I had six months to prep for my trip to China. Six months of compiling lists of things I “needed” to take. We had friends send us lists, the internet had lists. Here is what I did and didn’t do, what I did and didn’t take, and my absolute favorite items I had with me.
VISA: You must have a visa to travel to China. While our tour group offered a group visa, good for 30 days, for $99 we opted to use a service and purchase a 10 year visa so if we decided we really liked China we could go back. I’m glad we chose that option. We used Passport/Visa Express. I filled out all the forms myself. I just googled “how to fill out a Chinese Visa Application” and found a page that walked me right through it. I also had Walgreens take my photo using their passport camera even though there are a million places online that show you how to do it. I’m a super paranoid rule-follower so I wanted to be sure I had no issues. The whole application process is not hard but pay attention to the details. I printed out my own UPS labels for shipping my packet to them and for the return packet, also saving some money. You have to send your passport with your visa application and that was nerve wracking for me but being able to track through UPS gave me peace of mind. Passport/Visa express texted me when they got my package and when they sent it back. The whole process took less than two weeks but I had allotted 6 just to be safe. The total cost was $99 for the processing fee and $140 for the 10 year visa. Total cost: $239
Travel Insurance: You never know what can happen and I didn’t want to put the burden on anyone at home to ship me home if I stepped in front of a scooter and got seriously injured. (which is legit possible, I’m amazed no one hit me, just goes to show they know what they are doing on those things). I paid $60 for 10 days of coverage which would have sufficiently covered me if I was hospitalized or had to have my carcass flown home. I didn’t pay much extra for my belongings or any souvenirs. I wasn’t planning on spending much and my personal items aren’t worth that much so I chose the bare minimum and just covered my health. I used Allianz Global Assistance.
Vaccinations: I opted to not do any vaccines. For the regions I was going to: Shanghai, Beijing, Wuxi, Suzhou and Hangzhou I decided my risk of Hep A or Typhoid was low. I’m a really picky eater so street food was ou,t as was any seafood. I didn’t pet any dogs on the street (its recommend to not) and I used hand sanitizer a lot. This is not professional advice, just my choice and my nurse daughter will tell you not to listen to me. So, there you go.
Phone/VPN: Ok, every hotel stated they had wifi but it was not good. Just like hotel wifi in the US, it’s sketchy at best. I caved and paid Verizon $10 a day for international service. This is not an option if you are long term traveling but for my 9 day trip it felt worth it. Being on the opposite side of the world from my babies (who are adults) was hard enough, I wanted to be able to communicate with them. In addition to the international service I had a VPN so I could text, use Instagram, use google maps, google translate (which was so helpful!). I used Nord VPN and it was FLAWLESS. I had very few issues connecting. In the future I’ll make sure my phone is unlocked and use a local SIM Card.
Money: So here is the situation. Some places only take cash, some places only take digital payment, some only take credit card so be prepared for any scenario. I got used to flashing whatever payment I intended to use before making any purchase or ordering. There was only one tea shop I couldn’t order anything in because they only took digital payment and without a Chinese bank account you can’t set up digital pay.
Prior to the trip I went to my bank (Chase) and got a couple hundred US dollars exchanged into Yuan. Bills cannot be crumpled or have ANY tears or businesses won’t accept them so make sure the bank gives you nice new looking bills. Make sure your US money is in good shape as well if you are going to exchange at your hotel. Again, they won’t take it if it is in poor shape. Speaking of which, many hotels have quit exchanging cash because China is so rapidly moving to digital payment systems. (far outpacing the US). I was able to get cash out of my bank account using my debit card at an ATM.
Apps: I used Global Converter to do the math on prices everywhere. I was amazed how many people were trying to do the math on a calculator when trying to haggle with a shop keeper (which is stressful enough!).
Google translate was really helpful to communicate with locals. In hotels and some restaurants there would be one or two people who at least spoke broken English (and sometimes great English) but I tried really hard to be respectful and either attempt the word or used my app to say them for me (I mostly did this). I would type or speak what I wanted into my phone and it would show or say it back in Chinese. This worked fairly well. There is also a camera feature which sometimes helped with menus but largely it wasn’t super helpful.
Google maps – a few times we took a taxi and there was 100% language barrier. I used this to pull up locations to show my taxi driver (making sure the address was in Chinese) and also to make sure we were being taken to our location. No issues.
Instagram: because hello, everything was so cool, I had to share in almost real time!
I deleted Facebook off my phone before the trip because it’s a massive battery hog.
External Battery packs: I took three but could have gotten by with two. My phone is almost two years old which means I have about 2 hours of battery life when taking pictures, and I take a lot.
Power strip and plug adapter: This was only my second international trip but last go around I blew up TWO “converters”. Converters are supposed to slow down the electrical current, so you don’t blow up your appliances (hair dryer, various irons (curling, straightening). I have not found that to work well. There are lots of articles on this, this one explains it really well: https://www.worldstandards.eu/electricity/information-for-travellers/
For this trip I took an adapter (allows you to plug into a different countries outlet, then you plug your American appliance into the adapter). Then I plugged a 6-outlet power strip with surge protector into the adapter. I was able to charge all of my battery packs, my phone and run my blow dryer all on the power strip. Worked for me.
Headphones: Headphones are an important part of any trip for me and having a splitter that allowed me to charge my phone while listening to music or watch movies on my phone was invaluable on a 15 hour flight. I used this one: https://www.belkin.com/us/p/P-F8J198/
Health and Wellness: Hand Sanitizer and bathroom wipes or toilet paper are important when traveling to China. Toilet paper, soap and paper towels exist in some bathrooms, but they are often not present at all. I carried all three items with me at all times.
I also packed: Elderberry Gummies (with probiotic), Emergen-C, zinc, iron, vitamin B. These are my basic “keep me healthy” vitamins I take when I travel anywhere. When I took a trip to Texas in late 2018 I didn’t follow this and got insanely sick. It’s worth the extra hassle for me. Additionally, for this trip we packed: ibuprofen (helpful after climbing the Great Wall!), Imodium (didn’t need it!), Pepto-Bismol (didn’t need it!), melatonin, cranberry tablets and anti-spasmodic. Ok. This was overkill but if I got a random UTI and had to be on a tour bus with no bathroom every day I would have been miserable. Paranoid over-packer here. I was so exhausted from the pace of our trip I didn’t need the melatonin until the flight home. The day of our return flight, I was deathly hungover after celebrating my 49th Birthday in the hotel bar with some of my fellow travelers and had to get up at 4:30 am for my flight. I popped that sucker as soon as I was in my seat and slept for the next 5 hours!
Nice to have:
Travel Pillow: I bought myself a really nice travel pillow for this trip. I have never had one but for 15 hours I figured it might be nice and it was. This is the one I purchased and what I like is its super soft but also is easy to inflate and deflate. I was able to adjust the fill level to make it super comfortable. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01LXW41D8/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_U_4PqMCb5DVJACR
Filtered Water Bottle: Between our tour company and the hotel providing bottled water I actually only used this a few times and I used it with water I boiled in my room. It was nice to have, and I wanted to use it more because I hate using bottled water, but I was so paranoid about the water situation I did drink mostly bottled water. I think long term it’ll be a good item to have as most airport water filling stations look pretty sketchy. I used this one: www.lifestraw.com
Travel Mug: I didn’t take this but normally travel with it and I missed it a lot. Great for grabbing that last cup of coffee for the road when you check out of the hotel: www.stojo.co
My favorite things: These socks. I have 5 pairs and wore them each twice for my 10 day trip. They are fantastic: www.bombas.com
Microfiber towel and washcloth: I need a towel for my hair and one for my body and I like to have multiple washcloths. Instead of having to ask the hotel to provide extras I just carry these from Wise Owl Outiftters: https://www.wiseowloutfitters.com/collections/featherlight-microfiber-camping-fitness-towel/products/copy-of-microfiber-camping-towel-xl?variant=46027883336
If you buy the larger towel you get a smaller towel free. It is great for washing my face at night. Both rinse out and dry overnight with a handy snap strap.
Pashmina: I have a yellow pashmina that’s big enough to wrap around my shoulders or cover me like a blanket. No matter the season its always in my bag, it’s so handy for air travel when I am often cold.
Large Duffel bag: You are going to buy more stuff than you think you will. Do yourself a favor and buy something similar to this now: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07FN2ZLYV/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_U_prSMCb8JYDS44
We ended up buying a bulky roller duffel at the market for $30.00 USD that I’ll probably never use again. With the bag above its small enough to throw in your suitcase and when you are flying home, just pack all your dirty laundry in it and save the space in your more robust suitcase for all of those souvenirs.
Snacks: I kept a stash of protein bars and trail mix on me most of the time. If my blood sugar drops I get cranky. This helped between meals especially when I didn’t have access to food I liked such as on the plane. I’m super picky. More on that in another post!
I have multiple small bags that I keep in my backpack when I travel. My technology bag with all my cables, battery packs and plugs. My vitamin bag that has the above-mentioned vitamins in baggies as well as wet wipes, band aids etc. I have one I keep a small stash of make up in, often when I travel I won’t wear make up on the plane and touch up when I land. A good moisturizer goes a long way when flying.
Personally, I hate using a purse and mostly just carry a back pack and go out with just my phone when traveling around, but for this trip I did buy this sling purse from E-Bags. It’s not the most fashionable thing and it screams tourist, but the sucker is very secure. I can see using this again when traveling places I might want my bigger camera or would be picking up souvenirs along the way, it held a lot of items!
These are the things CHINA security will have you remove from your carry-on luggage when you go through security: Camera, External Battery packs, Liquids, technology (laptop, tablets, phone), umbrella. The last one threw me and it was buried in the BOTTOM of my backpack. Also you don’t have to remove your shoes like in the states.
List of every little thing I carry for all my trips in my pack:
Lip Smackers – I have a problem and have 8 billion but I love them. Orange Crush is my fav for travel.
Lush Sikkim Girls solid perfume – great for a freshen up after a flight or for under the nose if you get seated next to someone not so fresh . .
Sharpies – what if you meet your true love on a flight or your favorite rock star is seated next to you in that cramped economy class and you want him to sign . . something.
Pens and notebook for taking down important travel notes or random thoughts
Selfie stick – yeah. I’ve never taken a decent selfie with one but I keep thinking someday it will come in handy but mostly it makes my face look like a potato
Hand sanitizer, sometimes you just can’t get to a washroom to wash your hands
Make up bag w/extra contacts
Listerine strips – stay fresh out there
Toothbrush and toothpaste
Collapsible travel mug
Water bottle (SS or LifeStraw depending on where I’m going)
Carabiner – I keep a few clipped to my bag, they come in handy!