For four years I’ve regularly found myself in China for long or short periods, and like anyone in China for study or work, I try to tour the country as much as possible.
Many times the biggest problem when planning travel in China is booking a train ticket, and not just because of the high number of people traveling back home or for a relaxing weekend, but also because of the ticket booking system that’s difficult for us foreigners (and I believe for the Chinese as well).
In the past I had to give up traveling (or pick secondary destinations), but I finally managed to discover a fantastic way that sometimes can get you a ticket that you’ve already passed on; this method is called Bupiao (补票).
Fewer people buy tickets at ticket counters or stores, both for the long lines, which as a foreigner you’re forced to do since you’re not able to use the automatic machine, as well as the growing number of platforms that offer ticket buying services. To learn which platform to use read our article about traveling China by train.
Besides the sites you’ll find in the article, a growing number of people choose Wechat and Zhifubao to buy train tickets; bear in mind that to buy tickets through these two platforms you’ll need to connect it to a Chinese card!
Buying tickets on Wechat and Zhifubao
If on one hand buying Wechat and Zhifubao has made the process easier, on the other it has made the buying process “less clear”.
Why? Sometimes all the buying options are marked with the characters 没票, which is “there are no tickets”, but by magically rechecking after a few days the tickets reappear. Or, for some unknown reason, different versions of Wechat use different ways to signal ticket availability: some with the characters 有票, which means “there are tickets”, others by inserting the number 21 or 99 in the space for tickets available.
Therefore, if in all the options you see the numbers 21 or 99 it means that there are still tickets, and not that there aren’t 21 or 99 (which in China will sell out in less than 5 minutes).
And if time is tight and you still see 没票? This is when you can use the Bupiao option.
What is Bupiao and how does it work?
The term Bupiao, which literally means “fix the ticket”, indicates the action of buying a ticket once you get on the train; the Chinese use it often but before putting it into practice I recommend that you carefully read how to avoid incurring a fine.
To get on a train without a ticket and buy it only once on board, there are two ways:
- The first method is by buying a Platform Ticket, which allows you to accompany a friend as far as the entrance to the train, where you can then buy a real ticket once you get on the train. Be careful about relying on this option since, starting with Guangzhou Station, all the major stations have slowly eliminated the Platform Ticket. There isn’t a list of stations where you can still buy one, but I’m sure that the majority of stations where high speed trains depart (Gaotie or Dongche) no longer sell the ticket;
- The second method is to buy a ticket to a closer destination and then once you get on the train buy the rest of the ticket. This happened when I had to get to Chongqing from Congjiang, the tickets were available from Congjiang to Guiyang while there were none left for Chongqing. So I booked a ticket for Guiyang for 84 Yuan, and then the rest of the ticket once I got on the train for the full price of a Congjiang-Chongqing ticket for 212 Yuan.
Chinese railway regulations say that you can use the Bupiao only if you buy the rest of the ticket within twenty minutes of getting on the train, otherwise you’ll have to add the cost of a fine to the cost of the Bupiao.
It’s your task to find the conductor and explain the situation. Considering that they will likely not speak English, if your level of Chinese isn’t sufficient, show him the two characters “补票”, so that he’ll understand what you want from him.
Keep in mind that the ticket that he will give you is “Wuzuo”, standing room, so resign yourself to spending the trip on your feet (or seated on the floor).