The other day I posted about the Beijing Railway Administration's plans to introduce an online train ticket booking service. I also said that I doubted the service would be accessible to foreign travelers due to the language barrier and online payment issues. This got me thinking that some travelers might like to know what options they do have. And so here is a summary of the options for booking Chinese train tickets online.
There are a number of agencies that offer this service. But I should start off by saying that there are a number of issues that make things a bit difficult for those travelers who like to have their train transport organized in advance. The first is that train tickets only go on sale five or ten days in advance (20 days for Z trains).
These restrictions apply to agencies as well as individuals. So even if you put in your order online two months in advance, the ticket might not actually be able to be bought (and therefore confirmed) until your vacation has well and truly begun. This lack of confirmation can be frustrating for people who like to have things well organised.
Secondly, you can never be absolutely sure your tickets will come through. During Spring Festival (Chinese New Year), and sometimes also the other major holidays, agencies will not accept train ticket bookings as tickets are very hard to come by and they can't promise to purchase them with any reasonable degree of certainty.
Thirdly, tickets can be bought only in the city where your journey starts (meaning you can't buy a ticket in Shanghai for a train from Beijing to Xian). So your agent will need to have a representative in all the cities you are traveling from to be able to purchase your tickets.
All that said, booking online can still be worthwhile. If it's not going to stress you out waiting for a confirmation and you're happy to resort to a Plan B on the off-chance that the booking is possible, then booking train tickets online saves you the hassle of organizing tickets while you're travelling. The mark-ups the agencies charge are fairly reasonable – generally around ¥150 per ticket, including delivery to your hotel. In contrast, if you book through your hotel or hostel, they might charge anywhere from ¥30-¥150.
As for which agencies you should use, there are plenty out there (as you will see if you Google for it). I'm only listing two here because I have first-hand experience seeing how both these agencies work and I can vouch for their professionalism and service. No doubt the others are fine too, though.
Their website is a bit tricky to navigate but their service is good.
Another good agency to use.