We didn't see too many American or English-speaking tourists in Taiwan. There also weren't all that many blog posts and articles about traveling around Taiwan outside of Taipei. Sitting here in our last stop of Japan, I thought it be good to post a summary about our time in Taiwan. Below are some tips and good things to know if you plan on making a trip to Taiwan.
Flight - There are a number of articles and suggestions for surviving long flights, the best is Diem's How to Survive a Long Haul Flight. The most important survival items for me are my noise cancelling headphones, comfortable clothes, and good movies. Luckily our 14 hour flight from LAX to Taipei wasn't full and we had the whole row to ourselves which made our flight more bearable.
ATMs - This was a scary moment for us. Taiwan was our first stop and the first two ATMs I went to said there was an error and canceled my transaction. I used 2 different cards and got the same error message. Diem tried one of her cards and also got an error message. I even called my banks to see if it they weren't allowing the transaction even though I had set my travel notification before we left. They told me they couldn't even see on their end that I had attempted to withdraw money. Apparently withdrawing money in Taiwan isn't that easy. I have Visa Debit Cards with a couple different banks and they are part of the Plus system. When withdrawing I had to select that I was using a Plus card (rather than a Visa card) and chose the default account to withdraw money and that seemed to work. Not all ATMs had the option of even choosing a Plus card and/or Visa card so it may require some more searching, just be aware that it may take a couple of tries. Taipei has some Citibank ATMs so if you have a Citi ATM card you should have no trouble. Diem has a Capital One 360 account and that doesn’t charge ATM fees or surcharges.
Public Transportation - Taiwan has great public transportation. The Easy Card (right) works on the Metro, local buses, and 7-11s around Taiwan. The Metro is very clean and has English translations for each stop. It is also very expansive in Taipei and Kaohsiung so you don’t have to do much walking. The buses have a published schedule at the stops, but locals and reviews said that the buses rarely run on time so it can be hard to rely on the schedules posted. That said, the buses we took were pretty nice with AC and lots of leg room. You can find taxis everywhere but the Metro is so convenient that we didn’t really ever use them.
Free Wi-Fi - Taiwan has free Wi-Fi throughout the country. I would recommend going to a Visitor Information counter at the airport or Metro stations and getting setup for an account. Our login and passwords were our passport numbers and birthdays (yyyy, mm, dd), respectively. The account lasts for 30 days and I wish we had known about it when we landed because we wasted a couple of days figuring this out.
Trains - Traveling around Taiwan is not as convenient as the local transportation around Taipei and the major cities. We heard that trains from Taipei to Hualien sell out in advance, especially around the weekends. We also had trouble booking trains at the times we wanted. After some more research, we found out that a lot of tour companies buy up a lot of the train tickets in advance and then return the tickets a couple of days before the departure date. So if you're buying your tickets in advance and can't get the departure time you want, check back with the ticket office a couple days or the day before you leave and see if you can switch your ticket. There's no fee for switching times.
Buses – Like the trains, it’s important to research whether your bus is likely to sell out in advance. We learned that the hard way in Sun Moon Lake, but it is also common in other locations around Taiwan. Some places only have a limited number of buses per day (Sun Moon Lake) or only sell bus tickets the day of travel (Alishan). Buses tend to be less expensive than trains and in some cases, go to some locations that trains don’t. The main bus stations are usually located next to the main train station for a given city. Check to see if you can buy tickets in advance and also check to see if they have any express buses or have any deals for a given location (e.g. Sun Moon Lake 5-Day Alishan Pass).
Lodging – Airbnb has been a godsend for the first part of our trip. There are a lot of hosts with their apartments posted so we had a number of options at each city we stayed. Airbnb spots were pretty inexpensive outside of Alishan and Sun Moon Lake.
Night Markets – Each city has its own night market mostly selling food but also selling souvenirs, clothes, and toys. These night markets only take cash and most of Taiwan restaurants and shops only take cash unless you go to higher end restaurants and shops. They are a great way to try a variety of local cuisine without spending a lot. See Diem's blog post on Taipei's night markets and the rest of her blog about the food we had in Taiwan.
English – Very few Taiwanese people speak English. Get used to pointing at things you want. If you’re able to use a translation App (Google Translate) it might be good to have certain phrases saved so you can use around.
Google Maps – Google Maps is essential for all countries. You don’t even need Wi-Fi to get a map of where you are and the direction you’re heading. We’ve used this constantly while walking around the cities to avoid getting lost. You can also download some map areas so that they are available offline. If you know where you’re going, you can get directions to the location and it will tell you what Metro train will take you there, any transfers, and estimated cost for the trip.
Weather – We purposefully did Taiwan first because we heard the heat and humidity gets pretty unbearable later in the summer. Even though we were there late April - early May, it was still really hot and humid for us wimpy San Diegans. Late March to early April I think would be ideal so that it’s not as hot and you can catch some cherry blossoms in some places (e.g., Alishan). Be sure to bring a hat or carry an umbrella not only for shade but the rain comes on pretty quick so it’s best to be prepared. The northeast monsoon lasts about six months from October to late March and brings wet weather to Keelung and the northeast side of the island, while central and southern regions stay relatively dry. The southwest monsoon starts in May and ends in late September, primarily affecting the south. That’s not the end of the rain, though – the annual “plum rain” season can bring two months of rain any time between early spring and early summer, affecting the whole island. Thankfully we missed any really bad weather even though we got some rain here and there.
Getting Help – Even though Taiwanese people don’t speak much English, they were very helpful and willing to help point you in the right direction. The best places for information are the visitor information centers usually in the Metro stations or in the main train stations of each city. They will provide you with English maps, and if they don’t speak English, they will call another person that does speak English to make sure your questions are answered. The visitor information centers also usually have free Wi-Fi so you can do your own research if necessary.
To see all the posts about Taiwan and to learn more about specific locations check out the Taiwan page here: Taiwan Blog Posts