Getting around in Taiwan can be ultra-convenient or infinitely frustrating, depending on where you are and what the weather is like. Efficient trains, a vast network of buses and a plethora of domestic flights are available, while ferries connect the offshore islands.
While the mountains that bisect the island make for some convoluted travel logistics, for most travellers the biggest challenge to getting around comes down to language. Though signs in English – or at least in romanized script – are becoming more common, it still takes some planning to make your connections if you don’t speak or read Chinese. One of the best ways around this is to ask someone to write down the name of your destination in Chinese so that you can show it to clerks in bus and train stations. Likewise, it can pay to have the name of your hotel and/or the sites you wish to visit written in Chinese so you can show them to taxi drivers or people on the street if you get lost.
All major cities and towns in Taiwan are connected by the efficient Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA) network of local and express trains, though travel in Taiwan was revolutionized with the opening of the separately managed High Speed Rail in 2007. While regular express trains can take over five hours between Taipei and Kaohsiung, it takes just ninety minutes via the High Speed Rail. The latter only covers major cities on the west coast however, while TRA trains run on both the Western and Eastern rail lines for about half the price of the High-Speed trains. The TRA also maintains several slower, narrow-gauge branch lines that mostly transport tourists inland to Jiji, Neiwan and Pingxi.
Updated timetable and fare information is listed on the Taiwan Railway Passenger Train Timetable, which can be found at train station information centres, as well as some convenience stores and kiosks. To check schedules online or make bookings in advance, check the TRA’s website at wwww.railway.gov.tw.
Train stations usually have separate queues for advance and same-day departures, as well as for cash and credit card purchases – this is usually labelled in English on the cashier’s window. For shuttle journeys from main stations it’s faster to use the ticket machines that are labelled in English. It’s imperative that you retain your ticket when you get off the train, as you’re still required to return it at the gate to exit the train station – if you lose it, you’ll have to pay a fine.
There are five classes of train, from express to local services (see Train classes below). For the three fastest classes, it’s often a good idea to buy your ticket in advance (either online or at the station), especially if you plan to travel on a weekend or public holiday, when all seats are commonly full. When no seats are available, you’ll usually still be offered a ticket, but for standing-room only. If you do have a standing-room-only ticket but manage to find a free seat, it’s acceptable to sit there until the ticket holder turns up and politely asks you to vacate.
Note that Taiwan’s penchant for different forms of pinyin is perfectly illustrated by the rail system, with station names and even train classes written in a variety of styles. On this site Hànyǔ Pīnyīn is the default, in line with government policy.
自強 Zìqiáng (sometimes written as Tze-Chiang) The fastest and most expensive, with assigned seating, a/c and, in some cases, a dining car.
莒光 Jŭguāng (sometimes written as Chu-Kuang). The second fastest, also with assigned seating and a/c.
復興 Fùxīng (sometimes written as Fu-Hsing or Fusing). The third fastest, also with assigned seating. Has air conditioning but is not as comfortable as the two higher classes.
區間快 “Local Express” (qūjiān kuài). Short- to medium-distance commuter train, which runs express. Has a/c, but there is no assigned seating
區間車 “Local Train” (qūjiānchē). Short- to medium-distance commuter train which stops at all stations. Has a/c, but there is no assigned seating.
Travellers under 30 can apply for a Taiwan Rail Pass (TR Pass) at all major train stations (you’ll need a passport and student ID): five days for NT$599, seven days for NT$799 and ten days for NT$1098. If you intend to travel a lot this can be a good deal, though the catch is that the pass is only valid on non-reserved seats on fùxīng or commuter trains, not zìqiáng or High Speed Rail.
Anyone can buy the Island-Round Rail Pass for NT$1706, which offers up to fifteen percent discount on full zìqiáng fares: the pass comprises seven portions valid on all trains for fifteen days after first use (starting within sixty days of purchase).
High Speed Rail
Taiwan’s superb High Speed Rail (台灣高鐵; táiwān gāotiě; wwww.thsrc.com.tw) features a bullet train that has cut the travelling times between Taipei and Kaohsiung by two thirds. The train, one of the world’s fastest, stops at eight stations along a 345-kilometre track travelling at an average speed of about 300kmph. Note however, that apart from Taipei, most of the specially built stations are well outside city centres and mean an additional shuttle leg for travellers looking to stay in the heart of major cities. The first eight High Speed Rail stations are: Taipei, Banqiao, Taoyuan, Hsinchu, Taichung, Chiayi, Tainan and Zuoying (Kaohsiung). Four more stations will be added by 2015 (Nangang, Miaoli, Changhua and Yunlin), while Kaohsiung will get it’s own station sometime after that.
Buses are generally cheaper than trains, and, with the exception of the High Speed Rail, can be much faster – provided you travel when traffic is light and there are no road accidents. In addition, the best bus companies have extremely comfortable air-conditioned coaches, with big cosy armchair-style seats, movies and an on-board toilet. Bear in mind that the air conditioning is never turned off, so it can get quite chilly on board.
However, buses in rural areas are being dropped each year, as more Taiwanese tourists take to the roads in their own cars or book guided package tours. For independent travellers this makes already hard-to-reach mountain areas even more difficult to get to without your own transport.
In most cities, the main bus companies have ticket offices clustered around the train station, and their buses usually stop right outside the office. Be sure to save your ticket, as you are often required to return it to the driver before you are allowed off – if you lose it you might be asked to pay for another ticket.
In more remote areas such as the cross-island highway routes and segments of the east coast, hiring a car can be the most convenient way to get around. However, driving in major cities can be extremely stressful – and dangerous for inexperienced drivers – though anyone used to driving in big European and North American cities should find it manageable. Taiwanese drive on the right-hand side of the road, and the highway speed limit is 110kmph. On other roads speed limits generally range from 50 to 70kmph and police speed traps are common.
Foreign tourists renting a car in Taiwan will need to produce an international driver’s licence and their passport for rentals of up to thirty days (you need a local licence for longer). Prices vary depending upon location, time of the week and the type of vehicle, but in general full-day rentals start from around NT$2200, and discounts of ten to fifteen percent are usually given for multiday rentals (although they’re often not given during public holiday periods). Rental prices commonly include insurance, but you may have to sign a blank credit card voucher to cover any speeding fines you may incur.
The humble scooter remains the transport of choice in Taiwan, and is certainly the most convenient way to explore smaller cities and far-flung areas with little or no public transport. However, while renting a scooter is easy for Taiwanese or permanent residents, it’s become increasingly difficult for foreign visitors in recent years.
The main problem is that the shops that rent the scooters are responsible for any fines you may incur on the road (which can take months to process). Most scooter shops are family operations that are not able to chase foreigners overseas to get them topay them back for these fines. Until the law is changed, most shops will insist on seeing a valid ARC (Alien Resident Certificate), proof of permanent address in Taiwan and a local licence. Few shops are aware that foreigners can legally drive a 50cc scooter with an international driver’s licence, though as private operators they are not obliged to do business with you in any case.
Having said that, there are a few places where you can easily rent scooters – Little Liuqiu Island and Sanyi for example – by simply leaving your passport as security, and in others, you may be able to get locals to help you (this usually means your friendly homestay/hotel owner “guaranteeing” the rental). If you manage to find an amenable renter, the average scooter rental is about NT$200 per hour.
Note that traffic accidents – especially those involving scooters – are the leading cause of death and injury to foreigners in Taiwan. The dangers of the country’s roads are apparent from the moment you arrive: vehicles of all sizes, from giant buses to cars to scooters, all aggressively jockeying for position with reckless disregard for road rules. In fact, the only practice that seems to be universally accepted is that drivers are only responsible for what lies ahead, and monitoring what is happening behind or to one’s side is almost completely unheard of. Drive defensively, and allow plenty of space between yourself and any vehicles in front of you.
The use of bicycles for short rides and day-trips is becoming increasingly common in many tourist destinations, with designated cycle paths cropping up all over the country. In places with such paths, bicycles – ranging from basic three-speeds (usually costing NT$100/day) to multispeed mountain bikes (typically NT$350/day) – can easily be rented. While these rental bicycles are generally well maintained and fine for short rides on paved paths, they’re not suited to longer-distance touring, and those planning on covering longer distances should arrive with their own or buy a higher-quality bike from a shop in a major city. Respected manufacturer Giant (wwww.giant-bicycles.com) rents bicycles for longer trips, and allows for one-way drop-offs, but you’ll need to speak and read Chinese to make the most of this service. Costs are around NT$200–300 per day for a good-quality road bike plus accessories.
While cycle touring is gaining popularity, this is largely (and wisely) contained to the quieter areas of the east coast as well as the more challenging cross-island highway routes over the mountains.
There are regular passenger ferries to Taiwan’s outlying islands, although in winter many services are scaled back. Ludao (Green Island) and Lanyu (Orchid Island) are easily reached by ferry in good weather, while the Taiwan Strait islands of Little Liuqiu, Kinmen, the Matsu Archipelago and the Penghu Archipelago are accessible by ferry for much of the year.
With High Speed Rail offering real competition on the busy west coast corridor, flights between the major cities in Taiwan have been dramatically cut back. Unless you’re in a real hurry, flying isn’t a great deal unless heading to Taiwan’s outlying islands (particularly Kinmen, Matsu and Lanyu), when you’ll save a lot of time by taking a plane.
Taipei’s Songshan Airport, just to the north of central Taipei, operates services to many outlying islands, as well as daily flights to most major southern and eastern cities, including Hualien, Kaohsiung and Taitung. In addition, the domestic airports in Chiayi, Kaohsiung, Taichung and Tainan operate several domestic routes. Prices are usually set wholesale by the airlines, so there’s little point in going to an agent.