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Get around in Taiwan

Posted by in on 5-28-13

By plane

Taiwan’s main domestic carriers are Mandarin Airlines [16], a China Airlines subsidiary; UNI Air [17], controlled by EVA; and TransAsia Airways [18]. Flights are frequent, and it is usually unnecessary to book flights in advance. Taipei and Kaohsiung have regular services and links to most other domestic airports; however, it may not be possible to fly from one domestic airport to another. The popularity of the high-speed train has drastically cut flights on the once popular west coast sectors, with eg. Taipei-Kaohsiung flights only a shadow of what they once were.

If you want to visit Taiwan’s smaller islands, the plane is still the best option, and is the only practical option of travelling to Penghu, Kinmen or Matsu. Fares are not too expensive, and local planes are very good. The domestic airport in Taipei is Song Shan Airport [19], which is in the north of the Taipei and easily reached by Taxi. Domestic destinations include Kaohsiung, Tainan, Chiayi, Taichung, Pingtung, Taitung, Hualien, Makung (Penghu / Pescadores), Kinmen, Hengchun, Nangan and Beigan. Travelers heading to Kenting can avail themselves of the direct and frequent bus service from Kaohsiung airport that connect with flights arriving from Taipei.

By train

Navigation
In mid-sized and smaller cities, your main reference point is going to be the train station. If you’re having trouble finding English speaking people, try looking for college or high school students.
Taiwan High Speed train
Map of Taiwan High Speed Rail

Taiwan’s train system is excellent, with stops in all major cities. Train stations are often located in the centers of most cities and towns and serve as a convenient hub for most types of transportation. In addition, the train system allows you to bypass the highways, which can become extremely crowded on weekends and national holidays.

The new train backbone is Taiwan High Speed Rail (HSR, 高鐵 gāotiě) [20], a bullet train based on Japanese Shinkansen technology that covers the 345 km (215 mi) route on the West Coast from Taipei to Zuoying (Kaohsiung) in 90 min. Other stops on the route are Banqiao, Taoyuan, Hsinchu, Taichung, Chiayi and Tainan, but note that many THSR stations have been built a fair distance from the cities they serve (e.g. a taxi from downtown Tainan costs up to NT$400, but there’s a free shuttle bus). A one way ticket from Taipei to Kaohsiung costs NT$1,490 in economy or NT$2,440 in business class, but economy seats have plush seats and ample legroom, so there’s little reason to pay extra. All signage and announcements are in English as well, making navigation a snap. Bookings are accepted online and via phone up to two weeks in advance at +886-2-6626-8000 (English spoken), with payment required only when you pick up the tickets. Credit cards are accepted. Bookings can be easily made by internet, and you can pay online or pay and pick up your tickets at almost every Familymart and 7-11. You can also avoid the queues for long distance tickets at major stations by buying your tickets from the automated ticket machines. The English prompts on the automated machines are hard to spot but they are present,usually in the top left corner of the screen. The stations and platforms are wheelchair-friendly and all trains include a wheelchair-accessible car (wider doors, ample space, accessible bathroom). Note that the official English guide for online reservations distinguishes between “senior or disabled tickets” and “handicap-friendly seats”; while it’s possible to buy a ticket for the former online (“correct passenger ID” required), a ticket for the latter has to be reserved by calling the ticketing office on the phone.

Mainline trains are run by the separate Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA, 台鐵) [21], whose services are generally efficient and reliable. Reserving tickets well in advance is recommended when traveling with the train on weekends, especially for long distance travel. Slower (but more frequent) commuter trains without reserved seating are also available. Train timetables and online booking [22] (up to 2 weeks in advance) are available on the TRA website; however, the online services only work between 8AM and 9PM or thereabouts and there is a small charge, $7, for online bookings. Note that booking online only establishes a reservation as there is no Internet payment option. You must pay for the tickets you reserved at your local train station or post office to actually receive it. Children under 115 cm (45 in) height go free, and taller kids shorter than 145 cm (57 in) and under 12 years of age get half-price tickets. If you get return tickets there is a small discount depending upon travel distance. There are also vending machines at the larger stations.

Round island tourist rail passes are also available which allow the holder to embark and disembark a set number of times for a fixed price are also available at most larger train stations. A foreign passport may be required for purchase.

Service

Aside from THSR, the fastest train is Tzu-Chiang, and the slowest is Pingkuai (Ordinary/Express). There is often little to choose between prices and destination times for adjacent train classes, but the gap can be quite large between the fastest and the slowest.

Tzu-Chiang (自強 ziqiang): The fastest (and most expensive). Assigned seating. Non-reserved (standing) tickets are also sold at full price.
Chu-Kuang (莒光 juguang): Second fastest. Assigned seating.
EMU (Electric multiple unit, 電車 dianche) and DRC (Diesel railcar / 柴客): Short to medium distance commuter train, stops at all stations. No assigned seating.
Express / Ordinary (普通 putong): Stops at all stations, no air conditioning, most inexpensive. No assigned seating. Some Express trains (the light blue ones running on West Trunk Line) are air-conditioned while others (dark blue ones) are not equipped with air conditioners.
Diesel Express: Only available on East Trunk Line and South Link Line. Mainly serve as commuter trains. No air conditioning. Tickets are the same price as Express and Ordinary.

For travel to nearby cities, you can travel on electric dianche (電車) commuter trains . These arrive very frequently (about once every ten to fifteen minutes). In addition, “standing tickets” may be purchased on trains with assigned seating that have no available seats. Standing tickets are 80% the original ticket price and may be useful for last minute travelers. The downside is, of course, that you will be required to stand during your entire trip.

Also, do try to get your destination station written in Chinese and try to do some “mix and match” with the system map as well as looking out for the matching Chinese characters written on the station. Unfortunately for foreigners, announcements are only made in Mandarin, Taiwanese and Hakka so English would not be of much help in the train. Therefore, be alert and always be on the lookout for your destination station, or you risk missing it.

By bus

Intercity buses are called keyun (客運), as opposed to gongche (公車) which run within the county and city. Buses run by private companies are generally more luxurious (often boasting wide, soft seats, foot-rests and individual video screens) than those run by government-owned companies. Still, even the government-owned buses are comfortable, punctual, and maintain clean facilities on board.

The Taiwan tourist shuttle connects with many of the major train stations and offers direct services to many of the tourist sites which might be confusing for foreigners to locate by public bus. The website is confusing to navigate but English timetables and route maps are available from most tourist information centers and bus stops. [23]
Bus stop in Taipei
In major cities, bus transportation is extensive. Route maps, however, are almost entirely in Chinese, though the destinations indicated on the front of buses are in English. If you’re staying at a hotel, have the clerk suggest some routes for you, and circle your destination on the map. Show this to the bus driver, and he/she will hopefully remember to tell you when to get off. In smaller cities, there is often no local bus service, though the out-of-town buses will sometimes make stops in the suburbs. There are taxi ranks at all airports and bus terminals.

Occasionally a bus driver might stop a bus away from the curb at a bus stop. Sometimes it is due to a vehicle illegally parked at a bus stop. (Taiwanese traffic law and regulation prohibit vehicles from stopping or parking within 10 m (33 ft) of a bus stop.) However, a bus driver might stop a bus away from the curb just because he or she does not want to wait for overtaking traffic while leaving a bus stop. Therefore, be much more careful when getting on or off a bus stopped away from a curb, as many motorcycles, motor scooters, and bicycles will definitely be tempted to overtake on the right side of the stopped bus where people get on and off! (As traffic drives on the right side of the road in Taiwan, buses have doors on the right side.)

In Taiwan you need to hail the bus you want as you see it coming – much like hailing a taxi. Both end points of the route are listed on the front of the bus in Chinese and sometimes English, so it is important to make sure the bus you get on is going the right direction. In Taipei, you sometimes pay getting on the bus and sometimes getting off (whether with cash or the ubiquitous Easy Card). As you get into the bus there will be an illuminated sign opposite you. If the first character is 上 pay as you get in, if it is 下 pay as you get out (or just watch the other people).

By metro

Taipei MRT

Taipei has an excellent, fairly comprehensive subway system called the MRT that makes traveling around the city a snap, and Kaohsiung’s metro finally opened in March 2008. Prepaid travel cards such as the EasyCard (悠遊卡) in Taipei for bus and metro travel are available at metro stations. In KaoHsiung, it’s called 一卡通. They are read via proximity sensors so you do not need to remove the card from your wallet or purse. The MRT is very clean as there is no eating, drinking, or smoking inside of the stations or subway trains. There is also a special waiting area that is monitored by security camera for those who are concerned about security late at night. Stations and trains are wheelchair-friendly, but note that when there are multiple exits from a single station, usually only one of these is equipped with a lift.

By taxi

Betel nut beauties (檳榔西施)
The highways of Taiwan are lined with brightly lit booths staffed by attractive, skimpily dressed girls, but they’re not plying the world’s oldest trade; instead, they’re betel nut beauties, who compete for the attention of customers to sell the mildly addictive stimulant Binglan [24] (檳榔 bīnláng), not themselves. The trade has prompted much moral hand-wringing and sale by scantily clad girls is banned in Taipei and a handful of other counties – mostly out of fears of a negative international reputation or more practically the fear of traffic accidents and congestion from rubber-necking. Nonetheless, the practice is still going strong in much of the country, and Binlang is available everywhere from small roadside shops and stalls. Binlang itself is worth a try and there is a chance you will be offered it in the company of farmers or working-class Taiwanese. Be warned – it stains your teeth blood red. To consume it, bite and spit off the cap at the top of the nut, then chew the rest of the bundle. Only the first mouthful of saliva must be spit and afterwards one can either choose to spit or swallow and enjoy the buzz. One sampling on your trip shouldn’t be a problem, but do keep in mind that this little treat is habit-forming and cancer-causing for long-term “users.”

Taxis are a dime a dozen in major Taiwanese cities. You don’t need to look for a taxi – they’ll be looking for you. The standard yellow cabs scour roads looking for potential riders such as lost foreigners. It is possible but generally unnecessary to phone for a taxi. To hail one, simply place your hand in front of you parallel to the ground. But they’ll often stop for you even if you’re just waiting to cross the street or for a bus. In less heavily trafficked areas further out from the transit hubs, taxis are always available by calling taxi dispatch centers.

Drivers generally cannot converse in English or read Westernized addresses (except for special Taoyuan airport taxis). Have the hotel desk or a Taiwanese friend write out your destination in Chinese, and also take a business card from the hotel. Show the driver the Chinese writing of where you are going.

Taxis are visibly metered (starting point priced at NT$70), and cab drivers are strictly forbidden from taking tips. A maximum of four people can ride in one cab, and for the price of one. Relative to American taxicabs, Taiwanese cabs are inexpensive.

Although taxi drivers in Taiwan tend to be more honest than in many other countries, not all are trustworthy. An indirect trip might cost you half again as much. A cab driver using night-time rates during the daytime will cost you 30% more (make sure he presses the large button on the left on his meter before 11PM). Avoid the especially overzealous drivers who congregate at the exits of train stations. Also, stand your ground and insist on paying meter price only if any driving on mountain roads is involved – some drivers like to tack on surcharges or use night-time rates if driving to places like Wenshan (圓山) or Wulai (烏來). Such attempts to cheat are against the law.

From Taoyuan Airport (TPE), buses are a much more economical option but if you want a direct route Taoyuan airport drivers are the best choice. They’re quite comfortable and get you to your destination as quick as possible. All the TPE taxi drivers are interlinked by radio so they could be forewarned if there are police. Sometimes, if there are traffic jams and no police around, the driver will drive in the emergency lane. Taxis from TPE to destinations in Tao Yuan, parts of Taipei county and some other destinations are ‘allowed’ to add an additional 50% to the meter fare.

The badge and taxi driver identification are displayed inside and the license number marked on the outside. You must also be wary that the driver turns on his meter, otherwise he might rip you off – in such a case, you aren’t obliged to pay; but make sure you can find a police officer to settle the matter. If there are stories of passengers boarding fake taxis and being attacked by the driver, it is best not to be paranoid about it. Drivers may be more worried about passengers attacking them!

If you do call a taxi dispatch center, you will be given a taxi number to identify the vehicle when it arrives. Generally, dispatch is extremely rapid and efficient, as the taxis are constantly monitoring dispatch calls from the headquarters using radio while they are on the move. This is also the safest way to take a taxi, especially for females.

Taxis are also a flexible although relatively expensive way to travel to nearby cities. They have the advantage over the electric trains in that they run very late at night. Drivers are required to provide a receipt if asked, though you might find them unwilling to do so.

Taxis, as elsewhere in Asia, are not keen on exchanging large bills. Try to keep some smaller denomination bills on hand to avoid the hassle of fighting with the driver for change.

Taxi drivers are known for their strong political opinions. Many are supporters of the pan-green coalition and Taiwanese independence, spending all day listening to Taiwanese political talk radio. Drivers also have negative connotations as being former prisoners. Be careful about your opinions on sensitive political subjects (including, but not necessarily limited to cross-strait relations); also be careful of describing your destination which may be perceived politically (such as the President’s Office or Chiang-Kai-Shek Memorial Hall). Also watch out for drivers who discriminate against other cultures such as taping “No Korean passengers” on their cars. This is sometimes unavoidable as some drivers provoke such discussion.In addition, if you see what looks like blood spewing from the driver’s mouth, or him spitting blood onto the street – not to fret, it’s merely him chewing betel nut (see box). Keep in mind, however, that betel nuts are a stimulant.

Taxi drivers are generally friendly towards foreigners, and a few of them take the opportunity to try their limited English skills. They are most likely to ask you about yourself, and are a patient audience to your attempts at speaking Mandarin. If you are traveling with small children, don’t be surprised if they are given candy when you disembark.

Women are sometimes warned not to take taxis alone at night. This is not an extreme risk, although there have been incidents where women have been attacked. To be more safe, women can have the hotel or restaurant phone a cab for them (ensuring a licensed driver), have a companion write down the license number of the driver (clearly displayed on the dashboard), or keep a cell phone handy. Do not get in if the driver doesn’t have a license with picture clearly displayed in the cab.

By scooter or motorcycle

Scooters with an engine size of 50cc require a license to drive, and should be insured and registered in the owner’s name. Foreign nationals with stay less than 30 days do not have an easy way to get a scooter license. Until 2003 it wasn’t possible to get a scooter above 150cc. Many of the scooters within cities are only 50cc and incapable of going faster than 80 km/h (50 mph). The more powerful versions known as zhongxing (重型) (heavy format) scooters are now quite common and can be rented for short-term use, or found for sale used at English In Taiwan [25] if you’re going to need it for a while. They are not allowed on freeways even if they are capable of going faster than 100 km/h (62 mph) unless used for certain police purposes, but that just means you have to take the scenic route.

If you’re just learning to drive a scooter on the streets of Taiwan, it would be a good idea to practice a bit on a back road or alley until you have a feel for the scooter – attempting to do so in the busier cities could easily be fatal. Certainly, things can get pretty hairy on Taiwanese roads and Taipei in particular has narrower more congested roads than many other cities. However if you know what you’re doing, it’s the perfect way to get around in a city.

It should be possible to rent a scooter by the day, week or month, depending on the city in which you’re staying. In Taipei, as of September 2008, the only place legally renting scooters and motorbikes to foreigners is the Bikefarm [26], which is run by a very friendly and helpful English guy called Jeremy. In Taichung, Foreigner Assistance Services In Taiwan F.A.S.T [27] offers a rental service for foreign visitors. Otherwise, scooters are generally easy to rent in most major cities, with many such places being conveniently located near railway or bus stations. Most usually require some form of identification even if, in some cases, it consists of your expired Blockbuster video card! The average price you may expect is $400 for 24 hours, this includes one or two helmets.

Another option is to rent a motorcycle. Many foreigners swear by their 125cc Wild Wolf (野狼) motorcycles, and a trip around the island on a motorcycle can be a great way to see the island up close.

It is to be mentioned that since 2007, scooters and motorcycle over 550cc are allowed to go on expressway providing that they have a red license plate. They are however to be considered as cars, and as such cannot be parked in scooter parking spaces.

By car

An international driving license is required for driving in Taiwan and may be used for up to 30 days, after which you’ll need to apply for a local permit. Some municipalities may impose additional restrictions, so check ahead with the rental shop. VIP Rentals [28] in Taipei is quite happy to rent cars to foreigners, and will even deliver the car to a given destination. A deposit is often required, and the last day of rental is not pro-rated, but calculated on a per-hour basis at a separate (higher) rate.

The numbered highway system is very good in Taiwan. Most traffic signs are in international symbols, but many signs show names of places and streets in Chinese only. Nevertheless, almost all official directional signs will be written in both Chinese and English. However, the non-standardized Romanization means that English names can vary between road signs, making it rather confusing. The highways are in excellent shape with toll stations around every 30 km (19 mi). Currently a car driver pays $40 when passing each toll station on a highway. Prepaid tickets may be purchased at most convenience stores and at the “cash” toll-boths themselves, allowing faster passage and eliminating the need to count out exact change while driving.

While driving may be the best way to get around the countryside, in larger cities like Taipei and Kaohsiung, traffic jams are a problem as well as the difficulty of finding a good parking space, especially during the rush hour and traffic tends to get chaotic so you might be better off relying on public transport instead.

By thumb

While Taiwanese themselves don’t generally hitchhike, foreigners who have done so say that it was very easy. However, in rural areas people may not recognize the thumb in the air symbol, and you may have to try other ways – flagging down a car might work on a country lane with little or no public transportation, but doing so on a major road might lead to confusion, with the driver assuming that you are in trouble. A sign, especially one in Chinese, would therefore be of great help. The East coast around Hualien and Taitung enjoys a reputation for being especially good for getting rides. Taiwanese people are very friendly and helpful, so striking up a conversation with someone at a transport cafe or freeway service station may well see you on your way. However, to avoid possible confusion later, ensure that the driver realizes that you want a free ride.

By bicycle

While known for being a major player in the bicycle industry (through companies such as Giant and Meridia), until fairly recently, bicycles in Taiwan were considered an unwanted reminder of less prosperous times. Thankfully, this has changed in recent years. Bicycling is again on the rise, both as a tool for commuting and recreation, and support infrastructure is slowly being put into place. Several bike paths have been built, and recreational cycling has become quite popular amongst locals, especially on weekends. However, you should also be aware that local drivers have a well deserved reputation for recklessness. As such, you should exercise extreme caution when cycling outside of designated bicycle lanes and trails.

In recent years, the government has been promoting bicycling as a method of clean recreation. Several designated bicycle paths have been built throughout Taiwan (especially along riverside parks). Additionally, long distance rides, including through the Central Mountain Range, and along the coastline around the main island have become popular [29]. For long distance trips, bicycles can be shipped as is using standard freight service from the Taiwan Railway Administration between larger stations. A price table is available at: [30] (Chinese language only). Non-folding bicycles may also be transported aboard the Taipei and Kaohsiung rapid transit systems if loaded at specific stations, during off peak hours (usually 10AM-4PM on weekdays, check with your local station personnel to confirm).

Taipei MRT Bicycle Information: [31]
Taipei MRT Route Map, bicycles may be loaded at designated stations: [32]
Kaohsiung MRT Bicycle Information (passengers traveling with non-folding bicycles are assessed a flat rate NT$60 fare irrespective of distance): [33]

Giant Bicycles Corporation operates a large network of bicycle retail stores that offer rentals for as little as NT $100 per day, if requested one week in advance [34]. Public shared bicycles are also available for rent at automated kiosks in Taipei’s Hsinyi District, and in Kaohsiung. Rental fees in Taipei may be paid using the rapid transit EasyCard system, but require a deposit paid via credit card.

Additionally, many local police stations provide basic support services for cyclists, such as air pumps, and as a rest stop.

Further cycling references:

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