How to Travel China on the Cheap

How to Travel China on the Cheap

While China is certainly not as expensive a place to travel as say, Western Europe or North America, it isn’t exactly Thailand either. In fact, some parts of China can be fairly pricey, especially if you don’t speak the language and don’t know how to get the same good deals that the locals can get. So what to do if you want to travel through China on a tight budget? Here we’ll give you some tips for traveling through China without breaking the bank.

Overland transport

China has an excellent train system connecting not just all major cities but also smaller towns. During peak seasons you can buy train tickets up to 11 days in advance, and in some cities, including Beijing, if you buy round-trip train tickets you can get a 20% discount. The return portion of your trip must be for travel within 20 days of the date you made the purchase, so for shorter trips where you have a set return date this can be a good way to save. Buses in China are also inexpensive, and bus trips, while not as pleasant as train rides, can often be faster. If you absolutely must fly, you can save money on fares by booking through travel sites or going to a local travel agency to purchase your tickets. In China discounts are expressed in reverse, representing the amount of the total that you’ll end up paying rather than the discounted amount. So, if you see a fare advertising “7折” that means you’ll be getting a 30% discount.

Guesthouses and hostels

Most cities in China will have a range of backpacker hostels and guesthouses (ke zhan 客栈) to choose from, but in the smaller cities you may find no hostels available. The next cheapest Chinese hotels are called zhaodaisuo (招待所), and offer no-frills accommodation, usually in the form of a basic room with a public bathroom, although some zhaodaisuo do offer private bathrooms. While not all zhaodaisuo are able to accept foreign guests, many either are, or simply don’t care. Zhaodaisuo can cost less than 50% what a normal hotel room would cost in any given city, but beware, some zhaodaisuo are rather seedy. Make sure that no matter whether you’re staying in a hotel, a hostel or a zhaodaisuo that you bargain the rate down a bit, or at least try. Accommodations in China are definitely bargainable, especially if you will be staying for more than one night.

Peaks and lows

There are several peak travel seasons in China, and if you’re looking to travel on the cheap you should avoid these periods at all costs. The first is around Chinese New Year, usually sometime between late January and late February. During the Chinese New Year, all of China is on the move, and due to extremely cold weather in the North, places like Hainan are especially busy. During Chinese New Year rates in Hainan can be nearly triple the normal rate. The other busy periods are in May, for the Labor Day holiday around May 1st; summer vacation around July; then, finally, National Day holiday which falls on October 1st. Not only will hotel and plane tickets be more expensive around these times, traveling will generally be unpleasant, with hordes of people on the move.

Eating out

When you’re traveling, food can, pardon the pun, eat a huge hole in your budget. Of course in China, eating at Western restaurants is usually more expensive than eating local, but Chinese food can also be fairly pricey if you eat in tourist areas. For example, eating in the area near Tiananmen or Wangfujing in Beijing will be much more expensive than getting on the subway and going down a few stops and eating at places where the locals eat, rather than at places aimed at tourists. If you’re in Lijiang, eating outside of the old town will cost significantly less (and possibly taste better) than eating in the highly touristed areas around the old square. As a rule of thumb, try to look for places where business is good – while eating in relative solitude might appeal to you, in China, a mark of a good restaurant is good business. Probably the cheapest way to eat in China is to dine on street food. While many people shy away from street food, in general, street food is fairly safe as long as you stay away from obvious problem foods. Barbequed mutton sticks are almost always a safe bet (it is difficult for mutton to spoil) and are ubiquitous throughout China.

Big ticket attractions

Part of what makes travel in China expensive is the admission cost for most Chinese tourist spots. Tickets for some places, like the Stone Forest in Yunnan, can cost over 100RMB. The ticket to the Forbidden City runs about 60 RMB, and the Badaling Great Wall about 80. While the one time cost might not seem like much, once you are in the attraction you’ll usually spend much more money than you intended – bottled water will cost 3x, or more, what it costs on the outside (two years ago in Beijing, one place in the Forbidden City was selling bottled water for 15RMB in the middle of the summer). So, plan accordingly and decide on a few sights that you’d like to see and budget for their tickets in advance. Bring water and snacks with you, and try and avoid being at the tourist attraction around lunch or dinnertime so that you can wait to eat until after you leave the area.

Public transport

Taxis are a hidden expense. Especially in big cities like Beijing, the meter can add up quickly and suddenly you’ve spent more on a taxi than you spent the entire rest of the day. While public transport in China can be daunting, there’s no reason why even a novice can’t brave the subway system in Beijing or Shanghai, or even Kunming’s bus system. Purchase a map or, if you have passable Mandarin skills, take advantage of online tools such as Baidu maps, which will give you a public transport path between two points for most major cities, telling you exactly where to get on and get off. Google Maps, at least for now, offers more information in English. If you’re going to be in a city like Beijing for a length of time, consider purchasing a bus card. The bus card will give you big discounts on the already cheap bus fare and simplifies the ticket process considerably.

Rip offs

No one plans to be the victim of a scam, but travelers, whether they be foreign or Chinese, are big targets for con artists. A recent young traveler and his father were ripped off in Beijing, paying 600 RMB for rickshaw rides from Tiananmen Square to the back gate of the Forbidden City after having agreed to pay 3 RMB each for the trip. When the pair reached their destination, the drivers angrily demanded 300 RMB each, and the two of them – both strong, tall American guys – were intimidated into giving up their money. They were in a crowded area in broad daylight, and had they refused the rickshaw drivers would certainly have been forced to back off; after all, rickshaws are not even legally permitted in that area. In China, if you have a feeling that you’re being ripped off you can always enlist help – often just mentioning the police will scare off would-be con artists. Try to avoid situations that might put you at risk – rickshaws might look like fun but they’re unnecessary; true Chinese “art students” do not need your patronage; no one goes trolling Tiananmen for friends to take to a teahouse; and you’re not going to find authentic Ming Dynasty antiques for sale on the side of the road. If you get a suspicious feeling about a situation, remove yourself gently but firmly and get to a busy area. There is no reason to fall victim to common scams.

China is the kind of country that can be as expensive or as cheap as you make it. Eating Western every night, staying in posh hotels and relying on taxis to go everywhere will have a predictable effect on the thickness of your wallet, but in China, there are, at the very least, numerous options for low-budget travel. Next time you travel around China you can save some cash by implementing some of these tips.

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