Ever since immigrating to the US from China in the 90s, I have gone back to China on multiple occasions. This is the first time I am going back in the ages of smartphone and Alibaba, so things have definitely changed. Here are some things I have learned about the new world order in China as I prepare for my trip.
One of the first you need to get when you decide to travel to China is to obtain a visa from the Chinese consulate. Beginning in 2014, there is now a multi entry 10 year visa for US passport holders traveling to China! Why is that awesome beyond words? That means once a Visa in your hands, for the next 10 years, if you ever want to go to China, you don’t need to see the steps of the Chinese consulate! For those who have the misfortune of visiting a Chinese consulate to get a visa, you know what I mean. It make the DMV bureaucrats seems like world class operation. Of course, you can always cheat by paying a travel agent to do the leg work for you. With a 10 year visas, I only need to do that once, and you are set for the next 10 years. In the case that your passport expires before the Visa does, the Visa can be carried over to you new passport. And it costs the same $140 as a 90 day visa. While this is not related to any technological advance, but it ranks number one on my list of progress.
You can now book flights and hotels in China online, just like Expedia and Priceline! There are two main English friendly website for online booking, elong.net and ctrip.com. Both are publicly traded companies in China, which translates to mean they probably won’t run off with your money. While that may seem like a given for US travelers, such trustworthiness is a quality you should never take for granted when it comes to Chinese business. Both sites seem to offer similar functions such as hotel and flight booking for major airlines and hotels. I went with elong to book my domestic trip to Jinjiang, the nearest airport to Anxi with direct flights to/from Hong Kong.
eLong actually had a cheaper airfare for the same flight, and offered more flexibility in time than ctrip. As it happens, I booked my flight on eLong on Chinese New Year’s Eve, the biggest holiday of China. To my surprise, I got a response immediately (within 15 minutes) when I followed up in an email to confirm my booking. Now that’s world class customer service.
For hotels, I again shopped around to find a different booking website called agoda.com. Its big selling point seem to be this hotel voucher that you can print out to confirm your booking. It seems like a gimmick to assure customers that their hotel room will be there ready and waiting for them, but it worked on this slightly paranoid traveler. It’s also English friendly, and offered better rates than both eLong and ctrip for a local hotel near JinJiang airport.
Mobile phone and Internet access took me the longest to nail down. In fact, I didn’t really finalize my plan until the last day. Every time I have travelled to Asia in the past, my modi operandi is to bring an unlocked GSM dumb phone. I would buy a local SIM card when I get there, I can call home, albeit at a not so cheap rate. Lately, I also bring a smartphone in wifi only mode to take advantage of free wifi hotspots that are sprouting up everywhere. For this trip, I also looked into a mobile hotspot, because wouldn’t it be cool if I can have a wifi hotspot with me wherever I go, and not have to sneak into hotel lobbies or coffee shops pretending to be a customer? It turns out mobile hotspot are available thru China Mobile, one of the big three mobile operators in China. But its coverage in rural areas, which is where I am going, is spotty at best according to other netizens. The last thing I want is some unreliable internet connection when I needed it the most in podunk village. I was going to stick to my unlock dumb phone strategy until my brother-in-law tipped me off on AT&T’s international data roaming service call global passport. For a $30(or $60 for plus and $120 for premium) one time fee, you get
- unlimited text messages sent*
- 2/3/4g data service where available
- the privilege to pay $1 per min of calls, and
- never have to fuss with a SIM card
I got really excited about the texting features thinking I can just text back and forth with my wife in the states. Turns out that’s too good to be true. The service gives you unlimited outgoing texts, but incoming texts incur 50cent charge, each and every single time. Doesn’t matter if your monthly plan has text message allotment. On the bright side, the rates apply to international texts as well, so i can send texts to my friend in Hong Kong to my hearts content, as long as she doesn’t text me back. And if she does, it’s still “only” 50cent each. That could still be handy for when your bank requires you to enter a code send to you via text to login. Of course you shouldn’t be doing online banking when you are traveling anyway, but that’s a different topic for a different blog.
The basic plan gets you 120mb data, while plus nets 300mb, and premium is 600mb. The more expensive plans also have lower calling rates, but I am mostly interested in the data plan. 120mb not a lot of data, but I decided if I only use the data connection for Skype voice chat, which is roughly 2 min per mb, that would translate to about 240 minutes of talk time for $30, which is about $0.12 per min. And if I blend in some Skype text chats, which uses even less data than voice call, I could stretch that 120mb even further. If I go over the data limit, I would be charged $0.25 per mb of data. There’s also another feature that allows you access paid wifi hotspots (perhaps at airports and cafes) from 150 counties around the world, but I doubt the hotspot coverage includes rural China. You can sign up for this service online or via the myAT&T app, though i got errors in both those places, so I hit up the friendly live chat support to take care of that for me. (And I do mean friendly, since he was more than enthused about my trip to China, evident in his declaration that “I want to go to Tiananmen Square one day!”).
Now that I am all wired up, the only thing left to do is board the plane.