So you want to travel around China without spending too much money?
I’ve been there before during the years that my wife and I romped around China on a budget. We were working on a teacher’s salary in a poor province, so being frugal was not just practical, it was necessary!
You can remain comfortable traveling to China and save money at the same time.
I could spend hours talking about the different ways you can pinch a penny during your travels but instead I’ve compiled the Top 5 Tips to Travel China on a Budget for you here.
Enjoy and let me know if you know of any others!
Tip #1: Limit Your Time in the Big Cities
Photo credit: mayakamina
No doubt everybody who visits China wants to see the main attractions: Beijing’s Great Wall, Xi’an’s Terracotta Warriors, Shanghai’s Bund, etc. Heck, you could spend weeks in each of these cities if you had the time and money.
But one fact remains true for anybody traveling in China: 1 day of expenses in a major city = 3-4 days anywhere else in China. Not to mention the fact that you’ll run into huge crowds of tourists (check out our tips on how to avoid the China crowds).
I’m not saying that you should skip the Chinese capital of Beijing, just don’t linger. Lodging, food and activities all costs much less once you get out of the big cities and I would argue that you’ll have an opportunity to see the “real China” instead of the “touristy China”.
So here’s my recommendation: when you fly into the major cities, spend a day or two hitting all the sites that matter the most to you and then get out as quickly as possible. You’ll save yourself a lot of money.
Tip #2: Skip the Plane, Take a Train
Photo credit: redpolkadot
There is one surefire way to save an incredible amount of money while traveling in China: ditch the plane and take a China train!
There are two simple reasons why this is a mantra you should whole-heartedly adopt during your travels in China:
- Train tickets can be up to 75% cheaper than an airplane to the same destination.
- If you travel overnight, you save the cost of a hotel room.
Think about that: if a plane from Beijing to Xi’an costs 800RMB while a soft-sleeper train ticket only costs 300RMB, you’re savings equal 500RMB plus an extra 100-200RMB saved by not booking an extra hotel night. That’s almost US$100 savings right there!
The train is actually quite comfortable in China – if you do it right. For trips of 4 hours or less you can get by with what is known as a “hard seat” while any longer or overnight trips will be best done with a “hard sleeper” berth. Just like airline tickets, it is entirely possible to book China train tickets online.
Best of all, when you travel on a train you get to experience the joy of visiting with the local people. Try to learn their card games or practice your Chinese. You’ll find that they are some of the most fun people to visit with!
Tip #3: Stay in a Hostel, not a Hotel
Photo credit: amanda-esque
For traditional backpacker travelers, this is a no-brainer. If you’re used to “luxury travel” however, this might not be such an obvious tip.
Most people I speak with have this impression that hostels, especially those in countries like China, are dirty, uncomfortable, and loud. While there may be a few like that in China, I’m sure, the truth is that most of the time hostels are comparable to a 3-star hotel.
If you’re traveling alone you can save quite a bit by staying in a community room (see the photo above for an example). If you’re traveling as a couple or a family and want more privacy, most hostels also have a “private room” option that is a bit more expensive but still cheap.
Hostels in China are beneficial in so many ways to a budget-conscious China traveler:
- They usually have an English-speaking staff
- They cater to travelers, so they offer great travel resources
- Their location is often a perk, like a historic building or old part of the city
- They’re cheaper than a hotel by 50%!
If this is the route you choose to take, I recommend taking a look at Hostelworld.com. They have the best selection of hostels that also include pictures and reviews. I’ve used them many times before and it’s been very easy to work with.
Need Comfort But Still on a Budget?
There are plenty of hotels that you stay all throughout China and most of the time you won’t have to spend that much money. In fact, I’ve even outlined some options where you can stay in a 5-star hotel in Beijing for under $100 or even a 5-star hotel in Shanghai where you could do the same. If you put in the planning effort before you leave, it’s definitely possible to stay in a very comfortable hotel without breaking the bank!
Tip #4: Avoid Bank Fees AND Pickpockets
Photo credit: epSos.de
Most people don’t realize that bank fees are a silent killer to budget travel. You don’t see them until you get home. The worst part is that it seems like an unavoidable problem, but it’s not.
Here’s the catch: because pick-pocketing is common place all across China, you don’t want to be carrying too much cash with you at any one time. So how do you balance not carrying too much cash with avoiding bank fees?
Don’t exchange money at the airport. This goes for anywhere around the world, and China is no different. It’s tempting to exchange money here but it’s best to avoid it if at all possible. The exchange rates are terrible. At the very least, exchange just enough to get a taxi to your hotel.
Choose your credit card wisely: The problem with most credit cards is that they will usually tack on a 3% fee to any foreign transaction. That could add up. There are credit cards such as some Capital One, Chase, and American Express cards that don’t have any foreign transactions fees. Research this and get it!
Bring your credit card and ATM card: Cash is a necessity in China, so you’ll need to bring your ATM card with you. Thankfully, ATMs in China often offer the best exchange rates, comparable to many traveler’s cheques. Again, some banks have partnerships with Chinese banks, so check with your bank before you leave and use those ATM’s to avoid fees.
Protect your cash: Don’t leave your cash in your hotel/hostel. This seems common sense, but so many people I know have lost money this way. When carrying your cash on you, be smarter than the pick pocket. Don’t keep all of the cash in one place on you and keep it hidden.
Tip #5: Consider an English Teaching Job
Photo credit: Frontierofficial
One of the cheapest ways possible to travel around China is to work here. Perhaps you’re not in a position to do that in your career, but if you can it’s worth researching.
There are quite a few perks to teaching jobs in China:
- Your accommodation is paid for along with a decent salary.
- Provides a home base for cheap weekend trips.
- Get to know the Chinese culture on a more intimate level
Pick a place that is nearby all the locations you think you would want to visit and then look for ESL jobs online in that region. You can stay for as little as one semester or as long as a couple years. (Read: 5 Tips for getting a Teaching Job in China)
Most schools ask for a year commitment, which if you’re willing to do could also pay for your round-trip airfare. If you want to stay in China, negotiate a bonus at the end of the year if you don’t want to fly home immediately.
Conclusion: China on a Budget
So there you go! It’s just a start, but this should give you a good idea of how to save money while you’re planning your trip to China.
What are some other ways in which you can best prepare yourself to travel well in China?