Traveling to China? Here are some tips from someone who travels there at least once a year. Whether you’re a noob or a veteran, this will give you food for thought as you plan your trip.

Ticket Prices

I try to aim to pay around 1000 USD for a round-trip economy ticket from the Midwest to either Shanghai or Beijing. The price will vary depending on the time of year, but that’s the anchor price I’m accustomed to paying.

I’ve been using Kayak, but recently I’ve found an ticket discount service Flystein. The premise is essentially you input your flight plans and they will try to find the lowest price by leveraging their years of experience in the airline industry. If you’ve already found acceptable ticket prices, they will try and beat the price (no fee unless they do). I haven’t used it yet, but will definitely try it out the next time I fly back because really, why not?

Jet Lag

I use a simple technique to minimize or outright eliminate jet lag. When traveling to China, I fly out in the morning, and typically don’t sleep the entire trip. It’s easy because it’s daytime to me. Once I arrive in China, it’s usually in the afternoon, and then it’s just trooping it out for a few more hours before the local sleep time. Just think of it as a late night out. On the trip back home, again I don’t sleep during the flight. For some reason this trip is always a lot harder to stay awake when deep into the flight, but my success is directly correlated to how much jet-lag I end up with. Usually I succumb to a couple hours of fitful sleep, which translates into just a day or two of noticeable jet lag (i.e. getting sleepy around 6 PM).

The Great Firewall of China

Due to China’s infamous firewall, you won’t be able to access sites like Google, Facebook, etc. The most common way to get around this is to use a VPN. This past visit I discovered a really nice free option, Betternet. My experience was primarily with their iOS app as I couldn’t get their browser extensions to work. This is great app and really impressed me considering I’ve really thought highly of the free VPNs I’ve tried to date. The UX is simple, clean, and intuitive. The only nitpick I had was sometimes the connection would hang, and I would need to restart the VPN connection. A minor annoyance since the interface made it really easy to do so. I did some quick performance tests once I got back home (see screenshots), but I was surprised by the results since I was able to browse the interwebz without any noticeable slowdown and even streaming apps like WatchESPN worked without a hitch.

China protips Direct speed test

Direct speed test

China protips Betternet speed test

Betternet speed test

These speed test results weren’t captured in China, but should give you a good idea of the difference in performance. Again I was quite surprised at how big the performance hit was considering how transparent it was in real-life usage.

Unfortunately since I couldn’t get their browser extensions to work and the OS X client was still “coming soon…“, I had to search for other options in order to browse via my MacBook Pro. After some admittedly cursory (but earnest) research, I arrived at Private Internet Access.

The first problem was I couldn’t download their client as it was blocked in China. The interesting part was their main site was perfectly accessible and only the download page mysteriously couldn’t be found. After digging through their support pages, I was able to configure the VPN manually via both L2TP and PPTP. If interested, just let me know in the comments and I’ll help you with configuring this on your Mac. The second problem the initial connectivity was very spotty. I’d have to retry, often multiple times before the VPN connection became established, with seemingly no pattern in how many attempts it took. Once I did get a VPN connection established however, it was very stable and worked seamlessly. I tested the connection speed and as you can see from the below screenshots, there is negligible performance overhead. The price was $39.99 for a year’s worth of service so it’ll be interesting to see how many times I actually use it.

Speedtest No VPN

Speedtest Privateinternetaccess

Unlocked iPhones and China’s LTE networks

My iPhone was still under contract so AT&T refused to unlock it. I ended up using a third-party SIM unlock service keys2iphone. Unlocking an iPhone 5s and 6 Plus for $39.99 each was a bit pricey, but ultimately worth it due to the convenience factor.

Unfortunately while I could use my iPhone in China with a China Mobile SIM, I couldn’t get LTE network speeds due to my particular iPhone model. I discovered after the fact that in order to get LTE in China, the phone has to support TD-LTE band 41. The AT&T model I have lack this support so I was stuck with Edge speeds (which was pretty much unusable). A list of iPhone models and their supported bands can be found at Apple’s website

As quick reference, these are the current iPhone 6 and 6S models that support TD-LTE band 41:

  • iPhone 6: A1586, A1589
  • iPhone 6 Plus: A1524, A1593
  • iPhone 6S: A1633, A1688, A1700
  • iPhone 6S Plus: A1634, A1687, A1699

It looks like all the new 6S models support TD-LTE 41 so hopefully this is the standard going forward.

Recommended Gear

At the end of every trip I have a little gear retrospective. Basically every time I thought to myself, “Shucks I wish I had a right now…” I would make a mental note to research and find the best-in-class solution. Without further adieu…

Battery packs and USB chargers

In China I often see people out and about with a battery pack (充电宝宝) tethered to their phone (I always wonder why they don’t just use a battery case). If you use your phone (or other USB-charged devices) with any regularity, you’ll definitely want to bring a portable battery pack – something like the Anker Astro E5 or a desktop USB charger like the SecuPower 50W USB charger When looking at battery packs, I always prefer ones with multiple outlets with output of 2A or higher (don’t be that guy trying to charge his iPad with a measly 500mA charger). I prefer desktop chargers because I can usually get a full day’s worth of use from one charge, and my main need is to charge multiple devices simultaneously. I own the aforementioned SecuPower and highly recommend it – small, light, and has 5 USB banks with 2.4A per port.

Travel Router

As frequent travelers know, some hotels will charge extra for wireless connectivity but you’ll find an ethernet cable in the room which is free to use. A combo battery pack / wireless router like the Hootoo Tripmate Titan is extremely handy to minimize the number of items you need to carry. A personal WPA2 secured router combined with a VPN gives me enough peace of mind for internet banking and such.

3 in 1 USB Cable

Speaking of minimizing your load, a 3 in 1 USB cable is useful if you have a heterogeneous collection of devices with different connector ports. Just note that while these types of cables work fine for charging, I’ve yet to find one that can also sync my Apple devices.

Clothing Recommendations

Ex-Officio makes the best boxers – the Give-N-Go Boxer. These are highly breathable, dry quickly, and apparently treated with a Microbe shield to “preserve freshness”. Forgetting all of that, these are the most comfortable boxers I’ve ever worn (and I’ve tried many in search of the holy grail). Another highly regarded underwear is the Calvin Klein Micro Modal trunks, which has 1000+ Amazon reviews and a 4.4 star average. While the micro modal fabric feels great on the skin (their micro modal PJ pants is probably the GOAT lounge-wear available), the Ex-Officio Give-N-Go boxer is still the overall better underwear and it’s not close. I don’t just wear these while traveling, but rather they are my primary boxer of choice. You’ll want to watch the price on Amazon as the price fluctuates a lot. Jump on it if the price drops below 20 USD.

Weather

If you’re planning on traveling to China during the summer months I highly recommend packing athletic gear like Under-Armour’s heat-gear (loose) or the equivalents from Nike, Adidas, etc. Southern China has ridiculous heat and humidity (70%+) while northern cities like Beijing are both hot and muggy. 85-105 degrees F paired with heavy smog is no joke.

If you’re visiting China during the winter months you’ll want to keep in mind most of the southern provinces don’t have indoor heat. Layering clothes is key to maintaining warmth and a base-layer of Merino wool (Minus33 Midweight crew) provides excellent versatility.

Final Words

I hope this post helps you plan your next trip. Next time I’ll dive into sight-seeing suggestions, dining tips and tricks, and navigating your way through Chinese culture.