Business class vs first class on China's high-speed rail network

On China's bullet trains, business class turns out to be superior to first class.

By Chris Chamberlin, December 4 2019

You'd normally be right in believing that first class travel trumps business class – but on the high-speed rail in China, it's actually the other way around: business class is the highest level of service, followed by first class as second-best.

Confused? Here's the difference between the two, and why you should be booking business class on trains where 'first class' is available too.

High-speed rail business class vs first class: pre-departure lounge

In some railway stations such as Guangzhounan (Guangzhou South), you'll notice that business class passengers get VIP treatment from the moment they arrive, over and above what's offered to first class.

For example, Guangzhounan offers a private entrance exclusively for business class guests with a dedicated security screening room – which sure beats queueing for security via the main checkpoints when travelling in other classes.

Booked in business class? Follow the signs to your private station entrance, where available.
Booked in business class? Follow the signs to your private station entrance, where available.

That's your first hint that in the high-speed rail stakes, business class trumps first class: and that's a handy thing for both corporate and government travellers to know, given 'first class' travel can often be restricted, with 'business class' journeys more widely deemed acceptable.

Beyond that VIP entrance for business class, both business and first class travellers otherwise begin their trip in the same way at the station, with access to a shared pre-departure lounge, where available.

In Hong Kong, the lounge overlooks the concourse below, with the station's design also letting plenty of natural light flow through, despite the lounge having no exterior-facing windows.

Business class and first class travellers can use the Business Lounge at Hong Kong West Kowloon.
Business class and first class travellers can use the Business Lounge at Hong Kong West Kowloon.

Elsewhere, such as in Guangzhou, the lounge is instead a dedicated space in the middle of the concourse. This might feel odd at first, but is a much quieter area than the public departures area.

Taking the train from Guangzhou? A Business Lounge awaits here too.
Taking the train from Guangzhou? A Business Lounge awaits here too.

Refreshments are generally limited: in Hong Kong, there's chilled water, boiling water and tea, while in Guangzhou, you'll find only a few packaged nibbles and water, so don't expect something on par with a Cathay Pacific airport lounge, for example.

High-speed rail business class vs first class: the cabin

On board the train, first class offers seating in a 2-2 arrangement, filling an entire section between two entry doors.

First class seating on China's high-speed rail.
First class seating on China's high-speed rail.

Business class, however, is a much smaller zone with just five seats across two rows, in a 1-1 and 2-1 layout.

Business class is the way to travel on the high-speed line.
Business class is the way to travel on the high-speed line.

Snag a seat on your lonesome, especially in the second row facing the direction of travel, and it's an incredibly private experience.

In business class, you're free to work or relax on your schedule.
In business class, you're free to work or relax on your schedule.

In first class, travellers seated by the windows can only access the aisle by walking in front of their neighbour. There's usually enough space to do this, except where that neighbour has their tray table in use, which will need to be folded away to let you pass.

While first class window seats have views from time to time, they do have their downsides.
While first class window seats have views from time to time, they do have their downsides.

In the more luxurious surroundings of business class, space is not a problem, with three of the five seats in the cabin being on their own, and one pair of seats still offering plenty of space for the window passenger to pass.

Window seats in business class don't have that same negative, so settle back and relax.
Window seats in business class don't have that same negative, so settle back and relax.

For a little relaxation, seats in first class can be reclined by holding in a button at the side of the armrest, just like on a plane.

There's enough space to recline without significantly impeding the passenger seated behind.
There's enough space to recline without significantly impeding the passenger seated behind.

Business class, however, takes that to the next level with a motorised seat, better-emulating the experience on a long international flight. Through the various control buttons, you can craft your perfect position, such as by reclining the seat and raising the leg rest.

As business class seats are cocooned in their own shell, moving the seat doesn't impact anyone else.
As business class seats are cocooned in their own shell, moving the seat doesn't impact anyone else.

Or, put the seat all the way down to create a bed – and if you plan to sleep, just flick that light switch on the side wall, which nixes the lights directly above you.

Business class means a bed from A to B, but without the hassle of flying.
Business class means a bed from A to B, but without the hassle of flying.

High-speed rail business class vs first class: the service

In both business class and first class, cabin attendants can help you find your seat, and help with any issues you may have such as connecting to the train's WiFi network.

This of course requires a Chinese mainland mobile number – the staff can't help you bypass that requirement if you're roaming instead – but on a journey from Hong Kong to Guangzhou, the staff were able to speak English and assist a fellow traveller with the connection process.

Food and beverage service in first class is whatever you've brought with you onto the train, as there are no complimentary drinks or snacks.

When departing Hong Kong, be mindful that there are also no shops located after Chinese passport control, so the duty-free stores beforehand sell refreshments that you can bring through.

Business class instead offers travellers a selection of complimentary refreshments. On a quick hour-long hop from Guangzhou to Hong Kong, this included a bottle of water plus a snack box, filled with a variety of treats.

Enjoy light refreshments on your business class high-speed ride.
Enjoy light refreshments on your business class high-speed ride.

On longer journeys, other beverages such as hot tea are also available.

High-speed rail business class vs first class: the price

As you'd expect when business class offers the best experience, a business class ticket costs more than a first class seat – but price difference between the two is minimal.

For example, a one-way first class ticket from Hong Kong to Guangzhou will set you back HKD$358, or around A$67. A business class booking, on the other hand, is priced at just HKD$500 for the same journey, or about A$93.

At just A$26 extra, your business class ticket gives much more privacy on board thanks to the smaller cabin, easier access to your seat or no neighbour altogether, the ability to turn your seat into a bed, and refreshments along the way.

Although business class isn't available on every high-speed train, choosing it over first class is a no-brainer where it's available: and for travellers filing company expense reports, a "business class" receipt looks much better to most accounting departments than "first class", despite the latter being lower-priced.

Executive Traveller high-speed rail reviews:

Chris Chamberlin travelled as a guest of MTR Corporation.

Chris Chamberlin

Chris Chamberlin is the Associate Editor of Executive Traveller and lives by the motto that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, a great latte, a theatre ticket and a glass of wine!

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

17 Mar 2016

Total posts 41

Business on longer haul train journeys in China can feature a regular meal, not just a snack. However there may not be Business Class on every high speed train.

Sometimes a Premium seat is also sold, higher in price than First Class, but they are just the same as the First Class seating. They are just in the end cabins of the train, just like where Business Class seats were in this article.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

25 May 2017

Total posts 65

The upgrade amount to business is well worth it. I have travelled many times on it. Highly recommend

Delta Air Lines - SkyMiles

16 Oct 2017

Total posts 90

Quite an eye-opener for me. Many thanks Chris.

16 Jan 2018

Total posts 7

Little trivia: when China introduced their highway rail back in 2007, there were only 2 classes, hence the first and second class.

Later on, in 2008, when they introduced the CRH3C models, something bit more luxury was also introduced , obviously first and seconds already taken, so they named them premier class.

And in 2010 saw the CRH380 model trains where they had another class above premier, renaming the original first and second to third and forth class would not be ideal, so they retained those and named the new class, business class.

Interestingly, Austria seems to be on the same track. Their Railjet has economy, business and first where business would be their best class of travel.

LP
LP

30 Jun 2016

Total posts 45

European long distance trains follow the same logic - Business is a level above First when available.

18 Mar 2016

Total posts 1

Great review Chris. It really is a good system and we regularly take the Shanghai-Hangzhou business class arriving relaxed and ready to work.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

13 Dec 2012

Total posts 42

I did Shanghai to X'ian in business class - fortunately my travel agent helped me understand the difference and not a huge price difference. That trip was about 5 - 6 hours, and in business class was very comfortable - high recommend the business class.


Hi Guest, join in the discussion on Business class vs first class on China's high-speed rail network