Along the way, I flew on some of the world’s best airlines and shared my thoughts on the ground and in the air. The cash cost for the airfare alone would have been well more than $17,000. Using miles and points, however, I knocked the cost down to around $500. Learn how to travel like I do with PointsAway: The Definitive Guide To Free Flights & Nights.
One of my favorite stops on Project Pacific Circle was Hong Kong. I’ve never been somewhere with such a high density over such a large area; the number of high-rises is almost impossible to believe.
Simply taking it all in is much of the fun on a quick visit, so I wanted to share a few tips from my time on the ground so you can make the most of your time in the city:
Getting To The City From The Airport
There’s an Airport Express train system that runs from HKG to the nearby AsiaWorld-Expo, Tsing Yi, Kowloon and Hong Kong. If you’re not familiar with Hong Kong’s geography, its core is composed of not only Hong Kong the island, but also Kowloon, which is an area on the mainland across the harbor. Tsim Sha Tsui was the part of town where I was staying, which is the central district of Kowloon.
Fares are cheap given how relatively distant HKG is from the city, especially if you’re heading to Hong Kong proper. They range from $60 for Tsing Yi and $90 for Kowloon to $100 for Hong Kong. Keep in mind, those rates are in Hong Kong Dollars, which currently trade at a roughly 8:1 ratio with greenbacks. That means you’re looking at less than $12 for the trip into Kowloon, which is a great value.
Trains are large, cool and clean, with racks for storing your luggage during the 20 minute-or so trip. Trains leave about every 10 minutes, so you won’t be waiting for one long. Free shuttles run from each station to most major nearby hotels, so service is basically door-to-door from the airport to the hotel lobby between the train and bus. Be warned, however, that hotel shuttles stop running by 9 or 10PM, so if you arrive at the station later than that as I did, you’ll need to catch a cab – cash only – for the final leg of your trip.
As convenient as the trains are for your trip into Hong Kong, they’re even better for the trip back to the airport. Most airlines offer luggage centers and check-in desks at the Airport Express stations, so you can actually drop off your checked bags and receive your boarding tickets at the station, rather than lugging it back to the airport yourself. In my experience, there were zero lines and zero problems, making this a great way to save some time, money and trouble when leaving town.
Getting Around Town
I was only in Hong Kong for a few days, but I wanted to see as much as possible. That meant utilizing almost every mode of transport the city had to offer.
Taxis are very affordable for point-to-point journeys. Unless it’s quite a distance away or traffic is particularly terrible, you’re probably looking at less than $10-$15 USD for a fare.
The subway is fairly easy to navigate and can be useful for seeing some of the more popular sights outside of the harbor areas, such as the Chi Lin Nunnery. Fares vary based on distance, but you’re normally looking at less than $5 USD.
Bus fares are often quoted in amounts that you won’t find convenient to carry and don’t offer change, so it’s likely you’ll have to round your fare up. That doesn’t mean they’re expensive. A few dollars’ US is all the most you’ll need even for long journeys. My ride from the harbor up to Victoria Peak took about an hour and 28 stops, but was only a couple bucks and doubled as an opportunity to see more of the city than a much more expensive cab ride or jaunt up the Victoria Peak tram would’ve entailed.
On some routes, be prepared to see extended passenger vans subbing in for the much larger double-decker buses. I took one of these down from the Peak; they cost the same as a regular bus but hold only around 20 people and make less regular stops, so keep a close eye on its position to ensure you get off at the right time.
Finally, large green ferries make their way back and forth from Kowloon to Hong Kong every few minutes. Fares on these are extremely cheap, about $2 USD each way. It’s worth a roundtrip for the opportunity to view the skyline on each side from the middle of the harbor, even if you don’t have any plans on the other side of the water.
Victoria Peak Versus The Peak
Don’t let Google Maps trick you: the geographic Victoria Peak is not what most people mention when telling you to check out the view of the city from on high. Buses and trams run to The Peak, which is a shopping, dining and attractions complex about 80% up the mountain. Setting off on foot from here for the final 2 miles or so to reach the true peak is a fool’s errand. All that’s up there is a pretty but unremarkable park and some radio towers. Skip the torn-up knees and high probability of a heat stroke and catch the best views from The Peak.
That said, I don’t recommend paying for either the tram nor the official observation deck. Instead, schedule your trip around midday so you can enjoy lunch at The Pearl. Much more expensive by night, it’s possible to get a remarkable 3-course lunch for under $40 here and enjoy an unbeatable view of the city below in the process:
What Else To See
If you’re a shopper, Hong Kong will be your paradise. If not, too bad: it seems like the first 5-10 stories of every major building house a mall. It’s a dizzying parade of Burberry and Louis Vuitton stores that appear so frequently you could be forgiven for thinking you’re going in circles. At night, though, these malls can be your friend. On interior streets where congestion is high, the combination of smog and humidity can be smothering. Naturally, the air inside is clean and cool, so feigning some interest while working your way to the other side of the block can beat the alternative.
During the day, try to stay outside and walk some of the main streets like Nathan Road just to get a sense of the city. Take the long ways to get to places instead of trying to simply hop from one point of interest to the next. Half the fun of Hong Kong is watching the city in action, which is why I bias towards using public transit whenever possible.
The Chi Lin Nunnery is worth the fairly length subway ride from Kowloon to see, especially if you can get there during open hours, normally from around 10AM to 5PM. As mentioned above, you don’t want to miss the view from The Peak, as it’s about the only way to take the whole city in at once.
Harbour Night Cruises are a popular option for seeing the city in all its illuminated glory. Star Ferry offers affordable options including or excluding dinner. For an even more memorable experience, Aqualuna operates classically styled junk boats for both day and evening cruises. Every night around 8PM, there’s a lights and laser show featuring many of Hong Kong’s tallest skyscrapers. Dinner cruises are timed with this in mind, typically, but even a regular ferry ride can give you a great view if you time it perfectly.
Finally, don’t miss the chance to have a drink on the 118th floor of the Ritz-Carlton. The appropriately named Ozone is the highest bar in the world. Cocktails run around $20USD, but it’s worth at least one drink to say you were there and to see a view that rivals that of Victoria Peak from a manmade structure resting at sea level.
What Do I Need To Know?
Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. Given back to China from the British at the conclusion of a 99-year lease in 1999, evidence of British influence still persists most helpfully in the form of nearly universally bilingual signage. This is a tremendous help, and while only a fraction of the population speaks fluent English, just about everyone knows enough to answer simple requests.
You won’t need a visa to visit Hong Kong for a few days. Stays in mainland China require a visa and some hefty fees, unless you’re staying for less than 72 hours while waiting for certain connecting flights taking you elsewhere, coming into and out of select international airports like the one in Beijing.
Though the influence of the PRC can be felt around the edges, Hong Kong remains far freer than the mainland. Falun Gong activists were openly lobbying and handing out literature at the Kowloon ferry station, for example, something that would result in – at minimum – jail time on the mainland.
You can reach Macau by ferry in about an hour’s time without advance reservations. Tickets range from $30 up depending on your seating class. Ferries offer a pretty smooth ride even in fair chop. You’ll need to be processed by customs when entering Macau and when returning to Hong Kong, but this is a very straightforward process that takes only a few minutes in most cases.
Nearly all ATMs are compatible with US bank and credit union debit cards. A number of prepaid providers offer exceptional deals on data SIM cards for smartphones. I found one at a convenience store for about $15 that provided me with more than 3GB of 4G and LTE data over the course of my stay, for example.
Have any other questions? Ask away in the comments below!