In terms of scale, China is enormous when compared with its surrounding countries and so not only does travel between cities take much longer than in other parts of East Asia, but it often costs more to do so. Internal flights within China would always be my highest recommendation for a number of reasons that I will delve into deeper later in this post, however if you are interested in seeing more of rural China or saving on both travel and accommodation then overnight trains and buses may be the way to go.
Beijing and Shanghai are around 1200 kilometers from one another, with Beijing being one of China’s northernmost tourist destinations and Shanghai being slightly Southeast on the East China sea. Considering your desired destinations in China is important when planning a route in advance, as doubling back on yourself can cost you up to a day in travel time. When I visited around four years ago, I began in Beijing and travelled South firstly to Zhangjiajie, then to Shanghai, then from there flew out of mainland China to Hong Kong.
High Speed Train
The high speed train between these two supercities takes around six hours during the day and there are tens of daytime journeys scheduled. Depending on class, the day train costs between £60 and £200. The overnight journey takes thirteen hours, but will save you time both at the airport and an evening’s accommodation. By far the cheapest of the two options, the overnight train costs between £35 and £100 and all options arrive between 7am and 11am. All trains have toilets, buffet cars and power outlets and you’re able to bring food and drink on board to save on spending, too.
Outside of peak holiday times, purchasing tickets the day before or the day of should be possible, but for peace of mind you can use websites like www.china-diy-travel.com to book tickets in advance, but bear in mind they charge an additional $10 per booking.
Low Speed Train
From what little I’ve found online about the local train between cities, it costs around £10 and takes around an entire day. Existing reviews describe this train as not as tourist-friendly as the high speed alternative, however if you’re trying to commute on as stringent a budget as possible this is by far the most cost effective option.
Like the overnight train, the daily coach between the cities costs £35 and takes around 18 hours. Advice online suggests not to take the coaches purely for the time it takes and the comfort level available on a long distance bus. There are eleven long distance bus stations in Beijing, and you can find contact information and bus numbers and times here.
Of all four options, flying is by far the quickest option. There are tens of flights daily which cost around £70 for the less than two hour flight. Depending on the airline you opt for, internal flights often do not include the cost of checked baggage. Realistically, time taken to commute to the airports on either side, plus time taken for the flight and security clearance, the high speed train does take around the same amount of time as flying. Considering this as well as the costs of both, the opportunity to take the high speed train at a higher class would roughly equate to the cost and time of flying in economy.
As always with these styles of posts, taking into consideration the cost of travel between your accommodation and the airport is important. For Beijing, we took a local taxi to our hotel in the Financial District of the city that cost us the equivalent to £8 as we had been travelling for over 24 hours, but there are shuttle buses between the city center and airport that cost between £2 and £3. In Shanghai the subway system takes you directly to the airport and there are several options to buy single or multiple day passes, costing as little as £1.35 per day.