Hong Kong blends a few unique cultures into a city that feels very accessible for US tourists. A British colony until 1997, Hong Kong residents speak a lot of English and have a lot of Western customs. The confluence of multiple cultures also creates some fascinating situations. As a former resident and semi-regular visitor, I’ve noticed a lot of random quirky things about Hong Kong on my trips. Here are some random Hong Kong travel tips to prepare you for what you might encounter!
These tips of course are borne out of my personal observations. They’re also fairly random, some of them are just idiosyncrasies about Hong Kong that I love (or hate!). Every visitor and/or resident has their own experiences and I’d love to hear yours, so let me know in the comments!
Get an Octopus card
If you do nothing else, please consider this Hong Kong travel tip. If you enjoy convenience, get an Octopus card. Octopus is Hong Kong’s ubiquitous contactless electronic payment system. You can grab one at any MTR station (counter) for a $50 HKD deposit (about $6 USD). It will make your visit to Hong Kong so much easier.
Many locations don’t accept credit cards or have credit card minimums (even Hong Kong Disneyland). I still find Hong Kong cash ridiculously over complicated and you’re going to end up with a ton of loose change when using cash. Loose change you’ll probably forget to use before you leave!
Almost every single store in Hong Kong has an Octopus card reader and you use it for your public transportation. You can conceivably spend your entire day in Hong Kong without opening your wallet – the tech is good enough to read through your wallet/purse in many cases. Almost all the locals in Hong Kong use their Octopus for almost everything and I’d strongly encourage you to do the same!
Bring an umbrella and watch your head
One of my favorite Hong Kong travel tips? Always carry an umbrella. The main reason to bring an umbrella stems from the hot and humid climate. Thunderstorms pop up frequently in the afternoons and if you’re visiting around typhoon season you can almost set your clock to it. Like many in Asia, you can also use the umbrella to shield yourself from the intense sun.
However you might want to pop an umbrella while walking the streets. Due to space restrictions, many apartments in Hong Kong tend to have individual air conditioning units – often the window variety (but built into the wall). That means condensation on the A/C units drips on your head constantly. It’s something I’ve only experienced in Hong Kong (and Chinatown), though I’m sure it happens elsewhere. So when you’re walking along the street, look up and make sure you don’t get dripped on!
Budget out extra time for riding elevators
A lot of people call Hong Kong home. Hong Kong also hosts what feels like a billion tourists on a daily basis. That means a lot of Hong Kong builds upwards and you visit a number of high rises.
Combining these two facts, Hong Kong elevators work a bit differently than what I’m used to. Separate elevators serve different floors, which in and of itself isn’t unique. What I find unique is that these elevator banks are located all over the place, not in one centralized location.
Thus you often need to take elevator from G to 2F, walk, then find the elevators that go to the floor you want. Or, in some cases, find the elevators that go to the floor with the elevators you want. It’s like the warp pipes in super Mario brothers! The MTR stations also require a bunch of navigation, so be sure to budget in extra time and don’t get too frustrated.
You may think I’m being silly, but it can get stressful when traveling with kids. Your destination on the 10th floor might require two elevator rides and if your kids are whiny and you don’t know which ones to take it can get frustrating. Remember, a lot of people speak English, so ask!
Two Hong Kong tips regarding elevators. It still seems that many Hong Kong residents will hit both the up and down buttons to call the elevator, regardless of their intended travel direction. And something I got a real kick out of: the “door close” button is not a placebo. It works immediately!
Escalators are kind of crazy too
Escalators are one of the most fun parts of Hong Kong for kids. It’s not uncommon to ride a three story escalator from place to place. You can also generally avoid the elevator confusion by taking the escalators (though sometimes those are placed in funny areas too!).
It’s common for escalators to not go to every floor, again for efficiency purposes. But at least you don’t have to wait to call the lift back if you take the wrong one. You still should have a general idea of where you’re going.
One note on travel with strollers: it’s still fairly common for people to take strollers with kids in them up escalators. While I saw this being discouraged at one MTR station, I still saw quite a few families doing it. It’s not ideal, but it saves a lot of time.
Parents, ditch the stroller if you can
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What IS ideal is ditching your stroller if you can. While Hong Kong seems to be making great strides in terms of increasing accessibility (unlike London), you still might have to take a pretty long detour if you’re confined to elevators. So build up those little kids’ stamina so they can walk to most destinations!
If you have a toddler you might want to consider bringing a baby carrier, even if they’re still too heavy. That way they can walk as much as they can and then you can throw them into the carrier when you need to. It makes a huge difference. If you don’t have a carrier yet or are in the market, we love our Beco Gemini (Amazon affiliate link). But whatever you use, it’ll usually beat dragging a stroller around.
Taxi colors and etiquette
Hong Kong taxis operate under a unique system. The color of the taxi determines what areas of Hong Kong it can serve. Red taxis serve Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, green taxis serve the New Territories, and blue taxis work Lantau Island. With the exceptions of the airport and Hong Kong Disneyland, you generally are restricted to using the correct taxi. If you’re taking the taxi from the airport, save time and make sure you line up for the correct color taxi.
You can hail taxis almost anywhere that doesn’t have double yellow lines by the curb. The easiest thing to do, though, is to find a taxi stand at the nearest hotel/mall/country club to your location. You almost never have to wait for a taxi in Hong Kong during good weather. But if it rains…good luck! Magically, all taxis will suddenly have guests.
Taxis in Hong Kong run much cheaper than in other big cities and can save a lot of time, so don’t ignore them in your travel plans.
Pack napkins and/or tissues
It can be ridiculously difficult to get napkins or tissues in Hong Kong. You usually get one and only one at restaurants – if you’re lucky. You’ll rarely find napkin dispensers like you see in the States (McDonalds being a notable exception). And if you have kids, you’ll have to wipe all sorts of things on your trip.
So buy a six pack of small tissue packets either in Hong Kong or before your trip. While it’s Parenting 101 to carry tissues or napkins around, it’s paramount in Hong Kong. You just can’t guarantee you’ll be able to find some when you need them. Oh, and bathrooms mostly use hand dryers too so you’ll have trouble finding paper towels there! Pack the napkins/tissues.
Be prepared for a late start
My final Hong Kong travel tip deals with Hong Kong residents and their time. In general, Hong Kong operates on a later schedule than most Americans. Stores don’t open until 11:00 AM, breakfast doesn’t even start until 6:00 AM in most places!
So be prepared for rush hour to be later than you might expect and plan accordingly. If you get out early, at like 8:00 AM, you can avoid most of the crowds but things you want to see might not be open yet. At the same time, if you’re taking an hour train ride to go to Tung Chung to see the giant Buddha or Hong Kong Disneyland, you probably will beat the majority of the crowds.
Use Hong Kong’s late start time to your advantage to get the most out of your vacation. And don’t forget you can keep shopping until 11:00 PM in most cases! 🙂
Here are some more tips that don’t warrant much explanation:
- You might want to avoid speaking Mandarin so as not to be mistaken for a mainland Chinese person, Hong Kong residents aren’t the biggest fans at the moment
- Recycling bins are ridiculously hard to find, unfortunately. I didn’t see my first one until Disney.
- People walk and drive on the left side, like in the UK. Yet for some reason they stand on the right side of escalators to let people pass. Confusing!
- Generally, 10% service charge is already added to your food bill and you don’t need to tip on top of that unless you felt service was exceptional. Even if you can’t read Chinese you should be able to figure it out from the bill (see below).
Hong Kong is a wonderful place to visit and a ton of fun for families. These Hong Kong travel tips are just my random observations over my last few trips, but like I said at the top I’m sure many of you have tips as well. Share in the comments and let me know what I missed!