So you want to travel China on a budget? In general, Asia is a great place to save money when traveling, and China is no exception. My wife and I love to explore different parts of China and are always doing so on a budget. Over time, it’s become a challenge to see how much we can save…just for the fun of it! These are the five best China budget travel tips we’ve learned along the way.
The good news is that my experience has shown me that seeing China on a budget doesn’t mean you have to sleep on crappy beds and starve yourself (although I guess that would technically save you money).
You can remain comfortable traveling to China and save money at the same time.
Hopefully you find this helpful and remember, you can learn so much more in my book Travel to China | Everything You Need to Know Before You Go.
I could spend hours talking about the different ways you can pinch a penny during your travels all over the world but instead I’ve decided to compile this list of 5 creative ways to travel China on a budget.
- Tip 1: Limit Time in the Big Cities
- Tip 2: Skip the Plane, Take the Train
- Tip 3: Stay in a Chinese Hostel
- Tip 4: Avoid Bank Fees
- Tip 5: Consider Teaching English
Tip #1: Limit Your Time in the Big Cities
No doubt everybody who visits China wants to see the main attractions: Beijing’s Great Wall, Xi’an’s Terracotta Warriors, all the great things to do in Shanghai, 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 my tips on how to avoid the China crowds).
I’m not saying that you should skip the Chinese capital of Beijing, but there’s no need to linger longer than you need to.
Lodging, food and activities all cost much less once you get out of the big city and I would argue that you’ll have an opportunity to see the “real China” instead of the “touristy China”.
Josh’s 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 China Train
There is one surefire way to save an incredible amount of money while traveling in China:
Ditch the plane and take a Chinese train!
Check out my Ultimate Guide to Trains in China guide for more great tips here.
There are two simple reasons why trains are the way to go when you want to travel China on a budget:
- 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: when traveling from Beijing to Xian, a flight costs 800RMB while a soft-sleeper train ticket only costs 300RMB, you’re savings equal 500RMB plus an extra 100-400RMB saved by not booking an extra hotel night (depending on what level of hotel you book).
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 interacting with the friendly 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 Chinese Hostel, not a Hotel
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, the truth is that most of the time hostels are comparable to a 3-star hotel.
In my experience, hostels can often be better than Chinese hotels.
If you’re traveling alone you can save quite a bit of money 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, often by 50% or more!
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.
Alternative: Cheaper China Hotels
If the idea of a hostel is just too foreign to you, there are still plenty of China hotels that aren’t terribly expensive.
A lot of people make the mistake of using international OTAs like Expedia or Orbitz to book their China hotels, but these are usually 20%+ more expensive than brands like Agoda here in Asia or even Trip.com here in China.
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
Most people don’t realize that bank fees are a silent killer to budget travel in China. 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 (this is one of a few of my tips for staying safe while traveling China).
So how do you balance not carrying too much cash with avoiding bank fees?
Here are a few quick tips for you:
- Don’t exchange (much) 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 keep it to a minimum (i.e. what you’ll need to get a cab into town). The exchange rates are absolutely terrible.
- 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 some great travel credit cards that not only earn you points, they also 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 since travelers can’t easily use China’s popular mobile payment systems like WeChat and Alipay, so you’ll need to bring your ATM card with you. Thankfully, ATMs in China often offer the best exchange rates. 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
One of the cheapest ways possible to travel around the region is to teach English in China. 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 in that region. You can stay for as little as one semester or as long as a couple years.
Most schools ask for a year commitment, which if you’re willing to do could also pay for your round-trip airfare.
If you decide you want to stay in China, negotiate a bonus at the end of the year if you don’t want to fly home immediately.
Final Thoughts | Travel 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 this year.
Best of all, it’s not that hard to do here in China. The food is cheap, accommodation can be very cheap and there is plenty of low-cost transportation.
Often, the most expensive parts of our trip are the entrance fees to the big tourist attractions!