Where can I book China train tickets?
Q: What are the most reliable sites that offer the most competitive rates to book train tickets in China? Also which are the official sites of the railways? Is it cheaper traveling by train than flying budget air lines?
Update on 010715:
There has been notable improvement in online purchase of train tickets in China since we last wrote about the subject. One important change is the extension of advance-sales period from 14 days to 60. This has made it easier for travelers to plan their trips, especially foreign travelers who need to have clear ideas about their itineraries in China. The extended advance sales period also made it possible for travel agencies to help their customers purchase train tickets because now there is enough turn-around time.
For foreign travelers, this is especially important. There is an official web site where train tickets are sold and many native Chinese travelers are getting their train tickets. The process, however, is probably too complicated and unpredicatabe to foreign travelers, what's with the language problem, the need for certification, and the use of personal id's, etc. In view of this, some travel agencies are now getting into train ticket sales business to assist those travelers who cannot, or do not want to, deal with the hassle. If you go to one of those travel agencies, they'll purchase your train ticket, deliver the ticket to a place you designate. You pay a small fee for this service, 10 dollars or so.
The official train ticket site mentioned above is in Chinese language. If you're curious, you can take a look here: http://www.12306.cn/mormhweb/. 12306 is also a phone number; if you know Chinese language, you can give it a try.
Among online travel agencies that assist foreign travelers in purchasing train tickets are www.china-train-ticket.com and http://english.ctrip.com/trains/#ctm_ref=nb_tn_top. You can check them out to see if they fit your needs.
Currently, the purchase of tickets for trains in China cannot be done conveniently. This is due to a number of reasons. Generally, train tickets are sold only 10 days or so in advance, this is does not give much time to pre-trip planning. Also, for most train trips, fares are low and there is not much profit in train-ticket retailing. Finally, online payment is still a problem in China. As result, people either buy their tickets themselves or through a third party such as a travel agency or a hotel where they stay.
One of the larger travel websites in China is ctrip.com. It offers information on train travel but does not provide ticket-purchase service (it does sell plane tickets and hotel rooms). The train schedule it provides, however, is in Chinese and does not seem to be part of its English presentation. The train schedule at the website, in Chinese, can be found here:
The English version of ctrip.com can be found here: http://english.ctrip.com/
There are other websites that offer train travel information. Again, they do not offer online booking service and they tend to be in Chinese. Here are three such Chinese websites:
These websites also advertise for agencies that provide train ticket purchasing service. "Huoche" is Chinese for train whereas "tielu" is Chinese for railway.
Railway is stated-owned in China, so the official website for Chinese railway is http://www.china-mor.gov.cn/. This website is no use to travelers, however, as it is mostly about the operation of the railways in China. An affiliated webiste that provides train schedules is http://www.shike.org.cn/. This website is in Chinese and does not offer online booking.
Off the internet, people purchase their tickets through a travel agency or a hotel, at train ticketing offices that can offen be found across a city, or at a railway station itself. If possible at all, try to avoid the railway station option, as it can be a rather hectic thing to do. Numerous travel agencies offer train ticket purchase service, but it is hard to say if they're reliable or not. For foreign travelers, working through their hotels seem to be a good way to have this done. Generally, the fee charged for a train ticket is in the range of 30-60 Chinese dollars.
Generally speaking, in China, it is cheaper to travel by train than by plane. A soft sleeper on a fast train may cost as much as a plane ticket, but in most cases, train is a more economical way to travel. For example, whereas a soft sleeper on a fast train from Beijing to Guangzhou costs about 700 Chinese dollars, a plane ticket between the same destinations costs about 1,000 RMB.
There is one notable difference between train tickets and plane tickets in China. Whereas prices of train tickets remain almost the same, there are often hefty discounts on airfares. This means that you plan right and book your plane tickets at the right time and right place, you can save a little or quite a bit, but this is not true with train tickets.