Tips on Tipping, Taxis and Subways in China

China Survival Guide

China Survival Guide: Taxis and Subways and Tipping, Oh My!

Larry Herzberg and Qin Herzberg, a married couple, are professors of Chinese language and culture at Calvin College in Michigan. They travel to China every year, both with students and without, and have been featured travel experts on MSNBC and other outlets. Qin and Larry live in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and are also coauthors of the recently released “Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar: A Student’s Guide to Correct Structures and Common Errors” (Stone Bridge Press, 2011).

Below is an excerpt from China Survival Guide chapters about Taxis, Subways and tipping.

Having used the restroom, you retrieve your luggage from the very modern and up-to-date baggage carousel in the airport. You’ve been cleared through immigration and customs and you’re now ready to take a taxi into town.

This will be the first of many taxi rides you will probably take in China. As we’ll talk about later, many Chinese are just itching to take a foreigner, literally and figuratively, for “a ride.”

Taxis are everywhere.

There are around sixty thousand in Beijing alone and thirty or forty thousand in Shanghai. Taxis are also much cheaper than in America. Not only will you probably take a taxi from the airport to your hotel, but you will also probably be taking taxis to get around in the

There are plenty of public buses, but most are filled with locals packed in like sardines. It is a unique experience for most foreigners to be in a bus pressed in so tightly by other human bodies that you feel lifted off your feet. Most cities don’t have subway systems. The few subway systems that do exist in Beijing and Shanghai barely cover a fraction of the city. So cabs are generally the best way to get around.

You can hail a taxi on any well-traveled street in any Chinese city. In the busier places of cities like Shanghai we’ve stood on a street corner and counted as many as 30 taxis pass us in the space of exactly 60 seconds. In most places in China, taxis are always a bargain by Western standards.

In 2010 the cabs in Beijing all charge 10 yuan for the first three kilometers and 2 yuan for every subsequent kilometer, no more than elsewhere in China. All have air conditioning.

Just make sure the driver turns it on. He might be trying to save gas by leaving it off, and will just have the windows rolled down. This is commendable in that it helps conserve a precious natural resource and cuts down on pollution. Politely utter the magic words “kōng-tiáo” (pronounced “kung tee-ow”), or, “qǐng kāi lěng qì” (pronounced “ching kai lung chee,” or “please turn on the air-conditioning”), and the driver will usually oblige. Be sure to take down the number of your taxi, so you can report him if he “takes you for a ride” or if you leave something valuable in the cab that you need to retrieve.

One Extra Yuan

Do not think you’re being cheated, however, if the taxi driver asks you for one yuan more than the price that appears on the meter. That is because in 2010, and only in Beijing, the taxis have added an additional one yuan fuel surcharge. The explanation in English is that this is the “Beijing Taxi Special Invoice of Bunker Adjustment Factor”! So if the meter says 20 yuan, for example, get ready to pay 21 yuan.

Of course, like most things in China, everything is in flux. This policy could change any time! Just as with most Western airports, the taxi stand is right outside the airport arrival hall doors. On your way to lining up at the official taxi stand you very likely will be approached by a friendly man or woman who will offer you a ride into town.

This person may even be wearing an official-looking tag identifying him or her as an employee of the airport. You assume that this is a taxi driver and that if you take his or her car you can save precious minutes waiting in line. This would be a bad decision. This man most likely is the driver of a “hei che” (pronounced “hay-chuh”) or, literally, “black car.”

By “black” the Chinese mean “dark,” “nefarious,” and, therefore, “illegal.” As if to live up to their name, the cars these drivers use were generally black, to avoid attention, a direct contrast to the colorful, eye-catching yellow look we’ve come to associate with taxis worldwide.

Now they could be any color, though. The drivers of the “black cars” have not paid the money for a taxi license and belong to no taxi company. That means their car will have no meter and they will charge you whatever they like for the ride. Some tourists have been told when finally reaching their hotel after a circuitous “scenic route” that they owed thousands of yuan.

Usually one ends up paying several hundred yuan for a ride in a “black car,” instead of the 90 or 100 yuan you’d pay for a real taxi. Ignore all offers of a ride and wait in line at the cab stand.

Larry Herzberg and Qin Herzberg Just follow the crowd. Another advantage of standing in line at the cab stand are the government workers standing there to direct you to a cab, so there is little chance you’ll be cheated on the fare. However, you should still write down the number of the cab and the driver who will be taking you into the city, just in case you have any complaint or leave anything in the taxi, you’ll have some recourse.

Now might be a good time to discuss tipping in China. The good news is that it isn’t the custom to tip for most of the services you’ll receive. That includes taxi rides. Taxi drivers in the U.S. need the promise of a tip to give them the incentive to drive you quickly and safely to your destination.

Panic-stricken Looks

The Chinese cab driver needs no other reward beyond the fee on the meter… and, of course, the great delight in watching through the rear-view mirror the panic-stricken look on the face of the foreign tourist as the cab weaves in and out of lanes at breakneck speed, defying death at every turn.

In recent years a large number of Chinese people, including the elderly, have come to depend on taxis as a reasonably priced and easy way to get around. If foreigners tip cabbies so that they come to expect it, cabs will become pricier for locals.

When a Western traveler offers to let the cabby “keep the change” when paying, the driver very likely will be confused as to your intention. The rare exceptions may be when taking a cab to or from the airports in Shanghai, where the driver may
not offer to give you change if it’s just a matter of 10 yuan or less.

They may simply pocket the money and drive off. This is because these drivers have gotten accustomed to serving foreigners who have tipped them in the past. Tipping is also not customary in restaurants.

Unlike the U.S.where we need to tip “to ensure promptness and good service,” most countries in the world automatically add the tip to the bill. In fancier restaurants in China a gratuity of 15% is routinely added.

There are times when a tip is expected in China. The porters in the hotels expect a tip of 10 yuan (a little over a dollar) for helping you up to your room with your bags. Unlike in the U.S., however, if you fail to tip them they will simply leave the room.

They won’t stand there with their palm up explaining every feature of your room until you pay them to stop, as is the custom in America.

One major exception to the rule about tipping is that if you hire your own personal guide and driver, as some of us do in more remote areas of China, you will be expected to tip both of them at the end of their time with you. That’s because these people are used to serving only foreign tourists. They know all too well our American custom and think it’s a dandy idea.

The general rule of thumb is that you give 100 yuan (about US$15) to the guide and 50 yuan (about US$7.50) to the driver for each day they served you. It would be nicest if you took some envelopes from the desk in your hotel room to put the money before presenting it to them.

Subways (Fast Trains, Not Fast Food!)

Taxis are certainly the best way to get around in most cities in China. But in Beijing and Shanghai, a new and excellent alternative has emerged in the past few years, namely the subway.

Riding in China. photo by Fiona Tunstall.
Riding in China. photo by Fiona Tunstall.

Although taxis are much cheaper than in the U.S., even in the largest cities in China, the roads are increasingly congested. There are four million vehicles in Beijing alone, with more on the road every day.

At peak traffic hours you may discover that your cab is only creeping along toward your destination. It may not move forward at all for minutes at a stretch. With that in mind, you might want to consider taking the subway in Beijing and Shanghai.

The number of subway lines has greatly increased just in the last few years, making the subway a very viable alternative to taxis. It’s safe, really cheap, and often much faster than taking a cab. It’s also the environmentally correct thing to do. The subway cars are new, clean, and air-conditioned in the summer.

You’ll also get to mingle with Chinese people, LOTS of them. In Beijing it only costs 2 yuan (about US30 cents) for an entire day of travel, including unlimited transfers. In Shanghai the price is 3 yuan (about 45 cents), but when you transfer, you’ll need to go to the ticket counter to pay an extra yuan (about 15 cents) for each transfer.

The names of the stops are written in romanized Chinese for foreigners, as well as in Chinese characters, both in the subway stations and on the maps inside the subway cars. There are also announcements made clearly in both English and Chinese before each stop, as well as a flashing sign above the door at each end of your car that will show the name of the station you’re approaching. There are automatic vending machines to buy the tickets for your destination, into which you can insert either paper money or coins.

Should you have trouble using the machines, there will always be station employees there who will quickly step in to help the perplexed foreigner. In some smaller stations there are booths with a person to sell you the tickets. In any case, this is China, so there are always people around to help you. After you’ve bought your tickets but before going through the turnstiles, you’ll need to go through a security checkpoint with a conveyor belt, on which to place the larger items you’re carrying, and a scanner, just like in an airport.

In fact, you’ll need to go through the same kind of security check when you enter almost any train station, when you board a boat, or when you enter stadiums, museums, or auditoriums for theater plays, and even when entering a national park!

The same restrictions as in airports about bringing liquids with you seem to apply, although the security personnel will usually allow you to take your own beverages through as long as you take a swig to prove it’s legit. When you are ready to pass through the turnstile to go to your track, run your ticket over the scanner at the top of your turnstile and the little gate will open. Be sure to keep your ticket, because you’ll need to feed it into the turnstile when you arrive at your destination and exit the subway station.

The subways can be very crowded, of course. You also have to be prepared that people will not line up in an orderly fashion here. Nor will the people getting on the subway at a stop necessarily wait for you to get off before they rush aboard. So you’ll need to be politely assertive. But for all this, if you take the subway, you’ll certainly save money and probably save time. You’ll also feel good that you have reduced your carbon footprint by refraining from taking a cab.

China Survival Guide, Revised & Updated Edition
How to Avoid Travel Troubles and Mortifying Mishaps

Airline Miles and Points: Going to Cooler Places for Less

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to Top
Skip to content