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5 Apps You Need on Your Family's Vacation to China

Feb. 09, 2019
7 min read
Temple of Heaven Beijing China
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More and more families are thinking about visiting China: home to the Great Wall, Beijing's Forbidden City, Emperor Qin's Terra Cotta Army in Xian and The Bund in Shanghai (which also offers an outpost of Disneyland). The country offers plenty of fascinating cities and activities that your family will remember for a lifetime such as hugging a panda bear while visiting an animal research center in Chengdu.

Photo by kiszon pascal / Getty Images

Despite China's thousands of years of history and truly unique vacation pastimes, you might be initially put off by the language barrier. Chinese (the Mandarin dialect) is the most widely spoken language in the country, but most who live in the US probably don't speak Chinese. While learning some phrases is always a good idea when you travel, you don’t actually need to know how to speak or write Chinese to make your China trip happen. You've probably got a smartphone and with the help of specific apps, you can ensure your family’s travel to China will be fun and hassle-free. So, go apply for a travel visa for your brood, read these five tips for China travel and then download these apps to your phone before your family’s adventure.

A Chinese-to-English Translation Helper

An app that provides accurate translations, such as Waygo is important to have on hand when you’re traveling anywhere in China. This is especially true outside the main cities where fewer people speak English. The app can translate menu items, street signs and more through its optical character recognition feature or scanning function. Simply wave your phone over the characters and instantly receive translation from Chinese to English.

Waygo can also translate other languages, but it’s mostly used for languages in Asia, including Japanese and Korean. The best part: The translation app doesn’t require internet service, so you can use it anytime, anywhere. You need this app -- especially in case of emergencies.

A Convenient Way to Get Around

DiDi Chuxing is an organized car-hailing service, called DiDi for short, that lessens the stress of hailing your own taxi cabs and negotiating prices or hiring a pre-booked car service.If you're used to Uber or Lyft, this app will feel familiar to you. Here are the levels of service you can arrange:

  • Express: Finds the closest car, which may include newer drivers with less experience.
  • ExpressPro: A pool service that shares your ride with others headed in the same direction.
  • Express Select: This slightly increased fare pairs you with a more experienced driver with a higher rating.
  • Premier: High-end vehicles that are a step up from the typical, compact Express service.
  • Taxi: A traditional taxi, but with the promise of a safer ride due to the taxi being linked through the app. (No negotiating or extra fees required.)
  • Hitch: An option for people who don’t mind sharing trips with others.
  • Bus: Options include public transit, buses for business purposes and buses at transportation terminals.
  • Luxe: Comes with drivers typically referred to as “chauffeurs” and five-star hotel service standards that include in-car Wi-Fi, food and beverages, aromatherapy and customized music

Part of DiDi's service is an upgraded emergency contact system. When passengers activate the help service feature from a hailed ride, the app will record audio and prompt a customer service representative to monitor the trip. Furthermore, passengers can send real-time trip information to their personal emergency contacts.

Nigel Killeen / Getty Images

When You Want to Take Public Transportation

It’s easy to get lost in China’s multitude of cities hosting millions of locals and travelers alike. Avoid this problem — and traffic — with the free Metro China Subway app for Apple or Android. Completely in English, this metro app and route planner is simple to use. Once you input your starting and ending destinations, the app will show you real-time traveling instructions. It will offer the best routes, along with alternatives that include fewer transfers. The “Floor Map” provides a realistic view of the actual subway map with destinations and specified stations, and locates the closest markets, accommodations and dining options.

Using WeChat in China

This app is a one-stop shop for everything you need to get done in China and nearly everyone — locals and visitors alike — use it daily. You can make video and voice calls, book flights and domestic train rides, send voice note and text messages, and formulate group chats. But, WeChat’s real power is its ability to let you go cashless and pay for everything from street food to mall purchases. People living and working in China use WeChat to pay for a majority of their everyday purchases, from groceries to rent to subway fares. There is one big stumbling block for visitors wanting to use the cashless pay feature though … while WeChat is moving in the right direction and allowing foreign credit cards issued in the US to be linked to the app, you seem to still need a local bank account to unlock your WeChat account's payment feature. That limits the app's usefulness to travelers unless they visit often enough to warrant opening an account. If you’d prefer to just use a credit card to make purchases during your trip to China, use one like Chase Sapphire Reserve with no foreign transaction fees.

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VPNs to Help You Access Western Content

You won’t be able to access many of your favorite social media platforms and websites when in China. Instagram, Facebook, Google and many other foreign websites are blocked by the government. However, you can get around this inconvenience by using a virtual private network (VPN). A VPN allows you to access the internet and use mobile apps safely and efficiently through a private network. For China, a VPN allows you to access region-restricted sites and apps by making it appear as though you are in a location where they are allowed. It’s important to note that not all VPNs are created equal; sometimes, a VPN might not work at all. Here are three well-regarded VPN services:

  1. ExpressVPN
  2. IPVanish
  3. NordVPN

We don't recommend trying to use a free VPN. Paying for a services usually ensures higher quality and the option of being able to contact customer service in the event it is not working properly. Most paid VPN services work on up to three devices at a time. It's also important to note that you should download the VPN prior to travel, as it may not function properly if trying to do it after you get to China.

Shanghai Edition (Photo credit Nick Ellis / The Points Guy)

Bottom Line

As someone who's had to navigate multiple cities in China, with a toddler and very little knowledge of Mandarin, these apps made the trip easier. What apps do you use when you visit China?

To help you plan your family's trip to China:

Note: The previous version of this story did not include the WeChat requirement to have a China-based bank account.

Featured image by Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.