My daughter has always felt tremendously comfortable in China and it’s one of her favorite places in the world to visit. Traveling to China with kids is a surprisingly easy thing to do if you’re prepared so I’ve compiled a list of tips to ensure that your family trip to China a smooth one.
1. Applying for a China Visa
I’ve read that, technically, kids are not eligible for a 10-year China visa. However, my daughter and her friends we traveled with recently were all issued 10-year China visas (despite the fact that their passports will expire well before then). Talk to a visa processing service. We have used CIBTvisas to process China and other visas for years. They’ll check to make sure your paperwork is filled out correctly and deliver the passports back quickly. It is far easier and worth the extra expense to avoid long lines at a nearby embassy.
2. Selfies with Others
In my experience, Chinese love kids. And, it’s rare that they see kids with these features. My daughter with her light skin, blue eyes and strawberry-blonde hair is often asked to be photographed selfies with other Chinese. People do tend to ask permission beforehand. I’ve never had a problem with it and neither has my daughter so we allow it and don’t find these incidents strange.
3. Bring Medication
When traveling to China with kids, I suggest bringing as much medication as you think you’ll need, if not more, just in case. I tend to always pack like Children’s Advil and Dramamine (grape flavor or orange flavor). As I do not read Chinese, pharmacy staff in major cities often don’t speak English and availability of a medication substitute is a tough to find, it is best to be prepared for the potential cold, fever, food poisoning or motion sickness, just in case.
4. Closed-Toe Shoes for Walking and Protection
We walk a lot in China and Hong Kong so comfortable shoes are a must. This usually means closed-toe shoes or sneakers, in our case. The other reason for closed-toe shoes is that they provide more protection from random puddles (they’re all over the place in any season) and debris on the street.
When sightseeing, blisters occur with even the most comfortable shoes. I always carry Compeed or similar blister plasters so that we’re not slowed down by shoes that hurt. The good news is that these are easy to find in local 7-11 stores in China but I find that a small pack in the handbag is best.
5. Slow and Censored Internet
The way to access Gmail, Netflix and other websites that might otherwise be blocked by the government is via a virtual private network otherwise known as a VPN. We use ExpressVPN when traveling in China. Accessing the internet through a virtual private network allows you to bypass “The Great Firewall.” You might be surprised by what is censored there. To give you an idea, I was totally unable to make a hotel reservation on a major brand’s website without a VPN.
I believe it is best to sign up and enable the VPN before arriving in China as not to run into any issues.I did accidentally forget to reinstall the VPN on my Mac before arriving to Beijing and managed to get it set up without issue through our hotel WiFi. My husband traveled in Western China where they have somehow figured out how to block VPNs so it’s possible that in places like Urumqi this may not work. However, I’ve used ExpressVPN with no problem in Beijing, Hangzhou, Chengdu and Shanghai recently.
Note also that internet speed is an issue in even the best hotels. Most of China is 2G or 3G which means that browsing the internet via mobile is also painfully slow. This means downloading apps, your kids favorite shows and looking up random answers to things can’t often be done on a whim.
See also: 10 Things to Do with Kids in Beijing
6. Food and Water
These days, there’s little need to worry about what kids will eat in China unless you’re in very rural parts of the country. Starbucks, Subway, KFC, McDonalds and even tons of fresh juice and smoothie chains are everywhere. Chinese-style noodles (plain and in soup), rice and stir-fried vegetables are common should you need to alter an order at a restaurant.
If you are doing the latter and do not speak the language, ask your concierge to write down preferences in Chinese. It is also wise to have your concierge write down in Chinese what your child’s food allergies are, if applicable. For example, peanut oil is commonly used in Chinese dishes.
Tap water throughout China (with perhaps the exception of a nice hotel) is not drinkable. You’ll need to carry bottled water.
Air quality is an issue in major Chinese cities and areas near factories. I take a look at this online air quality index to get a feel for how pollution is on a particular day in addition to the weekly forecast. This site indexes major cities in China (in addition to others around the world). I’ve been in China when the air quality is so poor that I could feel it in my lungs when stepping outside. However, I did not notice at all on our most recent trip despite the index registering the air as unhealthy. As an aside, the air quality in downtown Los Angeles can register as high as Beijing.
If you’re worried about air pollution in China, take some masks but be sure that you are getting the ones that filter particulate matter. The air quality index above has a helpful description of various masks. I can tell you that when pollution is severe that it will be difficult to buy these masks in China. There are things to do in China with kids indoors on the days that weather or air quality isn’t cooperating such as themed restaurants, museums, aquariums (we enjoy the Shanghai Aquarium) and more.
8. Swimming Pool Etiquette
If your hotel has a swimming pool, be sure to put your child’s hair in a ponytail or bun. It is customary, actually, to wear a swimming cap as it is considered a bit more hygienic to keep ones hair from shedding in a pool where others swim. If your child isn’t used to this, I suggest mentioning it as an aside while packing just so that it isn’t a surprise that they’ll need to swim with hair up.
9. Cell Phone Ban on Flights
If taking a domestic flight within China or when departing from China to another country, note that it is a regulation that you can’t use a device that emits radio waves at all while inflight, not even in airplane mode. I first heard that this cell phone ban applied only to Chinese airlines (regardless of whether they depart from China or internationally) but I can tell you that this rule was announced on my Japan Airlines flight from Beijing to Tokyo.
This means you can’t use your smartphone to listen to music or watch movies. You will be asked to shut it off and put it away if they catch you. iPads, for whatever reason, are fine to use. So, if you were planning on your kids watching a movie on your or their phone, forget about it. Bring a tablet. I read that this regulation may be lifted soon but as of this writing it’s in full effect.
See also: Things to Do in Shanghai with Kids
10. Crazy Taxis
Most standard Chinese taxis do not have usable seat belts in the back seat and drivers navigate roads like they’re in a Fast and Furious movie. As of this writing there is also no child restraint law in China. I’m not a fan of Chinese taxis, especially when traveling with kids, but they are a necessary evil. There are a few ways around taking a Chinese taxi though they are a bit more costly.
One option is to use a hotel car which can be done at a luxury hotel like The Ritz-Carlton, Beijing, Mandarin Oriental, Pudong or Four Seasons Shanghai at Pudong. Many luxury hotels in China also have house cars that can take you within a short distance of the hotel or a car service they can book on your behalf. This is an excellent option for those who would prefer a guaranteed seat belt.
Uber is not an option for those who aren’t China residents. Not only do you need to be able to read and type in Chinese, but you need a Chinese bank card to pay for your Uber. The car service we use is called Blacklane and it worked quite well in both Shanghai and Beijing (it was not available in Chengdu as of our last trip in April 2017). You’ll need to book a Blacklane car 90 minutes or more in advance and I recommend that you let the driver know in the notes section that you do not speak Mandarin/Cantonese or whatever the native language is in the region you’re visiting. They’ll have seat belts and pricing to and from the airport is usually less than a hotel car. If traveling in a group, you can book a minivan. I can tell you that it’s just a regular mini van and not the Mercedes vans that are available via the app in Europe but they’re still a good option at a reasonable price. Use promo code 1WVK908F on your first Blacklane ride and we’ll both save 20%.
11. Ticket Prices by Height Not Age
Tickets to China attractions are often priced by height versus age. This means that if a child is taller than 1.2 or 1.4 meters, they require an adult ticket (my daughter has needed an adult in China for some time now as she is a tall). Be sure to check what the height requirement is before buying admission to Shanghai Disneyland and elsewhere in advance.
12. Bathroom Issues
Most major attractions and hotels have Western toilets but squat toilets are far more common. These present some challenges when traveling in China with children who might not have long enough legs to straddle the in-ground toilet or the strength to squat for long. You may have to hold them and definitely will have to help them.
The floors of squat toilet bathrooms are often very unclean. It is wise to roll up pants and enter them without any other bags (there’s no place to hang them and it’s difficult to squat with bags draped on your shoulders). The floors of these bathrooms are often wet which make closed-toe shoes ideal for sightseeing outings. Public bathrooms in China also more often than not do not have toilet paper or soap so it is wise to bring your own (I carry both hand sanitizer and soap sheets).
13. Strollers and Restraints for Travel in China with Children
Cruising around a major shopping mall area or hotel with a stroller is completely fine but I would definitely recommend leaving it at the hotel if headed to historic attractions like the Great Wall of China or Forbidden City. Opt for a good carrier instead.
If your young child is a wanderer, consider a safety leash. In crowds such as those at major attractions like Shanghai Disneyland, it’s easy to lose sight of your kids. The Skip Hop Zoo leash backpack is one example of a not-so-leash-like option that keeps kids attached to you but they can carry necessities inside the small, animal-shaped backpack.