Shanghai Guide: From Airport to City Center

Alexander NeedhamIf you’re coming to Shanghai, you’ll most likely be arriving through Pudong International Airport (PVG). Located 30 km east of downtown, it took over most international flights from the older Hongqiao Airport (SHA) when it first opened in 1999. It is big, it is modern, and the architecture is, uh, big and modern.

It is also remarkably unremarkable.

You really do not want to hang out there.

Yes, you’d think such a cosmopolitan first-tier city like Shanghai would have an impressively cosmopolitan airport like Hong Kong’s, filled with name-brand shopping and palatable dining options for the legions of travelers passing through each day, but as far as major international airports go, Shanghai’s PVG sucks (so does Beijing, but that’s a story the Imagethief tells best). Get past immigration, head for the exits, and make your way to downtown Shanghai, where it is far more interesting.

If you’re foreign to Shanghai, and no one was sent to pick you up, there are three common methods for getting from the airport into the city center, which is where you’re most likely headed. Each of these options are detailed below, with pros, cons, instructions, and some useful tips.

Method 1: Taxi

Why: Convenience. Unless there is a long line of people waiting to get taxis, this is your option for door to door service, and especially useful if you have a ton of luggage. The major drawback will be the cost, and the risk of dishonest drivers intentionally taking a less-than-direct route from the airport to your stated destination. Unfortunately, this risk gets higher the more foreign you appear and the less familiar you are with Shanghai’s roads/geography.

Typical rates during the day to the Puxi side of downtown Shanghai will be around 150-170 RMB. To the Pudong side, around 100-130 RMB. As long as you’re certain your destination is in the city center, you should get worried if the fare hits 200. A vein on your forehead should pop if you see 300.

When: Anytime. Note that fare rates will be higher at night, from 11:00pm to 5:00am.

How: Look for signs as you exit the terminal. Taxis will typically wait for passengers by the curbside, you can’t miss them. Grab an empty taxi, load up your luggage, have a seat, and tell the driver where you’d like to go. Having the destination written down or printed out, especially in Chinese, often helps, but the driver should recognize most major hotels or city streets. Switch taxis if they claim they don’t. It isn’t worth the hassle.

Sit in the back if you want to feel important. Sit in the front for a better view of where you’re going. The front seat may also give you a slight psychological edge with regards to keeping the driver honest. You can keep an eye on the fare meter and the see the freeway/road signs more clearly. Even with the protective plastic cage around the driver, you could also theoretically reach around and choke the bastard if he’s messing with you.

Method 2: Shanghai MagLev (then Metro or Taxi)

Why: Fast. Sorta. The airport is located quite a ways from downtown Shanghai, approximately 45 minutes from city center without too much traffic. The MagLev will get you from the airport to the Longyang Road MagLev/Metro station on the Pudong side of downtown Shanghai in as little as seven minutes. A taxi would take about 30 minutes for the same trip. The problem is, sometimes you have to wait for the train and you need to walk between transfers, both of which take additional time.

However, riding the MagLev has novelty value. It floats on magnets and is, like, really fast. It also costs about as much as a taxi for covering the same distance. More importantly, it at least gets you from the airport to Pudong without the risk of taxi driver shenanigans. Once you reach the Longyang Road station in Pudong, you have the option of transferring to the Shanghai Metro subway system or switching to a taxi.

Transferring to the metro system can help you get closer to your destination cheaply, leaving any necessary taxi ride to cover the remaining distance between the metro stop and your goal costing only 11-20 RMB. Your total trip shouldn’t cost more than 55-80 RMB, and you didn’t have to worry about getting ripped off. If you have a lot of luggage, however, you would’ve had to carry/drag it to the MagLev, off the MagLev, through the subway station, onto the subway, through any subway transfers, out the subway station, and maybe onto a taxi. If you don’t have a lot of crap or you’re a rugged individual, you’re golden.

Switching to a taxi directly at Longyang Road Station would usually be fine if you’re destination is within the Pudong side of downtown. Just be aware that there are shady taxi drivers waiting at Longyang Road Station also, since there are enough gullible foreigners coming out of the MagLev for them to still take advantage of. Fortunately, the city sometimes posts someone at the taxi queue to advise foreigners on how much you should expect to pay to get where you’re going. Regardless, your total trip shouldn’t cost more than around 70-100 RMB.

When: MagLev operates between 6:45am to 9:32pm, at 15-20 minute intervals. The Shanghai Metro typically operates between 5:30am to 11:00pm, depending on the line.

How: The MagLev station is located directly in the middle between Terminals 1 and 2, which you can walk to via several long indoor corridors. If you see the KFC, you’ve reached the Airport station, so enter opposite the KFC and purchase your ticket. One-way will be 50 RMB, or 40 RMB if you can show them your airline ticket. Once you’re in the MagLev train, stow your luggage, and prepare for, uh, a really fast train ride.

The MagLev will reach peak speeds of 430 km/hr during most of the day while the early morning and late evening trains only go up to 300 km/hr, ostensibly to conserve power. Again, the ride will be over in as short as seven minutes. It isn’t much time to enjoy the scenery, but highlights include the the train banking as it turns and first-time passengers getting the shit scared out of them as the train passes the other train going the other direction. Boom.

Once you get to Longyang Road Station, decide if you want to transfer to the Metro or take a taxi to continue to your destination.

If Metro, follow the signs, go down the escalators, and cross over to the Line 2 Metro station of the same name. The Line 2 subway goes East-West across Shanghai, with interchanges for Lines 1, 3, 4, 6, and 8 (basically everything). UrbanRail.net has a useful subway map here. Depending on where you want to go in the system, fare will cost you 3-6 RMB. You can purchase your metro ticket at one of the ticket vending machines (which have English) or from a nice ticketing person located behind some glass in a booth nearby.

If taxi, follow the signs, go down the escalator, and look for the taxi queue.

Method 3: Airport Shuttle Bus (then Taxi)

Why: Cheap. The airport shuttle bus system will only cost you 15-30 RMB to get you to most major destinations in the city center. This is what the vast majority of the locals use. It may be the slowest option, but honestly not by much. Like riding a taxi, you get a much more scenic route entering downtown Shanghai on surface streets. Unlike riding the taxi, you avoid the risk of getting ripped off, which would be the “scenic route” you don’t want to take. Once you reach the stop nearest where you want to go, you can always hop into a taxi for the last leg of your journey. All told, using the shuttle bus will be approximately 60-75% cheaper than using a taxi only, and you got a chance to make new friends. Everyone wants friends. If your destination is in the city center and you choose the right bus line to take, your total trip should only cost about 30-50 RMB.

When: Operates from 7:00 am to 11:00pm.

How: As you exit the terminal and into the main arrival reception area, look for signs directing you towards the airport shuttle buses. You will exit and likely see several buses waiting at the curb, each with a different number. There should be a large sign and map along the wall that details the route of each bus line, including their stops. More information can be found here. If you’re uncertain, you can ask for assistance at a nearby ticketing window. There should also be someone standing in front of each bus whom you can try asking. Don’t expect perfect, if any, English.

If you’re transferring directly to Hongqiao Airport, you’ll want Line 1. I don’t know where you’re going, but Shanghai will miss you. For everyone else arriving for the main attraction, you’ll probably be using Lines 2-8 depending on where your destination is in the city center.

Don’t worry about buying a ticket just yet. Just find the right bus line to hop on. Only after the bus begins moving will someone come by to collect fare. Your fare will be based on what stop you want. Once you get to your stop, hop off and don’t forget your luggage. If you need to, hail a taxi to complete your journey.

And there you have it…

I personally usually use method 2 or 3, depending on whether the MagLev is operating or not when I need to get to or get away from PVG. Having lived in Shanghai for quite some time, I know the city’s layout fairly well. Not only does this help me avoid getting ripped off by sneaky taxi drivers, it’s also why I feel perfectly comfortable and even prefer using methods 2 and 3 to not even have to deal with airport taxis at all.

Unfortunately, if you’re new to Shanghai, you may not enjoy the same confidence I do. Taxis are tempting for the convenience they offer, especially when you don’t know your way around a big, unknown city. There certainly are honest taxi drivers, but I’ve heard too many horror stories. I don’t want your first experience in Shanghai to give you such a poor impression of what is otherwise a fascinating metropolis with plenty of positive things to share. My advice is to jump in and start learning the other forms of transportation, because they’re part of Shanghai’s splendor too.

Good luck and welcome to Shanghai.


Have questions? I’ve got answers (uh, maybe). Feel free to ask in the comments.

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