so you've decided to visit Taiwan.first, let me say: good choice! Taiwan is one of the most overlooked destinations in Asia. many travelers don't realize just how much this island has to offer. Taiwan has blue beaches and green mountains, marble gorges and tall forests, colorful temples and mouthwatering cuisine. but before we talk about the destinations in Taiwan you should visit - let's discuss the insanely clean, organized, and efficient transportation system that will take you to all these wonders.
arriving in Taiwanthe island has a number of smaller airports, but the major hubs are Taoyuan International Airport / TPE and Kaohsuing International Airport / KHH. most travelers arrive at Taoyuan and make their way to Taipei [just north of the airport] by taxi for about 1200 to 1500NT, shuttle bus to Taipei Main Station for about 85 to 140NT, or by connecting by transfer bus to the high speed rail [30NT bus fare, 160NT HSR.] for the past few years they have been working on a train line to connect the high speed rail to the airport, and the latest update says it should open December 2015.
if you plan to travel within Taiwan by air, most major cities have an airport. however, the island is small and rail options are abundant. I would advise getting around the island by other means once you arrive.
do I need a visa to enter Taiwan?the Bureau of Consular Affairs and Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Taiwan has a list of countries that qualify for visa-exempt entry. the United States, UK, Australia, Canada, Japan, and most of Europe are on this list and citizens qualify for a 90-day stay, with no fees on arrival. you can find more information about visas here and remember to please double check with your own country's regulations if you have a question. [also important to note: Taiwan is the Republic of China, and a visa that allows you into mainland China / the People's Republic of China is not valid for entry here.]
get yourself an easycardtraveling around the island can be a breeze if you're prepared. Taiwan's public transit system is clean, efficient, and inexpensive. to be honest - this is my preferred way to get around. you can purchase an easycard in any Taipei Metro station, from a machine or the person at the service counter. the easycard requires a 100NT deposit and you can add value to be used for subway or bus fare, purchases at 7-11 or even Starbucks. otherwise you will need to carry exact change for buses, and buy a subway token each time you'd like to ride the MRT. there's a reason why they named it easy card.
public transit etiquette in Taiwanbehavior on the buses and trains is different from many other countries I've traveled to [and places I've lived in - ahem, New York.] for the most part, people are orderly and stand in lines. there are special seating areas for elderly, injured, or pregnant passengers. and the biggest difference: everyone is quiet. sure, some people have hushed conversations. but most are just sitting, or texting on their phones. they don't play loud music or yell to each other down the car. and if you make a lot of noise? you'll get the stink eye. my best advice is to be quiet and respectful, and to follow the rules.
MRT: Mass Rapid Transitthe Taipei Metro subway system is hands down the cleanest and most efficient I've seen worldwide. no food or drink are allowed, the trains stop in the exact same spot every time, and there are designated waiting areas where people line up to board the trains. all stations are equipped with English signage, tell you how long until the next train arrives, and have helpful maps that show you the location of the station and where each exit leads into the surrounding neighborhood. as I mentioned last week, they also offer free wi-fi. [note that Kaohsiung also has an MRT system, though it is less extensive.]
when to take the MRT: anytime! trains on the Taipei Metro run from 6am to around midnight, depending on the stop. you will scan your card [or pre-paid token] when entering the station, and scan again [or deposit your token] when exiting at your destination. using your easycard will give you a fare discount.
riding the busoutside of Taipei and Kaohsiung, the public bus system is your best bet for getting around a city. there are a handful of apps out there that will help you make sense of things, and google maps is usually pretty accurate on using buses. many stops have signs that estimate when the next bus arrives. I've grown to love taking the bus - most days. the time tables are not always accurate, and on smaller buses I've had issues with drivers only making requested stops. but 95% of the time the bus will get you where you need to go.
and as Felix pointed out in the comments, you can also take buses between major cities or to tourist destinations. for those you should buy your tickets ahead of time at the bus station.
when to take the bus: when your destination is a hike from the MRT line, the bus is more direct, or when you are in a city without MRT service. the bus usually has a sign that tells you to pay on boarding or alighting - when in doubt do what everyone else is doing. swipe your easycard to pay or carry exact change [typically 15NT per ride.]
TRA: Taiwan Railways Administrationthe TRA rail system in Taiwan connects all the island's major cities in a giant loop, with a few offshoots for special tourist destinations. it is also crazy affordable. when I think of how much I used to pay to ride New Jersey Transit from Princeton to Penn Station, I cringe. [traveling from Hsinchu to Taipei is about the same distance, for a tenth of the price.] there are several companies that operate trains, with varying stops along the routes and thus varying trip times and prices. many trains have assigned seating. make sure to hold on to your ticket, as you will need to scan it both to enter and exit your station.
when to take the TRA: if you're traveling to anywhere on the east coast of Taiwan from Taipei, or out to a tourist destination from a High Speed Rail station. you can also take the TRA to save money if you have the time. if you plan to travel on a weekend or holiday, book your tickets in advance. this website has some great info and photos explaining how the TRA booking system works.
THSR: Taiwan High Speed RailI don't know how else to say it: I love Taiwan's high speed rail system. not yet a decade old, this line runs down the west coast of Taiwan from Taipei to Kaohsiung [Zuoying.] that's about the same distance between New York and Washington DC - and the high speed rail can get you there in an hour and a half. the cost is about 3 times that of the TRA and the trains don't circle the island, but I always think it's worth the price to get there in half the time or less. the HSR also does reserved seating [as well as a few cars for non-reserved.] you should also hold on to your ticket while riding, as you will need to scan to both enter and exit.
when to take the high speed rail: anytime you're moving up and down the west coast. connect through Taipei Main Station or ask a cab driver to take you to the gaotie: gow [like "cow] tee - a [like the letter "a"] and be prepared for speeds up to 300km/hr.
taking a cab in Taiwanas much as I like to sing the praises of public transit, sometimes you just want to take a cab. most drivers will be able to get you to your destination if you show them an address or map on your smartphone [even better if you have the address in Chinese.] I like to pick up business cards to hand the drivers, since the address is usually in Mandarin. cabs in Taiwan are cheaper than Europe or the US, with the [plentiful] cabs in Taipei being cheaper than the rest of the island. some cab companies will also allow you to hire a driver for 4 or 8 hours - rates depending but around 1500 to 2500NT from my experience. ask your hotel to arrange this.
when to take a cab: when you are in Taipei and going somewhere far from the MRT or bus, have luggage with you, or late at night coming home. you might also consider a cab if you have to wait 20 minutes for the bus and are running late. and of course cabs will get you around other cities when public transport is lacking.
renting a car or scooterif [and only if] you are in possession of an international driver's permit, you might consider renting a scooter or car for your travels in Taiwan. this country is a right-hand side driving country, with speed limits posted in kilometers per hour. if you are scooting, wearing a helmet is required by law. scooters, buses, and the ubiquitous blue trucks seem to rule the road here in Taiwan. if you do decide to drive here I can't stress enough: be careful.
when to drive yourself: if you are planning to go off the beaten track, having your own wheels can be useful. much of central Taiwan is inaccessible by public transit. these roads can also be steep, winding, and in ill repair so plan accordingly.
there are a few off-shore islands which can be reached by ferry boat, but other than walking or biking, I think I've covered all modes of transport in Taiwan. I'm pretty sure you're tired of me using the words "clean" and "affordable" and "organized" so I'll just reiterate one last time: it really is easy to get around here using public transit - even if you can't read or speak Mandarin.
this post is the second in a series of tips for visiting Taiwan. for more information, please see:
part 1: a guide on what to pack
part 2: a guide on how to travel [this post]
part 3: a guide on where to go + what to see
part 4: a guide on what to expect