For as long as I can remember, China has been on my Top 10 list of countries to visit. While I’ve already been to Thailand, Japan, Nepal, Singapore, and a handful of other Asian countries, I was never able to get things in order for my Chinese visa. I’ve continued to have “explore China” on my travel bucket list ever since.
All of this changed a few weeks ago when I found an incredible Travelzoo deal for a 10-day trip for less than $650/person–including flights!! This is by far the cheapest package I’ve found in recent years; a savings of at least $900 if I were to book all of the included activities, accommodations, and domestic flights myself. I wasted no time in booking this adventure to explore China for my boyfriend and I in November.
While I usually am a huge advocate of DIY travel hacking, including using Airbnb, I opted for an organized tour for China due to the customs, culture, and sheer amount of things we’re hoping to pack into our 10 day trip. I did the same when I visited the UAE, and I can honestly say I’m so happy I chose the package deal for that trip as well. Not only was it nice to have most things pre-planned, it was a huge relief to have our transportation, entrance fees, and accommodations set without a single hassle.
If you want to explore China while on a budget, here are my favorite ways to save money while still seeing everything on your list:
Explore China on a Budget
Even if you opt for an organized tour like we are, you can still save money while you explore China. A lot has been written and discussed about the shopping culture of most organized trips to China, so I will cover my best tips for sticking to your budget even when tempted by the local goods and wares, too.
Get Out of the City
Our tour includes time in Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou, Wuxi, and Hangzhou. During our down time, we plan to explore as many of the small villages and towns outside of the large cities as possible. If you want to make the most of your money while in China, get out of the city and explore everything in between. Your money will go further and chances are you’ll end up experiencing things that wouldn’t have been possible had you stayed only in the larger cities.
Opt for a House Share or Hostel
Instead of tying up most of your budget with pricey hotel rooms, consider staying in a short-term vacation home through Airbnb. If you’d like to save even more, go the hostel route and save hundreds of dollars during your stay. Most hostels in China equate to at least a 3-star hotel experience, have English-speaking staff, and are often housed in neat locations such as historic buildings or an older part of the city. If we didn’t already have hotels included in our stay, I’d definitely be booking a combination of an Airbnb house share and hostels while we’re in China.
Manage Your Money Properly
Foreign transaction and exchange fees can quickly kill anyone’s travel budget. Be smart about how your’re exchanging your money while you explore China as cash is a necessity, especially in smaller regions of the country. As with most any foreign country, here are a few quick tips to help you manage your money smartly while abroad:
- Never exchange your cash at an airport; they have the worst exchange rates!
- Check with your bank to see if they have any Chinese banking partners so you can use those ATMs for free or reduced fees
- Opt for a credit card that has zero foreign transaction fees
- Never leave your money behind in an hotel or hostel
- Always separate the money you carry on you (a pocket here, a bag there–split it up in case you have any unfortunate run-ins with pickpockets!)
Leave Your Tips at Home
There is ZERO tipping in China; none! Even if you were to attempt to give someone a gratuity, they’d most likely look at you with a confused look on their face as they give the money back to you. Tipping is not customary in China as it is in Western & European countries. If this feels off to you, give it a few interactions and you’ll be comfortable in no time.
Haggle Like the Best of Them
While tipping is not customary in China, haggling definitely is. Chain stores and boutiques excluded, you can pretty much negotiate any price for something you wish to buy in China. A good rule of thumb is to never accept the price marked on an item. You should also never accept the first number given during a negotiation. Practice your skills at a local market and work your shrewd negotiation skills as you travel. Your wallet will thank you!
Pack Essentials Before Leaving
When I was in Nepal, I quickly discovered the need for a mask while traveling along the dirty, dusty roads in the major cities. I hadn’t packed one with me, so I had to purchase one at a local stall. Hello, 400% tourist markup! Now, I make sure to thoroughly research my destination so I know what I need to bring with me in advance. Not only is this a cheaper option, but it also saves time and energy when I don’t have to search for things in foreign stores and markets.
For China, typical necessities include a mask for your face, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper. 9.9 out of 10 public restrooms will not have any TP to be found (and most will be the open, squat-type “toilets” anyway).
Embrace the Street Food
I’ve had some incredible street food during my travels, particularly in Africa and Asia. One of my favorite, most memorable snacks was an egg-noodle-insect-soup concoction in Chiang Mai. To this day I have no clue what I ate but it was amazing.
While the mere thought of street food could send some straight to the bathroom, enjoying street food is easy if you adhere to the following rules: Never eat fresh produce from street vendors, always inspect your food before eating, and pay attention to how the vendor handles their food, tools and dishes. Eating thoroughly cooked, clean food is optimal. Plus, you’ll save nearly 75% versus eating at crowded tourist restaurants with silly English “picture” menus!
What are some of your travel tips for visiting China? Please share below!