I’m off to China with Gareth, the CEO of Skyscanner. Neither of us has been there before and neither of us likes boring travel details when it comes to our own travelling (times of flights, visa and inoculation information etc).
As of now, 12:47pm on 26th August 2008, my passport is not even in my possession, I do not have a visa (do I need a visa?), I’ve had no jabs and I do not know which terminal I am leaving from.
I have many other questions too: what’s the currency, the exchange rate, do they speak Cantonese or Mandarin (we speak neither of course), what is there to see, where will we stay and will I need a warm jumper? The magnificent sum total of my knowledge about Shanghai is …well it’s in China...somewhere.
Oh yes, did I mention we leave in three days time?
First things first…
Our flights have been organised for us already so that’s out the way but if they hadn’t been, then I would have turned to www.skyscanner.net (of course).
Where are you flying from?
At smaller airports, terminal information will not be an issue. We’re going from Heathrow where possession of this information is rather more crucial. Go to www.baa.co.uk and choose your airport. You can find the link under the “Flight information” tab.
You could well need to know the departure terminal on your return, so either ask at the airport when you reach your destination or go to your airport’s website in advance. I’ve just been to the Shanghai Airport authority site to do just that and have completely failed to find the answer. There is an intriguing link to something called “Propagandistic Film” which I have just watched so it’s not a complete waste of time.
Go to the Foreign Office website here to find a list of the embassies and consulates in the UK to see if you need a visa before you travel. Give them a call or look on the website. I have just discovered that I don’t need a visa to go to Argentina for example. Sadly, the same cannot be said for China.
Clearly I have no idea when I last had a vaccination but since I don’t like doctors, it’s probably a while. Fingers crossed on the vaccination front since I don’t have time anyway now. NetDoctors Vaccinations page seems to be a comprehensive list. Disappointingly, they suggest a few trivial bugs might be around in China – but my philosophy of “Can’t spell it, can’t catch it” has worked before so all is fine.
Somewhere to stay
Picking hotels outside the big chains is a bit of a lottery in cities you don’t know. Tripadvisor.com is usually a good bet with comprehensive reviews written by real travellers and gives you price brackets of hotels as well. HotelTravel.com might also be worth a look. A large alphabetical list of hotels has just appeared – no doubt we will stay in a hotel that begins with the letter “A”.
So that’s where Shanghai is. We should probably have looked at one of these first before picking the Astor House Hotel. There really is only one stop for maps – Google Maps – and it appears we are a bit out of the centre – long walks it is then. You might also like to download Google Earth and see satellite pictures of where you’re going to be. Great – we have loads of building sites near us. These tools are useful for getting your bearings in a broad sense but a decent map to carry about with you is still a must in a big city.
Having located Shanghai, we are still none the wiser as to what kind of clothes we should pack. Being British, you can’t help but like the BBC's weather section which is very good. Going to LonelyPlanet.com also shows useful average temperatures, rainfall and humidity of destinations round the world in their “When to go” section. It seems like Shanghai will be hot and humid so better stock up on deodorant.
The hotel is priced in US dollars so no real feel for the Chinese currency as yet. XE Currency Converter is one of the most popular currency sites and I discover that one British pound is worth 12.60 Chinese Yuan Renminbi. Is this good or bad? The price of a pint of beer is always a good indicator of cost in a country so PintPrice.com seems like the answer. Disappointingly it is £2.74 for a pint in Shanghai but only 16p in a place called Wuhu. Wuhu indeed! Perhaps we should go there instead?
If you’re going to a big city, some research is definitely worth doing. Online, the best places to get ideas in my opinion are the Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree Travel forum, TimeOut.com or WorldTravelGuide.net. I’ve just discovered some ideas for tours we will almost certainly not get round to doing.
It’s best not to alarm family and friends with well-intentioned but ill-timed calls since the 3:30am call only sets hearts fluttering in case some disaster has occurred. TimeandDate.com has a comprehensive list of major cities and should allow you to work out exactly how bad your jetlag will be. Shanghai is seven hours ahead which by my reckoning means it’s a bloomin’ long way away.
“A bloomin’ long way” is probably not on the scale which pilots work on so I want to know exactly how far I am going. The TimeandDistance site seems to do the trick and I can also work out that it is about a 12 hour flight – or the opportunity to watch 6 rubbish films where all the good bits have been edited out.
Apart from Parisians, most people in the world will welcome fumbling attempts at the basics in the local language. Chinese is, I have discovered, a tonal language and as such, even attempting to communicate “hello” and “goodbye” could actually end up meaning a variety of things depending on which syllables you stress. This linguistic minefield should be interesting so a visit to Omniglot.com teaches you to say simple things in hundreds of languages. As a result, after some practice, I can confidently announce in Mandarin that “my hovercraft is full of eels”. This should prove an interesting conversational salvo at customs.
Finally, there really is no substitute for a decent travel book when you are exploring. In my experience, the best series are the Eye Witness Travel Guides providing detailed maps, drawings and photographs and contain really useful and inspirational information for someone new to a country. I must remember to buy one at the airport.
Right, time to get my passport couriered to London and find the Chinese embassy…