If you've just been to Tokyo or Bangkok, Hong Kong will probably bring a rush of relief. For one thing, English is everywhere -- on street signs, on buses, and in the subways. In addition, almost 1,000 pink and blue directional signs posted on streets and intersections throughout Hong Kong point to attractions and points of interest (signs in rural areas are green). The city of Hong Kong is so compact, and its public transportation system so efficient and extensive, that it's no problem at all zipping from Tsim Sha Tsui to Causeway Bay or vice versa for a meal or some shopping. Even the novice traveler should have no problem getting around. Transportation is also extremely cheap. Just remember that cars drive on the left side of the street, English style, so North Americans need to be careful when stepping off the curb (luckily for most of us, warnings painted on the street at many major intersections remind pedestrians which direction to look).
By Public Transportation
Each mode of transportation in the SAR -- bus, ferry, tram, and train/subway -- has its own fare system and thus requires a new ticket each time you transfer from one mode of transport to another. If you're going to be in Hong Kong for a few days, however, you'll find it much more convenient to travel with the Octopus. This electronic smart card allows users to hop on and off trains, trams, subways, buses, and ferries without worrying about purchasing tickets each time or fumbling for exact change. Sold at Customer Service Centres at all MTR stations (including the airport) and some ferry piers, the Octopus costs a minimum of HK$150, including a HK$50 refundable deposit (minus a HK$7 handling fee if returned within 3 months), and can be reloaded in HK$50 and HK$100 increments. Children and seniors pay HK$70 for the card, including deposit.
Alternatively, several other stored-value tickets are available for non-Hong Kong residents who will be in Hong Kong fewer than 14 days. The Airport Express Travel Pass, for example, is good for 3 days of unlimited travel: The HK$300 card includes a round-trip from and to the airport on the Airport Express Line; the HK$220 card includes one trip from or to the airport. There's also a Tourist Day Pass, allowing 1 day of MTR travel (except the Airport Express, MTR buses, which travel betweens stations, and first class on the East Rail) for HK$55.
To use the Octopus, simply sweep the card across a special pad at the entry gate (you'll notice that most commuters don't even bother removing the card from their wallets or purses); the fare is automatically deducted. The Octopus is valid for all MTR lines (including those serving the New Territories), the Airport Express Line (which runs between the airport and Kowloon and Central), all trams (including the Peak Tram), buses, some minibuses, the Star Ferry, and ferries to outlying islands. In addition, the Octopus can be used for purchases at all 7-Eleven, Circle K, and Metro Store convenience stores; fast-food chains like KFC, Starbucks, and McDonald's; some vending machines; and even to make phone calls at Pacific Century Cyber Works (PCCW) public telephones. At the end of your Hong Kong stay, be sure to turn in the Octopus card for a refund of your deposit (minus a HK$7 handling fee) and any unused value stored in the card. For information, call the Octopus hot line at tel. 852/2266 2222 or check its website at www.octopus.com.hk.
Exact Change, Please -- Keep in mind that transportation on buses and trams requires the exact fare, so be certain to have lots of loose change with you wherever you go. Even though ferries and subways will give change, you'll find it more convenient if you have exact change, especially during rush hours.
By Train & Subway
The Star Ferry and trams are so popular and at times so crowded that it's hard to imagine what they must have been like before Hong Kong's subway system was constructed to relieve the human crunch. Hong Kong's Mass Transit Railway (MTR) is modern, efficient, clean, and easy to use, and it's also much faster than the older modes of transportation (and sometimes even taxis). Take note, however, that there are no public toilets at any of the stations or on the trains, and that smoking, drinking, and eating are prohibited. The MTR operates daily from 6am to about midnight or 1am, depending on the line and station. For general inquiries, call the MTR 24-hour hot line at tel. 852/2881 8888 or check its website at www.mtr.com.hk.
Built primarily to transport commuters in the New Territories to and from work and running under the harbor to link Kowloon with Hong Kong Island, the MTR serves about 3.7 million passengers a day. You'll probably want to avoid rush hours, unless you want to know what it feels like to be a sardine in a can.
Routes -- The 11 train and subway lines are color coded. When you ride the train the name of the next station is displayed above each compartment door and announced in English, so you shouldn't have any problem finding your way around. Stations are named for the areas they serve: Go to Central MTR station if you're looking for an address in the Central District, or to Mong Kok MTR station if you're looking for a place in Mong Kok, Kowloon. Probably the most important line for tourists is the red-coded Tsuen Wan Line, which starts in Central on Hong Kong Island, goes underneath Victoria Harbour to Tsim Sha Tsui, and then runs north the length of Nathan Road, with stops at Jordan, Yau Ma Tei, and Mong Kok stations before heading northwest to the satellite town of Tsuen Wan in the New Territories. The blue-coded Island Line, with 14 stations, operates on the north side of Hong Kong Island from Sheung Wan (where you'll find the Macau Ferry Pier) east to Chai Wan, passing through Central, Wan Chai, and Causeway Bay.
Three other lines, used mainly by commuters, are the Kwun Tong Line, which arches from Yau Ma Tei eastward to the New Territories; the Tseung Kwan O Line, which runs from North Point on Hong Kong Island and then goes under the harbor before connecting with the Kwun Tong Line; and the Tung Chung Line, which mirrors the Airport Express Line as it runs from Hong Kong Station in Central to Kowloon Station and onward to Tung Chung on Lantau Island. The Disney Resort Line branches off the Tung Chung Line to Disneyland. The Airport Express Line also serves airport passengers, running between Hong Kong Station in Central and Hong Kong International Airport, with a stop at Kowloon Station.
In 2007, the former Kowloon-Canton Railway (KCR), which operated four rail lines in the New Territories as well as through train service to mainland China, merged with MTR to form one vast network of rail service extending from Central on Hong Kong Island through the New Territories. Most useful for visitors is the East Rail, which travels from Hung Hom Station in Kowloon up to Sheung Shui in the New Territories. That is, Sheung Shui is where you must get off if you don't have a visa to go onward to China. If you do have a visa, you can continue to the border station of Lo Wu and travel onward all the way through China -- and even Russia and Europe if you want to, ending up in London. This line has two different kinds of trains: the express through-train to Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing; and the local commuter service for those going to towns in the New Territories.
If you're taking the East Rail commuter train, you'll make stops at Mong Kok East, Kowloon Tong, Tai Wai, Sha Tin, Fo Tan, Racecourse (on horse-racing days only), University, Tai Po Market, Tai Wo, and Fanling before reaching Sheung Shui. The whole trip from East Tsim Sha Tsui to Sheung Shui takes only 38 minutes, so it's the easiest and fastest way to see part of the New Territories. It's also convenient, with trains running every 3 to 8 minutes. Connecting to East Rail at Tai Wai Station is the Ma On Shan Rail, useful for visiting Che Kung Temple.
Serving the western part of the New Territories is the West Rail, which links East Tsim Sha Tsui Station in Kowloon with Tuen Mun in the northwestern part of the New Territories in 30 minutes. Extending from the western end of the West Rail is a feeder Light Rail transit system, useful for visiting Hong Kong Wetland Park.
Fares -- Single, one-way tickets start at HK$4 for most lines and increase according to the distance traveled, but the most expensive ride is the trip underneath the harbor, which costs HK$8.50 from Tsim Sha Tsui to Central (still cheap, but outrageous when compared to the Star Ferry's fare of HK$2.50 for first class). Fares for seniors 65 and older and children ages 3 to 11 start at HK$3. Fares are indicated by inputting your destination on a touch screen above all vending machines, which accept HK$10, HK$5, HK$2, HK$1, and HK50¢ coins, as well as HK$500, HK$100, HK$20, and HK$10 notes, and give back change.
Even if you're traveling long distances, transportation is fairly cheap in Hong Kong. From Hung Hom to Sheung Shui in the New Territories, for example, it costs HK$8.50 for ordinary (second) class and HK$17 for first class for the 38-minute trip.
Your ticket is plastic, the size of a credit card, and you feed it into a slot at the turnstile. It disappears and then shoots up at the other end of the turnstile. Be sure to save your ticket -- at the end of your journey, you will again insert it into the turnstile (only this time you won't get it back unless it's an Octopus). Because these tickets are used again and again and have a magnetized strip, be careful not to bend or damage them.
As mentioned above, if you think you're going to be doing a lot of traveling on public transportation, consider buying the Octopus, which not only saves you from having to buy another ticket each time you ride but also provides a slight discount. Numerous transportation passes are also available just for tourists.
Hong Kong buses are a delight -- especially the British-style double-deckers. They're good for traveling to places where other forms of public transport don't go, such as to the southern part of Hong Kong Island like Stanley, around Lantau, or up into parts of Kowloon and the New Territories. Bus numbers containing an "X" are for express buses, with limited stops. Depending on the route, buses run daily from about 6am to midnight, with fares ranging from HK$1.20 to HK$45; the fare is halved for children 11 and under and seniors 66 and over. You must have the exact fare, which you deposit into a box as you get on. Make sure, therefore, that you always carry a lot of spare change, or buy an Octopus card. Although final destinations are clearly displayed in English on the front of the bus, drivers often don't speak English, so you may want to have someone at your hotel write down your destination in Chinese, particularly if you're traveling in the New Territories. And with the exception of congested areas like Central or Tsim Sha Tsui where queues of people wait at the stop, you must flag down a bus to make it stop, especially in the New Territories or on an island. If you don't wave your arm, it will just go barreling past. When on board, be sure to push the signal button for your stop.
Hong Kong's buses are operated by two companies: New World First Bus(NWFB)/Citybus (tel. 852/2136 8888 for NWFB, tel. 852/2873 0818 for Citybus; www.nwst.com.hk) and Kowloon Motor Bus (KMB; tel. 852/2745 4466; www.kmb.com.hk), which collectively cover Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories. The New Lantao Bus Co. (tel. 852/2984 9848; www.newlantaobus.com) operates on Lantau Island.
The two major bus terminals are located at or near both ends of the Star Ferry. On Hong Kong Island, most buses depart from Exchange Square in the Central District or from bus stops in front of the Central Ferry Piers. Some buses also depart from Admiralty Station. In Kowloon, buses depart from in front of the Star Ferry concourse in Tsim Sha Tsui.
The HKTB has individual leaflets for Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories that show bus routes to most of the major tourist spots, indicating where you can catch buses, their frequency and fares, and where to get off. Keep in mind that buses can get very crowded at rush hours and that some buses look pretty ancient -- which can make the winding trip to Stanley in a double-decker bus a bone-rattling and exciting experience.
Alternatively, there are two companies offering hop-on/hop-off service aboard double-decker buses traveling to key attractions. The Big Bus Company (tel. 852/2723 2108; www.bigbustours.com) operates routes along north Hong Kong Island from Central and Lan Kwai Fong through Wan Chai to Causeway Bay; from Central to Stanley; and around Kowloon. Cost of a ticket, which includes a ride on the Star Ferry and the Peak Tram to and from Victoria Peak, is HK$320 for 24 hours or HK$420 for 48 hours (children pay HK$200 and HK$300, respectively). Buses run every 30 minutes from 9:30 or 10am to 6pm (buses to Stanley run less frequently). People purchasing the 48-hour ticket can also board a 7pm evening bus to Kowloon's night market.
Rickshaw Sightseeing Bus (tel. 852/2136 8888; www.rickshawbus.com) operates two routes on north Hong Kong Island departing every 30 minutes from the Central Ferry Piers. The Heritage Route, running daily from 10am to 6pm, is convenient for sightseeing in the Western District and includes Man Mo Temple, Ladder Street, and the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Museum. The Metropolis Route, running daily from 10:15am to 9:45pm, travels to Wan Chai and Causeway Bay. A day ticket covering both routes costs HK$50; the fare for a single journey is HK$8.70. Children and seniors pay half fare.
Tickets for both companies can be purchased on board the bus.
Tram lines are found only on Hong Kong Island. Established in 1904 along what used to be the waterfront, these are narrow, double-decker affairs that clank their way 16km (10 miles) in a straight line slowly along the northern edge of the island from Kennedy Town in the west to Shau Kei Wan in the east, with one branch making a detour to Happy Valley. Passing through the Western District, Central District, Wan Chai, and Causeway Bay on Des Voeux Road, Queensway Road, and Hennessy Road, they can't be beat for atmosphere and are easy to ride since most of them travel only on one line (those branching off to Happy Valley are clearly marked). In the zeal to modernize Central, it's a wonder that these trams have survived at all. Ever since the advent of the subway, there's been talk of getting rid of them, but this has raised a storm of protest. Comprising the largest fleet of double-decker trams in the world, they are easily one of the most nostalgic forms of transportation in Hong Kong.
Enter the trams from the back and go immediately up the winding stairs to the top deck. The best seats are those in the front row, where you have an unparalleled view of Hong Kong: laundry hanging from second-story windows, signs swinging over the street, markets twisting down side alleys, crowded sidewalks, and people darting in front of the tram you'd swear wouldn't make it. Riding the tram is one of the cheapest ways of touring Hong Kong Island's northern side, and the fare is the same no matter how far you go. Once you've had enough, simply go downstairs to the front of the tram and deposit the exact fare of HK$2 into a little tin box next to the bus driver as you exit. If you don't have the exact amount, don't panic -- no one will arrest you for overpaying a few cents. Children and seniors pay HK$1. You can also use the Octopus card. Trams run daily from about 6am to midnight. More information is available at tel. 852/2548 7102 or www.hktramways.com.
In addition to the old-fashioned trams, the Peak Tram (tel. 852/2522 0922; www.thepeak.com.hk) is a funicular that transports passengers to one of Hong Kong's star attractions: Victoria Peak and its incomparable views. Its lower terminus is on Garden Road in Central, which you can reach via the 15C shuttle bus departing from the Central Ferry Piers at 15- to 20-minute intervals daily from 10am to 11:45pm and costing HK$4.25. The tram itself runs every 10 to 15 minutes from 7am to midnight, with round-trip tickets costing HK$36 for adults, HK$16 for seniors and children. You can also use an Octopus card.
By Star Ferry
A trip across Victoria Harbour on one of the white-and-green ferries of the Star Ferry Company (tel. 852/2367 7065; www.starferry.com.hk) is one of the most celebrated rides in the world. Carrying passengers back and forth between Hong Kong Island and Kowloon ever since 1898, these boats have come to symbolize Hong Kong itself and are almost always featured in travel articles on Hong Kong Island. They all incorporate the word "star" in their names, like Night Star, Twinkling Star, or Meridien Star.
The Star Ferry is very easy to ride. Simply use your Octopus card or buy a token for the ancient-looking turnstile, follow the crowd in front of you down the ramp, walk over the gangway, and find a seat on one of the polished wooden benches. A whistle will blow, a man in a sailor uniform will haul up the gangway, and you're off, dodging fishing boats, tugboats, and barges as you make your way across the harbor. Businesspeople who live in Hong Kong are easy to spot (they're usually buried behind their newspapers); visitors, on the other hand, tend to crowd around the railing, cameras in hand.
The whole trip is much too short, about 7 minutes total from loading pier to unloading dock, with the ride across the harbor taking about 5 minutes. But that 5-minute ride is one of the best in the world, and it's also one of the cheapest. It costs only HK$2 Monday to Friday and HK$2.40 weekends and holidays for ordinary (second) class (seniors 66 and over can ride ordinary class for free; children pay reduced fares). If you really want to splurge, first class costs HK$2.50 Monday to Friday and HK$3 weekends and holidays. First class is located on the upper deck, and it has its own entryway and gangway (follow the signs in the ferry concourse); if it's raining or cold, first class is preferable because of the glass windows in the bow. Otherwise I find ordinary class much more colorful and entertaining because it's the one the locals use and the view of the harbor is often better.
Star Ferries ply the waters daily from 6:30am to 11:30pm between Hong Kong Island's Central District and the tip of Kowloon's Tsim Sha Tsui. Ferries depart every 6 to 8 minutes, except for early in the morning or late at night, when they leave every 10 to 12 minutes.
By Other Ferries
Besides the Star Ferry, many other ferries run to other parts of the city. Ferries from the Central District, for example, also go back and forth to Kowloon's Hung Hom from about 7am to 8pm Monday through Friday; 7am to 7pm Saturday, Sunday, and holidays for HK$6.30. From Wan Chai, ferry service to Tsim Sha Tsui runs from 7:30am to 11pm and costs HK$2.50 Monday to Friday and HK$3 Saturday, Sunday, and holidays. Ferries from Wan Chai to Hung Hom run from about 7am to 7 or 8pm and cost HK$6.30.
In addition to ferries crossing the harbor between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, a large fleet serves the many outlying islands and points north of Kowloon. If you want to go to one of the outlying islands, you'll find that most of these ferries depart from the Central Ferry Piers (home also to the Star Ferry) in Central. The latest schedules and fares are available from the Hong Kong Tourism Board. One thing to keep in mind is that on the weekends the fares are higher and the ferries can be unbelievably crowded with locals who want to escape the city, so it's best to travel on a weekday. Even so, the most you'll ever pay for a ferry, even on deluxe class on a weekend, is HK$37. You can use the Octopus card.
Regular Taxi -- As a rule, taxi drivers in Hong Kong are strictly controlled and are fairly honest. If they're free to pick up passengers, a red FOR HIRE flag will be raised in the windshield during the day and a lighted TAXI sign will be on the roof at night. You can hail them from the street, though there are some restricted areas, especially in Central. In addition, taxis are not allowed to stop on roads with a single yellow line between 7am and 7pm; they are not allowed to stop at all on roads with a double yellow line on the edge of the road. Probably the easiest places to pick up a taxi are on side streets, at a taxi stand (located at all bus terminals), or at a hotel. Taxis are generally abundant anytime except when it's raining, during rush hour (about 5-8pm), during shift change (usually around 4pm), and on horse-racing days from September to May. Because many drivers do not speak English, it's a good idea to have your destination written in Chinese. Passengers are required by law to wear seatbelts.
Taxis on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon are red. Fares start at HK$18 for the first 2km (1 1/4 miles), and then are HK$1.50 for each additional 200m (about 656 ft.). Waiting time, incorporated in the meter, is HK$1.50 per minute, luggage costs an extra HK$5 per piece, and taxis ordered by phone also add a HK$5 surcharge. Extra charges to pay for the driver's return trip are also permitted for trips through harbor tunnels and Aberdeen Tunnel. Note, too, the additional charge per bird or animal you might want to bring with you in the taxi! For a tip, simply round up to the nearest dollar or add HK$1 to the fare for short journeys; for longer rides, round up to the nearest HK$5. Although taxi drivers can service both sides of Victoria Harbour, they tend to stick to a certain neighborhood and often aren't familiar with anything outside their area.
Taxis in the New Territories are green, with fares starting at HK$15 at flag-fall. They cover only the New Territories and are not allowed to transport you back into Kowloon. Taxis on Lantau are blue and start at HK$13.
If you have a complaint about a taxi driver, call the taxi complaint hot line (tel. 852/2889 9999), but make sure you have the taxi's license number. The driver's name, photograph, and car number are displayed on the dashboard. Better yet, ask for a receipt, which has the taxi number on it and will also help you track down lost items left behind.
Minibuses -- These small, 16-passenger buses are the poor person's taxis. Although they are quite useful for the locals, they're a bit confusing for tourists. For one thing, though the destination may be written in both Chinese and English, you almost need a magnifying glass to read the English, and by then the vehicle has probably already whizzed by. Even if you can read the English, you may not know the bus's route or where it's going.
The two types of vehicles are distinguishable by color. The green-and-yellow public "light buses" (though also called minibuses) follow fixed routes, have numbers, and charge fixed rates ranging from HK$2 to HK$23, depending on the distance. They also require the exact fare as you enter, or you can use an Octopus card. The most useful ones on Hong Kong Island are probably those that depart from the Star Ferry concourse for Bowen Road and Ocean Park, as well as those that travel from Central's Lung Wui Road to Victoria Peak or from Causeway Bay to Stanley.
The red-and-yellow minibuses are a lot more confusing and shouldn't be used by anyone not familiar with Hong Kong, because they have no fixed route and will stop when you hail them from the street (except for some restricted areas in Central). However, they're useful for traveling along Nathan Road or between Central and Causeway Bay. Fares range from HK$2 to HK$23, depending on the distance and demand (higher fares are charged on rainy days, race days, or cross-harbor trips), and you pay as you exit. Just yell when you want to get off.
Rental cars are not advisable in Hong Kong and hardly anyone uses them, even businesspeople. For one thing, nothing is so far away that you can't get there easily, quickly, and cheaply by taxi or public transport. In addition, there probably won't be any place to park once you get to your destination. If you want a chauffeur-driven car, most major hotels have their own private fleet -- you can even rent a limousine. If you're still determined to rent a car or plan to take a driving tour of the New Territories (you are not allowed to enter mainland China), car-rental agencies -- such as Avis and Hertz -- have branches here, along with a couple of dozen local firms. Your hotel concierge should be able to make arrangements. A valid driver's license is required, and, remember, traffic flows on the left-hand side of the street.
One of the great things about Hong Kong is that you can explore virtually the entire city proper on foot, with directional signage posted seemingly everywhere directing you to tourist attractions. You can walk from the Central District all the way through Wan Chai to Causeway Bay in about an hour or so, while the half-hour walk up Nathan Road to Yau Ma Tei is a colorful experience I recommend to all visitors. Unfortunately, land reclamation has been carried out so ambitiously, it may even be possible one day to walk from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon.
In the Central District, mazes of covered, elevated walkways separate pedestrians from traffic, and connect office buildings, shopping complexes, and hotels. In fact, some roads have no pedestrians because they're all using overhead passageways. These walkways can be confusing, though signs direct pedestrians to major buildings. Tourists will probably find streets easier to navigate if using a map, but walkways are convenient when it rains and are safer, since the walkways keep pedestrians safe from traffic. I was able to pick up a handy "Walkway System in Central" folding map at the Hong Kong Planning and Infrastructure Exhibition Gallery, but I can't guarantee it will still be available when you get there.
An interesting "people mover" is the free Central-Mid-Levels Escalator between Central on Des Voeux Road Central and the Mid-Levels on Victoria Peak. It's a series of moving walkways and escalators that snake their way through the Central District up the steep slope of the Peak. Constructed in the hope of alleviating traffic congestion for commuters who live in the Mid-Levels (about halfway up the Peak), the combination escalator/walkway has a total length of just less than .8km (1/2 mile) and transports approximately 27,000 people a day, moving downward in the morning until 10am and then reversing uphill the rest of the day to accommodate those returning home. The escalator has many entrances/exits, so commuters can get on and off as they like.