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A Complete Budget Guide to China

Written by: James Mooney

Explore China on the Cheap

When You Arrive

If you ever get the feeling you’re a bit cramped in China then remember one thing – the population is 1.3 billion. China can hit you hard with culture shock and in my experience it’s the country with the biggest cultural difference with the UK or other western countries. You’re completely on your own. Even words like OK and TAXI don’t work here.
If there is one country in the world where it’s beneficial to learn some of the lingo then China has to be it. People will do the classically English thing if they don’t understand; they will talk louder and slower, but that doesn’t rub in China, so knowing a few basic words can go a long way.
You will probably arrive in Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong – these are all pretty cosmopolitan cities and it shouldn’t be too hard to ease yourself in.


China can be an absolute nightmare when it comes to travelling round. The train system is good, but not good enough to handle the amount of people that need to use it.
A really annoying thing is that if you want a ticket from say Xi’an to Chengdu, you have to be in Xi’an to buy those tickets, and you can’t get them from elsewhere. This can pose a problem for travellers with a small time limit.
The earliest you can buy a train ticket is 10 days before. And if it’s a busy time of year you want to be in the queue at 8am on that day to get a sleeper ticket at least
There are 5 types of tickets usually and they are:

  1. Soft Sleeper
  2. Hard sleeper
  3. Soft seat
  4. Hard seat
  5. Standing

You will nearly always be able to get a standing ticket, but that journey can be pretty hellish. The trouble with seating sections is the people with standing tickets, leaning over you with their boiling pot of noodles. Dodgy indeed.
Hard sleeper is usually AC but not on some of the older trains and the beds come in bunks three high. Soft sleeper has cabins with four beds and is very nice indeed.
This is the best website for looking for prices of trips etc.


Most of the people on this site I imagine will be staying in hostels and in general the hostels in China are very, very good.
It’s almost always cheaper to use the hostel booking websites to get cheaper deals than just turning up. I’ve found this true every time I travel around China. Once in Pingyao I even got a dorm bed for 5Y (50p) instead of the walk in price of 30Y (3 quid). It wasn’t even the cheapest place in town.
Standard price in China for a dorm bed is around 30-40Y but you can often find cheaper ones.
Check both of these sites as they often have the same places to stay but with different prices.
Private rooms tend to be over priced in hostels so you may as well stay in a hotel. You can get some dirt cheap hotels in China – the standards aren’t great and they are hard to find but if you do, well done. There are sometimes hotels for 30Y a night.
This site is great for hotel bargains all round China.


China can be a very cheap country to travel in, which as a traveller is great. The biggest chunk from your budget will come from long distance train travel. Here are some sample prices:

  • Beer (from a shop) = 3Y or 30p
  • Beer (from a bar) = 10Y or 1 pound
  • 12 hour train journey in hard sleeper = 300y or 30 quid
  • Dorm bed = 30Y or 3 quid
  • Meal in a food court = 6Y or 60p

So as you can see the main spendage will be on trains.
Meals can be a problem in China for solo travellers. Meal times in China are supposed to be shared. In other words you eat with a few people or a selection of foods and share them. The good thing is you always get a good portion but sometimes you need to buy a few dishes for some variety.
If you go to a shopping mall and go to the top or bottom floors there is usually a food court which offers very cheap and very filling meals for single people.
Roadside bbq stalls are also awesome and you can try all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff.


Beijing and Shanghai

You don’t really need to be told about these cities but I’ll add them anyway. My advice in Beijing is to not do a tour from the hostels for the great wall. Do it yourself; it’s easy and so cheap. A great part of the wall is Huang Hua, only partially restored and almost no other tourists.
This is another great destination in China. The main reason is the Terracotta Warriors based outside the city. Very cool indeed.
Capital of Sichuan province is a cool city; it’s the place to go if you want to see pandas. The breeding centre there is excellent and if you get the panda card from the Hong Qi supermarket in town you won’t have to pay to get in. It’s also a great place for booking tours to Tibet. Watch out for earthquakes.
Best place in the whole of China in my opinion. It’s only a very small town and it’s very touristy but the surrounding landscape of limestone karsts exploding out of the ground is magical. Stay here over the nearby city of Guilin for a nicer time. If Yangshou gets too much for you go to the nearby Xinping which has a few basic guesthouses.
Hong Kong and Macau

Awesome city states that are massively different from mainland China. Also very good places to pick up China visas in a matter of hours. Hong Kong for the food, Macau for its casinos.
Ideally located in between Xi’an and Beijing. This walled town makes a great stop off. It’s like stepping back in time when you go inside the walls, like nothing has changed in centuries. Also mentally cheap accommodation here.
Yunnan Province
Gets a lot of travellers coming over the border from Laos and Vietnam first. One of the most beautiful places in China. Places to go are Kunming, Dali, Lijiang and the “mythical” and recently renamed Shrangri-La. And don’t forget to trek Tiger leaping gorge.
Other awesome places are:

  • Leshan
  • Emei Shan
  • Datong
  • Chengde
  • Fenghuang
  • Luoyang
  • Hailar
  • Harbin
  • Wuyuan
  • Dunhuang


In my opinion China is a pretty safe country but there are still some scammers out there.
In Beijing, if arriving at the airport just join the taxi queue. Anyone approaching you asking if you want a taxi will be a con man.
Art students and tea drinkers should be avoided in main tourist sites as well, they usually try to befriend you and lure you into a cafe.
When haggling for souvenirs haggle like your life depends on it, you WILL get a bargain. I take their starting price and divide it by 10. Go from there.

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