Travel Tips | When not to travel in China

With the development of the middle-class and of the tourism industry, Chinese people have the financial means to discover their own country and nationwide government-sanctioned holidays are the only time for them to do so. At the moment, holiday system is fixed by the government.

There are currently six periods during which the entire country is on holiday. During this period of vacation, people take it to the shopping mall and touristic destinations across the country. Although an increasing number of Chinese travel abroad during their holiday time, hundreds of millions of people decide to explore their own country.

In this article, I will review the main Chinese holidays, their main consequences and what to do if you are in China during a holiday period.

Crowd of people in front of Guangzhou train station before Chinese New Year

Crowd of people in front of Guangzhou train station before Chinese New Year

Three major holiday periods

  • Labor day (劳动节)
    It is celebrated on May 1st. During this nation-wide holiday, everyone gets a couple of days off work.
  • National day (国庆节)
    October 1st celebrates the foundation of the People’s Republic of China by Mao Zedong in 1949. Everyone gets a few days off to celebrate the foundation of the People’s Republic. Avoid Beijing and Tian’an Men or be part of the celebration.
  • Chinese New Year or Spring Festival (春节)
    Dates vary yearly according to the Chinese lunar calendar. The largest temporary migration of history: hundreds of millions of students and migrant workers go back to their hometown to celebrate the Chinese New Year with their families.
    After the celebration of the Chinese New Year, hundreds of millions go sightseeing. Buying train, bus or plane tickets is a nightmare, finding accommodation can be difficult. Since the Chinese New Year always takes place during winter, freak snow storms across the country may make any travel endeavors more difficult, and even impossible.

    Crowded Dali, Yunnan and Fenghuang, Hunan

    Crowded Dali, Yunnan and Fenghuang, Hunan

Other Chinese holidays

  • Tomb-sweeping Festival (清明节)
    Usually celebrated in early April, everyone get two or three days off to go back to their hometown and tend to the grave of deceased family members. A lot of people travel around the country, during these few days.
  • Dragon Boat Festival (清明节)
    Celebrated early June, it is a one of two-day off festival during which you can watch dragon boat racing and eat zongzi (粽子), sticky-rice dumpling stuffed with meat and steamed in a banana leaf. Busy times in the cities.
  • Mid-autumn Festival (中秋节)
    The dates vary according to the moon. It is celebrated in mid September during the full moon. People offer each other moon cakes, the traditional Chinese pastry of the year. Again, just two or three days off for the entire country. Most people go shopping and to sites of interest near home.
Crowd of people in front of Guangzhou train station before Chinese New Year

Crowd of people heading to Guangzhou train station before Chinese New Year

What to expect during Chinese holidays

If you’re planing a trip to China and that you just discover you will arrive or be in China during the Labor Holiday, National day or Chinese New year, you should seriously consider postponing your departure to China.

If you are already are in China during these periods, be prepared to understand the meaning of the Chinese idiom “人山人海” which literally means ‘mountain of people, sea of people’.  Here is what to expect :

  • Significant hike in the price of your hotel room. Expect to pay at least two or three times the original price for hotel room. Even in the guesthouse of the most remote village, prices go up dramatically and this can significantly hurt your budget.
    Once, during the May Holiday, I thought that I found a safe heaven in the village of Haba in Yunnan. A room that costed 50 RMB was rented to me for 200 RMB and the place was packed with travelers.
  • A shortage of tickets (bus, train, airplane) and higher prices.
    The Spring Festival period is particularly bad: millions of migrant workers go back to their hometown to be with their families. If you know you will be on the go during these periods, plan well and buy your tickets in advance.
  • Place of interests are virtually inaccessible due to large crowds.
    Forget Tian’an Men Square, the Forbidden City, the Great Walls, the Terracota army, or any famous Chinese travel destination. You think you have found a quaint little village nobody never heard of, lost in a remote part of the country and that you will be able to wait it out? – Please share the information in the comment section below.

Crowds in Shanghai during the October HolidayCrowds in Shanghai during the October Holiday

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can I avoid crowds and high hotel room prices during the Chinese Holidays ?
    It is very difficult to avoid crowds and high hotel room prices during the Chinese Holidays, specially  during the Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) which is the absolute worst time to travel in China. Even in remote villages (if you remember my story of Haba in Yunnan), guesthouse prices will triple and there will be a lot of tourists.
  • What are the best ways to avoid crowds and  high hotel room prices during the Chinese Holidays ?

    1. You have Chinese friends in China who are ready to host your for free.
    2. You have decided to cross one of the following deserts : Taklamakan (Xinjiang), Qaidam (Qinghai) or Gobi (Inner – Mongolia).
    3. You speak fluent Chinese and know of a (free) home-stay in a beautiful remote village nobody has ever heard of (please share in the comment section below).
    4. You are an expat living in China and you have stocked up food and will stay home during the holiday.
    5. You have decided to fly out for the Chinese holidays and have bought your tickets 6 months in advance.

Crowds in Shanghai during the October Holiday, ChinaCrowds in Shanghai during the October Holiday

Beyond China

Wealthy Chinese people like to travel abroad. During state-sanctioned Chinese holiday, Southeast Asian destinations, including but not limited to Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, Maldives, Bali, and Pacific islands, will be packed with tourists. Europe and North American destinations are also very sought-after destinations. Waiting for the Chinese New Year to be over in Phuket or Chiang Mai may not be the best idea either.

Traveling in China during peak season

From experience, it is almost impossible to find uncrowded cheap places in China during holidays. As an expat, I was always leaving China during the Chinese New Year (the longest Chinese holiday period) and wait it out during the other holidays when traveling makes little sense.

If you have any tips, please feel free to share your insight in the comment section below.