Having spent a year studying in and travelling around China, here are my top tips for budget travel!
1. Take the train
Everyone in China takes trains between cities and the prices are crazily cheap – just a couple of pounds can get you seats half way across the country! Even better, the prices are fixed whether you book them months in advance or on the day itself.
However, tickets during peak times (e.g. the Chinese New Year festival in February and National Day week in October) will often sell out within hours on the day of release, so be prepared! Also, if you turn up on the day you may only be able to get standing tickets – this is how I ended up with a 12 hour standing ticket between Dandong and Harbin…
2. Use local booking apps
Local booking apps like cTrip (available in English!) charge much less for flight and train tickets than international companies, so if you are unable to go to the booking office in person they are a great way to make savings on transport costs between cities. You can also use WeChat to book flights, trains and hotels on your phone – although currently this feature is only available in Chinese language. Hostels can be booked at very reasonable rates (and around the same prices as advertised locally) on booking.com.
3. Take the bus
Within cities, Chinese buses are literally amazing – usually 1-2 RMB they go everywhere in the city and are much cheaper than taking taxis. Beware that buses in Chinese cities can be VERY crowded though, particularly at rush hour. Many big cities also have a Metro system which can be pretty convenient with announcements in English and very affordable prices (2-10 RMB). Most buses work by you inserting a coin into a money box next to the driver as you get on, however in Beijing and Shanghai I noticed that instead they used a transport card system (similar to the Oyster card in London) which required you to swipe both on and off the bus.
4. Be a student
Student discounts for visiting cultural sights (museums, great wall, temples, etc.) are huge – but often only available to students studying at a Chinese university for at least half a year. Foreign university cards and ISIC cards are usually not accepted, although it’s worth a try if you do have one. Check out some of my articles on short term study programs in China!
5. Eat local
Many Chinese people (particularly students) eat out in small local restaurants very often – and so the prices tend to be very cheap. Look out for small (probably pretty dodgy looking…) restaurants full of local people to spot the best (/safest) food at reasonable prices. Many places will have a picture menu if they don’t have one in English, but if you can speak some Chinese I’d definitely recommend asking the waiter for recommendations. Avoid anywhere empty or with too much English if you can – these tend to be more overpriced or have a poor reputation with local people.
If you’re shopping in markets or small shops haggling is essential – often they will start with a high price in expectation of this. Don’t be afraid to ask for at least half the original price they suggest, and always have your maximum price in mind to avoid accidentally getting carried away in the excitement. I’ve noticed that shops with English speaking staff tend to be at the pricier end, but even if you don’t speak any Chinese it’s easy enough to haggle just by passing a calculator back and forth or writing down numbers on paper. Be adventurous!
7. Head out of Beijing/ Shanghai
These are among the most expensive cities in China, and while they do have a lot of sights to see you can see the highlights in just a few days. Get a much more genuine and cheaper experience by heading out to other cities nearby – particularly if you go North or West of Beijing. Particular highlights for me in the North of China have been Harbin, Shengyang, Dandong and Tianjin.
8. Travel off-peak
As can be said for pretty much every holiday location, travelling at off-peak times will save you money on flights and hotel bills. You will also avoid the crowds, although sometimes certain attractions close outside of the main tourist season. Bear in mind that Asian holidays are at different types of year to European ones – so Christmas is actually a pretty cheap time to visit whereas February should be avoided.
9. Don’t use your credit card!
You really don’t want to return home and see the huge bill that has piled up for all your transactions abroad! If you’re staying for a reasonable length of time (over a couple of months) it is definitely worth getting a local bank card with Bank of China and transferring money into it via Azimo or Transferwise. If you’re travelling short-term, read up on the fees for using your various credit and debit cards in China to work out which gives you the best deal on cash – bear in mind most small businesses in China don’t accept card.
10. Get a local SIM
Roaming charges can get ridiculous if you use your foreign SIM card abroad – just avoid it at all costs. My SIM card in China cost around £4 a month and included 1 GB local internet and plenty of texts/ calls. If you are travelling through several provinces spread across China then make sure to ask for a whole country (全国) SIM deal since it’s common to charge (small) roaming fees for using your SIM in other provinces in China.