There are two main considerations when planning your trip to China:
(1) avoiding China’s national holidays and,
(2) the weather.
When NOT to travel in China:
Weather aside, avoid traveling during any of the China’s national holidays if at all possible. In the 1990s the Chinese government introduced the “Golden Weeks” to develop domestic tourism industry.
Unlike in the West, the average Chinese worker has little to no flexibility in scheduling their vacation/holiday time. Instead, the entire country essentially takes their vacations at the exact same time!
The bottom line: If you’re attempting to travel or see anything resembling a tourist attraction during these times, you will quickly lose the will to live. Just imagine if the U.S. celebrated Thanksgiving, the 4th of July, and Christmas all on the same week. Now multiply our population of 300 million by a factor of four.
You don’t have to take Econ 101 to understand the Supply & Demand implications of this. Competition and prices for airline, train or bus tickets get jacked up (and don’t think you’re going to out-elbow a billion Chinese travelers). Same goes for hotels, restaurants, and any other tourist-related services.
If you can’t avoid traveling during these times, make all reservations well in advance or sign up with a tour (but expect to pay more). Consider visiting less popular tourist destinations and staying put in one location until everyone gets back to work.
The three Chinese national “Golden Weeks” to avoid are:
- Chinese New Years (Lunar New Year). This is the worst time to travel. The exact dates each year varies since it’s based on the Lunar Calendar, but it’s usually around late January to mid-Feb. Technically about 2 weeks but many Chinese will just get the first week off. Chinese New Years is the most important of the traditional holidays, kind of the equivalent of Christmas in the West. A huge chunk of the population — from white collar to migrant worker — takes off work to travel back to their hometowns to spend time with their families. Most businesses shut down completely, so your options for eating and shopping also become severely limited in smaller towns. Of course, if you don’t mind the crowds, it can be lots of fun (festivals, street activity, etc). But if you hate crowds and the incessant noise of firecrackers going off at all hours, I’d suggest earplugs and/or a lot of beer.
- National Day (starts Oct 1) A week-long holiday that celebrates founding of People’s Republic. In particular, avoid Beijing sites (Forbidden City, which is next to the parades at Tiananmen Square, as well as the nearby Great Wall of China).
- Labor Day (May 1). Until 2007, this was a week-long holiday but has since been scaled back to a long 3-day weekend. So not as crazy as before but still definitely want to avoid being in transit during this time.
WEATHER—the best times to visit:
The bottom line: The best times to visit China are the spring (March-May) and the autumn (September to early November). During these times, there’s less rain and clearer skies.
But with the exception of the north during the winter, you can still see China comfortably year-round. Summers see the heaviest rain and can be uncomfortably hot, especially in the south near Hong Kong, which has notoriously hot and humid summers.
Most first-time travelers to China will travel up and down the eastern provinces (the most developed and richest provinces containing most tourist highlights). For example, from the north in Beijing all the way south to Hong Kong. So plan accordingly: if you’re arriving during the spring, start in the south (before the hot & sticky summers start up) and finish in Beijing. Or if you’re arriving in the autumn, start in Beijing — before the brunt of winter moves in — and make your way south.