To put it bluntly, the cost of traveling in China has raised drastically over the past five years. Not only is the exchange rate for Chinese RMB less in the favor for travelers with their cash store in dollars or Euros but the actually costs for many essential products, services, and tourism related activities have rose dramatically. I traveled through China between 2005 and 2007 and I’ve often reported that China is a $10 per day country, but this is no more. If you’re paying for shelter, transport, and food expect to drop an average of $15 to $20 per day if you’re being extremely frugal — way more if your pocketbook is a little looser.
There is a significant difference between prices in the east of China and in the west. In the western/ central provinces of the country the costs drop by roughly 30% over the eastern provinces.
This country also has a major price divide between tourist and local districts. If you’re hanging out in the tourist parts of town, eating in restaurants that cater to visitors, and staying in hotels that are made for people on vacation then the prices are going to go up drastically. The cost of travel in the tourist realms of China is probably around 4X more expensive than in the more local parts of the country. If you’re hanging out in the tourist traps of Shanghai, Beijing, Suzhou, Xi’an then the prices listed on this page are not going to apply. It’s a good thing that it is very easy to get out of the tourist districts: just walk or take a bus in any direction until you find the places where the (working class) locals are.
Also, being able to read a Chinese menu or order food in Mandarin is a must to travel this country cheaply. If you must rely on English language menus then triple your restaurant budget. It is truly not very difficult to learn how to say the names of a few dishes in Mandarin or to learn the characters of the foods you enjoy eating. Another option is to have the names of a few food dishes written down in a notebook by a friendly Chinese person which you could show in restaurants when ordering. I repeat: if a restaurant in China has an English language menu, run.
The following prices is a rough average of what a tight-pursed traveler to goes to both the east and the west of China could expect to pay:
- Dorm bed: $4 – $7 per night
- Budget hotel room: $10 – $25
- Bowl of beef noodles: $1 – $2.25
- Meal of a meat and vegetable dishes and rice: $3
- Bus: $4 – $5 per hour
- Train: less than $2.00 per hour
- Entrance fees to attractions: expensive, expect to drop $5 - $20+ each time you want to go somewhere that has an admission fee
- 600ml of domestic beer in a supermarket: less than $1
- 600ml of domestic beer at a bar or club: $1.50 – $5
- Vegetables from the market or supermarket: very cheap, way under $1 for a couple portions of most vegetables
- Fruit from a market or supermarket: if in season, very cheap
- Urban bus: 30 – 60 cents per ride
- Taxi: meters start at $1.10 to $2 depending on the city
Money saving tips
Hitchhiking is also a very effective way to get across China and cut out transportation costs. More and more private vehicles are going on the roads each day, and Chinese people tend to be curious about foreigners and not very afraid of strangers. In point, they will pick you up. Though there are always risks when hitchhiking, relatively speaking, they are not very high in this country.
Bicycling is also a good way to get from point A to point B in China. Many of the highways are well made and well maintained and there are often a good shoulder or even bike lanes to ride on. Urban biking can be insane — especially when entering/ exiting big cities, so be alert when embarking on this adventure.
Cooking for yourself in the hostel or on your own cooking gear will also save you a good amount of money. Food sells cheap in the markets of China, so use them and make your own food.
The West of China also has a pretty well established backpacker infrastructure, and many long hiking trails have facilities at proper intervals. If you stay on these trails the cost of travel actually decreases, as there are hostels and other services that are offered to cash strapped travelers.
In all, China can still be traveled relatively cheaply if you avoid going to the tourist attractions. But if you do want to go to that garden, historic site . . . expect to pay a day’s worth of travel funds to do so. If you’re aware of your expenses, cook your own food, occasionally hitchhike and walk between places or ride a bicycle, and sleep outside or in hostels traveling in China can still be very affordable.