Tag Archives: Travel Tips

26 Things You Should Know Before Visiting China

As I am currently planning my second trip to China, I decided I should share a few things with you.  While some may seem incredibly obvious to the “seasoned” traveler  if you are a casual traveler taking your first trip to China this little guide might come in handy.  Some of this I didn’t know prior to my departure and I really wish I did, it would have caused a lot less stress.

I have also found there are lot of misconceptions when it comes to China so I am hoping this guide will help you be prepared when you go,  you will be taking an memorable vacation and even with the culture shock you will have an amazing time if you are prepared.

Unless you are visiting for 72 hours or less, you need a Chinese Visa.  

Whenever I mentioned that I was running out of time to get my visa paperwork, I find that people were shocked I needed to pre-arrange a visa.  I often forget that most of the bloggers I read are incredibly well traveled and visas often go without saying but the casual traveler who is planning a trip to China may not realize this.  I will write an entire article on the Chinese visa process but give yourself plenty of time and be prepared to pay a fair amount.  It costs $140 and if you are not lucky enough to live near an embassy expect to shell out more money, because it has to be HAND delivered by someone to the Chinese Consulate.


Sure I have my credit card but good luck using it in the small mom and pop hole in the wall restaurant you just found.    It is best to have cash on you.    While we are at it, no one is going to accept your USD or travelers checks.  I know in some countries specifically Caribbean & Central American countries may take the USD this is so not the case in China. Make sure you have plenty of yuan on you at all times and stop using travelers checks no one takes them anymore.  My typical rule is I get some currency from my bank (almost all banks will order foreign currency for you).  I typically always get enough to last two days more if I am going somewhere that will be hard to get to an ATM.

Let your bank know you are traveling. 

Pretty self explanatory.  🙂 Let your bank know so they don’t lock your card up in China, which by the way is impossible to get on the internet especially if you are trying to access an AMERICAN bank.

Don’t tip. 

Coming from America where it is pretty standard I always feel guilty not tipping but I had one bartender in China tell me it is almost insulting to tip.  So save that money.  This rule does not apply to tour guides.

Get to the Beijing airport about 4 hours early.

Why 4 hours?  Well first they won’t even let you check in and check your bags until 4 hours before the flight (at least in Beijing).  Second, you will go through SOOOOO much security it will take 2-3 hours to get through it all.   It is stressful and I can honestly say I have never been through so many check points at an airport.

Don’t check your electric toothbrush. 

The Chinese have a strict list of items that you are allowed to check, we had to go and hunt for our electric toothbrushes because we didn’t pay attention and they are very clear you will not have your bags when you get back home if you have something in your bag you shouldn’t.  In fact, two people didn’t have their bags when we arrived back in Texas so I feel that is likely true.

That being said, check your liquor. 

Think you are going to save money by buying miniatures for the plane.  Ha! The Chinese will take them from you and it will be a very sad day, you may get through one check point but you will not get through all 4 with the liquor.   This goes for water too.  I had to chug a liter of water before boarding the plane… it was water I bought at the gate too.  The Chinese are not playing with liquids on planes.

Don’t book a Great Wall Tour BEFORE you arrive in country. 

To be honest, if you are a budget traveler this goes for every country.  It is always 100% cheaper to book the big tourist things upon arrival vs prior to departure.  It is always cheaper.  We were going to have to spend $150 each for the exact tour we took while our cost in country was$50 for both.  Huge Savings.

It is polluted in Beijing 

Ok I knew this and honestly everyone might know this but when I arrived it was bright blue skies and honestly beautiful.   I thought pollution was just exaggerated. Then the infamous pollution moved in.  It is bad to the point your boogers will be black.  I am not kidding.  Sorry if that if is TMI but knowledge is power.  Luckily if you need one you can easily purchase a mask to help with breathing.

Bring toilet paper and sanitizer.

This is a common tip because the public bathrooms do not have  it.  Don’t make your life awkward just bring it.  Even the locals bring their own so don’t feel weird.

You will need to present your passport every where. 

Again, I never carry my passport I truly have a fear I will get robbed and I will loose my stamps (yes I am THAT girl) but if you want to get into any sort of attraction in China you will have to show it.  Don’t do what I did and wait for a hour to go to Tiananmen Square only to find out I needed my passport.   I am going to have a passport hideaway this trip so I don’t have to worry about loosing it.  Plus there are random check points in the subway, just have it on you.

Taxis are cheap, BUT not near tourist attractions. 

I always dread the taxi from the airport because I worry I am going to bust my budget before I even get started.  The taxi ride from PEK to the hotel was $13.00.     That being said when we were looking for a taxi to take us back to our hotel after touring the Forbidden City it was $40.00.   We walked a couple of blocks down and caught a taxi and the ride was about $4.50.   How do you know if you are getting scammed?  ALWAYS get in a taxi that uses the meter, never one that tells you the cost up front.

Be prepared to walk, a lot. 

I am so American.  I do not walk anywhere.  I drive to the store up the street.    I know the world doesn’t act this way but I am always shocked by how much walking I do when I travel.   Walking around Beijing is beast though, even if you use the subway you will do a ton of walking.   Wear appropriate footwear.

While on the subject of footwear, leave the flip flops behind.

Or you can do what I did and wear them and have every other person staring at your feet.  I am talking flat out staring with out shame for minutes at a time.  I am the girl that normally doesn’t let this sort of thing bother me, but it was really embarrassing.    It is considered very lower class/trashy to wear flip flops in public so just don’t do it.   Believe me millions live in Beijing and I am pretty sure millions stared at my feet.

Street food won’t kill you. 

I say this time and time again, I am not a foodie.  I am not someone that has to have the greatest “name the dish” here.  I am not a foodie at all and I am just not adventurous when it comes to food.    So every time the person I was with had a dish from the streets I waited to see if he died, he didn’t.  So  I started to venture out a bit and I am here still.  Try to venture out.  I am getting better with every trip but I need to take this advice myself.

Personal space does not exist in China. 

Next to people staring at my flip flopped feet this was the next thing that made me uncomfortable.   They have no issues getting within inches of you and being in your face.  I like my bubble but that bubble is popped in China.

The Great Firewall of China is real.

If you are wanting to get on social media invest in a good VPN, mine sucked and to be honest I am not even to bother for my one week trip coming up, I am going completely offline.    I will just post once I get back home, but if you are going for an extended period of time you might want to strongly consider researching all of your options.  There is no social media… no GOOGLE just be prepared.  I was a bit taken back when I tried to google map directions and couldn’t.   I knew I couldn’t get on facebook but google??? Yeah that was a valuable lesson.

Don’t expect everyone to know the English names of hotels or tourist attractions for that matter. 

I highly recommend you get directions to your hotel in Chinese and any attraction you want to visit in Chinese characters, with a Chinese character address.   I bought a book that had both the English and Chinese name of all the attractions. Linked below. I can’t tell you how many times I just pointed to the name in the book, and was pointed in the right direction

Beijing and Shanghai (Eyewitness Travel Guides)

Knowing how to play frogger could save your life.  

Crossing the streets is no joke and you will feel like you are playing a human version of frogger.  Even the dogs are street smart and look both ways before crossing, and you are not just dodging cars.  You are dodging all modes of transport that could come from any direction.

At least in Beijing it is safe to assume you will not eat dog. 

Not to sound culturally insensitive or anything but I feared I would eat dog and not know it so I googled how to avoid eating dog… well in Beijing it is pretty frowned upon and like wearing flip flops.  Trashy.     I can’t say this about other parts of China.

Yes you will have to use a squat toilet. 

Or hold it all day and go at the hotel.  I suppose that decision is up to you.

Don’t drink the  tap water. 

Again pretty self explanatory but just don’t drink it.  It is safe to brush teeth with though, at least I brushed my teeth with the water and I am still alive.

There are signs in English but that doesn’t mean English is really spoken. 

It wasn’t really easy to find people that spoke English so you really have to go with your gut on a lot of things.    That being said people will take every opportunity to practice their English with you.

You will get stared at.

Not just when you have flip flops on (ha) but if you have some unique quality.  If you are African you will get stopped, I witnessed this first hand.  If you are exceptionally tall you will get stared at.  If you have a unique trait you will get stared at.   Don’t be offended people are just curious.

The Chinese DO NOT queue.  I repeat they DO NOT queue

This can cause some conflict.  In fact, if you do not pay attention you will get line jumped many times.  Be aggressive and stay focused.    I am not saying sucker punch a person that line jumps you, just keep inching and moving forward because it is safe to assume people will be coming from all angles and you will get line jumped.    I am not telling you how to handle it I am just telling you it will happen and to not get too pissed over it.    Just expect it to happen be patient and remember you are in freaking China. Chill out.

Do remember things are different in China and DON’T listen to other people about China.  Make your own opinions. 

I have wanted to go to China for YEARS it was always the destination I dreamed about going to.  That being said whenever I brought it up to some people the first thing they would say “you are not going to like it there”   and I would immediately just shut down and not talk about places I wanted to go because who needs that negativity.

Well I finally went to china and guess what I FREAKING LOVED CHINA.

I LOVED China, to the point it is my second favorite country I have visited.  Yes it is polluted, it is chaotic, people spit and you have to use a squat toilet and you have no clue what the hell you are eating half the time BUT it has so much culture, it pushes you out of your comfort zone, the people are friendly and it is home of the freaking GREAT WALL and it is so easy to get mesmerized by this vast country.   You have to look past all the “reasons” you shouldn’t like China and find the ones that make this country remarkable.

Just don’t wear flip flops.









The Beijing Subway, it is easier than you think

We put using the subway off.  We should have started using the subway from day one, it would have saved us from walking miles and miles and miles.  Seriously, pretty positive we walked a marathon every single day 🙂

Anyway, we finally decided to take a chance and try the subway out and realized it is very user friendly and if we go back to Beijing we will certainly use it from day one.

For starters, everything is in English… so you don’t have to memorize characters. It is also color coded which is very easy to use.

All you do is get a card from the counter, put a 20 yuan deposit down, pay 20 Yuan and get to riding. SOOOOO easy. If you need to reload it, you just use the machine, click reload (yes they have English as an option)  and be on your way.

The only tip I can really recommend is that every major station has 4 points, one for each corner of the road. Make sure you know which on you need, it makes a huge difference.

Also make sure you have your passport on you, we went through a few security check points and had to show our passports.   I am not sure if this is a regular thing in Beijing but I can assure you we had to show our passports more than once while in China, so while I am an advocate for leaving your passport locked up and safe 90% of the time, China is a place where you should keep your passport on you.

Also rush hour is jammed, like the whole city of Beijing is on the subway I swear so make sure you are ready to face those crowds.

When I go back to China I will utilize the subway a lot because while I enjoyed walking around Beijing I ended up loosing a toe nail from all of the walking so next time I will use the subway, it is not hard.  I promise.

Oh one last thing, take a picture of your stop just you remember the name, I confused a lot of stops.  It was not a big deal as I obviously made it back every night but this will make your life much easier.

Have you used the Beijing subway?  What did you think?



Tips for staying with a host family

When I was going through my life list goals I noticed that I have never actually written about what it is like to stay with a host family abroad. I know when I get on the IVHQ forums one of the biggest concerns I read about is “What is it really like to stay with a host family?” I remember when I first set off to go to Guatemala the thought terrified me. I had so many concerns because staying with someone you do not know can be terrifying your first time believe me. Some of the questions I asked were…

Would I like them?
What if I don’t like the food?
What if I feel unsafe?
How the hell am I going to communicate with a language barrier?

Looking back I laugh at my concerns because I realize my concerns were seriously unfounded and when I volunteer abroad again I will always choose a host family.

If you are offered the option of a host family stay on a volunteer trip or vacation you should strongly consider if for many reasons.

1. It is immersion into a language and culture. One of the main reasons I still consider Guatemala my favorite country still to this day is because of my host family. I did not speak nearly as much Spanish as I do now but I was able to practice daily and I really did get to know the culture of a Guatemalan family. It was a beautiful thing and I can assure you that while traveling to a country may give you insight into a local culture, living with a local family will put you in the middle of it.

2. I was forced to try local food. Now it is absolutely no secret how I am not a foodie, when I travel I do not think about food. In fact, I am one of the most frustrating people to travel with because I am too busy trying to see every single sight I do not even think about food and simply will not eat. I will literally grab a bagel and hit the ground running and not stop. Seriously I am one of the lucky ones that will lose weight on a vacation. Anyway, I digress. Food in a foreign country is actually one of the most terrifying things to me, (TMI GROSS FACTOR COMING, I have gotten worms before, ewww I know but if you are not careful IT CAN and WILL happen) so believe me I get the concerns. I have found though home stays will often offer the freshest and most local dishes. Sure you can go to a restaurant and eat local food but going to a Central American restaurant in the states is vastly different than eating Central American food with a Central American family. Seriously, it is significantly fresher and well more authentic.

3. There is an additional safety factor. I am not going to lie to you, Antigua is not a city you go out after dusk alone. You do not do it. One night however, I lost track of time and was going to walk almost a mile home in the dark but thanks to my home stay it did not happen. I told my house mom that I would be home by dark and one night I wasn’t because I lost track of time and went to salsa classes. When she called the studio and found out I was there she drove to pick me up so I wouldn’t have to walk home at night. Now I am not saying this is something that will happen with your home stay, but living with a local will often give you added security because they know the reality of their city. They are often very proud of their city, but they get that it may not be safe.

4. You get families from all over the world. I am friends with my house momma on facebook. We are SO lucky to live in the age of facebook. Anyone you meet in the world you can say hey add me on facebook and you are friends and you can keep up with them. With the exception of a few countries just about everyone has access to the internet in some way and you will find they love keeping up with you too. They still invite me to stay with them today.

So those are just a few of the benefits of choosing a home stay when you volunteer or travel. Now let me give you a few tips for staying with a local family.

1. Practice their language. Now this one was hard for me at first. I often found myself gravitating towards the person that spoke the most English and having them translate for me. This was the easy way out, but then I learned that if I wanted to learn Spanish I was going to have to get over my self esteem and make mistakes when speaking the language. I did this with some serious embarrassing results, one time, I was trying to communicate that a dog was 14 years old… well I messed up the Spanish words and said the dog had 14 anuses. Everyone and I do mean everyone laughed so hard at that. I was embarrassed at first but then my house momma corrected the Spanish words and I now know how to say years in Spanish properly. SO dive in speak the local language make mistakes, you will find that even after a week you will easily speak 20-30 more words than you did upon arrival.

2. Bring something from your home area. Often you will find that your family is not as well traveled as you and will be very curious about your life in the United States. It is often easy to forget that while you live in the USA and know what day to day life is like, your host family doesn’t, they only know what they see on the news. I am from Texas and I tend to bring Texas Pralines and every time I do they are a hit. Mostly because the candy is very different and they have not had it before. It doesn’t have to be huge or expensive. I think I spend like $5 and I am a hit. If you don’t bring a gift buying something in a local market is a great idea. I bought blackberries once, because they were considered expensive to my local family so they never bought them, but to me they were a steal.

3. KEEP YOUR SPACE CLEAN. I put this in caps because it is so important. Now I am messy as hell and if my mom reads this she is going to laugh because my space is often a disaster at home. However, while I may be messy she did raise me to have some damn manners and respect others. So all I am going to say is, keep you space clean. Just like you take pride in your home, they take pride in theirs. Keep your space clean.

4. Be honest about your food habits. I have found that home stays are often SHOCKED at how little I eat and often if I don’t eat a lot they feel I don’t like the food and want to change my meals. Which is why I say be 100% honest about the food, if you can’t eat something let them know. Food is expensive in countries and it is more important to not waste it. Also be clear if you don’t eat a lot. I am someone that will eat more frequently throughout the day and it may take a few days but I have found that being clear about what I do like is better up front than wasting food. However, that being said it is important to understand you will likely not eat like you do at home. I have found that me just saying I really don’t eat a lot, so smaller portions with more carb heavy meals… ie rice and fruit works wonders and once that happens food is never wasted and they know I am happy.

5. Get to know your host family and do NOT lose touch. I can’t stress this enough ask questions in their language no matter how broken, find out their favorite color, what is their favorite holiday? Ask questions, communicate. When it is time to leave exchange emails or become facebook friends. I can’t stress this last tip enough. You will enjoy your stay in whatever country so much more if you get to know your family. They will be able to offer insight into the local area and even their favorite restaurants if you just communicate with them. Plus you will have a new family that you can talk about for years to come. Seriously I still talk about my home stays they had that big of an impact on me. Take pictures because if you don’t you might regret it.

Well that is all I have for tips on staying in a home stay. I hope if you are on the fence on whether to stay with a family or not this helps you decide to do it. I will never choose a hotel or any other option if I have the opportunity to stay with a house family.


Travel Thursday

There are a few things I am addicted to

1. Sweetarts


2. Sea Turtles

Photo Credit: National Georgraphic
Photo Credit: National Georgraphic

3. Traveling


So when I was trying to come up with ideas on what I can write about when i am not traveling it dawned on me that I should share my favorite travel related articles with you 🙂

Everyday I am looking for trip ideas, things I want to do, ways to make “extra” money to do what I want…. just anything travel related or to fund my travel obsession.

So today I figured I would share some of my favorite recent articles I stumbled across while surfing the internet for travel related articles

You might be a Travel addict if…

21 Signs You Are a Travel Addict by Katie Sorene

I read this article and found myself nodding away with each reason, I may not have a ton of passport stamps, but I know where she is coming from. I completely related to #s 1,4,6,7,10,11,12… You get my point

Before I turn 40….

40 Before 40

I am a list maker, lately I have had an obsession with 40 things to do before I turn 40 list… I am working on this list and I hope to debut my list soon, but I have been obsessed with what other people have said on theirs… this list was a fascinating one and needless to say forced me to add a few things onto my bucket list 🙂

Where I Should Have Gone…

52 places to Go in 2014

I read this when it came out earlier this year, but I stumbled across it when I was googling eco-travel in Ecuador. Also I am amazed to see Ethiopia on a must do list. Mostly because I remember seeing pictures of starving children when I was a child. While this country has a long way to go, it is nice to see Ethiopia on a list, plus African beaches are just beautiful…

If you want a last minute summer travel deal…

6 Places to Find End of Summer Travel Deals

In my office there are two reasons people come to me, they want advice on Disney or they want to know how to find last minute travel deals, we get a lot of PTO at my job and I am constantly amazed at how many people in my office have 25 or MORE days they have to use up in the last quarter of the year. Seriously my PTO is spoken for before the year even starts…

Slash those costs never pay full price…

Slash those costs

I am a huge budget traveler, I love finding cheaper travel options. I make very few dollars, so I need to stretch those dollars as far as I can. Most of these tips I knew, but I still think it is great to be refreshed… for example when I was looking to book my air to NYC… I checked all three airports. LGA was the cheapest, people often look just at JFK. Which is often the most expensive… just something to think about 🙂 Plus there is a reason why I say my favorite months to travel are Jan-March & Sept-Oct (also sorry I talk in airport code 🙂 )

Fundraising Volunteer Trips Abroad…

10 Ways to Fundraise

I am a huge advocate for volunteering abroad, it is way to get a glimpse into a culture that you don’t always see on the tourist trail. I won’t debate the “paying to volunteer” argument, because truly I see both sides, and I will say make sure you know where EVERY dollar you spend is going before you enter that credit card number… but some trips require $$$ and that may not be money you have. I am really hoping to volunteer with sea turtles soon, so I am always looking for ways to raise money. This article had some fantastic ideas.

This article gave me a great idea about hosting a Sri Lanka Dinner party, to raise money for a trip abroad to Sri Lanka. I just have to talk that over with “M” first. Sri Lanka has been on the very short list for quite some time, along with China and Peru. I also long to volunteer with sea turtles in Sri Lanka.

As this is typically the boring part of my year, this is when I spend more time reading, netflixing and just being plain bored so I can save for the following year’s trips. I am hoping to share more traveling tips with you in the coming weeks.  I will continue to share my favorite travel related articles with you, so if there is something you are interested in feel free to comment or email me!

Until Next Time,