity to noise/smells, e.g. cigarette smoke. There are rarely bathrooms on the buses and toilet stops are well spaced out (3–4 hours). Usually at least one passenger will vomit, one will cough and spit, regularly, and one child will pee or poo, on the bus, hopefully in the plastic bag provided.
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