China offers visitors exceptional value for their money. A savvy traveller in China can take bullet train trips for the cost of a hostel bed, dine in Michelin starred restaurants for a few dollars and see one of the wonders of the world absolutely free. The trick is to do your homework on how to explore China on a budget and to go with the flow.
China is very different from well-travelled countries elsewhere in the world and sometimes conventional travel wisdom won’t apply. The country is massive. With 5,000 years of history, dozens of regional cuisines and more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any country in Asia, you could spend a lifetime exploring the riches of the Middle Kingdom. Luckily, you can get a taste of the riches of China on a shoestring budget.
Follow these tips (and be ready to accept the Chinese way of doing things) and you’ll have an amazing, affordable trip.
The prices used below are in Chinese Renminbi (RMB) and United States Dollar (USD).
1. Consider a visa-free zone
A tourist visa to enter China will run most westerners around $150, which is a big up-front cost. If you’re really trying to pinch pennies, you can travel within certain free transit zones for up to six days without an official tourist visa.
Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and ten other top cities and regions are included in the free visa scheme. Just be aware that you can’t move between these regions (you must stay where you arrived) and you’ll need to depart to a different country than you originally arrived from.
There are also 18 cities you can visit on a 24- or 72-hour visa, which are great for long layovers.
2. Use Chinese flight sites
Finding cheap flights to China can be a challenge. Flights from North America are often over $1,000 round-trip and flights from Europe are typically over $500. However, there are frequent sales and deep discounts. I’ve seen one-way flights from Shanghai to New York as low as $300. Browse flight booking sights and sign up for price alerts before choosing a flight. Beijing and Shanghai are consistently the cheapest airports for international arrivals, so consider flying through one of those cities.
Another creative way to save money is to use your checked baggage allowance to transport other people’s goods. Working as an air courier through a service like Air Mule could save you several hundred dollars on your flight.
3. Beware of the Chinese holidays!
Make sure you avoid travelling during Chinese public holidays when most locals head to their hometowns or travel with family. Prices for flights and hotels skyrocket, buses and trains sell out in minutes and tourist attractions are packed. Your trip will be a lot more pleasant if you’re not sharing the road with literally a billion other people.
View the Chinese public holiday calendar here.
4. Pick the right train for your trip
Bullet trains are the most comfortable and convenient way to get between major cities. (Chinese airports are known for lots of delays and flights are not particularly cheap, although there are some newer budget airlines like Spring, 9 Air and China United offering cheaper flights.)
A five-hour bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing will cost about RMB500 ($75). A shorter ride from Nanjing to Shanghai can be as low as RMB50 ($7). While this isn’t quite as expensive as high-speed rail in other countries, you’ll have to pay out of pocket for every trip. There’s no tourist rail pass in China like Euro Rail or the Japan Rail Pass.
Don’t bother springing for first-class seats on a bullet train. The second class seats are very spacious and comfortable. First class is basically the same as the second, plus a free bottle of water.
If time isn’t an issue, older slow trains are often significantly cheaper than bullet trains. The same trip between Shanghai and Beijing will take 12 to 16 hours on a slow train, but costs only RMB175 ($26).
Long-distance slow trains also have two different sleeper cars. The cheaper ‘hard sleepers’ are plastic bunks in compartments with no doors, open to the hallway. The premium ‘soft sleepers’ are wider and have more comfortable beds with linens and individual compartment doors. There are six bunks in each hard sleeper compartment and four in each soft sleeper room. While sleeper cars are more expensive, travelling in one overnight can save you the cost of a hotel and get you to your destination well-rested.
Tickets are most easily purchased on Trip.com (but be aware you need to physically pick up your tickets at the station).
Pro tip: To avoid buying expensive meals on the train, bring your own tea and instant noodles. All Chinese trains are equipped with hot water dispensers. You can also use the lever near the floor to flip your seats so they’re facing the other direction – a great feature if you’re travelling in a group of four or six.
By far the cheapest option for moving from city to city in China on a budget is a long-distance bus. Schedules can be difficult to find online (especially in English), but they’re always posted in the bus stations.
5. Use the metro and rideshare
There are usually lots of options for getting around China on a budget within cities. Metros systems are cheap, convenient and have English signage. (City buses are convenient but less easy for foreigners. If you want to use the bus system, try downloading the Baidu Maps app and looking up directions between two locations. It can be difficult to use the Chinese language app, but reading a bus schedule is usually a far bigger challenge.)
Taxis and ride-hailing are surprisingly cheap, and they can save a lot of valuable time. If you’re taking taxis, make sure you have your destination address written down in Chinese. Almost no drivers speak English. The better option is Didi, the Chinese version of Uber. The app is available in English, supports foreign credit cards and tends to be cheaper than a taxi. You can call a ride, hop in and be dropped off at your destination all without needing to speak a word of Chinese. If you do need to communicate with your driver, Didi has auto-translated in-app messaging.
Another great way to get around are the bike sharing services that have become so popular in recent years. Simply make an account, scan a bike and ride off. While there are half a dozen major bike share companies, right now only Ofo supports foreign credit cards.
While rental cars are surprisingly cheap, driving in China is not for the faint of heart and the government doesn’t accept foreign driving licenses unless they’ve been specially translated and approved.
6. Skip the hostel pasta and eat out
Food is central to Chinese culture, and it will be one of the most memorable aspects of your trip to China. The good news is eating out in China is often cheaper than cooking for yourself.
What’s the cost of food in China? Noodles, soup or a simple main dish with rice will usually cost between RMB10–30 ($1.50–4) at a small no-frills restaurant or street food stall. Buying ingredients and cooking a meal at home could easily cost two or three times more, especially if you’re buying Western ingredients. Since kitchen facilities are rare in budget accommodations in China (including hostels), it’s best to enjoy affordable cooked meals on the street and leave the wok tossing to the pros.
Here are some cheap and delicious Chinese foods you can find just about anywhere:Lan Zhou La Mian (兰州拉面) – This style of hand-pulled noodles from the northwestern city of Lanzhou is cheap, delicious and found all over China. A bowl of fresh noodles will rarely cost over RMB20 ($3).
Lan Zhou La Mian (兰州拉面) – This style of hand-pulled noodles from the northwestern city of Lanzhou is cheap, delicious and found all over China. A bowl of fresh noodles will rarely cost over RMB20 ($3).
Shao Kao (烧烤) – Shops and street food stalls grilling up the customer’s choice of meat, vegetables and tofu on skewers are a budget-friendly late night staple. Don’t miss out on the delicious grilled bread called mantou (馒头) or, if you’re feeling more adventurous, fish tofu (鱼豆腐).
Jiao zi and Bao zi （饺子 & 包子）– Jiao zi are the classic steamed or pan-fried dumplings with thin wrapping and Bao zi are larger steamed buns stuffed with various meats and vegetables. Both are a common breakfast or snack throughout China. A plate of Jiao zi will normally cost around RMB10 ($1.5) and a single Bao zi bun is usually no more than RMB3 ($0.50)
Higher tier local restaurants are still a great value. Chinese dining is a communal affair, so you’ll be expected to order a handful of plates to share, which gives you a chance to sample loads of dishes. A typical dinner for four could cost anywhere from RMB100 to over RMB600 ($14 to $100+) depending on how fancy the restaurant is. Beijing roast duck (北京烤鸭) and hot pot (火锅) are popular choices.
You can even enjoy a Michelin starred meal on a street food budget. In Hong Kong, be sure to hit up Tim Ho Wan, the cheapest Michelin star restaurant in the world, along with Kan’s Roast Goose and Hu Hung Kee. In Shanghai, you can get your Michelin fix at Madam Goose.
7. Avoid Western food!
Western restaurants are astronomically expensive compared to their Chinese counterparts. Prices are usually on par with what you’d pay at home and the food is nowhere near as good. (It’s difficult for Chinese cooks to pull off Western dishes they’ve never tasted themselves.) When you’re in China on a budget, skip the pizza and pasta and stick with local food.
8. Look beyond hostels for budget accommodation
While hostels are the go-to budget choice in most places, China’s hostel network is underdeveloped compared to other Asian countries. Outside major cities, you might not always be able to find a hostel bed.
Luckily, there are many cheap hotels in China. A spare but comfortable double room in a major city will usually cost between RMB80–300 ($12–45), which is often cheaper than a hostel bed if you’re travelling in a group. The best place to search for and book hotels is Trip.com. It has many more listing (especially budget listings) than international sites, although Hostelworld or Booking.com tend to be better for hostels.
Booking accommodation on Trip.com in advance is a good idea because some hotels (particularly smaller, cheaper ones) won’t accept foreign guests. If you book ahead, they’ll know you’re a foreigner.
9. Consider alternative lodging options
Airbnb is also a good choice in major cities, especially Hong Kong where lodging is insanely expensive. If you’re looking for a unique an authentic experience outside the cities, a homestay (try Anthropolodgy) is an excellent choice.
Couchsurfing is growing in China, especially among foreign backpackers, but there are still relatively few hosts, especially outside major cities. Make sure you arrange your stays well in advance if you plan to couchsurf.
Camping in China is tough but can be an awesome experience. There are very few places in China where it’s legal to camp (the Great Wall at Gubeikou is one of them), but you can probably get away with pitching a tent in any secluded rural place. I’ve camped in several mountain parks around China and had a great time. If you do free camp outside of a designated area, be aware that it’s probably not legal and you’re taking a risk.
10. Get a free VPN trial
If you’re going to need access to social media or Google products (including Gmail, YouTube, Google Maps, Instagram, Facebook, Whatsapp and many more), you’re going to need a VPN. There are decent free VPNs (try Hotspot Shield orTunnel Bear) but the paid ones (Like Express, Astril and Nord) tend to be more effective. Sign up for a free trial of one of these VPNs and make sure to cancel when you get home.
11. Set aside budget for attractions
Depending on where you go, the actual sightseeing might be one of the most expensive parts of your trip. When you’re in China on a budget, set aside some money solely for attraction fees.
A lot of famous attractions, including historical sites, temples and mountain parks tend to be very expensive. Even something like a picturesque village might charge an entrance fee. For example, a standard four-day ticket to see the famous Avatar Mountains costs RMB225 ($38.4)! Look up ticket prices beforehand to make sure you’re comfortable with what you’ll have to spend.
While ticket prices can be steep, there are often 50% discounts for students and seniors, so BRING YOUR ID! A student ID could save you hundreds of RMB in ticket costs. You can also save a lot of money at mountain parks by skipping the cable cars and chair lifts and opting to hike (and you’ll usually have the trails to yourself).
12. Go to the Great Wall for free!
If your first trip to China includes a stop at the Great Wall of China (and it should), one of the first things you’ll hear is to avoid the Badaling section. While it’s easy to access from Beijing, Badaling is overcrowded and expensive. You can see an unrestored section of the Great Wall for a fraction of the cost of a rebuilt section (and without being poked in the eye with a selfie stick). Gubeiko, Mutianyu and Jiankou are all popular wild sections. Do your research and decide what part of the wall you want to see before arriving in China.
Also read: How Much Would a Trip to China Cost?
Any more tips to add on for travelling in China on a budget? Share them in the comments section below!