Budget: China

Since many people often wonder how we pay for our extensive travels and for those who are about to take a RTW trip of their own, we have decided to start talking about how much travelers should expect to spend on certain things in each country so they can plan their own budgets.

We don’t keep an incredibly detailed budget or log of our spending, but we know when something is too much money and we have no problem seeking out a better deal. We are actually trying to learn to track our expenses better so as time goes on, this portion of the blog may get more technical. I would say that we fall into a category of “budget travel” but we also didn’t travel halfway around the world to sit in our hostel room eating instant noodles. We make some sacrifices here and there, allowing ourselves to enjoy a luxurious meal or an expensive activity that is specific to the area, once in a while.

China uses Chinese Renminbi (RMB) or commonly called Yuan (Y). They are different names for the same thing (think: British Pound/quid and US Dollar/buck)

6.83 RMB = 1 USD
4 Weeks in China = $1,478.00 USD for two people/$739.00 each
Average cost per day (per person): $24.60 or about 170 RMB

Note: The above figure doesn’t include the following provisions:
1. Our first week in China (Beijing and Qingdao). When we first arrived, we hadn’t really worked out a budgeting system yet. It’s just not clearly accounted for, but we spent about the same as the rest of the time in China so it doesn’t really affect our average costs.
2. Our transportation from Berlin via air to Beijing ($480.00 per person) or from Japan to Shanghai via ferry ($173.00 per person), because I thought it was helpful to see how much we actually spent while in China and will talk about transportation below.
3. It also doesn’t include our (expensive) Chinese visa, which we had to apply and send away for, months prior to our trip, while still in the US ($270.00).

Accommodation in China

We stayed mostly in hostels around China. They are almost always clean, well-equipped, and overstaffed (even if all 15 girls in the restaurant don’t speak English.) Most of the hostels had a good common area for socializing with their own bar, restaurant, and tour services, which are all debatably more expensive than venturing out on your own.
Private rooms run from 90-160 RMB ($12-22.00) but we mostly tried to stay in the cheapest room, usually no air con co-ed dorm rooms. These ran from as little as $3.00 in the west of China to $7.00 in Beijing. In each city we were spoiled for choice when it came to hostels. There were usually at least 3 or 4 well-recommended hostels with varying locations and amenities.
The only city we stayed in that didn’t have a hostel was Kaifeng. We booked a 3 star hotel room (which is lush by Chinese standards, but maybe comparable to a Super 8 or Motel 6 in the states) for about $20.
We only couchsurfed once while in China and that was in Shanghai.  We were actually quite lucky, because once we got there we realized that Shanghai is considerably more expensive than Beijing (or anywhere else in China) and couchsurfing afforded us to live a little more luxuriously while in the high-priced city.

Transportation in China

While getting to China can cost you, traveling around this massive country is actually quite reasonable considering how much ground your covering and the quality of the transportation.

Long Distance:
We took sleeper trains everywhere, unless our destination was only accessible by bus. Beijing and Shanghai have most expensive routes, but for the most part your journey cost is dependent on how far you are going and the type of seat you want.
There are four options:
1. The cheapest and most crowded: Hard-seat, which is a regular train seat, that can sometimes be unreserved or standing room only, rarely air conditioned, smoking permitted. Not somewhere you want to spend the night if you are planning on sleeping at all.
2. Soft-seat, which is slightly more expensive but you get a little more breathing room and usually A/C. We never actually chose this option.
3. Hard-sleeper, which is what we always went with, is a cabin with about 20 columns of three levels of bunk beds. Usually, you have A/C and you get your own bed with a pillow and blanket. The top bunk is the cheapest and they raise in price about 10-20 RMB for second and bottom bunk, respectively.
4. Soft-sleeper. Apparently, you get your own 4-person cabin with a “softer” bed and a door that slides closed for privacy, but we never shelled out the extra RMB to find out the differences.
We paid anywhere from 150 RMB to 300 RMB for a hard sleeper, usually top bunk. And while $22-44.00 might seem like a lot for one journey, remember that it includes one night of accommodation and we were usually cutting across hundreds of miles at once.

The few long-distance buses we took ranged widely from an excruciatingly uncomfortable 10-hour bus ride that cost about 80 yuan to a 2-hour plush minibus ride that cost 15 yuan (less than $3.00).

Local Transport:
Public transportation and taxis are considerably cheaper in China than most countries we have visited before, making traveling around China’s massive cities easier than expected.

Subways: Beijing’s recently Olympics-inspired upgraded underground system was amazing. At only 2 yuan per ride to anywhere in the city, English signage and 8 lines recently added, it was a great way to get around the capital.
Shanghai’s subway was also easy, but the prices varied depending on how many stops you were going. Our couchsurfing hosts let us use their topped-up metro cards, so we wouldn’t have to bother buying tickets each time. I think it was about 2-6 yuan each ride.
Buses: All of the cities in China have public buses. Some are easier to navigate than others. It was usually 1 or 2 yuan per ride, but unless you knew exactly where you were going and which stop to get off at (since you can’t exactly ask anyone for help unless you speak Mandarin) it can be a risky move.
Taxi: Being from a western country, and after coming from Japan, where the starting fare in Tokyo was $8.00, I am able to truly appreciate Chinese taxis.  They range depending on the city, but generally they start at around 7 RMB (Xi’an and Chengdu) to 11-12 RMB (Shanghai or Beijing) for the first two kilometers and then about 2RMB for every km after that. When splitting that among 2 or 4 people, it’s practically free.

Food and Drinks in China

In China, there is a hierarchy of restaurants, a type for every budget; BBQ Street food being at the bottom, and western/international food or gourmet/specialty Chinese being at the top. At a street-side BBQ, you can pick all kinds of meats or veggies (and tofu!) on skewers, and at 1 or 2 yuan each, they will throw them on a grill and you sit on a tiny plastic chair and enjoy your feast. After about $2.00 worth, you are more than full. Local Chinese restaurants aren’t too much more expensive (especially when you aren’t getting meat, as most of the veggie meals are comprised of cheaper side dishes). Chinese meals are meant to be shared, so the larger the group, the cheaper the meal ends up being. Think 20-30 RMB (3-4 USD) per person for four people sharing 5 or 6 dishes. Also, McDonalds and KFC are in this bottom category. They have actually some of the only western food that is cheap. I have to admit that we splurged on a McFish Fillet Combo once or twice when our veggie options were dwindling in places like Kaifeng and Qingdao. A combo meal ran about 16 RMB (2.20 USD), so we didn’t feel too guilty.
The quality of atmosphere and service seems to skyrocket, while the quality of food and price get a little higher in the next category. These are regular Chinese restaurants that sometimes could be in a hotel, or somewhere businessmen bring clients to impress them with nice lacquered chopsticks, white linen napkins and garish gold tablecloths. I don’t think many backpackers choose to eat at these types of places, because from the outside, they seem far out of our price range. But we found them good for two reasons. One being something highly coveted: ENGLISH MENUS. And being vegetarian, we were lucky enough to be able to eat at some of these fancier Chinese restaurants because some of our favorite veggie dishes were practically the same price as the street corner. We could get two or three side dishes, enjoy the air conditioning and free filtered water for a few extra yuan. We ended up eating at these types of places pretty frequently, spending about 60 to 80 RMB (8 – 11 USD total) on a nice dinner.
At the top tier of the food chain, sits Western food, so desirable after weeks of fried rice, and stir-fry noodles with assorted veggies, but hardly ever worth the expense. We tried a Mexican restaurant in Beijing; for 150 RMB (21 USD), we split two starters and a beer and walked away hungry. Other times, we would crave things like bruschetta or spaghetti and get so excited to see it on a menu at a backpackers style restaurant and think “We can splash out on a much needed $10 comfort meal” just to get small portions of water-logged noodles and stale bread with runny tomatoes on top. Rarely worth it, and almost always disappointing.
On the other end, we’ve had some amazing meals in China that have been a little pricey, but totally worth it. High-end specialty restaurants like “Vegetarian Lifestyle” in Shanghai and Chengdu (yes, it has two locations, and yes, we went to both of them) have culinary delights like mango sushi and vegetarian BBQ spare ribs that actually taste like delicious pork. Here, we spent 60-100 RMB per person! That’s more than double what we pay any other time, but I’d pay it again in a heartbeat.

We usually drank one of the following while in China: water, hot tea, or beer.
Bottled water cost 4-6 yuan for 1.5 L and beer cost anywhere from 2 to 5 yuan for a big 600+ mL bottle at a mini-market. At a restaurant, it would be from 5 to 10 yuan. Sometimes, the heat would cause us to break down and get a can of coke for 3 or 4 yuan.
While in China, we barely ever drank liquor, so I don’t really know how much it costs. Beer was so cheap; we considered it pretty much the only option, oh and water sometimes too.
But the best deal was to become a local and buy a little plastic tea mug with an anti-spill Tupperware style lid and then fill it with loose-leaf tea and hot water. Loose-leaf tea is really cheap in the supermarkets and water coolers with hot water are everywhere. You see almost everyone in China carrying around their own flavor of tea and watch them refill it through out the day.

Sights/ Activities/ Side Trips

There are tons of must-see attractions in China. One of the most important tips I can give to travelers is bring your student ID. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t been a student in over 5 years, it’s worth a shot. Most of the attractions and sights are up to half off with a “valid” student ID. Because of the variety, it’s hard to sum up all of the costs of assorted sights and day trips into an average. Plus, sometimes the cost of transportation to get to some of the more remote sights can be just as expensive if not more than the cost of the attraction. But here’s an overview of how much some of the entrance fees cost us (per person):
Forbidden City: 60 RMB
The Great Wall (Mutianyu section): 40 RMB
Terra-Cotta Warriors: 90 RMB
Leshan Grand Buddha: 50 RMB
Giant Panda Breeding Research Center: 30 RMB
Bamboo Rafting in Yangshuo: 60 RMB
“Illuminations” water and light show: 150 RMB
Most non-famous temples cost around 5 RMB

So, Is China a budget destination for Americans?

I would say that China is definitely a budget destination for Americans. With that being said, I would also like to state that if you don’t keep track of your finances while in China or if you don’t prefer budget sleeping conditions such as hostels or private rooms in very basic hotels, you can spend a considerable amount. If you require a soft sleeper on the train and want to enjoy some shopping, you can spend even more. The more West you go, the cheaper China becomes. If you want to spend all of your time in Beijing and Shanghai, you could very well end up spending as much as you would back in the US. Shanghai’s accommodation is expensive, food is double of anywhere else in China and the sights and nights out add up quickly. We averaged about 25.00 USD a day while in China and didn’t feel like we lived too luxuriously, considering we always took the dorm bed with the most people and without AC and the cheapest option on the train. We could afford taxis around the cities and some decent restaurant meals, but we did no major clubbing, shopping or drinking in bars. Add some Western comfort food to the mix and forget it. Everything is cheaper in China than back home, but I think that by adding on the amenities, you can quickly add on the RMB.


3 Responses to “Budget: China”

  1. 1 lil b January 20, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    This is so helpful! Thanks for the specifics on the budget since that’s usually the first thing I was worried about before making my trip. I found http://www.hostelsclub.com had quite a few hostels in Beijing, Yangshuo, and Shanghai particularly as well as many other Chinese cities.

  1. 1 Budget: China « Catch Us If You Can | China Today Trackback on January 20, 2010 at 11:56 am

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