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CHANGSHA, HUNAN — Planning is important when traveling, but maybe I didn’t plan as carefully as I should have.

I am on my way to Beijing, to meet up with some friends and do the sight-seeing I couldn’t do in February. I planned to get to Beijing the same way as last: shuttle bus to Changsha, then overnight express train to Beijing. Only this time, I was going to stay overnight in Changsha.

And a good thing, too. Because my plans for train travel were dashed yesterday evening.

China has an extensive passenger train system. It also has a huge population. Normally, getting a train ticket is not a big issue, but the end of the summer holiday is two weeks away.

So, when I went to the ticket office last evening, I found a horde of people trying to buy tickets. And I found there were none for me.

The Changsha ticket office has two big LED boards listing available tickets for northbound and southbound trains. For the Beijing-bound trains, there were no sleeper berths available until after the 22nd, no seats until the 19th. If I wanted to travel standing for 16 hours, I could have gotten a ticket for the 18th.

But I was expected in Beijing on the 16th. And standing that long in a crowded train has little appeal. It’s bad enough on short trips.

Fear not, dear reader! I will be in Beijing as planned, but I just had to spend about twice as much money to book a round-trip flight there. (For reference, with fees and all, my tickets on China Southern Airlines were 2330 RMB; a round-trip train trip (soft sleeper) would have been about 1100 RMB.)

Here’s how I recovered from my errors. While you cannot book train tickets online easily in China, booking hotels and airline tickets is as easy as in the USA. After returning to my hotel room (155 RMB, btw), I logged onto eLong.net, a discount travel site. Within short order, I booked my tickets for a Sunday morning departure and a Friday morning return. With eLong, you can pay cash for your tickets. If you are in a major city’s central area, they will deliver them to you. Mine were delivered to my hotel room this morning at 10, four hours ahead of schedule. The messenger politely accompanied to me to the ATM across the street where we settled accounts.

So, I stayed another day in Changsha — no big deal. I ate at Pizza Hut and shopped at Carrefour (my big Western fix for the summer), and walked around town some until the 95° heat chased me back to the hotel.

Tomorrow I’ll catch the shuttle to the airport, and after a two-hour flight, be in Beijing. Till then, toodles!