When I returned to China for the first time after living here for a couple years in the 90s, I forgot the lessons I’d learnt about how to do China travel on the cheap. I phoned a state-run tourism company and asked about renting a minibus to take a group to the Great Wall for an overnight camping trip. When I got the price, I translated it into dollars and split it among my friends. It came to about 50-100 USD a person, which at first we thought was reasonable for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
No, no, no.
Fortunately, before we booked I chatted with a friend who was currently living in China. She set us up with an independent driver and a van. We ended up paying the guy the same amount total as we were going to pay per person, and the driver was happy to get the job.
When we were living in China, however, nothing made us laugh more than hearing what foreign tourists had paid for guided trips and Western hotels. Okay, not everyone is ready to live the way even middle class Chinese do, and it can be scary to venture out alone into a country where a very small percentage of the people speak English, but if you’re adventurous enough to travel independently and live like the locals, you can have a lot of fun in China for very few renminbi.
Here are a 10 ways to do China travel on the cheap:
1) Avoid Western restaurants - Eating foreign food in China is a status symbol akin to eating French cuisine in the US. It's therefore usually pricey, and often not very good. You'll pay less in many excellent Chinese restaurants than you would in a below average Western one.
2) Forgo a tour guide in major cities - Even if you speak no Chinese, you’ll have no trouble getting to and around the Forbidden City and Great Wall in Beijing, the Shanghai Museum, and other major sites in China’s biggest cities. Most top attractions have English language audio tours and are easily accessible by taxi or subway. Ask your hotel to write out the Chinese characters to show taxi drivers or use a translation app on your phone.
3) Start thinking in RMB - The sooner you realise that 50 RMB goes a whole lot further than the 6 USD it exchanges for, the better. Six bucks is nothing, but 50 RMB can be many things -- a pretty nice meal in a restaurant, a night in a hotel, a pretty long taxi ride.
4) Try to avoid the “foreigner charge” - But understand it's sometimes unavoidable. The average Chinese person earns a few thousand dollars a year; migrant workers selling street food make a fraction of that. It's understandable, therefore, that many people in China see foreign tourists as walking ATM machines. At official sites, such as Beijing’s Forbidden City, paying the foreigner price is non-negotiable. However, in other situations you can try to bargain or just say no if someone tries to charge you more than the local rate. If you feel comfortable claiming to be a student that definitely helps, but that schtick isn't very believable if you don't speak any Chinese.
5) Take the train - China has an impressive train network that thrifty travellers should definitely take advantage of. As long as you avoid national holidays, when things just get crazy, it's a pretty comfortable way to travel, and it's ultra-affordable. I love watching the countryside roll by - I've seen water buffalo in the rice paddies and the most breathtaking scenery of my life. Another nice thing about taking Chinese trains is that you get to hang out with ordinary locals and they have plenty of time to warm up to you. Once an English speaker gets on you're bound to have some very interesting chats. Read this for more on train travel in China.
6) Use services aimed at locals - The train is one of them. Another money saving China travel experience is taking a Yangtze River cruise on a "Chinese" boat. They’ll be no English-language commentary and the cabins won't be as nice as the boat aimed at foreigners (okay, ours had roaches), but the savings will be huge. In terms of hotels, the cheapest are often not open to foreigners. However, plenty of mid-range and pretty darn cheap ones are.
7) Eat street food - The longer you plan to stay in China, the better idea this is. If you only have a few days, you’ll want to be pretty careful about what you eat if you don’t want to spend the whole trip in the bathroom. I have a rule of thumb for staying safe when eating street in China: If it comes right off an open flame, out of boiling hot water or a cloud of steam, it's good. Barbecued lamb skewers, dumplings and bowls of noodles can be enjoyed for a few pennies without fear. Read this for more street food safety tips.
8) Take the public bus - Okay, so you won’t find an English-language bus schedule pretty much anywhere in China, but you can ask your hotel what lines to take or shout your destination at every driver that comes to your stop. Baidu maps now also show bus routes to and from destinations. You just need to be able to type the destination name in pinyun into the app and press the bus icon. Be warned, though, the crowds can be intense at rush hour. Once I almost got punched when two passengers engaged in fight even though they could barely lift their arms due to the crush.
9) Join Chinese tours - You can get very cheap trips to China’s best sights by signing up for Chinese bus tours. It’s good for laughs - both on your part and on the part of the Chinese tourists on the bus who will find you an attraction in itself. But there is a downside, other than not being able to understand the commentary. A lot of these trips stop at the "perfume factory" or the “jade jewellery factory" for some pushy sales people to get all up in your face.
10) Share or rent a bike - Even today, most Chinese people get around the cities on bicycle, thereby avoiding traffic and saving money on taxi fares. Biking in Chinese cities can be dangerous, and you won’t find many helmets for sale, but you’ll have more freedom and you won’t need to worry about being cheated by unscrupulous cab drivers. These days, thanks to China’s bike sharing craze, you don’t even have to buy your own wheels!
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