I didn't travel during the Spring Festival last year. It's the biggest holiday of the year here, comparable to Christmas back home. Almost everyone is off work and out of school – including me! Last year, I used it to relax at home and catch up on my reading list. This year, I was the nervous owner of ready-to-expire passport. Since I had a few days off, it seemed like a good time to take a train down to Shenyang to apply for a new passport and see some sites.
I learned that travelling during the Chinese New Year is a little bit different, so here's what you need to know.
The Spring Festival is a time for family. It's the busiest time for travelling all year. Because most Chinese travellers stay with their families, booking hotels is unlikely to be an issue. Train or plane tickets, on the other hand, need to be booked well in advance, especially if you're going to a major city like Beijing. One of the teachers at my school wanted to visit her family in Beijing for the holiday, but there weren't any train tickets available. She resigned herself to taking a much longer bus ride down to Beijing.
I also bought my train tickets a little late, so I had to take an 8 pm train back to Harbin. I arrived after the subway closed, so I needed to take a taxi back home. The combination of a lot of travelers arriving in Harbin and a lot of cabbies out of town for the holiday made for a very long cab line. It took over half an hour to catch a cab home.
No matter where you are going, make sure you can use public transportation to get everywhere you need to go. Know what time the subway closes in your city and try to get home before that time. Alternatively, know which buses stop near your house. Most of the signs will be in Chinese, so have the name of the bus stop nearest your hotel and home written down in Chinese. If you can read a little Chinese, Baidu maps are great for navigating public transportation.
Since everyone else is with their families, tourist sites are much emptier than usual. If you don't like crowds, this can be an excellent time to do some exploring. When I was visiting the Shenyang Imperial Palace and the North Tombs, I only saw a handful of other people. This was especially the case in the morning. I didn't wait in line to buy a ticket, and those tickets were discounted because I was visiting in the off-season. Taking photographs without random people walking through was really easy. I booked a four-bedroom in a hostel, and had the room entirely to myself my whole stay!
Even on the days leading up to the new year, many restaurants and stores were closed. This is especially true of the small, family-owned restaurants that are so common here. This means you might have to walk a little farther to find dinner. It might also mean you frequent larger restaurants or restaurant chains more than you might otherwise. If you're travelling on the Chinese New Year's Day, make sure you have enough water and food at the hostel to get you through the day. Even the large foreign chains tend to close the day of.
When you live and work in China, Spring Festival can be a great time to travel, but it might require a little more planning. Buy your tickets in advance, and plan to rely on public transportation, not taxis. Make sure all of the places you want to see will be open during your trip. Don't expect to go anywhere on Chinese New Year's Day. If you're able to do that, you can enjoy any number of amazing destinations in China, sans the usual crowds. You might even save a little money for going in non-peak seasons.