Monday, January 12, 2009

Get around Hong Kong

Get around

Hong Kong's public transport system is highly developed, to the point where often the hardest part is choosing your means of transport. Centamap, produced by a local estate agency, is one of the best tools for looking up a location.

Octopus card
The Octopus card is the heart of the public transport system. A contactless smart card, even when placed inside a wallet or bag, you can tap on card readers and the correct amount will be deducted from money stored. Those who are familiar with London Underground's Oyster card or Japan Railway's IC cards will quickly understand the Octopus card. In addition to being used for all forms of public transport (except most of the red-top minibuses and taxis) Octopus is also accepted for payment in almost all convenience stores, restaurant chains like McDonald's and Cafe de Coral, many vending machines, all roadside parking and some car parks. Some housing estates and schools use the card for identification at entry.

When travelling by MTR and some bus routes, payment by Octopus card can sometimes be cheaper than cash, and it's always more convenient. As the Octopus has a fully refundable deposit on the card and on unused credit, there's really no reason not to get one.

Basic adult Octopus cards cost $150, with $100 face value plus $50 refundable deposit. A $7 service charge applies if the card is returned in less than 3 months. The maximum value that an Octopus card can carry is $1,000. The Octopus card also allows the remaining value to go negative once. For example, you may pay for a ride of $5 with a remaining value of $2, but you cannot use the card again until the value is topped up. The negative value of an Octopus card can go as far as $35.

Your Octopus cards' balance is displayed as you exit the gates after each ride, or after each transaction. The balance can also be checked using a small machine near regular ticket machines in MTR stations.

For travellers, there are three convenient ways to refill a card:

Add Value machines, usually located next to regular ticket machines in MTR stations. These machines accept cash only.
Customer service at any MTR or KCR station.
Merchants that accept Octopus (eg. Mcdonalds, Cafe de Coral, 7-Eleven).
In addition to the Airport Express Octopus (see above), you can also buy a 24-hour pass for $50 at any MTR station; however, this is valid only on MTR lines.

By train

Hong Kong's Mass Transit Railway (MTR) underground and overground network is the fastest way to get around the territory, but what you gain in speed you lose in views and (at least for short distances) price. There are ten lines, including the Airport Express, plus a network of modern tram lines operated by the MTR in the North West New Territories. The Kowloon Canton Railway (KCR), including its link to the mainland border at Shenzhen (Lo Wu), was merged into the MTR in 2007 and now operates as a part of it.

The most important line for many visitors is the busy Tsuen Wan Line (red), which tunnels from Central to Kowloon and down Nathan Road towards Tsuen Wan in the New Territories and the Island Line (blue) which runs along the north coast of the Island. The new Tung Chung Line (orange) is the fastest route to Lantau and one of the cheapest ways to the airport when coupled with the S1 shuttle bus stationed at Tung Chung MTR station. The line also provides a link to Hong Kong Disneyland via a change at Sunny Bay station. All signs are bilingual in Chinese and English and all announcements are made in Cantonese, Mandarin and English so tourists should not have a problem using the rail system. Should you get lost, staff in the station control room usually speak some English so they would be able to help you out.

Most underground MTR stations have one Hang Seng Bank branch (except for the massive Hong Kong/Central station, which has two). Since they're a common feature, unambiguous and easy to find, they're a good place to tell people to meet you.

Note that in Hong Kong, a subway is an underground walkway, not an underground railway, as in most English speaking countries outside of North America. While many of the trains travel underground, there are also many stations whose trains travel above on raised platforms.

By tram

Operated by Hong Kong Tramways, the narrow double-decker city trams trundling on the north coast of Hong Kong Island are a Hong Kong icon. Trams are slower, but the route along the length of Hong Kong Island's centre is useful and with a flat fare of only $2, they're the cheapest sightseeing tour around.

In a league of its own is the Peak Tram, Hong Kong's first mechanised mode of transport, opened back in 1888. The remarkably steep 1.7 km track up from Central to Victoria Peak is worth at least one trip despite the comparatively steep price ($22 one-way, $33 return; return tickets must be purchased in advance).

By bus
There are three types of bus available in Hong Kong, operated by a multitude of companies. While generally easy to use (especially with Octopus), signage in English can be sparse and finding your bus stop can get difficult. Buses are pretty much your only option for travelling around the south side of the island and Lantau.

The large double-decker buses cover practically all of the territory, stop frequently and charge varying fares depending on the distance. The first seats of the upper deck offer great views. The franchised bus operators in Hong Kong include Kowloon Motor Bus (KMB) (and its subsidary Long Win Bus), Citybus, New World First Bus and New Lantao Bus. Route and fare information can be found on the companies web sites. Fares will depend more on where you board rather than where you get-off which means it is more expensive to board at the earlier stops rather than the later stops.

Van-sized public light buses carry a maximum of 16 passengers (seats only) and come in two varieties, namely red minibuses and green minibuses (also called maxicabs); the colour refers to a wide stripe painted on top of the vehicle. Riding a minibus may not be easy for travellers, as it is customary to call out the name of the stop or ask the driver to stop in Cantonese. Red minibuses do not accept Octopus but will give you change, while green minibuses do accept Octopus payment but can not give you change if you pay in cash. The Hong Kong Island green minibus #1 down from the Peak to Central is particularly exhilarating. Red minibuses tend to have a more Chinese feel than green buses. Prices on red minibuses are often displayed only in Chinese numbers. The price displayed on a red minibus can legally vary according to the market price, so expect to pay more at busy times. Some people argue that the driving standards of red minibuses is lower than green minibuses; Minibus drivers generally drive fast, especially at night. Always use minibus seatbelts where available. You will notice that they all have an extra, large, digital speedometer in the cabin for the passengers to view, this is required by the government after a few fatal accidents due to speeding. Since the introduction of these passenger speedometers mini-bus accident rates have dropped.

Kowloon Canton Railway also maintains its fleet of KCR feeder buses. KCR passengers can enjoy a free feeder service if the payment is made by Octopus. The route K16 is especially useful for tourists who need to go to Tsim Sha Tsui from the New Territories and mainland China by rail.

Note that if paying in cash, the exact fare is required and no change can be given. Paying by Octopus is much more convenient.

Route numbering is independent in six regions: bus on Hong Kong Island/ in Kowloon and in New Territories/ on Lantau Island, green minibus on Hong Kong Island/ in Kowloon/ in New Territories and several exceptional auxiliary buses route (red minibuses does not have a route number). This leads to duplication of routes in different regions. Although the Transport Department of Hong Kong Government has been working on the unifying of the route numbers, it is still a little bit messy at the moment.

If you are confused a bit by the numbering of routes, here is a suggestion: just remember the route number of buses in Hong Kong Island/Kowloon/New Territories only whenever it is necessary. In other special circumstances, ask the driver or the station staffs for the Lantau buses and green minibuses and they can answer you.

Generally you need not to mention which district the route belongs to when you are asking for directions (almost all people will assume you will asking for the route which runs in the district you are in, e.g. if you ask for bus route #2, locals will assume you will asking for bus route #2 running in Kowloon if you are in Kowloon), but you really need to mention whether the route is bus or minibus when you ask, since in some cases both bus and minibus can have same route number in the same area which are actually different routes. (e.g. there are both bus route #6 and minibus route #6 in Tsim Sha Tsui, which are actually different routes).

If you are curious enough, you may discover a pattern on the allocation of buses in Hong Kong/Kowloon/NT:

Prefix 1 on hundred digit: routes use Cross Harbour Tunnel.
Prefix 2 on hundred digit: refers to some air-conditioned bus routes.
Prefix 3 on hundred digit: refers to several peak-hour only cross-harbour routes, Hong Kong Island recreational or special bus services.
Prefix 6 on hundred digit: uses Eastern Harbour Crossing.
Prefix 7 on hundred digit: refers to some Island Eastern Corridor routes, New World First Bus West Kowloon or Tseung Kwan O routes.
Prefix 8 on hundred digit: refers to specialized Shatin Racecourse lines.
Prefix 9 on hundred digit: uses Western Harbour Crossing.
Prefix A: Airport Airbus routes.
Prefix E: North Lantau external bus routes.
Prefix K: KCR Feeder Bus routes.
Prefix M: Some bus routes that are terminated at Airport Express station.
Prefix N: Overnight bus routes.
Prefix P: North Lantau peak-hour only routes.
Prefix R: North Lantau recreational bus routes (for Hong Kong Disneyland).
Prefix S: Airport shuttle bus routes.
Prefix T: Recreational bus routes (T stands for tourists).
Prefix X: Express routes for special services.
Suffix A, B, C, D, E, F: Conventional routes.
Suffix K: Mainly connecting to KCR East Rail stations.
Suffix M: Mainly connecting to MTR stations.
Suffix P: Mostly peak-hour only routes.
Suffix R: Recreational bus routes.
Suffix S: Peak-hour only routes or special services.
Suffix X: Buses using highways or express services.

By ferry
A vast fleet of ferries plies between the many islands of Hong Kong. The granddaddy of them all and an attraction in itself is the Star Ferry, whose most popular line travels between Kowloon and Central from early morning until late at night, and offers amazing views (especially when coming from Kowloon). Upper deck seats cost $2.20 while the lower deck cost $1.70, both payable with Octopus or cash (change given). The Star Ferry also operates between Kowloon and Wanchai.

Ferries to Lamma, Lantau and other islands depart from a variety of ports, but the largest and most important terminal is at Central adjacent to the Star Ferry. Ferries are usually divided into fast ferries and slow ferries, with fast ferries charging around twice the price for half the journey time, although not all destinations offer both kinds of service. Example fares for trips from Central to Yung Shue Wan (Lamma) are $10/15 slow/fast, and to Mui Wo (Lantau) $10.50/$21. Note that all fares increase by around 50% on Sundays and public holidays.

By taxi
Taxis are plentiful, clean and efficient. They were just recently (2003) rated as the cheapest of all big cities in the world. Not good news for the drivers, but good for the tourist. Fares in Hong Kong & Kowloon start at HK $18, and you can ride for 2 km before additional $1.50 per 200m increments start ticking ($1 for fares of $70.50 and above). New fare increases are indicated in writing until the meter is adjusted. Tipping is not expected but nevertheless still welcome, and drivers often round up the fare to the nearest dollar when giving change.

Drivers are required to provide change for $100 notes, but not for higher denominations. If you only have a $500 or $1000 note and are going through a tunnel, let the driver know beforehand and he will change it when paying at the toll booth.

Life is made slightly more difficult by the fact that there are three different flavours of taxi. These can be distinguished by colour: red taxis typically serve the Island and Kowloon, and some parts of the New Territories (for example Shatin), but they are permitted to travel all over Hong Kong except to Lantau Island; green taxis serve the New Territories (only), but with a slightly cheaper fare than red taxis; blue taxis serve Lantau (only). (You are unlikely to ever encounter a blue Taxi, as there are only about 50 of them in existence.) All three types of taxis can take you to the airport. When in doubt, just take a red taxi.

In addition, red taxis are based in either the Island or Kowloon, if they do take you across the harbour, they will charge you twice the bridge/tunnel toll so they can get back! But you can use this to your advantage by picking a homebound taxi from a cross-harbour taxi rank in places like the Star Ferry pier or Hung Hom station. In these cross-harbour taxi stands only single toll charge will be applied to the taxi fare.

There are no extra late-night charges. Baggage carried in the boot ("trunk" if coming from north America) will cost you $5 per piece and all tolls are payable. The wearing of seat belts is required by law.

All taxis are radio equipped and can be reserved and requested via an operator for a token fee of $5, payable to the driver. You are unlikely to need to call a taxi, though, as they are plentiful.

It is good practice to get a local person to write the name or address of your destination in Chinese for you to hand to the taxi driver, as many drivers speak limited English and Mandarin. For example, if you wish take a journey back to your hotel, ask a receptionist for the hotel's business card.