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Hard Seat or Soft Seat? Chinese Train Tickets Demystified

Four weary passengers sleeping on the train in "hard seat" class in China.
On a Chinese train, “hard seat” class, at 7:13 am. Photo © Harald Groven, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Most major cities have a ticket window at the train station specifically for English speakers, and ticket offices will be scattered across the city but with little or no English spoken. Or, for a service fee, use a local travel agent or hotel ticket-reservation desk for greater convenience and fewer communication barriers, or an online train booking service. Biannual train booklets with intricately detailed timetables and ticket pricing can be purchased near the ticket windows at the station. No English versions are available yet, and the guide is complex, but if you can work your way through it, you can come up with all kinds of exciting travel plans. For a quick reference, enter your destination at www.chinatravelguide.com for information on the trains that cover your desired route.

Train tickets usually can’t be purchased by individuals more than three or four days ahead of your travel date. The exception is during key holiday seasons, when the tickets go on sale a few weeks ahead of time. These tickets are very hard to come by, however, since millions of Chinese will be crisscrossing the nation during the Chinese holidays to visit family and do touring of their own. The best way around these complications is to trust the purchase to a Chinese travel agent who can work their connections to obtain your tickets in advance. As for return tickets, most can’t be purchased until you reach your destination station (a stressful reality for anyone who has to get back to work in time), but as China’s train system becomes computerized, some round-trip tickets can now be purchased at major train stations.

Kids get a discount on train tickets based on their height. The littlest ones can share your bunk, saving money and giving parents peace of mind that their tiny tots won’t fall out of the bunk with the occasional jolts of the train. Compared to the discontent of being strapped into a plane seat, the freedom kids have on the train to walk around and climb on the bunks far outweighs the lack of good rest a parent may get being squeezed between their little snoozer and the edge of the skinny bunk. It was by far our favorite way to travel when our kids were little.

Hard Seat

If you value comfort and cleanliness, you’ll want to avoid the hard-seat section on all but the shortest train routes. Although dirt cheap (about $7 for a four-hour ride from Nanjing to Shanghai; only $1 for the 1-hour ride from Shanghai to Suzhou on an older train), hard-seat cars are often packed tight with travelers sitting shoulder to shoulder on upright benches that are supposed to fit just three. On longer rides the floor fills up with discarded shells of nuts and tea-boiled eggs, watermelon rinds, litter, green spatters of spittle, and an occasional wetness from a toddler clothed in the traditional open-bottomed pants. And don’t even think about using the hole-in-the-floor, handrail-on-the-wall, squat pot “toilets” after the first few minutes into your hard-seat journey. When the train jolts, the watery mess will splash from the floor up your pant leg. Hard-seat class is recommended for only three occasions—if you want to travel dirt cheap on a super-short trip, if you want to rub shoulders (literally) with the locals and experience the hardship of “real China,” or if you have your heart set on a trip and all the other tickets are sold out. Have fun—just don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Soft Seat, and First- and Second-Class Seats

Soft seat is a great improvement over hard seat. A ticket in this class will get you an assigned seat (no overbooking allowed) on a carpeted train car featuring lacy curtains, tablecloths, seat covers, air-conditioning, and clean bathrooms with choice of Western toilet or Eastern squat pot. Slightly more expensive than hard seat (in comparison, Shanghai to Nanjing runs $11-16 depending on the speed, around double the cost of hard seat but still cheap), this class offers a pleasant environment for you and your friends to sip tea and play cards while watching terraced hills and rice paddies pass by.

China’s new fleet of high-speed bullet trains offer first-class seats and second-class seats on high-speed trips that reduce the travel time dramatically while still keeping costs low. While it used to require a minimum of 12 hours to travel by train between Shanghai and Beijing, the bullet trains take as little as 5 hours. First-class seats on the Shanghai-Beijing route cost about $150; second-class are $90, and some trains have an additional VIP or business class with fully reclinable leather seats, wireless Internet and power outlets, and lots of personal space.

Hard Sleeper

For overnight journeys, hard sleeper is our favorite way to travel. Often consisting of six bunks in an open compartment that face a corridor with fold-down window seats, it’s the most social way to get around. Pricing is based on the bunk’s position. The highest bunk is the cheapest, offering little headroom but a good option for tall travelers who can stretch their feet out into the corridor without bothering anyone walking by. The bottom bunk is the most expensive due to its conveniences: under-bed storage, easy use of the mini-table and hot-water thermos, and a convenient place to sit during daylight hours. Unfortunately everyone else will also find your bottom bunk a nice place to sit, and you may long for the American ethos of personal space. Alternatively, many foreigners find the middle bunk the best option. With a middle bunk you can choose when to join your bunk-mates in a game of xiang qi (Chinese chess) and when to hide away comfortably on your bunk curled up with your iPad and your earbuds. Sample fare: Beijing in the north to Guangzhou in the south (22 hours, $75).

Soft Sleeper

If you cherish your privacy, a soft-sleeper ticket will buy your way into a two- or four-bunk compartment with locking door and the ability to control the lights, speakers, and vent. The newer trains also boast individual TV screens and outlets for laptop use. These comforts are reflected in the price, though, and for some destinations soft sleeper can be more expensive than flying, but keep in mind you are also saving the expense of a hotel night when you sleep on the train. Some trains even offer an additional option of “Luxury Soft Sleeper” bunks, which run about twice the price of standard soft sleeper. The most common soft-sleeper route is the Shanghai-Beijing express train, 15 hours for $82 or 12 hours for $115.

Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Living Abroad in China.