China is one of those countries that is what you make it. In every way. You can see some of the most amazing and eye gouging sights, eat some of the best and worst food of your life, and spend as much or as little money as you’d like. You are the designer of your own travel experience in this country, and in no way is this statement truer than when it comes to the cost of travel in China.
One thing that most people don’t realize before they start planning their trip to China is that this country is huge! It squeaks just under the size of the US putting it at the fourth largest country in the world. This means that as a tourist in China we’ve got a lot of ground to cover.
As expats who have lived in China for multiple years, we’ve had the unique opportunity to spread out our trips and see more of the country than the average tourist on holiday normally would. As with every country, the amount of money you spend in China varies based on what part of the country you travel to. We’ve broken down a few of our trips from various parts of the country to show you, on average, how much money it costs to travel in China.
Here’s the breakdown of our trips:
|Activities||$ 96.00||$ 72.43||$ 17.80||$ 75.50||$ 74.50||$ 9.41|
|Food||$ 81.25||$ 31.84||$ 173.50||$ 56.50||$ 44.50||$ 8.31|
|Housing||$ 45.15||$ 54.67||$ 123.50||$ 59.50||$ 53.00||$ 7.61|
|Transport||$ 322.75||$ 441.33||$ 327.00||$ 187.50||$ 317.17||$ 39.41|
|Airfare||$ 290.27||$ 333.82||$ 313.97||$ 170.54||$ 246.33||$ 33.06|
|non-airfare transport||$ 32.49||$ 77.98||$ 13.03||$ 16.96||$ 70.84||$ 6.36|
|Stuff||$ –||$ 29.53||$ –||$ –||$ –||$ 0.74|
|Total||$ 545.15||$ 629.79||$ 641.80||$ 379.00||$ 489.17|
|Cost While There||$ 254.88||$ 295.97||$ 327.83||$ 208.46||$ 242.84|
|Total Cost/Day||$ 77.88||$ 78.72||$ 37.75||$ 63.17||$ 69.88||$ 65.48|
|Cost/day excluding airfare||$ 36.41||$ 37.00||$ 19.28||$ 34.74||$ 34.69||$ 32.43|
For the sake of familiarity, we’ll be discussing cost in terms of US dollars. China’s currency is the Chinese Yuan, but it’s often abbreviated as RMB (Ren Min Bi or People’s Currency as it translates) or spoken as “kuai”. Way to keep it simple China. I’ll be abbreviating it as RMB throughout this article.
Conversion rates between RMB and USD are constantly changing. All values were converted from RMB to USD using the exchange rate at the time of travel.
The places we chose to average include: Chengdu for 1 week (China’s 6th largest city and home of the Giant Panda), Yunnan Province for 1 week (we did an organized bike tour of the province), Tibet for 2 weeks (outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region in Western Sichuan Province, a self-supported bike tour), Zhangjiajie for 4 days (a small tourist town where the Avatar Mountains are located), and Zhangye & Jiayuguan cities in Gansu Province (small cities in a remote desert location in northwestern China, home to China’s Rainbow Mountains and the end of the Great Wall of China).
How Accurate Are These Numbers?
Extremely. Justin is a track-aholic when it comes to finances. There was no RMB spent on these trips that wasn’t written down in a notebook.
Average Cost Per Person Per Day
Including domestic airfare: $65.48
Without airfare (cost at destination): $32.43
Budget Tip: Airfare in China will be the most expensive chunk of your trip. As our table shows, our cost per day gets cut in half when we subtract out domestic airfare. So, if you want to cut costs on your trip, eliminate planes as much as possible from your itinerary.
Cost of Transportation in China
Expect transportation expenses to take up around 60% of your total trip costs. And by total, we’re talking border to border, from the time you enter the country to the time you leave. As mentioned earlier, this is mostly due to the cost of flights. China is a big country with a lot to see, so if you’re in the boat of “this is my once in a lifetime trip to China using limited vacation days” then you can expect at least 60% of your money to be forked over to transportation. And I say at least because, unlike us, you have to first fly into the country.
Cost of transportation per day (including airfare to and from the destination): $39.41
Order of transportation cost in China from most expensive to least expensive: plane>train>taxi>metro/subway>bus
How to Spend Less Money on Transport
Be strategic in how you plan your trip. This will probably require some sacrifices. One way to do this is to keep your destinations close enough together that you don’t have to fly. This might mean that, on a limited time frame, you can’t see the whole country in one go. Maybe you choose to see the area in between Beijing and Shanghai getting a mix of Beijing’s history with Shanghai’s modern international vibe, or head more west and see the Terracotta Warriors of Xian and the Pandas in Chengdu (I’d recommend the Chengdu panda tour), or perhaps get a bit warmer and tackle southern China with the rivers, mountains, and rice terraces of Guangxi and Yunnan Provinces.
The point is, if you’re limited on both money and time, as most people are, something will have to go. China is just too vast to see everything in one fell swoop. It’s like trying see all the sights of Europe in two weeks without going broke. Not in the cards for most of us mere mortals.
Another way go about it would be to take an overnight train or bus between destinations. These are usually 12+ hour journeys with bunk beds (on the train) or seats that recline on the bus (no better than an airplane seat). This will be a very local experience so if you’re into really immersing yourself in the local culture on your travels then this might be the way to go in China. Make no mistake, it probably won’t be a comfortable journey, and I can’t guarantee how much actual sleep will be had, but it’ll your wallet heavier for sure.
China Travel Tip: Planes are highly unreliable in China, so make sure you compare time frames between flying and taking the train. If the train only takes 2-3 times longer than the plane ride you’re probably better off opting for wheels instead of wings. It is incredibly common for domestic flights in China to be delayed for hours or canceled altogether, often for no apparent reason.
Cost of Accommodation in China
Housing in China will take up around 12% of your expenses. We’ve found accommodation in China to be incredibly cheap. Keep in mind this is coming from two people who not at all picky about where we stay. As long as it’s reasonably clean, safe, and accepts foreigners (insert link) we’re golden.
Cost of accommodation per room per day: $15.21 (This is for 1 room for the two of us)
Cost of accommodation per person per day: $7.61 (Splitting the cost of a private room for 2 people)
We book about mid level accommodations in China. As a couple, we generally book private rooms with our own bathroom, which raises the price over a hostel dorm room, but we do usually stay in hostels or guest-houses, which lowers the price over a fancy hotel.
How to Spend Less Money on Accommodation
Dorm rooms in hostels are where it’s at for this one. Hosteling International is the bomb in China (are the kids still saying that these days?). For a bed in a hostel dorm room in China you’ll usually only be paying around $5. That means, as a couple or two people splitting the cost of a private room, it only costs but a couple dollars more to upgrade from a dorm room to a private.
The hostels here are the best we’ve stayed in worldwide! Seriously, they’re usually way better than a comparably priced hotel, and, the major selling point? When you stay at any hostel marked with the “Hosteling International” sign you are guaranteed to have English speaking staff. This will be a Godsend in China, I promise you.
The most expensive accommodation we’ve ever paid for, by a long shot, was $60 for an emergency stay at a hotel next to the Beijing airport when our flight got canceled.
Cost of Food in China
Food takes up around 13% of your budget in China. This will ring true for you as well, if, like us, you enjoy trying the local foods when you travel. When we travel in China we eat exclusively Chinese food, which really saves us on food costs (plus it’s way more delicious than western food in China).
Cost of food per person per day: $8.31.
How to Spend Less Money on Food
Eat at the noodle shops or anywhere you see the characters 小吃 (xiao chi). Xiao chi technically translates to “snacks” but it’s not, it’s just a restaurant that serves single serving meals vs. the usual family style meals.
Eating Chinese food in China is incredibly cheap and you can easily get a giant plate of noodles for $1. If you’re looking for western fare though, your food costs will skyrocket.
Eating at a western restaurant in China generally costs anywhere between $15-20 per person per meal. Compare that to what it usually costs us when we go out for a nice Chinese dinner and you’re looking at around $7 per person. The western food in China is generally pretty mediocre anyway so unless you really hate Chinese food (in which case, you probably shouldn’t be traveling around China in the first place) you should definitely stick with Chinese.
China Travel Tip: Look for restaurants with picture menus. It will make it way easier for you to order food. Also, look for restaurants full of people. The Chinese are obsessed with food, so generally the more business a restaurant has the better the food is.
Cost of Activities in China
Expect activities to take up approximately 14% of your budget. Activities include any sort of entrance fee (to a park or museum for example) or a tour.
Cost of activities per person per day: $9.41
Activities are super cheap to partake in in China compared to a lot of the other countries we’ve been to, and a lot of the activities we’ve done have been day long adventures so you really get a lot for the price. For example, our trip to see the Great Wall at Jiayuguan was only $17 per person and that included 3 separate attractions seen over two days time!
How Much Should You Budget?
Limited Time Frame
On a limited time frame where you’ll be flying around the country and maybe going on a tour or two you should be good budgeting between $65-75/day, with the exact amount depending on how much money you plan to spend on souvenirs. Goods are cheap here in China so a budget of $75/person/day should be plenty to allow you the luxury of flights, private hotel/hostel rooms, and souvenir shopping.
Longer Time Frame
If you’ve got a bit more time on your hands you can have the luxury of traveling more of the country on a MUCH lighter wallet. Taking out flights and adding some wiggle room for souvenir shopping you’ll be good with a budget of between $30-40/person/day.