An introduction to transportation in Hong Kong
The public transportation network of Hong Kong is without any doubt one of the most efficient transportation systems in the world. A variety of transportation options ensures excellent connections even to the most remote corners of Hong Kong's territory. Reliable and in a high frequency, yet absolutely affordable. However, each of the different means of transport has its specific characteristics, so I thought that especially for tourists and guests a small introduction to Hong Kong’s transportation could be helpful.+++Last update: September 22nd, 2017 (Airport Express Fares)+++
I want to start with the most important advice right away, as it cannot be emphasized enough: If you spend at least two days in Hong Kong, then get yourself an Octopus Card! With this rechargeable smart card, you can not only pay for almost every means of transport in Hong Kong, but also in supermarkets, kiosks and even many restaurants - a comprehensive overview of the possible application sites can be found at http://www.octopus.com.hk. It can be purchased in MTR stations and to recharge it you just use one of the add-value machines in MTR stations or conveniently top up at any 7-Eleven around town.
In addition to the desired initial credit, you deposit HKD 50, which will be refunded deducting a processing fee of 9 HKD on return of the Octopus card. For each MTR trip, you save 5% compared to the single ticket price. There’s only one thing you should be aware of: especially during peak hours make sure to have the Octopus Card ready at hand when leaving the MTR zones. Hong Kongers are extremely impatient and will express their resentment if you unnecessarily delay the outflow of the human masses ...
An alternative to the Octopus Card for short-term visitors is the Tourist Day Pass, which allows for an unlimited number of trips within a 24-hour period for just HKD 65.
The MTR (stands for Mass Transit Railway) is the Hong Kong metro network, operated by the MTR Corporation (http://www.mtr.com.hk) and transporting over 5 million people daily. It is the most profitable metro network in the world, while only a few public transport companies in the whole world are able to operate profitable at all. Since 1979, Hong Kong’s residents have been reliably and quickly transported from A to B - with minimal waiting time of less than three minutes.
With the opening of the latest addition to the network, the South Island Line in December 2016, each district of the city is now connected to the MTR via one of the 11 main (heavy) or 12 smaller light rail lines. Often, MTR stations are located within shopping centers and adjacent to residential building complexes, which practically allows people to connect their way to work with a shopping tour.
The fare system of the MTR calculates prices according to the distance traveled. One checks in with his or her ticket (usually the Octopus Card) at the turnstile when entering an MTR station and checks out later on when exiting again, whereby the corresponding fare for the distance traveled is automatically deducted. Really simple and convenient!
There are plenty of busses all over Hong Kong, but compared to the MTR their network is rather complicated to non-locals as there are different operating companies in different areas and a comprehensive overview plan doesn’t really exist. Most frequent are buses of KMB (Kowloon Motor Bus), NWFB (New World First Bus) or Citybus, which cover the most important areas of the metropolitan area of Hong Kong. Besides, there are two operators (New Lantao Bus and Long Win Bus) that cover mainly Lantau Island. Schedules and route maps can be found out via the respective homepages of the bus operators, or by consulting Dr. Google, respectively.
Especially popular are the top decks in those double-deck buses which make every ride a sightseeing trip. But be aware: a bus ride can quickly become a thrilling, hair-raising adventure and rather resemble a rollercoaster ride in Ocean Park, especially with daredevil drivers on Lantau or on routes to Southern Hong Kong Island – not for the faint-hearted!
In Hong Kong’s buses, you pay when getting on and don’t have to check out again when exiting. The fare will always be calculated depending on the distance of your starting point to the final terminus. This may lead to situations in which you pay the full price although you already get off at the second stop (in this case you should rather walk) whereas if you only get on the bus at the last but one stop you will only pay the minimum price for this short ride. Thus, especially for short trips on Hong Kong Island, I would not recommend buses as most favorable means of transport – the MTR is faster, the tram cheaper. But: Routes 6, 6A, 6X (to Repulse Bay and Stanley) as well as Route 15 (up to Victoria Peak) or Route 9 (to Shek O, leaving from MTR Shau Kei Wan) may be the ones of particular interest for tourists.
The time-honoured tram, due to the sound it creates lovingly called “ding ding” by Hong Kongers, has been commuting with its double-deck waggons between East and West along the Northern shoreline of Hong Kong Island since 1904. The core route between Sheung Wan (Western Market) and Wan Chai/Causeway Bay is served by all of them, however, their final stops may differ. Moreover, some lines divert shortly before Causeway Bay towards Happy Valley where they run one loop while the other lines continue towards Shau Kei Wan at max.
These heritage means of transport poke along Hong Kong Island at an average speed of 7.9 kilometres per hour, while their maximum speed can only get as fast as 42 km/h. This is acceptable for short distances. Actually, I like it a lot to do some slow things in Hong Kong every once in a while to slow yourself down a little bit. In case you have something on your agenda and are short in time: avoid the tram and go for the MTR for all routes that span more than two MTR stops! The MTR is only neglectably more expensive (still cheap!) and much faster what makes more than up for the slight difference in fares.
For tourists with plenty of time, however, it’s great fun and quite interesting to do a city tour on the top deck of a tram. Board the tram in Shau Kei Wan, allow for two hours, try not to fall asleep on the soft rumbling of the tram cars – and enjoy the changing scenery along the tram tracks all the way to Kennedy Town in the far West with all the dried seafood shops in Queen’s Road West definitely being one highlight of the trip!
One ride will always set you back by 2.30 HKD, no matter the distance travelled. Make sure you pay the exact amount, as no change will be given. Of course, as you know by now, it’s best and most convenient to pay by Octopus. In Hong Kong’s trams you’ll pay when exiting, so this is the third possible option for fare payment after bus (when entering) and MTR (check-in and check-out to calculate correct fares). But, after all, it’s really not that complicated and you’ll get used to it quickly.
The most common road user in Hong Kong is the taxi. Due to the extremely convenient public transport system as well as high costs for initial purchase, registration and upkeep (e.g. fees for parking space) – not to mention the stress when looking for parking lots – Hong Kong’s traffic is really not so bad. Traffic jams á la Manila or Jakarta you will not find here and that’s why the taxi is a good option to get around, especially during night time when the MTR has stopped operation.
Fares start with 22 HKD and increase according to the distance of your ride, but compared to taxi fares in Europe or America that’s really peanuts. Drivers use the meter – if your driver doesn’t want to, either insist or go for the next taxi. Surcharges have to be paid for luggage in the trunk (usually 5-6 HKD per piece) and for rides across the harbor (additional ~25 HKD for two-way toll that the driver has to pay).
There are some taxi stations at central points of interest around Hong Kong, but usually you can just hail yourself a taxi directly from the street (careful: in Asia, you stretch out your arm with your palm to the ground and pull your fingers towards your body; an upward-pointing palm would be considered rude). However, sometimes there is confusion with taxi drivers that don’t want to take you. This might be due to the following reasons: they could be on a break (“out of service” light shining in their window and the main light not gleaming red) or they might not be allowed to operate in your desired destination area or the just simply don’t want to go where you want to. Red taxis operate on Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, but not all of them are eager to cross the tunnel to the other side. Taxis in the New Territories are green, whereas those operating on Lantau only are of a blue colour.
Last but not least and despite a quite okayish level of English among Hong Kong taxi drivers, it might happen that your chosen one is not that experienced in talking English… Therefore, it is advisable to carry a business card of your hotel or the name of your desired destination in Chinese characters with you, so that you can point at it in case of communication problems.
Complementing the networks of MTR and busses, there are plenty of minibus routes (in green and red) to connect the rather remote areas to the public transportation network of Hong Kong. For tourists, they are usually not too relevant, but in case you want to use them, please be aware about the usage conduct:
You pay when entering the minibus, either by cash or via Octopus, which most of the minibuses accept. Prices vary slightly around 10 HKD on average. Drivers will only accept passengers up to the number of seats available, which means approximately 16. If there are no more seats available, the bus will not stop until someone wants to get off and no additional passengers will be accepted. This can be quite frustrating if you are waiting at a bus stop rather at the beginning of a route and all the buses are still full from where they started. This can cause long waiting times, so that I’d rather recommend walking back to the first stop or choose a different means of transport (e. g. taxi).
Like the tram, the beloved Star Ferry is a piece of Hong Kong’s living colonial heritage. Ever since 1880 it has linked both sides of Victoria Harbour. Today the Star Ferry operates in regular and frequent intervals between Tsim Sha Tsui and the Central Ferry Piers (06:00 – 23:30, every 10 mins) as well as Tsim Sha Tsui and Wan Chai (06:00 – 22:50, every 15-20 mins). One trip costs only 2.50 HKD, which makes it most probably the best value-for-money harbour cruise in the world! Of course, it can be paid with Octopus Card. This ferry cruise offering magnificent vistas on Hong Kong’s skyline is one of my favourite activities with guests in Hong Kong and should be a MUST on every visitor’s HK Bucket List!
By the way: In 1966, the Star Ferry was the reason for an outbreak of a series of riots that turned violent, when upset citizens started to protest a planned fare increase for the Star Ferry of five (5!) cents. Another proof of just how much these green-and-white ferries are loved and how important they are and have always been to the Hong Kongers.
Outlying Islands Ferries/ Macau, Shenzhen, Zhuhai Ferries
In addition to the Star Ferries there are plenty of other ferry links between Hong Kong Island and the so-called “Outlying Islands”, with most of them departing from Central Ferry Piers. Amongst others, you can choose connections to Lamma Island, Peng Chau, Cheung Chau or different harbours on Lantau Island. For some of them, there is a choice between standard ferries and the slightly more expensive “fast ferry” connections. All of them can be paid with your Octopus Card, no matter whether the operator is called New World First Ferry Services , Hong Kong & Kowloon Ferry or Discovery Bay Transportation Services.
In case you want to leave Hong Kong per ferry, you will find the connections to Macau, Shenzhen or Zhuhai departing from Shun Tak Center in Sheung Wan. Don’t forget your passport, as you will be officially leaving Hong Kong this way!
The first means of public transport that incomers find themselves confronted with should be the Airport Express. This train transports its passengers fast and absolutely reliable in 24 minutes from Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) on Lantau Island to Hong Kong Station in Central. Operating hours of the Airport Express are from 05:50 a.m. to 01:15 a.m. and the train stops twice on its journey: in Tsing Yi and in Kowloon Station.
A single trip (as well as a same-day return journey) to Central will set you back by 115 HKD, to Kowloon 105 HKD. Octopus payment is possible and will save you five dollars. Already when travelling in a group of two, it is worthwhile to purchase a group ticket. This, however, is only possible at the counter and not at the machines. For short-term visitors, you might also consider purchasing the “Airport Express Travel Pass”, which includes two journeys on the Airport Express as well as unlimited rides on the MTR for a defined period of time.
There are free shuttle bus services connecting Hong Kong Station as well as Kowloon Station with the biggest and most important hotels of the respective area. When leaving Hong Kong, there’s the convenient option to already check in your luggage at the In-Town Check-in counter of these two Airport Express stations. Moreover, there are handy charging stations for your electrical devices in every first and last car of the Airport Express that allow you to stay charged and free Wi-Fi service that allows you to stay connected during your journey.
For more information on the Airport Express click here.
Please also have a look at my Welcome Guide to Hong Kong.
Further special means of transport
For all those who want to get to the Peak without too much physical effort, the so-called Peak Tram is a popular option. It is actually a funicular railway that has ever since 1888 been relieving its passengers of the strenuous and steep climb to the top of Victoria Peak. On the 7-minute journey from the lower terminus in Garden Road near Hong Kong Park to the upper terminus at the Peak tower, the skyscrapers of Hong Kong Island become smaller and the views – at least on clear days – ever more magnificent.
Unfortunately, there are usually long queues to be expected (especially on weekends), so that you should also contemplate alternatives to the Peak Tram or arrive very early (Operating hours of the Peak Tram are between 7am and midnight each day). In case you don’t want to miss this traditional ride, I suggest you refrain from purchasing the combined ticket for tram and observation deck as there are free viewpoints with equally stunning vistas around at the Peak. It is sufficient to purchase a single (32 HKD) or return (45 HKD) ticket instead. This can be done by Octopus, certainly! And don’t worry, the machine will recognize on your way back that you have already come up with the Tram before and will only charge you the difference to the return ticket instead of the full price for another single journey. It’s so smart, it’s unbelievable! And, more important: it saves you waiting time at the ticket counter.
Central – Mid-Levels Escalators
Another means of transport (in the widest sense of the word) are the Central – Mid-Levels Escalators, the longest connected escalator system in the world, that stretches for almost one kilometer from Central up the slopes towards Mid-Levels. It is an indispensable help for all the people living halfway up the Peak to get to work and back without the sweat-inducing exercise that you can very well do without in hot and humid Hong Kong.
In the morning, the Escalators will bring people down and closer to their workplace in Central until they will change directions from 10am onwards to ease the ascent up to Mid-Levels for the way back. For after-work events, the Escalators also support all those that are looking for a beer or a nightcap, as it leads directly through the stylish neighbourhood of SoHo. I would also recommend that all tourists better leave the Escalators here, as you won’t miss anything spectacular on the way further up and the ride will end all of a sudden in a simple residential area. In case you’ve made it up all the way despite my advice, you should turn left and follow the signposts down towards Hong Kong Zoo and Botanical Gardens (15 mins walk).
The last transportation service on my list should be completely irrelevant to most of the people, but for the sake of completeness I still want to mention that there’s also a helicopter service in Hong Kong. With a little bit of surplus money, you can hire this service that can bring you, for instance, for approximately 30,000 HKD to Macau. Not really on my bucket list, but decide for yourself… 😊
Which one is your favourite means of transport in Hong Kong and why? What do you like about Hong Kong’s public transportation network and where do you see room for improvement? Do you think I have explained something not completely correct? Please let me know and give me a comment, I’m open for your comments and remarks as well as any questions you may have!