Getting around Taiwan is remarkably easy and foreigner friendly. Nearly every form of public transit has some English available, even when reaching places off the main-stream touristy things to do list.
High Speed Rail (HSR)Taiwan's HSR system is the most recent addition to the mix of options of getting people around the island. Making the trip from KaoHsiung to Taipei in just under two hours on an average run it has created new links between cities and virtually ended domestic air travel. The HSR is far and away the most expensive way of getting around, and in nearly every case manages to be faster as well.
The primary thing visitors and new riders should know about the HSR is that outside of Taipei the rail link is far from the city center. Buses and local-class government-run trains (TRA) run between the stations and the city centers, but expect to add between 30 minutes to an hour getting from the city to the high speed rail station. Depending where you're headed, the HSR could save you upwards of 5 hours, or as little as 30 minutes. Getting to the airport requires a trip on a shuttle bus, making the trip from Taipei city about the same as taking a bus or taxi. If you're stopping in Taipei, Taoyuan, TaiChung, or KaoHsiung you should look for an express train which makes fewer stops.
Unlike the regular trains the HSR does not allow passengers to stand in every car. If you booked a ticket with a seat number on it you should expect a relatively smooth and quiet ride without passengers looming over you like on the regular trains. Ridership tends towards business people and a more affluent crowd, so the chances of having a child's inquisitiveness (or loud crying) disturb your ride are low. If you're traveling with children, hopefully they understand how to ride public transportation without making everyone know they're there.
The cars are modern and comfortable with ample leg room. Feel free to recline your chair without inconveniencing the person behind you. Economy class seats tend to be fairly stiff but the business class options are far more comfortable. Mobile internet can be spotty when traveling across Taiwan at high speeds, but the business class cabin offers a reasonable work environment if you're looking to get something done during your trip. If you're considering making a productive time in the economy class cabin just consider what you could (or couldn't) get done in an exit row in an economy class cabin, and you're in the right ball park.
On busy weekends reserved seat tickets may be sold out but do not despair. There are four "free seating" cars at one end of each train where seats are not reserved. Sold at a very modest discount, those riding in these cars are free to take whichever seat they like, and once all seats are gone people stand wherever they can find room. There are long lines on the platform during peak times for these cars, but it is rare that you wouldn't be able to get into the next train that comes along.
There are luggage racks over every seat, and a baggage area in the last car. If you have a huge bag you may find a spot in the floor rack in your car, but it's best to put it in back. Bikes are allowed in canvas bicycle bags but you'll need to get in touch with HSR staff to help you get on the train without a headache. Company policy and employee practice seem to be highly variable.
Outside of the upgraded-but-still-ancient-feeling Taipei Main Station the HSR stops are modern and airy with a host of food options and convenience stores. You can buy food on board at a premium but most people prep for the trip in the station hall and then head up to the platforms. Unless you have specific dietary restrictions there should be ample choice to get you through the two hour (or less) journey.
With ticket prices going up to around 1700 NT for a one way journey across the island most people find the time savings well worth the money. Unless you're traveling on a budget (see the bus section for cheap ways around the island) or have extra time it is worth it for visitors to have a ride on the HSR.
Long Distance Bus
The long distance bus is a cheap and (usually) comfortable way to get around Taiwan. Unlike the HSR, long distance buses serve city centers and often run 24 hours a day. For getting anywhere there isn't a rail line, there is likely a cheap and reliable bus service. The biggest draw back of taking the bus is traffic, specifically on the National Highway No. 1.
Buses from Taipei to KaoHsiung take between five and seven hours, to Tianan four to six hours, Two hours to three hours for TaiChung, and you can expect to get to the airport in an hour or so. Fares tend to fall inside of 500 NT for even the longest trips at peak periods, often going as low as 99NT on an advanced sale.
If you're ok spending a few extra hours in a bus to get across Taiwan, you'll often end up saving enough to pay for an insanely nice dinner or one night in a hotel.
Leg room is not as great as the HSR but many buses have in seat televisions - bring your own earphones! - and a generous recline. Some companies, notably HoHsin (HeXin), offer a class of bus with massive reclining chairs which would put a La Z Boy to shame. KuKuang (GuoGuang) has an enormous fleet of buses which offer anything between standard local bus seats to overstuffed recliners with in seat entertainment and headrest mounted speakers. Be sure to ask the ticket vendors what type of bus you'll be getting on. A good company will be able to promise a specific class of bus for your money.
There are conflicting reports about drivers and their safety, which is a consideration especially if you're going by bus along the east coast between YiLan and HuaLien. Standards have improved considerably for drivers' rest periods and ensuring buses don't drive over the speed limit. Catastrophic accidents are incredibly rare and the best way to rest easy on board is to fasten your seat belt.
If you're going long distance on a bus be aware they do not make food stops. Bring as much food and drink as you are going to need on the bus with you. Water is often available on the bus free of charge, but it's sometimes a bit tricky to find where they've put it. Few buses offer charging options for tablets or phones and you shouldn't expect to get a wifi connection. There is a bathroom on every long distance bus, but it's always stowed near the rear exit below the level of the seats. If you are more than three feet tall, you'll need to watch your head inside.
Buses do accept luggage on long distance travel, but heavier bags may be charged at a premium. There is a confusing lack of uniform policy on bikes and it's best to assume no one will transport it under - or in - the bus.
TRA (Taiwan Railways Administration) Trains
TRA stations are being remodeled and modernized but the cold hard truth is that they're old and run down relics of a forgotten time. There is usually only a convenience store - and maybe a bakery - on site, but many towns are set up with great food choices a stones throw away from the station's main entrance. Outside of times and locations few of the TRA staff are able to use English to help you. Attitudes vary between welcoming and helpful to flagrantly ignoring your requests for information.
Onboard all trains but the Toroko Express you should expect swarms of people standing and talking over you any time you get near a big city and ridership increases. It's not uncommon to have people standing halfway in your seat for two hours to HsinChu (XinZhu). Erroneously considered by many locals to be the fastest or cheapest way between any two points, trains are quickly over crowded.
Unless there is no other public transit solution, visitors should avoid using the TRA, a warning which goes double for local trains which generally are half an hour behind schedule. Buses are cheaper and surprisingly faster - even when stuck in traffic - and offer a far better passenger experience. A more comfortable, and often faster and cheaper way of getting someplace like YunLin or ChiaYi is to take the HSR or a bus then to the local rail for the last few stops. As an example, getting to DouLiu took over five hours by TRA "fast" train, two hours by HSR and local train. If you're headed from Taipei to YiLan, take a bus to your destination. Not only is it faster and cheaper but all the cities and towns have a reliable service.
The notable exception to this rule is travel by the fast train or Toroko Express to HuaLien. Both of these trains fill up fast during peak times and standing in the Toroko Express is not only forbidden but the rules are strictly enforced. The highway between YiLan and HuaLien is narrow, twists through the mountains, and is full of heavy trucks. The train passes quietly through tunnels and elevated track in the mountains but still affords some breathtaking views of the coast. Unless you plan to make the drive yourself so you have a car there, get on the train to get to HuLien.
Due to historical under use, the service between TaiDong and KaoHsiung is spotty at best and the tickets are incredibly hard to get. Tour companies snap up all the tickets on the sight seeing trains and little other functional services exist. If you plan to make this trip, get your tickets way, way in advance and enjoy the incredibly beautiful scenery. It's the sort of ride that people book far in advance before coming to Taiwan to enjoy the feeling of old time rail travel.
There are several trains geared towards tourists which run in Taiwan along a single track laid by the Japanese during the colonial era. They are all bad choices for anyone who values comfort or timeliness. Train enthusiasts will love riding in the remodeled train cars along the narrower gauge tracks but there is only one train headed in one direction at a time. Outside of the PingXi line - which runs infrequently and is always packed to capacity - these tourist trains tend to run once or twice a day in either direction. Considering their popularity as relics of Taiwan's colonial past and their infrequent schedule, it's best to take a local bus or car and watch the train roll by while you snap some pictures.
Taxi's are a reliable and comparatively affordable option for getting around, especially late at night or early in the morning. With a starting fare of 70NT, most rides can be had within a city for 150$ or less. In the past, taxis could be ordered over the telephone and they'd show up at your destination and you'd get a better rate, but these days there is a flat fare no matter what time of day you ride. At night time there is a 20$ added charge, and rates and charges increase around the Chinese New Year holiday. Tipping is not necessary, although some drivers will add a small charge of no more than 20$ for using their trunk.
Most drivers can speak some English, or know the English names for key places in the city. Having an address in Chinese or a destination in Chinese will be extremely helpful in getting where you want to go.
Outside of Taipei and GaoXiong (Kaohsiung) there are no public subways and buses may be infrequent. It is often best to rely on taxis instead of renting a scooter. The first reason is your own physical safety, since scootering is dangerous. In addition to being safer, depending on where you're going and the number of people you're with, it can be far cheaper to walk and use a taxi than rent a scooter.
Drivers are generally honest people dedicated to providing a good service. There is however a growing number of taxis who seem to take the longest route when a foreign face gets into their car. If proven, going the wrong way to a destination is a punishable offense, but taking a slow route is not. Fares can double if the driver chooses the least convenient route, especially when using a street where a left turn is not allowed, forcing them to circle around using right turns. An 11pm trip without traffic from the city's “East district” shopping area to Taipei 101 can range in price from 110$ to nearly 200$, just based on the route taken. Pre-load a map into your smart phone, and even without an internet connection you can track your progress. Let the driver see you're checking and they'll usually take the fastest way.
Women traveling alone should know that there are stories of taxi drivers causing trouble or being reported for abuse. Taking a taxi with a visible dispatcher number on its door or bumper is advised (55688 or similar) because there are higher standards for these drivers. Writing down the taxi's plate number and obviously giving it to a friend will also help avoid trouble. Cases of this type are rare, but they do exist.
In Taipei, there is a growing number of drivers who refuse to drive foreigners late at night or early in the morning. Technically, a driver cannot refuse a fare if his car is in service, no matter the distance. In practice, four or five taxis may wave off a fare which has luggage and isn't headed to the airport. If traffic is heavy and you want to go someplace they think isn't worth it, they might try to get you out of their cab. If a driver is specifically rude in his refusal to take you, there is no reason not to get a picture of his license plate and report him to the police. Small rewards are sometimes given to the public for reporting otherwise rarely policed laws like this.
Getting to and from the airport is a flat fee service, the prices of which can change but are found on the Taipei Taoyuan Airport website. Negotiating with a taxi driver may get a lower price, but be aware of what the going rate is before you try. Many drivers troll around the main bus terminals with service to the airport looking to get passengers into a shared taxi. The price is usually the fixed fare divided by four, and is always more than the bus. The car won't leave until there are four people inside, which may take some time. The best time to take these shared taxis is late at night, although several companies have periodic bus service 24 hours a day.
Sharing a taxi is common around many train stations in smaller towns in Taiwan. The drivers will have signs up for their destination, and their service is run more like a private bus than a car for hire. Their fare is usually printed onto their sign board, and once the car is full, they'll drive off.
In recent years there is a saddening trend towards pushy taxi drivers hanging around the bus stops in Taipei for places like JiuFen. Like nearly every city with bad taxi drivers trying to leach money out of tourists they'll ask you where you're going, tell you the bus isn't coming or just left, tell you they can beat the bus for speed, or that the place you want to go is closed. While it is true the taxi can beat the bus for speed, the timetable is often exaggerated. Recently the bus to Jiu Fen, which runs out of Taipei every 15 minutes and takes about an hour depending on traffic, was touted as having just left, coming every hour, and taking over two hours to reach its destination. The driver offered to get us there in 45 minutes. Our bus came five minutes later, and it took us 55 minutes to arrive for a fraction of the price. Get the truth about transportation ahead of time and don't get taken in by shifty sales tactics!
With all of that said, don't be afraid to climb into a taxi and get where you're going in a hurry. Plenty of Taiwanese locals use them and love them as a convenient means of getting around. If you're curious about riding along in a taxi and seeing what it's like to be a driver in Taiwan, there are ways to book a spot riding along with a driver for a day.
It's not a great idea to rent and ride a scooter in Taiwan, especially on the over crowded west coast. Notable exceptions to this are the east coast cities of TaiDong, HuaLien, and YiLan where traffic isn't as bad, the scenery is epic and otherwise unreachable without a car or taxi.
Scootering should not be considered a safe activity and people get hurt or killed with regularity in Taiwan. Cars and trucks rarely respect other vehicles right to space on the road, and the results of an accident on a scooter or motorcycle are far worse than for passengers in a car. You should only be scootering/motorcycling in Taiwan if it is an absolute last choice or you're feeling adventurous on the relatively underpopulated east coast.
If you plan to rent a scooter, be sure to bring an international drivers license endorsed for driving a motorcycle. Despite being allowed to drive as a tourist, many stores won't actually rent out a scooter to a foreigner without a Taiwanese license. This is especially true in Tainan and TaiZhong (TaiChung). Getting a local license is possible after taking a written and driving test and is a viable option if you're going to be in the country for a while.
For a short visit, the days of going around and finding a lazy shop owner who doesn't mind renting to a foreign visitor are largely over. You'll likely need to pay a higher rate (between $400 - $600) a day, and also leave a credit card number in case you get a speeding ticket from one of the many automated speed control checkpoints.
It is needlessly complicated to attempt to explain everything about how to drive in Taiwan, but the basic rules are these.
Don't drive in lanes with 4 large yellow characters in them. They mean no scooters and driving there will get you a ticket.
Don't turn left at lights unless you know that you legally can. Nearly every city intersection will have a two turn rule. Scooters pull off to the right into a waiting box, and then wait for the light to change before driving again.
Scooter drivers should always wear a helmet
Don't use cellphones at stop lights or while driving
Don't drink alcohol. Police checkpoints have become far more common in recent years, with tons of “veteran foreigners” getting tickets for driving under the influence.
Scooters can filter through the cars on the road, both stopped and moving, and there is a waiting box designed for scooters which is in front of the cars.
Do not put your wheels over the large white stop line at red lights.
Stop signs and yields in alleys and those which lead to large streets are (in practice) optional at best. Nasty accidents happen when two vehicles charge into small alley intersections at high speeds.
Do not turn right on red.
Don't do wheelies, and don't drive like a psychopath with a death wish.
Follow those rules and while you might not be safe, you'll at least avoid getting tickets.