During the week of Chinese New Year, China makes U.S. shopping malls on Black Friday look like paragons of tranquility. Throughout this sacred national holiday week known as “Golden Week” – 1.3 billion Chinese citizens swarm their country’s cities, roads and resorts in epic proportions. Many visit relatives in the rural countryside or seek out national attractions.
There are currently two Golden Week holidays, the Spring Festival, also known as the Chinese New Year, which happens on January 31st this year, and National Day in October. During each Golden Week, Chinese citizens receive three paid vacation days that are strategically placed next to surrounding weekends so that workers can get up to seven consecutive days off.
The massive gridlock that blankets the country during each Golden Week makes travel impractical, if not downright impossible. And yet, it isn’t always avoidable. If you are traveling in China during the New Year, follow these tips to find peace in the chaos.
1. Plan Ahead and Make Reservations
Traffic is typically heaviest on the first and last days of a Golden Week, so if you have time, book your trip a week before or after the holiday, says Maeve Nolan, general manager of Backyard Travel, an international travel and tour company that services travelers in eight Asian countries, including China.
Since many restaurants and shops close up, it’s wise to call ahead of time. “Make sure that you speak with your hotel concierge or travel operator before heading to a [business] to ensure that it will be open,” says Nellie C. Connolly, director at the Beijing-based travel company WildChina.
2. Choose Your Destination Wisely
Consider booking a hotel in a big city like Beijing, Nolan suggests, since many people visit family in rural China, making the cities less congested. Resorts can also be extremely busy during national holidays in China, so it might be best to stay at a quieter choice, like a boutique hotel.
Business hotels are another option when choosing to travel in China. “Some of the most wonderful hotels have amazing deals because business comes to a standstill [during Spring Festival],” says Judith von Prockl, managing director of Gourmet On Tour Ltd., a U.K.-based tour operator that provides culinary tours in Shanghai.
3. Steer Clear of Trains and Buses
Visitors should avoid trains at all costs, Connolly says. “This is the major way for Chinese to move around the country, and as a result it will be nearly impossible to buy a train ticket,” she says. “If you are, by some bizarre miracle, able to buy a train ticket, it will be oversold and extremely crowded. The experience will be quite unpleasant.”
If possible, choose to travel by plane when you need to travel domestically in China. “Air travel is for now still out of reach for most [Chinese] budgets, so you should still be able to get a reasonably-priced airline ticket,” von Prockl says.
To pay for airline tickets or other travel-related costs, you can send yourself money ahead of time to be deposited into your bank account or to pick up in cash to help avoid transaction fees associated with foreign purchases on some personal credit cards.