Planning your travel to China can be daunting but don't let it be. And don't let anyone tell you otherwise - it is wonderful that you're thinking of coming to China. Come alone, come with your family, come on your own or with a group - just come. I don't think you'll regret a moment of it and it will be the trip of a lifetime. I'm here to help you make it simple with these easy steps to guide you in your China Travel Planning.
China is an enormous country with diverse options for travel. You can be as adventurous or "safe" as you want - in other words, you can get pretty far off the Western Tourist Travel Trail or you can stay right on it. There may be certain things you absolutely feel you must see, or other places you didn't even know were in China. A good way to get a feel for China is to browse my Destinations Guide. A good way to find out more about historic sites is to peruse the UNESCO Site list
Tour or Self-Guided? How Do You Want to See China?
It’s a big decision to go to China. You may find it’s an even bigger one to decide how you will travel. You may feel very comfortable traveling on your own or you may decide you want your hand held for the entire trip. Or you may want a bit of both. I am someone who prefers to travel on my own and mix in days with guides so I have my own opinions on traveling with groups. There are plenty of great tour operators out there so think about 1) your budget, 2) what you want to do on your trip (all historic sights vs culinary travel vs adventure travel) and find a tour operator that fits your requirements.
Decide When to Go to China
Going to a large country like China can take you to a number of different seasons or temperatures or altitudes depending on your trip. Research the weather, there are definitely better times and worse times to visit China in terms of temperature and national holidays (when there's a lot of domestic travel).
Before you even book your tickets, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got your passport and visa all in order. You’ll need a passport that is valid for at least six months at the time you apply for your visa and you’ll need it to have a few empty pages. The Chinese visa takes up an entire page. Obtaining the visa through the Chinese Embassy or Consulate in your area can take up to two weeks so you don’t want to leave this until the last minute.
Book Your Flights and Accomodation
If you’re flexible, check into fare sales on airlines traveling to and from China. Otherwise, in my experience, there’s no hard and fast rule on the cheapest time to travel to China. If you’re not going through a tour operator that is booking everything for you, consider booking the first few nights of accommodation before you go so that you’re sure of sleeping in a comfortable bed in those first jet-lagged days.
There are no required vaccinations for China but depending on what you’ll be doing and where you’ll be going, there are some that are recommended. Make sure you’ve got everything medically-related (e.g. prescription and OTC medications) that you need – don’t depend on purchasing anything abroad and bring your prescriptions with you.
Read up on all your Health and Medical Concerns.
Organize Your Money
Get acquainted with Chinese currency before you go and do a little budgeting. Also, figure out if you’d rather take traveler's checks (I don’t recommend them), cash (but be careful) or and ATM card for your cash needs. When traveling with an ATM card, find out from your bank if they charge an overseas withdrawal fee (yuck! Ask them to waive it for you since you’re a good customer) and find out the daily withdrawal limit.
If you’ll be traveling with small children who have specific needs like diapers and formula, do some research before you go and make sure you have everything you absolutely need but haven’t over-packed (e.g. you can get diapers in China!). Do some research on what they’d like to do so you have a good mix planned of adult-oriented touring mixed with kid-friendly stops.
You’ll probably be traveling for an extended period and you’ll be picking up a lot of treasures along the way. Really consider the best packing solutions for your trip and limit what you take so you’re not lugging a lot of unnecessary stuff with you and you have plenty of room to take back your hoard.
Read my Complete Packing Guide for all your China Travel packing needs.
I typically read about the country I'm visiting during my trip - so take this as a recommendation for before, during or after your trip. Enjoy my recommendations on books about China to get a feel for the country you're visiting.
Here is my recommended reading list.