The internet is full of great tips for budget travel around the world. While most of these are great general ideas, they’re usually very generic and don’t address the situation in every country. Over the past decade of traveling around China, I’ve come to learn a number of very specific tips for budget travel in China.
Whether you’re spending a few days or a few years in China, I believe you’ll find these China travel tips to be useful. I’ve saved literally thousands of dollars over the course of my travels in China using these simple tactics.
#1 Take an Overnight, Slow Train
It’s the dawn of a new era in China with the rapid development of the high-speed train! Trips that used to take 10+ hours are being reduced to 2-4 hours at best.
Naturally, travelers gravitate toward the newer, faster high-speed trains in China.
But you shouldn’t always. And here’s why.
With few exceptions, these high-speed trains only operate during the day. Yes, they’re faster, but they still monopolize a good portion of the day that you could be using to visit some historical site.
Instead, look for a 列车 (lieche) or “standard train” that travels through the night. Not only do you free up time during the day, you also save the cost of a hotel! Best of all, these trains are often cheaper than the high-speed trains.
#2 Buy Hard Sleeper, Top Bunk
If you’re not familiar with Chinese trains, you might not know that the best price/value you can get is the top bunk of what is known as the “hard sleeper”.
China’s old train system is usually broken up into four different classes:
- Hard seat: These are the cheapest but most uncomfortable, especially for any ride longer than 2 hours.
- Soft seat: Think an airplane economy seat…but perhaps less comfortable. These aren’t always an option.
- Hard sleeper: The cheaper of the train cars where you actually get a bed.
- Soft sleeper: The most comfortable beds available on the train.
The hard sleeper train cars are arranged in open cabins with six beds, three on each side. The bottom bunk is the most expensive while the top bunk is the cheapest.
If you’re on a budget, this top bunk will be dirt cheap and reasonably comfortable for the average backpacker – as long as you don’t mind climbing 🙂
#3 Take Risks with Local Restaurants
It’s the weirdest thing: I never cared much for McDonalds until I came to China. After being in China for a while, McDonalds can oddly feel like a treat.
As you travel around China, it’s going to be very tempting to spend time at the McDonalds, Burger Kings, Starbucks and other such restaurants.
It’s not because you’ll miss these restaurants; this is because it’s easier to go to a place you know than to walk around trying to find something that you have no idea exists.
The solution? Ask anybody at a local store where a good local restaurant is. If you don’t speak Chinese, ask your hostel or hotel (which will often have somebody who can speak English).
Take risks with these smaller hole-in-the-wall restaurants. You’ll be rewarded with interesting culinary experiences as well as a much cheaper tab.
#4 Use the Bus and/or Subway System
Taxis are not terribly expensive in China, especially when compared to other parts of the world. But they do add up.
Consider the fact that it only costs about US$0.15 to take the bus in China or around US$0.40 to take the subway.
It can be daunting to try your hand at a foreign transportation system, especially if you can’t read Chinese, but this could potentially save you quite a bit of money in the long run.
Again, don’t be afraid to ask your hotel/hostel for help with buses and subway systems. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be surprised that it’s not only cheap, but can also be much faster than a taxi (especially during rush hour).
#5 Save Money with Your Flight
For most travelers, their flight tickets to China take up the largest chunk of their budget. Most don’t realize, however, that there are some creative ways to save money here.
Did you know that there are some companies that will pay you to be an air courier? Basically, you’re selling one or two of your free checked luggage allowances for about US$150 per bag. It’s completely legal and at this point it only works between the US and China.
By the way, if this strategy won’t work for you because you’re using both your allotted checked bags, you should consider rethinking your travel packing strategy 🙂
You can read more details about this money saving tip and others in my 5 Strategies for Getting Cheap Flights in China.
#6 Share Your Ride
Let’s say you want to go visit the Great Wall. Even if it’s just you and a friend, you’ll probably end up spending too much money if you go as only two people.
Even if you’re saving money by taking buses, often you’ll still find yourself taking a private car at some point. Sharing your ride can lighten the financial burden and help you make some good friends in the process.
#7 Give Yourself Time
Not every place worth seeing in China is easy to get to. Take the Great Wall as an example again. It’s not inconvenient, but it’s an excursion that easily takes the entire day, even if you go to the closest section of the Wall.
Travelers pay a premium to leave conveniently after breakfast and arrive back home in the afternoon. Taking slower modes of transportation, or climbing the Great Wall instead of taking a gondola, will require more time but will end up saving you quite a bit of money.
Or better yet, go to a more remote but less touristy part of the Great Wall. This same principle applies to a number of places around China.
#8 Reconsider Your idea of a Souvenir or Gift
I know a lot of people who think that a China mug from Starbucks is a good souvenir from their time in China.
I’m not here to tell you that’s a bad idea – heck, if that’s what you collect, then go for it! What I am saying is that often the common “souvenirs” that the shops try to sell you aren’t always the best things to bring home.
I like to think outside the box when it comes to souvenirs and things to bring back to friends and family. Personally, I prefer shopping at the small local markets and finding something that I could use.
For friends, my favorite China gift is a packaged chicken foot. People get a good laugh and most didn’t even know that was a part people ate!
Conclusion | Budget Travel in China
China — along with many parts of Asia – is one of the easier places to travel on a tight budget around the world. Finding ways to save money on transportation, food and souvenirs help a lot, since China tends to charge a premium for its popular tourist attractions.
What has your experience been traveling around China? If you have any other budget travel tips for China that aren’t mentioned here, please list them in the comments below. I’d love to hear them!
Author Bio: Josh Summers is a travel writer and business owner who has been living in China since 2006. He writes about his experiences in China on his website TravelChinaCheaper.com.